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On The Illegality Of Downloading Music: 15 Examples of its Absurdity -or- A Piece of Pure Self-Indulgence (From Fairly Recent History)

By Amir Nezar | 12 December 2003

Music is a funny product, because it is so unlike nearly all other legal products, which have one thing in common: you know, or at least, can know, all of the specifications of said products. Buying a digital camera? The megapixel value, zoom, assembly materials, and contents of the box are all either displayed on the box, or can be easily found via online information. A car? Unless it's used, all the specs and warranty information are taped right on the inside of it. Many products also come with the "satisfaction guaranteed" qualifier, an additional assurance of product quality.

The only other product that immediately comes to mind that so perspicuously lacks the above information and assurance is the mass-released movie. Like music compact discs with their singles, movies have merely trailers as indicators of general quality, and the names of actors as measuring sticks, where bands have, well, their band name.

The notorious unreliability of musical criticism in the more mainstream area doesn't help; Rolling Stone thought the last Metallica album was great; Spin called Coldplay the band of the year; Q. . . well, Q has just been preposterously out of the loop for years; NME said that N.E.R.D. rock. And they were actually serious about it. We try our best to avoid shit like that, but every music reviewing publication can be wrong, and even if it's not, it still might not match with your own personal tastes -- plus, with all the metaphors we use, how on earth do you know what the music actually sounds like?

It would take a hell of an argument, after all of this, to somehow convince me that downloading music is immoral or even, disposing of morality considerations, wrong. Because, essentially, we're being told that, tough shit, when we buy albums, we'll be taking a $16-$20 (dollars American) semi-crapshoot, being forbidden from hearing more than a small fraction of an album whose disc, case, and liner notes cost all of a few dozen pennies to produce. Analogously, it'd be like wanting to buy a bike, and you'd get the following information on it:

"Well, it's made of metal."
"Does it have two wheels?"
"Can't tell you that."
"What about handlebars?"
"I guess you'll find that out when you buy it."
"What the fuck -- well, what else can you tell me about it?"
"It has at least one pedal."

Even if the bike was $18, you wouldn't buy it, would you? Anyhow, empirical evidence is always worthwhile, so here are 15 concrete examples of why music downloading isn't wrong (even though you shouldn't do it!): songs that would have you think the rest of album was worth the shelling out of your limited cash, but really, are just big fat teases -- i.e. great songs by bands who put out bad/questionable/inconsistent albums:

1. "Take the Long Road and Walk It" - The Music {from The Music}

Unlike a number of bands on this list, The Music at least evince some belief in their potential to produce a good, even excellent, album. "Take the Long Road and Walk It" is their most convincing exhibit, though their self-titled does have two or three other somewhat worthy singles. Working with a wicked set of distorted-guitar-driven hooks, a bouncing bass line, and Robert Harvey's unbelievable vocals/lung capacity, The (we're inconceivably retardedly named) Music do no less than crank this motherfucker out. By the time the (overproduced but nonetheless) incendiary guitar hook evolves into a neighborhood-flattening distorted piece of lightning, you know what time it is: time to hit the skip button and avoid the next four weak super-glossy songs.

2. "It's My Life" (Talk Talk cover) - No Doubt {from The Singles 1993-2003}

Hot damn, Gwen Stefani is hot. D'you see her on the cover of Vanity Fair? Plus, she's not like those angry, feminist chicks that lead a girl-rock band, right? I mean, she's vulnerable, writes out her diary notes as lyrics, and has drama with bandmates, all to the sound of…sub-par ska/rock. And this song has none of it. Which is why it's so fucking awesome. With a bass line that could kick your mama's ass, synths that smack you with '80s excess, and Gwen's sexy crooning, not to mention a danceable beat, what you've got is a super-cool super-hit that might distract you from the fact that most of what No Doubt has ever done is super-weak.

3. "Hate To Say I Told You So" - The Hives {from Veni Vidi Vicious}

Things we know about the Hives: they're Swedes. They start every concert with "We are ze Hives, we are your new favorite baaand!" They wear white suits and white shoes. Their songwriting is from an unidentifiable source. And well, what I know is that Veni Vidi Vicious is a terribly inconsistent album, fraught with fodder-level garage junk, and a couple decent singles. Like this one, "Hate to Say I Told You So," in which they devote their guitars and bass to a single, blistering hook, which drives an infectiously catchy chunk of savage garage (oh, I can't resist the pun) viciousness. With the rest of the album being largely hit or miss - the "largely" applying more to the misses than the hits -- you might forget that most white-suited men are con men.

4. "No One Knows" - Queens of the Stone Age {from Songs for the Deaf}

OK, so this song blows every other rock song on this list away. The guitar hook with which hard-rock's new favorite sweethearts plaster your face is infectious as all hell, and by God, if you were ever unconvinced that Dave Grohl's drumkit wasn't an instrument of said deity, this rambunctious tune converts the unbeliever in a minute or so. Josh Homme's (does anyone notice that in French his name is "Josh Man"?) guitar solo following Dave Grohl's punishing drum histrionics is self-indulgent genius, and, all told, the song has the lasting power of Sting on a tantric run. Most of the rest of the album though, can't hold a candle to this, its flag-bearer. I guess Satan deceives best when he seemingly displays the power of God.

5. "Maps" - The Yeah Yeah Yeahs {from Fever to Tell}

Speaking of God, by Him, who would ever like Karen O? I mean, the only guy that could like such a self-obsessed drunk drama-queen would have to be another art-damaged punk of irreverent-asshole dimensions. Oh, that's right, she's dating Aaron Hemphill. (That was a low blow! But seriously, the new Liars album sucks - couldn't even get a single song on this list.) And yet, in a moment of awe-inducing sobriety, Karen wheels out this gorgeous bit of at least seemingly honest delicacy. "Maps" is so heartbreakingly beautiful, with such gently affecting, simple lyrics ("Wait, they don't love you like I love you") that it's a wonder it could come from the alcoholic in torn tights who takes center stage in Yeah Yeah Yeahs photo shoots. The guys to thank, though, are her bandmates, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase, with their honest, simple guitar -- by turns delicately strummed and cathartically massive -- and propulsive drumming, respectively. With their help, O transforms from our generation's Courtney Love to something approaching a simple, honest human being, and the rest of the album could use a healthy dose of more of that.

6. "We Used to Be Friends" - The Dandy Warhols {from Welcome to the Monkey House}

The Dandies will get two nods on this list, not because I can't think of more bands and songs, but because they are the kings of the good single/inconsistent album stereotype. On every Dandies album are three songs that are so commercially brilliant and so brilliantly catchy that they probably think they don't need to put any effort into the rest of their pieces. "We Used to Be Friends," the first single from Welcome to the Monkey House has a catchy chorus, sexily-crooned lyrics that could only be the product of Courtney Taylor's huge ego, and great synth and guitar interplay. While it's got some accompanying accomplishments, "The Last High" being the most notable, you might do what I did and rush out to buy the album upon hearing this single, and you'll probably feel like I did when I actually spun the thing all the way through: let down.

7. "Bohemian Like You" - The Dandy Warhols {from Thirteen Tales of Urban Bohemia}

Number two from the Dandies is without question their best-known song, though I can say with some certainty that few people who've heard it know who's done it. Featured in at least two TV commercials, and embraced by all the young kids who know that listening to it will make them just that much cooler, the bohemian anthem is one built on two hooks, both of which are unbearably catchy. Who couldn't evoke that famous chorus on cue? "'Cause I like you / Yeah I like you / And I'm feeling so Bohemian like you…" Perhaps the song's limited guitar action and flimsy understructure can be overlooked because of the pure cool of the song, or because in our curious souls we only wish that we could be Bohemian Like Courtney Taylor. Unfortunately, slogging through the first two thirds of Thirteen Tales of Urban Bohemia to get there makes this brief moment of feeling hip seem like a disenchanting chore. You know, kind of like it is in real life.

8. "Life and Illusion" - Phaser {from Sway}

Unlike some of these other tracks, Phaser's "Life and Illusion" should send up red flags signifying what the rest of the album will sound like; it's tremendously overproduced, overdubbed, and overbearing. But for his moment, Phaser's faux-emotion excess actually surmounts their horrifically sophomoric lyrics, ("My life is an illusion anyway") and results in a guilty pleasure that should nonetheless point to where the album will fail elsewhere. Even so, the tension-laden bridge that fades to silence, and then erupts into dueling, skyrocketing guitars, ferocious cymbal-smashing, and angelic vocals, was enough to induce impulse-buying in yours truly, to massively disappointing effect. The rest of the album is so terrifically predictable and bland that "Life and Illusion" seems like a mean trick.

9. "1985" - French Kicks {from One Time Bells}

On "1985" the French Kicks strike the balance that they miss throughout much of "One Time Bells:" a leisurely pace fleshed out by substantive songwriting. With solid bass work, chiming, glittering guitars, and harmonizing out the wazoo, the French Kicks hit the New Wave stride and throw in some keyboards for good measure, resulting in one of the few successes of an album that seems caught between garage and '80s pop. Most of the time, it falls awkwardly somewhere in between, but with "1985" the French Kicks nail the bridge between the two and offer one hell of a tantalizing song, despite a seriously inconsistent album.

10. "It's Over" - The Fire Theft {from The Fire Theft}

It's kind of a shame that Jeremy Enigk should have to fall into this list, especially because the decline of Sunny Day Real Estate (The Fire Theft is essentially SDRE sans Dan Hoener, the gee-tarist) has been so slow and painful. Our own David Goldstein, once an SDRE super-fan, stayed home to watch a baseball game rather than see The Fire Theft live, based on his impressions of this self-titled uber-self-indulgent disc. But between faux-swoons thanks to the strings (THEY'RE EVERYWHERE) and crashing overproduction of so much of the album, I will insist that "It's Over" is a moment of teasing, elusive beauty. One of the shortest songs on the album, it's also one of the most efficient, packing in a powerful crescendos and some of the most delicate moments of the album side by side in a building catharsis. When it eventually explodes, the drums getting the shit thrashed out of them, and Enigk absolutely blistering his own vocal chords, it's a heavy moment, for serious. Even if most of the album falls into flat, masturbatory, self-indulgent mediocrity, I can be sure that this is a moment I can always fall back on. Just don't shell out your cash to hear Enigk's heart breaking over and over -- it begins to feel just a mite bit mechanical.

11. "She Wants to Move" - N.E.R.D. {from Fly or Die}

Ok, so this song actually kind of sucks. None of its hooks are comprised of any more than two notes, and its bass line and guitar line are actually the same two notes, just in different octaves. In fact, my little brother could have come up with everything here excepting Pharrell's beat, which, let's be honest, is perhaps the only thing of worth he has ever contributed to any artist. And with the most purely insipid lyrics this side of hip-hop, including the famous and hilarious "Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride," there's a kind of cognitive dissonance established when Pharell, in a Spin interview, says he wants a sweet, educated woman. Nonetheless, the tune somehow manages to be horrendously catchy, and might delude the casual listener into thinking that Pharell's "rock" leanings might result in anything more than the sub-par fart of an album that is Fly or Die. "She Wants to Move" is the ultimate mix-CD song -- it's the single bearable, even long-lasting, fragment of a fragmented and shamefully uninspired disc.

12. "Milk Man" - Deerhoof {from Milk Man}

Another of the songs that it hurts to include on this list, because its inclusion means, by implication, that the rest of the album just can't hold a candle to it -- this star-student of a track. And what a wonderful title track it is: its brilliant multi-guitar interactions, sinewy hooks, and fascinating dynamic makes the rest of Milk Man's tracks look like D-students, and most of them feel, by comparison, like abortive experiments. Pieces like these have the great potential to hook someone at the listening station of the local indie store, only to leave them, upon eager purchase and subsequent listens, feeling gullible and stung. And when the artists, like Deerhoof, have such great albums under their belts, it stings twice as much.

13. "By the Way" - Red Hot Chili Peppers {from By the Way}

One almost doesn't need any kind of warning against the Red Hot Chili Peppers; since the wicked success of "Under the Bridge," everyone's favorite red-shaded Mexican vegetables have perfected the art of the strong single that persuades a casual listener to buy the weak album. What largely excuses the Chili Peppers, in my eyes, is their fair amount of humility and the fact that they've worked their asses off to get where they are today. But even that mitigating factor fails to make an album like "By the Way" enough of a success to warrant buying it. Yet "By the Way" nails every aspect of the "signature" Chili Peppers style like an expert, effortless sniper: it mixes Flea's freak-fingering bass with Kiedis's spitting-out of meaningless lyrics with Frusciante's sharp chords, and then transitions easily into warm melody, smooth harmonizing, and pretty strumming. Packing its hooks in and then leaving before they get old, it boasts the kind of "look, Mom, no hands" execution that far surpasses the overbearing pop that largely dominates over the album.

14. "In the Walls" - Stellastarr {from Stellastarr*}

Anyone who wants to point the finger at contemporary indie/rock with the accusation that the only thing that new bands do is ape old bands, should have Stellastarr ready in mind. Ripping off The Cure, The Pixies, Talking Heads and just about every early-to-late 80's band that was ever namedropped, there's about as much originality in Stellastarr* as Atkins-friendly food in my diet (i.e. just about none). It fails in a number of places because it mish-mashes styles without much consistency, and without the song-writing chops of the band's influences. But here, where The Cure and the Pixies are so obviously tagged for songwriting references, Stellastarr's faithfulness to their forefathers' sound actually pans out quite nicely. From the opening duel between lightly plucked and more baroque, chord-oriented guitars, to the shared Pixies-esque vocal duties in the band's gritty chorus, the song's weighty atmosphere and solid ideas are terrible preparation for an album that consistently falls short of its opening high. Only "My Coco" comes close, and then you still have six songs left, only a couple of which make the attention worth it.

15. "Such Large Portions!" - Beauty Pill {from The Unsustainable Lifestyle}

Well, I've ripped a new one for these guys on this site in the past, but mentioned this as their saving grace, along with "Western Prayer." And I stand by it. "Such Large Portions!" is the better of the two, with its decent guitar-playing, somewhat memorable hooks, and clever lyrics. If nothing else, it lets you know that in spite of the inexcusable shit that stinks up much of this wank-fest, the Beauty Pill just might release an album that doesn't suck. Regrettably, they chose to postpone that to a later date. Fans of Chad Clarke, listen to this song and "Western Prayer" if you want to think that he's still got some song-writing chops -- just avoid the rest of it. Like the plague.