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Genius, satire and sauerkraut: “Weird Al” releases greatest hits album

Nick Anderson | Wednesday, October 28, 2009

At the age of 16, like many of my peers, I became cool. I started buying my own clothes, got a haircut, started driving, understood the films of Wes Anderson and bought music by The Strokes.

I quickly purged any “uncool” things from my past. This included my glasses, jean shorts and my entire music collection up to that point. While I doubt I’ll ever comb landfills searching for my lost Creed, Will Smith and Alien Ant Farm CDs, I regret to this day disposing of the first album I ever bought: “Bad Hair Day” by “Weird Al” Yankovic.

“Weird Al” has one of the strangest careers in modern culture. In 1980, in a dorm bathroom with only his accordion and its case (for a drum), he recorded the first of his singles, “My Bologna” (a parody of “My Sharona”). No one could have predicted the three decades, 12 million sold records and three Grammy awards that would follow.

There is no one else quite like him in pop culture. He’s a court jester, mocking those songs and artists we hold dear. At the same time, he’s a gatekeeper of the industry. Any artist parodied by him wears it like a badge of honor. Far and away, he’s the best selling and most respected comedic musician of all time.

“The Essential ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic,” a collection of 38 songs handpicked by the man himself, is a much needed release of his better music. While he already has two greatest hits albums, the most recent was released in 1994, without masterpieces like “Amish Paradise,” “The Saga Begins” and “White and Nerdy.” Coming in at over two hours long, this collection of novelty songs stretched on much too long. Like many career-spanning double albums, this one is better listened to song-by-song, not as an Al marathon.

His best-known songs, parodies such as “Like a Surgeon” and “Smells like Nirvana,” present an odd musical condition. The music sounds dated (which is most often is) but the lyrics have aged well. Instead of writing contemporary jokes, his lyrics adopt the surreal and absurd humor in the tradition of Monty Python. Obesity, disembodied heads, Yuletide massacres and Star Wars populate the bizarre but incredibly amusing world of his parodies.

In addition to straight parodies, Al writes stylistic parodies. Songs such as “Bob,” a Bob Dylan song written entirely in palindromes, “Dare to be Stupid,” the perfect Devo song (according to Devo themselves), and “Pancreas,” a Brian Wilson tribute that’s near identical at a quick listen, display an unparalleled understanding of music and pop sensibilities. Noticeably absent are “Genius in France,” a Zappa homage, and “CNR,” a White Stripes tune written about Charles Nelson Reilly.

While his parodies are by far his most famous songs, his best moments come from his original pieces. Since the mid-80s, Al has performed with one of the tightest backing bands in the business. By taking on full writing responsibilities, Al’s genius is able to fully shine through. Whether it’s a two-minute doo-wop ditty about hating an ex-girlfriend or an 11-minute whimsical alt rock rant about how much he hates sauerkraut, each song fires on all cylinders, both lyrically and musically.

After 30 years, “Weird Al” has arrived as an elder statesman of the pop industry, outlasting most of those he’s mocked. One man, an accordion, and some lyrical whimsy have turned out some of the funniest songs of the last three decades. If nothing else, this album reminds the listener of the joy Al has brought to so many along while also providing a compelling body of evidence for his musical prowess.

Contact Nick Anderson at nanders5@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.