Category Archives: Music

The Best Headphone Songs of 2013

Originally posted on The Billfold

When we write the history of how technology has made us happier, I hope there’s a whole chapter about headphones. Life in the pre-headphones era was a dystopia of un-entertained silences, un-podcasted public transport. Bus rides without TED Talks, old magazines in waiting rooms, flights spent deflecting extroverted strangers. Going for a jog meant listening to yourself breathe. 

Me, I have my headphones on basically always, and my life is objectively the better for it. I know the internet is the place where we’re supposed to complain how we’re cut off from each other, how we hide between earbuds instead of interacting, how we soundtrack our lives rather than experiencing them.

But really, how much solitary reflection do we actually need? And isn’t it better with Robyn singing over it anyway? I still take long, lonely winter walks, but now I listen to a MOOC about the Civil War on the way! The un-examined life isn’t may not be worth living, but the un-distracted one goes by a lot slower.

Anyway, here are all the ways I retreated from the world this year:

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Julianna Barwick – ‘Forever’

It’s weird to pick one track off this album, since all the songs are basically the same wavy, overlapping vowel crescendoes. Still, if you want to feel like you’re attending a Methodist Easter service at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, Barwick’s got you covered.

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Kanye West – The last minute and a half of ‘New Slaves’

Most of the tracks on Yeezus would be noticeably better without Kanye West rapping on them. ‘New Slaves’ is the only song where wishing ugh Kanye just shut the fuck up for a second actually pays off. Two minutes and 45 seconds in, he finally does, and for 90 seconds gives us the album’s only glimpse (‘I can’t lose, I can’t lose’) of the vulnerability behind all that Versace.

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M.I.A. – ‘Y.A.L.A.’

Just because your politics are daft and your lyrics are incoherent doesn’t mean you can’t make a bangin’-ass club jam. The only way to enjoy this song is to resist the temptation to get all Pitchfork about it (Julianne Moore?) and just enjoy the swagger.

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Azealia Banks – ‘No Problems’

Azaelia Banks has built a career out of being the girl who beat you up in middle school, and this song (‘you’re a ham in the pig shack’) is the bullyingest three minutes of the year.

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Phosphorescent – ‘Ride On / Right On’ & ‘Song for Zola’

The world needs more alt-country. Haha I’m obviously kidding, but this band exists, and by now they’ve established that they have a right to.

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Kavinsky ft. The Weeknd – ‘Odd Look’

Because the Drive soundtrack needed more R. Kelly.

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Dan Deacon – ‘Why Am I On This Cloud?’

You know that theme that plays in Kill Bill whenever Uma Thurman is about to murder someone? That is what this song is for.

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James Blake – ‘Retrograde’

Sometimes I think James Blake only releases albums to see what genre music critics will assign to them. Is this Electro-folk? Emo-step? Why are the lyrics so tender when the music around them is so mean? I’d better play it again to find out.

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Lubomyr Melnyk – ‘Pockets of Light’

If I hadn’ta seen Melnyk play this song live earlier this year, I’d think he was using some sort of software to hit the keys this fast. But no, it’s just him, analog, plinking like a court stenographer and reminding you that your talents are generic and unworthy. Like most of the others on this list, this song defies explanation (just when it’s getting boring it’s like hang on, lyrics what?!), but it’s great for making you feel like whatever you’re doing is in slow motion.

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Daft Punk – ‘Contact’

After we all got sick of ‘Get Lucky’ and started listening to the rest of the album, it turns out Daft Punk still has a few climaxes left in them. The rest of the album might take place in the 1970s, but these four minutes toward the end are a little reminder that it’s still 2013 somewhere out there.

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Tyler Fedchuk – ‘White Light Mix’  

The whole point of listening to headphones is to make you feel like whatever you’re doing is epic and spectacular. Fedchuk, who has been making crackerjack electro mixes at Radiozero for years, created an hour that evokes the feeling of driving through downtown LA, looking for prostitutes to kill.

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Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – ‘Little Moments’

You know how when we talk about economic development, it starts with poor countries attracting a bunch of low-wage sweatshops, then ‘moving up the value chain’ to stuff like design, processing, consulting, etc? The indie-band equivalent is the transition from cheap acoustics to fancy synthesizers, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah finally did the equivalent of joining the WTO this year.

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Hunters & Collectors – ‘Talking To A Stranger (Avalanches Remix)’ & The Avalanches (feat. David Berman) – ‘A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart’

So in 2000, The Avalanches put out one of the best albums ever, (Since I Left You), then some of the best mixtapes ever, then disappeared into oblivion (Australia) for more than a decade. Now they are back with a remix of an off-brand Mumford & Sons-a-like and a … poem?

Neither of these should work, but somehow they do. Like the best songs on Since, ‘Talking to a Stranger’ bears almost no relationship to its source material. And this fucking poem. Jesus, if you didn’t already feel alone listening to your headphones around other people, well, now you do.

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The Best Headphone Songs of 2012

I don’t know if everyone else is like this, but for me, music has gone from something social to something solitary. I listen to music when I work, when I walk, when I bike, when I read, when I write. Almost the only time I don’t listen to music is when I’m with other people, and if I do, it’s something backgroundey and ignorable.

This has created this weird dynamic where the more important a song is to me, the less I want to share it. When I was younger, all of my social activities had soundtracks. Now, they have footnotes. And what I hear on the way there and back feels like mine rather than ours.

I don’t know if this is an actual trend or just feels like one because it’s happening to me. I don’t really care. These songs are how I spent most of my nonsocial time in 2012. Don’t tell anyone I know!

 
Ekki Mukk – Sigur Ros

Why listen to the mindless clacking around you at work when you can listen to a twinkling drone and soprano vowels instead?

 

Express Yourself – Diplo

Because sometimes you just want to listen to something that sounds like a homeless person shouting at a fax machine.

 
Anything Could Happen – Ellie Goulding

Try to listen to this song without tweeting something optimistic, just try.

 
Lots – Dan Deacon

No matter what you’re doing, this makes you feel like you’re jogging up a mountain to an orgy.

 
Four Seasons – Max Richter

I crave this album whenever I’m walking around London because it makes me feel condescending and imperial.

 
Dangerous and Sound – Tingo

I refuse to believe indie artists are making albums without rap mashups in mind

 
& It Was U – How to Dress Well

This makes me wish I dated ladies, just so I could clench my fists when they left

 
Bad Girls – M.I.A.

Listening to this in public will turn your walk into a swagger, I promise.

 
Four Walls – Burial & Massive Attack

You can tell this song is dark and profound because it is longer than your commute to work.

 
Third of the Storms – Mike Simonetti

This shit is so catchy you’re amazed it isn’t a cover of a Sesame Street song.

 
Ms Jackson (Jean Tonique Remix) – Outkast

Can we keep remixing our favorite songs from the ’90s, to keep reliving our teenage years forever? No seriously, can we?

 
Grimes – Oblivion

Every single hipster who biked past you on a fixie this year was listening to this song.

 
Bang – Rye Rye

You know that anxiety, when you’re late for something you don’t even want to go to? Now that feeling exists in musical form!

 
Wrath of God – Crystal Castles

This will not only drown out your surroundings, but also your feelings.

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In Defense of Hipsters

So I saw this dude perform the other night:

His songs have no verse-chorus-verse structure, barely a melody, and his only accompaniment was a guy on a sampler and a guy on a real live violin. It’s like a hipster perfect storm.

And sure enough, the audience was feloniously on-trend. Unisex jeans, chunky glasses, scraggly beards: As the venue filled up, I swear it started to smell like a thrift store.

I know I’m supposed to hate these people or whatever, but you know what? Everyone looked great. Lots of dudes and ladies look superlovely in skinny jeans! If you’re a bit of a bigger guy, a beard, a ski cap and flannel works for you. Sure, everyone looked sort of glazed over, but it was Monday! They’ve been at work all day!

I want to know if early ’00s hipster culture is unique in being defined by all of its members hating each other. In the 1950s, was there a guy with a pompadour and a cigarette pack rolled up in his sleeve, sitting on the hood of a Thunderbird going ‘what’s the deal with these fucking greasers’?

I think if you’re gonna choose an aesthetic to define your generation, we’ve done pretty well. Hipster culture is characterized by striving for authenticity, rejecting corporate values and searching for meaning in life and work. We’re more responsible than the hippies of the 1970s, less amoral than the yuppies of the 1980s and more distinct than whatever the fuck Generation X was. Every generation duplicates and broadcasts a set of values to those previous, and we’ve chosen diversity, sensitivity and irony. It could be worse!

So I spent most of the show silently admiring how great everybody looked, and hoped they were as appealing and fastidious on the inside. I’m sure they were all looking at me going ‘what’s the deal with this fucking hipster?’

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Tree of Life is like ‘Wait, you did all that in four minutes?!’

 

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The End of Music Genres

I’ve been really liking this song lately

Velvet Underground – ‘Pale Blue Eyes’

I feel slightly guilty about this, since I only discovered this song recently, on a mixtape by a poppy Swedish band. I was aware of the existence of the Velvet Underground, obviously, but I only took the time to listen to them when a contemporary band packaged and stamped them with its approval.

When it comes to aesthetic taste, I’m basically the bridge and tunnel crowd. The Beatles were piped in by my parents. Astral Weeks was a ‘shut up and listen to this’ imperative from a friend.  Leonard Cohen was imported by my older brother, possibly by force.

I know there are a million technologies for recommending music, but I haven’t found any that actually stick. Services like Pandora, Genius and Last.fm seem to base their algorithms on genre. If you like The White Stripes, you obviously like the Sex Pistols!

But I don’t think most people operate like this anymore. Remember when part of getting to know someone was asking them ‘what kind of music do you like?’ And they would actually have an answer! ‘I like grunge’ or some such.

I can’t imagine a more meaningless question now. With the ability to carry 3,000 songs with you on your morning jog came the ability to carry a dozen genres. No one’s iPod is exclusively pop, or hip-hop, or rock. Hell, those terms barely mean anything anymore because they’ve fractured into a million subgenres.

Anyway, alls I’m saying is that I need a music-recommending algorithm that acts like a pushy friend, rather than a helpful computer. If you like the Velvet Underground, it will say handing me a mixtape, you obviously like Korn.

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I Don’t Know How I Missed This in 2008

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Music Makes the Bourgeoisie and the Rebels

Today I randomly came across two reviews of Tim Blanning’s The Triumph of Music. I’m already convinced that I need to read it, but I think it’s interesting that both reviewers griped about the same thing.

Here’s the Telegraph:

For Blanning, all music is music, and the ‘triumph’ of his title is an unbroken ascent from the 19th-century composers to the 20th-century rock stars.

But a breach has surely occurred, and I wish he had said more about it.

The gap between classical and pop music is greater now than any equivalent difference in the other arts – between, say, highbrow drama andHollywood, or between Booker Prize novels and Mills & Boon. In those other cases, the highbrow and the popular form parts of a single spectrum.

In the case of music we now have two vastly different worlds; and only one of them, I fear, is ‘triumphing’.

Egads! People are listening to contemporary pop music, instead of the pop music of 300 years ago!

And here’s The New Criterion:

“When modes of music change,” wrote Plato in The Republic, “the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” But the author seems to have little patience for describing the mechanics of how music stimulated social and cultural change. He treats music as a commodity—classical music, Romantic music, and jazz are all one with the sole criterion for musical greatness being the ability to survive the passage of time.

It sounds radical, but I don’t see any reason to make a qualitative distinction between any two kinds of music. If you love opera, go listen to it. If you love trance, have at it.

Every generation sees its own musical expression as the default, and the following generation’s as a usurper. The Sinatra generation hated Elvis. The Elvis generation hated the Beatles. The Beatles generation hated Guns N Roses. The Guns N Roses generation hated Nirvana. The Nirvana generation hated Blink 182.

I have no doubt that that 30 years after the first caveman ever pounded his fists rhythmically on a rock, he and his friends were bitching about their kids banging on it with sticks: ‘It’s just noise!

Hell, the Telegraph reviewer even begins his review with an anecdote illustrating the same bias he demonstrates 600 words later:

In 1771 Archduke Ferdinand ofAustriaasked his mother whether she thought he should employ a 15-year-old musician called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

‘I can’t think why you should,’ replied the Empress Maria Theresa, ‘for you don’t need a composer or any other useless people for that matter. I don’t want you lumbering yourself with good-for-nothing folk.

I haven’t read the book yet, obviously, but I see no reason why historians—or politicians or listeners—should make a qualitative distinction between classical music and, say, Detroit house. Music makes people happy, it makes the world a better place and it inspires us all to build castles in our heads and fill them with waving fabric.

If you don’t like or don’t want to understand pop music, then don’t. But it’s a waste of time for every generation to fight for the recognition of its expression as legitimate.

Spending a night at the symphony doesn’t make you any smarter than a Justin Bieber concert. A musical instrument does not cease to be so when it includes the capacity to plug into the wall. And an opera house has no more inherent worth than a square of breakdancing cardboard on the sidewalk. If you’re lucky enough to find a cathedral, no one gets to tell you how to clasp your hands.

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Heavy Metal Bands in Poor English-Speaking Countries Have The Best Names

Rainborn and Facebreaker are blatantly the result of Germans playing noun-verb Madlibs. And someone needs to brief the German people that you can’t just put the phrase ‘of death’ after anything and make it sound hardcore (I’m looking at you, Singstars of Death).

But anyway, yeah, disfigure that prostitute! Fuck the commerce! We take Visa and PayPal!

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I did it like this, I did it like that, I did it with a whiffle ball bat

I haven’t listened to The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill since I stole the cassette tape from my babysitter’s car in 1994. It’s still good!

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‘Cuz it’s hot inside. Isn’t that enough?’

For my money, this is the best song I heard all year:

 

Don’t worry about it, I wasn’t wild about it when I first heard it either.

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