Some thoughts on 5 of my favorite Prince songs

Confession: I was never that big of a Prince fan at his peak of popularity in the ‘80s. I watched MTV incessantly, so I had plenty of exposure to most of his big hits. But I was a repressed small-town midwestern Protestant white kid. I thought it was cool when I learned he was from Minneapolis, but I didn’t see that connection as an opportunity to liberate myself from my fear of everything; I was still freaked out by his uninhibited, guiltless sexuality. That’s probably the biggest reason I didn’t pay very much attention to him, if I’m honest with myself about who I was as a 10-year-old.

But even though I didn’t consider myself a fan, and never owned any of his music until I was much (much) older, I still heard his music all the time. Because once MTV realized it was not only OK but necessary for them to play black artists, Prince was on there a lot. Videos like “1999” and “When Doves Cry” are burned into my memory. And honestly, even if I was a little sheepish about it, I liked them. As time went on, my appreciation grew. And so, as my small tribute to the Artist whose music touched so many people, here’s my list of 5 Prince songs. Not necessarily my “top 5” Prince songs, but 5 that have made a big impression on me, in the order that they did.

“1999” from 1999 (1982)

This song was my introduction to Prince. It was probably 1983 when I first saw it, so I would have been 9. I was fascinated by this song and the video. As a kid, I was always interested in the future. I wanted to get there, fast, whether it was a paradise or (as this song suggested) something more ominous. I’ve never paid as much attention to lyrics as to music, but the lyrics of this song definitely got my attention even back then. It was my first exposure to the idea of an apocalypse. And it made a huge impression on me that Prince would sing about confidently, defiantly celebrating in the face of doom. The other thing that impressed me about the video was that it showed Prince’s band performing, and he had women in the band. The music industry is still far too male-dominated today, but back then I didn’t even think to question things like that. So to see a band with both men and women, playing music together, struck me as something unique.

“When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain (1984)

Whoa. This video. The Rorschach-like mirror image effect had me transfixed from the first moment I saw it, but what really struck me was the sound of this song. It was sparse and futuristic and weird. I’d never heard anything like it, and probably still haven’t. As a kid, this was definitely my favorite Prince song. And it was made even better for me as a nerdy college student in the early ‘90s when it was referenced in a Simpsons episode where Milhouse meets his Shelbyville doppelganger.

[Much time passes…]

“Let’s Work” from Controversy (1981)

I spent most of my adult life not really thinking all that much about Prince. As I became more of an accomplished musician myself, my appreciation of his immense skills grew considerably, but I still was not really that engaged with his music. Then, one day in 2010 I was listening to The Current on the radio, and this incredibly funky song came on. I wasn’t really familiar with any of Prince’s pre-1999 work, so I had no idea what it was but I thought, “Oh, that sounds like Prince. I wonder if this is something new.” (Yeah, I’m not proud of that… but I do think it shows how we’ve come full circle that the dry, immediate sound of Prince’s early ‘80s recordings sounds contemporary again today.) I fired up Soundhound on my iPhone to identify the track, and before the song had even finished playing, I’d purchased and downloaded the entire Controversy album. Thus began my exploration of Prince’s early work. I bought all of his first four albums and listened to them — especially Dirty Mind and Controversy — incessantly for the next several weeks. Finally, at the age of 36, I really “got it”. Prince was a visionary genius, virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and all-around legend. And he was from Minneapolis and stayed here.

“Uptown” from Dirty Mind (1980)

As I delved into the early work of Prince following my “Let’s Work” epiphany, I realized that Dirty Mind was really the album that defined Prince, the Minneapolis sound, 1980s pop music, everything. “Uptown” quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album. I loved the upbeat funk groove, and the fact that it was a song about a neighborhood I used to live in. In 2011 I decided to record an album as a tribute to Minneapolis, the city where I was born and have spent most of my adult life. I had to include a song about Uptown, and I took inspiration from this Prince track.

“When You Were Mine” from Dirty Mind (1980)

The more I’ve listened to Dirty Mind (which has become my favorite Prince album), the more I’ve grown to love this song. It’s really kind of a weird song. It’s very poppy, with catchy hooks, but it is driven by strummed chords on an electric bass. And the lyrics seem, at first, like a typical pop song about a lost love, but as you listen closely you realize there’s a bizarre undercurrent to the story they tell that can only come from Prince.

I never was the kind to make a fuss
When he was there
Sleeping in between the two of us

Wait, what?

I figured my appreciation of this song was a bit unusual; it wasn’t a single, it was from before he really hit big. But in the days following his death, I discovered on Twitter that a lot of his fans cite it as their favorite Prince song. To me, it kind of symbolizes what Prince was all about: showing us that we’re all a little weird, that’s OK, and we’re not alone.

Covering Kraftwerk: the process (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the first steps in my process of recording an EP of Kraftwerk covers using solely the Pocket Operator series of micro synthesizers.

This weekend I returned to the project. I am not yet recording anything with the Pocket Operators themselves, but I am continuing the process of recording rough versions of these covers using software instruments in Logic Pro X. There are three reasons behind doing this:

1. Learning the basic structure of each instrumental part in the songs.

2. Building my overall arrangement of each piece, so I have a framework to work from as I record the Pocket Operator parts.

3. Determining which keys to transpose the songs into (since the Pocket Operators only have a 2-octave diatonic scale and can’t play chromatic notes), and having recorded versions of the parts in the new key to work from on the Pocket Operators.

As of today I have the rough mixes from Logic Pro X of all 4 tracks, so my next step is to actually get the Pocket Operators going and start recording the real parts.

The links below are rough MP3 versions of these Logic Pro X arrangements. None of the sounds you hear will be on the final versions; these are simply guide tracks for me to use in recording the real parts. Also, there are a few “open” sections in the middle of the songs (especially “Ruckzuck” and “Tour de France”) where I’ve left room for additional improvisations or manipulations.

I did not try to perfectly reproduce every part, or exactly follow the structure of each song. These are my interpretations and I’ve taken some liberties — especially with “Ruckzuck”, since I’ve never been a huge fan of the aimless noodling of the improv section in it, nor of its ever-increasing tempo.

1. Ruckzuck

2. The Man-Machine

3. Pocket Calculator

4. Tour de France, Étape 1



I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to try to record any vocals. But I think if there’s anyone whose singing I can handle imitating, it’s Ralf Hütter’s.

Top 5 Albums of 2015: The Contenders

Yes… it’s that time again. Time for me to reveal how limited my (financial, at least) exposure to this year’s new music is by publishing my list of the contenders in my top albums of year list.

It has felt like this year, more than most, I have really not paid much attention to what’s going on in the world of current music. My biggest musical obsession of the year has been listening to and collecting vinyl, even. How out of touch!

Anyway… here are the albums and EPs released in 2015 that I have purchased, and that are therefore contenders for this year’s list.

Adele • 25
Ariel Pocock • Touchstone
The Bird and the Bee • Recreational Love
Bjork • Vulnicura
Joe Satriani • Shockwave Supernova
King Crimson • Live at The Orpheum (Los Angeles 2014)
Magma • Slag tanz
Maria Schneider • The Thompson Fields
Mark Ronson • Uptown Special
Monolake • Icarus Alto and D E C (EPs)
Room 34 • Half Life (yeah, that’s me)
Steven Wilson • Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Sufjan Stevens • Carrie & Lowell
The Decemberists • What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Toro Y Moi • What For?

Seriously, that’s it? Apparently. And what’s even more ludicrous, there are at least three albums in the list I haven’t listened to at all (Bjork, Magma, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists), and a couple more that I’ve only listened to once or twice (Adele, Ariel Pocock, Maria Schneider, Mark Ronson). With the Adele album I have an excuse — it’s only been out for 5 days. And Mark Ronson… well, I’ve only listened to the full album twice, I believe (back to back on the day I got it), but I’ve had second-hand exposure to “Uptown Funk” on an almost daily basis since early summer.

As usual I’ve highlighted in bold the five most likely to make the final, sad list.

Update, January 12, 2016: Well, 2015 came and went and I never actually created my final “top 5” list. At this point I don’t think I will bother, because: a) I’m not very enthusiastic about this list; b) no one reads this stuff anyway; and c) 2016 has already obliterated 2015 musically:

Covering Kraftwerk: the process (part 1)

As my Twitter followers know, I’ve concocted a harebrained scheme to record an EP of Kraftwerk covers, using solely the Pocket Operator calculator-esque synthesizers from Teenage Engineering. This project was inspired by my love of Kraftwerk and my assumption that Teenage Engineering was directly influenced by Kraftwerk (especially the song “Pocket Calculator”) in creating the Pocket Operators.

I’m taking a, let’s say, judiciously-paced approach to this project. Partly because I don’t have a lot of free time at the moment, and partly because I need to let this thing fully gestate in my brain. Also because I’m still learning how the Pocket Operators work. They’re ingeniously designed, but not exactly intuitive. (Then again, I don’t find any electronic devices besides computers intuitive. Let’s not even get started on fax machines.)

I’ve identified the four Kraftwerk songs I want to cover:

  1. Ruckzuck (1970)
  2. The Man-Machine (1978)
  3. Pocket Calculator (1981)
  4. Tour de France, Étape 1 (2003)

My first baby steps into the project were in the form of some brief tinkering with the Pocket Operators themselves to lay down the basic foundation of “Ruckzuck”, which I did from memory. (It was easy to do this one from memory; after all, I watched a lot of Newton’s Apple as a kid.) I commemorated this with a brief video posted to Instagram:

A video posted by Scott Anderson (@room34) on

This past weekend I took my second step, which went a bit further. I have decided that part of what is challenging to me with playing these Kraftwerk songs (as simple as they are) on the Pocket Operators is that I don’t have any written music to work from. So I’m introducing a second step in the process, but one that will not at all make its way into the final product. I’m creating versions of the songs entirely with software instruments in Logic Pro X, just so I have my own transcriptions (really, adaptations, because I’m not trying to get it perfect) to work from when I program the Operators.

Here we have the beginnings of my rough Logic Pro X interpretation of “The Man-Machine.”


I am excited about this project! Just hoping I can find some time in the near future to keep pushing it forward.

What will the end results be? I’m not sure. While I’ve dabbled with recording covers before, I’ve never taken them through to completion and released them into the world. I’m not even sure how I want to go about that. But so far it’s still a long way off.

Album Review: Joe Satriani, Shockwave Supernova

JS_SS_COVER_FINAL_12.75x12.75_rgbJoe Satriani is one of those musicians I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I like. It’s not “cool” to be a Joe Satriani fan. And sometimes when I am listening to his music I cringe a bit myself.

That’s usually why I am embarrassed to like certain music… because at times it’s worth being embarrassed about. Musicians like “Satch” (also embarrassing) generally veer into cheezball territory at least once per album. But in general, people who aren’t music geeks tend to look down on instrumental rock albums and “guitar hero” musicians like Joe Satriani.

But Satch differs from a lot of these “guitar hero” types, in that his songs aren’t just scaffolds draped in virtuosic shredding wankery. He has a great sense of melody and works hard to develop songs with a proper structure. There’s plenty of shredding, of course, but it’s confined to solo breaks in songs that are remarkably “song-like,” despite the lack of singing. (Well, most of the time. He does sometimes sing. But most of his albums are completely instrumental.)

Another big problem I have with guitar hero albums is that there’s usually a colossal ego involved. It’s all about the guitar, and the other instruments are confined to very basic supporting roles. I feel like that’s often the case with Satch too, and to be honest the bass is mostly relegated to the background on this new album, Shockwave Supernova, but the outstanding drumming of Marco Minnemann and Vinnie Colaiuta — two of the best session drummers around — gets almost equal spotlight with the guitar.

Satch sounds amazing, as always. Even better than usual, I think. His precision is unmatched, and he demonstrates a remarkable diversity of techniques and tones. And with this album he even managed — I think — not to produce one single “cringe ballad” that I find myself skipping over. The day I got it, I listened to the album straight through four times and never got tired of it. Even the songs I don’t love have parts I really like, and no song wears out its welcome.

Apparently this is a concept album. As someone who has recorded plenty of instrumental concept albums myself, I can see how it may be hard for anyone other than the musicians themselves to get the concept when there are no lyrics. But then again, the concept is basically an exploration of the stage persona Satch takes on when he performs. So… yeah.

Joe Satriani’s picture is on the cover of every album he has released. I guess that’s commonplace with solo musicians, but it still seems pretty egotistical. And often the cover art just really isn’t very good. But I love the cover of this album, and it’s even cooler when you have the physical CD, because the letters are die-cut out of the cardboard. It becomes an interesting object that is worth owning, instead of another ordinary paper booklet inside a plastic jewel case. Of course I just ripped the CD and filed it away, but I took a few moments to admire it first, which doesn’t happen very often anymore.

Is this Satch’s best album? I’m not sure. There’s a certain sameness to this kind of music, and it definitely is immediately recognizable as yet another Joe Satriani album. But the quality is there. I’d put it in his top 3, and if you’re someone who might be inclined to check out his music (and somehow haven’t already), I think it’s a great place to start.