Top Tracks: Ryan Thomas
Columnist Morgan Magid interviews the MU professor about his favorite album.
Welcome to the premiere of Top Tracks! Each week, I’ll be asking people from around Columbia and Mizzou about their favorite album of all time. For our first interview, I spoke with Ryan Thomas, an assistant professor in our very own J-School. Originally from Wales, Thomas attended graduate school here in the States. Also prior to becoming a professor who enlightens freshmen on media ethics and teaching graduate courses, he spent some time as a music journalist. His favorite album? “Parallel Lines” by New York City’s own Blondie.
Q: So why Parallel Lines? A: Well, there’s two reasons in a way. First of all, it reminds me of discovering that era of music for the first time. My mother used to have the old vinyl records of Blondie, Roxy Music, David Bowie, The Talking Heads, stuff like that. So that’s the personal side of it. In terms of the quality of the music, I think it’s the quintessential pop album. One of the reasons why I like Blondie so much (is) I think they’re the kind of band that that doesn’t come along very often that has underground credibility and pop smarts and can take that into the mainstream. And I think this record really encapsulates that, that sort of combination of the underground and the “Billboard” charts. And I think there’s great songs on it, but I think it’s the sensibility of it that I really like.
So did you first hear it through your mom and rediscover it when you were older? Yeah, I first heard it because my mother would play it. We had an old record player that she would play music on from when she was growing up and so yeah I got into it there. Then I bought my own copy on CD, which was the thing of the time, of their greatest hits so listening to the greatest hits sent me into the back catalogue. So that’s how I got into them.
With other music, how did you get into other music? Oh yeah, I was always getting into music all the time. The group of friends that I had, we were always trying to follow music; I was an avid reader of music magazines, just constantly trying to latch onto new things. And I think getting into those older bands helps contextualize newer bands. So I think I was 16 when The Strokes got really popular. So having already listened to bands like Blondie, The Ramones, Television, it helped me contextualize those newer bands and see, “Oh, they’re getting this riff or this style from these bands.” So that’s nice, to place people in that kind of lineage.
Did you ever see them in concert? Yes, when they reformed in the late ‘90s I saw them a couple of times in Britain and I also saw them in the U.S. I don’t think they’re a very good live band. I think the production irons out a lot; I mean it’s a phenomenally produced record, that’s one thing all their records are really well produced. They’ve always had this reputation as being a sort of rough and ready live act, kind of rough around the edges. But there’s sort of a nostalgia around seeing them still performing, so you forgive all of that. It doesn’t sound like the best thing in the world, but kudos to them for keeping on going. So I’ve seen them a couple of times.
There’s some bands you think, “Wow, what a good live band.” They put on a really good show and it sort of enhances the record. I think Blondie is the opposite. To me, they’re an extremely, extremely good studio band that doesn’t always translate live. And I think part of the reason is if you look at the origins of Blondie, they came out of the New York punk scene and they’re very much a bar band. So they’re playing stadiums, but they’re playing like a bar band. And there’s an authenticity to that that I appreciate because those always make for the best live experience.
Yeah, I actually saw them two years ago at a festival in Chicago and they covered The Beastie Boys, which was a bit surprising. Yeah they’ve been putting that into their setlist lately. I think the three main band members who were there in the ‘70s are in their 60s now. The other thing I like about them, and this isn’t so much about the music, is the sensibility of them. I’m yet to see a better-dressed band or a more stylish band. And I don’t just mean Debbie Harry, who I think is the best female frontwoman of any band ever. The rest of the band, and you can see when you look at The Strokes for example, it’s Blondie, they’re dressed exactly the same. So there’s that self-conscious style about them that I think is cool.
What other albums were on your list? Well, The Talking Head’s “Remaining Light” was an absolute fantastic album, just tremendously creative. So that was a close, close call. My favorite band of all time is New Order, but I always associate New Order as a singles band. In terms of their singles, they’re absolutely the best band ever, but they never put together an album that made me want listen to just that album over and over again.
It’s like a greatest hits-type band Exactly, whereas I think Remaining Light and Parallel Lines you get a sense of the album as an experience and you can listen to it multiple times, whereas with New Order, you’re right, you could play their greatest hits, I could play continuously, and not get tired of it. That’s not to say that their albums are necessarily bad, they just don’t have that cohesion. So, yeah, New Order is my favorite band but I couldn’t say that there’s an album that I rate all that highly. I think the debut album by The Stokes “Is This It?” is a terrific album because it sort of jumpstarted rock at that time. Because at that time it was sort of nu-metal, baggy jeans and that kind of stuff. It was very sort of horrible music to listen to like Limp Bizkit and Korn and when I was growing up you had all these awkward British kids listening to nu-metal thinking that they were cool. And so The Strokes came along, and other bands as well, and cleared the decks [for] a complete rearranging of the music scene, which was necessary at the time. But it’s also a terrific album on its own merit.
I’m a big Roxy Music fan; I think their best album is “Manifesto.” That’s a great album, that’s a great piece of work. And a lot of those albums from the New York punk scene, like the CBGB scene, and a little bit before that in the ‘70s, I think is an unparalleled time of invention, a lot of cool things going on in music that makes me very jealous of those that were [around.] Another era that I really like is the… I’m not a big punk fan, like in terms of the Sex Pistols, I think they’re sort of overrated, but I think what the critics call the post-punk era like Joy Division, New Order, The Cure.
The Smiths? Yeah, like post 1979/1980s. That I think has produced a lot of excellent albums. But yeah I think overall “Parallel Lines” because I think for me it’s a perfect record. In terms of the cover, every single song, the production, the way it’s arranged. It is quite literally I think a perfect record. And I think there are very few perfect records, but it stood the test of time.