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Here's a bit of Derek lore for you: during my senior year of high school, no piece of writing had a greater influence on me than J. Eric Smith's collected March of the Mellotrons series. Not a novelist or a poet, but some guy in Albany with some spicy takes about Jethro Tull.

Smith, a blogger and self-avowed internet old-timer, had a few of these musical brackets up on his website at the time, and in retrospect was way ahead of the curve in the field of pop-culture bracketology, a trend which would crest towards the tail end of the 2000s and is having a bit of a renaissance now. Smith was, like a lot of my pre-YouTube guys, just someone with specific interests and perspectives, written for benefit of anyone who happened to land on their page. So a very hearty shout-out to him, to George Starostin, to Andrew Lampert of the Cosmic Baseball Association, to the wiped-clean-from-the-face-of-the-web Emergency League!, for doing your things. This is the internet I aspire to recreate in my own small way.

OK, that's enough weird soapboxing for one post.

So why was this prog rock bracket so important to yours truly? Among other things, it was my first exposure to a lot of "expansion pack" progressive rock, like Caravan's In the Land of Grey and Pink and Steven Hackett's Voyage of the Acolyte. But it's the form that has stayed with me ever since. My back pages are full of these brackets: the two Dim the House Lights Tournaments of Films, the Middlebrow Madness podcast, even the backburnered Ebert Cup on this very blog. Plus, I love writing them!

So why lo-fi hip hop then? Like many, when I want music to write to, I'll often throw on some low-impact instrumental music as background noise, so I'm a fan of the genre . But it recently occurred to me that, beyond a few favourites I know by name, I can't contextualize any of it. The world of lo-fi hip hop is a constellation of obscure Bandcamps run by bedroom producers and Ableton artisans that have a clear vocabulary but, due to the way the work is consumed, not a clear voice. I am, in a way, trying to view the quintessential "playlist" musical form through the dead lens of the "album." This is my way of paying closer attention to something that, by accident or design, is relegated to the background.

All right, time for methodology.

  1. I've limited the field to albums from 2010 to 2019. This eliminates a bunch of the genre's foundational documents, including Nujabes's Spiritual State, J Dilla's Donuts, and Madlib's Beat Konducta series. I built this bracket with the intention on focusing on the first and second waves of performers that came in the wake of these guys, and not the progenitors themselves. But those records wouldn't have made the final cut anyways because...

  2. Only albums labelled as "Lo-Fi Hip Hop" on RateYourMusic were included in the final 64. Donuts, Spiritual State, and the Beat Konducta albums are all classified under the parent label of "Instrumental Hip-Hop," and we could argue about whether or not to include them (or, for that matter, more purely downtempo or plunderphonics albums) until the cows come home, but I needed to draw the line somewhere. So I have put my faith in the RYM hive mind to help populate the bracket. Also, seedings were determined by album ranking on RYM (as of 21 May 2020), and no artist could have more than four credits in the tournament.

  3. While part of this exercise is finding exemplary version of the form, I also want to find performers and records pushing the form forward or pulling them in strange, interesting directions. The genre goes down easy by design, so I'm looking for cool wrinkles in arrangement and production. Having vinyl crackles, clean jazz guitars, and a sturdy, square beat is all well and good, but if you also have some squiggly synths, some woodblock, or harmonizing clarinets or whatever? You'll do very well in this tournament.

  4. I am not a music historian, or music writer, or even all that smart, really. I'm just a curious enthusiast. And as with all media criticism, this whole thing is ultimately just my opinion. Any and all of my takes should be taken with heaping piles of salt. But know this: lo-fi hip hop is such a high-floor genre that there's a good chance I'm going to like 95% of the albums here.

  5. To preserve the spirit of the March Madness-style bracket: no reseeds, baby!

That said, here are our participants!

DILLA REGIONAL (1) Knxwledge, Skr∆wberries​.​Funr∆isrs Vol​. ​3 (2010) vs. (16) Engelwood, Boardwalk Bumps (2018) (8) moow, I Can't Tell You How Much It Hurts (2017) vs. (9) tomppabeats, Arcade (2017) (4) Wun Two, Rio (2014) v. (13) The Deli, Encounters (2017) (5) Birocratic, Beets 3 (2015) v. (12) NIKK BLVKK, Last Light (2017) (2) Saib., Bebop (2017) v. (15) Eevee, Eevee Beat Tape 01 (2016) (7) City Girl, Celestial Angel (2018) v. (10) Nitsua, Dayscape (2015) (3) jinsang, Confessions (2017) v. (14) Desired, Nineteen (2017) (6) glue70, After School (2016) v. (11) A L E X, Growing Up, Vol. 2 (2018)

NUJABES REGIONAL (1) Knxwledge, Kauliflower (2013) v. (16) Coubo, Selcouth (2015) (8) leon, re:treat (2018) v. (9) El Jazzy Chavo, Redirections (2018) (4) A L E X, Growing Up, Vol. 1 (2017) v. (13) Brrd / Wodoo Wolcan, Brrd / Wodoo Wolcan (2013) (5) potsu, ivy league (2019) v. (12) Saib., Around the World (2016) (2) Fanso, Música para Lagartos (2018) v. (15) Wun Two & CoryaYo, Waves (2015) (7) bsd.u, [Late Night Bumps] (2013) v. (10) jinsang & SwuM., Blossoms (2019) (3) City Girl, Neon Impasse (2018) v. (14) Eevee, Eevee Beat Tape 04 (2017) (6) Mndsgn, Exts (2012) v. (11) Nymano, Romance (2016)

MADLIB REGIONAL (1) tomppabeats, Harbour (2016) v. (16) barnes blvd., Last Summer (2018) (8) Fanso, Acid House (2015) v. (9) Outmind, champloo.lp (2013) (4) City Girl, Somnolent Nova (2019) v. (13) Greaf, Faceless (2017) (5) Birocratic, Beets 4 (2017) v. (12) Eevee, Eevee Beat Tape 02 (2017) (2) jinsang, Solitude. (2016) v. (15) Keys n Krates, A Beat Tape for Your Friends (2019) (7) FloFilz, Cenário (2016) vs. (10) Negroman, Negroman (2016) (3) Mounika, How Are You? (2017) v. (14) Knxwledge, relevnt​.​b​/​sdeLP._ (2013) (6) bsd.u, pook (2017) v. (11) Nymano, Short Stories (2015)

SHADOW REGIONAL (1) potsu, Just Friends (2018) vs. (16) Greaf, Looking Back (2014) (8) TMCT, Snow Beach Vol. 01 (2014) v. (9) Blackfist, World Manumission Defense (2019) (4) Andrew Huang, Lo-Fi (2017) v. (13) Eevee, Eevee Beat Tape 05 (2017) (5) City Girl, Snow Rose (2017) v. (12) Joey Pecoraro, Tired Boy (2017) (2) jinsang, Life (2016) vs. (15) Engelwood, Hotel Wood (2017) (7) Blackfist, Strapped 4 Survival (2018) vs. (10) Limes, Fresh Squeezed (2016) (3) Sam Wise, Winter Chill (2016) vs. (14) bsd.u, [late night bumps 2] (2017) (6) Saib., Sailing (2018) v. (11) AceMo, Boarders (2014)

Watch this space for the results from the Dilla Regional. Let the games begin!

#music #bracket

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Sometimes when I'm bored at work, I pull up YouTube and start listening to a jazz fusion or City Pop album from the 70s or 80s, and just let the algorithm chain 40-minute blocks of sweet grooves. Here was the map for my latest journey.

Yuji Ohno, Cosmos (1981): Smooth. widescreen lava-lamp jazz with a few funkier, disco-styled numbers.

Masayoshi Takanaka, Alone (1981): The good shit. Tight, funky, furious. I've spoken highly of Takanaka's 1977 album An Insatiable High in an older post.

Hiromasa Suzuki – High-Flying (1976): The deepest, slimiest grooves of this particular quartet of albums.

Shigeo Sekito – Special Sound Series Vol. 2 (1975): Kind of an outlier. A loungy jazz record whose lead instrument is the Electone, which was Yamaha's line of electronic organs, that contains covers of “Yesterday” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale?” Kitschy? A little. Groovy? You bet your ass. Mac DeMarco is a fan.

#music

Illustration: Hiroshi Nagai

The awesome record label Light in the Attic has just released Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976-1986, a compilation of (mostly) City Pop, the Japanese answer to the American “West Coast” sound of the late 70s and early 80s. It's a bright, fizzy brew of fusion, R&B, disco, AOR, funk, and exotica, tailor-made for cruising the city streets in your sweet Toyota Supra. And bedroom producers take note: this is where the raw materials of vaporwave and future funk come from.

A friend of mine asked me for a primer, so I obliged, and I thought I'd share it with all of you. One note: I didn't leave your favourite album off this list on purpose.

Tatsuro Yamashita, For You (1982) – There's no two ways about it: Tats is the king of City Pop. His first band Sugar Babe laid the groundwork for the genre with their album Songs. His collab with Tin Pan Alley alumni Shigeru Suzuki and Haruomi Hosono (who was also in Yellow Magic Orchestra) called Pacific brought in the sun-kissed exotica haze and the jazz-fusion chops. Dude also really loves old American R&B and the Beach Boys, so you know, hooks for days. For You is breezy and lithe and packed tight with bright melodies, but this slot could have just as well gone to the albums that bookend this one, 1980's Ride on Time and 1983's Melodies.

Makoto Matsushita, First Light (1981) – Matsushita is a hot shit guitar player and founding member of AB'S (who are on the more fusion-y side of the City Pop continuum). His first solo record is some smooth Miami Vice shit; more than any other record here, this sounds how a humid night in the big city feels. Matsushita's solo stuff gets more involved and proggier from here on out, so there's plenty of weird nuggets to discover, but First Light is his best and grooviest record, and maybe the most melancholic piece of work on this list.

Hiroshi Sato featuring Wendy Matthews, Awakening (1982) – Sato is a keyboard wizard, probably best known for his synth-funk-fusion album Orient. Matthews is a Montreal-born Australian singer who was kind of a big deal down under in the early 90s. This album is more in the smooth jazz/adult contemporary corner of the City Pop graph, but it's so weird in places. There's like... a weird vampy blues instrumental and a Beatles cover as well? In any case, this is my favourite Sato album, all Linn drums and slinky arrangements and keyboard flourishes. Imagine if Diamond Life was made in L.A. instead of London, and swap out everything but the electric guitar for synths and drum machines.

Seaside Lovers, Memories in Beach House (1983) – Another Sato project. This was a one-off record with Akira Inoue and Masataka Matsutoya released as part of the CBS/Sony Sound Image Series (as was the aforementioned Pacific and the pretty good fusion album New York). Lots of fluttering melodicas, aqueous piano, and awesome 80s gated drums on this one. Probably the moodiest of the records I have listed here on account of the unique synthetic timbre of the whole thing.

Toshiki Kadomatsu – Weekend Fly to the Sun (1982) – If I'm being honest with myself, any of Kadomatsu's 80s albums could have made the cut here, but this one gets the thumbs up from me because, in addition to being punchy and fun as hell, it's functionally a concept album about looking forward to the end of the work week so you can get away for the weekend. Also “Rush Hour” is one of the best “What a Fool Believes” ripoffs I've ever heard.

Taeko Ohnuki, Mignonne (1978) – Ohnuki was in Sugar Babe with Yamashita, and her output is more in the jazz-pop/sophisti-pop/Steely Dan-lite corner of City Pop. Of all the records here, this is the one I've spent the least amount of time with, so I don't have anything super clever or incisive to say about it. It's just great.

#music #citypop #picksix

[NOTE: I wrote this in May, intending for it to be part of a bigger thing, but that bigger thing never happened, so here it is all by its lonesome.]

You may not be able to place Graham Gouldman's name, but you definitely know his work. Gouldman, who turned 71 on Wednesday, is the co-founder and bassist of 10cc, one of the great British bands of the 1970s. His bandmates Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, the true-blue weirdos of the group, get a lot of the glory, but Gouldman's contributions shouldn't be downplayed. I mean, dude co-wrote the immortal “I'm Not in Love” and played one of my favourite bass lines of all time on the bridge.

One of the pillars of the 10cc sound is pastiche, but they weren't just lampooning or parodying pop music. They were twisting their forms and conventions into weird art-rock shapes. Doo-wop, teen tragedy ballads, 70s boogie, progressive rock, adult contemporary: you name it, 10cc warped it into something unique. In a way, they're the ancestor groups like Ween, albeit a lot less puerile and aggro. Gouldman currently tours with a skeleton of the mighty band that once was, and the group hasn't put out new material in nearly 25 years, but 10cc's initial '73-'76 run is full of treasures, and Gouldman was a core component of them.

#music

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l-r: David Gborie, Sean Jordan, Ian Karmel. Photo: Luke DaMommio.

I like a lot of podcasts, but there's a select few whose release I actively anticipate week after week. And at the top of the heap with the Podcast Championship Belt around its waist is All Fantasy Eveyrything, a HeadGum comedy show hosted by Ian Karmel. The concept is simple: Karmel (who you might recognize from his stand-up, his work on Chelsea Lately, or his current gig at The Late Late Show with James Corden) and a rotating panel of guests pick their favourite representatives of a given subject (usually pop culture or food) over the course of a five-round fantasy draft. Shows are dominated by jokes, tangents, and enthusiastic endorsements and/or defences of picks.

I've spoken briefly about the show elsewhere: I recommended the “Treats” episode once upon a time in a Medium post nobody read. Everything I said there still stands. Nothing beats friends having a podcast because you can't fake that kind of warmth and camaraderie (it's also, as some have pointed out, a competitive advantage). And the format is unique in that it enables everyone involved to get granular and dorky about what they like, which is 100% my jam.

The most recent episode, the excellently-titled “Songs That, When They Come On, You’re Like 90% Ready to Fight Someone” is kind of atypical. It starts off with an extended shout out to the fanbase for helping a fellow AFE listener in Indiana pay for a new wheelchair. It's all quite touching and very, very heartening. Now, Karmel refers to himself and regular guests/fan favourites David Gborie (who has one of the best laughs in podcasting) and Sean Jordan (South Dakota's greatest cultural ambassador) as the Good Vibes Gang, and it's a title they earn. They cultivate them on the show, and they foster them among the fanbase. Their joy is completely devoid of irony. They have introduced me to some ridiculously funny individuals (shout out to “Hawaiian Getaway” Zak Toscani, “Sugar” Shane Torres, Nicole Dyer, Eliza Skinner, Amy Miller, and Mike Mulloy). All Fantasy Everything is a net positive in my day-to-day, and a hilarious, ebullient bright spot in my podcast feed. Long may they run.

And while I'm at it, here are my top five songs that, when they come on, I'm like 90% ready to fight someone:

Actually the first four would all make great ring entrance songs too.

#podcasts #music

Back in 2014, one of my favourite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote and article for the late, great website Grantland called “The American Band Championship Belt,” in which he anoints a series of groups as the one that towered the highest of all over a series of reigns stretching back to 1964 (inaugural title holders: the Beach Boys).

Now, you may or may not agree with the methodology or ever the titleholders. I mean, sure, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are an “and the” band, but their output transcends their generic moniker and they'd have easily fit in between Talking Heads and R.E.M. And according to at least one person in my office, it was offensive to give Guns N' Roses the belt for four years when Public Enemy was still on the table. But ultimately this is just a fun thought exercise, a way to think about the evolution of popular music through the years.

The last title holders were the Black Keys, whose run started in 2011 and ended when the article was published. Seeing as how Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney haven't put out a record as the Black Keys since then, I think it's safe to say they've vacated the title. But who shall step up and take the mantle? Now, it stands to reason, but what follows is just my own continuation of this lineage, an opinion free from the shackles of rightness and wrongness. That said...

Run the Jewels (36303319652) Photo: The Come Up Show

Run the Jewels, 2015-17

Key music: Run the Jewels 2 (2014), Run the Jewels 3 (2016)

The pairing seems obvious in hindsight. That it took Killer Mike and El-P, two indie rap titans who had been putting in creative, acclaimed work as solo artists since the early 00s, until 20-goddamn-13 to record their first full album together is kind of surprising. What isn't surprising is how great the records they've made as Run the Jewels are; all three so far have been powder kegs of tag-team hip hop fury. If anything, the get this belt because their partnership is so fecund. They bring out the absolute best in each other as performers, and they've been conquering the world, and the charts, since. The title is theirs to hoist here because their records slay, their urgency is timely, and their indie spirit is undimmed.

Photo: Julio Enriquez

The War on Drugs, 2018-

Key music: A Deeper Understanding (2017)

I admit this is kind of a wishful thinking pick. Right now, Run the Jewels are busy touring arenas and being awesome, and I can't imagine any future work is going to dull their prior highs. But I feel like I need to reward the War on Drugs for not only putting out one of the great records of 2017 in A Deeper Understanding after three years in the woods, but for putting a rock record out in the “rock is dead” era that both critics, fans, and the public at large rallied around and embraced. I don't know what this says about the rock music idiom. Maybe Adam Granduciel is onto something. Maybe the way forward is to look back and pick apart the forms of yesteryear and re-examine what makes them work on a technical and emotional level. Or maybe the idea of the world-dominating rock band is just going the way of the dog. As Hyden said at the end of his article:

The last six years are the weakest ever for American bands. It’s not even close, really. There are still good bands, but they don’t matter like the other groups on this list.

And that six years has now become 10.

#music

Continuing in the proud tradition of novelty synth records from the 1960s like Switched-on Rock or Christmas Becomes Electric, the Moog Cookbook was a two-man project consisting of Brian Kehew (on the left, probably best known as a one-time touring keyboardist for the Who and the co-author of Recording the Beatles) and Roger Manning (on the right, probably best known as a founding member of legendary Bay Area band Jellyfish). During their short time together, they released two albums of of irreverent synthy kitsch, covering the hits of the day and yesteryear using a small army of analog synthesizers. Ever wanted to hear a lounged-out version of “Basket Case” that interpolates “What a Fool Believes” or a “Hotel California” that cycles through about a dozen genres in under six and a half minutes? Well then, buddy, you're in luck.

This performance, filmed using delightfully dated camcorder effects, took place on 18 August 1996, three months after their first album dropped. Get a load of those sweet proto-Daft Punk sci-fi B-movie costumes! Look at those chunky-as-fuck keytars! And keep an eye out for the wild-looking synth guitar Kehew brings out for the finale.

Setlist 1. “Black Hole Sun” 2. “Buddy Holly” 3. “Evenflow” 4. “Are You Gonna Go My Way”

(via YouTube/artcoimbra)

#music #synth