Ten Great Albums for Two in the Morning

When you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, alone with your worries, music can help you make it through. But not just any music. Only a 2:00 a.m. record album will do.

A 2:00 a.m. album keeps you company in the darkness while you wrestle with fear and watch the dull glow of the stereo lights. A 2:00 a.m. album does not necessarily uplift you: a brass band marching through your living room feels wrong in the wee hours, which is why Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cannot be a 2:00 a.m. album. But 2:00 a.m. music does not drag you over the emotional abyss, either; Joy Division’s relentlessly depressing Closer needs to stay on the shelf after midnight. What you need is a friend who keeps you company without overstepping their boundaries. Albums like these:

1. Only the Lonely

Frank Sinatra once said, “I like recording late at night. The later the better. My voice was not made for daytime use.” Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded Only the Lonely in 1958. Today it feels like a time capsule that he left for future generations to discover during the lonely hours. Hearing the interplay between his crooning voice and Nelson Riddle’s orchestral arrangement is like sipping a warm cup of tea. The songs, such as the gentle “What’s New” and “Willow Weep For Me,” comfort your soul. Sinatra called these songs “saloon songs” because they feel perfect when you’re alone in a bar with a blinking beer sign. They work just as well in your home. When he sings “Excuse me, while I disappear” on the song “Angel Eyes,” you want to go where he’s going. And stay there.

2. The Dark Side of the Moon

David Gilmour makes Dark Side a 2:00 a.m. album. There’s the keening wail of his pedal steel guitar. And his low voice, soothing and reassuring, even as he sings Roger Waters’s lyrics that dwell on the pressures of everyday life. I realize that Dark Side might fall into the too-bleak-for-late-night category for many; it works for me because the album absorbs and reflects fear and melancholia like that friend I mentioned who simply keeps you company in the night. And that’s all because of Gilmour. If you want to feel loathing and anger, try Pink Floyd’s Animals. For paranoia, give The Wall a spin. But for 2:00 a.m. anxiety, I’ll see you on The Dark Side of the Moon.

3. Automatic for the People

The quiet reflection of “Night Swimming.” The emotional transcendence of “Everybody Hurts.” The bittersweet longing in Michael Stipe’s voice. The haunting respite that a quivering electric piano and guitar provide in “New Orleans Instrumental № 1.” I pick up something different each time I listen to this brooding masterpiece. And each time, when Michael Stipe sings, “If you feel like you’re alone/No, no, no, you are not alone,” I feel like he’s right there in the room singing to me.

4. Spirit

Listening to Willie Nelson is like eating a heaping plate of comfort food. The album, true to its name, takes you on a spiritual journey. Many of the songs consist of nothing more than Willie and a guitar sounding like he’s hanging out on a country porch with his family gathered around. When he sings “Too Sick to Pray,” he sounds like a Psalm writer having a conversation with God. The moment when he asks, “Remember the family Lord, I know they will remember you,” is as intimate and endearing as anything you’ll ever hear on a record.

5. Strange Days

The Doors have recorded a lot of perfect 2:00 a.m. songs. There’s “Riders on the Storm,” exuding dark dread. The ethereal “Crystal Ship.” But Strange Days is the one Doors work that endures as a 2:00 a.m. album from start to finish. The moment you hear Ray Manzarek’s creepy Moog synth playing on the opening track, you are transported out of your world and into the universal mind of the Doors. Jim Morrison’s voice, like David Gilmour’s on Dark Side, makes the album. He’s powerful without overpowering you on “When the Music’s Over,” and soft as a whisper on “You’re Lost Little Girl.” It’s a dark album. But its surreal undercurrent keeps Strange Days from passing into the realm of the overly foreboding.

6. Hounds of Love

Kate Bush’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery meshes with the lush arrangements to make you feel like you’re floating weightless somewhere in the clouds. In the dead of night, I can dig a sensation like that. On the opening song, ‘Running up That Hill,” a delicate bed of synthesizers and drums pulls you into Kateland before her voice soars and dances across the music. This album rewards the listener with unexpected, breathtaking moments, like the glorious choral section from the Georgian folk song “Zinzkaro” that makes “Hello Earth” a balm. Maybe it’s the way that her voice soars on every song, but Hounds of Love makes me feel hopeful.

7. Substrata

This ambient exploration of mood from Biosphere is unlike anything on this list. Substrata uses samples of running water, creaking wood, blowing wind, human voices, reverb, echo, guitar, and synthesizers to create a strange sonic landscape that is, quiet, provocative, and even menacing. I listened to this album often after I became a father and spent many late nights watching over my newborn.

8. The Trinity Session

The Cowboy Junkies recorded The Trinity Session in one night using a single microphone in Toronto’s Holy Trinity church. The church itself is like another instrument whose acoustics enhance Margo Timmins’ gentle voice. Her a capella reading of “Mining for Gold” creates a kind of loneliness that feels right — not desperate, but melancholy enough to make you feel like she understands your 2:00 a.m. solitude.

9. Kid A

Those descending chords from an electric piano that open Radiohead’s Kid A offer a clue about what comes next: synth, heavy bass, and voice distortion. I’ve never been able to enjoy Kid A in broad daylight. Thom Yorke’s dissonant but affecting vocals, processed by Pro Tools, sounds like your head does when off-kilter thoughts collide in the night.

10. All Things Must Pass

George Harrison understood what being awake at 2:00 a.m. means. On “Beware of Darkness,” the 10th song on All Things Must Pass, he sings, “Watch out now, take care/beware of the thoughts that linger/Winding up inside your head/The hopelessness around you/In the dead of night.” Like Willie Nelson’s SpiritAll Things Must Pass is a meditation on matters of faith. It’s heavy, dark, and reflective. But it’s also hopeful. On the title song, George sings, “Now the darkness only stays the night-time/In the morning it will fade away/Daylight is good at arriving at the right time/It’s not always going to be this grey.” Those words lift the soul at 2:00 a.m., and they can carry you into the day that lies ahead if you let them.

Parts of many other albums work well, too, such as Led Zeppelin III (for the bucolic vibe of Side Two) and Sticky Fingers (“I Got the Blues” is mandatory for a 2:00 a.m. playlist); In addition, Wish You Were Here belongs on a 2:00 a.m. album list, but I wanted to represent artists besides Pink Floyd on my Top 10. What do you listen to at 2:00 a.m., and why?

Why We Buy Vinyl

My name is David. And I’m a vinyl addict. 

At a time when I should be de-cluttering my life, I’m accumulating vinyl records. I own four copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s not enough for me to own a copy of Led Zeppelins Presence. I need to have a Japanese pressing and the deluxe edition with an extra disc of outtakes. I have circled November 30 on my calendar because it’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I count as one of the happiest days of my life when, as a child, I first listened to Al Green’s Greatest Hits on vinyl (and by the way, although I own the re-issue that contains “Love and Happiness,” I also have the original, which contains Green’s cover of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” When you are an addict, you need both.) I also vividly remember the day I found the vinyl edition of Beatles in Mono on the counter of a record store in Schaumburg, Illinois, waiting for me like a treasure (I can still picture where I was standing when I caught a glimpse of the Holy Grail).

I blog about vinyl. I seek out places where famous album covers were shot just so that I can experience the mojo of rock history.

I love hanging out in vinyl stores in different cities – pawing through rows of musical discovery and not knowing exactly what I’ll find. Each store reflects the tastes and lives of the people who live nearby and have released their own vinyl to the world.

I love vinyl so much that when I buy a used copy of an album, I even ponder the lives of the people who owned the copy I hold in my hands. I still think fondly of whoever owned my beat-up, used copy of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album and scrawled in girlish, teenage handwriting “oooo it makes me wonder” on the inside jacket.

Who was she? (She is always a girl in my mind.) What moment of emotional connection with “Stairway to Heaven” caused her to pick up her pen and capture the moment in her loopy handwriting, perhaps while she was alone in her bedroom, shutting out the distractions and worries of the world as Brian Wilson did when he wrote “In My Room,” the painful ode to teen angst that appears on Surfer Girl? I have never met her. But I know her.

Like a true junkie, I don’t have a good explanation for why I am the way I am. Why, on Black Friday 2019, I’ll brave the cold and stand in a long line outside a vinyl record store for the sole purpose of getting my hands on a vinyl pressing of The Doors: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. It’s one of many new releases for Black Friday 2019 Record Store Day. I already own a Blu-ray of the same concert. Why must I own a vinyl copy? 

Why Vinyl?

Usually I don’t think too much about why I love vinyl. When you’re a junkie, you don’t spend much time dwelling on the “why.” You just do what you do. But lately I’ve been wondering why I, or anyone, still buys vinyl in the digital age.  

This question has been on my mind since it was widely reported that sales of vinyl are going to surpass compact disc sales for the first time (an article that many of my friends have shared with me). The data behind the story has been disputed. And even if the data is accurate, vinyl still accounts for a small percentage of total music sales. That said, vinyl sales continue to rise even as streaming continues to assert its undeniable dominance. 

Many people buying vinyl were not even alive during the glory days of the format in the 1970s. So why does anyone buy vinyl?

I don’t know for sure, really. I’ve heard the theory that vinyl lovers prefer the warm and rich sound of analog record albums. But I’m guessing that maybe one half of one percent of the vinyl-buying public really goes out of their way to purchase a record because they appreciate its sonic qualities. It’s also quite possible that people buy vinyl for the same reason that print books continue to thrive: we still care about the tactile experience of holding art in our hands. Maybe. 

But really? I think the addiction has something to do with nostalgia and coolness.

Nostalgia Is a Funny Thing

Take a look at the top-selling vinyl albums of 2019 here. Billie Eilish is right there close to the top, but classic rock works reign, with Queen Greatest Hits topping the list. This news comes as no surprise. The top-selling artist in vinyl in 2018 was the Beatles, who also dominated vinyl sales in 2017. They didn’t quite own 2016 – because David Bowie did. The Baby Boomer-era acts clean up every year. They’re leading the vinyl revival.

But why would they? Well, aside from the fact that the best classic rock acts define a golden era for music, you cannot deny the power of nostalgia. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” And nostalgia is a funny thing. You can feel nostalgia for other times you didn’t even experience. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, I got caught up in Eisenhower and Kennedy-era nostalgia triggered by the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days.

But I was technically too young to have appreciated the time period depicted in the movie American Graffiti (1962) and the TV series Happy Days (set largely in the 1950s). Why? Because American Graffiti and Happy Days were comfort food. (And so was the soundtrack to American Graffiti.) They evoked what seemed like a more secure time. I longed for that security as a child because I was not getting it at home. 

Nostalgia is a longing for comfort, really. That longing explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now with Millennials and Gen Z who are too young to have really experienced that decade. When a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a secure embrace.

And that’s exactly what you feel when you pull a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Dark Side of the Moon out of their jackets. Each moment you spend studying the artwork and getting immersed in the music takes you deeper into the sweet comfort of nostalgia. 

Coolsville

But nostalgia alone does not explain the enduring appeal of vinyl. There is also the coolness factor to consider. Now, I don’t know exactly how to define cool. But I know what cool looks like. And, my friends, vinyl looks cool. The Rolling Stones leering at you from the blurry cover of Between the Buttons looks cool.

The Doors watching you through the window of Morrison Hotel is an invitation to share in a secret kind of coolness that exists only in the mythology of Jim Morrison.

Robert Freeman’s stark black-and-white shot of the Beatles on With the Beatles is ultra-cool.

Chrissie Hynde on the cover of Pretenders looks like she spits cool in your face.

The Isley Brothers decked out in funky badassery on the cover of Showdown is another category of cool completely.

But all those images compressed to a tiny square the size of a coffee coaster on a compact disc? Not cool. As for streaming? I guess streaming is cool if you consider electricity to be cool. 

No one will ever think of CDs as cool. No one will ever think of streaming a song as an inherently cool experience. But a stack of vinyl will always create instant cool, and cool will always appeal.

Don’t ask me why vinyl is cool. You have to be a vinyl junkie to understand. And I’m hopelessly addicted.

The Best and Worst Musicians in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Music purists love to trash the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a creaky institution run by out-of-touch guardians of all that is old and irrelevant.

And yet, music writers can’t stop talking about the Hall, which, ironically, makes the organization relevant to the ongoing conversation about music. Take, for instance, a May 2 article from Vulture’s Bill Wyman that ranks every single Rock Hall of Fame member from best to worst. The article went viral shortly after Wyman unleashed this sprawling analysis that attacks and praises Hall of Fame members with equal passion, depending on his personal preferences.

The tone of his article, alternating between bitchy and smug, invites the kind of anger-laden debate that characterizes a well-written ranking. Wyman mercilessly attack Bon Jovi (ranked 214 — dead last) for producing “only one passable chorus in a 30-year-plus history” while fawning over the Ramones, a band he ranks in greatness above Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Along the way, Wyman makes some mighty controversial choices. Here are some that stand out:

  • Prince, Ranked Number 6. Prince created his own style of rock and funk crossover — but are we prepared to accept a world in which Prince is ranked ahead of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Little Richard, and Otis Redding? Seriously? Prince was great, but how many Prince albums and songs do you regularly listen to from his catalog post-Sign ‘O’ the Times?
  • The Doors, Ranked 172. The Doors represent everything that is great about rock: pushing boundaries, rebelling, and embracing inner chaos. Jim Morrison was not only one of rock’s greatest front men, he also created the template for musicians as visual artists. Anyone who aspires to captivate an audience through the power of live theater — Arcade Fire comes to mind — owes a debt to the Doors. The Doors also created an incredibly diverse and influential body of music in just five years, fusing psychedelia, jazz, and blues. But Bill Wyman dismisses them as nothing more than a “dreary band.” I get, it, though: when you challenge the status quo and redefine a genre, you anger people who want to keep rock in a well-defined box.
  • The Ramones, Ranked 7. The Ramones are the kind of band that critics love to hold up as the shining example of “real rock,” as in some stripped down kind of music devoid of pretension. And don’t get me wrong — I love the Ramones, or, more specifically, two or three highly listenable Ramones albums from the band’s peak. But they’re more famous for representing a movement, which elevates their music too high on Wyman’s list. The Ramones did one thing really well, but they were limited to their loud-and-fast formula. The Rolling Stones, ranked 15, were punk before the Ramones defined Punk.
  • The Rolling Stones, Ranked 15. Wyman’s ranking is a head scratcher. First off, let’s names some of the groups he ranks ahead of the Stones: the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and, as noted, the Ramones and Prince. Really? Nirvana is more important than the Stones? But rather than defend his rationale, Wyman dives into a puzzling harangue about why the Stones’s original keyboardist, Ian Stewart, was allowed to be inducted along with the group — sort of like a historian ranking Millard Fillmore as a greater president than Abraham Lincoln and then launching into a discussion about the vagaries of the Electoral College. I’m left mystified as I listen to Beggars Banquet for the 500th time.
  • Michael Jackson, Ranked 58. In Wyman’s view, Michael Jackson is guilty of not being Elvis or the Beatles (“virtually everyone who bought a Presley or Beatles record was doing something they’d never done before. That’s different from what Jackson did.”) Fair enough. Jackson was neither Elvis nor the Beatles, both of whom are ranked reasonably in Wyman’s Top 5. But Jackson didn’t need to be Elvis or the Beatles. He reinvented pop music with his own sound. He also transformed pop for the visual age, turning the medium of video into a cultural phenomenon. Songs such as “Beat It” crossed racial boundaries in powerful ways. I think Wyman’s beef is not so much with Jackson as his fans. And Wyman takes out his resentment on the king of pop.

But however confounding Bill Wyman’s list is (and this isn’t the only one he has written), the music world would be a lesser place without it. Lists trigger arguments. Discussions. Agreements. The creation of more lists. Lists act as gut checks on our own tastes. So, check out his list and let me know what you agree with — and disagree with. Long live rock.

Awakening the Ghost of Jim Morrison

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My life changed 35 years ago today.

During the summer of 1981, I was living in Neumarkt, Germany, a little town nestled in the Bavarian hills. I was the guest of a couple of families kind enough to host a high school graduate whose idea of preparing for college was growing his hair long, sprouting a gnarly beard, buying a lot of vinyl records, and making up each day as he went along. Which was the whole point of disappearing to Germany for a summer. I had spent four years as a high honor roll student at Wheaton Central High School, and was ready to do anything but worry about grades.

The German young men and women I got to know in Neumarkt were living their own version of the Age of Aquarius, donning psychedelic pants, talking a lot of politics — especially their concern over the escalating nuclear arms race between America and Russia — and doing a lot of partying like their world was going to end tomorrow. It was the kind of summer where one day you found yourself on a scooter (which I crashed more than once) bombing around the winding streets of Neumarkt, that night you were talking politics and art at a party with students you just met, and the next thing you knew you were on a bus headed to Paris with a bunch of German kids, where you shared a squalid room in dumpy hostel for a few weeks.

My friends Bruce (a Wheaton Central classmate), Robert (from Neumarkt), and I stayed up all night in the hostel playing practical jokes on each other and roaming around. We got little sleep, partly because no one else in the place was sleeping, and partly because we didn’t want to. If you went to sleep, you might miss a spontaneous party breaking out in the hallway or a poker game in the next room. Everyone in the building lived a sort of impoverished communal existence. Males and female shared one shower area although we had separate stalls. I used my bed sheet for a towel and lived off a baguette a day unless I won enough money playing poker to buy something more substantial.

It was easy for us to get around Paris. The Metro went everywhere. We usually jumped the turnstiles and rode for free or walked. On July 3, we somehow made our way to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, one of many Parisian cities of the dead that have a history all their own. Père Lachaise was like no other cemetery I’d ever visited, a sprawling little city consisting of tombs, mini-chapels, gardens, and cobbled paths on a hill.

At first, we explored winding, tree-lined paths in search of the tombs of famous people such as Oscar Wilde. We also hoped to find the grave of Jim Morrison but had not bothered to ask anyone for a map. I knew about the band’s hits and some deep cuts, having become turned on to the Doors a few years earlier when Apocalypse Now featured “The End” in its soundtrack. But I had not been turned on to the mystical power of Jim Morrison.

As it turned out, we didn’t need a map. Within a few minutes of exploring the cemetery, we noticed the word “Jim” with an arrow written in chalk on a number of tombs. And so we started to follow the arrows.

As we walked up a lane and approached a row of tightly clustered graves, we noticed a crowd had gathered. We heard strange, ethereal music, which I recognized as “End of the Night” from the Doors’ first album. The air was filled with the smell of sweet incense. Not only had we found Morrison’s grave, we had stumbled on to the 10th anniversary of his death.

I broke off from my friends and let the thick cluster of revelers swallow me up. There were American expatriates like myself, ranging from the backpack-and-beard crowd to couples holding hands. There were European kids with long hair and curious smiles on their faces — smiles that would turn to anger during massive nuclear protests in major European cities later that year, but not on this day. There were many older hippie holdovers from the 1960s, looking like they had walk right out of the fields of Woodstock, dressed in gowns, beads, and flowing white shirts. They had weathered faces, dirty hair, and bare feet. They passed around bottles of booze and stole glances at Morrison’s grave.

These were the true believers I had read about in magazines about the hippie counterculture. They came from another era when rock musicians were gods, not just entertainers, and listening to music meant discovering layers of yourself. And Jim Morrison was one of the greatest of their gods.

The hippies looked just a little said amid the revelry, like they were trying to awaken spirits of the past at the grave of a man who symbolized a lost era. The music of the Doors continued to waft into the air like the incense, coming from somewhere in the throng. I thought of Indians doing a ghost dance on the North American plains, only here they were here, in Paris, with me.

The surviving members of the Doors, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Ray Manzarek, were there, mingling among the crowd, signing autographs, sharing their booze, and sharing their memories. It’s remarkable to think of that moment, free of security guards and a horde of news media. Today such a scene would be carefully choreographed and documented in real time on social media. Back then, the surviving Doors were just members of our little party, quietly working their way through the crowd. If I had not noticed them signing autographs, I would have assumed they were like everyone else.

A white bust of Morrison watched all of us, along with a bottle of booze someone had planted to keep him company. His grave was covered with graffiti, and his face had begun to crumble, like he himself had under the weight of fame before his death at age 27. He was long dead but he was alive at Père Lachaise, the shaman in command of a tribe of followers and strangers from different countries and generations. And on July 3, 1981, on a day when I was free of commitment, free of material want and need, and with a life of possibility ahead of me, I was one of them.

From that point onward, I wrote — not for good grades but for me. The streets of Paris and the places I visited in Germany formed the settings for short stories and poems, some of them about an alter ego named Eddie Black whom I created in Paris. Robert and I deepened our friendship as we discussed Eddie’s personality and exploits while exploring record albums be owned and ones I was buying. My time in Germany and indeed my life assumed a new context. Every new place was like a muse.

Eventually the summer abroad came to an end. No more poker games in run-down youth hostels. No more friends with long hair. No more German teens in their psychedelic pants and political talk. Suddenly I was far from home, in Dallas, Texas, at Southern Methodist University.

My first years in college would be lonely and traumatic, marked by family turmoil and a sense of not fitting in on the campus. I was alone, alienated, and homesick for that summer of my own making, especially moments like communing with strangers at Père Lachaise. To endure the alienation, I became immersed in the music of the Doors, the best selling Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, and the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, one of Morrison’s many literary influences. His influences became mine: I took a poetry-writing class and kept writing poems and a journal throughout college (eventually getting a few poems published). Morrison’s words and the band’s atmospheric sound inspired me. The song “People Are Strange” captured my own sense of feeling off balance in a college setting that, it turned out, was just wrong for me in many respects (“People are strange/when you’re a stranger/faces look ugly/when you’re alone”).

During those two years at SMU, I experienced the internalization of music: when you cross the line from being a fan of someone’s music to identifying personally with an artist. I became one of the true believers. Have you ever cared so much about anyone’s music that you feel the words and chords seep into your soul? Have you gotten through a hard time in your life by putting an album on repeat play? If you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I transferred to the University of Illinois in Urbana, where I graduated, far happier and adjusted, with a journalism degree and a deeper love of all things rock music, including all the classic rockers. Since that time, I’ve read several books on the Doors and helped a friend, Patricia Butler, write one (Angels Dance and Angels Die). I’ve edited and designed a book on rock and roll (Say You Want a Revolution, by Robert Pielke, an experience through which I got to know Danny Sugerman, co-author of No One Here Gets Out Alive), formed relationships with musicians during my marketing career, and passed on a passion for the Doors to my daughter.

Throughout his life, Jim Morrison was fond of telling a story about his family driving through the desert and coming across dead Indians scattered on a highway as a result of a car accident. Morrison believed the ghosts of one of the dead Indians leaped into his soul. On July 3, 1981, Jim Morrison’s ghost leaped into mine.

Three Lessons I Have Learned from Jim Morrison

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Thirty four years ago today, I visited Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery to honor his memory on the tenth anniversary of his death. The moment sealed my lifetime interest in the Doors and especially Jim Morrison. But aside from providing the soundtrack to my life and fascinating me with his songwriting, has Jim Morrison really had an impact on how I live and work? Yes. Here are three lessons I have learned from the lizard king, which I apply today:

1. Take Risks

Morrison famously challenged us to break on through to the other side. He constantly challenged himself, too, in his actions and words. He was not afraid to write about disturbing themes in his songs and to explore topics that can still make you feel uncomfortable, such as the Oedipal subtext in “The End” and the killer on the road in “Riders on the Storm.” As a performer, he pushed boundaries to the point of defying audience expectations of rock stars, with sometimes unfortunate results, such as his being charged for indecency in the aftermath of an infamous Miami concert in 1969.

Morrison has inspired me to take risks in all aspects of my life, whether I’m auditioning to perform in a Renaissance Faire or launching my own business. My family and I create our own personal adventures each day, pushing each other to grow and live outside our comfort zones, as we did recently when we all hiked steep, unyielding trails in the Smoky Mountains. We could have enjoyed a relaxing vacation in the comfort of our rented cabin, but instead we pushed each other to literally explore new terrain that was sometimes grueling. We took risks and flourished.

2. Words Matter Continue reading

Emerging Artist Spotlight: Beatrice Brigitte

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Beatrice Brigitte doesn’t like to follow formulas. The 25-year-old singer rejects the lush production and auto-tuned, anthemic vocals that rule the pop charts in the American Idol era, in favor of a simpler, more organic sound. On many of the songs she writes (such as “The Day”), her voice floats like a ghost through spare, quiet string arrangements.

Brigitte paints textured landscapes that combine a dreamy, otherworldly sound (think Mazzy Star) with lyrics exploring dark themes such as fear, personal betrayal, and suicide.  In these themes the listener can detect the imprint of one of her influences, Jim Morrison (“Ode to End,” which contemplates suicide, thematically evokes the death wish of “Yes the River Knows” by the Doors).

I discovered her music on Global 14, Jermaine Dupri’s social community where members share interests ranging from music to sports (and it’s an excellent platform for emerging artists). In the following Q&A, Brigitte shares her story and provides a glimpse into life as an emerging artist. Make sure you experience her music on Soundcloud and get to know her on Global 14 and Facebook.

Let’s talk about your background — who you are and how you got into music.

Who am I? Well . . . I’m me. An entrepreneur, an artist, spiritual-being, a wife, an old soul; I have many roles.

To me, music is more of an art form than a way to be famous. I come from two artists who were both painters, and I love painting. I was born in Berlin. My father passed away a month before my seventh birthday, and my mom moved me to San Diego, where she remarried. I grew up in sunny San Diego for most of my life, but my parents moved to Phoenix while I was in high school. At age 17, unlike your conventional rebellion as a teen, mine was discovering music and using it as therapy. I never partied, drank, or did drugs growing up. I was that kid who would be at each concert and festival, standing there in awe.

I have been writing forever, but I did not always want to pursue music. The turning point was watching the band Brand New live in Phoenix. The performance by their lead singer, Jesse Lacey, blew me away. His music was honest, with no bullshit, and very bold. The band’s guitar riffs were very emotional. The experience changed my entire perspective on music.

At age 19 I moved to Los Angeles to work for a tech start-up, which I was working nonstop. I was making a lot of money but not doing what I really wanted to do, which was making music, finding my true self. My first day off occurred when I was 21. I asked, “What the hell am I doing?” I realized how blinded I was by social constraints, and that I can’t be a follower.

I began my journey as a musician by experimenting with being in bands and creating an alter ego, and then concluding that I just have to be a solo artist . . . just to be me, not to hide behind a band or an alter ego. It’s been a great journey and growth process.

Who are your musical influences?

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A long time ago, I was really into Jim Morrison. I went into a whole Doors phase. He was into writing poems and turning them into songs, not writing lyrics in the conventional sense. And he has hidden meanings and analogies in his songs, which is how I write. I also enjoyed the melodies and organic pop style of the Spice Girls growing up. And Winston Churchill is a huge influence on everything I do. Yes, Winston Churchill. He was not only a leader — he was an artist, too. Did you know he was a painter?

Continue reading

My Cold-Weather Rock and Roll

Jim Morrison, retro. RET

Winter has tightened its grip on Chicago. On a Friday afternoon in early December, the temperatures feel like they are dropping by the minute. The sun escapes the chill of the day early, leaving behind long shadows and an occasional gust of cold wind. This is the time for staying inside and listening to cold-weather rock and roll. Cold-weather music feels heavy like a wool blanket. Cold-weather rock songs can sound as dark and foreboding as a January night or as quiet as a snowfall, but in either case, they make you want to retreat from the outside world. “Gimme Shelter” is cold-weather rock. “Miss You” is not. Led Zeppelin’s fourth (untitled) album is cold-weather music, but Houses of the Holy by and large belongs to summer. Here are some of my favorite cold-weather albums — the music of my world now:

All_Things_Must_Pass_1970_cover

All Things Must Pass. In my mind’s eye, George Harrison writes somber, majestic songs like “Beware of Darkness” on a cold November afternoon while cloistered in the shadows of his Friar Park estate. Never mind Continue reading

Lessons on creativity from the making of “L.A. Woman”

One of the landmark albums of rock and roll almost died in the recording studio. But today L.A. Woman endures as a lesson on how a change of scenery can unleash creativity. In December 1970, the Doors were floundering as they attempted to make L.A. Woman at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Lead singer Jim Morrison, lost in the grip of alcoholism, had run out of songs to write, and the band played so poorly that longstanding producer Paul Rothchild quit. So how did the Doors manage to create what is widely regarded as a rock masterpiece? As it turns out, the catalysts for change were the loss of their producer and a casual suggestion by Morrison to find another place to record.

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“Classic Rock” magazine gets physical

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If you appreciate the lost art of LP cover design, then get thee to a newsstand and grab the September issue of Classic Rock before they sell out. The issue painstakingly reproduces the extravagant artwork for the iconic 1975 Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti to illustrate the lead article by Barney Hoskyns concerning the making of the album that produced such rock epics as “Kashmir.” The magazine itself slips into a specially constructed outer sleeve depicting the same New York apartment building pictured on the original Physical Graffiti album, with titles of the album’s songs visible through die-cut windows, as was the case with the LP. And the article itself provides an in-depth examination of the making of Physical Graffiti, with tasty insights from the likes of sound engineer Ronnie Nevison.

The Physical Graffiti issue is a bold celebration of the power of a tactile experience that is unique to the world of print — and a firm “piss off” to the naysayers who claim that print media are dead. According to Classic Rock Editor in Chief Scott Rowley, it’s not the first time Classic Rock has done something bold and imaginative. Through an email exchange with me,  he explains that reproducing album sleeves dates back to a September 2007 issue that was a tribute to Led Zeppelin III. (In fact, Classic Rock got the original Led Zeppelin III artist Zacron to design the issue.) He also points out that Classic Rock issue 138, which celebrated 150 albums you must hear before you die, was designed like an album inner sleeve with the cover depicted as a record with spot varnish grooves.

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Classic Rock Issue 138

According to Scott, “We try to keep the packaging fresh, and earlier this year we came up with the idea of copying the style of the L.A. Woman sleeve to go with a Doors story we were working on [the August 2010 issue about about Jim Morrison’s last days.] The Zep idea came from that — it’s the 35th anniversary of Physical Graffiti, but really it was the thought of doing the mag in tribute to the original packaging which led to the feature . . . Our Art Director Brad Merrett then had to make it happen. Which wasn’t easy, considering those guys did it originally in the days before Photoshop — and credit’s got to go to him for delivering so authentically.”

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Classic Rock Issue 148

But why invest in such extravagant packaging and expense at a time when the print industry is in apparent decline?

“The print industry is suffering, as is the music industry,” he responds. “Our answer has been to make something special — an experience that can’t be downloaded and has a nostalgic/emotive pull.” For instance, the issue on 150 essential record albums also contained goodies like a 100-page book Let It Rock, an exclusive Classic Rock mouse pad, a Classic Rock car sticker, and a 15-track CD. (The insert for the Physical Graffiti issue also doubles as a glossy mini poster.)

And is the investment paying off?

Scott answers with an unqualified “Yes.” So far newsstand sales appear to be up 10-12 percent for the Physical Graffiti and L.A. Woman issues. “Our Led Zep III issue was our biggest-selling issue at the time, and the 138 ‘inner sleeve’ is still our second best-selling issue ever.” He adds, “Obviously I don’t believe that’s just down to the packaging — in each case I think the look was backed up by a great story, and I would hate for anyone to think it’s been style over substance — but it does suggest that the overall package is pressing the right buttons.”

Classic Rock has innovated in other ways since being launched in 1998. In 2009 Classic Rock launched a first-of-its-kind online subscription service that offers readers the chance to download albums before they are available in stores. The May 2010 edition (Classic Rock 144) was guest-edited by KISS. Also in 2010, Classic Rock published Classic Rock Presents: Slash, which gave fans Slash’s solo album a month before its general release along with a 132-page magazine about Slash. The Slash issue marks the first time a magazine publisher has topped an online album chart.

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Classic Rock Presents: Slash

And Scott adds, “We’re actually working on another idea right now and have a couple more up our sleeve.”

I think Classic Rock sets a standard not just for the publishing industry but for anyone who aspires to create a successful brand. Three lessons stand out:

  • Provide a memorable experience.
  • Offer content that people care about (whether you’re creating news stories or advertisements — people will engage with great content).
  • Take advantage of the unique attributes of online and offline — don’t simply reproduce the experience in both. For instance, the Slash download ahead of retail availability is an example of the former, and the elaborate album cover sleeve art is an example of the latter.

Did someone say print is dead? I don’t think so.

Top 20 albums of all time?

Just what the world needs: another top 20 albums of all time list, courtesy of the Y! Radish Music Blog. This list is a bit different from the usual critical assessments because it seeks to be more objective and empirical, weighing factors such as album sales, “critical rating value” (an amalgam of critical reviews), and number of Grammy Awards won. (The approach reminds me of those convoluted formulas that The Wall Street Journal uses to assess baseball and football players.) After all the dust settles, the Top 5 albums are:

5. Abbey Road, the Beatles.

4. Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin

3. Thriller, Michael Jackson

2. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

1. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

You can see the complete list here. I love these kinds of lists. They confound, inspire debate, and, hopefully, force us to think more critically — none of which I’m going to do here. But I do have some random thoughts:

  • I admire Stevie Wonder; but I cannot remember the last time I played Songs in the Key of Life. How many of your friends own it?
  • There are four Led Zeppelin albums on this list. Now, I love Led Zeppelin. But I also know full well that in its day, the band was consistently bashed by critics. It wasn’t until well after the band broke up that it achieved critical respectability. I wonder how well this list takes into account critical response at the time the albums were actually released?
  • An album’s staying power is a worthy measure as noted by the formula employed by the Y! Radish Music Blog. But by definition, newer bands are penalized simply because their work hasn’t been around as long. I don’t know how else you can explain Radiohead being completely shut out of this list.
  • It’s a hoot to see Van Halen crash the party like a drunk uncle at a wedding reception, making Number 14 on the list with its eponymous first album. But how on earth did George Michael sneak in?
  • No Rolling Stones? No Doors? No Dylan? I’ll tell you why: the list fails to take into account an album’s influence on other albums, which is why The Doors or nothing by Dylan made the cut.
  • Fortunately the list assigns very little weight to Grammy Awards won, but I question why the Grammy Awards should have been a factor at all. The Grammy Awards are notoriously out of touch with the times. This is the esteemed organization that honored “Winchester Cathedral” over “Eleanor Rigby” for best rock & roll recording in 1966. Enough said. I would stay as far away from the Grammy Awards as I could just in priniciple.

What are your reactions?