I listen so you don’t have to! (Rock & Roll #2)

I haven’t forgotten about the Rock & Roll project I gave myself. It’s just taking a while, because listening to the top 30 from each year is not a half hour activity. I’ve made it to 1955, and tonight maybe I’ll listen to the hits from ’56.

I thought maybe I would find the perfect “Year Zero” for rock & roll, but things are never that simple, are they? Rocket 88 was an early harbinger of the mid 50’s revolution in popular music. But unlike 1789 or 1917, the rock & roll revolution can’t be precisely dated. It happened somewhere between 1955 and 1956.

Before 1955, the vast majority of popular songs seemed to have been aimed at adults: the brave  folks who had lived through the Great Depression and then WWII. They probably just wanted some light, cheery music to soundtrack their newfound peace and prosperity in the suburbs. The pop music of the early ’50s reflected the antiseptic new housing layouts springing up all across the United States. The songs were pleasant, shiny, squeaky-clean, and innocent. And they could also be funny, in a Marx Brothers / Abbott & Costello / Vaudeville kind of way. Jazz was by far the raciest game in town… but the jazz that made its way to the charts was suitably neutered for the consumption of people who might have looked a bit like this:

You ended up with a lot of music like this:

1952 was pretty dead, popular music wise. I tried to extract a playlist of decent songs from the year, but very little stood out. Even ‘Jambalaya’ — a song from the dawn of my parents’ generation that I once heard Usha Uthup’s sister do a raucous rendition of — sounds tame.

This novelty song is pretty funny:

1953 was a step in the right direction. Check out this hilarious spoof of the Dragnet theme (which is also pretty catchy), George and the Dragonet:

This odd Italian song is quite sprightly:

Listening to all this in the jaded, hypersexual 21st century, the general vibe is romantic, upbeat, inoffensive, and  even a little adorable — it was the Mickey Mouse era of pop culture. The Baby Boomer generation was just about learning to walk, and this is what their mothers might have sung to them in 1953:

But the older siblings of the postwar boom babies were rapidly growing up, and a new category of person — the teenager — emerged as a discernible demographic for the first time in human history. In the not-too-distant past, able-bodied working class adolescents either began toiling in the fields or factories (if they were boys) or preparing for marriage (if they were girls). Suddenly there was a group of people — not quite kids and not quite grown-ups — who had pocket money, free time, and a restless desire to escape stodgy domestic tranquility. Never having experience the Wars or the Depression, their depressions were more about boredom and repression. The stage was set for the rock and roll explosion…


Further Listening

Billboard Hits of 1952

Billboard Hits of 1953

Billboard Hits of 1954

Han’s selections from the early ’50s


Rock and Roll (with a little help from YouTube & Grooveshark) #1

I’ve been wanting to get back to blogging, musical and otherwise, for several months now. I think what I need is a project that forces me to blog regularly. So I’ve decided to do a little rock and roll history series, with key tracks picked from youtube. Let’s see if I can keep this up! I’m not claiming to have all this stuff in my head — part of the motivation is to examine how the pop charts evolved over the decades. Wikipedia and other resources have made this easier than ever.


I’ve always felt that placing a work of art in context helps you develop a new appreciation for it. Not everyone responds to the historical lens, but I’d like to work with it, perhaps incorporating other lenses and prisms along the way. So the plan is to go chronologically through the history of rock and pop since the 1950s, until such time as the branching genealogical tree gets too tangled to climb up (or is it down?). It will be hard to stick to a strict chronology, so I might jump back and forth a bit. Maybe movie posters, trailers and historical snippets will help set the ambience too.

Origins are always murky, so let’s start with what is “widely considered” the first rock and roll song. 1951’s ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats — a band formed by Ike Turner (later infamous for being Tina Turner’s abusive husband).

It’s got several elements that soon came to define rock and roll. The rollicking pianos, the blues rhythm sans blues, and the lyrics celebrating the thrill of cruising in a beautiful, powerful American automobile. Chuck Berry would later transform these elements into sheer musical gold: his philosopher’s stone was the electric guitar. But we’ll come to that in a later.

One of the biggest hits of the era was Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’.

The top-selling album that year was by Thelonious Monk. But those were the days when most people bought singles on little 45 rpm records. The hits tended to be sweetly romantic, conservative, traditional. The occasional novelty song added some spice. But it was all very G-rated. In 1951 Disney’s Alice in Wonderland was one of the top grossing movies of the year. (I was pleasantly surprised to discover how well A Streetcar Named Desire fared that year. A very mature movie, even half a century later.)

The 1950s was the age of McCarthyism, so hard-left folkies like Pete Seeger found themselves playing it a little safe:

Rocket 88 might sound tame today, but amidst soppy songs like Johnnie Ray’s ‘Cry‘,  it must have jumped out of the radio. It may not seem like it now, but it was a harbinger of revolutionary times: music was becoming youthful, irreverent, and most importantly, fun.


Here’s a grooveshark playlist with a handful of hits from 1951, ending with ‘Rocket 88’. Here’s a bigger playlist: the Billboard Top 30 for that year.

1951 in film:

I Am Not A Robot

I’m completely obsessed with Marina and the Diamonds at the moment. I like her 3 singles so much I think I’m going to explode.

It’s pop, but a little “left-of-the-dial” as the muso types say. She has a weird, passionate voice that jumps around like a giddy sparrow, and her lyrics suggest darkness and depth. There’s a back story that’s pretty interesting as well — she really wanted to be in a manufactured pop band, but never made it. Then she started writing her own songs. She’s not super-hot or anything, but there’s something cute about her, and in her videos she looks like she’s really having fun… and that’s probably better than mere hotness.

If you don’t quite get these songs initially, don’t worry. I took a few listens, but now (all of three days later) I listen to these songs pretty much on repeat.

Twenty Ten!

I’m back in cold old Boston, and back to google reader-enhanced music discovery.

Firstly, folk sorceress Laura Marling is back with a new video, a new hairdo and a bigger sound. (I stole much of that line from the Guardian. Very apt.)

Secondly, Vampire Weekend is out with their second album, Contra. More Graceland-punk! It’s currently Billboard #1. Who says popular music has to suck?

You can sample it on grooveshark. The song “Cousins” also has a kick-ass video.

And thirdly, Midlake’s much-anticipated (by me at least!) second album is out. Well, technically it hasn’t been released yet, but you can grooveshark it. I haven’t decided if I dig it yet, but it’s growing on me. Their first album — a somber mix of Americana and melodic 70s soft-rock — is one of my all-time favourites now. Since August ’08 it has been permanently associated with the ghat road connecting Gudalur to Ooty. I listened to it on a KSRTC bus early one morning on my way home from Bangalore. It seemed to fit perfectly with the pre-dawn scenery of the upper Nilgiris.

I am unlikely to upload mp3s any more, but they’re easy enough to find. And for full albums just search for rapidshare links.

Here’s wishing everyone a musically satisfying year and decade!

Two little playlists

Today I went wandering around Cambridge looking for a Halloween costume. Didn’t get one. Wasn’t ‘feeling it’, although I think I know what I’ll be. The question is whether to roll up my sleeves and go D.I.Y., or dish out the dollars.

It’s pretty chilly in Boston now, and I picked some music for the walk that was appropriately autumnal. I listened to Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Noah and the Whale, Wooden Shjips, and The Big Pink. All highly recommended.

Here is a sampling of their wares, in the form of an imeem playlist. Let me know if it works fine. You’ll need to sign up I think, but it’s completely free. (lala is also pretty good, but you can only listen to each song once for free.)

It’s amazing how the music in your earphones colours the scene you’re walking through. (It’s a neat analogy for the way our consciousness filters all experience.) It’s as if you find yourself in a movie, with the soundtrack clueing you in on what sort of movie it is. A dog running around in a park could make you feel vertiginous nostalgia or envigorating excitement, depending on the backing track. Elvis Perkins’s ‘123 Goodbye’ sounds to me like a song at the very end of a tragic-yet-uplifting American film. You know the movie is almost over. Someone’s driving off in a car, glancing into the rear view mirror. There’s a lump in your throat perhaps. You wish it could have ended differently. Nevertheless, it’s an end, and it’s time to say goodbye. Soon the credits will start rolling.



I’ve been listening to vast quantities of The Incredible String Band these days [listen!]. They’re a Scottish psychedelic folk band from the 60s. They capture hippie idealism, spirituality and humour perfectly. I love them, but it’s entirely possible that you’ll hate them. They’re fruity. (For instance: they have a song sung from the perspective of a flower. It goes “turn your quivering nose in my direction”.) They mix Indian and Middle Eastern music with English and Scottish folk, and American country and blues. I find myself increasingly drawn to their lyrics. They’re mystical and poetic. I’ll leave you with some quotes:

The Hedgehog’s Song

Oh, you know all the words, and you sung all the notes,
But you never quite learned the song, she sang.
I can tell by the sadness in your eyes,
That you never quite learned the song.

The Water Song

Water water see the water flow
Glancing dancing see the water flow
O wizard of changes water water water
Dark or silvery mother of life
Water water holy mystery heavens daughter

God made a song when the world was new
Waters laughter sings it is true
O, wizard of changes, teach me the lesson of flowing.


The great man, the great man, historians his memory
Artists his senses, thinkers his brain
Labourers his growth
Explorers his limbs
And soldiers his death each second
And mystics his rebirth each second
Businessmen his nervous system
No-hustle men his stomach
Astrologers his balance
Lovers his loins
His skin it is all patchy
But soon will reach one glowing hue
God is his soul
Infinity his goal
The mystery his source
And civilization he leaves behind
Opinions are his fingernails

Maya Maya
All this world is but a play
Be thou the joyful player

These songs can be found here.

Noughtpop – a mixtape


(click to enlarge)

It’s compilation time again! What fun. I was thinking of doing a sort of 2000s indie rock primer. However, the term “indie” is somewhat vague. I know it means music on independent record labels, but I think some of the bands that started out indie have bagged major label contracts. So I’m calling this mixtape “Noughtpop”. It’s pop and/or rock from the decade that will soon be behind us (!). Even the term “pop” is vague. These artists haven’t made much of an impression on the Billboard charts (though they tend to do a little better in the UK). So Noughtpop is not pop. But it has what music journos like to call “pop sensibilities”. I guess that means it’s catchy, with the possibility of choruses and/or dance-y beats. And maybe, as icing on the cake, intelligent and/or strange lyrics.

In college I became a classic rock type. I liked some music from after 1979, but in general I assumed that rock had died before I was born. (Top 40 Pop died in the early 90s.) I liked Nirvana, but rarely chose to listen to them on my own. In 2003 I started listening to Radiohead, and realized that modern music could be challenging, intense, and different. (I love Oasis, but they’re not the most original songwriters in the world, are they?) Those days hardly anyone had a computer, and downloading music was a mystery. I asked our very own Kaustubh to procure Radiohead’s The Bends for me. He duly did so. On the CD he gave me there was another album called Elephant, by a band called the White Stripes. I fell in love with the album almost immediately. Insta-classic. There was no doubt about it — new music could kick ass. “Seven Nation Army” became an unofficial Yearbook Room anthem. Meanwhile I started to go to internet cafes to check out the new music scene. Hard to remember exactly when all this happened, or in what order. I know that I first saw the “Mr Brightside” video in a Satyam Infoway in Indra Vihar. The sound quality was bad, so it didn’t leave much of an impression. (Tommy mentioned it later… by 2005 I was a Killers fan.)

I discovered Franz Ferdinand the old-fashioned way: through MTV. Nikhil Chinnappa hosted a show that presented new music. He said “Take Me Out” was the next big thing. And it was. Wow. What a song. What a video. It took me ages to finally get a copy of the song. (I asked my cousin in Kottayam to download it. He used Kazaa or Limewire — does anyone use that sort of thing anymore?) MTV introduced me to the Vines too (the lead singer’s crazy performance style grabbed me before the songs did). Muse happened around then too (I got a friend in Australia to get Origin of Symmetry for me)…but I’ve left them out of this compilation. (They don’t sit well alongside other bands. Don’t you think?)

Soundcheck 42 played a Strokes song in 2002. Not sure which one. They really knew their music, but at the time I just wanted to hear CCR and the Rolling Stones. I heard “Last Nite” in 2004, and quickly became obsessed with it. I downloaded it at home on a crappy dial-up connection. It took two hours. At the time, I didn’t get their other songs. In 2006, near the end of my IIT stint, I got into their 3rd album First Impressions of Earth. The Strokes are now an all-time favourite band. To use a corny phrase, they helped me through a difficult (or at least hazy) period of my life.

IIT was where my musical landscape really exploded. In the first year I was blown away by their ftp networks, and filled in various blanks in my rock history chronology. (Got into the Sex Pistols and the Clash around then.) That’s when I came upon the Libertines. Someone happened to have the I Get Along EP on their server. Fantastic. “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun” is one of my favourite songs. Sadly, I discovered the band just as they were splitting up. The UK media were quite obsessed with the antics of Pete Doherty. I’m told Pete & Carl were inspired to start a band after seeing a Strokes gig. The explosion on indie bands in the UK is generally attributed to the impact of the Libertines.

In 2005 I got my own computer, and quickly discovered music blogs. I cobbled together Franz Ferdinand’s debut album from mp3s found here and there. There were so many great (and not-so-great) bands. Youtube happened and Arctic Monkeys happened. (Not sure which came first.) I got caught up in the Arctic Monkeys hype — I downloaded every single demo and live performance I could find, months before the album came out. It was fun.

By 2006 my music collection didn’t look like a classic rock type’s any more. I didn’t even have the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin discographies (gasp!). And then I moved to Boston. A few days after arriving, I picked up a free alt weekly and found out that the Strokes were playing in a few weeks. I immediately bought a ticket. I went alone (I didn’t know anyone yet) but it was awesome. Great way to enter the world of live contemporary music. (So much better than watching old fogeys fleece baby boomers.)

As it turned out, my music taste wasn’t so off-beat after all. Several of my new friends had similar tastes. So I had company for all subsequent concerts. Arctic Monkeys! Klaxons! Late of the Pier! CSS! I even had the pleasure of getting my American friends into new bands, notably MGMT and Yeasayer (both of whom I’ve seen live twice). When it comes to music I have the zeal of a missionary. I love it when someone comes back to me and says they really liked one of my recommendations.

And to think that I once worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy music as intensely as I had in college! If anything, my love of music has widened and deepened since then.

Eight years ago I could probably name all the albums I had heard completely. It’s been quite a decade.


So here’s the mix. You’ll find that the term “indie” or “noughtpop” doesn’t really convey any essential stylistic elements. It may just be an attitude. I’ve arranged the tracks chronologically (even though my discoveries occurred out of order). If you look at the progression through time, you might detect a move from the minimalism of the early ’00s New Garage Revival (the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Vines) through the mid ’00s rediscovery of synths, and into the free-for-all psychedelic kitch of the decade’s end. I’ve tried to pick the best or most iconic song by each act. I know I’ve left out a few, and we could argue over which songs/artists should have been included/excluded. This collection is predictable if you already like this sort of music. But the aim is to provide some context for people who have not yet dived in. (A few people have specifically asked for something like this.) So if you’re wondering where to start with noughties music, here are my suggestions:



The Strokes — Last Night


The Vines — Get Free
Interpol — NYC


The Libertines — Don’t Look Back Into the Sun
Yeah Yeah Yeahs — Maps
The White Stripes — Seven Nation Army
The Fiery Furnaces — We Got Back the Plague


The Killers — Mr Brightsde
The Arcade Fire — Rebellion (Lies)
Franz Ferdinand — Take Me Out
Regina Spektor — Us


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — Ain’t No Easy Way
Arctic Monkeys — Fake Tales of San Francisco
Animal Collective — Grass
Tapes ‘n’ Tapes — Insistor
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! — The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth
Wolf Parade — This Hearts On Fire


CSS — Let’s Make Love (And Listen to Death From Above)
Hot Chip — Over & Over
Beirut — Scenic World


Klaxons — From Atlantis to Interzone
MGMT — Time to Pretend
Yeasayer — Wait for the Summer


Vampire Weekend — Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
Late of the Pier — The Bears Are Coming


New Roots: A Mixtape

The Bush era is over: it’s okay to listen to country music now!

How do you create a ‘scene’? (A musical one, not a hysterical one.) I guess you group together some loosely related acts and/or songs, give them a label, and hope it catches on. Hence the “New Garage Revival”, the “Neo-New Wave”, “New Rave” and so on. The artists themselves probably have little to do with the grouping, other than sharing similar influences, or seredipitously capturing the zeitgeist (whatever that is!).

And so, without further ado, I give you New Roots. Or perhaps, the New Folk/Roots Revival. These (mostly) young artists tap into a strain of music that flickers in and out of mainstream consciousness every few years, tracing its heritage from the folk revivals of the 1960s and the 1930s, which themselves hark back to the semi-mythical antiquity of rural America (and also the British Isles).

It’s hard to define folk. It’s sort of like country, without the accent. It’s rootsy and old-timey, but it’s not the blues. It’s usually acoustic, but amplifiers don’t disqualify you. The lyrics don’t generally have to be of a political nature, whatever the leftists might say. In the 1930s they often cherry-picked the songs with political themes, and even reworked old tunes with new, radical verses. Lyrics-wise, I think the folk I’m throwing together draws more from the rich singer-songwriter tradition of the past fifty years.

So the songs I’ve picked are rootsy, maybe a little twangy, and might just feature introspective lyrics. Here you go:


Johnny Flynn  — The Wrote and the Writ  

The lyrics serve as a cold warning to people whose words speak louder than their actions. (I almost feel a finger wagging at me.)

Elvis Perkins in Dearland — Hey

“If it were up to me I’d leave it all up to you” — I know how he feels! Elvis Perkins in Dearland are quite something on stage. When I saw them last week they had a Sacred Harp group open for them, and later did a version of  a Sacred Harp hymn. Stirring!

Blitzen Trapper — Furr

A friend was into their first album — I remember smoking with the band members outside Great Scott. The new album sounds better, and this song is probably the best track on it.

The Leisure Society — The Last of the Melting Snow

This song comes with a story. The guy wrote it after bumping into an ex-girlfriend and realizing that he still wasn’t over her. Plus he’s a warehouse worker. The song was subsequently nominated for an Ivor Novello award. It’s sad and sweet and simple.

Findlay Brown — Come Home

Great voice. Not much else to say, really.

The Dodos — Fools

More hardwood than heavy metal…

Mumford & Sons — Roll Away Your Stone

They opened for Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn. It was at a little church parish hall, but it was one of the best concerts I’ve been to. It felt timeless. The tour was called the “British Folk Reclamation Tour”. I bought the poster.

Laura Marling — My Manic and I

One of my favourite albums of 2008 … and maybe even the noughties. A precocious little poetess. The lyrics are deep enough to warrant a little literary analysis.

Larrikin Love — At the Feet of Ré

Stomping, rousing, and vaguely celtic sounding. Wait for the soaring strings at the end.

Amy MacDonald — The Road to Home (plus bonus track)

Another bright young thing from the UK. Her debut album was fresh and straightforward and totally devoid of irony or jadedness.


Download the whole thing here.

2013 EDIT: Download links are all dead, so here is a YouTube playlist.