Ten Great Albums for Two in the Morning

When you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, alone with your worries, music can help you make it through. But not just any music. Only a 2:00 a.m. record album will do.

A 2:00 a.m. album keeps you company in the darkness while you wrestle with fear and watch the dull glow of the stereo lights. A 2:00 a.m. album does not necessarily uplift you: a brass band marching through your living room feels wrong in the wee hours, which is why Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cannot be a 2:00 a.m. album. But 2:00 a.m. music does not drag you over the emotional abyss, either; Joy Division’s relentlessly depressing Closer needs to stay on the shelf after midnight. What you need is a friend who keeps you company without overstepping their boundaries. Albums like these:

1. Only the Lonely

Frank Sinatra once said, “I like recording late at night. The later the better. My voice was not made for daytime use.” Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded Only the Lonely in 1958. Today it feels like a time capsule that he left for future generations to discover during the lonely hours. Hearing the interplay between his crooning voice and Nelson Riddle’s orchestral arrangement is like sipping a warm cup of tea. The songs, such as the gentle “What’s New” and “Willow Weep For Me,” comfort your soul. Sinatra called these songs “saloon songs” because they feel perfect when you’re alone in a bar with a blinking beer sign. They work just as well in your home. When he sings “Excuse me, while I disappear” on the song “Angel Eyes,” you want to go where he’s going. And stay there.

2. The Dark Side of the Moon

David Gilmour makes Dark Side a 2:00 a.m. album. There’s the keening wail of his pedal steel guitar. And his low voice, soothing and reassuring, even as he sings Roger Waters’s lyrics that dwell on the pressures of everyday life. I realize that Dark Side might fall into the too-bleak-for-late-night category for many; it works for me because the album absorbs and reflects fear and melancholia like that friend I mentioned who simply keeps you company in the night. And that’s all because of Gilmour. If you want to feel loathing and anger, try Pink Floyd’s Animals. For paranoia, give The Wall a spin. But for 2:00 a.m. anxiety, I’ll see you on The Dark Side of the Moon.

3. Automatic for the People

The quiet reflection of “Night Swimming.” The emotional transcendence of “Everybody Hurts.” The bittersweet longing in Michael Stipe’s voice. The haunting respite that a quivering electric piano and guitar provide in “New Orleans Instrumental № 1.” I pick up something different each time I listen to this brooding masterpiece. And each time, when Michael Stipe sings, “If you feel like you’re alone/No, no, no, you are not alone,” I feel like he’s right there in the room singing to me.

4. Spirit

Listening to Willie Nelson is like eating a heaping plate of comfort food. The album, true to its name, takes you on a spiritual journey. Many of the songs consist of nothing more than Willie and a guitar sounding like he’s hanging out on a country porch with his family gathered around. When he sings “Too Sick to Pray,” he sounds like a Psalm writer having a conversation with God. The moment when he asks, “Remember the family Lord, I know they will remember you,” is as intimate and endearing as anything you’ll ever hear on a record.

5. Strange Days

The Doors have recorded a lot of perfect 2:00 a.m. songs. There’s “Riders on the Storm,” exuding dark dread. The ethereal “Crystal Ship.” But Strange Days is the one Doors work that endures as a 2:00 a.m. album from start to finish. The moment you hear Ray Manzarek’s creepy Moog synth playing on the opening track, you are transported out of your world and into the universal mind of the Doors. Jim Morrison’s voice, like David Gilmour’s on Dark Side, makes the album. He’s powerful without overpowering you on “When the Music’s Over,” and soft as a whisper on “You’re Lost Little Girl.” It’s a dark album. But its surreal undercurrent keeps Strange Days from passing into the realm of the overly foreboding.

6. Hounds of Love

Kate Bush’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery meshes with the lush arrangements to make you feel like you’re floating weightless somewhere in the clouds. In the dead of night, I can dig a sensation like that. On the opening song, ‘Running up That Hill,” a delicate bed of synthesizers and drums pulls you into Kateland before her voice soars and dances across the music. This album rewards the listener with unexpected, breathtaking moments, like the glorious choral section from the Georgian folk song “Zinzkaro” that makes “Hello Earth” a balm. Maybe it’s the way that her voice soars on every song, but Hounds of Love makes me feel hopeful.

7. Substrata

This ambient exploration of mood from Biosphere is unlike anything on this list. Substrata uses samples of running water, creaking wood, blowing wind, human voices, reverb, echo, guitar, and synthesizers to create a strange sonic landscape that is, quiet, provocative, and even menacing. I listened to this album often after I became a father and spent many late nights watching over my newborn.

8. The Trinity Session

The Cowboy Junkies recorded The Trinity Session in one night using a single microphone in Toronto’s Holy Trinity church. The church itself is like another instrument whose acoustics enhance Margo Timmins’ gentle voice. Her a capella reading of “Mining for Gold” creates a kind of loneliness that feels right — not desperate, but melancholy enough to make you feel like she understands your 2:00 a.m. solitude.

9. Kid A

Those descending chords from an electric piano that open Radiohead’s Kid A offer a clue about what comes next: synth, heavy bass, and voice distortion. I’ve never been able to enjoy Kid A in broad daylight. Thom Yorke’s dissonant but affecting vocals, processed by Pro Tools, sounds like your head does when off-kilter thoughts collide in the night.

10. All Things Must Pass

George Harrison understood what being awake at 2:00 a.m. means. On “Beware of Darkness,” the 10th song on All Things Must Pass, he sings, “Watch out now, take care/beware of the thoughts that linger/Winding up inside your head/The hopelessness around you/In the dead of night.” Like Willie Nelson’s SpiritAll Things Must Pass is a meditation on matters of faith. It’s heavy, dark, and reflective. But it’s also hopeful. On the title song, George sings, “Now the darkness only stays the night-time/In the morning it will fade away/Daylight is good at arriving at the right time/It’s not always going to be this grey.” Those words lift the soul at 2:00 a.m., and they can carry you into the day that lies ahead if you let them.

Parts of many other albums work well, too, such as Led Zeppelin III (for the bucolic vibe of Side Two) and Sticky Fingers (“I Got the Blues” is mandatory for a 2:00 a.m. playlist); In addition, Wish You Were Here belongs on a 2:00 a.m. album list, but I wanted to represent artists besides Pink Floyd on my Top 10. What do you listen to at 2:00 a.m., and why?

How Lana Del Rey Could Beat Radiohead in Court

Did she or didn’t she?

On January 7, Lana Del Rey said on Twitter that Radiohead has sued her for copyright infringement because of the similarities between her song “Get Free” (released in 2017) and Radiohead’s “Creep” (released in 1993).

She tweeted, “Although I know my song wasn’t inspired by Creep, Radiohead feel it was and want 100% of the publishing – I offered up to 40 over the last few months but they will only accept 100. Their lawyers have been relentless, so we will deal with it in court.”

At issue are similarities between the chord progressions in both songs (although the lyrical content is not a matter of dispute):

According to attorneys quoted in a Variety article, Radiohead has the upper hand in the argument for two reasons:

  • The songs sound too similar. As Bill Hochberg, an attorney at Greenberg Glusker, said, “I would say this case does cross the line. This Lana Del Rey song is way too close to what is a rather unusual set of chord changes and a very distinctive melody line.”
  • Lana Del Rey’s willingness to offer up to 40 percent of the publishing revenues out of court suggests she recognizes that the songs are too similar. “I don’t think you would offer 40% of your publishing if you believed the claim was frivolous,” said James Sammataro, an attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

But anything can happen when music copyright cases are decided by a jury of everyday people, especially when the dispute occurs over something as subjective as the way a song sounds as opposed to the lyrics used. Case in point: Led Zeppelin. Throughout Led Continue reading

You Don’t Have to Hug Your Fans

 

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Building fan love doesn’t mean pandering to your audience. Radiohead, which dropped its new album A Moon Shaped Pool digitally May 8, builds fan devotion by challenging and even confounding its audience, which is the right approach for a group whose music has always been one step ahead of everyone.

Radiohead’s actions in recent days — sending weird postcards to select fans and erasing its digital presence briefly — flies in the face of the “Taylor Swift lessons on customer engagement” articles that are floating all around the Internet. The Taylor Swift school of fan engagement emphasizes accessibility and warmth, with Taytay constantly flogging social media and bending over backward to return fan love. But Radiohead creates fan love through a mystique that approaches aloofness. Both artists demonstrate the importance of engaging fans in a way that’s right for your brand, which is truly a lesson that applies to any business, whether you’re an exclusive Louis Vuitton or crowd-pleasing Motel 6.

Radiohead certainly reaches out to its fans, but in its own peculiar way. For instance, the weekend of April 29, some of its fans received a vaguely worded leaflet with the sinister message, “We Know Where You Live.”

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Puzzled fans posted the leaflets on social media, triggering what would turn out to be accurate speculation that Radiohead was about to drop some new music.

But Radiohead wasn’t finished. On May 1, fans began to notice that the band’s Internet presence was disappearing. Its website gradually faded to black, its tweets began to vanish, and the band removed its Facebook content. Yup: Radiohead literally cut its digital cord, including its presence on the world’s largest social media network.

The silence didn’t last long, though. On May 3, the band posted on Instagram a 15-second clip of a stop-motion bird tweeting, followed by a clip of animated figures accompanied by staccato music.

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As it turns out, fading to black and posting some enigmatic images was a prelude to the release of real music: the strange, scary song “Burn the Witch” on May 3 (where the chirping birds and animated figures appear) and then the appropriately titled “Daydreaming,” directed by P.T. Anderson, on May 6.

Oh, and the band reactivated its digital presence to let everyone know a new album was coming digitally on May 8 (because why not a dose of Radiohead for Mother’s Day?) and in physical form June 17. In typical Radiohead fashion, no other details were supplied — no title, no album art, just release dates.

Not exactly the warmest and fuzziest way to super serve your fans, is it?

But that’s how Radiohead rolls. This is a band that knows how to build fan loyalty by being unpredictable and progressive, such as surprise releasing the album In Rainbows online in 2007 accompanied by the we-don’t-give-a-crap move of allowing fans to set their own price for the download. Give Beyoncé all the credit she deserves for dropping new albums with no advance notice, but it was Radiohead that pioneered the concept. And then there was the time Radiohead decided to publish an old-fashioned print newspaper, The Universal Sigh, to accompany the release of the 2011 album King of Limbs. Not only was the distribution of a print newspaper in the digital age a typically against-the-grain Radiohead move, The Universal Sigh was full of stories, poems, and other content that kept everyone guessing as to its meaning.

Creating this kind of mystique is perfect for Radiohead. Its music is, at turns, enigmatic, confounding, and thoughtful — music that manages to remain popular even while sometimes dividing critics and listeners. To follow Radiohead is to immerse yourself in the jagged guitar and off-kilter drums that shaped OK Computer only to have the band change courses completely with the atmospheric, abstract sounds on Kid A. Indeed, critics have described its music at times as “intentionally difficult” although by and large, the band is a critic’s darling for constantly reinventing its sound.

Taylor Swift doesn’t give a hang about mystique, nor should she. She is all about accessibility. She connects as personally with her fans as a pop star can. When she released her massive-selling album 1989 in October 2014, she surprised a few lucky fans by holding “secret sessions” consisting of exclusive previews of the album. She even brought home-baked cookies to the sessions. She is a constant presence on social media, commenting on her life, sharing visual stories, and reaching out to her fans on their own social accounts. Her social content is genuine, earning accolades from branding experts. Through social, she excels at “treating your fans like friends,” in the words of interactive marketing executive Joshua Swanson.

Taylor Swift hugs her fans. Radiohead challenges them, as Pink Floyd did at the height of their popularity.

Both approaches work. Billboard recently named Taylor Swift the top moneymaker of 2015. Radiohead has sold 30 million albums over the years — perhaps the only popular band still in existence that successfully relies on record sales, not singles, to build a fan base. Its new song “Burn the Witch” was viewed more than 8 million times within the first few days of its release, and pretty much the Internet went nuts following the band’s digital odyssey this past week. Its 2016 tour, playing limited dates, is expected to be highly successful. Just don’t expect Radiohead to serve cookies at the concerts.

I’m not suggesting that businesses examine the Radiohead approach for some pearls of wisdom. The larger point is that even in an age of customer empowerment, when your fans can say what they want about you on social media and demand rapid response, how you engage with your customers depends on the kind of brand you are building, and it’s a mistake to pander to fans. For instance, you won’t find warm fuzzies on the Prada website — as of this writing, the front page is actually jarring and even off putting after a few moments. For that matter, Red Bull doesn’t exactly hug its fans — Red Bull gets in their faces. Neither brand is rude, per se, but their choice of content and tone in their outreach creates a certain edge.

Always understand your brand’s north star — what you stand for. And then find an approach to fan engagement that works for your brand.

5 Customer Experience Lessons from Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Acts Now

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If you want to improve your customer experience, read the recently published Rolling Stone overview of the 50 greatest live acts now. The best live acts do something all brands aspire to do: create an experience that make their fans want to come back for more. It’s a simple formula for building brand love — and yet many companies struggle to master the art of the customer experience. According to the annual Temkin Experience Ratings, only 37 percent of companies received “good” or “excellent” scores for their customer experience. Here’s what 50 great live acts (rated by musicians, critics, and industry executives) can teach brands about treating their customers right:

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1. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

Number 1 on the list of greatest live acts now is a 63-year old legend who could coast on his reputation and still make this list. Yet, Bruce Springsteen plays with the urgency  of an unknown act trying to prove himself.  He continues to give everything he has onstage (in Finland, he played for 4 hours and 16 minutes, his longest show ever). He abandons his set list to play requests from the audience, which keeps his band from falling into a  rut. He commands the stage. After all these years, he’s not simply “doing well for an older rocker” — he’s setting the standard for excellence, period. Another well-established act, Radiohead, “refuse to rest on nostalgia,” in the words of Rolling Stone, with the band members challenging themselves to bring fresh material with each tour. But Bruce Springsteen is the one artist who exemplifies all five lessons on this list.

2. Create Audience Intimacy

The artists, critics, and industry types who selected the Top 50 laud Jay Z for making “personal connection with the audience at every show.” Similarly, U2 “have this ability to create intimacy” even in large arenas, according to Continue reading

Thom Yorke: Crusader or Crybaby?

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I can’t decide whether Thom Yorke is a petulant child, cynical operator, or a hero to artists. Maybe he’s all three.

On July 14, Yorke declared war on Spotify, removing from the popular streaming service his solo music and that of his experimental band Atoms for Peace.  On Twitter he and producer Nigel Godrich complained that Spotify rips off artists through poor royalty rates. “Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will no[t] get paid,” Yorke tweeted. He also claimed to be “standing up for our fellow musicians.”

And then a few days later, Yorke put his weight behind music platform soundhalo, which will sell video content (in near real-time) from Atoms for Peace concerts occurring July 25 and 26 at London’s Roundhouse.

Yorke’s actions have renewed an ongoing debate about what constitutes fair compensation for artists from streaming services like Spotify — and have also caused some backlash from pundits. When Yorke came out swinging against Spotify initially, music veteran Bob Lefsetz accused him of whining, clinging to the past, and fighting a streaming service that has given listeners a credible alternative to illegal downloading. As Lefestz wrote, “Once upon a time musicians used to lead. Now all they can say is GIVE ME BACK MY PAST! As for saving the future for the new artists . . . I’d feel better if the new artists created their own paradigm, but instead we’ve got wannabes too dumb to do anything for themselves.”

Continue reading

Jay-Z Writes New Rules for Music Millionaires

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Jay-Z says he’s writing new rules. But for whom?

The multi-millionaire rapper created a firestorm of PR by launching an innovative deal with Samsung to distribute 1 million copies of his new Magna Carta Holy Grail album through a special app exclusively on Samsung phones before the album went on sale publicly July 9. Samsung reportedly paid $5 for every album, meaning Magna Carta Holy Grail sold $5 million before a consumer purchased a single copy. Samsung became a music distributor overnight. And the Recording Industry Association of America was inspired to change the way it tracks the sale of digital albums to account for the 1 million units sold instantly.  It’s no wonder Jay-Z has been tweeting about creating #newrules, and Billboard has gushed about “Jay-Z’s New Blueprint.”

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Essentially, two big brands, Jay-Z and Samsung, are distributing music together as Jay-Z and Nokia did 10 years ago. But how repeatable is the Jay-Z model for the entire music industry? The example of Radiohead is instructive. Radiohead, another Continue reading

U2 and the revenge of “old media”

Have you noticed U2’s gutsy distribution strategy for the newly released No Line on the Horizon? I don’t mean the predictable release of the album on MySpace prior to its March 3 launch in stores — but rather the heavy reliance on an allegedly dead medium, the compact disc.  At Best Buy, you can find the album available in five formats:

  • Regular CD
  • Limited edition digi pak that includes CD, color booklet, poster, and exclusive downloadable film access.
  • Limited edition magazine that includes a CD, 60-page magazine, and exclusive downloadable film access.
  • Vinyl LP
  • Limited edition box set that contains a digi pak CD, DVD of an exclusive film by Anton Corbijn, a 64-page hardback book, and a fold-out poster

At a time when digital downloads have all but rendered the CD an afterthought, what gives?  Here’s what U2 is doing:

  • Leveraging the power of the brick-and-mortar retailer.   We’ve recently seen the Eagles and AC/DC successfully move CDs through Wal-Mart.  And Prince just struck a deal for Target to be the exclusive retailer for a disc set to be released March 29.  Why?  Not because the CD is obsolete — but rather the old ways of distributing content are dead.  The Best Buys, Starbucks, Wal-Marts, and Targets of the world can act as DJ, distributor, and marketer rolled into one.  During the release of Black Ice, AC/DC provided the soundtrack for the Wal-Mart shopping experience, and well-placed displays opened up the band’s back catalog  to shoppers, too.  All told, Black Ice moved 2 million units in 2008.
  • Fighting the commoditization and degradation of music.  Rock has always been as much about image as it has the music.  Sleek packaging creates an experience that helps build image and differentiate one band from another.  By contrast, digital marginalizes a band’s image and degrades the quality of its product through inferior downloads.  It’s well known that MP3 compression causes a loss of sound quality, and the slightest glitch in your broadband connection is a total buzzkill for streaming songs.  Superior packaging and well-produced sound captured on disc are two weapons in favor of a band like U2, which understands the power of image and the relationship between its image and sonic power.

U2 isn’t the only band embracing the “old.”  In 2008, David Gilmour released at least five versions of his Live in Gdansk, for instance.  Both Radiohead and Beck have released music in playful packages with stickers that consumers can use to deocorate the CD sleeves.

Soon I’m going to learn more about how artists are seizing more control of content distribution when musician and producer David A. Stewart appears at the 9th annual Razorfish Client Summit April 21-23 in Las Vegas.  (I’m putting together the agenda for my employer Razorfish.)

He’s going to discuss how artists like himself are dropping “a neutron bomb” on the current entertainment distribution model.  I can’t wait to hear him speak.  And I hope we see more bands like U2 giving us experiences we can touch and feel.

Top 20 albums of all time?

Just what the world needs: another top 20 albums of all time list, courtesy of the Y! Radish Music Blog. This list is a bit different from the usual critical assessments because it seeks to be more objective and empirical, weighing factors such as album sales, “critical rating value” (an amalgam of critical reviews), and number of Grammy Awards won. (The approach reminds me of those convoluted formulas that The Wall Street Journal uses to assess baseball and football players.) After all the dust settles, the Top 5 albums are:

5. Abbey Road, the Beatles.

4. Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin

3. Thriller, Michael Jackson

2. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

1. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

You can see the complete list here. I love these kinds of lists. They confound, inspire debate, and, hopefully, force us to think more critically — none of which I’m going to do here. But I do have some random thoughts:

  • I admire Stevie Wonder; but I cannot remember the last time I played Songs in the Key of Life. How many of your friends own it?
  • There are four Led Zeppelin albums on this list. Now, I love Led Zeppelin. But I also know full well that in its day, the band was consistently bashed by critics. It wasn’t until well after the band broke up that it achieved critical respectability. I wonder how well this list takes into account critical response at the time the albums were actually released?
  • An album’s staying power is a worthy measure as noted by the formula employed by the Y! Radish Music Blog. But by definition, newer bands are penalized simply because their work hasn’t been around as long. I don’t know how else you can explain Radiohead being completely shut out of this list.
  • It’s a hoot to see Van Halen crash the party like a drunk uncle at a wedding reception, making Number 14 on the list with its eponymous first album. But how on earth did George Michael sneak in?
  • No Rolling Stones? No Doors? No Dylan? I’ll tell you why: the list fails to take into account an album’s influence on other albums, which is why The Doors or nothing by Dylan made the cut.
  • Fortunately the list assigns very little weight to Grammy Awards won, but I question why the Grammy Awards should have been a factor at all. The Grammy Awards are notoriously out of touch with the times. This is the esteemed organization that honored “Winchester Cathedral” over “Eleanor Rigby” for best rock & roll recording in 1966. Enough said. I would stay as far away from the Grammy Awards as I could just in priniciple.

What are your reactions?

Top 20 albums of all time?

Just what the world needs: another top 20 albums of all time list, courtesy of the Y! Radish Music Blog. This list is a bit different from the usual critical assessments because it seeks to be more objective and empirical, weighing factors such as album sales, “critical rating value” (an amalgam of critical reviews), and number of Grammy Awards won. (The approach reminds me of those convoluted formulas that The Wall Street Journal uses to assess baseball and football players.) After all the dust settles, the Top 5 albums are:

5. Abbey Road, the Beatles.

4. Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin

3. Thriller, Michael Jackson

2. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

1. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

You can see the complete list here. I love these kinds of lists. They confound, inspire debate, and, hopefully, force us to think more critically — none of which I’m going to do here. But I do have some random thoughts:

  • I admire Stevie Wonder; but I cannot remember the last time I played Songs in the Key of Life. How many of your friends own it?
  • There are four Led Zeppelin albums on this list. Now, I love Led Zeppelin. But I also know full well that in its day, the band was consistently bashed by critics. It wasn’t until well after the band broke up that it achieved critical respectability. I wonder how well this list takes into account critical response at the time the albums were actually released?
  • An album’s staying power is a worthy measure as noted by the formula employed by the Y! Radish Music Blog. But by definition, newer bands are penalized simply because their work hasn’t been around as long. I don’t know how else you can explain Radiohead being completely shut out of this list.
  • It’s a hoot to see Van Halen crash the party like a drunk uncle at a wedding reception, making Number 14 on the list with its eponymous first album. But how on earth did George Michael sneak in?
  • No Rolling Stones? No Doors? No Dylan? I’ll tell you why: the list fails to take into account an album’s influence on other albums, which is why The Doors or nothing by Dylan made the cut.
  • Fortunately the list assigns very little weight to Grammy Awards won, but I question why the Grammy Awards should have been a factor at all. The Grammy Awards are notoriously out of touch with the times. This is the esteemed organization that honored “Winchester Cathedral” over “Eleanor Rigby” for best rock & roll recording in 1966. Enough said. I would stay as far away from the Grammy Awards as I could just in priniciple.

What are your reactions?