December 9, 2003

Keys Strikes Again
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

When a British magazine recently asked Alicia Keys how her life had changed since her last album, she replied, "I'm definitely older." Fortunately, Keys proves herself more adept at songwriting than interviews on her impressive, soulful sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys.

Alicia Keys has quite a bit to live up to following her critically acclaimed debut, Songs in A Minor, which earned the 21-year-old singer more Grammys than she could carry. Not to be outdone by fellow mellow diva and reigning Grammy empress Norah Jones, Keys once again combines her amazing (though often self-referenced) talent as a classical pianist with her passionate voice and romantic lyrics to produce another beautiful album.

The first single on the album is the Kanye West-produced "You Don't Know My Name," which samples the Main Ingredient track "Let Me Prove My Love To You." The song's lush Motown sound explores the moment before speaking to someone that attracts your attention. The song features Keys as a waitress interested in one of her customers, played in the video by (former) rapper Mos Def, who has apparently abandoned hip-hop altogether in deference to his thespian career.

Keys takes it back to 1971 for a remake of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "If I Were Your Woman" and Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" for the creatively titled "If I Was Your Woman (Walk on By)." The song, along with "Samsonite Man" and "Diary," allow Keys' rolling piano to compliment her soaring voice, which she at times exaggerates until it borders ridiculously orgiastic levels.

Keys deviates from her usual romantic R&B ballads on "Wake Up," an unexpected criticism of the War on Terror. Two days after September 11, Keys told a reporter that she "saw lies" in the American flag, yet she posed for a magazine in front of a large flag three months later. "Wake Up" is sung from the perspective of a soldier's wife, pleading, "Bring my baby back home."

Timbaland brings more old school flavor to the album on "Heartburn," which sounds like a theme song to a 1970s blaxpoitation film. By working with more hip-hop producers, Keys' album lacks the consistency of her previous pure neo-soul album, yet she demonstrates greater versatility as an artist. She will hopefully never turn into just another R&B/hip-hop cross-over singer such as Ashanti or Mariah Carey, but her undeniable musical talent seems to indicate this will not occur in the near future.

So far, her collaborations with hip-hop artists have produced wonderful results, such as "Streets of New York." Unfortunately, the song, which is currently exploding on the mixtape circuit, was inexplicably left off the album at the last second, though it might be included as a bonus track on a reissue. The song samples the DJ Premier-produced hip hop classic "NY State Of Mind" from Nas' 1994 debut Illmatic and features new verses from Rakim and Nas.

Keys takes a few limited risks with her music and succeeds in producing another listenable album that, at times, borders on the beautiful. She better bring a backpack with her to the Grammys this year, and Norah better be practicing.
Stone stumbles over top 500
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

I would love to say that Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," featured in the current issue, reflects the extreme musical bias of the magazine and mainstream media in general. Yet, the sneaky editors managed to absolve themselves of any responsibility by assembling the list through the votes of musicians, producers, critics, and record executives. As a result, my only conclusion is that even musically knowledgeable individuals have bad taste. Rolling Stone admits, "If you don't like some of the choices, blame Britney." Spears was one of the voters.

Most disappointingly, the list offers very few surprises. Once again, it's obvious that by relying exclusively on popular opinion, one inevitably arrives at insipid results that do not offend nor inspire (does anyone remember the last presidential election?).

The Top 10 is dominated by four Beatles albums (including Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at No. 1), which is very difficult to argue against, yet I still would have been impressed to see a bit more creativity. As expected, the Beatles top the list with 11 albums, followed by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. I was surprised and impressed to see Rolling Stone recognize The Clash at No. 8 with London Calling and The Velvet Underground's self-titled debut at No. 13.

Many of my gripes with the list are based on personal taste and nothing more than sarcastic comments from the peanut gallery: Led Zeppelin's self-titled debut deserves to be much higher than #29 and much, much higher than John Lennon's first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, which is overrated at #22. Modern music was ignored in general, yet U2 gets the credit they deserve with The Joshua Tree at #26 and Achtung Baby at #62. Nonetheless, the three additional U2 albums on the list are superfluous and take up space that could be otherwise put to better use.

Still, these are entirely subjective personal preferences over which I entertain discussion and remain conscious of the fact that the polled voters very possibly understand more about the history of music than I do. These are disagreements of nuance; whether The Doors' eponymous debut or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is the better album is entirely up for debate, with either side capable of making a passionate and compelling case.

Some issues, on the other hand, are not up for debate. There are some mistakes and omissions that are so glaringly apparent that I can fathom no explanation other than drug-induced confusion or internal corruption (based on the sketchy polling method of tabulating votes "according to a weighted point system developed by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young"). Here, Rolling Stone, you reveal your fundamental misunderstanding of the last century of music:

Bruce Springsteen: The Boss undeniably commands a passionate following of devoted fans, and his music speaks profoundly to everyone raised in the fine state of New Jersey. Nevertheless, most of America is not from the Garden State and as a result does not suffer from the delusion that Springsteen deserves to be compared to actual musical geniuses such as Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Like other musicians with inexplicable cult followings, such as KISS and Jimmy Buffett, Springsteen brings undeniable energy to his live sets in order to compensate for his equally undeniable lack of substance. From the cheesy love ballads of Tunnel of Love to the easy-to-sell patriotism of Born in the USA, the eight Springsteen albums on the list prove that much of the self-described "eclectic and stellar panel of experts" must have allowed their 16-year-old daughters to answer the poll instead of bothering to do it themselves.

Rolling Stone's single worst decision was to allow Greatest Hits CDs to be considered on the list as albums. An album is an artistic creation with a specific identity, which ideally should result in an experience greater than the sum of its songs, and it deserves to devoured in its original form. Greatest Hits compilations, such as Bob Marley's Legend (No. 46), are for lazy fans who lack the energy and passion to listen to true albums such as Marley's Catch a Fire (No. 123) and Natty Dread (No. 182). From Buddy Holly's 20 Golden Hits (No. 92) to Hank Williams' 40 Greatest Hits, "Best Of" compilations are conceived in the boardroom of the record label, not the bedroom of the musician.

I expected hip-hop to remain disrespected and underrepresented on this list, which of course, it was. Despite 25 years of vibrant hip-hop culture, it remains largely misunderstood by mainstream media (as evident in Bill O'Reilly's absurd condemnation of rappers, rather than poverty or poor education, for causing violence in inner cities). Public Enemy earns the top hip-hop ranking at No. 48 with its their groundbreaking diatribe against the racist power structure in America, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Hip-hop subsequently disappears from the list again until No. 120: Run-DMC's Raising Hell. It was Run-DMC's collaboration with rock superstars Aerosmith for "Walk This Way" that established hip-hop's mainstream influence. The confluence of rock and rap ushered a large white fan base into hip-hop, as demonstrated by the two Beastie Boys albums and all three Eminem albums on the list. It's tempting to attribute the apparent preference for white emcees as an indication of America's racism, yet it is truly despite their race, and not because of it, that Eminem and the Beastie Boys have proven themselves deserving of their recognition.

And yet, the most deserving rapper in the history of hip-hop, recognized among his peers as one of the greatest of all time and respected as both a poet and revolutionary figure comparable to John Lennon, remains unrecognized. The absence of Tupac Shakur is not only conspicuous but bewildering. Both All Eyez on Me and Me Against the World deserve to replace any of the following insipid albums that inexplicable made the list:

No Doubt - No. 316 Rock Steady. Why would this made-for-TRL album rank higher than Tragic Kingdom? And why would No Doubt make the list instead of Sublime? Because Gwen is hot.

Madonna - No. 363 Ray of Light and No. 452 Music. At 40 years old, the Material Girl has better abs and a worse voice than she did at 20.

TLC - No. 377 CrazySexyCool. Just because "Waterfalls" will forever retain a place in your heart because it was playing at your favorite dance in junior high, it does not mean that TLC deserves to be anywhere near this list.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - No. 399 Californication. The band with the funkiest bassist in town gets dressed, sells out, and plays a few poppy radio hits for MTV.