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:
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:
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:
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.
Joe 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.
First, let’s begin with several paragraphs of me explaining, in general, why I make snap judgments
As I’ve gotten older, my life seems to be more and more about resisting complexity. I want things to be simple. Part of that comes out of the aesthetics and principles of my job. The web has a tendency towards over-complication, and it’s my job to fight that.
Also, more generally, as you get older there are more and more decisions to be made in a day. Every hour, every minute, every second, you have to make a decision about something. It’s overwhelming and drains your soul. I have to prioritize the things that matter to me, and, more and more, cast the rest aside.
When something new comes along, I have to make a snap judgment. Not necessarily a permanent judgment. That would be foolish and self-defeating. But I do need to make that initial choice: whether or not to let this new thing occupy more of my time right now. Essentially, whether or not to give it a chance.
Sometimes I revisit things I never gave a chance the first time around. On rare occasions I discover that I missed out on something good, and I welcome it in. Most of the time, though, I just confirm that I was right to dismiss it in the first place.
Enter, Apple Music
This week’s biggest choice has been whether or not to embrace Apple Music. On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer. Apple and Music are two of the biggest parts of my life. I have gulped down my glass of Apple Kool-Aid and asked for a refill, please and thank you. I was a music major in college. I make music, I listen to music. Over a span of 30+ years I have collected and pored over and obsessively thought about music.
Come to think of it, that’s probably the problem.
Apple Music seems like it’s for people who don’t already own a lot of music. I suppose all of the streaming music services are. After all, if you owned it, why would you stream it, other than convenience? But even then, you’d probably just stream it from your iTunes or Amazon library (both of which I have done, often).
From my perspective, owning a music library of over 23,000 songs (enough to play for 75 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes straight, 24 hours a day, without repeating a track), the subscription streaming services have never had much appeal, so I’ve never even tried Spotify, Rdio, etc. But, being an Apple fan, I somehow thought their service might be different. Might be for me. But I guess not.
What would a post like this be without a bullet list?
So what is it about Apple Music that has turned me off? It’s many things, actually:
The initial experience of picking, by tapping on hovering bubbles, your favorite genres (from a very narrow and mainstream set), and then favorite artists (from suggestions it pulled in from the selected genres), is basically the same as it was in the old Beats Music service, which I had also already tried and abandoned within 24 hours when it first appeared. This process did quickly home in on many artists that I like, but I reloaded at least a dozen times trying to get it to refine the selections further. Even then, the best it came up with were only what I’d really call “second-tier favorites.” (Also, the UX with the bubbles sucks and needs to be fixed.)
Once everything was set up, the “For You” screen did offer me a lot of music I like. But, guess what. Almost all of it was music I already own. And of the 2 or 3 selections it offered that I don’t already own, I was either mildly disinterested or they were musicians I actively loathe.
Beats 1. What the hell is this? I mean, OK. The chance that I would actually like what they play on a single, worldwide “radio” station that Jimmy Iovine has anything to do with was already less than zero. But I have actually given it a chance 3 or 4 times, and every time I turn it on, it’s the same “underground” alternative hip hop vibe. This is music I do not dislike. I mean, I wasn’t repulsed by it. It wasn’t Celine Dion or Kenny G. But it’s just not what I’m into, and maybe I just didn’t listen long enough but there was no variety in styles. (Granted, other than the one time I listened to it in the car, I haven’t bothered to leave it on for more than one song. But the first song that’s playing when I turn it on is always in this style.)
The return of DRM. I can’t say it any better than this, so I won’t even try.
All of that led me to one simple conclusion, and my snap judgment. I do not want to give Apple Music any more time or attention, at least right now. I just want the same convenient access to my own extensive music library that I’ve come to appreciate with iTunes Match. So I’ve turned off auto-renew on my Apple Music subscription. I’m going to make sure I don’t cancel iTunes Match. And, just to be safe, I’m going to re-download and back up my entire library from iTunes Match just in case… you know… someday.
I love Apple’s hardware and, usually, their OS software. But cripes, they just cannot get online services right, can they?
But see, here’s the thing. Remember how I said I sometimes revisit things I hadn’t given a chance the first time around? I feel like here I am revisiting something. I’ll admit I don’t have extremely vivid or extensive memories of it, since I had only initially looked at it so briefly, but to me Apple Music feels very, very much like Beats Music was. To the point where I find it hard to believe they spent much time at all changing anything about it other than simply fusing it into the iTunes ecosystem. Oh, and adding that pointless radio station.
I may still give it another try at some point before the free trial period ends. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I doubt it.
Follow the money
One last thought, as I try to make sense of what this is really all about. Apple is a big company, and so are the record labels they had to negotiate with to get permission to offer all of this “content.” My very brief experience listening to music through Apple Music consisted mostly (and, rather strangely, if you think about it) of listening to music that I already had in my library. But because I was listening to these songs through an Apple Music subscription instead of playing them directly from my library, Apple was making micropayments to the record labels for the streams.
So, yes, indirectly, I was paying again for music I already purchased. Just a few fractions of a cent really, but still. That’s the business model here. Especially with the concern I mentioned above (this, if you weren’t paying attention) over Apple Music replacing iTunes Match’s “matched” files with DRM-restricted ones (only if you’ve canceled iTunes Match, apparently), I am left feeling pretty cynical over this whole enterprise, and disappointed that Apple would take things in this direction.
But, then again, they bought Beats, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.
Update: HEY, WAIT! Don’t go. This is important.
I’ve discovered a small change in the new version of iTunes for the Mac (version 12.2) that has a huge impact on all of this. This is the version that introduces Apple Music and changes the icon from red to white.
The ability to tell iTunes to download multiple songs at once is gone. It used to be, if you selected multiple songs in your library — like, all of them — and right-clicked (Ctrl-click), the contextual menu had a Download option, right at the top. Click that, and it starts downloading all of the selected songs.
Um, yeah. That’s gone.
The little icon of the cloud with an arrow is still there. You can click it. You can still download songs. ONE. AT. A. TIME. Good luck with that. So, here’s the important thing: If you haven’t upgraded to iTunes 12.2 yet, DON’T. At least, download all of your music first.
Lucky for me, I have access to multiple Macs, and one of them hadn’t been updated yet. Even as I type this I have my external hard drive hooked up to it, and I’ve begun the process of downloading all 23,000+ songs. Should only take a week or so. (Thanks, CenturyLink!)
In light of the above considerations about money and playing ball with the record labels, I can only interpret the removal of this feature in one way.
Update to the update (August 26, 2015)
Regarding my panic in the update above about the removal of the ability to download “make available offline” multiple tracks at once, I should note that in a subsequent update (not sure which; I’m currently running 220.127.116.11) Apple restored this feature. You can now select multiple tracks, and “Make available offline” appears in the contextual menu. And it works.
I think little by little features are going to get rolled back in that those of us who don’t wholeheartedly embrace streaming services in general, and Apple Music in particular, are asking for. But whether or not those restored features will come with improvements to the interface (especially in the iOS Music app) remains to be seen.
In the summer of 1984, I was 10 years old. I spent most of that summer the way I had spent the two previous summers: playing a lot of Atari, and watching a lot of MTV. My ultimate favorite band at the time was, without a doubt, Duran Duran, and “The Reflex” was my favorite song. (My family had just gotten a VCR, and I had a tape that was the video for “The Reflex” over and over, filling up the entire tape. I had sat for days watching MTV with the VCR paused, ready to record as soon as it came on.)
The “Fab Five” aside, I had two other favorite songs that I had seen on MTV but that were a lot harder to find, by two “new” bands I’d never heard of before. The first was “That’s All” by Genesis. The other, and my new elusive favorite that threatened to nudge out “The Reflex” — if only I’d gotten to hear it more often — was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. The video was surreal and the song was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.
It’s funny that, at the time, I thought Yes and Genesis were “new” bands, and “progressive rock” was a term I’d never even heard. At some point over the next couple of years I saw the Rush Grace Under Pressure concert video (on MTV or HBO; I can’t remember which), and then my mind was really blown when (again, on MTV or HBO) I saw a Genesis documentary that revealed to me how, in the 1970s, Genesis (which had existed in the ’70s!) had been fronted by Peter Gabriel (seriously?!) and they had performed insanely complex 20-minute songs with Gabriel acting out characters while wearing bizarre costumes. It was all too much for my young mind to take. But I had no idea what was just around the corner.
In 1988, when I was a freshman in high school, U2 and R.E.M. were my favorite bands. That is until one night at a sleepover when my friend Mark played me a tape of A Show of Hands, the new live album by Rush. This. Changed. Everything.
The next summer, now firmly ensconced as a hardcore Rush fan, Mark played me another tape. This time it was Classic Yes. I will admit I couldn’t get past the second track, “Wonderous Stories,” to hear the rest of the album, but it didn’t matter. “Heart of the Sunrise” was the most beautiful, bewildering, mesmerizing piece of music I had ever heard, and it immediately became my favorite song of all time.
It still is.
As amazing as I found that song to be in almost every way, the part that was most compelling to me was Chris Squire’s bass. I had already started developing a fascination with the electric bass from listening to Geddy Lee with Rush, but Chris Squire took it to a whole new level for me.
I had been playing clarinet since 5th grade, but I almost quit band before I started high school. My mom convinced me to give it one more year. That was the year that changed everything. My high school band teacher inspired me, and I became obsessed with music. That year he let me borrow a saxophone from the school (a soprano, of all things, but that’s all that was available), and I taught myself to play it so I could join the jazz band. The following year (now doubling on clarinet in concert band and tenor sax in jazz), I branched out yet again and borrowed another unused school instrument, a sickly green colored Fender Precision Bass. I didn’t have an amp, but that was no problem, because I learned to pluck the strings hard enough that I could hear it as I played along and learned the bass parts to songs like “Cygnus X-1” by Rush and “Perpetual Change” by Yes. That hard plucking style worked perfectly for someone trying to imitate Geddy or Chris.
As high school wore on, Mark and I explored the Yes catalog about as thoroughly as our limited budgets (and the limited availability of “obscure” CDs in a town with one small Musicland outpost as its only record store) would allow. I special ordered the mysterious Tales from Topographic Oceans album and called Mark to come over for a special listening when it arrived.
He later did the same for me, when he acquired Relayer.
This was seriously weird music. And finding it on our own felt like exploring an alien world. Roger Dean’s phantasmagorical cover art only increased the sense that we were tampering with forces of nature that the straitlaced world we were growing up in didn’t want us to know about.
Then came Yesyears. A huge boxed set and documentary video that peeled back the layers of mystery and wonder shrouding the 5, 6, 7, 12 37? people who had been in this band. They became real, and messy, and mockable. The real life Spinal Tap. Mark and I still loved them; if anything we loved them even more. And we watched the video again and again, cracking jokes like our own rockumentary version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, much to the dismay and confusion of Mark’s girlfriend who was unfortunate enough to sit through one of the viewings with us.
Mark and I went to separate colleges, but we kept in touch over the nascent Internet, discovering new prog bands — and new prog fans — via the alt.music.progressive Usenet newsgroup. We even made our own music, bizarre and inept but occasionally inspired free-form improvisations, with Mark on organ and me on electric bass. We called ourselves Bassius-O-Phelius, after the instrument Rockette Morton was credited as playing on a couple of Beefheart albums.
But always I kept coming back to Yes, and to Chris Squire and his punchy, in-your-face “lead bass” playing style. Although I was a music major in college, the web hit in a big way during my years there (I graduated in 1996), so I ended up pursuing a career as a web developer. But music never left my life, and though my interest in prog rock waned, I never lost my love for Yes, even as their off-stage drama continued to become more absurd and mockable.
In 1997, while living in Southern California, I got to hear Yes live for the first time, on the Open Your Eyes tour. I saw them in Los Angeles, and was so blown away that I immediately got a ticket for their next show in San Diego and drove down there two nights later to hear them again. (Interesting side note: the audience at a rock show in San Diego is way different than in Los Angeles, something that Jon Anderson made note of from the stage. Specifically, he mentioned how… “aromatic”… shows in San Diego always were.)
I saw Yes again the next summer in Las Vegas. At least, part of the show. I was seated in the balcony for their show at the Hard Rock Hotel, with a great view for the opening act — Alan Parsons Project. But when Yes took the stage, their lighting guy came into the booth that I hadn’t noticed was right in front of me, and completely blocked my view. I stood up, which led to an argument with an usher over the fact that I was supposed to be in the SRO area (even though I had a ticket for the seat), and after bickering futilely with him for a few minutes, I ended up leaving early. Walking back in the dark from the Hard Rock Hotel (which is, emphatically, not on the Strip) to where I had parked by Caesar’s Palace was harrowing, to say the least. This was in the days before smartphones with GPS. I had relied on a tiny Las Vegas city map in my road atlas that made it look like the Hard Rock was on an adjacent road to the Strip, whereas in reality there are about two miles of desolate wasteland between them.
Around this time, in the spirit of “lovingly mocking” this lovable, mockable band, I started a website wherein I attempted to review their entire catalog, album by album, song by song, in a somewhat sardonic tone. I was surprised by how many people the humor was lost on, but it didn’t stop the band’s fan club from approaching me at the time, asking me if I would be interested in becoming the “webmaster” (as we were called back then) of the band’s official site, yesworld.com. I politely declined, in part because I felt it would only be fair to take down my own website, but more because it sounded like it was going to be a lot of work for the foreseeable future, and I would only be compensated in VIP passes and band merch. Do I regret the decision? Somewhat. But although it meant I never got to meet the band or become involved with them in an official way, it probably would have been a lot of work that I would have come to resent. C’est la vie. I eat at Chez Nous.
I saw Yes live three more times in subsequent years, after moving back to Minneapolis. A highlight was definitely getting to see them with the classic lineup including Rick Wakeman reunited, and hearing that lineup perform a song I never thought I’d hear live: “South Side of the Sky.”
But although I had endured many tribulations of the band over the years, I vowed never to see them live again after they unceremoniously kicked Jon Anderson out in the late 2000s over his respiratory health problems. Yes with a cover band impersonator of Jon Anderson singing lead vocals is not really Yes, even if the other four guys on stage are long-time (or not-so-long-time but long-ago) members of the band.
Refusing to see them live didn’t stop me from buying their new music though, and I have to say, I was actually somewhat impressed with Fly from Here, the album the band released in 2011 sans Jon Anderson. They even released a music video that seemed to be in much the same spirit as that of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was what drew me to the band in the first place, so many years earlier.
Unfortunately I can’t offer similar praise for last year’s Heaven and Earth, which sadly now will be the final new Yes studio album to feature Chris Squire. What can I say? It’s really, really awful. Oh wait, I already said that. But, when you’ve followed Yes for as long as I have, you realize that there’s at least as much bad as good, and being along for the ride is part of what it’s all about.
Lately my Yes fandom has taken another unexpected turn, as I’ve become most intrigued with a couple of albums that, while I have certainly listened to them plenty of times (after all, I’ve listened to everything they released up through 1999’s The Ladder plenty of times), have never been favorites that commanded a lot of my attention: 1980’s Drama and 1983’s 90125.
Yes, 90125. The album that introduced me to the band. Although I loved that one song, for whatever reason I never owned the album as a kid. And by the time I was in high school and approached the Yes catalog from the other direction, the Trevor Rabin years were to be ignored at best, ridiculed mercilessly at worst.
But life throws unexpected surprises at you. And in this case it comes in a very convoluted fashion. I have a Raspberry Pi-powered arcade cabinet at the Room 34 studio. A couple months ago, I reprogrammed it to also be a jukebox. It was originally just playing ’80s music, to go with the era of the games it runs, but eventually I loaded it up with all of the MP3s in my music library. The thing is, I don’t have many MP3s in my music library. Most of my music lives today in my iTunes Match account, so even if it originally came from a ripped CD (which I always do in MP3 format), I now only have ready access to most of those songs in Apple’s AAC format. But any albums I’ve purchased on Amazon (CD or MP3) are available to download through Amazon Music Player as MP3s. So naturally, I downloaded everything I could from my Amazon account and loaded it up on the arcade cabinet. As it happens, for Yes that means Drama and 90125, which are apparently the only studio albums by Yes that I bought on CD through Amazon.
Anyway, I’ve been hearing those two albums a lot lately.
In fact, last month I ran in a 10-mile race, and I decided to set up a playlist that just “felt right” to me that day. It was three full albums. The first was my own 5mi. (Yes, I listen to my own music a lot when I run. Don’t ask.) The second was Drama. The third was Van Halen’s 1984. The playlist was awesome, and now I have vivid memories of running along the banks of Lake Waconia in the western exurbs while listening to “Tempus Fugit.”
I was deeply saddened to learn last month that Chris Squire had leukemia, and I knew from that point that his prognosis was not good. Michael Brecker (the jazz saxophonist who inspired me to play, in much the same way as Chris Squire had with the bass) succumbed at a relatively early age from the disease, as had a coworker and friend from my time in Atlanta.
So it was with sadness, but not surprise, that I learned this morning of Chris Squire’s passing. I may have poked fun at him and the band over the years, but I loved his bass playing, and I loved their music. This digressive personal recollection of my life through his music is, in my own weird way, a tribute to Chris Squire and the music that he made, in his own weird way. It has meant more to my life than I can say. So, after all of the above, I’ll just say: thank you, Chris.