The Best Ways to Win an Album of the Year at the Grammys

The Grammys are a funny thing.  They present awards for a range of different categories, from Best Recording Package to Best Music Video to Record of the Year.  However, if music is supposed to be art, then how exactly do the Grammys decided on who has the best art?  Isn’t art just an expression of oneself?  What criteria does the Grammy selection committee use to determine who’s art is best?

Fortunately, I’ve done years of research, watching each neverending Grammy award show after the next.  My friends go out and party during the weekends.  I suffer for my cause.  I watch the Grammys.

Yet, there is a bright side.  After all of this research, I have concocted a list of the five best ways to win an Album of the Year, the most prestigious Grammy award.  In so doing, it goes without reason that this list truly is the criteria to judge all performers on the worthiness of their art.

Without further adieu, here is the list:

1. Be Old

With age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes Grammys.  From Robert Plant’s Grammy in 2009 to Herbie Hancock’s in 2008 to  Steely Dan’s in 2001, it is plain to see that if you’re about to kick the bucket, the Grammys would like to congratulate you for living.

Your chances to win Album of the Year improve astronomically if you actually once were deserving of this honor.  For instance, Bob Dylan won it in 1998 for Time Out of Mind (a truly great album), but the man never won one for any of his string of rule-breaking 60s masterpieces (Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, etc.).  It was almost as if the Grammys gave him the one in 1998 to basically say “Sorry about that whole refusing-to-give-you-an-award thing way back when.  You were a bit too controversial in those days.  Now that you’re older and accepted, we love you…and retroactively love all your brilliant past work.”

2. Be Popular

This explains why the Foo Fighters always get nominated (2008, 2012).  It also explains the Black Eyed Peas nomination in 2010.  (Actually, nothing explains that.)  It’s the reason Alanis Morissette won for Jagged Little Pill in 1996.  Did anyone actually think that was the best album that year?  Yes.  The Grammys did.  Her art was best.

3. Be Someone Other than Radiohead

Radiohead is many things to many people.  They’ve won widespread acclaim.  Pitchfork readers want to make love to them.  They are popular.  They are indie.  They are crazy businessmen.  However, there’s one thing they are not.  Grammy winners.

Time (1998) and time (2001) and time (2009) again, they have been nominated.  Yet time (1998) and time (2001) and time (2009) again, they have lost.  OK Computer and Kid A are considered by most to be groundbreaking works in the industry and stone cold masterpieces, yet they still lost.  Astoundingly, in 2009 the band even showed up and played a killer performance of “15 Step” from In Rainbows (below), and still lost.

After doing a bit of digging, I realized why they lost.  Winners from those three years, in order, are Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, and Robert Plant (with Alison Krauss).  The average age of those winners is around 500, while the average age of Thom Yorke and the Yorkettes is about 40.  Despite what they say, music isn’t a young man’s game.  It’s an old man’s game for an old man that once was great as a young man.

4. Be Scheduled to Perform on the Grammys

When was the last time you saw a Grammy winner that didn’t actually perform on the show?  Never, right.  It’s like the whole thing is staged.  Anyway, everyone knows that artists who have TV friendly good looks make the best art.   How else can you explain how Whitney Houston’s soundtrack for The Bodyguard beat R.E.M.’s classic Automatic for the People in 1994?  Bald white guys never make the best art.

5. Be “Americana”

I may not know much, but I do know that America is obsessed about America.  Ford trucks, Bud Light, slavery, etc.  We are a proud nation.  Celebrating our roots is part of our culture.  The Grammy selection committee endorses this celebration wholeheartedly.  In music, celebrating our roots is called playing “Americana” or “folk” music.  It tends to involve a middle-aged white guy with a beard or some sort of old-fashioned facial hair.  This is why I expect Mumford & Sons to win this year.

Mumford and Sons in concert - London

A bunch of white guys with facial hair playing acoustic guitars and other old-timey instruments? Give them the trophy already.

All Americans know that American music is the best music.  It goes without saying that it’s the best art.

There you have it.  Check out the Grammys and let me have it if I’m wrong (which I won’t be).

The Best Song Performed by Characters in a Sitcom

As I thought about some of the great songs performed on sitcoms, several came to mind. There are the obvious ones. “Friends Forever” performed by the famous band of the future, The Zack Attach, on the “Saved by the Bell” episode where younger me learned that fame isn’t everything. “Suits” performed by the cast of “How I Met Your Mother”, where Barney decides that he cares more about his suits than hot bimbos. And of course “The Pit” performed by Mouse Rat in a “Parks and Recreation” episode where Andy falls in a pit. Classic TV.

However, “Freelove Freeway” by Ricky Gervais, in character as David Brent, from the “The Training” episode of the original “The Office” is the clear winner.

This song is pitch perfect in so many ways. First of all, it’s an undeniably great pop song.  So great in fact that Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis, actually assisted in a studio recording of the song. When has a TV sitcom song ever actually gotten that kind of treatment?

The song, as part of the sitcom, is also terribly funny. It barely makes any sense. The song is a love song about a guy longing for a girl, but during David Brent’s performance Gareth thinks the girl is dead (she’s not) and Tim thinks the guy is gay (he’s not).

Finally, the song just fits amazingly well within the context of the episode and the sitcom itself. Most songs in TV shows, even the good ones, fit in either illogically (like any How I Met Your Mother song) or just seem like they were written first and then thrown into an episode through some makeshift reasoning (like any Family Guy song). “Freelove Freeway” in The Office just fits. In its particular episode, David Brent plays the song for a circle of his employees, while in the process cutting off a staff training he’s organized and showing up the actual trainer. The show absolutely sets it up for a cringe-worthy performance.

But the thing is, even though the song is a joke, it’s so good that you’ll love it. And you’ll hate yourself for loving it. It’s just one of the show’s many charms.

The Best Closing Song to a Video Game

Dracula: “For what profit is it to man if he gains the world and loses his own soul? Matthew 16:26, I believe.”

Alucard: “…..”

Any game that quotes the good book has clearly gone into deep water. When the man doing the quoting is none other than the Prince of Darkness, you know there’s no going back. This is why Alucard, his son, is left speechless. After all, who knew Dracula was so well read?

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is known as one of the greatest games ever made, easily one of the best for the PlayStation. In a time when 3D gaming was all the rage, Symphony of the Night adamantly stood by 2D side-scrolling, and created a near perfect masterpiece for the platform RPG genre.

Outside the amazing gameplay, one of the great things about the game is its well-timed musical pieces, oft times accompanying tone-setting dialogue and amazing voice overs, particularly in the case of its famous “What is a Man?” scene. The game’s ending, to which the above quote comes from, is no exception. Alucard has just smote Dracula, and only in those last gasps for air does his father understand that he may have gone a bit overboard with his whole ruling the world thing. What follows is one of the great father-son reunions in video game history, leading to the game’s penultimate moment, when Alucard says “You have been doomed ever since you lost the ability to love.” Quite true Alucard. Quite true.

Skip past a well-placed scene between Alucard, his lover Maria, and his possessed-throughout-the-entire-game friend Richter, and you get to the end credits, where the awe-inspiring Mariah Carey-ish ballad, ” I Am the Wind” takes over. You would think a game as dark as Castlevania would end with a song a bit ominous, or spooky, or at least somber, but the good people at Konami decided to take their last risk. With lines like  “the best of me is all I have to give” and “sometimes I don’t like the person I’ve become”, the song was a poetic line in the sand. It was a bold statement.

And it paid off.

Without further adieu, here is the Symphony of the Night full ending.  Skip ahead to the 3:26 mark for “I Am the Wind”.

The Best Album About Growing Old

Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Mark Twain

Growing old is a funny thing.  We all do it.  We all expect it.  Yet we all deny it.  Some of us buy fancy clothes to look younger.  Others dye their hair blonde or brown or anything other than grey.  Wealthy men get themselves trophy wives and wealthy women buy themselves new faces.  It’s as if people actually believe they can hold back aging and their inevitable demises.  Industries would collapse if people realized that just because they got themselves plastic surgeries, their friends and colleagues can still count age and still know that after someone’s 43rd birthday comes a 44th (and so on), despite any “enhancements” that have been done.

Musicians are just like the rest of us.  However, celebrities can become freakazoids when it comes to aging.  Celebrity musicians are actually the worst of the bunch, since most of these musicians cater to a younger audience.  Particularly when a musician has been around for a while, making his/her mark decades ago, their audience wants to believe that moment has been frozen in time, along with the musician.  Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, I’m talking to you both.  Do you expect us to believe you both are in your seventies with hair that is anything other than grey?  You’re old, deal with it.

Mick-Jagger-2010

No gray hair…really Mick? At age 68. Really?

That being said, there are a number of albums about getting old because the thing is, you’re only young once, but you’re old for all the time after that.  Two musicians have embraced aging and death to a point that deserves respect.  These are Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  (We’ve already mentioned Dylan here and here, but hey, he’s kind of a “big deal”.  And he’s old and cranky…so the shoe fits.)  It turns out that these are also our two humble resident rock poets.  The following is a lyric from each:

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play.

– from Leonard Cohen’s “The Tower of Song”

The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away.

– from Bob Dylan’s “Highlands”

Both have written great treatises on the trials and tribulations of aging, but in terms of the best album, Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind, wins handily.  From “Not Dark Yet” to “Can’t Wait” to the aforementioned showstopping closer, “Highlands”, this album has it all.  It’s as if Dylan was waiting to age so that he could become that pissed off geezer with a walking cane singing about all the young women he can’t have and all the sunny days that just won’t come around any more.  I imagine it’s the perfect musical accompaniment to the moment you realize that all the fast cars and second, third, fourth, and fifth wives in the world won’t stave away the  sad conclusion that is awaiting you.

Hooray!

In case you don’t believe me, he’s got a song called “Standing in the Doorway”.  And for those that don’t understand figurative language, beyond the doorway is death, and our hero, Mr. Dylan, is standing right next to it.  I’m not sure why he doesn’t just move away from the door, but maybe when you get old, at some point you just say screw it.

-“Standing in the Doorway”, written by Bob Dylan, but played by some guy who thinks at age 20 something, with his guitar, a laptop, and his parents out of town, he can become an internet star by playing something by a 50-plus year old Bob Dylan in what is clearly his parent’s living room.  (The harmonica’s a nice touch bro.  Cuz Bob Dylan also plays harmonica.  Got it.)

Getting old isn’t a great thing, but at least we have Bob Dylan to tell us that.  To our face.

Thanks Bob!

The Best Song To Listen To In A Van With Your Date

Today marks the first day of the rest of your lives.  From now on, the clock is ticking.  All you single people out there, you haven’t got a moment to lose.  Find a date.  Go online.  Stalk women at the grocery store.  Pretend to be reading Rolling Stone while secretly deciphering what that cute girl reading Seventeen at Barnes and Noble might want to hear you say.  The point is: do what it takes.

And when you finally get a date with that cute girl you saw at the DMV, you need to play your cards right.  Take her to a fancy dinner.  Wear your faded dark skinny jeans.  If you don’t have faded dark skinny jeans, buy faded dark skinny jeans.  Pay for the dinner.  Get her ice cream.  Ask her to join you in your van for a scenic drive through whatever town/city you might live in.

Once the romantic ride in your mom’s van is over, it’s time to turn the music on to perfect the atmosphere.  You’ll need something that tells your woman all of the following, in order:

  • “It’s OK dear, I won’t bite.”
  • “Look at the dark empty space I have at the back of this van…tempting, right?”
  • “It’s not that creepy, give it a try.”
  • “Look at this smile.  You know I’m into you.”
  • “I’m sorry. I’ll drive you home.”
  • “OK, you can walk home.  I’ll see you tomorrow?”
  • “Please don’t call the cops.”

So many songs have attempted to perfect the art of seduction.  Only one song makes this all so easy for single guys with vans.  And here it is:

You might have thought I was going with something like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” or The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden”.  These songs may work on a superficial level, where the girl actually does come to the back of the van with you for what only can be described as “a romp”.  But no, these songs do not create the aura of mystery and intrigue of Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building?”    The beauty of the song is you never actually find out what he’s building in there.  Could be a playhouse for the local kids.  Could be a meth factory.  Could be a lifelike replica of Scooby Doo and the gang.  You just never find out.  I mean, you expect it to be evil and something to do with rape or little children.  But who knows.

However, you must trust Tom Waits.  Simply put, the man knows women.  He once apparently got a “Christmas Card from a Hooker” (on the album Blue Valentine) and knows he’s “Better Off Without a Wife” (on the album Nighthawks at the Diner).  As long as you don’t actually pay attention to the lyrics, you’ll know he’s basically proclaiming he’s a ladies man.

And every ladies man has a van.  And every ladies man with a van knows, when the feeling’s right, play “What’s He Building?”

If you do, I promise, you’ll stay a ladies man.

The Best Song R.E.M. Never Wrote

Ask a group of Athens acolytes to list their favorite bands to emerge from the proto-punk scene of the early 80s and they’ll probably list Guadalcanal Diary dead last. Or at all. That’s because they’re so indie, they don’t even know they exist.

Guadalcanal Diary were one among the many talented bands roaming the streets of Athens, GA during the time when soon-to-be great bands like The B-52s and R.E.M. were putting together a few of their most memorable tunes.

The first track from Walking in the Shadows of the Big Man–their best album in my humble opinion–is possibly the greatest song R.E.M. forgot to write. It’s got all the major cues of an early R.E.M. tune minus the mumbling; lead singer Murray Attaway sings about lonely women who are fond of wearing black in a clear and audible tone.

For your listening pleasure, I submit to you: “Trail of Tears”

The Best Cover Song Ever. Period.

People love singing.  This fact is inescapable.

Melodies have been encapsulated in our very fibers through the use of cover songs…and these covers have been a part of our human experience almost as long as originals have.  Some cover songs are great (e.g. Jack White’s version of U2’s “Love is Blindness), some are not so great (e.g. My Chemical Romance’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”), some are from hot celebrities who think they can do it all but can’t (e.g. Scarlet Johannson’s version of Tom Waits’ “Anywhere I Lay My Head”), some rape the Stones (e.g. Britney Spears’ version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”), and some are from bands who know they’re done but still want to end on a high note without trying too hard (e.g. REM’s “Blue”, which is essentially a cover of REM’s “Country Feedback”).  Yes kids, there are many, many cover songs.  Too many to count and far too many for you to ever care about, particularly since for every cover song, in theory, there is also an original out there.

Well, there is one cover song that defies all expectations.  It is so thoroughly original and so thoroughly engaging that the listener’s head will inevitably explode when the  lead “singer” goes where no man has gone before.  This cover song questions the very idea of song and spits out something that will always live with you.  You can never un-know this cover.  It takes us to a unique dimension of lunacy and poetry (?) and is too respectful of the listener to bring him/her back to earth like mere normal songs. It leaves you in a world where nothing makes sense…or perhaps, everything makes sense?!

This cover is William Shatner’s version of Bob Dylan’s classic “Mr. Tambourine Man”.

Original:

Glass-Shattering, World-Beating, Mind-Destroying Cover:

Now, I am just a mere mortal.  Bob Dylan and William Shatner are gods among men, unquestioned in their greatness.  This is to say, first and foremost, that I realize the greatness of Bob Dylan.  This greatness is embodied in the song.  Listening to this song is like taking an idyllic journey over all of one’s troubles, over all the tedium of the daily grind, and into a wonderful world of acid-induced illusions of carefree magic carpet rides.  The song is an unmistakable masterpiece.

However, I’ve always noticed something missing.

Enter Shatner.

First, he challenges the listener by changing the arrangement into something of a carnivalesque death march into the abyss of Mr. Shatner’s crazed mind.  Then he desperately questions in search of Mr. Tambourine Man.  As we all do.  In life. Or something.

Then comes the background singers, who sing the chorus as the great jazz singers of yesteryear, which is to say they start singing whenever the urge arises (or when they are so dazed living withing the overwhelming shadow of Shatner that they cannot seem to understand when to sing and when to let his incessant questioning continue).

Mr. Shatner’s work is performance art.  He beckons the listener to come closer and read between the lines.  His stretched out phrasings of Bob Dylan’s simple rhythms suggest either he has a hard time saying more than two words at a time or something else is going on, something wonderful.  I believe in the latter.  His impossibly jarring call for Mr. Tambourine Man at the end of the song says it all.

I believe in Mr. Shatner.  And like him, I am also searching for Mr. Tambourine Man.