Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Bay Area Songs Of 2012


1. Carletta Sue Kay - “Sloppy Kisses.”  There are tons of songs like “Sloppy Kisses”-- silly, dark-humored verses contrasted with a romantic, aww-inspiring chorus--but not many are as powerful as Carletta Sue Kay’s alternately funny, sweet, and devastating ballad.  Each thing Kay, a.k.a. former Amoeba Records employee Randy Walker, claims not to like in this song provides an insight into the (wo)man’s life, from “phone booths in Europe” (I’m sure there’s a good story behind that line) to his very own father.  Yet for all the pain in this song, Walker seems to be happy and appreciative of his life, especially when his lover’s sloppy kisses are part of it.

2. Squidopus - “Sushi Explosion.”  Berkeley duo Squidopus’s remarkable debut single feels at first less like an explosion than a fire spreading.  The most unique and interesting quality of this song is the way it unfurls, with each mini-section slowly unraveling and revealing something new while keeping to the same sonic template.  Slamming drums and chatty guitars give way to psychedelic atmospherics and fractured funk, allowing the song to drag you into its depths like a miniature Pink Floyd album.  And at the end, it explodes.

3. Ty Segall - “You’re The Doctor.”  Twins, the most nondescript yet arguably the most solid of the three albums Segall released this year, pushed neither Segall’s style nor rock in general forward; it was content to encapsulate both of them, and the same could be said for its second track, “You’re The Doctor.”  With its Chuck Berry guitars, indelible glam-rock chorus, and metallic guitar-thrashing, it sounds classic enough to be a homage to something.  But it’s not--this is no more or no less than a half-century of history mashed up into 121 seconds of criminally catchy garage-pop goodness.

4. The Inq - “Monster.” “Monster” is a thrilling mix of the physical and the intangible, a song that swirls and drifts while maintaining momentum throughout.  The drums are plushy and understated while still driving the song forward, and the guitars blur together like clouds of smoke in a hotboxed room.  Above it all, frontman Dillon Lee yelps insistently through muffled distortion, at once a James Brown-style bandleader and an ingredient in the overall sonic brew.

5. False Priest - “Novato.”  At first, nothing in “Novato” moves with any ease.  Over a riff that lurches forward as awkwardly as a newly hatched chick, Greenwald repeats a few cyclical mantras to distract himself from his old life and focus on his current situation.  Yet as the song develops, everything seems to settle, and by the end, that same riff has become an exhortation.  Even if the present isn’t much better than the past, it’s always best to move on.

6. Thee Oh Sees - “Lupine Dominus.”  Vocals, guitar, bass, drums, keys--how much further could you go with these instruments?  “Lupine Dominus” is John Dwyer’s case for “a lot.”  All the elements on this song are familiar, but they work together in ways I haven’t heard on any rock song--the punctuating organ stabs, the sander-to-the-face guitars, and Dwyer’s ominous voice are brought together in a cloudy room where they dart around each other, occasionally collide, and finally fight to the death.

7. Local Hero - “Black & White.”  Local Hero’s name is as half-modest as their music; though there’s a sense of the fantastic in the images lyricist Alex MacKay creates, it’s always anchored by the human flaws that prevent such fantasies from actually being realized.  On “Black & White,” our protagonist seems to be having a great night and a great life, but there’s a gap in it and he’s doing his best to piece it together.  When you live in a world as vibrant as the one MacKay and company create, it’s not hard to understand why.

8. Main Attrakionz - “Green On Sight.”  The “cloud rap” appelation with which East Bay duo Main Attrakionz are frequently saddled might suggest something formless and drifting.  Yet “Green On Sight,” the first song on their Bossalinis & Fooliyones album, proves that these guys can groove if they want; its minimal, lurching beat harnesses and guides the duo’s druggy lyrics and spacey atmospherics. 

9. Frak - “The Jewish Lupe Fiasco.”  Alex Fraknoi apparently got a chance to talk to Lupe Fiasco at some point; I don’t know how cosmic an event that is in the life of the MC known as Frak, but if I had just talked to a famous rapper I’d be pretty damn happy.  “The Jewish Lupe Fiasco” sounds like the high from having your day made; you can practically see the grin on Frak’s face as his rhymes swing nimbly above an insane beat from the St. Valentinez’ Esquire.

10. Ty Segall & White Fence - “I Am Not A Game.”  “I Am Not A Game” is the sort of almost novelty-like tribute to ‘60s garage-psych that every Bay Area band seemed to have been doing between 2010 and early 2012. But don’t let that tacky little organ fool you: “I Am Not A Game” is a reminder of just why the world became so interested in San Francisco garage-rock in the first place. The duo uses lo-fi production squarely to their advantage, and their nostalgic touches hardly sound ironic--just check out that epic, Woodstock-worthy guitar solo at the end.

11. Sarchasm - “Song 101.”  Most songwriters write about what inspires them, but “Song 101” is the best song I’ve heard about the mere lack of inspiration.  The easiest thing for one with writer’s block to do is write about writer’s block, but leave it to Sarchasm to beget a great pop song--and a standout from an already good album--from what is ordinarily a masturbatory and fruitless cycle.  

12. The Strangers - “Traveling Song.”  The Strangers float somewhere in limbo between San Francisco’s teen rock scene and its older garage-rock boom; they possess solid enough chops and good enough songs to distinguish themselves from either.  “Traveling Song” is among these tunes, a chugging blues-rocker that explodes into a fuck-all guitar stampede; though the groove alone is enough to get a listener hooked, the clincher is singer Alex Pollak’s magnificent blues growl.

13. The Fresh & Onlys - “Fire Alarm.”  “Fire Alarm” stands out like an iceberg in the Golden Gate among the romantic Chris Isaak-isms of the Fresh & Onlys’ Long Slow Dance album; with its robo-cool New Wave synths and distant vocals, it’s no less chilly.  Though the “whoa-ohs” might evoke Young the Giant’s “Cough Syrup,” “Fire Alarm” relies as much on atmospherics as hooks; in fact, it’s the balance between the two that makes this song so effective.

14. Girl Named T - “I Fell In Love With The World Today.”  The best song on Girl Named T’s Wait By The Rabbit Hole sounds like a ‘70s piano rocker filtered through a contemporary Top 40 song, keeping only the best of both--the celebratory, twirling-in-the-street vibe of the former and the radio-friendly sheen of the latter.  Yet unusually for a pop tune this tight, there’s a bliss-out factor--it’s as easy to lean your head back and ride the good vibes as it is to dance to this song.

15. Mark Nelsen - “Saluka & I.”  When he’s not melting brains with Electric Shepherd, Mark Nelsen writes subtly psychedelic songs that sound like those reflections on life that come between massive bong rips.  “Saluka & I” is the best of the tracks on his excellent debut Childish Songs, progressing from strummy ballad to space-rock blowout without sacrificing the sentimentality of its theme.

16. Reid Saw A Ghost - “Spacy Stacey.”  Though Reid Saw A Ghost’s excellent debut EP Mad Scary succeeded largely through its short yet manic and idea-filled songs, centerpiece “Spacy Stacey” stands as their most successful experiment.  For the first two minutes, it’s a pretty straightforward, mid-tempo pop-punk song; it then gives way to something softer, jazzier, and at times straight-up beautiful, evoking the zoned-out television bliss that is a favorite lyrical subject of the band.  

17. Handshake - “Narcissus.”  “Narcissus” is essentially Handshake’s shot at writing a hard rock song, possessing none of the intimate, in-the-room-with-the-band feel of Handshake’s early singles.  This is a song built for playing live, designed for clubs or even arenas.  If the music on the band’s debut Sleeping, Snarling felt like a refinement of the sound on earlier Handshake singles, “Narcissus” feels like a leap forward.

18. Comodo Complex - “Melting In The Astral Plane.”  There are two immediately striking differences between “Melting In The Astral Plane” and Comodo Complex’s previous work.  The first is Lucas Fendert’s vocals; the second is how much heavier the guitars are than on anything they’ve recorded before.  These factors suggest that the band may be delving deeper into the “heavy” strain of psychedelia, but the band still sounds most comfortable when they let their music float into space, as during the song’s epic coda. 

19. Lil B - “BasedGod Fucked My Bitches.”  Lil B is a pop-culture institution by this point, and if “BasedGod Fucked My Bitches” is any indication, he knows it.  This song is his mission statement, jacking Daft Punk’s “One More Time” and warping it to conform with the BasedGod’s mad and unique vision of the world.  It’s also one of the most fun songs he’s recorded in ages; this is the sound of Lil B laughing with his audience rather than merely letting his fans laugh at him.  

20. Minute 2 Midnight - “Tell Me.”  “It’s catchy” is the most common defense of pop music; it’s not a bad one either, especially when songs like “Tell Me” exist.  Though there are countless bands both in and outside the Bay Area with similar ambitions and influences as San Ramon pop-punkers Minute 2 Midnight, not many of them can claim to have engineered an earworm as ravenous as this song’s chorus.

Monday, December 17, 2012

New Ty Segall, Cartoon Bar Fight, Eager Eyes

TY SEGALL
Twins
* * * * 1/2
BEST IN THE WEST

Twins, Ty Segall’s third record of the year (and the first one credited solely to Ty Segall) will sound instantly familiar to anyone who’s followed the San Francisco garage-punk savant for even a few albums.  There are elements of Melted’s spastic monkeying, Goodbye Bread’s deliberation, and Slaughterhouse’s bad-trip cacophony; it would not be an overstatement to say that there’s not one song here that would be out of place on at least one of his other records.  But what distinguishes Twins from any other record Segall’s done is its consistency.  Twins has the fewest skippable tracks of any Segall record, as well as the catchiest hooks (I’ve had “You’re The Doctor” stuck in my head for about thirty-six hours as of this writing) and the all-around best songs.  It’s unlikely that this album will be perceived as his mission statement--he’s probably got at least six or seven good albums left in him, and he still sounds like he’s developing and refining his sound.  But if you’re trying to find an entry point into the man’s ever-expanding catalogue--or just trying to get a clear picture of what he’s all about--Twins is probably your best bet.  

CARTOON BAR FIGHT
Reincarnate
* * * 1/2

On their debut full-length Reincarnate, San Jose five-piece Cartoon Bar Fight take familiar folk-pop sounds and glaze them with a thick coating of goth atmosphere; think Ingrid Michaelson as possessed by the spirit of Disintegration-era Robert Smith.  The best moments on Reincarnate come when the omnipresent gloom almost threatens to envelop the music but is just barely kept at bay; this is exemplified by “Fox And The Grapes,” where a gorgeous “if I were you” refrain is smeared black and left in the late-afternoon sun to dry.  Occasionally, the band wanders a bit too far into the clouds, particularly on “Hymn” and “The Valley”--both fine songs but underwhelming given that the seven preceding songs create largely the same mood.  Yet on the surreal title track, the band finds its way back into the light and ends the album on a high (and highly promising) note.  

EAGER EYES
Waterfront
* * *

It’s hard to imagine Eager Eyes’ sound filling up a stadium, but it’s just as difficult to imagine them stranded on the local circuit forever.  On both their debut EP and their newest offering, the three-song sampler Waterfront, they’ve eschewed the arena-ready anthemization that made their buddies Finish Ticket a fixture of the Bay Area rock scene; instead, they specialize in humble and unpretentious indie pop.  The tunes on Waterfront are largely cut from the same cloth as those on their first EP, but they’re more subdued and atmospheric; even the fast-based “Natalie” sounds more like a brisk walk than a determined leap forward.  While the band’s understated sound is a major part of their appeal, they’re almost a bit too modest on Waterfront--there’s nothing on here with the same starry-eyed determination that made earlier tracks like “First Impressions” and “Alarms” so likeable.  Yet it’s impossible to make any assessments about their progress or future direction on Waterfront--they’re just three songs waiting to be played and enjoyed.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Catching Up, Pt. 1: The Teen Psych-Rock Contingent

COMODO COMPLEX
“Melting In The Astral Plane”
* * * 1/2
There are two immediately striking differences between Comodo Complex’s latest single “Melting In The Astral Plane” and the material on their self-titled EP from last year.  The first is Lucas Fendert’s vocals--in the past, most vocal duties were handled by guitarist Spencer Owings, whose smooth tones could not be more different from Fendert’s raunchy, ecstatic wail.  The second is how much heavier the guitars are than on anything they’ve recorded before.  These factors indicate that the band may be delving deeper into the “heavy” strain of psychedelia and turning away from the more atmospheric sound of their previous work.  This is further evidenced by the lyrics, whose references to “astral heartbeats” and “mercury bleeding” are closer to what one might expect from a stoner-metal band like Sleep or Electric Wizard than from a more straight-up psych-rock band.  Yet the band still sounds most comfortable when they loosen their grip on their music and let it float into space, as they do during the song’s epic instrumental coda. 

THE INQ
“Monster”
* * * *

At first glance, “Monster” isn’t that different a song from the Inq’s previous single “Z?”--it’s a barrelling jam with an insistent rhythm and a mix of spidery lead guitars and fuzzier ones in the background.  Yet it’s the subtle differences that make “Monster” such a monumental improvement on its predecessor.  While the studio polish on “Z?” considerably blunted its potential sonic impact, the layers of distortion on the self-produced “Monster” behoove the song greatly.  The drums are plushy and understated while still driving the song forward, and the guitars blur together like clouds of smoke in a hotboxed room.  Above it all, frontman Dillon Lee yelps insistently through muffled distortion, functioning as both a James Brown-style bandleader and a part of the overall sonic concoction.  The overall result is a thrilling mix of the physical and the intangible, a song that swirls and drifts while maintaining momentum throughout.

TAILED GHOST
“HIDE // EATEN”
* * *

On his latest single as Tailed Ghost, Inq frontman Dillon Lee creates the framework of a pop song, with an omnipresent synth melody and vaguely girl-groupish drums, and inhabits the empty spaces rather than rising above the mix as a frontman.  Though the melody becomes somewhat overpowering as Lee’s vocal presence becomes more pronounced, it soon fades out and yields to an unsettling, Xiu Xiu-like congregation of synth arpeggios.  It’s almost as if the song is malfunctioning, its pop facade disintegrating and revealing something unfamiliar and possibly malevolent.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

New Local Hero, Thee Oh Sees

LOCAL HERO
From Timid To Timbuktu
* * * * 1/2
BEST IN THE WEST

Local Hero’s debut release, last year’s excellent The Aldgate EP, succeeded by pushing reality to the periphery but never eliminating it entirely in favor of the globe-trotting reveries at the music’s front and center.  From Timid To Timbuktu, the Berkeley quartet's full-length, reverses this paradigm, keeping its feet on the ground even as the distinctions between the mundane and the fantastical blur together.  Alex MacKay’s field of vision on Timbuktu is mainly limited to what’s going on in front of him (and behind his back), and the locales are far more familiar than the Barcelonas and Champs-Elysees of The Aldgate--a theater, a cold rooftop, a few disparate U.S. states, Piedmont, the metropolitan sprawl.  But MacKay’s songwriting is more expansive than ever and is what ultimately makes Timbuktu stand out as the better of the band’s two releases so far.  Whether he’s penning Dan Bejar-worthy couplets (“Black & White,” “Lady Wisconsin”) or ruminating on the human condition (“Piedmont Girls,” “Once More With Feeling,” MacKay imbues everyday life with almost theatrical whimsy, finding depth in the mundanity of his surroundings by filtering it through an artist’s eye.  If The Aldgate felt like a daydream, Timbuktu feels like the inspired moments of consciousness that feed and nurture our fantasies.

THEE OH SEES
Putrifiers II
* * *

It’s been nearly a year since Thee Oh Sees released Carrion Crawler/The Dream, a hiatus of Vashti Bunyan proportions by the standards of a band who once released so many records that finding an entry point was near impossible.  Since then, the band’s reputation has evolved from yet another stereotypically prolific San Francisco garage-rock band to one of the most formidable rock n’ roll bands in America, both live and in the studio.  It’s a shame that Putrifiers II, the follow-up to Carrion Crawler, only intermittently justifies that reputation.  The logic behind this album is understandable--it’s Thee Oh Sees’ most accessible album to date, bordering on straight poppy on songs like “Flood’s New Light” and “Goodbye Baby,” and will likely be the most-recommended Thee Oh Sees album if only for its relative ease on the ears.  But these songs sound uncharacteristically restrained, with bandleader John Dwyer sounding bored through most of it and the band plodding away joylessly.  Gone is the jam-session spontaneity that made Carrion Crawler such a blast, but the band counter-intuitively sounds less tight, almost as if they’re playing the music out of obligation rather than passion.  However, there are enough good songs to mostly redeem this album, including the plodding title track and the warped string ballad “Wicked Park.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

New Mark Nelsen, Solwave

MARK NELSEN
Childish Songs
* * * *
BEST IN THE WEST

Mark Nelsen is a singer and a songwriter, but he’s hardly a singer-songwriter.  The Electric Shepherd frontman is by no means a bad lyricist, but on his solo debut Childish Songs, he’s still writing rock-band songs, full of crypticisms you don’t have to even remotely understand to dig the music.  His strong suit is as an arranger, and the arrangements on Childish Songs are consistently inspired and vital.  On songs like “Saluka & I” and “Oh! Romance,” Nelsen treates pop history as a hip-hop producer would, adding a dash of Beck here and a dash of Wayne Coyne there but keeping on the better side of the thin line between influence and pastiche.  The result is an album that’s unpretentious without being middle-of-the-road, one that borrows from the past but never once sounds nostalgic or retro.

SOLWAVE
Out Of The Mayhem EP
* * *

Solwave pride themselves on their inability to be categorized, and while this claim has plenty of truth, it’s primarily due to the band’s willingness to experiment with different sounds and genres rather than their making music that’s actually uncategorizable.  On their second EP, Out Of The Mayhem, the San Francisco quartet maps out a defined space within the pop music spectrum and proceeds to explore every nook and cranny of it.  “Fire It Up” and “Voodoo At High Noon” are sweaty arena rock, with titanic drums and omnipresent Hot Fuss synth buzz; “Ride” is a dance-rock rave-up; “Shuffler” is heart-on-sleeve power pop.  The band stumbles on the former two songs, particularly “Voodoo At High Noon,” which sounds like the ‘70s and the ‘00s put in a blender with the lid off.  But on the latter two tracks, they sound completely in their comfort zone, suggesting that just like their heroes the Killers, they may just be a goofy pop band at heart.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Outside Lands, Day 3


REGINA SPEKTOR
* * * 1/2

I started Sunday a bit late.  There literally wasn’t a single act I knew of or wanted to see until Jack White, so when I arrived I ultimately decided to stay by the main stage and watch Regina Spektor’s set.  Though I can’t profess to be a fan of Spektor’s music, it was certainly interesting to witness her music in a live festival setting.  The setup was minimal--a cellist, a drummer, a synth player, and Spektor on voice and keys.  Yet every note sounded so crystal-clear, every word so effortlessly comprehensible, that it was hard to imagine this was taking place at a festival with over a thousand people in attendance.  On the subject of the crowd, the audience at Spektor’s set was among the most diverse of any I witnessed--within a few feet of me, there were joint-passing hippies, an old woman who must have been eighty, a face-painted raver girl on her boyfriend’s shoulders, and a number of people waving inflatable sharks in the air.

JACK WHITE
* *

Maybe I just didn’t give Jack White a chance, or maybe everyone had already been to his surprise set in the forest earlier, but nothing about the main-stage set by the man hailed by many as the savior of rock n’ roll stood out to me.  The sound was sharp and tinny, as if the sound people were trying to replicate a garagey Third Man production, and the session musicians played as if they were boogieing for the first time in their lives.  Even “Seven Nation Army,” which can be a behemoth live if the version on the White Stripes’ Under Great White Northern Lights is any indication, sounded flimsy and insubstantial.  It was a set that could have rocked tremendously, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t.

STEVIE WONDER
* * * * *

Of all the acts I saw, Stevie Wonder was the only one (aside from Sigur Ros) who thoroughly met my expectations.  I came to Stevie’s set expecting a lively, energetic set featuring some of the greatest pop songs ever written, as played by one of the most technically proficient musicians ever to perform popular music.  As Wonder is one of maybe four or five currently active artists who might play a show fitting the description, it’s safe to say I got exactly what I came for.  All the classics were there, from “Higher Ground” to the earth-moving “Superstition” to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” plus some deep cuts I’d never even heard and a truly moving tribute to Michael Jackson by way of “The Way You Make Me Feel.”  Wonder’s voice, keyboards, and band were every bit as funky (and frequently more so) as on record.  For two glorious hours, Wonder single-handedly made up for the rest of this comparatively sleepy day and every other less-than-satisying experience I had at the festival, from Jack White to a fast-fading romance to some asshole who told me “you’re not as high as you think you are” towards what was luckily only the beginning of Tame Impala's set.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Outside Lands, Day 2



TAME IMPALA
* * * * 1/2

Prior to the festival I’d only just started getting into Tame Impala’s music, thanks to an earlier recommendation from Handshake’s Sam Forester.  The Australian psych-rock outfit’s excellent 2010 album Innerspeaker goes best with a bowl of weed and a snack, and at a festival where the quantity and quality of those two things may be unsurpassed, Tame Impala’s music fit perfectly.  But after a few minutes, I forgot all about any peripheral distractions, from the bowl of Indonesian noodles in my hand to the tens of thousands of people making noise around me.  Though seeing a band at a festival is generally not an immersive experience as a really good club show can be, no act at Outside Lands (with the exception of Sigur Ros later that night) made me inhabit the music as much as Tame Impala did.  


FATHER JOHN MISTY
* * * 1/2
As with Tame Impala, I saw Father John Misty after a recommendation from a member of Handshake--in this case, Evan Greenwald, who has recommended this particular act’s new album Fear Fun in my search for decent music this year.  The solo project of former Fleet Foxes member J. Tillman, Father John Misty was more uptempo and rock-oriented than the harmony-led folk of Tillman’s former band.  Even more lively than their grooves was Tillman’s stage presence, which had a certain awkward charisma that suggested he was new to being a frontman and thoroughly enjoying it.

BIG BOI
* * * *

Big Boi’s set at the Twin Peaks stage at Hellman Hollow felt every bit like a main-stage set, with the Atlanta MC’s larger-than-life personality replacing the Jumbotrons.  Though not dressed any more remarkably than the various hypemen onstage, Big Boi completely dominated his set, tongue-twisting his way through OutKast classics and solo cuts alike with power and passion.  The best moment by far was “Ms. Jackson”--though Big Boi seemed to go for the nostalgia angle by screening the song’s video in the background, his rhymes were so tight and locked into the groove it was difficult to focus on anything else.  Without a doubt the best live hip-hop performance I’ve ever seen.



METALLICA
* * * 1/2

I saw the first half of Metallica’s pyrotechnic-filled set, and though Metallica is an unbelievably tight live band with an obvious flair for performing, their set didn’t thrill me quite as much as it could have, likely for similar reasons as my experience seeing Justice the previous day (see the entry on Day 1).


SIGUR ROS
* * * * 1/2

Sigur Ros was a different story altogether.  The Icelandic band’s set found them using the medium of live performance to augment the scale of their sound, projecting their biggest ideas across a suitably massive space.  Throughout their set, it felt as if a bubble had been cast over the stage and the audience, creating an isolated space where everything was reduced to inconsequentiality except for the music itself.  The band members themselves were barely visible, mere shadows against the giant projections of organic landscapes that dominated the stage.  But nobody came to Sigur Ros’s set just so they could behold Jonsi and company with their very own eyes--the music was, truly, the only thing that mattered.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

IB Math IA: Does Pitchfork Influence An Artist's Popularity?

 This is my Internal Assessment (IA) for IB Math Studies, which I completed in senior year as part of my IB Diploma.  I wrote it on the correlation between Pitchfork reviews and artist popularity.  Though I'm not sure of the final IB grade, my IA received a 7 (A+) from my teacher.  IB students, feel free to use this as a reference.
Does Pitchfork Influence An Artist’s Popularity?

Statement of Task

Pitchfork.com is an American music website featuring primarily album reviews, covering chiefly the musical genres of rock, hip-hop, electronic, and experimental music.  Pitchfork’s reviewers rate albums on a scale of 10, with 10.0 being the highest possible rating and 0.0 being the lowest.  As Pitchfork is one of the most widely read English-language websites focusing on underground and “indie” music, many formerly obscure artists have gained wider audiences as a result of high album ratings from that site, while others have faded from the popular musical consciousness due to lower ratings from the site.  Due to the wide number of possible ratings (100 possible decimal scores can be given), few artists receive the same rating for two albums in a row.  

In my IB Math Studies project, I will attempt to determine whether or not a decrease or increase between two Pitchfork ratings for two consecutive albums in an artist’s oeuvre corresponds to a drop or increase in the artist’s popularity.  I have chosen only albums released at least a year before December 1, 2011, based on the common put-down “that’s so last year,” which indicates the general tenuousness of musical success and that an artist’s popularity may wane simply due to the passing of time.

I will select 20 bands/artists that have released two consecutive albums that were reviewed on Pitchfork--eight bands/artists whose Pitchfork ratings for two consecutive albums decreased, eight bands/artists whose Pitchfork ratings for two consecutive albums increased, and four bands/artists whose Pitchfork ratings stayed the same.  I will not include mixtapes (albums usually given away for free online that generally contain uncopyrighted covers/samples and thus cannot be sold for profit) or EPs (short albums, usually between 10 and 30 minutes long), as they are generally not as popular as albums.  For reasons that will be discussed, I also include only those albums that are available on iTunes.

I selected these albums based on a shuffle through the “Stuff Hipsters Like” playlist I created on iTunes.  (There is a stereotype that the musical taste of the subculture known as “hipsters,” who tend to appreciate the underground music Pitchfork champions, is dictated solely by Pitchfork reviews.)  My methodology required I exclude artists who have released only one album.  However, I manually selected four artists who have received the same Pitchfork rating for two albums--Deerhunter (9.2-9.2), Ghostland Observatory (1.5-1.5), LCD Soundsystem (9.2-9.2), and MGMT (6.8-6.8).

To determine the popularity of an album, I will rely on iTunes “likes,” the number of iTunes reviews, and the number of YouTube views for the album's most-viewed track (divided by 1,000, as the YouTube videos I used generally have view counts that dwarf the numbers of iTunes likes or reviews)--all divided by the number of days the album has been in the public consciousness (more on this below).  This will give me a number I will refer to as the “popularity coefficient.”  I will then compare the differences in the popularity coefficients of the two albums with the differences in the Pitchfork ratings they received.  I will then use the Spearman’s Rank Correlation Coefficient test to determine whether or not there is a correlation between the differences in popularity coefficients and the differences in Pitchfork ratings for albums.

Data Collection:
PROCESSED DATA

Artist
Difference in Pitchfork rating
Album 1 pop. coefficient
Album 2 pop. coefficient
Percent increase
AIR
-2.6
0.155
0.298
92.26%
Antony & the Johnsons
-0.9
0.872
1.532
75.69%
Blonde Redhead
-3.0
3.938
3.050
-32.79%
Califone
-0.6
1.215
0.307
-395.8%
jj
-3.2
0.506
0.461
-9.761%
M.I.A.
-4.5
17.81
13.18
-35.13%
No Age
-0.4
1.646
0.947
-43.47%
Vampire Weekend
-0.2
29.34
19.99
-46.77%
Deerhunter
0.0
1.428
6.396
447.9%
Ghostland Observatory
0.0
0.121
0.781
645.5%
MGMT
0.0
32.13
11.40
-281.8%
LCD Soundsystem
0.0
2.435
4.722
93.92%
Beach House
0.5
1.183
4.198
354.9%
Crystal Castles
0.7
9.962
19.63
97.05%
F*** Buttons
0.4
0.517
0.414
-24.88%
Charlotte Gainsbourg
2.6
0.643
1.516
235.8%
Grizzly Bear
0.3
4.701
12.85
273.3%
Titus Andronicus
0.2
0.165
1.229
744.8%
Wavves
0.3
0.878
2.249
256.2%
Kanye West
2.6
63.00
170.5
270.6%

The table above represents the artists and albums I use in this project, the difference between the Pitchfork ratings they received for two consecutive albums, and their popularity coefficients (calculations below).  The difference in popularity coefficients will be represented as a percent increase or decrease.
I determined the “popularity” coefficients shown on the preceding table using the following formula: 

(#Album reviews on iTunes + #iTunes “likes” + #YouTube views for most popular song from that album / 1000) / number of days since release

I chose to use iTunes because it is one of the world’s most popular methods of purchasing and downloading music, and YouTube because it is one of the most popular sites for listening to music free of charge.  Since albums’ lead singles are often posted to YouTube several weeks or even months before album releases, and since albums will sometimes disappear from iTunes and reappear (or be released after their initial release on CD or vinyl), I will use the variable to represent whichever is longer: the time since posting of the most popular song on YouTube or the time since the album was released on iTunes.  This accounts for albums that may fade momentarily only to be revived in popularity based on the sudden popularity of a single, such as M.I.A.’s Kala, whose most popular single “Paper Planes” became a massive hit after its use in the film Pineapple Express, which occurred several months after the release of the actual album.

I converted the differences between popularity coefficients into percent increases or percent decreases so all numbers could be evaluated equally.  

Data Analysis

To determine whether or not a correlation exists between the difference in Pitchfork ratings for two consecutive albums and the difference in those albums’ popularity coefficients, I calculated the Spearman’s Rank correlation coefficient using the data shown on the table below. 


Column A: artist name.  Column B: percent change in popularity coefficient/100.  Column C: Ranking of change in popularity coefficient from least to greatest.  Column D: change in Pitchfork rating.  Column E: Ranking of change in Pitchfork rating from least to greatest.  Column F: C-E.  Column G: F squared.
The table above shows my process for finding the Spearman’s Rank correlation coefficient for the two sets of data.  On this table, artists are ranked in ascending order by the size of the differences between the popularity coefficients of two consecutive albums with Titus Andronicus’s 744.8% increase (from The Airing Of Grievances to The Monitor) at the top and Califone’s -395.8% decrease (from Roots & Crowns to All My Friends Are Funeral Singers) at the bottom.  

To determine the coefficient, I ranked each difference in Pitchfork rating by size in the same way I ranked the differences in popularity coefficients.  I then found the differences between the rankings of the two, squared them, and added together the squares.  I then plugged the sum of the squares into the equation below to find the coefficient, as shown below:

or R = 1 - 6(719)/7980

The coefficient I obtained was 0.459.  This is a fairly weak correlation, though not so weak as to be negligible.  This suggests that while the Pitchfork ratings an artist receives may have an effect on their popularity, it is by no means sole cause.

From the table above, it can be observed that the artists whose popularity coefficients decreased from one album to the next tend to have had their Pitchfork ratings decrease as well, and vice-versa.  Of the eight artists whose popularity coefficients decreased, six suffered a decrease in their Pitchfork ratings, while one had the same Pitchfork rating for two consecutive albums and the other saw an increase in Pitchfork rating.  Of the twelve artists observed whose popularity coefficients increased, seven of them also saw an increase in their Pitchfork ratings, three of them did not see any change in their Pitchfork ratings, and two saw a decrease.  This gives credence to the existence of a correlation.

There is, however, an unusual anomaly with albums that saw no change in Pitchfork rating from one album to the next.  I studied four such artists: Deerhunter, Ghostland Observatory, LCD Soundsystem, and MGMT.  The former three artists experienced an increase in their popularity coefficients from one album to the next, while the latter experienced a decrease.  Of these artists, LCD Soundsystem experienced the smallest change in popularity: a relatively small increase of 93.92% from Sound of Silver to This Is Happening.  However, Deerhunter saw an increase of 447.9%, the third-highest increase observed among these albums, and Ghostland Observatory saw an increase of 645.5%, the second-highest increase observed.  

Though I started this project suspecting there might be some correlation, I did not expect a strong correlation.  Though Pitchfork has a reputation as one of the biggest tastemakers in American music media, it is by no means the only means by which the American population comes to know artists and make purchasing decisions.  (If that were true, perfect-10 recipients like Neutral Milk Hotel and ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead would be more popular than BeyoncĂ©, whose multi-platinum album I Am Sasha Fierce received a lukewarm 5.7.)

Conclusion & Evaluation

A number of factors may have affected the validity of my results.  It was extremely difficult for me to find a formula that would serve as an effective numerical proxy for an album’s popularity.  While it would be ideal to use the number of copies of an album sold, or even the album’s peak Billboard chart position, many of the artists I examined are relatively obscure, making it difficult if not impossible to find the number of copies sold (I also doubt many of these albums cracked the charts).  The formula I used was moderately effective, but it did not take into account an album’s popularity over time. 

 Albums generally tend to sell the most copies in their first month or so, and as my formula measured an album’s popularity from the time it was released to the time the data was collected, trends over time were not taken into account (e.g., MGMT, whose album Congratulations topped the charts upon its release but saw a subsequent plummet in popularity due to severe fan and critical backlash).  This is exacerbated by the step in my formula in which everything is divided by the number of days since an album’s release: if an artist were to hypothetically release two albums a year apart that both sold a consistent number of copies every day since their release dates, the division by number of days since the album’s release would result in the data indicating that the first album is considerably less popular.  (This may explain why most of the artists who saw no change in Pitchfork rating for two consecutive albums had much higher popularity coefficients for their second albums than their first albums.)

My study was also limited by my use of iTunes.  While iTunes is very popular, many people purchase albums from record stores, and these purchases were not taken into account in my study.  Many more people, however, do not even buy albums but rather download them for free from the Internet.  The number of people who download albums from the Internet is impossible to count, as many free download sites exist and few of them keep a record of the number of downloads.

In addition, the sample size could have been larger--Pitchfork reviews hundreds of albums a year, and the twenty artists and forty albums I use in this project only make up a small portion of the total artists and albums that have been reviewed by the site.  Had I devoted more study to artists who received the same Pitchfork rating for two albums in a row, I could have further examined the effectiveness of my formula over time and possibly found further evidence in favor of the correlation’s validity or lack thereof.  
APPENDIX

Pitchfork ratings received by albums:

Artist
Rating for album 1
Rating for album 2
AIR
Pocket Symphony 6.6
Love 2 4.0
No Age
Nouns 9.2
Everything In Between 8.8
jj
jj n. 2 8.6
jj n. 3 5.4
Blonde Redhead
23 7.0
Penny Sparkle 4.0
M.I.A.
Kala 8.9
MAYA 4.4
Antony & the Johnsons
The Crying Light 8.6
Swanlights 7.7
Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend 8.8
Contra 8.6
Califone
Roots & Crowns 8.7
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers 8.1
Deerhunter
Microcastle 9.2
Halcyon Digest 9.2
LCD Soundsystem
Sound Of Sliver 9.2
This Is Happening 9.2
MGMT
Oracular Spectacular 6.8
Congratulations 6.8
Ghostland Observatory
Robotique Majestique 1.5
Codename: Rondo 1.5
Charlotte Gainsbourg
5:55 5.8
IRM 8.4
Grizzly Bear
Yellow House 8.7
Veckatimest 9.0
Wavves
Wavves 8.1
King Of The Beach 8.4
F*** Buttons
Street Horrsing 8.6
Tarot Sport 9.0
Kanye West
808s & Heartbreak 7.6
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy 10.0
Beach House
Devotion 8.5
Teen Dream 9.0
Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles 7.8
Crystal Castles 2 8.5
Titus Andronicus
The Airing Of Grievances 8.5
The Monitor 8.7
View count and release date for most viewed YouTube video for Album 1 for each artist:

Artist
Album 1
Most Popular Song (by YT views as of 12/1/11)
Views
Released
AIR
Pocket Symphony 6.6
“Once Upon A Time”
242,020
3/5/07
No Age
Nouns 9.2
“Eraser”
191,089
10/29/09
jj
jj n. 2 8.6
“Things Will Never Be The Same Again”
325,749
7/11/09
Blonde Redhead
23 7.0
“23”
1,384,708
4/7/07
M.I.A.
Kala 8.9
“Paper Planes”
19,918,671
6/16/09
Antony & the Johnsons
The Crying Light 8.6
“Another World”
364,327
10/6/08
Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend 8.8
“A Punk”
19,516,752
1/7/08
Califone
Roots & Crowns 8.7
“The Eye You Lost In The Crusades”
31,070
9/25/07
Deerhunter
Microcastle 9.2
“Agoraphobia”
677,481
9/18/08
LCD Soundsystem
Sound Of Sliver 9.2
“All My Friends”
1,971,995
5/2/07
MGMT
Oracular Spectacular 6.8
“Kids”
41,638,285
10/2/07
Ghostland Observatory
Robotique Majestique 1.5
“The Band Marches On”
92,302
12/24/08
Charlotte Gainsbourg
5:55 5.8
“5.55”
550,318
4/24/07
Grizzly Bear
Yellow House 8.7
“Knife”
2,410,077
2/8/07
Wavves
Wavves 8.1
“No Hope Kids”
542,583
6/29/09
F*** Buttons
Street Horrsing 8.6
“Bright Tomorrow”
268,037
12/13/07
Kanye West
808s & Heartbreak 7.6
“Heartless”
60,070,156
6/16/09
Beach House
Devotion 8.5
“Heart of Chambers”
1,184,799
2/26/08
Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles 7.8
“Crimewave”
8,587,035
3/18/08
Titus Andronicus
The Airing Of Grievances 8.5
“Arms Against Atrophy”
80,471
2/7/2007

View count and release date for most viewed YouTube video for Album 2 for each artist:

Artist
Album 1
Most Popular Song (by YT views as of 12/1/11)
Views
Released
AIR
Love 2 4.0
“Love”
212,332
10/5/09
No Age
Everything In Between 8.8
“Fever Dreaming”
150,993
1/26/11
jj
jj n. 3 5.4
“My Life”
281,527
2/10/10
Blonde Redhead
Penny Sparkle 4.0
“Here Sometimes (4AD Session)”
1,202,589
8/24/10
M.I.A.
MAYA 4.4
“XXXO”
5,507,949
8/11/10
Antony & the Johnsons
Swanlights 7.7
“Thank You For Your Love”
586,862
8/20/10
Vampire Weekend
Contra 8.6
“Cousins”
8,655,477
10/19/09
Califone
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers 8.1
“Funeral Singers”
58,592
10/5/2009
Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest 9.2
“Helicopter”
892,710
9/3/10
LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening 9.2
“Drunk Girls”
1,905,370
4/16/10
MGMT
Congratulations 6.8
“Flash Delirium”
3,050,900
3/26/10
Ghostland Observatory
Codename: Rondo 1.5
“Give Me The Beat”
116,093
10/7/10
Charlotte Gainsbourg
IRM 8.4
“Heaven Can Wait”
667,601
12/07/09
Grizzly Bear
Veckatimest 9.0
“Two Weeks”
5,446,100
5/23/09
Wavves
King Of The Beach 8.4
“King Of The Beach”
554,635
6/29/10
F*** Buttons
Tarot Sport 9.0
“The Lisbon Maru”
147,259
9/21/09
Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy 10.0
“All Of The Lights”
58,765,002
2/18/11
Beach House
Teen Dream 9.0
“Zebra”
1,125,156
11/25/09
Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles 2 8.5
“Not In Love”
6,152,950
4/23/2010
Titus Andronicus
The Monitor 8.7
“A More Perfect Union”
457,147
3/29/10

Calculation of popularity coefficients:

ALBUMS

Air: Pocket Symphony
(25 + 1 + 242.0)/ 1732= 0.155
Air: Love 2
(21 + 1 + 212.3) / 787= 0.298

No Age: Nouns
(1032 + 33 + 191.1)/ 1304= 1.646
No Age: Everything In Between
(250 + 6 + 151.0)/ 430= 0.947

jj: jj n. 2
(111 + 5 + 325.7)/ 873= 0.506
jj: jj n. 3
(188 + 14 + 281.5)/ 659= 0.461

Blonde Redhead: 23
(5204 + 103 + 1384)/ 1699 = 3.938
Blonde Redhead: Penny Sparkle
(251 + 23 + 1202)/ 484 = 3.050

M.I.A.: Kala
(6402 + 1511 + 19919)/ 1563= 17.81
M.I.A.: MAYA
(397 + 384 + 5508)/ 477= 13.18

Antony & the Johnsons: The Crying Light
(602 + 37 + 364.3)/ 1151 = 0.872
Antony & the Johnsons: Swanlights
(125 + 5 + 586.9)/ 468= 1.532

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
(21271 + 994 + 19516)/ 1424= 29.34
Vampire Weekend - Contra
(6171 + 626 + 8655)/ 773= 19.99

Califone - Roots & Crowns
(1809 + 17 + 31.07)/ 1528 = 1.215
Califone - All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
(176 + 7 + 58.59)/ 787= 0.307

Deerhunter: Microcastle
(944 + 48 + 677.5)/1169= 1.428
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
(1968 + 48 + 892.7)/454= 6.396

LCD Soundsystem: Sound Of Silver
(2219 + 9 + 1972)/1725= 2.435
LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening
(867 + 33 + 1905)/594= 4.722

MGMT: Oracular Spectacular
(6386 + 841 + 41638)/ 1521= 32.13
MGMT: Congratulations
(3128 + 831 + 3050)/ 615= 11.40

Ghostland Observatory: Robotique Majestique
(35 + 2 + 92.30)/ 1072= 0.121
Ghostland Observatory: Codename: Rondo
(171 + 41 + 116.1)/ 420= 0.781

Charlotte Gainsbourg: 5:55
(495 + 37 + 550.3)/ 1682= 0.643
Charlotte Gainsbourg: IRM
(405 + 25 + 667.6)/ 724= 1.516

Grizzly Bear: Yellow House
(6527 + 61 + 2410)/1914= 4.701
Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest
(6210 + 189 + 5446)/922= 12.85

Wavves: Wavvves
(263 + 87 + 542.6)/1017= 0.878
Wavves: King Of The Beach
(595 + 50 + 544.6)/ 529 = 2.249

F*** Buttons: Street Horrrsing
(251 + 41 + 268.0) / 1083 = 0.517
F*** Buttons: Tarot Sport
(169 + 15 + 147.3) / 801 = 0.414

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak
(5188 + 6125 + 60070) / 1133 = 63.00
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
(8286 + 2000 + 58765) / 405 = 170.5

Beach House: Devotion
(413 + 27 + 1185) / 1374 = 1.183  0.575334143
Beach House: Teen Dream
(1814 + 151 + 1125) / 736 = 4.198

Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles
(4639 + 252 + 8587) / 1353 = 9.962
Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles II
(5156 + 212 + 6153) / 587 = 19.63

Titus Andronicus: The Airing Of Grievances
(90 + 16 + 80.47) / 1129 = 0.165
Titus Andronicus: The Monitor
(266 + 29 + 457.1) / 612 = 1.229