Sunday, February 12, 2012

Testermix - Spring '11

The early portions of 2011 threw several hard-and-fast changes at me, causing me to spend longer than usual tweaking this mix; I had a tough time finding exactly what I was doing in life, let alone on my iPod. Fortunately, I was able to steady myself enough to knock out a decent collection of tunes that covered the usual bases: a little classic rock here, a little ducklips music there, and a whole heaping helping of songs I play on Rock Band.

In fact, I'm going to resume my earlier Diversion 2.0 drinking game: drink every time Rock Band is overtly mentioned. Don't worry, I'll help keep track. Also, drink for the mention in the previous paragraph. The game starts NOW.

1) Blue Öyster Cult - "Burnin' For You"

When assembling these mixes, I generally compile a big ol' song pool out of whatever I'm listening to, and choose the songs that sound best together. Sometimes, if a song is cut, I try to sneak it into the next season's mix, to see if it would "fit" better with the other tracks. "Burnin' For You" is a prime example of this. I'd been trying to slot it in since at least Fall '10, and finally found it a comfortable place in this mix.

I like "Burnin' For You" for most of the same reasons I like "Ridin' The Storm Out" by REO Speedwagon, which is fitting because I used to get them confused with each other. Like "Ridin'," "Burnin'" is in a pleasant, easy-going key, and both get a chance to show off several guitar-gymnastic solos. The main difference between the two is that of intensity—"Ridin'" attacks the track with its constant bass drum back-beat, while "Burnin'" drifts by like the countryside during a lazy afternoon drive. Great melody, great song, and a great potential candidate for Rock Band.


2) New Found Glory - "All Downhill From Here"

Ever since I put Story of the Year into the previous mix, I've started integrating songs from my high school years into my tracklists. Warped Tour staples New Found Glory made a big impression of me back during my sophomore year (the time when I was just starting to drink the Teen Angst Kool-Aid), and "All Downhill From Here" was one of my favorites, mostly because of its monstrous opening riff. The trippy music video is neither here nor there, but "All Downhill From Here" reminds me of driving my crappy Nissan Sentra to my friend's house in Amsterdam, hopped up on energy drinks and excited to talk obsessively about Magic: The Gathering and Alternative Press. Fortunately, I've since grown up and matured, and learned not to read AP under any circumstances.

3) ZZ Top - "La Grange"

When I was a kid, I think I used to get this song confused with Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky." I was an idiot as a child. Anyway, there's an astronomically high chance you've already heard this song's main riff, which is good because there's not much else to "La Grange" besides it and some show-offy guitar work. That's far from a complaint, however, as both said riff and guitar work are fantastic.

"La Grange" begins quietly, with a snare-rim percussion rhythm setting the tempo and the lead guitar playing a understated version of the main riff. After the lead singer warbles a few bars of the melody, though, a huge-sounding fill throws the rest of the track into high gear, with the off-time guitars and galloping bass pedal driving the experience. From its down-tempo beginning to its kinetic main section, "La Grange" is my song of choice if I were to be involved in a car chase.

4) Dev - "Bass Down Low (Featuring The Cataracs)"

My love affair with Ke$ha is well-documented (and I like her music, too!), so what's to stop another ign'ant, duck lips'n white girl from invading my playlist? To be fair, Dev does sound different from her music-best-enjoyed-trashed sistren, as she's even more production-focused than nearly any other mainstream singer. Good thing, too, because The Cataracs are easily the best weapon up Dev's sleeve; they sampled her on Far East Movement's "Like a G6," propelling her into the spotlight, and provided the production work on all of her new album, The Night the Sun Came Up.

The main reason I like "Bass Down Low" is because its siren-sampling beat reminds me of a song from SSX 3 by Overseer called "Screw Up." I also dig the bending, 808-sounding synth that backs the chorus. Dev's lyrics are a shallow and anti-clever in the way the Ke$ha's usually aren't, but when the production is as stellar as it is on "Bass," silly things like lyrics don't bother me.

5) The Romantics - "What I Like About You"

Honestly, I don't have much to say on this song, other than that I've wanted to put it in a mix for some time but kept forgetting. Most of my memories of this song come from a compilation album my friend Luke and I used to listen to while playing Super Nintendo, and it's stuck with me for all of that time. Cheery chords, hand claps, and boy-likes-girl lyrics—what's not to like?

6) Mountain - "Mississippi Queen"

Like most near-ubiquitous classic rock songs, I first heard "Mississippi Queen" in a music game (Guitar Hero III, in this case), and played it enough to learn to appreciate the song's subtleties. "Mississippi Queen" is also featured in an episode of The Simpsons, which all but cemented its spot in my pantheon of Testermix songs.

"Mississippi Queen" has perhaps one of the greasiest-sounding guitar part in all of music, and is completely and totally awesome because of it. Seriously, everything about the main riff is unmixed, nasty-sounding, and completely unrefined, which gives "Mississippi Queen" indelible personality. I'm also a fan of the snare triplets that play during the back parts of the verse.

Drink. Well, half-drink; Harmonix didn't make Guitar Hero III.

7) Deadmau5 - "Ghosts 'n' Stuff (Featuring Rob Swire)"

Last year, for Christmas, I became partially obsessed with DJ Hero 2's setlist, with its cavalcade of song mash-ups and remixes. Highlights included Lady Gaga's "Love Game" vs. Kanye West's "Heartless," PCD's "Doncha" vs. Pitbull's "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)," and Iyaz's "Replay" vs. Rihanna's "Rude Boy." Amid the torrent of familiar-sounding mash-ups, there was a remix of Lady Gaga's "Just Dance," which combined it with some organ-sounding song by Canadian DJ Deadmau5. One day, out of curiosity, I looked this organ-sounding song up on YouTube, just to see what it was like, and I've been obsessed with it ever since.

Honestly, it's the organs that get me. It's a simple, four-chord hook, but for reasons inexplicable to me it toggles some hidden joy button in my brain, and I'm powerless to resist. I went with the three-minute single version for this mix; Rob Swire's vocals give the song more direction, and the protracted running time is more conducive to cramming other songs onto the mix.

8) Quietdrive - "Way Out"

A small bit of trivia about how I assemble these mixes: generally, if an artist worked before, then dammit they'll work again! Case in point: "Way Out," which came of the thought process, "I put a Quietdrive song on the Winter '10 mix, so why not put them on this one?"

It's not like they don't deserve it, though. Quietdrive has been one of my favorite pop-punk bands since 2007, and if I decided to commemorate their new album by slapping a song on my personal mix series, then so be it. "Way Out" is a bit slower than most of my preferred pop-punk, but the less-aggressive tempo helps give the mix variety, and I like how the drums give the chorus an insistent, intense feeling.

9) The Police - "Roxanne"

Forget that tango one (you hear me, Kailey? Forget it!). The original Police version is where it's at, at least for my tastes. Yes, Sting's pained, lovesick lyrics carry over well to Baz Luhrmann's esteemed jukebox musical, but the Moulin Rouge! version lacks the best part of the song: the chorus. That wonderful soaring, harmonizing, bass-drum-driving chorus. It's literally the reason I listen to the song, and any version lacking it is woefully incomplete.

Oddly, the live versions of this song I've heard from Sting's solo career also lack the chorus. Whatever; it's his song, after all, and he can tweak with it as he sees fit.

10) Judas Priest - "You've Got Another Thing Comin'"

Get out your hip flasks, because here's drink #3. I played the hell out of this song on the original Guitar Hero during my freshman year of college, and did so again during my junior year in Rock Band, but on drums this time. I'm not sure if Judas Priest's brand of 80's epic metal is quite up my alley, but far be it for me to take away from this weighty, powerful-sounding track.

Every note, every beat, every word sung (yelled?) feel as heavy as the Iron Boots from The Legend of Zelda, and the palm-muted chugs of the rhythm guitar sound like a freight train. "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" has enough power to smash through a brick wall, and I can't help but dig on the cocky drawn-out, three-note phrase that makes up the main riff. Not into metal? Well, you've got another thing &c.

11) Artist vs. Poet - "Runaway"

Artist vs. Poet is a simple, fly-by-night power pop band that's no more memorable than the bag of Gushers I had with lunch today. But much just like said fruit snack, however, they're sweet, immediately likeable, and tasty right up until the very last bit. "Runaway" was my first Artist song, and fits well with my usual roster of power pop groups (I also included another of their songs, "Car Crash," on my Spring '10 mix. Must be the time of the season).

12) Journey - "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)"

One of the most recognizable keyboard openers in 80's rock and I first hear about it through Tron: Legacy. Yes, dear readers, my introduction to this Journey staple was not through a Greatest Hits compilation, nor through my local classic rock radio station (though it certainly didn't hurt the song's placement)—instead, I learn of its existence from a movie directed by a guy who makes video game commercials. Though, to be fair, they are stonking great video game commercials.

It's not just the synth that calls to me with "Separate Ways," though. The constant floor toms give the song an understated intensity, and the unusually-heavy-for-Journey guitar lets the audience know that the band means business. Of course, Journey's penchant for soaring vocals boosts "Separate Ways" into a sort of 80's rock overdrive, and, really, who can say "no" to Steve Perry's siren voice? Rawr.

13) Avril Lavigne - "What The Hell"

Oh boy. At least once per mix, I have one or two guilty pleasure songs that a masculine dude like myself should have no business liking. Yet here we have "What The Hell," Avril Lavigne's successful attempt to out-brat her 2006 hit "Girlfriend," and the catchiest damn song to make me do the most embarrassing actions while car-dancing. It's bad, and will go further undiscussed. Let's just quickly gloss over the song's excellent use of organs, simple melodies, and both "la-las" and "woah-ohs."

A anecdote story about this song: the first time I heard it, I was on a road trip with my friend Jordyn to Missoula from Helena, where we were to drop a friend-of-a-friend off at the airport. During the drive (a two-hour jaunt, which isn't bad for Montana), Jordyn idly mentioned that, oh hey, there's a new Avril Lavigne single out. Being morbidly curious, I decided to impulse buy it from Amazon with my smartphone. We listened to it once, and thought it was no big deal. Then once turned into twice, turned into five times, turned into the whole damn afternoon. All the while, we chatted about the various garage sales and Christmases it took for Jordyn to collect her entire catalog of Disney Animated Features, and how I was working on my own DAF collection. It wasn't until much later that I realized that my friend-of-friend passenger's first impression of me consisted entirely of Disney VHS packaging jabber and a continuous drone of "All my life I've been good! But now!"

Unsurprisingly, I haven't heard from her since.

14) Ray Charles - "Mess Around"

Many of my Testermix song choices are informed by Rock Band (drink), but this one was informed by, of all things, Family Guy. Specifically, the Return of the Jedi parody episode "It's A Trap." Specifically, specifically, it's the portion where, during the battle of Endor portion, an AT-ST driver reenacts a scene from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles where John Candy mimics playing Ray Charles while driving. Making this the most disgustingly meta pick on the whole playlist, and I'm going to stop thinking about it right now.

Anyway, "Mess Around" is a fun, manic little track, replete with lots of early Motown-isms like a sax solo and Ray's own signature piano playing. Lord knows why it made the final cut of this mix, but I like how it acts as a break in the action; 2:39 worth of lively soul music, and a small reminder of watching Family Guy with friends. Could be worse.

15) Eddie Money - "Shakin'"

I've already written at length about "Shakin'" and how it helped fish me out of an emotional torpor, so here's a quick summation of why I love it: "Shakin'" is the most erotic-sounding song I've ever heard. The floor toms, the sexy guitar, and the slinky sonic trailing-off that hallmarks most of the verse all give the impression that something is going to happen, and that's not even including the lyrics ("It got so hot we had to pull to the side / and did some shakin' till the middle of the night"). Rawr pt. II.

16) Foo Fighters - "Everlong"

Out of all of my favorite songs to play on Rock Band (drink), "Everlong" is an absolute blast. My antipathy towards most 90's rock is well-established, but "Everlong" has pacing and energy like few other tracks from the decade of VH1 and Furbies. Particularly, the drum-playing, which has a delightful, challenging series of bass kicks and drum fills—small surprise, considering what a talented dude Dave Grohl is on drums.

I honestly don't have much to say about this song, other than the melody ramps up perfectly from verse to chorus, and the backing instrumentation creates a wall of sonic intensity that complements the vocals splendidly. It's powerful, it's uplifting, and it's hard for me to actively listen to this track and not get chills.

17) Chali 2na - "Don't Stop (Featuring Anthony Hamilton)"

When I was younger, one of my favorite hip-hop groups was Jurassic 5, a six-member conglomerate from Los Angeles specializing in old-school-mentality rhymes and attitude. Unfortunately, the group broke up sometime in 2007, but several ex-members still carry the torch in their solo work. Chali 2na had easily the most unique voice out of the group (describing his deep baritone as the "verbal Herman Munster"), making him an ideal choice for a solo career.

"Don't Stop" was featured heavily on Bozeman's local Top-40 station, which makes no sense to me because of Chali's independent, underground roots. Que sera, sera. Anyway, the breezy flute-loop beat wouldn't be out of place in a J5 song, and 2na's Marianas Trench-deep vocals provide a pleasant cushion for the ears. I may not get a new Jurassic 5 album any time soon, but as long as I can still purchase music from its members, I'll be able to get by.

18) Fall Out Boy - "G.I.N.A.S.F.S."

A bonus track from Fall Out Boy's third major release, Infinity on High, "G.I.N.A.S.F.S." went unheard by me for nearly three years, on account of my poor decision not to drive to Billings and purchase the album at Best Buy, where it was an exclusive song. Most of the nice things I usually say about Fall Out Boy apply here: Patrick Stump's ramrod-straight vocal delivery of Pete Wentz's clever-but-self-consciously-so lyrics, Joe Trohman's strong guitar-playing, and Andy Hurley's erratic, energetic druming (which manifests itself in this song through some intensely-satisfying snare triplets). A quasi-hidden gem that I was all-too-happy to dig up.

A side note: I looked it up, and apparently the song title is short for "Gay Is Not A Synonym For S@%#$y." Yep, that's Pete Wentz, alright.

19) The Material - "What Happens Next"

<mushy, personal stuff>

During the beginning of 2011, I left my steady job at a large company here in Bozeman. The office culture was great, and I was working alongside many excellent people, but I couldn't get into the actual work itself, and departed in the face of becoming slowly, steadily miserable with myself. Unfortunately, I didn't have much in the way of a back-up plan, and would flounder around for work for a long while afterwards.

It was during this time that I bought The Material's "What We Are," the debut full-length album from a San Diego band I'd followed and enjoyed since 2007. The Material's juxtaposition of aggro guitar and punchy drums with pretty, feminine-sounding vocals suited me well in my post-employment blues, particularly "What Happens Next," a forward-looking, bittersweet tune about changes and moving on. It fit, and so it's here. It's a reminder of how things were, and the hope that things would get better.

</mushy, personal stuff>

20) Man Down Medic - "Extra, Extra"

Man Down Medic is a small, four-part band from Washington that I saw at a show during my sophomore year of college. Their music is everything I don't like about the indie genre, yet they've rearranged most of the egregiously twee stuff and make it sound palatable. Kind of like how a Bloomin' Onion tastes good, despite still being a damned onion.

Nearly everything about "Extra, Extra" is slight but pleasant, from the lead singer's voice to the simple melodies of the verse and chorus. What draws me in the most, though, is the synth/violin hook, which I find mildly exhilarating. I also dig how the female singer harmonizes with the male one during the chorus, and the memories is conjures of when I traveled to different towns to watch shows. "Extra, Extra" is a slight downer, but that's why it's near the end of the mix and not further up.

21) The Who - "Won't Get Fooled Again"

I'll be honest: some of these picks can get pretty impulsive, and similar to what happened with "Shakin'," I chose this song because I happened to be tired while listening to the radio one night. In this case, I was making my way home from a late night Bell-ringing (I have no words in my defense), and I came in during the ginormous instrumental break that takes up almost the entire latter-half of the track. I like to end my mixes with large, sprawling songs (it gives the ending a sense of finality), and I basically decided then and there that "Won't Get Fooled Again" would make this mix.

Another fun note: the end track is almost invariably this first song sequenced once the final pool of songs has been decided on, and often one of the first songs put into said pool.

At any rate, election season's coming up, so I don't need to get into the song's not-subtle jab at politicians and the fun game of American and/or British politics; seriously, if even I can get it, it must be pretty apparent. Instead, I'll mention in passing the organ (a recurring theme for this mix) and extended guitar solo, and briefly note how satisfying that extended musical break is.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you all during my next write-up.

Unless (*puts on sunglasses*) you get mixed up.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Testermix 2011: Year in review

Loyal readers of Diversion 2.0 may remember my old series of mix CDs, titled Testermix. I used to make one for each season of the year (quarterly, if you will) as a means to keep track of passing time, capturing snapshots of my memories and mood through music. I also wrote about them on this very blog, partly because I wanted to explain my mentality for why I picked certain songs, but mostly because I needed something to write about.

Well, I continued to make Testermixes, though my write-ups slowed to a crawl. No longer. While it's a bit late to continue reminiscing about 2011, I figure reposting Testermix Spring '11 - Winter '11 will be a good chance to review what happened last year, and what I listened to. Plus, you folks get a phenomenal list of songs to track down on iTunes. Everyone wins!

Stay tuned during the coming weeks for various sonic flavors from the past four seasons. In the mean time, enjoy...

PS - You can thank Jordyn for reminding me to post my old mixes; she, too, is doing a mix series, and insinuated that I post these entirely more often than I do. You can follow her series at Popped Density.