You might not guess it from the humble design, but this blog is but a small corner of a massive data accumulation and analysis system. A dedicated team of scientists, programmers, and physicists are hard at work using mountains of data to answer the most pressing question in music: what is the best year for music in the 21st century? After months of data cleaning and analysis, our team is pleased to announce our answer: 2004. This result is especially surprising because the team’s research was in no way influenced by the fact that this blog’s hyper-successful founder was a teen in 2004. Here’s a sampling of the releases from that year in no particular order:
Modest Mouse – Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Scissor Sisters – Scissor Sisters
Kanye West – College Dropout
Animal Collective – Sung Tongs
The Killers – Hot Fuss (come fight me about this)
Iron & Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (I’ll fight about this too)
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Usher – Confessions
Petey Pablo – Freek a Leek
Ruben Studdard – Sorry 2004
I didn’t know about Electrelane until recently, but when I looked up when The Power Out was released I was not surprised to learn of yet another good album from 2004. The Power Out was the group’s second full length release, and was produced with help from producer Steve Albini. While their first album was primarily instrumental, The Power Out introduced vocals in three different languages, making use of a 16th century Spanish sonnet for the lyrics to Oh Sombra!. The group released two more albums, also on Too Pure, before going on permanent hiatus in 2007.
In case people like the music but don’t want to comb through all the pages, I’ve made a Spotify playlist with all the Tracks of the Day I’ve done so far. I’ll add more as I go, and there were some things that weren’t available on Spotify yet. If time allows I’ll make a YouTube playlist as well because I know not everybody uses Spotify. If that happens I’ll add it to this post as well. Enjoy!
With many old blues and gospel 78s it can be difficult to pin down details about the recording or even the artist, but you often have a good idea what instrument is being played. The same cannot be said for Washington Phillips. He was born in 1880 in Freestone County, TX and farmed some acreage near Teague, and when he wasn’t farming he became known as a “jack-leg preacher,” meaning he was not ordained by a particular faith but would often attend churches with the hope of speaking. If that didn’t work, he spoke to gatherings on the street or in shop-window churches. Though it was long argued Phillips played a novelty instrument called a dolceola, but fans of his work and of zither music have debunked that theory. Eyewitnesses to Phillips performing said that he played an instrument that he assembled himself and since the dolceola was commercially sold at the time it would not have to be assembled. So where did these dreamy sounds come from?
An article from the Nov. 8, 1907 issue of the Teague Chronicle describes the instrument as a 2′ x 3′ box that is 6 inches deep which Phillips called the “manzarene.” Being a Texas newspaper from the early 20th century, there was some racism thrown in for good measure which I won’t repeat here.
It is unclear whether the instrument described in the article is the same one which appears on this and other recordings which Phillips made for Columbia records between 1927-1929. You can read more about the research into Phillips instruments in this blog post from a harp guitar enthusiasts’ site. He doesn’t reach a conclusion regarding what instrument Phillips used, but he did list some possibilities, which include
a giant homemade box zither, a secondhand Phonoharp and gizmo-less Celestaphone that were possibly assembled into some giant super-zither, and at least one, but possibly multiple, additional homemade zithers, smaller and eventually played with just one hand.
Regardless of what instruments he played, it’s amazing these recordings survived all the way to the present. They were first re-issued by a Dutch blues imprint called Agram Blues in 1980. An American roots label called Yazoo Records has reissued recordings by Phillips twice, once under the name I Am Born To Preach The Gospel in 2003 and then again under the name The Key To The Kingdom along with recordings by Blind Mamie and A.C. Forehand. Mississippi Records also released a compilation What Are They Doing In Heaven Today in 2006. In November 2016 Dust-to-Digital released the most comprehensive version of Phillips’ music entitled Washington Phillips And His Manzarene Dreams. Along with remastered recordings, it also contains a 72 page booklet which collects the research of Michael Corcoran of the Austin Statesman, who probably knows more about Phillips than anybody. The history of Phillips is fascinating, but I’ll warn you before you dive in: you may learn more about zithers than you thought was possible.
When I think about what I was listening to in 2011 instead of this album by Sandro Perri, it’s hard not to shudder a little bit. I may be late to the party, but I’ll be damned if I be quiet about it now that I’ve found it. Wolfman comes courtesy of Toronto multi-instrumentalist Sandro Perri, who had been a local favorite for years. In notes which accompanied the release over at Constellation, music curator Ronen Givony sums up the feeling and Perri’s unique sonic palette:
Sandro is the true best exemplar of that unique intersection that characterizes the city’s omnivorous musical scene: partly improvised, partly composed, and roughly equal parts acoustic, electronic, melodic, noisy, rock, jazz, folk, classical, psychedelic, and experimental.
Wolfman comes off 2011’s Impossible Spaces, which is the last release I could track down for Perri, not including a few singles comprising remixes done by other artists. Before he had released anything of his own, he played lap steel in Great Lake Swimmers. In addition to his own work, he’s racked up quite a few production credits on the technical side of things. Though it’s unclear when another Sandro Perri record will be released, he is a member of a group called Off World that released an album last year, also on Constellation. Another fun bit of trivia: the cellist on Wolfman, Mike Olsen, also appears on Arcade Fire’s breakout album Funerals.
Following the demise of a certain beacon of hope, freedom, and all other things good in this worldprivate torrent tracker I decided to reactivate my Spotify account. In much the same way one unearths a time capsule, I found a number of playlists that had been synced to an old computer and unearthed this gem. Released in 2009, this is one of those songs that seems like it should have been way bigger given how popular this sort of synth-heavy dance music was at the time. It comes off an EP called Pretty Feelings, the only release I could find for the group. Their Twitter account has been dormant since 2010, but it seems they opened for STRFKR and were DJing mostly around the Bay Area before slipping into the internet ether. Songs like this remind me of how much stuff I’d probably really love is just sitting out there waiting for me to put it in my earholes. I made a playlist of other songs that I discovered excavating those old playlists that I’ve linked to below.
Though this sounds like it was commissioned by an advertising agency on behalf of Big Kite, it is actually the title track from the debut of a 1960s family band. The work of the Dedrick siblings went largely unnoticed until it found a cult following decades later thanks to attention from artists like Cornelius and Pizzicato Five and others in Japan’s Shibuya-kei scene. The Free Design released eight albums with Project 3 before disbanding in 1972, with Kites Are Fun remaining their only appearance on pop charts. In the mid-70s they formed the core of the Star-Scape Singers, a vocal ensemble assembled by New Age Renaissance man Kenneth G. Mills. Mills is a fascinating character at the heart of the New Age movements of the mid-20th century. After a transcendental experience that convinced him he had a duty to speak “the Word” again, he agreed to speak to his inner experiences and spiritual feelings but only if others sought him out to do so. He described his speaking as
an impromptu performance under the impelling of divine ideas. It is a projection from another dimension or plane of consciousness, causing those prepared to hear to awaken to the higher or greater possibilities of living beyond the limits of three dimensions and translating what seems to be the ordinary into another level of consideration
You can hear/see the Star-Scape singers perform one of Mills’ original compositions here, which he composed in the hopes of being a song that the whole world could sing together to unify all people. Kites Are Fun was reissued by Corenlius’ label Trattoria in 1994 and then by Light in the Attic.
If this doesn’t appear in a Wes Anderson movie at some point I’ll be shocked.
Kikagaku Moyo formed in 2011 as a psychedelic free music project by Go Kurosawa and Tomo Katsurada in Tokyo, and while their emphasis on improvisation means performances can shift from night to night, I’d bet they get to some serious zones. They just released their fourth album House in the Tall Grass on their label Gurguru Brain. They launched the label both as an outlet for their own music and as a way to spotlight Asian underground music. A compilation called Guruguru Brain Wash gives a sampling of their label’s output and it is solid as well. To keep up with their hijinks, follow them on Facebook and Tumblr. The group just finished a US tour on election day and then headed back to Japan, escaping just in the nick of time. This feels like a riff on some of the new age material coming out of Germany in the mid 80s, specifically Popol Vuh’s Spirit of Peace. In these tense and uncertain times, it’s hard not to envy somebody with a sitar.