The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time: A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork

What makes a good ambient record? I’m not sure I can even begin to answer that question, and I count myself a longtime fan of the genre, such as it is. Though conceived, ostensibly, by Brian Eno as modernist mood music—“as ignorable as it is interesting,” he wrote in the liner notes to 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports—the term has come to encompass “tracks you can dance to all the way to harsh noise.” This description from composer and musician Keith Fullerton Whitman at Pitchfork may not get us any closer to a clear definition in prose, though “cloud of sound” is a lovely turn of phrase.

Unlike other forms of music, there is no set of standards—both in the jazz sense of a canon and the formal sense of a set of rules. Reverberating keyboards, squelching, burping synthesizers, droning guitar feedback, field recordings, found sounds, laptops, strings… whatever it takes to get you there—“there” being a state of suspended emotion, “drifting” rather than “driving,” the sounds “soothing, sad, haunting, or ominous.” (Cheerful, upbeat ambient music may be a contradiction in terms.)

Given the looseness of these criteria, it only stands to reason that “good” ambient must be judged on far more subjective terms than most any other kind of music. Next to “atmospheric,” a primary operative word in an ambient critical lexicon is “evocative,” and what the music evokes will differ vastly from listener to listener. “No one agrees on the language surrounding this music,” Whitman admits, “not the musicians who make it, not the audience.”

Ambient’s close association with trends in avant-garde minimalism, from Erik Satie to Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Charlemagne Palestine, may prepare us for its many crossover strains in electronic music, but not, perhaps, for the seeming synergy between ambient and certain developments in heavy metal (though Lou Reed seems to have presaged this evolution). “There are many roads one can take into this particular sector,” writes Whitman, “virtually every extant sub- and micro-genre has an ambient shadow.”

Such ecumenicalism is a feature: it means that a list like Pitchfork’s “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (stream most of those albums on the Spotify playlist above) can pull from an impressively wide array of musical domains, from the early experimental electronic music of Laurie Spiegel to the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane; the chill-out electronica of The Orb and The KLF to the ethereal indie post-folk dreampop of Grouper, a very rare entry with vocals.

If the genre has stars, Tim Hecker and William Basinski might be considered two of them; if it has august forebears, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, and of course Eno are three. (Music for Airports comes in at number one, though another very well-chosen inclusion here is Eno and Harold Budd’s utterly gorgeous The Pearl.) Other entries I’m very pleased to see on this list include albums by Gas, composer Max Richter, and vocal experimentalist Juliana Barwick, artists who might never share a stage, but sit quite comfortably next to each other here.

What’s missing? Maybe the glacially slow, guitar and bass drones of Sunn O))) or the deeply unnerving noise of Prurient or the lush electro-acoustic compositions of Ashley Bellouin, I don’t know. These aren’t complaints but suggestions on the order of if you like Pitchfork’s “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time,” check out…. I could go on, but I’d rather leave it to you, reader. What’s on your list that didn’t make the cut?

Visit Pitchfork’s list here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Pinball Was Deemed Immoral & Outlawed in Major American Cities

I remember the early days of the video arcade, where my friends and I went to have fun and spent our parents’ cash on Galaga, Robotron 2084, or–if you were a really big spender–Dragon’s Lair. Then, when we’d get home, and we would see scare pieces on the national news about the evils of the very arcades we had just visited, dens of drugs and depravity! Where were *those* arcades, we wondered.

Nothing has changed, it seems. Let’s go back nearly 80 years to another moral panic: pinball.
As these two mini docs show, in the 1930s and ‘40s pinball was banned in cities like New York (by mayor and future airport Fiorello LaGuardia) and Chicago because of its association with organized crime, but also the appeal it had to the children of the working class.

They kind of had a point: early pinball machine were purely games of chance, which put it very close to gambling. (A modern pachinko machine is closer to these early versions.) Like a carny game, you paid your money, and you watched as the ball careened down the table, out of your control.

But with the invention of user-controlled flippers that sent the ball back in play, these games of chance became games of skill. But that didn’t stop some moral crusaders.

And, as several pinball fans have found out–like the gentleman in the VICE doc below who wanted to open a pinball museum–antiquated laws remained on the books from those early years and had never been changed for modern times.

Roger Sharpe, known as “The Man Who Saved Pinball,” even went to a Chicago court in 1976 to prove that pinball was a game of skill. In a scene that sounds perfect for a final act in a movie, Sharpe, with his barbershop quartet mustache and groovy outfit, played pinball in front of legislators. Calling shots like a pool player might, he soon convinced the court that skill was everything. Sharpe would go on to become a star witness in similar hearings in Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas over their pinball laws.

Ironically, while video games replaced pinball in most arcades, home systems and computers replaced the need for arcades. It’s now a perfect time for these purely analog and tactile machines to make a comeback. Hell, a rock band might even make a musical about it one day.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Hear Philip Roth Read from Five of His Major Novels: Sabbath’s Theater, The Ghost Writer and More

“I saw and heard something remarkable just a few hours ago,” wrote New Yorker editor David Remnick a little over five years ago, “something I’m not likely to forget until all the mechanisms of remembering are shot and I’m tucked away for good.” He had attended an eightieth-birthday celebration for the late Philip Roth at the Newark Museum. There, after a series of tributes from fellow literary figures including Jonathan Lethem, Hermione Lee, and Edna O’Brien, the Newark-born-and-raised novelist gave what Remnick described as “the most astonishing literary performance I’ve ever witnessed.”

Roth began by naming all the memories of his Newark childhood about which he would not speak that evening, from “the newsreels at the Roosevelt Theatre” to “the fights at Laurel Garden” to “seeing Jackie Robinson play for the Montreal Royals against the Newark Bears, at Ruppert Stadium” and much else besides. Then, after admitting that he had committed paralipsis, the rhetorical technique of bringing up a subject by saying that you won’t, “Roth finally settled into his real theme of the night: death. Happy birthday, indeed!”

You can hear Roth’s performance in its 45-minute entirety in this video, in which he also reads a passage from 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater. You can see Roth giving another reading from that book, which he calls his favorite (and also “death-haunted”), in the 92Y video at the top of the post.

Its title character, the sex-obsessed 63-year-old puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, exists as a law unto himself. He lives a chaotic, sordidly pleasure-seeking life in response, Roth explains, “to a place where nothing keeps its promise and everything is perishable.”

Among Roth’s 31 books, the standalone Sabbath’s Theater lays a fair claim to the title of his masterpiece. But unlike other memorable Roth protagonists, Sabbath starred in no other books. The most sprawling character-connected series Roth wrote, which spans nine books written over nearly three decades, features novelist and authorial alter ego Nathan Zuckerman.

You can hear Roth read selections from the first three Zuckerman novels, 1979’s The Ghost Writer (also known as Zuckerman Bound), 1981’s Zuckerman Unbound, and 1983’s The Anatomy Lesson, in the three videos above. Roth’s last cycle of novels were connected not by common characters but by their short length and, in their brevity, even more intense explorations of the themes, or theme, always dear to him: what it means to have grown up American at a certain period in history, and how that meaning transforms and deepens with age.

In the video above, Roth reads the end of 2010’s Nemesis, his final novelistic meditation on that theme. In it several characters of his generation, then young boys, watch their teacher throw a javelin. “Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder, and releasing it then like an explosion, he seemed to us invincible.” The awe Nemesis‘ narrator and his friends feel witnessing that athletic mastery, Roth’s readers feel — and will continue to feel — witnessing his literary mastery.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

19-Year-Old Russian Guitarist Plays an Ingenious Cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”

Alexandr Misko, only 19 years old when this video was made, comes from a small town in Russia. There, he steeped himself in the music of modern American composers, including Steve Reich and Philip Glass. And he taught himself a fingerstyle technique of playing guitar, he tells the web site California Rocker, that involves “tapping,” or playing notes on the fretboard of the guitar. (It’s a technique that has a long tradition, but reached its apotheosis, if you will, with the 70s and 80s work of Eddie Van Halen.) While tapping with one hand, Misko also plays percussion with the other, using the body of the guitar to create a drum-like rhythm. And then he realized, “Hmm, and I can put a little scrunchy on 2 low strings to mute them and create that signature sound,” known to everyone who’s heard Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit, “Billie Jean.”

Misko’s “Billie Jean” arrangement took a couple of days to work out, then a week to practice playing without flaws. The result, you have above.

Visit Misko’s Youtube channel to see his take on other pop hits like George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” and A-ha’s “Take on Me,” to name a few. You can purchase his new album, Beyond the Box, on iTunes.

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David Lynch Made a Disturbing Web Sitcom Called “Rabbits”: It’s Now Used by Psychologists to Induce a Sense of Existential Crisis in Research Subjects

David Lynch has stayed productive in recent years — putting out an album and reviving Twin Peaks, to name just two projects — but more than a decade has gone by since his last feature film. Still, images from that one, 2006’s Inland Empire, may well linger in the heads of its viewers to this day. Some of the most haunting sequences that compose its three hours include clips of Rabbits, a television show about those very creatures. Or rather, a television show about humanoid rabbits who exchange lines of cryptic dialogue in a shadowy living room located, as the show puts it, “in a nameless city deluged by a continuous rain” where they live “with a fearful mystery.”

So far, so Lynchian. Part of the director’s signature atmosphere arises, of course, from the menacingly presented 1950s domesticity and the bizarre appearance of human actors wearing expressionless rabbit heads. But just as much has to do with sound: along with an ominous score by frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti we hear that constant deluge of rain, with occasional sonic punctuation from an inexplicably timed laugh track. You can binge-watch Rabbits‘ episodes on YouTube, an experience which will give you a fuller sense of why University of British Columbia psychologists used it to induce a sense of existential crisis in research subjects.

Lynch shot Rabbits in 2002 on digital video, a medium whose freedom, compared to traditional film, he had recently discovered. (When he went on to use it for the whole of Inland Empire, the choice seemed as cinematically startling, at the time, as any he’d ever made.) The shoots happened at night, on a set built in his backyard. Its principal cast of Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, and Scott Coffey had all appeared the previous year in Lynch’s critically acclaimed Mulholland Drive, which itself began as a prospective television series. (Even the singer Rebekah del Rio, star of Club Silencio, turns up in one episode.) Lynch first “aired” the series on his web site, which must place him among not just the artistic but technical pioneers of the web series form.

But why, exactly, did he make it in the first place? “Rabbits is a sitcom,” writes a contributor called Peek 824545301 at The Artifice. “It is not merely parody or satire; it exists as perhaps the most bizarre and arguably literal sitcom imaginable, though still an opposing force that challenges and defamiliarizes basic concepts.” Abstracting the basic elements of the sitcom form while stripping them of narrative, the show also signals comedy on one level and darkness on another, putting itself “simultaneously in alignment with situation comedies in its essence while also serving as a destructive criticism.” In this view, Lynch moves from medium to medium not just as a singular kind of creator but — with his imagination that has somehow come up with even stranger things than this rabbit sitcom — a singular kind of critic as well.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Explore 7,600 Works of Art by Edvard Munch: They’re Now Digitized and Free Online

If there were ever an exhibition of artistic “one-hit-wonders,” surely Edvard Munch’s The Scream would occupy a central place, maybe hung adjacent to Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The ratio of those who know this single painting to those who know the artist’s other works must be exponentially high, which is something of a shame. That’s not to say The Scream does not deserve its exalted place in popular culture—like Wood’s stone-faced Midwest farmers, the wavy figure, clutching its screaming skull-like head, resonates at the deepest of psychic frequencies, an archetypal evocation of existential horror.

Not for nothing has Sue Prideaux subtitled her Munch biography Behind the Scream. “Rarely in the canon of Western art,” writes Tom Rosenthal at The Independent, “has there been so much anxiety, fear and deep psychological pain in one artist. That he lived to be 80 and spent only one period in an asylum is a tribute not only to Munch’s physical stamina but to his iron will and his innate, robust psychological strength.” Born in Norway in 1863, the sickly Edvard, whose mother died soon after his birth, was raised by a harsh disciplinarian father who read Poe and Dostoevsky to his children and, in addition to beating them “for minor infractions,” would “invoke the image of their blessed mother who saw them from heaven and grieved over their misbehavior.”

The trauma was compounded by the death of Munch’s sister and, later, his brother, and by the institutionalization of another sister, Laura, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Munch’s own childhood illness made his schooling erratic, though he did manage to receive some artistic training, briefly, at Oslo’s Art Association, an artist’s club where he “learnt by copying the works on display.”

From there the young Munch launched himself into an extraordinarily productive career, punctuated by legendary bouts of drinking and carousing and intense friendships with literary figures like August Strindberg.

If we count ourselves among those who know little of Munch’s work, a new initiative from the Munch Museum in Oslo aims to correct that by making over 7,600 of Munch’s drawings available online. “The online catalog, free to all,” notes Hyperallergic’s Sarah Rose Sharp, “represents a tremendous feat of logistics, and features drawings that go back as far as the artist’s childhood, sketchbooks, studies of tools, coins, and keys that demonstrate Munch’s dedication as a disciplined draftsman, and watercolors of buildings that were some of the first bodies of work developed by the artist in his youth.”

Over 90% of the drawings on digital display come from the Museum’s holdings, the rest from other public and private collections. “The goal is to make Munch’s art known and easily accessible to as many people as possible,” Magne Bruteig, Senior Curator for Prints and Drawings, tells Hyperallergic. “Since the majority of the drawings had never been exhibited or published in any way, it has been of special importance to reveal this ‘hidden treasure.’” The online collection, then, not only serves as an introduction for Munch novices but also for longtime admirers of the artist’s work, who have hitherto had little to no access to this huge collection of studies, preparatory sketches, watercolors, etc., which includes the miserable family grouping of Angst, at the top, the reprise of his infamous Scream figure, further up, from 1898, and The Sick Child, above, a portrait of his sister Sophie who died in childhood.

The drawings date back to 1873, when Munch was only ten years old and inserted a series of his own illustrations into a copy of Grimm’s Fairytales. The final works date from 1943, the year before the artist’s death, when he made the self-portrait above in pastel crayon. Munch’s work, writes Rosenthal, “is compulsively autobiographical.” Remaining a committed bachelor all of his life, he said that “his paintings were his children, even though he gave many of them a somewhat Spartan upbringing, deliberately leaving them not only unvarnished but exposed to the elements in his vast outdoor studio or hung on walls, unframed and with nails through them.” The several thousand drawings he fathered seem to have been treated with more care. Delve into the enormous collection at the Oslo Munch Museum site here, where you can also view many of the artist’s paintings and learn much more about his life and work through articles and essays.

via Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Animated Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

The genre of animated time-lapse video maps—portraying the rise and fall of empires, the spread of people groups, the succession of rulers over hundreds of years, and other histories that used to fill entire textbooks—is one of those internet-only phenomena with useful, if limited application. As the bombastic music that sometimes accompanies these videos suggests, one primary effect is the production of maximally sweeping historical drama through mapping, which captures the imagination in ways dry prosaic descriptions often can’t.

The subject of the video above—the British Empire—seems to justify such an approach, given that, as one educational website notes, “the British Empire was the largest formal empire that the world had ever known.” Whether one celebrates or deplores this fact is a matter for political or moral debate—categories that have little seeming relevance to the production of animated video maps.

“At its height in 1922,” writes Jon Stone at The Independent, “the British Empire governed a fifth of the world’s population and the quarter of the world’s total land area.” His comment that this legacy “divides opinion” grossly understates the case. Yet as bare historical fact, the spread of the Empire is astonishing, an achievement of military and maritime power, unprecedented commercial ambition, bureaucratic systemization, trade maneuvering, and the massive displacement, detention, and enslavement of millions of people.

How did it happen? To paraphrase an often-divisive British singer, empire began at home.

The video begins in 519 A.D., after the end of Roman rule in England, when the so-called Heptarchy formed, the seven Anglo-Saxon tribal kingdoms ruled by Germanic peoples who killed off or enslaved the native Celts. From there, we proceed through the Norman invasion, the English attempts to take French territory in Europe, Henry VIII’s invasion and annexation of Ireland, and other colonizing and empire-building events that precede British entry onto the far-flung global stage with the founding of the British East India Company’s first post in Surat, India in 1612 and Puritan settlement at Plymouth in 1620.

We see these events unfold in a split screen map showing different parts of the world, with a box on the side providing context and a color-coded legend. This rush through Imperial history occurs at a relatively breakneck speed, taking only 18 minutes to cover 1,500 years.

The long, slow rise of the British Empire was followed by a precipitous fall. By the mid-20th century postwar years, Britain saw its major colonies in India, Africa, and the West Indies achieve independence one by one. “By 1979,” writes Adam Taylor at The Washington Post, the Empire “was reduced to a few pockets around the world.” And by the current year, the former global power’s overseas colonial holdings comprise 14 small territories, including mostly unpopulated Antarctic land and the Falkland Islands.

See many more fascinating animated time-lapse maps, documenting all of world history, at the creator Ollie Bye’s YouTube channel.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hip Hop Fan Freaks Out When He Hears Rage Against the Machine’s Debut Album for the Very First Time

I consider myself lucky to have been a child of the nineties. As you know from Portlandia’s tribute to the decade of slack, it was a time when “people were content to be unambitious and sleep to 11 and just hang out with their friends.” Start a band, start a t-shirt company, build a website, go to clown school, or don’t, whatever, no pressure…. In contrast to the hypercompetitive, social media-saturated, precarious gig economy lives of harried, overworked, underpaid millennials, we had it pretty easy. But we knew things were poised to explode. At the same time, it was a decade of cultural passion for revolution, peace, and justice—conscious hip hop, Riot Grrrl, Lilith Fair, and Rage Against the Machine, maybe the most radically uncompromising band since Crass. The rap/rock/metal hybrid seamlessly blended the revolutionary funk and political fury of Public Enemy with the virtuoso riffage of Eddie Van Halen.

I only wish that, like the guy in the video above, I could hear them again for the first time, blasting from the car stereo, blowing my mind every few seconds. How is it that this guy had never heard Rage’s incredible self-titled debut? For one thing, I guess, he probably hadn’t even been born when it came out in 1992.

For another, he’s a hip-hop head who didn’t listen to rock and metal until recently, when, as his YouTube channel documents, he decided to start sampling bands in his car and uploading his real-time reactions. How very 2018. He’s exposed himself to some great stuff—Megadeth, Deftones, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Motörhead. He’s sampled Audioslave, guitarist Tom Morello’s post-Rage supergroup. And some other bands I won’t comment on.

He also put together a mixtape of metal he thinks would cross over to his hip hop friends. Unsurprisingly, many of the bands he recommends pull heavily from Rage Against the Machine, who themselves pulled from the Beastie Boys, AnthraxSuicidal TendenciesFaith No More…. Rage didn’t come from nowhere—we’d heard conscious rap and metal meet before, even just the previous year when Anthrax and Public Enemy put out their version of “Bring the Noise.” The late eighties/early nineties produced organic rap/metal crossovers before the problematic advent of “nu metal.” But when YouTuber YouYouYou!!! hits pause at 3:38 and screams “WHAT IS THIS! WHAT IS THIS!” I relate. It was more or less my reaction when I first heard “Know Your Enemy,” “Take the Power Back,” and “Killing in the Name” blast from the tape deck. YouYouYou!!! takes recommendations. I recommend he work his way through all of Rage’s catalog.

via Twisted Sifter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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