Features | Articles

First Albums We Ever Bought

By The Staff | 1 September 2005

I think that you all should put together a feature in which everyone writes a quick review of the very first album they ever bought. We'd be able to see how far your music tastes have come (I, for example, would have to review Green Day's "Dookie"). Amir might have to review "One Hot Minute" or "Rage Against the Machine" or something.

– Todd Aman


*****

Jars of Clay
Much Afraid
(Silvertone; 1997)

I can't even remember what my first cassette was, probably some Michael W. Smith atrocity, and so I will forever be indebted to Jars of Clay because the cassette of their self-titled debut (1995) freed me at the dawn of my puberty from a profound chin and a wardrobe of vests and a "Secret Ambition" video where M.W. wandered around in the desert, not knowing what to do with himself except for making wild, swiping motions at the camera and generally acting like he had a horde of demons that needed casting out.

Of course, it wasn't all that better when the badly shot first video for Jars of Clay's hit single "Flood" (I remember a sensation of giddiness the first time I heard the song play over the end of the entirely mediocre Hard Rain) had the band lost in a big house, and lead man Dan Haseltine wore his hair shoulder-long with flannels and jeans, except this wasn't even grunge as the clothes looked neatly cleaned and pressed and the hair was decidedly shampooed. Then there was the much more stylish MTV video for the song, complete with haircuts and nicer threads and a budget. It remains one of my favorite music videos simply because it looks sweet and the cutting appropriately intensifies at the end, and I still really like the song. The implausibility of acoustic Christian rock that actually rocks gives "Flood" more novelty appeal than the collected discographies of Five Iron Frenzy and The (O.C.) Supertones.

Many "hardcore" Jars of Clay fans (they affectionately call themselves "jarheads," most of them unwitting of how close that is to "potheads") think that the self-titled is the band's magnum opus. And, yeah, it does have "Flood," the (somehow good) Gregorian goth-pop of "Liquid," and "Worlds Apart," the best modern praise song that I've ever heard (that's a statement that deserves a "so what," but stands, nonetheless). The rest of it is pretty decent, too, but let's face it, the rest of it is Caedmon's Call meets Toad the Wet Sprocket, and the aforementioned highlights stick out like really fu-er-freaking sore thumbs. Hi, jarheads.

Still, the self-titled showed the band's penchant for melody and vocal harmonies, and it hinted at their versatility. All of this served as indicative of another set of the band's influences, the classic pop of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. So, a couple years passed, Jars' label Essential Records inked a deal with major sub Silvertone, Steve Mason picked up an electric guitar, the band started recording with the very Brit producer Stephen Lipson (Annie Lennox, McCartney, Simple Minds, Pet Shop Boys, Prefab Sprout), the guys did a couple photo shoots that made them look like the coolest cats on the face of the earth (my young heterosexuality somehow surviving a huge poster where all four pairs of Jars eyes stared out a smooth ocean blue), and I finally bought a CD player so that my very first disc could be Jars of Clay's Much Afraid, their AACCMM (Adult Alternative Contemporary Christian Music Masterpiece). And, unlike all the other jarheads, I wasn't the least bit disappointed.

See, I paid fifty bucks to become a lifetime member of the Jars of Clay fan club (where's my last few years' worth of newsletters, by the way?), but while my comrades in that title all quickly used the backstage passes that came with the package, mine still sits idly in some closeted box upstairs. I'd only ever been to one Jars of Clay concert, and I didn't intend to go to another because, for me, it's all about the albums, the documents of the artists. Much Afraid is more of an album than any of the band's other releases. They'd go on to disappoint me with the Dennis Herring-helmed quirk of If I Left the Zoo (1999), which, despite a couple fantastic songs like "Sad Clown" and "Can't Erase It," just didn't hold together as a work. My sad infatuation with them ended after that, having already spiraled down a different direction when I read a 1997 interview in which Jars mentioned that they were listening to Radiohead's OK Computer. The second half of 2003's very Over the Rhine-ish Who We Are Instead is certainly some of their finest material, but still, it's not an album the way that Much Afraid is an album.

Named after the protagonist in Hannah Hurnard's allegory Hinds Feet on High Places, Jars of Clay's sophomore release has a loose concept, each song running through fears and anxieties after the initial all-seems-well setting of the jangly "Overjoyed." The band has called "Fade to Grey" a "skeptic's anthem," and it builds to a massive swell on an intoxicating mix of Charlie Lowell's organ with beat programming and live drums. "Tea and Sympathy" shows relationships crumbling in awkward moments of falsetto, and "Crazy Times" is the album's electric "Flood," the deepest valley from which comes a hopeless cry for help, a whopper of a chorus: "It seems it's always the crazy times / You find you'll wake up and realize / It takes more than your saline eyes / To make things right." It's an indelible pop-rock single that's perfectly followed by "Frail," the album's centerpiece and one of the band's oldest songs, rendered epic by Lipson's string-filled production and the rising drums of Greg Wells, the best sticks-man to ever work with the Jars.

"Frail" is the album at its moodiest, all musty chamber-pop with Haseltine muttering through the verses until cracking on, "Your dirt removes my blindness / Your pain becomes my peace," and the chorus holds the key to the album's hope: "If I was not so weak / If I was not so cold / If I was not so scared of being broken / Growing old / I would be / I would be / Frail." Strength in frailty has always been one of those central themes for Jars of Clay, who went as far as to write a song on Hemingway's famous quote: "The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places." To follow "Frail" with the bright, upbeat second single "Five Candles" seems a mistake and a crime, until one actually pays attention to the lyrics and realizes that the Jars boys are playing at the old subversive Brit-pop game, the chorus repeating, "You were there when I needed you," while the verses and bridge seem a good deal more uncertain, a child losing trust in his father: "And I can't see the promise of / Excuses you fall upon / So I pray to God, not holding on / To things you left undone." The album gets completely moody again with "Weighed Down" and "Portrait of an Apology." The former is Much Afraid's weakest song, yet it's incomparable in sound to anything but Much Afraid-era Jars of Clay. The arrangement of "Portrait of an Apology" seems overblown until the bluster resolves in a gorgeous half-minute denouement, the vocals wavering out into nothing as they ask if the spoken-to other could remember a more vivid self-portrait.

Mirroring "Fade to Grey," the album's final storm flurries with the propulsive keys, beats and drums of "Truce," the divine intervening roughly and suddenly: "My ear is twisted / A glimpse of truce just because." And so, binding up and assuaging the toil of doubt that's come before, there's redemption in the chorus of the peaceful title track: "Of all of these things / I'm so much afraid / Scared out of my mind / By the demons I've made / Sweet Jesus, you never let me go," the album then closing with a hymn of modest Presbyterian proportions: "Oh gaze of love so melt my pride / That I may in Your house but kneel / And in my brokenness to cry / Spring worship unto Thee." It's beautifully Calvinist. Yes, I wrote that.

I feel like I should be more apologetic, more admissive that maybe this is just nostalgia and my religious upbringing holding sway, but if half of criticism is love and the other half is justification, I've got more than plenty of both for Much Afraid, a marvelously crafted piece of music that speaks to an honest brand of faith. It's probably the best album to fall under the foreboding marketing sector of CCM, for whatever that's worth. I think it's worth at least a "Great."

-Chet Betz

*****

"Weird" Al Yankovic
Dare to be Stupid
(Scotti Bros.; 1997)

The first CD I ever bought with my own money -- the first cassette tape being the Aladdin soundtrack, of which I ain't never had a friend like since -- was 1985's Dare to be Stupid, by Hanson extra "Weird" Al Yankovic. By now, most of my interest in the guy has dwindled, having nothing to do with his lack of talent, his voice actually very pleasant and honed over the years, but all to do with the weight of the obvious. "I Want a New Duck" or "Girls Just Want to Have Lunch" devolved into "It's All About the Pentiums" or "Jerry Springer" or that shit-heap of a Star Wars Episode 1 song. Changing a word, maintaining the cadence of the original song, assimilating another artist's tone and attitude into a usually harmless idea that has little to do with the original's intent: this is novelty, but the normally dry concept of album after album of satire is saved by whimsy. Al survived on that for a good while. Unfortunately, our "Weird" Al today is still a clever schmuck, but given to the obvious, and so, burdened by the dandruff of novelty.

Maybe it's only natural that from Al's oeuvre I bounced into Christian rock music. As Chet so rightfully just ruminated, not all Christian Music is bad, even when indelibly caked in righteous makeup. Most often, the problem with this "genre" is the novelty of having every album become a concept album simply because God is good, God saves, and Jesus died for all our sins, so be thankful, because you aren't being thankful, and you already know that. In that sense, the cadre of Christian artists that played a formative role in my existing career as music journalist superstar -- Jars of Clay, Caedmon's Call, Michael W. Smith, dcTalk, Switchfoot, Relient K, and Crooked Smile (whose A Million Things to Say on Bulletboy is pretty damn good but really hard to find)--can be more than easy to taunt, not for religious conviction, but for sappy, unoriginal, painfully juvenile lyrics bedded with AOR chops. Yes, this is an umbrella statement, there are Sufjans out there that can use bare spirituality as subject rather than single impetus, but check out the rosters on Tooth & Nail, or Essential, or Wounded Records, or playing at Cornerstone, and then come back and act indignantly.

Like "Weird" Al's drowning struggle with mediocrity, and, by default, novelty, the bands that seem to most survive the doom of evangelical tags are those that have even the slightest finger on a secular pulse. Perhaps actively removing themselves from mainstream culture leaves these artists three steps behind the tide of popular sound; after a trend has dried, Christian musicians get wind and desperately ape a once refreshing alternative, often injecting a genre or culture with contradictory, safe aesthetics that rarely set out to challenge songwriting precedents. There's a reason Christian emo is only recently surfacing, that Christian hip-hop has become MTV News ephemera. And, face it, Christian Punk is an oxymoron.

Which leaves us with whimsy. The savior of Savior Rock, whimsy lightens the heft of a type of Music too loaded with life/death, meaning-of-existence consequences. It is as if the responsibility of witnessing through music, being "called" by a higher power as many of these artists imply, physically stagnates the music itself, routing all effort and talent away from "being progressive" into surviving the perils of a non-Christian world. Whimsy, although precariously balanced between a joke and a valid statement, preserves the impulsivity of faith while reducing the exhaustive allegiance to dogmatic code that organized religion seems to demand. If whimsy could save "Weird" Al from the obvious, for a time, then which Christian musicians have used whimsy in the same way?

One answer is Colorado's recently defunct Five Iron Frenzy, a pop/ska band lead by lyricist and singer Reese Roper, who can be viewed along with his very capable bandmates at www.fiveironfrenzy.com. In their prime, around the time of their 2000 release All the Hype That Money Can Buy, I was a devoted fan: they were hilarious on stage, intimate with fans, undeniably sugary while still ineffably melodic, and they had what seemed to be a healthy harmony between Praise Songs and cuts about mullets, or Canada, or combs, or not scoring with chicks. Now, returning to their discography exposes all the pitfalls of Christian Rock and pop/ska, like the sameness, like, the cheesiness, like, totally, the horribly shallow ideologies, and like the mind-boggling persistence of pop/ska, but old loyalties die hard.

I'm still taken by the sheer energy of the band's six proper full lengths. They goofed and screamed their way to the end, releasing two double CDs as their fan base shrank and went into college, but the whimsy never subsided completely. Time will tell if FIF's songs can last past their brief lifespan, but a short recounting of their History can point to the personal importance a band, pretty much wiped from the face of the earth, has had on the way I approach music now:

Upbeats & Beatdowns
(SaraBellum; 1996)
This tiny debut grafted a West Coast legion of fans with a noticeably sloppy, lo-fi brand of, cough, "Third Wave Ska Revival." "Arnold, Willis, and Mr. Drummond" and "Combat Chuck" spin thin moral tales behind gimmicky, instantly appealing riffs. The horn section, still finding a place between Roper's grocery list of lyrics, seem satisfyingly together. Granted, "A Flowery Song" is only one of a thick smattering of anthem-friendly do-gooders, but the album as a whole expresses the band as a group of Christians willing to entertain the tongue-in-cheek.

Our Newest Album Ever!
(SaraBellum; 1997)
Might as well have been the fruit of a recording session done a few weeks after Upbeats, the self-explanatory Our Newest Album Ever! pushes FIF forward in tiny increments. Production is cleaner, the instruments holding their place rather than clamoring for cameos, and the irreverence bites slightly harder. OK, so "Litmus" warns against placing God in "boxes," but it does so with a wincing, barreling horn line; alright, "Blue Comb '78" attempts a cogent statement of lost innocence and doesn't even remotely succeed, but the believability in Roper's voice is refreshing. With this album, the band reaches for more socially conscious fare, alluding to the Native American Diaspora or to the importance of maintaining independence from Major Labels. Rarely do any of the subjects strike a lasting chord, but alongside the blissful "Kitty Doggy," even hackneyed history lessons seem palatable and purposeful.

Quantity is Job 1 EP
(5 Minute Walk Records; 1998)
"Dandelions," moved by obvious syncopation, is the only cut that doesn't play along with the wink in this bloated EP's title. Otherwise, it contains the best cover of an ELO song I've ever heard, the best failure at a neo-swing confection I've ever had the chance of bopping to, and the best Rock Opera about Someone Else's Pants I've ever endured, despite the fact that it is blatantly ignorant and insulting to most types of music. Arguably FIF's best work, simply because they shat it out so quickly.

Proof That the Youth are Revolting
(5 Minute Walk Records; 1999)
Recorded during a 1999 summer tour, the band's first live album (the second being a B-side bedroom collection tacked onto Cheeses of Nazareth) is notable for capturing the communal serenity of a group of friends that happen to play well, loud, and balls-out together on stage. The antics of Roper and bassist Micah make me feel warm and fuzzy, much like Church, but not boring. The horn section--sax, trombone, and trumpet--are tight as fuck.

All the Hype That Money Can Buy
(5 Minute Walk; 2000)
Too bad the band's most ambitious, cohesive album is also the ignition to their demise. Wrapped in bossa nova crepe paper and tinges of experimental ambience, Roper takes on the world's ills, from consumerism to homophobia ("Fahrenheit," a wobbling ode to the Queen frontman) to censorship to mullets. Somewhere around the middle of the playlist--"Fahrenheit"? "Four-Fifty-One" (groan)? "You Probably Shouldn't Move Here"?--the sacred bond between the heavy and the profane dissolves. You can hear Roper's tongue sear through his cheek, so that by "I Still Like Larry," which may or may not be about the Veggietales, a deep bass boom or a giggly guest spot from the W's Val can't rectify the schizophrenic mess. So, logically:

Five Iron Frenzy 2: Electric Boogaloo
(5 Minute Walk; 2001)
...is the last Five Iron Frenzy album I bothered getting. Just look at that cover, for God's sake. That's Reese up front holding his face pitifully. Even Jesus couldn't take that seriously. The production values are glossy and drilled with synths, the horn section taken down a notch, the guitars amped, multitracked without limits, and the lyrics finger self-effacement like a horny thirteen-yr-old. Take out "Plan B" or "Pre-Ex-Girlfriend"'s conversational interlude, and you have a release devoid of the whimsy. Finally, this is the sound of a band admitting their trappings, capably growing up to drink in the wine of a looming century but unable to stomach the alcohol.

In 2004, Five Iron Frenzy broke up after two more lackluster outings. Reese devoted his energy to Brave Saint Saturn, another band I tried to follow, but ended up similarly disappointing and rote with muddy mantras. FIF just lost track of the whimsy, taking to it like a job instead of a knack. Such is novelty.

I did cull a lot from my time with the Frenzy. I learned some about pop hooks, and why moshing at a youth center is so funny. Lyrics became a point of contention keeping the "good" from the "better." I got my first tattoo after seeing Reese flaunt his. Most of all, I prepared myself for losing bowel control during a Sigur Ros crescendo, or for trudging through Sufjan's ambiguous man-love, or for fending off suicide after listening to Xiu Xiu. I was allowed to breathe in the beginning so that later I could suffocate. Even so, this isn't a testament to "fun" or a sweeping condemnation of histrionic "post"-whoever. I'm not trying to justify flaccid crapola because of a chuckle or two. It's just nice to have a reminder that someday, somewhere, somehow, a kazoo just might save us all.

-Dom Sinacola

*****

Radiohead
The Bends
(EMI; 1995)

Considering the competition, it's sometimes hard to justify The Bends as my favorite Radiohead album. It may not be technically the best (OK Computer) or the most artistically visionary (Kid A), but when I think of everything good about rock music, it's The Bends that comes to mind. It was given to me as a Christmas gift, and I spent a year listening to very little other music than this album.

All of these songs are etched into my memory. Even if sometimes I can't remember a song title or a specific lyric, I can always call up Thom Yorke's aching wail on "High & Dry," or his weariness with "Fake Plastic Trees," Ed O'Brien's perfect rhythm guitar, and Jonny Greenwood's absolutely brain-numbing solo on "Just."

Picking a favorite song has always been tough, and it seems like I've heard almost every track on the album chosen by my friends or colleagues, which is a sure sign of a perfect album. I keep coming back to "Black Star," and the young, love-struck Yorke asking, "what are we coming to?"From where I stand, this was the birth of the greatest band in the world.

-Peter Hepburn

*****

Sting
Ten Summoner's Tales
(A&M; 1993)

Since this is for the anniversary update, and since I'm feeling lazy, I'm going to just take a paragraph I wrote on Ten Summoner's Tales --- the first cassette (not CD, which was Counting Crow's August & Everything After, or gift, which was Nevermind) I ever bought --- from CMG when it was still a bad teenage bitching blog, about three years ago:

...even at this age I would feel these strange connections to certain types of music and certain songs. I can remember absolutely loving Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," Nirvana's "Lithium," The Beatles' "Hey Jude," R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (yes, thanks to Wayne's World), Blue Rodeo's "Lost Together," Crash Test Dummies' "Superman's Song," etc.

Of course, I never really understood why I felt these connections with certain songs and was so indifferent to most other music I'd hear on the late night AM countdown. I was still a child, so I'd still ask myself strange questions like "what if this is the last song I ever really like?" or "What is it about this song that's so much better than this other one?" I didn't understand why I liked the music that I liked, and for some reason kind of assumed there'd be a finite amount of it. So I clung tightly to what I liked.


When I started to actually
listen to [Ten Summer's Tales] repeatedly, I started to be able to hear reasons, aspects, of why I loved certain songs. Lyrics. Production. Voice. The concept of "melody." It was less abstract and started to make more sense than "it's good because I like it."


It goes on about how Ten Summoner's Tales was my first "winter record," and how Odelay, This Night, No Code, Mellon Collie, Agaetis Byrjun, etc., later tied in, but I won't bore you with that here.

What I will bore you with, though, is how good this album was to me at the time. I wasn't exactly "schooled" in any genre/era/form of music except for what I'd hear on late night top 10 AM radio shows that'd be almost exactly the same night after night. It's how I first heard "Tears in Heaven" (hence the Clapton tape), where I first heard Counting Crows (hence the two-year long obsession with August & Everything After), and where I first heard "Fields of Gold."

Twelve years later and I still think it's a beautiful song, but at the time it was like a revelation; for every Sting or Clapton or "Round Here," there was Moxy Fruvous or the Barenaked Ladies (Gordon was released around the same time, and if you lived in Canada around that time and your only source of music was pop radio, you know that pain) repeating every 1/2 hour because, apparently, some people actually enjoy it. Sting certainly wasn't making the best music released in '93 (or any year, for that matter), but amongst a lot of terrible CanCon singles and even more repugnant American chick-pop, Ten Summoner's Tales' singles instantly jumped out; it was interesting, there were decent hooks, it was sentimental without being Vanessa Williams, and I didn't get sick of it after hearing it twice.

And what I loved about a song like "Field of Gold" was all over this record: the cabaret bridge that just shows up in "She's Too Good For Me," pretty much all of "Shape of My Heart" (my favorite Sting song, hands down, even with the cheesy playing card metaphors), almost all of "Seven Days," including the "IQ is no problem here / we won't be playing scrabble for her hand, I fear" part, that lame attempt at an "A Day in the Life" dramatic close that caps off "Epilogue (Nothing 'Bout Me)," the list goes on.

So it's a good album, maybe not his best solo record (Dream of Blue Turtles wins out), but it's up there. Now, the last time I actually put this record on? Years. Many, many years. It's played to the point where everything just kind of pleasantly unfolds without making an impression either way. Not that it's aged spectacularly well, either.

Plus when you grow up to discover that maybe the only source of music for a someone in rural Newfoundland might not be AM radio, choices become broader; eventually I traded in Top Ten at 10 for The Wedge and whatever bands were recommended by artist I love (Nirvana: Pixies, Jesus Lizard, Flipper, Meat Puppets, Soundgarden, Big Black, it started to really branch from there). Suddenly there was all kinds of this "good music" that I assumed nonexistent, almost all of it more relatable and challenging than above-average adult contemporary.

As first albums go, though, I could've done a lot worse.

-Scott Reid

*****

"Weird" Al Yankovic
Even Worse
(Scotti Bros.; 1987)

The first record I ever physically went to the store and bought was the Black Crowes' Southern Musical and Harmony Companion. It's a decent record, and "Remedy" is still their best original tune by a country mile.

Far more interesting however, is the first record that was ever given to me that I recall playing non-stop. That would probably be Weird Al Yankovic's Even Worse. Originally released in 1988, I received it from my mom as a third grade graduation present alongside my first ever walkman. To say that I placed it in heavy rotation would be gross understatement.

The requisite parodies are strong, but if Even Worse easily ranks as one of Weird Al's greatest achievements (alongside Off the Deep End and In 3-D) its because it features arguably the strongest batch of original songs he ever wrote. "Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White" is catchy as all hell with a badass Billy Idol guitar riff, and the voyeuristic love paean "Melanie" and James Taylor send up "Good Old Days" are easily among the man's strongest ballads.

But the crown jewel has to be "Velvet Elvis," in which Al informs the listener that as long as he owns the title object, he "don't need no lava lamp / don't need no soap on a rope / no pictures of Mexican kids with those really big eyes or dogs playing poker." And whether this was intentional or not, the accompanying music is an incredibly dead-on approximation of Synchronicity-era Police; something which Al had already a passing familiarity with after declaring himself the "King of Suede" four years earlier.

It would be at least three years before I used my walkman to listen to something that wasn't Weird Al's Even Worse, my dad's copy of Van Halen's 5150, or the radio. I even remember an awkward conversation in the car with my mom where she asked if I could ever see myself liking an artist who wasn't Weird Al, to which I replied "...ummm, I sort of like Aerosmith too." And when I finally did begin to purchase CDs on a semi-regular basis, I again informed my mother, wary of my spending habits, that I only wanted to build up to a healthy library of 20 or so records, and then I would stop. Yeah.

-David M. Goldstein

*****

Janet Jackson
Control
(A&M; 1986)

One of the delightful things about being a music obsessive is looking sheepishly through my CD collection with equal parts embarrassment and regret to find the albums to which I once pledged allegiance. Why did I love that Smashing Pumpkins album so? (Truth be told, Siamese Dream was my introduction to the kind of guitar rock I still love, and my first of many long-lived music affairs.) Did I really own a Dave Matthews Band album? (Yes, actually two of them, but I tell myself it had something to do with Columbia House's Music Club.) The soundtrack to Dazed and Confused??? (Ditto on the Columbia House thing...I think.) Counting Crows?!?!? (I was young. I was young, dammit.)

The fun ratchets up a notch when I take a look at the tupperwear container stashed in my closet that holds what's left of my tape collection. Looking over the box makes me wonder why I've kept this collection for so long, I mean what if someone actually saw this stuff? It has everything from my fourth grade dabblings in metal (hi Appetite for Destruction, hi Master of Puppets), to that album everyone else was buying in my third grade class, I SWEAR (on second thought, maybe I'll just burn this copy of Hangin' Tough and pretend I was cooler than that), to the rap mixtapes my friends and I traded, trying desperately (and failing) to acquire some of those cool-ass rappers' inherent danger (oh, NWA, oh, Sir-Mix-a-Lot), to my ill-conceived infatuation with dance-pop (I can't believe I still have this Mariah Carey Someday single--hey look, C+C Music Factory!), to--ah, hear it is: the first cassette I ever bought with my own money: Janet Jackson's Control.

I'm having a hard time trying to remember why Control, of all albums, ended up being the first album I ever purchased. I know I had heard "What Have You Done For Me Lately" on the radio a lot, and, I mean, I'm guessing it had something to do with a growing interest in girls. Playing it now, on the cheap-ass boom-box I have that actually still has a tape deck, I'm surprised at how relatively well the album holds up. "What Have You Done For Me Lately" is still a bouncy, sassy pop song with dark-ish production that sounds a little dated, but not too too dated. "When I Think of You" is still one of the better yearning radio singles from the era with funky rhythms complementing Janet's cooing. In fact, the production on the album, all chiming synths and edgy beats (well, edgy is a relative term, here), is a strength, buoying a set of rather standard love songs from Ms. Jackson. Or at least, that's what I can hear of the production through the tape hiss. Yes, it's still a very '80s pop album, but it doesn't feel quite as big hairspray retarded as, say, Cindy Lauper. (Yes, my neighbor made me a tape of her stuff.)

Of course, this is a pop album and the production is secondary to the emerging personality that is Janet. Control featured a nineteen year-old JJ shaking off some of the weight that came from being Michael Jackson's sister and becoming a star in her right. Songs like the funky "When I Think of You," "Control," "Nasty," and the prudent "Let's Wait Awhile" were played on the radio so much for a two or three year period that I probably didn't even need to buy this album. Yet, at the time, I ate all this up. It was so cool to have a tape of music that I liked that was playing everywhere. All my friends either had the tape or begged one of us to make them a copy. Still largely unself-conscious at seven and eight years old, we would construct epic dance numbers to "What Have You Done For Me Lately" at sleepover parties--because Janet was all about the dancing, dammit. (Picture that the next time I review the Pixies.)

Looking back, my experience with Control was probably the beginning of that sickening urge I still have now to be the first kid on the block to hear a new album. I mean - girls were asking me to copy this album for them. So, while I can't say that Janet informed too many of my current musical interests, she did get me hooked on the excitement inherent in finding albums that sounded exciting and new. So thank you for that, Janet, and thanks, too, for Rhythm Nation. But I'm never forgiving you for janet. Okay, now back into the depths of my closet with you.

-Sean Ford

*****

Various Artists
Batman Forever (OST)
(Atlantic; 1995)

In middle school I loved two things: comic books and VH1. So, it was no wonder that the Batman Forever soundtrack was the first piece of pop music I ever bought. That was a few months before I had my stereo, when I was still jamming old radio serials like The Shadow and The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on my stand-alone tape deck. The film itself, still my favorite of the Batman catalog (and no, I still haven't seen the new one and yes, I am a bad person) had a hip, flashy cast featuring a pre-Men In Black Tommy Lee Jones and a totally ridiculous Jim Carrey as the villains. The soundtrack was even flashier, a strange compilation starring U2, Method Man, The Flaming Lips, and the then-ubiquitous Seal.

OK, the movie sucked, but I still think Val Kilmer was bad-ass. I definitely still think Seal's "Kiss From A Rose" is bad-ass--sure, it was a huge mainstream single, but these were the days before Backstreet. Pop, especially that of the guitar-strumming, VH1-friendly variety, was at a relative peak. The a capella harmonies towards the end of "Kiss From A Rose" are more well-crafted than entire songs on Radio ClearChannel, and listen to the way he unexpectedly hits a high note in the verse and comes back to earth instead of ascending into Whitney Houston territory. Seal was aiming for a fusion of soul and rock that he never quite achieved, but this is the closest he ever came.

On the other hand, we have clunkers like U2's "Love Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me." Not so hot. I must have been about ten when I picked this tape up (is that even possible?), so I suppose this would have been during the aging Irish rockers' "experimental" period. Anyway, this sounds like U2 covering that awful Blur song they play at soccer stadiums - with a string section. The rest of the soundtrack, predictably, is a mixed bag: some outright garbage (The Offspring, Michael Hutchence), some dependable standouts (Nick Cave, Flaming Lips), and a few curveballs. I've never heard of Eddi Reader, but the Cyndi Lauper-ish "Nobody Lives Without Love" absolutely destroys. If you like Cyndi Lauper. But that's probably enough embarrassment for one day.

-David Greenwald