Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Sting Appreciation Day '19: Album Review: Sting, My Songs

Today, for Sting Appreciation Day, I will quickly review Sting's latest album My Songs, which came out earlier this year, in March. Didn't know that Sting came out with a new album? Well, you not knowing is not that surprising—the album does not feature new material, but instead reworks classic Sting hits. How much does Sting re-work his material in My Songs? Unlike 2010's Symphonicities, the answer is not very much. Besides some slick drum beats, the synth equivalent of rainstick effects, maybe even some electronic rhythm accompaniments, and some short extra interludes, the songs are pretty much the same as the originals—the structure of each song, the vocal delivery, and even any lead instruments. One exception might be "Fields of Gold", which was re-worked to be more guitar-centric and folky, with a fiddle replacing the Northumbrian pipes (and a subtle, though inexplicable, drum machine); still, the structure of the song remains the same.

So, we appreciate you Sting! These are still great songs. But unless you are a die-hard Sting collector who needs every last version of something, I would recommend that you can skip this one.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Old music in the time of streaming

Not this type of streaming. "Truckee River, Tahoe" is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

A few weeks ago, NPR produced a series of new articles about the opportunities, perils, and possible future streaming music as it has become for many the main way of accessing music. These articles were an update of a series they produced in 2015, which I covered on this blog.

While this new series of articles covered some important issues in the new world of streaming, such as how new stars are made, how artists get paid (or not), even how music is written differently, I noticed one strain that was absent in the coverage: how people find and listen to music that is not coming out now. There were several in-depth reports of pining after old methods of distribution (cassette mixtapes, Tumblr, and early alternative streaming services) that helped people discover music, but even those focused on how people found the new music of time.

But there is a lot of music out there that is not new, but undiscovered to many people, and what is apparent from NPR's coverage is that the major streaming services care less about this older music than promoting new music.

Not on streaming?

It turns out there is a lot of older music that is not available via streaming; it was only ever distributed on physical formats. It costs a non-negligible amount money to put and keep music online (not just the format transfer, but keeping track of rights and revenue), and if the music doesn't fit a service's criteria, it doesn't get posted. Jazz and classical music are only 1% each of the music market, but they and other genres produce a lot of music. Because there is so much music online, many assume that everything is online—but this is patently false.

Where does music go to die?

Modern streaming services, like the old-school record labels, don't take care of things that they don't think are going to make them money. This was part of the reason that the master recordings that burned in the Universal fire were stored in bad conditions and not cataloged well—Universal did not justify spending money on something that wasn't making money for them now. For streaming services, how do they decide when a song or album isn't worth posting on their platform? What about taking down songs or albums or genres that aren't earning enough money or have rights problems too complicated to deal with?

The Universal fire also showcases the ephemeral nature of recorded music—it has to be stored somewhere, even if it only is distributed via streaming. And unlike with physical media, where multiple copies are distributed that can be re-discovered, the access-only model streaming services control what who has a copy. What happens when streaming services decide an album that was only released on streaming should be taken down? And then a fire or simply bad cataloging causes the label or streaming service to lose track of the music? Or, maybe more likely, a popular streaming service suddenly goes bankrupt and shuts down overnight? (After all, Spotify has still never really made a profit).

In these cases, the music ceases to exist, for all intents and purposes. I predict that in 30 years, 2050, our era will be known in music circles as the “lost years” because there will be a lot of music that just isn’t available because no one was able to collect it and streaming companies decided it was not worth preserving.

Under protection...from preservation

Before the 2018 Music Modernization Act (MMA), there as no federal copyright protection for sound recordings produced before 1972, but instead a loose patchwork of state copyright applied. The MMA patched up this loophole, at least as far is streaming is concerned, but in doing so, it greatly extended protections for older music—which while these protections are good for a few artists and acts that are still well-known and popular, the protections are certainly bad for lesser-known music. Long copyright terms before passing into the public domain only hurt the chances that preservation will occur for these older recordings—and there are some major preservation problems. Magnetic media (such as cassette tapes) and even CDs not stored in optimal conditions may deteriorate in less than half of the time of their copyright terms, so we may get to the point where we are allowed to copy recorded music, only to find it doesn't exist anymore. The MMA does allow some preservation exceptions for recordings that aren't being commercially exploited, but there are some somewhat cumbersome steps you need to take first—and these exceptions would not have been part of the law at all if some library organizations hadn't lobbied for them. Finally, those services that do take the steps to preserve these recordings have to pay a lot of money to digitize and keep the recordings accessible—and who knows when someone will decide it is not worth it for their organization, either?

Let's figure out a way to keep old music available, okay?

What do you think?

Saturday, March 16, 2019

3 new Irish traditional music albums for your St. Patrick’s Day playlist

As I’ve written about before on this blog (here and here), I am not a big fan of the way most people celebrate St. Patrick’s day in the US. I think one of the best ways is to listen to Irish traditional music—and to help you celebrate, I’m presenting 3 new albums of Irish traditional music (all from the last year) that you can add your holiday playlist. In no particular order:

The Gap of Dreams by Altan – This group from Donegal has been around for over 30 years and is still coming out with great music. Tracks rotate between songs in Irish, English, and purely instrumental, both traditional newly composed. (If you follow the link to the Amazon page, notice that the artist is listed as “ATLAN”—a misspelling that hasn’t been corrected in the year the album has been out; funny if it wasn't so sad. Metadata fail.).

CAS by Lúnasa – This mainly instrumental band has been around for more than 20 years, but hasn’t released new music since 2010. Besides their typical awesome instrumental tracks, the band teams up with some guests vocalists such as Natalie Merchant and Mary Chapin Carpenter. All songs with vocals are sung in English.

Allt by Julie Fowlis, Éamon Doorley, Zoë Conway, and John McIntyre – Two power couples of Celtic traditional music, one couple from Scotland (Fowlis and Doorley) and one from Ireland (Conway and McIntyre) got together and recorded an album that includes songs from both places, in both Scots-Gaelic and Irish. So, maybe not purely Irish…but you probably can’t tell which are Irish and which are Scottish, right? I am not sure I can. Anyway, it is a great album.

Have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day, and remember to celebrate immigrant populations and our cultural inheritance from them, such as those, like the Irish, that used to be vilified in America.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Best pop songs of 2018 mix

Last post, I presented my top six albums of 2018. But there were plenty of new songs in 2018 not on those albums that I would recommend checking out. I made a Spotify playlist and some brief comments about each track (in no particular order).

Spotify playlist link:
  1. Kali Uchis: “Your Teeth in My Neck” from Isolation – The production is of this track is exciting (and a little retro), and its theme of wealth and class is equally retro/current.
  2. David Crosby: “1967” from Here If You Listen –The Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash is still writing music, and came out with a pretty good album with his much younger touring band. This track's production is a throwback, but comes across as still fresh.
  3. Gwenno: “Tir Ha Mor” from Le Kov – Gwenno’s 2nd album is entirely in Cornish, an almost dead language—so remember that writing good pop songs is a good way to make your almost-dead-language relevant again. The song's title means "land and sea."
  4. Tune-Yards: “Heart Attack” from I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life – This album, written partially in response to criticism about lead singer Merrill Garbus’s cultural appropriation, came out at the beginning of 2017, so I think some reviewers forgot about the album. But it had some great cuts, like this one.
  5. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: “Koino Hana” from Japamyu – I had to throw in a J-Pop song from fashion icon's Kyary’s latest album this year.
  6. Oh Pep: “What’s The Deal with David?” from I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… – An upbeat, funny song about a toxic relationship.
  7. Alessia Cara: “All We Know” from The Pains of Growing – The best track from a solid sophomore album from last year’s Best New Artist Grammy-winner.
  8. Courtney Barnett: “Nameless, Faceless” from Tell Me How You Really Feel – A solid anthem for the #MeToo movement, describing and reacting to anonymous online comments by men; featuring a Margaret Atwood quote in the chorus.
  9. Poppy: “Time is Up”  from Am I a Girl? – I love a bit of post-apocalyptic science fiction in my pop music; I for one, also, welcome our new robot overlords.
  10. Moira Smiley: “Bellow” from Unzip the Horizon – Written with Merrill Garbus from Tune-Yards, it draws influences from world music and invites women especially to speak up for themselves and their ancestors.
  11. Sting and Shaggy: “Crooked Tree“ from 44/876 – You probably missed this, but Sting and Shaggy came out with an album of new music in 2018 (and it was nominated for Reggae album of the year by the Grammys?). The album's music is mostly uninspired, but I have the admire Sting’s audacity to do a reggae album with a Jamaican after making his career doing “white reggae” with the Police in the 1980s. This song was maybe the best, and probably the most Sting-like. Read the NPR review of the album here.
  12. (Honorable mention) Natalia Lafourcada: “Hasta La Raíz ” from Hasta La Raíz - This song by a Mexican artist was actually from 2012, but I discovered it this year, and it’s definitely my favorite song I discovered this year (actually, a large portion of my new favorite music that I discovered this year wasn’t from 2018). Here’s the weird music video:

Saturday, January 5, 2019

My favorite new pop music albums of 2018

So, yeah, still bad at posting on the blog in 2018, but that doesn't mean I have stopped listening critically to music! I listened to 67 albums new to me this year, and 41 of those albums came out in 2018 (and I very rarely listened to an album only once). Here are my six favorite new albums from this year, in no particular order (all images link to the listing).

Golden Hour

Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves – Hands down my best album of the year, and I don’t consider myself a country fan—perhaps because Musgraves wasn’t very country-orthodox in her style for this album, mixing in drum machines, disco beats, and tall, jazzy chords. She also uses approachable, clever lyrics, filled with relatable emotion. Golden Hour made most top 10 lists this year and is so solid that I’m not really sure which track to start with—“High Horse,” though, is probably my favorite new song of the year (and has a strong disco influence). “Space Cowboy” is the surprise hit on the album, I think, and succeeds partly because of clever wordplay and poking gentle fun at country stereotypes. The frothiness and comedy of “Velvet Elvis” is a welcome addition.

I'll Be Your Girl

I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists – I count some Decemberists’ albums among my favorites, but there recently has been a dip in quality in their output—so I was surprised when they put out this solid album early in 2018. Their success this time around seems to be channeling their inner emo, angsty, fantasy-loving suburban teenager (despite having passed that stage themselves long ago). The upbeat, chipper “Everything is Awful” is the anchor single, with some fun antiphonal singing. “Rusalka, Rusalka  / Wild Rushes” is everything you would want in a classic Decemberists songepic folk rock storytelling ending in a death (maybe, two?) to catchy tunes.

All Ashore

All Ashore by Punch Brothers – Punch Brothers have yet to put out a bad album or EP, and Chris Thile tends to produce better music with collaborators. This group continues to push the boundaries of bluegrass, with innovative textures and song structures, some starting one place and ending in a very different place. The headliner is “All Ashore,” an expansive track that analyzes a seemly-broken family. “Three Dots and a Dash,” on the other hand, is a straight-ahead instrumental that could be from a Nickel Creek album. “Jumbo,” of course, is funny, elbow-in-ribs song about Donald Trump (with plausible deniability). I didn’t buy tickets to the Punch Brother’s live show in Atlanta this year because I wasn’t sure they could keep producing quality music, and then I listened to this album and regretted my decision (but the concert was already sold out).

Origins (Deluxe)

Origins by Imagine Dragons – Last year’s Imagine Dragons album, Evolve, made my best albums list last year, and I wasn’t prepared for another excellent album from the arena-fillers. They continue write catchy melodies and to find and invent new sounds throughout this album. Dan Reynolds’ vocals are somewhat unique in pop—and my theory is that he is taking some of varied word flows from hip-hop and incorporating them into Imagine Dragons' version of rock. Some entry tracks for this album (besides the hit, "Natural") are “West Coast,” where the group shows off their acoustic chops (including a mandolin?), and “Digital,” whose timbre and style turns on a dime—which I think it kind of the point in a song about “chang[ing] everything.” “Love” is an anthem against the current moment of resurgence of hate rhetoric in the U.S. Not sure what the music has to do with "origins," but cool cover art!

El Mal Querer

El Mal Querer by Rosalia – A critical darling this year by this young Catalan performer, this album got a lot of press for flamenco purists not liking it (though I never actually saw any of those negative reviews). Flamenco, with its showy vocals, fancy guitar playing, and complicated clapping is pretty awesome, and I think it is about time someone mixed it with hip-hopand Rosalia did it almost seamlessly. Two tracks to sample the mixture is “Pienso En To Mirá” and “Di Mi Nombre.” Supposedly, the album is organized around a manuscript from the 13th century, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that.

Kiss Yr Frenemies

Kiss Yr Frenemies by illuminati hotties – A thoughtfully-produced album (Sarah Tudzin, the brains behind the project, coming from a production background) masquerading as a indie garage band record, it features 11 poignant, well-phrased short stories (some under a minute). Standout tracks include “(You’re Better) Than Ever,” a well-paced post-breakup song, and “Paying Off the Happiness,” a happy Millennial lament about monetary and emotional debt. “The Rules” and “Patience” add some slow poignancy. The occasional semi-voiced vocal stylings, however, while well-intentioned, occasionally grate on my ear.

Later this week, I will post my best pop songs of 2018 mix, so get ready.