Dream pop: a subdivision of alternative rock that explores texture and mood. This is a brief and insufficient summation of a genre that has so much more to offer you. Explore its rich depths: many of the best bands from the eighties to the present have been working within its realms. Listener, do you like guitars that make cerebral sounds? Do you like your vocals to sound impassioned, yet barely audible? Are you the introspective type? If you’ve made it this far, then the coming four bands might just change your life.
Jack Tatum started Wild Nothing from his Blacksburg, Virginia dorm room in 2009. His first release under the moniker, a breathless cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’, was a gift for a girlfriend. I bet this is more romantic than anything you’ve done for your significant other. Wild Nothing aren’t a small-time concern anymore. The Brooklyn record label Captured Tracks has released the band’s entire output; as a starting point, check the LPs Gemini and Nocturne.
My Bloody Valentine
People might argue that My Bloody Valentine are part of ‘shoegaze’. I’ve never liked the term, apparently coined because bands involved in the movement would gaze at their shoes. Kinda shitty, right? My Bloody Valentine contain the hallmarks of dream pop. Kevin Shields is a guitar magician, teasing out thrilling, lush, and unexpected noise. Male and female vocals blur into a sexy, androgynous mess. Some days, their 1991 masterpiece, Loveless, is my favourite ever record.
Beach House, like the other bands I’ve ‘introduced’ here, have soundtracked large portions of my teenage years. You should fall in love and break up to Beach House. 2010’s Teen Dream and 2012’s Bloom are both immaculate collections of songs. Victoria Legrand allows her French-inflected croon to sail above Alex Scally’s cascading guitar lines. ‘Lazuli’ is my jam, especially the part when, at the climax, Legrand wails ‘LIKE NO OTHER YOU CAN’T BE REPLACED’. Devastating.
Harvard-educated trio Galaxie 500’s songs all sound the same. I mean this in a good way, though! More interested in mood and texture than anything else, their records are great to put on if you fancy a spot of navel gazing. The guitars are heavily layered, the lyrics are hard to decipher. Their best song is a cover of New Order’s immortal ‘Ceremony’. 1991’s ‘On Fire’ is the classic; you should listen to this ASAP.
Emerging in the early to mid-‘90s in response to an increasingly materialistic and dumbed down rap mainstream, underground hip-hop is a vibrant and defiant musical subgenre, albeit a vaguely defined one. Nearly any fault you can find with commercial hip-hop is absent in the best underground rap; simplistic lyrics and expensive clothes got you nowhere in the grimy cyphers of turn-of-the-millennium New York. Here are some of the form’s finest arbiters:
Arguably the epitome of late-‘90s underground hip-hop purism, this Brooklyn three-piece wore their hearts on their sleeves, with “Independent as fuck” their official motto. Funcrusher Plus is their magnum opus, one of the most experimental, challenging and brutal hip-hop albums ever made.
A short-lived duo comprising enigmatic mask-wearing underground legend MF DOOM and producer Madlib, Madvillain emerged from nowhere in 2004 to drop Madvillainy before disappearing in a plume of smoke, and the world of Rap-For-Nerds-Who-Don’t-Like-Rap was never the same again.
This 1999 compilation album from now-defunct Rawkus Records (the closest underground rap ever got to a commercially viable indie label giant) is perhaps the defining document of the late-‘90s underground golden age. Everyone’s involved, from New York oddities Thirstin Howl III and R.A. the Rugged Man to rappers who, thanks to Rawkus, would soon become household names: Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and a then little-known white dude called Eminem.
The man born William Shields is a rare example of a UK rapper whose artistry and aesthetic parallels those of the best American underground artists. His 2002 album Return of the Drifter is an often beautiful slice of 21st century alienation, crafted with imagery-rich lyrics and articulated in a caustic, confident British accent. Wiley this ain’t.
Run The Jewels
Who said the underground was dead? Kanye West and Drake may have been the rappers whose names have dominated rap in 2013, but dig a little deeper on blogs and music websites and you’ll find that it’s this duo who have really been running things. The brainchild of Company Flow producer-turned-underground-godfather El-P and larger than life southern stalwart Killer Mike, RTJ’s self-titled debut is without a doubt a contender for album of the year.
Anyone who’s pretty chilled and has a guitar could be a creator of “slacker rock”. It’s unlikely to ever fall victim to the judgemental-genre-police who haunt a lot of electronic music.
It can be rubbish, but if someone with a laid-back attitude to life, a sense of humour and a knack for song-writing appears, then the results are unbeatable. It ranges from solo acoustic finger-picking and muttering to a pretty heavy-rock full band affair.
Here’s a selection for starters:
The basic paradigm for slacker rock, of which everything else is working. Stephen Malkmus effortlessly pours out line after line of verbal gold to an unpredictable and often ridiculous accompaniment. If slacker rock could be bothered to have a motto, ‘Range Life’’s “Don’t worry, we’re in no hurry” would be a definite contender.
I’m not really sure I understand Ween. The Mollusk is quite a strange album: there’s a song called ‘I’m Waving My Dick In The Wind’; “Ocean Man” was used in the SpongeBob SquarePants movie; they ask “have you ever made a flan and squished it in your hand?”. They can be a bit disturbing, but more often than not the lyrics are funny and the music works. It’s never predictable at least.
The wisest of all slackers, Kurt Vile’s lyrics are shockingly easy to pass over because of his brilliant chord progressions and hypnotic guitar lines. When you actually pay attention to what he’s mumbling in your ear, you realise that few else can sum up the world as directly, entertainingly and melodically.
In the ‘Dreamin’ video, Mac climbs out of a roof-box dressed as Mozart. At the end of the ‘Ode to Viceroy’ video, he tries to smoke fifty cigarettes. In the ‘My Kind of Woman’ video he cross-dresses and then, naked, gets wrapped up in newspaper. He is ridiculous, but it’s not just visual; few albums are as simple and enjoyable as 2.
With a blissful, relaxed aura similar to Real Estate, Travis Bretzer could well be the next big name in the illustrious canon of slacker rock.
Synthesizers have been used in music since the 80s but only recently has it experienced such a heavy revival, particularly in the indie music scene. The genre, chillwave, has emerged with its heavy use of, you guessed it, synthesizers, sampling, and drum machines. It’s been called names such as glo-fi and summer music due to its use of ambient samples and its much more quiet sound.
It has evolved not only from 80s pop but also dream pop and shoegazing music; to me, this music tends to blend with other genres in its definition. Chillwave, if I was going to put it in the simplest of terms, reminds me of surf rock slowed down and put through synthesizers and drum music, hence the pseudonym “summer music.” It’s some of the most relaxing, or at least calming, music I’ve listened to. Here are some artists to help you discern chillwave from all other indie synth pop:
If you don’t know Panda Bear, you probably know Animal Collective, the Baltimore-native band he helped create. Panda Bear as a solo artist is seen as one of the acts that foreshadowed chillwave, particularly with his 2007 album Person Pitch. If you’ve ever listened to Animal Collective, you’ll know what to expect of Panda Bear: a lot of looped noise and lyrics that you would never expect to go together so well.
[caption id="attachment_46595" align="alignnone" width="314"] Panda Bear… in a way scarier than an actual panda bear[/caption]
Ernest Greene takes pairs his quiet voice with drum machines and a dash of synthesizers to create Washed Out, one of the primary bands of the genre. His album Within and Without with tracks such as the dreamy “Amor Fati” and “Far Away” helped define just what the chillwave movement was.
Toro Y Moi
Another band credited with defining the sound of chillwave, Toro Y Moi’s creator Chaz Bundick looks like he stepped right out of the 80s. Even his music videos have a late 80s vibe. Despite appearances, Bundick’s use of looping and his subdued vocals create music that makes you feel like you can party, or chill out, like it’s 1985.
[caption id="attachment_46597" align="alignnone" width="500"] Toro Y Moi… playing Pitchfork Music Festival this year[/caption]
Tycho sounds what sunset on the beach looks like. The combination of ambient sounds and synthesizers create a dreamy evening on the beach, particularly with the song “A Walk” from their album, Dive.
Isn’t all music noise? Well, yes, but genre tags don’t always paint accurate descriptions. Noise music — primarily underground sounds that value volume and dissonance over structure and melody – is nothing new; its forefathers, Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine et al, all reached heights of popularity no noise band could dream of today. Whether that’s down to the internet, autotune or a general distaste for experimentation is anyone’s guess, but here are some of noise’s leading, if not necessarily famous, lights:
Along with Black Dice, Lightning Bolt defined the harder side of the early ‘00s American noise scene. By playing shows in the middle of their crowds at dancefloor level Lightning Bolt brought back the intimate assault on the senses once championed by My Bloody Valentine. Their third album, Wonderful Rainbow, is correctly tagged the most vicious drum and bass album ever, as well as being the greatest racket ever produced by just two instruments.
[caption id="attachment_46139" align="alignnone" width="400"] Lightning Bolt… In their element[/caption]
Notoriously unpredictable, Deerhoof’s career arc reads like that of several bands meshed into one. They’ve gone from noise rockers, to pop producers, through Pro Tools fans, a live band phase, two lush orchestral albums, soundtracking and finally ending up as the band all indie darlings looking for some experimental cred name-check in interviews.
[caption id="attachment_46141" align="alignright" width="400"] Deerhoof transcending all noise rock genres… Yet still never taking on more than they can chew[/caption]
Japanese noise rock may not seem like the most alluring of genres, but out of those who were willing to give Boredoms a chance, few were disappointed. Boredoms’ tribal drums and overall dissonance is some of the most uplifting music, particularly 1998’s Super æ.
Although they have been around since the ‘70s and no-wave, Swans’ 2012 album, The Seer, was the pinnacle of their career. At over two hours long, and laced with biblical imagery, nondescript roars and unrelentingly bleak melodies, The Seer is the finest album of music purely as a physical, bodily experience.
Unlike the other artists on this list, Fennesz is the only musician to be classified as more noise-pop than rock. His undisputed masterpiece, 2001’s Endless Summer, is the finest culmination of the noise/melody contrast invented by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Fennesz found a way to remedy pop music’s obsession with instant gratification by cutting his melodies with noise, and thus reinforcing their prettiness.
In reality the differences between the sub genres covered by Afropop can be so great that they call into question the value of the phrase, but it’s a useful way of distinguishing the popular music of Africa from more traditional music. Historically, the music of West and South Africa has been the main export to Western audiences, with East Africa being much less prominent. One unifying aspect of afropop is the strength of the rhythm; it often puts even the funkiest of Western musicians to shame. A complete guide to Afropop is beyond the scope of this article, but here’s a quick rundown of some of the more popular branches:
Popularised by King Sunny Adé, Jùjú music hails from Nigeria, and is based on the percussive style of traditional Nigerian music called ‘Yoruba’. Adé’s recordings are full of masterful guitar, combined with his exuberant singing style. His compilation ‘The Best of the Classic Years’ serves as a great introduction to the genre.
Soukous, derived from rumba music, is light and laid back, but infectiously catchy and danceable, having been developed in the Congo before spreading to Kenya and eventually the rest of Africa. A key exponent is Tabu Ley Rochereau, whose singing is some of the best to be found in Afropop.
This Zulu branch of afropop from South Africa was a big influence on Paul Simon’s album Graceland. Its jubilance is hard to overstate, and the incredible rhythms add to the exuberance. One of the most popular and important Afropop records, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto is the place to start.
Pioneered by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, whose The Best of the Black President is the record to have, Afrobeat is actually an amalgamation of several genres. Its sprawling freeform compositions are like jazz based on rhythm rather than melody, though that’s not to say melody doesn’t play a part.
Coming from North Africa, and Algeria in particular, Raï illustrates the diversity of Afropop with elements of French and Spanish traditional music, as well as a significant Arabic influence. Rachid Taha is the go-to man for Raï, especially his 2000 crossover hit Made in Medina.
When my family moved out to Derbyshire this year, I was down-hearted. Our new Derbyshire village is close to the blissful countryside of my parents’ retirement fantasies, whilst not too far from the hospital of their retirement nightmares, but for me, after living in Oriel with Babylove-induced term-time tinnitus, it was unnervingly quiet. I arrived on a typically calm Derbyshire day, but I was soon cheered by the news that my postcode was due to get a bit louder for a few days in August, when Y Not festival pitched up in the dales. Y Not was even labelled the Best Small Festival of 2012 by an undisclosed awards ceremony last year, so I went along to find out why.
When I arrived in a taxi, Y Not felt anything but small – it was bigger than most of the surrounding towns, equipped to feed and house eight thousand. The festival had suffered a particularly dramatic thunderstorm on Friday night, leading to the evacuation of several stages (The Horrors delighted in their own impromptu Hammer-horror lightshow) and the stampede to safety had churned up every bit of grass in the arena. Nevertheless, the shows went on, and I waded along paths through five inches of sludge to locate the great sounds I was already hearing.
On my initial explorations, I marvelled at the festival’s variety: they’d gone for ‘theming’ in a big way, like a giant gastro-pub, embellishing the individual stages and surrounding areas with playful sculptures and oversized decorations. Octopus tentacles, giant cardboard flowers, hay bales, a small boat and an impressive reconstruction of a Wild West saloon dotted the arena. Though this made for a strange environment, I was impressed at the dedication of the festival’s designers, and it definitely made everything more family-friendly. Kids could dash to the children’s tent, giggle over silly drawings and try their luck at hula-hooping while adults explored the wide variety of ciders on offer (and presumably, after a few pints, stumbled to the children’s tent to giggle over silly drawings and try their luck at hula-hooping).
The variety of activities available was rendered almost obsolete by the musical variety at Y Not – as well as the main stages, they had a hard rock tent, kept fittingly dark; a folk stage, complete with barnyard wooden décor and enough straw to feed an army’s horses; a reggae tent with DJ sets running on into the night; and a ‘saloon’ stage where vaguely bluesy musicians played. There were some mediocre acts, but the majority of the artists on these smaller stages were excellent. Amongst my favourites were the self-styled Anything Goes Orchestra: their novel instrumentation and confident showmanship probably should have pushed them further up the bill, but they seemed laid-back about their early set. Another favourite was Emperor Chung, who sounded like a fierce acoustic Wolfmother – not usually my sort of music, but it was so well-executed live, it was hard not to smile through their performance. It was a good day for cover versions too, with Elliott Morris’ rendition of ‘Billie Jean’, and then an attempt at Basshunter’s ‘All I Ever Wanted’, which, if nothing else (at all), made us all laugh.
Over on the main stage, several medium-sized indie outfits were doing their thing. Intermittent showers had scattered the crowds, and people didn’t start filling out the front barriers until Drenge. It was a shame, because Naymedici and Sky Larkin had been great earlier in the afternoon, Naymedici sounding like a “bar brawl between the Pogues and Gogol Bordello” (not my words but too perfect a summary to leave out) and Sky Larkin previewing some exciting new material.
The sun came out and I went looking for dinner. Only those who haven’t paid for the ticket because they’re there with the Oxford Student have enough cash to sample the many culinary treats on offer, but luckily I was in that category – or maybe not so luckily. I was drawn by a nostalgic reminder of Mission Burrito to the Mexican food stand, where I asked for the chicken because the beef looked kinda dodgy – only to discover that the beef was the chicken, minced out of recognition and drowned in thin sauce (was it tomato? Chilli? Mud mixed with water? Thankfully, I’ll never know). As with all festivals, the food and drink on offer at Y Not were atrociously expensive and not particularly nice. But hey, digestive complaints are part of the festival experience. As are queues for the portaloos.
The evening wore on and better-known bands started to compete for festival-goers’ time. I avoided Kids in Glass Houses, though according to their Twitter feed, it was “total fun”. I went to watch The 1975 instead, only to find the tent so packed that you couldn’t even hear at the back, never mind see – the crowd didn’t look like they’d need much elbowing-out-of-the-way, being mostly under eighteen and untrained in gig etiquette, but I gave the task a miss and went to see Arcane Roots in the hard rock tent. They were very impressive, especially the vocalist. As a Sonisphere festival veteran (kinda), it was nice to reacquaint myself with hard rock, but also nice to be able to escape into softer fodder again.
I wandered back over to the main stage as night fell and Ash took to the stage. I wasn’t a fan of Ash before Y Not, but they were exceptional live – they got the crowd going brilliantly. During mass singalongs to ‘Girl From Mars’ and ‘Burn Baby Burn’, two beach balls, a Bob Marley wig and a cowgirl hat began to do the rounds in the air, making for some strange camera shots on the big screen – as if the sheer number of people dressed as Superman wasn’t enough. When The Cribs finally took to the stage, everyone was well warmed-up. The Cribs definitely deserved their headlining spot. Gary Jarman went so far as to call it the “best show” they’d ever played, almost certainly a lie, but a welcome one. Between tracks, Ryan Jarman took advantage of the receptive audience and the booming mic to do a deafening Freddie Mercury impression, estranging thousands, only for Gary Jarman to mitigate it with a bit of pleasant stage sarcasm.
I left Y Not as The Cribs finished their set with live favourite ‘City of Bugs’; the sky was dark but clear, and the quarries were reverberating with the noise of guitars (I admit, that was an indie rephrasing of “the hills were alive…”). As festivals go, the variety and the average quality at Y Not had been matchless, with very few disappointments musically and a lot of things to do (and drink) to make the experience fun for all the family. Compared to Glastonbury or the Reading & Leeds fest, Y Not is small, but also cheap – at just under £80 for a weekend ticket, it’s a fantastic choice for people on a budget, and for anyone who wants a slightly quirkier, more relaxed festival experience.
Y Not Festival 2013 – the Unofficial Awards
Wait for it… Satsuma Elephants. They were actually quite good but… Satsuma Elephants.
Many people at Y Not conformed with the odd tradition of spending the festival in fancy dress, and my favourite costume was the Where’s Wally outfit donned by someone in the Ash crowd. I avoided the temptation to approach him and say, “Ah, there you are” – I merely stored it in my mind to put in this article instead.
Smuggest lead singer
First on in the hard rock tent were the St Pierre Snake Invasion – after songs about David Icke and Jimmy Saville, the singer cried “I know what you’re thinking! How come we’re on so early when we’re SO AWESOME?” I don’t think that’s what many people were thinking, but he gets a 10 for attempting to alter our memories.
Make what you will of this category – Leela and the Spaceship definitely take the prize for trendiest sound. Radiohead’s brand of sorta-folk is deeply in fashion at the moment, and Leela and the Spaceship have found the recipe for their own perfect homemade brand. The concentration and seriousness of the musicians was only matched by their edgy vibe.
Most welcome encore
Though playing fairly early on, achingly amiable young singer-songwriter Elliott Morris was summoned back onstage at the folk tent by a unanimous vocal vote. If he hadn’t tried the Basshunter cover, maybe he would have been called back a second time.
Most voracious fans
Aside from The Cribs, whose following pride themselves on knowing every B-side, the most voracious fans per capita at Y Not were in the audience for Emperor Chung. Despite the fact they were playing on the smallest stage, the chanting between tracks suggested that the band’s friends and family, and extended family, and their family’s friends, might have been invited to see them play.
Jay Brown is ticking all the correct boxes to be crowned indie’s ‘next big thing’. Jay has just played Glastonbury for the first time, her new single Keep Talking has been playlisted by BBC Radio One and she starts work starts on her debut album next month.
For those not in the know Jay Brown is a singer/songwriter from Northampton who writes her own songs based on experiences she has shared with friends and family. “The songs are honest stories: she explains “I don’t want the songs to be too depressing though, life has a lot of humour and I try to include that in the lyrics.” Jay’s infectious sense of humour shines through the songs that have an undeniable indie electro flavour.
However, to label Jay’s style is something of a challenge. When I ask Jay to do an iPod shuffle the results are truly a mixed bag including the latest Phoenix album, Ratatat, Bjork and Eminem’s Slim Shady that Jay “is really loving again for some reason!” By her own admittance her music tastes are eclectic and the reason for this, she suggests, lies in the types of music she was introduced to as a youngster. “Growing up I was a real metal head; I listened to a lot of alternative and metal music. Sikth, System of a Down, Metallica and Incubus.” In complete contrast Jay also cites country music as a key musical influence, “it’s because of country music I like to tell a story in my songs.”
Jay is just one member of a very musical family. “My family force-fed me reggae.” Jay’s older sister was “always listening to soul and R&B.” Jay’s little sister is currently on the Hairspray tour and her brother played drums with her in her first band, Memphis. “There were a lot of contrasting soundtracks in one house and that reflects itself in my sound.” Because of this Jay doesn’t view music as a job but more as a way of life and states she “feels no pressure” when writing music.
Talking to Jay it is clear she is a songstress who is determined to perform her own material in her own style. There is no chance of her attempting to get a quick showbiz fix through appearing on The Voice of The X Factor. “Writing and performing are a craft. I think something like The X Factor is the opposite. You don’t get the chance to polish your performance, to learn from your mistakes. It’s hard work but it’s good to feel like you have earned something when you start getting it right.”
And Jay is getting it right. She has just performed on the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury and is starting work on her debut album. Jay’s big Glastonbury break came about when she uploaded her new single Keep Talking onto the BBC Introducing site. It immediately received airplay locally on BBC Radio Northampton. “A guy called Lal Muttock supported it lots and sent it to London and then it got playlisted on BBC Radio One!”
Like all of Jay’s work Keep Talking has it’s roots in real events and real people in Jay’s life. “The song was inspired by an argument I was in with someone a long time ago. I remember going to my bedroom and being angry and feeling like that anger was building to a peak. I started to write the song and it calmed me down. The lyrics are actually quite confrontational but when I produced the track with Mark Crew the vibe was actually a lot more positive. Out of anger there came a lot of joy.”
The video for Keep Talking is jam packed with pop culture images and movie clips. For Jay the visual is of critical important. “Today you can’t put out a song on its own and that, in one sense, saddens me. You need a visual, you need a complete package to connect and convey what you what you want to say. And then you need to use Facebook and Twitter to promote that package. The video for Keep Talking is like a collage with a lot of different images taken from movies I love, including Mr. Bean! It brings out the humour in the lyrics.” As well as experimenting the visual in her videos as she begins to play to larger crows Jay also wants to enhance what people experience at her gigs. “I’m interested in using projectors to screen images and clips to enhance the live experience.”
Oxford gig goers will get a chance to catch Jay at the Gathering festival in October. As well as upcoming live dates Jay is also off to Spain to record the video for her next single Video. “Most excitingly though is the fact I’m finally getting into the studio to start work on the album which will be out next year. I cannot wait.”
Jay’s new single Keep Talking is available to download from iTunes now and Gathering tickets are available here: http://gatheringfestival.tumblr.com/tickets.