Spotify, Soundwaves and the Solitary

© Unknown Mortal Orchestra, ‘II’, 2013

By Alex Lamont

It’s not been a great year for the majority of us, and if by chance fortune has smiled upon you, keep it to yourself until June and tell us all about it over a pint. For me, the saving grace, or survival tool, has been music. At the best of times music remains a constant in our day to day meanderings, whether it’s the soundtrack for the punctual bus commute or blasting through speakers into the late night. But from March 2020 to March 2021 (the time of writing), it has progressed to an even greater role than it previously held, inhabiting the shape of a study-buddy, a distraction, and at times, a friend.

Consequently, unlike my previous late teen years, in which the chatter of Snapchat and jealousy inducing Instagram occupied a worrying amount of my life, Spotify has been the app of my twentieth year. Before critiquing the limits to the streaming giant’s promotion of new music, I would like to make clear my appreciation that we had it on hand to guide us through the last twelve months. Life would have been a little bit darker without the convenience of music streaming, as much as we sometimes look down our noses at it while cradling our vinyl records in our arms. Music doesn’t always have to be an event, I feel it’s a luxury we should allow ourselves to indulge in as frequently as possible, and streaming is the easiest way for us to do it.

With that being said, hunting for new music is a discovery unlike most other discoveries, in that the hunt for new music never ends. Very little beats the feeling of hearing a new song for the first time or rediscovering a tune that feels so intimately wrapped in the memories of a certain time in your life. I experienced this a few years ago when I stumbled across Why Can’t This Be Love by Van Halen, a song my Dad had ripped and put on a CD for my Walkman when I was four, and all of those car journeys up and down to Northumberland came flooding back to me. It’s a magical feeling when it happens.

The Spotify algorithm in these trying times was, for many including myself, the primary key to a whole bank of undiscovered discographies and playlists- for a time. Spotify boasts 70 million tracks in its rich database, and yet, as every album I hear fades out the once-infectious now-infected groovy chords of So Good at Being In Trouble buzz into my earphones like an angry wasp. At first I welcomed it in as a kind neighbour, liking it and adding it to all of my summer playlists. But as the winter months arrived I realised that my kind neighbour was a bloodsucking vampire invited into my home, feeding off the algorithm and the opportunities its fellow sixty-nine million fellow tracks deserved.

The unusual thing here, is that Spotify used to have an option to prevent this – a like or dislike function while listening to a radio from a selected song – which disappeared some time ago. In place, the Spotify algorithm rotates between a handful of songs the listener already listens to on a regular basis, Unknown Mortal Orchestra in my case and after some thorough research, Harness Your Hopes by Pavement for my housemates. In a time where bars and gigs are closed, meetings with friends are severely limited, and the churning output of steady music is slower than the usual, it is a shame that Spotify were unable to seize the chance to introduce a new host of upcoming musicians to the world. This, to an extent, was reflected in the inclusion of well-established artists KAYTRANADA and Phoebe Bridgers in the Best New Artist category at the recent 2021 GRAMMY’s with both artists taking a giant streaming leap with Kyoto (31,067,512) and 10% (41,202,083) respectively with major assistance from the Spotify algorithm.

What can we do to counter this? This is by absolutely no means a ‘boycott Spotify’ article, but I can only suggest and encourage you to sign up to newsletters from as many online vinyl retailers (such as Rough Trade and The Turntable Lab), as well as independent, unincentivized music websites (such as us!) to find your new musical fix. 

In any case, that is all for now. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, hit the outro…

HALF-HOUR HUMDINGERS: 10 Albums To Soundtrack Your 30 Minute Makeover

© Nick Drake, 1973, who might make a lovely little appearance on this list…

By Alex Lamont

You’ve eaten your bowl of spaghetti, you’ve scrubbed the mundane daily dust from your hard-worked hands, and your half hour power nap is slept away. The big night looms large up ahead. All that’s missing? The tunes. The tried and trusted “BANGERS” playlist just won’t cut it today, you’re in the mood for real music, man, word food for your incoming encounters. 

Here’s ten albums under 30 minutes for when time is of the essence and this niche situation is your blissful reality.

10. Come On Pilgrim by Pixies

© Pixies

The princes and princesses of the 80s and 90s garagey-punk scene delivered a little package of magic in their 1987 debut Come On Pilgrim which will keep you feeling cool all day. There are some real highlights of the Pixies catalogue stored in this 20-minute thrill, including the infectiously optimistic sounding Holiday Song (ignoring the lyrics just for tonight), the Lou Reed lover’s I’ve Been Tired, and banging opener Caribou. You might even have time to throw another album on after too! It must be your lucky day…

9. Camera by Chromatics

© Italians Do It Better

Italians Do It Better’s poster child Chromatics are second to none in providing that ethereal feeling of perfectly balanced headiness and hope. This collection of tracks along with their alternate mixes and versions will help you float your way through the world with a new sense of purpose, sheening your moonlit surroundings in an enticing glow of optimism. Title-track Camera is a fitting introduction to a 24-minute soundtrack of dreaming, while Magazine moulds itself into an electronic 80’s anthem. And when the originals are over you can bookend your night with the instrumentals.

8. Pottymouth by Bratmobile

© Bratmobile

The punk landscape is full to its grimy brim with short flashes of electric brilliance, and this entry arrives and departs just in time to rile you up and send you on your rebellious way. Bratmobile’s Pottymouth is a criminally overlooked bright spot in the confusing 90’s soundscapes, going hard where it needs to and kicking arse while doing it. Cherry Bomb more than matches The Runaways’ original classic, while Panik and Richard growl and groan attitude. 

7. I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron

© Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron has one of those once-in-a-lifetime voices that sulks and soothes with its gruff comfort. Combining soul and spoken word, Scott-Heron delivered a beautiful collection of poetry in his first release after sixteen years, all in a concise 15-song 28-minute album, remixed some years later by Makaya McCraven in a fitting posthumous release.  Rich with heart and experience, I’m New Here is an invaluable staple in the Gil Scott-Heron discography.

6. Bestial Burden by Pharmakon

© Pharmakon

Bestial Burden lingers patiently amongst the shadows, its sleek, oily fingers of intoxication pulling back your hair as the end-of-night retching grips tightly to your shoulders, shaking through to your very soul.

In other words, this industrial nightmare may better soundtrack your late-night lavatory visits than your pre-drinks, but worry not! Nightmares don’t last forever…! Only 28 minutes… (Minus the bonus track)…

5. Aretha Now by Aretha Franklin

©Aretha Franklin

Not every night needs bear such a pessimistic outcome though surely? Legendary Aretha Franklin provides the soul food for when you’re feeling lucky, looking sexy and planning a sleepless night. Franklins version of  I Say a Little Prayer is a strong contender for the best song of all time and joins a whole host of worthy company. And hey, if the night doesn’t reach the dizzy, expected heights; just play it alone and fall in love with yourself. Just make sure you took Pharmakon off the queue…

4. RINA by Rina Sawayama 

©Rina Sawayama

Its follow-up predecessor might have received the wider acclaim, but Sawayama’s debut certainly holds its own as a party warm up. RINA is a spotless 24-minutes of primo pop, and it just sounds like an album which could reappear again twenty years from now as a classic. Ordinary Superstar is a doorway into a whole world of perfectly produced joy, and by the time Cyber Stockholm Syndrome hits, you’ll be bursting at the seams in anticipation for the wonders of the night.

3. My Dear Melancholy, by The Weeknd

©The Weeknd

Some might say that it would be wrong to party to an album constructed in a time so evidently difficult for its creator. To those people, I challenge you to listen to I Was Never there‘s incredible beat switch and insist that those aren’t tears of appreciation, rather than sadness. My Dear Melancholy, is undeniably heart-breaking, but it’s so damn good that it can play out just as effectively as an orgasmic climax of sound. I mean Privilege? Whew.

2. Sweet Princess by Dry Cleaning 

©Dry Cleaning

Yeah yeah, I see the ‘EP’ on the album cover, but you’ve read this far, and I haven’t steered you wrong yet have I? I know Pharmakon was cutting it a bit fine, but I promise Sweet Princess is worth it. 21 minutes of spoken word that feels like its coming from your own mouth accompanying jagged post-punk riffs sounds like a good deal to me. A love letter to Meghan Markle and a critique of the party you’re about to attend sounds pretty convincing to me…

1. Pink Moon by Nick Drake

©Nick Drake

I don’t think too much can be said about Pink Moon that hasn’t already been summarised by our universal accepting of its perfection. Whether you’re in your introspective, pre-party mood, or arriving home drunk and defeated, Nick Drake is on hand to wrap his arms around you in a comforting, audible hug. Which Will is in my eyes Drake’s best work, and it would be quite impossible to leave Pink Moon off this list.