those were my jams

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.