The Student Record
Album: Velvet Underground & Nico
Artist: Velvet Underground & Nico
History of Art
University of Manchester
It’s 1967, let's say around summertime, The Beatles are popping, The Beach Boys are soothing, the walls of segregation are crumbling. So, it’s a summer of greatness. There’s this band emerging from Andy Warhol's smokey studio The Factory, born out of New York, led by a young, scruffy kid named Lou. They are The Velvet Underground.
When it came to art(s) of the 60’s Andy Warhol personified to all the zeitgeist which ruled the alternative, avant-garde scene. Now, Warhol was championing himself as a multi-faceted artist and chose to dabble in music. In 1966-67 Warhol orchestrated a travelling show titled the ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ which featured The Velvet Underground. The band was willing to work for almost no money or guaranteed success - with their main payment being able to work with Warhol himself.
Although Warhol is credited as the producer of Velvet Underground & Nico, he had little influence apart from paying for the recording sessions. The album cover features Warhol’s notorious print of a banana. Early copies invited the owner to "Peel slowly and see" and peeling back the banana skin revealed a flesh-coloured banana underneath. Warhol’s close affiliation with what would then go on to be one of the best rock bands pinpoints how the arts need each other to survive. Velvet Underground & Nico with Andy Warhol marries two concepts that are viewed as polar opposites: music and the artworld, showing us that they are far more similar than we’d thought.
Song: Fly Me to the Moon
Artist: Frank Sinatra with Count Basie and Quincy Jones
Album: It Might as Well Be Swing (1964)
University of Texas, at Austin
In 1969, the Apollo moon program was in full swing, and like any proper road trip before the invention of MP3s, the astronauts brought along mix-tape cassettes of their favorite songs. Some popular songs, like Fly Me to the Moon, Life on Mars, or Rocketman may be considered a bit cliche for this kind of mixtape, but not for Eugene Cernan and the crew of Apollo 10, who carried Sinatra’s famous tune with them to the moon.
As Apollo 10 was a moon-orbit ‘dress rehearsal’ for the later Apollo 11, Fly Me to the Moon never actually made it to the surface of the moon. Buzz Aldrin, who is best known for being the second person on the moon during Apollo 11, supposedly played the song as he was stepping off of the lander, but this is likely just a popular myth. It’s also unknown whether or not Sinatra ever flew to the moon again on a later Apollo flight.
For Cernan though, it was not the last time that he would fly; he later commanded the Apollo 17 mission, where he gained the unique epithet of being the last person to walk on the moon. With the large focus in recent years on lunar exploration, by both public and private entities, we can only hope that Cernan will not be the last person to have flown to the moon for much longer.
Album: COWBOY BEBOP (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Artist: Yoko Kanno and Seatbelts
University of Edinburgh
What do you get when you take one of Japan's most accomplished soundtrack musicians and a visionary anime director with a penchant for musical flair, and put them in a recording studio? You get the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack.
There could have been no better way to open Shinichiro Watanabe's legendary anime than with the iconic jazz track, Tank! Tim Jensen's smooth opening, "One, Two, Three, let's Jam" serves as a delightfully fitting introduction to an album that feels more like an invitation to a jam session than an anime soundtrack. And what a glorious jam session it is. An album pieced together alongside anime, Kanno and Watanabe worked in tandem to riff off of each other's ideas, both drawing inspiration from the other's craft - a process that is evident in the animated sound of the album and diversity of each track.
Life is breathed into the album by the sensational horns of Kanno's band made up of Japanese, American, and French musicians that truly master the bebop sound set to accompany the anime's namesake. Seatbelts, named for their need to wear 'seatbelts' during the hardcore jam sessions that lead to the creation of the album, live up to their name with an extraordinarily eclectic, hard hitting sound.
This is an album that documents the collaboration between a collective of musicians who truly love the art of their craft.
Album: Ambient 1: Music for Airports
Artist: Brian Eno
Philosophy & Theology
University of Edinburgh
In the notes that accompanied the release of this 1978 album, Brian Eno describes Ambient 1: Music for Airports “as ignorable as it is interesting”. Taken out of context, Eno comes across typically British and self-deprecating but Ambient 1 has been recognised as a “seismic moment in musical history” for birthing an entire genre of electronic music.
Experimenting with looping rolls of tape, sometimes up to 70 feet long, Eno created overlapping and continually shifting patterns of sounds of synths, piano and vocal harmonies that are shapeless and delicate. In 1979, Rolling Stone disapprovingly described this album as ‘aesthetic white noise’ and ‘self-indulgent’ but the album has since then been acclaimed for its ability to act as a sonic mirror for its neutrality and ability to absorb the listener.
It seems strange but the music is purposely easy to tune out. Eno wanted ambient music to serve as an atmosphere or ‘tint’ to be the musical equivalent to rose tinted glasses. The cyclical composition and its airy feel means it’s difficult to grasp the music even when you try; because it was not designed for conscious listening, Eno’s work solidified a new purpose for music . This is the perfect album to play while you are working… the original ‘Lofi hip-hop beats to relax/study to’!
Artist: Daft Punk
Album: Human After All (2005)
Ben Sylvester Millar
Australian National University
The Parisian duo Daft Punk has been at the forefront of the electronic dance/funk and house disco movement for almost three decades now. Their Grammy nominated 2005 studio album Human After All, however, strips away the more opulent disco sounds found (and praised) in their previous work in favor of a more minimalistic approach to the electronic genre. In no track is this more apparent than their enduring hit ‘Technologic’.
The song epitomizes a bare bones approach to electronica, opening with the near instructional lyrical motif of “[verb] it”, which continues throughout the piece with pauses only for electronic guitar riffs. Each verb relates to a kind of computing or technological action; the melodic repetition of these actions in the song mimics the constant and incisive use of technology in our lives. Completely devoid of any other form of lyric, the duo’s intent - to represent how the mandated constant interaction with devices is consuming our day to day lives - is clear.
Something that may not be obvious on first listen is that the layout and flow of ‘Technologic’ resembles that of a computer. Each charge of electricity that passes through a CPU (the main processor that serves as the brain of the computer) allows the device to execute a single action from a set of predefined options, such as adding two numbers or moving some data around. The rate that these actions occur is pre-determined and fixed and they continue from the moment our system is powered on until it loses charge. In Technologic, Daft Punk mirrors this with the iterative vocals repeating the same limited set of instructions to be performed. With one of the catchiest electronic beats around, this is a must listen.
Song: Nightingale Part 1
Artist: Cosmo Sheldrake
Album: These Wake Up Calls (2020)
University of Oxford
I heard ‘Nightingale Part 1’ for the first time at around eleven one night during lockdown, in bed at home, in the company of about a thousand others. Folk musician Sam Lee was broadcasting on YouTube the nightingales singing behind his home, interweaving their voices with his own and the voices of his guests (see: the Nest Collective - Singing with Nightingales: Live at Home). The next day I binged the rest of Cosmo Sheldrake's discography, thrilled that someone had woven the groove you can feel when you really notice the natural world.
These Wake Up Calls are all entirely made of endangered birdsongs: particularly the Bittern, the Cuckoo, the Short Eared Owl, the Ring Ouzel, the Skylark, and the Nightingale. I heard a Skylark singing for the first time this year, or,at least, noticed it for the first time. Cosmo says he hopes these songs 'make people notice more deeply'. I hope these birds survive so I can notice them deeply one day.
Single: I Can
University of Warwick
‘I know I can. Be what I wanna be. If I work hard at it. I’ll be where I wanna be.’ For kids born in the late 90s and early 2000s, this conscious rap song-turned-children’s book is likely a standout from their childhood sung in classrooms, at assemblies and played at graduations.
Released in 2002 as the second single off his platinum-selling album God’s Son, ‘I Can’ samples the introductions of Beethoven’s seminal composition ‘Für Elise’ and rap-group the Honey Drippers’ ‘Impeach the President.’ With this unique combination, Nas is able to deliver the infectious beat that provides a backdrop to his powerful words and is made even more impactful through the call and response style of the song’s hook and chorus with vocals delivered by a children’s choir.
The song’s lyrics empower young children to believe that regardless of their socio-economic constraints they too can achieve their dreams through hard work, avoiding drugs and acting their age, pointing to role models such as Oprah Winfrey to emulate. Simultaneously, Nas offers a much-needed black history lesson on the heritage of Black Americans before slavery with nods towards colonisation, The Kush Empire and the exploitation of Africa.
As a whole, the lyrics and visuals of ‘I Can’ allow Nas to reinforce the message to his target audience of largely young black boys and girls that they, too, are kings and queens, can aspire for more and ‘change the globe.’
Song: Glitter and Be Gay
Artist: Kristin Chenoweth
Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Opera: Candide (2005 Broadway)
University of Edinburgh
As a costume student, it felt fitting to pluck a song from the theatre. In this case “Glitter and Be Gay” from the 1956 Operetta, Candide, is my song of choice, specifically when sung by Kristin Chenoweth in the 2004 concert production with The New York Philarmonic.
The opera doesn’t shy away from creating the image of a spoilt girl in her gilded cage, as she dances around with the diamonds and pearls given by her suitor. Chenoweth’s delivery brings a comedy to the song and the costume designers often take liberties to make the costume and jewels as glamorous and ridiculous as possible. To fully feel the energy of the song, it’s definitely worth watching it on YouTube.
From a design point of view, everything - from the glittering chaise longue (hiding all the expensive looking costume jewellery possible) to the fluffy candy-floss-pink dress to a wig to rival Toddlers in Tiaras contestants - has been thought out and plays its own part. Viewers are encouraged to believe her wardrobe really is “as expensive as the devil”, which is what my degree is all about; everything added to the singer or actor only adds to the story.
Songs like this aren’t for everyone, especially if you aren’t a musical theatre nerd, but if you want to try Opera, I recommend it. It’s a silly and playful song that you can try to sing along to (you have my greatest respects if you can hit the Eb6 note at the end!)
Song: Malamente - Cap 1: Augurio
Artist: : LA ROSALÍA
Album: El Mal Querer (2018)
Spanish & Portuguese
University College London
Kanye, Camerón de la Isla, Kendrick, Almodóvar: these are just a handful of the influences cited at the end of Rosalía’s El Mal Querer album. Summing up Rosi’s wonderfully eclectic nature, they are a good indicator of what’s in store for listeners. In ‘Malamente’ we have the best example of her genre fusion, blending elements from traditional flamenco with modern drum beats and synths.
Irresistible flamenco claps pair delicately with a light synth as Rosalía’s soothing vocals immediately mesmerise listeners . As the chorus explodes with a bang and “Malamente” sounds, Rosi weaves in iconic flamenco phrases that are traditionally cried out passionately during performances. “Toma que toma”, “mira” and “ah sí sí” give the impression that La Rosalía is dancing centre stage and all eyes are glued to her. Throughout the song, in fact, Rosalía uses symbolism from ‘gitano’ culture and layers in traditional imagery.
‘Malamente - Cap.1: Augurio’ serves as the first chapter in her album. The word “augurio” means omen and “malamente”; badly. The song speaks of bad omens and the title could be seen as a play on ‘mala mente’, or rather, a negative mind that attracts these bad omens, something very specific to ‘gitano’ culture.
Rosalía has been subject to criticism for culturally appropriating ‘gitanos’ who feel she used their symbols as “fake eyelashes”, stolen to make her look better, but drama and criticism aside, this song will go down in history as her first major breakthrough on the road to stardom. La Rosalía has the extravagance, charisma and quality to be a truly global influence. She is already making major breakthroughs in the US, collaborating with Travis Scott and cameoing in W.A.P by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Ironically, ‘Malamente’s’ reception and unique sound has proven to be a wonderful omen for La Rosalía and her career.