Lend Us Your Ears: The Best Music for the Clamored Masses
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because “cool” is a show, not a tell.
By Eugene S. Robinson
“Alexa, Play Justin Bieber!” It’s the OZY office’s Thursday dance party, and apparently this Justin Bieber is what constitutes a “favorite” for folks who I’m not entirely sure aren’t just being deeply, and perhaps a little darkly, ironic. There’s a bubbly bounce to Bieber’s boy-to-man neo-postmodern take on R&B, but it sounds to me like Coke. As in Coca-Cola. Or McDonald’s. Entertainment in small packages.
You know, there’s time and a space for everything, but rarely do I have the time or the space for this kind of corporate froth. I know, I know, cranky is as cranky does, but to paraphrase William Faulkner, no one remembers Debbie Gibson. Or Tiffany. Or Taylor Dane. Or any of the dozens of corporate musical products and productions of years gone by.
I take music seriously, so I’d like to imagine its sustained power to have an impact undimmed by time or circumstance.
Which is sort of my point: I take music seriously, so I’d like to imagine its sustained power to have an impact undimmed by time or circumstance. So that’s what I listen for, and that’s really what I’m going to insist you listen to. You think Beethoven ever imagined his music would be played 190 years after he died on people’s telephones? He didn’t but it is, and so our picks? With a definite eye to the long view.
So let your ears drink deeply and forthwith, Music for the Most Bestest Part of Your Lives.
A band has to reach a certain critical mass with me. Two or three of the right people say to listen to something? I’m on it. Especially since “right” in my mind usually means people with ears to hear the music and the music around the music. Death Grips is knuckle-deep in both — agitpropsters with a marked appreciation for having their product be antiproduct used for every available surface. The sum total effect? Every record release is a thing and typically a pretty brilliant thing. So says Björk and pre-dead David Bowie. And OZY’s own Sean Culligan, whose endless hyping of them got me to listen to them on shuffle nonstop.
To call them, as some do, “alternative hip-hop” is to fail miserably to honor either. Part ranted griot, part industrial and all a new kind of soul, it’s a challenge if you’ve been messing with the mainstream. But for those of adventurous ear? It’s heavy, hard and deep. (Recommended most? 2016’s Bottomless Pit).
HAH … got you. As different from Death Grips as different could be, after a crippling crash with an SUV — she was on a bike — fashion student Melody Gardot was fucked. Stuck in a bed for a year and with a whole panoply of physical ailments that affected what she could hear and do, she started playing music by way of rewiring her neural pathways. The music had to be quiet since she was sensitive to both light and noise, and along with having to relearn how to brush her teeth, well, it all was a pretty steep lift. Out of which came? Fairly phenomenal pop-influenced jazz or jazz-influenced pop that recalls some of the vocal greats and torch-song singers of old.
But the best part about her music? It’s heavily redolent of the circumstance under which it was created — in quiet spaces of solitude — and feels super intimate and eerily private. Not just like she’s singing only for you. She is singing only for you. (Recommended most? 2009’s My One and Only Thrill).
The perfect artist upon which to spool out the The Cool Theorem, a theorem that states that what all great art has in common is a Cool Factor that puts it at once both within reach and just outside of your reach. In that space? Mystery dwells and it’s the kind of mystery that’s both fueled religion and fundamentally made religion pretty limited as an art form. (Who can tell what God says? Well everyone with a house of worship, that’s who.)
Multi-instrumentalist Barry Adamson has been cool for longer than many we know, and while we’ve been hyped on him for a while, his 2016 release, Know Where to Run, is straight up nails. With an edgy take on jazz, blues and post-punk befitting a man whose musical associations stride atop punk, Nick Cave and David Lynch, it’s a must for night drives. Or morning drives that have lasted all night. (Recommended most? 2008’s Back to the Cat).
Total disclosure? Head Xiu Xiu man Jamie Stewart and I did a musical project called SAL MINEO once upon a blue moon. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m thrilled as thrilled can be with the band’s just-released record Forget. Not only does it have Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier on it, but also it features stellar production by Angela Seo and others, and appearances by Vaginal Davis (Google her). Quirky without the usual throwaway lightness implied by the word “quirky,” Xiu Xiu makes music that in its best moments? Hurts. They call it experimental rock or art pop, which is whatever they call stuff they don’t know what to call, and the fact that ideally you can’t call it anything but Xiu Xiu? Makes it almost perfect. (Recommended most? 2017’s Forget).
Editor’s note: And while Eugene is too shy to mention it, his band OXBOW’s record Thin Black Duke is being hailed by NPR, Rolling Stone, the BBC, Vice and Pitchfork as one of the best records of 2017. Just in case you needed to know.