Monday, December 31, 2007

RIAA-rant, and the Best of 2007

Tinariwen (who look like they'd be more than happy to kick some RIAA butt), on the cover of Aman Iman ("Water Is Life"), one of my picks for best album of 2007.

This morning, I was listening to a downloaded copy of Little Feat's "All that You Dream," from their incomparable live album, Waiting for Columbus, as I read this--and, in particular, the passage quoted below. The little factoid about Little Feat is important, for reasons that I'll explain on the other side.

[I]n an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry's lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are "unauthorized copies" of copyrighted recordings.

"I couldn't believe it when I read that," says Ray Beckerman, a New York lawyer who represents six clients who have been sued by the RIAA. "The basic principle in the law is that you have to distribute actual physical copies to be guilty of violating copyright. But recently, the industry has been going around saying that even a personal copy on your computer is a violation."
As I say, I was listening to a song from Waiting for Columbus as I read this. The legally-purchased CD of that album sits in a CD rack in my living room. In fact, this is the second legally-purchased CD of that album that I've owned; I'd taken the first copy with me on so many long road trips that it had become unplayable from all the scratches. I'm certain that online there are all sorts of downloadable-for-free copies of Waiting for Columbus, but it never occurred to me to look for them. I'm not as pure as the driven snow when it comes to file-sharing, I admit, but of the 4,000-some-odd songs I presently have in my computer's iTunes, maybe 30 of them are of questionable legal provenance; all the rest are copies of CDs I actually own or have purchased or downloaded for free in mp3 format from Calabash Music and Moreover, off the top of my head I can recall sending to another party copies of only two songs via the Internets. The CD copies I've burned have been for my personal use.

I'm not trying to imply that I'm typical or atypical or beyond reproach in my music buying/obtaining/distributing behavior. It's just that this little story reminded me of my age: I'm old enough to remember the days when the RIAA was all exercised over the selling of blank cassette tapes, their fear being that people were taping albums and passing them around rather than springing for the actual LPs. It was a silly argument 25 years ago, and it's silly now, though for different reasons: While I have no doubts that piracy does indeed cut into Big Music's bottom line, it's equally true that there's just never been so much music available--much of it legitimately-free, at that--to so many people as there is now, and that fact also cuts into the bottom line. But no matter: in the specific case of my (twice-purchased) Little Feat album, I'd resent mightily the accusation that, "unauthorized" or not, those mp3 files somehow embody lost/stolen revenue.

Now to the "Best Of" list, below the fold:

A couple of disclaimers first. The first is that, while I bought more music than I had any business buying, it turned out, as I was pulling this list together, that most of what I bought was actually released in 2006 and I only heard of it this year. So, if we're going to be faithful to the calendar, I have to leave off some really good stuff. Future posts will probably end up pointing the curious in those directions anyway.

So, then, that leads me to the next disclaimer: I ended up buying only eight albums released in 2007. The good news, though, is that my straitened finances forced me to be fairly careful in making my purchases, such that seven of them really should be on somebody's Best Of list, somewhere. So why not mine? The odd album out, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, just ended up underwhelming me, despite the grand "My Body Is a Cage."

The third disclaimer: Much of my listening this past year was in service to indulging my burgeoning love affair with music from Mali and western Africa; this means that I just didn't listen to much new music from the States.

Where possible, I'll provide you with links to (legally-available--pace, RIAA!) full-length cuts from these albums. Mad props to the aforementioned for these.

Okay--enough disclaiming! Here's the list, in alphabetical order:

Bebel Gilberto, Momento. Full-length tracks available here. Not as musically adventurous as her stunning debut, Tanto tempo, but still a beautiful example of elegant music-making from Brazil. She is João Gilberto's daughter, by the way. Bossa nova and samba are alive and well and sexy as ever in this Gilberto's hands.

Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton, Knives Don't Have Your Back. Full-length tracks available here. Simple but not simplistic piano-based music, much more intimate than the music Haines makes with Broken Social Scene. At their very best, such as "Crowd-Surf Off a Cliff," these songs' spareness is heartbreaking.

Radiohead, In Rainbows. Samples available here. A bold marketing experiment, more than vindicated by the solid songs on this album. To my ear, it's reminiscent of OK Computer's sound. Not a bad place to be sonically.

Something of a ringer, since it's a sampler: The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa & Middle East. Samples available here. John Armstrong, the album's compiler, says, modestly, "From Afro-beat to Congolese Soukous, and from Tuareg music to Arabesque, this release introduces some of the key African and Middle Eastern artists and styles; popular and classical, new and traditional." And does this in 15 well-chosen tracks. Some of the artists here--Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck, King Sunny Ade, Oliver Mtukudzi, Ofra Haza--will be familiar even to those who've had cursory encounters with music from this region. Get-up-and-dance music that not only makes most of our pop and dance music seem lead-footed by comparison, it also more often than not has a social conscience to it.

Sigur Rös, Hvarf/Heim. Samples available here. The Amazon reviews are mixed; even beautiful music can be disappointing if, in the listener's opinion, it's "just" more of the same. Artists should grow, I know, but this album is something of a retrospective, after all. And anyway, personally I'm not at all tired of this band's sound. As far as I'm concerned . . . more, please.

Tinariwen, Aman Iman. Full-length tracks available here; the band's history is here. For me, 2007 was chiefly about learning more about music from Mali and, by extension, west African musics--the vast majority of my listening to and buying music reflects that journey. I am bowled over by how rich the musical traditions of that region are and how ignorant I remain of them. Tinariwen's music is that of the Touareg people of Saharan northern Mali, but its electric guitars and bass, combined with Touareg percussion, give this music an intensity and drive that will make you want to take it with you on your next road trip. It's not rock & roll musically, but it certainly is in its feel. I'm especially fond of track #4, "Matadjem Yinmixan."

Vieux Farka Touré, Vieux Farka Touré. Full-length tracks available here. Ali Farka Toure's son plays guitar and performs songs in a style strikingly reminiscent of his father here on his debut album, but whereas Ali stayed firmly rooted in his "desert blues" style, Vieux shows a willingness to introduce new sounds into that style, much as Issa Bagayogo does in his best album, Sya. This is a powerful debut that shows the son more than capable of looking his father's music straight in the eye and willing to bring something new to it. Give "Touré of Niafunké" (a father-son collaboration) and "Courage" a listen.

So there's the list, such as it is and for what it's worth. Maybe it will encourage some of you to compile your own; if it does and you do, I hope you'll link to it in comments. Thanks in advance, and Happy New Year!


Sheila said...



Winston said...

You do have a widely varied set of interests, John. I've never gotten into Malian... Malinese?... or any other African music. Maybe I need to broaden my horizons in the new year.

I cannot believe the justice system is so mucked up that it would be interpreted as illegal to use music you've bought and paid for legally in any way you wish, as long as it is not distributed to others or used in any way for profit. Enforcement would be near impossible. Then again, the lawmakers, regulators, and justices are all part of a new politically driven government that wants to regulate what we think...

Best of everything to you in the New Year, John!

John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for dropping by. In principle, I'm sympathetic to the notion of intellectual property and the protecting of it (why else have plagiarism policies in the classroom?), but I'd be more sympathetic to the RIAA if they'd drop all the pretense and admit that, relative to the recording industry's profits, the artists whose interests they say they are protecting get paid diddly and so what's being stolen here is not ideas--what happens with plagiarism--but profits. Well, that and, as I mentioned in my post, the fact that the Web is awash in legally-available, for free or cheap, music not controlled by the giants of the recording industry.

Winston, as a good sampler of Malian music, I highly recommend Putumayo's sampler, Mali, even though it's missing Ali Farka Touré, THE one indispensable artist from that country. For him, you'll want Niafunké. Yeah: my musical interests do tend to range a bit. Lots of breadth, not much depth. And, as Daddy was fond of saying, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Sheila said...

Oh, yes, Winston, do take John's lead and listen to some music from Mali. One compilation you might enjoy (I think it's one of those Putumayo discs) is titled From Mali to Memphis.

And . . . if you're inspired to investigate Malian cinema, I urge you to seek out a film titled Yeelen (Brightness), directed by Souleymane Cissé. It is both specific to the Bambara people of Mali and universal in an archetypal way (the son must kill the father, a battle between two mages/magicians), and it is a perfectly stunning film. The critic Janet Maslin characterized it as 'fierce' and 'majestic'; I don't think I can't improve on that.

Sheila said...

Well, lookee there. Me and John, we was writing about the same Putumayo compilation right at the very same time.

John B. said...

Actually, Sheila, From Mali to Memphis is different from the one I was describing. I haven't heard that one, but I assume that if you're mentioning it, it's worth a listen.

Sheila said...

I made a monkey of myself -- and not for the first time! But I reckon that's okay, 'cause now people have two recommended samplers of Malian (and related) music to investigate.

A teeny correction: I believe that Mali to Memphis is the title I have in mind. While it doesn't pay to take the concept of the thing too literally, the disc features not only some gorgeous music from Malian artists but some fine cuts from the likes of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Taj Mahal.