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    Profile: Meet the Queer Female MC Who’s Writing Your Favorite Rappers’ Songs

    The video for Puff Daddy & the Family’s recent single “You Could Be My Lover” both is and isn’t what we’ve come to expect from a Diddy clip. It begins with rampant ostentatiousness, as a Versace bathrobe-clad Sean Combs frolics around a palatial estate,teacup in hand. A macho monologue gives way to a player’s anthem: “You can’t be my girl, but you can be my lover” croons a non-committal Ty Dolla $ign, Puff’s womanizing cohort du jour. The two men are surrounded by young models in tiny tops who seem vaguely excited to be there. It looks like a time warp straight out of 1997.

    But then, at the 1:44 mark, a slim, dreadlocked woman enters the frame to spit game to the camera—and to the women flanking her. She’s the MC, not an ornament, wearing a white tee underneath a double-breasted jacket adornedwith regal gold buttons. This is Glenda Proby, aka Gizzle, a 28-year-old rapper who has spent the last few years racking up writing credits on songs for top-tier artists like Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Boosie Badazz, Kevin Gates, G-Eazy, Iggy Azalea, Travis Scott, and T.I., alongside Ty Dolla $ign and Puffy, two of her closest friends and collaborators.

    “You Could Be My Lover” is her first big step from behind the scenes into the spotlight, but there’s a much more concentrated dose of Gizzle’s personality on her own YouTube channel. In a low budget clip from 2011, she reels off a freestyle over Drake’s “The Motto” before sitting down for an interview. “I’ma have an open day when niggas are welcome to come battle me and see me and call me ‘gay’ and ‘a dyke’ and all that shit,” she boasts. “And I’ma just be like, ‘Yeah, and your bitch likes it.’” A male voice off-camera interjects. “A lotta female artists find you intimidating!” Gizzle replies with a wry smile: “And I find them attractive.”

    Though there has been some progress over the last few years, it’s no secret that hip-hop has earned itself a bad rep when it comes to dealing with women and queer folk. Women who rap have often been marginalized and not allowed the diversity of personas afforded to their male counterparts, their images tailored to fit the heterosexual male gaze. Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, and others have used hypersexual images as a Trojan horse to subvert ideas of male dominance and to assert their own agency, but their perceived eroticism has always been a factor in terms of appeal and marketing.

    Thereare exceptions; artists like MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Da Brat, and Missy Elliott have had success without adhering to the stereotypes. But the price of nonconformity is being subjected to rumors and speculation. Until recently, an openly queer female MC with a viable career seemed an impossibility. But even Puffy, a standard bearer for the old guard, believes those days are over—or at least coming to an end. “People underestimate the level of sophistication in hip-hop,” he tells me over the phone. “I don’t think anybody really cares what anybody’s doing in their life or what their personal thing is anymore.”

    The LGBT community hasn’t necessarily arrived—there’s still no openly gay male rapper in the mainstream—but the acceptance and celebration of hip-hop-adjacent artists like the Internet’s Syd tha Kid and Frank Ocean are signs that homophobic attitudes are becoming less prevalent. So too is the buzz surrounding queer up-and-comers like Young M.A, whose breakout single “OOOUUU” has tallied more than 30 million plays over the last few months across YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify.

    Gizzle attributes this shift, in part, to the era of transparency we live in today. “Something that’s supposed to be a flaw about you is becoming the positive now,” says the rapper, who came out when she was 15. “People in general are craving individuality and authenticity.” For her part, Gizzle isn’t interested in crusading to make hip-hop more socially progressive; a more inclusive landscape will be the byproduct of her success. She plans to win not by argument but by action.

    On a sunny, 90-degree spring day in her native Los Angeles, Gizzle isn’t in the company of models or moguls. She’s in her longtime natural habitat—a recording studio. Specifically, Ameraycan Studios in North Hollywood. In sharp contrast to the weather outdoors, the air-conditioned space is freezing, feeling more like a meat locker than a creative haven.Even the engineer is rocking a hoodie.

    Gizzle, however, is at ease. She wears apink long-sleeved chambray shirt buttoned to the neck, tapered black pants, and gold slip-on shoes, her locks swept up in a black headscarf—focused on the task at hand. She’s decided that, after years of putting her polish on the work of others, it’s her time to speak with music of her own. When I enter the studio, she gives me dap and explains that she’s demoing songs for one such personal project, tentatively titled Expo. It’s named after the Exposition Boulevard block in South Central, Los Angeles, where, during her teenage years, she experienced everything from her first kiss with a girl to losing a friend to gun violence.

    One of the songs she’s working on is written from the perspective of her 15-year-old self. She’s petitioning a local dope dealer to put her on: “Dope man, can I ride in your Murciélago?/While your eyes low/I’ma keep watch for 5-0/Just drive slow/Let me take a toke then show me the ropes.” Back then, she was tempted by the street life that some of her friends, and even her father, a Rollin’ 60s Crip, were involved in. “I wanted to do the same shit everybody else was doing, selling drugs and all that,” she explains. “I tried to do it a little bit but I couldn’t really go far in it, because the older people wouldn’t let me in.” That elder class of hustlers always saw something bigger and better for the gregarious young woman withthe outsize personality and a gift for rhyming. Deep down, she saw more for herself too.

    “Most writers just write about what they’re told to write about, but she comes up with the concept. That’s how Pharrell was.”

    —Teddy Riley on Gizzle

    The day after our introduction at Ameraycan, Gizzle takes me on an afternoon tour of her old South Los Angeles stomping grounds. We drive through Jefferson, Leimert Park, and Crenshaw in her Kia sedan. These are the places that made her. The product of a large, closely-knit Belizean-American family, she has a relative-related memory for nearly every local landmark we pass by, like the supermarket where she would pick up Mentos and bubblegum for  her grandmother before church every Sunday. Some places have trauma mixed into the fond memories. The site of a Fatburger she used to frequent is also the place where her dad got shot one time.

    We stop at her grandmother’s old house in Jefferson, a place she hasn’t visited in more than a decade. It once served as a sanctuary for her large family and others, but now it’s in disrepair. A handful of weather-worn, gray-haired black men sit on the porch. Gizzle approaches them and asks permission to look around. A middle-aged white man named Henry, who is missing some teeth, emerges from inside and explains that he’s turning the property into a mission for the downtrodden. A minister, Henry supplies housing and food to the men who live here, all of whom have fallen on hard times. He gives us a tour, and Gizzle takes note of what has changed. When we leave, Henry asks Gizzle to volunteer there some time, and she agrees. As we get in her car, she pauses before pulling off. She breaths deeply, sighs, and composes herself. “[The house] was fucked up, but what he’s doing with it, that purpose? That’s amazing,” she says. It’s the same thing her grandmother intended.

    We travel to a storefront church on Western to see if she can run into a pastor she knew as kid. As soon as we pull up, someone in a black Dodge Charger flags her down. It’s the rapper Jay 305, an old friend of hers who’s quick with his greeting and goodbye since he’s “not supposed to be around here.” Gizzle tells me he’s from a rival neighborhood so spending too much time here could be dangerous.

    Moments later, an elderly homeless man in a deflated down jacket, Mardi Gras beads, and lab goggles wanders down the block. “Cool Breeze, is that you?” Gizzle exclaims before peeling of some bills and telling him to “put that in your stomach.” The man is a neighborhood addict who’s been walking these streets since she was a kid. She tells me that he wasn’t always like that—prior to his addiction he was a “a player, a pimp” with muscles and an eclectic fashion sense.

    After our search for the pastor proves fruitless, we hop in her car and get back on the road, ending up on the stretch of blocks along Exposition Boulevard where she moved when her grandmother passed away. “Right here is where I met my first girlfriend,” she says, pointing to a fourplex across the street. “That’s where I fell in love for the first time. She lived in this building.”

    Gizzle’s teen years were important in terms of her asserting her identity and beginning what would be a career in songwriting. Early on, she earned a name for herself as Lady G Da Real Deal, a prodigious tomboy who was never not rapping. She rapped at school talent shows, lunchtime ciphers, showcases, and to girls she liked over the phone, eventually landing in a studio to record demos with Ruthless Records producer Rhythm D. As Lady G, she traveled throughout Los Angeles and the neighboring San Bernardino County to battle other rappers. Fo’Reel Entertainment’s Cudda Love, then Nelly and Ma$e’s manager, got wind of her talents and asked her to write for his new signee, B2K boy bander Lil Fizz, who was striking out on his own.

    Gizzle had never written for another artist before, but she rose to the occasion and even penned Fizz’s local hit “Beds” on a bus ride. Working on the project took her from a fourplex in South Central to a loft in Beverly Hills on the Fo’ Reel compound while she worked with Cudda and Fizz as a ghostwriter. Gizzle’s first major placement and credited work came under the auspices of her early mentor, legendary producer Teddy Riley, who is her god-brother’s father. Riley had been tapped to help produce Snoop Dogg’s 2008 album Ego Trippin’ and asked Gizzle to help write songs for it.

    “Back then, there were no girls writing for boys,” she recalls. “I wrote full songs that Snoop rapped word-for-word.” Riley was drawn to Gizzle due to her unique ability to not only execute but also to conceptualize—a rare talent. “I’ve witnessed Snoop Dogg say, ‘Lady G what would you do? What’s your take on this?’” says Riley over the phone. “Most writers just write about what they’re told to write about, but she comes up with the concept. That’s how Pharrell was.”

    “She’s a one-of-one. If you’re trying to do the same thing everybody else is doing, it’s probably not the best use of her time. You need that unique type of perspective, especially if you’re trying to do something that’s going to shake the game up.”

    —Diddy on Gizzle

    Back in the studio, the engineer sits behind the track board and plays a beat that Gizzle is writing to. Pen and pad are present, but she’s mostly going back and forth to the vocal booth without them, filling in blanks on a song called “Broad Day,” its title a reference to the shooting of her teenage friend Dion in her old South Central neighborhood. She’s got a flow for the song and some of its lyrics, but the rest is rhythmic gibberish. Like a sculptor working with clay, she shapes and reshapes, adds and subtracts until unintelligible sounds become words and those words become a verse and then a chorus and another verse.

    Off in the far corner of the room is a white board with the words “NO FEAR, ONLY FOCUS” written beneath lists of projects and recording priorities—some related to her own work and the work of her Turn It Up collective, some of it is songwriter-for-hire work. With the engineer’s help, she cuts and pastes the best takes of each verse and chorus together to take the song a few steps closer to completion.

    This technique is only one from an arsenal of approaches she developed while helping to write songs like Trey Songz’s “Fumble,” Travis Scott’s “Never Catch Me,” and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Saved.” Ty$, who has worked with Gizzle since 2008, is drawn to her open-mindedness and versatility as a writing partner. “She can talk about anything,” he says. “I fuck with her on every level when it comes to writing. She’s just not afraid to say shit.” Though she’s one of just a handful of women writing for men in hip-hop, for Ty$, her identity as a queer woman is an advantage: “You know she gets both sides ’cause Gizzle got bitches too!”

    The creation of a song is a mysterious—even mystical—thing. Few artists are inclined to speak publicly about the intricacies of songwriting and production. And there’s another layer of opacity to that already arcane process when it comes to hip-hop, where working with writers has historically come with a stigma—even though MCs have rapped words written by others at least since 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Because of hip-hop’s fixation on “realness” and first-person narratives, the songwriter’s role has often been obscured. Relegated to the role of ghostwriter, the names of hip-hop songwriters were either buried in convoluted credits or simply not listed at all—their compensation paying for both their talents and anonymity.

    But as last year’s Meek Mill vs. Drake beef showed us, attitudes toward the use of songwriters have softened. At this point, it seems as though the collective opinion of music fans is: If it’s hot, who cares?

    One of Gizzle’s biggest advocates—a man who famously rapped “don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks”—agrees. “At the end of the day it’s about the hit record and do people love it?” says Diddy. “Nothing else really matters.” Somewhat ironically, Gizzle met Puff through Meek Mill after she and the Philly rapper worked on what would become Nicki Minaj’s “Big Daddy” in 2014. Soon after, Gizzle began working with Puff on his MMM and No Way Out 2 albums. “She’s a one-of-one,” he says.“If you’re just trying to get on the radio and do the same thing that everybody else is doing, it’s probably not the best use of her time. You need that unique type of perspective, especially if you’re trying to do something that’s going to shake the game up.”

    Even when it comes to writing songs for others, Gizzle’s work is bespoke, not the one-size-fits-all approach taken by other pens for hire. Instead of adhering to label checklists, she tries to get inside the heads of the artists she works with. And interpreting a rapper or singer’s creative goal means taking an immersive approach: “I’ll be over here talking with them, and then actually hanging out and partying with them and knowing exactly what they on.” Though she’s written complete songs for artists, she makes it clear that she often plays a smaller role in a song’s creation. “If I work on a song with T.I. or Kanye or Jay Z, don’t think I’m writing these mans’ raps!”

    For Gizzle, a songwriter need not be the one who comes up with all the lyrics and melody by herself. In the studio with clients, she moves between the roles of writer, coach, editor, idea person, and the one who simply sets the mood for optimal creativity. “I’ll do whatever my role calls for me to do,” she says. “So if that’s just coming through with the ambiance or giving my support, like, ‘That shit’s hard’ or ‘You can do that shit better,’ I’m into all of that.” Most great things are the result of a concerted effort, and songs are no different: “People can’t be narrow-minded about what the actual process is—there are very few hit songs where you only see one or two names in the credits.”

    Of course, it’ll take hits of her own for Gizzle to become the star she wants to be. On a brief break between song work, we discuss the future. “I’ma put out quality shit and if you fuck with it, you fuck with it. If you don’t, then nigga, it doesn’t matter ’cause I’m comin anyway,” she says in between bites of fruit, recalling the same self-assuredness she showed in that YouTube video five years ago.

    As it stands, she’s got the talent, connections and access that’ll set her up for success; she’s currently part of Puffy’s Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour and plans to release her proper debut album early next year. But what if her plan doesn’t work and her unique perspective doesn’t translate to the masses? “Then I’m just gonna pack up and quit—sike!” she says. Her goal isn’t to be the richest, best rapper alive. “I’m hard working so I want to be compensated as such,” she reasons. “I’m very good, and I just want to make good music.” We chat for another five minutes until she excuses herself and strides back to the vocal booth. It is time to work.

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    Rising: DJ Earl: The Future of Footwork

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    Interview: The Survivor: A Conversation With M.I.A.

    The following story is featured in the latest issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review. Subscribe to the magazine here. M.I.A. is also one of the headliners for this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival Paris in October.

    M.I.A. isn’t done talking. We are nearly an hour into a phone interview, the second of two, and her publicist beeps into the line, telling her that there are other calls to be made. But M.I.A. has something to say and, publicist be damned, she’s going to say it. We had spent most of our time discussing her new album AIM—a breezy jaunt of self-empowered odes to brushing off the haters, but then, through some invisible collaboration between two people as addicted to the language of controversy as everyone else in the world, our chat steers towards her most recent slew of contentious comments, the ones that got her dropped from this year’s Afropunk festival in London. “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter,” she told a British newspaper in April. “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question.”

    On the phone, she draws out every single languid syllable, attempting to explain her words in a way that would be more clear this time than it was before. And it is. Sort of. “I’m not going to get pushed into some corner for saying the truth,” she tells me. “If people don’t like it, they can fucking sit down. But I still stand by my view.”

    This is not the first time Maya Arulpragasamhas had to defend herself, but if AIM is any indication, it might be the last. Though the album’s musical DNA is nearly retrospective in sound, adhering to and revitalizing the poppy electro rap that has long been her staple, for the first time in a while, she sounds like she’s really having a good time. Her career has sometimes been overwhelmed by her penchant for acting outrageously, whether flipping off the cameras while performing with Madonna at the Super Bowl or continuously making comments about the Sri Lankan civil war that could seem careless, even though it’s a subject dear to her heart as a refugee from the country. And, in recent years, her music has sounded bogged down, too. Her first two albums were incredibly promising templates for the future of global pop, including the radio-renewing smash “Paper Planes,” but her middle period has been more scattered, from the aggressive distortions of her 2010 album Maya to the joyously perfect 2012 single “Bad Girls.”

    AIM is less extreme on either end: It’s something you could imagine putting on before a night out. A palate cleanser. When I tell her on the phone that it’s an album that makes me want a cocktail, she takes it as a compliment. Songs are called “Foreign Friend” and “Finally” and “Survivor,” and she’s assembled producers like Skrillex, Blaqstarr, and ex boyfriend/nemesis Diplo for beats. On album highlight “Freedun” there are even guest vocals by crooner heartthrob Zayn Malik, who helps her sing a saccharine (but totally effective) love song about stars shining and hearts beating. The first single and video, “Borders,” is a bristling statement about the refugee crisis around the world, but throughout the rest of the album, the hooks are light, the beats are sparkling, and the swinging lyrics speak to tenacity and confidence and unbothered cool: “Dinosaurs died out and I’m still strong/A little bit of fun, yeah, I don’t see it wrong.”

    Which is to say there’s something of that original M.I.A. spark on here, the spark that made us all fall in love with a self-taught DIY artist who hustled her way through fashion college after living in a London council flat. She was the very first hipster pop star for a generation that has now created a space for many of them, from Robyn to Grimes to FKA twigs. She incorporated sounds from all over the world in a way that epitomized the internet’s turn-of-the-century promise. She wore neon ’80s hand-me-downs and bright British fashion when everyone else was still trying to look like the Strokes. She talked about immigration and social issues before “woke” was even a glimmer in the eyes of most musicians. Simply: For all her zigging and zagging, M.I.A. has been a massively consequential artist, and mostly we are better for it.

    Calling from Mumbai, where she is filming a music video, she sounds inspired and relaxed. Even though the talk occasionally meanders into more pointed subjects, she sounds at peace with her life and her art and the world at large. In light of Donald Trump and Brexit and a refugee crisis that seems to have no end in sight, her newfound zen is surprising. But at 41, she has found a way forward, even if she still wanders off the trail from time to time.

    “In order for you to sell a lot of fucking records, you have to basically get rid of all the politics. At the end of the day, that is the choice I had.”

    Pitchfork: On this new record, you sound almost carefree, like you’re finally having a lot of fun in your life and music. It’s different from your last couple of albums, which were quite serious.

    M.I.A.: Am I carefree? Yeah. I’m not all serious. Damn. I am having fun. And it is about being human at the end of the day. You have to deal with yourself. The world is really crazy right now, and I feel like I’ve dealt with all that on my records: You can put Arular or Kala on and get the soundtrack to pretty much what is happening around the planet now. But after you get past [the craziness of the world], then you’re going to need something to put on that connects to the basic human. If you forget all the political problems—not really forget, but understand—there has to be something beyond that. If you want to know what it feels like to be in the fight, you can listen to albums one or two. This album is just me actually accepting that life is just so bizarre.

    There’s parts that are even silly, like “Bird Song.” Were you looking for a certain kind of musical looseness?

    On this one, I wasn’t like, “Oh my god, I have to go to the cutting-edge thing.” I just wanted to go with what felt good on the day I was listening to it. It was very casual. I didn’t want to make anything too electronic and EDM-y. And I just wanted to reference what I’d done before, and not really care about creating anything new. Just being comfortable with things you’ve created, and genres you’ve explored, instead of trying to run with it and be somewhere making some weird music, and somebody else comes along and makes a commercial song and then it becomes acceptable two years later. It was just about getting all these people together on the record. There’s a nice mixture of all races on there. There’s black, white, and brown. This album just needs to be not a black thing, not a white thing, just the right thing. That’s the slogan.

    How did you go about writing lyrics for this album?

    I’d go bop about and go to barbecues, hang out, go to a party or do something that made me really fucking happy, and then I’d write a song. When I was really happy, I’d be like, “I gotta go now.” And then I’d be by myself for a couple hours and I’d write a song and then come back to wherever I left.

    You can hear that family-reunion vibe on “Bird Song,” especially the remix by Diplo, who you’ve feuded with pretty publically. How did you two patch things up?

    There’s a lot of water under the bridge, and if I can get on with him and he can get on with me after everything that has happened, that’s a lot of hope for this world. He used to have dart boards with my face on it on his rider [laughs]. I was like, “I know that I should stab you, and you probably still want to stab me, but if we get on, that’s actually quite a cool thing. And I just gotta believe in that thing. I don’t want to take bitterness to the grave and hate you.” And he’s like that, too. It was 50-50. We’re going to start from scratch. If I’m saying to people, “Yeah everyone should tolerate each other,” then I have to live by example. Rather than try to be a ’90s rapper where I go, “Yeah, we’re trying to kill each other,” I have to show some way to get past that. Because life is so much bigger than that shit.

    It’s kind of funny to hear you sound so relaxed about life.

    This is a weird one, this album. It’s like cleaning out your closet. And not having so much baggage.

    Maybe you can relax because you finally feel accomplished: You have told the world to look at the refugee crisis your entire career, and now it’s become a much more dominant mainstream political conversation.

    My family said that to me. They were like, “The world has gone M.I.A.” At one point, I was just not really ready to go back into the game. If your music was inspiring people to think and talk about it, and now it’s being thought about and talked about, then it’s like, “OK, you’ve done your job, you can walk away.” But then I would have made this record to be the record you come to after you're done talking about it. Because after all that, something good comes out of it and some bad comes out of it. You still have to pick up the pieces and survive, whichever way the wind falls. I wanted to show that strength is pretty universal, and it’s in everyone. My mind’s been tested a lot, and some of that could have been because of my ignorance and it could have been my own doing. But most of it wasn’t. Most of my fight was really [about] something that is out there.

    Do you still believe that music can actually make a difference?

    Yeah. When I see clever girls—girls who are smart and can do everything else and they’re conscious—I think I contributed something to that.

    I see a lot of your influence in FKA twigs and Grimes.

    I love them as artists, but I feel like I almost want to protect them. I wouldn’t want them to approach or talk about politics, because they do something to me aesthetically that makes me escape. And I think you need artists to serve that purpose. Actually, Michael Jackson is the ultimate entertainer in the world, but he was really political too. I don’t know. Maybe we all have some sort of fragileness and outsiderness. Basically it’s tough to stand up to a lot of stuff unless you are actually coming from a lot of crazy shit.

    A lot of people talk about how every time you came super close to a mainstream audience, you flipped off all of America at the Super Bowl or said something that you must’ve known would piss people off. But at this point, do you look back and think you self-sabotaged intentionally, even subconsciously? Did you not want fame?

    That’s not true. It’s not about that. You do want to benefit people the most. The only thing I would say to that is that I could have shut up and put the glass slippers on and made millions of dollars. I could have made a ton of money and then helped build a school. But I wondered if that really worked. And at that time, I was like, Can I sell? Because in order for you to sell a lot of fucking records, you have to basically get rid of all the politics. At the end of the day, that is the choice I had. I’d come up talking about the refugee situation. And in 2009, I had a baby, and a month after my baby was born, they basically destroyed a lot of Tamil people in the space of two weeks [in the Sri Lankan Civil War]. It was really, really difficult to go through that. It’s not really self-destruction. What the fuck do you do with the power after that? What do you do with the money after that? It just didn’t make sense.

    In May, you tweeted that you don’t have a visa to get into America. Are you still having troubles with that?

    I don’t know, you tell me. Can I hire you to investigate?

    You’ve submitted an application and you can’t get a response?

    Yeah. I don’t know what’s happening with my visa. It’d be nice to meet Interscope and go and sit down and present the album. But it’s a crazy time in America right now, which is why I can’t really talk about what’s happening in America on the album, because I’m not really there.

    Before this interview, your publicist told me that you didn’t want to discuss American politics.

    I don’t want to talk about America on this album because the only thing I have to offer is what somebody is thinking from outside. I’m not trying to have the same perspective as an American person from inside America. Because I’m not that. It’s OK to have somebody who has a perspective from the outside. It was really interesting to say something and have everyone sort of turn on me and go, “Oh my god, you’re the grossest human being.” Because I was like, “No actually, from the outside, this is normal.”

    Are you speaking about your recent comments about Black Lives Matter—that American pop stars should speak up about the refugee crisis more?

    When I said, “Oh, American artists can’t say this and this and talk about global world issues.” Sometimes my perspective doesn’t relate to the one from inside America because I’m not there. I’m actually from the outside of America and I should be allowed to have that opinion and that dialogue. We do have different circumstances, different demographics, different experiences, different cultural things going on. I just felt like, at this point, it is important to listen to more perspectives around the world on this. Or just generally about anything.

    So you were trying to say that we need American stars to stand up for the rights of refugees because there aren’t Syrian ones who can?

    Exactly. Because we’re going to be waiting. It’s annoying that I have to come out of retirement to tell you this. But that is the deal. This was my point: Either you expand yourself if you’re going to represent the world, or let more people from the world come in and expand it for you. America is the person with the distribution platform and they are the ones that make icons on that level. When I open up my YouTube in India, in Scandinavia, in Bhutan, I’m going to get the same YouTube clips from the front page, which is American artists. They do have to step into where we are now. We’re not in the ’90s—we are now, and this is what’s happening. Not everyone on earth sees the world from the American perspective. There are seven billion people on the planet that have their own experiences and ideas. And that’s what I was saying, and everybody was only digesting me through their mirror and their view.

    It’s cool. In order to understand the real, you have to poke the situation. You might get into a scrap, you might have to take a few punches. But that’s the only way you truly know the situation. America on the whole is a privileged space for the rest of the world. And I think people forget that. From my perspective, when I see American artists, I think they are in a country where they can make that shit possible. They have the platform to do that. So if they wanted to raise awareness of something else in the world, they shouldn’t shy away from it, because they are very much a part of all of these cases. And you can’t deny that.

    Let me approach it in another way, then: Since you’ve gotten so much heat in the past for things you’ve said, why not start parsing your words a little differently?

    You know what, I’m satisfied with my fucking work. I’m interested in humanity and human beings. I want to do something positive. That is it. I don’t care what fucking color you are. I don’t care what fucking class you are. I don’t care what geographical place you come from. I want to contribute to the present day. I think I’ve contributed. My work is born out of ideas coming together and people coming together and cultures coming together and colors coming together and music coming together. You have to tolerate that. That’s the future. Being tolerant is the future. It’s not being segregated.

    But the world right now sometimes feels like it’s moving in a more divided direction. Were you surprised by Brexit?

    I’m surprised. Immigrants seem to be the hot topic and the very tool that’s being used in order to create the division. And the whole immigrant refugee community is a really multi-faced, multi-faceted one. So right now, that image is being twisted because it’s got a very specific face on it—“refugee” has a really specific picture to it right now. But it’s not specific. It’s made up of so many different cultures and colors. Using that to create division is totally contradictory.

    Why do you think all this xenophobia is fermenting right now?

    I have no idea. But what’s happening is massive. Human beings have to zoom out and look at the space on a much bigger level.

    So are you worried?

    Umm, nah.

    How are you not worried about the state of the world right now?

    Because you can’t stop things from happening. You can’t control it. That’s one thing I can tell everyone. As the type of artist I am, and the ups and downs and the fights I’ve had in public, I never stand still and never accept that I’ve got to the destination and that this is it and now I’m going to put my feet up. I’ve never had that mentality. Evolution happens. It’s inevitable. There’s epic movement right now on the planet. It’s really refreshing to me now that I can sit back and go, “Thank God. I was really honest about what I was.” This is all I can do. I can honestly say from my life experience—even as an artist, even as a rapper, even as all these things—that I was constantly bombarding my head against loads of issues. I have gained all this knowledge through personal experience. I’m not getting this because it’s a fad. I’m not doing it because it’s a trend or because I heard somebody else say it. I’m telling you this is my personal experience. That shit fucking happens, but you fucking survive it if you want to fucking survive it.

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    Rising: Why the World Needs Emel Mathlouthi’s Anthems Against the Dictatorship Machine

    Emel Mathlouthi: "Ensen Dhaif" (via SoundCloud)

    Emel Mathlouthi’s vision of protest music is searingly contemporary. This much was clear at a private French high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side earlier this year, where an auditorium full of formally-attired parents and kids watched her perform. Mathlouthi’s set began in utter darkness; thundering beats and incendiary electronic textures abounded. Her movements onstage could be ominous—sometimes pirouetting, sometimes lurking menacingly around her bandmates, as if breaking down with each step like a modern dancer.

    One song, “Ensen Dhaif,” was dedicated to “people that have to carry the weight and all the struggles so that a very small percentage can enjoy the power.” Sentiments like this charge everything the 34-year-old does. In the North African country of Tunisia, where she is from, the singer became a voice of the Arab Spring uprising in 2010. For years before, some of her songs had been effectively banned from radio and TV in her home country, but “Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)” managed to become an anthem. “We are free men who are not afraid,” it goes. “We are the secrets that never die/And we are the voices of those who resist.”

    Around that time, Mathlouthi defied popular logic by speaking up during her concerts. “I think there is no scene too small nor too closed to speak about human rights, for our dignity,” she said from the stage on the eve of the revolution. Videos would soon spread online of her singing “Kelmti Horra” in the streets, and, at the end of last year, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee invited her to perform the song at their annual ceremony in Oslo.

    Emel Mathlouthi performs her song “Kelmti Horra” as part of the Arab Spring protests in 2011.

    When Mathlouthi uses the word “revolution” in the context of her music, it means something. At her high school gig, she referred to “Kelmti Horra” as “one of these songs that helps people during difficult moments to keep some hope for the future, for themselves, so they can keep going after the dictatorship machine.” At another point, she picked up an acoustic guitar for a stark solo cover of Björk’s “All Is Full of Love.” She dedicated a song to the Syrian refugees, and yet another was a “tribute to pen and paper,” which she prefaced by declaring her need to “defend my right to be recognized for the music I do, even though I’m not from a mainstream country” with a “mainstream language.” Mathlouthi sings in Arabic, as her strident voice mixes with haunting minor scales and traditional North African instruments and rhythms.

    The academic setting at Lycée Français de New York might have felt unusual for other artists—a rather reserved place to see such an unhinged and fluid performance—but Mathlouthi and her music have something clear to teach. There’s also a French connection: Starting in 2007, she lived in the country for seven years, honing her voice as an artist-in-residence at Paris’ La Cité internationale des Arts (though she began writing protest songs at 20, after forming a goth metal band at engineering school).

    Mathlouthi shows off her dark and theatrical style at a Brooklyn show last year.

    Recalling the years leading up to her move to France, Mathlouthi tells me, “There was no future for me and for millions of young Tunisians. It was the death in arts, in culture. Everybody was scared. From a dictatorship, it evolved into a mafia controlling everything in the country. It looked like it was kept stable on the surface, but was a volcano about to erupt.”

    In the 1990s, under the regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia endured the mass incarceration of political activists and the essential death of free speech. Tracing the development of her own political consciousness, Mathlouthi mentions how, growing up, her father was imprisoned “for his opinions”; he was fired from his job and for 23 years had to commute to the middle of the country for work, far from the family’s home. This oppressive reality galvanized her.

    In 2010, across North Africa and the Middle East, the Arab Spring protests were set off by the suicide of a young Tunisian fruit seller named Mohame Bouazizi, who set himself on fire after the police demanded that he remove his stand. By 2011, the revolts—protesting widespread unemployment among youth, corrupt officials, poverty, and human rights—had overthrown the longtime regime of Ben Ali. Since then, unrest in the region has persisted, though the promise of the revolution has waned. But in contrast to the anarchic conflict in other Arab countries, Tunisia remains a bright spot, “a budding democracy,” according to a recent AP story.

    Emel Mathlouthi: "All Is Full of Love" (Björk cover) (via SoundCloud)

    Mathlouthi’s international debut, 2012’s Kelmti Horra, played like industrial folk, bearing out influences of the East and West ranging from political Egyptian composer Sheikh Imam to Dylan to Björk. Her forthcoming second album, Ensen, due out early next year through Partisan and her own label, Little Human, realizes her epic, gorgeously ornamented vision even further. Ensen—which means “human”—was recorded in seven different locales, including Reykjavik, Stockholm, rural France, and New York City, where she currently lives with her husband and young daughter. She worked with four different producers on the record, including one-time Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson, and it sounds as if the work she’d begun many years ago in Tunisia has finally coalesced. “I just wanted to connect all these dots,” she says. (The album will be preceded by live shows in U.S. and Europe this fall.)

    Clad in turquoise, gold jewelry, and a flowing dark red skirt, Mathlouthi speaks with me over tea at her Harlem apartment, full of records and Christmas lights and vibrant colors. It feels like stepping into the beautifully adorned world of her songs. We discuss her history and the struggle to maintain her identity while moving beyond the limits of what we call world music. Her enthusiasm is as magnetic, inviting, and urgent as her sound. Listening to her talk for the better part of two hours felt not even half as long.

    “The best argument of the regime was that they made Tunisia beautiful, like what Trump is saying now—they ‘made Tunisia great.’ So when somebody comes and speaks up and says, ‘No, Tunisia is not great! Tunisia is awful! Tunisia is suffering!’ that was, like, the worst thing ever [to them].”

    Photo by Julien Bourgeois

    Pitchfork: What was your music career like in Tunisia before you moved to Paris?

    Emel Mathlouthi: I started singing when I was 10. I saw Celine Dion on TV and thought, I can do that too! I didn’t learn music. I didn’t have a guitar or a computer, but I would go to my room and try to make sounds from anything I could find. I took a tambourine that my mom used to teach with and pierced holes in it and tried to see how it could shake—messing with things, making music that sounds like mistakes.

    Until I was 19, it was a very far away dream. When people would ask me, “What do you want to do?” I would say, “Well… maybe it sounds crazy... but I want to be a singer.” I didn’t know how to do it. We’re still very far behind [in Tunisia]. If you’re not doing variety music you can’t get anywhere, and I didn’t want to sing at any weddings.

    My career started by performing at colleges. It was the best audience—all the young people were starving for new sounds, for music, for good things. And we didn’t really have surveillance. My first real concerts were in this theater called El Teatro, which was kind of left alone by the regime; they knew that there was some kind of movement, but somehow they also didn’t know what was really going on. They were really stupid, the government. They didn’t encourage anything smart or creative, and that was enough to stop anything from blooming. But I started doing concerts and saw that something could happen. People were boiling.

    In Tunisia, there was a lot of talent, but back then—and maybe still a bit now—people were not encouraged to realize their passions. There was no support. It was really hard to be a fulfilled musician. I couldn’t be who I am or sing what I sing or do what I do if I didn’t start in Tunisia, but at some point, I said, “OK, I need to leave.”

    What did it mean for you to make music in that environment?

    It was necessary for me to stay sane. I wasn’t born to a particularly poor family. I wasn’t rich, but I was eating when I was hungry. I was dressed OK. I haven’t been in prison. I haven’t been tortured. But, as a young Tunisian, you weren’t allowed to express yourself. In everyday situations, everybody around you is like, “to be a good person, just follow.” I was so angry about all of that from a very early age. At some point you discover that you can embrace something in which you can fulfill your rage. And then there was no other way to be. I just needed to be useful—to myself and to others. I needed to speak about truth and to find a way to have truth around me, and that way was music.

    Photo by Julien Bourgeois

    Your music was banned in Tunisia in the early 2000s—they wouldn’t play it on the radio, and you couldn’t play festivals. How did you first become aware of that?

    It’s just so obvious, actually, because when you start writing songs like that, the first person you show it to is going to go: “You’re going to have trouble.” Your parents are going to tell you, “You’re not doing this! It’s crazy!” So there’s that first censorship before the government censorship. There was no way I could go to a big festival. I went to the radio a few times, but I was asked not to sing [specific] songs. Like, [condescending voice] “Hey, you’re a good girl. You know what’s going on. So you should sing that one. That one is perfect.” And they would cut you off.

    At that point, what about your songs seemed so threatening?

    I sang about not being able to express yourself—like living in prison. Some other time, there was a concert for AIDS. So, of course, I speak between the songs, and there was a song in which I say, “poor Tunisia.” And that was, like, the worst thing ever. The best argument of the regime was that they made Tunisia beautiful, like what Trump is saying now—they “made Tunisia great.” So when somebody comes and speaks up and says, “No, Tunisia is not great! Tunisia is awful! Tunisia is suffering!” that was, like, the end. There were two guys who called me and said, “Who are you? What are you doing?”

    From the government?

    Yes. They said, “We’re taking care of artists and would like to know more about you. Who writes the songs for you?” They tried to shake me a little bit. They threatened me in an indirect way—like, “We’re the ones who decide if you should exist as an artist, so you better be good to us and don’t say shit about Tunisia.”

    There were people watching everywhere, that’s what we quickly learn as a teenager growing up in Tunisia. You never know who’s behind your back ready to report on your actions, so obviously there had to be undercover police when I sang at a concert and talked about AIDS in Tunisia. Those guys could be anybody, anywhere. They didn’t arrest musicians, but it was just so difficult—I mean, it was impossible. I didn’t want to give up so I just had to leave.

    There were a few journalists on the radio who would sometimes try to put some of my songs on early in the morning or late at night. But “Kelmti Horra” was banned when the revolution started, and there was no way “Poor Tunisia” could be played. Some journalists started writing articles saying that I was a bad singer, that I was saying bullshit. When I started growing, they started attacking me. One of them approached me and said, “Why do you sing that?” She was yelling at me: “You’re not allowed to sing things like that, that’s wrong, you’re a liar.”

    Did that reaction make you want to work harder?

    Oh yeah. After the ’70s and ’80s, there had been a void in protest music in the Arab world; [in Tunisia] with the new government that came in 1987, there was nothing. It’s not very common to have social and political artists in the region because of the presence of dictators. There were some strong artistic movements in the ’60s and ’70s in Lebanon and Egypt, but the new generations didn’t really follow up. By the ’90s, all the young Arabs were definitely tamed, not aiming to have an opinion or change things. So when I started singing even Joan Baez songs, people were like, “Wow, how did you know about this? How do you even have a conscience? How is that possible?”

    The problem is that activist music is very boring actually, or very simple. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be a musician, too. I’m not a politician. I’m a singer first. I like Sinéad O’Connor, for example, because she really succeeded being a wonderful singer—you could listen to anything she would sing—but at the same time, she had this very strong link with her country. I think it’s possible to be both. From the early days, I was very interested in being totally free and singing in many different ways, and not just being beautiful or singing nice melodies.

    Emel Mathlouthi: "Ya Tounes Ya Meskina (Poor Tunisia)" (via SoundCloud)

    As a teenager were you more interested in Western music?

    Yeah. I met my first band when I was 19 at engineering school. Of course, none of us went to classes. We were a metal band. First it was Nirvana, Metallica, and all the ’90s grunge stuff. I was totally heavy metal and goth, and I hated singing in Arabic and I hated Arabic music. Eventually, my brain started maturing. At some point I felt that I needed to do more. Not just singing, but having a purpose. Especially when I listened to the folk scene here and Joan Baez. I said, “That’s exactly what I want to do!”

    My dad has a lot of vinyl, especially a lot of classical music. I’ve always liked having strings. I really love the old Tunisian music from 1900-1950. It was a great period. People were really free. Even women would sing in a way that was revolutionary in how they used their voices, and the topics they used to sing—cigarettes, whiskey, hanging out with their lover.

    What other artists inspired you?

    Basically there are two main, very important musicians in the Arab alternative scene: Marcel Khalife, from Lebanon, and Sheikh Imam, from Egypt. Sheikh Imam was blind and he sang and played oud. He used to be very activist and he worked with a poet, who would write very strong lyrics. They were poor, so they had no choice but to write against the regime, for the farmers and the students. He composed, and they would sing, and then they would go to prison. They would write more songs in prison, and then go and sing, and then return to prison. He got really huge in Tunisia during the ’70s. So when I listen to him, I thought, What the fuck? This guy is huge! His music sounded like metal to me. For the Arab scene, he’s not considered a very serious musician and composer, which is completely wrong. He was doing all these harmonies. He was revolutionary. He really gave me energy.

    Marcel Khalife was also very famous for his political positions. He was a part of the communist party in Lebanon. He was also, like me, very influenced by European classical music. Even his early songs, with just oud and voice—for me, he was a parallel to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. So I started singing his songs, transposing everything on the guitar.

    Then I started discovering the folk scene from the States and the psychedelic scene and Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. All of these things really talk to me.

    Do you feel like there’s anything about the music you’re making now that’s distinctly Tunisian?

    Growing up in Tunisia made me wonder: What does being Tunisian mean? It wasn’t very easy for me to understand; we were Arabs, but I couldn’t really put it in words. We speak Tunisian, which is a dialect made of essentially Arabic mixed with words coming from different roots, like Berber or Turkish, and influenced by the arrivals of Italian and Spanish migration and French colonization. I think each one of us at some point has had an identity crisis. Being so close and culturally influenced by southern Europe and also being somehow a different kind of Arab than in the Middle East made me ask a lot of questions. It wasn’t easy to know what made me different from anyone else or from the culture that I inherited. Eventually it got a little better through my perpetual spiritual and artistic search. Being Tunisian is special in its own way, through its different and very rich connections by being an Arab, African, and Mediterranean country.

    When I travelled to Paris, it became very important to me to define who I was. When you leave your country, you find out that you need to be somebody or you just feel lost. That’s how I ended up doing what I’m doing now. I take instruments from the folklore and the traditional music, very North African, very Tunisian instruments like the traditional bass, the gimbri, and all the percussions, the rhythms. The gnawa music is a trance music. It’s like the blues. It was music brought by slaves. So it has a lot of metal in it.

    When I started working on the gimbri basslines on my album, I thought to add distortion to it so it would sound great and huge and unlike anything else. It won’t sound like Tunisian music because it will have my approach, and it won’t sound like electronic music because it’s coming from my home.

    Photo by Julien Bourgeois

    You lived in Paris, but when the Arab Spring happened, you went back to Tunisia. There are videos of you singing in the street that are amazing.

    In 2010, for the first time of my life, I had three gigs booked in Tunisia. I’d never had the opportunity to sing in a place other than the capital. So I was really excited. And when I went there, the revolution started. I had this Tunisian blogger and activist with me on the road, and she was like, “This guy set himself on fire today.” I was singing that night, and the guy who was organizing the concert was like, “Listen, be a good girl. I don’t want to lose my job. I’m sure you have a pretty voice. I’m sure you’re going to find very nice songs to sing tonight.” But my band just looked at each other and we said, “Let’s do it. We don’t have any choice. We have to sing those songs.”

    At some point I took the mic and said, “Somebody set himself on fire, and some people are fighting for their lives now while nobody from the government apparently cares. We have to support these people because they’re just asking for work. They’re just asking for dignity.” Then we hit the road and came back to the capital and took part in the first protests. I was like, “Wow, this is really finally happening.” I didn’t believe that it would happen while I was still alive.

    How did it feel in that moment to be singing your songs there?

    It was what I’d always dreamed about.

    Footage from the 2010 concert in Tunisia where Mathlouthi spoke out in support of those fighting for change as part of the Arab Spring.

    How did you channel all of this into your new songs on Ensen?

    This record is really about how we can be very vulnerable and be the force of this world at the same time. We have to connect with our humanity. It’s also a trip into my psyche and soul, and there’s a lot of abstraction. I like to play with the words as much as I play with sounds, to express the contrast that can be in me as a woman, but also as a Tunisian woman, as a musician, as a singer. There’s softness but there’s also fire.

    I came to New York and started working with my friend, and we recorded the traditional instruments and percussions. We even recorded my Christmas tree, my necklaces, my notebooks, every kind of thing we could find. I was just looking and shaking things, and we started to see this is a path that is necessary when you work on music: You have to make everything possible, not necessarily with money, but from scratch.

    I started approaching labels when I finished. It was really hard. I didn’t want to go to the world music scene. I got tired of always having that stamp. But the  problem is that, as soon as the indie and electronic labels hear Arabic singing, they say: “Oh OK, world music.” At the same time, world music labels are like: “Oh my god, this is too different.” So I found myself like those people whose parents are immigrants, so they will never be considered really American or French, and when they go to Tunisia they aren’t really Tunisian either. It would be like sitting on two chairs.

    It seems cynical for a label to think people wouldn’t like music just because it’s sung in another language.

    Sometimes people get so interested that they say, “You should have the translation, we would love to know more about the lyrics.” But music is not about reading a book. Music is just about just letting yourself go. I’m talking about things, but I’m interested in letting them be interpreted. You can find some syllables to connect with; when you want to have a connection, you can have it.

    Emel Mathlouthi: "Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)" (via SoundCloud)

    You appeared in the documentary No Land’s Song—which was made by an Iranian filmmaker who staged a concert by all female solo singers. (In Iran, it’s illegal for women to sing alone onstage; female singers legally can only perform alongside a man.) I was so moved by it—there is so much fearlessness playing out on the screen. What do you think that film says about female voices in the world in general?

    Where do I start? For me, the female voice is something special, something from the skies. That’s why it’s never easy for female singers to be considered for what they are, for what they do. And I’m not talking about myself. The female voice is beautiful, but it can also carry so many different emotions. A wider range than a man. Sometimes—even in the States, even in modern societies—they always want to summarize what a woman artist is by saying which man she has worked with.

    People always think men are writing or producing for women artists. In a sense, they want to push you onstage with a man.

    And the male musicians can be so violent, so aggressive. Not only with words. It’s hard to tell them, “I have a lot of respect for you, but that’s not the way I want it. I’m going to collaborate with you as an equal.” Even in rehearsal, they would attack you. Fragile hearts. They would push you to be more emotional. Sometimes it could be really nasty, but small, so you wouldn’t really think about it. I’m starting now to open my eyes. I have rarely worked with women, but the times that it happened, I felt some kind of relief. I would like to work more with women.

    Do you have a particular audience in mind when you’re writing music?

    No. I’m just doing things that move me. Sometimes journalists would like to talk about the political stuff: “Do you think you have a responsibility?” I have zero concerns. I’m just doing things that are true to myself.

    When I saw you play at the high school in New York, you said: “Sometimes it’s so hard to find a melody to break the human madness.” How do you do it?

    I found in music some kind of therapy that could adjust all the extremes, like a hormone that could regulate all your extra hyperness and extra sadness. But sometimes I get very depressed—there are moments where I’m like, “I’m not super powerful, music is nothing.” It’s terrible now with all these [refugee] kids drowning, and all of this racism. I’m very, very sensitive. Every time I walk in the street, I feel bad about all these little things. Sometimes I don’t feel optimistic anymore. It seems like sometimes music can’t do anything. But I have to believe in something. It’s hard to be a musician, but at least I found a way to give a sense to my life. It helps just to remain healthy. To remain sane.

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    5-10-15-20: Riot Grrrl Trailblazer Allison Wolfe on the Music That Made Her

    It’s been a quarter century since Bratmobile kickstarted riot grrrl’s first wave alongside Bikini Kill, but their co-lead vocalist Allison Wolfe is still very much part of punk’s present. In between her OG band’s 1994 breakup, 1999 reunion, and second split a few years later, she’s pulled duties in Cold Cold Hearts, Partyline, and now fronts Sex Stains, the riotous Los Angeles-based quintet who recently released their self-titled debut through Don Giovanni.

    Although Wolfe has had some extracurricular jobs—writing arts criticism for the Washington Post, for one—music is now as central to the 46-year-old’s life as it was in her early 20s. After 13 years in Washington, D.C. and a few in New York City, she’s found the kind of artistic opportunities she always craved in Los Angeles, where there are endless DJ gigs, tribute nights, and speaking engagements on offer. Spurring her on are the punk cornerstones of her peers and foremothers—the likes of the Slits, the Gits, Babes in Toyland, and Dolly Parton—as she explains below, musing on the music that has meant the most to her, five years at a time. 

    Joan Baez: “Diamonds & Rust”

    Joan Baez’s Diamonds & Rust was one of the few records that we had in the house. After my mother divorced my father, she came out as a lesbian and a feminist, and she was also politically and socially active, so having this kind of folk music in the house was really important for her.

    “Diamonds and Rust” is one of the few songs that Baez wrote. She’s talking about her break-up with Bob Dylan, taking his words and throwing them back in his face. I don’t know if I thought too much about that back then, but what I liked about Joan Baez was that her songs were ballads and they were full of stories—as a kid, you can really appreciate a story in a song.

    I would listen to her songs a lot when I was alone. I don’t talk about it much but I was sent away to go do gymnastics when I was 6 or 7, with a goal towards making the Olympics one day. I lived in a small town up in Mount Vernon, Washington. The gymnastics coach thought I had some talent and said, “You should send her to this really good gym in Eugene, Oregon,” another state away. So my parents did.

    I think it made sense for them in a way, because they were going through a divorce, and perhaps it was just easier to send one of the kids away. But it was really hard for me, especially to be separated from my twin, Cindy. The family I stayed with in Eugene was really awful and neglectful. They had a daughter who was a little younger than me who was doing gymnastics as well, and they would often leave me to babysit her. I remember listening to my Joan Baez tapes a lot, which gave me a lot of comfort at a time when I felt really homesick.

    Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard: “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” 

    My mother had already been a nurse, but she went back to school to become a registered practitioner. Then she moved us to Olympia, Washington and started the first women’s health clinic in Thurston County. She was a real pioneer. They performed abortions, and she would also testify in court, on the rare occasion when rapes were brought before a court. She would receive death threats. We were harassed and threatened a lot. People would throw rocks at our windows. It was intense.

    My mom had these records by a feminist bluegrass duo called Hazel & Alice, which were just amazing. Hazel Dickens is from West Virginia and sings a lot about growing up in that coalmining atmosphere, then having to move to the city to look for work when the mines closed down. She talked about class and culture and the mountains. In some ways I can really relate, because, after the divorce, our income dropped a lot. We were really scraping to get by for a long time. We were the scummy, lower-middle-class family in the community.

    Hazel & Alice had a lot of feminist messages in their songs that my mom was really psyched about. The song that I remember most is “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” It’s all about how society and men expect women to be a certain way and put them in their place and then make fun of women for being that way. I could relate to the injustices woven in and out of the song, feeling like not everyone’s getting a fair shake. Those were also words that my mom really related to.

    My dad moved back to Tennessee after the divorce, and we spent every summer, every other Christmas, and every other spring break there. My dad married my stepmother, who already had three kids. Bringing us all together was a real culture clash. We would spend the school year in Olympia in this super liberal house around lots of radical ideas: a wild, crazy, messy house with no manners or rules whatsoever. Then we’d go to Tennessee, and it was prim and proper and super Republican; the women were expected to do all the work while the guys sat on their asses. My mom would send us there with these T-shirts that read, “I’M A MINI FEMINIST” and “FREE TO BE YOU AND ME.” It made my Tennessee relatives crazy.

    My dad’s a doctor, and I was told that he and his doctor friends helped women get abortions in the ’60s, before it was legal. I asked him about it once when he was voting for Bush: “What do you think about this anti-abortion stuff?” Under his breath, he was like, “Well, that’s the one thing I don’t agree with with the Republicans on.” And that’s a big one.

    Bow Wow Wow: “Do You Wanna Hold Me?”

    We were definitely taping a lot off of these new wave radio stations. I listened to Duran Duran and Adam and the Ants, then I really got into Bow Wow Wow, who were a huge influence. You’ve got this young woman, Annabella Lwin, who’s really sassy and cool, jumping around, wearing these crazy outfits, with an amazing voice.

    By the time When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going came out in 1983, Annabella was writing all the lyrics, and “Do You Wanna Hold Me?” is really politicized. It’s about the illusion of the American dream. That was the first time I got exposed to music that was really fun yet also had a message—hearing women in music that would eventually lead me to thinking I might be able to do this myself.

    Babes in Toyland: “Swamp Pussy” 

    Babes in Toyland came before riot grrrl and had a huge influence on a lot of us: These strong, kickass women playing fierce music. They take it to this whole other level and show this grotesqueness of womanhood.

    “Swamp Pussy” actually helped me learn to drive. You’re expected to start driving at 16, but I didn’t do that because there was no extra car to use. I started practicing more when I was home from college. I would pop in the tape of Babes in Toyland’s first album, Spanking Machine, and listen to the whole thing over and over. “Swamp Pussy” is the first song and it comes in like thunder—it totally gave me the confidence to drive more aggressively. I was like the granny on the road before that.

    On Bratmobile’s first tour in the early ’90s, I met Babes in Toyland’s roadie when we passed through Minneapolis. He gave me gave me [frontwoman] Kat [Bjelland]’s address, and I wrote her this 10-page letter telling her all about how important her music was to me. We eventually started a correspondence, and she told me after a while, “I feel like you’re the first person who really gets what I’m trying to do.”

    Mecca Normal: “Strong White Male”

    Around this time, Bratmobile broke up on stage, and riot grrrl imploded. I moved to Washington, D.C., which was a real culture shock. For me, it was a big city, really corrupt and crazy. I loved it and hated it. It was also really male-dominated. Olympia was this little feminist utopia where things were affordable and women could own small businesses and get by. D.C. felt a lot harsher, like an old-boys’ network that would just eat you alive.

    I lived in a big punk group house where I saw a lot of mainstream values being repeated within this supposedly alternative scenario: A lot of guys who didn’t ever want to clean up after themselves, so the girls would do all the cleaning. When we bitched about it, the guys would be like, “It would be a lot easier and faster if you’d just shut up and stop complaining.” It sucked. I was also doing some jobs that exposed me to a lot of drooling men, which was pretty gross. I felt like I had left woman-land and ended up in dude-land.

    I brought all my records over, including this one 7" by Mecca Normal, this band from Vancouver that was very influential in the Olympia music scene. “Strong White Male” was an anthem of mine. I would play it all the time because all of a sudden I was surrounded by a lot of strong white males who were too entitled, who had grown up with a lot more money than a lot of the Olympia girls. It talks about that privilege that’s invisible to the people who possess it but painfully obvious to the people who don’t.

    Dolly Parton: “Silver Dagger”

    My mother was really sick. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she lived with it for two years before she died. It was a really difficult time. She fought it really hard and didn’t want to admit that it was killing her until the end. I get that, but I think it was hard for all of us to come to terms with it because she was fighting so hard.

    The music that we were playing in the house had to be calming, because she couldn’t really take discordant stuff. Dolly Parton had come out with an album that went back to her roots [The Grass Is Blue] and she did a cover of the traditional song “Silver Dagger.” I’ve always loved that song, especially Joan Baez’s version. Dolly dresses it up a little bit. The song is all about a young girl who learns about relationships through her parents, and how her father was a big cheater who betrayed her mother and ran off with all these other women. The mother remains resentful for the rest of her life and takes it out on her daughter.

    It’s not that my family was exactly like that, or that my mom was doing that, but I definitely felt that what your parents did when you were a young kid affects your relationships for the rest of your life. Somewhere along the way, I didn’t learn how to be in relationships. I was never taught to want marriage or kids, and I never pursued it. The longest relationship I’ve ever had is, like, two years. I have dated women in the past but I generally have gone out with guys, and it is like sleeping with the enemy. I feel like the “Silver Dagger” song—I don’t trust them.

    The Tennessee Twin: “We Don’t Talk About It”

    After reuniting in 1999, Bratmobile had broken up again, and I was singing backup in this band where I didn’t write any of the songs. That was fun, but I wanted to have my own voice. Three of us girls in Washington D.C. started Partyline, which was a lot of fun.

    The song that I associate with that time is one of my twin sister Cindy’s songs. She started a country band called Tennessee Twin when she lived in Vancouver and she was married to Carl Newman from the New Pornographers, though that relationship unraveled shortly after my mom died. Cindy was involved in that scene: She’s a singer/songwriter, plays the mandolin. I think she has a better voice than I do and she’s a better writer.

    She wrote this amazing song about my dad’s experiences called “We Don’t Talk About It.” It was pretty bold. My dad grew up in the hills in East Tennessee in a very Baptist and controlling household, and he wanted nothing more than to escape. He went to the other side of the state and went to med school. Then the Vietnam War broke out and he enlisted to go be a medic because a lot of people were told that if you waited until you got drafted, you’d have a much worse fate. The things he saw and experienced there are still with him today. It really shaped him and his relationships and it had a big effect on our family as well.

    The Tennessee Twin: “We Don’t Talk About It” (via SoundCloud)

    The Gits: “Spear and Magic Helmet”

    I moved to New York on a whim when I realized I’d been in D.C. for 13 years—far too long. It was hard because my life had become really easy, though I didn’t feel very appreciated there. Maybe I just wasn’t appreciating myself.

    While I was in New York, this documentary on Mia Zapata and the Gits came out. For the premiere, these women put together a Gits cover band and asked me to be involved. I wanted to sing “Spear and Magic Helmet,” which was always my favorite Gits song. It was a vigilante song that Mia wrote to avenge the rape of one of her friends in the music scene, which I’m pretty sure was committed by another guy in a band. I was really honored to be able to sing it.

    I used to go see the Gits when I lived in Eugene and Olympia. Bratmobile did a tour down the coast in California in 1993, and they were touring the coast at the same time. I had the chance to meet Mia Zapata in San Francisco. We didn’t exactly hit it off right away, but she had this fantastic blue hair, which I copied as soon as I got home. And when we got down to Jabberjaw in Los Angeles, it turned out we were playing together, which was really awesome. A lot of the footage from that show is in the documentary—I can hear myself yelling in between songs.

    But that L.A. show may have been the last one they ever played, because Mia was murdered less than a week later. It was devastating for the entire music community in Washington State, but especially in Seattle. It tore the scene apart because most rapes and murders happen among people that know each other. Everyone was looking at everyone else going, “Who did this?” (Note: Zapata’s killer, who did not know her, was sentenced to 37 years in prison in 2009.)

    The Slits: “Vindictive”

    I was—and still am—living in L.A.. There was so much more artistic opportunity here than in New York: I was getting asked to play music with people, DJ, speak on college campuses, and be involved in events like this Rough Trade Records tribute to the Slits, where they got artists to cover Cut in its entirety, which was a really amazing experience. The Slits have been hugely influential on me—this awesome band of women who created something out of nothing. They didn’t know what the hell they were doing and they just made noise that sounded really cool. They paved the way for so many of us.

    This tribute was a massive undertaking: It was mostly women, and we were going to do the entire album exactly how it was, no interpretations. Trying to recreate it was fucking hard—it made me realize how musically amazing these women were. Nothing was repeated, there were all sorts of different time signatures and things changing in the middle of each song. I challenge any guy to try to recreate that then say that women aren’t as good at their instruments.

    I sang backup on all the songs and lead on a couple of them, including “Vindictive,” which isn’t on that album but, because I’ve always loved it so much, I insisted we play it. It’s a full-on screaming rage. And I’ve always been a vindictive person: It’s not that I want to hurt someone, but I do believe that the personal is political, and that women need to tell our stories.

    When we did Ladyfest a couple years later, we got Ari Up to play. She was difficult, hours late, and the woman who was stage-managing tried to kick her off the bill. I had to fight her over it. Sure enough, Ari got on stage and was the best fucking thing I’ve ever seen. She was a total bitch, but it was awesome.

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    Photo Gallery: Pitchfork Radio Austin

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    Rising: Weyes Blood’s Hymns for the Incoming Apocalypse

    Natalie Mering’s voice is at once comforting and unique, dramatic but never overbearing. There is an elegant lilt to her delivery, evocative of a different era of popular music altogether. As Weyes Blood, she crafts emotional epics that masquerade as psych-folk ballads, subtly symphonic songs that are informed by yesterday but live and breathe right now.

    The cover of her forthcoming album, Front Row Seat to Earth, finds her surrounded by a vast landscape straight out of Star Trek, wearing a polished aquamarine suit. And yet, if you look closely, you’ll notice that her luxurious outfit is accented by lovingly worn sneakers—a touch of coziness in an alien atmosphere.

    The shoes might double as something of a visual gag. “I am a ham, I like to joke around,” Mering says with a laugh over Skype, “which is a little bit of the opposite of the implications of my music—it’s so heavy, I guess.”

    The cover of Weyes Blood’s upcoming album, Front Row Seat to Earth.

    Front Row Seat to Earthoffers exactly what it says on the box. The album’s love songs feel directed to the planet as a whole as opposed to any singular person. It’s protest music that punches at elements of the human condition with lines like “Let the world carve at your heart/Don’t need a home if you come apart.” There’s more specific conceptual commentary too. On the brilliant anti-anthem “Generation Why,” Mering sings of an impending apocalypse playing out beyond our screens: “Goin’ to see the end of days/I’ve been hanging on my phone all day/And the fear goes away.”

    Talking about those lines, she explains how she initially rejected the social media ubiquity that feels necessary for artists in the modern age. But when she finally did get a smartphone, she found herself instantly succumbing to its narcotic appeal. “I started taking mad pics and texting with people all day long every day,” she says. “We are emotionally predisposed to our connectivity—we’re just acting out this opiate for the masses.” She goes on to draw parallels between onetime millennial mantra YOLO, which is co-opted for the chorus of “Generation Why,” and the impending consequences of environmental destruction. “The reason the ‘you only live once’ philosophy exists is because our situation is pretty desperate,” she says. “The cataclysm of climate change and all that is very physical and it affects our ability to survive on the planet. It’s like learning how to accept the apocalypse without fear.”

    Mering entered this planet by way of Santa Monica, California, to parents who both wrote and performed music. Her father Sumer once fronted a strutting new wave band (also called Sumner) that issued one album (also called Sumner) in 1980 that was produced by famed Rolling Stones collaborator Jack Nitzsche. But by the time Natalie was born, her mom and dad had left the secular life behind and converted to born-again Christians. “But they retained some of their hipness and still played Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell in the house,” she remembers. Mering honed her singing abilities through performing in church and school choir, and eventually went through an underwhelming stint at Lewis & Clark College in the Pacific Northwest before dropping out and immersing herself in the Philadelphia noise scene.

    From there, she performed alongside Portland experimentalists Jackie-O Motherfucker and Baltimore weirdos Nautical Almanac when she wasn’t spending isolated days in Kentucky and New Mexico. I ask her where she considers home. “I’m from nowhere,” she replies, before breaking into laughter. She eventually moved to Rockaway Beach, Queens, where she recorded her last release, Cardamom Times. Today, the nomadic singer claims residence closer to her birthplace in Southern California, where she created Front Row.

    By some metrics of the music industry, Mering is a seasoned pro—she’s been active in underground music for a decade and issued her first self-released album in 2007. But now, on the cusp of a national tour, she says she’s uninterested in finding recognition for her music. More than ever before, she’s absorbed with perfecting her technique, learning from the greats, and singing the soul from her body.

    Pitchfork: How would you define “authenticity” as an artist?

    Natalie Mering: In the beginning, I was convinced by patriarchal, white males that authenticity was a certain level of rawness and unsophisticated expression. But then I realized that that’s not true at all—authenticity is not somebody who is ignorant of things. I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I sang well, in an “old-school” way, and that was just as authentic, because it was coming from my soul. Authenticity is a scapegoat for a deeper form of judgment. It’s bias and it also comes from guilt, from a real civilized, structured sort of reality. People might look at something that’s raw and unhinged and be like, “Wow, that’s so much more real than my cubicle life”—but that doesn’t mean the person in the cubicle is any less authentic, does it?

    When you were coming up and developing your singing voice, did anyone ever say, “You shouldn’t sing that way?”

    I’ve had men be like, “That’s a little too girly. I could see you downplaying that.” Or people would say, “Oh, vibrato, that’s a bit much.” But my voice has developed a lot, and I’ve honed in on masking “being trained” a little bit. Good singing is learning how to transmit learning musical information with your voice in a way that everybody can relate to. But as a woman you just get a lot of criticism because everyone sees you like a raw lump of clay that needs some help. I’m sure men get that too, but I feel like I’ve definitely gotten a lot of people telling me what they think I need.

    Do you see yourself getting to a point where you want to be self-producing your records?

    Totally, yes.

    What kind of singers did you listen to when you were younger?

    As a teenager, I really loved Catherine Ribeiro—extremely powerful, wild, improvisatory voice. I loved old psych-rock bands, and Michael Hurley, and Harry Nilsson. And then later on I discovered the famous European singer Demis Roussos, who used to be in Aphrodite’s Child. In Europe, you can sing like a crazy opera singer and people are down. In America, we don’t have that old-world influence. Looking into European music, I always found people that were more like my singing style, because I sang so much European music as a teenager. These days I practice with the early doo-wop singers—the Platters, the Righteous Brothers—I just sing standards. Elvis’ last performance of “Unchained Melody” from right before he died is one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. You can just see him pulling his voice out and using his entire soul. That’s been my vibe as of late.

    You’ve spoken about not wanting to be stuck under the “folk” banner. Do you still think about whether or not something you write is considered “folky?”

    Things are a little bit more like the ’70s now, in a weird way, where you can make a record like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, with these insane folk jams, but then also have all these rock anthems on it too. It’s important to me to not stay too confined to any specific sonic space. There is something really magical about straight folk music—it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I like so much music, I hear so many different things, and I want to try more. I don’t want to be confined.

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    Lists & Guides: The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time

    “As ignorable as it is interesting.” That’s the classic definition of ambient music, stated by Brian Eno in 1978 on the sleeve notes to his album Ambient 1:Music for Airports. And he should know, since he basically invented the genre three years earlier with his album Discreet Music. But while Eno’s definition of ambient has been cited continuously in the decades since, the sphere of music he first defined has broadened, especially if you judge by how that word is used by listeners. “Ambient” is now used to describe all kinds of music, from tracks you can dance to all the way to harsh noise. For our exploration of the greatest ambient albums, we polled critics for their favorites, with the suggestion that “ambient” meant, in part, music that creates an environment, something like a cloud of sound, be it soothing, sad, haunting, or ominous. We also suggested that our take on ambient music shies away from heavy rhythms and tends more toward “drifting” than “driving,” which meant de-emphasizing ambient house. And we considered the fact that not all albums in a given artist’s catalogue qualify as ambient. Taking into account our writers’ interpretation of those loose guidelines, here’s our list of the 50 best ambient albums. 

    But first, a word from someone whose work appears on this list.

    By Keith Fullerton Whitman

    I’m trying to focus on this record, Carter Thomas’ Sonoma—a mid-’80s UK pressing with a trilogy of early ’70s pieces, all done solely on Buchla and Serge equipment, all gorgeous. Deep, resonant oscillator warble, void of unnecessary motion: Exactly what I’m looking for whilst scouring the darkest recesses of this music. An unheard historical example, ahead of the curve, seldom discussed.

    But I simply can’t; my phone has already buzzed twice during the opening 11-minute number; there’s another computer in the other room doing something quite taxing, adding a certain mid-range crackle of hard drive/fan noise to the air. The cover is being scanned at an archival quality; there’s a pleasing faint whirr for a few minutes, enough to wonder if it’s the record. A lamp casts a sliver of light on the wall, then slowly tapers off, fading away. My focus is elsewhere, everywhere else. 

    My first thought on presaging a list of canonic ambient records: “What music isn’t ambient in the 21st century?” Given the current life demands, multi-tasking has become a mono-activity, one that takes up our entire sensory field. Gone are the days where—eyes closed, headphones on—we can readily slip in and away for the side of a tape, lest an album. Listening to the average three-to-five-minute pop song with the distractions and thought processes of the world abated feels like a heroic act. That said, the appeal of ambient is ever apparent; much like a science project, when executed perfectly, the outcome yields the desired results: time becomes elastic, malleable. 

    One thing we can all agree on: No one agrees on the language surrounding this music. Not the musicians who make it, not the audience. “Drone”—as a nihilistic gesture, one with increasingly sinister connotations—constantly breaks away from the passivity implied, as anyone that has enjoyed/endured an in situ performance by Tony Conrad or Damion Romero can attest. I’ve always loved the term “Tafelmusik”—literally, “Table Music”—as best exemplified in G.F. Telemann’s 1733 titular suite; it’s music to accompany another activity. What a simple, unadorned term. “Minimalism” can be, and often is, maximal; witness Steve Reich’s “Music for Large Ensemble,” easily my favorite of his. Every time I hear it, certain lobes go into recess, and others experience a heightened serotonin boost that hints at the extra-sensory. There are many roads one can take into this particular sector; virtually every extant sub- and micro-genre has an ambient shadow.

    Keith Fullerton Whitman; Photo by Lindsay Metivier with Nicole Ginelli

    My personal voyage into the world of ambient involves a series of record fairs in northern New Jersey—Montvale, then Wayne, to be precise—where I began querying the awful-smelling, suspended adolescents lurking both behind and in front of so many tables of priceless “import” compact discs and hastily labeled VHS tapes. Leaps from Satriani to Bill Frisell to Derek Bailey, Metallica to Napalm Death to Demilich, took years; the pace of things then was so glacial when compared to the immediacy of now, of broadband, of how fast your neurons can link to the next and trigger your fingers to act. Then, it was really possible to savor each step, make incremental decisions to dig deeper—to continue to fish, or to cut bait. Especially so with ambient; this is slow music, and slow change happens when confronted with it.

    While I can’t pinpoint the first title that sparked my love affair with long-form music, I do remember holing up with a copy of Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes after being repeatedly steered toward it by the well-meaning Meredith Monk disciple who effectively ran the Record Collector’s Depot in Ridgewood, NJ in the owner’s frequent absence. This was the guy who put the DNA 12” on American Clavé in my hands; I tended to trust him, even if his name escapes me now. It was only a handful of leaps from here to François Bayle’s Erosphére, and, if anything I’d discovered in my youth colored my current sensibilities, it is the “Toupie Dans Le Ciel” segment of this piece, still glorious in its asynchronous resolve—in retrospect, the atom that led to Generators and my interest in working with analogue synthesis as an escape from the rigor of computer music. When I need to turn to something to completely obliterate or amplify a feeling—a regret, an ambition—I have this recording; it gives my skin on my forehead the distinct, pleasant sensation of speed, of momentum.

    I also have a semi-religious affinity for Eliane Radigue’s music; the alpha states I can reach by submitting fully to her recordings are significant, and as rewarding as can be expressed. I keep turning to her work, knowing that it’s borne of a deep commitment to Tibetan Buddhism and that so many of the young, photogenic, media-trained personalities dabbling in the more reverb-soaked corners of “modern classical”—so eager for that lucrative Apple placement—will likely bow out here in favor of greener pastures. JD Emmanuel & Joanna Brouk’s excellent cassette-era work sprang from the Minimalism & New Music scenes, respectively. Sunn O))) were powerful both as a physical experience and as a bridge from metal into its members’ vanguard tastes, much in the same way figures like John Zorn and Jim O’Rourke were so crucial to me in how they openly wore their influences on their sleeves, allowing for such transparent trace-back.

    Ambient is a great meeting point: not so much at the center of everything, but floating just above, in a perfect geosynchronous orbit, within reach. At its best, it casts enough shade to dampen the extraneous while causing a shift in our perceptions, enough to take us out of time and place, to wherever we need to be.

    Keith Fullerton Whitman is a composer and musician living in Melbourne, Australia.


    Morals and Dogma

    Rune Grammofon


    Dark ambient musicians renounce the genre's heavenly hum for the infernal simmer, the play of light for the shadows. They think, “What if this turned into a horror movie?” The style has crested in recent years with the likes of Demdike Stare and the Haxan Cloak, whose wide dynamic ranges of choked, blackened drones, windy death rattles, unnerving knocks, and postmortem shrieks nod back to 1980s post-industrial dirges.

    Morals and Dogma, the Norwegian musician Helge Sten’s third solo album as Deathprod, floats like a menacing bridge between then and now. Sten calls his assortment of cobbled-together, often archaic electronic devices—tape echo machines, theremins, analog ring modulators, etc.—his “audio virus,” which had already infected his past bands Motorpsycho and Supersilent before taking center stage here. Here, Sten enlists Motorpsycho’s guitarist and violinist, and together they ride through heaving stone vistas with occult intensity. Sudden outcrops of gongs break up the toxified horizon dragged out by the violin, but an eerie songfulness also keeps creeping in, especially the sublime saw centerpiece in the otherwise lightless caverns of “Dead People’s Things.” Morals and Dogma is heavy without harshness, threatening without theatrics, and it shudders inside a silence so large, it could only follow the end of the world. –Brian Howe

    Release Year: 2004

    Listen:Deathprod: “Dead People’s Things”

    Bing & Ruth

    Tomorrow Was the Golden Age

    Rvng Intl.


    The pianist David Moore borrowed the name of his minimalist ensemble from “Daylight Come,” a two-page story by the writer Amy Hempel. In it, a newly married widow and widower, Bing and Ruth, go on a tropical vacation, frolicking with an exaggerated romantic energy that almost masks their deeper melancholy. It’s a densely textured, emotional story, sculpted from unvarnished words. Moore has said he took the name partially because he was inspired to write music with the same impressionistic qualities; in his group's second album, Tomorrow Was the Golden Age, they craft a suite of nine movements dense with equally mutable moments.

    The sounds of Tomorrow Was the Golden Age are unfixed, able to adapt to new emotions swiftly, from joy to anguish. The album was crafted from a relatively spartan setup—a pair of clarinets, two basses, one cello, a piano, and a tape delay—which makes it feel simple and human. Songs like “Reflector” and “Postcard From Brilliant Orange” are ambiguous, cavernously spaced, and emotional. Tomorrow Was the Golden Age surrounds the listener during moments of wandering and sticks to the walls of daily experience, coloring moments with its bittersweet spirit. –Kevin Lozano

    Release Year: 2014

    Listen: Bing & Ruth: “Reflector”

    Ernest Hood




    Portland guitarist Ernest Hood was a fixture on the Pacific Northwest jazz scene in the ’50s and ’60s, both alongside his saxophonist brother Bill and in the ensemble the Way Out. When a bout of polio kept him from greater acclaim, he went into community broadcasting, helping to establish KBOO Radio.

    In 1975, Hood recorded Neighborhoods, his lone album, and released it himself. The record drifts through Hood’s own childhood memories via tranquil piano, light synthesizer washes, and nimble zither runs. Hood gives the dreamy, melodic album further layers of sound by intermingling field recordings of crickets at night, passing thunderstorms, and children’s distant voices, creating the effect of the album being an open window to the world outside. Neighborhoods drifts past like cumulus clouds and evokes memories of a bygone era; by turns wistful and whimsical, it is a singular vision of one musician’s memories and remains a high point of the American private press. –Andy Beta

    Release Year: 1975

    Listen:Ernest Hood: “Gloaming”

    Jon Hassell

    Vernal Equinox



    Jon Hassell’s 1980 album Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics, produced alongside Brian Eno, is perhaps the most common entry point in the trumpeter’s catalog, arriving during the latter’s ascendance as a pop theorist and alchemist. But Hassell’s 1977 debut contains many of the same ideas in a more muted and subtle form. Inspired by raga music, particularly the work of the vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, Hassell processes his trumpet sound and focuses on notes that change in tiny increments, giving his melodies a slippery quality where you’re never quite sure where they are coming from or where they might go next. The background is filled with quiet twitches of rattles and bells, gurgling talking drum, and snippets of bird songs, creating a bed of sound that is hard to pin down but easy to absorb as a whole. Sources stretch in all directions, from the “Shhh/Peaceful” jazz of Miles Davis to Indian classical music to twinkling New Age, but the music’s refusal to be any one thing makes each listen feel like the first one. –Mark Richardson

    Release Year: 1977

    Listen:Jon Hassell: “Vernal Equinox”

    Edgar Froese

    Epsilon in Malaysian Pale



    As both the frontman of Tangerine Dream and as a solo artist, Edgar Froese favored warm, humid tones and pulses over the clicking rhythms and cold precision of his countrymen like Kraftwerk. As Tangerine Dream’s records grew increasingly smooth and mellow, his first solo album, Aqua, dove into gurgling water sounds and icy tones.

    While on tour with his band in 1974, Froese became inspired by the new landscapes he glimpsed in the South Pacific, and he conceived the two epic tracks that comprise his second album, Epsilon in Malaysian Pale. One side is named for Maroubra Bay in Australia, the other for the dense jungles of Malaysia. Despite a palette of Mellotron and synthesized flutes, horns and strings, its genius lies in Froese’s ability to weave such technology into something wholly organic, subtle, and alive. –Andy Beta

    Release Year: 1975

    Listen:Edgar Froese: “Epsilon in Malaysian Pale”

    Huerco S.

    For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)



    There’s the easy way to make ambient techno: send some harmonic haze scudding across a 4/4 kick, and call it a day. And then there’s the hard way: forgo metronomic mile-markers and find ways to allude to dance music through pattern, texture, motion, and overriding shape. As Huerco S., Brian Leeds does it the hard way, and in a genre that trends opaque, his music is very clear—you can see straight to the bottom. On his superb release For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have), the Kansas City producer treats techno like tissue paper and ambient music like a glass of clean water, dropping one into the other and watching raptly as it dissolves into drifting pulp.

    We hear distantly percolating arpeggios and quietly bustling basses but nary a drum. Still, the invisible force of one seems to ripple out through the music, in which filtered bundles of harmonium and thumb piano tones limp toward steady repetition without ever quite falling into stride. It’s also representative of a contemporary era when club music leaks out of big cities through internet portals. It’s as if Leeds imagined he could almost hear the keenest edges of the signals booming from the coasts, echoing into the Midwest through all that empty space. For Those of You gives that feeling form. –Brian Howe

    Release Year: 2016

    Listen:Huerco S.: “Lifeblood (Naïve Melody)”



    Thrill Jockey


    The second album from Oval’s Markus Popp and Mouse on MarsJan St. Werner is a masterful study in small, subtle moves. It’s not a quiet record—many of the low-end tones that the duo generates can shake a room if the volume is turned up—but the power of snd lies the sum of its many tiny, precise parts. The pair’s dotted sounds border on the glitch-ambient style that Popp coined in Oval, but Microstoria’s version is less jarring, less tactile, more like rolling clouds than skipping CDs. Their songs are also more sneakily melodic; over repeated listens, what initially can sound like random tonal experimentation reveals itself to be hypnotically structured. Some of it is even hummable, if you give it enough time. But more importantly, snd is its own unique sonic world, an intoxicating journey made up of infinite single steps. –Marc Masters

    Release Year: 1996

    Listen:Microstoria: “Endless Summer”


    Talk Amongst the Trees

    Temporary Residence


    Eluvium’s Matthew Cooper would go on to create greater albums than Talk Amongst the Trees, but those were hardly ambient; rather than lurking among the wallpaper patterns, Eluvium’s later tracks leap to the center of the room, sucking up all the air. Talk filters the gloomy earnestness of the Pacific Northwest through the gaseous guitar atmosphere of Stars of the Lid, obliterating the familiar lunar fretwork of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s foundational ambient guitar albums. Cooper offers abstract hanging gardens of dark, lush drone, as yet unadorned by revolving strings or sighing woodwinds. Pure trails and tones hover in space, twisting around and through one another, mist on mist.

    This was really only Eluvium’s second proper album (An Accidental Memory in Case of Death was just a quick piano improvisation), but his hopeful melancholy already shines through, a temperament that now draws the baseline of post-Romantic ambient music. Cooper is the archetype of a generation of indie kids who felt empowered to embark from the comfortable home base of guitar drones and into the foreign, self-challenging territory of classical styles. The balance of endless approachability and endless mystery in Talk Amongst the Trees is a testament to why they did. –Brian Howe

    Release Year: 2005

    Listen:Eluvium: “New Animals From the Air”

    Ekkehard Ehlers




    Talent borrows, genius steals, and then there’s the sleight-of-hand involved in an album like Plays, which flips the anxiety of influence into a kind of shell game. In a few cases, moves are easy enough to follow: The opening “Plays Cornelius Cardew” suite salutes the free-music titan with two cuts of rumbling liquid ambience, and the closing “Plays Robert Johnson 2” (which, as a bumping minimalist house track, is the only tune here that breaks the ambient mold) contains obvious samples of the wailing bluesman.

    However, in “Plays Robert Johnson 1,” it’s hard to say whether the reverberant plucks and quivering slide guitar are sampled or played, and Ehlers foggy homage only gets murkier from there. A pair of “Plays Albert Ayler” tracks are constructed of slowly scraped cello and warbling digital glitches presumably meant to pay tribute to the saxophonist’s bellowing style; the burbling “Plays Hubert Fichte” tracks make oblique reference to a German novelist while delving deep into freeform electro-acoustic tones. The album’s twin centerpieces are no less inscrutable in their relationship to their inspiration, the filmmaker John Cassavetes; musically, however, they’re so direct that you could hardly care. “Plays John Cassavetes 1” paints on a watery wash of sampled strings with no discernible outline; “Plays John Cassavetes 2” is a single, two-bar loop of strings taken from the Beatles’ “Goodnight," slow and hopeful as a wide river at sunset, that collapses 10 minutes into the blink of an eye. –Philip Sherburne

    Release Year: 2002

    Listen:Ekkehard Ehlers: “Plays John Cassavetes 2”

    Harold Budd / Brian Eno

    The Pearl

    Editions EG


    Harold Budd, an American composer and pianist who draws on drone, minimalism, conceptual notation, and other rarified practices, has made it clear that he does not consider himself an ambient musician. But, perhaps to his chagrin, most of the world disagrees, largely because of his collaborations with Brian Eno in the 1980s. Produced by Daniel Lanois, The Pearl was the duo’s follow-up to the seminal Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, and its title perfectly describes the inimitable timbre produced at the juncture of Budd’s “soft pedal” piano style, achingly slow and drenched in sustain, and Eno’s discreet processing, which transforms the instrument’s natural resonance into gentle swirls of snow and sheets of melting, cracking ice.

    Budd’s delicately creeping, expressive intervals sway and grasp like longing incarnate, in impressionistic pieces that are mimetically precise—the aqueous, darting “A Stream With Bright Fish” and the smooth, round “The Silver Ball” vividly evoke their titles. The Pearl’s icy elegance, sumptuous beauty, and mesmeric pace form the Platonic ideal which all post-classical piano-ambient has since imitated. Hearing it feels like retreating into a snow globe where there is nothing to think about, but everything to feel. –Brian Howe

    Release Year: 1984

    Listen:Brian Eno & Harold Budd: “A Stream With Bright Fish”

    Max Richter


    Deutsche Grammophon


    Most ambient music gestures at unconscious eternity, but on his 2015 album, Sleep, Max Richter almost gets there. On it, Richter—an influential modern, post-minimal composer whose works border electronic and ambient—collaborated with the neuroscientist David Eagleman to help listeners go gentle into that good night. The result is a nightlong electronic chamber music monolith with crests and lulls that are designed to interplay with sleep cycles. It’s not without precedent; maybe Richter recorded eight hours to top sleep-concert veteran Robert Rich’s seven-hour Somnium. But whereas Rich filled the dream world with evanescent drones and nature sounds, Richter populates his with a dazzling variety of timbres and forms to create liminal chamber music that’s also lively enough for wakeful listening.

    But in the grand scheme of time that ambient music evokes, what’s the difference between eight minutes and eight hours? A lot, it turns out. Since you’ll probably never hear enough of it at once to arrange its whole ecosystem in your mind, Sleep isn’t simply long, it’s functionally infinite. Its sense of unheard regions is like the invisible continuation of the music’s finite line. It’s not just an album that summarizes all of Richter’s many modes, but a definitive ambient album: an eternal medium that can accommodate whatever charged emotions or neglectful neutrality you project on it. –Brian Howe

    Release Year: 2015

    Listen:Max Richter: “Dream 13”

    Suzanne Ciani

    Buchla Concerts 1975

    Finders Keepers


    Suzanne Ciani has said, of meeting the inventor Don Buchla in the 1960s, “[He] gave me my electronic wings.” They came in the form of the Buchla synthesizer, an early modular instrument of his invention. With it, Ciani went on to compose Grammy-nominated electronic New Age records, including 1982’s stunning Seven Waves, as well as hugely successful television commercial soundtracks for the likes of Energizer and Coca-Cola. (The sound of a can popping? That’s her.)

    But Ciani's recently reissued Buchla concerts from 1975 are magic, a crucial document of what it sounded like to engage with one of the earliest formulations of the Buchla. These two concerts—one held at the minimalist composer Phill Niblock’s loft, the other at the WBAI Free Music Store—are intense experiences of transitions and pace, highlighting the possibilities of this strange new instrument while not conforming to any pop expectations. Ciani offers an early education in synthetic forms and adaptability; the Buchla Concerts are a document of the beginning of technological reverence, when people began fostering their obsessive relationships with machines. –Jenn Pelly

    Release Year: 1975

    Listen:Suzanne Ciani: “Concert at Phil Niblock’s Loft”



    Thirsty Ear / All Saints


    Geir Jenssen’s early-’90s releases flitted between opposing impulses: deep, enveloping ambient tones; flickering breakbeat techno fueled by gnarly squarewave bass thonk; and, on occasion, the wide-eyed sci-fi kitsch of the era’s rave flyers. But by 1997’s Substrata, the Norwegian electronic musician zeroed in on his most atmospheric impulses, letting everything else fall by the wayside. The model for Substrata vacillates between the planetarium, where luminous abstractions dance against the illusion of infinite space, and the isolation tank, where the weightless dark sends listeners on journeys deep into the mind. Field recordings—planes high overhead, children laughing, the gentle lapping of waves—trade off with more overtly musical cues: slow bass pulses, underwater strings, and even, occasionally, a reverberant hint of Cocteau Twins’ burbling guitar tone. The careful balance of background and foreground invites the listener to go exploring inside the sound, and the free-associative sensory flow distills the music’s lysergic potential to a purity rarely encountered in any genre. –Philip Sherburne

    Release Year: 1997

    Listen:Biosphere: “Poa Alpina”

    Tim Hecker


    Kranky / Paper Bag


    Ambient music has a tricky relationship with form: Make the structure too obvious, and too obviously musical, and you move into a different realm. The result might be a song, or a dance track, or a composition, but it’s no longer ambient—that formless form whose outline is blurry by definition and its center squishy. Virgins goes right to the heart of that conundrum. Up until this album, Tim Heckers music had typically focused on fat, formless drones—by running software synthesis through gargantuan overdrive, or pumping church organs through a virtual black metal backline—but Virgins finds the Canadian electronic musician writing for chamber ensemble and then remixing the results.

    The results sound a lot like composed music—at least, compared to the decomposed music of his previous releases, which gave the impression of having been sourced from tapes that had laid moldering in the ground through several rainy seasons. But it ultimately pulls apart at the seams; the music remains unstable, its energies dissipating like boiling water. The influence of classical minimalism is tempered by opaque echoes and dark streaks of tapes run backward, and no melody is strong enough to escape the terminal gravity of Hecker’s black-hole pedal tones. It’s ambient music as the event horizon. –Philip Sherburne

    Release Year: 2013

    Listen:Tim Hecker, “Live Room”

    Windy & Carl




    Along with Stars of the Lid, Windy & Carl were prime movers in the ’90s drone sphere who started out releasing music on handmade tapes that were sold and discussed in zines like Ptolemaic Terrascope (or at Stormy Records, the shop Windy Weber and Carl Hultgren opened in Dearborn, Michigan). They were loosely affiliated with other bands in what has been called the Michigan space rock scene, but Windy & Carl were more about drift and sustained moods compared to more song-oriented approach of Füxa or Alison’s Halo. Windy & Carl’s music is like a corona of light surrounding an eclipsed pop song, as if they took the sound of their favorite artists on 4AD (Cocteau Twins, Slowdive) and blotted out everything but the frayed edges, where distortion and feedback reside. Like SOTL, Windy & Carl started out with 4-track recordings that they made themselves and they eventually signed with Kranky, where they released a run of classic drone records. Their 1998 album Depths was a peak, finding just the right mix of calming hum with an unsettling rumble of tension beneath. –Mark Richardson

    Release Year: 1998

    Listen: Windy & Carl: “Set Adrift”


    Ambient 3: Day of Radiance



    Serendipity was in full effect the day Brian Eno strolled through New York’s Washington Square Park and came across Laraaji playing his plangently chiming autoharp, and dropped a note in his busker’s hat inviting him to make a record. Born Edward Larry Gordon, the actor-musician Laraaji had already released one album, 1978’s Celestial Vibration, and explored the concept of cosmic music for some years using electrified and adapted versions of the zither and hammered dulcimer. He believed that these and similar metallophonic instruments like gongs induce a trance state that breaks down the self’s boundaries and loosens the bonds of time.  

    Not that the first side of Day of Radiance is relaxing, exactly: “The Dance” seems to flood your mind with almost-painful brightness. But the flipside’s two-parter “Meditation” gently unspools folds of glimmering texture in a slow-motion cascade. Although Radiance was a career highpoint and reached his broadest audience, Laraaji would record many more wonderful albums (including Flow Goes the Universe, for Eno’s latterday label All Saints). The fact that Laraaji’s other main occupation is working as a laughter therapist reminds us of the higher purpose—at once practical and mystical—behind Radiance. This is music for healing and making whole. –Simon Reynolds

    Release Year: 1980

    Listen:Laraaji: “Meditation #2”

    Charlemagne Palestine

    Four Manifestations On Six Elements

    Sonnabend Gallery


    The keyboardist-composer Charlemagne Palestine’s double LP was conceived to mimic a modern-art gallery space, its four walls represented by the four sides of the original vinyl release. In front of each wall, the listener is invited to observe and explore an arrangement of tones, and the titles indicate which musical intervals (or “elements”) you’re hearing. The first side-length track is a drone work, performed on an organ, titled “Two Perfect Fifths, a Major Third Apart, Reinforced Twice.” It seems utterly fixed, at first listen—but as the dynamics of the performance shift from overdrive into a softer expression, a journeying feel unspools.

    On Side B, Palestine moves to an acoustic instrument, and creates more of a melodic ride during a three-movement piece, “One + Two + Three PerfectFifths in the Rhythm Three Against Two, For Bösendorfer Piano.” (His contrasting use of pedals makes this performance especially memorable.) Side C embraces some of the techniques that Palestine used in his other “strumming music” pieces. Then the gallery trip to the composer’s varied worlds wraps with another work that investigates the sustained textures of an organ drone. –Seth Colter Walls

     Release Year: 1974

    Listen: Charlemagne Palestine, "Two Fifths"

    Steve Roach

    Structures from Silence



    In the early 1970s, inspired by the likes of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, California desert motocross racer Steve Roach wandered away from a career of high-revving engines and taught himself how to play the synthesizer. He’s since become one of the defining American artists of new age music, perpetually on a quest for silence and the suspension of time in his music. “For me, the essence of this music is what is felt when it ends, a returning to the silence,” he wrote on the sleeve of his 1984 masterpiece, Structures From Silence.

    The three extended compositions that comprise Structures arise out of such quiescence; the loops and gentle melodic refrains spire upwards and suggest vistas. With just a few cycling elements and floating chords, "Reflections in Suspension" and "Quiet Friend" exude a peaceful calm, while the title track is a half hour of contemplative bliss, full of purring drones and high notes that shimmer and fade. Like a desert mirage, these structures hover forever at the horizon, an oasis from the din surrounding it. –Andy Beta

     Release Year:1984

    Listen: Steve Roach: “Reflections in Suspension”

    Marian Zazeela / La Monte Young

    The Tamburas Of Pandit Pran Nath (An Homage)

    Just Dreams


    La Monte Young, an originator of Western-classical minimalism, is typically heard pursuing his concept of “the drone state of mind,” whether with his blues band or his version of a chamber ensemble. The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath (An Homage)—performed by Young and his partner, Zazeela—is primarily a drone album and one of the best ever, fit for dreamy contemplation. (Happily, it’s also currently in print, unlike his other complex works The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25 6:17:50 - 11:1859 PM NYC and The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer From the Four Dreams of China) Performed on a pair of tamburas, inside a 1982 version of the couple’s ongoing, mixed-media “Dream House” installation, this recording features the three pitches that Young and Zazeela bowed when accompanying Pandit Pran Nath, their guru and teacher, in the slow, Kirana style of Hindustani vocal music.

    Thanks to the resonant quality of the tamburas—designed by Nath—and the perfectly matched tuning between the instruments played by Young and Zazeela, the overtones of the two instruments create a startling variety of effects within the unceasing drone. Wisps of melodic patterns and beats seem to emerge like apparitions from the restricted harmonic field, with the occasional, distant rumble of New York City motorcycles serving the only trace of the “real world” outside their Dream House. The album offers a purity of intent so refined, it has become the background track for Young and Zazeela’s continuing performances of raga-informed singing—and Tamburas is also a potent, powerful listen on its own. –Seth Colter Walls

     Release Year: 1999

    Listen:La Monte Young: “Just Alap Raga Ensemble”


    New Age Of Earth



    In 1975, an album called Inventions for Electric Guitar appeared, featuring the name of both krautrock legends Ash Ra Tempel and their leader, guitarist Manuel Göttsching. It wasn’t quite the final Ash Ra Tempel album (as it featured Göttsching alone, that would be 1973’s Starring Rosi), and it wasn’t his proper solo debut (that would be 1984’s E2-E4); the music, too, straddled two worlds, with a mix of cosmic blues-inspired guitar soloing and precise Terry Riley-style minimalism.

    With Inventions, Göttsching announced himself as a master architect of intricate instrumental arrangement. By 1976, when he issued the solo album New Age of Earth under the Ashra moniker, he proved himself equally adept at slowly shifting atmosphere. Backgrounding his guitar work and focusing on synthesizers, Göttsching crafts a new kind of space music, one that feels less about traveling through the cosmos and more about what it might feel like to contemplate existence while meditating on another planet. –Mark Richardson

     Release Year:1976

    Listen:Ashra, “Deep Distance”

    Julianna Barwick

    The Magic Place

    Asthmatic Kitty


    With little more than her voice, a Boss DD-20 Giga Delay guitar pedal, and a smattering of piano and bells, the Brooklyn-based singer and sound artist Julianna Barwick conjures a rapturous space on her second album. Taking cues from the hymns she sang in the Church of Christ (where her father was a youth minister), as well as a fairytale-like bodark tree she climbed as a young girl in Oklahoma, Barwick sings at a volume one might use to soothe a colicky baby, barely louder than a whisper. Much like Elizabeth Fraser and Claire Hamill before her, Barwick knows how to carefully arrange each muslin-like layer of her voice and weave it into something gorgeous, luminous, weightless. The Magic Place conjures the reverie of childhood wonder, but rather than just merely recall it nostalgically, Barwick’s voice has the power to render such awe wholly in the present moment. –Andy Beta

     Release Year: 2011

    Listen:Julianna Barwick: “White Flag”

    David Behrman

    On the Other Ocean



    With microprocessors in our pockets and countless hours of life spent in front of computers, many people have fretted over humanity’s decreasing social interactions and increasing sense of alienation. New music composer David Behrman’s debut, On the Other Ocean, is a riposte on how humans and computers can interface and interact to make a warm, heavenly sound. It marks Behrman’s first interactive piece between man, woman, and machine; flautist Maggi Payne and bassoonist Arthur Stidfole flutter and slowly move between a series of six pitches, which in turn trigger Behrman’s KIM-1 (a precursor to the Apple II and one of the first personal computers available), which reacts and pitch shifts these pure tones so as to harmonize with its human counterparts. One song, “Figure in a Clearing,” pairs cello to computer-controlled synthesizer. The results couldn’t be more transportive and lovely; time melts away as soloists and microcomputer move at an unhurried pace, reveling in the resultant honeyed tones. –Andy Beta

    Release Year: 1977

    Listen:David Behrman: “On the Other Ocean”

    Pauline Oliveros

    Accordion and Voice



    On the cover of this album, sitting at Pauline Oliveros’ feet, is a blissed-out, shaggy little dog. Tongue out and eyes squinting, he’s presumably so excellently zoned because he’s listening to her play the enormous accordion balanced across her thigh. The backdrop, which appears to be a cut-and-paste job, is a mountainside scene. The whole world is reduced to the two of them, having a happy day making music. Please get me there ASAP; until then, I’ll listen to Accordion and Voice to surface the kind of serenity this pup is living.

    Offering just what the title suggests, this is the quintessential Oliveros recording, two 20-minute pieces of gentle tones. “Horse Sings From Cloud” feels like a stripped and slowed raga. “Rattlesnake Mountain” is slightly more mournful, with less vocals; if you want to hear the same accordion sound used in polka, it’s there, the basic fact of air being pushed around but with very little interruption. Oliveros occasionally drops in a quick riff but, mostly, she seems to push her instrument’s folds in and out at a slow pace, the big accordion taking one deep breath after another. Oliveros’ playing feels like an extension of the natural world, not something built to interpret it. –Matthew Schnipper

    Release Year: 1982

    Listen:Pauline Oliveros: “Rattlesnake Mountain”


    Inter-Dimensional Music



    Iasos’ universe is populated with images of glowing light, mandalas, chakras, rainbows, paradise, and angels. (The ur-New Age artist, he even sells couch-sized crystals on his website.) But the Greek-born, Sausalito-based composer’s musical vision defies easy categorization; he gets daps from the Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts and the architect R. Buckminster Fuller alike.

    One can trace the rise of New Age music back to Iasos’ debut album, Inter-Dimensional Music, which emerged the same year as Brian Eno’s Discreet Music and Steven Halpern’s first album. Positing himself less as “the artist” and more as a vessel through which spirits enact vibrations on this earthly plane, meditations like “Rainbow Canyon” and “Cloud Prayer” are as blissful and calming to both the near-dead and the fully awake. Small wonder that when the psychology department at Plymouth State College studied patients who had near-death experiences, they discovered that Iasos’ music was the closest approximation to what they’d heard in their temporary afterlives. –Andy Beta

    Release Year: 1975

    Listen:Iasos: “Cloud Prayer”

    Folke Rabe


    Dexter's Cigar


    Folke Rabes “What??” begins with a single pair of tones—two sine waves, hovering in sustained near-unison—and a cursory listen might suggest that it never really goes anywhere from there. Composed in 1967, the 26-minute piece bears virtually none of the features of Western classical music or popular song; there are no melodies, no rhythms, not even any notes, basically. Instead, the Swedish composer's ultra-minimalist landmark represents an attempt to get inside the mechanics of sound—“to ‘hear into’ the different sounds in order to grasp the components that made them up,” as Rabe once explained. Microtonal variations between tones create new overtones; what begins as a single held note soon splits into a chord and becomes a throbbing, teeming field of riotous wibble.

    The listening experience is a little like staring at a screen illuminated by what appears to be a plain white light, steady and unchanging, only to realize that all the colors of the rainbow are not only present but at war with one another. What seems at first to be neutral and serene becomes wild and untamed, a total spectral headfuck, and the more deeply you listen, the more intense it becomes. Evolving too slowly for the listener to perceive its changes, much less its overall structure, it is almost hallucinatory in the way it seems to impose a radically different sense of the passage of time. –Philip Sherburne

    Release Year: 1967

    Listen:Folke Rabe: “What??”

    Folke Rabe


    Dexter's Cigar


    Folke Rabes “What??” begins with a single pair of tones—two sine waves, hovering in sustained near-unison—and a cursory listen might suggest that it never really goes anywhere from there. Composed in 1967, the 26-minute piece bears virtually none of the features of Western classical music or popular song; there are no melodies, no rhythms, not even any notes, basically. Instead, the Swedish composer's ultra-minimalist landmark represents an attempt to get inside the mechanics of sound—“to ‘hear into’ the different sounds in order to grasp the components that made them up,” as Rabe once explained. Microtonal variations between tones create new overtones; what begins as a single held note soon splits into a chord and becomes a throbbing, teeming field of riotous wibble.

    The listening experience is a little like staring at a screen illuminated by what appears to be a plain white light, steady and unchanging, only to realize that all the colors of the rainbow are not only present but at war with one another. What seems at first to be neutral and serene becomes wild and untamed, a total spectral headfuck, and the more deeply you listen, the more intense it becomes. Evolving too slowly for the listener to perceive its changes, much less its overall structure, it is almost hallucinatory in the way it seems to impose a radically different sense of the passage of time. –Philip Sherburne

    Release Year: 1967

    Listen:Folke Rabe: “What??”

    Brian Eno

    Ambient 4: On Land



    The climax of Eno’s supremely fertile New York period, On Land is, ironically, an attempt to psychologically flee the very city in which he’d produced so much astonishingly innovative work. The working title, Empty Landscapes, reveals just how oppressive Eno had come to find Manhattan’s hyperactive bustle. Drawing on inspirations from film (Fellini’s Amarcord) and art (Pierre Tal-Coat’s pastoral paintings), Eno was, above all, working from personal memory: his faded impressions of the unpopulous East Coast of England, where he’d grown up. Some tracks are named after places he frequented as a child (Leek Hills, Dunwich), while another (“Lantern Marsh”) gets it title from an evocative name he’d seen on a map.

    Aiming for “a nice kind of spooky” and a “feeling of aloneness,” On Land pushes much deeper into abstraction than Music for Airports. Eno drastically processes the instrumental sounds until unrecognizable and weaves in natural-world timbres such as stones and frog noises. The glinting, amorphous result has barely any ancestors in music. On Land was a deeply conceptual project: Eno wrote 25,000 words of notes to articulate what he was trying to do and invented a three-speaker system that listeners could set up to intensify the feeling of sonic engulfment.  But On Land ultimately works on a purely emotional level, as a heartsick 34-year-old expatriate mentally prepares himself for the homecoming that will follow in a few years. After all, “On Land” is only a missing consonant and a shifted vowel from “England.” –Simon Reynolds

    ReleaseYear: 1982

    Listen:Brian Eno: “The Lost Day”

    Keith Fullerton Whitman




    Keith Fullerton Whitman took a radical turn on 2002’s Playthroughs, his first official solo album under his own name. Compared to the frantic drum-and-bass sprints he made as Hrvatski, Playthroughs is a sonic still frame, filled with long tones and blended layers that Whitman made by filtering his guitar through a self-devised computer process. Yet there’s still a ton of action in the album’s five tracks: shifting drones, swelling atmospheres, rippling sonic waves. It’s all timed and arranged with uncanny precision; every sonic event feels perfectly clear and balanced, as if Whitman’s computer is thinking many moves ahead, like a chess program beating Garry Kasparov. Some music at the time sounded similar, and Whitman has since made many records that build deftly upon what he achieved here. But nothing has ever quite matched the impeccable purity of Playthroughs, a record that seems to hook itself into some fundamental cosmic brainwave and never let go. –Marc Masters

    ReleaseYear: 2002

    Listen:Keith Fullerton Whitman: “Feedback Zwei”


    Endless Summer



    The two words that form the title of Christian Fennesz’ 2001 landmark album are equally important. The summer side of Endless Summer is perhaps more prominent, as Fennesz evokes sun, beaches, and breezes through sublime weaving of sampled guitar, glitchy noises, and sliced-up tones. But the endless quality is what endures: This is an album about the infinite nature of memory, about how every summer, every season, every experience becomes immortalized by the mind, playing on a loop in the background of life. It’s not that those memories never change; in fact, the way Fennesz makes his sounds recur and retreat, stutter and fuse, perfectly matches the malleability and impermanence of recollections. But no matter how much they bubble and morph, memories always remain—and so do Fennesz’s notes, strums, and waves, all ebbing and flowing perpetually like a sea that never stops lapping the shore. –Marc Masters

    ReleaseYear: 2001

    Listen:Fennesz: “Made in Hong Kong”


    A I A : Alien Observer



    Liz Harris’ voice has the ability to leave you dumbstruck, speechless, just plain wrecked. It’s so beautiful, it’s almost mythic. Her hums, the barely audible whispers of words, the repetitions of phrases—they are often phantom presences, conjuring spooky action at a distance. On the first side of A I A: Alien Observer, she casts aside her previous inscrutability and replaces it with focused intensity. There is perfect symmetry between her spectral voice and the wash of equally striking, shrouded noises she employs. In “She Loves Me That Way,” her voice is like some astral lodestar, corralling the clouds of guitar echo and distant noise into a lush swirl of sound. Other instances, like the album’s title track, are almost liturgical: Harris stretches her voice into a ghostly chorus. Alien Observer feels material and visceral, but it retains her sense of mystery and emotional resonance. –Kevin Lozano

    ReleaseYear: 2011

    Listen:Grouper: “She Loves Me That Way”

    Oneohtrix Point Never


    Mexican Summer / Software


    As good as advertisements are at getting our attention, we are often even better at ignoring them. Like the banner ad on your favorite website that you’ve seen a hundred times but never really registered, never mind clicked. Or the billboards you walk by every day that don’t make it past your peripheral, and the TV ads that soundtrack nothing but your Twitter scrolling. Though these blasts of capitalism aim to stun, they often recede into the ether. But they’re still there, making a soft impression. In this way, advertising might be the most pervasive ambient art form of our time.

    This idea churns through Replica, an exercise in science-fiction nostalgia by Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, a man who's never shied away from conceptual electronic experimentation. The album is sourced from samples of old commercials, cut, looped, and doused with effects. So a Folgers TV spot turns into something playful and strange on “Sleep Dealer,” a song that answers the question, “What if a jingle’s ghost became sentient and started listening to a lot of Thelonius Monk?” By spinning the white noise of commerce into abstraction, Replica pulls off something of a meta-ambient coup. It’s music that only sells itself. –Ryan Dombal

    ReleaseYear: 2011

    Listen:Oneohtrix Point Never“Sleep Dealer”

    The Orb

    Orbus Terrarum



    The Orb have always been mad hatters, tinkering with genre boundaries and aural expectations; they’re heretics who explore the borders of house music, progressive, and ambient. Whether pushing the physical limits on what constitutes a single (see all 39:58 of their woozy “Blue Room,” the longest song to ever chart in the UK) or dropping a fuzzy cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun” during an otherwise chill Peel Session, Dr. Alex Paterson and his cohorts can soothe and startle in equal measure.

    The group’s third album, Orbus Terrarum, remains their psychedelic pinnacle, embracing opposite urges throughout: It’s concise and sprawling, catchy and abstract, placid and turbulent, spacey and aquatic. It marks the beginning of Paterson’s decades-long collaboration with Thomas Fehlmann, and it makes sense that tracks like “Montagne D’Or,” “Plateau,” and the elegant piano of “Oxbow Lakes” suggest geographical phenomena. Each expansive track doubles as an enveloping environmental space, places to roam and explore or just sit still and zone out. –Andy Beta

    ReleaseYear: 1995

    Listen:The Orb, “Montagne D’Or”

    Stars of the Lid

    And Their Refinement of the Decline



    “Dungtitled (In A Major),” “Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage,” “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface”—pretty sophomoric names for song titles. But the 18 tracks on Stars of the Lid’s final record, And Their Refinement of the Decline, are a brilliant act of bathos in reverse. These stupid combinations of words are gateways to impeccably beautiful sounds: Language (of any maturity level) feels useless next to the gentle rushes of horns, cellos, and clarinets.

    Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie’s work on And Their Refinement of the Decline seems to reflect old-fashioned grandeur, powerful romance. Yet somehow, McBride and Wiltzie have a sense of humor that makes the album constantly feel generous, easygoing, and surprisingly gregarious. Rarely is art so casual and staggering simultaneously. –KevinLozano

    ReleaseYear: 2007

    Listen:Stars of the Lid, “The Evil That Never Arrived”

    Alice Coltrane

    Turiya Sings

    Avatar Book Institute


    During the 1960s, many artists and musicians embraced Eastern religion and explored its disciplines, from the Beatles and the Beach Boys studying Transcendental Meditation to Pete Townshend and Carlos Santana becoming students of Indian gurus. For most of these musicians, it was just a phase, but for Alice Coltrane, her study with Swami Satchidananda began a lifelong path of spiritual study.

    It’s staggering to visit the Vedantic Center in California and see Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda represented not as a jazz figure or musical icon, but rather a spiritual teacher and Swamini. Turning her back on public life and her recording career in the late ’70s, Coltrane founded her own ashram and recorded a series of haunting cassettes of devotional Hindu bhajans that were only available for purchase at the center. These legendary tapes—still not in wide release—are some of her most moving work. Utilizing only organ and her voice, the nine hymns that comprise 1982’s Turiya Sings have a distilled, deeply personal quality to them. Hearing them is like listening to Coltrane in dialogue with the Divine. –Andy Beta

    ReleaseYear: 1982

    Listen:Alice Coltrane: “Jagadishwar”

    Terry Riley

    Persian Surgery Dervishes



    Where American minimalism, Indian classical raga, barrelhouse piano, modal jazz, and rugged western individualism all intersect, there stands the sage composer Terry Riley. The California-born musician drew from his gig as a barroom pianist, Coltrane fan, and student with La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath to bring his vision of music to life. His work exploded listeners’ notions of classical composition with his ever-shifting structures and epic improvisations.

    Unless you experienced it in-person, though, Riley’s live “all night flights” were scarcely documented and never fully captured on record. The closest we get to such nirvana is via the two live performances from the early ’70s that comprise his 1972 double album, Persian Surgery Dervishes. With only an electric organ and Riley’s “time-lag” accumulator (a reel-to-reel that played back loops of his improvisations), Dervishes is four sides of oozing drones, percolating virtuosic soloing, and undulating waves of bliss. It’s layered so as to suggest spellbinding Islamic tile patterns, lava lamp globes, and infinity itself. –Andy Beta

    ReleaseYear: 1972

    Listen: Terry Riley: “Performance One, Part Two”

    Robert Ashley

    Automatic Writing



    On “Automatic Writing,” Robert Ashley composes under the influence of his “involuntary speech.” (In his liner notes, Ashley revealed that he suffered from “a mild form of Tourette’s.”) The piece starts quietly, with scraps of Ashley’s mild, tremulous voice arranged next to more fluid French translations and barely-there touches of Moog. After Ashley’s phrases lengthen enough to encompass sense-making phrases, a bass-register groove briefly appears, vanishes, then returns. Few pieces so quiet have proven as captivating; many that intend to be equally startling can’t capture Ashley’s range of surprises.–Seth Colter Walls

    ReleaseYear: 1979

    Listen:Robert Ashley: “Automatic Writing”

    The Caretaker

    An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

    History Always Favours the Winners


    There’s a certain passivity ascribed to ambient music, both in listening to it and also making it; there’s less activity involved in making this type of music than, say, “Gimme Shelter,” if not less thought or process. An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is one of the most passive efforts of the genre; on it, Leyland Kirby, working under his Caretaker alias, plays a collection of early 20th century parlor music and moves the microphone somewhere between a half-parlor and a half-acre away. Perhaps there’s a quarter-turn of a filter dial somewhere; it’s difficult to tell.

    But there’s a certain performative aspect to Empty Bliss, a “Voila!” in the way Kirby transforms a trifling, social music style into an otherworldly remembrance. The crackles and pops remind us that physical media decays; the notes remind us that styles, modes, and ways of living do, too. Lots of ambient music fades into the background, emphasizing the importance of the background; An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is all about the fade. –Andrew Gaerig

    ReleaseYear: 2011

    Listen:The Caretaker: “Moments of Sufficient Lucidity”

    Brian Eno




    Where Music for Airportswas meant to slip almost undetected into the atmosphere around us, this 1983 soundtrack to NASA footage of the Apollo moon missions tackled a more impressionistic goal, translating the emotional experience of space exploration for earthbound consumption. It succeeded: Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks helped set the tone for essential strains of ambient music to come. “Drift” conveys a weightless sense of awe, a profoundly calming glimpse of the sublime that continues to resonate in new age; the held tones and whale song of “Matta” lead directly to the dark ambience of Biosphere, Robert Rich, and the Fax label.

    Where Music for Airports reduced musical form to an abstract, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks moves in the opposite direction, marking a reconciliation between atmospheric sound and more conventional musical forms. The elegant and slow-moving “An Ending (Ascent)” is not so far off from the late-Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, simply boiled down for DX7 and tape effects. And producer Daniel Lanois pedal steel comes to the fore throughout the B-side. The country-music flourishes were inspired in part by the American qualities of the space program, as well as the Texan background of some of its astronauts, but they also make a broader point: Cut the drums and add enough reverb, and virtually any genre can be made into ambient music. Lanois would go on to pick up that line of inquiry on his masterful 2016 solo LP Goodbye to Language, administering the pedal steel in liquid form, as if by IV drip. –Philip Sherburne

    ReleaseYear: 1983

    Listen:Brian Eno: “An Ending (Ascent)”

    Laurie Spiegel

    The Expanding Universe

    Unseen Worlds / Philo


    It would be helpful if there were another term—a better term, a more rigorous term—for ambient music, one that hadn’t been sullied by years’ worth of spa soundtracks and dodgy chillout compilations. You could conceivably file Laurie Spiegels The Expanding Universe under “academic computer music”—it is, after all, the product of a pioneering computer scientist who studied composition at Juilliard before going to work at Bell Laboratories, where she contributed code to a number of early computer-music technologies. But that tag, in turn, is so cold, so formal, so starched-shirt. And unlike much academic computer music of its time, Spiegel’s 1980 album is approachable, expressive, and deeply enjoyable; it betrays no suspicion of pleasure, makes no knee-jerk obeisance to the angry gods of dissonance.

    With a programmer’s eye for detail, Spiegel renders both extended drones and folk-inspired counterpoints in the simplest of terms. On slow-moving pieces like “Old Wave” and “The Expanding Universe,” much of the action lies in the subtle modulation of analog waveforms, while “Patchwork” and “Appalachian Grove” offer deep dives into vivid and mercurial harmonic structures. (The latter track is part of the 100 minutes of previously unreleased material added to the album’s 2012 reissue.) On “Kepler’s Harmony of the Worlds,” she shifts her focus toward see-sawing glissandi and dense thickets of overtones. It’s only fitting that the piece, inspired by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s theory of harmony and geometrical form, was included on NASA’s “Golden Record,” a gold disc engraved with some of humanity’s most notable musical achievements that travels on board the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft—the first of which has already reached interstellar space. –Philip Sherburne

    ReleaseYear: 1980

    Listen:Laurie Spiegel: “Patchwork”



    Mille Plateaux


    Though he specializes in beautiful understatement, Wolfgang Voigt’s influence on atmospheric music is hard to overstate. First, he helped turn techno ambient as a leader of Germany’s minimal scene, where he cofounded the definitive Kompakt label. Then he transmuted it back, producing a new substance that bridged the two genres. With Gas, the most famous of his many recording aliases, Voigt plunged house beats deep into richly textured loam, creating a dark, dense counterpoint to the relatively bright and airy ambient house of the Orb.

    According to popular lore, the sound grew out of Voigt’s youthful experiences tripping on mushrooms in the Black Forest, and his record Königsforst most directly evokes that particular mystery and awe, with a lone kick drum as a spirit guide through vast, shadowy woods. But it’s Pop, Gas’ final album, that distills this into their visionary statement—brighter, less muffled, and more songful. Voigt deconstructs his glowering 4/4 lope and retools it with bright melodies, beveled cymbal washes, free-range basses, and other writhing elements into a shaggy stasis. The odd texture of the first two tracks, somewhere between a rainforest and a dot matrix printer, should become tiresome soon, but Voigt extracts every shade of effervescence from it. The result is Gas’ most enduringly habitable sound world. –Brian Howe

    ReleaseYear: 2000

    Listen:Gas, “Untitled 1”

    Fripp & Eno

    Evening Star



    Though it contains Brian Eno’s signature lolling synthesizers, Evening Star, more than much of his ambient work, has a feeling of induction. That welcomeness owes much to King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s warm noodling and plucking; he’s like a wedding musician if the whole world was getting married.

    Evening Star, which opens with the National Geographic-esque titled “Wind on Water,” maintains its ebullient tone throughout its first half. But the second side, the almost 30-minute track, “An Index of Metals,” shows the sinister side of the duo, with less synthesizer bounce and more iciness. It’s less playful than the first half, and more shocking. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the 1970s, when others made ambient music that felt allegorically about life and death, the two locked in some eternal competition. Rather than co-mingle the two, Fripp and Eno split them like some kind of fork in the road. –Matthew Schnipper

    ReleaseYear: 1975

    Listen:Robert Fripp & Brian Eno, “Wind on Water”

    Tim Hecker

    Harmony in Ultraviolet



    Tim Hecker’s style of ambiance has always shaded dark, but Harmony in Ultravioletis his purest exploration of what lies beneath. Where his earlier work favored the crackle of garbled transmissions and clanging metallic wires, Harmony in Ultraviolet leans toward heavy, layered drone, drifting by like a massive airship that appears far too heavy to remain aloft, a Star Wars-scale object that blots out the sky and shoots off sparks. His palette includes pipe organs, gnarly guitar feedback, static, and woozy strings, all of which come together for music of awe, the feeling of contemplating an erupting volcano or a massive tornado from a safe distance. It makes you feel small, one speck on a pale blue dot. Harmony is the rare ambient album that begs to be played loud. –Mark Richardson

    ReleaseYear: 2006

    Listen:Tim Hecker: “Dungeoneering”

    Panaiotis / Stuart Dempster / Pauline Oliveros

    Deep Listening

    New Albion


    Pauline Oliveros has called improvisation thenatural state of human existence—because, amidst even all the surface chaos of everyday experience, “the universe is improvising...and we have evolution, so [improvisation] is always happening.” It’s why, to Oliveros, the most considerate way to live is to listen. So, in 1988, she descended 14 feet beneath the earth, into a cistern located in Washington where sounds reverberated up to 45 seconds in the dampness. She brought the trombonist Stuart Dempster and the sound artist/vocalist Panaiotis to record music that doesn’t sound of this world. The trio carried with them an accordion, trombone, didgeridoo, garden hose, conch shell and a pipe, which all became mangled by the bigness of the room.

    Deep Listening, the recording born of these sessions, feels cosmic, like listening to the echoes of the Big Bang. It begat a new philosophy of the same name which focused on the possibilities of truly paying attention, retuning and calibrating your ears to allow for meditation and the preservation of well being. Deep Listening introduced into ambient music the radical possibilities of the body to overcome itself, just by listening hard enough. –Kevin Lozano

    ReleaseYear: 1989

    Listen:Pauline Oliveros: Stuart Dempster, Panaiotis, “Suiren”



    Thrill Jockey


    In the run-up to the new millennium, as digital technology inserted itself ever more deeply into our lives, ideas about progress and creative misuse were in the air, as unmistakable as the gravelly pings of the dial-up modem sitting in the corner of your office. Enter Oval, the German trio of Markus Popp, Frank Metzger, and Sebastian Oschatz, who made their name early on by sampling the sound of skipping CDs. If Systemisch is where Oval first distilled their idea down to its essence, then 94diskont is where they discovered their homemade medium’s expressive potential.

    Bit-crushed chirps and desiccated hiccups establish the basic vocabulary that will come to define “glitch music” for the next decade; some of the album’s more abstracted tracks, like “Commerce Server,” sound like a peripheral device coughing up pixels. On centerpiece “Do While,” glassy pings skitter like snowflakes across the frozen surface of a pond; bell tones rise and fall in pitch, glowing with an eerie luminescence. There’s nothing more to it than a handful of short, overlapping loops, yet something about the way they wrap around each other only draws you deeper into the mix with every elliptical pass. It goes on like that for 24 minutes, but it’s not hard to imagine letting it run for one’s entire waking day. Like Satie’s furniture music or Eno’s airport ambience, it’s a sound that both fades into the background and charges the very air around you. –Philip Sherburne

    ReleaseYear: 1995

    Listen:Oval: “Do While”

    Stars of the Lid

    The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid



    One great use of a synthesizer is to hold down a note, turn some knobs, and listen to it sparkle— to examine the big swells of harmonics created when a bundle of circuits try to sound like violins or trumpets. Lots of great music, ambient and otherwise, has been made by folks holding down keys on synthesizers.

    The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid seems to reverse-engineer this practice; Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride employ actual strings and brass, piling them on top of each other and sustaining them into gaseous clouds of overtones. Chemtrails of reverb and delay amplify this feeling as the music veers wildly between a low hum and a medium-ish hum. The arrangements find the middle ground between careful composition and pure drone, and the result is so beautiful and sad, it becomes funny, something the song titles seem to acknowledge (see: “The Lonely People (Are Getting Lonelier)”). Turns out, misfits and wise-asses are capable of grand gestures, too. –Andrew Gaerig

    ReleaseYear: 2001

    Listen:Stars of the Lid: “Piano Aquieu”

    The KLF

    Chill Out

    Wax Trax!


    The title Chill Out—a reference to the chill-out rooms common at raves in the late ’80s—harkens back to a time when ambient music was uniquely functional. It was comedown sauce for dancers and users who required womb-like enclosures, sonic or otherwise. Chill Out, which dropped as this functionality was crystallizing into a style of its own, is not useful in this way. Far from feeling encompassing, its diffused clatter of samples and references seems to let anything and everything pass through. It is an obtuse piss-take, because the entirety of the KLF's existence was an obtuse piss-take.

    Still, Chill Out has earned a place in the ambient ranks because of the serenity in the group's sample-adelic quiltwork, plus a commitment to scene-setting (it purportedly describes a train journey from Texas to Louisiana). There’s a tranquility that would be completely unnecessary if the duo of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond were just cracking wise. In emphasizing the specifics—Elvis launching into “In the Ghetto,” or a preacher repeatedly imploring you, the listener, to get ready—they achieved a kind of wayward, everyday clamor: music and voices and car horns, all sinking in deep. –Andrew Gaerig

    ReleaseYear: 1990

    Listen:The KLF: “Madrugada Eterna”

    Terry Riley

    A Rainbow in Curved Air

    Columbia / CBS


    The original jacket art for A Rainbow in Curved Air includes a short utopian poem that begins, “And then all wars ended.” It explores a world in which the Pentagon has been tipped over and painted psychedelic colors, all of lower Manhattan is transformed into a pastoral wonderland, vegetarianism reigns worldwide, the boundaries of society become porous, and, ultimately, “the concept of work was forgotten.” When it was released in 1969, the poem was probably not much of a surprise, as hippie culture was already ubiquitous, but it gives distinct hopefulness to Terry Riley’s monumentally influential piece of minimalist composition.

    Its visions speak to the friendliness of A Rainbow in Curved Air. The piece is a warm sensorium of repeated notes and early electronic weirdness, and it still sounds fitting in an incense-filled ashram or a hazy dorm room. The piece was Riley’s most commercially oriented; it leaked into the mainstream, inspiring the keyboard repetitions of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” and it also foreshadowed the hypnotic overdubbing techniques of Steve Reich and William Basinski, bridging generations of experimental music makers.

    What really makes A Rainbow in Curved Air so special is its overwhelming sense of optimism; of all its qualities, this is the one that has never been reproduced exactly the same. It feels good to be listening to this music: It permeates the air, makes the world feel sweeter, lets the drudgery of work disappear. It’s truly the ideal world Riley imagined in his poem—and it feels like music that soundtracks discovery. –Kevin Lozano

    ReleaseYear: 1969

    Listen:Terry Riley, “A Rainbow in Curved Air”

    William Basinski

    The Disintegration Loops I-IV



    In a healthy state, analog tape is pale brown, the color of the magnetic audio recording contained therein. In 2001, William Basinski, looking to digitize a collection of older tape loops he’d made out of easy listening music, found that the tape began to flake a bit as it played, like paint peeling. Playing the loops repeatedly, they began to lose their composition as the tape disintegrated. What starts as a snippet of a forlorn brass instrument eventually degraded into a pale imitation, as though he’d produced a composition and then, immediately after, performed its faded memory.

    The Disintegration Loops is immensely long (the first of its four parts is over an hour), but it is made up of repeated snippets sometimes as short as five or 10 seconds. Over the course of that mammoth running time, you hear the piece fall apart, literally. “I’m recording the life and death of a melody,” Basinski said in a 2011 Radiolab interview. “It just made me think of human beings, you know, and how we die.” The mysteries of life and death are perhaps too big a question to be answered by tape drone, and Basinski doesn’t attempt to. His piece is beautiful and sad, temporal and infinite; its changes are imperceptible, yet ever-present. It sounds like wind, like a ship’s horn heard in the distance when lost at sea, on track to either rescuing you or passing you by.

    Basinski made the accidental discovery of the tapes’ disintegration in 2001, shortly before the attacks on the World Trade Center. From his home in Brooklyn on September 11th, he made a short film of the light just before the evening’s end. When Disintegration Loops was released, a still from that film made up its cover. The music has since been entwined with the loss of that day, and rightfully so, but it represents forward momentum, too. Hearing the sound slowly degrade, it's clear it will eventually disappear entirely. But until then, it keeps going, trying its best to play before reaching the end. –Matthew Schnipper

    ReleaseYear: 2002

    Listen:William Basinski, “D|p 1.2”

    Aphex Twin

    Selected Ambient Works Volume II



    With Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Richard D. James established “ambient techno” as a viable concept rather than a contradiction in terms. But soon this serene offshoot of banging rave floor music became its own New Age-y cul-de-sac. Bloody-minded as ever, for its follow-up, James switched from chill-out to chilling: ominously featureless soundscapes woven from abstract textures and eerily fixated pulses. Gone, for the most part, were those lovely Aphex melodies shimmering like dewdrops on a spider web. The project’s foreboding aura was intensified by the absence of track titles: All 24 tracks were identified only by images of texture swatches such as lichen or weathered stone, as if to deliberately exacerbate the listener’s sensation of being lost.  

    There was beauty here, still, but a peculiar and unsettling kind: The opener, for instance, modulates a voice into a baby-talk squiggle, then ripples it through a hall-of-mirrors echo. James trailed the project—which proved as influential as its predecessor, with similarly mixed results—by talking about the inspiration he’d drawn from experiments with lucid dreaming, techniques that allow the sleeper to steer the storyline of a nocturnal adventure. True or not, the effect of this music feels exactly like being inside a dream: not necessarily idyllic, with a strangeness that haunts you long into your waking day. –Simon Reynolds

    ReleaseYear: 1994

    Listen:Aphex Twin, “#3”

    Brian Eno

    Ambient 1: Music for Airports



    Eno may not have invented the idea of atmospheric sound, but he gave it a name: ambient music. (No offense to Erik Satie, but Brian Eno is the whole reason you're reading this feature.) Eno, the 1970s’ wiliest and most reflective pop-star/philosopher, sought a functional music that could color the air to suit certain moods—the sonic equivalent of perfume, or air freshener. He set his quest in opposition to what was then the dominant form of environmental music: easy listening and “elevator music,” orchestral arrangements of pop hits, which he deemed “lightweight and derivative.” Snobbery was built into ambient music from the beginning: Eno aspired to create not just any atmospheres, but above all, tasteful ones.

    But he wanted to coax, not impose. Rather than “blanketing” a given environment, Eno imagined sounds that could enhance a space’s emotional resonance; he favored sounds conducive to doubt and uncertainty, as well as those favoring calm and thoughtfulness. In other words, he wanted to create background music for loners, aesthetes, and introverts, and that’s precisely what he achieved with Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Its piano and synthesizer melodies move as gently, and seemingly without purpose, as a mobile in still air. Simultaneously wistful and beatific, it is emotionally open-ended, and it makes for an ideal mood-enhancer, at least for the listener in a reflective headspace. If only any airport on earth were like this; the image it evokes—of patient, optimistic travelers gliding soundlessly along moving walkways while sun falls across gleaming surfaces of aluminum and glass—seems unlikely to be made real in our lifetimes. That train to the future has long since left the station (and derailed in a fiery heap). For the listener curious about ambient music who has no idea where to begin, there really is no better introduction than this. –Philip Sherburne

    ReleaseYear: 1978

    Listen:Brian Eno, “1/1”

    Contributors:Andy Beta, Ryan Dombal, Andrew Gaerig, Brian Howe, Kevin Lozano, Marc Masters, Jenn Pelly, Simon Reynolds, Mark Richardson, Matthew Schnipper, Ryan Schreiber, Philip Sherburne, Seth Colter Walls

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    Interview: Sound the Alarm: Nicolas Jaar and the Politics of Dance Music

    “Meet Nico at the triangle on 66th St. next to the head.”

    So goes the cryptic message from Nicolas Jaar’s publicist, in advance of my meeting with the 26-year-old producer. While hard to parse or plug into Google Maps, the directions seem fitting in this instance, in that Jaar’s own restless muse can make for slippery listening. But when I emerge from the subway station at 66th Street one Tuesday at dusk, such ambiguity becomes clear: The triangle marks the intersection of Broadway and Amsterdam on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the head is a bronzed bust of a famed early 20th century tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Nondescript in an Under Armour cap, olive tee, khaki pants, and a pair of camouflage Crocs, Jaar could still pass as a particularly devoted music student about to take in a performance at nearby Lincoln Center.

    But for the past eight years, he has occupied a rare spot in American electronic music, a vanguard talent constantly nudging toward wide acceptance. He’s popular enough to headline festivals while never giving in to bigger trends. Ever since he released a string of singles and his 2011 debut album Space Is Only Noise while studying comparative literature at Brown University—turning him into an in-demand DJ before he was legally allowed to drink—his music has continued to slither away from easy tags. It’s slow and sensuous, bristling and foreboding, noisy and elegant. And with each new release over the last few years, Jaar has expanded his ambitions, moving from the brooding psychedelia of Darkside, his project with guitarist Dave Harrington, to Nymphs, a series of mercurial 12"s, to the noisy and abstract Pomegranates, a 20-track (imagined) score to Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 avant-garde film The Colour of Pomegranates, to the (legit) soundtrack for Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning 2015 film, Dheepan.

    Now comes Sirens, with its cover art obscured like a lottery scratch card. Take a coin to that silvery surface and an old picture of Times Square becomes clear. But it’s not just any old picture. It’s a photo of the animated piece “A Logo for America,” which was created by Jaar’s celebrated Chilean visual-artist father Alfredo and played on a billboard in the middle of NYC in 1987. “A Logo for America” calls into question the way many people think of the United States as “America,” implying the erasure of Latin America. “It would be like the French calling themselves ‘Europe,’” Alfredo once told The New Yorker. The Sirens cover focuses on a particularly powerful still from the piece: an outline of the U.S. with the words “THIS IS NOT AMERICA” on top. The image’s confrontation of identity permeates the album, which is now streaming in full at Jaar’s site.

    Though Sirens references current issues—“It’s hard for me to not make a record about America right now,” says Jaar—it’s not the type of thing that will turn into a relic following Election Day. The record is Jaar’s most political work but also his most personal as it strikes a masterful balance between several sonic and emotional crosscurrents: from spiritual jazz to the menacing lurch of Suicide, gorgeous piano melodies to slinking reggaeton beats, furious white noise to charming old tapes featuring Jaar as a young boy talking with his father.

    Sirens also alludes to the producer’s Chilean heritage and scenes from that country’s harrowing history; churning highlight “Three Sides of Nazareth” has Jaar repeating a harrowing hook—“I found my broken bones by the side of the road.” When General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Unidad Popular government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973—a military coup trained and supported by the CIA—Jaar’s parents left Chile for New York City, where they remained for many years. They were the lucky ones. The atrocities carried out by Pinochet’s junta are innumerable, and exact numbers are hard to come by, but during his nearly 20-year dictatorship, it is estimated that around 3,200 people were executed, nearly 40,000 were tortured, and another 80,000 were interned, while many more were “disappeared,” never to be heard from again. Jaar himself was born mere months before Pinochet’s reign came to an end.

    The scratch-off cover of Sirens, featuring a photo of “A Logo for America,” an 1980s art installation by Jaar's father Alfredo.

    Near the triangle and the head, Jaar suggests we head south to the infamous tourist snake pit where his dad’s art once looped on repeat. Even though both of us are hearty New Yorkers, there’s something so grotesque and appalling about those blindingly bright blocks in Midtown: the density of vacationers outside Bubba Gump’s, the topless women with American flags painted across their nipples, the most ominous Spiderman imaginable. We last only a few blocks before ducking into a side street and hopping a train downtown, far from the hustle of grungy Elmos.

    As we move through the city, our conversation drifts between nerdy music talk and larger political themes. Jaar can be both chatty and enthusiastic as well as cautious and considered. He deliberates over some answers for a full minute, as if arranging the entire thought in his head before uttering a single word. We touch on Carmen Miranda, the popular Brazilian samba singer and movie star of the ’30s and ’40s and her place at the center of the proto-psychedelic vision of Busby Berkeley’s “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” and the modern realities of a musical monoculture that makes certain acts unavoidable. The phrase “Potemkin village”—that is, a showy facade that diverts attention from a real problem—gets uttered often to describe American political and cultural life circa 2016. He enthuses about Alice Coltrane’s ashram tapes, laments the closing of revered NYC indie music store Other Music, and notes how the shuffle functions of algorithms falsely mimic the true notion of chance. “For good or for bad, I’m very curious,” he shrugs.

    That inquisitive streak leads us to a performance by No Wave legend Lydia Lunch near Canal Street. While their work is separated by more than three decades, Lunch currently acts as a beacon for Jaar. Last year, he remixed one of her songs and had her perform as part of his residency at Queens venue Trans-Pecos. He also reissued both her 1990 spoken word album Conspiracy of Women along with a compilation of live recordings by her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks on his label, Other People.

    Jaar admits that Lunch is one of his first mentors, teaching him to pay attention to words and lyrics and their intent. “Time is too short to not care about those things,” he tells me. To this day, her growled words still arise in the middle of his DJ sets, lending the music a distinct character and ferocity. He talks about how the potent way Lunch maneuvers between politics and abstract fiction turned a latch in his mind: “I’m excited by those two poles being so close to each other, because in the end there’s something in each of them that strengthens the other.”

    The venue Lunch performs at is in the basement club of a ludicrously upscale luxury hotel. But despite the trappings, there’s a bit of the grunge and straight razor edge in Lunch’s set that brings to mind the danger of old New York City. Jaar takes in the scene like the intense music student he is.

    “I feel an affinity with the political aspect of dance music—maybe it can increasingly become a place of protest.”

    Photo by Callie Barlow

    Pitchfork: You received such universal praise with your first album more than five years ago, but you decided not to follow it up with another solo LP until now. Do you feel like getting those early accolades made you reactionary?

    Nicolas Jaar: [long pause] It’s very difficult for me to say whether I’m reactionary or not; that’s not for me to be able to see. But I can say that Space Is Only Noise had all these little tunnels in it, and I’ve tried to go into every single one of those tunnels ever since. And I see a way to imagine Nymphs—which is an album—and Pomegranates and Sirens as a triangle of records. I don’t necessarily see Sirens as LP number two. I see the three as equally indicative of something, in equal measure. It’s out of happiness that I go down these different little tunnels. Darkside was definitely one of those too.

    Is Darkside something you may go back to at some point?

    Dave [Harrington] and I really love each other a lot, and that project was very much about how much pleasure we got from making music together. In a way, it’s the most musical thing for me because it’s really about jamming and having a lot of fun. And I can’t wait to potentially do that again. But, again, I’m just very curious. Also, if you go on a year-long tour, you need some time to re-adjust and think about things.

    You talk about Nymphs and Pomegranates and Sirens as being of a piece—was the process linear?

    At the end of 2014, I had finished Pomegranates and Nymphs and I thought there was one record in between them that I would put out. But it never felt right. There was something missing. There was something that I was not delving into in both Nymphs and Pomegranates, so out of that lack came Sirens.

    How would you define that missing piece?

    Nymphs and Pomegranates was very private, intimate music for me, on a personal level. In the moment, I was making them for myself. Making music everyday is how I cope with life, and I love that. At the beginning, Sirens wasn’t supposed to be remotely about me. But, as most things go, you end up seeing yourself in some of the things that you make at one point or another. I sent all of my best friends the record because I wanted to know what they thought, and every single one of them said, “This record feels like you the most.”

    With Nymphs and Pomegranates, I had not questioned my idea of identity and I was just doing them as a constructed “me.” But in the months leading up to Sirens, there was a lot of change in my life—when you come back from a long tour, you really have to pick up the pieces in a way. I realized how much of a construct I had created for myself. This may be the trouble with the idea of one firm identity. I ended up being able to see myself in Sirens only when I realized that the broken mirror that I was seeing outside was also inside.

    Photo by Bongo Mills

    Considering how you reference your father’s visual art on the Sirens cover, do you feel like there’s a creative dialogue between your work and his?

    At one point while making the record, I thought that I was starting to see a path but then I realized that it was very similar to my father’s path, and that in itself was an illusion. You see the struggle of that in the cover—only when you scratch off the lottery paper do you see his work. A part of me wonders whether it’s the last exorcism of my stuff with him. It’s hard for me to say, but I definitely put a picture that he took of me as a kid looking like I’ve been abandoned on the cover of Space Is Only Noise. So there’s that.

    You sing in English as well as Spanish on Sirens. Do you write a song differently depending on the language?

    The song “No,” which is in Spanish, happened after I had just been in Chile for two weeks. I go every year. When I was 2, my parents split up, and I went with my mother back to Chile. Then they got back together when I was 9, and I returned to New York.

    So when I was in Chile this time, a newly created museum that documents the Pinochet dictatorship asked me whether I wanted to have a show there. I had already been thinking a lot about that stuff, as it was the reason why my parents came to New York; I was born here in NYC because of that, just before Pinochet finally stopped being in power.

    I knew the history, had seen some movies, read some stuff, talked with parents and cousins about it. But after going to the museum, I started putting more physical details and imagery to it. What interested me a lot was that, in 1988, there was a referendum that asked the Chilean people: “Do you want Pinochet to stay for eight more years?” That simple, yes or no. So the resistance—which was artists, leftists, activists—created a campaign for the “no.” They effectively turned a negative message into a positive message, which seems like the most elemental change that you can do.

    What is it like to understand more about your heritage and what was going on around you as a child as you grow up?

    If I have any trauma, it’s from the time I was in Chile. So for me to get closer to that history and my father’s presence and absence is very heavy. It’s strangely tied with this period in Chile with reconstruction after the terrible atrocities of Pinochet.

    For this album, I wanted to take this more personal thing and bring it into the context of this more context-specific political thing. The kind of sanctions that we need to put on certain things so that the world doesn’t combust is a matter of saying no: to profit, to a lot of these comforts, and we need to say no to killing innocent people. I know it’s very simple, but sometimes in the end you can see it on a very simple level. We know these things are bad and yet they keep on happening.

    We keep being complicit in these things by distancing ourselves just enough.

    Right, our comfort level is complicit in this. But I feel very fortunate to be living at the same time as Kendrick [Lamar], who makes us believe that culture can create change and awareness.

    I was teaching these six amazing guys and girls at the Berklee College of Music in Boston right before I started Sirens. After we all got to know each other, the first questions that I asked were, “Can instrumental electronic music be political? Can it be protest music?” They are questions that I’m still asking myself and maybe in this record I’m asking them outright. The first assignment that I gave the class was to make a song that was a certain length and in a certain key and with no grid, no beats. I didn’t tell them what we would do with it. Then we took all six of their songs and put them in Logic on top of each other to hear what it sounded like and what their impulse was. To me, there was something political in that.

    In what sort of way?

    Six people from very different places and heritages around the world coming together and creating a cacophony of harmony, or a harmony of cacophony, where—depending on which way you listen to it—either works or doesn’t. It either feels like the work of one or the work of many. Is it political work? Is it a utopian work? I have no idea. But that’s very much what I was thinking about at that time, which was around the same time that To Pimp a Butterfly came out.

    I feel an affinity with the political aspect of dance music—maybe it can increasingly become a place of protest. I have no control over how this album will be heard. It’s scary to me, and that’s a good thing. That’s what drives me.

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    Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: Now You Tell the Story: Paying Tribute to the Past Without Drowning in Respect

    1. Fantastic Negrito, The Last Days of Oakland (Blackball Universe) He could be inventing blues for the first time. With a guitar that has a pick-up that catches people talking as they pass the street corner where he’s playing—talking in time. In a city where the huge old Sears building is the new world headquarters of Uber.

    Fantastic Negrito: "Working Poor" (via SoundCloud)

    2. “FRENCH COURT TO RULE ON BURKINI BANS” (Financial Times, August 25) Story: “Demonstrators held a protest outside the French embassy in London on Thursday against the banning of so-called burkini swimsuits on beaches in more than a dozen coastal towns in France.

    “The State Council, France’s highest administrative court, is due to publish an initial ruling on a claim by human rights groups that the ban contravenes civil liberties.

    “The burkini, labelled as a provocative political symbol by critics, was barred in the wake of recent Islamist terrorist killings in France. Photos showed armed police ordering a Muslim woman to remove her burkini in Nice this week.

    “Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the ban, saying the burkini symbolised women’s enslavement.”

    The photo with the report showed Muslim and non-Muslim women with multi-colored, well-drawn posters on clean white paper—ISLAMOPHOBIA IS NOT FREEDOM, WEAR WHAT YOU WANT, and MISTER! HANDS OFF MY SISTER. In the background was a rough piece of cardboard with black lettering that by comparison looked like a scribble:


    Protestors rallying against the burkini ban at the French Embassy in London on August 25. Photo by Tolga Akmen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

    With its references to Bikini Kill and its 1991 cassette, its first release, and X-Ray Spex’s 1977 “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”—Poly Styrene’s clarion call, and her band’s first single—that placard was a pure punk no, pure because it was doubled: that crude sign was a critique of the burkini ban, but it was also a critique of the demonstration.

    The next day the French high court overturned the ban.

    Corin Tucker, who a not so long ago played both a suburban mom and Poly Styrene in a video for her band’s single “Neskowin”: “Who knew 25 years later those words would take on a totally new meaning?”

    3. Cyndi Lauper, “Money Changes Everything (Live in Romania 2001)” (YouTube) A great performance, and her best haircut ever.

    4. James Parker, “Donald Trump, Sex Pistol” (Atlantic, October) A piece that makes its point without showing off, though many lines are so good they feel as if they’re shot out of a cannon. As on Trump’s “followers—about whom one should not generalize, except to say that most of them would rather be waterboarded than sit through an episode of Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!

    5. “The Night Of,” Episode 6: “Samson and Delilah” (HBO, August 14, Kier Lehman, music supervisor) An afternoon scene in a bar, with attorneys John Stone and Chandra Kapoor discussing the hopeless murder trial they’ve taken on. Chandra is unraveling—she just broke up with her boyfriend, she’s panicking over the opening statement she can’t write. As Stone stops her from ordering a fourth drink, you hear a song playing deep in the background on the bar sound system, maybe a radio, all broken up, impossible to place, and for a moment it can take you right out of the scene. It turned out to be “I’m Just an Ordinary Man” by Benny Latimore (Atlantic, 1969): a soul singer with a strong voice that he seems to want to hide, to take down, so each breath comes out crying. There’s so much yearning and regret in every syllable it’s hard to take—and as the song deepens the characters’ misery, you can believe neither Stone or Chandra are hearing a word, and feeling every note.

    6. Eric Clapton, Sessions for Robert J (Reprise DVD and CD, 2004) Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Yes, especially when they’re drowning in respect, as with Clapton’s notoriously dull 2004 Me and Mr. Johnson, an offering to the 1930s Mississippi blues singer and guitarist who had been an inspiration and nemesis since Clapton was a teenager. But in this little noticed follow-up—with a film made of band rehearsals for the tour that followed—a sense of freedom only builds. “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” might jump out first, its rolling-and-tumbling riff syncopating it right out of the room, then “Stones in My Passway,” then the ineffable “From Four Until Late,” then anything else. It’s as if Clapton finally heard Johnson speaking plain: “I’m dead, man. All my records have disappeared and no one can hear me. You tell the story.”

    7. “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” (TBS, September 19) On Jimmy Fallon’s buddy act with Donald Trump on “The Tonight Show” four days before: “There were no cutaway shots to the Roots.”

    8. “I Feel Loved in #MyCalvins,” featuring Frank Ocean (Carrer de Pelai, Barcelona, September 17) On a huge billboard entirely dominating a triangle intersection. Ocean, with a slightly confrontational cast in his eyes, wearing a white T-shirt, is clasped by a small woman—she comes up to his neck. She’s a secondhandChristina Aguilera dressed in a white gown, a white fur, full length white gloves—her eyes closed, her head tilted down against Ocean’s chest, as if to say, I know it’s shame for a white woman like me to love a black man like him—but I can’t help myself. You’re supposed to feel a sense of violation, and a sense of racism itself put to shame. In a city where interracial couples are as common as well dressed and seriously tattooed older women, the message could hardly fall more flat, or seem more cynical.

    9. Vivien Goldman, “Private Armies,” from Resolutionary (Staubgold) From 1979 to 1982 the music journalist made dub music in London and Paris. None of it is ordinary, but nothing really touches this six-minute cultural travelogue, one of her first tracks, about how you can no longer walk down your own, suddenly racialized street. With Vicky Aspinall of the Raincoats on violin, Keith Levene of PiL on bass and guitar, John Lydon producing, and Goldman singing in a voice that can’t quite believe what it’s describing, snakes slither through the rhythms, then turn into rhythms; you can see the notes bend.

    10. The Color Line: Les artistes africains-américains et la segregation 1916-1962(Frémaux & Associés) For decades, Frémaux has compiled three-CD concept anthologies, and this, linked to an exhibition opening at the Musée de Quai Branly in Paris on October 4, is as ambitious as any. It begins by running the unmistakably white blackface vaudeville star Harry C. Browne’s “Oh! Susanna” (“Killed five hundred nigger”) straight into Marcus Garvey’s 1921 speed-rapped sermon “Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands Onto God,” with women screaming with excitement around him; it heads toward its end with Louis Armstrong’s 1958 version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” providing no preparation at all for Bo Diddley’s terrifyingly uncharacteristic “The Great Grandfather,” a rewrite from the following year of the 1840s black minstrel song “Old Dan Tucker” (“He wore the same suit all his life”) that seems to suck the whole of slavery and its aftermath into a two-and-a-half-minute moan. The 60 tracks here aren’t a history lesson, they are history—a history that isn’t remotely over, especially given the looming possibility of a president whose father may well have been a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan.

    Thanks to John Stewart and Richard Price.

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    Photo Gallery: The Man Who Shot All of Minneapolis’ Sounds

    Like a Midwestern Charles Peterson, Daniel Corrigan is one of the great hometown rock photographers—but instead of Seattle grunge, Corrigan became the lens of Twin Cities rock, funk, and hip-hop. Most famous for shooting the cover of the Replacements’ iconic Let It Be in 1984, Corrigan also snapped covers, portraits, and live pictures of the acts that have defined the ever-shifting “Minneapolis sound”: Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, Atmosphere, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the Time and of course, Prince. “I have probably the largest collection of Prince live photos anywhere,” Corrigan notes.

    Most of them were taken at First Avenue, the Minneapolis rock club (and its side room, 7th Street Entry) where the photographer has a day job as a maintenance man. But part of his employment contract requires Corrigan to shoot a half-dozen shows a month, basically of his choosing, for the club’s historical archive. Though Corrigan has shot bands all over, First Avenue has been his primary setting for over 35 years, when he began taking assignments from the University of Minnesota’s Daily and the fledgling alt-weekly City Pages.

    Unlike Peterson, whose stark black-and-white action shots helped seal the legend of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Sub Pop, Corrigan had never collected his work. That changes November 1st, when the Minnesota Historical Society Press publishes Heyday: 35 Years of Music in Minneapolis, a 224-page coffee-table book featuring nearly 500 images from throughout Corrigan’s long career.

    The accompanying text is by local musician, DJ, and writer Danny Sigelman, a longtime friend of the photographer’s who met the book’s future editor, Josh Leventhal, at a panel discussion featuring Corrigan “at this antique store near my house,” Sigelman says. “A friend introduced me to him. Josh was telling me, ‘I think it would be so cool to do a book of this guy. I came down here to talk to him about it.’ I said, ‘Stop right there—I’m your man.’”

    All the big acts are present in Heyday—each of the above, plus arena shots of MJ and Springsteen, and striking early portraits of David Byrne, Henry Rollins, Wilco, and many more. There are a slew of lesser-known but well-loved Twin Cities groups, ranging from Zuzu’s Petals to Lifter Puller (Craig Finn’s precursor to the Hold Steady), as well as a wide array of touring acts, from R.E.M. to the Clash to Motörhead.

    Pitchfork spoke to Corrigan about Heyday in the 7th Street Entry’s basement dressing room, then at an upstairs table in the First Avenue Mainroom; and to Sigelman over the phone. Below that, you’ll find a gallery of some of Corrigan’s most indelible shots through the years.

    Lifter Puller circa 1999. Photo by Daniel Corrigan, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

    Pitchfork: When did you begin your relationship with First Avenue?

    Daniel Corrigan: The first time I was here in an official capacity was in June 1981. I started as the photo editor for the Minnesota Daily’s Arts & Entertainment section, which back then was the third-largest daily newspaper in the state, and then went on to work for City Pages. Back then, not everybody was a photographer. And I was friendly with the club. I started basically an internship—their photographer for the club—for probably 14 years, I amassed a substantial archive of just live shows here. [Then First Avenue] hired me as the house photographer. I’ve been shooting six shows a month, at least, since probably ’95.

    [Fellow employee] Micah Ailie said that First Avenue is a pirate ship that doesn’t go anywhere. I fucking love that quote; it is true on so many levels. It is like a big boat, and taking care of it is like taking care of a boat. But the crew are like pirates. When we get a new employee, they have to wear a white staff shirt so everyone knows they’re new. I can tell if they’re going to be around [by] whether I can see them in a pirate movie or not.

    What’s the difference between shooting in First Avenue’s Mainroom and the 7th Street Entry?

    Oh, a huge difference. I’ve always been super respectful. If I’m in the way of a single paying customer, I’m not doing my job, and if I’m in any way making the band uncomfortable, I’m not doing my job. I’ve lived by that the entire time here. In the Entry, if it’s a full show, you have to get there early, get your spot, and not move. In the Mainroom, if it’s a sold-out show, one person can move around fairly easily and not do either of the things I’m trying not to. I always talk to the stage manager very first thing: “Any rules for photographers?” I just get out of the way. I think a lot of times bands don’t know that I’m shooting. As part of the club, I can shoot from wherever I want. It’s funny—I’d been here for 20 years when I realized: If I carry a little step-stool, I can do it all without violating either of my rules.

    How much physical space does your photo archive take up?

    A bedroom. [laughs] I live in a small two-bedroom anyway, and the living room office has shelves on it, and it is like being on a boat. The book is beautiful, it tells a great story. But we didn’t get to a lot of stuff. I’ve shot so many bands. My archive is fucking massive. It had moved through two different studios and then a divorce and then another move—so the boxes were totally shuffled. And we only have about 500 images. We didn’t get to any of my large-format work, which I actually shot a lot of bands in. And we didn’t really get to my medium-format color work. So there’s part of my archive where we just really didn’t have the time or mechanics to get that. We spent, I think, eight four-hour Sunday afternoons plowing through all of that.

    Danny Sigelman: Every time I went over there, it seemed Dan would find another box of stuff. [laughs] You don’t want to miss, like, “Here’s an outtake from the Let It Be session that’s totally different from all the others.” Once we started going through the digital files, it was infinite. He would take 100 photos of a show. Part of Dan’s brilliance is his ability to compose on the fly. Now, as he would say, the tendency is to “spray and pray” that you have a good shot.

    An outtake from the cover shoot for Babes in Toyland’s Spanking Machine, 1990. Photo by Daniel Corrigan, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

    Which photo shoot do you wish people asked you about instead of Let It Be?

    Corrigan: That’s a beautiful question—not that I mind talking about that one at all. [Babes in Toyland’s] Spanking Machine would be a good one. It was a bunch of dolls and three beautiful girls, and they set up a scaffolding in my studio, had them all arranged, and I was shooting straight down. They wanted to do something with a bunch of dolls; that’s what I was given to start with. Limiting the depth of the shot—I really liked that. That prompted me to put somebody up against the wall—which I don’t do—but as a way to flatten that depth of the photograph and still have it be dense.

    You also shot back cover art for the last three Hüsker Dü albums.

    I loved working with those guys. Bob Mould’s my favorite musician from Minneapolis. He’s the full deal. He’s a brilliant guitar player, great songwriter, great technician in the studio, great business sense. He also had a beautiful artistic eye; he was everything, you know? That was rare at that time, to find someone who was good at all the aspects of the game. I liked working for them.

    You didn’t shoot every single Prince show, but did you shoot as many as you could?

    Yes, as many as I could. I think I shot Prince five shows, maybe six. I was lucky I got to see him. He liked to be in control. Part of his vision of what control was, was having control of your [own] images; I completely understand that. I was shooting him at the Orpheum [Theater], not First Avenue. I had to shoot from the aisles; we couldn’t shoot from the front. I was crouched down on the mid-side aisles, and there were probably four or five photographers there. I saw somebody point and I saw Chick, the bodyguard, come grinding up the aisle, and I thought, “Well, I did something wrong.” I think I’m about to get thrown out, and he walks past me and grabs the photographer right behind me who was doing, as far as I can tell, nothing different than I was doing, grabs him by the collar, and drags him out. I thought, “Well, I’m next.” And he never came back.

    Morris Day and Jesse Johnson of the Time at First Avenue. Photo by Daniel Corrigan, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

    What was the Time like to shoot?

    They were colorful and action-packed; they didn't stand in the same place. So they were a blast to shoot. You can shoot [a band like] Son Volt—whom I love—and they just stand there, right? There's nothing. Or you can do Morris Day, where he's back and forth across the stage. The keyboards are in place, but everyone else is mad dancing. I remember very colorful sets. With Son Volt, they just set their stuff up on the stage and stand there and play, and that's their thing, and I love them for it. It's some of my favorite music. But it's a different experience when it's the Time.

    Photography is such now that I'm starting to believe it isn't really a photograph until it's a print. Because I ran into these Polaroids that Dave Pirner and I made in the Netherlands, on tour with Soul Asylum. We found a box of Polaroids from Husker Du’s Warehouse shoot. I remember the pictures; they weren't a surprise. But physically seeing the objects was cool.

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    Longform: Keep It Alive or Die: The Ongoing Evolution of Live Electronic Music


    This declaration blared on a screen behind heady experimentalist Holly Herndon during a Los Angeles performance earlier this year, as a bleeping helicopter loop whirled through the room. The message was Herndon’s dislocated take on typical crowd banter, a sly disruption of what we have come to expect from a live show. This unruliness extended to the rest of her set, which incorporated hardware, software, vocals, dance, digital processing and manipulation of all sorts, and shapeshifting vaporware projections. It was anything but static. Sometimes it felt like pure video game sound design or ambient gallery music, other times it rippled with the intensity of a trap show. Neither a rock gig nor a typical live techno show or laptop DJ set, the performance inhabited an intriguing in-between space and showed why Herndon is one of the most now-thinking members of a rapidly growing group of dynamic live electronic artists.

    For these vanguard acts, form and function don’t just inform each other—they overlap almost entirely. New technology acts as both medium and message, though it can be hard to tell where hardware ends and human begins, which is likely the point. Mistakes are inevitable and intertwined—and prized. These artists seek to push our expectations past the idea of someone recreating their songs in front of a crowd and go deep into an experience that’s both more memorable and more alive.

    “The notion of what ‘live’ means is currently being challenged,” Herndon tells me. “As machines may be easily programmed to perform musical tasks, we have to ask ourselves: What part of a performance should be live? What new opportunities do we have to play with liveness once we are somewhat freed from mechanical aspects of performance? Is cerebral performance as compelling as motor skill performance, and will that change?”

    Holly Herndon uses hardware, software, dance, and text-based banter to disrupt the traditional idea of a live show. Photo by Maria Jefferis/Redferns.

    In one form or another, live electronic music has been around for as long as the tools have existed, cropping up in the popular consciousness in experimental, rock, and pop songs since the ’60s. Groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream helped lay the groundwork for live electro, house, and techno, which in turn influenced rave and acid house, which was exported to America as electronica in the ’90s, when acts like the Chemical Brothers headlined arena rock-type spectacles. Things got a little stale electronically for a spell until Daft Punk’s 2006 Coachella performance and subsequent tour, which capitalized on the blog house crest, opening the door for the EDM and brostep explosion (and recent implosion).

    But while EDM is fizzling out, the last few years have seen all manner of live electronic crossover successes—like Caribou, Darkside, and Simian Mobile Disco—as the equipment required for pulling off such innovative sets has gotten more nimble. Right now, it feels like we’re in a critical phase of electronic music’s live evolution, at the foothill of a cultural shift toward a more definable movement in tech and music culture where anything is fair game, and audiences are open to radical shifts.

    Holly Herndon photo by Chris McKay/Getty Images.

    The most recent wave of live electronic pioneers is not without precedent. Detroit luminary Jeff Mills has been playing out for a couple of decades and is one of the more widely known practitioners of live techno; the way he works a drum machine can look like sorcery. “What makes something live is the usage of the musician’s intuition to feel what to do next—what to say with his instrument,” Mills explains. “It’s a reactionary gesture based on how the musician is analyzing the current situation.” Mills believes that the specific tools a practitioner uses are irrelevant. Though he sometimes prepares sections of his sets, after they reach a certain point, anything could happen.

    Talking about whether audiences desire such musicality—or if they’re content with another decade of first-pumping brodude shenanigans onstage—Mills isn’t especially hopeful. “People have been doing many unique things in music for decades,” he says. “Unfortunately, these actions are often overshadowed by music sensationalism; throwing pies, crowd surfing, and all the things that mask over real talent in the music industry.”

    Mills is not wrong: Main stage electronic artists often are only working from a predetermined playlist and favor cheap tricks over spontaneity and traditional talent. However, pre-recorded sets or backing tracks aren’t always terrible, and musicality or liveness does not make an artist better by rule; there are plenty of artists with decades of music theory in their brains who have no idea how to capture and maintain the attention of a room. So while there’s a certain whiff of rockism coming from Mills and other techno elder statesmen, it’s likely due to the fact that they’ve witnessed so many followers make millions off their backs.

    Live techno master Jeff Mills is known for his drum machine dexterity. Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns via Getty Images

    Octave One, another veteran Detroit act known for house and techno sets, has been playing live since 1999. The group is led by brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden, and their gear list is extensive, featuring both old and new machines. Though such an abundance of live tools leads to a higher probability that one of the machines will fail, it also allows for a huge amount of freedom. The Burden brothers have the ability to manipulate every sound coming from the speakers in one way or another. They can rearrange or program sequences, extend moments, play live or loop on the fly, and add effects. The infinite possibilities make each show unique.

    “There is a certain satisfaction that comes from playing your own music and reinterpreting it in front of an audience,” Lenny says, talking about the difference between DJing and playing live. “Instead of two stereo tracks you have 24 tracks of various sounds to make something new from. Live isn’t better than DJing, however—there’s room for both things in the world of electronic music.”

    Historically, the classic, purist view of club DJ culture considered the action on the dancefloor as the main focus of the room; instead of playing to the audience, like a rock group, the DJ played with the crowd. That idea was challenged in the ’90s and ’00s with the rise of superstar DJs, who often relied on pure spectacle, like a bunch of bass-addled Gene Simmonses.

    But some of the more successful live electronic performers now seem to be having it both ways, borrowing tropes from both DJ and rock culture, creating sets that sometimes flow seamlessly like a DJ mix and sometimes have distinct breaks between songs to make room for applause and banter. If anything, these acts are akin to jazz artists or jam bands rejiggered with laptops and blinking drum pads, where what song you’re playing isn’t necessarily as important as how you’re playing it, how the arrangement changes, how long the riff goes on, how it will only be played this exact way once and only once.

    With nearly two decades of live gigs in his rearview, Lenny suggests that novices should lean into the technical challenges of performing live instead of shying away from them. “One of the most important things is to be flexible,” he insists. “You will have bad sets. You will also have equipment failure almost every night. Don’t panic! Know your gear and setup well so you can troubleshoot and fix the problem, do it with a smile on your face, and keep playing. Chances are you’re the only one who knows that there is a problem. Sometimes mistakes make the best shows too.”

    Veteran Detroit duo Octave One take pride in the improvisatory nature of their live sets.

    There’s currently a whole crop of artists making music in the wake of Detroit techno’s first and second wavers, including the Amsterdam by way of Israel duo Juju & Jordash, aka Jordan Czamanski and Gal Aner. The pair is well-known on the European underground circuit, and they represent the jazzier side of the live spectrum. Armed with an extensive knowledge of musical theory, Juju & Jordash now play completely improvised shows—but it wasn’t always that way. After starting off doing gigs that featured both pre-prepared and spontaneous sections, they soon lost interest in the canned stuff. “We ended up only enjoying the parts that were totally improvised,” Czamanski tells me. “Having playback felt really stupid.”

    Although it may seem counterintuitive to the way many musicians operate, preparation became their enemy. Their knowledge and experience with their gear, music theory, and—most importantly—each other gave them the courage to jump in the deep end, leaving many of their peers in the wake.

    As a result, Czamanski believes that their brand of jamming has recently become more common. “Five years ago, more eyebrows were raised when promoters got our tech rider,” he says. “But now it’s way easier for them to get hold of the gear we need. It seems like many other live acts have more elaborate setups than a laptop these days, because all the new hardware makes it easier.”

    Amsterdam-based duo Juju & Jordash's live show slowly evolved into an entirely off-the-cuff affair.

    Along with more durable, user-friendly hardware, the modern tool that has played the largest part in breaking open electronic music—both in composing, as a digital audio workstation, and performing, as a sequencer and live “brain”—is Ableton Live. In its 15-year existence, the German-based software has ascended to an indispensable weapon, an application that is both friendly to beginners and the gold standard for professionals.

    There have been criticisms too, including what some considered to be a weak sound engine and a crummy warp function that bad DJs overused early on. A few years ago, outspoken producer Disco Nihilist said, “When you think of [Ableton], you think of shitty plip-plop techno. It’s easy, it’s cheap. [But] in a lot of ways Ableton can be more live than an MPC because you have more freedom and control in your set.” Almost every live performer I’ve ever met has used Ableton at one point or another, and the program itself continues to become stronger and more stable.

    British purveyor of icy-hot house Jon Hopkins, who has been using Ableton onstage for about seven years, tells me that recent updates to the program have made it more vital than ever. Ultimately, it’s not about the technical specs as much is it about the user being freed of old linear hardware constraints. As attractive as old modular gear can be, such instruments are incredibly cumbersome on so many levels. Ableton frees the artist from all the uselessly complex facets of engineering electronic music and is generally affordable too. At this point, Ableton is the de facto choice as a stable sequencing brain for any sort of live set, and its applications are not even fully understood yet.

    Jon Hopkins relies on the digital audio workstation Ableton Live to keep his sets fresh. Photo by Nick Pickles/Redferns via Getty Images.

    Singer-producer Jessy Lanza had an Ableton-related epiphany a few years ago when she was on tour with Caribou, a band that is constantly blurring the line between organic and electronic in their shows. “It was really interesting to watch the audience respond to them,” she says. “There’s four people onstage—including two drummers—but so much of their set is reliant on Ableton as a brain. The most fun part was when the more acoustic-based performances and all of the sequenced stuff that people were changing in real-time met.”

    Lanza has a jazz background but she doesn’t play jazz music. The Canadian artist falls in a category of artists, like Grimes and FKA twigs, whose chief aim is to deconstruct pop music as we know it. She came to international attention when she began releasing music with Hyperdub, an imprint known for pushing boundaries of electronic music, and she has tried her hand at various vocal-driven styles: freestyle, R&B, pop. She began playing shows solo, working synths, singing, and triggering playback herself. “Playing live for me was really scary the first couple years,” she admits. “Playing alone, I always felt like I had to do a million things, but there’s only so much that one person can do.”

    Inspired by Caribou, she hired herself a drummer and now revels in the newfound freedom onstage. “Having that energy and somebody to play off of has made such a huge difference,” Lanza says.

    After starting her career playing solo shows, Jessy Lanza enlisted a drummer to keep her live sets more engaging.

    As more and more electronic artists add live elements to their sets, and as the culture becomes more visible thanks to YouTube portals like Boiler Room, expectations for such spontaneity have risen as well. David August, a twentysomething from Germany who finds his musical center somewhere between house and classical, came under scrutiny a couple of years ago after playing a Boiler Room set—online commenters felt that, because his set was largely pre-structured in Ableton, he was not truly playing live; they had expectations for something more improvisational, so it felt like a cheat.

    Since then, August has become more confident in his abilities, but he doesn’t use the word “LIVE” on the bill when he’s performing. He wants to avoid that sense of overselling what it is he’s doing, which sometimes involves extending synth lines and using effects or doing edits in-the-moment, but rarely playing with no preparation whatsoever.

    I caught August last year at his first L.A. show. The set ran more than three hours. He was playing on the floor, and the place was packed, and most of the audience couldn’t really see what he was doing. From where I was standing, the most obvious crowd reactions came when he was improvising on his synthesizer or working on slow, long builds with gentle drops. It felt like a very cohesive DJ set with a few standout live moments, like August was still figuring out how his brand of melancholy, classical-tinged house should stand from the pack.

    One possible conclusion came earlier this year, when August, who is classically trained, mounted a collaboration with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, playing in a palatial hall rather than a dank club. The event seemed to fit with the work of Mills, who has been trying such experiments for a while, and other current artists likeNils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds, who are spearheading a micro-scene that’s becoming more popular than perhaps anyone could have predicted, breathing life into classical music in the process.

    Producer and DJ David August is one of a growing number of artists who's melding classical and electronic music live.

    In the realm of performance, what “live” means now can seem foggier than ever. The toys artists have at their disposal can lead to further adventurousness—or laziness. Perhaps it’s a matter of uncertainty, of surprise. The riskier a set is, the more alive it is; the fewer the safety nets, the greater chance of disaster. Nothing captures our attention more than someone walking a tightrope between death and immortality. Pumping some drama into electronic music can never hurt. Perfection was never really the point anyway.

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    Longform: The Discomfort Zone: Exploring the Musical Legacy of David Lynch

    Music shapes the cinematic vision of David Lynch in ways that go far beyond the simple marriage of song and image. In his films, soundscapes give sense to strange dream worlds filled with red velvet curtains, the churn and soot of industry, split personalities, and piping hot cups of coffee. Music is not merely an accompaniment or garnish—it plants itself deep into the narrative, revealing themes, building characters, and ultimately guiding the subconscious to parts unknown.

    Lynch’s musical experiments have always gone right alongside visual work. For his debut feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, he worked on the sound design with collaborator Alan Splet for more than a year, tinkering with unorthodox foley techniques and producing dark ambient sounds full of static hiss, convulsing gargles, and eerie clangs, as well as writing the lyrics for “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” as performed by Peter Ivers on the soundtrack. By 2006, Lynch had started to sing his own compositions, as with Inland Empire’s “Ghost of Love.” Though he hasn’t released a proper film in the last 10 years, he’s continued his work as a solo artist with the release of two albums under his own name, 2011’s Crazy Clown Timeand 2013’s The Big Dream. And across the last four decades he has also contributed to several music projects as a lyricist, producer, director, guitar player, and keyboard player.

    But perhaps none of Lynch’s musical endeavors has had the impact and longevity of “Twin Peaks,” the skewed soap opera he created with Mark Frost in 1990 and which will be returning to TV screens next year. It’s inconceivable to separate Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti’s euphoric and amorphous score—along with Julee Cruise’s floating vocals, which glide so delicately they feel like a draft gently creeping in through a cracked window—with the show’s cinematic and narrative world. It’s something the auteur is still proud of to this day. “The music of ‘Twin Peaks’ was integral to the experience,” Lynch tells me. “So much came out of the music that made the mood and the place and the feeling of the show come to life.” In fact, Badalamenti will perform music from the show at this weekend’s Festival of Disruption, a two-day event in Los Angeles curated by Lynch and featuring musicians including St. Vincent, Robert Plant, and Questlove.

    “Twin Peaks” impacted an entire generation of music makers in profound ways. “Everyone we knew watched it religiously, and if you didn’t watch it, we didn’t like you,” testifies the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, who took part in a concert celebrating the director’s musical legacy alongside Lykke Li, Sky Ferreira, and others last year. Trent Reznor, meanwhile, recalls delaying Nine Inch Nails gigs in the early ’90s so that he and his band could tune in to “Twin Peaks” in real time. “That was a real problem on that tour,” he says. “We had our priorities.”

    Longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti and his haunting keyboard tones star in a teaser for the forthcoming "Twin Peaks" series.

    “Twin Peaks” is not an anomaly however. Lynch’s career is inundated with singular musical moments that have given birth to pioneering explorations. Fittingly, these instants have manifested themselves through missed opportunities, infatuations, serendipity, and the unexplainable.

    Back in Boise, Idaho in 1956, on a warm September evening, Lynch’s childhood friend came pelting down the road to inform him he had just missed Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But not seeing the seismic cultural event allowed Lynch’s imagination to fester and spark, to forge his personal vision of the birth of rock’n’roll, his own mutated take on the King’s croon, his own version of the music.

    An analogous moment would take place almost three decades later when Lynch first heard This Mortal Coil’s cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” “It just drove me crazy,” he says. “I’m fascinated by that piece of music. I’ve not heard hardly anything as beautiful as it yet.” In the middle of putting together his 1986 film Blue Velvet, he became obsessed with the song and craved for it to be in the film—but the budget wouldn’t allow it. Instead, he decided to put something similar in its place, which turned out to be “Mysteries of Love,” the first collaboration between Lynch and Badalamenti. The pair’s creative partnership would go far beyond a pale imitation of This Mortal Coil.

    “Sometimes when you don’t get what you want, there’s a reason, and that brought me together with Angelo in a really important way and started this whole thing,” says the director. The two have since collaborated on iconic works including “Twin Peaks,” Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.

    Isabella Rossellini performs "Blue Velvet" in Lynch's 1986 film of the same name; Bobby Vinton's version of the song provided the initial inspiration for the movie.

    Lynch’s fixation with individual pieces of music has exploded to life on screen repeatedly over the years. The Bobby Vinton version of the song “Blue Velvet,” for instance, provided an initial spark for that movie; when Lynch heard the 1963 hit, it triggered his imagination, and he suddenly envisioned a twilit, shadowy neighborhood with a girl with red lips in a car surrounded by the rich hue of the neighborhood’s black-green lawns. The track painted a picture and set the scene for the whole film.

    Adagio for Strings,” by the American composer Samuel Barber, was another one. While shooting The Elephant Man in London, Lynch recalls, “I was in the living room on a couch with the radio on and up comes ‘Adagio for Strings,’ and the whole ending for the film came to life in my head.” David Bowie’s 1995 electro-pop deep cut “I’m Deranged” led him to the opening speed and pulse of Lost Highway. And singer Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish translation of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” recorded on a whim at Lynch’s home studio, opened up the disconcerting universe of Mulholland Drive.

    Singer Rebekah Del Rio performs a Spanish version of Roy Orbison's "Crying" in this iconic scene from Mulholland Drive.

    Orbison is yet another bizarre mirror in Lynch’s career and musical life. “Crying” was also a catalyst for another unforgettable scene in Blue Velvet, 15 years before Mulholland Drive. After hearing the song in a cab, Lynch picked up the crooner’s Greatest Hits album and found himself drawn to another Orbison track, “In Dreams.” “I thought, This song absolutely is Blue Velvet, and Dennis [Hopper] is gonna sing this thing,” he recalls. “But Dennis, because of so many drugs, had a problem memorizing the lines. So [co-star] Dean [Stockwell] was helping him, and one day they showed me what they were rehearsing, and at one point Dennis couldn’t remember the next line, and Dean took over—and Dennis’ face was so beautiful watching him. That led to the way it is in the film.”

    Dean Stockwell ended up singing Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" in Blue Velvet because Dennis Hopper couldn't remember the song's lyrics.

    Though the end results of Lynch’s cinematic output may be phantasmagoric, inimitable, and at times brain-warping, a great deal of them are rooted in the everyday, in extracting the profound from the ordinary. Or, as he describes it in the context of allowing the music, or the idea, to dictate the movement of a film, “The world is filled with beautiful accidents.” Here, many of those who have worked with—or been inspired by—Lynch and his beautiful accidents reflect on their experiences.

    Dean Hurley

    Lynch’s in-house studio engineer, co-producer, and collaborator

    The buzzword David uses for everything is “experiment.” That’s at the root of his whole quest—it’s just about wanting to collide elements and see what comes out. In the studio, I’ve seen David say to a drummer, “I want you to play World War II in three parts: Start with being on the ship and then move towards the beaches of Normandy and then have a storm rush onto Normandy.” Then he’ll just say, “OK, go.”

    We’ll play each other songs in the studio, and once in a blue moon he’ll get super excited about something. The last time was with Kanye West’s Yeezus. His favorite track was “Blood on the Leaves,” but the first thing I played him was “I’m in It,” and he just looked over at me and his eyes got really big. That’s his reaction when he gets excited about something: He gets that serious death stare and just goes, “Fuckin’ A, this is killer.”

    Trent Reznor

    Nine Inch Nails; composer/soundtrack producer for Lost Highway, set to feature in the new “Twin Peaks” series

    Around the time I was starting to formulate Nine Inch Nails I went back to really examine the sound effects and music of Eraserhead, which had a huge impact on our sound and how it makes you feel a certain way. Listening to Eraserhead, I remember thinking to myself, Why do I feel so fucking edgy? The sound of the room noise was incredibly loud. These were lessons that as I learned applied to my own arranging and songwriting around the time I did The Downward Spiral.

    I had a white noise generator that became pretty musical when you tuned it; you normally used to tune rooms, but it had a pitch in it and it was weirdly soothing. So I was messing around on that, and we ended up scoring a couple of scenes to Lost Highway based on those noises. In the studio, [Lynch] wrote shit down on a piece of paper—he scribbled something in a star-like pattern with an ink pen and said, “I would really like it to sound like that.” I thought, All right, he’s either really weird, or it’s some sort of test to see what happens, but it set the tone. He was very accommodating and I remember him saying, “Wow, that’s a beautiful sound” in that real loud, hard-of-hearing way he talks. It was like being inside a Lynch film in a strange way.

    A few years after Lost Highway I finally got my shit together and got sober. When I think back, that was one of my regrets—I wasn’t at 100 percent during the time I spent with him on Lost Highway. I was struggling to keep my shit together, convincing myself that it was business as usual. Looking back I know that I could have been better. That’s also when I was around David Bowie, another one of my greatest heroes. But that’s how life unfolded for me. I’m not complaining.

    Marek Zebrowski 

    Composer/pianist; Lynch’s collaborator on the 2007 album Polish Night Music

    David has this heavy ability to take people out of their comfort zone. That’s his secret. I don’t know how he makes me do things, but he did. A lot of artists like to think about form and convention, but David wants to explore the intuitive side of art. He succeeds.

    Zola Jesus 

    Singer-songwriter; performed at the David Lynch Foundation concert last year, recorded her album Taiga at Lynch’s studio, and Lynch has remixed her work

    Eraserhead was my first experience of David Lynch, and the score really stuck with me. I was fascinated by how it created an incessant tension and uneasiness that felt both totally alien and as familiar as a construction site. I covered“In Heaven,” and it is a very special song to me. Eraserhead is forever in my marrow, and that song flows through me like blood.

    Wayne Coyne 

    Flaming Lips; performer at 2015 David Lynch Foundation concert

    For me it started with Eraserhead—the wind or the sound of whatever is rumbling outside. His movies have such an unsettling effect on you because of the sound effects and the soundscapes—it’s a strange way to use music in a film. We’ve seen that film as many times as anybody can watch a film.

    The trailer for Lynch's 1977 feature debut Eraserhead, which featured sound design that was as revolutionary as it was disorienting.

    Nick Rhodes 

    Duran Duran; Lynch directed the band’s live concert film Unstaged in 2014 and also remixed their track “Girl Panic!”

    We saw Eraserhead and were so stunned by it. It had a real, lasting impact. And I love everything Angelo Badalamenti has done with David—notably “Twin Peaks.” The fact that the music had this creepiness—yet a sort of lightness to it as well—was intoxicating.

    Angelo Badalamenti

    Composer for every Lynch film from 1986 onwards, except Inland Empire

    When David couldn’t get “Song to the Siren” for Blue Velvet, the producer asked me if I could write a song to possibly replace it. I said I could try, but we needed someone to write a lyric. I recommended the director should do it since he would know the concept best. David agreed to work with me on it, all the while knowing how ludicrous it was that we could come up with a song that would ultimately replace one of his all-time favorites—it was like a joke to pacify the producer.

    So I was about to record Isabella Rossellini doing “Blue Velvet,” and she hands me a little piece of yellow paper that David had given to her and it says, “Mysteries of Love.” I’m reading it and saying to myself, This is not a happening lyric. There were no hooks. There wasn’t even a rhyme. I was so sorry that I recommended he do the lyric, to be honest. I called David and said, “Your lyric is really something.” I didn’t say good or bad. I asked him what kind of music he heard for the song, and he said, “Angelo, just let the music float like the ocean tide, just put it in space, make it timeless and endless.” I then played the song to David, and he loved it. He said, “Find us a singer who sings like an angel.” In walked Julee Cruise, and the rest is history.

    From then on I had a very unusual way of working with David. So much of the pilot music for “Twin Peaks” was composed without seeing any video, only David’s descriptions of various characters and moods. When I first saw the images married to the music, well, what can I say? It was, and still is, a beautiful thing. It’s incredible how he took isolated pieces of work and placed them. The recording sessions for “Twin Peaks”were all done at a funky little studio in New York called Excalibur with the great engineer, Art Pohlemus. It was this dark place where there wasn’t a comfortable chair to sit on and the mice were running around hunchback, but David loved that. He said so much music [in general] would sound better if it were played slower. So the opening deep-in-the-forest “Laura Palmer’s Theme” became ominous, dark and low. During one of the sessions, a drummer said, “Every time I come to a David and Angelo session, I play in two tempos: slow and reverse.”

    Jim James

    My Morning Jacket; performer at 2015 David Lynch Foundation concert

    David’s music with Angelo has had a deep impact on me, starting with the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack. It’s a reminder to me to always try and push as hard as you can towards the fantastical and surreal.

    Jamie Stewart 

    Xiu Xiu; recently released Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks

    Blue Velvet made me realize that this was a different level of using music in a movie. Shortly after that I saw “Twin Peaks” and obviously the music in that is the best music that’s ever been in a television show. Before we started Xiu Xiu, I had watched all of the episodes for the second time, and we were trying to decide what we wanted the band to be like. Thinking about the elements of “Twin Peaks”—being romantic and very frightening at times, the social commentary, the weird sexuality of it, and how it can be very funny and sweet but never ironic—we realized those elements were something we wanted to try to translate into our own music and apply to Xiu Xiu. The trajectory of that band is very deeply informed by our early-perceived thoughts of what “Twin Peaks” was. It is always present in our aesthetic consciousness.

    Julee Cruise 

    Singer-songwriter; Lynch and Badalementi produced her 1989 debut album Floating Into the Night, much of which went onto become the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack

    My collaboration with Angelo would have been horrible without David Lynch, let me tell you. Angelo and I are both classically trained, and you need to be malleable, which David certainly is. For “Falling” [which became the “Twin Peaks” theme] the lyrics by David were written on a napkin. When we were recording Floating Into the Night, it was more about moods than scenes, and that’s all I needed. He’d say, like, nine words to me and then I would be like, “Oh, I got it.” It was that quick.

    David would say things like, “It’s so smooth and delicate and pure” and these sorts of directions. Although on the track “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart,” David would scream, “big chunks of plastic!” to the sax player over and over again to get that great sax section in the song. That’s a pretty outrageous thing to say to a professional saxophone player, yet he understood. However, on the track “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears,” the Elvis song we did for the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World, the only direction that he gave me was to imitate Elvis—but then he gave me this additional direction by whispering in my ear: “This is sexual, you are coming.” That was one of the best—and most shocking—directions he ever gave me.

    David Paich 

    Toto; composer for Dune, collaborated with Lynch on uncompleted project in 2011

    David had two requirements for Dune. He said, “I want the score to be low and slow… very slow.” After we stopped working on the film, he took music that was written for certain places and moved them to others in the movie, and experimented with a lot of the material. He slowed down a lot of what our band and the symphony did to make it even lower and darker.

    When we worked together in 2011, he was directing me as a composer almost as we were doing this improvisational, avant-garde, urban hip-hop, weird, strange, dark stuff that David calls “inky”—one of his favorite words. He would say, “I want you to make it sound inky right here.”

    John Neff 

    Lynch’s ex-studio engineer and collaborator on various projects such as the 2001 album BlueBOB

    During the BlueBOB sessions, David would bring up a box of typewritten poems from his office, select a sheet, hand it to me, and say it was time to sing. I initially thought I would have time to go home and come up with a melody, but no—he wanted my raw ideas and I had to sing it as soon as I saw the lyrics. He would have me sing through his director’s megaphone into a ten thousand dollar mic with nothing but echo returns in my headphones. This had the effect of making me stutter a bit, which he called “money in the bank.” He wanted to treat the voice as an instrument or effect, not as a regular vocal. When I was singing, David would be on the talkback mic, giving me directions, trying to set a mood. Mostly he wanted a real flat read with no emotions. He said we were factory workers, churning out a product for others to use as they saw fit.

    Stephen Hodges

    Drummer on “The Pink Room” from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and on Fox Bat Strategy: A Tribute To Dave Jaurequi

    There’s a feeling in the air that he creates before you even start playing—even the silence is intensified. I remember he would keep saying, “It’s too normal, it’s too normal!” When we filmed playing “The Pink Room” on set it was pretty intense. David was just saying “more smoke, more smoke,” and people had to get naked on stage every time we did a take. It was a very altered universe.

    "The Pink Room" plays in the background of this scene from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

    Chrysta Bell 

    Frequent collaborator with Lynch, who has also produced and directed her work

    When you discover that kind of musical chemistry when working with someone, it’s like striking gold. You want to keep digging. David fulfills the traditional role of producer, but he also brings something deeper. His intuition guides us. In his studio, David verbally sketches the vision and mood he wants for the track. He uses words like “fragile,” “angelic,” “strong.” I take all this to the vocal booth and let it simmer.

    Barry Adamson 

    Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Magazine; composer for Lost Highway

    I remember fixing a scene [in Lost Highway], and David was quite instructive with me, saying, “When you work to a scene like this, it’s a good thing to look at their eyes all the time rather than going on what’s being said or what can you hear.” And I wrote from that place. I actually felt more comfortable with him than any other film director because he had a confidence about what he was doing. Some people that I work with are so fickle, but there was an assuredness about what he does and who he is and what his art is, which I felt I could relax in.

    David Lynch

    Music is a strange thing. It does something to the brain and to the heart. Music goes into us and a whole bunch of things start happening. A lot of times it will form pictures and scenes—it’s like a gift. It can happen even with music you’ve heard before, but on this particular day you hear this particular thing and it does something different. It’s just magical.

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    Interview: Dual Identities: A Conversation With Jazz Soulmates Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa

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    Festival Report: Surviving Oldchella: Scenes From the Ultimate Classic Rock Rager

    In the final hour of Oldchella, Roger Waters did something necessary. Instead of letting the festival otherwise known as Desert Trip fade out in a haze of nostalgia and medical marijuana while pussy-grabbing foolishness raged on around the country, the Pink Floyd songwriter launched a full-on war against Donald Trump, just hours after Sunday night’s excruciating presidential debate came to a close. 

    Complete with billowing smoke stacks and sirens blaring from speakers scattered throughout the crowd, the stage was transformed into London’s Battersea Power Station, the grim locale seen on the cover of Floyd’s Orwellian treatise Animals. The front of the power plant lit up with neon Trumps mutating into barnyard animals, Klan leaders, and little girly men (an unfortunate implication, but then again we all know how little Trump thinks of women). Next came a small collection of the Donald’s most embarrassing quotes (“I have a great relationship with the blacks”), followed by the flying pig. Of course. A longtime staple of Floyd and Waters’ shows, the pink inflatable was scrawled with the words: “IGNORANT LYING RACIST SEXIST PIG—FUCK TRUMP AND HIS WALL.” By the time Waters had finished this particular crusade, he’d brought out Hispanic children wearing T-shirts that read, “derriba el muro” (translation: “knock down the wall”) and recited a long, scornful poem he’d written just before George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election.

    Perhaps all this wasn’t exactly surprising for Waters, whose balloon pig had “IMPEACH BUSH” emblazoned on its ass the last time he played these same fields, at Coachella in 2008, but after three days of once-political rock icons skirting around the T-word in these distressing times, the broadside was needed.Here, at the generation’s first major pop-cultural caucus in a while, Waters attempted to remind the crowd of the anti-authoritarian beliefs they rallied around long ago, before they rose to power themselves. It was the kind of rare appearance by a popular artist that spoke loudly on a political level at precisely the right time. It was also one of those equally special moments late in a concert when a crowd visibly shakes awake, and not just out of sentimentality.

    Not everyone was pleased with the performance, including one man in a “Golf Is Life” shirt that I met later on, who told me he bolted after the Bush poem. It makes sense: The clusters of gated communities and country clubs surrounding Indio’s Empire Polo Club, which played host to Desert Trip, would not exist without conservative money, and Trump signs were not hard to spot around town all weekend. But the first Waters walkouts were less widespread than you might expect, at least within the reserved seats on the field, which cost $1,599 for the entire weekend. (More of a mass exodus, plus screams of “anti-Semite,” arrived after Waters launched into an extended anti-Israel/free Palestine diatribe, however.) All weekend long I found myself eyeing ordinary-looking folks my parents’ age and wondering, Is it even possible to dig Dylan and vote for Trump?

    "This is our Woodstock," said 22-year-old attendee Tyler Roberts, who was raised on his dad's record collection.

    The fact that people were estimated to have spent an average of $1,000 each to attend, on top of travel and lodging and bougie amenities like four-course meals by Cronut ambassador Dominique Ansel, sparked curiosity over who could afford to be there: Would it be the millennials who facilitated our current destination music festival bubble, or the boomers who inadvertently inspired it by perpetuating Woodstock’s lore for decades? Turns out it was both, oftentimes together. Nearly every attendee I spoke with fell into one of two age groups: 20s, or late 50s to early 60s.

    “I’m more of a hip-hop fan now—but my dad raised me on this,” said Tyler Roberts, 22, from nearby Palm Desert. “Today’s generation takes everything for granted, like it’s gonna come around again or you’re gonna see it on Instagram. But this? This will never happen again. This is our Woodstock.” (Later, he mentioned another motivation: “I saw that Mick Jagger was having another kid with a 29-year-old and I was like, ‘That’s what I wanna do at 73!’”)

    For the millennial children of boomer parents who raised them on classic rock in the 1990s (a time when ’60s and ’70s revivalism loomed large over pop culture), this was an occasion to return the favor, or at least just bond. I met a 61-year-old self-proclaimed hippie from Seattle named Helen Shewman who, despite regaling me with two separate tales that involved stalking the Beatles (including supposedly camping out under stadium bleachers as a 13-year-old), was brought here by her daughter.

    I saw plenty of father-daughter duos too. “‘Cinnamon Girl’ was the thing when I was a kid,” said a 24-year-old from Toronto named Amanda Palmer. “Remember that?” Her 58-year-old father Jeff, who looks a little like Neil Young if he grew Willie Nelson braids and tucked them up under his hat, most definitely remembers. He’s seen Neil 11 times, starting in the late ’70s and including a show six years ago when he got third-row tickets for himself and Amanda, whose favorite band is Broken Social Scene. Before this weekend, she’d seen Waters twice, Dylan once, and almost saw the Stones with her dad in fifth grade, but her mom thought that she was still too young—even sanitized and in their 50s, the band’s reputation preceded them.

    As a kid, Amanda Palmer bonded with her dad Jeff over Neil Young.

    For all the wisecracks about the average age of Desert Trip’s performers being 72, unlike Coachella and its ilk, this festival was an event where the music did not feel like an afterthought for its attendees. Maybe it had to do with the family-friendly vibes, or the numbered stadium seats that many people actually sat in. Perhaps it was the high ticket prices and palpable sense of FOMO that brought out the diehards, many of whom told me they didn’t think twice about traveling far distances. 

    Whatever the reason may be, Desert Trip was not an insufferable experience if you actually cared about seeing the bands. But it was also a slightly bizarre one, particularly if you were a listener who was looking towards the future as much as the past. I love this music, I was raised on it—but are we really supposed to keep on pretending that no one will ever make music this good again? 

    Though Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Pink Floyd have come to be lumped together as the titans of a rock canon epitomized by Rolling Stone, they’re all, of course, very different artists. And they played their respective roles throughout the weekend: Young and Waters as political agitators who like to jam, Dylan as the grizzled skeptic (he did not speak one word to the crowd, though he treated them to more old favorites than usual), Paul McCartney and the Stones as monocultural behemoths staying on script, and the Who with a bit of each plus unrivaled verve.

    The only real means by which these artists can be compared centers around how well they’ve held up in their performance skills as of this moment in time, and what they bring to their beloved old hits with the benefit of hindsight. By these parameters, the ranking went a little something like this: Roger Waters was the best (with some credit due to Lucius’ Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who brought new life to Floyd’s iconic vocal solos and accompaniments), followed by Neil Young (again with a nod to his backing players, Willie Nelson’s sons’ band Promise of the Real, who’ve leveled up). Then came the Who, the Stones, Dylan, and McCartney. Essentially, the three “most important” acts delivered the weakest shows.

    The scene at Desert Trip.

    If you’ve seen McCartney’s last few tours, you likely know his routine: the story about Jimi Hendrix (almost) learning Sgt. Pepper’s in a few days and playing it live with the Beatles in the crowd, the intro to “Here Today” in which he laments not expressing his love to John Lennon before he died, the bit about George Harrison being a great ukulele player ahead of “Something,” how “Blackbird” was his encouragement of the Civil Rights movement. And like his fellow septuagenarian icons (with the exception of Jagger), McCartney’s voice has accumulated noticeable weak spots, mostly in the mid to high range. When Dylan—whose vocal decline and (even more noticeable) apathy for what fans want has become common knowledge over the last decade—outperforms you, it’s time to shake things up a bit. You know, beyond clunkily reworking Rihanna and Kanye’s parts in “FourFiveSeconds.”

    But one high point came when Macca was joined by Young on “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” a song McCartney had apparently never performed live before Saturday, as well as “A Day in the Life” and “Give Peace a Chance.” The two haveplayed together before, but their bromance felt rare in its giddiness, particularly after seeing Young’s scowl peek out under his hat during his own scorched-earth opening set of fresh environmental pleas and improvised favorites (including a 22-minute “After the Gold Rush” that felt like the true Zenith of Neil). Instead, a “pinch me” smile was plastered on Young’s face as he stared at McCartney and screamed Lennon’s words of peace—an expression appreciated, and maybe even echoed, in the crowd. 

    “Both Neil and Paul were doing a message of love, I thought that was really important and clear,” Shewman, the hippie mom, told me. “We believed in love in the ’60s, and that’s what has to be happening again.” I asked her if she thinks her generation has lost that point of view. “People lose the message because they’re disillusioned and disappointed, but deep inside I think we were so transformed—LSD did it. You’d take a good dose of LSD and become one with the cosmos and that does not change—you have that belief that something can be different, there doesn’t have to be hate in this world.”

    “We believed in love in the ’60s, and that’s what has to be happening again,” said self-proclaimed hippie Helen Shewman.

    For an event built almost as much on the concept of rarity as nostalgia—many of these legends together for the first and last time!—the specific moments that seemed genuinely once-in-a-lifetime were not as numerous as expected. Young and McCartney were the only ones to join forces onstage, though Jagger continually referring to Dylan as the Stones’ opening act was the sort of sly diss you don’t easily forget.

    Instead, each of the six sets—ranging in length from about 90 minutes for Dylan’s slot to Waters’ two-hour-and-45-minute visually immersive feat—stood as their own concerts. From a financial point of view, the cheapest weekend pass ($399 for the back lawn) made sense: Seeing almost any of these acts live would run you at least $100. One duo of sixty-something friends I met—Rob Thomas from Paducah, Kentucky, and Tony Hammer from West Palm Beach, Florida—made the most of the bucket-list spirit and embarked on a two-week cross-country adventure together before arriving at Desert Trip, which they proudly called “the geriatric tour.”

    Friends since high school, Rob Thomas and Tony Hammer arrived at the festival after taking a cross-country road trip.

    The setup also seemed logical for promoter Goldenvoice, with overall salesestimated to nearly double Coachella’s $84 million tally in 2015, and for the acts, some of whomreportedly received their highest touring paydays ever. With returns like that, it’s difficult not to be slightly skeptical about the one-time-only aspect being pedaled here. Now that the festival industry has found a way to make an older, wealthier market of fans feel more tapped into modern music culture at large—as even the former CEO of Ticketmasterpointed out—why stop at just Oldchella? Each year could bring new combinations of icons slowly marching towards endings.

    This morbid line of thinking can spiral out of hand if you let it, but the truth is, we seem to be nearing the end of boomer rock’s reign, or at least the narrow view of it perpetrated by the canon. The fact that Desert Trip’s lineup was comprised entirely of white men—and that theNew York Timestook note of that and wondered where Aretha was—is perhaps proof of that. But what took place last weekend was neither a funeral nor the greatest concert that rock will ever know. At its best, it was families sharing the music that bonded them, even if they disagreed—as generations often do. 

    “My parents were bitching like, ‘Bob Dylan didn’t say hi or bye, he didn’t recognize the moment,’” says Roberts, the 22-year-old local. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean? He totally recognized the moment! Bob Dylan doesn’t do that—Bob Dylan doesn’t conform to anybody else! I love these old people, man!

    Check out more photos from Desert Trip by Chona Kasinger:

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    Longform: The Presidential Suite: A Look Back at Obama’s Musical Milestones

    ’Cause I’m black and I’m proud
    I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
    Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps

    Chuck D’s gruff protest turns ironic as “Fight the Power” blares across the White House grounds. On a bright October afternoon, over manicured grass and against neo-classicalcolumns, Public Enemy’s 1989 polemic plays as a sly, surreal soundtrack to the preparations for South by South Lawn, the Obama administration’s riff on Austin’s annual multimedia showcase, South by Southwest. Stagehands are snaking cords across a platform dense with speakers and LEDs. Tech entrepreneurs are buffing virtual reality headsets and firing up whirring robotics. President Obama himself is perusing the scene too—he strides over to a bench, sits down next to a life-sized Lego man sculpture, and pantomimes a deep conversation with it before ambling back into the Oval Office, chuckling Secret Service in tow.

    Billed as the White House’s first “festival of ideas, art, and action,” SXSL feels idyllically removed from the present political tire fire, a fitting event for the president who made optimism chic again. It’s a mellow, unpretentious affair where music permeates the surrounding austerity; the funk-rockers Black Alley stake out an East Wing hallway, struttingunder solemn oil paintings of statesmen past, and the R&B singer Gallant wails melisma in the East Room, 10 feet from where Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden. Near the Rose Garden, kinetic visual artist David Garibaldi blasts a brassy soulbeat and leaps with balletic-meets-breakdance athleticism while slapping paint to canvas, the seemingly random smears slowly cohering into a portrait of the president. When he begins around the ears, the woman next to me yells, “I know who it is!”

    Out on the mainstage, Common makes an unannounced appearance, rapping about the racial injustices of the prison system; he’s later spotted chatting with Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. At sunset, before the amiable folk-poppers the Lumineers play “Stubborn Love”—which Obama included on his 2015 summer playlist—singer Wesley Schultzpoints to the White House’s second floor and urges the crowd to stand and sing along. “[Obama] said he might be watching from that balcony,” Schultz drawls, “so let’s make sure.” Even Trent Reznor, seated behind me, clambers out of his seat but abstains from singing the chirpy chorus—an act of diplomacy unto itself.

    In total, SXSL feels like the climax of all the cultural cachè Obama has accrued over the past eight years—his many examples of pop fluency deployed as populist outreach. Releasing hip-hop- and rock-heavy playlists on Spotify, joining Lin-Manuel Miranda in a Rose Garden freestyle, combining forces with Jay Z and Beyoncé on a fairly regular basis—these were all anomalously cool efforts for a commander-in-chief. He’s proven to be more musically perceptive than any other president—even the timbre of his oration suggests a man who deeply appreciates the joys of melody and rhythm.

    President Obama has quoted Jay Z and slow danced to Beyoncé during his tenure.

    The road to SXSL began in March, when Obama stopped by South by Southwest for akeynote discussion on encryption and civic responsibility (and a hearty endorsement of Austin’s tacos). The appearance was spurred on by Jason Goldman, a former Twitter and Google executive, who joined the White House last April as its first chief digital officer. Goldman then spearheaded SXSL across the last seven months—first mining the president’s playlists for artists, then opening a public nominations process for attendance. Ultimately, 2,500 artists, entrepreneurs, and cultural organizers were culled from over 20,000 entries. 

    Cloistered in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, Goldman tells me, “The real success of this event will be if in six months or a year, someone’s like, ‘Oh, that’s [something] I saw for the first time at South by South Lawn.’ It could be a product, a nonprofit, an artistic movement.” He grins. “If someone forms a band, that would be great.”

    Along with SXSL’s musical attractions, attendees try out interactive exhibits aimed at sustainability, sample organic snacks, and surreptitiously snap photos of roving celebrities—Ron Howard,Hannibal Buress,the “Stranger Things” cast. (I’m informed breathlessly by one attendee that, ahead of his keynote panel with Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio has been spotted vaping.) The atmosphere is professional—nary a fringed vest in sight—but even the White House staffers are a bit giddy; Goldman and his colleagues slap palms at they pass, lilting “It’s all happening!” to each other, a là Almost Famous. 

    Some of South by Southwest’s organizers are also onsite, but off the clock. SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson, 60, says, “This is incredibly exciting for us, and certainly not something that we ever expected to be part of.” He chuckles. “Before Obama, we tried to get Bill Clinton. But then he got in trouble.”

    I ask Swenson if he finds Obama’s pop-culture savvy to be noteworthy for a politician.“He’s a product of his time and place and generation, so he was going to be more music-savvy and media-savvy than his predecessors,” he says. “I think it’s more a function of his personality as opposed to a strategy to win votes. He’s just always been a very inquisitive person, curious about music and art and ideas. That’s what we’re seeing here today.”

    The Lumineers’ Schultz seems pleasantly bewildered by his surroundings. “I can’t picture any other president doing something like this,” says Schultz. “I feel like Obama’s participated in a lot of things that the average president wouldn’t even touch.”

    SXSL’s evening keynote involves the president in conversation on global warming with DiCaprio and the climatologist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. The Washington Monument looms stage left, two flashing red lights illuminating the peak, as if to stare down reproachfully while they stress the peril of carbon emissions.

    Looking across the field at the rapt expressions directed at the president (not least from DiCaprio), I’m reminded of a moment eight years ago, to the month: A rainy afternoon in rural Pennsylvania when, as a volunteer coordinator for the Obama campaign, I was midway through a tough canvassing sweep in a very red industrial town. My team and I were sullen, bedraggled from both the downpour and succession of Sarah Palin zealots. We ducked into a tavern; the bartender scowled at our muddied forms, and we braced for our next showdown of the day.

    He strolled over and spied our clipboards. “You’re with Obama?” he asked. We nodded wanly. He slid some shots our way, flicked at his iPod, and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”—the Obama campaign’s theme song—filled this sudden sanctuary. 

    “He’s got good taste in music,” the bartender said. “It’s not everything, but it sure isn’t nothing.”

    The president has had a contentious public relationship with Kanye West over the years—like the time he denied calling West on the phone, shutting down the rapper's boasts.

    In honor of his golden ears, here’s a timeline of Obama’s most notable music moments from the last eight years:

    April 17, 2008

    During the presidential primaries, Obama makes headlines for evoking the hip-hop hierarchy. While campaigning in North Carolina, he shrugs off criticisms from his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, saying, “You just gotta…” with a Jay Z-esque brushing of the dirt off his shoulders.

    Dahlak Brathwaite, a 30-year-old performance artist and SXSL attendee, calls Obama’s interest in rappers “legitimizing” to his work. “It feels like there’s an acceptance of hip-hop culture that wasn’t there before,” he says. “When he says, ‘I like Mozart—but I like Kanye and I’m a Jay Z fan, too,’ that spotlight adds some credibility and class to hip-hop that wasn’t there before.”

    July 2008

    Obama shows off his Weezy acumen at a town hall meeting in Georgia. “You are probably not that good a rapper,” he tells the teens in the audience, not unkindly. “Maybe you are the next Lil Wayne, but probably not—in which case, you need to stay in school.”

    July 2008

    Obama name-drops Ludacris as a musicianon his iPod (alongside Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and Sheryl Crow). Soon after, he has to drop Luda himself when the rapper releases “Politics as Usual,” a pro-Obama track in which he calls Hillary Clinton a “bitch.”

    January 2009

    Beyonce performs Etta James’ “At Last” at Obama’s presidential inauguration.

    September 2009

    After Kanye West stage-crashes Taylor Swift’s speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, Obama calls West a “jackass” in an off-the-record portion of an interview with CNBC. In March 2015, he burns Ye again: During an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Obamadenies calling West on the phone, contrary to the rapper’s recent boasts otherwise. “I don’t think I’ve got his home number,” the president deadpans. 

    May 2009

    Lin-Manuel Miranda performs at the White House Poetry Jam, during which hedebuts a work-in-progress that will become the opening song of Hamilton. Evan Ryan, the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, remembers that evening well. “[Miranda] said he was going to test out something about Alexander Hamilton,” recalls Ryan, who oversees Obama’s cultural exchange programs, includingFulbright scholarships andAmerican Music Abroad. “Everybody sort of chuckled. And then he did it, and everybody was like, ‘Wow, this might be something.’”

    May 2010

    Pharrell, wearing a tuxedo and spiffy monogrammed slippers, celebrates Cinco de Mayo with Obama at the White House.

    April 2011

    At the White House Correspondents’ dinner, Obama references hip-hop’s ’90s East Coast-West Coast rivalry of the while jabbing back at Donald Trump’s persistent “birther” accusations. “Donald Trump is here,” hequips onstage. “Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter—like: Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

    Obama ridiculed Donald Trump's "birther" campaign back in 2011 with a pointed reference to the mysteries surrounding the deaths of Biggie and Tupac.

    May 2011

    The president and first lady invite Common to the White House for the slam poetry showcase “An Evening of Poetry”—the first since a similar event organized by Laura Bush in 2003 was criticized and ultimately abandoned after certain poets declined or threatened to protest the war in Iraq. Right-wing pundits latch onto the rapper’s “Letter to the Law”—specifically, the line “Burn a Bush ’cause for peace he no push no button”—as proof of Obama’s own insurrectionist agenda. White House press secretary Jay Carneyshrugs off the accusations, and Common performs. 

    January 2012

    President Obamasings a few lines of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” during a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater. Despite holding the tune, he adds to Green, “Don’t worry, Rev, I cannot sing like you, but I just wanted to show my appreciation.”

    February 2012

    Obama releases areelection playlist heavy on indie rock and R&B, featuring Arcade Fire, Jennifer Hudson, Raphael Saadiq, and No Doubt. “I swear it is him who makes the playlists,” insists Goldman. “He has personally selected all of those songs and writes them out by hand. He really loves a diverse range of music.” While compiling his summer playlists, Obama couldn’t condense his picks to the staff’s recommended 20, Goldman says, so he had to expand to “Day” and “Night” selections.

    February 2012

    At the White House Blues Festival, Obama lifts the mic from Mick Jagger to sing “Sweet Home Chicago” with B.B. King.

    The president showed off his singing chops alongside B.B. King in 2012.

    April 2012

    Obama “Slow Jams the News” with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots on “The Tonight Show” to promote his message to Congress about not increasing student loan rates. Black Thought can barely contain himself as the “Barack Ness Monster” intones about Stafford loans atop the playfully sleazy beat.

    September 2012

    President Obama appears by satellite during Jay Z’s set at the first Made in America Festival in Philadelphia. During “PSA,” he beams in for a surprise address, urging the audience to vote. He also extols Jay: “No matter who you are, what you look like or where you come from, you can make it if you try. Jay Z did. He didn’t come from power of privilege,” he says. “He got ahead because he worked hard, learned from his mistakes, and just plain refused to quit.”

    February 2013

    FLOTUS shows her pop chops, too; she does the Dougie—very well—on “Fallon.”

    Barack isn't the only Obama with rhythm—Michelle busted out some classic mom moves with Jimmy Fallon in 2013.

    April 2013

    Jay Z continues to loom large. During Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner, he references Jay and Beyoncé’s much-decried vacation to Cuba. “Some things are beyond my control. For example, this whole controversy about Jay Z going to Cuba—it’s unbelievable,” he says dryly. “I’ve got 99 problems and now Jay Z’s one.”

    November 2014

    During a PBS salute to the troops, Obama joins Willie Nelson in a rendition of “On the Road Again.”

    June 2015

    After the Charleston mass shooting, Obama delivers the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Visibly tearful, he breaks into a verse of “Amazing Grace” and is joined by those in attendance.

    August 2015

    Obama releases hissummer playlist, the “Day” version of which includes Aretha Franklin, Howlin’ Wolf, Florence and the Machine, and a major wildcard: the cult barroom-boogie rockers Low Cut Connie. “I woke up that morning in Philly and had hundreds of texts and tweets,” recalls Low Cut Connie frontman Adam Weiner. “I clicked on Twitter and it said, like, ‘POTUS Playlist hahaha Low Cut Connie. I can’t believe it.’ And I thought, What the hell is POTUS? Then I’m brushing my teeth and I’m like, Isn’t that the president?

    Weiner was so grateful, he wrote a thank-you letter to Obama. The following spring, he was invited to the White House, where he and his wife met the president and was given a tour of the East Wing by Pete Souza, the White House’s official photographer. On the wall, he saw a series of photos of Prince, one of Obama’s faves, giving asecret performance at the White House in 2015. As Weiner recalls, Souza revealed that the day Prince died, Obama asked him to print some of those photos and hang them in memoriam. 

    “One image is President Obama and he’s got his jacket is off, his sleeves are rolled up, and his tie is half undone, and he has his arms up in the air, with a huge smile on his face,” says Weiner. “Next to him, Prince is playing guitar and looking at him—only Prince could give this face—like, ‘I’ve got the president acting like a fool onstage.’ President Obama just looks like a fanboy. He’s like, ‘I got Prince to play a private concert in my house. And victory is mine.’”

    March 2016

    Lin-Manuel Miranda returns to the White House tofreestyle in the Rose Garden as Obama prompts him with political cue cards. “They’re talking about things that are germane, but they’re doing it in a new way, in a context that is obviously very tied to the presidency and the administration,” Goldman says.

    After debuting what would become the opening song of his musical Hamilton at the White House in 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda returned for an off-the-dome freestyle session with the president earlier this year.

    March 2016

    Both Barack and Michelle Obama deliver keynotes at SXSW—POTUS on technology and civic responsibility, FLOTUS on her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. Ahead of her appearance, Michelle unveils the charity single “This Is for My Girls” with Missy Elliott, Janelle Monaé, Kelly Clarkson, Zendaya, and others. (The first lady and Elliott also bust it out a few months later in James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series, along with a zippy take on Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”)

    April 2016

    At his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the president airs “Couch Commander,” a parody video of his impending retirement. The clip includes Joe Biden polishing his aviators, John Boehner weeping over Toy Story 3, and an unexpected soundtrack: Wiz Khalifa’s “Cameras.”

    April 2016

    Obama invites a host of hip-hop stars—including the once-shunned Ludacris—to the White House to discuss his My Brother’s Keeper support program for young men of color affected by racial injustice. Common, who was in attendance that day, recalls: “It was myself, A$AP Rocky, Rick Ross, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, and many more in this room, and I’m looking at a picture of George Washington with the President right there next to me, and I’m like, Man, I know George Washington never would’ve seen this many brothers in the White House! 

    July 2016

    Obama invites Kendrick Lamar, his professed favorite rapper, to the White House Fourth of July BBQ. Lamar performs(censored) versions of “Alright,” “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and joins Obama and Janelle Monaé in singing “Happy Birthday” to Malia Obama.

    August 2016

    Obama drops his second annualsummer playlists. Wale, the Beach Boys, and Courtney Barnett make the “Day” cut; D’Angelo, Chance the Rapper, and Billie Holiday topthe “Night” list. 

    October 2016

    The White House hosts its first (and, with a fraught election looming, potentially last) South by South Lawn festival.

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    From Our Partners: 10 Years of Apple Music Festival: A Playlist

    From the xx to Kendrick Lamar, the Apple Music Festival has booked an impressive array of talent over the past 10 years, from 2007’s inaugural event—then known as the iTunes Festival—featuring Amy Winehouse, all the way through to this year’s installment with Chance the Rapper and the 1975 performing alongside veteran superstars Elton John and Britney Spears (watch videos of the 2016 performances here). To celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary, we’ve combed through the lineups, past and present, to put together a set of choice cuts from some of its best acts.

    Chance the Rapper

    “No Problem” (ft. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz)

    Listen on Apple Music

    The breakout single from the Chicago mixtape phenomenon’s triumphant Coloring Book is a celebration of artistic independence underlined by the fact that even without a label backing him, Chance the Rapper can still muster megastar guests like Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz. It also happens to be the catchiest thing he’s recorded thus far.

    Lana Del Rey

    “West Coast”

    Listen on Apple Music

    On her third album, pop’s leading hip-hop-inspired chanteuse took a surprise left turn into vintage rock sounds, with assistance from producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. A tribute to L.A.’s musical history, “West Coast” mixes twangy surf rock guitars and Fleetwood Mac moodiness with a splash of g-funk to set it off.

    The Pretenders

    “Pack it Up”

    Listen on Apple Music

    Chrissie Hynde was a full-blown pop superstar after the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” became an international smash hit in 1980, but no one said she had to like it. On this deep cut from the band’s second album, released just a year later, she reduces rock stardom to grueling road trips and empty transactions in a paranoid half-sung rant over robust rock riffage that predates the first Hold Steady album by a full 25 years.

    The 1975


    Listen on Apple Music

    The 1975 are more than yet another “it band” from Manchester. Among other things, they happen to be dedicated students of ’80s radio R&B, and cuts like “UGH!” show off that passion by updating the soulful synth-pop stylings of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with a hint of post-millennial glitch.


    “Fan Mail”

    Listen on Apple Music

    Before they became a polished hit-making machine, Blondie had a raw, ragged edge that would earn them a well-deserved place in punk history. “Fan Mail,” from their 1978 album Plastic Letters, is a taut assemblage of razor-sharp hooks delivered with enough of an edge to fit in with what Television and the Ramones were doing around the same time.


    “I Want Your Love”

    Listen on Apple Music

    Initially dismissed by critics and peers, Chic have recently benefitted from a long overdue appreciation of their pop craftsmanship and hardcore musical chops. With its rubbery bassline and instantly unforgettable melody, “I Want Your Love” shows how flawless the group could be at their peak.

    Bloc Party


    Listen on Apple Music

    “Helicopter” was only a minor hit when it was first released, but it kicked off a musical revolution that we’re still feeling today. Knocking down the wall between dance music and punk, it taught a generation of rock bands how to mix guitars and beats.

    Amy Winehouse

    “Our Day Will Come”

    Listen on Apple Music

    Four years before she altered the zeitgeist with Back in Black, Amy Winehouse recorded this cover of a 1963 No. 1 R&B hit. While she’d end up becoming a superstar in part off her dark and dramatic interpretation of 1960s girl groups, her version of “Our Day Will Come” draws more from vintage Jamaican ska, down to its uncharacteristically sunny mood.

    Britney Spears

    “I'm a Slave 4 U”

    Listen on Apple Music

    At the turn of the millennium there weren’t many pop stars bigger than Britney Spears, or producers as big as the Neptunes, so it’s not surprising that getting them together would produce one of the best-loved hits from either of their discographies.

    Roots Manuva

    “Witness (1 Hope)”

    Listen on Apple Music

    When “Witness (1 Hope)” first dropped, its stuttering rhythm, raw electronic tones, and Roots Manuva’s sledgehammer flow sounded like something sent back from an impossibly funky cybernetic future. Fifteen years later, the legions of grime MCs the track inspired are still playing catch up.

    Elton John

    “Rocket Man”

    Listen on Apple Music

    While the rest of the world was caught up in the whirlwind optimism generated by the space race and the moon landing, Elton John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin were combining a Ray Bradbury story and their love of sad country songs to create a ballad that used a melancholy astronaut as a metaphor for the alienating effects of fame.


    “You Make Me Wanna”

    Listen on Apple Music

    It doesn’t get more late-nineties than Jermaine Dupri’s production on Usher’s breakthrough single, with its syncopated drum programming combined with glassy fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Still, like Usher himself, the song has aged quite well.

    Amadou & Mariam

    “Dougou Badia” (ft. Santigold)

    Listen on Apple Music

    For their 2012 album Folila, Malian musicians Amadou & Mariam reached across the ocean to collaborate with some of the American artists who made up an influential segment of their fanbase, including Philly pop auteur Santigold. Two years later, Future would kick off his album Honest with a sample of “Dougou Badia’s haunting melody.


    “Hold On” (ft. Sampha)

    Listen on Apple Music

    British producer SBTRKT has frequently been described as “mysterious,” thanks in large part to his habit of wearing a mask whenever he performs in public. But cuts like the Sampha-fronted “Hold On” aim for an emotional intimacy that’s anything but enigmatic.

    Vampire Weekend


    Listen on Apple Music

    Vampire Weekend first broke big with an unlikely pairing of American indie rock and African pop, and over the span of three albums they’ve only gotten more daring with their stylistic combinations. “Step,” from Modern Vampires of the City, brings together a boom-bap hip-hop beat, a soft rock melody, and a harpsichord solo straight out of the 18th century.

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    Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: Masters of Reality: How Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and John Oliver Make Us Face Ourselves

    1. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO, October 9) This is the best show on television. The most screamingly funny moments come when true outrage is brought down to earth with references to third-rate bands or bad movies that somehow make the outrage more real (onthis night, in the central segment on Guantanamo, ananalogy of Vanilla Ice stealing a song from Queen, with interview footage of Mr. Ice, who looks like a robot made out of Swiss cheese going green around the edges, explaining that the bass lines are different, and then singing them, trying to make his sound different from theirs, and failing). There might be a running subtext on media idiocy almost too gross to credit (here, on the mind boggling odiousness of Billy Bush). There is the most intellectually acute and rhetorically fast writing anywhere (on this episode, Oliver’s instant analysis of Paul Ryan’s response to Donald Trump’s sex tape as Victorian sexism). A main story might run 20 minutes and say more than a three-page takeout in the New York Times, let alone any story on any other television or radio outlet.

    This night the subject was President Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo Bay. There is a history of the place, international condemnation of what we’ve done with it. There’s a shot of the prison library; it’s explained that the most popular books are Harry Potter titles.

    “And before you think that those library books provided an escape,” Oliver says, “just listen to Shaker Aamer, who was released last October, after being held without charge for nearly 14 years.” Oliver goes off, and we are looking at a deeply self-possessed 49-year-old Saudi citizen and British resident with a beard and long hair pulled back. 

    “You know,” he says, “they got, they got an island in Harry Potter, it says, Azkaban—where there’s no happiness. They just—suck all your feelings out of you. And—and you don’t have no feeling anymore.”

    Oliver returns: “No amount of sugar-coating can cover up the reality of what we have done at Guantanamo Bay. Because in the early years, interrogation techniques included physical beatings, short-shackling, a very painful technique in which a prisoner’s arms and legs are shackled together, for long periods, and hours, and sometimes days, of repeated loud music, which is horrendous, although sometimes, that last technique backfired, because that same Harry Potter-loving inmate grew up loving American rock music, and would annoy the guards by singing along. And just listen to him describe the one song that gave him the most consolation.” There’s a cut back to Aamer. 

    He smiles. “I’m sure everybody would laugh when they hear this, ’cause I used to sing it a lot. Because the words, I thought, the words affect me, the words make me feel like, Yeah, it’s me again. Which is Whitesnake, ‘Here I Go Again.’”

    In the theater where the show is being taped and Aamer is shown on a monitor, the audience laughs. And in a terribly serious tone, Aamer says, “The words go,” and he recites:

    Here I go again, on my own
    Going down the only road I never known
    Like a drifter, I was born to walk alone
    ’Cause I know what it means, to walk alone
    In only street of dreams
    And here I go again

    “And it’s true,” Aamer says, “because it’s just dreams, dreams that I’ll be home one day, dreams that I’ll be free. Dreams that Guantanamo will be closed.”

    Oliver comes back: “You know you are miserable when you are finding solace in a fucking Whitesnake song.” Yes, they are possibly the most degrading band in the history of popular music—perfect, really, to score the Donald Trump sex tape—Oliver had opened the show with it, of course. But it wasn’t a cheap way for Oliver to take the sting off—in other words, to sugar-coat what he’d just shown. That’s the way Oliver works: kill you, jerk you back to life with a gob-smacked joke, and then go right back to the story—and because he moves so fast, almost always leaving you a half-step behind, the joke takes nothing away from what you’ve just seen. Somehow, the show left Aamer with even more dignity than he would have had if Oliver had played him straight. You can go back to him on YouTube over and over again, like a song you can’t get out of your head.

    2. Bob Dylan, “Masters of War” at Desert Trip (Indio, California, October 8) More than in any other performance of this song I’ve ever heard, the young-man perspective was completely erased, and in its place was the spectre, more than the presence—as if the physical fact of presence had been elided—of an old man who has seen everything and is unwilling to accept anything, someone who has become more and more certain of his right and power to judge as time goes on, the world does not change, and the critique he made of it so many years before suffers no cracks or rust, only scars, like notches on a gun. As the crimes the song speaks of expand in the telling, you hear the judgment pronounced, and you all but hear it received.

    3. White Girl, written and directed by Elizabeth Wood (FilmRise) At the end, Morgan Saylor’s Leah sits down for her first class of her sophomore year at her college in New York. “How was your summer,” someone asks. Well—

    4. Kaleo, “Way Down We Go” (Elektra) I heard this on the radio just after the shattering ending of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and it was as if the second song had grown out of the first. There are hints of Chris Isaak, Robert Johnson, Marvin Gaye, Flipper, and most of all the steely cadence, the two feet planted and nothing moving them, of Rihanna’s “Stay” in this severe and elegant soul ballad. I had no idea what it was, but I guessed at the title and found it on YouTube. I wasn’t expecting an Icelandic band fronted by one Jökull Júlíusson.  As Chuck Berry put it, it goes to show you never can tell.

    5. Colson Whitehead, from Acknowledgments, The Underground Railroad(Doubleday)“The first one hundred pages were fueled by early Misfits (‘Where Eagles Dare [fast version],’ ‘Horror Business,’ ‘Hybrid Moments’) and Blanck Mass (‘Dead Format’). David Bowie is in every book, and I always put on Purple Rain and Daydream Nation when I write the final pages, so thanks to him and Prince and Sonic Youth.”

    6. The Handsome Family, Unseen(Milk & Scissors) Over the last few years, their albums got somewhat obvious. This is not. And it’s gorgeous.

    7. Randy Newman, “Putin” (Nonesuch) This is the perfect conceptual bookend to pair with Newman’s 2007 “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” a quiet, despairing song about the wreckage and ruin of the George W. Bush administration and those before it—a song that takes comfort in the belief that while “the leaders we have” are “the worst that we’ve had,” there were worse. Newman names the Roman Caesars, the divines of the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler and Stalin and King Leopold of Belgium—but he doesn’t sound very convinced. It was a truly miserable thing to listen to.

    “Putin,” Newman’s intervention in this year’s election—an answer record to Vladimir Putin’s own—couldn’t be more different. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht must be jumping up and down in their graves in happiness: this is so German, so 1920s, so after-hours-Berlin with everyone doped to the gills and shouting along. The song takes flight with its chorus, the Putin Girls, pumping him up, erasing his doubts, jabbing him in the side to get him going. “I can’t do it!” he shouts, as the weight of history presses down on him—can he become the master of the world? Then he thinks back to the glorious past. “Who won Napoleon?” he yellsand the girls answer: “We did!” “Who won World War II?” “The Americans,” comes the answer, but he knows they’re just boosting him up: “That’s a good one!” Then fear takes over again: “Lenin couldn’t do it! I don’t know, Stalin couldn’t do it! If they couldn’t do it, why you think I can?” Because who else is going to do it?

    In Randy Newman’s best music he leaves you wondering where you stand, what you think, what you believe, how the world works. This is a postcard that may take years to truly be delivered.

    8. William Stout, Legends of the Blues, with an introduction by Ed Leimbacher (Abrams ComicArts, 2013)“Dedicated to Willie Dixon & Robert Crumb,” this set of cartoon and text portraits of more than 90 musicians—including people R. Crumb, who once published a collection of blues trading cards, would never touch, like Johnny Otis, Chuck Berry, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—is distinguished by the softness of Stout’s lines, which resolve themselves into warmth and empathy. You open the book (I found it on a remainder shelf) at random and see—hear—a musician you think you know as someone new: Blind Willie Johnson in the middle of the night in a graveyard, a spare tree hanging over his head like a hand. But best of all is what Stout does with cigarettes. The ash burns right through a thin cloud of white smoke, making an eye that’s looking right at you.

    Illustration by William Stout

    9. and 10. Little Walter, “Blue and Lonesome” (Chess, 1959) and Rolling Stones, “Blue and Lonesome” from Blue & Lonesome (Interscope, December 2)“I’m blue and lonesome,” Walter Jacobs declares in his thick, measured voice. He takes a deep breath—and then from the absolute depths of that act the word “as” in “as a man can be” emerges, slowly, drawn out, like a sea monster, and the record has begun. The audacity of tackling a work on this level—a work where the harmonica break, a hurricane, sums up the career of Little Walter, whose “Hate to See You Go” and “Just Your Fool” are also included on this album of blues covers, as “Blue and Lonesome” itself could sum up the blues—is pretty shocking. How in the world would you do it? When I heard the Rolling Stones were taking it on, it seemed the only way to approach this song was on your knees: do it as a simple, quiet folk song, or go down in the flood. We’ll see.

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    Lists & Guides: Killer Riffs: A Guide to Parody in Popular Music

    For centuries, parody has been a pastime for the clever young. Writing verse, stories, plays, or pieces of music in the style of famous others achieves a double whammy: It takes knowledge and skill to mimic the mannerisms of an individual artist (or a genre) while simultaneously poking insubordinate fun at the renowned and respected. There’s something intrinsically puerile—mocking your elders and betters—about parody, and to pull one off successfully requires a blend of craft and cruelty. But even at its meanest, the parody is a backhanded compliment: You can only be caricatured if you’re distinctive and stylistically striking. That’s why pop stars are nearly always delighted when “Weird Al” Yankovic targets them: It’s a sign you’ve made it.

    Outside observers started taking the piss out of rock’n’roll as soon it became a mainstream phenomenon. One example is Fred Astaire’s “The Ritz Roll and Rock,” from the 1957 movie Silk Stockings. The full history of comedians parodying popular music performers would take up an essay in its own right: The lineage encompasses National Lampoon’s Lemmings, “Saturday Night Live,” Tenacious D, and the Lonely Island, as well as non-U.S. exponents like the Young Ones, Flight of the Conchords, and the Mighty Boosh. In this chronological survey, though, I concentrate on cases where rock mocks itself, and parody is used as an elastic concept covering related practices like pastiche, the creative cover version, and work that relies heavily on quotation or allusion.

    Working on my glam history Shock and Awe, I became fascinated by rock’s peculiar compulsion to comment on itself or fold back on its own history self-reflexively, through mixed motives of irreverence and nostalgia, campy irony and sentimental affection. Teeming with homages, invocations, references, and revivals, glam rock was pop culture inventing postmodernism all by itself, years before the concept achieved mainstream currency. That spirit remains a riotous presence in our culture with the explosion of online parody. As much as we feel awestruck fascination for the famous, it seems we’re equally driven to demystify and deride them.

    The Detergents: “Leader of the Laundromat” (1964)

    Sending up “Leader of the Pack” and the entire genre of teen tragedy songs, “Leader of the Laundromat” flips the girl-group viewpoint to the male adolescent perspective. A couple splits up in the street; the girl grabs his washing, runs distraught into the road, and collides fatally with a passing garbage truck.“I felt so messy standing there/My daddy’s shorts were everywhere.” Mimicking Shangri-Las producer Shadow Morton’s hallmarks, “Laundromat” adds accident sound effects and slathers the vocals with echo. The single made the Billboard Top 20 in early 1965—and the Detergents were promptly sued by Morton and “Pack” co-writers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.

    The Move: “Wave the Flag and Stop the Train” (1967)

    As both the primary songwriter of the Move and the studio wizard behind Wizzard’s glam-era streak of smash hits, UK eccentric Roy Wood was ahead of his time in being behind of his time: His pastiche approach anticipated the record-collector magpie sensibility of figures like Nick Lowe, R. Stevie Moore, Marshall Crenshaw, and Ariel Pink. But perhaps Wood’s most bizarrely ahead-of-schedule achievement was inventing ’60s nostalgia while the ’60s were still in full swing. On the flipside of the Move 1967’s psychedelic hit “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” you can find “Wave the Flag and Stop the Train”—a replica of the Beatles’ sound circa 1965, with the bass riff in particular highly redolent of “Day Tripper.” As pop scholar Philip Auslander observes, while the A-side has the Move following the contemporary lead of the Fab Four in “Strawberry Fields Forever” mode, the B-side backtracks to an earlier stage of their development. So accelerated was pop time in the ’60s that only two years earlier could seem like a distant age.

    The Beatles: “Back in the U.S.S.R.” (1968)

    Parody is a lightweight business on the whole. Yet it has a curious allure for artistic heavyweights, as a sideline activity for innovators like Zappa, Bowie, and the Beatles. “Back in the U.S.S.R” was their first full-blown foray into pastiche: The title nods to Chuck Berry, the chorus and vocal sound recreates classic-era Beach Boys, and there’s a lyric allusion to Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” (but in this case referencing the then Soviet Republic rather than the Deep South state). “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was the lead single from The Beatles, a double album sprawl of creativity but also of recreativity, with the Fab Four referencing other musicians like Dylan as well as earlier phases of their own music. As critic Carl Belz pointed out at the time, this was a striking break with the reigning late ’60s ethos of progression: The Beatles were “going back over musical territory which they have already covered, which they already know, and which they have left.” Postmodernism, in other words.

    The Mothers of Invention: Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968)

    A satirical sneer is integral to so much of Frank Zappa’s work. The snark target is often a contemporary pop fad or one of his own peers, whether it’s the Love Generation-mocking We’re Only in It for the Money (artwork that parodied Sgt. Pepper’s cover, the “Hey Joe”-ripping and hippie-deriding “Flower Punk”) through to the disco spoof “Dancin’ Fool.” Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is a curiosity in the Zappa discography, not just because it’s a whole album based around pastiche, but because it’s genuinely and wistfully affectionate towards the caricatured genre in question, doo-wop.

    “I’m very fond of close-harmony, group-vocal ‘oo-wah’ rock and roll,” Zappa confessed in 1969. Typically, though, he liked to stress the conceptual element, talking about “the scientific side of Ruben & the Jets” and describing it asan experiment in cliche collages,” with each song a “careful conglomerate” of “stereotyped motifs.” Yet the album—which saw the Mothers playing the role of a fictitious ’50s vocal group like the Flamingos—doesn’t sound like a cold-blooded dissection/deconstruction. The caricature only works to intensify doo-wop’s appealing traits: the happy-sad basslines, the wobbly emotion of the warbling vocals. Woozy and droopy, the effect is like an ice cream cake left to melt in the sun. Still, Zappa couldn’t resist having some mischief with what he called  doo-wop’s “imbecile words”: “Stuff Up the Cracks” is about suicide as the remedy for heartbreak.

    The Turtles: The TurtlesPresent the Battle of the Bands (1968)

    During that same winter of 1968, the Turtles out-did Zappa’s fictitious-band gambit by a factor of 11. Battle of the Bandsinner gatefold shows the Turtles garbed as radically different combos with names like the Atomic Enchilada, Fats Mallard and the Bluegrass Fireball, and Nature’s Children. On the record itself, the group expertly simulate a gamut of styles, including surf-pop, steel-guitar-twangy country, and, with the Bigg Brothers’ “Food,” psychedelia at its most effete. Some of the targets are hard to pinpoint now, possibly referencing subgenres long lost in the turnover of late ’60s trends. The L.A. Bust ’66’s “Oh, Daddy!,” for instance, sounds like the Monkees until mid-song, when a carousing jazz troupe disrupts the vibe, yet the imaginary group’s image, all long hair and headbands, resembles Santana. Something of an over-extended joke, Battle of the Bands served as template for the breakaway duo Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan’s career as Flo & Eddie.

    The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: “The Intro and the Outro” (1967)

    Although Spike Jones and his City Slickers took the mickey out of American pop culture of the ’40s and ’50s with the Musical Depreciation Revue, the first rock-era outfit wholly dedicated to parody was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Centered around singer-trumpeter Vivian Stanshall and singer-music-man Neil Innes, the Bonzos came out of the same Anglo-Surrealist comedy sensibility that produced Monty Python; indeed they were the resident band on “Do Not Adjust Your Set,” a kids TV show that involved future Pythons Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones. As with Python, their absurdist nonsense was a cathartic protest against the repressions of English middle-class life. Stanshall talked disparagingly about “Normals,” suburban drones trapped in inane routine: It’s they who were the “really dreadful freaks,” not bohemian eccentrics like himself.  

    Parody, then, was for the Bonzos the aesthetic counterpart to their rejection of common sense reality. Probably their most famous skit is “The Intro and the Outro,” a smarmy-voiced “introducing the band” routine with each player allowed a brief flourish in the spotlight: The patter rapidly extends beyond the actual group to public and historical figures like Charles De Gaulle (on Gallic accordion, of course) and Adolf Hitler (“looking very relaxed... on vibes... nice”). Elsewhere in the discography, there’s a spoof on Elvis in country ballad mode (“Canyons of Your Mind”), a merciless skewering of late ’60s minstrelsy (“Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?”), a Wilson Pickett take-off (“Trouser Press”), and a teen-pop parody that tells the unsavory truth about adolescence (“King of Scurf”). But the Bonzos don’t spare the freaks, either—even though they were considered counter-culture fellow-travelers—sending  up psychedelia on “We Are Normal.” As with so many parodists, the Bonzos’ secret shame, or at least fatal weakness, is their deep attachment to the clichés and conventions they mock: They poke and pick away at them, but never quite transcend.

    Roxy Music: “Re-Make/Re-Model” (1972)

    Roxy’s music is a battle zone in which contradictory impulses fight it out: Proggy-modernism that puts them in the company of King Crimson and Can versus campy retro born of Bryan Ferry’s pop art schooling and love of pre-rock songwriters like Cole Porter. When the latter tendency prevailed, you got cocktail music-meets-doo-wop tunes like “Bitters End” or the deliciously knowing references to psychedelia in “In Every Dream Home a Heartache.” Roxy laid out their proto-pomo sensibility with the mission-statement of their debut album’s opening track, “Re-Make/Re-Model.” Possibly in homage to “The Intro and the Outro” (Eno loved the Bonzos), the song ends with each member taking a short solo—and in each case, it’s a famous musical quote, from “Day Tripper” to “Ride of the Valkyries,” with Andy Mackay rendering Wagner’s fanfare riff in the raucous rock’n’roll sax style of King Curtis.

    David Bowie: Pinups (1973)

    Forgery was integral to Bowie’s approach from the off. He started out virtually a clone of British musical theatre star Anthony Newley. Intensive studies of mime seemed only to intensify this mimetic streak. On The Man Who Sold the World,Black Country Rock” apes the goat-like bleat of his friendly rival Marc Bolan; Hunky Dory’s “Queen Bitch” photocopies the Velvet Underground circa Loaded; “The Jean Genie” takes 1965 Stones as its template, right down to the smoky rasp of harmonica. But Bowie really put the past into pastiche with 1973’s Pinups, a covers album dedicated to mid-’60s Brits like the Who and the Pretty Things. Although the overt intention is fanboy homage to mod and psych tunes that meant so much to the young Davie Jones, the effect is closer to travesty: With only a few exceptions, each version hollows out the insurrectionary energy of the original and leaves just a stylized shell. This is nowhere more apparent than with the mannered rendition of the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind.” Bowie saw himself as an actor more than a musician, but ham like this would have seen him howled off any West End stage.

    10cc: “Rubber Bullets” (1973)

    Like their contemporaries ELO and Elton John, 10cc combined huge knowledge of rock and pop history with consummate studio craftsmanship. This sheer facility with the arrangement of sound made them susceptible to the lure of pastiche. For every astonishing feat of innovative production like  “I’m Not in Love,” there was an exquisitely exact counterfeit. “Johnny Don't Do It” was praised by Rolling Stone’s Greg Shaw as the best satire of teenage motorcycle death songs since “Leader of the Laundromat”; “Donna” did the same trick with the ’50s lovesick ballad; “Rubber Bullets” combined Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” and the Beach Boys to make a wry comment on the Attica State prison uprising.

    Gary Glitter: “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)” (1973)

    One of the biggest pop stars of the British ’70s, now disgraced for sex crimes, Gary Glitter could easily have been called Terry Tinsel: The moniker originated as a jape among showbiz pals trying to think up the most preposterous stage name. The alter-ego flashed back to the British ’50s, when star-making Svengalis like Larry Parnes gave their working class rock’n’roll proteges names like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, and Duffy Power. Glitter’s lyrics referenced ’50s Americana like jukebox halls and motorbike gangs; his silver-foil costumes were a burlesque amplification of Little Richard crossed with Liberace. But the brutally crunching minimalism of the sound created by his producer Mike Leander was utterly modern: not a replica but a reinvention of rock’n’roll for the grim, socially-fractured UK of the early ’70s.

    Alvin Stardust: “My Coo Ca Choo” (1973)

    Following swiftly in Glitter’s wake, Alvin Stardust was more straightforwardly revivalist, his black leather, sideburn-and-quiff image based on a single precursor, Gene Vincent. (Originally the first name of his alias was “Elvin”: a composite of Elvis and Vincent.) The Stardust persona was actually invented by A&R/producer Peter Shelley, who sang the first hit “My Coo Ca Choo,” then recruited someone else to be the public face and voice of Alvin Stardust: Bernard Jewry, who’d previously had modest success in the ’60s as singer of Shane Fenton and the Fentones. Bizarrely, Jewry had been that group’s roadie originally and then replaced the original Shane Fenton, who died when he was 16 years old.

    First Class: “Bobby Dazzler” (1974)

    Perhaps inside industry knowledge informed “Bobby Dazzler,” First Class’ spoof on the Glitter/Stardust syndrome, which accuses them of being the puppets of Svengalis who “stood you in the ring and painted you like a clown.” But “Bobby Dazzler” failed to make the charts and Gary and Alvin had the last laugh, scoring hits well into the next decade—Stardust as late as 1984’s “I Feel Like Buddy Holly.”

    Wizzard: “See My Baby Jive” (1973)

    Wizzard leader Roy Wood’s records are exercises in wish-fulfilment somewhere between time-travel and cosplay. On huge UK hits “See My Baby Jive” and “Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad),” he out-Spectors Spector with blaring updates of the multi-tracked “symphony for little kids” sound. Solo single “Forever” is a composite of Beach Boys and Neil Sedaka so indebted that Wood inscribed “with special thanks to Brian Wilson and Neil Sedaka for their influence” on the 7" label. On the second Wizzard album Introducing Eddie and the Falcons, Wood recycles the already-quite-tired fictitious band gambit, although the packaging—which includes a business card declaring that the Falcons are available for weddings and social functions—is a hoot.

    Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

    Genre-blending horror, comedy, and musical, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is a rock-biz satire swiping at many of the fads of the early ’70s, including glam (in the form of outrageously camp singer Beef) and shock rock (the Alice Cooper-like outfit the Undeads). But another trend that gets mocked is nostalgia and the ’50s revival: Before they are remodeled as the Undeads, that group are the Juicy Fruits, a transparent rip on Sha Na Na. The movie’s central figure, sinister super-producer Swan (played by Paul Williams) declares that “the future of rock’n’roll is its past.” Phantom flopped at the time, but among its unlikely legacy is Daft Punk, who hailed it as “our favorite film, the foundation for a lot of what we’re about artistically,” and invited Williams to sing on Random Access Memories.

    The Tubes: Quay Lewd (1974)

    As a band, the Tubes flexed prog-level skills, but instead of cosmic concept albums they funneled that virtuosity into eclectic soundtracks for outrageously theatrical stage routines. Mixing parody and satire, they targeted everything from the Saturday Night Fever/Studio 54 moment (“Slipped My Disco”) to S&M (“Mondo Bondage”). Probably their most beloved comedy set-piece, though, was frontman Fee Waybill’s parody of inelegantly wasted British rockstars. Originally called Rod Planet and then renamed after the popularly abused sedative drug, Quay Lewd staggered onstage in silver 12-inch platform boots and lamé leggings, thickly made-up eyes and outsize sunglasses even more sequined than Elton’s. Drawling in exaggerated Cockney, Quay would call for “a big round of applause for me back-up combo the Cocaine Piranhas!” and importune the audience for downers. Then he’d puke and pass out and have to be carried offstage by the road crew.

    The Residents: TheThird Reich ‘N Roll (1976)

    The Residents started out spoofing Meet the Beatles! with their own debut album Meet the Residents. As the grotesquely defaced cover art indicated, theirs was a love-hate relationship with the Fab Four and their entire era.  TheThird Reich ‘N Roll was a through-the-looking-glass replay of the previous decade, like some parallel reality where World War II and the ’60s temporally coincided; Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” and Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” compete with the din of diving Stuka bombers and MG15 machine guns.

    That same year, the Residents released a cover of the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” even more mangled than Devo’s. Then, in 1977, they put out The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles. The A-side “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life” wove together samples of the Beatles and interview soundbites in which Lennon appears to apologize to the fans: “Please everybody if we haven’t done what we could have done, we’ve tried.” After several albums of all-original, gloriously peculiar music, the Residents returned to the perverted cover version concept with The American Composers Series, attempting ambiguous tributes to 20 musical greats. This petered out after just four twisted homages across two albums, to George Gershwin, James Brown, Hank Williams, and John Philip Sousa. By this point in the mid-’80s, the Residents had spawned a mini-genre of vandalistic plagiarism which we’ll encounter later, whose exponents include John Oswald, Negativland, and Culturcide.

    Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias: Snuff Rock EP (1977)

    Successors to the Bonzos, the Albertos emerged from Manchester’s post-hippie underground with a similar blend of deft musicality and daft mockery. The name came from a sombrero-wearing Latin American troupe called Alberto Del Parana Y Su Trío Los Paraguayos. Nothing was sacred: The Velvets’ “Heroin” became “Anadin” (after a British brand of painkiller) and even the Bonzos got parodied on “God Is Mad.” “Heads Down, No Nonsense, Mindless Boogie,” a rip on Status Quo and their denim army, became an unlikely hit single with its moronic-monolithic pummel and rallying refrain “bang your ‘ed on the wall.” Derived from a stage production, the Snuff Rock EP made waves with its storyline about a singer stabbing himself to death onstage—a double spoof on punk and the rumored existence of snuff movies. The contents ranged from the Pistols piss-take “Gobbing on Life” (“Death is the only thing we’ve got to live for”) to the roots reggae replica “Snuffin’ in a Babylon.”

    Nick Lowe: “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” (1978)

    “Nowadays I just steal the stuff. I don’t try and write in anybody’s style: If I hear a good lick… I’ll just pinch it and use it.” Thus spake Nick Lowe in 1978, remixing the famous maxim “talent borrow, genius steals.” Lowe’s most genius steal ever was “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” which duplicates the sound of “Sound and Vision” and purloins the title of “Breaking Glass,” another tune from Bowie’s Low. Jester Nick had already released a 1977 EP titled Bowi, in “retaliation” for Low taking his name—minus the “e”—in vain. In another act of larceny, Lowe borrowed the Turtles’ Battle of the Bands concept for the sleeve of Pure Pop for Now People, garbed as five different stereotypes of music performer, from hippie to New Wave, with pal Dave Edmunds providing the sixth species.

    The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

    Running a very close second to This IsSpinal Tap for the prize of all-time funniest movie-length music parody, All You Need Is Cash started as the spin-off of a spin-off. After Monty Python, Eric Idle made the not-quite-as-hilarious British series “Rutland Weekend Television,” for which ex-Bonzo Neil Innes contributed musical sketches. One of these was the Rutles’ “I Must Be in Love,” filmed in the black-and-white caper style of A Hard Day’s Night. Something was in the mid-’70s air: Fab Four nostalgia erupted with the Broadway smash musical Beatlemania and the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, an all-star calamity. When Idle hosted “Saturday Night Live,” he dug out the “I Must Be In Love” clip; the huge viewer response persuaded Lorne Michaels to finance a primetime NBC special.

    Most likely the very first rock mockumentary, All You Need Is Cash tells the story of  the Pre-Fab Four—Dirk, Nasty, Stig, and Barry—and their manager Leggy Mountbatten (who hated their music but liked their tight trousers, which “left nothing to the imagination”). Embarking on the project, Innes decided not to listen to the original records but rely on his memories, expertly simulating the guitar tones, chordings, and vocal traits of the Beatles at every stage of their career. He also formed a proper group to play the songs so that there was a real “vibe” to the music. All You Need Is Cash works simultaneously as a wistful wallow in nostalgia, a satire of ’60s folly, and a enjoyable showcase of sheer musical craftsmanship. In addition to roles for “SNL” cast regulars like Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Jim Belushi, there were delicious cameos for real-world rockers like Mick Jagger (“We were the South’s answer to the Rutles”) and Paul Simon. Out of many wonderful scenes, perhaps the best is the New Orleans sequence: The documentary maker goes in search of the black ‘n’ bluesy roots of the British Invasion Sound, only for Blind Lemon Pye to tell him that he learned everything from the Rutles. The ex-Beatles loved it, especially George Harrison, who said that “the Rutles sort of liberated me from the Beatles in a way. It was the only thing I saw of those Beatles television shows… It was actually the best, funniest and most scathing. But at the same time, it was done with the most love.”

    Morgan Fisher/Hybrid Kids: “D’Ya Think I’m Sexy” (1979)

    After a bizarrely varied career that involved teen pop stardom in the Love Affair and a stint in glam-era Mott the Hoople, Morgan Fisher caught the DIY post-punk bug. His Cherry Red debut Hybrid Kids: A Collection of Mutants cost the equivalent of just $40 to make (the price of the tape it was recorded on). The concept was a spoof on the post-punk era’s serial buzzes about cities like Cleveland, Akron, and Leeds: Hybrid Kids posed as a compilation of bands from a real city, Peabody, Kansas, each of whom covered a famous song. All were Fisher, of course, making strenuous efforts to pervert and invert the originals. Standout subversion was British Standard Unit’s robotic defunking of Rod Stewart’s disco hit “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” which in turn became a favorite of BBC Radio DJ John Peel and his listeners. An admirer of the Residents, Fisher says his intent was not iconoclastic so much as wanting “to bring the songs into the modern world.” That does seem to be one of the motives behind the postpunk penchant for cover versions; drastically updating a classic song serves to make the break between old wave and new wave even starker.

    The Flying Lizards: “Money” (1979)

    In a similar new wave strategy, Lizard leader David Cunningham took the Berry Gordy Jr. tune—originally a Barrett Strong hit, iconic in its feral Beatles version—and added prepared-piano clangor, achieved by throwing rubber toys and a telephone directory onto the instrument’s strings. The raw hunger of Lennon’s vocal was replaced by Deborah Evans-Stickland’s finishing school frostiness. “Money” was an unexpected UK Top 5 novelty hit. Although they had some minor success with the original composition “TV,” the Lizards kept coming back to the warped cover version approach—“Sex Machine,” “Move on Up,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” etc.—but without success. The assault on formulaic pop became its own formula—and not a winning one, either.

    Todd Rundgren/Utopia: Deface the Music (1980)

    Innovators get weary sometimes. All that pushing into the unknown tires them out and often they’ll take a vacation in, well, the known. It’s as though the craft aspects of reproducing an antique sound serves as therapy. Todd Rundgren’s 1976 album Faithful includes eerily exact reenactments of classics of ’60s studio wizardry that had clearly been formative influences for him, among them “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Rain.” (Rundgren also spent some time working as musical advisor on the Beatlemania stage set.) When the Knack hit #1 in 1979 with the Beatles-y “My Sharona,”  Rundgren was spurred to knock out a Fab Four facsimile with his band Utopia and offered it for the soundtrack to the 1980 goof Roadie, starring Meatloaf. But “I Just Want to Touch You” was rejected on account of concerns that its similarity to “I Want to Hold You Hand”/“Love Me Do”-era Beatles might prompt a lawsuit.

    Undeterred, Rundgren embarked on an entire album of Beatles Xeroxes, running through the band’s chronology just like the Rutles had. But, intriguingly, Rundgren stops with psychedelia-era pastiches like “Hoi Poloi” and the “Walrus”-like “Everybody Else Is Wrong.” He doesn’t follow through to the raw ‘n’ rootsy end-of-’60s Beatles; since Todd’s thing is all about studio artifice, it makes sense he’d reject the Beatles own rejection of studio artifice and instead try to freeze-frame their trajectory in 1967. Shame that the results are so lame, but if nothing else Rundgren could claim to have anticipated moves by future production client XTC (under the alias Dukes of Stratosphear) and “Sowing the Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears.

    Redd Kross: “St. Lita Ford Blues” (1982)/“Love Is You” (1987)

    While ’60s-ransacking went into overdrive on the ’80s alternative scene, the sharper kind were already making moves on the ’70s. Redd Kross’ 1982 debut Born Innocent featured a cover of a song performed by the fictitious all-girl group the Carrie Nations in Russ Meyer’s campy fantasia Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), a tune named after Linda Blair from The Exorcist (1973), and an homage to the Runaways lead guitarist Lita Ford (circa 1976). Teen Babes from Monsanto, from 1984, included covers of Kiss’ “Deuce” and Bowie’s “Saviour Machine.” Parody, as strictly defined, didn’t happen often: One exception is “Love Is You” from the band 1987 album Neurotica, which impersonates George Harrison at his wimpiest. But then Redd Kross’s whole shtick was a parody of an era. As such they paved the way for ’70s-mining groups of the ’90s like Cheap Trick wannabes Urge Overkill, and for movies like 1990’s The Spirit of ’76, in which Redd Kross made a cameo alongside David Cassidy.

    Shockabilly: “Purple Haze” (1983)

    Abiding by the 20 Year Rule of nostalgia cycles, the ’80s was when ’60s retro took off. Shockabilly were an avant-comedy power trio who specialized in obliterative cover versions. Earth vs. Shockabilly mauled classics by the Stones, Hendrix, Beatles, and the Doors. The trio’s skill set—especially Eugene Chadbourne’s Jimi-like virtuoso violence and David Licht’s freeform Mitch Mitchell drumming—suggested that their secret wish was to have actually been operative in the late ’60s. Born in 1954, Chadbourne was old enough to have been conscious during that time but too young to fully partake (although he did dodge the draft and exile himself to Canada in 1972). Shockabilly’s solution to the born-too-late blues: reactivate the freak-out sonic principles of that era, while maintaining Gen X style ironic distance from all the other counter-culture stuff.

    “Weird Al” Yankovic: “Eat It” (1984)

    The Mel Brooks of music, “Weird Al” is far and away the most successful pop parodist of our time, and in recent years has benefited from accumulated cross-generational affection, resulting in late-in-life surprise triumphs like 2014’s Mandatory Fun going in at #1. One of his trademark moves is the food-substitution trick: “My Bologna” (based on “My Sharona”), “I Love Rocky Road” (“I Love Rock’n’Roll”) and above all “Eat It,” his parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Complete with a video that matched the Jackson promo shot for shot, “Eat It” was Al’s  biggest hit right up until 2006’s “White & Nerdy.” There seems to be something about food that makes it intrinsically un-rock’n’roll (think about it: it only ever figures in songs as a metaphor for something else, usually sex). Even on Mandatory Fun, Al falls back on the food-as-bathos ploy: “Royals” spoof “Foil” celebrates the silver stuff’s superiority over baggies and Tupperware when it comes food storage.

    This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

    Although the mockumentary follows a 1982 tour, This Is Spinal Tap is really a spoof on ’70s rock excess in all its insanity and inanity. This aging Brit band are old wavers who’ve lingered too long into the new wave era. Unlike some of their more adaptable peers, Tap have lost the ability to adjust to the changing times they once had: One of the film’s myriad delights are the clips of the band off old TV shows, when they appear as perfect stereotypes of the British beat group and the flower power psychedelic band. But at some point their development arrested and, in 1982, the sexism is as unreconstructed as their crotches are padded. So uncanny is this movie’s combo of fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude and just-over-the-edge absurdity that Spinal Tap is famous for weirding out real-life bands of similar vintage or mentality: Incidents like getting lost somewhere between the dressing room and the stage or tantrums thrown over the rider’s deficiencies are things these rockers have lived first-hand.  A few thought it was a real doc about a real band. In a sense, they are: Spinal Tap built up a substantial live following for their music. And why not—the musical parody is as flawless as the American actors’ English accents.

    The Dukes of Stratosphear: 25 O’Clock (1985)

    Starting out as one of the more original postpunk bands, explosive with neurotic and nerdy invention, XTC succumbed to the pull of the ’60s and grew increasingly English and whimsical. Safely vented through the alias Dukes of Stratosphear, this tendency blossomed with the full-blown psychedelic pastiche of 25 O’Clock. Assuming alter-egos like Lord Cornelius Plum and the Red Curtain, the group lovingly recreated all their favorite 1967 sounds. And visuals too: The promo for “The Mole From the Ministry” alternates between black-and-white (think Pink Floyd’s promo film for “Arnold Layne”) and lurid color (think the Beatles’ made-for-TV folly Magical Mystery  Tour). Shot in the grounds of a stately home, “Mole” employs every pseudo-surreal cliché of the lysergic ’60s, from animal masks and a mannequin that comes alive to a brightly-painted piano and sequences where the film runs backwards. Being Dukes for a spell seemed to work for XTC as a break from the pressurized path of their primary career, over which loomed the financial necessity of breaking America. Perhaps that’s why—after the fraught making of Skylarking with Todd Rundgren as tough task-master producer—XTC sought refuge in the Dukes identity again for 1987’s full-length Psonic Psunspot.

    Culturcide: Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America (1986)

    A time-honored time-kill for bored adolescents is defacing your old children’s books: augmenting the illustrations with obscene additions, superimposing crudities over keywords in the text. Houston-based experimental outfit Culturcide applied this puerile technique to the Billboard Top 40 of the ’80s on Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America. Adding insult to the injury of copyright infringement, they overdubbed sarcastic lyrics on top of hits like Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” along with blurts of ugly noise. But the funniest track targets their own scene: Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band” becomes “We’re an Industrial Band.”  Instead of touring the USA bringing party-all-night vibes wherever they play, Culturcide promise that “We’re coming to your town/We’re going to bring you down.” Looking for sex, groupies get bored comatose by endless talk “about child abuse and Hitler’s SS.”

    Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction: “Prime Mover” (1987)

    As new wave ideas grew stale in the late ’80s, the idea of rock in all its ’70s scale and swagger started to appeal. Beastie Boys sampled Led Zep;  Butthole Surfers took riffs from Sabbath. Usually these nouveau rock moves came couched in irony. And the wink was definitely discernible with Zodiac Mindwarp, the macho-strutting persona invented by graphic artist Mark Manning. “Prime Mover” and the album Tattooed Beat Messiah were UK hits, while in America the group passed close enough to the real thing to tour with Guns N’ Roses and appear on MTV’s “Headbangers Ball.”  But Mindwarp really had more in common with alternative groups that emerged a few years later in America, like Monster Magnet, Raging Slab, and White Zombie. They came from the same mindset: raised postpunk, aware that ’70s rock was retrograde, but attracted to its bombast and egomania all the same. The patina of parody that these groups retained was a form of equivocation, signaling to the audience that they were in on the joke.

    Laibach: “Sympathy for the Devil” (1988)/Volk (2006)

    These poker-faced Slovenes have kept up the world’s longest-running rock satire, the gist of which is that there’s something potentially totalitarian about arena concerts and anthems like Queen’s “One Vision.” Laibach’s greatest parody of all is the fake sovereign state they created, NSK, which comes complete with passports, military uniforms, flags, postage stamps, and even consulates in certain countries of the former Yugoslavia. But Laibach have also doggedly specialized in portentous cover versions of rock classics like “Across the Universe” and “Maggie Mae,” as well as Euro-rock anthems like “Life Is Life” and “Final Countdown.” Their take on “Sympathy for the Devil” came in six versions that replaced the Stones’ seething percussive groove with stilted march rhythms and kitsch orchestrations (in one mix, the famous “woo woos” are sung by a massed choir).

    Probably their most conceptually perfect release is Volk, a collection of covers of national anthems, ranging from famous ones like America and Great Britain to obscurer offerings like the Vatican. Unfortunately, as a non-conceptual listenVolk is impossibly dreary—with the exception of the closing NSK anthem. Ponderous and ceremonial, it sounds literally stately, while the recording’s faded-to-grey ambience evokes a scratchy Pathénews reel of the 1930s.

    John Oswald: Plunderphonic (1989)/Plexure (1993)/Grayfolded: Transitive Axis (1994)

    Canadian composer John Oswald’s plunderphonic techniques actually correspond to the practice of parody used in classical music, referring to pieces that rework or extensively quote from earlier works. On the Plunderphonic album, Oswald sourced each of the pieces in a single song, weaving its entirety out of micro-edited and processed “electroquotes” (his term for samples). Michael Jackson’s “Bad” became the disorienting “Dab.”  This act of copyright transgression ultimately led to the record being withdrawn following legal threats (although Jackson is said to have been more annoyed by the cover, which superimposed his head on a woman’s naked body).

    With 1993’s Plexure, Oswald took the entire radioscape of the era as his source material, compositing hundreds of sampled snippets into an 18-minute frenzy of crescendos, shrieks, squealing guitar solos, stutter-beats. Having exhausted his anti-pop polemic, Oswald’s next step was homage:  Grayfolded took scores of live versions of Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” and wove together a time-travelling ultra-trip involving multiple Garcias jamming together. As technological advances made the incredibly tricky stitch-work he’d done so much easier, Oswald’s progeny emerged in the 21st century: mash up artists, Daniel Lopatin’s “eccojams,” and internet genres like vaporwave.

    Bongwater: “Folk Song” (1990)

    Shockabilly bassist Kramer eventually founded Shimmy Disc, a label whose entire aesthetic was bound up with emotionally ambivalent ’60s recreations. Hence the label compilation The 20th Anniversary of the Summer of Love 1987-1967. Degrees of parody ran through most of the roster: B.A.L.L., GWAR, When People Were Shorter and Lived By the Water, Ween. Above all, there was Bongwater, a collaboration between Kramer and performance artist Ann Magnuson. Their high-point album The Power of Pussy ends with “Folk Song” which stylistically parodied ’60s female troubadours like Judy Collins and Melanie while lyrically satirizing East Village radicals and bohemians of the late ’80s.

    The Darkness: “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” (2003)

    One of the main things metal has got going for it is deadly seriousness, absolute commitment. But with irony reaching toxic levels in the musical ecosystem by the end of the ’90s, it could only be a matter of time before meta-metal became a thing. Andrew W.K.’s “Party Hard” and I Get Wet was one manifestation; another was the Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” and Permission to Land. Supportive critics celebrated the way the British band had “a healthy sense of metal’s ridiculousness.” What they meant was that their music and presentation came with a kind of in-built Spinal Tap element, a self-inoculating dose of  irony. Modeled largely on Queen (the group’s original name was Empire), the Darkness whipped up a creamy, gateau-layered sound of histrionic overstatement. Frontman Justin Hawkins had not just Freddie Mercury’s soprano but his horsey teeth too. Although they reigned in the metal mags, the Darkness’ true contemporary was pop idol Robbie Williams. Just as Robbie might roll his eyes mid-song as if to distance himself from the emotion he was meant to be emoting, the Darkness suffered from an uncontrollable urge to wink at their audience. In “Thing Called Love” that manifested in Hawkins’ falsetto-squawked “guitar!” just before the Big Solo (which takes place against the backdrop of a hundred Marshall amps in the video). There was also the group’s trademark thumbs-up sign, deflating the music’s majesty with its dweeb-y bathos. Like Robbie, Hawkins and co were huge in the early 2000s (Permission went quadruple platinum in the UK) but they quickly evacuated themselves from popular memory. Perhaps the public realized they were just a bunch of winkers.

    Zomby: Where Were U in ’92? (2008)

    “A craftsman knows what he’s going to make; an artist doesn’t know what he’s going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like.” So said ceramics sculptor Ken Price, a man who turned a craft—pottery—into an art form. But what would make someone capable of art settle for mere craft? Zomby has made some of the most disorientingly original post-dubstep tracks of the last decade—tunes like “Aquafresh,” “Kaliko,” “Gloop,” “Mercury’s Rainbow”—and he’s on fine form with his latest and most fully-realised album yet, Ultra. Yet he has a strange  susceptibility to pastiche. In fact, Zomby originally made his name with the retro-rave album Where Were U in ’92?, on which he masterfully imitated the period mannerisms of breakbeat hardcore. Precise tonalities of processed diva-sample or reverby piano were achieved, things that scholars of the genre recognized as references to specific anthems.

    But Zomby’s history-of-hardcore remakes weren’t limited to the early ’90s: After Where Were U he’s bashed out dozens of pastiches in once futuristic but now outmoded genres like drum & bass, UK garage, and grime instrumentals in the “Eski” mode invented by Wiley. Some pop up on his albums; some make it to YouTube; still others that he’s talked about in interviews appear to have been done purely for private amusement. Recreativity seems to be recreation for Zomby. Maybe it’s a way of keeping his programming muscles trim during less inspired periods, of staying productive without the headache of producing something truly new. Instead of risking repeating himself, he can repeat somebody else.

    James Ferraro: On Air/Night Dolls With Hairspray (2010)

    Jostling with Ariel Pink for the ambivalent title of godfather of chillwave...  sharing co-parentage of vaporwave with Dan Lopatin… Ferraro’s work is so dependent on sonic ready-mades that it’s hard to point to anything that stands out as more parodic than the rest. I particularly enjoyed the brace of L.A. ’80s cheese-inspired albums On Air (released as Jim Ferraro) and Night Dolls With Hairspray that came out in 2010. Both frothed with clinically overloaded and artificial guitar textures that suggested some Satriani-wannabe overdoing the guitar pedals. Another much-discussed Ferraro album, Far Side Virtual, worked with the background sounds of our digital everyday—start-up jingles and audio-logos—with conceptually provocative, if somewhat anodyne, results. Then there was the mixtape Inhale C-4 $$$$$ issued as Bebetune$ and drawing on the hyper-glossy tropes of radio rap and R&B. Unreadable in intent, Ferraro’s simulations seem to involve a slightly askew reflection of the mainstream. Not unlike Jeff Koons, then (apart from the massive remuneration). Ferraro gets paid in the currency of think-pieces and blog commentary. Vaporwave—another simulation genre whose critical edge has to be supplied by the sympathetic listener or critic—followed in Ferraro’s wake. And then came the parody-genres like seapunk, a spoof on the teeming, transitory micro-cultures of online music that reached as far as the pages of The New York Times.

    Little Pain: “High Cry” (2013)

    Parody is a frequent occurrence all through the checkered history of the rap skit, but mostly the target is something outside hip-hop (a game show, say) or on the edge of it (a radio station). There’s no shortage of outsiders lampooning the genre, from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Coolio-cheeking “Amish Paradise” to the Lonely Island’s “I’m on a Boat,” a parody of bling rap’s already self-parodic wealth-flaunting. And then there’s rappers satirizing their own genre, like Tyler, the Creator with his Young Nigga alter-ego. The one that tickled me was Little Pain, pioneer of Sad Rap, a satire on the post-808s and Heartbreak/Drake trend for hollow-inside ennui. “High Cry,” off the mixtape When Thugz Cry, features sniffles and coughing sounds amid forlorn synth-washes: Pain raps about “smoking while I’m cryin’...  if I had a whip I’d be cryin’ while I’m drivin’” and describes himself as a member of “Too Sad Crew.” Playing it totally straight during his 15 minutes of micro-fame, Pain and his pseudo-genre received a smattering of coverage from online music sites who one hopes were complicit in the jape.

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    Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime

    Anticipated by karaoke, by Rocky Horror Picture Show cultists with their callbacks and shadow casts, by drag balls and fan-fiction, YouTube is the riotous flowering of paraculture: videos that parrot back and poke fun at the mainstream with a tsunami of covers, remixes, parodies, meme-collages, songs stretched to 20 times their natural length just to see what happens, and a myriad more modes of mischief and misappropriation.

    It’s useless to pick any particular example as exemplary: The point is not just that anyone can do it (because people have always lampooned for the amusement of themselves and a few friends) but that now anyone has the potential to find an audience if their DIY-parody goes viral. The “para” in paraculture means “beside”: All this stuff thrown out there forms a parallel stream of unruly commentary on the mainstream. The “para” also means parasitic: It’s dependent on the mainstream to generate the content that’s messed with or mocked. Depending on your perspective, paraculture is a democratic consumer revolution or it’s the pop equivalent of the North Pacific gyre, a roiling mass of trash and trivia.

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    Lists & Guides: The 50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time

    Every music genre has two things in common: 1) No two people agree on its precise boundaries; 2) Artists dislike being labeled as such. 

    Shoegaze is no different. It’s a particularly unusual genre in that its name describes neither a sound nor a connection to music history. This music is, above all else, a place to explore the outer limits of guitar texture. And emotionally, shoegaze turns its focus inward. The extreme noise eliminates the possibility of socializing while the music is playing, leaving each member of the audience alone with their thoughts. It’s music for dreaming.

    For our purposes, we chose as a starting point for shoegaze the years following the release of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s landmark Psychocandy, when the many bands influenced by their approach to guitar integrated the noise into new pop contexts. From there, our story of shoegaze expands outward, stretching beyond its initial explosion in the early ’90s and incorporating more instrumental contexts and approaches to the style along the way.

    Offering another perspective on what it all means is Pete Kember/Sonic Boom, whose early band Spacemen 3 wielded a great deal of influence on the records that follow.

    By Pete Kember

    If you had told me in 1991 that, 25 years later, I would be prefacing a list on shoegaze, I would probably have told you it would never happen. Few of these bands paid even the slightest, fleeting lip service to commerciality. I couldn’t see it.

    But things change; even by 1993, I was redressing my views. I played a show that year in L.A. at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room. The support band, to my complete amazement, was a shoegaze band—a Mexican shoegaze band. The thought that this music might cut through cultures with such broad swathes had never occurred to me before, but now I could see this genre might have long legs, in between that gaze and those shoes.

    Drifting back further, my memory of the British hack who first coined the term “shoegaze” was that he was being derogatory. It was a put-down, no question. And when the shoegazer moniker didn’t seem to irritate enough, the same wags started referring to these bands as “the scene that celebrates itself,” based apparently on the fact that these bands dug each others' music. Dear oh dear.

    The funny thing is, like most of these genre tag inventions of the media, such as “punk” or “grunge,” the term “shoegaze” stuck—and apparently, it stuck hard.

    So who put the sole in shoegaze? Were the shoegaze bands solely looking to their suede for inspiration? I think not. The long bangs and fuzz pedal fever of the time made any downward-looking aim nigh impossible to pinpoint, and whilst I'm not saying these bands did not have the hippest footwear, I think it was what was underneath them that was key: the pedals. It's a lot about the pedals. Effects that could take the meekest guitar and make it roar likea doorman on steroids, or soar like jet planes in an aerobatics display. Creating sounds you could actually taste and smell.  

    So while we’re looking down, let’s discuss the roots. Spacemen 3 have sometimes been referred to as “godfathers of shoegaze,” and that may be true in some small part; I may not be the best judge of that. But, for my coin, it was My Bloody Valentine that held the alpha DNA.

    Pete Kember; photo by Aaron B

    Spacemen 3 had been asked to support the Pixies on their first big UK tour in the fall of 1988. We didn’t want to. MBV, however, did, and I went to see their show and offer solidarity at one of the local black holes, the strangely named Roadmenders Centre in Northampton. Sure, I’d seen them before at shows we’d played together, but something had changed. The whole set was epic, faultless, but one song stood out in particular: a warped, staggering guitar voyage that seemed to encompass the quintessence of psychedelia. Pulsing waves. Building elliptical loops. A reverbed synchromesh of vocals, bass, drums, and guitar. Looming to unholy crescendos, then, devastatingly, snatching them away. Evaporating into a silken heat haze to rematerialize again out of the effervescence, stronger and more entrancing each time.

     That song was “You Made Me Realise.” And so a genre was born.

    So, we’ve mused the spark, we’ve considered the slights. What else are the keys? Culture in the early ’90s went into the sort of elastic overdrive it tends to do once every couple of decades. Special periods of super-stimulated energies and interests, and the role of the newly emergent drug ecstasy, should not be underestimated.

    But time is perception, and perception was key to these times and this music. In reality, what begat shoegaze doesn't matter a fraction as much as the records made in that period. Some of these bands went on to considerable success—the Mercury Revs, My Bloody Valentines, and Brian Jonestowns—whilst others disappeared in a cosmic flash, but left behind stellar recordings that'll be enjoyed for eons. Bands who made records people have never stopped pulling from the racks, a few of them on this list.

    I think it’s fair to say the early ’90s fluoresced like neon. And at times, so did shoegaze.

    Pete Kember is a musician, producer, and founding member of Spacemen 3.


    Tomorrow Never Comes



    Of all the bands on this list, Xinlisupreme, the Japanese duo of Yasumi Okano and Takayuki Shouji, are perhaps the furthest from shoegaze in the purest sense of the term. They move between a few different sounds on their 2002 debut Tomorrow Never Comes, from industrial clang to dark-leather, Suicide-style rhythmic relentlessness. But the heart of their approach is abrasive guitar noise speckled with melodic glitter, a blast of sound that owes everything to what makes shoegaze special. Xinlisupreme’s secret is found in excess; there are many moments here where the noise saturation seems as dense as it could possibly be, and then an extra crank on the distortion knob sends it into the stratosphere. It’s music of extremes, exploring what lurks behind the wall of static. Shoegaze’s influence in metal has been well documented, but its intersection with noise music is just as significant. Tomorrow Never Comes sits squarely at that meeting point. –Mark Richardson

    Listen: Xinlisupreme: “You Died in the Sea”

    All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors

    Turning Into Small

    Gern Blandsten


    Toward the end of the ’90s, shoegaze was in a lull. The majority of the original wave of bands had either broken up or morphed into something more streamlined; meanwhile, only a handful of new bands had popped up to supplant them. All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors were a bright spot in that relative emptiness; hailing from New Jersey, the outfit released its second album, Turning Into Small, in 1998. Steeped in oceanic pressures as well as stratospheric swirl, it serve as a celebration of all things My Bloody Valentine-like.

    But the album is no mere act of revivalism. Amid all the traditional shoegaze signposts—cosmically blissful riffage, demure vocals, disorienting undertow—were ambitious, dynamic arrangements and studio wizardry that sat somewhere between post-rock and Radiohead. Before shoegaze came back into vogue in the 21st century, Turning Into Small not only kept the flame alive, it humbly upped the genre’s game. –Jason Heller

    Listen: All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors: “Your Imagination”


    Tired of Tomorrow



    In the grand turmoil of shoegaze, vocals are stretched into abstract bellows and moans, processed into strips and steam. They’re mixed to become modest conduits for the whole. Which makes the carnage of Nothing’s lyrics all the more striking, and the more insidious. The Philly band is “The Walking Dead” of gorgeous guitar rock, a troupe of former hardcore punks with a troubled, ex-con frontman whose sunny, psychedelic gloss yields to a decaying core. On the group’s second album, Tired of Tomorrow, singer Domenic Palermo’s wordplay is inversely blunt and graphic; on the sprawling “A.C.D. (Abcessive Compulsive Disorder),” his pleading to his lost love includes shuddering imagery like, “Swallow corrosive confection/Decay, rotting in your womb/I can wallow in your filth.”

    Still, Tired of Tomorrow rings dreamily throughout, from insistent, anthemic guitar crescendos to Palermo’s sweeping, rasping moans that nod to Kurt Cobain. The heavy guitar squall of the title track opens with him mewling, “The train moves east/Where the mouths of Heaven/Devour me” from a graveyard. It’s as close as Nothing get to bliss, though their guitars have already offered it. –Stacey Anderson

    Listen: Nothing: “A.C.D. (Abcessive Compulsive Disorder)”

    The Telescopes


    What Goes On


    The function of telescopes is to help people see more clearly—but in the group named after them, things get more nebulous. The band has tread between shoegaze, psychedelic noise, and shimmering pop since they formed in Burton upon Trent, England, in the late ’80s, and they’ve remained opaque throughout; the founding singer/guitarist Stephen Lawrie is either charming or maddeningly cryptic in interviews, depending on who’s telling the story. When asked by the blog When the Sun Hits what his life philosophy is, he replied simply with, “#”.

    Luckily, the Telescopes’ debut album, Taste, is a sumptuous example of how music can communicate what language can’t. It was released in 1989, when shoegaze was still fledgling, and it’s a varied sampler of the eventual staples of shoegaze: zonked-out space rock, drone-laced rhythms, gossamer guitars. The divergence from the eventual genre lies in Lawrie’s vocals, which don’t so much swoon as sock you in the stomach, especially on the lysergic “Threadbare.” On Taste, that shock to the senses proves enlightening. –Paula Mejia

    Listen: The Telescopes: “Threadbare”





    Shoegaze records can initially sound off, imbalanced; the guitars are so centered and swollen and the drums are buried so deep in the mix, the result can feel more like a manufacturing error than an intentional design. Bloweyelashwish, the debut album by Scott Cortez and Melissa Arpin-Duimstra of Lovesliescrushing, is so extreme with these elements, it almost feels like something committed to tape that was corrosive or half-melted. (Fittingly, it was initially released on cassette, and took two more years to come out on CD.) There are no drums, just loops and implied pulses, and the guitars are occasionally so processed that they escape traditional effects—the Michigan duo approach the sound of the ocean (“Dizzy”), the creak of a door in a haunted house (“Fur”), or a jet engine that is producing, deep within its frequency, an angelic tone cluster (“Halo”). Like its title, the album is a compression; Bloweyelashwish can function as shoegaze, ambient, and harsh noise. It’s a Brutalist column of prettiness. –Brad Nelson

    Listen: Loveliescrushing: “Halo”

    Drop Nineteens


    Caroline / Hut


    In many ways, shoegaze can be considered a quintessentially British genre. Not only was its name coined by the notoriously fickle UK press, but the majority of shoegaze bands share a common geography that informs their sound—not just a cohesive physical scene, but a working-class Englishman ethos. However, in the early 1990s, a small handful of contemporary U.S. bands were melding American college rock with the main characteristics of shoegaze, taking cues from bands like Galaxie 500 and Dinosaur Jr. and marrying their fuzzed-out guitars and introspective lyrics with the more sonically expansive, atmospheric production of Kevin Shields and company.

    Delaware, the debut album by Boston’s Drop Nineteens, has a confessional and poetic aura that’s completely in line with the alt-rock of the era. Singers/guitarists Greg Ackell and Paula Kelley’s assertive-yet-sweet vocals intertwine seamlessly around lyrics of mournful youths and angelic first loves. But there’s an undercutting edginess to Delaware that distances itself further from typical shoegaze dreaminess; “Reberrymemberer” spews a grunginess reminiscent of Pixies’ more experimental moments. Operating under and isolated from the shoegaze umbrella simultaneously, Delaware sets Drop Nineteens squarely in a league of their own. –Cameron Cook

    Listen: Drop Nineteens: “Reberrymemberer”


    Future Perfect



    If Elliott Smith had channeled his bruised musings into shoegaze, he might have sounded a bit like Autolux. On the group’s debut, Future Perfect, co-vocalists Eugene Goreshter and Carla Azar share his talent for spinning angular, affecting imagery; on the saccharine “Sugarless,” the two sing, “Leave your mask inside its box/Smile cold anatomy/Teeth like stars you start to freeze” behind steady guitar groans and Azar’s brawny drums. The album is a muscled display of songs that invert common tropes; in “Great Days for the Passenger Element,” Autolux twist a common shoegazing theme, dreaming, into more sinister territory. “We don’t know what side we’re on/Dreaming with our heads cut off,” they wail. If nightmares always sounded this pretty, we’d welcome them every time. –Paula Mejia

    Listen: Autolux: “Great Days for the Passenger Element”

    The Veldt




    Centered around the North Carolina twins Danny and Daniel Chavis (on guitar and vocals, respectively), the Veldt could never be pigeonholed, no matter how hard the world tried to put the African-American brothers and their bandmates into a box. Their full-length debut, Afrodisiac, is the great lost American shoegaze classic, with influences from Prince to Cocteau Twins to A.R. Kane to the Jesus and Mary Chain (who contributed a remix) fused into something beautiful and unique. Daniel’s sweet, beautiful singing and Danny’s shimmer and crunch just keep clicking with the help of bassist David Burris and drummer Marvin Levi. Whether it’s the lead single “Soul in a Jar,” the slow swoon of “Heather,” or the exultant skyscraping “Until You’re Forever,” Afrodisiac is packed with songs that should have been massive hits. The one-two punch of “You Take the World” and “Revolutionary Sister”—dual acknowledgements of power, struggle, and love—are anthems that demand to be heard. –Ned Raggett

    Listen:The Veldt: “Soul in a Jar”


    Against Perfection



    The rise and fall of Adorable mirrors that of shoegaze itself. The band played their first gig in January 1991, right at the start of shoegaze’s imperial phase, and released their debut album Against Perfection in March 1993, when Suede were the new media darlings. Between these two points, Adorable released a run of singles strong enough to cement their place in shoegaze lore, including the epic hubris of “I’ll Be Your Saint” and the sky-scraping bounce of “Sistine Chapel Ceiling.” “Sunshine Smile,” in particular, exemplifies all that is stellar about Adorable: a spidery guitar riff that explodes into beatific distortion, singer Pete Fijalkowski’s languid, Ian McCulloch-esque croon, and a rhythm section that burns with the nervous energy of young love. –Ben Cardew

    Listen: Adorable:“Sunshine Smile”

    Starflyer 59


    Tooth & Nail


    Jason Martin, the principal songwriter and sole lifelong member behind Starflyer 59, was raised in a strictly Christian household that banned non-secular music. Sometime in his early teens, as he snuck through his school buddies’ record collections, he discovered the explosion of British indie music that had recently washed ashore onto U.S. college radio: the Smiths, New Order, the Cure, and, most importantly, My Bloody Valentine—the band that most clearly influenced his future act.

    Gold, Starflyer 59’s second LP, is their most indebted to shoegaze but it also harbors post-grunge heaviness and gritty, feedback-laden riffs. Nonetheless, Martin’s vocals-as-instrument approach to singing and his layers upon layers of gigantic, sludgy guitars cement Gold as an essential entry in the small-but-powerful pantheon of American shoegaze, a stellar interpretation of the genre through the lens of Californian noise-pop. –Cameron Cook

    Listen: Starflyer 59: “When You Feel Miserable”



    Anxious / Charisma


    Curve’s great innovation was marrying densely cloistered electronic rhythms with the approaching onslaught of noise-pop. Prior to their 1992 debut Doppelgänger, such a blend didn't exist, but Curve pioneered the sound that eventually became widespread; their own doppelgänger, Garbage, made a mint with this fusion just a few years later. Curve have stronger ties to shoegaze than Garbage, however, not just because of their timing but also their articulation: Vocalist Toni Halliday and multi-instrumentalist Dean Garcia favor fuzziness in sound and style, letting aesthetics bleed together, preferring sensation over sculpted song. On Doppelgänger, the duo demonstrates a strong melodic sense that’s as apparent in the riffs and rhythms as the verses themselves. Halliday also remains unique in shoegaze: She’s a singer who pushes herself to the forefront, stealing attention from the tidal waves of noise and distortion that surround her. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen: Curve: “Horror Head”

    Windy & Carl

    Antarctica (The Bliss Out, Vol. 2)



    Windy & Carl keep their feet in the clouds and stare downwards on Antarctica, three extended instrumental tracks that detail icy patterns so vivid, they seem to transform into language. Similar to their fellow husband/wife noisemakers in Yo La Tengo, Windy Weber and Carl Hultgren find ways to be quiet and loud at the same time, their overtones and oscillations creating secret melodies well suited for closed-eye contemplation.

    Where 1996’s Drawing of Sound submerged Windy’s vocals and shimmering songforms in great, open spaces sans percussion, Antarctica lives entirely in the space between Weber and Hultgren’s guitars. Three albums into a discography that would influence bands like Deerhunter, the shapes of “Sunrise” suggest ambient music as much as hidden beach-pop hymns. Without the distraction of lyrics, Windy & Carl, two Michigan record store owners, answer the central question of shoegaze: What’s down there? As drone musicians, throat singers, and overtone-lovers around the world know: everything. On Antarctica, the duo stakes a claim for the only continent without a musical tradition of its own. –Jesse Jarnow

    Listen:Windy & Carl: “Sunrise”

    A Place to Bury Strangers

    A Place to Bury Strangers

    Killer Pimp


    The Jesus and Mary Chain’s position as a proto-shoegaze band had long been cemented by 2007—and yet, few young shoegaze bands were drawing direct inspiration from them. In that sense, A Place to Bury Strangers got back to basics with their self-titled debut of that year. Armed with deafening waves of Psychocandy-esque noise and pounding, elemental beats, singer/guitarist Oliver Ackermann and crew unleashed a razor-sharp cacophony that slashed away shoegaze’s gauzier tendencies. In their place, Ackermann mixed sugary melodies with the harshest output of his formidable, home-built effects pedals. Accordingly, songs like “To Fix the Gash in Your Head” revel in ultraviolence, sadomasochistic perversity, and a machinelike edge that borders on the industrial. Shoegaze may be stereotyped as pretty and sad, but A Place to Bury Strangers reassert that the genre has always cleared a little space for the twisted and transgressive. –Jason Heller

    Listen:A Place to Bury Strangers: “To Fix the Gash in Your Head”

    Asobi Seksu


    Friendly Fire


    Shoegaze prompts staring down at the ground in a noise-induced stupor, but on Citrus, Asobi Seksu soar towards the heavens. The Brooklyn band’s second record pulls its influence from the luscious and bright fruit of its title; singing in both Japanese and English, Yuki Chikudate’s soprano vocals skyrocket joyfully across James Hanna’s careful guitar washes. Chikudate’s voice has received comparisons to Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, and James’ guitar textures have reaped the inevitable My Bloody Valentine association, but Asobi Seksu create their own distinct sound by focusing on a poppier side of shoegaze—there’s even a sample of “And Then He Kissed Me” in Citrus. “Thursday” drives itself into a fuzzy frenzy while “New Years” sounds downright indie-pop with its perky drums, dreamy vocals, and psychedelic swirl. Years before the wider nü-gaze revival that begat DIIV and Ringo Deathstarr, Asobi Seksu loaned some sunshine to shoegaze. –Quinn Moreland

    Listen: Asobi Seksu: “Thursday”

    Bowery Electric

    Bowery Electric



    Shoegaze balances control and chaos; the noise of an electric guitar feeding back always feels like it could explode at any moment and in a fit of atonal noise, but the right performer knows how to steer the din where the music needs it to go. Bowery Electric, a New York City-based rock band formed by Lawrence Chandler and Martha Schwendener, favored a kind of steely precision. Though the guitars on their 1995 self-titled debut are plenty loud and heavy, the music also has a cool distance to it, a tension that is always bubbling under but never fully explodes. This design-heavy approach meant that they’d later be quite comfortable in the world of head-nodding trip-hop. Their 1996 album, Beat, is almost as good as their debut, incorporating then-trendy breakbeats in an organic way, while their 2000 swan song Lushlife finds them trying too hard to be fashionable, sounding like a demo reel for commercial synch opportunities. The debut was the perfect realization of their aesthetic, each word and chord tuned and focused for maximum impact. –Mark Richardson

    Listen:Bowery Electric: “Next to Nothing”

    A Sunny Day in Glasgow

    Ashes Grammar

    Mis Ojos Discos


    For a genre that obsesses over studio trickery and pedalboard setups, shoegaze still puts a premium on being able to pull it off live—and A Sunny Day in Glasgow certainly try, anyway, but what they’re attempting is often too complex. Most of the time, they’re less a rock band than a think tank, an oft-rotating cast of six or seven musicians with equally great ideas trying to get their point across at the same time. Ashes Grammartakes a break from their usual mashup approach for something more reminiscent of a DJ mix. It covers a lot of ground in its hour, but whether it’s a 10-second madrigal, two-minute drone interlude or the inexhaustible trance-pop of “Close Chorus,” every one of Ashes Grammar’s 22 tracks sprawls out until realization, given as much time as it needs to play out. Can the band recreate any of this onstage? No more than you can recall any of your dreams exactly as they happened. –Ian Cohen

    Listen: A Sunny Day in Glasgow: “Close Chorus”

    Pale Saints

    In Ribbons



    Pale Saints had already released their debut, The Comforts of Madness, when Lush’s former singer Meriel Barham joined the lineup in late 1990. By the time they recorded their final LP, 1994’s Slow Buildings, the founding frontman and bassist Ian Masters had left. The brief overlap in their tenures was a golden age for the band, culminating with In Ribbons, an album of such sulky charisma thatOption magazine crowned the co-vocalists “the Glimmer Twins minus the heroin.”

    Instead of chasing shoegaze oblivion, Pale Saints usually wallowed in melancholy; their music might’ve earned a different genre descriptor if they hadn’t formed in Leeds during the late ’80s. The word “pain” comes up over and over on In Ribbons, and its effects can be unsettling: There’s a ferocity to Chris Cooper’s hard, fast drumming on “Ordeal” that borders on industrial, while “Hair Shoes” quavers with anxiety. “Shell” is practically slowcore, its somber strings, glockenspiel, and Masters’ Nico-thick vocals radiating depressive lethargy. But with Barham’s breathiness balancing out Masters’ ponderous, androgynous voice and producer Hugh Jones limiting the deployment of feedback squalls, In Ribbons is a less chaotic revision of Madness. It preserves the brooding core of Pale Saints’ music without letting that darkness devour every glimpse of light. –Judy Berman

    Listen: Pale Saints: “Ordeal”

    The Brian Jonestown Massacre




    Like the mid-’60s British Invasion, the late-’80s shoegaze explosion in the UK yielded a crop of mop-topped disciples stateside, albeit on a much smaller scale. But for Anton Newcombe, these two moments in rock history were equally significant. On the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 1995 debut, he effectively folds the two eras into one another, spiking his Stones with Spacemen 3 drone and introducing an uncommon sneer and swagger to a genre synonymous with wallflowery anti-pop introverts.

    Methodrone opened the floodgates to a furiously active period in which the BJM released seven albums in three years, with Newcombe dabbling in everything from Indian psychedelia to mod-punk rave-ups to Dylan-esque folk rambles, but it wouldn’t be long before the band’s unruly reputation for onstage fisticuffs and sitar-toppling arguments started to overshadow their prolific output. In hindsight, Methodrone represents the calm-before-the-storm moment of sustained bliss and holistic consistency for the band, where even the jangle pop gems (“That Girl Suicide”) and bad-trip jams (“Hyperventilation”) feel connected to the same fuzzy frequency. –Stuart Berman

    Listen: The Brian Jonestown Massacre: “That Girl Suicide”


    Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde



    The blur of black metal and the blur of shoegaze: When both genres began flourishing in the early 1990s, the similarities weren’t readily apparent. But by the early 2000s, their convergence seemed inevitable. The French musician Neige drifted away from the black metal scene in 2005 with the debut EP from his melodic, melancholic band Amesoeurs, but it took the first full-length by his next project—Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde by Alcest—to consummate his dual passions for black metal and shoegaze. The 2007 album’s title translates as “memories from another world”—accordingly, Neige imbued its six tracks with translucent acoustic guitars, sky-shaking thunderheads of distortion, and tender, wispy harmonies. The songwriting reaches for the cosmos, even as the record’s propulsive intensity is a constant reminder of Alcest’s metal ancestry. At the same time, it reinvented shoegaze for a new century, proving just how renewable a sonic resource it could be. –Jason Heller

    Listen:Alcest: “Les Iris”

    Ulrich Schnauss

    A Strangely Isolated Place

    City Centre Offices


    Ulrich Schnauss wasn’t the first electronic musician to be inspired by the blissed-out and dreaming side of shoegaze; the genre had already embraced ambient and techno. But Schnauss’ second album under his own name, A Strangely Isolated Place, became a 21st century standout in what was sometimes, in unwieldy fashion, called “electrogaze.”

    A Strangely Isolated Place isn’t simply a revamp of the early ’90s; the longer reach of ’70s synth/space acts and ambient pioneers filtered down as well, and little surprise Schnauss is now a member of Tangerine Dream. Yet from the start, with the tones of “Gone Forever” often suggesting an early Slowdive guitar flow, Schnauss shows his teenage years spent listening to all kinds of first-wave acts from the UK and beyond. Suggesting the aesthetic of a full band at points, with a coolly bubbling rigor—especially the shuffling breakbeats and ringing tones of “A Letter From Home”—Schnauss further combines that with elegant, often surprisingly spare arrangements that entice rather than crush. Meanwhile, vocal parts arc gently through the songs, half-heard calls that hover, beautifully, on the edge of comprehension. –Ned Raggett

    Listen: Ulrich Schnauss: “A Letter From Home”

    Blonde Redhead




    By 2007, the New York trio Blonde Redhead had been celebrated for over a decade as cerebral art-rockers, cult favorites of their lane; the upending of their tight, neurotic structures on 23 was a release of reigns. The group’s seventh (and first self-produced) album, it’s a thrilling spread that feels spontaneous and vigorous. Simone and Amedeo Pace offer a deep gravity in sprawling, warm guitars than pulse and blush, piano lines that puncture, and tinny hi-hat percussion that conveys only a mote of passing time. Singer Kazu Makino channels the glum wonderment of classic shoegaze in the title track, sighing with featherweight elegance, “23 seconds, all things we love will die/23 magic, if you can change your life,” while Amedeo Pace’s distorted vocals on “Publisher” edge ever-closer to bluesy yelps over draping, mathy guitars and subtle electronic fuzz. It’s artful in its lack of borders. –Stacey Anderson

    Listen: Blonde Redhead: “23”


    Shot Forth Self Living

    Creation / Def American


    Medicine hail from sunny Los Angeles, not exactly a hub for shoegazers. But what makes this trio an indelible part of “the scene that celebrates itself,” across a pond and then a continent, is the roaring, fuzz-laden music of their debut, Shot Forth Self Living. The album’s resonant centerpiece, a chugging dirge cheekily named “A Short Happy Life,” features vocalist Beth Thompson crooning, “If you smile now, I just might melt” and evoking images of “honey sliding across the floor.” Beneath the tinnitus-inducing feedback, Medicine often fixate on love’s slow fade, that familiar theme of many shoegazing songs, balancing it with less likely doses of off-kilter instrumentation and effects (banjo, a ham radio, the hurdy-gurdy). Rick Rubin’s label released it in America, and it was a heady, if under-embraced, boost to the standard shoegaze formula. –Paula Mejia

    Listen:Medicine: “A Short Happy Life”

    Bardo Pond




    On Amanita—named for the bright red, white-speckled mushrooms that look like they’d provide great trips—Bardo Pond find the heart in fuzz. Guitarists and brothers Michael and John Gibbons uncoil blasted-out lines that instinctively channel what the 1960s psychedelic godfathers 13th Floor Elevators called “the third voice.” Here, Bardo Pond find their power in churning jam structures, the kind that suggest someone left Neil Young and Crazy Horse in a barn and returned a few days later to find them still going, their jangle pleasantly warped.

    Bardo Pond’s third album and debut on Matador Records, Amanita provides a (relatively) hi-fi entry point for the band's massive and continuous output. The third voice emerges almost literally throughout in a mixed-for-mindblows swirl of near-pop anthems (“Sometimes Words”) and silver, flute-lined zone portals (“The High Frequency”). Shoegazers, perhaps, by a dint of looking for the nearest local hallucination, not all of the Philadelphia band’s psychedelic advice is necessarily good wisdom for trippers. And don’t eat their namesakes. –Jesse Jarnow

    Listen:Bardo Pond: “The High Frequency”





    Shortly after the release of their debut album, Spooky,Lush were invited to play Lollapalooza’s mainstage by Perry Farrell himself. It helped the London quartet break through stateside, but was still a less-than-likely festival booking—because, unlike other rock records of the early 1990s, Spooky doesn’t rely on blistering noise to make its points. Its brilliant intricacies remain best appreciated alone, through headphones, and preferably in a room where long shadows creep onto the walls. Each element in the mix—from the caffeinated basslines in “For Love” to the reverbed guitars in “Fantasy”—is layered on thickly yet proportionately. Its lyrical themes, which range from hazy dreams to long-lost friends, are helmed adroitly by co-vocalists and guitarists Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi—together, they set a template for the kind of wistful musings that shoegaze became known for. Their incantations are only frightening in how wonderful they are. –Paula Mejia

    Listen: Lush: “For Love”

    Flying Saucer Attack


    Drag City / Domino


    In the early ’90s, the Bristol, England shop Revolver Records served as an informal hub for bands who were picking up where Loveless left off. Foremost in this loose scene were Flying Saucer Attack; on their early 7” singles, the duo of Dave Pearce and Rachel Brook explored a sound that broadened the immersive guitar whorls of traditional shoegaze to encompass elements of krautrock and British folk. It was a style neatly summed up by the alternate title listed on FSA’s 1993 self-titled album: “rural psychedelia.”

    Further, FSA’s 1995 Domino debut, best encapsulates their approach, with feedback squalls, fingerpicked lullabies, and throbbing low-end falling equally into place in a gorgeous, heavily textured expanse. It isn’t hard to hear links to Further in an impressively varied array of acts, from the misty electronics of Boards of Canada to the avant-folk of Richard Youngs, from the skyscraping interludes of early Deerhunter to the abstracted intimacy of Grouper. FSA continued to refine their sound on later albums, despite Brook’s mid-’90s departure, and last year, Pearce returned with the first FSA album in 15 years, Instrumentals 2015. Still, Further remains their apex. –Marc Hogan

    Listen: Flying Saucer Attack: “Still Point”

    The Boo Radleys

    Giant Steps



    The Boo Radleys’ songwriter/guitarist, Martin Carr, named his band’s 1993 album after John Coltrane’s 1959 LP, but Giant Steps also is a winking acknowledgment of another kind: He's the first to know that the Liverpool quartet has taken a huge leap forward. Although they hardly renounce the thunderous swirl and delicate suspension of 1992’s Everything's Alright Forever, the Boo Radleys treat that candied rush as an absorbed language, with Carr choosing to pursue a grand vision that unifies psychedelia, British guitar-pop, jazz, and dub. Part of the appeal of Giant Steps is that the Boo Radleys’ enthusiasm leads them to attempt fusions that would scare away other bands: Witness “Lazarus,” which begins with an elastic reggae beat before becoming consumed by sheets of guitars, wispy harmonies, and stabs of brass. “Lazarus” is essentially Giant Steps in microcosm, but the album gains strength through its own untrammeled ambition. At the dawn of britpop, the Boo Radleys chose expanding consciousness over provincial patriotism, and the results are still majestic. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen:The Boo Radleys: “Lazarus”


    In the Presence of Nothing



    In their earliest years, the Lilys never could disguise their debt to My Bloody Valentine. In the Presence of Nothing—a stellar shoegaze title that conveys a giant, shimmering abyss but was intended as a jab at Velvet Crush’s debut In the Presence of Greatness—opens with “There’s No Such Thing as Black Orchids,” five minutes of oceanic waves of drone that consciously conjure memories of Loveless.

    Though the Lilys never quite managed to mimic the crushing volume of Kevin Shields and co., that subtlety was to their benefit. Kurt Heasley and Archie Moore’s guitars intertwine, the punchy rhythms fighting with the fuzz, all providing a muscular bed for the band’s whispered, circular melodies. Sometimes, the Lilys descend into moments of stillness, but they’re never dull: They provides a necessary contrast to the thick, urgent beauty that drives this debut. Ultimately, it’s not the similarities to My Bloody Valentine that are the great takeaway from In the Presence of Nothing: It’s the sense of tarnished sweetness that lingers. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen: The Lilys: “There’s No Such Thing as Black Orchids”

    Catherine Wheel




    Catherine Wheel were the black sheep of the shoegaze family. They came from Great Yarmouth, a depressed and depressing town on the English coast with little in the way of musical heritage; their lead singer, Rob Dickinson, was a cousin to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson; and their four members seemed slightly older than their peers, with drummer Neil Sims having worked on an oil rig before the band took off. Musically, too, Catherine Wheel were different: While they embraced the swirling, distorted guitars and muttered vocals of shoegaze, their sound edged towards straight-up riff-rock at times, with nothing of My Bloody Valentine’s deviant experimentalism or Slowdive’s feathery beauty. What Catherine Wheel did have in abundance were goosebump-raising, brilliant songs that piled earworm choruses upon nagging guitar lines and lyrics that spoke to a generation of awkward adolescents (“I Want to Touch You,” “She’s My Friend,” “Shallow”). A good half of the songs on Ferment, their debut, are enduring shoegaze-disco classics, while “Black Metallic,” in its full seven-minute glory, makes a strong claim to being the genre’s “Stairway to Heaven.” –Ben Cardew

    Listen: Catherine Wheel: “Black Metallic”


    Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts

    Mute / Gooom


    Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghostswas M83’s first international success, but certainly not the last. Yet many of the new listeners gained from the later releases Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and Before the Dawn Heals Us would probably find M83 unrecognizable here. On Dead Cities, Anthony Gonzalez and the since-departed member Nicolas Fromageau manage the most original take on shoegaze in years: It rings like the result of a year spent playing Nintendo while listening to Creation Records’ catalog, maintaining the overwhelming grandeur while ditching the guitars for 8-bit effects, sawtooth synths, and ringtone drum rolls.

    Dead Cities has an awkward place in M83’s lineage now; it’s been absent from their live sets for years, where even their pedestrian self-titled debut gets its due. Still, present-day M83 can be heard in it. The same emotionalcomponents of Dead Cities that made it so confounding to shoegaze purists—that earnest optimism bundled with a deep respect for kitschy childhood nostalgia—make the band’s through line abundantly clear. –Ian Cohen

    Listen: M83: “Unrecorded”

    Pale Saints

    The Comforts of Madness



    Caught between the full torrent of noise that followed Loveless and the earliest glimmers of dream-pop, Pale Saints never achieved the fame accorded to some of their peers. But the abundant idiosyncrasies on their debut, The Comforts of Madness, only sound better with age. It trades upon the hazy harmonies of Cocteau Twins—not for nothing was this the first album 4AD released in the ’90s—while also suggesting the perpetual swirl of shoegaze and adhering to the indie-pop pioneered by graduates ofC-86.

    A few of the songs on The Comforts of Madness could be placed comfortably alongside those from the La’s, another 1990 debut of note, but Pale Saints never cast their gaze back. There’s a restless urgency here, particularly when the volume swells and the rhythms intensify. That energy not only keeps The Comforts of Madness vital, it emphasizes Pale Saints’ inventiveness, how they channeled softness and rage into something distinctive. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen: Pale Saints: “Sea of Sound”



    Hydra Head


    When Justin Broadrick’s longstanding industrial metal outfit Godflesh called it quits in 2002, it seemed uncertain which direction he’d take next. But he’d already planted its seeds in “Jesu,” the final song on Godflesh’s 2001 album Hymns, which contained a hushed, prettily sung coda that couldn’t have been further from Broadrick’s usual aggression. In 2004, under the name Jesu, he released a self-titled album that proved the song wasn’t an ending but a beginning. Slow, sad, beautiful, and impossibly heavy, the record mixes shoegaze with hints of slowcore, industrial, and post-metal. Yet it feels nothing like a hybrid: It’s a work of whole cloth, its harsh edges and echoing melodies dissolving into a foreboding psychic expedition—not to mention a haunting vein of spiritual awe (“Your Path to Divinity,” “Guardian Angel,” “Walk on Water”). And in the 10-minute “Sun Day,” Broadrick crafts a song that’s as breathlessly enormous and blissfully bittersweet as any of shoegaze’s seminal classics. –Jason Heller

    Listen:Jesu: “Sun Day”


    Pubic Fruit

    Anxious / Charisma


    When Curve first emerged in 1991, on Eurythmics member Dave Stewart’s Anxious Records, some corners of the UK press snarked at them. The core members, vocalist Toni Halliday and instrumentalist Dean Garcia, had been in a failed ’80s band called State of Play, and there was a supposition that the two were scene-chasing shoegaze’s initial popularity. But then people heard their first EPs and saw their expanded live lineup and realized something: They weren’t just good, they were phenomenal.

    Pubic Fruit collects the group’s first three EPs and a track from their fourth for handy listening, and it’s a murderer’s row of killer songs. On display are Halliday’s coolly powerful singing and frequently take-no-prisoners lyrics (“Die Like a Dog” trumps XTC’s “Dear God” any day as an atheist anthem), Garcia’s walls of feedback, and riffs that sound like a series of explosions in a guitar factory. The sense of rigor and density in the arrangements suggests contemporary industrial acts, laden with punching bass and pounding drum machines. Songs like “Ten Little Girls,” “No Escape From Heaven,” “Clipped,” and “Frozen” underscore Curve’s secret weapon time and again: a sublime, angry focus lurking alongside the scene’s general bliss. –Ned Raggett

    Listen: Curve: “Die Like a Dog”

    Kitchens of Distinction

    Strange Free World

    One Little Indian


    Kitchens of Distinction didn’t fit easily into the shoegaze scene but, much like the Chameleons were claimed by goths worldwide, Kitchens were widely embraced by the pedal brigade. Patrick Fitzgerald’s warm delivery and forthright depictions of gay and straight life, love, and loss were anything but dreamy sighs, Dan Goodwin’s drumming was both precise and a frenetic rush, and Julian Swales’ guitar heroics suggested a fusion of Neil Young in excelsis and Will Sergeant’s dramatic thrills for Echo and the Bunnymen. Strange Free World works as both a scene outlier and an encapsulation of shoegaze’s overwhelming power—the band’s second album, it matches the might of the famed Under the Wave Off Kanagawa painting on its cover. “Gorgeous Love” nearly shouts pride from mountaintops, “Polaroids” bitterly considers the impact of AIDS via memories and artifacts, “Quick as Rainbows” is a vivid relationship collapse, and all are shaped by Swales’ ear for thrilling performances. “Drive That Fast” might be the keeper, an album single that feels like a burst of unceasing energy, where burning out was never an actual option. –Ned Raggett

    Listen: Kitchens of Distinction: “Drive That Fast”



    RCA / Dedicated


    Though originally from Reading, England, Chapterhouse rose to indie acclaim in the ultra-insular, early-1990s London scene that begat Lush and Moose. What set Chapterhouse apart, specifically with the release of their debut full-length Whirlpool, was their ability to cross-reference all the elements of the budding shoegaze genre at once, and gel them cohesively into nine near-perfect tracks. Whirlpool gracefully bears the torch lit by its sonic forefathers only a few years before, marrying the jangly, acidic indie-pop aspects of very early My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain with the ear-crunching blasts of distorted guitar and sustained vocal harmonies that came to represent shoegaze as a whole. Delving even deeper into the past, Chapterhouse also helped solidify the presence of ’60s psychedelia in shoegaze, nodding to wah-wah guitars and the Beatles circa “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Whirlpool remains an essential building block in the foundation of a genre that Chapterhouse helped perfect. –Cameron Cook

    Listen: Chapterhouse: “Pearl”

    Mercury Rev

    Yerself Is Steam

    Mint Films


    Yerself Is Steam is the only album on this list to feature flutes, trumpets, and a percolating coffee machine used as a rhythm track. And in sharp contrast to shoegaze’s smeared, feminizing effects on male singing, Mercury Rev’s resident crackpot poet David Baker sounds like he’s curled up in your inner ear, an unshakeable voice in your head instructing you to commit terrible acts. But once guitarists Jonathan Donahue and Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiack unleash that earth-quaking rupture of feedback at the 3:05 mark of “Chasing a Bee,” Mercury Rev’s place in the shoegaze canon is assured. In their primordial state, this band had the power to not just blow out your ears, but rearrange your guts, too.

    And yet, even at their most anarchic, Mercury Rev rarely resort to noise for noise’s sake. Building on their formative experiences improvising art-film soundtracks at SUNY Buffalo, they sculpt their squall with a Cecil B. DeMille-esque flair for epically scaled drama, from the awesome, cardiac-arresting descent of “Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t’ th’ Center of Yer Heart” to the cosmic Crazy Horse churn of “Frittering” (which provided the first hint of the wounded, melancholic melodicism that would flourish on 1998’s Deserter’s Songs). Though the record was blistering enough to score Mercury Rev tours with My Bloody Valentine and Ride, Yerself Is Steam is really a shoegaze album in the inverse: Where their fuzz-pedaling peers obliterated the human presence in rock music through a cloud of distortion, Mercury Rev foregrounded the claustrophobic, panicky unease of being trapped inside it. –Stuart Berman

    Listen: Mercury Rev: “Chasing a Bee”





    Loveless wasn’t the only great shoegaze album that Creation Records released in the fall of 1991. But where My Bloody Valentine dissolved their rock in aquatic textures, Swervedriver solidified miasma into muscle. On their debut full-length, Raise, the Oxford quartet refashion shoegaze into modern hot-rod music, harnessing its gliding momentum, fuzzbox fury, and Adam Franklin’s auto-erotic fixation (“Son of a Mustang Ford,” “Deep Seat”) into heart-racing, horizon-bound psych-punk. The guardrail-scraping acceleration of tracks like “Sci-Flyer” and “Pile-Up” is answered by the open-sunroof sway of “Rave Down” and “Sandblasted,” songs that serve as the connective tissue between UK shoegaze and American alt-rock after grunge. After all, Swervedriver may have been one of many flanger fetishists on the early ’90s Creation roster, but they were the only ones who could hold their own on tour with Soundgarden. –Stuart Berman

    Listen: Swervedriver: “Sci-Flyer”

    My Bloody Valentine

    m b v



    In February 2013, the most anyone could ask of My Bloody Valentine’s third album was that it exist. So when m b v was announced and rushed out on theircomically overtaxed website the next day, no one seemed to mind that Kevin Shields hadn’t altered the trajectory of indie rock a second time. Whatever his intentions to modernize the band’s sound, inspiration cuts off sometime around the peak of drum'n'bass.

    Still, the long-rumored m b v delivered: Beginning with the lingering, sooty exhaust of “she found now” and closing with a deafening, six-minute jet roar, it's the band at their grimiest (“who sees you”), glammiest (“new you”) and most disorienting (“nothing is”). It stands apart from their previous two classics, remaining distinct even after two decades of being arguably the most ripped-off band in existence. There’s a tendency for these long-gestating projects to draw raves, be shelved shortly thereafter, and be seen ultimately as an asterisk: m b v hasn’t entirely escaped this fate. And so m b v, the follow-up to Loveless, rests in history as the inconceivable: a My Bloody Valentine album that’s underappreciated. –Ian Cohen

    Listen: My Bloody Valentine: “nothing is”



    Too Pure


    Seefeel straddled the line between shoegaze and electronic music, never quite sure if they were a rock band with a fondness for sequencers or an ambient-minded collective who used guitars. Given their bent toward cutting-edge electronics, it made perfect sense that they would later be Warp labelmates with Richard James, who remixed Seefeel on their 1993 EP Pure, Impure.

    If those remixes showed how Seefeel’s music could easily be integrated into the angular world of IDM beats, their debut album from the same year, Quique, was a study in drifting beauty. Mostly instrumental, it finds Seefeel exploring the outer limits of drone and ambience, with rippling waves of sound that are hard to place precisely. Indeed, there’s barely a guitar strum on the record, as Mark Clifford uses the instrument as a tool for sound sculpture rather than a device for marking rhythm or melody. Gently undulating bass and drums undergird drones that seem to come from nowhere in particular and then, after radiating for seven or eight minutes, move back into the silence. Quique showed how the oceanic end of shoegaze could be found in a purely electronic world, opening up the music to bedroom producers in the coming decades. –Mark Richardson

    Listen: Seefeel: “Polyfusion”





    If Slowdive’s Souvlaki is one of the albums that established shoegaze as a genre, then the band’s follow-up, Pygmalion, is its inverse. Shoegaze fills and warps space until it begins to resemble something else: a bruise, a rose, an abyss. Pygmalion is anti-shoegaze in how it prioritizes space: The instruments bend and shiver around emptiness instead of totally annihilating it. The chords in the 10-minute opener “Rutti” unfold from, then fold back into, an established silence. “Trellisaze” is built off a single chord drone that advances and recedes over distracted metallic percussion. The religious devotion to absence, to what isn’t there, draws the listener’s focus to what is present in abundance: Pygmalion’s mostly cellular changes in texture, the microscopic movements and evolutions. “Crazy for You” sounds like a captured and dissected shimmer; “Blue Skied An’ Clear” is an object that shifts from haunted to beautiful, depending on how the light hits it. –Brad Nelson

    Listen: Slowdive: “Rutti”


    Blonder Tongue Audio Baton



    At the outset, shoegaze was a primarily British phenomenon, but a few American indie bands attempted the sound alongside. Chief among these were the Swirlies, a Boston quartet that originally surfaced in 1990. Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, their debut, appeared three years later, right as shoegaze was entering its decline in the UK and lo-fi was ascending in the U.S. The Swirlies existed in the center of these two scenes, their waves of distortion feeling tinny instead of full, their wistful harmonies seeming woozy instead of ethereal.

    By blurring such distinctions and threading pulsating, semi-electronic collages throughout Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, the Swirlies were somewhat out of step with indie-rock in the ’90s. But their debut now seems prescient, particularly in the tussles of gnarled noise on “Pancake” or the precisely rendered pop of “Bell,” which floats upward on conjoining harmonies and insistent strums—sounds that remain part of the indie-pop firmament. Blonder Tongue Audio Baton thrives on this mixture of beauty, brawn, and brains, pointing directly toward what indie became in the new millennium. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen: The Swirlies: “Pancake”


    Mezcal Head



    For all its trademark wistfulness and ethereality, shoegaze can rock, too. Swervedriver’s sophomore album, Mezcal Head, stands as a testament to the genre’s occasional bursts of hell-raising extroversion. Released in 1993, the record builds on the dynamism and forcefulness of 1991’s Raise; frontman Adam Franklin keeps all the velocity and volume, only he spikes things with even greater pop hooks and a more dexterous sense of songwriting. “Duel” flirts with the alt-rock bounce of Sugar even as it recalls the gargantuan riffage of Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine. “Last Train to Satansville” even sports a touch of surf. That’s not to say the album isn’t capable of dreaminess, as in the delicate touch of “Duress.” Even then, though, Franklin’s vocals stalk the foreground, smooth and clear, with an edge of menace. With Mezcal Head, Swervedriver brilliantly make the point that shoegaze, despite its name and reputation, doesn’t have to be bashful. –Jason Heller

    Listen: Swervedriver: “Duel”

    Catherine Wheel




    For their second album, Catherine Wheel hired the Pixies’ and Throwing Muses’ mastermind, Gil Norton, as a producer. It’s a considerably more focused record, both in songwriting and the visibility of its instrumentation; Norton sharpens what Ferment intentionally blurred, dragging a whirling shoegaze design around cleaner guitar tones and Rob Dickinson’s honeyed vocals. Every chord on Chrome is a crisp, metallic clang trapped in a halo of hazy and seductive noise, a membrane through which the individual notes branch like nerves.

    Few rock records sound like this; there are only a few songs on Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque and Sugar’s Copper Blue that resemble Chrome’s gentle, blushing form of aggression, which generates songs as harsh and menacing as the title track and songs as celestial and full of dread as “Fripp.” Where many shoegaze bands would resign themselves to 2-3 monochromatic notes, Dickinson’s vocal melodies are dynamic, vivid, and exhibit an astral quality; they burn, shimmer, and glow against these songs. It’s as if Chrome were imported from another history of alt-rock, one more textured and romantic, where it sits deservedly atop the pile. –Brad Nelson

    Listen: Catherine Wheel: “Fripp”





    As foundational documents of shoegaze, the songs on Gala are pretty key, but they cede to a larger point: Lush were a great band from the start. Singer/guitarists Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson were longtime friends who formed the group after meeting drummer Chris Acland at North London Polytechnic, then added Steve Rippon on bass. 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell took a shine to them and, over the course of 1989 and 1990, the band released three individual EPs, collected after as this record.

    Lush were spiky, snarky, and not apt to suffer fools gladly, as Gala songs like “Bitter” and “Leaves Me Cold” underscore on matters personal and passionate. That Berenyi and Anderson sung these with sweet individual and harmony performances, adding in odd time signatures and eccentric flourishes, was even better: The two versions of “Thoughtforms” alone, from two consecutive EPs, demonstrate how quickly they learned to make their work even more distinct. From the early standout “Sweetness and Light” to the swooping beauty of “De-Luxe” to the enjoyable romp through Abba’s “Hey Hey Helen,” Gala is one continued win. –Ned Raggett

    Listen: Lush: “Sweetness and Light”


    Just for a Day



    At the time of its release, Slowdive’s full-length debut was seen almost as a comedown by some after their string of raucous earlier EPs. But time has not only vindicated Just for a Day, it’s revealed it to be a crucial shoegaze template—something easily heard in electrogaze performers, post-rock bands, black metal acts, and anyone with a taste for majestic, stately, and moody-as-hell compositions.

    The young UK quintet’s love for the gothier side of things was clearly evident in their Siouxsie and the Banshees-inspired name, and their sonic echoes of early ’80s Cure and New Order. But the genteel, sighing flow of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s vocals, the slow burn combination of their guitars meeting Christian Savill’s, and the rolling punch of the Nick Chaplin/Simon Scott rhythm section were its own beguiling beast. Starting with the cello-touched “Spanish Air” and finishing on the dramatic “Primal,” and with stellar numbers like “Waves” and “Ballad of Sister Sue” along the way, they create music that constantly flows over a cliff into a deep, distant ocean. As for “Catch the Breeze,” especially with its rising chorus and massive coda, almost no other song so perfectly sums up what shoegaze  is at its core. –Ned Raggett

    Listen: Slowdive: “Catch the Breeze”

    The Verve

    A Storm in Heaven

    Hut / Vernon Yard


    Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft never really fit the wallflower-of-sound shoegaze mold. He was too brash, too pretty, too magnetizing. Even when his band started out in the early ’90s, years before the Rolling Stones-pilfering “Bitter Sweet Symphony” made them an international concern, he was peacocking like a cosmic Mick Jagger onstage, barefoot and blaring. But back then, his psychedelic philosophies were perfectly counteracted by Nick McCabe’s six-string impressionism; McCabe gave Ashcroft’s ambitions a soul to search for.

    The guitarist’s work on the Verve’s perfectly titled debut album A Storm in Heaven offers color and clarity to Ashcroft’s grand pronouncements, his tone—gentle as a butterfly one minute, squalling like the sea the next—providing the sort of nuance his singer could never quite pull off. Produced by UK vet John Leckie, whose credits include engineering for Pink Floyd in the ’70s and steering Radiohead toward The Bends, the album lives in that liminal state between jam and song, spontaneity and structure. It’s not calculating, but it never veers into sheer indulgence, either. It breathes beauty. The Verve would go onto make anthems for millions, but they never again sounded this whole. –Ryan Dombal

    Listen: The Verve: “Slide Away”


    Going Blank Again



    Ride’s second studio album represents the commercial peak of shoegaze, a glorious explosion of populist noise that proves how utterly satisfying distorted guitars can be when allied with Byrds-ian harmonies, a drummer at the top of his Keith Moon-goes-indie game, and bass lines you can hum in the shower. Going Blank Again sounds like someone has taken the wistful charm of Ride’s debut album Nowhere, fed it three solid meals, and packed it off to finishing school to be sharpened within an inch of its life. It’s tight, audacious, and supremely confident.

    The album went Top Five in the UK, driven by the singles “Leave Them All Behind”—a monstrously intrepid, eight-minute slice of thrilling guitars—and the hook-filled “Twisterella.” Crucially, Going Blank Again manages all this without losing any of Ride’s innate charm; nothing here sounds stretched in the pursuit of commercialism, though Ride would plumb those depths on their next two albums. Instead, Going Blank Again feels like the logical destination of the band, the peak of noise and melody they had been moving towards since their first hazy demos. –Ben Cardew

    Listen: Ride: “Leave Them All Behind”

    My Bloody Valentine

    Isn’t Anything



    Isn’t Anything was the moment everything changed, the moment a jangly, C86-ish guitar act from Ireland went into the studio and birthed shoegaze out of their languorous, sleep-deprived minds. My Bloody Valentine’s You Made Me Realise EP, released three months before Isn’t Anything, may have hinted at the departure that the band was about to take, but on their debut full-length, you can actually hear the sands shift beneath their feet, as largely straightforward noise-rock numbers like “Sueisfine” or “(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream” give way to the transcendent, hallucinatory pieces “All I Need” and “Several Girls Galore.” The former is a warm, comforting smudge of a song that seems to recreate the sound of a rock concert from within a mother’s womb; the latter is a nightmarish, stop-start drone that suggests music itself is dying a painful death.

    Songs like these helped Isn’t Anything change the idea of how a guitar could sound, but the album offers more than that. Buried beneath the guitar soup are troves of mournful melodies, as well as drums that—on “Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)”—reflect Kevin Shields’ love of hip-hop. Even today, it resembles little else in the guitar-rock canon. –Ben Cardew

    Listen: My Bloody Valentine: “Several Girls Galore”





    Ride were barely out of their teens when, in the summer of 1990, they finished recording their debut album. Accordingly, Nowhere reflects much of the indie environment that reverberated around them, including Sonic Youth’s distorted meltdowns, the Stone Roses’ jangly psychedelia, and the chiming nightscapes of the Cure’s Disintegration—not to mention a huge dose of inspiration from Ride’s Creation Records labelmates My Bloody Valentine. But unlike MBV, who were in the midst of resequencing the DNA of guitar-centric indie rock, Nowhere harbors a deep strain of classic-rock reverence, from the Paul McCartney-esque bassline of “Seagull” to the “When the Levee Breaks”-like stomp of “Dreams Burn Down.” Mix in “Vapour Trail,” the disc’s melancholy, violin- and cello-laced anthem to post-adolescent romanticism, and Nowhere stands elegantly poised between pop traditionalism, gently devastating songwriting, choirboy harmonies, and the most harrowing sonic overdoses in shoegaze. –Jason Heller

    Listen: Ride: “Seagull”





    Slowdive’s second album was marked by more than its share of misfortune, both in creation and reception. The band ditched their original batch of sessions to start over again, and the album debuted in mid-1993, the exact moment of the UK press’ firm backlash against anything shoegaze. On top of that, there was comically bad handling on the part of the group’s American label, including a heavily delayed release. But from a distance, Souvlaki can be seen and heard clearly for what it is: the rare sophomore effort that not only maintains the quality of a great debut but also avoids simply repeating its sound. The evanescent vocals of Just for a Day give way to new clarity in Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s singing and lyrics (the trading of sections in “Machine Gun” being one highlight of many). Similarly, their striking blend of feedback and texture serves more straightforward arrangements on songs like “40 Days” and the majestic “When the Sun Hits.” “Souvlaki Space Station” finds a way to bring in the clatter and wooze of dub, while “Dagger” concludes the album on a Lee Hazlewood-like hushed intensity. All this plus not one, but two, collaborations with Brian Eno. –Ned Raggett

    Listen: Slowdive: “When the Sun Hits”

    My Bloody Valentine




    Sometime last year, the legally hazy industry of fan-made merchandise paid tribute to Loveless with a product that captured its essence: a duvet cover printed with its artwork. It was a perfect (and perhaps accidental) union, this prospect of physically curling up inside the album’s magenta-tinted blanket of noise.

    Not that we haven’t already spent years talking up Loveless and its comforts. Hyperbolic discussions of the album predated its release, even, as the recording process stretched out over two years’ worth of sessions at 19 studios, ultimately involving something like45 engineers. During that time, bands inspired by Isn’t Anything started putting out their first albums, so the pressure was on for My Bloody Valentine to prove they couldn’t be replicated. But the real miracle of Loveless has always been how its excruciating birth resulted in music with such visceral impact. Fixating on Kevin Shields’ tremolo-reliant, feedback-sampling technical prowess is a proud tradition, but it can undersell the sensory swaddling of listening to these songs.

    Loveless is a guided meditation on love and its absence that conjures an emotional reality instead of merely depicting one. At the album’s core is a succession of super-sweet melodies filtered through the softly psychedelic subjectivity of a mind engulfed by thirst. Shields’ bent notes are that introspection made sonic, their familiar guitar sounds so dramatically distorted, you might start to suspect that it’s your ears twisting them. Theglide guitar on opening track “Only Shallow” contains the same creeping violence as the onset of passion; “Loomer,”which comes next, speeds into the childhood origins of longing.

    The album isn’t just romantic, though. It’s also Romantic in the 19th century sense, a work so grand that it connects us to the limitless universe and reminds us how small we are as individuals within it. Coleridge and Turner used nature to access the infinite, but the internal landscape Shields locates is just as expansive. The radical inclusiveness of these songs even evades the specificity of gender by mixing Shields’ and Bilinda Butcher’s vocals into androgynous foam on soaring monuments to the lover's gaze like “When You Sleep.” Just audible beneath the halo of fuzz that surrounds “Sometimes” are lyrics that express a frustration we’ve all felt: “I don’t know how you could not love me now.” Loveless is the defining statement of shoegaze because it discovered, in layered guitar sounds and submerged singing, a language that serenely overwhelms as it distills the universal human experience. –Judy Berman

    Listen: My Bloody Valentine: “Sometimes”

    Contributors: Stacey Anderson, Judy Berman, Stuart Berman, Ben Cardew, Ian Cohen, Cameron Cook, Ryan Dombal, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Jason Heller, Jesse Jarnow, Paula Mejia, Quinn Moreland, Brad Nelson, Ned Raggett, Mark Richardson, Ryan Schreiber

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