Archive

Posts Tagged ‘2000’
25 Feb

Week 146: “Bag Lady” by Erykah Badu


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There are two versions of this song, and I couldn’t decide which version to post, so we’re going to do this the “choose-your-own-adventure” way. Here’s the situation:

You’ve just gone through a difficult break-up, and are worried that the emotional baggage you’ve been left with won’t allow you to move on with your life. Do you skip work and spend the day curled up under a blanket with a bottle of wine and a trashy novel? Listen to version 1: 

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Do you dance your anger away while throwing out anything that reminds you of your ex? Listen to version 2:

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What makes this a beautiful song:

1. (Version 1) The soft but militant marching-drum. Smooth and purposeful at the same time.

2. (Version 2) The harmonies and handclaps. Feels like you’re partying with at least 5 Erykahs.

3. (Both versions) The repeating guitar line. If I hear it in the morning, I’m whistling it all day.

Recommended listening activity:

Having a two-course meal in which both courses are dessert.

24 Dec

Week 137: “Christmas Song” by Mogwai

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There were certain things I could always count on during the Christmas season when I was a kid:

Consistent decorations. We’d hang the same decorations in the same parts of the living room every year. Sure, my brother and I would take turns being “in charge” of decorating each year, but you weren’t about to hang the star from the back of the rocking chair, or give the Christmas tree penthouse suite to a dream-catcher.  No matter what had happened over the course of the year, the living room always looked exactly the same on December 25th, and that was a good thing.

Sensible presents. My Christmas wish lists were carefully prioritized. But because my parents were too smart to be taken in by advertising, I knew that the real list started at number 3 or 4. I fully realized there was no way they would buy sneakers that cost more than a month’s mortgage payment, or a shirt that changed colour when you touched it. But I had to include those things on the list, just in case. You gotta have hope.

Family dinners. Most of my family lived on the other side of the ocean, so these weren’t huge affairs, but the tradition was consistent; my aunt would spend dinner talking about jewelry, my grandmother would mistakenly use the pepper grinder as a salt shaker, and my brother and I would quietly wait until a break in the conversation before politely asking if we could play with our new toys.

Movies. The older we got, the less often we all watched movies together. Our tastes in movies suffered a significant generation gap. My brother and I were generally into horror movies and anything with lots of farting in it. Meanwhile, my parents’ main source of movies was the public library, so unless we felt like watching a 1954 documentary about the history of obscure card games, we would rarely join them. Christmas was different, though. We’d always watch two classics: “A Christmas Carol”, and “A Christmas Story”. Every year we’d laugh at the same jokes as if we’d never seen the movie before, and I remember anticipating the jokes by watching my parents’ faces just before the funny moment happened, because I liked watching their faces light up with laughter.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The repeated line of the opening piano sounds like slow-motion church bells on Christmas morning.

2. The synthesized strings, sitting way in the background beginning around 1:00, sound like a far-off choir singing “Silent Night”.

3. The gradually fading-in brushes on the snare drum, first audible just after 1:30, sound like a locomotive puffing into a snowy town in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Recommended listening activity:

Reviving a tradition.

19 Nov

Week 132: “Two Hearts In 3/4 Time” by The Avalanches

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We’re three-quarters of the way through Southern Hemisphere Month, so it’s only fitting that we take a listen to a song in ¾, a crazy, schizophrenic blast of sample-based beauty by Melbourne’s Avalanches.

I discovered this band in 2000. I got home late from a night at the bar, dazed and sleepy, and I thought that a little MTV and a nice tall glass of water would be a nice nightcap. I sat on the couch, took a swig of water, and turned on the TV right as the video for the Avalanches’ “Frontier Psychiatrist” began to play.

If you’ve never heard that song, it’s a weird one. And the video is weirder. I spent the next four minutes staring dumbly at the screen, a trickle of water dripping from my lip, with one eyelid twitching. It was one of the weirdest videos I had ever seen, and the music had me hooked. The next morning, I bought the album.

Thankfully, not all the songs were as crazy as “Frontier Psychiatrist”. But it was (still is) a brilliant piece of work. While most of it is dancey and frenetic, it slows down just enough for this fun little number.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The constant vinyl crackle. This is an album of samples, the way DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing…” was, and with all the crackle and hiss you can almost smell the stacks of forgotten records that went into making it.

2. The vocal sample. It’s from “Yu-Ma” by Marlena Shaw, and when it’s taken out of context like this, it seems almost ridiculously happy to the point of being borderline creepy. Kind of makes me want to start skipping.

3. The e-piano sample. Not sure where this came from, but it’s great. A bit aimless, like it might have been improvised.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting on a chair that’s high enough to allow you to swing your feet.

13 Jun

Week 57: “Your Song” by Groove Armada (Tim Lee Remix)

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People often talk about “remix culture”, referring to the interactions between users and content on the internet, and the fact that easily accessible software and file-sharing has made it possible for the masses, who used to be primarily the consumers of culture, to become producers and re-interpreters of culture. It sounds great, and paints a picture of a utopian “culture 2.0” type of world in which we’re all musical creators.

But let’s get real for a second. A lot of the user/content interaction that happens on the internet isn’t worth a whole lot. And just because I can take a video of Charlie biting someone’s finger at mix it with a techno beat, it doesn’t make me a musical genius or cultural creator. Remixes are sometimes frivolous, and now more than ever, they often represent nothing more than a fledgling DJ’s attempt to grab a share of someone else’s popularity.

However! There are some good remixes out there, and maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical; maybe sifting through so many bad ones makes the good ones seem even better. This is one of my favourite remixes, mostly because it takes a good song and makes it better by giving it a new key and a new feel.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Never-ending vocal echoes.       (echoes.)                          (echoes.)

2. Just a hint of Latin percussion. It starts to fade in gradually about 45 seconds in. Could be the soundtrack for the world’s most lethargic salsa dancing competition.

3. The horn solo. I have trouble deciding whether it’s a muted trumpet, flugelhorn, or what. But it’s not in the original version, and I like it. (Actually, the vocal track is just about the only thing that comes directly from the original song by Groove Armada.)

Recommended listening activity:

Re-arranging the furniture in your bedroom.

 

p.s. if you know of any beautiful remixes, let me know: beautifulsongoftheweek@gmail.com

27 Dec

Week 33: “His Majesty King Raam” by Lemon Jelly

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And now, a brief story about why I like sample-based music.

Many years ago, I worked in the kitchen at a major pizza chain. Apart from helping to pay for my education, one minimum-wage hour at a time, it also exposed me to lots of music I would not have otherwise heard. This is because management had decided to invest in the latest technological wonder: satellite radio.

You could always tell which assistant manager was on duty based on which satellite radio station we were listening to. Gary, nearing retirement and friendly, preferred “ballads of the 60s”. The younger manager, Mike, was more of a “top 40” man, while Randy, one of the pioneers of the barbed-wire tattoo, seemed to have successfully found the “all-Nickleback-all-the-time” station.

But it was while listening to Gary’s “ballads of the 60s” station that it happened. It was near closing on a fairly slow evening, and I was puttering around in the kitchen, mindlessly re-filling the toppings, throwing pepperoni slices into the air and seeing if I could catch them in my mouth. And then all of a sudden, in mid-pepperoni throw, my brain had a flash of recognition. Why did I know this song?

It was Henry Mancini’s “Two For The Road”, an awful, syrupy smooth slow-jam from 1967. And I knew it because it had been sampled by the British electronic duo Lemon Jelly in their wonderful song “His Majesty King Raam”. And as I stood there grinning, a forgotten piece of pepperoni on my head, I realized why I loved sample-based music, especially by geniuses like Lemon Jelly: they take forgotten garbage from years ago and give it new life. And then one day you hear the original, and you feel a sudden, unsuspected connection to the past.

Sample-based music is the ultimate 21st-century art form; in a world overwhelmed by constantly changing popular culture, musicians like Lemon Jelly use the past to make art in the present.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lullaby-esque beginning. Just makes you want to bury yourself in a sea of fluffy pillows.

2. Tongue-in-cheek British humour. From an opening that makes you want to fall asleep, we’re treated to another staple of Lemon Jelly: bizarre and ironic non-sequiturs, this time in the form of some British man describing the positive personality traits of King Raam.

3. The e-piano at 4:30. Slowly, the song begins to fade, and seems like it’s ending. But the e-piano doesn’t fade out. It keeps going, its perfect, buttery tone complemented by the chorus of “ooh-ooh” that follows.

Recommended listening activity:

Looking through old photos of your parents as kids, and realizing that you’re not so different.

30 Aug

Week 16: “New World” by Bjork

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Though I recognize Bjork’s talent, I find it difficult to make it through an entire album without feeling like I’m losing my grip on sanity. For me, it’s a bit like watching Japanese cartoons; very colourful, very different, kind of exciting…but you don’t really understand what’s going on, and after a while the noises start to get annoying.

Bjork is an oddity. And I mean that in the best possible way; her rise to global fame in the 1990s, given the experimental nature of her music and the unusual quality of her voice, baffles me. Just take a look at the other female vocalists who were popular in the 90s: Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston…next to them, Bjork looks like a recently escaped mental patient with a love of showtunes.

But whether you categorize her as a genius or a weirdo, I insist that you take another listen to this song, from the soundtrack to the film “Dancer in the Dark”, directed by Lars Von Trier.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. Co-written by Von Trier and Bjork, this song feels a bit like a eulogy for the movie’s main character (played by Bjork in the film). It’s a sad and bizarre story of a Czech woman living in the US in the 60s, who is slowly losing her sight due to a genetic condition. As she goes blind, she relies on her imagination to escape from the monotony of the factory where she works. (Oh, and she’s working there to save up enough money for an operation which would save her son from going blind as well. Uplifting stuff.) But knowing that her character is blind makes some of the vivid lyrical imagery even more powerful: “I’m softly walking on air/Halfway to heaven from here/Sunlight unfolds in my hair…”

2. The melody. The three notes she sings on “oooooh” are just great. Every time I hear the song, I’m surprised at myself for having forgotten how great those notes are.

3. The orchestration. This song is a great mix of electronic and live instruments. I think Massive Attack might have collaborated on this song, but apart from shaky internet evidence, my only reason for thinking that is “well, it kind of sounds like Massive Attack”. But the orchestration is where the song really earns its spot on this list. Bjork is famous for big orchestration, and most of the time she does it to remind you of how wacky she is (e.g. It’s Oh So Quiet), but in this song it’s there to support the melody, and it does so beautifully. From a quiet French Horn line at the beginning to a full-on symphonic explosion, then back down to a soft trumpet that brings to mind a military funeral, the orchestration in this song is perfect.

Recommended listening activity:

Taking one last look through your old apartment before moving.

23 Aug

Week 15: “The Crow…” by DJ Food

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As explained in the liner notes of their brilliant 2000 album “Kaleidoscope”, DJ Food is not a person. Rather, it is an ensemble of British turntablists and electronic artists who, in the early 90s, put out a series of jazzy samples for use by DJs…a kind of food for DJs, hence the name.

This song is by a member named Patrick Carpenter. Often listed on their albums by his initials, Carpenter was mistakenly assumed by some fans to be nothing more than a personal computer. On this song, however, he proves to be more than mere circuitry, as he assembles a wide range of samples to create a stunning piece of music. And you’ve gotta love a song with an ellipsis in the title.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion. It starts with some quiet bongos, and builds into looped drum madness by the end.

2. The samples. Many turntablists and turntablist groups use samples as accents, or even filler, but in this song, little vocal snipits and other various bits of noise build a spooky yet beautiful atmosphere.

3. The vibraphone. Is there any instrument more likely to put you into a deep, satisfied snooze than the vibraphone? It’s used sparingly in this song, but they throw it in at just the right moments. The end is particularly great, as the vibes sink lower and lower, disappearing and reappearing, until you’re so relaxed all you can manage is a blissed-out grin of satisfaction.

Recommended listening activity:

Walking through your favourite neighbourhood late at night.

05 Jul

Week 8: “Lodestar” by Sarah Harmer

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If lazy summer afternoons had an anthem, this song would be it. Full of lyrics about boats, campfires, and fresh air, this song appears to be Sarah Harmer’s ode to Muskoka. If you ever have friends who are getting married and who are putting things like “canoe paddles” on their registry, make sure this song gets played at their wedding. You’ll be their hero, and you’ll probably get to keep any leftover wine from the reception.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The cello. Or is it a double bass? Whatever it is, quiet and unhurried, it lazily hums its part. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but the cellist may have been in a hammock when recording this.

2. The muted trumpet. This is an unusual instrument to include in a folk song, but it fits well; I imagine it to represent the distant lightning of a storm that you can see while lazing in your chair on the dock.

3. The build up. Keeping with that storm idea, this song really ends like an approaching storm. The trumpet becomes louder, the bassline gets more insistent, and she sings about the darkness “ringing” in the night…I can’t help picturing one of those hot afternoons where a storm creeps in from a distance, and you dash inside just as the first drops are falling, ready to enjoy an evening of watching for forks of lightning with your friends and saying, “oooh, did you see that one?”

Recommended listening activity:

Anything involving a cottage.

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28 Jun

Week 7: “Sleep” by Eric Whitacre

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I first heard this song a couple of years ago at a choral concert close to where I live. I had never heard of the composer or the song, and I was blown away; it was one of those great and rare moments where the hair on the back of your neck stands so tall that it almost dislodges itself from its follicles. I challenge anyone to print off the lyrics, listen to the song, and think of a loved one who has recently died.  If you’re not a sobbing wreck by the end, you have no heart.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The dissonance. Eric Whitacre is what you might call a modern-choral-pop composer, and I mean that in the best possible way. While some modern composers seem to write with the dual purpose of making the music incredibly complex and entirely unlistenable, Whitacre picks his spots perfectly, using dissonance to make his cadences all the more satisfying.

2. The lyrics. Originally, Whitacre had wanted to use a Robert Frost poem, but copyright problems forced him to change course. The lyrics are by Charles Silvestri, and depending on which internet source you believe, they were either written for a young boy who couldn’t fall asleep, or for a soprano whose parents died within days of each other. Either way, they’re simple and evocative.

3. The end. If the choir performing it is skilled enough, the effect is perfect: this world fades away and silence creeps in.

Recommended listening activity:

Visiting a cemetery on a sunny day and finally being okay with it.