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My primary source of music discussion at the moment is the 4chan subforum known as /mu/. The community is incredibly diverse, ranging in interests from classical, to hip-hop, to pop. They also have dozens of running inside jokes, and the most typical of these jokes revolve around a category of music they refer to as “/mu/core” — a play on the genreification of fusion genres by appending “core” to the end: metalcore, rapcore, etc.

/mu/core is a list of artists and albums that the majority of people on /mu/ have listened to, and are discussed frequently out-of-context, under the assumption that you have listened to them as well. Not only is the music popular on /mu/, but more often than not, the music is considered classic. Yet amusingly enough, I have listened to hardly any of the essential /mu/core albums, as seen in this graphic:

As of January 2014, I have only heard two of these albums

It is actually pretty easy to be into music whilst avoiding these albums. In my case, the avoidance was due to the fact that a lot of these albums are colloquially considered “indie,” and it is only recently that I have acquired a taste for that sound. Growing up, I never would have enjoyed these albums. Now, however, is a great time for me to give the whole list a shot, and find out exactly what I’ve been missing.

Neutral Milk HotelIn the Aeroplane Over the Sea (youtube listen-along)

This is the most popular album on /mu/ by far, and I am pleased to say that I enjoyed it tremendously. It is a remarkable album.

I know that I had prematurely disregarded bands like Neutral Milk Hotel years ago on the basis that “indie bands all sound the same,”  but I have been proven utterly wrong. Not only do NMH sound completely unique when compared to their contemporaries (and their successors), every track on this album sounds unique. They have accordions, bagpipes, acoustic guitars, heavy distortion, horns, a singing saw, apparently, and who knows what else¹. The most fascinating part is that the album flows together seamlessly, more so than most albums I can think of, including some concept albums. Indeed, I recommend listening to this as an album before listening to any of the individual songs, in order to experience it as it was intended to be heard.

The vocalist, Jeff Mangum, engages in numerous lyrical histrionics that did not impress me (The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three being one of the more famous cases). I will give him, at least, that he got my attention, as lyrics are usually not what I look for in music. As for the music, while I am still quite new to folk as a genre, the sound this album has reminded me of the most is Irish Folk, such as The Dubliners or The Pogues. I think it is a mixture of the pacing and the use of distortion that is so reminiscent of the modern “irish sound.”

All in all, this album truly is one of the lo-fi/indie/folk greats (whichever you prefer to call it). I don’t know if I agree with the idea of a “must-listen” in music, but I can’t fault /mu/ for liking this album as much as they do. I’d like to pick out individual songs to recommend, but the album defies me to do so. It is the definitive “LP”.

Animal CollectiveSpirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (youtube listen-along)

This album was written by Avey Tare and Panda Bear prior to the formation of Animal Collective proper (which includes Geologist and Deakin). I had heard a few Animal Collective songs prior to this album, but as their sound varies quite a bit between albums, I was not sure what to expect with this one.

The opening tracks on the album can only be described as extremely unpleasant. Spirit They’ve Vanished has a high-pitched whine throughout that is literally painful to listen to. April and the Phantom and the ensuing untitled track are also noisy, although thankfully at a lower frequency, and not as overpowering as Spirit They’ve Vanished. Unfortunately, all three of these tracks seem much louder than the rest of the album — as much as I despise having to adjust the volume mid-listen, I had to lower it for them, and raise it up afterward.

Past this initial wave of hurt, the album becomes much more palatable. So much so that I actually question whether or not the beginning of the album is a test to see how much the listener is willing to put up with before Avey Tare and Panda Bear become more traditionally musical later on.

The part I enjoyed most was the four-track run from Chocolate Girl to Bat You’ll Fly. All of the tracks in that period are excellent, and they provide the best blend of electronic and acoustic instrumentals on the album. La Rapet is my favorite track on the album, and I actually feel that it makes for a better “epic” than the 13 minute long Alvin Row at the end. The ending to La Rapet is sublime, whereas Alvin Row’s just seems unimaginative.

Ultimately, I find myself unenthusiastic about Animal Collective, which is more or less how I felt about them going into this article. I grant them that they experiment a lot in their music, but experimentation never guarantees success, and it seems like they miss the mark fairly often.

RadioheadKid A (youtube listen-along)

Upon the first listen, I found myself a bit confused by this album. It was surprisingly lackluster, and I attribute that to an unrealistically high bar that is set for this band by people both on and outside of /mu/. I was expecting this album to be truly fantastic, but in reality it is simply good. I will be more specific momentarily, but first I’d like to discuss my disappointment.

My history with Radiohead has been stereotypical. I had heard Creep on the radio, and sometime in high school I started to hear music fans say that Creep is not a representative sample of Radiohead’s work, that Radiohead is much better, and what have you. I listened to OK Computer one time, didn’t like it, and never listened to them again. Despite that, the aura surrounding this band has not gone away. I lived through their notorious free release of In Rainbows, and countless discussions of their definitive status as an alt-rock classic. Having now given one of their albums a serious listen for the first time, I have this to say: Radiohead may be an extraordinary mainstream rock band, but they are ordinary in comparison to any of their influences.

Kid A was a well-produced, enjoyable album, but I felt it was a very soft release. Like Animal Collective, they experimented with a lot of sounds; unlike Animal Collective, the result was mostly uninteresting. The two songs I enjoyed the most were Idioteque and Everything in Its Right Place. For the former, I think the percussion takes the track to a higher level. It isn’t that they did anything particularly special musically, but it was one of the only tracks on the album that felt alive. This sense of life was instantiated by the latter track (which is the first song on the album), but the feeling fizzles out quickly. Kid A is a good song, but almost everything afterward just seems uninspired and unproductively repetitive.

I know that people thumb their noses at a criticism like that, so allow me to explain what I mean by “unproductively repetitive.” On The National Anthem, they use the same bassline the entire song. On top of the bassline, they add various complementary electronic and brass sounds, as if to distract me from the fact that very little actual songwriting seems to have gone into this track. It sounds like an idea, rather than a finished work. The song doesn’t go anywhere or progress to anything, it just plays around with the same concept for 6 minutes. Do you know what that sounds like to me? A car commercial. The kind of music that exists to get a listener’s foot tapping, but their mind disengaged and accessible by other media. That wikipedia likens the track to free jazz is amusing to me, because at least free jazz gives one pause².

And The National Anthem is an example of a song on the album that I still thought was pretty good. I honestly don’t know what tracks like How to Disappear Completely or Treefingers are trying to accomplish. “What would Radiohead sound like as a Coldplay cover band?” or “What would Radiohead sound like if they released a Boards of Canada album”? The tracks have no place on an album that begins the way it does. They seem devoid of purpose.

So disenchanted with Radiohead was I that I actually went back and relistened to OK Computer again. I certainly enjoyed it more than I did in high school, but nonetheless, it seems Radiohead’s reputation is bigger than their sound. Never trust hype with popular things. I should have known.

SlintSpiderland (youtube listen-along)

Slint is thought to be one of the earliest post-rock bands, as well as a forerunner of 90’s math rock. On Spiderland, I heard a lot of sounds that reminded me of post-rock, but the math elements were a bit harder to detect. The album is very slow, and all of the math rock that I’ve ever heard has been fast. However, some of the techniques that would go on to be mainstays in math rock are there.

Before I get into all of that, I’d like to talk about the tone of the album, as it was one thing that really makes this album stand out amidst the other three I listened to for this post. The album has a very unsettling vibe to it; it keeps the listener on edge throughout. Animal Collective’s album was unsettling at some points due to their use of noise, but Slint goes a different route. Their songs are not very melodic, but not quite dissonant either. They sustain that desire to resolve notes for as long as they can.

Like with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I found myself very “aware” of the lyrics, but in this case, it was because the majority of the lyrics are spoken plainly, rather than sung. The subject matter is often ambiguous, which I feel furthers the uncomfortable mood one gets while listening to the album. The album feels hostile.

As for the music, I found it to be a well put-together album. It is only six tracks, and it proves to be exactly as long as it needed to be, with all of the tracks standing out in their own way. Breadcrumb Trail is a strong opener, and has the bulk of the aforementioned math rock rudiments, such as complex guitar riffs and unusual time signatures. Nosferatu Man follows the same modality, with lots of little intricacies thrown in, giving the listener a lot to think about while listening to the song. As I said before, I’m used to all of this happening much more rapidly in modern math rock, so it was very interesting to hear it in this slower, more deliberate format.

My favorite track on the album is Washer. It evokes a post-rock vibe, and builds up to an explosive ending, as the post-rock groups that followed Slint have been wont to do. It is a very well-done track, albeit not as complex as the earlier ones on the album.

One last thing to note is that unlike Animal Collective and Radiohead, who I feel underwhelmed on their closing tracks, Slint ends their album very well with Good Morning, Captain. It brings together all the good things from Spiderland into one strong track, which is admittedly easier to do because Spiderland only has 5 other songs. Either way, it is a good closing track.

The interesting thing about this album is that even though it has a tense feeling to it, it is genuinely enjoyable to listen to. I believe this is due to its unique sound. Slint may have inspired many bands after them, but I haven’t heard any band that actually sounds like Slint, and that makes this album a rare listening experience.

Summary

  • Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
    • I really enjoyed the album, because it possessed a compelling amount of variety, and the tracks were woven together masterfully.
  • Animal Collective – Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished
    • I liked the album, although it suffers from several hit-or-miss tracks (tending toward miss, personally) due to its experimental nature.
  • Radiohead – Kid A
    • I was unimpressed with the album, partly due to unrealistic expectations, but also because the album ultimately takes no risks, and is an unrewarding listen.
  • Slint – Spiderland
    • I enjoyed the album, simply because the tracks are well-written and unique, providing a listening experience that proves hard to come by in other albums.

Join me next time for My Bloody Valentine, Burial, Talking Heads, and King Crimson. I have high hopes for this segment of albums, as they are all hallmarks in genres I enjoy (and of course, I have already heard Untrue and love Burial’s music).

¹Wikipedia knows

²If anyone remembers my terribly offensive article about free jazz two years ago, I’d like to mention that, while I may never forgive Peter Brotzmann for recording that song, I’ve found other free jazz songs to be not too bad at all.

8 thoughts on “The /mu/core essentials (1/3)

  1. I understand why you don’t like the Animal Collective album, but I completely disagree with you on Kid A, especially in regards to your point that “How To Disappear Completely” makes them sound like a Coldplay cover band. You do realize that Coldplay’s first album came out after Kid A was finished being recorded, right? Chris Martin of Coldplay has actually said in several interviews that Radiohead were one of their biggest inspirations. I think you’re just trying too hard to find reasons to hate it.

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    • Don’t read too much into it, that was more of a joke than anything. However, I stand by the sentiment of the comment. Think about the context of my post. I listened to these bands (Radiohead and AnCo specifically) as a relative outsider — I never took the “alt rock” stepping stone in music growing up. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of that fact, I am simply stating that I missed an extremely common type of music to which aficionados often attribute their passion, and that enables me to approach bands in retrospect without a certain bias that others often have.

      I came in years later to listen to these bands that by most accounts I ought to have listened to when I was 13. I came in as someone who has spent a lot of time in the interim purposefully acquiring a broad exposure to music. So here I am, someone with no personal attachment to the band, with years of retrospective in my favor, and I’m telling you I thought the album was nothing special. In fact, I apparently went so far as to say they didn’t even outdo a band they have inspired (which was still a joke, anyway).

      I make every effort to ignore the cultural influence of a band, as well as any external factors that played into the production of an album. As a listener, I am only interested in what I am listening to. It is for those reasons that I also was extremely underwhelmed by My Bloody Valentine in comparison to other (and often later) bands in their genre. When you take away that aura surrounding these “essential” bands, you find that at least a few of them are quite inessential. The only things you miss by skipping Radiohead are a few inside jokes on the internet.

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      • Ok I gotcha, I agree, I think part of the reason Kid A was so highly rated was because of the risks it took culturally (a predominantly rock band turning on its head and making full blown electronic music, not to mention the fact that they didn’t release any singles before the album came out). Maybe it doesn’t take very many risks musically but emotionally, the album is something I personally resonate very well with, and I think that’s its strong point. It’s not for everyone though after all.

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        • I understand that. I’ve tried to be less mean in my posts lately because I’ve become increasingly aware that sometimes the personal connection people have with music is more important than the “technicals” of a band. I’m trying to keep it positive, but when this series was written I wasn’t quite there yet.

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  2. In the Court of the Crimson King is a Classic. Don’t even bother listening to the rest. Most of /mu/’s members are just whiny hipsters trying to be cool by showing off their ‘obscure’ crap.

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  3. Pingback: Old-school post-hardcore | Listen To Better Music

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