2011 Year's Best Pop Styles

1. Tindersticks, Claire Denis Film Scores: The craft and art of film scoring has been devalued ever since Prince was given the opportunity to revive his career by attaching a slapdash album of dumb songs to Tim Burton’s first “Batman” franchise and calling it a soundtrack. This began the current era of soundtracks as something akin to product tie-ins at fast food restaurants. It doesn’t have to be like that.

A good soundtrack supports the story, the drama, and good soundtrack composers are able to write requests, essentially, fitting their music to each individual story and, for the best ones like Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith, maintaining their own consistent voice. Those values are shared by this substantial, completely wonderful collection of music that the band Tindersticks has made for over a decade for director Claire Denis.

As a whole, this collection succeeds in many ways; each disc comes off as a complete, discrete and finely made record, each has a flavor that is distinctive while consistentlhy carrying the bands lean, intelligent sound, each has an internal musical narrative that can stand on its own, separate from the film. Ultimately, this is all soundtrack music in the old-fashioned sense. Tindersticks may be a rock band, but there is not a thought that this music is anything at all like a pop hits compilation.

The music is excellent, lyrical, focussed, with themes that convey scene and mood with little cliché, and they are also a pleasure to hear. Predominantly instrumental, there’s also the excellent title song for “Trouble Every Day.” Every note seems set in the ideal place, a delicately crafted, multi-dimensional mosaic. In Denis’ slightly abstracted, slightly stilted world, the music has the essential effect of humanizing her narratives, connecting the story on the screen to sympathetic human experiences. The power of pop culture is best described in Doctor Who terms; it creates fixed places in the memory around which we orient huge stretches of our lives. The movies have a big hand in that, but listening to these discs, especially Nenette et Boni’s cafés of the imagination and the icy edge of White Materials carves out a whole new set of experiences and memories.  Film Scores is over 190 minutes of wonderful music, the easy charm belying the power of the music, standing on its own as the finest pop release of the year (listen to a sampler here).

2. Tom Waits, Bad as Me: An easy call, sure. Waits is one of the greatest musicians America has produced, and almost everything he does is notable. But over the last few years of collections and seemingly accidental records, his vital weirdness has been in hiding. No more. Bad as Me is vintage late period Waits, and is also an aesthetic advance on his previous body of work for the Anti label. It’s rawer, meaner, darker and also more inventive, wittier, pithier and sweeter. A highpoint is the most openly political song he’s produce, “Hell Broke Luce,” which is an amazing, funny, furious stream of consciousness rant, the story of one man caught up in the fucked-up history the 1% engineers for us. Essential.

3. Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto, summvs: A lusciously delicate combination of the lovely and the glitchy. The simple beauty and charm of Sakamoto’s thinking meshes exceptionally well with Noto’s flitting nanosounds. A great expression of the essentially fleeting nature of music itself.

4. Radiohead, King of Limbs: Easy to regard them the way we regard Waits, and just as apt. The toughness of the thinking and the continued shifts and growth of their musical style makes this their best release since Kid A, and one of their very best overall.

5. Milk Maid, Yucca: The kind of record that fulfills the promise that rock offered when it started to break free of its roots in R&B, the promise that, with a sense of musicality, you can make yourself heard. The deliberately crunchy, haphazard sonics and playing are the perfect dress for the pitch- and style-perfect song craft.

6. itsnotyouitsme, everyone’s pain is magnificent: There’s a lot of ambient music out there, even fewer true ambient bands, and none like this duo. Focussed music-making, including improvisation, means that the rich sound and slow-pulsation of the material is enfolding and involving, rather than just subliminally ‘chill.’ One of the more beautiful records of the year.

7. Joe Henry, Reverie: At first listen, this seemed a bit of a drop off from the rare heights of his 2009 release, Blood From the Stars, but after a couple more, the subtleties reveal the epitome of post-Dylan song craft, where the lyrics don’t have to necessarily mean anything but they need to make you feel something. Full of plangent, humane feelings, with Henry’s usual gorgeous production, and that inimitable voice.

8. Thundercat, The Golden Age of Apocalypse: This and the Stepkids record below are signs in a rare and welcome kind of pop-culture recycling, one that both sincerely loves the past and is irreverent about it as well. Thundercat mixes the best of of the ‘worst’ of 1970s soul and jazz-rock fusion into a hip, smart and extremely well-made record, with the kind of bass playing that must have Stanley Clarke nodding in approval.

9. Gabriel Kahane, Where Are the Arms: It’s a tribute to Kahane’s charm, intelligence and musicianship that a record that might seem to be a worthy yet anodyne entry into the LA-based sing-songwriter genus is instead so soulful, inventive and emotionally involving, all while wearing its virtues and pedigree so lightly.

10. The Stepkids, The Stepkids: To say this record is pure fun is in no way dismissive. The Stepkids know their way around a clavinet, funky kung-fu, and more than a little bit of Parliament/Funkadelic, Isaac Hayes, Lee Perry and Motown. In the right mood, their revival of every cliché you’ve ever missed is almost insanely great.

Honorable Mention: Skuli Sverisson’s Seria discs, Sondre Lerche, The Roots, Pitom, James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg, Finn Johannsen & Stefan Goldmann

OK Composer


Victoire’s darkly lovely Cathedral City starts with hushed electric piano, then burst open darkly with snaking, intertwined violin and clarinet lines. That description reveals very little of how much this recording makes me think of Radiohead’s Kid A, in all the best ways (for a companion discussion of this, and the usual context, see my ClassicalTV piece “On The Myth of ‘Difficult’ Music“). Victoire is composer Missy Mazzoli’s band, and considering what that word means in a classical context tells us a great deal about what alt-classical actually is. Call them a band, a chamber ensemble, it’s all the same in the end, a small ensemble of mixed acoustic and electric instruments, playing music written by the composer. Call that music pieces, or tracks or songs, again it’s all the same, even though there is no singing and the music doesn’t follow the form of any kind of popular song. The same is true for much of Kid A.

The music does a lot of singing, though, some of it coming from Mazzoli’s opera Songs From The Uproar, material she rearranged for the band, and that long, singing quality is there in the clarinet and violin on “A Door Into The Dark” and “I Am Coming For My Things,” the latter enhanced with electronics that create a social time and place in the mind’s ear. The reedy, rasping sounds of the lead instruments could almost be Thom Yorke in moments when the mind loses its place in the current of time and finds a singularity in personal history and imagination. Mazzoli is one of the most interesting composers of her generation; she uses the repetitive processes of post-Minimalism in the sensible cause of rhythm, not overall form and structure, she is intuitive and natural in the way she uses elements of rock and electronic music and sound, and she has rediscovered the eternal importance and pleasure of harmony, especially in the stimulation of pressing a dissonant leading tone against a set of moving chords for an extended duration as the note waits for the rest of the music to catch up. Like the groined vault, it’s an ancient idea that remains with us because it works.

So, this material and these devices, which are completely classical in nature, still sound like instrumental pop music when played by this band, with the familiar colors and sonic quality of pop and rock music. If anything decodes the nature and style of alt-classical, it is this recording. Half of it appeared last year as the fine Door Into The Dark EP, available only through eMusic. The additional material is as good; “The Diver” and “A Song For Mick Kelley” are especially gorgeous and engrossing. “A Song For Arthur Russell,” on both recordings, has held up less well, circling around its introduction and too reluctant to explore the possibilities of its own material, but the concluding “India Whisky” adds an exuberance to Mazzoli’s already considerable music. Along with her technical skills, she has the particular and personal qualities of allusiveness and elusiveness; the emotional expression is provocative without being strictly defined and thus limit its staying power, and the structures flow like chilled quicksilver through clear but seemingly unbounded sections, beguiling us onward.

You can download “A Song For Mick Kelly” here, and see Victoire perform at Joe’s Pub, Saturday, October 2 at 7:30PM.

If you hit the ClassicalTV link above, you also read about Sarah Kirkland Snider’s upcoming (October 26) debut release, Penelope . This is confirmed contemporary classical musical, with the features of a musical and personal appeal to a more popular (alt) and specifically an “alt” or indie audience. The work is a song cycle with text by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, a variation on the Odyssey in which Penelope, her husband returned and psychologically damaged from twenty years of war, reads to him from Homer’s work, to restore his mind. The overwhelmingly moving concept is balanced by clear, concentrated and undemonstrative writing of both the words and the music.

Snider’s writing emphasizes that clarity, both of sound and thought. She already has made the crucial and admirable decision to set such text, and she reveals it with sympathy and trust that we will hear and respond, deeply, in our own way. It’s almost dogmatically non-Romantic, but still full of warmth and feeling. It tells the story of a story-telling, with the two most fundamental acts of human civilization it makes an attempt at redeeming the savagery of human society. That we listen and do not solve this problem, but listen still, is a mark of its success.

Penelope in this work is Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond, and her presence will likely draw her fans. They will hear her sing with an appealing, natural delicacy, her voice in her throat and chest, the places where one reads aloud. She handles the non-pop song phrasing with ease, breathing where the words and music land, not after every two or four bars. Snider sets the words in a flowing, horizontal manner; the harmonic transparency and rhythmic phrases keep point and purpose at the forefront while the piece moves deliberately and determinedly through time. It’s a musical sound that will appeal across classical and popular audiences alike (easily commanding playing from Signal and conductor Brad Lubman). The results are powerfully elegiac but not hopeless. Penelope does not settle on a complete, clichéd resolution, but offers the evidence that proves the possibilities of humanity.

You can download “This is What You’re Like” from the cycle here. Penelope will be performed at Le Poisson Rouge on October 18.


“You might believe these things you say!” Generally, one hopes people mean what they say, but there are certain times when generous thinking would mean hoping that people don’t necessarily do so. Take Matt Friedberger, of the Fiery Furnaces. It’s one thing to confuse Harry Partch with Harry Patch, and when I first saw the news about the new Radiohead song, I did a double-take myself. But ye gods, lad, just say you don’t like Radiohead and quit while you’re ahead. The incoherent, rambling complaints and justifications reveal a pretty profound ignorance of Partch’s work and an insecure, infantile antagonism to the band. But then, musical incoherence, limited aesthetic horizons and a kind of smug ignorance about the voices who came before and are around are staples of a lot of indie-rock (and indie-cinema). And since musically incoherent bands like Fiery Furnaces and Dirty Projects garner praise and admiration, these must be qualities to admire and aspire to. I prefer knowledge, ambition and musical coherence, so I’ll stick with Radiohead (perhaps Beck does too, but his musical response is the most incoherent thing of all in this dumb dispute).

Think of it as a debate, forget the facts, and focus on the rhetoric. Rhetoric is an essential tool and can convince on its own, but it must be as coherent as pure logic. Even if the rhetoric is disingenuous, it must make sense. Look at Sarah Palin, desperate to please everyone she speaks with, to tell them what she thinks they want to hear. She’s completely disingenuous, but doesn’t have the skill to run for President, much less win and govern – she can’t think and speak coherently, she can’t make any sense. Politician as indie-rock front-woman, it’s a curious phenomenon. Making sense, communicating clearly, is a matter of craft, and craft may go out of fashion but it never goes out of style.

The craft of Ralph Shapey, the latest composer feted in the Composer Portraits at Miller Theater, is an example of this. His art is bracingly crusty and uncompromising and completely sincere, and it’s never been in fashion (a Pulitzer Prize was, amazingly, overruled). Liking or not liking his music is a matter of personal taste, but he unquestionably wrote good music. The works on the program were a fine representation of his career; concentrated in size, ambitious, challenging for musicians and audiences, extremely well crafted and always coherent. Agree or disagree with what he says, but what he says is always clear.

Shapey began his musical life playing the violin, and his writing for the instrument is almost impossibly fine. Two of the strongest works on the program, “Etchings” for solo violin (finished when he was in his mid-twenties) and “Five,” for violin and piano, are works that show an intimate familiarity with what is possible on the instrument. These are works at the edge of playability but are never showy. The challenges are not endless runs of notes and chromatic scales but immediate, broad intervals and quick shifts to and from harmonics. This is virtuoso violin music like that Stravinsky wrote for his Concerto, demanding more speed from the mind than the fingers, and emphasizing quickness of the bow from string to string rather than dramatic twirling of the left hand fingers. The early work takes a graceful, ultra-Romantic, melody reminiscent of the gripping opening of the Bartok solo violin sonata and repeats it through several variations of tempo and rhetorical quality – grander, sweeter, syncopated – complete with a surprise authentic cadence. The surprise is because Shapey’s work, while mostly not atonal, is highly dissonant, and although that necessarily means that there is consonance and diatonic melodies and chords to be found in his music, the emphasis is on a craggy, confident and very American dissonance. His sonorities, especially for combined winds, are astringent to the point of peeling paint. “Five” is a real masterpiece, a work that seems effortlessly virtuosic in performance but which clearly demanded a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. An explosive, breathtaking opening statement consolidates into a more introverted soliloquy in the violin, and then the ideas begin to come with a speed and density which rivals Beethoven, and there is a sense of an ongoing, constructive debate between the two instruments. There is almost constant activity between the two and a bit of rhythmic conflict, especially in the Scherzo movement where the violin bickers with short, punchy diatonic phrases from the keyboard. The work says more in ten minutes than many symphonies do across an hour. Violinist <a href="”>Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen played with the command and ease that comes from dedication to the music and understanding what it is they want to say; coherence in composition breeds coherence in performance.

Shapey shares a something with Elliot Carter, in that good musicians are drawn to the quality and challenge of his music. The spirit of his music is serious, rigorous, clear-eyed, far less playful than Carter but with a greater tenderness and humanity, both in specific moments and as a consistent underlying his voice. There’s a sense of the individual declaring themselves to the universe, then exploring the territory around them, speaking up for and defining their own existence. He’s a Romanticist who writes in a highly Modern language, a sort of generational progeny of Samuel Barber. Even in muscularly atonal works like “Movements” for woodwind quintet and “Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Group” (featuring the New York Woodwind Quintet and the Argento Ensemble), there is a quiet lyricism in the middle of the strident, high E’s blasting from the flute and the roiling Romanticism of the clarinet. The “Quintet” is full of disorienting wide intervals, which are fodder for good wind players, and since the music makes such sense to the musicians it quickly makes sense to the ear. Shapey does familiar things in extreme ways; he favors rondo forms and passages, and so music that first seems like neurotic chattering soon reveals itself as a fascinating chase. The “Concerto” has parts for two percussionists, playing bass drums, and the soft but full bodied sound of their stubborn rhythms is both a mysterious echo of the ensemble and a musical response and ground its own right, like the ‘druids’ in Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.”

The percussion writing is surprising and usually effective. The second half opened with the weakest piece on the program, his later “Interchange” for percussion quartet. His scoring for metal instruments is attractive, the sonorities of tubular bells, orchestral bells and vibraphone sounds great, but here Shapey is locked to true atonality, a 12-tone row he described as his mother lode, and the row seems to lead him around, rather than vice-versa. There’s an interesting eeriness to the sound, but the overall effect is mechanical, and that’s enhanced by a particular dotted-eighth/sixteenth/triplet rhythm (which sounds very much like Partch) which appears too often with too little variation. The piece doesn’t breath with life and spontaneity like the other works, including the concluding “Three for Six,” with it’s lively, demanding woodwind writing and provocative timpani phrases. It begins with a familiar tactic, and explosion of sharp sounds and forceful figures, a combination of announcement and march. The ensemble seemed slightly stiff at first, but then found their way to an unforced pace and really began to speak the music. There is a lovely, haunting viola solo in the middle movement, dazzling clarinet solos, and always the music is answered by the timpani, supported by the piano, asking “is that what you mean to say? Is that what you mean to say?” Shapey, as a composer, clearly asked himself that question, and answered “yes, I mean to say exactly this.”

The next Composer Portraits concert is dedicated to the evocative music of Kaija Saariaho, on Sunday November 22 at 8PM.

Radiohead and Me

A gentle plea, dear Reader(s):

I’ve added my own mix to Radiohead’s opportunity for remixes of their song “Nude” from their new In Rainbows recording. You can listen to it here, and vote that it’s your favorite! Voter early, and often! Or, at least early.

It was fun to do. Unfortunately, the limit for file size is 5MB, and my first mix in Logic, which I think is quite good, came out too large. So I did a second mix in Garageband. For the exercise, I confined myself completely to the material in the song itself, and did some subtle reworking and displacement of the inner structure, and tried to emphasize what I hear as the tension and release of the tune.

Like I said, fun, especially since I love the band. But I would like to see a vote other than my own, so vote!