Arca – Arca

This record is everything you could want from a record. It’s dark and eerie, it’s light and airy, it has parts that make you want to curl up in a ball, and others that inspire you to shout from the rooftops. Metaphorically of course.

It has grand, sweeping landscapes, and tight intimate portraits, all within the same song. It combines large operatic elements, with plinky plonky bits, scattered and disordered drum sounds with four on the floor simplicity, and does it without ever sounding predictable.

The obvious touchstones for a record like are Aphex Twin, Flying Lotus and Four Tet. The combination of organic sounds with electronic create soundscapes that have depth and feel like they go on forever into the distance.

Music;2016(or, don’t call it a Best Of)

These are the records I like from 2016. I’m sure there are other good ones, but these are the ones I liked from what I have heard. If it is not here I either a) didn’t like it, or b) didn’t hear it.

Mavis Staples  – Livin’ on a High Note

Could be categorised as more of the same, but it’s an accomplished record from a singer whose later life life renaissance appears to be getting better with each release. This is at least as good as her first record produced by Jeff Tweedy, You Are Not Alone, and better than the stodgy One True Vine.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

True to form, where they were expected to create an album that was a continuation of the style explored on King of Limbs, Radiohead confounded expectations. A Moon Shaped Pool felt immediately familiar, due in large part to some of the songs being upwards of a decade old. “True Love Waits”, a song that has gained near mythic status, was around at least 20 years ago in one form or another. A lot of the album is centred around the demise of Thom Yorke’s relationship and it feels like a break up record. It’s not gloomy, but the melancholy is unrelenting. It also has the aura of perhaps being the last Radiohead record for a long time, or even ever.

Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.

This collection of pseudo-B sides is an interesting look behind the scenes of the epic To Pimp a Butterfly. I prefer this record over that one, with TPAB sometimes feeling overly contrived, whereas untitled unmastered. has a lighter, more delicate touch. The songs have space to inhabit without the excessive framing of the more serious TPAB.

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Outside country music circles, Sturgill Simpson is mostly known for his rendition of the Nirvana song “In Bloom”. It’s a tough song to make sense of, even the original, and Simpson manages to make it something far more melodic and epic that it has any business being. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it is better than the Nirvana version, he imbues it with a rhythm and sincerity that elevates it far beyond a standard cross-genre cover. Despite its strength, it’s also the worst song on the album. As with his previous record, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he’s alt-country in the vein of a more refined Uncle Tupelo, not the Garth Brooks mental breakdown that is Chris Gaines. The closest comparison is probably Ryan Adams, if Ryan Adams didn’t seem like such a dick.

Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”

Childish Gambino proved people wrong when he appeared as the stage name of actor and comedian Donald Glover. While Childish Gambino remains a ridiculous name, his first record was genuinely unique and interesting. On “Awaken, My Love!” he sacrifices some of the uniqueness to channel his influences and create a fantastic journey of funk and soul. Paying such homage can sometimes backfire and a record can sound too derivative, but this still sounds like the Childish Gambino from Because the Internet, despite the vastly more polished sound and lush production.

And some more I don’t have much to say about but they were still better than most:

And the Anonymous Nobody… – De La Soul

Let’s Take a Trip – Tall Black Guy

Human Performance – Parquet Courts

I did like other records this year that I hadn’t heard before, but they aren’t from 2016. For example, my first exposure to Kendrick Lamar was To Pimp a Butterfly, but I didn’t think it was that great. But then I heard him on Dr Dre’s Compton record this year and so I decided to give Good Kid Maad City a go and I liked it a lot more. So, there’s two more new to me: Compton and Good Kid Maad City. 

Here are others:

Radiodread – Easy Star All Stars

Fishscale – Ghostface Killah

Breathe – FredFades and Ivan Ave

Icky Mettle – Archers of Loaf

I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt

Shin Joong Hyun & The Yup Juns – Shin Joong Hyun & The Yup Juns

Pure Mood – Ringo DeathStarr

The 90s was my most important musical decade. A retrospective.

The 90s were the formative decade for my musical tastes. Despite the great albums that were released in the 00s and 10s, the 90s records will always have that special glow of music I first loved. The records I remember each year for may not be the best ones, in many cases they may be the worst ones, but … I don’t have anything to say beyond that. I had bad taste as a kid. Who didn’t?

1990Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em – MC Hammer, The Razor’s Edge – AC/DC. At Whenuapai Primary School, Cool As Ice by Vanilla Ice was ubiquitous. Ok. Slow start. To be fair, I was ten. Records I discovered later in life include Ritual De Lo Habitual – Jane’s Addiction, Bossanova – The Pixies, Ragged Glory – Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Girls, Girls, Girls – Elvis Costello, and Traveling Wilbury’s Vol3.  An OK year, but hardly watershed.

MC Hammer ... taking on You Tube

1991Ten – Pearl Jam was the huge record of my 11th year. Floating around my periphery was Nevermind by Nirvana, which sounded far more abrasive and terrifying and I never fully appreciated until I was a teenager. The Use Your Illusion records were discovered a couple of years later, as was a whole host of records by bands I would end up loving (Blur – Leisure, Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest), and the usual flotsam of the era (Achtung Baby – U2).

1992 – Discovering music as a 12 year old in New Zealand was difficult. I had to pretty much rely solely on the radio and the once weekly screening of RTR Countdown to find new and exciting sounds, and if there is one thing that has remained a constant in the every changing musical landscape, it’s that the radio has always sucked. Ugly Kid Joe was the big discovery of the year, with their one song, a terrible cover, and a forgettable novelty record. Core – Stone Temple Pilots and Insecticide – Nirvana flew the grunge flag that year, and later I would come to listen to Generation Terrorists – Manic Street Preachers an embarrassing amount. Likewise, Harvest Moon – Neil Young would be records I would truly discover in my later teenage years.

1993Pablo Honey, In Utero, Vs, Enter the Wu Tang, Porno for Pyros, Modern Life is Rubbish, Fuzzy, Where You Been? While I didn’t absorb all these records when they were released, 1993 felt like an explosion of music. Undoubtedly fuelled by the start of high school and leaving the insular world of my military base primary school (look, a brown person!), it featured records I still listen to now, as well as ones I am still annoyed by despite not hearing them in 20 years. 

1994 -The music dies every year, just look at 2016 so far, which makes that Don McLean song as stupid as it is annoying. Thankfully there were many, many records to fill the void left by Kurt Cobain’s death. Dookie – Green Day, Mellow Gold – Beck, MTV Unplugged – Nirvana, Smash – The Offspring, Superunknown – Soundgarden, Parklife – Blur, The Blue Album – Weezer, Ill Communication – The Beastie Boys…. the list goes on and on. Reading through the list of records that are now considered “classics”, as well as those that are simply “old”, it is easy to conclude that there isn’t anything today that really compares to hearing Vitalogy for the first time, or discovering that you actually do like electronic music when it’s done by Massive Attack. But there was also a huge amount of chaff. Some real turds. For every Purple by Stone Temple Pilots there was a The Division Bell by Pink Floyd.

1995 – This was the year I first realised that most people have appalling taste. Presidents of the United States of America turned the airwaves toxic with their brand of post-Nirvana crap. I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Peaches” or “Lump”; songs played on badly strung instruments that never made it past their own gimmick. Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt and Ben Harper all released records that have been burnt on my brain by my classmates’ constant playing, all which annoyed me to varying degrees. It was the year that the big BritPop battle between Oasis’s What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) Blur’s The Great Escape seemed incredibly important. It’s strange to think now that it was ever in doubt that Blur would musically eclipse their rivals several times over. It was a landmark year with the release of The Bends. Radiohead would shape my musical tastes with every subsequent release. I also listened to Jagged Little Pill by Alanis more than was reasonable for a 15-year-old boy.

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1996 – This was a strange year. Looking through the list of releases, there is very little that stands out. Pearl Jam had the poorly received No Code, which was fitting as it was a poor record. The Nirvana horse continued to be posthumously flogged with the release of a live album. There are some records that I would appreciate later in life, such as Modest Mouse’s debut This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian, and On Avery Island by Neutral Milk Hotel. On the whole though, it was an empty year. I am not sure why I wasn’t listening to more music. My 6th form grades indicate I was doing anything but studying.

1997 – When I first started this I knew that 1997 would be a huge year because of two albums in particular: Radiohead’s OK Computer and the self-titled Blur. Both records still blow away pretty much everything released over the last 20 years. However, the year also featured the phenomenal Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space – Spiritualised and Word Gets Around – Stereophonics, as well as other 90s classics like Urban Hymns – The Verve, Around the Fur – Deftones, and Portishead’s self-titled debut. It also featured one of my major disappointments. In hindsight, I don’t understand why I was so enamoured with Oasis. They’re more than a bit shit. But I was desperately looking forward to Be Here Now, and while I tried HARD to like it, it was interminable.

600full-radiohead

1998 – Just as my enthusiasm for this blog is diminishing, by 1998 my enthusiasm for the decade was also waning. The records of this year symbolised my drifting into the nothingness of post-high school and early 00s. Pulp’s This is Hardcore, Placebo’s Without You I’m Nothing and Manic Street Preachers’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours were all records I fell in love with and ones that now do nothing but make me sad. I do still like Bring It On by Gomez though.

1999 – The decade closed with the return of John Frusciante to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which seemed prophetic given my early infatuation with the band. Californication wasn’t Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but it was a lot better than 95’s One Hot Minute, and they wouldn’t release a record as good again. As one guitarist returned, another departed and 13 would be Graham Coxon’s last record with Blur for 15 or so years. Again, it was a tremendous album.

Final thoughts

When I decided to write this, I thought it would be an illuminating journey across the peaks of my own good taste. It turns out that I listened to fuck all of the good stuff when it was actually coming out. Wilco released great records in the 90s but I didn’t discover them until I heard Summer Teeth in 2000. A whole host of seminal hip hop records by The Roots, Wu Tang, Public Enemy, and many more weren’t discovered until relatively recently. I think the lesson here is teenagers are idiots. I wasted a lot of time and a lot of money buying and listening to dreck like Reef, Texas, Everclear, when I could have immersed myself in actual quality.

As a side note, Anal Cunt were a remarkably prolific band in the 90s. I am surprised that I have never heard them.

Where to begin: Radiohead

I don’t like seeing people on the train listening to their headphones because I know they are listening to crap. Especially when they are young. I always think it is probably something dreadful that I either haven’t heard, or something I have and wish I hadn’t. If only they were reading this series.

This time, it’s England’s greatest band.

radiohead-albums

Radiohead has had the same five members since they started. Quite remarkable given how long they have been around. Their first album was released in 1993 and has been all but forgotten by the band. They don’t ever play anything off Pablo Honey anymore, despite it featuring their most famous song “Creep”. The rest of it is very much of its time and uses a lot of distortion and is undoubtedly their most straight-forward record. As a teenager, understanding and absorbing this record was essential to the full Radiohead experience, but now I take the same tack as the band and it rarely gets a spin.

The Bends was the first album that genuinely sounded like the Radiohead everyone knows. They master the electric guitar over acoustic guitar dynamic, use interesting chord progressions, and walk the line between atmospheric and exhilarating masterfully . This record laid the blueprint for every subsequent album, with its thematic cohesion making it more than simply a bunch of songs, as was the case with their debut.

Taking the first of many sharp turns that would come to define the band from record to record, OK Computer was not simply unlike The Bends, it was unlike anything in music at that time. Much like iconic records by The Beatles or Bob Dylan, it is hard to listen to OK Computer with fresh ears, such was its ubiquity in 1997. It is one of those records that bears greater rewards with every listen and it is so firmly imprinted on my DNA that any progeny I may have will be born reciting “Fitter Happier” and creeping everyone the fuck out.

The new millennium saw yet another iteration of the Radiohead sound. Kid A and the 2001 release Amnesiac were recorded in the same sessions and feature the band’s first forays into Krautrock beats and electronic experimentation. The two records couldn’t sound more different, despite their parallel gestation, with Kid A sounding clinical and distant, and Amnesiac including the more recognisably Radiohead-sounding songs. These two records cemented the concept that whatever Radiohead did, however far they went away from what they supposedly were, they could still create magical work.

Then they released Hail to the Thief in 2003. My first listens left me thoroughly disappointed and it sat on the shelf for a long time. But eventually, after dipping back into it almost 10 years later, I realised how remarkable it was. Thom Yorke has stated that he’d like to resequence it and take some of the songs away to make a shorter, more coherent record, but I think that meandering unfocussed aspect of it is its greatest strength. It matches, in retrospect, the feeling of the early to mid-2000s. While a political record in name only, its dark mood is a reflection of Bush and Blair-era lies and warmongering.

The band started to slow their output at this time, with four years elapsing before In Rainbows sudden appearance. On a “pay what you want” basis, the record appeared online and felt over-shadowed by the nature of its release. Honestly, I feel this is probably their most forgettable record. It has some great songs, but it never stuck with me in the way their others have, even Pablo Honey. I remember really liking it when it first came out but I rarely listen to it now. Also, this record isn’t available on Spotify, which totally fucks up my playlist.

King of Limbs is the last Radiohead record and it came out in 2011, which makes it likely that it will be five years between releases. King of Limbs is yet another direction for the band, with the album feeling organic and electronic all at once. It’s a dance record and a rock record, and while it may not have the resonance of OK Computer, it is possibly their finest to date. It sounds accomplished and brave, and while it is unlike anything they have done before, it still feels like a natural progression from their previous work.

 

Apple Music vs Spotify

A little over a week ago I decided to activate my three-month free trial with Apple Music. This was at the expense of my Spotify subscription, which I cancelled for the duration of the trial with a view to leaving permanently if the new service worked out better. My initial impression of Apple Music was one of awe. Awe at the depth of the catalogue, the sound quality, and how easy it was to integrate into my music collection.

635714289525358686-Apple-Music 

I haven’t looked into the technical specs of the sound quality, mainly because I think the numbers don’t matter. It’s my ears that count, not bitrates and whatnot. To me, the sound quality with Apple music is superior. Through the same headphones I used with Spotify, Apple Music’s tracks just sound bigger and more present. Spotify had a tendency to sound a bit tinny and exactly as you’d expect a streaming service to sound. Apple Music has a depth that is almost on par with the music I own and have on my device.spotify

Playlists are Apple’s big selling point, with human curated compilations rather than Spotify’s algorithm calculated suggestions. I have enjoyed the Apple ones and they do tend to be close to what I would generally choose to listen to, but this is also its weakness. They are too good at finding things I would already listen to, while Spotify’s wildly off base algorithm would come up with leftfield things that bore no relation to what I had listened to in the past. That’s not to say that Spotify didn’t present a lot of things that were simply of the same genre or from the same country, but sometimes they would come up with something new and exciting that I would never think to search for. Apple seems to take things I have in my collection and feed me back playlists of their favourite Blur songs, or what they consider to be Wilco’s best, or Radiohead’s “deep cuts” – a term that makes me shudder with embarrassment.

Over the course of the last week, I have discovered that using Apple Music has changed the way I approach my music collection. On my iPhone it requires turning on iCloud Sharing to download playlists and albums for offline listening, but the upshot of this is that everything across the iCloud is then synced to my phone. This is annoying and a flaw. Apple think that they can find everything I have in my collection in the cloud and let me listen to it anywhere, but they don’t have all the records I have. Also, if the naming convention is different to what they have, it won’t work. So I end up with a lot of pale grey songs that I can’t listen to but are bloating my music app. In the end I just turn off the iCloud Sharing and don’t sync to my phone. I am undecided if I will continue with Apple Music as I already find myself missing the set-up I had with Spotify.  The latter made it simpler to see what I had downloaded for offline listening and what i didn’t, ensuring I didn’t waste precious data when I needed to preserve it (usually at the end of the month when my cap was at its limit).

Apple Music has tried to make the subscription music indistinguishable from the purchased music for a seamless experience, and they have succeeded. However, this success has added a layer of confusion that may make me switch back to what I had before. Spotify’s clunky interface and lack of integration are seen as weaknesses, but for me they were important ways to separate the owned from the rented.