5 Albums You'll Learn More From Than Any History Book
Do you not know things? Would you like to change that, but can't be bothered to read? Maybe you should try listening to an album instead, you lazy son of a bitch! We talk about a few famous albums that teach you stuff on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comic Jeff May and Cracked editor Alex Schmidt. That's also what I'm talking about in this very column. Go figure!
Drive-By Truckers - Southern Rock Opera / The Dirty South
The South sure is getting a lot of attention these days, and it's rarely for anything good. With all of the burning down black churches and defending the Confederate flag, news stories coming from that part of the country right now make it seem like the Civil Rights Movement just missed it entirely. Of course, that doesn't mean you can just write off an entire swath of the nation as racist and assume that covers everything you could ever need to know about it. I mean, sure, stereotypes exist because they're true sometimes, but they're also frowned upon because using or promoting them implies that you believe that one negative trait applies to every single member of a particular race, region, religion, television show fan base, etc. Not to get all very special episode on you right now, but that's not cool, guys.
Unfortunately, as it pertains to the South, the people who are usually the most vocal about defending it seem to be more interested in maintaining their right to be awful. Like how of course Kid Rock is going to keep flying the Confederate flag on stage, because, you know, he's Kid Rock. It's also worth mentioning that he's from goddamn Detroit.
Don't say it, "South Detroit" isn't even a real place.
So what to do? Read a book on the subject? Don't be stupid. Why do that when you can just listen to an album or two? To that end, if you're looking to brush up on your knowledge of the South, I'd recommend checking out the Drive-By Truckers. I actually find reason to recommend that pretty regularly in this column, because they're the best goddamn band in the world, but it's especially fitting in this instance, given what we're talking about today.
For example, take their third album, the two-disc Southern Rock Opera, which touches on everything from the supposed feud between rock legend / pointless gadget peddler Neil Young and former Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant ...
... to the plane crash that killed the latter of the two.
There are three songs about that, actually. The entire album is sort of about Lynyrd Skynyrd, but being proud of being from the South was a huge part of that band's story. Accordingly, the songs sometimes veer off into topics like Alabama's notorious former segregationist governor George Wallace ...
That song, "Three Great Alabama Icons," plays like a six-minute TED Talk about all the surprising things you don't know about the South. Like the fact that the aforementioned George Wallace, most known for being the monster who stood in school doorways and vowed that black kids and white kids would never walk through them together, eventually became one of the most racially progressive governors that state ever elected. Sometime in the late '70s, he claimed to be a born-again Christian and apologized for his segregationist past. During his final term, he appointed more black people to state positions than anyone before him, a record that was matched at one point, but has never been surpassed. Sure, a few songs later they say exactly what most of you are thinking right now, which is that it was probably in large part just a ploy to keep getting elected once being openly and vehemently racist became taboo. But it's still pretty surprising, right?
In 2004, the Drive-By Truckers released another album about the bottom half of the country, called The Dirty South. Yes, that is what the rappers call it, thanks for asking. Among the various tunes about car racing and making moonshine in the '30s ...
... is a fascinating trio of songs about Buford Pusser, the Tennessee sheriff whose life story was made into a movie called Walking Tall, with Joe Don Baker or The Rock in the lead role, depending on how old you are.
How's that for diversity?
They tell the story from the point of view of the criminals he so famously rid his town of. Unsurprisingly, their take on things isn't quite as romantic as the Hollywood version.
These two albums will go a long way toward at least somewhat changing your perception of the South and the people who live there, and you can take it all in while you're riding the bus to work. If you are the reading kind though, give co-front man Patterson Hood's recent and fantastic New York Times editorial a look sometime. Later, though. Finish reading this first. Please.
Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
I know what you're thinking, and yes, it's true: Your dreams of having a comprehensive history of the state of Illinois in the form of a dreamy indie rock album came true years ago. How did you not know? The album I'm referring to is Sufjan Stevens' Illinois.
That's not how it's pronounced, by the way.
It's the first of what were supposed to be 50 albums, one about each of the United States. He did another one that's sort of about Michigan, but like so many of the people who live there, the concept has never made it out of the Midwest.
That said, Illinois is pretty fucking great, especially if songs about painter (and sometime child murderer) John Wayne Gacy are what you're after ...
... and I know you are, you creepy motherfuckers. There's almost nothing about Illinois that you can't learn from this album, including the fact that people in that state get a day off work to celebrate Count Casimir Pulaski's birthday every year.
There's so much information, in fact, that it couldn't be contained to one album. Not long after Illinois, he released The Avalanche: Outtakes And Extras From The Illinois Album, which is impressive, considering the first one had 22 songs.
Anyway, here's one about a UFO sighting in Highland, Illinois:
As that video should clearly demonstrate, the range of topics covered over the course of these two albums is insanely broad. Everything from author Carl Sandburg to the Black Hawk War get a mention, as do so many other things. Just so many. There's nothing about the Steve Bartman incident, but that's fine. As a Cubs fan, it's a situation I prefer to not think about.
Serge Gainsbourg - Rock Around The Bunker
Be honest -- you've always kind of wondered what it would have been like to grow up as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. In fact, you're so curious that you'll learn to speak French over it if you must. If this sounds like you, head to wherever fine language teaching software is pirated or sold and start learning, because French pop star Serge Gainsbourg made just the album you desire way back in 1975.
It's called Rock Around The Bunker, and it features swinging tunes about Hitler and his ilk during their time spent running roughshod over Gainesbourg's homeland. So what does it sound like? Insane, kind of. Case in point, have a look at "Nazi Rock" ...
... which is far and away the most aggressively French thing I've ever seen. He keeps his hand in the pocket of his tight black jeans for almost the entirety of the video, for fuck's sake.
Only one, though, because he needs the other for smoking, of course.
But don't we all?
Something else you'll notice about "Nazi Rock" is that, despite the dark subject matter, it's an incredibly upbeat song. Things seem to take a more somber tone on the title track ...
... but that lasts all of a minute or so, before it breaks into the kind of number that merits a dancing Hitler GIF.
If this all sounds weird, please know that this is actually Serge Gainsbourg at his most normal. After all, we're talking about the man who recorded a song called "Lemon Incest" with his 12-year-old daughter, complete with a video that's just them performing the song while laying in bed. Oh, and he's shirtless.
As you'd imagine, it's just the creepiest goddamn thing ever. For the record, that daughter is Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is a successful musician in her own right, but who in this country is probably better known for her leading roles in movies like Antichrist and Nymphomaniac. I'll pause to give everyone time to make their very best "daddy issues" joke here.
The point is that if you think Serge Gainsbourg having a dance party to his memories of when Hitler came to town is strange ... you're right. It's just that he's done way stranger, is all I'm saying.
The Kinks - Arthur (Or The Rise And Fall Of The British Empire)
What's that? Albums about the hardships of life in Europe during World War II aren't your thing? Cool, let's talk about The Kinks seventh album, Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire). Which, as you have probably already surmised, is about the hardships of life in Europe during World War II. Except in England this time!
The album centers around a man named Arthur (you probably already knew that) and his yearnings for a simpler time, before Adolf Hitler started pounding London with bombs on a nightly basis. Admittedly, it's not the kind of album you'd seek out for actual historical details. It's more a snapshot of the mood of the general public in England back then, which was influenced heavily by the man who would also go on to inspire one of the most overused memes of all time.
But not so calm that you miss out on this great value!
I'm talking about Winston Churchill, of course -- who never actually delivered those famous posters to the public, if you're interested in those kinds of details. Whatever the case, he did a lot to keep the citizens of his country from feeling completely defeated, which is something you can hear all about in "Mr. Churchill Says."
Another song, "She's Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina," deals with the rationing program put in place by the British government in response to Hitler's efforts to starve the British people into submission by attacking the trade routes that delivered their disgusting, boring-ass food.
If you doubt that the album actually captures the mood of that time, it's worth noting that the "Arthur" who inspired the title, the husband of the Davies brothers' older sister, said the album "reminded him of home." That's exactly what it was supposed to do.
Johnny Cash - America: A 200-Year Salute In Story And Song
Johnny Cash released an astounding 96 albums over the course of his career. When you consider that even the most prolific musicians tend to go at least a year between albums and that Cash died in his 70s, that's quite a feat. It's more than enough to make him one of the most prolific musicians of all time.
His catalog of music is also a wealth of information about the history of America. He took his patriotic duty as seriously as a person possibly can (short of joining the military) on 1972's America: A 200-Year Salute In Story And Song. Interestingly enough, despite having a title that kind of implies it will take a couple centuries to listen to and boasting a track list that's 21 songs deep, it still clocks in at a mere 32 minutes. That's because, along with actual songs, the album features several spoken word monologues in which Cash literally just describes historical events to the best of his amphetamine-ravaged ability ...
... before breaking into song about them.
So I guess it's kind of like the first De La Soul album in that way. It looks like there are a ton of songs, but half of them are mostly pointless filler.
Yeah, it's exactly like that.
Still, if you aren't at least sort of inspired upon hearing Johnny Cash deliver the Gettysburg Address verbatim ...
... you're either dead inside or you hail from a country with a far less rich history of racism, therefore making the whole thing resonate with you a lot less. There's also a song called "Big Foot" ...
... and I know it's shitty of me, but I was super disappointed to find it wasn't about a mythical, fur-covered beast.
One of the highlights of the album is a re-recording of a previous single, the perfectly awesome "Mr. Garfield."
That song tells the story of the assassination of President James Garfield through the eyes of a young boy gathering as much secondhand information about what happened as he can.
It's the most fun you'll have all day learning about the tragic and untimely death of a world leader.
Adam makes history every day on Twitter. Be a part of it @adamtodbrown.
Also be sure to check out 5 Details That Make Famous Conspiracy Theories Seem Legit and 5 Fireworks Disasters That Were Incredibly Fun To Watch.