Turn and Face the Strange: Remembering David Bowie





(From The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976, dir. Nicolas Roeg.)

David Bowie represented a lot of things to me. He wrote some of the best songs of the last half-century, covering so many themes I wouldn’t know where to begin, although I particularly like the songs related to outer space (either literally or metaphorically) and to the pressures of fame. He was an actor so weirdly gifted that he could play an alien (see GIFs above), a vampire (The Hunger) and Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ) without anyone thinking twice about it. He was an artist who painted, sculpted and worked in different kinds of digital media. Whatever Bowie did, I always knew it would be worth my time.

It’s hard for me to put every emotion I have about David Bowie’s music into words. He recorded so much and I feel, at my young age, that I still know too little – about his career, about how to write a good piece of music criticism, about how to eulogize someone who means so much to you and passes away quite suddenly. So in some of the cases below, I won’t say anything (or very little) except to quote a passage from the lyrics. I’m sure that David Bowie’s own writing will ultimately do a better job at convincing you of his talent than I can. I picked sixteen musical selections – it’s 2016, so that was the first number that came to me – but if I had not set that limit for myself, the list could have gone on ad infinitum.

1. “Space Oddity” (on album Space Oddity, 1969) – “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do…” What do you do with a song about an interstellar journey made by a character named Major Tom? Not to mention a song that has a Stylophone solo (starting at the 2:42 mark)? It’s amazing to me that this track successfully launched David Bowie’s career, rather than remaining a weird one-hit-wonder novelty song from the psychedelic era.

2. “Changes” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) – “Turn and face the strange…” The opening track of one of the most important albums of my teenage years, Hunky Dory. This song can, and has been, interpreted as Bowie’s artistic manifesto.

3. “Oh! You Pretty Things” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) (TV appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972) – “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior…”

4. “Life on Mars?” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) (music video from 1973) – “But the film is a saddening bore/For she’s lived it ten times or more…” On Bowie’s 69th birthday this past Friday, I was listening to this song most of all. I told whoever would listen to me that this was one of the greatest songs ever, no question. It is the high water mark of a career filled with numerous milestones, rule-breaking and boundary-pushing. Everyday human life is the most outrageous, unbelievable yet captivating spectacle out of all the entertainment forms in our world, and this song takes note of that truth quite eloquently. If you dare ask me to name the single best David Bowie song, this is the one I choose.

5. “Starman” (on album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972) – “There’s a starman waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds…” Just last month I was in a theater at the Museum of Modern Art, watching The Martian in 3D, and I was pleased to hear “Starman” pop up in the movie. After many years of loving the song when heard through headphones, it had an even more exciting resonance in the theater.

6. “Rebel Rebel” (on album Diamond Dogs, 1974) – “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl/Hey babe, your hair’s alright/Hey babe, let’s go out tonight…” One of the definitive examples of 70s glam rock, featuring an unforgettable guitar riff played by Bowie himself (as opposed to being recorded by any of the other musicians he often worked with, like Mick Ronson). A small anecdote: I once tried to convince a high school friend of mine to listen to “Rebel Rebel” and “Life on Mars?”; I don’t think she ever bothered with the former and when she finally got around to listening to the latter (it took about a month before she made time for it), she said that “it was alright.” (Swear to God.) Hey babe, your song’s alright!

7. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” (on album Low, 1977) – “Every chance, every chance that I take/I take it on the road/Those kilometres and the red lights/I was always looking left and right…” I once titled an essay written in a college creative writing class after this song.

8. “‘Heroes'” (on album “Heroes,” 1977) – “Though nothing will drive them away/We can beat them, just for one day/We can be heroes, just for one day…” Another of Bowie’s greatest songs. I think one of my primary associations with this song, even though it was years after I fell in love with it, was as the anthem for the UK athletes at the London Olympics in 2012.



And now, moving forward into the 1980s…

9. “Ashes to Ashes” (on album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980) – “My mama said, ‘To get things done/You’d better not mess with Major Tom…'” Bowie plunges into the MTV era in style, saying goodbye to some of his old ways in order to experiment with new musical methods. I associate this song with the British show of the same name, much as I do with “Life on Mars?” and its counterpart show.

10. “Under Pressure” (David Bowie & Queen) (1981 single; on Queen album Hot Space, 1982) – “‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word/And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And love dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves…” A collaboration for the ages.

11. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” (Cat People soundtrack, 1982) (used in scene from film Inglourious Basterds, 2009, dir. Quentin Tarantino) – “Don’t you know my name/Well, you’ve been so long/And I’ve been putting out fire/With gasoline!” This Giorgio Moroder-produced, synthesizer-heavy pop-rock song was given new life when Tarantino used it in a significant scene in Inglourious Basterds. Mélanie Laurent’s character, who was forced to flee the scene of her family’s murder at the hands of Nazis, has relocated to Paris and, under her new alias, operates a movie theater in Paris. When a German soldier develops a crush on her, Laurent uses this new bond to her advantage and crafts a radical strategy for revenge: when her cinema is chosen as the venue for the red-carpet premiere of a Nazi propaganda film (with Hitler, Goebbels, and many other heads of the Third Reich in attendance), Laurent makes plans to blow her building to smithereens by setting hundreds of film cans’ worth of celluloid on fire. Even though the use of the David Bowie scene, when Laurent puts on her makeup (or, more accurately, her war paint) to prepare for the big show, is anachronistic, the lyrics and the mood of the song make perfect sense in Tarantino’s context.

12. “Let’s Dance” (on album Let’s Dance, 1983) – “Let’s sway under the moonlight, the serious moonlight…” Isn’t it terrific how Bowie could transform from persona to persona? I dig the suits from this era. Also, this song was a #1 hit in both the UK and the US, so that’s pretty cool.


Speaking of “serious moonlight,” here is my sole David Bowie shirt, and it is a treasured possession. Originally bought and worn by my aunt, this tee has gone through some rough times – it once was covered in white paint after I accidentally collided with a wet wall – but little mishaps couldn’t ever keep a good shirt down. For a long time I have associated the article of clothing with good luck. Just two months ago, when I was getting ready to do a presentation in a graduate school class, I told two of my friends in that class that “everything is going to be OK because I’m wearing my lucky David Bowie shirt.” And indeed that day was blessed with a terrific teaching experience.

13. “Modern Love” (on album Let’s Dance, 1983) (used in scene from film Mauvais Sang, 1986, dir. Leos Carax) – “There’s no sign of life It’s just the power to charm I’m lying in the rain But I never wave bye-bye/But I try/I try…” The first Bowie song I can ever remember hearing, and I loved it immediately. In the clip from the French film Mauvais Sang, the “magic” of the radio gives Denis Lavant the opportunity to express his feelings for Juliette Binoche physically, turning his emotions into kinetic energy. When I saw the movie at the Film Forum in the summer of 2014, this scene was a standout because of how great it was to see Carax’s images paired with the sounds of “Modern Love” pouring from the theater’s speakers.

14. Guest appearance on British TV show “Extras” (2006) – “See his pug-nosed face/Pug, pug, pug, pug…” This ranks as one of my favorite television moments of the last decade. Ricky Gervais’s character, Andy Millman, has a chance encounter with David Bowie at a London pub and it does not go as well as Andy would have liked. The results: comic gold.

15. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (on album The Next Day, 2013) – “Stars are never sleeping/Dead ones and the living…” From what I recall, The Next Day was an album that came out of nowhere. It was David Bowie’s first since 2003, and after a decade I suppose most people thought he had retired. You can imagine how pleased I was that the songs were so good, particularly “Stars,” in which Bowie contemplates the poisonous nature of celebrity and media saturation. Plus Tilda Swinton co-starred in the music video, which led to this great photo of the two of them.

16. “Lazarus” (on album Blackstar, 2016) – “This way or no way/You know I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Now, ain’t that just like me?” I watched this music video last Friday, part of my annual ritual of listening to my favorite David Bowie albums and songs on his birthday. Like most people, I didn’t imagine that the video referred to Bowie’s actual state of health; I thought it was a fascinating artistic statement but not a representation of real sickness. (I figured he looked older and more worn because everyone ages, right?) As a reviewer wrote on iTunes, after having listened to previews of Blackstar in November: “Bowie will be a synonym of eternal change in music, a continuous hunt of proposals and new ways in sound.” I’m not entirely sure what “hunt of proposals” means, but I think the overall idea is the right one. He was defiant to the last, turning life into art and vice versa. And even when he was seriously ill, as we know now, he kept his off-kilter sense of humor. Vale, Starman.

I’ll close with one of my favorite photos of David Bowie (from back in the day) and two recent pictures – among the last ever taken of Bowie, I think – from a promotional photoshoot for Blackstar (photos by Jimmy King, courtesy of this Daily Mail article).




Academy Awards 2016: Nomination Predictions

Except for three categories (documentary short, animated short, live action short), here are my predictions for the Oscar nominations, will be announced tomorrow morning. I expect to get some wrong: maybe Alicia Vikander will snag a nomination for The Danish Girl; some old hands and relative newcomers could sneak into the Best Supporting Actor category, including Paul Dano (Love & Mercy), nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay (Room), Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) and Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight); Bridge of Spies could get an Original Screenplay nod; I could be totally wrong about the contenders for Best Production Design (Brooklyn and The Danish Girl could edge out some competitors); Scandinavian features The Fencer (Finland) and A War (Denmark) might earn nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite all these possibilities, here is my final-decision list.

P.S. It doesn’t look like too many women-directed films are contenders this year; the only four that I have marked down are Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson), Meru (co-directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi), Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) and The Prophet (two of the ten animated-film-segment directors are Joan C. Gratz and Nina Paley). This is disappointing, seeing as how this year’s Independent Spirit Award nominations have recognized Advantageous (Jennifer Phang), Among the Believers (co-directed by Mohammed Naqvi and Hemal Trivedi), The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller), Girlhood (Céline Sciamma), Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson), Incorruptible (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi), Meadowland (Reed Morano), Mississippi Grind (co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck), Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Chloé Zhao), (T)ERROR (co-directed by Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe) and A Woman Like Me (co-directed by Elizabeth Giamatti and the late Alex Sichel).

Best Picture

  1. The Big Short
  2. Bridge of Spies
  3. Brooklyn
  4. Carol
  5. Mad Max: Fury Road
  6. The Martian
  7. The Revenant
  8. Room
  9. Spotlight
  10. Straight Outta Compton


Best Director

  1. Todd Haynes (Carol)
  2. George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
  3. Ridley Scott (The Martian)
  4. Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)
  5. Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)


Best Actor

  1. Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)
  2. Matt Damon (The Martian)
  3. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
  4. Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
  5. Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)


Best Actress

  1. Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
  2. Cate Blanchett (Carol)
  3. Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
  4. Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)
  5. Brie Larson (Room)


Best Supporting Actor

  1. Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation)
  2. Christian Bale (The Big Short)
  3. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)
  4. Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
  5. Michael Shannon (99 Homes)


Best Supporting Actress

  1. Rooney Mara (Carol)
  2. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)
  3. Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)
  4. Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)
  5. Helen Mirren (Trumbo)


Best Original Screenplay

  1. Alex Garland (Ex Machina)
  2. Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight)
  3. Josh Cooley, Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve (Inside Out)
  4. Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer (Spotlight)
  5. Andrea Berloff, Jonathan Herman, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus (Straight Outta Compton)


Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. Adam McKay, Charles Randolph (The Big Short)
  2. Phyllis Nagy (Carol)
  3. Drew Goddard (The Martian)
  4. Emma Donoghue (Room)
  5. Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs)


Best Cinematography

  1. Edward Lachman (Carol)
  2. Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight)
  3. John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road)
  4. Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)
  5. Roger Deakins (Sicario)


Best Costume Design

  1. Odile Dicks-Mireaux (Brooklyn)
  2. Sandy Powell (Carol)
  3. Sandy Powell (Cinderella)
  4. Paco Delgado (The Danish Girl)
  5. Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road)


Best Hair & Makeup

  1. Black Mass
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. The Revenant


Best Production Design

  1. Bridge of Spies
  2. Carol
  3. Mad Max: Fury Road
  4. The Martian
  5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Best Editing

  1. Hank Corwin (The Big Short)
  2. Margaret Sixel (Mad Max: Fury Road)
  3. Pietro Scalia (The Martian)
  4. Stephen Mirrione (The Revenant)
  5. Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)


Best Sound Editing

  1. The Hateful Eight
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. The Martian
  4. The Revenant
  5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Best Sound Mixing

  1. Bridge of Spies
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. The Martian
  4. The Revenant
  5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Best Visual Effects

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. The Martian
  3. The Revenant
  4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  5. The Walk


Best Original Score

  1. Thomas Newman (Bridge of Spies)
  2. Carter Burwell (Carol)
  3. Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight)
  4. Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario)
  5. John Williams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)


Best Original Song

  1. “Earned It” (Fifty Shades of Grey)
  2. “See You Again” (Furious 7)
  3. “Til It Happens To You” (The Hunting Ground)
  4. “The Light That Never Fails” (Meru)
  5. “Simple Song #3” (Youth)


Best Animated Feature Film

  1. Anomalisa
  2. Inside Out
  3. The Peanuts Movie
  4. The Prophet
  5. Shaun the Sheep Movie


Best Foreign Language Film

  1. The Brand New Testament (Belgium)
  2. Mustang (France)
  3. Son of Saul (Hungary)
  4. Theeb (Jordan)
  5. Viva (Ireland)


Best Documentary Feature

  1. Amy
  2. Cartel Land
  3. He Named Me Malala
  4. Listen to Me Marlon
  5. The Look of Silence

Five by Frank


To celebrate the centennial anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth today, here are five of my favorite recordings by Ol’ Blue Eyes. They are presented without comment; the songs and arrangements speak for themselves.

“Paradise” (from the album The Voice of Frank Sinatra, 1946)

“Stella by Starlight” (1947 single)

“Love Walked In” (1947, from a CBS live radio broadcast celebrating the music of George Gershwin)

“Where Are You?” (from the album Where Are You?, 1957)

“The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)” (from the album All Alone, 1962)

As it is proclaimed in Barry Levinson’s film Diner (1982):


Ten Reasons Why You Should See My New Favorite Cult Classic: Tapeheads (1988)

1. Tapeheads (1988, dir. Bill Fishman), starring John Cusack and Tim Robbins. Shouldn’t those two stars be reason enough? Cusack and Robbins play Ivan Alexeev and Josh Tager respectively, the two-man crew of the music video production team “The Video Aces.” The film is a satire of MTV and pop culture, kind of like what Wayne’s World would try to do a few years later except way weirder and more fun in Tapeheads.

2. There is bad 80s dancing. A lot of it.

3. The Video Aces create an amazingly ridiculous (and ridiculously amazing) commercial for Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, anthropomorphized food included.

4. The local bar’s sobriety test: saying the alphabet backwards, skipping the vowels and including the sign language for each letter.

5. The film avoids the usual cinematic clichés of melodramatic buildup to romantic subplots: when two characters (Robbins and Katy Boyer) have sex for the first time, Cusack films it and invites a calypso band and random dancing people into the room. (It is the shared living room, after all.)

6. There are a ton of cameos: Don Cornelius, host/creator of Soul Train, as Fuzzball Records president Mo Fuzz; “Weird Al” Yankovic; Connie Stevens; Ted Nugent; Michael Nesmith (The Monkees); Doug E. Fresh; Coati Mundi; King Cotton (as chicken-and-waffles tycoon Roscoe); even an uncredited Courtney Love shows up as a dominatrix.

7. The Video Aces’ first real music video assignment is to film the Swedish band Cube-Squared performing their song “Baby Doll.” The scene plays out as a gloriously entertaining how-to for how not to behave on a production set. Also, the vocals and music were actually recorded by American band Devo.

8. Stiv Bators and his band, The Lords of the New Church, play Goth band “The Blender Children.” The Video Aces’ attempt to make a video for the group does not go as planned.

9. Junior Walker (of Junior Walker & the All Stars) and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) play the gods to whom the Video Aces have prayed since childhood, the R&B duo “The Swanky Modes.”

10. Jello Biafra, lead singer of the punk rock band Dead Kennedys, plays an FBI agent (the one without glasses). Pretty excellent. If you’re not convinced that Tapeheads is totally worth seeing, then maybe you don’t have a funny bone. Or maybe you’ve never heard of any of the people who appear in the film, which is definitely your loss. But I assure you that Tapeheads would be a great teaching tool!

Filmmaker Firsts: Tim Robbins

#12: Bob Roberts (1992) – dir. Tim Robbins

This satire tells the story of a young “rebel” Republican whose run for a Pennsylvania Senate seat is marred by allegations, scandals and assassination attempts. As screenwriter, director, lead actor and singer/performer/writer of original music, Tim Robbins creates a folksinging politico who is reminiscent of Lee Atwater and George Wallace while singing Woody Guthrie-type ballads that lambast liberals.

Roberts’ main platform is that the 1960s are over and that radicals should be eliminated. Throughout the film there are references made to Bob Dylan, mocking the iconography of his career. Roberts is all things to all people: self-made Wall Street millionaire, champion of the common people and vehemently opposed to actual important issues like racism and women’s rights.

The campaign trail is headed by manager Lukas Hart III, played by Alan Rickman. While I enjoy Rickman in most anything, here he seems to be straining to play the role. As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review: “Mr. Rickman is not a subtle actor. The minute he comes on the screen, he is so arrogant, shifty and Mephistophelean that it seems likely someone would have checked out his connections before it actually happens.” Rickman isn’t even in the film long enough to make much of an impression when he does show up.

Roberts has some nutty followers, including Jack Black in his big-screen debut. The film has a seemingly endless number of well-known actors and singers making appearances: Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise, Brian Murray, Harry Lennix, Kelly Willis, David Strathairn, James Spader, Pamela Reed, Helen Hunt, Peter Gallagher, Lynne Thigpen, Susan Sarandon, Fred Ward, Fisher Stevens, John Cusack, Bob Balaban, etc. It’s fun watching for those faces. I just wish there had been more of a focus on some of those characters since many of them are wasted in their too-brief scenes.

Of the film’s many supporting roles I think my favorite is Gore Vidal as the incumbent senator, Roberts’ Democrat opponent who is excellently named Brickley Paiste. Vidal is one of the film’s voices of reason, quite effective in his witty little jabs at the Bob Roberts character. Like other characters, Paiste has far too little screen time. In fact, the whole movie feels too short for the story it wants to tell. The ending feels abrupt, not bringing resolution to the narrative. I appreciate all the work that Tim Robbins put into his first directorial feature, but I suspect that his subsequent films, Dead Man Walking (1995) and Cradle Will Rock (1999), are better crafted.

Pop Culture Never Dies

Twenty years ago today, MTV made its live report that Kurt Cobain had died. An entire generation – or more than one? I don’t know how often generations start up – has come of age since then. Cobain’s own daughter, whom the media still thinks about and follows around, will be 22 years old in a few months, the same age as me and many other fans of her father’s music, people who were not alive during Nirvana’s existence. It’s a little jarring to think that it has been a whole two decades since 1994, but you wouldn’t really know it to judge by the number of Nirvana shirts you still see worn by young people (myself included). There are many reasons why Life released an entire magazine devoted to the twentieth anniversary of Cobain’s death, but the main one is regret – we wish he were here so that the articles didn’t have to be written. Maybe he’s gone where the cold wind blows, to quote the Lead Belly song, but pop culture hasn’t forgotten Kurt Cobain and probably won’t for a very long time.

1991: A Music Primer

I don’t write about music as often as I should, given its significance in my life. Although I have never used the Billboard charts as a measuring stick for determining the worth of one musician over another, I do recognize the usefulness of tabulating that kind of data in order to understand the trends that happen in pop culture. I like to think of 1991 as a watershed year, the turning point when the (not uniformly, mind you, but largely) self-confident, brightly colored styles of the 1980s began to turn inward and the kind of music that became popular was somehow more personal, sometimes more introspective.

This is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of 80s music with redeeming social import or which bore the mark of individual identity. (That statement would be especially hard to back up when you consider the staying power of U2.) Rather, the takeaway is that certain music gained popularity and there is perhaps something to be learned from why that music meant so much to the masses at that particular juncture in time.

Let’s take a look at ten songs (and their accompanying music videos), specifically in the rock genre. If there are songs here that you’re not familiar with, I hope my mentioning them serves as a springboard for you to get acquainted with those artists. P.S. Ads sometimes get in the way of watching videos, so if you want you can click the “YouTube” button in the bottom right corner of each video to watch it on that site instead.

Queen, “Innuendo” – 1991 was the last year of frontman Freddie Mercury’s life and therefore Queen’s final year. I don’t know if I can be more concise and articulate here than I was when I wrote this Freddie Mercury post back in September, so all I’ll say is that “Innuendo,” from the album of the same title, is a great song and it’s a worthy addition to Queen’s legacy. It started 1991 off with a bang, conveying a powerful message with the equally powerful impact of rock music, even “rockier” here than ever before.

R.E.M., “Losing My Religion” – I learned two years ago that this is one song that does not immediately translate to “enjoyment” at parties. At the end-of-semester party held for one of my film history classes, I was allowed to pick the music to be played from an iPod. My selection: the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Nena’s “99 Luftballons” and this R.E.M. classic. The class didn’t really get into it, but I stand by my choice. It’s a beautiful song that hooks you from the moment it starts until its last fading mandolin note.

School of Fish, “3 Strange Days” – Perhaps a little obscure compared to most of these other artists, School of Fish occupies a special place in my heart. I discovered them when I was around 13 years old and I was lucky enough to see this music video for “3 Strange Days” on TV, playing on VH1 Classic. Lead singer Josh Clayton-Felt had such a pure, clear tone, one which can be heard on their eponymous debut album (brilliant, I promise you), on School of Fish’s 1993 single “Take Me Anywhere” and in Clayton-Felt’s brief solo career (on cuts like 1996’s “Window” and the lovely “Waiting to Be” from the posthumous album Spirit Touches Ground). Clayton-Felt passed away from cancer in 2000, but the School of Fish’s 1991 record remains on constant rotation for me.

Material Issue, “Diane” – Power pop had its heyday in the 1970s, but this Chicago trio brought it back in the first half of the 90s. Their 1991 debut album, International Pop Overthrow, updated power pop in an alternative rock mode and brought them some success on the Modern Rock charts, most notably with the not-quite-hit “Valerie Loves Me.” “Diane,” which was almost as (admittedly only slightly) popular, is short and joyful. It’s an uncomplicated love song that should have been an instant classic. The fickle public just never caught on in a big way. Like School of Fish, Material Issue cannot fully regroup; tragically, frontman Jim Ellison committed suicide in 1996. Still, the sweet simplicity in the band’s music continues to reverberate. Other tracks from their debut album (my personal favorite, “Very First Lie”) and later singles (“What Girls Want,” a cover of the Green Pajamas’ “Kim the Waitress”) prove how talented these guys were.

Metallica, “Enter Sandman” – Perhaps the first real game changer in terms of hard rock turning into hit records. Had there ever been a song quite so heavy as “Sandman” to do so well on the general music charts? It reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, which is impressive for a heavy metal band. I think the success speaks as much to the general music interests of listeners at the time as it does to the high quality of the music.

Pearl Jam, “Alive” – Say what you will about Eddie Vedder’s almost laughably imitable voice, but you have to admit that this music video presents a band that doesn’t look or sound like Bon Jovi or Mötley Crüe. The clothing reminds me of a line from the novel The Underminer, during a chapter that takes place in the early 90s: “If you knew this scene you’d always really dress down.”

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – And now we arrive at the epic, the song that became iconic for a generation. Kurt Cobain’s chorus is a perfect morsel of postmodern thought: “With the lights off, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us.” The immediacy of those lyrics has not dulled in the twenty-plus years since the song’s debut on radio in August 1991. Reaching as high as #1 on the Modern Rock chart and #6 on the Hot 100, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the anthemic high note of Generation X.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Give It Away” – Filmed here in lustrous black-and-white by director Stéphane Sednaoui, the Chili Peppers never looked or sounded better. I’m biased as to my feelings for them since they’re my favorite functioning band (sorry to the Beatles and Who members currently living), but they’ve got staying power. Even now, with 3/4 of the band in their early fifties, they’re as awesome as ever. Fun fact: “Give It Away” actually beat “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the Pearl Jam song “Jeremy” (easily my favorite Pearl Jam song of all time) for the 1993 Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Guns N’ Roses, “Don’t Cry” – I wouldn’t say that this power ballad breaks any new musical ground, but it’s nice to hear Axl Rose hold back a little in the vocal department. The mega-hit album Appetite for Destruction (1987) proved that Rose can screech like nobody’s business, but “Don’t Cry” is admirable in how it allows him to balance both tender restraint and his trademark wild soaring into high registers. It’s bittersweet seeing the late Shannon Hoon as G N’ R’s backup singer, though, harmonizing so wonderfully with Rose. (In 1992-1993, Hoon’s band, Blind Melon, released a song and video that I consider among the best of the best, “No Rain.”) It’s really more of a duet than backup.

Michael Jackson, “Black or White” – This isn’t rock in the traditional sense, certainly not in the way that some other singles from the Dangerous album are (particularly “Give In to Me,” which features Guns N’ Roses’ own axeman, Slash). The song relies on a catchy guitar riff, though, a driving force that the song couldn’t exist without. You can see how rock music had influenced the King of Pop, making its way into the hits on the pop charts.