Music Dump: Best Of 2012 - Part 1

Now that 2012 is completely, actually over, it's time to discuss some of 2012's best writing about music. (That I read and linked to at Music Dump, at least). These were the articles that changed how I heard the music, that made me feel something, that really did their homework, or that really got at the state of pop music today. Preferably all of the above. If writing about music is dancing about architecture this is the stuff that's definitely closer to the Bolshoi Ballet dancing to Frank Lloyd Wright, than Thom Yorke dancing to a McMansion.

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The Song Machine: The Hit Makers Behind Rihanna by John Seabrook (The New Yorker, March): This is pretty much compulsory reading if you want to understand why pop music in the charts is the way it is. Seabrook hangs out with Stargate and Ester Dean, the producers and 'top-liner' respectively, who are responsible for hits for everyone from Beyonce to Kelly Clarkson to Rihanna ('Rude Boy', 'Superbass', 'Firework', 'S&M', 'Mr Know It All', 'Countdown', etc). It lucidly explains how the music you hear on chart radio is put together, and why it is like it is. For example: “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown, the president of Roc Nation, and Dean’s manager, told me recently. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” The reason, he explained, is that “people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”

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All This Light by Amanda Petrusich (Pitchfork, August): Chan Marshall of Cat Power, nude! Or so says Petrusich, who says that Marshall arranged for them to both get full-body massages, making the interview process that much more relaxing. Which definitely does result in an intimate, funny, and illuminating profile of an artist who often gets adjectives like 'difficult' or 'temperamental' thrown at her. Pitchfork have really outdone themselves in terms of graphic design here (and in their cover stories in general in 2012 - this is what online features should look like. 

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Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them In 2012? by Nitsuh Abebe (Vulture/New York Magazine, September): Nitsuh Abebe hangs out with Grizzly Bear to do a profile, but in typical Abebe fashion, he zeroes onto questions that are important and interesting to people who don't really care about Grizzly Bear. As in: what's it like to be in a band that's about as big as Grizzly Bear? I mean, they're big - they've debuted in the top 10 of the album charts, they're super well-known in their circles, enough that they'd be a lead piece for something like Vulture. But, as big as they are, they've probably reached their ceiling unless they get mainstream radio play. And it's enough to pay (some of) the bills at the moment, but they're not living super comfortably. Which maybe says something about the state of the music industry in 2012 - if being as big as Grizzly Bear is only mostly paying your bills, is it worth it? (Abebe's piece analysing Frank Ocean for Pitchfork was great too, and for more in excellent state-of-the-industry writing, it's probably hard to go past Damon Krukowski's Pitchfork piece about Spotify or Joshua Clover's New Yorker piece on Amanda Palmer's experiment with communism.)

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100 & Single: Three Rules To Define The Term "One-Hit Wonder" In 2012 by Chris Molanphy (Village Voice, September): If I asked you if The Knack was a one-hit wonder, you'd say yes. 'My Sharona!' WRONG. They had another single, 'Good Girls Don't', which was a #11 single in the US. But 'My Sharona' (or 'Jessie's Girl' by Rick Springfield or 'Ice Ice Baby' by Vanilla Ice to name two other not-actually-a-one-hit-wonders) feels like a one-hit wonder. So what is it about one-hit wonders? Why does 'My Sharona' live in our hearts while we've forgotten about 'Good Girls Don't'? And will the likes of Gotye and Carly Rae Jepsen end up as one-hit wonders in the US?

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Merzbiebs: Things You Think You Don't Want To Hear by Sasha Frere Jones (The New Yorker, June): I'm fairly sure that fans to Japanese vegan noise artist Merzbow, who makes noises rich in textures but devoid of melody or harmony, are probably not fans of Justin BIeber (who makes, well, the kind of music Justin Bieber makes). But in both of them, says Frere Jones, they sublimate their individuality into machines, whether it's the feedback of amplifiers used by Merzbow, or the professional publicity machine Bieber is trapped in, never able to simply be himself. Not that Merzbow fans should get into Bieber, necessarily, but there's often these strange similarities between radically different music.

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'I Just Want To Feel Everything': Hiding Out With Fiona Apple, Musical Hermit by Dan P. Lee (Vulture, June): There was a lot of writing about Fiona Apple this year, because The Idler Wheel was a critical darling, and people were touched that she cancelled a tour to look after her dog. But I reckon this is the best: Lee does the regular interview with Fiona Apple in New York that the other writers did, but she sees something in him, and invites him to hang out with her afterwards. He eventually goes back to California with her, to meet her dog and family. In between, he paints a fascinating portrait of a person who seems to be living through her mental illnesses (Lee claims Apple has OCD, though it's more under control than it was) the RD Laing way: instead of trying to bend her personality to fit the world, Apple seems to have the ability to bend the world to fit her personality. And it's perhaps this ability to bend the world to fit herself which makes her music so special to so many.

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PPM: The Meter's Running by Chris Kornelis (Seattle Weekly, July): In order to figure out who's listening to what radio station when, the corporations that figured out radio ratings would get people to fill out forms - "I listened to this, then..." etc. This is why radio stations say, for example, "you're listening to Triple S radio!" ten times an hour, so people remember what they're listening to when they fill out the forms. However, Arbitron, the corporation who put together radio ratings chart in the US, now gets people to wear little pager-like devices, which pick up a high-pitched signal emitted by the radio stations. And so radio stations now have access to exactly which songs people like, and which songs make people change the channel. This is having major effects on how radio station programmers program their music, because it turns out that a lot of what they thought about their listeners was wrong. Unfortunately, the changes radio station programmers have made as a result generally make radio more homogenous and sucky.

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Girls Love Me by Katy Vine (Texas Monthly, June): You have probably never heard of Austin Mahone, and no, he's not a new member of the Pogues. He's the latest teen sensation! He has a million followers on Twitter, he is occasionally mobbed by a thousand girls in the street, and he can't even say who he has a crush on because it'll devastate thousands of young girls. And what's more, he has got to this level of fame without a record label, without a professional publicity company. He may well be the future of music, for better or worse.

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Muddy Waters And Mozart: On The Late Great Townes Van Zandt by Aretha Sills (LA Review Of Books, January): Sills is an old-time fan of country music, who used to run a fanzine in the 1990s, and she interviewed the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt in 1994, not too long before he passed away. Van Zandt, the scion of a Texas oil family, was a damaged man who lived a famously self-destructive life that he chronicled expertly in his songs. And Sills here wrestles with just how damaged Van Zandt was, and to what level people who idolised him for his self-destructiveness (like her) contributed to his myth, and kept the cycle going. I'm also a fan of Van Zandt, but I was only really dimly aware of just how self-destructive he was until I'd read this article. To me it seems like Van Zandt's talent is to be able to portray feelings like self-loathing, ennui, and despair in the most elegant way possible, and I'm not sure Van Zandt needed to be quite as self-destructive as he was in order to really write those songs, but certainly he needed to give off the impression that he knew what those emotions felt like. In any case, so many people are bewitched by the lives of tragic heroes like Van Zandt or Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, and this piece gets close to why this is.

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Storytellers: Gotye by Andrew McMillen (Mess+Noise, February): Chances are you may have heard 'Somebody That I Used To Know' by now, you know, just once or twice. But, a couple of years ago, if you had asked the average Australian about Gotye, 'Hearts A Mess' would have been the song they know. And TheVine contributor Andrew McMillen writes an excellent piece here talking to Gotye about 'Hearts A Mess', which gets at fascinating insights into the song and how it was constructed; it has 15-20 samples, and the big sample in the song is out of 'The Banana Boat Song' by Harry Belafonte. And Gotye doesn't know if the girl it's mostly about has even heard the song.

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PART 2 - UP NEXT

Tim Byron

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