Francois’ 2017

2017 was, and my media and musical preferences may be betraying themselves here, the year of the SoundCloud Rapper. If this seems like an obvious take that’s only because of how pervasive the persona has become. Recall that for manymany others, the idea of SoundCloud Rappers begat an education. A moniker for the internet- and homegrown hip-hop talents who released their hybrid projects on the orange-hued music streaming platform, which itself almost went bankrupt this year even after rolling out a rather innocuous ad-revenue subscription service akin to its green-logoed nemesis.

On SoundCloud, however, scores of aspiring musicians met, shared tracks, advice, and inspiration; meanwhile, for listeners, it serves as a resource for that one cover or remix which is not available on Spotify, Apple Music, or, god forbid, Tidal. The platform felt more personable, less corrupted, and a tinge more democratic. Listeners, it appeared, would gladly suffer ads for the comfort of the, ironically, less-corporate seeming media player. Here was where the majority and best of the late Lil Peep’s output resides. It is where Chance and Uzi broke out before propelling to bona fide stardom. Of course, like any other consumer-facing product, SoundCloud relies on metrics and data, but mainly because of what it is not—because of its imperfections—did it seem to cultivate trust and appreciation from audiophiles and the artists who spoke to and of them. This was a validity that didn’t solely appear to be about monthly listeners, followers, or algorithmic prioritization.

The Soundcloud Rapper, then, became shorthand for an artist who by the content of their flow, production, voice, or some other miscellany, could not quite fit the established paradigm and posture of rap. (Skeptics would say we’ve hit the amoral bottom of so much bad being good because all we have is bad and that resets our standards.) The notion expanded, became known, and, like all good and weird things born of the internet, in a sort of backlash, ended up manifesting as the inspiration for an ill-considered Halloween costume.

Still, this is a long-winded apology for not including any SoundCloud rap on my favorite songs of the year (worse, the provided playlist is hosted by Spotify). The songs I enjoyed most are, I think, interconnected in their own way—songs with features was a way of including multiple favs, two-birds-one-stone, etc. Still, I need to reel off a few more honorable mentions here: A track like “Once Upon a Time” marked the return of The Diplomats whose braggadocio and cleverness was sorely missed. Whether it was FergTwelvyy, or the extended familia, A$AP made strides on their LP releases. 2 Chainz made the gift that keeps on giving on “Pretty Girls Like Trap Music”—I keep finding new tracks to bounce to. SZA was superlative on many of these sorts of lists, and should hers have been the only music released in 2017, we could all die in the Trump-apocalypse tomorrow and not in vain. Diet CigPalehoundKing Krule, Weaves, and Mac DeMarco released albums which, however distinct, make me feel young enough still to emote heavy with a lady or lad rock band. Mount Kimbie (a perennial top-5 musical act and the best concert I attended this year), Aminé, and Kendrick Lamar (the artist Spotify tells me I listened to the most over the previous 12 months), all came out with albums that I’ll regret not including on my best-of. Like Cassidy, by way of Jay Z said over a dozen years ago, ask about me and I’ll explain why.

This was also a year that saw the olds insist on making me revisit the sentimental investments of my youth, and, a la the show I never and possibly WILL NEVER finish, had me sliding backward on nostalgia toward “a place where we ache to go again.” So, shouts to music for teens that are just as good on the other side of 25: The NationalSpoonFuture IslandsThe War on DrugsGorillaz, and Broken Social Scene.

On the horizon, there’s Quiet Luke, a Prince-like singer and guitarist who is the fifth or sixth (who knows at this point) coming of Frank Ocean. Along with KWAYE, who has yet to make a track—even if its message is melancholy—that makes you get up and move in the way James Brown intended. Santangelo, makes music that is the singular stuff of SoundCloud’s heyday—cerebral and not-ready-for radio. His “Cave In” runs on the rhythm and beat of Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” which had me so wrapped up in wonder that I nearly missed my bus stop in the pouring rain. Clairo is a singer whose short lovelorn tracks belie talent and maturity, yet bridle with youth and something purposefully restrained—she’s not ready to share the magnitude of her vision and feelings quite yet. Imagine a bittersweet Maggie Rogers who eschewed NYU and with no hipster tattoos in sight.

So, the top 10? 

Well, the playlist gets its name from the few months I speculated a devious connection between Harry Styles’ impressive solo album and Christopher Nolan’s nationalistic and war-porn movie which stars Mr. Styles as the only person sane enough to say something nasty. (In truth, he makes a silly racist remark in front of a group of soldiers who look like they passed through a Blind Barber before making it to the beachhead battlefront, providing one of the few realistic depictions of how starved and imperiled soldiers would actually act in the movie). ANYWAY, my two favorite albums this year were the annoying-to-pronounce Alvvay’s “Antisocialites” and Tyler, The Creator’s “Flower Boy.” Among the other albums which made me cry were Rex Orange County’s debut, “Apricot Princess,” Princess Nokia’s “1992 Deluxe,” Young Thug’s “Beautiful Thugger Girls,” and Moses Sumney’s “Aromanticism.” Speaking of whom, Moses’ “Lonely World” is the feeling after you spill the mug of tea and don’t give a fuck, you run out of there and out of the world.

But this is a mix of individual tracks, so, it should be noted that Yaeji’s hit her stride and come a long way from that one time I played “New York 93” on the office Sonos that went over really, really poorly. The new mysterious electronic artist that’s got me by a strange, sonic gravitational pull, however, is The Blaze, whose videos relate a homoerotic and athletic mise-en-scène that involves Arabic persons in what is possibly the Levant that is as indelible as it is mesmerizing. Oh, and he/they put out a M83 remix that has the most ridiculous album art of the 21st Century. Lastly, and this was decided for me from the first time I listened to it, is one of the loosies Frank Ocean dropped this year: “Provider.” It’s a murmuring more than it is sung or rapped, and with a flowing production that rolls along the mentions of Super Saiyans, Patagonia jackets, and Stanley Kubrick, it is my ideal type of song—what I searched for and cherished whenever I found echoes of in 2017. The above, I hope, is an honest testament to that matter.

P.S. I’m hype for the Young Fathers album due out in “the near future.”

See ya, 2017!

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Breaking Down the Aux Cord

Anyone who’s casually made a song recommendation, or is suddenly tossed the aux cord in a car full of people, is familiar with the feeling of panic when it dawns on you that maybe you’ve misread your audience.

It’s usually the lack of reaction that’s the tip off – an awkward silence permeating the car and the space between verse and chorus. You’re suddenly aware of how god damn annoying the singer’s voice is, but it’s too late. Your copilot stares straight ahead, motionless and tense, and you grip the wheel to focus on the next turn, analyzing road signs and tree trunks – anything to distract you from the urge to unplug.

What did you expect playing Odesza’s new album in a car full of Leon Bridge acolytes? You should have done your homework, or at least listened to that voice in your head telling you to go with the folksy band out of Chicago, Whitney.

**

Your biggest mistake was plugging in with a group of people you don’t know that well. Who’s the tastemaker here? You need to know who will be the first person to complain and break the spell. You’re looking for a musical home base, a mutual jumping off point, like everyone agreeing that surf pop is BACK. But you’re driving blind. Not literally of course. But you have no raw data, no opportunity to stalk these people on Spotify to see what playlists they wander through.

You consider throwing up a softball. Something like This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody). Everyone loves that song. But you worry that you can only rely on nostalgia so many times before your constituents feel like puppets, propped up by familiar melodies.

**

What you really want to do is to connect everyone. Start with something sturdy, a song that’s easy to build on. Then, like an old man feeding pigeons, toss breadcrumbs in every direction – one to the copilot, one to the couple packed in the back, and then circle around to the tastemaker. Pull the group together and then start working towards the fringe, blending genres and weaving in offshoots. Pioneer new territory, not far off course, but dangerously close to the edge.

But the silence is paralyzing. You get the urge to unplug. Any second now the copilot is going to turn down the music. But, then again, redemption could be just a song away.

Hak Baker – Conundrum

I have a ritual. Divulging it may help countenance the way we interact with music on the enormous, inescapable digital platforms—Spotify, in this case—or it may just add more noise to the whirlpooling soundscape of the internet. Like the book and film industries, most new music (singles, LPs, EPs) is officially released on Fridays. Spotify capitalizes on this through its prominently-placed New Music Friday playlist. It’s an effective if scattershot showcase of the newest big-label, big-artist songs accompanied by a slew of algorithmically selected tracks based on your listener profile. But I’m skeptical of algorithms. And I still like the relatively safe spaces of albums; whereas a playlist categorically defined by the newness of the seven-day drop cycle, computer learning software be damned, hop scotches too much from genre and tempo on play-through.

Maybe, I’ll admit, I even like the skeuomorphic renders that scrolling through the cover art of the new albums and singles presents. The tiles offer a glimpse into the personality behind each project; their arraignment a concession to how much the labels pay Spotify for top-of-the-list preference. So, I stay up on Thursday evenings and wait for the New Releases tab to update. (More often than not, this doesn’t happen at the stroke of 12:01 am, but hours later during the morning rush hours.) Regardless, sometimes, in this digital crate digging exercise, I find something worth pilfering for my own playlists. At other moments, I scratch my head and hate-judge whoever thought the new Mount Kimbie album was deserving to rest on the ocean floor of this sea of sound.

If you’ve never before clicked the Browse tab then this all might sound like quaint idiosyncratic behavior. But if you do and you have feelings about how music is presented to and consumed via Spotify, then you would be surprised to know that even at my most untrusting of Spotify’s transparent attempt at personalized playlists such as New Music Friday, worthwhile music can be had on the Discover tab (even if you only go there out of laziness or accident or pretension: “How misguided are these recommends going to be?”) as well. But a rose by any other name is still a rose.

This is how I came across the work of Hak Baker.

**

Despite his thin output, I knew Baker’s lullabying tune “Conundrum” was perfect for a playlist I continue to invest stupid amounts of energy on and whose architecture is built around the idea “What else would you listen to if you loved Frank Ocean and hip-hop?” “Conundrum,” an unsentimental look at life in East London, is just voice and acoustic guitar. A simple formula that has worked well-enough for the Amy Winehouses and Chris Martins of the world. The lyrics have depth and surprising diction while the guitar playing is reminiscent of third-week-of-YouTube-music-lessons skill. Baker’s voice is, however, palpable, clarifying, almost sad.

**

I bring my belief in fortuitous circumstances to my playlists. By the Sunday after the most recent new music releases, I had managed to add, including “Conundrum,” seven new tracks. The day had started off slowly as I tried to slough off the dull feeling that hung around me following the previous night’s tennis and dancing and a number of pulls from a bottle of Jameson that was also seven in number if not more. Actually, I was supplementing my taking-life-into-account state of affairs with a reckoning of Neil Young. Apparently, the old man’s catalog is now on Spotify and I was searching for a specific live album a friend had played for me on his record player on another, whiskey-soaked Saturday. It’s there, I’m sure, but I needed to get outside at least once today. (The ways in which I wasn’t being productive were staggering: The articles I needed to write, the emails waiting to escape the “drafts” folder wasn’t getting any slimmer, and I began this post in a devil may care manner. Wasting time, right here, right now.) So, at no later than 10 pm, I made my way to a slice joint on the other side of the highway that deals in half-cuts upon request. An easy 15-minute walk from my Brooklyn neighborhood.

**

It’s worth mentioning that this pizza shop is heavy-metal themed and when I got there, early Black Sabbath was playing loudly and two drunk on life (also beer) patrons were debating which of the pizza-punned t-shirts to get. Each black tee features a screen-printed front in the style of classic metal album covers and they’re all great. Because superstition is leashed to low expectations, I couldn’t grin any more dumbly or widely at my fortune. This would be the third time I ordered half-slices and got full ones instead. Rarely do I place much stock in my propensity to not speak loudly, but there I was, walking home the winner of a twofer. Superstition, too, harbors an appreciation of luck no matter its scale. The playlist switched to shuffle and what could be described as an unfair sequence of 5 songs played back to back. It was as unfair as the starting lineup of the Los Angeles Dodgers, though that simile may not hold as the majority of these artists were British.

**

“Conundrum” kicked it off and, while I was toting my pizza beneath an underpass, Rex Orange County’s “Paradise” began afterward. Belonging to the hangover genre of songs, it makes a good case for not drinking beer to get drunk just because everyone else is which felt particularly relatable right then. From Rex’s first album, which is emblematic of the best efforts of bedroom producers, “Paradise” is mostly deep bass notes and an unstellar drum machine behind which synthesizer keys fade in and out. Then, after the song’s abrupt ending, was the comparatively expertly-produced “Laidback” by Rat Boy. In this case, the upbeat song finds the British youth expressing a love for someone whom he can’t directly express that to emphatically. So, just as the song title heavily features in the refrain, Rat Boy needs to occupy the premier emotional state and posture of Western millennials: chill. Who isn’t chill as much as she’s cavalier is Jessie Reyez. This song, a would-be bold choice for karaoke, is called “Fuck It” and Jessie’s attitude wavers between a spoken-poetry aspect to a roll call of “Fuck It”s. The track came to my attention via another sort of algorithm: Daniel Caesar’s Instagram Story. He was riding in an Uber as it played on the radio if I remember correctly, again underscoring my hunch that many things are possibly better in Canada. The next and final song was the most clever cover of 2016: Sunni Colon’s interpretation of “Black Hole Sun,” the anthemic Soundgarden song that is likewise the best about heroine since “Beast of Burden.” Colon’s airy track reworks the chorus of the grunge-era hit to a dance floor juke. That is, dancing in the way that “F.U.B.U.” by Solange is a dance track—they both share a bass and bump that engenders creative movement.

**

On a street corner near my apartment, three books were left atop a garbage can for recyclables. (It’s all very Brooklyn, I know.) The books seemed relatively clean and I took two titles: A short story collection by the late Denis Johnson and a large history of Lewis and Clark by Stephen Ambrose. Balancing this all and jiggering my keys into the doors I needed to pass through to get home, I had my hands full.

Musical Ai

On Nitch, the Instagram page with enough scrolling power to prod you out of bed in the morning, there’s an image of Banksy sitting in a chair, his face cloaked behind an oversized hood and his fingertips welded together as if in prayer.

The caption reads, “I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a super power.”

Sometimes this idea prompts me to hang back. To watch while others spread themselves thin. But when I discovered Spotify and the opportunity to be totally transparent about my listening habits, I leaned in.

Spotify gives me a heightened awareness about people’s connection to music. A track off Bon Iver’s For Emma might signal a rough day. ODESZA’s Divinity Remix hints at a moment of teeth-gnashing action. And when my grandfather, a man dedicated to his vinyl records, joined Spotify, I watched as he suddenly transitioned from Bach, Handel and Arthur Rubinstein to Frank Zappa, revealing a rare glimpse at a subterranean rebellious streak.

Maybe it was naive to overlook that all this public data could be harnessed for something besides interconnectedness. With great data comes great responsibility and recent news is uncovering a growing suspicion about how Spotify may be using that data.

Journalists and bloggers are accusing Spotify of creating songs by “fake artists” to fill in some of their ambient playlists to save money on royalty fees. Several artists stepped forward, others like Deep Watch remain eerily quiet.

Then there’s the potential connection between Echo Nest, Spotify’s data collection hub that tracks user’s listening habits, and the recent hire of Francois Pachet, a revered French professor and machine learning guru.

Bloggers speculate that Spotify is accumulating listening data so that they can use machine learning to create customized music. With millions of hours of listening data, Spotify’s algorithms could pinpoint the chord progressions, rhythms and styles that resonate with users. They could theoretically customize music for a specific moment in time.

The goal is awesome. And for me it would be the end of a long journey after stumbling on the crowdsourcing capacity of Hype Machine. I’ve always fantasized about a sixth sense for what song belongs in the current moment. An algorithm would take out the guess work.

We may not even be that far off. The glowing boards laid out in front of a D.J. and the prevalence of pro tools has introduced a new member of the band – a formula, a computer, or whatever cuts and hems raw tracks.

It’s hard to resist that mathematical precision. By definition technology makes things easier. Venmo means you don’t have to take cash out. Uber Eats means you don’t have to leave your couch to eat sushi. But I’m of the belief that easier doesn’t always mean better in the long term.

Take Dave Grohl for example. As a kid he couldn’t afford a drum set so he’d beat wooden sticks on pillows, hitting the fabric as hard as he could to make an audible sound. That produced a breakneck style that drove Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. No one brings Dave Grohl on to play drums for a soft jazz track – they hire him to shatter snare drums.

My concern with AI generated music is that we will lose the ‘fuck you’ types. The narrative behind the music will become less important as it becomes a more streamlined experience. We will settle into a cyclical feedback loop, thoughtlessly mainlining the musical stream. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Our past would prescribe our future.

But as we get further into AI territory, we may find that our experiences with music aren’t as transactional as listening data suggests. A friend recently told me that he associated Father John Misty’sNancy From Now On” with a second-hand surfboard he’d found in the back room of a well-lit surf shop. When he called the previous owner, the man told him that he’d shaped it for his wife, who was uninterested in the alternative design (it’s round like a pill or a bar of soap). As my friend twirled around the board he noticed a note on the bottom channel. Inscribed in pencil it said, “For Nancy.” The moment was cemented and the board became one with the song.

Algorithms are designed to root out randomness and chance. For an equation to work, you need a closed system. A self driving car can’t function if the roads are forever changing direction. The same would be true for AI generated music. You would need to construct a limit. A known quantity. Random chance would be deadly.

But music needs randomness. It needs chaos. It needs Death Grips. It thrives off leaps and bounds – unpredictable moments of improvisation. And for that, there’s no one better than a human.

iTunes vs. Spotify: The Battle For Music Streaming

For the past year and a half, I have been an avid Spotify user. Although I do admit that I approached our green friend with a good deal of caution. A free music streaming app? Yeah free music. The words conjure up images of another green program, one that gave my Mac virus after virus… ahh yes, Limewire. So I was hesitant to buy into the hype. I’m was also a die-hard iTunes guy. To this day I cherish the playlists that have grown from the 1,400 songs sitting in my library. They cover a wide range of my life, ranging from puberty to chiefing my first heater -“High School Dance Mix” to “DUb! Stub!” (it’s an electic mix dominated by Apex Twin).

But after using Spotify several times, I began to understand the benefits of using a subscription based streaming model. The options were seemingly endless – I could listen to as many songs as possible for no charge at all. In fact, out of a certain stubbornness and frugality (being poor) I still don’t pay for the premium service. By not forking over the money you’re forced to listen to playlists on shuffle mode and nauseatingly repetitive ads (like Blau advocating healthy sexual habits or The Dukes of Hazard promoting Auto Trader). Sure it’s unbearable at times but after awhile I started to use Spotify more and more, building up new playlists and discovering new music. But where Spotify really hooked me was its seamless experience of sharing new music with your friends – a valuable tool for the blog life.

Which brings me to my point. Just as I was about to pull the trigger and pay for premium, Apple released its music streaming service – Apple Music. My head snapped to attention and my brain pretzeled. Apple Music or Spotify? Which is better? Now I’m completely invested in the hottest race since Trump announced he was running for President. iTunes vs. Spotify. The battle for music streaming domination. Who you got?

*Honestly I’m kind of ride or die with SoundCloud.

Stay tuned for more updates on who has the edge in taking home the heavy weight title. In the mean time, here’s a freshie from Goldroom…