Which band should I blog about next?


The always excellent Johnny Marr, who I’ll be seeing in October!

I’ve been tempted to do another “blogging a band” series like I did with the Beatles a while back.  The original one was a lot of fun, as I was not only able to give the songs and albums a good solid listen, I was able to better understand their place in musical history — both their own, and within the larger scene.  And as a bonus, I was also able to learn a lot of new songs on my guitar!

I probably don’t know any band nearly as well as I know the Beatles, but I do own a lot of complete (or nearly complete) discographies of plenty of bands, or they’re easily available for streaming somewhere if I don’t.  I’ll be relearning their oeuvre right alongside you!

So, what do you think?  Here’s a shortlist so far of favorite 80s/90s bands I could possibly do:

–The Smiths
–The Cure
–Depeche Mode (continuing the by-the-decade theme)

I was also thinking of maybe continuing the Beatles theme by going through their solo output, either separately or all together chronologically.

Any votes/suggestions?

Is That Freedom Rock, Man?

Somehow I fell down another retro rabbit hole and have been listening to the Sirius XM Classic Rock Party station over the last few days.  I’m fifteen again and listening to WAAF and WAQY in my messy bedroom, cranking up the 80s stylings of Twisted Sister, Billy Idol and Whitesnake alongside the classic 60s/70s hits of the Stones, Yes, and BROOOCE.

This was the music I grew up with.  I was too young to understand punk and post-punk back in the early 80s (at least not until that fateful evening in early 1986), and as much as I enjoyed the pop of American Top 40 and American Bandstand, it was the music of rock stations that stuck with me most. I was a nerdy, spotty kid that was completely obsessed with music and radio and would be just as happy sitting alone in front of my boombox as I would be outside roaming the neighborhood on my BMX with my buddies.  This was Diver Down and Pyromania playing on my sister’s boombox while we played touch football in the backyard.  This was me completely blown away by 90125 and Synchronicity and So.  This was my growing obsessions with other bands aside from the Beatles.  This was our state capital’s own honored rockers in the forms of Aerosmith, the J Geils Band and Boston.  This was where I learned to appreciate bands before my time like Jimi Hendrix and Cream and The Rolling Stones.

Decades later and here I am, hitting middle age and living on the opposite coast, listening to the still-epic “Born to Run”, still impressed by the guitar solo freakout of the back half of “Freebird”, still feel that “Layla” is a decent song but is about 3 minutes too long.  Living in a city where Janis and Jerry lived, where Steve Miller recorded the sound of the foghorn going past the Marina for the opening of his Sailor album, where the classic Frampton Comes Alive! was recorded just three miles away at a long-departed ballroom in Japantown.  Where Journey the Doobies and the Dead and the Airplane lived and recorded and became local heroes.

The playlist has its moments of amusing embarrassment.  All that LA glam metal of the 80s is still goofy, doofy, simplistic fun, just like I remember it.  All the prog rock of the 70s is still full of nerdy math and fantastical imagery.  All the arena rock bands are still full of that bombast.  Some of it’s kind of corny now, but you can’t help but have fun listening to it.  The playlist is also going to be a lot of the same heavy-rotation classics that you can’t escape, even after all these years.  It may even have its share of “oh, that song!” moments.

Sure, most of it’s a good three or four decades old now, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to listen to.

Around the Dial

You know already that I have music playing nearly 24/7 in my life.  While I’m working, while I’m writing, even when we’re in bed reading and falling asleep. My life has a soundtrack and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, what do I listen to, anyway?   Good question!   I’m always open to listening to stations from different parts of the globe if they’re available online, and I’ve found some really interesting stations while on vacations.  Here, though, are my usual haunts!

Internet Stations

It depends on what I’m in the mood for.  Lately I’ve been listening to Sirius XM, specifically the 1st Wave (80s alternative), Lithium (90s alternative), XMU (more obscure indie rock) and Alt Nation (current indie) stations.  These channels tend to be a bit more adventurous with their playlist, though they do tend to stick with certain heavy rotation tracks as well.

Or I might listen to RadioBDC, an internet station run by former WFNX deejays and hosted by Boston.com.  They’ve retained the commercial alternative sound that ‘FNX was known for, but they also infuse their playlist with a lot of local sounds.


College Stations

Yes, even after all this time, I’m still a college radio listener.  I tend to switch from one to the other to keep things interesting, as some stations are more obscure with their playlist than others.  Sadly my favorite college station of my youth, WAMH, has pretty much become an NPR feed station…but there are numerous other stations I still listen to.

KSCU out of Santa Clara University is my go-to for the local college radio sound.  [Santa Clara, as you probably know from our NFL team’s recent move, is down near San Jose.]  They keep a somewhat thin deejay schedule, but they do have some great shows (the 80s Underground is a great Wednesday afternoon treat, and they post their show as a two-part podcast later that day).  Their ‘robo-deejay’ plays an interesting mix as well when no one’s on the air.

UC Berkeley’s KALX is quite eclectic in its schedule, but there’s always something interesting playing.  Same with Stanford University’s KZSU.  I still connect with Boston College’s WZBC every now and again, for the same reason.


Local Sounds

Our commercial stations here in the Bay Area can sometimes be a bit thin on the excitement and thick on the heavy rotation, but that doesn’t keep me from tuning in while driving.  A number of stations have changed over the last decade since we’ve been here, but a lot of them are still fun to listen to.

Radio Alice is our Adult Alternative station, where the playlist is a bit laid back — it’s something you’d probably have playing quietly in the background at work, natch — but it’s just alternative enough that it keeps my interest.  KFOG is a bit more alternapop (and their newest deejay is a recent transplant, one Matt Pinfield) and tends to be our go-to station.  Live 105 is our most commercial alternative station, complete with nutty morning chat (which I can do with or without) but a very cool playlist.


Night Music

Since we moved out here, nearly every night we put on the local classical station, KDFC, and listen to a symphony or two as we read and eventually nod off.  The night deejay tends to have a bit of a silly sense of humor, as he’ll often have a theme for his show.  One night he played all string quartets and called it “there’s always room for cello”.  They also do replays of live recordings of our local symphony — sometimes playing events that we’d been at just a few days previous!  And each Christmas they’ll play SF Ballet’s wonderful performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.


And of course, there’s my mp3 collection, which is still expanding on a somewhat weekly basis.  But that’s another post entirely…

90s One Hit Wonder Bands Worth Further Listening

You know how it is with commercial radio stations.  Just before a commercial break they’ll tease an upcoming track from one of your favorite bands from the past, and guaranteed, it will always be that same damn song you’ll hear every single time.  Even if the band has twelve albums to their name, including one that dropped just two weeks previous, they’ll still play that one damn song.  [This is why Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” is one of my least favorite songs of theirs, because that’s the de facto Zep track for every classic rock station.]

Continuing my 90s theme, here’s a few bands from that decade that are actually worth checking out past their one claim to fame.

Hum, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, rel 11 April 1995.  This album kind of got lost in the shuffle of mid-90s grunge pop and everything else, but it’s an excellent album full of crunchy riffs and great melodies.  They followed this up with a further album, Downward Is Heavenward (released 27 January 1998) which unfortunately also got lost in the shuffle, but is just as great.  [You may even want to go deeper and look for their two pre-major label albums from the early 90s.]  And yes, I will admit that “Stars” is still a kickass track, even if it gets all the attention.

Eve 6, Eve 6, rel 28 April 1998.  We all know the hit “Inside Out” (you know, that “put my tender/heart in a blender” track of theirs), but they’ve released three further albums over the years (including a reunion album) that are just as great.  Second album Horrorscope (rel 25 July 2000) featured singles “Promise” and “Here’s to the Night” (the latter of which got minor airplay on MTV); third album It’s All in Your Head (rel 22 July 2003) featured “At Least We’re Dreaming” and “Think Twice”; fourth album Speak in Code (24 April 2012) featured “Victoria” and “Curtain”.

The Verve Pipe, Villains, rel 26 Mar 1996.  EVERYONE knows “The Freshmen”…even lead singer Brian Vander Ark has accepted that’s his calling card at this point.  But have you heard the rest of that album?  If not, I strongly urge you to do that RIGHT NOW.  While this hit plays to their softer side, there’s a much deeper and darker sound to Villains that you need to hear.  “Cup of Tea” is the creepier cousin to that song; “Photograph” has a badass bassline; and the title track “Villains” is the most sinister track on the album.  Even the album tracks are solid: the lovely “Penny is Poison”, and trippy album closer “Veneer” is the best song ever about driving through upstate Michigan while high as a kite.
But that’s not all — go do yourself a favor and check out their follow-up albums, The Verve Pipe (29 July 1999) and Underneath (25 September 2001), as well as their recent album Overboard (17 June 2014) and their numerous single releases they’ve been putting out over the last two years.  Yeah, you could say I’m quite a big fan of these guys!

Dishwalla, Pet Your Friends, rel 21 November 1995.  Another 90s band I love to pieces.  Yes, this is that “tell me all your thoughts on God/’cause I’m on my way to see her” song.  Singer JR Richards is a stellar songwriter who digs quite deep when it comes to emotional, soul-searching songs, but he’s not afraid to belt it out either.  After this first album (which also includes the funky “Charlie Brown’s Parents” and the slinky “Haze”), they went on a long and grueling tour that kept them busy until the recording of And You Think You Know What Life’s About (rel 11 August 1998) — and the days on the road were evident on the harder, crunchier tracks here.  Unfortunately the album fell through the cracks thanks to a major distributor shake-up at the time (PolyGram and Universal merged, and unceremoniously, a hell of a lot of great bands were either dropped or lost all their backing in the process), but this is by far their most cohesive and solid album.  “Once in a While” was a minor hit, but the elegiac album track “Until I Wake Up” became a fan favorite that JR Richards still performs to this day.  Third album Opaline (23 April 2002) saw the band on a new label and easing back to their lighter side, with great tracks like “Somewhere in the Middle” and the lovely “Angels or Devils”.  Their last self-titled album (15 May 2005) and the last recording to feature JR before he left to go solo, is just as good, with tracks like “Collide”.  There’s a rumor that a new Dishwalla album might surface this year or next as well!

Lit, A Place in the Sun, rel 23 February 1999.  Yeah, that track, the worst-hangover-ever one.  What happened to these guys, anyway?  Like most of the 90s pop-punk bands, their star faded but they never quite went away.  After a minor follow-up hit with “Zip Lock” (check out the brief cameo of a streaking Blink-182 in the video!) and a quick appearance on the soundtrack for the animated movie Titan AE with “Over My Head” (a movie that was sadly much maligned but in all honesty I quite enjoyed it), Lit released their follow-up Atomic (16 October 2001) with the single “Lipstick and Bruises” and a self-titled album (22 June 2004) with the single “Looks Like They Were Right” before sticking to the local live circuit for a number of years.  They’d surface one more time with The View from the Bottom (19 June 2012) and “You Tonight”.  They’re back in the studio working on a new album at this time.

Bush, Sixteen Stone, rel 6 December 1994.  That first album of theirs was insanely huge, enough that they had hits well into early 1996 with the singles “Glycerine”, “Everything Zen”, “Comedown” and “Little Things”.  They were somewhat unfairly written off, being too British to fit in with American grunge, but too grunge to be lopped in with the (now waning) Britpop movement…but MTV loved them just the same.  They finally followed up with the wonderfully weird second album Razorblade Suitcase (19 November 1996) with another wave of great singles: “Swallowed”, “Greedy Fly”, “Cold Contagious” and “Personal Holloway”.  An even weirder remix album popped up at the end of the following year with Deconstructed (11 November 1997), and then….nothing for a good couple of years.
By the time of their next album, The Science of Things (26 October 1999), their sound seemed a bit dated — or more to the point, alt.rock stations by that time had shifted to alternative metal and rap metal, and the more commercial alt.rock stations had shifted to the calmer sounds of Collective Soul and so on.  They had a few minor hits like “The Chemicals Between Us” and “Letting the Cables Sleep”, but their time in the spotlight had waned considerably.  They managed one last album, Golden State (23 October 2001) with another minor hit, “The People That We Love”, but by 2002 they’d broken up.
Lead singer Gavin Rossdale (having gotten in the headlines for marrying No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani) released an album in 2004 with his band Institute, and followed that up with a self-titled solo album in 2008, but that was pretty much it until 2011, when Rossdale reignited the band and released The Sea of Memories (13 September 2011) with two more radio hits, “The Afterlife” and “The Sound of Winter”.  After a successful tour he returned once more with Man on the Run (21 October 2014) and another great single, “The Only Way Out”.  And they’ve just released a new single a few months ago, “People at War”, which may hint at yet another new album in the works.


I could of course go on, but I think this is enough to get y’all started.  No go scour the used record bins and find some of these tasty albums!


I know I’ve mentioned this many times before, but here’s the short version once more: in early 2000 I met one of my childhood heroes, George Harrison.  I believe he was visiting a holistic campus a few towns over from the mall where I worked, and one day he came in to the store looking for music.  Suffice it to say, I was a) gobsmacked, b) nervous as hell and c) did my damnedest to make him feel at home.  I even chatted with him about music for a few minutes, which was super cool.

I bring this up as this past Friday was the long-awaited release of some major Beatles archival music:  the almost-forgotten 1977 compilation album Live at the Hollywood Bowl and the release of Ron Howard’s documentary of their live years, Eight Days a Week.  The hashtag #ISawTheBeatles has been floating around Twitter for the last few days as well.

Remembering that unexpected meeting with my childhood hero made me think of what my definition of ‘hero’ is.  I rarely use it to define any of my characters in my writing, as I’d rather write the Flawed Human Who’s Just Trying to Do Their Best.  [I rarely use it to describe someone in the military or someone who saved the day, come to think of it.  Not that I believe it unearned, far from it…more that it’s a word that’s been so overused and abused that it no longer rings true as an adequate descriptor for me.  But that’s another post entirely.]

I think at this point in my life, my kind of hero is someone I admire who’s influenced and/or inspired me, or taught me things I’ve desperately needed to know.  Someone who put me on the right path to where I wanted and needed to be.

Someone like Ray Bradbury, whose Dandelion Wine made me realize that reading is not always a chore — I just need to find what connects with me on a deeper level.  [Met him in 2006 at Worldcon and let him know he inspired me to become a serious writer.  He appreciated hearing that.]

Someone like George Harrison, who aside from being the lead guitarist for my all-time favorite band when I was a kid, inspired me to seek inner peace as a way to calm myself when I most needed it.

Are all my heroes musicians and writers?  No, there are everyday people who have been my heroes as well, like my history teacher in college, Rev. John Coffee, who taught me how to look at history not as a list of facts to memorize for a sememster-end exam but as an ongoing and evolving world story.  But yes, I will admit a lot of my personal heroes are creative people.  They’re the ones that have influenced and inspired me to do the best I can with my own creative works.  They’ve all shown me just how far I can go.

I’m not much of a hero worshiper, either.  Over the course of the last twenty or so years I’ve met with such people, I treat them as they would treat me: ordinary humans who just happened to get away with doing extraordinary things.  Doing meet-and-greets during my college radio and HMV tenures, and chatting with numerous writers at conventions, I’ve learned that meeting my heroes doesn’t have to contain a high level of squee and OMG.  If I ever met Hayao Miyazaki or Rumiko Takahashi in person I would most likely stutter and laugh a bit, but in the end I think I’d be able to thank them for their wonderful works and masterful storytelling.

After all, heroes are like you and I.  We all wake up groggy in the morning and in need of sustenance, and we all go to bed at the end of the day, exhausted by the day’s activities.  Heroes to me are the ones who actively, relentlessly look for answers in between those moments.

Depeche Mode in the 90s – Ultra


Ultra was an interesting album, in that it was their first in four years — an unprecedented timelapse for the band at the time, whose last stretch (between Violator and Songs of Faith… and not including the SoFaD Live set) was nearly three years.  It was also their first without Alan Wilder, who’d provided all the unique industrial sound effects to their albums and singles since Construction Time Again.  And it was also their first album after singer Dave Gahan’s recent health and emotional issues had become public.  This was going to be a make or break album for them.

As if to state the point right off, pre-album single “Barrel of a Gun” was a track of jagged misery and anger that mirrored all the personal issues they’d been dealing with over the last few years.  But it also proved that the more rock-oriented SoFaD wasn’t just a fluke.  The keyboards were still there, but they had truly evolved from a synthetic post-punk quartet to a 90s alternative rock band.  They had retained their dark moods and sounds, but they were now being delivered with a heavy punch.

The follow-up single, “It’s No Good” (released two weeks before the album itself) on the other hand, tripped up fans with its heavy sequencing and lighter melodic touch — hinting at their Some Great Reward era, come to think of it — but it was one of Martin Gore’s best and catchiest songs on the album and became a hit both in the US and the UK.  [And as if to drive the point home that they hadn’t completely lost their sense of humor, the video shows the trio performing as a skeezy lounge act and totally hamming it up.]

Third single “Home” showed that Martin Gore could still write and sing their best ballads, even though it failed to hit the charts.  Gore once again writes about the pleasures of a solid relationship and the reminders that things couldn’t get any better than this…even when things aren’t as good as they used to be.

Final single “Useless” brings the band full circle, sounding both strong and delicate at the same time.  It’s a track that hints at Violator-era songwriting but with a modern production.  The single itself was not a chart-topper, but it proved that they had persevered and remained an extremely popular and inspirational band.

The album itself dropped in mid-April 1997 alongside numerous other big-name alt.rock albums such as Supergrass’ In It for the Money, The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut (and just a month after U2’s long-awaited and sadly much-maligned Pop).  They couldn’t have timed it better, as that year was quite a turning point for the genre.  Britpop was dying a long and painful death, commercial alt.rock was splintering between mainstream rock (such as U2 and 3EB) on one side and the alternative metal of Korn, Marilyn Manson and Limp Bizkit on the other.  This gave them a unique chance to release an amazingly strong album — even as they chose not to tour for it due to health reasons.  Numerous tracks would also pop up on American television shows — 90s TV was big on the popular sountracks back then — enabling them to stay in the spotlight.

They would finally return once more to touring for the next album — a second singles compilation — in late 1998, along with a new song, “Only When I Lose Myself”.  A lovely midtempo song, it would be the bridge between their harder rock sound of Ultra and the more acoustic and mellow Exciter album in 2001.  It’s a swan song in a way, a thank you to the fans that had seen them through an extremely turbulent but ultimately successful decade.