music December 31, 2017

What I listened to in 2017 

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Along with a round-up of what I was reading last year, I also spent today rummaging through Last.fm's handy-dandy charts to prepare a run-down of my favourite music of the last twelve months.

Top 10 artists listened to in 2017

  1. Afghan Whigs
  2. Forest Swords
  3. The New Pornographers
  4. Juana Molina
  5. Cold War Kids
  6. Aimee Mann
  7. Run the Jewels
  8. Andrew Lloyd Webber
  9. Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes
  10. Spoon

Every artist on this list apart from Andrew Lloyd Webber are there because they released a new album this year, with almost all of them making the next list too. I also managed to see two of the top three (Afghan Whigs and The New Pornographers) live in 2017 as well, both in Amsterdam.

Top 10 albums listened to in 2017

  1. Forest Swords — Compassion
  2. Cold War Kids — La Divine
  3. Afghan Whigs — In Spades
  4. Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes — Modern Ruin
  5. Aimee Mann — Mental Illness
  6. The New Pornographers — Whiteout Conditions
  7. Slowdive — Slowdive
  8. Juana Molina — Halo
  9. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 3
  10. Spoon — Hot Thoughts

My tastes seem to swing between genres year by year. Last year was all indie, the year before was more hip-hop; in 2017 I discovered a preference for experimental ambient electronica, with albums like Forest Swords' Compassion and Juana Molina's Halo (and others, such as Iglooghost's Neo Wax Bloom) getting a lot of play while I worked. I found that the lyric-free (or, in the case of Halo, entirely Spanish lyrics) allowed for easier concentration and better focus.

The new Afghan Whigs album, In Spades, was head-and-shoulders above its predecessor (2014's underwhelming Do To The Beast), and nearly as good as their original 90s releases. Another 90s throwback, Slowdive, were not even on my radar during their initial stint in the spotlight, but their reunion album was excellent.

I've compiled a playlist of selected tracks from these (plus a few other) albums on Spotify—you can listen to it here.

Track of the year

It doesn't feature on any of my top 10 lists, probably because I've mostly listened to it via YouTube rather than Spotify, but one track I came back to again and again was Gift of Gab's Freedom Form Flowing, mainly for A-F-R-O's guest spot. He's been consistently incredible since he burst onto the scene as a teenager just a few years ago; here's hoping for an album from him in the new year:

music December 31, 2016

What I Listened To In 2016 

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Another trip around the sun, another set of end-of-year lists to be assembled. I remain committed to exploring new music across (almost) all genres, yet despite that there are still several familiar names at the top of the yearly charts for 2016.

Top 10 Artists listened to in 2016

  1. Tegan and Sara
  2. Bloc Party
  3. Radiohead
  4. Neil Diamond
  5. Panic! At The Disco
  6. Bon Iver
  7. Die Antwoord
  8. Beyoncé
  9. Green Day
  10. The Joy Formidable

Nine out of ten of the performers in this list released new albums this year (Neil Diamond probably did too, but I don't think I've listened to anything he's done since 1982), although I didn't really listen to Green Day's latest and the Die Antwoord album was a big disappointment after the killer singles. Tegan and Sara's new one wasn't really that great either; I suspect they secured the top spot with their older, more indie-oriented material. There's also no traditional hip-hop on this list, despite listening to quite a lot of both new and old rap - I guess my taste is diverse enough to not push any one rapper or group into the top ten.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2016

  1. Bloc Party - HYMNS
  2. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
  3. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
  4. Beyoncé - Lemonade
  5. Panic! At The Disco - Death of a Bachelor
  6. Tegan and Sara - Love You To Death
  7. Mother Love Bone - Mother Love Bone
  8. Neil Diamond - The Bang Years 1966-1968
  9. We Are Scientists - Helter Seltzer
  10. Charlotte Hatherley - New Worlds

All of the top six came out this year, and the top four were definitely my favourite albums released in 2016. Bon Iver's 22, A Million is a brilliantly electronic twist on his usual pared-down guitar folk; A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead's best album since OK Computer; and Beyoncé's Lemonade skips around genres while never losing sight of it's central theme (to wit, Jay Z is a bit of a dick).

Despite never really listening to Bloc Party in the past, their fifth album HYMNS captivated me from the first listen, with its electronica-meets-indie-guitar sound and quasi-religious lyrical themes. It didn't make very many critics' annual "Best of" lists, but I've been playing it almost all year.

Track of the Year

According to my last.fm charts, no one track really dominated the last year, but I think if I had to choose it would be this, the lead track from Bloc Party's HYMNS that got me listening to the album in the first place:

music May 14, 2016

The hidden music of the web: HTTP response codes arranged for guitar 

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Nowadays, one of the perks of a desk-based job is a Slack channel. It's supposed to be an efficient way to communicate across your department, but in reality it's mostly a place to share animated gifs and dumb news stories. It was there that a colleague recently shared the amusing 404 page from the Ultimate-Guitar.com guitar tablature website.

A "404", for the benefit of those not in the industry, is a reference to the error code that a web server sends when it can't locate the page that you asked for. In the case of Ultimate-Guitar.com, instead of a boring server error message, they opted instead to show a full-page video clip of someone comprehensively failing to guitar. There are several different clips available; refresh the page to see a new video. It's a nice easter egg, and probably one of the few places where the web designer(s) of that particular site were able to stretch their creative muscles.

Perhaps it's just the way my mind works, but the juxtaposition of guitar tabs and server codes got me wondering: What if server response codes actually were guitar tabs?

As it turns out, they kind of are.

A brief guitar tab primer

Guitar chords

Guitars, as you probably already know, have six strings, which are tuned to E, A, D, G, B and E (assuming you haven't opted for some strange Joni Mitchell-esque alternate tuning scheme). In guitar tablature (or "tab"), the positions you place your fingers on the fretboard are shown as numbers. For example, 0-2-2-1-0-0 means your fingers should be on the second fret for the second and third strings, and the first fret of the fourth string, while playing the rest of the strings without touching them (also known as "open"). Place your fingers as indicated, and strum the guitar. Congratulations, you just learned to play E major!

Since HTTP response status codes are also numeric, albeit only three digits in length, it's pretty easy to pretend that they are guitar tabs. For the sake of argument, let's assume we only want to play the bottom three strings, and see what sort of music we can make.

The Hallelujah Chorus: Success codes

When your browser requests a web page, it sends a request out onto the internet, which via a series of tubes eventually finds its way to the correct server. That server responds with a code, and (hopefully) sends back the web page that you asked for.

The most basic success code is 200 OK, which basically means "your request found the right page, and here it is". Translating 2-0-0 into a guitar chord gives us F♯-A-D. Hey, that's D major! A nice round major chord, signifying success and happiness. Here's your web page, ta-da!

Occasionally you might instead receive a 204 No Content response, indicating that the request was successful, but no content is being returned. That gives us the chord F♯-A-F♯; either D major missing its tonic root, or F♯m with no dominant fifth. Either way, we're rather appropriately missing some content here too.

One (Re)Direction: Redirect codes

Response codes that begin with a three are all related to redirected requests. That might be because some content on a web site or service has been moved, or due to the server passing a request around as part of an authorisation process.

A 301 Permanent Redirect, much beloved of webmasters eager to retain their ranking in Google, gives us G-A-D♯ (or E♭ if you prefer), which is a pretty gnarly Adim7 (A with a diminished 5th and the minor 7th note played). But wait! Musical harmony theory states that dissonant chords like this one want to resolve. A is the dominant chord of D, which means that our 301 redirect wants to resolve back to its tonic ... which is the 200 OK response above. Rather poetically, the redirect response resolves into a successful result, both musically and on the web.

The 302 Temporary Redirect code behaves in almost the same way, except where the 301 had a highly dissonant diminished 5th (or augmented 4th, they mean the same thing), 302 turns into the far simpler G-A-E, or A7. Again, it resolves to D major.

Whoops, I Did It Again: Error codes

HTTP error codes, such as the 404 mentioned at the start of this article, all begin with a four. Right off the bat, we can tell this isn't going to sound very nice, since the fourth fret on the low E string is G♯, which is only a semitone below the open A string. Virtually all our error codes will feature this most dissonant interval possible ... which seems appropriate, really, since we want to alert users to their mistakes or failed requests, and there's nothing like dissonance to shake up an audience -- just ask Bernard Herrmann!

Here are the most common error response codes, and their associated guitar chords:

  • 400 Bad Request - G♯-A-D (AM7sus4)
  • 401 Unauthorized - G♯-A-D# (D♯sus4♭5)
  • 403 Forbidden - G♯-A-F (Fadd♭3)
  • 404 Not Found - G♯-A-F♯ (F♯madd2)

Most of these assonant chords resolve quite nicely to our D major root 200 OK chord/code too, although in reality you're unlikely to find a server that knows what to do next when one of these responses is thrown.

There's another class of error code -- server errors -- that start with a five. These are going to be far cleaner chords, since the fifth fret is the same note as the open A string:

  • 500 Internal Server Error - A-A-D (D major)
  • 501 Not Implemented - A-A-D♯
  • 502 Bad Gateway - A-A-E (A major)
  • 503 Service Unavailable - A-A-F (D minor)

My favourite of these is the 503 error code, which is returned when the server is overloaded, down for maintenance, or otherwise unreachable. Pretty sad, right? Which makes it entirely appropriate that, although it's lacking a root, A-A-F could easily be a D minor chord, the saddest of all keys.

Music, music everywhere

The basic construction blocks of music (at least in the diatonic scale used most frequently in the West) have their roots in simple physics. Intervals between octaves, thirds, fourths, and fifths follow logical frequency ratios, in much the same way that pleasantly logical ratios crop up in nature's sunflower seed and snail shell spirals (and have been copied by architects and designers of all stripes for thousands of years).

Golden ratio

The universe clearly has a plan; perhaps, then, it should not be too surprising that converting HTTP response codes into guitar chords might produce the same pleasing sounds that music theorists have recognised as being the most pleasing to the ear for thousands of years.

music January 24, 2016

On being a teenager and the greatest albums in the world 

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I've long believed that the music that you listen to as a teenager has the most chance to stick with you, remaining at or near the top of your list of favourite bands for the rest of your life. More specifically, from the ages of fifteen through to around eighteen -- and regardless of the subjective quality of the music -- the bands you discover at that time will never leave you.

Luckily I had the foresight to be born at the tail-end of 1974, which meant that I came of musical age in the early 90s, during a period of possibly the greatest concentration of seminal rock and metal albums ever released.

1991: Redefining metal and the invention of grunge

Although Sepultura's Arise (2 April) had already set the thrash bar pretty high, it was Metallica's eponymously titled "Black Album", released in August that year, that set the standard for metal bands for the rest of the decade. Moving away from their thrashier style with slower, more melodic songs, plus the massive international hit single Enter Sandman, Metallica proved that it was possible to make heavy music while appealing to a broader cross-section of fans than their super-fast thrash band contemporaries managed at the time.

At the same time as thrash bands were becoming more listenable, the hair metal bands I loved were getting heavier. Skid Row's Slave To The Grind album (11 June) featured the extremely fast and heavy (for them, at least) title track, which was a revelation to me the first time I heard it. My tastes were expanding beyond the big choruses and big hair of bands like Bon Jovi and Poison, and I was ready to try something new. Maybe heavier, faster rock was that new thing? But then an album came along that changed my life.

Although the Temple Of The Dog side project had come out without much fanfare back in April, the ex-Mother Love Bone project hadn't really made an impression on me at that point. I had loved Alice In Chains' debut, Facelift (August 1990), so when the music papers started talking about other new music coming out of Seattle I was all ears. Pearl Jam's debut album Ten (27 August) came first, full of inventive riffs and grooves that felt as if they had nothing holding them together yet still sounded like the tightest of tight things. And then, less than a month later, Nirvana's Nevermind (24 September) landed, and nothing was ever the same again. As Weezer's Rivers Cuomo would later put it:

Had a baby on it, he was naked on it

Then I heard the chords that broke the chains I had upon me

It's hard to overestimate the effect that Nevermind had. Instead of failing to play like Slash or sing like Axl, Nirvana showed kids that you can do more with three chords and a distortion pedal than just play angry punk songs. I remember playing the final track, the haunting two-chord Something In The Way, over and over at the tail-end of a houseparty shortly before moving to London to start a band. It gave us hope. Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, released a month later, completed the Seattle grunge triumvirate. Music had changed, and songwriting was no longer just for the virtuoso.

Speaking of Slash and Axl, Nirvana weren't the only band to release an album in September; reigning hard rock royalty Guns N Roses finally released the twin Use Your Illusion albums, complete with epic 10-minute tracks like November Rain and Estranged. The separate-but-double album release posed something of a problem for cash-strapped teenage fans; I remember deliberating for a not insignificant amount of time as to which one to buy first. (For the record -- no pun intended -- I went with Use Your Illusion II, generally agreed to be the better of the two.)

1992: Experiments, Acoustics, and rapcore

While it's hard to top 91's roster of genre-defining albums, 1992 had more than its fair share of great releases.

Together with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the fourth wheel on the Seattle grunge juggernaut was Alice In Chains. While they would go on to release their second full-length album, Dirt, later in the year, they surprised many fans by quietly putting out an almost entirely acoustic EP first. Sap (4 February) contained four brand new songs, guest vocals by Heart's Ann Wilson, and was for many rock fans the first taste of what acoustic hard rock could be; it was to be a path taken by many other bands in the following years (including Pearl Jam, who were featured on the relatively new MTV Unplugged show in March of 92).

Although grunge seemed poised to take over the world, there were interesting things happening at the other fringes of rock music. Experimental funk metal merchants, Faith No More, followed up their Grammy-nominated The Real Thing album with the even more experimental Angel Dust LP (8 June). As a self-avowed metalhead, I was generally pretty dismissive of anything the least bit dancey when it came to music, so to find myself singing along to the needle scratch and "Woo! Yeah!" EDM-style interjections in lead single Midlife Crisis was something of a surprise.

1992 had one final surprise in store, in the shape of LA hip-hop-metal band Rage Against The Machine. Their debut, self-titled album was released a day before my eighteenth birthday, and once again took my conception of what exactly rock music was in a brand new direction. Zach de la Rocha's angry leftist raps combined with the mind-bending guitar contortions of Tom Morello was so unlike anything I'd ever heard before that it was hard to even encompass it within the wider hard rock landscape -- all I knew was that I liked it and wanted to hear more.

Of course, there were so many other great albums released in 1992; Manic Street Preachers debut, all rock and roll bluster; Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power was pure thrash; Bricks Are Heavy by all-girl grunge outfit L7; The Black Crowes bluesy follow-up to their best-selling debut, the Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, was a much more mature record; Screaming Trees Sweet Oblivion hinted at the greatness to come in singer Mark Lanegan's future; and Stone Temple Pilots' debut Core are just a few of the amazing albums that arrived within a few months of each other.


I suspect that I'm not alone. Many (if not most) music fans will be able to name similar albums that were ingrained on their consciousnesses during that period; your late teens are when you are deciding exactly who you are, music is a way we define ourselves, so it's only natural that our formative experiences in music leave a lasting mark.

And of course there were many, many great album releases in these two years that I didn't discover until years later. Afghan Whigs, Tori Amos, Arrested Development, The Lemonheads, Sugar, Dr Dre, Pixies -- they all released albums that I have subsequently come to appreciate as I became older and my tastes broadened.

If you're interested in reliving my spotty headbanging youth, I've put a selection of the songs and bands mentioned here into a Spotify playlist -- enjoy!

music December 31, 2015

What I listened to in 2015 

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Looking back, it feels as if this is what I've always done -- seeking out new music, challenging myself to give unfamiliar genres a try, discovering brand new favourites. And yet it was only last year that I made the conscious choice to do so; until 2014, it was virtually all 90s, all of the time.

This year I think I've actually done even better than last year.

Top 10 artists listened to in 2015

  1. Sleater-Kinney
  2. Baby Chaos
  3. The Joy Formidable
  4. Dr Dre
  5. The Beatles
  6. Paul Simon
  7. Public Service Broadcasting
  8. Guns N' Roses
  9. Metric
  10. Belle and Sebastian

Six of the top ten had new album releases this year, although I didn't really enjoy Metric's latest one as much as their older material. Belle and Sebastian's latest also didn't really do that much for me, so I'm surprised it managed to beat artists like Jamie xx and Faith No More to make it onto the list. Earlier release dates are probably to blame.

Also of note is that, since this is entirely a Spotify-powered list, The Beatles managed to reach #5 on the strength of only a single week's play since having their back catalogue added to the service on Christmas Eve.

Top 10 albums listened to in 2015

  1. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities to Love
  2. Baby Chaos — Skulls, Skulls, Skulls, Show Me the Glory
  3. Dr. Dre — Compton
  4. Public Service Broadcasting — The Race For Space
  5. The Joy Formidable — The Big Roar
  6. Jamie xx — In Colour
  7. The Joy Formidable — Wolf's Law
  8. Taylor Swift — 1989
  9. D'Angelo — Black Messiah
  10. Foals — What Went Down

Six releases from 2015 (seven if you count D'Angelo's long-awaited third album, which actually came out in mid-December last year but was too late for most end-of-year lists), and the top four were probably my favourite albums of the year as well.

Thanks to a recommendation from Jon Hicks a while back, The Joy Formidable has become my go-to "don't know what else to listen to" soundtrack this year and one of my favourite bands. Hopefully there's a new album and a tour to look forward to in 2016.

Track of the year

According to my Last.fm profile, the track I listened to the most in 2015 was Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You. I have now schooled my youngest daughter on the importance of logging into your own account on Spotify before using it.

I think my actual favourite track this year was by the #2 band on both lists, Baby Chaos. The Scottish rock band were first active in the 1990s before folding after a handful of well-received albums, but were tempted out of retirement by Ginger Wildheart. The hugely impressive Skulls, Skulls, Skulls, Show Me the Glory followed, including this track -- Blackbirds:

music December 31, 2014

What I listened to in 2014 

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Last year I began my annual reflection on my listening habits with a complaint:

This year [2013] seems particularly bland and uninspired, with hardly anything new in the list. Maybe Spotify has made me complacent about listening to new music[...]

Determined to avoid the same depressing repetition this year, in 2014 I made a concerted effort to seek out new music and sample from a wider range of artists, especially those creating new music in the last twelve months.

Top 10 Artists listened to in 2014

  1. Tegan and Sara
  2. Ginger Wildheart
  3. The New Pornographers
  4. We Are Scientists
  5. The War on Drugs
  6. White Lung
  7. Afghan Whigs
  8. Metric
  9. The Wildhearts
  10. Busta Rhymes

Overall, I don't think I did too badly. Only four artists reappear from the 2013 list, and of those, two are there by dint of releasing new albums this year, so I'd call that a definite improvement—no 90s hard rock in sight.

I played Tegan and Sara's back catalogue to death in the first part of the year, which accounts for their top spot; and Busta Rhymes sneaks into the top ten in a year that saw me explore a lot more hip-hop than ever before.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2014

  1. Brill Bruisers - The New Pornographers
  2. Lost in the Dream - The War on Drugs
  3. Albion - Ginger Wildheart
  4. Deep Fantasy - White Lung
  5. Tv en Français - We Are Scientists
  6. Heartthrob - Tegan and Sara
  7. Mable - CJ Wildheart
  8. Do to the Beast - Afghan Whigs
  9. So Jealous - Tegan and Sara
  10. A Feast of Consequences - Fish

The New Porno's album only secured first place because I played the lead single, War On The East Coast, to death when it was released; Lost in the Dream was my favourite album of the year by a country mile. Aside from those two, a further five were released in 2014, a reflection of my deliberate trawling of Pitchfork, Drowned In Sound, and other music review sites for the best new music this year. Considering that last year only a single album in my top ten was released in 2013, I count this as a major step forward.

Track of the Year

As I alluded to earlier, the first single release from The New Pornographers' latest album probably got way too many plays in the weeks after its release; so much so that the eventual album was slightly disappointing when I finally got hold of it.

Instead, here is my third most listened-to track of 2014, an uber-catchy pop rock tune recommended by the Wildhearts Facebook group: The Wheel, by Tropical Contact: