The Beatles: You’re Ruining It

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I don’t believe anyone who tells me they’ve been a huge fan of the Beatles since they were a child. I don’t think you can be a “huge fan” of anything when you’re that young because most of what you experience is filtered by your parents. To be able to call yourself a “huge fan” of The Beatles – or any band, for that matter-  you need a certain level of independent maturity and sense of context in order to build your own personal relationship with the music, culture and history associated with the band. Unfortunately, our society’s somewhat unhealthy relationship with The Beatles can make this process difficult and undesirable at times.

I say “somewhat unhealthy” not to imply that The Beatles aren’t deserving of our obsession – they definitely are – but rather, because of how that obsession too often becomes less about the music and more about our opinion of it. The never-ending debate over whether The Beatles are the best band of all time can spark reactions on par with political “hot button” issues. Music fans have a lot invested in their opinions of The Beatles. Just as politicians have to have a stance on the big issues, serious music fans have to have to take a position on The Beatles. It’s not an issue you you can “sit out.” Even casual fans will often have strong convictions for or against the band, probably for the same reasons uninformed voters have strong opinions on popular  issues: they feel the pressure to have have an opinion, lest they bee seen as uninvolved or uneducated. The product of this unbalanced focus is an atmosphere that often proves to be overwhelming, and as a result, unwelcoming to new fans.

The effects of our discussion can be felt at a very young age. It creates an awkward gap between the age you are told to appreciate The Beatles and the age when that’s actually possible.  The ever-present pop culture of today makes it hard enough to get sincerely interested in a band that stopped making music forty years ago. If a young fan does manage to develop a genuine interest, I think it’s best to allow that curiosity to flourish independently and without pressure. The first step in that direction is to stop parents from raving about The Beatles to their children.

I believe parents do their  young children a large disservice  when they rave about The Beatles for two reasons:

1) Music can be essential to forming a personal identity, and more often that not, that requires a separation from the identities of of your parents. It would be shame for a teenager to refuse The Beatles a chance because a parental insisted upon them when they were young. Music indoctrination will often produce the same rebellion  as religious or political indoctrination. This is not to say parents should hide their interest, but  they should spare the sermons.

2) The Beatles work best as a destination, not a starting point. In order to truly “get” the masterpiece you have to be familiar with all it’s failed derivatives and mediocre peers. They aren’t required to enjoy it, but they are required to understand and appreciate it. This is particularly true for tweens. They haven’t watched MTV for the last 20 years and aren’t familiar with the last several decades of top 40 required to appreciate the band that, in many ways, is still the template for pop music bands.

I didn’t develop a relationship with The Beatles until college. At the time I found it sort of embarrassing, like not being able to name all 50 states. Now, I consider it somewhat of a blessing. All those years I spent listening to everything but The Beatles were extremely useful when I finally decided to give the band a real chance.

I think the two main reasons I took so long were:

1) the previously mentioned social pressure to sincerely appreciate the band before I was capable of doing so

2) I found it slightly depressing to consider the possibility that the unbelievably uncool baby boomers had in fact lived through the “golden era” of pop music and that I would only be able to experience it as an artifact. Even if I strived to recreate it for myself though unending research and immersion, it would still wouldn’t be the same. I missed it by being born too late. Anyone talking about their impact was a harsh reminder. The alternative was to marginalize the band and hope that The Beatles were a peak, but not the top of the mountain. Certainly there must be a better band, and if they haven’t arrived yet, they will soon enough. Feel kind of dumb for thinking that now. Now as a fan, I don’t think The Beatles are objectively the best pop band of all time, but I do understand why they have the monolithic reputation they have.

So I guess my initial rejection of The Beatles helped me appreciate them once I decided to give them a chance, but I would hardly say my experience is the ideal. Ideally, I would have been able to evaluate The Beatles independently and simultaneously with other past and current pop acts as I grew older; free from all the annoying influences and opinions currently circulating. I think once the baby boomers are gone, this will get a lot easier.

Not sure what to think about Beatles Rock Band and all the other recent Beatles marketing pushes. My gut says it’s a step in the right direction. Anything that makes the conversation about the Beatles a little less serious is fine by me. I think I would have been able to make a sincere connection with The Beatles a lot earlier if I had a game like Beatles Rock Band to play with my friends and / or parents. The Beatles’ legacy in the next decade and beyond will definitely be interesting. So much about music has changed recently, no institution is immune to it. If I could dictate the future, I would have us all forget about The Beatles for about ten years or so, then rediscover them as sort of a musical renaissance. I think that might be enough to remove all the clutter and annoying debate around the band and really focus on the music again. It’ll never happen, but I can dream, can’t I?

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Favorite Albums of 2009

My favorite LPs of 2009. I excluded EPs for simplicity. I was going to link some of the highlighted tracks, but I’m sure you can find most of them on hype machine.. If you want any of the albums here, email or IM me and I’ll have a mini-listening party with you.

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20. jj – n*2

Seems strange for a Swedish pop act to be anonymous. Thought that was a dubstep thing. Maybe anonymity the next big thing; sort of a “fuck you” to the  hyper-connected movement. It’s a great idea when every other band can’t step off a tour bus without tweeting about it. The artwork on the other hand is…less than a stroke of genius. The blood and the pot leaf definitely wouldn’t get my attention in a record store. Fortunately, it’s totally misleading. It’s really just a great, straightforward Swedish-pop album in the vein of Jens Lekman, Air France, Tough Alliance, etc. If you’re a fan of that scene, this won’t disappoint.

Highlights: “From Africa to Malaga”, “Masterplan”

19. Discovery – LP

Five years from now, I might say I like this album more than the Vampire Weekend debut. Keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij deserves more credit for his contributions to VW, and this album should get him some much of that deserved attention. Its fun, nerdy, cool and charming in all the ways the Vampire Weekend debut was, but without the “Ivy-Leage snob” element. Just two music nerds making music in a bedroom . A better style, imo.

Highlights: “Orange Shirt”, “So Insane”

18. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

Another solid YLT album. Seems like they could keep up this pace forever. The great thing about YLT albums is you’re never sure what type of song is going to be next, but you know it will be YLT, so you’re guaranteed some minimum level of quality. And if you don’t like it, chances are, the next song will sound totally different. All the YLT style staples are here: the playful / silly song, the open ended / “druggy” song, the power pop song, the intimate / romantic song. It’s nice to know you can always depend on these guys.

Highlights: “Nothing To Hide”, “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven”

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17. The Field – Yesterday and Today

Yesterday and Today feels like an “in between” album in many ways, as the title might imply. Though its running time is fair for an LP, its only six tracks long, and one of those tracks was released as an early single, so really, more like five tracks by the time it came around. More than an EP, but not really an LP. It toys with a more organic sound, with  Battles’ drummer John Stanier jamming on a few tracks, but doesn’t embrace any new direction. Transition albums like this are important though, and there are some very rewarding moments here. From Here We Go Sublime is an extremely difficult album to follow (it might be in my top 10 of the decade), but Yesterday is about as good as a sophomore slump can get while still qualifying as such. The early single, “The More That I Do”, sounds like a cut from From Here, as do most of the album’s best moments. Like From Here highlight, “A Paw In My Face”, Wilner takes the smallest samples of a great pop song and transforms them into a completely different creature. This time, instead of guitar samples from Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, it’s small vocal samples from Cocteau Twins’ “Lorelei”. Yesterday will definitely keep me happy while I wait for LP3.

Highlights: “The More That I Do”, ” Yesterday and Today”

16. The xx – xx

I started listening to this album while on a late 90’s melodic rock / math rock binge, so it fit right in there pretty well. The best thing about this album is how fresh they manage to make hand claps, drums, and a clean guitar sound. It’s also one of the few albums I like that can be correctly described as “sexy,” without  a danceable beat or overwhelming studio tricks. It was a little underwhelming at first, but after a few listens, that becomes one of its most endearing qualities.

Highlights: “Heart Skipped a Beat”, “Stars”

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15. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – The Century of Self

I think these guys play a lot of RPGs. At the very least they’re fantasy nerds.Their struggle as of late has been finding the appropriate balance between their passion for epic fantasy and epic rock. So Divided was a little more fantasy than I would have liked, and the Festival Thyme EP made me fear the worst. The album art alone made me suspect that they’d hung up the guitars, only finding time for rock between Final Fantasy quests and Harry Potter viewings. Then The Century of Self came along and peace was restored to the galaxy once again. If  you had any doubts about their ability to melt faces post-Festival Thyme, they were squashed within the first thirty seconds of “Isis Unveiled,” And again on “Halcyon Days.” And again on “Ascending.” Their best album since Source Tags, imo.

Highlights: “Isis Unveiled”, “Halcyon Days”

14. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport

I feel like a “fucking hipster snob” when I tell people I like this band. There really isn’t much you can do for someone that doesn’t immediately like this sort of thing (other than tell them to get really high). Tarot Sport has made it a little easier to digest/ defend these guys thanks to its better sense of focus and slightly more traditional structuring over its predecessor, but probably not much. As someone who likes this sort of thing, its everything I could have hoped for in a sophomore effort. Looking forward to an even more accessible LP3.

Highlights: “Surf Solar”, “Flight of The Feathered Serpent”

13. Basement Jaxx – Scars

Basement Jaxx are one of those acts that can stay innovate by staying the same. Their style never really stopped sounding fresh and interesting, and thankfully they acknowledge that here. Hate it when great bands get experimental in their later years and  face plant. It’s definitely front loaded, but it’s got a first half that’s better than 90% of the albums that came out this year. The first five or-so songs are everything I could want from a new Basement Jaxx album. Would definitely be in my top 5 if it were solid through and through.

Highlights: “Raindrops”, “Feelings Gone”

12. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Definitely their best album. Seems like it came out more than a year ago now. The hooks here never get old, and it’s about 75% solid. The pop album for every type of music fan.Pretty amazing how popular this album was and still is while managing to avoid backlash. My only gripe is that I can’t hear “1901” without thinking of that Cadillac commercial now.

Highlights: “Lisztomania” ,” Lasso”

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11. Fleeting Joys – Occult Radiance

I downloaded this album on accident. It was labeled on Sordo as “New MBV Album 2009.” I thought I’d stumbled upon one of the biggest leaks in recent history. I downloaded and listened to the whole thing in one sitting, and I have to admit, by the end I still thought it was legit. No small feat for a totally obscure band. I wish Kevin Shields would do a “shout out” on the first track because this band definitely needs and deserves it. It has some incredible moments that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of MBV. It’s biggest fault is that at times it tries too hard to get those Loveless Signature Guitar Sounds™ and comes up short, but when it manages to pull it off, it sounds like heaven . I would happily trade a couple of tracks here for some tracks on Loveless. All in all, it’s a really great shoegaze album and worthy of a lot more attention than it’s received so far.

Highlights: ” The Good Kind of Tomorrow”, “You Are The Darkness”

10. Zomby – Where Were U in ’92?

My introduction to dupstep was Burial’s Untrue, as I think it was for a lot of people. Zomby would probably be a better introduction to the genre. It’s not creepy and bleak like Untrue. It’s the fun side of dubstep, which seems to be more inline with the majority of dubstep artists. Something about this album makes it sound like it was made in about an hour or two as a quick mix to play at a club later that night, which is a large part of it’s appeal. You can imagine it being played in underground clubs pretty much anywhere in the world. When someone asks me “what is dubstep, exactly?” I send them “Tears In The Rain” and they say, “oh, now I get it.”

Highlights: “Tears In The Rain”, “Euphoria”

9. Neon Indian –Psychic Chasms

“Chillwave” seemed like it was really going to take off this summer, but now almost six months later, this is the only “chillwave” album I still listen to (insert Washed Out pun here). I think this will be the album of the “chillwave” movement in the indie history books. It’s introverted, nostalgic and fun at the same time, which is pretty rare. It suits a variety of moods and purposes, which should keep me listening to for quite a while. Hope we get more “chillwave” of this quality soon.

Highlights: “Should Have Taken Acid With U” , “Psychic Chasms”

8. Major Lazer – Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do

The spiritual sequel to Kala. On some days I think it’s better than Kala. I really like the Switch / Diplo team. Diplo on his own can get a little repetitive with his signature beat he tweaks for just about everything he produces, but Switch really adds a third dimension to his raw/ amateur production style. It has a sense of humor and cinema that serves it well. Most of the guest vocals are great. Best dance album of the year.

Highlights: “When You Hear The Bassline (feat. Ms Thing)”, “Pon De Floor (feat. VYBZ Kartel)”

7. Bibo – Ambivalence Avenue

I can’t believe how diverse this album is while still managing to sound cohesive. This guy is seriously talented. Within one album he can move from Flying Lotus-esque beats to melodic, guitar driven, late 90’s ballads without sounding like two different artists. Just about every recent popular movement in indie music can be heard somewhere here. Most of the tracks are really hard to talk about using only two or three genre labels. Definitely a unique album I’ll be listening to for a long time from now. One of the most exciting new artists to make it big this year.

Highlights: “Lover’s Carvings”, Fire Ant”

6. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains of Being Pure At Heart

What an embarrassing name. I didn’t want to like this band, but after you give them a chance, you really have no choice. Every song is solid pop in the vein of early MBV and other shoe gaze bands. I really can’g believe this album came out in 2009. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to my dream of being born 10 years earlier so I can experience that first wave of shoe gaze bands as they arrived. Best straight up pop album of the year.

Highlights: ” Young Adult Friction”, “Stay Alive”

5. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Wasn’t a huge fan of the first album. It seemed like a bunch of pretty ideas that never went anywhere. I think they decided to meet me half way on Veckatimest. It seems to have more direction and really focuses on the strengths of Yellow House. As a casual fan, I couldn’t ask for anything more from a sophomore effort. Next time around they can consider me a serious fan.

Highlights: “Two Weeks”, “Cheerleader”

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4. A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Ashes Grammar

The first time I heard “5:15 Train” from their debut album, Scribble Mural Comic Journal, I was hooked. The album itself, however, seemed like a scattershot of possible directions the band might pursue. Ashes Grammar, as it turns out, is exactly the direction I’d hoped they would choose. It so effortlessly does what so many dream pop bands try to convey through hours upon hours of  guitar feedback and studio effects. The best and worst thing about Ashes is that the whole is greater than the sum of it’s individual parts. Aside from a few stand out tracks, Ashes demands that you take the full journey from start to finish to enjoy most of its tracks. It’s always a commitment, but when you have time for it, it’s a great escape. Just realized how trippy the album art is when you stare at the text for a while. 😮

Highlights: “Shy”, “Passionate Introverts”

3. Pictureplane – Dark Rift

“The dark rift is a name for the central-most plane in our galaxy. It’s called the galactic center or the dark rift. The dark rift is actually this finite line within the center of our galaxy that our Earth travels through every 26,000 years. It’s a grand cycle of our Earth passing through the center plane. The Mayans talked about this a lot. 26,000 years is a long-count cycle to them. It represents world age changing into the next age, basically. A lot of scientists are talking right now about what will happen when we pass through this central plane because it really interferes with the gravitational forces on our planet.” – Travis Egedy (Pictureplane), on the concept behind Dark Rift

This album is disorienting (like the above explanation) and probably isn’t for everyone. On first pass, I found it slightly monotonous and cluttered, which is what most reviews seemed to say about it. I stuck with it though, because I loved “Goth Star” and “Trance Doll.” After a few passes it reveals it’s intricate complexity and opens up like the big bang. There are so many awesome vocal samples and bedroom beats to be found, it really feels like a galaxy you could explore forever. The most underrated album of the year, imo.

Highlights: “Goth Star”, “Trance Doll”

2. Japandroids – Post -Nothing

If you’ve only listened to this album at what you might call a “comfortable volume,” you haven’t really listened to it. This band makes me remember why I mowed all those lawns and washed all those cars to buy my Fender Strat. It perfectly captures the angst of being a young adult. Most of the tacks are heavy on the delivery and light on the lyrical content, but occasionally, the two are balanced just right and manage to produce some seriously awesome moments. “Young Hearts Spark Fire” and “Sovereignty” really nail it. The drums and guitar are so massive that at times it feels like the guys can barely hold on to their instruments, like gigantic machine guns on auto-fire. When they manage to take control and aim at the same target, it’ll get your blood going.

Highlights: “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, ” Sovereignty”

1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion

Not sure what to say about this album that hasn’t already been said. For blurbs, see: the Internet

Highlights: “My Girls”, “Lion In A Coma”

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Piracy Guilt

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It’s hard for me to justify the amount of music I steal. Occasionally I feel it makes me a bad person. Most of the time I’m completely disconnected from the damage I’m doing. Like a solider launching cruise missiles at an enemy depot from some remote location. Ok, maybe I’m not blowing Grizzly Bear to bits when I pirate Veckatimest, but the consequences of my actions are not part of my immediate reality. I’m not sure how much damage I’m actually doing and it’s fairly easy to not care. Though one could say I’m simply costing the band the price of the album on iTunes, it seems more complicated than that. Earlier this year, some house mom in Minnesota was fined $1.92 million for 24 songs she pirated and shared over the Internet. That’s $80,000 per song. Is my copy of Veckatimest really worth $1,040,000 in damages? Or is the whole thing worth $9.99 (less than $0.99 per song) via iTunes?

It seems the answer lies somewhere in between, though it’s hard to say. I like taking comfort in the fact that there is no simple formula for determining the monetary loss (or profit) caused by piracy, especially on an individual basis. For example: how do you account for a pirated copy of an album that gets sent to a person who never would have listened to that band in the first place? What if that person becomes a big fan, doesn’t buy the album, but pays $20 to see their show? Would the original pirate be doing the band a “favor” in that case? If the album sells for $10, did the original pirate just “break even” with the band by the sale of that one concert ticket? These are the sorts of things I think about when pirating begins to wear at my conscience. Though I know such occurrences are rare, it helps to imagine that I’m somehow “making it up” to the band by some rather complicated string of events, however improbable they may be. For the large majority of albums in my iTunes library though, I know the damage is a fairly simple calculation: I downloaded the album. I more or less enjoyed it. I never saw the band in concert, never sent the album to anyone, and have no plans to. I will probably never give the band a single cent, either directly or indirectly. I think I’m ok with this most of the time for two main reasons:

1) My perception of the music industry: People who pirate music tend to separate the artist and the industry very clearly (and conveniently) in their minds. Conversations about piracy among pirates tend to start and stop with a cheeky “fuck the RIAA!!” and never get into the relationship between the RIAA and the artist. Though this view is admittedly flawed, the state of the music industry and the attitudes of current artists can make the it seem very real. A decade ago, you might have thought bands would be “going out of business” along with their labels in the future. Instead, the two seem to be on opposite trajectories. The music industry is dying, while there are probably more new bands flourishing than ever before. This inverse relationship makes the separation between artist and industry seem real, even if it’s just an illusion. Bands are finding new ways to survive while the industry reports losses every year. This is mainly due to the fact that bands, as completely sovereign entities,  don’t have rigid “bottom lines” or “profit margins” so they’re capable of being as flexible as they want to be. As a matter of fact, I can’t name a single band that’s met it’s “unsustainable point” and stopped putting out music. It seems bands continue to produce regardless of how much is coming in, which gives the impression that piracy isn’t hurting them that much, if at all. I don’t think this is a good thing for bands to be doing. I think if a band I really liked came forward and said “we can no longer support ourselves because of piracy so we’re breaking up” I would seriously reconsider my downloading habits. It seems strange this has has never happened (at least publicly). The RIAA makes the separation even more attractive when it sues house moms and college students into oblivion. It’s quite easy to get fired up about screwing the RIAA while forgetting who they represent.

It’s often hard to tell how bands really feel about piracy. All bands must feel like they have to embrace it, less they be compared to old school, out of touch bands like Metallica. At most, bands are allowed to jokingly call their fans “fuckers” at a concert when they sing along to songs from an album not yet released, or tell an interviewer they were “totally bummed’ when their album leaked. Most bands never even mention it. The whole thing makes for rather mixed signals. The only camp really showing outrage is the middleman. I don’t know if bands just don’t care about being rich anymore or if they’re stifling their anger and punching their pillows every night. Either way, artists need to get on the same page as their middlemen (or get rid of them entirely) and send a clear message about piracy to people like me so we can’t demonize one to feel good about robbing the other. I wish bands would just be honest about how they feel about piracy. Some bands totally embrace it, but most seem afraid of offending the people that are stealing their work. Or maybe they think any effort to combat it is ultimately useless. But if they don’t feel like fighting it, why should I?

2) My relationship with the Internet: Just about everything I do on the Internet is free with my subscription. I don’t pay for access to The New York Times, Youtube, Pandora, Facebook, or any other cite I visit regularly. Everything is carte blanche, and in the spirit of capitalism, it’s my job to get the most value out of my dollar. Music simply comes with the Internet. As a consumer I don’t really feel like it’s my responsibility to regulate the marketplace or set limits on my consumption. I just get as much as I can, however scary or immoral that thinking may be. Even more enabling is the general, somewhat unspoken consensus that artists  expect me to pirate. Some even admit to pirating themselves. No one is really trying to make me feel guilty other than the richest guys at the top and some metal band my dad’s friend really loves. Needless to say, their views have no impact on my consumption habits.

Over the last decade, piracy has transformed the relationship between an individual’s level of interest in music and the amount of money they spend on it. In the 90’s, the correlation between the two was rather simple. The greater the interest, the more you spent. Now it seems those who spend the most are the casual music fans. They’re probably older than the average fan and might feel that “old school guilt” for stealing music or just don’t know how to. Those with little to casual interest probably spend slightly more than their 90’s counterparts due to the immediate access of online music stores and the rise of the digital single, but anything above casual interest in the 2000’s means you probably spend significantly less than you would have in the 90’s. I imagine a decade comparison looks something like this:

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(no real statistics here, just my opinion)

There’s an obnoxious “too good to be true” feeling that comes from once being in the far right blue column and now being in the sliver next to it. It’s a feeling that practically necessitates guilt. I know that somewhere, someone is suffering for it to be true, but hen I try to find that person or group, the search can be rather difficult and misleading. All the wrong people seem to be screaming about it. Perhaps I’m too ashamed to look in the right places as well. At this point I feel like artists are saying “the ball is in your court, we can’t stop you” while I’m trying to throw the ball back at them. They don’t understand that I can’t stop myself so they’ll have to be the ones to set the terms, because ultimately, they’re the only ones who can. I just wish some miracle technology would come along already and fix all of this. Something that makes everyone a winner. I think a “real job” and a salary might somewhat fix my moral dilemma. I guess we’ll see.

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Drug Music

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A few years ago I came across a website selling “i-dosers” – a colloquial term for binaural tones – that claimed to simulate the effects of drugs ranging from heroin to prescription medications. The site had a rather vague, “scientific” introduction explaining how brainwaves could be altered through music. At the bottom of the page, there were a few free 30-second clips, but also a caveat noting that the “true effect” may require more than 30 seconds. Some claimed to require a full hour to take effect. Sounded pretty sketchy. I tried a 30-second “marijuana” sample with no results. I rarely pay for music I know I enjoy, so I certainly wasn’t going to pay for static that may or may not get me “high.” It sounded like a semi-plausible concept though. I doubted such tones could accurately recreate the specific effects of illegal drugs, but using sound to alter a person’s sense of perception seemed imaginable.

I rediscovered this topic recently and did some quick research. Apparently “drug music” has some scientific weight to it. In 1839, a Prussian physicist named Heinrich Wilhelm Dove discovered the phenomenon known as binaural beats. After his discovery, research in the area suspiciously went dark for the next 134 years. Today there seems to be newfound interest in the use of binaural beats for a wide arrange of scientific and medical purposes. Wikipedia defines binaural beats as the following:

“The brain produces a phenomenon resulting in low-frequency pulsations in the loudness of a perceived sound when two tones at slightly different frequencies are presented separately, one to each of a subject’s ears, using stereo headphones. A beating tone will be perceived, as if the two tones mixed naturally, out of the brain. The frequency of the tones must be below about 1,000 to 1,500 hertz for the beating to be heard. The difference between the two frequencies must be small (below about 30 Hz) for the effect to occur; otherwise, the two tones will be heard separately and no beat will be perceived.

Binaural beats are of interest to neurophysiologists investigating the sense of hearing. Second (and more controversially), binaural beats reportedly influence the brain in more subtle ways through the entrainment of brainwaves[1][2] and can be used to produce relaxation and other health benefits such as pain relief.[3]

Some studies have suggested that binaural beats can make brainwaves “conform” to the incoming frequencies when those frequencies are within normal brainwave variation. Naturally, humans emit various frequencies of brainwaves corresponding to different states of mind. For example, “delta waves” – a form of very low frequency waves – are typically associated with sleep or “out of body” experiences, while “gamma waves” – a higher frequency – are associated with problem solving and fear. The theory of “drug music” states that if a person were to be exposed to frequencies almost identical to that of a certain state of mind (possibly drug-induced) then the brainwaves would naturally move towards the balance of the incoming frequencies, creating an altered state of mind. 😮

Research in this area always seems to be labeled as experimental at best though, and I still wasn’t convinced of any of the audacious claims made by the site I originally stumbled upon. However, I was still very interested in the concept and wanted to try a “full dose” for myself to see if any effect could be felt at all. I came across a free, full-length binaural beat on a private bit torrent site and decided to try it. The torrent contained the following description: “Enjoy a totally safe and exhilarating experience, with this 60 minute recording. Simply relax as you listen to the binaural beats stimulating parts of your mind not touched by other CDs. A fantastically awesome inner-journey. Use for good moods, euphoria, visualization.” Seemed like a relatively humble enough claim. At the very least I’d probably be taking a nap after an hour. I downloaded and pressed play. The mp3 had the following introduction:

Hello, and welcome to this very special digital drug recording from binuaral.beats.com.  You’re about to embark on an exciting journey where your brainwaves will be influenced to guide you into new found states of mind. You don’t need years of practice.  You don’t need any special skills. In fact, all you have to do is listen. You need to use stereo headphones in order to listen to this CD. Make sure you don’t listen to this CD when you need to remain awake. The noises on this CD may sound like pulsing tones or swishing. That’s intentional. These are the tones that generate the “third beat.” The binaural beat inside the head, which helps influence your brainwaves. If the volume on this CD is ever too high, simply turn it down. The binaural beat recording works at any volume. You can play it at a very low volume and it’s still just as effective. Remember: the more you listen, the greater the effect this recording will have on you. Are you ready? Then sit back, relax and let’s begin.

First 30 minutes: I started by laying on my bed facing the ceiling in a dimly lit room. I tried to focus solely on the sound, trying not to let my thoughts race or wander. The volume was low and I felt no need to immediately adjust it. The recording initially sounded like two separate tones. One being a smooth drone and another pulsing like the sound of an alien spaceship from an old sci-fi movie. I decided to close my eyes after the first few minutes to help me concentrate. I slowly felt more relaxed, but wasn’t sure if it could be attributed to the music or the fact that I was laying on my bed with my eyes closed. I opened my eyes after a few minutes and felt slightly strange. At this point, I’d assumed I would have found the droning and pulsating music rather annoying but I realized I was actually hardly paying attention to it. I was enjoying it. I was no longer trying to control the pace of my thoughts. My mind seemed almost incapable of racing. After a few more minutes I tried thinking about things I had to do later or things that usually cause anxiety. As I thought about them, the typical accompanying anxiety was noticeably absent. This might sound familiar to potheads. I can say it definitely resembled the anxiety-reducing effect of marijuana. I did this test for several more minutes and it seemed to hold up. The pace of my mind was slowed and I felt uniquely relaxed.

Final 30 minutes: for the second half, I decided to sit up and use my computer. I made no conscious attempt to relax, rather just did what I would normally do on my computer. I turned my ceiling fan back on, which added another subtle layer of ambient noise to the room. After sitting up, I realized how relaxed my body was. Similar to getting a massage, but not quite. it seemed there were no tension spots in my body. I felt slightly light-headed and renewed, like that feeling after a nap when you’re no longer groggy, but simply relaxed and calm. After nearly an hour, I hadn’t found the droning and pulsating sound annoying in the least. I was actually considering keeping the track on repeat. As the track faded out in the last 15 seconds or so, I removed my earbuds. This was another unique moment. I felt slightly euphoric in a “happy to be back home” sort of way. I clicked around for a bit on the Internet while continuing to feel at ease. When I finally played a song from iTunes, it seemed fresh vibrant even though it was a song I’d heard plenty of times before. Again I would liken this to the experience of listening to music while stoned, but not quite as unique. After another 30 minutes, most of the effects had completely dissipated.

I’m not sure how to classify what I felt while listening to this track, or if it’s even unique to this type of sound. I’ve never listened to any meditation tapes or “nature sounds” in the same manner, so it’s possible that someone could derive a similar experience from those methods. Personally I found it quite unique. I’ve listened to Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid and The Field in similar fashion, and I can say this experience was set apart. I feel like I experienced the types of sensations people describe when they meditate. Though many of the effects were similar to marijuana, it’s definitely not a substitute and marijuana is definitely more potent. I find it extremely difficult to believe any such sound could produce results similar to harder drugs.  That being said, I think I will use this track in the future. It’s not going to have any impact on the illegal drug market, but it’s definitely worth the time if you need to clear your head and simply relax with a possibly unique experience.

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What Happens When The Party Ends?

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For more than a decade now, Hollywood has shown us the music we’ll be listening to in the future. We’ll all be sweating to some heart-pounding Electronica in a dark club, wearing flashy and uncomfortable clothing. Sound familiar? A strange thing happened in these last few years of music. The “future” arrived. We are living it. Neo and Blade definitely have ticket stubs from Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 tour in their trench coat pockets. So what does this mean? Is this it? Is this what music will sound like forever? What happens when (or if) the party ends? I think we’ve been given a few clues recently:

  • Clue #1: Radiohead -Radiohead is practically a musical crystal ball. A large portion of the sounds that dominated the 2000’s can be found on Kid A or OK Computer. Ten years after OK Computer, Radiohead returned from their longest hiatus with In Rainbows . The sound was intimate, tame and stripped down. Not exactly music for a party. If 2007 manages to be just as prophetic as 1997 for Radiohead, I think we can expect a “back to basics” wave to dominate popular music. Perhaps In Rainbows was one of the first of many albums designed for the mellow, reflective detox of the drive home. Bands like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear seem to have similar intentions. Sounds pretty good to me.
  • Clue #2: Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavillion made the Internet lose it’s collective marbles unlike anything in recent history (ok, since In Rainbows). Merriweather was the crowning achievement of a band evolving in slow motion towards a completely unique take on  pop music. Every album since Sun Tongs has been more accessible than it’s predecessor. Merriweather is the perfect marriage of a unique sound with pop sensibilities. It has the power to create a major wave in popular music. Some bands have already taken notice (Yeasayer, Dodos, High Places) and there will certainly be more to come. The only question is: will it be big enough to bring the dance party to an end? It’s hard to say. One could also argue Animal Collective is slowly being assimilated into the party rather than killing it . My Girls, arguably the best song on the album, is also the easiest to dance to (unless you’re into waltzing, then it’s Summertime Clothes), though maybe it’s just a necessary compromise to attract and convert the heathens that worship at “The Pyramid.” I think Animal Collective’s tribal, organic sound could eventually lead to something of a “musical renaissance;” somehow bringing everything full circle and “back to the beginning of time.” Kind of like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Allow me to illustrate:

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and then:

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Hope that helped.

  • Clue #3: every electronic dance act still thrivingMaybe Hollywood is right. Electronic dance will forever be our future. I still can’t imagine the cast of the Matrix going to see Fleet Foxes. Just seems silly. Electronic acts have come and gone in the last few  years, and different sub-genres have their moment in the sun, but the party hasn’t really skipped a beat. The rave continues whether Electro, House or Dubstep are on top this week.  They’re all at each other’s throats but technically they’re all on the same team. Maybe this “future” music is now a permanent force in popular music. I think this could be the “golden age” of Electronica, in the same way the 60’s were the “golden age” for Rock n’ Roll. After a genre has a “golden age” it seems like it can’t die. It may have it’s ups and downs, but eventually it becomes one of those bubbles you fill in when asked “what type of music do you like?” Once you become a bubble, you’re invincible. If Electronica doesn’t have a bubble yet, it will soon.

It’s pretty hard to predict future trends in music now that the whole world is basically a musical democracy. Getting a clear consensus on any genre is harder than fixing American healthcare. Not sure what this means for genres that are already popular. Seems like it would take quite a bit of hostility to bring them down. I can’t imagine what it would take to make people sick of dancing. Maybe when we see people with assault rifles and handguns outside MSTRKRFT shows we’ll know something’s about to change.


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The 90’s Will Never Happen Again

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A few months ago, the only half-decent alternative rock station in Sacramento, KWOD 106.5, was shut down and replaced by a corporate-type “totally 90’s” station called “The Buzz.” KWOD was my “modern /alt rock” station of choice in the 90’s. Now it had officially been turned into a greatest hits station featuring the music I grew up with. It’s a strange feeling. Even though I hadn’t listened to KWOD regularly for about four years, I couldn’t help but go into a mini-nostalgic tailspin. I started thinking about how long ago the 90’s were and how drastically music and pop culture have changed since then. It’s unbelievable.

When you’re young it’s often hard to tell how significant the changes you observe in pop culture really are. Though the shifts may indeed be significant, the ever-changing sense of perspective that comes with being young tends to exaggerate them. I think about this a lot when I’m bored and try to objectively discern trends in pop culture from my own experiences. Were the 90’s really that great? Is this how Generation X felt when “totally 80’s” stations started popping up on their dial? Was the shift from 80’s to 90’s music as dramatic as the 90’s to 00’s? Does every generation think music was “totally different” when they were growing up? Does every generation experience essentially the same things as they get older in relation to the culture they grew up in?

It seems like every generation can cite a band, song or moment that defined the culture of their youth and created a clean break with the previous generation. The easiest example from the 90’s is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s famously the moment when 80’s Hair Metal died and Grunge essentially became the 90’s. I remember the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio. I knew it was a great song, but I had no connection to the 80’s or Hair Metal, nor was I “aware” of pop culture in the way I am now. In other words, I didn’t know it was a significant cultural event. Now that this decade is almost over, I finally have my first real chance to observe the shift in music from one decade to the next.

I don’t think the 00’s really had a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment. Arcade Fire probably came close, but Funeral didn’t really affect the rest of the decade in the same way  Nirvana and Grunge did. It may be impossible for another “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to happen now with the music industry crumbling and the Internet dividing everyone’s attention in ten different directions every week. In many ways the 00’s aren’t just a break from the 90’s, but from every previous decade of music. Here are some of the ways that the 00’s have changed music forever:

  • Music moves twice as fast –  The 00’s really feel like two entire decades. Ten years is like twenty Internet years. Without record companies in charge to incrementally add and subtract from the music scene within relatively neat periods of ten years, music evolves and trends shift as quickly as we want them to, which seems to be about twice as fast as the 90’s. The last time the pace of music consumption increased so dramatically must have been around the birth of the music industry. A few years ago Pitchfork released a list of the best albums of 2000-2004. Until recently I thought this was a rather obnoxiously uneven and inappropriate list to make, but now I feel like it totally makes sense. The amount of music consumed (without paying, of course) within those five years could easily fill a normal decade. I highly doubt there will ever be a “totally 00’s” or 10’s or 20’s station and not just because traditional radio is dying. The decade long movements in popular music no longer work. From here on out music will be bracketed and reviewed in much smaller intervals if we choose to bracket it at all.
  • Music is free – This is simultaneously the best and worst part about the end of the 90’s. The upside is obvious, but it does come with consequences. I often find it quite difficult to “sit” with an album I initially have only lukewarm interest in. It doesn’t cost me anything to pull the lever on the “free music slot machine” (aka the Internet) so why even bother?. In the 90’s, the cost of a CD was a substantial part of my “income” and choosing which album to buy was an arduous task that required exhaustive research and investigation, usually without the aid of the Internet. Occasionally my purchase would leave me feeling robbed (and occasionally I was right). On other occasions, I would gradually come to realization that my purchase was a hidden gem. Having only one new album for weeks or months at a time essentially required an exploration of every track for better or worse. Repeating this process time and time again shortened the time it took to recognize a true gem. These experiences grew to be extremely rewarding and crucial to the ways in which I listen to music now. I’m not sure teens today have the patience it requires to explore albums. I’m sure I wouldn’t if I were in high school today. Even as a child of the 90’s I find it difficult. Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe teens aren’t missing out on much if anything at all. Maybe I’m just an old man complaining about how things used to be. I still love plenty of albums that didn’t require multiple listens to “get”. Instantly catchy isn’t necessarily the sign of a “junk food” album. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times. Who knows? The only thing I’m sure of is that free music has turned a “musical attention span” into a trait associated with those who grew up in the 90’s.
  • Music is no longer a “two-party system” – In the 90’s, Republicans and Democrats seemed like respectable enemies. Sort of like rival sports teams. It was acceptable to associate yourself with either side. Similarly, the 90’s had “mainstream music” and “indie music.” It was a musical two-party system. Us vs. Them. Both had their strong and weak points. Both were relevant. Today, there is no “Us vs. Them” and it’s hardly a discussion  even worth having. Yes, Top 40 is terrible. Yes, indie music is better. Yes, the Republican party is full of racist nutcases that scream at town hall meetings. Yes, Obama is way more popular than Bush. I miss the days when you could have serious discussions about indie vs. mainstream music. Top 40 music today has a lot in common with the current state of the Republican party. It seems more concerned with surviving than innovating. It clings to old ideas (and hits) and refuses to change it’s ways, even as it becomes more and more  obsolete. All its worst features define it. This stubborn and laughable attitude has allowed it’s rival to steadily gain popularity for so long that there is essentially no longer a dichotomy. Though music sales will tell you top 40 is of course still top 40, it’s hardly an accurate indication of the music young people are listening to. Get a top 40 list of the albums being pirated and you’ll have a more meaningful statistic. In short, traditional “top 40″ is dead and “indie music” is officially an inaccurate genre description. Maybe we should just call indie music “music” and top 40 music “a joke.”

I really do think that the musical shift into the new millennium was unique and I feel pretty lucky to have been young during the 90’s and the 00’s. Huge parts of the culture changed in ways most generations never get to experience. It also seems rather convenient and coincidental that such huge changes happened at the turn of the millennium. Like maybe those numbers really do mean something and the end of the 90’s wasn’t just something hyped up in a Prince song.

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