Staff Top 10
Top Ten Musical Signifiers (Almost) Guaranteed To Make Me Fellate A Record Regardless Of Its Quality

i'm fickle, but I'm easily pleased. Over the years of being a music idiot certain sounds, styles, and idiosyncrasies have repeatedly piqued my interest, and in recent times as my tastes have broadened in terms of genres and artists it feels like these peccadilloes of my palette have only been cemented. Maybe I'm becoming a stick-in-the-mud, or maybe I've realized that it's futile to fight my likes. Either way, if you include any of the following in your records, you're likely to win favor with me. Musicians of the world, take heed.

10. Good Dynamic Range

This is so obvious that I'll get it out of the way quickly. Squashed records = BAD, kids, ergo unsquashed records necessarily = GOOD. Of course, just because you've not been heavy-handed with the compression doesn't mean you can actually play or that your songs are any good. It does mean, though, that I'm going to instantly credit you with caring about your music a whole lot more than Keane, and that, at the least, I'll actually be able to sit through your record without either developing a headache or wanting to eviscerate you.

See: Axes by Electrelane, Ariel by Kate Bush.

09. Being By Embrace

A confession; the last record wasn't anywhere near as good as I may have initially claimed it to be. It has some good songs on it, certainly, but is terribly, terribly badly mixed and mastered. I'm sorry. One day they'll make a record as good as I keep saying their old ones are. Assuming of course that they ever make another record. Until then please trust me that, beneath the bloated Britrock bluster, Embrace have actually written more than a handful of great tunes and produced some wonderful pieces of music.

See: "One Big Family" by Embrace and "Satellites" by, um, Embrace.

08. Running A Lyrical Line Past The End Of A Melodic Line

Not finishing a sentence / line / thought on the beat, essentially. See also: using assonance rather than straight rhyme. In fact anyone not writing predictable, overly simplistic "rock" lyrics to predictable, overly simplistic "rock" melodies gets a gold star—I used to think I paid little attention to lyrics because music can be so much more interesting than words; actually it's because most lyrics are embarrassingly poor.

See: "Brundidium" by Augie March, "I Don't Know What It Is" by Rufus Wainwright.

07. Vague Pretensions Towards Dub

A big, rolling bassline and some ostentatious stereo-panning is going to get you noticed quickly in my house. Who doesn't like dub? Except that actual real, bona fide proper dub can, you know, get a bit boring sometimes without the aid of herbaceous encouragement. So much space and so little tune. Add a weedy, posing indie singer or some clattering cross-cultural energy, and you're sorted.

See: "Kowalski" by Primal Scream, "New Way New Life" by Asian Dub Foundation.

06. Vague Pretensions Towards Jazz

I found this in my email the other day. I sent it to myself a few weeks ago. I can only assume that I was drunk at the time of writing. Or just a douchebag.

"Because most other music is predictable, boring and unrewarding. You hear a song and get a feeling and then try to recapture that feeling with diminishing returns over and over again with each play—seldom though do new feelings emerge, or are the initial feelings worth the effort of recapturing in faded form.

With (some) jazz, heck, with a lot of music that just isn't mainstream or pseudo-independent, music that exists in a less fascistically-structured form, that builds and flows, that is recorded with care and sympathy, the linearity and uniformity, of composition, of sound, of intent, is exploded. You can feel something new every time you hear a piece of music, as every time you notice something new to feel because you hear something new."

See: Through The Windowpane by Guillemots from one direction, Skinny Grin by Acoustic Ladyland from the other.

05. "Pointillist" Guitar

An oblique description, perhaps, but you know the kind of thing I'm talking about—really heavy reverb and / or echo applied to lead guitar, so the notes sound dappled and multi-directional. Even the most rudimentary guitarist starts to sound like a beatific psychedelic genius if they use this technique sympathetically. Hell, even U2 become (almost) palatable when The Edge is rippling away atmospherically rather than hitting enormous Christian rock power chords.

See: "Love Stepping Out" by Disco Inferno, "Burn Me Where I Sleep" by Wilderness Survival.

04. Trumpets

If you include a big brass fanfare, I'm on your side. If there's a lone trumpet playing a mournful solo (my man who knows these things tells me this is called a 'cadenza'), then I'm whispering sweet nothings in your ear. If there's both, congratulations! You've written the best song ever. It can be jazzy, it can be Memphis, it can be cheesy or it can be atonal—whichever you choose, trumpets are pretty much bound to give my heart a hard-on.

See: "An Olive Grove Facing The Sea" by Snow Patrol, "The National Anthem" by Radiohead.

03. Using 'Interesting' Instruments

Got a ukulele? Excellent. Thermin? Better. Melodica? Oh wow! Playing guitar with a drill, using steel drums, tinkling glockenspiels, dropping a 303 line into a tune that's not acid house, using handclaps, fingerclicks, punching a side of pork or other "improvised" percussion, picking double bass instead of electric? You're getting at least a B+ even if you've never heard of Harry Partch. Songs? Who cares! I'm quite partial to a good string arrangement too, especially if played by a small ensemble or quartet rather than a whacking great orchestra. A solo viola is even better. Marimba, dobro, flute, bongos, e-bow, bodhrán, those weird jug things that you wibble into, harps, harmonicas (especially through a wah wah peddle), celestes, clavichords, didgeridoo, hurdy gurdy, Jew's harp, zither…

See: "I've Lived On A Dirt Road All My Life" by Manitoba, "It's Over" by The Beta Band.

02. Found Sounds As A Compositional Aide

I find something almost impossibly, childishly exciting about hearing something that isn't music being utilized creatively within a song as more than just ambience. If you utilize fireworks, camera shutters, rain, or horses hoofs clacking as part of the beat, or paint birdsong, police sirens or radio interference into the melody, you're getting a tongue bath whether you like it or not.

See: "Jeep Sex" by Akufen, "I Wish I Had Duck Feet" by Orbital.

01. Sticking Several Of The Above Together And Adding Some Overdriven Guitar And A Big Chorus Perhaps Sung By Lots Of People

It's obviously really, isn't it?

See: "Up With People" by Lambchop, "Lazarus" by The Boo Radleys

PS: Just so you know, coming up with examples to illustrate this Top Ten has been one of the most agonizing things I've done at Stylus; what seem like obviously prolific sonic signifiers have left me scratching around for days trying to nail really good songs that I really like which use them—you've no idea how hard it was thinking of songs with plentiful brass that I didn't want to use for, say, the double bass section, for example. And then when the ideas did come, they tumbled so freely that choosing only two for each felt mean-spirited—the "found sounds" entry, after a bit of initial dithering, could have contained a dozen songs by different bands even though at one point I could only think of Disco Inferno. In addition, I'd like to thank my friend Mat, who I stole the awesome "gives my heart a hard-on" line from.

By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2007-03-16
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