Thursday, December 17, 2015

Japandroids' "The House That Heaven Built" is quintessential 2010's sound

The voices, all in unison, "Oh, oh, oh—oh oh, oh. Oh," not in harmony, all youngsters. That's the modern sound these days. If you want to encapsulate the sound of our current decade, look to this song as a potential jumping-off point.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Video Game Music—NES, SNES, Covers Culture, Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy

Hello, I'd like to talk about video game music (VGM) for a minute—focusing (1st on how Eighties and Nineties gaming shaped, and was shaped, by popular culture and the technology of the time, and (2nd veering into how fans took VGM and, with advances in home recording technology and social media, created myriad covers of those songs, launching them into the stratosphere by, in some cases, arguably making them better than they were originally, creating a new musical culture, bringing fans of music and video games together.

The VGM cover market is a unique one in this respect. You can check out OverClocked Remix, a community of game music remixers and reshapers that post everything for free and downloadable. Here's a Wiki for VGM cover artists.

Now, you have to keep in mind, this wealth of material is not all gold—far from it. Made by individuals with no restrictions, filters, or people like record producers, for instance, helping, lending a second ear, and giving advice and recommendations, what you've got is a sea of material, often requiring much wading and fishing to find something you'll really enjoy.

The problem I have, personally, with most VGM covers is that they're too synthetic—programmed, exactly on time and in tune, without a trace of humanity.

I've done a few myself (2006 recordings). Being a live instrument kind of guy, I played everything on guitars and keyboard to click tracks. Disregard the "Arm Extending" track, it has nothing to do with VGM. It's me trying to be Skinny Puppy. The other three tracks are covers from Final Fantasy VI.

In the Eighties, video game music composers had little precedent from which to draw. Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games had on average passable music, but much of it was annoying. I remember Ghouls and Ghosts had good music, and the Double Dragon games, and River City Ransom. But those games were also products of their times—the Eighties, when movies like Roadhouse and actors like Jean-Claude Van Damme were hecka popular. It just explains the wealth of beat-em-up games from that era—mindlessly glorifying necessarily-disbelief-suspending violence, with high-energy soundtracks to match.

I'm not saying that they had negative effects the kids playing them, I'm just saying they were one-dimensional, not-great games. Sadly, since they were all we had, we played them constantly. Those games sold, so that's where the big money went, sacrificing the overall quality of other genres, like RPGs. But I was a kid then, and I was so into those games. I would play-fight with my brother all the time when it was time to turn off the TV. I had action figure toys. Then, when more advanced titles were released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)—Final Fight, Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, Legend of the Mystical Ninja (I know, right?)—we were psyched about them too.

Now, Mystical Ninja wasn't nearly as violent as the titles I mentioned directly previous, but it was still a game where you run around, beat people and monsters up, take their money, and buy stuff with it. That's it. The music, however, was amazing. Comedian Brent Weinbach has a love for that game's music, which is no surprise to me, as that game's music is easily one of its best features.

What I most enjoy are covers from the Final Fantasy series. Most of those games feature music written by Nobuo Uematsu, a master composer and one of my favorites. His music helped propel all those Final Fantasy games into something greater. He composed from the heart, and translated it to the limited musical capacity of the gaming console.

I have a feeling he keeps storyline at heart when composing for these games, because in every single one featuring Uematsu's music, every piece, grande or relaxed, in all the towns, overworlds, dungeons, and battles—standard, boss, and final—the music fits the bill. Perfectly. He made the emotional content real, beyond what the graphics could show, beyond the primitive audio capacities of the NES and SNES, beyond the oft-flawed Japanese-to-English translations in the dialogue.

For me, the music of the Final Fantasy series is the best part. As such, video game music covers hit a special place in my heart. It should surprise no one that Final Fantasy / Uematsu covers abound, with the quality of songwriting that guy produces. He even started his own band, brilliantly named The Black Mages, made an album around 2007, and went on tour with them.

Today, I found a great VGM cover piece on Spotify. I'd like to share it with you.

Two violins. That's it. And it's beautiful, but tense. Here, we have the battle theme from Final Fantasy VI (FF3 in America). I've never heard of Nielle dAGh before, but she plays that thing like a riot. I love the slight out-of-tune-ness of her playing, and how it's totally on time, as if she played to a metronome.

This is what I expect from VGM cover music—dedication to the craft of one's instrument, and a reimagining, a re-exploring of songs, songs that didn't have a chance to be great before VGM covers culture became a thing, songs composed in brilliance, but broken down into primitive, synthetic versions of themselves. It's like taking a chained melody and breaking those chains, with your own body, your own mind, your musical talent. You make it fly when you cover a VGM piece (well). It's a really beautiful thing.

Again, the nostalgia factor here is a big one. I don't imagine anyone who hasn't played these games will geek out about this like I do.

Classical music purists may also find satisfaction in this dAGh piece.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

DJ Earworm's "50 Shades of Pop" and my trip down the pop music rabbit hole

So today, via A.V. Club, I found out about this massive mashup of 2015's best-performing pop songs, and the burgeoning pop music fan in me was insanely curious. So I watched. Now, I'm even more curious—and the way to find out is to dig in, to every single music video contained therein.

A product of DJ Earworm, apparently he's celebrated for doing this sort of thing. This is the first I've ever heard about it. By the looks of the 2015 edition, it appears he's had practice.

So many musical acts I've heard so much about, but have never explored, are featured here, like Ariana Grande, The Weekend, Adele, Taylor Swift, and other such overproduced-talent-lack-overshadowing pop music, where the beats are so big and the vocals so autotuned, the performer actually gets lost in the music. It becomes a thing perfectly tuned to what the record company needs to sell, researched and targeted to the most profitable demographics.

But hey, I like a big, fun sound too once in a while, right? When I'm out at bars here in Seattle, smokin and drankin, I love hearing this new stuff playing on the speakers. It keeps things new, and keeps me surprised, and also keeps me abreast of what the young people like nowadays. I never want to be the old guy who has no idea about the young people's new music. I'm just too curious, and I have a big fear of missing out, probably.

Here it is, followed by the list of songs included, taken shamelessly from DJ Earworm's YouTube page featuring the following video:

Adele - Hello
AlunaGeorge and DJ Snake - You Know You Like It
Andy Grammer - Honey, I'm Good.
Ariana Grande ft. The Weeknd - Love Me Harder
Big Sean ft. E-40 - I Don't F*** With You
David Guetta ft. Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha & Afrojack - Hey Mama
Demi Lovato - Cool For The Summer
Drake - Hotline Bling
Ed Sheeran - Photograph
Ed Sheeran - Thinking Out Loud
Ellie Goulding - Love Me Like You Do
Fall Out Boy - Centuries
Fetty Wap - Trap Queen
Fetty Wap ft. Remy Boyz - 679
Fifth Harmony ft. Kid Ink - Worth It
Flo Rida ft. Sage The Gemini - GDFR
Jason Derulo - Want To Want Me
Justin Bieber - Sorry
Justin Bieber - What Do You Mean
Major Lazer ft. MO & DJ Snake - Lean On
Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars - Uptown Funk
Maroon 5 - Sugar
Meghan Trainor - Lips Are Movin
Meghan Trainor ft. John Legend - Like I'm Gonna Lose You
Natalie La Rose ft. Jeremih - Somebody
Nick Jonas - Jealous
Nicki Minaj ft. Drake & Lil Wayne - Truffle Butter
Omarion ft. Chris Brown & Jhene Aiko - Post To Be
OMI - Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)
One Direction - Drag Me Down
Pitbull ft. Ne-Yo - Time Of Our Lives
R. City ft. Adam Levine - Locked Away
Rachel Platten - Fight Song
Rihanna - Bitch Better Have My Money
Rihanna ft. Kanye West & Paul McCartney - Four Five Seconds
Sam Smith - I'm Not The Only One
Selena Gomez ft. A$AP Rocky - Good For You
Shawn Mendes - Stitches
SIlento - Watch Me
Skrillex & Diplo ft. Justin Bieber - Where Are U Now
Taylor Swift - Blank Space
Taylor Swift - Style
Taylor Swift - Bad Blood
Taylor Swift - Wildest Dreams
Tove Lo - Talking Body
Walk The Moon - Shut Up And Dance
Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth - See You Again
The Weeknd - Earned It
The Weeknd - The Hills
The Weeknd - Can't Feel My Face
Pretty extensive list, right?

So what I'm doing right now, is watching all these videos, along with my 4yo Beatrix.

I'll let you know how it all goes. Some of them appear not great for kids.