Listen to this track by recently departed musical envelope pusher and singularly iconic artist David Bowie. It’s “Lazarus”, the second single as taken from his excellent and final album ★, aka Blackstar.
With Bowie, you never knew what you were going to get in the best possible sense, so uniquely off-of-the-path was his route to creating some of the most innovative music in the twentieth century. Even now, the sheer magnitude of his cultural impact seems as immeasurable as it is glorious. As such, new albums from an artist of his stature always felt like something to look forward to and to dread all at the same time, post-1980. We held him in such high regard that our expectations of his work hung suspended in the stratosphere attached to a palpable fear of falling from such a great height, emotionally speaking.
Bowie’s output was not perfect. And he did let us down in varying degrees over the years, sometimes just because he followed his muse to places that made it hard for us to follow him. But with ★, he won our hearts again with a record that is both brave and innovative as well as hearkening back to tropes and themes that he’d spent his career exploring; identity, the nature of fame, isolation, displacement, and mortality. He was back! Little did any of us know upon release of the new album just how far he would go to communicate these ideas to us again, particularly in this song which turned out to be the last ever David Bowie single during his extraordinary life. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by actual rock ‘n’ roll rebels from the sahara region of northern Mali and Algeria, Tinariwen. It’s “Matadjem Yinmixan”, a key track as taken from their 2007 album, directly translated as “water is life” from the Tuareg language tamasheq native to the band . This title is perhaps of no surprise given the band’s origins, and even their name, which in English means “deserts”.
I say that they are actual rebels because the Tuareg people were involved in a war of independence in the early sixties and again in Libya in the mid-eighties, spending the ensuing years in between as a scattered people living their nomadic lives in various countries that make up northern Africa, including Mali. This is also a region known for being host to a source of the blues. In a region of the world where the desert is encrouching into farmlands every year, it’s easy to believe that the blues in several respects is alive and well on the edge of the Sahara.
But, in this case, it would be a mistake to think that Tinariwen’s music flows from this one source alone. In fact, the music they make is much like many other things in the Tuareg culture; it wanders, and picks up useful elements on its travels. Continue reading →
Listen to this track from former philosophy student turned singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole along with his cadre of musical enablers The Commotions. It’s “Perfect Skin”, their first single and a hit as taken from 1984’s Rattlesnakes. Upon it’s North American release the song would be re-mixed by Ric Ocasek of the Cars.
The song references basements and pavements in a very familiar way, written by Cole in an actual basement while living with his parents who ran a golf club in Glasgow, the same city in which Cole was going to university. The basement mentioned multiple times in this song was an allusion to the one that had appeared in another song, that being Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Maybe by the mid-eighties, source material from Dylan wasn’t exactly in the mainstream spotlight as the embers of new wave were still faintly a-glow. But, the idea of using densely arranged imagery to project the confusion of love and the uncertainty that very often goes along with it has yet to go out of style.
There’s another stream that comes out of all that in this song which is also pretty widely relatable, and taken on by songwriters of all stripes and eras; pursuit of the unattainable. Continue reading →
New years and new beginnings. In the dead of winter here in the northern hemisphere, we need that sense of a clean, snow-swept slate. But, I’m not necessarily talking about ambitious resolutions and grand statements of changing one’s ways. If that’s your position and you are committed, I applaud you. Sometimes though, it’s the small and un-Facebookable changes we make that make the most difference, and tend to be the ones that we stick with. The examples of these are many. But, let’s get down to the nitty gritty and talk about your soundtracks for 2016 as you change your life or build upon what’s best about it. What will you be listening to this winter 2016, good people?
To help you answer that question, or at least give you a wider field of play, here is a selection of new sounds from independent artists from across the musical and geographical spectrum for you to consider as you shake off the remaining rags of Yuletide, and don your New Year apparel. Read, listen, and tell me your favourites in the comments section. And perhaps what you change first this new year 2016 is your new favourite artist.
As Billy Shakespeare once said: lend me your ears!
Listen to this track by hitmaking and highly festive British glam-rock purveyors Slade. It’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”, an enormous 1973 hit single that snagged the highly coveted Christmas number one spot on the British charts that year.
The song was an amalgam of elements that writers Noddy Holder and Jim Lea had lying around, from as far back as 1967. This might explain its slightly psychedelic feel. Guitarist and singer Holder had the melody to the chorus, and bassist Lea had the melody to the verses. Holder and Lea fashioned the festive lyrics and the band recorded the song at the Record Plant in New York City in the summer of 1973.
This song would achieve more than just impressive chart showings and eventual platinum sales. Holder’s “It’s Chrrriissssstmas!!” screech would become a personal trademark for years to come during personal appearances in concert and on television. Beyond that, the song would gain a place in the DNA of a whole culture, helping to reveal the values of that culture more precisely at just the right time of year. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by former Fab Five New Romantic chart toppers from Birmingham Duran Duran. It’s “Ordinary World”, a single as taken from their self-titled 1993 album, often known as The Wedding Album due to its cover. The song was looked upon as a comeback single, helping the band reclaim their place in the top ten all over the world after a period in the desert, commercially and artistically speaking.
By the time this song was written and recorded, Duran Duran were pulling themselves out of a loss of pop chart mojo. Disappointing sales returns from the late-eighties and early into the nineties was one sign of their descent. Another was the loss of their classic line-up that brought them their best artistic and commercial returns. Guitarist Andy Taylor went solo. Drummer Roger Taylor left the music business entirely. Their bedroom wall pin-up status was getting pretty old, too. Their “duranie” fans had grown up, ready for a new decade and with newer bands to appeal to their new levels of maturity. Duran Duran had scored a number of memorable hit singles in the eighties, but by the nineties even these were looked upon as guilty pleasures by many instead of as building blocks to a lasting career. Even the video age that helped birth them into the world-beating hit machine they were was on the wane by the early nineties. Times had changed.
Yet, Duran Duran still had gas in the tank. This song met those new levels of maturity their older fan base demanded, and even enabled the band to re-invent themselves for newer fans. Because all the while, Duran Duran had grown up, too. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by former BSc student, computer programmer, and current singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. It’s “Close To Home”, a track as taken from her 2013 album Aims, her fifth.
Teng started her journey in becoming a musician at the age of five, born Cynthia Yih Shih in California to Chinese parents who’d immigrated from Taiwan. Raised on a diet of both Western and Asian pop music, along with a classical repertoire that included Beethoven and Dvorak, she distilled those influences into a sound of her own, springing from her piano, as well as from her a capella voice on some tracks. This song is something of a more band-integrated approach when it comes to the recording process. Career-wise it’s certainly an evolution from her days in balancing a school career in computer science with her efforts to write, record, and distribute her early music initially on campus. By the early two-thousands, her appearances on NPR, Letterman, CNN, and as an opening act for artists ranging from Joan Baez to India.Arie allowed her to concentrate on her music career full-time.
Yet by the end of the decade, Teng had decided to continue her studies — in Sustainablity at The Erb Institute at the University of Michigan — during the time this song and the Aims album was being conceived and recorded. Ultimately, what is actually revealed is that the split between making music and pursuing education in a new town isn’t much of a split after all. Continue reading →