Candidates for top 10 albums of 2002: Foo Fighters - One By One
One By One
This isn’t quite an amazing album—they can’t all be—but it’s a well-above-average album that’s executed perfectly (…almost too perfectly. If this album has a flaw, it’s that the Foos are too focused on the little things.)
Even though it sounds nothing like it, in an abstract way, One By One is surprisingly similar to Songs About Jane, by Maroon 5, from the same year (…and yes…also a candidate.) Don’t get me wrong. The Foos are a better band and One By One is a better record—it has more depth, if equally little substance—but both are straight-up pop-rock records with tasty licks and fills, charmingly charismatic vocalists, crisp production, and superficial song content and structure.
Both records perfectly tell the story of the post-9/11 domestic Bush doctrine: keep up appearances commercially and proudly proclaim your petty problems because, if all we talk about is terrorism, them al qaeda wins. Entitlement is the American way. So its important to preserve our culture of commodities and complain about anything trivial, because goddamnit, we’re deserve what we expect, as Americans. (There’s no such thing as having a free lunch? What if it’s made of cake? And you eat it too?)
In 2002, dealing with 9/11 blatantly was still awkward in commercial art. (Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers felt weird. But so did re-animating the Spiderman previews to omit the twin towers, like they were never there.) That’s why the closest either of the two records in question come to topical (or even thoughtful) is in the Foos’ exceedingly ambiguous anthem, “Times Like These”—which expertly pulls off an odd-time feel that’s as smooth as Rush but much more subtle and accessible. (But times like when? Is the song ever not applicable? Apparently. Grohl got pretty pissed when Bush appropriated it for his reelection campaign and, charging that Bush—understandably—didn’t get the true meaning of the song, Grohl started playing it live for Kerry.)
One By One is not at all a concept album. But it’s definitely a complete album. And it’s well paced. The filler falls where you’d expect it so it’s not too annoying to avoid. But every song’s got at least one really cool thing about it. Grohl has actually even admitted that he doesn’t love the album, precisely because it’s just a bunch of good ideas that are overproduced to sound like songs. But I don’t hold that against it. (It’s weird that you would like someone’s art better than them. But a lot of great art is born from contempt—and borne with contempt—so it’s probably for the best.)
The paradox is that the songs on One By One were deliberately designed to be played live—what any legit rock band spends most of its time doing and a department in which the Foos are especially sick—but the album embodies the opposite ethos; it’s a tightly controlled studio record stuffed full of forceful songs that unfortunately end up sounding somewhat forced. But, even if it doesn’t have the gnarly energy of the first few Foos albums, One By One still totally rips.
Roughly 10 years later, both Maroon 5 and the Foos made records that purposefully pivoted from their hugely popular 2002 offerings. The Foos went back into the studio with two new team members from Grohl’s gnarly Nirvana days, back-up guitarist Pat Smear (also from the Germs and the first incarnation of the Foos) and producer (of Nevermind) Butch Vig (who was also the drummer in Garbage). They made a big deal about recording in Grohl’s garage rather than a studio (although I imagine Grohl can afford a studio-caliber garage) and ended up with an album that’s actually comparable to the first two in intensity. They also released a documentary about the history of the band. Clearly they’re nostalgic.
Grohl’s mission in life is to prove that rock ain’t dead. He’s right, of course. And he’s mostly managed to balance—although not as smoothly as Cobain—the irony of proving this by being a mega-mainstream-pop-star. (The Foos usually do this by being inclusive—unlike Radiohead [maybe the only band all Barons listen to regularly] who have only recently reduced their smugness just enough to perform at the Grammys—but occasionally they’ll call out an easy target, like fellow-Grammy-favorites (and a band Radiohead has also famously snubbed) Coldplay, in their 2011 video for “Walk”. Notably, this was after “you know how I know you’re gay?”)
Last year, Grohl’s attempt to keep rock relevant manifested as a live deadmau5 dub-step remix of “Rope” that was pretty awkward. (Grohl’s choreographed head-banging at the end didn’t help.) And it paled in comparison to their Grammy performance with Chick Corea a few years earlier. Alas, the most recent Foos news is that they’re taking a break. (Although this might lead to a Dave Grohl / Niel Young collabo!!)
Meanwhile, Maroon 5 released two records that are so poppy it’s hard to believe they’re still a band and not just Adam Levine and some backup dancers. It’s at least a little ironic that one of last year’s biggest pop/dance hits would honor the flamboyant convulsions of a rock-god while the real Jagger was proving Grohl’s thesis that rock lives. (In fact, after the spring season finale of SNL, Mick Jagger and the Foo Fighters played the cast party, as Chevy Metal.) Oh yeah and, after having their own Snapple flavor—very random but actually very delicious—Maroon 5 has their front-man co-hosting a popular TV show.
But back to One By One. I don’t care what the band says; it’s a really solid record and one of their best. Unfortunately, I think they’ve spent the last 10 years trying to make up for it. Of course that’s unnecessary. Yes its form and content maintain a surface level focus but that just makes it a telling product of its times (like these.) It’s a-political with A+ production. But I’m not saying it’s shallow. There is some arguably legitimate self-reflection on the record. And maybe it’s even an introspective album. If so, it’s in a superficial way. But that’s why it’s so solid and accessible. Rock on.