Top Ten Contemporary Songs that Artfully Recall Classics
nfluence is a bitch. Every musician, whether they like it or not, is influenced by the music they hear around them, so musicians who try to make popular music stripped of all influences are either deluding themselves or not making popular music. But it’s just so icky to see it catalogued, to read an interview where the interviewer straight-up asks Artist X, “What are your influences?” like the sounds a band turns to when writing music are easily quantified like their amps or fuzz pedals.
For example: it’s easy to call out, say, Interpol for their vague Joy Division schtick, but to leave it at that doesn’t really say anything about either Interpol or Joy Division. If we’re really going to talk about influences, it’s better to find a more illuminating, concrete method of discussing a group’s musical evolution. This is difficult, as many groups (*ahem*, Interpol?) are unconcerned (sometimes even guarded) with the illuminating, concrete portions of their own musicology. Like I said: influence is a bitch.
But sometimes, artists are happy to facilitate an understanding. Every now and then, an artist manages to take a piece of the past and make it more than a re-tread, a rip-off, or a tired, vague genre experiment. Sometimes, artists will adroitly reference specific sounds or songs that came before them, intentionally or not, in a way that is enlightening with respect to both the original song and the contemporary one. Here are ten meditations on influence that escape the trappings of cheap tributes, shallow copies, and short-lived scene revivals.
10. “Paper Tiger” by Beck and “L'Hotel Particulier” by Serge Gainsbourg
Up until Sea Change, Beck had taken a far more holistic view of modern music: a sort of kitchen sink ethos where everything he listens to gets thrown into his own style and washed over with a thick coat of Mr. Hansen’s suds. Critics pegged Sea Change as Beck’s big “maturation,” like the guy didn’t already understand the implications of singing about being a loser; however, the record—“Paper Tiger” in particular—was actually the first time Beck convincingly copied someone else.
In this case, Gainsbourg’s post-war pop ode to pedophelia, 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, provides an enduring stylistic standard to draw from: a seamless amalgam of funk, folk, jazz and rock that is tempered with a swelling string section reminiscent of Jacques Brel. Beck updates his maudlin folk-rock personality on much of Sea Change with such toney string arrangements, but on “Paper Tiger,” he throws down seething blues guitar and funk-bass, chugging along to a slow jazz beat whilst the waves of a string section rise and fall, calm and crash. In Gainsbourg’s story, the titular teen Melody is seduced by the pervy geezer; although Sea Change is a breakup album, “Paper Tiger” paints Beck as a Gainsbarre-esque ladies’ man more eloquently than most of the posturing on Midnite Vultures could ever manage.
09. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” by Wilco and “Hallogallo” by Neu!
Some speculated that Wilco’s distinct motorik beat found on A Ghost is Born came from the influence of avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline, who joined during that period, but Jeff Tweedy has long voiced his love for Neu! Wilco had displayed increasing interest in experimentation, psychedelia and electronic manipulation on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and even back on Summerteeth. It all finally comes to a head with the eleven-minute “Spiders”: something like the centerpiece of the record, it’s driven by the same Klaus Dinger beat found on Neu!’s flagship track “Hallogallo.”
It might seem simple, what with only two riffs (one quiet, one loud), some guitar noodling, and Jeff scatting over the quiet bits every now and then. It’s Wilco’s attention to transition, both large (quiet riff to loud) and small (Tweedy’s scats to the guitar noodles) that really makes “Spiders” work. You can’t just repeat riffs like these and get eleven engaging minutes. Neu! took synth loops, guitar feedback and repetitive beats and made them a narrative; in Wilco’s case, it became an integral part of their larger story.
08. “Mizu Asobi" by Asobi Seksu and “Wrap My Arms Around Him” by Heavenly
Just as Asobi Seksu has spent their entire career correcting the mistaken belief that the group is from Japan (frontwoman Yuki Chikudate is Japanese-American), they’ve also had to resist being saddled with limiting terms like “shoegaze” or “dream pop.” On their most recent LP Citrus, the group at times recalls an older, tweer style of indie-pop. Nowhere is it more evident than closer “Mizu Asobi,” an uptempo rocker that features Yuki’s rousing Japanese vocals straightforwardly accompanying the ever-present thick walls of guitar.
As the cut fades in, it begins to mirror “Wrap My Arms Around Him,” the fast-paced closer from former Sarah Records stalwart Heavenly on their album Le Jardin de Heavenly. Heavenly produced a number of cute, lo-fi, punky singles and albums that influenced Brit-Pop and some Riot Grrl acts in the 80s and 90s, as well as current groups like Architecture in Helsinki. “Mizu Asobi” pulls off a palatable version of Heavenly’s classic British twee pop closer that still jives with their professed love for the Wall of Sound.
07. “Here In The Night" by Kelley Polar and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” by Michael Jackson
Jackson’s unfuckwithable Quincy Jones period, comprising some of the world’s best-selling albums (Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad), not only set the precedent for modern pop superstardom, but helped evolve R&B and funk into the dominant conduit for pop music today. Whilst the styles had enjoyed extended success since the beginning of the Motown era, Jackson infused the anthemic, pop-oriented tunes of the declining Motor City sound with synth-pop surrealism and delicate touches of the rock and disco idioms.
Kelley Polar, sometime violinist for nu-disco producer Morgan Geist’s Metro Area, worked a clear homage to Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the immortal Thriller opener, into this cut off his solo album Love Songs Of The Hanging Gardens. “Here In The Night” begins with a stunted synthesized drum lead-in similar to the clunky count-off of “Startin’ Somethin’,” a sly wink to Jackson’s witty assertion of synthesizer dominance on the album. In lieu of a human drummer’s warm lead-in or count-off, the stuttering drum machine charges in like an eighth-note battering ram to signal the beginning of each song. For Jackson, it’s sort of a declaration of goods, him showing he has nothing to hide, and it gets the synthesizer question out of the way at the outset.
Polar’s wispy, string-driven synth-pop has a more subdued air to it than Jackson’s, but he still lets the Gloved One’s work inform his own. Thriller’s ubiquitous singles all recall palpable facets of the night (hunger for the nightlife in “Something,” fear of the unknown in “Thriller,” sly knowledge in “Billie Jean”). Using a lot of the same tools Michael and Quincy relied upon, Polar recreated Thriller’s robotic, nocturnal fascination on Love Songs.
06. “Great Release" by LCD Soundsystem and “Here Come The Warm Jets” by Brian Eno
Although Brian Eno seems like a rather serious (even notoriously un-funny) guy these days, for a short period of time in between being in Roxy Music, chilling in Berlin with David Bowie, and inventing ambient music, he actually composed with quite a wit. Before and After Science’s “Backwater” has him as a cheeky wordsmith, and his first album Here Come The Warm Jets sees Eno gently poking fun at the glam-rock scene of which he was briefly a part.
His budding ability to control the studio drives his unique set of sounds, but his taste for quirk dictates the goofy buzz of the main riff to Warm Jets’ closing, titular song. Gradually rising out of cacophony, the drums and eventually Eno’s own vocals fill out the track, rise to full-band volume, then drop quickly to nothing after the song’s climax. The drunken “Warm Jets” hum forecasted Eno’s growth into his Another Green World eccentricities.
James Murphy also knows a thing or two about wry production (daring the audience to ingest eleven minutes of “yeah”’s), as well as forging studio manipulation techniques as part of DFA. His self-titled first album plays like an instruction manual for his success, containing a bonus disc of his band’s early, hilarious po-mo trophies like “Losing My Edge,” “Yeah” and “Beat Connection.” But Murphy really establishes himself as an artist with the first disc and cuts like “Great Release,” the closing track.
“Release” fronts soft drum machines and pianos that get joined by old-style synths, guitars and eventually real drums. Then it all comes up and crashes down in a lyrical and musical orgasm, because Murphy can’t resist the urge to insert a musical pun on a cut called “Great Release.”
05. “Keep The Car Running” by the Arcade Fire and “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen
Brooce penned “Dancing In The Dark” as an afterthought: a contemporary track intended to serve as a first single to tie together his 1985 song cycle Born In The U.S.A.. Written by Springsteen in a single evening after an argument with producer John Landau over the matter, “Dancing In The Dark” would, of course, become Springsteen’s biggest hit on an album which would sell over 15 million copies. There isn’t much to it—synthesizers rigged up to sound like accordions, a driving beat, and a bit of rhythm guitar—but the Boss closes the deal with his sincere vocals and playful look at an evening of small-town ennui.
Some of U.S.A. courts political controversy by tugging both the steadfastly patriotic and the disillusioned, best exemplified with the widespread use of bitter Vietnam anthem “Born In The U.S.A.” in 1984 Republican campaigns. “Dancing In The Dark,” however, is inspiring because it fixes the conflict of heart within the individual, exploring his place in a world filled with regrets rather than his significance within it or his attitude towards those regrets.
Win Butler and the Arcade Fire have expressed political views on this year’s Neon Bible, railing against the evangelism and hypocrisy of the current U.S. administration, as well as conflicts in Haiti. These are issues dear to the hearts of Butler, his wife Regine Chassagne, and his fellow bandmembers, for while the group calls Montreal their home, Butler originally hails from Texas and Chassagne’s family are Haitian refugees. Butler taps into the immediacy and desperation of Springsteen’s quintessentially American conflicts—in “Keep The Car Running,” his narrator speaks of a Brucian apathy approaching nihilism that festers in the stagnant masses.
He fears unknown antagonists, but insists that something is “coming.” “Keep The Car Running” keeps a similar beat to “Dancing In The Dark,” with Butler’s steady mandolin backing lending a false sense of tradition to the track in similar fashion to Springsteen’s accordion-synths. In lionizing this quiet American desperation, Butler casts himself as a hero to the similarly disillusioned, no matter the nationality.
04. “In Church” by M83 and ”Oxygene (Part III)” by Jean Michel Jarre
M83’s Anthony Gonzales swears that M83 was never influenced by any of the 70s progressive electronic or New Age folks, but it’s difficult to listen to cuts like “Oxygene (Part III)” back-to-back with the fuzzed-out “In Church” (off Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts) and think otherwise. Sure, the instrumentation isn’t quite the same (My Bloody Valentine, after all, remains the key M83 reference point), but Gonzales (and former partner Nicolas Fromageau) wielded their guitars and synthesizers in much the same way Jarre and his contemporaries wield the sequencer and Moogs: exploring the dueling natures of human and artificial musics.
M83’s “Church” is hymnic, worshipful place with bibles written in machine code, with cyborg choirs (*hint hint*: electric guitars) wailing fuzzy humanity into the sunset; in Jarre’s world, “oxyene” is the commodity. A clipped drum machine provides the heartbeat throughout the piece, through which a constant synth chord and minor-key progression set a desolate scene. True to the Berlin School, Jarre plays a high-register synth solo in a human voice, but it’s a tone of mourning that is eventually drowned out in a swirl of tunelessness.
Both the M83 track and Jarre’s hit tumble into the beatless space music of early Tangerine Dream, but unlike “Oxygene,” “In Church” actually conveys the notion of retaining a bit of humanity. Gonzales keeps saying he only wants to make records like Brian Eno, but he plays like he’s already moved on to Windham Hill.
03. “Take Your Mama” by Scissor Sisters and “Benny And The Jets” by Elton John
Sisters singer Jake Shears leaves tempers his glib Barry Gibb impression with early-period Elton on this standout mid-tempo stomper from 2004’s Scissor Sisters. His wistful verses lament the struggle of “living like a good boy oughtta”: the plight of a ladies’ man who just doesn’t prefer the company of ladies. His ingenious method of coming out to his doting mother? Taking her on an all-night bender with his buddies! From there, this funk pop song begins to take on a bluesier, rockier tone, with lead guitar slashing in and Shears’ falsetto making a couple of cameo appearances.
Elton John’s early-70s music-industry meditation “Bennie And The Jets” maintains a slower pace than “Take Your Mama,” with jazzier chords anchoring the song’s progression, but the influence of “Bennie And The Jets” is clear upon the Sisters and “Take Your Mama.” Shears adopts a marvelous, clear tenor much like that of John’s mid-Seventies peak. The two are pretty much the same tempo, although “Take Your Mama” sounds faster due to the double-time feel of its percussion and guitar parts. Even “Mama”’s closing falsetto comes in around the same time as the closing falsetto on “Bennie.”
Possessing a hopeful melody and Shears’ golden pipes, “Take Your Mama” still sounds far fresher and original than the group’s disco-tinged take-offs on Bee Gees tributes that the band is known for. The band uses their idol’s “Bennie” as a blueprint—or, more accurately, a foundation—on which to build their funky, jammy hit, and come off sounding less like cheapo Elton and more like savvy, relentlessly uplifting contenders to the Queer-and-Proud Pantheon.
02. “In This Home On Ice” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and ““Heroes”” by David Bowie
After weathering the early-2000’s garage-rock revival, Byrne and Bowie are exerting more influence than ever. Clap Your Hands mastermind Alec Ounsworth affects a divisive Byrne bleat that earns detractors almost as often as it does fans, but the quirky production on his group’s self-titled debut and this year’s Some Loud Thunder has intrigued critics and is responsible for CYHSY’s meteoric rise. Perhaps the best song on their shocking debut, “In This Home On Ice” mixes a dream-pop guitar riff with an uptempo New Wave beat. The track’s swirling, flanged keyboard riff and its circular chord progression recall the same bravado as Bowie’s classic ““Heroes”,” owing its gleaming guitar sound to the lead line on ““Heroes”” played by Robert Fripp.
Sometimes called Bowie’s greatest achievement, ““Heroes”” tells the story of lovers on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, confusing irony and sincerity in a story of heroism and immortality. Ounsworth’s vocals bear few lyrical similarities, but come from the same disaffected yet hopeful place, and his instrumental adornments update Bowie’s spacey, funky Berlin Trilogy sound. A masterwork of DIY production that doesn’t sound DIY, “Home On Ice” provides a sterling counterpoint to the analogue studio wizardry of ““Heroes”” by pushing the same bright, ultimately optimistic buttons.
01. “Over and Over” by Hot Chip and “Oscillations” by Silver Apples
Hot Chip exhibit a talent for abstracting their musical influences. So far, their two albums definitely take a lot from the disco, electro and soul realms, but never do their obtuse beats really sound especially indebted to any particular sources. Even their bluesy big hit “Over and Over” sorta sounds like it came from outer space.
However, the band’s got a dirty secret: “Over and Over” has got a muse. Surprisingly, 60s psychedelic electronic duo Silver Apples and elements of their “Oscillations” show up all over the Hot Chip joint. The Apples played a sort of early electronic music using primitive, homemade electronic instruments, applying their squeals to a rock sound while other electronic musicians were still trying to plonk out Bach and novelty songs like “Popcorn.” Playing to a repetitive 4/4 beat and twiddling their homespun synthesizers, Silver Apples basically invented Krautrock a year before Can even got to the studio.
And Hot Chip hijacks their high-minded pioneering. The band turns the sounds of rhythmic feedback on “Oscillations” into the buzzing opening riff for “Over And Over.” Ripe with bass, both songs settle into lock-groove chord progressions as solemn, harmonized vocals announce the professed theme. The two songs are lyrically analogous, with “Oscillations” self-referencing the Apples’ brick-and-mortar electronic instruments, most functioning only to oscillate sound waves, as signifiers for the great allegory of life and death, expiration and renewal. Curious and sex-crazed boys that they are, Hot Chip hijacks the repetition in “Over and Over” to get it to signify, at times, the latent joys of records, dancing, the monotonous club scene, the equally rote music industry, and sex. We plainly see the comfort found for both the high-minded and the geekily horny in the cosmic principles of repetition.
Perhaps the most appealing element of “Over And Over” is its sense of the surreal that creeps into the club: it’s a sort of indie dance anthem for the stoners. There’s a hint of the cosmic, and as I noted in the blurb for last year’s year-end singles round-up, there’s also a bit of proud Hanna-Barbara-esque anachronism. Astute listening reveals “Over And Over”’s sexy, spacy airs has at its core the progressive electronic music of a little known pair of New York synthesizer nuts. Hot Chip’s greatest contribution so far is taking the Silver Apples’ gauzy little meditations on circles and sine waves and declaring that repetition is a joy too long laid dormant.