Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Billy Ocean, "I Sleep Much Better (In Someone Else's Bed)"

Billy Ocean was a huge crossover success story in the 1980's.  Born in Trinidad, raised in Britain, he was a fixture on the American R&B and pop charts in the mid and late 1980's.  His multi-genre and multi-generational appeal led to a string of six top-five pop smashes in five years from 1984-1989, three of which went to number one.  His chart resume in those years can stand up to just about anyone's.

His 1989 "Greatest Hits" collection (which I was listening to this past week) contained a new song that was carefully crafted to modernize his sound and launch his career into the new decade.  Switching from R&B/funk to the then white-hot New Jack Swing sound and featuring a guest rap/monologue by The Fresh Prince, "I Sleep Much Better (In Someone Else's Bed)" had all the makings of a hit.  Except it wasn't a hit.  It didn't even chart on the Hot 100.  In fact, after 1989, Billy Ocean never again placed a song in the Hot 100.

I often think about why so many music stars of the 80's turned quickly into afterthoughts at the start of the 90's.  The neat and tidy explanations (Nirvana happened and killed off hair metal!  Hip-hop took over!) haven't stood up to close scrutiny.  Tastes are constantly changing and no "big event" or revolutionary bands were needed to vanquish the genres that were falling out of favour anyway,  History makes for a cleaner read when it's "Band X took over from Band Y" but any music scene is a complex continuum whose evolution shouldn't be easily summarized by the actions of one or two bands.  Still, a LOT of turnover happened between 1989-1992 -- or it could be my generational bias talking?

But maybe one needn't resort to the sorcery of grand assumptions to figure out what happened to Billy Ocean:

1) Mutt Lange was the wrong producer in the wrong place at the wrong time for this record.  There's something to be said for loyalty and familiarity with a producer, but his attempt at producing New Jack Swing comes off as flimsy and fake compared with other records from the era.

2) NJS stars were trending much younger than the then-40 year old Billy Ocean.  Downtempo R&B, led by the likes of Boyz II Men, would be huge in the 90's and Ocean would have had more success in that scene rather than trying to pass himself off as younger, hipper, and more club-ready.

3) The 90's in general were more about authenticity than presentation.  A singer with a street smart fashion sense seemed real and believable, but a singer in a suit was a poseur in a fancy costume  Groups like Boyz II Men did wear suits, but not exclusively so, and in their presentation they always came off like soulful street crooners, rather than supper club puppets.  In this sense there wasn't anything Ocean could do, since he was typecast into his image.

Reason #3 is the most puzzling one, for in principle there was no reason why Billy Ocean, and many other 80's stars, couldn't reinvent themselves.  Sure, not everybody is David Bowie or Madonna and can credibly pull that off, most stars are who they are and their careers live or die based on that.  But was there a bias (or let's call it bigotry) against black artists in that respect?  Most big late 80's acts lost their way in the early 90's, but some tweaked their image and became even more successful (Depeche Mode, U2, Tom Petty), remained popular as album oriented touring acts (Bon Jovi, Rolling Stones, Def Leppard), or kept themselves relevant and respectable on the charts in part due to soundtrack work (Elton John, Phil Collins).  So were black artists more likely typecast as outdated hasbeens and dismissed?  Even Prince, who could adapt himself to any genre he put his mind to, never truly managed to fit in during the 90's, at least not after 1991.  The industry as a whole was more likely to pigeonhole black artists into a certain mold and not allow them to branch out. 

Monday, January 01, 2018

Lady Gaga, "Five Foot Two"

The temptation to make a Madonna comparison usually looms large with many things Gaga.  In "Truth or Dare" there's the famous "neat!" scene where Madonna rips on Kevin Costner once he's left the room.  In "Five Foot Two", Lady Gaga ensures that the circle of celebrity criticism remains unbroken by ripping on Madonna ... because Madonna once ripped on her.  Through the media and not to her face.  Why couldn't she contact me directly, says Gaga (to the cameras filming this documentary, rather than to Madonna's face)?  And so on, forever.

After dressing up under different personas for most of the 1980's, "Truth or Dare" purported to show a more genuine, unfiltered, more human side of Madonna.  It accomplished that goal, but it's "realness" was still a delicately crafted promotional tool.  It helped repackage her as a serious artist and aspiring actress who had moved on from the superficial glamour of the "Material Girl" character.  "Five Foot Two" has the same goal, but I can't help but feel that I'm watching a similarly calculated form of "realness".  After "Evita", Madonna had gotten the acting bug out of her system, and it was time to hit the reset button again with "Ray of Light".  I think Lady Gaga is similarly addicted to reinvention, it's worked too well for her in the past to give up on it so easily.

The most uncomfortable, insincere scene in the film involves Gaga's family.  She plays back a song on her phone that she wrote about her aunt who passed away nearly forty years earlier.  The scene seems engineered to release a flood of emotions from her grandmother, leading to a big cry for the whole family that will look good on camera.  But her grandmother apparently didn't realize that she had to play along.  She says it's a lovely song, but don't worry, her daughter is gone but will never be forgotten.  She's dealt with the grief for decades already, there's nothing a song can do to help her tap into new emotions.

However, there are a number of raw, beautiful scenes in the film.  The friendship and respect between Gaga and Mark Ronson.  Her difficult, but ultimately inspiring battle with chronic pain.  The stunning, piano-led rendition of "Bad Romance" sung at Tony Bennett's 90th birthday party.  But I never got a sense of how she deals with the adversity in her life.  The film informs us that yes, she does have health and relationship struggles like the rest of us, and then cuts to a studio session or photo shoot or meeting with industry bigwigs (unlike the rest of us).  How does she overcome and still maintain her career at such a high level?  We see the good times and the bad, but it's like they're happening to two separate people. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Top 10 Albums of 2017

Honorable mentions

Tape Loop Orchestra, Held Against The Light (Tape Loop Orchestra)

This stunning, long flowing piece is nearly as good as last year's "The Invisibles", which placed at #3 on my list last year.  So why did it barely miss the list this year?  Like Tim Hecker, TLO has hit on a formula that is so magical, it almost can't not be good.  And yet somehow this felt like more of a continuation of "The Invisibles" rather than a new stand-alone album. But of course it is a stand-alone album, and so are the other six or so albums and EP's released by Andrew Hargreaves in 2017.  Basically there are no fixed rules here.  Other artists needed their turn this year.

Godspeed You Black Emperor, Luciferian Towers (Constellation)   

Another long flowing piece, and you almost have to wonder why it took them so long to dedicate an entire album to the concept.  It might be the most grandiose statement they've ever committed to record, especially since the magnificent "Motherfucker=redeemer" seems to be have written out of GYBE history at least as far as live shows go (although it's certainly possible that they don't have the time or patience to play it anymore).  But I couldn't get around the idea of this album as a retread of past glories, of GYBE churning through the hits out of habit, as if they're making music these days born out of some obligation to stay relevant politically, rather than due to inspiration or passion for being in the music business.  I find myself thinking these things while listening to the album, even as I marvel at how outstanding it is.  It doesn't make sense.  Especially since the top ten is full of artists doing other forms of retreads of their past work.  

10.  Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Diaries and Documents 2006-2010 (Adversary Electronics)

Compilations of recordings from a band's early days often turn out to be curiosities for superfans only.  But this one is different.   A sense of calming strangeness seeps through each phase of these minimalist experiments, it's soothing and unnerving in equal parts.

9.  Radio Slave, Feel The Same (REKIDS)

Radio Slave's music is best enjoyed in the 12" single format, where he's been hypnotizing listeners with ten minute techno epics and remixes for well over a decade.  In the album format (Radio Slave's first in nine years) he can branch out a bit and experiment with ambient bits and quirky electronica that's not necessarily material made for the dance floor.  Some listeners may prefer the "classic" sound of "Trans" and "Axis" but I personally enjoyed the odd, exotic feel of "101" and "Gaikokujin" more. 

8.  Conforce, Autonomous (Delsin)

Conforce consistently finds a way to delicately straddle the boundaries of retro and modern sounds, borrowing liberally from early 90's AI-era Warp Records electronica and 21st century watery dub techno.  

7.  New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works)

Has any band ever done so much with so little?  So many great indie pop songs, so little variation?  Adding a dose of Stereolab's motorik swagger is what passes for innovation on this album, but make no mistake, it's classic New Pornographers through and through and there's been nothing wrong with that going on seventeen years.  

6.  Daniel Menche, Sleeper (SIGE)

The title suggests an album of gently pulsating drones for drifting off to sleep.  That description more accurately describes the follow-up (companion?) album "Slumber".  But "Sleeper" is twelve tracks of grinding drones cycling through different degrees of savagery over a mammoth three hour run time.  Although not as caustic as some of Menche's other works, it's an effective medicine for those who insist on total sound immersion for relaxation.

5.  The National, Sleep Well Beast (4AD)

When I was 15, The Rolling Stones and The Who had reunited with a lot of fanfare and hit the road for wildly successful tours.  They're the first bands that come to mind when I think about "old" classic rock bands maintaining their relevance for a new audience from an altogether different generation.  The scary thing is that the members of the National (technically just frontman Matt Berninger but the other members aren't too far behind) are about the same age as the Who and Stones were then.  Doesn't that make you feel damn old?  

But The Who and the Stones never really got old, musically speaking.  Their successes, especially as license-to-print-money touring outfits, was based on the ability to get away with playing the same songs they played when they were younger.  The National are a different sort that I think is more specific to bands grew up in the last century but have remained active throughout the current century.  They're old, and they make it cool to be old.  They're not like the Bob Dylans and Nick Caves who are extraordinary figures turned elder statesmen, who earned their status in their early days and continued to add to their legacy for a long time afterward.   The National are ordinary people who make songs about ordinary things that only fortysomething married people care about.  But they sound cool doing it.  There are plenty of precursors to this -- I compare The National to Tindersticks all the time, and Yo La Tengo circa "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out" is another good example (those bands were much younger than The National are right now, but always sounded much older than they were).  For The National, the more they try to not fit in, the more popular they get.  

4.  Carl Craig, Versus (Infine, Planet E)

No techno + orchestral music hybrid has ever lived up to its billing (with the exception of a track from this EP).  Until now.  Carl Craig spent years meticulously mixing and editing this album, not settling for anything less than a complete reimagination of many of his most famous tracks.  Every earlier effort (even by greats like Jeff Mills) seems like techno with cheap strings patches clumsily laid on top.   

3.  Clark, Death Peak (Warp)

Clark is a Warp act through and through -- there's no better example of an artist who grew up listening to the "Artificial Intelligence" compilations and went on to make his own music inspired by the label.  For me he'll always be "mid-90's Autechre with prettier melodies", which is a formula that slays when it works, and is as hopelessly derivative as it sounds when it doesn't.  If you insist on your favourite music carrying some contemporary significance, this was the only album of 2017 that captured the "chaos and uncertainty of the times" for me.

2.  Slowdive, Slowdive (Dead Oceans)

Slowdive's self-titled effort stands apart as the best the all the comeback albums by first wave shoegaze acts.  Some may vote for 2011's "mbv", and there's a strong point to be made there, but even it's biggest boosters won't claim it as an equal to MBV's best work.  "Slowdive" comes closest to reaching their peak while still sounding modern and somehow not completely ignoring the twenty years of alt-country music they've been making since their original breakup.  One could quibble about details but this is essentially the best case scenario for a Slowdive reunion album.   

1.  The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time - Stage 2 (History Always Favours the Winners)

The Caretaker's terrifying six part journey into the chaotic hell of dementia started fully taking hold on this, the second album in the series.  The third album (also released in 2017) made a brief left turn, cycling through lost memories at double the frequency, alternating between perfect clarity and sluggish confusion.  The second album was even better, with a gloomy outlook throughout and a constant sense of something being terribly wrong and you're never entirely sure what it is.  The memories are all there, but only 80% intact, and they don't always piece themselves together fluidly. It's one of the most challenging albums to I've ever had the pleasure to listen to, the uneasy sonic foretelling of a future too difficult to contemplate.   

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Last List

I love lists.  I've been ranking my favourite music of the year for over a quarter of a century.  I always look forward to reading the flood of year-end lists come December, and using them as a springboard to discovering music I missed out on during the previous twelve months.  I write about "Best of [decade][genre]" lists featured in major publications all the time.  And yet, I'd been feeling a sort of apathy toward these lists recently, which is something I wrote about in last year's Top Ten post.  I still love the idea of lists, but wasn't enjoying compiling them like I once had.  My brain was committed, my heart was not. 

Resident Advisor published an editorial a few weeks ago that had a profound effect on me.  They announced the immediate cancellation of all their year end polls -- readers and staff polls, top DJ's, songs, albums, mixes, everything.  You should read the whole thing, but the essence is that they felt the polls didn't represent what was really going on in the scenes they were covering.  They provide a number of examples (underrepresentation of women and LGBTQ performers, many of the same artists appearing in some of the rankings every year) but it goes deeper than a slight of any particular artist, scene, group, or gender.  The end of year lists weren't providing a true synopsis or additional insight into the year that was.  They weren't effectively communicating what it felt like to live through the highs (and lows) of the year's music.  They reinforced stereotypes in a scene that prides itself on constantly driving creativity forward and not conforming to stereotypes.  The day-to-day reality is one thing, end-of-year lists had become something else entirely.

I have experienced the same thing in my own music fandom.  I listen to music all the time.  I love discovering new music and reconnecting with older music.  I like reading about music and discussing music, contextualizing music.  Like I wrote last year, I love music but I don't like following music, at least not like I used to.  End of year lists are about fighting to stay current, remodeling and adding to the canon one year at a time, connecting with the musical heroes of today and securing their spots on the pedestals next to the heroes of yesterday.  That's all very noble work.  But it doesn't represent how I see myself as a music fan, at least not right now.  And it gets harder to put together a top ten list every year. 

I spend less and less time cumulatively listening to my "top" albums each year.  No single album takes over and dominates my listening and my personality anymore (the last one that did was probably "Bloom", or maybe "Trouble Will Find Me" if I'm feeling generous).  I connect to albums over shorter periods of time.  Over the past week, I connected to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" (I think I understand this album now, it's the album 21st century FM fans listen to when they think they've gotten bored of "Rumours") and Junkie XL's "Radio JXL: A Broadcast From the Computer Hell Cabin".  Next week I'll cycle through other albums, and maybe I'll come back to those two, or maybe I won't.  And there will be some contemporary albums mixed in the rotation somewhere, but chances are they'll be cycled out at about the same rate as the older ones.

I will post a Top Ten of 2017 list this year ... but it might be my last one.  Chances are it won't be, much like the Last CD probably won't be the last, despite my prognostications.  But it could be.  Both would have been unthinkable not too long ago,

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Happy Mondays, "Bummed" (2007 collector's edition)

If this does turn out to be "The Last CD", I figured I should write something about it.  And oddly enough, it's the only Happy Mondays album (pre-reunion) that I've never heard (in particular, "Happy Mondays Live" is the one I used to play endlessly).

I can scarcely imagine what a first time listener would think of Happy Mondays nearly thirty years on.  The earlier generation had their prized west coast psych bands to lionize, bands that burned brightly and burned out.  If you couldn't understand the reasons for all the mania by listening to the records (which now sound tame) well then you had to be there.  My generation has bands like Happy Mondays, who were also more like a scene than a band.  Their main foils The Stone Roses' music was rooted in classic rock staples (Byrds, Zeppelin) and can be enjoyed without reference to Madchester catchphrases or gossip tidbits from issues of NME from 1989.  For anyone under the age of 35, watching or re-watching the second half of "24 Hour Party People" will acclimate you to the Monday's appeal faster than listening to any of their albums will.

"Bummed" turns out to be a major disappointment.  John Cale was the perfect producer for the pre-Madchester version of the Mondays.  On their debut, he knew how to polish their minimal grind-funk into a listenable product despite (and even highlighting) the rough edges.  A wasted Martin Hannett adding echo and reverb at 4 AM before rushing out to join the party in the next room (most likely) doesn't pass the grade.  Most of "Bummed" sounds like an extension of their debut, it's clear they were running out of ideas and were carrying on because they could, and getting away with everything because their label actively encouraged their notoriety.  Early Joy Division could come off as amateurish and full of errors as well, but they were driven, stayed driven, and improved immensely.  Early Mondays was sloppy rock with a purpose, but on "Bummed", the main purpose was to stick to the formula and apply just enough effort to keep the party going as long as possible. 

However, the bonus tracks and remixes on the reissue still sound groovy and inspired. Listening to both discs together really accentuates to which degree these remixes transformed everything Mondays were about (at least on record), turning them from just another forgotten late 80's UK indie band into a fresh, dance-rock monster for the 90's.  Remixes of "Hallelujah" and "Wrote For Luck" became the standard radio-friendly versions, and were more well known than the originals.  This studio dressup game worked for a short while.  Unlike Primal Scream, who also never requested their image makeover but were able to run with it in the long term once it happened, once the Mondays had to actually become that dance-rock band (rather than a ramshackle rock band getting the all-star remix treatment), they fell apart rather quickly.  Paul Oakenfold turned the follow-up, "Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches" into a near classic, but in retrospect it was undoubtedly their "New Jersey".     

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Last CD

I recently organized my CDs for the first time in years.  Everything I bought since the last major reorganization effort came out of the jewel cases and has been filed away in CD wallets.  At this point I don't bother trying to have a complete alphabetical filing system that covers the entire collection.  I have way too many discs, and it would be a logistical nightmare to merge and refile them all.  Not to mention that I have hundreds of "missing" discs I left behind in T.O.

The birth of our son has forced us to clear out the clutter in the apartment and be more efficient with how we store our belongings, not like it wasn't a good thing to do regardless.  Going forward, that means being more frugal with buying stuff for ourselves as well.  Among other things, it means that digging through second hand CD racks and grabbing twelve bargain discs for twenty bucks or thereabouts probably won't be happening as often.  These curiosity/"deals too good to pass up" purchases have been tailing off for some time anyway, since I'm essentially a suburban husband these days.  My mini-windfall from Munich and Vienna from earlier this year (the New Order Be Music box set, a collection of rare 80's electronic music from Dusseldorf, the "Rumours" 2CD reissue, and plenty more goodies) may have been my last gasp of combined new and second hand CDs for a while.

Or maybe forever?  There's a distinct possibility that I have bought my last CD.  Twenty years ago, such a concept seemed nearly unthinkable.  The CD was looking like the final chapter in music collection.  They were small (smaller than vinyl), reliable (more so than cassettes), and sounded as good as music could get for a non-audiophile hardcore fan (or so I thought, until I became a vinyl collector).  I've probably bought about two thousand of them since 1994, and I could never bring myself to sell a single one.  It defies all common sense but I could never imagine getting rid of any of them, it seemed like the antithesis of what collecting was about and I honestly couldn't say there were any I regretted buying.

At one point, I didn't think I'd stop buying cassettes either.  Until one day I did.  Even though I'd planned to continue buying less expensive cassettes and save my CD buying for the less readily available import purchases, I ended up buying my final new cassette around the fall of 1994.  There was no indicator that it was the last cassette, so there was no fanfare, no philosophical musing about the end of that mini-era.  Save for blank cassettes and mixed tapes, which I continued with for almost another decade, I stopped buying them.  There was nothing to mark the occasion (and there was no way to know there was even an "occasion") and so I'm not even sure what my last cassette purchase even was.  It very well may have been "Definitely Maybe" by Oasis.  Perhaps I picked up a couple of used cassettes later on, like an old Cure album ("Paris", for instance) but Oasis' debut album may have been the final, newly released album I ever bought on the format.  Or maybe Suede's "Dog Man Star"?  And around the same time, Pulp's "His N Hers"? 

Same goes for vinyl.  Starting in 2000, my vinyl collection ballooned from a couple of dozen records to several hundred by 2006.  By 2002 it was my most purchased format, obviously thanks to techno.  I bought new albums on vinyl specifically for the superior sound, for instance, I bought nearly everything I own by GYBE on vinyl.  Later on, when second hand shops started popping up everywhere, I took full advantage of being able to find catalogue album on vinyl for a fraction of the cost of even a used CD.  I bought old Gordon Lightfoot and Walker Brothers albums for a dollar.  It felt like if you looked hard enough in Toronto, you could buy just about anything released before 1987 on vinyl for less than five dollars.  But I moved away in 2006, didn't bring my turntables, and never bought a replacement.  I love my vinyl, but who has space for it all?  Thinking about the situation breaks my heart every time.  In the meantime, vinyl sales have taken off in the last decade, no thanks to me.  It's looking quite likely that I've bought my last vinyl record, but what was it?  I really haven't a clue.  Probably some 60's or 70's rock thing I bought for a dollar.  As for new records, I bought Low's "The Great Destroyer" and Animal Collective's "Feels" in 2005.  They were the only two vinyl purchases out of my top albums from that year.

How about CD's?  I'm not 100% certain, even though my last purchase was only a couple of months ago.  I kept some of my CD's, especially the ones I hadn't yet listened to, in their original bags from the store with their receipts. But after filing everything away, those rough groupings have been lost, and it was only later on that I realized that I may have bought my final CD.  However, I believe my most recent purchase was at Third Ear Records, where I bought the 3 CD collection "Luna" by Stephan Bodzin vs Marc Romboy, bought together with the 2 CD collectors edition of "Bummed" by Happy Mondays.  However, for new releases, I'm quite certain it was Carl Craig's "Versus", bought with Nathan Fake's "Providence" at a Saturn store in Munich.

Friday, November 17, 2017

There are always amazing things out there you can learn about music: two examples

I had no idea that Phil Collins basically invented the gated drum sound, and with it, the entire damned 1980's.  I can't count the number of times that I heard "In the Air Tonight" but in all those listens, I never once thought of whether I could name an earlier song that used the same drum sounds.  Maybe it's because I never liked the song very much, and never bothered to enter into deep thinking about a song I've long been sick of. But the drums quite obviously are the star of the song.  There aren't any flashy solo parts or even a vocal melody that works outside of the context of the recording.  It's all about paranoia of the first half, and the drums crashing in for the second half.  This was never really the case for any of the countless 80's hits that followed, where the huge, gated drums were buried under maximalist keyboards and FX-laden guitars.


There's been no more sobering realization of the speed that time flies (musically speaking) than the spate of 10th anniversary tributes to Burial's "Untrue".  Has it really been ten years?  Typing it out does nothing to make it seem less impossible. 

I can't argue with those who have called it the most influential electronic music record of the past decade either.  Nothing sounded like it when it was released, and nothing sounds like it today.  Much like the Caretaker, or the early Aphex Twin records, Burial's style is a lo-fi, reclusive personal studio production that seems like it'd be very easy to copy, and yet nobody has ever managed to do it.

Resident Advisor's digital essay on "Untrue" (a first for them!) dives into the origin of some of ghostly, alien samples on the album, and it turns out that some of them are Beyonce and Usher samples that have been staring me in the face all this time.  I suppose I would have known this if I had listened to a complete Beyonce or Usher album or ever browsed an online thread dedicated to sniffing out Burial's samples.  But I never did, and learning how the sausage got made only makes me appreciate his work even more.  Anyone can be a hero by sampling something that nobody else can find, but a genius takes what's in plain sight and makes art that nobody else thought about doing.   

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gord Downie RIP

Between the "Man Machine Poem" album and tour, his political activism, various public honours, and new solo albums, Downie had been so active over the past 18 months that one could almost forget that his death was going to happen sooner rather than later. 

The Tragically Hip story has been told countless times, and it's always the same: huge in Canada, but never broke through anywhere else.  In Canada, just to be clear, they were as big as a band can possibly be in the music industry.  They sold out arenas and headlined festivals for over two decades.  Almost every one of their albums were certified platinum, and three were certified diamond (the equivalent of selling ten million copies in the US).  Yes, they sang about uniquely Canadian places, people, and events, which may have limited their appear for international audiences.  But for a diverse array of major artists, from British classic rock bands to LA-based rappers, such introspection wasn't a hindrance in their rise to prominence. 

Downie was Michael Stipe's everyman poet mixed with the manic unpredictability of an Iggy Pop.  He was a unique visionary fronting a band of ordinary looking dudes who were content to let him hog the spotlight.  It was not unlike the role that Jarvis Cocker played as the frontman and main creative and lyrical force behind Pulp. 

Tragically Hip were hugely popular but not necessarily influential.  They didn't spawn a slate of copycat bands.  They were a hard working bar band that struck gold, which was improbable even while it was happening.  How do you copy a formula that had already been copied in hundreds of dives across multiple countries?  There's little doubt that Downie was the spark that made them different from all the other bands who never got out of playing a twice weekly residence at a small bar in their hometown.  But now that he's gone, the remaining members can take the Grateful Dead route if they want it, and play "Tragically Hip and Friends" gigs all across Canada for the rest of their working lives.   

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 39

"whatintheworldisthisnoisemix" -- 68 minutes

This mix is totally unlike any of the others I've done.

The backstory: a few months ago, I set about ripping some of my hundreds of CD's that are stored at my parents' house.  These are kept in several large, album cases with the discs and liner notes.

But some discs don't have liner notes.  Perhaps there was a printed back cover of the jewel case that has since been lost.  And some discs have little or no information printed on them, and aren't recognized by CD naming software.  In the years 2003-2006, I bought a lot of noise and experimental music CDs on my many visits to Berlin, but haven't heard some of them since that time, and can't remember anything about them (e.g. artist name, album title, etc.)

That brings us back to the mix ... I don't have a clue what any of this music is.  I have a vague recollection of buying this album (a two CD set with 34 total tracks) but can't remember a things about it besides that.  I haven't the slightest idea who the artist(s) could be.  Perhaps a time track search could turn something up?

I probably never listened to the entire two plus hour collection even when I bought it.  So after quickly skipping through all 34 tracks to categorize them roughly in order of noisiness, I recorded this mix.  One take, no redos, no edits, just instinct. 

Even after distilling this music from 130 minutes down to a little less than 70, it's still a rough, chaotic, disorienting listen.  But I think it's something you can get lost in -- provided you like noise. 


Saturday, October 07, 2017

Hit Parade Podcast: the war against the single edition

Chris Molanphy's latest edition of the Hit Parade podcast on Slate is a must for anyone who grew up listening to and buying music in the 90's.  Predictably, I ended up getting lost down the rabbit hole of 90's rock playlist on Youtube in the days after I listened to it.  I've heard more Collective Soul in the past week than I had in the previous ten years. 

I've always appreciated the mix of sentiment and hard data that Molanphy brings to his columns.  He always strives to analyze the social reasons behind what makes a hit into a hit, while supporting his ideas with data from the charts.  In any era, the chart narrative can be far different from the memories of the "people who were there".  That was never more true in the mid to late 1990's, and that's precisely what this podcast is about. 

I didn't know that MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" was the genesis of the trend, the "experiment" (as Molanphy termed it several times) that turned into a smashing, absurdly profitable success for Hammer and (later in the decade) dozens of other artists.  This podcast is as good an analysis as you'll find on the subject, but I want to turn over a few more stones:

1) By the end of the 90's, the album had largely supplanted the single.  I felt this wasn't emphasized enough.  The marketing of a hit hadn't changed in decades -- push a song to radio (and later MTV) by any means necessary, drive up demand, and make the product available in stores.  The strategy was identical, but the product was different.  Instead of running to the store to buy the single, you bought the album.  It didn't matter if you were a one hit wonder or a career artist.  The default format -- in fact, the only format in most cases -- you could buy in the store was the CD album. 

This is why so many shitty bands with minor hits earned multiplatinum sales that only the top end superstar acts can rack up these days.  The first act that always comes to mind for me in this respect is Smashmouth. 

2) The airplay charts were a better indicator of the "real" number one song in the country.  But they still don't give us anything close to the real story.  In looking at the list of songs that spent the most time at number one on the Hot 100 Airplay chart, there are a few anomalies.  You have the chart topping mega-smash hits from the first half of the decade ("I Will Always Love You", "One Sweet Day", "The Sign"), and the 21st century "iTunes" era smashes ("We Belong Together", "Uptown Funk", "Shape of You").  The first group were undoubtedly huge sellers (singles and albums), and the Airplay chart clearly corroborates what the sales charts already tell you.  The second group come from the current era when airplay, Youtube views, and streaming is king, again, no surprises here.  The anomalies happened in the intervening years.   

"Don't Speak" was #1 in Airplay for 16 weeks.  Yes, the song and video were everywhere.  This translated into huge album sales, about sixteen million worldwide.  That all makes sense.  But the longest running Airplay hit of all time, a record that has incredibly stood for nearly twenty years, is "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls.  Yes, that song was inescapable in 1998.  But their record breaking success in airplay translated to only four million in album sales.  And it's not like Goo Goo Dolls vanished from the radio after their one huge hit like Los Del Rio did.  They were radio staples for years.  Similarly, take Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", which ruled Airplay for 11 weeks.  Her sales were good (seven million worldwide) but not spectacular for the 1990's.  The hit single was a number one Airplay smash, but the album didn't reach number one anywhere other than her native Australia. 

So for some artists, Airplay was a predictor of strong album sales, as you'd expect.  But for others the connection is far from clear.  The confusion applies in the other direction too, for instance, Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" is one of the top selling albums ever, but only "You Learn" (hardly the most popular or well remembered song from the album) topped the Airplay chart. 

Those years from about 1995-1998 are easily the haziest, most impossible to interpret years for hit songs in chart history. 

3) When the "experiment" of not releasing singles in the early 90's started, CD sales were still rather modest.  There was a two year period between vinyl sales collapsing (or rather, being killed off intentionally by the industry) and CD sales exploding where cassettes were the top selling format.  Personal note: I loved cassettes.  I was a very late convert to CD's.  Most of my new album length purchases were on cassette up until the fall of 1994.   Whatever I couldn't get on cassette I bought on vinyl, in particular because a lot of the techno I liked wasn't easily available in any other format.  And the "mix tape" is still one of the most perfect creations ever.  The "mix CD" (unless mixed by a professional dance DJ) was never a thing, and the mp3 playlist holds no sentimental value for anyone whatsoever. 

The master plan of the record companies only went into overdrive once the CD has almost completely ground every other format into dust.  Vinyl is more expensive to produce, slower to manufacture, and more difficult to transport.  Cassettes sold for about the same amount as CD, but had higher profit margins.  However everyone knew it was a buggy format.  The sound was inferior to vinyl, and the tapes could tear or wear out.  CD's were looked upon as magic silver disks with perfect sound forever, which justified the much higher sales price.  It was all bullshit.  It was the cheapest medium to produce (this wasn't well understood in the days before CD read/write drives in every computer) and could be sold at an artificially high price point (despite having inferior sound compared to vinyl) with stratospheric profit margins.  The plan was test driven in the days of the cassette.  Only once the CD was the only medium left standing, could the industry proceed full steam ahead with their "one hit song = $18" plan.  This is why so many years elapsed between the primordial days of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, and the full flowering of profitmaking evil days where even nothing artists like Chumbawamba and Marcy Playground could sell millions of albums.