Tag Archives: music

The Music I Listened To in 2017: (#24-1)

I listened to 544.66 hours of music on Spotify this year – about 13 full-time workweeks – and captured all the data with Last.fm. The ranking is ordered by how many times I listened to a song by the artist, with #1 claiming the most listens.

My top 50-25 artists were published in the last post. So here, without further ado, are the rest of them.

My #24-1 most listened artists of 2017:

24. Anderson .Paak
.Paak may have crept into the top 50% of my artists this year on the strength of his NPR Tiny Desk concert alone. I probably watched it 30 times this year. His record ‘Malibu’ is great too.

23. Jon Hopkins
Surreal soundscapes that thrive on simplicity. Hopkins can have an impact as strong as an artist who goes five times as loud because of the clarity of his compositions.

22. Eric Satie
When I picture the streets of Paris in my mind, a Gymnopedie by Satie plays in the background along with the image. A more formidable critic could even trace a line from Satie across the century to my previous entry, Jon Hopkins.

After compulsively listening to their first studio album for months, I got to see BBNG perform live this year. They’re full of young, raw talent and I’ll be waiting to see how they develop.

20. The xx
I haven’t gotten into the newer work by the xx, but their first album stays in my rotation. There’s so much heart in their songs.

19. Oddisee
Homegrown D.C. hip-hop instrumentalist Oddisee has a classic track about biking through the city, and a lot of other chill tunes that sound like home to me.

18. Lapalux
Lapalux’s ‘Lustmore‘ is a couple years old, but it wins the ‘sexiest thing I listened to in 2017’ award. Discovered by way of the tracks featuring Andreya Triana & Szjerdene, known to me from their work with Bonobo.

17. Mac Quayle
I haven’t watched any of the latest season of the TV show Mr. Robot, but I have continued listening to the soundtrack while I’m working to force a quality of suspense to all the hum-drum shit I have to do.

16. Jack Johnson
Jack’s easy, happy songs feel ageless, even 15 years after the first time someone recommended him to me – I remember it clearly as one of the sincerest recommendations I’ve ever been given.

15. Yppah
I don’t really know anything about Yppah – if I had to guess, one day Spotify recommended it based on my listening to Tycho. OK, computer, you have figured me out. I’ve been returning to ‘Eighty-One’ a lot this year.

14. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Nine Inch Nails were hugely popular when I was in high school, but I only came to appreciate them years later. This year I’ve been playing the soundtrack to the film ‘The Social Network’ on repeat, and it makes perfect background music for watching polite society immolate itself on Facebook in 2017.

13. Steve Reich
Learning about and listening to Reich this year was kind of a milestone for me – a lesson I taught myself in what I was capable of enjoying. I guess I’ve always been more of a pop and rock fan, so this kind of neo-minimal-classical is a brave new world to me.

12. Thelonius Monk
At the end of some long workdays, driving home through the city, the only recording I want to hear is ‘Round About Midnight.’ Monk sounds like those minutes after the daily grind is over but life keeps buzzing all around.

11. The Roots
The legendary. I don’t watch the Fallon show, despite their nightly presence as the house band, but I go back to their records over and over. ‘What They Do’ is still as fresh & powerful to me as it was when I first heard it 20 years ago.

10. Odesza
I learned about Odesza by hearing them on the ‘Song Exploder’ podcast, as they explained the genesis of the song ‘Kusanagi.’ The song turns out to be completely unlike the rest of their catalog, but I really enjoyed getting into their music this year. So much happy energy.

9. Nick Drake
There are some nights in the Summer when there’s a full moon and the world is quiet and the only music that should be played at that moment is Nick Drake. There are lots of other moments when it’s OK to listen to Nick Drake, too.

8. Igor Stravinsky
As a contrast to Debussy’s soft piano work, I got into Stravinsky’s challenging violin concertos this year. Thanks to Alex Ross’s tremendous book ‘The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century‘ I learned a lot about Igor, and now understand how I’m hearing echoes of him in jazz and rock.

7. Claude Debussy
Debussy emerged as my favorite composer as I went deeper than usual with my interest in classical music this year. I’m not at the level of discerning which renditions I prefer, or which orchestras I like, or anything like that – but ‘Claire de Lune’ is the most beautiful composition I listened to in 2017, 112 years after it was first published.

6. Wolf Alice
What an amazing discovery Wolf Alice was for me this year. On the strength of their appearance on the Trainspotting 2 soundtrack, they slid into my top ten. I just caught their concert last weekend and Ellie Roswell & Co were just as brilliant live as they are on record.

5. Tycho
There are not many artists I’d rather listen to than Tycho when I’m feeling good and optimistic and bright about the future of the world. They sound like a self-help book without any words, in a completely non-corny way, if that makes any sense. The latest record is a year old now, so let’s keep ’em coming guys.

4. Foals
Has it really been two years since ‘What Went Down’ came out? It still feels new every time I spin it – but don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see a new record from Foals in 2018. As strong as ‘WWD’ was, I probably listened to ‘Total Life Forever’ even more this year.

3. Little Dragon
I had the pleasure of seeing Little Dragon perform live for the first time this year. I started writing a blog post about it, but really just couldn’t find words. If Super Mario, Janet Jackson, Pink Floyd and Lady Gaga came together to form a super group, they still couldn’t come up with what Little Dragon does.

2. Bonobo
Meeting Simon Green & Co. as they toured the U.S. this Summer was a highlight of my year. Readers of my blog will know how much I appreciate them. I listened to their new Grammy-nominated album exhaustively in 2017 and will continue to do so for years to come.

1. The Beatles
I know, they’ve been around for a few years. I’m a little late to the party. I started going deep on the Beatles last year after watching Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Love’ performance in Las Vegas, which remains one of the most incredible live entertainment experiences I’ve ever had. This year I read Bob Spitz’s tremendous (and enormous) biography, and I had to listen along with every anecdote. Their story and their music goes beyond inspiration and into something else – an earnest belief that all you really need is love.

The Music I Listened to in 2017 (#50-25)

A long while ago, the painter Paul Gauguin wrote: “To be an honest critic, one must not love.” So maybe writing this post makes me dishonest, but I’ll take the risk: I’ve put together a list of the top 50 musicians that I loved in 2017.

This is the time of year when all the critics start listing things. The top ten this and the top twenty that. I listened to Rolling Stone’s ‘Top 50 Albums of 2017’ podcast a few days ago and caught the bug. I’m going to borrow their format, but they can keep their judgments and assumptions about how the newest things matter the most. Unlike them, there is nothing timely about these rankings. Many of the artists had nothing to do with the year 2017. Look for the zeitgeist somewhere else.

I listened to 544.66 hours of music on Spotify this year – about 13 full-time workweeks – and captured all the data with Last.fm. The ranking is ordered by how many times I listened to a song by the artist, with #1 claiming the most listens.

My #50-25 most listened artists:

50. Chet Faker
There’s one part of one CF song that I kept coming back to – the beat on ‘1998’ that kicks just before the hook. Something about the way it steps into the song. Couldn’t get enough. His Song Exploder episode is also great.

49. Angus & Julia Stone
I listened to the ‘other Stones’ a bunch before they played DC, because I thought I was going to make it to their show, but other plans intervened and then the show sold out. Glad I become acquainted with their tunes even though I missed it.

48. Tours
Tours makes amazingly chilled out renditions of songs I love. Listening to them is kind of a way to be nostalgic about a song without listening to the actual song. It plays like a memoryscape sound painting.

47. Spoon
I think Spoon released a new record this year, but I’m still listening to ‘Kill the Moonlight‘ and ‘Girls Can Tell.’ Hard to find a rock band playing as raw as this these days.

46. Phantogram
I think I see Phantogram posting on Instagram as much (or more) than I listen to them – not complaining, it’s been awesome watching them get so popular. Missed the tour this year, hope to catch them on the road again soon.

45. Green Day
Something about the political climate this year (hmm, I wonder what?) had me going back and re-listening to American Idiot a couple of times. And Dookie just is and will always be permanently in my rotation.

44. James Blake
I’ve got to be in some type of mood to put on James Blake. So much emotion comes through in his voice, and his sparse, textured arrangements enhance it even more.

43. Dave Matthews Band
It’s been a tough year for DMB listening – they’re almost too upbeat and positive for 2017. But there were moments this year where only some ‘Bartender’ would do.

42. Seapony
Listening to Seapony is just like having a nice cookie or something. Just pleasant. Easy. Like it’s Friday morning and nothing is going to ruin my day.

41. Pantha du Prince
I’m surprised Pantha isn’t higher on my list – maybe it’s because many of his tracks are over 7 minutes long. This is serious focus music. Really good for painting. I’ve been hooked since I read Philip Sherburne’s essay on ‘Black Noise’ in the 2011 edition of “Best Music Writing.”

40. Jain
I heard her on the radio in a coffeeshop and someone told me who she was and I got back to Spotify and streamed her album like six times in a row, then didn’t really listen again. “Siri, remind me to listen to Jain again next year.”

39. Led Zeppelin
As much as I love Led Zep, every now and then I’ll put on an album and hear a song that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. Either their catalog is that deep, or they are just that good.

38. The Appleseed Cast
Such a great band. ‘Mare Vitalis’ will always be one of my favorite albums and I listen to it in full a couple times every year. I’ll also get into Low Level Owl when I want to drown out every other noise in the world.

37. Cut Copy
I’m not sure what did it, maybe listening to so much Little Dragon this year – but I went back and got into ‘Bright Like Neon Love’ (2004 album) and rocked out like it was brand new this year.

36. Alt-J
These guys had a new album drop this summer, and I don’t think I listened to it at all – because I’m still so floored every time I hear the 5-year-old ‘An Awesome Wave.’ I have no problem calling it one of my favorite albums of the last ten years.

35. Tame Impala
I’m obsessed with Australia, where these dudes come from, and I really like their music. Psychedelic rock for people who don’t love jam-bands. I’m also still amazed by Rihanna’s awesome 2016 cover of their song “Same ‘Ol Mistakes.”

34. Boards of Canada
I can’t remember any particular song or melody from BoC, so I must have binge-listened to their whole catalog and not gone back to it yet. I will. Maybe the next time I go to Canada.

33. 311
I wonder if I’ll ever truly get tired of listening to 311? I haven’t yet, but the amount that I listen shrinks year after year. I think they had a new album, and I probably listened to a few songs, but it’s ‘Transistor’ that I always go back to.

32. Tosca
Whenever I look around and realize that it’s a dreary Tuesday and I’m sitting in a suburban office park working myself to death, and I think to myself, “I’d rather be in a sexy European hotel lobby watching fashionable people come and go right now,” then I put Tosca on and I’m basically there.

31. GoldLink
Multiple levels of respect for Goldlink – first, he’s been letting my cousin manage his tours for a while now. He’s also representing my little village of Washington DC. And he’s bringing some really fresh sounds to rap (if that’s even how he describes what he does.)

30. Broken Social Scene
I really wanted to go see BSS when they toured this year, but somehow I missed it. Was the whole band there? All 59 members? A few years ago their self-titled record carried me for months. This year ‘Hug of Thunder’ reminded me how much I like them.

29. Bob Marley & The Wailers
I finally got around to watching Kevin McDonald’s 2012 documentary, Marley, this year. An amazing story about a legend. I don’t think anything will ever surpass Babylon By Bus as the greatest live recording of all time.

28. Unknown Mortal Orchestra
If there was one song I could call out as being my jam of 2017, it would be “Can’t Keep Checkin’ my Phone” by UMO. I don’t think it came out this year. But I danced in my underpants to it on a weekly basis.

27. Francois & The Atlas Mountains
I found these guys while looking for vocals sung in French, because I want to learn how to speak French. I didn’t learn how to speak French, but I learned that the French are making some rad music these days.

26. Antonín Dvořák
I listened to Dvořák as a historical reference this year as I tried to learn more about 20th century classical composers. He influenced them a lot.

25. Massive Attack
Over the summer, rumors broke out that the elusive street artist Banksy is actually Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack. The speculation drove me to dive back into their records looking for clues.

the Anthem sings a tribute to 9:30



I was a little sad when I first heard I.M.P. was opening another club in DC. I love the 9:30 club so much. I’ve been going there for longer than I haven’t been. Why change it up? Why mess with perfection?

Then last night I walked into The Anthem for the first time… and it all made sense.

There’s a big, classy lobby when you first enter. A glass elevator rises up to the terrace area from near the entrance, with access to balcony levels above. Cymbals hang like tiny spaceships in the three story atrium, leading to a crab’s eye view of a rooftop swimming pool (unfortunately, part of nearby condos, not the club.)


Moving out of the lobby and into the concert hall… the space is enormous. The floor is probably twice the size of 9:30, the balcony 3 or 4x bigger. The stage is huge, too – I can picture it supporting an orchestra-sized act with no problem. If they weren’t going to call this place The Anthem (which is a great name) #930OperaHouse would have worked, too.

There’s an outdoor balcony right above the club entrance and marquee, looking out onto the channel, with a view of the Lincoln Memorial dome poking up above the treeline. Add Anthem to the short list of places in DC where you can have a great time with a view of the waterfront.


9:30’s rewards program, “Friends with Benefits” has been giving me loyalty “points” since who knows when. Apparently these points accumulated to a point where they tapped me to come for this secret show, pre-official-opening. The performer wasn’t announced until showtime, but internet rumors came true: Andrew WK took the stage. And believe this: if you have a nightclub, and you need a stress-test for it, Andrew WK is your guy. He parties hard. It’s what he does.

Deciding where to watch the show from was, and will probably always be, the hardest part of showing up at Anthem – there’s great sight lines all over, and the space felt large enough that even with a sellout crowd, there would always be an open spot with a stage view.


Giant light panels programmed to look like curtains flanked each side of the stage. I can’t wait to come back and see the visuals artists will come up with for those. (So when is the first Radiohead show going to be??) Everything about the look and feel of the place embodies 9:30.

Anthem Stage


The floor area is an ocean of smooth concrete. Maybe not as perfect for dancing as 9:30’s parquet, but immediately I started picturing Boyz II Men performing with Naughty by Nature on “Roller-Skate Night @ The Anthem.” Seriously, the floor is perfect for it. Lace up those skates!

After stumbling around, jaw-agape at the awesomeness, I was thirsty. Lucky me, there are three bars on each level…. But, I do feel obligated to throw a tiny dart here – and it should be an easy fix – one of the classiest things about 9:30 is how there’s always pitchers of water sitting on the bar. Not so at Anthem (yet.) Hydrate your customers! (Maybe work on the food-ordering system, too… but people should really be eating before they show up for a concert.)



There are going to be a few minor growing pains, little quirks from 9:30 that got lost in translation – but nothing serious enough to tarnish what will now be the best concert experience in DC (and maybe in the entire USA.)

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Interview with Jack Baker, Drummer of Bonobo

Since the April 2013 release of the album ‘The North Borders,’ the electronic music group Bonobo has gained immense popularity by performing more than 175 concerts in 30 countries around the world, delighting over 2 million fans from Milwaukee and Moscow, to Istanbul and England.

Along with a core group of live instrumentalists, Jack Baker made heads nod all along the way with his incredible drumming and percussions. I reached out to Jack, who was very kind to answer a few questions for the first interview I’ve ever posted on ‘Brian Writing.’

The truly wonderful North Borders – Live album was just released. Do you have any favorite moments or tracks on it? Did you know an album was in the works as you were performing on the tour? 

Cirrus is my favourite tune on the album, mostly because we start the live set with it.  The adrenaline kicks in when I hear the opening bell parts and you know the show is about to start.  Every time I hear it now it puts me right back in that place.

Simon works a lot when we are on the road, he sits in the back with his headphones on making tracks.  Simon is either touring, DJing or making music in his studio so we know when there is an album in the pipeline. He tours then writes, tours then writes and has done for a while now.  Some albums take longer than others but the North Borders was fairly quick to put together so there wasn’t a huge gap between finishing the Black Sands tour and starting the North Borders one.

When did you get involved in the Bonobo project? How long have you been drumming and touring? 

I’ve been playing with Simon ever since the live band got put together in 2004.  I’ve had many other projects that I play with, one being a soul singer called Alice Russell.  I produce and write music for a number of different artists including Yungun aka Essa and a fiery vocalist called Lea Lea and had my own projects out in the past under the name The Jack Baker Trio.  I’ve been drumming since a kid and playing with many different bands but the touring didn’t start until leaving university in 2003.  My father was a drummer so I just followed in his footsteps.

Jack Baker on his kit

What’s your daily routine like when you’re not on the road? Do you wake up and start working before your first cup of coffee, or does it take a while to sit down and get to it?

I’m a worrier not a warrior! The second I wake up I’m working till the second I’m sleeping.  I’m always thinking of new projects or ways of making money, hustling to get gigs or a recording session.  I’ve got my own recording studio and I work from that a lot. I share the studio with a couple of the guys from the Bonobo band so we’re often in there having a laugh and making strange music (mostly going for long tea breaks and getting nothing done!).

To make a living in music in England is hard and you have to work at it. Shows will only bring in so much money and unless you are playing ever night of the year you are going to struggle. You have to think of other ways of making money, fingers in pies!

How amazing is it to travel as much as you do?  Which places or experiences stand out?

I got into music partly because I wanted to travel.  I’m one of those guys that likes to keep moving, it get itchy feet if I stay in one place for too long (I’m guessing you know the itchy feet saying in America? I don’t actually get itchy feet!!).

I’ve been so lucky to travel around the world a number of times and see what I have seen.  It opens your eyes to how other people live and how they make (and listen) to music.

People always ask if we actually see much of the countries we go to and I think we experience more than if we were a tourist.  We get taken to the best restaurants, see the tourist sights before sound check, hangout with promoters for dinner and learn about the city, party with the locals in the best bars and clubs in each city, I would never do this if I was just a tourist!

Places that stand out is Japan for its madness, America for its natural beauty, Australia for is beach life, Easten Europe for is exciting harshness and the warmth of its people, Europe for its culture and food, England for its architecture. Everywhere is amazing!

What are you in to lately? TV, music, websites…  

You can’t go wrong with Gospel Drummers on Youtube.. Those cats are crazy! I’m also watching Treme and Homeland, series 4 (I have no idea whats going on with Homelands, but its cool!). The music I’m listening to is, Badbadnotgood, Jaga Jazzist, James Blake (on repeat!), Flume, A$ap Rocky, Clap! Clap! Gilles Peterson podcasts and a load of Hip Hop, Jazz and Ragga.  I like music that makes me wanna shake my head or close my eyes and listen.

Do you ever have creative impulses that push you to things other than drumming? How do you stay focused on your craft?

At the moment it’s all music music music, it’s my hobby and my career.  The music that I play changes all the time and thats enough to keep me busy.  However I do have a dream to sail round the UK one day and I have just passed my level one yachting certificate. I’m not sure I trust myself in charge of a boat but it would be awesome to do.

Is the internet making it easier or harder than it used to be to earn a living as a musician? 

I think the internet can only be a good thing.  You can’t live without it, it is the music industry, and it’s every other industry too, you can’t operate without it.   Other than the actual act of playing the drums, everything else is now done online.

I’m just starting an online recording sessions website called The Online Players and it will act as a portal for people to get the best musicians in London to record on their tracks.  Many of the best musicians are always touring so this website will  reach them when they have some spare time and get them in the studio.

I think before the internet you had to work hard for your income, now you can make money whilst drinking a gin and tonic from the comfort of your own home!

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? 

Getting on some terrible Russian planes!!! Also giving up my day job and being a musician full time, that was scary but lucky I had a great boss at the time and he was amazingly supportive and believing that I should do music for my career.

When’s the next tour?

How long is a piece of string?  You never know what’s around the corner, it could all go quiet tomorrow, who knows.  There is a lot of waiting involved but I’m hoping that the next Bonobo album won’t take too long and we can all get back on that dusty road.


Jack spacing out at Coachella music festival


two Sundays in Sydney

Sunday, Sept. 22

Calexico, the American alt-rock band, performed at the Sydney Opera House. Like most tourists in the city for the first time, I might have been content to watch someone scrub the stage with a mop just to get a glimpse of the inside of one of the world’s most fascinating structures. Thankfully, Calexico, a band I enjoy very much, brought their drums and guitars and saved the janitorial staff from the task of entertaining me.

Last year, I was introduced to Calexico’s funky blend of rock and traditional Mexican folk music by their performance on the Austin City Limits TV series. At the Opera House, they sounded great, and were enhanced by the building’s superior acoustical design. What surprised me, from my seat in the furthest row back from the stage, was how sedated the crowd was. When I’ve seen videos of Calexico performing elsewhere, it’s clear the crowd is enjoying the hell out of themselves with loads of dancing and clapping.

In the Opera House, I gasped at seeing people actually dozing in their seats, getting up and leaving in the middle of the show, and generally giving a lackluster response to the excellent performance the band was offering. The only logic I can apply to this disappointment is that many in the audience had purchased tickets just because they wanted to be inside the venue, without any knowledge or interest in the band themselves. (I hate to generalize, but some of the snoozers looked as if they came from non-rock-music-listening places. Or perhaps they had all run the marathon that morning – but so did I, and I managed to stay awake.)

As beautiful as the Opera House is, and as precise and lovely as its acoustics are, it might not be the best place for a rock band to set up. The seats are bolted to the floor. No one is dancing. It probably happens to everyone who plays there, and it might be more noticeable in the very back row. But for someone who thinks of concert-going as others might consider church, it was bizarre to witness.

Calexico, Sydney Opera House, 9/22/13

Calexico, Sydney Opera House, 9/22/13

Sunday, Sept. 29

Who knew that the Enmore Theater could ask for twice the gate price that the Sydney Opera House could? I certainly didn’t, but by the end of the night, I had no complaints. The Enmore has the appearance of (and could well be) an old converted movie house, snugly positioned in the hip Newtown suburb of Sydney. If I had to guess, I’d say that this place was showing Chaplin movies to a packed house in the 1920’s.

The opening band, Alpine, natives of Melbourne, were the soundtrack to several of my road trips this summer, so getting the chance to watch them in their native country as they’re just starting out was the icing on the cake for this show.

Rolling Stone and TIME magazine have both called Alpine a ‘Band to Watch’ within the last six months. The group’s airy vocal harmonies come from Phoebe Baker and Lou James, who complement the fuzzy cloud of perfect bass riffs with some mesmerizing dance moves. I was rocking out and had almost forgotten that FOALS was backstage getting ready to perform.

Several months ago, FOALS gave one of, if not the most, memorable performance I have ever seen in the 15 years I’ve been going to Washington D.C.’s 9:30 (here’s a video clip from the crowd) so I was excited to find out they were playing the Enmore Theater in Sydney while I was visiting.

The FOALS sound ducks in and out of labyrinthine beats and wizardly guitar riffs, and the danceable, screamy rock gets ratcheted up by the lead singer’s affinity for risking dismemberment while leaping from balconies and shoving his way through the audience, guitar strapped all the way.

The set at Enmore was just as intense as what I saw in Washington, with an even larger audience. (Here’s a video clip from the balcony – thanks, Youtube) Again, lead singer Yannis Philippakis abandoned the stage to perform half of the song ‘Two Steps, Twice’ from the crowd, climbing and leaping from the balcony.

Following the show I was lucky enough to find my way to the same bar that FOALS was claiming for the night. After walking into a fake hot dog shop storefront on Wentworth Ave. and passing through a cleverly disguised false door, I made it to the Soda Factory and stayed until the early hours of the morning.

FOALS set list, 9/29/13

FOALS set list, 9/29/13

I had a brief chance to speak to FOALS singer Yannis, and mentioned I had been at the show in D.C.  He was quick to praise 9:30 as one of his favorite clubs and went on to say that the D.C. independent music scene (Fugazi and Dischord Records) had been a big influence on him as a teenager.

It’s hard to emphasize how great it was to be on the other side of the world hearing a guy I just watched jump off a balcony into a throng of screaming fans tell me that he loved the city I came from. Rock on, Yannis.

on Language, and the Careful Appreciation of Rap Music

When I was 9 years old, a rapper named Calvin Broadus from Long Beach, California, released an album called “Doggystyle,” using the stage name Snoop Dogg. Somehow, through the pop-culture distribution channels of the early 1990’s, a cassette tape of that album made its way into the Walkmen of me and my third-grade friends.

We tossed around Nerf footballs and drank juice from paper boxes on the carefully landscaped lawn of our shiny, brand new elementary school while Snoop chanted into our boombox, “for all my niggaz and my bitches and my bitches and my niggaz wave yo motha fuckin hands in the air, and if you don’t give a shit like we don’t give a shit, wave yo motha fuckin’ fingas in the air.

According to my parents, the first word I ever uttered was “moon.” There was something special about the way it sounded, I think – almost being a palindrome, its rhythmic quality, the brightness of the moon itself. Maybe it was also the first poem I ever wrote – just one word.

I ended up learning many more words, at least partially thanks to hearing them on the radio. The rhymes about Glock bustin’, gin sippin’, and panty droppin’ meant very little to our young minds, because as far as I know, none of us had any idea what those phrases actually referred to. But what held our attention, I think, was how gigantic it all sounded – and nothing can capture the imagination of elementary students like the apparent invulnerability of adulthood, especially magnified to the size of Snoop Dogg’s gangsta persona (most grata.)

I wouldn’t say that skin color had any influence on how we consumed this music – ours might have been the first generation to have no preordained conception of racism, it having decayed for long enough not to be passed down from parents or siblings or aunts and uncles who went to segregated schools. The fact that Snoop Dogg was black and talking about crime wasn’t a consideration to the mixed race group of kids standing around a well-maintained playground in the suburbs. All we seemed to care about was how many explicit lyrics we could sneak into our ears before running home for dinner.

Of course, there were controls in place to keep this music out of the hands of us. As an adult I learned all about Nancy Reagan’s crusade and the RIAA and the Parental Advisory warning label, but as a child, none of that ever trickled down far enough to keep Snoop from teaching me what ‘chronic’ was.

Time passed, the novelty of Snoop wore off, and America provided fresh new infatuations like Green Day, Nintendo 64, Quentin Tarantino, and when we became old enough, girls. Rap continued to fill the airwaves, but I don’t think it ever sounded as big as it did the first time I heard ‘Lodi Dodi.’

As my friends and I moved through the middle grades, and began taking more complicated lessons in things like civics and biology (as opposed to whatever it was we were learning about in the early days) we started having to write more, read more, be able to talk about ‘Pride & Prejudice’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I suppose, for most of us, our vocabulary increased to include words and phrases like ‘a la carte’ (the serving style of pizza at lunch) and ‘polynomial equation’ (something in math class that was annoying) and ‘girlfriend’ (the person whose mom lectured you about the perils of kissing.)

The language of schooling got more complicated, and so did the language in the music. Instead of craving the bombast of SoCal gangsta rap, I started hearing more complex lyrical ideas in the music that found me – who is this long haired man from England, and why is he singing about something called “Glycerine?” Why does an “old mother cry” when “lightning crashes?” Who is “Lump,” and why does she “live alone in a boggy marsh?” Alternative rock music of the mid and late 90’s had a more abstract lyrical quality than what I had heard before from rap – more fantasy, maybe – and my innate interest in all things surreal led me to chase after it.

Rap was still around, and songs like “First of Da Month” easily gripped my interest – I guess the 8th grade makes a young person more aware of calendars. I also found, from groups like the Pharcyde and a Tribe Called Quest, that it was possible for Rap to be emotionally anxious, not unlike how growing up felt.

IT wasn’t until high school, when drinking and drugs among my peer group wasn’t unheard of, that the rap we first listened to years ago started to make sense – ah, so that’s what drinking a 40 oz is like. The older songs earned a kind of nostalgic rekindling, now replete with newly understood meaning. 2Pac’s ghost gave everyone an anti-hero (what every 16 year old needs) who was too dead to challenge our idealistic view of his cause by perpetually making a spectacle of himself, as is the case with most living celebrities.

It was also around that time when poetry started to make sense – Cummings, Kerouac, Ginsberg, those white guys influenced by jazz who existed in the American past and used carefully chosen words to express the nature of their times. I didn’t sense any connection between my appreciation for the two modes – but the old poetry, and the new Rap, weren’t completely divorced from each other.

In the few years before I turned 20, Rap made such an impression by way of it’s ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude that I wanted to permanently pledge allegiance to it. Tattooing a Wu-Tang ‘W’ on my arm seemed like a good idea. For an outcast, (who was devotedly listening to OutKast) it was the easiest way to shun a world I was afraid of entering as an adult, and an attempt to link myself to a culture, that looking back, I didn’t really understand.

I eventually started feeling guilty about the ‘blackness’ of the tattoo, since I’m the protean example of a typical white Suburbanite. Eminem and the Beastie Boys are all great fun, but the undeniable truth is, Rap is predominantly an expression of African-American culture. At the time of getting inked, it seemed okay, but since then I’ve become regretful – not because I’m ashamed to be associated with the group, but because I don’t feel like I’ve ‘earned’ it, not having gone through any of the troubles or lived the life described in those songs (and not wanting to.) I’m in the process, now 10 years later, of having it removed.

Masta Killa and Brian, 2011

Masta Killa and Brian, 2011

When I got serious about college, I started studying language. I read Shakespeare, Dostoevsky. I read Calvino and DeLillo and Didion and Wolfe, I read Byron and Eliot and Emerson and Dickens. I read Angelou, Tolstoy, and Cervantes.

I learned how language is the constructing principle of our reality. It is the master key to all doors, and interacting with it carefully determines the place we hold in society. I also realized that music is just as important to our understanding of the world – after all, the word uni verse, our term for the space in which humanity exists – from the Latin, translates to “one song.”

I figured out that the words we use define our lives. If you learn the vocabulary of finance, you’ll make a lot of money. If you learn the vocabulary of anatomy, you’ll become a doctor. If you learn the vocabulary of surfing, you’ll get a suntan.

If you learn the vocabulary of Rap, you will…. well, I don’t know. I guess it depends on who you already are, and what it means to you. If you’re talking about Snoop Dogg’s vocabulary, or Wu-Tang’s vocabulary, or T.I.’s vocabulary, then maybe you incorporate those stories of sex, violence and drama into your own life. Maybe you end up cheating on your wife and losing all your money in a divorce. Maybe you end up in a fight at a bar that costs you thousands of dollars in court. Maybe you follow a drugged path of self-destruction.

I don’t like to propose a causal, deterministic relationship between the consumption of entertainment and real-life experience – I’ve always believed people can see as much violent television or watch as many racy movies as they please, and never be any worse off for it. But there’s something about entertaining yourself with language that is heavier than entertaining yourself with something like video games, because language is the means by which you build dreams, aspirations, and expectations of the world you live in.

(As a disclaimer, I do believe that some of the street knowledge embedded in Rap can be empowering to those who are stuck in a situation that requires them to survive at any cost. But I also think it can be unnecessary for someone without their back to the wall.)

All of these fantasies that I heard rappers boast about when I was younger turned into things that would be completely miserable, if they became problems in my own real adult life.

That’s why I began to listen to Rap carefully.

I saw families disrupted by substance abuse, and read enough about crime in the local newspaper (and was blessed enough not to have been directly affected) I realized there isn’t glamour in any of it, only heartache. A television show called the Wire redefined everything I thought I knew about the streets, drugs, and police (the payload of much Rap music.)

In the Wire, it’s clear that there is nothing ‘cool’ about an environment that produces a character like ‘Bubbles,’ a homeless addict whose luck never showed up. There’s nothing ‘gangsta’ about getting shot in the face while walking out of the movie theater with someone’s ex-girlfriend. There’s nothing ‘wealthy’ about having to replace your cell phone every week because your ‘job’ makes you a target for wire tapping (well, I guess we’re all kind of wire-tapped now. But I digress.) There is nothing ‘evil’ about police who want to bring justice to murderers.

There’s nothing easy about the show, and it challenged a youth I spent imagining (and that pop culture spent selling to me ) the idea of ‘thug life’ as the path to luxury.

When I hear rap now, I still feel an elemental connection to the sound of it – the sampled snare and kick, a soft piano tremolo skirting the rhythm, the echoes of a hard consonant on the fourth bar. Instrumentalists who make the music without the words (like DJ Cam, RJD2 and Wax Tailor) get far more play in my stereo than whoever is winning the Grammy for ‘Best New Rap Artist’ this year, or last year, or ever.

The current class of dance-club infused Rap hardly seems related to the genre I used to enjoy. I would say that all rappers are spitting lyrics that are essentially meaningless, but I’m holding out hope that my lack of attention means many are lurking in the shadows, doing something interesting. There is still creativity in the genre that impresses me – the Roots, Shabazz Palaces, and on rare occasions, even Kanye West.

I’ll always feel connected to the sound, and appreciate the cool place that repetition of rhythm can take me to, and maybe every now and then I’ll just want to wave my motha fuckin’ fingas in the air — but when I want poetry, these days, it’s much more gratifying to open (or turn on) a book.

on The North Borders

The recording artist / DJ known as Bonobo released “The North Borders” last week, and made Washington D.C. the first tour stop in support of the album.

The songs came to life on stage, energized by complex layers of live drums, keys, saxophone, clarinet, bass, and a host of other instruments.

The electronic genre, lately dominated by house and ‘dubstep,’ owes a great credit to Bonobo for expanding the possibility of what can be done in a masterfully orchestrated mix of jazz, two-step, big beat, and ambient chillout.

Vocalist Szjerdene contributes to the album on the tracks “Towers” and “Transits,” and is along for the tour. She silenced (and amazed) the crowd with her soft, soulful style and substituted for Andreya Triana on some of the older tracks from ‘Black Sands.’

The North Borders opens with ‘First Fires,’ a brilliant track with an epic atmosphere that captures the apprehensive spirit of a new beginning. The elemental poetry of the tune had me visualizing the first fire ever lit by mankind, and imagining a re-creation of that moment, charged by a modern discovery.

What if humanity found something as important as fire, again? Maybe the North Borders will be the soundtrack to the next technological revolution.

on the Popularity of Empty Places

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, recently announced that all remote workers would soon be required to report to physical offices.

Whether or not the decision is agreeable, I find it interesting that this was apparently a matter of such great proportion that only the CEO could address it. I imagine a giant, monolithic Yahoo! office, tumbleweeds floating through hallways, and Mayer, alone, shouting into the emptiness: “Return!”

Other leaders, managers, or vice presidents could have made an effort to wrangle up the herd. Or were they, too, hacking away at a keyboard in their bathrobes at home? Mayer’s decision to personally make the statement seems to indicate either a grand political maneuver, or a last ditch attempt to solve a monstrously large problem.

Either way, the corridors of Yahoo! aren’t the only places that seem empty lately. In music and television, the echoes of solitude ricochet often. The French website La Blogotheque recently released a music video series called “Empty Spaces.”

The producers have arranged for grand physical locations to be abandoned (in the first video, an ornate Parisian library) and filled in by musicians to play their songs with the same honesty and intensity as they would were a giant crowd in the room with them.

What is the idea, here?

I sense a connection between the imagery of a band playing to a lifeless room, and the Yahoo! story, and maybe even a TV series like LOST in which the physical environment people inhabit is stripped of all ‘normal’ connectivity.

With all of our devices blinking and tracking and routing, giving our minds the freedom to kind of ignore the physical space around us, have we forgotten what it’s like to just ‘be where you are’? And is that anxiety collectively materializing in art such as Empty Spaces and LOST, as well as in the attendance policies of corporate America?

on Love in the Time of… Hatebreed

Often resulting in injuries [4], the collective mood is influenced by the combination of loud, fast
music (130 dB [5], 350 beats per minute), synchronized
with bright, flashing lights, and frequent intoxication [6].
This variety and magnitude of stimuli are atypical of
more moderate settings.

Jesse L. Silverberg, “Collective Motion of Moshers at Heavy Metal Concerts.”  Cornell University, 2013. 

The week before Valentines Day the top of the Billboard charts featured plenty of easy songs about romance – The Lumineers Ho Hey, Calvin Harris Sweet Nothings, Taylor Swift I Knew You Were Trouble.

And for the first time in their 15 years of touring, the furious tracks by metal rockers Hatebreed crashed into the Billboard top 20.  On a night that some people reserve for Sinatra and soft lighting, the band spent this Valentines Day screaming from a stage in Virginia to a wild crowd.

Whether in Buffalo or Raleigh, Jacksonville or Norfolk, metal music attracts a specific type of black t-shirted, red-blooded American male, content to skip buying roses and pouring wine, and enthused to ball up a fist and take a stagedive.


As retailers push pink hearts and flowers and chocolates, Hatebreed offers an alternative to the rosy-cheeked glow of commercialized passion. In the song “Between Hell and a Heartbeat,” vocalist Jamey Jasta growls:

“One last nail
In the coffin of all your trust
Where there once was love now lives total disgust”

The crowd this February 14th was about 90% single white men under 30, none of whom seemed to find it overly ironic when Jasta said, between thrashing songs: “Happy Valentines Day, if you came here with somebody you love!”

A sparse number of calm and seemingly affectionate couples meekly mixed into the crowd, and they always do at metal shows, Valentines Day or not.

Jesse Silverberg, a graduate student in physics at Cornell, was at a metal concert with his girlfriend when he first made a connection between ‘moshing’ and the behavior of gas molecules.

Silverberg’s observation inspired him to study crowd behavior, and publish a paper titled “Collective Motion of Moshers at Heavy Metal Concerts.” He hopes to influence architectural design standards: it would be unethical to trap people in a burning building as a test to study behavior in a panic situation; analyzing metalheads in a mosh pit is apparently the next best thing.

Finding a mathematical formula for saving lives in a parade of screaming men taking swings at each other: I guess that’s one version love, in the time of Hatebreed.

to Robyn, on Being ‘Robotboy’

Hey Robyn!

I was just listening to your song, ‘Robotboy,’ and I thought I’d answer all the questions you had. I hope this response relieves some of your worry:

“Where you been?”

I’ve been at work, or at home, or any of the other various places I go. I make a determined effort to find new ground as often as possible, even if it’s just a little thing – a new corner of a room to stand in, a new place to eat tofu, or a new building that would look nice in a photograph. ‘Where’ is an interesting concept. Sometimes I think of ‘here’ as more than just the place I’m sitting, or what city I’m in. Could ‘where’ also be a place I’m thinking of? Is where just the few square feet around my body? Is it everywhere I’m capable of being within a certain amount of minutes?

“Are you lost again?”

Lost isn’t always a bad thing. Many oft-referenced quotes back this up, you know, about wandering and the road less traveled or whatever. There’s actually a book by Rebecca Solnit, called “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” that covers, in detail, the wondrous joy of having not a clue where the fuck you are, or where you’re going. So if you’re asking as a matter of concern, be sure, all is well!

“Will you find your coordinates home?”

Maybe Tomorrow… (Just kidding, that’s a Stereophonics song.) Really, I don’t know. What is home to you? Is home ‘wherever you are?‘ Is it where you’re ‘chillin outside with the people you know?’ Are you going to take me there, tonight? Are you asking me if I’m going to find my way, or are you specifically telling me to come back home? The problem with being a robot is that it takes a lot of data analyzation for us to get to the root of an inquiry. We have to really read into the core of a request to properly respond.

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