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    Interview: Here Is the Scandalous Father John Misty Interview You’ve Been Waiting For

    In roughly 24 hours, Josh Tillman will go on national TV and sing about having virtual-reality sex with Taylor Swift. As heard on his new song “Total Entertainment Forever,” the name-dropping lyric in question reads like commentary on rampant celebrity culture, Kanye West-style outspokenness, and humanity’s increasingly digitized sexuality. Or is it just pure, puerile provocation?

    When I ask the singer-songwriter best known as Father John Misty what he means when he sings, “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift,” he kinda shrugs. “Nobody else rhymes with Oculus Rift,” he offers, adding that his songs come from his subconscious and that every interview he’s done in the last year has included questions about the pop star. He’s more interested in talking about the seemingly inevitable backlash than the inspiration, anyway. “The internet is going to read, ‘King Indie Troll Father John Misty Slams Taylor Swift on SNL,’” he guesses.

    The reaction around the web turns out to be a bit tamer than Tillman suspected. Perhaps his accumulation of meta stunts over the last couple of years has resulted in a kind of blasé numbness: That’s just Misty being Misty. But without his uncanny talent for taking the piss out of his targets—from streaming services that don’t care about sound quality, to an L.A. juice bar that’s a little too into crystals, to Ryan Adams’ stylized Swift covers, to indie bands doing car commercials—Tillman would skew far more toward killjoy philosopher than jester.

    “People have been saying to me since I was a kid, ‘I can't tell if you’re being serious or not,’” he tells me. “Like how Eskimos have 12 words for ‘snow,’ I feel like I have 12 words for ‘funny’ in my mind.” And yet, he’s got higher ambitions for his music, beyond humor or cynicism. “Anything you’re hearing is the product of a commitment to beauty,” he says, straight-faced.

    We’re about three and a half hours deep into an interview in the back of the Bowery Hotel lobby, a sort of human terrarium styled to look so perfectly moody you could scream. Tillman sits to the right of me on an ottoman sipping tequila sodas with a bamboo leaf sticking out, which a chipper waiter brings him every 45 minutes or so. He is as roguish as usual, in slightly high-water black pinstripe slacks, a long black coat, and a white shirt undone at least a button lower than anyone else’s, chest hair visible.

    During our enjoyably meandering conversation, he always asks “Do you know what I mean?” to underscore his point (when he manages to reach one), perhaps because he’s convinced we’re exactly the same. Well, not me per se, but people who spend their days thinking and writing about music. “If music was made by some kind of critical theorist, it would sound like my music,” he says.

    Pure Comedy, his third album, makes it clear that the 35-year-old’s commitment to provocation is stronger than ever. At times he strips back the record’s gorgeous orchestral instrumentation—courtesy of acclaimed composers Gavin Bryars and Nico Muhly—to reveal little more than a piano or an acoustic guitar, forcing listeners to consider his satire about, say, the dying man who checks his newsfeed one last time, or the ideological prisons that both liberals and conservatives have built around themselves, or the “radiant blandness” of streaming-service algorithms.

    “A lot of it’s a pretty easy bait-and-switch, which I will admit that I enjoy,” he says of the hyper-modern reference points tucked inside his quietly epic folk-rock tunes, which could make you wonder how this music will hold up down the line. But it’s in service of a theme as classic as it gets, as Tillman tells me: “What I see celebrated largely as humanity is, like, a grotesque counterfeit.”

    Father John Misty’s last album, 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, centered around love and monogamy, in the wake of his own wedding. It was not exactly your typical honeymoon record, though. “I would lay awake at night, writing the think-pieces that were going to come out about that album because of what I had included in it—repugnant aspects of what goes on in the male psyche when they are dealing with intimacy,” he says. Honeybear’s “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” is a song that captures the Misty dichotomy well. It’s a scathing judgement of a groupie-type, the punchline being that the narrator’s repugnance doesn’t stop him from having sex with her anyway; “I obliged later on when you begged me to choke ya,” he sings at the end of the song. Misty detractors thought it misogynistic; Misty fans might say that’s the point—that it’s an honest comment on misogyny. Tillman himself figured that controversial last line could be ruinous: “I thought, I am fucked, I am done, I am going to good-person jail forever.”

    But he was largely embraced for the second Misty album, which followed a stint drumming in Fleet Foxes and a mountain of miserably earnest folk releases as J. Tillman. Of course, as with any divisive artist, his success was met with more haters. He seems to selectively let this bother him, like when he fixates throughout our interview on a colleague of mine who doesn’t care for his music, convinced that he could win her over if they spoke. He says his ideological steadfastness comes from “that child place,” though his childhood was anything but typical. Talking about his upbringing, he describes a very ugly home scene permeated with “the cult of Pentecostal, Messianic, Jewish, demon shit.”

    “I grew up being told by psychotic adults that I was filled with sin, that my experiences didn’t matter, and that I would die before I reached adulthood because we were living in the end times,” he says. “I made a decision as a child that I would never let anyone tell me that I was invalid or inauthentic, or that my experiences were.” This belief allows Tillman to be neurotically self-aware enough to know everything that’s even vaguely #problematic about his lyrics—but to not let it stop him from releasing the songs anyway.

    “When I listen to music, I don’t think about correct, prescriptive, how-to-live shit,” he says, taking a shot at political correctness in the music world. “I think that life is messy and that human beings are insane. In some way, music demystifies the parts of us that we’re most afraid of. When I was growing up, I was taught that a sexual thought equaled sexual deed, and the thing that really disturbs me about the current liberal environment is how eager liberals seem to impress upon you how infrequently they ever have an incorrect thought.”

    He sees this heightened liberal morality manifesting in many things. For example, the first 90 minutes of our chat consist largely of critiques of this very website, which he says causes musicians “psychic trauma.” He never seems all that antagonistic about it, more matter-of-fact and disarmingly friendly—relieved, even, to air his complaints to an actual human instead of some faceless brand avatar. For a second I have to wonder if he’s trolling me, if anything he says can be believed. Somehow, he seems serious when he casually mentions, “You know, the idea of ruling the world was a patriarchal concept. I don’t really believe in the patriarchy.” When I prod, he doesn’t back down but is quite low-key about the whole thing, asking me not to be “willfully ignorant”—it’s just that “there’s always one master bigger than you.”

    He would say that.

    Pitchfork: Your lyrics seem very in-tune with the pitfalls of self-conscious internet culture. Do you think your worldview would be any different if you went completely offline?

    Josh Tillman: Well, the fact of the matter is, I don’t look at the internet that often. I look at the internet when I Google myself, and that is a four-in-the-morning, wasted kind of scene. I mean, the number one rule on acid is: Don’t look in the mirror. But it happens enough that I know what people’s idea of me is. I pick up a lot of information from those isolated incidents where I’m just like, “Whoa!”

    Does that tension make the weight of your own words feel more substantial to you—because you can witness people reacting to them?

    The irony is that the people who hate me the most are the people who are exactly like me. I’m sorry, but if you are reading music blogs and tweeting about people like me, then there is no meaningful distinction between that person and me. My music asks people to think critically, so how can I get upset when people think about me critically? The thing is: I’m not bamboozled when people hate me. There’s nothing where I’m like, “Huh?” I am just incredibly insufferable to people, and at the same time, take up probably like .0000000000001 percent of their thought-life.

    Hating someone takes more energy than simply ignoring them.

    That’s true. Basically, I think that the culture needs to deal with this smug, ironic white-guy thing. It’s like liberals have now whittled down and self-perverted to nothing. You’re not allowed to be.

    You wrote most of your new album a couple of years ago, but a song like “Two Wildly Different Perspectives,” which talks about “the hell that we create on both sides,” definitely feels apropos in our current political moment. When exactly did you stop working on the album?

    It got mastered last October. But if your whole life you’ve been like, “People are insane, entertainment is deeply suspect, and politicians are goons,” and then an event happens that confirms all of those things literally overnight—it’s like some boy who cried wolf, but then the wolf actually shows up.

    Did you read that New Yorker article about how we’re living in a simulation, with the Oscars flub and Trump? I hate that idea, because it’s basically the liberal equivalent of conservatives saying, “Well, the war in Iraq is happening because these events were all prophesied in the Book of Revelation—it’s no one’s responsibility, because we had no complicity in this.” You’re telling me that every economic, political, philosophical point from de-industrialization to the dissolution of unions, to Vietnam War images being projected into people’s houses, to the internet, to full-immersion celebrity culture adds up to anything other than Donald Trump? It’s like, “Yeah, blame the Russians!” But look at where we’ve been headed towards.

    I feel like people are trying to shoehorn [Pure Comedy] into, “Well, we don’t need this guy who is cynical right now, who is just like, ‘Oh, I know it all! Rama-lama-ding-dong!’ What we need right now is Lorde music.”

    The song “Leaving LA” has you recounting a formative bad memory associated with pop music—when you choked in a JCPenney while Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” played in the store. Do you remember the first bit of pop music that stuck with you in a good way?

    Michael Bolton’s Soul Provider. I was in a carpool when I was in fourth grade, and my friend Andy Greenfield’s mom would listen to that album all the time. I loved it. I thought he wrote absolutely beautiful songs: “How can we be lovers if we can’t be friends?” Andy gave me a copy of it for my birthday because he knew that I loved it so much. But I had to hide it at school, I couldn’t even take it home. The other album was Peter Gabriel’s So; it was the only secular album that was allowed at home.

    Michael Bolton wasn’t allowed but Peter Gabriel was?

    Michael Bolton wasn’t allowed because of the fact that he was long-haired, and when he first started out he was kind of a hard rocker. But when you’re a child, it is possible to fall in love with music as a thing. I just liked hearing sequential sounds in premeditated modular movements. You start from there, then you begin the refinement process.                

    You helped write Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” and a couple of songs on Lady Gaga’s latest album. Do you still like pop music?

    The more important question is: What does the word “like” mean?

    To have a genuine reaction to something—an enjoyment that is not ironic.

    OK, let me tell you as someone who made a grotesque foray into this world—because I have also been subjected to this music my whole life and wanted to know how the sausage was made just out of fucking morbid curiosity—there is nothing not wildly audience-tested and calculated about this fucking music. Exempting myself from this conversation, the people who get accused of being calculated? Psht! It’s truly a joke.

    What do you mean by that?

    Someone in the indie world is more likely to be accused by other indie people of being over-thinking, calculated psychos, when this whole fucking world of pop music has been [calculated]. It’s all this bourgeois bullshit. It’s neo-Orientalism. It’s basically like, “Since I’m special and exist in a place of pure exemption, then this thing that the normies like is the working man’s music.” There could not be a more potent form of soft bigotry than that whole thing.

    I get to say this as someone who does not listen to that music in that way. If you asked me: “Have I ever enjoyed pop music?” Yes! Of course. If I am in a dance club and I am drunk and I’m with a beautiful woman or a group of friends, and a fun song comes on, that’s one thing. But you’re talking about people who are talking about this music, sitting at their desks, listening to 100 other songs that are indie songs and going, “I’m sick of this. This indie shit is too indie. Blegh!”

    When you lionize pop music, you lionize the very thing that feminism purports to be against, which is a culture of exploitation and overcharging. Which is what cracks me the fuck up when you read these ridiculous puff pieces about how wonderful major-labor pop music is, and the whole fucking industry is run like you actually buy into the idea that that woman that’s onstage, wearing next to nothing, is powerful. Because that is like being a child.

    So you probably won’t write for pop stars again then?

    If you think that pop stars are anything other than prisoners, then you are fucking kidding yourself. I know them. They are crying for help in their music. We think that we’re doing the world a favor by recognizing the innate wholesomeness of this form of music, like, “Oh, I don’t know, it’s just fun! Something that was made to be liked!” But why do you think that Lady Gaga or Beyoncé would come to old Uncle Jerry over here for songs if they weren’t looking for something? If they weren’t like, “Get me away from these fucking psychos.” Both of them know I’m not running around looking for these gigs. I’ve just done co-writes with those two people. The only reason it happened is because people played them my music and then they asked me to write for them. It’s as simple as that. I have no interest in doing it.

    I heard that you were offered an imprint with Interscope but then you re-signed with Sub Pop. Were you just not interested in a major label?

    I considered it.

    What did it come down to?

    You strip the gravity of my choice to sign with Sub Pop when you think about it in these terms: “I’m just a fucking religious indie dude—I’m a Shiite, and major labels are Sunnis, and I would never fucking do that kind of thing.” No, of course I considered it, I’m a human.

    There’s this thing of “it’s time to go to the next level,” where there’s a whole wave of indie bands with records coming out this year that have signed to major labels. I met with all the majors, and it’s like that line in “Leaving LA” when I say, “national treasure now, his major label debut.” That song is all about self doubt, because if you’re going to make a record about capital-H Humanity, you have to have something at the center of it that’s like a portrait of a human being. I don’t have any experience to draw from other than my music career, because if you take away my music from me, all you have left is a mustache and a bad attitude. Even though I know it’s going to be interpreted as me self indulging, it is the substance of my life, for good or for bad.

    Being about those latent middle-class values about graduating up to a major label is something I had to confront. I tried to think about it terms of pragmatism—chapters of life and shit. I realized that you can only make these decisions based on ideals, that in this world you believe in things or you don’t. There was a time when getting signed to Sub Pop was a dream beyond dreams. I don’t want to move forward. This world has shitty values, and it tells you that you just have to take your shit and be ruthless. [Sub Pop] is like my family—it means something to me. I know that people will be like, “It’s so pretentious to want to stay on an indie label,” but they don’t know shit. If I had signed to Interscope and was at “SNL” surrounded by eight new Steves, and all my friends weren’t here, it would actually mean nothing.

    You wouldn’t view it as your own victory in some way?

    No, it’d be like, “This is a career move to sell more records.” If you don’t have family around you, then it just becomes about this empty Sisyphean narrative of pushing the rock a little further up the hill. Who the fuck cares? I did the work and I finished my record. Everything since then, I’m just taking it as it comes. The progression and the success is in the creative survival. Everything else is about family.

    That’s a clearer line than a lot of musicians seem to have about business.

    A lot people make shitty music, and there’s so much space in this world for shit music because we don’t have values. Do you want to know why things like the fucking Pepsi-sponsored Super Bowl halftime performances or these disgusting, cross-branded promotions exist? It’s because that whole industry is now based on people not writing their own music. When some lizard person comes to you and says, “Why don’t you let us put Doritos on this thing that you struggled and hated yourself and fought for to wrench out of the nothingness?” You’re like, “You must be insane.”

    But let’s say you did the major-label imprint and used it as some kind of opportunity to fuck shit up from the inside—

    I don’t believe in fucking shit up from the inside. That means you have enough faith in the system that it can be perfected in some way. I don’t believe in that system, so I don’t have any petulant desire to toy with or antagonize it.

    When the Grammys “discover” you an album from now, which version of your fake name do you think will become a meme, a la Bonnie Bear?

    It won’t be interesting. It won’t be funny. It’ll be Papa John Murphy. “Like the pizza guy?” Yep.


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    Sponsor Content: SoundCloud Go Brings the Next Wave to Austin

    SoundCloud isn’t just a music streaming service— it’s also a place where musicians can connect to fans and to each other, where genre lines are crossed, old rules are overturned, and the next big things in music are discovered while they’re still brand new. That’s the idea that inspired SoundCloud Go, which offers listeners ad-free access to the platform’s complete 150 million-track (and growing) library. It’s also the idea behind SoundCloud’s series of events in Austin this past week, which brought together a radically diverse group of artists on the rise to share stages in unexpected locations.

    The series kicked off on the east side of town at Frank’s Coin Laundry, a well-worn, bare bones laundromat in a quiet neighborhood that feels a world away from the swarming crowds downtown. Frank’s has more room for washing machines than people, but they figured out a way to squeeze a tiny stage into the middle of the room and filled the rest of the space with an audience that was ready to turn all the way up on a Monday night.

    Credit: Courtesy of SoundCloud

    DJ Ana Sia set the tone for the night with selections that skipped deftly across genres and moods, but tied it all together with enough bass to rattle the heavy-duty washing machines, many of which had been repurposed into drink coolers for the night. Harlem singer-songwriter-guitarist Bill Dess, who performs under the name Two Feet, followed up with a set of bluesy electronic pop that brought a hushed mood to the room.

     Dess started using SoundCloud as a listener— “I’m always digging through SoundCloud, finding amazing stuff that has like 200 plays,” he said after his set— but the platform ended up giving him a career. “I made the first song in my room in Harlem,” he recalls, “and I wasn’t really contemplating uploading it, but I sent it to a couple of my friends and they were like, ‘Dude, upload this!’ So I posted it at around 3 in the morning and when I woke up the next day, there were like 10 or 15 thousand plays and record labels are reaching out to me.”

    Credit: Courtesy of SoundCloud

    Chicago rapper Saba and blue-bearded iconoclastic MC Rome Fortune turned the mood up with sets that had people dancing on washing machines. The windows steamed up and rattled with the bass the tiny but powerful PA threw out. “It’s the first show I’ve ever played at a laundromat,” Saba said. “We’ve been playing all these shows headlining, but this was completely different.”

    Fortune summed it up even more succinctly. “You gotta be right in they face sometimes,” he said.

    On Wednesday, the action moved across town to the South Congress neighborhood location of the local chain Birds Barbershop, where the punk-inspired black-and-white decor offered a cool contrast to the warm Texas day (and a triangular counter in the middle of the room served up cold drinks). Chicago-based duo DRAMA’s opening set of pop-infused R&B was equally chill, although the songs’ frequently heartbroken moods were countered by the grin plastered on frontwoman Via Rosa’s face throughout the set.

    Like most of the acts on the bill, DRAMA has a deep connection to SoundCloud. Like Two Feet, Rosa got her break on the platform without expecting it at all. “I started using SoundCloud years ago, just on some online diary type of thing,” she said. “I would upload songs like some people take selfies. I’d come home, sing into my cellphone with the beat in the background, and the next thing I know, there’s 3,000 plays.”

    Jersey club sensation DJ J Heat spun between the first few sets  and, during breaks, got in a few games of Donkey Kong on the vintage arcade machines behind the DJ booth. “Yo, the barbershop was amazing,” he said after. “The energy was amazing.” Then he interrupted the interview to call out a compliment to Via Rosa, who happened to be walking by. “Yo, did fucking great!” he yelled.

    “Nice DJ set, too,” Rosa replied.

    “I gotta get your information,” J Heat told her. “I would love to do some music with you.” It seems that SoundCloud can facilitate connections between artists IRL, too.

    Toronto rapper Tasha the Amazon followed with a performance for a crowd that had become slightly too much for the space. In true Austin outlaw fashion, the fire marshal showed up and cleared out the barbershop for exceeding its capacity. Tasha responded by playing through the shop’s windows to the people who had lined up outside to get back in and, at one point, even brought her mic outside to mingle with the folks on the sidewalk.

     It turns out that Tasha’s a huge fan of the British singer-songwriter SOHN, who specializes in tender piano ballads that seem a world away from her turned-up raps. “Where else could you see us on the same stage?” she asked towards the end of her set. As soon as she wrapped up her set, SOHN took to the stage with nothing more than a laptop and an upright piano. Although it was a much more subdued performance than Tasha’s—and a little at odds with the sunshine still streaming in from outdoors—it was no less captivating, with percolating drums and rich bass tones holding up his piano playing and satiny vocals.

    Throughout the performance, Tasha stood right next to the stage, singing along to every song and even calling out a request for his heartbreaking ballad, “Lessons.” SOHN didn’t have the backing track on his computer, but he complied anyhow with an improvised arrangement for piano and voice.

    “He’s one of my favorite artists,” Tasha said. “Not that you’d ever hear that in my music. Our generation’s probably the first that doesn’t live in a genre. You can take anyone’s iPhone and find something from every genre, and SoundCloud kind of embodies that.” 

    SoundCloud wrapped up the series with a third show at its biggest space yet: a shuttered Mexican restaurant just outside of downtown that served up nachos and churros. Multifaceted DJ Chrissy warmed up the crowd with a set that leaned heavy on vintage dancehall sounds. Kodie Shane opened the gig with a pop-trap hybrid that’s made her one of the biggest sensations to come from SoundCloud in recent months. Even though it was still the early afternoon, the crowd responded like it was prime time.

    Virginian singer and bandleader Masego followed, backed up by his Traphouse Jazz Band, who accompanied him as he took the stage laying down a groovy sax solo. His music blends jazz, Afropop, hip-hop, and neo-soul. Taken on its own, it might seem like a niche prospect, but the crowd was clearly already familiar with his work, and sang along with every track he laid down.

    Masego. Credit: Courtesy of SoundCloud

    According to him, SoundCloud is one of the main reasons why he’s got the fanbase he does right now. “Trap house jazz isn’t a thing in my hometown,” he says, “so I was like, let me put it out online, because I used to see these dope remixes on SoundCloud. I posted my stuff and that crowd embraced it. And then suddenly, I’m as popping as I was in my head.”

     After a dancehall-heavy interlude by DJ Ape Drums, St. Louis rapper Smino took the stage alongside a DJ and a dreadlocked bassist. Although he may not be a household name yet, the audience greeted every track he dropped like they were Top 40 hits.

    Smino. Credit: Courtesy of SoundCloud

    Following Smino, Houston MC Ugly God took over to close out the set and the series in general. There aren’t many rappers in the game with the kind of devoted Internet fan base that he’s developed. The crowd that had filled the room pressed up against the stage, and up against each other, to rap along with his underground bangers. He wrapped up his set with “Water,” one of his best-known tracks to date, and brought out a guest in an inflatable T. Rex costume wielding a water gun to hose down the happy audience. 

    Offstage, Ugly God’s a man of few words, but he had plenty of praise for SoundCloud, which remains his primary mode for releasing music even after major labels have started to come knocking. “It’s a platform for everybody,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have any plans to start releasing music any other way. “Ain’t no switching up,” he said. “Ain’t no going back.”

    Ugly God. Credit: Courtesy of SoundCloud

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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: Exit Music: How Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> Destroyed the Art-Pop Album in Order to Save It

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here.


    In the middle of Meeting People Is Easy, the impressionistic documentary about Radiohead’s captivatingly miserable world tour for OK Computer, Thom Yorke allows himself a rare moment of hero worship. Following a triumphant late-night TV performance, as slurry shots of Times Square fill the screen, he reflects on formative inspirations like R.E.M. and the Smiths. “The freakiest thing about all of this … is the idea that you would be one of those bands to somebody,” he murmurs dreamily. “That thing of it being imprinted on your heart, you know? … That in itself is a reason to keep going.”

    Then his New York City cab is seen pulling up to a nightclub, where a bouncer unceremoniously denies Yorke entry to what seems to be his own party, taunting the singer: “Radiohead! Creep! Dickhead!”

    Radiohead—Philip Selway, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Colin Greenwood—around the release of OK Computer in 1997. Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

    Outspoken door guys aside, Radiohead were already becoming “one of those bands” following the release of OK Computer in the summer of 1997. The press hype around the record was so heaping that Yorke himself dismissed it in real time, scoffing elsewhere in the film, “It’s bollocks!” The album wasn’t just a critics’ darling, either; at this point, OK Computer has sold more than 4.5 million copies worldwide. But the awkwardness of that taxi scene captures a tension that defined their appeal.

    With OK Computer, Radiohead made their grand artistic statement and savvily got it to sell—all while pointing out the absurdities of the system they were skillfully manipulating. This tactic was particularly resonant at a time when the vocabulary of rock still dominated music media, with the innovations of electronic music lurking just left of center, and the era’s “alternative” culture giving way to unabashed pop. It was a moment unlike any other, when making a record that at once epitomized and subverted the rock-album ideal would lead to it being crowned the best album ever.

    Ed O'Brien, Jonny Greenwood, and Thom Yorke performing at Glastonbury in 1997. Left photo by Peter Still/Redferns; right photos by Mick Hutson/Redferns.

    When OK Computer came out, it sounded to some like rock’s future. But it also represented the latest in a hoary tradition: the classic art-pop album. First in 1998 and again in 2006, readers of the staid British music monthly Q Magazine voted the twitching opus as the greatest album of all-time, ahead of not just R.E.M. and the Smiths, but the Beatles and the Beach Boys, too. As OK Computer turns 20 this year, it’s difficult to name a guitar-based full-length since that has matched its combination of critical and commercial success, along with its stylistic adventurousness. Some of the most acclaimed rock albums of the last two decades, including the Strokes’ Is This It, the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, and Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, drew on vintage sounds; others, like Arcade Fire’s Funeral, lacked OK Computer’s vast marketing and recording budget; none of them matched OK Computer’s sales numbers.

    One way to explain the absence of a manifest 21st-century equivalent to OK Computer is that OK Computer was an ending point. Part of this line of reasoning has to do with the technological shifts that have affected the album format itself. British writer Tim Footman, in his 2007 book Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album, suggested that the modern potential for varied, customized listening experiences “helps to ensure that OK Computer is the last entry into the Rock Album Hall of Fame.”

    Personalized playlists show up regularly on listeners’ phones today, but the idea of an album has proven to be stubbornly persistent. It is still the unit that organizes so much of the cultural discussion around music, in year-end polls, on award shows, and in streaming exclusives. As shown by the continuing flow of ambitious albums, the desire to make a complete musical statement is still alive and well, but the identities of the artists making those statements—and the musical tools they use—have changed. Radiohead’s landmark LP wasn’t the last, then. It opened the way for new firsts.

    Brought to you by Mailchimp

    If OK Computer didn’t exist, people who think too hard about the album format would have had to invent it. Of course, the story of popular music has always been partly about technology. The standard 33 1/3 rpm vinyl LP was a breakthrough for listeners when it was introduced in 1948, more than tripling the amount of music that could be held on each side of a record. Within 10 years, overall industry revenues more than doubled.

    In the ’60s, a new class of critics started championing the pop album as “an artistic pursuit” worthy of the reverence that had then been reserved for literature or classical music. The concept album emerged. But all this focus on respectability, craft, and European written traditions downplayed the populism, spontaneity, and American oral traditions that jostled for attention in the rowdy singles marketplace: Was it good if pop music wanted to be poetry?

    And there was the issue of who the critics’ emphasis on art-pop albums too often left out: black musicians and women. Through the entire album era, music made by innovators like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Kate Bush, and Public Enemy had made its way into the rock-stuffed canon, but they were often the exception. (OK Computer landing at the top on those Q all-time lists is less impressive when you notice that neither had an album by a woman or person of color in the top 10—and, in the magazine’s 2006 tally, not even a woman or person of color in the top 30.)

    The term “concept album” soon traveled from critics to marketers. The Beatles opened the floodgates with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and in the decade that followed, no shortage of bands used the pretense of “art” to sell tens of millions of records. Led by blockbusters like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, record sales spiraled upward until 1977, when they began ticking downward.

     

    It’s difficult to name a guitar-based full-length since OK Computer that has matched its combination of critical and commercial success, along with its stylistic adventurousness.

    The record industry’s challenges at that time ranged from a resurgent Hollywood to arcade games, but aesthetics and technology also played a role. Among critics, the singles-oriented dawn of punk briefly threatened the understood hierarchy of album rankings, although LPs like the Clash’s London Calling soon took their place in the pantheon. The spread of cassettes and CDs in the ’80s broke up the album with home taping and easier song skipping, while the rise of MTV put more attention on splashy hits than full-length works. In 1988, pop sociologist Simon Frith warned of impending doom for “the record era”—and maybe, ominously, “pop music as we know it.”

    But such dire predictions were unwarranted, and albums maintained their supremacy. In 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind rocketed its way to selling more than 30 million copies worldwide and generating nearly as many words of critical acclaim. And whether the playback format was vinyl or plastic, it turned out, didn’t matter so much: SPIN’s original Nevermindreview gushed, “You’ll be humming all the songs for the rest of your life—or at least until your CD/tape/album wears out.” And when Radiohead first turned heads with the loud-quiet-loud angst of “Creep,” from their 1993 debut Pablo Honey, they soon found themselves in the thick of the grunge zeitgeist.

    But rather than build on the success of “Creep” with an album of transatlantic flannel anthems—they could have been the British Stone Temple Pilots—Radiohead’s sophomore album, 1995’s The Bends, was gorgeously introspective, albeit lacking another conspicuous radio hit. They opened for R.E.M. and Alanis Morissette, and the record peaked on the U.S. album charts at No. 88, a year after its release. The spotlight was ready—but by then Radiohead had grown used to sidestepping it.

    Watch the OK Computer episode of our “Liner Notes” series to learn more about the making of the album.

    WITH THE BAND’S THIRD ALBUM, label executives expected hits: “The Big American Crossover Album, like [U2]’s The Joshua Tree,” guitarist Jonny Greenwood recalled. A few new songs they were testing out on the road, including a soaring radio-friendly track titled “Lift,” were winning over audiences. The group bought their own recording equipment and got to work—first in a mobile studio called Canned Applause and then in a 15th-century mansion owned by actress Jane Seymour—with producer Nigel Godrich.

    Well, “Lift” still sounds like a festival-ready behemoth—and it still hasn’t been released. Radiohead’s U.S. label, Capitol, reportedly slashed its sales projections from 2 million copies to 500,000 when it actually heard OK Computer. (Apparently, a Macintosh robot voice droning about frozen shit did not scream superstardom.) But the art-pop gambit would pay off for Radiohead as it had for ’70s progressive rockers, just as record sales were getting back to their concept album-era heights. Here was a band that combined Nirvana’s downtrodden sensibility with Pink Floyd’s drama.  

    The choice for OK Computer’s lead single, the six-and-a-half-minute Pixies-do-“Bohemian Rhapsody” epic “Paranoid Android,” embraced a lack of predictable marketability as its own, offbeat sort of appeal. Capitol glued promo copies inside 1,000 cassette players and sent them to the press, radio stations, and retailers. Through presaging the anti-piracy measures that would follow the 1999 launch of Napster, the tactic above all indicated this was an album meant to be heard in full, in headphones.

    Yorke eats an ice cream cone in 1994, a year after “Creep” made Radiohead international stars; photo by Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images. Jonny Greenwood photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns. Black-and-white Yorke photo by Patrick Ford/Redferns.

    Enter the critics. The excitement around OK Computer and Radiohead was so great that music writers of all stripes seemed to need capital letters: “The Last Great Sincere Rock Band.” “The Next Great Arena Rock Hope” “The Very Big Band.” A week after OK Computer’s July 1, 1997 U.S. release, a press release boasted about the raves, citing a dozen critics by name. Many of the reviews, including a 10-out-of-10 exaltation from influential UK weekly NME, appeared to take the primacy of rock as a given. Plenty agreed with prominent critic Nick Kent, who wrote in the British monthly Mojo,  “In 20 years time I’m betting OK Computer will be seen as the key record of 1997.”

    By year-end list season, OK Computer ended up at No. 1 in several publications, and No. 2 in a handful more. It was beaten out in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll and Rolling Stone only by Bob Dylan’s 30th album, Time Out of Mind, and in SPIN by British duo Cornershop’s presciently eclectic When I Was Born for the 7th Time. And where radio balked, early MTV support for the memorable “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police” videos also helped with exposure. By October 1997, OK Computer had sold 500,000 copies in America, reaching one million as of early 1998. This gloomy, fidgety album about alien abductions and crushed bugs was a huge sensation.

    OK Computer marked a moment unlike any other, when making a record that at once epitomized and subverted the rock album ideal would lead it to being crowned the best album ever.

    OK Computer masterfully channeled the band members’ diverse tastes, which ranged from touchstones both common and outré. There’s a live-in-the-room recording style and nods toward the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Phil Spector, but also clear traces of composers like Italian film-score giant Ennio Morricone and Polish avant-garde luminary Krzysztof Penderecki. And it’s not hard to tell that Radiohead had been listening to the looping and splicing experiments like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and records by Krautrock titans Can and Faust. This represented the buddying omnivorousness of the times, sandwiched between Beck’s genre-defying Odelay in 1996 and the bluesy sprawl of OutKast’s Aquemini in 1998. Plus, the guitars on OK Computer seem tethered to pedals with minds of their own, as the lyrics turn toward otherworldly perspectives, balancing sonic gadgetry with an unease about technology’s dehumanizing potential. Yorke’s verses also have a whiff of dark humor, especially the self-parodying “Paranoid Android,” a very ambitious track that preaches how “ambition makes you look pretty ugly.”

    Whether or not Radiohead knew it, the technological warnings implicit on OK Computer would soon come to pass in a way that would disrupt the idea of an album, as a commercial and aesthetic unit, forever. “A specter is haunting the music business: the prospect of listeners getting the music they want directly from the internet, free of charge,” The New York Timescautioned in 1998, echoing The Communist Manifesto, in an article on the budding possibilities for digital distribution, both legal and otherwise. By 1999, the same paper proclaimed: “With the internet, the idea of the album is dead.” Radiohead, it seemed, had made their classic LP just in time.

    Yorke onstage at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 1998; photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns. Jonny Greenwood at a London show in 1994; photo by Fred Duval/FilmMagic.

    In the years after the release of OK Computer, popular music went through another stylistic transition, with the early-’90s moment when weird alt culture could share a stage with Céline Dion giving way to nu-metal, teen-pop, and the broadly appealing politesse of “American Idol.” Total sales for the global recording industry topped out in 1999, at nearly $29 billion, and then tumbled for more than a decade. Print journalism, which had thrown all of its weight behind OK Computer, saw its business collapse around the same time and for similar reasons.

    Pundits appear to have been right that OK Computer was the last of a particular kind of album, one made by guitar-centered bands interested in creating a full-length artistic statement that could achieve mainstream popularity while advancing, but not departing from, the “rock” tradition. But OK Computer also pointed toward a post-rock reality; on 2000’s Kid A, the band made the break explicit, sidelining live instrumentation in favor of a dive into oblique electronic music. Though other rock groups had dabbled in techno flourishes before, Kid A once again sounded like the future. And with that album, all but the most diehard rockists finally had to admit the obvious: The classic art-pop album, as embodied by OK Computer or Dark Side of the Moon, didn’t depend on guitars at all. It’s no coincidence that, while nearly all of Radiohead’s records have been well-received, Kid A is the only one that typically rivals OK Computer in the best-album-ever sweepstakes.

    Rock lost what remained of its commercial and cultural centrality in the years that followed. Meanwhile, the most groundbreaking music was being made by sleekly cosmopolitan hip-hop, R&B, and pop producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes. The burgeoning critical consensus that chart titans could be as significant as rock auteurs earned a name: poptimism.

    There were still great art-pop albums, but, increasingly, they weren’t necessarily rock albums. Across the last 20 years, monumental rap, R&B, and pop records like D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade have filled the void of full-length statements with both artistic seriousness and mass appeal that was formerly largely occupied by guitar bands. At the same time, the ranks of professional music writers are becoming more diverse, which has no doubt also played a part in ending rock’s disproportionate stranglehold on year-end lists.

    Over the last few years, the traditional album has faced new problems. In 2014, global record industry revenues hit bottom; even as they’re now crawling back up thanks to widespread streaming, it’s still not an environment for high-risk bets on albums of questionable marketability. But that hasn’t stopped some of music’s biggest names from taking huge artistic plunges—in a way, it seems as though the lowered monetary stakes have caused people like Rihanna and Beyoncé to let their inner-art-student run free. And last year, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo made the definition of any specific album itself a form of artistic expression, through a number of post-release tweaks. The shape of the album to come remains to be envisioned.

    Radiohead’s parallels can be heard today less among bands whose music resembles theirs than in artists of all genres who share a certain restless audacity.

    In 2017, OK Computer sits comfortably as a cultural touchstone, its inventiveness somewhat worn down by ubiquity. It’s ensconced in the U.S. Library of Congress archive. Its songs have turned into boilerplate TV shorthand for dystopian alienation. More disturbingly, “Karma Police” provided the code name for a UK mass surveillance program. Twenty years later, is this what we get?

    Well, yes and no. Radiohead’s parallels can be heard today less among bands whose music resembles theirs than in artists of all genres who share a certain restless audacity; self-proclaimed fans range from rapper Danny Brown to R&B veteran Maxwell. Digital music has also expanded access to far-flung records, so listeners may hear Kid A before OK Computer, or the more experimental influences on both before they can be shocked by a group that self-identified as “basically a dodgy pop band” back in 1997.

    OK Computer quickly became one of those records that tattooed itself inside of millions of people, as Yorke mused in Meeting People Is Easy. But first those records have to be heard, and one way of doing that in the ’90s was to create a festival-sized rock album. Confessing the hypocrisy of championing an anti-corporate message when Radiohead were playing corporate-funded MTV events while being signed to a major label, Yorke told The Wire in a 2001 interview: “Unfortunately, if you’re interested in actually being heard, you have to work within the system.” Naturally, he followed by subverting his own comment with a goofy German accent.

    A few stories exist about the significance of OK Computer’s title, but the most revealing involves a corporate sponsor. “It’s like the Coca-Cola advert from the ’70s—‘I’d like to teach the world to sing,’” Yorke once said. “Imagine the same thing with a lot of little tiny home portable computers, kids of all creeds and colors, on top of a hill, all waving back and forth, going, ‘OK Computer’ … On the surface it’s a positive and nice neat advertising slogan, but on the other side of that… it’s fucking terrifying.”

    Radiohead knew how to forge a human connection but, unlike so many Don Draper wannabes, they were also well aware of that same connection’s potential for malice and exploitation. They were open-hearted doomsayers who pushed the disquieting power of classic art-pop at a critical time. They took advantage of the present while creating a strange balm for the future. They were smart. They were skeptical. They were lucky.


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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: An Airbag Saved My Life: Artists Reflect on <i>OK Computer</i>

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here.


    Along with being an art-rock fan favorite and a critical darling, OK Computer made a profound impact on creative people who heard it—and continue to hear it. To explore why the album still means so much to so many, we asked a host of artists across the musical spectrum, as well as a few actors, to reflect on what OK Computer has meant to them through the years, how they first heard it, and why it is relevant today.


    Danny Brown

    This album truly taught me how to invoke emotion through sound. I listened to it a lot when I was working on Old because I wanted to be able to capture that same essence, whether I was making a song about depression or a festival banger about smoking weed till you pass out.


    Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste

    OK Computer was like a warm, complex, comforting—and also alarming—record. It brought up issues I hadn’t thought much about as a teenager and exposed me to non-traditional song structures, essentially expanding my attention span. I’ll never forget hearing “Let Down,” my favorite track, on WFNX Boston all the time, and requesting it frequently in hopes of hearing it on my drive to school (my car didn’t have a disc player or tape deck). At the time, I was taking guitar lessons and writing weird songs—none of which have ever seen the light of day, thank god—and this album was hugely motivational for me, especially when it came to learning to write lyrics. It remains one of my most-listened-to albums.


    Maxwell

    I bought this album the day it came out and didn’t stop listening to every song every day for about three months. It was the sound of a band leaving the mothership in warp speed for unknown destinations in the art-rock constellation. Guitar heaven.


    Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter

    I was in high school, extremely unhappy and lonely, and in my head a lot—I was kind of built to be a Radiohead fan. OK Computer delivered a sense of companionship in understanding what an insane world we lived in, and I was desperate for that company. Not much of that thinking penetrated into deeply conservative, anti-intellectual suburban Texas, where I came from, or I wasn’t good at finding it if it did. I was afraid for/of the world and felt very much alone in that, and I was angry about all of it. OK Computer responded to all of those feelings. It met those needs and, as a kid, that was most crucial.


    The Beta Band’s John Maclean

    I had an unusual introduction to Radiohead and OK Computer. I’d never really heard their stuff until we supported them on tour in 2001; I remember telling them that I thought “Karma Police” was great before I realized it had been such an anthem for years. So every night I watched Radiohead and got to know their songs live before hearing any recordings. There was a feeling every night that this was the first time the band had performed these songs. They never sounded tired or jaded. I bought the album at the end of the tour!


    Cillian Murphy

    Radiohead have made so many important records, but the emotional complexity of OK Computer is hard to equal. “Exit Music (for a Film)” is like going over a sonic waterfall in a barrel. “Karma Police” is so ecstatically sad, “No Surprises” so warmly unsettling (with one of the greatest music videos ever). It’s futile trying to find another record that can do all that. There is only one OK Computer.


    Arcade Fire’s Will Butler

    It was the first rock’n’roll record I ever obsessed over. I was 14 when it came out, but I didn’t hear it until a year later. I made a tape copy of my brother’s CD—30 minutes a side. The first half of that record was so immersive, I would just rewind it over and over. It took me three months to get past “Karma Police”—and probably eight months to make it to “The Tourist.” I listened to it so much that it ultimately lost some of its universality—it reminded me too deeply of being a teenager. Now that I’m an old man I appreciate it again, though. I guess I’m not that old a man, but the fact that OK Computer came out 20 years ago—and that I have a long, quasi-romantic, contented relationship with it—makes me feel pretty old.


    Baroness’ John Baizley

    Up until recently, it felt as though musicians had been issued a strict, unspoken moratorium on talking about Radiohead. It is assumed that all publicity-conscious musicians, wannabe tastemakers, and hipster-audiophiles were to understand that Radiohead’s influence was a given and therefore off the trend lines to examine. This put Radiohead itself in that strange universe of revered musical artifacts best left undiscussed; like Pet Sounds’ production, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, John Bonham’s grunty isolated drums tracks, Slint’s ahead-of-their-time-ness, Fugazi’s $5 tickets, KISS’ in between song banter on YouTube, whatever it is that everyone deems so cool about the Velvet Underground, and a host of other irrefutable musical facts (note: sarcasm).

    I may have even have kept silent on this subject for a few years, but in time I learned to comfortably admit my secret: Radiohead were a huge influence on me as a young musician and continue to be so. OK Computer was not only an incredible first listen in 1997, it has remained one of the most consistently listened to and examined albums in my collection. Each subsequent listen offers up discoveries and a potential inspirational kick in the pants.

    What has always impressed me the most with this album is that for all the wonderfully dense layers of orchestration, non-standard time signatures, distorted/chopped/warped sounds, and mournful lyrical imagery, it has a flirtatious relationship with popular music. OK Computer is an unintentional pop record, one of those albums that would seem an impossible hit if you broke the components apart. It is this very unscriptable element that makes it so effective; the best subversion in pop culture comes from the inside out.


    DJ Shadow

    I first heard the album on cassette while driving to see U2 play at the Oakland Coliseum in 1997. It was very different from the Britpop that was going on at the time in the UK—it seemed like an album that was reaching for something else. Later that year, “Let Down” was the song that I fell in love with when I was supporting them on tour. I would do my little thing, and then they would come on, and I would just sit and watch. The album is just permanently engrained in my DNA. It’s part of the music of my life.


    Haley Joel Osment

    OK Computer inaugurated that period in my school years when I could spend every night lost in my headphones as I went to sleep. All the adventurous decisions the band and producer Nigel Godrich made create this sensation that you are passing through different physical spaces during each track; it’s an ecstatic experience listening to it all the way through. There’s grim imagery in the lyrics, but there’s also so much joy in these songs. It’s an album that manages to make “the emptiest of feelings” a genuinely uplifting line.


    Fuck Buttons and Blanck Mass’ Benjamin John Power

    This shit is like gold dust to a miserable teenager. “Paranoid Android” specifically resonated with me so much growing up that even to this day the lyrics “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy” dart around in my head at least once or twice a week. As someone who doesn’t particularly come from the ABBA school of songwriting (as far as structure is concerned) this was, and is, highly inspirational. It takes you on a journey from nervousness, to paranoia (duh), through anger to sadness via empathy, and leaves you stranded at inevitable hopelessness.


    Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick

    I bought that record when I was in high school. It was the first Radiohead record I got, and one of the first contemporary rock albums I ever bought, along with the Pixies and Weezer. And it was one of the first times I heard a male sing falsetto like that in big rock music. Radiohead have built this cult following that is able to balance mainstream success and still have indie cred. That’s something I aspire to do. They created a really unique path that others can follow. They’ve always made good decisions; every single member has great taste. It’s almost an unbeatable formula.


    My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova

    As a guitar player, in 1997, the computer in music represented a certain fear of extinction for me, a fear that rock was dying, but Radiohead embraced technology in such a way that the sonic palette that had defined rock music was shifted. The themes of rock weren’t dying, but it was changing aesthetic clothes to reflect the Now. Plus, these songs are just as badass as they were 20 years ago!


    DJ Spooky

    Right now we’re in an era where everyone’s post-playlist. So it’s hard to really go back to thinking about whole albums anymore. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and then, of course, Radiohead, are more like what I call essayists. They really dig into the texture of an idea, and the whole album is meant to be conceptual. It’s not just music, and that’s something that’s really important to me.

    For better or worse, DJ culture has its rules and regulations. It’s the tyranny of the beat. I think a lot of DJs are into conceptual stuff like Radiohead because it’s something you can put on and have the tapestry of the world go by without it getting into beats and the same stuff that we normally have to listen to all the time. It’s a palate-cleanser. That’s what OK Computer was for me when I first heard it.


    The Twilight Sad’s James Graham

    I was a young angsty teenager who didn’t care for lad rock when OK Computer was released, and it instantly appealed to me. The lyrics really connected with me as I was feeling lost: disjointed and out of place in certain social circles; taught at school that the right path in life is just to get a good job; that material things equal success and that too much self-expression could be a way of setting yourself up for failure. The words within these songs confirmed that I wasn’t alone in feeling uneasy in the modern world’s way of thinking. As a 32-year-old still struggling to come to terms with society’s ideals, anxiety still looms large, and these lyrical ideas are just as relevant, if not more.


    Marissa Nadler

    I was 16 when this album came out and distinctly remember it as a unifying musical force between generations. Radiohead remains one of the few band that my parents, who are big fans of ’60s and ’70s classic- and prog rock, bought tickets multiple times to see live. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why this record resonated.


    Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody

    It’s almost insane how relevant this album is. Right now. This minute. It aches and creaks and burns post-Brexit, in the age of, gulp, Trump. Pick a song at random and it could have been written last week. The “Hitler hairdos” of “Karma Police.” “Subterranean Homesick Alien” talks of the wish to be abducted by aliens and brought aboard their spaceship to “show me the world as I’d love to see it.” Can there be a more poignant or striking symbol of how futile wars, anger, savagery, or division is than seeing the earth from space with no borders, serene blue and, from that vantage, at peace? The many-voiced schizophrenia of “Paranoid Android” with the hopeful tyrant’s voice proclaiming: “When I am king you will be first against the wall.” Lyrically and musically this record was years ahead of its time. I don’t think anyone made a better rock album in the 20 years since.


    Foals’ Jimmy Smith

    I remember sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car driving out of Oxford when the computer noises from “Let Down” kicked in and everything just changed. I fell into this pool of wondrous sounds old and new and never really came back.


    Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry

    For me, OK Computer was one of the first records to reimagine the rock record as a place. It was a really dense, sprawling landscape as both a sonic world and an emotional world. And it was engaging with its surroundings in an early-days-of-the-internet, fragmented, overwhelming-reality kind of way. They were getting outside of the typical rock mold. Looking back, OK Computer points to the myriad directions that that band would go. It’s like the jumping off point.


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    Photo Gallery: Portraits and Live Shots From Pitchfork’s SXSW 2017 Day Parties


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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: What It Felt Like to Review <i>OK Computer</i> When It First Came Out

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here.


    Having been a professional critic for several decades, I’ve reviewed something like a thousand records and concerts. Many are a blur. But I’ll always remember writing about Radiohead’s OK Computer for SPIN 20 years ago.

    First, a little background. I saw Radiohead open for college radio faves Belly the same week Pearl Jam’s Vs. sold nearly a million copies in 1993—a record-breaking achievement. Grunge was making every kind of rock heavier, often to a fault. Slacker bands were suddenly aspiring to be a rock stars like Nirvana, who hated being rock stars, and that contradiction made many—including Radiohead at this early stage—conflicted and awkward. I’d heard “Creep” as a perfect piece of outsider pop, an anthem for all of us who were told we “don’t belong here.” But Thom Yorke’s then-bleached Cobain-esque hair and the belabored dread of their other early songs suggested Radiohead secretly aspired to be insiders, which didn’t suit them. There were plenty of second-hand, third-tier, fake-Seattle bands canvassing the U.S.; we didn’t need these Brits stumbling about as if they too were shooting smack. Their clothes were godawful; Yorke’s dancing was worse. I gladly and mercilessly panned them.

    Their second album, 1995’s The Bends, completely reversed my dismissal. It came out amid the Britpop explosion, which brought out dodgy imitators just like grunge. For every Suede, Blur, Pulp, or Elastica, there were many lesser, reactionary Oasis clones reviving the sullen, laddish classic rock stances new wave rightly rendered cornball. In the space of one album, though, Radiohead circumvented all that. This time they sustained the tunes that supported their seriousness, and put the “Creep”-enabled money being thrown at them to good use: The album’s emphatically cinematic videos, particularly “Just,” confirmed that this was a band that was nailing the sweet spot between accessibility and mystery.

    But although the UK press proclaimed that Radiohead joined the big leagues with The Bends, the band’s sweepingly positive critical consensus hadn’t yet spread to most Yanks: My SPIN cohort Chuck Eddy ended his largely negative Bends review grousing, “Too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion.” But sales and radio play snowballed regardless: The album’s fifth UK single, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” was its most successful; a No. 5 pop hit nearly a year after the album’s release. In America, The Bends soon fell off the chart after initially peaking at No. 147, but eventually returned to it and went gold a year later when the deceptively conventional single “High and Dry” was similarly promoted late in the game. Something was happening, and I wanted to write about it.

    Back in 1997, critics still often reviewed albums in advance of their release date off of promo cassettes. If it was a bigtime record, you’d generally get the tape only if you were on assignment, as bootleg CDs made from them proliferated. Security further tightened that year, when internet use increased exponentially and Winamp came along, allowing non-geeks to play new-fangled MP3s. As usual, I pitched SPIN a review of OK Computer based on my love for the previous album, and got the assignment without actually having heard it. The unanticipated wrinkle was that the tape arrived in a portable cassette player—a cheap Walkman knockoff—that had been Krazy Glued shut.

    I’d grown accustomed to security restrictions: Shortly after my career began, I reviewed David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down based solely on hearing it one afternoon at his record company’s office, and its soul-crushing blandness gave me no choice but to thoroughly lambast my childhood hero; there was no time for subtlety. But this OK Computer Walkman meant I couldn’t experience the album vibrating through my body via quality home equipment like usual; I had to experience it via compromised audio, and only through headphones. After decades of computer speakers, iPods, cell phones, and tinny MP3s, that distinction may seem minor, but at the time it was challenging, and particularly in this instance: Among many other things, OK Computer celebrates the sensuality of high-tech as it critiques it; this much was obvious, even on that dime-store Walkman.

    It’s important to remember that throughout the ’90s, rock stopped being futuristic—that was electronic music’s job. While techno, progressive house, jungle, trance, trip-hop, and other post-disco genres ruled European pop charts and U.S. clubs, rock had grown regressive and retro. America’s grunge yielded downturned, distorted guitars drawing almost exclusively from ’70s punk and metal, while Britpop, although stylistically broader, typically tapped even earlier guitar bands. Synths were usually verboten; the rare alt-rock acts of the era that featured them, like Stereolab, favored vintage analog exotica. It was as if ’90s rock willfully turned its back on contemporary sounds and equipment.

    As its title telegraphed, OK Computer wasn’t like that, and its break from nearly all other concurrent rock gave me the same thrill of the new that dance music of the time did. Its attitude wasn’t nostalgic, but dystopian, and it embraced pre-millennial anxieties exactly when many people—myself included—had just bought their first home computer. My review was one of the first I’d composed on a laptop and submitted via email; before that, I’d use an office computer, printer, and fax machine. 1997 was the first year I took in new music at home while surfing the web, seemingly linked to the entire world, but more isolated than ever. As I mentioned in the review, I couldn’t at this early stage comprehend most of the album’s words—there was no pre-release lyric sheet—but I felt their sadness and longing for connection nevertheless. It was my own.

    The music, however, made overt the alienation Yorke’s elliptical messages only suggested. Deliciously melodramatic with frenzied crescendos of massed guitars massaged into busy, buzzy orchestration, it perfectly contrasted with the wounded innocence of Yorke’s choirboy cry. Radiohead brought the noise of avant-garde rockers like Sonic Youth, but no one else had juxtaposed it against such exquisite singing that suggested mankind’s frailty, much less married it to studio craft that updated the painstaking aural architecture of bygone prog and krautrock. More remarkably, co-producer Nigel Godrich and the band created their own sonic world. OK Computer was enigmatic, but no amount of fractured poetry could stop me from thinking it wasn’t a masterpiece. What was unknowable about it also made it great.

    Of course, Kid A and what followed has often been more extreme, and in reading my review today, I’m struck by how much of it could’ve been applied to Radiohead’s subsequent output. The difference was that there was little precedent; they hadn’t previously released a song like “Paranoid Android,” which lacked any kind of refrain or consistent tempo. Even in the “alternative” ’90s, bands on a monumental upward trajectory rarely rejected convention and commerciality this thoroughly. The most notable exception was Nirvana’s In Utero, but that album was banged out in two weeks and sounded it. OK Computer took a year and a half to make at a time when the recklessness of grunge and the brashness of Britpop made at least the illusion of rawness obligatory, and even its noisiest parts are clearly considered. There’s not a moment in it where you think, Wow, I bet they’d like to do that over again.

    There’s a long history of rock journalism initially razzing radical future classics where meaning isn’t conveyed primarily by lyrics. The Beatles’ now nearly untouchable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band famously received a largely negative review in The New York Times; in its ’70s heyday, Rolling Stone routinely ridiculed early Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen, and other acts now central to its canon. Rock writing was then like literary criticism for hippies: That’s why brainy singer-songwriters like Dylan and Springsteen got their props while more physical performers were often shown no mercy. But I loved pop and R&B and disco as well the archest art-rock, so OK Computer’s abstractions made sense to me. It was idiosyncratic soul music made by loners who decried soullessness as much as their heroes like Noam Chomsky; a quality that soon endeared some black musicians to Radiohead the way Miles Davis dug Scritti Politti.

    I raved about OK Computer with an enthusiasm belied by the 8-out-of-10 grade attached to it. Things could’ve been worse, though, and sometimes critics have even less control over album grades now. That aside, there’s nothing in this review that I wouldn’t write today, even with hindsight. OK Computer is still “the most appealingly odd effort by a name rock band in ages.” Radiohead are still making “body music that circumvents the head to reach the spirit.” And I’ve still got my sealed Walkman, which only knows one album.


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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: This Is What You Get: An Oral History of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” Video

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here.


    Radiohead could have stopped making videos. With their music growing stranger and more critical of the capitalist enterprise around OK Computer, they could have simply opted out of such glorified television commercials and their attendant pomp and flash. But instead of scoffing at the worst of MTV, they took advantage of the channel’s reach to challenge, warp, and fundamentally reorganize millions of impressionable teenage minds.

    There was the animated insanity of the “Paranoid Android” video, which imagined a surreal dimension filled with politicians in barbed thongs, humping rats, and a drunk dude with a head coming out of his stomach. And the one-shot stunner “No Surprises,” in which Thom Yorke nearly drowns for our voyeuristic pleasure. But perhaps the most trenchant visual to come from OK Computer is director Jonathan Glazer’s menacing parable for “Karma Police.” In it, a grizzled man is slowly stalked by a 1976 Chrysler New Yorker, before fortunes are flipped amid a blaze of fire. Along for the ride is Yorke himself, who plays the angel—or devil—singing from the blood-red backseat; most of the video is shot from the driver’s point of view, making each and every viewer complicit in the unfolding terror. Filmed on a desolate road in Cambridgeshire, England, the video’s ambiguity—it begins in medias res, and it’s impossible to know who to root for—lends itself to endless interpretation, and to timelessness.

    Making its debut on MTV’s “120 Minutes” on September 21, 1997, the “Karma Police” video came along in an era when vanguard bands and directors were encouraging each other to push at the format’s limits on a regular basis. (An influx of industry cash thanks to the CD boom did not hurt—the clip’s budget was around $200,000 at the time, a generally unheard-of sum for a video nowadays.) And Glazer was among a generation of music video auteurs, including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Mark Romanek, who helped to turn an inherently craven medium into something genuinely inventive.

    Twenty years later, the “Karma Police” video still feels frighteningly up-to-date; as long as there are big guys and little guys and unexpected twists of fate, its power will endure. Here’s the story behind the video from those who were there.

    It feels like Radiohead were music video geniuses from the dawn of time—but that wasn’t the case.

    DILLY GENT [Radiohead’s video commissioner, 1992-2008]: When I first met Radiohead, they were all living in a house in Oxford together, just like any other young band. I got a job as a video commissioner at Parlophone Records in ’92, and they joined the label that same week. So I was due to start on the Monday but I was told, “Oh, can you just zip up to Oxford on Saturday? You’ve got to meet this band, and we’ve got to shoot a video.” That was “Creep.”

    At first, they were really just making the videos they wanted to make. “Pop Is Dead” is literally a treatment that Thom wrote, down to every frame—we had the entire Radiohead fan club carrying him across the Oxford Downs in a glass coffin. I was doing a terrible job, but I wasn’t really concerned because we would just go off and make something. In the early ’90s, we probably thought those videos were all right, but looking back at them now, we all just want to die.

    I remember an early gig in Amsterdam where there were six people in the audience. The band was still kind of working out how to play their instruments. I just thought, They’re really nice, sweet, low-key boys. The singer’s got a phenomenal voice, and they’re kind of good. But then they worked so hard and really flourished. By the time the second album came along, it was leaps and bounds ahead. And then, third album, another leap. And at the same time I was getting more confident and trusting my taste more. And since me and Thom have very similar taste, the process of making videos became very easy.

    MATT PINFIELD [former MTV VJ and host of “120 Minutes”]: When I was at MTV, the industry was trying to write off the band as a one-hit wonder with “Creep,” but I absolutely loved The Bends as well. We would get heat from other record companies, they would say to us, “Our record sold 20,000 more than Radiohead this week, why do you keep promoting their record?” And we said, “Because it’s great!” We stood our ground, and it was something that the band really appreciated.

    When Thom handed me a gold record for The Bends, he was actually in tears. He said, “I know you guys took a lot of shit for standing behind this album and these videos and the band, and I just want to tell you how much I appreciate it.” That’s what this is really all about. And of course, we were right there with OK Computer as well. I’m very proud of having a gold record for OK Computer and for The Bends. It’s not just about material things, I believe in the records and the band so much.

    [1] Source: The Independent, September 14, 2006

    THOM YORKE: [“Karma Police”] is for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. Fuck the middle management! [1]

     [2] Melody Maker, May 31, 1997

    JONNY GREENWOOD: It was a band catchphrase for a while on tour—whenever someone was behaving in a particular shitty way, we’d say, “The karma police will catch up with him sooner or later.” [2]

    [3] Q Magazine, October 1997

    THOM YORKE: “Karma police, arrest this man.” That’s not entirely serious, I hope people will realize that. [3]

    DILLY GENT: I did not know there was any humor attached to the song. The great thing about Radiohead is I never had a clue what their songs meant; I never asked, Thom never said. When I present a treatment to a lot of bands now, they’ll say, “Oh, but the song’s not about that.” And you go, “Well, we’re not making a documentary here.” With Radiohead, I could barely pick out the words, so the videos are made from the feeling of the music and what it conjures up.

    MATT PINFIELD: Radiohead were a band that showed you how music videos could be art, that it didn’t just have to be somebody spending $3 million on a Meatloaf video that looks like an action film—nothing against Meatloaf personally.

    The idea for the “Karma Police” video was originally pitched to another visually astute artist of the era: Marilyn Manson.

    JONATHAN GLAZER: I was flown over to New York to see a private screening of David Lynch’s then new film Lost Highway because Mr. Manson wanted the video to relate to it somehow. Anyway, all I remember from that screening were the opening credits of a rushing road beneath the camera. Next thing I knew it was the closing credits—I’d had a big night, no sleep, and nodded off. So yes, that scene must have entered my subconscious, and the idea for “Karma Police” came out of it. It’s the only time I’ve written something for one artist and ended up making it for another.

    RANDY SOSIN [former video commissioner at A&M and Interscope]: I remember having dinner with Manson’s manager right as the “Karma Police” video came out, and he told me that Jonathan Glazer had pitched a similar idea for a video with Manson for his song “Long Hard Road Out of Hell,” which would make sense with the car on fire at the end and everything. I had a similar thing happen once, when Michel Gondry pitched an idea for Soundgarden’s “Burden in My Hand” that later became a Cibo Matto video called “Sugar Water.”

    As far as why Manson passed, I just feel like he didn’t necessarily want to be a piece of another artist’s work. I don’t remember him ever saying, “Oh, why didn’t I make that video?” It’s just that music video directors in particular tend to have a very specific vision and they see which artists are willing to go there.

    Watch a video featuring fun facts about the "Karma Police" clip drawn from this oral history.


    DILLY GENT: After he directed the video for “Street Spirit,” from The Bends, Glazer and I became really good friends, mainly because we fought a lot about that video—but in a good way. So we would meet up, and he said, “I’ve got this great short film idea.” It was exactly the idea that you see in the video, and I absolutely loved it. Though I didn’t even know we were going to do it with Radiohead at that point. Then “Karma Police” came along as a track, and I sent it to Jon, and he wrote it out, and I said to the band, “You need to do this, it’s a piece of perfection.”

    JONATHAN GLAZER: I was interested in trying to shoot something very simple, short story-ish. Where the whole narrative could be contained within a single sentence.

    DILLY GENT: Jon’s a great storyteller. I remember being in his house when he was telling me about a scene from [Glazer’s 2013 film] Under the Skin before it was made. It was a bright sunny day, kids running around the kitchen table, couldn’t have been a more cozy environment—but I swear to god I thought I was going to die from horror, because he described it so vividly. There were just chills going down my back. I was like, “I am never going to see this damn movie if I can’t even handle you describing it to me in your kitchen.”

    SEAN BROUGHTON [“Karma Police” visual effects supervisor]: I might have stared blankly at Jonathan for a moment when he first told me the idea for the video. It is a really simple idea: A guy in a car is chasing someone, then you’re now being chased by that guy. When you’re given something like that, there is such an element of trust in it, and the execution of it is everything. You could have a different director shoot that same piece and it could be terrible. But by the time Jonathan is telling the story to someone, he already has pretty much the finished edit in his head. “Story is king” is the mantra that we always used to chant in those days.

    DILLY GENT: When Jon told me the idea in the café, I was going, “This might be your first cheap video!” I thought you could just attach a camera to the bonnet of the car, get a guy running, some petrol, fire. But no. The idea was really straightforward, but the production was a monster.

    The running actor was flown in from Hungary. He wasn’t local. And he kept getting a cramp and having to have some horrible injections put into his leg so he could keep running.

    SEAN BROUGHTON: The actor burned his thumb quite badly having done many, many takes of lighting that book of matches with one hand behind his back. He walked out with a fairly disfigured thumb by the end of the shoot.

    DILLY GENT: The car looked like a futuristic robot. That in itself was probably half the budget. And then Thom wore a little khaki-green T-shirt under a leather jacket—and we had a whole truck full of khaki-green T-shirts for him to choose from.

    [4] Details, September 1997

    THOM YORKE: This video alone would cost us a really nice house somewhere. [4]

    SEAN BROUGHTON: Jon wanted to have the fire chase the car at the end of the video, and as effects supervisor, I had to figure out a way for that to happen. We couldn’t really have a quarter mile of fire chasing this car because you’d light one end and it would burn the full distance in a few seconds and probably set fire to the car and blow it up.

    So we actually shot the fire in a dark shed with a locked-off camera during the shoot, about a half mile away from where Thom was. Then we had to actually track that fire into the shot. We had about 100 cones that were covered with a reflective tape, and we put two down on each side of the road for a quarter of a mile. The angle of the cones were such that when the car headlights shone onto them, the tape would glow, and we used those cones in order to track each section of fire into the roadway. There were people looking at us like we were mad: “Why are there people struggling to carry 30 boxes of cones into the countryside? What the hell are you doing? Why can’t you do it another way?”

    We worked all night on it. At about one o’clock in the morning, Jon turned up, having not seen any part of the fire, and sat there in silence and watched it for the first time. He just went, “Nailed it.” That was it. It was a good feeling.

    DILLY GENT: At the time, Thom really looked a bit like an alien. He was just changing his hair; you can see his scalp. And the lighting was beautiful. With anyone else directing, it would have just been a bloke in the back of the car, but they made him look like this otherworldly human being. With Glazer’s work, you just want to grab each frame and put it on your wall. Nothing will ever be dated about that video.

    Watch a visual effects breakdown of the fire sequence in the "Karma Police" video, courtesy of Sean Broughton.

    But what does it all mean?!

    SEAN BROUGHTON: Any piece of good art is something where everyone sees something different in it, and to have a story that is so simple does lend itself to you reading into it.

    JONATHAN GLAZER: I’d say the ‘driver,’ the presence at the wheel, is more like a robot. Thom’s the storyteller. In my mind, he’s not even there.

    SEAN BROUGHTON: There is the lyric: “This is what you’ll get when you mess with us.” It could be applied to bullying—the kid that got sand kicked in his face suddenly turns and is a bodybuilder made of muscles. When you’re young, you’re certainly full of teenage angst, and this song and video offers a very easy translation for anyone’s feelings of unfairness, which is one of the earliest and strongest emotions that we have. When you see it acted out with a successful turning of the tide, that’s always appealing.

    It would be nearly impossible to make a video like “Karma Police” today.

    DILLY GENT: Back then you had curated platforms like “120 Minutes,” and the labels could see the direct line from the video being seen and album sales going through the roof.

    SEAN BROUGHTON: That time in the ’90s really was the golden era. It was when people could use the full breadth of talent that was available in the industry purely for artistic reasons. We weren’t necessarily trying to sell toothpaste to the millions. It was something that was really a work of the heart, that people really believed in, and it spurred people on to do bigger and better things. And most of it was done with no expectation of monetary reward. It was done purely for the love of it. That’s hard to find.

    That ilk certainly disappeared around the time that the Spice Girls all broke up. The money left the industry. People weren’t buying that many records. It all changed. People wanted green screen videos. The bubble had burst.

    DILLY GENT: Once there was no longer a focused place where people could see videos, there was no direct line from a video being made to albums being sold. And that’s when all of the video budgets plummeted. I mean, I remember having £50,000 to make a Radiohead video and thinking, God, I've only got £50,000, I’ve no idea what we’re going to do. Now I’m trying to make two videos for $10,000.

    RANDY SOSIN: Videos aren’t bad now, but I just feel like the world has changed and videos have stayed the same. I wish it would evolve as a medium because it is a powerful tool. Opportunity is there, I just don’t see a lot of people taking advantage of it.

    DILLY GENT: It’s very hard to make that level of music video now, because there’s so much fear attached to the creative process. Everything has been diluted now, video-wise. It’s a massive challenge for me to make a creative video. I don’t even know if it’s possible anymore.


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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: Twelve Visual Artists Interpret the 12 Songs on Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i>

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, and more. Check out all of the coverage here. Also, the original artwork in this feature has been collected into a limited-edition print zine that is now available—for free—at Soho House, Reckless Records, and Quimby’s in Chicago, as well as Mast Books, Rough Trade Records, Molasses Books, and Greenlight Bookstores in New York City. You can also enter to win a copy of the zine by filling out this quick and painless form.


    “Airbag”
    By Mario Hugo

    “I wanted to create something that references both life and death, and almost feels like Munch’s ‘The Scream.’ There is something pervasive here—a little enigmatic and dark—but then the portrait itself is slightly wondrous and innocent, like a naive, self-reflective effigy. Swirling stardust etches both the environment and the face equally, almost like they are consuming one another.”


    “Paranoid Android”
    By Erik Carter

    “While researching this song, I came across a story about how the lyrics were inspired by an incident where Thom Yorke saw someone spill a drink on a woman at a bar, and she turned violent. ‘There was a look in this woman’s eyes that I’d never seen before anywhere,’ the singer once said. ‘Couldn’t sleep that night because of it.’ I tried to imagine that look.”


    “Subterranean Homesick Alien”
    By Sally Thurer

    “The narrator in the song paints terrestrial life as synthetic and space travel as enlightening, because seeing Earth from a distance puts his anxieties in perspective, so I wanted my illustration to focus on the boundary between manufactured and metaphysical space. The cracked pavement is the material world giving way to spiritual truth, to the sky.”


    “Exit Music (for a Film)”
    By Lala Abaddon

    “To me, ‘Exit Music (for a Film)’ is the darkest track on OK Computer, but it also has this suffocating lust and wet longing to it.  That dichotomy is represented in the fluidity and distortion of my composition, which straddles the subconscious divide of a surrealist landscape and an abstract, reclining nude.”


    “Let Down”
    By Doug John Miller

    “As a commentary on globalization and the eerie loneliness of modern life, ‘Let Down’ has a particularly spatial feel to it, so I chose to explore the ethereal but mundane cityscapes that I find fascinating. I illustrated the song through the lens of an ‘architectural lobotomy,’ a thematic term coined by architect Rem Koolhaas. I wanted to look out at a scene that you can’t quite touch.”


    “Karma Police”
    By Maren Karlson

    “This piece presents the idea of an immortal, powerful, omniscient entity that haunts us, that sees every wrong direction we take on our journey through our own labyrinth of error and ignorance. While we are eternally transforming, we are never flawless. We are always just one second away from being caught.”


    “Fitter Happier”
    By Max Guther

    “‘Improve yourself’ is the slogan of today’s society, but if we don’t allow ourselves to rest and make mistakes, we will always only mark time.”


    “Electioneering”
    By Camilo Medina

    “‘Electioneering’ makes me think of a politician who’s touring the country, saying what people want to hear—but those same people will be screwed by these individuals who are only driven by greed and a thirst for power. It’s a feeling that hits especially close to home right now. ”  


    “Climbing Up the Walls”
    By Jesse Draxler

    “The idiom ‘climbing up the walls’ means self-agitation through fear, anxiety, stress—being stalked by inner demons. The monster and its victim. The haunting of yourself, by yourself.”


    “No Surprises”
    By Sonnenzimmer

    “‘No Surprises’ has always struck us as an eerie lullaby for the archaic human. We wanted our interpretation of the song to pick up on the lush sound that teeters between warmth and despair–a nearly impossible balance of saccharine tragedy.”


    “Lucky”
    By Geriko (Hélène Jeudy & Antoine Caëcke)

    “We listened to ‘Lucky’ as a warning from the ’90s, a premonitory dream of the coming decades. By reusing the symbols of the song, we drew the outcome of this dream: It is a rain of plane. The victims have their eyes wide open, the survivors are blind.”


    “The Tourist”
    By Wang & Söderström

    “This song tells a metaphoric story about a journey that no longer knows its goal—the point disappeared deep down in a frenetic search. It’s about going too fast and missing the most important parts. Slow down, and the way will reveal itself.”


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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: A Thousand Feet Per Second: <i>OK Computer</i>’s Sublime Velocity

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here.


    For the longest time flight was a wondrous thing, an attribute of the gods and their messengers, the domain of witches, dragons, and birds. Even now, nearly 240 years since the first aeronaut piloted a hot air balloon above Paris, the view afforded to us by flight can feel like a breach of mortal perspective: too vast, too glorious, and much too close to death. “Pull me out of the air crash,” sings Thom Yorke on “Lucky,” a song that takes place in the slow-motion seconds after realizing that you’re going to die in a manner abrupt and possibly a bit stupid. Then you get lucky.

    The history of human transport is also a history of new ways to die, and OK Computer joins this sublime, speed-induced terror together with a very modern jadedness. For clearly some declension in the character of travel has occurred over the centuries, and we sense it, wedged into an economy class airline seat, or stuck bumper-to-bumper on another ugly freeway, the billboards blaring at us from all sides. OK Computer captured this cheapening of our environments and imaginations in a way that felt revelatory at the time, and still feels resonant now. It is a beautiful record—there is something very capital-R Romantic, very J.M.W. Turner, in its musical scope and texture, with instruments smeared across the stereo field—and also a deliberately banal one. Yorke’s lyrics, a deadpan simulation of advertising slogans, self-help mantras, and political doublespeak, undercut the grandeur of the music at every turn, and this tension between transcendence and routine grants the album an anxious and enduring power.

    The standard gloss on OK Computer, both at the time of its release and in the 20 years since, has been to call it an album about technology. But it seemed clear even in 1997 that it was also—or more so—an album about infrastructure, both the physical infrastructure of “motorways and tramlines,” as Yorke hymned it on “Let Down,” and the more elusive, “soft” infrastructure of global logistics, surveillance, finance, and banking. All those painterly, semi-abstract sounds—guitars that ping and squawk and melt, the wavering Mellotron choir, the glockenspiel, the shimmering cymbals, the quarter-tone violins—create a sense of a world in which human beings are irretrievably tangled inside systems of our own making. There’s so much damn noise (and remember, OK Computer was made several years before Wi-Fi, smartphones, and social media turned us all into twitching, overloaded fools), and sometimes the excess is amusing. Surely no-one can take the prog-baroque gabber of “Paranoid Android” with an entirely straight face. But the laughter is several shades of bleak. Think you can escape all this? Get in the car and drive? The joke’s on you. Capitalism’s insatiable, undead spirit has always arrived at your destination in advance.

    As the spaghetti junctions of infrastructure yank the planet into ever more constricted shapes, we’ve discovered that we’re moving both too fast to cope and too slowly to get away. The wonder of OK Computer is that Radiohead managed to recreate this temporal befuddlement in sound, with songs that feel fast and slow simultaneously, like those lost hours on a plane flight that crosses over the international date line, hurtling you into your future but somehow also taking you backwards in time. Listen to “Airbag” as it opens the album from a superhero’s viewpoint—“I’m back to save the universe!”—with Jonny Greenwood’s arcing guitar riff panned hard left and a cello that mirrors it at hard right, the slur and slippage of Phil Selway’s cut-up drums, and Colin Greenwood’s funk-dub bassline moving beneath like a set of tectonic plates.

    It’s lunatic and it’s tired, a collision that recurs across the record, in the gloopy reverie of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and the tinpot singalong of “Karma Police” with its ear-shredding, engine-on-fire finale made by Ed O’Brien’s use of digital delay; in the frantic claustrophobia of “Climbing Up the Walls” (the bass, again, ballast to counter the chaos) and the debilitated lullaby “No Surprises.” The latter song was reportedly created in the studio by recording the music at one speed and then slowing it down for playback, so that Yorke could sing his vocal over the top. You can just hear the pitch irregularities, a wobble in the instruments, like a vehicle diverging slightly from its lane.

    Then there’s “Exit Music (for a Film),” which, four songs in, nearly brings the album to a dead halt, but doesn’t. There must be a thousand lonely bedroom balladeers who’ve tried to play this song and failed, then wondered why. Friends, you’ve been had: “Exit Music” may be still at its center, but only in the way that an astronaut strapped inside a space capsule is still. Everything at the edges moves with enormous force. Those fluttering, shuddering sounds that start up halfway through (crowd noise? backmasking? both?) feel like a solar wind; no other song on OK Computer comes as close to reaching orbit or spirals so far out of it.

    Before it appeared on OK Computer, “Exit Music” could be heard over the end credits of Baz Luhrmann’s1996 film Romeo + Juliet. But the song is not so much about the teenage lovers of Shakespeare’s play as it is about the rules that crush them, and the parallel tragedy of our modern lives. “Today, we escape,” as Yorke sings it, is a promise that cannot be met. We are still hidebound by authority, and the free market has not made us free. OK Computer was released only weeks after Tony Blair’s New Labour government—rictus neoliberals—were elected to power in Britain, and this circumstance made the song’s weary rage all the more striking. For here was the triumph of the technocrats; their language was styrofoam and their souls were bankrupt. “We hope that you choke” was a curse hurled at them, at all the career politicians, investment bankers, fossil fuel executives, and corporate shills who have worked to make the spaces of our lives so narrow.

    For all of this, Radiohead were not (and have never been) musicians given to explicit protest songs. They’re too self-conscious for it. What they’ve really excelled at is autocritique. OK Computer is the work of a band fully cognisant of the fact that they too are a part of the infrastructure; fed up with the tour bus and the airport transit lounge; bored of the office parks, warehouses, and squat government edifices that one finds at the edge of cities, replicated across the globe alongside the mixed-use, arena-sized, sponsored entertainment venues. And still, the joke was on Radiohead, because the success of this album made them fixtures of those very spaces.

    The 14-month promotional grind that Radiohead undertook for OK Computer nearly ended them. And you could watch their disintegration take place from the comfort of your sofa thanks to Grant Gee’s documentary Meeting People Is Easy, released on VHS in November 1998, only a few months after the band’s tour had ended. The film gives an impression of people who are trapped; trapped by the logistics of global touring, trapped by their new fame, trapped by the mass of opinion surrounding them. Several chunks of footage are superimposed with scrolling text, taken from reviews of OK Computer and from interviews with the band. It looks like a Facebook news feed, before that platform existed.

    Meeting People Is Easy opens with footage of a satellite looming like a giant eye, then cuts to a shot filmed from the rear window of a train carriage as it enters the terminus. Two minutes later, when the camera brings you face-to-face with a dead end and the computer voice from “Fitter, Happier” intones its line about pigs in cages, it’s clear where this going, mood-wise, and it’s nowhere you’d like to visit. It’s a film to put you off rock stardom for life; rarely has universal acclaim produced such pure misery.

    Still, it seems a misperception to think of Radiohead as five frowning gloom merchants whose music constitutes a refusal to engage with the world. Not when OK Computer is borne so much of world, and our jouncing around inside of it.

    There is a moment late in “Let Down”—a song of slippery time signatures, with Jonny Greenwood’s ringing lead guitar keeping one rhythm, and the drums another—when Yorke’s voice is tracked against itself. “One day I am going to grow wings,” he sings, in the left channel, “A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless.” But in the right channel—that stereo space again—his voice is enacting what the lyrics can only describe. Up, up it goes; untethered, a wordless curve. It’s a test flight. And even if the attempt will fail it doesn’t feel useless to try.

    It was February 1998, the height of a southern summer, when the OK Computer tour reached Sydney. And it was storming on the night that Radiohead played; a huge, theatrical, subtropical storm that turned the sky into fissures of lightning, rain sluicing down. I nearly didn’t go, because I needed a lift to the venue and there was rain on the road and a logjam of traffic because of the rain. And I was in a bad mood, as I often was then. So I walked in one song late. The Sydney Entertainment Centre had space for 13,000 people. My seat was at the back.

    I was 15 years old when OK Computer was released. It took me somewhere. It gave me a world that was both a mirror of this one and a shelter from it; now when I try to find words for what that meant I end up in tears. How ridiculous! Not ridiculous. It is what it is. For the longest time my head was full of noise. When I was 18 I came very close to killing myself. And since. Some of us are drawn like magnets to a chance to step off the edge of things.

    But these nervy Englishmen, with their songs about cattle prods! They didn’t save me; nothing so corny. But they did make me feel that there was room in the world for the thin-skinned, the fretful, and the constitutionally pessimistic. Me and thousands of others, joined together under the sign of pop music’s most inexhaustible cliché—the community of outsiders.

    If you were there when they toured this album then you’ll remember the moments when it happened: The way the “rain down” section of “Paranoid Android” became a collective plea for deliverance, or the cheer that went up when Yorke sang “bring down the government” on “No Surprises.” And if you weren’t there, or haven’t already seen it, then watch the footage of their headlining 1997 set at Glastonbury. By every practical measure it was an almighty stuff-up; the stage monitors blew, so they couldn’t hear themselves, and the lights were angled wrong, so they couldn’t see the audience. From this difficult position they drew forth a performance of consummate grace and power, and by the end you can see it on their faces, a dawning realization that they have managed to do something remarkable, and that everybody loves them for it, and that this is OK.

    Something similar happened in Sydney that night. A gale-force energy was coming off the stage, and it was met by the audience. This weather occurring inside was more tumultuous even than the deluge outside, and louder than a cloudburst.  

    Right at the end they played “The Tourist,” but before they played it they just stood there for a little while, taking in what was happening, the almighty screaming cheering near-hysterical fervor. And then the song, that gorgeous waltz, so exposed, like a nerve end or the frayed edge of an electrical wire.  And onstage an absurdly enormous voice with John Lydon’s anger and Sarah Vaughan’s phrasing issued forth from the body of a singer who seemed to have an extra set of lungs tucked inside him. “Hey man, slow down/Idiot, slow down,” he sang, but no one obeyed him and nothing slowed down.

    “The Tourist”—and therefore OK Computer—ends with a tiny, precise bell. After all that has come before, it never fails to make me smile. If a car could be conscious of its own split-second salvation then it might make a sound like this, a little ding of relief. It gives me a picture of an accident reversing itself, the luggage back in its right place, bodies unfolded from their mangle. Then the vehicle is gone.


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    Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: The Radiohead Prophesies: How <i>OK Computer</i> Predicted the Future

    This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here.


    Though it’s technically Radiohead’s third record, OK Computer is really more like the first draft for a never-filmed pilot episode of “Black Mirror.” Much like that acclaimed sci-fi series, the album’s vision of the future didn’t feel like some far-off imaginary dystopia, but a logical, benign extension of the present that birthed it.

    Back in 1997, the internet was still a shiny new toy for most, but Radiohead already sensed the depressing side effects of a totally wired world: the mindless amusement, the echo-chamber conformity, the pressure to keep up. There are no explicit mentions to computers on the album; from its passive title on down, OK Computer is ultimately less about technology than submission, depicting a world where aspiration has given way to automation, where the pursuit of happiness has become less of a goal and more of a process.  The whole thing emits the dispiriting sensation of staring at the dull glow of your laptop screen at 3 a.m., in a sparsely furnished condo unit in a state-of-the-art high-rise where you never say hi to your neighbors.

    But OK Computer isn’t just some fuzzy, half-formed, crystal-ball prophecy. Each song actually yields a vivid premonition of life as it is lived now, when a volatile cocktail of unfettered consumerism, technological dependency, social disconnection, and paranoia has yielded a U.S. president with all the class and credibility of an infomercial huckster. Here’s a song-by-song breakdown of the album’s most prescient lyrics.

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    “Airbag”

    For Westerners, the 1990s were seen as a time of peace and prosperity; the Cold War and all those fear-mongering, nuclear-holocaust telefilms that came with it were already distant memories. But now that the person in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal has talked about bombing Russian ships just to boost his flagging approval ratings, the next World War feels once again like a looming inevitability. From its ominous opening line to its evangelical posturing to its allusions to bright lights and news tickers, “Airbag” could double as the opening number in a musical about Donald Trump’s presidency.


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    “Paranoid Android”

    According to legend, Thom Yorke wrote “Paranoid Android” after witnessing a well-heeled woman freak out after someone accidentally spilled a glass of red wine on her white Gucci dress. He found her enraged facial expression so unsettling that he had to go home and write a six-minute prog-punk suite about it. But by this point, disproportionate overreaction has become an American pastime, from the rise in road-rage incidents, to people getting shot over texting in movie theatres, to the president routinely unleashing Sunday morning Twitter assaults aimed at “Saturday Night Live.”


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    “Subterranean Homesick Alien”

    History has shown that, as technology advances, so too has the adult-entertainment industry. In this song, Yorke had seen the future, and that future was drone porn.

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    “Exit Music (for a Film)”

    As the title unsubtly suggests, “Exit Music (for a Film)” was initially written to accompany the closing credits of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 po-mo Shakespeare redux Romeo + Juliet. And sure, it’s easy to read the lyrics as the doomed protagonists’ de facto suicide note. But clearly, Yorke was anticipating the inevitable moment when Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner will have to covertly plot their White House exile to save their damaged personal brands.


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    “Let Down”

    On one hand, commuters have less reason to be disappointed now. Public transportation has improved greatly since the time of OK Computer’s release: self-driving cars are now a thing, swipe-card technology has made tram rides more convenient, and personal entertainment consoles allow flyers to select their film of choice from an array of options rather than the entire flight being forced to sit through Forrest Gump again. On the other hand, we live in the era of 12-day traffic jams, subway cars that require human cattle prods, and airplane designers who actually want to make you feel like a bug crushed in the ground.


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    “Karma Police”

    In which Thom Yorke offers a spot-on description of what it’s like to sit through a Sean Spicer press scrum.

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    “Fitter, Happier”

    OK Computer’s roboticized spoken-word centerpiece is basically a one-way conversation between Siri and a gig-economy millennial who’s just signed a Change.org petition but can’t make it to the protest because he needs to live-tweet the Oscars.


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    “Electioneering”

    Some songs just write themselves.


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    “Climbing Up the Walls”

    OK Computer’s most chillingsong sees Yorke playing the role of trespassing predator. However, in 2017, home invasions need not require any actual breaking-and-entering; hacking, doxxing, and identity theft are the intrusive tools of choice for negative creeps. When Yorke sings, “I’ve got the smell of a local man/Who’s got the loneliest feeling,” he’s basically painting the psychological profile of a troll.


    Watch an animated version of this article.

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    “No Surprises”

    It’s not just that most people hate their jobs now; more and more people are actually killing themselves at work


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    “Lucky”

    Sure, Yorke and Moby have had their disagreements over the years. But it was very thoughtful of the Radiohead singer to preemptively write a song about that time Moby turned down Donald Trump’s offer to DJ his inauguration party.


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    “The Tourist”

    OK Computer’s last song is quite possibly a prequel to its first one, with the imminent car crash of “The Tourist” setting up the life-saving inflation of “Airbag.” Though, these days, “The Tourist” feels less like an account of vehicular misadventure than a comment on the perils of flying with a Samsumg Galaxy.


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    Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: How Chuck Berry Could Leave You Wanting More

    1. Alison Krauss, Windy City (Capitol) This didn’t have a producer, it had a stylist.


    2. Steve Jones with Ben Thompson, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol (Da Capo)“He never learned to read or write so well, but he could play a guitar”—and end up knowing where he’s been and what it meant. Jones on Johnny Rotten rejecting the band’s admittance to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006: “He sent them a letter at the last minute refusing to appear and calling the whole ceremony ‘urine in wine’ … Left to our own devices, the rest of us would probably have done the show, but in the long run what he did was best for the Pistols as an idea.”


    3. Paul Ryan, tweet (February 21), and Rubella Ballet, “Money Talks” (Ubiquitous, 1985) Ryan: “Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.” Rubella Ballet: “In this corrupt society/The rich/Pay/To be free.” But given the government we chose, with the country to be remade through tax cuts to the wealthy, the effective repeal of the corporate income tax, elimination of regulations inhibiting profit, the abrogation of prohibitions against bribery and self-dealing, and the removal of estate taxes—insignificant in terms of macro-economics, but symbolically, in terms of how America defines itself, enormously significant—the reality is not quite as either the Speaker of the House or a Thatcher-era London punk band defines it. The reality is that the rich will be paid to be free—to represent freedom, as an ever-receding but infinitely alluring possibility, to everyone else.


    4.-7. Van Morrison, The Complete Them 1964-1967 (Legacy/Exile/Sony); ..It’s Too Late to Stop Now… Volumes II, III, IV & DVD (Legacy/Exile/Sony, 1973/2016); Keep Me Singing (Caroline/Exile, 2016); at SFJazz (October 18, 2016) The 69 tracks on the Them set, so much of it conceived and worked out live in Belfast with Morrison fronting a hurricane band, all of it recorded in London, with Jimmy Page’s hands tangled in the sound, remain unparalleled in their ferocity and lyricism: at their most unique, as with “Mystic Eyes” or their cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” both at once. In 1973, as the leader of Marin County band Caledonia Soul Orchestra, he combined performances from the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Civic, and the Rainbow Theater in London for a 1974 double live album, and to listen now to all three shows, with unpredictable song choices (“Since I Fell for You,” “I Paid the Price,” “Sweet Thing,” “Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket”) dancing around “Gloria,” “Caravan,” and “Cyprus Avenue” (but not “Madame George,” which I saw him play once at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in 1969 and never again), is to fail utterly to place one above another: you’ll change your mind every time you listen. Which means it’s a risk to put your past on the market with your present.

    Keep Me Singing is so tepid not even a version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1963 “Share Your Love with Me,” a profound song which brought so much out of Richard Manuel on the Band’s Moondog Matinee 10 years later, seems to demand anything from Morrison, and the most notable new song, “Too Late,” catches your ear because, you realize sooner or later, it’s using the same melody as “Share Your Love.” And the story on stage is not necessarily different. As Joel Selvin reports on a recent show in San Francisco: “SFJazz is the bright, shiny 600-seat auditorium dedicated to jazz performance, funded by wealthy technocrats, who have turned to jazz instead of the opera or symphony for their cultural philanthropic impulses. Many notable figures in the jazz world such as Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea have worked the room, but Morrison, the first major rock performer to appear at the cozy, intimate showroom with pristine sound and generous sight lines, was able to command $250 tickets for this prestige booking. If he certainly looked the part in stingy brim fedora, shades and pin-striped suit, he didn’t deviate from his typical concert program one bit because he was playing a jazz room.

    “For an hour and a half, Morrison ambled through a procession of largely recent material backed by a lean, pared down four-piece band and backup vocalist. He brought his daughter, Shana Morrison, out to duet on ‘That Old Black Magic’ and invited boogie-woogie pianist Mitch Woods, who had recently recorded with Morrison in New Orleans doing duets with Taj Mahal, to play a couple of songs. Otherwise, the show was a standard indifferent Morrison affair.

    “He can be such a frustrating performer. He never really stepped on the gas until late in the set when he bellowed ‘Step right up’ from ‘Ballerina,’ from Astral Weeks, his chest pumped out, his head tilted skyward. He closed the set and returned for the briefest of perfunctory encores—a chorus of ‘Gloria’—leaving the stage while his band played extensive solos for an additional 10 minutes.”

    But between 1980 and 1996 Morrison put out 15 albums without one that stuck, and a year later released The Healing Game, music of menace and sadness a younger man likely wouldn’t have understood, let alone made. You can never write him off, which is why Selvin was there for one more lousy show and I’ll always buy anything he does.


    8. Lana Del Rey, “Love” (Polydor/Interscope) Michael Robbins writes in: “What gets me is the way she rhymes ‘all dressed up’ with ‘in particular,’ which wouldn’t work on paper. It’s all in her vocalization. Singers often understand intuitively things about sound that many poets never learn.”


    9. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch) The album is named for a Staple Singers song from 1965. Listening especially to Giddens’s own slavery songs—“At the Purchaser’s Option,” the title taken from a newspaper ad that can make you sick to read; “Julie,” which, knit to the bones of the traditional murder ballad “Pretty Polly” for its rhythm, continues the tale to a finale that could end a novel Toni Morrison hasn’t written; and “Come Love Come,” a story that compared to the first two feels dutiful, with programmatic words that nevertheless dissolve into the sweep of the singing—and then watching the Nazi and White Power signs from the Civil Rights era in I Am Not Your Negro or the separate-but-equal legalized contempt in Hidden Figures, it’s hard not to wonder how much of that country may be coming back. That makes this record, in the moment, almost unbearably difficult to listen to, and just as difficult to stay away from. It may be too measured in its weighing of the emotion proper to this word or that pause; it may be too careful, too precise, to stand up to the country it’s claiming. But if it fades, if it’s forgotten, sometime in the future someone will find it at a yard sale, in an online search for something else, and be shocked that anyone ever spoke so clearly.


    10. Chuck Berry, “The Things I Used to Do” (YouTube) It was 1965. He was two years out of federal prison, where he’d been sent in 1962 for a racially-targeted Mann Act conviction, now appearing in a Belgian television studio surrounded by a large circle of young teenagers, the girls in dresses, the boys in coats and ties, who look as if they’ve been dragged there on a field trip. There’s a pick-up band of local musicians: a white-haired pianist, a goateed bass fiddle player, a drummer, and a rhythm guitarist, all of whom seem a nervous and full of pride over the chance to play with this man. The pianist hits the first of a series of trilling high notes he will follow throughout the performance and Chuck Berry, lithe, taking small, cat-like movements, impossibly handsome, with a large, loose pompadour, bends slightly into a crouch for Guitar Slim’s already classic 1953 tragic New Orleans blues.

    He tracked the song, looking not at the bored students, not exactly at the moving camera in the center of the circle, but to the woman in the song, who he knows is “out with your other man.” “I used to search all night for you, baby/But my search/Would always end in vain”: he looks her straight in the eye, not with anger, scorn, or pain, but with something just short of a wink, saying that he knows she knows he’s done the same.  

    Not the curl of a note or a word is rushed. A flurry in the rhythm rises up and disappears. Guitar Slim had a harsh, angular tone on his guitar, creating a sense of drama he couldn’t quite sustain. With a quieter, more specific feeling in every musical or verbal phrase, Berry seemed to slow the song down from the inside. He let the listener all the way into the song, and then, when it ended, left the musicians, the woman in the song, you watching now, days after his death, maybe even himself, wanting more.


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    5-10-15-20: Jarvis Cocker on the Music of His Life

    Two decades after Britpop’s heyday, Jarvis Cocker remains the poet emeritus of absurd sex and stubborn social friction. As the frontman of Pulp, he played a disco librarian who sharpened his sly wit in rock songs that were smart yet campy, glossy yet bittersweet. The band became international stars in 1995, with Different Class and its proletariat anthem “Common People,” but this belied a much longer road; Cocker had started Pulp in 1978, as a 15-year-old in his native Sheffield, and coaxed the group through nearly two decades of obscurity before cracking the charts with 1994’s stylish His ‘N’ Hers. But the excitement of those Britpop boom years was fleeting; Pulp dispatched the dark opus This Is Hardcore from their gilded cage in 1998, then went on hiatus after releasing their 2001 swan song, We Love Life.

    In Pulp’s wake, Cocker released two soloalbums and remained a shepherd for his country’s misfits and mis-shapes. Eventually, the pull of Pulp gave way to a triumphant reunion tour in 2011. During that trek, Cocker also reunited with the Chateau Marmont; he’d first stayed at the infamous, star-stacked Hollywood hotel in the 1990s but became enamored upon his return. His suite there, which included a baby grand piano, inspired Room 29, his new project with pianist/composer Chilly Gonzales, a closely observed, often-droll song cycle about the former residents of the hotel, including Clara Clemens, the tragic daughter of Mark Twain, sexpot ’30s starlet Jean Harlow, and hermetic film mogul Howard Hughes. With its tales of stilted sexual escapades, glamorous partiers wilting with malaise, and curtains parting on rueful mornings, Room 29 seems of a piece with the sordid oeuvre Cocker has amassed across more than three decades.

    Though Cocker and Gonzales are presenting Room 29 live with shows that feature some theatrical flair, the singer stresses that it is not a musical. “I hate musicals,” he says emphatically, calling in from the BBC studios in London, where he’s taping his popular radio show, Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service. “And it’s not an opera—because I really, really, really dislike opera.”

    Plenty of other music has struck his fancy and shaped his life, though. Here, he shares his most vivid musical memories, five years at a time.


    Gordon Lightfoot: “If You Could Read My Mind”

    My main thing for music has always been the radio; that’s where I’ve heard things. Around age 5, when I was getting ready for school, my mum would get us up, and we would have breakfast in the kitchen, and the radio would be on. It would be the BBC Radio 2, which is the easy listening station. So I remember hearing a song called “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot whilst I was having my hair brushed and trying to keep still—because if you moved when you were having your hair brushed in the morning, my mother used to get in a really bad mood.

    Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon

    I still hadn’t really bought a record, so I was still listening to things mainly on the radio, but also watching the chart rundown on “Top of the Pops.” That’s when I became aware of more grown-up music. I liked glam-rock; we’re not allowed to mention his name now, but Gary Glitter’s music was quite good.Blockbuster!” by Sweetreally takes me back to that time because that song starts with a siren. Whenever I hear that record, it immediately transports me back to being on the bumper cars at fun fair. It’s perfect music for that.

    I was into music like that, but my mum would still get babysitters, because my sister was 8 at the time. So we would have teenage girls come around the house, and one of them had a copy of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The record was broken—apparently, she had left it on the radiogram and somebody had sat on the lid—so you couldn’t play the first track on side one or side two. But she still brought it around.

    I had to go to bed for school the next day, but I listened to that record through the floorboards. I was actually quite frightened by the bits and bites of deranged laughing, and I wished that I had not listened to it. But I started to realize that music wasn’t just things that you listen to at fun fairs, that there was a more adult side to music. I think Pink Floyd’s music still stands up, actually. Still don’t like The Wall, though. Animals is as far as I got.

    Devo: “Gut Feeling”

    I kept reading about punk, but the local radio station wouldn’t play punk; they didn’t think it was real music. That led to me one of the musical discoveries of my life. One night, I really wanted to hear what this punk music was and, turning the radio dial, I heard John Peel’s radio show. I started listening to it and taking songs off there all the time, and that became my musical education. It made me want to form a group; the early Pulp were really just a ragbag of the influences that we’d picked up from listening to John Peel’s show every night. The first Devo album came out that year [in 1978], and I went to see them play at the City Hall in Sheffield, which was quite influential. One of the first songs that Pulp learned how to play was the Devo song “Gut Feeling.”

    A couple of years later, when we first did some recordings, I took them to John Peel—he used to do these road shows at colleges, and I just went along to the one he did in Sheffield and hung around and gave him the tape after when he was putting all his records back into his DJ box at the end. He listened to it on the way home, and that really changed my life. Then he gave us a session [in 1981]. We were all still at school. I was 16 or maybe just 17, and the drummer was 15 and he looked about 12. He could hardly reach the bass drum pedal to play the drum.

    Pulp: It

    That John Peel session encouraged me to pursue a professional music career, so 1983 was the year that the first Pulp album came out. Don’t let anybody tell you that the ’80s were good; the ’80s were horrible. When those big snare sounds and the digital thing started to come in, music got very thin and nasty-sounding. Our album, which was called It and sold about four copies, really didn’t have anything to do with that trendy, shiny ’80s sound; the drums were as quiet as you could possibly have them while still remaining audible. We realized we were not really in sync with the times that we were living in and that we needed to go our own way if we wanted to get somewhere interesting.

    Cocker in 1991 at age 28. Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images.

    Pulp: Separations

    That was the year that I came to London for the first time, to go to college. I’d done the group, it hadn’t really set the world on fire, and I realized that I had to get out of town, otherwise I would just end up being an embittered ex-musician—which is probably the worst kind of embittered person you can be. So I studied film at Saint Martins art college. The horrible ’80s were coming to an end, and things started to get a little bit interesting: Acid house began and became the last really great subculture in UK history.

    So I got into that scene, and that manifested itself in the Pulp record that actually didn’t end up coming out until a couple of years later but was recorded around that time, Separations. [Pulp bassist] Steve Mackey and I had been going to raves quite a lot and we decided that we had to introduce technology into the Pulp sound, so it’s a weird hybrid record, because the songs were all written on guitars, but then we decided to record it with drum machines and sequencers. It’s a very unusual record. Not all of it worked, but it was a brave experiment.

    Suede: “Animal Nitrate”

    I’d gone to college because it seemed the group wasn’t going to do anything. But as I left college in ’91, it felt like we were allowed to have fun again. Bands like Stereolab and Suede had started, and we played some concerts with them and got to meet some of the bands that were around in London at that time. By ’93, it was all turning into something interesting—I don’t think they’d come up with that horrible word “Britpop” yet, but there was a new movement of bands. It was before it really broke and got spoiled by getting too commercialized. It still was really just a bunch of people in secondhand clothes getting wasted in Camden, which was fun.

    We’ve had the optimism, but now we’re getting to the despair; unfortunate things like Robbie Williams and the Spice Girls happened, kind of because of Britpop, which I will forever be ashamed of. I was not in a good place mentally or physically in 1998. I don’t remember that much about that year because I wasn’t really paying attention—I was just trying to hide under the duvet as long as possible.

    Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Master and Everyone

    Doesn’t life go by so quickly? God. 2003 was a big year for me. It’s when I got married and became a father—well, I’d like to point out that I’d got married nine months before I became a father. It’s illegal otherwise. That’s when I was living in Paris, too, so I was mentally living in a country where I didn’t really speak the language so well, and also exploring that terrain of being a father and wondering what I was going to do. At that point, I thought, Well, maybe that’s it: I’ll stop music now at 40. That’s like a nice, round figure. Maybe I’ll try to do something else with the rest of my life.

    It was a transitionary time, and when I think about the music I was listening to, I think about the music that my wife at the time listened to, like Cat Power’s You Are Free and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Master and Everyone, which has a profile of him and his resplendent beard on the cover. I think that she was even playing that in the birthing room when my son was born.

    I’ve tried not to influence my son with music. I mean, there’s music around in the house, but I’ve tried not to indoctrinate him because if you try and push a child in a certain direction, they’ll always go in the opposite one. I do remember him being in the room when a Velvet Underground record was on, and I was thinking, I wonder what his brain is making of this. But he didn’t cry, not even when “The Black Angel’s Death Song” came on.

    Cocker in 2006 at age 43. Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns.

    Leonard Cohen: “Death of a Ladies’ Man

    Time gets flattened out, because now we’re into the digital age. Usually, I’m quite a retro person, but my manager was one of the first people to buy an iPod, so I got one. But then I thought, When am I ever going to use that? It took me ages to take it out of the box—maybe four or five years—and then I just couldn’t see the point of carrying it around.

    The first song that I ever downloaded was Leonard Cohen’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man.” Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker are the two real touchstones in terms of people I’ve listened to consistently throughout my whole life. If you listen to that first Pulp record, it is just a direct rip off of his first album—though I’m not saying it was as good as that.

    I was very lucky to [meet Cohen] when his album Old Ideas came out. I hosted the playback of that in London, and then I interviewed him about it. I was nervous about doing that, but I’m really glad that I did. I didn’t get to know him so much, but at least I got to meet him, and I was able to tell him how much his work had meant to me.

    Stealing Sheep: Not Real

    That’s around when I started to do radio work. I’ve been doing Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service off-and-on since then, and that’s made me interface with music in a slightly different way. Now I’m thinking of music I can share with an audience at home. It still feels quite creative, because I like the idea of making a mood—it’s like going around to a friend’s house and playing records. You’re trying to make a nice mood for everybody to have a good time, especially because it’s on a Sunday afternoon, so I always think people may be a bit fragile after getting wasted on Saturday night. It’s not really a high concept, but that’s what I try and do.

     I’m very lucky because I do it at the BBC, so there are no advertisements, and I’m allowed to choose all of the music myself and invite people in to interview them. For instance, there’s a group of girls called Stealing Sheep and I quite like their records, and there’s a label called Clay Pipe Music that releases really nice, short-run albums, often kind of pastoral sounds, sometimes electronic stuff. I can really just make the show two hours where I share stuff that I like with people. I love doing that.

     Today, in preparation for the show coming back in April, I pre-recorded an interview with a guy called Steven Johnson, who’s recently published a book called Wonderland, which is all about how a lot of technical innovations have come from the human impulse to play. We talked about music, and some of the earliest human artifacts that have been found in caves are bone flutes. So, human beings were making musical instruments long before they learned how to write. I like to think about things like that. Music is not a luxury—it’s a thing that we’ve done ever since we knew what it was to be a human. It’s a profound part of us. It’s not just like a little added extra, it’s something really deep within us. That’s why we react to it so strongly, and why it’s precious to us.


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    Lists & Guides: The 50 Best Britpop Albums

    “‘Britpop?’ It’s just a shitty-sounding word,” Jarvis Cocker told Pitchfork this month. “I don’t like the nationalistic idea of it; it wasn't a flag-waving music. It was really distasteful when it got called ‘Britpop’ because that was like somebody trying to appropriate some kind of alternative culture, stick a Union Jack on it, and take the credit for it.”

    But Britpop, by any other name, still would’ve been a phenomenon. Born in London in the early 1990s, in grimy pubs and bare flats, the scene offered a thrilling new soundtrack for young British life. Bands like Suede, Blur, Oasis, Elastica, and Cocker’s Pulp captured the charms and eccentricities of their country while also excising their frustrations with class and community, topping it all with a defiant, tongue-in-cheek glamour. Their guitar-heavy anthems drew from the rock of 1960s England along with the pulse of waning Madchester and alt-rock trends, exporting this exuberant sound to every corner of the globe. By the late ’90s, this once-scrappy scene was so culturally powerful, it inspired tabloid blood rivalries (Blur vs. Oasis) and was hijacked by politicians (Britpop’s star emissaries, including Cocker and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, were invited to meet Prime Minister Tony Blair). The cultural flash faded around the turn of the millennium, but not before Britpop reinvigorated rock‘n’roll, moving its epicenter from American grunge back across the pond.

    But more than geography and quick wit twines the Britpop scene together. With this list, we are defining Britpop as the musical scene active in the United Kingdom in the mid-’90s. Particularly, we are looking at the guitar-based musicians who shared focus on anthemic melodies, social observations of British culture and daily life, and their country’s musical heritage. Voters in this list come from the U.S., the UK, and Canada, and in the process of assembling it, we discovered that each location had a slightly different idea of what Britpop entailed; the final result represents the aggregate sensibility of its contributors. We’re not looking so much to progenitors (i.e. the Smiths, the Stone Roses), or alternative rock acts that followed (Coldplay, Kasabian), and location is also a factor—sorry, Anglophile rockers in the colonies.

    But before we dive into all that, let’s choose life with the director of the film that, as much as anything, made the world fall in love with Britpop.


    MILE END AND NEEDLE DROPS: DANNY BOYLE ON BRITPOP AND THE MUSIC OF TRAINSPOTTING

    Pitchfork: Britpop was an important part of the Trainspotting soundtrack: Blur, Pulp, Sleeper, Elastica. What role did music play in creating that film in 1996—what were you listening to? What were you energized by?

    Danny Boyle: Everything. It’s one of the things the film’s about, in a way. Music was an autonomic function for me. I just knew everything about music; I didn’t even think about it. And then you get older, there’s obviously a tipping point where you don’t know everything about music, and somebody mentions a band and you go, “What? Who?” That’s the tragedy of getting older, I suppose, for someone who was as obsessed with music as I was.

    Initially, certainly with the first couple of my films, people regarded my use of music as non-classical filmmaking—even though people like Scorsese were doing it. There was outrage that I was cutting everything like MTV, like a kind of pop video. But actually, I loved pop videos. Adored them. Thought they were a breath of fresh air and a great cultural moment. And these characters, especially when you read the book, they are pop culture. It’s part of the architecture of their lives, like it is for so many of us.   

    The whole archaic notion of highbrow/lowbrow.

    Right, all that. The heartbeat of the film was this Underworld album, dubnobasswithmyheadman... We used one track from that album and a new track that they put out as an unsuccessful single, “Born Slippy,” which I found in an HMV store.

    At the time, although we weren’t as aware of it as you’re aware now, Britpop was happening. It’s been emulsified as an occasion, in retrospect. But at the time, it didn’t feel like it. I remember Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn coming in to watch a rough cut of the film. Damon wasn’t sure about it; he was worried about the drugs side of it. But Jarvis said to him, “Oh, no, it’s like, really cool, man,” and sent us a few songs.

    Pulp’s “Mile End” was new for the soundtrack, right?

    It was, and I lived in Mile End. It was unbelievable; it was like synchronicity. I mean, I still live there. The area's been gentrified a bit now, like so many places, but at the time it was pretty rough. I was so proud of that. 

    So Damon Albarn, who at times had a bit more of a party reputation than Jarvis Cocker, was the one who had reservations about the content?

    I mean, it was very disturbing at the time to watch it, because obviously it was a celebration of youth, really, of that time of life, in all its recklessness and carelessness, and obviously when you bring heroin into that equation, it’s quite hardcore. But [Albarn] was great, and he gave us this song, and I remember him saying, “I haven’t got a title for it.” And I said, “Oh, there’s an amazing phrase in Irvine [Welsh]’s book where he calls heroin users ‘closet romantics.’” They’re romantic people the drug affects most terribly, and they’re often, in Irvine’s experience—certainly as it’s expressed through the book—those that can’t even acknowledge they are romantic. And it kind of seals their fate, really, for their life. And so he called it “Closet Romantic.” 

    When you fit music to film, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. But it was weird—everything we did seemed to work then. Obviously the film was made in that spirit of a time in your life but in reality, the characters span an almost unnatural length of time as young men—because their references are actually punk, which is my era, and kind of Britpop, which is more like the actors’ era. And there’s like 15 years between us. They couldn’t really have gone to see Iggy [Pop] in concert. That’s an amazing scene in the book and it leads to the obsession with “Lust for Life.” So they couldn’t really span all of that time, but of course it’s a movie, so you can compress time, extract time, avoid it.

    We didn’t use any score music at all; it’s all what they call “needle drops.” Even though it’s a very emotional rollercoaster, there's no manipulative music, no almost-invisible score music which you use to manipulate emotions. It’s all purposeful and highly presented in terms of volume. Nothing is floated in subliminally. Everything's like, “Ping!” Here’s the song. It’s just as important as the dialogue. It’s just as important as the characters.  

    Illustration by Jack Dylan

    Were you going to a lot of shows when you were working on Trainspotting?  

    Yeah. Not so much now. It’s that same story. In the preparation for the new Trainspotting film, we did talk about repeating a scene that’s in the original book: They all go to an Iggy concert in Glasgow and Tommy, the character who dies, has a spiritual moment where Iggy looks at him from the stage and sings the line, “Scotland takes drugs in psychic defense” to him. And when we were talking to Iggy about using “Lust for Life” early on, I was telling him we might do a scene at one of his concerts and the guys would be older, going back, remembering one of their heroes who was still working. It didn’t work out, unfortunately, because he was in South America by the time we were shooting, but Iggy remembered the story from the book and he remembered that line. He had read the book. I mean, I was amazed.  

    Were you one of the ones who went to Glastonbury and saw Pulp’s iconic performance in ’95?

    No, I never did that. I remember watching it live on the telly, saw “Common People.” That’s one of the great moments. Irvine sent me a link the other day saying what’s-his-name, Captain Kirk, had recorded “Common People.” William Shatner. Star Trek! He recorded “Common People”! He records all these songs apparently and they’re slightly jokey but quite good versions. So anyways, yeah, I’d seen Pulp at the Brixton Academy, probably before Glastonbury. I’ve never been to Glastonbury, but my daughters go.

    Your song choice as director of the 2012 Summer Olympics’ opening ceremony was fascinating. “Song 2” was one of them.

    That’s an amazing song. My argument in presenting the Olympics was: Listen, you want to talk about what we are good at? We were good at the Industrial Revolution. That was a long time ago. What are we good at now? Music. Culture. We’re really good at it. We should be prouder of it, spend more money on it, promote it more, educate kids more into it—that it’s theirs and that we’re good at it. Fuck’s sake.

    I remember trying to fit “Wonderwall” in and I just couldn’t fit it in anywhere.

    Speaking of Oasis, I read that you wanted Oasis in the original Trainspotting soundtrack but they took the title too literally and refused. Is that true?

    I’ve heard that story as well, but I have no idea whether that’s true. It’s funny because obviously I remember promoting the first film, having to explain the title, especially in America because the word had no meaning at all. It was like a made-up word. Now there are so many more connections withgeek culture—you know, internet obsessives. It just has so much more resonance.   

    Lastly: Oasis or Blur?

    I knew you’d do that! Well I come from Manchester, you see. So that’s my answer.

    Danny Boyle is the Academy Award-winning director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later..., andT2 Trainspotting, in theaters now.

    Interview by Stacey Anderson


    Denim

    Back in Denim

    Boy's Own

    50

    After the indie enigma Lawrence (born Lawrence Hayward) ended his project Felt in 1989, he made plans for a new band, a new decade and—this time, surely—imminent fame. His schemes were typically idiosyncratic. In 1990, as Lawrence’s indie peers turned onto dance music, betting his reputation on the guitar crunch of glam rock would have seemed perverse. But for once, Lawrence’s studio perfectionism brought him in sync with the times: Back in Denim came out at the end of 1992, at the start of Suede’s glam-driven rise. The 1970s, and its pop templates, had suddenly come in from the cold.

    Back in Denim is more than just a nod to the 1970s: It’s a memoir of the decade as seen by a British kid (“The Osmonds”), an acting-out of boyhood superstar dreams (“Back in Denim”), and a pledge of devotion to better times (“I’m Against the Eighties”). Like most of Lawrence’s projects, it relies on his slightly nasal, flat-affect voice, which can be a hard taste to acquire. But this time, Lawrence is backed by the famed producer John Leckie (Public Image Limited, the Fall), which makes the stomping, platform-booted hooks sound authentically massive. In the end, Denim came no closer to the big time than Felt, but Lawrence’s tunnel-vision dreams of the 1970s and his unashamed pop aspirations helped light Britpop’s fuse. –Tom Ewing

    Listen:Denim: “Back in Denim”

    James

    Laid

    Mercury / Fontana

    49

    In the early 1990s, even when whip-smart Britpop singles seemed to vie for national anthem status in the UK, they rarely got many spins on American radio. But when James released “Laid”—with its cross-dressing, therapist-referencing protagonist—one of Britain’s most intelligent bands finally broke through to the States. By then, they had been around for nearly a dozen years; they’d already toured with the Smiths, partied at the Hacienda, and had hits with the Madchester anthem “Come Home” and the poppy “Sit Down.”

    Laid is emotionally ragged, earnest, and rife with dashed dreams of romantic and religious security. Tim Booth repeats lyrical phrases like meditative mantras, particularly with his cries of “Here they come again!” on “Out to Get You.” Producer Brian Eno gently but significantly expands the band’s textural palette, adding synthesizers and emphasizing reverbed slide guitar (the latter inspired by James' 1992 acoustic tour with Neil Young). James would never have a hit like “Laid” again, but crucially, they showed the value of reinvention to their tour openers that year: a young band called Radiohead. –Elia Einhorn

    Listen:James: “Laid”

    Echobelly

    Everyone’s Got One

    Fauve

    48

    Led by Sonya Madan, Echobelly stood out in a scene largely comprised of white guys with guitars. She wasn’t the only female in Britpop, of course, nor was she the only singer of Indian descent (Cornershop was led by Tjinder Singh), but Madan was singular in her confidence: She seized guitar rock from the lads, molding it in the shape of her bold personality.

    Madan was an acolyte of Morrissey, and a follower of his octave-leaping melodies and fey swoon, but on Everyone’s Got One, she’s not plagued with his self-doubt or irony. Look at the title: It reduces to an acronym of EGO, no coincidence for a band whose first hit single was “I Can’t Imagine the World Without Me.” Echobelly hit harder than the Smiths: Their guitars slice and roar, clearly indebted to the neo-glam explosions of Suede’s Bernard Butler. Furthermore, the tempo on Everyone’s Got One doesn’t slow until "Taste of You," the halfway point, which gives it a certain relentlessness; still, they flash a sentimental streak on "Insomniac," which pairs that thunder with vulnerability not heard much elsewhere. It’s a sly, affecting grace note on a record that captures the unbridled self-confidence of Britpop. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen: Echobelly: “I Cant Imagine the World Without Me”

    Placebo

    Without You I’m Nothing

    Elevator Music / Hut / Virgin

    47

    Brian Molko is bad at a number of things. Chief among them: picking cover art,quoting Bob Dylan, and judging his own work. Upon the celebration of Placebo’s 20th anniversary, the frontmanranked his albums, a futile exercise for a band with only one standout—and he placed it sixth.

    Without You I’m Nothing establishes, once and for all, everything Molko is good at: First and foremost, rhyming words with “weed” and making straight men ask themselves a lot of questions while watching the “Pure Morning” video. Placebo’s taste is impeccable here, cribbing Sonic Youth’s dissonant guitar squalor, block rockin’ beats, and a reverent take on David Bowie’s gender-bending queen bitch shtick that impressed the man enough to feature on aremix of the title track. But Molko’s genius lies in repackaging all that into pithy, pissy anthems for the sullen, sexually curious teens who were reflexively turned off by Britpop’s rigid heteronormativity, and whose access to pop culture only went as far as the mall or basic cable. Yeah, the Bowie cosign must’ve been nice, but the crucial placement of “Every You Every Me” in the Cruel Intentions soundtrack confirms Without You I’m Nothing’s true legacy as Britpop’s finest piece of late-’90s alterna-trash. –Ian Cohen

    Listen:Placebo: “Every You Every Me”

    The Divine Comedy

    Casanova

    Setanta

    46

    If the central tension of Britpop was middle-class (Blur) vs working-class (Oasis), that left an obvious space for the upper class. Enter Neil Hannon, son of an Irish bishop, who takes wicked delight in playing the louche aristocrat throughout Casanova. His plummy tones, sprightly hooks, and appetite for pastiche means there’s something joyful in every track, even if there’s usually something preposterous, too.

    This irrepressible bonhomie made Hannon a star, championed by the same tastemakers who’d embraced “lad culture” and Oasis. But maybe that wasn’t such an unlikely alliance: Casanova is an album about sex—or, rather, the pursuit and consequences of it—and underneath the jollity and artifice, darker notes sound. The wannabe pick-up artist of “Becoming More Like Alfie” and the jaded and jilted narrator of “The Frog Princess” are insecure and sour; the jokester of “Through a Long & Sleepless Night” brims with melodramatic venom, and Hannon never glosses over the grubby and dishonest aspects of male desire. The Scott Walker-influenced final track finds the once-great lover on his deathbed, alone save for his faithful horses and hounds: It’s grandiose and pompous but beautiful nonetheless, a fitting farewell for a deceptively high-spirited album. –Tom Ewing

    Listen:The Divine Comedy: “Theme from Casanova”

    Mansun

    Attack of the Grey Lantern

    Parlophone

    45

    If Paul Draper had kept his nerve, Mansun’s debut album would’ve been a superhero origin story and the unlikely upstart that bested Be Here Now, Urban Hymns, OK Computer, and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space for the most grandiose British rock album of 1997. Instead, Draper admittedly "ran out of steam" and delivered “half a concept album—a con album," a sly acknowledgment of the pretentious trickery at the core of these projects. Though the inexplicably resequenced American version of Grey Lantern made any storyline a moot point, we’re lucky that “Dark Mavis,” “Stripper Vicar,” and “Egg Shaped Fred” aren’t plot points but rather pop songs on one of the most beguiling records to ever hit No. 1 in the UK. Glam, prog-rock,James Bondthemes, record-scratch effects, Rule Britannia kitsch, aseven-minute interpolationof the Revolver song about taxes, a panoramic glam-folk singleremixed by Paul Oakenfold when that sort of thing mattered—it's all here, and nothing else sounds like The Grey Lantern.–Ian Cohen

    Listen: Mansun: “Wide Open Space”

    Edwyn Collins

    Gorgeous George

    Setanta

    44

    The most famous track on Edwyn Collins’ third album is his ingenious 1960s throwback “A Girl Like You,” one of the best singles of the Britpop era. Highlighted by the ex-Orange Juice frontman’s aloof, Bowie-esque croon and a recurring marimba lick played by Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, “A Girl Like You” became an unexpected hit after it appeared in the 1995 Gen-X comedy Empire Records. In the U.S., where “A Girl Like You” hit the Top 40, the song epitomized Britpop for many Americans; no song by Blur or Pulp ever charted so high stateside.

    However, anyone who sought out more tunes like “A Girl Like You” on Gorgeous George was bound to be disappointed: The rest of the LP is quieter, predominantly acoustic, and slyly sardonic. An important figure in European post-punk, Collins never set out to be a pop star. On songs like “The Campaign for Real Rock” and “North of Heaven”—the latter of which includes a then-timely dig at Guns N’ Roses—Collins is content to be the clever outsider. But “A Girl Like You” put Collins in the mainstream by exporting a familiar British commodity: timeless, James Bond-style cool. –Steven Hyden

    Listen: Edwyn Collins: “A Girl Like You”

    Catatonia

    International Velvet

    Blanco y Negro

    43

    Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews made headlines for boasting that International Velvet’s lead single, “Mulder and Scully,” was better than Oasis’ single “All Around the World.” Their “X-Files” reference was a gamble—nostalgic at the time, with Matthews wrapping her thick Welsh accent around those sci-fi detectives—and it pushed the band to the top five of the UK album charts. It was an able representation of their second album, who reference cultural trivia throughout: “I Am the Mob” winks at The Godfather, and“Road Rage” was inspired by aninfamous 1996 murder case in which the victim was stabbed by his fiancée, who claimed the attack came from a stranger.

    The singles stalked the charts and cushioned Catatonia in the bosom of mainstream radio, their insatiable pop choruses still standing up as some of Britpops most immediate. The album has much more diversity to offer, too, from the downbeat intimacy of “Why I Cant Stand One Night Stands” to the trippy beats of “Goldfish and Paracetamol.” Also notable: The confidence of the UK music industry was such in 1998 that the title track was sung in Welsh, rendering “International Velvet” Wales unofficial anthem. –Eve Barlow

    Listen: Catatonia: “Mulder and Scully”

    Ocean Colour Scene

    Moseley Shoals

    MCA

    42

    In 1996, the opening bars of Moseley Shoals were used to introduce guests on the British TV show “TFI Friday,” the place where Britpop’s finest characters were blasted into the homes of the public. There was no greater rubber stamp to secure this Birmingham quartet’s place among Britpop’s finest, and it was a significant feat for a band who rose up via Madchester, only to be too late to catch that wave with their 1992 debut. Soon enough, though, scene kingpins Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller were singing OCS’s praises, teeing up an audience for the group’s newly looser, R&B-inspired jams.

    Front-loaded with singalong staples such as “The Riverboat Song” and “The Day We Caught the Train,” Moseley Shoals moseyed its way onto indie dance floors and remains there to this day. During the summer of its release, workmanlike bands inspired by Northern soul and ’60s throwback were inescapable. Despite the fact Ocean Colour Scene remained brutally uncool, not least from their unwavering lack of pretense, they represented the art of big-hearted, blue-eyed rock’n’soul at a time when Britpop was becoming flashy and bombastic. –Eve Barlow

    Listen:Ocean Colour Scene: “The Day We Caught the Train”

    Space

    Spiders

    Gut

    41

    Often enough, bands throw everything but the kitchen sink into their debut albums to see what sticks. That's certainly true of Spiders, which contains rock (“Me & You Vs the World”), funk (“Voodoo Roller”), trip-hop (“Money”), and a trumpet solo (“Dark Clouds”). The album was almost too smart for its own good, and served proof that Britpop bands could—and arguably should—defy the retrogazing that was suddenly so trendy.

    Even within songs, Space’s genre-bending makes it impossible to define the foursome's sound, which comes across as psychedelic as Happy Mondays yet equally inspired by Cypress Hill and Ibiza nightlife. Recorded in Liverpool, Spiders was released via Gut Records, renowned for bold, unpredictable chart hits like Right Said Fred’s “I'm Too Sexy.” Employing the production clout of Nick Coler, who was integral to the KLF's style, these tracks are madcap narratives born from lyricist Tommy Scott's obsession with films, and the hilarious images have more in common with horror B-movies than anything that happened in Britain in 1996. For a band who looked to have their tongues firmly in cheek, they paved their own seriously inventive road. –Eve Barlow

    Listen: Space: “Me & You Vs the World”

    The Boo Radleys

    Giant Steps

    Creation

    40

    In 1993, the Boo Radleys were brimming with so much brazen creativity that not only could they steal their third album’s title from John Coltrane, they could live up to its next-level promise. Just as Britpop was coalescing as a movement, the Merseyside band was already waging a sonic assault on the scene’s retrograde sensibilities. Like many of their contemporaries, the Boos were devout students of the Beatles but, as adept as they were at ’60s psych-pop simulacrums, they were more interested in applying the anything-goes experimentalism of the post-Sgt. Pepper era to dub, free jazz, orchestral soundtracks, and other crate-digging concerns. The band’s formative shoegaze remains, but here it serves as the fabric that holds these disparate sounds together.

    On Giant Steps, it feels like the ground will drop out from underneath at any moment. Pensive harpsichord ballads erupt into symphonic cacophony (“Thinking of Ways”); breezy, flute-trilled, jangle-folk serenades are ravaged by swirling, tape-loop tornadoes (“Barney (...and Me)”). Aquatic reggae ripples into a tsunami of brassy pop grandeur (“Lazarus”). But the combination of guitarist/chief songwriter Martin Carr’s masterful melodicism and singer Simon “Sice” Rowbottom’s choir-boy croon keeps you floating safely throughout. Alas, Giant Steps would amount to just a tiptoe into the U.S. market for the Boos. That year, the band would get more stateside exposure for covering “There She Goes” by the La’s on the So I Married an Axe Murderer soundtrack—a faithful facsimile that, sadly, misrepresented a band who sought to change the shape of Britpop to come. –Stuart Berman

    Listen:The Boo Radleys: “Thinking of Ways”

    Super Furry Animals

    Radiator

    Creation

    39

    It’s a testament to the amount of blow being hoovered at Creation Records in the mid-’90s that, at one point, a band who released an EP titled Llanfairpwllgwngyllgogerychwyndrobwllantysiliogogogochynygofod (In Space) was bandied around as the next Oasis. And for a moment, Super Furry Animals seemed amenable to being Britpop by association, loading up their 1996 debut Fuzzy Logic withmad-for-it anthems that drew on genre-mandated proportions of ’60s psych and ’70s glam. But on their second album, Radiator, the band took the first exit ramp they could out of the Britpop rat race and began burrowing their singular path forward.

    While Radiator continued the melodic immediacy of its predecessor, it also established the fusion of guitar rock and electronic sonics that would become the band’s standby. The album also provided the first real evidence that Gruff Rhys’ charismatic croon was well suited to both wacky and weighty material: For every comical fuzz-punk rave-up about mythical bloodsucking monster-bats (“Chupacabras”), there was a rueful folky-Dory rumination on more existential evils (“Demons”). The band’s great progress can be most accurately gauged by the closer, “Mountain People”: What begins as a formal, Ray Davies-esque exercise in social observation gradually builds into a volcanic expulsion of squelching, thumping techno. And after conquering that fiery peak, Super Furriy Animals never looked back. –Stuart Berman

    Listen:Super Furry Animals: “Mountain People”

    McAlmont & Butler

    The Sound of McAlmont & Butler

    Hut

    38

    Bernard Butler’s last year with Suede was not a happy one, so it wasn’t a surprise when he left the band as they were completing their second album, Dog Man Star. Freed to pursue his lavish visions, Butler teamed with former Thieves singer David McAlmont on an album that functions as a riposte to the towering darkness of Suede’s sophomore record. Bright and bold, with an unapologetic debt to lush 1960s pop, The Sound of... McAlmont & Butler is both an album of its time and somewhat out of step with it.

    Much of this is due to the pair’s idiosyncrasies. McAlmont isn’t a soul singer, per se—he’s a cross between Terence Trent D’Arby and Glenn Tilbrook, a powerhouse with pop mannerisms. This suits a record that swings like the ’60s but is undergirded by a sense of New Wave songcraft: "What’s the Excuse This Time?" feels like a splice of Squeeze and Prince. McAlmont may be the frontman, but there is no doubt that this is Butler’s album: The Sound airs out his prog inclinations, with "You Do" running seven-and-a-half minutes as it becomes thoroughly intoxicated on its own swirls of strings and guitars. It’s a celebration of sound that exudes exuberance, a swagger that’s right in line with the heady indulgence of Cool Britannia. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen: McAlmont & Butler: “You Do”

    Sleeper

    The It Girl

    Indolent

    37

    The It Girl launches with a clanging, slightly acidic chord that lands brusquely and takes its sweet time to dissipate—an assertive burst à la George Harrison’s kick into “A Hard Day’s Night.” But Sleeper’s second album is more than the retro ’60s photocopy favored by so many of their Britpop peers; it’s guileless in its bounce-along blend of skiffle guitar, riot-grrrl crackle, and jazzy basslines. There’s even a bit of the Clash’s punk-reggae furor on “Sale of the Century,” a glimpse at Sleeper frontwoman Louise Wener’s well-earned frustration: the glamorous singer was a lightning rod for sexist criticism, her light croon regularly maligned infetid live reviews. The lads of Trainspotting didn’t shrink from Sleeper’s charms, though, when the band’s cover of Blondie’s “Atomic” nearly stole the show on that film’s iconic soundtrack. –Stacey Anderson

    Listen:Sleeper: “Statuesque”

    Teenage Fanclub

    Grand Prix

    Creation

    36

    “I don’t need an attitude,” sings Raymond McGinley on “Verisimilitude.” “Rebellion is a platitude/I only hope the verse is good.” By shedding the flannel and feedback of 1991’s Bandwagonesque and aspiring instead to power-pop perfection, Teenage Fanclub practically guaranteed that they would be underrated. In a notorious essay pitting them against Suicide, Nick Hornby framed the Scottish band as the acme of amiable middlebrow songcraft—a sincere compliment that sounded like faint praise.

    Still, what songs they are. Despite their unwaveringly American influences (the Byrds, Big Star), good timing brought Teenage Fanclub into alignment with Britpop at the precise moment that their musical chemistry peaked. (Liam Gallagher called them “the second best band in the world.”) McGinley, Gerard Love, and the endlessly melancholy Norman Blake are so evenly matched here that Grand Prix plays like a singles collection, every jingle-jangle riff and bittersweet harmony a delight. Ain’t that enough? –Dorian Lynskey

    Listen:Teenage Fanclub: “Sparky’s Dream”

    Black Grape

    It’s Great When You’re Straight...Yeah

    Radioactive

    35

    Britpop successes are stories of improbable survival: Maybe you weathered a ruthless tide of hype cycles, or transcended an imploding scene, or perhaps you just stayed together long enough to finally hit it big. Shit, maybe you just didn’t die. Shaun Ryder, of the Happy Mondays and later of Black Grape, can say all of this and more, and It’s Great When You're Straight...Yeah is a jubilant survival song.

    With the Happy Mondays, Ryder basically invented the deliriously debauched Madchester scene, and nearly killed himself a million times over in the process, but he didn’t make his masterpiece until he cleaned up (for the first time, anyway). It’s Great When You're Straight...Yeah is the moment, post-rehab and recovery, when parties start being fun again. The music—a fat, blocky, honking mix of horns, drum loops, and Ryder’s exuberant shouts—feels livelier and looser and more joyously warped than the Mondays ever did. And they are funnier: On "Kelly’s Heroes," Ryder lampoons the hero worship of the scene he spawned, and "Tramazi Parti" is a piss-take at the idea that taking lots of drugs could be fun in the first place. –Jayson Greene

    Listen: Black Grape: “Tramazi Parti”

    Ash

    1977

    Infectious / Home Grown

    34

    Ash seemed to want nothing to do with the Beatles/Kinks axis that dominated Britpop, instead mining the puppyish aggression and buzzsaw melody of the Undertones, their Northern Irish antecedents. Ash barely sounded like Britpop but sat neatly in a post-Pixies UK indie scene, as in love with Veruca Salt’s “Seether” as they were the Bluetones. (Football had their hearts, too: The cover of 1977’s calling card single, “Kung Fu,” depicts Manchester United star Eric Cantona executing a mid-match flying kick on a rival team supporter.)

    Ash’s reputation ultimately hinged on a brace of singles, “Girl From Mars” and “Angel Interceptor,” which provided a neater encapsulation of teen infatuation than any other Britpop act could. It didn’t hurt that Ash were young—Tim Wheeler and Mark Hamilton were still just 18 when those songs charted. If the mid-tempo hits “Goldfinger” and “Oh Yeah” sound like a dressing-up box raid on Suede and Oasis (with whom they share a producer in Owen Morris), and deeper cuts betray a Gallagher plod, the band channel their youthful vim to spend the last five minutes of the album (“Sick Party”) violently throwing up. –Laura Snapes

    Listen:Ash: “Girl From Mars”

    Black Box Recorder

    England Made Me

    Chrysalis

    33

    After he unwittingly helped invent Britpop with the Auteurs and retold terrorist history on Baader Meinhof, a solo concept album aboutGermany’s radical leftist Red Army Faction, the sui generis indie gadfly Luke Haines formed what was intended to be a duo with ex-Jesus & Mary Chain drummer John Moore. But when Black Box Recorder wrote their chilling first song,Girl Singing in the Wreckage,” about a teen mom and her baby stumbling through the debris of a plane crash, they realized it required a female vocalist. Enter Sarah Nixey, an ingénue whose icy whisper could telegraph posh boredom just as convincingly as twisted sensuality. In his memoirBad Vibes, Haines calls her “our Trojan horse.”

    Not that Black Box Recorder’s entry into the pop mainstream, with their debut album England Made Me, went so smoothly. Banned from radio for its deadpan chorus, “Life is unfair/Kill yourself or get over it,” the listless singleChild Psychology embodies all that is unsettling about this quintessentially English release. An anthology of childhood vignettes and suburban tableaux laced with casual cruelty, the album cuts deepest when it goes quiet and introspective. Moore’s twinkling percussion situates Nixey’s damaged narrators inside a bleak dollhouse caked in the dust of memory; each track is a miniature chamber of horrors. –Judy Berman

    Listen: Black Box Recorder: “Child Psychology”

    Manic Street Preachers

    Everything Must Go

    Epic

    32

    Speaking in a new UK TV documentary about the Manics’ career-defining fourth album, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire doesn’t mince words:“I fucking hated Britpop.” Specifically, it was the patronizing depiction of the working classes by the likes of Blur that most galled Wire. It prompted the dignified rejoinder of “A Design for Life,” an anthem that breathed hope into a band otherwise poleaxed by grief after the 1995 disappearance/presumed death of Wire’s best friend, guitarist Richey Edwards.

    With Everything Must Go, the Manics turned that grief into mourning glory, a sneaky blend of commercial power-pop hiding lethal lyrical cluster-bombs about the suicidal photojournalist “Kevin Carter,” the Alzheimer’s-debilitated artist Willem de Kooning (“Interiors”), and the unbearable suffering of animals in captivity (“Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky,” one of several posthumous Edwards lyrics on the album). Released into Britpop’s mainstream critical mass, the album went triple platinum, elevating the Welsh “culture sluts” to the UK arena circuit to peddle their sweet pain to tens of thousands. A vindication for the remaining trio, yet in Richey’s phantom presence, Everything Must Go remains a four-man masterpiece. –Simon Goddard

    Listen: Manic Street Preachers: “A Design for Life”

    Saint Etienne

    Foxbase Alpha

    Heavenly

    31

    An album whose biggest hit transposes a Neil Young song into dub reggae (“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) couldn’t be accused of parochialism. Still, despite its breadth of reference, Saint Etienne’s collage-like debut reads overwhelmingly as a love letter to the capital, rebooting the myth of Swinging London for the sample-happy 1990s. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, two pop obsessives from suburban Croydon, were new to both the city and music-making, so Foxbase Alpha (named after an imaginary idyll they joked about as teenagers) has the quality of a dream taking shape, with singer Sarah Cracknell their new best friend and airy muse. “Girl VII” renders stops on the city’s tube network as glamorous as São Paolo and Valencia, while “London Belongs to Me” depicts Camden, soon to become Britpop’s grimy hub, as a hazy utopia where summer and youth are eternal. –Dorian Lynskey

    Listen:Saint Etienne:“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”

    Suede

    Sci-Fi Lullabies

    Nude

    30

    Put two Britpop fans of a certain age together and the conversation will turn quickly to CD singles. Often released in multiple versions to juice the lead track’s UK chart position, the CD single was a taxing format for artists, now on the hook for producing essentially twice as many B-sides. For some, that meant commissioning extra remixes or live tracks. But a few 1990s artists, including Suede, took cues from 1980s favorites like the Smiths and the Jam, treating B-sides with the same quality control as any other release.

    Suede managed to keep up both the pace and high bar of their B-sides over the first half-decade of their career, as evidenced by Sci-Fi Lullabies. At 27 tracks, it’s nearly the output of their three studio albums released over the same time period, and an exquisite set of aching, melancholy ballads (“The Big Time,” “High Rising") and sure-footed midtempo tracks (“To the Birds,” "My Insatiable One”). Overflowing with focused ideas, these tracks are neither the discard pile nor experiments or detours. The bassist doesn’t get to sing lead. There’s no drum-’n’-bass track. It’s just Suede doing Suede things— widescreen drama, kitchen-sink glamour—while carrying the torch of the great British single. –Scott Plagenhoef

    Listen:Suede: “My Insatiable One”

    The Charlatans

    Tellin’ Stories

    Beggars Banquet

    29

    One of Britpop’s greatest triumphs, born from one of its greatest tragedies. In 1995, when their eponymous fourth album entered the UK charts at No. 1, the Charlatans proved themselves the tortoise to the Stone Roses’ hare as the last men standing of early-1990s Madchester. In the summer of ‘96, they began its follow-up in giddy spirits, nailing the Top 10 bangers “One to Another,” “North Country Boy,” and “How High” in a single session. Then, three weeks before they were due to play their biggest show yet, supportingOasis at Knebworth, keyboard player Rob Collins was killed while racing his car from a pub to the studio.

    The intended victory lap, Tellin’ Stories, instead became Collins’ wake, lacquering the album and its emotive title track in particular with a poignancy otherwise at odds with the prevailing euphoria. Completed with Primal Scream’s Martin Duffy filling in the gaps, Collins was respectfully given the last word with the closing instrumental, “Rob’s Theme.” That this remains the Charlatans’ biggest-selling and best-loved album is tribute enough to him. –Simon Goddard

    Listen: The Charlatans: “Tellin' Stories”

    Morrissey

    Vauxhall and I

    Parlophone

    28

    Once upon a stage in 1992, Morrissey draped himself in the Union Jack, a flag long sequestered by far-right nutjobs, prompting many an irate liberal to speculate on whether the former Smith harbored imminent plans to invade Poland. Dodging these slings and arrows, he instead retreated to a haunted manor studio in Oxfordshire, cocooned in Brighton Rock,Oliver Twist, and a 1950s documentary on Lambeth scamps, subsisting on an alleged diet of “pea parcels.” When he re-emerged in 1994, it was with his fourth—and, to date, best—solo album.

    Vauxhall and I is Morrissey’s “My Way”: wistful (“Now My Heart Is Full,” “Hold On to Your Friends”), touchingly thin-skinned (“I Am Hated for Loving”), and aggressively unapologetic (the chainsaw-revving “Speedway”). But above all else, it’s a musically elegant, lyrically eloquent defense plea that tells his detractors to kindly sod off. The public concurred, returning Morrissey to the UK No. 1 spot just as Britpop boomed and, before anyone had the chance to offer him an overdue “Sorry, Steven,” the Union Jack was suddenly everywhere, from Noel’s guitar to Ginger’s cleavage. Alas, with typically ill Morrissey fortune, all too soon he was writingrotten songs about window cleaners and being ritually crucified by the press once more. As you were, Britannia. –Simon Goddard

    Listen:Morrissey: “Speedway”

    Super Furry Animals

    Fuzzy Logic

    Creation

    27

    Like their Welsh peers the Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals hated Britpop’s parochialism. Nevertheless, as Creation labelmates of Oasis, they were welcomed to the mid-’90s party, mischievously spiking the drinks with their psychedelic punk-pop. In Gruff Rhys, they boasted a singer equal parts Syd Barrett andNoggin the Nog, the perfect mouthpiece for a debut comprised of songs about UFO abductees (“Hometown Unicorn”), guitarist Huw Bunford’s hamster (“Fuzzy Birds”), George Foreman (“Something for the Weekend”) and “Hangin’ With Howard Marks,” an ode to the Welsh cannabis smuggler as featured on the album sleeve. A bit like a “Sgt Pepper’s Homely Welsh Punk Band,” Fuzzy Logic is bong-smoke bonkers but also beautiful—not least during “If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You,” its eco-friendly fourth single, for which Creation granted them a £2000 promotional budget. Being Celtic space cadets, they naturally opted to blow the lot on a tank, paint it blue, and turn it into a mobile techno sound system. With fittingly fuzzy logic, they’d later sell the tank to Don Henley of the Eagles. –Simon Goddard

    Listen:Super Furry Animals: “If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You”

    The Verve

    A Northern Soul

    Virgin / Hut

    26

    The Verve’s second album is a transitional work between the zonked-out psychedelia of 1993’s A Storm in Heaven and the epic balladry of the band’s most commercially successful LP, 1997’s Urban Hymns. That’s not a dig—if anything, A Northern Soul is a happy medium for the Verve, showcasing the band’s rocking and emotive sides with equal fervor.

    On one hand, A Northern Soul refines the guitar freakouts from the group’s debut, with songs like “A New Decade” and the title track embracing a spacey grandeur more akin to Pink Floyd than the punchiness of Britpop. This aspect of the Verve always put them out of step with their contemporaries, which might explain why they came to rely upon sweeping anthems by the time of Urban Hymns. On A Northern Soul, the Verve honed their formula on the luminous love song “On Your Own” and the breathtaking chamber ballad “History”—just in time to deploy “Bitter Sweet Symphony” a few years later. –Steven Hyden

    Listen:The Verve: “History”

    Hefner

    Breaking God’s Heart

    Too Pure

    25

    As the 1990s petered out and Britpop increasingly became the sound of post-Oasis knuckle-draggers, Hefner hit reset and helped carve out a corner of UK guitar music more indebted to its indie, shaggy-dog roots. Embraced by UK radio god John Peel while their contemporaries were appearing on Jools Holland’s mainstream TV show, Hefner were proud outsiders, spinning bedsit tales of librarians and the boys with nail-bitten fingers who wooed them.

    Hefner’s style was ramshackle throughout—veering from jangly, nervy uptempo guitar pop à la Violent Femmes to patient, loose balladry—and it’s Darren Hayman’s lovelorn lyrics that unite. On the band’s debut album, Breaking God’s Heart, Hayman examines the social and emotional equity of love and lust from every angle, cataloging seemingly quotidian sexual encounters for those who don’t actually experience them with regularity. Crucially, Hayman doesn’t slide into fantasy or role-playing the way geek-chic hero Jarvis Cocker did so effectively in Pulp. Instead, Hayman remains squarely in the common people camp, weighing the relative values of sex and romance, human connection, and heartache for people who have nothing else to do but dance and drink and screw. –Scott Plagenhoef

    Listen:Hefner: “The Sweetness Lies Within”

    Supergrass

    In It for the Money

    Parlophone

    24

    The video for Supergrass’ “Late in the Day” begins in stark black-and-white with frontman Gaz Coombes strumming away on an acoustic guitar, smoke trailing up from an ashtray on the arm of a lonely couch. It’s all very art-house, very serious-singer-songwriter—very reminiscent of the “Wonderwall” video. But then a pogo stick is thrown into Coombes’ hands and the trio head out into the streets, bopping through rain and over a car, showing off some neat one-legged stunts along the way. The clip is a winking fake-out from the Oxford group’s second album that highlights the most crucial part of their character: fun. Even when Coombes is singing about missing his girlfriend on tour or the treacherousness of burgeoning stardom, there’s always a Memphis horn blast, a McCartney-cute organ solo, a Townshend-whirling power chord, or a slinked-out Stones groove to keep things light, quick, and urgent. It’s only rock‘n’roll, and Supergrass never let you forget it. –Ryan Dombal

    Listen:Supergrass: “Late in the Day”

    Kenickie

    At the Club

    EMI

    23

    Within Britpop’s tacky class-war narrative, few bands took the high ground. “Blur vs. Oasis” was the lightning rod, but the era was aflood with performative stereotype fulfillment, enabling the media to paint an uncouth proletariat at war with the arty middle class. Kenickie were one group to fashion an antidote. Like Pulp, the Sunderland four-piece spoke to a working class for whom glamorizing bleak Britannia was not a matter of sport but survival. Their synth-dappled guitar-pop was deceptively vulnerable, a strange cocktail of elation and deflation; amid tributes to boozy weekend bacchanals were reflections on women’s desires and anxieties. Their songwriting sketched an alternative to girl power’s individualist rush: Instead of assuming an audience with the tools to empower itself, Kenickie showed hedonism to be a release valve, something fought for and snatched from the daily grind on scrappy nights out. A proper breakout hit never materialized, and their refusal to capitulate to the Britpop era’s narrowing definition of counterculture might be why. In the eyes of their sizeable cult, it’s also the key to their immortality. –Jazz Monroe

    Listen: Kenickie: “Acetone”

    Saint Etienne

    So Tough

    Heavenly

    22

    On So Tough, Saint Etienne conjure an ideal London, a place strung together with snippets of British movies and journalistic chatter, full of collective possibility. The opener “Mario’s Cafe” might be pop’s most blissful song about the buzz of simply hanging out with people you like, and the jaunty single “You’re in a Bad Way” is a comforting arm around a mournful shoulder. That track’s bubblegum sound reaches backwards, but So Tough is mostly a modernist, outward-looking record—where pop, dub, and house jams mingle with ballads you might find in the world-weary songbooks of European crooners. The latter work particularly well: The regal sweep of So Tough's most ambitious song, “Avenue,” and the poised sorrow of its finest one, “Hobart Paving,” showcase Sarah Cracknell’s pristine voice against their plush arrangements. Saint Etienne were part of a friendly assortment of imaginative groups, a proto-Britpop scene that also included Denim and the Auteurs; by the time it had hardened into the real thing, they felt alienated. So Tough stands as a snapshot of the Britpop that almost was: more cosmopolitan, more comfortable with the rest of the 1990s, and considerably more chic. –Tom Ewing

    Listen: Saint Etienne: “Hobart Paving

    Gene

    Olympian

    Costermonger

    21

    Many Britpop bands looked back to the 1960s, but Gene were different: The Smiths were their ground zero. If seen from a certain angle, they could be perceived as a parody act. Sonic allusions run rampant on their debut, Olympian—Martin Rossiter sighs like Morrissey, “Haunted by You” opens with a ringing inversion of “This Charming Man”—but Gene also followed the Smiths’ blueprint more subtly, taking stills of films for their cover art and releasing their own Hatful of Hollow grab-bag of B-sides and live cuts the year after Olympian. All these Mancunian affectations from a group of Londoners are endearing because they're not calculating; this is a band that felt the love so deeply, it infused every portion of their music.

    Olympian functioned as a slightly melancholic tonic to the arrogance sweeping Britpop during the spring of 1995. Certainly, Rossiter and his mates also had self-confidence—and they were tougher than the Smiths, showing some measure of debt to Suedes gnarly glam noise revival—but the tenor of Olympian is strikingly different than, say, Definitely Maybe. If Oasis wanted to get out of that dirty bedroom, Gene was happy to dwell within it, wish the world would slow down, and wallow within their dashed dreams. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen:Gene: “Haunted By You”

    The Auteurs

    New Wave

    Hut

    20

    Although Luke Haines would probably hate you for saying it, the Auteurs were very much the thinking person’s Britpop act, a band whose songs spoke of failure, faded glamour, and the intellectual seediness of bedsit life rather than living forever and very big houses in the country. A strangely wistful yet venomous tone pervades the Auteurs’ debut album, New Wave, as if Haines doesn’t know whether to seduce his listeners or punch them in the mouths. The 12 songs are defiant and melancholy, Haines’ hungover croon draping over lovelorn guitar lines, simple percussion, and sporadic piano, offset at times by the addition of a cello. It’s sparse yet effective, with the Beatles and the Go-Betweens as clear touchpoints. Later, Haines revealed Nirvana’s influence, too—and if you squint a little, songs like “Bailed Out” and “Junk Shop Clothes” are not so many miles from the quiet emotional intensity of their “MTV Unplugged,” although Kurt Cobain would never write lyrics as deflating and witty as Haines’ scorching put-downs. –Ben Cardew

    Listen:The Auteurs: “Junk Shop Clothes”

    Lush

    Lovelife

    4AD

    19

    With their third full-length album, the 4AD dreamers Lush dropped out of the shoegaze cocoon and hit the ground running. The reinvention succeeded, partly because the pivot to Anglocentric guitar pop was performed with the conviction of born extroverts. Their chatty early single “Ladykillers” gleefully savages hapless suitors’ pick-up games: A preening ladies’ man, a peacocking male feminist, and “school of charm” connoisseurs everywhere wither under Miki Berenyi’s been-there-done-that snarl. The subtext of songs like “Ciao!”—in which Jarvis Cocker spars suavely with Berenyi in a game of post-breakup oneupmanship—was that Lush were dealing Britpop the feminist counterpoint it sorely needed. The message prevailed in part because they didn’t reject the escapist thrills of sex and booze (this was, after all, the 1990s) but instead delivered righteous barbs with the joyful arrogance of snarky pub chat between mates. –Jazz Monroe

    Listen:Lush: “Ladykillers”

    Blur

    Modern Life Is Rubbish

    Food

    18

    Blur were most definitely “holding on for tomorrow” while putting together their second album. Their debut, 1991’s Leisure, left them on the wrong side of the dwindling Madchester trend, while mismanagement meant they ended up in the financial hole. They hit the States for a long, drunken tour in 1992, looking to settle their debts, but came back disenfranchised with the growing American influence on British culture (shameless capitalism chief among it). Damon Albarn and co. took it upon themselves to remind the UK of its roots, looking to classically British songwriters like Ray Davies, David Bowie, and Paul Weller while crafting the rock‘n’roll jangle that set the tone for Britpop.

    In his songs, mostly set around London, Albarn walks a fine line between completely jaded and vaguely hopeful, with no tune capturing this feeling better than lead single “For Tomorrow.” Albarn wrote the song on Christmas Day after Blur’s label demanded a hit, not seeing yet that they had tapped into the next big thing by topping retro English rock with the cynicism that would come to define Gen-X. Atop elegant strings, Graham Coxon’s rough-edged guitar riffs, and a patchwork of vocal harmonies, the then-25-year-old Albarn shares what he knows about the world: It kind of sucks, but what’s the alternative besides moving forward? Needless to say, things got a bit better for Blur from there. –Jillian Mapes

    Listen: Blur: “For Tomorrow”

    Shampoo

    We Are Shampoo

    Food

    17

    On their exhilaratingly bratty first album, Shampoo fused Britpop, teen pop, and riot grrrl—and the association horrified feminist punks, whodismissed them as a patriarchal product. It wasn’t an entirely fair criticism. Teenage best friends Jacqui Blake and Carrie Askew might’ve projected calculated vapidity in interviews (Melody Makerintroduced them as “two alien teen snitches/queen bitches from Planet Peroxide”), but the duo didn’t meet in a boardroom. As the designated weirdos of their suburban high school, they’d co-authored a Manic Street Preachers fanzine before forming a band of their own.

    We Are Shampoo contains precisely the kind of music you’d expect from teen girls who bonded over dissident rock. Layering sugary hooks atop cartoonish AC/DC riffs, they etheredsaddo” dudes,gamers, and thedirty old love songs of Whitney and Mariah. Their anti-manifestoViva La Megababes taunted rivals, “Hippie chicks are sad, and supermodels suck/Riot grrrls, diet girls, who really gives a fuck?” Not even their shouty juvenile delinquency jamTrouble,” a hit in the UK, could bring them stateside stardom, despite placement on such youth-friendly movie soundtracks as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Foxfire. But it didn’t take long for their influence to go global in the form ofanother British act whose suspiciously familiar brand of impish pop feminism really was a corporate invention. –Judy Berman

    Listen:Shampoo: “Viva La Megababes”

    Morrissey

    Your Arsenal

    His Master’s Voice

    16

    By 1992, the blouse-wearing, flower-wielding Morrissey had beefed up both his look and sound. Newfound collaborators Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer came from the rockabilly scene; with cigarettes rolled firmly in sleeve, they brought a swagger that had eluded the ex-Smiths frontman’s previous solo releases, the mercurial Viva Hate and the dismal Kill Uncle. Bowie’s most valuable Spider From Mars, Mick Ronson, helmed production duties, bringing a powerful glam stomp. For the first time in half a decade, Moz had an unstoppable team and unstoppable songs.

    Your Arsenal found Morrissey throwing two fingers to his haters, lamenting assorted personal and societal failings, and dissecting the newly post-Thatcher working class identity with gusto. He vacillated between condemnation and an uncharacteristic cautious optimism as his band matched him mood-for-mood, tough as a Millwall brick one moment and then heartbreakingly tender the next. And as he examined English identity via the common people and embraced his fellow drowners in a sea of swimmers, some might say that Morrissey handed the blueprints of Britpop to the next generation. –Elia Einhorn

    Listen: Morrissey: “Tomorrow” 

    Cornershop

    When I Was Born for the 7th Time

    Wiiija

    15

    Part of the fun of the Britpop years was seeing bands rocket from the most obscure crannies of indie to the top of the charts. That one of them was Cornershop, riot grrrl allies who found initial fame by burning a picture of Morrissey outside his label HQ, still seems like a pinch-yourself moment.

    Cornershop’s third album, When I Was Born for the 7th Time, shows they deserved their fabulously unlikely slice of stardom. It’s the most affable of records, a loose collection of indie-funk jams with vocalist and songwriter Tjinder Singh threading deadpan wisdom between the beats. Scratch the easygoing surface and there’s invention at every turn, from “Funky Days Are Back Again”’s frazzled electro backing to Singh playing the heel on “Good to Be on the Road Back Home Again,” an oddball country duet with Tarnation’s Paula Frazer. But the record’s heart is its hard-won positivity, especially on “Brimful of Asha,” their cult hit turned real one. That song takes the DNA of Britpop—fuzzy memories alchemized into pop gold—and rewrites it for a British-Indian boyhood, with references to playback singers Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangheskar, All-India Radio, and the UK reggae label Trojan Records. The Britpop party never felt more inclusive, or more joyous. –Tom Ewing

    Listen: Cornershop: “Brimful of Asha”

    The La’s

    The La’s

    Go! Discs

    14

    The La’s’ eponymous debut and only album was several years ahead of the Britpop curve, arriving in the time of Madchester and raves. As such, The La’s serves as a bridge between the two eras. The songs are pure Beatles melodicism—you can almost see the Fab Four tapping out the opening number, “Son of a Gun,” during a relaxed moment in A Hard Day’s Night—mixed with the Kinks’ guitar riffs, notably on “I Can’t Sleep” and “Feelin’.” Oasis would later employ this combination to considerable commercial return.

    However, as with the Stone Roses’ debut, there was something in the simple, hazy euphoria of songs like “There She Goes” and “Timeless Melody” that connected with the blissful possibility of the rave era, making the La’s both perfectly of the time and prescient of what was to come in British guitar music. Sadly, they wouldn’t be around to pick up the Britpop spoils, dissolving in a fit of frustrated perfectionism soon after, but the succinct pop mastery of their debut meant they were never far from Noel Gallagher’s thoughts as his band took Britpop to the world. –Ben Cardew

    Listen: The La’s: “There She Goes”

    Suede

    Suede

    Nude

    13

    Suede’s arrival was a glass of cold water to the face of British guitar music. It wasn’t just that they were so radically different from everything else at the time—a riot of ripped cardigans, Bowie guitars, and fluid sexuality in a world of shoegazers—but they also came perfectly formed, spat defiant and blinking into the world. Suede found them full of swagger, filth, and an innate sense of drama, from the knowing squalor of “Animal Lover” to the airy desperation of “Sleeping Pills,” from the peacock pop strut of “Animal Nitrate” to the divine disgust of “Pantomime Horse.” Suede would later get weirder (Dog Man Star) and more overtly accessible (Coming Up), but their debut was the record that had it all, a dazzling mixture of pop smarts, experimental nous, and wickedly original thinking. Without Suede, Britpop would have been a far safer, easier, and more vapid proposition. –Ben Cardew

    Listen:Suede: “Animal Lover”

    Supergrass

    I Should Coco

    Parlophone

    12

    In Britain, the phrase “I should Coco”is a sarcastic way of saying you agree with someone, but there was nothing to be petulant about when Supergrass emerged with this debut. Even today, you're hit by the shambolic, fat-free introduction to a trio who brought a punk edge to Britpop, taking their forebears (the Kinks, the Jam, Buzzcocks) and imposing three-chord hard noise while also glorifying how it felt to be young, liberated, and reckless. A few months later, when Oasis released their time-shifting (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, they already lookedpositively past it.

    The tracks’ guileless energy reflects their speed of recording, too. Most impressive of all is the fact that the six-minute, sprawling organ epic “Sofa (Of My Lethargy)” was done in just one take. The adolescent call-to-arms “Alright” was featured in Clueless and has become an insufficient tentpole for the Oxford band, who were drowning in far more eclectic ideas. From the acoustic dreaminess of “Time to Go” and the lightning-speed thrill of “Sitting Up Straight” to the Madness-like “Mansize Rooster” and the fantastical glam rock of “Strange Ones,” these three scamps painted pictures of life’s everyday mishaps and oddities while keeping listeners darting about on their toes. –Eve Barlow

    Listen:Supergrass: “Sofa (Of My Lethargy)”

    Pulp

    His ‘N’ Hers

    Island

    11

    Jarvis Cocker was not meant to hold a guitar. To prowl the stage like an electrified stork, to rumble about tawdry sex artifacts like lipgloss and tight pink gloves and gleefully chronicle our animalistic impulses—he needed both hands free for that. Today, to watchPulp’s set at Glastonbury 1994—an inauspicious midday slot, just one year before their conquering headlining gig—it feels quaint to see the Sheffield singer grip some wood and pick strings through the glorious “Babies,” stock-still save an emphatic kick or two. (Defying nature, he did reprise this during the reunion tour.)

    ByHis ‘N’ Hers, Pulp had already been toiling for almost 20 years and three albums, with little to show for it, but they carried themselves in the studio like arena stars. Their thrillingly contradictory formula was honed: sexy and heady yet considered, shiny and singalong yet too clever to be cheap, with Cocker’s pleasantly barbed pathos anchoring tonic synth-pop. The dancefloor anthems (“Lipgloss,” “Razzamatazz,” “Do You Remember the First Time?”) were as bittersweet as the seeping mood studies (“Acrylic Afternoons,” “David’s Last Summer”) and then they capped it by lifting the chord progression of “I Will Survive” wholesale on “She’s a Lady.” Why not? They’d come this far. –Stacey Anderson

    Listen:Pulp: “Babies”

    The Verve

    Urban Hymns

    Virgin / Hut

    10

    There are many albums on this list that speak to Britpop’s capacity for mordant wit, incisive social critique, and nuanced emotions. And then there’s Urban Hymns: pomp and circumstance personified, Be Here Now with a messianic complex instead of a coke habit. It begins with an orchestral sample that has cost the Vervemillions, and the first lyric is Richard Ashcroft telling us the meaning of life. It doesn’t get any less modest going forward, but it would be the last time Ashcroft could back up his unwavering, deadly serious belief in his own profundity.

    And Urban Hymns is something to behold: The power ballads (“The Drugs Don’t Work,” “Lucky Man”) would get laughed out of a folk-rock open mic if Ashcroft didn’t perform them like the most important love songs ever written, while generational anthems “Catching the Butterfly” and “The Rolling People” are utter nonsense elevated to the sublime thanks to his mojo-risin’ shamanism and Nick McCabe’s wah-wah pedals. Four years later, Bono would supply U2’s pull quote for a decade by claiming that they were “reapplying for the job of best band in the world,” but framing such a thing as an application process should’ve automatically disqualified them. As far as Urban Hymns was concerned, the Verve were the only band in the world. –Ian Cohen

    Listen:The Verve: “The Drugs Don't Work”

    Oasis

    Definitely Maybe

    Creation

    9

    “Tonight I’m a rock‘n’roll star,” Liam Gallagher proclaims at the start of Oasis’ debut. Taken out of context, it’s easy to mistake this chorus as another example of braggadocio from Britpop’s brashest band—particularly given the anti-stadium-hero ethos of the era. But the verses of “Rock N’ Roll Star” tell a different story, reflecting Oasis’ modest circumstances when they made Definitely Maybe. Before Oasis were arrogant, they were aspirational: Throughout the album, Noel Gallagher writes about a dead-end, working class life from which there is no escape, save for fantasies of fame and fortune. In that same song, in a cutting whine pitched at the midpoint of John Lennon and Johnny Rotten, Liam Gallagher sings Definitely Maybe’s truest line: “In my mind/My dreams are real.” It was up to Oasis to make those dreams real.

    Definitely Maybe became a generation-defining classic in the UK (and a beloved cult favorite among Anglophiles overseas) based on Noel Gallagher’s effortless ability to write rock anthems with simple, universal themes: the invincibility of youth (“Live Forever”), the undying allure of decadence (“Cigarettes & Alcohol”), and the desire for self-actualization (“Supersonic,” which is also about snorting Alka-Seltzer). Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker were wittier, perhaps, but Noel Gallagher spoke in a more primal language. His dreams were also the dreams of millions. –Steven Hyden

    Listen:Oasis: “Supersonic”

    Blur

    Blur

    EMI / Food

    8

    Before their self-titled album, Blur were brilliant in a way that was also a little hard to look at—for American audiences, anyway, who preferred a slouch or an untucked shirt corner somewhere. But that all changed when Blur hit American shores in 1997, pulling its hair over its eyes and frowning theatrically. It was an audacious bid to reinvent the band as across-the-pond visitors to the then-exploding American indie rock scene, and it is also a gloriously confusing, fractured jumble, more a major-label mixtape than an album.

    After the relatively conventional “Beetlebum,” Blur proceeds through a series of cartoon trapdoors, reeling from faux-grunge (“Song 2”) to faux-glam (“M.O.R.”) to ersatz Sebadoh tributes (“You’re So Great”) to high Noel Coward camp (“Death of a Party”). For Americans and Brits alike, the album was both perplexing and fascinating, like watching a movie through a Vaseline-smeared lens and being unable to tell if the actors are laughing or screaming. Blur’s relationship to American alt-rock—mocking it with “Song 2” while simultaneously scoring a bona fide hit—was also their relationship to success, as they scoffed at it and held it at arm’s length while zealously pursuing it. If you are truly going to be the smartest kids in the classroom, it’s not enough to scorn the test—you still have to ace it. –Jayson Greene

    Listen: Blur: “Song 2”

    Pulp

    This Is Hardcore

    Island

    7

    Britpop often benefited square-peg acts, whose years of woodshedding gave them a golden opportunity when the mainstream’s round hole was busted open. By late 1995, a Ben Sherman shirt and mod bangs were pretty much all it took. But Pulp were something else. They’d formed in 1978, when the wide lapels and nylon that Jarvis Cocker took into every student union in Britain weren’t ironic, they were standard issue. If it took about 17 years for those planets to align, it only took three to repudiate everything that Pulp and Britpop had apparently stood for.

    This Is Hardcore’s first single, “Help the Aged,” said it all—a dour celebration of decay that explodes into its chorus like overripe fruit. The band that had typified blind hope in the face of abject failure had seemingly, in success, found only defeat. That the sumptuous art rock of “This Is Hardcore” and “Dishes” were among Pulp’s best songs—as typically dyspeptic as anything on OK Computer, informed by Cocker’s disillusionment—was besides the point. This Is Hardcore told the faithful that the jig was up. In the bleak Bowie stomp of “Party Hard,” Cocker perfectly undermines Pulp’s cynical raison d’être: “If you didn't come to party, then why did you come here?” –Laura Snapes

    Listen:Pulp: “Help the Aged”

    Elastica

    Elastica

    Deceptive

    6

    If Britpop’s essence was gleeful, irreverent insouciance in the face of dour American grunge, then Elastica were the Britpoppiest band of them all. Led by the impossibly fierce Justine Frischmann, this black-clad gang of three birds and one bloke banged out smart, deliciously catchy pop-punk songs about stuff likeerectile dysfunction,car sex, and, um,lubrication. They shamelesslyshoplifted riffs from Wire and the Stranglers, but turned them into tunes that were a thousand times more fun. Their debut album was 15 songs (plus one bonus track) in 40 minutes without an ounce of fat. They were the kind of band that makes people want to be in bands.

    Frischmann was a Zelig-like figure in Britpop: A founding member of Suede and romantic partner to the frontman Brett Anderson, she left him for Damon Albarn, forming Cool Britannia’s First Couple. (At the peak of their powers, Elastica were far more successful in America than Blur.) Unfortunately, Frischmann’s relationship with Albarn, as well as with the other members of her band, imploded in “Behind the Music”-style fashion in the late 1990s, and Elastica’s 2000 sophomore album, The Menace, was met with indifference. But for a brief, shining moment, Elastica were the coolest band in Britain. –Amy Phillips

    Listen: Elastica: “Connection”

    Suede

    Dog Man Star

    Nude

    5

    Suede’s Brett Anderson was Britpop’s first pin-up, baring his midriff and pouting coyly on the cover of Select’s April 1993“Yanks Go Home!” issue—an anti-grunge salvo that championed the “crimplene, glamour, wit, and irony” of five young British bands. Just a year later, sinking into druggy oblivion and feuding with guitarist and co-songwriter Bernard Butler, Anderson grew alienated from the movement. Dog Man Star was the product of that isolation, a murky, maximalist symphony that overlaid the sex-drenched, council-estate sadscapes of Suede’s debut with visions of Old Hollywood glamour, as glimpsed from a distance of four decades and 5,500 miles. Still unfinished when Butler left the band, it was also a breakup album of sorts, its soaring arrangements battling melodramatic lyrics in an echo of the discord between its creators.

    The standard criticism of Dog Man Star is that it’s too melodramatic to take seriously. Certainly, it has preposterous moments: the self-serious fairy tale “Black or Blue,” the swaggering condescension of “This Hollywood Life.” But excess was kind of the point with Suede, and this album captured their aesthetic at its most immersive. Black-and-white films haunt 1990s England on “Daddy’s Speeding,” about James Dean, and the hyper-romantic “The Wild Ones.” By the time the credits roll on “Still Life,” a Douglas Sirk weepy punctuated by hysterical strings, Suede have so persuasively sanctified everyday longing that even their overreaches sound purposeful. –Judy Berman  

    Listen:Suede: “The Wild Ones”

    Oasis

    (What's the Story) Morning Glory?

    Big Brother

    4

    This was the people’s champ, the album that broadcast Britpop’s loving nostalgia, brash guitar worship, and rampant tunefulness further than any other. Admittedly, it is not the era’s smartest record, nor is it the coolest. But who needs smart or cool when you have Liam Gallagher sneering through a rock‘n’roll fantasyland bursting with wonderwalls, champagne supernovas, and enough maxed-out distortion to deserve a tinnitus warning? Who needs subtlety when you can listen to a man rhyme “say” and “day” over and over (and over) and make it sound like a bloody revolution?

    But while (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? happily blares from the mountaintops, it also can’t help but glance at the abyss below. For all his arrogance, Noel Gallagher can be a surprisingly reflective songwriter, aware of the pitfalls of fame and drugs while simultaneously aiming for the top of the pops and hoovering cocaine. “Wonderwall” is an all-time ballad about being hesitant and inarticulate; the title track, with its helicopter chops and five-alarm riff, both actualizes and takes the piss out of coke-fueled mania. And “Champagne Supernova” serves as an excessive Britpop pinnacle as well as a eulogy for good times that can’t last. “Where were you while we were getting high?” Liam repeats endlessly at the end of the song, stretching out the memory as far as it could ever go. –Ryan Dombal

    Listen:Oasis: “Champagne Supernova”

    Radiohead

    The Bends

    Parlophone

    3

    Radiohead were never a Britpop band, but on The Bends, they became the vent through which its subconscious fumed. As optimism swirled around Tony Blair’s ascent and the resurgent economy, 1995 saw Britpop fever erupt into a Dionysian free-for-all, with boozy shenanigans dominating tabloid headlines. To that, these Oxford oddballs issued their second album, a doomed cry from the party’s cellar. As they echoed Britpop’s disdain toward unchecked wealth, the pop-oriented album also undermined the movement, suspicious of both hedonism and Blair’sNew Labour (which minted the left’s new pact with neoliberalism).

    The Bends’ title track—with its histrionic cries of “I wanna be part of the human race!”—mopes in the mid-’90s zeitgeist’s shadow, mooring Britpop’s social theatricality in grunge’s grandiose alienation. That song, with its jibes at Radiohead’s ’60s-worshipping peers, rubs shoulders with radio-friendly ballads (see “High and Dry” and its tetchier sibling, “Fake Plastic Trees”) that anticipated the airbrushed post-Britpop rock of Coldplay and Travis. But the record’s integrity to the Britpop years lies in the way it challenged a jaded generation’s imagination. The unlikely breakout single was “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” which channels a sense of capitalist dread that even class-conscious Britpop artists repressed. And while the album found Radiohead in the jaws of a decade they hadn’t yet learned to outmaneuver, its epic portrayal of drift and disenchantment secures its reluctant spot in Britpop’s pantheon. –Jazz Monroe

    Listen:Radiohead: “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

    Blur

    Parklife

    Parlophone

    2

    Britpop moved indie guitar music from the UK’s margins to the mainstream with remarkable speed. Parklife was the catalyst—a colorful, pop-centric palette of great scope and eclecticism, effectively launched with a disco song (“Girls & Boys”). Subsequent singles were an elegant French-kissed breakup song (“To the End”), the anthemic title track, and a hand-wringing over encroaching age and domesticity (“End of a Century”). Blur had hinted at such depth and variety, but Parklife found them with new ambition and confidence. Even the record’s understated gems (“This Is a Low,” “Badhead,” “Clover Over Dover”) carry a lived-in sense of belief miles away from the group’s baggy roots.

    Blur had explored notions of Britishness on their previous album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, but they made it a thesis statement on Parklife, giving both a clear narrative and an all-important rooting factor to what would become Britpop. Synthesizing an emergent sense of national pride with youthful anger and a satirical eye, Blur built bridges from art schools and indie dances to the mainstream, in much the same way Nirvana’s Nevermind did for punk-rooted music a few years earlier. Indeed, the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, just weeks before the release of Parklife, underlined the feeling that the epicenter of credible guitar music was shifting from the U.S. to the UK.

    In the short term, Britpop was a Parklife-built world, and it provided paths to the charts for such outsiders as Super Furry Animals, Pulp, and Elastica. By 1996, Oasis would become so commercially dominant that Britpop’s original sense of glamour, wit, and artifice were replaced by more conservative, lumpen impulses. The line at the time was that Blur won the Battle of Britpop but Oasis won the war. Twenty years later, it feels clear who, creatively, got the better of whom. –Scott Plagenhoef

    Listen:Blur: “Girls and Boys”

    Pulp

    Different Class

    Island

    1

    Britpop had a remarkable power to turn complex personalities into cartoons. Jarvis Cocker, more than most, conspired in his own caricature, perhaps reasoning that after several years of frustration and anonymity, he wasn’t going to take any chances. Take “Common People,” a song in which cute social comedy escalates into seething insecurity and omnidirectional rage. The radio edit snipped the most vicious lines, in which Cocker is a dog who will “tear your insides out,” while its brash, playful video reduced it toCarry On Class War. That’s Different Class’ Trojan horse strategy in a nutshell: Come for the fun, stay for the psychodrama.

    Coming hard on the heels of His ‘N’ Hers, Different Class seized the moment with slavering jaws; “Common People” and a momentous Glastonbury performance duly fast-tracked Cocker to national treasure status. Camp and gangly in thrift-store chic, this uncommon pop star seemed to embody Britpop’s core narrative of the underdogs taking over without shedding his lifelong sense of unbelonging. Even when he’s a participant, he’s a voyeur at heart, stranded on the threshold of wherever he is. In his ambivalent rave memoir “Sorted for E’s & Wizz,” he’s the guy wondering why he’s not having as much fun as everyone else.

    The central themes of Different Class are sex and class, both characterized by mess, discomfort, longing, and revenge. Panting and yelping, Cocker describes the emptiness of too many partners (“Underwear”), not enough (“Live Bed Show”), and unrequited lust for one in particular (“Disco 2000”). The songs about class identity tell a similar story. The hungry autodidact’s fantasies of transcending the brutal conformity of working-class Sheffield hit the wall with “Common People,” where the gilded Greek art student is the catalyst, not the subject; her crime is to remind him that he can’t leave it behind and, thus, to make him feel ashamed for wanting to. In “I Spy”—a torrid mind-meld of Serge Gainsbourg, “First We Take Manhattan,” and Mike Leigh’s Naked—the thwarted interloper becomes the vengeful seducer, despoiling the privileged milieu that enthralls and disgusts him. His different class is a class of one, and it gets lonely there.

    With the sole exception of “Something Changed,” Different Class is never purely joyous, yet it sounds like a celebration throughout. Seasoned producer Chris Thomas (Sex Pistols, Roxy Music) conspired with the six band members to assimilate a lifetime of British pop, from glam-rock and torch songs to synth-pop and Two Tone, and render Pulp’s distinctive tawdry glamour huge and unstoppable. What’s more, Cocker has the knack, like a classic British sitcom, of making anguish hilarious.

    Different Class thus epitomizes Britpop’s signature blend of surface jollity with undercurrents of anxiety, representing both the club and the bedsit, art school and “Top of the Pops,” community and isolation, the party and the comedown, victory and defeat, pleasure and the price of pleasure. It’s good because it throbs with the desire to transform and escape; it’s great because it knows what happens when you get what you think you wanted. –Dorian Lynskey

    Listen: Pulp: “Common People”

    1. James Dean Bradfield 2. Jacqui Blake 3. Carrie Askew 4. Louise Wener 5. Luke Haines 6. Norman Blake 7. Sonya Madan 8. Darren Hayman 9. Miki Berenyi 10. Martin Rossiter 11. Cerys Matthews 12. Tjinder Singh 13. Jools Holland 14. Lauren Laverne 15. Brett Anderson 16. Brian Molko 17-18. Pulp’s showgirls (“This is Hardcore” video) 19. John Peel 20. Begbie (Trainspotting) 21. Sick Boy (Trainspotting) 22. Spud (Trainspotting) 23. Renton (Trainspotting) 24. Gaz Coombes 25. Sadie Frost (“Common People” video) 26. Sarah Cracknell 27. Lee Mavers 28. Damien Hirst 29. Oasis’ dummy (“Wonderwall” video) 30. Oasis’ clown (“Wonderwall” video) 31. Tony Blair 32. Richard Ashcroft 33. Thom Yorke 34. Jonny Greenwood  35. Danny Boyle 36. Noel Gallagher 37. Liam Gallagher 38. Graham Coxon 39. Jarvis Cocker 40. Candida Doyle 41. Damon Albarn 42. Justine Frischmann 43. Kate Moss 44. Blur’s milk carton (“Coffee & TV” video) 45. Super Furry Animals’ raccoon


    Contributors: Stacey Anderson, Eve Barlow, Judy Berman, Stuart Berman, Ben Cardew, Ian Cohen, Ryan Dombal, Elia Einhorn, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Tom Ewing, Simon Goddard, Jayson Greene, Steven Hyden, Dorian Lynskey, Jill Mapes, Jazz Monroe, Amy Phillips, Scott Plagenhoef, Ryan Schreiber, Laura Snapes


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    Rising: Call Super: Techno Expressionist


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    Interview: Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff Is Your Favorite Pop Star’s Secret Weapon

    After he answers each question at length, talking fast, Jack Antonoff takes a big swig of water from a glass bottle, like he’s rehydrating in the middle of a marathon. We’re in his home recording studio, the same room where he’s worked with artists like Taylor Swift and Lorde, and where he’s created much of his own music as Bleachers. Our shoes are off—a general rule for anyone who enters the Brooklyn apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend, Lena Dunham. Dressed in a faded Calvin Klein T-shirt, ballcap, and a colorful nylon windbreaker he keeps taking on and off, Antonoff seems pretty teenage for 32. The studio is lined with animal print wallpaper that he had recreated to match his childhood bedroom in New Jersey, where he lived until he was 28. There’s JFK memorabilia, issues of old fanzines he’s contributed to, and a small collection of 1990s baseball cards strewn around.

    His constant gulping is stressing me out, though, and I suggest that if he needs a break from talking we can take one. He waves me away. “Huge bladder, largest in the world,” he says. “Average dick, huge bladder.” This announcement precipitates the only moment of awkward silence over the course of our two-hour interview; he breaks it by offering me lasagna.

    Antonoff is the definition of a Chatty Cathy, the kind of person who asks if he’s told you this before, and, upon learning he has, still says it. It can be difficult to follow his voluminous thoughts. But he’s not some philosopher-poet obsessed with the sound of his own voice. If anything, he seems to be rankled by the fact that he can’t stop the ideas from flowing out of him, and so much of what he talks about is a meta conversation on how and why there are so many.

    Though he’s happy to discuss his laissez-faire attitude toward writing and producing for some of the biggest pop stars on earth, his unceremonious punk past, and partying at the White House, the gushing part of his brain seems to slow down when it comes to delving into his own tracks. Take his new one, “Don’t Take the Money,” a love song to Dunham. When I ask him what the phrase means, he’s stumped, unable to articulate why it encompasses the enormity of his feelings for her. He just knows it does.

    The first single from Bleachers’ upcoming second record certainly sounds self-assured, a poppy rock anthem with debt to his Jersey hero, Bruce Springsteen. On it, Antonoff pleads through the chorus, which is deeply reminiscent of his old group, fun. That band’s strength came from occasionally overdramatic refrains that sounded as epic in a car or bedroom as they did in an arena. His new songs pick up that thread, and, for Antonoff, the stakes are high. He says most of his songs revolve around the death of his sister from cancer, a pivotal moment in his teenage life. Loss is the engine behind much of his music’s bombast.

    Pitchfork: What are the qualities of a Jack Antonoff song?

    Jack Antonoff: I’m starting to understand them more and more. A big quality is New Jersey. When you grow up staring at New York City, it’s a fucking cruel joke. Everything’s there, all your favorite bands are there. All the sex is happening there. I’m making music from that perspective. Specifically though, my sister died when I was 18, and my whole career has been revisiting that through a different lens. How do I talk about loss in these big songs that sound like a person like blasting out of Jersey on a rocket ship?

    You’ve said loss is the only thing worth hearing from you as an artist.

    The reason why that has carried so far is that something happens when you start talking about [loss]—people at shows begin saying “my father died,” “my boyfriend killed himself.” Everyone has something that they carry always, even if it’s just as simple as, I hate myself. Everyone’s got a different thing. When [my sister died], I just started entering rooms with this concern that people would be like, “Oh, that’s the person that that happened to.” So when I’m in a space of writing, it’s very present in my head; I’m thinking very clearly about making someone proud who isn’t here.

    Has music helped you and your family heal?

    I wonder. When you constantly revisit things, it’s hard to know if you’re freezing in time or if you’re a brilliant adult who’s working through it. I think about that in therapy, talking about the same things over and over again.

    Do you transfer those emotions over when you work on songs with others, or is that specific to Bleachers?

    I love a lot of songs that are about not-weighty things, but I can’t be helpful in that capacity. I cannot stress enough that I do not mean that I think what I’m doing is better—some of my favorite songs of all times are fucking party anthems. But what I really connect with is this Springsteen or Robyn mentality of songwriting, where one person’s dancing to it, and another person’s weeping to it. That’s a big Jersey thing, where it’s all so huge—whether it’s Springsteen or the punk music I grew up listening to—and then in those lyrics there’s this hell.

    When I work with other people, I’m always trying to find out: Where can we go even further? What can we do here that is for the people putting a microscope on it? In the second verse, can you fire out a few lines about something that happened to you when you were 9? I always have these conversations with people in the studio, and they’re like, “All right, well let’s write something,” and I’m like, “Well let’s write that!”

    What’s the “that”?

    That, about your broken family or your horrible ex. Not every song has to carry this unmanageable weight, but I know all my favorite artists. Not personally, but I know them. I know the stories.

    My sister got really sick when I was 16 years old, and my parents were just like, “Fuck it, you want to take our minivan and drive to Florida? Do whatever the fuck. Nothing matters.” So there is a connection between my touring and my success as a human being who’s doing something they want to do and her being sick. Right before that, I was a very bad student, and my parents were always like, “What are we going to do? What’s the plan here?” I hope that they feel a lot of pride that they let me do whatever made me happy in that moment, and they’ve been insanely supportive since then. I toured for so long with the universe screaming in my face: please stop. No one came to the shows. No one bought the records. It’s not like my punk band [Outline] had a couple bad shows—it was years and years. When you play to no one, that never goes away. I look back on those years and I’m just blown away.

    That you kept at it?

    Yeah. I’m obsessed with anyone who does that because it’s like, Why did we do that?

    What else were you going to do?

    Read the writing on the wall and set out on a path that would’ve put some food on the table. But I couldn’t, and didn’t.

    You grew up into punk. Did you get into Bruce Springsteen later on?

    I heard Bruce after I had discovered the punk music that was coming out in New Jersey, and I thought his music sounded like the cohesive version of all those punk songs, in the most simple way. All the content was exactly the same. That was the first time I really heard my experience, because I loved the Velvet Underground and I was thinking about all the New York City music and I was like, “This is so cool, but this is so not me.“

    You weren’t waiting for your heroin dealer.

    No. I’ll sit there and fucking talk your face off but I’m not that kind of cool. I loved Interpol when they came out but I never wanted to be in Interpol.

    The difference between Bruce and the punk stuff was, when I heard Lifetime, I was like, “I want to do this forever,” but it wasn’t designed to go beyond our tiny little club, and then I heard Bruce and it sounded like the same thing to me, and I was like, “Wait, lots of people like this.” When I heard Bruce, I felt very recognized. I felt understood. I felt known. And I learned a lot about songwriting.

    Have you met him?

    Yeah, a few times.

    What was it like?

    Well, he keeps telling me he likes Bleachers, and I keep thinking that someone’s playing a joke on me. Last time I met him, I was at this absurd thing, and literally it was him and Paul McCartney.

    What’s the absurd thing?

    That last Obama White House party. It was one of the really great nights of my life. It’s so rare that you get to do something so overblown and fancy, and not have a self-hatred about it and be like, “Oh this is all fucked! Fucking famous people and shit.” I’m sure that you find yourself in rooms and you’re just like, “Ah, this is disgusting, I hate myself.”

    Not like that, no.

    I have my own issues with it, clearly. It was so beautiful. I was so proud to be there. That room was filled with every color and orientation, it was just perfect. It was like artistic heaven. From fucking Chance, to Bruce, they were all there.

    How did your life as a songwriter begin?

    I didn’t grab the opportunity. Fun had a hit; “We Are Young” took off [in 2012], and it happened very quickly because it was on the heels of a TV spot. The next day, every publisher called. This was right before the age of everyone moving to L.A. to be a pop songwriter. Right away, I was able to get into the bottom level of [writing] rooms, and I’m learning right away how people are doing things. Everyone wants hits. But we weren’t trying to make a hit with “We Are Young.” I don’t sit at home all day and write and produce songs. I do it because I love it. So it was weird at first, but now it’s gotten good. I’ve worked with Carly Rae Jepsen, Sara Bareilles, Tegan and Sara, Grimes, Taylor, Lorde—that’s what I want to do. I love working with women.

    Why do you think you work so well with women?

    I don’t know. All emotions aside, I write a full octave above where I sing. I think about Kate Bush and those registers when I’m writing, because I always imagine that vocals should be dancing on top of the track. There’s just a lot of melodic DNA that works better for women than men. And most of my favorite artists are women—outside of all the things I said about Bruce.

    Also, my experiences with men and music have been in this really macho, intense, high-octane environment. I don’t want to categorize something that’s more specifically female, but I will say that, in my experience, the women that I’ve worked with have been more interested in talking about what’s gone wrong in our lives, quietly putting it to a piano, and then eventually making it into this big thing.

    I only have sisters. I always want to hear women sing my songs. I just want to be around women. It’s not a sex thing—I’m heterosexual, but it’s not coming from any place like that. It’s just a comfort thing. And my studio presence isn’t bombastic, which is funny because some of the songs are. But I like to be calm. I guess I could go way deeper into certain conversations I’ve had with my analyst about not being a certain kind of man that other men think is enough of a man.

    There is an archetype of the modern male producer/songwriter, like Dr. Luke, as an all-powerful figure.

    It’s a position of power, but this is work where there is no power—songwriting is the most powerless, saddest, sit-there-and-pray-it’s-going-to-come-to-you experience, you fucking Little Mermaid-style poor unfortunate soul. You sit in a room for two years and make noise until it comes. You work on something for six months, and then you go to take a shower and in six minutes you have a better idea.

    When I’m working with artists, there’s no power struggles, no “I got the fucking answer, I have these hits so I’m the shit.” I hate that, and I can’t be around it, because if I’m around it, it’s like someone coming into your house and taking a piss on the floor. I can’t write a song with someone who feels that way. This is my work. This is my very safe place.

    How can you say there’s no power in writing songs with someone like Taylor Swift, who’s one of the biggest musicians around. There’s an enormous amount of power in that.

    But there’s not. She just sits there in the same place you’re sitting, and we just talk about songs and Joni Mitchell. I mean, I won’t name names but I’ve met many other people in her position who I decided to not make music with because when we were sitting here, they were that person who wielded a lot of power. I felt there wouldn’t have been an opportunity for us to create. I have absolutely no disrespect for anyone else but, for me, making music is so private and personal. So if a popstar came in this room and was like, “Well, I’ve done this, this, and this, so I’m right,” then why are we here? I’ll just keep doodling in my journal.

    How do you decide who to work with?

    If I ever work with someone else, all that I think about is: Do you want to make the best album you’ve ever made in your life, or not? And if there’s even a hesitation, then go on your greatest hits tour.

    Does anyone ever say no?

    No one says a blatant “no,” but they do say it in many other ways. It may sound like ego, but I actually think many people aren’t vulnerable enough to say “yes.” With Bleachers I wanted to make the best album I ever made, and that’s so vulnerable because what that means is that I had to sit in here for two years and just grind it out. It had to be something that I really believed would reach people, and if it didn’t, then I could look those people in the face and be like, “I’m sorry you don’t get what I’m putting out there.” For me there’s a lot to get, and if you don’t then that’s fine, and that doesn’t make that person stupid. But you have to get yourself to that point where you fully see it. If you don’t see it, how can anyone else?


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    Pitchfork Music Festival: A Tribe Called Quest: Five Live Videos from the Legendary Rap Group

    A Tribe Called Quest’s triumphant return at the end of 2016 was a bittersweet occasion: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service marked the return of one of ‘90s hip-hop’s most beloved groups from an 18-year absence, and unlike most such comeback albums, it sounded as urgent and inspired as their original run. But it also came less than a year after the death of Phife Dawg. Their live appearances since then have encompassed a powerful rush of emotions: part trip down memory lane and part political protest, all shadowed by the absence of one of hip-hop’s most beloved MCs.


    A Tribe Called Quest performs Saturday, July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. 


    “Movin’ Backwards” + “We the People” - Live at the Grammy Awards, 2017

    Anderson .Paak sits in on vocals and drums, helping give this medley of “Award Tour,” “Can I Kick It,” “Movin’ Backwards” and “We the People” a jam-session feel. We also get Rhythm Nation-inspired dancers’ costumes, a furious Busta Rhymes cameo, and a moving tribute to the late Phife Dawg, plus something you don’t often see at the Grammys: a black power salute.


    “We the People” - Live on Saturday Night Live, 2016

    Recorded just a week after the presidential election, this performance of “We the People” feels particularly angry, exhausted, and mournful, particularly when they get to the chorus’ crux: “All you black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans, you must go/ All you poor folks, you must go.” It’s not often you see expressions of such unbridled bewilderment and disgust on late-night TV.


    “Dis Generation” - Live on Jimmy Kimmel Live, 2016

    The always agreeably gruff Busta Rhymes bellows his way through a hyped-up rendition of the Musical Youth-sampling staple of the group’s 2016 album, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.


    “Can I Kick It?” - Live at Showtime at the Apollo, 1991

    Seismographs went off all over Harlem when Q-Tip and Phife Dawg led the Apollo Theater in this earthshaking call-and-response version of their 1989 hit “Can I Kick It?”


    “Bonita Applebum” - Live at Showtime at the Apollo, 1990

     Here’s another vintage clip from the Apollo—a masterclass in the art of moving butts.


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    Lists & Guides: Rock’n’Roll Animals: Musicians Tell Us All About Their Pets

    Though their contributions rarely receive credit, pets have played their part across pop history. Think about it: Paul McCartney and his sheepdog Martha, Kate Bush and her hounds, Miley and her doomed husky Floyd, Taylor Swift and her cats, the list goes on. An animal’s presence can offer comfort, laughter, inspiration, or annoyance, and earning a pet’s affection can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life. Naturally, those emotions can’t help but bleed into an artist’s work.

    But owning a pet is also a great responsibility, and for musicians who spend much of their time on the road, bringing a furry friend into the family can lead to difficulties. What do you do with the little critter while on tour? Can it come along? If so, how? Will it be forced to stay in the car or bus? Will the music be too loud? Are your bandmates or crew allergic? If your pal has to stay home, who will feed and watch it? And what if your pet hides under the bed every time you try to demo a new song for them?

    Behind many great musicians exists a great pet, but since the animals can’t speak for themselves, we asked their humans to tell us a bit about their favorite furry friends.


    Waka Flocka Flame and Angel

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?

    Me. Everytime I play my music she runs around the house trying to bite people.

    Which of your songs was inspired by your pet?  

    Big Dawg”—she’s so small but she makes big dawg decisions.

    What is one of your favorite memories of your pet?  

    When she ate my edibles by accident. It was funny—but scary too.


    Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline and Joe

    How has your pet inspired your music?

    Joe was in the room with me a lot when I recorded my first songs—that’s him breathing in the background—so I considered him a band member. He used to sing along to certain chords, especially weird dissonant ones! I wrote him some love songs and later, when he died, I wrote some sad songs about it.

    When is a time when you thought your pet could read your mind?  

    I was really sick with a fever once and I remember waking up thinking my mom was putting a cold towel on my head, but it was just Joe licking my head. He probably mostly thought about food though, if I’m being honest. And more deeply, I think he wondered a lot about where people were going, because he was pretty scared of being left alone.

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    Just how he was ready to hang with me every day when I came home from school.


    Girl Talk, Wally, and Chloe

    Do your pets like listening to your music?  

    Both of them are indifferent toward my music, but my cat Chloe loves being in the mix while I’m working. She’ll lay with her stomach pressed up against the back of the laptop for hours, fading in and out of sleep. And when she’s not sleeping, she’s masterful at unplugging hard drives and knocking over beverages.

    Who is your cat’s favorite band?  

    Chloe is uninterested in anything outside of Collective Soul.

    What do you imagine your cat thinks about all day?  

    Chloe is always daydreaming about seeing Collective Soul live.

    What do you think of pet clothing?  

    We’ve put a dog shirt on Wally a couple times, and he seemed depressed.  The furthest I’ll go these days is giving him a hat that supports his interest in the genre of dubstep. 

    #tbt #2012

    A post shared by gregg gillis (@girltalk_verified) on

    What do you think about highlighting your pets on social media?

    I take many photos of my pets, but I don’t post many. They’re both private individuals, and I want to respect that. Chloe had a brush with fame through her Collective Soul viral video. It was overwhelming. She appreciated the support but had a hard time dealing with the attention.  


    D.R.A.M. and Idnit

    What’s the story behind your pet’s name?   

    It’s short for “Idnit So Cute.”

    Which one of your songs has your pet influenced?   

    Cute,” because I’d definitely take my dog out on a fucking date.

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    Whenever I’m home, he sleeps at the foot of the bed. And one night we got in the crib mad late, like four in the morning, and he started barking on some like, “Bruh, I can’t get no sleep without you in this bed, man.” It was so fucking cute, because I don’t get to see him as often as I want.

    When is a time when you got mad at your pet?

    When he shitted on the floor, by the couch. I was barefoot and he didn’t say anything about it, and I stepped right in it.

    "👶🏾🐶"

    A post shared by B I G B A B Y 👶🏾 (@bigbabydram) on


    Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quin, Holiday, and Mickey

    Have you made merch inspired by your pets?  

    We have pins, and they’ve also been featured on T-shirts. Currently, we have cardboard standees of them dressed in Alexander McQueen suits that we display at our merch table and let people take photos with. My dream would be to create a series of emoticons using their likeness.

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    The day that Holiday began grooming Mickey and cuddling him after weeks of hissing and hating each other was big. I still feel my heart expanding when I see them cuddling.

    What do you think of pet clothing?  

    I once dressed them in a halloween costume—as Donnie Darko skeletons—and they seemed so defeated and humiliated I never did it again.

    Your cats are often featured on your Instagram—have you ever considered giving them their own accounts  

    Unfortunately, my cats are so much more popular on social media than we are that I cannot risk losing followers by giving them their own accounts. It’s not fair, but they’re cats, and I’m the human cleaning their shit up every day, so…

    Same

    A post shared by Tegan and Sara (@teganandsara) on


    Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner and Julia

     Does your pet influence your music?   

    Julia is actually mentioned in the first stanza of “In Heaven”: “The dog’s confused/She just paces around all day/She’s sniffing at your empty room.” After my mom passed away, I took Julia to the vet because she wouldn’t stop licking her paws. The vet informed me it was likely because she was nervous and grieving, and I just thought it was the most crushingly sad thing, how confused she must have been, having her primary caretaker just disappear.

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?  

    I’m not sure really but I do have a pretty cute video of her barking along to my husband and mother-in-law singing Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.”

    When is a time when you got mad at your pet?  

    The only thing I’ve ever really scolded her for is “scooting” outside. It looks very bizarre, and I read that it’s not good for dogs. I was really just looking out for her butthole.

    This my phone background rn and it makes me so happy

    A post shared by Japanese Breakfast (@jbrekkie) on


    Hunx and His Punx’s Seth Bogart and Stix

    What’s the story behind your pet’s name?

    She is not named after Styx the band—she has long lady legs, like sticks.

    How does your pet influence your music?  

    Sometimes when I’m singing into a microphone she tries to lick inside my mouth—and she must not mind it because she’s still licking!

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?  

    Whenever she hears Lana Del Rey, she just puts on her dog lingerie and lights a big joint and prances around.

    When is a time when you got mad at your pet?  

    She manipulates my boyfriend and I into giving her treats when she senses we’re about to start having sex, and she won’t stop bugging us till she gets what she wants!

    What do you imagine your pet thinks about?  

    Food, when Lana Del Rey’s new album is coming out, how incredible my music is (ha ha), smashing the patriarchy, and getting stoned.

    What do you think of pet clothing?  

    Pet clothes suck—as in I can’t find any I want to buy! I tried squeezing her into a Harajuku Lovers for Petco by Gwen Stefani hoodie but the sizing was crazy small, as if they were trying to make dogs feel fat and bad about their bodies.


    Torres’ Mackenzie Scott and Little Bat

    Does your pet influence your music?  

    She loves when I play guitar quietly, so I’m more inclined to write gentler songs when she’s in the room.

    Do you think your pet can read your mind?  

    There have been a couple times when I’ve been upset and she’s come over to comfort me, and I’ve looked her in the eyes and asked, “Are you Sylvia Plath?” Because I really believe she’s Sylvia come back to be my best friend in this life. And she looks at me wildly in those moments, like she’s been caught—but she still seems to trust me with the information.

    Little Bat has her own Instagram account, how do you think she feels about social media?  

    She loves being on the internet. She can sense the moment just before someone pulls out a phone to take her photo, and you can tell because she poses like a supermodel and smiles with her eyes. She eats it up.

    A post shared by Little Bat (@littlebatthecat) on


    Deafheaven’s George Clarke and Joan

    What is your pet’s favorite type of music?  

    She prefers music that people can dance to so that she’s able to bark at them while they do. She also really loves harmonica.

    Do you have a dream merch item inspired by your pet?  

    A vanity mirror with her face on it would feel suitable.

    What do you think of pet clothing?  

    Joan isn’t really into clothing. She’s naturally beautiful.

    💇💅 #joan

    A post shared by @george_lesage on


    Mitski and Midori

    How did you meet your pet?

    She was the strongest-looking and least neurotic of her siblings when we went to choose a kitten out of the litter. I got her in 7th grade and I’m 26 now, so she definitely should not be as completely fine and youthful as she is.

    Have you made merch related to your pet?  

    No. I like to remember that I am the only person who loves her—no one else cares about your cat.

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    I like remembering all the times she didn’t quite make the landing onto the kitchen counter or the table, fell ungracefully, and then kept walking like nothing happened.

    What do you imagine your pet thinks about?  

    Food. And warmth—that’s the only reason she lays on my lap. There is no love in a cat’s heart.

    A post shared by Mitski (@mitskileaks) on


    Clams Casino and Lord Vader

    Does your pet influence your creative process?  

    He likes hanging out in our home studio, watching and listening as I work. He even has his own studio chair right next to mine. He will usually nap but when he hears a new or unusual sound he will tilt his head and listen more closely—then I know it’s a good sound to keep.

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?  

    Amy Winehouse. He gets carsick a lot, and we are always trying to find music to help him calm down; he immediately relaxed the first time he heard her music.

    Do you have a dream merch item inspired by your pet?  

    I would like to do a collab with KONG brand rubber dog toys because they are the only ones Vader has not been able to destroy!

    When ur dad leaves u for a week and ur happy when he gets home but also kinda pissed still

    A post shared by Clams Casino (@instaclam) on


    Lizzo and Pookah Diamanté Jefferson

    Who are your pet’s favorite musicians?  

    Pookah is very eclectic, but her faves are Katy Perry, Kanye West, and any bachata or merengue. Spanish is her first language.

    When is a time when you got mad at your pet?  

    She has horrible separation anxiety, and I’m on the road a lot, so she gets really angry. One time, I was on my way out the door, rushing around getting myself together, and all of a sudden I smelled poop. I looked down and I had stepped in a “poop mine” she left for me and had tracked it all throughout the house in my rush to get ready. But I know she did that because she loves me and she didn’t want me to leave.

    What do you imagine your pet thinks about?  

    She is very bossy and vocal, so she is thinking about what people are doing and whether she likes it or not so she can yell at them and tell them to stop.


    Thundercat and Turbo Tron Over 9000 Baby Jesus Sally Uzi Clip

    What’s the story behind your pet’s name?  

    I was like, “What is the best thing ever?” Turbo Tron. “Over 9000” is a Dragon Ball reference. “Baby Jesus” is an Ol’ Dirty Bastard reference and also a Jesus reference—and you know those two go together. My daughter’s name is Sally. And then “Uzi Clip” was just the period at the end of the sentence.

    How did you two meet?  

    My neighbor at the time had this young 18-year-old daughter—very, very beautiful. She came over right as her parents were moving and gave me a gift. She said, “Would you like the cat?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me?” And she handed me this cat that was literally smaller than my palm. Eyes wide open, I was like, “Oh my gosh!” It was the best thing that ever happened. I would carry her around in my hoodie. I remember the day that Tyler, the Creator opened the Odd Future pop-up shop, and I brought Tron there. He was like, “Whoa.” Yeah, that happened.

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?  

    George Duke. I can tell that she’s listening by the way her tail wags and how her eyes look.

    Does your pet influence your creative process?  

    Absolutely. I’m actually  singing to my cat [in “Tron Song”]. It was one of those things where my best friend died in a really volatile way and it was really hard for me to deal with it. So I was just singing to my cat: “Don’t ever go away/I’ll always come back.” That’s how the song came about.


    Bully’s Alicia Bognanno and Mezzi

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    Once when I was in college, she was in the car with the windows cracked and I had to run into Target to grab something. She somehow squeezed out and ran into Target looking for me. All I heard over the intercom was “There's a dog in the building. I repeat—dog in the building” and a few minutes later I saw Mez running down the aisles.

    When is a time when you got mad at your pet?  

    When Mezzi was a puppy, we were riding in the car with the windows down, and she saw a squirrel and jumped out. Luckily I was going slow, but it still scared the shit out of me. I pulled over and picked her up, and for the next few years we rode with the windows halfway up.

    What’s the weirdest thing you’ve made your pet wear?  

    One year for halloween she wore a pumpkin T-shirt and never once tried to take it off. When that pumpkin T-shirt was on, she was dripping with confidence, and once she had to say goodbye to it when it ripped in half, she acted like she had never lived a life without it. Eventually, she became comfortable in her own skin again, but it did take some time.  

    Reunited with lil peanut

    A post shared by Bully the Band (@bullythemusic) on


    Joyce Manor’s Barry Johnson and Charles

    Does your pet like listening to your music?  

    I think cats only like jazz so he probably doesn’t care about my pop punk band.

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?

    Probably some cat that plays saxophone on another planet.

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    When we first got him I took him to our neighbors to show him off but he was really scared so I brought him home right away. He started hugging on to me as I walked back to our apartment, and my heart exploded with love.

    Today is Charles third birthday. Here he is biting me on his first birthday and biting me today.

    A post shared by Joyce Manor (@joycemanorofficial) on


    Phantogram and Leroy Brown (aka Leroy the Good Boy)

    Does your pet influence your creative process?  

    He could give two shits about the creative process but he loves being a part of the squad and the benefits it brings—lots of attention from the ladies and endless amounts of blunts being passed to him.

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    When he was making it rain in Magic City with Big Boi and Dave Chappelle.

    When is a time when you got mad at your pet?  

    When he tells me he wants to go to Burning Man without me.

    What do you imagine your pet thinks about?  

    Weed, Weeknd collabs, Future’s lyrics, Miley’s vegan outfits, blunts.

    What do you think of pet clothing?  

    If Kanye made puppy Yeezy’s, I’d definitely buy them.

    Who are your pet’s favorite musicians?  

    Glenn Danzig and Meatloaf.

    Hey Meatloaf I fucking love you! #meatloaf #morkie #rockandroll #iwoulddoanythingforlove

    A post shared by Leroy Brown (@leroythegoodboy) on


    Neko Case and Bruce

    Do your pets influence your creative process at all?  

    They influence my living process. They make me more calm and don’t let me get stuck inside my own head. They remind me that there is poop to clean. They put up with my music, and it doesn’t seem to pain them, so I’m grateful!

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?  

    I did have a few greyhounds that liked to howl along with the piano and any music with ’80s reverb on it—Siouxsie was one of their howl-along selections.

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    Bruce gets the hiccups when he runs down the stairs too fast.

    When is a time when you got mad at your pet?  

    My old shepherd mix Liza once spray-pooed digested cat poo all over the inside of my truck on the coldest day of winter in Vermont. I had to drive two hours with the windows open trying not to barf. It was hell.  


    La Sera’s Katy Goodman, Walter, Miles, and Bo

    Do your pets influence your music?  

    You can definitely hear my cats’ collar bells ringing in the background of every demo I’ve ever made.

    Who is your pets’ favorite musician?  

    Morrissey, because of his unwavering love of animals.

    When is a time when you got mad at your pet?  

    Sometimes Bo eats cat poop and it makes me question him. I definitely lose a little respect.

    Btw this is what I've been doing 100% of the time since getting home from tour

    A post shared by Katy Goodman (@iamkatygoodman) on


    Eric Bachmann and Lupe

    Does your pet influence your creative process?  

    Lupe often lays and sleeps in the room with me as I’m writing; if she stays still, I generally keep pursuing the idea I’m working on. I did write a song inspired by her called “Electric Doggy.” (It wrote itself, really.) But you, unfortunately, will never hear it.

    What is your pet’s favorite musician?  

    Augustus Pablo is certainly one of them. She can sit calmly and chew on a bully stick for hours while his music is playing. She doesn’t like Flying Lotus or Eric Dolphy or Os Mutantes, though. It’s too much chaos for her ears, and she always walks out of the room, which is unfortunate for me because I enjoy all of that music.


    Tacocat’s Emily Nokes and Doctor O (aka Kittyman and/or Minibeast)

    Does your pet influence your music?  

    He makes me very happy, and I can’t feel creative unless I’m at least a little happy. As far as our music, he tolerates it, but he’s sick of getting pigeonholed like, “Oh this band has ‘cat’ in the name—you must love them because you’re a cat.”

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?  

    Roky Erickson for sure. He’s named after a line in “Bloody Hammer” that’s about Roky’s psychiatrist, Dr. O’Chane.

    Have you made merch related to your pet?  

    Our current album is covered in cat drawings, but none of them are him, specifically. I haven’t been able to draw him accurately. It’s like that philosophy that the closer you get to pure beauty, the harder it is to represent. Plato? Socrates? Maybe I just made that up. Anyway, once I nail a representation of that perfect little face, it’s getting screen-printed on everything in sight.

    What do you think about people highlighting their pets on social media in general?  

    My guy does not have his own Instagram; I guess you could say we share my personal account, though. But I’d way rather see photos of someone’s pet than their fancy brunch!


    Cymbals Eat Guitars’ Joe D’Agostino and Nina

    Does your pet influence your creative process?  

    We got Nina in ’99 and she passed in 2015, while I was on tour. She is name-dropped at the beginning of “WELL” from our newest record, Pretty Years. She would often come into my room when I was a teen and sit in front of my very loud amplifiers while I figured out how to play guitar. I don’t know how she did it!

    Who is your pet’s favorite musician?  

    My dogs bonded most with my father, who favors ’70s soft rock, so I’m pretty sure they most enjoyed the peaceful, easy feelings of the Eagles and Jackson Browne.   

    What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

    The doors in the house I grew up in in New Jersey had handles, not knobs.  So Nina figured out how to open doors. She would always ambush us while we were on the toilet.  

    When is a time when you thought your pet could read your mind?

    Animals can detect emotional distress. Whenever I was feeling lonely or dejected or angry after school—basically every day—Nina would come down to the basement where I played video games and would lay next to me. It always helped.


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    Overtones: Is Rihanna the Most Influential Pop Singer of the Past Decade?

    When people write about Robyn Rihanna Fenty’s singing, they often use words like “flat” or “thin” or “limitations”—something that suggests her voice is the secret defect hiding in her otherwise-brilliant plumage, the limp disguised by the swagger. She “doesn’t have the range,” as the deathless meme had it. It is indisputably the aspect of her art that gets the least critical attention.

    And yet listen to radio, when Rihanna isn’t on it—which, granted, isn’t too often—and you will hear molecules of her vocal style swarming around everywhere. Even-toned, husky but nasal, tinged with island breezes but essentially free of regional markers—that describes a whole lot of pop songs now, by a whole lot of people. My ears perked up most recently at the beginning of Lorde’s “Green Light”: Between the the lightly taunting way Lorde clips the word “bite” and the growling dip to “I hear sounds in my mind,” Rihanna’s ambient influence creeps in, like blunt smoke curling under a closed door.

    Once you realize that Rihanna is the most influential vocal stylist of pop’s last decade, it becomes almost impossible to escape her. Pick any major contemporary dance-pop song in the ether, the sort that loudly greets you when you push open the big glass doors of a boutique clothing store—“Lean On,” by Major Lazer, for example, with its needling and vaguely militant chorus chant by the Danish singer-songwriter MØ—and then close your eyes and imagine it sung by Rihanna; Diplo, who wrote the song, sure did. Or imagine Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” sung by Rihanna, with the breathy verses and the reedy, pleading chorus. Once you do, it will be difficult to hear Bieber’s puppyish original as anything other than a glorified reference track that never found its proper home.

    Last year, an 18-year-old Texan named Maggie Lindemann broke through with a vogueishly dark hit called “Pretty Girl.” As influences, she has cited people like Lana Del Rey and BANKS, and her lone-wolf image feels filtered through Lorde. But the second Lindemann opens her mouth on “Pretty Girl” it becomes pretty clear who her larger inspiration is—she is singing in Rihanna’s voice, or maybe more accurately, Rihanna Voice.

    Rihanna Voice is a complicated thing. It is infinitely adaptable; Robyn Fenty herself is from Barbados, and in some interviews and behind-the-scenes videos, her Bajan accent flavors her conversation. But like many a pop star before her, she has mostly obscured her accent in her songs, ending up with a singing voice that emanates from someplace strange in its universality—a world of nearly Midwestern flat A’s and vocal-fry I’s and Eliza Doolittle dropped R’s. A linguist with no knowledge of Rihanna might listen to “Umbrella” and deduce that the singer must have been born in 1980s Wisconsin, to a South Bostonian father and a Jamaican mother, and spent winters in a British charm school.

    Part of this signal scrambling just comes from the centrifuge of American cultural assimilation—“I’ve had to learn to adjust my accent a bit for the sake of interviews and business conversations,” Rihanna once said. “The vowels are the hardest part; you have to say it with the same inflection that they do.” And it’s a subtle reminder of the cultural and racial powder kegs we step on when we talk about voice and origin: When Fenty actually dipped into full patois for her 2016 single “Work,” millions of confused Americans called it gibberish. But the net effect of this regional confusion on her catalog, and it’s influence on pop, is incalculable.

    As with all major pop innovations, there were a lot of creative hands involved in forging Rihanna Voice alongside Rihanna herself. There is the hook singer Ester Dean, who came up with the the chewy, neon-bright “na-na” toplines for songs like “S&M,” “What’s My Name,” and “Rude Boy.” There is the gulpy, glottal singing of Sia, whose defiantly strange reference tracks end up influencing the singers who pick her songs; Rihanna’s “Diamonds” is an example of Sia Voice seeping into the groundwater of Rihanna Voice. And the percussiveness of Rihanna’s vocal takes—the way each of her syllables fly out, ruthlessly flattened, alongside compressed synth and drums, so that every sound comes at you like little plastic chips shot from a cannon—comes in part from her work with producers like Stargate. Rihanna Voice has become an industry-wide idea, a creative property like the Korg synth or LinnDrum, that the quick-working line cooks of the pop industry daub onto tracks like hot sauce from squeeze bottle. Through this lens, pop radio is simply an array of interchangeable plates, all of them drizzled lightly with Rihanna Voice before serving.

    Chris Martin, never the most poetic of souls, famously described Rihanna’s vocals after working with her on Coldplay’s 2012 single “Princess of China”: “When you think of Rihanna’s voice, you think of this rich thing, solid like a tree trunk,” he enthused, to ruthless and deserved mockery. But on this basic point, he was right: Her vocal takes have an uncanny, rounded wholeness.  Listen to how she sings the “oh-na-na, what’s my name” hook of “What’s My Name”; she exaggerates the “what” so that it becomes “oo-WHAT.” There’s a hint of yelp, a throat catch in that “oo-WHAT,” the kind of sound that usually tells us the singer is about to lose composure, or is struggling to maintain it. But the catch happens at exactly the same spot, at the same moment, in the same word, every single time. It’s mesmerizing, like watching a GIF of someone bursting into laughter.

    It is all the things, in three syllables, that Martin went on about—whole, rich, solid. Who knows how many dozens of times Rihanna practiced that vocal take until she had distilled all of those competing emotions—pleading and playful, weary and sensual, even a little mocking—into three goddamn syllables, looping perfectly. But she did, and you can hear basically the entire spectrum of Rihanna—Rihanna shouting, Rihanna beckoning, Rihanna purring, Rihanna cackling—without her having to change much about her voice at all. No matter who borrows Rihanna’s voice, only she can do that.

    There is something Ronnie Spector-ish about that voice—it is thin but full, sultry but boyish, unwavering and clear at every moment. You can’t really hear, or imagine, either singer gulping air. That sound just seems to live untouched in their throats, and all they have to do is open their mouths to beam it out. Spector knew this about her own voice. She once said, famously: “Phil [Spector] won the lottery when he met me, because I had a perfect voice. It wasn’t a black voice; it wasn’t a white voice. It just was a great voice.” Rihanna’s vocal tone has something similarly liberating in it; Rihanna the person might still have to navigate the poisoned waters of American race and class, but Rihanna Voice goes where it pleases. It encapsulates the idea that the voice of pop music will always be the voice of youth itself, bounding freely beyond the strictures of gender, race, age and genre.

    This is probably the taproot producers and songwriters are suckling from when they write songs in Rihanna Voice. In the airless, email-heavy world of contemporary pop, her voice is as much a frequency as anything, a fat and nicely compressed mid-range to complement the two or three swarming hook elements that the chart race requires. Rihanna Voice can be playful or sexy, as on Swedish teenager Zara Larsson’s “So Good,” or it can be sultry and dour and wolfish and lonely. It can be a boy or a girl, man or a woman, human or machine; once you’ve trapped that butterfly in the bottle of your Pro Tools, you can morph it to serve basically any need a pop track might have.

    Walking out of a grocery store the other day, I heard some Rihanna Voice bleating bloodlessly from the speakers just above the avocados. It was Bebe Rexha’s “I Got You,” which could have been a Rihanna hit five years ago. And wouldn’t you know it, Rexha has written a bunch of songs in Rihanna Voice, even some for Rihanna herself, including the hook to Eminem’s “The Monster.”

    As her doppelgänger army continues its dominion over the charts, Rihanna herself has pushed in new directions. With each passing year, she lets a little more croaky, seen-it-all rock star road warrior weariness creep into her singing. On Drake’s “Take Care,” in 2011, she sounded raspy,  vulnerable, and genuinely hurt. Performing “We Found Love” at the Grammys in 2012, she wrestled the perfection of her recorded vocal take down into a throat with vibrating cords and glottis and everything. She was brassy, joyful. Rihanna Voice, having spent a half decade or so traveling the world, had come home.

    On 2016’s ANTI, the floodgates opened. The album offers a vibrant cast of new Rihannas—yelping Rihanna, smoker’s cough Rihanna, hoarse Rihanna.  She yelped and shouted and let her voice crack on “Love on the Brain” and “Higher.” She nearly yodels on “Consideration” when she makes the leap from chest to head voice. With each catch and squeak, you can hear her hacking away at her own sound with gusto, Rihanna coming for Rihanna Voice with an ax like Jack Nicholson breaking through the bathroom door. She is both the vandal and monument.

    Again, there were behind-the-scenes players pitching in to this vision—pre-album single “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “Higher” were both written by Bibi Bourelly, a young singer-songwriter whose desperate rock shout you can hear in her own solo material. But listening to that style sublimated into Rihanna’s pop career amplifies its potency a thousandfold. This is what pop stars do for us; it’s why most of us implicitly accept the draconian and unfair-seeming conditions that go into creating pop songs (Rihanna’s songwriting “camps” have always sounded terrifying and exhausting to me). We crave the thrill that you only get when a dozen or so good ideas manifest themselves in a single voice. For the past 10 years, that voice has more or less been Rihanna’s. Now that she’s gleefully shredding it apart, she’ll probably generate a whole new comet trail of Rihannabes. Inevitably, none of them will carry the charge, the glassy cool and subterranean heat, of the real thing.


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    Longform: How to Buy the Best Home Recording Studio Equipment: A Beginner’s Guide

    For aspiring artists interested in making music at home, there has never been a better time to get started. The options are plentiful, and prices are a fraction of what they once were: A basic bedroom studio, put together on the cheap, can yield the kind of results that would have required booking time in a professional studio not so long ago. But given all the choices currently available online or at a gear shop, it can be hard to know where to begin. The good news is that there is no one right answer. Even so, in talking to a number of creatives from across the musical spectrum, we’ve narrowed things down to give budget-conscious novices some guidance.

    While prices can easily start to add up as you build-out even the most basic studio, there are ways to economize. Second-hand stores, Craigslist, and eBay are all crucial resources—one good thing about the relentless pace of music tech is that musicians are forever getting rid of gear in order to make room for new toys. Start with what you can afford and trade up further down the line.

    “Discovering gear and getting to know its ups and downs is a huge part of the fun,” Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, tells me. And no matter what kind of gadgets you buy, expertise does not come instantly. “There is no shortcut for the long, hard hours—or years—an artist has to spend learning their tools,” says Eric Burton, who makes intricately chaotic tracks as Rabit.

    Before we get into the specifics, though, here’s one more piece of valuable advice courtesy of D.C. bass music producer Rex Riot: “Get a good chair. If you’re not comfortable, you’re not productive.”

    Computer

    Chances are, you’re going to want to use your computer as the centerpiece of your setup. Maybe you’ll do everything totally “in the box”—that is, on software instruments alone. Or maybe you’ll run a digital audio workstation (DAW) like Logic or Ableton to use the computer as a glorified tape recorder to capture and edit the sounds you make.

    But don’t assume that you’ll need to rush out and buy a powerhouse new machine. “Literally any computer made after 2001 will work to make music,” says electronic producer Adrian Yin Michna. “I currently use the PowerMac G4 from 2003—you can get them for $60 on eBay.”

    Likewise, the Mac vs. PC debate is, at this point, a non-issue. If you have a preferred operating system, stick with it, though it’s worth bearing in mind that certain software applications will only run on one platform. FL Studio, a beat-making program popular with hip-hop producers, is currently PC-only. Logic, on the other hand, will only run on Macs.

    A more difficult decision may be whether to go with a desktop or laptop as your recording hub. If you plan to use your computer during shows or like to work on the road, then a laptop will probably be your instrument of choice. Desktops offer more bang for your buck, though, and you’ll have more options in terms of monitor size. If you think having scads of open Chrome tabs clutters up your screen, just wait till you’ve got a dozen plugins running in tandem: That 15-inch laptop screen can fill up awfully fast.

    If you’re using primarily external equipment—drum machines, microphones, synthesizers, guitar—“then you won’t need that much in terms of horsepower,” says Michael Green, the UK house producer who records as Fort Romeau. On the other hand, if you plan to make your music primarily using software synthesizers and effects, you’ll probably want to max out your RAM, which can boost performance and operation speeds. Most of the musicians I polled suggested going with a minimum of 8GB of RAM. And if you can afford it, when it comes to hard drives, investing in a solid-state drive (SSD) is a good idea since they are far faster than traditional hard disk drives. New York bass producer Jon Shulman, aka Proper Villains, says an SDD “will make a cheap computer run like an expensive computer, and an expensive computer run like the damn Death Star.”

    Audio Interface

    The audio interface is a funny piece of gear. You might spend a couple hundred bucks or more on one, plug it in, set it up, and then never touch it again. But it’s an absolutely indispensable item, for several reasons.

    First, and most obviously, if you’re running any kind of external audio into your computer, be it synths, voice, or guitar, the inputs on the audio interface are the only way to get those sounds into the machine. And if you’re using monitor speakers (more on those later) instead of headphones, it serves as the link between the computer and how you hear your work. Finally, the audio interface is what actually processes all the audio going into and coming out of your computer, via analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters—it’s what translates all the ones and zeroes in your digital project files back into analog audio signals, and vice versa.

    Your computer already has audio converters built into it—they’re what allow you to chat on Skype and listen to Drake MP3s directly through your laptop speakers—but they aren’t designed for professional-grade audio. And while virtually any standalone audio interface is going to have better converters than the ones your computer comes with, you can generally count on them to improve in quality as you go up the price scale.

    How much you should shell out for the best converters is up for debate, though. “Your converters are the least sexy but most important part of your studio,” says Jonathan Snipes of the noise-rap groupclipping., whose intense vocals are an important part of their songs. “If you have a cheap interface and multi-track a ton of vocals into it, it’s going to sound bad, even if the writing and the ideas are really good.” Then again, Fort Romeau’s Mike Greene says, “The difference between an adequate interface and an exceptional one is really something to worry about only if you’re trying to set up a world-class recording studio.” Matthew Dear, who has recorded everything from electro-pop to techno across the last 15 years, goes even further in his dismissal of the importance of converters: “Honestly, it doesn’t matter. My power supply cut out recently at a live gig, so I ran everything out of the mini-jack on my laptop and could hardly tell the difference.”

    Along with the converters, Bret Winans, of the DJ-centric New York music store Turntable Lab, tells me there are a couple of other things to keep in mind when shopping for an audio interface: the number of channels you’ll want to be recording at the same time and how the interface connects to your computer, whether it’s through USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, etc. On the cheaper side, Winans recommends the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2($150), which features high-quality conversion, two stereo input/output channels, and USB connectivity.

    Ultimately, the choice will depend a lot on how you make your music. If you plan to have multiple synthesizers and drum machines running in tandem, then you’ll need enough inputs to accommodate each one of those instruments. If you plan to use microphones, you’ll need to make sure the interface has inputs with mic preamps, like the versatile Roland Duo-Capture EX($179). “It’s always better to buy something nicer with fewer channels of I/O [input/output] than something cheaper with more channels,” says clipping.’s Snipes.

    At a higher price point, Spencer Doran, of the experimental electronic act Visible Cloaks, praises the Apogee Duet($595), which has become something of an industry standard. “If you’re primarily working solo, there’s no need for something expensive with a large number of inputs—the Duet is as stripped down as it gets, but has nice preamps.”

    Monitor Speakers

    Of all the choices you make while setting up a home studio, this one might be the trickiest. Judging music will always be a subjective activity, and the same goes for judging how it sounds. At the same time, certain generalizations tend to hold true: You want speakers that sound neutral and don’t unduly color or flatter your productions. They should not boost the bass, for example, because that interferes with your ability to adequately hear just what in the heck is actually going on in the lower frequencies; the speakers you listen to music on are not necessarily the speakers you want to make music on.

    Still, everyone will likely have a slightly different idea of what neutral sounds like, and there are other factors that will affect the music coming out of your monitors, including the size and layout of your recording space. “Your monitors are really only as good as your room and your ears,” Fort Romeau’s Greene says. So, unless you’re preparing to acoustically treat your studio, there’s little point in spending thousands on a pair of monitors.

    Greene suggests going with a pair of KRK Rokit 5s($149), part of a family of budget-line speakers that have a reputation for punching above their weight. Experimentalist Holly Herndon made her first few records on the KRK Rokit 8s, and Laura Alluxe Escudé, a musician who has also worked on backend tour tech for Kanye West and others, buys the KRK line if she needs a set of monitors on the road. “The price point is good, and they sound great,” she says.

    Another important piece of advice that the musicians I surveyed told me: Try out lots and lots of speakers. Go to the music stores around town and bring music with you to play through them. Do you like how it sounds? Does it seem like an accurate representation of the music as you know it? Does it reveal aspects of the sound you’ve never heard before?

    And then spend time with your speakers; get to know them by many different kinds of music on them and learning how certain details are rendered. “You can have the best speakers in the world, and if you don’t know what to listen for you’ll still be making bad mixes,” says clipping.’s Snipes. Nicer speakers can also be easier on the ears, he adds. “Sometimes speakers can be harsh and exhausting, which can make it difficult to work on music for extended periods of time.”

    The French company Focal has won fans around the world for its CMS line, with prices running well upwards of $1,000 per pair (to say nothing of its ultra-high-end SM9, at nearly $8,000 per pair). But their Alpha line—including the Focal Alpha 50s ($299)—is aimed at more modest budgets. These speakers are widely praised for their clear, neutral sound—clean in the highs, detailed in the mids, and full in the low end without feeling gimmicky. “The Focal Alpha 50s are small but perfect for my apartment,” says Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller. “I’ve become disciplined where volume is concerned, which my neighbors are happy about. If the spirit of the track isn’t there at a low volume, I keep working.”

    And given the ways that most people will listen to your music—on laptop speakers, crappy earbuds, and even straight from their phone—Proper Villains’ Schulman suggests testing out your sounds on something comparably lo-fi. “It’s a common newbie mistake with electronic stuff to mix it so it will knock in a club or on a car stereo, but then the mix falls apart on a home listening system,” he says, “so I always check my mix on a $30 Dell Soundbar.”

    “As long as that can get loud enough for your space without distorting and you have a sense of what things sound like on them you’ll be fine,” says Visible Cloaks’ Doran. “It can actually be kind of misleading to have a posh monitor setup—some of the most insane sound design out right now was mixed on really inexpensive monitors or even on headphones.”

    Headphones

    Though headphones will fatigue your ears faster than monitors and they have a comparably limited frequency range, it’s smart to have a set on hand so you can work late at night or test how mixdowns sound outside of speakers. Monitoring headphones should be comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time, have a wide frequency response—check the technical specs on retailers’ websites to compare different models—and have as neutral a sound as possible. Turntable Lab’s Bret Winans suggests avoiding consumer and DJ headphones, which tend to pump up the low end, and to try Beyerdynamic’s DT 770s ($170) or Phonon’s SMB-02s ($350).

    For something in the middle of that price range, you might consider AIAIAI’s TMA-2 Monitor Preset headphones ($215), which are made with studio work in mind. They’re comfortable enough that you can sit beneath them for hours without even realizing they’re there, and they sound fantastic, with a rich, reliable response. For both budget and comfort, Adrian Yin Michna suggests Grado’s SR60e cans ($79), which he finds remarkably unfatiguing, even after eight hours of music-making. “Instead of spending $400 on headphones,” he suggests, “put some money aside for that vintage synth.”

    Digital Audio Workstation

    In terms of creative work, your choice of a digital audio workstation (DAW) might be the most important choice you make. The name sounds complicated, but a DAW is simply the software environment where all the recording and editing of your music will happen.

    There are a number of different DAWs out there. Image-Line’sFL Studio($99-$899,dependingupon the features selected) is popular with hip-hop and footwork producers, though it also has fans in EDM artists like Porter Robinson and Madeon. Steinberg’sCubase ($99-$579) has long represented the gold standard for many drum’n’bass artists. The comparatively inexpensiveReaper($60) is an evolving platform with a passionate user base behind it. Bitwig Studio ($399) is a fledgling tool that’sreportedly great on Linux. And then of course there’s Avid’sPro Tools($599,or$30 for a monthlysubscription), the veteran workhorse that’s a longtime favorite for recording live instruments and bands. But the big DAW rivalry these days really comes down toAbleton Live ($99-$749) and Apple’s ownLogic Pro X ($199). (Disclosure: I was paid to lead two discussion sessions at Ableton’s Loop 2016 conference.)

    “For producers working on a Mac, Logic is a natural next step after GarageBand,” says Turntable Lab’s Winans. The Apple program comes loaded with highly regarded software synthesizers and effects, but some users complain that it’s beginning to feel dated, at least compared to the competition; many of its popular software instruments haven’t been upgraded in years. Power users tend to prefer Logic for recording audio from multiple sources, and its MIDI features—that is, the connections that allow the software to communicate with hardware controllers and external devices like synthesizers and drum machines—are solid. But its learning curve is steeper than Ableton’s, and its workflow can be less intuitive as well.

    Ableton Live was originally introduced as a live performance tool, but it eventually developed into a full-scale DAW, and many musicians—particularly electronic music-makers—use Live as their principal composition and recording tool in the studio. Virtually every artist I surveyed praised Ableton for its quick, intuitive workflow and flexibility. Its two principal working environments—Session View and Arrangement View—facilitate different modes of working: one loop-based and jam-oriented, and the other more traditionally linear. And Ableton’s own on-board instruments and effects are nothing to sneeze at, either.

    “For 90 percent of people new to music making, Ableton Live is really the only DAW worth bothering with,” says Fort Romeau’s Greene. “It’s not perfect, but in pragmatic terms, its pros vastly outweigh its cons.”

    If you’re in doubt, try out the demo versions of various programs and see how each one resonates with you. “Ultimately, you want a DAW that you know how to operate with your eyes closed,” says Michna. Visible Cloaks’ Spencer Doran agrees: “The truth is, as long as you can sink enough time into developing a good workflow, almost any DAW can give you interesting results.”

    Controllers

    Mouse, trackpad, keyboard—none of them make for a particularly intuitive music-making tool. Which means that you’ll want some kind of controller interface—whether a piano-style keyboard or an array of pads—in order to trigger and control sounds within your DAW. The range of options is, once again, pretty staggering. You might do just fine with the Samson Graphite M32 mini keyboard ($69). If you like knobs to twist and pads to hit, something like the Akai’s MPK Mini could get you started for $100—though if you want full-sized keys and you’re partial to playing chords, you might want to move up to something likeAkai’s MPK 249 ($399), which boasts four octaves, semi-weighted keys, aftertouch, and a mess of assignable knobs, faders, and pads.

    All of these controllers more or less seamlessly integrate with whatever DAW you’re using, but if you want a device that functions as a three-dimensional extension of what you see onscreen, try Native Instruments’ Maschine ($599) or Ableton’s Push ($799). The Maschine is a pad-based instrument that integrates with Native Instruments’ software instruments, samplers, and effects to facilitate quick, intuitive writing, editing, and performance techniques like pattern editing, step sequencing, and sample slicing. Push takes a similar approach, with an expansive array of pads designed to mimic Ableton Live’s Clip View, and numerous built-in and freely programmable controls to give hands-on access to Live’s key features.

    Software Instruments

    Here’s where the list of possibilities really becomes unlimited. Though both Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro X come pre-loaded with an extensive range of samplers, effects, and other virtual instruments—sometimes called “soft-synths” or “VSTs”—there are plenty of downloadable a la carte sounds out there. In terms of versatility and quality alike, many inexpensive software instruments today are capable of sounds as rich and substantial as those produced by far more expensive pieces of hardware.

    If you have classic sounds in mind, you might opt for a AudioRealism Bass Line 3 ($100), which emulates the sounds of a vintage Roland TB-303 bass synth, or a clone of the classic TR-808 drum machine like the D16 Nepheton ($109). At the opposite end of the soft-synth spectrum there’s Cycling ’74’s Max ($399), a visual programming language that can be used to design everything from software instruments, like these monstrous vocal sound effects, to scientific applications, like a map of the electrical currents running through the Amazon forest’s root system. Its complexities are not for the faint of heart, but its possibilities are limitless, and there’s a constantly growing library of virtual instruments created and shared by Max users. Max for Live ($199), meanwhile, offers a suite of instruments, building blocks, and lessons to be implemented directly within Ableton Live.

    For many musicians, Native Instruments will be a good first stop. (Disclosure: I gave a paid lecture at a Native Instruments workshop in early 2016.) The Berlin company, active since 1996, is one of the giants in music software, and their Komplete suite of software instruments ($599) offers an extensive collection of synthesizers, samplers, effects, acoustic emulators, sample-based instruments, drum machines, and more. Among Komplete’s instruments are the heavyweight Massive (a favorite synth of dubstep and bass producers), the Battery drum sampler and sequencer, the Guitar Rig amp simulator, and various sample-based instruments that painstakingly recreate different types of acoustic tones. “The amount of amazing synths and samplers and sounds and effects that you get with the Komplete bundle is ridiculous,” says producer Laura Alluxe Escudé. “You could just get that and be totally set.”

    Berlin’s U-He began as a one-man operation, but these days the software developer Urs Heckmann has built his boutique virtual-instrument company into a formidable operation with a growing range of products. The Zebra 2 ($199), the current version of a soft-synth that’s been around for more than a decade now, combines a variety of synthesis types with a powerful modulation engine to offer an instrument that’s powerful, surprising, and sounds great. (Composer Hans Zimmer even used it on The Dark Knight soundtrack; you can purchase his sound set and custom update to the instrument for $99.) Any Cable Everywhere ($73) and Bazille ($129) both extend modular-synthesis techniques to the virtual realm, while Diva ($179) leverages classic synthesizer design to offer amazing sound quality. For an alternate approach to modular-style synthesis, you can try the excellent, Buchla-inspired Aalto ($99) from Seattle’s Madrona Labs, which particularly excels in the creation of dynamic, evolving sounds and sequences.

    For more effects, many of the musicians I surveyed swore by Valhalla DSP’s line of plugins like the Valhalla Plate classic plate reverb ($50), Valhalla Shimmer reverb ($50), and the free Valhalla Freq Echo frequency shifter; Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller, Laura Alluxe Escudé, and Rex Riot’s Nicholas Rex Valente all recommend Soundtoys plugins, like the Echo Boy delay unit ($99)— manna for dub fanatics—and the Decapitator analog saturation modeler ($99).

    Finally, Berlin’s Ralf Schmidt, a former Native Instruments employee who makes music under the alias Aera, suggests keeping an eye open for the many free VSTs that are available online through sites like KVR Audio and Soundhack. He specifically recommends Ichiro Toda’s Synth1 as “the perfect beginner synthesizer to learn about making sounds.”

    Hardware Instruments

    The wide world of hardware instruments encompasses decades’ worth of electronic gizmos—synthesizers, drum machines, sequencers, effects—not to mention all those more traditional sound makers like guitars and drums and flugelhorns, to name a select few. But when it comes to electronic gadgets, despite the allure of classics like the Roland TR-808 or Juno-106, their worldwide fame means that prices have skyrocketed in recent years; many eBay sellers are asking close to $4,000 for 808s in good condition. Fortunately, for users looking for that classic sound, there’s a robust market in modern replicas.

    Roland’s Boutique series is a line of miniature versions of the company’s most iconic machines. The TR-09 ($399) is a scaled-down replica of the TR-909 drum machine, one of the building blocks of techno. The TB-03 ($349) is heir to the TB-303, the bass synthesizer that begat acid house. And the JP-08 ($399), JX-03 ($299), and JU-06 ($299) modules recreate the legendary Jupiter-8, JX-3P, and Juno-106 synthesizers, respectively. For Kraftwerk fans, there’s even a vocoder, the VP-03 ($349), based on the VP-330. Each module, roughly the size of a paperback book, can slot into an optional, plug-and-play keyboard dock, the K-25m ($99), or be controlled by MIDI.

    Korg has also been doing a brisk business in reviving various workhorses of yore. They recently brought back the ARP Odyssey, a versatile duophonic synthesizer originally released in 1972, in an effort overseen by ARP co-founder David Friend; the new model ($799) remains faithful to the original’s architecture and analog circuitry, simply using new parts and manufacturing. The MS-20 mini ($449), meanwhile, is a scaled-down version of 1978’s MS-20 that reproduces the original’s analog circuitry. Korg has even rolled out the SQ-1 step sequencer ($99), an update of the ’70s-era SQ-10 unit, which can be used to control any number of machines.

    Korg’s Volca series offers an even more back-to-basics sensibility—with even more appealing price tags. Volca Keys ($159) is a polyphonic analog synth with built-in loop sequencer whose simple structure makes a great first synth for novices. Volca Bass ($159) is a simple analog bass synthesizer and step sequencer that features 303-like functions. The Volca Beats ($159) combines both analog and digital synthesis into a powerful, compact drum machine and step sequencer. And further machines—the DX7-inspired Volca FM digital synthesizer, Volca Sample digital sample sequencer, and Volca Kick analog bass-drum generator (all $159 each)—offer even more creative possibilities at a nice price.

    For beginners interested in going the used-gear route, start with any basic, older-model keyboard from Roland, Yamaha, Casio, or Korg. “Set your budget at $100 and bask in the goldmine that is eBay or Craigslist,” advises Michna. “Demo the synths on YouTube and look up what instruments your favorite bands used. You may find that some synths are one trick ponies, but take that pony and ride it.”

    Microphones

    Even if you’re not planning to sing, consider investing in a decent microphone. Start with Shure’s SM57 ($99) for instruments or Shure’s SM58 ($99) for vocals. “These are studio workhorses that can be used in a variety of applications,” says TurntableLab’s Bret Winans. “They’ve been around since the 1960s are are in use in seemingly every studio in the world.”

    “This is the number one place you can really sound like you and no one else,” says Michna. “Get a mic and just start recording sounds. It could be you humming, clapping, or strumming a guitar. Chop it, loop it, pitch it, and reverse it. Then record more sounds around your house and layer those. Nobody can touch that.”


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    Pitchfork Music Festival: Listen to NE-HI’s Playlist of Their Chicago Music Heroes

    Chicago excels at a certain type of indie rock: earnest, rough around the edges, a little bit underdog, a little bit DGAF. It’s a tradition the members of Ne-Hi proudly carry on: The foursome rep for a classic mode of scrappy, tuneful rock that’s woven deeply into the fibers of their hometown’s rock history. In anticipation of their Sunday, July 16 set at Pitchfork Music Festival 2017, we asked them to put together a playlist of the songs they consider synonymous with Chicago. Their selection reflects all the sharp angles and battered textures of their own fuzzed-up rock ‘n’ roll, from Cheap Trick and Joan of Arc to Oozing Wound and Whitney. (They’ve even got some Chicago—the band, that is—in there for good measure.)

    “Joan of Arc was the first ‘weird’ band I ever heard back when I was in high school,” says singer/guitarist Jason Balla, running through the band’s selections. “The Hecks, Melkbelly, Deeper and Twin Peaks were some of our first friends in the music community. Under low-hung ceilings and with open arms these are just a few of the bands that really helped welcome us into the supportive community of noise makers that Chicago houses. We feel lucky to live in here at a time where a spotlight is being shown on the city. Seeing Noname and Whitney on big stages in front of even bigger crowds just adds to the buoyant energy and the sense of possibility a lot of us here are feeling. These are just some of the musicians and some of the songs from a town we call home.”


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