When this whole horrible COVID19 experience started—back when we thought maybe we’d be in lockdown for a few weeks, not a few months to a year—I thought to myself that at least it might be something worthy of documenting with my camera. I considered the world so changed and strange in this moment in time that no one would really understand it in the future unless people tried to capture the experience.
But the truth is, I’ve really struggled. The world generally doesn’t look transformed. It doesn’t even look abandoned in many ways. It’s more eerie than that. It just looks like a perpetual early morning before people are out on the streets. Or what Sunday afternoons used to feel like in England in the 1980s. For the most part, the visual reality of this situation conveys almost nothing of the experience of living through it. In fact, at times, while it feels desolate and strange and disconcerting—terrifying even—it looks almost idyllic.
A better photographer than I might be able to capture the feeling. But in the meantime, here’s some of the surface reality of San Francisco in April and May 2020. I’ll probably post some more in another couple of months.
I’d like to ask you guys a quick favor. If you use an RSS reader to consume your online content and somehow you still find yourself subscribed to plasticbag.org after many years of abandonment and dereliction, I’d really appreciate it if you can let me know in the comments below if you see this post. If you could tell me what client or online service you’re using to consume the feed too, that would be really great.
The short background to this is that as part of my massive cleaning and reinstallation of everything, I deleted a hell of a lot of stuff from around the place, and I’m checking the error logs to see what things people are missing. At the moment, the largest number of 404 errors are coming from people looking for an index.rdf, index.xml or atom.xml file, which I’m assuming are all places I used to keep my feeds. WordPress has moved them to /feed/ and so I’ve made a few .htaccess updates to redirect everything to the right places. But of course it’s easy to make the redirects, and less easy to check that everything is coming through to everyone correctly.
Obviously, if you happen to stumble upon this post in another way and then realize that your RSS feed is not up to date, I’d also love to hear about it, but I suspect that’s a bit less likely to happen.
It feels odd, writing your first blog post in seven years. It used to be such a large part of my life—and this blog used to be such a core part of my work and engagement with my community—that you’d think you’d never forget how to do it. I wrote here almost every day for well over a decade. It saw me through the first half of my working life, from Time Out to Brickhouse, London to America. It saw me through many of my most significant life events. And yet I’ve not done it for seven years. It feels odd. And forgotten how to do it, I think I sort of have.*
I’ve obviously been writing, don’t get me wrong! I’ve written many, many tweets in the last seven years. Around 150,000 of them, in fact, on pretty much every subject under the sun, although mostly (in recent years) #politics and #doctorwho. I’ve built up over 40,000 followers over that time, a number that I think I can get back down under a thousand if I continue to focus ardently on #politics and #doctorwho. This will have a certain circular irony to it since, if I’m honest, the ease of writing on Twitter is probably one of the reasons that I finally stopped blogging in the first place.
I’ve set up a few other Twitter accounts too. There’s @lovedsongs which publishes a list of every song I’ve given five stars to or loved on iTunes. And @houseofcoates which fairly aimlessly plugs away reporting the things that happen at my home. Just two of the many absurd things you can do with Twitter if you get bored.
I’ve also written a number of conference talks. Looking back at my dump of the old Lanyrd website, probably around thirty! Or at least maybe ten, each of which was delivered a few times. Writing those conference talks reminded me a lot of how it felt to write a decent blog post after ten years on the job. By that time I was no longer just knocking something out for fun to get a thought out of my head. I wanted them to be good. Really good. And so I wrote them to death, and focused in on them and really thought them through. Some of the conference talks I managed to write in less than one focused week of work. Some took almost a month. It had been getting that way with my blog posts by the end. And that, in a third ancillary and supportive nutshell, is yet another reason that I finally stopped blogging.
It might surprise some of you that I used to go outside. But if you don’t believe me, the conference talk I gave most recently was at the Mind The Product event in 2018. It was a keynote on the main stage at the San Francisco Symphony Hall. Get me. Main stage at Glastonbury. Crowds go wild. I three-dimensionally-rendered most of the slides using a focused brick of computronium. (I wrote that out longhand because “I 3d rendered” looked very strange indeed.) It took a really long time, and over-ran by ten full minutes. Everyone was very, very nice about it. I’m quite proud of the whole thing.
I also wrote a few things in other places over that time. I wrote a few things on Medium. I’m not sure why I chose to move to Medium, except I guess I thought it was a bit less embarrassing than writing a blog. I also thought I could just write something every so often and it might somehow find itself an audience without me having to write all the time to maintain people’s attention. Plus, of course, it makes what you write look gorgeous.
However, after roughly a decade of not writing regularly, I can testify that removing the pressure of regular content production did not make me produce fewer, higher quality thoughts, but just removed the impetus to write altogether. And that for the fourth time, is another reason why I stopped blogging.
I wrote a few things for more public spaces too. The most prominent of those was an opinion piece for NBC News that I guess I never actually billed them for (their payment system was appalling) so in principle, I guess I still own it. I might copy it over to this site in fact since they probably don’t hold the copyright. If you’re interested at all, it’s here: Trump blocked me on Twitter. But for democracy’s sake, we can’t ban him.
I should say a couple of things about that piece of writing before I move on – firstly, I didn’t write the headline. Mostly when you write things, the sub-editor writes the headline, and it is normally the distilled down and clickbaitiest possible version of what you actually might have meant. The second thing I’d like to say is that, you know, I still stand by it 85%. But, you know, when he started encouraging people to break the lockdown and go outside and give and spread disease to millions of Americans… Well, anyway.
But of course the main thing I’ve been doing over the last decade is building things. First at Yahoo, we built and launched Fire Eagle within Brickhouse and did a whole bunch of product innovation things, plus a couple of substantial but much less glamorous internal projects to do with location sharing and storage. Then after that projects like The Eatery with Aza Raskin, Up Coffee for Jawbone, projects for Nokia and Burner, doing consulting with Matt Biddulph at Product Club, then launching a better smart object UX with Thington (also built with Matt), sold to Eero a couple of years ago, followed by spending the last year and a half working on a completely decentralized alternative to Facebook and Twitter now known as Planetary.
I often find that when I’m working on something complicated my desire to write sort of dries up. I used to find these patterns where I’d spend chunks of time in strategic roles where I’d have to think a lot about an emerging subject in public, followed by times where I’d be focused on building and the writing would dry up. It’s a shame because I think the writing and the thinking helps you draw attention to the building, helps you engage people with the projects and keeps you a bit honest. It’s a good thing to think and work in public if you can do it. But for me, recently, for good or ill, it’s been mostly building and not very much writing for the last few years. And that, I suppose, is yet another reason why I stopped blogging.
So I guess the question of the moment is why have I started again? Why after seven+ years have I felt compelled to write just one more post? Is this the beginning of something more substantial?
There are probably two answers to this. The first one is purely practical. A few years ago someone managed to hack into my servers via an unpatched version of DBAdmin. And shortly after that, Google started reporting that there appeared to be content spam appearing in my blog. Shortly after that, my web host shut down access to any of my sites from outside, citing the presence of malware. And since I didn’t really know what they’d done and I didn’t have time to investigate it all thoroughly, over not very long at all every mark of my internet presence evaporated.
Which brings us to today, and this moment in time where we’re all reeling a bit from the world. A time that finds some of us trying to occupy our minds with something constructive. A moment where I finally had the time (and the desperate inclination) to back everything up and then completely purge my server, soup to nuts. And then gradually, piece at a time, when I get a moment, I’ve been putting it up online again.
Little fragments from my distant past are starting to emerge. Old fan sites like The Bomb. Weird creative projects from the past that I’m too embarrassed to link to. Websites made of many, many frames (ask your granddad). And of course, this blog. Over twenty years old, and filled with great swathes of my history. Looking at me blankly, using an off-the-shelf theme that conveys none of my feel or personality, with a little link that doesn’t blink but feels like it does saying only, “Add new post”. “Add new post.”
And hence the second answer to the question, why have I started again? Well, first up, I don’t know that I have. This could be the only new post I ever put up here. But if it is, it won’t be because I’m writing lots elsewhere. We live in a new time of isolation and fear. Twitter feels too urgent and anxious and tense right now. There’s no space to think or breathe. Facebook is filled with all the angst and pain and fury people are feeling. It’s overwhelming. Instagram is filled with people performing a perfect family lockdown experience interspersed with adverts for masks.
And suddenly, I find myself hearkening back to an earlier time of self-expression and community. The crowds have gone. There are no hordes of people waiting outside for a new post to emerge. There’s little to no pressure. Everyone’s not looking. It’s just the relics from an earlier era, posting periodically. And suddenly, maybe just for this one moment in time, that community is who I need. That community is who I miss. And talking to them in this kind of way feels right.
So I’m sorry that it’s long and vague and formless. I’m sorry that I’ve forgotten how to write … good*. I’m sorry that I haven’t posted for a very long time. But I’m here now, I have very little to say, and for some reason, goddam, I’m determined to say it.
So here’s to all you old people who still glance at blogs. Maybe this will turn up in your RSS feeds somehow. Maybe you’ll stumble upon it at some point in the future. Maybe you’ll never see it. That’s okay too. It’s not for an audience. It’s not for the attention. It’s just something I wanted to say, written down and pushed out the door to be stumbled upon by random people at some point. Just like it always was supposed to be, I guess.
It feels odd, writing your first blog post in seven years. But it’s a good kind of weird. And I’ve missed it.
* The irony here is intentional. I haven’t written long pieces for a while. I can’t tell if you’re getting the jokes.
Today our comment and review media lurch from Hot Takes to History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what actually happened. The concept of the One Year Later Review was that we might be able to get a better understanding of what mattered and what effects it had with a little bit of distance – one year of distance in fact.
I think I first noticed the reaction-focused sense of the media in the end of year song lists that came out halfway through December—before the year had even ended. That didn’t seem to be enough time to understand or feel or assess what had just happened. It seemed so flighty and empty and vacuous. And once I recognized that I started to see it everywhere.
I think reviewing what happened a year previously in a regular fashion would give us a bit more of a sense of where we came from, a bit more context on which events ended up proving meaningful and which were just flotsam and jetsam that appeared and disappeared into nothing.I think it’s a really strong idea. I wish media organizations would consider doing something like it about all the major events.
But let’s be honest. I like the idea, but I’m not going to be the one to write them. So I’ve restricted myself to writing a few words about the songs that meant something to me a full year after the end of the year in question. It’s a fun, simple project that doesn’t take too much time. And who knows, maybe you might find something you missed from it.
(This particular review has ended up being written considerably after the fact, in May 2020 rather than (as intended) in January 2019. Please forgive me. Life got in the way.)
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Deadly Valentine
This year somehow managed to produce fewer songs that I love than most others in recent memory and yet at the same time I love them so much. And this is a prime example – Gainsbourg had been working a bit on the arty-not-catchy end of things and then suddenly this thing comes out and it is Charismatic Art Disco. It’s so damn good. The weird lyrics about marriage, the disco stomp underneath, the great loud releases of the chorus, the unconventional structures. Every single part of it makes me want to stride down the street like I own the place. Wonderful track that I listen to all the damn time.
Father John Misty: Total Entertainment Forever
Now, let’s be clear. Everyone knows what Father John Misty is like, and without question he gets more and more self-involved and performatively ‘deep’ every year. There’s a lot not to like and a lot to be bored of in his work. It’s very strongly flavored and there’s not a lot of contrast between his tracks. And yet if you look around carefully there are such bleak gems in it too. Guess what, this is one of them.
This particular gleaming chunk of value starts off looking like a comment on technology in modern life and as such it should step very heavily on one of my personal landmines (musicians complaining about the effects of technology in clumsy ignorant ways while using the shit out of it), but it turns out it’s much more about entertainment and perpetual stimulus and weirdly that makes way more sense and feels much more relatable. It’s very open about the horrors of a total entertainment culture while being quite clear that we’re all complicit with, and totally enjoying, it. That’s a narrative with a bit more nuance and elegance. And I recognize myself in it.
Plus, I mean, the language. “Bedding Taylor Swift, Every Night Inside An Oculus Rift. After Mister and the Missus, Finish dinner and the dishes…” I mean, the image is vibrant, the concept interesting, the language beautifully assembled. Seriously, the man can write and he has something to write about.
Kygo & Selena Gomez: It Ain’t Me
I’m pretty old now so I don’t have the grasp on what the kids are into, but if this is the standard of even 1/100th of the pop music they’re listening to, then wow… It’s a variant of an older Selena Gomez song, resampled and mangled, beautifully reassembled and restructured in ingenious new ways that are musically interesting and evocative. It’s also a song with a really simple, clear and clean message that’s exactly the opposite of the kind of torch songs we’re used to. Who’s going to walk you through the dark side of the morning? It ain’t me. It’s fresh and immediately classic. I love it. I absolutely love it.
St. Vincent: New York
God this year had a lot of great songs and this is without question one off the best ones. It’s without question my favorite St Vincent song, it’s also one of my favorite songs of the year and it’s probably in my top fifty songs of all time too. It’s just wonderful.
I listened to St Vincent talk about this track on Song Exploder and she revealed a few things that were very surprising to me – firstly that it was originally two songs sort of stitched together in an unholy union. You cannot tell. It feels so perfect. And secondly that it was the first song that she wrote that she felt could be someone’s favorite ever song. And she is absolutely right. It’s perfect. It moves me. I love it completely and absolutely. I could listen to a version ten times the length and I’d not get bored.
Arcade Fire: Everything Now
I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about most Arcade Fire albums over the years, but this one was a bit of a disappointment. I can’t really explain why. It just didn’t feel right. The songs felt flat and underwhelming, the insight like it was something out of a bottle. And the new sound they tried to push for was an odd fit for the band.
Which is why it’s so impressive and puzzling that the best song on the album is the one that pushes that noise the furthest into ABBA-like pop territory. A bit like Total Entertainment Forever, it’s a song about being overwhelmed by the excess of culture and content and consumption. And also like it, it accepts that we’re all complicit with it and all love it, even as we know it’s a delicious fruit with a worm at its core.
Now, wonderful as it is, it does go a bit over the top on occasions. I can’t tell if the Pan Pipes make me laugh with delight or make my eyes roll with embarrassment. It might be both of them at the same time. Maybe that makes it better? I don’t know. Take a look for yourself and tell me – is this laughably silly or laughably wonderful? I sure as hell don’t know. I just know I like it.
LCD Soundsystem: oh baby
So the band that disbanded and then rebanded once again came back with an album that was reviewed extremely positively but mostly left me cold. I don’t know that I know precisely why most of it didn’t work for me, but work for me it did not. I still love the band. I saw them live in Berkeley and they were amazing. And they played all the classics and they were all amazing. And yet somehow in the middle of the whole thing, without me even really understanding what was happening, this song swept out and blew me away.
I’m not 100% sure what it is about it that makes it so moving. It’s definitely at least partly the bass line, pulsing out like a communication from an alien lifeform. It’s definitely partly the contrast between that bass, the slightly frantic metronome like noise and the gentle, slow and dreamlike lyrics, filled with longing and regret and desire and support and love. It may be partly just the experience of being in that place at that time, feeling all the things that it wanted to talk about. It may be the break they added in the live performance or the gap that it leaves in the recorded version. I don’t know. All I know is that it is everything, and I love it.
The video is extraordinary too. Directed by Rian Johnson and starring Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn who are in love and perfecting matter transportation. It’s hard to explain, but it’s wonderful. I’m using the word too much. I don’t care. This deserves it.
Sharon Van Etten: The End of the World
Looking back at the songs I’ve chosen this year, there’s a lot of longing and sadness and emotion in them. Not many of them are particularly up beat. I’m sorry about that. Maybe I had an emo year.
This is a cover of the old classic performed by Sharon Van Etten for The Man In The High Castle TV show / soundtrack album. It feels like a rediscovered old Patsy Cline song somehow and yet immediately contemporary at the same time. A song for the moment, without doubt.
Víkingur Ólafsson: Glass – Études, No. 2
Pretty much every year I end up giving myself a bit of a cheat. And I guess this is the one for 2017. It’s a track from a newly created album playing some classic works of Philip Glass. It’s a track that I intend to learn how to play as soon as a I get a piano again, along with Reverie by Debussy. It’s not a massively complicated piece of music, it’s almost like Für Elise in that it feels like an exercise piece. But I love it so much. It’s just hypnotic and stark at the same time.
Aimee Mann: Patient Zero
I heard Aimee Mann talk about the origins of this song. She was at a party with Andrew Garfield who would end up being the new Spider-man. And she seems to have looked at him and thought to herself that he resembled nothing more than a piece of fresh meat about to be chewed up and spat out by Hollywood.
I find it a bit puzzling that she’d speak so openly about this origin for the song. It’s a sad and tragic song really and you feel like Andrew Garfield might actually find it quite a difficult song to listen to later. It feels a bit cruel, to be honest. And yet it’s also beautiful. And it’s pretty self-evidently right as well. Maybe that makes it worse.
Anyway, it’s a beautiful song, but like all beautiful songs that end up meaning a lot to you, I see a lot of myself in it and it’s come to mean something particular to me. I sometimes think about what I was expecting when I moved to America and what the reality of that has actually been. I don’t find this a particularly easy song to listen to.
Tonya Harding (in Eb major)
Okay well we’re through the year and looking back at the songs above … well, they’re not cheery, are they? Hard to know what was going on. Maybe it was a post-Trump election time of sadness and introspection?
I’m going to end with one of my favorite songs of all time, but I’m going to warn you, it’s not a fun one.
Sufjan Stevens did two versions of this song about Tonya Harding, the Olympic figure skater who had a pretty colorful backstory and got into some substantial trouble.
One of these versions is more conventional. This is the other one – the one with a gentler twinkle and a slower, more empathic pace. The other version is fine, but this one is sensationally beautiful.
It doesn’t veer away from describing the human catastrophe that she was. You get every detail of her degrading acts and the degradation she experienced as a result. And I think while that’s hard to listen to, it’s never mocking or exploitative. It communicates nothing more than empathy and a desire for understanding.
Even more, it encourages us all to see the equivalent catastrophe in all of us, and it asks us to accept that this catastrophe is part of what it means to be human. And finally it asks us to look at our own catastrophes with recognition, sympathy, respect and love.
That might make it sound cheesy, but it’s not. It’s raw. And loving. And hard. And beautiful. And tragic. And sad. And great. And uncomfortable. And they’re just some of the reasons that you should listen to it, and understand it and take it into your hearts.
And with that, I’m done. Thank you for staying with me through this retro legacy look back at 2017. And stay tuned for my One Year Later Review special for 2018 – coming soon.
I was commissioned to write this Op Ed by NBC News after discussing the matter on Twitter at length. It was a fun if surprisingly hard thing to write. I never managed to get paid for it and never signed anything, so I think it’s probably okay that I republish it here. The original home on NBC News is here: Trump blocked me on Twitter.
A little over six months ago the President of the United States of America blocked me on Twitter. He or his people decided — over the course of one weekend in June — to purge those of us who had been fact-checking him online. By Monday morning, most of us were gone forever.
In a normal administration, a fairly minor micro-scandal like that might represent the high-water mark of public interest in the president’s social media life. Even in this case, there’s more to the story than perhaps meets the eye — blocking critics from official public fora could arguably be illegal — but still, I can’t imagine any previous president spending much time worrying about the effects of Twitter on their agenda.
But things have changed. Today, the censoring of President Donald Trump’s critics represents only the tiniest part of the Trump and Twitter love story — a never-ending 24/7 horror show focusing on and around a profoundly irresponsible and incompetent man’s willful and occasionally terrifying use of social media.
They also said that Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey — by creating a space where Trump could circumvent normal media checks and balances — had directly contributed to the president’s rise to power. Enough is enough, they argued. Ban this man.
I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. I also know some of these activists personally and they are honorable and decent people. But ultimately I believe Twitter must fight to keep Trump on the platform.
For good or ill, Twitter is one of the closest things we have today to a de facto “public space” on the internet. I believe we need such a space. And I believe over the last couple of years, under extraordinary (if deserved) pressure, Twitter has just started to really understand the full range of responsibilities that occupying such a role entails.
One of these responsibilities is to provide a space for the political discourse of a country to play itself out. These are the spaces we now use to debate the issues, to campaign and — now — even to discuss and announce policy. Ideally they wouldn’t be spaces owned by for-profit corporations, but truly public places with rights and responsibilities defined and protected by law. But the U.S. government has shown no inclination or ability to fund or build or run such places, so instead we are where we are.
And where we are is in a country where almost half of the electorate voted for Trump. He did not organize a military coup. It wasn’t a massive administrative error that secured him the job. It was, as much as some people may dispute or dislike it, the will of the people. And until such a time that he’s removed from office, if Twitter is to remain the de facto public space we all need, the will of the people matters.
I’m not going to pretend there isn’t realpolitik in play here too. Let’s face it: Banning the president from Twitter would not remove his platform, he’d simply move to Snapchat, or Facebook or Ello. And if he were banned, the partisan outcry over the decision would probably rend Twitter in half in the process, potentially killing the product and the company in the process. There are no victories there.
Because in the end, the only victories can come from the same processes that got us here. We need to take responsibility as an electorate. If we want him to stop debasing the presidency on Twitter, we need to remove him from the presidency, not remove him from Twitter. We need to support our courts in the fair implementation of the law. And we need to hold our elected representatives to account as they attempt — in turn — to keep Trump from going off the rails.
Meanwhile, there is something we can ask of Twitter. We can ask them to be clear about how they see their role in the world. We need to know what they believe in; what they stand for. We need them to demonstrate that they fully understand they’re not simply a neutral communications mechanism. Today’s Twitter is a place where business happens, elections happen, government happens — and with the arrival of Russia onto the scene — international tensions play out. We need Twitter to show us they understand this and that they’re up to that challenge.
And perhaps we can ask them one more tiny thing — to review their policies on politicians blocking or banning users engaged in legitimate, non-abusive political debate. Twitter’s own statement stood up for “necessary discussion around [politicians’] words and actions, but we can’t have that discussion if those politicians shut us down. And in this post-truth world, we need all the help we can get.
Tom Coates is an entrepreneur and technologist who has developed software products for the BBC, Time Out, Yahoo, Nokia and Jawbone among others. Over the last 20 years he’s written and spoken extensively about tech culture, social platforms, location and the Internet of Things and his work has been featured on the BBC, The Guardian, New York Times, MIT Technology Review and in the Daily Mail. His most recent project was the smart home software company Thington, which was acquired last year by eero inc.
Okay, let’s just be up front with this – I meant to write this a year after 2016, but I didn’t. Nor did I do a write up one year after 2017, 2018 or 2019 either. So I’m doing a bit of a retrospective and filling in some of the gaps as a way to get myself back in the habit of writing stuff on the internet. This piece was written in May 2020, and sent back in time to fill up my archives. Sue me.
Before we get going though, let’s just remind ourselves of some of the reasoning behind this project. Increasingly we seem to lurch from Hot Take straight into History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what the crap actually just happened. Wouldn’t it be better to think about what’s been going on with a little distance instead? So that’s the concept of the One Year Late Review, and I think it’s a good one! All newspapers should be doing it – a daily column on what happened a year ago and what it has come to mean with a little bit of distance. It’s a shame I was too lazy to take it more seriously, but what can you do. I’m here now, aren’t I?
Now, the next thing I normally do is add in a little bit of context. So let’s duo that now. 2016 was the year of the Zika virus! It was the year of Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman! It was the year of the Brexit Referendum! It was the year of the Orlando nightclub shooting. It was the year Donald Trump became Presi… Jesus Fucking Christ. Let’s just get on with the motherfucking music and try and blot out the rest of this crap.
The Avalanches: Because I’m Me
I wasn’t one of those people who ‘got’ the first Avalanches album immediately. A few of the tracks stuck with me, but the whole edifice always seemed a bit impenetrable. The second album almost had the opposite problem – it was so immediate that much of it gave me a quick sugar high and then faded away.
But there were a few songs that give me that hit but still stayed with me, including ‘Frankie Sinatra’ and ‘Harmony’, and the stand out ‘Because I’m Me’, which I’m awarding this year’s special prize for ‘Song That Makes Me Spin Around With Joy and Makes Me Feel Like Things Will Actually Be Okay’.
In the end, it’s all about the moment where the muffled performance breaks out into full band and orchestra, and a full wave of joy sweeps over me. I can’t get enough of it. Wonderful.
Anderson .Paak: Come Down
Oh this is just filthy. The chanting opening stops and this sprawling, rambling, snake-like baseline kicks in. Then .Paak starts singing around it, connecting with it periodically, then ignoring it, spiraling around it like they were teasing each other. Then the sort of bridge chorus comes in and goes in a completely different direction. Every single part of this song makes me want to dance. And not just normal dancing: like proper sexy dancing that it’s really hard to carry off when you’re 47. It’s just this wonderful mess of syncopation and layers that comes to feel both enveloping and supporting. You are cooler when you’re listening to it. That’s a hard feeling to create.
Kevin Morby: I Have Been To The Mountain
I do not know a lot about this man. I don’t know how I found this song. I don’t know whether he’s an artist that is cool or shameful to enjoy. I have never listened to another one of his songs.
What I know is that it does a lot of things that I absolutely love. It’s got some rhythm, some interesting structure, a weird apocalyptic vibe, a bit of dripping Americana and what seems to be a gospel choir that is sitting back quietly until it really wants to blow your mind, when it appears out of nowhere and sings its little heart out. It has an appropriately spooky video too.
Lizzo: Good as Hell
This feels like a bit of a cheat because I absolutely did not know Lizzo from a hole in the ground in 2016, but then maybe that’s the point of this whole project – to be able to assess the music from a year a bit more accurately because you’ve got a bit more distance.
I discovered her when I went to XOXO and Andy Baio and Andy McMillan had booked her to play. I had never heard a single one of her songs. I knew nothing about her whatsoever. And yet she got the entire audience singing along and 100% bought in within a couple of minutes. She. Was. Spectacular.
This song is now everywhere, and it’s superficially pretty basic and simple as a paean to loving yourself. But I mean, come on. If there’s anything that almost every single person needs, it’s a bit more self-love and a bit more self-respect. And that she’s not a skinny pop stereotype makes it all the more wonderful.
Emmy the Great: Rapids
Now this is a song that did nothing for me at all the first time I listened to it. At least that was true for the first third. It felt like a generic piece of female-fronted pop music that I might have stumbled across a hundred thousand times over the years. It was certainly nice, but it wasn’t particularly exciting.
But as it continued and reached its second third, it just started to do more and more interesting and weird things, playing with noise, playing with feeling, playing with atmosphere. And the last third, where it descends and devolves into a kind of wordless pop aphasia is just extraordinary. It seems to cut through all the crap in your head and just hijack your reptile brain without any intermediary at all. It makes my eyes roll back in my head in the most glorious fashion.
Desiigner: Tiimmy Turner
This is not a track that I would have expected to like at all. It’s pretty deep and strange hip hop, taking the name of the main character from The Fairly OddParents cartoon and smashing it together with what appears to be a story about the wishes of a desperate young black guy who will do anything for fame and to escape parts of his life. It is extraordinary – atmospheric, lyrically, clever, elegant, musically challenging and it fuses in this mix of aspiration and hopelessness. Definitely one of my absolute favorite tracks of 2016.
Ramin Djawadi: Exit Music – For a Film
Without question one of the albums that I have found myself listening to most over the last few years is Ramin Djawadi’s Westworld Soundtrack. The mix of original music and elegant western-style piano reimaginings of pop and rock classics is perfect to work to and very evocative. I’ve listened to it so much in fact that when I tried to watch the show again I kept getting caught up more in the music that in the action.
If I remember correctly, this cover of the Radiohead classic comes right at the end of the series and is one of the few that switches between simple clear period instrumentation and a full orchestra. It builds. By God, it builds. It starts simple, moving and sad, and then about two minutes in there is a tiny lacuna and then the strings kick in. And they build and build and then they spread their wings and soar and … it is glorious, transcendent, wonderful. The piano then comes to the fore and cascades arpeggios all over the place until you’re completely lost in it. And then it lets you go, exhausted and flat. It’s an almost perfect tiny potted musical experience.
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Heptapod B
Another soundtrack that has got a lot of traction for me over the last few years is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music from Arrival. But it’s a very different beast, filled with deep hums, strange percussive noises and looped bits of almost human speech. It’s a much more alien and abstract experience – intentionally so, obviously, since that’s the subject of the movie – and on occasion, it’s so dissonant and weird that it’s not 100% pleasing to listen to.
But there is one moment where absolutely everything comes together perfectly, and all the noise and dissonance builds and coincides long enough to make something absolutely transcendent, and it is the track ‘Heptapod B’.
The 1975: Somebody Else
This was a weird track to stumble upon. It felt like someone had gone and rifled through the 1980s and stolen a whole bunch of atmosphere, production and mood, and then fused it in a particle accelerator with a bunch of early 2000s off-center song-writing in a way that should have been dreadful, but somehow wasn’t. A few years on, this track doesn’t feel as interesting as it maybe did at the time, but it’s still a wonderfully written, interesting combination of concept, lyric and music that I still listen to regularly.
Mitski: Your Best American Girl
This feels like it sits next to the Emmy the Great song in my mental catalogue of music. It starts as if it’s some kind of dull piece of generic pop, and then explodes into something far, far more interesting and sprawls all over the place causing all kinds of harm and self-destructive damage as it goes. I’m sort of fascinated by these songs that take pretty generic tropes and do something a little weirder and more avant garde with them. It shows there’s life in pop and rock music yet.
Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
This album was recorded shortly before Leonard Cohen died, and it somehow it is the summation of everything he’d tried to do before. It has the best production—much less quirky or faddy than previous tracks—using beautiful gospel choirs and simple organic instrumentation to create a musical frame around the stars of the show, which are Cohen’s absolutely extraordinary voice and the deep and intense weight of his poetry.
It’s an album about the coming of death. It’s an album about the end of a life. It’s bleak and it’s extraordinarily beautiful.
Jenny Hval: Conceptual Romance
And we come to our final piece of music for 2016 and probably the track that sticks with me most. In a way it fits with Mitski and Emmy the Great. It’s another piece of female-fronted pop music that takes things in strange, interesting new directions, grabbing something that could have felt generic and pushing it in the most bizarre of directions.
This is a track that plays with massive absolute dissonance. Each verse has this weird distorted atonality that makes it unsettling to listen to. It’s a discomforting mess, above which a crunched version of Hval almost speaks. And then the chorus comes in and it’s clear and melodic and harmonious and beautiful. And just when you settle into the beauty, it collapses again. And the pattern repeats and repeats, punctuated by a kind of repetitive splint, until it all builds and then starts to collapse into noise. It’s the track that stays with me most from the entire year and which I suspect I’ll like forever. Enjoy its bizarreness. And I’ll see you later for the best songs of 2017.
Let me take you back — the year was 2015. It was before The Event, a time when we still had hope in our hearts. In those days, things were either True or False, even if it was occasionally hard to figure out which category they fit in. Seldom were they both. Never were they neither. Such naïve days. Such strange days.
It was a time when our vision of the future looked more like the ‘after’ scenes in a home makeover show and less like the ‘after’ scenes in T2: Judgment Day.
I’m sure you remember, right? Right?
Me either. This is all a trick. I’m not Tom. I’m the future cockroach equivalent of Casey Kasem (NB. Dated Reference, Fix in Post) reconstructing this entire piece from fragments found in an old Apple Music datacenter. I plan to send it back through my timeline to warn of the Oft-Coming Stürm. But until then, and should I fail in my mission, long live the Blattodean Survivors of the Great Karmic Trumpocalypse!
Anyway, I’ve done this before — at the end of 2015 I wrote about the songs of 2014 and at the end of 2014 I wrote about the songs of 2013. There’s (some) method to my madness — increasingly we seem to lurch from Hot Take straight into History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what the crap actually just happened. This whole ‘One Year Later Review’ is a half-hearted attempt to get people to remember that. And since ‘End of Year’ lists in music are almost the worst possible of non-political hot takes (the year hasn’t even bloody finished for God’s sake) and are no longer valuable in working out what music to get your Gran to buy you for Christmas, it seems reasonable to pause for a second and wait just long enough to get a sense of what songs actually stick with you and what you thought of them. So with no further ado…
Hot Chip: Huarache Lights
This year’s award for most ‘Compulsively Energising Song that Helps Me Get Out of the House and Feel Dynamic in the Mornings’ was hard-fought but in the end goes to the exemplary Huarache Lights by Hot Chip. I’m not 100% sure what it is about this track that works so well for me, but—from the first moment I heard it—it found a place in my head that it resolutely refuses to leave. It’s like that guest at a party that won’t leave when you want to go to bed, except the guest is awesome and they’re also quite hot and they seem to like you and also they have all these great stories about cool people they say they can introduce you to and… what’s that? They have a pet tiger who is also awesome? And a time machine? Wow. That’s actually super fucking great. This is such a fun evening. Maybe you shouldn’t go to bed after all.
There’s something hypnotic about this song, even hypnogogic at times — it creates a sort of dynamic pattern and then buggers around with it in a whole range of interesting ways before bringing them all together in a way that fits together super nicely. And the final mélange it generates is somehow psychopharmacologically active and puts you into a weird but thoroughly pleasant kind of Disco Trance. It’s got hints of all kinds of stuff in it. I even feel like there’s a thin slice of pungent Pet Shop Boys-flavoured cheese jammed in there somewhere. And yet when they come together it fuses into something that feels inevitable and right and bouncy and ridiculous and clever and witty and odd and fun.
Jai Wolf: Indian Summer
In recent years it feels like music from artists with Indian backgrounds or using Indian samples has finally discovered a way to push into whatever isolated little musical bubble I’m unknowingly trapped within, and honestly I couldn’t be happier. There’s such artful, joyous and elegant stuff being made in the overlaps between styles and cultures—such wonderful new opportunities for exploration and play—and Jai Wolf’s Indian Summer is among my absolute favorites. It has this wonderful euphoric sense to it and this deep love of noise. And at its heart there’s that beautiful sample that surfs the waves across the song before turning and spraying some cool, refreshing, salty endorphins across my hot, dry and welcoming brain. It’s just wonderful.
The more I do these little musical recaps, the more I realise how predictable I am. Stick a bit of syncopation in a song, a jangly guitar riff, some over-processed 80s-style rock drums, and a bit in the song where it goes quiet for a minute and I’ll probably be happy. Make it go a bit wrong halfway through — maybe make all the rhythms or harmonies get a bit out of whack — and then build it all together again, and my eyes will roll back in my head with joy. Dreams isn’t a complex song. It’s not a song full of deep meaning. But it’s a perfect piece of craft that I listen to all the time. It’s a really fun, bouncy, enthusiastic, hook-laden, pop song and it makes me really happy.
Father John Misty: Bored in the USA
It’s not all joy and dancing at Chez Coates, much as my public persona might lead you to believe otherwise. I have dark periods of late-night worrying like any other barely human male. There’s only so much Purposeful and Passionate Striding Confidently into a New Future of Promise and Wonder that one guy can do before he needs to sit at home staring into space thinking about What He’s Done. And when I want to wallow in that bed-ridden feeling of 3am angst and stress—which for some reason, like most humans, I seem to want to do on a surprisingly regular basis—I turn to Father John Misty.
Bored in the USA is an almost startlingly apposite song for me, to the extent that when listening to it I occasionally feel the need to look around to see if he’s in a bush nearby watching me, carefully making notes in his tiny precise handwriting for his next song of early-middle-aged disappointment and frustration. It’s apposite to the point that you can almost ricochet off it as it lowers itself down to the darkest depths of a human’s own self-loathing. And then just when you think it’s all getting a bit too serious and dark, he sticks a laugh track in the song itself to remind you how absurd and petty and small your bleakness and wide-eyed moments of total abject terror actually are. I should want to punch him for this, but instead I want to buy him a drink. That he can carry off this trick is the reason this song is in this list.
NB. This is a cheat, because Bored in the USA actually came out at the very furthest arse-end of 2014. But Ralph Waldo Emerson once said a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and while I don’t agree with him, I’m assuming enough of you will to let me off the hook this once.
Probably my favourite song of 2015, ‘Gold’ is both one of the most popular and also one of the strangest. There’s almost nothing there. Thin synth base twonk noises poke out intermittantly around some kind of rhythmic ‘pop’ sound. Occasionally sparse electronic hi-hats appear so you know something exciting is happening. And in the foreground a woman sings about biting out other people’s fillings. The chorus feels like sliced bits of other songs arranged pseudo-randomly. And somewhere from all its sparseness, classiness and over-designed contrast, something quite extraordinary falls out. I can’t really describe it. You’ve probably heard it thousands of times. But if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat.
Melanie Martinez: Soap
Somewhere in the last few years pop music got really bloody weird. I’m not complaining about this at all — it’s actually kind of amazing that there are people playing in pretty mainstream pop with sounds and structures that sound so extraordinarily different. There’s an experimental dynamism that blurs club and pop and art in what seems to me to be a new and interesting way. Is it actually new and interesting? I have no idea and wouldn’t be qualified to comment even if it were— I’m old and weird and my memory is failing me. But it seems pretty great. Let me give you an example. Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you ‘Soap’:
If I had to describe this song and its associated video in one word, the word would probably be ‘batshit’. But if I had two words, the second would be ‘awesome’. Unfortunately for you poor bastards, I also have a whole range of other words at my disposal, so let me dig into what I think makes this such oddly compulsive listening.
It seems to be a song about baths and soap, except those things at various points are probably euphemisms or metaphors for something. But it’s not entirely clear what they’re metaphors for, and they seem to shift and move. And somehow this song about baths and soap and saying stupid things and being embarrassed is then merged in with a stripped-down club-style fist-in-the-air banger. And it doesn’t sound stupid. It sounds cool. And then for some reason they add in some tuned simulations of the noise of bubbles popping. And they don’t sound cool and should be embarrassingly awful. And they are embarrassingly awful. And yet it doesn’t matter. The whole thing should be a novelty record and yet somehow it holds together and when taken as some kind of auditory speedball becomes something more than you’d expect from its various parts. And the more times you listen to it, the more its oddness worms its way into your brain. I don’t understand it, I’m not sure why it exists or what it’s trying to communicate. But I like it. I like it a hell of a lot.
Gunship: Tech Noir
If I had to pick out a couple of trends from my musical selections this year it would be a tendency for contemporary music to border on parody and yet still work, and also the solid straight-down-the-line weirdness of contemporary pop.
Tech Noir is a song by a band by Gunship. It is named after the club in Terminator where Arnie comes for SAAAAH COH-NA, whips out a sawn-off shotgun and blows everyone to hell. And the video is about a man watching a movie on VHS who transports himself into an eighties movie to become claymation. And the music itself is in many ways an experimental hybridization of a ridiculous number of eighties auditory clichés.
But the song is actually really beautiful. It lives in that post-M83 space of artists exploring and reappropriating the 8os, from synth sounds to fake hand-claps. But through this oddly cold and computerized space snakes this beautiful lyric and rich emotive and expressive chorus. As someone who spent most of his teenage years trapped in the 1980s, I often find myself puzzled by why anyone would want to feel nostalgia for it, or think of it as a period worth mining for creative ideas. Not being weird, but it basically sucked. But maybe if the 80s had been more like this, I’d feel differently?
Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MØ: Lean On
I don’t know about you, but when I see a bunch of white people dressed up like Indian people doing Indian-style dancing surrounded by Indian people in India to promote a pop song, it doesn’t 100% feel right. There’s something uncomfortably appropriative about it in a way that having an Indian artist play in the overlap between cultures doesn’t. Still, a tacky video does not make a tacky song, and MØ, DJ Snake and Major Lazer between them made something fascinating in Lean On.
Y.A.C.H.T: L.A. Plays Itself
Last year and the year before I talked about how irritating I find it when artists write songs about technology. This is because they almost always seem to come at it from the perspective of ‘technology is somehow diminishing us all while only art nourishes and enriches us as individuals’, which seems both oddly (and obviously) self-serving and often highly ironic given how much tech these artists use in the creation of their songs, their videos, and in the crafting of their public personae.
In 2013 for example it was Arcade Fire complaining about how social media didn’t actually connect you to other people in Reflektor. You can follow Arcade Fire on Twitter here: Arcade Fire on Twitter. In 2014 it was St Vincent complaining about how annoying it is that people keep making videos to get famous and how they only feel validated when they’re on the internet. You can follow her stylishly created and ostentatiously ‘look at me’ videos on the Internet on YouTube here: St Vincent on YouTube. I’m just saying.
But there is (I believe) at least one band that explores the weirdness and power and threats of modern technology well in their songs without sounding absurd. And that band is Y.A.C.H.T.
Now I’m biased in favour of Y.A.C.H.T. generally because at one point this year I was lucky enough to be backstage one of their gigs in San Francisco. A lovely old friend who knows them well took me to meet the band. It was super fun. I yammered on trying to sound interesting for a while while they got ready to perform. We actually had a really interesting conversation about the good and bad bits of tech and tech culture and what it means for the wider world. They were almost certainly humoring me but I really don’t care. They were really ridiculously super nice and friendly and I had a very nice time.
They also produced a great song this year about tech which I’d love to include in this list. It’s called “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler” and it’s definitely worth your time.
Unfortunately though, they also did another song, called LA Plays Itself and it is better! And it is more fun. And it’s proper pop disco in a slightly unfashionable but oddly awesome way. And here it is…
Max Richter: Sleep
My second-to-last selection isn’t exactly a song. It isn’t even exactly an album. It’s eight hours of music under the name ‘Sleep’ by Max Richter.
This is a strange one, but it has had such an impact on me since it came out that I couldn’t ignore it. I think it’s truly exceptional and fascinating and totally involving and that you should all go and buy it immediately. You don’t want to buy the short truncated hour-long one. That’s bullshit. You have to commit. You want the full $35 eight hour long epic. Don’t wuss out. It’s amazing.
The premise is in itself extraordinary. Richter’s epic is music that is designed to be played when you are falling asleep, and then to provide background music to you while you sleep and dream, and while you slowly rouse yourself in the morning into a new day. It’s supposed to follow the natural rhythms of a normal night’s sleep and for each piece to complement a different part of the sleep cycle. It’s a bizarre idea — music you won’t hear in any conscious state, but music that could permeate your subconscious, influence your dreams and your thoughts and is designed to carry you through the night in a beautiful, backgrounded way.
Such an idea conjures in the mind terrible self-hypnosis tapes and some kind of hackneyed tape-based collection of whale song, but this isn’t ambient noise or new age hand-waving.
Each piece is long, melodic, artfully and beautifully played and recorded, and arcs and repeats itself, with simple themes on the piano and violin (and other instruments and voices) emerging and falling away. Structure appears and then collapses into the background again. Melodies surface and then sink deep only to return four or five hours later. And it’s all done so slowly and smoothly. I’ve put it on many nights to help me sleep — I find it immediately calming and relaxing—and later found myself half awake in the middle of the night letting some new piece of beauty arc and cascade around me, feeling new melodies drift across my mind like clouds across the moon. I’ve listened to it while working or when stressed and found its simplicity beautiful and calming and centering.
If you come to it impatient, unwilling to let it drift around you and take you away, it will do nothing for you. But if you go with it, you may find it becomes one of the most important and life-affirming pieces of music you’ve ever lived with.
David Bowie: ★
Finally, I want to leave you with the most important song of the year for me. And unfortunately—just as 2015 turned into 2016—this is where my cheerful mood and mischief stops dead in its tracks. Please bear with me.
I’ve been a deep Bowie fan for the majority of my life. I came to him a little later than many of my generation but once I’d found him I consumed him whole and completely. This bizarre, queer, straight, apocalyptic, danceable, questioning, literate, bizarre eccentric crafting these bizarre and beautiful little mind castles you could live in for a while — he was fascinating. And songs with such rhythms! Such bizarre harmonies! And just a little bit of joyfully embraced menace… Good god, I loved it.
For me it all started with Hunky Dory, picked up on CD at an Our Price in the UK sometime in the late eighties. It’s an album from the year of my birth that still feels like it defined much of the music of the next fifty years. Here it was all laid out before you right from the beginning. And it continued through Starman — beautiful hymn to escape and magic—through The Man Who Stole The World and Heroes and Ashes to Ashes and Let’s Dance and… I could go on indefinitely.
Of all of his albums in the end it was Station to Station that has stayed with me the longest. It’s such a dense, complicated, confusing record. It took me so long to get my head around it. Perhaps one of the reasons it still fascinates me so much is because there are still bits of it that surprise me and weird me out.
But despite loving so much of his work even in the late eighties I knew that all of his creative best had come and gone before I’d really discovered him. And then—late in November of 2015—something really odd happened. Bowie sprang back into the spotlight as if he’d never left, and released (from some previously untapped reservoir within him) a ten minute bizarre musical epic. Odd beats, saxophones and three complex, interwoven major musical themes cavorted around an incredibly stylish and bizarre video featuring bible thumpers, twitching dancers and blinded singers with buttons for eyes.
For the first time in decades, Bowie was absolutely and totally pushing the future forward, making something so fascinating and unusual and interesting that it felt like the world turned towards it. Generations of Bowie fans felt a reignition of a passion and excitement within them — a new album, a creative renaissance, and we might get to be there to enjoy Bowie at his best again. It felt absolutely extraordinary.
Six weeks later, as the rough beast of 2016 finally dragged its shit-filled carcass into the world, he would be dead.
That’s it for now. Join me again next year at the One Year Later Review for the songs of 2016, where most likely I will talk at length about Beyoncé.
This was originally posted over on Medium and a copy of it was moved over here for consolidation purposes in May 2020.
Online last night I saw a bunch of people accusing the left of being bigots for protesting against racist and sexist rhetoric. The argument appears to be that the left are hypocrites for not respecting the freedom of expression of racist, sexist and discriminatory people to be racist, to be sexist, and to discriminate.
At its heart there is a tension here and it’s a tension as old as political theory —that all people should have as much freedom as possible but without compromising the freedom of others. But it’s a tension that we work out over time, in law and in practice. Fundamentally, most on the left have come to the conclusion that stopping people acting in racist, sexist or discriminatory ways results in far more good than harm — a feeling that those who experience sexist, discriminatory or racist abuse seem (for some reason) to feel even more strongly.
Anyway, I find the rhetoric on the alt-right about this stuff beyond offensive and awful — somehow equating threatening to take fundamental rights away from people with protesting about those rights being taken away. And I didn’t quite know how to express my frustration. And weirdly, the best I could come up with was a few short comic strips.
So here they are — five short strips which I think express the absurdity of the hypocrisy and contradiction in the alt-right position. Feel free to use them however you want (as long as you don’t edit the text in them). I’m releasing them under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives International License.
This is a transcript of a talk I gave at Webstock in New Zealand in February 2016, lightly edited to remove many terrible jokes. For more information about Webstock, New Zealand, the artwork in this piece and more more, skip to the bottom of the page to the unnecessarily long transcript.It’s also a repost of an article I posted to Medium. See the talk in its original context.
What I’m going to be doing today:
Today I’m going to be talking about the thinking we’ve been doing at Thington about the right and wrong ways to interact with a world of connected objects, and some of the problems we’ve been trying to solve.
In particular I want to talk about the relationship we’re starting to build between physical network-connected objects and some kind of software or service layerthat sits alongside them, normally interacted with via a mobile phone.
And I’m going to talk a bit about how there’s a push in the design community to find a different model, dissolving the top layer here into the object itself through (a) tangible, physical computing, or through (b) metaphors of enchantment or magic:
I’m going to try and argue that both of these models are kind of wrong! And I’m going to be chatting about a few ways that I think we could and should be a bit nicer to the software or service layer (with a nice long digression about tangible computing on the way).
This is, by all accounts, a pretty deep, weird and nerdy talk, through which I hope to expose to you some of the insane depths of computer history and the weird arguments designers have.
But first a little history…
A brief history of computing in the Twentieth Century:
We’re going to start with Thomas Watson — the gentleman founder of IBM — and a statement that he is alleged to have made in 1943 that sounds crazy and entertaining to modern ears. That statement is:
There’s actually very little evidence he made this statement at all, but at the time it wasn’t a particularly unusual statement to make. For example, Charles Darwin’s grandson — who was slightly unfortunately also called Charles Darwin — said in 1946 of the UK:
And then there’s this chap, early computer pioneer and telepathic supervillain Howard Aiken, who said:
People genuinely didn’t think there were going to be many computers in the world! Even after twenty years — maybe because of twenty years — in the tech industry I find this a super weird thought. I find this a really hard idea to get my head around.
So how did this match up with the actual reality? This following picture is me in the late seventies in my favorite Disney Winnie the Pooh t-shirt, in Norwich in the UK, not looking very cool. This is about thirty-five years after Thomas Watson from IBM’s statement, coincidentally roughly halfway between that statement and today:
In terms of computing, where are we? From the four or five computers that Thomas Watson thought we’d have, we’re already up to the massive 50,000 units of computers sold each year. That’s quite a shift!
Skipping forward another fifteen years or so, here I am again:
Here I’ve finished primary and secondary school, and I’ve gone to University and I’m starting grad school and I’ve popped over to the US to have my photo taken on top of the Empire State Building with my tongue out. At this point in the world there are in active use something like 150 million computers.
Here are pictures of me in the early 2000s (one billion computers have ever been sold) and the mid-2000s (two billion computers have ever been sold).
And then of course this happened:
I think we all forget how quickly things can change, but I think it’s fair to say that the era of the modern smart-phone starts with the iPhone, and it’s really important to remember that only launched a little under nine years ago. This by the way, is the very first advert for the iPhone which essentially replaced single use telephones with general purpose computers connected to the phone network.
Three years after the iPhone launched — so about six years ago now — in addition to all of the desktop and laptop computers we were buying, we were also buying 150 million smart phones a year.
Five years later — 2016 — and it’s projected that 1.6 billion smartphones will be sold. In one single year, one smart phone will be bought for every five people on the planet.
But what happens next? A world of connected objects.
Now the reason I’ve taken you through this little adventure is to just remind you that within a human lifetime, we’ve gone from essentially zero computers sold per year to billions. It’s been a period of an extraordinary increase in the availability of computation — with processors shrinking and becoming more powerful every day. And not only has it been growing at an extraordinary rate, that rate itself is accelerating. The last decade has seen a massive expanse in available computation and it shows no sign of slowing down. We can expect a world of hundreds of billions — trillions — of computers distributed around the world around us within a few years — embedded absolutely everywhere they can make even the slightest incremental improvement.
I’m talking of course about the Internet of Things, and this is where I make my first grandiose assertion of the day:
It’s a time of tremendous change. After years of design experiments and academic discussion, the cost and availability of components and the ready availability of smart phone interfaces means that the Internet of Things is finally rapidly approaching.
In fact, I’ll go further and say that within a decade almost all new electrical appliances and devices that we buy for the home will have some kind of network component — to say nothing of our offices or public spaces. Quite seriously, the world of tomorrow is dripping in objects that belch out information or can take commands, or both…
But don’t take my word for it. This is Samsung’s CEO at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he made the Internet of Things their major focus:
By the way, CES is an amazing event too. After years of it being something that internet people didn’t really attend, it feels like that’s finally changing as software and computation starts moving into devices.
When I went last year, there were smart dishwashers, heaters, smart air conditioning units and humidifiers, smart lighting, smart garage door openers, things to open curtains, check if your house was on fire, smart ovens and kitchen scales, smart vacuum cleaners and smart security systems. If it could take a battery or plug into the mains there was a smart version of it… And they were being made by companies like Samsung, Polaroid, Canon, Panasonic, Quirky, Sony, Belkin, Parrot, Honeywell and many others.
But how do people access the power of these devices?
Honestly, however good the hardware was at CES and however much of it there was, often the the benefits that thetechnology seemed to bring people just did not seem to be as good as I might have hoped. The power of the internet was just not present in these devices — the networked parts of the product were effectively little more than app-based remote controls.
To me, it was still clear that they were going to be able to offer tremendous power to us all to control and understand the world around us, but there was little sense of howa normal person might harness or grab that power in comprehensible ways.
Now some of you might be even more suspicious and say that there’s little or no power to be discovered in a world of connected devices. I think that’s wrong, but I also think it’s an understandable statement. Some of these devices have been crazy and lurid and wasteful in their use of technology and bring no obvious benefits to their users.
But today, I’m going to focus on those devices that (when enhanced with the internet) get better. This statement from my friend Matt Rolandson from Ammunition Group in San Francisco sums up this category for me:
I really think this is one of the most bluntly useful and apparently obvious things that anyone has said about the Internet of Things as it manifests in devices and appliances. The Internet can and should be used to amplify a devices core purpose and if it does so, it makes that device better and more useful.
But surely there are better ways for us to amplify the purpose of things than just giving them a remote control?
Merging the physical and the digital
Okay — so this is the pattern that I mentioned earlier — essentially there’s an object — here an oven — and it comes with an app that runs on a mobile phone. The app is essentially a remote control for the main object, one that potentially has a few rule making components with it that make it a little more interesting and useful.
This is a model that actually enhances the object it’s attached to — it makes it easier to control or check up upon from a distance, but it seems a bit simplistic and on the nose. Can this really be the extent of the future we’re looking for? And is the reason it feels a bit dull an interaction problem?
One direction that designers have traditionally been very keen to explore is dissolving those two parts together — merging the service layer and physical objects to make something seamless and more powerful, that a user might interact with in both the ‘data’ environment and the ‘physical’ environment at the same time. Essentially the goal here is to break down the distinction between the two parts of the ‘thing’ (actual vs virtual) to make something new and hybridised.
There are so many people making these arguments in the (perhaps more cerebral) parts of the design community that it sometimes seems inevitable that this is the direction that we should be moving in. Let me give you some examples:
This is a quote from Josh Clark (from Connected // Disconnected), who has been talking around IoT on the design side for a while now and is a very sharp guy:
“The potential of the internet of things is to improve on what mobile does so well. Instead of availability at the point of inspiration, IoT lets us shift to interaction with the point of inspiration. Add sensors and smarts to an object or place, and you no longer have to pull out your phone for a digital interaction.”
And this is a quote from Matt Webb in the UK from a piece called ‘Waving, Not Designing’ that he wrote a few years back:
Why use just your fingers to select what’s on a display when you can use your whole body? It’s often easier, and makes more sense. Like, when you use a hammer, you don’t key into system to say “hit at point X with force F” and then stand back and let it happen, you just pick up the hammer and hit with it, using your body to judge strength and your eyes to judge position.
I could genuinely list a hundred other people making this argument. And they’re some of my favourite people in the design community too — people who are looking around, reaching for something truly new and interesting and more intuitive.
This is literally a screenshot from an argument I had on Twitter with a super sharp friend of mine, who is clearly pining for something a bit beyond the model of “phone + thing”.
Designers are looking for a new natural vocabulary for the next generation of devices, and they’re looking towards embodied interactions and tangible computing.
A brief guide to Tangible Computing
Much of this thinking is inspired by the ground-breaking work of people like Paul Dourish, David Rose, Durrell Bishop, Natalie Jeremijenko and Hiroshii Ishii.
Now I have to apologise here because for brevity I’m going to have to wildly over-simplify their positions (you should go and read and research their work online at least — it’s great stuff) but essentially they want to blur and even dissolve the distinction between the digital and the physical. They think rather than have a differentiated service layer, the magical intelligence should merge with the physical object. And that, in the doing of this, they believe simpler, clearer, more powerful, magical objects emerge.
Their argument is fundamentally that the world of screens and icons is too abstracted and separate from the world around us and the ways in which human beings understand that world.
Let me give you an example — David Rose in his book “Enchanted Objects” talks about four visions of the future. The most awful one he describes is called, “Terminal World”.
“It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils and paintbrushes, all are gone. The artifacts, tools, toys and appliances we love and rely on today have converged into this slice of shiny glass, its face filled with tiny, inscrutable icons that now define and control our lives…”
Now unsurprisingly, David doesn’t want this world to happen (or for phones to eat his children) so he presents an alternative view that he called “Enchanted Objects”. He describes it as ‘technology that atomizes, combining with the objects that make up the very fabric of daily living’ and the examples he provides are really lovely.
One particular example he worked on himself is the Glowcaps system, which beeps and flashes with increasing urgency if you forget to take your pills on any given day. And he talks about many others, including Nest Thermostats that predict your temperature needs, umbrellas with lights upon them that signal up when it’s going to rain that day and many more.
These are genuinely useful and interesting things and there genuinely are more of them every day coming into the world. The Glowcaps alone have a huge impact on people whose drug regimens have to be strictly adhered to.
The metaphor here, as I’ve said, is ‘enchantment’ — magical interactions — bringing the intelligence into the object itself as you would with an ancient sword, rather than believing in the presence of a separate, service layer.
Leaping back in time quite a long way for a moment for illustrative purposes, here are two classic examples from the early nineties of the blurring of the physical and the digital — bringing the virtual representation and the real object so close that they become one definite thing.
On the left we have Durrell Bishop’s answering machine. This pumps out a little marble when you have a message, and you place the marble on a sensor tray to play it back. Natalie Jeremijenko’s dangling string simply indicates the amount of network traffic in a space by twitching a string in a room, giving people an ambient awareness of activity.
I bring these up because they are classics of the field — almost foundations of the field — of tangible computing and were first to articulate some of these goals that we’ve talked about so far..
Paul Dourish, in fact, went a step further in his seminal book ‘Where the Action is’ around 2001, suggesting not just that things would be better if the physical and the digital were closer together but that such a path was effectively inevitable and natural.
He framing our interactions with technology as a series of approaches that build one upon the other, each employing a skillset that more closely reflects how human beings understand and instinctively interact with the world.
And it certainly does seem like there continues to be a lot of ways in which more tangible interactions with enchanted objects could provide a lot of power in the world. It’s clear we’ll see a lot more of this kind of approach — the focusing on the invisibility of the technology, dissolving in the use of the object. It promises a certain seamlessness of interaction.
Some problems with merging the virtual and the actual
But is it the ultimate answer to how we interact with a world of connected objects? There’s a desire by people using these guys as inspiration to try and make every object self-explanatory, self-evident, complete and seamless and separate from other things. And that seems like a flawed enterprise to me and it seems to miss where quite a lot of the power of connected objects might be… That is, in the connections.
In the first place, I think there’s a bit of a category mistake going on here. For Hiroshi Ishii and Paul Dourish, for example, the work they’re doing is more concerned with using physical interfaces to manipulate data, rather than bringing computation into devices. Their focus seems generally in making the manipulation of digital objects more intuitive by bringing it into the physical, a space that we have dedicated millions of years of evolution to understanding intuitively.
The internet of things, however, is much more about enhancing the physical with the digital, making the objects make more sense at a distance, or drawing out information from them and bringing it into a virtual space where we can do stuff with it.
In some ways, you might argue that the fact that the two merge the physical and the digital is a coincidence — and that in all the ways that count, they are actually opposites of one another.
I’d also add that one of the thing I think contemporary designers miss is that these thinkers were very focused on the environment surrounding the object and the abstract information about who owns it, who can use it, what information the object needs in order to be able to do its job most effectively.
Dourish is very focused on the environment around the things, Rose very focused in the services around the objects. I think it’s a mistake to think that their focus on better objects means less focus on better service layers.
Another example that complicates this tangible vision — in my home, I have various smart lights connected to the Internet but it doesn’t really make sense to me to think of them individually — they’re part of a larger system which is ‘My environment’. What is it specifically that I connect with or touch or interact with to make them act in the world? The objects are definitely acting independently, but it feels like there’s something that connects them.
Again, it feels like something that isn’t situated in the object, it feels like there’s something between them. My intuition is that I’m communicating with or manipulating something beyond the level of an individual object, and it feels like that’s the intuition that in this context we should build interfaces around. Perhaps then the power simply doesn’t come from dragging the network down into the physical thing, but with embracing the network and the object as complementary but separate parts of the same system…
In fact it’s this problem of what’s most intuitive that gives me most pause for tangible computing generally. The assumption from many of these thinkers is that making an interface that’s physical makes it inherently more intuitive.
But I don’t buy that physical affordances alone will make it immediately obvious what a smart connected object is for. Sure, you pick up a hammer and you immediately want to hit something (or maybe that’s just me) — but is that true of a smart hammer?
That seems to me to also be dubious — for every good product that makes more sense when embodied or made tangible, it seems another is likely to pick up some strange magical interaction metaphors that are less intuitive, or even counter intuitive. It’s quite possible that in taking something that is ‘natively’ digital or abstracted and merging it with something else with physical affordances, we create a thing at war with itself. Not more intuitive at all, but just much more confusing.
Are we making things that are effortless, or are we simply creating a whole new vocabulary of interactions that people have to get their heads and hands around?
Our cousins in computer engineering talk about General Purpose Computing — whereas as designers we’re often tempted by the quest to find the ultimately specific interface for the thing in front of us. But each slightly different interface creates an extra cognitive load that when multiplied across every object in the world may be wildly less intuitive than a General Purpose Interface on a phone, or smart watch or computer whose abstracted rules we learn once and can then apply everywhere.
In this quick diagram I knocked up, the green stuff is the thing that is immediately intuitive and doesn’t require learning. The red stuff are the bits that you have to learn to use. My argument here is perhaps a slightly harder to learn ‘General Purpose’ UI might have less cognitive load than a whole bunch of nearly intuitive devices where there isn’t any transferable knowledge.
So if the solution isn’t merging the physical and the digital, what is it?
Towards a stronger service layer?
Personally I think the solution of how the physical and the digital should interact is not to bring them closer, but instead try make the relationship between the two clearer and then push the power of the service layer far beyond where it is at the moment. And I think when you actually look at the problems that confront people when they use IOT devices, you end up essentially defining the properties of what that service layer should be.
In a moment I’m going to tell you a bit about what I think that picture looks like, but first — if you’re a designer who is in any way uncomfortable with this idea of the point of interaction and the device being separated from one another — I have a quick example for you from history which might help you relax.
This is the evolution of the light switch. Lighting started with controls directly next to the kerosene, oil or electricity light and gradually moved away from the object itself to the places they made most convenient sense — by the door that you walk in through.
You shouldn’t doubt it took them a while to get there — I love the one with the cord in the middle that uses a sort of pulley system to put the interaction where it makes most sense — but in the end we all decided that we understood that the right place for a light control is just where you want to turn on the light. The light is the thing. The service layer is the switch. And the service layer sits wherever it makes most sense for the person, with the relationship between the two clear and simple.
Here’s a more up-to-date example. Zipcar has cars parked in garages and parking structures across the World. And you can book them online or from the app and open the doors and drive off with them at any time with a simple RFID card.
But the hardware here is trivial — it’s just an RFID reader and a couple of switches, allowing the engine to start and the doors to unlock.
It’s in the service layer that the value of Zipcar truly lies — you probably book the car from home, so you’ll probably book it via your phone. And then you’ll use all those brilliant features of the internet that cars don’t naturally have — an understanding of identity, payment and a sense of location. It’s from that interplay a beautiful and powerful service is born that makes thousands of cars in thousands of locations yours to spin up as a software engineer might spin up an EC2 instance.
So what is the ideal service layer for the Internet of Things?
Here are the six things that I currently think are the core features of an enhanced service layer for general smart things.
Number one is nice and simple — the ideal service layer gives you control. It should give you the ability to control an object locally (even though it may be easier to do it through a physical interface) as well as from a distance.’
This is so obvious I’m surprised I have to mention it, except that advocates of embodied interaction always seem to miss that it’s actually a core attribute of a smart device that you don’t need to be physically present to control it or find out information from it. The exciting part of the Internet of Things is the Internet! And the Internet has been about collapsing distance and making the world accessible wherever you are. It’s no different with the Internet of Things.
Number two is about how a service layer lives with you over time. The ideal service layer supports you from initial set-up to the day you decide to recycle it.
This is one of the things I think is most bizarrely missed out on in most IoT products. Owning a piece of hardware is a relationship with a beginning, middle and end. You start off researching something to buy, you choose it, install it, use it, try and set it up to meet your needs, you buy supplies for it, you clean it, occasionally it breaks down and you throw it away, or you get it serviced and fixed. Eventually you decide to upgrade it.
Having a service layer transforms a thing from something a manufacturer sells to something that forms an ongoing relationship between manufacturer and consumer. There’s so much potential there it’s startling.
Number three is a huge one for me and again brings in some of those features that we saw with Zipcar (and interestingly come naturally to light switches). The ideal service layer understands that the device will be used by multiple people.
Again, these are things that if you look at almost other part of the Internet are obvious and baked in. Loads of services build on the Internet have concepts of identity. You can log in as someone and get access to various features. Different people can have different permissions. But for most IOT devices this is still completely absent. (This is a subject I’ve written about before in a piece about Thington: Why people are the most important part of a world of smart things…)
A quick example if you buy a nest thermostat first you install it in your home, then you create an account so that you and the thermostat are karmically connected. Then for every other person who lives in your house, or may come and visit and who you think might have to have some control over the temperature while they’re there, you simply sign in as you on their phones too.
This, I might suggest, is crazy. It makes it effectively impossible for it to react differently to different members of your family! It makes it impossible to know why a room is the temperature it is.
It also makes it possible for someone to come and stay at your house and then once they’ve left your house somehow continue to control the temperature in your house at long distance with you having no way to stop them! This has happened to me and it simply shouldn’t be possible. We should know better. This is easy to fix!
Number four is where all the promise of the Internet of Things lives and yet sometimes feels like the farthest away from coming into reality. The ideal service layer is able to work easily with all the things you have.
A smart light switch is great, but even better if it can coordinate with motion sensors in the house and with the geofences triggered by your phone to turn off precisely when you want them to. A sprinkler system works particularly well if it knows not to turn on when the windows are open, or when it has recently rained, or if you’re just about to walk through the garden.
But even if you have number four, then you still need number five for this power to be even trivially available for people. The ideal service layer does not expect you to become a programmer.
To create the kinds of coordinated responses I just talked about, someone has to somehow encode the expectations and the relationships and string them together. And at the moment there really aren’t any good ways to do this.
One way to stop you having to become a programmer is to make all the decisions automatically for you. This is the way that Nest attempts to do things — it’s just supposed to observe how you live your life and intuit what you want to do next.
I’ve interviewed dozens of people who have the nest and with a few exceptions they’ve all turned its magical learning features off. It just wasn’t doing the right things at the right time. I should add that they all loved their nests and found the ability to warm up the house on their way home really really useful. But the predictive things were making assumptions about their activities that were not immediately comprehensible by their users. And when the learning features were on the devices felt inscrutable to them, confusing and alien.
But if Nest’s interfaces aren’t perfect, at least they’re vastly superior to the other end of the spectrum:
This is an example of the UI from Yahoo Pipes, but honestly it’s the visual equivalent of what a lot of programmers I know are doing in their homes with IoT devices. It’s pretty clear this can’t be the direction.
It’s possible to simplify this kind of interaction with services like IFTTT (If This Then That), which let’s you set one ‘trigger’ and then ‘one response’ in a pretty simple way. But while it’s simpler to assemble, to make any complex situation you end up making lots of simple rules instead of one complex one. It doesn’t really make things much better. And that’s because even the simplest requests a person might make actually end up being much more complex than the first appear. For example, people say they want this:
But when you actually dig into what they actually want — when you take into account the various devices, people and contexts that impact how you’d like your home — you end up with something a bit more like this:
I genuinely think giving people all the power of a complex rules system, without bombarding them with UI complexity, is the hardest problem in the Internet of Things at the moment and the one most deserving of extraordinary mental effort trying to fix. All the power of these devices hides between interfaces and metaphors that are totally incomprehensible to normal people.
Finally, we get to number six. The ideal service layer communicates clearly and politely in ways that are timely and familiar. And this is I think super important, because at the moment a whole bunch of devices that we use are pretty much totally inscrutable and we don’t know why they did the things they did. And when they do decide to tell us things they do so by aggressively beeping or sending us notifications by the truckload. Finding the model that makes these communications humane and polite is one of the other largest challenges we face.
Personally I think the answers here lie in the work we’ve been doing to make communication between people comprehendible — our social streams might be a great metaphor for a world of communicative devices. But more on that shortly. In the meantime, here are my six principles again:
These are the principles that we’ve been working with when we’re building Thington — but I think they’re equally applicable to almost any software layer for a connected object you can imagine.
They are a set of ideas that I think represent a service layer way beyond the simple idea of a remote control — a service built with them could follow you across devices, across contexts, across the world. I really think this is the way that we should be working, the direction we should be pushing in.
So I’ve talked at length through this piece about the core directions I see in front of us now in trying to make a world of connected devices comprehendible to normal people. One is a common refrain among talented designers — that interaction should be embedded more into the physicality of the things themselves. The other is my own position, that this world at scale only really makes sense — can only really be intuitive — if we accept that a service layer exists, has to exist, is useful and important. I’ve also argued that we should push the service layer forward away from being something bland and slight like a universal remote control towards something deeper and more interesting.
With Thington in particular we’re experimenting with a couple of metaphors that I think really embody these principles and push them further in interesting ways.
Firstly we’re treating the way your objects communicate with you the same way that Facebook treats your friends communicate with you — with human readable chatty, social media-like streams of information.
And secondly we’re trying to replicate the feeling of a butler or assistant suggesting things he can do to make your life better. In doing so we’re trying as much as possible to take the complex rule-making systems away from the general user.
Obviously, I’d love it if you went to thington.com and had more in depth look at what we’ve chosen to do, but if you don’t have a chance to do that, here’s a way of representing what we’re doing that is pretty fun (even if it does make it look super ridiculous).
These are just our attempts to live up to the principles we’ve put together and build an experience that takes the service layer way beyond what exists at the moment.
This may resonate with you, or it may not. I hope it does. But even if you don’t agree with me on the specifics — even if you think that tangible interactions and embodied interaction are the future of every device on the planet — the one thing I really need you to believe and take away with you is that this world of connected devices one way or another is coming.
Every day more devices, appliances, sensors and actuators, homes and cities are coming online in one way or another, and this is going to have a transformative effect on the world.
I personally believe that the company that creates the service layer for the Internet of Things could be as significant, powerful and large as Amazon, Google or Facebook — only they’ll not be the way you interact with your friends, but with the entire physical world that surrounded you. We’re on the brink of a new service layer for the physical world that operates at a truly planetary scale.
And the design patterns and interactions for this world are being formed right now, by people just like us. And if we don’t get involved and design and think about the complexities of the world, then other people will, and when they do they’ll encode in them ethics, belief systems, views on privacy and intrusiveness, a sense of the role of network in the life of the individual that may be very different from the world we’d like to live in.
This has been a long piece, so it might be difficult to stretch your memory right back to the beginning, but if you remember, I referred to this alleged misquote by Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM.
When I read his line, I’m always reminded of Clay Shirky’s response, referring to the Internet.
To which I would add only add that every day, more and more, this one computer in the world is the world in which we live.
It’s massive, wild, distributed and it’s starting to break free of the browser and the app and permeate every aspect of our homes, offices and public spaces.
So this is the time to get involved, to explore this space and find better patterns, better interactions, better models of how the future will work. This is the moment where we as designers can have the most impact, helping to define a User Experience, an ethical, powerful, transformative UX at quite literally a planetary scale.
The world of tomorrow could be transformed for the better if we work to make it so, and I believe very strongly we have it in us to make it truly extraordinary. And that’s all I have.
If you’re interested in trying out Thington, go to https://thington.com to find out more and download the app. If you have any questions or comments, ping us on our Twitter account @thingtonhq or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do everything we can to help you out. There’s a list of Frequently-Asked Questions on the Thington website too: Frequently Asked Questions.
If you’re a manufacturer or potential partner and you’re interested in Thington integration or want to find out more about what we’re doing, then e-mail us at email@example.com.
If you’re a member of the press and would like to talk to us then e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org — there are also some resources for you available at https://thington.com/press
As I said at the beginning of this article, this talk was given originally at Webstock in New Zealand in February 2016. In this version I’ve removed a few of the jokes that only make sense if you know Webstock orNew Zealand very well. Having said that, if you haven’t been to New Zealand or to Webstock then you are really missing out and you should make an extra special effort to do so. It is my favourite event on the planet, the country is stunningly beautiful and the people are completely amazing. As always, thanks enormously to Tash, Deb, Mike, Ben and the Webstock audience for being incredibly welcoming and brilliant in every way.
The artwork in this piece was mostly drawn by Tom Coates in Adobe Illustrator, but the visual style of the whole thing comes from a beautiful piece of illustration by Chris Martin for Wired UK about setting up a smart home and my own efforts with the House of Coates twitter account. I loved the piece so much that I found a way to contact him online and I have two copies of it printed and framed — one in the office, one at home. My own efforts in this article are a bad pastiche of his extraordinary work, and I hope are received with the spirit they were created — as a statement of enormous respect to his creativity and a love of his style.
The typeface in the illustrations to this piece was made by Tom Coates in a weird little app for the iPad called iFontMaker. It is — as you might expect — based on a slightly stylized version of my handwriting. If you want to get your hands on it, please reconsider! There are much better typefaces in the world with a similar aesthetic. If I still can’t persuade you otherwise, I’m still working on all the special characters, and when I’ve done enough of them I’ll think about putting it out in public.
This material is in part based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (1621491). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Last year I noted that at the end of a year everyone writes about all the best songs they’ve heard that year. But they’ve normally written all the pieces before the year is really over! What about those songs that came out in December? Did they get a fair hearing? I don’t think so! So I took a bit of a different approach and wrote about the songs I’d enjoyed most from the year before, songs that I’d had twelve months or more to digest properly! We’re now just a couple of weeks from 2016, so what better time to write about the best music of … 2014!
Let’s start with the best song of the year. The story goes that Robyn—after writing a song an hour for all of 2013 and putting them all onto one of the quinquagintuple volumes of Body Talk—became very tired. She was also angry that only one fan in Sweden had time to listen to all of the songs and had dozed off during ‘Hang with Me’ which everyone knows was the best one. While hanging out in a Nordic spa, she ran into Röyksopp, who—if you remember—had used their Scando precognition to put every good musical idea they’d ever have throughout their career into their first album and now were making a living assembling pine furniture and making music to play in elevators. Robyn and Röyksopp got to chatting and decided to do some music together and the rest is unfathomably wonderful odd, pop-dance and pseudo-jazzy, introspective, complex, long and saxophone-drenched history. I cannot articulate enough how much I love this track. It’s somehow brooding and enlightening at the same time. Can’t get enough of it.
Zola Jesus: Dangerous Days
A crazy woman in a rug stands by a lake or in a forest, doing complex and bizarre things with noise while draping belting vocals like huge sheets of fabric over highly structured beats. And just when you think you’ve got a sense of how she’s doing it, she goes all contrapuntal and tricksy and turns into pixels and low-poly computer visualisations. That mix of desolate forest and cold lake-side with computer precision and simulation sort of sums it up really. Just wonderful.
James Murphy for IBM: Match 181
In 2014, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem decided that he would create music out of the data that came out of US Open Tennis matches. Obviously this is an idea that has occurred to all of us at one time or other—I myself once considered creating a trombone-based operetta based on the 1975 Women’s final at Wimbledon—but Murphy really committed to it. The album that resulted is long, involved and occasionally quite dull, but there are moments on it—very, very long moments—that are just transcendent. This eighteen minute track just builds and grows and stumbles over itself and keeps going and patterns form and collapse and … it’s just awesome.
Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne: Rather Be
There are a couple of songs in this list which are quite definitely way up in the pop stratosphere and will almost certainly make proper musos look down at me through their assymetrical haircuts and beards. I’d like to say I’m above all that, but I’m not. Don’t judge me Hipster Millennials. I crave your approval. This is one of those songs — it’s just such a lovely collision of violins, dance beats and soully pop vocals. It’s like if Lisa Stansfield wasn’t shit! Oh god, what am I saying…
St. Vincent: Digital Witness
Last year I talked a lot about Reflektor by Arcade Fire and how much it annoyed me that people kept writing songs about how modern technology was, you know, totally alienating and stuff. (2015 has its share of these too, btw.) Well this song is equally infuriating—if not more so—because it’s about how infuriating it is that everyone wants to sort of make themselves famous and that things don’t matter unless you have put it on YouTube or something but it comes from an artist who has cultivated in recent years a particularly ‘look at me’ aesthetic and has all her videos on YouTube. I narrow my eyes at you, St Vincent. I narrow my eyes.
Seriously, artists! Why can’t you write about how bizarre and cool it is that we can do insane things now that we couldn’t do in the past?! Why can’t you think about the cool things the future is opening up without making it a big rant about how we should all play with bits of wood and wear chunky sweaters and live in yurts?! You don’t live in a yurt! You’re just being weird superior hypocrites!
Unfortunately I also really like this song and the video is cool so… I guess you should listen to the song but don’t buy the crap she’s selling? Stop looking at me like that, I’m only human.
Taylor Swift: All You Had To Do Was Stay
Sometime during 2014, some publication wrote a piece along the lines of “Holy crap, I think I really like this Taylor Swift Album”. It was around then when I started realising that everyone I knew was listening to 1989, and I decided to give it a try. My first impressions were not favourable. It’s got this sort of brittle, trebly, ultra-polished pop production thing going on that I’d normally get on with about as well as a jet fighter and a granite mountainside. But as I listened, the positivity and joy and frankly just the sheer quantity of perfect pop-songs won me over. By the end of the year, 1989 was #31 in Pitchfork’s songs of 2014 and in 2015 I’d be going to my first stadium show ever to experience the wonder of Tay-Tay first hand. It’s … distressingly good. Enough to make you reconsider fundamentals of your personality and taste. For me All You Had To Do Was Stay is the song, but I can’t find a video for it online so you’ll have to make do with Blank Space, which is also awesome.
Pixies: Blue-Eyed Hexe
Time to go super-retro now with a song that sounds like the kind of stuff I’d listen to when I was a spring chicken gallivanting like a magical elf through my University education. Now there were some who thought the Pixies releasing a new album was Not a Very Good Idea and that they now totally sucked. These people—to be as blunt as I’m capable of being—were only partially correct! Let’s be clear, you should not call an album ‘Indie Cindy’. It’s just not done. Why? Because it’s a really bloody terrible name. And yes, sure, it’s undeniable that a considerable number of the songs on that album sucked hard enough to empty the Atlantic in the time it would take you to say “Dead Whales”. But there are a few little gems in there that are at least as good as some of the Pixies older B-sides! And those B-sides were better than any song produced by anyone else ever! Give them a break! It wasn’t so bad! I like this song! And ‘Snakes’ was pretty fun too.
My last song for 2014 isn’t a song at all, it’s an album, and it’s the thing I have listened to most from the year by such a huge margin that I couldn’t pick any one track to represent it. I don’t know what it is about this album — it’s definitely ofCalifornia and it may not make as much sense to people who don’t live here. I’ve only been here a few years and somehow it’s managed to encapsulate or represent or come to stand in for so many of the things that I love about this place. Obviously you have times when you look at tech culture or the Valley or the tract housing or the huge social problems that confront people who live here and it can get a bit overwhelming and dispiriting. But somewhere underneath all of that stuff somewhere is this just extraordinary natural beauty that I think makes even the worst stuff easier to deal with.
I have worked to Awake, I have driven to Awake, I have relaxed to Awake, I have even slept to Awake. It’s been my soundtrack for much of 2014 and almost all of 2015 and I cannot recommend it enough. Let it fill your brain up with its warm, heady, golden glow. You won’t regret it.
And that’s all I’ve got for 2014! I’ll see you in twelve months as we approach 2017 so we can go over all the wonders of 2015! You get that? Right? This isn’t too confusing?