Alan Watts – Music and Life. (via somewhere on Twitter months and months ago)
My music listening was way down this year. I blame it on all the movies and starting a new job. The end result is that my best picks here probably aren’t quite as strong as they were in 2008, 2009, 2010, or 2011. But still, some good stuff. As in previous years, the vast majority of this came before 2012, but this was the year I paid attention.
Greatest Hits – Mariah Carey. This album saw me through the end of a hard winter. So much goodness. I don’t know if I’ll ever dive into one of her full albums… but some of these peaks are so high I may reconsider. Emotions!
Return to the Winners Circle – Curren$y. If I needed to, I could rank this solely on the strength of Moon & Stars Remix. Rare that the headliner and two guest rappers all just destroy their verses. And I love that backbeat.
Da Chip Vol. 1 & 2 was a fun listen, but probably works best if you’re already familiar with Daft Punk, right?
Sometimes you don’t realize it, but what your life is missing is an awesome collection of Kraftwerk tunes covered with a Latin/lounge feel. Thankfully my buddy John knew what I needed to hear: El Baile Alemán from Señor Coconut y Su Conjunto. For all the campiness, there’s some smart, creative arrangements here. Neon Lights and Showroom Dummies are good examples.
Big Bach Set. It’s a great bargain. The Mass in B minor is a big draw, but besides that, the Adagio from the Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1060 really stood out. Pizzicato in stereo is so wonderful on headphones.
My best music month overall.
Come Shop Wit Me – Young Jeezy. I’m 9 years late, but it’s album of the year for me. My faves from Jeezy’s second are: Let Me Hit Dat (love those reverb guitars and the overactive bass; Fi Chief & Big Dank kill it), Take It to the Floor (pump-up/act like I’m someone I’m not song), Come Shop Wit Me (fun storytelling, and the overdriven bass line reminds me of a late ’80s video game), Thug Ya (steel drums!), and Bananas (fat, dopey bass, and something about his voice in the verses here: looser, goofier, unhinged).
Blue Afternoon. You’d figure I’d catch on to Tim Buckley sooner, having spent college obsessing over his son’s music. You’d figure wrong. Listen to Happy Time and Blue Melody. He’s got a wonderful back-up band. The whole gang is so loose. And look at that album cover!
Bloom – Beach House. It’s a lot like the previous three, which is totally fine by me. (I think only Bach and Camera Obscura beats them in my music archive for comfy, catchy, beloved predictability.) Myth is an obvious stand-out, but I think the verses on New Year are kinda genius. Same for Wild.
Shortly after that album came out, I caught Beach House on tour again. On the drive back from Athens, a friend introduced me to Bad Vibes by Shlohmo. Drippy, druggy lullabies. Places and Seriously are favorites.
I got nothin’.
A great month for radio in the car!
Kaleidoscope Dream – Miguel. Adorn has gotten crazy playtime in Atlanta. That bass is perfect for your car. And I love how the harmony is a little suppressed, so that voice and the bass do all the driving.
Trilla – Rick Ross. My friend Katie and I were driving to one of my favorite places to eat too much, if I recall correctly. I heard the opening sample from my favorite Stevie Wonder album in Here I Am and I was sold. I made her Shazam it for future reference.
To round out the group: Channel Orange – Frank Ocean. WRAS 88.5 FM played Pyramids while I was driving over to another friend named John‘s house and I lost it. I *had* to call in and find out what it was. You can’t beat that feeling.
I didn’t bother with the whole album, but Clique from Cruel Summer is dope. Perfect beat, but the song doesn’t really take flight until Jay-Z gets on the mic (that jet engine glissando helps). Kanye takes lovable insufferability to a new level.
Asterism/Requiem/Green/The Dorian Horizon – Toru Takemitsu. I really like it, but only recommended if you’ve got ears for late 20th-century orchestral music…
It’s not too late for your suggestions!
Here we go again. Short version: you should buy Kaputt, Hotter Than July, Trap Muzik, Five Italian Oboe Concertos, Apocalypse, The Last Days of Disco OST, Night Drive, and Watch The Throne.
The same rules hold from 2008, 2009, and 2010: these recommendations are selected from all the new-to-me music I listened to this year. Old stuff, new stuff, no matter. Fortunately, 2011 started with my favorite album, which means I got to listen to it all year long.
My favorite album of this month, and the year, was Destroyer’s Kaputt, and very few come close to topping it. Amazing listen.
January was my first exposure to Freddie Gibbs, who quickly became one of my favorites. It’s not the most polite music you’ll ever hear, but still… Midwestgangstaboxframecaddilacmuzik is excellent (see: County Bounce, I’m the Man, Boxframe Cadillac).
The Roots, Rising Down. Rock-solid.
Bach. Arias. Can’t go wrong with that combo. Magdalena Kožená sings with Musica Florea cond. Marek Strync. I loved Kožená’s album of French Arias that I heard last year. The highlight from this one was an aria from Cantata BWV 208 Schafe können sicher weiden.
Five Italian Oboe Concertos. I played the shit out of this one. Nicholas Daniel and the Peterborough String Orchestra.
Mulatu Astatke & His Ethiopian Quintet, Afro Latin Soul. Great start to finish. Latin tends to wear on me after a while, but this one stays pretty fresh.
Big month. Brace yourself.
In April, I started a Stevie Wonder review project, which made clear to me the trouble with best-of lists. Forget Songs in the Key of Life or Innervisions. They’re the reflexively-mentioned albums because they’re damn good. But one of the problems with them being both great and popular is that if you don’t *really* *love* the albums like you think you should, you might give up on the guy. Like I did.
So I’d never heard of his actual best album, Hotter Than July (←opinion!). All I Do, Rocket Love, I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It, and As If You Read My Mind make one of the best four-song sequences you’ll hear.
Fullfillingness’ First Finale is Wonder’s second-best album for me, in no small part because Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away has become one of my all-time favorite songs. Music of My Mind is a close third (see: Happier Than the Morning Sun and Keep on Running). Talking Book is also great (Maybe Your Baby is my fave).
I guess the bottom line is that he’s written a TON of REALLY GOOD music. I need to keep in mind the rule for many really good artists: if the super-popular super-great album/painting/sculpture/book still isn’t quite your thing, there’s still a good chance there’s another worthwhile one out there.
End of digression.
In another example of how critically-acclaimed amazing things can overshadow other amazing things (what I loosely term the Wonder Conundrum), Let’s Get It On is known for… Let’s Get It On. Rightly so, great track. But If I Should Die Tonight is sooooooo damn good. I also have this weird association with it, as it shuffled on when I found out that Osama bin Laden had been killed. “How many hearts, baby, have felt their world stand still?”
Speaking of Freddie Gibbs again, I also got into The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Str8 Killa No Filla. Both worthwhile. See: How We Do, Do Wrong, Crushin’ Feelin’s, Slangin’ Rocks and most especially Rock Bottom.
May was another really strong month…
I’m gonna go ahead and add in Terry Riley’s You’re No Good single here. Partly because it’s awesome, and also because its late ’60s minimalist sound segues nicely into June’s top pick.
Catherine Christer Hennix, The Electric Harpsichord. It’s one track that’s only 25 minutes and change, but this is fantastic.
Another must-recommend single from June was Radiohead’s Staircase (live From the Basement). I hope you didn’t miss it.
Bach again. He rarely goes wrong. Cantatas: Trauerode BWV 198 and Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78 is a nice pair of cantatas performed by La Chapelle Royale under Philippe Herreweghe’s direction.
T.I. again, with DJ Drama. Down With The King. This one came from a list of albums recommended in Ben Westhoff’s book Dirty South. Top picks are Jackin’ for Beats, Welcome Back, and Xtaci’s hilarious/brilliant “Why?” freestyle.
Bumba Massa, Dovi. This is sonic Prozac.
I’d never listened to much MF Doom. Take Me to Your Leader is funny and mental and weird and delightful. I love his production and the use of old film clips. I ought to find some more of his work in 2012.
Yeah… so… Young Jeezy pretty much owned September. I’m the first to admit his lyrics often blow, but man his delivery and production are so good, so often. The Last Laugh mixtape had my favorite tracks, with Pressure’s On and Game Over on repeat pretty often. Trap or Die (see: “GA” freestyle), Trap or Die 2, and 1,000 Grams were the most consistent of the other mixtapes I listened to.
I played the shit out of Chromatics’ Night Drive. It seems to fit a lot of moods: work-time productivity, lazy lounging, driving about town…
Hariprasad Chaurasia made one of my favorite albums from last year. Raga Darbari Kanada & Dhun in Mishra Pilu is another solid one.
Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was the only Camera Obscura album I hadn’t heard yet. It’s amazing how consistent their sound has been since this early stuff, and how it still satisfies every single time.
Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne. I didn’t want to like this album. It’s part of a foolish contrarian streak that doesn’t always serve me well. I actually didn’t like much of it besides No Church in the Wild and Otis (still my favorites) on first listen, but it keeps growing and growing on me. I expect this one to last.
Drake, both Thank Me Later and Take Care. Apparently I’m a Drake fan? I also didn’t want to like these, an opinion mostly based on songs I was tired of hearing on the radio. Happy to be proven wrong. I like Marvin’s Room, Doing It Wrong, and Karaoke in particular.
After listening to a bunch of other mixtapes this year (and re-visiting Big Pimpin’), I realized I love Bun B. Of the mixtapes I collected, Legends Series Vol. 1, No Mixtape, and Southern Royalty are favorites. Give a listen to It Ain’t Me, I Made It, and The Champion.
Jay-Z’s Decoded is a wonderful book. Read it. I’d love to read more nonfiction like this. So conversational, relaxed, super-smart. And it’s just a really beautiful book. Lots of photos, lyrics and footnoes, pull-quotes. I started off a little skeptical, just skimming for pictures and quotes and anecdotes, but then I just had to start over and read it straight through. Highly recommended. Here’s some favorite parts…
An important lesson from “Coming of Age”:
Ten thou’ or a hundred G keep yo’ shit the same
Next up is maybe my favorite line from the whole book. The context is the music business, but the wisdom applies well beyond. Emphasis mine:
In the streets there aren’t written contracts. Instead, you live by certain codes. There are no codes and ethics in music because there are lawyers. People can hide behind their lawyers and contracts and then rob you blind. A lot of street cats come into the music game and expect a certain kind of honor and ethics, even outside of contracts. But in business, like they say, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. So I mind my business and I don’t apologize for it.
Speaking of business, when he was just getting started, he knew to put the plans on paper…
We didn’t know the business yet, but we knew how to hustle. Like a lot of underground crews on a mission, we were on some real trunk-of-the-car shit. The difference with us was that we didn’t want to get stalled at low-level hustling. We had a plan. We did more than talk about it, we wrote it down. Coming up with a business plan was the first thing the three of us did. We made short and long-term projections, we kept it realistic, but the key thing is that we wrote it down, which is as important as visualization in realizing success.
I think this next bit is a pretty incisive take on poverty. Cuts right to the heart of it. Emphasis mine:
One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That’s the American ideal. Poor people don’t like talking about poverty because even though they might live in the projects surrounded by other poor people and have, like, ten dollars in the bank, they don’t like to think of themselves as poor. It’s embarrassing. […] The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden.
Later in the book he talks about the tension between being a ridiculously wealthy businessman with lingering remnants of street thug…
Having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is the most common thing in the world. The real bullshit is when you act like you don’t have contradictions inside you, that you’re so dull and unimaginative that your mind never changes or wanders into strange, unexpected places.
Which reminds me of a quote I already tumbled:
I was on the streets for more than half of my life from the time I was thirteen years old. People sometimes say that now I’m so far away from that life—now that I’ve got businesses and Grammys and magazine covers—that I have no right to rap about it. But how distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?
The seventies were a strange time, especially in black America. The music was beautiful in part because it was keeping a kind of torch lit in a dark time. I feel like we–rappers, DJs, producers–were able to smuggle some of the magic of that dying civilization in our music and use it to build a new world. We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift: We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves. That was part of the ethos of that time and place, and it got built in to the culture we created. Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.
And speaking of fathers, one of the wisest bits come in his footnotes for the song “Moment of Clarity”:
My father and I didn’t have a lot of deep conversations before he died, but we did have one important one. When I first reconnected with him, I hit him with questions and he came back with answers until I realized nothing he could ever say would satisfy me or make sense of all the feelings I’d had since he turned his back on us. In the end, he broke down and apologized. And, somewhat to my surprise, I forgave him. […] Although this verse starts off on a cold note–I seem indifferent and even smirking about his death–that’s only me being honest. I didn’t cry. I didn’t know him that well. But at the same time, it was so important that we did meet up before he died. It was important for me to hear him say he was sorry and for me to hear myself say, “I forgive you.” It changed my life, really. I wish every kid who grew up like me could have the same chance to confront the fathers who left them, not just so they can lay out their anger, but so they can, in the end, let that anger go.
Short version: you should buy How I Got Over, Watertown, White Light, Station to Station, and The Black Album. What follows are more highlights from my year, month by month. As in 2008 and 2009, the general rule here is I don’t care if it actually came out in 2010, it’s just that I happened to pay attention this year.
Ama Maïga, Une Fleche Malienne. Kora + Afro-pop. The first and last tracks are my favorites.
Linda Perhacs, Parallelograms. Think Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell-esque dreamy acoustic guitar with solid songwriting. This album’s vibe would echoed in October with one from Françoise Hardy…
Steve Roach, Structures from Silence. I’m not quite sure how to distinguish good ambient music from bad ambient music, aside from maintaining a general sort of peacefulness, but I liked this a lot.
Frank Sinatra, Watertown. This is my favorite one that wasn’t released this year. It’s another of his heartbreak concept albums, and it definitely holds its own against In The Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely. I have no idea why this one is still underground.
Sayeeduddin Dagar, Lineage of Dhrupad. I hadn’t listened to much Indian vocal work before this year, but this album sold me on it, especially the old dhrupad stuff. The voice and breathe control is super-impressive. Lots more to come later in the year.
Young Jeezy, The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102. Atlanta’s own. He’s not the best lyricist, but I love his voice/delivery and the steady, drenched sound you hear in most of the production. And he has good samples. Standout tunes are Hypnotize and The Inspiration (Diana Ross sample!). Great nighttime city-driving music.
Hariprasad Chaurasia, Charm of the Bamboo Flute. This might be my favorite Indian album this year.
Magdalena Kožená, performing a collection of French Arias. Charles Gounod’s O ma lyre immortelle from Sapho and Nuit resplendissante from Cinq-Mars are the best ones. Ambroise Thomas’ Connais-tu le pays from Mignon is a close third.
Crystal Tears is a solid Renaissance collection from Andreas Scholl singing with Julian Behr on the lute and the Concerto di Viole Basel. John Bennet’s Venus’ birds whose mournful tunes is a good one and John Dowland’s Go, crystal tears is a classic.
Flanders Fiamminghi Orchestra and conductor Rudolf Werthen put together the awesome An I Fiamminghi Collection. Highlights for me are Alan Hovhaness’ Prayer of St. Gregory and Henryk Górecki’s Pieces in the Olden Style.
Mariem Hassan, Deseos. This might be my favorite African album of the year. Sick desert blues riffs + powerful vocals. Check out Magat milkitna dulaa, or Sbar. Mariem Hassan con Leyoad is not quite as good.
Kraftwerk, Radio-Activity. A lot of it is pretty toned-down and spacey compared to the earlier stuff I loved so much last November.
Gundecha Brothers & Uday Bhawalkar, Timeless Dhrupads. Whoever is playing mridangam here is just killing it.
Glenn Gould recorded Brahms’ Ballades, Op. 10 and Rhapsodies, Op. 79. I don’t know if Gould is a good Brahms interpreter or not, but he helped me overcome my long-standing aversion to the guy. I like the Ballades in particular.
This was baroque month, apparently. While only two albums stood out, they were very, very good.
Rosso – Italian Baroque Arias, sung by Patricia Petibon with Andrea Marcon conducting the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Highlights for me: from Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista, Queste lagrime e sospiri; from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Piangerò la sorte mia; and from Sartorio’s L’Orfeo, Orfeo, tu dormi. Dang, y’all.
May was odd in its uniformity. I’m not sure what connects Bach and Bowie, but they were both highlights for the next month…
Collegium Vocale Ghent and conductor Philippe Herreweghe did some good work on Christus, der ist mein Leben: Bach Cantatas BWV 27, 84, 95, 161.
Devo’s Something For Everybody was surprisingly fun. It doesn’t seem very ambitious, just upbeat, tight, and it reaps major benefits from keeping the songs brief and to the point.
Sundrips, Slow Futures. More ambient. Everything I’ve heard from Sundrips has been pretty good.
Ramakant & Umakant Gundecha, Ancestral Voices. More dhrupad. There is something incredibly fulfilling about the pattern of slow, meditative, exploratory beginnings that build to rhythmic extravagance by the end. Sooltal of Raga Charukeshi is a favorite here, but it’s not as satisfying if you don’t listen to the opening.
The Roots, my friends. How I Got Over is my favorite album released this year. It’s a lovely piece of work. Writing, production, performances, variety. It’s all in there. Favorite track = Now or Never, followed closely by the title track.
This month actually kicked off with Beat Connection’s Surf Noir EP, which was available on their site and is probably easy to download somewhere else now. Sunburn followed by In the Water is one of the great album openings. Nice closer, too, with Same Damn Time.
Like St. Vincent’s Actor last year, The Ruby Suns’ Fight Softly gets better as it goes along. It’s not as sharp as Annie Clark’s work (but what is?), but solid nonetheless. Two Humans is the one to hear.
Ash Ra Tempel, Inventions for Electric Guitar. Something like Steve Reich + Robert Fripp, maybe? Whatever the ingredients, it’s good space-trippy music.
Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Slow Version. The speed change creates a whole different feel for a great body of work.
The Clientele, Minotaur. Like an updated version of The Byrds, tempered with a dash of Devendra Banhart or Iron & Wine or something.
This might have been the best month overall. The favorite was Darker Than Blue, Soul From Jamdown 1973-1980. Jamaican bands cover American funk. Win-win. Check out Freddie McGregor’s cover of Get Involved (George Soule’s original) and John Holt’s For the Love of You (Isley Brothers original).
The Clientele, Bonfires on the Heath. Another solid album.
Washed Out. The Life of Leisure EP came out late last year, but somehow I missed it. I can’t wait to see this dude for the third time in just a few weeks. I say this summer’s song, You and I, is a must-listen. Love that slow disco-stomp + sweet bass line.
As I did with Brahms, this year I also finally came to understand That Which Is Hendrix. Are You Experienced? did the job.
The collection of Brahms Symphonies from Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and conductor John Eliot Gardiner helped me get Brahms. It’ll take a few more listens to settle in, but they are good recordings.
Gene Clark, White Light and Roadmaster are excellent 70’s country-rock albums. Check out The Virgin, Where My Love Lies Asleep, and 1975. I’d never heard Clark outside of The Byrds, and I was surprised these solo albums were so good. His later album No Other misses the mark a bit for me (though Some Misunderstanding is superb).
Heart is an amazing band. I knew some of the songs from the radio, but never heard Little Queen and Dreamboat Annie all the way through. I didn’t expect them to be so good. It’s like a female-dominant Led Zeppelin + Rush + Fleetwood Mac + something else. Favorites include Love Alive, Too Long a Time and Dreamboat Annie.
Xavier Cugat, Cugi’s Cocktails. A lot of latin albums drive me nuts, but this one really hit the spot. I want to have a party where I try to mix+serve+consume each song’s corresponding drink before the song ends. The frenzy! The fun! Small portions, naturally. Favorites are Zombie and, of course, the Old-Fashioned.
Bach. Boom. James Kibbie recorded all of Bach’s organ works and they’re free for download. !!!
Jay-Z, The Black Album. Holy shit, guys. I take it all back. Jay-Z’s voice used to drive me nuts, but his writing from this era is so good. This is a seriously once-in-a-lifetime album. The Blueprint is also worthwhile. I need to check out the rest. (His latest album, with the exception of What We Talkin’ About, blows).
Like last year, I spent (way too much?) time going through iTunes to pick some stand-outs for my year in music. Like the previous list, most of these didn’t actually come out this year, but 2009 was the first time I gave them a serious listen. I’ll go month-by-month again, and holy cow January was amazing…
From Nashville to Memphis is a great Elvis collection. It’s got most of the hits you expect, some lesser-knowns and some good covers.
Ali Farka Touré. I listened to the Red and Green albums and the self-titled album later this year, but this month’s Niafunke was the best of all. I like the richer sound and more varied instrumentation here.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dust to Gold. This is the only thing from him that I’ve heard. I wonder if it’s just the novelty that keeps me coming back, but I don’t regret it. Khawaja Tum Hi Ho (Master It Is Only You) is a good one.
My friend Kat Edmonson released Take to the Sky. w00t. Incredible voice and smart arrangements.
March was Igor Stravinsky Month around here. Thanks to Alex Ross’ tip, I picked up that 22-disc Works of Igor Stravinsky. When you’re exposed to a full life’s work, you may hear as much that’s mediocre as is brilliant, but you also get a sense of all the labor that goes into it.
The Byrds. Mr. Tambourine Man. This is one of those albums that’s just unbelievably chock full of fantastic songs. I had no idea.
Lady in Satin, my friends. It was one of Billie Holiday’s last albums. You’ve got her aging voice taking on all-new material, backed (atypically) with a string orchestra. It is so good. For Heaven’s Sake and I’m a Fool to Want You are the stand-outs for me.
I came across Miles Davis’ Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions late in the month. Lots of good stuff there, collecting tracks from the same sessions that were released separately back in the mid-50s.
Back in college when I was in the orchestra, we did Ravi Shankar’s concerto featured on Sitar Concerto & Other Works. Perhaps the nostalgia influences this choice, but the other pieces are interesting in their own right.
I might be including Dr. Dre’s 2001 simply on the strength of its opening tune, The Watcher. Makes me wish he’d spent more time on the mic these past couple decades. Nice new take on the familiar G-funk sound.
A weak month, but I sat with another album it took me a while to catch up on: Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home. It’s really good, y’all.
Another excellent month. Another round of success with The Byrds. This time it was Younger Than Yesterday and yet again, it’s another kind of ridiculously saturated-with-goodness album.
Follow that with Intimate Voices, with the Emerson Quartet playing works by Carl Nielsen, Edvard Grieg and my beloved Jean Sibelius.
This month was also the first time I’d heard Mahler’s 9th Symphony all the way through, so I can’t really compare this recording to interpretations. This piece is exhausting. In a good way, I think.
If you only know Erik Satie for his Trois Gymnopédies, then you are cheating yourself. His other piano works deserve your attention. The Gnossiennes are great.
I closed out the month with another epic box set: Rostropovich: The Russian Years, 1950-1974. Many of the recordings are premieres. And there’s even a few recordings with the composers (e.g. Shostakovich) accompanying on piano. I think that kind of personal, of-the-moment touch adds some life to the listening experience.
I closed out the month with some great soul. Sam Cooke’s Night Beat will make you really depressed that he died so soon after. And Marvin Gaye might have stretched himself a bit thin on Here, My Dear, but I love some of the anger and frustration there. Check out When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You.
November was Kraftwerk Month. I was familiar with the standard post-Autobahn Kraftwerk canon, but the early ones were nothing like I expected and also very good. Tone Float is trippy psychedelic-jam stuff from before they were Kraftwerk. And the self-titled albums are nice, but Ralf and Florian is probably my favorite from this era.
I’m not much of a Moby fan, but I was quite surprised with Wait for Me. The pace is more chill, the sound more personal. Really good.
In the same vein, a lot of Velvet Underground leaves me feeling “eh”, but Loaded, like the stuff from The Byrds earlier this year, is just packed with goodness. Though I hear it’s a somewhat divisive album…
It may be too early to tell, but right now I think the best has been the last three albums in Brian Eno’s Ambient series, Paul & Linda McCartney’s Ram, and, out of nowhere, Wulomei’s album Kpabi.
I haven’t talked about work much in the 3 or so years I’ve been running this site, but I thought it was time to share a side project I’ve been involved in. I’m a co-host of Stuff from the B-Side [iTunes link], wherein, twice a week, my friend John and I have a conversation about some aspect of the musical world. John knows about 38 times as much as I do and we always a good, low-key time.
I was looking back through the RSS file for our episodes and realized I’d been doing recordings for a half-year-ish now. The first couple (dozen) episodes I was in were pretty rough. But I always listen every week and it’s nice to hear (what I think somewhat resembles) progress. It’s certainly feels more comfortable in front of the microphones. It’s not nearly as strange to listen to my own voice anymore.
It’s nice that we get a lot of freedom to be the curious people that we are, exploring topics as we get fascinated by them or as listeners request them. Favorite episodes? I’m partial to the ones in which we talk about:
- Musicians who use alter egos (including a discussion about the post-modern meta-cultural qualities of Hannah Montana and Eminem)
- How to decipher classical music titles
- The 1980s cassette version of iTunes
- Guilty pleasures and what makes music “cool”
- Brian Eno’s Music for Airports
- The life and times of Billie Holiday
- Terry Riley’s In C
- Wizard Rock
- Leonard Cohen
- The West Coast/East Coast rivalry
- The Dies Irae melody
Also, I’d be silly not to mention that I’ve got smarter, even more well-spoken colleagues that do many other podcasts [iTunes] that are even better.
What Johnny Cash likes:
I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.
I love this post about measuring whether an artist is under- or over-valued. The method is pretty cool, basically comparing the Human Accomplishment ranking and the available Amazon music inventory, and making a rough P/E ratio. This post focuses on notable composers and it looks like Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque composers get shorted, while late Romantics (especially opera dudes) get more hype than they deserve. And you see the same sort of bias in the season programming of most major orchestras.
Anyway, two cool things this brings to mind. One, I like this idea of bubbles in culture. Reminds me of the vast difference in New York Times coverage of conflicts in Darfur vs. the Congo, though one area has been about 10 times as deadly. There are all kinds of interesting feedback loops that affect how we perceive and respond to our world. And two, realizing that there’s so much rough-and-ready data out there that we’ve unwittingly created, just waiting to be mined.
A collection of tweet-length opera synopses. A few favorites:
The Flying Dutchman: “Any port in a storm. Tall dark and mysterious wants my daughter. She wants to save him, but can she be faithful? Splashy splashy.”
Salome: “Out of control teen uses stepdad to get back at would-be boyfriend, learns some confusing lessons about love”
I can’t believe that people really prefer to go to the concert hall under intellectually trying, socially trying, physically trying conditions, unable to repeat something they have missed, when they can sit home under the most comfortable and stimulating circumstances and hear it as they want to hear it. I can’t imagine what would happen to literature today if one were obliged to congregate in an unpleasant hall and read novels projected on a screen.
Igor Stravinsky (↑, one of my favorite composers) is probably best known for his collaboration with Serge Diaghilev on the The Rite of Spring ballet and its scandalous premiere. But a few years after that, with Diaghilev’s prodding, he brought out another ballet score with older, more conservative roots, Pulcinella.
What made Pulcinella different was that Stravinsky took most of the music from lesser-known classical-era composers like Pergolesi, Gallo, Monza, et al. “It was a backward glance, of course, but it was a look in the mirror, too.” Stravinsky took whole melodies and bass lines from the old stuff, and within that framework he rejiggered the harmonies, rhythms, and orchestration.
I began by composing on the Pergolesi manuscripts themselves, as though I were correcting an old work of my own. I knew that I could not produce a ‘forgery’ of Pergolesi because my motor habits are so different; at best, I could repeat him in my own accent.
The reception of the new work wasn’t all positive…
I was… attacked for being a pasticheur, chided for composing ‘simple’ music, blamed for deserting ‘modernism,’ accused of renouncing my ‘true Russian heritage.’ People who had never heard of, or cared about, the originals cried ‘sacrilege’: “The classics are ours. Leave the classics alone.”
… but he had his reasons…
To them all my answer was and is the same: You “respect,” but I love.
Yeasayer has a blog while they work on the new album.
I notice that the rest of the band decided to get super organized while I was back in New York. They got a Dry Erase board and started to write ideas for song titles and album titles on it. Great idea guys! Every song should definitely have a title. So I thought to catch up I should start brainstorming some ideas after I ate breakfast. Here are the titles I thought of:
Sugar in the Raw
Recycling Ain’t Easy
Stove Won’t Light
I (Like my Cereal Hot)
I brought my apparatus and set it up in his large office in the Kremlin. He was not yet there because he was in a meeting. I waited with Fotiva, his secretary, who was a good pianist, a graduate of the conservatory. She said that a little piano would be brought into the office, and that she would accompany me on the music that I would play. So we prepared, and about an hour and a half later Vladimir Il’yich Lenin came with those people with whom he had been in conference in the Kremlin. He was very gracious; I was very pleased to meet him, and then I showed him the signaling system of my instrument, which I played by moving my hands in the air, and which was called at that time the thereminvox. I played a piece [of music].
After I played the piece they applauded, including Vladimir Il’yich [Lenin], who had been watching very attentively during my playing. I played Glinka’s “Skylark”, which he loved very much, and Vladimir Il’yich said, after all this applause, that I should show him, and he would try himself to play it. He stood up, moved to the instrument, stretched his hands out, left and right: right to the pitch and left to the volume. I took his hands from behind and helped him. He started to play “Skylark”. He had a very good ear, and he felt where to move his hands to get the sound: to lower them or to raise them. In the middle of this piece I thought that he could himself, independently, move his hands. So I took my hands off of his, and he completed the whole thing independently, by himself, with great success and with great applause following. He was very happy that he could play on this instrument all by himself.
I like this idea of working up drum patterns via text editor. It’s disorienting to see the instruments listed that way (bass on top and the hats on the bottom), but looks cool.
You don’t know how to play better just because you’ve suffered. The blues don’t come from picking cotton.
I’ve never read anything quite like Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis. The book collects about four decades’ worth of his life, broken up across a couple dozen interviews that were published in small jazz magazines all the way up to big serials like Newsweek and Rolling Stone. Some were with notable music journalists, a few with overmatched college radio station DJs.
The interviews start up in the late 1950s, about 10 years after he got his start with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and a couple years after he kicked his heroin habit. The general consensus, even back then: he was bleeping brilliant, charismatic, deeply flawed. Behind the gruff, badass facade was a sensitive, needy man. As the book goes on, it’s cool to see how the different interviewers sum up the career to date, through the shifting bands, radical changes in style, divorces, illness, new addictions. At some points in his life, he’s gregarious, absurdly fit from boxing, full of ideas. Later, for several years, he pretty much didn’t do much aside from drugs, rarely even leaving his house.
I don’t like to lay back. I don’t like to relax. Show me a motherfucker that’s relaxed, and I’ll show you a motherfucker that’s afraid of success.
You might have to like Miles to make it through his harangues. There weren’t a whole lot of brilliant comments or analysis of music. He usually avoided commenting on his own music, insistent that the past is dead, and I didn’t see a whole lot of criticism of other artists.
I usually don’t buy jazz records. They make me tired and depressed.
But I loved seeing how he phrased things, how he responds to similar questions over the years, and how he remembers and retells things differently. And there are occasional asides that I never would have expected:
I don’t know where I want to live. But the best time I ever had in my life, other than playing trumpet, was when I was out in the country riding horses.
Miles was an intelligent man, by all accounts, and must have become increasingly aware of the power of his personal charisma, especially in the later years as he watched his reputation grow over his declining trumpeting skills. Perhaps he said to himself: These people are hearing a lot more context than music, so perhaps I accept that I am now primarily a context maker. My art is not just what comes out of the end of my trumpet or appears on a record, but a larger experience which is intimately connected to who I appear to be, to my life and charisma, to the Miles Davis story. In that scenario, the ‘music’, the sonic bit, could end up being quite a small part of the whole experience. Developing the context—the package, the delivery system, the buzz, the spin, the story—might itself become the art. Like perfume…
Professional critics in particular find such suggestions objectionable. They have invested heavily in the idea that music itself offers intrinsic, objective, self-contained criteria that allow you to make judgments of worthiness. In the pursuit of True Value and other things with capital letters, they reject as immoral the idea that an artist could be ‘manipulative’ in this way. It seems to them cynical: they want to believe, to be certain that this was The Truth, a pure expression of spirit wrought in sound. They want it to be ‘out there’, ‘real’, but now they’re getting the message that what it’s worth is sort of connected with how much they’re prepared to take part in the fabrication of a story about it. Awful! To discover that you’re actually a co-conspirator in the creation of value, caught in the act of make-believe.