Thursday, February 10, 2011

Criticism and Complaints: Is Blowing Off Steam Really Good for You?

I'm currently reading a book called The Happiness Project  by Gretchen Rubin. I'm only about a third of the way through, but so far it is a fantastic book. This post is not a partial book review, but rather a look at one paragraph that really caught my attention.

In Chapter 2, Rubin mentions that there is no proof that the well-known belief that "letting off steam" is really good for you. In fact, openly expressing anger often amplifies it instead of relieving anger. Instead, it appears that not expressing anger often allows it to subside and disappear without a trace (not to mention the effect it has on those around you).

So what does this mean? I immediately thought of all the criticism and anger over the Black Eyed Peas half-time show at Super Bowl XLV. Judging by the online response, I can imagine rooms full of people moaning throughout the entire 2nd half about how awful they sounded. I'll be honest, I couldn't really hear the show that well where I watched the game, but I assume that if they really sounded that awful, some of it was out of their hands and due to sound issues created by a 5 minute stage setup in a new Super Bowl venue. Don't forget, sound check won't really be accurate when the stadium is empty, so the sound guys have to adjust on the fly. Even Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 came to their defense on Twitter stating that as someone who performs live for a living and has done TV shows, he knew the sound guys shafted them.

Whether you liked the Peas or not, there was certainly something to like about the show. For instance, I thought it was visually incredible, and  I didn't think it sounded as bad as everyone thought (though as I said, I couldn't hear it that well). The point is, wouldn't it be better to focus on something positive that happened instead of complaining for a week afterwards? The game was great wasn't it?

I'm not trying to defend the Black Eyed Peas here, just trying to put into perspective the culture of complaining that we have become. We seem to feel that it is our right to complain and criticise to the point that we miss all the good things going on around us. Undoubtedly, another opportunity for widespread complaining will come this Sunday at the Grammys. I'm sure the Twitterverse will be flooded with real-time critques of every act (I know because I am sometimes guilty of this trait). I used to watch award shows with someone who had nothing positive to say the entire show. I often wondered why this person watched these shows if it caused such misery. This person was a so-called music fan, but could only muster praise for around 5 artists in the history of recorded music and even that was qualified.

So what if you don't make a habit of music or movie criticism? I bet you are still guilty of outbursts of complaints at home or work. Most of us air every annoyance as soon as possible. I know I'm guilty of this sometimes. How may times have you been chomping at the bit to talk to someone so you could let them know all of the awful things that happened to you that day? Did you feel better after dwelling on how awful your day had been? Do you think the person on the receiving end felt better? Would a shift from "these 15 things went wrong for me today" to "these 5 great things happened to be today and I'm really looking forward to my evening" make you feel better? Right off the bat, if you have the opportunity to complain that day, something good happened: you woke up that morning.

I'm not claiming to be an expert in the subject, or in any way a good example, but it is food for thought. Pull up your Facebook news feed and weigh the positive against the negative posts. How many people are complaining about the weather, school (a  problem that you don't realize is a blessing until you are in the working world), work, traffic, house cleaning, the President and everyone/everything else that has contributed to unhappiness on that day? To make it worse, of the small pool of positive facebook posts, a good percentage of those are copy and paste or status shuffle jobs making it seem that the majority of us really can't think of anything nice to say about the world around us.

Don't get me wrong, we all have to complain sometimes. Occasionally, just hearing yourself say these things to someone else helps to put them into perspective. However, too much complaining makes us like "the boy who cried wolf." People can become so accustomed to our negative attitudes that they don't really take us seriously when we really do have a problem. I've tried to work on this extensively over the past few years, but I have a long way to go.

So here are some things I pledge to try:

  • When someone complains to me, listen. However, I won't respond in a one-upsmanship manner, trying to out-complain the other person. Instead, I'll express empathy and then try to lift that person's sprits. We all need that sometimes.
  • If I've had a terrible day, I will wait until I have had a break from work to start telling everyone about it. I'll listen to my favorite music (The Shins are my go to mood lifter), go to the gym or have a good meal with my wonderful wife (she's a blessing I often take for granted) and then see how much of that stuff is really important.
  • When someone does something that irks me (driving, making a mess, standing in my way at the grocery store), I'll try to be understanding, and realize they are likely not doing these things to inconvenience me (and probably don't even notice what they are doing). Maybe I have done a few things that day to inconvenience other people that day. I hope they will be understanding when I make these mistakes.
  • Most of all, I'll try not to take things that other people do quite so seriously. Sure sometimes people do things that are hurtful (especially those you care about), but you have to assume these things are done with the best of intentions. Before I complain about something someone else is doing, I'll ask myself if my complaining will really make a difference. Is this person going to change this behavior (is it even something they can really control), or just resent me for bringing it up (hint: most people won't change because you nag them to). This can be thought of as "Picking your battles." I will let things go once in a while (and not just temporarily). 
We'll always have things we need to complain about. However if we can remove some of the negativity from our lives, "act the way we want to feel" (another one of Gretchen Rubin's ideas) and simply reduce some of our time spent complaining, we might be suprised by the results. Let's all start Sunday when we watch the Grammys. Instead of feeling entitled to the entire show being catered to our tastes, let's focus on the moments we do enjoy. If you find that you don't like anything about this year's show, maybe you shouldn't watch next year. Maybe your time could be better spent doing something you will actually enjoy.

Well, I'll step down off of my soapbox for now. What about you? Do you think we could benefit from a little more positive focus on our lives? Have you read The Happiness Project? If so, what do you think of it?

I'll leave you with a song by The Shins that makes me really happy (though I'm not really sure it qualifies as a "happy song," it works for me):

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Top 11: Favorite Songs of All-Time

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Crystel made the mention that “Let it Be” by The Beatles was her favorite song of all time. Hard to argue with her choice there. That got me thinking, what would I consider my favorite song of all time. For a music junkie, that might be the single hardest question you could ask. See, I figure it’s harder for someone who really loves music to choose as opposed to casual listener. The choices are exponentially greater. My wife insisted that it be only 10 songs, as I lobbied for the list to expand to 25 or 30. She wisely said that it had to be restricted it to 10.
I settled on 11, and this will be the first in an ongoing series of posts titled Top 11. Hopefully I can come up with interesting topics in the future to post within this framework.

I didn’t choose these songs because I think they are the consensus best songs ever, but because they are my favorites. There is never a time when I wouldn’t want to listen to any of the songs on this list.

Anyway, here is my shot at listing my top 11 favorite songs of all-time. Inevitably some will be left out, and maybe I’ll write an honorable mention post in the future.

Carolina In My Mind11. “Carolina In My Mind” – James Taylor: James Taylor is undoubtedly one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. With dozens of excellent songs to his credit, this one is definitely my favorite. I could listen to the guitar alone and be happy, and if you think all singer-songwriters do is strum a few chords, try to play this one note for note. “Gone to Carolina” perfectly captures the feeling of longing for home, and I guess all of us have felt that from time to time.

Ripple (Remastered Version)10. “Ripple” – Grateful Dead: This song by the Grateful Dead was partially the inspiration for the name of this blog, and it is definitive proof that the Dead weren’t just a jam band. They had a string of outstanding songs and albums in the late ‘60s and early 70s, and to me, this is the finest of the Hunter/Garcia compositions (with Friend of the Devil a close second). With a guitar run that sounds like bluegrass on valium and lyrics like: Ripple in still water/where there is no pebble tossed/ Nor wind to blow, this has always been my favorite Dead song.

A Long December9. “A Long December” – Counting Crows: Counting Crowes are intermittently either my first, second or third favorite band depending on my mood, and this is my favorite song of theirs. The song has such strong imagery, and says so much without being too literal. Like everything Adam Duritz writes, the lyrics are pretty much perfect and the line: If you think you might come to California/ I think you should, gives me chills nearly every time I hear it.

The Only Living Boy In New York8. “The Only Living Boy in New York” – Simon & Garfunkel: Sometimes it takes hearing a song in the right context to make it really stand out. When “The Only Living Boy in New York” popped up on the Garden State soundtrack, if took on a whole new life. I’d heard the song many times before, but in this context it seemed new again. The same thing happened when their song “America” was featured in Almost Famous. This tune is all about mood, and Simon & Garfunkel were the masters at this type of song.

Everyday7. “Everyday” – Buddy Holly: Everything about this song is as near perfection as a pop song can come. The production, lyrics and vocal performance were spot on. Holly was a genius in a world of cookie-cutter pop stars, and had he not died in that fateful plane crash, he would have surely gone on to be the biggest thing in music. “Everyday” is at its core a song about wanting to ask a girl on a date, but it is so much more than that after you get past the surface. It touches on the fact that the longer we wait to pursue what we want, the faster it runs away from us. That’s a message we could all stand to take note of.

Try A Little Tenderness6. “Try A Little Tenderness” – Otis Redding: Here, we have one of the strongest vocal performances from, quite possibly, the best vocalist of all time. Starting out with a gently strummed electric guitar and building into a frenzy by the end, this was Otis at his prime. Plus, all of us gentlemen could stand hearing lines like When she gets weary/Try a little tenderness, a little more often. The message of the song is: no matter what troubles your woman, don’t fight it, just try a little tenderness. That sounds better than fighting doesn’t it?

Black (Remastered 2008)5. “Black” – Pearl Jam: My take on “Black” is that it’s a song about the end of a relationship that you put everything you had into, really focusing on that brutal period right when the heartbreak is the worst. The song begins with the main character singing: Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay/ Were laid spread out before me as her body once did. From there the song is about dealing with this aftermath when your world has been turned upside down. Every picture and memory has turned dark and bitter, and while he knows she’ll be a “sun in somebody else’s sky” he wonders why she can’t be the sun in his sky. Given the Pearl Jam treatment, “Black” takes this subject and instead of making a mopey ballad, makes one of the most emotional and powerful rock songs ever recorded. This is also my favorite song to play and sing on guitar.

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right4. “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right” – Bob Dylan: For all the complexities of many of Bob Dylan’s songs, he was many times as his best when he simplified things. This song is a perfect example. This song can be interpreted differently by everyone, but to me it’s about ending a relationship, moving on and saying he’s okay with it. In my opinion, he’s only saying he’s okay because it’s too painful to talk about, since he contradicts You’re the reason I’m travelin’ on/But don’t think twice it’s all right with But I wish there was something you would do or say/to try and make me change my mind and stay. She wanted something he couldn’t give, he thinks she could have done a lot of things differently (probably so could he, though the blame seems mostly aimed away from the songs character), but “Don’t think twice it’s all right.” It can also serve as a metaphor for a lot of things in life.

Tiny Dancer3. “Tiny Dancer” – Elton John: Written after Elton and Bernie Taupin’s first trip to California, this song is about what America (and specifically L.A.) looked like through the eyes of two British tourists. Of course there is an American love interest (the “Blue jean baby/L.A. Lady/Seamstress for the band”). There is speculation that it was about Taupin’s first wife, but that’s pretty irrelevant, as it’s the California imagery that makes this song one of the best of all time. Like number 8 on this list, “Tiny Dancer” benefitted greatly from its inclusion in a movie. This time, movie was Almost Famous and the unforgettable bus scene.

If We Make It Through December (2006 Digital Remaster)2. “If We Make it Through December” – Merle Haggard: While this song was originally released on Haggard’s Christmas album, it’s far from your typical holiday tune. The song is about a father who was laid off from his job, and wonders how he can afford to bring Christmas cheer to his family. I’ve never really considered this to be a Christmas song, just a really good song by one of the best, most underappreciated songwriters of our time. With its gentle, memorable acoustic guitar lines and Haggard’s simple poetry, this is simultaneously one of the most heartbreaking and hopeful songs I’ve ever heard.

Beast Of Burden1. “Beast of Burden” – The Rolling Stones: This late 70s gem from The Stones was written mostly by Keith with Mick filling in the verses. Keith has been quoted as saying that he imagined the song as a sort of thank you to Mick for shouldering the burden while Keith was going through his drug problems throughout the 70’s, though the song isn’t literally about that (or anything for that matter). It’s really a song that’s all about feel and attitude that’s pretty much perfect from start to finish. I can’t imagine a song with better guitar work. Guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Woods lock into a groove, trading licks throughout the entire song. Neither guitarists are playing rhythm nor lead, but both are locked in perfectly with the rhythm section. When the guitar intro plays and the first drum beat comes in, it is virtually impossible not to partake in a little air drumming.

So there they are, my favorite songs of all-time.  What are your favorites?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Most Anticipated New Music of 2011

For the past couple of years, I have posted my favorite albums of the previous year. This year, I thought I’d get a jump start and let you in on a couple of albums I’m really looking forward to this year. There will be many more albums I’ll enjoy that haven’t yet been announced, or that I’m overlooking now, but here are the ones I’ll be checking out as soon as they are released (in no particular order).

Go-Go BootsDrive-By Truckers : Go Go Boots
Release Date: 2/15
If I had one complaint about the Truckers’ last album (and it’s a very minor complaint as it was still one of my favorite albums of last year), The Big To-Do, it’s that it was a little heavy on the rock and a little light on the country and soul influences that have peppered their music over the years (of course most of the soul came from Jason Isbell). Go Go Boots promises to remedy that, as they are calling it their “Muscle Shoals record.” From what I have gathered, most of these songs were written around the same time as The Big To Do. Instead of releasing another maximum capacity album in the vein of Brighter Than Creations Dark, they opted to split the songs into two more concise records.

Collapse Into NowR.E.M.: Collapse Into Now
Release Date: 3/8
I thought R.E.M.’s last album Accelerate was underrated. While, most fans were happy that the old R.E.M. they knew and loved had returned from the abyss of their previous two records, it was largely praised upon release and then quickly faded from memory. I went back and listened to it recently, and it’s a really good album. Not their best, but still good. Their upcoming album looks to capitalize on the resurgence created by Accelerate and delve, not only into the old days of Monster as they did on Accelerate, but also into the territory of New Adventures in HiFi and even their older work. It should make for a more expansive record, and I can’t wait to hear it. It doesn’t hurt that it will have guest spots by Eddie Vedder and Patti Smith.

Jason Isbell: Here We Rest
Release Date: 4/12
To be perfectly honest, I selfishly wish Isbell was still with the Drive-By Truckers. He brought a whole other realm of possibilities to the band. However, he proved with his first two solo albums that he had entirely too much talent to be restricted to a few songs per album as part of a band. His last release, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit was one of my favorites of 2009, and I’m banking on this being as close to a “can’t miss” as you’ll find on this list.

Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys
Release Date: TBA
This will be Death Cab’s first trip back to the well since 2008’s good-but-not-great Narrow Stairs. Singer Ben Gibbard might feel a little pressure from his wife (Zooey Deschanel) after her two excellent albums as part of She & Him since the last Death Cab outing. The word is that this album is a lot less guitar heavy than Narrow Stairs, and that's fine with me, since some of my favorite Death Cab tunes are from Plans which tended to be a bit guitat-lite at times.

The Shins: Title TBA
Release Date: TBA
The Shins’ 2007 release Wincing The Night Away ranks as one of my favorite albums of the decade (my wife’s too), so it’s no wonder I am really looking forward to something new from the band. Singer and principle songwriter James Mercer teamed up with Danger Mouse last year to release the fantastic Broken Bells album, but I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while.

U2: Songs of Ascent
Release Date: TBA
Let’s face it, when the biggest band in the world releases an album, you have to take notice. I think they’ll be looking to bounce back after the disappointing (but in my opinion underrated) No Line on the Horizon, and even a below average album from U2 is still worth hearing.

My Morning Jacket – Title TBA
Release Date TBA
Whatever the project, front-man Jim James doesn’t disappoint. My Morning Jacket are one of my favorite bands, and James can fall in with most anyone and make fantastic music (most recently with The Roots and Monsters of Folk). He probably ranks as one of my top 3 musicians currently working. I have no reason not to think this album will be good, since MMJ’s last few records have been consistently great.

In addition, Beastie Boys, Jay-Z & Kanye West (together), Foo Fighters, Coldplay (guilty pleasure), Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Bright Eyes and The Strokes are also slated for new releases. Add to these the already outstanding releases by Iron & Wine and The Decemberists from January, and this is shaping up to be another great year for music nerds like me.

What albums are you eagerly anticipating this year?