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In Honor of Last Night’s CMA Awards, We Offer Some Alternative “Country” Music



“Alt-Country” is a spurious label we give to music that, I guess, sounds like country music but weirder, or more lo-fi, or made by someone signed to Saddle Creek Records, or something.

I understand the concept musically, but if the internet has taught us anything, it’s that this country is a lot weirder than anyone could have suspected. Not only that, but twenty-first-century America is chock full of stories and perspectives; did you know, for instance, that there’s an underground rap music scene in West Virginia? Isn’t that wonderful? It’s not all Brad Paisley in the Mountain State.

I know that rap is not typically equated with country music, but if it’s music from the country and it’s not signed to a major label, couldn’t you argue that underground rap in West Virginia is indeed both “alternative” and “country?” Why does “twangy rock music sung mostly by white people” get to call itself “country?”

There are plenty of Americans who don’t share that vision of America, and they’re no less a part of this nation than someone like Carrie Underwood. As a musical distinction, I know what “country” means. But, I’d like to propose some alternative ways of applying the “country” label, ways that signify not music but message, not just rural America but all of America. Here are some artists who have released new material in 2010 who exemplify something American, something that deserves to be considered as the voice of the country.

In other words, each of these artists speaks to some aspect of the diverse and often challenging story of our nation; taken collectively, their musical genres are as varied as their points of view.

Das Racist: Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez have released not one but two critically acclaimed mixtapes this year; the first, Shut Up, Dude, coats their racially-charged lyrics with bouncy beats and exciting electro riffs. It’s equal parts party jam and social commentary, with quick dashes of pun-driven humor sprinkled throughout. America is more of a cultural melting pot than ever before, yet discrimination still exists and seems to hit inner-city kids the worst. On “Chicken and Meat,” they touch upon all sorts of topics, including what reads like a laundry list of consumerist American ideals: “We’ve got McDonald’s, we’ve got cash, we’ve got weapons—we stay strapped.” As artists of color, they ask: “Officer, officer, officer, why you wanna put me in a coffin sir?” before mocking white listeners’ failure to ethnically distinguish the two: “Which one’s Dominican? Wait, who’s the Indian?” Unlike the disenfranchised masses, however, Das Racist maintains a fierce confidence that grants their rhymes an enthusiastic authority, again poking fun at corporate-branded identity markers with taunts like, “You drive Kia, I drive Jaguar.” They’re enlightened court jesters, well-read underdogs, and have absolutely no parallel in the typical “country” or mainstream hip-hop genres; they speak for all those for whom the American Dream is a destination, whether their origin is from across the ocean or the ghetto.

Best Coast: This LA-based trio was hardly the first to carry on the tradition of surfer rock; between acts like Surfer Blood, Vivian Girls, and Dum Dum Girls, the West-coast sun-drenched pop sound has left a strong mark on this year’s indie music community. But thanks to especially memorable hooks and an equally memorable (if bizarre) Twitter feed (sample Tweet: “season seven of entourage is so good”), it’s been Best Coast’s year. 60s-inspired music, American-Apparel-donning eighties-inspired presentation, Slumberland-Records-indebted studio reverb cribbed from the early 90s, and a decidedly modern method of marketing music: Best Coast is the much-maligned (but culturally resilient) hipster subculture’s ambassador to the mainstream, Brooklyn and Echo Lake and Austin and Minneapolis and a bunch of other scene’s agreed-upon Next Big Thing. The internet loves to mock “hipster culture,” but the proliferation of jokes at hipsters’ expense actually speaks to the transformative power of online communication, whereby such a subculture can influence the very same established cultural markers from which it once sought to distance itself. Of course, Best Coast couldn’t pull this off without some truly awesome tunes, and their debut LP Crazy For You is brimming with them.

Diamond Rings: Okay, so John O’Regan is technically Canadian, but that’s okay—he may as well hail from Hell’s Kitchen. Gay rights has been the wedge issue of 2010, and artists such as Lady Gaga have made gay culture a mainstream source of inspiration. O’Regan dons rainbow eye makeup and dresses up in fabulous costumes and performs the sort of irresistible bubblegum pop gems once reserved for female sirens like Britney Spears and Mandy Moore. (Take a look at the video for his single “Show Me Your Stuff” for an example of his fabulousness at work.) When even the US Army is in on the act, it’s not hyperbole or wishful thinking to assert that America’s gone glam. Supporters and opponents of gay rights are intent on encouraging (or abolishing) the gender-bending, anti-heteronormative perspective Diamond Rings stands for. As he said in a March interview with Canadian culture mag Eye Weekly, “I still think it’s interesting — just based on whether I’m wearing blue jeans or black tights, glasses or eye shadow — that people’s wholesale perception of my identity changes. And, right now, it’s about trying to harness the power in that.” Identity perception—especially as it relates to the GLBT community—has quickly become a central question of America’s culture (and, to some, moral) destiny, and Diamond Rings is just as rapidly establishing himself as a central player in the gay cultural arena.

Rangers: Texan Joe Knight recently released an LP entitled Suburban Tours, and it’s some of the best found sound music I’ve heard in a while. “Found sound” represents a different sort of nostalgia, a desire to experience again the staticky VHS recollections of people like me who grew up on late-80s and early-90s extraterrestrial sound and color (recall the old HBO logo). Daytime television commercial jingles, department store Muzak and retro-futuristic sound effects all find a place in Knight’s sonic palette. “Found” culture is experiencing a resurgence, as the success of websites like and, and I think that speaks to contemporary Americans’ lingering technophobia (exacerbated by online privacy concerns on global networks like Facebook and Google) and an insistence on reexamine/remixing old technologies like the vinyl record, cassette tape, and 8-bit video game. We were all raised on this cultural detritus, for better or for worse, in a time before memes; now, we exchange our shared recollections and revel in throwback electronics. View California-based “found sound” extraordinaire James Ferraro’s video for “Headlines (Access Hollywood),” a cultural kaleidoscope that amalgamates the retro (old-school 3D tours of Disneyland, anyone?) and the contemporary (“Family Guy” clips, holiday-shopping madness) to create something that scrapes at the tail end of the viewer’s memory. Joe Knight’s Rangers project is a terrific example of “found America” at work; it is the sound of the country our inner children drifted through, vaguely remembered, half-asleep, and always happy. There’s a subtle joy beneath the layers of noise that slowly seeps into the listener.

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Album Review: M.I.A. – Maya



Abrasive, confrontational and idiosyncratic, M.I.A.’s third studio album can’t decide whether it’s a flame-throwing manifesto about “information politics” or an aggressive declaration of self.

Whatever its eventual goals, Maya is easily the artist’s most prickly offering to date—which, given M.I.A.’s track record, is saying something. And yet, it is also her most revealing.

The woman born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (this album is named for her, just as her two previous records, Arularand Kala, were named for her father and mother, respectively) seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis throughout. Since her last record, 2007’s Kala—which produced the gigantic smash single “Paper Planes”—M.I.A. has settled down somewhat, moving in with her boyfriend (music business heir Ben Bronfman) and having a child in Los Angeles.

But is she giving in to the bourgeois lifestyle?

Even if she hadn’t publicly battled a New York Times journalist about the veracity of an interview where she supposedly ordered the high-brow snack of truffle French fries, it’s clear M.I.A.’s success as a producer and performer now stands at odds with her desire to be seen as a street-level revolutionary with little to lose.

The punishing, front part of the album—power tools provide the beat for “Steppin Up”—stands in sharp contrast to the almost soothing, gentle back portion (“Tell Me Why” is probably the closest M.I.A. will ever come to recording a ballad). It’s a striking dichotomy, this tough and soft, but M.I.A. embraces the challenge of reconciling the two.

Working with a roster of forward-thinking producers (Blaqstarr, Diplo, Rusko, Switch and Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller), M.I.A. relies on startling samples, including snippets of Suicide and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. The dense sonic landscapes invite repeated listens, moving past M.I.A.’s occasionally detached, occasionally Auto-Tuned vocal performances and unpacking the stellar work of her production team.

Maya doesn’t suggest M.I.A. has lost the taste for experimentation or that her ambition has lessened; “Gravity’s my enemy,” she warbles on the album closer “Space.” If anything, this record feels like someone with creativity to burn wrestling with the need for external expression.

Although M.I.A. could once affect the pose of a musical guerrilla, the passage of time and events that mark most every life (the arrival of domestic tranquility, material success, etc.) have forced a new perspective upon her.

Whether or not she’s comfortable with that change is a question Maya can’t—or won’t—answer.

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2011′s Best Underground Music (So Far), Part II



Last month, we told you about some of the best new releases from from the ambient/electronic underground. Here are a few more artists whose work has caught our attention as of late.

Waskerley Way makes beat-heavy electronic music in the UK. Also, he loves cats. (No, seriously, dude’s got a thing for cats; last year he dedicated an entire EP to them.) Waterfall doesn’t exactly break any new ground, but Michael Bridgewater nonetheless puts his own spin on the otherwise tired “chillwave” trope. In fact, it sounds like the sort of chillwave your future grandkids might discover on a dusty old hard drive in your attic. Meowgaze? Hear and download Waterfall on his Bandcamp.

Ra Cailum is Anthony Engelhardt from St. Louis, Missouri. Not all of the songs on latest EP, Passage, are new, but they’ve been lovingly collected and offered to curious listeners free of charge in the wake of the December 2010 release of his Walkabout LP, which he says marked the “end to the CHILLWAVE ERA sound of Ra Cailum.” He says that sound is “becoming a crutch,” but it’s a catchy crutch that resonates even more now that the weather’s finally warm.

Sean McCann is a cyborg. He has to be. Dude puts out like a bazillion full-lengths each year, and they’re all amazing. “Drone” doesn’t really do his music justice; McCann uses all sorts of instruments and sound effects–including banjos and warped violas–to evoke different emotional responses in the listener. His latest, entitled The Capital, explores the symbiotic relationship between chaos and beauty. Or, you know, not; sometimes it’s best to not sully music this good with academic conjecturing.

A tip of the hat to the ever-awesome ambient music blog Weedtemple for introducing the world to Rug. I know absolutely nothing about this project other than that it’s made by a guy named Zach Stenger. But such anonymity is fitting; Deep Sky Clusters sounds less like the work of a person and more like the spontaneous combustion of years’ worth of VHS memories and borrowed melodies. It’s all very strange, but if you give it a chance, you’ll be surprised as to how rewarding these songs can be.

Maria Minerva is 23-years-old and lives in Estonia, where she seems to spend most of her time holed up in her bedroom making ghostly electronica of the lo-lo-fi variety. Her latest cassette is called Tallinn at Dawn, and it’s infectious; disco and new wave tinged synth pop backs her ethereal vocals that consistently sound like you’re hearing them from another room. Sometimes, one can’t help but regret an artist’s studio limitations for obscuring a potentially revelatory sound; in Ms. Minerva’s case, however, the low fidelity only adds to the atmosphere. Her music sounds like it’s actually from 1983, and you’ve only recently discovered it after finding her cassettes in a shoebox buried behind your local public library.

Food Pyramid make Kosmiche Musik with a psychedelic twist. They’ve just released the third and final cassette in their krautrock-inspired trilogy. The cassettes are entitled I, II, and now III. Don’t worry, their song titles are a lot more creative; who wouldn’t want to hear songs with titles like “Lesbian Seagull” and “Speedboat Exit Miami Sunset” and “Last Shuttle To The Red Planet?” I mean, this type of music either is your thing or isn’t, but if you wish that Klaus Schulze were actually a trio from Minnesota, then you’ll like what Food Pyramid have to offer.

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Why I Love Rebecca Black’s “Friday”



I first learned of 13-year-old Rebecca Black via a Facebook post that appeared on my news feed about two weeks ago, and my initial reaction to the now ubiquitous “Friday” was a mixture of disbelief and amusement—I couldn’t help but chuckle at the atrocious song as I thought about how something so bad could accrue so many views in such a short period of time. Still, I thought of it as something of a novelty—just an internet meme that, like so any others, would sputter and stall once its fuel was burned up.

As it turns out, “Friday” had a lot more gas in the tank than anyone expected.

The culmination of Rebecca Black’s phenomenal rise came on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last Friday, when the show’s host enlisted the services of comedian and fake news host Stephen Colbert (arguably one of the biggest stars in the world right now) for a bombastic live rendition of “Friday,” backed by none other than Grammy winning hip hop outfit The Roots. Halfway through the song, Colbert and Fallon (who contributed a verse of heavily auto-tuned guest vocals) were joined on stage by American Idol winner Taylor Hicks and the New York Knicks dance team. The performance climaxed in a huge crescendo of movement and color and may well be remembered as one of the most entertaining and culturally defining musical moments of the year.

That fact is sure to make blood boil among the legions of indie diehards still reveling in little-known rock band Arcade Fire’s monumental Grammy win for “Best Album,” but the truth is that Rebecca Black and her unbelievably bad song penetrated pop culture to a much greater extent than Arcade Fire’s unbelievably good album.

Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs has sold less than 1 million copies, even in spite of the band’s Grammy coup. In contrast, Black’s music video for “Friday” has been played on YouTube over 82 million times. Anecdotally, ask your friends or your co-workers what they know about Arcade Fire, and they’ll most likely stare back at you with blank faces. But ask them what they know about Rebecca Black, and you’re likely to see a considerably more animated response.

Perhaps that fact says something profoundly negative about our culture. Perhaps it’s a shame that we have collectively embraced something that is free, fast and intellectually easy as opposed to something that is textured, beautiful and more difficult to appreciate. Or perhaps that’s not the point at all. Perhaps the strength of music cannot be defined just by how textured, beautiful and intellectually rewarding it is. Perhaps, sometimes, music reaches the pinnacle of its potential when it becomes something that we share, not something that we experience and appreciate in relative isolation.

Conventional wisdom says that “Friday” is just an inside joke that we’re all in on. But Fallon and company performed it joyously, and the crowd’s enthusiasm for that performance was anything but a show for the cameras. Maybe people love to hate “Friday,” but they still love it—as evidenced by the fact that they continue to share it, propagate it and discuss it more than they have done with any song or artist in quite some time.

Over the past 15 years, our consumption of music has become tremendously idiosyncratic. Thanks to this infinite distribution stream called the internet, we can download or purchase any song or album made by any person anywhere in the world. And so our music collections reflect not simply our tastes, but our tastes and preferences with incredible specificity.

But while those collections satisfy our personal desires, they typically contain little collective energy. We listen to what we listen to because we like it, but there’s almost no synergy between what we like and what our neighbor likes. Even within genres and musical movements, there seems to be a limitless string of sub-genres and sub-movements, all of which serve to divide music fans into an increasing number of increasingly small groups. And so our music connects us tightly to a few people, but hardly at all to society at large.

“Friday,” in contrast, is a song that isn’t constrained by niche, genre, generational or racial considerations. It’s a song that we’re all experiencing together. And whether we engage with it in appreciation or ridicule, it’s encouraging us to talk to each about that shared experience.

That’s something that just doesn’t happen because of music very often these days.

Black made music that mattered socially, not just critically or commercially. And in doing so, she brought together a drastically disparate musical population–one that is more virtually connected, but more socially disconnected, than at any time in its history.

And if you ask me, that’s the mark of a very good song—regardless of how inane the lyrics may be.

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