2020 Grammy Performances

First off, I don’t watch the Grammys or follow the awards; I have no idea what the categories are, how the winners are determined, or how Billie Eilish can win 5 Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year (what’s the difference again?). But I did catch the aftermath this year, namely the musical performances which tend to be an iconic part of the awards show. Personally, I was most interested in the performances by Tyler, the Creator, Bilie Eilish, and Lil Nas X, of which Tyler is the most senior, having been rapping and pushing the limits of the genre for the last decade, while both Billie and Lil Nas are recent stars on the hip hop/pop scene. All performances were interesting in their own way and extremely telling of the current music industry, and for that reason I want to look at how successful each performance was and what defined them.

My favorite performance by far was Tyler, the Creator performing a medley of songs off of his most recent album Igor, which you may remember me writing about last fall. It ended up winning Best Rap Album of the Year, which is somewhat controversial, considering how experimental and genre-breaking Igor truly is. Many critics of the Grammys (including Tyler himself) point out the historical connotations of the Best Rap Album award, which has been one of the only awards consistently won by African American musicians, and feel that the forcing of Igor into this category further displays the role of the rap award as a participation trophy for African American artists.

Regardless of the politics around the award, nobody can argue that Igor didn’t deserve the Grammy; it truly is one of a kind, a fusion of multiple genres and saturated with personality and aesthetic. Tyler brought these exact qualities to his explosive performance, featuring a beautifully sung intro, then wild and intense effects followed up by an insane, almost heavy metal raging and dancing, leading to another beautifully sung reprieve, and finally a crescendo of visceral craziness and adrenaline, leading to a fitting climax. I definitely recommend watching it yourself; words can’t do it justice. Even if you don’t usually appreciate that style of music, I think the performance is objectively fantastic. I found that my heart was racing when I was watching, and I caught myself smiling at the end, that’s how much I was drawn into the over-the-top qualities of the performance. Not only was it more entertaining than any other performance, it actually put the music on display, perfectly conveying the themes and emotions that go along with the album.

The next performance I watched was Billie Eilish performing an acoustic song off of her most recent album with her brother on the piano. It was certainly well done and haunting, but its impact was almost insignificant compared to Tyler’s. I should acknowledge my bias towards Tyler first however; I simply appreciate his style and musical development more than Billie’s. I was a fan of hers when she first started, but I quickly felt like all of her music sounded the same (which is a pretty generic critique, I know). Perhaps her style is just meant to be subtle, and I missed the point of her performance, but regardless I felt like it left a lot to be desired, which is surprising considering how many Grammys she won.

Last but not least was Lil Nas X performing a medley of Rodeo and Old Town Road, both viral hits last year. They’re great songs and all, certainly very catchy, but it’s hard for me to see him as anything more than just a meme. I don’t mean that with disrespect; I definitely think there is a place in pop culture for viral music and his endearing personality, but I think he objectively lacks the artistic skill of more serious or developed musicians. He might grow into a more serious artist one day too, who knows, but for now I think his music is just meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator of today’s pop culture, which I think was put on full display during his performance. Studded with other celebrities and musicians, his performance felt like an odd fever dream with some familiar faces, but no unifying style. It was practically a musical advertisement for the music industry, not an example of outstanding creative performance. It makes sense that Lil Nas would rely on the reputations and popularity of other musicians, considering he has just started making a name for himself, but it certainly doesn’t help him to stand out or create his own musical legacy.

Hopefully this didn’t turn into a rant (it can be hard to tell sometimes), and I think my biases are pretty obvious, but regardless I think that comparing these iconic performances can reveal a lot about what makes award show performances so important, and what makes a performance stand out or blend in. In my opinion, Tyler’s performance is the gold standard of memorable, experimental, mold-breaking, and artistic. It might not be fully appreciated by general audiences, or appeal to the popular culture spheres of today, but I think it will be remembered as iconic in the history of award performances. The other performances will likely be forgotten by the next Grammys, but hopefully those artists will have another chance to prove themselves with more experience and perspective under their belts.

Circles, a Posthumous Album by Mac Miller

A while ago I wrote a post about the album Swimming by Mac Miller, released only a few months before his tragic and sudden death. In that post, I focused on the perspective and depth that his death brought to the record; it was already a masterpiece of production and quality, but his passing brought new meaning to the solemn and haunting lyrics and changed the tone of the album to one of bittersweet mourning. I still listen to that album frequently and appreciate the unique insight it gives into the complicated mind and mixed emotions of Mac Miller right before he passed. Needless to say, I never expected that there would be another fully produced album coming out in 2020, almost 2 years after his death. The posthumous album Circles was released on the 17th of January, with little fanfare or spectacle, which already set it apart from most posthumous music releases from other young musicians who have passed recently. I had no idea what to expect; it was reported that he was already working on the album during the same time as Swimming, and that it was intended as a sister album, but I had to wonder how much he had actually finished and how much was just his label dragging out clips and ideas that he had left behind, never intended to be finished. Not to mention that Swimming seemed like the capstone of his musical career, a fitting and bittersweet monument to his character and legacy. Clearly Circles had a lot of expectations to live up to, both as a posthumous project and as the final gift of Mac Miller to the world, and I am relieved to say that it provides the catharsis that the world was looking for.

Circles, Mac Miller January 17, 2020

The album features 12 songs, covering a wide range of styles and genres, but all united by the bittersweet singing and lyricism of Mac himself. It is remarkable just how much material his production team (led by Jon Brion) had to work with, and how well they flushed out the songs and ideas that he left behind. Some tracks show more strain than others unfortunately, featuring simple choruses or structures, hinting at the limited recordings they had to work with. Regardless, the production is always beautiful and perfectly complements the feelings that Mac conveys through his singing, making each song feel complete, even if not outstanding. In general, many people criticized his singing on Swimming, a gradual departure from his iconic experimental rapping, but in Circles he has fully developed his voice and style and it is tragically gorgeous. Each song is saturated with personality by his relaxed and melancholy presentation, more fitting and bittersweet than ever after his passing. My personal favorites are Good News, Circles, Hand Me Downs, and I Can See, which are all diverse in their own way, but convey his state of mind so elegantly that it’s hard not to cry, thinking about how such an emotionally complex and wholesome person was taken from a world that needed him. Overall, Circles is a tragically self-aware album that reflects on the last thoughts of Mac Miller, a young kid from Pittsburg who made a profound impact on those who knew him and left the world a better place. Finally, I’ll leave you with these words from the legend himself:

“My god, it go on and on
Just like a circle, I go back where I’m from”

– So It Goes, Swimming


Soundtracks that Stand Out

Although I claim to open to almost any style or genre of music, there are a few that I just find hard to bear: whether it be screamo, country, or experimental noise that gives me a headache. Soundtrack music tends to be more complicated. I know a lot of people that can just listen to the soundtrack of a movie, play, game, or tv show from front to back, just like how I would listen to a normal album, and that concept is completely foreign to me. I’ve just always felt like there was something missing from soundtracks, and that missing piece tends to be a strong overarching theme or common aesthetic. Most of these albums lack vocals, relying solely on instrumentation, while simultaneously being the background music to something much more interesting happening visually. For these reasons I often don’t think twice about the soundtracks to my favorite media; when I do, it’s usually only to point out one fitting song or memorable moment, not to listen to the entire album. However, I do think some soundtracks break this monotony, and in appreciating what makes these albums interesting, I think we can learn a lot about what it takes for a soundtrack to stand out, and more importantly what its role is in the overall work of art. To examine these questions, I want to bring up two soundtracks that I find particularly notable: Devilman Crybaby and Swiss Army Man.

Image result for devilman crybabyDevilman Crybaby is an original Netflix anime adaptation of the original manga by Go Nagai, and although I highly recommend watching it, I’ll try to save some of my praise for another post. The essential story is about a young boy named Akira who gets wrapped up in an emerging world of demons by his mysterious childhood friend Ryo. It features existential and dark themes, and raises questions about humanity, society, and love that make you think long after the show is over. It’s a tragedy to be sure; be prepared to cry when it’s over, but it is not without its moments of hope. The soundtrack to the show mirrors this so accurately and poignantly, making it the perfect complement to the show and adding something that makes it entirely unique. The aesthetic of the soundtrack perfectly fits the artistic style of the animation; it’s primal and pounding at times, matching the intense scenes of chaos, and other times it’s subtle and futuristic, setting this iconic tone throughout the show that lasts long after its over. My favorite tracks however are these long orchestral pieces, featuring these solemn and mourning grand piano melodies that are absolutely haunting. They contrast so well, both on the overall album and in the show itself; they provide these thoughtful reprieves from the chaos, where both the characters and audience are forced to reflect on the tragedies of humanity. Overall, I find this soundtrack incredible in how it affects the story, and how well crafted it is that it can stand alone.

Image result for swiss army manAnother great example of a stand out soundtrack is Swiss Army Man, a small indie film featuring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano. Again, one of my favorite movies; a little quirky and hard to swallow at first, but it leaves a lasting impression and is just genuinely fun to watch. Similar to the Devilman Crybaby soundtrack, this soundtrack stands out for its aesthetic and style: it is fun and folky, featuring a lot of vocals and accapella, accompanied by simple instrumentation and haunting chords. All of the vocals are performed by the two actors as well, which is ingenious, especially during the film when the characters are quiet and the music speaks for them. The movie mostly takes place in the woods and is an unusual love story, which is reflected well in the soundtrack. It features a variety of unusual songs, mostly focused on the relationship between the two main characters, and tells its own story in a way that the film itself can’t. In this way, the soundtrack adds an important element to the story and can’t be ignored. These reasons make the soundtrack stand out, and as a result I still find myself listening to it, reliving the great moments of the story through music.


The Soundtrack of My Summer

Do you ever hear a song come on the radio and suddenly you’re taken back in time to when you first heard it? You might have liked it so much that you played it on repeat for the next week, until you got sick of it and never played it again. Then you hear it on the radio and you fall in love all over again, but this time it’s even better, because you remember how great it was listening to it the first time, and it’s associated with a different time in life, where things might have been better or worse, but all you cared about was that one song. I experience this all the time, partially because I overplay things, but also because I’m constantly listening to new music. It’s a great feeling to rediscover a classic, and briefly but vividly remember an amazing moment from years ago. This effect also makes me more conscious about the music I listen to in the present, because I know that the music I listen to now will define my nostalgia in the future. Basically, an over-complicated way of saying that I like to relate certain songs or albums to certain times in my life. This last summer I struggled to find interesting or new music; not that there wasn’t a lot, just hardly anything that I wanted to put on repeat. However, two albums gradually rose to prominence and inevitably became the soundtracks of my summer: “Igor” by Tyler, the Creator and “Relaxer” by Alt-j.

“Igor” came out at the beginning of summer and I listened through it in its entirety the night it was released. It was a memorable project with an amazing atmosphere, unique aesthetic, and bass-heavy rhythms, but I didn’t see much replay value in it at first. It was like reading a book: the first time the story is great and the plot is constantly surprising, but attempting to read it again is daunting and pointless. However, faced with no alternative albums that peaked my interest, I resorted to picking out some of the catchiest, most interesting tracks and started listening to them daily (it was better than nothing, and I can’t live without music). Songs such as “EARFQUAKE”, “WHATS GOOD”, and “NEW MAGIC WAND” became favorites, mainly for their experimental vibes and driving bass lines. Overall the album isn’t bad, but the pitched vocals and gritty aesthetic get old fast, and I was more a fan of his aggressive and dark style on older albums.

The second album I overplayed was “Relaxer” by indie/alternative band alt-j. This album is true to its name, consisting of mostly rhythmic, gentle, and natural songs that feature a lot of acoustic instruments and samples. Only 8 songs long, there isn’t a lot to the album (especially since I can barely stand one of them), but the best ones truly shine, namely “3WW”, “In Cold Blood”, “Adeline”, and “Last Year”. This is an album for long car rides or adventures into the woods; it has a spirit of wandering and mystery that yields endless replay value, as both foreground and background music. It also served as a great contrast to the heavily produced and experimental Igor, meaning I could alternate the two albums and neither of them would get old. The two albums make an unlikely pair, but they complement each other in such a way that helps me appreciate the styles of each. Regardless, these songs came to define my summer: I played them on camping trips, beach trips, long drives, before work, and pretty much any other time I could play music.  Even though they aren’t my favorite albums ever, I can’t wait for that feeling, years later, when one shuffles into my playlist and I can briefly relive the summer of ’19, if only for a few minutes of nostalgia.


The Timeless Appeal of Vinyl Records

April 13th was Record Store day across the world, an annual event created to keep the legacy of records and record stores alive. The local Ann Arbor District library set up a Record Store Day event, including a market of new and used vinyl records from various record shops in Ann Arbor, along with a DJ and other entertainment. I was lucky enough to be able to go, and it was a great experience: I didn’t expect there to be many people, and I was worried it would be an awkward and uncomfortable environment, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a large turn out. Even more surprising was how diverse the group was, most notably in age. It was interesting to see so many young people talking to the older people about records, and it got me thinking a lot about the role of vinyl records today. They’ve reached an age where they’re obsolete in a practical sense, but have become a symbol of nostalgia and good taste: many people will boast about the unique and superior sound of vinyl records; if they’re being sincere or just trying to sound cool, it can be impossible to tell. Regardless, vinyl records have maintained their spot in popular culture and it doesn’t seem like they’ll be leaving anytime soon.


Personally, it’s easy for me to see why vinyl records have stayed relevant compared to other music formats, such as 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs. I’ve always appreciated the artistic format of vinyl records: their size alone demands attention and respect, not to mention they can be great examples of quality art and design. They take the concept of album art to an entirely new level by making the entire product a unique piece of art, from the front cover to the back cover and everything in-between. Some of my favorite examples are actually newer albums that are being sold in vinyl record format; I find it especially fascinating that modern musicians are releasing new music on vinyl. Maybe they see the unique artistic potential as well and they want to sell a work of art that will never age. Either way, I hope it’s a trend that doesn’t die out.


(Header Image: Google Images)

Albums featured:

  1. Zaba Limited Edition by Glass Animals
  2. Monument Valley Soundtrack by Stafford Bawler, OBFUSC and GRIGORI

Swimming: Before and After Mac Miller’s Death

When Swimming was first released in 2018, I was quick to listen to it. . . and was quick to forget about it. It wasn’t that it wasn’t good, I just didn’t find it very interesting; it seemed monotonous and there was a lot more singing than rapping, which Mac Miller was known for. I saw it got a lot of negative reviews by music critics as well; one even gave it a 3/10. I remember around that time thinking “Geez, this isn’t a great year for Mac”, and the next thing I heard was that he had died from an apparent overdose. To me, the saddest part was losing someone so young who had so much to give, and who had always tried to make himself and others happy. The more I thought about how tragic his death was, the more I started relistening to his music, and eventually I came back to Swimming. I approached it with a new perspective, realizing that this was his last gift to the world, and it was a completely different experience. Suddenly it all made sense; his singing was heartfelt and authentic, and even though it was off-key (which critics emphasized in their reviews), it was a refreshing break from the over-autotuned rappers of today. The instrumentation was also incredible, featuring trumpets, pianos, and violins, along with great production value, proving just how much Mac cared about making Swimming a thoughtful and genuine album.

Most important though were the lyrics, in which he talks about finally having reached a peace with the world. He had been known to struggle with drugs before, and he talks a lot about dealing with his inner-demons. It takes on an existential attitude as he talks about living a simple life and realizing that what he had been looking for was looking for him all along. In the end, Swimming was his most mature album yet, and yet nobody had seemed to realize it. Some part of me feels as if Mac knew he wasn’t going to live much longer, and that this last album was going to be his meditations on life before death. However, it’s sad that it took his death to fully appreciate this album. It begs the question: would it be better if he had chosen a simpler life and lived, or should we be happy that he gave so much to the world through his music while he was alive? Overall, I can’t recommend enough listening to this album, it’s a masterpiece. My favorite songs are Self Care, Jet Fuel, 2009, and So It Goes, which is the closing track of the album. These songs are the core of the album and show the real depth of Mac Miller, both musically and personally. Hopefully you find the album to be as genuine as I did, or if you listened to it before and weren’t impressed, try listening again. Either way, Mac Miller will always be remembered by the music community, and also by the people like me, who were fortunate enough to realize how wise and kind-hearted he truly was.

(Image Credits: Google Images)