The Strokes – “Ask Me Anything”


Year: 2006

Album: First Impressions Of Earth

Here’s something I thought I’d never say in 2016: First Impressions Of Earth is a good record.

When it was released 10 years ago, the record, along with everything else the Strokes has ever done, was chastised for failing to live up to the hype of Is This It. The record’s two major sins were 1) it didn’t sound like Is This It and 2) it didn’t save rock ‘n’ roll like Is This It did in 2001. It was considered a complete and uttermost failure. There were riots in the streets. Devoted Strokes fans, ripping off their leather jackets in despair, cried out to the heavens from their Lower East Side apartment rooftops. What is this shit?! “Juicebox”?! “15 Minutes Of Pain”?! Why oh Lord Why?!

Critics, once the champions of everything the Strokes did, immediately panned the record for its production and lack of sounding like Is This It. The overall mood was clear; they should have quit after Room On Fire, which wasn’t considered a complete failure because it sounded just like Is This It. The Great American Rock Revival Experiment was over. Let’s trade in our guitars for turntables. This was the end of rock ‘n’ roll.

10 years later, music critics still can’t come to terms that First Impressions Of Earth isn’t Is This It. Michael Nelson wrote 7,000 words on Stereogum and still couldn’t justify its existence. There was no reissue or planned acknowledgment by the band that this record even existed. The band, still criticized for not releasing something as good as Is This It every two years, was no longer considered An Important Rock Band, and you could argue that the unraveling began with the backlash of First Impressions Of Earth. No new records, no matter how good they were (Angles and Comedown Machine are both excellent) could undue the story taking shape. This was it.

For the past 23 years, I have been on the side of the critics, but then I actually listened to the record. Front to back. No interruptions. And it’s not bad. In fact, it’s actually pretty great! Seriously – go listen to “Ask Me Anything,” the band’s first and best attempt and ballad. Revisit that really weird bass sound from “Juicebox.” “You Only Live Once” is still their best album opener. “Razorblade” is a top five Strokes song for me. Listen. To. The. Whole. Record. Again. Will. Ya?

Will First Impressions Of Earth ever gain respect in our society? Recently I’ve become more hopeful. Last week, the band released a new four-track EP called Future Present Past. It’s full of good songs that reminded me of First Impressions Of Earth, and I was pumped. This was the most excited I’ve been about new Strokes in a long time. The EP title is the most telling part for me; Have the Strokes finally made peace with its past in order to move on? If so, then we all should do the same for First Impressions Of Earth.

Artie Shaw – “Stardust”


Year: 1940

“Stardust” is another masterpiece written by the famous Hoosier Hoagy Carmichael, who also wrote one of my favorite Chet Baker recordings. Among the 2,000+ recordings of Carmichael’s song, the piece is often associated with clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw, who uses his beloved instrument to inspire a sort of twilight gleam that is both beautiful and lonesome, and it’s in line with the song’s theme of “a song about a song about love.” The piece begins with a solo Billy Butterfield playing an unaccompanied trumpet line that is soon joined by more horns and a string section. Then Shaw comes in with his Clarinet and steals the show with a somewhat formless melody. It’s not easy to whistle to or to play back from memory. That’s part of the song’s magic; it floats around, unreachable by reason but always resounding with the listener.

Philip Glass – “Einstein On The Beach”


Year: 1976

There’s no actual Einstein in Philip Glass’ groundbreaking and plotless opera, but you can picture Einstein sitting on the beach contemplating the meaning of life or working on a new mathematical theory to the sound of counting numbers and random whispers. This could be the sound of his mind trying to think, or trying not to think. As a man of science, I image his mind was never quiet. Then again, when are our own minds ever completely silent? We have to train ourselves to become still in mind and body, which is hard and does not come naturally to us. In that sense, you and I are not so different from Einstein.

The counting and whispers are juxtaposed with a choir singing a hymn as simple as staring off into the ocean. There is comfort in the beach. This is the peace of mind that Einstein is trying to achieve, but even when he finds it, there’s still some sort of distraction. Yet somehow, there’s peace in the noise.

And then things get weird.

With Einstein on the Beach, Glass wanted to change your mind of operas. Operas shouldn’t just be associated with rich Italians; they can be relatable to modern times, or whatever you wanted it to be. “It’s a story that you have to create for yourself,” said Glass. “We don’t give you a plot; we give you a theme. And the audience completes the story.”

In this sense, Glass mostly succeeded. This is an opera in four acts and, with an almost five-hour run time, is an ambitious piece to take in all at once.

“I have rarely heard a first-night audience respond so vociferously at the Metropolitan Opera House as for this bizarre, occasionally boring, yet always intermittently beautiful theater piece.” – New York Times critic Clive Barnes said in 1976.

Forty years later, Glass’ opera has only gained in stature while still retaining its curious inaccessibility. What makes this opera work is that it jumps styles often and when you least expect it. Once you believe the piece has gone stuck up its own ass, a drastic change transforms your mood and attention. It’s hard work, but committed and full listenings are rewarded.

Glass has insisted that you cannot just listen to Einstein on the Beach. You have to watch it too. Glass worked on the production with director and playwright Robert Wilson, who added the set design and production value that Glass insisted, along with Lucinda Childs’ choreography, was essential to the piece. When you watch the performance, you can pick out the violinist who kind of resembles Einstein, and there are references to beaches and a trail. But that’s all you get in concrete details.

Does it sound offputting? Absolutely. Yet I encourage a full listen to discover what this piece means to you. You might be surprised by what you hear.

The Seeds – “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine”


Year: 1966

Album: The Seeds

The Seeds’ enjoyable and influential self-titled debut is one of the cornerstones of American garage rock. Like the best American garage rock from the ’60s, The Seeds tried and mostly succeeded in ripping off The Rolling Stones’ sleaze and Buddy Holly’s charm. Add some sunny psychedelic guitar and some piano and you got The Seeds.

“Can’t Seem To Make You Mine,” written by the band’s vocalist Sky Saxon, appears on the also influential 1998 box set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, which is where I first heard this song. The Ramones, Alex Chilton, Johnny Thunders, Yo La Tengo, and Garbage have all covered the song.

You should start a band and cover this song. It’s not hard to play. We should all start bands and cover this song. Let’s do that.

Max Roach & Anthony Braxton – “Spirit Possession”


Year: 1979

Album: Birth and Rebirth

Drummer Max Roach and multireedist Anthony Braxton recorded themselves jamming together in 1978 and released it as an album. They would do it again in the same year with One in Two – Two in One, but Birth and Rebirth is my favorite of the two recordings. It’s avant-garde using not so avant-garde instruments. It’s all in the presentation and performance. It’s freewheelin’ but economical; Both musicians are mindful that most jamming is indulgent and boring to the listener. Roach channels Ghanaian drumming in accordance to Braxton’s timid reed playing and both are good enough musicians to turn any sort of indulgence into engaging recording art.

Glen Campbell – “Sadly Beautiful”

Year: 2008

Album: Meet Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell’s cover of “Sadly Beautiful,” one of the great late-career Replacements tracks, will break your heart when you hear it transformed into a country ballad with a lot more strings. This is also a reminder that Paul Westerberg is one of the great ballad songwriters of any genre (see also his unreleased demo for “You’re Getting Married”).

John Adams – ‘Nixon In China’

Year: 1987

In 1972, President Richard Nixon traveled to China to meet with Mao Zedong in an effort to strengthen relations between the two countries in the later years of the Vietnam War. It was one of the most important diplomatic moments of the 20th century, and it’s the visit that would have defined Nixon if Watergate never happened. It’s the kind of real life epic that could only be captured in an opera.

At least that’s what John Adams thought in 1983 when he began writing the score to his first opera to Alice Goodman’s libretto and Mark Morris’ choreography. Adams wrote the opera by the encouragement of stage director Peter Sellars, who saw the complexities of Nixon’s visit; it could have been an election ploy, a genuine diplomatic mission, or both. However, Adams and Sellars did not want to create another bland satire poking at the easy target of Nixon, an awkward power-hungry stiff who is perhaps the easiest American President to make fun of. The goal of the opera was to explore the humans on both sides of the meeting and to capture the historical moment from those who were actually there. Even the title Nixon in China invokes some involuntary humor – can you imagine Richard Nixon walking around in China? Adams understands what he’s going up against in his attempt to humanize Nixon, and the play’s success is how he often gets close to his goal.

The main characters are Nixon and his wife Pat, Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), and the two advisors of each leader, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. The opera is divided into three acts: Act One details the first night of the visit and the initial meetings between Nixon and Mao, Act Two follows Pat around rural China and exploring everyday Chinese life, and Act Three describes Nixon’s last night in China and everyone’s mixed feelings on the success of the visit.

Nixon in China has always been more influential than acclaimed – its initial reviews were mixed – but over the years it has earned its position as one of America’s most important operas. It is more famous for its existence than its success as an emotional engaging piece of music; few operas are based on a media event that was televised all around the world. Though the opera takes place in China, Adams’ score borrows almost entirely from Philip Glass’ minimalist style and rarely takes on any Oriental influence. That’s where Goodman’s libretto comes in, which is written in rhymed and metered couplets inspired by traditional Chinese poetry and theater.

American operas may not be as established or as grand as its European siblings, but Nixon in China was, and still is, a groundbreaking attempt at turning an old and inaccessible musical style into something modern and, dare I say, relatable? Also, does anyone think the beginning of the opera sounds like Elliott Smith?