What is music made of? It’s a more difficult question than you might think. We may be comfortable discussing the artistic implications of a symphony, an album, or even a single, but to what atomic level can you reduce it to? Can you say that one note contains the entire artistic project on its own? I’m a firm believer that you can – I use the model of a fractal, where a shape will be found endlessly folded and repeated no matter how far you zoom into it. Or there is the example from biology, where each cell contains the information which defines the entire organism. So here’s a very subjective list of my own favourite micromoments in music where due to chance, accident, or design, I get a short sharp shock which summarises, or in some cases recalibrates, the larger work of which it is a part.
Rolling Stones – Satisfaction
This is the micromoment which gave me the inspiration to put this list together, and is probably the best example. The distinctive fuzz-box riff is delayed slightly when it returns, which fits beautifully with the song’s themes of malaise and delayed gratification, and the way Keith Richards gives it a little jazzy inflection before it comes back is pure sex.
Air – Run
This track really knocked me for six the first time I heard it, due to the micromoment at this point (and again in the second chorus). It’s like two tracks – one a fast-paced electro number with a driving beat, and another spacey ambient tune – have been spliced together, with the processed voice maintaining a pulse during the transition. A really sweet song that manages to merge two perspectives in an aubade, weighing the necessity of being propelled forward into the next day while wanting to stay in a blissful, timeless (and very French) state. You can almost taste the croissant crumbs on the pillow.
Angelo Badalamenti – The Red Room
WARNING: Twin Peaks spoilers ahead
The very last episode of Twin Peaks (or at least what we must now call the ‘original run’) featured a twenty minute sequence in the Black Lodge, with this piece as its soundtrack. In doing so, the show was revisiting a location that had already been featured in Agent Cooper’s strange dream in season 1, with this as the memorable musical accompaniment. The first season gives us a blisteringly cool jazz piece, but the second season’s excursion into the Black Lodge inverts the soundtrack, slowing it down to a crawl, as the half-note walking bass is clipped into a much more ponderous sequence of crotchets, with a deviation every couple of bars. The absence of a chord progression complements this, as the same guitar chord keeps returning. It makes for a very effective soundtrack to Cooper’s fear and eventual pursuit in the Lodge, trapped between the two rooms. The first instance of the chord is the micromoment I’ve highlighted here as the music stayed with me for a long time after initially watching the scene in question. It’s such a clean and almost breezy sounding tone – a glimpse to what may be found in the White Lodge maybe – but its fixity, when scaffolded by that shadowy bass, is an apt gateway into the most surprising 20 minutes of television I’ve ever watched. It initially seems much more benign compared to the ‘Dark Mood Woods’ segment of the piece, but as in many of Badalamenti’s collaborations with Lynch, it is a bolder and more productive method of horror soundtracking, the type of fear that compresses your chest for days, not one which momentarily raises your heart rate.
Arcade Fire – Haiti
1:47 and 2:07
From the very beginning of ‘Haiti’, the terms of reference for a listener are uncertain. The first thing you hear is a simple guitar line, and a sound effect of gushing water, before being swamped by a siren-like drone, and one of Funeral’s distinctive powerful rhythm sections, though in this case the tone is top-down violence, rather than the bottom-up smashing of ‘Power Out’. The dichotomy is distilled into these two little moments of the song, where Regine Chassagne utters a strangulated breath. It could be a breath of life, symbolic of Haiti’s rebirth following the atrocities outlined in the song, or the sound of a life being quenched. Arcade Fire are easy to knock for their baroque tendencies (and it’s hard not to be jealous of a song with bilingual lyrics), but these little gasps indicate just how fully they grasped the complete aural spectrum on their first album, not just striving to the peak of the wave graph.
The Avalanches – Frontier Psychiatrist
I knew when making this list that The Avalanches would be on here at least once. So I changed tactic and limited myself to one micromoment per artist. Then came an equally difficult decision: trying to pick just one sample from the chronically entertaining ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’. I plumped for the enigmatic ‘I promised my girlfriend I could…’, simply because it raises so many questions about what the end of the sample originally was (I’m guessing it wasn’t ‘the violin, violin’). Likewise, it makes me think about how tiny the sample really is – at only a second long, it takes up a tiny portion of the record it is lifted from, and is similarly incidental when The Avalanches use it (whereas ‘that boy needs therapy’, for example, is the hook of ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’). It’s not the funniest sample on the album (that honour belongs to the whisper of ‘money’ on the intro to ‘Two Hearts In 3/4 Time’, or the femme fatale who kicks off ‘Little Journey’), but it’s the best indicator of how good The Avalanches are at what they do. Or did. When oh when is their second album going to come out?
The Band – The Weight
2:28 and elsewhere
Yes, it’s a three male part male harmony. No rule books are being rewritten here. But there is something about The Band’s earnestness which bypasses the cynical, British part of my brain (located to the rear of the hippocampus) and leaves me in awe at The Band’s particular variant of American roots music…except maybe when they do that verse about the dog. Regardless, this harmony breathes with an expanse of American history that would, without their efforts, be considered impossible to fit within the confines of a four-and-a-half minute long piece of music.
The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever
There are a few songs in this list which have breath-taking micromoments where they subtly change tempo or mood, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is the archetype of such a manoeuvre in popular music. The crux of this little transition is when the cello reaches its final note on its first descent, confirming the song’s turn towards darkness as the cello puts a much different spin to the melody compared to the Mellotron of the first minute. If there was ever a song which captured the essence of the split between experiencing life as a child (sweet, naive guitar and Mellotron) and looking back on it with the burden of adult experience (heavy string and horn sections), then this is it, like the dropping of a pubescent voice. That is what is represented to me by Geoff Emerick’s splice, and so much else besides.
Bjork – Venus As A Boy
Bjork is so on-point with her use of samples and production on her actually-not-quite-debut-album, from Brazilian drums in ‘Human Behaviour’, through Bond theme strings in ‘Play Dead’, to Talvin Singh’s tabla in this song, that it seems paradoxical that the moment which most strikes out to me is this slice of ‘Venus as a Boy’, where all of the accompaniment ceases. The song is just left hanging in mid-air, having to be resuscitated by keyboards before the bridge. Bjork discussed the real life figure who inspired the song as being a man who could appreciate the beauty in mundane tasks like waking up and brushing teeth. It seems very fitting then, to momentarily focus on the musique concrete sample at the core of the song, holding it up, asking the listener to dedicate all of their attention to it for a period of seconds, daring us to find the beauty in the infinitesimally small.
Boards Of Canada – An Eagle In Your Mind
2:51 and 4:54
Two separate micromoments in this one. The first is probably what most listeners remember from this track, as the percussion (which otherwise dominates) drops out for the only time to welcome a horribly disfigured voice saying ‘I love you’. The disfiguration is such that this love has to be unrequited; the only reaction to it is one of surprise and revulsion.
The other micromoment in this track is a partner in crime for the Sandison brothers’ particular brand of insidiously unsettling music. Thom Yorke said in an interview that the subtle shift towards the end of ‘Freeman Hardy And Willis Acid’ by Squarepusher and Aphex Twin was so profound that he had to stop his car. I get the exact same feeling whenever I listen to ‘An Eagle In Your Mind’, because the second half seems so discontinuous from the first: there’s no obvious breaking point where the song transitions from one part into another. That said, the part at 4:51 is what sends a shiver down my spine, when I realise the track isn’t just going to leave quietly. Your perception is never quite safe in this track, because there’s always something hiding around the corner. In that regard, it’s the apt introduction to Music Has The Right To Children.
Boston – More Than A Feeling
Similar to ‘Satisfaction’ with its delay, this is the calculated opposite to Keith Richards’ offhanded strumming; this is Tom Scholz at his calculating best. Some of the entries on this list are celebrations of the accidental, the spontaneous, what can disrupt the creative process without our knowledge, as if visited from elsewhere. This is different; this is Scholz, the master engineer, knowing exactly what buttons to press at what time. Nothing in ‘More Than A Feeling’ is left to chance. For better and for worse, I am positive that if you dedicated all of CERN’s computers to producing the most perfect song that could ever be written, they would give you ‘More Than A Feeling’, note for note. Scholz just slips in an extra bar between verse and chorus to drive the anticipation levels even further for that earth-shredding mix when the chorus guitars come in. In a lot of the entries on this list, you have to throw your hands up and admit that conscious intention is not the main factor at work; it’s the indescribable instinct of the artist, or courage to let the dice roll and see what happens. In this particular instance, you have to doff your cap to a master craftsman.
Burial – Archangel
This micromoment is an encapsulation of the Untrue album and maybe the entire Burial project as well. Burial’s tunes are populated by ghosts, of pop culture samples which come through the ether in forms so distorted that they have completely different resonances to the original copy. This is a classic case of artistic precision, of dropping in a detail which on the surface is so incidental to a work and yet, conversely, is responsible for making the entire work sing. Untrue takes the most plaintive refrains of pop songs, like ‘could it be alone?’ in this one or ‘I can’t take my eyes off you’ in ‘Near Dark’, and leaves them calling into an empty Tube tunnel, symptomatic of urban loneliness. The micromoment in ‘Archangel’ is like the plaintive, bathetic answer to Ray-J’s questions but never the twain shall meet, as the two voices are isolated in separate elements of the urban fabric, only capable of hearing their own echoes.
Buzzcocks – Breakdown
0:13 and elsewhere
What you have here is a little extra word from Howard Devoto which gives British punk its distinctly sardonic twist, a blossoming from the British tradition of metropolitan art schools. ‘Breakdown’ is a song which describes mental disintegration to the point of Devoto uttering anguished yelps which close it, and the choruses offer a really dry extra comment, because by singing ‘I’m gonna break down, I’m gonna break down, yes’ Devoto gives a completely out of place rationalisation, as if breaking down makes complete sense. The illogical seems logical, in 1977 at least.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains
Something I see written quite a lot across message boards and social media is a particular tactic of ingratiating newcomers into a particular artist. Helpful guides will tell them: start with this work, because it’s more accessible, and then if you like what you hear, move on to the more challenging stuff. In Rainbows before Kid A. The Colour of Spring before Spirit of Eden. Stand! before There’s A Riot Goin’ On. As a general rule, it holds up pretty well, but there’s little substitute for the feeling of getting slapped around the face by the sheer weirdness of something, of bypassing the conventional records and penetrating to the bewildering circus tent at the core. That was how I got into Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, though arguably they fall into a separate category of faux-macho masochism in indie circles, a sense of ‘weirder-than-thou’ where being able to subject yourself to Trout Mask Replica from a standing start is a true test of your indie credentials. The undocumented consequence of this, of course, is that the ‘accessible records’ then become much weirder in their own right. Paranoia begins to set in as you think to yourself: is this it then? Is it really in just one key? Those are the thoughts which danced across my brain as I explored Beefheart’s discography more and more, and ‘My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains’ exemplified the shift in perception I was undergoing. The intro is so understated, in contrast to the songs on Trout Mask Replica which are just as likely to begin with a squall of saxophone, or of a guitar in an unconventional tuning, or of someone reading surrealist poetry. In contrast to those bellowing calls to attention, this track is so understated, the opening bass notes being like a little tug on your sleeve, rather than a scream into your ear. I mentioned the gulf in accessibility between Stand! and There’s A Riot Goin’ On earlier, which is usually held up as the quintessence of 60s optimism giving way to the murky realities of the 70s, the feeling that the dream has died. I’d argue that the Beefheart’s early 70s records are played so straight (and often so mournfully) as to mirror the same change in attitude, more than just the appeal to mainstream credibility that he was often accused of.
Charles Mingus – Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting
The sound of jazz being pushed to its very limits. I always knew I was going to choose this track, and tried to pick one of the many bruising moments where Mingus hoarsely shouts into the mix. But I’d forgotten that at one of these points, the recording seems to give out and issue feedback in wizened response. I’ve yet to find a moment in jazz that reaches the same level of terror and thrill that Mingus’ band achieve here. It’s a cross-section of jazz and, well, noise, that is produced accidentally but what else do you expect when you stretch a form to breaking point?
Daft Punk – Digital Love
Daft Punk on Discovery became the heirs to Nile Rodgers’ brand of disco, in the sense that they were happy to pare their song down halfway through in order to reconstruct it, to show the parts that went into its composition. What Daft Punk do so successfully on Discovery is, with the benefit of decades of life experience, marry the emotions with the music. Their inspiration is dance music, but they play it with the continuity to momentous events in their life, connecting with a moment beyond the dancing space (in my humble opinion this is why reviews, particularly Pitchfork’s, were quite lukewarm to the album upon its initial release – they needed a similar amount of time to process just how far the album’s emotions reach). It is with the wisdom of all that experience that the breakdown ends in ‘Digital Love’, and the guitar solo begins. Daft Punk’s breakdowns provide the opportunity to step back and think ‘what’s it all for?’, before leading into a renewed assault on the body that now has an emotional weight attached.
David Bowie – Five Years
Most of the entries in this list are concerned with mixing up notes or chords, quite simply because they’re the easiest to concentrate into a single ‘moment’. But here is an exception: the moment when David Bowie goes into the second person address in ‘Five Years’, telling his listener ‘I thought I saw you in an ice cream parlour’. The ice cream parlour is the perfect setting, carrying on the blend of the apocalyptic and the banal which he nails so successfully in the lyrics to this song. The change in address encourages reconsideration of the song’s portentous opening remark ‘we had five years left’ – suddenly it’s as if Bowie isn’t speaking on behalf of all of humanity;, that isn’t what’s important. The ‘we’ may in fact be a much smaller audience of one person, cutting the song’s ambition from global to local, but making it much more heartfelt in the process.
Dirty Projectors – Cannibal Resource
There came a point, after an embarrassingly frequent number of listens to Bitte Orca, that I realised just how consistently dark its lyrics are. For that I put the blame squarely on the opening to ‘Cannibal Resource’, lead track off the album, which irradiates washes of sunshine from the beginning and features gorgeous harmonies in the chorus. The Radiohead influence goes beyond the Airbagesque bass; as much as Dave Longstreth implores the listener to ‘open your eyes’, the vivid colour suggested by the guitar distortion has us amused like kittens with balls of string, unable to become more than a ‘terrified witness’ to global peril. The micromoment here is the culmination of a guitar melody that doesn’t seem to be emerging from any human activity, instead exploding out of the stereo in peaks of technicolour. ‘Can it sing a melody’, indeed.
Lana Del Ray – Video Games
1:07 and elsewhere
This is a great interpolation of an old pop song, Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’. Lana Del Ray gets a lot of stick for supposedly instigating an annoying retro/Instagram/hipster chic, but the power of this particular micromoment means that there is a critique going on, as she sighs out her delivery, aware of the temptation to idealise life in a faux-nostalgic Polaroid picture frame, but at the same time attuned to the fragility of it all.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Providence
Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s debut album takes its name for the keys which commence both sides of the record, and the endless loop of the vinyl at the end. The CD edition is expanded sufficiently to give it a much different character from the LP, and the micromoment in question has a much greater impact on the latter version (though I’ve linked to the CD here because it will in time become the canonical release). The plaintive call of ‘where are you going?’ which finishes the album is utterly profound, coming as it does after the eschatological tour de force which Godspeed have unfolded. It’s a question which the listener cannot escape. You may not address it directly, but it’s the sort of question which can haunt you at solitary moments. It’s impossible to stay neutral when the voice finally dissolves into the soundscape of ambient drones.
Incredible String Band – Chinese White
Folk is a curious genre. It couldn’t get any more segregated, as each community with its own musical history has its own folk sound, as any trawl through the Alan Lomax archives will tell you. But beyond surface level differences, folk music frequently has a structural underpinning shared across countries, uniting the geographically distant. The Arabian gimbri played by Robin Williamson (a type of lute which is normally plucked rather than bowed, as it is here) marries with the guitar plucked by Mike Heron in the sort of pan-continental soup that seemed all so possible in 1967. Heron’s vocals call out across time zones, from Hebrides to Hebron, with his emphasis on the word ‘around’ emphasising the inclusiveness of this rather marvellous album, and its opening track.
James Ferraro – Linden Dollars
0:13 and elsewhere
Far Side Virtual left a lot of critics nonplussed upon its release in 2011, who were confounded at whether they were the victims of a joke, or whether they were listening to the soundtrack of a sonic art installation at a non-existent gallery. Far Side Virtual is stuffed with punchlines, and this micromoment is one of them – an obscenely gratuitous overload of sound effects and muzak keyboards. There is no regard for subtlety. It would be easy to make an album in such a vein which was fundamentally unlistenable beyond one or two spins, an album before which one could stroke one’s chin but not a lot else. Ferraro’s gift is to provide a series of vignettes that are sugar-sweet, an injection of pure musical adrenaline which is even more concentrated than most pop songs. After the injection comes an odd sense of guilt – more than just poseur’s regret, Ferraro begs the question of how much we can let ourselves enjoy these snippets of consumerist culture, or whether we can make ourselves sufficiently distant from considerations of capitalism when we listen to music. It cuts to the core of a central debate about art.
Jay-Z – 99 Problems
Having come to a disagreement with Def Jam president Lyor Cohen, Rick Rubin spent the 1990s making excellent albums for Johnny Cash and doing his level best with much poorer material from such luminaries as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Mel C (!). Coming as hip-hop and club music flirted with each other in the early part of the millennium (50 Cent’s ‘In The Club’ arriving only a few months before), Rick Rubin provides a blast from the past. And what a blast! He may have killed decent production by taking a large role in shaping the loudness war, but in the time when the war only consisted of initial shots fired, it sounded pretty breath-taking. A song which was out of time both in its sound and its lyrics, my eardrums are still reverberating from the first time I heard that guitar and drum crunch.* It’s the sound of hip-hop being taken out of the club by its throat and thrown back onto the streets.
*In fact I can remember exactly where I was. I had to get some meat out of the chest freezer (yes, you could say I got more meat than I anticipated…) and, being bored on a Sunday afternoon, turned on our old radio (you know, the one your dad listens to when he’s decorating the house) and BAM!
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Upside Down
The Jesus and Mary Chain single-handedly metamorphosed Phil Spector’s wall of sound into a wall of noise in their early releases, most spikily so on ‘Upside Down’, their barnstorming debut single. Its relentless power can most keenly be felt at this micromoment, where it sounds like Jim Reid forgets to approach the microphone, meaning his first attempt at the refrain is submerged in the mix.
Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze
One of the greatest gifts a musician can leave to prosperity is to have a chord named after them or one of their works: an honour which unites Igor Stravinsky, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix doesn’t so much as enter this song as shamble into it, forgoing the tonic and kicking things off with a bizarre dominant seventh sharp ninth chord. ‘Purple Haze’ is a song which, from the first chord, sounds like it has no direction but is very relaxed about that fact. 1967 will probably always be the most prolific year for record music, but ‘Purple Haze’ has every claim to be its quintessential soundtrack.
John Lennon – Imagine
There’s no middle eight in ‘Imagine’; what Lennon plays instead is just a solitary bar which connects the first chorus with the second verse via a quick left hand run up the piano. Part of the reason it sounds so good is because Phil Spector gives room for the piano in Lennon’s home studio to breathe, instilling unusually strong power to a piano-led song with a very simple chord progression. The message of the song would be completely lost if the production was overly tinkered with, so the benefit of that little bar is to stress the dignified continuity of the piece and, by extension, the responsibility we have to our fellow man away from the corrupting institutions of religion and nationhood. John Lennon never quite managed to satisfy himself with the most efficient form of protest, but the earnestness of his songwriting is what will survive, and is much more effective than any bed-in he ever staged.
John Zorn – James Bond theme
Amongst other things, Naked City chews up pop culture standards from decades ago and spits them back out in the listener’s face in an ultra-stylised yet chaotic form, and this is most evident in the Naked City band’s cover of the James Bond theme. The album as a whole lives and breathes New York, and what emerges from the covers of the themes to James Bond, Batman, and Chinatown is an invocation of the urban quagmire, offering an ultra-cool ideal of the honourable man in the shadows who protects the city, before ambushing him with a saxophone blast. That’s why I picked the micromoment of this piece, when the keyboards rush into the chorus with such a wonderful amount of cheese, like the last hurrah of the city crusader. The striking cover photograph to Naked City was taken by the photojournalist Weegee in 1940, but could easily be from 1989, the year of the album’s release, when New York City was in the grip of a peak in violent crime prompted by the crack cocaine epidemic.
Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (live at Folsom Prison)
It’s all very well and good to salute accidents and instincts in production, but they are often only a pale imitation of the spontaneity of live performance, of an artist reflexively being prompted by an audience’s immediate reaction. It’s the audience reaction that I’ve selected from this performance of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – after Cash delivers the song’s darkest lines, ‘I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die’, there’s a round of applause and cheering which has always sat queerly with me. Is it just taking advantage of a gap in the performance to salute the band on their first song or a real approval of those words? I might be being overly dramatic, but in the raw power of Cash’s performance, you don’t doubt that he could shoot a man in Reno if he was hyped up enough.
Laurie Anderson – O Superman
I wanted to be able to choose just one micromoment from ‘O Superman’ but I can’t, it’s just too good. The first one is along the same lines as David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, but this time it’s an expansion rather than a contraction of the address which strikes directly to the heart. The piece’s wilful weirdness means that no element of the song is a total bolt from the blue, but suddenly calling up ‘the planes’, synecdochic of the military-industrial complex, after the domestic Mom-and-Pop opening lines is pretty potent, added to by her serpentine drawing out of the last word. It’s gained an extra edge of heartbreak following 9/11 and Anderson’s emotive performance of the piece just eight days afterwards. It’s an unintentional coincidence, but the real piece of foresight is using the narrative device of an answerphone message with a voice that pretends to be human. There must have been an awful lot of calls made that day to answering machines that left the caller in an horrendous state of anxiety, just waiting for a response, left reliant on technology to confirm whether loved ones were alive or dead.
The micromoment towards the end works in a similar way, as it is poised at the crux of a fade out which begins with a synthesiser which morphs into a saxophone. A great summary of the song’s investigation into the interface between humanity and technology.
LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge
Generally speaking, I don’t like dubstep. Or at least, I find it difficult to take seriously, which means that inspired remixes like that of the Inspector Gadget theme tune are, in my view, the perfection of the genre. The WUB-WUB-WUB sound effect is so inherently funny that any ‘drop’ I hear in a dubstep tune is a glorious punchline. Those that do take it more seriously have a propensity to engage in an arms race of finding the most extreme and ear-destroying drops. The best I can offer is the not-technically-a-drop from LCD Soundsystem’s debut single, quite literally the ‘I was there’ moment. It won’t burst your guts out through your earhole, but it does provoke a wry smile as James Murphy mourns the loss of his mode.
Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love
Trying to cover Led Zeppelin is pointless. To get a drummer as good as John Bonham, a bassist as good as John Paul Jones, and a guitarist who can keep up with Jimmy Page in one room would be an achievement in itself, but even then the hypothetical cover band would still be missing Robert Plant’s voice, a bottled-up sample straight from the Mississippi delta which somehow implanted itself in the West Midlands. A voice so powerful that it could only sustain itself for a few years at its peak, its decline exacerbated by relentless touring. The voice is given full form at this moment, a borderline non-syllabic thunderbolt.
Lou Reed & John Cale – A Dream
Contrary to popular belief, the lyrics of ‘A Dream’ are not taken verbatim from Andy Warhol’s diaries, but they were written by Lou Reed under their inspiration, which makes the scorn that is poured upon Reed in the song even more astounding. When presented with the opportunity to write your own history it is tempting to present yourself in the best light, but this micromoment emphasises the sense of guilt Reed feels. It comes as Cale (reading as Warhol) talks about being spurned by Reed at an awards ceremony, unable to believe that Reed couldn’t even bring himself to greet him. Years after, Reed’s guitar sends out a plaintive hello, trying to connect with the dead, filled with the self-disgust that is brought on my grief. The guitar rises to try and meet the now departed Warhol, but it’s a forlorn effort.
Miles Davis – On The Corner
The title ‘On the Corner’ couldn’t be more appropriate; the opening to this album sounds like being kicked out of the back of a van onto a Harlem cross-section on the hottest day of the year, with traffic beeping its annoyance at you from all four sides. Regardless of how many times I listen to the album, I always think there’s going to be a warm-up before Miles and his band engage in their full-frontal assault, and it never comes.
Radiohead – Let Down
There’s a latent argument that most Radiohead fans have ready in their back pockets whenever a hostile party accuses them of making depressing music; that it’s actually uplifting, it encourages you to think yourself, or words to that effect. But let’s make no bones about it: ‘Let Down’ is utter misery, and all the better for it. It doesn’t just have an acute self-loathing pitched far above Creep’s teenage angst, it even methodically explains to you that you can’t grow wings, you’re doomed to fail, you’re consigned to a life where very little is changed by your agency. When Colin Greenwood’s bass re-enters following the break it’s with a deep sigh and a shrug, almost too chronically feeble to even limp to the end of the song.
Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter
2:59 and 3:02
A pair of moments so intense that they contributed to Merry Clayton, the backing vocalist, having a miscarriage shortly after recording her takes. As with Mingus, this is a moment where the emotional intensity of the sound breaks into pure noise, taking away some of the soft comforts we expect from music and crossing the threshold into a dark underworld.
Simon & Garfunkel – The Only Living Boy In New York
3:45 and elsewhere
Jaak Panksepp is a neuroscientist with an interesting hypothesis: the goosebumps we feel when listening to certain pieces of music has an evolutionary basis in ‘separation calls’, where a young animal calls to its parent when it becomes lost. The reaction (technically called piloerection) is curiously common to certain songs, when you may expect it to be a matter of subjectivity. Having spoken to some friends, it seems that this particular moment of ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ provokes the same rush of adrenaline in most people who hear it. Panksepp’s hypothesis could be drawn from this song alone, as the echo chamber call of ‘here I am’ is primitive in its attempt to facilitate reconciliation between the two musicians.
Sly & The Family Stone – Just Like A Baby
0:43 and elsewhere
There’s a precedent in literature for working in bed: Proust completed A la recherche du temps perdu while confined to his cork-lined bedroom, Orwell finished the final drafts of 1984 while bed-bound with the illness which would eventually kill him, and Mark Twain worked in the same bed which he transported whenever he moved house. Recorded music is different of course, as you need access to high-tech recording equipment that is unlikely to be at your bedside, unless your name is Sly Stone. It’s the sound of a creaking bed which I’ve picked out here, the glimpse into Stone’s drug-addled mind as he created his original brand of introspective funk on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. His work in the late 60s promised a utopia, including people of all races and creeds in a joyous dancing celebration, and in 1971 that is replaced by a reclusiveness that means the world is best faced from the comfort of the bed.
Squarepusher – Come On My Selector
Tom Jenkinson is the fucking daddy.
Steve Reich – Four Organs
The nature of Steve Reich’s phasing pieces ensures that there are moments of collision or harmony which create an effect that goes beyond the initial inputs. I have to confess my ignorance (and welcome any knowledge on the subject) with regards to what is happening here, but the little micromoment at 4:29 is an exquisite example. Even though the maraca doesn’t change throughout the piece, it makes it sound like the percussion is mixed slightly higher for a brief moment to ride the crest of the crashing organ waves. I plan to write another piece in a few weeks’ time about some of the historical connotations of Steve Reich’s use of phasing, so to my readers: I hope you’re both looking forward to it.
Aphex Twin – Tha
1:51 and elsewhere
I don’t find ‘Tha’ relaxing at all, which makes me a contrarian against every doe-eyed admirer of the track who’s left a fawning YouTube comment. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, there are the incredibly subtle shifts in tempo which occur throughout the song and almost sidestep your perception completely. Secondly, there is the sample of people talking buried frustratingly beneath the mix, resisting your attempts to decipher what exactly is being said. Along with the samples of people talking is the moment I’ve chosen (occurring more than once) where there is the sound of shoes squeaking in a hallway. Brian Eno famously developed his vision of ambient music while in a hospital bed unable to change the volume on a recording of harp music. The hospital bed is exactly what I imagine at the centre of this ambient work, in the middle of a cavernous space surrounded by people remotely discussing your fate. That echoed squeak is the sound of those incredibly long hospital corridors with whitewashed walls.
Suicide – Frankie Teardrop
Tom Scharpling’s radio show on WFMU spawned a monster in 2013: the ‘Frankie Teardrop challenge’, where the plucky listener has to listen to the song through headphones in a scary location late at night. I pre-empted Scharpling somewhat because I tried doing the same thing when I discovered the song in 2007, walking around a wooded field close to my parent’s house that had no artificial illumination for miles around. I only attempted it a couple of times, but on each occasion it was this moment that I would, purely instinctively, rip the headphones from my ears and throw them to the ground in cold-blooded fright. There is no easy way out of this song. Even from the beginning, the percussion on the organ is going at such a rate to make you realise it isn’t going to end well. You glance at the track listing to confirm just how long you have to endure it, and think ‘oh, for fuck’s sake’.
Talk Talk – Wealth
During their prolonged recording sessions for Talk Talk’s final albums, Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene created a reverential atmosphere, a process which included the burning of incense candles. At the end of Spirit of Eden there is the aural equivalent of a candle flickering out, as the organ persists and persists before slowly fading away. It’s hard to pick a moment per se from all of that, but the terminal mumbling of Mark Hollis beneath the organ would be it. A fitting way to end a delicate album.
Brian Eno – Windows 95 startup noise
And then of course, there are pieces of music, only seconds long, which are micromoments in their entirety. Brian Eno gives a memorable description of being tasked with composing the start-up sound for Windows 95, which must ring true for composers who work with technology companies everywhere:
“The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3.25 seconds long.”
But you know what? He absolutely nails it. Windows 95 was the first operating system to really feel the clout of Microsoft’s multimillion pound marketing department, with the company even paying for an entire run of the Times newspaper so people could get a free copy, all courtesy of Uncle Bill. It brought personal computing to a generation’s awareness and the sense of optimism in technology is inculcated by Eno. Mysterious and alluring in equal measure, it holds special significance for me because it was the soundtrack to my first explorations within a computer, at that age where you immerse your curiosity into exploring every aspect of the machine, double clicking whatever you fancy, and congratulating yourself when you find a new cache of folders to explore. It’s a hell of a thing to represent that in a handful of seconds, but Eno pulls it off.