Songbook, by Chris Cornell

The first time I heard Chris Cornell’s voice was on an Audioslave CD my dad gave me in 2006.

I might have heard “Black Hole Sun” on the radio before that, actually. But when I was a kid, the radio didn’t play songs from specific artists – it was just a magic box that spit out music constantly. I couldn’t absorb very much from it back then, only that I loved everything I heard. So, when I have my true musical awakening – which I discussed in the Minutes to Midnight post – that signaled a shift in how I perceived music, and for the first time I could truly attach myself to individual bands and artists and declare myself a fan. And, as I said in that post, Audioslave was in the top five from the start.

The wacky guitar gimmicks. The consistency and impressive melding of the bass and drums. And that voice – wailing, screeching, threatening to tear itself apart over everything. Chris Cornell was in a bad state during the recording of Audioslave, but even in a bad state, ravaged by drinking, smoking, and whatever the fuck else Chris did in the time between Soundgarden and Audioslave, he was ethereal. Unique. A truly absurd vocal range and a sharp ear for interesting music, no amount of substance abuse could fully suppress Chris’s creativity and natural talent. And he continued to demonstrate his multi-faceted musical talent that first began to emerge at the end of Soundgarden’s first life, moving from psychadelic grunge to adapting Rage Against the Machine’s rap-rock instrumentals – without the rap, of course – to the more alternative, nuanced style of Out of Exile and Revelations, until the tensions between himself and the former components of Rage simply could not continue together.

And then it was back to an on-again, off-again solo career. 1999’s Euphoria Morning was an interesting departure for Chris, with a heavy acoustic lean that still indulged in Chris’s favorite lyrical subjects. Grunge softened, morphed and merged with a more classic kind of hard, adult rock. But his solo career, which Chris was ready and primed for, was put back on the shelf when Audioslave came calling. In 2007, with Carry On, came another kind of shift, the feeling that it was a natural evolution of Chris’s solo style, now incorporating the alternative sound he’d learned from Audioslave. And who could forget the Bond theme, probably one of the best of the modern Bond run. Another big swing at making it as a solo artist, now that two bands were in the books behind him.

I try not to think about Scream most of the time, but what it demonstrated to me was that Chris had no fear, musically. The idea of a grunge god producing an entire album with a hip-hop producer, even one as well known as Timbaland, was laughable. And the album that resulted is, kindly, a mistake. It’s a good lesson in understanding that you probably shouldn’t pursue every idea that comes into your head, particularly when it has as big a chance to fail as Scream did. But by god, he did it anyway. That’s impressive to me. And the songs, when freed of their awful, uncharacteristic production, can work quite well – listen to the “rock version” of “Long Gone,” or the acoustic version of “Ground Zero” from this very album, Songbook, and you’ll hear the strength of the lyrics and song structures. They’re just not electronic pop tracks.

It’s interesting to me that Chris couldn’t stay solo for very long at any point in his career. You’d think that a musician as independent and creative as he was – his solo albums are really strong – would be able to do just fine on his own. But maybe the shadow of Soundgarden stood too tall over him. It never seemed like people ever talked about Chris Cornell as a solo act, only in the context of being a compelling, vital frontman. Maybe he rushed too quickly into Audioslave, rendering Euphoria Morning a curiosity in his discography rather than the starting point it was intended to be. In any case, his second foray into solo work lasted about as long as the first, when Soundgarden came calling for a successful resurrection.

But even with Soundgarden back to pay the bills – or perhaps because Soundgarden was back, and, aside from a revitalized musical output for the four of them, provided steady income – Chris was allured by solo work. He did a set of solo acoustic tours, usually under the “Songbook” header, and the first tour in 2011 is where this live album came from. And I promise I’m going to get to the album. But I’ve got some stuff to say before that.

There’s no good way to shoehorn it in, but Higher Truth is where Chris should have gone directly after Carry On. It’s a quieter album than Carry On, kind of a cross between that album and Euphoria Morning, but it’s just as strong, maybe even stronger, than any solo work he’d done before. It made sense to me that he would pursue it, even with Soundgarden attempting to put together another album – Chris needed the outlet and it was worth it to put Soundgarden on hold while he finished the album.

But now, that Soundgarden album may never be finished. Chris Cornell is gone, reportedly by his own hand. The sun is dimmer today.

I don’t want to talk about any motivation, not this soon, not this early, when the report was just released a few hours ago, as of posting time. It makes me uncomfortable. I spent the entire day asking why, and I have no answers. You could look at his subject matter – Chris was fond of writing about death, dying, passing on. But I would hesitate to call that indicative of his mindset, when it’s been his bread and butter for so long. Celebrities like Chris have a different face in public, and it shouldn’t be used as a barometer of his true feelings, but he seemed so content in recent years. Soundgarden was rolling, a successful reunion that actually produced new, good music. He had the freedom to do whatever he wanted even with Soundgarden being more or less constantly active since their reunion, and he used that freedom liberally, remaining active on his own the entire time. He released a new charity single just two months ago.

When you look at it that way, it’s difficult to understand. I think we will understand, in time. But it’s unimaginably sad to me. I want to know why, now. I want to understand, now.

You look at the big four of the Seattle grunge movement – Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam – and you see that three of the four frontmen are now dead. How lonely Eddie Vedder must feel today.

Temple of the Dog reformed, a one-off tribute band brought back into the public eye, for the 25th anniversary of their only album last year. Temple of the Dog was formed by Chris to memorialize Andrew Wood, frontman of Mother Love Bone, who died of a heroin overdose. Perhaps Vedder, who only contributed a little bit to Temple of the Dog, will memorialize Chris the same way.

I only saw Chris Cornell live one time, probably at the nadir of his musical relevance (and I do mean that kindly, but sincerely), in 2008, on the Projekt Revolution tour, the co-headliner next to Linkin Park. I’ll admit that I barely remember anything about the concert – I was 15, I was there for Linkin Park, the openers were just bonuses – but it sticks with me that that was the only chance I took to see him, now more than ever. I had my other opportunities – in 2012 during the first Songbook tour, and in 2014 when Soundgarden was touring with Nine Inch Nails – and I passed on both of them. “He’ll be around again,” I said, both times. I really wanted to see a Songbook show, but I willingly said “not this time.” And now there won’t be another time.

I’m going to think about that a lot.

As much as I enjoy Chris’s solo albums, and of course his work with Soundgarden and Audioslave, there’s no album of his that I love more than the live Songbook album. It’s the greatest hits retrospective he never did – not commercially, anyway – that strips away everything and puts Chris’s voice at the forefront, his greatest creation. It reveals him as the powerful singer and deft songwriter that he always has been. You look at the track list and it’s hit after hit after hit – “Call Me a Dog,” “Can’t Change Me,” “Fell on Black Days,” “Like a Stone,” and of course “Black Hole Sun.” The deeper cuts – “I Am the Highway,” “Scar on the Sky,” “All Night Thing,” the never-professionally-recorded “Cleaning My Gun.” The two smartly-chosen covers of “Thank You” and “Imagine.” And even the new track, “The Keeper,” to close out the album. Songbook is the retrospective to listen to today, and next week, and whenever you think of Chris Cornell and you just want to hear the man belt out some tunes. I don’t think there’s a bad song on here – even the opener, curious Scream hidden track “As Hope and Promise Fade,” is still a compelling listen here.

Chris gives a bit of insight into a couple of the songs, and his mindset when writing them. “Ground Zero” is preceded by the message that anger and hatred will not fix the horrors of September 11, while Chris explains on “Can’t Change Me” that it was the last song written for the album, which to me seems like a common theme for successful lead singles. You even get a bit of humor – “Imagine” is preceded by Chris noting that it’s a “good Easter song,” playing it the day before Easter that year. Of course, the Christian-friendly line “Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too.”

There will never be another Chris Cornell. A one of a kind figure, an amazing songwriter with a generational voice. Soundgarden was the first grunge band to break into the mainstream, and though Pearl Jam is the most successful and revered of them – and they, alongside Nirvana, will likely be the only two of the big four enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – Soundgarden’s place in history can never be forgotten. And though Chris’s second and third acts, with Audioslave and with his solo career, will certainly not be as fondly remembered as his work in Soundgarden, when taken as a whole, Chris has had a career stronger and more important than most in rock history, securing him in the upper echelon of rock musicians for all time.

It will take time for us to know the full extent of what happened in that hotel room in Detroit. We may never know or understand why Chris did what he did, what he was feeling that night, and in the time leading up to it. If it was depression – and Chris had talked about suffering from depression in the 1990s – then the disease has claimed another life it never deserved to take. If it was something else, perhaps we will know in time. Perhaps we will have the knowledge to understand Chris in a way that we didn’t understand him in life. Regardless, it is a massive loss, for the music community, for the world, and for the pantheon of heroes I had, as a child and as an adult.

Say hello to heaven, Chris. Blow the doors down.

100-songbook

Released November 21, 2011

1 hr, 13 min

call the police / american dream, by LCD Soundsystem

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Released May 5, 2017

14 min

So this is why LCD Soundsystem came back.

I wondered what their plan was when James Murphy first announced – and pre-emptively apologized for – the band’s return early last year. It always seemed to me like Murphy put the band to rest far earlier than he may have needed to, given that the band had just released its best album in 2010, and were at perhaps the peak of their popularity. Maybe that scared him, and he needed to go away for a while and figure out what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life. This doesn’t have any basis in facts or anything like that – I don’t think he’s really talked about why LCD Soundsystem stopped existing for five years.

But they’re back, with a Christmas single being the herald of a new era of the band, released on December 24, 2015, before anyone knew (for sure, anyway) that the band was working on a full return to activity. LCD Soundsystem spent 2016 on the festival circuit, celebrating their return while quietly working on a new record. A band as revered as LCD certainly doesn’t need to record an album to justify their existence, but, as I mentioned earlier, it always felt like James Murphy had far more to give to us than he did during the band’s first run, and now we’re finally seeing that, as two actual singles expected to be from the new album surfaced, in the double A-side of “call the police” and “american dream.”

The dichotomy is interesting, almost like a cohesive primer on the band. “call the police” is a fast-driving rocker, bright and upbeat musically, but with an undercurrent of melancholy throughout the lyrics as Murphy struggles to be heard above the cacophony of instrumentation below him. It reminds me a lot of “All My Friends,” one of LCD Soundsystem’s best songs in their catalogue, and absolutely my favorite. They both barrel forward on instrumentation that threatens to sweep Murphy away before he can say his piece, and he finally gets it all out by shouting above the noise. It’s a very Sound of Silver-era song, I think, and it’s the side of LCD Soundsystem that I’ve always loved the most, even if I think This is Happening is a better album.

By contrast, “american dream” is a synth-driven slow dance, with the signature melody being a haunting, dripping rhythm that feels like you’re being surrounded. The song has a clear narrative, following the protagonist (whose actions are being described by Murphy throughout the song) and describing their feelings of inadequacy as they trudge through their life, those feelings infecting everything they do, describing the experience as a real American dream. It could easily be an autobiographical song, and Murphy is certainly no stranger to writing songs of that nature, but it also feels like a very modern analysis of life in 2017, particularly in the sort of big city where Murphy made his name and his home. He could have easily seen this story any number of times around him.

This is LCD Soundsystem distilled down to its essence – soaring punk/rock, heavy doses of electronica, either standalone or mixed in, and diagnoses of what it’s like to be human today. LCD Soundsystem has never been a band of big ideas and navel-gazing – James Murphy is far more concerned with what he can see in front of him, and sharing those feelings with whoever’s willing to listen. And there are many, many people willing to listen, hanging on every word, anxiously awaiting the day when, for the first time in seven years, they can wake up to the joy of a new LCD Soundsystem album.

Grammys 2017 Postmortem

This is a day late, sure, but look how much I wrote. My fingers hurt. Give me a break. And yeah, I know I haven’t written anything in six months. I’m a working man.

The Grammys have come and gone once again, the 59th edition of what the Academy likes to puff up as “Music’s Biggest Night.” What does that mean? Usually an Adele performance, old artists winning Best New Artist because the Grammys have stupid arbitrary rules for determining that category, and non-white artists being shoved into their own, neatly-segmented categories while white artists dominate the big categories. We got a couple of those again this year, but, as always, there was plenty that shined through the shit.

Some performance notes, then:

– Politically tepid, for the most part. Several presenters made bland platitudes about the importance of equality, without really touching on the most important reasons to emphasize equality in our current time. That was, of course, until A Tribe Called Quest, with Anderson.Paak, Consequence, and Busta Rhymes of all people, rolled up and tore down the wall of sanitary comments and excessive niceness. Q-Tip repeatedly declared Donald Trump to be “President Agent Orange,” as ATCQ barreled through a medley of several politically-charged songs from We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, which came out just a few months ago. They brought up a procession of immigrants to the stage to show the kind of people that Trump’s executive order was shutting out – people who deserve to be in America, the land of the free, because America’s borders shouldn’t be arbitrarily shut (though we know it’s not arbitrary). They even had a makeshift wall on stage to burst through. Powerful and important.

And Anderson.Paak was behind the kit for a couple minutes! That was rad.

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Kevin Winter/Getty

– Lukas Graham is a fine singer but his performance with Kelsea Ballerini was the perfect representation of the Grammys slapping two artists together because they’re kind of similar and they hope they can work out a good collaboration. This was pretty boring. There were a few other collaborative performances, like Alicia Keys and Maren Morris, which was fine, and Gark Clark, Jr. and William Bell performing “Born Under a Bad Sign” together, which was the usual Gary Clark, Jr. guitar showcase, but this time backing up a wonderful vocal performance from a music legend.

– I was very, very interested in Metallica/Gaga, and what I get for my troubles is a fucking trainwreck. Now, this isn’t necessarily the fault of Metallica and Gaga – I assume they’re responsible for the tasteless stage design, but that’s fine. No, the Grammys continue to demonstrate that, despite being the premier venue for multiple performances on several stages in the span of three hours, they are still able to fuck things up, as James Hetfield’s microphone was completely non-functional for the entire first verse and chorus of “Moth into Flame.” I was really looking forward to this, and Gaga’s vocals provided an interesting dimension to the song, but it was only half a song until Hetfield realized his mic was off, and he had to share Gaga’s mic instead until his came back online. Started off on the wrong foot and never really got going, a real miss for Metallica. At least they’ll have that bizarrely awesome Lang Lang collaboration from a couple years ago.

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– Ed Sheeran’s live looping to create his own beat was an impressive technical backdrop for his usual pop garbage. I feel pretty sure that the backing track eventually switched to a pre-recorded one, but if it didn’t, then wow, he really did something great here. Wish it had been for, you know, a good song.

– The Bee Gees should be offended by the “tribute” offered here. It was a smashed-together mess with a bunch of people no one cares about, that mashed together a bunch of songs in a way no one wanted to here. And they said it was also a Saturday Night Fever 40th anniversary tribute…? Try again. And never invite John Travolta back to the Grammys ever again.

– Speaking of Travolta – specifically, the performance he introduced after rambling about some nonsense for a couple minutes – the Grammys showed that country is both dead and not dead at the same time. Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban presented the latest assassination of a once-proud mainstream genre, performing a literal synthpop country disaster with the backdrop of going through the Time Vortex if you were also on acid. I understand that traditional country isn’t mainstream any more, and that the continuing forward march of pop into every other genre around it has morphed radio country into something entirely different. But this was just awful. You wouldn’t even know it was country if you weren’t being assaulted by Keith Urban’s awful accent. Carrie Underwood continues to just sort of exist to put out these asinine performances every year.

– But on the other end of the spectrum, Sturgill Simpson delivered a gorgeous rendition of “All Around You,” backed by the Dap-Kings, the powerful backing band of now-passed-on Sharon Jones. This wasn’t necessarily “traditional” country either, but Sturgill Simpson takes pride in the genre he represents, and as probably one of the least mainstream artists on the show (sorry Chance), he delivered a heartfelt, full-throated performance that would have made Sharon Jones, and Johnny Cash, proud.

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– The big tribute section this year was to Prince, himself a larger-than-life figure that always seemed willing to bring himself down to the level of the Grammys. He received a strong two-part tribute, with The Time and Bruno Mars performing separately and then together. The Time in particular were a huge treat to watch – Morris Day’s voice is electric, and his synchronized dance sequences with Jerome were a real spectacle. And then, of course, Bruno Mars rolls out, in full Prince regalia, with what I’d hope is a replica of a quintessential Prince guitar, and demonstrated that, in addition to the eight million talents he already has, shredding out a Prince solo is one of them too. It wasn’t a technical masterpiece – obviously Bruno isn’t Prince on the six-string – but it was clear that Bruno put a lot of effort into making it sound good and look great, and he delivered. He had another performance earlier in the show, which was exactly what you’d expect from Bruno Mars – retro pop and great dance moves. Another traditional Grammys setpiece, but a fun one.

– James Corden was great when he hosted the Tonys last year. The Grammys? Not so much. He’s at least capable of showing emotion, unlike LL Cool J, who appeared to be a robot created for the sole purpose of saying words between segments that no one was really listening to. But Corden at times appeared to try and emulate the sort of host that makes themselves too much a part of the show, from his fall down the stairs to open the show, to rapping his opening monologue, to the gross jokes about his parents having young people to fuck separately. He seemed out of his element, which isn’t a good look for any host, but especially not for James Corden, who’s still establishing himself in the States. Maybe next year he’ll be better – if LL Cool J’s eternal reign as Grammys host is any indication, he’ll have plenty of tries.

– Katy Perry premiered a new song featuring all of the anti-tech, anti-Internet baby boomer bullshit that absolutely should not be coming out of Katy Perry’s mouth. Who is the target audience here? Kids who are determined to deny their own identities in the interests of appeasing crusty old fucks who can’t be swayed? What was the point of this song? Who hurt you, Katy? Was it Left Shark? Have we misread him this entire time?

At least the white picket fence turned into a bunch of dancers. That was a cool gimmick for a shit song.

– The Weeknd performed with Daft Punk, whose primary contribution was to stand on top of a retro-futuristic glacier mountain and press buttons on some synths while The Weeknd turned in a typically great vocal performance. I’m sure this was a dream come true for him, as his profile continues to rise as a powerful pop musician. But the visual spectacle was lacking.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty

– Pentatonix has achieved true mainstream penetration. We will see them perform at every music show imaginable for the rest of our lives, at least until it’s revealed that one of them has been perpetually on heroin for the past five years and it destroys them. One can hope.

– The In Memorium segment is always a sad one, but luckily, 2016’s whirlwind of destruction was split between last year’s Grammys and this year’s, lessening the blow when it came time to run the montage. Imagine Prince and Bowie being in the same one. My God.

I found it curious that Prince received neither first (that went to Leonard Cohen) nor last (George Martin, for some reason) billing in the montage. You could argue that Martin had a more substantial impact on music by way of the Beatles, but Prince’s contributions were far more direct, and I think he would’ve warranted first or last billing. Instead, he was second, which is close, but not enough. Perhaps they believed they’d paid the man his due with Bruno Mars earlier. They would be wrong.

This was John Legend’s annual contribution to the Grammys, by the way, doing a Beach Boys cover. “Hallelujah” would’ve been a bit much, I guess. But I will say that including Cynthia Erivo, from the current stage revival of The Color Purple, was a nice gesture to remind people (including the Grammys) that hey, musicals are music, too.

Kevin Winter/Getty

And the big three:

– Adele’s voice is gorgeous. Once in a generation. The most successful artist of the digital era, and the only artist to have a diamond-selling record since 2004. Twice. Yes, Adele has to be at the Grammys, and yes (as we’ll cover shortly), she’ll sweep, so you should feature her a couple times.

But Adele standing in the dark belting out a track is boring. Especially when the song is over a year old. So when you open the show with the customary Adele performance, it’s not exactly the electric way to start a show that desperately needs electricity. Adele’s gimmick, to put it crassly (she’s certainly genuine about it) is that she’s a regular woman, a regular mother, who happens to be the best singer in decades. So when you stick her in the middle of a blank stage with nothing but a live video feed of her own damn face to perform with, it comes off a little bit robotic, like “hey, this is Adele, press the button and hear her sing!” Now, I’ll say right now that I don’t have any alternative ideas. But I’m not putting together the show, so I don’t have to. Bite me.

And by contrast, of course, Adele’s tribute to George Michael later in the show – a slow, orchestral rendition of “Fastlove” – demonstrated the human side of her. Adele is just like us – she loves good music, she’ll cry about it on national television if she wants, she’ll stop a performance and drop the f-bomb if she feels like it. Perhaps having war flashbacks to her last Grammys performance that sounded awful, Adele detected something wrong early in the song, cut it off, and pleaded forgiveness while instructing the backing orchestra to restart. She then delivered the powerful, heartfelt vocal performance that is the hallmark of a true Adele show. This was far, far better.

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Kevin Winter/Getty

– Concerns that the Grammys were simply riding the wave of Chance the Rapper’s mainstream success to puff out their chests and proclaim “We recognize indie talents now please keep watching!!!!” are certainly warranted. Chance has transcended his roots in a way that’s unimaginable, and it would be absurd of the Grammys to ignore that and bar Coloring Book from the recognition it and Chance himself deserves. But let’s set that aside for now and just bask in the glory that is Chance the Rapper delivering an unabridged, unchained show that showed the country what Chance is all about. This is exactly what I was hoping for – a medley of “How Great” and “All We Got” with parts of “No Problems” and “Blessings” sprinkled throughout, Chance’s cousin Nicole giving a full-throated rendition of the choral piece that opens “How Great,” Chance delivering a sermon at the mic, barely able to keep his emotions in check as he chokes his way through his verses, bursting into jubilance as the performance transitions to “All We Got” (no Kanye and no Jay Electronica, though; that’s fine). A true mic drop moment.

Chance has watched his notoriety grow exponentially in the past calendar year, starting with SNL alongside Kanye, through “Summer Friends” on the Today Show, and all the way to the Grammys to accept three awards and perform the songs that the Grammys wouldn’t have even recognized a year ago. Through all of these, it would be incredibly easy to be overwhelmed by the sizes of the stages, and Chance certainly performs as if he’s perpetually in awe of just how far he’s come. But he’s always in control, he’s always having fun, and he’s always pulling up whoever he can reach when he performs on these huge stages. Peter Cottontale is always right behind him. Nico Segal is around the corner. His performance this year opened not with him, but with his cousin Nicole. Chance knows who helped him get to this point, and he’s so, so determined not to leave anyone behind as the waters continue to raise him higher and higher. And he still hasn’t charged a dime for a single song he’s put out himself.

How great, indeed.

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– When Beyoncé announced her pregnancy in the most Beyoncé way possible, you knew you would be in for a treat if she performed at the Grammys. And why the fuck would she not perform at the Grammys after putting out yet another powerful, biting representation of feminism and femininity in Lemonade? But I don’t think anyone expected this – Beyoncé, appearing to be a golden goddess, stomach bare, exalting the power of motherhood, proudly displaying three generations of Knowles women, en route to a performance of Lemonade’s “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles,” two of the most-forgiving, open songs from the album.

I’ll admit that I was tripped out by the opening, a pre-filmed video that at times depicted Beyoncé as a multi-armed deity underneath a spoken-word introduction to her performance. I wasn’t sure where it was going, and I briefly thought that this pre-recorded bit might be it. But then she appeared, took her seat, and blew the house down. Once again, much as she did with the surprise release of Beyoncé in 2013, Beyoncé demonstrated that she is untouchable, the most prominent mix of art and success I’ve seen in music in a very long time. Nothing can stop her, and nothing will.

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Shortly, about who wasn’t there:

– Kanye West and Frank Ocean both publicly announced that they would not be participating in the Grammys. Kanye, fine. The Life of Pablo received some individual nominations and came home with none, and Kanye, emotional as he can be about Grammys, is still laying low and trying to recover from the strain of the cut-short Saint Pablo tour. I think it’s fine that he didn’t show up.

Frank, however, was not content to simply not show up. He didn’t submit Blonde (or Endless) for consideration at all, and noted that while the Grammys had “nostalgic value” to him, he had no interest in giving the Grammys the satisfaction of including him, when it was such a poor institution for representing diversity in music. Remember, this is the institution that actively had Macklemore & Ryan Lewis sweep the hip-hop categories in 2014, over, you know, Kendrick fucking Lamar.

So, apparently butthurt, the Grammy producers decided to engage in some public speculation about why Frank really wasn’t showing up, offering up the “unsatisfying” 2013 performance of “Forrest Gump” as evidence. They said that Frank hadn’t been satisfied with how the production of “Forrest Gump” had gone, and how the performance itself wasn’t necessarily up to snuff, that Frank’s ideas weren’t technically feasible and were hard to realize for the show, leaving Frank bitter about the experience and the Grammys in general.

This, frankly, is asinine and shockingly childish for producers of a major awards show. They really just said that Frank was being childish about his performance, and that’s why he was saying the things he was saying. This is mind-numbingly tone-deaf.

Frank, of course, wouldn’t let these people have the last word, and dropped a Tumblr post tearing into the producers, openly dismissing his performance at the show as “shit,” and saying it didn’t matter because he didn’t need the institution of the Grammys for validation. He noted Blonde being a million-seller without a label behind it, and said that he didn’t need the Grammys to validate his success. He also noted 1989’s win over To Pimp a Butterfly for Album of the Year in 2016, a move that was lambasted by hip-hop critics as being a clear indicator of the Grammys putting commercial success far above artistic integrity. He ended the post by lambasting the Grammys’s cultural bias and lack of ability to retain a young audience, a mic drop if I’ve ever seen one.

Frank makes good points in this post – the Grammys, despite their diverse performers and attempts to recognize hip-hop, R&B, and blues properly, are still more than willing to put a white artist above a black artist, even if the black artist’s work is more deserving of a given award. See: fun. winning Best New Artist over Frank in 2013. Yes, I’m still bitter about that, and no, I’ll never let it go. There are countless examples, and whether they’re rooted in cultural bias, as Frank suggests, or simple ignorance isn’t quite clear. But it’s been a problem for decades and it will continue to be a problem. You could argue that the best way for Frank to enact change would be to contribute and put on the best performance he can, to show what black artists are capable of, but I believe that abstaining is just as strong a message, so long as he’s loud about it.

– Semi-related: Macklemore was not at the show and didn’t submit This Unruly Mess I’ve Made for Grammy consideration this year. And you know it was his personal decision because he’s independent. Was he really that shaken by the backlash to his sweeping of the hip-hop categories last time, or did he know that he wouldn’t win anything this year with a mediocre follow-up? Who can say?

And a few notes about the actual awards:

– Twenty One Pilots dropped trout when they won the Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group performance. Like, actually. They pulled their pants off, ran up on stage, and explained that they promised to do this several years ago, before they’d had any success, watching the Grammys on tv with their pants off. Full circle, I guess.

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Kevin Winter/Getty

I’m confident enough in myself to admit that I have both of Twenty One Pilots’s major label albums. I like to indulge in garbage sometimes. We all do. Don’t even pretend you haven’t spun “Guns for Hands” or “Holding Onto You” or any of the eight thousand singles from blurryface. This is what My Chemical Romance would’ve been if they formed in the 2010s. This is modern emo, folks. It’s what the emos love these days.

Do emos still exist? What about scene kids?

God damn I feel old.

– Bowie won Best Rock Song for “Blackstar”, which is a gross oversimplification of Bowie, but there it is. Up there with “Best Metal Performance” for Nine Inch Nails. Also, the Chainsmokers (kill me) just sort of held onto the Grammy because no one was there to represent Bowie, because why the fuck would anyone in his estate waste their time with this? But still, get your nasty fucking hands off his Grammy, Chainsmokers. Both of you are cunts and will be irrelevant by this time next year.

– Chance got his due here. Best Rap Album for Coloring Book, Best Rap Performance for “No Problems”, and Best New Artist for Chano himself. He was effusive and genuine in his speeches, shouting out Soundcloud and his Chicago roots, making sure the people he wanted to mention got their due. “You can play the music but I’mma keep talking.” Never stop, Chance. You deserve it.

I really hope this leads to the Grammys doing a better job of acknowledging the power and influence of the Internet in hip-hop. More than any other genre, some of the best artists in the field build themselves through the Internet. Artists as huge as Kanye West (with The Life of Pablo still not available in any physical format) and Frank Ocean (with the visual album Endless and the pop-up shops for Boys Don’t Cry, the magazine containing the only physical copies of Blonde that are readily available) use the Internet as their primary musical delivery service, and streaming is more essential to hip-hop consumption than any other genre. So opening up the awards to streaming-only albums is a great step, but only if they actually follow through with it and recognize the artists that deserve it. That’s hard to do when Chance is so far above any of his contemporaries in popularity and mainstream appeal, but they have to try.

– Beyoncé won Best Urban Contemporary Album, which, as we’ve previously established here at iTunes A to Z, is a code word for “Best Black Album.” It doesn’t mean anything, and of course Beyoncé won, because who the fuck else would win it this year? But still. She was also up for Album of the Year, which is suspiciously the same arrangement Frank Ocean had when he was robbed of several Grammys he deserved to win last year. But they couldn’t do Beyoncé dirty like that, right?

Right?

– Alas, Beyoncé fell victim to the Adele Whirlwind. It’s almost unfair. The rest of the music industry should be glad that Adele only drops an album once every three or four years, because if she did this annually, she would destroy any chance anyone else could have of winning. Beck wouldn’t stand a chance. Arcade Fire would get blown the fuck out. Beyoncé, musical juggernaut that she is, continues to hit the glass ceiling of two diamond records out of three. Adele’s mainstream appeal and genuine songwriting talent is unbeatable. Five Grammys in all this year, including a sweep of Record (“Hello”), Song (“Hello” again), and Album of the Year (25). She’s now swept the big three categories twice, first with 21, now with 25, and she’s the only artist to ever do that. And, as her album title explains, she’s still only in her 20s. The Adele Whirlwind will ravage the Grammys every few years for decades to come. She shows no signs of slowing down.

And it’s for this reason that the Grammys should do well not to fuck with Adele or anyone she might bring on stage. During her speech for Song of the Year, Adele brought her co-writer up to do his own speech, the first time he’d ever been on stage to do so. However, when she stepped away, the production team apparently thought she was done, and rudely cut to Solange introducing the next segment, just as Greg Kurstin was attempting to thank his parents after winning for “Hello.” The lights dimmed on him in the middle of his thank-yous and the Grammys were greeted by a rare unanimous wave of booing from a crowd clearly incensed that someone who barely ever got to be in the spotlight was swept aside so crudely. Adele herself was indignant when accepting Record of the Year at the end of the night, snapping that “you cut him off last time!” Kurstin got to say his thanks this time, but it serves as a reminder that Adele is a Grammy powerhouse, and likely a big reason for people to tune in, so the producers should give her whatever the fuck she wants, lest she decide to boycott the Grammys next year, too.

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Kevin Winter/Getty

And in one last bit of subversion of the Grammys, when Adele received Album of the Year, she promptly rejected and said Beyoncé should’ve won, once again stating that Lemonade had been a transformative influence on her, a major catalyst for her own music and identity. This was much more humble than I expected, but hammered home the point that Adele is just another regular person who happens to have extraordinary talent, and she can be starstruck by her heroes just like us, and indignant that they weren’t given their proper due just like us.

Now, I’ll say that Album of the Year was a layup if I’ve ever seen one. Is Lemonade a more powerful artistic statement? Sure. But it’s not like Adele just shits these albums out and rides fun hooks like Taylor Swift did with 1989. She puts time and effort, and a great deal of care and personal anguish, into her songs, and she just happens to be talented enough to make those songs have great mainstream appeal. That is a talent set more than worthy of winning over Beyoncé, as unfortunate as it is that two of Beyoncé’s best albums in a row were unable to secure Album of the Year.

The Adele Whirlwind is undefeated.

2016 Part 2

So, back in January, I said that I would need to wait until I was on my feet completely to reassess the blog situation.

I moved out at the end of May, and have been living entirely on my own for three months now. It’s been pretty straightforward, not too stressful. Adult life. Same job, same car. I’ve been looking a little bit for a better opportunity, but I’m pretty content where I am for now.

Last month, I took a look at the blog and decided to slap out a post about the new blink album, and it gave me the little burst of confidence and drive that I needed to dip my toe into posting more often, which I’ve done. It feels good, and I’m trying very hard not to force any posts, just rolling with inspiration when it comes. I did kind of force out the OF Tape post, but the other two came along without me having to force myself to do them.

At most, I set a goal to make more posts in a two-month span than I did the last time I randomly decided to start posting again, back at the start of 2016. I’ve been wrestling with making a decent post about the new Frank Ocean album – both of them, really – but I don’t know when I’m going to be able to get that one out. Other than that, it’s just rolling with the library and seeing what strikes me for a post.

With that said, I’m still not going to force a schedule on myself. That worked for about three months and then it got blown up, and I really just don’t have the time for regular posts as it is. I know that even if I try really hard to put out even three posts a week, I’ll just burn out and ignore the blog for another five months. So just keep an eye on the blog, and more posts will come along.

Apple Music Special – The Black Parade, by My Chemical Romance

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Released October 23, 2006

51 min, 53 sec

I have a month of Apple Music because of Frank Ocean (thanks asshole), so I figure that I should go ahead and make it useful for the rest of the month. Spotify will be back whenever. Who cares?

Man, remember emo music?

In the mid-2000s, as we established in the last article, I was a young, impressionable middle schooler, finally discovering a world of music outside of Hillary Duff and Aly & AJ. By 2006, I was soliciting music recommendations from everyone I knew, and it frequently led to choices that I look back on and question.

This one both is and isn’t one of them.

My Chemical Romance had a fascinating arc as a band. Forming in 2001, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, by the release of their second album Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge in 2004, they’d built up a large national following, and became the flag-bearers for young teenagers all over the country. Their music was anchored by fast-paced riffs, hard-hitting drums, and melodramatic lyrics and vocal delivery, all of which became hallmarks of emo music, which hit the peak of its popularity right around 2006 and 2007, with My Chemical Romance, The Used, Taking Back Sunday, and Fall Out Boy all leading the charge. If you were a 13-year-old girl at this time, these were your heroes. And for everyone else, these bands all churned out strong radio hits that were catchy and enjoyable; MCR’s biggest hit at this point was “Helena” from their aforementioned second album, catapulting them into superstardom and riding the wave of emo music’s popularity as far as they could take it. The culmination of that was The Black Parade, the band’s magnum opus, released on October 23, 2006.

My Chemical Romance has always been a narrative-driven band. All four of their studio albums are concept albums; I Brought You My Bullets… and Three Cheers were two parts of one loose narrative. The Black Parade, however, was far more ambitious, with a more strongly-defined narrative arc, focused around the protagonist referred to as “The Patient.” The Patient dies at the very beginning of the album, and the rest of the album details The Patient’s journey as the Black Parade, the form of death The Patient imagines, comes to take him away, as he reminisces about his life and the events that led to his death.

Musically, the album is rather typical MCR fare, matching the outline I laid out above pretty well. But there are a lot of songs that go above and beyond, becoming infectious in how catchy they are. “Welcome to the Black Parade” is the obvious one, still getting decent radio play ten years after its initial release. But songs like “Dead,” “Cancer,” and the album-ending trio of “Teenagers,” “Disenchanted,” and “Famous Last Words” demonstrate that MCR had a strong grasp on musicality and crafting truly great riffs and melodies. The primary riff of “Disenchanted” is wonderful in how understated it is, and how that rhythm builds and is manipulated as the track escalates in scale and aggression. “Famous Last Words” is the best song on the album from top to bottom, a defiant final statement with plenty of satisfying musical moments, such as how Gerard Way’s voice rises to match the higher octave of the song’s main riff in the second verse, or how the music slowly fades out at the end of the song, leaving Way’s vocals to stand on their own to close out the album.

But remember that this is emo music, and emo is an inherently juvenile genre, aimed squarely at teens and preteens who can’t wait to be teens. You’ll either be singing along or rolling your eyes throughout the entire album – probably both. Because all of My Chemical Romance’s albums, and the genre as a whole, is like 80s synthpop – inextricably linked to the decade it debuted in. Emo is a 2000s genre through and through. A band like MCR could never gain a real foothold in the musical environment of 2016. It’s, frankly, too obnoxious a style. It’s too melodramatic, with Way frequently singing as though he’s being held at gunpoint, or as if he’s just been shot. It’s the exact sort of quasi-rebel music that I would have loved as a teenager, if I’d decided to delve more into the scene that MCR created. But I didn’t. The Black Parade is the only album I ever listened to from start to finish of any of the bands to hit their peak in the emo era, unless you count Panic! at the Disco. But I don’t want to so I won’t.

Though, when I say that I listened to this album, I mean that I loved it. The Black Parade immediately became one of my favorite albums when I first got it, and though I couldn’t possibly imagine thinking that now, it’s still a decent listen. A little hard to get through now, but decent. But back then, I loved it so much that I actually stole from my mom in order to get it.

Mhm.

Now that you’ve stopped laughing, here’s the story: in October 2006, when the album had just come out, I really, really wanted it. But Christmas was two months away, and I wasn’t particularly about to ask my mom for this album and have to explain both the band name and the album itself, and why it had that shitty fucking Parental Advisory label on it. So, instead, this is what happened. My friend’s birthday was coming up in November, and my mom gave me her debit card to go to Target and get him a gift – a Bionicle set. So, with my mother’s card, and knowing her PIN, I went to the ATM in Target and withdrew something like twenty-five bucks, enough to buy both the set and the CD. I bought both, and threw away the receipt as I left, tucked the CD into my waistband as I rode my bike back home, and told my mom that the recent had fallen out of my pocket as I was riding home.

Because I was a 13-year-old, my mother didn’t trust my word, so while I snuck the CD into my room and ripped it to my computer, she called the bank and found out her balance, realizing immediately that she was missing about 13 dollars from her account. Incidentally, that was the price of the CD. So she spends half an hour on the phone with the bank, arguing about how it happened, trying to figure out where her money went, as I’m sitting on the couch sweating my ass off, trying to play it cool and failing miserably. Eventually, as she starts to get seriously upset about it, I broke and told her that I’d taken the money and bought a CD with it. And, predictably, justifiably, she was furious. She took the CD from me and told me that I’d never be allowed to use her card again. (That didn’t stick.) By December, though, she’d mostly gotten over it, and returned the CD to me as a Christmas gift.

Son of the year material, folks.

But I was 13 and I didn’t know how to torrent at the time, so what else was I supposed to do? I grew up in a fairly poor household after my parents’ divorce, though I was fortunate enough to not realize it basically until college, or at least, it wasn’t something I thought about a lot, which is as much as you can ask for when you grow up in a situation like that. It never made me unhappy. But when I think back to times like that, when my mother is practically in tears on the phone trying to figure out where those 13 dollars went, it makes me appreciate how comfortable I was growing up more and more. Always try to do right by your parents, kids. Unless there are bad circumstances in play. It’s a judgment call. But if you’re treated right growing up, treat your parents right, too.

Anyway.

My Chemical Romance never quite met the heights of the Black Parade era. Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys expanded Gerard Way’s narrative focus further, spawning a supporting miniseries of comic books that expanded the story presented in the album. But by 2010, despite pushing out another set of catchy singles, MCR was beginning to lose steam, and they broke up with little warning and no explanation in 2013, right as they were supposedly starting sessions for their fifth album. Way wrote a very long message about the band’s breakup, romanticizing it and implying that there would always be a time when someone would simply pull the plug, but it really did nothing to explain anything. Just as swiftly as they’d arrived on the scene, they were gone. And, though it’s only been three years, they’ve stayed gone. Way released a solo album and the other guys presumably did things less important than that. But the casket has stayed closed for My Chemical Romance.

And maybe it’ll stay that way. Maybe Gerard Way will continue to focus on a solo career and comic books (something that he is very good at, incidentally – his Spider-Verse issue was great, and Umbrella Academy is a classic series), and he’ll leave MCR in the past. Maybe they’ll open the casket back up, like the vampires they pretended to be early on, and bring the band back to the realm of the living for a reunion tour, or reunion album. But for now, My Chemical Romance is dead, and that’s a far better fate than what has befallen their emo brethren – The Used and Taking Back Sunday are still around, did you know that? They still make albums. That’s as distressing as hearing that Good Charlotte and Bowling for Soup still exist, which they both do.

Death may not be what the fans wanted, but it’s much better, I think, than staying alive to play at carnivals for ten years past your expiration date.

Minutes to Midnight, by Linkin Park

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Released May 14, 2007

43 min, 23 sec

There’s a small selection of albums that hold a very strong personal significance to me. They tend to be albums released around the time of a significant event in my life, or they were the first album I heard of what became one of my favorite artists. Sometimes it’s both. Occasionally, it’s something else.

Christmas 2005 is when I generally consider my true love of music to have begun. Before then, my radio was permanently tuned to AM 1600 – Radio Disney. My knowledge of the popular songs of the day were dictated entirely by what Disney wanted to hear, and what happened to be playing in commercials, or in my dad’s truck. But something – I’m not particularly sure what, I don’t really remember any more – compelled me to change stations, and I started delving into the world of rock music. With that, I asked my parents for two CDs that Christmas – Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, and Green Day’s American Idiot.

No, neither of those are the album we’re focusing on today. I’m getting to it.

Nowadays, I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that Linkin Park was my favorite band for six years, long after Hybrid Theory shot them into the spotlight far faster than anyone could have expected. But back then, after getting Hybrid Theory and quickly filling out much of the rest of my collection, picking up everything else they’d done through the beginning of 2006 in rapid succession, I was unabashedly in love with the band. They were the first band that widened my musical taste, and though it wasn’t particularly compelling or good at the time (top 5: Linkin Park, Green Day, Audioslave, Metallica, and 3 Doors Down. I know, I know, I’m sorry), it was growing, and that was the important thing. And I think that the variety in Linkin Park’s music after Meteora – and even before that, with Reanimation and Collision Course – went a long way in crafting the eclectic taste that I have now.

So, as 2006 rolled on, Linkin Park had been more or less dormant for over a year. 2005 saw the Music for Relief concert, Live 8, and nothing else. Behind the scenes, the band was locked in an ugly battle with Warner Bros., attempting to either break out of their recording contract or get a better contract signed. While Linkin Park was on the shelf, Mike Shinoda released Fort Minor’s debut album The Rising Tied and toured behind it, while Chester Bennington tried and failed to do the same with his own side-project, Snow White Tan (which would resurface in 2009 as Dead by Sunrise – more on that some other time). So, while I slowly became more and more passionate about the music I listened to, the band I loved the most was trying to figure out their next step. And, by 2006, they’d sorted out their label issues, and were able to move forward with an album that, for the first time, would truly challenge their fans and the perception of the band they’d cultivated since 2000.

Minutes to Midnight is not a nu-metal album. It’s not a metal album, though a couple songs have twinges of metal embedded in them. It’s not a “rap-rock” album, either. What it could be categorized as, loosely, is an alternative rock album. Hybrid Theory and Meteora were cut from the same cloth, using the same template – power chords, rapped verses, screamed choruses. Bridges that had one or both of those elements. Short songs with a basic lyrical structure that tackled nebulous topics that cut right to the heart of issues that teenagers held near and dear. If you mixed and matched songs from the two albums and played them to someone who had never heard Linkin Park before, and challenged them to determine which songs were from which album, they couldn’t do it with even one song. It’s like Metallica’s Load and ReLoad, except they were recorded three years apart.

By contrast, Minutes to Midnight is a wild departure. “Given Up” is comfortably in the territory of typical Linkin Park, but that wasn’t the song fans first heard. That honor instead went to “What I’ve Done,” which is firmly in the alternative rock realm, something Linkin Park had never even come close to touching before. Chester wasn’t screaming. Mike wasn’t rapping at all. The vinyl scratches were few and far between. The power chords weren’t quite as basic and overpowering. We’d heard stories of the album being a departure, but I don’t think anyone quite expected it to be so significant. And that wasn’t even the beginning.

The Minutes to Midnight album cycle was the first one that I’d ever followed as a music fan. I remember when the band said that the title was “T____ and T_____”, with the blanks to be filled in. Fake albums filled torrent websites, usually under the title Trials and Tribulations to match the supposed album name. Snippets of “What I’ve Done” came out slowly, either as brief previews, or as ringtones, or radio snippets. I had all of them on my iPod, and it combined to be about a third of the song, missing most of the significant sections – the verses and the guitar solo (another innovation that was alien to Linkin Park before this album). I remember the debates about if QWERTY – a song debuted at the band’s comeback shows in Japan in August 2006 – would make the album (it didn’t). I remember more snippets leaking out as the release approached, and people being baffled by them – why were they so light (comparatively)? Why was it so different?

What were they doing?

Here’s another fun aside about “What I’ve Done” – myself and a friend of mine had created a rock music forum around the time that “What I’ve Done” leaked, a day ahead of its planned release date. Because I was obsessed with Linkin Park at the time, I knew exactly where to find it, and in order to drive traffic to the forum, I approached my friend with an idea – what if we hosted the leak? He was into it, so we did it, thinking that the people who came for the track would stick around to talk about it.

They didn’t, and the forum closed three months later. Worth a shot.

When Minutes to Midnight dropped, leaked four days in advance because it was 2007 and every single album that mattered was guaranteed to leak in those days, fans were shocked by the songs on the album. By my count, four of the album’s twelve tracks are outright ballads – soft and quiet, slower, songs that you would never have imagined Linkin Park was capable of making. “Leave Out All the Rest” was the most accessible of these tracks by far, and ended up being the album’s final single, featuring Chester singing about a dream of being an ethereal being, hoping that he’d left enough of an impact on the world to not be forgotten. It was a far cry from songs like “One Step Closer,” where Chester implored the listener to shut up because he was being pushed to the edge of his sanity. Songs like “Valentine’s Day” and “In Between” were in a similar vein, being some of the softest songs Linkin Park had ever made, splitting time with harder, more conventional songs like the aforementioned “Given Up” and “No More Sorrow”.

Political commentary found its way into the Linkin Park catalogue with this album, as well. The title itself is vaguely political in nature, a reference to the Doomsday Clock, a visual conception of how close the Earth is to destruction by way of nuclear war. The “clock” ticks closer to midnight when the state of the world worsens, and resets when things get better, usually determined by major geopolitical events related to nuclear weaponry. “Hands Held High,” Mike Shinoda’s only rap showcase on the album, is far more overt, lambasting leaders that can’t get through a speech without stuttering, and condemning the destruction and terror that war brings, bankrolled by people who will never feel the effects. It’s transparent and basic, but the song’s delivery makes it a biting commentary, the likes of which the band had never even come close to touching before.

The album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly closing track “The Little Things Give You Away,” a 6-minute epic that describes the effects of Hurricane Katrina and indicts the late, unorganized relief response. The song is a slow burn that, once again, Linkin Park had never done before; the entire first minute simply introduces the underlying drumbeat, slowly adding instruments on top of it until finally building to the first verse, layered on top like just another instrument. Chester’s delivery is airy and haunting, commanding attention in a far different manner compared to his usual guttural, shouting vocals. The track continues to build in instrumentation, finally breaking open after the second chorus into a simple, but soaring, beautiful guitar solo, which itself leads into a wonderful three-vocal outro that creates an incredibly powerful closing moment for the album. Perhaps more than anything else on Minutes to Midnight, this song is a statement, announcing that Linkin Park had a lot more in the tank than anyone could have expected.

Because of course the band was aware of the perception of them in the eyes of the general public. Linkin Park was the soundtrack of angsty teens who overemphasized the problems they thought they had, and critics treated them accordingly, lambasting everything they did even as their albums soared to the top of the charts and sold like hotcakes in the early 2000s. (Hybrid Theory went diamond several years ago, despite inexplicably peaking at #2 on the Billboard charts during its initial run, and every album they made from 2000 to 2008 went platinum.) Minutes to Midnight, despite the massive shift in sound, did the same, selling a mind-numbing 625,000 copies in its first week, going gold faster than nearly any other Linkin Park album before or since (Meteora, I recently discovered, somehow sold 810,000 copies in its first week). This album represented the peak of their commercial success at the same time that it represented the death of the style that had gotten them to this point in the first place.

Interviews around the time of the album’s recording point to a specific desire to shift away from the nu-metal style that defined Linkin Park. Don Gilmore was out as producer, replaced by the legendary Rick Rubin, who undoubtedly had a large hand in crafting Linkin Park’s new sound. They wanted to knock down the walls surrounding their music, and keep them down forever. Their stated goal was to never again stay within the confines of a single genre, and instead simply make the music that sounded interesting and engaging to them. And true to their word, they’ve never gone back, evolving their sound and branching out in fascinating – sometimes bizarre – directions with each subsequent album. And none of it would have been possible if they hadn’t decided to take the first step with Minutes to Midnight.

I don’t listen to Linkin Park very much any more. Their time in the spotlight of popular music is long gone, and they’ve settled into having a static fanbase without feeling the need to ever cater specifically to that fanbase. That obviously doesn’t affect my own fandom, but my interest waned as I got older and I felt separated from the music that had crafted the soundtrack of my high school years. Very rarely does a person ever stay the same, or even remotely similar, as they go through high school and college, and that’s reflected in their interests and the things they enjoy, as well as how they feel about those things. When I think of Linkin Park, I think of specific memories of my high school years instead of how I felt back then. I still listen to every album, and I buy the studio albums when they come out, but a Linkin Park album is no longer the event it used to be in my life. Instead, I use that energy on more eclectic albums and pursuits, like, for instance, staying up until midnight to watch a live stream of a guy cutting wood, that abruptly stops for two full weeks because the New York Times ruined the surprise of the album being released.

Yes, that’s about Frank Ocean. Thank fucking god he dropped the album.

But I still listen to Linkin Park on occasion, both the new material and the songs and albums I grew up with. It reminds me of going to shady fansites trying to get bootleg recordings of new songs being performed live, or finding the “rare” tracks that they’d never released officially, long before streaming and online stores made those songs easily accessible. A Linkin Park song nowadays feels like a time machine, turning back time to when my musical passion was in its infancy, and I still thought 3 Doors Down was a great rock band.

We all grow up some day, I guess.

The OF Tape Vol. 2, by Odd Future

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Released March 20, 2012

1 hr, 3 min, 23 sec

I don’t know if any group in music today exemplifies the arc of internet fame more than Odd Future.

A bunch of kids hanging out, doing dumb shit, and putting out mixtapes individually and as a unit. In an era where the Internet was becoming one of the most important promotional tools for any musician, where dropping tracks on Myspace was still something people could do to get noticed, Odd Future took advantage of these tools and used them to create a rabid, fiercely loyal fanbase.

Teenagers – mostly white skater kids – loved Odd Future. The central subject matter of most of the group’s songs catered exactly to what most teenagers thought about – violence, getting high, and doing stupid shit with your friends just because you could. They could tap into these feelings and fantasies because they were teenagers. In 2010, right at the start of Odd Future’s ascent to fame, Earl Sweatshirt was 16 years old. Tyler, the Creator was 19. Hodgy Beats was 20. Odd Future was a bunch of kids making music that they wanted to hear, and it turned out to be the kind of subversive, self-aware rap that kids all over the country wanted to hear. It wasn’t mainstream, it wasn’t what you would hear on the radio – but it was great stuff. Through all the uncomfortable subject matter that they would often resort to, there was real talent bubbling underneath the surface for every member of Odd Future. It was talent and promise that many of them would capitalize on in some way or another as the group ascended at a meteoric rate.

One of the biggest catalysts of Odd Future’s rise to fame came with the disappearance of Earl Sweatshirt, which we’ve discussed on the blog before. Though he was sent to Samoa in order to straighten out his increasingly worrying attitude problems, no one knew that when news first hit that he was gone. Odd Future used Earl’s absence as a rallying cry for their fans, making “Free Earl” the group’s mantra for the entire year that he was gone. That, combined with the commercial release of Tyler’s first proper album Goblin, catapulted Odd Future into the mainstream view. Hodgy Beats’s duo with fellow member Left Brain, called MellowHype, began releasing albums of their own.

But 2012 was the big year, possibly the biggest of the group’s collective career. And that brings us to the pinnacle of Odd Future as a unit – The OF Tape Vol. 2.

The album is a sequel to one of the group’s oldest mixtapes, and is made in the same vein – tracks from every member of Odd Future, many of them featuring multiple members on one track. Everyone gets their time to shine on one or more tracks, from Tyler all the way down to Jasper Dolphin and Taco Bennett, which is probably more leeway than those two should be given. It’s a mixtape in its purest form – a bunch of friends having the time of their lives, all with professional production and recording tools.

But we’re not really here to talk about the music. A lot of it is great, to be sure – highlights like “NY (Ned Flander),” “Analog 2,” “Snow White,” “P,” and, of course, “Oldie” anchor the album and float it through some of the less powerful tracks, the ones that focus more on humor and less on substance.

“Oldie” is the ultimate Odd Future track, featuring every core member of the group dropping a verse, even the elusive Frank Ocean. If you wanted to know exactly what Odd Future was about, this was the track to play – each member gets to focus on their own material for a verse, distinct but cohesive at the same time. And the track’s highlight is clearly Earl Sweatshirt’s verse, his first in two years, after returning from “exile.” It’s something that he would explore in more melancholy detail when he returned to making his own music, but here he’s just enjoying being around his boys. The music video is the purest expression of Odd Future – shot on the spot, during a group photo shoot, where the track is played over the speakers. Tyler starts rapping along with his first verse, and eventually gets the entire group to mouth their own verses into the camera, creating a classic music video impromptu. Just like the group itself.

What The OF Tape Vol. 2 signified more than anything was that Odd Future could be themselves and still hit mainstream, commercially successful gold. Tyler blew up. MellowHype landed a stronger record deal. Domo Genesis emerged into his own more and more. And, of course, the crown jewel of The OF Tape Vol. 2, Earl Sweatshirt’s extended comeback verse on “Oldie,” signifying his permanent return to the music industry and Odd Future. And Frank Ocean, already gaining a significant amount of momentum from his 2011 mixtape nostalgia,ULTRA., continued to show his loyalty to Odd Future while priming himself for his own breakout album in channel ORANGE, released later that year.  Essentially, the tape launched the careers of nearly everyone in the group, and gave Odd Future Records the clout it needed to support the group’s work without the need to partner with any major labels.

That marked a turning point in the dynamic of Odd Future.  The group hasn’t released a collaborative album since The OF Tape Vol. 2. They still collaborated on each other’s albums – Tyler’s Wolf, Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris – and performed live together on a regular basis. But they were growing up, and growing up meant growing apart.

Tyler’s third album Cherry Bomb features just Syd tha Kid in terms of Odd Future members (more on that in a bit). Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside features none of the main members. Frank Ocean has not appeared on any Odd Future-related albums since 2013. MellowHype broke up in 2015, though Hodgy Beats and Left Brain stated that they would continue to work together under a different title.

Teenagers grow up and become adults, and careers can lead people in different, sometimes separate, directions. In 2015, Tyler posted a tweet reminiscing about Odd Future, in a manner that made it seem as if the group was no more. He backtracked fairly quickly, clarifying that he was just looking back and letting nostalgia take the wheel, but the signs that Odd Future had permanently changed are everywhere. Earl seems to have walked away from Odd Future completely, and Syd and Matt Martians – collectively known as the Internet – have both explicitly stated that they were no longer part of the group, though they remain tied to the record label. The days of Odd Future as a collective are long gone – all that remains now is a legacy, and the divergent strands of the careers that it birthed.

All except for Mike G, of course. Stop getting high and release a real album for once.