Today is the anniversary of Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard pitching a no-hitter for Wright State University’s baseball team. This historic feat occurred on May 11, 1978, one year after Star Wars and five years before I was born. I love that Pollard was both an athlete and a fourth-grade teacher before becoming a legend in the indie rock scene. When I was younger, I was into music but didn’t care for physical endurance and sports. Now that I’m older, I enjoy running and watching baseball, so I was stoked to find out one of my rock heroes excelled at baseball.
Pollard, if you didn’t know, is a prolific songwriter and releases multiple albums a year. My ability to keep up-to-date with all of Pollard’s releases has ebbed and flowed over the years, but since 2003 I’ve been a major fan of Pollard and GBV. If you’ve never checked them out, I highly recommend starting with the band’s second major-label album, ISOLATION DRILLS. While somewhat derided by hardcore fans (it’s slickly produced, whereas GBV is known for their lo-fi aesthetic), I think this record is a good place for newbies to start. Pollard’s songs are like drunken, midwestern versions of British invasion-era rock.
Pollard’s no-hitter was immortalized in t-shirt form a few years ago. Yours truly snagged one at a concert, and it’s my favorite rock t-shirt of all time:
In the late spring of 2002, I abandoned Missouri and the problems I was facing in the state of misery (Missery) for Nashville, Tennessee. I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle, the same Uncle David this blog is dedicated to. While trying to clear my head and figure out my next move, I spent my days eating ice cream sandwiches, reading Harry Potter books, and listening to the 1996 self-titled debut album from Fountains of Wayne. I found the band reading CD reviews on Amazon and downloaded a few tracks on Limewire (remember those days?). Promptly falling in love, me and Uncle David went down to Nashville’s Tower Records, where I picked up the album on shiny compact disc.
When we got back to his house, we put the album on and sat there smiling like idiots. I distinctly remember saying I thought my Oasis-loving sister would probably dig the record, too. “Oh yeah,” David said, grinning. “She’s gonna love this shit.” And when I got home and played it for her, my sister did like it. For a few months, Fountains of Wayne was our little secret, and then one day, “Stacey’s Mom” exploded on the radio.
I bought WELCOME INTERSTATE MANAGERS, the album that spawned “Stacey’s Mom,” and enjoyed the hell out of that record, too. But after that, I kind of dropped off the Fountains of Wayne bandwagon. Sadly, I was entering my indie rock phase, and the band had grown too popular. This was one of many dumbshit moves I’ve made in my career appreciating music. The lead singer/songwriter of Fountains of Wayne, Adam Schlesinger, was a master power-pop craftsman. His worst songs are all still worth listening to and are frankly better than the output of average bands.
Adam was more than just the dude from Fountains of Wayne, however. He was also in the criminally underrated supergroup Tinted Windows. Tinted Windows was Adam, Taylor Hanson, James Iha (The Smashing Pumpkins), and the legendary Bun E. Carlos. If you have never heard the Tinted Windows album, I implore you to stop reading this and go listen to it. Top to bottom, that record is 100% pure power-pop bliss. It made me change my mind about Hanson: that’s how good it is. Adam also wrote music for films and television shows too. He wrote “That Thing You Do!” for the Tom Hanks film of the same name. That song is without a doubt the greatest Beatles song the Beatles did not write. It’s perfect and made a really good film fucking great. Seriously, that movie only works because Adam’s song is so damn catchy. More recently, Adam had written music for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
On April 1st of last year, Adam died from COVID-19. He was only 52 and still had decades’ worth of catchy-as-hell music to write. I didn’t know Adam, but I did know (and love) his music. As I write this, I’m listening to “Valley Winter Song,” and I’m still blown away by how it’s so heartbreakingly good. Power pop, like pop music in general, is often seen as so disposable. Like the bubblegum it’s so often compared to, we consume its sugary goodness and then throw it away. Adam’s music was sugary but also, at times, biting, satirical, and heartfelt. He wrote about being stuck in boring office jobs, being filled with self-doubt, and having a hard time telling the girl you loved her. I appreciated how cool Adam was because he wrote about being so uncool.
Adam Schlesinger was a titan. Sure, he was a titan in a relatively niche subgenre of rock music, but nonetheless, he was a titan. Lots of people can churn out hit songs, but few craft pop masterpieces like Adam could. Rest in Power(pop).
Last March, I experienced two life-changing events: the world was locked down due to a killer virus, and my second child was born. Both of these things happened within days of each other. The chaos of the pandemic and standard new baby disruption was a potent cocktail that managed to frazzle every one of my nerves. An inept, morally bankrupt president and rioting over the summer did not help steady things. Many of the things I use to cope with were not available to me: friends and family couldn’t help, escaping to work for a few hours was out of the question (work from home), movie theaters were closed, no concerts, no baseball games. I tried reading a few books but only managed to get through one, and it was tough.
Thankfully, by April, I’d started to fall back onto music. Not for the first time, and probably not the last, I found my mental equilibrium thanks to music. Through the misery that was 2020, there were five albums I found myself listening to over and over. These five albums got me through days the air was too smoke-filled to run, and nights my nerves wouldn’t let me fall asleep. They didn’t “save my life” or any cliche like that, but they sure did make life somewhat bearable, even when I was physically, mentally, and spiritually drained.
So here they are, my pandemic albums (in no particular order):
ANAK KO by Jay Som:
I just did a write-up on this record so go check that out. This album came out in 2019, but it was new to me. I think Pandora or Spotify randomly recommended “Superbikes” to me in early April. The chill-looking album art intrigued me, so I looked up the rest of the tracks. I wasn’t even halfway through my second listen before I found myself PayPal-ing Jay Som a few bucks. I was so stoked to find music that was genuine and emotional.
DON’T TELL A SOUL by The Replacements:
I love all The Replacements stuff, but I’ve always gravitated to their middle period stuff. The early punk stuff is all aggression without the great hooks and sly lyrics Paul Westerberg would later become famous for. The later albums, including this one, are a little too slick and are mostly Westerberg solo albums, so I usually skipped over them in my re-listens. But nostalgia hits hard, and even though I was definitely not listening to The Replacements in 1989 when this album came out, the 80’s production scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had. I’ve always liked the album opener, “Talent Show,” but in 2020, I found myself pulled deeper into later tracks like the romantic “Achin’ To Be” and “They’re Blind.” And even though it’s pretty cheesy (for a Replacements song), I found comfort in “Asking Me Lies” over-the-top radio-friendly production. Seriously, they were begging for a hit, and it’s a bit embarrassing. The song sticks in your brain like gum in your hair–you want it out, but good luck with that. And as I looked at the smoldering ruins of my country and feared for the future I’m leaving my children, I found myself singing “We’ll Inherit the Earth” to them repeatedly.
STOP MAKING SENSE by Talking Heads:
2020 was the year I got into Talking Heads. This happened when I discovered Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s music podcast U Talkin’ Talking Heads 2 My Talking Head. This podcast was an album by album review/reassessment of the band’s entire career. Both men are damn funny, so much so that no prior knowledge of the albums was necessary, but it was more fun to listen along with the guys. Their enthusiasm for the band and their music is very infectious (pun intended) and helped me through the pandemic. Going in chronological order, it took several weeks before the show got to STOP MAKING SENSE. During the lead-up, both Aukerman and Scott insisted that nearly every song on this 1984 live album was better than their studio album counterparts. I’m not a big live album guy, so I chalked this up to the fact that both were initially introduced to the band via this record (and the concert film of the same name). STOP MAKING SENSE is not a good or even a great live album…it is the greatest live recording I’ve ever heard.
The band’s approach in the beginning, of having David Byrne take the stage alone for “Psycho Killer” and then slowly adding in the rest of the band, pays off in spades. The energy the band brings to these songs is off the charts. Seriously, you could power a large city for years off of the heat the band produces. Songs like “Slippery People” and “Making Flippy Floppy” fell flat for me in their studio incarnations, but these became some of my favorite tracks via STOP MAKING SENSE. And of course, during the summer of police brutality and social justice protesting, I got really into “Life During Wartime.” That song is great during normal times but took on an eerie prophetic quality during the tumultuous summer of 2020. If you haven’t experienced STOP MAKING SENSE, watch the movie, it’s fantastic.
THE NEW ABNORMAL by The Strokes:
Released on April 10, 2020, this album has the spookiest title of any modern record. I think The Strokes are my favorite modern rock band, even though their output has been sporadic over the last decade. Their first three albums have a very special place in my heart that frankly warrants its own separate post. The previous two albums are a bit spotty and are more influenced by lead singer Julian Casablancas’s trippy electro solo career. That said, I always make time for a new Strokes release, and boy, did I have time in 2020! THE NEW ABNORMAL opens with the classic-sounding “The Adults Are Talking,” which, while subdued, sounds like it could easily slot into any of those first three albums. THE NEW ABNORMAL also features my song of the year, “Why Are Sundays So Depressing?” which catchy as hell and sonically highly textured. It’s like a classic Stones song but from the future. The majority of the album is chock full of lyrical and musical hooks that I find myself singing all the time. I can’t remember the last time a record had me singing the lyrics and the guitar parts.
The Strokes, those cheeky boys, continue the tradition of borrowing from other artists (like when they stole Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on their breakout hit “Last Nite”). Unlike in the past, however, the boys are forced to credit everyone. Thus, Billy Idol and Tony James get a songwriting credit on “Bad Decisions,” which borrows heavily from their 1980 single “Dancing with Myself.” Likewise, the Psychedelic Furs get credited on “Eternal Summer,” which borrows the lyrical melody from the hook in “The Ghost in You.” Despite winning a Grammy, I read several people critical of THE NEW ABNORMAL because of this musical theft, which I get but seems to be missing the point. The Strokes are musical alchemists, synthesizing good old shit into good new shit. At least, that’s how I see it. I’m more okay with it on this record because they’re upfront about it and credit everyone appropriately.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar album closer, “Ode to the Mets.” This one of the best album closers I’ve heard in a decade. It’s a brilliant bit of pop that doesn’t seem to be about The Mets or baseball. I’m not exactly sure what the track is really about; it’s so dense and dreamy. What I do know is that this song has some of the eerily prescient lyrics of the pandemic:
“Gone now are the old times
Forgotten, time to hold on the railing
The Rubik’s Cube isn’t solving for us
Old friends, long forgotten
They all wait at the bottom of
The ocean now has swallowed“
I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, and that bit never fails to give me goosebumps. I’m not sure which drugs let The Strokes record a pandemic album before the pandemic, but that sure is what THE NEW ABNORMAL feels like. I did not do an Album of the Year list in 2020 because I wasn’t writing about music, but this record definitely would have been my #1 pick.
Lastly, but certainly not least…
MORDECHAI by Khruangbin:
Khruangbin is a three-piece band from Huston, Texas, and three days after my birthday, they released their third album MORDECHAI. Despite being from Texas, MORDECHAI is very much world music, blending American psych-rock, funk, Latin and Indian music. MORDECHAI is the perfect album to listen to while the world is crumbling around you. Somewhat happy and upbeat (“Pelota” and “Time (You and I)”) and also at times peaceful and introspective (“Shida” and “Father Bird, Mother Bird”). If I was the type to take peyote and mediate in the desert, this is definitely a record I would take with me.
MORDECHAI is an expansive album that never gets too shaggy or weird. I have no idea how this record came into my life one day, it was hot as hell in my air conditioner-less home, and it appeared on my wireless sound system shimmering like a mirage in the desert. I was initially perplexed by some of the weird left turns the album makes–like the track “Connaissais de Face,” which is like a bizarre soap opera wrapped in a New Age blanket. It’s really campy but also really sad when you listen to these disembodied voices talk about all the people they miss and how “time changes everything.” MORDECHAI’s an entertaining sonic odyssey that, on its surface, seems to be built for very few people. Still, strangely being made out of all these weird parts, the record is one that I could confidently recommend to just about anyone. And even if they didn’t like all of its weirder parts, they’d surely find something they’d enjoy.
Lastly, people don’t really care about album artwork anymore, but I became entranced by the album art for MORDECHAI. So much so that I found a company selling (bootleg?) art prints of it online. I immediately spent (way too much) for a copy and had it framed. It hangs in my hallway between our hall closet and the guest bathroom:
Now that I stand back and look at all these albums, I’m kinda proud of how weird and disconnected they all are. There were a few other records that got significant airplay during the 2020 portion of the pandemic, but the above five are the ones that hit a critical mass of replays. Hopefully, I’ll never have to put together a list of pandemic albums again. That said, I am grateful for the time I got to spend with this music. There is no doubt in my mind that the latest Strokes record and the Khruangbin release would not have resonated with me as much as they did had I not been forced to cocoon myself in them for months.