Author Archives: Timothy Spears

Essential Criticism

Cole has taken our nostalgic reflection on pop music into new realms.  Great post.

So I move into this next installment a bit like a warm-up band that showed up late. And my sense of feeling warmed over is connected to what Cole and Matt address in their recent commentaries—that we find our love of pop music through friends and social networks we develop when we are young, as teenagers and college students.

I make this observation at just about 54 years of age, fully aware that my guitar hero days are behind me. But I still love the music, continue to crank it up on my iPod when I am at the gym (despite the hearing loss I’ve already endured), and look forward to our Friday afternoon show on WRMC. One of the benefits of the WRMC gig is (as it always has been) is the ready access to new music. However, the music in a college radio station is of a certain variety, and to get beyond what’s on the shelf—whether it be indie, hip-hop, electronica, or whatever—you have to look elsewhere.

So where do you go?  I mention three sources below, but want to encourage readers to chip in with suggestions, because I know how limited this list is.

1) Metacritic

I am a huge fan of Metacritic, and have been for several years. It assigns a grade to new music (and films, tv shows, and video games), based on an average of ratings given to published reviews of just released albums. For me, this is the best of both worlds: you get the general (meta) assessment, plus you can drill down for specific reviews of a given album.  The range of music on the site is impressive, and recently they’ve taken to highlighting the best albums of the month. I’ve also used their database to load my Netflix queue with all those great films I would never knew about if not for Metacritic.

2) The New York Times Popcast

This downloads to my iTunes account every week (you can subscribe, and it’s free), and includes conversations with Times reporters about the latest music. You get reviews, interviews, and the occasional music performance. I enjoy the critical discussion—how does one talk and write critically about pop music?—and I have picked up some great suggestions from listening to it. Plenty of variety and always informative.

3) Paste Magazine

This online magazine is pure pop, and the site speaks for itself. Lots of reviews, lists, and other good stuff (not just music).  Thanks to Matt for suggesting it a couple years ago.

In My Room

It seems to me that Cole’s post would be incomplete without the lyrics to the Beach Boys’ 1963 song “In My Room.” Written by Brian Wilson, along Gary Usher (Usher was not in the Beach Boys, but was part of the surf-music scene in Southern California), the song captures the emotional intensity of being a teenager, alone and cocooned in a private realm.

Few singer/songwriters do such fantasies better than Brian Wilson.

In My Room

There’s a world where I can go
and tell my secrets to
In my room
In my room

In this world I lock out
all my worries and my fears
In my room
In my room

Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing laugh at yesterday

Now it’s dark and I’m alone
but I won’t be afraid
In my room
In my room

Only The Lonely: Post by Cole Odell ’93

Technically, this is a guest post, but once we get Cole his log-on privileges, he will be a regular contributor to Music at Sixty-Eight Degrees. We also hope to get him up to Middlebury from his home in Brattleboro for a turn on the radio show.


In my personal experience. fandom can be a lot like masturbation: a solitary pursuit, often done in the privacy of your own room. Maybe that’s because I first came to fandom through comic books, not sports, well before geek culture conquered pop culture. Also, I grew up in a small, sleepy Vermont town. The idea that other actual people shared my interests took a long time to present itself to me. I now make regular treks to Comic-Con in San Diego with my best friend from Midd and tens of thousands of other fans, but no matter how big the crowd gets, part of me still feels alone in it.

This attitude has bled into my experience with music. Did I mention I grew up in small-town Vermont? That meant a radio dial filled with 90% static and 10% classic rock, top 40 or country. No college stations. A cable system that didn’t pick up MTV until 1987. A cohort whose collective musical tastes ranged from the Doors, Rush and the Stones, to Led Zep, the Who, and…not much else.

Geographic isolation also meant no rock concerts nearby. And to my parochial thinking, rock towns like Boston or even Northampton might as well have been the moon. Instead, being a music fan for me meant staying up until 1 AM on a school night hoping the radio would play my request for “One Night in Bangkok”; learning everything I could from the occasional copies of Rolling Stone; perusing my parents’ neglected record collection, or hanging around the record store.

Things changed over time. First, there was my high-school pastime of driving endless loops around town with my friend Todd, and Prince. Our mutual admiration for Sign ‘o the Times and Lovesexy marked my first instance of shared music interest. When MTV finally hit our area, it became a huge, if halting topic of conversation, as I found I spoke in Cure, P.I.L. and Love & Rockets, while Todd conversed in Crüe, Ratt and Winger. But at least our enthusiasms were within spitting distance.

Then my first concert, when I yielded to Todd’s hair metal devotion for a “99 Rock FM Party Bus” pilgrimage to see Skid Row and Bon Jovi in all their leather-pants-wearing, fireworks-exploding glory alongside, for the first time, thousands of genuine screaming fans. Still, as guilty-pleasure catchy as “Runaway” may be, I knew I wasn’t one of them.

Finally, Middlebury College remade me, especially my experience at WRMC. The station exposed me to a huge amount of music new and old, and providing regular access to live shows, shared with fellow fans I still consider some of my best friends—people with whom I still swap Spotify playlists, go to occasional shows, and have endless “have you heard this band” conversations. That said, today I live in a slightly larger Vermont town, with a spouse who’s a passive music fan at best, kids with little interest, and very few local friends who kept paying attention past their 20s. Most of my time spent with rock and roll is the same as it was when I was ten. Just me and the music.

Being There

Matt’s post about being a fan called to mind the first rock concerts I went to as a teenager. I purchased my first record—a 45—when I was in sixth grade (“Grazing in the Grass” by the Friends of Distinction) and my first album shortly thereafter (by Blood Sweat & Tears).  But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I went to a concert on my own.  I remember going with my family to see Judy Collins at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Fall, Ohio, about 30 miles outside Cleveland.  I must have been fourteen or fifteen, and this was a pretty tame affair: lawn seating, blankets, and white wine (for the adults).

My next concert was much different, and marked my first real outing as a rock fan.

The big event was something called “The World Series of Rock”—one of several all-day concerts held in the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the 1970s. Torn down in 1996, the Stadium was a cavernous structure that held over 80,000 people and served as home for the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns.

For the management of the Indians and the Browns, the World Series of Rock must have been a questionable proposition, regardless of the revenue opportunities, since the concert brought thousands of people on to the field and chewed up the turf. But for concertgoers—at least for me, a sixteen year old—it was a kind of delirious mayhem.

The first World Series of Rock concerts took place in the summer of 1974, and I attended two of them. The first included the Beach Boys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Walsh, and REO Speedwagon. The second featured Santana, the Band, Jesse Colin Young, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

The crowds that attended these concerts were huge and rowdy (drugs and alcohol had their effect), and I remember feeling exhilarated—and a little fearful—when I ventured onto the infield and was engulfed by a mob of people.  It turns out my apprehensions had some merit since several people ended up getting seriously hurt when they jumped or fell from the second deck of the stadium.

There is nothing like a live concert to drive home the sensory pleasures of rock ‘n roll. It’s a full body experience, especially if you are an adolescent male.  I remember hearing Lyrnyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” for the first time (in the smoking lounge of my high school) and thinking of it as some kind of revelation (just short of “Stairway to Heaven”).  Seeing/hearing it performed live at the Cleveland Stadium—with dual guitar solos—did not disappoint.

The fact that I saw this concert with thousands of other people raises a question that Matt suggests in his post.  Can you be a music fan by yourself?  Or does being a fan necessarily mean being part of a larger collective?

Pure Pop for Now (or is it, Then?) People

Last week Nick Lowe came out with a new album called That Old Magic, and it’s really good. I’ve been a fan of Lowe since his first solo album, which was released in Britain as Jesus of Cool but was retitled for the American market as Pure Pop for Now People. This was 1978, and as a college student who aspired to be cool, I found Lowe’s music just the ticket. It was melodic, clever, ironic, and poppy.  One song on Pure Pop is called “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” while another is about a woman eaten by her dachshund.  Lowe also wrote “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” and produced several Elvis Costello albums. As an iconoclast, Nick Lowe knew how to have fun.

In more recent years, beginning with his 1994 album, The Impossible Bird, Lowe has been writing and singing songs that evoke Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra, and his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash.  This is Lowe in a more reflective, wistful, even soulful mode.  More lounge crooner than New Wave rocker—and a good deal older (he is now 62)—this Nick Lowe is still completely immersed in pop music.  It’s just that the vantage point and emotional perspective have shifted. Like his previous four albums, That Old Magic is filled with longing and tinged with the blues, including an awareness of what it means to grow old as a pop singer.

You can read about That Old Magic and Lowe’s career in this New York Times piece, or listen to Terry Gross’ interview of him, which aired this past week on NPR and features an in-studio performance with Lowe covering several songs.

And on the subject of old pop music cycling into the new, you don’t want to miss Gay Talese writing in The New Yorker on Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. Pure pop traveling across the generations, sped by desire.  (Unfortunately, if you don’t subscribe to the magazine, you won’t have full access to Talese’s article.)


Music at Sixty-Eight Degrees: A Blog For Our Radio Show

Maybe it’s because we don’t have anything else better to do with our free time, but Matt Jennings and I thought it would be fun to establish a blog where we can write about the music we like to play on our radio show, which airs on Friday afternoon from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. on 91.1 FM. WRMC, Middlebury College radio, located in the Champlain Valley of Vermont . . . you get the idea.

We figured if we saved our extended thoughts for this blog and talked less on the air, we might have more time to play music.  That probably won’t happen, but we really do hope that by blogging about music (in an amateurish yet passionate way), we will encourage other people to share their love of music.  So we invite comments, lots of comments, and will include guest bloggers from time to time.  And we dream of the day when there are many different blogs, hosted by Middlebury music lovers of all kinds, trading suggestions (not music files) about the music they really like.

We expect to blog a couple times a week, and post the playlists from our Friday afternoon show.  That would be from 3:30 to 5:00 on 91.1 FM, WRMC, Middlebury College radio.

So we invite you to tune in: here, on the radio, or by listening to WRMC online.