The Breeders – Mountain Battles: Slow burn to perfection

Sorry for the relative quiet around here lately. I’ve been on a bit of a holiday. Here’s a review posted from a small island ~10,000 miles from home.


After nearly six years in the musical wilderness, alt-rock godfathers The Breeders are back with a disc called Mountain Battles. And boy is it a good one, but its quality may not be readily apparent on the first few listens. The record, only the group’s fourth in its twenty-year career, slowly reveals itself after repeated exposure, its melodies and rhythms becoming lodged in one’s subconsciousness.

While the Breeders have never been known for precision production quality, Mountain Battles feels especially lo-fi–almost like a follow-up to Kim Deal’s 1995 side-project The Amps. (though The Amps might as well have been a Breeders project, given the personnel involved and Kim’s control). In true Breeders fashion, however, that low-key, basement fuzz brings with it an inviting warmth.

It’s a borderline tragedy then, particularly given the long span since Title TK, that Battles runs quite short, clocking in at just more than 36 minutes. Spread out over thirteen songs, the music barely gets started before it ends. Then again, that is also true Breeders fashion: always leaving you wanting more. Hopefully we won’t have to wait so long before the next album.

Free Listen: Bang On:

Breeders Digest.

The Strokes – The Modern Age: Youthful Exuberance

strokes the modern age

This is it. The Strokes inaugural recording. I discovered it the other day while browsing the XL Recordings page at eMusic, which at the time this was written, was the only place you could find it (unless you want to pay collectors’ prices for a hard copy). Sadly, it seems to no longer be available.

Released in 2001, this eleven minute EP features rougher, less unpolished versions of three songs that would later appear on the band’s formal album debut (The Modern Age, Last Nite and Barely Legal). The record shows an early version of The Strokes hitting the ground running, as the three songs here are the three best from Is this it? and the ones that, seven years later, have achieved a universal timelessness.

The entire running time brims with the energy of ingenuous earnestness, before the band was to be hyped as the new-millennial “saviors of rock music”.

The early rendition of The Modern Age cruises at a faster tempo than the final version, but its lo-fi essence is already well formed. The chops are in place though; the song features a pretty mad, if brief guitar solo. Last Nite feels surprising similar to the album version, the principle difference being in Julian Casablancas’ delivery.

If you’re already familiar with Barely Legal, don’t try to sing to this version, despite the temptation. A number of lines contain different lyrics. This redition is also about 45 seconds longer thanks to an extended guitar solo and breakdown.

This disc may be short, but it shows the Strokes already fulfilling their potential.

Free Listen: The original version of Barely Legal:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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.

Ratatat – Loud Pipes single: Another smooth creation

ratatat loud pipes

I don’t know how I missed it, but Ratatat quietly released Loud Pipes as the third single from Classics a couple months ago. The record is out on vinyl only and, in addition to the title track, it features three attractive and compelling b-sides:

  • Loud Pipes (Outtakes).
    Bears only the slightest resemblance to its namesake. The beat and instrumentation are there, but otherwise, it’s a whole other song.
  • Kennedy (e-rock remix).
    E-rock is Ratatater Evan Mast’s brother. He turns in a competent re-working of Kennedy (also from Classics). His version sounds a little repetitive, but it has got some big sound behind it. There’s also a nifty breakdown around the 5:20 mark.
  • Goose.
    New track. Rhymes with Noose, the b-side from Germany to Germany. The song is the least-stated in all of Ratatat’s repertoire. In stark contrast to the band’s enormous sound, Goose is barely there. A simple baroque-esque melody over a quiet, high BPM thud-thud-thud. At less than two minutes long, the song is over before it gets started.

All in all, another fine release from Ratatat. Now when can we expect that next album?

Loud Pipes: $7.00 from Turntable Lab

Listen to Loud Pipes (Outtakes):

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Simpsons Movie: Good Film, Good Music

The Simpsons Movie

This past weekend, I saw The Simpsons Movie and must declare that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I know it’s become a bit of pastime to bemoan the show’s decline, but honestly, you won’t find much cynicism coming from me with regards to the movie. The plot is straightforward, but fittingly expansive and engrossing for a motion picture. The jokes are actually rather good, largely avoiding the Homer-is-so-grossly-incompetent-that-its-not-funny-anymore humor that plagued the show for a long time. The film also resists the temptation to recycle material from the past eighteen seasons worth of shows, injecting new ideas and wit into the franchise.

All the family members receive a fair amount of screen time and character development, and that goes a long way toward helping the movie succeed. The Simpsons has always been at its best when it has shown the family being a family. With a running time that’s the equivalent of four episodes, The Simpsons Movie is afforded the opportunity to linger on that familial interaction. Heck, for the first 25% of the film, the audience is treated to extended scenes of the family members being themselves.

Bart and Homer hang out and the father-son camaraderie is endearing. Lisa campaigns to save Lake Springfield from pollution (and gets a love interest in the process). Marge is a domestic goddess who worries about everything while doing her best to keep the family together. And Grandpa is, well, Grandpa.

Everyone’s favorite secondary characters, Moe, Lenny, Carl, Burns, Smithers, Apu, et al, received their own choice moments and lines throughout. Even the show’s cavalcade of tertiary characters make appearances, but not to the point of distraction; for the most part they’re limited to simply being drawn in the background so that long-time fans can look and say “Hey, there’s that kid Gavin from the episode Marge Be Not Proud.” You’ll know this scene when you see it.

simpsons movie soundtrack

Simpsons theme at itunes simpsons movie music

And the music… I was actually surprised to hear how good it is. I was a little wary when I learned that Hans Zimmer was composing. His music is decent enough, though truthfully I’ve never found it that compelling (exceptions being Gladiator and parts of Mission Impossible 2), and in general, he’s just so… corporate. And safe. Whenever a big-budget hypefest needs some backing tracks, Zimmer seems like the man to turn to for music that’ll be inoffensive to the highest number of people.

Fortunately, my trepidation in this case was ill-founded. Zimmer does an excellent job of taking the “Simpsons sound” (developed by Danny Elfman’s theme and Alf Clausen’s eighteen years of television scoring) and expanding it to fit the big screen. The music, like everything associated with the film, remains in character, just embiggened.

The disc starts with a grand orchestral interpretation of Danny Elfman’s main theme, which at first feels a bit off-putting after nearly two decades familiarity with the original version. But that quickly fades as the new orchestra does it justice. Overall, the album tends to borrow a great deal of inspiration from Danny Elfman’s sense of playful quirkiness. The movie’s main motif is built around uptempo mischievousness, like if the Jetsons were playing a prank.

It’s not all fun and games though. Like any dramatic film, The Simpsons Movie requires its share of suspense and seriousness, which the music delivers effectively without being distracting. One of best moments on the entire album comes at the beginning of the track You Doomed Us All… Again, which features a tender, melancholy duet between piano and flute.

Through and through, this album impresses. The only sour spot of note is the album’s closer, a track called Recklessly Impulsive, which is a high-BPM techno remix of some themes from the film. After 40ish minutes of stellar music, it’s a little bit jarring and major let down.

Despite the somewhat disappointing finale, I look with just a little amazement at how well both the film and album turned out. I went in with an open mind, but I didn’t exactly have high hopes. Combined, the movie and the score might just be the best pieces of culture I’ve run across all year.

The Simpsons Theme (Orchestral Version):

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Smashing Pumpkins: Drown

singles smashing pumpkins drown (full version)
From the soundtrack Singles (1992)

This song is among the earliest in The Smashing Pumpkins catalog, recorded in 1992 for the motion picture soundtrack Singles. The film takes place in Seattle and heralds the coming of that city’s grunge music, using the local scene as a persistent backdrop the personal and professional turmoil of a bunch of twenty-somethings. Allusions and references to the burgeoning scene abound within the movie. Soundgarden makes an on-stage appearance and members of Pearl Jam have a cameo as members of Matt Dillion’s fictional grunge band, Citizen Dick.

It been more than ten years since I saw Singles and I don’t really remember if it was good or not. I was a teenager enthralled by the music; the rest of the story mattered little to me. Once thing I do know for sure though is that the soundtrack is phenomenal. Not only is it a definitive statement about what the “grunge sound” was (and thus make it marketable to the mainstream), it features some of the best songs in the respective catalogues of the artists that appear on it.

Pearl Jam’s State of Love and Trust is easily one of the group’s finest compositions. Seasons is surely Chris Cornell’s greatest non-Soundgarden work. Screaming Trees’ Nearly Lost You, well, it just rocks. The real gem on the soundtrack though, is its closer: The Smashing Pumpkins’ Drown. It’s ironic that the album’s superlative song would be from a band that lives 1800 miles away from Seattle.

I’ve loved Drown since the first time I heard it. The song is so dreamy and peaceful, evoking a wistfulness which is surprising, considering the massive amounts of layered distortion that is piled on top of itself. It’s classic Billy Corgan, intimate when it needs to be, crashing to life at just the right moments. At more than 8 minutes long, it is an epic mind-bending journey.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

What I Love: Billy’s soft but confident vocals. The distortion-steeped solo/outro.

drown short at itunes short version

drown full at amazon full version

Rock bands and pop covers: man, this is just getting cliche

When Travis covered …Baby One More Time as tender British comfort rock, it was cute.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

When Jonathan Coultan did Baby Got Back as a singer/songwriter folk troubadour, it was funny.When The Gourds played Gin n’ Juice in up-the-mountain bluegrass style, it was just bizarre.


When Mat Weddle of Obadiah Parker re-invented Hey Ya! as a somber, heartfelt ballad, it was endearing.

Hey Ya Cover

Then there was Alanis, whose performance of My Humps showed sublime brilliance.

Alanis Morissette "My Humps" video

But this, this is just getting out of hand: Jenny Owen Youngs playing Nelly’s Hot in Herre:

I don’t mean to call out Ms. Youngs in particular, but hearing her play Nelly has got me thinking: seriously, what is going on here? What is up with this string of rock-mode artists covering hip hop/pop songs?

And conversely, why don’t we see the same thing in reverse: Contemporary hip hop artists covering rock songs? That might just be cultural differences; rockers cover, rappers sample.

One could argue that a great song is a great song and that successful reinterpretations reflect well on the source material. But I won’t be the one making that argument because, looking over that list of songs, I can’t help but notice that most of those inspiration points are of dubious artistic merit.

While Outkast gets props for artistry, Britney Spears is generally not regarded for the quality of her music. And I like Gin n’ Juice as much as the next guy (5 stars in my iTunes library), but it’s not what I would call “great music.” So, what is it about that song, or …Baby One More Time, or Hot in Herre that makes them attractive targets for rock-based musicians to cover?

Generally, to cover a song is a choice to pay tribute to it or its originator, a way to honor them for their influence and their impact on the development of the person performing the cover. Witness Beatles tribute bands, KISS tribute bands and Elvis impersonators. Shoot, Radiohead has created a cottage industry of cover artists and performers.

But, one does not create a bluegrass version of to pay homage to Snoop Dogg’s profound influence on the evolution of hip hop. It just doesn’t follow. So what’s behind these attempts to radically re-invent songs that are, by and large, not very good to begin with?

One possible explanation is that it’s been nearly a decade since vapid pop and profligate ego-rap began to dominate corporate music culture. Bad music is what the young folks are used to hearing en masse, so it makes some sense that the current generation’s crop of young musicians would play what they are familiar with. I know that when I was younger and in a band, a good part of our repertoire consisted of the contemporary hits of the time.

But we were a rock band playing rock songs. And it was heyday of grunge and its aftermath, where the ethos explicitly called for the rejection of corporate music. The irony of course, is that by the time grunge had become big enough to be called a movement, most of its artists had moved to corporate labels.

Still, those artists didn’t make names for themselves by playing the hits of their predecessors. Nirvana didn’t become famous by playing Rock You Like A Hurricane and Every Rose Has Its Thorn in the clubs of Olympia. Even at the apex of the irony-soaked 90s, one was more likely to see bands covering influential songs from the 60s and 70s rather than perform joking versions of songs by discredited 80s acts. The audience would not have stood for it.

And that’s the other part of this equation: the listeners. Modern audiences seem to LOVE these homages to the silly and ridiculous. Alanis’ My Humps made a huge splash on the net (7.9 million views on YouTube as of this writing). Jonathan Coulton owes a good portion of his stature to his remake of Baby Got Back.

But therein lies a double-edged sword. For established artists, the choice to release an unconventional cover can be a fun diversion for the fan base. But for new and emerging artists, taking a shortcut by means of using someone else’s song to attract attention threatens to forever pigeonhole that artist into the novelty camp.

Mr. Coulton, no matter his other merits, may forever be the folksy-Baby-Got-Back guy. The Gourds, despite their long history, might never outgrow their notoriety as hillbilly gangsters smokin’ indo.

And that’s when it works! There’s always the possibility that the new version might somehow be catastrophically wrong. The above Ms. Youngs cover is my first exposure to her work and from this point forward, she will probably be known to me as the purveyor of a completely unnecessary endeavor.

Why would a new musician take the risk for what is surely an unpredictable response? For the joke of it? Irony? Camp value? Plain harmless mirth? Sure, absurd cover versions might be fun for a while, but like candy, too much will make you sick.

I suspect a large part of the explanation for the phenomenon lies with ever-expanding democratization of the means of production. Until fairly recently, the barrier to entry was significantly high for the recording and distribution of music. In addition to musicianship, one needed to own relatively expensive equipment (mics, amps, multi-track recorders, etc.) and have the knowledge to use them, or one needed to have access to expensive professional studio time. Of course, there was the time and patience needed to get it all put together. And that was just to get the recording made. As recently as ten years ago, getting that recording into the ears of others meant a hefty investment in cassettes and authored CDs from a duplication house.

With so much time and energy involved, musicians, particularly low-resource ones, would surely try to avoid being frivolous with their efforts. Care and consideration of the material were required to make maximum use of scarce commodities.

However, with the aid of technology (inexpensive computers, video cameras, audio recorders and programs like Apple’s Garageband, etc), the process of proficiently recording music is much more manageable and far less time consuming. High-speed Internet makes that music instantly available to a billion people. It can easily seem like a lark to throw together any ol’ ditty based on a whim, including songs that have only recently been released.

In fact, I would not be surprised if that were to become a new trend, the near-immediate release of covers of new songs. Indeed, such an occurrence has already happened. Franz Ferdinand’s version LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends was released as an official b-side on the All My Friends single. It’s not so far fetched to imagine that Britney’s next single will get a folk treatment on YouTube within days of its release.

Why anyone would do that is beyond me, but it is a distinct possibility.

Bjork: I Go Humble

i go humble

B-side from the single Isobel (1995)

I’ve never been in love with Bjork’s music. To be sure, Bjork is a consummate artist and I do enjoy and have much respect for the majority of her work; I’ve just never been part of the “Bjork-is-untouchable” group. But if I were to become part of that club, it would be because of this song.

I Go Humble never fails to send me into a state of trance-like bliss.

There’s something in the earnest subjugation of her voice, the spacey electronic melodies and the disjointed-but-smooth percussion that just captivate me for its entire five minute length every time I listen to it. It has done that for the past ten years.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

What I Love: Everything about it dammit.

isobel at amazon