Saturday, March 30, 2013

Post 5: Looking for Level Ground

   So I've been on a vacation this week, spending time with my family, and it's delightful. I've somehow managed to develop even worse sleep habits than I had, and spent the last week being mobbed every twenty minutes or so by the tiny offspring of my siblings. I love spending time with my family, and it's been way too long since I saw a lot of them, so it's nice to be able to spend a week sort of leveling out my psyche, not thinking about a job or responsibilities, and it's left me thinking about some of the stuff I listen to when I'm looking for serenity. These are the songs I listen to when I've just spent an hour on the phone trying to figure out what happened to my car, or after a bad day at work, or (most often) whenever I feel like it, because these songs are great.

   First up: New Slang by the Shins. I realized last week that I have not mentioned the Shins yet, which is a colossal oversight that I really ought to have dealt with much sooner than this. The Shins are, if not one of my favorite current bands, then at least a really good current band who are worth listening to, and New Slang is a great introduction to their stuff. Actually, New Slang is apparently how a lot of people first ran into the Shins; there's a (actually pretty good) scene in Garden State where a character is sort of shanghaied into listening to the song with the line "It'll change your life, I swear", and after listening to it, you can't help but agree. It's the kind of song that sounds like driving in early summer with your windows rolled down, right after a rainstorm lets up. It's the kind of song that promises that eventually, somehow, things will get better.

   In a similar vein, The Golden Age by Beck is so good, you guys. I absolutely adore Beck, and fully intend to gush about him in-depth at a later date, but for now I'll just settle for saying that Golden Age will heal your soul when you feel broken. Like New Slang, it conjures a very vivid picture for me when I listen to it, but in this case it's less driving, and more sitting on a beach at sunset, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean contemplatively. It sounds like someone who had their heart broken, but knows that the pain can't last forever, and wants to remind other people about that fact.

   Sundance Kid by Sam Roberts Band, on the other hand, sends a rather different tone. I've never actually spent a lot of time to sit down and analyze the lyrics, and I'm not sure I want to. This is one of the songs where I 'm happy with the translation that I have, and I don't really want to be corrected if it's not what the band meant to say when they wrote it. For me, it's all about how sometimes, you're just screwed, and nothing can change that. And when that's the case, all you can really do is accept the fact and go out as gracefully as possible. It may be morbid, but I find the idea comforting, especially during exam week.

   This next song is one of my universal panaceas: Around the World, by Daft Punk. It makes everything better. I don't know if I've mentioned Daft Punk in any posts yet, but if I haven't, the trend won't last. Daft Punk is amazing, and Around the World is one of my favorite songs by them. Now, let me clarify some things here. I realize that not everyone enjoys house music, or techno, or electronica in general. that's fine, and everyone has the right to their own opinion. Furthermore, I realize that on the first listen, Around the World might seem boring and repetitive. Well, it is definitely repetitive, but PLEASE, I beg of you, don't discount it automatically simply because of that. Around the World is a really, really good song. I can talk for a long time about how and why it's a good song, but don't take my word for it. Listen to it. It isn't for everyone, but I promise that if you are willing to listen to it, you won't regret it. Daft Punk can soothe the savage beats (pun very much intended).

And lastly, this is a song from my early, early childhood. I actually forgot about this song up until a couple of years ago, when my brother Evan sent it to me. It's called Celestial Soda Pop, and I know it because it was on a mix tape that belonged to my brother Bryan (I have a lot of siblings). Anyway, it's this sort of ambient, proto-trance piece that was made in 1984, back when people were just inventing dinking around on keyboards, and it's GREAT. Go listen to it! I have nothing constructive to say about it, I just really like the song and find it helpful when I want to calm down.

And lastliest of all, here's a bonus song! I found this last week, and have had it stuck in my head pretty much constantly since then. In all honesty, I cannot remember ever hearing a song that came anywhere near to being as catchy as Get Dancin' by Disco Tex and Sex-o-Lettes (nor can I think of a more incredible name for a band). This song may kill me, but I cannot fault it. It's simply too perfect to exist in a broken world.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Post 4: Saying hi to the Folk

   This week’s theme is particularly near and dear to my heart. Folk music isn't something that I tend to listen to super frequently, but I have no idea why. Every time I do start listening, I realize how much amazing folk music there is in the world, and then I’m covered in a tidal wave of nostalgia that is frankly completely inappropriate for a 20 year old. I don’t want to talk too much about myself on this blog, since that’s the not point of what I’m writing, but my love of folk largely stems from a childhood spent listening to my dad’s records, and so some of that might slip in when I’m not paying attention. Think of it as bonus!

   First up, Peter, Paul and Mary. I suppose if I wanted to get technical and Authentic, I should start off with someone like Woodie Guthrie or Pete Seeger, but while I love their stuff, the only reason I got interested enough in folk to listen to them is because of hearing stuff like If I Had a Hammer and Leaving on a Jet Plane when I was a kid. Peter, Paul & Mary songs have some of my favorite ever harmonies; I would highly recommend taking some one rainy afternoon to sit down and listen to Leaving on a Jet Plane, and wistfully consider the good old days. I don’t care how old you are, everyone can and should take time to listen to some classic folk and think wistful thoughts.

   Actually, pretty much every song that I’ll be mentioning for the rest of this article is well served with a side of wistful thoughts on a rainy afternoon, so you can pretty much take that for a given from this point on. For example: Ally Ally Oxen Free by the Kingston Trio, which is coincidentally my favorite song by the Kingston Trio. As a side note for those reading who are not related to me by blood, the Kingston Trio are a folk group who were absolutely massive in the mid to late 60’s, and who I suspect strongly have been almost completely forgotten since then. Anyway, they made lots of good stuff, and like Peter, Paul and Mary, had pretty phenomenal harmonies. For anyone who’s interested in hearing more of their stuff, another good piece by them is The Patriot Game.

   Moving away from harmonies and loveliness for a bit, let’s talk about Bob Dylan briefly, because Dylan was freaking amazing. He’s one of those musicians whose stuff I keep meaning to listen to and then forget, but whenever I do, I’m blown away. For one thing, it’s incredible. Seriously, everyone should go and listen to Like a Rolling Stone (aka HADDAZUH FEE, because Bob believed more in writing words than he did in pronouncing them), because that song is still mind-blowingly great. Second, he wrote a TON OF IT. According to the Wikipedia article on his discography (remember to cite your sources, kids!) he has 35 STUDIO ALBUMS. I want to be clear here: that is just the studio albums I’m talking about. He also has “58 singles, 13 live albums, 9 albums comprising The Bootleg Series, and 15 compilation albums. The list also includes three home videos, a bibliography, and a filmography.” I DO NOT EVEN. Anyway, the point I was trying to make about folk before I had my mind blown in half is that pretty much every song from the movement was lifted off of Dylan. I’m not going to list them here, because I want to talk more about him  in a later post,  but take my word for it: Bob Dylan wrote every song ever.

   As my favorite example of that, here’s one of my favorite Dylan songs, and here’s one of my favorite covers of said song. Notice, as you pass, that both are pretty much rad. Also worth noticing, pretty much every Dylan cover was much more polished and melodic than his originals were. That doesn’t mean one was better than the other, I just think it’s interesting. Dylan’s stuff has a raw vitality that no one that I know of has equaled, and we should all be glad for everything he added to music (ie, the entire discography of the 60’s)
I actually have a lot of other folk songs that I want to share, but I’m not going to list all of them right now, because I don’t want to use up every idea that I have before Cool Older Cousin hits its two month mark. Well, more accurately I DO want EXACTLY that, but wisdom tells me that I should avoid it if possible. Be prepared to hear a butt-ton more on Dylan and Dylan covers a few weeks from now, but before that, I've got two last folk songs for today: the first is one of the most powerful songs I know of,  We Shall Overcome. I’m linking a version by Pete Seeger, partly because I love it, and partly because I think it represents one of the things that make folk music so powerful. The whole point of the song is that it’s meant to sung as a group; the structure is very simple, the lyrics are incredibly easy to memorize, and after the first time you hear it, you can pretty much sing the whole thing from memory. The whole point is that it’s meant for people to share. In this particular case, it was meant mostly for people to share as a message of hope during the Civil Rights movement, but basically all good folk songs share that sense of empathy. Even if it’s not some great message of hope and world peace (once again, see Leaving on a Jet Plane), it’s a message of of connection, and everyone can share that feeling.
   Second and lastly, this song is much more recent, and I’m not even sure if musically speaking it technically qualifies as folk. However, I really like this song and I've been listening to it a lot the last week or so, so I wanted to put it on here. The song is Wolfmoon by some band called Modest Midas, and as far as I can tell the version I linked is the only decent quality one on the web, which is kind of frustrating frankly. The song itself sort of reminds me of 500 miles by Peter Paul & Mary, but with brass, hints of flamenco, and a bit of surfer vibe. Which is to say it’s awesome, go listen to it.
   Last of all, here’sa bonus song! MGMT is one of my favorite ever bands, and recently I've been listening to a lot of their earlier stuff, getting psyched up for the new album they’re recording. Their second album, Congratulations is by far the best thing they've ever made and anyone who claims that Oracular Spectacular was better is profoundly wrong and should feel deeply ashamed, for reasons that I will go into more depth in at a later date, but when I say that I don’t mean Oracular Spectacular was a bad album. It was really good, it’s just Congratulations is GREAT. Be that as it may, Love Always remains is a pretty radsome song, and I would like more people to hear it.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Post 3: Music to Win to

   Sometimes, you just need to feel victorious. Maybe you aced a test, or got a new job. Maybe you successfully slept for 20 straight hours. Maybe you’re real proud of all those puppies you just kicked; I don’t know, and I’m not here to judge, but I can hook you up with some good tunes to listen to while you bask in your own glory. Before I get into the meat of this playlist though, I should mention that I’m going to be pretty much ignoring all the inspirational songs of the eighties, because that particular rabbit hole goes deeper than I dare to walk. As far as I can tell, music in the eighties consisted of only three categories: Hair metal, tangibly homoerotic pop, and arena rock that was meant to cheer everyone up about impending nuclear annihilation. In hindsight, all music from the 80’s might be considered a subset of the last grouping, but be that as it may, the 80's produced an enormous number of songs that I can only describe as “training montage-esque”.
   But anyway, music to win to! I wanted to start off with some classical, because nothing motivates an artist to create uplifting music like having your patron be the king of England, or the Russian czar, or whoever else your patron was. Point is, directly reporting to the face of a world power made a great recipe for songs with lots of major chords, particularly as regards what I personally think of as the “winning trifecta”: in order of potency, the William Tell overture, the 1812 Overture, and the biggest of all bug guns, Ride of the Valkyries. There’s a reason that everyone only remembers one scene from Apocalypse Now, and that reason is Ride of the Valkyries.
   In a considerably less epic vein (and I do mean epic in the dictionary sense, by the way) another good song, but rather more recent, is Can’t keep Johnny Down by They Might Be Giants. I have loved TMBG for pretty much as long as I've been conscious of music, but I have to say that most of their best stuff was done in their early years (specifically, it was done on the album Flood, which is fantastic and should be listened to by everyone). However, they are a terrifyingly prolific band, and while I don’t like as high a ratio of songs on the later stuff as I do on the early pieces, they still know how to make some solid stuff. Can’t Keep Johnny Down is from either their second or third most recent album (they seriously make a TON of music), and it’s an incredibly fun song to feel like resisting oppression to.
   As far as the next song goes, I’m not sure if I would say that it shows its best foot when you listen to it as a post-celebration victory sort of song. The title theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is one of those songs I use a soundtrack for my life, and I highly recommend it for everyone else ever. It should be used when you’re going into a confrontation, not coming out of one, but I’m putting it here because if you do use it, whatever victory you achieve will be AT LEAST ten times sweeter. There is seriously no feeling quite as satisfying as timing your entrance into a building with the crescendo at 1:59, except possibly getting it with any of the other equally great crescendos that pop up throughout the song. In all honesty, using this song will enrich your life enormously.
   And lastly, I just wanted to drop a plug for what may be the most visceral, primitive ‘winning’ sound I know of: the Victory Fanfare from Final Fantasy 6. Even if you didn't grow playing FF6, as soon as you hear it you’ll start congratulating yourself for the great achievement you just made. Doesn't matter whether or not you actually did something; this song completely bypasses the prefrontal cortex, and it’s GREAT.

   P.S. Even more lastly, here’s a bonus song! It’s not victorious at all. Although I feel slightly ashamed to admit it, I've never listened to all that much Radiohead and it wasn't until this month that I heard Paranoid Android for, as far as I can tell, the first time in my life. It seems obvious in hindsight that this was a mistake, because Paranoid Android is a pretty amazing song. It’s filled to the gills with existential dread and loathing, so it really pairs up nicely with this posts theme… I guess?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Post 2: Falsettos and beat-boxing should really be combined more often.

   Ok, at this point I have tried to write something not terrible about Arcade Fire three times, one after another, and apparently I’m incapable of effective articulation when it comes to them. Which I hate, coincidentally, because one of the single biggest reasons I decided to start this blog was to make an effective platform to talk about how much I love Arcade Fire, and apparently that strut of structure isn't ever going to be built, or at the very least it will not be put in place for an indefinitely long time. Therefore, I’m going to put the topic to rest for the time being, and simply move on. With one last note: both Neon Bible and The Suburbs are incredible albums, and they’re both available online for under $10 dollars, from wherever you get music from. You can listen to playlists of both albums here (or here) for free, and you should. Both albums are worth listening to in full over and over again (I should know, I have literally listened to both at least 10 times apiece), and they only get better the more times you do it.

   So, that being said, I wanted to talk about another, different album that I found recently, that I really like. 151a (which is apparently pronounced ichi-go-ichi-eh because how could any self-respecting artist pass up that chance) is an album released last year by some guy called Kishi Bashi, and it’s pretty great. I was going to try to describe why it’s great, but then I remembered that I don’t actually know anything about the mechanics of music, I just like listening to it. So, since I am completely unfit to objectively critique music, I’m just gonna call it: this album is pretty rad, you should listen to it! In a lot of ways, it kind of reminds me of Enya; it’s catchy, but has enough ethereal, drifting falsettos that you can either tune out and use it as background music, or pay attention and notice that it’s really good.

   The whole album really only seems to have two settings for songs: hyper-catchy energetic anthems that make you think about how great everything is, and soulfully crooned ballads (or at least some kind of soulful singing style that I would describe as being at least tangentially related to crooning) that makes you think about solitude and large, dry countrysides flooded with sunlight. I should also mention that I have a mild obsession with leaping falsettos (I Believe in a Thing Called Love is hands down the most fun sing–along song ever written, no questions asked), which has certainly given me a predisposition to 151a, but even on songs that contain a bare minimum of octave hopping, there are lots of cool vocal effects going on. If you check out Kishi Bashi’s live performances, you see that most of his music is made by combining looped violin sections with vocal and beatboxing samples, and so on pretty much all of the songs the vocals are used as just as much of a tool as any other instrument, which creates a very… distinctive sound, I guess? It’s definitely a very distinctive style musically, but it also ends up giving all the songs a very unique emotional setting.

   The whole album is really worth listening to through from beginning to end without stopping (which you can do for free here), but if you only want to listen to some singles, my personal favorites are probably It All Began with a Burst, Manchester, and I am the Antichrist to You. I am the Antichrist to you is definitely the most standout track in my mind; it was the first song I heard off the album, and is probably still my favorite overall. It’s the kind of song whose lyrical meaning isn't clear at all, but that doesn't really matter because whatever it’s about, it’s true. It’s the kind of songs that just has some aura of capital T Truth that you can’t argue with and wouldn't want to. Whatever the point is, you just need to listen along with your eyes closed and then go and do things with a lingering feeling that you may be becoming a better person for having heard it.

   I suppose It all Began with a Burst could be considered the lead single along with Bright Whites (which is also really good, by the way), and it sets a pretty good precedent for the tone of the album overall. It has lots of looped layers, yelps and a catchy chorus, and it’s fun to listen to. Honestly though, I've started liking Manchester a lot more overall. When I first listened to Manchester, I thought it was decent but forgettable track, but I've liked it more every listen through since then.  For one thing, I actually paid attention to the lyrics, and it turns they’re moderately incomprehensible but compelling, which is really just how I should describe all of the lyrics on the album. For another, I love the chorus. In addition to good falsetto, I also have a weakness for catchy choruses, and Manchester has one of the best I've heard in recent memory. You should go listen to it on repeat, and then try to get it out of your head for the next ten hours. You will fail!

   As a closing note, I've got a link to a playlist (linked above) of the full album on Grooveshark which you can listen to for free, but the album is also available for streaming and download from his bandcamp for 8$, so if you've got excess cash it might be worth swinging by and picking up. Supporting cool artists is cool! Also, there’s a video on youtube of a really cool live performance he did, and it’s worth checking out too. For real, doesn't his live show look completely rad? It looks so completely rad.

   Also, last of all, here’s a bonus song. Continuing the theme of awesome live shows and adding on my VERY IMPORTANT theme of ‘hey, listen to arcade fire’, this is one of my favorite versions of one of my favorite ever songs, Rebellion Lies. It’s also worth watching the video, if only so you can see a stageful of people sweat rhythmically. Delightful!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Post 1: On trashy pop, and why it’s great.

   So when I first visualized this blog, one of the first things that popped into my head was talking about Arcade Fire. I love them, I love talking about them, and the second I decided to make a blog dedicated to talking about music, it immediately became evident that the first post was obviously going to be about two of my all-time favorite albums, Neon Bible and The Suburbs. So I started writing that, and found out that while I do indeed love talking about them, I am surprisingly terrible at shutting up, and it looks like that particular piece is going to end up being three or four times longer than I was originally planning. As a side effect it just might not be done tonight. Since I want to do both albums side by side, but I also want to do them justice, I decided to put that project on the shelf for a bit, and start this blog off right by talking about stupid top 40 pop songs, and how great they are.

   I have kind of a love-hate relationship with pop music; on the one hand, listening to it makes me feel like my IQ is dropping at a steady rate of four points per minute. On the other hand, I think everyone reading this, whether they admit it or not, still loves Dancing Queen at least a little bit. You can’t not love Dancing Queen at least a little bit, that’s the whole point. It’s designed from the ground up to be as or more infectious than Ebola. And so, I wanted to list off a couple of the more delightful strains I've been listening to lately. As a side note, most of the bubblegum pop I’ll be talking about is fairly old stuff, because I’m in the middle of a thirty-year binge on 80’s one hit wonders. I’d apologize, but everyone needs to listen to more Culture Club.

   Speaking of, go listen to Karma Chameleon. I've got the link right here; you have no reason not to click. Unless you have a fear of Boy George and/or metrosexuality in 1870’s riverboat reenactments, in which case maybe you want to avoid watching the video (I will say that there’s nothing wrong with having a healthy dose of caution when it comes to looking directly at Boy George. I suspect that he strikes a slightly uncomfortable note in the psyche of all living people).  BE THAT AS IT MAY, Karma Chameleon is one of my favorite pieces of 80’s memorabilia. I have a soft spot for harmonicas that sneak their way into genres other than country, bluegrass and folk, and Karma Chameleon has one of the more balling hooks in that very narrow category.

   You know what else has a great harmonica line? Hook by Blues Traveler. I guess technically it falls more into alt-folk than straight pop, but it’s simultaneously on of my favorite examples and indictments of pop lyricism, and it also references Anne Boleyn. You cannot ask for more. Also, on the subject of delightful pop culture indictments check out Rococo by Arcade Fire. I promised myself I wouldn't be listing any of their songs until my mega-article, but I’m also a pathological liar, and it’s great.

   Moving right along, I would like to remind everyone that Lady Gaga still exists, and whether or not you like her music, Poker Face and Telephone are pretty much perfect pop songs. I've got nothing else to add, really. Some people like her, some people hate her… Telephone is catchy.

   In case it wasn't obvious, I’m still trying to figure out a viable format for this blog, and I've still got a couple more songs I wanted to talk about, so for now I’m just going to shove them down here and talk a little bit about why they’re great. I'm going to experiment with different formats over the next few articles until I find something that I think works well, but in the meantime listen to these other songs, 

   Man, this might just be my favorite piano riff of all time. I have an unhealthy love for early electronic, and Depeche Mode are the godfathers of basically everything that’s been played on a moog synthesizer. Fun bonus: a while ago, I found a mashup of Just can’t get enough and Paparazzi. It’s right here. Haters to the left.

   I will never pretend to understand why Swedish people have such a mastery over the art of making fluffy pop songs, but they do. It’s actually kind of weird realizing how well Abba’s stuff has aged; for being so deeply and distinctly rooted in 70’s and disco, it still has a very current sound. However, the same cannot be said of their videos. In all seriousness, they're pretty dang terrible. Naturally, I've linked the video versions in case anyone reading this wants to punish themselves.

Last of all, this is a song that as friend sent me, and I have no idea when, if ever, I'll be writing a post that it fits in with, but I love it and want to share it with the world. It's a reggae cover of Country Roads, and if listening to it doesn't fill a void in your heart that you never realized existed, then I've got bad news for you: you just failed the Turing test, and can be definitively considered non-human. On the plus side, isn't it amazing how far technology has come?