I know it’s January 4, and I should have pounded out this list back on December 21 or so, but what’re you going to do?
Given that the 2000′s were a decade of rap, hip hop and beat-driven pop, my favourites don’t really reflect popular taste. As usual, female singer-songwriters feature prominently.
I assembled this list by skimming through the top-rated songs in my iTunes library. Links go to YouTube (some ‘videos’ are decidedly unofficial) or elsewhere on the web where you can hear the song. In chronological order, then:
“Wichita Lineman” – Cassandra Wilson (2002) – A cover of an old Jimmy Webb song. Ms. Wilson specializes in great, barely recognizable covers. I saw her play at the Chan Centre about five years ago. I’ve never seen more proficient musicians, or a more natural singer on-stage.
“Hockey Skates” – Kathleen Edwards (2003) – There are great turns of phrase in Ms. Edwards’ lyrics. She sings about a bar so familiar that “I don’t have to order anymore”. In the chorus, she’s just “tired of playing defense, and I don’t even own hockey skates”.
“Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” – Stars (2004) – Just a terrific song, with a sprawling sound that feels distinctly Canadian.
“Ring Them Bells” – Sufjan Stevens (2007) – A cover of a Bob Dylan tune for the biopic I’m Not There. It’s full of Biblical allusions, so it’s appropriate that Stevens, an overt if seemingly troubled Christian, covers it. Another sprawling, rich orchestration, full of tempo changes and, to my untrained ear, about fifteen instruments.
“Adventures In Solitude” - The New Pornographers (2007) – Last year I said it was “a gorgeous, surreal ballad by The New Pornographers. The song creeps along at first, all piano and mandolin, with A.C. Newman on lead vocals. At about the halfway point, the pace picks up. And thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the incomparable Neko Case, her voice sweet as Saturday morning sex. She sings poetry that seems both nonsensical and poignant.”
“Night Windows” – Weakerthans (2007) – There are a bunch of clever, straight ahead rock songs from the Weakerthans that I could put on this list. My gateway song for them was the awesome “Plea From a Cat Named Virtute” (never has a song channeled a cat’s psyche so well), but it’s this song that stuck with me. I learned to play the guitar parts, and the section under the verse is almost the exact reverse of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”.
“Get Better” – Mates of State (2008) – Their songs sound messy and anthemic at the same time, and the chorus of this song is terrific: “Everything’s gonna get lighter, even if it never gets better”.
“People Got a Lotta Nerve” – Neko Case (2009) – One of a number of great songs off Ms. Case’s Middle Cyclone. A twangy ditty about Orcas and elephants. The video is delightful.
The eight songs that didn’t make my top ten list are, in no particular order:
February 11th, 1978. Eventually is released simultaneously in the American and British markets. Some critics find significance in the fact that the first single off the album, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Blow Away,Ã¢â‚¬Â is not a Lennon/McCartney collaboration but instead a George Harrison song; others find themselves underwhelmed and suggest that the Lennon/McCartney Ã¢â‚¬Å“Free As A BirdÃ¢â‚¬Â should have been the first single instead. (Ã¢â‚¬ÂFree As A BirdÃ¢â‚¬Â is released as the second single six weeks later.) Harrison, for his part, says that Ã¢â‚¬Å“Blow AwayÃ¢â‚¬Â was Ã¢â‚¬Å“a lot less of a rockerÃ¢â‚¬Â before Lennon suggested an increase in tempo and Ã¢â‚¬Å“letting Ringo go nuts.Ã¢â‚¬Â No music videos are produced for the album: Lennon says Ã¢â‚¬Å“no, that would be too much bother. We want to have fun with this. WorkÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s for our own stuff.Ã¢â‚¬Â
I’m sure these have been done before, but there are a number of creative projects that extend naturally from this kind of ‘what if’ exercise. A book-length version, maybe, or writing songs that the still-together Beatles might have written.
As I get older, I find I have to work harder to discover new music that I like. When you combine this with the balkanization of the music industry and the rise in popularity of music genres I don’t particularly like (rap, hip hop and so forth), it can be downright tricky to come across new bands.
New tools like iTunes and Pandora help, certainly, but I still find that I have to work at the process.
D.J. Palladino is working harder than I am at it. He’s written a long article (found via Waxy) about his indie rock education. In particular, I like how he correlates today’s music to the rock and roll he grew up with:
Much of my pleasure came from the surprising connection this new music had to the stuff I loved when I was a kid. Most of my friends are stuck in the 1960s, their formative years, but who can blame them? The long feedback howling in songs like Ã¢â‚¬Å“OmahaÃ¢â‚¬Â by Moby Grape were screams against our parentsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ bland lives; they gave us hope that music could reorder the world. When that music died, many of my generation failed to find the same spirit even in the simplistic delights of punk rebellion. All I can say is my musical tastes are much like my working habits, which might charitably be considered ADHD.
I was pleased to recognize the names of about half the bands he references in the article. My favourites among those he lists aren’t particularly obscure: Rilo Kiley, New Pornographers, M. Ward and The Shins.
If this is entirely new territory to you, there’s a handy infographic primer at the end of the piece that’s worth a look.
While I expect he’s made a great deal of money off of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, it’s unfortunate that that’s what most people think of when they hear McFerrin’s name. I don’t know much about jazz, but every time I hear him he strikes me as this remarkably capable and original vocalist.
I randomly happened upon this little technology demo from Last.fm. It’s called Boffin, and, using Last.fm’s metadata, it generates a tag cloud out of your music collection. You click a couple of tags, click play and it provides yet another way to slice and dice one’s sprawling music archives. Here’s what mine looks like:
The top half of the cloud is more accurate than the bottom half. I’m not sure how much of my music is “hair metal approved”, and I’m pretty sure it’s over-representing the fraction of my collection that is Norwegian.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about. When you install and first run Boffin, it needs to scan your music collection. I have about 10,000 songs, so that took quite a while. During this process, however, Boffin displayed this lovely visualization of my music:
The YouTube-hosted screencast video is a bit sketchy, but you get the idea. It’s a totally unnecessary feature–actually useless, as it happens. But I found the cascading images of bands kind of hypnotizing. I really appreciated that the app designer when that extra step to make a very ordinary process–scanning your hard drive for music–a little remarkable.
I was walking down to Cook Street Village the other day, and noticed a couple of pieces of paper folded up in the crook of a tree. Thinking of Found Magazine, I grabbed them and stuck them in my pocket.
When I got them home and unfolded them, it turns out they’re school work by a young man named Alan. There’s a one page essay on B. B. King, largely cribbed from Mr. King’s Wikipedia article. Alan scored 5/5 for that one:
He didn’t fair so well on an accompanying quiz (‘Music Exploratory Quiz #1: The Blues’), in which he only scored 3/5:
One of the questions he got wrong was ‘what gives the blues its groove’? He incorrectly answered ‘the rhythm’. What does give the blues its groove? Whiskey? Getting dumped? I’ve got nothing.
Last week I was having coffee in John’s Place, a Victoria institution. There were a bunch of posters around the place for an upcoming appearance by a Vancouver band called Pawnshop Diamond:
I stopped to take a photo because of the blurb on the poster. As you can see, it reads:
Cowboy Junkies meets Wilco singing drunken Canadian love songs.
I like Wilco. I love the Cowboy Junkies. And I’m Canadian. It sounds like a band tailor-made for me. I checked out their MySpace page (they’re also on Facebook), and, indeed, I quite like their music. I haven’t paid a ton of attention to their lyrics, but I liked the sound of a phrase from the song “Sweet Music”: “Neil Young is a plant on my window sill, always leaning toward the sun”.
The Internet, as you know, changed everything. Well, not everything, but it sure disrupted the way we make and distribute art. Ever since I saw geeks posting encoded files to Usenet, I’ve been curious to watch how the web has turned content creation (an awful, generic term) on its head.
One truth of the web in 2008 is that it is a much flatter playing field for creators. If you made an independent film in 1993, and you didn’t get backing from a studio, you couldn’t imagine how, say, 100,000 people would ever see it. YouTube makes that quite achievable in 2008.
But that flatter playing field isn’t necessarily accompanied by a lot of money-wielding players. And an artist has gotta eat. YouTube and other video sites have revenue sharing programs, but I doubt even 100,000 views would generate much money. I did a few quick searches on this, but couldn’t find any sample numbers.
Email Lists and True Fans
In a lot of cases, the old economic models are shot, or in sharp decline, and we haven’t figured out new ones yet. A recent guest columnist–a musician–on the Telegraph’s blog shed some light on how his band has survived in a post-Napster world:
When we left EMI in 1995, our most recent album had sold over 300,000 units. While we were still contracted for more, EMI decided to drop us. We were no longer commercial.
Today, after the internet boom, that level of sales would get us a deal with any of the major labels. After three more badly-marketed albums with an independent label we were down to 100,000 units.
In 1999 we released our final contracted album for Castle Records and, in anticipation of the way we planned to do business in the future, called it Marillion.com. We had already collected the email addresses of more than 20,000 fans through free CDs, downloads, etc. and by asking these fans to order and pay for the upcoming CD in advance, we were able to finance the writing and recording.
The precious email list reminded me of Kevin Kelly’s excellent essay 1000 True Fans.
Indie Games Come of Age?
The video game industry has, by comparison, remained unhindered by piracy. I’m not sure why this is. I assume that the industry’s explosive growth over the last decade has more than compensated for the revenue lost to pirated games. Plus, of course, I suspect that relatively few console players have the skills or inclination to play pirated games.
In any case, I’ve seen the video game industry as kind of like Hollywood’s studio system. There are a few big publishers, and they buy development studios or license their content. Even a ‘small’ development studio would, I think, have dozens of employees.
The revolution in casual gaming, however, enables smaller teams and individuals to earn more attention. There’s a ton of free casual game sites on the web now. I don’t know how much revenue a given game creator sees from advertising, but I do know that their games are constantly copied and posted on new sites with advertising wrapped around them.
Still, I recently read about a success in the relatively new world of casual gaming on the consoles. Jonathan Blow developed a reportedly excellent game called Braid. He released it on XBox Live Arcade, an in-game system where players buy and download (I gather) generally cheap games. Braid had no in-store distribution–you can only get it through your XBox 360. It cost $15 to download the game. Via Silicon Alley Insider, I read Blow’s blog post about his first week of sales:
As I write this, there are 62,242 entries on the main leaderboards. I don’t have official sales numbers for the full week, but I would guess about 55,000 people have bought the game so far.
That works out to $825,000 in the first week. Microsoft takes a cut–possibly 33%–but that’s still terrific revenue for an independent game developer. Wikipedia provides a little information about the development process, but I’m unsure of what the budget for such a game would be, and how many people contributed to it. It’s enough, apparently, so that Blog can build another game without a day job.
I’m not sure, but I guess XBox Live Arcade and its competitors casual gaming portals can (have?) become the iTunes and YouTubes of the gaming industry, enabling the little guys to get greater distribution and, hopefully, revenue. Will indie game developers be as, on average, penniless as documentary film makers, despite their new-found distribution? Or will Johnathan Blow’s experience be repeated a thousand times over?
Clearly there are more questions than answers about the new economics of content. I mostly wrote this post to point to these two developments, and two industries at, seemingly, different stages of their evolution. For anybody interested in the background or context of these shifting tides, check out John Perry Barlow’s The Economy of Ideas and The Next Economy of Ideas.