I've been going a little stir crazy lately. The little elves inside my brain that write my reviews have been fatigued since the new year: despite being flush with great new releases by the likes of Hollerado and David Bowie, not to mention finally getting into Husker Du, it's a little tough getting anything going, as far as writing for this site. I'm reluctant to return to the grind. Then an idea hit me. A really stupid idea, but maybe a fun one.
About a year ago, the entertainment site Vulture ran a series of articles designed to determine the best TV drama of the past 20 years. They used a tournament bracket setup and a panel of esteemed judges. It made for a really entertaining bunch of articles. Every now and again I have thought it might be interesting to find a way to incorporate something like that into SOTW.
So what has happened is that I had iTunes select 32 random tunes from my (active/checked) library: some are things I've covered on SOTW, some are my old personal favourites, some are objective classics and some are recent gems. And maybe some suck but I just happen to have them. Although the idea of pitting entertainments against each other is inherently an incorrect way of looking at it (I cannot stress that enough,) I am nakedly admitting that I'm just doing this for shits and giggles. The song that wins this tournament (be thankful I'm not doing full albums) can't possibly be the literal best song ever. By necessity, it's something that I listen to anyway, and I loves me some music so I'm not going to be too harsh on any of these songs. In doing this, hopefully, it will spotlight a lot of great tunes that haven't come up in regular conversation lately. Let's speed through the first half of our opening round:
Tokyo Police Club, "Frankenstein" vs. Japandroids, "Fire's Highway"
Tokyo was one of the first albums I truly, completely loved after starting this blog, and "Frankenstein" is a fantastic closer to that album, acting as a comedown from the jittery, hooky synth-power-pop, with its mellotronic tones and quivering guitars, and that staggering drumbeat. It's very odd that this competition begins with something that wraps up its original album so completely and satisfactorily.
It's an old favourite versus a new one, though, because Japandroids was one of the best albums of 2012, and "Fire's Highway," with its splashing riffs and thundering drums sums up its qualities succinctly. It's got those echoing, anthemic "oh's" and coarse vocals. "Fire's Highway" is definitely a great piece of an excellent whole, but "Frankenstein" is a complete listening experience on its own. It gets the nod.
David Bowie, "Love is Lost" vs. The Exploding Hearts, "I'm a Pretender"
In one corner, a dense, pulsing, organ-fueled, moody track from David Bowie's great new album. In the other, a snotty, brash piece of mid-2000s pop punk. You might think you know the answer, but you don't. All things being equal, and the Bowie album being great, its newness works against it, and I haven't had enough time to become as attached to it, especially not this particular song, as I have to the perfectly raucous Exploding Hearts.
Winner: "I'm a Pretender"
Joel Plaskett Emergency, "Penny For Your Thoughts" vs. Richard & Linda Thompson, "Shoot Out the Lights"
Oof. This bracket is a killer. "Penny" is a key part of the terrific concept album that is Ashtray Rock, a cheeky, playful and catchy as hell ode to young love. And "Shoot Out The Lights" is a lumbering, towering freefall of depression and despair. It just hits that sweet spot. I've got to give it to RT, who bring one of my favourite guitar solos ever to this track. I feel like Joel would understand.
Winner: "Shoot Out The Lights"
The Who, "Substitute" vs. Japandroids, "For The Love of Ivy"
The BC Duo face tough competition for the second time tonight, going up against major-minor Who fave, "Substitute." Not the most beloved Who song, but also not my favourite track off Celebration Rock -- if it swapped places with "Fire's Highway" this would be a running battle. In the end, The Who's original takes it over Japandroid's cover. The best Who songs are quirky and weird and hard rocking all at once, and this is no exception.
Winner: The Who
Jack White, "Blunderbuss" vs. The Eels, "The Longing"
Not the closest matchup of the tournament so far, but definitely the most downbeat. The shimmering Nashville Skyline-esque beauty of White's solo debut title track goes up against a free verse poem set to a ghostly waltz by Mark Oliver "E" Everett. And make no mistake, as part of El Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire (which I'm totally gonna review soon) it's a key track, bringing a deep dimension of pain and despair in its refrain ("Surely there are other things to life / But I can't think of one single thing / That matters more than just to see her...") but "Blunderbuss" is one of the best tracks on one of the best albums of last year.
Arcade Fire, "Wasted Hours" vs. Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"
This seems to be a recurring theme: matching songs that are great as part of a complete package against songs that can be listened to at any time in any situation. The Neil Young-tinged "Wasted Hours" is a great part of the overarching sound of The Suburbs, with its dusky-lazily strummed twang. But "Once in a Lifetime" is fucking "Once in a Lifetime!" I don't even need to tell you why it wins.
Winner: "Once in a Lifetime"
Nirvana, "Sliver" vs. Aerosmith, "Movin' Out"
Holy shit, this is regrettable. I have actually said "Sliver" is my favourite Nirvana song. Not always, but I have. It just sums them up so perfectly, their power and poppiness, their angst and perverse humour, writing a punk-grunge song from the perspective of an angsty child forced to stay with his grandparents. "Grandma take me home" is maybe one of the most surprisingly awesome rock lyrics ever (up there with the Pixies' "it's educational!") But look who they're up against. Much to the chagrin of many of my bemused colleagues, I have professed my lifelong love for that band time and again. And "Movin' Out" is not minor Aerosmith, it's got that sinewy riff, those hippie hangover post-psychedelic philosophy class lyrics that are utter nonsense but work better because of it. Rip the heart right out of my chest why don't you.
Winner: "Movin' Out"
Arcade Fire, "Ready to Start" vs. Lit, "My Own Worst Enemy"
Arcade Fire makes its return appearance coming up against one of the biggest rock hits of the 90's. And I love me some 90s rock, but with one of the most dense, subtle-yet-rocking tracks off The Suburbs, the 2011 Best Album Grammy winners take it. That lyrics, "I would rather be alone than pretend I feel all right" just does it for me, man.
Talking Heads, "Take Me To The River" vs. Tokyo Police Club, "End of a Spark"
I think Talking Heads' reading of Al Green's sexual-angst-via-religion "Take Me To The River," as a tightly-wound plastic funk explosion is one of the greatest covers ever committed to tape. And "End of a Spark" happens to be one of my favourite tracks off Champ and a terrific piece of 2010 alt-power-pop. And with both bands already having a slot in Round 2, it's an interesting scenario. If the Heads didn't win, it would be because it's not the even-better Stop Making Sense version but the original recorded version. Or perhaps because there's an inherent push against covers in this contest.
Winner: "End of a Spark"
Aerosmith, "Lightning Strikes" vs. my bloody valentine, "only tomorrow"
Two more different tracks from my iPod, you could hardly find. On the one hand, sludgy early-80s hard rock from Aerosmith's redacted era. On the other hand, a track from My Bloody Valentine's 2013 comeback album, the gauzy, low-fi, moaning, squealing, sighing, shoegaze epic mbv. It's bad enough I gave 'Smith the nod over Nirvana, I know James Leask would flay me if I passed over mbv for this one. Or at the very least, he would cancel my scheduled appearance on his podcast next week. Luckily for him, and mbv, this is minor Aerosmith we're talking about: Joe Perry wasn't even with the band for this album, and while I think it happens to be underrated, it's still not in the same league as one of the best tunes from this terrific album, mbv: I love the way it builds and culminates in that staggering, beautiful riff.
Winner: "only tomorrow"
The Hives, "Hate To Say I Told You So" vs. Gin Blossoms, "Hey Jealousy"
Now here's a matchup: the razor sharp garage punk of early-2000s Hives and the warm fuzzy aw-shucks self deprecation of the Gin Blossoms. It's not an easy win for the Blossoms, but it's a clean one.
Winner: "Hey Jealousy"
Joel Plaskett Emergency, "Written All Over Me" vs. Arctic Monkeys, "Brianstorm"
Joel! So glad you're back. Here we see the opening track from his "Truthfully, Truthfully" album paired against the opening track of Arctic Monkeys' second disc. For me, Favourite Worst Nightmare takes a few tracks to really hit its stride, and "Brian" is an only-okay holdover from the Whatever People Say I Am era. "Written All Over Me," meanwhile, exudes all the charm and wit that permeates all of Plaskett's music, a mischievous, down home chunk of riffage that always gets me going. Great curtain raiser.
Winner: "Written All Over Me"
Deer Tick, "The Bump" vs. Deer Tick, "Chevy Express"
Now here's a wild card. I had never even listened to Deer Tick before a few weeks ago, when someone showed me A.V. Club's Undercover series, featuring a terrific take on one of my all-time favourite songs, Harvey Danger's "Flagpole Sitta." I got the album, Divine Providence, and I liked it, and then moved on. Then my random playlist generator sat these two songs, neither of which I could recall from memory, right next to each other, the only instance in round one of a band going up against itself. So I left it in - and revised my proposed "only one song per band" rule, just to see how it played out. "The Bump" is them at their bar band best, and "Chevy Express" is a more intimate ballad. Both great and for different reasons, but I've gotta give it to the former.
Winner: "The Bump"
Matt Mays, "Indio" vs. The La's "I Can't Sleep"
Matt Mays released a great album in 2012, which I will review soon, and "Indio" is a terrific intro to it, with its dusty, mystic southwestern feel. Against weaker opposition, it might have won, but "I Can't Sleep" is The La's at their peak power, right up there with "There She Goes." Life's not fair sometimes.
Winner: "I Can't Sleep"
The Vaccines, "Wetsuit" vs. Zeus, "Kindergarten"
"Wetsuit" brings to mind tunes like "Favourite Food" from Tokyo Police Club, or Joshua Tree era U2, the way it builds modestly to ignite a towering inferno. It's maybe not as grandiose as all that, but it's a good listen. The first Zeus record was one of my favourite records of 2010, and here's some high spirited madness from them. They edge out the win.
The Animals, "House of the Rising Sun" vs. The Who, "Behind Blue Eyes"
It could be the case that this entire tournament is a contest to see who gets to come in second to the winner of this match. Based on reputation alone, these might be the two heaviest hitters of the lot, and they are up against each other in round one. "House of the Rising Sun" was my favourite song as a kid: Eric Burdon's voice is so dour and enigmatic and gloomy, and that guitar is just so perfect, as the organ bubbles under the surface before overtaking it completely.
Both these songs have their mystical qualities. The Who has already advanced in this tournament, but not like this. That was early Who, this is mid-Who, Who's Next, post-Tommy, circa Pete Townshend completely losing his marbles in the Lifehouse debacle and coming back with one of the most phenomenal records of all time. "Behind Blue Eyes" is the hypothetical villain song, building to that great climax, this is that band at nearly their best (besides "Baba O'Riley," for sure.) This is the hardest call of the night. What's more, it comes back to that same dilemma: a great single, or a great album song.
Really listening, really thinking about it, hearing the individual strings of Pete Townshend's guitar, the crawling of John Entwhistle's bass, one of Roger Daltrey's best vocal performances, and then that moment when Keith Moon's drums come in. Songs like this are what you're really thinking of when you think of the Who. And it's not even 8 minutes long. It's actually shorter than its hit single opponent. If I could only hear one of these songs ever again, I don't know if I'd pick the same, but tonight, it has to be.
Winner: "Behind Blue Eyes"
So maybe I do have a bias against covers (although "Rising Sun" may as well be an original.) It's quite a selection I have for myself in Round 2. Place your bets and get ready to get disproportionately mad... if you're not already.