Mix #34 (analytical edition)

Love Me AlreadyBlack Kids
Black Kids have a rather interesting sound. The keyboards and guitars are relatively standard, but it is the vocals that set them apart. The leader singer has a weird delivery style that isn’t quite yelling, but is certainly forceful, creating a rather washy sound. At times it works, but elsewhere it can get annoying. This song demonstrates this problem nicely, as well showing some of the underlying melodies that are driving people towards their music.

On and OnThe Bell
I’ve been trying rather unsuccessfully to work out who The Bell’s vocalist sounds like. Whenever I find a similarity, such as the deep drone of Interpol, it always fails to apply across the board. Whatever the case, it’s a voice that works well. In fact, everything about this band is done right. Each track has a nicely crafted melody, different from the last, that has you bopping along without realising. But that’s just the problem. It all runs TOO smoothly. It’s like they’ve followed the ‘good music’ book so perfectly that their sound ends up hollow. It seems harsh, or perhaps nonsensical, but it's about the only explanation I can come up with for why I enjoy their music, but walk away feeling unsatisfied...

The Flies ArriveCajun Dance Party
Just as The Libertines did before them, Cajun Dance Party are successfully mastering the art of sloppiness. There’s something oddly appealing about music that appears effortless and at times deliberately bad. Slurred vocals, late changes and general disregard for polish is a combination which works surprisingly well; provided it’s done right. Well thankfully, CDP know their stuff. It also doesn’t hurt having some killer keyboard licks to boot.

TyrantsBlack Mountain
If you’re looking for some nicely packaged ‘songs’, you're going to be severely disappointed with Black Mountain’s new album. On their own, each track seems horribly disjointed; this one alone contains five or so different stages with questionable relevance to one other. But you have to realise that they are all parts of a bigger picture. All this lack of accessibility is forgotten when you discover just how epic the end result is. At times you think you’re listening to a hardcore instrumental band, until all of a sudden some vocals kick in and they’ve moved into a compelling new melody.

PlayhousesTV on the Radio
TV On The Radio are one of the few bands around that are truly right out of left field. You won’t find any obvious influences here. Their music is filled with complex, overlapping melodies that build slowly, but travel at exciting paces. And best of all, it’s all driven by team of powerful vocalists, not afraid to dabble in falsetto frequencies. What more could you want?

Mix #34 (anecdotal edition)

Love Me AlreadyBlack Kids
Black Kids are the latest band to be thrust into popularity far too quickly. The usual sequence of events will probably occur, with the serious music community dismissing them as more and more idiots begin liking them. But until then, we can still get some enjoyment out of them. Personally, I'm not blown away, but they seem to be creating some pretty impressive music (including this song), and it’s still early in their career.

On and OnThe Bell
For an album to succeed, it needs to do two important things. Firstly, it needs be good. It sounds simple enough, but convincing listeners of this fact is no walk in the park. Secondly, it needs to give you a reason to keep coming back. You may openly admit an album sounds good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a desire to keep listening to it. You need something special that makes you associate the album with an enjoyable experience. Well that’s where I currently sit with Sweden’s The Bell and their album ‘Make Some Quiet’. It’s undoubtedly filled with some great music, I’m just looking for the spark that will keep pulling me back.

The Flies ArriveCajun Dance Party
Unless you regularly traverse the blogosphere or indulge in NME’s hyperboles, you probably haven’t heard much of Cajun Dance Party. Well as the year progress, that looks set to change. They are a band out of England, who are turning plenty of heads, despite still being in high school. I’ve previously mentioned their song, The Colourful Life, (which I recommend you track down if you haven’t heard), but I’ve been going through their other demos and finding plenty more promise. It will be very interesting to see how their debut album turns out.

TyrantsBlack Mountain
As I was recommending some music to my friend, Black Mountain came up. I hadn’t had much of a chance to listen to it myself, but I mentioned how it was receiving quite a bit of hype. We put it on to try it out and let’s just say it didn’t a very good job convincing my friend that it was worth listening to. The problem is that Black Mountain simply cannot be enjoyed in short bursts. It feels like some sort of epic cinematic experience that needs plenty of time to mature. The very act of me offering a track to sample is probably doing the album a great injustice, but I can’t very well give the whole thing away. As I’ve given it the time it deserves, the quality is certainly starting to emerge.

PlayhousesTV on the Radio
In my attempt to try and give some sort of indication of where Black Mountain sat on the hype / popularity chain, I tried offering a comparison with TV on the Radio. To which I got blank looks. TV on the Radio! I thought everybody knew who they were. Anyway, just in case anybody else out there is still ignorant, here’s a reminder.

Monday Mix

Maasai MaraThe Ruby Suns
For many of you, your first encounter with New Zealand band, The Ruby Suns, was when far off foreigners, The Shins, chose them as special guests for their tour of Australia. So much for our close relationship with NZ. But now they’re coming for their very own show (this Friday at Spectrum) and I’m getting pretty excited (for various reasons). Their music fits somewhere in the ‘twisted indie-pop’ category, alongside the likes of Animal Collective. Their debut album is excellent and they have another on the way very soon.

No One’s Gonna Love You
Band of Horses
Those who listened to the last Band of Horses album will know just how powerful their music can be. The vocals are undoubtedly the main driving force behind this. I haven’t yet decided whether their latest album is up to the same standards, but if this song is anything to go by, we may have another classic on our hands.

She Says
VHS or Beta
Perhaps their name is supposed to indicate a sound, rooted in the past? Maybe it symbolises a battle in another fiercely competitive industry? Either that or they’re just nerds. Whatever the case, VHS or Beta seem well poised. They’ve put out a high quality album that’s accessible from the get go. I’d be surprised if they didn’t end up reaching the heights of bands like Franz Ferdinand very soon.

California GirlsThe Magnetic Fields
For an album that was supposed to sound “more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain”, it comes off sounding much more like a Magnetic Fields album to me. And that’s a good thing. Stephin Merritt’s brilliant melodies are back, along with the rotating vocalists. It feels like a perfect continuation of 69 Love Songs.

A Violent Yet Flammable World
Au Revoir Simone
The idea of an all female, all keyboard wielding band is sure to delight some and disgust others. I’m personally one of the former. When I first heard of Au Revoir Simone, I immediately thought of Electrelane and I wasn’t far off. They definitely have their own sound (except for one very similar song), but the vibe is very much the same. This is, of course, an excellent thing! Their album, Birds of Music, is very impressive and I struggled to pick just one song. I think this one finds a nice balance between their two extremes of delicate and powerful.

Digital Music: Stores Wrapup

When it comes to buying digital music, there are many important factors you’ll come up against. Here’s an overview of what they are, who fares best and what I’d like to see in the future.

Digital Music: Value

When I say value, I don’t just mean how cheap it is (though that is important). I’m also referring to what you get for your money, how rewarding your purchase is. Digital Music has a problem with being a rather hollow purchase. Unlike buying a CD or vinyl, you get nothing physical, just a few files for your computer. When these files are identical to what you could have downloaded for free of an illegal network, it’s hard to keep up the motivation to do the right thing. But it doesn’t have to be this way, the internet is perfect place for delivering rewarding media experiences. Digital Music stores just need to make the effort.

Winner: Matador

You know things are bad when none of the stores win this award. Some fare better than others, but the sad fact is that they all fall short. Other than some album art and the occasional bonus track, each offers little more than a bunch of standard mp3s. Matador, on the hand, is doing some excellent work with their ‘Buy Early, Get Now’ program. This allows you to pre-order CDs, months before they’re ready, and then stream the album while you wait. In some cases, bonus material is released periodically and you can download the album to enjoy in mp3 format before your physical CD arrives. It’s not quite the same as buying digital music in the regular fashion, but it’s an example of using the digital medium to deliver superior content, and more importantly, shows that someone out there is trying.

Runner Up: eMusic

If you’re looking for value in a purely monetary sense, eMusic is the place to go. On the cheapest subscription model, you get 30 tracks for US$10 a month. That comes in at a respectable AU$0.40 per song, WELL below the standard asking price. This is great to see because it makes digital music a viable option. $16.99 is simply too much for an album worth of mp3s. The money you save isn’t enough to justify the sacrifice, especially when you’re getting just plain mp3s. If more stores (and the labels that provide the music) followed eMusic’s lead, digital music would be a far better choice.

What Is Needed:

Either the price needs to come down or the product must be made more rewarding, because as it stands, you simply don’t get your money’s worth. I realise that the pressing of CDs is a small part of the costs in making an album, but surely there is room for better margins. On the other side of the story, I believe it is vital (and not all that difficult) to make digital purchases more rewarding. I would like to see all digital purchased kept in a personal ‘online catalogue’ that can be easily browsed. It should have not just album art, but also liner notes and the ability to stream each track. When digital music reaches this point, I think it will have found its place as a true medium for buying music.

Digital Music: Choice / Discovery

A friend once pointed out that ‘Number 1’ records are judged not by the amount sold, but the amount out of the warehouse. So if you make enough of them, any record can be number 1. And what is the first thing people who don’t know any better buy? The number 1 record, of course. Thus your artificially inflated CD becomes a justified chart topper.

Now we may just be conspiracy theorists, but it raises a legitimate point. When we get to a shop, it’s so tempting to just buy what’s popular. All the music we discovered at gigs, various blogs and Myspace gets dwarfed by the shelf space and promotional weight of the top ten. Thankfully though, digital music stands to change this. The wealth of information out there and the ability to buy on the spot, when we find something, means we can get music that is not only better, but more suited to our individual tastes.

Winner: iTunes

Now digital stores are far from perfect. Home pages are still dominated by Top 10s and the financially backed, and iTunes is no different. However, it still wins, quite simply because its large catalogue is most likely to give us instant gratification. Not only that, but the many ‘Buy with iTunes’ links that are scattered across the web help to make the job even easier. It also has other nice touches like a personalised home page, which uses your previous purchases to feature music you’re more likely to enjoy.

Runner Up: eMusic

It’s a bit unfair that eMusic comes second, because they certainly put the most effort in. There are all sorts of editorials and lists to help you find something new and the music is divided into everything from genre to year, so you can browse how you like. On top of this, each band’s page has a list of similar bands and influences, allowing you to jump from one to another with ease. There’s so much interesting content to read through that you’ll forget you’re at a store.

What Is Needed:

While iTunes and eMusic solve two big problems with finding music, they don’t offer complete solutions. When you open iTunes thinking “I want to buy some music!”, but you’re not sure what (as I did), it’s very hard to know where to start looking. Some possible solutions could include scanning your browsing history to find which artists you have been looking at or a small program that allowed you to ‘note’ bands of interest as you browse, and then be reminded of them when you next visit the store. Clearly there aren’t any fundamental problems here, just the potential for new and interesting ways to make sure you’re getting the music you like best.

Digital Music: Ease Of Use

You’d be surprised how complicated some stores make it just to buy a few songs off the internet. The two main areas to look out for are payment flexibility and download ease. You want a store that allows you to pay in the way that suits you and you want to get through the whole process relatively quickly. Similarly, once you’ve paid, you want to be listening to your music with as little hassle as possible.

Winner: 7digital

Having only bought one song from their sister site, Indiestore, I give this recommendation cautiously, but it would appear they are doing everything right. They use a ‘shopping cart’ system but it seems to run incredibly smoothly and you have the ability to pay with both credit card and paypal (my personal choice). On the downloading side, albums can be downloaded as one package, which is a must (and sadly not the case some other stores). It also conveniently keeps track of all your previously bought files, should you need to redownload them.

What impresses me most about 7digital is that it caters to both regular users and one-off customers. Unlike client systems (iTunes, eMusic), where you have to install software and sign-up, 7digital allows you to come along and buy an album with relatively little commitment. It’s just like a purchase anywhere else on the web. But for those who do want to buy more frequently, there are also mechanisms in place to manage all your files, including the handy ability to access them away from your main computer.

Runner Up: iTunes

The ability to buy iTunes credit at nearly any music store is a huge bonus, especially for the young, but it isn’t the most efficient system. You have to keep returning to the shop and you’ll often end up with $1.50 of unusable credit. Paypal is sorely missed (though I may be biased). However, once the software is installed and your credit is in, buying music with iTunes is an absolute dream. Everything just works! It’s quick and its simple. Apple certainly know their stuff.

What Is Needed:

Again, the main problem here is that each store will do some things right, but not others. If you took the best parts from each store, you could make the perfect digital music store. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Either way, these are the main features I think every store should be aiming to include:

  • Batch downloading (whole albums at a time)
  • A page to view and redownload all purchased files
  • Support all major payment options
  • 1-click purchases (after buying some credit)
  • Ability to buy and access to files from any computer
Is that so much to ask!?

Digital Music: Format

If you’re new to buying digital music, you’ll want to pay very close attention to what format it is. This will determine what players it will work on and what you’re allowed to do with it. The ideal format to look out for is plain MP3s, however sadly most digital music is sold in other formats, along with protection. Basically, the record label fat cats don’t want you spreading the music you just bought (fair enough) so they add protection which restricts what you can do with it (not fair). All in all, this punishes those who do the right thing by buying their music legally.

There are two mains types of protection. First is Apple’s method, where files are sold in AAC format, which will only work on iTunes and iPods. This is what you get from the iTunes music store. All other stores selling protected files must use the other type of protection, ie Microsoft’s method. This gives you files in WMA format with DRM (Digital Rights Management) protection. Apples method works smoothly, but limits you to their products, while Microsoft’s method is more flexible, but unreliable. In other words, they’re both bad. It’s in your best interest to avoid buying protected music whenever possible.

Best Performer: eMusic

All of eMusic’s songs are unprotected. No exceptions. This puts it leaps and bounds ahead of the others. You are given regular MP3s which can be put on your iPod as well as every other MP3 player on the planet. It’s as it should be.

Runner Up: 7digital

7Digital gets an honourable mention because it is clear that whenever possible, they do their best to offer the files in an unprotected format. In most cases it is not the store who decides whether the music is protected or not, so it is hardly fair criticise them (though they do play their part). On top of this, 7Digital offers many files in multiple formats and at various levels of quality, allowing you to choose the one that suits you best.

What’s Needed:

For starters, protection needs to be removed completely. Illegal file sharing will take place regardless, so there’s no point making the legal option any more difficult. Thankfully the backlash from consumers is starting to turn things around, and soon this dream will be a reality. Secondly, other stores should take 7Digital’s example in offering multiple choices in file format and quality. In one hand I might want small MP3s to cram onto my player, but also high quality FLAC files to enjoy at home. When you buy a CD you can have both. There’s no reason why digital music shouldn’t be the same.

Digital Music: Range

Obviously if you’re going to be buying your music digitally on a regular basis, you’ll want the shop you use to have a decent range. While it is possible go different stores for different releases, it is much nicer if one store gives you everything you need. Now digital stores have a habit of quoting big numbers in order make their range seem impressive, but I guarantee you, numbers mean nothing. What really matters is the quality of their collection. The only real way to judge a stores range is to jump in and try it out. Search for favourite albums and ones you’re thinking about buying and see how it fares. Different stores will cater better to different people.

Best Performer: iTunes

Being the biggest digital music store, iTunes has the distinct advantage of being the place where every band wants their music sold. As a result, the iTunes music catalogue is by far the best. In fact, barring a few exceptions, the iTunes store could serve most people’s music needs completely. Not many other digital (or indeed physical) music stores could argue this. There is a catch, however. Most iTunes music is protected and the iTunes Plus range (unprotected) is no where near as impressive.

Runner Up: eMusic

Being a largely independent music store, eMusic is missing plenty of music. If you’re looking for something from the top 40, this certainly isn’t the place to look. But it more than makes up for this with all the music you won’t find anywhere else. And I’m not talking about b-grade independent music that nobody cares about. I mean all the brilliant indie music that is so frequently swooned about by bloggers such as myself.

What Is Needed: More!

It sounds simple and it is. Digital music won’t become a viable option until sellers build up a collection that offers all the music you could possibly want. iTunes is mighty close, but many of the competitors are lagging significantly.