A humbling question for any self-avowed music fetishist to ask, but there was no denying it – I had lost touch with today’s music. Foster the People? All over it – but so is anyone who watches Conan O’Brien. I have an opinion not only on Lana Del Ray, but her SNL appearance too (positive, thank you). And while I can sing Party Rock Anthem from memory, find me a housewife in Kansas who can’t.
Every music fan knows there is no sweeter joy than being ‘the first’ to direct their friends towards an awesome new album, song or artist, and I can claim ‘Slanted and Enchanted’, ‘Since I Left You’ and ‘The Soft Bulletin’ as my ‘discoveries’. Problem is, none of these are from the last 10 years. Hard swallow.
At one time, knee-deep in Spin magazine and hosting my own campus Radio Show at Western (‘The Fever’) I could go toe-to-toe with anyone on music and emerge relatively unscathed. These days, however, I have to admit I have exhausted nearly all of my avenues into new music – the stuff just below the surface – stuff you probably won’t hear on radio, see on TV, or maybe even read about in magazines.
So, cue the cuz. Trevor Burns, aka T-Rev, music freak, accomplished pianist, and host of his own show at Cornell called Throwdown Thursdays. I asked him to assemble a playlist of the furthest-forward music he knew. Not weird shit nobody likes that’s purposefully obtuse, but good shit. Stuff that — sigh — the kids are listening to.
Cornell is not South Central, so there’s an economic, cultural and sociological bias to the selections – as there would be if I were to ask someone from South Central. And I’m fine with that because frankly, after 20 miserable years of rap dominating popular music, I can go the rest of my life without needing to be told to ‘throw my hands in the air, and wave them like I just don’t care’.
If you can hear Van Morrison’s ‘Blue Money’ in the Sesame Street theme song, and can hear the Sesame Street theme song in Wilco’s ‘Outta Mind/Outta Sight’, we might have something in common. So herewith, forthwith, the best of ‘What the Kids are Listening to Today’, + 2 stinkers for the curmudgeons and misanthropes out there.
You Do You – Bear in Heaven
Start with an easy one. Addictive and brilliant. A restless, Philip Glass-style synth pulse sits on the bottom, overlaid by a slow-mo Maggie May drum style. The lyrics are insistent, repetitive, echoey, lonely and harmonized – an ongoing, unanswered call into the abyss. Kind of like love. I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about but it sounds dark and swirling, not quite nightmarish, and shot through with brilliant, sparkling, boops and beeps in all the right places.
Norway – Beach House
What starts as a key held on a Yamaha Portasound soon crests and gives way to a lush combo of chants and guitar noodling. We’re greeted by a plaintive speak-song, accompanied by warbling, warped tones shimmering beside the voice. Out of tune guitar? The chorus soars without forgetting the melancholy mood and just gets more beautiful from there. Subtle, skilled, sad and moving, this song is powered by a simple Indian tom-tom beat and is practically painted on the ethereal air of the singing. The exhortations of ‘NOR-WAY-AY-AY-AY-AY’ are to be believed, if not understood.
Low Shoulder – Toro Y Moi
Squelchy, rounded, bass womps, simple disco hand-clap percussion, and the most addictive little electronic melody squirt anyone’s heard on a synthesizer since The Gap Band. Damn, by the three minute mark there must be 10 layers of sounds cooking in this pot – all complimentary, all designed please you, promising surprise and delight. The singing is lovely and swaying, sounding only slightly bored but in a good way, as though he’s been to every party worth going to, twice, and is now taking you on an aural travelogue of his sonic adventures in the post-disco underground, attitude-free.
Breathe – Telepopmusik
Is this Portishead? For those of us still stuck on Dummy this sounds like a kinder, gentler return to those days. She is singing from the other end of the phone, then from the other room, and she is definitely on this planet but in a different world. A hi-hat counts the seconds off like a sentient metronome and everything is rounded, no right angles – yes, that is exactly what I’m saying – if Antoni Gaudi were alive today and making pop musik, this is what it would sound like. Or rather what he would believe his girlfriend was hearing during the sweetest stretch of her absinthe high. And once again, those glorious, expertly placed boops and beeps bubbling up from everywhere like little coloured Easter Eggs, dropping into your ear. Could it be called Breathe because we’re underwater?
Painter in Your Pocket – Destroyer
Why can some people sing so bad, and sound so good? Television’s Tom Verlaine perfected that strangled, urban squawk which should sound like nails on a chalkboard but actually brings tears to your eyes through its honesty and hurt anxiety. Destroyer’s lead singer is not nearly so-bad-it’s-good but it’s a creaky croak which shouldn’t work but does. Heartfelt, wounded, authentic and moving, it starts the song and carries the emotional narrative until it all goes quiet and yields to the prettiest and most delicate little guitar melody I may ever have heard. Yes, it is that good. It’s humbling. As in, what am I doing with my life while someone else begat this beautiful little music love child, wrapped in bars of simple sunshine? When the drums finally kick in, meaning we move from the rumbly toms to the ride cymbal and snare drum, just give up. You’re now in the hands of simple masters. Unforgettable.
You – Gold Panda
Now we’re getting weird. We start with what sounds like someone fumbling with a tape deck – a nice post-modern touch – then slip into a pop confection too sugary sweet for even a Barbie commercial. This sound is as plastic and hermetically sealed from reality as a frame of Pixar film. Picture two computers – actually, don’t. Computers are logical. This is just silly nonsense. But the insistence that somehow this might be good, that this is somehow fun, pleasing, or worth listening to comes from the sheer collective novelty and abundance of random sound effects pretending to be a song. Eventually a beat creeps in and threatens to rain on the lollipop parade, but we never truly doubt the protagonist’s escape from the tiny universe of this song. There is tone, colour, some shape and texture but not much else. Disposable.
The Bay – Metronomy
Precise, quiet ABBA drumming with perfectly placed off-beat clangs on the cymbal, moving urgently forward, propelled by an electric piano reminiscent of Supertramp’s ‘Fool’s Overture’. The singing is polite, British and poppy. Not quite Pet Shop Boys – less bombast – but late 80’s in style. Slightly frantic in an invigorating way. A catchy, fun melody, and knowing lyrics you can almost catch on the first pass. This song will bury itself in your brain so be warned.
You’re a Jerk – New Boyz
Torture. A plodding, numbing ‘beat’. The most insipid Tourette’s sample – ‘You’re a jerk’ – I’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing. It at times threatens to take off thanks to a John Carpenter’s Halloween sort of menace in the background but meaningless, indulgent pauses in the action just grind your face in the shit sandwich that is this song. A phlegmatic hawk and spit on the ground. Drivel.
Mouthful of Diamonds – Phantogram
Wicked bass-buzz throughout; machine-like drumming, but with warmth; nice LP crackle floating in the background; harmonies a la Heart; languorous pauses where almost everything disappears then comes back with head bobbing syncopation, accompanied by a warm, dappling guitar. What is not to love about this song? Plus a mockingbird call that is surprisingly welcome, adding some tent poles to the heavy sonic tarp which otherwise threatens to smother us.
Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites – Skrillex
Tone, timbre, texture and an alarming swing between a melody you can whistle and a robot in the throes of a nightmare. At various points someone screams ‘Oh my God!’ At other times it is as though an Otis Redding chorus has arrived via fax, and it sounds about as clear as a faxed document looks. Other than the sheer novelty of it, which is appealing, it’s hard to picture Skrillex having a Greatest Hits compilation in 10 years. Then again, that is probably the furthest thing from his mind right now. I get the sense his music, and this song, is best heard at the moment of creation; surrounded by a few hundred of your friends, 3 o’clock in the morning, getting machine-gunned by strobe lights, and high on life. At that time, in that place, I’d be begging for this song.
To hear these tunes for yourself, check out the vids above — or listen to ’em all here on LTEV’s handy playlist: