Category: Music

My favorite non-classical music of the year 2023

I liked these best:

Lankum, False Lankum.  Claims to be Irish folk music, but has ambient textures and is designed to alienate its core audience.

Yaeji, With a Hammer.  A mix of English and Korean, house and hip hop.  She lives in Brooklyn.

Boygenius, The Rest.  Four songs, twelve minutes.

Christine and the Queens, Paranoia, Angels, True Love.  Three CDs, weird, still growing on me.  By some French person.

Paul Simon, Seven Psalms.  Now he is partly deaf, and he was already singing about dying.

Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily, Love in Exile.

Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine.  Her track record (and consistency) at this point is simply staggering, and you can put her on a par with the very greatest of female jazz vocalists.

Irreversible Entanglements, Protect Your Light.  From a free jazz collective, still vital.

Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays the Beatles.

Ches Smith and We All Break, Path of Seven Colors.  From the year before, but I discovered it this year, a blend of Haitian vodou and jazz.

I will be doing a separate post on classical music.  What do you all recommend in these categories?

Addendum: And, via Brett Reynolds, here is a Spotify playlist for those.

My Conversation with the excellent Brian Koppelman

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Brian Koppelman is a writer, director, and producer known for his work on films like Rounders and Solitary Man, the hit TV show Billions, and his podcast The Moment, which explores pivotal moments in creative careers.

Tyler and Brian sat down to discuss why TV wasn’t good for so long, whether he wants viewers to binge his shows, how he’d redesign movie theaters, why some smart people appreciate film and others don’t, which Spielberg movie and Murakami book is under appreciated, a surprising fact about poker, whether Jalen Brunson is overrated or underrated, Manhattan food tips, who he’d want to go on a three-day retreat with, whether movies are too long, how happy people are in show business, his unmade dream projects, the next thing he’ll learn about, and more.


COWEN: Thank you. I have some very simple questions for you about the history of television to start with. I grew up in the 1970s and I’ve long wondered, “Why was TV so bad for so long before the so-called Golden Age?” Maybe you could date that to the 90s or the noughties, but why weren’t shows in the 70s and 80s better than they were? Would you challenge that premise?

KOPPELMAN: Well, I also grew up in the ’70s. I was born in ’66. I’m not sure that the hypothesis that it was bad is correct. It certainly wasn’t, in general, as an art form, operating on the level that cinema was operating on or the level that music, in part, was operating on during that time.

But if we look at, say, children’s television, I could argue that Jim Henson and Sesame Street, for what it was and aimed at what it was aimed at, was as important as any television that’s on today. I would say that Jim Henson moved the art form forward. He figured out a use case for TV that hadn’t really been done before, and he created a way of thinking about the medium that was really different.

Then, look, Hill Street Blues shows up in the ’80s and, I think, figures out how to use certain techniques of theater and cinema and novels to tell these TV stories. Like any other business, when that started to connect, then people in the business started to become aware of what was possible.

Yes, it was a function of three channels, to answer your question. Yes, in the main, of course, TV was worse. No doubt about it, but there were high points. I think those high points pointed the way toward the high points that came later. For me, NYPD Blue is the network show that’s fully on the level of any of these shows that came after. David Milch cut his teeth on Hill Street Blues.

There’s a wonderful book by Brett Martin, called Difficult Men, that’s about showrunners. It starts, in a way, with Bochco and Milch in that time period. It’s a great look into how this idea of showrunners created modern television. HBO needing something, all these business reasons underneath it, but how people who came up through, originally, Hill Street were able to go on and start this revolution.

COWEN: In your view, how good, really, was I Love Lucy? Is it just a few memorable moments, like Vitameatavegamin? Or is it actually a show where it’d be good episode after good episode, like The Sopranos?

And from Brian:

I don’t know Wes Anderson. I don’t know him, but I met him once. I love his movies, and I love that his movies are 90 minutes. The one time I met him, we were screening a film. He invited some people who happened to be in town, who he knew were film people, so I got to watch a movie with him. Afterwards, we were just talking about movies, and I said, “These movies of yours — they are 90 minutes,” and he said, “Yes. I found that the concepts I’m interested in don’t really support a journey that lasts longer than that.” He’s an incredibly disciplined filmmaker. I was like, “That makes total sense.”

Recommended, interesting and entertaining throughout.

The culture that is Porirua (New Zealand)

The residents of a small city in New Zealand have been enduring sleepless nights for months due to drivers blasting Céline Dion songs from their cars in the early hours of the morning.

According to Agence France Press, car drivers in Porirua, a town of some 60,000 people, north of Wellington, have been loudly playing the singer’s tunes as late as 2 a.m.

They have been cranking up the volume on the Canadian songstress’s most famous ballads, including “My Heart Will Go On” and “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” according to AFP.

The nocturnal music-playing tends to begin as early as 7 p.m., continuing for many hours thereafter, Porirua Mayor Anita Baker told the news agency.

It’s part of the “siren battles” trend that has taken place in New Zealand for several years, which is particularly popular with indigenous people from the Pacific Islands.

These battles involve rival crews competing to blast the most powerful and clear sounds from loudspeakers attached to cars, or even bicycles, to win the title of “siren king.”

…They “love” Dion because they like “anyone with a high pitch and great tone in their voice,” the mayor explained to AFP.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Samir Varma.  I have had very good fish and chips in Porirua.

*George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle*

By Philip Norman, a wonderful book of course.  My “problem” (not with the book of course) is just how much John and Paul tower over the proceedings, from the very beginning.  Here is one excerpt:

He [Hanton, an early drummer for the Quarrymen, a Beatles precursor] felt excluded from the others’ practice sessions at the art college and resented Paul, who was more than competent on drums as well as guitar and piano, for continually finding fault with his performances.


John’s leadership remained unchallenged, but Paul was ever his zealous adjutant; convinced that they could be spotted by some talent scout at any moment, he called for maximum effort, however late the hour or sparse the audience.  And Stu Sutcliffe’s bass playing, though now reasonably competent, was clearly never going to satisfy Paul.

Recommended, I will read every page.  You can order here, Norman’s other bios are great too.  And if you are wondering, a few of the most underrated George songs are the early instrumental “Cry for a Shadow,” “Don’t Bother Me,” and the much later “You.”

Music podcast of me DJing for Rick Rubin

When I visited Rick over the summer in Italy, he asked me to DJ for him for many hours, maybe about seven?  This was amazing fun but also an intimidating challenge!  Anyway, this 90-minute podcast is the result of those sessions, edited and produced by Rick of course.   Here is the episode summary:

Tyler Cowen has long nurtured an obsession with music. It’s one of the few addictions Tyler believes is actually conducive to a fulfilling intellectual life.
In this bonus episode, an addendum to Rick’s conversation with Tyler, Rick sits with Tyler as he plays and talks through the music that moves him: from the outer bounds of the avant-garde to contemporary pop music and all points in between.


Songs Sold for a Song

In our principles textbook, Modern Principles, Tyler and I discuss securitization and give the interesting example of music securitization with the picture at right (I’m pretty proud of the caption.)

But what has happened to these big purchases of song portfolios? Ted Gioia runs the numbers and finds that the rock stars sold at the top and the financiers are taking a bath!

On Thursday, Hipgnosis announced a plan to sell almost a half billion dollars of its song portfolio. They need to do this to pay down debt. That’s an ominous sign, because the songs Hipgnosis bought were supposed to generate lots of cash. Why can’t they handle their debt load with that cash flow?

But there was even worse news. Hipgnosis admitted that they sold these songs at 17.5% below their estimated “fair market value.” This added to the already widespread suspicion that current claims of song value are inflated.

Hipgnosis’s share price actually dropped after the announcement.

Last year, I predicted the following:

“Don’t be surprised if the folks at [private equity group] Blackstone end up owning all those songs. But if it happens, they will probably acquire the music at a sharp discount to what those songs were worth just a few months ago.”

Can you guess the buyer in the deal announced on Thursday? Yes, it was a Blackstone-backed fund. And they definitely got that discount.

But there’s one part of this story that I love.…It confirms my sense that karma is at work in the universe, and everything tends towards justice and fairness—if you’re willing to wait long enough.

Here’s that element of karma. The old rock stars actually did defeat the system. They screwed the man, and did it big time.

By my measure, Bob Dylan sold out at the top, and gets to laugh at the financiers who overpaid him. The same is true of Paul Simon and Neil Young and all the rest.

When I launch my hedge fund, I’m going to invite them to join me as partners. They are shrewd operators, every one of them.

What should I ask Masaaki Suzuki?

Yes, I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Here is the opening of his Wikipedia page:

Masaaki Suzuki (鈴木 雅明Suzuki Masaaki, born 29 April 1954) is a Japanese organistharpsichordist and conductor, and the founder and music director of the Bach Collegium Japan. With this ensemble he is recording the complete choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach for the Swedish label BIS Records, for which he is also recording Bach’s concertos, orchestral suites, and solo works for harpsichord and organ. He is also an artist-in-residence at Yale University and the principal guest conductor of its Schola Cantorum, and has conducted orchestras and choruses around the world.

He is not just an incredible artist, he is one of the most remarkable achievers of our time.  So what should I ask him?

Why is the minor key rising in popularity?

Another telltale sign of sad songs is the minor key. This rise in minor key songs has been dramatic. Around 85% of songs were in a major key back in the 1960s, but in more recent years this has fallen in half.

My favorite guru of music data analytics, Chris Dalla Riva, has sent me this chart showing the increasing share of Billboard #1 hits in a minor key. (By the way, I highly recommend Chris’s Substack Can’t Get Much Higher.)

Chart showing an increase in hit songs in a minor key

Here is more from Ted Gioia.

Is Bach the greatest achiever of all time?

I’ve been reading and rereading biographies of Bach lately (for some podcast prep), and it strikes me he might count as the greatest achiever of all time.  That is distinct from say regarding him as your favorite composer or artist of all time.  I would include the following metrics as relevant for that designation:

1. Quality of work.

2. How much better he was than his contemporaries.

3. How much he stayed the very best in subsequent centuries.

4. Quantity of work.

5. Peaks.

6. Consistency of work and achievement.

7. How many other problems he had to solve to succeed with his achievement.  For Bach, this might include a) finding musical manuscripts, b) finding organs good enough to play and compose on, c) dealing with various local and church authorities, d) migrating so successfully across jurisdictions, e) composing at an impossibly high level during the four years he was widowed (with kids), before remarrying.

8. Ending up so great that he could learn only from himself.

9. Never experiencing true defeat or setback (rules out Napoleon!).

I see Bach as ranking very, very high in all these categories.  Who else might even be a contender for greatest achiever of all time?  Shakespeare?  Maybe, but Bach seems to beat him for relentlessness and quantity (at a very high quality level).  Beethoven would be high on the list, but he doesn’t seem to quite match up to Bach in all of these categories.  Homer seems relevant, but we are not even sure who or what he was.  Archimedes?  Plato or Aristotle?  Who else?

Addendum: from Lucas, in the comments:

I’m not joking when I say I have thought about Bach in this light every week for the last 20 years.

His family died young, and his day job for much of his life was a school teacher! In addition to the daily demands on him to teach Latin and theology and supervise teenage boys and so on, there was the thousand small practical challenges of life in the eighteenth century. No electric lighting. Crappy parchment and quills. The cold, the disease, the lack of plumbing, the restricted access to information, talented players, and the manual nature of every little thing.

And, perhaps most of all, to continue such a volume of high-quality output when the world seemed not to care. Yes, he had a local reputation among those in the know, but there were never any packed concert halls or grand tours to validate his efforts. He seems to have been entirely internally driven by his genius and his commitment to the eternal and divine.

My Conversation with Vishy Anand

In Chennai I recorded with chess great Vishy Anand, here is the transcript, audio, and video, note the chess analysis works best on YouTube, for those of you who follow such things (you don’t have to for most of the dialogue).  Here is the episode summary:

Tyler and Vishy sat down in Chennai to discuss his breakthrough 1991 tournament win in Reggio Emilia, his technique for defeating Kasparov in rapid play, how he approached playing the volatile but brilliant Vassily Ivanchuk at his peak, a detailed breakdown of his brilliant 2013 game against Levon Aronian, dealing with distraction during a match, how he got out of a multi-year slump, Monty Python vs. Fawlty Towers, the most underrated Queen song, how far to take chess opening preparation, which style of chess will dominate in the next ten years, how AlphaZero changes what we know about the game, the key to staying a top ten player at age 53, why he thinks he’s a worse loser than Kasparov, qualities he looks for in talented young Indian chess players, picks for the best places to eat in Chennai, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Do you hate losing as much as Kasparov does?

ANAND: To me, it seems he isn’t even close to me, but I admit I can’t see him from the inside, and he probably can’t see me from the inside. When I lose, I can’t imagine anyone in the world who loses as badly as I do inside.

COWEN: You think you’re the worst at losing?

ANAND: At least that I know of. A couple of years ago, whenever people would say, “But how are you such a good loser?” I’d say, “I’m not a good loser. I’m a good actor.” I know how to stay composed in public. I can even pretend for five minutes, but I can only do it for five minutes because I know that once the press conference is over, once I can finish talking to you, I can go back to my room and hit my head against the wall because that’s what I’m longing to do now.

In fact, it’s gotten even worse because as you get on, you think, “I should have known that. I should have known that. I should have known not to do that. What is the point of doing this a thousand times and not learning anything?” You get angry with yourself much more. I hate losing much more, even than before.

COWEN: There’s an interview with Magnus on YouTube, and they ask him to rate your sanity on a scale of 1 to 10 — I don’t know if you’ve seen this — and he gives you a 10. Is he wrong?

ANAND: No, he’s completely right. He’s completely right. Sanity is being able to show the world that you are sane even when you’re insane. Therefore I’m 11.

COWEN: [laughs] Overall, how happy a lot do you think top chess players are? Say, top 20 players?

ANAND: I think they’re very happy.

Most of all, I was struck by how good a psychologist Vishy is.  Highly recommended, and you also can see whether or not I can keep up with Vishy in his chess analysis.  Note I picked a game of his from ten years ago (against Aronian), and didn’t tell him in advance which game it would be.

When does the quality premium disappear?

I have been pondering the world of classical music once again, mostly because of two new releases.  One is the late Beethoven string quartets by the Calidore Quartet, and the other is a six-CD Chopin box by Jean-Marc Luisada.

The most striking feature of these recordings is that they are as good as any in the case of the Beethoven, and top tier for the Chopin (yes I have heard Rubinstein, Horowitz playing Chopin live, Cortot, Dinu Lipatti, Bolet playing Chopin live, I know how to spell Krystian Zimerman, as for the Beethoven the Busch Quartet, Quartett Italiano, Alban Berg, Gewandhaus, Danish Quartet, and much more!)

A second striking feature of the status quo is that hardly anyone seems to have heard of these performers.  Luisada has a Wikipedia article, but there don’t seem to be full-length profiles of him.  The Calidore Quartet has a slightly longer Wikipedia article, but again there is no serious coverage of him on line.  Hardly anyone has heard of them, and their releases will at best sell a few hundred copies.

I don’t think any people deny the quality of these offerings, though they may disagree on the exact nature of the superlatives to offer.  The point is that few people care.  Furthermore, few people care that few people care.

Still, I wonder…can there be other markets where there is so much quality available that the quality premium goes away?  Note that in these equilibria, most customers are not listening to the very highest quality products, rather they may choose the products associated with greater celebrity (which typically are still very good though not the very best).

If all goes well in the world (ha), is this where ideas markets end up?

How about markets for Sichuan food?  How many people really care about the very very best ma la?

Clearly the 18th century was very different.  Adam Smith and David Hume were much, much better than virtually all of their contemporaries, and they reaped a high quality premium, at least in terms of fame, influence, and longevity.

What exactly makes the quality premium go away or dwindle?

Do we prefer a world with a lower quality premium, yet is such a world also bound to disappoint us morally?

My Conversation with the excellent Noam Dworman

I am very pleased to have recorded a CWT with Noam Dworman, mostly about comedy but also music and NYC as well.  Noam owns and runs The Comedy Cellar, NYC’s leading comedy club, and he knows most of the major comedians.  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Tyler sat down at Comedy Cellar with owner Noam Dworman to talk about the ever-changing stand-up comedy scene, including the perfect room temperature for stand-up, whether comedy can still shock us, the effect on YouTube and TikTok, the transformation of jokes into bits, the importance of tight seating, why he doesn’t charge higher prices for his shows, the differences between the LA and NYC scenes, whether good looks are an obstacle to success, the oldest comic act he still finds funny, how comedians have changed since he started running the Comedy Cellar in 2003, and what government regulations drive him crazy. They also talk about how 9/11 got Noam into trouble, his early career in music, the most underrated guitarist, why live music is dead in NYC, and what his plans are for expansion.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you do stand-up comedy for decades at a high level — not the Louis C.K. and Chris Rock level, but you’re successful and appear in your club all the time — how does that change a person? But not so famous that everyone on the street knows who they are.

DWORMAN: How does doing stand-up comedy change a person?

COWEN: For 25 years, yes.

DWORMAN: Well, first of all, it makes it harder for them to socialize. I hear this story all the time about comedians when they go to Thanksgiving dinner with their family, and all of a sudden, the entire place gets silent. Like, “Did he just say . . .” Because you get used to being in an atmosphere where you could say whatever you want.

I think probably, because I know this in my life — and again, getting used to essentially being your own boss, you get used to that. Then it just becomes very, very hard to ever consider going back into the structured life that most people expect is going to be their lives from the time they’re in school — 9:00 to 5:00, whatever it is. At some point, I think, if you do it for too long, you would probably kill yourself rather than go back.

I’ve had that thought myself. If I had to go back to . . . I never practiced law, but if I had to take a job as a lawyer — and I’m not just saying this to be dramatic — I think I might kill myself. I can’t even imagine, at my age, having to start going to work at nine o’clock, having a boss, having to answer for mistakes that I made, having the pressure of having to get it right, otherwise somebody’s life is impacted. I just got too used to being able to do what I want when I want to do it.

Comedians have to get gigs, but essentially, they can do what they want when they want to do it. They don’t have to get up in the morning, and I think, at some point, you just become so used to that, there’s no going back.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Sinead O’Connor, RIP

Sinead O’Connor was a great singer–never more evident than in her collection of standards, Am I Not Your Girl? The entire album is wonderful. So sad to hear of her passing. Here on the painful decline of a marriage, Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home. Kills me every time I hear it.

From Faith and Courage, I love The Lamb’s Book of Life.

Out of history we have come
With great hatred and little room
It aims to break our hearts
Wreck us up and tear us all apart
But if we listen to the Rasta man
He can show us how it can be done
To live in peace and live as one
Get our names back in the book of life of the lamb

Here to cheer me up is Sinead in happier times, Daddy I’m fine, also from Faith and Courage.

Amazingly, her album of reggae songs Throw Down Your Arms, is very good. Who else could have pulled that off?

One more, from the Chieftain’s Long Black Veil–many great songs but none better than Sinead’s Foggy Dew, now the definitive version.

And back through the glen, I rode again
And my heart with grief was sore
For I parted then with valiant men
Whom I never shall see n’more
But to and fro in my dreams I go
And I kneel and pray for you
For slavery fled, O glorious dead
When you fell in the foggy dew

RIP Sinead. Thank you for the great music.