30 songs in 30 days: #22 – “Sullivan Street” (Counting Crows)

Day 22: A song that you listen to when you’re sad

Who hurt you, Adam Duritz? Who hurt you? Seriously, if you’re familiar with the Counting Crows only through their radio hits, you’re missing out. Don’t get me wrong, the released singles are quality, but you don’t really get the emotional depth found elsewhere in their catalog. Frontman Adam Duritz is a truly gifted songwriter, able to weave effortlessly between catchy, jangling pop hits, delicately beautiful ballads, and raw, tormented laments. Today’s entry falls somewhere between the last two. A tacit resignation of a relationship’s inevitable, impending end, “Sullivan Street” is one of my favorite tracks off the Crows’ superb freshman release, August and Everything After. If Adam’s subdued despondency doesn’t put a lump in your throat, then I suspect you may not have a heart to be broken.

30 songs in 30 days: #21 – “Everything’s Magic” (Angels & Airwaves)

Day 21: A song that you listen to when you’re happy

I shamelessly admit to liking Angels & Airwaves, the spacey multimedia brainchild of Blink 182’s Tom de Longe. I really liked Blink’s music, especially their 2003 self-titled album that saw them mature musically and lyrically. It was the last album before the band’s first hiatus, during which Tom struck out on his own with A&A while Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker returned to their punk roots with +44. I have since purchased every full-length A&A record produced, from We Don’t Need to Whisper to The Dream Walker. I can’t get enough of this stuff. It’s futuristic, it’s energetic, it’s bright and uplifting. Even their moodier, more somber songs have notes of hope and optimism somewhere in them. When I’m in great spirits and I want to keep that going, I crank my A&A playlist.

So then how to pick a single song from five albums for today’s challenge? Well, when you’re in a fantastic mood, the sun seems a little brighter, the trees greener and sharper, the clouds in the sky a brilliant, puffy white. It almost feels like everything’s been touched by magic. So I thought, if I’m going to use an A&A song, it might as well be the cheesiest, brightest, and most optimistic-sounding one of them all. “Everything’s Magic” fits that bill perfectly. Driven by Tom’s punk roots, “Everything’s Magic” is futuristic bubble-gum pop at its finest, the audio equivalent of rose-colored glasses from the 24th century. It’s catchy to the point of infectious. I realize that A&A’s space-age sound may be a bit overdone and not everyone’s cup of tea, especially fans of Blink 182, but give them a try and see if this song doesn’t immediately brighten your day, at least a little.

30 songs in 30 days: #20 – “Down With the Sickness” (Disturbed)

Day 20: A song that you listen to when you’re angry

When I’m mad, I want to listen to music that reflects my mood. I want to know that someone has at least felt the same rage that I’m feeling, even if they can’t empathize with the specific cause or even the general source of that anger. When considering a song for this category, I first thought of a personal anecdote tied to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of.” But I quickly realized that the boiling fury of their radio debut is born of societal strife far more worthy of rage than any of my problems. I’m not going to insult Mr. de la Rocha and crew’s protestations of a pervasive social injustice, one that continues to plague this country nearly twenty-five years later, by tying it to my middle-class suburbanite frustrations.

Instead, let’s talk about Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness.” Rather than speaking (or screaming) out against a particular cause for a foul mood, this song stares into the beast of the emotion itself. It embraces anger, welcomes rage, accepts madness, and tells you exactly what you’re getting yourself into if you choose to listen to the rest of the album The Sickness. There’s no subtlety here: it’s twisted and sinister, ugly and raw to the point of animalistic, it’s unbridled anger itself—with two important side notes. First, it blatantly describes anger as a sickness, which can be very true. It’s fine to be angry sometimes, as long as you don’t let it consume you like a disease, festering in your brain and veins until you forget how to be happy again. Second, the song is a bit over the top, at least to me, especially in the disturbing (no pun intended), obscenity-drenched interlude absent from the version below. (You can find it for yourself if you want.) It’s just exaggerated enough that by the end of the song, I can’t help but realize that the usually little things that set me off aren’t really worth the time and energy required to maintain my ire. So as much as I may revel in its insanity when I’m feeling ragey, “Down With the Sickness” actually does temper my mood a little, giving me the sympathetic hurricane of anger I want, along with the get-over-it-and-move-on kick in the pants I need.

30 songs in 30 days: #19 – “The Promoter (of Earthbound Causes)” (Clutch)

Day 19: A song from your favorite album

I said at the beginning of this series that, because some categories would be difficult to decide on, I would choose certain songs in order to maintain an element of diversity in the list. “Favorite album” is definitely one of those difficult choices. There are several albums that I can listen to beginning to end, like Everclear’s Sparkle and Fade or the Spin Doctors’ Pocketful of Kryptonite. But for the sake of genre variety, I won’t go with another ‘90s alternative/grunge selection. I’m picking a song from a straight-up hard rock band that my SO introduced me to—“The Promoter (of Earthbound Causes)” off Clutch’s Blast Tyrant. Clutch has been described as one of the hardest-working bands in the rock genre, and I’m inclined to agree. They write new material seemingly nonstop, putting out album after album of quality, no-frills, back-to-basics Rock ‘N’ Roll, and they tour relentlessly around the globe. I’ve seen them in concert three times, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Their stage productions are simple and straightforward. Their ferocity never ebbs from open to close. And despite singer Neil Fallon’s lyrics occasionally straying into bragging (which is usually tongue-in-cheek, and which he totally has the right to do, given his work ethic, talent, and success), they all seem like no-nonsense, down-to-earth, and all-around good guys. No egos, no drama. Just. Plain. Rock.

Though not the first of their material I heard, 2004’s Blast Tyrant quickly became my favorite of their albums and the standard to which I hold all their other work. It marks a shift in production of their records, slicker, tighter, and more polished than anything preceding it, but the band seems to have kicked their intensity up a few notches to counter the shininess of the sound quality. The southern rock and blues influences so prevalent throughout their catalog peak in tracks like “Cypress Grove,” “The Regulator,” “The Ghost,” and “(In the Wake of) The Swollen Goat.” But as always, they play with other genres too, like punk on “The Mob Goes Wild” and “Spleen Merchant,” sludge on “Profits of Doom,” and pure heavy metal on the opener “Mercury.” No cross-genre influences stand out on “The Promoter;” rather, I think it’s a good introduction to their overall style—just plain rock. So give it and the rest of Blast Tyrant a spin, and then explore the rest of their catalog—from their raw and varied early albums like Elephant Riders, through the NOLA-inspired From Beale Street to Oblivion, to their latest efforts, the hard-charging and barbecue-fueled Earth Rocker and Psychic Warfare.

30 songs in 30 days: #18 – “Manhattan” (Twin-A)

Day 18: A song that you wish you heard on the radio

My last two song challenge posts were on the critical side, even if they involved bands I like. So I’m happy to start a new week promoting a favorite artist of mine who you probably don’t know.

In college, I occasionally dropped in at the campus coffee bar, The Other End (TOE for short) in the basement of the music department building. In addition to caffeinated beverages and the best chocolate chip brownies I’ve had to date, TOE also featured live music from local artists. Early in my college career I happened to catch a solo singer/songwriter/acoustic guitarist by the name of John Lardieri. In short, the guy was incredible. His guitar playing ranged from gentle melodies to raucous hammering away at the strings, and his vocals swung between mellow, nicotine-tinged whispers, bell-resonant declarations, and hoarse bellows of ruined love. I was immediately captivated by his music, grabbed a copy of the album he was selling that night, and was happy to catch his later performances on campus whenever I could. Soon after, he put together a three-piece band and started recording more records in his pursuit to get signed to a major record label, so he focused his performances more in his home base of New York City. But I kept up the best I could with his independent releases, ordering them from his website or, in more recent years, snatching them up on iTunes.

I will never understand how this guy didn’t get more exposure, didn’t get more record deals, didn’t end up wildly popular on major radio stations. But I simply can’t praise his music and songwriting talents enough. I had a hard time choosing just one of his songs with which to exemplify his music, but in the end I went with one that describes the struggles of a musician seeking that opportunity to be recognized, to make it big. It begins with soft tones and tired, even exhausted, murmurs of playing the NYC music scene, and builds to a euphoric crescendo by the end, the power and clarity of John’s voice declaring his love for the craft and all the joys and pitfalls it entails. (A bonus reason for choosing it is that it’s about his, and my, favorite city in the country.) After listening to it below, I strongly urge you to check out what there is of his work on either Amazon or iTunes (mostly under the moniker Twin-A, including Something Good, B-sides, and Sugarcane EP, but also as Johnny BLK). You won’t be disappointed.

30 songs in 30 days: #17 – “Best of You” (Foo Fighters)

Day 17: A song that you hear often on the radio

When pop radio stations find the next big song to play, they really like to milk it for all it’s worth. I can’t tell you how many songs I dislike hearing simply (or mostly) because they were severely overplayed when they first came out. Occasionally, though, repetition can help familiarize my brain with a certain melody, or lyric, or emotion evoked in a song, and the more I hear it, the more I grow to enjoy it.

Today’s entry is not one of those songs.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve been listening to the Foo Fighters since “This is a Call” hit the airwaves in 1995. Most of their albums are solid beginning-to-end rockers, from their self-titled debut all the way to 2011’s Wasting Light. Even an album I used to consider a hiccup, One By One, has really grown on me. But when that album first came out, it felt a little strange. The songs largely felt repetitive, energetic but monotonous in the literal sense of the word—not a lot of dynamics within a given song, musically or lyrically. Was this merely a bump in the road of an otherwise wildly successful rock band, or was it an omen of greater troubles ahead? (Incidentally, the band was also disillusioned with the album and its performance. It was recorded during a time of great turmoil within the band, when front man Dave Grohl was involved with Queens of the Stone Age, and when serious infighting between band members nearly led to the Foo Fighters’ demise.)

When the first single of the next album, In Your Honor, dropped, it seemed to me like One By One really had been the beginning of the end. “Best of You” features incessant chord-strumming, relentlessly obnoxious snares on nearly every beat of every measure, and constant screaming. No dynamics at all. I couldn’t stand it the first time I heard it, and hearing it on heavy rotation for several rock radio stations didn’t help the song ingratiate itself to me. Maybe other people really like it, but to me it represents the worst of the Foo Fighters. And just like One By One nearly destroyed the band, “Best of You” almost killed my interest in any new music from them.

It took me quite a few years to revisit In Your Honor, the double album that spawned “Best of You,” but I’m glad I did, because it really put my expectations to shame. There are some fantastic songs on this epic release, songs that should have replaced “Best of You” as the lead single, or any single for that matter. Rediscovering In Your Honor also prepared me for their later releases, especially the heavy-hitting, rock-solid Wasting Light. But hearing “Best of You” every thirty minutes on pop-rock radio very nearly ruined all of that for me.

30 songs in 30 days: #16 – “Better Man” (Pearl Jam)

Day 16: A song that you used to love but now hate

There’s that H-word again. I have a hard time thinking of a song, one I’ve actually listened to in its entirety, that I definitively hate. Especially one that I used to love. So I’m dialing down the emotion from both ends for this post. Let’s talk about a song that I guess I liked upon its release, that I now don’t really care for all that much.

End of 1994. Pearl Jam’s third record, Vitalogy, comes out. I’m ambivalent, since they never held my attention back then the way the other big grunge bands did. “Better Man,” the album’s most successful radio play, fills the airwaves. Once the rest of the band wakes up after the too-long hushed intro, it’s a generic strumfest, slightly faster than midtempo, and it’s catchy enough, as long as you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics (we’ll get back to those). I listen to it, record it off radio and onto cassette, and move on. But then it’s suddenly everywhere—one of those songs that gets repeated on alt-rock radio every half hour or so. And I just don’t get it. I didn’t know many other Pearl Jam songs at the time—“Black,” “Jeremy,” “Evenflow,” “Alive,” possibly “Dissident” and “Daughter”—but I know something is off with this new song. Eddie Vedder, a leading voice of the grunge generation, is mewling like an abandoned kitten, and the others are just jangling along behind him like a folk band. Where is the rawness, the energy? Where are Eddie’s anger and frustration?

Now, the lyrics. There really isn’t a way to misinterpret them, blatant as they are. The song describes an abusive relationship from the perspective of a woman who can’t bring herself to leave her partner. My complaint doesn’t concern the content—far from it. I protest the execution. The lines sound like they were written by a high schooler—because they were. Eddie wrote the lyrics while in high school. Somehow, the song got dredged up for the recording sessions of their second album, Vs., during which their oh-so-insightful producer proclaimed it a slam-dunk hit. And that should have been the end of it. Ever anti-establishment, Eddie and the band didn’t want a slam-dunk hit, so “Better Man” got scrapped—until recording of the next album, Vitalogy, rolled around, when the same producer convinced them to rerecord it. Forget rerecording, the song should have been rewritten from the ground up. Same inspiration, same story, same message, but a more mature execution all around. Give the subject matter the respect it deserves.

Having finally explored their catalog a decade and a half later, I can confidently say that any song off their first two albums is better than “Better Man.” If you don’t know the song, you can listen below, but I maintain you’d be better off picking a random track from either Ten or Vs.