Thursday, December 27, 2012

Favorite Music of 2012

2012 was a great year for intelligent, musically adept pop music. I didn’t even post a list of favorites for 2011, I just listened to Broadcast, and The Focus Group, all year. Although Psychic Life from Julie Campbell and Jah Wobble definitely caught my attention towards the end of 2011, as did Cinderella's Eyes by Nicola Roberts. 

Here’s what I most loved in 2012, in no particular order, (Happy New Year!): 

Jessie Ware - Devotion

Coming pretty much out of nowhere, this album was deep and absorbing, an instant classic.  

Icona Pop - Iconic ep

These two Swedish girls are former music students and it shows in their songcraft - musically literate but with a punky edge. I love them to pieces.  


It’s almost impossible to create a new genre of music, and Ultraista may not have done that exactly, but they sound like nothing else out there.

Kylie - Timebomb. 

After 25 years in the business, she may be at the top of her game. This single is simply genius.

Saint Etienne - Words and Music. 

My favorite band created this album to celebrate how we make meaning from music and how it affects us at different times of our lives. Probably their slickest album yet, but it’s gorgeously arranged and recorded.

Little Boots - Headphones. 

Little Boots hasn’t released a full length album in over 3 years. This single will have to do for now, but it’s very promising.

Johnny Marr -The Messenger. 

Johnny has finally decided to do a solo debut. From the sounds of this preview single, it will be a timeless, age defying classic.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Roisin Murphy. Let Me Know (2007).

A propos of nothing, I wanted to share this video by the lovely oddball, Roisin Murphy.  Roisin's last full-length album, Overpowered, was 5, almost 6, years ago.  Since then she has made a couple of babies and a few singles with a variety of collaborators.

File away this little piece of advice - if you're ever having a bad day, just watch this video and, I promise, you will feel so much better.

There are a bunch of quirky girls out there and I enjoy their work; you've got your gagas, katys, nickis, and bjorks, what have you.  I feel Roisin is a bit more down to earth and at the same time more inscrutable.  The signs and symbols she presents seem more difficult to read.  Whereas the others are clearly extroverts that are more than happy to explain themselves, it seems as if Roisin is an introvert who makes you work a bit harder to interpret her.  Her Myface and Spacebook are like ghost towns and her last tweet is years old. is in Japanese.  And a Blogspot fan site hasn't been updated in almost a year.  A mysterious enigma.  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ultraista (2012).

Nigel Godrich has formed a trio with Joey Waronker and Laura Bettinson.  Godrich and Waronker earned credibility from having knocked around as producers and collaborators with Radiohead, McCartney, REM, and Beck, to mention only a few.  Bettinson, having been associated with somewhat lower profile projects like Dimblebly & Capper, Femme, and Eckoclick, is significantly less renowned, and half the age of the other two in the band.  However, the secret weapon here is, in fact, Bettinson.  She provides the focus and, as the voice of the band, she sets the tone, which is effortless, and slightly detached, but not without joy.  

The album sounds like a bunch of immensely talented friends jamming together over a weekend. The overall sonic palette throughout the project is comprised of deep bass, lush and fuzzy synth parts, the syncopated and off-kilter accents of the tasty percussion, and occasional retro noises.  Godrich sticks to a limited choice of synth sounds, providing a bed of cohesion.  He seems to have a thing for a fizzy timbre that recalls, to me at least, the Korg Poly800 from 1983.  Waronker always finds inventive, dancey, catchy patterns that often achieve the level of “the hook,” even before the vocals begin.  With great taste, he knows that interest is often created not by adding more stuff, but by dropping things out at the right time.  Bettinson is the anchor with her elusive words, the smart, pop melodies and that just-got-out-of-bed, slightly dazed, vocal delivery. Without her, the band would still be pretty good, but very different. With Bettinson, the trio has created an intriguing and appealing whole that works like a dream.

Static Light:

The songs dwell in the land of loops; repeatable fragments with ongoing variations that keep things from becoming too predictable or robotic.  It’s at once hypnotic, droney, dizzying and invigorating.  There’s a nice sense of spinning in each tune.  Every song sets up its own percolating system, starts rolling, and it just pulls you along.  The temptation would be natural to stretch any of these tunes out ad infinitum and just keep playing with the details.  But they brilliantly decided to keep the tracks brief, so you will probably find yourself going back to the beginning of this collection, over and over.  The album has a feeling of “rightness,” and is certainly one of my favorite efforts of 2012.  Their Tumblr is pretty awesome too (it's actually Laura's tumblr; and she seems to have a knack for finding the most overheated and outlandish things on the Web).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Jessie Ware. Devotion (2012).

Oh, this is good.  Some are thinking of Jessie as the new millennial Sade in the way she melds cool and sensuousness.  Solid songwriting wrapped in electronic adornment, with live guitar provided by Dave Okumu, which is very welcome.  

Not really electronica, or straight pop, or nouveau R&B, Devotion takes elements of all of those and makes something very personal from the combination.  I’m reminded of Bryan Ferry’s solo albums, in that it dwells in darkness and space, with fine details that glint from the shadows.  There are many enticing details that emerge on headphones, but it’s never messy or random.  Like Ferry, Ware works a catch phrase, such as on No to Love, and weaves atmospheric magic from its repetition.

110% is light and lovely, but not entirely representative of the album, which is pretty dark, filled as it is with a taste for deep heartbreak.


Jessie’s voice is usually chill, with just a hint of soulful aura. Unlike many singers, who oversing to the degree that it’s a relief when they pull back, JW rarely seems to flex a muscle. But when she does, as on Running, or Taking In Water, it’s a real thrill.  On Something Inside she sounds like an angel.  

Devotion has the potential of becoming a classic, it’s contemporary but not trendy.  I can imagine people putting this on 15 years from now and saying, “I still love this.”  It was announced this month that Devotion is up for the UK’s Mercury Prize.

Here’s a live version of the title track.  It’s only based on two chords, D Maj going to F# Maj with the third in the bass, but they’re a major third apart, which leaves the tonality uneasy and ambivalent (Hey, that’s the Coltrane change!).  I love the focus and precision of her band in this performance.


Much more than a great debut, it’s feels like a career making record.  It makes one ponder how she could possibly create a stronger follow-up.  This album is so chic, I feel like I should dress up to listen to it.  Could be album of the year for me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Call for Works: Wired Kingdom - September at Arts Center of the Capital Region (Troy, NY)

Wired Kingdom is an exhibit and showcase of locally made, digital and electronic art at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, in Troy, NY.

The Arts Center of the Capital Region is accepting proposals for an upcoming onsite exhibit and showcase of digital and electronic art.  The exhibit will run September 17th - 29th culminating with an opening  , and live performance showcase on September 28th as part of Troy Night Out.  Artists currently living in the Capital Region and working in electronic and digital media are welcome to submit proposals for the two week gallery show,  and/or short performances to be presented/screened/played on the evening of the 28th.  Works which feature some interactive component are highly encouraged.

Deadline for proposals: Friday, August 31st

Send description of piece and relevant digital files electronically to:  
Questions?  Call (518)273-0552 ext 233.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Does anyone remember Pram?  Anyone??  

They're still around, but they don’t seem to come up in discussion very often.  Well, actually, they almost never do, as far as I know. But if you’re fans of Broadcast, or Stereolab, you might want to look into this quirky ensemble.  In fact, one of their drummers was a member of Broadcast for a while, and singer Rosie Cuckston had a duo, called Monade, with Letitia Sadier of Stereolab during the late 90s.  So there.  Lots to dig around for, as they have released over 20 albums, EP’s and 7’s over the last 19 years.

The Archivist - Pram:

Friday, June 29, 2012


I'm somewhat nostalgic for the old days (the late 90's-early 00's), when it was the height of the cutting edge avant garde to just use a laptop and make noise (anyone remember the "Onkyo" phenomenon?).  No video, no instruments, no controllers, nothing to detract from pure sound:

Aoki Takamasa: Live @ Tokyo Polytechnic University:

Good times.

Since then, MIDI controllerism has become de riguer if you are making electronic music in performance.  As a performer, you can have a lot more immediate flexibility pressing buttons than continually trying to find the sweet spot on your screen with a touchpad.  And from the point of view of the audience, you look like you're "doing something."  Personally, I think a large part of controllerism is a reaction to an audience that always expects a visual component to any music performance.  The last time I checked, music was something you primarily listened to, not watched.  Who goes to MOMA, sees a Picasso and says, "Great painting, but where's the soundtrack?"  I believe the visual prejudice engrained in our appreciation of music is so overwhelming that it remains unquestioned, and unexamined.  Francisco Lopez knows what I'm talking about, he blindfolds his audience.

Anyway, it all started with the Monome, a wooden box with a grid of buttons that control things your computer already does.   Then, the Monome wannabe's came along: the Tenori-On, and the Arduinome.   If you were daunted by the $1K or more price tag for one of these puppies, you may have waited for the Akai APC40, or the Novation Launchpad, which is not much over $100, works great, and can emulate some of what the Monome does ( I have a Launchpad, and it rocks).

What got me going on all of this was a video I found on the Monome Web site that showed highlights of the LA Monomeet held in California last December.  I had never heard of any of these composers before, but I was so impressed with all of their musicianship and skill, I just had to share it.  I really like how these musicians are able to do fairly challenging electronic music which is also immediately accessible, successfully bridging the divide between "experimental," and "pop."  And yes, it is exciting and fun to watch:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kylie. Anti-Tour.

I had kind of thought that Kylie as "Aphrodite" was a tad too much.  I'm all for kitsch and ridiculous glamour, but we already know Kylie is divine, so making her into a Greek goddess was a bit redundant for me.  Now she's doing the Anti-Tour, a "B sides and Rarities" thing, very rock 'n' roll.  This seems like the right move for her now.  She's ditched the costume changes and elaborate scenarios for a pair of cutoff's and a Marilyn T-shirt.  I have to say, I think I prefer Kylie just standing in front of a band, being herself.

Here she is doing Cherry Bomb, from the Wow ep, which is totally worth obtaining:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cocteau Twins

If you’re not familiar with Cocteau Twins, they’re pretty much credited for inventing their own subcategory of pop music during the 1980’s. Hypnotic, vibrant and ecstatic, they consistently dwelled in a lush and uplifting world of breathless wonder, inspiring perhaps dozens of band that followed them.

On Blue Bell Knoll (1988), they perfected their celestial wall of sound. Pitchfork puts it in their list of the best 100 albums from the 1980’s at # 81, nestled between Perverted by Language, by The Fall (#82), and New Day Rising, by Husker Du (#80).

I had the extreme thrill of seeing them perform twice in New York; in November of 1990, at the Ritz, and in March of 1994, at Roseland.  At the Ritz, they performed in their classic lineup of Robin, Simon, Liz, and the reel-to-reel tape machine.  Robin had some problems with his pedal board and they took an early (and lengthy) break to work on it.  They had a full band at Roseland, with a live drummer and extra guitarists.

Cocteau Twins were one of those bands that seemed to create a singular, alternate universe of pop music that felt alien but vaguely familiar, like a suddenly reemerged memory of an enchanted realm to which you longed to return.

Live: The Spangle Maker (released 1984).  This creeps up on you, but stay with it, it gets pretty intense...

Live: Orange Appled from Love’s Easy Tears (released 1986).  They’re on the cusp of their pinnacle here...

Heaven or Las Vegas (1990).  At their height of popular acceptance...

Soon afterwards, they purchased a recording studio and formed their own label, Bella Union, then promptly split up.  The split was brought about by the separation of Guthrie and Fraser as a couple, effectively ending the band, at which point Cocteau Twins entered into a realm of legendary myth and beatification.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hospitality (2012).

Possibly my new favorite band, or my favorite new band.  My first impression of Hospitality was, while listening to Eighth Avenue, the opening track from their debut album, that they might be another twee band stuck in the endless revolving door of the I / IV / I chord change. 

But after they go to the IV chord the second time, I heard something refreshing.  The IV chord is an E Maj 7 (the song is in B), which begins a beautiful sequence of chromatically descending chords:  the E Maj 7 is followed by an E flat 7, then D Maj 7, and a D flat 7, all above a pedal point on B.  When the sequence is repeated, now with the bass providing the root notes, it resolves not on the I, but on the tonic minor with a raised 6, a very interesting decision. Nice stuff.  It’s like something out of the American Songbook. Good to hear an Indiepop band messing around with some pretty suave harmonies.  

This is just a taste of the pleasant surprises on this album. There are noisy guitar outbursts, squirrley synth riffs, and quirky rhythmic motifs, none of which last for more than a moment, always allowing the song at hand itself to be the focus.  And their songs, written by Amber Papini, are terrific: wistful or animated, idiosyncratic, kooky and hooky, sweet, but not naive.  Amber grew up listening to Cole Porter and Gershwin, so that’s probably where her ear for sophisticated harmony comes from.   

After a few listens, I kept thinking, where have I heard this voice before?  Then it hit me - Audrey Hepburn, which made me like Hospitality even more.

Eighth Avenue:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mari Wilson

The stylish and amusing retro chanteuse Mari Wilson, and her beehive, had 6 Top 100 hits from 1982 to ‘84 in the UK, while signed to Tot Taylor’s boutique pop label, The Compact Organization.  Some of her out-of-print CD’s are now worth hundreds of $.  At 57, Mari is still touring and performing, and maintaining a happy and healthy life, despite suffering from Type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease, and an underactive thyroid.

Mari Wilson in 1983 (the vast entourage of musicians, singers and dancers on stage with Mari were not extras - that was actually her real band, The Wilsonettes):

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nicola Roberts. Cinderella's Eyes (2011).

No one foresaw that during the Girls Aloud hiatus the most critically acclaimed solo release would be by the shy and slightly awkward red head of the group, yet that was exactly what happened when Nicola came out with Cinderella’s Eyes last year.  
For those unaware, Girls Aloud are the best selling female singing group in UK history, with over 20 top 10 singles, knocking Bananarama out of first place in that category.  Solo albums by Girls Aloud members, Cheryl and Nadine, sold well, but disappointed the critics who had formerly praised the group for their innovative pop songs, written and produced by the hit making machine, Xenomania.  

For her debut album, Nicole co-wrote all of the tracks, with the help of some top electronica musicians and producers, such as Diplo, Dragonette, and Metronomy.  Nicole’s appealingly quirky vocal style is reminiscent of Gwen Stefani, Kate Bush, and I even hear Katie White of the Ting Tings, and Marnie Stern to some degree.

This is the kind of Pop that doesn’t translate too well into the US markets.  It’s positive, has lots of energy, relies on melodic content, and it’s a little eccentric.  US Pop seems in contrast, to me, predominately stuck in wooden, faux R’n’B grooves, takes itself too seriously, and is afraid to branch out into something more idiosyncratic.

Well, however you look at it... Nicola Roberts has something special, no denying it.  Cinderella's Eyes is probably my most favorite release of 2011.