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“Dolby’s 100 Years of Rock and Roll (by the Decade)”

What with all the atrocity going on in the world as of late, I wanted to keep things upbeat and light here. This list celebrates the genesis of recording, all the way up through its current perfection. So it’s a luxury of this day and age: we can’t escape reality, but in a sense we can escape time period, and tender our states of mind based on relative simplicity, in order to, if not proliferate a larger truth, at least mollify an oppressive current one. Also, I think this list proves that there will never be a cultural token greater than rock and roll — it will forever feed our embryonic impressions of joy and possibility, and relate to our concepts of magnanimous earthly wonders like oceans and “rip tides.” It is a fleeting energy certain have channeled, to be sought as a bulwark for the sake of its own polymorphousness.

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(1920’s): Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys – “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”

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Wading through race relations of this period can be a disheartening endeavor, so it’s nice to come across an old honky-tonk favorite like this that was made famous by a white dude and then performed later notably by blacks such as Howlin’ Wolf. To even further complicate things, Cream would slow things down and let this song seep onto their Very Best of collection, and Eric Clapton makes a welcome addition, but the Americana godliness overseeing things was pretty thick, too.

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(1930’s): Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues”

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Albeit firmly entrenched in the “blue” ’30’s (it’s almost impossible to find ANY uplifting music from this decade, for obvious reasons, and Woody Guthrie truly was a savior come ’40), we all know this gave way to the famous “rocking” Cream cover, by then just dubbed “Crossroads,” and the song’s pedigree in itself is something to behold, from lots of angles. Pete Townshend once said of Muddy Waters that “He taught us all how to play,” but listening to to Muddy’s “I Feel Like Going Home” you realize it’s almost a complete ripoff of this song’s introduction, adding in maybe a bend or two here and there. Also, from swung eighth notes, Johnson goes to straight eighth plucks during the verse, and the result is tension and uneasiness, but it’s an artful uneasiness, the kind that very much fed into all jazz, including Duke Ellington which would soon follow. The technique would also surface in Tom Waits’ fine tour-de-force “Walking Spanish.”

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(1940’s): Woody Guthrie – “This Land is Your Land”

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When the melody of this song enters your psyche, it never leaves you. You can hear it at three years old and fully digest it, and treasure it at 83, looking thereto unendingly for guidance and spirit. The lyrics read like a Walt Whitman poem, traipsing over this virgin country with not a care in the world but documentation, so it’s appropriate that the Oklahoma-born Guthrie had migrated to New York by the time of his death.

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(1950’s): Chuck Berry – “Roll over Beethoven”

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Chuck Berry was like the first rock and roll “emcee,” because he didn’t just come up with a catch phrase, he painted a whole picture of a lifestyle: rock and roll sweeping the nation by radio, like Lou Reed would later diagram, his black-sounding inflections exuding power and certainty, and slang like “reel and rock it” solidifying the song’s dated and epochal lyrical offerings as canonized candy.

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(1960’s): The Spencer Davis Group – “Gimme Some Lovin’”

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Steve Winwood: the only man to ever be a one-hit wonder with four different bands. Sure, that’s somewhat of a stretch (Traffic, Blind Faith), and he actually had two solo hits (“Higher Love” and “Back in the High Life again”), but at the same time, you can almost HEAR that in his music, the sense of renewal, risk and reward, and everything being fresh: “When you’re born to run / It’s so hard to just slow down / So don’t be surprised to see me / Back in the bright part of town / I’ll be back in the high life again.” Oh yeah, and contrary to popular belief, this song was not born in Chi-CAHG-o by the frat-ready Blues Brothers, but across the pond by the SDG, who got their name because Spencer Davis was the only member of the band who could stand doing interviews.

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(1970’s): The Who – “Squeeze Box”

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Rounding out the British middle sector of this husk, The Who seem to make fun of their own commodification with the album title “The Who By Numbers.” It was their seventh studio release out of 11, but they sound like fresh young lads straight out of the hop, even returning to their prior brief song structure, out of their epic phase that had furnished “Love Reign o’er Me” and “Won’t Get Fooled again.” Sometimes it takes a canine sleeping disorder to reignite a band’s songwriting urgency.

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(1980’s): Meat Puppets – “Other Kinds of Love”

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Something made punk rock happen. Something made young white dudes very mad. I’m guessing it was condescension of some sort? The computer? Anyway, after this thing made the Meat Puppets very mad, for their caustic, largely unlistenable first two albums, something made them very happy for 1986’s Out My Way, an approachable, playable and classic EP rendered an LP by its re-release and buffering of cover songs including a riffy “Good Golly Miss Molly” and an infectious “Burn Another Honky-Tonk down.” Not really better or worse than The Velvet Underground’s “Some Kinda Love,” it tackles the exact same thematic phenomenon, and ushers in a certain ’90’s psychedelia, courtesy of Kurt Kirkwood who once said, “If life isn’t psychedelic, I’ll eat my own sh**!”

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(1990’s): Fastball – “Fire Escape”

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There isn’t a wasted word on this entire album All the Pain Money Can Buy, there isn’t a wasted note… hell there isn’t a wasted nose-pick. It’s the slacker ’90’s worn down, and turned toward a lugubrious rock scene a la “Nowhere Road,” “Slow Drag” and “Charlie the Methadone Man,” sometimes humorous, sometimes homicidal, but always world-weary, and always sweat-soaked, straight out of Austin. “Fire Escape” I remember from one episode of the Real World around this time, but it was “Out of My Head” that kept popping up on Pandora radio in this grocery store I worked at, sort of an insipid single that ended up growing on me a little.

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(2000’s): Little Joy – “The Next Time around”

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I was reading pitchfork religiously in 2008 [equally loving the famous Onion headline “Pitchfork Gives Music 6.8 (out of 10)”], and my eye caught “Little Joy” because that’s actually a fantastical phrase I’d just had in my head sometimes, for some reason. It’s the drummer from The Strokes, oh damn, this better not be as disappointing as Albert Hammond Jr.’s stuff, I dunno if I can take that level of soul-crushing again. My first impression: it’s different. Now in retrospect I realize that it was nervous, anxiety-stricken and eggshell-walking, a geography-and-ethnicity-spanning tandem of Fab, Rodrigo Amarante and the bewitching siren Binki Shapiro, who sang the archetypal words “Only when the goal is unattainable / Do I start to feel like I’m losing myself.” Grunge couldn’t have happened in New York or LA, they’re too self-conscious. I mean, people might come SEE them! It’s like Buzz Osborne of the Melvins said: “What can we get away with next?” Even the New York “punk” CBGB zeitgeist is a misnomer: it doesn’t get much artsier than Talking Heads. Little Joy is the rare art album that invites, rather than alienating: it’s too blissed out in melody not to be understandable, and it came when indie music desperately needed simplification, the robotic Animal Collective and the culturally niche Fleet Foxes the frontrunners with their trend-shirking histrionics. “Unattainable” shows up on the soundtrack to Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, the excellent comedy Whip it.

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(2010’s): Beirut – “The Rip Tide”

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I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty hard not to list Beach House as the signature band of the ’10’s, but Beirut is simply so much more unappreciated, particularly for the sublime 2011 album from which this song is the title track. I still remember when I first read the wikipedia blurb on this guys which states that “The band’s first performances were in New York.” At the time it had seemed like such an irrelevant fact, but the truth is New Mexico is probably really no-man’s-land, The Shins having relocated to the media hub Seattle to do business, and it’s hard to imagine but this band it seems COULD be even more underrated than it is. “Santa Fe,” “Goshen” and “The Rip Tide” are only some of the most delicious melodies this side of the century’s turn, complete with lead singer Zach Condon’s high school trumpet training, to provide some unorthodoxy solidifying their “indie” cred (though why these songs wouldn’t make it onto radio and American Idol is beyond me).

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