Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chrissy Murderbot's "Year of Mixtapes" -- Week 21, "90's Dance Pop"

Fifteen years ago, the idea of me writing a post like this would have been unthinkable. Ten years ago, even.

The 90's were a weird decade for music. Plenty of people were saying this years ago, I only came to accept it fairly recently.

For me, the 90's were the decade of rave/techno, Britpop, shoegaze, and postrock, roughly in that order. When they were happening, the 90's seemed great. On the side, the industry was undergoing a major overhaul as "alternative became mainstream", spearheaded by grunge artists selling tens of millions of records. I wasn't a huge fan, but for the most part I respect and even liked some of the music. In any case, an environment where Nine Inch Nails was suddenly a big seller had to be a change for the better.

Arguably the biggest stinkbomb left behind by the 90's was the artificially inflated CD album sales. The single was led into a dark alley and shot (therefore forcing consumers to buy the entire album whether they wanted to or not) and the baby boomers hadn't finished re-buying all their favourite albums on yet another format. Luddites and run-of-the-mill industry apologists haven't stopped complaining since, because of those inflated numbers from the 90's we had to tolerate a million dumb arguments in the 00's about how file sharing was the worst thing to ever happen to music, even after most of the holdouts had begrudgingly accepted the idea of legal downloads in the latter half of the decade. In the past couple of years, Lady Gaga and BEP have been inescapable despite struggling to sell a few million albums. In the 90's horrible bands like Smashmouth would barely scrape the top 20 with turgid songs like "Walking on the Sun" and ride that one minor hit to multiplatinum album sales. And in a sequence of transparent attempts to create easily pre-packaged and auto-marketable musical trends, tankloads of ink and A&R money were spilled in trying to force feed new breakthrough genres to a listening public who couldn't have cared less ("electronica", swing, ska).

With the exception of the peak of grunge sometime in 1992, everything that was (and still is) defined as "serious" or "canonical" music by the North American music press was massively out of step with what was actually popular. This was inescapably true for singles, whereas for albums the situation was a bit different, but not so much). Look over the lists of songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100 and you won't see Pearl Jam and Radiohead and late 90's electronica (Prodigy, Chemical Brothers), hell, you won't even see U2 and REM or virtually any major hip hop artist (with the exception of Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G. in 1997-8 in the wake of Biggie's murder. Remember, Jay-Z and Snoop didn't hit #1 in the 90's, but Kris Kross, Snow, and Sir Mix-A-Lot did). Instead, you'll see a bazillion R&B slow jams, plenty of limp power ballads sung by white guys (Michael Bolton, Bryan Adams, Mr. Big), and approximately 645 Mariah Carey songs. You won't catch any of these hit songs near anyone's "Best of the 1990's" list, not the original list, not in the Nostalgia List 2004, or the Redux List 2010, nowhere.

In 2009, Chicago DJ Chrissy Murderbot started a blog called "My Year of Mixtapes", and countless fans, writers and DJ's groaned "damn it, I wish I'd thought of that". Every week for one year, he uploaded a mix of songs based around a specific theme, usually a marginalized, underappreciated, or somewhat exotic genre. His Week 27 entry, "Quebecois Disco", hasn't left my iPod in months. Montreal was a disco hub in the early 80's? I had no idea.

Week 21 was entitled 90's Dance Pop, which is a bit misleading. You'd be hard-pressed to claim that all of these songs fit into a single recognized genre (although CM never claims that they do) except that they all fit some loose description of "dance" or club music as it was defined at various points during the decade. But most of these songs are more commonly known as Eurodance. And during the 90's, I fucking hated Eurodance. It was an affront to the "real" techno music that I valued. Other people talked dismissively about how "dumb" techno music was -- that's exactly what I was hearing when I heard Eurodance. I flipped the channel to avoid seeing these videos on TV, I tried my hardest to avoid being stuck anywhere near student pubs that played these songs. Both of these things were impossible if you wanted to watch much TV or go out anywhere.

And yet somehow, I came around and started to really like the stuff. The turning of the tide started when I admitted to myself that Haddaway's "What is Love" is one of the best songs ever (and this was before "A Night At the Roxbury" turned it into a punchline), and it basically progressed from there, albeit slowly. It wasn't until many years later, for instance, that I bought this compilation.

There's virtually no filler on this mix, nearly every song was a huge hit -- even in the US. "Gonna Make You Sweat" and "Vogue" were #1 hits. Countless Eurodance songs went to #1 in Europe, and although none of them managed to do so in the US, there were a number of huge, inescapable hits -- "Rhythm is a Dancer" was #5, "Barbie Girl" was #7, "Run Away" was #3, "It Feels So Good" was #8. Ace of Base's "The Sign" was #1 (and the album went nine times platinum in the US), but isn't featured on the mix -- "Beautiful Life" only made it to #15. "What Is Love" has to be one of the most recognizable #11 hits of all time.

This music was huge in the US, even huger in Europe, and had incredible longevity when measured against virtually any other musical trend. Eurodance was big at the start of the 90's and was still big at the end of the 90's. One reason why the genre gets no respect is because, paradoxically, careers tended to be short (or rather, a brief period of meteoric fame followed by an indefinite period on the club/revival circuit) but the genre itself was somehow indestructible. The musical canon is not only album-oriented, but tends to shut out artists who didn't have longevity. Still, the sales numbers of many Eurodance groups are mind-boggling. Aqua, for instance, are still the biggest selling group ever to come from Denmark, with over 30 million sales worldwide.

And yet, more than ten years later, not a single song on this mix comes within sniffing distance of the music establishment's 90's musical canon. Even Madonna's "Vogue" is considered an outlier within her catalogue. People wasted their time talking about the apparent novelty (and irony) of groups like the Prodigy and Chemical Brothers taking techno from Americans and then selling it back to them as something foreign and exotic. Eurodance artists from Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands had been doing that for years, and continued doing it long after everyone forgot about the electronica fad. Not to mention that Todd Terry (an American) and Everything But the Girl (from the UK) had a massive breakthrough pop hit the year before the electronic craze hit ("Missing" went to #2 in the US).

The influence of 90's dance pop, and Eurodance in particular, is all over 21st century pop music. It's in Katy Perry's bubblegum hedonism, in Timbaland's productions, in Usher's "Yeah!" (see also: rave). Simon Reynolds wrote about the 80's revival in the Guardian earlier this year, and inexplicably claimed that "everything about Gaga came from electroclash, except the music, which wasn't particularly 1980s, just ruthlessly catchy noughties pop glazed with Auto-Tune and undergirded with R&B-ish beats." Say what?? I'm hard pressed to think of a sadder critical trend that giving undue credit to Electroclash. So many damn critics are desperate to assign some long-term meaning and significance to Electroclash for reasons that I'll never entirely understand. Basically, we're supposed to believe that Lady Gaga, who was all of fifteen years old during the three or so months that Electroclash was mildly popular, was so profoundly influenced by the style and fashion surrounding the music that she filed it away in her memory and insisted on dragging it into the mainstream eight years later. Why make up such silly stories instead of going with the bleeding obvious? It makes a lot more sense that a self-described club kid freak like Lady Gaga would be influenced by the music that was actually popular in the 80's and 90's. And what exactly is "noughties pop with R&B-ish beats", is it an attempt to link her to the critically acceptable Timbaland instead of the critically unacceptable Ace of Base? Don't take my word for it, listen to what Lady Gaga herself has said in interviews. Of course she was influenced by industrial (yet another critically maligned genre) and Ace of Base! Just spend five seconds listening to the beats on "Bad Romance" and "Alejandro", respectively.

Anyway, be sure to check out this mix, leave the bad memories behind and just enjoy the music.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Grading the season premiere of "Glee"

"Empire State of Mind". Grade: D. Who thought that it would be a good idea to give all the glee club guys turns at aping Jay-Z's flow? How many more times will I need to put up with Mercedes' melisma diva act at the supposed "climax" of songs this season? (answer: far too many)

I'm still not sure if this performance was just supposed to be cool for the characters or also for the viewing audience. If it's the latter, then someone needs to tell the writers and producers that stealing hip hop poses and mannerisms from 1984 isn't cool in 2010.

"Telephone". Grade: B+. Take two great singers, give them one of the year's biggest songs (one that happens to be really easy to sing), and add a dash of dueling divas flavour to it. Nothing but fun!

"Billionaire". Grade: C+. I hate this song. So Freaking Bad. It's like Jason Mraz (who I like) with the Barenaked Ladies' sense of humour (both of which are awful). The song is a fail, but I guess if you like the original then you'd also like this note-for-note copy of it. So the grade at least reflects that.

"Listen". Grade: B-. Would have been higher without Sunshine's Celine Dion-ish habit of acting out all the song's words and accents with her hands.

"What I Did For Love". Grade: B. I love me "A Chorus Line", and Lea Michele knocked this one out of the park according to the pre-show buzz. I think the show's plot got in the way here. Needless to say, Rachel isn't at her best when she's wandering the halls of the school feeling sorry for herself. She needs to go completely OTT, and the storyline didn't let her do that.

Pretty good episode overall though, nothing too memorable, but I like how they kept the storylines SIMPLE, at least for now.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Jonsi, "Go"; No Age, "Everything In Between"

One really nice thing about writing random reviews on your blog is that you can choose to write or not write about something for all sorts of stupid and illogical reasons. No assignments, no deadlines, everything happens according to my own whims. This explains why I avoided listening to Jonsi's new (well, months old now) solo album because of its hideous cover. Seriously, that cover image frightened me, I thought that only Billy Corgan would be pretentious enough to pose as an angelic messiah. Although I imagine that Corgan's cover would be photoshopped with a sharp, metallic sheen and not the pastel-like shades that Jonsi used for his album.

Other reviews and postings about "Go" had led me to believe that it was a rustic ' folk experiment, sprinkled with a bit of Sigur Ros' pixie dust, which didn't really sound like my kind of thing. But apparently, some of those people skipped over the last Sigur Ros album, because "Go" picks up where the first half of that album left off, forgoing some of Sigur Ros' standard OTT pomp in favour of something that approaches a straight up pop record, Icelandic self-styled messianic angel style. All that plus "Grow Till Tall" -- sometimes, even on your more stripped-down solo record, you still want to pull off something BIG.

No Age's newest album isn't as immediate as "Nouns", which is to say that it's less punk-ish, less energetic, and less frantic than its predecessor. Sometimes its a criticism to say that a band hasn't yet figured out what sort of band they want to be, because bands suffering through identity crises tend to make scattershot, unfocused records. In this case, I'm having a blast just sitting back and watching No Age evolve. They've moved past their "Isn't Anything" phase and might be onto their "To Here Knows When EP" phase, I'm not sure (the ambient parts of "Everything In Between", and there are a lot of them, imply that they're jamming to "Moon Song" instead of "Feed Me With Your Kiss" these days). The "Losing Feeling EP" implied that they were enamoured with their FX pedals more than ever, and I can even imagine them doing a beatless ambient album one of these days, maybe as a one-off side project. The punkier tracks on "Everything In Between" aren't quite an afterthought, but they might not be challenged by writing tracks like "Depletion" and "Fever Dreaming" anymore. They probably won't ever give up those types of propulsive rock songs completely, but I hear a band that wants to write more songs like "Katerpillar", and to give those songs 5-6 minutes instead of a scant minute and a half next time.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Rapid fire comments on Pitchfork's Best 200 Tracks of the 90's

First of all, I'm not here to hate on the list (that's a link to the top 20). Overall I liked the selections and enjoyed the blurbs that I've read so far. It's more of a "bands" lists than a "tracks" list, that is, rather that select the best 200 tracks of the decade, it's as if they tried to select the best 200 bands and then tried to pick a representative track from each of them. They definitely picked a good bunch of bands though, and tried to cover a wide variety of stuff -- pop, hip hop, indie rock, grunge, dance, American groups, British groups ...

-- I'm tired of the whole stigma around "1979" that canonizes it as the "Smashing Pumpkins song that it's OK to like".

-- "Only Shallow"? "Say it Ain't So"? Why did they taint the top ten by going out of their way to make controversial choices and anoint a new canon? Why not just make the obvious choices, "Buddy Holly" and "Soon"? When you go out of your way to choose surprising songs from unsurprising bands, then you're not trying to make a list, you're trying to start an argument and spur discussion. It partially defeats the purpose of compiling the list. Ditto their #1 pick, "Gold Soundz", which flat-out acknowledges that they went out of their way to NOT make the obvious choice of "Cut Your Hair".

-- Matt Perpetua wrote the blurb for NIN's "Closer". Let's just let that one sink in for a moment. Try not to burst out laughing. Whatever, I've got no comment here. Oh yeah, the blurb is shit.

-- The Elvis version of "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" ... great song, but yet another challopsy pick. Was there anything wrong with picking one of the singles from that album? You know, the songs that Spiritualized would regularly play live in their concerts? The songs that fans actually got to HEAR in the 1990's without having to track down bootlegged versions or paying a fortune for one of the few pressings of the album that were made before the track was removed?

-- attention bloggers and wannabe critics: "Hyperballad" and "Windowlicker" are not the best Bjork and Aphex Twin songs. And those rankings ... #12 and #11? (yeah, I remember that they also ranked high on ILM's 1990's poll from a few years ago, and I didn't understand it then either)? Somehow "Post" went from being the misunderstood Bjork album to being her "Blood on the Tracks". Video aside, what does "Windowlicker" offer that you can't hear in 3920 other Aphex Twin songs from the 90's?

-- you read Scott Plagenhoef's (great) blurb on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and you come away thinking that it has to be at least in the top 5. So why was it #13?

-- "Enjoy the Silence" at #15. We win!

-- isolating a single track from KLF's "Chill Out" for a "best tracks of the 90's" list is not only ludicrous, it shows a complete misunderstanding of what makes that album tick. "Chill Out" isn't a classic because of any one track. Nobody who hasn't heard the album is going to listen to "Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard" and have a revelation about "Chill Out" where they suddenly understand what all of the fuss is about. You can't excise a three minute slice out of what is essentially a 45-minute one track album and claim that it's representative of anything. What if someone claimed that the section from 25:32 - 29:04 from "D|P 1.1" on Basinski's "Disintegration Loops I" was their #80 track of the 00's? Would the stupidity of it be more obvious?