Guess Who’s Back…

(Disclaimer: This blog format, while visually awesome, doesn’t let me put apostrophes in the title. I know, it’s annoying me too.)

Got some supermassive exciting news for you – but first of all an apology. When I first started this blog in January I had every intention of updating it regularly with the latest music and entertainment news, reviews and musings. I managed a total of six posts and kept it going for just over a week. Which is a bit pathetic, I know. But now I’m back and I’m determined to kickstart Shufflepod – and what better way to do that than with the news that one of my all-time favourite bands has announced its upcoming return to the musical arena?

Yes, at long last Muse are back! Last week the band released a trailer for their new album The 2nd Law, to be released this September. Like almost every new Muse album, it’s already split the fans. Some love it, some hate it and some are just baffled.

First thoughts: cutting through all the scientific waffle, the music sounds awesome. At first I thought it sounded similar to Muse’s last album The Resistance, with the sweeping classical movements and dark, subversive tone. Matt Bellamy (the band’s eccentric frontman and principal songwriter) seems to be obsessed with all things abstract and unfathomable, and it looks like this album will be no exception. While The Resistance delved into his favourite conspiracy theories (apparently one of the songs on there is about the British Royal Family being descended from giant lizards), The 2nd Law leans  towards theories of a more scientific nature. Even the title itself is a reference to the principles of thermodynamics (yes, I had to google this.)

The urban/dubstep twist at the end was surprising, and I don’t know how much (if at all) this is going to feature on the new album, but I wouldn’t mind hearing more of it. What I like about Muse is that they’re always evolving and  experimenting with different genres, rather than sticking to the same tried and tested formula. Sometimes this is to the irritation of their hardcore fans (I remember the uproar that Supermassive Black Hole caused when it first came out.) But I like the unpredictability; I think it’s one of Muse’s best qualities. It’s not like the classic favourites – Plug In Baby, New Born, Hysteria etc – are going to disappear from their set list any time soon.

The other thing I like about Muse is that beneath the dark and twisted exterior, they actually seem to be three genuinely funny guys who don’t take themselves too seriously.

Back in 2001 the band were invited to perform on the now long-defunct Saturday morning TV show, Live and Kicking. Unfortunately, what the producers meant by “performing” was actually lip-syncing. Muse decided to have a bit of fun with this. What followed was a drummer fake-playing bass, a bassist fake-playing drums, and an incredible piece of keyboard choreography:

Nine years later the band were invited to lip-sync again, this time on an Italian TV show to promote The Resistance. Proving that they haven’t mellowed with age, “The Muse” once again decided to make a few line-up changes. And once again, the audience and presenters were completely clueless.

Whatever happens to Muse on their next album, I hope they never decide to grow up…

Spotify vs. Pandora

This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but I’m a big fan of Spotify. I mean, it combines my two great passions in life – listening to music, and making lists. I’d say that most of the music I listen to on a day-to-day basis reaches me through Spotify, more than any other medium. I’m well and truly addicted. Even when they started trying to squeeze out all the Spotify Free users last summer (for example, by limiting the number of times you could listen to any particular track, and placing a weekly limit on listening time), I bit the bullet and took out a subscription. I’ve become so used to Spotify that I couldn’t imagine life without it.

But for a brief period during my recent trip to the States, my bank account dried up and I ended up doing the unthinkable – I cancelled my Spotify subscription. Since only subscription members can use their Spotify accounts abroad, this meant my account was effectively suspended. I figured I could do without it for a little while, especially when there were  free alternatives available, like Pandora. How very wrong I was.

Spotify has only recently taken off in the US, and Pandora seems to be the main music-streaming service of choice for a lot of people. But it really is no replacement for Spotify – in fact, the way Pandora works is totally different. There’s much less control – you can’t just make a list of all the tunes you want to listen to, or stream an entire album from start to finish, as you could with Spotify. Instead, you tell Pandora the name of an artist you like, and Pandora then analyses this information and creates a radio station of similar artists that you might like.

It’s all dressed up in very technical-sounding terms – the first time you start an artist radio station, Pandora will play a song that “exemplifies this artist’s musical style”, based on the major/minor key, chord structures, vocal harmonies and god knows what else. They call it the musical genome project, and it’s all immensely clever, but does anyone actually take all these factors into account when choosing what music they’d like to listen to? I know I don’t. I think breaking down a song into all these mechanical parts kind of ruins the magic of it…music is supposed to be an art, not a science.

Pandora's approach to music

I wouldn’t really mind Pandora’s overly-analytical ways – after all, it’s just trying to be helpful and suggest new music, right? And if you just stuck to your own playlists on Spotify you’d never listen to anything different. But the problem is, the position of helpful new music generator has already been filled – by last.fm.

Last.fm works in a similar way to Pandora, with lots of different radio stations grouped by artist or genre. But in my opinion it works much better – mainly because, unlike Pandora, there are no annoying ad breaks. Also, last.fm isn’t as stuffy as Pandora about skipping tracks (Pandora won’t let you skip more than five tracks every hour – I think it doesn’t take rejection too well.) Last.fm can be just as analytical as Pandora, but it manifests this by compiling helpful charts of your top tracks and top artists, which it uses to make future recommendations. It also lets you compare your charts to those of other listeners, so you can see who has similar tastes to you. Boy, do they love their charts.

last.fm personified

For a while I experimented with Grooveshark, a somewhat sketchy streaming service that appears to be curated by individual users. I’m not sure how legitimate it is (Google and Apple have pulled the Grooveshark mobile app from their stores, under pressure from record labels), but it’s free, has no ads and tends to have a wider selection of hard-to-find recordings. For example, for a long time Spotify didn’t have any of Bright Eyes’ earlier albums (there are quite a lot of them), but I was able to track down every single release, right down to the most obscure B-side, on Grooveshark. I don’t know how they do it, and I’d rather not ask. Grooveshark is kind of the shady street hustler of streaming sites – they have everything you want, just don’t ask where it comes from.

Grooveshark, the dodgy dealer of music streaming

But here’s why Spotify beats them all: it does everything.

Say you want to listen to Belle and Sebastian’s entire back catalogue – you can do that on Spotify. You want to mix it up a bit and make a playlist of your favourite indie artists? Easy. How about keeping track of your listening habits over the past week? With Spotify’s Top Lists you can easily see what your top tracks/top artists have been, and you can even check the Top Lists for your country or the world. It won’t make a pretty chart out of all this data, but there’s always last.fm for that.

What if you get bored of your existing library, and want to discover something new? Previously, Spotify wouldn’t be my go-to place for new music recommendations. But now it’s evolved to the extent that you can discover new artists through “Spotify Radio” (similar to Pandora) and they’ve even incorporated a last.fm app, so you get the best of both worlds. You can listen to the music you know and love whenever you want, and when you want to branch out Spotify will point you in the right direction. What’s more, there’s a whole array of apps to aid your musical exploration – such as Moodagent, which identifies the “mood” of any track you select and compiles a playlist of songs with a similar mood. Or there’s TuneWiki, which automatically displays the lyrics of any song you play, in a karaoke-style scrolling format.

I’m not saying Spotify’s perfect – it’s pretty close, but there are a few glitches. Some artists have very limited tracks available (especially Oasis, The Beatles and Bob Dylan), but this is probably more to do with the record labels than Spotify itself. One thing that makes me uneasy is that Spotify and Facebook have been cosying up to each other a lot – in fact you can’t even set up a Spotify account now unless you have a Facebook account. I get that Spotify’s trying to become more “social,” but I think Facebook has a tendency to overshare (sometimes in a sneaky way, without you knowing), and I suspect when it comes to music, everyone has their guilty pleasures that they wouldn’t want the whole world to know about. Good thing Spotify recently introduced a “Private Session” mode – so you can listen to Taylor Swift and JLS as much as you want, and still maintain your hipster credibility…(shhh)

Overall, while there’s always room for improvement, I think Spotify still deserves a medal for being the all-round superhero of music platforms. I guess the proof’s in the pudding – after doing my best to get by with Pandora/last.fm/Grooveshark, I finally caved and reactivated my Spotify subscription. I’d barely lasted two weeks without it.

Spotify, the all-round champion

Just a quick post to share this beautiful song from Michael Kiwanuka. Apparently it’s been kicking around for a while, and Kiwanuka was recently voted the “Sound of 2012″ in a BBC poll. I only just heard it today but I think it’s absolutely gorgeous – I love the combination of classic soul vocals with a simple acoustic guitar riff (which sounds strangely similar to Priscilla Ahn’s Dream) Definitely going to be checking him out on Spotify. Enjoy!

January Blues

Let’s face it, January is a pretty miserable month. Once the revelry of ringing in the New Year is over, it’s back to work/school for most of us, and the succession of cold grey days and long winter nights can be depressing. The concept of “January Blues” is widely accepted and for many people, an inevitable part of life.

But here’s an idea: why not use music to beat the blues? The mental health charity SANE has teamed up with misery-loving club Feeling Gloomy, in an attempt to cheer everyone up during “Blue Mood Month.” They’ve asked a whole host of celebrities to compile Spotify playlists of their favourite sad songs – the idea presumably being that a little bit of wallowing in someone else’s misfortunes can make you feel better about your own. Read all about it here.

I think this is a great idea; as well as raising awareness of mental health issues, it also provides an interesting and sometimes surprising insight into the musical tastes of the celebs. Plus, it’s a chance to discover music you might not normally listen to. I wouldn’t recommend listening to all of them in one sitting (there comes a point when you have to stop wallowing), but here’s just a few that caught my eye:

Dan Stevens

The Downton Abbey star’s list includes wistful folky melodies from Nick Drake (Clothes of Sand) soulful crooning from Nina Simone (I Loves You Porgy), bitter rage from Nirvana (Where Did You Sleep Last Night) and a classic from the kings of gloom, Radiohead (No Surprises).

Listen if you like: The Flaming Lips, Nick Drake, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, Black Crowes, Allo Darlin’

Stephen Fry

Along with smooth soul tunes from Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, Fry’s compilation includes Elton  John’s aptly titled Sad Songs Say So Much and Evanescence’s piano-rock ballad My Immortal. And no miserable playlist would be complete without The Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now…

Listen if you like: Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Mozart, Elton John, George Michael

Beverley Knight

Ms Knight selects an interesting mix of classic soul/Motown and alternative rock tunes. Her list features Marvin Gaye’s Heard it Through the Grapevine, U2′s With or Without You, Radiohead’s High and Dry, and ends on a defiantly positive note with Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. She also includes her own hit, Shoulda Woulda Coulda - bit of shameless self-promotion there, but it does fit the theme pretty well.

Listen if you like: Beverley Knight, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, Prince, U2

Jamie MacColl

The Bombay Bicycle Club guitarist’s list is ripe with indie/alternative offerings from Broken Social Scene (Stars and Sons), LCD Soundsystem (Someone Great) and Bon Iver (Come Talk to Me)

Listen if you like: Broken Social Scene, Tom Waits, LCD Soundsystem, Cat Power, Bon Iver, Gilian Welch

Jo Brand

The psychiatric nurse turned award-winning comedian kicks off her playlist with Morrissey’s Every Day is Like Sunday, and follows it up with tearful tunes from Paolo Nutini (Last Request), Queen (Somebody to Love) and Amy Winehouse (Back to Black)

Listen if you like: Paolo Nutini, Amy Winehouse, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Happy listening! Or, you know…whatever.

Excuse me while I kiss this guy…

Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze contains some of the most famously misheard lyrics of all time. While he purportedly sings “excuse me while I kiss the sky,” these seven simple words have caused a great deal of confusion and even inspired an internet database of misheard lyrics: http://www.kissthisguy.com/

Modern pop songs have continued this trend of ambiguous lyrics, which often give the song an entirely different meaning. Here are some more recent misheard lyrics that made me do a double take…

“We found love in a homeless place”

Rihanna and Calvin Harris, We Found Love


“You smell, I smell”

Justin Bieber, U Smile

Whoever is writing Bieber’s songs clearly hates him.

“Jell-O, Jell-O, Jell-O…is my drug”

Ke$ha, Your Love is My Drug

Talk about subliminal advertising…

“Is it that look in your eyes…or is it these dancing Jews?”

Bruno Mars, Marry You

Apparently it’s “dancing juice,” whatever that is…

“My lover’s got no power, he’s got his trampoline”

Gala, Freed from Desire

After fifteen years of thinking this was an ode to trampolining, I recently found out the real lyrics are “he’s got his strong beliefs.” I still think my version is better…

Who needs power when you can do this?

Best of British

This week’s big news from the world of pop is the Brit award nominations. I use the phrase ‘big news’ pretty loosely – it seems that with the exception of the nominated artists, most people’s attitude to the Brits is “meh.” Sometimes even the nominees themselves share this feeling -  Arctic Monkeys famously snubbed the awards ceremony in 2007, and then used their acceptance speech in 2008 to slag off the Brit school, before they were unceremoniously pulled off stage. In fact the misdemeanours of drunken rock stars have become something of an annual highlight of the Brit awards, ever since Jarvis Cocker stole the limelight from Michael Jackson back in 1996.

But that said, this year’s list of nominees includes some interesting artists who’ve enjoyed a particularly successful 2011. Obviously superstars like Coldplay and Adele are going to scoop multiple awards, but it’s nice to see relatively new names like Ed Sheeran and Emeli Sandé, who were virtually unheard of a year ago. If I had my way, here’s who the big winners would be:

British Male Solo Artist

Ed Sheeran – The ginger kid from Suffolk who penned hit singles The A Team and You Need Me, I Don’t Need You has had a brilliant year. His debut album + isn’t perfect (the cringey “U.N.I.” is a bit of a blemish) but I really like how he spans different genres – one minute he’s crooning folksy acoustic melodies (The A Team, Give Me Love, Small Bump), the next he’s unleashing a relentless rap diatribe (aka the incredibly catchy You Need Me…). The album recently went triple platinum and shifted over 900,000 copies. Not bad for a guy who started out selling CDs from his rucksack…

British Female Solo Artist

Adele – Like I said, she’s the obvious choice, but I can’t really fault her. Even though I’ve heard Someone Like You so many times it makes me want to pull my hair out. (I actually loved her performance of this at last year’s Brit awards, but since then I’ve been hearing the studio version EVERYWHERE.) Kudos to her for cracking America though – she’s a sure-fire win.

British Breakthrough Act

Jessie J – Initially I didn’t really get all the hype about Jessie J. The fact that she wrote Miley Cyrus’ single Party in the USA didn’t help. But she’s definitely grown on me since then, and singles like Price Tag, Nobody’s Perfect and Domino have become some of my favourites. She’s also the real deal when it comes to live performances, as proven by her little stint busking at Times Square:

 

British Group

Arctic Monkeys – We all know Coldplay are going to win this one, but I would secretly love to see Arctic Monkeys do a repeat performance of their 2008 shenanigans. Oh yeah, and their album Suck It and See is pretty good.

British Single

Example Changed the Way You Kiss Me – This isn’t actually my favourite single from Example, but it’s the only category he’s nominated in and I really want to see him win an award. Partly because I like his music, partly because he seems like a funny guy, but mainly because of the Nando’s skank:

 

Mastercard British Album of the Year

Ed Sheeran + again, for the reasons above. As I said it’s not a perfect album, but I think it shows a lot of promise.

International Male Solo Artist

Bon Iver! I was surprised to see this nomination (especially because I thought Bon Iver was a band, but I guess it’s mainly Justin Vernon?) but it would be amazing if he/they won. Although with competition from more typical alpha males like Bruno Mars and David Guetta, I’m not sure how likely this is…

International Female Solo Artist

Rihanna – I used to find Rihanna irritating, but after hits like What’s My Name, Love the Way You Lie and the indomitable We Found Love, I think I should just shut up.

International Group

Foo Fighters – just for their pure awesomeness, and also for continuing to produce hits like Walk and Arlandria.

 

International Breakthrough Act

Foster the People – really happy these guys have been nominated. Their album Torches is full of summery goodness with infectiously catchy tunes, and hopefully we’ll hear much more from them over the next year.

I have no idea if any of these predictions/wishes will come true, but I guess we’ll find out in February!

Hello World…

Hello and welcome to Shufflepod! This is my brand new music blog and it’s still a work in progress, so please bear with me during these early days. I promise it will be worth the wait!

A little bit about myself: I’m a music-loving twenty-something-year-old who just got back from an extended visit to New York – an awesome city with an incredibly varied music scene. I used to write a travel blog over at www.nshini.blogspot.com, but now my travels have come to an end for the foreseeable future. I’ve been back in England for over a week now, but I still haven’t managed to shake off the jetlag. The past few nights I’ve found myself staying up til the early hours and listening to music to pass the time…and that’s how this blog was born.

I listen to music pretty much all the time anyway, and I love talking about it.  I know a lot of people complain about today’s music industry – they say Top 40 artists are just soul-less clones who recycle the same hits over and over again, and no-one makes ‘real’ music anymore. Or if they do, it’s impossible to find.

Well, I don’t think that’s true. I actually quite like pop music and I think there are some pretty decent acts around now. But I also like discovering different, original artists – and I think that with the proliferation of sites like Spotify, Youtube and Last.fm, this has never been easier. My hope is that through this blog I’ll be able to share some of these new finds with you. At the same time, don’t be surprised if you find me analysing Jessie J’s latest video or critiquing Rihanna’s new album. It’s all music to me.

You can find good music anywhere – at a random gig, on a TV show, in a coffee shop…you just need to keep listening. And now with smartphone apps like Shazam, you can track down a tune in seconds and discover a whole new field of music. As an illustration – a couple of weeks ago I was shopping in Forever 21, and while none of the dresses really caught my eye, a couple of songs they were playing caught my ear. Thanks to Shazam I can now share these with you:

French Horn Rebellion – This Moment

This is a pretty snazzy disco-pop tune, although I don’t think the video really does it justice. It’s a pretty smart choice for shop-floor music – the upbeat melody and catchy beat made me want to strut around in a brand new outfit. I liked it enough to want to hear more, so I looked it up online. Here’s what last.fm has to say about French Horn Rebellion:

“French Horn Rebellion are Robert and David Perlick-Molinari, two brothers born and bred in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. In 2007, younger brother Robert, found himself going down a career of classical French Horn performance. Standing at a crossroads, and fundamentally frustrated by the demands of mastering such an instrument (that he knew was almost impossible), he finally asked his brother David to rebel with him, and together they embarked on a life-long creative journey.”

Sounds like an interesting transition from classical music to electro-rock, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them. They released an album, “The Infinite Music of French Horn Rebellion”, in 2010. If you like the sound of “This Moment”, or are a fan of indie-pop dance acts like Foster the People or MGMT, then definitely give it a listen.

Telekinesis – I Cannot Love You

I actually misheard this as “I Can’t Not Love You”, which would have been sweet. Turns out there was no double negative, and it’s actually a pretty bitter song. But something about the racing bass guitar riff and hollow vocals had me hooked. It’s reminiscent of classic British bands like The Cure or Joy Division, but Telekinesis is actually an American solo artist. Here’s the bio, again from last.fm:

“Telekinesis is Michael Benjamin Lerner, an indie rocker based out of Seattle, Washington, United States who is currently signed to Merge Records. Lerner signed to Merge Records in early 2009, and shortly afterward released the eponymously named debut album Telekinesis! on April 7, 2009. Recorded in September of 2008, the album was produced, mixed, and engineered with the help of Chris Walla (guitarist for Death Cab for Cutie), recording one song per day on analog tape.”

Telekinesis released a second album “12 Desperate Straight Lines” last year, which features “I Cannot Love You” and other highlights like “Car Crash” and “Please Ask for Help” (you can definitely hear the Cure influence on this one.)

Click here for a free download of “Car Crash” courtesy of last.fm

So there you have it – I walked into Forever 21 looking for clothes, and came out with some new tunes. Whoever said good music was hard to find?