In 2010, I bought a copy of Uncut off the shelf of Turn It Up, a music store in Northampton, MA. I bought it for the cover story, this feature about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, often viewed as the seminal album in shaping modern music production.
I was originally drawn to Bush in college for her aesthetic similarities (both musical and otherwise) to my favorite artist, Tori Amos. I would end up reading the article two or three times, focusing on Bush’s collaborations with Peter Gabriel and her dealings with her record label, EMI.
That copy of Uncut came with a sampling album. It was called Western Skies, and featured up-and-coming bands from the alt-country movement. Here’s the track list.
I wasn’t expecting much from it. Most notably, it featured a song from Okkervil River’s collaboration with Roky Erickson. Little did I know at the time that it would mark the conclusion of those few years when Okkervil River was, to me, the best band going.
It also featured Joanna Newsom’s “In California,” a little bit of perfection I was already well practiced at championing to every friend who would listen.
The rest of the mix was unremarkable, except for a gem called “Deafening Love” by Bear in Heaven. “Deafening Love.” It was unstructured, moody, intense. It drove forward relentlessly at such a slow, deliberate pace. It felt like the music I might feel – not hear, but feel – at some underground ceremony calling forth a great Cthulhian monstrosity. It felt a little bit like going crazy. I loved it:
“Bear in Heaven,” I thought to myself. “I better pay attention to that sh*t.” The rest of their music often shared a similar intensity, but never quite found that insane groove of “Deafening Love.”
And then 2012 happened. It was a good year for Bears. Grizzly Bear released the fantastic album Shields. My Chicago Bears even went 10-6 with a record-setting defense (ownership, upset at drifting away from our traditional mediocrity, promptly fired the coach). And Bear in Heaven released the last thing anyone ever expected from their loosely structured, psychedelic, Cthulhian-inducing, alt-country band: a tight, poppy, modern 80s masterpiece.
I Love You, It’s Cool the album title goes. You can clearly hear the musicality of The Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen, but there’s something more there. Listen carefully enough, and you’ll start to notice a pathos behind the songs’ charms. Moments are captured with both a disarming magic and an emotional burden. This is Tears for Fears territory right here:
“Timing is a blurry word
Never ever understood
We could fret until the end
Or fluoresce in trouble’s hand.”
What few critics gave much notice to I Love You, It’s Cool listened to the sound and dismissed the album as wonderfully pleasant, but full of empty charm. They were wrong.
I Love You, It’s Cool the album title goes. On this album, sometimes that’s a reassurance. Sometimes it’s an assertion. Sometimes it’s a threat. Sometimes it’s spoken in desperation, hoping someone out there echoes it back.
In “Noon Moon,” of which there isn’t a good copy to be found (each of Bear in Heaven’s albums is freely available on Spotify, but they’re not popular enough to be found in full elsewhere), vocalist Jon Philpot sings:
“The hushed street is booming louder than my heartbeat
The sunrise reverberates, I will never sleep
The calm water should inspire my weary eyes
But this boy is running wild in overdrive.
Roll around, hair in a fit, rattle on thoughtful mind
Cruel world, can’t change a thing, crying at the television.”
You ask, “Who’s making good 80s music today?” My eyes light up. My heart leaps a little in my chest. Why? I get the chance to tell you about Bear in Heaven.
Since I can’t share “Noon Moon” here, enjoy their excellent commentary on narcissism “The Reflection in You.”
(Bear in Heaven does have a 2014 album, Time Is Over One Day Old, but like everything else they’ve done, it’s completely different from their other work: still synth-heavy, but focused on relaxed 70s folk and psychedelia.)
Have You Heard… is a stream of song and band recommendations, many of which may be new to you. It’s also the kind of analysis that’s missing in a music industry obsessed with image and celebrity instead of the music itself.
You might wonder why we’re running a Best Music Videos series for 2013 in April of 2014. It wasn’t something I intended to do, but music videos remain my favorite form of short film. Call them the last bastion of the avant garde in American storytelling. Plus there’s dancing.
So I was upset when I recently looked at music sites’ choices for the best music videos of 2013. These awards used to be opportunities to highlight little-known artists and cleverly experimental filmmakers. A few years ago, Kanye West amused/upset the zeitgeist when he grabbed a microphone from Taylor Swift at MTV’s 2009 Video Music Awards and declared, “I’m going to let you finish, but…” What turned out to be a brilliant career move for Kanye overshadowed the fact that Best Female Video had come down to a plaintively cheesy Taylor Swift lullaby and an above-average, yet fairly standard, Beyonce dance video.
What did the experts declare the best music video of 2013? Well, British staple NME awarded their Music Video of the Year to the Eagulls for “Nerve Endings.” The video featured time-lapse photography of a pig’s brain rotting and being eaten by maggots, with other images washed over it.
Fantastic, Eagulls. You’ve recorded the equivalent of a fanfiction video for Nine Inch Nails 20 years ago and, like a lot of fanfiction, you missed why that imagery was used in the first place. I get it, the Eagulls are punk and their whole schtick is that their interpretation of the imagery doesn’t matter, with a light coat of flipping the bird to those who say punk’ll rot your brain. It’s cute, or as cute as rotting pig brains can be, but it’s a one-note joke, two decades derivative, and it doesn’t deserve to be video of the year.
Rolling Stone‘s top 10 was a similar travesty. Their argument for Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young” was that it had a lot of music industry cameos. So do commercials. They also chose Atoms for Peace’s “Ingenue” because it has Radiohead’s Thom Yorke dancing in it. Both videos have cameos to get done, but neither has much of a point to make.
Worse yet, Rolling Stone chose two of the most inane videos I’ve ever seen in an attempt to attach themselves to those videos’ popularity. At #5, they chose Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which is basically about a singer and his friends molesting nude women. Rolling Stone argues it’s really feminist deep down, because even though all they do is leer at topless women while Thicke sings about how they’re nothing but sex objects, they do it really obviously.
Then they chose Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” at #1, their argument being that – even though it’s a disaster – look at how much of a disaster it is! It’s like a flaming car wreck! Good job furthering the art, Rolling Stone. Their choices largely seemed to be made by how ironic their inclusions would look in a top 10. Feminism by way of molestation and good by way of being so bad it’s a disaster. Everyone stop trying to communicate insightful social messages and raw emotion. Just make something extra-disastrous. Rolling Stone has really got that irony thing down.
Spin was more consistent – at least while they were awarding “Blurred Lines” best video of the year, it included Miley Cyrus dry-humping a hammer in “Wrecking Ball” instead of “We Can’t Stop.”
My issue is that choosing the best music video of the year has turned into choosing which one made the most news. It’s choosing which celebrity you covered the most, not which video had the most creative energy or artistic merit. By that logic, we don’t need any of those sites to hand out awards – we just need Google Analytics.
In response to this, several of us sat down and watched nearly 400 music videos to come up with a top 30. Cleopatra Parnell and Vanessa Tottle helped to narrow the field and made the final rankings with me. Special thanks to Hayley Williams for additional suggestions.
Without further ado, #30-21 on the list. Please be aware that music videos disproportionately carry epilepsy warnings because of the tendency for quick edits and flashing lights.
Honorable Mention (we cheated one extra): “gun-shy” – Grizzly Bear
directed by Kris Moyes
The Gif-style editing, combining repeated actions together, will either annoy or hypnotize you. Personally, I tend toward the latter, and the more I watch it, the more engrossing it becomes. It’s a fantastically weird video that we all liked immensely, but couldn’t agree on giving a place in the list.
#30: “The Same Old Ground” – He’s My Brother She’s My Sister
He’s My Brother She’s My Sister just makes good, enjoyable blues folk music. Their glam rock style reflects Jack White’s style minus the egoism. Really, this is an energetic performance video, but sometimes being joyous and colorful is enough.
#29: “Lovers in the Parking Lot” – Solange directed by Emily Kai Bock, Solange, Peter J. Brant
This is a low-energy, chilled out dance piece featuring Solange at closing time in a Houston mall. It reminds me a bit of Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” featuring Christopher Walken – it’s just fun to watch, listen to, and there’s very little pretense. You’ll also notice co-director Emily Kai Bock’s name a lot in this top 30. That’s not a coincidence.
#28: “Despair” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs directed by Patrick Daughters
“Despair” is a song that thanks that feeling of helplessness for being a lifelong companion. Its video succeeds because of two crucial decisions. The first is in isolating Karen O’s vocal track to start the video. The song itself is a cathartic piece of music that takes a few listens to achieve its full impact, but a music video doesn’t always get those repeat viewings. Isolating Karen O before starting the song proper delivers the message point blank at the beginning.
The second decision was to film at the top of the Empire State Building. The location isn’t the building’s impressive tower itself – the band is instead filmed in front of the fences put up to stop people from jumping off the top. The encroaching morning over New York’s skyline, the arrival of the band, the crescendo of the music, and Karen O’s costume and energy changes each contribute to feeding the cathartic, triumphal energy of the song itself.
#27: “Horns Surrounding Me” – Julia Holter directed by Angus Borsos, concept by Ramona Gonzalez
Combining the narrative cinematography style of David Lynch and bold art direction that echoes horror master Dario Argento is a solid recipe for a music video no one will get, but that is still fascinating. It fits the intent of surrealism like a glove, evoking curiosity and danger while sparking the kind of narrative connections that allow the viewer to edge out the director as owner of the story.
#26: “Reflektor” – Arcade Fire directed by Anton Corbijn
“Reflektor” encourages a lot of debate. Its imagery is simultaneously weirder yet more literal than something more unabashedly surreal like “Horns Surrounding Me.” Its a wickedly fun blend, and the song is one of 2013’s best.
#25: “Loaded Gun” – Lightning Dust directed by Zachary Rothman
This is the definition of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s composed of incredibly simple visual ideas. You’re going to wonder why it’s on the list until its powerful, central image is revealed. Then you’re going to call that friend of yours in the Tea Party and get in an argument.
#24: “Childhood’s End” – Majical Cloudz directed by Emily Kai Bock
This is director Emily Kai Bock’s second appearance on the list already. Her video for “Childhood’s End” shows a mastery of storytelling and photographic presentation. I could go on and on comparing her framing to photographer Philip-Lorca diCordia or Hungarian director Bela Tarr, or I could just tell you that this is going to make you choke up big time.
#23: “This Place Was A Shelter” – Olafur Arnalds directed by Adam Bedzsula and Erik Kocsis
What makes this video special is that the metaphor it’s describing to you and the metaphor you think you’re seeing are wholly different. It’s a twist – not a narrative one, but rather one in your own perception – that connects you to that powerful moment of loss that each of us undergoes at some point in our lives
#22: “Katachi” – Shogu Tokumaru directed by Kijek and Adamski
OK, we’re done making you cry…for today. “Katachi” is a video made entirely using stop-motion animation and paper cutouts. It’s a visually inventive and joyful accomplishment.
#21: “Lillies” – Bat for Lashes directed by Peter Sluszka
This is simply a celebration of growing into and trusting one’s own imagination. It features a ton of stop-motion animation and singer Natasha Khan forming bonds with giant muppets. It harkens back to Kate Bush’s influence on British music videos, and it’s a fun and touching video to witness.
Videos #20-11 will run on Thursday, April 10. Videos #10-1 will run on Tuesday, April 15.