On Blink-182 and Aliens

Weird story on ex-Blink member Tom DeLonge by Drew Millard for The Outline:

This year, NASA will be launching a satellite called TESS, whose job it will be to map out all the stars we can see, so that we can identify planets that aren’t too far from their sun to be really cold, but not so close that they’d be too hot. (This ideal space is called the “Goldilocks Zone.”) From there, a high-powered space telescope will hone in on those planets and analyze their wavelengths, looking for these biosignature gases. By the calculations of Sara Seager, the MIT astronomer who conceptualized the project, that this process, once complete, will provide us with exactly one life-bearing planet besides our own.

Tom DeLonge, however, thinks the aliens are already here. During his music-making prime, DeLonge had long been fascinated by conspiracy theories. He referenced the alleged 50s-era alien hunters Majestic 12 on Enema of the State’s “Aliens Exist”; the sole album by his Box Car Racer side project was peppered with angsty lyrics about how frustrated he was with the lack of government disclosure about various secrets; in 2001 he got married on Coronado, an island near San Diego that was once the site of an alleged alien abduction. (From here on out, just mentally insert the word “alleged” whenever you see something that seems dubious, because shit’s about to get alleged as hell.)

But around the time of his split with blink, he went full tinfoil. He began giving conspiracy-laden interviews to incredulous outlets, who gleefully racked up clicks by playing up the incongruity of the blink-182 guy talking about aliens. He became a curious footnote in last year’s presidential election when a Wikileaks dump of Hillary Clinton’s emails revealed he’d been communicating with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta about aliens, which in part led to him being named “UFO Researcher of the Year” by OpenMinds.tv.

I’m not inclined to believe aliens exist, but I do have some Blink-182 in my Apple Music library. Their new stuff may not be great, as Millard writes, but their back catalog—with DeLonge—is chock-full of some pretty great tunes.

Eminem Interview with Vulture

David Marchese at Vulture interviewed Eminem about his new album, Revival, released earlier this month. Eminem is one of my favorite artists, and although I was initially skeptical, Revival has turned into one of my most favorite albums of the year. The man is a genius, lyrically and technically. I say Recovery is his best work, but this new one is up there.

It’s fascinating to read how Eminem dislikes his Encore and Relapse albums.

Pandora Premium

Micah Singleton at The Verge reviewed Pandora's new streaming music service. Looking at the pictures accompanying his piece, it's clear much of the UI design is inspired by Rdio, which Pandora acquired in 2015. While I'm a happy Apple Music subscriber now, I loved Rdio so seeing Pandora Premium's interface brings back fond memories. I don't know that I'll try Pandora Premium, but it's good to see Rdio's legacy lives on.

On Rdio 3.0

Ben Sisario for The New York Times, on Rdio's new update, including a move to the "freemium" model:

“What we’ve learned collectively over the last few years,” said Anthony Bay, Rdio’s chief executive, “is that the most successful models are freemium models.” [...] Rdio’s new design, which fills a user’s screen with readymade playlists based on their tastes, draws heavily on the Internet radio format, which was popularized by Pandora and has become an increasingly important as digital outlets try to figure out how people prefer to listen to music online. The radio giant Clear Channel has made an aggressive push for its online radio platform, iHeartRadio. Recently Rhapsody introduced unRadio, a music service that is free for T-Mobile customers, and Google bought Songza, an online playlist service. I'm a big fan of Rdio, and yesterday's update is great. Rdio's gotten even better. Be sure to check out The Sweet Setup's rundown of all the new stuff in 3.0.

On 'The History of the Walkman'

Carl Frazen for The Verge, on 35 years of Sony's iconic music player:

The first of Sony's iconic portable cassette tape players went on sale on this day, July 1st, back in 1979 for $150. As the story goes, Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka got the wheels turning months before when he asked for a way to listen to opera that was more portable than Sony's existing TC-D5 cassette players. The charge fell to Sony designer Norio Ohga, who built a prototype out of Sony's Pressman cassette recorder in time for Ibuka's next flight. I had a Walkman in junior high school, with which I listened to a lot of Boyz II Men. Later, I transitioned to a Discman, which I used for a long while until getting my iPhone in 2007. (Believe it or not, I never owned an iPod) It's crazy to think that I'm old enough to remember cassette tapes, but I remember them well. (via The Loop)

Yet Another Reminder That Time Flies

Jessica Catcher, writing for Mashable, lists "20 Songs Turning 20 in 2014":

To ring in 2014, we remember what an awesome year 1994 was for music. Back before Snoop Dragon and when the idea of Green Day creating a Broadway musical seemed absurd, Snoop Doggy Dogg and the "Basket Case" band were just getting their start on the airwaves. I remember every song on the list, particularly "I'll Make Love to You" by Boyz II Men. In 1994, I was starting junior high, and Boyz II Men was my favorite group back then. I used to listen to them on my Walkman --- yes, Walkman --- all the time, singing along quite horribly. Ah, memories!

How I Learned to Love Subscription-Based Music

This article first appeared in Issue 16 of The Loop Magazine.


For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved listening to music — without a doubt, it is my favorite leisure activity. Music is a part of everyday life for me; rare is the day that I don’t listen to something, even if it’s just one song. I listen to it while I write. I listen to it while I walk around town. I listen to it on the bus. I listen to it therapeutically, as I find music is a great stress reliever during times when I’m angry or otherwise upset. (Case in point: I very recently lost a close family member, and have found that Eminem’s new album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, has really helped me channel my emotions during these still-very-trying times.) All of this to say that I love music, so much so that I can’t imagine my life without it.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration for me to say that I live most of my life with my EarPods virtually attached to me, as if they were an appendage. The majority of the music I listen to is done via my iPhone. But I no longer use the stock iOS Music app, as I had done for the last several years. Nowadays, my music-listening is done via Rdio, the streaming music service.

For me, joining Rdio earlier this year was a watershed moment. It has completely changed the way I access music, as well as change the way I feel about owning music versus using a subscription-based service. Moreover, Rdio, in software terms, has earned a place amongst my personal pantheon of best-of-breed iOS apps, alongside other favorites such as Tweetbot and Day One. I’m proud to be able to say that I’m a subscription music convert.

MANY FORMATS, SAME MUSIC


Having grown up a child of the ‘80s (I was born in 1981), I’m old enough to remember technologies that today seem anachronistic judged against things like Rdio and iTunes. I have fond memories of going to the record store every Tuesday — Tuesday being the day artists typically put out new music — to peruse the aisles and check out what was new that week. More often than not, I would leave the store with bag in hand, first with cassettes then later CDs, of my favorite artists’ new material. I was (and still am) a big fan of hip-hop, R&B, and rock music, so I would bring home music from the likes of Puff Daddy (as he was known in the ’90s), Blink 182, and Boyz II Men, among others. I spent a king’s ransom on cassettes and CDs, and still have many of them to this day, stuffed in a box in my closet. Every once in a while, I’ll dig out the box and look through what’s left of my collection; it serves as a nostalgic reminder that I spent my adolescent years without the now-ubiquitous spoils of streaming content and iOS devices. Compare and contrast my adolescence with that of today’s youth, and it’s amazing to think about how fast technology moves. By current standards, my memories are like something out of the Stone Age.

It wasn’t until December 2007, when I bought the original iPhone, that I started to embrace digital media. Upon getting that first iPhone — which, incidentally, was my first-ever Apple product, period — I shifted from going to the record store every week for CDs to every week scouring the New Releases section of the iTunes Store. I loved the convenience and the feeling of instant gratification of downloading albums on demand so much that my CD-buying eventually came to a screeching halt. Even then, my old cassettes and compact discs seemed so archaic in comparison to the new hotness (to me) that was iTunes. I went all-in, spending just as much money as before, but only now it was for a bunch of MP3 files instead of a bunch of plastic discs. It was at this time that I packed up my suddenly quaint physical media and threw it into the aforementioned closet.

GOOD-BYE ITUNES, HELLO RDIO


It took a few years, but iTunes eventually started to look as weary as my old tapes and CDs did. I grew increasingly frustrated with managing my iTunes library and with iTunes’s idiosyncratic syncing behaviors. Sometimes checked albums wouldn’t sync to my phone; sometimes album art was missing on the device; and sometimes tracks were listed out of order for no apparent reason. Add in the complexity of syncing multiple devices, and I came to a point where I no longer was willing to fiddle with iTunes (iCloud notwithstanding), regardless of how much time and money I had invested into it.

Enter Rdio.

I was reluctant at first to fully move away from iTunes because I liked the idea that I owned my music, and that my music was stored locally on my devices. But, after reading good things from Shawn Blanc, I decided to sign up for Rdio and check it out. I was hooked immediately.

Chief among these reasons I find Rdio so appealing is that, for one low monthly price, I have access to all the music my ears can handle. In the past, I kept a running list of “albums to buy” — I couldn’t possibly buy every single album I wanted in one fell swoop, or else end up in bankruptcy court. Keeping this wish list was frustrating because I spent a lot of time struggling to cherry-pick which album(s) took highest priority given my budget. As a result, I felt as though I was missing out on lots of good music because I couldn’t afford everything. With Rdio, however, I can pay $10 to have anything and everything my heart desires. I can add as many albums or songs to my Collection as I want, and delete them just as easily if I find they’re not to my liking. I don’t need to worry about keeping a list or staying within my budget or — worse — spending money on an album that I thought was going to be great but turns out to be less than expected. I’m also no longer concerned with the notion of “owning” the music. All this is very liberating.

Another more technical reason in Rdio’s favor is that their app syncs across devices, on iOS and Mac. My Collection and even what I’m currently listening to is synced from my iPhone to my iPad Air to my MacBook. No matter where I am or what device I’m using, I have all my music with me, at all times. Furthermore, I find Rdio’s iOS app to be gorgeous, design-wise. Though the app was created in the iOS 6 era, its look is unique and feels right at home with iOS 7. My favorite aspect of the aesthetic is how the background color of the Now Playing screen is taken from the color(s) of the respective album art; it’s beautiful and Apple-like in terms of delight and attention to detail. A very nice touch, indeed.

Of course, despite my praise, Rdio isn’t without its imperfections.

SUBSCRIPTION MUSIC’S UNDERBELLY


Rdio’s warts aren’t blemishes that are exclusive to its specific offering — rather, the problems I have with Rdio are problems that affect all subscription music services.

The biggest wart, to me, is smartphone data plan usage. Since joining Rdio, it’s easier than ever for me to plow through my monthly allotment of data, and I have AT&T’s largest plan ($50 for 5GB per month). As such, I have to be very conscientious of the amount of time I spend in Rdio on LTE. This issue is exacerbated by the fact my home Wi-Fi network is crippled by a slower-than-slow DSL connection. What this means is I oftentimes switch to LTE to listen at home because my Wi-Fi is so pokey. On the bright side, I only recently learned that you can sync music to be played offline, no Internet connection required. I plan to look into it, so hopefully it’ll help me save on my cellular data.

The other issue I have is with selection. One of my favorite albums is Metallica’s 2008 LP, Death Magnetic. iTunes has it, but Rdio does not. That Rdio is missing the album isn’t a great catastrophe, but I admit to missing it in my Collection. Yes, I could sync Death Magnetic to my devices via iTunes, but I’d prefer it be in Rdio along with all my other music. Call me finicky. All this said, the lack of selection parity between iTunes and Rdio is most certainly due to licensing deals with the labels, so at least Rdio encourages users to let them know if there are bands and/or albums that they’d like the company to add.

Overall, iTunes has advantages over Rdio (and similar services) in two major regards: (1) listening using Music.app means the music is local, not dependent upon the network ; and (2) iTunes is far better in terms of variety. Nonetheless, I still prefer Rdio for its “all-you-can-eat” model and prettier iOS app. The bottom line is I’m willing to accept these trade-offs because I so enjoy the service.

ON DISCOVERY AND ITUNES RADIO


For better or worse, I’m pretty set in my ways when it comes to what and who I listen to. I have my favorite artists and albums, and I generally stick to those. I don’t branch out very often to discover new artists, let alone new genres. When I do feel like something new, however, I find that Rdio is very good at recommending new music. What’s more, the try-music-risk-free feature I spoke of earlier makes it really easy to find, say, a new band, download a song of theirs, and check them out. If I don’t like it, I’m not out any money, and I can just delete said song from my Collection and move on.

iTunes Radio interests me. Since iOS 7 was released, I haven’t used the feature at all until now, as research for this piece. (Rdio has similar functionality, called “Stations”) In my testing, it seems that iTunes’s stations algorithms are good; the Hip-Hop station, for instance, introduced me to a couple artists that I’d never previously heard of. In addition, that you can buy a song from within the station as you’re listening is slick — a textbook example of Apple integration.

It’s hard to say who has the stronger recommendation engine. If you’re like me and committed to Rdio, then its Stations feature will do just fine as a discovery tool. If, on the other hand, you like iTunes, then iTunes Radio is great. Obviously, my bias leans heavily towards Rdio, but iTunes Radio is impressive nonetheless.

THE BOTTOM LINE


For me, access trumps ownership. At this point, I find it more appealing to pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to all the music I want. I’m willing to accept that this means my data usage is higher, and that Rdio’s catalog is smaller than iTunes’s. These are compromises I’m willing to make.

Rdio is undoubtedly the best new thing I tried this year.

Jay Z Albums Ranked By Jay Z

In celebration of his birthday, the rap legend ranked his albums, best to worst:

Jay Z albums

In case the sides of those jewel cases are hard to make out, here’s the list:

  1. Reasonable Doubt
  2. The Blueprint
  3. The Black Album
  4. Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life
  5. American Gangster
  6. Magna Carta Holy Grail
  7. Vol. 1…In My Lifetime
  8. The Blueprint 3
  9. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
  10. Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter
  11. The Blueprint 2
  12. Kingdom Come

Of Jay’s twelve albums, my favorites are The Black Album and The Blueprint 3.

(via Chris Martucci)

Rdio's Bad News

Ingrid Lunden for TechCrunch, on the company’s recent lay-offs:

[S]ome bad news from competitor Rdio, the music streaming service startup from Skype co-founder Janus Friis. The company has confirmed to TechCrunch that is is making “across-the-board workforce reductions today to improve its cost structure and ensure a scalable business model for the long-term.”

The company did not offer any further specifics on the layoffs. One person who first alerted us to them alleges that they affect 35 people, some 20% of the workforce, with significant cuts in engineering. Indeed, at least two people affected by the layoffs are both engineers that focus on mobile and web apps, according to notes posted on Twitter.

This kind of news is disheartening, especially for a startup that has yet (?) to be acquired by a larger body. I adore Rdio, and reading this instantly made me nervous about the service’s future, long-term. It’d be a damn shame to see them eventually fade away; that would make me very sad.

On Eminem, Rick Rubin, and MMLP2

David Drake, writing for Complex:

Eminem’s appeal, over the years, seems to have been hammered into a shape that is defined by his “skill,” the detailed, OCD focus on the perfection of his wordplay and intricacy. But there are reasons to suspect—or, at the very least, hope—that Rubin’s influence will be more than letting Eminem exercise his prodigal complexity over the ’80s hip-hop beats.

It’s easy to caricature Rubin, who is executive-producing Marshall Mathers LP 2, as a simplistic bearded rock-rap guru. But, as he explained in an interview with the Daily Beast shortly after Yeezus was released, he does more than lay on couches: “You’re so close to something when you write it that it’s hard to have any perspective on how it hits someone else. My job is to be a professional version of the outside world—a listener who is not attached to any of it, who doesn’t know the story of how it was written, who doesn’t know how it works, who doesn’t know why this is important to you.”

What he’s offering, essentially, is a critical ear. Rubin is the anti-Yes-man, the producer whose opinion on what he likes (and what he doesn’t like) actually matters to some of the most driven and successful people on earth—to the guy whose indomitable will told him that he was more than a piece of the Roc-A-Fella production machine, to the guy who knew he could go from “Hawaiian Sophie” to being the King of New York, and now, to the rapper whose perfectionist vision lifted him from the trailer park to international fame.

For as much as I adore Eminem’s music, I can’t say that I’m a fan of his new single, “Berzerk”. That said, I am very excited to know that Rubin is collaborating with Eminem on MMLP2. If Rubin’s influence is as fruitful as it was for Linkin Park and Kanye, then my ears are in for a real treat.

'Backstreet's Back, All Right'

My friend Karen Datangel, in a profile of the Backstreet Boys for The Hudsucker:

In the mid to late 90s to early 2000s, one could not avoid the images of these guys’ transformations into iconic monsters and leading a group in a flash mob-type setting before the term flash mob was even invented in the “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” music video, or hearing the ultra-catchy and sweet pop hooks of “I Want It That Way” on the radio. Their record sales were off the charts, their concerts sold out in minutes, and they always made the talk show and variety show rounds—and their music videos were always in the rotation back when MTV actually played music videos.

My freshman year of high school began in 1996, so I remember the Boys in their heyday.

Reading this piece made me feel really old in context — mind you, I'll only turn 32 next month. But the memories I have of the boy band craze and MTV actually playing music videos are reminders that I'm getting older. A record store where you could buy the new Backstreet Boys album seems like a foreign, archaic concept now, but I remember those days well. Now, iTunes and Rdio rule the day.

Time flies.

'Yeezus'

In terms of my music-listening habits, I find that I'm much more of an album guy. That is, I find myself preferring to invest in entire albums rather than listening to singles on iTunes Rdio. Moreover, I've always been the type of listener who listens to one or two albums over and over, as if on a binge. I'll listen to these few albums until I inevitably get sick of them, but the illness is always temporary. I know that, eventually, I'll come back to these albums whenever the mood strikes again.

In fact, I'm in binge mode right now. I've been listening to Kanye West's new album, Yeezus, virtually non-stop since its release on June 18. It's a terrific album, and I believe its the best of Kanye's six.


* * *

It's hard for me to fully articulate exactly why I love Yeezus so much; it's just so raw and different than anything Kanye has ever done. I think the most apt, succinct explanation is I love it for the sounds. They're different and funky and catchy enough to my ear that I have my head bopping the entire time I'm listening to the album. Furthermore, a big tell that I really like an album is that I listen to it from beginning to end without skipping tracks. Yeezus is undoubtedly one of those albums.

Yeezus is reminiscent to me of Kanye's 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, which incidentally happens to be another of my favorite Kanye albums. Like 808s, Yeezus employs sparse, funky beats with some rapping and the occasional Auto-Tune. The two albums are clearly different, to be sure, but I find their similarities interesting, and I wonder if Kanye used bits and pieces of 808s for inspiration. I wouldn't be surprised if he did, because there are a lot of similar ingredients between the two works.

As I mentioned, a clear sign that I really dig an album is that I listen to it straight through without skipping. Again, Yeezus is unquestionably one of those albums. A big reason for this, I think, is the work of executive producer Rick Rubin. Rubin is one of my favorite producers, him being the mastermind behind Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and the last three Linkin Park albums, including LIVING THINGS. That I adore Rubin isn't so much about him as a beat maker --- though the one he created for "99 Problems" is incredibly good --- but rather the influence he has on the artists with whom he's working. He lets them experiment, be different, and encourages boundary-pushing. Such is the case with Kanye and Yeezus.

Here's Rubin on West, in an interview with the WSJ:

He is a true artist who happens to make music under the wide umbrella of hip hop. He is in no way beholden to hip hop’s typical messaging musical cliches. Hip hop is a grander, more personal form because of his contributions, and hopefully his work will inspire others to push the boundaries of what’s possible in hip hop.

Rubin is right on here. Kanye West makes hip-hop better, and Rick Rubin makes Kanye better.

I will never apologize for my liking rap music, and I will forever proudly proclaim that Kanye is one of my favorite rappers. People can hate on him for his narcissism or for the fact he and Kim Kardashian named their daughter North (she's keeping her dad's last name), but that doesn't reflect upon Kanye as an artist. He is an artist in the truest sense of the word.


* * *

Though every song on Yeezus is great, there are a few that I am particularly fond of. These are the tracks that I keep on coming back to when, invariably, I don't want to necessarily listen to the entirety of the album.

These favorites are, in no particular order:

"On Sight" is produced by the Daft Punk guys, and a perfect intro to the album. I love the beat, especially at song's end. "I Am A God", with its insanely pompous title, is in my mind the anthem for the entire album. "I'm In It" is crass and overtly sexual, but I like it. But "Blood On The Leaves" --- wow. It starts slow, with Kanye on the Auto-Tune, then he drops that glorious, infectious beat. It's fucking amazing. Out of all ten songs on Yeezus, I must listen to "Blood On The Leaves" most often. Just a great, great song.

In his review for The Talkhouse, Lou Reed writes:

People say this album is minimal.  And yeah, it's minimal.  But the parts are maximal. 

[…]

 It's all the same shit, it's all music — that's what makes him great.  If you like sound, listen to what he's giving you. Majestic and inspiring.

I like sound --- and I like this album. A lot.

If I were to rank Kanye's six albums in order of most favorite to least, it'd go:

  1. Yeezus
  2. 808s & Heartbreak
  3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  4. Graduation
  5. The College Dropout
  6. Late Registration

What can I say? I have a thing for the Auto-Tune.

* * *

What I appreciate most about Kanye West is that he isn't afraid to experiment musically and break conventions. He takes risks with his music. Which is why I believe getting Rick Rubin aboard this project was a stroke of genius. Rubin and West are like two peas in a pod in that sense. Both men collaborated on something truly remarkable that I think will appeal to music fans, not just rap fans.

I don't know that I could heap more praise onto Yeezus, other than to say it's been roughly a month and I still haven't tired of listening to it I'll refrain from going to extremes and say it's one of the greatest albums of all time, but I will reiterate what I said earlier: Yeezus is Kanye West's best album to date. It's raw and minimal. There were no promotional singles before release. Even the album cover is minimal --- and beautifully minimal at that. In my mind, Yeezus is the best album I've heard all year thus far. If I were a betting man, I'd bet Kanye will be able to add another Grammy to his trophy case.

I will say this: if you discriminate against hip-hop music and/or Kanye for whatever reason(s), you're definitely missing out. Yeezus is a sonic adventure that's too good to be missed. Whether via iTunes, Spotify, or Rdio, you should do your ears a favor and listen to this album.

Talking Design with Ryan Sims

Designerfund.com conducted a cool interview with Rdio’s design chief:

Can you tell us a little bit about the challenge of balancing visual design and UI as a web product designer. How do you stand out from other music products?

“Music is magical. Discovering and consuming it should be a joy. One thing we’ve tried to do with Rdio is bring the music to the foreground by pushing everything else to the back. If Rdio is the canvas, the music is the paint. And we are trying to compose spectacular landscapes. Being a company that values design at every level and having such a design-driven product, we can take some pretty big design risks where others might be more cautious and conservative. This is one hell of an opportunity and it’s something every one of our designers has a good grasp of and takes very seriously.”

Rdio on iOS is one of the most visually stunning apps on the platform. I love how long-pressing on an album takes you to an options screen where the album art is highlighted, but the background colors matches that of the album cover. That’s a really nice touch. In fact, the design of Rdio’s app was highly influential as I contemplated moving away from iTunes.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Sims and team have planned for Rdio and iOS 7.

(via Shawn Blanc)

'Music Every Day'

Apple tonight released another lovely new iPhone ad. Just terrific.

Stylistically, this ad is akin to as “Photos Every Day”, which I also love. The music is great. The whole campaign is great. I'm not one to get too excited over commercials, but I think Apple's done wonderfully with the latest iPhone spots. I use the camera on my iPhone every day, and I listen to music on my iPhone every day. Hence, the emotional appeal is pretty strong for me.