Kurt Cobain was an amazing songwriter whose primal, anguished growling was genuine. There's no denying that. But in most other respects, he wasn't really, ahem, talented. I've long argued that Cobain's greatest talent was his ability to stretch a lack of talent bordering on destitution. Neither a great singer or guitar player, Cobain knew how to construct his songs in just the right ways to highlight his few strengths, thus creating an illusion of talent.
Nirvana receives more credit as a band than they deserve. Granted, they brought back a gritty, raw purity in rock music which had been sorely lacking for years when they hit the scene, and they pumped their unrefined power into two albums: Nevermind and In Utero. Unfortunately, they also released four albums, and their first one, Bleach, was so choppy and inconsistent that Cobain himself compared it to something a shitty garage band would have recorded right inside the garage. Their third, Incesticide, was hastily cobbled together from material left in the cutting room in order to cash in.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Nirvana's overrating is the way Cobain reacted to his newfound seat as Generation X's unofficial voice. Lots of popular rock stars bitched that they couldn't go see a movie, but Cobain was the only one who was outright contemptuous of his audiences. He was notorious for his belief that his music had gone above and beyond a very specific type of music fan; he hated the refinement that legendary music producer Butch Vig left on Nevermind so much that he wanted to call the album Sheep, because that's what he thought of anyone who bought it; he publicly admitted that In Utero was an attempt to alienate people. Nirvana today is less a band than a corporation, followed by a lot of people who pretend to be as anguished and depressed as Cobain was. I wouldn't wish depression on anyone - as a sufferer through most of my adult life, I would rather see people spared it, and spared of Cobain's terrible fate. But the way Cobain acted and treated his fans makes the corporatization of Nirvana - an idea Cobain probably would have hated - a fitting, if ironic, way for them to have gone out.
For the umpteenth time, I can't excuse the fact that The Beatles are still being marketed as a small group of wunderkinds who changed the world. Not changed rock music, mind you, but changed the entire course of the goddamned world! That's a tall order to fulfill, and it's also one hell of a reputation to live up to, and needless to say, The Beatles just don't cut the mustard on the whole world-changing image thing. Bob Marley once got the two leaders in a civil war to stop shooting at each other. If The Beatles had done something similar, I might be willing to concede the point, but they didn't, so I won't.
Even so, I've attacked The Beatles in the past for their apparent detachment and attempts at artistic grandeur. Many genres of music are based in as much of a certain attitude as they are the music itself, and rock music is no exception. Just as I expect my blues selections to be downcast and melancholy, I expect my rock music to overflow with fire and passion. The Beatles at their most emotional sound too much like they're trying to force it out, and so where they try to convey a certain feeling, they sound like they're an onlooking third party instead of in the thick of it themselves. In the later, experimental half of their career, they stopped trying altogether and lost whatever singular vision they had as a band in an array of whiz-bang studio wizardry. John's compositions in particular sounded like he was more concerned about his public image as a deep artiste than about the quality of his music.
The big tragedy is that after the band broke up, it managed to find its real voice as all four members went on to successful solo careers, making music as original and artistic as it was emotional. Lennon and Harrison especially created music that sounded like it meant everything to them. But as a band, The Beatles just didn't sound like they had that. They made some truly excellent music, sure; Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper are worthy of every accolade they receive. But far too much of their other work is way more hit-or-miss than a band of their reputation can afford to be.
Good southern rock is an effective fusion of tradition guitar rock with country and - if you like it the way I do - blues. Skynyrd tends to underplay the blues aspect of the genre, and so their blues range is the rough equivalent of the country range of Shania Twain or Taylor Swift.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is best known for two ubiquitous songs that tend to pop up on the heavy rotation list to such an extent that they're ingrained as a permanent part of softcore, family friendly Americana. The first song is "Sweet Home Alabama," heard and interpreted mainly as an ode to small town, down-home America which was actually a response to a pair of Neil Young songs in which Young cast a stereotype blanket over the south. (For the record, the members of Skynyrd never denied the south's problems, but they believed Young was taking a swipe at everyone when just a few really bad apples were the problem. Young and Skynyrd are on excellent terms with each other and are known to play each other's work in show. Young changes the lyric to "A southern man don't need me around.") The second is "Free Bird," a loving tribute to a band member who died in a plane crash which is otherwise wrecked by the rambling, endless, predictable guitar solo at the end.
Unfortunately, those two songs tend to be a nice summary of their whole body of work. I don't hate it; it's catchy and has a pleasant rhythm, but Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn't do nearly enough to designate itself from a pack of classic rock bands whose music is just as inoffensive. A lot of Skynyrd's work is overproduced as well, and the production sheen tends to make them sound like an 80's hair band without the cat screeching.
AC/DC is a band that lives and dies on the output of guitarist Angus Young, one of the all-time greats. Their strongest work comes when he's playing at his absolute peak level. It's when he takes the flight of the bumblebee course that we get such catchy, memorable, anthemic rock songs like "Thunderstruck" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RukUetw0hAM) and "Money Talks" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chFLF4G-xkE).
AC/DC, however, is a band of extremes. They appear to have no variety in the quality of their work, and so if they're not totally on, they're totally off. If they're off, we get a lot of half-assed rock shit like "TNT" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDXlYPkhzg4), "Dirty Deeds" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_t5GPbp5IY) and the hilariously rotten "Big Balls" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6yDhVyP9oU). And while you can't deny the musicianship of AC/DC, you also can't deny that way too much of their work is too similar to their other work. "TNT" and "Dirty Deeds" up there don't sound very far off from each other, and this is a problem that even plagues their good songs.
The Sex Pistols had a talentless lead singer and a psychotic bassist. They released one album and their whole bad boy reputation is based on one expletive-filled TV appearance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKgRRhlsrN8). Although their guru, Malcolm McClaren, didn't actually assemble the band, he did play a big part in creating their public image, and is point blank in saying the Sex Pistols were more about controversy than actual music. Everything about the Sex Pistols can be summed up in bassist Sid Vicious: Vicious was the replacement of original bassist Glen Matlock. Matlock was a capable, competent musician; Vicious didn't know how to play bass and admitted it when he was invited into the band. By the time Vicious died in 1979, he still didn't know how to play bass. The primary reason for his invitation wasn't because of how good he was, but because he radiated what punk was supposed to be.
I guess when too many dour and angst-riddled artists have stripped the fun out of music - which is what happened in large part as a result of Nirvana and Pearl Jam wiping out hair metal - anything can sound innovative when put up against a discography of artists who all play music about the worthlessness of humanity. When Beck arrived in 1993 with his hit song "Loser" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgSPaXgAdzE), he managed to be self-deprecating while keeping a sense of fun.
Unfortunately, I've seen far too many people since then fawn over him, seeing a lot of originality in a form of music which is basically 80's new wave with some quirks thrown in. In the early part of his career, his fused it with some interesting folk and country riffs, but he took a hell of a turn into new wave around 1998. And everyone complains about the music from the decade of greed and tack.
Look, I'm not denying that his death was a tragedy. But:
"Come On, Let's Go"
When THAT covers your entire influential body of work, you are not an all-time great. You are a popular musician who died too young and happened to be on the same airplane as Buddy Holly.
I blame Suge Knight for Tupac's career downswing. Tupac was, at one time, a very powerful and soulful rapper. Literally born in jail, Tupac spent a lot of his life breaking out of the circumstances he would later rap about in his records. He was also an avid reader who devoured classic works by everyone from William Shakespeare to Sun Tzu to Kurt Vonnegut. The combination of firsthand experience and the articulation he picked up from reading reflected in his music when he rapped about his personal beliefs, and he was among the first to use rap as a potent force of social consciousness. His pre-notoriety career gave us some of the most powerfully soulful records in rap, like "Keep ya Head Up" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfXwmDGJAB8).
After his stint in jail, he was signed to Death Row Records, where his first move was to release a very bloated double album (extremely rare in rap at the time, and still not especially common) of gangsta-style shitkicker songs. Typical of the new Tupac was a song like "2 of Americaz Most Wanted" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL6dWDfs5x8), a duet he did with Snoop Dogg (at the time he was still known as Snoop Doggy Dogg). Unfortunately, it was around this time the mainstream started to take note of Tupac, and so people know him as much for shock raps written for sheltered suburban kids trying to scare their parents as they do for his more real, reflective work. And they're right to recognize the gangsta rap he did - after all, when an artist signs with Death Row, no amount of slick production can disguise the fact that he's selling his soul.
Joplin is another case of a tragic early death prolonging a career. Although Joplin's ferocity and pain sound genuine, I never did understand what was so special about her. I do get that her work was largely influenced by early blues, so while she understood that blues doesn't work without competent vocals, she leaned too much on the vocals themselves and forgot the instumentation is also an important part of a proper blues package. So Joplin comes off too much like a blues singer trying to do the songbird pop of a 90's diva, and the combination just doesn't work.
Very, very painful for me to admit, in my official capacity as a lifelong, card-carrying member of the Blue Army. But the lecherous, fun-loving, entendre-ridden work from the 70's that I fell in love with petered out long ago. They've had their moments since then, yes; Nine Lives brought back the old Toys roughness, and Pump stands tall as one of hard rock's finest - fans rightfully mention it in the same sentence as Toys in the Attic and Rocks, the band's gold standards. But the Bad Boys from Boston have slicked up their general output a little bit too much, and it's lingering dangerously close to pop territory and nowhere near the lock-up-your-daughters territory the band's famed Blue Army base formed around.
Somewhere between their Get a Grip and Nine Lives albums, Aerosmith released a Greatest Hits package - their second - called Big Ones. It was very condemning of their output since the 70's that Big Ones contained more of their power ballads than any real rock. In 1998, they did this:
The past decade, they've been flying on the strength of their old work. Just Push Play was an acceptable album, and although they finally returned to their roots with Honkin' on Bobo, that was an album of covers. Since then, we've only heard an album from Joe Perry. Aerosmith is rumored to be back in the studio working on original material, which will hopefully be more hit than miss.
For the most part, I like the Dead's folksy rock jams a lot. Yes, there's the old joke about how potheads ask what shit they're listening to once the high wears off, but the Dead made some fun, well-constructed, and catchy songs and, like all jam bands, their rhythm section was always interesting even when it wasn't doing anything good. That being said, The Grateful Dead brought nothing to the table musically.
Madge is often lumped together with the 90's diva songbirds: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and all the other ones you might think of. While I'm going to bash Madonna quickly, I wouldn't dare lower her to the indignity of throwing her into that particular pot. But I can make up for that by throwing her into the same pot as Cher, her very direct forerunner, and her most obvious successor in line, Britney Spears. All three of them have prolonged their careers through constant reinvention, which is something Cher pioneered, so it's pointless to keep pretending Madonna has done anything original in that respect.
Madonna does have one advantage over Cher and Britters: She had the gall to go out and offend people by actually acting on her hypersexuality in public. She had affairs with numerous celebrities and wasn't coy about her body. Cher was a daring sexual presence too, but she had her heyday in the 60's, when the population was a lot more uptight. Britters spent too much time playing the pure Christian good girl against her image, which didn't end well. Madonna lived her sexuality and shocked people in an era when that was getting much more difficult to do, and didn't make any apologies.
Her music, though, is comparatively ordinary. She released some catchy and danceable pop tunes with strong vocals and slick production, but it wasn't until late in her career that she started doing anything musically to challenge anyone. Even then, her efforts were hit (Ray of Light) or miss (Erotica). If she wasn't so unapologetically sexual, her career would have been over by now.
I can't think of a single band whose staying power was based so much on its drummer's shlong.
What did you think of this list?