“American Animals” review

One of my favorite things about art–and this applies to music, film, literature, and visual art–is when a new creation reminds me of previous works without feeling overly derivative. Today I saw a great example of this: Bart Layton’s film “American Animals.” I have to admit I had never heard of Layton before, but his movie (about a misguided book heist that actually happened in 2004) combines elements of some of my all-time favorites and still feels like an original work.

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Right off the bat, I thought about Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” another film that uses fourth-wall breaking interviews from real-life people involved in the events depicted on screen. These interjections provide more insight into the character’s (Should we call them “characters” if they are real people?) motivations and personalities, but Layton is smart enough to not abuse this technique so that the actors and the script can tell the story. Craig Gillespie accomplished a similar feat in “I, Tonya,” albeit with the same actors that appeared throughout the film.

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Allison Janney in “I, Tonya” (my favorite acting performance of 2017)

Even if these four young men were planning a heist instead of building a website, the whole “white guys on campus” atmosphere reminded me of David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” Other similarities with that masterful film include themes of peer pressure, youthful arrogance/overambition, upper-class entitlement, and an all-consuming desire to stand out.

Fincher also addressed this last topic in “Fight Club,” another film that I thought about mere minutes after “American Animals” started. These movies tell us that everyone from talented college kids to overworked middle-aged men is looking for a way to feel special and “alive,” and that poor judgment brought on by desperation and hopelessness leads to self-destructive behavior that also endangers innocent people.

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Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in “Fight Club”

Layton also deserves credit for cleverly acknowledging classic heist movies of the past. After all, it would be naive (at best) and presumptuous (at worst) for any director to assume that they’re creating an entirely original work within the heist genre. Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” are referenced directly in “American Animals,” and if you are unfamiliar with this story, those references alone should provide enough clues about what happens later.

However, the film that I consider the direct precursor to “American Animals” is Nick Cassavetes’ “Alpha Dog.” An immensely underrated movie about the kidnapping and murder of a 15-year boy, it’s also a story about real events and its perpetrators were also young men whose sense of invincibility and longing for an extravagant lifestyle made them inflict catastrophic damage on themselves and others.

Although the nature of Anton Yelchin’s and Barry Keoghan’s roles in these films is very different (one being the victim and one being the victimizer), both play confused, scared, and impressionable kids extremely effectively, and you could say they are the main reason behind “Alpha Dog’s” and “American Animals” success. The performances by the other young actors in both of these films (Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Justin Timberlake in “Alpha Dog” and Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson in “American Animals”) are also noteworthy, and after seeing them bring these people to life, it’s hard to imagine anybody else in those roles.

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Anton Yelchin and Justin Timberlake in “Alpha Dog”

I suppose all this makes “American Animals” the “Definitely Maybe” of cinema: a fresh, entertaining, and yes, original piece of work that also wears its influences on its sleeve and is completely unashamed of it. I doubt it will become as revered in the cinematic world as Oasis’ debut album is in the music world, but cinephiles everywhere will surely enjoy its references to the past and its engaging storytelling.

Verdict: 4/5 stars

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#CUsRise

As I’ve mentioned before, I moved from Boston to New York in September, but being the Celtics superfan that I am, I had to go to back to The Bean for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals to watch my beloved C’s take on the Cavs (and longtime Celtics rival LeBron James).

The Celtics are undefeated at home this postseason and continue to prove their doubters wrong. Really, how many times is Rachel Nichols going to talk about how counting them out is a mistake? One? Two? Three? A hundred? A thousandA million? Has Stephen A. Smith finally learned to respect them? Even Zach Lowe–one of ESPN’s most respected basketball writers–was forced to admit he thought the Celtics would lose to the Bucks and the Sixers in a lengthy piece about the team’s current playoff success. And don’t get me started on Charles Barkley and his constant dismissal of the team, which dates back to the KG-Pierce era (he predicted the Cavs would sweep the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs). This tendency to underestimate them only fuels both their players and their fans, so it was a no-brainer to hop on a bus to Boston to watch the game live at the TD Garden on Sunday.

I arrived at the arena about an hour before tip-off, and it was already packed. A few scattered LeBron jerseys were drowning in a sea of green, and the sense of anticipation in the air was very exciting. As if that weren’t enough, I bumped into former Celtics player and current TV analyst Brian Scalabrine, affectionately known as “The White Mamba” (a play on Kobe Bryant’s self-given nickname “The Black Mamba”) to fans.

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The White Mamba meets The Light Brown Mamba

The C’s hit the ground running from the first possession, an easy Jaylen Brown layup. I’ll spare you most of the gory details, but they took an early lead and never looked back. The Celtics were up 61-35 at the half, the largest first-half deficit in the alleged G.O.A.T.’s postseason career. They ended up winning by 25 (108-83), limiting LeBron to 15 points (on 5-16 shooting), and forcing him to commit seven turnovers.

The day before the game, Marcus Morris’ proclamations about his LeBron-stopping abilities became a big news story. Morris, a veteran player but a newcomer to the C’s this season, is an occasional starter whose primary role is to provide an offensive spark off the bench. He has never been known for his defense, so his words took a lot of people by surprise. Even notorious LeBron critic Skip Bayless said there was “no evidence” to support his claims! However, the record shows that Morris was not being overconfident. Long Story short: he scored 20 points on 7-12 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds, and limited LeBron to 5 points on 2-6 shooting when he defended him one-on-one.

Personally, this game was thrilling to watch for a number of reasons. Aside from the obvious–the Celtics playing without their two best players and still beating teams they’re supposed to lose to–being back in Boston felt right. I spent three wonderful years in this lovely city, and going to the TD Garden to watch the C’s play to the cheers of thousands of Celtics fans was evidently one of my favorite things to do in that time. It was even sweeter than usual on this occasion because they destroyed the team they lost to last year, the team with the guy who Celtics fans love to hate, and the team that so-called experts like Chris Broussard insisted they were no match for. But what really put the icing on the cake was that I was seated next to a family of four pouting Cavs fans for the whole game.

My LeBron-loving neighbors arrived inconspicuously a few minutes after I found my seat. I heard one of them speak and I could tell they were Puerto Rican, so I said that I was too and a cordial conversation ensued. It turns out that the oldest son in the family had graduated from Emerson a few hours earlier and his family decided to celebrate by going to the game. I congratulated the young man and added “let’s hope that the result of the game is favorable so you can keep the celebrations going,” to which he responded “you’re going to hate me, but…” and before he could finish, I knew what was coming. Many of my own friends are unapologetic LeBron supporters, so I am very familiar with the Puerto Rican LeBron worshipper. Of course, our friendship supersedes any disagreements we might have about sports, and the fact that a friendly Puerto Rican family ended up next to me was a pleasant turn of events, but all this just made me wish the Celtics would really take it to the Cavs. The last thing I wanted for my return to Boston was to have the team lose to LeBron of all people, and to hear fellow boricuas cheering for him every step of the way would have made it a million times worse. Thankfully, this didn’t happen, and I am not ashamed to say that the sad look on their faces brought an ear-to-ear smile to mine.

As for the aftermath? Needless to say, the atmosphere in the TD Garden was insane. “Let’s go Celtics” chants permeated through the arena as everyone exited the building, even as a more vulgar (and honestly, funnier) fan did his best to try to replace them with his own mantra of “Fuck the Ca-avs!”. Also unsurprisingly, the excuses from Cavs fans (and non-Celtics fan in general) came out quicker than you can say “LeBron traveled”:

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Pretty hilarious stuff considering that LeBron had one of his worst playoff games ever and that the Celtics’ active payroll is less than half of the Cavaliers’. I even read a comment online that said the Celtics had the next best five players in the series after LeBron, ranking Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris above Kevin Love. A statement that preposterous does not even warrant a response, but I’ll simply say that Love’s five All-Star appearances in his 10 years in the NBA are the same amount of All-Star appearances those five guys have accumulated in 23 combined NBA seasons. Never mind that the Cavs’ Kyle Korver is a former All-Star himself (and one of the best shooters of all time), that J.R. Smith is a former Sixth Man of the Year, or that Tristan Thompson has been one of the best offensive rebounders in basketball for years.

Where do the C’s go from here? Game 2 is tomorrow at the TD Garden, and I can’t wait. The Celtics expect LeBron to play better, Brad Stevens is far from complacent, and Celtic Nation is litAl Horford’s sister said it best: the team has accomplished a lot more than people expected, but there is still a long way to go. Believe in Boston!

I saw my favorite band play live

As soon as I heard “Dam that River,” I knew I had discovered a band whose music I would listen to for the rest of my life.

Even when compared to their highly creative 1990s peers, Alice in Chains is unique. Labeled “grunge” by the media but actually closer to heavy metal (What is grunge anyway?), most of their songs create a dark and moody atmosphere that provides the perfect sonic backdrop for lyrics that openly discuss depression, addiction, and loneliness. Although these traits might be their trademarks, they hardly define them. Main songwriter Jerry Cantrell (also lead guitarist and co-vocalist) possesses a keen melodic sense that translates just as effectively to mellow acoustic ballads as to powerful riff-driven rockers.

For all these reasons, they have always had a solid spot among my ten favorite rock groups. In fact, the ones that I’d rank above them have either broken up or are currently inactive, so you could say that AiC is my favorite band right now (Don’t get me started on the “reunited” Guns N’ Roses). That’s why when I found out they were coming to New York, I did not hesitate for a second and bought my ticket right away.

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Jerry Cantrell at the show last night

Before we get into the specifics of the show, let me provide a brief history of the band: They released their debut album in 1990 (yes, before Nirvana’s “Nevermind”) and it sounded like nothing else at the time. Hair metal dominated mainstream rock and thrash flourished in the underground, but AiC’s grinding, intense hard rock did not fit in either of these categories (Perhaps because of this, they actually opened for both Poison and Slayer. What other band can say something like that?). They released two more full-length studio albums (in 1992 and 1995) and two EPs (in 1992 and 1994) before singer Layne Staley’s health deteriorated past the point of no return in 1996. Although they never officially broke up, after Staley’s death in 2002 it seemed that they were done for good. Enter William DuVall, a talented singer and guitar player who frequently collaborated with Jerry Cantrell. In 2006, he became AiC’s lead singer and they have released two very well-received albums since (with a third one on the way).

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William DuVall and Sean Kinney

Fast forward to May 8, 2018, and I am as giddy as can be in the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. Like I said before, AiC is not only one of my favorite bands, but they’re known as an excellent live band and they also just released a great new song, so I was hyped.

They opened their set with the haunting “Love, Hate, Love,” the song DuVall sang for the rest of the band when he auditioned for the lead singer role. To DuVall’s credit, he doesn’t imitate Staley at all, which I believe has been a big factor in their recent success. He does a great job with Layne’s songs by making them his own, but it’s hard not to miss Staley just a little bit. Before his heroin addiction got the best of him, he was a mesmerizingly powerful and expressive vocalist with a singular tone that spawned legions of imitators and absolutely no equals.

That being said, the band is currently at its best when DuVall and Cantrell are harmonizing. Perhaps the most distinctive element of AiC’s sound was the vocal interplay between Staley and Cantrell, and DuVall’s distinct flavor makes the old songs sound fresh and the new ones sound timeless.

Many fans have lamented that Cantrell doesn’t let DuVall sing by himself enough in their new material, and while there is definitely some truth to this, when the two of them harmonize, it sounds like the Alice in Chains we’ve all come to love. Check out their fantastic take on the underrated “No Excuses“:

I want to take this opportunity to point out that I don’t really like to record much at shows. I’ll take pictures here and there (like the ones you saw above), but I’m old enough to remember what rock concerts were like before the arrival of smartphones, and it’s 100% true that the audience was more “in the moment” back then. Still, I love souvenirs, so I usually record fragments of a few songs so I can watch them when I get nostalgic.

There’s a thought process that goes into what songs I decide to record, and I knew “No Excuses” would be ideal. First of all, it’s a slower tune, so no one would be moshing around me and messing up my video (I foolishly attempted to record “We Die Young,” but had to stop after exactly 9 seconds for this very reason.). Also, even though it was a pretty successful single for the band, it came from their EP “Jar of Flies” and not from any of their three full-length albums. This means that a lot of casual fans have never heard it, so the number of people singing along and ruining the recording would be kept to a minimum (You can still hear a few of them, but I think it’s a pretty good video.). And last but not least, it’s one of my favorite Alice in Chains songs. It’s definitely one of their most melodic and “upbeat,” if you could say such a thing about an AiC track.

Speaking of souvenirs, I managed to snag a pick that was thrown into the audience. It’s a Mike Inez signature bass pick, which was great because I love playing with heavier picks and because what stood out to me the most from the show was how thick and full Inez’ bass sounded. All in all, it was an unforgettable night and an extraordinary concertgoing experience.

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Sometimes I think about how sad it is that John Lennon died 7 years before I was born, or that I was in elementary school when Oasis was in their prime, or that it looks like the real GNR will never play another show…but then I remember going to see Aerosmith before they went on hiatus. I remember that I saw Chris Cornell, and sadly, many of his fans will never get that chance. I remember that I was at Rage Against the Machine’s last concert. Now I can add Alice in Chains to that list, and I feel like the most privileged little brat on the planet. In the words of Nas: life is good!

The Comeback Kids

How does this Celtics team keep winning? It truly defies logic. It’s bad enough that Gordon Hayward–their big offseason acquisition; the All-Star signed to a max contract–was ruled out for the season after playing all of five minutes (Charles Barkley declared the Celtics’ season “over” at that point), but losing Kyrie Irving as well–perennial All-Star, 2015 NBA champion, and 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP–should have been the final nail in the Celtics’ coffin. Many analysts predicted that they would lose in the first round of the playoffs to the seventh-seeded Milwaukee Bucks (Hi, Chuck!), but they were proven wrong as Terry Rozier emerged from backup point guard to bonafide stud (more on that later).

Not everyone picked against the C’s in that series, but what no one could have predicted was that they would defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the first two games of their East semifinals matchup. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are superstars in the making whose games have been respectively compared to Wilt Chamberlain‘s and LeBron James‘. A team without their two best players should have no business beating them (Imagine a Philly team without Simmons and Embiid. How many games do you think they’d win? That’s what the Celtics are going through right now without Irving and Hayward.), let alone consecutively, let alone after playing without maybe their third-best player in one of those games, and let alone after being down by 22 in the second quarter of the other game.

That last point might shock a lot of people, but if you’ve been following the C’s this season, you didn’t even blink an eye when it happened. The story of this team since day 1 has been overcoming adversity at the most opportune times. This chart tells you all you need to know:

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Notice that Philly appears twice on the list? Their January 11 matchup (played in London) also featured a 22-point Celtics comeback.

Of course, multiple factors are responsible for the C’s winning ways. Brad Stevens has been, in my opinion, the best coach in the NBA for years, and it’s great to see that he’s finally getting his props. Hayward’s absence made rookie Jayson Tatum a pivotal player on this team, and his performance has exceeded all expectations. Fun fact: the third pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Tatum outscored both of Philly’s rookies (both of whom were #1 picks) by 10 points in game one and by 20 points in game two. Yes, Jayson Tatum has scored 30 more points in two games than Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz combined. Al Horford’s offensive versatility, defensive awareness, team-first mentality, and clutch performances are immensely valuable (and he’s still underrated), and Jaylen Brown’s continued progression has not gone unnoticed.

However, no one has been more impressive (and perhaps more important) than Terry Rozier. Filling in for Kyrie Irving is no easy task, especially when you’re a third-year player with lifetime averages of 7.7 points per game, 2.1 assists per game, and 37.7% shooting (compare that to Irving’s 22, 5.5, and 46.2%). Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe, an 8-year veteran who has averaged 19 points and 6 assists per game over the past five seasons, disrespected the hell out of Rozier when he claimed he didn’t know who he was after the second game of their series (both of them Celtics victories, and both of them 23-point performances by Rozier). Unfazed, Rozier stepped his game up even more when it mattered the most: he sent the Bucks fishing with a 26-point, 9-assist performance in the seventh game of that series.

Scary Terry has kept up his high level of play against the Sixers, and he’s probably the biggest reason why they’re up 2-0 against a team that was favored over them. He’s averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 61% from three over these two games, and if that doesn’t impress you enough, then this surely will:

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It’s simply unheard of for anyone to be that skillful with the ball (especially during the playoffs, and especially in the fourth quarter), let alone a point guard – and a backup point guard at that.

I have no idea how the rest of these playoffs will go but believe me, I will be watching every single second of every Celtics game (not like I haven’t done that for the past 9 years, but still). What I do know is this: next season will be a special one for Celtics fans and basketball fans in general. Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving playing alongside an even more experienced Jaylen Brown, a Jayson Tatum who’s not a rookie anymore, a Terry Rozier who is playing like an All-Star, and the always effective Al Horford? I. Can’t. Wait.

 

Back to the essence

I moved to New York on a whim in September of last year. I had no intentions of leaving Boston, but my lease was up and I could not find an apartment after searching for weeks. I tried my luck on Craigslist and found a place in Brooklyn almost seconds after logging on, so I had to get on that immediately. The nearly spur-of-the-moment decision (and my need to find a job ASAP) meant that I needed a few weeks to settle in, and by that point, it was too cold to play basketball outside.

That’s why it took me–the basketball junkie, the hoop head, the Journalist Who Bleeds Green, TITO FUCKIN’ YUCA–eight months to finally hit up an NYC basketball court. The weather was uncharacteristically warm today, so I knew this was it. I would finally be able to lose myself on the blacktop (as long as my jumpers were falling; but thankfully, they always seem to 🙂 ).

Luckily for me, the nearest playground sported a classic New York City outdoor court: concrete floors, steel backboards, netless rims, and Puerto Rican dudes playing dominos right by the entrance. Oh, and who can forget the background subway noise? #quintessential

Revisiting “Renegades”

Ah, the cover album. Few things divide music fans as much as these. And you know what? I can’t blame them. So many artists record covers for the wrong reasons (pressure from their label, a desperate attempt for a hit, laziness) that some skepticism is allowed whenever musicians release an entire record devoid of original material.

However, even the biggest opponent of cover albums has to give props to Rage Against the Machine’s “Renegades.” Released almost two months after the band officially broke up, I believe it might be the most underrated cover album of all time. Certainly, the fact that they weren’t even a band anymore contributed to it being overlooked at the time, but there’s no excuse for music lovers to sleep on it almost 20 years later. I dare anyone out there to find a collection of cover songs recorded by one artist that manages to sound as fresh as “Renegades,” especially when it takes as many risks.

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First things first: Even though other musicians mixed rap and rock before Rage, they were the first real rap-rock band—the only ones who blended both genres effectively and created a new style of music that many tried to imitate and that no one even came close to replicating. Once we understand this, we need to acknowledge that only a band this groundbreaking, forward-thinking, and bold would even consider making an album that draws from old-school and golden age New York hip-hop, folk-rock, 90s West Coast gangsta rap, and pretty much all kinds of punk (proto, post, and hardcore). Even more impressive than their ambition is their execution; their ability to make every track sound like a new Rage song is nothing short of astounding.

To fully understand this achievement, try creating a playlist with the original versions of these songs. I promise you, it would make absolutely no sense. Bob Dylan, Minor Threat, and EPMD on the same record? Bruce Springsteen right after Cypress Hill? Not even the hippest of all hipsters could come up with that shit.

Of course, for a band as musically and ethnically diverse as Rage, it was a no-brainer to play songs by all their favorite musicians. In their world, all these artists coexisted peacefully—different genres be damned.

Vocalist Zack de la Rocha, a half-white, half-Chicano California kid (who breakdanced and fronted a hardcore punk band before joining Rage), is, in my opinion, the most talented rapper/singer of all time (only Lauryn Hill can compete with him for that title) and one of the most intense and charismatic frontmen in the history of rock. His unrivaled passion makes you believe every word that comes out of his mouth, even when the message of a specific song appears contradictory to the next one (“they can be fuckin’ wit’ other niggas’ shit, but they can’t be fuckin’ wit’ mine” on Volume 10’s “Pistol Grip Pump” and “wherever there’s a cop beating a guy, wherever a hungry newborn baby cries, wherever there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air, look for me, Ma; I’ll be there” on Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”).

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Zack & Lauryn

Guitarist Tom Morello’s role in making these songs sound like brand new compositions cannot be stressed enough. He laces every song with memorable and powerful riffs whose melodies are completely unrelated to anything that was found on the original tracks. Go ahead; try to resist the urge to headbang during “Maggie’s Farm” (Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” just so you know) instrumental coda. It ain’t gonna be easy.

While Zack and Tom’s immense talent is obvious and undeniable, bassist Tim Commerford’s and drummer Brad Wilk’s contributions are just as valuable. The sheer force of their playing really comes through on the rap covers, especially in Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” A weaker rhythm section would not be able to make an entirely new arrangement of a classic song work (especially one from a different genre), but Tim and Brad helped make this cover one of Rage’s most popular songs.

Rage Against the Machine was the ultimate alternative band. Never afraid to stand up for their beliefs or to experiment with their art, their music and their political stances inspired millions. It’s fitting that right before they broke up, they recorded a tribute to the artists that inspired them.

The Next 10

Three years ago, I wrote a 4,600-word post about my 50 favorite albums. While 36 months might not be a long time for most people, it’s a very long time for music lovers. Our tastes are constantly evolving as we discover new music and go through experiences that make us connect more intensely with certain artists whose songs just didn’t impact us as deeply at a previous time in our lives. That’s why I decided to revisit my list and add ten new entries. Some of these records nearly made the cut the first time around, others have grown on me since then, and others might not have even been out in 2014. The format will be the same as last time: albums will be grouped thematically and in chronological order, and no double albums are allowed. Enjoy!

The Satirists

  • Jamsha – Cafrería Épica
  • Füete Billēte – Música De Capsulón

Anyone who has ever visited a major U.S. city (or subscribed to Netflix) knows that this country is not short on comedians. But those of us who were raised somewhere else will always need a bit of our native country’s humor in our lives, and sometimes music can do the trick even better than comedy. As a Puerto Rican living in the United States, no one fills this void for me better than Jamsha and Füete Billēte.

Jamsha is a multi-talented rapper, producer, and director who grew up during the height of reggaeton’s popularity in Puerto Rico, but felt disappointed by the direction the genre was taking in the late 2000s. No longer a highly sexualized, underground style of music that mixed Jamaican dancehall and American rap, reggaeton became an international phenomenon by watering itself down with pop, dance, and electronica influences. Its most famous artists (Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Wisin & Yandel) strayed from their roots and were now rapping and singing about “love” instead of sex. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this shift, but in practice, it came off as fake and contrived. Anyone with half a brain could tell that these artists had not “evolved” at all; they simply chose to abandon subject matter that was guaranteed to limit their international appeal and commercial success. Their lyrics are just as exploitative and misogynistic as before, but now they can fly under the radar by being sugar-coated with cheap verbal innuendos and poppy musical arrangements. It is an ongoing, sinister way of duping listeners into believing that they are reformed, mature individuals.

Jamsha was having none of this, and he decided to take the genre back to its roots. Like American rock band Steel Panther (whose over-the-top antics are both a send-up of and a tribute to 80s hair metal), his lyrics are extremely sexually explicit, as his shtick is taking the sound and themes of early reggaeton to an extreme by removing any possible traces of subtlety. Most people are aware of the joke, but his hilarious songs and idiosyncratic videos (which he writes, directs, and edits) are so well-crafted that it’s impossible not to sing and dance along (if you can somehow avoid laughing hysterically.)

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Jamsha – Cafrería épica (“Epic Vulgarity”)

After spending most of the 2000s in Ciencia Fixión—one of Puerto Rico’s most respected underground rap crews—Dr. Who? and Don Severo Canta Claro rebranded themselves “Pepper Kilo” and “Baby Johnson” and reemerged in 2012 as Füete Billēte, a trap trio that brilliantly spoofed southern hip-hop’s clichéd rhymes about sex, drugs, and crime in a uniquely Puerto Rican way. That they managed to win the hearts of hip-hop heads and hipsters alike is hardly a surprising feat when you consider their previous musical history: aside from Ciencia Fixión, Severo collaborated with Calle 13 and Intifada, and Dr. Who? was a member of indie rock band Dávila 666.

Anyone vaguely familiar with these guys knows they are not pimps and drug dealers, but they perform with such conviction that regardless of how absurd their boasts get, uninformed listeners will surely believe their outlandish tales come from experience. Sadly, “Musica de capsulón” was not a mainstream success, but Füete Billēte’s ingenious raps and elaborate production paved the way for the popular “trap en español” movement currently dominated by artists with weaker rapping skills (Jon Z) and/or poppier sensibilities (Bad Bunny).

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Füete Billēte – Música de capsulón (“Hotbox Music”)

Even though I legitimately love Jamsha’s and Füete Billēte’s music, perhaps the main reason why I cherish these two albums so much is that they remind me of home when I’m away. While studying abroad in Madrid, Jamsha’s songs and videos provided a very Puerto Rican form of entertainment that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I’ll also never forget visiting Los Angeles last year and driving through Hollywood with the bass from Füete Billēte’s “Iron Mic” rattling the fuck out of my friend’s car. Blasting this on the Sunset Strip with the windows down was my own little way of letting the people in L.A. know that I was there, that Puerto Rico was there. This might seem trivial at best and juvenile at worst, but when you live in a foreign country, anything that reminds you of where you come from is incredibly valuable.

The Minimalists

  • The La’s
  • Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Few things are as American as rock & roll, but any objective and rational lover of popular music has to admit that the greatest rock bands of all time come from England. From The Beatles and Pink Floyd all the way to Blur and Radiohead, British rockers just seem to push the envelope more in terms of sonic exploration.

However, not all British bands are obsessed with musical experimentation. Some prefer to strip rock & roll down to the bare essentials (guitar, bass, and drums), and to be honest, my personal tastes lean more towards a straightforward, minimalistic style. This is why The La’s and the Arctic Monkeys’ classic debuts are among my all-time favorites.

With the exception of the haunting yet touching closer “Looking Glass,” every song on “The La’s” is under three minutes long (and impossibly catchy). Their jangle pop style can be traced back to fellow Liverpudlians The Beatles’ mid-1960s work, but Lee Mavers’ distinctive voice and aggressive strumming of his acoustic guitar were so original that they seemed to have no precedent.

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Mavers is a tortured recluse that has never released another record because of his dissatisfaction with the sound of his band’s lone album. He is likely the only person on the planet who feels that way, because “The La’s” received universal critical acclaim and influenced countless musicians (Noel Gallagher has spoken extensively about his love of the group, and American band Sixpence None The Richer scored a hit with their cover of “There She Goes”).

About 15 years later, a group of teenagers from Sheffield became the fastest-selling British band ever with their debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.” A sort of concept album about being young and going out, the Arctic Monkeys actually sounded like a much older band due to their technical precision and lyrical maturity (“Mardy Bum’s” breakdown of a relationship gone sour is almost Rubber Soul-ian in its attention to detail).

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All grown up with zits and all.

Musically, the album combines The Jam and the Buzzcocks’ pop-punk energy with early Oasis’ swagger and British lyrical themes, but the crisp production and inventive guitar interplay of American band The Strokes are the key elements of their sound. The Arctic Monkeys have since moved away from this style, but this record rightfully remains their most revered creation.

The Hard Rock Classics (Part II)

  • Van Halen
  • AC/DC – Powerage

Of course, any conversation about bands that grind rock & roll down to its core would be incomplete without mentioning AC/DC, the quintessential bare-bones rock group. Everyone and their grandmother has been exposed to “Back in Black” at some point in their lives, but not enough people are familiar with the masterpiece that is “Powerage.”  Malcolm Young himself called it their most underrated record and the one that “real pure rock & roll guys” respect the most. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also Keith Richards’ favorite AC/DC album.

Why would Malcolm say that? A brief overview of the tracklist will tell you all you need to know. “Sin City” is Joe Perry’s favorite AC/DC song. Eddie Van Halen called “Down Payment Blues’” guitar riff one of his all-time favorites. “Gone Shootin’” is Brian Johnson’s favorite Bon Scott-era AC/DC song and “Beavis and Butt-Head” creator Mike Judge based the theme music for his show on its unique riff. The intensity of Scott’s venomous vocals on “Up To My Neck In You” is only matched by Angus Young’s ripping 83-second guitar solo (the best one he ever recorded, in my opinion). “Riff Raff” is possibly AC/DC’s fastest song, and album closer “Kicked In The Teeth” is one their most aggressive. Opener “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation” is the most commercial track on here, but it’s still rawer than subsequent hits like “Highway To Hell.”

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#TeamBon all day.

Now that I mentioned Eddie Van Halen, let’s talk about his own band’s groundbreaking self-titled debut album. Angus Young himself called Eddie “an innovator like Hendrix,” and frankly, anyone who disagrees has no idea what they’re talking about. There was nothing that sounded remotely similar to his guitar work in 1978; everything from his “brown sound” and blazing speed to his finger tapping and “dive bombs” spawned legions of imitators and changed rock music forever.

In addition to Eddie’s innovations, the songs themselves are terrific, and they are probably the main reason why this record has stood the test of time. Let’s face it; if its sole claim to fame was Eddie’s guitar playing, “Van Halen” would have only been a success with music nerds. Instead, it is a certified Diamond album that is consistently ranked as one of the greatest of all time.

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Eddie Van Halen in 1978.

The Weirdos

  • Edan – Primitive Plus
  • Murs – 3:16 – The 9th Edition

Other than the fact that he produced my favorite song on Mr. Lif’s “I Phantom,” I didn’t know anything about Edan in the summer of 2004. That’s when I stumbled upon his album “Primitive Plus” while browsing the rap section of a small record store in New York, and buying it was one of the best spur-of-the-moment decisions I have ever made.

Edan is a hip-hop triple threat: a rapper, producer, and DJ whose multitasking ability makes him a kind of hip-hop Paul McCartney. Everything about him is unconventional: he’s a white guy from Boston who usually wears a tie during his live performances (in which he raps and cuts records simultaneously), a young guy who worships old-school and golden era rap (and this record is full of references to past MCs), and a satirist who masterfully pokes fun at the most ridiculous aspects of a musical genre he clearly adores.

Edan’s production–which somehow sounds both retro and futuristic at the same time–is certainly top-notch, but his rapping is what sets this record apart. It blows my mind that he never appears on “best white rappers ever” lists, because few MCs of any race can match his vocabulary, wit, and passion…

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I’d take him over Eminem any day.

…which brings me to Murs, a 20-year rap veteran who has released almost 30 albums and EPs.

One of the most creative MCs you’ll ever hear (as well as one of the best live performers in rap), his topical diversity is second to none, as his first collaborative album with producer 9th Wonder demonstrates. Just peep the songs “The Pain,” in which he laments his lack of romantic success (which he attributes to being “more Coldplay than I am Ice-T”), and “Freak These Tales,” in which he wistfully and joyfully talks about his various sexual partners while avoiding the hypermasculine persona that lamentably permeates through hip-hop culture.

Murs’ self-deprecating humor is one of his most distinguishing characteristics, but he’s also an incisive social critic (“And This Is For…”), a gifted storyteller (“Walk Like A Man”), and an introspective thinker fully aware of his numerous contradictions. All these attributes make him come across as an extremely relatable, fully-fleshed out human, something that not too many rappers in the mid-2000s were particularly keen on.

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Murs and me in Boston last year.

The Musical

  • Hamilton

Ok, so I broke my own rule about double albums. So what? “Hamilton” is so good–scratch that…LIFE-CHANGING–that I left the Heartbreakers’ “L.A.M.F.” out of this list just so it could take up two entries (And since I’ve given serious thought to having those iconic letters tattooed on my arm, I’d say that’s a big deal).

Raised on a steady diet of hip-hop and show tunes, Nuyorican playwright, rapper, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda created a revolutionary work of art that condensed the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (and the early history of the United States) in 46 highly memorable songs. Originally conceived as a hip-hop concept album, Miranda debuted the show’s mesmerizing opener at the White House in 2009 and spent the next six years turning it into a play that would win 11 Tonys, 8 Drama Desk awards, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer.

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Oh, and did I mention that its main cast members are POCs? That’s pretty revolutionary in itself (especially considering the play’s subject matter).

The sheer amount of emotions that one is sure to experience while listening to “Hamilton” is overwhelming in the best possible way. You’ll learn a lot about yourself as you go through an orphaned immigrant‘s struggles to change his new country for the better while navigating around a complicated love trianglefighting in a war, debating the merits of the financial system he created, falling victim to sexual temptation, dealing with a close friend’s betrayallosing his son under tragic circumstances, and having to accept his own premature death.

Many critics have called it a “hip-hop musical,” and while its rap credentials are certainly solid (the album was executive produced by Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots and it’s the first cast recording of a Broadway to musical to top the Billboard rap charts), this moniker is severely limiting. Just like in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s personal life, a vast array of musical styles coexist peacefully with hip-hop in his play (sometimes in the same song). You want Beatlesque pop? You got it. How about boogie-woogie? It’s here, too. Have a thing for early 2000s R&B? Lin’s got you. And of course, like any good musical, it is rife with dramatic singer showcases whose grandiosity somehow doesn’t make them any less moving.

In 1999, the New York Times called HBO series “The Sopranos” “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.” I agree with this statement, and I’m going to go ahead and declare “Hamilton” the greatest work of American popular culture since “The Sopranos.” Incredibly original, deep, funny, and inspiring, it truly did change the game.

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I’m a fan.