Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience: Better than FutureSex/LoveSounds

When I first heard The 20/20 Experience, much later than everyone else, I was awe-struck. Its style was something that Justin Timberlake had been in proximity of, but never fully embraced.

The previous two albums by Timberlake showcased pop, R&B, and even some electronic sounds. But none of them had the smooth neo-soul, retro sound down quite like 20/20 does, managing to out-do everything on the radio without sounding like anything else there.

I immediately declared it, in my mind, to no one, as Timberlake’s best album. I was disappointed, stunned even, to learn that the media at that time in 2013, did not feel the same way. The first album of the double release seemed to generate more positive reviews than the second (also, user reviews were considerably more favorable), but the criticism of the songs are baffling to me. Don’t talk smack about “Strawberry Bubblegum”! How dare you have an opinion different from mine?

Critics lauded FutureSex/LoveSounds at the time of its release, and beyond. It was innovative, brought Justin to the forefront of pop and R&B, matured his sound, and showed off Timbaland’s slick production skills, plus all of the radical influences he and JT had absorbed. It was the perfect storm.

But I’m here to tell you they’re all wrong. 20/20 is Timberlake’s best album by far. Here’s why.

FutureSex/LoveSounds: Nostalgia Is A Strong Aphrodisiac

First of all, have you listened to FutureSex recently? I mean, like really recently. Besides jamming to the mega hit “SexyBack” or remembering how good “My Love” actually is, if you fired up the album right now, you would also notice how incredibly dated the production is. Electronic/dance music has found its way into the heart and track of many popular, mainstream songs of today, and has done so for awhile now, but it sounds so painfully 2006 on this album. Yes, it was innovative for the time, and it was a great move for Timberlake’s career, but I said what I said. It’s old.

At the time of its release, I loved this album. I played it so much I got sick of it. But, hindsight is 20/20, and I find its flaws more glaring than ever, and the songs less replayable than they used to be. Lyrically, the album is about having fun and getting laid, primarily. Compared to the more mature and refined approach of similar topics on 20/20 Experience, it sounds pretty juvenile. We’ve all been through a phase in our lives when something like “Summer Love” would have been our anthem (falling in love with a stranger on the street, i.e. wanting to bang), but a lot of the imagery portrayed in FutureSex is cringe-worthy at best, and downright gross or stupid at worst (e.g. “Chopped and Screwed”, the “LoveStoned” prelude). Many of the songs implicitly treat women like they are wildlife being hunted, and while that’s fun to dance to, it makes for shallow and one-dimensional experience. And who’s to say that’s a bad thing? It’s not. But this album is hardly the best of his career, like some might have you believe.

A More Sophisticated Experience

The 20/20 Experience, by comparison, also has themes of love and sex, with some of that “let’s have a good time” vibe, too. But it’s far less about partying and sexual conquests and more about enjoying yourself as an adult who defines “party” in a much different way now (“Take Back the Night”, “Let The Groove Get In”, “Suit & Tie”, even). The art of seduction is less about calling a girl a “model, except she’s got a little more ass,” and more about calling a woman beautiful no matter what she wears, or doesn’t wear (“You Got It On”), or enticing a woman to leave a bad relationship and be with someone better (“Don’t Hold the Wall”). This is something you’d expect from someone of JT’s age and experience–a type of refinement and maturity that FutureSex can’t, and isn’t trying to, pull off.

While love and sex seem to be topics both albums share, the tone and approach of 20/20 Experience is far more palatable and well-written. They didn’t perfectly nail this on 20/20, but some of the more questionable lyrics, on tracks like “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)”, and “Murder” are more tolerable and subtle (there is no excuse, however, for the “coochie coo” line in “TKO”, especially how it’s repeated to infinity). Additionally, “seduction songs”, like “Strawberry Bubblegum”, “Spaceship Coupe”, and “You Got It On”, aren’t sleazy or predatory. Not to mention that slick, old school soul sound takes the edge off anything mildly offensive or possibly blush-worthy (but in case you hadn’t heard, all of the original soul singers were big, ole horndogs, too–for instance: “Let’s Get It On” is one of the most famous songs of its era or genre).

Some complaints about 20/20 Experience, even in the most glowing of reviews, say the songs are unnecessarily long and self-indulgent. I find that length is just one of the ingredients that make 20/20′s songs work, as they evolve right before our ears. If they felt monotonous (“Let the Groove Get In”, which, for all its uniqueness, doesn’t change much throughout its course), that would be a sin. But that’s not the case. Most of the songs carry the richness and depth of a multi-layered composition, where many songs sound like the courtship, commitment, and long, fulfilling marriage of two songs into one beautiful union. Such a union deserves all the minutes necessary to do it justice.

While plenty of professionals and fans alike would disagree (and have), I would say there are no bad songs on 20/20. I’d say there are no F tier songs. There are a couple C or D ones that I’m not fond, but none of them are total bombs. They all do enough things right to be credible, and more importantly for a giant, double album, listenable. Timberlake and his team of producers were smart about how they approached these songs, for the most part.

And what I can say about the C’s and D’s of the album is that they’re certainly not boring. Usually, it’s a case of Justin trying to do something new and maybe not pulling it off. That’s not the worst crime. At least he tried. I can admire that more than some of the cringe moments of its predecessor.

With FutureSex, I would have once argued that every song was a banger. At face value, they are all still fun, tight songs that are purposeful in their own way–even if that purpose is just to fucking party and hit on a hot girl. It does have two songs that hold up to this day: “What Goes Around…Comes Around” and “Let Me Talk to You / My Love” are my two favorites now that have most endured the test of time. You could make a case for “SexyBack” because of its popularity and sheer dance hit success, but I find that one is easier to listen to in the right mood. However, with the type of production and lyrical content that I’ve already touched on, I could distill my complaints about this album to one word: one-dimensional.

On the other hand, 20/20 isn’t one of anything. It jumps from genre to genre without feeling disjointed. The songs feel polished, carefully crafted. Though it only took 20 days to record, it’s unclear how long it took to write and compose the songs. JT may not be able to pull off all these genres or styles entirely, but he tries and he tries convincingly, even if the result is only pseudo-successful (“Take Back the Night”, “Only When I Walk Away”).

A track listing, with tiers, seems like the most complete and best way to talk about this album, so let’s dive in:

The 20/20 Experience: Album Track Reviews with Tiers

I am doing the double album as one full ranking, but I am excluding the bonus/deluxe tracks. “Pair of Wings” will be considered on its own merit, not as part of “Not A Bad Thing,” thankfully for it.

F Tier

None. Oh, that’s right.

D Tier

None here either. At least not if I have a say, and it’s my blog so, I do. I considered some of them to be D Tier because I didn’t like them as much as other songs, but considering the quality, style, and execution of them all, I can’t, in good faith, put anything here.

Oh, wait, I forgot about “Not A Bad Thing”.

22. “Not A Bad Thing”: Okay, I always forget about this one because it’s at the end, and it most definitely IS a bad thing. Granted, it’s certainly in Timberlake’s wheelhouse, but for an album that’s trying so hard to push him as a legendary, timeless artist, “Not A Bad Thing” does nothing but evoke the NSYNC days. It’s not badly produced or badly written–albeit very generic sounding–just bad for his target image and established reputation. This song should be sung by the next teen idol, not a grownup looking to cement his status as a pop icon.

C Tier

21. “Only When I Walk Away”: He tried it, I give him credit for that. Even after dozens of listens to this song, I can only half-confidently say it’s an attempt at rock. If not musically, then at least vocally. It’s wrought with angst and frustration, but I don’t know if I buy it. That will be a theme with the C-tier songs. I admire the attempt at something different, but Justin’s vocals were not made for this kind of song. I put it above the previous song because the message of the song is different than anything else on the record.

20. “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)”: With it’s carnal approach to seduction and vivid imagery, this is the most blatantly sexual song on the album. I guess there’s only so many subtle and mature ways to talk about sex before you land on the whole “we’re all just animals” thing. It’s good for what it is–a song comparing sex to being animals in the jungle. However, the beat boxing should have been left on FutureSex.

19. “Let the Groove Get In”: Justin and his production crew tackle a percussion-driven track that starts strong, but becomes repetitive and a little boring. For such a fabulous collection of drum beats and flourishes of brass fare, the song rests on its laurels too much. I do enjoy a lot of aspects of this song, especially the outro, but the repeating chorus just feels pointless and doesn’t incite anything in me. Still not a skippable offense by any means, just wasted potential.

18. “Murder”: Evocative of a either a femme fatale character or a corpse who likes to have sex (“give new meaning to dying to fuck”), “Murder” is certainly an interesting song. Too bad it’s not better written. It would actually be higher if not for lyrics like, “you’re talking real big with your little slim waist”. Sounds like a first draft. Actually, most of the lyrics sound half-written, especially Jay-Z’s verse, which is just some of the worst lyrics ever rapped out loud . It finds itself above the other songs so far because that hypnotic beat is fire, the subtle horns were a great touch, and the bridge is strangely addictive (“I line ’em up, she shoot ’em down”–repeat ad nauseum). I also do like the chorus. So, in short, all style, no substance.

17. “Blue Ocean Floor”: I can’t say that I love this one, but I admire how different it is. Yes, you do get credit for effort. It’s a dreamy, shapeless song with a disjointed structure, but mellow melody, to make it feel both comforting and chaotic at the same time. Plus there’s imagery of drowning, and that always makes me uncomfortable. Pulling off that type of emotion is pretty impressive though, and I applaud it. Do I actually like it more than “Muder”? No. But I think it deserves to be higher on merit. That feels fair, and I don’t care if it’s not in actuality.

16. “Take Back the Night”: I want to like this song so bad. The production pulls off faux-disco pretty well, merged with modern pop beats and Justin effortlessly doing his best 70’s soul impression. It’s not a bad song when you break it down into the sum of its parts. So why can’t I get into? It comes back to a recurring problem on the album (one of its only flaws): I just don’t buy this as authentic. There’s something disingenuous about it, but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s got the voice for it; the song clearly has the production chops. He’s even done 70’s-style music before! Hello, “Rock Your Body”? Anybody remember that? He’s even done it better on this album! It dumbfounds me why this song just doesn’t hit it for me. However, since the sum of its parts are objectively good, I will at least put it here as some sort of acknowledgment that I am not, in fact, a slave to my perceptions and bias all the time.

15. “That Girl”: I was conflicted on this one for so long. My main hangup is that it feels incredibly inauthentic. The cheesy “lounge singer” intro where someone introduced JT & The Tennessee kids, and Justin “humbly” says thank you–it just makes me eye roll every time. Like, shut up. You’re Justin Timberlake. They’re thrilled to have you and pay a shit ton for you.

Also, I could not confirm anywhere online that the song isn’t about dating a black girl.  The comments on the YouTube video seem to think that’s what it’s about, with one comment saying Justin himself said he was inspired by the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, which essentially confirms it’s about dating a black girl.

Why would I have a problem with that? Well, I don’t. The topic of interracial dating in of itself is not bad or wrong, but in this case, it doesn’t sit well with me. It again comes back to authenticity because, first of all, he’s married to Jessica Biel. I mean, singers and writers are allowed to write about things that aren’t based in 100% truth, but of all things to draw inspiration on and tell a story about…why this? It feels icky, like the motivations are not genuine (perhaps wanting “credit” for writing about this progressive topic to gain favor amongst the black community).

In fact, Justin Timberlake has historically caught tons of flack for cultural appropriation, which is why it’s more than a hunch that the motivations are not entirely pure here. Maybe they are in his mind, but this has been a trend for him where he’s been accused of wanting to use black music and black culture in his music and videos, but being unusually quiet when it comes to black issues. Although he apologized for it, his history has made me uncomfortable about this song.

With all of that being said, I have to also say that this is one of the best-done songs on the album. The silky-smooth neo soul production is gorgeous, and the addition of horns further lends credit to an old school vibe. Justin milks that for all its worth, hitting some beautiful notes in the process. It’s not the best written love song, nor would I call it even a good love song, regardless of content (“Come here, let me rock you like a baby”?), but it’s certainly well-executed. It’s just so unfortunate that it is so contrived and so disingenuous. So 15 seems like a good spot for it to land.

14. “You Got It On”: This is not a favorite of mine, personally, but I had to acknowledge the execution. This is what neo-soul should sound like, and Justin’s evoking of Marvin Gaye only helps its case. I also appreciate that it’s not a crude or excessive sex song; it’s far more subdued and refined, like he’s a grown-ass man, in love with his beautiful wife.

13. “Mirrors”: Many people call this the best song on the album, which made me hesitant to put it so low, much less in C-tier, but let me explain. While it’s far more genuine than the previous love/sex songs listed in this tier, the production is what I don’t like about it. Timbaland’s signature beat-boxing completely undermines what could have been an elegant, subdued song. 2006 is over, man! Move on.

The symphonic flourishes and wrought emotion carry this song. I don’t have a problem with its length, as it lets the message really permeate into your soul. For example, when most of the music drops out for one of the final choruses, it’s beautiful. Leaning on vocals and drums at first, eventually the main riff coming in underneath and really seals it. Also, the refrains (or are they outros?) “you are, you are the love of my life” and “Girl, you’re my reflection/ All I see is you” help reinforce the main message, leaving you with warm and fuzzy feelings, if you’re not some kind of monster. By this point, the production has scaled back and it matches the song much better, in my opinion.

B-Tier

12. “TKO”: “She kill me with the coo coochie coo coo.” That’s why this is so low. Yes, 12 is low. I feel like I should defend this song though because the fighting metaphor is a little cheesy and it’s not the best-produced or even most complex or well-composed song on the album. So why put it in tier? Well, guys, the song fucking slaps. So that’s worth a lot. Still pulled off better than “Take Back the Night” and I STILL DO NOT KNOW WHY.

11. “Tunnel Vision”: I’ve seen accusations that say this is a creepy, obsessive song. If it is, it’s at least being creepy and obsessive toward someone who appears to be his girlfriend. There’s nothing indicating he’s stalking some unsuspecting lady. I read it as being really into the one you’re with. Also, really hard to care about that when the beat is absolute fire. It’s repetitive lyrically, but it rides that line between being repetitive because it’s a catchy earworm and being obnoxious and poorly written. It’s mostly the former, and it always sounds better than I remember each time I hear it. The spiraling notes in the bridge feel like you’re also spiraling with Justin, as you zoom, zoom, zoom closer to the person of your affections. Everything becomes so clear.

10. “Cabaret”: This could have easily been a sleazy song, but it doesn’t play like that at all. It’s about having a partner who’s into doing kinky, secret strip shows for her lover. How sweet! The pre-chorus is metered in a different way than the rest of the song, too, which is cool (if I even used “metered” right). That rhythm and flow breaks up the rest of the song, and it’s probably my favorite part. Also can we talk about how Drake’s verse really isn’t as bad as some critics/fans want you to believe? I mean, he does rhyme “long” like 4 times, but I forgive it because he’s confident about it.

Let’s talk about the reason I’m so endeared to this song and “TKO” : the transition between these songs embodies everything I love about this album. It’s only something you can get by listening to the songs back-to-back. During Drake’s verse on “Cabaret”, we begin hearing a de-crescendo of synths that add a fantastic dimension to the song that carry us through the outro of the song. It’s also a very similar melody to the synths in “TKO”‘s main riff. As “Cabaret” fades out, an ominous, disembodied voice comes through: “In all enthrilling, new, living sound”. All the sudden, we’re in a new song, with the same line starting off “TKO” (and thus, ending “Cabaret”) and it immediately hits us with those juicy synths in a very similar fashion as the ones that ended “Cabaret”. Confused yet? Go listen to it. It’ll all materialize.

A-Tier

This is where it gets really good. I will probably only be singing praises from here on out, so avert your gaze if that’s not what you’re into.

9. “True Blood”: Everytime I think I want to bump this song down, I listen to it, and I think about how I can’t do it like that. This is one of those times where going out on a limb and doing something different, and possibly ill-fitting, actually worked. The unsettling, weird aspect works in its favor. Everything from the rhythm and cadence, to the imagery it conjures (the howl-like sounds in the background are the right amount of spooky), to the way the song keeps coming up with new ways to transform as it goes on. It’s how they should have approached composition on all the other songs that didn’t reach this bar. Also, why wasn’t this ever a Halloween anthem? We have so few Halloween songs, you’d think people would be all over it.

8. “Pair of Wings”: Hearing a song like this gorgeous, simple love song makes me angry that something like “That Girl” wasn’t better written. Justin and his team can clearly write a heart-felt love song wrought with real emotion, not ham-fisted showman attempts. It’s stark, how stripped down this song is. Absolutely gorgeous song and a great homerun by Justin, stepping out of his wheelhouse and succeeding.

7. “Don’t Hold the Wall: Hey, “Let the Groove Get In”, this is a dance song, and it’s the appropriate way to incorporate drums from another culture. According to one columnist, the song features “pseudo-Indian beats” and “tribal drums”, specifically taking from Bollywood and Bhangra music. They do a bang up job mixing the rest of the production and vocals around this. There’s even a drum breakdown, which is something I longed for in “Groove”! The song is full of spiffy transitions and cool musical elements, which is very technical musical review terminology for “this shit bangs”.

S-Tier

6. “Strawberry Bubblegum”: Let me just make up a genre to describe this: dreamsoulpop. It goes from being a retro soul-influenced love ballad to being this ethereal, hazy pop tune that morphs in and out of genres. It’s so well-crafted that I have never thought twice about the words “bubblegum” and “lollipop” being used seriously in a love song. My favorite part, and probably the best part of the song, is the bridge where he introduces the phrase “blueberry lollipop” (the transition starts around 5 and a half minutes in). Another fantastic evolution on the album, the song takes on a whole new identity, including some very tasty funk vibes (that bass line is so sick that it needs medical care). If the song were shorter, the payoff would not be nearly as sweet. So, sit down, shut up, and enjoy your 8-minute song. Delayed gratification is a sign of maturity.

5. “Suit&Tie”: Effortless elegance. That’s this song in two words. When I hear “Suit&Tie”, I think of Justin and his lady dressed to the nines at a gala or ball, served by waiters in white gloves, eating from opulent dinnerware, and just generally being fancy and lavish. The production is slick, with horns, what sounds like an actual harp (but I’m certain isn’t), and a memorable beat layered together seamlessly. Jay-Z’s verse kicks off a slight change in the rhythm and tempo, shifting it toward a thick, synth-y breakdown that really tickles the eardrum.  I enjoy a lot of the wordplay on this song, too. “We don’t mind all the watching / ‘Cause if they study close, real close, they might learn something”, and “Oh shit, so sick got a hit and picked up a habit,” are two of my favorites.

4. “Spaceship Coupe”: I never thought a novelty track about getting freaky in space would ever make it into any top five I’ve done, but here we are. Allow me to reintroduce you to… Justin doing neo-soul right. He kills it here, then resurrects it, and kills it again. Old school soul meets a Prince-esque guitar solo, divine falsettos, and sci-fi innuendos to create this extraterrestrial experience that far exceeds whatever myopic vision that mere mortals might have otherwise devised. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but this is not Katy Perry’s “ET”; this is exploring sexuality with someone new and how weird, but exciting, that can be. I’m here for it in a big way.

3. “Amnesia”: It’s amazing this song is so high, even with Timbaland’s obnoxious beatboxing. Nothing dates these songs worse than that. However, the mixture of orchestral sounds and hip-hop is gorgeous and well-executed. The poignant lyrics and emotional delivery forgive its single sin. It is so strong that it still deserves number 4, and if you don’t believe me, you need to re-listen to “Amnesia”.

The song really finds itself during the outro, where the tempo and rhythm shifts to what sounds like a totally different song. Using prominent strings and traditional hip-hop beats as the backdrop to Timberlake’s voice, we twist deeper into the meat of the song, much like with “Mirrors”. It begins with the line “So tear me apart and do it again tomorrow”, and eventually gives way to the line “this is turning into some kind of fucking amnesia”. The latter is a recall of an earlier line that is almost exactly the same, sans F-bomb. I think it really drives a nail into the heart of the song and it’s absolutely perfect. Without these “lengthy, self-indulgent” songs, we wouldn’t have “Amnesia”. Let’s hope we never do, lest we should forget this song.

2. “Drink You Away”: I worship in the house of rock and roll, where this song is the altar call. I heard the 2015 CMA’s performance of this song with Chris Stapleton long before I heard the entire 20/20 Experience. I fell in love with the live performance, but the studio version more than holds its own. As a huge blues fan, anything that gets in the vicinity will endear me if done remotely right. It’s not just blues though, it’s the mix of country and a tiny bit of gospel (which really shined in the live performance).

Damn, even the studio version gives me chills and makes me want to yell along with it. Wanting not for the extravagant production of other tracks on this album, “Drink You Away” thrives on Justin’s belting vocals, minimalist guitar-playing, subtle, but beautiful organ flourishes, and that driving drum beat. Killer melody, great lyrics, absolutely perfect production. Less was more here, and if Justin spent the rest of his career making only music like this, it wouldn’t be enough.

This so clearly wanted to be number one. And I so very much wanted it to be there, if not for one, tiny, little problem.

1. “Pusher Love Girl”: I’m addicted to this song. Please inject it directly into my veins. Which is really on-brand for this song. The moment I watched the lyric video for this song, I knew this entire album would be special.

This song is peak 20/20 Experience: experimenting, letting the song meander, grow, and get lodged in your brain, genre-blending, well-composed, beautiful. I struggle to even find appropriate musical terms or praise to give it that’s not just, “YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THIS SONG”.

We’re back with Justin Does Neo-Soul Really Well. In case you haven’t heard this week’s episode, uh, he’s still really good. This song showcases everything right about what Justin, the producers, and the writers wanted to accomplish on this album. But it’s more than doing really great neo-soul or R&B; it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard in R&B or pop or anything in between. The song makes you feel high, and that totally embodies what the album is going for. It want to make you feel the songs; not just hear them.

I can’t help this is number 1. I’m just under the influence.

Album Review: The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (Plus Track Rankings)

Album reviews are for “new-to-me” albums that I’m experiencing and digesting for the first time.

For eleven years, the Raconteurs were absent from musical relevance. While their official hiatus wasn’t announced until 2011, their last album, Consolers of the Lonely, was released in 2008 and saw them slowly fade from the limelight. They spent a good deal of time touring and appearing in festivals in the years leading up to their hiatus (I was lucky enough to have seen them three times in their career), but they were off the radar for anyone that wasn’t a Raconteurs fan.

When they announced their break from music as The Raconteurs, I assumed it was permanent. Jack White was beginning to dip his toes into solo act freedom–and the others? Well. I don’t know. They were so far off my radar, as just Brendan Benson and The Greenhorns (or Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence), that I didn’t hear anything about them, nor did I think to look. So when I came across an awesome song on a Spotify alternative playlist that sounded familiar, you can imagine my surprise when I saw it was The Raconteurs. That song was “Sunday Driver”, and the accompanying album I discovered shortly thereafter, was Help Us Stranger.

Help Us Stranger dropped on June 21st, 2019, a few days before I had discovered “Sunday Driver” on Spotify (this review is almost a year late). It was like a little gift from the music gods, that I happened upon that playlist and that song, right in time to find their new album. “I’m here right now / I’m not dead yet”, Brendan Benson reminds us on “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”. I’m thankful for that.

That’s how I felt upon first listening to it, when I intended to write this review. So it’s nowhere near new anymore, but it’s new to me, and that’s the premise of this album review segment (and song reviews) that I intend to do. So let’s hit the broad strokes, before diving into my favorite part: opinion-based list-making for arbitrary reasons!

The garage rock revival may be over, but no one told the Raconteurs. Big electric guitar and the solos that love them; fuzzy bass lines; synths that sound like fuzzy bass lines; 60’s-style harmonies; and riffs reminiscent of classic rock songs that you can’t quite put your finger on–it definitely feels like the garage rock of yore.

However, the Raconteurs did a fabulous job over all three of their studio albums, progressing and experimenting with their sound, while staying firmly in the alt rock genre. That’s the beauty of alt rock–it’s broad enough to be your playground no matter what you decide to do. Just ask Jack White.

Help Us Stranger does the familiar Raconteurs sound with a shiny new coat. There’s not a singular word to describe how it sounds, so I’ll use several: it feels like a callback to a lot of late 60’s rock, especially psychedelia-influenced rock in some moments. It has country elements, as Consolers did, but the squealing guitars and driving drums keep recalling an older time, with older bands, that the Raconteurs have imbued into their sound. It’s as natural as though they, too, came from the 60’s.

There’s nothing that feels reused or recycled from old albums though, nor does it feel forced or out of its element. This is a mistake I see in other artists who either try to recreate their old sound that they’ve already outgrown (and fail), or try to do something new and experimental that they can’t handle (and fail). It’s possible to retain your signature sound, while growing as an artist. Just ask Jack White…again. Sure, his solo records aren’t flawless, but you sure as hell wouldn’t confuse any of them for White Stripes material (or The Raconteurs, or Dead Weather, for that matter).

The writing is as strong as ever. It’s been my belief since the dawn of my love for this band that Brendan is the lifeblood of the writing. I love Jack White and his brand of songwriting, but I’m fond of the way Brendan can turn a phrase and evoke emotion in his solo work. I attribute a lot of that same feeling in Help Us Stranger (and all of the Raconteurs’ albums) to him. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. Both Jack and Brendan are credited as co-writers on every song, save for the Donovan cover “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)”. However, a helpful track-by-track commentary is available on Spotify for the album, which gives us some insight. It’s better than nothing, which is essentially what we got for their first two albums.

Okay, but enough of that. How about we rank these songs from worst to best, according to my incredibly subjective rubric that no one else will have any say in and probably disagree with?

Track Rankings

12. Shine the Light on Me – I would probably love this song if not for the inane piano ditty that plays incessantly throughout this song. I’m not sure if I’m just too uncool to get this or what. While the song has positive aspects (including the fact that it sounds like a White Stripes’ song), I generally find it unenjoyable because of the melody.

11. Only Child – While there is no recycled content on Help Us Stranger, “Only Child” is definitely the “Old Enough” of this album. Unfortunately, they can’t match the playfulness of the latter song. It’s not that I don’t like old man, preachy wisdom sticking it to some idiot younger person, it’s just that this song doesn’t hit for me at all. It’s decent enough, but not enough to pull it out of this low-ass spot at 11.

10. Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) – Never heard the original, and I’m not gonna start now. Look, I’m not a professional musician. I don’t know musical terms, but this sounds like a song you would hear in a saloon in the 20’s. Or, the soundtrack to a Donkey Kong Country level. Not my style at all. What I can get into is that fierce harmonic solo by Brendan. I wish they had put horns on this song, too, just totally leaning into a campy, goofy song.

9. Don’t Bother Me – Is this a political song? Is it about obnoxious youths? A girlfriend who you can’t get rid of? I don’t know. I suspect it’s about nothing, since Jack himself said he just created a character who was accusatory and vengeful. It’s a short, fast track that finds its best moments in the outro. A tempo change guides us into a guitar solo, while madman drummer Patrick Keeler lets loose in the background.

8. What’s Yours is Mine – For such a cool and weird song, they certainly didn’t bother with any real message or consistent lyrics. I have no idea what it’s about, and I don’t know why that bothers me so much. But it hurts what would otherwise be a really cool song. The dissident vocals and sharp departure from the established melody late in the song help to give it character, but I just can’t get past the pointless lyrics when there are better tracks to serve the purpose of marrying good melody and good writing.

7. Help Me Stranger – The acoustic guitar that makes the backbone of this song is juxtaposed against an electric guitar improvising on top of it. It’s what I’d call a “vibey” song, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t still end up wishing they just made a full version of the country song they teased at the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, it has some tasty guitar and an interesting music composition. I like the song, but I like all the remaining songs better. Probably because I hate when lyrics talk directly about a song being a song, i.e. “I wish I had the words / and I want those words to rhyme” and “these 16 strings we’re strumming”.

6. Live a Lie – This energetic track has a punk rock energy (Jack White agrees). It would be just a flash in the pan rock song (and I’d be okay with that), but the message of deceit and wanting to live in ignorant bliss gives this song some heft. I didn’t expect it to land here, but I have to follow where the songs take me. 

5. Bored and Razed – This will for sure be the show-opener for the tour supporting this album. If it’s not, they need to fire whoever steers them away from it. It gives a shout out to all their hometowns! A good, ole-fashioned rock song, it gets the job done and is very easy to jam to, as the professional term goes. With Jack White’s signature guitar squealing in between the vocals, “Bored and Razed” sets the tone for an album that features a lot more where that came from.

4. Thoughts and Prayers – Oh this tongue and cheek little bugger. I didn’t expect this song to be so good, with a satirical name like “Thoughts and Prayers”. Lyrically, it’s gold. Musically though? Actually, also, gold. That slight bluegrass vibe with mandolins and violins (fiddles, you mean?) is my jam and if they did an entire album of this style, it wouldn’t be enough. Let’s just be thankful we have this though.

3. Sunday Driver – This song is an absolute blast from start to finish. I already count it as one of my favorite Raconteurs song overall. I just dig everything about it–a song so modernly retro, or retro-ly modern, that I am using the word “dig” unironically. The lyrics mean absolutely nothing, and I couldn’t care less, because have you heard the riff on this thing? Garage rock heaven. Yeah, I’m a hypocrite for docking “What’s Yours Is Mine” for having meaningless lyrics, but once again, I’d like to call your attention to the ABSOLUTE BEEFY RIFF on this thing. Every component of the song works well together, too, like a fully-fleshed out song should. The meandering guitars backing up the monster riff, Jack White screaming over top, the song just building and evolving, until it eventually melts into this “Magic Carpet Ride”-esque moment of spooky harmonies and divergent guitar notes. 10/10, would recommend. And yet, it’s only 3. Damn, what a good top 3 we have.

2. Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying) – On paper, I wouldn’t have picked this over “Sunday Driver” or maybe even put it in the top 5. The most country song on the album, this song is also one of the simplest. It’s lyrically sparse, but incredibly powerful. With a candid performance by Brendan as the backdrop, Jack’s guitar pickin’ is free to shine, and I absolutely love it. I don’t think of these lyrics as being especially beautiful on their own merit, but the emotion behind it feels intimate and real, something that “Shine the Light” and “Don’t Bother Me” both lack, despite this sense I get that I’m supposed to feel something with those two. The second part, where the song completely changes, as they repeat “I’m here right now; I’m not dead yet” was a fantastic addition and perfectly complements the rest of the song.

1. Now That You’re Gone – Somehow this one crept up to the number one spot, and I don’t know why. Except, I do. It’s the bluesiest song on the album. It’s not terribly obfuscated, with all that Jack White guitar shredding and the soul-tastic “doo wop” influenced harmonies in the background, but the style and format of the song is hardly your typical blues copycat song. This song also has something on “Sunday Driver”, a song I really wanted to put at number one: it’s earnest and painful. Like “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”, the lyrics tell a convincing story (whether or not it’s based on reality), and I feel like I’m able to relate to the lyrics and the emotion behind it, even if I haven’t been in that exact scenario.


That’s it! That’s my review and track listing for The Raconteurs Help Us Stranger. I’ll be around, posting as often as I can and feel like it. Hoping to grow and evolve this blog as we go.

Song Review: “I Love Me” by Demi Lovato

I love Demi. She’s outspoken about her struggles with addiction and body image. She’s honest and real, seeming down-to-earth despite how long she’s already been in the spotlight at 27. She wants to make other people feel good about themselves and know that they’re worth it, that they can do it.

That’s the theme in “I Love Me”. It’s an admirable message, and the song has some punch, quite literally as she talks about beating up on herself. Vivid imagery and Demi’s signature big voice are anchors of this track.

The cute, whimsical melody, paired with her soaring vocals on the chorus, creates a satisfying dynamic of loud vs soft. I wonder if there is intentional symbolism there about the battle between being yourself and feeling like you have to hide who you are. If not, I’m going to infer it anyway.

It seems like a very personal song, one that I and a lot of other people can relate to. I know it’s something near and dear to Demi’s heart, as she spoke about on The Ellen Show. However, the song isn’t quite the home run I wanted it to be, despite it’s accessibility and dream-pop affinity. I certainly applaud the message, but songs that are written specifically to be anthems, like this, often fall flat because they’re written to become anthems. It suffers from maybe trying too hard.

I love a good personal song. Nearly every song on Tell Me You Love Me punched me in the face with how much feeling and realness were behind it. But it’s obvious when a song is written to pander to a certain crowd, no matter how authentic that place comes from.

I don’t even think it’s a bad thing to write a song for a specific purpose, because that’s what all songs are written for. Even if you’re trying to appeal to a certain crowd or intentionally write a hit or write an anthem for the youth, the oppressed, the whoever, it’s not necessarily a BAD thing. It’s just bad when you can tell it was done for that reason. Not that I would call “I Love Me” bad. I could just tell from the first listen that it was packaged to fit into the “Female Empowerment Anthem” category.

I support Demi’s message and her desire to be a role model and a harbinger of body positivity–and to be fair, it’s hard to write a song to reach and inspire a group of people on purpose, while still feeling authentic. Though, it can be done, see “Eye of the Tiger”, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”. It doesn’t mean these songs are better than “I Love Me” or any less contrived in their approach, but they seem to achieve something “I Love Me” cannot: authenticity.

However, this isn’t a death sentence for the song, which is still quite catchy and has a lot of positives. I’m sure “I Love Me” will still gain popularity and favor because of its intention. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would rather listen to Demi’s other work thus far. I would honestly say that “Confident” is the better anthem, whether or not it was trying to be.

Highlights: The vocal delivery on the chorus; the harmonies; the beautiful melody

Lowlights: The clunky lyrics at times; the whole “we wrote this for YOU” aspect that

“I Love Me” Demi Lovato on YouTube

“I Love Me” Demi Lovato on Spotify

 

First Impressions: After Hours by The Weeknd

The Weeknd’s back! I just had to get this out and talk about the album as soon as possible. While not a full on review, “first impressions” will be a segment I do that’s less polished, less researched, and much faster to post. So any inaccuracies or dumb shit thoughts are the result of this approach.

Let’s get to it!

Overall thoughts: Over the course of his career, The Weeknd has both developed a signature sound, while also growing and evolving it with each album. He’s lowkey my favorite pop artist of this generation. I feel his pain as though it were my own. I see his bragging about cars and sex as a mask, as a cry for help. Getting high and sleeping with some girl he doesn’t care about has been his shtick from the beginning, and yet, The Weeknd pulls it off because he contrasts it with the awareness that he knows it’s not enough for him. He’s back at it with an 80s-esque, synthwave, retro pop album that hits like a truck in your feelings. I love the sounds, the atmosphere, the beats, but also the themes: loneliness, fame, emptiness, regret, sadness.

That being said, the same themes have persisted across all of his albums, and while I do enjoy them, it would benefit him to explore some new topics. And while I do love the 80’s style of the whole album, a little bit of diversity could have gone a long way. There were other styles in the 80’s besides just synthwave, as much as I love it. Even an entire album of synthwave can feel a little monotonous when some of the tracks seem to have the same BPM and similar melodies. It doesn’t feel too repetitive to me after one listen, but I’m curious how future listens will treat it. Love the vibe, but it could have used a little more depth or diversity.

Activities while listening: making coffee, zoning out on the couch, setting up remote desktop, zoning out at the kitchen table.

Favorite track: So many strong contenders on this album just on a first listen. Songs, like “Too Late”, “Blinding Lights”, “In Your Eyes”, “Until I Bleed Out”, okay probably most of the album is strong. My knee-jerk reaction for favorite is “Faith”. We’ll see if that changes for future listens.

Least favorite track: “Snowchild”.

Grade based on my arbitrary rubric that’s entirely subjective and mostly based on my feelings: 94/100 A

While partly arbitrary because I “go with my gut”, my general rules are that S-rated albums or songs are perfect and could not be improved upon; “A” grades are fantastic and nearly perfect, with just some minor, nitpicky problems; “B” grades show a lot of promise and good material, but have a few subpar or unpleasant elements; “C” is the opposite of B, in that it has a few good bits, but it is mostly subpar or unpleasant; “D” means you barely tried; “F” means the F were you thinking.

Song Review: “Stupid Love” By Lady Gaga

It took me about 43 seconds to add Lady Gaga’s new song to my Pop Vibes playlist. It attached itself inside my brain, like some kind of infection. But I’ll gladly skip the antidote, because this is everything I want from pop music. It gives me “Perfect Illusion” + “Born This Way” vibes, mixed into an 80-inspired, synth-heavy melody (of which the latter song already dipped into quite a bit).

Highlights: The delicious beat, the pre-chorus

Lowlights: It’s too short, but that probably lends itself to more replayability and a desire to hear it over and over.

The year is young, but this would be a serious contender for my song of the year.

“Stupid Love” Lady Gaga Lyric Video

“Stupid Love” Lady Gaga Spotify Track

“Use Me” by Bill Withers

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Bill Withers, courtesy of Spotify

I just love Bill Withers. Of all the soul singers of the 70s, he may be my favorite. “Use Me” is one of his hits, and it’s easy to see why.

The sultry keyboard slinks across the track’s melody, bringing to life the no-love, love affair that Withers finds himself in with a girl who is using him for physical reasons. Withers’ butter-smooth voice effortlessly rides underneath the mix. He maintains restraint, while also sounding powerful, in a typical vocal performance that lets him shine.

You can listen to “Use Me” on Spotify and YouTube (a killer live version, complete with acoustic guitar, even more powerful vocals, and that same sassy keyboard).

Tell me what you love about the song–or which Bill Withers song you prefer.

 

“Youngblood” by 5 Seconds of Summer

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5 Seconds of Summer, courtesy of BBC

I had no idea who this artist was, until “Youngblood” popped up on a Spotify playlist for me. I was instantly struck by the melancholy tone contrasted by the insanely infectuous pop hooks, tasty bassline, and snappy snare. Like a lot of great pop songs, it sings about a sad topic, but with a beat you can dance to.

I’m no dancer, but I do love a well-crafted pop tune. The video is also pretty neat, too, with some retro 50s imagery and outfits.

Give it a listen if you’re sad and want to keep feeling that way, or if you’re happy and want to keep feeling that way.

“Every Kinda People” by Robert Palmer

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Robert Palmer, courtesy of Amazon Music

You know him as the guy who sang “Addicted to Love”, aka “the guy whose singing voice doesn’t match his face”. He also did this song.

It’s called “Every Kinda People” and it’s a feel-good, “make the world go ’round” song about the different kinds of people in the world and how great that is. Let’s all join hands and stop fighting! These songs can come across naive, too cultivated, ham-fisted, and more than a little obtuse. I’m not here to comment on whether or not this track is or isn’t those things. I’m here to say this is a catchy song that puts me in a good mood. The simple keyboard melody will surely be stuck in my head the rest of the day.

It can now be stuck in your head, too! Enjoy. 🙂

“Still” by the Commodores

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The Commodores, courtesy of Classic Motown

Spotify Song Link
YouTube Song Link

I heard this song when I was getting my car serviced a few weeks ago. I couldn’t hear exactly what it was. The way it sounded in the large waiting room, reverberating off the walls and floor, it was dreamy and slightly haunting. It was playing in the sales area of the dealership, while I was at the other end. I tried to listen intently to what it was. Finally I made out the lyric “Somehow I know deep in my heart, you needed me” and searched it on Google. Bam, “Still” by The Commodores.

The vocal melody by Lionel Ritchie combined with the swelling symphony makes for a soothing lullaby of a love song. Some might call it cheesy or overly sappy. They’re probably right, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good or enjoyable.

Track Rankings: Foo Fighters “Concrete & Gold”

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Picture courtesy of NME

The Foo Fighters’ 2017 Concrete & Gold was hit or miss for me. While it had a lot of strong tracks, many of them were forgettable. It was certainly better than its predecessor, Sonic Highways, but nowhere near as good as 2011’s Wasting Light (and my personal favorite Foo Fighters album). That’s a high bar, admittedly, and not entirely fair.

Foo Fighters have shown incredibly evolution and growth with each album, even after being a band for almost 30 years. It seems Dave Grohl’s passion and inspiration never runs out, as he finds somewhere new on each album to go to and draw songs from. I appreciate that a Foo album never feels half-assed or mailed-in. With time, I’ve grown to accept Concrete & Gold for what it is and would like to analyze it a little further with track reviews and rankings.

Without further ado, here’s the great, the okay, and the not so good. Ranked from my least favorite to my favorite. Your results may vary.

11. “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)” – Acoustic guitar with a light-hearted melody that’s easy on the ears. It’s not bad, but it does nothing for me. It sounds like something Paul McCartney would write. That’s a compliment, and any other writer or critic might fawn over this type of bravery and maturity, but that’s not what I expect from the Foo Fighters. This kind of song isn’t their forte, nor would I expect it to be. Kudos for trying though.

10. “Concrete and Gold” – This song is hard to like because of the way it plods along. It seems to be in the wrong time signature, though I don’t know enough about time signatures to explain why I think that. The beat just sounds off, like it doesn’t match the melody. However, its redeeming quality is the crescendo of harmonies and lyrical strength. This had a lot of potential to be a great song, but the rhythm is so distractingly bad.

9. “T-Shirt” – This would be a good song if they fleshed it out. Besides the fact that it’s under 2 minutes, it’s not a full song. It just ends abruptly and blends into the next track. That’s the only reason it’s this far down.

8. “La Dee Da” – This song has grown on me, but I don’t like when songs do that. I want to like it or hate it immediately and never have my mind opened to changing my opinions. Then, what? I’m forced to acknowledge that we are malleable creatures capable of change? It should be higher, but I didn’t want to admit I was wrong.

7. “Dirty Water” – This feels like an older Foo song to me, but with some of the refined wisdom and polish of newer Foos. It’s a melodic tune that steps out of their normal wheelhouse, but with the solid lyricism from Dave Grohl and the guys that I expect.

In my dreams I’m climbing ladders
And then I tumble down, rung by rung
And I keep on falling faster
The heart is echoing, on and on

6. “Arrows” – I struggled with this and “The Line” at this point in the rankings. I like that “Arrows” tells a story. It has some powerful imagery and a pretty kick ass chorus. It feels like a war cry, but also like a tribute to the girl in the song. I like everything about it.

5. “The Line” – This song makes it to the top five on sheer heart-tugging alone. The first verse hooks you in, only to have the rest of the song drag you around, emotionally. You feel what Grohl is singing, you’re in the middle of this relationship with him, you are fighting this fight with him. It’s more personal than some of the songs on the album, whether or not its autobiographical.

Yes or no?
What is truth
But a dirty black cloud coming out of the blue?
I was wrong
I was right
I’m a blood moon born in the dead of night

4. Make It Right – I remember liking this song immediately upon hearing it. When thinking back to the track listing, “Make It Right” always stood out. But I can’t ever remember why. For some reason, it vaguely reminds me of “Erase/Replace” from Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace. It’s an in-your-face rock song, it seems to be making some kind of statement or point. The guitar riff is so unlike anything I’m used to hearing from them, yet it fits perfectly with the swagger and rhythm of the song. It almost sounds like it wants to be an alternative country song. Almost.

3. The Sky is a Neighborhood – Unlike a lot of other longtime fans, I liked this song when I first heard it. I think it’s got a cool vibe, and I like the lyrical imagery. Instead of making a balls-to-the-wall rock song like “Pretender” or “Bridge Burning” as a lead-off single, “Sky” is, at times, subdued, and at other points, a natural-born rock song. It’s still Foo, through and through. The nasty guitars, the beautiful harmonies. They’re good at evolving, but staying true to their sound. This is a perfect example of that.

2. Run – This was my favorite song for awhile on this album and it very nearly still is. “Run” is everything I want from the Foo Fighters. Lulling you into a false sense of security, then rocking your face. I love when they become unhinged and just rock out. Sorry, “Happy Ever After”, this is way more my style.

1. Sunday Rain –  One of the best songs the Foo Fighters have ever released. I’m surprised to say that about a Taylor Hawkins-led Foo Fighter song, but I’m here to pay respect where it is due. I’ve never been a big fan of “Cold Day in the Sun”, or his voice in general (he sang a cover of “Under Pressure” when I saw the Foos live in 2018), but this song is perfect for him. It sounds ever-so-slightly like the Eagles, but not so blatantly that it’s a ripoff. It has brilliant lyrics, a perfect melancholy melody, and the greatest instrumental outro that just keeps on giving, eventually fading way into the jazzy piano improvising. I hope they do more songs like this in the future.

“Some Kind of Wonderful” – Grand Funk Railroad

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Grand Funk Railroad is one of those bands that I know, as a child of the 90s, from such hits as “The Loco-Motion” and “We’re An American Band”. I actually did not know until recently that they sing one of my favorite 70s tunes, “Some Kind of Wonderful”. This song seems to always put me in a good mood at work. A true feel-good song. Luckily, they play it at my job. It’s one of those songs that always gets people singing. Thanks, Grand Funk. Maybe I should check out their other songs, too…

“Danger Zone” – Kenny Loggins

This is how I’m getting pumped up for work. I don’t work in anything even remotely related to aviation, but as a retail worker, I feel it at least partially applies to me.

This song has been featured prominently in so many movies, ads, and video games–I wonder if the song is just super cheap or something? It was made famous in Top Gun, but it’s made a resurgence in the 2010s. I’m not complaining. It’s the right combination of cheesy 80s and earnest music-making.

The Greatness of Led Zeppelin I

Critics and fans alike hail the depth, maturity, and complexity of Led Zeppelin as their albums progressed, especially III and IV. While I wouldn’t call the band’s self-titled debut underrated, it often gets overlooked or downplayed because of the covers and “one-dimensional” composition of being a straight blues-rock album.

Let’s talk about why it’s so great though.

The covers “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” are absolutely earth-shaking. The former only just missed being included on my greatest covers list, and the latter would have been included had I known it was a cover. While obviously long-time fans (myself included, to some degree) might find more merit in authentically-penned Zeppelin songs (Kashmir is my favorite original song by the band and I don’t care if that is cliche), the strength and rawness of this album is perfectly encapsulated in the raucous, powerful versions of these songs. The band completely made even the cover songs their own, which is why it eschews the idea that it’s a lesser album because of said cover songs.

“Your Time is Gonna Come” is a hidden gem that I personally overlook often. It’s got organ, it’s got the usual strong vocals, and the melody and lyrics really stick with you after it’s gone, thanks in no small part to John Bonham’s drum licks that pop out of the speakers. Speaking of hidden gems, the album’s closer “How Many More Times” is a  97% Led Zeppelin song (the sample of “Beck’s Bolero” by Jeff Beck being the other 3%) that brings blues tenacity to rock and roll guts. I love the rollicking guitar riff, and I love the hook. Plain and simple.

Not to mention, the album features hits “Good Times, Bad Times”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, and “Dazed and Confused”. That isn’t to say that I love all of those songs equally, or at all (“Dazed” is the only one I would consider for my top ten favorite songs of all-time), but they are well-received songs by many fans, so it’s worthwhile to remember they are on the first album.

All in all, this album gets overlooked as being one of the greatest albums of its time. While we could argue that it’s not Zeppelin’s best (and despite this post, I don’t think I’d rank it as my favorite, but it’s close), it certainly is greater than most people give it credit for.

17 Covers That Are Better Than the Original

Covers are often unnecessary and, frankly, not good. In general, I tend to dislike cover songs unless 1) the original song had potential, but was not great (easiest type of cover, especially if you suck, or just want to do a straight-forward cover), 2) the covering artist has something to offer that’s new and different from the original, or 3) you’re sure you can absolutely knock it out of the park because you are that good.

A few notes before we get started:

  • Yes, I’m biased. Music is subjective; we will likely not agree on everything. But I can back up every single one of my picks. I try to be as fair as possible, but bias will sneak in.
  • Unchained Melody is not on this list. Not because Elvis’ cover is not better, but because I don’t like that song. Too sappy for me. Refer to first bullet point though if you’re mad.
  • I made this list with “better” cover songs in mind. If I love a certain cover, that does not mean I will include it, unless I actually think it’s better. “Jolene” by the White Stripes come to mind. Love that cover, but I don’t necessarily feel ready to honor it as better.
  • This is BY NO MEANS an exhaustive or comprehensive list. Consider it abridged.
  • Feel free to make your contributions, but don’t say, “you forgot [song]” or “you missed [song]”. No, I didn’t. I either don’t like it or have never heard it. Next.

So I’m going to kick it off with a controversial one!

17. “Careless Whisper” – Seether
This gritty, alt rock version fulfills criteria number 2, and I love the style of it. I know many people will likely be outraged that I’m choosing this song over the original because they are tied to the George Michael song of the 80s by the strong, unrelenting bond of nostalgia. It’s okay. I understand.

16. “Son of a Preacher Man” – Aretha Franklin
I like Dusty Springfield’s release of the song in question (and also just realized that Dusty is a woman). However, Aretha brings so much soul and passion to her version that I adore. She just knows how to SING–I think that’s textbook criteria number 3 for ya on covers.

15. “All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix
To me this is an open and shut case of criterium 1. I’m not saying Bob Dylan sucks. I’m not saying the original is bad. I get that Dylan is a great songwriter. But you’re taking a moderate folk song about classism and cultural values and putting it in the hands of a rock icon. The guitar work and strong vocals on Jimi’s version make for a much more compelling and intense song. Classic rock radio must agree–I only hear this version, never the original.

14. “Twist and Shout” – The Beatles
One of the few Lennon-led Beatles songs that I love, and I mean really love, the instruments all act as a secondary piece to the vocals, which are a poignant combination of passionate, soulful, and forceful–all underscored by the song’s simple riff.

13. “The Weight” – Aretha Franklin
This is an open and shut case for me. One of the few I don’t feel like I have to defend. The Band’s original was just a plain-sounding, folky/rootsy song. Aretha’s is an R&B masterpiece that’s perfect all-around (OH, and I forgot they added that nasty slide guitar. Even better.)

12. “Rebel Yell” – Dope
Metal covers 80s pop. I’m a big fan. Not only do they pull this Billy Idol song off, the band brings a warcry about independence and fighting back to a genre that lends itself to the message. There’s something about searing guitar solos and banging-ass drums that evokes a desire for anarchy.

11. “I Shot the Sheriff” – Eric Clapton
Lauded as the most successful cover song of all time, I really appreciate the way Clapton performed this one. In fact, due to the voice Clapton affects, I thought this was the Bob Marley original for the longest time (that accent didn’t age well, did it?). The rhythm and beat make for a nice tribute to the song’s roots, and the backup singers do a better job of harmonizing and bring in a nicer-sounding melody. I almost didn’t include it though, for fear that it’s message about justice and oppression was being appropriated by a middle-class white singer. However, upon reading that Marley’s girlfriend said it was originally penned as an opposition to her taking birth control, I decided no harm, no foul.

10. “Hurt” – Johnny Cash
Every list out there will include this at, or near, the top, solidifying it as one of the greatest covers of all-time. Oh, yeah, and Trent Reznor himself said it’s the better version, so there’s that. It’s haunting, eerie, and especially significant, as a remorseful and haggard Cash in the last years of his life sings about isolation and loss. I only recommend listening to this if you are depressed and want to wallow in your own filth (or Wednesday, as I call it).

9. Ain’t No Mountain – Michael McDonald
I have to admit. I feel kind of bad including this, because the original with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell is a classic. I’ve just loved this version since I was little; it’s one of the few songs I can pin specifically to my childhood. Damn. My bias hard at work again. I really love McDonald’s voice though, and I’m a sucker for that smooth soul sound and piano. All respect to Mr. Marvin Gaye, but I have to include this on the list.

8. “Pretty Woman” – Van Halen
I know Roy Orbison is a God to many old country lovers. But, I don’t think I’m going to be a big hit with that demographic anyway, so I don’t have to worry about offending anyone. With that being said, I mean no disrespect. I’m a fan of big guitar, big sound, and powerful presentation. Eddie Van Halen was one of the best guitarists of his era, if not the best. I can’t turn down those skills. While the version I shared here is just “Pretty Woman”, I prefer it with the “Intruder” intro because, again, big fan of guitar.

7. “Free Fallin’ ” – John Mayer
This is a pure cover; criterium 1 at its finest. When I say finest though, I mean a stripped down, acoustic version with pure, gorgeous vocals making the song more beautiful and meaningful. This might be cheating because it’s a live version, but it was officially released as a video, so I’m including it.

6. Sound of Silence – Disturbed
This is a beautiful cover, a clear case for point number 2 on my criteria for good covers. I never thought I’d call a Disturbed song beautiful. The heavy metal band is usually about screaming and face-melting guitar riffs. But frontman David Draimen shows off the true range and essence of his voice, while the dark, brooding musical composition brings out the depth and emotion of the original lyrics by Simon & Garfunkel.

5. “Wrecking Ball – Cry to the Blind
I heard a decent cover of the already uninspired Miley Cyrus original, and it made me think, “surely a good artist can do this song justice”. Enter hard rockers from New York, Cry to the Blind. I love the hardcore sound–that beautiful marriage of heavy guitar, loud-as-hell drums, and a vocalist who can belt it out. He can sing, but he can also do that metal singer yell without sounding like a shrieking demon opening the gates of hell. It definitely adds a level of emotion to a song that was written to be felt exactly the way Cry to the Blind delivers it.

4. “Proud Mary” – Tina and Ike Turner
Especially live, Tina Turner absolutely slays CCR on this one. There are several things about this that I prefer to the original: 1) the “nice and easy” intro, where Tina and Ike harmonize to create a gorgeous melody, 2) the vivacious (“rough” as Turner calls it) second half of the song, featuring rock and roll guitar, a horn section (fantastic addition), and soulful vocals, 3) the voice. John Fogerty has a great voice for folksy/Americana/blues-inspired/country-inspired rock. But Turner’s beautiful, strong vocals add a whole new dimension of enjoyment, and 4) sung from the perspective of a hard-working black female shifts this song into a whole new dimension that I’m sure resonated with Tina and Ike’s fans.

3. “Respect” – Aretha Franklin
I almost didn’t include this on the list. Only because I just found out it was a cover in my research for this article. I looked it up though, and Otis Redding’s original is fine. But Aretha sure knows how to do a cover. This is another open and shut case. Listen to the song: defense rests. Also, three of Aretha’s covers on my list? Including this one which had to bump Tina Turner out of the top 3–that’s a true Queen move, Aretha.

2. “With a Little Help From my Friends” – Joe Cocker
Unlike with Roy Orbison, my target demographic loves the Beatles. I love a lot of the Beatles work; I’m not saying this as an enemy. I’m saying this as a fan of classic rock, and also, in the most objective way possible: Cocker took an okay song, changed the time and tempo, created this gorgeous rhythm on it, and made it a blues song. I mean, damn. How can you argue with that? Combine that with the fact that the original is subpar and kind of cheesy anyway, and it very nearly became number one on this list. It encapsulates what a good cover song is about. It fulfills criteria 1 and 2.

1. “I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston
I forget this is a cover song because, to me, it’s one of the greatest recordings of all-time. No offense to Dolly Parton, but Whitney owned this. I really don’t know what else to say because I’m pretty sure most people would unanimously agree. Wait. They don’t? This is an abomination. I would link to the articles that don’t bother to even include this in their top 25 best covers, but I don’t want to get mad at people’s subjective music lists, you know. Whitney, RIP. You’ll always be my favorite singer of this song, and the ruler of all cover songs, as long as I have a say (again, no shade to the amazing Dolly Parton, whose original is very special).

The Greatest Superbowl Halftime Performance

Bruno Mars at the 2014 Superbowl. What an amazing performer he is. The part where he does “Runaway” is my favorite, if it’s even possible to have a favorite moment. The dance moves and synchronization, the showmanship, the energy, the coordination and camerawork. It gives me chills and makes me smile really big. I’d love to see him in concert someday.

I was revisiting this recently to show my son that, as good as Bruno’s 2016 halftime performance was, the 2014 is far superior. It’s the best of all time, in my opinion. I’ve seen a lot that were awesome, but Bruno takes the cake.

 

Big Bad Wolf – The Heavy

I can’t get enough of this song. It’s gritty rock and roll at its finest. This band channels old school soul and classic rock, then blends it to sound like some retro garage rock band, ala The Black Keys or The Strokes, but more emphasis on the soul and the rock. The horns add a layer to this song that would otherwise just be awesome, not extra-level awesome. The drums provide an excellent beat (it actually sounds like keyboard percussion to me? But I don’t know; it just sounds “produced”) and the guitar is un-notably absent for the most part. Again, it’s the horns. They are the melody, the riff.

As I often say, you just need to click the link because my description will not do it justice.

“Mother” – Danzig

I’ve heard this song somewhere, someplace. You have, too, whether you know the band or not. I, however, did not know the band, and when the song came on my Pandora, I was CONVINCED it was The Doors trying to sound like Billy Idol. Except…Billy Idol wasn’t invented yet, so?? Like, I would have bet money on it though, the dude sounds like a Discount Jim Morrison. So convinced was I that I looked up the song, certain to find that this was actually a cover. It’s not.

So, what am I here to say about it other than it’s a fantastic 80s song? Well, it came out in 1988, for one, which is an awesome year because I was born that year. Second, Rick Rubin was the producer, which kind of surprised me. Third, check out the solo! Song is kicked into another gear by having that sweet solo. I like it anyway for the vocals (JIM MORRISON INFLUENCE AND ALL), but the guitar makes it better.

“Silvergun Superman” – Stone Temple Pilots

I don’t want to say that I’ve ever written off STP as a second-rate, post-grunge, Nirvana re-hashing wannabe. BUT, I have found their music to be pretty redundant in the grunge scene. However, this song popped up on my Pandora, and not even my Soundgarden radio station (which has really opened my eyes up to how good STP actually was). It got me to pay attention.

I’m not a musician, so bear with me on these non-technical terms: “Silvergun Superman” has that wah-wah guitar that sounds like it’s being fed through a garbage disposal on top of already being a distorted. And it’s still catchy and melodic, while being a dirty, dirty grunge song. Plus there’s a bit of soloing and riffing toward the end, which I’m a big fan of (not done enough in the grunge scene because most of them can’t play guitar worth a shit anyway).

For anyone who’s reeling about the opening line and what I said about STP, I have slightly recanted on that. They have many great, original songs that are worthy of recognition and glory, at that. But I could make a separate post about said songs, I suppose.

“I Feel Like Dynamite” – King Floyd

Another feel good song that pumps me up and makes me happy, this gem of a funky soul tune came to me by way of Pandora. I read online that this song has actually been featured in a few movies, so my great feeling of discovering some obscure 70s tune is slightly dampened. But when I hear this song, it’s hard for me to be upset by anything, big or small. And I totally want confidence level: King Floyd. “You might not agree with me, but I think I’m outta sight; when I get to doing my thing, I feel like dynamite.”

Why Soundgarden Is The Best Grunge Band of All-Time

If you’ve come for a history lesson or empirical-based data sheet, you’re in the wrong place. The only facts here are pure, honest-to-God music and lyrics. That is the only “data” I have. So let’s get to it!

First, let me point out what will be obvious to you if you already love Soundgarden/Audioslave/Chris Cornell’s solo work, and what should be reinforced if you’re not already a big fan: Chris Cornell is a fucking powerhouse vocalist. He has the loud, aggressive, gritty vocals for the typical “rock band” sound, while also being able to produce the finesse and delicacy of high, sustained notes, and alternately, the pipes to create deep, rich, brooding vocals. Specific examples will be noted in the third entry, but let’s just start where Soundgarden begins and ends for me. That is Chris Cornell. Guitarist Kim Thayil is a beast; drummer Matt Cameron is one of the better ones of his time; all other supporting players and contributing members were all well and good. But Soundgarden would not be my favorite grunge band, nor one of my favorite bands of all time, if it weren’t for my man CC. So let’s just be perfectly clear.

Songwriting is an exceptional point for Soundgarden, and the second topic I want to cover here. But I’ll let the lyrics do the talking (just a few of my favorites):

“Sitting here like uninvited company; wallowing in my own obscenities. I share a cigarette with negativity” (Drawing Flies)
Looking for a pedestal that I can put you on and be on my way” (Searching with My Good Eye Closed)
“Holy water is rusting me” / “Damn the water if it’s life you want to drink” (Holy Water – Both of these lines are really simple, yet powerful in delivery and imagery)
“Well that’s right I want something to explode; I’ve been deaf now I want noise” (Loud Love)
“Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now; Whomsoever I’ve cradled, I’ve put you down” (Fell On Black Days)
“I woke the same as any other day except a voice was in my head. It said seize the day, pull the trigger, drop the blade, and watch the rolling heads” (The Day I Tried to Live – Pretty much all of this song.)
“Oh hey I want to write the magazines the housewives read. And I want to be in control of everything. I want to be King” (Power Trip)
“I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota” / “I’m feeling that I’m sober, even though I’m drinking; I can’t get any lower, still I feel I’m sinking” (Outshined)
“Virgin eyes and dirty looks, on what I have and why I took. Counting all the hands I shook. Now I know why you’ve been shaking” (Slaves and Bulldozers)
“Share, if it makes you sleep, if it sets you free, if it helps you breathe” (My Wave – hey it’s about Facebook)

Song composition is the last topic I want to cover. I am only going to cover the highlights of three choice albums:

Louder Than Love
This album rocks, to put it simply. I think it would sound loud even if you turned the volume down. It’s got some gems on it. “Hands All Over”–political undertones; gritty, messy overtones; off-the-chain, piercing vocals. It’s easily my second-favorite song on the album. We’ve also got the Guns and Roses meets Rolling Stones impression on “Get on the Snake” with the signature Soundgarden riff. Pretty good song. My favorite track on the album, however, is “Loud Love”. Good, old fashioned loud rock and roll. There’s nothing masterful to dissect, and that’s what’s great. Even the methodical buildup of “Gun”, which can only be described as plodding, gives glimpses of an awesome heavy metal Soundgarden.

BadMotorFinger
Now this album is where it’s at. I could write a whole blog post about this album. But I’ll stick to my favorites, going chronologically. “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined” are clearly excellent songs, both of which are some of SG’s more well-known songs. They lead off the album with this 1-2 punch of awesome. “Rusty Cage” balances the crazed, fantastic main riff and Cornell’s frantic vocals with bass and drums that turn a would-be chaotic metal song into a great grunge song. Plus, the bridge and subsequent breakdown really tie the song together, but you probably loved the song before that part anyway.

“Outshined”, on the other hand, is more evenly-arranged throughout, but it’s just as powerful. The chords sound big and thick (I’m not a musician, so I don’t know how else to describe it); the overall sound is gritty and dark; Cornell’s shriek soars above it all.

“Face Pollution” delivers an up-tempo melody and vocal delivery that I love. It’s not a “happy” song by any means, but it’s fast and in your face, and if you love grunge, you can’t help but like the song . Another great track comes to us in “Searching with My Good Eye Closed”. It’s buildup into the verses, which flows effortlessly into the chorus, and back into the verses sounds dreamy, almost like it’s trying to hypnotize you into a trance.

Next, let’s talk about “Drawing Flies”. I don’t know how to describe it, really. It’s rapid-fire lyrics, clean-sounding riff (as opposed to the grunge, dropped down tuning), and trumpet-usage don’t seem to mix, but it’s great; go hear it for yourself!

Finally, we’ll skip near to the end of the album to my undisputed favorite “Holy Water”. Okay, it’s not undisputed, but I’m pretty sure it takes down every other song on the album for me. You have religious metaphors and life lamentings, which you can see for yourself in the lyrics. But compositionally speaking, it’s brooding, introspective, deep scars grunge heaven. Heavy sound, fucking great vocals, and the subtle guitar riffs and runs that tie it together.

Superunknown
Generally revered as one of Soundgarden’s top two albums, if not number one, I personally find half of the songs to be dull or grating. But let’s focus on the ones that I love. One of my favorite Soundgarden songs of all-time, “Day I Tried to Live”, is phenomenal all around. POWER.HOUSE.VOCALS. That’s what first hits you. Exceptional lyrics and song design, too.

How about “Mailman”? Underrated fucking song. More reminiscent of the darker days of Soundgarden, it’s a haunting, yet melodic song. It tempers grunge guitar with Cornell’s smooth, beautiful delivery. “My Wave”. Also underrated. The melody is catchy and killer, and I don’t care if it’s not heavy metal or grunge; it’s still rock, it’s still Chris Cornell’s great voice and Matt Cameron’s great drumming.

Big hits “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” are great, too. The former is melodic, erie, and has an odd combination of notes that somehow just work. The lyrics make no damn sense, and I haven’t ever bothered to look up the meaning, but whatever. I’ll still listen to it. “Spoonman” is rhythmic, vibrant, and quite catchy. I love the melody, even if, again, the lyrics mean nothing to me (I know they meant something to Cornell, but that’s irrelevant to me if it’s not translated into something universal and meaningful for the audience).


Maybe I’ll do an album review/track rankings for BadMotorFinger some day.

My Go-To Song Going into Work Lately

Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough“. It’s the perfect way for me to get pumped up. Impossible to be in a bad mood when the King of Pop is grooving and moving in your ear drum area for 6 sweet minutes. I love Michael Jackson, something which will undoubtedly resurface on this blog more than once.  Always a feel-good jam for a better mood.

“Brown Sugar” ZZ Top

I had never heard this song until my good friend Pandora came along. While I like many of ZZ Top’s songs, I never listened to this album in its entirety (and if I did, I’ve forgotten it by now). This song is a gem. True blues if I’ve ever heard it. ZZ Top’s brand is deeply rooted in the Blues of course, but I see them more as a Vegas Version of the Blues. That is, they are more Van Halen than Stevie Ray Vaughn (though they are a mixture of both).

Regardless, this song rocks. As do a lot of their songs. If you don’t know it, I suggest giving it a listen.

“House of the Rising Sun” White Buffalo

One of my favorite covers, I heard this song in Sons of Anarchy. I was blown away by the powerful rendition of the Animals’ classic 60s tune. The vocals are gritty and haunting, the music is eerie and folky, but edgy as well, and the stripped-down style still lends itself to the original’s basic arrangement.

A +++

Watch it on YouTube because WordPress won’t let me upload it directly