Back in the stormy ‘70s, when Brian Eno was inventing ambient music in England and Tangerine Dream was mixing Moogs with Krautrock, a crew of electronic individualists in France was busy crafting some singular synthesizer tapestries of their own. Sometimes they were influenced by the aforementioned trailblazers and their ilk, but often they were finding their own idiosyncratic way into previously unexplored electronic thickets, without stopping to worry about what the end result might be or what anybody would think about it. With the notable exceptions of Jean-Michel Jarre, who found fame with his 1976 classic Oxygène, and Moog pop pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, these artists were working well under the radar, largely unnoticed in their own country and all but invisible on an international level. (And that remains the case today—a lot of this music isn’t available on Spotify, so I’ve created a YouTube playlist instead.) But the frequently quirky electronic vistas they created deserve their own chapter in the saga of synth music.
Paul Putti’s short-lived Pôle label achieved underground renown releasing albums by his project of the same name as well as fellow travelers like Philippe Besombes, freely utilizing minimalism and avant-garde techniques. Composers like Jean-Pierre Decerf and Teddy Lasry crossed over from the world of “library” recordings for film and TV but ultimately made intoxicating, atmospheric music that stood on its own. On tracks like “Speedway,” the duo Space Art came off like a Gallic version of Autobahn-era Kraftwerk. If there’s ever a synth-assisted apocalypse, Fredric Mercier’s doomy, titanic “Storm” would certainly make a suitable soundtrack. And Philippe Féret has all but vanished into the deep pockets of time, but his 1978 debut album nevertheless found him at the front lines of the ambient movement. Take a deep dive into a French river filled almost to overflowing with visceral analog electronic tones and maverick notions about what music could be.
This playlist was curated by Soft as Snow. Like what you hear? Subscribe to the playlist here, and check out their music here. And be sure to pick up their upcoming album, Deep Wave.Since its inception five years ago, the Houndstooth label has quickly emerged as one of the leading lights of progressive, experimental electronic music. From Marquis Hawkes to Guy Andrews, the musicians on the label have consistently privileged artistry and innovation, and they continue to push boundaries. The label also oversaw the emergence of immensely talented Call Super, who would go on to become one of this generations more acclaimed new electronic musicians. To celebrate five years releasing electronic music, Houndstooth are delighted to offer a free 15 track compilation Hound5tooth, available here.The Norwegian-born, Berlin-based duo Soft as Snow are one of the Houndstooth’s stand-out acts. Their sound mingles the more gothic-tinged edges of post-punk with liberal swaths of classic Detroit techno and a splash of glitch. The result is a sound that is foreboding and mercurial. The group recently got together to capture some of their favorite synth classics. The playlist is titled “Dark ‘80s Synth Pop,” though most of the tracks are taken from their contemporaries in the synth trenches.
Ennio Morricone found his way onto the fast track pretty early. Within his first few years of working in film scoring, he orchestrated the music for Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 existential classic L’Avventura; the following year, he arranged and conducted the music for Vittorio De Sica’s The Last Judgment and orchestrated Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso. It would have been easy for Morricone to settle down into a long career of writing for Italian art-house films. But with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, the immensely popular spaghetti western featuring a breakout performance by Clint Eastwood and a career-elevating turn by director Sergio Leone, Morricone set his sights west of Italy. He looked so far west, in fact, that before long, he was writing music not only for westerns but also for horror movies, comedies, thrillers, and more. Morricone established a trademark sound with the twangy guitars, whimsical whistles, and violent yawps of Leone’s spaghetti-western trilogy, which also included For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In the ensuing decades, he would continually reinvent himself. The ’80s brought the warm strings and triumphant, romantic horns of The Untouchables as well as the delicate, sympathetic melodies of the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. His music for John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece The Thing turned cello ostinatos into harbingers of terror, while heartbeat bass refrains bolstered the film’s immaculately cold suspense. The Legend of 1900 (1998) saw the composer dipping into jazz and ultimately doubling down on his sentimental side, while The Hateful Eight combined the many sides of Morricone, folding in stressful motifs into a grand vision of the dark side of the American West.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase is celebrating the release of Drums and Drones: Decade, a 144 page book and triple album, culminating the first ten years of his solo project, Drums and Drones. This project, which began in 2007, is initially inspired by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s legendary Dream House installation. The aim of the project is to create elaborate meditative soundscapes derived from the resonant acoustic tones of tuned drums. Drums and Drones: Decade captures the essence of the project in sound/image/text. Check out the Jazz Drummer Spotlight: 1952-66 playlist he made for The Dowsers right here, and go here for more info about the book and its three albums.Says Chase, "This playlist focuses on the drum solo in jazz from 1952-1966. What appeals here, in addition to the incredible music itself, is stylistic evolution and how the drum solo reflects its musical context at each step along the way. In listening to this playlist, an awareness is brought to how the drums ‘play’ melody, harmony, and texture, not only rhythm. Much gratitude and praise goes to these remarkable and pioneering musicians."Brief personal notes:1. “Caravan” - “Papa” Jo is a master of melodic drumming.2. “Skin Deep” - Louis Bellson’s grand drum solo is an early use of double bass drums on record.3. “It Don’t Mean A Thing…” - Max is a master at outlining melodic phrasing (i.e. using the drums to create ‘shape’ which suggests melodic line), and establishing harmonic-like patterns (i.e. ‘arpeggios’).4. “Minor Mode” - “Philly” Joe is a master of ‘melodic rhythm:’ one can sing the melody of “Minor Mode” along with the solo.5. “Swinging’ Kilts” - Three classic Hard-Bop drummers play together here: Art Blakey, “Philly” Joe Jones, and Art Taylor.6. “Folk Tale” - The playful freedom of Ornette’s soloing is beautifully reflected in Ed Blackwell’s melodies and rhythms.7. “Kid Dynamite” - Motian’s playing represents the beauty of abstraction and gesture.8. “Al’s In” - Alan Dawsons brilliant and unconventional style showcase techniques that expand the ‘vocabulary’ of the instrument.9 and 10. “Nomadic” and “Agitation” - Tony Williams, Dawson’s protege, takes center stage on these tracks. A more open and free-form playing style is on display with the drums given extended space to establish the musical scene.11. “The Drum Thing” - Elvin! As Elvin improvises he establishes new thematic ideas which continually build intensity.12. “East Broadway Run Down” - Elvin! I love in particular the long legato phrasing…13 - 15. “The Drum Also Waltzes,” “For Big Sid,” “The Drum Thing” - These are Max Roach’s drum solo masterpieces.16. “Nothing 19” - Milford Graves and Sunny Morgan, two drummers who helped establish the Free-Jazz style.17. “Free For All” - Art Blakey in his glory.
The word "ambient" literally means "encompassing"; it etymology derives from the Latin for "going around." But one of the genres most captivating strains might better be described as going into the mist, the water or even the earth. This strain emphasizes the grain of sound, the rumble of resistance, the thingliness of the recorded medium itself. This school of thought is best exemplified by William Basinski, whose album Disintegration Loops famously captured the sound of years-old piano sketches being played back on crumbling magnetic tape; it also comprises the full-bore intensity of artists like Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, and Fennesz, who whip up shoegaze-grade distortion and then grind it down to dust.
Brian Eno gave ambient music its name; he also gave the genre its definitive soundbite when he imagined a style "as ignorable as it is interesting." And with a remarkable run of albums beginning in the mid 1970s, he laid the groundwork for ambient at its most all-encompassing. Many of those albums were his own, whether solo or in collaboration: Ambient 1: Music for Airports, a limpid snapshot of generative processes at work, is the ur-text, and is exactly as described: Its less something you pay attention to than a tool for subtly charging the air around you. On Apollo, Daniel Lanois pedal-steel guitar is the filament connecting earthy Americana with Enos vaporous space music. And in his position as label-head (of the short-lived Obscure Records) and curator (of Editions EGs Ambient series), he expanded ambient musics purview with work from Harold Budd, Laraaji, and the Penguin Café Orchestra.
What can you say? Brian Eno is a people person. Even before his tenure with Roxy Music was done, he was networking with just about every member of the art-rock elite. Dalliances with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, John Cale, Kevin Ayers, and Nico would lead to his collaboration with David Bowie on his Berlin trilogy. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he’d prove his mettle with rock’s new vanguard as a producer for Ultravox, Talking Heads, and Devo, as well as the no-wavers he included in the No New York compilation.His work with an ambitious young Irish band is what truly established Eno’s rep as someone who could bring the best out of musicians in a recording studio. Eno and Daniel Lanois’ wide-screen production aesthetic for U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree became the gold standard for Important Rock of the 1980s. But rather than apply the same brush to every artist’s music, he’s continued to adapt his methods to whatever the situations require, thereby eliciting extraordinary moments both from blue-chip clients like Coldplay and Damon Albarn and fellow avant-pop artists like Owen Pallett.
Despite his later reputation as rock’s preeminent egghead, Brian Eno clearly delighted in his showman tendencies when he arrived on Roxy Music’s stages looking like a space-age ostrich before smothering the band’s high-concept art-rock rave-ups and decadent ballads with synthesizer whirrs and squeals. Even by the standards of early-‘70s glam, he was wildly flamboyant, so much so that Bryan Ferry grew weary of competing with him for attention from audiences and critics. The tensions prompted Eno to quit the band in 1973.Starting with the same year’s Here Come the Warm Jets, Eno then released a series of solo albums that were just as packed with wild new ideas as his albums with Roxy Music had been. With the help of friends like Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, and Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, he would demolish just about every piece of existing rock methodology in songs that turned and twisted while somehow retaining their headlong velocity.
Nicolas Jaar has commitment issues. His music slithers between psych-speckled post-rock, world-building ambient, minimalist techno, hip-hop-inflected house, and reconstituted pop. Sometimes it’s slinky and sexy, other times it maps out a cavernous space that is icy and foreboding. As an artist, Jaar can be thought of as an arch conceptualist or a sharp-eyed technician, a festival-headlining electronic music god or a museum-dwelling avant garde knob twiddler.He’s all these things, of course. Regardless of the medium, the most interesting artists are the ones who spend their careers negotiating contradictions. Jaar is no different. He’s the NYC club kid, the omnivorous intellectual, and a product of South America’s political unrest. His tireless pursuit of Born in 1990, Jarr came up in the late-’00s NYC house scene, playing Brooklyn’s Marcy hotel parties. Gadi Mizrahi, who hosted the parties as one half of the legendary NYC house duo Wolf & Lamb, heard Jaar’s early compositions — which veered toward experimental atmospherics — and suggested that he add a 4/4 house beat beneath them. Within two years, Jaar had become one of the hottest DJs in NYC’s house scene, releasing his first EP (The Student) and starting his record label (Other People). At the end of this hot streak, he turned 20.Making a playlist of Jaar’s best music is difficult, to say the least. Figuring out how to sequence the euphoric house of his A.A.L. project with the austere techno of his Nymph EPs is a fool’s errand, while blending the Southwestern inflected psych twang of Darkside’s “Golden Arrow” with the sorrowful piano tones of his 2013 Leonard Cohen cover, “Avalanche,” is near-fucking-impossible.And what does one do with Pomegranates? The 2015 release was intended as a soundtrack to Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 Soviet-times movie The Color of Pomegranates, and combines scraps of electronic debris to approximate noisy ambient music. The music at the beginning of the collection is largely abstract sound design — the whizzing harmonics of opener “Garden of Eden” gives way to the clattering, gear-crunching ambience of “Construction” — but this leads to some of Jaar’s most beautiful music: the twinkling, near-East melodies of “Tourists,” the pastoral sheen of “Shame,” and the haunting piano ballad “Muse.”It all makes a little more sense if you’ve seen the movie. Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates is considered one of that era’s definitive underground films. In it, as well as its predecessor, 1965’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Parajanov bucked the state-sanctioned aesthetic of social realism — a stylistically rigid movement that celebrated the nobility of the proletariat — for an hallucinatory style that veered between esoteric, Freudian examinations of a vast innerspace and oblique, symbolist critiques of Soviet politics and society. Upon release, Parajanov’s films were generally panned by native critics and banned by the censors, and Parajanov himself was sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia (ostensibly for his homosexuality).In many ways, Parajanov’s sideways agitprop is a fitting corollary to Jaar’s own work, but Jaar has definitely had an easier go of it. By the time Pomegranates was released in 2015, Jaar was one of the most celebrated producers and DJs in the world. He had a teaching gig at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. His collaborative side-project Darkside had released their critically acclaimed debut, 2013’s Psychic, and became a touring powerhouse, treating audiences worldwide to their loose, spaghetti techno. And Jaar formed an interdisciplinary arts collective called Clown & Sunset Aesthetics that performed inside a geodesic dome at MOMA’s PS1 contemporary art museum. His 2012 BBC Essential Mix was named Radio 1’s Essential Mix Of The Year, while his 2011 debut, Space is Only Noise, was named album of the year by Resident Advisor, Mixmag, and Crack Mag.But Jaar’s breakout composition was 2010’s “Mi Mujer,” which remains his most streamed track on Spotify. It was a song that was never intended to come out — Jaar had laid down the Spanish language vocals of his mother, somewhere between a tribute and a joke — but Jaar released it after bemoaning the appropriation of Latin music samples in electronic music.This is not the only time that Jaar’s family showed up in his work, nor the only time that he has engaged with the issues surrounding the Latin American diaspora. Jaar is from New York, but his family is Chilean. His father, the celebrated multimedia artist Alfredo Jaar, was born in the Chilean capitol of Santiago in 1956. Alfrado’s family soon moved to Mozambique, but they were devoutly liberal, and when the socialist Salvador Allende was democratically elected in 1972, the family returned to Santiago. Unfortunately, Allende’s reign was short lived, and the following year, when Alfredo was 17, Allende was assassinated as Augusto Pinochet rose to power in a bloody coup.Much has been written about Pinochet and Allende, particularly of the CIA’s involvement, but the net of it was that 3,000 were killed and many more “disappeared,” tortured, or imprisoned by the Pinochet-backed Chilean death squad the Caravan of Death (Caravana de la Muerte). Jaar’s family stuck it out in Chile for nearly a decade after Pinochet took power before moving to New York in 1982. Pinochet himself held onto power until March 11th, 1990, when he was disposed following a country-wide referendum. At this time, Nicolas Jaar was 3 months old.Nicolas Jaar has never been an explicitly political artist, but this particularly gruesome chapter of history shows up in his work, particularly on Sirens, from 2016. That album is both his most personal and political work to date. If Pomegranates and the Nymph EPs found him exploring particular strains of his music — musique concrète and fractured techno, respectively — then Sirens is a synthesis, blending the warbling post-rock wanderings of his Darkside project with the textural elements of Pomegranates and the conceptual, cinematic framework of Space, while adding a veneer of pop to give the songs more structure. The collection also, perhaps tellingly, abandoned sampling, and was solely constructed with live instrumentation and Jaar’s voice. “The Governor” and “Three Sides of Nazareth” have a presence that’s lacking in his other work — in particular, the cowpoke vocals and driving baseline of “Governor,” which are juxtaposed with the swirling, subterranean sound effects.The spectre of violence and political unrest hangs over all of Sirens, but the most pointedly political track is “No.” It contains one of the albums few samples — a clip of Andes folk music — and its title references the 1988 referendum that would eventually bring down Pinochet (the choice was, effectively, “yes, he stays” or “no, he leaves”). Speaking to Pitchfork, Jaar noted, “What interested me a lot was that, in 1988, there was a referendum that asked the Chilean people: ‘Do you want Pinochet to stay for eight more years?’ That simple, yes or no. So the resistance—which was artists, leftists, activists—created a campaign for the ‘no.’ They effectively turned a negative message into a positive message, which seems like the most elemental change that you can do.”The track ends with a snippet of sampled dialogue between Nicolas and Alfredo Jaar taken from when the former was a child. It can be translated as such:“Alfredo: Stay against the wall. Put yourself against the wall. Go there and tell others. The one you like, tell a nice story.Nico: Once upon a time there was a little bird that was flying. And there, there was a man with a very big gun and did like this (gunshot).”It’s tempting to view Sirens as a culmination (or synthesis) of Jaar’s approach — the marriage of the personal and political; narratives built from scraps of memories and noise — but 2012 – 2017, his 2018 release under the moniker A.A.L. (Against All Logic), displays yet another side of Jaar. The tracks are hedonistic, transcendent, and eerily (for Jaar) coherent. “Rave On U” builds off clomping high-hats and smeared synth textures for a banger, while “Cityfade” comes outfitted with gospel handclaps, a streaking piano line, and a submerged children’s choir, and is his most accessible work to date. “I Never Dream,” meanwhile, is pure dancefloor euphoria, building off shuffling rhythms and lightly processed female soul vocal for a finish that’s as pretty and blissful as anything Jaar or any of his contemporaries have ever made.When building a playlist, the curator always tries to find the center of an artist or a genre. With Jaar, that’s nearly impossible; his work is endlessly digressive and varied. There are strains of ideas and sounds that appear and reappear, but putting a finger on one feels impossibly reductive. The journey may be bumpy, but it also includes some of the most important and idiosyncratic music created this decade.
There are some styles of music that get codified early on, and then musicians play by certain rules in order to fit in with a group of artists and succeed in their genre’s community. But that’s not the case with black experimental music, where it’s best to surrender to your musical intuition instead of relying on a definition. I, for one, listen for creativity, off-kilter sounds, and anything and everything that veers away from popular aesthetics. Sure, it’s possible for black experimental musicians to cross over to the mainstream—like Funkadelic, Outkast, Erykah Badu, and even Kendrick Lamar—but that popularity doesn’t deter those artists from continuing to shun musical norms and cultivate music from their own imagination.The way I became a vocal proponent of black experimental music was by loosening my own reins as a music critic. Experimental music reveals itself to the world—it finds you and pulls you in. Those nuances of strangeness—the tiny surprises of beats, reverbed whispers, overlaid vocals, and sounds that don’t quite make sense—call out to you, and these artists ask you to listen on a deeper level. This Black Experimental Mixtape Series exists for that purpose. I’m not here to tell you what I know, but to share the sounds that come out of the deepest recesses of black artists’ psyches and creative inner worlds.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.