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No Expectations 035: Heavy Lifting
Remembering the iTunes Free Single of the Week. Plus, a reported piece I wrote on Jeppson's Malört.
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The iTunes Free Single of the Week Was Good, Actually
I’ve been thinking a lot about growing up and becoming obsessed with music for the first time. Maybe it’s because I just visited family in Michigan or maybe it’s that I’m 31 now and realize that period in my life was twenty years ago, but I keep coming back to when music felt limitless. When you’re 11 or 12, music is a totally new and exciting thing. You don’t know the first thing about it. You’re barely a person but you’re forming your tastes, figuring out what you like and what you don’t. For me, this time happened pretty much right after the iPod came out in 2001 and the iTunes Store launched in 2003.
Looking back on it, my mom and dad had some pretty good CDs around to help me fill up my first iPod: Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, etc. But here’s the thing: when you’re a kid, your parents’ music taste is something that you instinctually need to distance yourself from. I wanted to listen to Jimmy Eat World, Green Day, Metallica, AC/DC or hell, even Linkin Park instead. There were a lot of things coalescing around this time that helped me broaden my music taste: the debut season of The O.C., finally being allowed to watch MTV, seeing Kanye West and Eminem perform at the Grammys, and trying to learn how to play electric guitar. But really, one of the biggest things was going onto the iTunes Store and downloading the Free Single of the Week.
When the iTunes Store launched in 2003, it boasted a then-jaw-dropping catalog of “more than 400,000 songs” to purchase for 99 cents each. (Spotify now has well over 80 million). You’d open up the iTunes desktop app, click on “Music Store” and peruse a curated homepage that showed you the top downloaded tracks, what just came out, and what they recommend. I’d spend hours listening to the free 30-second snippets of songs I knew I’d like and do the same for the “Related Artists” the store’s interface would bring up. A year after the store debuted, they launched the iTunes Single of the Week in 2004 with Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” as the first offering as a free download. Each week, there’d be a free song you could download without using your parents’ credit card. So, I tried to download and listen to as much as I could.
I admit that most of the free tracks weren’t really in my wheelhouse as a pre-teen Michigan kid who loved power chords. Some tunes felt like Starbucks mid-aughts adult contemporary ephemera or the sort of thing that didn’t make the cut on the Scrubs soundtrack. That said, forcing myself to check out these tracks each week allowed me to realize there was a world beyond the Guitar World magazine fare I listened to. And when a Free Single hit, it really hit. I remember having my mind blown in 2005 hearing M.I.A.’s “Galang” and Feist’s “One Evening,” which made me check out Broken Social Scene for the first time. Of course, I’d supplement scrolling the iTunes Music Store with reading MP3 blogs, using more illegal sites like Kazaa, going to the local record store or the FYE at the mall, and getting recs from friends, but when I had free time it was the easiest way to find new things.
There is something funny about pining for the days of checking out 30-second previews of songs when now the near-entirety of recorded music is available online in full for 10 bucks a month. I don’t know how my relationship with music would’ve been different had streaming technology been available to me but I do know the limitations with aughts iTunes culture made me want to dig deeper. The fact that I was only getting a short snippet or one free download from an artist, made me want to see for myself and buy what I could to get a bigger picture. Radiohead’s catalog wasn’t available on the store until 2008 and they were my favorite band. I bought every CD I could. I became a completist to the point I was ordering too-pricey b-sides on eBay weeks before news broke they were reissuing them in the States. Hell, The Beatles didn’t get there until 2010.
Apple quietly ended the Free Single of the Week promo in 2015, 11 years after it launched. By then, I was already years into working as a music journalist in Chicago going to record stores, using streaming services, and getting sent albums for work. I know artists like Lorde and Walk the Moon were featured in the latter years of the SOTW’s tenure but I didn’t download them. I think the last one I really remember downloading was Empire of the Sun’s “Walking on a Dream” in 2009. Still, there was something cool about getting to download a curated track each week. You knew it was picked by a human, even if it was an employee at a tech company, and you could easily delete it from your iPod if it sucked.
Listen, it’s definitely cringeworthy to give props to a tech company but there’s no separating the iTunes Store from my history with music. At this point in my life, I’m trying to channel that unselfconscious feeling of discovery. There was something really pure and fun about hearing one new thing each week and getting the slimmest taste of what else is out there through just a short free preview. I don’t want my tastes to be fixed or stagnating. Though the convenience of streaming everything in full is there along with algorithmic recommendations, those rarely make you want to explore on your own.
I wrote about Jeppson's Malört for Good Beer Hunting
I’m not a food and drink reporter but I did write a profile on Jeppson’s Malört at Good Beer Hunting, one of my favorite websites. In my thirties, I’m not taking shots as much but if I do, it’s going to be Malört. I’ve been an unironic fan and amatuer evangelist of this divisive spirit for years so it was truly such an honor to interview some of the folks who make it now and dive into its history. Over the past decade, I’ve introduced dozens of out-of-town friends and touring musicians to it and 99 percent of the time, they love it too. I’m grateful Good Beer Hunting reached out and I’m in awe of how nice the piece looks thanks to photos from Steph Byce and their design team.
I didn’t go to Lollapalooza but this video made me feel like I was there
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What I listened to:
No Expectations 035:
1. Lutalo, “PLPH”
2. Video Age, “Away From the Castle”
3. Wilco, “Evicted”
4. MJ Lenderman, “Knockin’”
5. Al Menne, “Grandma’s Garden”
6. Slaughter Beach, Dog, “Summer Windows”
7. Prewn, “Woman”
8. Deeper, “Fame”
9. Strange Ranger, “Ask Me About My Love Life”
10. Warik, “Biscuits”
11. SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, “natural devotion 2”
12. Colin Miller, “Don’t Love You No More”
13. Vagabon, “Do Your Worst”
14. Whitney, “Kansas”
15. Mutual Benefit, “Wasteland Companions”
Gig report: Katy Kirby, Lutalo at the Empty Bottle. (8/4)
There’s another Katy Kirby album coming, which is great news. On Friday at the Empty Bottle, her setlist featured a bunch of new material alongside several choice cuts from her 2021 LP Cool Dry Place. Each new track had me thinking, “wow, this is a great song.” Without spoiling it too much, if you dug Kirby’s debut, you’ll find a lot to love with the new stuff and be pleasantly surprised with how the band’s tweaked their winning formula. By the way, I don’t think I’m breaking some sort of embargo by saying there’s an upcoming LP because she mentioned it onstage. Lutalo, a new artist from Minnesota who now lives in Vermont opened solo. They have a great EP coming soon via Winspear. One of the tracks “PLPH” leads this week’s playlist above.
Video Age, “Away From the Castle”
In 2020, I wrote about two New Orleans bands as much as I could at VICE: Lawn and Video Age. This year, I finally got to see Lawn live and helped out with the press bio for Video Age’s new album Away From the Castle. The LP is a capital-S Songwriters’ Album that boasts some pristine harmonies and hooks. If you’re into Steely Dan, the Beach Boys, or any band that makes intricate and well-crafted melodies sound totally effortless, you’ll love this new single.
Florry, The Holey Bible
Philadelphia’s Florry make homey and ragged country tunes that make you want to drink a beer on a porch or in a sweaty basement. This LP came out last week and got some good reviews from Stereogum and other sites. It’s really good! However, after a show in New Hampshire where they played with Friend of the Substack Greg Freeman, the band got in a pretty scary wreck and started a GoFundMe to get back on the road. You can donate to that here. Hopefully, they can make their Chicago gig at Schubas on Saturday with Tobacco City.
What I watched:
Meet Me In the Bathroom (Showtime)
Don’t get me wrong: I loved Lizzy Goodman’s jaw-droppingly comprehensive book on the New York alt-rock scene of the aughts. That said, the documentary of the same name feels sort of slight. I understand that it was a pandemic era project without talking heads that uses voiceover taken from Goodman’s recorder over new interviews but if you read the book, you’ll pretty much know everything going in. Sure, the performance footage is pretty cool when it’s not the Moldy Peaches playing (sorry) but if you’re doing a doc on indie sleaze, it shouldn’t take itself as seriously as this documentary does. Incredible to see something where James Murphy might be the most normal person featured.
Flint Town (Netflix)
I first heard about this because Friend of the Substack Matt Joynt (who used to front the Michigan art rock band Anathallo) was working on the score for the docuseries. I never saw it when it came out in 2018 but decided to queue it up on Netflix one night. Over eight episodes filmed from 2015 to 2017, filmmakers embed with the Flint Police Department under the backdrop of the 2016 election and the Flint Water Crisis. It’s a fascinating and sobering look at an overlooked but resilient city and the underfunded and over-their-head police officers in it. I would’ve preferred a more holistic view of the city, its people, and some history in what happened when the automakers left to outsource jobs elsewhere but this was honestly pretty well done.
What I read:
Google and Facebook threaten to shut off news if they have to pay for it. Let them. (by Hamilton Nolan, How Things Work)
If newspapers had been able to start publishing online but continue to make the same ad revenue that they had in print, everything would have been fine. Instead, Google and Facebook (and, increasingly, Amazon and Apple) figured out how to become the online portals that people used to get to the news, and to semi-monopolize the digital advertising industry, which left the actual news publishers with only a small fraction of the revenue that had been flowing to them in pre-internet days. Whereas local newspapers were once their own little local advertising monopolies, which made enough money to support news staffs even in small towns, the internet destroyed that model. What pays off in online advertising is scale. Rather than buying ads in the local paper, businesses could use Google and Facebook to place ads with far more targeted reach and wider scope. Hundreds of millions of people all across the world began using Google News and their Facebook feeds, which contain a wide mix of stories published by news outlets, as their go-to news sources. The tech platforms got the best of both worlds: They got to serve news up to the public as if they were publishers, and they got to reap the ad revenue from that audience, but they did not have to actually hire any reporters or do any journalism. Like sponges, they found a way to insert themselves between the audience and the media, and soak up the money that was flowing between them.
Floating Away in Chelsea (by Fran Hoepfner, Curbed)
To live in New York City is to forgo some pleasures in lieu of others: For every Disney World–esque amenity offered, the price we pay is peace of mind. Honking, sirens, raised-voices “neighborly” disputes. Even places of supposed calm and quiet — the movie theater, the art museum — are interrupted by the rumbling of trains or a pack of shrieking schoolchildren. The closest I ever got to quiet was in my old apartment building, since my room faced away from the street, at the expense, obviously, of any natural light. Everything’s a sacrifice unless, of course, you can find an escape. I’d long been curious about sensory-deprivation tanks, as both an occasional purveyor of the New York City day spa and mild hallucinogenic drugs. I consider myself open-minded, which is to say, I’d do almost anything to get away from the sounds of construction on my block. If it means getting in a tub in someone else’s apartment, sure, why not?
The Weekly No Expectations Chicago Show Calendar:
Thursday, August 10: Bully, Bev Rage and the Drinks at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Thursday, August 10: Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Thee Sacred Souls at Salt Shed. Tickets.
Friday, August 11: Paul Cherry, The Mattson 2, Jaguar Sun at Schubas. Tickets.
Saturday, August 12: Florry, Tobacco City at Schubas. Tickets.
Sunday, August 13: Options, Cusp, Muscle Worship at Golden Dagger. Tickets.
Sunday, August 13: Horsegirl, Lifeguard at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Tuesday, August 15: The Clientele, Discus at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Tuesday, August 15: Uma Bloo, Liska, Sharperheart at Cole’s. Tickets.