Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas

Cocteau Twins made some of the most unique music of all time. I could hear a two second clip from any song in their catalog and know instantly who it is. This is the only dream pop band that sounds like it came from actual dreams.  People tend to love everything they’ve done, or nothing at all. I’ve been addicted for years.

At the center of that iconic sound is Elizabeth Fraser’s ethereal, incomprehensible vocals. Her voice is so expressive and inscrutable, it conveys worlds of emotion and narrative without the crutch of recognizable vocals. Concrete words float to the surface now and then, throwing the mood into sharp relief. Most of the time, we’re floating along a string of syllables, interlocking melody and tone without language. It’s a real life special effect.

Here’s the title track from their greatest album, Heaven or Las Vegas.

One thing that stands out with this track is the fact that I can actually make out a portion of the lyrics, including the title phrase. It’s a rare moment of total clarity that crystalizes the punchier sound they were going for on their final release for the legendary 4ad label. Heaven or Las Vegas mutated the band’s somnambulent drift with crisper, more overtly electronic production that, to me, teased out the inherent chest-pounding catchiness of their best songs. It’s not exactly club music, but the technicolor dynamic is far better suited for high volume enjoyment with friends.

The band, including guitarist and producer Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde, always created a consciousness-defying, holistic sound. Listening to their albums is like hearing a single living instrument more than a group of actual humans working together. With this album, they cranked up the saturation and surrendered to the groove.


Who have I got to thank for this great musical love? Probably Gregg Araki, director of weird and weirdly tender masterpieces like Mysterious Skin and Nowhere. His aesthetic runs all over the place, sometimes feeling like nihilistic Looney Tunes, but every single one of his films are tied together with perfect dream pop and shoegaze soundtracks. For the last 25 years, Araki has introduced millions of people to the joys of Slowdive, Ride, Jesus and Mary Chain, and of course Cocteau Twins. While I can’t pinpoint exactly where I first heard this Scottish trio, it’s a safe bet that one of my teenage VHS rentals contained a song or two.

This is how I celebrate black Friday: staying in, writing, and listening to old favorites. Seeing some friends later. I’ve done buy nothing day for years now, so it’s usually like this. If you’re out and about in the shopping madness reading this, plug your headphones in and enjoy the oasis. If not, you’re probably already relaxing in your own way. For me, there’s few artists better suited for a peaceful day.

Drexciya “Andraean Sand Dunes”

Drexciya is an enigma of an act that left behind some of the greatest and strangest techno and electro music ever recorded. From the debut album Neptune’s Lair, here’s the first song I heard, the tune that hooked me and opened up an entire new world of sound.

I’d never known the outer reaches of techno until I listened to Andraean Sand Dunes.

It’s a pure exploration of genre constructs littering the ocean floor, an aquatic adventure full of energetic machine-funk pulses and glistening columns of light reaching down from the surface. This is techno for adventuring, the kind of track that makes me want to kick open my front door and run through the night, rather than dance at all. In other words, it’s more My Kind Of Thing.

While the production itself springs from the sounds and structures of classic electro, the music leans hard into futuristic Detroit techno, with a cascading synth repetition begging hypnosis rather than hip shaking. The bass line is as funky as this kind of music gets, but it’s sunk into an atmospheric wash of melody, dropping out for moments of pure untethered synthesizer flight. Head nodding never felt so aerodynamic.


Despite my years-long love of Drexicya, I have never previously written about them on this blog. The mysterious duo of James Stinson and Gerald Donald may have dissolved after Stinson’s untimely death in 2002, but their legacy has only grown over the years. After a host of single and b-side collections were issued, their original album label Tresor began repressing the classic trio of full-lengths on vinyl. This is important, because it means that I was finally able to pick up a copy of Neptune’s Lair and own a piece of techno’s weirdest mythology. It’s not just an important and brilliant album; it’s incredibly easy to get into and enjoy. You can find a copy via Discogs or even on Amazon, though the latter’s price is outrageous.

Kanye West’s “Monster”

A lot of my friends just can’t get past Kanye West‘s outsize personality, and I think that’s a damn travesty. He’s not just a good rapper and producer; he’s a bonafide superstar with the gravity to pull in a who’s-who of incredible artists. He might shine too bright in public for your tastes, but he shines even brighter on record.

Despite all this, I’m a firm believer that one listen to Monster should be all anyone needs to become a fan. For this track from his 2009 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s managed to corral Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and most notably Nicki Minaj for set of ferocious verses that more than justify the name.

This tune is one of the best posse cuts I’ve ever heard. It’s on par with a lot of great Wu-Tang material; just flawless verse after flawless verse, a parade of wildly different personalities detonating as one cohesive sound. It’s kind of insane to read just today that West doesn’t think the album is as good as us fans do.

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Rest In Peace, Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese

My morning news just brought word that Edgar Froese, founder of one of my favorite bands of all time, Tangerine Dream, has died at age 70. The cause of death was pulmonary embolism.


Tangerine Dream, for those only familiar with the name via a smattering of mostly-great 1980s film soundtracks, were one of the most innovative and popular bands to emerge from the 70s German krautrock / kosmiche scene. Constantly evolving, they helped birth the modern ambient sound and informed generations of electronic music in every form. Froese was the only consistent member through dozens of lineup changes that included the luminous contributions of Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler.

Moving from spooky moonscape-scouring meditations through epic space rock and pulsing dance music, Froese never let the band stay perched on one sound for long. With over 40 years worth of music to choose from, fans of the band can never reach consensus on what is the best. Personally, my heart will always return to Rubycon. The eerie psychedelia on these two tracks laid the blueprint for ambient rock, but was so much more than a chill-out session. Analog synth arpeggios lay a spaced out bed for for a quietly propulsive rhythm. With a wash of disembodied choral voices influenced by György Ligeti, plus tactile sounds from gongs, strings, and woodwinds, the eponymous pieces build tension and ease it away like a tidal wave in slow motion.

I hope you enjoy this full album stream and, if you’re not already familiar with the band, dig in to the body of music Edgar Froese and company have left behind. I’ve collected below a selection of the most important Tangerine Dream albums. These form a distinct arc from the sparkling cosmic tones of Phaedra, when the band emerged from purely drone-based sounds into more structured orchestration, to the distinctly 80s dystopian futurism of Exit.

This music has inspired an entire wave of modern artists, including Yellow Swans, Emeralds, Bee Mask, and my favorite currently working musician, Oneohtrix Point Never. (Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Jones!) Special mention must be made of the most obvious nod toward classic Tangerine Dream I’ve featured on this site: Skyramps. The one-off collaboration between Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix) and Emeralds’ Mark McGuire soars between the ambient guitar and pulsing synth ends of the sound that Froese and company conjured at their peak. There’s no more fitting a love letter to this man’s work than listening to the albums themselves.

Here are those full length albums:

Phaedra, 1974

Ricochet, 1975

Stratosfear, 1976

Music from the Motion Picture, Sorcerer, 1977

Exit, 1981

If you’re interested in purchasing any of this legendary music, check out the band’s Discogs page for used vinyl and CDs. However, since I know barely anyone purchases music anymore, I’m happy to let you know that the vast majority of the Tangerine Dream catalog is available on Spotify. Enjoy any way you prefer!

PS: If anyone has any thoughts or recommendations to add, please leave a comment. I will be editing and amending the post with any thoughtful words my fellow fans leave here.

Edit 1:  I forgot to mention that Froese worked extensively on the music of Grand Theft Auto V, being the central mind behind that morphing, interlocking, dynamic score that elevates the game in a way over all of its predecessors. Whether the pulse pounding moodiness of a night flight in a helicopter, or the ballistic brass shards erupting during a police chase, Edward Froese gave the game a distinctive atmosphere that harkened back to Tangerine Dream’s scores for Thief (Michael Mann) and Legend (Ridley Scott) and their own mid-70s runs of lush space rock.

My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless Has Been Reissued On Vinyl

This is no joke. I was wandering through Vertigo Music in downtown Grand Rapids, MI, yesterday and my eyes fell upon something I never expected to see without the internet exploding well ahead of time: a fresh LP copy of the timeless shoegaze masterpiece, Loveless. I hugged it lightly against my chest as I finished browsing (and picking up a copy of Cocteau TwinsHeaven Or Las Vegas) before asking the wise and friendly owner if he knew the details.


As my cursory Discogs browsing had indicated, it’s a likely bootleg. Do not let this fact discourage you. The sound is impeccable, and after a single listen the moment I got home, I have to say that it sounds warmer, and a bit more substantial, than the tinny original CD edition we’ve all been stuck with for over two decades. It may be sourced from the few-years-old analog/digital remaster that Kevin Shields has still neglected to release or it may be from the original vinyl issue, for all I know. The point is, if you love this album already, you’re going to adore the sound quality of this release.


The packaging claims that it’s a Creation Records release, “made in Nippon,” which, along with the lack of an Obi strip, tips me off to the bootleg nature of this release. With a money back guarantee if I wasn’t satisfied, this was hardly a passing concern. I’m so thankful that I took the leap and now own a perfectly decent copy of one of my favorite albums of all time on vinyl.

Now, for a bit of additional information: this is not a straight reissue of Loveless in its original form. There is a second disc, and while the original 11 tracks are in place, a small wealth of bonus material fills out disc two.


As shown on the back side of the full size insert, there is a minor annoyance: the original album tracks are spread over three sides, instead of a single disc. Perhaps this was to allow for a deeper mastering, or simply to ensure that they could fill out a full four sides of music. Regardless, this became a non-issue once I heard how fantastic it sounds. As an owner of the original Tremolo EP on CD, it’s fantastic to have the three original songs (Swallow, Honey Power, and Moon Song) represented here along with Sugar (from a split single with Pacific) and Instrumental no. 2, a tune I only recently discovered with the 2012 2CD EPs 1988-1991 release. These five wonderful tunes round out the reissue in a non-essential yet entirely welcome manner.

I’ll finish this post with a couple links to help my fellow MBV fans make a purchase of their own. The fact that I hadn’t heard one peep about this says that it might come as a surprise. There are a handful of copies on Discogs, and one seller on Amazon seems to have this edition for $79. Please note that there are occasionally copies of a 2003 Plain reissue floating around, but my experience with this company isn’t encouraging. Shields himself has stated that it’s “ripped from the original CD” and the label doesn’t have a great track record with regards to pressing quality.

With all that out of the way: I can’t emphasize enough how much of a gorgeous, mind-bending landmark this album is, how much of a monolithic presence it’s played in my life and the development of my musical taste. Loveless is so much more than “the best shoegaze album.” It’s a sound that bends rock music so far that, instead of breaking, it pushes into entirely new dimensions. Once you’ve let it into your life, your sense of audio aesthetics will be forever changed. I couldn’t wait to share the news with everyone.

(Here’s the full album, in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about. Play at high volume.)

By the way: if you live anywhere nearby, please visit Vertigo Music and talk to the owner, Herm. Tell him I sent you. It’s easily the best record store I’ve ever visited in the midwest. There were 2 copies left yesterday, at only $27. Hurry if you’re interested!

Carl Craig – At Les

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on Optimistic Underground, and as with every prior hiatus I now feel the need to hammer out some mea culpa before jumping into the music. Today I’m skipping that nonsense. Here’s one of the greatest pieces of electronic dance music I’ve ever heard, a landmark from almost two decades ago that I only discovered this year.

Since “better late than never” is mostly true, I’m sharing this new found treasure with everyone. This is god-tier techno, from a Detroit legend you’ve probably heard of. Carl Craig is considered one of the great masters of techno, for reasons that become obvious within minutes of getting familiar. His 1997 masterpiece solo album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art was an instant all-time top 10 favorite the moment I heard it this past winter. The album peaks at the moment At Les begins pouring from its beating heart.

With an insistent, warm muted synth beat frittering on the wind, martial percussion building from a whisper, and a gathering storm of wordless vocal pads, this tune rolls imperceptibly deep at first. It gives me dystopian fantasy chills, some combination of black neon dance floor and crystal space cavern conjured in my head. The driving rhythm belies an ambient drift to the dynamics; by song’s end you’ve gone through the clouds and back, but At Les disappears without so much as an echo of where it went.


The album itself, pictured above, is a true-blue masterwork and one of the best albums of the 1990s, as far as I’m concerned. Several other tracks, including Red Lights and Televised Green Smoke, float the same realm as this song, albeit less iconically. Even if you’re a fan of Craig’s, you may have missed this opportunity (something about his myriad personas and hundreds of remix releases) and deserve to be as wowed as I am.

The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

This album is GOD.

I haven’t been back to Optimistic Underground in a while.  There has been a lot going on in life but as always I’m continuously immersed in music.  Lately, with a few notable exceptions, I’ve been listening to a lot of my personal favorite albums in an effort to tap into the exhilaration of something I know I love.  I think I’m also looking for inspiration, and answers.  What elevated these particular pieces of music to a realm of formative life experiences?  These are the albums I used to burrow into for months, knowing every nook and cranny, knowing the texture and contours like my own skin.. and yet they’re a revelation once again with the right mixture of time, decay, perspective, distance, environment and attitude.  It’s probably more than that.  My ears have changed, not to mention my tastes.  Yet the true greats will always have a place; it takes at least time to sort them from the intense but short love affairs with slightly lesser albums.

One of the most striking moments in my listening life happened the night I heard The Flaming Lips‘ 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, driving though rural back roads with a friend who had just purchased the CD blindly.  He’d picked up Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and asked if the band was any good; I replied with some half thought that I’d heard “their older stuff was better” without any clue if I was even thinking of the right band.  In response, my friend bought the only other CD available and inadvertently changed my (musical) life forever.  The warbling tape orchestra, the out-of-nowhere bass thunder on the second track, and that melody on The Spark That Bled had me instantly.  I was distracted to the point that I remember images of my stereo, the booklet in my hands, the music and exclaiming about it, and not the drive itself.  The friend wanted a blank CD and I gave him one on the condition that I borrow this new Flaming Lips thing for the night.  I listened half a dozen times before bed.  I scoured the band’s website, where the entirety of Yoshimi and a handful of earlier album songs streamed free (this was extremely novel and rare at the time, about 2002).  I became a total diehard fan in a matter of weeks.

This is all to preface the fact that when I dug through my collection after moving – when the cds and vinyl are all out in the open like that, it’s easier to become excited about certain albums – I had a lurch in my heart toward this album.  I needed to hear it.  My soul was calling to it, or being called.  The next thing that happened was.. despite never having had much of an extended break from hearing it, I was getting the fresh, brightening outlook, rising sun, open chakra, wide eyed feeling all over again, a decade later.  The thing that meant most to me at the time, I believe, was this feeling of new possibilities and opportunities everywhere.  This adventurous, brave, open and attentive nature was overtaking me and my outlook on life literally widened in scope.  It was a confluence of events and life changes, but The Soft Bulletin crystallized that feeling in a single disc I could grasp forever.  It was exciting; all the rough, unnerving bits that hit me by surprise like sudden deer in the headlights became the very signposts for the change I was seeking.  This album is not only different from what the band was doing, what was accepted and loved in pop music, and what I’d been into until that moment, it actually embodies that jarring, eye-popping thunderclap of sudden and real change in life.  The songs each take off like a homemade rocket, reaching space against all odds in some miracle of ingenuity and love.  This is not something I take lightly.


I came here today merely to share the following documentary but was overcome by my continent of feeling for this album.  I could drift for days on how this makes me feel.  I know it was released last year but I only came upon it during my recent binge and was blown away by the reverence and passion the band still have for this masterpiece.  It not only delves into the nuts-and-bolts creation of the music itself but also dissects a bit of what makes it such a personal touchstone for a certain set of folks.  If you’re already a fan, be prepared to have your nostalgia drive working overtime and keep the album handy for an inevitable post-viewing listen.  If you are unfamiliar, I kind of envy your position.  This is beautiful new territory, and in my view the documentary will make a perfect introduction.

I must note for the diehard fans that the audio used in most of this appears to be from the 5.1 and/or recent vinyl issue of the album.  If you’re as irredeemably familiar with this music as I am, it’ll be a nice experience to get hands on either of those releases and hear this music rendered in a slightly different (clearer?) light.