Years ago, the Radiohead train pulled into my station and I didn’t get on. I scoffed as the train went by. The truth is that Radiohead has never done much for me, and the wild praise they reap has done them no favors with this listener. When critics push “OK Computer” (1997) on me, I push back.
Atoms for Peace
That being said, I know there’s some genius in Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s beguiling frontman. After all, he wrote “Fake Plastic Trees,” one of alternative nation’s finest anthems. His solo debut, “The Eraser,” (2006) found him exploring glitchy, homespun beats and socially conscious lyrics. “Atoms For Peace” is the sixth song on that album, and also the name of Yorke’s new supergroup starring, among others, Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s superstar producer and “sixth member.”
Having a full band works in Yorke’s favor. In almost every way, “AMOK” is superior to “The Eraser.” The songs are looser, more organic and less indebted to Yorke’s laptop. It makes sense that “AMOK” was born from jam sessions with Atoms for Peace’s members contributing to the songs in their own styles. Surprisingly, remarkably, “AMOK”’s MVP is Flea. I thought he couldn’t redeem himself after “Hey Oh, Listen What I Say Oh.” Shows what I know. He abandons his usual slap bass technique in favor of clear, driving bass lines. On “AMOK” single and highlight, “Judge Jury and Executioner,” it’s his repeating lick that keeps the song moving forward, building toward fury, tense as wire.
For years, Yorke’s worn his love for electronic music on his sleeve. In 2011 he cut his teeth as a DJ, dropping Aphex Twin, Zomby and Flying Lotus into his buzzed-about sets. He’s clearly influenced by dance music’s repetition, and on “AMOK”’s best song, the opener “Before Your Very Eyes…,” he channels “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,”(1981) the landmark collaboration album between David Byrne and Brian Eno. The ominous mood of “AMOK” isn’t much different from that of dubstep’s greatest document, Burial’s “Untrue” (2007).
Atoms for Peace
What’s missing from “AMOK” is diversity and melody. Atoms for Peace have built an album out of variations on one theme. It seems that Yorke doesn’t want to be melodic. He uses his trademark falsetto as an instrument for texture. He drifts in and out and on top of the music, offering little in the way of tunefulness. Atoms for Peace can be catchy, but as a vocalist, Yorke rarely is. “Dropped” is proof of that.
Yorke’s a talented lyricist — or so say his hordes of fans — but since I can’t latch onto his melodies, I don’t care about what he has to say. The album’s nadir is its closer and title track, the monotonous “Amok.” The whole band seems lost, and Yorke couches his obtuse lyrics in an aimless vocal performance. He’d be well-served in revisiting “Fake Plastic Trees.”
Still, there’s enough here for me to keep coming back. “Ingenue” is a solid track rendered even solider by its music video. The chorus on “Default” reminds me of, of all things, Wendy Carlos’ “A Clockwork Orange” soundtrack. “Reverse Running” is pure fun. Time will tell whether Atoms for Peace become a headline or footnote in Thom Yorke’s storied career. For decades, Radiohead’s loomed over his every move. I wonder if he sometimes wishes it weren’t so. And I wonder how often listeners finish “AMOK” and immediately reach for “Kid A” (2000), because that’s what I’m about to do. The Radiohead train’s pulling into my station. Here I go, wish me luck!
It makes sense when certain pop songs rise to the top of the charts. A steady beat, catchy melody and sexy singer is usually all it takes. Sometimes one or more of these qualities are conspicuously absent from a song and it still hits #1 (see: Rihanna’s “Diamonds”). The radio-listening public is notoriously bad at recognizing talent and innovation in music, but sometimes an odd song gets through, one normally unfit for radio. These are the unlikely hits, and I’ve rounded up a bunch the best of them for this playlist.
Criteria: To qualify for inclusion, songs had to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Usher, “Climax,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)
Finally we can forgive Usher for years of unacceptable output. “OMG” and “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” — these were not good songs. He’s guilty of jumping on every lame trend in pop music, especially the trend toward club-friendly singles. “Climax,” though, is a different beast altogether. “It”-producer Diplo offers the fragile beat over which Usher wails like he hasn’t since “Burn.” Can’t dance to it, but it still hit #17, and it was a high point for radio in 2012.
The Cranberries, “Dreams,” Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? (1993)
On paper, The Cranberries were a hard sell. Just another unknown rock band with a singer in her twenties, one with this wild Irish voice reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. What to do with a band like this? Why, cut them a record deal, of course! This was the grunge era, and executives threw money at any band who could be the next Nirvana. The Cranberries never got that huge, but they came close, selling fifteen million albums in the US. “Dreams” is their definitive statement.
Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories, “Stay (I Missed You),” Reality Bites: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1994)
“Stay” landed on the airwaves in the summer of ’94 via a series of lucky breaks. At the time, Loeb was living in New York and playing shows around town. She passed her demo to actor Ethan Hawke, who passed it along to “Reality Bites” director Ben Stiller. A song this infectious — how could Stiller not include it on the soundtrack? Loeb became the first person to release a #1 hit without a record contract, and lo, a new generation learned to love a girl in glasses.
Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill” Hounds of Love (1985)
Bush never quite broke in the US like she did in England, but not for lack of trying. “Running Up That Hill” is her highest-charting single and a total home run — a gauzy, galloping affair that influenced pretty much everyone, from Bat for Lashes to Fever Ray. Chromatics covered it admirably in 2007, but the original from ’85 still shines brightest. I’m hard-pressed to find another song so canonized by indie rock’s elite and simultaneously forgotten by American deejays.
Michael Jackson, “Human Nature,” Thriller (1982)
In 1982, Jackson sent all seven singles from Thriller to the top ten, so I know that calling “Human Nature” an unlikely hit is crazy. If he had recorded himself chewing it would’ve gone platinum. Fortunately for us, he didn’t, and instead we got this, a sensitive ballad in the middle of what’s essentially a funk record. MJ veers dangerously close to new age cheese, but he holds back and delivers an enduring, wrenching performance. It was the most amorphous thing on the radio that year and the only way to follow the earth-shattering “Billie Jean.”
Donna Summer, “I Feel Love,” I Remember Yesterday (1977)
The only governing principle in this smash from disco’s heyday is the persistent whap of the bass. Giorgio Moroder —one of electronica’s first geniuses — composed “I Feel Love” entirely on the synthesizer. The music itself is highly kinetic and suited to the dance floor. My girl Donna’s got the sultriest voice, and she knows just when to cut out and let the groove take over. That something so forward-thinking reached #6 is miraculous.
Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You,” So Tonight That I Might See (1994)
“Fade Into You” is beautiful, and almost unfairly so. Amidst waltzing, sliding guitars, Hope Sandoval, Mazzy Star’s man-slaying chanteuse, sings languorously and effortlessly, as if under the influence of mescal. Hard to believe radio audiences recognized such understated brilliance, but they did, and in 1994 the song peaked at #44.
David Bowie, “Space Oddity,” David Bowie (1969)
In 1969, the man who would become Ziggy Stardust was still unknown on this side of the pond. He quietly released “Space Oddity,” a folky number about the doomed fictional astronaut Major Tom. Some seriously nerdy lyrics, people. Nevertheless, it became a #1 hit in Britain, partly because it’s wonderful, and partly because the Brits had gone space-crazy. In 1973 it was re-released in the United States, and Major Tom took off once again.
Fleetwood Mac, “Tusk,” Tusk (1979)
Like post-Thriller MJ, Fleetwood Mac had that golden touch. They were coasting on the goodwill of “Rumours” (1977) and spending all of Warner Bros.’ money on a follow-up. The first single and title track “Tusk” features the USC marching band, some creepy chanting, and barking dogs. It’s one mess of a tune, and that it charted at all just goes to show how popular Fleetwood Mac were in 1979. The moral of the story: don’t pursue every fleeting idea at once. “Sara,” Tusk’s second single, is more focused and lasting.
The Chipmunks, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” (1958)
A #1 hit in 1958. No further comment.
Illustration by Patrick Jenkins.
David Byrne’s 2012 book “How Music Works” could have just as appropriately been titled “How a Lifetime of Art Making Works.” David Byrne is best known as the creative force behind the post-punk, new wave group Talking Heads, but has also made a career for himself as a solo musician, visual artist and producer. In “How Music Works,” his second book (the first being “Bicycle Diaries”), Byrne draws from experiences in all of his creative outlets — anthropological research, philosophy, and sociology — to present revelatory ways to think about art making.
When discussing early Talking Heads performances, Byrne describes his lyrical point of view as that of an “anthropologist from Mars.” The same can be said of his prose style here — somewhere between professorial and conversational, he writes observantly, with an awareness of the cultural modes that largely define art making. The central idea he outlines in the first chapter, is that context predetermines what is made by creative people; that outlets, existing forms, financial and technological opportunities and social structures have more to do with what is made by artists than untethered vision or creative impulse. “The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and furiously starts scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. … I believe the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats.”
For readers in the SAIC community, Byrne’s style of writing will feel familiar. His highly quotable prose is the sort of text a liberal arts course would (and should) have students reading — the insights and creative questions Byrne asks himself and his readers are the real pleasure of “How Music Works.” An example being his description of solo work as a sort of self-collaboration. “Don’t we always work by editing and structuring the outpouring of our many selves?” asks Byrne. “I suspect that the outside entity — the god, the alien, the source — is part of oneself, and that this kind of creation is about learning how to listen to and collaborate with it.”
“How Music Works” will not appeal only to fans of Byrne’s music. His autobiographical storytelling is deliberately written in service of larger ideas, and the glamour and romanticized nostalgia for the mythologized post-punk scene built around the iconic NYC venue, CBGB is intentionally downplayed. “[CBGB’s] didn’t seem in any way special … it wasn’t like a movie, where everyone’s constantly hopping from one inspirational moment or exciting place to the next. … CBGB was a dump in a part of a town that was pretty much ignored.”
In Chapter Two, “My Life in Performance,” Byrne reveals himself as a performance art aficionado, detailing the impact that Japanese theater, fashion, and contemporary dance choreography has had on his music. Visually, there haven’t been many accidents or coincidences in his career — when Byrne wasn’t performing in an oversized Noh-inspired business suit, his seemingly aloof everyman look was calculated towards an artistic goal. During the heyday of punk rock fashion, Byrne decided that his “look would be, like our musical dogma, stripped down, in the sense that I would attempt to have no look at all. I still thought the most subversive thing was to look totally normal.” This value of presentation is also true of the book as an object — its beautiful white hardcover and minimalist cover design is the work of writer and publisher Dave Eggers.
Parts of the book become tedious in their focus on industry information and technicalities. Byrne spends chapters going in depth on the historical progress of recording technology, financing the music making process and studio time, all of which become lessons lacking the personality that drives “How Music Works” at its best. Byrne shows how thorough of a scholar he can be, but the unique perspectives of the book are found elsewhere. Reading about what Byrne thinks drives an artist, how to collaborate, what motivates a performer, or what mobilizes a community to create a “scene” is much more fascinating than the history of analog tape recording or profit-share deals — a more esoteric pursuit that the casual reader will likely gloss over.
Byrne digs deep into neurological and evolutionary explanations for why humans respond to and instinctively create music, but in the final chapter he lands on the idea of music as a way to experience re-enchantment with our world. “Urban myths, goth-inspired fashion shoots, folk tales, horror movies, Japanese anime monsters, experimental music, or the the power of pop songs … We’re fascinated and drawn to stuff that science can’t explain — the transcendent, the uncanny, things that affect us without words — and music both touches and emanates from those mysteries.”
Byrne may be one of the few artists capable of successfully writing a book of such scope. He has more than sufficient art-cred (RISD alum, exhibiting visual artist). He has garnered both critical and popular acclaim for his solo career and with Talking Heads. He has diverse taste in music and first-hand experience with much of the technology that has advanced music between the 1970s and today. Byrne inhabits a sort of goldilocks zone of relevance, experience, and credibility that his readers are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from. In “How Music Works” this opportunity is not missed.
Jonathan Richman – “My Baby Love Love Loves Me”
Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (2004)
I adore Richman’s work with the Modern Lovers, but it’s his solo music that I abuse. He is supremely powerful on an acoustic guitar, and on this track drummer Tommy Larkins swings the 2s and 4s giving Richman’s rhythm that extra swagger. With this cut, he gleefully sings the praises of a special woman, that woman who loves him. If he wrote it for me, I’d Love Love Love him extra hard on Valentine’s Day.
The Ronettes – “Baby, I Love You”
Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica (1964)
How to feel about Phil Spector, the mad genius cum convicted murderer? Let us set aside current vents so that we might fully appreciate Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound, a sonic phenomenon in full effect here. Backed by sleigh bells, tambourines, handclaps, and strings, head Ronette (and Spector’s ex-wife) Ronnie Bennett belts lasciviously and with the nuance of a truck. This is a love song at full volume, a proclamation and a classic. Spector reproduced it with the Ramones in 1980, but their version pales in comparison. It seems that he lost that lovin’ feelin’ in the
Stevie Wonder – “Knocks Me Off My Feet”
Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
Between 1972 and 1976 Wonder hit a streak of such staggering brilliance it’s hard to believe it was real. He could’ve written a song about pretty much anything — shoes, turtles, bananas — and it would’ve been great. So when he turned his attention to love, of course he triumphed. “I don’t want to bore you with it,” he sings, “but I love you, I love you, I love you.” Oh Stevie, of course she loves you, man! Now go record
The Format – “Inches and Falling” Dog Problems (2006)
Before fun.’s hit “We Are Young,” Nate Ruess sang for the Format, a vastly superior indie -pop band. “Inches and Falling” is the penultimate track from their swan song, Dog Problems (2006). It’s got trumpets, a carnival atmosphere, and is that a tuba I hear? Plus the lyric, “I love love. I love being in love.” It’s certainly about love — and yes, it’s fun (hyuk-hyuk) — but that’s not necessarily a good thing. This song’s like the couple who won’t stop kissing and whispering to each other. Roll your eyes, but don’t you dare dismiss the Format. At least not before you give “Oceans”
Prince – “Take Me With U”
Purple Rain (1984)
The Artist may be best known for funky carnal workouts, but he’s got a tender side too. In “Purple Rain,” he takes Apollonia for a ride on his purple motorcycle, they picnic beside a lake, smooch a little … and guess what song’s playing? That’s right. On the night I met my girlfriend, I hijacked the deejay’s iPod and put this on. Our first dance! But be warned: if you come to my party and hijack the iPod, I’ll
Roy Orbison – “Crying”
I’m sure there were sad men before Roy Orbison, but he was the first to commit his sadness to tape and look cool doing it. On “Crying,” he explores his three-octave vocal range to maximum effect. The song starts innocently enough. “I was alright for awhile,” he sings. “I could smile for awhile.” But then the violins start up and Orbison hits some unthinkably high notes — notes that sound a lot like, well, crying — and only then can we begin to comprehend the depth of his sadness.
Dusty Springfeld – “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (1966)
On behalf of good men around the world, I’m sorry. Some jerk did you wrong and walked out on you. You had every right to sing about it, but now you want him back?! I don’t get that. You deserve better! The way you modulate during the chorus: so effortless, so powerful. I guess what I’m asking is, will you go out with me? You don’t even have to say you love me.
Ryan Adams – “La Cienega Just Smiled”
Adams has made a career on the strength of his forlorn songs. And none is more forlorn than “La Cienega,” a quiet, shuffling number — and the best on his album Gold (2001). His loneliness is two-headed. “Feels so good,” he sings, “but damn it makes me hurt.” We’ve all been there, alone and just wallowing in it, comforted by the pit we’ve dug ourselves. Most of us, however, don’t write such beautiful songs in said pit. Fun fact: Adams married Mandy Moore in 2009. Would he agree that missing someone is like a craving, a craving for “Candy?”
Camera Obscura – “James”
My Maudlin Career (2009)
I want to give Tracyanne Campbell a hug. Four albums with Camera Obscura and she still hasn’t found much to smile about. This time around, some punk named James is to blame. “He hopes that we can still be friends.” What a line!…and what a lie. “James” is the tale of lovers moving apart and of the pain that comes with it. Tracyanne asserts, “I’ll be fine by June,” but do you believe her? Do we ever fully get over our lost loves? And what to make of guitars fading to silence?
Antony and the Johnsons – “Hope There’s Someone”
I Am a Bird Now (2005)
There’s loneliness brought on by a bad break up, and then there’s a more desperate form of loneliness — existential loneliness, the interminable want for human connection. Antony’s “Hope There’s Someone” is the saddest and loneliest song on this mix. Amidst frail piano chords, Antony wields his otherworldly voice to meditate on death and elusive love. The final two minutes are cacophonous, glorious, bleak, and uplifting — an all-encompassing musical expression.
Last Saturday and Sunday were special. On Saturday night, Kevin Shields — the notorious recluse behind My Bloody Valentine — finally released “m b v,” an album he’d been working on for 22 years, to the public. A simple Facebook update — “The album is now live” — whipped hordes of music fans into action. The massive influx of traffic caused the band’s website to crash, leaving fans waiting, again, for the elusive followup to 1991‘s “Loveless.”
m b v
Seems everyone’s got a “Loveless” story. Mine goes like this: In 2005, I was a freshman at college and for the first time in my life, I had my own computer and a fast internet connection. I downloaded many wonderful records that year: “Illmatic,” ”In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” ”The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.” Then I heard Slowdive’s “Alison,” so of course I fell in love with shoegaze. I loved the big guitars, the muted vocals. I was told I’d love “Loveless,” an album by this hot-shot band, My Bloody Valentine.
Okay not a great story, but I do have a point. Within a month of discovering the album, I played Loveless for a friend. “This will change your life,” I said. “Or at least how you think about music.”
The fervor over m b v’s release is really a testament to Loveless. It’s a perfect album and an influence to nearly every musician who’s heard it. If you haven’t heard it, stop what you’re doing this very instant and change that. What are you thinking?
So by Sunday morning, a global listening party had taken shape. People from all over the world plugged in. We heaped our expectations on Shields’ shoulders and pressed play. And what did we hear?
“m b v” starts with “she found now,” an understated mood setter with the usual churning guitars and subdued vocals. It was obviously written by the same mind responsible for Loveless opener, “Only Shallow,” but it’s comparatively tranquil and contemplative, easing-in whereas “Only Shallow” catapults.
“only tomorrow,” “who sees you,” and “if i am” find MBV up to their old tricks. Shields uses the tremolo arm of his guitar to create dense, wobbling guitar tones, and vocalist/guitarist Bilinda Butcher coos over the top. The drums and bass stay on the pulse, following Shields through a series of unexpected chord changes.
“new you” is an instant classic. It finds MBV at their most melodic. That familiar synth from “Sometimes” comes to the fore, and Shields’ guitar is unusually spare, putting to death the myth he multi-tracks his guitar parts hundreds of times.
Through track six, one could mistake calling the new album “Diet Loveless.” Its differences are subtle, its mood similar. “nothing is” changes all that. Shields cranks the tempo and introduces a new percussive element to MBV’s sound. Drummer Colm O’ Ciosoig finally gets his turn to play loud. He was sick for the “Loveless” sessions, and as a result, Shields sampled and looped what few drum parts he had recorded, then buried them in the mix. On “m b v,” he proves he’s got the chops. The penultimate track “nothing is” gallops by with a much-needed rhythmic bludgeoning. The final song “wonder 2” is m b v’s best. It’s the synthesis of everything MBV does well, plus pummeling drums.
Every serious music fan has a “Loveless” story, but many of us weren’t there when it came out. We listened years after the fact. Last Saturday, Shields released “m b v,” and now I’ve got a new story. At the risk of putting m b v on a pedestal, I’ll always remember where I was and what I was doing when it came out. That’s how big of a deal this was. Cheers to Kevin Shields for finally coming to peace with this new record. It must take a great deal of courage to know the world’s listening to your music, and not just here and there, but all at once.
Melody Prochet’s debut album as Melody’s Echo Chamber has all the charm and ornamental zaniness of a good ”I Spy” book spread, with as much attention paid to detail and arrangement. The psychedelic aspects of the album are playful and suggest discovery, like a hazy and hilarious encounter with the everyday world as opposed to the paradigm shifting head-trip that ‘psych’ tag so often implies.
The French songwriter met Kevin Parker of like minded Australian dream-rockers Tame Impala after one of Parker’s shows in Paris where she passed along a demo of her music. Her then-band, My Bee’s Garden, was subsequently invited to open for Tame Impala on a European tour. When Prochet was ready to go solo with Melody’s Echo Chamber, Parker signed on to produce and play guitar on the debut, the instrumentals for which were recorded at his home studio in Perth, Australia, while the vocals were recorded Prochet’s childhood home in the South of France.
Though Prochet’s songs are presented under her name, Parker’s hand in the project is undeniable, and their collaboration fully realizes the compositions. The spacescape synths on “You Won’t Be Missing That Part of Me” were unquestionably in his arsenal during the recording of Tame Impala’s 2012 album “Lonerism,” the mind-bending counterpart to “Melody’s Echo Chamber” in the neo-psych bin. The album’s production shines new light on the potential of a phased guitar (on “I Follow You” a burning solo brilliantly replaces the final chorus), various keys and mallets (“Snowcapped Andes Crash”) and reverse delay (dominating “IsThatWhatYouSaid”) through variation, restraint and careful timing — these sonic gems and others constantly pass through a revolving door onto the bright and consistently tight-knit 1960s pop drums.
“I Follow You,” the album’s opener and highlight, displays what the album does best. The crystalline guitars and layers of Prochet’s voice in different stages of swooning decorate the mathematically perfected pop tune. Prochet’s classical musical training and Parker’s ear are working in harmony on this track, as on most of the album.
Melody’s vocals, in both English and her native French, are consistently delivered with the relaxed pleasure of a catnap or post-coital sigh. Prochet’s switch from English to French, in the transition from “Some Time Alone, Alone” to “Bisou Magique,” for non-bilingual listeners, draws special attention to the timbre of her voice as an instrument. Just as soon as the meaning of her lyrics is lost in translation, it’s apparent that not very much has been lost at all.
Explaining her project’s moniker, she told Bestnewbands.com, “I had this crazy dream … in which my bedroom’s acoustics had changed into Infinite Echo mode, and when I talked my voice resounded endlessly until it woke me up.” Prochet could have dropped the interviewer’s microphone right there and just let that quote run as the album’s official press release. As promised, Prochet’s melodies exist in the echo chamber that she’s dreamed up, and all over the album the effect is a trippy and cheerful one. Despite its retro-leanings, “Melody’s Echo Chamber” seems to successfully borrow from the past (see the United States of America, Broadcast, Francoise Hardy) without cushioning the ideas in irony or becoming trapped in nostalgia. Her sound isn’t moving any mountains, but at the right moments it will likely move you.