High Impact Albums of 2007

In my last post, I detailed the ten albums that earned the highest ratings from me during 2007. But while I did find them each to be fantastic recordings, ratings don’t necessarily reflect popularity. That is to say that the most highly rated albums might not have been the most often played.

Indeed that’s not the case. I took data from the past year and ran it through my Impact report, which measures the relationship between total play counts and the number of songs an album or artist has in my library in order to see who has received the most attention relative to their size

While the results show some significant overlap with the top rated list (of course I listen to what I like), it turns out that being highly rated doesn’t necessarily guarantee a lot of playing. So without further ado, here are the albums that made the biggest splash last year.

1 Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Impact Rating: 1072

Showing Trent Reznor at his best, Year Zero received significant airplay throughout the year, enough to earn it the title of “Tunequest’s Most Impactful Album of 2007.”

2 Air – Pocket Symphony

Impact Rating: 1064

I listened to Pocket Symphony in a huge burst after its March release and kinda petered out over the remainder of the year. Still, that initial burst was enough to coast to a second place ranking.

3 Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight

Impact Rating: 1021

Rilo Kiley is one of a handful of musical acts that both the modernista and I actively like. It should be no surprise then that despite its late summer release, Under the Blacklight was in heavy rotation for the duration of autumn, so much so that it claimed the number three spot.

4 The Polish Ambassador – Diplomatic Immunity

Impact Rating: 936

The Ambassador’s debut disc broke into my brain early last year and left a substantial wake in its path. Our intergalactic diplomat’s electrogrooves are really really catchy. In my library for nearly the entire year, Diplomatic Immunity garnered the most play counts of any album I acquired in 2007.

5 Radiohead – In Rainbows

Impact Rating: 355

Radiohead’s revolutionary distribution may have brought the record to my ears, but its quality kept it playing again and again. Though In Rainbows narrowly missed my Top Rated Albums of 2007, it was listened to enough to become the fifth highest impactful album of the year, quite a feat considering the early October release of disc one and the early December release of disc two.

Also of note, here we see a huge drop in impact ratings between places 4 and 5. It’s clear that the top four were the breakaway albums of the year. Those four albums were responsible for 20% of the impact points generated among new aquisitions last year. Which means that either those albums are fantastically good (and they are) or I need to diversify my habits a bit (which I probably do). But hey the ears like what they like.

Moving on:

6 David Arnold: Casino Royale

james bond casino royale 2006

Impact Rating: 338

I’ve been checking in on David Arnold’s film works every so often since the late 90s, when I discovered his score for the original Stargate film. Since then his scores have continued to impress me, especially his work for the James Bond franchise. His composition for Casino Royale, the 2006 re-booting of the Bond character, is perhaps his finest contribution yet. Lush, inviting and full of suspense and action, Casino Royale projects the best of the Bond musical heritage with a suave confidence that’s the hallmark of the character. But it adds its own unique motifs and ambience, keeping it from sounding like a re-hash of John Barry’s seminal soundtracks.

A highlight of the record is I’m The Money, a short 27-second track. But those 27 seconds are filled with the distlled essense of the entire score and they evoke the predominate atmosphere of the film as well, from the exotic and intriguing to the dark and dangerous.

I’m The Money:

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The more I listen to this one, the more I might think it’s the best score of Arnold’s carreer and perhaps the best in the entire James Bond series.

Rounding out the Top Ten Impactful albums of 2007

All the remaining records also appear on my Top Rated 07 list.

7 Susumu Yokota – Symbol Impact Rating: 335
8 Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon Impact Rating: 324
9 The Polish Ambassador – The Phantasmal Farm Impact Rating: 301 (A good year for the Ambassador around here)
10 The Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist Impact Rating: 261

For those would would like a baseline, the average impact for all records acquired in 2007 was 68, while the median was 16. Additional math shows me that the top 20 records were responsible for just more than half the impact ratings generated throughout the year. So I’ve resolved this year to show some more consideration with my musical choices. Last year’s massive influx of new tunes was largely a response to having neglected many new records and trends in music while partaking in the original tunequest. This year I’ve decided to purposefully not seek out too many new records and spend more time with the ones I do get.

So, here’s to tunequest 2008, whatever form it may take.

Tunequest 2007 Albums of the Year

Another year come, another year gone.

After spending 2006 evaluating the status of my iTunes library and trimming some fat, I took the opportunity in 2007 to explore a lot of new material. And I must say that overall it was a pretty good year for both my library and for music in general. I had added 1,891 songs to my library by the end of October, which marks the fifth largest library expansion since I started collecting music. At that point, I decided it was time to start evaluating my acquisitions.

2007 was a year of rock in tunequestland. Each year seems to bring me another fascinating tangent of audio to explore in detail. In 2004, it was classical music and in 2005 it was audiobooks, podcasts and other learning materials, an itch that already seems to be acting up for 2008. But for 2007, rock was the operative mode, so much so that I’ve picked up a significant air-guitar habit. Nearly 50% of my library additions fell within the genre, with all other forms of music splitting the remain 50%.

Around here, the year was also a big one for newly-released music. 22% of my new acquisitions were released in 2007, while 50% were released between 2005 and 2007. Perish the though that there is no good music these days. That sentiment might apply to some corporate-backed music, but in total there is more good music released everyday than a single person can keep up with. I’ve already got a huge backlog of albums I didn’t get around to listening to by October.

But forget the stuff I didn’t listen to, what about the music I did? Read on for the albums, artists and songs that made for tunequest 2007. First, some numbers:

2007 By the Numbers

Applies to all new music added to my library during 2007. As a subset of my library in general, these figures do not include ratings, play counts and other stats from 2006 and earlier.

Total Songs: 1,891
Total Play Time: 5 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes, 1 second
Total Play Counts: 4,815
Avg Play Count per song: 2.55
Median Play Count per song: 2
Total Listening Time: 14 days, 3 hours, 35 minutes, 40 seconds
Avg Song Length: 4:26
Median Song Length: 4:01

Top Albums

I pulled out my trusty definitive* rating formula and ran this year’s selections through it. Here’s what it spit out:

The absolute best release I found this year:

Bonobo’s Live Sessions EP

Bonobo Live Sessions

Released in 2005, the EP fleshes out Bonobo’s attractive studio work with robust live arrangements. The energetic atmosphere of hypnotic future jazz presented on the disc earns it a phenomenal 4.58 / 5 stars. Music rarely gets better than when the live cut of Nothing Owed bursts to life from its humble introduction.

But since EPs are ineligible for Album of the Year ratings–their low track counts skew the results–here is the official list of the music that rocked my world this year.

1 Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon

pink floyd dark side of the moon

dark side of the moon at itunes music compact disc

Sacrilege I know! But before this year I had never listened to Pink Floyd, save for a small part of The Wall that I saw a friend’s house while in high school. At some point over the summer though, I figured there must be something to 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, since it’s become the de facto standard for judging the success of a new recording medium and that the record was in the U.S. Top 100 records for nearly 30 continuous years.

Turns out that two generations worth of music lovers aren’t wrong. This thing is fantastic. Expertly-crafted, catchy, thought-provoking and teeming with existential quandaries, the record quickly became one of my favorites of the year. Highlights: the haunting mortality implicit in Time and the swagger of Money. Then there’s all the air-guitaring again.

4.51 / 5 stars

2 Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero

nine inch nails year zero

year zero at itunes year zero compact disc

Trent Reznor was in the news a lot in 07, from publicly insulting his record company to encouraging his fans to steal his music to setting up a website for people to exchange homemade remixes of his songs. Ignore all that. His real achievement this year was Year Zero, the nightmarish dystopian concept album that broke out into the real world.

Beyond marketing games though, Year Zero features some of Trent’s tightest and most clever songwriting. From the straight-ahead bombast of The Beginning of the End to the almost-hymnal Zero-sum, this record doesn’t disappoint.

4.24 / 5 stars

Download Zero-sum

3 Bonobo: Days to Come

bonobo days to come

days to come compact disc

More accolades around here for Bonobo’s particular brand of laid back energy with 2006’s Days to Come. Bonobo’s music gets more complex with each release and this one is 51 minutes of pure brilliance. Watch out for the pairing of Nightlite and Transmission94. Swingy jazz, melancholic brass and clever rhythms held together by superb production.

3.97 / 5 stars

4 Maserati: Inventions for the New Season

maserati inventions for the new season

maserati compact disc

Athens, Ga-based postrock outfit Maserati piles on thick layers of instrumental delight on 2007’s Inventions for the New Season. Crisp, melodious and spirited, this record is the band’s best yet. It almost like the soundtrack to the best roller-coaster ride of your life.

3.93 / 5 stars

5 Les Baxter: African Blue: Exotic Rhythms of Les Baxter

les baxter african blue

compact disc

I’ve had a soft spot for master of exotica and light classical composer Les Baxter since I stumbled upon his rendition of Calcutta nearly ten years ago. Being a master of course, Baxter delivers his own unique lounge-inspired spin on traditional African music on African Blue. The version I got from eMusic (bundled with Colors of Brazil) was re-issued in 1993, but I haven’t been able to track down the original release date. It probably dates to the late 1960s.

No matter, it sounds good regardless of when it came from. African Blue might be inspired by the sounds of the Dark Continent, but it could hardly get more chic. The woodwinds and percussion on Zebra are to die for.

3.9 / 5 stars

Listen to Zebra:

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6 Susumu Yokota: Symbol

susumu yokota - symbol

Get it on iTunes Get it at Amazon symbol

Japanese sound-bender Susumu Yokota infatuated me in a big way near the beginning of the year. His ability to not just make beautiful music, but make and harness beautiful sounds–building blocks of music–captivated me almost instantly. On 2005’s Symbol, Yokota takes his inspiration from a wide spectrum of classical music heritage, directly sampling a mashing together multiple works and styles. It’s breath-taking. The Steve Reich meets Claude Debussy and a plethora of other composers on Blue Sky And Yellow Sunflower strikes my fancy like you can’t imagine.

Even the song titles are poignant and beautiful on this record.

3.87 / 5 Stars

7 The Polish Ambassador: The Phantasmal Farm

The Phantasmal Farm

When it was put on the internet as a free download in July 2007, The Phantasmal Farm was the second full-length album released in the span of six months by the inter-dimensional envoy of electrogroovocity, The Polish Ambassador. Some people might assume that such a rapid-fire release rate would have affected the quality of the music. But not in this case. The Ambassador’s powers are mighty and The Phantasmal Farm’s beats, grooves and mind-blowing electrotunes actually edge out the score of The Ambassador’s debut record, Diplomatic Immunity (which I thought was pretty damn awesome), by 0.12 points.

By downloading this record, not only will you experience some of the most seductive and mesmerizing electrofunk you might ever hear, you’ll be helping to preserve the Phantasmal Farm itself, which can only persist if people remember it. When you’re there, check out When The Robo B-Boys Just Kill It and Astro-American Anthem, then just try to keep from dancing.

3.86 / 5 Stars

When The Robo B-Boys Just Kill It

8 Rilo Kiley: Under the Blacklight

rilo kiley under the blacklight

under the blacklight at itunes under the blacklight under the blacklight at amazon

The fifth album and major label debut from Los Angeles rock troubadours Rilo Kiley has been totally rocking my house since its August 2007 release. While not all the songs rank among the band’s greatest, Under the Blacklight is probably their most well-rounded record. I made note in my review that it’s the band’s most rock-focused release to date. That suits me just fine, considering my current regard for rock music.

Initially my favorite track was the disc’s opener, Silver Lining. Having had more time to listen to Under the Blacklight, I’ve since discovered that I’m partial to Dreamworld, which is unusual because it’s one of Blake’s songs, and I’ve been less disposed toward his writings.

3.84 / 5 Stars

9 Air [french band]: Pocket Symphony

air pocket symphony

air pocket symphony at itunes pocket symphony air pocket symphony at amazon

The first Air album in three years arrived to eagerly waiting ears in March 2007. Though not much groundbreaking this time around, Pocket Symphony is a strong album nonetheless. If anything, the record is more sullen in character than anything the duo has produced in the past. Still, it is exquisitely lush in composition and well worth attention. Left Bank and Mer du Japon are particularly lovely.

3.84 / 5 Stars

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10 The Smashing Pumpkins: Zeitgeist

smashing pumpkins zeitgeist

zeitgeist compact disc

The Pumpkins came back in 2007, after breaking up in 2000, and there was much trepidation around these parts as to whether this new era of smashingness would be substantial or meaningless hype. Turns out that the trepidation was ill-founded, because Zeitgeist freakin rocks. Taut songs presented straightforwardly equals rock heaven. Tarantula was a hit from the first radio-capped bootleg I snagged off the Internet and Doomsday Clock freakin blows my doors off. that’s right, I said ‘freakin’ twice. that’s how good this is.

3.81 / 5 Stars

I found all these albums to be well worth my attention this past year. Give them a listen and you find that they are well worth yours as well.

In search of a definitive album rating formula

When it comes to my iTunes library, I’m a regular statistics nut. Sure, my library exists primarily for my own enjoyment, but it contains so much organically-compiled data about my habits and tastes that I can’t help but want to take a look at it and find out what the data says about my interests.

But for a while now, I’ve struggled to quantify, tabulate and analyze the overall sense of my library. Which of my albums albums are truly the greatest? Which artists, when the sum of their parts are combined, are really my favorites? And by how much? I want numbers.

None of the iTunes stats options available at the moment give me the type of results that I want. The Album Ranking AppleScript provides a simple average that skews toward albums with fewer tracks. SuperAnalyzer provides a top 10 list that is skewed toward albums with more tracks.

Most iTunes stats tools simply provide averages or totals of play counts and/or star ratings. Averages, while somewhat useful, can be misleading. An album could have a handful of awesome songs and a bunch of filler and still rank as well as and album that’s consistently good, but without much breakout material.

And that can be frustrating to me, because, in terms of album or artist worth, I tend to value the ones with consistent performance.

Take, for example, my recent run-down of Air’s discography, specifically the albums 10000 Hz Legend and The Virgin Suicides. After many years of listening, my artistic impression is that Virgin Suicides is ever so slightly the better of the two. The songs on Legend vary from excellent to clunkers. Suicides is overall pretty good, with only one exceptional track. However, averaging my ratings shows that Suicides is a 3.85 while Legend rates as an even 4.

So, to reward albums that don’t veer wildly around the quality wheel, I’ve developed my own album rating formula that takes into account the consistency of all the star ratings on a given album.

The Formula

album rating = (mean of all songs + median of all songs) - standard deviation of the set

The mean sums up the whole of the album. The median shows the state of the album at its core. The standard deviation indicates the variety of the individual ratings. The result is a number on a scale of 1 to 10. (Alternately, divide that number by 2 to return the result to a 5-star scale).

Let’s take a look at the formula in action. Suppose we have two albums with twelve songs each. The first is generally excellent, but varies in quality. The second is good stuff throughout.

Ex. 1 Ex. 2
5 4
4 4
5 4
2 4
4 4
5 4
5 4
2 4
5 4
3 4
5 4
3 4
Mean 4 4
Median 4.5 4
total 8.5 8
STDEV 1.21 0
Score 7.29 8

This table shows the individual star ratings for the two theoretical albums, as well as all the statistical data, as calculated by Excel. As you can see, both albums average score is the same (4) and Ex 1 even has a higher median than Ex 2. But, because the quality of Ex 1’s songs vary a great deal, its standard deviation is substantial, so much so that its album rating becomes 7.29 (or 3.645 on a 5-star scale) when my formula is applied. Ex 2’s score suffers no penalty and its score remains 8 (4). In this case, the standard deviation awarded Ex 2 a bonus for being of uniform quality.

Let’s take a real world example, the two Air albums I mentioned above.

10 kHz Legend Virgin Suicides
4 4
5 4
4 4
5 3
5 3
4 4
3 5
4 4
3 4
3 4
4 4
4
3
Mean 4 3.84
Median 4 4
 
total 8 7.84
 
STDEV 0.77 0.55
 
Score 7.23 7.29

When the formula is applied to my ratings for each, the scores for 10000 Hz Legend and The Virgin Suicides become 7.23 (3.62) and 7.29 (3.65), respectively. So factoring in the standard deviation results in a score that more closely reflect my thoughts of those two albums.

So what does this mean? I’m not sure exactly. In practice, I could whip up some listy goodness and see which albums are truly my favorites. A comprehensive analysis would be cool. I’d love to see the distribution of my album ratings. However, that would require more programming skills than I have. Though that could be a good project to help me learn.

Out of curiosity though, I have picked 10 albums, just to see how they rate. One provision, of course, is that every song on an album must have a rating before the album score can be calculated. These ratings are on a 5-star scale.

AVG My Score
Radiohead – OK Computer 4.5 4.41
Air [french band] – Moon Safari 4.5 4.39
Nirvana – Nevermind 4.5 4.24
Mouse on Mars – Radical Connector 4.33 4.23
Ratatat – Ratatat 4.45 3.97
Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth 4.31 3.77
The Strokes – Is this it? 4.09 3.7
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem 4 3.68
Basement Jaxx  –  Remedy 3.73 3.51
Prefuse 73 – One Word Extinguisher 3.82 3.47
Weezer – Make Believe 3.58 3.21

This is by no means a top 10 list, but it is interesting to see where things ended up. It’s also interesting to see how minor fluctuations in star ratings can change the final score. For instance, if that Ratatat album had one more 5 star song in place of a 4 star song, its median number would become 5 and its album score would jump to 4.51. Lower a 5 star to a 4 star and the score only drops slightly to 3.93. I don’t know if this is a flaw in the formula or a reward for albums that have a lot of good songs.

Problems and issues

Small data sets. These are troublesome in all statistical circumstances and this formula is no different. Albums with only one song will, by definition, not have a mean, median or standard deviation, and that kills the formula with a divide-by-zero error. Also, because the formula uses the average rating as a component, albums with a low number of songs will tend to skew one way or the other.

In my library, Boards of Canada’s EP In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country has four fantastic songs and ranks at 4.63, higher than anything on that list above. As a release, I’d say that’s accurate, but I’m sure it doesn’t surpass OK Computer. I would be interested to see a chart of how the album score changes as the number of tracks on an album increases.

Additionally, I haven’t figured out a way to rank partial albums, i.e. albums where I either don’t own all the songs or albums where I’ve deleted songs I didn’t like. For now, I’m just excluding them altogether.

Still, I’m fairly pleased with the results I’ve been getting as I run various albums through the formula. It’s working for me and my own song rating system, but I’m curious to see how it works with someone else’s.

Fortunately, Webomatica has posted his song-by-song ratings for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Using his numbers, the average for the album is 4.38, while my formula renders a 4.28. I’d say that’s a consistently good album.

::

Here’s a Microsoft Excel file you can download. Plug in your star ratings to find the album score. AlbumScore.zip

Air – Pocket Symphony: A Little Side Step

For these past couple weeks, tunequest has been counting down to Air’s fifth full-length record, Pocket Symphony, which was finally released a few days ago. I’ve had it long enough to give it a handful of thorough listens and I can tell you that this thing oozes craftsmanship. The numbers don’t lie and after rating all the songs on the album, I’ll confirm that this is good stuff.

Upfront, let me say that I like Pocket Symphony. It is quintessentially Air; there’s no doubt about that. Sensually cool, in that singularly French way, Pocket Symphony lives up to expectations. But… it all feels a little too familiar.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m going out of my way to say that I really enjoy this record and that I don’t think that it’s artistically disappointing in any way. It’s just that there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking at work here. Perhaps after ten years, the band has hit its stride and is confident in its sound. But for a group who has sounded just-so-perceptively different on each album, it’s hard to not have been eager to hear whatever new departure or tangent the duo had decided to explore. Pocket Symphony sounds like it could have been recorded at the same time as Talkie Walkie.

To be sure, the mood is different: more sombre and tense than the “mellow exuberance” that marked Talkie Walkie. Still, its form, if not its function, are similar to its predecessor. Indeed, Pocket Symphony might well be called “Talkie Walkie After Dark,” but don’t go searching for it á Quartier Pigalle. With its precisely crafted, yet restrained sound, this music sounds like it would be more at home at a stiff, upper-crust soiree than in the back room of an after party at a trendy night club.

But if courtly dress up affairs aren’t you’re thing, Pocket Symphony also makes for some perfect wind-down music for a 3AM drive through the city.

The album’s first single, Once upon a Time, features afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen on drums (to great effect). Watch the video:

My Library

Air: Pocket Symphony (2007)
13 tracks (of 13)
Average Rating: 4.25
Median Rating: 4
Mode Rating: 4
Signature Track: Mer du Japon

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Air – Talkie Walkie: Mellow Exuberance

After being somewhat let down by 10000 Hz Legend, I’d have thought that my interest in Air would had wained, but when Talkie Walkie was released in 2004 I was surprised by how eager I was to get a hold of it. When I did, my surprising anticipation was validated, in spades.

I’ll just come out and say it: Talkie Walkie is a beautiful record. In direct contrast to its predecessor, the whole thing goes down smooth and is way easy on the ears. For 44 minutes, each song is like a tiny massage for your eardrums.

It’s earnest. It’s serious. It’s playful. It’s compelling. It’s heartfelt.

But Air doesn’t accomplish that by hearkening back to their earlier sound. There’s no attempt here to recapture the feeling of Moon Safari or any sideways glances toward retropop. It’s just an expansively rich aural canvass. While I don’t think it quite surpasses Moon Safari comes damn close though, it does one-up it by having nothing but four and five star song ratings.

Whereas 10000 Hz Legend could be interpreted in a tongue-in-cheer manner, Talkie Walkie exudes earnestness. This thing has soul.

  • Cherry Blossom Girl’s sweet melody infects the brain and its minimalist chorus makes sure it stays there.
  • Surfing on a Rocket is social and political commentary that’s not only a new level of seriousness for the band but is also one of the best songs in the catalogue. I can’t get enough of that simple guitar riff.
  • Alpha Beta Gaga is positively one of the most happy-go-lucky songs I’ve ever heard. It also features one of the most effective uses of a banjo outside of bluegrass.
  • And don’t get me started about Universal Traveler; that thing just blows my mind.

Talkie Walkie, without a doubt, is a masterpiece. If you don’t have this one in your collection, you need to go get it. now. If you need some convincing, here are some videos.

::

Surfing on a Rocket

Alpha Beta Gaga

Cherry Blossom Girl

Beautiful song. Explicit video. Seriously, don’t watch this one if you have any romantic illusions about the song.
My Library

Air: Talkie Walkie (2004)
10 tracks (of 10)
Average Rating: 4.3
Median Rating: 4
Mode Rating: 4
Signature Track: Universal Traveller

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air - universal traveler at itunes

Air – 10000 Hz Legend: Frustrating Brilliance

air promo

Released in 2001, 10,000 Hz Legend is Air’s first proper follow up to their smash Moon Safari. Coming three years after taking the world by storm, the record was much anticipated. Air had carved out a particular niche of upbeat, laid-back retro-electro-lounge and the fans wanted more. MORE!

Sadly, anyone who was expecting that was sorely disappointed. Including myself. I admit, it took me a long time to fully appreciate this album. I didn’t even pick up my own copy of it for months.

Gone is the light, airy feeling that made earlier works so attractive. In their place is a decidedly denser, darker, more down to earth record. It is less electronic though there’s still plenty of it; more organic and human. Yet, it is simultaneously both more conventionally pop and more experimental than the easily digestible tunes of Air past releases. And that is the source of frustration with it.

Yes, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that brands this as distinctly “Air,” but at times it just proves hard to listen to. Don’t Be Light, for example, has its moments, but it is so spastic–just all over the place–that it can’t muster up more than three stars. Wonder Milky Bitch plods along, like the soundtrack to a demented home on range, and is just downright weird. Conversely, Radio #1 exudes pure cheese: an over-the-top, over-produced mélange of sound, but it really isn’t that bad on the ears.

But for all its stubbornness, 10,000 Hz Legend is the kind of album that benefits from repeated listening. Layered and complex, the album reveals new tangents every time. The more I listen to it, the I want to listen to it. This stuff is ponderous; it get stuck in your head.

But it’s not all deep-thinking intellectualism and satire. Radian, the disc’s highlight, is pure pleasure. With a lofty flute melody, sensual strings, and a wonderful accompanying guitar, the song harkens back to the kinder, gentler Air from the past.

In retrospect, 10,000 Hz Legend is probably the best career move the band could have made at the time. It deftly avoided pigeonholing the band as a novelty lounge act and showed that they could use a larger aural canvas and think big. It reminds me of how Nirvana decided to, with In Utero, make a record that would discourage their new-found fans in the wake of Nevermind’s success. But they ended up cementing their reputations as the leaders of rock. Likewise, 10,000 Hz Legend pinned Air with lasting artistic credibility.

::

A fascinating video for Electronic Performers:

Air – The Virgin Suicides: Downtempo tension

Several degrees of Air. Or, what’s it take to get Air to remix a Beck song?

  1. Air gets Beck to remix Sexy Boy and provide vocals on Don’t Be Light and the Vagabond.
  2. Beck dated and is married to Marissa Ribisi.
  3. Marissa Ribisi has a twin brother: Giovanni.
  4. Giovanni co-stars in Lost in Translation.
  5. Lost In Translation is directed by Sofia Coppola.
  6. Sofia Coppola also directed The Virgin Suicides.
  7. The Virgin Suicides’ score was written by Air.
  8. Air is on the same record label Astralwerks as fellow French band Phoenix and the two groups plan to play a show together this June at Versailles. Phoenix is also the backing band for a remix of Air’s Kelly Watch the Stars.
  9. Phoenix’s vocalist, Thomas Mars has a daughter with Sofia Coppola.
  10. The soundtracks to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette both feature a song by Phoenix and a song by Air.
  11. Air remixed Beck’s Missing for his remix album Guerilito.

Ok, that’s just an elaborate way of introducing the next record on the tunequest countdown the Pocket Symphony: The Virgin Suicides. Released in 2000, The Virgin Suicides is the directorial debut of Sofia Coppola. Driven by the demands of a soundtrack, this album can’t really be considered a proper follow up to Moon Safari, but it is a nice “bonus disc” of smooth downtempo music as only Air can provide.

Playground Love, the film’s theme, starts the album and provides it with a backbone on which to rest. The song is one of Air’s most conventional in terms of structure and its soulful saxophone melodies are pure delight, setting a perfect mood. From there, The Virgin Suicides is mostly appealing atmospherics. Having not seen the film, I can’t comment on its screen effectiveness, but musically, it is stellar. Somehow, it manages to be tense and laid-back at the same time.

However, downside is that, due to the requirements of being a dramatic underscore, there are few jump-out-and-grab-you moments on the disc, as the music must be subtle enough to blend with the film. As a result, not much stands out from the whole, even though that whole is generally gratifying.

Additionally the record is peppered with the complex compositional influences of prog-rock, yet most of the songs are rather short, which doesn’t give them enough time to really work themselves out. At less than three minutes each, most tracks start off enthusiastically, but prove to be somewhat unfulfilling when they end before reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

The exception is Dirty Trip, which clocks in a just more than six minutes. Fueled by a fat, in-your-face bassline, the song is the swagging monster of the disc. It’s easily the highlight of the soundtrack.

Overall, the score to The Virgin Suicides comes highly recommended. I just wish it were a little longer.

Playground Love video:

My Library

Air: The Virgin Suicides (2000)
13 tracks (of 13)
Average Rating: 3.85
Median Rating: 4
Signature Track: Dirty Trip

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Air – Moon Safari: A lunar adventure

This post is part of the countdown to Air’s fifth album, Pocket Symphony, which will be released March 6 in the U.S.

Moon Safari
moon safarimoon safarimoon safari

If Premiers Symptomes found our protagonists as the house band at “Le Casino dans la Lune,” then Moon Safari surely finds Air on its titular sojourn, casting off the confines of the lounge scene and setting off on a mission of exploration.

This, Air’s first album proper, launched the band’s career with spectacular fashion. It received nearly universal praise, debuted at number five on the U.K. charts and built a legion of die-hard fans “Air-heads?”. From its first moments, it is clear that Moon Safari is more adventurous than its predecessor. It still embraces the astro-pop sound of the 70s, but its scale captures much more grandeur. The rhythms have more funk, the melodies are complex and addictive, and the arrangements are layered into a dense and multifaceted pastiche of sophistication.

For nearly 25 minutes, through its first five songs, this record knocks out hit after hit, with each song ranking as five stars. The performance of that opening sequence is unmatched by any album in my iTunes library.

Powered by a mesmerizing bassline, La Femme d’Argent features sparkling synthesized melodies which quickly set the spaced out tone of the record. Sexy Boy follows with a pop formula that easily explains why the song was the album’s breakout single. Incidentally, that song, along with its b-side Jeanne, are the only instances of the [french band]’s use of French lyrics in their ten year history. Next up is All I Need, which brings the tempo down a notch, but the song is no less captivating for it. Kelly Watch the Stars picks up the pace for a fantastically fun aerospace romp that only has one sung line. Talisman then brings the house down with an ominous slow-building tension that battles with a powerful, sweeping string section.

After climaxing with Talisman, Moon Safari takes a turn toward the somber and contemplative. Whereas the first half of the album features some rather robust tracks, the second half turns decidedly low key. All in all, it’s still excellent, just not as breathtaking as the preceding songs. The only real sore spot on the record is You Make it Easy, a slow tempo love song with a few awkward transitions. Straying uncomfortably close to smooth jazz adult contemporary, the song earns the album’s only three star rating.

Redemption, however, comes in the form of Le Voyage de Penelope, Moon Safari’s finale. Featuring this incredibly dirty, distorted electronic melody, the song soars to new heights as the lunar adventure comes to an end.

Moon Safari is, without a doubt, a masterpiece, a perfect piece for cranking up and chilling out. It has been a personal favorite for nearly nine years now and it gets better with every listen. If you’re unfortunate enough to have not experienced it, here are a couple videos to get you started:

moon safari download at itunes

Kelly Watch the Stars:

Sexy Boy:

My Library

Air: Moon Safari (1998)
10 tracks (of 10)
Album Rating (average ): 4.5
Median Rating: 5
Mode Rating: 5
Signature Track: Talisman

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Air – Premiers Symptomes: Like in a lounge on the Moon

Air [french band]’s first album in three years, Pocket Symphony, will be released in a handful of days. In preparation for that event, I thought it would be fun to take a trip through the French band’s back catalogue, starting with their earliest works, which range from the 1996 early singles to 1997’s debut album Premiers Symptomes.

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Imagine it’s 1969 and your thoughts are aimed toward the future. Not your own personal future, but the future of mankind. Think thirty years or so, to that far off time known as 1999. In your mid-century mind, you picture the fantastic possibility that the frontier of human exploration lies beyond the Asteroid Belt and that people will be making regular trips into Earth orbit. You even think that the fringe of exotic vacations take place on the Moon, which is bustling with low-grav attractions. Swanky hotels, rover expeditions, high-jumping sports, perhaps a theme park and a casino (with blackjack of course).

In the evenings, after a day of enjoying all the leisure activities that the Moon has to offer, people gather in the Lunar Lounges to sip cocktails and make sophisticated conversation about how groovy it is to be on the Moon. As you picture all this, you hear an equally sophisticated music accompanying the chatter. In your head, it’s laid back and jazzy smooth with dreamy sparkling Mellotron melodies, which is of course the way music will sound in thirty years’ time…

 

That scene pretty much sums up the aura that surrounds Air’s early years, especially Premiers Symptomes. At just 5 songs and 27 minutes long, the record is short on length, but makes up for it by packing much groove. It’s nearly half an hour of perfectly sublime music. And the notion of being a spaced-out futuristic jazz ensemble on the Moon is epitomized with the album’s third song: Les Professionnels, which astute listeners will recognize as a proto-version of All I Need from Moon Safari.

Compared to the band’s later works, Premiers Symptomes’ songs are much simpler in form. There is less complex layering of sounds and the arrangements are more straight-forward. But it does a very good job of establishing Air’s distinct sound.

The 1999 re-release features two additional tracks Californie and Brakes On, which some people claim ruin the mood of the album. I can see their point, because those songs are as close to rock as Air has ever gotten and they do tend to take away from the disc’s ethereal atmosphere. But hey, it’s Air and despite being oddballs in the catalogue, those songs are pretty good. Brakes On, in particular, might make that late-60s futurist think, instead, of a discotheque on the Moon.

If you’re unfamiliar with Premiers Symptomes, check out the video for one its singles, Le soleil est pres de moi. It’s got nothing to do with the Moon, however:

Les Professionels

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Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
7.9 / 10