Not really. The format of this blog is basically, “Chris talks music” and occasionally, “Chris talks things-about-Virginia-Tech’s-offense-that-infuriate-him but deletes the post at the last minute in a rare display of discretion.”
So what am I doing posting on Inauguration Day? I’m listening to music today, that’s what. Here, now, an Inauguration Day Edition of In My Stereo!
Bob Dylan, “Chimes of Freedom”
One of Dylan’s most lyrical and inventive efforts, after he expanded his use of language but before his fascination with surrealism really took flight. The verse is stunningly complex, but never obtuse; the syntax is as occasionally “mad” and “mixed-up” as the subjects themselves, but never out of focus. My favorite among Dylan’s “protest” songs, because of its humanist core. Dylan wastes little time condemning “them,” rather painting “us” with such depth, power, and transcendent beauty that the chimes of freedom still sound vital today.
I said it before and I will say it again: I’m not positive this isn’t Dylan’s best lyric. Comment below and tell me all the Bobert Zimmerdylan Masterworks that trump it. I love being wrong.
Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land”
For my money, the quintessential American folk song: boundlessly optimistic and proudly populist. Few artists have put more faith in the average American than Guthrie, and the average American is better for it.
Lauryn Hill, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”
Yes, this is off the Sister Act 2 soundtrack. No, you can’t have my copy.
I wrote earlier about music’s connective power with our spirit, its unspoken language of the heart. If music, at its best, makes us feel something true without necessarily knowing why, then gospel music, at its best, connects with its audience so purely, so viscerally, so powerfully, as to instill them with the faith that transcends knowledge. Great gospel simply bowls you over and leaves you gasping for air, unable to shake or account for its emotional force.
“His Eye Is On the Sparrow” is one of my favorite gospel songs, and Lauryn Hill’s version is unmatched. Something about her vocal tone in this song is at once proud and vulnerable, hopeful yet vaguely sad. It is heart-breaking, and never fails to impact.
**It’s worth noting that this is a duet with another female vocalist, who’s also great, and whose name escapes me, as it isn’t “Lauryn” or “Hill.”
Pearl Jam, “I Am Mine”
For a GenX band, Pearl Jam certainly have their finger on the pulse of Generation I. The lead-off single for 2002’s Riot Act is both sad and triumphant in its message: if everything external gets you down, look internally for happiness. But more than being about individual redemption, it sounds redeeming, with minor-key, angsty verses building perfectly into sweeping, major-key choruses.
Stone Gossard’s gifts for melodic, song-serving guitar work are on full display (hear that fill halfway through every chorus?), and Mike McCready’s solo is winning.
A sweeping, pretty pop song about deciding, one day, to find a better way to live.
Big Star, “Watch the Sunrise”
Lots of songs try to sell the “skipedee-do-dah, it’s a brand new day, and look, it’s beautiful, too” angle. Lots of artists have spent careers churning out third-rate versions of “Here Comes the Sun.” It’s practically become a subgenre at this point. A subgenre I’ll call, “Sunday Morning Music for White People” or, “The Greatest Hits of James Taylor.” You pick.
All this to say, “Watch the Sunrise” is an exception. If a song is about this many pop cliches–“look at the sun and/or stars, look how they shine for you”–it had better sonically create the energy, hope, and awakened beauty it’s revisiting. Of course, Big Star’s studio wizardry and pop craft take this song to a heightened place. It is pitch-perfect, too gorgeous to ignore and too earnest to doubt. It simply sounds like the best sunrise you’ve ever seen. And I saw a good one this morning.
R.E.M., “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”
I don’t know why. Maybe you can listen to it and tell me.
Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Cooke’s effortless vocals and velvet-smooth timbre made him one of pop’s most treasured singers; that is, nobody else made virtuosic singing sound so easy. This rare gift lent itself well to gospel singing, as Cooke’s natural poise and the easy, serene tone of his voice engendered faith in the listener. When Sam Cooke sings something, you trust him. You want to believe him.
That’s why “A Change Is Gonna Come” can be covered by every overzealous, keyboarding crooner on the planet, but it will always belong to Sam Cooke and Sam Cooke alone. At the time of its release (1964), this song was a definitive statement of hope and perseverance during the turbulence of the civil rights movement. In the hands of any other singer, it might’ve sounded manic or desperate, sad, or even angry. But Sam Cooke’s naturally calm demeanor and effortless vocal grace communicated a sense of peace, confidence, and abiding hope in the midst of a violent and uncertain struggle. He sang, and Americans believed him. And he was right.
…But what’s in your stereo?