Music

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – Intro

So: I have no idea what my favourite song of 2013 is. This year’s music failed to crystallise into a neat handful of songs like it normally does, which is both a good and a bad thing. Yay, because it’s a symptom of just how much fantastic music there’s been. The 32 songs we’re going to be talking about in these posts are only a small (hopefully representative) fraction of the stuff that I loved this year. But also a mild boo, because it also means the year was lacking in truly definitive songs. I guess it was the year of Get Lucky, but while I clung onto my love of that song long after most had burned out from over-use (more on this in later posts), you’re not going to find any Call Me Maybes on the list this year. With that in mind, this approach seemed like the obvious choice: take a tournament-sized chunk ofsongs, and pit them against each other, one on one, until we have a winner. Y’know, like they do in Pokémon and, I believe – am I pronouncing this right? – ‘Sports’. It’s also neatly reflective of the way I used music this year. The format is adapted from Tom Ewing’s Mincer which, for two months in the spring, ruled everything around me. You can read all about it elsewhere on this blog, but basically: randomise your tracks; listen in pairs; pick a winner as quickly as possible after the tracks end; delete the other; rinse and repeat. But my listening habits have been strangely competitive in general all year. Possibly thanks to the sheer quantity of quality releases, possibly out of a sense that last year slipped through my fingers slightly, but I found myself pretty much refusing to listen to anything that wasn’t current, my increasingly labyrinthine sets of Spotify playlists felt like an exercise in narrowing down everything I heard and liked into shorter and shorter lists – which is exactly what we’re doing here. We should probably establish some ground rules, baggy as they are. During the selection process, each artist was limited to two songs – and there had to be a good justification for doubling up, which we’ll touch upon when we hit those tracks. Each song had to be one I heard for the first time this year, and it had to have a clear 2013 release date. I’m sure we’ll realise I unconsciously cheated on some tracks along the line. Some tracks are here representing the entire album they’re lifted from, but they’re inevitably here on merit. It’s just that In lieu of a seeding system – which seemed foolish, given that I’d be choosing both the seeds and the winners – I gave the tracks a couple of randomisations until it felt ‘about right’. This means there aren’t any hot contenders facing off in the first round, as far as I can tell, and the neat thematic pairings are genuinely random, sort of. I’m letting myself listen to each pair of tracks on repeat as many times as I want during the writing process, which makes the decision process less spontaneous than the Mincer’s one-shot policy but also, that would likely drive me insane. I haven’t listened to the Beyoncé album yet, because I suspected it might screw the whole thing up. You can follow the tournament live on Challonge here, listen to our 32 contenders on Spotify, and I’ll be back on Monday with commentary from the first round of matches. To reiterate, I have genuinely no idea which track is going to win. I hope you have as much fun finding out as I do.

This Is How I Jammed, Jan-April

For me, the music itself is only half of the fun. How we consume and, especially, discover the music we end up loving is a fascinating process to me on every level. In the past, I’ve toyed with This Is My Jam, the musical social network which gave this series of blogs their name, read a variety of blogs and magazines, documented every song I listened to, stolen from friends…So far in 2013, three new methods have presented themselves to me. Shall we take a look? SPOTIFY TEAM PLAYLIST An idea nicked off’f Kieron Gillen (aren’t they all?): select a few of your most musically-minded friends, set up an open playlist, and watch the tunes roll in. It’s so easy it almost feels like cheating. I’ve been fascinated by Spotify pretty much since the moment I discovered it, but this team playlist has fiercely reignited my love for it, so much so that I finally took the plunge and went Premium, instantly revolutionising my music-listening habits. Offline playlists now dominate the paltry 8GB of space on my iPod (and on my phone, and on my laptop), and that’s led to me playing with a few other methods of music discovery which… well, we’ll come to those. The playlist is here if you want to listen/collaborate. If nothing else, it’s a great set of songs, thanks to everyone who’s taken part (and thanks, to everyone who’s taken part). Just don’t blame me if clicking that link ends up costing you £10 a month. Song highlight: SONGDROP At any given moment, my web browser of choice (Chrome, if you’re curious) .will have about 50 tabs open. Half of those will be songs I’ve found, mostly through blogs or friends’ recommendations, and have listened to once or twice. They haven’t taken over my brain yet, but I’m not ready to let them slip away into the ether of the net. If they’re not on Spotify yet, I have no way of storing them. Can you see where I’m going with this? SongDrop is simply a piece of technology I can’t believe didn’t exist before. It adds a button to Chrome, which when pressed detects any music on the current webpage, and allows you to drop it into a single centralised playlist. It’s a tool I’ve barely scratched the surface of yet, but like the best ideas, it solves a problem I barely I knew I had. You can access my drops so far here. Song highlight: THE MINCER Two tracks enter, only one leaves. This is an idea I stole, just for the sake of variety, off’f Tom Ewing. The Mincer is a way of gamifying music playlists, by pitting songs against one another. You take 64 tracks, put them in a playlist, randomise it, and then as you listen (no skipping allowed), mentally pair the songs up. Pick which of the two you’d rather hear again, and delete the other one. Rinse and repeat until the playlist is finished, then top it up again. (You can find my exact step-by-step method at the bottom of this post.) It’s a great way to encourage listening to all those songs on your hard drive, or in your Spotify playlists, that haven’t received the attention they deserve. It puts a neat framework around the whole thing, which helps to make listening to music less passive, and really forces you to concentrate on what you’re listening to. I’ve been thinking that the issue with the mechanics of The Mincer’s ‘game’ is that it has slightly too many tracks, which you don’t get intimate enough with to make choosing between two tracks (on the second go-round particularly) as hard a decisions as I’d like. I’ve been thinking of running it tournament-style, until only one song remains. But it’s only reading the rules again now that I realise I’ve actually been doing it wrong. You’re meant to run through the playlist until only 32 of the 64 remain, then shuffle and start again until you have 16 before topping up. Seeing this now, I can see how it provides a neat middle-ground between the method I’ve been using, and a full-bore tournament. Expect to hear about these variations on the formula next time on Those Were My Jams. But for the next month or two… that’s all, folks. Song highlight: My Mincer Method1. On Spotify, create a feeder playlist with all the songs you want to mince. (ideally you want this playlist as large and varied and possible) and an empty Mincer playlist.2. Select all the tracks, copy, then paste them into this randomiser tool. Press random (a couple of times, if you enjoy the ritual of this), then copy and paste back them over the original tracks.3. Take the top 64 tracks, cut and paste them into the Mincer playlist.4. Repeat step 2 for this smaller playlist.5. Play the tracks (with shuffle turned off).6. After each pair of tracks, decide which you’d rather hear again, and delete the other.7. Repeat until the end of the playlist (you can do this in bursts, as long as they are even-numbered bursts), leaving the ‘winning’ 32 tracks.(Here’s where I’ve been going wrong. Remaining steps courtesy of Ewing’s original post:8. Randomise again.9. Play (no skipping allowed).10. Go through the shortened playlist until you have 16 tracks.11. Add another 48 tracks to the playlist.12. Repeat.)

Those Were My Jams, Jan-April: Bowie, Nash, Tegan & Sara

I’ve already documented my love of Kavinsky’s OutRun, and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. But what of all the other music I’ve listened to over the last four months? Here are two more albums, and one more track, that I’ve spent a lot of that time in the company of. It’s far from everything I’ve dug (sorry Chvrches, Why?, Kitty, et al) but it’s the stuff that most insisted I write about it. So let’s dive in. DAVID BOWIE – THE NEXT DAY I find it strangely difficult to separate The Next Day, David Bowie’s 24th studio album, from David Bowie Is…, the V&A exhibition dedicated to him. They landed at about the same time, after such a long period of Bowielessness, and it felt like it’d been planned this way all along – the two prongs of the Big Bowie Resurgence of Early 2013. Honestly, though, I think I prefer the exhibition. It has a rare vitality, between its pleasantly short attention span and wonky half-successful experiments with technology, that feels very Bowie. For a record so drenched in his history, from the persistent Berlin references of Where Are We Now? onwards, Bowie actually feels a little absent from The Next Day. It feels like that could be intentional, a thematic touch – the cover, pasting over “Heroes”; the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight), casting David as the regular guy and transplanting Bowie the icon onto a range of wondefully androgynous women.So, maybe that’s the point, the removal of all superficial Bowie iconography from the equation, leaving just that unmistakable drawl and the same musical talent that has surrounded it since the ’70s. But at times the album sounds a little old-fashioned – in the clunkier lyrics of Boss of Me or I’d Rather Be High, in the U2-ness of If You Can See Me’s opening. It feels like a very strange thing to say about Bowie, forever pop’s archduke of the cutting-edge. Maybe that’s the only way to sidestep how much his influence saturates modern music. But there’s not the flash, the ideas, the showiness that I’ve always liked most about Bowie – the same stuff that was so present in a museum, of all places. Maybe it’s all just surface stuff that I miss. But this is pop music, and that’s at least as important as the tunes, right? KATE NASH – GIRL TALK I’ve always liked Kate Nash best when she’s angry. I still maintain that it was the genuine frustration sitting under the surface of Foundations which launched it and her into the public consciousness, where they sat for one long summer. I love the blunt feminist rage of Mansion Song‘s spoken word. There’s just something in the way her voice catches and you can sense she really means it that cuts perfectly through all the cute twee stuff and her habit of stating things outright. The good news is, on the evidence of Girl Talk, Nash seems to agree with me. The album starts out innocuously enough, the logical extension of what she’s done previously. It has the odd moment, but is fairly unremarkable. Then, a minute into track five (Sister), you realise the music has been creaking up a ramp into the sky and you’re sitting at the top-point of the rollercoaster. There’s a whispered two, three, four…, and everything fires downhill. The album builds up speed quickly, and on the best tracks, Nash is an absolute dynamo, metabolising influences from Poly Styrene’s sandpaper-rough squeal to Kim Deal’s disinterested rumble as she goes. From moment to moment, she might channel MIA, Kathleen Hanna, and/or Kimya Dawson. The best of girl-fronted Britpop. 1960s close-harmony girl groups… It’s like (Birmingham’s best clubnight in the world) Atta Grrl condensed into one record. And as with Atta Grrl, the music here feels heavily, pointedly gendered – the album is called Girl Talk, after all, and I don’t think it’s a tribute to the mash-up artist. It’s great and… well, hang on, you can always rely on Nash to put it as straightforwardly as it needs to be put: “You have a problem with me,‘Cause I’m a girl.I’m a feminist.And if that offends you,Then fuck you.” Honestly, that most likely tells you everything you need to know about whether you’ll enjoy Girl Talk or not. It’s a bit blunt, sure, but if you can stomach that, you’ll probably enjoy the ride. TEGAN & SARA – CLOSER Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob is actually a very fine album, but it’s first single/first track Closer in particular that has imprinted itself on my heart. It’s music for dancing in your underwear to you, solo or (preferably) with a partner. Music for flirty supersoaker battles. Music for making out on the grass to, as a long-forgotten barbecue turns meat into charcoal. It’s got this wonderfully braided structure, with a chorus which relies on the rhyme of “physical/critical/typical”, then pulling out “critical” and building a second chorus around it. Inbetween, verses are dropped as if in paretheses. Oh, and it both opens cold onto the titular line and ends on it. It’s a fidgety song, as befits a song about wanting to get it on. Throughout, the music slows down, hangs for a moment – one of those beautiful parentheses, with music as descriptive as the lyrics, singing “the night sky is changing” and it just sounds like stop-motion footage of orange-purple clouds – and then kicking back in. I can almost see the advert it would soundtrack, for Skins or hair product, or whatever young people are meant to be aspiring to. But that advert hasn’t been made yet, I don’t think, so I’m going to enjoy  the hell out of Closer before it is.

Those Were My Jams, Jan-April: Daft Punk

More of the music I loved in the first four months of this year. And so from one example of French electronic dance music which uses a sheen of fiction to keep the real humans firmly behind the scenes (Kavinsky) to another. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is on its way, the radio edit of Get Lucky is the first single, and it’s spent the last two weeks infecting my brain. Here’s why: The most potent metaphor for how a Daft Punk record sounds is still Michel Gondry’s video for Around the World. Five sets of cartoonish characters – robots, mummies, skeletons, synchronised swimmers, giant baby-headed athletes – each embody one element of the song, and are shuffled around, stopped, brought higher in the mix, according to the music. Like all the best Daft Punk songs, that’s pretty much exactly how Get Lucky works. There are a few basic sounds at play: a near-falsetto vocal hook and two verses, courtesy of Pharrell; the disco-future spangle of Nile Rodgers’ guitar; some pelvis-thrusting bass; the simplest of drum patterns; and some handclaps. These essential building blocks are all established quite early on, the song’s first minute just laying them out like a magician shows the audience a set of interlinked rings, or an empty sleeve. Then, as they loop these base elements, Daft Punk start to work their magic. What if you stripped back the instruments, and pushed handclaps to the fore instead? What if you replaced Pharrell’s voice with a decaying digitised version? And what if you then brought Pharrell back and made it him duke it out with his robotic double, at opposite ends of the octave? The song just toys with those same few elements – and maybe some synths, though they sound as if they’re building off samples of other bits of the same song – for 4 minutes 44 seconds, and then it fades out. Honestly, there’s not much to Get Lucky. It’s a very slight song, in a way that invites being played on repeat (and knows that it will get just what it wants – that “Like the legend of the phoenix/All ends with beginnings” opening salvo is a cheeky wink). I’m talking about how it sounds, how it feels, the surface stuff, because I know if I probed any deeper I’d find it was hollow inside. But the genius of the song lies in its precision. On the surface, it seems joyful and easy-going, but given that I haven’t been this addicted to a song since the aural crack of Paper Aeroplanes, I can only conclude that it’s actually very serious business. Each sound is weighed out carefully, mixed in alchemically exact combinations, and ultimately weaponised into something that directly attacks my nervous system in a way that makes it get exceedingly funky. I don’t think that’s just dumb luck.

Those Were My Jams, Jan-April: Kavinsky

‘Those Were My Jams’ is one of those titles that suggested itself so forcefully I had to find a format to fit it. Given I’ve been looking for a way to briefly document the music I’ve been listening to, this seemed a perfect fit. Roughly, it’s intended to be an umbrella for hopefully regular chunks of fairly brief music writing at the end of every month or two. My music discovery habits have shifted a little this year, as I’ve stopped using This is My Jam, and replaced it with the collaborative Spotify playlist I share with friends, and the recent discovery of Songdrop.  So what better way to share some of the best stuff that’s landed in my nets? KAVINSKY – OUTRUN “The year was 1986. He was a teenager like any other, dreaming of his heroes and in love with a girl. But on a thunderous night along a ragged coast, a mysterious red car came to him, its power lighting his eyes blood-red.In a flash, all was lost in the hellfire of twisted metal.When our hero emerged from the burning wreckage, he and the car had become one, their souls spliced forever, leaving him to wander the night alone. Invisible to everyone… but her.” That’s how OutRun starts, with the aural equivalent of Star Wars‘ opening crawl. It sounds like the tagline for a bad ’80s action film, of the kind you’d find on Channel 5 at 1am, or on a tattered VHS in a charity shop. It’s equally stylish and ridiculous. It sets the scene perfectly. OutRun is a record preoccupied with ’80s trash culture. Take the cover – essentially a poster for the movie pitched in that intro. You could easily pick up the CD thinking it’s a soundtrack, an impression that’s only strengthened by the dozen stills from the same imaginary film throughout the album sleeve, which tell the same story, with the same focus: a man, and his car. It seems a bit too easy to label OutRun as ‘driving music’, not to mention how ickily Jeremy Clarksonish the phrase feels, but it’s certainly there in the album’s DNA. It’s no coincidence that Kavinsky came to most of our attention soundtracking the opening credits of Drive, a throaty voice intoning ‘I want to drive you through the night’ as Ryan Gosling did just that. But that’s all just trappings. The music – simple, pounding electro-pop of the kind you want to play at a volume that makes things shake – is more than strong enough to speak for itself. Rampage sounds like Daft Punk on a stakeout. Odd Look sounds like it’s being sung in a dark bar by the dame in a sci-fi film noir. ProtoVision sounds like a formula for metabolising every experience and feeling you’ve ever had and turning it into pure energy. And Nightcall. From the moment you hear coin drops into the jukebox (or arcade machine, depending on your viewpoint), Nightcall still sounds like a slap around the face There’s an unmistakable house style here, but Kavinsky manages to draw in all sorts of other references along the way. Tracks riff on the soundtracks of ’70s cop shows and exploitation movies, or drop in a rap. It runs the core sound through different filters, just in time to stop it getting boring. Deadcruiser is the feeling of the best bossfight never to appear in a Metal Slug game, condensed into 3 minutes 33 seconds. Videogames are the other key reference point. The album is called OutRun, after all. It’s exactly the kind of music that makes me wish I was really into a racing game right now, just so I could use it as an ad hoc soundtrack. That’s actually more or less how I’ve been using it in real life. The music practically demands movement. Not dancing – you feel Kavinsky’s only interest in dancing is as seen under a strobe light, a series of cool poses. This is music for something with more forward momentum. Walking or running or riding a bike at night or, ideally, driving a really fucking nice car. That’s it, nearly – the itch that OutRun scratches so well. The single unique thing that it does, over and over, which I’ve spent all these words trying to pinpoint. What’s left when you boil down all its pop-culture trappings. Which is, roughly: the feeling of going in a single direction, very very fast.

2012’s Finest: CHVRCHES

Happy New Year! 2012 is officially over, and with it our collection of Best Of lists. But I have trouble letting go and so, over the next few days, I’m going to be writing something a bit more focused in each of the media I covered before – games, films, comics, and, starting right now, music. Enjoy. CHVRCHES Some bands just have the perfect name, y’know? The Knife. Crystal Castles. Ladytron. Robyn. These names are statements of intent – deep cuts; dark cocaine fantasyland; the beat of an androgynous titanium breast; popstars don’t have surnames, etc – and the very best of them could just be copied and pasted over and over, to the length of a full review. Not coincidentally, these bands are also some of my go-to touchpoints for describing Chvrches.Chvrches. (or more properly: CHVRCHES, which is even better but totally exhausting to type.) They were previously named Churches – which is much less perfect – until they realised that Google needn’t be their enemy, they dropped the U for a sharp Romanesque V. As Alan Moore, Dan Brown and the cast of Sesame Street will tell you, there’s a certain magic about the letter V. It’s a great visual, echoed in The Mother We Share‘s cover art, endlessly repeatable and suggestive. There’s a hint at that most dog-eared of music journo descriptors,‘cathedrals of sound’, and at something a bit eldritch. The surgical removal of a soft, organic vowel sound, replaced with crystal-clear enunciation. The way it turns the word into something familiar, altered… Seven letters. Am I reaching a bit? Of course I am. There’s something perfectly-formed about Chvrches which repels my attempts at analysis. I have listened to these two songs – The Mother We Share and Lies – on endless repeat since I found the mp3s. But each time I try to probe further, I just surface with handfuls of cliché, like silt between my fingers.Statement of intent. Sharp. Crisp. Cold. Icy – but no, that’s not right. Laser-tight. Beamed. Warped. Alternate Universe Pop. When I try and talk about them, I keep reaching for tactile words. I think that’s telling. The best synths have a hallmark texture, and listening to this thin selection of songs over and over feels like exploring that surface, like running your fingers over old wallpaper, like they were designed to be made into Audiosurf levels. So let’s explore a little: Lies, 2:25–2:45. It starts with an echoing “anyoneanyoneanyone”, then suddenly the crunching synths – which have until this point supported the song’s weight – drop out to make way for another echo: ohohohohohoh. It’s a smooth stone skimming along a fluid surface, which is left to just hang there for a moment. Then it’s given an electronic tweak. The sound starts to multiply and mutate, getting layered over itself, another anyoneanyoneanyone dropped on top of it… and then the stompy bit drops back in, like a godsent L-shaped Tetris piece at just the right moment. Delicious. Because of that reliance of the synths to build the songs, it’s hard to read the sonics as anything but cold and mechanical, especially given the way they squash and squeeze Lauren Mayberry’s wonderful vocals. But the way I respond to these songs is anything but inorganic – as I type this, I’m dancing at the laptop, thrusting my hands into the air at each climax, singing the nearest approximations of the words I can manage. At their best, Chvrches are capable of what I think of as ‘the Arcade Fire Moment’ – songs that can flood into you, through your mouth and eyes and ears and into your heart and lungs. Songs like that have been few and far between of late for me, so it’s something I treasure. I want to say the songs are built around a basic emotional core, as simple as the Beach Boys, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what any they’re about. Well, I can: they’re about looping endlessly on the biggest headphones you’ve got, and looking up to one of those perfectly clear London skies and thinking this is it, all transcendental and that… Just not, like, what the words are actually about. But since when has that mattered round here? (And just in case you’re as addicted as I am, here is pretty much everything else they’ve put out. For all my brow-furrowing over that V earlier, it’s worth noting the playfulness of retitling their Prince cover to I Would Die for V)

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE MUSIC OF 2012

[Now with a handy Spotify playlist] If you have spent any time drinking with me in the latter half of this year, I’ve probably bemoaned that 2012 and I haven’t clicked musically. And not for lack of trying – apart from clawing at friend’s sleeves and demanding recommendations, the workday mix of Spotify, This is My Jam, and finally discovering BBC 6Music should’ve given me plenty of chances to dig up stuff I’d dig.There’s been plenty I liked, but not much I fell in love with. With some notable exceptions, of course. Notable exceptions Looking back at the year, two pop singles stand out – Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. They’re sleek colossi of purest pop. Songs for dancing, for pretending you’re in a pop video to. They are, of course, filled with some of the most perfect Moments of 2012. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is absolutely overstuffed with them – extra yeahs, switched intonations, the spoken asides. “Like, ever.” The way Taylor inserts a series of full stops in “Said. You. Needed. Space” and immediately follows it up with a fourth wall-breaking “what?”. The last bit is a raised eyebrow to her audience – can you believe this guy? – and though the song’s “you” is the (ex-ex-ex)boyfriend, you get the impression she’s talking to her mates here. The eye-rolling sneer of “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”, and the layered-over laugh that follows.  It’s all put together to ensure you never get bored of its simple repeating chorus, that constant machine-gun punchline. The song itself comes off as slightly insecure, trying to convince the listener, which is just perfectly right given what it’s about. There are moments when another Taylor breaks in, impatient to hammer the point home. The song is constantly rushing forward, desperate to get to the second listen, the third, so much so that it forgets that the rest of the time it’s trying to convince you this is live, individual and performed just to you, because that’ll get you on side, right? True to her country music past (which, just FYI, I am actually very fond of) Taylor’s voice breaks and cracks, with occasional moments of show-offery. At the song’s end, the music drops out a second early, so Taylor’s voice can plant its flag one last time – a live outro if ever I heard one. By comparison, Call Me Maybe is much more controlled. It’s confident it knows how to push the right buttons, and it does. For its Moments, it mostly goes to stuff built into the structure of the song – the slow build of its opening, into the glitter-confetti explosion of the first chorus. The mid-song verse tumble of words, rushing past with no time for breath or line breaks, especially next to the sharp punctuation of each line of the chorus – that violiny stab, which is a Moment in itself. Turning up the drumbeat for the final couple of choruses. Every single time the volume peaks. And if we’re talking about outros, listen to the way the song’s close just melts out of existence, a trick last played on Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River. It knows it’s a pop record, and wants to remind you of that fact, but it’s also a big ‘Game Over’ screen. PLAY AGAIN? That’s pure confidence (of course you will), and just like the slight self-doubt of We Are Never…‘s delivery, it fits the subject. Jepsen makes it clear she knows all the other boys want her, so why wouldn’t this one?  It’s interesting because the pop archetype it’s tapping into – the fancying from afar song, so often the unrequited love song – is often the preserve of the boy looking nervously at his shoes.  Here, the consummation isn’t a foregone conclusion, but the power is undeniably in Jepsen’s hands. She’s a force of sexy nature. Honestly, it could be creepy with the gender roles reversed. Instead it’s an excellent bit of female gaze (see also: the video’s ripped abs moment). While most chart-bothering songs seek for new ways to tell a girl her tits look nice, her ass is perter than average, Jepsen delights in little thrilling details – those ripped jeans, skin was showing – which feel more like the marks of real human sexuality. And healthy sexuality too: there’s no shame here, no debasement. Ultimately, I think it’s telling that there’s no question mark at the end of the song’s title. There’s only question to ask, of both the listener and seducee: WHERE D’YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING, BABY? Dancing like a mutha I used to dislike dancing, at least in public, and not without reason: my body is clumsy, all elbows, and has little sense of rhythm. But as I get older, and have less and less opportunities to dance, it’s just another embarrassment I’ve learned to slough off. The most formative musical experiences I’ve had this year have all involved dancing – Grimes’ Oblivion pulling me into a warehouse in Ljubljana and setting off a night of furious dancing and repeatedly losing my friends. Atta Girl in Birmingham back in March, scribbled requests on my hands and being held aloft to Heaven is a Place on Earth. Various points throughout Sam Lewis’ wedding. But most of all, despite it being a comics event (and the best one in the UK), Thought Bubble in Leeds. At the mid-con party, I was the first one on the dancefloor, along with Dance-Comrade Tim Maytom, and we stuck there until it had filled, and they’d played Call Me Maybe twice, and it was triumphant. But being quiet means DJs can take the opportunity to play songs you’d never heard before, or only in the confines of your bedroom, and getting to test them on a live dancefloor. Especially, I’m thinking of Lies by Chvrches – which, it turns out, kicks and stomps in all […]

Two Songs Which Came Out in 2012

We’re way past the halfway mark of 2012 now, and I’d struggle to put together a list of my Top 10 Tracks For The Year (let alone Albums). I’ve been struggling to find new stuff that I really love. Now, I’m not saying these are my two favourite songs of 2012, exactly … but I might be. Kitty Pryde – Okay Cupid                                                                                          Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe Two approximately teenage girls (Pryde is a bit coy about her exact age, Jepsen’s actually in her mid-20s, but image is what matters, right?) taking on classic girl-loves-boy pop, from two very different angles. (And, as if it needed to be any more explicit, Pryde’s haha i’m sorry EP, opens with a song sampling/covering/taking the piss out of Jepsen’s masterpiece.) One of them is pure summery POP!, the joy of the first time and the stolen look; the other scuzzy-edged hip hop, the joy of teenage obsession and the stolen piece of clothing. Call Me Maybe glossy and locomotive, Okay Cupid is woozy and atmospheric, pushed along by blurry Weekndesque beats, the sound of something just kicking innnn. Where Okay Cupid goes in for a wealth of detail (cigarette breath, drunk dials at 3:30am, Frank Ocean) Call Me Maybe is all broad strokes (trading phone numbers, ripped jeans, just knowing). It’s the kind of pop song that could be about anyone, its signifiers borrowed more from what we’re told love is like than what it tends to actually be like. That’s no bad thing, of course, because a) hormones and b) Call Me Maybe is being delivered to directly to the subject of affection. It’s a girl laying it all on the line but trying to play it cool, a bit (after all, Jepsen is quick to remind her beau that plenty of other boys are trying to chase her), and you’re the “You”, and you can’t really imagine saying no to that maybe. Okay Cupid is delivered at someone, kind of. Certainly, it uses the “You”, but it’s a scrapbook, Facebook-album version of you that’s being talked to. The song is pretty clearly positioned in the bedroom, that sanctuary of living with your parents, from the “get out of my roooommm! blerghhhhh!” epigraph – and it’s hard to imagine Kitty’s anything but alone there. Which is how you know she means it all. It’s still a performance, though. Pryde plays the teenage girl role for all it’s worth, fetishistically working the divide between innocence and experience. She dips in and out of making silly noises in a way not seen since the sainted Cher Lloyd, her delivery equal parts bored drawl and playground giggle. Pryde’s voice is sweet but there’s something in it that’s kind of crusty, like nicotine-stained fingers – or like someone worked back from Ke$ha’s projected image and made music that actually fits it, and that I actually like. …There’s lots to grab onto in Okay Cupid. That’s part of its pleasure. The joys  of Call Me Maybe are harder to describe – especially trying to find something to say that’s not entirely redundant given that you’ll, stone-cold guarantee, already be familiar with it. Kitty Pryde may be named for my favourite X-Man, but it’s Jepsen who feels like the superhero. Some of what she says suggests she’s vulnerable, but the music surrounding her just makes her sound invincible.It’s teen-mag glossy. It’s a pop force of nature. It just sort of is. And the second it’s over, it’s already a bit hazy, just one long unending chorus in my memory. Which feels fully appropriate, given what it’s about. What it’s about, what songs are about, being: the crush as fantasy. In one case in the knight-in-shining-armour sense, in the other the hands-down-your-pants sense. Although, actually, honestly, the latter could be true of either song. The only reason you know Carly doesn’t have her hand stuck firmly down the front of her jeans is that it’s hard to imagine anyone managing to sing Call Me Maybe without at least a few cheesy arms-in-the-air dance moves. Really, like any mirror image, they’re not that far away from each other. It’s not as simple as one squeaky clean Hollywood romance and one ironically distant and kind of dirty. After all, it might be Jepsen giving off Disney Princess vibes, but it’s Pryde that explicitly mentions being one. It might be Pryde that talks about sex, but it’s Jepsen that’s getting laid. When Jepsen invokes selling her soul, the song’s so sincere you can’t help but believe she really means it.There’s a sneer in Pryde’s voice, especially put next to the earnestness of Jepsen, but there’s genuine romantic sentiment in there too, mixed up with all the sexual longing and grandstanding. It’s essentially the same story of a one-way relationship – not unrequited, quite, but not exactly mutual either. It’s roughly the same (universal, Pop-Platonic) ideas, through a different filter. They’re almost the same song, or at least two sides of some multi-dimensional hypersong, giving each other light and shade, feeding into one another to complete the circle of how (I imagine) it feels to be a teenage girl in lust. And that’s the story of how I made my own favourite album of the summer, just by gluing the two songs to the back of each other. (And yes, I’m aware that Call Me Maybe kind of came out in 2011. But only in Canada, which really doesn’t count.)

The Great Blog Crossover – Having Favourites is Just Favouritism

Sam Willet is a hairy-faced love god. He also runs a rather fine blog, the excellently named Escape Rope, in which he talks everything he loves, including music, sport, and food. It’s a scattershot approach I respect and encourage heartily. Given our mutual admiration, we decided it might be time, in the fine Amalgam Comics tradition, to enjoy a bit of a crossover between our two blogs. It’s the Summer Event You Never Asked For! So here’s Mssr Willet – with italicised interjections from my jerkish self – coming onto my blog and spitting on its illustrious tradition of Having Favourite Things. Spitting on the idea, spitting and spitting, until his salivary glands run dry. It’s always really riled me when people ask me: what’s your favourite… band/song/film?. How the heck do I know? It’s like being asked to some up your life in one sentence. Feelings towards media and culture are conditional on what’s going on in the rest of your life at the time. So, I’ve come to a decision. From this day forth, whenever I get asked the dreaded ‘What’s your favourite (insert cultural product here)?’ question, I’m going to either: a) Walk away, gleeful at shirking my social responsibilities.b) Say ‘I don’t know’ and smile dumbly.c) Hastily change the subject.d) Fall over and feign injury.e) Shout ‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!’ into the questioner’s face until they flee or dissolve. And I’ll tell you for why, using an example: My most recent favourite album, when asked, was In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. This was largely based on the fact that I believed that the record elicited from me a particularly strong emotional response, one which I greatly appreciated. I believed I had a special relationship with that album, and I truly treasured it. But more recently I have come to question this, for a few reasons. In no particular order: I gradually realised that the band were a bit better known than I had thought, and their popularity went beyond that of a small, cult following. It is common enough to feel more strongly for that which is known to few, rather than that which is known to many, but I still occasionally feel guilty about this, as it carries with it the suggestion that most people are idiots – cultural elitism. I also read and heard the band described as ‘Indie’, a genre label that grinds my gears in a very acute way, and discussion of which I will save for another time. But crucially, I also found that the more I told people this was my favourite record, the less I believed it, and the more that the unfathomable magic dust which had bound this album and I together seemed to ebb away. If you have a favourite film, then you probably don’t appreciate film as much as you could*. The same goes for music. There are so many reasons to enjoy these things, so many positives and negatives to be taken away from them, all surrounded in each individual’s unique personal culture and context, that I just can’t understand how someone would be able to name their favourite, or why they should be compelled to. The instant I single out a cultural product as my favourite, the main emotion I experience is regret. What about all the options I didn’t consider? Somebody’s probably heard that and thinks I’m an idiot! Sherbert! [–Politeness Ed] So I’m not a person suited to having favourite things. I think my favourite food is curry, but what about all the other tasty dishes out there? It’s just not fair. Not since primary school have I considered anyone to be my best friend – sad maybe, but it’s a concept which has never sat well with me**. Is it too cynical to suggest that it’s childish to have a best friend? It’s certainly an arrangement that feels weirder to encounter as you get older. People aside, the best solution is to write lists. I have a predisposition for lists – I have a worrying tendency to resort to them for all of my decisions. But for films and music, it would take a huge investment of time an effort to create lists which I would be even close to happy with. I can just imagine the proud completion of my lists, showing everything I enjoy in genre categories and rank order, pinning them up on the wall and then someone walking into the room and saying ‘why isn’t The Big Lebowski under your favourite comedies – I thought you loved that film?’. There is a moment or two of silence before I tear the wretched paper from the walls and run out of the house into the street, blubbing horrifically. I haven’t listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in its entirety for ages. I await my next listen with trepidation. I fear it won’t feel the same. There is certainly a strong link between this fear and my big mouth. *Or you have devised a completely watertight way of empirically measuring the goodness of films, as this blog obviously has.**Even having met the impishly handsome proprietor of this blog. The man is incorrigible, dear readers.

BEST ALBUM OF 2011

People, especially people writing in certain types of magazines, occasionally talk about soundscapes, about how the way in which an album or song is laid out can feel like a sort of immersive environment. Well, says Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, that game is for wimps. In the space of one released-for-free mixtape, The Weeknd established a whole world. A world where – as pretty much everyone who’s written about, or listened to, the music will tell you – it is constantly the early hours of the morning, where it’s cold and smoky outside, where the party is always just ending. A world with the colours turned down slightly, viewed through a lens smeared with vaseline … or are your eyes just bleary? With its sort of Noir R’n’B (as in the black-&-white motifs, sure, but also the femme fatales and troubled masculinity of the lyrics, the quivering motel neons in the music) House of Balloons manages to transport all this to the space between your eyes and ears. It’s a weird kind of Tolkeinesque world-building by way of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet.This was effortlessly sustained by the other two parts of the mixtape trilogy The Weeknd released in 2011, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, which served more or less as expansion packs. The former just adds a slightly different colour palette, the Vice City to House of Balloon’s GTAIII. Accordingly, I was hoping December’s Echoes of Silence might be his San Andreas, in terms of expanding every bit of ambition in the original to obscene proportions.It’s not, but it does sharpens the aesthetic to a lethal point, then turn it back on pop, to shows how it’s not all that far from, for example, the work of Michael Jackson – it opens with a cover of MJ’s Dirty Diana, which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the original, just filtered through that unmistakable Weeknd worldview. The three albums have distinct personalities, but there’s the intertextuality runs deep, and each can be played back to back, flowing almost imperceptibly into one another, to create a two-hour mood piece. It’s testament to Tesfate’s masterful control over the aesthetic parameters of this world– so much so that it’s jarring to hear Superhero and Party, tracks from around 2008, released recently, when he was doing something completely different, closer to trad R’n’B, and frankly much less interesting. The Weeknd snuck into an incredible number of corners during 2011 – the music I talked about when I was drunk, slipping it into playlists so everyone else could hear it, owning the week I lived in a hostel in Bath and playing at being a games journalist, being the only album on the my mobile’s SD card, so soundtracking a lot of morning tube journeys and late night walks home. (This piece is a palimpsest, etched over the remains of something I wrote back in June, about the joys of playing House of Balloons back to back, on constant repeat. I ended up back-to-backing the album, with barely an exhale between end and beginning, for pretty much the entire next six months. I still have absolutely no idea of most of the lyrics.) There’s a sense that perhaps I’m enjoying something beyond the music, something that exists in the images it sets off in my head, in the meeting point between the videos and photographs and what other people said. That tends to be at least inherent in the criticisms of The Weeknd (of which there have a been a lot, often from writers whose opinions I respect) – that somehow these aren’t songs that Tesfaye is selling. And, okay, compared to, say, Childish Gambino – to pick another artist whose work I enjoyed immensely in 2011 – the pleasure is less immediate, the songs are less likely to grab me by the lapels while I’m listening to them. Admittedly, a lot of the time, I let The Weeknd slip into the background, using it as a sort of musical wallpaper, while something else goes in the foreground. But if it’s ambient, it’s aggressively ambient. It’s the kind of wallpaper that, suddenly feeling overly sensitive to everything, you rub your fingers over, and appreciate every inch of texture. It’s music that feels physical, in every possible way – not just how it occasionally taps into your muscles and makes them jump and twitch in the nearest approximation of dancing you can manage on the morning commute, but like its ideas form something three-dimensional, so dense you could almost reach out and touch it. And it is dense – all this information is condensed down into these small aural packages, like Grant Morrison hyperstorytelling or something. But, yes, perhaps I don’t enjoy House of Balloons in the way I do other music. The lyrics don’t mean a lot to me; to be honest, I can’t participate in the discussion about whether the songs are misogynist or misguided, because the words are just extra sounds to me. Which is fine, because the sounds are the whole point of the thing. Tesfaye has a delicate voice, which generally sits on top of the song, skimming along the surface, while in depths there are these bassy, creaky thumpings. In the space in between, all sorts of stuff can happen: The Beach House sample Loft Music squashes out of shape, so it feels like an uncovered artefact of ancient pop rather than something from 2008. The bit where a woman’s voice joins in on The Party & The After Party, throbbing just under the song. The statement-of-intent looping squeal that introduces House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls – and from there, the song slides into a fluid underlying push/pull, with just the slightest buzzy echo, before introducing all sorts of other sounds and layering them on top, or underneath. Every single moment on House of Balloons sounds absolutely gorgeous – whether through headphones, my old beaten-up laptop speakers, or my relatively good sound system. There are entire clubs’ worth of […]