The Grammys Need an Intervention

The Grammys haven’t been a music fan’s music event for some time. It’s clear that the focus has shifted to “big music,” irrespective of anything but social media trending and record sales. Scouring the internet, you would think the world was on fire, sold out to a nefarious elite who subliminally work to destroy our way of life and, possibly, our  very existence. It’s not quite that dramatic, but it’s still a joke – the kind of joke an obnoxious, abusive friend pulls and pulls again, thinking it’s funnier the second time. Grammys, its time we talked: the 58th time isn’t a charm.

It seemed, for the briefest of moments, that there was some justice in the world when Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly won the best rap album category (as if there was any competition). That glimmering spark of hope was quickly snuffed out when Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat Kendrick for the illustrious album of the year award. As the eroded but-still-brilliant Professor Farnsworth of Futurama would say, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” 

Anyone remotely versed in hip-hop and pop music tradition should come away from both albums with the same conclusion. To Pimp A Butterfly, regardless of personal preference, is a more important and demanding work of art. Lamar conducted a musical autopsy not just of himself, but of the black man in America. From careful introspection to seething rage, Lamar put everything on the table in an exhaustive personal and social statement. Taylor Swift wrote some catchy hooks.

Essentially, the Grammys pulled an Oscars last night by voting white girl problems over a thorough, soulful dissection of black life and culture. The naivest of viewers might believe its an honest mistake, but grizzled Grammy veterans know better. This isn’t the first time. It surely won’t be the last. That’s why the Grammy’s need an intervention. It’s not going to be easy, but the first step in recovering credibility is admitting there’s a problem.

Just admit it.

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Bad Music is Good for You

Given the choice between an album by electro metal-core act The Bunny The Bear and any 90’s era Rush record, I’d rather listen to the former every day of the week. No; I haven’t lost my mind. Bad music often has considerable entertainment value. But average music? Not so much.

It’s why discerning audiences would rather watch Space Balls than your run-of-the-mill, monthly spy thriller. Sure, the production values may be top-of-the-line and the explosions might be kind of cool, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all been there before so many times that we could tell the story before it begins.. I can promise you one thing: you’ve never been to The Bunny the Bear before.

Let’s take a look at The Bunny The Bear’s “In Like Flynn.” A basic, stomping dance beat punctuates juvenile screams and auto-tuned wailing as synthesizers swell with faux-dramatism. That’s not even looking at the video, wherein a girl rips off her own arm and lovingly sticks it on a tree as bear and rabbit puppets dance in stringed spasms. Does this sound awful? It is, but it’s also hilarious.

Try finding something that entertaining in a 90’s Rush album. Spoiler alert: you’re not going to. I’m not picking on Rush here, because there’s an unlimited number of bands I could toss into the fray here. 80’s Genesis. 90’s Metallica. 00’s Snoop Dogg. These artists have one crippling flaw in common in their respective time periods: excruciating boredom.

There’s a reason you typically don’t hear people singing the praises of Load and Reload, arguably Metallica’s low-point. Those songs somehow make a Rick Ross album premiere seem uneventful. Part of this is surely expectation. After all, no one listens to Metallica for a fine country tune, but is that all it is? No. The songs really are unbearably dull. I certainly don’t think of this when I think of Metallica:

Yikes. Thankfully, I’ve got plenty of irredeemable garbage to cleanse the palette. I’ll take a fair dose of horrendous hilarity over an unimaginative slog any day of the week. Brokencyde? Any time.

The Best Albums of 2015 So Far

Six months in, 2015 is shaping up to be another fantastic year for new music. I’ll refrain from saying that it was harder to pick my favorite releases this year than it has been previously since I’m pretty sure I said the same thing last year and the year before. Redundancy is the enemy of every writer, after all. That said, it was definitely a challenge to narrow so many great albums to a meager ten. I’m happy to finally share my favorites with all of you. Here they are. I hope you find something new to enjoy.

  1. Hiatus Kaiyote, “Choose Your Weapon”
  2. Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”
  3. Failure, “The Heart is a Monster”
  4. The Tallest Man on Earth, “Dark Bird is Home”
  5. Anekdoten, “Until All the Ghosts are Gone”
  6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress”
  7. Vennart, “The Demon Joke”
  8. Father John Misty, “I Love You, Honeybear”
  9. Bjork, “Vulnicura”
  10. Steven Wilson, “Hand. Cannot. Erase.”

Wish You Were Here: Bands Who Deserve a Comeback

The mid 2010’s seem saturated with aged bands returning for highly-anticipated comebacks. 90s rock veterans Failure are set to release “The Heart is a Monster” in June. Faith No More’s “Sol Invictus” hits shelves in less than a week. Refused has announced a new album is in the works, as have shoegaze pioneers Slowdive. Many more are entrenched in the studio, looking to break years, even decades, of silence with the ever-elusive return. The following bands are acts who I’d love to see release new material.

1. Hum

Hum is a rare breed of band. Originally active for eleven years, the group released four albums: two of which are considered shoegaze classics. Talbot and company peaked with their last, “Downward is Heavenward” and disappeared. Sure, they’ve played some live shows since, but the band has made its intention to stay a live act clear. That’s a shame, because another Hum record would excite a lot of people. I certainly wouldn’t mind.

2. Isis

Aaron Turner called it quits on a high note. 2009’s Wavering Radiant was a great record — one that any band should be proud of. That’s what made the band’s end so unfortunate. Sure, it’s respectable to leave before the inevitable drop in quality, but it seemed clear that Isis wasn’t going to fall prey to it any time soon. It’s been six years since the band’s last record, and it would be interesting to see how recent projects by Turner and his former band mates would influence the Isis sound. It’s probably not in the cards, but I can always dream.

3. Bark Psychosis

Few bands can claim to be the pioneers of their genre, but Bark Psychosis can. In 1994, the band released its debut, “Hex,” which set the rules for post-rock to come. Mysterious, subtle but alarmingly intimate, “Hex” sounds vital 21 years later. Sure, the band came back for one last hurrah with “Codename: Dustsucker” in 2004, but it’s well past time for another record. We’re past the 10 year wait between records, guys. Don’t keep us waiting.

Springtime Sounds

Here in Atlanta, we’ve just endured a week-long rainstorm. Now, sun is beaming down on the pavement outside my window, birds are doing their thing, and all is well outside. Spring — at least our romanticized vision of Spring — is finally here. That carries a lot of connotations musically. We all have preconceptions of what springtime albums are. For many, it’s the sunny vibe of The Beatles. For others, it’s the pounding angst of 90s rock.

For me, I’ve always associated springtime with the expansive vibes of psychedelia. Driving down the sunbathed streets while listening to revivalist and vintage psych is one of life’s greatest joys. One of my personal favorite picks is Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound. Their sound pays a clear homage to the 60s, but the songwriting carries enough vitality that it’s difficult to care. Whether it’s the fuzz-laden romp of “Clive and the Lyre” or the kaleidoscopic expanse of “Blue Wire,” Assemble Head always brings good times when the sun is out.

Legendary jazz-man John Coltrane is another artist I always return to in Spring. The joyous bounce of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” conjures feel-good vibes like few others, and the rest of the album doesn’t slack off in this respect either. Coltrane blends masterful musicianship with an uncanny uplifting spirit, and it never fails to lighten my mood.

Spring is the season of rejuvenation and rebirth, and that can make for some truly excellent music after the dismal months of Winter. Whether you enjoy chilled-out electronica or the haze of fuzzed-out guitars, there’s something for everyone in the Spring. These are some of my favorite Spring albums:

  1. Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, “When Sweet Sleep Returned”
  2. The Tallest Man on Earth, “The Wild Hunt”
  3. Captain Beyond, “Captain Beyond”
  4. The War on Drugs, “Lost in the Dream”
  5. Tame Impala, “Innerspeaker”
  6. Bob Dylan, “Bringing It All Back Home”
  7. Earthless, “From the Ages”
  8. Real Estate, “Days”
  9. John Coltrane, “Giant Steps”
  10. Failure, “Magnified”

“How Soon is Now?”: When Classic Albums Become Classic

Since the release of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, the internet has exploded in all corners. Pitchfork’s wizened sages have decreed the highest of honors. Hip-hop fans both east and west have joined hands in celebration. Even the trolls have seemed silent before the monolithic throne of Lamar. Now, sure, this may be hyperbole, but it plays to the larger point here: “To Pimp a Butterfly” is really, really good. It’s so good that throughout various discussion forums across the web you can already find countless droves of people hailing Lamar’s latest a bona fide classic – an inscrutable masterpiece that will define hip-hop for decades to come.

Isn’t it a little early, guys?

I won’t deny that Lamar’s latest record is one of my favorite album’s to come out this year. It’s an album I’d certainly give an A if I were to review it now. Lamar’s lyricism is stunning – at times painfully personal and scathingly social. His poetry burns straight through the speakers to burrow deep inside. Stylistically, Lamar has never been this ambitious. Incorporating jazz, soul, and traditional production into a brilliant mix, “To Pimp a Butterfly” truly comes alive. But to call an album that’s only been on the shelves for a month a “classic” is bordering on absurd.

“Classic” albums aren’t made in the reactionary hail of praise in a record’s infancy. It takes time. Looking back at 1974 and the release of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” is a revealing moment. When Dylan’s album was released, critics scratched their heads, baffled and confused. Those critics were the generous ones. Some went so far as to pen demolishing criticisms of Dylan’s album. Today, however, marks a new story for that record. It’s 2015, and “Blood on the Tracks” is unanimously considered a monolithic album whose influence on modern folk artists is nearly incalculable in its magnitude While the amount of time required for an album to become classic may lead to a nebulous rabbit hole of debate, it’s not an unfair statement to make that it does take some substantial amount. It’s also important to note I’m not saying critics’ initial reactions to albums determine their classic status; rather, only time, and, by extension, the influence a record casts over time, is integral to the making of a classic.

It takes calculable, documentable influence on artists and genres to come for albums to be true classics. Let’s take “Sgt. Pepper” as an example. How many bands have cited that record as one of their favorite recordings? How many bands have claimed that “Sgt. Pepper” influenced their own music? The number here is irrelevant, but the point isn’t. Surely, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Tame Impala wouldn’t exist without the trail-blazing psychedelic pop of The Beatles later-era recordings. The influence is obvious in some cases. “Solitude Is Bliss,” Tame Impala’s debut single, barely attempts to hide the Beatles worship as it winds through its kaleidoscopic verses. Here, most listeners can probably pick up the similarities in sound if they’ve heard both “Sgt. Pepper” and “Innerspeaker.” Classic albums transfuse themselves over time into the blood of other artists in ways that are apparent and material to the new music.

This overzealous knee-jerk behavior isn’t just ridiculous in its own right; it’s also unhealthy for the larger picture of music discussion. If we allow ourselves to be immediately overwhelmed by music to the point that we’re lavishing the newest releases with the highest possible honor before it’s even been released for a month, let alone a year, then we’re doing music discussion, and the music itself, an injustice. Doing this, we devalue music, turning it into some rapidly consumable commodity and forget it as the pure art that it really is. So, if we really love Kendrick Lamar, let’s do him a favor; let’s wait.

Spotify: Champion of the Underground, or Vampire in Disguise?

It’s safe to say that Taylor Swift’s dramatic break-up with Spotify certainly isn’t a secret anymore. When the news broke, it broke like a tidal wave crashing through a dam, flooding the internet with furious controversy. Fans and critics alike found themselves standing opposed on the battle lines of a critical debate: is Spotify any good for musicians?

The answer to that question largely depends on just what kind of musicians we’re framing this question around. If we’re looking only at well-established, successful mainstream acts, then the answer seems a bit easier to answer. Take Taylor Swift, for instance, whose music, regardless of its presence on the behemoth streaming platform, is going to sell. And it’s going to sell in droves. Not only is Swift’s art going to sell in CD format, but it’s going to sell as live performance as well. It’s going to sell as merchandise, which is where the majority of money in the music business comes from. For Swift, then, this rebellious stance against the evils of penniless music streaming has a minimal effect on her standing.

If Swift’s motivation for pulling her albums from Spotify is meager compensation, and that certainly seems to be the case, then she and her like-minded peers may be missing the bigger picture at play. By adding your music to the online database, you’re extending the potential reach of your art, thanks in large part to Spotify’s “Related Artists” feature. Musicians who opt in to Spotify’s program are exercising another avenue of exposure, allowing for a greater reach to curious, interested listeners around the world. That reach, in turn, may translate to increased sales of concert tickets, t-shirts, posters and other merchandise. So, sure, the penniless payout per stream may be an irritant, but it’s one that some artists should reconsider. In an interview with Digital Spy, Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) added:

“Me personally? I don’t fucking care. That’s just me, because I’m playing two nights at Wembley next summer. I want people to hear our music, I don’t care if you pay $1 or fucking $20 for it, just listen to the fucking song. But I can understand how other people would object to that.”

This same principle of extended reach is even more critical for musicians who lack the commercial backing of Grammy-contenders and platinum sellers. Thousands of artists working in the underground can barely manage to put together a meager tour of five towns, let alone put together a new album. For these artists, the benefit of Spotify’s platform is even more critical. Sure, the profit-per-play won’t ease the woes of these obscure performers, but it will allow for the world at large to access their art more easily and, in turn, decide its value. When listeners find that art valuable, they’re likely going to invest in it – whether that investment comes in the form of kickstarter donations, digital music purchases, concert tickets or even free advertising via word-of-mouth.

This isn’t to suggest that underground artists stand to make sizable fortunes off the various sales that their increased exposure would provide. Unfortunately, these performers, more often than not, are forever stuck in a thankless game of monetary catch-up, where even the sale of merchandise can’t hope to make up the difference. The lucky few who do manage to break through to the other side often find the profits meager at best. Many of those musicians still work day jobs to pay the rent, just as we do. Underground artists, then, while unlikely to find massive returns and skyrocketing success, do stand to gain exposure and the potential for the ever-elusive critical breakout. Considering the difficulty of starting a musical career in these impossible modern times, that’s more than a fair bargain.

That said, I’m sympathetic to the opposing position. No reasonable person would suggest that artists shouldn’t receive compensation for their hard work. But, in an age where album sales are eclipsed by live concerts and fan merchandise, it seems like a battle being fought for the sake of nostalgia — for an idealized time that no longer exists. Whether artists like it or not, the internet and its potential for mass distribution isn’t going anywhere. As courageous and well-intentioned as these cyber protests are, sooner or later the white flag needs to be waved. After all, we can only go so long without “Shake It Off” in our playlists.

Anticipated Releases of 2015

Undoubtedly, 2014 was a rare year for music. Month after month, incredible record after incredible record dropped with no end in sight. Whether listeners found their escape in pulsating beats, acoustic guitars or impenetrable walls of noise, there was something for everyone.

I probably won’t be holding my breath for an album as devastatingly emotional as The War on Drugs’ “Lost in the Dream” this year, but I’d still consider myself an optimist when it comes to music. After all, even if last year’s run was unimaginable, 2015 has quite a few interesting releases to look forward to. These, then, are my most anticipated albums of the new year.

  1. Steven Wilson

Despite his consistent output since the late ‘80s, Wilson has never garnered much attention outside of the progressive niche. Even so, he’s maintained a remarkably diverse resume over the years, tackling pop, rock, metal, psychedelia, jazz, drone, ambient, and electronica. From the variegated excursions of “The Sky Moves Sideways” to the streamlined immediacy of “In Absentia,” Wilson has thoroughly earned his reputation as one of progressive music’s leading torchbearers.

According to recent interviews, Wilson’s highly anticipated fourth solo album is primed to meld most, if not all, of the artist’s stylistic predilections into a comprehensive musical anthology. Album after album, Wilson has contributed another solid outing into his own narrative. His new album “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” has all the markings of a defining chapter.

  1. Radiohead

Twenty-two years after the release of their debut, Radiohead still commands the undivided attention of music aficionados and casual fans alike. Moreover, Yorke and company have maintained an unwavering mystique, an impenetrable air of genuine mystery swirling about critical importance.

In other words, the release of a new Radiohead record is a cultural landmark, irrespective of the music itself. But it really is the band’s music, even more so than any penchant for unorthodox release methods or Yorke’s quirky, spasmodic dancing, that’s warranted this mythical status. Fortunately for just about everyone involved, then, Radiohead rarely, if ever, makes a significant misstep. If the worst that Thom Yorke can do is “The King of Limbs,” then here’s to album number nine.

  1. The Tallest Man on Earth

It’s likely that most readers aren’t familiar with Sweden’s Kristian Matsson, but once they’ve heard his distinctive nasal croon it’s impossible to forget him. Since 2008, Matsson has proved himself as one of contemporary folk’s unsung heroes — a remarkably consistent and affecting songwriter.

2015 is primed to be an exciting year for fans of Matsson’s work, as his previous outing, the extraordinary “There’s No Leaving Now,” found the singer-songwriter expanding his sonic palette into new frontiers, lacing his bare acoustic framework with pianos, electric guitars and drums. If that’s any indication, Mattson may be venturing into full-band territory — a proposition equally thrilling and terrifying. Surely, his lone-wolf approach to folk has been so successful that he couldn’t dream of abandonment. Only time will tell, but the safe bet is that whatever Matsson has planned next will be one for the books.

4.  PJ Harvey

Though she’s unlikely to ever be a household name like Tori Amos or Kate Bush, PJ Harvey’s particular brand of alternative music has drawn a remarkable following over the years. From her 1992 debut album “Dry” all the way to 2011’s “Let England Shake,” Harvey has firmly set herself as one of indie music’s most prominent, consistent artists — a songwriter that not only captivates her audiences one song at a time, but who also inspires tremendous anticipation for future output.

Harvey’s upcoming record stands likely to excite fans even more than usual, because unlike previous records, her upcoming album is reported to undergo the recording process in front of a live audience. Fitting, then, that Harvey has named the upcoming work “Recording in Progress.”

5.  Thrice

“Major/Minor” certainly was a good time for Thrice to make its exit. As so many great artists do, they left leaving their fans wanting more. Whether “more” constituted the hardcore sound of their earliest recordings, the laid-back alternative of “Beggars” or the conceptual ambition of the “Alchemy Index” may not be certain, but one thing is: whatever Thrice puts to tape next, people will talk about it for years. That’s because over their tenure as a recording act, they’ve remained remarkably consistent while continuing to change and pursue new sonic avenues.

As of yet, no title, album artwork or track listing have been released, generating an uneasy suspense as the band slowly plots its next move. They can take their time, though; releasing quality music time and time again must be tiring, and everyone can use a breather.

The Art of Restraint and Subtlety

While staring blankly into the grey expanse outside my window, the sounds pouring from the speakers began to envelope the room. Surrounded, seemingly from all sides, I began to feel the swarming noise as if it was a physical entity – something palpable, something real. It might be an odd reaction to have given the particular song playing at the time. Constructed by a plaintive, repeating piano melody and soft, floating vocals, Grouper’s “Clearing” doesn’t seem like the kind of track to swell throughout any space, regardless of size. Sound, however, just like appearances, can be deceiving.

Comprised of only two instruments, “Clearing” serves as a perfect example of the power of restraint in music. Moreso than many songs conjuring tidal washes of reverb-drenched guitars, Grouper’s brand of ambience enveloped and engulfed me in sound. That’s because, unlike so many rock and metal songs from last year, Grouper’s Liz Harris knows how to evoke reaction beyond a racing heart. Rather, Harris applies her expertise towards the more rewarding goal of unraveling heartstrings.

It’s not just Grouper’s Harris who utilizes this approach, of course, but I wish more artists would take the “less is more” philosophy to heart. Every year, it seems as if pop music is becoming more extravagant, as if the music world needs a stronger dose of stimulation. From blaring horns to electric pulses, bombast is the name of the game. Current trends seem to suggest a musical arms race of epic proportions is well underway, and, frankly, that’s the last thing we need more of. Give me a “Pure Heroine” any day of the week over an “Artpop.”

The issue with this continual game of out-stimulating the audience is that these high-octane releases run the risk of desensitizing listeners to more nuanced excitement in music. Subtle transitions, clever chord progressions, and lyrical turns of phrase are all relegated to non-existent backgrounds where music goes to die. That’s what makes releases such as Lorde’s debut album so exciting; instead of emulating peers’ inclination towards higher decibel counts and more instrumentation, Lorde’s “Pure Heroine” opts for a bare-bones aesthetic to deliver her hook-laden songs, working to stunning effect. I’m looking forward to seeing popular artists record against the grain by taking this approach even further. Imagine an album comprised purely of melodic, memorable choruses supported by minimal, acoustic instruments. That may be something of a dream in today’s hyper-active world, but I can keep on dreaming.

How Arbitrary Comparisons Ruin Music

Comparisons are as natural as blinking. As individuals who relate our experiences with new things to our prior experiences, it’s only logical that we approach music in much the same manner, drawing similarities and differences between new and old artists as we hear them. Unfortunately, when comparisons are drawn at rudimentary surface levels, we run the risk of inadvertently delegitimizing upcoming artists with unknown potential. That may seem like a bit of a jump, so let me elaborate.

Throughout my tenure as the self-professed progressive rock nerd king in my formative teenage years, I naturally flocked to the altar of alternative metal legends Tool, who’ve made unmistakable impact on rock music since their inception in the early 90s. Later, I discovered the Australian band Karnivool, and that’s when I first began to see the deadly words scrawled throughout message boards across the internet: “this band is just a Tool knock-off.”

Are they really?

Sure, I could facetiously tell you that both bands make extensive use of guitars, drums and bass, but that wouldn’t get us anywhere. I could even tell you that both bands have exceptional vocalists, but that’s just another strawman. The only sensible rationalization for writing off Karnivool as a mere imitation stems from each band’s proclivity towards progressive instrumentation, utilizing complicated time signatures and extended track lengths with regularity. Perhaps the most damning evidence of all is that, every once in a while, Karnivool will lay down a riff that ”sort of might” sound like a riff Tool would play if Tool were still interested in playing music. The argument ends there, and really, if that is all the evidence Karnivool’s detractors can present, then their case may as well be thrown out the window.

Because, really, no Tool song quite captures the pure adventure of Karnivool’s “Sky Machine,” nor does any Tool song conjure the emotional uplift of the Australian’s epic ballad “New Day.” And, really, when have we ever heard Tool throw down a vocal melody anywhere near as infectious as the chorus of “Themata?” Furthermore, with Karnivool’s latest album, “Asymmetry,” the band has clearly demonstrated a refusal to stagnate, pushing their sound further away from the progressive alt soundscapes that defined their “Sound Awake” era. Tool, on the other hand, opted only to consolidate their established sounds into a concise, if unsurprising, anthology in “10,000 Days.”

The point here isn’t to cut down a band who deserves all the adoration they receive, but to illustrate that Karnivool, like so many bands before them, have been, and continue to be, unfairly maligned to the status of disingenuous doppelgangers. Seattle-based progressive rockers Rishloo have also seen their albums cut down to mere rip-offs, which, to be fair, isn’t a totally invalid argument to make for their first two records. With  2009’s “Feathergun,” though, the band began expanding their soundscapes into new territory, crafting a style that could only be and has distinctively become Rishloo. The band’s fourth album, dropped last December, only reinforced the notion of a band coming to terms with its individuality. Yet, flash forward to the tail-end of January, and comments such as “why should I jam this when I can just jam Lateralus” continue to worm their way into the conversation. It’s a shame, really, because if ears have any credibility as working body parts, there’s no way Rishloo’s “Landmines” can be mistaken for Tool.

Karnivool and Rishloo aren’t the only bands to suffer from these comparisons — they’re just useful examples to illustrate the absurdity. When critics and fans repeatedly slam these surface-level accusations down, the music of upcoming artists is quickly delegitimized. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s certainly one that’s caused a great deal of headaches for bands around the world. How many times have these useless comparisons to Radiohead or Bob Dylan been made? For the sake of new artists aspiring to make it in the godawful state of music industry today, the last thing we need is for more new bands to lose credibility.