The Bestest 2016: Tunage

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Radiohead, Outside Lands, 2016

2016 was a year to forget … but also to remember. We lost at least a dozen of the most important artists we will ever hear. As much as the music business is still adjusting to the new frontier, great music seems to pour out of every corner of the world, no longer hostage to major labels, walled garden distribution, and a handful of gatekeepers. This list, my 20th, is filled with as many truly incredible records as ever. They cross every thematic genre I can think of, and pay tribute to everything that has come before. I don’t buy that the “album” is dead. Great artists still make albums, that is why they are great. Try to listen to them that way, playlists can be great, but they only tell part of the story.

1. Rufus Du Sol Bloom (Columbia)

One thing modern streaming services can tell you that records, tapes, and CDs never could, is what you “really” listened to over the course of a year. In my case the sophomore album by Sydney’s Rufus Du Sol was far and away the album I played more than any other. Having stumbled into their set at Coachella in April, and being literally blown away by their melodic and more song oriented approach to dance music, I had no idea what to expect from the recorded version. What I found was eleven of the most lushly produced, instantly addictive songs of the decade. Although somewhat unrelated, I remember feeling the same way in the mid-90’s when first hearing Morcheeba, Zero 7, and Air – beautiful traditional songwriting and structure layered on top of ultra-clean electronic beats.

Because this is also the most consistent album of the year, almost every song is my favorite. From the infectious “You Were Right” whose lyrics “You were right, I know I can’t get enough of you .. the things that I would do” just keeps rolling hypnotically for just the right amount of time, to the broodingly upbeat closing track “Innerbloom” which glitches and grooves along until we get the triumphant chorus “If you want me / And you need me / I’m yours.” For me, everything I love about music is packed into these 11 songs.

2. Andy Shauf The Party (Anti-)

Some artists come out of nowhere (or in this case Saskatchewan) and record something so perfect its almost inexplicable. Last year Tobias Jesso Jr. (another Canadian) released the near perfect “Goon” which was that record, but this year the orchestral brilliance of “The Party” fills that slot. If you’re as old as me, you’ll remember records piano based chamber pop like this from artists like Epic Soundtracks and Eric Matthews, but this is a very modern sounding affair.

Shauf has a sweet but distinctly low-key voice perfect for the largely slow and moody “The Party.” You’ll hear a bit of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, strings and brass wafting from the piano on this concept album about young people at “The Party.” On the gorgeous “Early to the Party”, he dials perfectly into the inevitable banality “early to the party, you’re the first one there / overdressed and underprepared / standing in the kitchen, stressing out the host / pulling teeth ’til anyone arrives.” Like most of the selections on this list, this is an “album” – one that pulls you in, warms you up, and takes just takes you away to a better younger place where things were way less complicated.

3. Day of the DeadDay of the Dead (4AD)

There was no record as ambitious and sprawling as the 59-song, four-year project constructed by the The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Indie rock and jam band enthusiasts have always seemed to have been disconnected both by age and cultural orientation, but below the surface there has always been a connection much tighter than there appears. I can think of no better bridge than these modern interpretations from one of the most important bands of the past half-century.

Whether it’s The National’s sublime “Peggy-O,” Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s jangly “Rubin and Cherise,” Real Estate’s “Here Comes Sunshine,” or Kurt Vile’s “Box of Rain” the spirit and songwriting and instrumentation of the Dead’s catalog is unquestionably magical. Recorded over four years in Dessner’s Woodstock studio, there was no collection of songs that connected the history of modern music as impressively as this one. This is truly a musical masterpiece, and one that creates a new relevance to one of the most impressive musical catalogs that we will ever hear, but also critical exposure to some of the most important artists of today.

4. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate (Polydor)

 Michael Kiwanuka, a young British born child of Ugandan refugees, has single handedly resuscitated the classic soul and R&B of the 70’s. Like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield before him, he channels a kind of laid back politics that manages to not so much preach but to remind us that the world still suffers from the racist, classist instincts that just won’t seem to disappear.

This time out he is produced by Danger Mouse, whose silky production just adds a bit of lightness to an otherwise heavy themed affair. “Black Man In A White World” is a funked up confessional that is as potent as it is unshakable. While “One More Night” is more a universal anthem about just getting through the bad days, because eventually there will be a good one. In the midst of a terrible year personally, this one made all the difference.

5. Whitney- Light Upon The Lake (Secretly Canadian)

 There were few better debut albums released this year than this new project by ex-Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich and former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek. This is a whimsical jaunt through the world of modern indie pop, filled with hazy strings and brass, and the kind of familiar sounding guitar lines that have you just kind of smiling without really knowing why.

Each of the 10 songs seem to glide along filled with low burning jams reminiscent of early Luna or the short lived but brilliant Girls. These are indie-pop songs in the purest sense, they ask only that you lay back and bask in the beauty of everyday emotions. On standouts “Golden Days” and “The Falls” we hear about relationships gone bust, despite the longing. This is a tiny little gem of an album, and one we hope begets a long career of jewels.

6. Lambchop – FLOTUS (Merge)

For almost 20 years Nashville’s most quietly rocking Americana big band of hipster musical geniuses has been making some of the most consistently beautiful music I can think of. At the center of it all is bandleader and vocalist Kurt Wagner whose hushed storytelling meanders along like a waking dream. On ‘FLOTUS,’ which needs to be considered among the best of their long career, the band still paints a beautiful country rock symphony, but this time along the music is decidedly electronic.

Lambchop has long been that sadly beautiful brand of music that pre-dates Bon Iver. This time out we hear a deeper more electronic sound with Wagner’s vocals passed through a vocoder while a variety of keyboards and synthesizers flesh out something considerably more modern. The exquisite 9 minute opener “In Care of 8675309” sets a kind of patient groove tone for what comes next: warm waves of meandering rustic beauty.

7. Angel Olsen My Woman (Jagjaguar)

Sometimes an artist, naked with guitar and microphone, and a short book of stories, projects a kind of greatness that is hard to extrapolate. Like Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen is that rare singer-songwriter whose earlier confessional acoustic efforts have given way to a fully formed band oriented masterpiece. Her voice is a powerful blend of Lucinda Williams and PJ Harvey, at times quiet and restrained but eventually building into a glorious riot of sound.

“My Woman” is a massive step forward in fidelity and musicianship. Where her earlier efforts were sparse and intimate musings, songs like “Not Gonna Kill You” are bigger more ambitious anthems that just tend to explode into the darkness. Others like “Sister” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me” represent chorus heavy almost accessible pop songs, but tattooed with all the signature elements that have come to define her. This is a masterpiece.           

8. RadioheadA Moon Shaped Pool (XL)

Twenty-five years into one of the most consistently extraordinary runs of any band I can think of, Radiohead delivers another languidly exquisite album of patient contemplation. Unlike the last few dubstep experiments that were beautiful, sparse and cold, the orchestral texture of “A Moon Shaped Pool” proves that old bands can continue to evolve without sounding like they are trying too hard. Although it is easy to focus on the sublime vocals of Thom Yorke, this time out it is really the musical composition of Johnny Greenwood that saturates each song with a profound depth of feeling.

There are barn burning ragers like “Burn The Witch,” rootsier jams like “The Numbers” and more somber tunes like “Present Tense” where we hear Yorke whisper “ No don’t get heavy / Keep it light and / Keep it moving.” If there was ever a album that attempted to understand the world we live in today it is this one. I am counting on them to neither burn out or fade away.

9. Ryley WalkerGolden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)

Ryley Walker is late twenty-something Chicago guitar prodigy who could have just as easily been the poster child of the 60’/70’s British folk scene along with Nick Drake, Van Morrison and the Fairport Convention. On “Golden Sings” his pure folk instinct gives way a bit to a more modern jazz folk lineage. This long-playing 9-song masterpiece is unlike anything that you have heard for decades.

“The Roundabout” is one of my favorite songs of the past decade. He opens with the profound but ambiguous lyrics “There’s no instance / In conscience or convenience / Even though you stand / On heavy shoulders.” As much as he is a clever lyricist, it is his intricate guitar strumming that puts him way out there on a different plane. Music like this doesn’t fit anywhere in a modern age filled with electronica, dance pop, and festival sized rock and roll. Perhaps this is why this album is so precious and beautiful.

10. Hiss Golden MessengerHeart Like A Levee (Merge)

If you are looking for an old school rock record fashioned from the ashes of the best of American country rock music of the 70’s, Hiss Golden Messenger’s gorgeous “Heart Like A Levee” is like some sort of gift from the gods. The band is really the work of Durham, NC’s MC Taylor, a master songwriter and gifted bandleader writing from a time long gone.

With his nasal Dylan meets Petty vocal styling’s, he is a straightforward storyteller who seems so important in an age of screens and feeds and ‘alone togetherness.’ There are a handful of instant classics this time out from the twangy “Biloxi” to the rambling title track “Heart Like A Levee”. This is an album that will help you block out everything, at least for a moment, and remember the past as you’d like it to be remembered.

11. The Radio Dept.Running Out Of Love (Labrador)

It’s no surprise that the cleanest, crispest piece of New Wave nostalgia is yet another product of the great Swedish music scene. The Radio Dept. has quietly and sporadically been making records for the past fifteen years, never quite spiking a main vein in the US, blending the tween sensibility of Belle and Sebastian with the keyboard buoyancy of the best 90’s Brit pop.

Thematically the album is a modern day protest album, bathed in the bright jangle of casio beats. From the infectious “Swedish Guns” to the even more timely “This Thing Was Bound To Happen,” the band is looking at all of the global political chaos crashing down around us, and creating the kind of art that feels more like a reminder than a call to arms.

12. AHNONIHOPELESSNESS (Rough Trade)

It is hard to think of another singer whose angelic and other-worldly voice can even compare to that of Nina Simone, but the British born, US transplant Antony Hegarty deserves that kind of unique praise. In an age of both radical openness and extreme hate, the transgender Hegarty, whose most recent project AHNONI, has managed to create the most political dance record of the year.

Despite it’s ominous title, the record creates irony out of real chaos. On “Drone Bomb Me” she sings “Blow me from the mountains, and into the sea … Explode my crystal guts / Lay my purple on the grass” and on “4 Degrees” she tackles climate change singing “I want to see this world, I want to see it boil / It’s only 4 degrees, it’s only 4 degrees.” Heavy stuff indeed but performed with a strangely euphoric touch. Amen.

13. Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial (Matador)

Will Toledo was born in 1992, which was coincidentally the year we first heard from Pavement- the band probably most sonically and lyrically similar. Between 2010-15 he self-released a dozen albums on Bandcamp calling himself Car Seat Headrest. 10K hours later, he has emerged as one of the most gifted songwriters of his time.

This lo-fi guitar rock, which has recently lost it’s gravity to the electronic DJs of today, seems to be making a comeback with bands like Car Seat Headrest and fellow wunderkind Courtney Barnett. On the surface the dozen melancholic mini rock anthems seem like more millennial whining, but the joke here is that he seem to be poking fun at all of this undeserved entitlement. He says it better than anyone on “Fill in the Blank” where he wails “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” Yup, game on.

14. Mike Snow iii (Downtown Records)

The third record from the NY and Swedish dance pop supergroup was about as immediate and consistent as anything I heard this year. I also managed to see the band play live four times in 2016, so with this added context I can’t help but excuse the slickness and embrace the mainstream tendencies – after all these guys have produced albums by Britney Spears, Madonna and Kylie Minogue

From the massively addicting “Ghengis Khan” to the even deeper “My Trigger” the band taps into everything from classic R&B and Soul to the most modern electro dance beats. If I believed in ‘guilty pleasures’ this would fit the bill, but anything that delivers this much joy requires no guilt.

15. Jagwar Ma – Every Now and Then (Mom & Pop)

On their second effort, Aussie psychedelic dance powerhouse Jagwar Ma, continues to channel that bouncy 80’s Manchester sound with a totally modern groove based electronica. Like fellow countrymen Rufus Du Sol and Tame Impala, they both pay tribute to the riches of history managing to create a sound that is genuinely original.

On “Say What You Feel,” the trippiest ballad of the year, the band croons “Cause it’s all you ever wanted / And it’s all you ever dreamed of / And you wake up and you try to / Try to make amends for what you had.” Like a glitchy, bouncy explosions of sound, Jagwar Ma aren’t afraid to stretch out each of these pop songs into deep groovy colorful jams. Let them wash over you.

16. Banks & SteelzAnything But Words (Warner Bros)

On paper a record featuring the singers from Interpol and Wu Tang making sweet music seems like a bad recipe, but “Anything But Words” is not only the most successful experiment of its kind, but one of the best albums of the year. It’s neither a hip-hop record nor is it a dark new wave indie rock.

Trading vocals throughout each song, Paul Banks and Rza, have written songs that flow effortlessly into and out of their own personal comfort zones but co-existing neatly within a wonderfully familiar zone. The raging “Giant” is one of the best songs in the past decade, a guitar and keyboard driven masterpiece filled with Rza’s rhymes and Banks understated intensity. It almost doesn’t matter if there is another collaboration between the two – this one says all it needs to.

A bunch of other stuff that you must hear …

17. Cass McCombs Mangy Love (Domino Records) A quietly loud, often moody collection in an age where rock music struggles to make a ripple in the wake of manufactured pop songs and synthesizers.

18. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seeds Ltd.) 33 years into one of the strangest most prolific and darkly beautiful careers imaginable, Nick Cave has delivered a somber masterpiece as he dealt with the loss of a child and the fragility of life.

19. BadBadNotGood – IV (Innovative Leisure) This is not jazz from your parent’s generation, but something wholly different, a fusion of traditional R&B, classic jazz, and spacier Sun Ra meets Miles   expansiveness. Breathtaking.

20. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come to Expect (Domino Recordings) The second wonderfully orchestral release from Artic Monkey’s leader Alex Turner and Miles Kane is a darkly optimistic string soaked voyage into something both theatrical and cooler than ice.

21. Bon Iver22, A Million (Jagjaguar) Few albums were as technically and sonically ambitious as this oddly gorgeous evolution from one of the most innovative singer songwriters of our time.

22. David BowieBlackstar (Columbia) One final eerily gorgeous collection of jazzy, interstellar genre bending songs from the man who inspired so much of today’s most important bands. Great not because it was his last, but because he always lived in the future.

23. Local NativesSunlit Youth (Loma Vista Recordings) Another solidly confident, distinctly authentic effort from one of the finest SoCal art pop bands of the past decade.

24. Weyes Blood Front Row Seat To Earth (Mexican Summer) Natalie Mering’s sublime, and patiently confessional third effort is a hauntingly otherworldly affair ripped seemingly from some other time and place that is impossible to place.

25. Porches Pool (Domino Records) Aaron Maine’s sophomore effort features dozen of the cleanest electro-pop songs of the year, alluding to 80’s New Wave, but staying consistently modern and bright.

26. The Avalanches – Wildflower (Modular) 16 years ago a bunch of Aussie music scientists weaved nine-hundred song samples into one of the most important albums in the history of electronic music. Then seemingly out of nowhere, despite years of rumors and hope, they dropped “Wildflower” on the world. Still great.

To listen to the Bestest of the Bestest listen here: https://open.spotify.com/user/ruxputin/playlist/7jEo6HP5Nadtmh7StRNqzc

 

 

 


Coachella, 2014: Girls Win, Synths beat out Guitars

Bcoachellaig music festivals can largely be tracked back to the first Newport Jazz festival in 1954, The Folk version in 1959, and then followed by Woodstock in 1969, Glastonbury in 1970 a bunch of other European festivals that followed and thrived through today. SXSW launched in 1987 and has become something entirely different 30+ years later, Lollapalooza launched in the US in 1991, but lost momentum eventually, and finally Bonnaroo and Coachella re-ignited the scene in 2001. Since then, the idea of the Summer festival has exploded, evolved and become a massively big business, including a re-launched Lollapalooza, ACL Festival, Outside Lands, Sasquatch, Governors Ball, and countless EDM fests.

With the traditional “record business” at the end of it’s inevitable decline, reinvented as part YouTube and SoundCloud (free) with the balance being a digital subscription, algorithmic radio, and old school vinyl nostalgia (sure people buy CD’s and digital tracks but that will be over within the next 5 years). The music that we have access to and the speed of an artist’s ascent from obscurity to stardom, are equally astounding. Nowhere are both those facts more self-evident than at a major festival.

Every year I go to a few festivals and take an immersive temperature on both the state of modern music and the pulse of youth culture – both of which are best viewed from the vantage of the fields of the Indio Polo Grounds at Coachella. This was my seventh Coachella, but the first time I attended the second of two weekends. The weather was perfect if you like hot, dry breezeless days. There were no sandstorms, no rain, very few clouds, and as a result almost no grass since it had been trampled down the prior weekend. There were, however, fewer people and a lineup of incredible music that peaks between 1-9 if you’re an indie music nut like me.

Coachella 2014 was a very very good year for music. It was also the year of the female vocalist. It was also a year, where synthesizers outnumbered guitars by a very large margin.

Day 1: The first six bands I saw on Friday were absolutely breath taking female fronted bands: Wye Oak, was the first, and their track “Civilian” was among the best of the festival. Next a few tracks from newbie Waxahatchee, who make straight up guitar and drum indie rock riding the wave of their “Peace and Quiet” single. Then there was the truly otherworldly Austra, who sound like something you would hear in a good dream. The always incredible Dum Dum Girls, lead by singer Dee Dee who looks like Joan Jett, sounds like Chrissie Hynde, with a band as cool as they come. There is no band destined to be bigger and broader this time next Coachella than MS MR, who met in college made a record and were playing the main stage to a massive crowd early in the day 18 months later. The first dude I saw all day utter even a word was the utterly mindblowing Jagwar Ma, an Aussie psychedelic dance band that wooed the crowd into a blissful trance. Back to the ladies and there isn’t a story about the speed of buzz and the reality of the 10,000 hrs than LA’s Haim. A trio of LA based sisters who sing beautiful pop songs, but live play their instruments as if possessed by hellions from the 70’s. Next up was Neko Case, who possesses perhaps the best natural voice at the festival and without a doubt one of the tightest bands out there. She was divine despite the too smallish crowd. The second dude at the mic all day was Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs, a band I loved twenty years ago and one who still managed to sound tight and relevant even today. There is something magical about the sunset set on the Outdoor Stage at Coachella, this year it was the delicious Broken Bells (James Mercer from the Shins and Danger Mouse), projecting perfect pop into the colorful desert sky. For the most part, I know every set I’ll see ahead of time, but some are more exciting than others, and for me it was the deep house mastermind Bonobo (aka Simon Green) who played the tightest DJ set of the whole weekend. I say that having gone to see Girl Talk take over the festival for a few songs just after, but sometimes too big is too big. When you see music all day, the big messy crowded headlining sets just seem unworthy, so we stopped to see the biggest, weirdest, coolest band cap things off The Knife.

 

Day 2: Another of the best things about Coachella is getting there early enough that there are no crowds just big open spaces and room to drift. Laura Mvula is one of the best British soul singers you have never of, and I was so glad I had and that it started a glorious second day. From lush, orchestral soul, to the brutishly authentic Mick Jagger meets Iggy Pop retro rock from the most excellent Foxygen. Continuing on a deep retro vibe was UK youngers Temples whose whirling Pink Floydian rock was happening 20+ years before their birth. I saw a few songs from Banks, but they were too sleepy for that early in the day, before heading over to Bombay Bicycle Club for a packed house of happy fratty guys and gals. The crowd for Scotland dance pop band CHVRCHES was absolutely enormous, proving you can go from not even being in a band to 40,000 people singing every lyric in less than two years. Next was more 80’s Brooklyn based dance pop in the form of an excellent set by Holy Ghost!, followed by a massive crowd for Head and the Heart, who, although I’ve seen a dozen times now was playing to a massive crowd and sounding like the folk rock stars they were destined to become. Now you can’t see everything, so no Kid Cudi, only one Washed Out track, before venturing over to perhaps the coolest set of the festival: LA based Warpaint , whose deeply serious melodic rock was mesmerizing closing with the incredible single “Undertow.” Every year there is one band that literally blows up right before the festival. In the past there has been Foster The People, Gotye, Alt-J, but this year the band and the set of the fest for me Baltimore’s unlikely Future Islands. Looking like Marlon Brando but sounding like a fusion of Fine Young Cannibals and Tom Waits, singer Samuel Herring is a wonderfully electric and unlikely rock star. After that we caught pieces of Fatboy Slim, Pixies, Solange and before hunkering down for one of the loudest, strongest sets of the day from Sleigh Bells. Sure elsewhere Pharell, Skrillex, Queens of the Stone Age and Empire of the Sun were banging, but Coachella is all about hard choices.

 

Day 3: By day three if you are really “doing Coachella” as in seeing music, not hanging at VIP, or showing up at 5, or stumbling around bleary eyed, you are tired, but also very much in a groove. The groove of watching music all day. Clearing your head of everything except for the music you are watching and that with you will see later. This day was the lightest in terms of what I wanted to see, but it started with deep disco with LA’s Poolside, whose grooves were a super smooth way to start the day. Not since Liz Phair’s debut “Exile” record has their been a singer as clever, and cool, and competant’ as Aussie Courtney Barnett. Again, from out of nowhere she is playing Coachella within a year of releasing her first music. More luscious 80’s disco classics from Classixx, so much damn fun, followed by perhaps the best Superchunk set I have seen in eons, despite the notable lack of Laura on bass. Certain things just turn magical in the desert, and the sunset set with a reunited Neutral Milk Hotel was down right spiritual. There was nothing like them when they made their two classic albums in the mid-90’s, and there was certainly nothing more intense than this set this year. For something a little bit more upbeat nothing is better than Sweden’s lush Little Dragon. I hadn’t seen anything in it’s entirety on the big main stage all weekend, but playing his first Coachella set in fifteen years Beck was absolutely on it, covering the classics from “Loser” up through the glassy ballads on “Morning Phase.” It’s easy to forget how incredibly important Beck has been and will likely be for many years to come, but seeing him on that stage was nothing less than magical. With the exception of Radiohead, without a doubt the biggest, baddest critically acclaimed live rock band on the planet is Arcade Fire. Although I’m not a huge fan of their new LCD produced album, seeing them play “No Cars Go” or “Suburbs” is something special. For all the incredible music that played throughout the weekend, there is only one Arcade Fire. A good headliner is hard to find, but on this particular Sunday Arcade Fire owned the night.

 

Music and Technology

Back to reality. For the past eight years I have tried to chronicle each significant step and change in technology, and the evolution/application of mobile and social behavior through the lens of music festivals. First there was SMS (texting) on feature phones – for finding and meeting people in impossibly crowded environments it was simple and useful. Next fans taking photos, mostly Razor phones, to eventually publish on Flickr or merely store on hard drives. Then came Twitter (most easily via sms), short simple web-based publishing but also serving the location conundrum, which was an excellent innovation and great way to follow tastemakers in real time on the grounds. Facebook mobile brought photos + geo + publishing. Phones in the air, selfies, videos, all endlessly capturing the moment, so much so that the moment is lost and replaced with looking at phones. With Foursquare came adding and leaving location-based check-ins, sometimes with photos, sometimes just as quick diary entry. Next there was Instagram with good-looking, geo-tagged photos, with comments and everything else from everything that had come before. And that is kind where things stalled. Sure Vine, Snapchat, Tinder, Whatsapp, Coachella’s own app, and all the iterations that have happened since these original innovations are nice, but we’re kind of back to where we started: photos, FB, Twitter, etc. Bandwidth still sucks, especially later into the day and night, and in the end festivals exist for people to see and hear music, share communal passion, and spend quality time with friends and family. I still do take a photo at every show I see, but more as a form of diary. Perhaps it’s tedious to watch from afar, but it makes sense to me.

It’s possible that the rise of festivals is merely a societal reaction to the alienation and self-absorption of the screen-based world we live in, but to see tens of thousands of people experiencing the same moment with nothing but smiles (and yes phones) reminds us of the many things that technology will never replace. People turn people onto things through passion, expression and joy. Now go see some live music this summer. Your soul will thank you.

 

Oh and if you subscribe to Spotify or Rdio here are the playlists:

On Spotify:     TastemakerX V31 “Coachella 2014″

On Rdio:        TastemakerX V31 “Coachella 2014″

 

 

Culture in Silicon Valley

brokenbellsWhen I arrived in San Francisco from New York at the beginning of the end of that first glorious Internet era in April 1999, I had in my mind’s eye a place teeming with culture junkies. Hyper-literate music- and arts-loving people, drawn to the Bay to be part of a kind of acceptably commercial counter-culture.

Although I had spent time in SF before becoming a resident, I mostly had images of the time-adjusted Grateful Dead-Summer of Love city by the Bay. I imagined sunsets falling behind the Golden Gate Bridge, with distant music coming from the Haight and films being cut at Skywalker Ranch. After all, the area was home to George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Michael Chabon, Michael Lewis, Sean Penn, Neil Young, Bob Weir, Carlos Santana, and hundreds of other notable creative legends.

But over the next 15 years I would find a sharp and surprising paradox about the Bay Area and its strangely collective apathy about the arts. It took a while to truly understand all the reasons, but when I really thought about the why, the reasons seemed quite logical.

To be clear, I am speaking mostly about the tech community, which has, for the most part, become the vocal majority throughout the Bay Area. For such a liberal and progressive city, with such a young and highly educated population, I am always surprised at how disinterested most young techies are about music and film. Sure there are a few thousand of them who head out to the desert for a week of bacchanalia at Burning Man, but ultimately you won’t see many of them at Coachella, Sundance, or even the San Francisco Film Festival. But why not? [Read more…]

The Bestest 2013: Tunage

I’m not sure you need me to tell you about the 2013 records by Kanye, Daft Punk and Arcade Fire. They were unanimously fawned over, richly produced concept pieces that actually hang together. Instead, I’ll focus on the handful of albums (yes I still tend to listen to albums – albeit in a digital form) that stood out and made 2013 another great year. Perhaps I am getting set in my ways, but I consume music through the following devices and platforms: Spotify, Sonos, Songza, Rdio, Jambox, Pandora, Sirius/XM, an iPhone, car CD player and an ancient B&O turntable. Ultimately, as long as you are listening to music that makes you happy and discovering new music every once in a while, it doesn’t matter how you consume it.

1) Junip – Junip (Mute)

Swedish folkie Jose Gonzalez has long been a one of the best modern folk singers of our time, as a soloist, band leader (Junip) and occasional vocalist for bands like Zero 7. He has a beautifully calm and confident voice. His acoustic guitar playing is incredibly precise, almost Nick Drake-like its complicated simplicity. But with Junip, Gonzalez’s fully realized band, the results are sturdier, rockier, and generally serious songs filled with hypnotic grooves.

Although perhaps tapping into the Americana roots resurgence, Junip doesn’t aspire towards Mumford; they seem to be mining a darker more introspective place, but somehow still in the same tradition. Standout tracks like “In Every Direction” have every bit the groove of their American peers, but without any of the rootsy whimsy. Almost nothing struck me like this record this year, but then again I expected greatness.

2) Midlake – Antiphon (Bella Union)

For those paying attention, for nearly a decade Midlake has been an unheralded giant in the renaissance of big Americana rock music. Like a younger, rangier My Morning Jacket, the Denton, TX band creates sprawling guitar rock that tends to be cut more from their jazz roots, than the blues.

“Antiphon” is the first record made after the departure of lead singer Tim Smith, and is both less precious than its prior effort “The Courage of Others” and perhaps more original sounding than their brilliant “Trials of Van Occupanther” Fleetwood Mac inspired masterpiece. What it is, however, is a deadly serious, mightily compelling roller coaster of an arena rock classic. Lushly produced and orchestrated, this is music to be savored as a complete record, not as songs to be tossed randomly into a playlist. This is something very special.

3) London Grammar – If You Wait (Warner)

I’m not sure how big “If You Wait” will be by the time you finally get around to reading this, but even if it doesn’t end up filling the void left by an Adele/Florenceless year, I will still love it. It is the obvious bastard stepchild of The XX and Florence, with songwriting and production that is every bit as slick and seductive, but more than anything it all rides on the capable shoulders and vocals of Hannah Reid.
Even when you wean yourself off the hopelessly addictive “Hey Now” single, the rest of the album is a lush, sexy, smoky effort, reminiscent of the lovely trip hop of the early 90’s (Zero 7, Morcheeba, and even the 90’s 4AD roster). Driving music, head phone music, winter music, and summer music. A great record is always all of those, and so is this.

4) Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends (Atlantic)

Take all the anthemic brilliance that was the mid-90’s Oasis, wrap it in Portlandia hipsterism, and let Danger Mouse spin the dials and you have one of the finest albums of the year. Almost every song here is some kind of infectious groove mixed with a chorus that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to take notice.

On “Plastic Soldiers,” as with most of the songs on this album, things start innocently enough but eventually acoustic guitar strums morph into big chorus driven walls of melodic sound: “Could it be we got lost in the summer / I know you know that it’s over …” In the age of singles, it is great to hear albums created by bands that realize that singles are ephemeral, and that albums are forever.

5) Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)

There isn’t a more distinctive straight-forward female voice in modern music than Neko Case. Perhaps PJ Harvey used to hold the torch, but Case has been making country-tinged solo records for years, and has been a card carrying New Pornographer since the beginning. She is a legitimate force of nature with her long red hair and silky voice.

This time out Case is less country (which is good) and more good old fashioned rock, rounded out with a super group of guests from Calexico, Mudhoney, MMJ and others. Songs like “City Swans” showcase what she has been doing for a decade – belting out endlessly catchy choruses and just letting her voice sail into some beautiful sunset. This is truly a special album. [Read more…]

Who Loves The Sun: Remembering Lou Reed

For some people it was the death of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain or Jerry Garcia that made time stop. For me it was Lou Reed.

My seminal Lou Reed moment took place on a brisk Fall evening in 1988. I was a freshman in college and off on an East Coast road trip stopping by Wesleyan and Tufts, eventually making my way to Providence for an evening with an old friend at the Rhode Island School of Design. I had never been to Providence and I remember being instantly jealous of everything about the place as we walked across town to a cheap and delicious Vietnamese restaurant surrounded by a whole city of smart artsy hipsters. By the time we returned to my friend Tom’s apartment, a dozen beverages into the evening, we got right down to the business of playing records and talking about music. At some point he dropped the needle on the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded.” Immediately, and I mean within the first few notes of “Who Loves The Sun,” my mind was blown, and my musical life was changed forever. Then came “Rock & Roll” and “Oh! Sweet Nothing,” which were even more transformative for me. We must have played the album four times straight before we passed out, bleary-eyed, but high on music.

I had certainly heard Lou Reed many times before, but “Walk On The Wild Side”  – albeit cool, was not the Velvet Underground (VU). The band, I would learn, was managed by Andy Warhol, and became a symbol for the New York art scene in the late 60’s.  While The Dead and Jefferson Airplane played the Fillmore and the Warfield, VU played Warhol’s Factory. They can almost single-handedly take credit for igniting what would ultimately become genres as far-reaching as punk, new wave, and later “alternative” or “indie rock.” What the Beatles did for pop music, Dylan for folk, and the Stones for rock and roll, VU did for what would become “independent music.” There were many things that made them so unique beginning with their attitude, the all black fashion sense, the fact that they had one of the first female drummers (Mo Tucker), the incredible music (thanks largely to Reed and John Cale), and their devastating and authentic lyrics. But mostly it was that the band made music so far ahead of its time it still sounds like the future – even today.

“Loaded” was the last VU album, made with Lou Reed halfway out the door, and although their most accessible album, it is likely “The Velvet Underground & Nico” will remain the one in which they will be most remembered. Featuring the iconic Warhol banana image, and the vocals of European supermodel turned actress singer Nico, Reed created an album filled with gentle melodic ditties like “There She Goes” and “Sunday Morning” and juxtaposed them with gritty classics like “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

VU disbanded in 1970 after four proper albums, but this was just the beginning for Lou Reed. He literally created the art rock universe that still exists today. Without his influence, there would have been no Bowie/Ziggy, no Iggy Pop, no Ramones, Patti Smith, Strokes, Luna, or thousands of other bands that played in his wake. There were plenty of drugs, which oriented his music not only lyrically and emotionally, but unlike most of his peers, he persevered, never seeming to lose a beat. His storytelling describes primarily a hardscrabble NYC during the 70’s and 80’s. This was the era of Needle Park, city wide blackouts, the ultra sketchy East Village and Times Square and Harlem, but it was also the era of CBGB’s, the rise of independent record labels, and punk rock.

Lou Reed, was a musician from childhood. He played doo-wop songs in high school, studied poetry in college, and wrote pop songs for Pickwick after college. He was always all in, and smart and talented enough to have gone in any direction he might have chosen. Real artists are born artists. They don’t compromise and spend a lifetime evolving and experimenting. They inspire future artists, and leave a canon that will endure forever. His music was never easy. “Berlin” and “Metal Machine” were dense, impenetrable works that divided critics and fans, but “Transformer” established him post-Velvets as one of the most talented songwriters of all time. Less heralded classics like “New York” and “Magic and Loss” represent Reed becoming comfortable with middle age, and doing so with all the relevance and vigor of the Velvets Reed from 20 years prior.

In some ways Reed defined what cool would mean for nearly 50 years. It was most superficially the look and attitude, but more than anything there was that voice and that beautiful and distinctive guitar. It was unlike anything that had come before it. A kind of talk-singing-poetry set to music. At times it’s bleak and jarring, at other times it’s raucous and fun, but most of the time it’s just sublime and cerebral in a way that is largely impossible to describe.

New York is a vastly different place than the one Lou Reed chronicled between the mid-60’s and late 80’s. CBGB’s is long gone. Many of the great artists from that era are no longer with us. There is a Starbucks on every corner, the Disneyfication of Times Square, and the gentrification of the East Village. The death of Lou Reed surely signifies the end of something, but he will always be with us. That is the beautiful thing about music. The best of it will live on, finding new audiences, inspiring new artists, and leaving us with a portrait of a time long gone.

Like “Catcher and The Rye,” “Harold and Maude” and a handful of other exquisite works of modern art that changed my life in immeasurable ways, Lou Reed’s music set me on a very different course. I can’t imagine who I’d be without him.

Reed said it best in the classic tune “Rock and Roll:

But one fine mornin’ she hears a New York station
She doesn’t believe what she heard at all
Hey, not at all
She started dancin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Yeah rock ‘n’ roll

Yes, my life was saved or at least shaped by rock n’ roll. Thank you Lou.

TastemakerX V24: “Thank You Lou”

http://tastemakerx.com/players/in/VelvetUndergroundI/collection