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kottke.org posts about Music

How to Please Elise

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2020

How to Please Elise

Christoph Niemann with a clever take on the Beethoven composition for piano, Für Elise. He’s offering it as a letterpress print — but supplies are low so order quick if you want one.

And according to Niemann, the chart has been factchecked and is accurate.

The First and Last Time Mister Rogers Sang “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” on TV

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2020

Including special shows, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for 912 episodes and at the beginning of each one, Rogers sang “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” while putting his sweater on and changing his shoes. In the video above, you can compare his rendition of the song from the first episode (February 19, 1968) and the final episode (August 31, 2001). It would take a significant effort (and might actually be impossible because he sings the song at a different pace each time), but I’d love to see someone cut together a version of this that features all 912 openings strung together chronologically, so you can see Rogers get older as he sings (a la Noah Kalina’s Everyday).

The same YouTube channel also edited together the first and last times Rogers sang “Good Feeling”:

(via open culture)

The Final Chart Topper of the Decade Perfectly Summarizes the Current State of Media

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2020

The number one song on the UK singles chart for the last week of 2019 was Ellie Goulding’s River, despite it not being available on Spotify, Apple, Google, or anywhere but Amazon (with one important exception). How the heck did that happen? Chart Watch UK has the story.

River was simply a prominent part of just about every “Christmas songs” playlist curated by Amazon themselves, a default choice for everyone muttering “Alexa, play Christmas songs” as they basted the turkey and cursed the sprouts. People have been spoon-fed a contemporary hit single like no other before it, and the result of that has been to propel it almost by accident to the top of the charts.

This is a fitting choice for the final chart topper in the 2010s because it encapsulates a number of trends in media that have played out over the past decade. To wit:

  1. The song is a remake. Remakes and sequels dominate our viewing and listening.
  2. It is exclusive to a single platform. The entire media world seems to be headed in this direction.
  3. The platform is operated by one of the handful of tech behemoths that took control of more and more of the media landscape as the decade wore on.
  4. Amazon. Arguably the company of the decade. Led by the world’s richest man, a symbol of the decade’s growth in inequality.
  5. Ok, the song is exclusive to Amazon but is also on YouTube. YT has simply grown so popular for young people listening to music that media companies can’t ignore it, even when they’re direct Google competitors (and who isn’t these days).
  6. Voice assistant devices were instrumental in making the song popular. Since Siri was first released in 2011, voice assistants have become increasingly embedded in our homes and pockets.
  7. Amazon’s editorial team added the exclusive song to several of their Christmas playlists. Amazon has access to the song, compiles the playlists, and sells the devices to play them. This sort of BigCo “synergy” became standard operating procedure in the 2010s.
  8. There was an algorithm involved (Billboard’s). They increasingly determine what we read, watch, and listen to.
  9. And that algorithm was gamed. See also the role of Facebook’s algorithms in the 2016 US Presidential election (and many many other examples of “impartial” algos being manipulated).

It is tough to imagine a more perfect example of how media functions (or doesn’t) today. (via @tedgioia)

My Recent Media Diet, The Late 2010s Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 30, 2019

Every month or two for the past couple of years, I’ve shared the movies, books, music, TV, and podcasts I’ve enjoyed (or not) recently. Here’s everything I’ve “consumed” since late October.

Uncut Gems. Watching this movie replicates very closely what it feels like to live in NYC (and not in a good way). This movie contains one of my favorite scenes of the year and Sandler is a genius. (A)

Seduce And Destroy with Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie & Paul Thomas Anderson (A24 Podcast). The best bits of this were fascinating but some of it was too inside baseball. Listen to this after seeing Uncut Gems. (B+)

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The Iliad as a romance novel (of sorts). Loved it. (A)

Hustlers. Jennifer Lopez did not require fancy cameras or the de-aging CGI of The Irishman to make her look 20 years younger. (B+)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Such a great alchemy of subjects — kind of a miracle how it all works together. (A-)

Jesus Is King. Boring. Christian hip hop isn’t any better than Christian rock. Born again Kanye? I miss the old Kanye… (C-)

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Wonderfully creative. A couple of really disturbing parts though for kids. (A-)

The Dark Crystal. Watched this after Age of Resistance and it holds up really well. (B+)

Tunes 2011-2019. Gets better with every listen. (A-)

The Laundromat. Soderbergh and Streep? This should have been better. (B)

The Fifth Season by N.K Jemison. Liked this but it didn’t make me want to immediately start the next book in the series. (B+)

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Lots to chew on in this one but I ultimately didn’t finish it. But that’s more on me than Harari. (B+)

David Whyte: The Conversational Nature of Reality (On Being). “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” Whyte sounds like a fascinating person. (A-)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Re-watched the entire series over the past several months. Strong in the middle seasons but not a great ending. (B+)

The OJ Simpson Trial (You’re Wrong About…). Excellent multi-part reexamination of the OJ trial centered on the women, principally Nicole Brown Simpson but also Marcia Clark and Paula Barbieri. It took me awhile to get used to the sometimes-too-casual banter about distressing subject matter, but their knowledge and discussion of the subject matter won me over. (A-)

Ad Astra. The filmmakers couldn’t find a way to do this movie without the voiceover? Just let Pitt act…everything he says is obvious from his face. Beautiful though. (B+)

Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Engaging account of the sinking of the Lusitania, which eventually & circuitously led to the entry of the United States into World War I. (A-)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This wasn’t my favorite book I’ve read with my kids. (B-)

The Devil Next Door. Interesting story but I wanted more from this re: the nature of truth & evil. (B)

The Lighthouse. Sunshine x Fight Club. (A-)

Ford v Ferrari. Driving home from the theater, it took every ounce of self-control not to put the pedal on the floor and see if my car can do 120 on a Vermont county road. (A-)

The Crown (season 3). I didn’t like this quite much as the first two seasons, but I did like the overt and not-so-overt references to Brexit. There was a low-stakes-ness to this season which fits with other exported British media (Downton, British Baking Show) and the country’s rapidly dwindling status as a world power. (B+)

Menu Mind Control (Gastropod). Really interesting discussion of how menus are constructed to balance the needs of the restaurant and the desires of the diner. Buckle up though…Gastropod is one of the densest podcasts out there. (A-)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A surprisingly trippy adaptation of one of my favorite magazine articles on Fred Rogers. Hanks is great as usual. (B+)

Coco. Another Pixar gem. (A-)

A Table for Two, Please? (Talk Money). From a new podcast by my pal Mesh — the first episode is about the business side of opening and running restaurants. (B+)

Knives Out. From the hype this got, I was expecting a bit more than a good murder mystery but it was just a good murder mystery. (B+)

Marriage Story. Great performances all around, but Jesus why did I watch this? It captures very well the feeling and experience of divorce. Total PTSD trigger though. (D/A-)

Galatea. Engaging short story by Madeline Miller. (B+)

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. Impossible at this point for anyone to objectively review the ninth movie in a series which in some ways has defined culture of the last 40 years. I loved it, even the hokey parts. (A)

High Life. Not even sure what to say about this one. (B-)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 26, 2019

I am fascinated with the sound of movies, from the soundtracks to the foley effects and even temp music. Making Waves is a documentary about this integral aspect of cinema. Here’s a trailer:

Directed by veteran Hollywood sound editor Midge Costin, the film reveals the hidden power of sound in cinema, introduces us to the unsung heroes who create it, and features insights from legendary directors with whom they collaborate.

Featuring the insights and stories of iconic directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, Barbra Streisand, Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola and Ryan Coogler, working with sound design pioneers — Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom — and the many women and men who followed in their footsteps.

(thx, dunstan)

Every Sample from Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2019

This video catalogs every borrowed sample from Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, from the soundtrack to Car Wash to the Sugarhill Gang to the Eagles to the Ramones to the Beatles. They play the original first and then what they did with it on the album.

Somehow this video only has 31,000 views?! You can also listen to this remix of Paul’s Boutique on Soundcloud, which combines the source tracks with Beastie Boys vocals and some audio commentary.

Tim Carmody made a Spotify playlist of all the sampled songs or you can download zip files of the original songs sampled in Paul’s Boutique and five of their other albums.

They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore, mostly because clearing all of the samples would be prohibitively expensive if not impossible.

Hip-hop sampling began as a live technique, with DJs working turntables at parties and clubs. Whether it was strictly legal or not, nobody was going to try to sue anyone about it. As the genre’s popularity grew, people naturally started recording performances and releasing them as albums. Early sampling tended to come fast and furious. In the ’80s, short clips of existing recordings were the order of the day, often — as in the case of the Beastie Boys — lots of them, layered and shuffled in a clearly creative way. As hip-hop pushed further into the mainstream, however, the stakes got bigger and so did the samples.

1990 saw the release of both M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice, Baby.” Not only did both songs sample, they each relied heavily on one particular sample — the baselines from Rick James’ “Superfreak” and Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” — for their main hook. Both hits resulted in legal controversy.

Radiohead’s Entire Discography Now Available on YouTube

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2019

Radiohead have uploaded all of their albums to YouTube where they are available for all of your streaming needs.

The move comes after Billboard announced that album charts will reflect YouTube views.

Over at Open Culture, Josh Jones notes that the band has always been willing to experiment with technology and distribution, as with the pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows:

As Yorke had predicted, Napster encouraged “enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do.” The industry began to collapse. File sharing may have been utopian for listeners, but it was potentially ruinous for artists. 2007’s In Rainbows showed a way forward.

Released on a pay-what-you-want model, with a “digital tip jar,” the release was met with bemusement and contempt. (The Manic Street Preacher’s Nicky Wire wrote that it “demeans music.”) Two years later, the jury was still out on the “Radiohead experiment.”

(via open culture)

Almost Famous: “I Was in The Black Eyed Peas. Then I Quit.”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2019

Actress and singer/songwriter Kim Hill became a member of the Black Eyed Peas in the mid-90s, appearing with the group on Soul Train and singing on their first two albums. After feeling pressure from management to sexualize her appearance and from the other members of the band to broaden their appeal, Hill quit the group and was eventually replaced by Fergie. In this video by Ben Proudfoot, she talks about that decision:

Yeah, they got rid of the black girl that they never made a part of the band and they got the white girl, they made her a part and they blew up and it’s like, no! That’s not how it happened.

I really really liked this video. Hill has such a great expressive face and a generous soul and Proudfoot makes the most of it by getting in close and just letting her talk.

Mashup of Radiohead’s Creep & All I Want for Christmas is You

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2019

This is a little slice of genius right here, a mashup of Radiohead’s Creep and Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You. It takes a little bit to get going but I LOL’d when the vocals finally came in.

I have to say though that it’s not quite as entertaining as this All I Want for Christmas / This Is America combo, which might actually be the best thing on the internet.

How the Succession Theme Song Was Composed

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2019

Sitting at a piano, composer Nicholas Britell explains how he came up with the theme music to Succession.

I’m constantly winding in these notes that aren’t part of the scale to just to kind of jolt the music in a different direction. So you see that things are always kind of off-kilter with themselves — like the family in the show.

See also The Succession Theme Works Over Any TV Show Title Sequence.

Tunes 2011-2019, Burial

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2019

On heavy rotation today: Burial’s recent compilation album Tunes 2011-2019.

Here’s the album for sale on Bandcamp and streaming on Apple Music. Pitchfork gave it a 9.0. I have also been listening to Ecstatic Computation by Caterina Barbieri (found via the Flow State newsletter) and Daphni’s Joli Mai. Daphni is one of Daniel Snaith’s stage names; he’s releasing a new album as Caribou in February 2020, a record I’ve been waiting very patiently for since 2014 (Caribou’s Our Love is a particular favorite album of mine). Here are the first two singles from the forthcoming album.

But so anyway, the dark tones of Burial are resonating with me today because I woke up in a bit of a funk. “Why the malaise?” the dumb part of my brain asked seemingly no one. The tiny clever bit of brain answered, “You ate a bunch of ice cream after dinner and then stayed up way too late dicking around on your phone and half-watching DS9.” Burial: The Perfect Music for Your Stayed-Up-Late-Ate-Ice-Cream-and-Watched-Star-Trek Morning Funk™.

Pachelbel’s Canon Played by Train Horns

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2019

This video of the familiar tune of Pachelbel’s Canon being played by different clips of train horns all edited together is both funny and charming. If you need a little pick-me-up right now, this should do the trick. Watch for the celebrity cameo around the 1:00 mark. (via the kid should see this)

Wonder Woman 1984

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2019

This, my friends, is the trailer for Wonder Woman 1984. Ok, let’s see what we have here. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, the only DC Comics movie superhero worth a damn since Nolan’s Batmans. 1984, one of the best years ever for movies and pop culture. A remix of Blue Monday by New Order, still the best-selling 12” single of all time. Patty Jenkins is directing and came up with the story this time (instead of having to deal with Zack Snyder’s nonsense). YES PLEASE.

Watching Teen Superstar Billie Eilish Growing Up

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2019

It is an understatement to say that a lot has happened to Billie Eilish in the past three years. She has gone from being a well-regarded but little-known singer/songwriter to being Grammy-nominated and one of the biggest young stars in the world. For the third year in a row, Vanity Fair sat down with Eilish to ask her about her life and career, what being famous is like, and how she views her past selves.

As I said last year, the video is fascinating to watch, like a teen celeb version of the 7 Up film series. She seems much happier and more confident — “I want to stay happy. That’s a big goal for me.” It will be interesting next year to see how this bit ages:

I like being famous. It’s very weird and it’s very cool.

(via @fimoculous)

The Hippie Aesthetic of the 60s Is “Art Nouveau on Acid”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2019

I had somehow never registered this before, but it was (ridiculously) obvious once it was pointed out to me in this video: the psychedelic design of music posters in the 60s were inspired in part by the Art Nouveau movement of the late 1800s. For instance, here’s an absinthe advertisement from the 1890s and a 1966 Pink Floyd poster.

60s Posters Art Nouveau

“You can draw a straight line between Art Nouveau and psychedelic rock posters,” Martin Hohn, president of the Rock Poster Society, says. “Mucha, Jules Chéret, Aubrey Beardsley. Borrow from everything. The world is your palette. It was all meant to be populist art. It was always meant to be disposable.” He later adds: “What the artists were saying graphically was the same thing the rock bands were saying musically.”

Dreamy Cave-Like Photos Taken Inside Musical Instruments

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2019

For a 2012 print campaign for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, photographers Andreas Mierswa and Markus Kluska photographed the insides of musical instruments.

Inside Instruments

The photos of the string instruments evoke intimate concert halls, with shafts of light illuminating perfect spaces in which you could imagine string quartets playing to small audiences. Inspired by their work, Romanian artist and photographer Adrian Borda has produced his own set of similar photos.

Inside Instruments

Inside Instruments

Free of the constraints of advertising, Borda’s images are a little grittier, reminding me less of tiny concert spaces than of natural rock formations like Arizona’s Antelope Canyon (and other slot canyons of the American Southwest), Petra, and the cenotes of the Yucatan in Mexico.

Inside Instruments

See also this cool inside-a-typewriter shot from Borda. (via @41Strange)

The Succession Theme Works Over Any TV Show Title Sequence

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2019

If you’re having withdrawals from Succession, perhaps this will help a little. A fan created these title sequences of iconic TV shows with the pulsing Succession theme song dubbed over them. The Wire, The Simpsons, and Mad Men are particular favorites of mine:

The Succession theme is to title sequences like what “Christ, what an asshole!” is to New Yorker cartoon captions — it even fits Happy Days (mostly):

If you’d like to try your hand at this, the theme song is available on Spotify. Its composer, Nicholas Britell, also scored Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk.

A Playlist of Anthony Bourdain’s Favorite Songs

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2019

Working from a variety of interviews and articles about the chef, writer, and TV star, the crew at Far Out magazine compiled a playlist of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite songs.

It’s well-known that Bourdain was a champion of New York’s punk movement, he was often cited as saying that both chefs and musicians worked in similar undulating patterns. They were nightwalkers, the working men of the dark streets of New York’s bubbling underbelly. It was a theory that Bourdain took with him wherever he went. Whether he was reviewing a restaurant, often commenting on the music being played in the dining room as much as the food, or speaking with the numerous musicians and icons that littered his show ‘Parts Unknown’, Bourdain was always a muso.

For the PBS show he produced, The Mind of a Chef, Bourdain shared a 25-song playlist called Anthony Bourdain’s Music to Cook By.

Musicians on these playlists include The Velvet Underground, Pretenders, Beastie Boys, and Bob Dylan. (thx, amy)

Update: Here are all the songs from both playlists in one Apple Music playlist. (thx, @billweye)

The Legacy of Philip Glass

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2019

Philip Glass Whitney

From the NY Times, Philip Glass Is Too Busy to Care About Legacy.

“I’m pragmatic,” Mr. Glass said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in 10 years. We don’t even get to know what’s going to happen after someone dies. We need to wait until everyone who knew them is dead, too.”

If that’s true, it won’t be until nearly 2100 when a full measure of Mr. Glass’s footprint will be possible. But some weighing can start now. The most instantly recognizable voice in contemporary music, he opened a new chapter in operatic history, pushing the bounds of duration and abstraction. At a time when the most lauded composers disdained overproduction, Mr. Glass wrote unashamedly for everyone and everything — and all stubbornly in the distinctive style he created, establishing a model for serious artists moving from the opera house to the concert hall to the film studio, garnering both Met commissions and Academy Award nominations.

But if the question is whether, a century from now, his operas will get new productions, his symphonies will circulate more frequently, or pianists will take on his études, Mr. Glass couldn’t care less.

“I won’t be around for all that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Austin Kleon expanded on this piece with some thoughts about lineage vs legacy.

I like this idea of thinking about lineage vs. legacy, because it means you can sort of reframe any worrying about immortality and how you’re going to project yourself into the future, and think more about what you’re taking from the past and what you’re adding to it that creates a more interesting and helpful present.

The Internet Archive is now working to preserve vinyl LPs

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Nov 05, 2019

Photo by Travis Yewell on Unsplash

The Internet Archive is an absolute treasure with a gigantic task ahead of them. They have now set their sights on vinyl LPs and started the work of digitizing and archiving these recordings.

Earlier this year, the Internet Archive began working with the Boston Public Library (BPL) to digitize more than 100,000 audio recordings from their sound collection. The recordings exist in a variety of historical formats, including wax cylinders, 78 rpms, and LPs. They span musical genres including classical, pop, rock, and jazz, and contain obscure recordings like this album of music for baton twirlers , and this record of radio’s all-time greatest bloopers .

Since all of the information on an LP is printed, the digitization process must begin by cataloging data. High-resolution scans are taken of the cover art, the disc itself and any inserts or accompanying materials. The record label, year recorded, track list and other metadata are supplemented and cross-checked against various external databases.

The Archive is partnering with Innodata Knowledge Services, who digitize the LPs in their facility in Cebu, Philippines. Setting up and turning over every album by hand and recording each side at normal speed.

Once recorded, there is a large FLAC file for each side of the LP, which needs to be segmented so listeners can easily begin at the desired song. There are two different algorithms used for segmenting; the first one looks at images of the vinyl disc to locate gaps in its grooves, which usually line up with gaps between songs. A second algorithm listens to the audio file to find the silent spaces between songs. When these two algorithms align, our engineers have a good measure of confidence that the machine has found the proper tracks.

An Alternate ABC Song that Slows Down the Tricky LMNOP Bit

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2019

An alternate version of the ABC song that slows down the LMNOP part is currently going viral because of a tweet by Noah Garfinkel: “They changed the ABC song to clarify the LMNOP part, and it is life ruining.”

I tracked down the original video from 2012:

The alternate arrangement is by Matt Richelson, who runs a popular YouTube channel and several websites dedicated to offering free materials (songs, lesson plans, etc.) to help kids learn English. Here’s what Richelson says about his version of the ABC song:

About the slow l,m,n,o,p: I teach young learners of English as a foreign language, and have found this way the most effective for teaching the letters.

I love the ellemmennohpee bit as much as anyone, but his reasoning is solid.

Map of the First Words of European National Anthems

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2019

Europe Map Anthems

From the @europemaps Instagram account, a map of the first words of the national anthems of European countries. Collectively, it sounds like northern Europe is having some fun in the bedroom: oh… yes… you… there… oh… my… god… not yet…

Please also note that there are a lot of people in the comments with corrections, especially about Spain, Germany, and Turkey, so take it with a grain of salt.

The Moog Cookbook

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2019

I pretty much stopped using iTunes for music when I switched to Rdio1 (and then to Spotify). So going back in there is like unearthing a time capsule of music I listened to from ~2003-2012. This morning, bored of my Spotify playlists, I dug around a little and rediscovered a cache of songs by The Moog Cookbook. The duo uses old school Moog synthesizers to make playful covers of rock & pop songs like Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Are You Gonna Go My Way? by Lenny Kravitz, and Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie. Their album of classic rock covers is available on Spotify:

Their debut album (which I like more) is a bit tougher to find, but you can listen to the whole thing here on YouTube:

  1. I still miss Rdio. *sniff*

Wicker Musical Chairs

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2019

I bet you don’t think about wicker furniture that much, but Estelle Caswell does. In this video, which proves that almost anything can be interesting if the right person looks at it from the right angle, she explores how the peacock wicker chair became an unlikely pop culture icon.

The golden age of album cover design doesn’t have a specific start and end date, but many regard the late 1960s to 1970s as one of the field’s most exciting times. From the psychedelic rock covers of the ’60s to glistening airbrush covers of the ’70s, the era was a kaleidoscope of colors worthy of placement in modern art museums.

But there’s one genre of cover so ubiquitous it almost flew under the radar. The covers typically featured a wide shot of the artist sitting on a throne-like wicker chair, like a king or queen. Usually, the artist looked casual and relaxed; sometimes props would sit around them to decorate the scene. No matter what, the oversized woven chair was the main feature. This was the peacock chair album cover, and it was everywhere: Dolly Parton, Al Green, and Cher all sat in it.

The Songs of 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 & 1983

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2019

Chicago mashup masters The Hood Internet have been pretty quiet lately — their last mixtape was released more than two years ago. But in the west, a shadow stirs… In the same vein as their 40 Years of Hip Hop video, the duo has released a musical tribute to 1979, combining 50 songs released that year into a tight 3-minute mix.

Their plan is to release a new video each week in October that will cover the subsequent four years, 1980-1983.

Update: Here is their video for 1980. I’ll share the rest of them as they post.

Here are 1981, 1982, and 1983:

The Birth of American Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2019

I’ve been slowly making my way through various aspects of the NY Times’ ambitious 1619 Project spearheaded up by Nikole Hannah-Jones, including the excellent podcast. In the third episode of the podcast (and in a related article), Times critic Wesley Morris shares an impressionistic and informative timeline of how black music became the sound of America, from the minstrel performers of the 1800s to Motown.

Blackness was on the move before my ancestors were legally free to be. It was on the move before my ancestors even knew what they had. It was on the move because white people were moving it. And the white person most frequently identified as its prime mover is Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a New Yorker who performed as T.D. Rice and, in acclaim, was lusted after as “Daddy” Rice, “the negro par excellence.” Rice was a minstrel, which by the 1830s, when his stardom was at its most refulgent, meant he painted his face with burned cork to approximate those of the enslaved black people he was imitating.

In 1830, Rice was a nobody actor in his early 20s, touring with a theater company in Cincinnati (or Louisville; historians don’t know for sure), when, the story goes, he saw a decrepit, possibly disfigured old black man singing while grooming a horse on the property of a white man whose last name was Crow. On went the light bulb. Rice took in the tune and the movements but failed, it seems, to take down the old man’s name. So in his song based on the horse groomer, he renamed him: “Weel about and turn about jus so/Ebery time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow.” And just like that, Rice had invented the fellow who would become the mascot for two centuries of legalized racism.

That night, Rice made himself up to look like the old black man — or something like him, because Rice’s get-up most likely concocted skin blacker than any actual black person’s and a gibberish dialect meant to imply black speech. Rice had turned the old man’s melody and hobbled movements into a song-and-dance routine that no white audience had ever experienced before. What they saw caused a permanent sensation. He reportedly won 20 encores.

Rice repeated the act again, night after night, for audiences so profoundly rocked that he was frequently mobbed during performances. Across the Ohio River, not an arduous distance from all that adulation, was Boone County, Ky., whose population would have been largely enslaved Africans. As they were being worked, sometimes to death, white people, desperate with anticipation, were paying to see them depicted at play.

Morris’s article is excellent and covers more ground than the podcast, but the music clips make the podcast episode a must-listen.

My Recent Media Diet, the “Is It Fall 2019 Already?!” Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 24, 2019

Every month or two for the past couple of years, I’ve shared the movies, books, music, TV, and podcasts I’ve enjoyed (or not) recently. Here’s everything I’ve “consumed” since late June. I’d tell you not to pay too much attention to the letter grades but you’re going to pay too much attention to the letter grades anyway so… (p.s. This list was shared last week in Noticing, kottke.org’s weekly newsletter.)

Fiasco (season one). Slow Burn co-creator Leon Neyfakh explores the Florida recount in the 2000 Presidential election. My key takeaway is not that anyone stole the election but that any halfway close election in the US is fundamentally unfair, can easily be swayed in one direction or another, and violates our 14th Amendment rights. I didn’t enjoy this as much as either season of Slow Burn…perhaps it was too recent for me to emotionally detach. (B+)

The Impossible Whopper. All the people saying that the Impossible patty tastes just like a real burger have either never tasted meat before or don’t pay a whole lot of attention when they eat. It’s the best veggie burger patty I’ve ever had, but it sure ain’t beef. (B)

American Factory. Completely fascinating and straight-forward look at what happens when a Chinese company takes over an old GM factory in Dayton, Ohio. Give this just 5 minutes and you’ll watch the whole thing. (A)

XOXO Festival. Always a creative shot in the arm. (A)

Norman Fucking Rockwell! I tried with this, I really did. I don’t think Lana Del Rey is my cup of tea. (C)

The Handmaid’s Tale (season 3). The show’s producers noticed how much critics praised Elisabeth Moss’s emotional closeups and now season 3 is like 80% just that. Way too much of a good thing. Still, there’s still a good show in here somewhere. (B+)

Do the Right Thing. Somehow still bold and controversial after 30 years. But I confess…I am not sure exactly what the takeaway from this movie is supposed to be. (B+)

Tycho’s 2019 Burning Man Sunrise Set. Always a treat when the latest installment of this series pops online. (A-)

Spider-Man: Far From Home. It was fine but I kept waiting for an extra gear that never came. (B)

Existing Conditions. The drinks here are very precise and well-balanced. Hit ‘em up if you miss Booker & Dax. (B+)

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Excellent and rhymes with the present in a number of ways. I previously shared a bunch of my highlights from the book. (A)

Keep Going by Austin Kleon. A timely little book. (A-)

Stranger Things (season 3). The best part of this show is the 80s nostalgia and they overdid it this season. (B)

Weather. Tycho switched it up with this album by adding vocals. I hated them at first but they’ve grown on me. (B+)

Apollo 11. The first time around I watched this in a terrible theater with bad audio and didn’t care for it. The second time, at home, was so much better. The footage is stunning. (A)

Apollo 11 soundtrack. Love the first track on this. (A-)

Ex Machina. Still gloriously weird. (A-)

Planet Money: So, Should We Recycle? I don’t 100% agree with their conclusions, but it was interesting to think that recycling might not be the most efficient use of our resources. Pair with an earlier episode on how recycling got started in the US. (B)

Chef’s Table (Virgilio Martinez). Central sounds absolutely bonkers. I hope to make it there someday. (B+)

Silicon Cowboys. Compaq took on IBM in the personal computer space and won. The first season of Halt and Catch Fire was inspired in part by their story. (A-)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Needed more plot. (B)

To Kill a Mockingbird. I listened to this on audiobook and am convinced that Sissy Spacek’s narration made it like 20% more compelling. (A)

Metropolis II. I could have watched this for hours. (A)

redwoods

Redwood trees. (A+++)

The Dahlia Garden in Golden Gate Park. One of my favorite places on Earth. (A+)

Mindhunter (season 2). I love this show. (A)

The Clearing. Not the strongest true crime podcast but still worth a listen. (B)

5G. On my phone (iPhone XS, AT&T), anything less than 4 bars of “5GE” basically equals no service. And there’s no way to revert to LTE. (D+)

Atlanta Monster. Started this after watching Mindhunter s02. Too much filler and poor editing in parts. When they started talking to a conspiracy theorist who has been brainwashed by the convicted killer (or something), I had to stop listening. A pity…this story could use a good podcast. (C)

Booksmart. Second viewing and this may be my favorite movie of the year. So fun. (A)

I’ve also been watching Succession and rewatching all five seasons of The Wire (to test a hypothesis that with the hindsight of the past decade, the fifth season is not as outlandish as everyone thought it was at the time). I’ve slowed way down on listening to Guns, Germs, and Steel on audiobook and reading SPQR — both are interesting but not holding my attention so I may end up abandoning them. I watched the first episode of the second season of Big Little Lies when it was first released but might not finish the rest of it; the reviews of this season have not been great.

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

The Four Notes of Death

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2019

When something dark and ominous happens onscreen, there’s a good chance that the action is accompanied by a four-note snippet from the dies irae, a 13th-century Gregorian chant used at funerals. It shows up in The Lion King, The Good Place, Lord of the Rings, and It’s a Wonderful Life. This Vox video explores how this “shorthand for something grim” went from chant to Hollywood.

Think back to some of the most dramatic scenes in film history — from The Lion King, The Shining, It’s a Wonderful Life. Besides being sad or scary, they have something else in common: the dies irae. “Dies irae” translates from Latin to “Day of Wrath” — it’s a 13th-century Gregorian chant describing the day Catholics believe God will judge the living and the dead and send them to heaven or hell. And it was sung during one specific mass: funerals.

Alex Ludwig from the Berklee School of Music made a supercut of over 30 films that use dies irae.

Nirvana’s Underwater Baby

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2019

Kirk Weddle took the iconic photograph of the underwater baby for the cover of Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind. On his website, he describes the shoot and the process that resulted in the final photo. Before the baby went into the water, Weddle used a doll to get the lighting and focus right.

Nevermind Doll

Once I felt I had the framing, light, and exposure dialed in; the parents slipped the child into the water. I took seven frames on the first pass and four frames on the second. As expected, the baby started to cry, this had been the babies first time underwater, and we wrapped the shoot. The dollar bill and the fishhook were stripped in in post.

The baby’s name was Spencer Elden, who has recreated the underwater scene more than once as an adult. He’s even got a tattoo that says “Nevermind” on his chest.

Nevermind Adult

(via life is so beautiful)

How Much Better Does an Expensive Piano Sound Than a Cheap One?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2019

YouTuber Lord Vinheteiro recently played the same pair of tunes on six different pianos, ranging from a $499 used upright to a $112,000 Steinway to a $2.5 million Steinway grand piano that’s tacky af. Which one sounds the best?

I’m not sure that you get the full effect and nuance of the super luxe pianos after the audio has passed through YouTube’s audio compression and whatever phone or computer speaker or headphones you’ve got going, but the more expensive pianos sound better than the lower-end ones for sure. I would have appreciated a medley at the end that repeatedly cycled through all six of the recordings to better hear the differences.