Listen to this track by canny pop song strategists and performance art doyens The KLF, featuring the First Lady of Country herself, Tammy Wynette. It’s “Justified & Ancient”, a tune that features on their 1991 album The White Room and on its own as a single version. After this song was released with notable chart showings all over the world, there were no more singles from the group at all. In fact, they deleted their own catalogue in the UK!
The KLF was a meta pop group more so than the real thing. The whole project seemed to be an active parody of the pop industry process, inventing a whole vocabulary and mythology around itself. The “band” was made up of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, both of whom were on the British music and theatre scenes at various levels since the mid-1970s. They started this project under the name JAMs (that’s Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu) by the late eighties.
By 1991, this single referenced their history and was something of a closed circle for them as their last ever single connected to the JAMs/KLF project. It certainly had a positive impact on Tammy Wynette in a very measurable way, while also being indicative of an approach to pop music as art where Drummond and Cauty were concerned all around. Read more
Listen to this track by Boston-born disco queen and original dance-pop music diva Donna Summer. It’s “I Feel Love”, the breakthrough 1977 electro-dance hit as produced by Italian producer and musician Giorgio Moroder . It would appear on her fifth album, I Remember Yesterday and as a 12 inch extended single (an innovation of her label, Casablanca), which is what you’re hearing now. It would appear in multiple re-mixes over the years.
Legend has it that Brian Eno and David Bowie discovered the song while in the middle of making the Berlin Trilogy, convincing even them of what dance music would sound like in the ensuing decades. They were right on the money, of course. Along with being thoroughly innovative, this song was also a huge pop hit that immediately appealed to the masses. It scored top ten status all over the world and effectively solidified Donna Summer’s star status at just the right time, which was the height of the disco period.
Amazingly too, it paved the way for modern club music in general by freeing it from the world of American R&B, and introducing decidedly European influences instead. Its influence would have a lasting impact well beyond disco, particularly where music technology was concerned, but for many other reasons, too. Read more
Listen to this track by post-rocking, cinematically inclined Oxfordian quintet Radiohead. It’s “Daydreaming”, a single as taken from the band’s ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, released digitally a little over one month ago. The new record will be available in CD and in vinyl form by June 17, which is coming up fast. A special edition with two more tracks is to follow in September.
The accompanying video, starring singer Thom Yorke walking through corridors and opening doors that lead into disconnected locations was directed by none other than P.T Anderson, known for films like Magnolia and Boogie Nights. The director had previously worked with Radiohead orchestral linchpin and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, whose soundtrack work is featured in several of Anderson’s films.
In a similar fashion, the video for this song was approached as a bona fide film project, submitted to selected theatres directly as 35mm prints. I think this song as it is portrayed in the film is very much in line with what Radiohead have explored previously, namely the nature of existence and where we seem to be going as a civilization. Read more
Listen to this track by Bristolian trip-hop representatives along with one-time Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil chanteuse Elizabeth Fraser. It’s “Teardrop”, the second single off of their, well, massive 1998 album Mezzanine. It remains to be their most commercially succesful set. Not bad for the supposed difficult third album, although it would prove to be difficult in other ways.
By the time of this album’s release, a couple of things had changed. First, trip hop as a genre was morphing, including more ambient electronica textures and traditional rock/pop structures. Second, things had become tense between the three members of the band, with conflicting priorities and contradictory directions in the studio delaying this album’s release. Founding member Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles would depart during this period, due to the dreaded “creative differences”. One of those differences was being voted down for his assertion that the band should work with another singer on this track instead of Fraser; Madonna, who was excited to work with Massive Attack on this song. What would that have sounded like?
Yet, this song belied all the strife that surrounded the making of this record, in part thanks to the distinct and serene quality of Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal, with lyrics written by her. Those lyrics have been (mis)heard and (mis)interpreted by listeners many years after its release. Maybe what makes this song so special is that it somehow goes past literal meaning completely anyway, and moves into an area of meaning where words aren’t even the point. Read more
Listen to this track by Icelandic former Sugarcubes frontwoman turned electronica art pop maven Björk. It’s “Hidden Place”, the first single as taken from her highly acclaimed 2001 album Vespertine, released in the summer of that year. The album would go onto many a best-of-the-decade list, and stand as a significant change in artistic direction for its author.
The record was created while Björk was engaged in the creation of the soundtrack for the movie she starred in at the time, that being Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark. The movie was screened at the Cannes film festival in 2000, where Björk won an award for Best Actress. Along with the critical accolades however, her experience on the shoot was purportedly tense. Von Trier’s tight control of the project rankled against her own creative impulses in the lead role. As a result, Vespertine could be looked upon as an equal and opposite reaction to the action of starring in her first (and possibly last) feature film with another artist in Von Trier at the helm.
This wasn’t just about control. It was also about tone. In the movie, Björk’s character Selma after whom the companion album Selmasongs is named is an extroverted and driven character who becomes the tragic victim of circumstance. If this song has a character at the center of it, then she could be considered Selma’s opposite; a langourously relaxed, insular, and contented person. This is due to another force in Björk’s life at the time; new love. Read more
Listen to this track by Australian thrift shop denizens and razor-sharp sampling jesters The Avalanches. It’s their 2000 hit “Frontier Psychiatrist”, as taken from their (to date) sole full length record Since I Left You. The song would place on UK and US charts by 2001, providing critical and commercial success.
It’s difficult to broadly apply the term “songwriting” to this track in the traditional sense, just because it is made up entirely of found recordings from across a variety of recorded music streams. This includes comedy recordings, with the central one being Canadian comedy team Wayne & Shuster’s titular sketch which is heavily quoted, along with sound effects records, instructional recordings, Mariachi music, film scores, movie dialogue (John Waters’ Polyester to be exact), and sixties Enoch Light Orchestra flourishes all mixed in to make a glorious whole. How this was not a complete mess is a tribute to how deftly arranged the samples actually are. Sampling nay-sayers take note: not everyone can do this well.
I think another aspect of this song that is worth noting is that it helpfully undercuts what electronica and dance music had come to mean by the beginning of the century. A big part of that has to do with its varied and often unexpected source material, of course. But, another aspect of what makes this tune stand out is simply this: it’s hilarious! Read more
Listen to this track by Braintree, Essex crossover hit makers and controversy-stirring dance floor urchins The Prodigy. It’s “Firestarter”, their monster dance hit that scored top ten placements on the British pop charts, and serving as the first single from the band’s 1996 record Fat Of The Land.
That album was a breakthrough into the mainstream for the burgeoning dance scene that had existed in various forms in Essex for many years. By the mid-to-late nineties, it provided something of a stylistic ballast during the height of the Brit-pop period. The Prodigy reminded music fans that there was more on offer when it came to making impactful music than guys with guitars, and that there was more to dance music than sanitized beats and thin synth riffs.
The Prodigy were dogged with controversy over many aspects of their presentation and their content. With this song, maybe controversy was stirred up because of the video, and the meaning of what a “firestarter” really is, too. Read more
Listen to this track by turntablist poster boy and instrumental hip hop auteur DJ Shadow. It’s “Midnight In A Perfect World”, a single as taken from the seminal record released in the fall of 1996 that kicked off a genre, Endtroducing. That record garnered near universal praise across the critical spectrum at the time, noted as much for its technical achievements as it was for the eerie and evocative atmospheres for which it is now known.
The album was created solely by its author, fuelled by raiding a local record store, Rare Records in Sacramento, in between work on the tracks, including this one. The cover of the album is pretty true to how it was made, searching the racks for grooves and textures, and then carrying them by the armful back home to be repositioned and transformed into a work that would establish a career and reputation for DJ Shadow, born Joshua Evans. The tools he had to hand to create this song were a sampler, a turntable, and a tape recorder. They were enough to garner not only rave reviews and sales, but also a Guinness World Book of Records entry for first album to be comprised solely of samples.
In an age before Garage Band, this was a neat trick. But, this song and the rest of the album is far, far more than an amazing technical feat, although it certainly is that. It was the beginning of a new paradigm that generated all kinds of discussions about something in pop music that is rarely considered; context and how it relates to the way we hear the music within one, as well as the nature of what it is to “write” a song in the first place. Read more
Listen to this track by studio wunderkind hailing from Dundas Ontario and now proud Londoner, Dan Snaith, AKA Caribou. It’s “Melody Day”, a kaleidoscopic slice of fantastical neo psychedelia re-imagined as a folktronic piece as taken from 2007’s Andorra.
The record was looked upon as his best work under the Caribou name (he’d previously gone by “Manitoba” until The Dictators’ “Handsome Dick” Manitoba took issue …). It was the winner of the 2008 Polaris Music Prize, going up against acts like Basia Bulat, Black Mountain, and Stars, among others, which certainly indicates its considerable quality.
The song itself hearkens back to a time when pop music was expanding inwardly as times were a-changin’ in the mid-1960s; think late-period The Zombies, Soft Machine, and Syd-era Pink Floyd. This Anglicized style of yesteryear may or may not be a result of a move that Snaith made from Canada to London in 2001, where many a great British psych record was made. Regardless, Snaith is a modern artist, using the tools of his own era to somehow evoke the spirit of that earlier analogue era, which is no mean feat. This certainly shows that the sound of the past can still make an impact, regardless of the tools it takes to make it.
Snaith may have used another arrow in his quiver as well, of course; his PhD in Math! Read more
Listen to this track by former Roxy Music member, producer, and ambient art rock forseer Brian Eno. It’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”, a song as featured on his landmark 1975 album Another Green World.
When not playing the songs on the album completely by himself, he is joined by some luminary musicians from the prog and art rock camp, including Robert Fripp (who plays the squiggly guitar break on this tune), John Cale, and Phil Collins of Genesis, one of the many bands to which Eno would lend his sought-after production skills.
Eno’s feel for texture in the producer’s seat would also inform this record, which was looked upon as a crossroads album away from rock songs, albeit ones with unexpected angles, and into a more experimental space where minimalist mood pieces were more central. This song is one of five out of fourteen that contains lyrics, for instance.
There is a lot of talk about experimentation when artists put out records that diverge from the pop song plot. But, the question in this case is, was the experiment a success? Read more