Archive forJuly, 2005

OPEN UP MY EAGER EYES, MY CYANIDE GIRL

    What makes a song worthy of my annual Summer compilation? Old or new, it just has to sound summery.

Even though I put it out every July or so, I’ve been thinking my annual Summer compilation should really be called Spring.

Summer 2005, CMM Records

Most years, many of the songs peaked months before the mercury topped 90˚. I’ve been known to put songs on there that date back to the previous fall. Summer 2000 even contained songs that were two years old. (Meh…it was a lame year.)

Of course, I never intended to capture only songs blanketing the radio in the middle of July. I’m trying to capture an ineffable, pop-centric summer mood. If a song feels like it’s already so five minutes ago – like “Hey Ya!” last summer or “Candy Shop” this summer – it doesn’t make my CD. But if a song’s months old and still sounds like summer to me (and my local radio station hasn’t let it die), it’s worthy. A slow-building Killers hit that came out last Christmas? A Jay-Z mashup that came out last Halloween? Sure, why not?

Summer 2005 is my ninth annual compilation and ’s fourth, given to her just a few days before her birthday. This brings up the other interesting question: Who’s this CD for, anyway? Nominally, Summer has been a gift for my wife for as long as I’ve known her. But as long as I’ve been making these CDs, my S.O. has not been the only beneficiary. I used to give it to friends I thought might like it. And starting last year, now that I’m blogging, I’ve been getting unabashed requests from friends, coworkers, mothers-in-law.

No, seriously: asked for a progress report on this CD back around Memorial Day.

As I reported here recently, 2005 has turned out to be a particularly good year for singles. So much so that I discarded probably a dozen song candidates to get this year’s mix to fit on an 80-minute CD. In recent years, I’ve made a longer version of the mix for my iPod, with bonus tracks. Happily, Emily now has an iPod of her own. So this year, she got the mix two ways: on disc and as a playlist. This keeps her in a prime position among Summer recipients – only she gets the super-double-secret iPod mix.

Well, okay, maybe not so secret. Here’s what made the official Summer 2005 CD, plus a rundown of the bonus cuts. And I won’t need Robert Novak or Karl Rove to leak them.

  • The Killers, “Mr. Brightside” – The sleeper hit of 2005, the Las Vegas band’s second single was underrated from the start. “Somebody Told Me” was such a radio juggernaut last fall that no one (least of all me) expected the Killers to top it. But “Brightside” is the Empire Strikes Back to “Somebody”’s Star Wars, the sequel that moves past the original into something approaching art. With its chiming guitars, galloping beat and tower of synths – this one’s for you, Robert Smith – “Mr. Brightside” is bracing and gorgeous. “Brightside” hit alt-rock radio last winter, crossed over to Top 40 in the spring, peaked in Billboard’s Top 10 in June and even outlasted the Killers’ third single on the charts. A summer, winter, and everything-in-between single, “Mr. Brightside” is both breezy and monolithic at the same time.
  • The Game and 50 Cent, “Hate It or Love It” – In case you’ve lost track, the East Coast–West Coast feud was off, then on, then off again and is now on again. These two label-mates, G-Unit brothers and Dr. Dre protégés are back to beefing, and…aaah, who cares? Fitty’s latest album is the laziest shit ever (”Candy Shop” wasn’t even an entendre and a half), and Game’s album is fine but nothing Eminem couldn’t rap circles around. But like Alien and Predator, putting these two underachievers together brings out their best. “Hate It or Love It” rides a wistful, effortless groove that plays the Back In Tha Day card like no hit since “They Reminisce Over You.” The rhymes are on-point, the beat cool, Fitty’s and especially Game’s flow is effortless, and the track, courtesy of Dre, is old-soul brilliance. Oh, and go download the Mary J. Blige remix; it’s not quite as good, but it shows how indelible Dre’s track is.
  • Beck, “Girl” – “Summer” girl? “Sun-eyed” girl? What is Beck singing about? Maybe we don’t want to know. Mr. Hansen’s breeziest hit since “Tropicalia” (from the moment Guero was released, you knew this was going to be the summer single) is, upon closer inspection, apparently about idolizing a girl enough to want to kill her: “And I know I’m gonna steal her life / She doesn’t even know it’s wrong / And you know I’m gonna make her die / Take her where her soul belongs.” Several lyrics websites guess at the key word in the chorus, but the most believable interpretation has Beck calling her “My cyanide girl,” which would make this the sneakiest, prettiest song about crush-icide ever. It’s as if Beck heard the Beatles’ lovelorn song called “Girl” and decided to write one of his own to avenge John Lennon. Not like Beck’s songs are ever really about anything….
  • Green Day, “Holiday” – If you’d have told me last year at this time that these aging punks were going to put out their first chart-topping album ever and score actual Top 40 pop hits…well, I might not have believed you, but I would’ve been rooting for them. Emily and I are fans of Green Day’s previous album, the underrated, relatively weak-selling Warning (2000), and were both enjoying it when we met in the winter of 2001. That spring, I saw GD at the 5,000-capacity Hammerstein Ballroom (without Emily; we’d just started dating). And this year? Emily and I are seeing them on 1 September – at Giants friggin’ Stadium. Ugh, did I say I was happy these guys were on the radio again?! As Billie Joe himself would say, wake me when September ends.
  • My Chemical Romance, “Helena (So Long and Good Night)” – I’m not making this up: Emily has described her musical taste as that of “a teenage boy.” Her slightly guilty love of MCR this year – she’s been playing the hell out of both “Helena” and its predecessor “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” – is the latest evidence. Not that teenage girls aren’t also cooing over the gothed-out Gerard Way, but this smashing love song, to a Hot Topic girl who’s shuffled off her morbid coil, is adenoidal, teen-boy angst set to music. We both love the video, complete with pallbearers, a funeral mass and Bob Fosse–gone-vampire choreography. Bela Lugosi’s undead.
  • Ben Folds, “Landed” – As a Ben Folds fan, I’m having a strange experience with Songs for Silverman. I hate it – or at least I’m deeply bored by it. That’s a new one! Folds’s attempt to move away from the goofy boogie of his earlier hits toward a mature, contemplative style is understandable but terminal. (I now understand why Elton John evolved from “Your Song” to “Bennie and the Jets,” not the other way around.) Silverman is the weakest Folds album since the Five’s Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and like that record, it is partly redeemed by a first-rate single. “Landed” fulfills the promise of Folds’s maturity move, with his most flat-out beautiful melody since “Brick.” Folds is entitled to a naff album now and then, but if he’d released a record without at least one good song I’d really be worried.
  • Kaiser Chiefs, “I Predict a Riot” – The New Wave/Postpunk revival of 2004–05 has seen about a dozen buzz bands picking out a piece of 1979-era rock and building a whole career on it. The Killers picked the Cure and Gary Numan, Franz Ferdinand picked Gang of Four, and the Kaiser Chiefs chose the Jam. As shameless mod-punk revivialism goes, “I Predict a Riot” more than redeems itself with a precision melody, and wry lyrics: what does it mean when “the people get lairy“? Who knows? Paul Weller couldn’t have written it any better.
  • Amerie, “1 Thing” – I’ve already said more than enough about this wildly infectious single on this blog. (Twice.) But I struggled with whether to put “1 Thing” on this CD, not because it’s old – this single was a February release but sounds made for July – but because it’s a hard fit. Rich Harrison’s mad production, with its beat leaping out of nowhere, is hard to juxtapose with almost any song, especially as rock-heavy a mix as this. But somehow, coming after the Kaiser Chiefs’ slap-happy archpunk, “1 Thing” sounds right.
  • Annie, “Heartbeat” – When you see something like the Annie phenomenon, you understand why pop fans make fun of indie-rock snobs, and why indie-rock snobs say pop fans have no taste. In her native Norway, Anne Lilia Berge-Strand is a Top 40 act, with her blonde good looks and Kylie-worthy hooks. In America, she’d have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for the cool-seeking hipsters at Pitchfork, who hyped her European album Anniemal as underrated, underground pop and named “Heartbeat” their Top Single of 2004. To their credit, those ornery Pitchforkers praise Annie for being true to “pop” without needing to be “popular.” To their double credit, Pitchfork’s fanaticism may have single-handedly gotten Anniemal released in the States (on Atlantic Records, just last month). But still: why hipsters regard Annie as Found Art and Kylie as That Damned Aussie Tart is sort of beyond me. Oh, and “Heartbeat”: gorgeous, brilliant, a breath of fresh air. Makes me nostalgic for the mid-’90s, if that makes any sense.
  • The Bravery, “An Honest Mistake” – Forget Fitty and Game: the beef of the year isn’t about gats and blunts, it’s about mousse and eyeliner. The Killers’ Brandon Flowers has been talking shit about the Bravery all year. (MTV News labels this deathmatch the “Rock Sissyfight.”) Flowers not only called the Bravery second-rate poseurs, he called out singer Sam Endicott and his keyboardist for having once fronted…gasp! a ska band. Ooh, SNAP! Not to take sides, but Flowers is probably right that the Killers’ success helped the Bravery win a major-label deal. (Whether the Bravery realigned their sound with new-wave dance-rock because of the Killers is an open quesiton…but then, I don’t believe Stone Temple Pilots went grunge before Nirvana, either.) And the Killers released a better album than the Bravery. On the other hand, The Bravery is at least half-fun and nicely produced, and as I learned firsthand, they can cut it live. (Speaking of girlymen, here’s ’s review of the show we saw.) “An Honest Mistake” is an ace single, with a beat New Order could’ve programmed and Endicott’s charming rockabilly-by-way-of–Depeche Mode warbling. “I fuck up and say these things out loud!” mumbles Endicott. Don’t we all.
  • Garbage, “Why Do You Love Me?” – Personal factoid: Garbage is the biggest-selling band I ever reviewed as a rock critic. In 1995, I volunteered to write up Garbage for CMJ, on the strength of Butch Vig’s participation (that’s how big a Nirvana geek I am: I’m even curious about what their producers do on the side). I gave the album a good review – it’s clever and snarky, a total product of its time – but I never expected them to become a decade-old, multiplatinum act that would outlast Nirvana by a factor of two. Neither did they; recent interviews with singer Shirley Manson reveal that they broke up more than once. (Like they needed all four members! Honestly, besides Manson and Vig, can you name any other member of Garbage?) “Why Do You Love Me?” is their best single since the days of “Vow” and “Stupid Girl.” I especially love Manson’s whispered, self-denigrating confession at the bridge. The single peaked on the radio months ago, but I needed a catchy, piledriving song here, to close “Side” 1. (Even now, I still think of albums and CD mixes as having sides. Does anyone else, or am I just old?)
  • Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone” – Indisputably one of the greatest singles of the year, Clarkson’s Swedish-produced, faux-indie masterpiece might just take some critics’ prizes at the end of the year. (You heard it here first: I predict #1 or #2 in Pazz & Jop.) I’ve been listening to this song for so long now that, since I first wrote about it in April, I now have new favorite parts! Right at the beginning, the first time she actually says, quietly, Since you been gone…, kind of trailing off and singing the note kind of flat – oh, man, this is what bliss sounds like. This song ranks as the biggest artist-redefiner since Weezer dropped Pinkerton.
  • Interpol, “Evil” – The slowest-building “hit” of the year, “Evil” appeared on Interpol’s Antics last September and spent more than half a year crawling onto modern rock radio. Of all the songs I put on this mix, this was Emily’s favorite new discovery, since she knew little about Interpol and found the song’s odd key, meter and structure refreshing. “Evil” is also a pretty important single for Interpol fans, since it reinvents their droney goth-rock sound (read: it sounds the least like Joy Division of any of their songs) and proves to doubters and haters that they’re more than a one-trick pony. Also, I love songs with cool titles that aren’t mentioned in the song. “Evil”: now that’s just a good song title.
  • Weezer, “This Is Such a Pity” – Unlike the many aging songs I’m showcasing here, this song is a gut pick for me – I’m actually choosing Weezer’s next single for them. Flip on your local K-Rock right now, and you’ll probably hear “Beverly Hills,” Weezer’s most successful radio hit ever and possibly their dumbest. Pick up a magazine, and the review of Make Believe will probably mention the even dopier “We Are All on Drugs.” (Man, nobody got the new Weezer album right: my man Sheffield at Rolling Stone lost his mind and gave it four stars; those Pitchfork twerps gave it a zero. Props to Blender, with their 2 1/2–star rating: ding-ding-ding, exactly right!) Both “Hills” and “Drugs” are catchy and boppy, but neither one holds a candle to “This Is Such a Pity,” Rivers Cuomo’s homage to ’80s new-wave power-pop (hey, everybody else is doing it). Great synth hook, awesome whiny vocal from Rivers. If this isn’t on the radio by year’s end, I’ll eat my hat.
  • Gorillaz, “Feel Good Inc.” – Can I take a victory lap? Two years ago, on Summer 2003, I threw on Caesars’ “Jerk It Out,” on the strength of a beer commercial. Beyond said suds ad, the song went nowhere, but my friends and I were jamming to it all summer. Flash forward to January 2005, and Apple introduces its iPod Shuffle with one of their eye-popping commercials, and what’s playing? “Jerk It Out”! Now everybody’s acting like Caesars are this hot new act, and I’m all like, they’re SO 2003. For their summer ad campaign, Apple wisely co-opted the new single by Gorillaz, featuring a brain-sticking rap by hip-hop veterans De La Soul. The iPod ad, featuring some cool rollerskaters, is actually better than Gorillaz’s own video for the song. As for the song itself, my biggest Summer fan, , has called this “the song of the summer, even if the lyrics make no sense. Or maybe they’re too deep for me. More likely they make no sense.”
  • Snoop Dogg featuring Justin Timberlake and Charlie Wilson, “Signs” – I try to avoid failed singles, but I’m still mystified by this one. Snoop, coming off his biggest hit ever (”Drop It Like It’s Hot”)? The Neptunes, back to produce, like they did on 2003’s smash “Beautiful”? The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson, back doing that nasal-funk thang a la “Beautiful”? Old-school horns? And, godDAMN, J-Lake doing his “Cry Me a River” falsetto? This was supposed to be a friggin’ smash! But “Signs” dropped off the charts – like it’s cold, not like it’s hot – weeks ago. Which, to me, means one of two things: Snoop’s gone to the Neptunes well one too many times, or Timberlake is over. Whatever, I like this better than “Beautiful,” and sometimes summer is about failed romances.
  • The White Stripes, “My Doorbell” – As with Weezer, I’m thinking ahead here, but I’m not really going out on a limb. The first single from Get Behind Me Satan was the fuzz-rocker “Blue Orchid,” and it’s a solid Top 10 hit. But there’s already huge buzz among radio programmers and Stripes fans that “My Doorbell” is gonna be a single and, probably, a hit; reportedly, college radio has already jumped on it. To be fair, boogaloo piano is a much tougher sale on the radio these days than fuzz guitar, but the Stripes have broken the mold enough in the last four years, and “My Doorbell” is the brain-stickiest song Jack White has written since “Fell in Love with a Girl.” Plus nobody does THUMP! THUD-THUD THUMP! THUD-THUD better than Meg. It’s her specialty.
  • Jay-Z and Linkin Park, “Numb / Encore” – I had no intention of including this rather old hit until three weeks ago, when Jigga and the wiggas blew the roof off Live 8 in Philadelphia, outclassing almost every performer on the bill. (Black Eyed Peas, y’all can sit the fuck down.) This rare example of a label-authorized, artist-created mash-up was the brainchild of MTV, who looked to tap into the online phenomenon of bootleg remixes by asking two huge acts to mash themselves up. The shocker: it worked brilliantly. Jay’s “Encore” didn’t need much help, but it wasn’t quite the best song on 2003’s The Black Album; and Linkin Park, for their part, earned major cred to go along with their massive sales. (I must admit that Linkin’s singles have been getting better and smarter as they’ve aged; almost every radio hit from Meteora was good.) Listening to “Numb / Encore,” I’m reminded of the most successful authorized bootleg in history: DNA featuring Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” which, similarly, took a well-defined white act and gave her soul.
  • Queens of the Stone Age, “Little Sister”Thok! Thok! Thok! Thok! Can’t you just picture Will Ferrell playing that cowbell? In a May episode of Saturday Night Live, host Ferrell jumped up on stage with Queens, the night’s musical guest, to reprise his immortal “More Cowbell” character, complete with ‘fro and chest-hair-sprouting shirt. I doubt Queens’ Josh Homme pictured the comic possibilities of cowbell when he recorded “Little Sister,” but it’s all I can think of now when I hear it. And that’s not a bad association: Ferrell’s cowbell guy has now played on only two songs in rock history: “Little Sister,” and Blue Öyster Cult’s immortal “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
  • Kanye West, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” – My friend Brian recently theorized that 2005, a good year for rock, has been especially weak for hip-hop: Fitty’s new CD sucks, most of the best acts are m.i.a., and the most interesting black-music phenomenon of the year is R. Kelly’s deranged “Trapped in the Closet.” This just puts more pressure on Kanye West for his soon-to-drop sophomore album. As if he wasn’t feeling enough pressure already, following up the most acclaimed debut of the decade, he now has to save rap. (Personally, I think the Common album, produced by Kanye, has kept hip-hop’s flame burning nicely, but that’s not much to hang a year on.) The most current hit on this Summer mix, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” is a tour de force on several levels, showcasing West’s versatility as a producer (the James Bond sample is a new idea for him, now that he’s exhausted the sped-up soul sample thing), as a writer and, for the first time, as a rapper. Kanye has always been a capable lyricist, but “DfSL” is his first single where I’m really blown away by his acuity, wordplay and flow. And his reinterpretation of Andre 3000’s “Forever? For ever ever?” – turning it from comedy to accusation – is breathtaking.
  • System of a Down, “B.Y.O.B.” – Ah, yes, these Armenian-American metalheads: kings of…funk? Not since Franz Ferdinand’s jump from galloping punk to disco on “Take Me Out” has a band so cleverly screwed with people’s expectations midsong. Doubly sneaky, Sanj Tankian and Daron Malakian use their danceable chorus as a Trojan Horse for the song’s bitter politics. “B.Y.O.B.” stands for bring your own bombs (there’s another song OutKast influenced), and, in case you missed it, it’s an anti-military diatribe – in the metal half of the song, the shouted refrain is, “WHY! DO! They always send the POOR?!!” Of course, my favorite bit is neither the metal refrain nor the funk refrain (”Everybody’s goin’ to the party, have a real good time”). It’s Serj’s insane-in-the-membrane “AhLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLa!” Gotta love these guys: catchy and idealistic. Which makes a nice segue into….
  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone, “America, Fuck Yeah!” – Finding the requisite goof song to close the CD is always a challenge, but…man, System of a Down into Team America? You don’t get that lucky in a single year. Maybe somebody should do a mash-up: McDonalds, FUCK YEAH! Wal-Mart, FUCK YEAH! WHY! DO! They always send the POOR?!! Reeboks, FUCK YEAH! Fake tits, FUCK YEAH! AhLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLa!

Oh yeah, and the bonus cuts – only Emily gets these, but if someone needs a dupe of something, let me know:

  • The Pussycat Dolls featuring Busta Rhymes, “Don’t Cha”: The sequel to the Mary Jane Girls’ “In My House” that Rick James never recorded. Love the horns.
  • Fall Out Boy, “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down”: The kind of boy-band emo I normally hate, but…c’mon, “Fall Out Boy”? That’s a good band name. Simpsons geeks, unite!
  • Coldplay, “Speed of Sound”: Like “Hollaback Girl,” so ubiquitous already it barely merits inclusion. Gotta say, the single grew on me. And this is the first Coldplay song Emily has found tolerable, which has to mean something.
  • Shakira featuring Alejandro Sanz, “La Tortura”: Emily’s a closet Shakira fan. So am I (maybe not so closeted). And the reggaeton remix is hot.
  • Rob Thomas, “Lonely No More”: One of the two or three best, most respectable things he’s ever recorded. Probably should have been on my main mix. Probably won’t be liking anything by him again soon.
  • Backstreet Boys, “Incomplete”: Laugh it up, haters.
  • Missy Elliott, “Lose Control”: Love the “Planet Rock” beat. Emily loves the video. (Is that Birth of a Nation she’s alluding to?!) Would’ve made the CD if I’d had just five more minutes.
  • John Legend, “Ordinary People”: Possibly the best single of the year. Reminds me of winter, otherwise it’d be on the CD.
  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone, “America, Fuck Yeah! (Bummer Remix)”: Excuse me, I think there’s something in my eye….

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THE UNION: JACK?

    More variety? Underplayed songs? Clever mixes? Hey, isn’t this what we said we wanted? Why we aren’t thrilled about Jack, commercial radio’s version of free-form FM.

Like Jack White, I’ve been known to quote my favorite scenes from Citizen Kane. And recently, as I’ve been listening to the radio, one particular scene has been running through my head. Charles Foster Kane has just lost his gubernatorial bid, and while he’s feeling sorry for himself, his best friend tells him off:

    KANE: All right, if that’s the way they want it, the people have made their choice….

    LELAND: You talk about “the people” as though you owned them – as though they belonged to you. Goodness! As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about “giving the people their rights,” as if you could make them a present of liberty – as a reward for services rendered! Remember the working man? … You used to write an awful lot about “the working man.” Well, he’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not gonna like that one little bit, when you find out it means your working man expects something as his right, not as your gift.

Imagine, for a moment, that in this scene, Charlie Kane is big radio – Clear Channel, Infinity Broadcasting, those behemoths – and that “the people” have been given, not picket signs and union delegates, but iPods.

This is the best way to explain the across-the-board scorn being heaped on Jack, an FM radio format that’s sweeping the country.

IF you live in a big city, by now you almost certainly have a Jack on your radio dial – or a Bob, a Ben, or some other three- or four-letter dude’s name. The operative word is “dude”: according to the inventors of the format, “Jack” and his brethren are supposed to remind you of your awesome buddy from college, the guy who’d play cool mixes of music at parties – format-free, mass-appeal, always catchy, a spectrum of songs crashing into one another. The Jack programmers call these juxtapositions “train wrecks.”

According to a recent Billboard article, Jack was invented by a Canadian radio executive about four years ago. The story, however apocryphal, is that this program director went to a birthday party filled with thirtysomthings and discovered that they didn’t like half the stuff the local classic-rock station was playing. After doing some research, he discovered that there were gaps in rock and pop history that most FM stations were underplaying, or avoiding entirely.

There were underplayed disco songs, like “Cherchez La Femme,” “S.O.S.” or “Pick Up the Pieces.” Near-hits or non-hits from the ’80s, by now-revered new wave bands like the Cure and Talking Heads. Old funk songs abandoned by R&B radio, from the likes of the Gap Band or Zapp. Forgotten one-hit-wonder songs like Melanie’s “Brand-New Key,” Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” or Jane Child’s “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love.” That third or fourth single from a big album that never gets played anymore: Def Leppard’s “Armageddon It” instead of “Pour Some Sugar on Me”; Dire Straits’s “So Far Away” instead of “Money for Nothing.” Seemingly cheesy songs that people still secretly like: Haddaway’s “What Is Love,” Roxette’s “The Look.” And all of these songs are so well-liked and catchy that they could coexist in the same mix. You could crash big hits against lost classics, rhythmic songs against hard-rock songs, and as long as most of the lesser-played songs sounded familiar but didn’t suffer from eternal radio burnout, they worked together.

This concept may not be news to you – hey, playing songs we’re not sick of! what a concept – but in the world of post–Clear Channel, “narrowcasted” radio, this amounted to a revelation. Radio playlists have shrunk to as little as 100 songs over the years; at an average “top 40″ station, only about 30 songs get genuine regular airplay. True free-form FM radio hasn’t existed since the ’70s (except at low-wattage college stations, which never played hit records, anyway).

The Canadian PD’s concept wasn’t totally “free-form,” either; he intended to play a steady diet of proven hits. But it did feature a rotation of hundreds or even 1,000 songs, scores more than the average classic-rock or adult-contemporary station would play, to say nothing of top 40. His mix would even place current songs next to decades-old tracks, something AOR (album-oriented rock) stations used to do but basically haven’t done in about a decade; even in AOR’s heyday, those stations would never put a disco or R&B song next to Pink Floyd. The goal: to create what PDs call “Oh, wow!” moments – juxtapositions that turn your head, or songs you haven’t heard since high school.

Launched in the winter of 2002, Winnipeg’s “Bob-FM” was an instant smash. By year’s end, a version named “Jack” launched in Vancouver. Within two years, every major Canadian radio market (except Montreal) got a Jack, Bob or Ben. By 2003, U.S. programmers tested the format, and now, less than four years after its launch in Canada, Jack/Bob/Ben has appeared in almost every major U.S. city.

THIS rapid colonization has not come without controversy. In Philadelphia, two seemingly unrelated events caused fan outrage: the shutdown of much-beloved modern rock station Y100 (replaced by a Latin station) and the near-simultaneous appearance of a Ben-FM halfway up the dial, going after the former Y100 demographic. In Boston, a long-beloved dance-pop station flipped to Jack last spring. (My favorite Bostonian and best friend, Ed, is up in arms: “‘Jack’?!” he wrote me two months ago. “What the hell is that?”)

But these skirmishes were nothing compared to New York City’s recent declaration of war. In June, WCBS-FM, a decades-old titan of New York radio and the creator of the oldies format back in the early 1970s, flipped to the Jack format, and all hell broke loose.

Imagine if the New York Mets were suddenly, unceremoniously replaced by a professional lacrosse team, and you have some idea of the shock and outrage expressed by radio listeners across the city – old-timers, blue-collar guys, even under-40s who loved pre-disco pop and had come to regard WCBS as an institution. There’s actually a Wikipedia entry that details the whole controversy, complete with links to jeremiads in the New York Post and Daily News and expletive-laden quotes from no less than Mayor Mike Bloomberg. My own Dad recently offered his novel theory that WCBS was a public trust, and the government should step in.

Clearly, Jack’s takedown of a half-century-old radio station was, for many, the final straw. But I started to notice angry comments from columnists and friends of mine months ago, whether they had a Jack station in their town or not. Fueling the suspicion is the fact that Jack is almost invariably DJ-free – the better to cram in more songs per hour – and thus creepily impersonal; this has added fuel to the ongoing debate over Clear Channel–style consolidation and the de-localization of radio. Just last month, Naunihal, an old college friend in South Bend, Ind., e-mailed me a New York Newsday article with his own colorful subject line: “Bob? Jack? These are radio formats? WTF?” In short, people feel cynical and even a little threatened by Jack.

Even before I started listening to the new WCBS a few weeks ago, I sort of wondered what all the fuss was about. Did my Dad really think he’d go to his grave (hopefully no sooner than 2030) listening to Cousin Brucie’s “The Doo-Wop Shop”? Wouldn’t my friend Ed in Boston rather listen to a station that played catchy dance songs and classic rock songs and good pop songs, rather than just dance songs?

Straight-up: Hasn’t everybody who’s listened to FM radio in the last 20 years wished, begged, demanded that stations stop playing the same songs over and over, stop insulting our intelligence by assuming we only listen to one tiny format, bring back the element of surprise? However stupid its name, isn’t the Jack format exactly what we’ve all asked for?

It’s easy for me to say this – Jack is aimed squarely at my aging Gen-X ass. As free-form as Jack claims to be, Jack loves him some ’80s: a glance at WCBS’s current playlist reveals a lot of MTV-era gold. While our buddy Jack will reach back into the ’60s to play the Beatles or the Doors, or reach forward to the ’00s to play OutKast or Kelly Clarkson, any song he picks had better sound decent coming after Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes.”

Replacing the ’60s/’70s-centric WCBS with a new ’80s-centric WCBS is just trading one demographic for a younger one, even if the new WCBS does occasionally play “Twist and Shout.” So it’s understandable that fans of doo-wop or Motown, who grew up with Cousin Brucie’s WCBS, would feel like they’d been put out to pasture. On the other hand, I have never had much sympathy for “classic” pop fans who feel popular music went off the rails after “The Hustle.” If your real problem with Jack is a problem with femmy ’70s drag-queen music and foppish ’80s mousse-hair music, take a number and sit down, buddy.

I am enjoying Jack as far as it goes – the morning when they segued from Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” into Frank Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York” blew my mind – but that may be because I have such low expectations for commercial radio. Don’t we all?

This, in fact, may be another root cause of Jack hateration: 30 years of narrowcasting have conditioned radio listeners to expect a comforting, limited format, and the whacked-out variety of Jack just weirds them out. My friend Ed forwarded me this comment from a fellow hater of Boston’s Jack: “People don’t tune into a station that ‘plays everything’ HOPING that MAYBE they MIGHT play a song or two that the listener actually wants to hear, while suffering through 30–40 minutes of stuff they hate.”

In other words, if you’ve decided that you’re a rock guy, you’re never going to tolerate Sister Sledge or Technotronic, no matter how interestingly they’re mixed together. You want your radio station to narrowcast. This reaction is understandable but seems Stockholm-syndromesque to me. Have we really ceded that much of our tastes to our captors?

But I think the real problem with Jack is that it promises more than it delivers. To paraphrase Charlie Kane’s friend Leland, the people have already tasted freedom, and they’re not going to accept a watered-down version of freedom just because some media impresario deigns to offer it to them.

THE invention of Jack in 2001–02 coincided perfectly with a far more influential invention, the iPod. Right around the time that Canuck was attending his fateful birthday party, Apple’s first music devices were rolling into stores. Within weeks, cultural critics were praising the iPod’s (then) least-heralded feature: shuffling, which on early iPods was a feature buried in a menu. (Within a year, Apple wisely moved “Shuffle Songs” to the iPod’s top screen.)

Sure, the ability to randomly play back the songs on a CD, or a half-dozen CDs, had been around since the ’80s. But, in ways not even Steve Jobs anticipated, the act of filling a device with hundreds or even thousands of songs you love and then letting the device randomly create your very own radio station was powerful and unprecedented. This went beyond CD shuffling, beyond mixtapes, beyond your cool college roommate; this was a nonstop personal soundtrack that managed to surprise you and comfort you at the same time.

When interviewed by Billboard and the other media rags, the programmers of the various Jack stations across the country invariably make iPod comparisons. “An iPod on steroids” is their favorite quip to describe the format and its seeming randomness. It is a handy shorthand, especially as the iPod has come to represent musical freedom and genre ecumenicalism to a generation of music fans.

But the fact is, this shorthand is kind of a lie: “an iPod on a diet” is more like it. Even at its best, Jack has limits, and a couple of days of listening to the format reveal them. Meanwhile, even if you’re only carrying around an iPod mini, with its 1,000-song capacity, you’ve already got access to more songs than a Jack station is rotating. Better yet, you picked them.

What’s more, the songs on your iPod probably span more genres than the Jack station will ever play. By definition, Jack only plays hits, or at least well-known songs; that cool but little-heralded album track isn’t going to make their cut. And as admirably wide-ranging as Jack’s selection is, it’s not like they’re playing hardcore hip-hop, twangy country or actual indie-rock; if “U Can’t Touch This,” “You’re Still the One” and “Float On,” respectively, don’t satisfy your genre fix, you’re going to be reaching for your iPod. Conversely, if your idea of genre balance is, say, lots of hip-hop, a smattering of country and no ’80s pop music at all, your iPod, not Jack, will provide that for you. And you’ll still have the pleasure of not knowing what song’s coming next.

MAKE no mistake: as mainstream, shamelessly commercial radio goes, Jack is pretty awesome. If I could program a high-cuming radio station in a big city with a library full of hits, it might sound like Jack. The format has reclaimed songs I thought I’d never hear on FM radio again, on college radio or anywhere – who else is playing the Fixx’s “Red Skies” or George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” these days? On a long car trip without a tape deck, Jack would be a godsend. A few hours ago, WCBS/Jack in New York played, swear to God, Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” back-to-back with Kool & the Gang’s “Fresh.” Who does that?

Oh yeah – your iPod does. And it knows what you love and what you hate, knows just how far to push you and what you call a “hit.” In just one hour of shuffling my iPod last night, I heard the Shins, Ghostface Killah, Snow Patrol, a Beatles/Goldfrapp mashup (illegal, of course), the Velvet Underground, Norm Greenbaum’s classic “Spirit in the Sky,” Eminem, Britney Spears and the Decemberists – only a couple of them would be likely to appear on a Jack playlist anytime soon.

How can even a wide-ranging FM format like Jack seriously expect to compete with my iPod? Answer: it can’t, it shouldn’t, and that’s okay with me.

I say, let’s all calm down and welcome Jack into our lives – it’s a damn sight better than anything commercial FM radio has produced since the ’70s. But we’ve all lost our innocence, and if Citizen Jack thinks we’re going to fall to our knees and thank him for liberating us, he’s bound to be disappointed. Musical freedom is our right, not his gift.

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