Continuing with the wildly infrequent discussion of brands.
In an era where physicality in media is increasingly discussed, The Criterion Collection, a “publisher of premium editions of classic and contemporary films”, has established a strong customer loyalty through a combination of quality consistency and innovation (early adoption of Laserdisc, DVD and online streaming). Criterion has become one of the most recognized names in a field that isn’t commonly considered to carry prestige brands.
I retroactively discovered Criterion after purchasing one of my favorite films Rushmore, many years ago. The design of the original poster art always left me cold, as it attempt to market the film as a teen rebellion flick, sort of a suburban CHE. The sly illustration of the solitary protagonist WAS the movie to me, which made me put down the extra dollars for this film I knew I’d always own. It was only afterwards that I realized “The Criterion Collection” banner on the side was a mark of a unique brand of curated special editions.
The secret to their success seems multifaceted.
Curation: Criterion has been responsible both for releasing films that have been overlooked, under-distributed and even just unheralded amidst box office success, finding new life given the Criterion treatment. Can Chasing Amy and The Criterion versions often sit alongside the original or Blu-Ray versions, at a higher price, but given the quality of extras, these editions are deemed to be better thought out than their peers.
Scarcity: There is a time frame in which most Criterion releases exist, possibly due to short print runs for lesser known titles or presumably the duration of the license for the film they acquired. The limited nature of these DVDs creates a collector aftermarket eager not to miss out, much like the contemporary vinyl market.
And of course, Design: The quality and uniqueness of their packaging puts them in league with some of the best companies in media today. The design is never of one style, but always of a character that is distinctly theirs. It is a commonly held fact that the best brands are the ones that are able to be parodied. The presence of a ‘Fake Criterions” blog laughs at the prospect of weaker films getting this special treatment (Im a fan of the Air Bud one in particular, very Hoop Dreams).
It could be stated that a Criterion Collection library, sitting alongside a well appointed vinyl and book shelf, will not be something to sneeze at in the Netflix era.
Founders: Robert Stein, Aleen Stein, and Joe Medjuck (company info is rather circuitous)
Identity: Pentagram (Inspiration is here).
In my new, and sure to be infrequent column, I’m discussing brands of note, some old, others new, and those long gone. As someone interested in the development of brands, these posts are less about business, and instead about where art and industry marry in historic form.
An unexpected brand making well-deserved headlines is J. Crew. Yes, that one. I had the same reaction when a few of my trusted friends made me aware of the brand and it’s current status. My memories of the brand were from the mid-90’s, of $98 Rollneck sweaters and greater misdeeds. Now I count myself amongst the fans for this most seemingly common of brands.
In it’s current moment, J. Crew has become less of a product line and more of a sensibility. The best example of J. Crew as a ‘perspective’ is their ‘In Good Company’ collection, which combines the 2000’s obsession with brand collaboration and good old fashioned curation, pairing the company up with well-worn heritage brands like Sebago and England’s 86 year-old outerwear brand, Belstaff. This is what is affectionately call an “ethos grab” or the adoption of the traits from greater brands via their inclusion in your own.
Riding on a wave of preppy fascination ushered in by a few East Coast indie bands, men’s clothing saw a sea change in recent years towards a more subtle look, taking over for a trend of logos and bright colors. J. Crew also wisely eschewed an overt prep direction, Instead opting for classic American and work-inspired clothing.
Like any brand resurgence (Apple, being one), it starts at the top and it infects the whole company. Mickey Drexler is the patriarch of this evolution, and his attitudes towards hiring and culture have informed the brand’s ascendency since he joined in 2003. Creative director Jenna Lyons has become a celebrity in her own right.
The inclusion of Andy Spade, co-founder (with his wife) of Kate Spade and his own confusingly named Jack Spade brand, was another brilliant hire, whose sly blend of Midwestern charm and a hint of old school smarm (David Spade is his brother) created the best asset perhaps of J. Crew-dom, the Liquor Store shop in Tribeca. A barely refurbished bar as men’s shop, and a signless work of retail genius.
“It’s odd that people think they have to brand everything with their own name to be successful. Certain companies are experts at certain things. I love brands that show humility and don’t try to be all things to all people. How many brands that got bigger got better?”
Ghostly’s 110 is a rundown of our favorite albums of the decade. In making the list, we wanted to share the albums we’ve loved over the last 10 years, so fans can compare notes and perhaps make a few new discoveries in the process. The impetus for this list was our belief that a record label is more than just a music distributor–it’s a perspective all its own.
To start, we asked the Ghostly staff for their top 100 albums (no EPs, reissues, or various-artist compilations) from the decade. While there was a stunning consistency within the top 20, there were hundreds of releases that had only one vote. From there, we had to make some tough decisions. Tears were shed and punches thrown, but we ended up with a document that wears the Ghostly seal of approval with pride.
We also wanted to keep our list pure and nepotism-free, so we left off all Ghostly/Spectral albums, as well as any artist who has over a few songs on the label. Of course, this meant we couldn’t include eternal classics like Solvent’s Solvent City, Rafael Anton Irissarir’s Daydreaming, and of course, Tycho’s Past Is Prologue.
In short, it’s been a wild decade. We’ve all seen and experienced so much, and while no one knows what the future holds, we do know that good music will always keep coming. Ghostly’s 110 is also a tribute to the labels and record stores that have inspired us, and the ones that we’ve lost in the last decade.
There are more than a few albums that could have easily made the list, and I wanted to recognize them below.
The Sea and Cake’sOui (Thrill Jockey, 2000) was an easy contender for top albums of the decade that just didn’t get the votes, perhaps overlooked because of the bands consistent understated awesomeness. A mesmerizing album of subtle grace.
Dungen was a band that seemed to come out of nowhere with Ta Det Lungt (Kemado, 2005), capturing a piece of the global mindshare with this album of puzzlingly perfect rock.
I know E. Lipp is a fixture at ISO50, but Tacoma Mockingbird (Hefty, 2006) is the record that put him on the map. Beautifully conceived synth lines atop classic breaks.
Like a bolt from the (aqueous) blue, Portishead returned with Third (Island, 2008) having lost no steam and having found their new voice–while retaining the haunted, dusty majesty of their early work.
My friend Eli (who needs to do an Italo Disco installment of Synth Pioneers) put me onto this documentary, which is likely the best exploration of the English synth-pop moment. With great interviews from heroes like Daniel Miller, Vince Clark and Martin Gore, it really got my blood pumping so I wanted to write about a few other acts who were originators of the international electronic pop sound.
Kraftwerk – Computer Love
Talking about the greatness of Kraftwerk is like talking about the necessity of air, so I’ll keep it short. They just released all of their most well-known albums, remastered and with original artwork. “Computer Love” is one of my al time favorite songs. The way the lead seems to phase shift at the end always takes my breath away. Let’s get this straight: A song about loneliness and computers, made before the internet was invented which glides like classical music? Sounds like a plan.
Yellow Magic Orchestra – Technopolis
Yellow Magic Orchestra have been called the Japanese Kraftwerk, in that they were both pop innovators and an awesomely stoic synth band. Ryuichi Sakamoto has since gone on to collaborate with Fennesz and Christopher Willits amongst others. Their work may pre-date synth-pop but it’s surely in the canon of influential works. I often play their hit “Computer Games” if transitioning between sounds in a DJ set. When the beat drops at 1:50, it always lights up the room.
Japan – Gentlemen Take Polaroids
A band that is sorely overlooked is David Sylvian’s Japan project, which married glam and (some would say, invented) new romantic aesthetics to synth austerity and elegant arrangements. Their full sound was more complex than their peers and more sinister by a long shot. Recently, Sylvian has also collaborated with aritsts like Fennesz and covered acts like Blonde Redhead with stunning vocal clarity.
Simple Minds – Glittering Prize
Scotland’s Simple Minds were another band not included in this documentary, probably because they are more associated with the New Wave movement, but like labelmates the Human League, they’re example of a band moving from experimental work to pop success. Their work became increasing U2-like and less electronic, but this track captures them at the peak of a rewardingly sweeping sound, with pitch-perfect production to boot.
Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the Synth Pioneers series can be found here.
In response to Jakub’s post on 1970’s shopping malls, I’ve long wished I could travel back in time and visit some of these spots, again or for the first time. Vacated malls and abandoned theme parks sit lodged in the subconscious as Ithaca-like pleasuredomes. The idea of all-inclusive commerce appealed to/terrified great men like J.G. Ballard and George A. Romero (who set his gorefest Dawn Of The Dead uncoincidentally in a vacated mall) and continue to haunt the collective imagination.
One example of a great lost park is Atlanta’s The World Of Sid and Marty Krofft which opened in 1976 and featured attractions based on the characters of their popular shows and rides like the Pinball one seen in the included pics. The place seems unbelievably spooky and surreal and it’s lack of document only increases it’s eeriness. WSMK might was dubbed the first indoor theme park, which was based inside the Omni International Center (now CNN’s news headquarters) and featured the world’s largest freestanding escalator. Surprising little can be found online but this article sheds some light on the idea for the park. WSMK cost $14 milllon to build (Over $50 million in 2009 money) and closed within six months.
An good intro can really make the song. It can set the mood, erasing whatever else is around you and make you feel safe from the world. These songs work because they are incredibly funky and use the impossible elasticity of the synth to great measure.
Another reason these songs still feel fresh is because they represent an era where music and technology had reached a new apex. Stevie Wonder’s synth work in the 70’s is considered by many to be the most influential of it’s era, thanks in part to his work with Tonto’s Expanding Headband and their TONTO synth (watch this little documentary), which allowed the funk to show through the machines.
These songs honor that legacy in different ways.
Produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the all-time best disco band Chic, this was a UK chart hit but never on a US album save for a low-key soundtrack. Not as synthy as the rest, but about as good a pop-disco track as you’re likely to hear, skanking along at an easy clip.
The Brothers Johnson – Strawberry Letter 23
A funky version of Shuggie Otis’ deathless original, this cut is synth and bass heaven and helped them reach platinum status. Produced by Quincy Jones no less.
Dexter Wansel – Life On Mars
Dexter Wansel was on Gamble And Huff’s famous Philly International label. Ann Arbor/Detroit legend DJ Carlos Souffront sold me this re-issue at Osborne’s record store in Ann Arbor years ago and it never sees the shelf. The cut breaks into some super funky disco heat, but that cosmic intro makes this one truly staggering.
Yarbrough and Peoples – Don’t Stop The Music
Greatest bassline awards #1 and sits between genres pretty niftily. 1980 was a MONSTER YEAR for synthy funk, the R+B charts were producing some great tracks, fast and slow. Boogie music is getting some love thanks to revivalists like Dam Funk, and with good reason. Feel this video.
With GM in the news, I was thinking about Detroit tonight. Detroit was the city I grew up closest to. My father grew up here and his dad worked on the Mercury Zephyr line.
Growing up near the city, the musical influence was huge. On any given weekend in the mid-to-late nineties, late night radio would mix up everything from the classic Art Of Noise song “Moments In Love” to local ghetto tech beats and new drum and bass coming out of the UK.
Much has been made about the city and why it’s music sounds the way it does. The desolate beauty, the mechanized auto factories and even the isolated water-ensconced nature of the state. All if it is true.
Here are four tracks that give me that Detroit feeling. These not the more discussed and celebrated classics, but more personal favorites.
Psyche – From Beyond (Transmat)
Carl Craig is a real legend and continues to impress. This song, under the Psyche alias is perhaps one of my favorite tracks ever. It has a crazy spell to it. It’s not quite techno and it pre-dates the breaks and jungle genres. It’s on it’s own planet. Pure late night driving music to roam the vacant freeways.
Cybotron – Cosmic Raindance (Fantasy)
Note: Please play on a proper stereo or headphones as the bassline is what holds this all together. Juan Atkins (“The Originator”) is arguably the greatest groove maker of the Detroit techno school. Cybotron, his group with Richard Davis and John Housely is responsible for some of the most seminal cuts that have been sampled and re-interpreted endlessly. I remember driving down to the store Record Time in our friend’s Ford Fiesta, listening to this on repeat and his subs would rattle the entire frame. Simply majestic.
Drexciya – Digital Tsunami (Tresor)
Drexciya is the most mythical duo of the Detroit techno school. The duo of the late James Stinson and Gerald Donald (also of Dopplereffekt, more on that later) made aggressive yet liquid odes to the ocean and it’s provence. This was a later cut, but got me into their brand of mutated electro. Their original pressings fetch a pretty penny on eBay and with good reason.
Suburban Knight – Collaboration Alpha (Peacefrog)
As part of the vaunted Underground Resistance Crew, Suburban Knight racked up a Detroit classic with “The Art Of Stalking” and also co-wrote tracks with Kevin Saunderson for his seminal and wildly successful Inner City project. This is a more recent track, and not a “classic” by any means, but I chose it because it’s important to recognize that Detroit techno is not a vintage style, it’s a methodology and an ethos that will continue to exist.
Ten years ago, I was a lowly, heartbroken college freshman, working with my friends Disco D and Matthew Dear on our first single, “Hands Up for Detroit”. Now, after a decade of hard work, finding an amazing team, and a little bit of luck, we’re fortunate enough to celebrate with our artists and friends.
Toronto will be a special date: the Drake Hotel is one of Tycho’s favorite venues (Scott said it was one of his best shows yet.) We always have a great time whenever the team plays there. Tickets are on sale now and discounted here.
Here are a few tracks from each of the Toronto show’s artists – including a Tycho debut.
Lusine – Two Dots
[audio:twodots.mp3] Lusine has a new album on the way, and (perhaps non-objectively) I’d venture to say it’s his best.
Here’s the first single, featuring the lovely voice of Vilja Larjosto.
Secret Frequency Crew – Neon Bridge
Here’s a song from Adrian Michna’s old group, Secret Frequency Crew, who were on the classic Schematic label. Forest Of The Echo Downs really caught my attention and made our best-of-the-year list back in ’04. It was a good preview of what was to come (busted jazz, stabbing horns, skittering Miami machinedrums) with Michna.
Milosh – Move On
Mike Milosh occupies a very distinct space in electronic music with his subtle programming and weak-in-the-knees vocals. He just released a new EP with Paul Phisterer which will make you want to plant a tree it’s so pretty.
Tycho – Coastal Brake (Manual remix)
There’s this guy Tycho who’s pretty good too. He’s got a new single coming out this summer with some great remixes. Here’s an exclusive debut of Manual‘s remix of the forthcoming “Coastal Brake.”