Category Archives: Vinyl

A Mix with Room for Cream

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Dark Roast: Scrubbles.net Winter 15 Mix came about as a result of listening to a lot of stimulating yet unobtrusive music while writing reviews. Finding the perfect music for that situation entails lots of things – either no singing or non-English vocals, strong melodies, upbeat vibes, jazz modulations that don’t often delve into indulgent noodling. Most often than not it leads to ’60s Brazilian music and Bossa Nova-inspired stuff, whether it’s American lounge or groovy Italian soundtracks. The 61-minute program on Dark Roast reminds me of waking up with a nice cup of coffee, ready to get to work.

Listen to Dark Roast at Mixcloud, or via the handy player below:

Dark Roast: Scrubbles.net Winter 2015 Mix by 4colorcowboy on Mixcloud

C30, C60, C90, Go!

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Here’s a fun find. While doing another attempt at de-cluttering, I came across these neat handmade mini-collage mix tape covers – done back when people did mix tape covers. I believe these date from 1989-90, when I was doing a lot of mixed media/collage work for college art classes. Of course, I was big on the ’50s magazine imagery (speaking as perhaps the only person on Earth to have had a picture of Reddy Kilowatt hanging inside his high school locker), so it made sense at the time to use my mad scissors skillz on these tapes. The TDKs included albums by Erasure, Blancmange, The Cure and Depeche Mode, along with the results of an ambitious plan to do 90-minute mix tapes containing favorite tunes from each year of the ’80s. With the latter, I used the more pricey Denon brand tapes. I only got up to 1982, however – this was back when you had to go to a record store and buy an album in order to listen to your favorite song, kiddoes.

These mix covers go well with Dancing In My Room, a 22-track Spotify playlist of 1984-86 British Pop that I remember enjoying back then (Blancmange is, unfortunately, not on Spotify).

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Inspiration: CTI Records, 1967-69

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The realization that I’ve been designing professionally for more than twenty years now has sunk in. Twenty years! That’s a nice, lengthy run, but in a lot of ways I’ve been a “designer” for twice that long. Children tend to gravitate toward visually appealing things, and I was no different. While many of us lose that awareness as we age, the ones that don’t take up drawing or music or dance – or graphic design. I think part of being an artist means always being receptive to new things. With that in mind, I thought I’d use this space to explore specific design-y objects that have captured my imagination, from childhood to today.

Our first Design Inspiration is something I’ve just recently taken a shine to: the early album covers of the Jazz label CTI. Jazz music has long served as a catalyst for innovative design, most spectacularly with the classic Blue Note LPs from the late ’50 and early ’60s. Unlike the freewheeling Blue Note covers, CTI’s look followed a rigid, Swiss-inspired format which nevertheless allowed for lots of variety. It was all part of the plan of visionary producer and label head Creed Taylor, according to Doug Payne’s CTI discography:

Creed Taylor left Verve Records in 1967 to accept a lucrative offer producing records for a new jazz division of Herb Alpert’s highly successful independent pop label, A&M Records. Taylor was guaranteed $1,000,000 over a five-year period by Alpert’s organization. 

From the very beginning, CTI had a highly distinctive character. Sam Antupit’s much copied design was the height of elegant simplicity. Each cover named the artist and the album title on two lines in clean Helvetica typeface while Pete Turner’s evocative photography was framed by swaths of white (for jazz oriented releases), gray (for pop-oriented releases) or, in two cases (SP-3017 and SP-3018), silver. Taylor also scored hits right from the start, too, with significant commercial and artistic success for Wes Montgomery’s A Day In The Life and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave.

While the vibrant, cool, colorful designs of CTI worked great for the gatefold LP format, they also highlighted the individual styles of each musician while proving their durability when the albums eventually got reissued in compact disc and digital formats. CTI’s visual elegance also fit in well with the sophisticated feel of its parent label, A&M, although their ’60s-era “kitschy Mexican restaurant” aesthetic was a lot more playful (and perhaps worthy of another Scrubbles.net post, as well). The fact that the initial 1967-68 CTI releases matched so neatly must have been a fun thing for adventurous listeners of the day, although such a rigidly formatted design was bound to flame out pretty early. In 1969, CTI’s covers for Walter Wanderley, J & K, and Milton Nascimento tweaked the format to allow vertically oriented photos. Other variations would follow, although it wouldn’t be too long before Taylor broke free of A&M and relaunched CTI as an independent label. CTI’s indie LP cover designs continued throughout the ’70s in a funky, Playboy-esque vein, often using Pete Turner’s eye-popping photography.

From the gallery below, hopefully you can see what I dig about these designs – they manage to be evocative of the ’60 and, at the same time, timeless. I definitely see a CTI influence in Cafe Apres Midi, a Japanese series of Bossa Nova/Lounge CDs compiled by Toru Hashimoto in 2000-03.

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CTI_hmgol
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CTI_nayb
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CTI_abhymmj
CTI_kjji
CTI_sftimCTI_wmrd
CTI_t4samba
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CTI gatefold covers, 1967-69 (via DougPayne.com)

CTI gatefold covers, 1967-69 (via DougPayne.com)


CTI/A&M Records advertisement from Billboard magazine, October 1968 issue (via stereocandies.blogspot.com)

CTI/A&M Records advertisement from Billboard magazine, October 1968 issue (via stereocandies.blogspot.com)


A&M Records inner sleeve, 1968 (via stereocandies.blogspot.com)

A&M Records inner sleeve, 1968 (via stereocandies.blogspot.com)


Cafe Apres-midi: Olive Japanese compilation CD cover, 2000.

Cafe Apres-midi: Olive Japanese compilation CD cover, 2000.


Cafe Apres-midi Japanese CD compilation covers, 2000-03.

Cafe Apres-midi Japanese CD compilation covers, 2000-03.

The Beautiful World of 1981


Whaddaya think about 1981? I created an 8-hour long Spotify playlist exploring the music of that year, to go along with my previous exercises listening to 1968, 2003, and 2013. Like the others, 1981 is a combination of longtime favorites and new finds across a wide variety of genres. This was a year when Arena Rock ruled, the British were doing amazing stuff, R&B shimmered with the fumes of Funk and Disco, and Hip-Hop still had a scrappy, urban aesthetic. Personally, it came as a surprise how much of the playlist evoked a visceral, “riding in mom’s car on the way to the mall” reaction.

In 1981, I was thirteen – an age when many kids transition from passively enjoying something to becoming more deeply involved. That year, I had my own little clock radio in my bedroom. The radio was undoubtedly tuned into a lot of safe local Pop/Rock stations then, although the thing I enjoyed the most was tuning into Dr. Demento every Sunday night with a portable tape recorder on hand. A lot of the hits included here – “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Rapture,” “Queen of Hearts,” “Urgent,” “Private Eyes,” “Physical,” “I Love A Rainy Night” – are the aural equivalent of chocolate chip cookies. It kind of astonished me how much fantastic music came from that year (or, in a few instances, late in the previous year). There’s a few silly things in there as well, such as “Hooked On Classics” – a tune I forever associate with the campy fashion sequence from the TV special Night of 100 Stars. I suppose you don’t have to have been a youngster in 1981 to appreciate this, but it sure helps.

My 2013 in Music and Everything Else

I don’t know about you, but for me New Years Day serves as a time of contemplation, a bit of relaxation from the holiday hubbub spent simultaneously looking back and anticipating the future. Unlike many recent years in which my life seemed to be in a holding pattern, I had an eventful 2013 filled with some letdowns (getting sick in February and being dogged with vaguely flu-ish feelings for the next eight months), a dose of the same-old same-old, and lots of delights. Here’s some of the accomplishments:

  • Debuted three new designs at LitKidsLittle Bo Peep, Winne the Pooh, and Sherlock Holmes. Also, I’m starting to see signs that this LitKids thing might become something other than a wallet-draining labor of love.
  • Related to the above, in August I addressed a roomful of Etsy users about the ins and outs of selling there (conquering public speaking fears = very healing).
  • Opened Pishtosh, Bullwash & Wimple, an outlet for selling quality vintage designs and kitsch. Unlike LitKids, this enterprise has turned into a quick, modest profit.
  • Read Pride and Prejudice and biographies of Pauline Kael, Flo Ziegfeld, Vincente Minnelli, and Willy Wonka actress Julie Dawn Cole.
  • Designed about a dozen manga books for Viz, another ten-odd books for various individual authors (including my spouse), a t-shirt, a personal branding logo, six theatrical playbills, and four or five projects that never came to fruition for various reason.
  • Hit ten years as a freelancer with all the ambivalent feelings about my profession intact (only now the competition is even younger!). I still haven’t designed or illustrated a Little Golden Book, Criterion Collection release, New Yorker cover, Taschen book, hip record album cover, or indie film poster, damn it.
  • Filed 90 reviews at DVD Talk. Best one: The Big City. Worst: Twisted Romance.
  • Watched five films in a theater, and 181 films (including documentaries) at home.
  • Listened to a lot of Cilla Black, Everything But The Girl and Margaret Whiting (the top three artists of 2013, according to my Last.fm stats).

Believe it or not, I also listened to a lot of current music over the past year. The stuff that caught my attention has been assembled into MRH 2013, a bloated marathon of melodic pop and retro-music of all types (videogame music, disco, psychedelic, soul, even a ’20s jazz cover from Bryan Ferry). After at least a decade of being indifferent to most new music, it came as a pleasant surprise that there was so much refreshing, unique stuff gaining popularity in 2013 – I mean, you wouldn’t find something like “Thrift Shop” hitting #1 in the immediate past, would you? When relatively tame, mainstream singers like Celine Dion come up with weird-ass tunes like “Loved Me Back to Life,” you know you’re in for an interesting year. Part of it comes from the fact that genre lines in music are blurring into each other – yet, instead of being a boring, awkward mishmash, the resulting music is kind of invigorating. This Grantland article by Steven Hyden uses the latest album by teen heartthrobs One Direction to delve into that, articulating the phenomenon far better than I could (the 1D song singled out by the author, “Little Black Dress,” truly is a fantastic blast of power pop, by the way).

Anyhow, the playlist. While some of my favorite artists are represented multiple times (Haim, Camera Obscura, Quadron), most of it is limited to one or two tracks per player. I kinda wish it was more concise, but at the very least it’s arranged by mood and feel – there’s a mini-suite of tracks produced by Greg Kurstin, for instance. Enjoy.

That Was Ten Years Ago? Part II

Over the past couple of years, the staff at All Music Guide has collaborated on All Music Loves, a series of blog posts celebrating a certain music genre or year. That inspired me to make my own hand-picked playlists devoted to personal favorite songs released within a certain year – on Spotify, of course. While the naming of the playlists with initials was cheekily swiped from AMG music critic and Spotify user Stephen Thomas Erlewine, doing a playlist cover which spotlights a design from that particular year is all mine (above, a set of watches designed by Phillippe Starck for Fossil). I’ve already completed one for 1968, which is 128 tracks strong. This latest one is only half as long – 2003!

And why did I pick 2003, of all years? I thought it was a good opportunity to catch up on a year in which I was too bogged down with work (my final year designing at the newspaper, consigned to doing the non-creative, crap jobs at twice the work volume) and blogging (Scrubbles.net was once quite popular, unbelievable as it seems) to think about music. Most of what I heard back then was old stuff – discovering bossa nova, MPB, French and Sunshine Pop, and all sorts of vintage junk on mix CDs from friends. The new stuff didn’t attract me all that much (I believe I bought all of three albums by current artists that year). If anything, this project served as a catching-up on what was going on back then.

The music in MRH03 probably isn’t the hippest stuff around (I’ve even heard a few tracks playing at Wal-Mart), but it does have a good selection of melodic, somewhat underrated pop. Three tracks each come from two of my favorite albums of that year, Belle and Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the Eels’ Shootenanny! (both albums also use the same font on their covers – the wonderful Clarendon). Putting together this playlist netted a lot of surprising finds. The popular songs of that year were, by and large, awful. Only two US #1 singles wound up here (Beyoncé and Eminem). Unexpectedly, I found a lot of great stuff by super-slick, commercial acts from the UK such as Girls Aloud and Dannii Minogue, along with Indie Twee Pop groups like The Shins, Club 8 and Camera Obscura. Some tunes were gathered by reading through old Rolling Stone magazine issues, Wikipedia, and year-end lists from places like Pitchfork; some were discovered by chance. The beauty of these Spotify playlists is that more songs can be added to them as they’re discovered.