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?

SPOTIFY TEAM PLAYLIST

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:

SONGDROP

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:

THE MINCER

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.


DAVID BOWIE – THE NEXT DAY
THE NEXT DA
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?


KATE NASH – GIRL TALK
GIRL TALK

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 – CLOSER
CLOSER

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.

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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.