Britney Spears – Blackout (2007)

Britney_Spears_-_Blackout“If Britney Sparks survived 2007, you can survive today” – an actual coffee mug I’ve seen someone sip brandy out of.  I can think of two times in my life where I’ve felt genuine concern for a celebrity.  One was Charlie Sheen during his winning streak, which wound up briefly making him the most famous person on the planet, often in the context of “is this guy gonna survive another year?”.  The other was Ms. Spears.  Never been much of a fan of her music and quite frankly I was a bit irritated by her celebrity, which I felt she didn’t really earn.  In fact she was kind of the poster child for “everything wrong with the music industry” for about five years.  I never quite knew what her deal was.  Her personality and backstory was totally downplayed, other than the fact that she was just a “down home Southern girl with dreams of becoming a star”.  Had I not been 12 at the time it was released, I might have recognized “…Baby One More Time” as one of pop culture’s most uncomfortable moments, though even that was eclipsed by that one VMA performance which caused everyone’s Dad to completely perv out.  WHAT DO YA THINK THE GIANT SNAKE REPRESENTS, GUYS?  She was such a fever dream for the business that it almost seemed strange to consider that there was a real person behind it all.  That is, until her personal life became a tabloid fixture, with candid, somewhat unsavory shots of her cropping up all over the place, along with monthly stints in rehab for God knows what.  It was really a vicious cycle; like 90% of her bizarre, “OUT OF CONTROL!!” behavior was probably directly attributable to the fact that she was being followed by paparazzi everywhere she went.  Then again she did lose custody of her kids to Kevin Federline, so maybe she really did crack.

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They Might Be Giants – Flood (1990)

On YouTube someone uploaded a 6-minute video which is just the same Sesame Street music video playing five times in a row.  If you have a toddler you know why this is.  Kids have this tendency to want to watch or listen to the same thing over and over again, basically for as long as you’ll let them.  If you don’t have kids this probably sounds awful, but the truth is you begin to develop some sort of Stockholm Syndrome after a while.  You notice little idiosyncrasies in the video – the hidden edits, the actor who half-asses a scene, or the one character a quarter-step out of time.  The song starts playing in your head at all hours of the night.  It’s a small price to pay to get your kid to sit still for 15 minutes.  If I have to know who Pentatonix is, then so be it.  Who am I to get in the way of something my 2 year-old likes?  Haven’t we all had those moments where we wanted to listen to the same song on repeat for a half hour?

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Nmesh – Nu.Wav Hallucinations (2013)

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Here’s what I like about Nmesh: he’s old.  Or, rather, he’s old enough.  In the nostalgia-fueled, archeological dig of a genre that is vaporwave, it’s a shock to see how young some of its more famous names are: Vektroid and Saint Pepsi were literally toddlers when Windows 95 was released, and the first cassettes they’ve bought may have very well been their own.  Nmesh (the ‘m’ is silent), real name Alex Koenig, is a different beast: bearded, bald, and tatted up, he resembles someone you’d expect to see in a metal band.  Perhaps a dork at heart but certainly not someone afraid to show his face.  Nmesh dates all the way back to 2001, which (I’m guessing) was sometime around his 17th birthday, often teetering between “Transmissions from Outer Space”-style trips and grindy IDM stuff.  Granted, I’ve only heard a small percentage of his work – his back catalogue is huge, containing not only a zillion albums and EPs, but also a 360-track compilation of outtakes, produced-bys, and remixes.  Some of it good, some of it strange, most of it very amusing.  The fact that this guy stumbled into vaporwave is interesting to me, since it feels like such a natural direction for guys like him to go.

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情報デスクVIRTUAL – 幌コンテンポラリー

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このアルバムについてのすべてはなんとなく :: Everything about this album is bullshit

There are a number of genres which seem to exist in their own world; music that may cross over from time to time but mostly just gets talked about in the context of itself.  You know the ones – prog, metal, trance, IDM, etc.  Once you get somewhat deep into them you start to encounter the albums which take the identifying properties of the genre and crank ’em up to 11.  These are the albums which tend to be classics within their scene, albeit a lot more polarizing than most of the canonized stuff.  So like Nattens Madrigal for metal, Go Plastic for IDM, or almost everything Gentle Giant did for prog.  Maybe you dig ’em, maybe they hit you on a level that nothing else does, but you sure as hell wouldn’t play them for anyone who wasn’t indoctrinated already.

This gets interesting for vaporwave, a genre which became self-aware, ironic, and kinda shitty on Day 1.  Ramona Xavier, the woman behind 情報デスクVIRTUAL, (translation: Virtual Information Desk) knows this better than anyone, even remarking that she’s released some intentionally awful albums just to see if people would attempt to find a deeper meaning in it.  Those familiar with her work may have their suspicions as to which albums those are.  Truth is, vaporwave relies so much on the ideas of nostalgia, aesthetic, and atmosphere, concepts which mean totally different things to different people.  Maybe it sounds like a joke to you, but to someone else it might be weirdly profound, or something that manages to coax out a distant, very specific memory of childhood.   幌コンテンポラリー  (translates to: Contemporary Sapporo) was described by the artist herself as “a parody of American hypercontextualization of e-Asia circa 1995”.  I have no idea if she meant something by that, or if she just thought that’s what a vaporwave artist would say – after all, Ramona was all of three years old in 1995.  If you lived through the 90’s, especially if you played a lot of video games back then, you might be able to figure what she’s talking about there.  But don’t look too much into it.  幌コンテンポラリー  is not exactly intended to a serious statement – if the 4/20 release date (happy 5th birthday!) and 69 minute runtime don’t tip you off, then maybe the tracklisting will.  If you wanted to understand vaporwave without ever actually listening to it, a stroll through the song titles here would probably do it.

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20 YEARS ON: Mike Doughty – The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns (2016) / Soul Coughing – Irresistible Bliss (1996)

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“The more he releases, the more convinced I become that Mike Doughty has wrung the most greatness from the smallest amount of songwriting diversity of any artist since the Ramones.” – a quote from my man Chris Williams, whose Soul Coughing reviews convinced me to check out the band long ago.  As far as compliments go it’s about as backhanded as they come, but I’d wager that Doughty probably feels this way about himself.  The man approaches his solo career the same way one might in an office job when eying a promotion; always trying to put his foot out there and expand his horizons, attempting to stand out in the densely populated world of four-chord acoustic head-swingers, either by branching out into new, unexpected areas, or by finding new ways to put his music out there.  In the last decade, he’s written a musical, released a cut-n-paste EDM album, done a living room tour, sold personalized songs recorded directly onto tape recorders, ran three successful crowdfunding campaigns, written a book, released a hip-hop album, attended a songwriting camp, recorded three albums worth of Soul Coughing material, ran a subscription service, made an album of covers, and put out an EP of him literally busking in the street.  All this in between a cycle of relatively normal albums and tours.  Like him or not, the man’s got a pretty solid work ethic.

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Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Works Vol. 1 and 2 (1977)

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Classic album anniversaries are usually a cool thing, a way to reflect back on an artist’s accomplishments and muse that “It still sounds great today!”  Anniversaries of their less popular, critically savaged follow-ups just make you feel old.  I follow a lot of prog guys on social media and it seemed that this St. Patrick’s day, the day on which ELP’s Works, Vol. 1 turned 40 years old, was kind of a big deal.  Don’t get me wrong, I know the main reason for the reflection has to do with the fact that Emerson and Lake both passed last year, which always sets off a round of “maybe we shouldn’t have been so mean to them”.  The truth is, it’s hard to be nice to ELP sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll stand up for their classic period as much as anyone.  Those four studio albums they did from 1970-1974, all great.  Even Pictures at an Exhibition I could be pressured into labeling a classic.  But it’s hard to think of too much positive to say about anything they did after that, unless you wanna go the “not as bad as everyone says it is” route.
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The Happy Schnapps Combo – Raise It! (1991)

300x300If you want to understand small-town Wisconsin, consider the origin of the word “cheesehead”.  Once used as a derogatory term, Wisconsinites quickly adopted it and soon thereafter started regularly wearing foam slices of cheese on their heads.  Once upon a time Manitowoc had a Minor League team called the Skunks, named as such because we always let our rivals choose our team names.  We take “more bars than churches” as a point of pride, not an indictment of our character.  And we make fun of our thick Midwestern accents just as much as you do.  Before that no-good Steven Avery came around, Manitowoc’s most famous were the Happy Schnapps Combo, a fusion of German and Polish polka music that gave the small town its very own sound.  A parody of portly, backwoods, beer-drinkin’ hicks, made up entirely of portly, backwoods, beer-drinkin’ hicks.  Gotta write what you know!
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