Throwback Thursday: “1901” by Phoenix

This one’s been on my to-blog list for a while. It’s one of those songs that randomly runs through my head as I think about that particular time in my life. I think “1901” is another good example of hipster music; vocally, they’re very similar to Vampire Weekend, and have that crunchy, blistering sound that you’d also hear in, say, Passion Pit or Foster the People.

What I like about “1901” is the fizzy drop of it. Like Alka-Seltzer in water, the song opens with suspended guitar before descending into something stronger that’s bolstered by electronica. Very reminiscent of “Little Secrets.”

Usually with these posts, I talk about the lyrics, too, but honestly, I don’t think the lyrics are really the point of the song here. In hipster-ville, lyrics tend to be secondary. They’re either obscured by double or even triple meanings and intellectuallism, layered with references to the past or drama about the future. Often, too, they’re also just plain obscured by what’s going on technically, and that’s definitely the case with “1901.”

Another thing I like about “1901” is how danceable it is. In another life, I was a dancer, so I’m drawn to songs that urge you to move, especially if they’re unique like this one. In that way, “1901” reminds me of another indie song that has a great drop, “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem.

Now, if you need me, I’ll be lacing up my Converse and finding my American Apparel hoodie…

Throwback Thursday: “Giving Up the Gun” by Vampire Weekend

I feel like Contra was one of the hipster albums, up there with The Black Keys or Tame Impala. This status was confirmed with the Pitchfork stamp of approval as a best new album. Vampire Weekend both leaned into and calcified the hipster world. One of their biggest songs from their debut album, “Oxford Comma,” is pretentious in title and content: who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma indeed. The band has that sensitive, slouchy feel typical of the era that was sometimes described as “metrosexual.” As Matty Healy once said, “I thought that you were straight/Now I’m wondering.”

“Giving Up the Gun” is my favorite song of theirs. It has the hallmarks of that era of indie music: lightly bruising synthesizer, disaffected vocals, and lyrics that describe the futility of trying. I remember being surprised when Joe Jonas appeared as a guest star in the music video. There was always that tension between pop and indie, and when a band or song became a hit, the lines blurred. Does that mean that “Giving Up the Gun” is an ironic comment on the glory days? If so, that makes it the most hipster of all.

Throwback Thursday: “Pure Heroine” by Lorde

I did say that I was going to talk about this album eventually, and now here we are! Pure Heroine came out in 2013 and felt new, experimental; like Lady Gaga before her, Lorde was rewriting the pop rules. In Lorde’s hands, pop became sonically darker and thematically emptier: torn-up towns, hollow bottles. Yet the aimlessness of Lorde’s protagonists is intentional. She captured the #aesthetic of driving with the windows down, clean teeth and tennis whites, both riding the wave of Tumblr moodboards and inspiring them.

It’s a cohesive album, and though Lorde definitely likes a droning beat, it never feels like too much. Part of that is the neat production; another part is because Lorde has a throatier voice than her contemporaries, which provides nice depth. She has incredible confidence right out of the gate.

I didn’t immediately connect with this album when it came out, but “400 Lux” definitely holds memories. Although “Royals” was obviously inescapable, I’m always one to look for the deeper cuts.

Throwback Thursday: “Rockstar” by Nickelback

I debated about writing this, because part of me is often thinking in the Serious Music Blogger persona where I have an “image” to maintain, and listening to Top 40 isn’t necessarily part of that.

The other part of me remembers my common thread about guilty pleasures and how much this song truly is a perfect fit for a Throwback Thursday feature. It captures a certain era of celebrity, where dating a Playboy bunny and/or being on MTV’s Cribs was the height of fame.

Funnily enough, the lyrics actually are something of a rich text. Lead singer Chad Kroeger describes what it takes to be a rockstar – “I’d even cut my hair and change my name” – while at the same illuminating just how vapid that life is, where you “live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars.” He wants to become a rockstar, no matter the emptiness. There’s an added bonus of irony, too: by the time the song came out, Nickelback already were headliners; “Rockstar” further catapulted them into the spotlight.

The song also explores the tension between the narrator’s dreams and what the other side of the story looks like. There are the “washed up singers” who write their hits, maybe uncredited. There’s the reference to Elvis and what his decline brought him: those tassels and crooning in Vegas. And there are the people who are totally plugged in and can get you anything you want – for a price.

Meanwhile, some parts of the song I don’t really get. Who is the suggestive voice that the narrator is talking to? (“So how you gonna do it?”) Is it his own internal monologue? Why did Nickelback decide to use sound effects when, for example, he talks about getting the “front door key to the Playboy mansion”?

The nature of celebrity remains essentially the same, as does the type of person you’ll encounter in that lifestyle. Ultimately, though, “Rockstar” feels like a time capsule, a relic of bleach-blonde bimboland and the People pages she lived in. It’s surreal somehow to go back and listen to it.

Throwback Thursday: “With Me” by Sum41

“Hey, is this thing on?” To use a phrase from my time in radio, there was a lot of dead air here on the blog. But today I’m mixing metaphors, dusting off the cobwebs (see what I did there?), and taking a trip back to high school with Sum41. Some might classify this song as a guilty pleasure; honestly, I almost surprise myself with how much I still enjoy it all these years later.

The lead singer used to be married to Avril Lavigne, which seems like a kind of perfect emo-pop pairing. Other than that claim to fame, and this single, the band seems like they aren’t as big as they were back in the day. Still making music, though, which – major props. The pop side of punk has a shelf life if you aren’t Green Day or their ilk.

“With Me” does a great job of oscillating between that screaming angst and a delicate love song. The opening is just strumming chords, all quiet: “I don’t want this moment to ever end/Where everything’s nothing without you.” Sweet, right? Then we get to the classic emo imagery: “I’ll hold onto this moment you know/As I bleed my heart out to show…” It reminds me of “Iris” by The Goo Goo Dolls: “When everything feels like the movies/Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive.” That visceral feeling, of raw aliveness, is very consistent in this genre.

I don’t feel the urge to sing along the same way I might with other songs in this series. It’s more of a transportation vehicle because the memory associations are so vivid. Lace up your Converse and give it a listen:

Throwback Thursday: “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol

Ah, yes, an angst anthem! Gary Lightbody’s voice carries this song so effectively. It’s higher and thinner than most male lead singers tend to be, but here it works in his favor. The beginning of “Chasing Cars” is spare; the lyrics are one punch after another: “We’ll do it all/Everything/On our own.”

But it’s the chorus that really sells the song, and I think is what makes “Chasing Cars” so iconic. “If I lay here/If I just lay here/Would you lie with me and just forget the world?” There’s such a simple earnestness there. Isn’t that what we all really want in the end? To lie down with someone and not think about anything. Lightbody continues, “Those three words/Are said too much.” It seems that “those three words” both encompass and limit what he’s looking for.

The sparseness of the song is undercut when the guitars kick in towards the middle. Although they threaten to overwhelm the body, and the message, of “Chasing Cars,” where the central relationship is everything, we’re spared from the blistering tones that were all over the airwaves back then. It’s Lightbody’s voice that anchors the listener.

The cover art here is very of that era. It’s an abstract collage of a couple embracing. The colors are muted beiges, and we have alt-rock stamped font up top to complete the aesthetic. Back when the single came out, I thought the art was odd, but now I see it as part of the package that made “Chasing Cars” so famous.

Throwback Thursday: “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap

This song is one of the more visceral memory access points for me. Every time I listen to it, it takes me back to a time when I was living in another city and was just beginning to settle in. I picture the house I had and the friends I spent time with; how we’d walk those streets together. Maybe that’s one reason why this song will always be bittersweet to me. It’s a reminder of a time gone by. The lead singer’s voice is also high and plaintive, reflective, and it makes me reflect, too. “A moment, a love, a dream aloud.” The lyrics are full of the passion of youth: “Songs of desperation/I played them for you.”

In all honesty, what really makes the song stand out, for me at least, is the urgency of the beat. It blends perfectly with the lyrics. They’re like a heartbeat that starts out slow and then just hits at the chorus: “Won’t stop ’til it’s over.” And those lines repeat, over and over, until the fadeout of the song. Yet you’re left with the feeling that you want to keep running. The beat carries you forward.

The title itself is also interesting: “disposition” means what your mood, your nature, usually is. What is the importance of it being “sweet”? Maybe it’s the way the narrator feels about their love interest. Whenever they’re together, that sweetness and love suffuses them. And that’s the joy of the song, too. It lifts you up and urges you to belt the lyrics as loud as you can.

Throwback Thursday: “Umbrella” by Rihanna

Man, this song is 2007 to me. Rihanna had already found some success with her first two albums, but this single, arguably, is what gave her more public attention: you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing that “ella, ella, ella.” I have a vague memory of even Newsweek magazine talking about it. If I recall correctly, they compared the song to the smoothness of a waterbed. (As an aside, the fact that I spent more time reading Newsweek than Seventeen as a teenager says a lot about me.) I mean, they’re right: Rihanna’s voice is so smooth and silky that it rolls perfectly with each beat.

The production is also clever. At the beginning, Rihanna’s echoing “eh, eh” as Jay-Z talks about her makes it sound like she’s waiting in the wings. “With Little Miss Sunshine, Rihanna, where you at?” And from there, Rihanna’s verses take over. She’s the one that makes the song: she’s enviably confident and almost reassuring, too. “There’s no distance in between our love.”

If you look closely, “Umbrella” subtly foreshadows #BadGalRiRi; it comes from the album Good Girl Gone Bad and the album cover is darker than her first two releases. She’s looking over her shoulder coyly as if daring us to listen. The song is still tame enough, however, that high school me never got the euphemisms. And as pop songs go, it’s nice that they’re not as over the top as some of Rihanna’s later songs would be. I mean…”S&M” doesn’t leave much to the imagination. (Still a banger, though.)

With the clouds here we go:

Throwback Thursday: “1000 Forms of Fear” by Sia

Aesthetics have been intertwined with pop music since, well, the beginning of pop music; Elvis shook his hips onstage and millions of fans swooned, while decades later The Artist Formerly Known as Prince used an unpronounceable symbol to make his mark amidst the purple paisley. And don’t even get me started on Madonna.

Sia is a unique case because her choice of aesthetic is arguably a rejection of it. In the era when 1000 Forms of Fear came out, she presented herself as a recluse – even while onstage. She wore giant wigs that obscured her face and didn’t even appear in her own music videos. That was left to Dance Moms alum Maddie Ziegler. Both bizarre choices, but by taking herself out of the equation, Sia forced us to focus on the music itself.

The beats on the album are excellent trip-hop with Top 100 sensibilities: just listen to “Chandelier.” Sia knows how to make that work for her, even when she’s got full-size choruses; we never feel overwhelmed or like her voice is competing with those snaps and hooks. One doesn’t drown out the other.

For me, what stands out on this album is Sia’s voice. It’s throaty and rich. She’s got great range, too; most of the time her voice is in a deeper register, but on the chorus of “Chandelier,” she allows it to edge into a crack. It’s well-suited to the lyrical content of that song, too. She sings, “Party girls don’t get hurt,” and that deep voice does sound drunk, like she’s trying to reassure herself even as she “throw[s] them back till I lose count.” That inner struggle continues in “Elastic Heart.” “I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart,” Sia tells us. Yet throughout the song she wonders if this relationship might finally be the test of that strength: “But there were so many red flags.”

“Big Girls Cry” sums up the album’s themes. Even though she’s a tough girl, Sia’s in pain, and the champagne and high life won’t wash that away. She’s weighed down by baggage (“Eye of the Needle”) and working through a toxic relationship (“Flame Meet Gasoline”). It’s all those different forms of fear coming to life, just like the album title.

Throwback Thursday: “Fidelity” by Regina Spektor

The album Begin to Hope, released in 2006, was our first mainstream introduction to the Russian-born pianist Regina Spektor. It remains among her best-known work, especially the song “Fidelity.” It’s this bouncy little tune that’s engaging in its simplicity: “Fidelity” is essentially just Spektor and the piano. When this song came out, I loved it for just that reason. Her voice is also beautiful: it’s clear and soft and gives me Norah Jones vibes.

The lyrics are also intriguing to me, and were the first time I heard it as well. The song is titled “Fidelity,” but the lyrics don’t really seem to describe that concept. It’s a story about meeting someone and falling in love, wondering all the while about some alternate universe where that never happened.

The music video for the song is also kind of bizarre. The aesthetic isn’t quite hipster, exactly (despite the kitten heels and the quirky, vintage outfit she’s wearing), but it’s sparse; all black and white. She seems to be talking to herself: there’s an empty person sitting at the little table with her – literally. It’s a mannequin without a person inside, just the clothes hanging in the air, arranged to mimic a person sitting. Suddenly a man appears inside those clothes and they start throwing color at each other. It has to be seen to be believed.

In all honesty, despite – or, more likely, because of – its charming weirdness, this song is just a fun little escape for me. And it brings back strong memories of early high school; the clothes I wore, the classes I took. I hadn’t heard the song in quite some time before writing this post, but it was an immediate time capsule as soon as I did.