CMJ-Charting New Music since 1978

For many, Billboard’s Top 100 used to be the way to go. Remember the days of tuning in to Casey Kasem and the Weekly Top 40 on the FM dial?

Casey Kasem and the Weekly Top 40

Casey Kasem and the Weekly Top 40

For me, it was the way I spent my weekends, transitioning at the age of 10 from Saturday morning cartoons to Saturday or Sunday morning radio with my little casette player Casio radio. Funnily enough, my 10th birthday present, that radio, is now being used by my 10 year-old brother more than a decade later… but he also has a cd player, and I make mix cds for him a couple times a year–oh, how things have changed…

I recently talked with a friend of mine about the ways people are learning about popular music “these days” and I felt a little archaic when she gushed about the things she’s found through iTunes’ top 100. This made me wonder, “Isn’t that what radio was all about once upon a time? Independent stations playing whatever they got their hands on and seeing what struck a chord?” (Music pun fully intended…)

iTunes Top 100

iTunes Top 100

 From there, I turned the questions on myself–“Do any of the sites I go to even publish the weekly top tracks? And furthermore, what, exactly, constitutes a popular song on the world wide web,  where tiny musical niches can work themselves up into a lather about songs and artists that will never make it on ClearChannel? Lastly, how does folk rock fit into all this?” Then the breakthrough–

 Ah, yes, the CMJ charts. The College Music Journal  http://cmj.com/charts.php?chart_type=1 gets lists from independent and college radio stations around the country each week and then compiles the findings into a comprehensive list of what’s being played around the U.S. Many of these radio stations are also listened to through online streams and podcasts, meaning that the music on them is still relevant in a world so heavily dependent on the internet.

 While there is not a specific CMJ list for the folk rock genre, (as there are, for example, for Hip-Hop, Jazz and Loud Rock)  a recent revival in different kinds of folk-influenced rock and independent music has been evidenced on the college charts in artists like Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens, Okkervil River, Beirut, Bright Eyes, Great Lake Swimmers, and even in somewhat more pop rock-based acts like Joshua Radin, Josh Ritter, Damien Rice, Vetiver, the Decemberists, Cat Power, Ray Lamontagne and the Weepies.

Additionally, if you visit the CMJ website, found at http://cmj.com/ you will soon discover that, by clicking on the blue header bar titled “Download This” you find yourself at the CMJRelay Staff Blog (also powered by WordPress!) that has attached to it, drumroll please, more than half a dozen excellent free tracks by artists either already in, or soon to be making their appearance on, the CMJ Top 20 chart.  Although this week’s offerings are not particularly folk-rocky, being a lover of all kinds of music, I encourage you to check out what they have to offer-you may just be pleasantly surprised…

In looking at this week’s listings, I’d have to say Cotton Jones (currently at #12) is the most folk rock-inspired, but there aren’t any freebies of the group posted on CMJ’s blog, which means I’ll have to jump the gun and introduce you, briefly to Daytrotter (http://daytrotter.com) where there are Cotton Jones tunes and a review available if you visit http://daytrotter.com/article/1559/cotton-jones-basket-ride.

Michael Nau of Cotton Jones

Michael Nau of Cotton Jones

Earlier this month, NPR had Cotton Jones on as a guest…check it out here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100146647

For those of you too lazy to do the prowling yourself, or trusting enough of my taste, below you’ll find a couple of my preferred tracks:

\”Gone the Bells\”-Cotton Jones

\”Up a Tree (Went This Heart I Have)\”-Cotton Jones

And for the musical trivia junkies out there, Michael Nau is the former lead singer of the indie band Page France. Both groups appeared on Suicide Squeeze records, but Cotton Jones began as a side project for Nau while he was a member of Page France and, for those who are confused, they aren’t Canadian, they’re from Maryland. Additionally, if you ever watched “Weeds,” Page France’s song “Chariot” was featured in an episode in 2006. 

Page France

Page France

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Last.fm and Folk Rock Streams

I know, I know, everyone loves Pandora http://pandora.com .  This is a fact I’m still trying to wrap my head around, if only because the name connotation suggests it be approached with caution (if you don’t know the Greek myth, find a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and impress your friends with your random Classical knowledge, or check out
http://greek-history.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_myth_of_pandoras_box for the online version…) but I digress…

Being a lover of folk rock and music in general, I found Pandora’s streaming playlists to be rather limited–they played a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Ani DiFranco, a smattering of Joan Baez if you listened long enough, and strangely, a host of jam bands (the Grateful Dead, Phish etc) that I couldn’t quite figure what their relation was. Mind you, they do have multiple “Folk” stations (British Folk, Contemporary Folk, Traditional Folk, Bluegrassy Instrumental and so on), I just didn’t find any of them to be particularly satisfying.

This disappointment led to my find and subsequent devotion to Last.fm, accessible at http://last.fm/ , an online radio streaming website similar to Pandora, but better, (in my estimation) in regards to its “folk rock” spectrum. One of the best features of Last.fm over Pandora is your ability to broaden or narrow your search, depending on what you’re craving. If you have a favorite artist (let’s say Bob Dylan just because everyone’s familiar with the name) you can search for him, as an artist, and find related artists or related tracks from there, or you can learn more about the genre, or about other musicians worldwide who count Dylan as an influence, and who other users have tagged as having a similar sound (be it musically, lyrically, stylistically etc).

Occasionally these searches also lead to free downloads, either by way of related tracks, or by way of looking up, for example “free folk” as a tag in the search bar. While they changed their format last fall (which I’m still trying to accustom myself to; it’s harder to find the free mp3s now), their content remains the same, so it’s just a matter of investing the time and knowing how to look.

If you find yourself growing attached to it (like I did) then you can also become a registered user and find others with similar streams, very much like the shared stations available through Pandora. The only thing I can really suggest is that you give them both a go, and compare and contrast on your own time, but if it’s a wide range of folk rock you are looking for, or you are hoping to expand your knowledge of the genre, I suggest Last.fm. Happy Listening!

Sue Merchant-Folk from “Across the Pond”

Today’s exploration into the world of online folk rock brings us to my, mmm, probably monthly prowling on GarageBand, accessible at http://www.garageband.com. Hesitant to start digging into GarageBand at first because of a friend who warned me of its potentially time-consuming layout in the early days of its existence (“It’s hard to sort stuff out, and a lot of it is really poor quality”), I think GarageBand has come a long way since its conception, and I enjoy using it now. Granted, I’m more biased than I once was because several of my friends have posted music on it now (you know who you are and yes, you rock my GarageBand world), but honestly, with the advances in home recording in the past few years, and the growing prevalence of musicians who’ve gotten started in their own bedrooms and basements,  I think there is quite a bit of worthwhile stuff to be found there.

Sue Merchant

Sue Merchant

Case in point, I’d like to introduce you to Sue Merchant http://www.suemerchant.net , a folk singer from England who I “stumbled upon” via GarageBand.

In classic “chicken or the egg” fashion, I found Sue Merchant’s name through iLike and then took that to the great and powerful Google for more information. Google brought me to her homepage and, more importantly, to her GarageBand site, accessible at http://www.garageband.com/artist/suemerchant. Through GarageBand, you can download no fewer than a dozen of her tracks, all professionally recorded and with great download quality. Since first discovering her, I’ve burned several of her tracks to different mixtapes and had no trouble with them retaining their sound, as sometimes happens with stuff one finds online, so I have no complaints anyway.  Without further ado, here are a couple of the tracks that I’ve found worthy of repeat listen:

\”Virginia in the Fall\” – Sue Merchant

\”Fool\”- Sue Merchant\

\”Vignette from the Edge\”- Sue Merchant

Being from Virginia, I have a certain connection with “Virginia in the Fall” that others may not immediately feel, but it’s more about the longing for home and wanting to indulge the attachment one has to a certain place and time. The line “packing up my things and throwin’ caution to the wind/ damned if I know what it’s all been for” really sums up, for me, that desire to just go, the urge to get up and leave whatever is holding you back from being where who you are and where you want to be and finding the space where you are most at ease and most at home.

“Fool” on the other hand, is much more poignant and fills the whole “sad lyrical story” aspect of folk music. If anyone had ever asked me if I would one day enjoy a song about domestic violence, I would’ve had to say no, but if nothing else, I think the guitar work is lovely and makes it worth the listen. “Vignette from the Edge” is somewhat similar in its contemplative, somewhat melancholy nature, but the back-up vocals are quite pretty and a little haunting, and again, the guitar is a presence in and of itself and should be appreciated as such.

Artist of the hour-Josh Woodward

Ahh, what a tangled web the internet is… it continually amazes me how attached one can be to so many things that you may never have been near before, never even seen or heard in first-person, and yet, here they are…bizarre. Anyway, all this is to say that my first “artist of the hour” was not so much discovered as uncovered online. Like many people, I have a Facebook account, and on that deviously distracting time sink I also have the application known as iLike (which you can also find at http://ilike.com ).

If you have the iLike application, which I recommend with reservations (you should only bother with it if you want to be able to dedicate song snippets to friends or, like me, you are really perversely interested in finding unheard music) you can find free, legal mp3 downloads by (typically) unsigned artists by going into the application and clicking on the “Charts” tab. This will bring you to a page with a header titled “Recently Added Free MP3s (artist-uploaded)” followed by the listings of 5 or 6 songs. By clicking on the right-hand words “See All” below the header, you can retrieve a list with the 50 most recently uploaded songs on iLike. Granted, finding something you like is a bit of a crap shoot, but if you’ve got the patience to slog through it, you may be surprised at what you find.

Case in point, Josh Woodward.

Josh Woodward

Josh Woodward

Back in 2007, I was prowling around on iLike and found a song posted by Josh entitled “She Dreams in Blue.” \”She Dreams in Blue\” by Josh Woodward. After a couple listens, I decided it was worth downloading, clicked the “Free MP3” tab beneath the song title and became the proud owner of well, a song that only myself and 43 other people knew (this, at least, was his iLike fan count at the time). I took his name and looked it up on OurStage (http://www.ourstage.com ) only to find that, while he didn’t have music up, he was, amazingly enough, a judge and user of the site anyway (cue  the opening strains of “It’s a Small World After All”). From OurStage, I found his personal page www.joshwoodward.com  and learned that he gives away ALL of his music for FREE. Whoa.

A couple years later, and Josh has 5,271 iLike fans. Behold the power of the free mp3 and the internet!  

For your listening pleasure, here are the shortcuts to a couple more of his tunes:
“Don’t Close Your Eyes” (2008)
http://www.joshwoodward.com/mp3/TheSimpleLife/JoshWoodward-TheSimpleLife-204-DontCloseYourEyes.mp3
“I’d Do Right By You” (2005)
http://www.joshwoodward.com/mp3/JoshWoodward-DoRight.mp3

Battle of the Bands via World Wide Web

As I reflected this past weekend about how to begin establishing the feel, purpose, and overall aim of this blog, I had a little difficulty deciding where to begin. Should it begin with a “top 25 events” (in my opinion) that led folk rock to where it is today? or with my definition of  what I believe  the genre itself  “is” today? (Images of a game of “Guess Who?” come to mind–“Does your man have a beard and an acoustic guitar?” “You have my folk rocker!” ) Or in this same vein, perhaps even a set of characteristics to help someone decide whether they wanted to further pursue an investigation into the genre–“You might like folk rock if…”

But there will be time for all that yet. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to one of the best tools I have found for “self-discovery” of music online. Like an introductory course, one must first be acquainted with the texts and implements utilized by the instructor before they can adapt the use of those tools to suit their own needs. While I am not an expert on folk rock by any means, I feel that I can aid others  in this regard by sharing an online community designed to introduce others directly to music being put out by dedicated, skilled independent and unsigned musicians.

The website is called “OurStage” and can be accessed at http://www.ourstage.com and was created with the sole purpose of bringing new music of all genres to people interested in a) listening to it b) rating, judging and ranking it and c) seeing their favorite “underdogs” get introduced to opportunities, like shows and recording contracts, that they might never have without the support of their online fans and followers. The website is one that I rely on heavily for finding new music online, and one that I have had great success in getting others to explore because it has something for everyone (the site boasts 44 separate genre categories-from alt-rock to club to death metal to rap to spiritual to tropical…you get the idea-there’s something for everyone and overlap in between!) Additionally, your level of involvement is up to you–if you want to have an account by which to actively compare and judge groups’ releases, you can. If you just want to pop by and listen to what else is “out there,” you can do that without penalty too. The site also has links to artists’ pages, music-related blogs, and a forum where you can see posted concert dates around the U.S. for the artists who have their music available for consumption.

While the website does NOT allow for much opportunity to immediately download what you discover, the artist sites themselves often provide ample opportunity to learn more about the musicians and connect with the mediums by which their music is accessible–either through iTunes, cd, or, on occasion, free download.

 If you become a member and open an account (which I suggest if you regularly look for new music online), Ourstage will send a weekly e-mail of the Top Songs for the genres of your interest, as well as links to Up and Coming artists, and playlists of popular free downloads related to the site, making it easy for one to really focus their attentions on what most interests them, and what’s been recommended by other like-minded listeners.

Later this week I’ll post a write-up of some of my most recent, most favorite OurStage finds…but, in the meantime, if you find any, feel free to share! It’s all about keeping one’s ears open, after all.

Hello world!

Considering I’ve never done anything of this sort, you may have to bear with me as I begin to understand this medium. With that being said, I look forward to sharing my thoughts and finds with you, and for reading any feedback that may be applicable to the world of online music! See you soon!

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