My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.
"It feels like a concept album"”in this case, the story of how wine-flow disco circumnavigated intellectual pretensions on all sides en route to a temporary utopia that may finally believe in nothing but the boogie but still has the infinite on its mind every minute."-Spin magazine review of Daft Punk's DiscoveryThere's an oft-repeated argument by people who hate electronic music that it is "soulless." I certainly understand where that argument comes from. The lack of actual instruments can take some of the personality out of music, and often times electronic music seems to be actively courting detachment from listeners, which can understandably be alienating, whether or not that is the intent. A lot of electronic music is also instrumental, and as I mentioned last week, instrumental music is often less accessible to the mainstream. Even when electronic music has vocals, they are often auto-tuned to the point that they sound inhuman and robotic.
Yet I think that when people call electronic music "soulless," what they really mean is that most electronic music eschews emotion for beat. That is a sentiment I generally agree with, and a reason that I listen to less electronic music than some of my friends. I've never been much of a dancer; the fact that I am incapable of rhythm may have something to do with it, but for some reason I have never felt the urge to dance. Subsequently, a song's beat is less important to me than other factors. I can appreciate a good beat, of course, but I don't get quite as excited by a song's dance-ability. So I would never call electronic music "soulless," but I have also never been a huge fan of the genre. Most of the qualities that make for great electronic music don't particularly appeal to me in music at large, and so while I can respect electronic music when it is done well, I don't as a rule find it particularly appealing.
Daft Punk is one of the few exceptions to that rule. The duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter seems to have figured out how to make electronic music that simultaneously meets all of the standards for great electronic music and manages to retain the "soul" that so many argue is absent from electronic music. Part of this is likely the regular inclusion of vocals in the band's songs, yet even their instrumental songs manage to convey the emotion that so many electronic songs avoid entirely. They are a group that understands how to make people feel while never losing sight of the fact that they are ostensibly making dance music. This is never truer than on the group's second album, and Collin's pick this week, Discovery, which was released in 2001.
The group's all time biggest hit, and also one of their best, "One More Time" contains a prominent vocal performance written and sung by Romanthony. At the time of the song's release, the heavily auto-tuned vocals were often criticized, and while I am not a fan of the process (especially the way it is generally used these days) I think it can be used well. "One More Time" manages to turn a strong vocal performance into another level of the melody, making Romanthony's voice basically another instrument on top of the melody. The song is basically just about the joy of dancing; yet that meaning alone elevates it above much electronic music. The goal of most electronic songs is to make people dance; "One More Time" is about the joy of dancing, and a song that communicates that so well is likely to make people get up and dance, meaning it is a success on two fronts simultaneously.
"Digital Love" is a great throwback song, echoing Supertramp and other synthesized bands of the late "˜70s, especially on the bridge midway through the song (some of you might tell me Supertramp is terrible. I would tell you that you're wrong). The song is about an unspoken love, giving it a simple, universal theme to hang its beat on. Again, I don't think that thematic depth is necessary to make music great, but I do think it adds something to Daft Punk's music that their songs are about something even if they tend to be fairly straightforward and simplistic. The beat may take center stage in their music, but their willingness to at least toss out ideas makes their great beats resonate even further.
"Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" is another of the band's most popular songs, for obvious reasons. The song is incredibly catchy, and as plenty of viral videos will show you very dance-able, in addition to being a song about pushing yourself to achieve, a theme that is hard to argue with. "Something About Us" is a slower song that owes a debt to funk and R&B for its sound, and gains a lot of distance from any argument for "soullessness" simply by sounding a lot like a soul song. The song is also about a connection between people that may or may not be best for either of them.
Thomas Bangalter has discussed the album's intent, saying that it focused on the music of the duo's childhood (explaining the homages to Supertramp and soul music) and also attempted to make music that would be perceived the way they perceived music as children. As a result, Discovery focuses on simplicity, both thematically and in many of its looping, repetitive beats. The album is definitely a high-mark of the electronic genre, an album that gets the beats right but also has something to say.
Asmus Tietchens can be a hard man to wrap your head around. A German avante garde composer, he began experimenting with electronic musical instruments, synthesizers and tape loops in 1965, finally beginning to record and release material at the tail end of the 1970's. His fourth album, and Tab's first pick this week, Spat-Europa was released in 1982. The album is fairly accessible as a whole, running the gamut from spacey, upbeat chanting, like on the opening track "Spat-Europa" to darker, more sinister work like "Frautod Grafitto" all in the space of five minutes.
"Mythos Und Gummibarchen" manages to mix the two forms well, making for a dark yet melodic piece that keeps the spacey-ness of the opening track while hinting at a darker underbelly. "Ausverkauf" uses a strong beat to drive the song, which becomes increasingly complex as it goes along.Tietchens released Aus Freude Am Elend in 1988, having begun to experiment with more abstract sound collages after collaborating with Nurse With Wound's Steve Stapleton in 1984. "Den Stiftsherren" is an ethereal piece, giving off strong spiritual, even religious vibes and having a sing-song quality that is at once comforting and a bit disconcerting. "Rosencranz" also has a chant at its center, building in more sounds as it progresses over eight minutes.
By the time he released Rattenheu in 1996, Tietchens had begun to focus more heavy on melody again, which is apparent in "Flut," a melodically driven song that leaves any vocal chanting heavily back grounded. "Atomacht Indien" focuses on a repetitive, driving melody that becomes slowly more complex and frantic as other sounds build over it.
Unlike many of the more avante-garde artists we've looked at this year, Asmus Tietchens never strays too far from general rules of melody. He may experiment heavily with form and with what sounds he uses, but he always sounds like he's making music. His work always displays great competence and skill, to the point where trust builds up, and that trust is useful when he decides to do something strange on one track. Tietchens is the sort of experimental music I can see myself going back to more regularly than I can imagine I'll listen to Nurse With Wound. Tietchens doesn't settle on one theme for twenty minute long tracks or full albums like Steve Stapleton, which means that whenever one track isn't doing it for you there is another, likely totally different sonic experiment coming down the pipeline.
Tricky, often noted for his dark and layered sound and whispered vocals, released his debut album and Ashley's pick this week, Maxinquaye in 1995. Expanding on the sonic template laid out by fellow Brits Massive Attack, and utilizing vocals by then-girlfriend Martina Topley-Bird, the album is a dark mix of hip hop, soul and electronica, named after Tricky's late mother Maxine Quaye.
"Overcome" is a slow, seductive song that draws you into the album, setting a tone of mystery the album sustains throughout. Tricky later lent Massive Attack the lyrics of the song, which became the group's "Karmacoma" on their album Protection. "Black Steel" is a cover of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," which takes on the feel of the album in spite of its completely divergent lyrical content and also allows the album to rock out more than it does for most of the rest of its runtime.
"Aftermath" is a slow, methodical song, with a strong soul feel and occasional guitar interludes that help it stand out from the album's standard sound. The song samples Marvin Gaye's "That's the Way Love Is," ensuring its soul cred is in place. "Feed Me" closes the album with muttered vocals by Tricky and more focused vocals by Topley-Bird. The album's fairly uniform sound might be problematic if it wasn't so unique and well developed. While Tricky draws from several genres, samples multiple songs and even covers Public Enemy outright, the sound is always entirely his own, and is so singular, seductive, and evocative that it remains compelling and enjoyable throughout.
That feeling is important in music goes without saying (or doesn't, since I just said it), yet the diversity of expression is what makes music such an endlessly compelling medium. Daft Punk manages to imbue feeling into a genre that often ignores emotion. Asmus Tietchens is capable of experimenting heavily without losing sight of emotions in his work. And Tricky's album is suffused with passion, from the name Maxinquaye that he drew from his mother, to the choice to feature his girlfriend on vocals, and to the singular feeling that the album manages to sustain throughout, which is no small feat. These artists are all incredibly different, working in different genres, utilizing different instruments and ultimately producing wildly divergent results. Yet each of them manages to communicate a feeling (or multiple feelings) that draws you back continuously to their work, searching again and again for the center that holds your attention. Searching again and again for that thing that so many detractors might call "soul."Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
We'll get a double feature of Asmus Tietchens-related projects from Tab in Mechthild Von Leusch's Ou Wirnith and Werkbund's Haithabu, discover that Pulp is in a Different Class and let Broken Social Scene remind us that You Forgot It In People.