Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

01 NOVEMBER, 2009

Best Albums of October


A whale, a 5-year wait, and imagining Amy Winehouse as a happy person.

Fall is usually the hottest season for indie releases. And October has been sizzling in more ways than we can count. With new releases from old favorites, debut albums by promising up-and-comers, and even some fantastic free mixed samplers, it’s been a grand month for music.


An instant classic by a cultural legend, The Flaming Lips‘ latest, Embryonic, may be a bit self-indulgent at 19 tracks and 70 minutes of play-time, but so long as it’s good music — which it is — that’s okay by us.

Bonus points for releasing it as 2LP color vinyl as well.

Favorite track: Anything You Say Now, I Believe You (Amazon MP3 Exclusive).


Brushfire is one of our absolute favorite indie record labels. (Who, by the way, record in a solar-powered studio.) And their Fall 2009 Sampler is not only completely free, but also DRM-free — something rare and respectable in today’s domination of iTunes proprietary formats and licensing restrictions.

It features tracks from indie favorites like Jack Johnson (the label’s owner), Zach Gill, Matt Costa and the fantastic up-and-comer Zee Avi, whom you may recall from our spotlight feature.

Favorite track: Zee Avi’s Darling.


Songwriter duo The Swell Season began with the romance between The Frames’ frontman Glen Hansard and Czech vocalist Markéta Irglová, who met on the set of Irish indie film gem Once. But the band, named after a novel by humanist Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, suffered an inevitable setback when the romance ended, leaving fans to question its fate. Luckily, the two had the good sense to put their creative integrity first, and continued collaborating on what quickly became one of the best folk bands around. Strict Joy, their formal debut, is every bit as rich and remarkable as their story.

For a taste, grab a free download of In These Arms, the thrid track from the album.

Favorite track: Two Tongues.


We already reviewed British pop-folk outfit Noah and The Whale‘s First Days of Spring and their brilliantly innovative release model, the world’s first-ever film/album hybrid. So no need to wax poetic any futher, but we’ll just say the album a stunning string of quietly excellent tracks.

Favorite track: Slow Glass, which you can hear in full here.


We’ve been infatuated with Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience since the release of their debut album in 2004. So we were increasingly impatient as they took a 5-year sabbatical from recording. Which is why the October 19 release of their new album, Declaration of Dependence, is incredibly rewarding culmination of a long, long wait.

With beautifully melodic acoustics and vocals that clutch you in their quiet but firm grip, their sound is both vulnerable and powerful, full of that intangible but highly distinct Nordicness. Their lyrical sensibility sneaks up on you and catches you by surprise with deep reflections on the simple complexities of everyday life.

For a teaser taste, you can snag Boat Behind, the fourth track from the album, for free.

Favorite track: Mrs. Cold.


Thao With The Get Down Stay Down is easily among the best acts we’ve discovered over the past few years. Their sound has continued to evolve, with vocalist Thao Nguyen channeling Cat Power and and Fionna Apple while innovating in her very own way. Bassist Adam Thompson and drummer Willis Thompson bring a rich layer of vibrant instrumentals to the mix, for a grand total that much grander and more fantastic than the sum of its parts.

And their new album, Know Better Learn Faster, is every bit as brilliant as we expected it to be.

Favorite track: Cool Yourself, because this track is just too white-hot.


Although Danish alt-pop outfit Asteroids Galaxy Tour released a couple of EP’s last year, Fruit is their first full-blown album — and full-blown it is. It’s a glorious intersection of the psychedelic-pop of the 60’s and what Amy Winehouse might sound like if she were a happy person, all wrapped in stunning, unmistakable Scandinavian vocals, with a hint of brilliant but elusive indie collaborator Bajka. Beautiful brass instrumentation and superb drum work give their sound that extra zing that takes it from great, listenable music to head-bobbingly superb.

Favorite track:
Tie between The Golden Age, which you can hear in full here, and Hero.

For more curated music, check out tune of the moment, our Tumblr spinoff, where each day, you can listen to a full track that’s making us smile.

Psst, we’ve launched a fancy weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays, offers the week’s articles, and features five more tasty bites of web-wide interestingness. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

23 OCTOBER, 2009

Vintage Album Covers


Private collections, public perceptions, and all that jazz.

We love jazz. We love album cover art. And we love vintage design. So we’re incredibly excited to bring you three fantastic collections of vintage jazz album and LP cover artwork.


Vintage Vanguard may be an obscure Japanese website, but it’s brimming with remarkable cover designs of classic and rare Western jazz albums from the iconic Blue Note record label.


LP Cover Lover is both an archive of “the weird and wonderful world of record covers from the golden age of LPs” and a social bookmarking platform where anyone can submit a cover and everyone votes on the artwork. And while we wish the collection were browsable by rating, it’s still an absolute treat for musicologists and vintage design junkies alike.


In 1938, Columbia Records hired designer Alex Steinweiss who, at the age of 23, invented the concept of the album cover. Until then, records came in plain brown paper wrappers. Steinweiss’ idea was not only a pivotal moment in packaging history, but also a monumental shift in the relationship between music and art which, through the introduction of illustration, typography, vivid color and bold graphics, completely revolutionized the record industry.

Columbia Records’ Birka Jazz Archive houses rare and beautiful album covers by Steinweiss and other iconic designers from the golden age of jazz — some from private collections not previously available to the world. Sorted by label and country, the artwork also features fascinating historical notes about the labels, designers, photographers, and the music itself.

Explore this incredible cultural gem and, if you find yourself fascinated by the history and heritage of jazz, we recommend the Jazz + Culture course on iTunes U, a free podcast from Arizona State University. While it may lack the charm and production value of a TED talk, the course is a densely informative and captivating journey through the evolution of a cultural movement much grander than its musical foundation.

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20 OCTOBER, 2009

One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur


What literary genius has to do with indie music icons, a cabin, and San Francisco.

Jack Kerouac was perhaps the last big literary rock star. The avatar of the Beat movement, he skyrocketed into success in the late 50’s after the triumphant debut of his groundbreaking novel, On The Road. But, by 1960, Kerouac had fallen victim to his own success, unraveling into addiction, depression, cynicism and a jaded disaffection Beat culture. After a tortured attempt at spiritual revival in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin, Kerouac wrote the gritty semi-autobiographical novel Big Sur.

This year, director Curt Worden takes us back to that cabin and to the Beat haunts of San Francisco and New York City in One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur — a cinematic journey into the events the book is based on. Narrated by John Ventimiglia of The Sopranos fame, the film stars some of Kerouac’s iconic contemporaries — writers, poets, actors and musicians, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joyce Johnson, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, and Sam Shepard — whose first-hand accounts and reflections come to life in a stunning selection of high-def visual imagery.

But what caught our attention about this film in the first place was its extraordinary soundtrack, an inspired collaboration between Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Jay Ferrar of Son Volt. Recorded over the course of three days in the cabin Kerouac wrote about, the original score is coupled with haunting, intimate lyrics taken straight from the pages of Big Sur — a melodic contemplation of this powerful story of epic talent and epic collapse.

Today, the film opens in theaters and the gem of a soundtrack becomes available on appropriately classy vinyl with DVD. But, if you’d still rather have bits over atoms, you can snag it in good ol’ mp3 form, too.

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