“New” by You Drive, from their eponymous new album:
“New” by You Drive, from their eponymous new album:
Positively obsessed with this song from the French band Grand Blanc:
Therapie TAXI’s “Coma idyllique”, from their surprise hit album Hit Sale:
“Obedear”, by Purity Ring, from the album Shrines:
CHVRCHES singer Lauren Mayberry, immediately after swearing on live TV, having just remembered the many “No Swearing, Please!” posters backstage at the BBC’s Biggest Weekend show:
“Ecco” by Public Memory, from the Veil of Counsel EP:
Back in the 80s, some time after my family moved from one end of a suburban Atlanta county to another, a married couple moved in a few houses down. The husband was, I think, a former big wig in the Air Force. He’d retired and moved to Atlanta for a new job. Somewhere between 6 months to a year after they moved in, their youngest son failed out of college and moved back in with his parents.
I worshiped this guy. I was a 14 year-old dork, and he was a cool 20 year old guy who’d been away… in college! He liked all the cool bands, movies and art. Cool literally oozed out of this guy. And he especially dressed cool – I started wearing a single rubber bracelet – yes, the same ones Madonna would wear 20 per wrist back in the 80s… just ‘cos this guy did, too.
Now, I’m not gonna lie and say we were friends. He didn’t know anyone in Atlanta when he first moved there, and I was “the kid down the street who liked Bauhaus too, and was good for a laugh on a Tuesday night”. Still, we hung out fairly often, at least for a few months until he got connections to people his age in the city.
And so: in 1985, when I was 14, this dude invited me to see Love and Rockets with him. He bought me a few beers – another cool thing about the guy was that he’d been grandfathered into the drinking age hike, so could buy beer at 20. And I, being 14 and with little alcohol experience, got blitzed.
The venue was a “cinema & drafthouse” that was converting to live music, so security was kind of lax. About halfway through the show, I drunkenly crawled up on stage and propped myself up against the speaker next to David J. He looked down at me, but did nothing. Since I – 5’9″ and 117 lbs soaking wet – didn’t seem like a threat, neither did security. So that’s where I sat for about half the show.
Afterwards, my friend, who’d brought his fancy 35mm camera, magically convinced the back doorman that we were from Creative Loafing, the city’s alt-weekly. We got backstage and hung out for a bit, which was cool. But then the party moved to the Winnebago the band had rented. After a while inside, I realized wasn’t feeling so hot, alcohol-wise. So I stepped out of the RV for some fresh air. While standing there, I got the idea of doodling on the side of the RV with a Sharpie I’d brought. A few minutes later, Daniel Ash poked his head out the door. Instead of getting angry, Ash laughed, came outside and drew on the RV for several minutes with me before they left.
Somewhere I have a fuzzy, black & white photo of our “artwork” on the side of the Winnebago.
Another year, another list of my favorite new albums!
So… 2017 was a strange year for music. There were a handful – emphasis on “handful” – of albums I loved… and quite a few I listened to once and promptly forgot. I also finally noticed a trend that’s been building for a few years: I’ll find a great new album one year, like it enough to put on my “best of” list, but only truly “discover” the album the following year. Fully half of my overall most-listened to albums in 2017 – five of ten – were from 2016.
Below are my ten favorite albums of 2017. As I’ve done the past couple of years, the list comes directly from my Last.fm stats; I have, however, tinkered with the order a bit. After the list are a few honorable mentions, followed by the raw data from Last.fm.
My Top Albums of 2017
10) College – Shanghai – College isn’t a “band” exactly; it’s a “project” headed by French musician David Grellier. He’s worked with acts like Minitel Rose, Electric Youth and Anoraak, and, under the name “Mitch Silver”, he’s been a member of Sexy Sushi since 2004. If you don’t keep up with European electronic music, that might not mean a lot to you, but trust me: the guy has deets. And beats. Ironically, that’s one thing Shanghai lacks: beats. It’s a moody, atmospheric affair, one that could be mistaken for a soundtrack album. It’s not my favorite thing College has put out, but it was good enough in a lean year to sneak onto this list:
9) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Echo of Pleasure – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are one of those bands where I either love or hate each individual song. Some songs I listen to over and over again; others I listen to once, never to hear again. The Echo of Pleasure is a pretty solid album all around, though. Good job, guys:
8) Furniteur — Perfect Lavender – Furniteur is a bit of a mystery. It’s at least one blonde girl from Washington DC. There are two guys who perform on stage with her… are they part of the band? Musicians only hired when she plays live? Who knows? Her\their various webpages – Bandcamp, Twitter, Last.fm – are quite vague about who they are. But that’s not important, really. All I know is, I’ve played them a lot since they showed up on a Spotify “Discover Weekly” list. Perfect Lavender is an awesome, and surprisingly solid, album. A lot of times albums start off well, but lose steam halfway through (I’m looking at you, Bryan Ferry), or they only have 1 or 2 good songs to begin with (I’m looking at you, Primitive Radio Gods). Unlike the bulk of synthpop artists, where you’re ready to play someone else’s album about halfway in, this album surprises you when it finishes. “I listened to the whole thing? Nice!”
7) Me The Tiger — What Is Beautiful Never Dies – A SWEDISH band on my top ten list? NO WAY! That’s a joke, son: seems like half the bands I listen to these days are from Sweden. Anyway, Me The Tiger isn’t quite like the rest of the Swedish bands I listen to. It’s not “slow, dreamy” synthy stuff. Instead it’s loud, in your face, and slightly abrasive. Instead of the calming vocals of Mia Bøe (Postiljonen) or Anja Oyen Vister (Flunk), Me The Tiger’s Gabriella Åström is loud and, at times, almost shouty. Not that that’s a bad thing – it’s just that Me The Tiger will never be on anyone’s “best chillout songs” playlist. Having said that, the band does get quite a bit “samey” after a while. Still, a pretty sold effort from these Swedes:
6) Johnny Jewel — Windswept – Johnny Jewel is the driving force behind Chromatics, one of my “Top Five” bands at the moment. No band out there can create an atmosphere quite like Chromatics and Jewel can. And there’s no better example of this than Windswept, a collection of songs Jewel wrote (and collaborated with others on) for the recent Twin Peaks revival. Have a listen to the title track, heard over the end credits of episode 5, and throughout episode 6:
5) Kid Francescoli — Play Me Again – Marseilles’ Kid Francescoli returns with another kick-ass album (their 2014 debut, With Julia, was #2 on my “best of” list that year). Any why not? This is solid pop music, folks! Look, I get it. I really do: for decades, French pop music was an easy target for English-speakers to make fun of, with dated Italo disco-style beats behind a chain-smoking, “not nearly as cool as he thinks he is” Frenchman singing phonetically in English. Yes, yes… I know. But French pop has come a long way in the past few years, thanks to acts like Kid Francescoli. Have a listen to this (and yes, before you ask, on the album the singer does not use the words “backwards mother lover”):
4) Maud Geffray — Polaar – Maud Geffray is a French musician and producer. And the lead single off this album, also named “Polaar”, is fantastic. A big part of the reason I knocked this album down from #2 on my scrobble list to #4 on the album list is because those scrobbles were dominated by “Polaar”. That, and much of the album consists of variations on “Polaar” (“In Your Eyes”, a duet between Geffray and Flavien Berger, is just a heavily-remixed version of “Polaar”, for instance). Still, when this album hits, it hits hard:
3) Sylvan Esso — What Now – College radio loves Sylvan Esso… and you should, too! There’s no “sophomore slump” here – just ten kick-ass tracks in a row! The lead single, “Radio”, is a scathing indictment of FM radio… and is exactly the same vibe Katy Perry swung at and missed in “Chained to the Rhythm”. Yet, this album is somehow a mystery: it makes fun of pop music, yet is an excellent example of the genre. Take notes, Katy Perry. Sorry for the live version of “Radio” below, but I guess the foul language in the official music video triggers YouTube’s “adult” filter, which WordPress’ embedding tool doesn’t like. But that’s OK, though: one of the best shows I saw last year was Sylvan Esso, so here’s a taste of what their live show is like:
2) Washed Out — Mister Mellow – OK, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: yes, this is an album to smoke weed to (see: music video, below). Let’s not pretend it isn’t. And yes, listening to this album in “enhanced mode” is probably better than listening to it sober – there’s a lot of “noise” in this album that will just kind of… annoy some. But that doesn’t make this just a stoner album. Ernest Greene has been the flag-bearer for the chillwave movement, and this is something he does not take lightly. All of the tracks on this album are finely-crafted pieces of art, and if this “visual album” isn’t quite as good as 2013’s Paracosm or 2011’s Within and Without… it’s only because Greene took a swing at a concept album. Whether it’s a home run or foul ball is up to you.
1) Saint Etienne — Home Counties – Saint Etienne have been one of my favorite bands since the late 90s. They are, in my estimation, the “longest-running” band I still like (as opposed to bands like Depeche Mode or Duran Duran, which I consider “nostalgia acts” to the chagrin of friends). Home Counties – named after the counties that surround London – is a “day in the life” tour of the area… and it’s one of Saint Etienne’s best albums. They’re getting up there in age – Sarah Cracknell turns 51 in April – so one has to wonder if this might be their last album. If so, what a way to go out! For some reason, this album, to me, echoes their entire catalog. “Dive”, for example, reminds me of their early, “60’s revival” work, while “Underneath the Apple Tree” seems to hearken back to the “electronic English folk” era of Tiger Bay. And the album’s best song – “Out of My Mind” – is a total belter, made all the better by the (ironic?) fact that once you hear it, you won’t be able to get it out of your mind. Bob, Pete and Sarah have spent 27 years searching for the perfect pop song, and they might have just found it. I adore this album from start to finish, and you will, too!
With the caveat that “EPs aren’t albums”:
Heaven – Lonesome Town EP
Public Memory – Veil of Council EP
Pale Honey – Devotion
In this post from 2013 I talked about the hottest brainiacs – that is, female academics and engineers who just happened to be pretty in addition to being smart as a whip. In this post, I want to talk about musicians who are surprisingly smart. Let’s do this:
Amelia Fletcher is a British singer and songwriter, known for being in a string of bands in the 90s, including Talulah Gosh, Marine Research, Tender Trap and (most famously) Heavenly. Looking at it from afar, you might wonder why Fletcher was in so many bands, or why she seemed to quit one as soon as the band started getting famous. That’s because Fletcher was getting a doctorate in economics from Oxford, and could only be in a band as time permitted. In 2001 she was named chief economist at the Office of Fair Trading, roughly analogous to America’s Federal Trade Commission. In 2013 she was named “Professor of Competition Policy” at the University of East Anglia.
Like Fletcher, Ladytron’s Mira Aroyo also studied for her doctorate at Oxford. Unlike Fletcher, Aroyo quit after deciding that the lab work needed to get a doctorate in genetics was much less fun than being in a band. Rumors persist in some circles that she’s still in school, or that she went back and got her doctorate, but these are untrue. In an interview with The Sunday Mail she said “I was a geneticist doing a PhD and realizing lab work wasn’t for me. We were doing Ladytron at the same time and I was enjoying it more. It was easier and more fun”.
After being unceremoniously dumped by British New Wave band Japan, guitarist Rob Dean tried forming a few bands with limited success, including “Illustrated Man”, with Gang of Four’s former drummer, Hugo Burnham. Dean played on a couple famous albums, including Gary Numan’s 1981 album Dance and Sinéad O’Connor’s debut The Lion and the Cobra in 1987. Not getting anywhere in the music industry, Dean left the UK and moved to Central America where, as “Robert Dean”, he has become one of the leading experts on local birds. In 2007 he illustrated The Birds Of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, and in 2010 he illustrated The Birds of Panama: A Field Guide.
The early 80s British “swing revival” band Roman Holliday is mostly known in the UK for their Top 20 hit “Don’t Try to Stop It”. In the US they’re known for their song “Stand By”: although it only reached #54 on the Billboard charts, the music video was played heavily on MTV in 1983. The band’s guitar player, Brian Bonhomme, is now a professor of Russian history at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
Like most parents, Lauren Mayberry’s folks insisted that she get a college degree as something to fall back on if her music career didn’t pan out. Mayberry didn’t just get one, she got two: a bachelor of laws degree and a masters in journalism. She even won an award in 2010 from the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland for an article she wrote about body piercing safety practices. Not that she needed to: her band, CHVRCHES, is doing quite well, thanks! [NOTE: in most English-speaking countries outside the United States, one can get a “bachelor of laws” degree which, with passing the bar, is all one needs to become a lawyer.]
Lastly, Dan Spitz – lead guitarist and songwriter for Anthrax – left the band in 1995 to pursue an education and career in… watchmaking. He attended the prestigious Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP) on a full scholarship, where he was awarded the title of “Master Watchmaker of Mechanical Complications Specialist”. This is serious business: we’re not talking about Spitz being able to assemble a watch from a kit: he can design (and build) highly precise mechanical watches from scratch! Neat, huh?
You know how some families have two children, and one child is a straight-A student who gets in to Stanford… while the other child is a ne’er do well who’s been to jail at least once and still lives at home… yet, paradoxically, the parents are always riding the successful kid’s ass?
You, Spotify, are that successful kid. You’ve grown from nothing to become the most successful music streaming service in the world. You’ve literally changed the way I consume music, and – in a very real sense – you’ve changed my life. You’re standing at the precipice of greatness.
But you’re not perfect. Nothing ever is, really. Which is why I’m constantly complaining about you. Not because you’re awful… but because you’re so close to becoming The One True Music Service. It’s like you have victory inches from your grasp, and you don’t even see it.
So here’s a laundry list of things you could do to to become truly great:
For starters, get rid of the 10,000 song limit. If you’re not familiar with how Spotify works, there’s a “Your Music” section of the app which lets you “save” albums and singles to your account. So instead of having to search for an album every time you want to hear it, you can “save” it to an easily-accessible list of albums in your account. I keep putting “save” in quotes because the app isn’t really saving anything: it just creates a shortcut to the album in your account, not unlike a browser bookmark. Spotify limits the total number of songs in “Your Music” to 10,000 for some reason (Apple Music’s limit is 100,000). There’s no engineering or data storage reason why Spotify can’t allow you to save 100,000 songs to your account, too. And, if you think about it, it actually makes sense for Spotify to raise the limit: the more music you have in your account, the more invested in Spotify you become, and the less likely you are to switch to a competing service.
Secondly, Spotify should really consider a cloud storage option. No music service has everything. Some artists sign exclusive agreements with one service. Some artists, like Peter Gabriel and Prince, eschew streaming completely. A few albums temporarily disappear while the service renegotiates its contract with a record label, much like how TV channels can disappear from cable lineups while networks and cable companies argue over carriage fees. Some albums were put out by labels that have since gone out of business, and the rights holders can’t be easily found. And most music fans have at least some music that’s “too obscure” or “too sketchy” for a streaming service. I’m not just talking about my treasured MP3s of 86, an Atlanta post-rock band from the 80s that no one remembers – I’m also talking about live bootlegs, demo tapes, etc.
Apple Music and Google Play Music both have apps that scan your local music and upload any songs missing from their catalogs. That way, all the music you’ve collected over the years – the bootlegs, the rare remixes, the fan club singles, the vinyl rips of albums that never made it to CD, much less streaming – becomes part of Apple or Google’s cloud. You can stream it to any device at any time. From the end user’s point of view, it becomes part of Apple Music or Google Play Music’s catalog.
Spotify’s solution to the problem is much less elegant. You can integrate local files into the desktop app, and you can add local files to playlists. If you sync that playlist to a mobile device – but only on the same Wi-Fi network as the desktop app – the local files will be copied to your device. So if you create a playlist which contains 2GB of local files, that playlist will take up 2GB of storage space on your device… which defeats the entire purpose of a “streaming service”. With Google Play Music – which allows you to upload up to 50,000 local songs – those files would take up zero space, ‘cos Google’s streaming it to you from the cloud.
Even worse – and this is something Redditors at /r/Spotify just don’t seem to get – once you leave your Wi-Fi network, that music is simply inaccessible. Example: my all-time favorite version of The Cure’s “A Forest” is from The Cure in Orange concert. I have In Orange on Laserdisc, and ripped that track to mp3 years ago. The song has been uploaded to my Google Play Music account. So if I’m at a friend’s house, and we’re sitting around listening to music via Bluetooth speaker and we get a random urge to hear it, I just open GPM and stream it. With Spotify, I could add it to a playlist and listen at a friend’s house… but only if I had the foresight to sync it to my phone before I left. Otherwise I’m just out of luck. I don’t know how much it would cost for Spotify to add the ability to upload 20,000 or 50,000 songs, but they need to do it. Every time I exit Spotify and open GPM just to play one song is a chance Google has to get me to switch. But if Spotify goes public sometime soon, that sweet, sweet IPO money could get something like this going.
While I’m here, Spotify please don’t stratify your accounts. If you do get around to adding cloud storage, don’t create a new “$14.99/month Spotify + Cloud” plan. Either figure out a way to include it in the $9.99/month Premium plan or increase the cost of Premium to $12.99/month. Or whatever you have to do. My point is, don’t make it more complicated. I wasn’t a paying customer when you had Free, Unlimited and Premium plans, but every time I read about it my head hurts. And I still don’t really know the difference between “Free on Mobile Phones” vs. “Free on Tablets and Other Devices” accounts. It doesn’t really matter, since I’ve got Premium… but just… keep it simple.
Speaking of “simple”, could you please post changelogs somewhere? Like any app, Spotify has bugs. It also gets new features. It sure would be nice if you published lists of bug fixes and new features with every version of the app so end users could know if that weird bug has finally been fixed. Spotify sometimes changes the way things work, and it sure would be nice to be able to go to the app’s page on Google Play and to get confirmation that yes, something has changed, and here’s how it works now.
Next, you guys should fix the apps. On paper, Spotify’s apps are great, and work on multiple platforms, like Windows, Mac, Android, Roku and more. But each has its own share of bugs and quirks. There was a 2-3 month stretch where Spotify’s Android app would take forever to start up on Wi-Fi. It was fine over LTE, and the bug affected all my Android devices, not just my phone. And we’ve got a 200Mbps connection with a decent router that can stream multiple Netflix HD feeds over Wi-Fi no problem. The problem seemed to go away for a while, but still comes back from time to time. The Roku app still can’t scrobble. The Windows app has always taken forever to start (although I disabled the Friends pane, which speeds it up some). Just sit down with your developers and figure out a way to make them faster and more reliable. If that means a new development environment, so be it.
And lastly, a personal beef: the gift card situation in the United States. Some people prefer not using credit cards online if they don’t have to. I’ve paid for my phone service with Virgin Mobile Top-Up cards for almost 8 years, and it works because Virgin cards are available everywhere: Walmart, Target, Publix, Bi-Lo, CVS, Walgreens, Lowe’s, QuikTrip and more. There’s a 99% chance I’ll go to one of those stores at least once a month, so it’s no problem to pick one up. However, finding Spotify gift cards is almost impossible. Best Buy is the only B&M store I know of that sells them, so I have to make a special trip to buy a card. This is especially galling for two reasons: 1) Spotify cards are sold everywhere in Europe; and 2) Shops like CVS carry all sorts of “marginal” online cards. Are people still buying Facebook Game cards? Are Groupon cards a big seller? Is the Nintendo Network a big seller? If not, why aren’t Spotify cards replacing them? Again, you should be making it easier for your customers, not harder. And having options is a good thing, especially since you already have the tech on your site to redeem gift cards.
I didn’t quite say this in my opening, Spotify, so I’ll say it now: I love you. I love you with all my heart. It’s a rare day that I don’t open Spotify and listen to some tunes while running errands, or doing household chores or writing articles like these. I want you to succeed. You’re the best app that ever happened to me! I just wish you’d pay a little attention to some of the points I’ve raised. You’re a sexy supermodel, Spotify… but you’re a sexy supermodel who chews with her mouth open.