Behind the Music

Bono at Live 8

It's impossible to listen to music in a vacuum, to take the sound of a band on its own merits. There are so many outside factors at play – reviews, friends opinions, larger cultural influences . . .

On more than one occasion in his recent New Yorker essay, Sasha Frere-Jones compared the Arcade Fire to U2 (Issue: 19 February 2007). On each of these occasions, I cringed. Not because the argument was misguided, but because I realized the denial I'd been in -- with its anthemic choruses and generally big sound, Win Butler's group surely owes a lot to Bono and company. During all the time I spent with Funeral, I didn't allow myself to see or hear the connection, even if far less involved music fans like ESPN Radio's Dan Patrick recognized it immediately. It was difficult to handle the fact that one of my most hated bands could have much in common with a current favorite. What was it I saw in one but not the other? Once again, I had to consider the fact that my distaste for U2, instead of being a stylistic choice, might instead mainly be based on non-musical factors.

This isn't the first time this has come up during my largely publicized (among friends, at least) U2 smear campaign. During this year's NBA All-Star Game festivities, for example, I requested that the channel be changed during a Mary J. Blige performance of "One". A friend pointed out that this was a good test of how deep my hatred runs. Did I want it changed solely because of the song, even though it wasn't Bono performing it? I should note that I've never been a huge fan of covers to begin with (yet another conflicted relationship that needs its own column), and I'm not much of a Mary J. Blige fan either, so the test was without a true "control". Besides, it's been rare that I've ever wanted to watch a pre-game musical act; even one of my most celebrated live sports moments, the 1999 Home Run Derby at Fenway Park, was nearly soured for me by Smash Mouth's (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek performance of "All-Star".

It wasn't really the song that made me want to change the channel, but what the song represented. In my mind, any U2 tribute just encourages the growth of Bono's already enormous ego, and further gives credence to the idea that the Irish quartet really is the greatest band on earth, its influences reaching into every corner of every genre. While I can admit that the music itself may be good, even great (I'm talking pre-2000 here), I'm unwilling to anoint the band as any sort of savior, as many seem ready to. It's not that I can think of anyone more deserving of that type of acclaim. I just don't support such overkill for any band, especially one with such an unlikable leader. Some might marvel at how I can so easily dismiss Bono's world-saving activities -- isn't this a sign of his virtue, something I wish more artists would do? I admire his efforts, but I can't help but feel he gets more out of it than anyone else (as I was writing this, I received an unsolicited email explaining that while Bono's "Red" campaign has raised $18 million for drug aid in Africa, nearly $100 million has been spent pasting his image on billboards and in magazines advertising the project). No matter how great the band may be, there are many equally deserving artists to whom we can give our attention. U2 doesn't really need our help.

It shouldn't be surprising that my opinions are affected so much by outside issues. It's virtually impossible to listen to music in a vacuum anymore, to take the sounds themselves on their own merits. There are so many other factors at play, from critical reviews to friends' recommendations to larger cultural movements and trends, that I can't really recall the last time I popped in a CD without any sort of preconceived notion of what it might sound like.

The biggest outside issue is one that has nagged consumers of art (and I'm using that term broadly, here) for years: Is it possible to separate art from the artist that created it, or do we have to take the two as a package deal, with one inevitably influencing the other? Is who we're listening to just as important as what we're listening to? This matter of producer vs. product is a much simpler issue in other arenas, particularly sports arenas. Sports fans seem much more willing to tolerate a particularly offensive personality as long as it translates to strong performance (note that I'm talking personality here, not other off-field factors such as steroids). This is why notorious troublemakers like Terrell Owens and Ron Artest continue to have teams clamoring for their services, and why, for all the recent fuss, Pacman Jones will surely be intercepting passes somewhere come fall. It's also why current pariahs like Tim Hardaway are easily ostracized; they no longer can do anything to distract us from themselves. While the "locker room" and "team chemistry" are certainly areas of concern among GMs everywhere, ultimately performance is the true measure by which athletes are judged.

Art is a much more difficult area in which to tackle personality, because we've been taught that nearly every artist draws at least partly from personal experience. You can't separate art from the person who created it, because his or her soul is supposedly so intrinsically wrapped up with the creation. Art doesn't just reflect life, it reflects a particular life. This is easy to hear in the kind of openly confessional music that artists like Daniel Johnston and Bright Eyes make, but it's just as relevant to DJ Spooky or George Clinton. The simple act of creating an original piece of art signifies a desire to communicate something of yourself, even if only to reveal what you care about most. Which is why it's hard to truly appreciate music that comes from a particularly unpleasant source; it's like eating a delicious meal, then finding out you just digested a couple of bull testicles. You might have enjoyed the experience, but an hour later, all you can picture is the ugly, castrated beast.

Even if we can fool ourselves into disregarding personality, it's hard for our eyes to play along. Sound and vision have a deep relationship, or, I guess you could say, a very shallow one. The entire live music experience is evidence of this, because it's when our perceptions of an artist's music come face to face with the person at its core. I recently attended a Snowden concert with a friend (actually, I went to see Malajube); partway through the band's set, my friend confided that she enjoyed the music, but found herself disliking the lead singer because he looked like he should be at a "frat party" with his polo shirt and generally preppy appearance. Somehow, that made his declarations of being "Anti Anti" less convincing.

A few years ago, some friends came along with me to see Qwel, a hip-hop artist who they knew little about. Partway through the opening act, a local funk band, one friend nudged me and said, "They seem kind of white for a hip-hop show." I explained that, well, Qwel was white. Almost immediately, it seemed that her expectations for the show changed dramatically (she's white, by the way); in fact, I didn't see her for much of the night after that. The problem is, you can't always trust what you see; take Brother Ali, for example. The Minneapolis rapper is a black albino, meaning that he was born to black parents but is whiter than me. He may identify as a black artist (listen to "Pay Them Back" and "Forest Whitaker" for examples), but if my friend were to see his show, she might just assume he was a white rapper.

Surely many of us have experiences where performers seem very different in person than the image of them we've conjured up in our heads. Once artists reveal themselves as real people with real identities, it's much easier to pick apart their creations. Despite my constant desire to understand the personalities behind the music, I sometimes wish it were possible not to think of them at all, to see them as faceless, ego-less purveyors of sound. But then I couldn't go to concerts, and I've got Arcade Fire tickets in May. I'm sure I'll spend a good chunk of the show with U2 comparisons rattling around my brain, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. As I learned some time ago, love is certainly not blind. It might be a little hard of hearing, though.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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