Saturday, January 26, 2008

Michael Jackson With Akon

Here is a reprise of Michael Jackson's 'Wanna Be Starting Something.' This time around its performed with contemporary sensation Akon. I don't think this version is as good as the original, but it's still worth a spin.

You can stream it below:

Michael Jackson w/ Akon - 'Wanna Be Startin' Something 2008'

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

All Hail: Hail Social Gets Free

Philadelphia's own electro-rocking Hail Social recently posted a couple of free downloads to their blog. The tracks are b-sides from the band's Modern Love and Death album.

The two tracks, "There's a Boy" and "The Last Thing," were previously available as bonus tracks to fans who purchased the full album via InSound.

For a quick taste, here's the stream to "There's a Boy." Very catchy.

Hail Social - 'There's a Boy'

To download both tracks and show your support for the band, click here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Portishead Announce New Album

Portishead, one of my favorite U.K. trip-hop groups, has announced that they will release a new album on April 14th of this year.

The record, which will be titled THIRD, is not only the third studio effort from the band but also their first album in 10 years.

According to the release will drop in the midst of a three month European tour. The only U.S. date set at this time is for April 26th's Coachella Festival. Portishead is scheduled to headline night two of the three day festival.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Whitest Boy Alive - 'Golden Cage'

I recently ran across a band that is just as cerebral as Radiohead and Badly Drawn Boy. And to top it all off, they make abstract videos too!

You can watch The Whitest Boy Alive's video for 'Golden Cage' below:

(You can check out The Whitest Boy Alive's Myspace by clicking here.)

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Friday, January 18, 2008

'We're Brothers Forever'

I'll try not to get into too much of a habit of posting American Idol try-out disasters, but I couldn't resist this one.

Renaldo Lapuz is his name, and he composed a song with Simon in mind. It's called 'We're Brothers Forever,' and it is probably one of the catchiest, comedic songs I've heard in a long while. The good stuff begins around the 1:30 mark. From there it just gets better and better.

Vinyl vs. CD: An Analog Revival in a Digital World (Part 3 of 3)

(This is the third part of a three part article discussing the format wars between CD and Vinyl.)

As I alluded in Part 1, many advocates of vinyl claim that the LP actually presents a richer, more robust sound than the CD. Are they correct? To discover for myself I decided to listen to both vinyls and CDs of the very same album. And to make sure I wasn't missing out on any sonic nuances, I performed this "test" using higher quality Phillips headphones. The turntable I used was the Sony PSLX250H. The same EQ and volume settings were used for all CD and vinyl listening sessions as well.

I decided to listen to two different albums; one new and one old. The new album was The Killers' Sam's Town. The old album was Steely Dan's Aja. I chose these albums that hail from very different eras to examine an important point regarding the vinyl v. CD debate: does an album that was cut with a specific medium in mind tend to sound better on that intended medium? In other words, does The Killers album, which was mixed primarily for the CD, sound better than its vinyl counterpart? Or does one medium tend to rise to the top regardless of the producer's intent?

Finally, before I continue on with my analysis of both albums, I must emphasize that my test is by no means scientific. Instead, my findings are based on my personal and subjective conclusions. Please keep that in mind if my determinations run counter to yours.

The Killers - 'Sam's Town'
Recently I splurged and purchased the special edition picture disc vinyl of The Killers' Sam's Town from a local, independent music shop. It came with bonus artwork that folded out, and the disc itself looked very cool. But how did it sound?

Because this Killers album was released in 2006, it is safe to say its production staff had the CD in mind when it cut the record. This means that all of the mixing and layering was tweaked to sound as good as it could on a compact disc. And I'm willing to bet that many of the dubs were recorded digitally as well. With that in mind I figured I'd be lucky to have the vinyl version of Sam's Town provide me with an equally mastered sound. But, needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

To be perfectly honest, there was such little difference between the vinyl and the CD that it was quite negligible. In fact, it was only because I was focusing so intently for the purposes of this post that I even began to notice the subtleties of each medium. The first thing I did notice, however, was that a slight crackle and hiss inherent of vinyl was present on each track when I listened to the wax version of Sam's Town. Of course I did have headphones on, and I did have the volume cranked way up, but it was still a difference that weighed in silicon's favor where no hiss existed under the same settings. Depending on whether you like pops and ambient feedback imposed on top of your music, the CD version ended up being the better option.

But as I listened further, I noticed that the vinyl version, aside from those slight hisses, actually provided a bit more of a richer sound. The instruments were more pronounced, and they had a sharper zing to them. Bass drums actually overtook Brandon Flowers' vocals at times, and it began to feel like I was sitting in the studio with the band live as they were laying down each track. The CD, on the other hand, sounded relatively tinny when compared to the vinyl, and every instrument seemed to have been amplified to share one uniform volume level. The CD had a much cleaner sound though, and the production focus was definitely on Flowers' singing as I never detected any moment where an instrument once overtook his voice. The CD was certainly a little more "sanitized."

Like I said, the differences between the vinyl and CD versions of this modern album were minuscule. The fact that the vinyl could sound as good as its CD counterpart in 2008 was definitely unexpected, but in no way did the LP sound better. While the vinyl provided a more pronounced sound than the CD, the CD was cleaner in that it didn't have that faint hiss. That clean sound did lead to making the CD sound tinnier, however, and I preferred the vinyl slightly if only for its ability to capture every instrument's true sound without reducing them all to the same volume level below that of the vocal.

To be sure, the distinction between the vinyl and CD of Sam's Town is a true toss-up. The album was definitely custom made for the CD, so from that standpoint it probably makes most sense for the average audiophile to enjoy the album on that medium. Yet, if you value full fidelity and don't mind a weak LP crackle on a modern song, then the vinyl version is for you. Not to be too much of a fence sitter on this one, format preference for Sam's Town truly lies in the ear of the beholder.

Steely Dan - 'Aja'
Unlike my Sam's Town purchase, in no way did I need to splurge to pick up the vinyl version of Aja. For a whopping $1.99 I bought a non-warped, near-mint version of one of Steely's finest albums from the very same independent record store as before. If only for the bargain price alone, I could not wait to spin this record as soon as I got home.

In large contrast to my Killers experience, the difference between Aja on vinyl and Aja on CD was DRASTIC! The wax disc was louder, fuller, and richer than its silicon counterpart in very acute ways. One of the most dazzling observations was the fact that the horns really shone through on the vinyl when they were pretty much a non-element on the compact disc. The backing vocals were also warmer on the LP, and every single sound was pure vibrancy. The CD, on the other hand, had every instrument mixed to the same level, and the entire package was so silent I felt like I was listening to a distant band in a vacuum, as opposed to a very near band in a recording studio. To say the least, the studio perfectionism of Steely Dan lore was stripped of all its nuances on the CD. Talk about no fun!

Similar to my Killers listening test, Aja also had the inherent crackle and hiss present, but the overall sound was so evidently superior to the CD that after a very short while I didn't even pay attention. That is not to say that the CD sounded bad---the CD actually sounded very good in and of itself. Its just that while the CD sounded great, the vinyl sounded greater.

My test by no means provided conclusive results. Scientific conditions weren't maintained, and there was a very limited random sample: Me. But through this small, three-part exploration, I did discover that vinyl, a medium I formerly wrote off as an antiquated relic, can sound just as good, if not better, than the contemporary CD.

Surely, as the compact disc is increasingly dwarfed by hard drives and iPods as the preferred place to house digital tracks, vinyl will remain the one bastion of tangible music. It will be the last place where music can actually be held in hand and admired without the need for a computer screen. And as more and more artists begin to release albums with vinyl as one of their intended formats, it will not be surprising to have modern day LPs sound better than their digital counterparts.

For further reading on this trend, check out Time Magazine's very recent article.

(You can also read parts 1 and 2 of this article by clicking on their respective number).

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pharaoh, Let My People Goooh!

The premier to American Idol debuted Tuesday night, and as it usually does during its initial audition stages, it brought to the viewer much hilarity.

This poor soul, named James Lewis, was encouraged by his coworkers to try out for the show. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewis sounded more like a slo-mo version of
Robert Goulet than America's next top singing talent.

Watch the clip of James Lewis singing 'Go Down Moses.' You can watch it below:

PS: Chocolate Rain!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Forgotten Gem: Babylon Zoo - 'Spaceman'

If the name Babylon Zoo sounds familiar, you might recall a certain Levi's commercial from 1996 which featured a chipmunked Sci-fi dance track.

The song was called 'Spaceman,' and the success of the advertisement sent it rocketing to the #1 spot in England - where it sold a million copies and still ranks among the fastest selling debut singles in history. Surprisingly, not too many people remember the band for all of its one-hit wonder status.

Babylon Zoo, a.k.a. Jas Mann, had recorded 'Spaceman' in its original industrial-glam style, but it wasn't until after the single had been remixed to warp speed by producer Arthur Baker that people began to really take notice. Levi's contacted the band about using the remix for a new jeans ad, and eventually came to an agreement. The band then rereleased the single, adding the famously sped-up introduction, and it soared from there.

I'm sure many who bought the single were disappointed to find that the "chipmunk song" was merely a small portion of the actual track. When compared to the high-octane intro, the rest of the song's tempo simply crashes.

I played 'Spaceman' repeatedly in the mid-90s, but eventually shelved it once the initial novelty wore off. However, upon recently rediscovering it in my collection, I must admit I've had a tough time keeping the song out of my rotation.

'Spaceman' goes from 100 to zero, and then slowly trudges it's way back up to the point of rocking out again. The dynamic shifts throughout this extraterrestrial single have always managed to pique my curiosity.

Babylon Zoo - 'Spaceman'

Monday, January 14, 2008

Caught On Tape: Radiohead's Video Archives

In keeping with Steve's recent post regarding Radiohead, I've decided to dive into the band's deep catalog to summon a couple of favorite music videos. Not an easy challenge when you consider how many great videos the band has filmed. In fact, few other artists have consistently put out videos of the same caliber. So while this column could survive on Radiohead alone for the next several months, I have decided to narrow down the list into a single post.

Listeners who first came to know of the band during their mainstream breakthrough likely remember the standout single and video to
"Karma Police." The video plays like a scene from a dark, gritty mafia flick. Vocalist Thom Yorke sits backseat in the slow pursuit of a man on foot. As the title implies, the tables soon turn, and the hunter becomes the hunted.

Other memories might recall the visually lush shopping cart video for
"Fake Plastic Trees," or the bizarrely entertaining animation for "Paranoid Android."

A captivating exchange at a diner plays into a dramatic conclusion on
"High and Dry."

The video for
"Just" is a slowly unraveling mystery that leaves as many questions as answers. Fans are still arguing over what exactly it is the man says at the end.

But perhaps two of my absolute favorite video picks from Radiohead are
"Knives Out" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)."

With 2001's
Amnesiac album, the band released "Knives Out." Directed by Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the surrealistic video is accomplished through the heavy use of choreographed character props and one single filming take that revolves around the set design. The complicated process ended in a well-realized artistic statement. Watch the result below:

"Street Spirit (Fade Out)" was directed back in 1995 by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast; aforementioned "Karma Police"). Easily my pick for Radiohead's most visually stunning effort, this video was shot using different frame speeds to allow the characters and objects to intersect and float through space at different time signatures. Shimmering in silver B&W, every still of this video could be displayed as its own photograph. Possibly among the best music videos ever made:

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Radiohead - 'The Bends'

Rock in the mid-nineties was dominated by one mantra: back-to-basics. Following two prior decades of progressive artists who pushed the genre's envelope beyond the three minute single toward sprawling and complex mind treks, many bands of the last decade reacted and traversed into the opposite direction. Shorter tunes returned during the nineties, and the aural odysseys created by studio perfectionists such as Pink Floyd and Steely Dan all but disappeared from popular rock.

Radiohead's The Bends was one exception to this trend.

The Bends is one of those albums you have to listen to with headphones in order to truly understand. Much of the record features trippy, computerized sound effects layered on top of understated guitar, and the band carefully utilizes feedback and squelch that you would otherwise miss on normal speakers. Of course, such computerized blends would later become part of the band's signature sound.

From a production standpoint the record offers several different introduction techniques that grant each track its own identity. The title song, for instance, makes use of a circus parade for its beginning that is presumably extracted from an old movie. 'Bones' leads in with an alien hum that could have easily been dubbed into the score of an X-Files episode. And 'Black Star' commences with a throwback fade-in used by many other bands of yesteryear. Such speculative procession grants a warmth that can really be appreciated---it feels like a freshly discovered secret every time these experimental intros are heard.

Lyrically, The Bends is about as brooding one can get. "I need to wash myself again to hide all the dirt and pain / I'd be scared that there's nothing underneath," and "So pay me money and take a shot / Lead-fill the hole in me," and "I want to be part of the human race" are all profound snapshots of a protagonist in despair. However, lacking the raw angst present in many of the grunge songs of the same era, the tracks on this record craft its self-deprecation with such consideration and eloquence that one cannot help but see a glimmer of hope shining through all that yearning and anguish.

Nevertheless, in light of the advanced studio techniques and abstruse lyrics, The Bends's real gimmick is the anthemic conclusions that anchor every song. Many of the songs follow the same enticing formula: seductive intros, alluring crescendos, and resonating culminations. But it's a formula that never gets old. As much as Radiohead tries to be cerebral on this album, it is its lucid hooks that drive the listener to rotate this record uninterrupted from beginning to end. And it is that simple pop blueprint that relates The Bends to the other back-to-basics records of its time.

For a band that has created classics with nearly every album it has recorded, controversy certainly arises when one makes the brash move to call The Bends Radiohead's greatest record. With the onslaught of acclaim that continues to attach itself to this band, to suggest that Radiohead peaked on their second album is probably hearsay to many fans. However, in light of that acknowledgment, I maintain that very assertion.

For me, what makes The Bends Radiohead's best is its portrayal of a band at its most comfortable before its fans defined what comfortable should be (if Radiohead released an album similar to this today fans would riot). It is an album that extends the fresh excellence of Pablo Honey a little bit further, just prior to the band's music becoming reliant on computerization and the conceptual.

I am including four songs that accurately portray the feeling of this album: 'Planet Telex,' 'The Bends,' 'Bones,' and 'Just.' You can stream all below:

Radiohead - 'Planet Telex'

Radiohead - 'The Bends'

Radiohead - 'Bones'

Radiohead - 'Just'

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sia - 'Some People Have Real Problems'

Sia's latest offering, Some People Have Real Problems, is quiet and beautiful. The Australian's soothing croon is a subtler xerox of Joss Stone's, but Sia's lyrical content and gentle arrangement provides greater sophistication. The instrumentation on this album intertwines with Sia's voice so flawlessly her vocals do a brilliant job of shining through. Overall, this is a very well mixed album.

I am featuring two great, but different, songs available on this newest record: 'I Go To Sleep' and 'Death By Chocolate.' You can stream both below:

Sia - 'I Go To Sleep'

Sia - 'Death By Chocolate'

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Eat Sugar - 'Sixteen'

This video reminds me of the low budget music shorts of the early eighties that originally made MTV so great. Not only is the song itself raw and fresh, but the band appears to be having such a great time performing it to boot!

Watch the video for Eat Sugar's 'Sixteen' below:

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Vinyl vs. CD: An Analog Revival in a Digital World (Part 2 of 3)

(This is the second part of a three part article discussing the format wars between CD and Vinyl.)

In Part 1, I briefly introduced vinyl as a medium that appears to be on an upswing in a world dominated by the compact disc. In this section, I will further enumerate the vast differences between the two formats.

This is probably the one category where the two camps of format fanatics can agree. The compact disc wins the portability argument in one fell swoop if only because of its smaller, sleeker size. The vinyl LP is physically wider, and it is considerably heavier. This means that transporting numerous amounts of CDs can be accomplished much easier than transporting even just a few LPs. Furthermore, most car stereos can play CDs, and many folks own portable boomboxes to where they can easily bring their silicon tunes with them. Imagine trying to install a vinyl player in a car dash!

In the past, my only experience with vinyl was the faded, crackling sound of warped records stored in my parents' basement. Obviously, if a vinyl has been taken proper care of, the LP can live a long, fruitful life, and the crackles and pops of vinyl urban lore can be avoided. But in any case, my not-so-unique experience serves as an effective example of another benefit the CD holds over vinyl: turntables make contact with the medium every time the music is played, whereas no physical contact is made with a CD. It is a laser beam that decodes music encoded digitally, meaning virtually no wear or tear occurs when a CD is played. Vinyl LPs, on the other hand, are worn down slightly (albeit minutely) every time the stylus runs itself through the groove. On top of that, vinyls are much more easily scratched and the dust they can collect can significantly alter the intended sound. However, there is one caveat to the durability debate: Silicon, over time, begins to deteriorate just by sitting in storage on its own. In fact, CDs apparently have a life span of only 15 good years. Vinyl, on the other hand, can endure for over a century. Depending on how permanent your collection is, vinyl may actually win out in this category.

Listener Experience
CDs have tried to employ gimmicks in the past to force its listeners to be more emotionally involved. Some music companies have snuck computer programs that can be played off of the disc, and some have even implemented "secret tracks." But for the most part, many CDs are relatively boring, containing little incentive for the listener to sit back and just admire the disc. Vinyl obviously does a better job of generating involvement. The division of a long player into two separate sides means that the listener better be paying attention so she can flip the record over at the necessary time. The heavier, thicker tactile effect of vinyl also leaves greater imprint on the imagination from simply just touching and handling the waxy record. Larger artwork and linear notes are usually packaged with the vinyl LP. Conversely, CDs are flimsy and brittle, invoking little romantic feeling from its look and touch.

From a convenience perspective, there is no way to remotely navigate from track to track on vinyl when a listener is bored, wanting to hear something else. No, the vinyl is more album oriented, meaning the listener must usually be committed for as long as each side is. If the listener wants to change track mid-rotation, she risks scratching the record and disturbing continuity by improperly lifting the stylus and matching it with an incorrect section of groove. On the other hand, because of the instant gratification the CD provides (just click a button on a remote from the comfort of your sofa) there really is very little involvement required by the CD. This may be highly convenient, but is it a memorable experience?

For many, the rapid accessibility to music a CD provides is what makes the medium great. After all, who wants to mess around with keeping an eye on a turntable when the kids need to be fed and supper is on the stove? But for those who play records to experience a sonic odyssey, all of the otherwise cumbersome features of the LP are actually enjoyable moments of the experience. Carefully placing the vinyl on the turntable and meticulously descending the stylus require diligence and focus. In contrast, simply loading a silicon disc into an electronic tray happens so effortlessly we often take it for granted. Depending on one's motivation, the interactivity required of vinyl can be a saving grace, or instead, a despicable curse.

Technological Differences
The technological distinctions between vinyl and the compact disc are starkly evident. The former is analog, and the latter is digital. Vinyl contains the physical manifestations of the sound waves in its grooves, while the CD contains binary snapshots and representations of the sound in the form of ones and zeroes. Vinyl can hold maybe half-an-hour's worth of audible data on each side, whereas the CD is single-sided and can hold up to 80 minutes of sound in a much smaller space. CD players allow the listener to pause, skip, rewind, and shuffle all from the convenience of a remote. Turntables require the listener to hover over the unit to run its functions, and they are incapable of skipping or pausing in the way a CD player can. Shuffling is also an impossibility with vinyl (unless, maybe, you have some crazy, custom-engineered system).

Perhaps the most important technological difference has to do with the fact that an album is the music, and a CD is merely a place where the music resides. At first this is sort of a murky distinction, but think of it like this: An album, because of its analog nature, has a unique physical "fingerprint" for each album imprinted onto it. The actual sound waves are imposed into the vinyl, essentially creating a different "sculpture" for each album recorded. With a CD, its digital encoding is manifested as microscopic differences in dye burned by the original laser. However, unlike vinyl, with the right kind of laser (and arguably the right kind of CD) that original image can be erased and re-recorded with something else on the very same piece of silicon. So while the digital image can change, the physical characteristics of the CD remain the same. Such a function is impossible with vinyl.

Furthermore, the CD is multifunctional, whereas vinyl is not. With vinyl, it has one purpose: the playback of audio. CDs, as we are all aware, can contain so much more than music. Photos, computer software, video, classified documents, and PowerPoint presentations can all be stored and accessed on a compact disc. And because the music on CD can be easily "ripped" to a hard drive as an MP3, M4A, or OGG, exact digital copies of the original audio can be created for archival on a completely different digital medium.

For many, CDs are merely a temporary storage place for their music. With the advent of iPods and home music servers, many CDs may be sitting on the shelf collecting dust, while the music originally contained on those very discs are still in viable rotation on some of these other digital mediums. For instance, I may play Alice in Chains' Dirt on my iTunes once a week, but I haven't actually lifted the original compact disc out of its jewel case in over two years. Conversely, because vinyl is very difficult to replicate to other formats without sacrifice in sound quality, pretty much the only effective way to access the original music is to play the original vinyl LP.

Prelude to Part Three
You have probably noticed that I have failed to detail the most important aspect of the CD/Vinyl Debate: sound quality. Don't worry, I will be sure to discuss this and share with you my personal thoughts on the subject in the near future. For now, this post has grown long enough, and I will end it here.

Be sure to read the forthcoming conclusion to this formatting exploration in Part 3.