Sunday, April 10, 2011


Gold Medal: West Side Story (Original Movie Soundtrack) by Leonard Bernstein

Even though this isn’t your conventional “album,” this was still a no-brainer for me. Not only is this among the most successful musical plays ever written, West Side Story is a towering skyscraper of purely musical achievement. By borrowing from atonal music, big band, Latin, standard classical and Broadway traditions, Leonard Bernstein captured lightning in a bottle. Though very much set in 1950s New York, the music here is timeless. “Maria” is one of the most beautiful songs that I’ve ever heard, which is appropriate based on the lyrics, penned by the young Stephen Sondheim. You’re not gonna see me use this word very much: masterpiece.

Silver Medal: Ella and Louis by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

What happens when two iconic jazz musicians get together? Well, often they fight tooth and nail for the spotlight. But on this album, Satchmo and the First Lady of Song have sublime chemistry. And behind the instantly recognizable voices (and trumpet playing), the Oscar Peterson quartet provides the perfect understated arrangement for the standards that fill up the track listing. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be present for these recording sessions. It would certainly be something you tell your grandkids about.

Bronze Medal: The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly

It would be easy to discuss how influential Holly was despite only living twenty-two years but this album is on the list simply because it sounds good. You can hear the raw confidence and feeling behind every song on this brief record. Buddy Holly changed the face of music not just because he came at the right time. He was blessed with the ability to communicate the exact sort of attitude that’s behind the best rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen once said he listens to Buddy Holly before each concert to keep himself honest. Snarling, hiccupping and wailing, Holly did things on this record that were often mimicked but never eclipsed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Part Two

A week later, I don’t stand quite so solidly by my previous post. This has to do with a fantastic discussion on Facebook thanks to a handful of my brilliant friends. I’m a little embarrassed to be changing my stance so soon after last week’s manifesto but I’d rather be slightly embarrassed than to be too stubborn to let myself be influenced by strong arguments from other people. The truth is that the distribution of recorded music is a complicated issue that’s changing too rapidly for me to ever have a solid foundation of what’s going on. But here’s why I changed my stance:

I came to realize that the fruit seller analogy was not an accurate one for today’s market. Digital commodities are not finite, which makes it hard to accept their value like an encoded disk or LP, or an apple. Clearly, the album is of value to the listener but if you’re a stickler to the idea that the artist deserves their pay for everyone who experiences the value in their art, should authors get royalty payments every time someone checks that author’s book out of the library? (Devil’s advocate: But it’s not necessarily about experience; it’s about ownership.) But we don’t really own art to begin with; this was an illusion that’s finally being recognized in the music world. With Youtube, anyone can listen to a certain song, anytime. Listening to an entire album on Youtube on one’s iPhone wouldn’t be stealing by anyone’s standards yet a downloaded record from BitTorrent played on iTunes is? What’s the difference? More clicking on YouTube?

{Sidenote: The intellectual property debate is a fascinating topic in itself that I may digress further into some other time. As my boss at the library says, 2011 is supposed to be the year of the ebook. Holy transformation!}

It’s difficult for me to write much of this because I have this constant voice in of the destitute musician in my head, saying, “Every time I don’t get paid for an album, it’s like taking my lunch. And right now, you’re encouraging that.” But these artists need to realize that they have to change their strategy and as Daniel Ahrendt basically said, “Build a window instead of screaming at a wall.” This isn’t doomsday for musicians. It’s just a new frontier in which shrewd, talented musicians still have an opportunity to succeed. People will pay more than ever for concerts and decreased costs of advertising and recording make many parts of the musician’s life a good bit easier than they were before. As is the case with most major changes in human history, it isn’t good or bad, but simply different.

That being said, I want to end by saying that supporting the arts is one of my main goals in life. It’s why I’m a music critic, it’s why I write this blog, it’s why I love writing and performing music. I have now come to terms with the fact that though I acquire music for free on occasion, I am not contributing to any sort of decline in the music industry. Certainly, paying for music is better than not—it’s like making a donation to a cause you believe in. But I do not believe that getting recorded music for free is “stealing” anymore.

Speaking of stealing, I am SO ready to watch Ichiro and Figgins annoy the crap out of opposing pitchers! Happy opening day everyone!