What I Learned at Rolling Stone: Leaving Classic Rock in the Past


Published: August 28, 2008When people ask what I’ve been up to this summer, they usually seem impressed by the fact that I’m an intern at RollingStone.com, and I’d have to agree that it’s pretty sweet. On my first day, I really enjoyed the “turn right at the giant signed Beatles poster” part of the directions to the bathroom. And once, in between formatting stories and back-linking on RollingStone.com’s Rock Daily blog, I walked out of the elevator as Crosby, Stills and Nash walked in for an in-office luncheon with RS editors. I’ve had opportunities to sit in on brainstorming meetings and see first-hand how ideas for the web site come about—and this week, I finally had the opportunity call up a rock star myself and say, “Hey, I’m from Rolling Stone.”

The Hold Steady’s “Stay Positive” launched the band to new highs—and not just the drug-induced ones the band loves to glorify. (Courtesy of MCT)

But there are other sorts of effects, too. As a result of the magazine’s recent Jonas Brothers cover story, I’ve learned everything from Nick Jonas’s favorite sandwich (an Italian hero) to the first concert Kevin Jonas attended (MXPX) and his favorite song (John Mayer’s “3 x 5”). I find myself often defending the trio as “real musicians with bright futures,” a thought I would have found my folk, indie and punk-loving self laughing hysterically at two months ago. Though I don’t particularly care for their music at all, I rationalize this by explaining that they will have the same transformation as Justin Timberlake did from his sugar-sweet *Nsync days to his current state of epic JT coolness.

Jonas Brothers aside, one of the coolest parts of interning at Rolling Stone is all of the sweet new tunes that have passed through my headphones over the past few months. Read on for musings on the top 10 albums I’ve come across this summer—and let me know which ones I forgot!

1. She & Him: Volume One

Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward could have used their high profile names to generate buzz for their mellow, ’70s pop-inspired album, but they chose to let the soft rock speak for itself, and keep a low profile by naming their band “She & Him” and their album “Volume One.” Paired with Ward’s acoustic and oft-bluesy guitar, Deschanel’s simple songs are a breath of fresh air.

2. Spiritualized: Songs in A&E

The Brit rockers who put space-rock on the map with “Ladies in Gentleman, We’re Floating in Space” are back with a lengthy disc of songs (18 tracks in total) to get lost in—their sixth studio release in 30 years. The album’s key track, “Soul on Fire,” is reminiscent of none other than the Flaming Lips.

3. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes

Indie-rocking dream pop to blast while driving fast, beach-bound with the windows down. Soft harmonies, serious tambourines and an array of string instruments make up folk songs that are largely inspired by Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Beach Boys.

4. MGMT: Oracular Spectacular

MGMT are Brooklynites with tongue-in-cheek electro-rock songs about the rock star live-fast-die-young lifestyle (“I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars/You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars”). Album hits like “Time to Pretend”and “Electric Feel” might be on rotation at American Eagle Outfitters, but the band is decidedly bad ass—enough so that, after only one album and a single year of touring, MGMT brought out the largest crowd McCarren Park Pool saw this summer.

5. Thao with the Get Down Stay Down: We Brave Bee Stings and All

Thao and her band blend polished folk rock with hints of jazz piano and twangy bluegrass guitar; her voice brings Chan Marshall to mind. Thao’s harmonies flow delicately over the album’s eclectic instrumentals, which put banjo or bluesy, mellow electric guitar solos on top of reverberating drum beats and horns to finish. The album opens with “Beat (Health, Life and Fire),” an honest sing-along with pulsing beats, infectious hooks and a catchy chorus: “How can you stand it?/ When I run/ When I run like a bandit?”

6. Mason Jennings: In the Ever

Signed to Jack Johnson’s label but keeping his sound his own, Mason Jenning’s recent release is more cut out for a coffee shop than the beach. That sentiment is summed up well on the album’s hit, “Fighter Girl.” Although the tracks are composed simply with guitar, vocals and piano, he dwells on relatable topics like religion, in the sing-song “I Love You and Buddha, Too,” and heartbreak, in “Your New Man.”

7. Apes and Androids: Blood Moon

Brooklyn’s token glam rock band is best known for their absurd live shows, which in the past have included everything from packs of choreographed zombie dancers to lines of robe-clad gospel singers, blasts of glow-in-the-dark confetti and parades of primitively dressed African dancers—imagine “Where The Wild Things Are” meets wild Williamsburg party. Their sing-along songs and party-starting jams are futuristic, but done in a classic rock tradition. Think Beck meets Prince and David Bowie, or a live performance that merges the dance-party energy of The Faint with the extravagance of The Flaming Lips.

8. Nas: Untitled

It might not be his personal best, but Nas’s “Untitled” is one of rap’s most political albums in over a decade. Nas invites A-listers like Mark Ronson to lay down tracks while he focuses on intelligent lyrics. On “Hero,” Nas acknowledges his labels’ refusal to let him title the album “N*GGER,” and on “Sly Fox,” he warns, over gritty electric guitar, “Watch what you watchin’/Fox keeps feeding us toxins.” The album’s final track, “Black President,”samples Tupac (“Though it might seem heaven sent/ We ain’t ready to have a black president”) layered with Obama’s hopeful slogan, “Yes we can!” The song praises Obama but questions whether or not he will stay loyal in office; the song, of course, ends on a hopeful, supportive note.

9. The Hold Steady: Stay Positive

Springsteen-inspired rock narratives from this Brooklyn bar band turned international phenomenon tell detailed college tales and provide hard rocking summer anthems about getting hammered, partying with townies, and “staying positive” through your 30s. 37-year-old frontman Craig Finn tends to romanticize the hard-drinking, drug-downing lifestyle—stand out stories from “Stay Positive” include, “When there weren’t any parties/ She’d park by the quarry/ Walk into the woods until she came to a clearing/ Where townies would gather and drink until blackout/ Smoke cigs till they’re sick/ Pack bowls and then pass out.”

10. Conor Oberst: Conor Oberst

Some would argue that it’s senseless for Conor to put out a “solo” album free from his band Bright Eyes—and these are the same people who would argue against Oberst as one of the greatest songwriters of our generation. Which, post-2005, he is—making them twice mistaken.

On Oberst’s first solo album since 1996, he presents fans with his most mature disc to date, with highlights like “Moab,” the key-driven, bluegrassy “I Don’t Want to Die (in a hospital),” and “Souled Out!!!” On both “Moab” and the fast-rocking “NYC Gone Gone,” it’s clear that the singer’s finally found himself a place to level out far from New York City—that place is Mexico, where Conor assembled his Mystic Valley Band and recorded the entire album.

“There’s nothing that the road cannot heal,” Oberst sings on “Moab,” evoking shades of Bob Dylan. His songwriting has matured, but he’s still young, as is made clear on “Milk Thistle,” during which Oberst sings, “If I go to heaven, I’ll be bored as hell.” “Souled Out!!!” is ironically the album’s brightest gem (please note the play on words). Despite the fact that Conor’s music has done nothing but improve, one must wonder if—with his switch from his own indie label Saddle Creek to the slightly bigger Merge Records for this latest effort—“souling” out was his plan all along.