Why The Medium Matters

Some have scratched their heads at the recent vinyl record resurgence. Why would all these “kids” want to spend $20-30 for a record when they can just get it free or cheap online? Isn’t it the same music? Add to this a rediscovery of cassette tapes as a cheap, effective way to release music. Yes, people are buying cassettes again. Even VHS has some diehard fans. Millions of DVDs and CDs are still being made and purchased. Essentially taking digital files and putting them in a box and upping the price. Why not just download the files? There isn’t a real difference in terms of the viewing experience. Why bother with buying the “thing”? Aren’t we trying to de-clutter and get rid of all our stuff?

Here’s the thing, the medium matters. The medium can change the experience, it can make something more “real”. Sure, sometimes the medium is a nostalgic one, it can take you back–listening to cassettes on your Walkman while lying in bed as a teenager. But it isn’t just a nostalgic experience. It is a visceral one. It deepens and expands the experience. I know from years of experience that listening to a vinyl record is altogether a different experience from streaming digital files. Sure, if you blindfolded me I might not be able to tell the difference half the time but that misses the point. My eyes aren’t closed when I listen to a record, I am looking at the jacket or browsing other records to find what’s next. Listening to a record is a tactile, sensory experience. There is no separating the two.

Physical objects can act as bridges, companions and bookmarks. They can bridge our past and present, they can connect our senses, they can bring together people, they travel with us. An effective object demands presence and focus. It whispers in our ears “take care of me and I’ll take care of you.” It is a constant companion as we navigate all the changes in our lives. The object externalizes and bookmarks our journey. Our brains are wired for recognition and struggle with recall. Every object we own has the power to trigger memories that might disappear otherwise. 

Humans have always been fascinated by the flickering of a fire or the song of a bird. We spent millennium finding ways to capture and reproduce those experiences. It wasn’t just to play the experience on repeat but to own it, to touch and feel it. The power of a vinyl record is as much the visual of seeing the sound in those grooves and marveling at how the tiniest diamond in the world could so wonderfully bring a sound back to life! The magic of  “motion pictures” wasn’t just on the screen, it was the film we could hold in our hand, looking at the individual frames, marveling at how they could somehow turn back into motion. We weren’t just looking to capture sound and vision to reproduce it. We had to hold and touch it. We needed to feel it. The medium matters, almost as much as the content it holds. 

Top 10 Tracks from 2013...so far #thinkkit

I'm a bad Think Kit-er. I've only posted once so far this December and now I'm grabbing a lifeline- Top 10 Tracks. 

2013 has been a strong year for music. These 10 songs all come from great albums so I encourage you to check them out in their entirety. Also, a couple are from 2012 but I didn't discover them until 2013 so I'm including them here. Let's break it down! 

Spotify playlist below

1. "Song For Zula" by Phosphorescent. This is the track I keep coming back to. Although my list isn't by rank I did want to put this one first, it is my favorite song this year. An amazing landscape of a song. "I will not open myself up this way again". We've all felt that way. A great song to get lost in. A rough sketch that seems to fill in with each listen. 

2. "Hey Ya" by Vampire Weekend. Probably the weirdest track here, what's up with those alien voices?, but I just can't deny it, or the album "Modern Vampires of the City", which is my favorite album of the year. No other album has endured as well for me, it has breadth and depth. My family listened to it all summer as we swam in the pool and grilled out. It is that rare album that appeals to kids and adults. It is a marvelous, deep piece of work. If you have bias against the band please discard and give them another chance.

3. "Are You With Me Now?" by Cate Le Bon. Ms. Le Bon was one of my favorite finds this year and this track just pushes every button. I love how it sounds. The thin guitars, the plucky bass, the tight and flat drums. I love the simple but powerful lyrics- "I see no reason to run, are you with me now?"

4. "Dreaming" by Mac Demarco. Oh man, I love this guy. Technically a 2012 release but only came to my attention in early 2013. I bet he's a weird, awkward dude that lives in his own world. At least that's my image of him, please don't tell me otherwise. Like the Le Bon song, we have thin guitars and plucky bass with great song writing. The whole "2" album is stellar. He's one to watch. Hopefully just getting going.

5. "The Sirens Of Your Toxic Spirit" by Of Montreal. It's so great to have this band back on top, doing great work. The last few albums seemed like a never ending descent into some pyscho-sexual nightmare. This song is perfect on all levels. The music and lyrics seem built for each other in a way few other songs ever achieve. And the lyrics, like many on the album, are just brutal- "All your addictions and shifty-ness, inherited from your father, I know you struggle to keep them in check, but at this point, why even bother?" Ouch.

6. "I Need My Girl" by The National. This band has been putting out consistently great music for the last decade. If I have any beef with them it's that it all starts to sound the same after a while. But if one is going to fall into a sonic rut it should be, as Kurt Cobain put it, a "Leonard Cohen afterlife, so I can sigh, eternally". Also, as a man that lives with 4 "girls" this song really speaks to me. 

7. "No Destruction" by Foxygen. This band became known almost much for their drama as their music. Social Media flare ups, fights, etc. Yawn... Underneath it all there is their excellent album "We Are The 21st Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic" produced by wunder-producer/collaborator Richard Swift. Not to downplay the talent of the Foxygen guys but I doubt this album would be half of what it is without Swift. He is probably the one to watch here. In the meantime, enjoy a nice 60s Stones/Dylan tromp. 

8. "Heart Beat" by Chris Cohen. Another 2012 import. This dreamy album just kept finding it's way to my turntable all year. Many nights I listened to it while stoking a winter's fire. As a whole album it can be a bit much but each side works really well as a piece of music. This song starts side two. "Beginning time is through, and the younger tears are too, drying up slow"- that really resonates with me in many ways. 

9. "Water Wheel" by Steve Gunn. I was turned on to this record by Rob Peoni, an intern for Musical Family Tree, and I fell hard and fast. Only 6 songs, 3 a side, it has a wonder symmetry to the album and each song has its own internal symmetry as well. To me, the guitar parts are logic statements, speaking to the meaning of the song as much as the lyrics. It sounds like a water wheel, doesn't it?

10. "A Girl Called Alex" by Kurt Vile. There isn't much to this song lyrically but for some reason it really works for me. "I recall a girl named Alex, she and Mark were happily wed, hey, at least in my head, I think about them all the time." It reminds me of that Hemingway one-sentence short story "for sale, baby shoes, never worn". That's Mr Vile's strength, painting a vibrant picture with a few strokes. 

Ok, that's it! What are your top ten tracks or albums for 2013?