December 18, 2017
Brief Editor’s Note:
Following on our Secret Santa issue that closed 2016, we at Off Your Radar have decided to break the norm again for our last issue of the year, this time turning our attention to records we might “guilty pleasures” through one way or another.
As the vast majority below will mention, the idea of “guilty pleasure” is inherently flawed — should you really feel guilty about enjoying something that brings back fond memories or brightens your day? But there are some records, artists, and genres that will always be ridiculed, marginalized, or dismissed, no matter what anyone says or does. There’s music that you know there’s no real defense for, even if it brings you endless joy. And then there’s music where there’s no argument for because its appeal to you is ineffable. Somewhere between all of those thoughts is where the contributors of Off Your Radar chose their selections.
Those selections are presented in chronological order below. If you don’t know the record or band, give it a try and see if it just might be something that appeals to you. More importantly though, if you do know the music already, give it a second chance and see if we can’t change your opinion at least a little and make you feel guilty about writing it off in the first place.
Released In 1976
Released By ABC Records
I think about the pizza cognition theory a lot, which is based on a cognitive development theory. It states that the first slice of pizza you see and taste as a child becomes pizza. This theory can easily be applied to music: the first record you hear becomes the definition of “music” for you. In my case, this was Stephen Bishop’s Careless, which I can hear in so many things, like my love of gentle singer songwriters (Sufjan Stevens, Sharon Van Etten), ’70s AM rock (Zeus and, again, Sufjan), horn solos (Spoon), and falsetto (see: half my record collection, and also Sufjan).
My parents played Careless, which was released three years before I was born, for years after it came out. Even my earliest musical memory involves singing “Save It For A Rainy Day” to myself in daycare. My parents still play the album all the time — it’s on all their devices, and mom listens to it when she goes on walks.
I’ve always owned a copy of Careless on LP — when I went to college, I had a half full crate of LPs I carried to my dorm room and it was one of them (note: Stephen Bishop was not even cool in 1997).
I feel lucky to have heard this album when I was a kid and I could enjoy it for what is — not yacht rock, not soft rock from that dude from Kentucky Fried Movie, but a wonderful collection of solid songs featuring work by both Eric Clapton and the incomparable Chaka Khan, all led by Bishop’s crystal-clear voice. I’ve read a lot of articles lately about the return ’70s soft rock and Bishop is not mentioned in any of them, which puzzles me. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1985, for chrissakes! Plus, some songs still give me chills — the simple guitar melody in “Madge,” a sweet ballad about lost love (“she’s probably marred now..”); “Sinking In An Ocean Of Tears,” with its kind of unnecessary vibes scale solo, bleats like early Billy Joel songs and is a total fucking classic; and “Every Minute” is just straight up one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. It’s no wonder Art Garfunkel used two of Bishop’s compositions, both of which would later be on Careless, for his solo record Breakaway.
If I was musically inclined, I would cover all these songs on YouTube so everyone could see how timeless they are. In fact, I just want Sufjan Stevens to turn Careless into a folk prog masterpiece a la The Age Of Adz. Ball’s in your court, Sufjan. Call me if you need a producer.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Released On January 31, 1989
Released By Columbia Records
I’m not typically the sort of person to have guilty pleasures. I’ve always believed that taste is subjective, that anything I like is good as far as I’m concerned, and that’s good enough. But I admit that my love of some things are easier to explain and defend than others. And on that metric, the thing I love that’s the hardest to justify is glam metal.
Not hair metal — that term is a misnomer, partly because it’s generally only used in a disparaging sense. When people say a band is “hair metal,” they’re generally saying “this is a metal band I don’t like.” After all, before Helmet hit it big in the early ’90s, basically all metal bands had long hair. If the band’s hair has a positive or negative value, that value should affect all metal bands from that era, right? If you love Motorhead but call everything from Iron Maiden to Poison “hair metal,” you’re full of shit, for multiple reasons.
Glam metal is the proper term, because it describes a set of bands who’d clearly been influenced by the progression of metal up to that point — from Led Zeppelin’s epic howls and Black Sabbath’s gloomy thuds at the dawn of the ’70s to Van Halen’s screaming guitars and Kiss’ kabuki bubblegum at the end of that same decade. But those bands were also clearly pulling from the gender-bending glitter of glam rockers like T. Rex and the New York Dolls, and from the bluesy swagger of rock n’ rollers like Aerosmith. Roll it all up together and you’ve got some killer distorted guitar riffs playing some seriously sugary pop melodies, and what’s to hate about that?
In Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, he describes glam metal’s ethos in a particular way that I’d love to quote; however, I’m sorry to report that I just moved, my book collection is still boxed up, and I’ll have to settle for paraphrasing. This is the gist of his comment: unlike the alternative rock explosion of the early ’90s that followed it, the glam metal movement of the late ’80s did not present a picture of alienation and isolation for the weird teenagers of middle America to identify with. Instead of relatability, glam metal offered an escape, by telling its fans that they were the truly cool ones, that the people around them just didn’t recognize their genius, and that before long they’d be super-cool rockers just like their heroes who were making the albums that delivered this message.
On one level, this is a very accurate assertion on Klosterman’s part, one I immediately recognized from my own late ’80s junior high feelings. Before I fell down the punk rock rabbithole at age 14, I spent several years listening to all the usual suspects — Motley Crue, Van Halen, Poison, Guns N’ Roses, et cetera. And of course, the solace Klosterman described their fans as receiving from the upbeat, catchy escapism of their albums is one of the main things I got from those bands.
But then again, it doesn’t really get to the heart of the glam metal appeal at all, because it doesn’t acknowledge the fundamental paradox at the heart of the genre. After all, it isn’t these bands’ success that led them to make these sorts of records — for a lot of glam metal bands, their best efforts are the early ones before fame and fortune gave them the opportunity (one most of them weren’t able to resist) to destroy their inspirations with wild parties, cheap drugs, indulgence in meaningless sex, et cetera.
So clearly, what inspired the best and most memorable efforts from bands a lot of times had more to do with the hard living they’d been doing before they blew up than the “standing on top of the world” (to quote a widely despised Hagar-era Van Halen album — one I happen to love, but that’s a huge digression I should probably leave alone) that they generally celebrated in their lyrics and offered to their fans as a vicarious escape.
For this reason, some of the early peaks the genre has to offer are every bit as realistic in their identification with fans’ alienation as a track from Nevermind. Skid Row in particular sing frequently, especially on their self-titled debut, about struggles to pay bills and stay out of trouble (one of their biggest hits, “18 And Life,” is a great example). Motley Crue’s first album features multiple tales of watching drugs destroy friends’ lives (“On With The Show,” “Merry Go Round“). The combination of real alienation and “faking it til you make it” that makes up lyrical content on most glam metal albums displays nothing so much as a deep, painful insecurity at the heart of the glam mindset.
And then there’s the music. As with any specific subgenre, most of the bands within the realm of glam metal will point to one distinguishing characteristic or another to explain why they shouldn’t really be reduced to that genre tag, and probably shouldn’t be included at all. Cinderella, for example, are glam as fuck, not only because of their love for AquaNet and uncredited keyboards but because of Tom Keifer’s incredibly high, piercing voice (Klosterman: “Like a cat stuck in the gears of a combine — but in the best possible way”). But a few listens to their actual music will show you that they were more of a blues-rock stomper in the Aerosmith vein than anything as poppy as the average Bon Jovi top 10 hit.
All of these bands are great, and I could have picked any of their albums to talk about here. But as you can see, I can also make a pretty great case for why those pleasures shouldn’t be guilty at all. It’s way, way harder to justify my love for something as ridiculous and, to most, irredeemable as the first Warrant album. But god damn it, I love it just as much as any of the songs and bands I’ve mentioned before now. And even though I can’t imagine I’ll win many of you over, I suppose I should go ahead and tell you why already, huh?
Let’s start at the beginning — really with the first three songs, an incredible trio that dominates the album and makes up its 11-minute apex. “32 Pennies” is first, the only one of these three not to chart somewhere on the Hot 100. Instead of an uptempo bubblegum bounce, it comes at you with a raunchy midtempo swagger that would surely be late bandleader Jani Lane’s first data point in his quest to prove his band’s legitimacy, if he were here to defend himself.
It also lyrically splits the difference between “we’re on top of the world” escapism and matter-of-fact acknowledgement of broke-ness. With lines like “If I die with a penny in my pocket, then I guess that’s all I need” and “32 pennies in a Ragu jar, that’s our only gas money. I love her and she loves me — to the pennies, it’s all the same,” Lane takes a devil-may-care attitude towards his obvious poverty, trying to prove to a girl that he’s worthy of her consideration over some killer crunchy riffs from guitarists Joey Allen and Erik Turner.
As amazed as I was in 1989 to discover an untapped gem like this at the beginning of an album I’d bought for several other songs, I couldn’t deny that “32 Pennies” was just the opening act for our feature attraction: “Down Boys.” If I were given a chance to burn a single 80-minute mix CD that would then become the sum total of the music I’d be allowed to hear for the rest of my life, I assure you, “Down Boys” would be on it. Good god. The verses alternate between crunchy guitar chords and a devastating minor-chord arpeggio, with lyrics that sort of don’t mean anything but are sometimes meaningless in an incredibly profound way (“I don’t care where we go tonight — take me along with you”). The chorus carves itself into your brainpan with a repetitive chant about wanting to “go where the down boys go” underneath which Allen and Turner fight for space in the mix with a stabbing keyboard hook that is an essential ingredient even though whoever plays it goes totally uncredited in the liner notes. Such is glam metal.
The third in our trio of glam metal devastation is “Big Talk,” a song with stop-start riffs over bouncing drums that recalls Kiss classics like “Rock And Roll All Nite,” only with way more whammy bar. Lane tells the story of a kid named Johnny (probably him, in all honesty — despite how it’s come down to posterity, “Jani” was originally intended to be pronounced “Johnny”) who gets in a bar fight with a dude who’s mad about Johnny dancing with the dude’s wife.
Johnny basically kicks the guy’s ass and tells him to stop writing checks with his mouth that his butt can’t cash, which is an incredibly problematic overall moral, albeit one that hits right at the core with the sort of teenage boys from small town USA that were this album’s demographic. As a 13 year old kid who was profoundly unsure of their own gender, I thought this song was way cool. As a 41 year old trans woman, I know it’s got issues. But damn if it doesn’t still rock like fucking crazy. As soon as I decided to write about this album, I proceeded to get this song stuck in my head, and it took something like three days to get rid of it. And now I’m writing about it again, which means it’ll probably be stuck in there all over again until next Thursday or so.
There are a few other notable tracks later in the album. “Sometimes She Cries” is the less musically distinctive of the two ballads here, though its lyrics make you wonder who the woman in Jani Lane’s life was that inspired its tale of middle-aged loneliness and isolation–his mom? Can’t ask him now… “D.R.F.S.R.,” the album’s title track, begins side two with a funhouse-mirror reflection of opening track “32 Pennies,” giving us another swaggering midtempo groove over which Lane imagines himself “light[ing] my cigarettes with 100 dollar bills” once he gets the big record contract. The subtle digs at executive types make clear for the listener paying close attention that he knows everything he’s saying is ludicrous, and that he shouldn’t ever trust the people who promise it to him. But rather than complaining about it, he and his band turn the whole thing into a big joke.
The only other song we really need to dig into on this album, though, is “Heaven.” While most people might think of Warrant as a one-hit wonder due to that whole “Cherry Pie” disaster (the song, which became their legacy, was forced on the band by record label executives and became the bane of their existence for the rest of their career and, in Lane’s case, his life), it turns out that “Heaven” was their biggest hit, reaching #2 on the Hot 100 back in the summer of 1989.
I remember hearing it on the radio when I was 13 and thinking this mainly acoustic stab at the glam metal chestnut of a “power ballad” had a lot more depth and heart than most entries in that category, and I still think that today. This song is full of downhearted nostalgia, the kind that pines for better days and swears the protagonist and his significant other will make it back there one day, somehow. There are still some sappy sentiments in the lyrics — “I don’t need to be the king of the world as long as I’m the hero of this little girl” — but even those moments sound like they’re being sung from the position of a person whose deferred their dream for a dead-end job that promises nothing more than keeping a cheap roof over their head and some cans of food in the cupboards.
Opening with Jani Lane strumming an acoustic guitar, “Heaven” begins: “I’ve got a picture of your house / You’re standing by the door / It’s black and white and faded, and looking pretty worn.” He goes on to mention a factory where he worked, and coming home at night after his lady has already gone to sleep. The factory is in the past tense, so I figure he’s probably writing about playing bar gigs with Warrant, but what small-town high school graduate in the late ’80s (or right now) who dropped out of community college and ended up with a crappy minimum-wage job wouldn’t understand these lyrics on a very deep level?
Honestly, considering the changing roles of musical genres over the decades, I’d say that today, “Heaven” would fit right in on modern country radio. In fact — and I just discovered this while writing this very essay, so I’m kind of freaking out right now — there’s an early mix of this song that was only on the first pressing of the album and the original single. Once it started to take off on radio, a completely different version (listen here) was issued — the one most people, including me, are familiar with. It’s “rocked up” with heavier guitars, and removes the original mix’s more country-ish intro. The original version straight-up sounds like it could compete with Brantley Gilbert and Blake Shelton for airtime right now. Nashville A&R people, are you listening?
And now I find myself wondering if even goofy-ass Warrant have more righteous merit than I ever gave them credit for. The Klosterman assertion with which I began this whole epic travelogue through one of the least-loved subgenres of the ’80s seems very true when you first think about it. But if even Warrant can be found to have a great deal of depth once you scratch the shimmery, hairsprayed surface, I have to wonder if he was right at all (why does this happen anytime you think too hard about anything Chuck Klosterman has ever written? Again, that’s another essay).
In the end, you’re gonna have to decide for yourselves. But for my money, glam metal had just as much value, meaning, and musical merit as any of the post-Nirvana alt-rock classics I loved just as much in my late teens. There’s a reason albums like Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich still occupy space in my record collection (on the original cassette I bought when I was 13, no less). And in spite of the theme for this issue of Off Your Radar, I don’t feel even a shred of guilt about it.
Released On September 17, 1991
Released By Epic Records
As I’m sure all of my colleagues will say in their blurbs, I don’t believe in feeling guilty for anything I listen to. But I’ve also tried to break down from where such a notion might originate and I’ve identified two main components: indefensibility and surprise. The first makes “guilt” a stand-in for the fact that sometimes we can’t come up with a really good reason for why we like what we like. But it’s just a fact that once in a while a song or album is going to come along that doesn’t quite fit into the “standards” we’ve established over years of careful listening. Then there’s surprise, which is usually felt by other people who think they have a handle on your taste or at least the parameters of your listening. Whether or not this is true for all who use the term “guilty pleasure,” I can easily say that my love for No More Tears, the 1991 opus by Ozzy Osbourne, is somewhat indefensible and will likely surprise many of my friends.
While I’m not a huge Black Sabbath fan, I do love the Paranoid album and greatly respect their role in defining what came to be called heavy metal. But when it comes to Ozzy, my main recollections are of the tabloid circus around his various stage antics (RIP, various feathered friends) or that tacky reality TV show. So imagine my surprise when I was slogging through George Washington Bridge traffic on the way home after a business trip and heard acoustic guitars sparkling their way through a descending chord sequence and then a vaguely familiar voice: “Times have changed and times are strange / Here I come, but I ain’t the same / Mama, I’m coming home.” It was kind of clichéd, especially as I was, in fact, coming home, but damned if it didn’t work. Somewhat predictably, the song grew bigger and bigger, with massed guitar crunch, huge, hollow-sounding drums (an eighties hangover) and a choir of backing vocals, but there was also restraint and melodic sophistication. Well, I thought after the DJs back-announcement, I guess I like an Ozzy song.
Still, years went by before I heard the rest of the album. I think it might have been passionate advocacy on the part of Bob Lefsetz that finally drove me there and I quickly fell for the whole album. Well, almost the whole album. No More Tears was made in the early years of CDs when everyone was reveling in the long running time of the shiny silver discs and making many albums that were just too long, which is the case here. I could easily eliminate 20 minutes from No More Tears without missing anything (hint: “Zombie Stomp,” you’re on the chopping block), but the stuff that’s good is so good, with sweeping melodies, Zakk Wylde’s insane guitar histrionics, and choruses that demand a stadium sing-along. So, start with the title track (tell me it doesn’t begin like a Simple Minds song), “I Don’t Want To Change The World,” “Desire,” “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” “Hellraiser,” or the hair-raising “Mr. Tinkertrain.” If those songs get their hooks into you, don’t come running to me to complain about those over-miked drums, the occasional wayward bridge, synth overkill, the lax quality control. All I’ll say is “I know” and go back to listening.
I’ve been so uninterested in analyzing No More Tears that I didn’t even know until Lemmy died in 2015 that the Motorhead maven had co-written most of the best songs with Ozzy. Then I realized I should have listened to more of his band and had a good reason to feel guilty!
Released In June 1, 1992
Released By Skunk Records
As with many of my most beloved albums, I’m not sure how I actually came to own 40oz. To Freedom. It was a favorite tradition that I had with my friend Orlando to sing along to “Garden Grove” from the self-titled album, and my friend Stuart once told me a hilarious story about working at Ben & Jerry’s in the middle of the food court, listening to the album when “New Song” came blaring out of the speakers (it’s the one that starts “I heard that payback’s a motherfucking bitch”) and he had to scramble to turn it off before anyone noticed. These factors must have led me to purchase the album in anticipation of a trip to visit family in Upstate New York. It was very important that no aspect of the album was revealed to my parents as the title, the cover art, the topics of songs, and certainly the songs themselves would have sent them into a tail spin. That’s probably what bonded me to the album most. Hearing Bradley Nowell sing about drinking and partying and doing drugs and having sex in Long Beach, when I was doing none of those things on the other side of the country made me feel like I was truly experiencing rock and roll in its purest form. I know, I know. Sublime is not rock and roll in its purest form, but whenever I listen to this album, with its punk, reggae, and Grateful Dead covers, its juxtaposition of burnout acoustic anthems with loud, fast, garage punk rock songs, and its random assortment of samples, I’m a teenager again, quietly rebelling on my Uncle’s couch, listening to something I shouldn’t be listening to. That’s why I can’t look at this album as a guilty pleasure. It’s not something I’m likely to put on for another person to hear, but that’s not because I feel guilty about liking it. It’s just that the secret listening has always been a part of the experience for me.
Released On October 26, 1999
Released By Epic Records
There were girls wearing bandanas like shirts. I’m sixteen, in the dark dregs of some high school party I’m too young to be at, unsure of how I was even invited, and my friend Shelley bounces up to me, clad in the tight glittery low-cut jeans and bandana top of the late ’90s. She’s bubbly, hands me a red Solo, and I take it, ostensibly here, present, when really most of me is wondering how I got here. Awkward, too smart to be popular, too funny to be ostracized, I was never sure what I was doing at these places, how I got to these parties, passing an unsmoked joint to the left, swallowing a bitter beer and smiling, half bored but also half desperate to be there. Standing now so far away from that world, it’s easier to backtrack my slow fissioning off from that group, and playing a role early on was my music, including Incubus. From the first time I heard that spacey drone over the radio speakers, I was captivated. Who is this? How the hell do you make that sound? Fascinated, I began a two-prong attack that consisted of sitting on the remote, dialed to MTV, so I could see the video, and mercilessly hound my mom for the CD. Those party friends, the ones I just saw in the dark of the weekends, couldn’t understand it. Yeah, they would say, I guess it’s pretty good, the question implied in the end, the lack of understanding about why I would even care so much. And yes, the teenage (ahem, and adult) version of me was wrapped in the glorious sex alien that is Brandon Boyd, definitely dreaming of the day we would somehow meet at a show and, like, fuck on the moon, but it was mostly the difference in how that music sounded that pulled me. There’s a moment when you don’t step away, but take a step to the side, and realize you aren’t in beat with anyone else anymore. You’re suddenly marching along with people you haven’t met yet, making their tracks across lines you haven’t imagined yet. Guilty pleasure implies a kind of shame, and I want to belie that here in sharing an album that feels indulgent, almost guilty, because of the shroud of reminiscent hormones and personal nostalgia it calls up, not because of any dissociation it brings.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Released On July 23, 2002
Released By Eyeball Records
It’s guilty pleasures week and if you’ve read any of my past submissions for OYR, you will know by now that I’m an unapologetic edge lord with nothing left to lose. So, this week I’ll be publicly gushing over My Chemical Romance’s first album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love. Personally, I feel that a true guilty pleasure album is one that has the power to disrupt your day-to-day life, one in which you find yourself restraining from all movement on public transport for fear of potentially looking too approachable and un-intimidating to strangers that may have the audacity to attempt small talk with you. When I listen to Bullets, I have no fear of over friendly strangers because this album turns me from a placid potato-like woman to some sort of deranged lap dog impersonator… I cannot control myself. If I break my focus for even a second during “This Is The Best Day Ever,” I will undoubtedly find myself mid-head bang praying that those around me didn’t notice my desperate attempt to regain some composer by pretending to tie my already perfectly tied shoes.
If you’ve never had the good fortune to listen to Bullets, allow me to turn you in your extended family’s resident angsty cousin this holiday season. Bullets is high energy punk rock that has a larger-than-life, almost theatrical feel to it. Although My Chemical Romance broke into the mainstream on the popularity of second album (Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge) which is by far more polished and even more theatrical, Bullets is easily still my favourite of their albums. I think that although this album still mentions mass murder and vampires, it feels very relatable. I’d even go as far to say that the album is heart-warming… in it’s own way. If you’re planning on celebrating a second Halloween this Christmas and looking to add some edge to your playlist, look no further than I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
Released On July 23, 2002
Released By Geffen Records
The Lonely Position Of Neutral was the first record I ever escaped into. By now, at age 31, I feel like I’ve spent half of my life buried in headphones, either because they help me zero in on the task at hand or because they help drown out the noise within my scattered mind, and I feel like I can trace all those behaviors and preferences back to this album.
It’s not that this was the first record that exposed me to the glory of music — no, that distinction falls on the shoulders of the Space Jam soundtrack and Get Up And Dance by Quad City DJ’s which were both spun so much in my youth that the jewel cases broke and the CD inserts started to rip and fray. But those records were more about exploration and exuberance, whereas TRUSTCompany was a perfect outlet for adolescent angst, providing me a harrowing world to escape into where I could internally scream or croon depending on my mood.
This record isn’t perfect, nor is it one whose hill I’m prepared to die on like By The Way or any other of my all-time favorites. Most of the songs follow the same formula: guitar intro, thrashing breakdown, somewhat quiet and restrained verse, head-banging chorus, throat wrenching bridge, and impellent finale that mixes everything together. Sonically, it was in line with the radio-friendly pop-metal sound of the time, but also very clearly influenced by Pixies’ quiet-loud dynamic that helped define the alt-rock sound of the ’90s.
But that formula didn’t bother me at age 16 and still doesn’t today. Kevin Palmer’s voice is just so captivating and James Fukai’s guitar so clever that it makes any attempt to do a “How You Remind Me Of Someday” mash-up just wrong and out-of-place. More importantly, their formula didn’t seem to be born out of laziness or mediocrity — it felt like the band zeroed in on it because it provided the best platform for Palmer and Fukai to really soar and amaze.
Formula or not, the songwriting at its core was great, something that proved true the following year when a “quiet” mix of the song “Hover” was included on the Underworld soundtrack (a soundtrack worth picking up if only for Danny Lohner’s gripping remix of Bowie’s “Bring Me The Disco King“). In that quiet mix that trades guitar for piano and subtracts all of the screaming parts, you can hear how great the band was at creating a melody and supporting it through the music, a fact that does get lost in translation at times when surrounded by drop-D guitars.
Not every song needs a quiet mix in order to be appreciated though. The regular version of “Hover” is still an album highlight, as is “The Fear” and “Slipping Away,” a song where Palmer’s breath intake inexplicably becomes a compelling part of the music and sonic atmosphere. The singles, “Downfall” and “Running From Me,” are both great as well, easily rising above the 2000s alt-rock mean with some infectious lines and cathartic breakdowns. Gun to my head though, you can’t go wrong with “Figure 8” which should almost be a “how-to” guide on making screaming and throat singing accessible and endearing.
Sadly, I never fell for their other records like I did this one, though “The War Is Over” from their sophomore record is a damn fine song. Due to that, I never dove into their side projects and spin-off bands like I would have for other groups I loved, but doing a quick perusal of Amity Lane (Kevin Palmer) and Hematovore (James Fukai), there’s plenty of familiar moments that let me know I haven’t strayed too far from home.
But that doesn’t do anything to lessen my appreciation for this record. It’s not a record I constantly fall back on, but when I do find myself circling back around to it, whether it’s been a few months or years, I’m still invigorated and captivated by it, wrenching my own throat in the process as I try to sing along to every single part. It still provides a great escape, though one I’m very happy to say is more rooted in personal attachment than teenage dread.
Released On August 8, 2006
Released By NextSelection & Bad Boy Records
I never cared about whether Cassie could sing or not because, to me, this album isn’t about her. Cassie is about the producer and writer, Ryan Leslie. For me, I have always considered this the “Ryan Leslie demo” as opposed to Cassie’s debut. She’s almost another instrument in Ryan’s wonderful electric world. Now why is it that I instantly fell so hard for Leslie’s production style? First, it’s catchy as hell. Second, even though it’s mostly sample-free, Leslie’s production often incorporates classic break beats and drum pieces that much of hip hop was built on as the base of his orchestrations. But most importantly, Leslie has the uncanny ability to take the corniest, unassuming, bland synth patches and make them into the most infectious melodies you’ve ever heard. Take, for example, “Long Way 2 Go,” which employs a very ordinary synth lead as the top line melody. But the way it’s put together with the backing strings and the drums and the chords is pure magic. 99.9% of producers would have heard that lead sound by itself, scrolling through their keyboards and left it alone forever. Leslie seems to seek these sounds out. He routinely makes Chicken L’orange out of Chicken McNuggets. And you know what? That’s a producer’s job, whether it be an instrument or an artist.
Released On September 25, 2012
Released By Universal Music
I thought for a long time about how to approach writing about Pitch Perfect… and I kept drawing a blank. How do you sum up a fandom? How should I thread a coherent narrative from such an idiosyncratic string of associations and entanglements? Then I thought… I shouldn’t! Here are a few of the significant strands: I can’t remember the first time I watched Pitch Perfect, but I have a very happy memory of sitting in a fancy home theater during an Outer Banks beach week with college friends, one of whom sang in a collegiate a cappella group called Choeur du Roi. Like the pants. I spent a significant part of the last Halloween before my daughter was born trying to replicate Anna Kendrick’s “Cups” routine at a Halloween party with coworkers. My wife was dressed as Beca. I was dressed as hipster Justin Timberlake. Coincidentally, I hear Kendrick and Timberlake duet on a daily basis because of my daughter’s fixation on the Trolls soundtrack. Another coworker, who shares my affinity for flipping through records at thrift stores, recently ran into a copy of the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack, passed on it, and returned on a rescue mission after he saw how wide my eyes got when he said the words “Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack.” It was heroic. My wife’s brother got me my beloved copy of the original soundtrack for Christmas a few years back, and I thought it was a calendar for a hot second because 1: Calendars and records are shaped exactly the same, 2: The cover looks more like a calendar than album art, and 3: My brother-in-law giving me a Pitch Perfect calendar for Christmas would be both on-brand and appreciated. My wife and I went to the theater to see Pitch Perfect 2 after dropping our daughter off at daycare for the very first time. My wife and I are planning to go to the theater to see Pitch Perfect 3 after dropping our son off at daycare for the very first time.
Released On December 7, 2012
Released By Reprise Records
In 2012, Green Day announced a bold project: a trilogy of new albums, to be released two months apart of each other, with a total of 37 new songs spread across the three discs. Furthermore, the band was taking a step away from rock operas and the vague political themes of their previous two albums. It sounded over-indulgent, and it was. But it also sounded like an exciting prospect for Green Day fans, and it was. Then they released the first single off the first album (creatively titled ¡Uno!), “Oh Love,” and most of that excitement went away.
Wait though, isn’t this supposed to be a defense of an album (in this case, albums)? Why am I insulting the first single? Because let’s be real: when a band two and a half decades into their career releases 37 songs all at once, there are bound to be some clunkers. While “Oh Love” was certainly a big, dumb rock anthem in the vein of latter day The Who and hardly the best choice for the trilogy’s first single, I think there’s still a lot to appreciate here: ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! were Green Day’s way of making up for the thematically bleak nature of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, and showing that they could still write fun songs.
In a lot of ways the powerpop chugging and light-hearted melodies pick up where the band was starting to head nearly a decade and a half prior on nimrod. and Warning, making it easy to speculate that the trilogy is an expanded version of what Cigarettes And Valentines would have been (A quick refresher: Cigarettes And Valentines was the original planned follow up to Warning, but after the masters were lost the band opted to start over from scratch and came up with American Idiot). The trilogy’s lead track, “Nuclear Family,” rips off the bombastic riffs from The Clash’s second album in the most fun way possible, reminding the world what Green Day used to be about… which is, to say, ripping off The Clash and being fun. The rest of the trilogy follows from there, though honestly it’s the final album that stands out in particular to me.
Whereas ¡Uno!, with its pretty straightforward powerpop sound, is the most commercially accessible of the three albums, and ¡Dos! being more or less the Green Day version of a second Foxboro Hot Tubs album (a weird sentence to type considering that they share the same core lineup), ¡Tré! left the biggest impression on me because it feels most like the record that was made solely for Green Day fans. Even if it didn’t appeal to anyone else, this was the record that longtime Green Day fans could put on, sit back, and enjoy. Okay, so “Sex, Drugs & Violence” has an incredibly dumb chorus, “Dirty Rotten Bastards” has that obnoxious intro, and depending on how you feel about “Good Riddance,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” and “21 Guns,” there’s a chance that “The Forgotten” is just the next chapter in the ever boring Green Day ballad catalog, but again: there are 37 songs here. It’s important to not get too hung up on the less than great ones when there’s plenty of good.
Billie Joe’s vocal performance on “Brutal Love” might be the best he’s captured in the studio, and “X-Kid” is a terrific example that he can still write clever lyrics. The sequencing of “Little Boy Named Train,” “Amanda,” and “Walk Away” is one of Green Day’s strongest moments in years because it’s nothing but strong song after strong song without any gimmicks. But they’re buried on the B-Side of the third record released in a five month time span that largely got no promotion from the band or their label. These songs never had a chance, which is highly unfortunate.
I get that releasing three albums at once is a lot, especially when it’s done by a band that doesn’t exactly sit well with the music snobs of the internet. However I urge anyone who skipped the trilogy because of lukewarm reviews or because of the sub-par first singles (I personally like “Kill the DJ” and “Let Yourself Go” but I totally get why they’d turn off potential listeners. Just know that neither really captures the essence of ¡Uno!). There are a lot of great jams hidden in here, and now that the albums have been out for five years, it’s time to uncover them. And I hate to end things on a negative note, but for the love of all that is good, never listen to “Nightlife.” Just don’t.
Released On September 2, 2013
Released By Dirty Hit & Poydor Records
I talk all the time about how I love the background music in a song, and in the case of this album, it is just chock-full of everything that I love. I find the term guilty pleasure, personally, only loosely applies to this album — only because in no way do I feel guilty about loving this album or this band. The reason that I know it falls under this category is that I know they are massively popular among teenage girls, which I understand because I fell in love with them (because of this album) at 17.
There is something about it that is relatable, yet also anthemic and almost mystical in a way. The 1975 has a way of making you feel incredible, and Matty Healy’s heavy Manchester accent gives them a sound like no other. The music is very guitar/drum driven, but also has great keyboard effects that give it such a distinct vibe and sound. When I first heard it, I thought that it had a little bit of an ’80s influence mixed with something I couldn’t quite place, and I still feel that way today — just something intangibly great within the music.
What I love about the deluxe version is that it has the original released album, but then also includes everything they released as EP’s beforehand. And although I love every song on this album, most of my favourites are in that second half. The song “Antichrist” sounds nothing like the rest of the album and I love that it shows a darker side to the band. They have such a range on this album; up tempo songs like “Girls” or “Heart Out,” slower piano driven songs like “Is There Somebody Who Can Watch You“, purely instrumental tracks to break things up, and anthemic tracks like “Robbers” or “You.” Every time I listen to “Robbers,” it’s almost like I can picture a film I am suddenly a part of. The music is just so cinematic at times — it can just sweep you away.
Of them all though, my personal favourite song would have to be “You,” a desert island pick if there ever was one. I don’t know what it is, but from the moment I heard it, I knew it would always be that one song that I could never get sick of. It has that quality that makes you feel like you are just free and invincible, and when that massive guitar solo in the middle hits, there are just no words. I’ve always said that they are my favourite band to see live, and it’s true. While this album is already amazing, seeing it and hearing it live is another experience entirely.
This album has influenced me in so many ways and has sent me on a journey since its release. If it’s a guilty pleasure, then I will gladly keep on guiltily listening.
Released On October 8, 2013
Released By Republic Nashville Records
In any case, while (admittedly) slightly cringing at the thought of this honesty, Frame By Frame, the 2013 full length by Cassadee Pope seemed like a suitable choice for this writer’s guilty pleasure pick. There is plenty about this record that makes it easy to slide into a less pronounced slot on the album shelf. Frame By Frame was the full length release Pope made and co-produced in 2013, following her crowning as the winner of The Voice Season 3 in December of 2012. The “this album is partially the product of a reality show contract” factor probably introduces some guilt-worthy credit straight away amidst my music writing peers, but there are defined reasons why my enjoyment overrides embarrassment — either about the album or my inadvertently admitting I watched The Voice. Sure, the typical “other genre dressed with pop” qualities are all there: From filler syllables (to which I like to give Pope some cheeky credit because she changed things up deviating from the expected ooo’s and ohh’s, to a lesser heard “la da da” on a feel good small town single titled “Everybody Sings“), to compression and reverb galore for that radio ready character, and, in the case of Frame By Frame‘s pairing, a song to cover every stage of a relationship with necessary country trope tie-ins. There’s initial infatuation via alcohol-analogy (“Champagne“), guilt after cheating (“Easier To Lie“), depressed regret post-breakup (“One Song Away“), frustration after breakup dealt with by drinking (“Wasting All These Tears“), all rectified by self-empowering finale “Proved You Wrong.” It might be hard to sense my enjoyment in this otherwise very plain roadmap, but the explanation is pretty simple unto itself. Frame By Frame is easy. It’s an LP loaded to the gills with catchy ear worm hooks that are polished to perfection thanks to Scott Borchetta (head of Big Machine Records), Nathan Chapman (producer to Lady Antebellum, Sara Evans, Taylor Swift), alongside Pope herself. The proportion and flavor of country in this album feels akin to part Taylor Swift circa Fearless and part Lady Antebellum circa Golden and 747 — all of which is completely unsurprising given the aforementioned credits. It’s this combination that is perhaps what best explains Frame By Frame‘s enjoyment factor for me. I liked the Fearless era of Swift’s career. Having a slightly older and more seasoned voice in Pope create music and write witty but inoffensive lyrics that feel like early era personal Swift (“11“) but with just a touch more punch, was like getting back an approach to country pop that by 2013, Swift was far and away from while prepping for 1989. Yes, the songs on Frame By Frame are generic as heck at times (Pope even explained to Rolling Stone that she worked the lyrics for “Proved You Wrong” to make the narrative fit with the theme of a romantic relationship, rather than the break away from her label of the time, which she said was to “make [the song] more relatable”) but the music doesn’t jar you and the happier parts of the album’s relationship heavy narrative are like a favored piece of candy. You can’t have it all the time or in extreme excess but from time to time, it’s a simple pleasure that you enjoy for a time and then move on from until you’re in the mood for another piece.
Released On October 27, 2014
Released By Big Machine Records
“Nice to meet you / Where you been? / I can show you incredible things.” I could only wish that Taylor Swift’s fire-slinging 1989 album could begin with “Blank Space” – a song that captures her at her most coy (I always skip “Welcome To New York“). This was the first song I heard from the album and it instantly had me hooked. I consumed 1989 like a feast for one and laid claim to being a fan of Taylor Swift’s music. That’s not to say that I agree with her behavior as a person — that’s all for another time. But if 1989 isn’t a colossal vantage point of pop goodness, then I don’t know what is. The record contains hit after hit and with each and every song, Taylor manages to show off her amazing ability to tell stories and mold characters — exactly the kind of thing she’s become known for, but 1989 is just on a much bigger scale. There isn’t a boring moment on this album. From the highs of “Shake It Off” to the desperation that emits from “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” 1989 is a chic circus show of emotion from top to bottom. I should probably get to the part where I say, “I’m a ‘punk writer’ so I shouldn’t even like Taylor Swift.” But I’m not even gonna go there. Guilty pleasure albums aren’t necessarily something I feel “guilty” about; they’re moreso the albums that don’t fit into the rest of my extensive library. It doesn’t make them bad, nor does it mean they contain a shred of shame. I’ve spent the last year listening to 1989 in the shower (along with The Menzingers, Tyler The Creator, and Posers) and I show no signs of stopping. If I can’t be punk and like Taylor Swift, then I don’t wanna be a punk at all. I’ll stay here sitting pretty and jamming out to this monstrous festival of pop and leave the punk tracks to the gutter punks. Music is all in good fun, so why feel guilty about it?
Released On June 14, 2017
Released By S.M. Entertainment Records
I suppose by some socio-cultural standards, listening to music marketed primarily towards Korean teenage girls could be construed as a guilty pleasure for any and every one not a part of that target audience. The great thing about being a gay man, though, is that so much of your life is spent battling identity-related shame that the idea of feeling guilty for liking a type of music seems positively laughable. So I have no qualms professing my affection for NCT 127, a nine member Korean boy band made of young men ages 17 to 23 that only just debuted last year under SM Entertainment (probably the largest and most powerful music company in South Korea), and their 3rd mini-album, Cherry Bomb.
As far as K-pop boy bands go, NCT 127 is branded as a more hip-hop oriented group, a designation title track “Cherry Bomb” proves right off the bat. An oddball lead single that challenges the conventional pop structure, its hook is little more than a cluster of repetitive chants that, if you’re not on board, could actually get kind of annoying (I’m on board, personally). The backing track is sparse and spacious with rarely more than some percussion and ghostly, abrasive synths shouldering most of the song, though there are some electro-R&B verses and synths sandwiched in. It’s also filled with some of the most charismatic rapping one will find in all of Korean pop music (let’s just say they don’t always spend as much time perfecting their rapping as they do their dancing). Every song here is as polished as one would expect from a group coming out one of the largest music companies in the industry. “0 Mile” is a faultless Daft Punk-esque slice of magnetic electro-funk and closer “Summer127” is an irresistible house-tinged dance track with classic piano sounds, a propulsive gurgling bass synth line, and a spacious, airy pre-chorus that breaks into a hook-filled two-part refrain that won’t fail to get you moving no matter who, what, or where you are. But NCT 127 also takes some risks here and there when they can, as evidenced by “Sun & Moon,” a moody synthpop ballad drenched in delays and reverb, replete with whispery vocals and soft harmonies, tailor-made for midnight drives through the city.
Like I said before, I don’t feel guilty about my enjoyment of this music. If there was anything to question in one’s consumption of the music of NCT 127, and really Korean pop music as a whole, it would be how transparently commercialistic the whole endeavor truly is, as well as the commodification and objectification of the young men and women who make up these groups. When the harsh-truth end goal of the music they make is to get groups like NCT 127 into product endorsements, commercial filming, and extensive branding for everything from cosmetics to school uniforms to snack foods, etc cetera, to put their faces out there for all to see and thus get their fans to then buy these products emblazoned with their visages, it might make it somewhat harder to enjoy their artistic efforts. Not that the West is any different — the mainstream pop music machine is much the same all over the world. So enjoy the music, and maybe even buy some NCT 127-themed moisturizers and chicken wings while you’re at it if that’s what you feel like. But I believe it’s important to recognize the fantasy that’s being created by an industry built on taking advantage of young people who are at the mercy of a power structure much older than they are, and consume media responsibly. Be as informed a listener/consumer as you can be! Willful ignorance is the true guilty pleasure of today.
Gentlemen’s Brawl by Broadway
Chosen By Drew Necci