Category Archives: Recommendations & Discussion

17. Musical Dating – Finding Something New

Every now and then, you as a music-listener get adventurous, and want to find something new to listen to. Not necessarily something that was just released yesterday, or is the most popular thing right now. Something new to your ears. In my mind, the process one goes through to find a new tune closely resembles the dating world, where us humans pursue nearly every means available us to find our next fling, stable relationship, or even lifelong lover. It’s often a daunting journey, riddled with missed chances, lucky breaks, bizarre introductions and moments from where you can pinpoint that your life was changed forever.

Dating, no matter how confident you are, always has an inherent risk attached to it. Such is the chaos and unpredictable nature of people. For example, you might only find out halfway through your first date with someone that they have a creepy fetish that doesn’t set well with you, or completely offend you with their style of humour. But with the right techniques and approach, there are ways of you reducing that risk, so that hopefully, you will achieve what you set out to get.

"So let me tell you about the one with the..."

Just like with people, I don’t know all the dating secrets. One can never guarantee that you can find the ‘perfect catch’, or something even nearly as good. Musical tastes are mostly subjective; liking one band doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll fancy another similar one. The crux of recommendations is really to have a general idea of what you like already, and together with that knowledge, what you intend on looking for (sometimes not even the latter, as you’ll see with certain music suggestion sites). So if, dear reader, you feel the need to breed (in a musical sense), then take heed of some of my tried and tested advice:

1. Know thyself

Okay, this might sound a little too obvious: take stock of what’s on your iPod, in your CD collection, on your hard drive, etc. Honestly, some people just add and add and add, building up clutter which never gets listened to, especially in an age where digital music is near-total in its influence, as well as its apparent ease of acquisition. Look at your Play Counts (if applicable) or manually keep track of what you listen to the most; always a good indicator of preferences. If you own, or even just listen to music enough, you should have a basic idea already. Foo Fighters fanatic, a Justin ‘Belieber’, Jay-Z worshipper, Bon Jovi groupie; whatever your tastes, surely you listen to some artist enough to say “Yeah, I kinda like this guy”? Good. That’s a start.

Come to think of it, that would make a ridiculous collaboration...

2. Time and effort

Put aside some time and get ready to put effort and research into finding what you want. Although most people have very busy schedules and can’t afford to waste time looking for music, the more work you put in, the more likely it is that you’ll find something you instantly fall in love with. Nothing beats the feeling of discovering a band after much spade work, and finding that they suit your tastes exactly. Really, it should come as no surprise to you then.

3. Knowledge is power

Wade your way into the shallow end of the dating pool by finding out more about whatever artists you like already. Doing so firstly makes you a better fan. You begin to understand the faces behind the music, as well as their intentions for making it the way they did. Secondly, many Wikipedia articles, album reviews and news reports, etc, tend to mention similar artists when speaking of a particular artist: “a Beatle-esque chord progression”, “an early Led Zeppelin swagger”, “introspective lyrics reminiscent of 2Pac’s Me Against The World era”. The list goes on and on. After reading enough about your favourite artists, you’ll soon start to see patterns emerge, and they’ll be difficult to ignore!

Comparisons like these are used to help describe a sound that the reader might not have heard yet (especially if say, a new album by the artist has just been released), so reviewers and journalists will try to patch together a sound scape in the reader’s head of existing material; simple and effective. Just like with dating people, you cannot expect the perfect man/woman to fall into your lap if you sit at home doing nothing about it. Proactivity is the key!

Personally, this method works really well for me. For example: whilst doing research for my Foo Fighters review in April, I kept on hearing about this Scottish band called Biffy Clyro. And since these mentions weren’t a once-off thing, I decided to give them a try, and download their two most recent albums. And what do you know…I was blown away by them, and instantly knew they were the exact match for my tastes. So, those reviewers were right: Foo Fighters’ ‘Rope’ does seem to “tap-dance in stoppy-starty guitar weirdly reminiscent of ‘Infinity Land’-era Biffy Clyro

And now, thanks to their music, I occasionally sing in a hideous attempt at a Scottish accent.

Music of today, more often than not, bears some similarity to music of yesterday. Artists wear their influences on their sleeves, and whilst they still continue to progress and innovate the art form, their mentors will always shine through them in some way. Going back to the roots of what inspired your favourite band to produce their magnum opus is generally the next step you’d take if you’re serious about exploring new music. But it’s not always a successful venture; sometimes the reason you enjoy an artist is because they’re an amalgamation of various influences, not just a specific one, whose back catalogue might bore you or be too old-fashioned. But it’s worth a try, since the world has a nice collective half-century or so of popular music sitting there, waiting to be experienced. Obviously, if you’re into classical music or something like that, you’d probably want to go back further than that, but then again, I don’t think this article is aimed at you!

4. Your friends are my friends

Look to your friends and find out what they like. Just like meeting that blonde hottie through your friend Dave, introductions to new and exciting artists from people you know (and hopefully, trust) eliminate the effort you have to make searching for the perfect tune. Usually you are friends with people whom you share similar interests with, so take advantage of that closeness and find out what hidden talents they’ve discovered.

For example: I should really follow my advice, since my housemate from last year shared very similar tastes in music to me (plus, he was an expert on guitar). Towards the end of the year, he discovered and fell in love with this indie rock band named The National. He played one or two songs of theirs to me when we were relaxing with our other housemates one night. Since I really just wasn’t in the mood for that kind of music, I sort of brushed aside his impassioned recommendation. Fast forward to April this year, and I eventually decided to take him up on his offer. And one album in, I was entranced by the singer’s smoky, baritone vocals, obscure & gloomy lyrics and the band’s beautiful, subdued, yet lush melodies. Ross, I’m really sorry for not listening to you back then, mate…

We can get Matt Berninger to write an epic ballad about our suburban tale of indifference turned to love

5. Digital solutions

Finally, there’s the online dating option; one which I believe has some fun, interesting, unpredictable, yet mostly disappointing results. Over the past few weeks, I’ve attempted to have a look at as many websites as possible offering ‘music suggestion services’. With such a vast scope, I could’ve very easily devoted a post with a length comparable to a Doctorate thesis reviewing each one intently and professionally. But my ambivalent attitude to their success rate (if you want to quantify it like that) means that I’ll give you a rundown on the ones that stood out for me.

The main reason I feel so cynical about this option was that as a non-American citizen (i.e. a sizeable portion of this world), I am denied access to what sounds like the most perfect and exhilarating service in the world of music: Pandora Radio. Internet radio stations are a dime a dozen, and are probably the most popular websites devoted to finding new music, not necessarily just listening to it (as radio’s traditional role has been). Basically, they allow you to pick a station from a range of genres, or other variables of your liking. By listening to a station matching your current interests, these websites hope that you’ll enjoy anything new on there. Pandora takes that one giant step, if not leap, further.

What do we find inside Pandora's Box?

Pandora is a custodian of the Music Genome Project, a musical analysis and research initiative that was formed to fundamentally capture exactly what traits makes songs unique, or similar. It uses almost 400 musical attributes, which, when combined in larger groups, amass about 2000 focus traits. If this sounds oddly scientific, it is. The founders based their idea on the study of genetics, and have statistically deconstructed music down to exceptionally precise terms such as: gender of lead vocalist, rhythm syncopation, level of distortion on electric guitar, key tonality, and many more than the average person has the ability to name. Organise these altogether with complex mathematical algorithms, and you…wow, the jealousy is flooding my veins as I type this…get a service which eventually is guaranteed to pinpoint exactly what you like and might like, in ways that you probably would never have thought possible. It’s actually scary to think what potential there is if one took advantage of such a mindbogglingly brilliant service. To sum it up: if I had unrestricted, full access to Pandora, this post would be the shortest I’ve ever written, or ever write. Only one line: “Sign up at http://www.pandora.com. You will experience heaven on earth”.

So after briefly meeting the girl or boy of your dreams, then finding out that you can never be with them, what does one do? Settle for less…

5.1. Radio lovin’

If internet radio sounds like your kind of thing, then the following are pretty decent. Last.fm focuses more on social networking and using the service as your primary medium of listening, which I found a bit frustrating, with me being an iPod slave. Despite its popularity, my earnest attempts to actually find new material with it were hopelessly convoluted. It wanted me to ‘scrobble’ my iTunes library to get an idea of what I listen to already (good start), but then very little became of that endeavour on the website itself, where it showed my (incomplete) listening history, but mainly for the purpose of others finding it, since the recommendations it gave were rather weak and short-reaching (it only gave recommendations of artists I had actually listened to already, according to my Play Counts. Go figure). iLike was much the same, focusing heavily on getting other users to ‘like’ what you like, but this time you have to input your favourite artists. Too much effort, not enough reward; especially for something which is meant to streamline the process!

Emphasis on the 'social' part

Jango sets a good standard, and one can easily ignore the social networking part and get down to the nitty-gritty of finding new music. You can fine-tune the variety of artists and songs, and its interface is kept simple; all it asks you to do is input just one artist, and it will base your personalised station around that. With a rating system and music video section too, Jango is uncluttered with very little frills, and is worth having a look at it.

If Jango’s interface was simple, Musicovery‘s is even more so. Its innovative design focus on moods, rather than artists, allowing one to find a station based on what type of mood they want to the music to convey. A graph, with ‘Energetic’ and ‘Calm’ on the y-axis, and ‘Dark’ and ‘Positive’ on the x-axis is your tool, and can be tweaked chronologically and by genre. A ‘dance’ radio option also sorts music by tempo and by, what it seems to be, whether you can dance to it. Stereomood goes one further, and specifies oddly specific moods and activities that might apply to you as a listener, such as ‘just woke up’,  ‘good karma’, ‘dinner with friends’ and ‘spring cleaning’. Mood radio might find just the song for you right now, and if used smartly, many times more when you’re feeling a little different. It’s like meeting an arty and intellectual cutie in a coffee shop, then later meeting a bold and passionate Casanova in a bar. Different moods, different situations, different desires…

Some of the moods that Stereomood offers

5.2. In blogs we trust

Just as one would trust a friend’s opinion (see point number 4), opinions and recommendations from blog-writers are a marriage of authentic journalism and newsy chats. Their personal nature can make one feel like the writer is speaking directly to him/her (oh, the irony…), and their recommendations can come across as friendly advice.

But since there are so many out there on the web, where just about anyone can start one up, it can be really difficult to find the good ones, or ones that appeal to you. Aggregators like The Hype Machine and Elbows trawl through the proverbial ‘blogosphere’ to track trends and find the most talked-about artists and songs. The Hype Machine focuses on providing MP3 links, so that one can hear what’s on their Latest or Popular charts and read about it too. This way, both the music and the blog are discovered, so that future plays of the former and visits to the latter will hopefully occur. As such, blogs that post actual MP3’s seem to be the focus, and are more likely to get recognition. Elbows handles the music industry as a whole, and aggregates articles, videos and anything else one might find interesting that’s currently being discussed. Both sites provide one with easy access to discovering good music and thought-provoking discussion of it.

5.3. Indie Cred

Discovering artists before they hit the big time is becoming easier and easier nowadays. Whilst attending small, cramped gigs in seedy bars and buying limited first pressings of garage recordings aren’t activities that are going to completely die out, the quest to find independent artists involves much less on-the-ground activity than in the past. Artists can post their work on music-sharing websites, upload performances to Youtube and create a buzz amongst their fans, who in turn can share their indie favourites with just a click of a button.

thesixtyone is one of those websites that strives for that indie aesthetic. Named after Highway 61 in the USA, a place rooted in music tradition and history (à la Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and the King himself, Elvis Presley), independent artists can post their music in a homely forum where substance is valued highly, and talent can hopefully be discovered by the right people. Or just you, as an inquisitive soul, seeking a refreshing burst of creativity from people that have yet to secure a massive record deal, churning out hit after hit.

A typical quirky backdrop to a song on thesixtyone

As such, the site is a lucky packet of pleasures, modelling itself on the internet radio format, but with high resolution photographs forming the backdrop of each song, and quirky quips from and about the artists artfully integrated into the interface. It’s an intimate, enriching and engaging experience, and you can feel good about the fact that you are giving exposure to someone who needs it more than your big rockstars and popstars.

5.4. A map to/of your heart

Lastly, there are the ‘map’-designed websites, which are fun for exploring the relationships between artists and genres. Personally, I found these to be the most useful and successful, because of the visual aspect. Seeing the links with your own eyes is incredibly effective, and it’s no wonder teachers at schools and universities recommend mind-mapping to their students; the human mind responds to the ‘spider webs’ well. Just like a little stalking session of someone’s Profile Picture album on Facebook upon meeting them, you get a clearer idea of how the music is related.

TuneGlue is a straight-forward, nifty mapping tool that creates webs of similar artists based on one input by you in the search bar. From there, you can branch out of the original six suggestions it gives, looking at artist bios, discographies and even links to the official websites. The key here is its simplicity. In my own experience, I discovered Klaxons after inputting my favourite band Bloc Party, and found their indie-rave-punk chaos close enough to be associated with my beloved Bloc.

So what's next? Kasabian?

Music-Map (and its sister website Gnoosic) continue with the trend of simplistic interfaces (see where I’m going here?), and are akin to gentle nods in the right direction of true love. The former takes on the form of an orbiting galaxy of stars, placing the artists you choose in the middle of the cosmos, as more similar artists orbit it in a closer trajectory, and less similar artists spiral around the periphery. The latter is also developed by the same person, and requests that you enter three of your favourite artists into the search bar, upon where it will give an automated recommendation. Don’t like it, or don’t know it? Rank the suggestion, and it will adapt for the next five or so suggestions. No profile, no sign-up, just a ‘Like’/’Don’t like’/’Don’t Know’. Personally, I put in Bloc Party, The Strokes and Kings Of Leon, and the first suggestion, Interpol, completely suited my tastes and made me wonder how I had never heard of them up until now. And since they’ve been around since 2002, it’s nearly a decade I’ve wasted without their dark, angular riffs buzzing through my ears…

Summary

Finding love, both physically and musically, can be a nerve-wracking experience. I still get that pang of worry as I load an album of an artist I don’t know onto my iPod. But that fear of something new gets washed away when I feel a bond between the music and myself that was probably always there, but I never knew of it. Like a conversation between long-lost friends that gets picked up after many years. Like a reflex reaction between the ears and pleasure centres of the mind. You want to experience that feeling more and more. But you can’t expect to blindly stumble upon it every day and be successful.

Falling in love may sound romantic, but I’d rather dive into it, thanks.

Links to recommended websites:

(On a side note: I made a chance discovery of The Music Map: The Landscape Of Music project whilst researching for this post. It’s a site I highly recommend anyone to have a look at, regardless of what you’re searching for. A certain computer programmer, Dr. Yifan Hu, develops algorithms and software for mapping the relationships between anything on the internet, and his music map is thorough, well-researched and fascinatingly useful. Treat it like a browsing session on Google Maps, except it’s not countries and cities you’re hovering over; it’s genres and artists.)

13. Michael Jackson, Revisited

I recently decided to update all my Michael Jackson albums. I had nearly all of them from 1978’s Off The Wall onwards, but most were of a sub-standard quality; an excuse I gave for not taking the time to listen to his lesser-known works. This update awoke the feelings I had when he passed away, and helped me revisit them.

All Hail The King Of Pop

I remember the 25th of June 2009 so clearly, and the mish-mash of emotions I felt. I remember staying at my family home during my university’s winter vacation. I remember emerging from my bedroom, bleary-eyed, around 8:30 in the morning, to make some breakfast; just like any other day before it. And I remember my mother coming up to me and saying something like ‘Michael Jackson died last night of a heart attack’.

I remember the cocktail of sadness, grief and loss I suddenly felt, made worse by the fact that in the preceding months, faced with the prospect of losing the fleeting yet special childhood memories I had of him, I had just started to truly get into his music. It wasn’t the kind of sadness you’d feel if a close family member or friend died. That’s a more tangible sadness, where there’ll be a hugely personal rift in your day-to-day life from then onwards. It was a collective sadness, a communal sadness that you know millions of other people were feeling, and it multiplied within us all. Our brightest star had burnt out.

But mixed with that, I had an oddly intense joy. I opened up my laptop and  immediately started playing his hits, loudly and proudly, revelling in the fact that, although he was gone, his beautiful and inspiring music was not. And since he put his entire heart and soul into his music, there he shall remain. His body, a well-known ‘monstrosity’, ceased to be alive, but his music: always alive, as sure as the sun rises in the morning. I cried, a soothing salve for my sadness, but the moment soon produced tears of triumph. Our domestic servant Princess was working that day, and was quite baffled and concerned about what was going on. My mother explained the situation, saying who had died. When she said that, I remember thinking , “Not the Michael Jackson I’m thinking of”.

Fast forward to this past Tuesday, as I’m walking on my way to work on a misty May morning, earphones in, listening to The Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’. Through the tiny speakers, 10-year-old Michael’s voice rang out with a style and force unbecoming of his tender years.

Then it hit me: Michael Jackson was humanity’s sacrifice to music.

How many other young child stars like him continued to produce music right through their lifetime, and reach the level he did, musically and culturally? I can barely think of any off the top of my head, perhaps only the genius of Stevie Wonder. In return for the hyperbolic fame and fortune, he was robbed of a normal childhood, which in later life, brought about horrific emotional problems for him that few of us could ever imagine. The intense media scrutiny around every aspect of his being drove this sensitive and childlike man to breaking point. And coupled with this was the diagnosis of the skin disease Vitiligo: the cause of his ever-whitening skin, and for someone who was constantly in the public eye, an everyday nightmare. It was a truly unique set of circumstances for a truly unique, trail-blazing individual.

To moonwalk his way to the title ‘King of Pop’, he gave his life, his whole life, from just the age of 5. Humanity offered up a vessel, filled to the brim with an amount of musical talent unheard of in a human being. Music accepted the offer, and the rest……is history.

I don’t think there could’ve been any other way about it.

I hope that in death, you may find the peace you were always searching for, Michael. Rest in peace.

11. Immortal Technique, One Of Hip Hop’s Revolutionaries

My view on hip hop/rap changed completely after I heard Immortal Technique for the first time. Before that fateful evening, my interests in the genre were not fervent or far-reaching. I liked a couple of songs and only a few artists appealed to me as a teenage white male. It was but a passing acquaintance.

Then, one night in my first year of university, I was hanging out in my next-door neighbour Josh’s dorm room. He was an avid hip hop fan, and whilst I was there, decided to play this song called ‘Dance With The Devil’. All he said was “just listen to this, dude”. No introduction…

6 minutes, 50 seconds later, and both of us just sat there, staring at the walls in dead silence. The song had consumed all of my emotions, and I couldn’t speak. Very rarely have I ever experienced that sense of shock after hearing a song, before or since that moment. Immortal Technique captivated me, and I needed to hear more.

Immortal Technique doing what he does best: spit fire on the mic

Immortal Technique (one person, real name Felipe Coronel) is a rapper with substance. Too often nowadays, over-saturated commercial radio dumbs down genres of music so that they’re suitable to be spoonfed to the masses. Sadly, hip hop suffers greatly from this problem, and many potential fans, especially white people (in my opinion), are put off by what is in the popular consciousness. I continue to feel that way too, but after my exposure to artists like I-T, I’ve learnt to dig deeper and find what alternative, often underground, hip hop has to offer.

Since he remains underground (i.e. not signed to any major record label), Immortal Technique is free to spout forth whatever he feels like saying, with intense passion and fervor, and some subject matter that most mainstream artists wouldn’t dare touch. Being of Afro-Peruvian heritage, having been born in a military hospital in Peru’s capital Lima, he feels a close bond with the Central and South American nations, as well as the Latino community at large. He grew up in Harlem, New York and saw much of the street life that is mentioned in most hip hop songs. However, the dangerous life he lived in his teenage years caught up with him, and he spent a year in jail for multiple assault-related offenses after his short time at university.

His time in incarceration was when he started to write down his thoughts, hone his songwriting skills, and begin to research Latin American history. Once out of jail, he pursued hip hop, and soon his reputation become one of a ‘battle MC’ – one who is known for his skills in defeating others in freestyle rap battles. He has taken much of this ferocious style of rapping, and channelled it into three studio albums (Revolutionary,Vol. 1 & 2, and The 3rd World,  all released between 2001 and  2008), as well as many mixtapes, which have captured live freestyles and song fragments in stream-of-consciousness form.

Covers of all three Immortal Technique studio albums

On the surface, Immortal Technique comes off as a rabid pit bull, barking out caustic verses, that at a superficial level, could come across as just for shock value. But very soon, one realises that his rhymes are extremely intelligent, well-written and diverse. His songs touch on a range of topics, such as politics & the government, crime, free speech, love, socio-economics, empowerment of the powerless, world history, poverty, the music industry and propaganda. Others just showcase his ridiculously good skills on the mic, as he battle-raps a generic foe, schooling the fool with hilarious, ballsy and brutal rhymes. When such potent lyrics are delivered with a rugged flow like his, each track is like a slap in the face, urging you to wake up and take a look at the world around you.

"Immortal Technique will rip a rapper to pieces indecently" - A lyric from one of his songs

The proof is in the pudding, and I-T delivers it in lethal amounts. I’ve cherry-picked some of his best:

On ‘The 4th Branch’, he hypothesizes that the media is the fourth branch of the government (after the executive, legislative and judicial ones), and controls how we as the population think:

“It’s like MK-ULTRA, controlling your brain
Suggestive thinking, causing your perspective to change
They wanna rearrange the whole point of view of the ghetto
The fourth branch of the government, want us to settle
A bandana full of glittering, generality
Fighting for freedom and fighting terror, but what’s reality?
Read about the history of the place that we live in
And stop letting corporate news tell lies to your children”

Over a delicate guitar-driven arrangement, he speaks of moving on from past mistakes in ‘Leaving The Past’ (a good song of his to start with):

“You swallow propaganda like a birth control pill
sellin’ your soul to the eye on the back of the dollar bill
But that will never be me, ‘cos I am leavin’ the past
like an abused wife with the kids, leavin’ your ass
Like a drug addict clean and sober, leavin’ the stash
unbreakable, Technique leavin’ the plane crash
I’m out with the black box and I refuse to return
I spit reality, instead of what you usually learn
and I refuse to be concerned with condescending advice
‘cos I am the only motherf***er that could change my life

Tech assumes the role of a hip hop martyr in the riveting ‘Internally Bleeding’, with some powerful, poignant, disturbing yet profound messages. Once again, I’ll let his lyrics do the talking:

“My mother told me that placing my faith in God was the answer
But then I hated God, ‘cos he gave my mother cancer
Killing us slow like the Feds did to the Blank Panthers
The genesis of genocide is like a Pagan religion
Carefully hidden, woven into the holidays of a Christian
I had a vision of nuclear holocaust on top of me
And this is prophecy, the words that I speak from my lungs
The severed head of John the Baptist speaking in tongues
Like Che Guevara, my soliloquies speak to a gun
Paint in slow motion, like trees that reach for the sun”

In addition to philosophical rants like the above two, he weaves together intricate narratives on a few of what I think are his standout tracks. ‘Peruvian Cocaine’ is a grandiose, character-driven portrait of how cocaine travels from South to North America. Each verse features a different character, as well as rapper (all together seven), in the story, right from the lowly worker in the fields, and through the path of drug dealers, border officials and undercover cops. It’s on-par with Eminem in terms of story-telling ability, and delivers a thought-provoking message too.

Then there are the double-header jaw-droppers: ‘You Never Know’ and the afore-mentioned ‘Dance With The Devil’. Both tug at the heartstrings; the former gently and tearfully as I-T bares his soul for a bit and falls in love (“the type of Latina I’d sit and contemplate marriage with), and the latter  metaphorically wrenching those strings like a rock ‘n roll guitarist.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this recommendation/discussion: THAT song. I’d hate to ruin the surprise of the ending, but it follows the story of a young man’s descent into the darkness of gangster life. The beat is as cold as the character William’s heart, complete with a haunting piano loop that sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. Tech delivers each line with an urgent precision, and hopefully by the end of it, you as the listener have learnt as much from it as the rapper himself has. This is his magnum opus.

Unwrapping his music is like peeling apart an onion; a very large and layered one. I hope that by peeling away the first few layers, you have been enticed into going deeper into the music of one hip hop’s true revolutionaries. He maintains the spirit that much of early hip hop was founded on: story-telling, social awareness and an emphasis on wordplay and performance.

Immortal Technique: an MC and poet that I believe can be spoken of in the same hushed tones as the likes of Biggie, Tupac and Eminem…

Viva La Revolución!

Recommended listening (in this order, too, if you think that you might be inclined to get scared away!):

  • ‘Caught In A Hustle’ (from Black Cargo Mixtape)
  • ‘Leaving The Past’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • ‘The 4th Branch’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • ‘Peruvian Cocaine’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • ‘The Prophecy’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 1)
  • ‘Internally Bleeding’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • ‘Industrial Revolution’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • ‘The 3rd World’ (from The 3rd World)
  • ‘You Never Know’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • ‘Dance With The Devil (from Revolutionary, Vol. 1)

7. Acoustic Covers

One aspect of music that I have a particular affinity for is acoustic covers of well-known songs, or by artists that I like. The idea of reinterpreting a piece of music and stripping it down to its core emotions gets me excited. The search to find these gems also makes it all the more worthwhile, as many of these performances are rather rare and difficult to find.

Due to the incredibly high-quality of technology used in music production today, it’s become easy to lose a sense of how good an artist is at performing live, which I’ve always considered a worthy barometer of talent measurement. Studio trickery and layered and/or Auto-tuned vocals can sometimes mask the real truth of an artist’s ability.

This is not to say that technology is bad and has no place in the music industry, because it definitely does have a place. Musical and technological innovations have gone hand-in-hand right from the start. Artists such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix eagerly and meticulously redefined what an artist could do in a studio, and embraced the many changes the recording industry was going through in the 1960’s (definitely enough for a whole other article!), and made music all the more creative and electrifying (excuse the pun) for the following decades. By the 1980’s, it was standard practice to play around with synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, etc, to add to your final mix.

But if you take a performer out of the comfort of his/her studio, or take away all the wonderful gadgets that make them listenable, will the magic still be there? Depending on what type of music they create (some, for example, make acoustic-based music anyway), this could be a colossal failure or a beautiful spectacle; an unmasking of the true artist within. If someone is worth his/her salt musically, they should be able to convey to you what they’re feeling inside in the simplest or grandest terms.

I saw an extreme example of this recently, when I watched a guitar documentary where Jack White (of The White Stripes) built a ‘guitar’ out of a block of wood, a glass bottle, some nails, wire, and a connecting system of some sort to electrify this poor-man’s attempt at an instrument. He then tried it out for a while, as it emitted a howling surge of noise, and afterwards, turned to the camera and said with a shrug, ‘Who said you even need to buy a guitar?’

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Amateurs also have discovered the importance of the acoustic cover in contemporary music, not just the professional artists. If you search ‘acoustic cover’ on Youtube, you’re guaranteed to find a plethora of people, usually with just a guitar or piano, playing their own ‘unplugged’ versions of popular songs, whether they’re pop, rock, R&B or even hip-hop. It almost seems to be a rite of passage to be able know the chords to some teen pop-idol’s latest hit, and then to give your interpretation of it on the Internet. And you know what? I’m all for it.

Whether a musician is performing an acoustic cover of his own song, or of another’s, a little morsel of his soul gets put into the meal. And when a professional artist does so, there is an even greater chance of that performance turning into an aural banquet for the listener. Oftentimes the mood of the song is completely different from its original: a change from brash and outrageous to perhaps delicate and sensitive, yet still using the same words and chords. So, in addition to showcasing the artist’s actual vocal and/or instrumental skills, their flair for songwriting and arranging can also be given a chance to shine.

Here are some amateur and professional examples of acoustic covers that really sum up the ideals I’ve found in this sphere of music. In some cases, the line between amateur and professional is a little blurred, because some of these people have really good production values and obvious talent that needs to be discovered by a record label or rich investor! Some are studio recordings, but still acoustic versions, which must count for something. This is by no means a complete list of what’s worth checking it out; It’s just what I’ve been exposed to, or have the download links to show you. I’m sure every artist out there has had to do an acoustic recording at some point. What these type of recordings lack in complexity, they more than make up for in passion and emotion.

Amateurs:

1. Tyler Ward

This guy has built up quite a collection of covers, and guests to perform with him. I was introduced to his work by his cover of Lady Gaga’s latest hit ‘Born This Way’, which he performs with a girl named Alex G. Try out this one out for size:

2. Obadiah Parker’s cover of Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’

This folk/pop group catapulted away from obscurity when in 2007, they released an acoustic cover of the hip hop smash hit by Outkast, ‘Hey Ya’. A tender, relaxed take on a very upbeat and funky song:

(sorry, unable to embed this one!)

3.  Boyce Avenue

Like Tyler Ward, this band have become Youtube sensations, with many of their videos having over a million views each. Specialising in acoustic covers, and now writing some of their own material in a similar style, they are an excellent example of how to use modern communication tools like the Internet to get your name out there.

Their most-viewed track, Linkin Park’s ‘Shadow Of The Day’, rightfully deserves that honour:

Professionals

1. MTV Unplugged Series

This MTV concert series began in the early 90’s and had some amazing acts of the day perform ‘unplugged’. Some memorable moments to check out include:

Eric Clapton in 1992, whose set was released as an album, selling over 10 million copies and earning him SIX Grammy Awards! Hectic stuff…

Bryan Adams’s 1997 set, of which that version of ‘Heaven’ will probably end up being my wedding song…

Nirvana’s legendary performance in 1993. Recorded only five months before Kurt Cobain’s death, the grunge trend-setters completely flipped their music on its head, showcasing a more sensitive side of Kurt’s vocals and guitar-playing.

 

Oasis’s infamous 1996 performance, at the height of their fame. Moments before going on stage, lead singer Liam Gallagher pulled out of the show, citing a sore throat. The band continued to perform despite this, with his brother, songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher, handling all the vocals, which earned him much critical praise. Liam watched the performance and heckled the group from a balcony. Some absolute classics here, such as ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’.

The Unplugged series slowed down its recording schedule in the 2000’s, but lately, present-day artists such as Phoenix, Katy Perry, Adam Lambert, Vampire Weekend and Paramore have been contributing some lively performances.

2. An assortment of others that I have on my iPod

Due to the elusive nature of these performances, it’s quite difficult to have a nice catalogue of them on CD’s or on an iPod. Many artists choose to randomly play a hit of theirs acoustically at one of their countless concerts, or record a version on an obscure EP; therefore it’s easy to miss out, even if you’re a fan! So here’s a list of some interesting ones I have collected over the years:

  • Aerosmith – ‘Crazy’ (Piano Acoustic)
  • Fokofpolisiekar – ‘Hemel Op Die Platteland’ (Guitar Acoustic)
  • Foo Fighters – ‘Times Like These’ (Guitar Acoustic)
  • Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’ (Originally by Nine Inch Nails – one of the best covers ever, off an album of covers he did before he died in 2003)
  • Linkin Park – Pushing Me Away (Live Acoustic – from Underground V6.0)
  • Relient K’s ‘Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been’ and ‘Which To Bury: Us Or The Hatchet’ (Unplugged Versions off various EP’s)
  • Rihanna – Umbrella (Guitar Acoustic)
  • Tupac Shakur – Changes (Guitar Acoustic – rare version)

Whew, that’s enough for now! Now it’s your turn to go out there and search for these acoustic nuggets of treasure. Hopefully you’ll find that the magic is still there once the Auto-tune is turned off and the guitars are unplugged…