2. Elliott Smith
For anyone familiar with this blog, these last few rankings should come as no surprise. Elliott Smith has been the subject of two posts in the past (‘Elliott Smith, Intercessory Psalmist‘ and ‘Happy 41st, Elliott’) and is deserving of many more, including this one. Elliott’s music is extremely well-crafted, revealing a genius of a high order. His musical abilities are only overshadowed by his profoundly intimate songwriting.
In addition to his inclusion here at number two in my Top 20 Bands, I’ve also committed myself to an obsessive Top 50 Elliott Smith Songs list. His 2000 record Figure 8 was ranked as my third favourite record released between 2000 and 2009. Along with Figure 8, two more of his records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list: Elliott Smith (1995) and Either/Or (1997).
‘Between the Bars’ from the album Either/Or, live recording from the 1997 short film Lucky Three:
‘Son of Sam’ from Figure 8:
Today marks what would have been Elliott Smith’s 41st birthday and I’d like to share a brief thought.
Think about some of the most influential popular musicians from the last 50 years. Perhaps Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Creed [followed by an audible laugh] and so on. Perhaps we could come to a consensus and say that these names (with the exception of one) are legendary. Dylan, McCartney, Lennon, Gilmour, Waters, Jackson, Cobain. We could continue the list for ages, but what I want to point out is that I’ve listed surnames and readers who are familiar with popular music in America and Britain probably knew exactly whom I was referring to. When I write ‘Paul and John’ you probably realise that I am referring to the principle songwriters (though George is clearly the best) of one of the most influential bands in history and in the proper context we will often call Michael by his forename without too much confusion. This is probably due to the fact that Michael Jackson and The Beatles are very much household names. Still, taken on their own we’ll more typically employ the surname.
Now, I am not suggesting that somehow Elliott Smith might someday be recognised among these greats. He’s been grossly underrated and ignored in the public, but such is the lot of a shy and reclusive indie songwriter who killed himself at 34. Regardless, I find it quite interesting that when I write about Elliott Smith I cannot write, ‘Smith recorded his debut record while still fronting Heatmiser.’ It feels unnatural and impersonal. Elliott wouldn’t want to be talked about that way (although he probably wouldn’t want to be talked about at all). (This is all apart from the fact that ‘Smith’ is one of the most common surnames in the English language.) Perhaps the same can be said of Sufjan Stevens, but we all know that writing/saying ‘Sufjan’ is a billion times more pleasing than writing/saying ‘Stevens’. When we write or talk about Elliott it is as if we are talking about an old friend. I never knew Elliott. I never met him and I never saw him in concert, but his music reaches out to listeners like me and each listen becomes a very personal encounter. Elliott shares his soul with us and—as I’ve written about before—he shares our souls for us.
I’ve been compiling a list of my ‘Top 50 Elliott Smith Songs’ for several months now. As Greg so conscientiously shared his ‘Top 50 Sufjan Stevens Songs’ in order based upon his preference, I had hoped to do the same for Elliott. But Elliott’s work is quite different from Sufjan’s and I found that after arranging the first few songs on the list in preferential order it became very arbitrary – I am in love with different tracks for different reasons. So, like my ‘Top 50 Albums’, I am going to organise these songs by title. These tracks (as well as many many others) are all gems and if you don’t own any of the official releases I suggest you look into making some purchases immediately. Enjoy.
- ‘2:45 A.M.’/Either/Or, 1997
- ‘Angeles’/Either/Or, 1997
- ‘Baby Britain’/XO, 1998
- ‘Between the Bars’/Either/Or, 1997
- ‘The Biggest Lie’/Elliott Smith, 1995
- ‘Can’t Make a Sound’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘Christian Brothers’/Elliott Smith, 1995
- ‘Coast to Coast’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
- ‘Dancing on the Highway’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
- ‘A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
- ‘The Enemy Is You’/Either/Or era, circa 1997
- ‘Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands’/XO, 1998
- ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘Going Nowhere’/Either/Or era, circa 1997, officially released on New Moon in 2007
- ‘Good to Go’/Elliott Smith, 1995
- ‘Happiness’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘High Times’/Either/Or era, circa 1997, officially released on New Moon in 2007
- ‘How to Take a Fall’/Either/Or era, circa 1997
- ‘I Better Be Quiet Now’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘I Can’t Answer You Anymore’/3 Titres Inedits (French promo), 2000
- ‘I Didn’t Understand’/XO, 1998
- ‘In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘King’s Crossing’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
- ‘L.A.’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘Last Call’/Roman Candle, 1995
- ‘Let’s Get Lost’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
- ‘Miss Misery’/Good Will Hunting (soundtrack), 1997
- ‘Needle In the Hay’/Elliott Smith, 1995
- ‘No Name #2’/Roman Candle, 1995
- ‘O So Slow’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
- ‘Oh Well, Okay’/XO, 1998
- ‘A Passing Feeling’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
- ‘Pictures of Me’/Either/Or, 1997
- ‘Pitseleh’/XO, 1998
- ‘Pretty Mary K’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘Roman Candle’/Roman Candle, 1995
- ‘Rose Parade’/Either/Or, 1997
- ‘Say Yes’/Either/Or, 1997
- ‘Shooting Star’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
- ‘Son of Sam’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘Southern Belle’/Elliott Smith, 1995
- ‘Splitsville’/Southlander (soundtrack), 2001
- ‘Strung Out Again’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
- ‘Stupidity Tries’/Figure 8, 2000
- ‘Sweet Adeline’/XO, 1998
- ‘True Love’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
- ‘Twilight’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
- ‘Waltz #2 (Xo)’/XO, 1998
- ‘The White Lady Loves You More’/Elliott Smith, 1995
- ‘You Make it Seem Like Nothing’/Either/Or era live recording, circa 1996
(For the sake of space I’ve omitted anything Elliott did with other musical acts, otherwise I’d certainly include ‘Plainclothes Man’ and ‘Half Right’ from Heatmiser’s 1996 album Mic City Sons and the rare recording from a French radio broadcast of ‘The Machine’ from Elliott’s high school band Stranger Than Fiction.)
Happy birthday, Elliott.
1969 – 2003
In my lifetime I have been blessed with the opportunity to know or at least to be exposed to various people that have a magic in them that necessitate a portion of my devotion – my heroes. Among them are people like my father, who taught me the meaning of selflessness, hard work, and patience, my grandfather, who taught me what it truly means to be a servant of God, Greg, who has impacted the way I relate to God, myself, others and to art more than any other single person, and people that I don’t know personally – people like Bob Dylan, John Gardner and Elliott Smith. Among those people at the top of my list of heroes, Daniel Smith stands out as the most inspiring and influential.
Daniel Smith is truly a unique character. It’s difficult to be indifferent toward him, that is to say he is a polarizing person. There’s a quality to his personality and the way he expresses himself that will either turn you on or turn you off, but will never leave you indifferent. The process and product of his imagination are not something I can easily express in one post. In 2006 a documentary was released, ‘Danielson, a Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise Here)‘ documenting the progress of Daniel Smith’s artistic expression since the founding of the “Danielson Famile,” a band literally consisting of Daniel and his siblings. Daniel was an art student at Rutgers and his professors insisted that the visual and performing arts were to be kept in their respective galleries and conservatories. Daniel wouldn’t have it, and since 1994 he hasn’t had it. He’s continued to press forward even after fifteen years of mediocre (at best) success. The sincerity and devotion with which he creates is what captures me most.
I could go on and on about Daniel and the opportunities I’ve had to meet him/see him perform, but I’d rather introduce you to the man. And if you’ve already been introduced you ought to watch anyway. This video, which was posted on the Danielson site yesterday, is a great summation of much of what Daniel Smith stands for. Take a look:
This post, in partial attempt to push my last post under the radar, is more in my line of pseudo-expertise and at least non-inflammatory interest…
On 6 August 2009 Elliott Smith would have turned 40 years old. Instead, on 21 October 2009 we grieve six years without him. Readers may or may not know who Elliott Smith was (or is), but if you’ve heard the film soundtracks for either Good Will Hunting, Hurricane Streets, American Beauty, Keeping the Faith, Antitrust (sadly), The Royal Tenenbaums, Thumbsucker, Georgia Rule (unfortunately), The Go-Getter, or Paranoid Park, or if you’ve played through Guitar Hero 5, you’ve been exposed to at least a portion of his work. If you’ve not heard any of that, maybe you saw the 70th Academy Awards (1998) and caught his performance “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for best original song (losing to James Horner and Will Jennings for “My Heart Will Go On,” from the film Titanic). Though he never experienced a great degree of commercial success, Elliott Smith has left a legacy of what I believe are some of the best pop/folk songs ever written.
Elliott Smith’s singing voice can be characterized as a tenor-whisper (which is also doubled in most tracks – Elliott is among the finest/if not the finest doubling singers I’ve ever heard). When I first heard his unique voice I didn’t know what to expect regarding his looks. The first time you see a picture of Elliott after hearing his voice you might ask yourself, “Really?” Yet when you see a live performance (something now only possible through video recordings) the deep honesty of his voice is a perfect complement to the deep honesty of his weathered face.
Lyrically Elliott is typically rather dark, which typically leaves his listeners ultimately unsurprised (though devastated) when they learn of his suicide. His lyrics often feature the themes of existential despair, love (or the absence of such) and the looming prospect of taking one’s own life (“Instruments shine on a silver tray | Don’t let me get carried away | Don’t let me get carried away | Don’t let me be carried away” – last lines on From a Basement on the Hill‘s ‘King’s Crossing’, one of the last songs he ever wrote).
But contrary to accusations I’ve often heard against it, Elliott’s music is not a tool for thrusting oneself into despair. I cannot precisely explain the emotional quality that draws me into Elliott Smith’s music, but it is not one that is dismal so much as it is honest. When I listen to Elliott Smith I find an advocate, a counselor, one not above the darkness, but in its midst. Like the Psalmist, Elliott cries out for me when I have no words. And that is what gives Elliott the edge in my musical library: he is so substantive and of this earth. His passions, his pains, his loves, his hates, his strengths, and his weaknesses are all laid out with the utmost artistic integrity. I truly believe every word that comes from his mouth, or at least I believe that he believes what he is singing.
If you’re looking for shallow comfort listen to The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’, one of my favourite pop songs of all time. But if you want to experience someone’s heart laid out before you and if you want to taste both the sweetness and bitterness of a true artist, give Elliott Smith a listen, a long intentional listen.
Elliott Smith Full-Length Releases
Let me first say that I consider every Elliott Smith album an excellent album, and I don’t award such praise lightly (at least I don’t think I do…).
From 1991 to 1996 Elliott sang/played guitar in the alternative rock band Heatmiser. While in the band he began his solo career, resulting in 1994’s Roman Candle, nine tracks (the last one instrumental) that Elliott had not actually intended on releasing in album form. With this in mind, Roman Candle is much less cohesive than Elliott’s later releases, but still showcases his exceptional musical/writing ability, as well as the signature lo-fi production that characterizes most of his music.
Elliott released his self-titled album in 1995, like Roman Candle, while still in Heatmiser. This album includes the track, “Needle in the Hay,” featured in the film The Royal Tenenbaums.
Either/Or, released in 1997, follows in the same vein as Elliott’s first two releases. The title comes from Søren Kierkegaard’s book, Enten ‒ Eller. Several songs from this album were used in the film Good Will Hunting (though “Miss Misery,” the song for which Elliott was nominated for an Academy Award, was written specifically for the film and saw no studio album release).
Elliott followed Either/Or with 1998’s XO, his first release through DreamWorks and thus his first release on a major label. Elliott’s earlier philosphical/aesthetic sentiments are present, but begin to manifest themselves differently through this album, which features more instruments and better production.
Following in the same musical/productive trajectory of XO, Elliott released Figure 8 in 2000. This album is simply incredible. The cover photo was taken in front of the A/V repair shop Solutions in Los Angeles by photographer Autumn de Wilde. If you’re in Los Angeles you can visit and leave a message on the wall (located at 4334 W. Sunset Blvd.), which has become an unofficial Elliott Smith memorial.
At the time of his death, Elliott was still working on this album, which was released posthumously in 2004. Though we don’t have Elliott’s final product here, his former producer along with his girlfriend compiled this album from the material he had been working on in the studio. They did a good job.
This album is actually a compilation of B-sides, outtakes and rarities generally from the self-titled and Either/Or sessions, and the style/production is predominantly reflective of that period. It was released in 2007.
For more information on Elliott Smith visit Sweet Adeline, his official website.
Greg has done an excellent job of raking in this year’s best (at least in his highly-informed opinion) albums. That’s great stuff (I’m only speaking generally because I think Coldplay’s Viva La Vida is mostly rubbish), but how much of it will we be listening to in two years? Because music is in-and-out so frequently I’ve composed what I consider the best albums of 2008, though none of them were released this year. Lend me your ear eye.
If you or I were to look at a list of our favorite albums from two years ago it would probably be different than the list we would make today. I’m suspecting a lot of the albums that I considered my favorite from two years ago have lost ground in my personal rating and that is not to say that the latest albums have replaced them. What I’ve found is that through recycling the music I listen to I sit with an album longer and it really grows on me. For instance, I first heard Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 in 2001. Since then this album has been climbing its way up my list and I considered it my favorite album of 2005 (even better than Come on Feel the Illinoise!, the quintessential indie-folk hit that year). If Greg’s picks were subjective, mine will likely be hyper-subjective. This whole thing also has to do with the fact that the music I listen to usually gets to my ears one of three ways: by way of NPR/KCRW, by way of associated acts (i.e. I heard of Sufjan Stevens because he once played in Danielson, an earlier favorite of mine), or by way of a highly sophisticated (and elitist) filtration system consisting largely of Greg Stump.
With all of that said, I must also add that I have not purchased much new music from this year. In fact, as I look at my computer the only albums I see in my iTunes library from 2008 are Ratatat’s LP3, Danielson’s Danielson Alive EP (free online), and Danielson’s Trying Hartz. I’m not against new music, but I suppose that after sampling I wasn’t compelled to buy many new full albums this year. That is not to say that I’ve not grown in my musical breadth: according to my “date added” information in my iTunes library I’ve added more than forty albums to my iTunes this year (and it’s not over), thus I’ve purchased more than forty albums this year (buying used music on Amazon is incredible). So out of the albums that I’ve purchased this year here are my top ten.