Tuesday, February 18, 2020
100 greatest albums: The B-52's
Out getting coffee with my delightful wife I was telling her about all the research I did for my most recent greatest album of all time, Randy Newman's Good Old Boys, and about how I didn't get to use any of the research because all the interesting things I learned didn't really say anything about what was so great about it. And undoubtedly something came up in this conversation about how depressing the songs on that album really are, which led pretty naturally into how, well, why wouldn't they be, all the albums that I have so far called the single greatest album of all time are terribly sad.
I suppose this came up because they so indisputably are. Each one of the albums I have included is deeply, profoundly bleak, or sad, or crushing, or simply heartbreaking, or at least somewhat dark. And so a challenge was issued for me to choose as my next album a happy album. No cheating too. It really had to be the best album ever made.
I all too casually agreed.
Then we made a lot of jokes about how my next entry in the 100 greatest albums of all time would now not happen for years and years and years and years. And making the vow I kind of believed it really would be years. There was nothing in music like that. The most cheerful group I could think of, that I love, was The Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground! This glorious 100 greatest albums project was doomed. We would all die a prisoner of my quixotic promise.
And then from out of nowhere the B-52's rescued me.
One can say if they didn't rescue me some other happy band would have occurred to me. But I don't believe it. The B-52's are funny, buoyant, clever, musically delicious, and delightful. But they are also inimitable, one of the most unique bands I have ever heard and from one of the tiniest strains of popular music, the minuscule, infinitesimal genre of insouciant joy. They are like kid's music, but if it were insanely good and made for adults.
They are also, curiously, the first new music I ever loved.
My musical awakening was saturated in a catching up with everything starting at 15 years before that time. There was a lot there to work through and I was happy to do it. That sweep of music, 1964 to 1979, had everything. It kind of still does: rage, wisdom, poetry, freedom, prophecy, melody, revolution, invention, vision, grief, genius, politics, love. Well not quite everything. The only thing it didn't have was... candy. The sheer, cheeky, irreverent delight music is also capable of. I remember just as I discovered this initial B-52's album I read that John Lennon loved them too, and I felt so confirmed. The Beatles were the first band for me, and it did make perfect sense. The closest thing I can think of to the B-52's, if I have to find something, anything, at a stretch, is maybe Yellow Submarine or Come Together, just with the crucial difference of The Beatles don't sound like they're having nearly as much fun.
In each of these greatest album essays I link to a song or two on YouTube. Sometimes it's just an album track behind a still image. Sometimes, if I'm lucky enough to find one, it's a performance or video that matches the song in spirit and soul. In this case it's the latter, and it was all too easy to find; every old performance I tracked down of the B-52's is delightful, clever, silly, and wonderful. The guitar player is some kind of low key absolute genius, the main lead singer is bursting before our eyes with personality, and the back-up singers (often lead too) are possibly the most inventive I've ever heard. Every bit of footage I could find of them, despite the deep familiarity of these songs, both amazed me and left me grinning like a maniac. This is not my usual reaction to my favorite music, and so all the more precious for it.