Wednesday, May 19, 2010


This is a bit later than expected but here nonetheless.

Gold Medal: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco

It’s hard to believe that the stars aligned for this one. The band was in turmoil, the record label situation was sketchy, the official release was delayed forever. But somehow, we have Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with all its echoing pianos, strange industrial noises and poignant lyrics. On this release, Jeff Tweedy proves himself as one of the finest living songsmiths with tracks like “Jesus Etc.”, “Radio Cure”, and “Ashes of American Flags”. It’s lines like “Distance has no way of making love understandable” that resonate for so long after hearing them delivered by Tweedy’s husky baritone voice. With two towers on the cover and an intended release date of 9/11/01, this album is a frighteningly prophetic work of art.

(taken from my October “Best of the 2000s” post)

Silver Medal: Brainwashed by George Harrison

So often when great artists try to make albums in middle/old age, the result is a crusty, pathetic attempt to recapture the spark of thirty years ago. Either that or it’s just sentimental and gross. Brainwashed is neither. In fact, it is more of a template for albums by aging rock stars. Recorded during the final years of his life, George Harrison created a masterful collection of superb songs brimming with wisdom. Yet it doesn’t come across as preachy, thanks to the interspersing of playful songs like “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)” or “Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” The record is wonderfully produced thanks to son George’s son Dhani and longtime friend and Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynne. If listening to this album is what it’s like to be brainwashed, sign me up. There couldn’t have been a better send off for one of the true greats.

Bronze Medal: Turn On the Bright Lights by Interpol

Right when it seemed like everything that two guitars, bass and drums could do had been done, we get the debut album of this post post-punk quartet, Interpol. Taking a cue from Joy Division and Television, this band churned out an album that’s just plain powerful. Minimal yet huge, Turn On the Bright Lights expresses alienataion through catharsis. While fellow New Yorkers, The Strokes, used their mechanized, guitar-driven patterns to represent a gleeful return to your classic garage band, these guys paint pictures of dungeons with their surging riffs and thumping rhythm section. Paul Banks’ vocals are just part of the architecture, never stepping too far out of the shadows to distract from the overall tapestry of somberness. Too bad they likely set the bar to high to ever return to this level.

Next, 1962-5.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


In my last Mast column, I commented that Radiohead was the best band making music today. Soon after I wrote that and read it in print, I thought that I should probably back that up. You can’t just say something like that with no plan of presenting evidence. My apologies.

The truth is, Radiohead does what no other artist—except maybe the Beatles—has done in rock music. They have reinvented themselves countless times yet remain immensely popular, brilliant and on the cutting edge with every record, with the exception of their mediocre debut, Pablo Honey. But hey, everyone needs a bit of time to mature. Even the Beatles.

Their sophomore release, The Bends stands as one of the best alternative rock albums of the 1990s. Songs like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Black Star” contain a certain emotional power that makes contemporaries like Oasis and Weezer, look, well…silly. The band’s next offering, OK Computer is the album that many music critics thought would save rock ‘n’ roll. Today, alternative music is essentially divided into two eras: pre-OK Computer and post-OK Computer. Just about everything has been said about that 1997 album, so I won’t blather on. It’s a sonic experience that and contrary to what might be assumed from the record’s title, the album is much better than OK. It’s an inspiration.

The Oxford quintet’s next album was the one that Rolling Stone and Pitchfork (possibly the two most influential critical publications in existence) deemed the best of the last ten years. If OK Computer was supposed to save rock music, the follow-up, the year 2000’s Kid A, was the one that would turn the genre upside down. Filled with electronic sounds and other abstract experimentations, the band’s fourth release was one recorded amidst band turmoil but comes out sounding like a focused, revolutionary piece of art. From the spooky “Everything In It’s Right Place” all the way to the ethereal “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, the album Kid A sounds like post-modernism had its first child.

The next seven years saw the release of Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, three albums that made fellow British bands like Muse and Coldplay cry softly while continuing to crank out lesser works. I love certain songs by the aforementioned bands but competing with Radiohead is like playing one-on-one with LeBron James. It ain’t gonna happen.

Part of what makes Radiohead so remarkable is the fact that they reach a level of musical depth that is usually reserved for only the finest classical composers, far removed from the low-browness of—gasp!—pop music. Thom Yorke, Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien combine to create music that hardly fits any genre, assuming that idyllic rock is not a recognizable term yet. There should be a new album released within the next year, though little information is known. If this decade is anything like the last two, Radiohead will rule the roost.

Also, on an unrelated note, check out my recent Belle and Sebastian review.

Monday, May 3, 2010


I’m a few weeks away from completing my third and final semester of music history. They’ve gone in chronological order and this one is called “Music Since 1900.” As expected, we’re delving into some pretty weird music; that’s kind of what happened in the classical music world after the Romantic era. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this so-called avant-garde music. I’m talking specifically about composers like Schoenberg, Boulez, Cage, Berio, VarĂ©se and Babbitt. The term “avant-garde” comes from the French word “vanguard”, which means the front part of the army, or the soldiers who can see what’s ahead before the rest of the regiment. I’ve never been particularly drawn to experimental music though I have tried very hard. But it hasn’t been until recently that I think I can explain why my love affair with atonal music has never taken off.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m fascinated by these renegade artists, desperately trying to do what hasn’t been done before. That’s the true artistic sprit and I respect that. What I don’t particularly respect is the desire to abandon tonality all together. By the way, in case you weren’t sure, tonality/harmony is our basic system of how notes are put together. Scales, chords, the building blocks of music. Atonality means that there’s no clear hierarchy of pitches. You will hear many C pitches in the key of C, but in an atonal key you’ll probably hear as many Cs as you will F sharps. Here’s an analogy I have for the purely atonal composer:

Western harmony is like the English language—there are infinite possibilities of expression within its rules. It serves as a sort of contract between the reader and writer; I follow the basic conventions of spelling, grammar and syntax and you will try to understand these words. But say I’m bored with the English language and feel that everything’s been said before. Why not abandon the rules in search of a fierce, new method of artistic expression? Dae dgnolsi h cab naits abes nnaho j. That’s why. When you abandon the common practice, it’s very difficult to move the audience to feel anything other than confusion or boredom.

By the way, did you notice that if you read that backwards, it spells “Johann Sebastian Bach is long dead”? Yeah, probably not. Just like you probably couldn’t tell that a piece by Pierre Boulez is organized meticulously in total serialism with no dynamic, rhythm or pitch repeating until you’ve heard all the other eleven possibilities he’s decided to use.

As a dedicated music student, I have always hoped that I would become fully acceptant of avant-garde and appreciate it like all the sophisticated scholars seem to do. Maybe I will when I’m older. But right now, I see completely abandoning tonality as a fruitless effort. After hearing music from soon after we’re born, our ears have learned to associate certain combinations of notes in certain ways, much like words. Thinking of music as a science, trying to make new discoveries through formulas is nothing but exclusive, which is the exact opposite of what music’s purpose has been since the first note was sounded back in the caveman days. Inclusivity is pretty much the most important word in my understanding of the art form.

Another significant word in the above paragraph is “completely.” Completely abandoning tonality is something I’m against but temporarily abandoning it is entirely different. In this circumstance, it becomes an effect. Like how “Revolution 9” shows that the Beatles were aware of the world around them without entirely throwing everything in their past out the window. Or how a particularly crunchy chord in a Sonic Youth song represents a sort of angst-ridden dissonance. I think atonality should be one of the tools on an artists belt, much like a writer can occasionally use unconventional methods to portray a certain attitude when he/she is REALLY F$&%ing craaaaazzzzzzzyyyyyyyyyy and kneeds to gett that aCroSs!

I absolutely love learning about other musicians’ understanding of what music is supposed to be. In a lot of ways, it’s like studying various theologies, forcing you to start challenging your own deep-rooted beliefs. Some twentith century composers have certainly done that for me but this is where I stand now regarding purely atonal music. I realize every composer is different so this is an overarching generalization. Still, I’m pretty confident with these opinions at the moment. Make me change my mind.