Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Play Off: Picking 2013's Best Song - Round 1

Welcome back to the somewhat-delayed Play Off tournament, where I'm pitting tracks against one another for the title of Best Song of 2013... but, hey, I explained this already.

You can click the above image to embiggen and check out all 32 contenders, but it's about time we set these bloodthirsty songs loose in the no-holds-barred arena that is Blogspot, and narrowed them down to 16. I recommend listening along on Spotify here.

For simplicity's sake, I'm going to split this into four parts, starting with:

Round 1 Pt 1

Kavinsky – Rampage vs Camera Obscura – Every Weekday

We open with a match-up between two tracks from pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum of my taste.

Rampage is a condensed package of propulsive energy. No words, just a constant neon beat carrying you on into the night. The details kind of blur as you speed past, and then the song drops a '70s cop show sting, slams on the handbrake, and is over.

The beauty of Every Weekday, meanwhile, lies in the individual moments, and particularly the way that Campbell twists little chunks of lyrics. There's a real performance to her vocals, which turns a line like “I don't want to sound like I've written us off” into a series of hills and valleys, a whole song's worth of brittle, beautiful drama in ten words.

It's a song of delicacy and subtlety, two characteristics Kavinsky couldn't be accused of – but this year, that kind of swaggering momentum was just something I needed more.

Winner: Kavinsky – Rampage

Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party vs CHVRCHES – Recover

Chvrches pretty much ruled my year in 2012. I fell for the sharp purity of Mayberry's vocals, and even more the way each song distorted them into something nearly tactile; as natural as cold silt, as inorganic as a lab-grown hamburger.

Unfortunately, they're about to get knocked out in the first round.

Hood Party is the sound of the greatest, loudest party you've never been invited to. Its huge blown-out bass doesn't quite sound like you're at the party, but just outside of it. In the queue, or across the street, or maybe in the toilets, watching your breath condense on the vibrating warehouse walls, just as you pick out the bassline of that song you've been waiting all night to hear.

The song has many, many more facets than that, which we'll get round to in future rounds, but that alone is enough to carry it to victory.

Winner: Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party

Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder vs Daft Punk – Get Lucky (Radio Edit)

I swear this pairing was a coincidence – and prepare yourself, because there's another equally unlikely one coming up shortly – but it gives us the perfect chance to talk about the Daft Punk album.

Get Lucky was always the obvious lead single, but Giorgio, essentially a musical memoir, is a much better representative of what Random Access Memories is actually like: noodly, unusual, overlong, a little pompous, but never less than interesting. In a way, I think putting Giorgio out first would have lessened some of the disappointed backlash the album faced on release.

As it was, we all heard Get Lucky a couple of billion times, and I know for a lot of people that killed it. The song is so familiar to me now that it's hard to remember hearing it for the first time, to imagine ever being surprised by it. In a way, Get Lucky feels it has always existed, has become part of the canon, and that's dangerous for a song that's so much about being joyously alive. But it also feels inevitable.

The song, as I've argued before, is designed to be played over and over, practically begs for it. It's a series of interlocking loops, a circular song that fades out but could very well go on forever.

Get Lucky's magic is still there, but its grooves are worn down by over-use. And while Giorgio has little to offer the hips, there's plenty for the head – and has the advantage of still feeling brand new every time I come to it

Winner: Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder

Holy Ghost! – Okay vs Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free

Often, with my favourite songs, it's all about scratching an itch. There's got to be something that means you keep coming back to a single track, that makes you crave it in the mornings like a cigarette or a cup of black coffee or a bowl of chocolate-coated Frosties [delete as applicable].

In Okay, it's this little instrumental call-and-response that opens the song, a moment-long series of interlocking sounds, like a cheat code unlocking something deep in my brain.

After delivering your fix early, the song takes it away, dropping occasional fragments throughout but making you wait till the end of the chorus to get the full thing. And, strong as the rest of the song is, for the addict it's pretty much all a tease – something which fits nicely with the lyrics' tale of late-night missed calls and lapsing back into an old relationship. “And the punchline isn't far”, sings Frankel at the end of each verse – but it's always too far away.

Ego Free Sex Free, meanwhile, is all itches. The song is constantly playing every trick it's got, moment piling on top of moment. Here's the sound of a choir, ebbing in and out of existence; here's the crystalline smashing of virtual glass; here's Ashin's own voice, sharpened into a spike. There's structure underpinning it all, yes, but the surface is constantly fidgeting, never letting you – or itself – get comfortable, always making sure there's something new to engage with.

Winner: Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free

Round 2 Pt 1

The next lot into the mincer:

Round 1 Pt 2

The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin' vs Vampire Weekend – Step

I've mentioned before how I really don't know what song is going to win this. That's true, but Feel Like Movin' is a strong contender.

It sounds like a newly discovered dance track from that hallowed period at the turn of the millennium; the missing link between Groovjet and Another Chance. No, better than that, even. It sounds like the way all those tracks sound in my memory. Like one of those perfect summers you never really had.

Anything standing in its path, then, is going to have a difficult time. Which is a pity because while I've never been a huge Vampire Weekend fan – not to the extent that one of their songs would make it onto my top tracks of the year – Step is just lovely. The delicate piano, giving way to kick drum, is the perfect, baroque frame for Koenig's voice, who practically breathes his way through the song.

So it's unfortunate Step had to come up against Feel Like Movin' quite so early. Flawless victory.

Winner: The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin'

Anamanaguchi – Prom Night vs The Front Bottoms – Skeleton

'Like the soundtrack to an imaginary John Hughes film' is a phrase I've recently had to stop myself using to describe bands I like. But both Prom Night and Skeleton sound like they're actually set in one.

There's already a level of nostalgia inherent in what Amananaguchi do – "making loud, fast music with a hacked NES from 1985", in their own words – but Prom Night splices that with something else steeped in nostalgia: teen movies. The voice of Bianca Raquel, singing about being loved like it's prom night, like it's the very first time, sounds as if it's been extracted from an all-teenagers world where the twin gods are Madonna and Nintendo.

It's not hard to imagine the protagonist of Skeleton – scruffy hair, flannel shirt, beat-up car parked on the lawn – wandering into one of those red-cups-parents-are-away house party from a teen movie. On the surface, the song is just a dumb stoned grin – instruments just clash in the right way, over and over, for three-and-a-half minutes – but the eyes are constantly darting about – there are some fantastically observed bits of human behaviour in there – and there's real pain in its heart.

That said, the tiny story being told in Skeleton actually feels like its drawn from someone's twenties, and Prom Night isn't really prom night, it's about pretending, loving like it's the first time. Like actors playing high school age as they approach 30.

Which is a roundabout way of saying: it's a draw. Prom Night wins by default, on the strength of the album it's representing.

Winner: Anamanaguchi – Prom Night

Charli XCX – Nuclear Seasons vs Major Lazer – Jessica

Playing these songs back to back is like meddling with the thermostat. Jessica is a muggy summer's night of a song; Nuclear Seasons appropriately ice cool.

The actual sounds the songs use aren't too different – fuzzy production, fluctuating synths, singing that jumps between the highest and lowest registers – but the results are worlds apart. In Nuclear Seasons, it's the buzz of a burnt-out Geiger counter, the glitters of an encroaching iceberg, a voice effortlessly hitting unreachable heights accompanied by the wordless yells of tonight's victims. In Jessica, when Koenig breaks out the falsetto it's a welcome breeze, blowing through the treacley atmosphere, the sucking sound of skin peeling away from skin.

Nuclear Seasons pushes you away, careful not to be hurt again. Jessica greedily welcomes you in, constantly wanting more. It's not hard to reciprocate.

Winner: Major Lazer – Jessica

Kanye West – Black Skinhead vs Kanye West – Bound 2

Another happy coincidence hands us two tracks which pretty much bookend Yeezus – which wins, if not Best Album of the year, then certainly Best First Listen. Following hot on the heels of On Sight (which it very narrowly beat in the qualifying rounds), Black Skinhead is the perfect representative of Yeezus overall.

That claustrophobic minimalism (black), everything compacted down as far as it can be (black), Kanye West does Marilyn Manson (black), back to his grand theme of racism (black), uninterested in pleasing the listener (black), at times outright aggressive to them. That 'Black' in the title isn't just a skin colour, it's the lightless abandoned ghost train the song is set in.

Then, right at the end, Bound 2 is all about relief. To my (still woefully uneducated in Ye's back catalogue) ears, it's the most traditional Kanye track on the album, crashing together gorgeous soul samples into a backdrop for West to ramble over, jumping between goofy (“Forever 21 but just turned thirty”) and honest (“maybe we can make it to Christmas”), crass (“spunk on the mink”) and dumb (“Brad reputation”).

It's hard not to think of that video, now, but it did get some stuff right: understanding that being silly and being heartfelt isn't an either/or proposition, Ye almost in silhouette throughout, and especially those too-blue skies and open spaces. The song is like coming up for air, but it wouldn't work if the rest of Yeezus wasn't such an industrial dungeon of a place.

Winner: Kanye West – Black Skinhead

Round 2 Pt 2

This fell machine never stops; those cogs grinding losing songs to dust, their lifeblood powering it onwards. MORE!

Round 1 Pt 3

Los Campesinos! – Glue Me vs Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Buried Alive

Two bands I've been fond very of for a long while both dropped their fourth album (provided you accept that We Are Beautiful... was an EP). In that match-up, No Blues stomps Mosquito into paste.

It's telling that Glue Me was the final last-minute substitute, replacing Cemetery Gaits, replacing Avocado, Baby, replacing What Death Leaves Behind... No Blues boasts one of the year's strongest volleys of songs, and Glue Me, a LC! ballad packed with football references, just happened to be my favourite that day.

Buried Alive, meanwhile, is the lone track I'd pick from Mosquito – and even it only barely works. The a guest rap from Dr Octagon, who comes crashing into the song's carefully constructed atmosphere like a mecha-suited Robotnik, muttering wildly about conspiracy theories, is one moving part too many. The song should be too busy, and very nearly is. But, partly thanks to the fact that the song has 14 words outside of that verse, it all just manages to hold together.

That tension is thrilling, and it makes for a great song. But Glue Me is a great song picked from a whole host of great songs.

Winner: Los Campesinos! - Glue Me

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo vs Camera Obscura – Break It To You Gently

It's easy to dismiss Camera Obscura as purely twee – the memory that sticks is Do It Again playing on Radio 6, a colleague asking what this damn hippie music was. The illusion, I think, all lies in Campbell's vocals, which is rich and soft and charming but, for me at least, never quite comforting. Pretty much every Camera Obscura song exists in this wintry watercolour wash of a world, where everything's as brittle as it is beautiful.

Listen a little harder to Break It To You Gently, to the patronising “little darling” or the way she tells him to at least look on the bright side, and it's a vicious, dispassionate kiss-off of a song.

But next to Mark Kozelek, it starts to look positively cheery. He's the kind of guy who, as on Gustavo, can toss out a couplet like “I got a licensed contractor/But he quit 'cause his wife was dying of cancer” without blinking. Bleak isn't quite the right word – Kozelek is funny, too, in the blackest, most deadpan way – but, like the whole Perils from the Sea album, the lyrics are as dark as they are matter-of-fact.

Each track is like something from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a close curt look at humanity. Gustavo takes us through the protagonist's relationship with the titular immigrant worker, and isn't afraid to cast either in a bad light. It's a fully fleshed-out story, complicated and honest, and though 'dark' is the adjective I immediately reach for, it's actually much more shaded than that.

Winner: Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo

Ballet School – Heartbeat Overdrive vs Tegan And Sara – Closer

'Ballet School – Heartbeat Overdrive'. These words sound like the product of an Alex Spencer Tracks of the Year Generator.

Honestly, the way the song sounds isn't far off that: a tightrope-walking falsetto female performance stretching simplistic lyrics into a series of catchy yelps over light electronica. It' a slight song, and oh-so-nearly Eurotrash, but the way it moves is stunning.

Closer isn't too different, actually, a more muscular take on the same tricks.

For my money, it should have been the biggest pop song of the year, but I didn't need the radio to overplay it – I did that for myself. The song swells with carnal passion, punctuated twice by a post-coital throwing open of the windows, taking in the shifting night sky, which are both pretty much the best eight seconds of the year.

Winner: Tegan And Sara – Closer

Major Lazer – Get Free vs Blood Orange – You're Not Good Enough

[NB: You're Not Good Enough replaces Hudson Mohawke's Pleasure, which Miles pointed out first came in 2011. 2011!]

Get Free is one of those songs that feels so slick and easy-going that it's difficult to get enough friction to write about it. It's actually a carefully constructed, production-driven adventure through a gorgeous series of sounds, overlapping over each other just enough to give the impression it might've all happened by accident.

At first, I dismissed Blood Orange (on the strength of Chamakay) as an ethically-sourced guilt-free answer to The Weeknd – which, actually, is no bad thing – but it wasn't until I heard You're Not Good Enough, another of those dispassionate kiss-offs I love so much, that Dev Hynes' latest project truly clicked.

There's a wonderful sense of place to the track's final minute, which abandons the song proper for a clip beamed from some Williamsburg basement, friends playing ping-pong and shouting in-jokes back at each other, but it also damages the song's flow. And Get Free is all flow.

Winner: Major Lazer – Get Free

Round 2 Pt 3

The final lot of tunes sacrificed to the tune god:

Round 1 Pt 4

MS MR – Hurricane (Chvrches Remix) vs Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental)

This remix of Hurricane captures what I love about Chvrches much better than their debut album managed to. It turns the original MS MR track – which I've only heard retrospectively, and as a result feels like running through treacle – into something you could genuinely play at a party, while retaining the darkness in its heart.

Meanwhile, Adrian Younge – who is undoubtedly the star on The Rise of The Ghostface Killer – got me finally falling for the Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah.

Twelve Reasons to Die might not find Killah at the top of his rapping game, but it's not hard to blame him. Why bother, when the beat does all the work for him? On the instrumental version, a spoken intro sets up the incredible B movie premise – “The DeLuca's pressed Tony's remains into 12 vinyl records, one for each member of the family. But little did they know, he would return...” – and lets the music tell the rest of the story.

The movie that plays out in my head every time I listen to it is so crisply imagined, such a perfect genre flick, that I'm glad it doesn't really exist. Film of the Year.

Winner: Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental)

Summer Camp – Fresh vs Run The Jewels – DDFH

Speaking of imaginary soundtracks... Summer Camp. They're a band founded, as far as I can tell, to test my resolve on that 'not invoking John Hughes films' rule I mentioned earlier. Like the best of their tracks, though, Fresh turns all that back on itself.

It sounds like the perfect last dance, Sankey's vocals skating over the top of a playful montage, a dozen fist-pumping songs in miniature – but she's singing about how memories tend to lie, how we simplify the summers of our youth into a series of long warm nights, and forget all the rain and tears. First love is the best love, first love is the dream, says the chorus, before immediately pointing out that it is just a dream, a fairytale held tight between two people happy to lie for the sake of narrative simplicity.

DDFH's concerns are a lot more immediate. Why are you so worried about the past when the future is a mechanised boot stamping on humanity's face, when right now cops are putting kids in the hospital?

Which maybe sounds like it could be an inert lecture of a song, but it deftly handles issues while being just as thrilling as the competition. Killer Mike and El-P take a verse each, tagging over at the halfway mark, and both squeeze a full song into their half, piling on the wordplay and intertextuality and vocal magic tricks. DDFH is so dense, so heavy, that it eventually collapses after three white-knuckle minutes, the track melting out.

By all rights, it should win hands down. But Fresh beat a tattoo into my brain earlier this year and the memories it's bonded to have too much power over me.

Winner: Summer Camp – Fresh

Arcade Fire – Reflektor vs Classixx – Holding On

'Disco' was thrown around as a descriptor an awful lot this year, but it's one I keep coming back to with these two songs, which sound like they should be playing at opposite ends of the same gigantic disco hall, the people in the middle not sure what they're grooving to, but being pulled along by the rhythm in their hips.

Classixx is probably the single most accurate piece of band-naming I've encountered this year. Holding On is the kind of song you'd find buried on a decade-old Club Classics CD, layered with strata of '80s and '70s music.

Whenever I listen to Reflektor, I can't help but picture it as this giant disco ball, the odd tile lost to time. There's the LCD Soundsystem connection of course, but also the multi-faceted glimmer and glitter of the song. Its glamour is so enticing that even if it's meant to be an ironic surface, I'm happy staying shallow. After all, who stares that closely at a disco ball when they should be dancing?

Winner: Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Miley Cyrus – #GETITRIGHT vs Ciara – Body Party

And we finish, happily, on two seduction songs.

#GETITRIGHT is a girl hungrily throwing herself into it, telling you outright what she can do to you, drumming her fingers and working her tongue, trying out all that stuff she's picked up from films and songs and magazines. By contrast, Body Party is seduction as an art form, moving from demure giggles and purposely caught breaths onto confident instructions and encouragement, as her boy Future coos in the background, and that 'my body is your party', with an understanding that it works both ways.

Miley Cyrus' resurfacing as a machine-tooled sex object was foreshadowed by her appearance on Borgore's Decisions, which took me by surprise back in January. Like the multitude of child stars before her, the transition hasn't been smooth, but that's a big part of the charm – as she breaks through from her teens into the low twenties, Miley is trying on a multitude of guises, and that's easy to relate to.

But 2013 was my 25th year, and my taste for that kind of messy inexperience is starting to feel a little skeezy. So, in the interests of being mature, I'm opting for the older woman. It helps that Body Party is a banging tune.

Winner: Ciara – Body Party

Round 2 Pt 4

Let's take at where we are now: 32 tracks down to 16. Once again, click to embiggen.

We'll be back in a couple of days' time, taking it from 16 to the final two. In the meantime, you can listen to my Spotify playlist of the 16 survivors victors here.

2013Tourney Round 2 Results

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Play Off: Picking 2013's Best Song - Intro

Tunes of 2013: The Full 32

So: I have no idea what my favourite song of 2013 is.

This year's music failed to crystallise into a neat handful of songs like it normally does, which is both a good and a bad thing.

Yay, because it's a symptom of just how much fantastic music there's been. The 32 songs we're going to be talking about in these posts are only a small (hopefully representative) fraction of the stuff that I loved this year.

But also a mild boo, because it also means the year was lacking in truly definitive songs. I guess it was the year of Get Lucky, but while I clung onto my love of that song long after most had burned out from over-use (more on this in later posts), you're not going to find any Call Me Maybes on the list this year.

With that in mind, this approach seemed like the obvious choice: take a tournament-sized chunk of
songs, and pit them against each other, one on one, until we have a winner. Y'know, like they do in Pokémon and, I believe – am I pronouncing this right? – 'Sports'.

It's also neatly reflective of the way I used music this year. The format is adapted from Tom Ewing's Mincer which, for two months in the spring, ruled everything around me. You can read all about it elsewhere on this blog, but basically: randomise your tracks; listen in pairs; pick a winner as quickly as possible after the tracks end; delete the other; rinse and repeat.

But my listening habits have been strangely competitive in general all year. Possibly thanks to the sheer quantity of quality releases, possibly out of a sense that last year slipped through my fingers slightly, but I found myself pretty much refusing to listen to anything that wasn't current, my increasingly labyrinthine sets of Spotify playlists felt like an exercise in narrowing down everything I heard and liked into shorter and shorter lists - which is exactly what we're doing here.

We should probably establish some ground rules, baggy as they are.

  • During the selection process, each artist was limited to two songs – and there had to be a good justification for doubling up, which we'll touch upon when we hit those tracks.
  • Each song had to be one I heard for the first time this year, and it had to have a clear 2013 release date. I'm sure we'll realise I unconsciously cheated on some tracks along the line.
  • Some tracks are here representing the entire album they're lifted from, but they're inevitably here on merit. It's just that
  • In lieu of a seeding system – which seemed foolish, given that I'd be choosing both the seeds and the winners – I gave the tracks a couple of randomisations until it felt 'about right'. This means there aren't any hot contenders facing off in the first round, as far as I can tell, and the neat thematic pairings are genuinely random, sort of.
  • I'm letting myself listen to each pair of tracks on repeat as many times as I want during the writing process, which makes the decision process less spontaneous than the Mincer's one-shot policy but also, that would likely drive me insane.
  • I haven't listened to the Beyoncé album yet, because I suspected it might screw the whole thing up.
You can follow the tournament live on Challonge here, listen to our 32 contenders on Spotify, and I'll be back on Monday with commentary from the first round of matches.

To reiterate, I have genuinely no idea which track is going to win. I hope you have as much fun finding out as I do.

Tunes of 2013: The Full 32

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

GTA V: Keeping the Peace in Los Santos

The first time I fired up Grand Theft Auto V, as the install disc slowly unpicked the world held within and built it anew on the Xbox's hard drive, I had an idea.

Talking to friends about the game, it struck me that the thing which has really stuck with people about GTA is that one story: you can hire a prostitute, kill her and take back the money you just paid for sex. For some people, it'll never escape being another example of an Evil Violent Videogame.

And fair enough, y'know? That stuff is horrible, and the GTA games – all the way to their fifth instalment, based on the reviews I'd read – are violent and sexualised and a lot of other things besides. But the game I'd read about, watched trailers of, was also beautiful. It contained a city of crisp fidelity, fresh opportunities for exploration and experimentation, and a soundtrack that stretched, like the best record collections, from Britney Spears to NWA, Clams Casino to Simple Minds.

So, as the 'percent loaded' meter ticked up into the final digits, I started to wonder: what if I just engaged with the bits that interested me, and avoided the violence altogether? 

It would mean stripping out a whole part of the game, but faced with such a richly detailed world – where each fragile pedestrian has their own fashion sense and voice, each of their cars' radios playing just the right station as you tear them from it onto the asphalt – pacifism felt like the only sane option.

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It quickly becomes obviously that GTA does not want you to eschew violence. 

About three minutes into the opening mission, a bank heist gone wrong, you're forced to put a bullet in the head of a guard, before he does the same to your friend. After seconds of careful consideration, I tried shooting shooting him in the leg. MISSION FAILED. Retry, pull the trigger, and move onto the next setpiece, which drops a few dozen heavily-armed police between you and progress, and places a fully-automated machine gun into your hands. 

Clearly, a compromise would be necessary. This was all prologue, a decade before the game proper, I reasoned. Besides, when I'd killed those people, I was playing as Trevor, one of the game's three controllable characters, a gleefully murderous psychopath filling the role of group id.

I was soon handed the chance for a fresh start, as a cutscene picked up with Michael nine years later – presumed dead after the bank robbery, now leading a peaceful but unfulfilling life in witness protection, with a wife, two kids and a therapist – before introducing the third and final character, Franklin. Franklin's a young black man, a petty criminal who, unlike his partner Lamar, seems disinterested in the glamour of crime, and certainly not the kind of guy to go on a killing spree. This was my man.

And this was the plan: GTA V features a stats screen which lists each character's achievements and misdemeanours down to the most granular detail. It's a series tradition, something I've occasionally wished for in real life. Looking at this screen, I could see that Trevor already had 22 dead cops to his name – but maybe Franklin could keep a clean sheet of 0s.

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It took just a few minutes for my new plan hit a roadbump. A fleshy one.

In GTA, it's not the guns or the petrol bombs or any of the other weapons you can wield that's most deadly – it's your car. Driving is much tighter than the Bambi-on-ice handling of GTA IV's vehicles, but it's still possible to lose control of a car, especially when you're impatiently nosing your way through speed-limit-observing traffic.

Each character has their own special ability, reflecting what they're best at. Mostly, these make it easier to kill people, but, as a skilled car thief, Franklin is able to slow time while driving. It's pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card for when your back tyres start to spin out and tug you off the road. But in the first mission, as Franklin and Lamar forcibly repossess two gleaming sports cars and race them across town, I did not know this yet. 

So when, during a shortcut through a narrow studio lot, a man in a green rubber alien costume jumped out in front of the car, I plowed right through him. His ragdoll corpse bounced off the car's roof, and crumpled to the ground.

I paused the game. There, in the stats screen, it read 'Vehicular kills – 1'. There was no other choice.

Reader, I restarted the whole damn game.

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Fast forward through the heist, the police shooting gallery, that first stolen car. This time, I cruised carefully through the movie lot, avoided the men dressed as aliens – there's actually a trophy for not running them over, 'We Come in Peace' – and stepped out into the world for the first time.

I unfolded the paper map that comes in the game box, picked out a few potentially interesting locations, and drove in their general direction. Just taking in the scenery, which to my British eyes is slightly too bright and shiny, like being on holiday. Enjoying the way it all mingled with, say, the creaky bedsprings of Mirror Maru on the radio. Playing with the Instagram-styled camera function of the in-game mobile, snapping graffiti, people on the street going about their business, and selfies. Oh, the selfies.

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I climbed ladders and clambered up suspension cables just to see how high up I could get, took a pic of the blown-out orange sunset, then toyed with the idea of jumping off. I shot targets in the Ammu-Nation gun range, earning meaningless medals until night turned into day. After getting my hands on a BMX for the first time, I spent one enjoyable hour just pedalling and bunny-hopping it around a reservoir, into Los Santo's sewer systems, marvelling at the little details and watching Franklin's stamina stat creep up.

A succession of stolen cars and motorbikes carried me from the Vinewood sign, up in the hills, to the ferris wheel at the tip of Del Perro pier. There were a couple of near misses, but no one ended up dead except me, plowing the occasional motorbike into a wall and sending Franklin's body flying through the air.

But it couldn't last. I kept coming up against locked content – no planes, no skydiving, no golf, no tennis. Whether those last two are a canny commentary on Franklin's place in the world (tennis remains closed off to him throughout the game), a pure accident, or kind of racist, I couldn't tell you.

It became clear that the way to access this stuff was by playing the missions. I'd managed to resist them for two or three hours, knowing that way lay the kind of murder and mayhem I'd vowed to avoid, but I really really wanted a game of golf.

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The first time, it was them or me. Lamar pulled the trigger first, but blowing away an alleyway of Mexican gang members was necessary self-defence, Franklin reluctant as me as “we massacred those motherfuckers”. But self-defence is an excuse which wears pretty thin as you progress in the game, swapping pistol for sticky bomb, moving from escaping ambushes to assassinating people for cash. 

Another compromise, then. I started to treat the missions as a sort of fever dreams; which some of them, if you bump into the legalise weed campaigner, actually are. It was just criminals, cops, selected targets I was murdering. Only killing people in the open world – the innocent pedestrians of Los Santos' streets – would count, I told myself.The missions oscillate between inventive, impressive and faintly boring, but they progress the story – Michael and Franklin met, started to bond – and the range of options – I could switch between the two at will. This character jumping is the game's biggest idea, a way of both enlivening missions and speeding up travel across the vast world. 

Switching pulls the camera up into the clouds, before diving back to find the new character in medias res, sneaking a cigarette on a cliffside or stumbling out of the stripclub. It's a small trick which really helps build the feeling that these characters have a life outside of you controlling them, and builds each up as a distinct personality in a way that the scripted story never really manages.

My style of play would change slightly as I jumped from Michael to Franklin and back. Michael's a lot more eager with his fists, so I'd have him expressing himself pugilistically every time something went wrong. I felt like Michael's interest in music would have all but dried up, so he'd rarely switch the station in cars, but Franklin is an omnivorous listener, flitting between old-school hip hop and experimental dance. I allowed myself to shape Franklin's look a little, giving him a beard and afro, but otherwise the character's clothes didn't stray too far from how they were dressed at the start of the game. Looking back, I've realised I've never taken a selfie as Michael.

All of this only helped to build up the idea that Franklin was a chill guy who couldn't possibly kill someone (except, of course in missions). Until he, I, we finally did slip up.

I'd smashed into his car on a roadtrip out of town with Franklin's dog Chop, as I tried to stop myself veering off the road into a ravine. As the driver got out to take it up with me personally, I clipped him. It was hardly a hit, really. He went down so easily, and didn't get back up.

There he was, splayed there in the middle of the road, undeniable evidence of a crime the game didn't really care about – there was no star rating, no police chase. It honestly shook me for a couple of seconds, as I worked out it had been too long since the last autosave to go back.

Me and my dog just got back in the car, and kept on rolling through the night, with the Pet Shop Boys blasting on the stereo.

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This was weeks ago – in real time and game time, I suppose – and since then I've tasted a lot more of GTA's world. I got my hands on Trevor again, who encourages roleplaying in a whole different way. He's the kind of guy to shoot off a few rounds into the sky or tarmac just to see what happens, who picks his tunes and his clothes like Quentin Tarantino, for maximum effect when the violence starts.

Soon after that, the game's initially-wonky Online mode started to stabilise. Once I'd introduced my '00s pop star of an avatar to the world, all bets were off. She'll shoot friends in the back of the head just to trigger a one-on-one deathmatch, just to irritate them. Pedestrians are just well-animated obstacles between the bonnet of her car and winning a race.

Still, in singleplayer, every time I clipped someone with my car, or threw them out of theirs, I'd slow down, depress the right thumbstick to glance in the rearview mirror and check they were okay, breathe a sigh of relief as they dusted themselves off. 

I don't do that anymore. As the compromises stacked up, they became more and more indistinguishable from the full-blooded approach I'd started out vowing to avoid, and eventually I gave up altogether.

It's a classic crime narrative. It's pretty much exactly Niko's story in GTA IV; it's the plot of the first Godfather. It had played out in my hands, completely separate from the story the game was trying to tell me. My 10-hour downfall, told by this ugly, beautiful world Rockstar have built.

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Saturday, 14 September 2013

We Share Our Mother's Healthpoints: Rogue Legacy

Rogue Legacy is currently available on Steam at the bargain price of £7.49, a discount of 40%. It's the game I've played most this year, and here's why:
Family, eh?

In Rogue Legacy, you play Sir Scorpio, the latest in a long line of knights, mages and barbarians on an inherited quest in a strange land… until the moment you die. Then you play Lady Chun Li, the latest in a long line of knights, mages, barbarians and undead bloodsuckers on an inherited quest in a land that, thanks to its randomly-generated levels, is strange all over again.

The quest – to clear a castle full of ghouls and ghouls, plus five bosses – isn't the only thing you inherit. The death of your predecessor grants you their long-coveted possessions, yes, but as their offspring you're also prey to all the genes that brought them to a sticky end in the first place. As in life, so in Rogue Legacy.

The former means any gold picked up by your predecessor on their run through the castle – picked up by smashing furniture, beating enemies and finding chests – and which powers the game's hybrid level-up/shop system.

The latter … well, it's the game's masterstroke. After dying, you pick one of three heirs, each with their own combination of class, spell, and traits. Traits are the kind of role-playing characteristics you don't see in the Skyrims of this world: everything from colour blindness, which turns the screen monochrome, to OCD, which rewards you for smashing every box and barrel in sight, to congenital baldness, which ... makes you bald.


It's silly good fun, but the variety this introduces also helps keep the game feeling fresh, and adds an extra layer of exploration. Discovering what hypochondria actually did in-game, for example, was a great laugh-out-loud moment. I won't spoil it here.

This is just one of the many ways Rogue Legacy draws you back in for one more go. The levels, shuffled afresh for each run, offer variety and plenty of one-off surprises: rooms with knife-throwing challenges, or histories of developer Cellar Door's previous games. And then there are the upgrades.

Remember that inherited gold I mentioned? Before the next game starts, you have the chance to spend it all on equipment, upgrades and unlocks. These can be incremental, like a shinier sword or an extra health point, or tangible game-changers. Buy the Air rune to gain the power of flight; unlock the Paladin class and you'll be able to block enemy's attacks.

A poke in the eye
These post-death upgrades make Rogue Legacy the ultimate 'one more try' game, an endless cycle of explore/die/spend/explore/die/spend that cost me a good chunk of the summer. But this persistence also serves to undermine the power of permadeath.

In other roguelikes, you build up a character and progress deeper and deeper into a randomised world, the odds stacked increasingly against you until finally you're overwhelmed. There is a neat horror in that moment, the loss of invested time providing an analogue to the loss of life, which is also part of the fun.

Here, all you really lose is the set of levels generated for you this time round, which you can keep for a penalty – and so each death is just fuel. Sometimes, I'd catch myself dashing a character against the rocks to grab one final chestful of gold, knowing they'll die but also knowing it'll give me enough to buy that next sweet upgrade.

It's never quite a grind though, even when the clunky keyboard controls make the game's more bullet-hellish screens difficult to navigate, because all money gathered has to be spent before the next run starts, meaning you can't stockpile resources. And while you're playing, it's never anything less than great fun.


Still, it's easy to come away from a two-hour binge – which, make no mistake, is how you'll play Rogue Legacy – feeling a little empty. In the quieter moment of play, you can hear that little lizard voice at the back of your mind whispering 'grab the money, die, buy the shiny things'.

Sometimes, I didn't feel like a hero so much as a prudent investor, putting away something for the kids' future. Maybe that's part of the point, though. I automatically looked at Rogue Legacy from the perspective of a child but it also has you playing the parent, in an endless loop of sacrifice and gain, unconditional love and selfish hunger.

...Family, eh?

Game over, man

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Glass: Half Empty, or Half Full?

Google_Glass (32)

I've been fascinated by Google Glass since the first day I heard about it. It's the sci-fi-ness of the thing, I suspect, the idea that it will eventually evolve into a Minority Reportesque digital contact lens, a HUD for everyday life.

Well, one of the perks of being a (sort of) tech journalist is that you have an excuse to try these things out. So I slipped on a pair, wandered around central London for a couple of hours, and wrote about it for the latest issue of Mobile Marketing Magazine.

The resulting feature takes a tour through the history of Glass, what it does, and what lies ahead for it, both in terms of potential and obstacles. Oh, and most important of all, it's got my own impressions of trying it out (complete with a picture of me in Glass looking very serious indeed). It starts something like this:
“It’s been hailed as one of the best inventions of 2012 by Time magazine, and has also been condemned as a dangerous invasion of privacy. Some people believe it will revolutionise mobile technology, for better or worse, while others think it will struggle to find any sizeable audience. Google Glass has been dividing opinions since the moment it was unveiled.”
Read the rest here
Glass Spread

And if you enjoyed that, good news! This issue also features a piece by me on mobile marketing at music festivals, from apps to recharge tents, and how it all breaks down in an isolated field with mud where you'd usually have access to electricity, and yelling crowds where you'd usually have phone signal.
““People increasingly want to stay in contact at all times,” says Vodafone’s Ben Taylor – and while that’s true, the practicalities of a festival can get in the way of this. Frankly, the events are an endurance test that smartphones were never designed to face, and it’s for that reason that many festivalgoers end up defaulting to its less glamorous ancestor – the feature phone.”
Read the whole thing here

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Dead to Writes: Talking Corpses and Stories on The Escapist

There's apparently something about the The Escapist that brings out my morbid side. The last thing I wrote for them was about how Disney films handle death, and what games could steal. This time, I'm talking corpses, and the stories they have to tell.
"What appear to be three plaster cast statues sit around a dinner table. A daughter looks sheepishly at her empty plate, forever. Mother's arms are tied behind her back. Father is at the head of the table in his rabbit mask.
It's at this point - his slashed wrists are outstretched and bleeding onto the whitewashed table - that it becomes clear what they are. Not statues at all."
Body Talk landscape

The night after submitting the article, I was chatting about it to someone I'd just met. 'Oh,' he said, 'like that bit in Left 4 Dead 2?', before casually reeling off an example so perfect it made me want me want to run home and beg for my copy back.

But, mysterious Southern dead guys or no, I'm pretty pleased with how the article turned out. I just still can't believe I got away with that big fat Robyn reference.

You can read the whole thing here.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Five Things I Learned From Croquet (And Games Could Too)

I'm not sure if croquet is a sport – I never saw any medals being awarded for it during the Olympics last summer – but if it is, rest assured that it is by far my favourite one.

Having spent last weekend at the family home of Imogen 'The Other Half' Dale, playing barefoot croquet on her wonderfully large lawn, I came away mulling over what makes this game, which I play four or five times a year, so satisfying. Here's what I came up with:


1. The core interaction is fun

Most games are built up from one or two base units of interaction: jumping in Mario, say, or shooting in Doom, or rotating a series of hat-shaped blocks in Hatris. These are what developers and poncey games writers like myself refer to as a game's verbs, and they're the beating heart of the game. They're what the player does, how they effect change on the game's world: Mario's jumps can squash goombas, for example, or knock power-ups out of blocks.

And rarely has a game been centred around an interaction as innately satisfying as croquet's: wielding a heavy wooden mallet that would make Thor proud, and using to smack brightly coloured balls into one another.

The comparison is perhaps unfair to games – no amount of force feedback can hope to match up to the thwack of wood meeting plastic, the slight shudder running up to the shoulder, watching a ball skitter away across the lawn – but it can certainly be emulated with something that feels as natural and pleasurable as steering Mario's jumps.

If croquet was just a case of hitting a series of balls at a series of gates, it would still be excellent fun. There's just enough skill involved, just enough risk/reward, and the most  But the best games take their central one action and builds around it, adding a story, complexity of rules and/or an element of competition.

2. The rules are easy to learn – and pliable

Croquet has a clear goal – take your ball through six gates in order, hit a peg in the centre, win the game. It's so intuitive that, if handed the equipment and pushed onto a set-up lawn with no idea of how to play, you'd probably figure out something very close to the real game.

On top of this it layers a couple of simple rules to win an extra go – either by going through a gate or hitting another ball – which build on the risk/reward of taking a shot. Got it? You're ready to play.

...And so we did, for hours, until someone turned up who'd actually played croquet before, and it turned we hadn't been doing it properly. Actually, the game is to be played with two balls per team, which both have to make it through hoops and to the peg to win, and hitting another player's ball (whether your teammate's or an opponent's) actually lets you move your ball next to theirs, taking a shot which pushes them around the lawn, and then take your free shot.

Which is where tactics come in, and it starts to get really interesting.

3. Your decisions mean something

This skews the game's focus towards targeting other balls, and using them to advance your own around. The games' turns work on a team basis: Team A goes first, then Team B, and so on, but a team can choose which of its players will actually take the turn.

This is where the choices start: do you give the turn to a ball which has fallen behind, so it can catch up? Or do you make sure to get the leading ball through the next gate while it has a chance? Or do you give the turn to whoever is closest to your opponents, so you can sabotage their game?

Because the game is turn-based, with no time limit, you're encouraged to really chew these decisions over. Not just in your turn but beforehand, as the opponents line up their shots: what's he hoping to achieve with this? If he make it, where does that leave us? Then what's the best way to retaliate?

That means the other team's turn is as interesting as your own. You spend it watching closely and guessing. Praying quietly that they'll miss this key shot. Cursing loudly when they don't.

4. Cooperation feels good...

You and your teammate have to rely on each other. Not just because you'll both have to pass the finish line to win, but because you need to protect each other. The two players become interdependent, in a way I've rarely seen in games of Capture The Flag.

Ideally, a team's two balls will want to stay clustered as closely together as possible. A bad miss, or a great hit from an opponent, can push your ball far away from the next gate, slowing down both players,

This plays neatly into the decision-making process. It's not just a question of whether the lagging or leading ball should take this turn, but whether the leader could actually loop back, clip the other ball, push it forward, and then take the extra turn to push through ahead itself. Do you attempt a rescue mission, or just make your opponents aren't able to twist the knife any deeper on their turn?

5. ...but screwing friends over feels even better

Of course, you'll be doing your fair share of twisting that knife too.

Like many of my favourite games, croquet provides a safe space to be a real bastard to friends and loved ones. You're actively rewarded for knocking opponent's balls off course (and in the very best cases, off the course). Sabotaging carefully-laid plans is satisfying enough on its own, but it's often also the only way to get round corners, or set up a winning shot.

And honestly, it's not like you're going to need much encouragement. Let me show you why croquet is great:

Something lights up in the eyes of a friend on the other team as they realise they can win the game on the next shot. You can practically see the sepia-toned fantasy playing out in their imagination – with one perfect hit, they push both balls to the peg, their teammate hoists them up in the air, a hero's reward... Of course you're going to take that away from them.

You push their teammate's ball out of the way, using it to reposition yourself and swing round for the next shot. Suddenly they see it, and you watch that light drain from their eyes as they utter a barely audible no – you're setting up to smack their ball into the bushes. It's going to destroy them.

And you wind up the mallet theatrically, savouring the evil grin and the first signs of tears in their eyes. You take the hit, and something's slightly off. The ball sails past theirs, and right to the edge of the lawn, leaving your teammate vulnerable and giving your opponents a clear shot at the peg. Game over, man.

That's croquet.

The public don't know the truth about croquet – a game for toffs, something slow and twee and uninteresting – and perhaps that's for the best. Croquet is a game about revealing the darkness at the centre of your soul, and letting it play out on a sunny afternoon with a glass of gin, on a lawn littered with coloured balls.

Croquet is the king of all sports, and if you've never tried it, now's the time.

(If you're in London, you can try croquet out for free at Croquet East on Saturdays in Victoria Park.)

Thursday, 16 May 2013

This Is How I Jammed, Jan-April

For me, the music itself is only half of the fun. How we consume and, especially, discover the music we end up loving is a fascinating process to me on every level. 

In the past, I've toyed with This Is My Jam, the musical social network which gave this series of blogs their name, read a variety of blogs and magazines, documented every song I listened to, stolen from friends...

So far in 2013, three new methods have presented themselves to me. Shall we take a look?


An idea nicked off'f Kieron Gillen (aren't they all?): select a few of your most musically-minded friends, set up an open playlist, and watch the tunes roll in. It's so easy it almost feels like cheating.

I've been fascinated by Spotify pretty much since the moment I discovered it, but this team playlist has fiercely reignited my love for it, so much so that I finally took the plunge and went Premium, instantly revolutionising my music-listening habits. Offline playlists now dominate the paltry 8GB of space on my iPod (and on my phone, and on my laptop), and that's led to me playing with a few other methods of music discovery which... well, we'll come to those.

The playlist is here if you want to listen/collaborate. If nothing else, it's a great set of songs, thanks to everyone who's taken part (and thanks, to everyone who's taken part). Just don't blame me if clicking that link ends up costing you £10 a month.

Song highlight:


At any given moment, my web browser of choice (Chrome, if you're curious) .will have about 50 tabs open. Half of those will be songs I've found, mostly through blogs or friends' recommendations, and have listened to once or twice. They haven't taken over my brain yet, but I'm not ready to let them slip away into the ether of the net. If they're not on Spotify yet, I have no way of storing them.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

SongDrop is simply a piece of technology I can't believe didn't exist before. It adds a button to Chrome, which when pressed detects any music on the current webpage, and allows you to drop it into a single centralised playlist. It's a tool I've barely scratched the surface of yet, but like the best ideas, it solves a problem I barely I knew I had.

You can access my drops so far here.

Song highlight:


Two tracks enter, only one leaves.

This is an idea I stole, just for the sake of variety, off'f Tom Ewing. The Mincer is a way of gamifying music playlists, by pitting songs against one another.

You take 64 tracks, put them in a playlist, randomise it, and then as you listen (no skipping allowed), mentally pair the songs up. Pick which of the two you'd rather hear again, and delete the other one. Rinse and repeat until the playlist is finished, then top it up again. (You can find my exact step-by-step method at the bottom of this post.)

It's a great way to encourage listening to all those songs on your hard drive, or in your Spotify playlists, that haven't received the attention they deserve. It puts a neat framework around the whole thing, which helps to make listening to music less passive, and really forces you to concentrate on what you're listening to.

I've been thinking that the issue with the mechanics of The Mincer's 'game' is that it has slightly too many tracks, which you don't get intimate enough with to make choosing between two tracks (on the second go-round particularly) as hard a decisions as I'd like. I've been thinking of running it tournament-style, until only one song remains.

But it's only reading the rules again now that I realise I've actually been doing it wrong. You're meant to run through the playlist until only 32 of the 64 remain, then shuffle and start again until you have 16 before topping up. Seeing this now, I can see how it provides a neat middle-ground between the method I've been using, and a full-bore tournament.

Expect to hear about these variations on the formula next time on Those Were My Jams. But for the next month or two... that's all, folks.
Song highlight:

My Mincer Method
1. On Spotify, create a feeder playlist with all the songs you want to mince. (ideally you want this playlist as large and varied and possible) and an empty Mincer playlist.
2. Select all the tracks, copy, then paste them into this randomiser tool. Press random (a couple of times, if you enjoy the ritual of this), then copy and paste back them over the original tracks.
3. Take the top 64 tracks, cut and paste them into the Mincer playlist.
4. Repeat step 2 for this smaller playlist.
5. Play the tracks (with shuffle turned off).
6. After each pair of tracks, decide which you'd rather hear again, and delete the other.
7. Repeat until the end of the playlist (you can do this in bursts, as long as they are even-numbered bursts), leaving the 'winning' 32 tracks.
(Here's where I've been going wrong. Remaining steps courtesy of Ewing's original post:
8. Randomise again.
9. Play (no skipping allowed).
10. Go through the shortened playlist until you have 16 tracks.
11. Add another 48 tracks to the playlist.
12. Repeat.)

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Those Were My Jams, Jan-April: Bowie, Nash, Tegan & Sara

I've already documented my love of Kavinsky's OutRun, and Daft Punk's Get Lucky. But what of all the other music I've listened to over the last four months? Here are two more albums, and one more track, that I've spent a lot of that time in the company of. 

It's far from everything I've dug (sorry Chvrches, Why?, Kitty, et al) but it's the stuff that most insisted I write about it. So let's dive in.

I find it strangely difficult to separate The Next Day, David Bowie's 24th studio album, from David Bowie Is..., the V&A exhibition dedicated to him. They landed at about the same time, after such a long period of Bowielessness, and it felt like it'd been planned this way all along – the two prongs of the Big Bowie Resurgence of Early 2013.

Honestly, though, I think I prefer the exhibition. It has a rare vitality, between its pleasantly short attention span and wonky half-successful experiments with technology, that feels very Bowie.

For a record so drenched in his history, from the persistent Berlin references of Where Are We Now? onwards, Bowie actually feels a little absent from The Next Day. It feels like that could be intentional, a thematic touch – the cover, pasting over “Heroes”; the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight), casting David as the regular guy and transplanting Bowie the icon onto a range of wondefully androgynous women.
So, maybe that's the point, the removal of all superficial Bowie iconography from the equation, leaving just that unmistakable drawl and the same musical talent that has surrounded it since the '70s.

But at times the album sounds a little old-fashioned – in the clunkier lyrics of Boss of Me or I'd Rather Be High, in the U2-ness of If You Can See Me's opening. It feels like a very strange thing to say about Bowie, forever pop's archduke of the cutting-edge.

Maybe that's the only way to sidestep how much his influence saturates modern music. But there's not the flash, the ideas, the showiness that I've always liked most about Bowie – the same stuff that was so present in a museum, of all places.

Maybe it's all just surface stuff that I miss. But this is pop music, and that's at least as important as the tunes, right?


I've always liked Kate Nash best when she's angry.

I still maintain that it was the genuine frustration sitting under the surface of Foundations which launched it and her into the public consciousness, where they sat for one long summer. I love the blunt feminist rage of Mansion Song's spoken word. There's just something in the way her voice catches and you can sense she really means it that cuts perfectly through all the cute twee stuff and her habit of stating things outright.

The good news is, on the evidence of Girl Talk, Nash seems to agree with me.

The album starts out innocuously enough, the logical extension of what she's done previously. It has the odd moment, but is fairly unremarkable. Then, a minute into track five (Sister), you realise the music has been creaking up a ramp into the sky and you're sitting at the top-point of the rollercoaster. There's a whispered two, three, four..., and everything fires downhill.

The album builds up speed quickly, and on the best tracks, Nash is an absolute dynamo, metabolising influences from Poly Styrene's sandpaper-rough squeal to Kim Deal's disinterested rumble as she goes. From moment to moment, she might channel MIA, Kathleen Hanna, and/or Kimya Dawson. The best of girl-fronted Britpop. 1960s close-harmony girl groups... It's like (Birmingham's best clubnight in the world) Atta Grrl condensed into one record.

And as with Atta Grrl, the music here feels heavily, pointedly gendered – the album is called Girl Talk, after all, and I don't think it's a tribute to the mash-up artist. It's great and… well, hang on, you can always rely on Nash to put it as straightforwardly as it needs to be put:
“You have a problem with me,
'Cause I'm a girl.
I'm a feminist.
And if that offends you,
Then fuck you.”
Honestly, that most likely tells you everything you need to know about whether you'll enjoy Girl Talk or not. It's a bit blunt, sure, but if you can stomach that, you'll probably enjoy the ride.


Tegan & Sara's Heartthrob is actually a very fine album, but it's first single/first track Closer in particular that has imprinted itself on my heart.

It's music for dancing in your underwear to you, solo or (preferably) with a partner. Music for flirty supersoaker battles. Music for making out on the grass to, as a long-forgotten barbecue turns meat into charcoal.

It's got this wonderfully braided structure, with a chorus which relies on the rhyme of “physical/critical/typical”, then pulling out “critical” and building a second chorus around it. Inbetween, verses are dropped as if in paretheses. Oh, and it both opens cold onto the titular line and ends on it.

It's a fidgety song, as befits a song about wanting to get it on. Throughout, the music slows down, hangs for a moment – one of those beautiful parentheses, with music as descriptive as the lyrics, singing “the night sky is changing” and it just sounds like stop-motion footage of orange-purple clouds – and then kicking back in.

I can almost see the advert it would soundtrack, for Skins or hair product, or whatever young people are meant to be aspiring to. But that advert hasn't been made yet, I don't think, so I'm going to enjoy  the hell out of Closer before it is.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Those Were My Jams, Jan-April: Daft Punk

More of the music I loved in the first four months of this year. And so from one example of French electronic dance music which uses a sheen of fiction to keep the real humans firmly behind the scenes (Kavinsky) to another. Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is on its way, the radio edit of Get Lucky is the first single, and it's spent the last two weeks infecting my brain. Here's why:

The most potent metaphor for how a Daft Punk record sounds is still Michel Gondry's video for Around the World. Five sets of cartoonish characters - robots, mummies, skeletons, synchronised swimmers, giant baby-headed athletes - each embody one element of the song, and are shuffled around, stopped, brought higher in the mix, according to the music.

Like all the best Daft Punk songs, that's pretty much exactly how Get Lucky works. There are a few basic sounds at play: a near-falsetto vocal hook and two verses, courtesy of Pharrell; the disco-future spangle of Nile Rodgers' guitar; some pelvis-thrusting bass; the simplest of drum patterns; and some handclaps. These essential building blocks are all established quite early on, the song's first minute just laying them out like a magician shows the audience a set of interlinked rings, or an empty sleeve.

Then, as they loop these base elements, Daft Punk start to work their magic. What if you stripped back the instruments, and pushed handclaps to the fore instead? What if you replaced Pharrell's voice with a decaying digitised version? And what if you then brought Pharrell back and made it him duke it out with his robotic double, at opposite ends of the octave?

The song just toys with those same few elements - and maybe some synths, though they sound as if they're building off samples of other bits of the same song - for 4 minutes 44 seconds, and then it fades out.

Honestly, there's not much to Get Lucky. It's a very slight song, in a way that invites being played on repeat (and knows that it will get just what it wants - that "Like the legend of the phoenix/All ends with beginnings" opening salvo is a cheeky wink). I'm talking about how it sounds, how it feels, the surface stuff, because I know if I probed any deeper I'd find it was hollow inside.

But the genius of the song lies in its precision. On the surface, it seems joyful and easy-going, but given that I haven't been this addicted to a song since the aural crack of Paper Aeroplanes, I can only conclude that it's actually very serious business.

Each sound is weighed out carefully, mixed in alchemically exact combinations, and ultimately weaponised into something that directly attacks my nervous system in a way that makes it get exceedingly funky. I don't think that's just dumb luck.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Those Were My Jams, Jan-April: Kavinsky

'Those Were My Jams' is one of those titles that suggested itself so forcefully I had to find a format to fit it. Given I've been looking for a way to briefly document the music I've been listening to, this seemed a perfect fit.

Roughly, it's intended to be an umbrella for hopefully regular chunks of fairly brief music writing at the end of every month or two. My music discovery habits have shifted a little this year, as I've stopped using This is My Jam, and replaced it with the collaborative Spotify playlist I share with friends, and the recent discovery of Songdrop

So what better way to share some of the best stuff that's landed in my nets?


“The year was 1986. He was a teenager like any other, dreaming of his heroes and in love with a girl. But on a thunderous night along a ragged coast, a mysterious red car came to him, its power lighting his eyes blood-red.
In a flash, all was lost in the hellfire of twisted metal.
When our hero emerged from the burning wreckage, he and the car had become one, their souls spliced forever, leaving him to wander the night alone. Invisible to everyone… but her.”
That's how OutRun starts, with the aural equivalent of Star Wars' opening crawl. It sounds like the tagline for a bad '80s action film, of the kind you'd find on Channel 5 at 1am, or on a tattered VHS in a charity shop. It's equally stylish and ridiculous. It sets the scene perfectly.

OutRun is a record preoccupied with '80s trash culture. Take the cover – essentially a poster for the movie pitched in that intro. You could easily pick up the CD thinking it's a soundtrack, an impression that's only strengthened by the dozen stills from the same imaginary film throughout the album sleeve, which tell the same story, with the same focus: a man, and his car.

It seems a bit too easy to label OutRun as 'driving music', not to mention how ickily Jeremy Clarksonish the phrase feels, but it's certainly there in the album's DNA. It's no coincidence that Kavinsky came to most of our attention soundtracking the opening credits of Drive, a throaty voice intoning 'I want to drive you through the night' as Ryan Gosling did just that.

But that's all just trappings. The music – simple, pounding electro-pop of the kind you want to play at a volume that makes things shake – is more than strong enough to speak for itself.

Rampage sounds like Daft Punk on a stakeout. Odd Look sounds like it's being sung in a dark bar by the dame in a sci-fi film noir. ProtoVision sounds like a formula for metabolising every experience and feeling you've ever had and turning it into pure energy.

And Nightcall. From the moment you hear coin drops into the jukebox (or arcade machine, depending on your viewpoint), Nightcall still sounds like a slap around the face

There's an unmistakable house style here, but Kavinsky manages to draw in all sorts of other references along the way. Tracks riff on the soundtracks of '70s cop shows and exploitation movies, or drop in a rap. It runs the core sound through different filters, just in time to stop it getting boring. Deadcruiser is the feeling of the best bossfight never to appear in a Metal Slug game, condensed into 3 minutes 33 seconds.

Videogames are the other key reference point. The album is called OutRun, after all. It's exactly the kind of music that makes me wish I was really into a racing game right now, just so I could use it as an ad hoc soundtrack.

That's actually more or less how I've been using it in real life. The music practically demands movement. Not dancing – you feel Kavinsky's only interest in dancing is as seen under a strobe light, a series of cool poses. This is music for something with more forward momentum. Walking or running or riding a bike at night or, ideally, driving a really fucking nice car.

That's it, nearly – the itch that OutRun scratches so well. The single unique thing that it does, over and over, which I've spent all these words trying to pinpoint. What's left when you boil down all its pop-culture trappings. Which is, roughly: the feeling of going in a single direction, very very fast.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.