A Post About Nada (N)

You ever have one of those nights that on first blush seems generic and forgettable, but ends up being a defining moment in your life?

This story is about how I discovered one of the primary soundtracks for my adult life.  Completely by accident.  And for the bargain price of $5.

It’s January or February 2000.  Some friends and I have taken a weekend road trip to Ames, Iowa.  Technically, we were there to watch a basketball game, but realistically we were there to check out the bar scene in a different college town.  I was just a few years removed from college, working my first professional job, and quite single.

We made our way into the Ames bar district and checked out a couple of places.  After a while, we headed down the hill towards one of the bigger and better known places, a bar called Peoples.  We had been there before and knew it was a good place with a lot of people, and likely some live music.

It was probably 10 or 11 on a Saturday night, and there was a big line outside.  We stood in line for a while, but it quickly became clear that we would not be getting in any time soon.  That’s when our friend Shane appeared and said that if we gave this guy five bucks he’d sneak us in a side door.  A few seconds later, we were inside.

We headed to the bar and got drinks.  Now, since a) this was 14 years ago, and b) I had been drinking some of this is a little cloudy, but at some point, I started paying attention to the band that was playing.  They were pretty good.  A few beers later, they became really good.  At the time, I was huge into Led Zeppelin, so when they played this Spanish number, with a trumpet that transitioned into “Stairway to Heaven”, I was sold.  This band was awesome.

Somehow, I managed to remember the name of the band – The Nadas.  When I got back home, I found their website and ordered one of the CDs, “New Start”.  I was very pleased to find out that their recorded music was as good as their live performance – and that my ears didn’t have beer goggles that night in Ames.  Many of the songs dealt with growing up, loves loved, and loves lost and it really connected with me.

Fast forward a couple of years.  I have the same job, a serious girlfriend, and a growing collection of Nadas CDs.  One Saturday in 2003, I planned to take my girlfriend to her first Nadas show in Omaha.  Before we left the house, I proposed.  Not surprisingly*, The Nadas are one of my wife’s favorite groups too.  One of our first dances and a married couple was to a Nadas song.

*I’ve joked that after proposing, I probably could have taken her to see a band playing death metal versions of Barry Manilow songs on accordion and she would still have a fond memories of the band.  But it didn’t hurt that they are really good live.

In the decade that has followed, so much has changed in my life:  different jobs, different house, losing loved ones, welcoming children, and so much more.  But the Nadas have been there throughout, gracing me with a new favorite album every other year.  Pretty much every other group that I listened to back in 2000 has been broken up for years, but the Nadas are still going strong (this is their 20th year).  Their music is a go-to choice in our house, to the point where their most recent CD (“Lovejoy Revival”) hasn’t left the CD player for about eight months.  Our oldest two kids (5 and 2) know most of the words – although the five year old always wants to hear “Pizza Button” – their cover of the Rolling Stones classic “Beast of Burden”.

Sure, they’ve gone through some line-up changes.  There have been various musicians who have played with them over the years – and honestly, I’ve lost count of the number of drummers they’ve had – but the heart and soul of the group, singers and guitarists Jason Walsmith and Mike Butterworth have remained.  I’ve often felt they are an yin and yang, but their balance just makes the music that much better.

I’m fascinated and amazed by how they have stuck with it despite a lack of commercial success* and the inherent challenges of being touring musicians in an age where people expect to get music for free (he typed, while streaming Spotify).

*The most telling anecdote of why the Nadas are not a household name goes like this:  Playboy magazine named them “The Best College Band You’ve Never Heard Of”, a designation that should have led to increased exposure, new opportunities, and chances for greater success.  But, they never really had the chance to capitalize on that title.  The issue came out a day or two before 9/11.

But I really dig and respect how they have embraced new methods to stay relevant and bring their music to the world.  Think of some of the things your favorite bands and indie artists do today (owning their own record label, using Kickstarter pledge campaigns, organizing fan cruises, streaming live shows to fans, recording live shows for sale after the gig ends, and more).  The Nadas have done those things, and probably did them years before they became commonplace.

For the Almanac record, they wrote, recorded, and released one song per month for an entire year.  You could subscribe to get sneak peeks, watch streaming jam sessions, and other content.  The resulting album is still one of my favorites.  For their 20th anniversary, they are doing a “greatest hits” album with a twist:  the tracks were chosen by fans, and the songs were re-recorded for the album.  I’m very excited to hear a new spin on some of my favorites.

I could go on and on about my love for this band, which only seems fitting as they continue to go on and on.

I’ll close with an old favorite, “Dancing Lucinda”:

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(Author’s note:  Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post?  Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge?  Like clicking on links?  These questions are all answered here.)

The Greatest Led Zeppelin Albums – Ranked

With Spotify’s recent addition of the Led Zeppelin catalog, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Zeppelin at work.

I’ve been a Zep fan since high school, but for the most part, I don’t think of their music in terms of the albums they came from.  Instead of purchasing the albums individually, I cheated and bought a box set that has most of their tracks in non-album order.  So even though I’ve been listening to these songs for over 20 years, in many cases this was the first time I’ve heard them in album order.

Having listened to the Zeppelin discography from beginning to end (or I to Coda, if you prefer) I quickly noticed that some of the albums are much better than others – more well-known songs, more approachable deep cuts, and just a better collection of music.

Here is my ranking of the nine Led Zeppelin studio albums from meh to must have.

9.  Presence.  

The album starts off with “Achilles Last Stand”, a 10 minute epic and closes with “Tea for One”, almost nine and a half minutes of electric blues.  The middle has one song the casual fan might recognize from the radio (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”) and little else – although I’m partial to “Royal Orleans” and “Hots on for Nowhere”.

The cover art has a family sitting around a table staring at “the object” a black obelisk.  The family appears both happy and unsure of what do with it.  I’m guessing that is what many Zeppelin fans thought when this album came out – they were thrilled to have a new album, but we’re exactly sure that they had – or if they liked it.

8. In Through the Out Door.  

Classic rock radio likes to play “Fool in the Rain” in spite of the odd  bridge with the whistles and percussion.  “All My Love” is a very nice ballad, and I’m partial to the beat of “South Bound Saurez”.

Other than that?  You really need to be a die-hard Zep fan to appreciate the countrified “Hot Dog”, the slow pace of “I’m Gonna Crawl”, and the 10 minutes and 35 seconds of synthesizer and guitar that is “Carouselambra”.

7.  Coda.

Coda was released after the death of drummer John Bonham, and it has been dismissed by critics as a throw-away album filled with things that weren’t good enough to make other albums.  I understand that criticism, but there are some solid tracks on this album.  “We’re Gonna Groove” is one of my favorite Zep songs, and I’ll listen to “Poor Tom”, “Wearing and Tearing”, and “Darlene” any time.

In my opinion, Coda gets a bad rap – or more appropriately, Presence and In Through the Out Door don’t get knocked enough.

6. Physical Graffiti.

A two disk set, Physical Graffiti has some star power (“Kashmir”, “Houses of the Holy”) but the meat of this set is in the deep cuts.   There are rocking songs (“The Rover”, “The Wanton Song”, “Custard Pie”), softer songs (“Bron-Yr-Aur” and “Down By The Seaside”), and introspective songs (“Ten Years Gone”, “In The Light”).

Simply put, if all you know about Zeppelin is what you’ve heard on the radio, this is worth a listen.

5.  Houses of the Holy.

Houses may be one of the most diverse Zeppelin albums.  There are the standard rock and blues tracks, but they also do some reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”) a James Brown funk (“The Crunge”), and one of their most beautiful ballads (“The Rain Song”).

Fun fact I:  The song “Houses of the Holy” does not appear on the album Houses of the Holy, as the band didn’t think the song fit the album.

Fun fact II:  A telephone can be heard ringing during “The Ocean”.

4.  Led Zeppelin III.

This album also gets its fair share of criticism – mainly because it was such a departure from the first two albums.  If you’re looking for the classic rock radio hits, you won’t find much other than “Immigrant Song”.

Much like Physical Graffiti, the depth of the album is in the lesser known tracks, such as the softer “Tangerine” and “That’s The Way”, the bluesy “Since I”ve Been Loving You”, and one of my personal faves “Out on the Tiles”.

3.  Led Zeppelin I.

Their debut album continues to stand the test of time.  I love the power chords and bass guitar  of “Good Times Bad Times”, the chaotic middle section of “Dazed and Confused”, the beautiful acoustic guitar of “Black Mountain Side” and the blues rock of “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “You Shook Me”, and “How Many More Times”.

2.  The untitled fourth album (aka Led Zeppelin IV, aka ZoSo, aka…) .

The album was released without an official name, which is why it is referred to by a variety of names (including Untitled, Four Symbols, Fourth Album, Runes, and The Hermit).  For our purposes here, I’ll call it IV, even though I know that is not technically accurate.

This is one of the greatest selling albums of all time, and it contains arguably the greatest rock song of all time (“Stairway to Heaven”), along with Zeppelin classics “Black Dog” and “Rock And Roll”.

So why is IV #2?  I’ve never felt like it is a solid album, beginning to end.  Frankly, I think after “Stairway”, things fall off in a hurry.  Make no mistake “Misty Mountain Hop”, “Four Sticks”, and “When the Levee Breaks” are all good songs – and I’ve long been fond of “Going to California”, but it doesn’t match the oomph of the first half of the album.  If I were a vinyl listener, there would be many times where I wouldn’t bother to flip the record over to Side B.  In my opinion that is enough to keep IV out of the top spot.

1.  Led Zeppelin II.

For some this may be a bit of an upset, but I’ll defend Zeppelin II over everything else in the Zep catalog.  It has the radio favorites (“Whole Lotta Love”, “Heartbreaker”/”Living Loving Maid”, and “Ramble On”).  It has the greatest love song in the Zeppelin library (“Thank You”).  It has great bluesy rock songs (“The Lemon Song” and “Bring it On Home”).  And it has the epic Bonham drum solo song “Moby Dick”.  It is their most complete, and in my opinion, best work.

Aside from purchasing Mothership (the Zeppelin Greatest Hits compilation from 2007), II is the disk that any Zeppelin fan should own.

Spotify – How I Love Thee

I love music.

More accurately, I love good music.  And I absolutely love the joy of discovering an artist who is siren-song sweet, incredibly talented, unlike anything I’ve ever heard, toe-tappin’, wanna sing along, or is otherwise a bright spot in the middle of a Wednesday morning.

The problem is finding those musical gems.  I hate country music and I think most of Top 40/Pop being released is complete garbage, so I am simply not going to find a whole lot on the radio (especially the over the air stations in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska).  I’ve tried online radio stations, but if they’re playing a turd of a song, or it is a commercial break, you’re pretty much stuck.  Plus, sometimes when that great new song comes on, you have no idea who the artist is or what the song is called, so you’re essentially doomed to never hear it again.

Many people enjoy Pandora’s streaming player, which takes your favorite artist (Nickelback*, for example), runs it through some NASA supercomputer and gives you unlimited songs that have the same sound, genre, etc.

*Nickelback Bashing is close to surpassing baseball as the national pastime.  I understand it, I get it, and I’ve done it – most of their songs are cookie cutter pieces of crap, with clichéd lyrics and no original musical voice.  No argument here.

But if Nickelback sucks as much as everyone tells me they do, why do they have a bunch platinum records, and sell out tours across the country?  Do they have a mega-passionate fan base that buys multiple copies of each album and follows them on their big tours?  I’m guessing not. 

We all have our guilty pleasures and skeletons in our musical closets.  I loved “This is How You Remind Me” when it came out, and I still like it today.

Pandora is nice, but my main issue is their secret formula works too well:  that Nickelback channel has a bunch of artists who all sound the same (okay…Nickelback may have been a poor example, but you know what I mean).  Sometimes I like to have a little variety.  Give me “How You Remind Me”, but chase it with some James Brown or 311.  Or maybe I want to listen to a new album straight through or randomly play all of the songs by one of my favorite artists while I’m working.  And again, when I find something good I want to be able to come back to it later.

I have found a couple of websites that will play new releases (I used to have surprisingly good success with AOL, of all sites).  Those sites usually have a pretty good variety of popular and more obscure artists, and well as soundtracks and compilations.  Since they are promoting new releases, the selection changes weekly, and once it’s gone, you’ll have to go elsewhere to find it again.

And then I read about Spotify.

Spotify is pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted in a music service:

  • Ability to listen to individual songs, entire albums, or everything by an artist?  Check.
  • Ability to play my music along with theirs?  Check.
  • Ability to create and save playlists?  Check.
  • Can use it on multiple PCs as well as my phone?  Check.
  • Free?  Check.
  • A “radio” feature like Pandora?  Check.

I love me some Spotify.

The free version is ad-supported.  You listen to about a minute’s worth of ads every 15-30 minutes – and many of those ads are either telling you about new releases or how to get more out of your account.  In addition, the player has banner ads featuring different artists and new releases.  I’ve been surprised with the effectiveness of these ads.  Several times, I’ve seen an ad and thought “oh yeah, I’ve heard of these guys and have been meaning to listen.  Let’s do that now”.

Recently, I was listening to an existing playlist and saw an ad for an artist named “Trombone Shorty”.  I really enjoy the 70’s sound with the full horn section (think James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, or the early Chicago) so I was intrigued.  Seconds later, I’m grooving to Buckjump – a horn heavy tune with some hip hop influence.  Where am I going to hear that otherwise?

Obviously, no music service is perfect.  There are still a handful of big names (The Beatles, Garth Brooks, AC/DC) where your search results will probably be limited to covers, tribute albums, and interviews.  But with that said, many of the big names are there – Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Metallica, and as of this month, Led Zeppelin.

Spotify also pushes a social aspect a little too much for my tastes.  One of the first things you’ll want to do after you sign up is disable the feed to your Facebook wall.  Trust me, your friends don’t care what you’re listening to, and there may be times where you don’t want your guilty pleasure (or infatuation with gangsta rap) displayed for the world to see.  There is some potential with sharing tracks and playlists, but it is a minor feature in my eyes.

I’d also like to be able to access Spotify via my Roku player (and home stereo) without upgrading to their $9.99 a month Premium service.  For $10, I can deal with a few commercials and a “lower” sound quality.  But I can work around that as I can hook my phone into my speakers.  Spotify recently changed so you can play your playlists on phones and tablets, so I’m hopeful they make a similar change for Roku.

Even with those minor quibbles, Spotify has become my go-to music player.  During my workday, if I’m not in a meeting I’m probably listening to something on Spotify.  I cannot imagine a service that I could improve on their experience enough for me to switch.

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