Donovan - “There is a Mountain”
Sunny winter day dance break!
Instructions: put on a set of headphones with a long cord, press play, play the air tabla, dance.
Donovan - “There is a Mountain”
Sunny winter day dance break!
Instructions: put on a set of headphones with a long cord, press play, play the air tabla, dance.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - “Turn Into”
It’s terrible to compare songs. It’s like forcing children to fight. But although “Someone Like You” has become the go-to break-up song, I still prefer “Turn Into.” While Adele sings romantic boilerplate (“I couldn’t stay away/I couldn’t fight”), Karen O’s lyrics are piercing and idiosyncratic. The line “That girl you found keeps that window closed” strikes me on every playback. Who doesn’t feel that they can feel things the new boy or girl will never dream of? It’s a song of becoming: after a break-up, turning into someone as heartless as you; that new girl, turning into whatever you want; “turning all of this around behind us.” And the acoustic guitar turning into in electric guitar; a piano rising into an even higher pitched guitar. The sadness of those opening lines has imperceptibly become joy, without ever diluting or turning its back on that original feeling. Its euphoria still pricks, still draws blood.
Atlas Sound - “Te Amo”
Atlas Sound could be described as dreamy music. Cox certainly talks a lot about dreams. On “Te Amo,” he sings, “And we’ll have the same dream.” And the music lifts off into dreamy registers, tingling us with delicate, sparkling sounds and Cox’s voice, which seems to get more emotional the farther it recedes from us.
It seems to originate in Cox’s fascination with early pop music. Early pop was dream-soaked. Desire was often channelled through dreams, since it was the only place teens of the time could be alone with their lovers. For instance, “Mister Sandman” made dreaming about your lover seem like an utterly wholesome activity, one that could be safely hummed by girls with tight blonde ponytails and lips hinting at gloss. (There is even a seemingly subliminal connection in “Te Amo” to “Sandman’s” up-and-down melodic line.) But as Lynch’s take on Orbinson’s “In Dreams” demonstrates, that fifties and sixties dream-pop was never wholesome. The thin gloss was there to hide the thumping hearts, the panting sex. The act of dreaming requires you to be in bed. A dream visit by an ideal lover seems pretty close to a visit from an incubus or vampire, with all the sexual violence that implies.
Cox is a fan of Dennis Cooper – “Helicopter” was a musical version of a Cooper story – and in Cooper, dreams and fantasies aren’t just places for lust. They are places to exact revenge on the lover that can only, because of circumstances, be a dream. Cox has said that Parallax was written when he was lonely. The implication is that he was spurned. There’s a pointed irony in Cox writing a song about finding his lover and then only dreaming about him. “I’ll pretend you were the only one/and we will go to sleep,” he sings in a voice that shreds apart. Here, he seems to want to be the spurning lover, the thwarting one. It’s a revenge fantasy: now, you be the one who fantasizes. “We’ll have such strange dreams!” Cox sings. But it’s just a song after all, just another dream. Cox is still only dreaming about dreams.
We all know that to tell a dream is to lose a reader. But as Freud showed, writing about the dreams of the disturbed can be endlessly instructive. Some people, even in dreams, refuse to get fully naked. Cox has said he doesn’t want to be lumped into the chillwave kids: their layers of blissful reverb hide the nothing under their ballcaps and tank tops. The prettiness of “Te Amo,” on the other hand, envelopes Cox’s sharp, menacing voice. It feels less like lying stoned on a beach blanket than feeling the touch on your cheek of a chiffon-wrapped knife. All songs are dreams. “Te Amo” is the sort of dream that, obscured under its superficial pleasantness, scars you when you hopefully wake from it.
Britney Spears - “How I Roll”
We all love this song. But some days, it’s the only song I want to listen to, and I’m still trying to figure out why.
I think it’s the way the song uses such cheap, chintzy tactics: the “Popcorn” sound, the finger-in-the-mouth pop, the jerky handclaps, the gibberish lyrics. When her voice isn’t dying like an unplugged turntable, Britney whispers her way around the ping-ponging syllables and novelty sound effects. Britney is an undisputed club floor filler, and this song – with its posses, tequilas and burst speakers – is ostensibly in the club dance genre. But that sort of song should boss and swagger, however hollowly. Instead, “Roll” has the DIY bubblegum flavour of something the Ting-Tings might have blurted out - absent any of that band’s neurotic anxiety. I have a sense while I listen to “Roll” that I’m meant to underestimate it, that it’s meant to fly under my radar.
This is probably because, barring cyborg adjectives, Britney’s identity lately could be summed up as “somnambulist sexpot.” “How I Roll” positions this personality as a conscious choice rather than something her handlers are desperately trying to work around. After all, Britney rarely enunciates her words (is she saying “Try my love” or “Try luck tonight” or simply “Tra lah lah”?); on “Roll” it feels like delicious restraint rather than the result of a presumably Ativan-incapacitated tongue.
Even as she cheerfully sleepwalks, there is that piano chasing her down with mournful chords. It expresses what she won’t and seems to encourage her to say what she can’t. It catches up to her, pushing out that one burst where she actually, you know, sings, “If you know what it takes to be my man/We can go make love together.” It sounds like some honest oops of emotion; a return to a stronger, more human Britney. But she immediately kills that hope with the moderately shocking, “You can be my fuck tonight.” Ha ha, Britney says, I’m not here. It’s always been just the sexbot.
At this point, you are probably trying to find your way out of the song. With all of this calculated, self-conscious decadence, it feels like if you can just understand the structure of “Roll” you’ll be able to understand why it exists. Where the heart is. Whether the heart exists. But the song, fragmented and interested only in perpetuating its jittery self, won’t let you clearly uncover the markers of versus, chorus, bridge. You can’t find the centre. You just get more boms, more shimmies, more strange male-sounding voices (Bloodshy? Pitch-shifted Britney?) overlapping each other and jostling the listener forward. Once the song has ended, you start it again, trying to untangle the threads to the centre of the maze. There’s something trapped in here. Something perhaps important. (Britney? Nothing?)
But you can’t put your finger on it. The seams are too strong. The centre, hidden, does hold. You can only endlessly worry “Roll” around, hoping it’ll eventually crack itself open.
Rewards - “Equal Dreams (feat. Solange)”
For me, the excitement of disco - compared to other forms of dance music - is that disco songs create tension through the re-arrangement of certain common elements. Generally, I don’t really expect to hear new sounds or rhythms from a disco track. I want to feel the new space it is creating. A space that is differentiated from other disco songs by the arrangement of these elements. It’s a music of restraint, where novelty is intentionally more difficult to produce.
Since the arrangement becomes paramount, disco songs succeed or fail based on their creation of tension. Tension works best when points are pulled farthest from each other. When the discrete elements contrast each other. Or, surprisingly, when they seem opposite but yet complement each other.
The joy of “Equal Dreams” is the way the song seems to spin through the chunky thump of the walking beat through the side-to-side movement of the mid range synths, to the light pattering of the flute-like sounds, and at the end, the itchy twitch of the guitar. The two voices create a similar effect, doubling and contrasting each other: one above and one below; a rough-voiced male (Aaron Pfenning) and a sweet and ascending female voice (Solange). The sounds create fullness without filling the space with undifferentiated noise. The song feels like, for me, riding a horse through a forest. Points shift and whirl around the listener, but always reveal new startling vistas.
These contrasting points align sometimes suddenly - such as when Pfenning’s breathy voice cracks apart and Solange’s seems to emerge from it, clear, soaring, whole. And that’s when it feels like the order of the forest, the order of the song, seems to map some higher world upon itself. Your hand is not the horse is not the trees, but there is an enormous violent power lurking in the spaces holding it altogether. Disco is the re-arrangement of discrete common elements; it is the creation of a space that could be mistaken for heaven.
New Order - “Temptation (Live)”
There are people who think Joy Division is better than New Order, and I am sorry for them, because they are so very very wrong. Every day, there are dozens of reasons to feel hopeless. And sometimes, there’s only one to make us hopeful. New Order’s songs are often on that knife edge between hopelessness and hopeful, when what seemed bleak reveals itself to be something miraculous. But they’re not naive, either. The hopeful is confused and wrong. The narrator of this song can’t even remember what colour eyes you have, but he’s still ecstatic about meeting you. And that’s the truth. Our happiness is based on ignorance and lies - on a completely transitory amnesia of everything that’s ugly - but that fact doesn’t make the happiness, the ecstasy of “Temptation” any less fucking amazing.
I hereby authorize you to put “I’ve never met anyone quite like you before” on my tombstone, along with all the “oooOOOoooOOOOooo”s.
New Order - “Blue Monday”
My family is a family of pop music lovers. My mother’s family is from Liverpool, so I spent several spring months of my childhood visiting them. And while we were in Liverpool, we’d have lunch after visiting the Beatles museum and meet the punks hanging outside of the Cavern. At my aunt’s house, they’d throw dance parties to welcome my Mom and me. We’d dance to “She Loves You,” but also Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and "Spirit in the Sky" (the Doctor and the Medics version). My aunt’s dog was named Rebel, so while we were dancing, the dog would run crazy around the living room, and we’d sing “Rebel, Rebel.”
Back at home, my brother was wearing one leather glove and curling his lip like Billy Idol. Later, he’d introduce me to dozens of bands from his room papered with posters for the Cure, the Cult, Siouxie and the Banshees, Sinead O’Connor. My sister first listened to Duran Duran - I remember her snatching the remote control and commandeering the television to watch the premiere of the “Reflex” video - and later, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys and Black Box. My female cousins were in a band called Brigadoon. They were - are - excellent musicians, and they’d play Kate Bush and the Pretenders for us. For years, I was in love with “Fire” without having any idea it was by Springsteen for the Pointer Sisters (or that it was about rape). It was just what my cousin would sing beside the campfire with her guitar, and it was beautiful and that was that.
So, for years, I was surrounded by pop music. So much so, that I resented it. Pop music is nothing without personal resonances, and all of these songs seemed to be enmeshed in other people’s ideas and interpretations. I was the youngest in a very loud, noisy family with strong opinions about everything, and it was difficult for me to create a vision of myself through these songs. And apart from a few like “Fire,” I can’t even say that I really liked or disliked these songs that my brother and sister and cousins and aunts liked. They were the background to my life with them. It would be like saying that I liked or disliked my aunt’s smell or the touch of her hands. Sure, I might feel either way about these things, but it’s immaterial to how I feel about her. And it would seem wrong to even talk about it.
I eventually found a way to music that I could call mine. First through the things that no one would claim: Paula Abdul and C+C Music Factory. Then, mainly through new stuff. Most of it built on the things my brother liked: Suede, REM, Elastica, Nirvana, Eric’s Trip. My friends and I would go on about some older things occasionally, but I generally avoided anything that hadn’t been released while I was a teenager. Those older bands, although theoretically “great” - I could agree to that - felt blown out, used up.
For instance, my sister and brother argued a lot, but they could agree on their preference for New Order. I remember the white cover of the LP of Substance sitting like a talisman in their record collections. Its crisp blankness seemed to suggest that there was wild magic inside. But when they played it, and I passed by their room and heard it, all I heard was oh great there’s Blue Monday again. It was hard to imagine how something so familiar could offer me anything of interest.
There’s this idea that when great works of art are silent to you for a long time, and then they finally speak, it’s because you suddenly “get them.” You were too immature before; now you are wise enough to understand them. I don’t think that’s true. I think that silent works speak when you finally have a place for them in your life. When they can be useful in explaining yourself to yourself.
I remember the first time I “got” “Blue Monday” - the first time I heard that song and it suddenly meant something to me. I was in my second year of University. I was sad and confused this year. I’ve written about it in more detail before, so I won’t explore it now. But in that year, I woke up every day with an alarm tuned to the local “alternative” music station. It happened that one morning they played “Blue Monday.” They probably played “Blue Monday” every four days. But on that day, while I slowly woke up with the winter sun struggling to light up my room, snuggling in the covers for just five minutes more, as that distinctive bass, drums and keyboard intro rolled itself out and then Bernard Sumner sang, “I see a ship in the harbour/I can and shall obey,” I saw something new. I saw a ship in a harbour - not literally of course - I just imagined a ship in a harbour. And I felt it ring up some part of the dull loneliness I felt that year and thought - indistinctly, but approximately - maybe I can fit this song into my life.
Maybe that’s why we call them “great songs.” Not because they have particularly insightful emotions behind them, or are crafted impeccably. But because they can easily shrug off whatever layers of accumulated thoughts and feelings others have overlaid on them, and can become something new and frightening for us. “Blue Monday” is frightening. It is complexly cold. It’s a song that makes you wonder how it fits together. And listening to it on that morning over a decade ago, it felt like no one else had heard it. Or actually, really heard it. It was just me and “Blue Monday” and that staccato drum beat and spooky choir. No one else but me. I don’t know what it told me about myself, but it was something hard and alien and it showed some sharp, flat colours - a room in myself I had never seen before. And I guess that’s why it spoke: without “Blue Monday,” I could never have even known that room existed. Or stranger, that I might have never created that room for it to exist in me. I might have never known that it could be possible to be so alien and complexly cold, and to find that valuable.
And it’s only been me and “Blue Monday” ever since.
Elton John - “Are You Ready for Love?”
Most songs about looking for love portray it as a lack. Elton’s “Are You Ready For Love?” - possibly my favorite of his songs - portrays it as an overflowing of potentiality. When we’re looking for love, it’s difficult to imagine ourselves as being able to offer anything. It feels like the other person is going to give us everything we need. But of course, exploding with possibilities is what makes us most attractive to someone else. “Are you ready for love?” The trick is that love is waiting for us, trying to get in. Can you hear it knocking?
Kylie Minogue - “Come Into My World (Fischerspooner Remix)” - “Live” on TOTP
Sure, she’s lip-syncing. But I never imagined that she’d get even this close to performing this remix live. So my discovery of this video is mildly exploding my brains right now.
Junior Boys - “In the Morning”
This song is, without a quibble, one of my favorites from the decade that just ended. (I’ve loved it so much that I’ve written about it already.) It has a nice heft, flick and swing. The light and tight guitars and sparkling, bubbling synthesized sounds contrast with the beat as it swoops through the lower registers like an industrial piston. And the lyrics capture something odd. They’re from the viewpoint of someone who feels the young are somehow unformed, and essentially inhuman: “In the morning there’s a million names to choose from/You don’t care just take one.” If the young are beautiful, it makes sense that they’d be terrifying. Beauty is frightening because it doesn’t care about how unbeautiful its lovers are.
What I noticed recently was its use of a sampled, orgasmic panting. I love when songs use this sort of sample - from Fischerspooner’s remix of Kylie’s “Come Into My World” to Britney’s “Piece of Me” - but what’s great about it here is that it’s a dude’s voice. In that context, “In the Morning” has a definite subterranean connection to Prince’s “Kiss.” Sure, Prince’s panting is live, not sampled, and more like actual singing. But the rest of it is there: the beat that leaves rattling and tinkling in its wake, the high strung guitar, the crispness of its component parts. I suppose it’s not surprising that any song that successfully expresses sophisticated yet animalistic heterosexual male desire would have to be a bit of a respectful rip of one of the Purple One’s best songs.