Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the songs of 2017

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.

Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the songs of 2016

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.

Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the songs of 2015

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.

Beck: Dreams

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.

Kiiara: Gold

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.

Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the Songs of 2014

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!

For those of you who have forgotten, 2014 was the International Year of Crystallography and the International Year of Family Farming! It’s the year that Russia annexed the Crimea and the US military started bombing ISIS. It was the year that Everything Was Awesome, the year the Galaxy got Totally Guardianed, and the year that Peter Jackson gave up, cried and produced the final Hobbit movie. Everyone was wearing jeans and t-shirts — you know like your granddad wears today! And the streets were full of Millennials doing their Millennial business all over the place. It feels like forever ago! What were we thinking!?

Röyksopp & Robyn: Monument

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.

Tycho: Awake

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?

xx Tom

Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the Songs of 2013

It’s just turned into 2015 and the internet is full of lists of all the best songs of 2014. But how on earth is one supposed to have fully digested all the music and events of a year by the second in which it ends? That doesn’t make any sense. So here below are the songs that I enjoyed most from 2013, after … y’know … a full year’s careful and appropriate consideration…

Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix)

While the rest of the songs below are unordered, without any doubt at all this James Murphy remix of David Bowie was my top song of 2013. It’s long, epic, rambling and yet sharp and punchy at the same time. It’s got traces of classic Bowie grafted into it but it is at no point a piece of nostalgia. And it does that thing where structure emerges out of noise and then collapses again before returning that just does something dirty and pleasing to my frontal lobes.

Blood Orange: You’re Not Good Enough

A bit of an odd song — lots of lovely syncopation, crisp noises and a bit of a funky feel married to nasty passive aggressive sentiment and emotional complexity. A song like what happens as an iron spike is rammed through bits of your brain that aren’t really supposed to be connected and you have all these brilliant revelations and you feel like you understand the world, but unfortunately you’ve now got aphasia and you can’t explain it to anyone and well basically you’re brain damaged.

Favored Nations: The Set-Up

I feel like I should be ashamed that I heard this song on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto 5, but I’ve decided that instead I’m going to wear that as a badge of pride because it demonstrates that I’m still down with the kids and understand their funky bullshit.

Arcade Fire: Reflektor

A really annoying song about how digital media is like disconnecting us from the reality of the world around us or some crap like that. Much like St Vincent’s Digital Witness (another song I love which is also a pile of reactionary balls) it triggers my inner Bowie, whom I believe in his prime would never have sat there making ominous self-important songs about what was going wrong with the future, but would have leapt at it teeth bared and wrestled the damn thing to the ground. Then he would have sat there ripping bits off it and eating them with his gleaming brilliant metal disco teeth. I’m pretty sure it’s not accidental that Bowie himself only turns up in the song about halfway through right at the point that it decides to stop being whiny and get sexily apocalyptic instead. A world in which all meaning is collapsed and we’re left falling endlessly through the reflection of a reflection of a reflection? I’d have cigar and a glass of something bubbly in the middle of that… Cheer up, Arcade Fire!

Arctic Monkeys: Do I Wanna Know?

For some reason the songs that have kept with me are all the ones that pull out a feather and use it to tickle my Freudian Death Drive (which, now I come to think about it, absolutely should be the thing powering the transit of Hotblack Desiato’s Space Ship in Hitchhikers). I think I like fatalism and cynicism as long as I get to roll around in it naked in my head. This is a song made for dirty, bleak, slightly angry, very sexy wallowing.

Haim: My Song 5

I don’t entirely understand Haim, but that album they did the year before last year stuck with me in a way that that album that Chvrches did really didn’t. Typically I’ve gone for the song that’s the most chopped around and odd. It’s like The Bangles and Pixies were chopped up into bits and joined together into a weird set of weird angular, unbalanced zombie pop singers. The addition of a bit of a shoddy rap in the video and the video blocking out all the funky bits of the song is a bit annoying, but the song itself is pretty great.

Lorde: Team

So Lorde’s funny, right? She was awesome in South Park, she’s done songs that are so ubiquitous that you basically wish you could never have heard them because at least an eighth of your brain is dedicated singing them to you over and over when you’re trying to get some work done or go to sleep. And you sort of want to hate her because she’s like nine years old. But there’s just one problem — she’s actually really good! She’s one of the sort of art-school, song structure as designed landscape, with tensions and balances and contrasts and stuff. But she also manages to get quite a lot of emotion and insight into them. Blarg. I don’t know. I like it. That’s the point.

iamamiwhoami: y

If you don’t get on well with women with funny voices waving their arms around like Kate Bush on mushrooms, then you and I were never really destined to be friends… But I’d ask you still to suspend disbelief and push yourself through this bizarre Gaga/Bush video hybrid and try the song. If your Willing Suspension of Disbelief can’t get you through the confused baby that some anarchic animal/human handler appears to have released on set for no apparent reason, then I’ll forgive you, but I still think you’ll have missed out.

Calexico: Frontera/Trigger (Live)

An odd one to end with — utterly unlike everything else above, but still stunning. A live reworking of two classic Calexico songs with all the old Spaghetti Western plotlines but now newly saturated with a wild cocktail of fresh operatic and mariachi juices. It’s still got that bombast and bleakness that I like and it builds, my god it builds, towards the most glorious, eye-roll-back-in-your-head moment of pure wonder towards the end. You just have to let it run away with you.

And that’s that! Turns out that Daft Punk’s opus didn’t stick with me much and nor did Chvrches. Who knew! I hope you all had a great 2013 (and then a sufficiently adequate 2014) such that you’re now open to being wished good luck in the year ahead, which is 2015… Next on the One Year Late Review: Miley Cyrus twerking — what was all that about?!

Yours, Tom xx

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Visualising your listening…

I’ve been having enormous fun playing with Lastgraph over the last week or so. You tell it your username and it runs off and plots you a nice colourful graph that visualises your listening behaviour.

I’ve been with for a very long time (since 2003, when it was still really audioscrobbler) and have scrobbled a good 50,000 tracks. As a result, my graphs are pretty nice. You can get them visualised in various ways, but I would recommend using the ‘rainbow’ style and allowing it even to plot artists that you’ve only played once. That gives you the greatest detail and most beautiful results.

The most important thing about any visualisation is that it should give you another perspective on a dataset you already knew, and these graphs certainly do that. You really can get a sense of what kind of listener you’re dealing with. When you look at mine you’ll see a hell of a lot of thin lines. I listen to a lot of different artists, normally as part of ‘Most-played Five Star’ playlists and stuff like that. But alongside those classics there’s a decent and consistent injection of new albums and artists that are played more consistently. If you compared it with one of Cal’s graphs (download / pdf) at similar levels of detail then you’d see a very different picture. He listens to albums–only albums–and he listens to them over and over again until he gets bored of them. Then he sticks another album on. This is because he is from the past and hasn’t worked out that it’s all about disaggregation and stuff like that. Foolish boy.

The graphs that lastgraph generates are pretty enormous and full of detail, and because they’ve been generated as vectors, you could quite easily get one printed out onto canvas and put it up in your sitting room. I’m thinking about doing that now. I quite like the idea of decorating my home with beautiful infographics about my behaviour. When people visited they’d get all this extra easy-to-parse information about me, just as if I were a variety-sized packet of Fruit’n’Fibre. I’m a little concerned that it might seem self-involved, but not quite concerned enough not to do it. Perhaps we should make it obligatory for people to put up information on their electricity usage in their sitting rooms and see what impact that had on global warming.

If you want to see my whole graph then I’ve put up a decent-sized jpg of it that you can download and move around. It’s pretty beautiful and interesting, although I have no doubt your graph would be more interesting to you.

And if you’re interested in knowing more about the music that I’ve listened to over the last few years then my Overall charts on artists will reveal my love of Beck, Goldfrapp, The Arcade Fire, Nina Simone and Pixies. Meanwhile my most played tracks would reveal Goldfrapp’s Number 1 and Utopia, The MFA’s The Difference It Makes, Orbital’s Halcyon + On + On, Nouvelle Vague’s Friday Night, Saturday Morning among many others. It’s nice to be able to see the soundtrack of the last four years. I wonder what it’ll be like four years from now.

Politics Radio & Music

On Gower and Release the Music…

Tomorrow the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property will report its findings, which should be of interest to everyone in the UK who cares about everything from DRM, the legal situation regarding copying your own music onto your iPod (strictly speaking, this is currently illegal) all the way to whether or not you think that work created today should move into the public domain at some point in the future or not. It’s an important review, and one well worth looking out for.

I’m on the advisory board of the Open Rights Group who are awaiting the review with considerable interest, particularlybut not exclusively—because many of the traditional rights of people in the UK to use, reuse, protect and even create works are under threat by shifts in technology and pressures to extend copyright terms. This review will be a significant indication of whether that particular tide is likely to turn.

In particular, one thing that ORG cares a lot about is the proposed extension of copyright on sound recordings. People in favour of copyright extension argue that it’s necessary to give artists income into their pensionable years, but for the most part artists very rarely make any money at all from recordings that record companies refuse to distribute. The people who make money from such moves are the record companies themselves and a tiny proportion of recording artists, the rest of whom find that they cannot even get their music out into the world because it’s not financially viable for the record companies.

More importantly, these moves are part of a larger trend from copyright holders to keep extending copyright to be in effect a right that should extend in perpetuity. Since a few years ago when it looked like Mickey Mouse might be about to move into the public domain, well funded interest groups in the US have fought to extend copyright terms to keep these few immensely valuable properties in the hands of multi-nationals. In the meantime, these moves have kept immense repositories of literature and art and creative work that had fallen out of circulation from ever seeing the light of day. This affects everyone from libraries and historians through to the wider culture, who may never have access to vast archives of interesting and useful creative material the way that they do have access to Shakespeare or Beethoven.

A couple of years ago I attended an event called Content 2.0 in which Tony Wilson was interviewing someone significant at the BPI. I forget his name, I’m afraid. I asked one question of him. It went as follows:

I see from your suing of file-sharers that you are an honourable man who believes that theft is wrong. Can I take this to mean that you will fight against copyright extension, which amounts to an attempt by the companies that you represent to steal from every man, woman and child in this country?

The answer I received was, let’s just say, not particularly helpful. Amid spurious assertions about the UK’s need to compete with the US and statements about artist’s right to get recompense, one thing gradually became clear, which became even clearer when Tony Wilson stated out loud that he absolutely did not see why created material should ever move into the public domain, and that work created by Thomas Hardy should always remain exploitable by Hardy’s descendants.

Whether or not you believe that should be the case, this is not an argument that you hear much from the copyright extension lobby, but it is the heart of their enterpriseeven when it’s worth wondering how often the rights to these works reside with the heirs at all, or how many labours of love created by individuals must lay forgotten and unappreciated in order to protect the tiny proportion that might still make money a hundred years on.

It’s for these reasons that I’d like to encourage everyone who reads this site to look at the recommendations of the Gower Review carefully and to be aware of the weight of issues that it might have an impact upon. Andif I can be more forward stillI’d like to ask you to consider signing the petitions on Release the music and on the Downing Street Petition Site and help to make a statement that copyright extension should not be a default position, that it is not obvious, and that we are prepared to resist the incursion of corporate interest over what belongs to each and everyone of us and to our culture as a whole.

Radio & Music

On Minilogue…

Right. Nice and simple request this. I’ve recently been exploring a territory of music that I’m not enormously familiar with. Thanks to Mr Biddulph, I’ve stumbled upon two EPs of minimalist progressive techno group Minilogue which have completely taken over my stereo. There’s a track called Certain Things Around You (Part Two) that I particularly love which you can hear a selection of over on It’s based on a Radiohead sample and sort of loops and builds and makes me happy. So here’s my question – where do I get more music like this?

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Who's afraid of Ashley Highfield?

Today it was announced that the BBC’s New Media operations are going to be restructured radically. At the moment most of the content creation parts of the organisation are kind of co-owned – for example, Simon Nelson who was the ‘controller’ of the part of the BBC that I used to work for (BBC Radio and Music) reported equally to Jenny Abramsky (in charge of the BBC’s radio and music operations) and to Ashley Highfield (in charge of the BBC’s New Media Operations). Ashley himself had pretty much direct control over a centralised part of the organisation known internally as New Media Central.

After working at the BBC for a few years, it seems to me that this structure was a sort of clumsy compromise that had a lot of problems but a lot of benefits. I wasn’t in the right positions to see the whole picture but there seemed to be organisational and communication problems with such a layout, and a certain splitting of resources. But on the other hand – and this is a big other hand – increasingly the divisions between ‘new media’ stuff and content creation were able to blur, creating new opportunities for each to support the other which couldn’t help but be a good thing.

The other thing which almost seemed to me to be a good thing – sort of by accident – was that it created an environment where parallel parts of the BBC could operate independently and in a rather more agile fashion. More specifically still, it meant that certain parts of the organisation with a kind of critical mass of smart and clued-up people could really thrive and generate their own culture and goals and get things done, even as others weren’t doing so well. It may be just because I worked there or Stockholm syndrome but I rather think that BBC Radio and Music was one of those places, and despite the fact that a bunch of my favourite people have since moved on, I think it probably still is.

Having said that not all parts of the organisation were similarly dynamic, despite the often amazing number of talented people working within them – specifically, in my opinion, Central New Media under the direct management of Ashley Highfield.

You’ll have heard a lot of announcements coming out from his part of the organisation over the last few years, but surprisingly few of them have amounted to much. They all made headlines at the time, but they’ve all rather disappeared. Do you know what happened to the grand plans of the Creative Archive or the iMP? They were both being talked about in press releases in 2003, but the status of the iMP now appears to be a closed content trial and the Creative Archive has amounted to nothing more than a truncated Creative Commons license used by several orders of magnitude less people and a few hunded short clips of BBC programmes. Highfield’s most recent speeches from May this year are still talking about these projects, with him showing mock-ups of potential prototypes for the iMP replacement the ‘iPlayer’ that could be the result of a collaboration with Microsoft. Are you impressed by this progress? I’m not.

And then there’s BBC Backstage – a noble attempt to get BBC APIs and feeds out in public. What state is that in a couple of years down the line? Look at it pretty closely – despite all the talk at conferences around the world – and it still amounts to little more than a clumsy mailing list and a few RSS feeds – themselves mainly coming from BBC News and BBC Sport. There’s nothing here that’s even vaguely persuasive compared to Yahoo!, Amazon or Google. Flickr – a company that I don’t think got into double figures of staff before acquisition – has more public APIs than the BBC, who have roughly five thousand times as many staff! This is what – two years after its inception? Even the BBC Programme Catalogue that came out of this part of the organisation a while back has gone into a review phase (do a search to see the message) without any committment or indication when it’s going to be fully opened up.

I’m sure – in fact I know – that there are regulatory frameworks that get in the way of the BBC getting this stuff out in public, but these long lacunae go apparently unnoticed and unremarked – there’s an initial announcement that makes the press and then no follow-up. If Ashley Highfield really is leading one of the most powerful and forward-thinking organisations in new media in the UK, then where are all these infrastructural products and strategy initiatives today? And if these products are caught up in process, then where are the products and platfoms from the years previous that should be finally maturing? It’s difficult to see anything of significance emerging from the part of the organisation directly under Highfield’s control. It’s all words!

And that’s just the past. This is a man who decides to embrace social software and the wisdom of crowds in 2006 – clearly waiting for Rupert Murdoch to buy MySpace and show the self-appointed R&D lab of the UK new media industry the way. His joy for this space is expressed in lines like, “The ‘Share’ philosophy is at the heart of 2.0 … your own thoughts, your own blogs and your own home videos. It allows you to create your own space and to build around you”, which is ironic given that earlier last year he stated in Ariel that he didn’t read any weblogs because he wasn’t interested in the opinions of self-opinionated blowhards. This is a man who apparently coined the term, Martini Media and thinks that expressing your future strategy through smug references to 1970s Leonard Rossiter-based adverts is a surefire way to move the ecology forward. This is a man described by the Guardian in its Media 100 for 2006 as follows:

Exactly how much the impetus for such initiatives stem from Highfield, and how much from the director general, was the source of some debate among the panel.

“Ashley Highfield is among the most important technology executives working in the UK today,” said one panellist. “Yes, but talk about being in the right place at the right time,” said another. “Mark Thompson should be credited with the vision, not him.”

This is a man – bluntly – whose only contact with Web 2.0 that I can find is a pretty humiliating set of pictures on Flickr of him on a private jet and ogling at half-naked dancing girls. (Note: This set of pictures has now been taken down).

So it is, I’m afraid, with a bit of a heavy heart that I can report that the restructuring of the BBC is going to result in a much larger role for Ashley Highfield within the organisation – managing (according to the Guardian, and I’d take this with a pinch of salt) up to 4,000 people throughout the organisation. All the new media functions that have currently been distributed will now it seems be directly under his auspices, and presumably more under his influence than those of the programme makers and pockets of brilliant people around the organisation. I don’t know enough about the nature of the restructuring to know whether it’s a good or a bad thing at a more general level, but it’s pretty bloody clear to me that it’s an ominous move.

Which is what makes me so surprised when people outside the organisation talk about how scared they are of the huge moves that the BBC can make on the internet, because the truth is that for the most part – with a bunch of limited exceptions – these changes just don’t seem to be really happening. The industry should be more furious about the lack of progress at the organisation than the speed of it, because in the meantime their actual competitors – the people that the BBC seems to think it’s a peer with but which it couldn’t catch-up with without moving all of its budget into New Media stuff and going properly international – get larger and faster and more vigorous and more exciting. I want the BBC to succeed. I want it to get stronger – I think it’s a valuable organisation to have in the world and I think it sits perfectly well alongside the mix of start-ups and corporates that’s emerging on the internet. And it’s for precisely this reason that I’m concerned about these moves.

Who’s afraid of Ashley Highfield? I am, and you should be too.

Radio & Music

Apple fix iTunes Ministore howler…

Presumably bowing to pressure, Apple have changed the way that their new integrated ministore functions in iTunes so that now it’s ‘opt-in’ rather than ‘opt-out if you can’. I posted about this situation in a subtly titled post a few days ago – Cynicism and Stupidity at the iTunes Music Store – but it was Boing Boing and affiliates who really mounted up the pressure after receiving tips and analyses from people like Marc. I don’t really have a lot more to say on the subject – I’m relatively comfortable with the solution (although I still think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity). I just thought I should update you guys.