Yet another “best of” list
Everyone else does a “best of the year” list, so why shouldn’t I? Here are links to my picks for recent years:
Music Library Visualization
September 5, 2008
I remember the first time I flipped through The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte. My initial skim of the book was a kind of coffee-table experience — I was captivated by the aesthetics of the graphics without taking the time to appreciate their informational value. After a more thorough reading during my graduate coursework, chartjunk, small multiples, and other theoretical and practical concepts began to sink in. I remember disagreeing with more than a few of Tufte’s claims (and I still do), but I was enamored with his academic dedication to technical communication. It inspires me still today. I’ve been wondering lately…could I learn something about my musical preferences by visualizing my music’s metadata?
Even though I sometimes worry about Apple’s stranglehold on digital music, iTunes is the best digital media application available. I’ve been a loyal iTunes user for the past three years. Katie and I share our Mac, but I am responsible for 98% of the music uploaded. At a minimum, she deserves an understated tip of the hat: my wife is a good sport when it comes to my music-listening/buying/downloading habits. Since 2006, I’ve been able to collect and organize my music in ways that stacks of Case Logic albums could never accommodate. On the one hand, I miss liner notes and inserts. On the other hand, I’d prefer to filter and sort data fields click-by-click anyday over flipping through plastic sleeves in a book.
Last month, I decided to delve deeper into my (and Katie’s) music library. I began with a loosely-defined purpose and one particular variable. I wanted to analyze my song aquisition habits since the beginning of 2007 by genre. In other words, how have my musical tastes changed over the past year and a half? Of course, genre is an extremely subjective way to categorize. For example, I draw a clear line of distinction with my mind and ears between R & B, Soul, and Funk. For example, if the average person were asked to sort Donny Hathaway, Jill Scott, Poets of Rhythm, Bo Boral, and Mary J. Blige into these two genres, their results would likely be different than mine. Some artists (e.g. Rufus Wainwright, The Avett Brothers, Beirut, Air France) are pretty darn difficult to force into one bucket, but they can’t be duplicated and put into two buckets or divided among multiple buckets. I keep reminding myself that it’s okay if the genres are subjective — I’m the only one interested in dissecting my library anyway.
In most of the cases where genre blurs the boundaries of visualization, I used the category Alternative & Punk as a bit of a catch-all. As any ontologist will attest, homogeneity is crucial to characteristics of division. If genre is a characteristic of song division, then a couple of my labels don’t fit the bill. As a category label, Soundtrack is problematic because it is not homogenous with the others. Finally, the category called Blanks (also not homogenous) consists of music that has not yet been assigned a genre label.
Here’s a snapshot of my music library in July of 2008. The full data set, or all the music I own, is about 10,100 songs. The pie chart below depicts songs by genre.
So, World music jumped 2,450%, from two songs in December 2006 to 51 songs in July 2008. The statistically-significant increases from January 2007 to July 2008 were:
||Number of Songs 1/07
||Number of Songs 7/08
* attributed mostly to Chatham County Line
Lounge and Metal were completely flat (no songs acquired) over the year-and-a-half period, while I only added one single Blues song (1%) and six Soundtrack tracks (3%). Increases in all the other categories ranged from 9% to 45%.
Here’s the breakdown of song acquisition by genre:
Music Acquisition Trend, by Genre
This exercise has me thinking about other variables that, when displayed visually, might reveal interesting trends or patterns. Play Count and Skip Count would really describe my listening habits, but there’s no data because I rarely play music in iTunes. I suppose I could start appending each song record in my library with My Rating, but tastes change overtime and it would be a full-time job assigning stars to every song I hear. Perhaps the next time I sort through my music, I’ll look at the gradual trend of acquiring songs and not entire albums during the last several years.
I’d certainly like to hear any ideas anyone has about visualizing music collections and listening habits.
The Brad Mehldau Cover Challenge
August 22, 2008
You know what would make a great contest?
The Brad Mehldau Cover Challenge. Music students and/or music lovers would write a brief essay suggesting and justifying a list of 10 pop songs for Brad Mehldau to cover. Four basic rules would apply:
- The songs would have to be worthy of reinvention and should inspire something more from Mehldau than the novelty of a familiar melody in a different style
- The songs would have to suit the musicality of jazz piano (that would probably rule out most hip-hop and some electronic)
- The songs would have to be “popular music” (or music recognizable to at least one-quarter of the American population)
- The songs cannot have already been covered extensively by other artists (Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races” comes to mind…Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” are more poppy examples of songs that have been covered to death)
Aside from those criteria, the sky would be the limit. Prior to the submission of these essays, Brad Mehldau himself would choose the winner and create an entire album and name it in honor of that person. It would be the ultimate jazz-cover mixtape. As for my own cover choices, I haven’t fleshed out a complete album. Here’s a partial list:
- Say It Ain’t So, Weezer
- Maps, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
- Diamonds and Pearls, Prince
- A Tear for Eddie, Ween (I know…I’m already breaking rule three)
- Here You Come Again, Dolly Parton
- Imitation of Life, R.E.M.
- God Only Knows, The Beach Boys (now I’m breaking rule four)
- If I Had a Boat, Lyle Lovett
I discovered Mehldau several years ago. It was a cover of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android that introduced me to his intensity (check it out if you don’t believe me), dexterity (he can play different melodies with each hand), and overall genius. The Brad Mehldau Trio released Brad Mehldau Trio Live (Nonesuch Records) a few months ago, an album recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York in the fall of last year. Live is Mehldau’s fourth album recorded there. It’s so good that I’ve dropped other music I’ve purchased recently and started going back through Mehldau’s earlier live recordings.
Of course, Mehldau and his current trio, which includes bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, are much, much more than a cover band. They also play Mehldau’s original music and an equal percentage of their live sets is devoted to classic jazz standards.
When I read that Mehldau’s group recently covered Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun on their lastest live recording, I had to pick it up. Ironically, Black Hole Sun is the only throw-away track on the two-disc set; the song is good for a round of “name that tune” with your friends, but a bit tedious at more than 23 minutes total. Now that I have my one negative comment out of the way, I can gush uninhibited about the rest of the album.
The album opens with its other pop cover, Oasis’ Wonderwall. As with any successful cover, it’s what Mehldau’s trio subtracts and adds to their version that really makes the song wonderful. The Mehldau trio’s rendition is void of the Gallagher delivery and attitude that annoyed me so much. The trio’s enhancements include a bossa nova-like rhythm, staccato and stride piano interpretation of the song’s lyrical notes (as opposed to Noel’s nasaly moans), and a bluesy-sounding, hard-driving Mehldau solo. Throughout his wandering improvisation, one of Mehldau’s hands remains true to the song’s melodic theme while the other hand explores the rest of the keyboard.
The trio’s chemistry is excellent throughout the album, but certain instances, where they nail typical jazz transitions (from a solo to the song’s head, from one solo to another solo), are remarkable and even spine-chilling. Secret Beach (a Mehldau original) really stands out to me. B-Flat Waltz, Buddha Realm (I wish my name had a cool anagram) and John Coltrane’s Countdown are other highlights. As the band leader, Mehldau and his solos loom large over most of the tracks; he covers a wide spectrum of tempos and styles. Grenadier and Ballard also shine on the rare occasions when they get the spotlight.
More importantly, all three musicians excel at conversational improvisation, whether call-and-response or a less formal kind of interplay. I’ve found that whenever I listen to any of it, I continually have to remind myself that the performance is live. Oh, and considering our weakened American economy, I have to point out that you can’t find a much better value; the two-disc set, with two and a half hours of music, has the same price point as a single album.
Playing and improvising popular music written by someone else is inherent to jazz. When a pop song is accommodated by an artist in a different genre, for a different audience, the result can be a powerful hook that draws listeners in. Some of Mehldau’s pop covers are so good, they could legitimately replace other, more dated standards.
The Mehldau contest may be my own personal fantasy, but I share my appreciation for Mehldau’s recordings with many different types of jazz fans. So, come for the familiar and stay for the new and fantastic.
May 29, 2008
Last month, I tagged along with my wife to a business dinner with her boss, some of her colleagues, and one of her clients. The conversation turned to music, and someone commented that hip hop isn’t real music. Now I’ve heard this kind of ridiculous statement a couple of times before; on those occasions I didn’t attempt to hide my indignant reaction. The circumstances last month were different (and I was getting the stink-eye from my significant other), so I took a deep breath and tried to calmly persuade the doubter at the table that he was wrong.
I didn’t succeed in converting him, but arguing with him made me wonder how an intelligent person could be oblivious to the genre’s many virtues. So many folks that “hate rap” or “hate country” or “hate yacht rock” haven’t been properly exposed to the music. Or, because of mainstream media, they’ve been exposed to mediocre or worse examples of the music.
What if you had to pick 20 tracks for a proselytistic mixtape…a test drive of a (relatively) new music make and model?
Would you want to portray the music’s evolution?
Would you want to represent the genre comprehensively?
As much as a 20-track limit will allow.
Would you want to include some of your personal favorites?
No doubt, because the mixtape maker is not just promoting a genre, but also his own extraordinary personal taste.
Here’s my proselytistic mix, track by track. Every track is included for one or more attributes that represent the genre at large. I realize there are notable omissions – there are no female MCs and no foreign artists. There may also be a slight east-coast bias, and there’s no Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, or N.W.A. I’ll have to work on it some more, but I do believe this list represents the best of what hip hop has to offer:
- Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force – Planet Rock
- Biz Markie – Nobody Beats the Biz
- Doug E. Fresh – The Show
- Eric B & Rakim – Eric B is President
- Slick Rick – Children’s Story
- The Geto Boys – Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me
- De La Soul – Pass the Plugs
- A Tribe Called Quest – Can I Kick It?
- Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg – Deep Cover
- Notorious B.I.G. – Juicy
- Ice Cube – It was a Good Day
- Youngbloodz – 85 South
- Goodie Mob – Soul Food
- Nas – If I Ruled the World
- Outkast – Wheelz of Steel
- The Roots – Seed 2.0
- The Pharcyde – Passin’ Me By
- Mobb Deep – Right Back at You
- The Wu-Tang Clan – Protect Ya Neck
- Madvillain (MF Doom & Danger Mouse) – Great Day Today
April in May
May 22, 2008
As far as I’m concerned, most of the real innovation in popular music today is happening in electronica and electronic-influenced genres, so that’s where I’ve been spending most of my 2008 music budget. On the rare occasion that I buy a complete album these days, I’m not usually looking for the folkish, part-acoustic, singer-songwriter type of sound.
The purchase of Sun Kil Moon’s April was one recent exception to my electro-rule. It’s a grand album. There aren’t as many references to childhood memories and forgotten boxing champions compared to Ghosts of the Great Highway, but the familiar Mark Kozelek themes of love, introspection, regret, retrospection and ghosts are salient throughout the 11 tracks. Geographies and context, like the future San Francisco or the past Jersey Shore, are other important lyrical components for Kozelek.
Like most of Kozelek’s work, the melodies here are elegant and simple. The record spans a variety of styles, and there’s only one or two tracks that are reminiscent of Neil Young. I’m not saying that kind of invocation is a good or bad thing – it’s just that the past Sun Kil Moon recordings I’ve heard (aside from the Modest Mouse covers on Tiny Cities) are a bit more homogenous than what you’ll find on April. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Ben Gibbard and Eric Pollard provide guest vocals.
Maybe it’s neo-folk slowcore? I don’t really know. I do know that I enjoy throwing around ridiculous sub-genre labels, and I know that I enjoy April.