A trend in rock music is taking place, and it’s welcomed. As noted with Alien Feelings and Tarah Who?, there has been a surge in ‘90’s grunge influence. Freedivers continues that rush of nostalgia, but falls even deeper into the past.
Spain is a country known for his incredible rhythm and masterful guitar. One of my favorite composers is Isaac Albéniz, and though mostly known as a pianist, his pieces have been transposed beautifully to the classical guitar. The moment I heard “Asturias (Leyenda)” I knew I had to learn it. I did my best piano rendition, but is mostly performed on an acoustic six-string now.
Over a century since Suite Española’s release, there has been plenty of instrumental innovation and progressive composition. Though many older classical listeners may not consider the grunge movement of the ‘90s worthy of recognition, many artists embrace the overall importance of that rock era.
Rafa d Villegas, bassist of Freedivers, explained, “We are influenced by the sound of Seattle of the ‘90s, it is undeniable. We have grown up listening to bands like Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam.”
Yet, bands don’t just stick to one genre or era for inspiration. They incorporate different styles and branch well into the past to craft a song. For example, Iron Maiden samples “Astrurias (Leyenda)” in their track “Mother Russia.”
Freedivers is no different. From Barcelona, the trio of Villegas, Sergi and Xavi Blanch display classical training in their abilities and song structure.
During 2019, Villegas was beginning to find his sound. He had developed some decent riffs and solid lyrics, but was in search for talent to finish and produce the songs. Brothers Sergi (guitar and vocals) and Xavi (drums) then joined him, and Freedivers was formed. The three Spaniards then added their personal touches and created with equal collaboration.
“It’s been said that our music is indie/rock,” Villegas said. “We talk about personal stories; we believe that they are the same stories as anyone else and that connects us with people.”
Relation is key, especially when writing for a rock audience. Writing, however, is all they can do at the moment.
It has officially been over a year since the world entered a global pandemic. As is the case with most acts, the lack of touring can hinder an artist’s progression. Exposure is key during a time like this, especially with things seemingly on the swing upward to being social once more. Real social, not social networking. Ironically, to sustain the possibility of future social gatherings such as concerts, bands must rely on online promotion.
“The pandemic situation made down most of our plans,” Villegas shared. “Any tour or concert was canceled. That is why we have tried to promote the sale of records and merchandising. These are hard times.”
The band is currently writing and recording and making the best use of their time. Freedivers is looking forward to getting back on stage and making a connection with their audience. It’s not about the size of the crowd, it’s about the magical environment created by musician and listener. The band is capable of providing such as aura with their sound, and live music always heightens the senses.
Freedivers released their debut EP, Upside Down, on Feb. 6. The track listing is a gathering of pre-released singles they have shared since 2019.
Perhaps “The End Of The World” isn’t the most tasteful title for an opening track, but that’s just the times, and no one with a practical mind should take issue to it. The song provides a feel for Freedivers’ sound, and listeners can surely catch the ‘90’s rock influence through the distorted riffs and even Sergi’s vocals. It creates a standard for what is to come, and that’s part of a solid opening track’s responsibility.
The beginning of “Under Arrest” is dangerously close to “Have You Ever Seen Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Not like there’s anything wrong with that; they are certainly a band other rock artists should like being mentioned with. The song structure flows well, and the chorus has an easy sing-a-long start, but also shows how the trio can harmonize their vocals. That is difficult to find right now in rock.
“Isolation” again showcases the band’s influences. The sound and vocal cadence is very ‘90s. The monotone drawl of grunge is apparent on this track, the guitar style is similar to Filter or Oasis, and it captures the essence of the era. Again, as I have pointed out before, it’s a good era of rock to incorporate while creating new music.
Freedivers slow down the tempo with “Walking Upside Down” which balances out the EP. It’s a beautiful melody with a deeper, poetic message. Every album needs a ballad such as this because it’s important to the overall flow. It also displays range and versatility in a genre where bands are sometimes labeled as having the same sound throughout. The old, “each track sounded like one big song” complaint. You can say that about a lot of popular artists and genres these days, however.
“Freerider” is the hit of the extended play. The track has a jam-band feel that was once perfected by Counting Crows or Sister Hazel in the ‘90s, but the rhythm definitely has roots that can be traced back to the ‘70s even. The small solo is fantastic and completes the song, and it’s a tune that can get stuck in your head. Upside Down is a complete EP.
The Spanish trio has a great sound and it comes from a variety of inspiration and overall understanding of music. They have captured a time and are re-releasing the experience through their uniqueness as an artist. Another win for the future of rock music.
She took the stage; stories permanently etched from wrist to neck, her hair shaved on one side with the rest parted, allowing the opposite full strands to dangle and wildly match the energetic performance. By the end, red had stained her guitar strings and dripped to the floor from her fingertips, the strobe spotlighting the blood through the haze. For Tarah G. Carpenter, music is in her, and she’s fine exposing her passion.
Tarah Who?. It’s not a question that needs to be answered. Tarah Who? is a rising statement in the progressive punk/grunge scene. However, the duo of Carpenter and Coralie “Coco” Herve is prepared to become a brand whether the world is ready or not.
They are an independent band. Though the industry has been over-saturated with amateur acts for quite some time, Tarah Who? has built a solid following the last half-decade. Yet, their end game isn’t necessarily overwhelming stardom, but rather motivating others to push through the obstacles that make sustainability difficult in the music industry—and having fun throughout the process.
Carpenter said, “I hope to inspire women to play and dare to do what they want to do, and everyone as a matter of fact, regardless of their sexuality, religion, race, etc. My end game is: if WE can do it, EVERYONE can.”
Though people have fought mightily for progression, female lead singers in rock music still must overcome hindrances that delay recognition and relevance.
Herve explained, “I don’t understand that in 2021 there is still this thinking. The best will be for artists to be respected for their art and not because they are a man or a woman.”
Tarah Who? has not only showcased their talents, but has proven their value, and are leading a new charge to shift the narrative.
Carpenter was born in France. Many, especially visitors who have only experienced the country through stories, view the culture as romantic in a sense. Their musical tastes are deep and moving, and many French audiences expect poetic lyrics and masterful production from classical to pop. At 14, Carpenter decided to self-teach herself the drums. At the time, it wasn’t common for a lady to be aggressively slamming sticks against cymbals, snares and toms.
“I remember when my dad said that it was not an instrument for girls. I didn’t take it as a rebellion but more like ‘I don’t care I still want to do it’,” Carpenter said.
Even the drum teacher at a music school in Paris brushed away her aspirations based solely on assumption. Little did they know, Carpenter had already been practicing over tracks and playing in a band. It wasn’t the norm, it was too different, and it had been that way for quite some time.
“I found out a year ago or so that my mom had always wanted to learn how to play the drums, but my mom was born in 1943, so for her time it was really not something girls, women did. Especially after the war.”
The norm had been challenged.
Though she was an experienced stateside traveler since she was 10, Carpenter moved to the United States as an exchange student at 15. Positioned in Kentucky, she fell in love with America, though she had always been drawn to the culture. Her English teacher in France would praise her grasp of the English language. After earning her baccalaureate, she saved all her money and headed way west at 21 with just a guitar strapped around her shoulder and one piece of luggage in tow.
It was just years before she was learning to break musical barriers on the drums, and now she had thrown herself into a sea of intimidation and dreamers. She was in Los Angeles. With no plan or contacts and little money, she landed in Koreatown, and she knew her voice had to become louder than all the screamers.
A writer needs to be knowledgeable in a variety of industry and societal aspects. They don’t just understand their genre and instrument, they understand music as a whole. They don’t just understand their experiences, they understand the issues that affect their surroundings and beyond. They find a relation in human behavior through past actions and modern affairs. They’re capable of processing an obscene amount of content, and using the information to produce something to share with the world they are emotionally embedded in.
They also need to be able to rock out.
As Tarah Who? was first being formed, another French-native moved to Los Angeles. Herve came to the states from Brittany, France, but her and Carpenter’s similarities and bond didn’t just stop at language and culture. She was a drummer since 10 and a well-versed music lover. After Coco graduated from the Musicians Institute in 2018, it was time for the duo to define and perfect their sound and start their legacy.
Music has the tendency to repeat itself every three decades. This doesn’t necessarily mean the sound is the same, but rather the style and attitude. The ‘60s and ‘90s brought us great rock, boy bands, and emotion; the ‘70s and ‘00s also gave the world great rock, disco and dance and high energy; the ‘80s and ‘10s spread pop throughout every genre, fantastic experimentation and some strange fashion choices. The ‘20s will give us yet another rock revolution.
In the ‘60s and ‘90s, societal conflict led to progressive voices rising from every form of status, and the start of the ‘20s have been no different, maybe even more demanding in that sense thus far. Also, perhaps these chance comparisons are subconsciously due to the generational bonds we have with our parents, or perhaps, on a less complex psychological note, we’re just in need or nostalgic influence. Fans get that with Tarah Who?.
“I have never written a song just to write a song,” Carpenter shared.
Does this signify the return of the quality album in the industry, something that has vanished since probably the ‘00s in rock music? As a ‘90’s teen, a CD was something of value, and every last track was part of that experience. In the modern world of digital downloads, all a band needs is a hit or two, and maybe land the audio for a commercial.
Both Carpenter and Herve have deep-seeded roots in “older” rock. From strong female-led ‘90’s acts such as Alanis Morissette, Bikini Kill, Björk, The Cranberries, The Distillers, Garbage and Sonic Youth to classics rockers like Bon Jovi, Heart, Joan Jett and Journey, the women of Tarah Who? have a superior catalog of influence.
Her love for these artists, and her drive, allowed Carpenter to enter the industry and a valuable network.
Jason Orme was, and still is, an established guitarist from the ‘90s on. He served as Morrisette’s guitarist, and provided support for other strong female artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Natasha Bedingfield, Michelle Branch, Idina Menzel and Kelly Clarkson. He has since added production to his credits.
Orme first met Carpenter when she was a teenager. He was on tour with Morrisette and they were playing a show in Paris. Carpenter attended the concert and was able to linger enough after the show to have a conversation with Orme. They would connect each time France was a tour stop, and after Carpenter moved to Los Angeles, their contact became more frequent. It wasn’t until 10 years after they met that Orme began to truly hear what Carpenter had to offer, and with production now a part of his resume, the timing worked out perfectly.
Orme said of their relationship, “It just kind of developed over time. She’s really got a voice, and she has something to say.”
Carpenter fits in well with the role of a strong female voice who has the ability to reach an audience. Orme has always respected her work ethic and independence, and it’s partially why he was excited to work with her and Herve.
“I have a lot of respect for her because I think she really sticks to her gut feeling on things. If it doesn’t feel right in her gut, and if she’s not representing herself in a way that she really wants to, then she doesn’t do it.”
Though Tarah Who? is in a good position when it comes to their genre, they still face an uphill battle. They have their sound, they have an audience, but now there is a call for broader respect.
Progressive punk, grunge, hard rock and other closely-related genres have one thing in common: they are male-dominated. Yet, female-led acts such as Evanescence, Flyleaf, Halestorm, Lucina Coil and The Pretty Reckless have been able to maintain successful careers in the mainstream rock world. Not to mention the previously aforementioned acts dominated the ‘70s-‘10s. The industry isn’t necessarily the issue, though.
Gender norms aren’t something that musical artists themselves live by, but rather audiences and listeners tend to be more focused on what is standard.
Carpenter said, “We had an interview with a French radio show not too long ago and there seems to be, still, an issue with female artists playing rock, metal, etc. Here in L.A., I feel that women, in general, are able to express themselves more in whatever area they are in. It is very refreshing.”
Cultural differences and mindsets are important to consider for international acts, and when placed in the right scene, it enables any musician with more opportunity and to be taken more seriously. And though the artist shares a common ideology with their colleagues, ignorance and sometimes strategy can delay progression.
Orme added, “I think women are held to a different standard sometimes than men. That’s something they still have to fight.”
There is also the danger that comes along with being a female in not only a male-dominated genre, but in front of male-dominated audiences. Precautions need to be taken, and there have been instances where both Carpenter and Herve have felt uncomfortable, even at risk from persistent vulgar drunks.
“We usually are able to either calm them down or they get kicked out,” Carpenter explained. “We as artists can’t really get into it since it is also our show on the line.”
It is a difficult balance. Carpenter and Herve, who tour alone most times, must be careful of not only the information they provide, but from any sort of physical altercation or theft. On the other hand, they also have a name to keep and a brand to promote. The duo does it the right way: through their music and onstage presence. They don’t need shock value or degrading sexiness to prove they belong or draw an audience in, and most spectators appreciate the genuine act.
In 2014, Tarah Who? released their debut album, Little Out There. It screamed progressive punk and grunge with loud rhythm, low riffs and heavy distortion and Carpenter’s signature blunt lyrics.
Carpenter admitted of her style, “I am not good at making up stories or using metaphors. When I write I have this burst of emotions, and I am about to explode. Well, I actually do end up in tears of anger or sadness. For a few minutes, I am just writing and writing until my hand hurts and almost until the dark cloud is gone. I feel like I can breathe again.”
Her methods are full of emotion and energy, but nothing is ever forced. Everything is developed with thought. After Little Out There, Tarah Who? released three EPs, Federal Circle of Shame (2016), Half Middle Child Syndrome (2017) and 64 Women (2020). Recently, a slew of singles have been available for streaming, including their latest release on Feb. 16, “Manners.”
Though many of Tarah Who?’s songs contain aggressive riffs, anger and sadness, like “Copycat,” “Pantomath” and “Swallow That Pill,” the band does showcase versatility. “Human To Be” slows the tempo and promotes acceptance and hope within personal frustration, and “Hurt,” “14 Months” and “In A Rush” bring a deeper, softer musical touch to their cadence.
Tarah Who? has shifted their sound a tad. Little Out There had more of a standard ‘90’s rock feel, especially on tracks such as “Rainy Day” and “Too Much Thinking.” The best thing about the album, however, is full balance. It’s loud, heavy, up-tempo, but can shift and transition into melodious ballad songs like “Here All Ears” without any abrupt choppiness. In music, or at least in the past, it’s not just about inner-song structure, but album structure as well.
Releasing singles and EPs are a newer strategy recycled from decades ago. It works on many levels, especially for independent bands. However, Tarah Who? has proven they can write an album, and another full release like Little Out There, not necessarily a retreat to the sound, but rather the structure, may push them further into the scene—and even more so in the community.
The EP title 64 Women isn’t just some random grouping of females; it has significance. On Nov. 19, 2014, 64 women were detained at an immigration detention center in downtown Los Angeles. Carpenter and Herve also reference the Manchester bombing at Ariana Grande’s concert on May 22, 2017 in the track “Numb Killer.” Through the hard riffs, the punk-grunge sound and attitude, there are important messages connected to Tarah Who?’s music. Carpenter sings about accepting yourself, loving one another despite our physical and ideological differences, and affairs that affect society as a whole.
Tarah Who? can possibly be an influencer—an important one, that is, not the pointless millionaires on social media. Fame isn’t a primary aspiration because there are drawbacks to that level of status. It’s sometimes just about developing a core audience in order to make a living and keep doing what an artist loves to do. That happens on and off the stage.
Carpenter said, “I think that it is the responsibility of any influencers, musician or not, to inspire others in what you believe is right. If you are able to make an impact on someone, you should try to make a good impact. For instance, voting, Black Lives Matter, etc.”
One such cause in Carpenter’s heart is the LGBTQ+ community. “For communities like the LGBTQ+, the way I am making an impact is by not hiding, nor do I need to mention it on every post. The way I see it is that if I want the LGBTQ+ to be ‘normalized’ (because I think it is normal in the first place) is just to be. Do your thing.”
She lives her life as she chooses, and if she receives any flack for her style or preferences, she realizes that sometimes reaction is useless. It’s regression in a way. When issues are brought to light, and norms are challenged, it’s about progression, and the petty arguments only hinder our development as a society.
Orme added to Carpenter’s plight, “The thing that always impresses me about her is her drive. I think Tarah can keep moving forward and do what she wants, but she’s putting in the work of probably 20 people.”
What’s most impressive is that Tarah Who? remains an independent band, which comes with freedom. However, there are the financial uncertainties and the stresses of booking gigs and managing tour logistics. Yet, one of the main issues an unsigned artist faces is being taken seriously. Tarah Who? works just as hard, or even harder, than other acts in the industry; they don’t sit around and wait for opportunities to be presented.
Orme said, “In my experience they are some of the hardest working musicians I’ve ever met. Tarah is so dedicated and their story is deep and touches on so many facets of what it takes to be an artist and remain true to what you want to put out into the world.”
Tarah Who? has a great opportunity to lead a new charge of female empowerment, as well as being an influential act for young musicians. It’s the story you always hear about, but one in which the ending still needs to be written. Carpenter and Herve can be more than a talented rock duo, they can be an industry symbol of perseverance and progression.
Herve simply said, “I hope we can, as humans and with our music, make the world better. I know it’s cliché, but that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Tarah Who? is doing exactly that. Cliché or not, that’s something we can all aspire to achieve with our respective passions and talents. You just have to go for it whether the world is ready or not.
Carpenter added, “We want an open-minded audience.”
Experimentation in music, especially when mixing genres, has led to progression within the industry. Vulgarithm is looking for similar success, and is using an old style to help.
Vulgarithm is a one-man outfit created by Andy “Dirt” McGurk. With a decade of rock and metal experience, he decided to make a change and challenge his artistic abilities.
McGurk explained, “I felt my previous solo stuff started getting stale and I needed a creative reboot.”
Bands, or artists, in need of invention look to the technique of blending styles, or in many pop culture cases, collaboration. Look what’s going on with country and hip-hop, for example. Blending sounds is different, though, especially when it’s one person creating and programming the composition. McGurk knew what he liked, knew what was becoming flat, and decided to venture into the uncertain world of providing unique content.
Based in the U.K., McGurk has concentrated on music since he was a child. There wasn’t a thought toward anything other for his future. He learned the piano at six and eventually picked up the guitar. He studied his craft, learned structure and sound through listening to songs and attending festivals, and eventually followed the industry as it has drastically shifted the last two-plus decades. He realized a personal change was inevitable and vital to sustain in an overcrowded scene.
Vulgarithm’s style could best be described as riff rave. It takes deeper riffs, especially the low distortion popularized in the ’90s and 2000s, and mixes in some 90s dance music. Sound strange? There’s a little more to it, so it’s a tad difficult to explain. Yet, within the variety of beats offered, nu-metal is also present.
“Bands with big riffs and grooves always stick with me,” McGurk said, “but the two biggest influences on my writing has been anything Trent Reznor or Maynard James Keenan have done. Constantly reinventing themselves to make their music unique.”
Those inspirations, and also the vocal tone of Serj Tankian at times, can be heard. More so, the bass usage is similar to The Prodigy and the nu-metal act Ultraspank. Yet, he also mixes in remains of the old rap-rock genre on some tracks when the vocals are added. A good comparison may be Hed PE.
Then there are the visual elements, and this derives from McGurk’s time as an audience member watching bands such as Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Orbital. I’ve personally seen Nine Inch Nails and Tool before, and the production quality of their performances is incredible. It’s an art; it’s an act. Of course, they have the funding to offer that level of entertainment on a grand scale, but adding those elements are important factors to consider.
The combination of visuals with energetic sound can take a live show to the next level. However, there first needs to be live shows.
Vulgarithm uses projections and costumes to enhance the experience for its audience. Unfortunately, there haven’t been many performances to showcase its fresh act and sound. In fact, the only shows McGurk has been able to share are virtual, having never played in public as Vulgarithm due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McGurk said about his shows, “I’ve had a grand total of 3, maybe 4. Sadly, all of these have been online as Vulgarithm has only been around since the start of 2020.” He added, “My main aim as an individual performer is to look engaging as well as sounding good.”
As many in the industry know, live shows are where artists make a majority of their money, and for McGurk to miss out on that type of revenue and promotion is difficult to swallow. In the meantime, it’s about finding other avenues in order to sustain.
“This is where Vulgarithm has to step up now,” McGurk explained. “It has only known lock-down in its existence so I’ve had to really push the word out through music, videos, online shows, and merch. Anything other than gigging to let the general public know I exist.”
In 2019, Vulgarithm released Share If You Agree, and offered its sophomore EP, Share If You Disagree, last year. The single “Out My Way!” was recently shared on Feb. 19. More tracks will be released leading up to McGurk’s next EP, Share In The 3rd Degree.
There are a couple tracks by Vulgarithm that best defines the sound McGurk is attempting to develop and perfect. “Piece of Shame” off Share If You Agree provides listeners with an idea of Vulgarithm’s influences. It has similar energy to the nu-metal group Spineshank. McGurk really finds his sound and attitude on “The Vulgar Rhythm” and “I Cannot Take This Country Seriously.” The latter is his hit, in my opinion, and it’s because the song is one of the most consistently rhythmic and structured tracks McGurk has produced.
Though Vulgarithm is in no doubt creative and versatile, which is most apparent in its tracks “Still Have Doubts” and “I Can Only Find Nothing,” there is a small issue to consider. Occasionally, when blending styles, consistency suffers. You can use different styles to make a unique sound, but it’s better to keep that unique sound instead of flirting with other combinations on the same track or album. Experimentation is a necessity for the creative mind, but so is organization for the final product.
There is some Reznor in “Out My Way!” but it also displays Vulgarithm’s ability to make infectious hard rock beats. On the contrary, it also makes abrupt changes to the sound, including the insertion of the Independence Day speech. No complaint there. Great movie, great speech. The one thing Vuglarithm can work on is its in-song transitions, and then it will have its unique sound.
Nine Inch Nails, Tool, The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers maintained their sound and style, and they are definitely great acts to be influenced by. In the case of Maynard James Keenan, when a new sound was developed, it wasn’t developed necessarily through Tool, but rather A Perfect Circle or Puscifer.
What Vulgarithm is best at, in my mind, is rhythmic nu-metal, or perhaps industrial metal. There are parts of each song that McGurk can use. He has a good hard rock vocal range and tackles issues with his lyrics, he can make excellent beats and riffs, and can visual stimulate an audience. The key is bringing those aspects together more consistently and organizing each song and EP for a better flow. And if he can do that, he has the ability to become a known brand.
Heavy rhythmic acts, whether straight riffs or with the addition of synthesizers, do work on an international level. Danish band Volbeat has some of the best cadence for a hard rock band, especially with the distinctive vocals of Michael Poulsen. However, if Vulgarithm wants to take note of any band to learn from, it would be Rammstein. The Germans not only blend hard rock distortion with synthesizers almost perfectly, they know how to structure a song from beginning to bridge to end. Not to mention Rammstein is one of the most electrifying live acts in the world. Trust me, I’ve seen them and I will always remember that show.
McGurk is on the right path with Vulgarithm. One thing is for sure, he is creative and true to his style, and once he perfects it, it can take him places.
“Dancing on the ceiling, tonight we’re going out.” -Foxy Shazam, “Dreamer”
We broke from the hot early-summer dusk for a moment. Inside the hazy bar we ordered a beer and waited for the shade to cover the last open spots of the sidewalk patio. A publication usually used as a vagrant’s blanket printed an article that brought us to the small venue—that, and the desire for whimsical randomness to fill our lives of little responsibility. What we witnessed the evening of May 1, 2010 will never be forgotten.
It was early in the night. As we waited for our order, one that shouldn’t have taken as long as it did judging by the audience-capacity ratio, a rumbling stumble descended from the upper level. The staircase’s carpet was as thin and delicate as a stale wafer, and it was shocking the shadowy figure between two other silhouettes made it down walking on different portions of each foot.
The pair placed their inebriated third party on open sticky dark plastic. The man stretched his legs out and rested his back against the chip paneling, his top hat tilting over his eyes, but not far enough to cover his wide grin and accompanying chortle. One man, the one with the drooping frizzy curls, waited with his mate. The other approached us.
He was a squirrely fellow with a baseball tee, tight and faded black jeans, and uneven bangs. His straight black strands dropped just below the back of his neck, and he sported a long moustache with an unintentional gap underneath his apex. He acknowledged our presence with the softest timbre.
It was a brief cliché conversation, one in which minor details of the encounter were remembered while the dialogue was easily forgotten. Perhaps it was because of the thin man’s mousy voice.
We toasted our fresh beers to our new concert acquaintance and exited to the patio. The sun had traveled farther west and dropped behind the building, at least. A group of young men laughed and worked on their pints. They took up a majority of the space, so my friend and I joined in on their harmless antics and banter before we would all reenter the venue for what was hoped to be a good show. We had no idea.
The venue manager jutted his aging face outside, grasping onto the frame of the open sliding door. He summoned our new pals, “Guys, you were supposed to be on 10 minutes ago.”
The band, Bad Rabbits, consumed what was left of their drinks, and casually entered the building in direct route to the stage. There was barely a body for them to navigate around, so as polite and friendly as they were to us, we figured we should reciprocate the mood and check out their performance. We wouldn’t be let down.
My friend and I ascended the stairs that survived the gangling gait of a drunk moments before—and countless times before and after that. The three scalawags had disappeared from the booth we last saw them. Perhaps they were asked to leave. Perhaps they found a quieter locale to sober up.
We moseyed to the front of the loft and rested our forearms on the rail. There were just a few more bodies upstairs, but they allowed us the best view of the unknown act below. The boys from Bad Rabbits finished tuning their instruments and adjusting their amps and mics. The show began; we were immediately drawn into the catchy basslines, soulful vocals and funky rhythm. Their music was a blended cadence of rhythm and blues, rock, pop and punk. It was hard not to gently bob our heads and tap our heels against the stained deck above as we watched a small, increasingly-loyal crowd gather in front of the band. Our movements became more rhythmic with each passing song and beer. Bad Rabbits was a well-suited opener who could have headlined—if it wasn’t for the next act, of course.
Foxy Shazam was once compared to Queen, and also the likes of Meat Loaf and The Darkness, due to the theatrics of the band and operatic lyrics and vocal range of lead singer Eric Nally. Though there are similarities to an extent, the band wasn’t exactly like any predecessor, nor will they be replicated in the future. Foxy Shazam can be compared to no one other than Foxy Shazam.
The Cincinnati outfit formed in 2004, and self-released their first album, The Flamingo Trigger. Their sound was bellicose and maniacal in a way, different from what was to follow and their current style, but it still landed them a record deal.
Introducing Foxy Shazam was released in 2008 by Ferret Music. The album created a media buzz about their potential arrival into mainstream rock, and they were slated onto bills that included The Strokes, Portugal, The Man and Panic! At the Disco. Foxy Shazam was being talked about, but yet, they were still trapped in the shadow of past great acts and casually compared to bands on lineups they supported.
Foxy Shazam’s uniqueness reminds me—and this is not a comparison at all—to the band Zebrahead. When the Orange County group became mainstream, there was really nothing like them on the airwaves. And, having seen them twice live, their stage presence was also slightly different than bands in their genre—which was difficult enough to firmly label. They incorporated so many styles and traits that they made their own sound, which is fascinating.
Foxy Shazam did the same, whether through inspiration or progressive innovation. In 2010, as their name appeared in more music publications and they booked stage slots on festivals like Lollapalooza, the band changed labels and released their self-titled album. Foxy Shazam is, and always will be, one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. The tracks are structured brilliantly; each song has a distinctive tempo and timbre, as well as a defining lyric. Keyboardist Schuyler White’s composition is versatile. He shifts between traditional pop rock piano to sultry jazz at times, and all styles mesh with the standard rock distortion and Nally’s powerful, occasionally high-pitched vocals. In addition, Alex Nauth bringing brass into rock music without other ska elements completely supplementing the rest of the record is something difficult to accomplish—almost as difficult as fashioning a perfect horn solo in a drunken state.
Foxy Shazam took the stage. We still weren’t sure what to expect, especially when the squirrely fellow with the mouse voice stood behind the microphone. How could a man with such a soft tone be able to lead the vocal charge of a rock act? Then, to our left and his right, his intoxicated comrade stood with a horn dangling to his side, the spotlight reflecting off the well-used yellow coating. The last of the trio we earlier met lifted his axe on the opposite side of the stage, and joined by an additional three mates, the show began as the third member of our party arrived just in time.
It was powerful, glamorous, exhilarating. Nally belted his deep words without a crack in any tenor he chose, and Nauth played his instrument flawlessly as if his earlier intoxication was merely part of the act. The drum beat and bassline were pulsing, the guitar riffs crisp, and White tickled a captivating melody over the black and white keys in front of his waist. Soon after, he would play the notes upside down, with his feet, and then lift the keyboard off its stand while maintaining his fortissimo dynamic throughout.
The musical talent of the members of Foxy Shazam was incredible, and their stage presence matched their level of melodious aptitude. Nally would twirl the microphone wire, pedal and shift the stand with the balls of his feet, tell convincing fibs as filler between songs, and jump on the shoulders of his bandmates—each musician staying in precise form during any antic.
Toward the end of the performance a mishap almost hampered the whole show. Nauth, during a horn solo, tumbled over a large amp. Perhaps the drunkenness wasn’t part of the act. While on his back with his legs resting atop the tipped-over device, he continued to hit each note. After his section of the movement completed, he vigorously tried to lift the large amp, but instead stretched his torso across it and jokingly pretended it was his faux lover. At some point during the joyous debauchery, the frizzy-haired man who partook in the preshow festivities, Loren Turner, had his guitar damaged. A flipped amp, a broken guitar and a raucous back-and-forth between members on stage didn’t serve as a hindrance. In fact, the imperfections only strengthened the experience as if it was part of the show. As if this was Foxy Shazam, and we weren’t ready for it, but gladly adapted to and accepted their brilliance.
The key to a great album is balance and changeability. In other words, not every song should sound the same, but still contain a band’s distinctive sound. It needs a strong opening track to set the tone, “hits” staggered throughout, some power, some clandestine catchiness, something cool, and, of course, some emotional and meaningful ballads. Foxy Shazam accomplished that with TheChurch of Rock and Roll in 2012, just like they did with Foxy Shazam. The album, a compilation of music to blast with your windows down, did produce the first single I heard on the radio in my town, “I Like It.”
In 2014, the band released Gonzo. Their sound shifted a tad for this self-release. It became softer, more experimental and seemed to reach decades into the past for inspiration. Soon after, Foxy Shazam announced their breakup.
The band members each took on different projects, most notably Nally’s inclusion on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ hit “Downtown” in 2015. Though he brought his distinctive flare and range to a broader audience, the pop world may not have been completely prepared for his unique genius. In 2020, the like-minded musical minds of Foxy Shazam got back together and released their sixth album.
Burn was released on Dec. 11, 2020. There is a cosmic feel to the album in its entirety—similar to Gonzo. It’s hard to depict if the band is reaching into the past or giving the music world some sort of post-modern sound.
The opening title track presents not only the anticipation of power, but also a darker shift in Foxy’s sound. Yet, “Dreamer” changes tone and slows the tempo which is unexpected for the second track of an album. With that in mind, the song’s goal doesn’t seem to want to keep the musical momentum at first, but rather state a message as the character of the album—until about two minutes in when the pace increases and the volume strengthens, and continues on through “Doomed.”
“Dreamscape 2020” is the song that won’t be a hit, but will be a favorite. White’s piano is intoxicating, the dynamics of the track will make you tap your foot and bob your head in whatever direction you choose, the structure flows without fail (until the abrupt last ten seconds), and Nally’s lyrics and story are relatable and worthy of sharing.
“Never Ever” falls a little short if compared to “Forever Together” from The Church of Rock And Roll and “Evil Thoughts” off Foxy Shazam. “In My Mind” and “S.Y.A.A.F.” have infectious beats to keep the album rolling along. Unfortunately, “Into the Wild” is severely out of place, but could become a cult favorite among Foxy’s listeners, as is the case with “Never Ever” I suppose.
The album ends with two strong tracks. “Suffering” is a solid rock song, and “The Rose” was already popular before Burn’s release. Something was missing, however. The album just kind of ends, and though each song contained a good structure for the most part, the track listing didn’t possess a very solid flow.
I will forever be a Foxy Shazam supporter and listener—I even pre-ordered Burn (and it still hasn’t arrived). The album, however, is to own solely for the nostalgia of their collection. It’s an average grouping of tracks that may not be appreciated beyond the circle of Foxy supporters, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are definitely a few songs that are catchy and deep enough to have on repeat, but as a whole, the album needed something more, but it’s tough to say what that is. It needed closure, in a way.
Lastly, though the thematic elements of the songs may focus on relationship issues, perhaps they’re not directed toward the standard. There’s a battle going on throughout Nally’s stories, and this ultimate conflict could serve as a bigger interpretation than just a simple courtship between two people. It could be the fight that is the journey of life and our respective struggles not only with love, but with industry and societal censorship.
Overall, the music and lyrics are good, and Foxy fans won’t be hugely disappointed. However, this is just a return and not necessarily a step forward for the band. I will always support Foxy Shazam no matter which way they move. I gladly bought the album, and I will certainly see them live once again.
The show had ended and the small crowd made their way to the bar or out the door—all smiles and immediate recollections. We stayed a bit longer. I bought an album and a shirt one size too small. We noticed Foxy Shazam packing up their instruments and equipment. The candid moment of docile labor exemplified the trials and dedication of a band on the road.
We approached, not to bring up our earlier encounter, but to show our appreciation and wish the band luck. As a pianist and amateur composer, I spoke to White. It was the second to last stop on their tour and he was ready to return home. He explained how he had broken fingers due to the intensity of his performance as if it was just a casual occurrence.
We laughed and chatted and expressed our gratitude for them coming to Albuquerque. Our friend then asked one of the band members, I can’t quite remember if it was Nally or Nauth, to sign the album he purchased. He asked them to write their favorite lyric on the CD jacket.
The band shuffled out the back door of the Launchpad, tired and toting their heavy gear. We reminded ourselves of how great the night had been, and agreed it couldn’t end quite yet. Our friend opened his CD as we meandered toward the bar counter. It read:
“Life is a bitch but she’s totally doable.”
She sure is. And Foxy Shazam, even after a breakup and subsequent reunion, continues to prove that to be true. You should, too.
We’re here: the top five songs from my top 100 playlist. I’m sorry you had to sit through some songs, maybe most of them, that you didn’t like or never planned to hear again, and that may not change with these next five. My favorite song of all time will probably never be on anyone else’s entire list, but again, it’s based on individual preference.
I do hope you choose to do your own top 100 playlist. It’s a great distraction during this crazy time in history, plus you may surprise yourself.
First, a recap. If you don’t remember or you’re just now tuning in, you can click on 21-25, 16-20, 11-15 and 6-10.
Now, enjoy my top five songs of all time.
5. “Wasted Years” by Cold
Favorite Lyric:“Was it life I betrayed, for the shape that I’m in, it’s not hard to fail, it’s not easy to win.”
There were four bands from this era that were my favorite: Oleander, Disturbed, Zebrahead (Justin Mauriello days) and Cold. Cold is a band that music lovers tend to either love or hate, and I fall at the top of the former. Just like with story songs, I’m a sucker for depressing songs, whether about heartbreak or life—but probably more of the latter. “Wasted Years” is that track for me, though Cold has a plethora of choices if someone is in need of a sad song. It’s one of the best songs off maybe the best post-grunge album I’ve ever heard, Year of the Spider. The song, like many of Scooter Ward’s, helped me reminisce, relate and recover in a mere four minute span, and any track that can have that type of emotional impact is something incredible.
4. “Teenage Anarchist” by Against Me!
Favorite Lyric:“I was a teenage anarchist, but the politics were too convenient.”
Against Me! is another great punk band. The Florida outfit has been around since 1997, and they have grown and transitioned to one of the more followed acts in the punk rock world. I used the word transitioned for a reason, because in 2012, lead singer Thomas James Gabel became Laura Jane Grace. Even though the band has seen a slew of members come and go, they have provided fans with some great tracks, none more meaningful than “Teenage Anarchist.” The song isn’t necessarily about what the title implies, but rather how the punk revolution left many young rebels unfulfilled. Essentially, the revolution never came on individual levels, but the memories of the time remained. This video also is chilling, especially with what has been going on in the world, and as one of the comments points out, the punk camaraderie around 1:40 is special in a non-conformist way. You put effort into your mindset as a youth, and sometimes that ideology doesn’t pan out, but the memories make the moments worth it.
3. “Piano Man” by Billy Joel
Favorite Lyric:“Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”
Billy Joel is one of my favorite artists of all time, and “Piano Man” could be the perfect song. The great instrumental melody, the lyrical rhythm, the mass appeal and, of course, the story and the techniques used to tell it. Joel was able to not only talk about an evening in a lounge and the collective characters that regularly grace the establishment, but rather the varying representations of people in society—and how they can agree upon one thing: music. Also, the “oh, la la la, di da da” bridge is fitting because it’s not necessarily about the story, but rather the same old story. I’m currently learning the song on the piano, and the jazzy elements Joel adds makes its C Major 3-4 signature far from basic. A goal of mine is to see Joel at Madison Square Garden, and I heard the audience gets to sing the chorus to “Piano Man.”
2. “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King
Favorite Lyric:“Stand by me.”
This is my favorite song from the era, and that may be true for many listeners. “Stand By Me” has been a staple in not only American culture, but the world, since its 1961 release. Ben E. King’s vocals have been used when people are in need of a positive message or to honor a memory, movies or television programs need an emotional moment, companies are in need of an accompaniment for an ad, or other artists need a great cover song. Artists such as John Lennon and Tracy Chapman have recorded the track. The song contains a basic rhythm with a basic, but immensely important message, and this shows that music doesn’t need to be complex to have a massive impact. In a world that is constantly changing, and heading more and more toward division rather than progression, we need tracks like “Stand By Me” to settle our communal anxiety and uncertainty. Now, if we could just stand by each other, that would be nice, as well.
1. “Stay Young” by Strata
Favorite Lyric:“For a lifetime of paying dues and ruthless reviews, yeah, it’s hard not to end up a cynic, when everyone’s too scared to walk in your shoes, but can work up the nevre to be critics.”
Let the comments begin. “Stay Young” may not be on a lot of top 100 lists; in fact, many general music listeners may not have ever heard the track or have never explored Strata’s version of alt metal and rock. And though it may not be the best song ever, I believe everyone should hear it at least once. Lyrically, it’s a masterpiece, and musically, it’s just as outstanding because of the growing shift in tempo and tone. The main reason this song is so important is because of the message. This world is messed up, and it continues to become more complex, and it seems the only end game, whether sooner or later, is doomsday. We must look back on our lives, embrace the moments when we were young and innocent before being exposed to the troubles of reality, and perhaps the answers to happiness lie within those moments (I’m not telling you to live in the past, though). The line, “Can you still remember your very first kiss,” can be furthered into a deeper relation to confusion. We all remember our first kiss, and perhaps how confusing it was, and how vibrant the action and the dreams to follow became. Now we deal with the confusion of real life and the hopes that fade. We need to stay young, not just with the memories of when we were youths, but to prepare our minds for the future.
Thanks for listening! Now go out and make your own list and enjoy your favorite songs of all time.
You’ve made it to the top ten, skipping over songs you thought were lame and revisiting classics you love. If you’ve already forgotten, tracks 21-25 are here, 16-20 here and 11-15 here. We’ve listened to classical, folk, pop, punk, singer-songwriters, swing and rock. This next grouping requires some spare time as a fair warning.
Here are songs 6-10.
10. “Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125” by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Arguably the best symphony of all time, this was Ludwig van Beethoven’s last complete symphony, and he was almost deaf when he composed it. This work is an amazing achievement and will go down in history as one of the finest compositions in music across all genres. Again, though, classical music is the greatest and purest genre, making this symphony quite possibly the best piece of music every written. Around 17 and half minutes in, my favorite part of the choral masterpiece, molto vivace – presto, is performed for a good 13-some minutes. The intensity and transition of tempo is emotional and intoxicating, and the main portion of that movement can stay in my head all day. This is the work of a genius mind.
9. “Lightning Crashes” by Live
Favorite Lyric:“The angel opens her eyes, pale blue colored iris, presents the circle, and puts the glory out to hide.”
Despite the world’s admiration for Elton John’s Disney monster hit, “Lightning Crashes” is the better circle-of-life song. The basic 4-4 C-major riffs and rhythm complement the poetic story of a woman dying and another life being born. Death and life: it’s that simple. There is a misconception that a woman dies while giving birth, but the death and new life are two separate instances. This song is off one of the best rock albums of the ‘90s, Throwing Copper, and the growing shift in dynamics, a staple of Live, throughout makes this a very powerful track off a very significant album. Like death and life, “Lightning Crashes” is lasting.
8. “Runaround Sue” by Dion
Favorite Lyric:“Yeah, I should have known it from the very start, this girl will leave me with a broken heart.“
My second favorite doo-wop song by possibly my favorite voice of the era. Not just because of Dion’s great range, but because of what he sang about. Guys, “Runaround Sue” is still relatable today; we’ve all experienced at least one hussy in our life. It’s more than that, though, because both sexes can relate to a disloyal lover, and how we must learn from our experiences and avoid future heartbreak created by betrayal. Plus, that beat and rhythm throughout can help you forget about your particular “Sue.” On another note, from the video, crowds were way less into concerts then, especially when Dion’s killing it.
7. “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” by Meat Loaf
Favorite Lyric:“Some day I just pray to the god of sex and drugms and rock ‘n’ roll.”
I thoroughly enjoy “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but I have to give the edge to “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” as the most epic operatic rock ballad. Including the most famously “cryptic” lyric in rock music, this dramatic song and the theatrical video is brilliant in all aspects of composition. The structure of the song deserves admiration. The instrumental introduction lasts two minutes, then softens to Meat Loaf’s presentation of the title and chorus. The volume and melody gradually increases, and instrumentals follow the verses and chorus, along with backing vocals, and nine and a half minutes into the song (album version), a duet with Lorraine Crosby finally sums up what Meat Loaf won’t do: move on (essentially). There are other things he won’t do, however: forget the way his partner feels, forgive himself if they don’t go all the way, do it better than he does it with her and stop dreaming of her. If you wanted to know, it’s always been in the song.
6. “Prisoner of Society” by The Living End
Favorite Lyric:“Cos I’m a brat, and I know everything, and I talk back, cos I’m not listening, to anything you say.”
Let’s hear it for some Australian punk! This song plays an important role in any late-90’s teenager’s life. During your adolescent angst, your mind is ripe to discover curiosity, especially considering the way society functions—wrongfully functions, at that. The Living End was also different in a sense because mainstream punk at that time was more poppy, or “bubblegum,” and the Australian trio seemed more in tune with the attitude and sound of when the British punk revolution was prominent in the ’70s. However, they also took advantage of the short-lived rockabilly craze of the ‘90s—the Stray Cats playing a major influence in their style, most noticeably in Scott Owen’s use of the double bass. I was at the perfect age when this song came out, and I’m thankful for that.
If you’ve been following, songs 16-20 started to vary from songs 21-25, and that trend is about to continue. This playlist isn’t intended to boast my tastes, but rather remind listeners and readers of tracks they have forgotten about or perhaps introduce genres and songs they would generally overlook. There’s a lot of music in the world, and I’m open to the preferences and suggestions of others. This is my list, though, so you’re stuck with these tracks for now.
Here are songs 11-15.
15. “The Mice, The Demons, And The Piggies” by Wolfgang Parker
Favorite Lyric:“Well the whiskey in front of my face keeps pour-pour-pour-pour-pouring along, makes me drunk-drunk-drunk-drunk as hell all night long.”
You won’t find much information on Wolfgang Parker, but the Ohio-based musician and writer is incredibly talented and versatile. Room Nineteen is a fantastic album showcasing Parker’s abilities in punk, rock and swing. “The Mice, The Demons, And The Piggies” contains a basic and contagious rhythm, and the piano solo mid-way transitions perfectly into the more up-tempo concluding movement. The lyrics fit the sound, and if I would have to guess, the room is the character’s mind, and the taps and voices are inner demons he’s trying to wash away with a vice—the very vice that is the cause and solution. Just a guess. Or it could just be a really cool song. On another note, Parker is also a children’s book author
14. “Joey” by Concrete Blonde
Favorite Lyric:“But if I seem to be confused, I didn’t mean to be with you, and when you said I scared you, well I guess you scared me too.”
“Joey” is about alcoholism, or addiction in general, and not just the struggle the individual faces, but the people in their life who are forced to share the pain and absorb the consequences. Johnette Napolitano has said that this was a very difficult and painful song to write because of the content and close connection she has with the lyrics. Yet, we all have a connection to addiction in a way. I’ve lost friends to alcoholism, seen futures destroyed by drugs and others I know have lost family members. Though “Joey” charted after being released, the message behind the great lyrical and musical rhythm also contributed to the song’s impact on audiences.
13. “The Way That It Seems” by Onward, Etc.
Favorite Lyric:“The more I live life in reality, I pray to go insane, if your eyes are always open it’s impossible to dream.”
This song is a great journey song about perseverance and viewing the world in a different way than it’s presented on the surface. Rosco Wuestewald is an incredibly talented singer-songwriter, but his journey is one of innovation. His home has become the road; he started touring at 17, playing with local musicians in the towns where he booked gigs. After seeing Onward, Etc. (now Aage Birch) live on a whim, I was an immediate fan, and Wuestewald’s energetic form of folk and Americana combines a great sound with poetic stories and thought. “The Way That It Seems” is a song that can last a life-long journey.
12. “I Still Believe” by Frank Turner
Favorite Lyric:“And I still believe in the need, for guitars and drums and desperate poetry.”
Frank Turner is another artist I saw on a whim, and he has since become one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time. He’s an amazing storyteller, and backed by the Sleeping Souls, his style and words reach a broad audience. He doesn’t just offer events from his life, but a relation for many people to ponder through brilliant rhythmic scheming. “I Still Believe” may not even be Turner’s best track, but it’s the song that introduced me to his music, but also an anthem for the genre I’ve loved for so many years. In my opinion, he will go down as one of the great singer-songwriters the world has had the privilege to experience. In a strange way, this song and video always gives me chills.
11. “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
Favorite Lyric: “You gotta make a decision, leave tonight or live and die this way.”
At some point in our life, we all feel stuck. Some people’s situations are much worse than others, and they’re constantly searching for an escape, a better life. Tracy Chapman tells a story about getting out and releasing the chains that hold someone down from being something else. A person can become stuck in a loop, and for many less fortunate it’s a difficult cycle to escape. “Fast Car” is an incredible song, and shouldn’t just be considered one of the best folk rock songs in history, but one of the best songs in history across all genres because of the perfect match of melody and message.
The first five in my ranking didn’t vary far from a certain era, but as explained in the previous post, an individual’s tastes are shaped during a certain phase, and they may expand beyond that time, but it’s still a point in their life they can always revert back to. It’s their “remember when” era—which is a very vital time in development.
If you need a recap, click here. If not, let’s move on to songs 16-20.
20. “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
Favorite Lyric:“And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more, people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.”
“The Sound of Silence” is one of the most relevant songs in history that has lasted from generation to generation. That’s incredible from a musical standpoint, but not so much when considering the message. As Paul Simon struggles for meaning in an unforgiving society, he unravels the many layers of lonely thought. We’re even more isolated now, society is getting harsher and people are feeling a stronger sense of emptiness. And as the lyric states above, people are still talking without speaking and hearing without listening. Perhaps it would be wise to view this song as a relation rather than accepting it as a constant—though, it remains a song that is needed on many levels.
19. “Qi” by Phildel
Through my years of playing classical and ragtime piano, and the brilliant pieces I’ve heard and the rest of the world knows, this short work is one of the most beautiful piano solos I’ve come across. So much so, that I learned to play it myself. The key signature changes from Bb major to A major and so on, and in the second part of the movement, the composer subtly adds extra notes to enhance the piece as it moves along. Phildel is a talented and versatile British artist who can create pop tracks as well as compose neoclassical pieces that don’t need lyrics to move listeners. Classical music is so pure, and the best works ignite emotions without saying a word.
18. “Shed Some Light” by Shinedown
Favorite Lyric:“It’s innocence within the maze, but I have chosen the wrong way, I’m still getting over who I was, there’s no sense of trust, there’s no definition of love.”
Shinedown, like Seether, has been one of the best rock bands the last two decades, and they take time producing quality and balanced albums. Musically, they’re incredibly talented, and Brent Smith not only has one of the most powerful set of vocal chords on a lead singer in this era, he may be one of the best vocalists in the genre’s history—and that is saying A LOT. “Shed Some Light” is off Shinedown’s second studio album, Us and Them, and has always been a moving track about self-discovery, and a listener can find a relation to the words no matter which phase of life.
17.“Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum
Favorite lyric:“Bought a ticket for a runaway train, like a madman laughin’ at the rain, little out of touch, little insane, just easier than dealing with the pain.”
This famous power ballad is about depression, but Soul Asylum’s video also links the song to missing children and teens—which is also depressing. There’s a sense of emptiness and unanswered questions with both topics, and an urge for people to establish a connection for stability and survival. I have listened to “Runaway Train” many times in my life, and the emotions and message never stray, and for a song to continue to have such a lasting impact, not just on a personal level, but in the music world as well, is quite impressive.
16. “Use Me” by Bill Withers
Favorite Lyric:“You just keep on using me, until you use me up.”
Bill Withers is a legend, and the world lost him this year, unfortunately. “Use Me” is my favorite from his collection, though his career left listeners with amazing hits. His soulful voice is on full display here, especially when he repeats “baby” as if trying to convince himself the relationship will get better while masking the truth. However, the most infectious part of the song is the famous rhythm throughout. It’s simply cool, and if you’re driving with your windows down and this song is blaring, other people think you’re cool—or should at least.
As many are aware, we have some spare time on our hands. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced most to stay inside, I started my own music challenge: constructing a playlist of the 100 best songs I have ever heard. The running time for the arrangement is just over seven hours—so, a workday. Feel free to partake in the challenge, and give yourself the gift of songs you wouldn’t skip to get through the day—or if you end up stranded on an island.
The key component to such a playlist is the individual’s ears, not what one is told to like or the masses have deemed amazing. With that being said, a song’s immense popularity has been taken into consideration.
Other factors included the best lyrics and rhythms as they relate to the person, and also the overall societal message shared or emotion ignited within an individual. No genre was excluded, and some of my favorite artists, ones in which I own their entire catalog, didn’t make the cut. It was surprising, it was difficult and I have a separate spillover list because nothing is concrete.
With that in mind, and the aforementioned spare time, I would like to share with you the top 25 songs I have ever heard in increments of five rankings.
DISCLAIMER: If you’re expecting Queen, The Rolling Stones, Charlie, Chuck, Claude, Elton, Ms. Gaynor or Mungo Jerry, then you can find the entire list here.
Without further ado, here are songs 21-25.
25. “Walkin’ On The Sun” by Smash Mouth
Favorite Lyric:“Twenty-five years ago, they spoke out and they broke out, of recession and oppression and together they toked, and they folked out with guitars around a bonfire, just singin’ and clappin’, man, what the hell happened.”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, you’ve committed yourself to an eclectic list. Before Smash Mouth became major mainstream all-stars, their 1997 debut single was widely accepted in the U.S. and internationally. “Walkin’ On The Sun” discusses racial and social issues from the past, popularized a reinvention of psychedelic funk by blending it with pop rock, and you have to love that late-90’s fashion. Also, the video served as a generational musical connection and linked many Gen-Y teens to their parents’ past attitudes and tastes.
24. “Ghost” by House of Heroes
Favorite Lyric:“I’m gonna fade away, drifting out of your life, I wanna fade away, through the empty night.”
I’m a sucker for great stories, and wish a video was made for this song. Tim Skipper’s gentle timbre sets the tone for this track, and though the guitar pitch is one of happiness, the story immerses the listener into the character’s life and the additional consequences suffered from a bad decision. “Ghost” is a beautiful song, and the band’s harmony about fading away at the end—while fading away at the end—is structurally brilliant.
23. “Sympathetic” by Seether
Favorite Lyric:“And my words will be here when I’m gone.”
Seether has been one of the better post-grunge rock acts of the last two decades. The South African outfit has been recognized with double-digit awards and hit after hit, and actually have the most songs by one artist on this top-100 list—which even surprised me with the library I have. Seether’s 2002 debut album, Disclaimer, was fantastic from the first to last track, headlined by three singles, “Sympathetic” not being one. Yet, the lyrics resonated the most with me, and the cadence of Shaun Morgan’s voice has been a staple of their success in the rock world. Consistent good lyrical rhythm is difficult to come by in the genre.
22. “I Walk Alone” by Oleander
Favorite Lyric:“I can’t take this any longer, I won’t heal until I’m stronger, strong enough to not be afraid, of what anybody thinks, of what anybody says, about the way, about the way I am.”
Generally, music tastes are formed in the midst of teenage angst and discovery. Of course, they evolve over time through different phases of life, but if you’re in dire need of a memory, you can always go back to the scene when you we’re transitioning into an adult—or at least when you thought you were mature enough. Oleander is the alternative band from that era I admire the most, and still have never heard a song I didn’t enjoy by the Sacramento rockers. “I Walk Alone” helped calm a sporadic mind, and Thomas Flowers’ words, though “alone” is in the title, showed many lost souls that they weren’t actually alone.
21. “Talk About You” by Mika
Favorite Lyric:“Walk through the city like stupid people do, a million faces, but all I’m seeing is you.”
Mika is one of the most successful pop stars in the world. He has won 20 awards and been nominated for about 60 more. He’s just not that well-known in the U.S. He’s by far my favorite guilty pleasure in music. “Talk About You” is a song that is hard to get out of your head, and that’s what great singer-songwriters do: they write addictive records. The Lebanese-born artist has a knack for creating pop and glam rock tracks that are full of colorful expression, pride and rhythm. It’s hard not to move to Mika; it’s hard not to become addicted.
“There’s something in the, something in the way you were.” -The Union Underground, “Revolution Man”
I was in an airport restaurant waiting out a sizable layover, inhaling a giant burger which probably wasn’t the best meal choice before becoming scrunched in an uncomfortable middle seat for two-plus hours. A family of four dined at the table next to me, and I took notice to the preteen girl on her phone—not in that way, creep. With disinterest, she sported a Green Day “Dookie” shirt, a black bandanna with printed red roses, and some Chucks on full display resting on the seat and not the ground.
It’s no secret that the ’90s are back. Television and movie reboots, showy merchandising and horrible fashion have consumed the trendy public. The latter is something I’m having trouble grasping; ’90s fashion wasn’t necessarily a trend, but rather a statement of carelessness. Work boots were scuffed, but not from labor, jeans were baggy and ripped and not purchased as such, shirts were stretched and tattered, and flannel was considered all-season attire. Showering was optional, hair was mangy and long and being on time and tidy were mere suggestions. It was gross, yet people desperately attempt to recreate the look in the modern era.
Trends are trends so there will always be a validation of why a certain era repeats itself, but living in the ’90s, and being just old enough to process the aura of the time, I believe it’s not necessarily a decade that people should purposely emulate. Why do you want to look homeless and act depressed? Those are two real issues people deal with.
Queue the music scene. Grunge music had a certain influence on the minds of young adults, and though I still love the style today, it truly shaped a confused generation. The obsession with self-loathing created a flock of unmotivated troubled youths and it was fantastic in a bittersweet way, but also something that should have stayed in the decade. I was a preteen when Kurt Cobain died and I had a Nirvana poster; I wasn’t a preteen wearing a shirt of an album that was made years before I was even a thought or unplanned accident in my parents’ minds. It’s okay to expand your musical horizons, but don’t lay claim to a scene you weren’t even alive during, or too young to even process. I love the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but the ’90s and ’00s are what I relate to and support like one of my disappointing sports franchises. Maybe I’m just bitter because I’m beginning to experience what past generations have.
Old person phrase in three, two, one: “Kids these days just don’t get it!”
This is how all generations act though: we grasp onto things from the past because they’re still relevant and always will be—especially music. I personally believe that attitude derived from music repeats itself every three decades. Let’s assess (keep in mind that all decades and generations had a little of everything so don’t get all fussy; it’s just that some styles were a little more dominant depending on the listener):
’60s & ’90s: Rock music that preached peace and love through revolution and disrespect for authority during troubled times.
’70s & ’00s: The rise of disco and dance from bell bottoms to boy bands to groovy funk and soul and pop stars, and from punk and glam rock to bubblegum beats and scremo.
’80s & ’10s: Synthesizers, extreme catchiness, experimental pop sounds and ridiculous hair and colorful garb—just a whole lot of crazy and weird going on essentially, but it worked and still does.
So in a way, we’re due for another musical revolution in rock music. Has our current love for the ’90s predicted such a trend? I hope so from a musical standpoint. Much of my writing has subtle—and obvious—musical undertones. Many tracks have had an impact on my life and that will be apparent in my upcoming novel, “Forgotten Kids,” set to release in the fourth quarter of this year.
There are over 200 musical references in the work, and 44 of said references were direct lyrics to set the scene and tone of the narrator. However, and writers please note the following if you haven’t dealt with song permissions, I was forced to reword the lyrics.
Here’s why: My publisher suggested that I go about getting permissions for each lyric used. After talks with Universal and Sony—most songs are controlled by those two industry titans—I was directed to Hal Leonard, the world’s largest music publisher. They asked for $300 a song which was non-negotiable (even though I tried). For all you math fans, that would come out to $13,200 for lyric usage.
There are three issues I have with this, though I do understand why the charge is in place: First, the novel will not make that much money unless this post is shared a billion times along with marketing techniques going exactly right (which they never do). Second, the combined lyrics make up just 1.25% of the entire book, so who’s to say that the songs sell the book rather than the book selling the songs; and though I love all these tracks, because of the era when most were produced, I could find another song that holds the same meaning without altering the tone of the narration, the character’s personality or the overall plot. Third, the excuse of intellectual property.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa; intellectual property is important, you jerk!”
I agree. Why wouldn’t I agree? I have intellectual property (well, property at the least) out there as well, but it’s one thing to say it greatly matters and another to act upon the reasoning behind the claim. I spoke with an artist’s representative who informed me that the use of their lyrics was not approved; Hal Leonard said they were for $300 a pop. I respected the artist’s (the intellectual proprietor) request. Also, I spoke to the lead singer of a band who gave me permission to use their lyrics at no charge because they were the primary songwriter; Hal Leonard said I still had to pay $300. After I updated the band (the intellectual proprietor) on the music publisher’s decision, they simple asked, “Who the hell is Hal Leonard?” It doesn’t seem like intellectual property is taken that seriously—the system is broken.
Music is not, however. There will always be more fantastic lyrics, rhythms and solos, but we need to evolve instead of regress. If you remember, I was irritated by slow covers that seem to still be infesting commercials and airwaves, and I’m getting worried that new artists are struggling for exposure, and it may be due to over-saturation, a dwindling attention span and a lack of generational uniqueness. An author friend of mine talked about this with his 21-year-old son recently; his son couldn’t depict something wonderful from his own time, and that’s why there’s a trend to delve deep into other generations’ gifts.
With that being said, there’s plenty of talent and greatness out there. We’re on the verge of a new decade; let’s see what it has to offer. Keep listening, for troubled times have a way of bringing the best out of music.