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26 November 2013

The Art of the Album

When I'm working, I'll easily listen to 6 or more hours of music a day. Ten years ago, I listened to a *lot* of public radio, which broadened my ear a lot and introducing me to genres ranging from classical jazz to Native American and New Mexican music. Internet radio gave me more choice of stations (I'm now a happy KEXP micro-donor). Finally, there was Rdio (or Spotify, take your pick). Residents of the U.S. got to hear about the wonders of these all-you-can-eat music-as-a-utility services years before they became available here. Complex licensing agreements had to be signed with our musical overlords. But the future has finally arrived, and for $10/month I now have an internet full music (including offline access on phone, $5/mo for just wired computer).

The magic of a high-quality, easily searched and streamed music archive has transformed the way I listen to music. When I hear a song I like, it now takes me less than 30 seconds to find the album and begin playing on my office computer or phone.
There are a few drawbacks - not every album or artist is available (Joanna Newsom is a particularly galling example), and occasionally I find myself without a reliable cellphone or WiFi signal. But these are minor issues. Overall, the ultimate convenience, the *modern-ness* of it all still blows my mind. To me, this is better than a flying car (of course, I don't even own a normal car). And this convenience has, in the last few years, rekindled my love of the art of the album.

It seems to me that independent music in general has benefited from digital distribution by allowing artists to more easily break from the more conventional constraints of genre. I see a lot of experimentation here, running all the way up to the Dirty Projectors' avant-garde classical composition style. Growing up in the 90's, I enjoyed Pearl Jam and Nirvana well enough, but much of the "alternative" music that I listened to at the time sounded (and still sounds) rather similar to my ears, e.g. Grunge. The ones that sounded different really stood out, and I still cherish them for it (I'm looking at you, Pixies). Maybe I'm biased now by access to more music and better DJs, but I find the modern American music scene incredibly vibrant and diverse. Every month, I can look forward to new releases from favorite artists, as well as finding something or someone new to open my eyes and make my day.

What follows is an unordered list of albums that I've recently developed a strong relationship with. These albums cover a wide range of the acoustic/electronic spectrum. I enjoy repetitive, energetic music when I'm working or juggling or cleaning; I love the emotion and classic song-writing of "folk" and "country"; and I love the driving anthems of modern indie. Consequently, I like to think there's "something for everyone" here. And each of these is an *album*, a free-standing work of art worthy of repeated enjoyment in its uncensored, unedited entirety.


Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist (2012)

I'd like to find more music like this: the crossroads between pop and hip hop, independent music that gets radio play, catchy but meaningful. I can think of half a dozen song lyric lines that make great life slogans. Tis is a great album to blast in the car on a warm spring day.

alt-J - An Awesome Wave (2012)

I think of alt-J as the Neutral Milk Hotel of this decade: where the hell did they come from? It's such a beautiful, subtle album that came out of nowhere and bears repetition very well. I beg the gods for more in the future.

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (2012)

I never really got into Daft Punk before this album, and I didn't even like it that much the first few plays. The songs on this album tend towards longish, some of them are slow, and I found myself getting bored. Then I began getting lines stuck in my head, and began dipping back in. In the end, I find this an immensely satisfying sort of pop-EDM-concept-album: a soothing mix of repetitive riffs that aren't too fast or insistent with a backdrop of pop anthem melodies. It strikes me as easy-listening Moby? This album is a little slow form me to "sit down" and listen to, but I find it excellent clean-the-house/driving music.

Phosphorescent - Muchacho (2013)

Rainy day + hot coffee. Sunset and a beer. Just got dumped, fired, graduated, engaged? This is such an extraordinarily luscious, eloquent album. It makes me remember that I have emotions. Lots of them.

Santigold - Master of My Make-Believe (2012)

I always perk up when I hear Santigold singles on the radio, but I was slow to listen to the albums. I like her self-title 2008 album, but it never really got under my skin. The second or third listen of Master, though, and I wanted to know more about this artist. After digging around a bit, I feel like I have a better idea of where she's coming from, and where she's going. The comparison to M.I.A. is inevitable, while the album art for Master suggests something more like Outkast. Master has tons of energy and is packed with pop-friendly riffs. But it's complex, and strikes me as walking the "don't define me" tightrope (or slackline, if you will; you can push *back* on a slackline). I enjoy that it doesn't settle down into a niche and stay there.

Less Obvious:

Shovels and Rope - O' Be Joyful (2012)

In my mental map of Americana, I file this near Wilco and Drive By Truckers. Sometimes slow and sweet, sometimes fast and rambunctious, but always melodic, this album is full of luscious 2-part harmonies with a low-fi, intimate feel. I'm always sad when it ends; I always want more.

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar (2012)

Can I call this indie-Americana? Less of the overt Southern influence of Shovels and Rope, but still full of tight vocal harmonies of country/folk. Apparently they're sisters, and apparently they're young, but this album has a big sound, full of driving melancholy. Playing two or three of their albums back-to-back is particularly satisfying. They seem to be growing as they go, and I'm excited to hear what comes next.

John Grant - Queen of Denmark (2010)

A very good anthem album. I don't often listen or pay attention to lyrics, but Grant has a John Prine-ish storytelling quality, a dark sense of humor and playful irony. Musically, it's tends towards simple, with a fast, light quality that reminds me of Paul Simon's Graceland. Thematically, though, it's a dark album. A far-off hint of redemption shines at the end of the tunnel, but just barely. Whistling in the dark.

Sharon Van Etten - Tramp (2013)

A powerful voice, and a powerful song-writer. This album is mature and intimate, and Van Etten's voice is strong and clear. Tight harmonies and vocal stylings that are luxurious without being excessive. The utterly enrapturing quality of controlled liquid of her voice reminds me a little of the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins, with a bit of Joni Mitchell. In short, she's good.

Matthew Dear - Beams (2012)

My first introduction to Matthew Dear, this album is driving. Repetitive, almost grinding, the samples remind me of smoothed-out, slowed down industrial, or gears-and-grease voodoo. It reminds me of being in the belly of a very large machine. The tone palette is less pure than, say, Daft Punk, with lots of glitches and grinding noises. It's also harmonic, full of discordant melodies. And I *love* it. There are songs that I would love to hear on a dark dance floor in a small, crowded night-club. It's sexy as hell, with a floating touch of loss and nostalgia.

Jagwar Ma - Howlin (2013)

This is a somewhat confusing album. A mix of upbeat chorus-driven pop tunes and beat-and-sample driven pop-EDM, I find it a little schizophrenic at times. In the space of two songs, it goes from an drivingly upbeat guitar-and-vocals sound akin to Django Django's recent album, to something more akin to Caribou's hypnotic samples, with little in the way of transition. The situation reminds me a little of Hot Chip's recent album In Our Heads (which I still find deeply confusing). But Howlin is infectious throughout, with several singles that belong in the "party mix".

Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Megellan (2012)

Beautiful melodies with a glorious sheen of tightly-controlled noise and discord, this approaches classical composition in broad-scale interest and ability to scare off pedestrians at a first listen. There's just enough rhythm and melody, though, to reel a music-lover in until one gains some familiarity with the subtleties. Then the album really starts to open up. To my ear, it's the opposite of a show-stopping dramatic pop album. It's playful and light, and strange, and curious and coy, going from simple to huge and back. It's complex and, sometimes subtly, very satisfying. This is real sit-down-and-listen music, kind of like going to see the symphony.

Junip - Self Title (2013)

It's not unlikely that you've already heard "Your Life Your Call". I'm sure it's in some movie or another, or will be soon. I get shivers every time I hear this song - like the soundtracks of the Breakfast Club and Trainspotting had a mutant child. Jose Gonzales has a number of solo albums (I'm quite fond of his 2005 Veneer - see below), though I never made the connection with Junip myself. His voice is as clear and emotional as ever, but the sound is bigger and more nuanced, a wonderful blend of semi-acoustic and smooth electronic sounds. This is an emotional album - not any *particular* emotion, but all of them, simultaneously, and a lot. Much like Muchacho, listening to it makes me feel decidedly and acutely human.

Yppah - Eighty One (2012)

Driving indie dream-pop, Yppah's sound is reminiscent of Heliosequence with drum machines. Something to get the shoe-gazers moving around!

Less new

but recently discovered or especially noteworthy, albums follow.
I'm ready to wrap this post up, so these get just a brief mention, but they're all worth a good listen.

Caribou - Swim (2010)

Smooth, fast, steady electronic. A masterful album.

Jose Gonzales - Veneer (2005)

Contains a cover of The Knife's song "Heartbeats" that I adore. Close and intimate and lush.

Crystal Castles - Self Title (2008)

One of my current favorite albums. I think of it as glitch-rock. It's more syth-y than punk, but has a lot of similar aesthetic sensibilities: loud, abrasive, driving, and inspiring. I particularly like to cue up all 3 Crystal Castles albums and listen to them in a go. Loudly.

Gold Panda - Lucky Shiner (2010)

Very smooth, incredibly-produced electronic music. Deeply satisfying, good work music.

Franz Ferdinand - Self Title (2004)

Anthemic indie-pop. I'm familiar with most of these songs, and was amazed that that they all came from a single album. Buddy Holly meets Lou Reed?

Jolie Holland - Escondida (2004)

Lead singer of The Be Good Tanyas, Jolie Holland's solo album is intimate and enwrapping.

Juana Molina - Tres Cosas (2004)

Quiet and playful yet insistent percussion is the constant backdrop against which Molina's voice plays. And is it ever playful. Her unassuming Spanish is hypnotizing. She has a new release out that I haven't digested yet, but here's another case where I happily queue up 2 or 3 albums in a row and let them blend effortlessly from one to the next.