Friday, December 30, 2016

George Michael, "Father Figure"

George Michael left us far too soon last week, the latest in an annus horribilis for musician deaths that can't end soon enough.  The emotional response seemed stronger in the UK and Europe, maybe in part because of the horrible irony of the composer of "Last Christmas" passing away on Christmas day.  It is one of the most played holiday songs in the UK in the past thirty years, but never meant a thing in North America.

And yet, many North Americans have largely forgotten how much of a phenomenon the "Faith" album was.  Oddly enough, George Michael's was a far bigger star in the UK and Europe both in the Wham years (pre-1986) and the post-"Faith" years ("Listen Without Prejudice, his late-90's comeback "Older").  But during those inbetween years 1987-1989, "Faith" was massive in the US, with an almost unprecedented six top five singles from the album, including four number one hits (versus none in the UK).  It was the best selling album in the US in 1988, for comparison, Michael Jackson's "Bad" was released two months earlier and was a phenomenon unto itself.  Singles from both albums dominated the charts for two years, and "Bad" set a record that still stands (challenged but not beaten recently by Katy Perry) with five consecutive number one singles from the same album.  "Bad" was also one of the best selling albums (worldwide) ever, but at its peak in 1988, it was outsold by "Faith", at least in the US.  This is the kind of rarefied company George Michael kept at the tail end of the 80's.  

I was haunted by "Father Figure" at the time.  In one sense it was almost intolerably sexy, backed by a perfect video accompaniment featuring Michael looking unspeakably cool in leather underneath impeccable lighting and shadow.  The model that appeared in the video had a pristine body that was shot from the most titillating angles.  The whole presentation was intimidating, and it may have thrown off my perception of realistic love and seduction was for years afterward.  In another sense, the song and video were creepy and even frightening.  Michael falls in love with a woman and stalks her relentlessly, lurking in dark corners, walking a fine line between voyeurism and possible criminal behaviour.  The music is uncharacteristically spooky and atmospheric for a number one pop smash, and that was no accident.  In his own "When Doves Cry" moment of inspiration, "Father Figure" was meant to be a mid-tempo rock number but Michael found that he loved the strange empty spaces left behind when he dropped many of the recorded tracks from the final mix.  He was right -- less was more and erasing half of the song made it ten times as good.   

For whatever reasons, Billboard number ones of 1988 were dominated by soft rock ballads with long running times (between five and six minutes).  I can't recall any edited versions made for the radio.  You might as well point to George Michael (and Michael Jackson, who was of course famous for his epic videos and for producing extended video versions of his songs) as the driving force behind this -- both "Father Figure" and "One More Try" run nearly six minutes.   

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Top ten albums of 2016 (with extended prelude)

A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about the time I went to Soundscapes on College St in October 2003.  I would soon be travelling to Berlin for an experiment for a few weeks (which turned into two months) and wanted to pick up some new releases on CD for the trip.  I bought "Closer" by Plastikman, "Waiting for the Moon" by Tindersticks, "Echoes" by The Rapture, and at least one other album that I can't recall but very likely was Polmo Polpo's "Like Hearts Swelling".  Dropping money on four new releases in a day was unusual for me, and I even surprised myself with my willingness to shell out so much money for four new albums that I mostly hadn't yet heard.  I was buying them based on the reliability and consistency of artists I'd been following for a decade (Plastikman, Tindersticks) and the relentless hype machine that had made certain acts very difficult to ignore in 2003 (The Rapture).

It was quite the haul of new music -- an historically great haul for me, actually.  I walked away with my #2 and #6 albums of the 00's, my #2 album of 2003, and an album by the Rapture (well, nobody's perfect, although some leading music publications would have disagreed at the time).  I'd been going to music stores and buying expensive CD's, many of them imports by my favourite UK bands, for nearly a decade.  I lived and worked within walking distance of eight or so music stores that I visited regularly, and hardly two or three days would pass without going to at least one of them.  This was how I kept abreast of new releases, bought music magazines, and generally absorbed nearly everything I was learning about music.  This was the way it was done, and I couldn't imagine doing it any other way.  And based on that amazing bunch of new CD's I'd just bought, which would soon be packed in my CD wallet and taken with me to Germany along with my indispensable CD walkman, this beautiful ritual of frequenting music shops would undoubtedly be with me for the foreseeable future.

But less than one year later, everything had changed in ways I never would have predicted.  Seemingly in the blink of an eye, my main source of music and music news shifted online.  Printed music magazines were replaced by online publications and message boards.  I'd been a Napster and then a Kazaa user for a few years, but still previewed and purchased nearly all my music from physical shops.  Soulseek tipped the scales in the other direction.  Suddenly I found myself keeping up with a LOT more new music -- several times as much give or take.  And I know I'm not alone in believing that 2003-4 was the tipping point for a grand shift towards the true explosion of music on the internet, that would in a short time lead toward streaming (Youtube, Pandora, Spotify, etc.), mp3 blogs, yousendit, a rapidly expanding array of other filesharing and downloading options, and the rapid decline of music stores.  That large purchase at Soundscapes was not only my best single haul of new releases, it was also my last, at least in Toronto.  2004 wasn't a great year for music, but it was transformative.  My top ten for the year was filled with artists that I hadn't even heard of one year earlier.

2016 is feeling like another transformative year for me.  I've more or less stopped following any music publication, physical or online, with any sort of consistency.  The same goes for message boards, twitter feeds, or other types of social media.  I still heard tons of new music this year -- a lot more than in most years -- but it's becoming increasingly random.  Most often, I feel like music finds me, rather than the other way around.  If I happen to be reading about something, I know enough about what I like and don't like to be able to decide whether I'm interested in hearing it or not.  But it also means that the days of obsessing over specific artists, and following every move in their careers, may be finally over.  As a consequence, I feel less attached to the music than I once did.  With each passing year, the should-be great albums (top 2-3 of the year) don't seem as great as they once did.

I still love MUSIC as much as ever, don't get me wrong.  I love hearing a song on the radio for the first time in years and surprising myself by still being able to sing along with the chorus.  It's one of the best feelings in the world.  I love reconnecting with old gems in my collections, especially through mixes.  I love commuting to work with music keeping me company the entire way -- I've been doing this for over 25 years (!) nearly without interruption, the routes and the music playing technologies have changed, but the experience is undiminished.  I love waking up to the radio every morning.  I loved driving through the US and Canada for hours this summer and sampling pop radio across different provinces and states -- sure, they all play the same Drake songs three times per hour, but that's a different issue, the point is that I still like plenty of chart pop. I still love reading a good interview or album review and appreciate good music writing more than ever.  It's in increasingly short supply these days.  And that's precisely my point, I love MUSIC, but largely don't enjoy FOLLOWING music anymore.

We live in difficult times, politically, or at least that's what music journalists have been telling me.  The music they value is expected to reflect the goings on in the world around them.  Except that it's not my world anymore.  I don't live in the US and their struggle isn't my struggle.  The Canada I used to know looks increasingly foreign from afar.  I can relate to the sentiments but there's no personal connection.  If music reflects politics, and I no longer have any direct stake in the politics, then I no longer have any stake in the music either.  But more importantly, I never wanted or expected political commentary from the music I like.  It's never been key to my listening experience.

In 2004, there was talk about how increased listening options via internet would create divisions between groups of fans and dilute consensus.  They said there would never be another monoculture, artists as transcendent as Michael Jackson would never come along ever again.  That turned out to not be true.  But the increased politicization of music has resulted in more consensus than I've ever seen in my adult life.  Every end-year list takes the same angle toward the exact same albums.  Even the token "electronic" albums, like Nicolas Jaar's snoozer "Sirens", are seemingly chosen because they're albums with an important message that we shouldn't ignore. 

I'm sure I'll catch hell for it, but the lionization of Beyonce is rockism on a scale just as bad as anything the former poptimists used to complain about.  People used to whine that the hippies grew up, moved to the suburbs, and became boring conservatives just like their parents.  Music journalism is now eating its tail too, as pop music criticism has gone the way of the stodgy boomer era rock music writing that they sought to replace.  Rockism was never about favouring rock music over other genres.  It was, and is about favouring authenticity over all other traits.  Playing your own instruments and writing your own music was considered authentic.  Not playing and writing music was less authentic and made you less of an artist.  Icons from the 60's and 70's released meaningful songs and lyrics that were more profound than any silly pop song you'd hear on the radio.  Fast forward to today, where Beyonce made her most socially conscious album and it was hailed as the consensus Album of the Year.  The same people who would decry "Rumours", "Tunnel of Love", and "Blood on the Tracks" as the self-centred ramblings of smug millionaires are falling over themselves to praise Beyonce's emotional honesty in songs like "Hold Up".

After that long intro, I don't think anyone wants to sit through another ten paragraphs about the year's best albums.  However, we still have a bunch of great albums to salute, so let's do this in haiku form.

Honourable mentions

Gunnar Haslam, Lebesgue Measure, L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems)

Another clone of
Polygon Window, I can't 
get enough of them

The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time (History Always Favours the Winners)

Like Lord of the Rings
Waiting to give out Oscar
For the last chapter

Matt Elliott, The Calm Before (Ici D'Ailleurs)

Not a great album
But words fail for opener
Crushing and Lonely


10.  Enitokwa, "2069" (non entertainment research)

Comeback album of
calming strangeness could only
Come from a recluse

9.  Hieroglyphic Being, "The Disco's of Imhotep" (Technicolour)

Compare with Actress
Less funky but more rooted
In roughened techno

8.  Marsen Jules, "Shadows in Time" (Oktaf)

Hundreds of versions
Exist, evaporated
To nameless disk drives

7.  Xiu Xiu, "Plays the Music of Twin Peaks" (Polyvinyl Record Company)

Never watched Twin Peaks
But was sucked into Xiu Xiu's
Strange unsettling world

6.  PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project" (Island Records)

Bluesy squawks, crooning
Choruses with PJ's best 
Ever ensemble

5. D. Glare, "68 Samples At 68 BPM For Phased Heads" (Opal Tapes)

Like assembling a
Great DJ mix from nothing
But screams, clanks, and whirs

4.  Autechre, "Elseq 1-5" (Warp Records)

Whirring with details
Gulping loops but who bet on 
Five hours worth of it?  

3.  Tape Loop Orchestra, "The Invisibles" (Other Ideas)

Dense and engulfing
Building to satisfying
Side long conclusions

2.  Eluvium, "False Readings On" (Temporary Residence Limited)

Dead souls crying out
Beyond the ambient fuzz
Head swimming again

1.  Moderat, "III" (Monkeytown Records)

Electronic pop
Rarely so smooth, soulful, or
This professional

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 35

"I often stand on the boardwalk and stare at the mix and sometimes I marvel I made it" -- 99 minutes

This one started out as a more chilled out sequel to the 90's compilations mix, but turned into something quite different.  This does feature tracks from compilations I hadn't heard in ages, but it became a not quite ambient mix (i.e. ambient music punctuated by gut punch rhythms to keep the mood from getting too chilled) with a 140+ BPM coda that somehow worked (at least, I hope it did),

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2016

This list is always my favourite part of the year-end round up.  No pressure, no rankings, no trying to break down what it all means.  There's nothing to it but great music!  As always, these are listed in approximate chronological order of release.
DJ Nobu, Bunker Podcast 117 (January 26)

The first mix on the list also happens to be the best by miles and miles.  It's seventy minutes of dancefloor slaying deep as fuck no nonsense techno, mixed as seamlessly as any set you'll hear this year or in any other.

Samuel Kerridge, XLR8R Podcast 425 (February 9)

Bridging the gap between industrial-edged noise and warped techno, believe him when Kerridge says that it's not something that'll fly in most clubs at 4 AM.  The same could be said for his own music, so if you dig the mix, you'll want to hear the album and vice versa.

Regis, The Boys are Here (The Blackest Ever Black) (March 30)

There's a relaxed, home movie quality to this set that you simply never hear from techno mixes. Regis dialed down his typical white-knuckle intensity and knocked out a set that comes off like a personal influences mix that was meant to be circulated only among close friends and intended for bedroom listening.

Internazionale, Secret Thirteen Mix 188 (May 15)

Secret Thirteen had a great year yet again, but this mix of spooky ambiance, synth pop oddities, and mechanized techno by Internazionale was my favourite (narrowly edging out excellent mixes by JK Flesh, Nite Fields, and a few others that are well worth the listen).

Conforce, Electric Deluxe Podcast Episode 173 (June 5)

This epic mix takes it's time getting off the ground, but that's the point -- the beatless first hour lulls you into submission and strangely enough does a wonderful job of setting up the blissful headnodding beats of the second hour.

Volte-Face, Electric Deluxe Podcast Episode 174 (June 20)

Yet another epic from Electric Deluxe, spanning forty years of techno, Krautrock, and experimental music.  Plus my favourite Billy Idol song.

Objekt, Kern vol. 3 (July 8)

Once in a while, something comes along that aims to deconstruct the typical boundaries of mixes altogether.  The famous "Grandfather Paradox" mix is often my go-to example of that, and Objekt's bold and innovative mix for Tresor's Kern series has certainly forced its way into the discussion. You might expect that a mix with nearly forty tracks in only 76 minutes would be a madcap schizophrenic dash, but the mood somehow stays relaxed throughout, selecting from the deepest of deep cuts and ignoring a number of rhythmic conventions along the way.

Bill Brewster, Record Replay 001 (September 8)

Are you starting a new mix series where you send a DJ to a used vinyl shop and ask him to make a mix out of whatever he can buy with only ten pounds in total?  Yeah, that's a task that couldn't be more well suited to Bill Brewster's talents.

Dan Selzer, Lodown magazine Monday mixtape, New York Endless Another Mix Pt. 1 (September 11)

When you listen to this mix very closely, it becomes apparent that Selzer isn't doing anything remotely complicated with his mixing or transitions.  What he's doing is even more impressive -- making a perfect selection of tracks and leading one perfectly into the next, i.e. the only true task required of a DJ.  And of course, this mix isn't meant to be heard "closely", it's meant to be danced to, and for that it's nearly impossible to resist.

John Twells, FACT Focus Mix 7, Halloween rap special  (October 26)

This mindbending mix of tracks based upon an unusual theme (hip hop tracks that sample from horror movies) is why the FACT Focus series needs to exist and double or triple their output next year.

RVDS, Resident Advisor 547 (November 21)

This is mix #11, but I couldn't find a way to leave out this newly uploaded one from the always notable Resident Advisor podcast series.  The theme is "slow music", which in this case falls between electronic music you can't exactly dance to, and late night after party music that's a bit too energetic when all you really want to do it crash on the couch.   

Friday, December 09, 2016

Marc Spitz, "Poseur"

This is my second review this year of an autobiographical bildungsroman about an artist struggling to succeed in the music industry in New York City (the first being Moby's excellent autobiography).  In both cases, the city itself is the main character in the story, where a picture of a bygone city is captured in vivid detail during its transformation in the 1990's.  Both authors struggle to find their way in a fog of substance abuse, self-destructive behaviour, and depression.  There's even an odd bit of convergence of their stories, where Spitz backs off from dating a girl because she'd been linked to Moby, and even becomes paranoid about the techno star stealing his crushes.

Despite the many similarities, their writing styles couldn't be more different.  Moby is an amateur storyteller, albeit a very good one, who recounts almost everything with nostalgic colour.  Spitz (whose book was published in 2013) has carefully honed his hipsterism over time, worshipping at the altar of countless great writers.  He's always on the bubble between trying to write the next Great American Novel (or play) and infusing the spirit of Lester Bangs (and the rock and rock lifestyle to go along with it).  Luckily for him, he got to do a bit of both.  

Even though Moby was born just four years earlier than Spitz, he's part of a totally different generation.  Moby's NYC is firmly in the pre-gentrification era, it's closer to the Wild West than anything one would recognize today,  Spitz's experiences hit closer to home for me because he's from my generation musically.  Moby was reared on late 70's punk and new wave.  Born only four years later, Spitz is firmly an 80's kid, bred on the Smiths, Cure, and Depeche Mode.    

Two thirds of the book happens pre-SPIN magazine, before Spitz had a real career to speak of.  Nevertheless, these pre-1996 struggles and story after story "about nothing" are the highlights of the book.  It's usually not a pretty sight, but Spitz keeps the narrative moving with heavy doses of humour and self deprecation.  He's astonishingly self aware and constantly critical of what he did and how he treated other people.  In the hands of a less gifted writer he'd come off as insufferable.  Nothing is romanticized, and it's clear that he's not encouraging anyone to emulate his behaviour, but he managed to function and interact with a fascinating array of characters (and many celebs), despite his troubles there's plenty to be envious of.  His is a story well worth telling.  

His success as a writer and playwright only makes him more unhappy.  He gets to interview many of his musical heroes and even befriends some of them.  Eventually we reach the happy ending, although not the one that's implied on the back cover of the book, where he seems to find love and live happily ever after.  In fact he ends up alone, content to soak in the city while walking his dogs.  But he's happy.  There was never one moment where he "recovered" and stopped being a drug addict and a major pain in the ass to his employers.  In his telling, he did nothing other than what we all do naturally and without even trying.  He grew up, entered his mid-30's, and understood that he had to leave all that behind.  No more chasing after the next cool musical trend, no more partying like a rock star.  It's real, and it's relatable.