This is one of those rare records full of mysteries that haven’t revealed themselves to me at all over time – I’m just as perplexed as to how this thing was made as I was when I heard it as a teenager. “Loner sci-fi” is the best way I can describe it – it’s both extremely “cool” and really introverted. The drums are insane of course, and that’s probably what he’s still known for most, but almost every ‘instrument’ on the record is unrecognizable, and the album really stands together as this one entity. You enter a world with ‘Brainfeeder’ and you exit it after ‘Infinitum’ – and it’s hard to skip tracks really. Also probably my favorite album art of all time. I probably could have picked any track off here – but I’ve always loved the drums and chords on this one so much.
Flying Lotus Breathe Something, Stellar Star
Feist – Brandy Alexander
My label will be disappointed to know I’m really not a very cool person, and I tend to get to music very late, as I did with this album. I remember seeing this for sale at Starbucks as a kid and hearing ‘1234’ in that iPod commercial, but I came back to it much later and my mind was totally blown. She’s an amazing singer, a great songwriter, and the crew who backs it all up also is just super solid. Almost no synths here but they manage to really put together such compelling atmospheres just with the usual acoustic and analog instruments. For me this is kind of where indie records end in time – I just don’t know what more there is to say with guitar, piano, and vocals than this record. Probably the best September soundtrack I’ve heard so far. This is one of these genreless tracks, and it covers so much emotional ground as it goes on.
Death Cab for Cutie – Scientist Studies
A really special album for me – it has this very hazy approach to songwriting where everything is kind of just a little off from a regular chord progression. Nick Harmer, the bass player, has this crazy concept on here, sort of playing a third guitar line most of the time. It just has this very autumnal, suburban sound that isn’t saccharine at all. No fancy production, horrible mixes, but the songs are just great and it’s a vibe that’s so hard to touch. I would cheat this format and recommend The Forbidden Love EP also as an extension to this release also – similarly wistful and great. ‘Scientist Studies’ is just one of those perfect songs, but there is so much other great stuff on here too. I love the guitar lines, the bass line, and the emotional place the song gets to. It’s hopeful, wistful, and dismissive all at once. I love Ben’s vocals too – he lets the music really speak for itself.
Death Cab For Cutie - "Scientist Studies" (Official Audio)
Taylor Swift – Seven
It’s pretty hard to pick a single record, let alone a single track since Taylor is really such a beast. She can rip it with Nathan Chapman, Aaron Sterling and some Nashville slayers, Max Martin and Shellback, or apparently with Aaron Dessner and his insanely muted piano tone. I was really caught off guard with this release hearing it the first time. I think every pop star has the fantasy of doing the stripped back folky thing after they pop off, so I was actually pretty skeptical of the concept, but I immediately got way into this one. ‘seven’ and ‘invisible string’ really take me somewhere, and they’re some of the best tracks I’ve ever heard her do. I think ‘seven’ caught me most by surprise – it kind of sounds like a Joni Mitchell vocal line but more importantly, it’s just so vulnerable and nostalgic. Plus, I’m not a lyrics person but, “I hit my peak at seven feet” – come on: that’s dope. This whole album is a reminder that if we can all take a step back from the spectre of spectacle we can find some really inspiring stuff.
Taylor Swift – seven (Official Lyric Video)
The Bad Plus – Everywhere You Turn
This album formed so much of my outlook about music for the rest of my life. Most of all it granted me permission – permission to do things that on paper seem to make no sense in the world of “jazz”: piano trio covers of ‘Flim’, ‘Heart of Glass’, and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, getting Tchad Blake to record the album, and actually having a band name. This was actually the record that got me into Aphex Twin in the first place, but it was so much more than that. Reid Anderson’s writing on here is amazing, and the takes have that garage band energy executed with so much proficiency. Dave King sounds like a force of nature, especially with Tchad’s whacked out recording tricks. Reid’s Sansamp bass sound on here was something I’ve been after ever since. There really is nothing like it. But most of all it’s about the original music; ‘Everywhere You Turn’ is just as good as it gets, in so many ways. It’s one of those rare examples of heartbreaking songwriting paired with that “show your friends in the car” kind of flare. In a way it’s a “simple” song, but to me it’s just perfect. I don’t think I could ever get tired of listening to it.
Everywhere You Turn
Aphex Twin – 4
Don’t look so surprised. Of course I’m a big fan of this stuff – it’s funny to try and pick an album from Aphex because his output just goes against the format so much. I think when I think of his music, it’s all together in this one big set of work – not one record mostly. Also so many of the records just have so many bizarre, goofy things on them – I kind of think it’s part of his scheme to never have one legendary album or something. But the RDJ album is really special – I think most albums that have a killer opening track tend to have a leg up in our minds, and ‘4’ is just so great. Who would think you could get away with strings and those drill beats? To me this record feels like it’s right on the cusp between him getting this insane technical control over his craft and also coming into his own with this really sensitive, emotive songwriting. The drums on their own are so unique, even just sonically, but the beats are insane and the way he develops the track is unbelievable. It’s one of those tracks that is so expansive and ambitious but also so unassuming. I don’t like to speculate too much about how and why musicians are doing what they’re doing but there’s always been this sense to me like this was the last album he did before he just existed as this legend, because it has the feel of someone who doesn’t take any interest in the music for granted. Of course, then again there’s ‘Goon Gumpas’.
Aphex Twin - 4
Elliott Smith – Clementine
Tough to pick something to say that hasn’t been said already. Another one that’s hard to pick a single album for, especially given the span of the different kinds of music he made for the relatively short period of time he was putting things out. The songwriting in this track is so old-school but also so unique to him; he has these kinds of harmonies you can tell are his right away. Super sophisticated and such a unique emotional space – really nobody has touched it before or since. I think if I were a singer I would have probably spent my whole life trying to emulate this kind of stuff, although the later albums with bands are great too. ‘Clementine’ was maybe the one I listened to the most – maybe because he has such an awesome feel at those slow swingy tempos. But also because it has this beautiful, dusty feel to it. It really sounds like that scene he’s describing, and it kind of loops around but also manages to unfold and change the whole way through. These days I really wonder what kind of music he would have gotten to if he had been around longer – I remember reading that he was starting to get into some kind of noise music on his computer in his later days.
Elliott Smith - Clementine (from Elliott Smith)
The Secret Stars – Wait
I heard this for the first time when Death Cab covered it a while back, but found the YouTube version way later. There’s something about this track that just freezes the air around me the second the music comes in. The texture basically doesn’t change, and it’s super straight faced, but it’s just so heartbreaking. I’m not a collector kind of person but I really do want to get a copy of this single some day. Songs like this are so potent I can’t loop them or I’m afraid they’ll get diluted. Maybe it’s personal to me, but it just conjures up this American adolescent kind of mourning. It’s like a strong smell I need to step back from or else I’ll faint.
The Secret Stars- Wait (vinyl)
Minako Hamano, Kozue Ishikawa and Kazumi Totaka – Sword Search [The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening]
I definitely didn’t play this game but my friend showed me this track last year when we were doing a time trial of making 8 bit music. It’s kind of the modern version of harpsichord or something – no dynamic or anything but just straight composing. This loop is fucking sick. It covers so much emotional range in such a short time, does all kinds of tricky harmonic stuff, and manages to loop around seamlessly. It has a hopeful bit to it and also a nice melancholy descending thing too, not to mention sick arps. Zelda was always Nintendo’s introverted franchise, which is maybe why I liked it so much growing up, and you can really hear it in the music. There’s something in here that reminds me of the Ocarina of Time menu music as well but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. I think I could listen to this on loop for hours and never get tired of it. I think they only use this track at one point in the game – crazy considering it’s probably the best chiptune I’ve ever heard.
Sword Search [The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening]
Charlie Parker – Now’s the Time from Bird at St Nick’s
I’ll never know for sure what it felt like to really see these kinds of people live, but this record put the old bebop stuff in a whole different league for me. Honestly, I find a lot of the studio recordings of this era to be pretty sterile and scaled back, but this live one with Roy Haynes is just insane. It really feels like everyone is playing on the border of what they can do, and Bird in particular just has this amazing sense of shredding but also grasping hold of the musical side of things. The level of power and control is scary – it’s like watching one of the “Finish Him” sequences in Mortal Kombat. The way Roy smashes the toms and the way Bird just bends the time is unbelievable. It’s like precision was just an ingredient he could turn up and down at will.
Now's The Time (live at St Nicholas Arena)
Varsity Star – Pipes (Small Pond Records)
‘More Than Anything’ is the latest release from this prolific musician and producer. Now based in Brooklyn after growing up in Boston and spending time in Berlin where he connected with electronic music, Varsity Star is an accomplished upright bassist. He has played as a multi-genre sideman alongside the likes of Adrianne Lenker, on TV for Saturday Night Live and in all manner of Brooklyn venues, basements and even a Danish church. He brings his formal playing chops as well as a unique perspective on groove to this new album, which melds jazz thinking and electronic music in absorbing new ways. The single ‘Pipes’ is a gorgeous fusion of inventive melody and heartwarming harmony. Seamlessly melting electronic synthesis with organic groove, the track ascends to the heavens on lush arps and
leggy drums. The track recalls the early work of artists like Four Tet and brings plenty of fresh perspectives.
Varsity Star – Pipes (Small Pond Records) Release: 24th September 2021 Cat No: SPR245B Format: CD, vinyl, digital