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

 

 

 


The Bestest 2015: Tunage

Coach 2015As I take stock of 2015, it was hard not to notice how many of my favorite albums were filled with what sounded like full orchestras or brass and strings accompanying singers living in some sort of beautiful time warp—a world immune to keyboards and “drops” and laptops. Don’t get me wrong, there is a select strain of electronic music that I adore, but this year’s best music is more a tribute to the past than a nod to the future. Sadly, I bid Rdio farewell and returned home to Spotify, where the rest of the world was listening. And thanks to Sonos and my iPhone, I have almost the full history of recorded music at my fingertips.

1. Tobias Jesso Jr.—Goon (SubPop)

Tobias Jesso is a very tall, shaggy-haired 20-something, who writes and performs near perfect slow piano ballads in the tradition of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and the much lesser known Epic Soundtracks. He is an old soul, with a modern sensibility. He tugs at your heart, but almost with a kind of a wink and a nod. There was no album quite like “Goon” in 2015. It is a rich but spare meditation on love and loss.

Lyrically it is about as vulnerably beautiful as anything I could both stomach and love. On the sublime “ Without You” he croons “I can hardly breathe without you / there is no future I want to see without you / I just don’t know who I would be without you.” But as much as “Goon” is remarkable for its intimacy, the album’s producer , Girls mastermind JP Snow, has created something so warm and close that it’s hard to imagine what it would have been in someone else’s hands. If there is one record to listen to over and over again this year, until you memorize every word and phrase, it is this one.

2. Julia Holter—Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)

On her third full length album Julia Holter channels the best elements from everyone from Bjork, Dirty Projectors, St. Vincent to Sufjan Stevens. Somehow I missed her first two, but this a revelation. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a new voice, especially one accompanied by complex musical arrangements, provocative lyrics and a decidedly non-pop, but poppy take on modern music.

She sings like an angel, composes like Brian Wilson, and writes as efficiently as William Carlos Williams: “Figures pass so quickly/That I realize my/ Eyes know very well/ It’s impossible to see/Who I’m waiting for in/My Raincoat,” she sings on the album opener “Feel You.” This album is simply magical.

3. Destroyer–Poison Season (Merge)

Destroyer (aka Dan Bejar), the lesser known third wheel in the super group The New Pornographers, has been making music for almost 15 years now. His music has always toed the line between sleepily esoteric and jazzily lost in time. Between moments of legitimate brilliance like 2011’s “Kaputt,” and the vocally and lyrically distinctive New Pornos tunes, Bejar has been on the cusp of something resembling a masterpiece.

“Poison Season” is finally the consistent daydream I have been waiting for. His seductively nasal vocal stylings, and reclusive rock star ways, are accompanied by a rock chamber orchestra of sorts. “Poison Season” is part musical, littered with brass and strings, part non-sensical beat-poetry, part love letter to life. On the magical “Times Square” he writes like Allen Ginsburg tripping on Stephen Sondheim : “Jesus is beside himself / Jacob is in a state of decimation / The writing on the wall isn’t writing at all / Just forces of nature in love with a weather station.” Tune in.

4. Sufjan Stevens—Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

There hasn’t ever really been a songwriter and composer like Sufjan Stevens. His hushed vocals and fully realized orchestrations live in this kind of nether world between here and there, now and then, and rock and church music. Always confessional and intimate, his albums have been ambitious attempts to understand the world around him, but also the world that exists in his head.

On “Carrie and Lowell,” his sadly uplifting mediation on his absent mother Carrie, and her second husband Lowell, he unpacks a lifetime of trying to reconcile how he should feel. Even when he sings “When I was three or maybe four / She left us at the video store” he is less angry than merely trying to understand. Yes, this record is heavy, both in spirit and composition, but like most of his work, there is a joy lying right below the surface and that’s what makes this so special.

5. Paul Weller—Saturns Pattern (Polydor)

At 61, Paul Weller might be the only legitimate rock star from the 70’s still making new music that is both vital and groundbreaking. While the Stones, The Who, and Zeppelin are still touring big stadiums on lucrative nostalgia tours, Weller is still writing, recording and performing new music with the same urgency and intensity as he did while leading the Jam and the Style Counsel. Beginning with his eponymous solo album in 1993, Weller has unpacked the history of rock music from R&B, to soul and blues, and the hybrids that live so comfortably in between. Some of these efforts have been legitimately mind bending like “Stanley Road” and the “Heavy Soul,” but others have lacked the kind of recognizable origin that helped create cohesion.

“Saturn Pattern” is something of the completion of a long virtuous cycle that began with The Jam and delivers us to today where artists seem to be embracing the lost genres of the not so distant past as some kind of revolt against the soullessness of electronic music. Vocally, Weller miraculously still sounds like a young man, and his band is filled with the kind of studio super group most artists only dream of. On “Pick It Up,” arguably his best most infectious song in a decade, you are almost transported back to that moment in time when you first heard his deliciously serious groove that hooked you the first time.

6. Shamir—Ratchet (XL)

Shamir is a genre and gender-bending enigma. “Ratchet” is also one of the most hopelessly addictive records of 2015. He is part dancehall diva, part hip-hop, and part melodic electronica. It is an album littered with big bouncy beats, but also one filled with cowbells and Casio’s. The music is hard to place from a timing perspective, but feels as if it could be comfortable in almost any decade starting in the 70s.

Lyrically, Shamir is some sort of weird savant, both funny, “Don’t try me I’m not a free sample / Step to me and you will be handled”, and also a bit angry. But it doesn’t really matter because once you let the beats wash over you on the dance floor it just kind of finds its way to you.

7. José González—Vestiges & Claws (Imperial Recordings)

Like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and perhaps Simon & Garfunkel before him, González has the uncanny ability to use his voice as an instrument as much as he turns an acoustic guitar into a voice. Both with his band Junip and his solo work, the Argentine Swede, creates a kind of slow burning intensity, serious and heavy but also weightless.

For an acoustic album “Vestiges” has a deep, steady groove throughout it. On the album’s standout track “Leaf Off / The Cave”he takes his own brand of melancholy optimism to a kind new high: “Take a moment to reflect where we’re going / Let reason Guide you / See all tracks lead you out from the dark. “ In 2015 there was no better example of musical mediation than this one.

8. Tame Impala—Currents (Interscope)

If I hadn’t been riding the Tame Impala train from their not so long ago first album, I’m not sure I’d know how to feel about this record. I know I’d love it, but once you know where this band is going, everything they do will be challenged by expectation. “Currents” is a fully realized masterpiece that seems to be following the kind of mainstream psychedelia that only Pink Floyd was ever fully able to pull off.

Not only are they a fully bankable live band with a light show that nods to the early acid tests, their swirling guitars and keyboards seem to have nothing in common with more popular modern music. I guess it makes sense that this group of outsiders in their 20s hail from Perth, Australia. They have managed to write an album of near perfect songs, and I sense that they will have a long creative career bridging the gap between the past and the present.

9. Kurt Vile—b’lieve i’m goin down (Matador)

Strangely, the 35 year-old Kurt Vile has become the flag bearer in the renaissance of a kind of uniquely American music that Tom Petty and Springsteen promulgated in the 70s. This is guitar rock rooted in the kind of blue collar experience where the subjects of songs have real jobs, go to the local bar after work, and drink Budweisers and smoke cigarettes while rock music blares from the battered juke box in the corner.

Along with fellow Philly based conspirators, and sometime band mates and fellow Adam Granduciel (War On Drugs), and the underrated Steve Gunn, Vile writes dark rambling songs all beginning and ending with his silky guitar work. Alternating between stark acoustic numbers like “All in a Daze Work” to the oddly uplifting “Life Like This” where he sings “Wanna live, wanna Live / A life like mine / Well I’ve been doin’ it all the time / To do so you gotta roll with the punches.” This is an album meant to be listened to from top to bottom, and over and over again.

10. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds—Chasing Yesterday (Sour Mash Records)

Who didn’t like Oasis, at least a little bit, in the 90’s. Although they were never my favorite Brit Pop band at the time, they had a real knack for timeless songwriting in the tradition of the best British bands. Although Liam Gallagher was the vocal face of the band during their heyday, it was Noel who was the real genius writing most of the music and lyrics.

“Chasing Yesterday” is one of the most surprisingly triumphant comebacks I have heard in a decade. Songs like “Riverman” and “The Right Stuff” are cut from that beautiful anthemic rock quilt that seems to have been kept alive only by bands like My Morning Jacket and Radiohead with not only the leverage and access to spend real time in a studio, but also with the vision to create rock in an age of electronica and Hip Hop. This is an album filled with long jammy, brass and string?—?adorned guitar driven rock that tend to build into something you haven’t heard since you last really loved Zeppelin and The Who.

11. Matthew E. White—Fresh Blood (Domino)

This wonderfully genre defying retro jazz rock exists somewhere in that nether world between Lou Reed, Hall & Oats, and Flight of the Conchords. It is groovy in a hard to place way, either in the past or deep in the future. It is funny, or ironic or perhaps even a bit sad. It’s hard to say really.

White idolizes the great Randy Newman, and I am assuming Brian Wilson; the music has a kind of similarly whimsical intensity. He creates slow building anthems that tend to explode out of something that moments earlier seemed merely a ballad. Just drop the needle and let it flow over you like a warm bath.

12. Mercury Rev—The Light In You (Bella Union)

Twenty years ago Mercury Rev released an indie rock classic called “Deserter’s Songs.” Along with The Flaming Lips “Soft Bulletin,” these two albums will be remembered as the definitive examples of a very specific moment in time where the druggy beauty of mid-career Pink Floyd met the weird orchestral cousins of 90s alternative rock. It’s been almost a decade since we last heard from Mercury Rev, but “The Light in You” is a surreal day dream.

On one of the year’s best tracks, “Central Park East,” you simply lose yourself in the song “Am I the only lonely boy to ever walk in Central Park … I’m listening to the sound of champagne glasses spilling out daydreams on the ground.” Waking, lucid dreams?—?I seem to remember having them more often when I was younger. Real life happens; thank god we still have music like this to help take us away.

13. Beach House—Depression Cherry / Thank Your Lucky Stars (Sub Pop)

There hasn’t been a band as perfectly consistent and as dreamily accessible as Beach House since the glory days of 4AD and the Cocteau Twins. Although neither of this years’ two excellent releases is individually better than any of the prior three, the sum of the parts, 18 songs in all, more than makes up for it. “Depression Cherry,” the more commercial but still experimental of the two albums, alternates between sonic My Bloody Valentine type rhythms and percussive sounds.

Of the two, I prefer the more stripped down simplicity of the surprise “Thank Your Lucky Stars” release. On it we can more freely bathe in the angelic vocals of Victoria Legrand, letting the gentle keyboards and guitar wash over everything. Most often our favorite bands eventually evolve away from the place where they start (U2, REM) and find themselves lost, unable to go back home. Others like Radiohead make only minor adjustments on that long path while still seeming fresh and relevant. Beach House is one of those bands, making small steps towards a far off future?—?one I hope is lit with many more beach houses.

14. Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop)

If Stephen Malkmus were a 27 year-old woman from Melbourne, making music today he would sound like Courtney Barnett. Seemingly out of nowhere, she was shot from a cannon in the 2014 hype cycle with a quirky mix of bookishly clever lyrics and addictive melodies. On her first full length she has crafted a kind of survey album filled with all the elements of the 90s indie rock: loud guitars, whip smart lyrics, and a slackerish vibe.

Although perhaps an outlier, on the beautiful ballad “Depreston,” she sings “Now we got that percolator / Never made a latte greater / I’m saving / $23 a week.” This pretty much sums up her approach to music, holding a magnifying glass up to the little bits in life. She makes them funny, but also emphasizes how creativity is just sitting in front of us in the form of the mundane.

15. Leon Bridges—Coming Home (Columbia Records)

Some music just transcends the hype, the novelty and all of the weird inflections that come with breaking out of the convoluted music business in 2015. How would this album have stacked up against all the great R&B-Soul records of the 50’s and 60’s if it came out today? Who knows? Who cares really? Those records aren’t being listened to by youngsters, so if it takes an out of left field effort like this to inspire a look back, I’m game.

In addition to 25 year-old Leon Bridge’s silky smooth voice, and superb backing band (thanks to White Denim’s Austin Jenkins) there are ten legitimately great songs captured here. The real standout is clearly the hopped up “Smooth Sailin” but if you want songs that just kind of have you longing for an earlier life during a simpler time, songs like “Coming Home” and “River” will put you in that contemplative kind of mood.

16. Kamasi Washington—Epic (Brainfeeder)

There must be something in the water in LA these days. Fifty years ago, the jazz greats stomped around NYC, but thanks in part to Kendrick Lamar, space jazz freaks like Kamasi, Thundercat, Robert Glasper and Flying Lotus are picking up those faded clothes left behind by “Bitches Brew” era Miles, and soul jazz era Coltrane, Sun Ra and Funkadelic, and rebuilding the genre.

“Epic” is a three hour (yes three hour) masterpiece of blissed out jazz for the hip hop generation. In the mid-90’s Guru’s Jazzmatazz, US3, and The Solsonics and merged hip hop and jazz into a kind of cultural bridge, but slowly the real players were replaced by synthetic beats, samples and over-produced radio friendly chart toppers. This is as a refreshing and as important an album as any this year. Invest the time. Unpack history.

17. Kendrick Lamar—To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)

I am surprised that I have fallen for this record as hard as I have. Unlike its predecessor, which was a more traditional Hip-Hop album I am rarely moved by these efforts. But with collaborators like the Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, George Clinton and others, this was bound to be special. This is an album that feels more like a classic 90’s Acid Jazz (Guru, Digable Planets, etc.) than modern Hip Hop.

As an MC, Kendrick sounds almost understated here, letting the players play. This is a record about race, and about how little has changed in America. This especially hits home on the “The Blacker The Berry,” a not so subtle allusion to the seminal Wallace Thurman novel of the same name that explores racism within the black community in the late 1920’s. Sure there is anger, but it is buried into a weirdly wonderful survey course in the history of black music. This is a powerful reaction to the hedonistic trend where the most powerful MC’s end up in public pissing matches with each other, and forget about everything that came before them.

A bunch of other stuff that you must hear … [Read more…]

The Bestest 2014: Tunage

Listen while you read:
It is hard to tell whether the state of music in 2014 was more a tribute to the past than an expression of the future, or perhaps I am just getting older and my tastes are just a reflection of latent nostalgia. The many records that I loved this year tended to lean toward the folkie, the psychedelic, and rustic Americana. There were a few exceptions where synthesizers and thinly disguised electronica or new wave sounds cut through the acoustic guitars. I guess it doesn’t really matter why, what matters is that there was more music released this year that will age gracefully and never sound dated than usual. But in the end, when everyone has 35M tracks at their fingertips for $10 a month, there will forever be more than enough good music to occupy whatever time you manage to find. 2014 was a very good year.

 

  1. Sharon Van EttenAre We There (Jagjaguar)Along with Neko Case, Sharon Van Etten has one of the most powerful and hypnotic voices in modern music. Lyrically she mines her soul for that triumphantly broad range of emotions that comes with a broken heart and then, like shooting clay pigeons, picks them off with gorgeous but unsentimental detachment.“Are We Here” is an album of wonderfully varied styles, from the ethereal folktronica of “Our Love” to the rustic countrified Americana (think Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams) on “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” to the stinging, soaring rock of “Taking Chances.” Despite covering so much elegant ground there is nothing derivative about anything she creates. In some cases seeing an artist live creates the necessary context to fully appreciate the recorded music, and although one might imagine a dark and quiet show, Sharon Van Etten brings a relentless humor to her otherwise dark and contemplative music. There was no other record that moved me quite as much this year.
  1. War On Drugs Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)Sometimes you just need to believe the hype and listen to the music and then separate yourself from the ancillary praise. I was too young to really understand the pre-MTV music of Tom Petty and the rest of the early 80’s post classic rock Americana, but with the silky smooth Lost in The Dream War on Drugs have recreated something largely forgotten over time.Led by the hazy understated vocals of Adam Granduciel, the band blends old timey guitar rock with modern synthesizers to create something that transcends the genre. This is mood music, recalling long summer days or cold winter nights. On “Eyes To the Wind” something that resembles a kind of forgotten anthem, the music just takes its time getting somewhere that feels like the kind of dream you remember only faintly. In an “albumless” era, this is a work that is much more than the sum of its parts.
  1. Nick Mulvey- First Mind (Harvest Records)Following in the recent onslaught of precocious brilliant young British folkies (Laura Marling and Michael Kiwanuka to name a few), Nick Mulvey has written one of lushest records of its kind in quite a while. With his intricate guitar fingering, and silky smooth vocals, Mulvey channels everyone from Nick Drake to Sweden’s Jose Gonzalez.His largely acoustic framework often builds to anthemic compositions filled with violins, and subtle electronica and steady percussive beats. Like most Mercury Prize nominees, his music somehow missed both the American hipster set, and the crossover landscape that has embraced Mumford and Hozier. Standouts like “Cucurucu” and “Meet Me There” would be legit singles if they had been released by Dave Matthews, but fortunately will be beautiful private secrets for a while longer.
  1. Future Islands – Singles (4AD)Funny how the modern hype cycle works: Ten year-old band, three records into their critically acclaimed but essentially niche career, perform their song “Seasons” on the David Letterman show (not even Fallon) led by a singer who looks like a young balding Marlon Brando, but sounds more like Fine Young Cannibal’s Roland Gift, dressed in pleated pants, and dancing like a new wave duck. The performance blows up on YouTube, launching them from 200 person live venues to 5,000 seat affairs. Couldn’t happen to nicer guys who seem so genuinely appreciative of the opportunity.Backstory aside, Singles is a great record from beginning to end. It’s 80’s synth-driven new wave pop, but unlike the icy computer music of the late 70’s and early 80’s, this music is rich with emotion. On “Sun In The Morning”, Samuel T. Herring wears his heart shamelessly on his sleeve and on “Seasons (Waiting On You)” you hear the sound of the band celebrating the pure joy of making music for its own sake.
  1. Real EstateAtlas (Domino)Real Estate makes some of the most pristine and oddly upbeat yet introspective music today. Shimmering, but steady guitars and drums create a kind of surreal canvas through which you can almost see time passing slowly before you, but it’s almost like you’re being drawn back into your youth. Like Luna, and fellow New Jerseyites The Feelies before them, the ten songs on “Atlas” are pure dream pop, escapist rock for the nerd set.There is nothing abstract lyrically, but merely perfectly crafted pop songs about people and places and states of mind. Tunes like “Hard to Hear” and “Talking Backwards” just kind of roll along towards some kind of ambiguous destination on the long road of life. Simplicity is the easily the hardest thing to accomplish creatively, but Real Estate make it look so .. well .. simple.
  1. Angus and Julia Stone Angus and Julia Stone (American Recordings)Great records occasionally fall between the cracks. They are too perfect and too complete as a whole to be consumed quickly enough in our attention-challenged world. Aussie siblings Angus and Julia combine rock and folk, are hip but not hipsters, and write songs that just take a little while to get under your skin before making a familiar kind of sense.Under the tutelage of Rick Rubin, this eponymous album is a groovy tribute to all that has come before, complete with jazzy keys and steady percussion. All that has come back in the form of modern guitar rootsiness. Julia sings in a kind of hushed smokiness (“My Word For It”), while Angus seems to take his time meandering through quiet jams like the sublime “Get Home.” That Angus and Julia still haven’t nailed the audience they deserve makes this record even more special.
  1. AsgeirIn The Silence (One Little Indian)Imagine an Icelandic Bon Iver–dreamy, ethereal songs filled with brass, jazzy drums and icy cool electronic blips. Imagine a singer whose smooth falsetto vocals just melts into the music and hangs quietly, the kind of atmosphere you assume defines a wintery island that is home to a volcano. That is what Asgeir Trausti’s beautiful debut album does. It transports you to some kind of peaceful place.On the sublime “Head in the Snow,” if you listen closely, you hear a quiet, fragile optimism that sounds familiar, but is actually quite special. This is not party music. This is not superficially cool, but points to a kind of precious confidence that just kind of works as the diamond in the rough you’ll be able to share with the small handful of people lucky enough to have found it.
  1. BeckMorning Phase (Geffen)When you have been making music for as long as Beck, for a large and both commercial and critical fan base, through many mutations, you have the freedom to make whatever kind of music you want. Although there have been a few Beck records over the years that veered off course for me, it was always the outliers that resonated the most: Mutations, Sea Change and the criminally under heard One Foot In the Grave.Morning Phase is the culmination of everything he has been working on since he started as a fixture on the anti-folk circuit in the early 90’s. It is a gorgeous experiment in mood and tone. It is music by which to watch clouds move across the sky, or snow fall, or suns rise. It is a waking dream of sorts – both melodramatic and mellow.
  1. Temples – Sun Structures (Fat Possum Records)I wasn’t old enough to read when the music that inspired Temples, a band of young Brits literally half my age, was making waves. On the surface Sun Structures shares more in common with bands like The Byrds and Hurdy Gurdy era Donovan than it does anything made in the past twenty years, but despite these older reference points, the music is aggressively modern. The breezy ten songs are a mix of psychedelia and pristine pop.Like Tame Impala and Artic Monkeys before them, what’s old is very much new again. On tunes like “Sun Structures” there are beautifully fuzzed out guitars and silky smooth vocals rising and falling like stars from the late 60’s. On the inevitably classic “Move with the Seasons” it is easy to forget you are living in the internet age, but more the age of Aquarius. Just let the record play.
  1. Yellow Ostrich – Cosmos (Barsuk Records)In a year without new music from Local Natives and Grizzly Bear, “Cosmos” was the album that neatly plugged that gaping hole. Yellow Ostrich plays moody, serious music that mixes soaring vocal melodies with steady drum lines and occasionally stinging guitars.The album drifts between rock jams like “Any Wonder” and dreamy percussive driven ballads like “Neon Fists.” Although “Cosmos” becomes more accessible with every listen, this is a dark experimental album that makes one contemplate the meaning of the relationships that we have and the ones that we wish we had.
  1. Elbow The Take Off and Landing of Everything (XL)For some reason Americans just don’t get Elbow. Perhaps it is that to really appreciate what they are doing takes patience, and Americans are not patient people. More than any band I can think of, they write songs that often start off slowly before exploding like time-lapsed flowers into beautiful walls of sound.On “My Sad Captains” (perhaps my favorite song of the year) there are lyrics that could have been lifted from a Dicken’s novel: “I’m running out of miracles / and the streets alive with one man shows / the corner boys were moved along;” vocals sung by a hipster choirboy, Elbow transports you somewhere else completely. Their music is always grounded in a steady percussive backdrop, but Elbow garnishes each song with a small orchestra of brass and keyboards adding another layer of beauty and complexity.
  1. Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)This might be the most purely “country” album I have fallen for this hard since discovering the classic Gram Parsons records in college. Metamodern Sounds is cut from a much different cloth than the increasingly popular modern country music that is popular today. It taps into older musical themes like religion, booze, and love lost and found, but lyrically sounds somehow strangely contemporary.This is an album is filled with old-timely outlaw country jams like “Living the Dream” but also meanders between warmer acoustic stories like “Voices” and more 70’s hippie country ballads like the desert island classic “Turtles All The Way Down.” Blues and Country are America’s most original musical inventions. Sometimes you just need to go back in time to understand the present. This is really something special.
  1. Mac DeMarco Salad Days (Captured Tracks)This is a slithering melodic ramble through some sort of hazy modern dreamscape. For all its apparent whimsy, DeMarco (not his real name), hailing from Brooklyn (by way of Montreal) and sounding stony (despite the fact that he claims he doesn’t) is a serious (or seriously good) second album by a guy who wants us to believe “it was no big deal.”Salad Days is part Beck, part Brian Wilson, part something that used to come on late at night at the local college radio station played by some reclusive music nerd. There are weird pop songs like the exquisite ‘Blue Boy’ and jazzier numbers like ‘Brother’ that feel more like Steely Dan than something out of Williamsburg. This is a weird and wonderful concoction.
  1. Hospitality Trouble (Merge)Another infectious 90’s retro throwback album alluding to Luscious Jackson by way of something else strangely contemporary. This is a pop record filled with conventionally standard guitar and drums, but also with endless catchiness and wonderful songwriting. Led by the relentless upbeat vocals of Amber Papini, the band’s second album is a minor masterpiece, pulling no punches but hitting all the right chords.There are a few songs that probably just miss hitting the same main street vein that Haim or MS MR hit last year like the infectious “I miss You Bones.” Unlike many of the more serious records that I loved this year, ‘Trouble’ is 100% fun. It asks only that you enjoy the music, and get lost for 38 minutes in a sea of shiny pop.
  1. Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Wig Out at the Jagbags (Matador)Once a Malkmus fan always a Malkmus fan. There will never be another indie rock run as perfect as the one he cut with Pavement in the 90’s. In some ways it reminds me of what the Grateful Dead did in the 70’s which is why Wig Out’s homage to the Dead seems so perfect. Alternating between straight up guitar riff lifting like the opening strums of “Cinnamon and Lesbians” that channel “St. Stephen,” and the lyrically brilliant “we lived on Tennyson, and Venison and the Grateful Dead” from “Lariat.”Still the cleverest lyricist on the planet, Malkmus seems perfectly comfortable settling into his middle 40’s a hunkered down family man living in the Portland, no longer concerned with keeping up with the cool kids – if he ever really did? He has always managed to infuse a kind of academic whimsy into his music, but this time around we get two great tastes that taste great together.
  1. TV on the Radio – Seeds (Harvest Records)For over a decade, TV on The Radio has been making some of the most challenging, genre bending albums on the planet. Punk, funk, electronic, and new wave – it’s all weirdly there. The band’s earliest records were discordant difficult efforts, hard for me to connect with emotionally, but oddly compelling.Seeds is the bands most accessible, most purely pop record yet. Still edgy at its core, and driven by the soaring vocals of Tunde Adebimpe, the band packs a kind of urgent intensity into increasingly compact pop songs. ‘Careful You’ and ‘Trouble’ are two of the best songs they have ever written, but dark and light and filled with some of their own unique brand of passion.

OLC2b

A bunch of other stuff that you must hear below the fold…

[Read more…]

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…]