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In My Room » Music

Archive for the 'Music' Category

Growing up in the 80s with Michael Jackson

Jun 26, 2009 in Pop Culture, Music, Current Events

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I was never a big Michael Jackson fan, but having grown up in the 80s, it’s hard to deny how big of a phenomenon he was. For those of you who are too young to remember his heyday, it’s hard to imagine how big a single celebrity could be.

Michael Jackson was everywhere in the 80s. Almost everyone had heard his music, seen his videos, or owned a copy of Thriller. Kids did the moonwalk and dressed like him. Remember the jacket from ‘Beat It’? That was a coveted fashion statement in the early 80s!

Just an anecdote to relate how big MJ was — I remember walking into a department store in 1983. Right inside the front door was a display stocked with the Thriller album. There was a small TV playing the Thriller video. What’s more — there was a crowd, watching the Thriller video on this small TV screen, in the front of a discount department store.

In today’s fragmented pop culture, it’s no longer possible for a musician to attain the level of fame that Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson once did. (And to a lesser extent, Nirvana). Of course, that level of fame has a sinister dark side.

Elvis died on the toilet an overweight drug addict. John Lennon was shot by a crazed fan. Kurt Cobain took heroin and killed himself. And Michael Jackson steadily grew weirder and whiter until he died of as-of-yet unknown causes. Maybe it’s better that we not deify our celebrities so much.

A return to a singles-based approach to releasing music

Oct 01, 2007 in Music

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The Album is Dead

Well no, not really. But it’s glory days have long since passed. The record industry’s primary method of music creation and distribution — the full-length LP — is on the decline, as CD sales continue to tumble year after year. Less than a decade after the record labels disposed of the single as a distribution vehicle, it came back with a vengeance in the form of mp3’s, iTunes and ringtones.

The recording industry’s traditional business model is failing, and no one’s quite sure what the replacement is going to be. The music industry as a whole is still locked into the concept of the full-length album, released once every 1-3 years, with the attendant promotional and touring cycle. I believe that this model is no longer necessary.

With the renewed viability of independent distribution and promotion and the opportunities afforded by the Internet, artists and labels can begin to experiment with new ways of releasing music. I think it’s time for the music industry to move back towards a singles-based approach.

A little history: For the first half of its existence, the music industry relied solely on singles (78 RPM) to distribute music. The 33 1/3 RPM LP was created in 1948, but it wasn’t until the 60’s that the pop music industry began to release significant amounts of music in this format. Before the Beatles and Bob Dylan, LPs were simply collections of singles padded with filler material (sound familiar?) It wasn’t until Rock started to become Art that the LP emerged as a creative and commercial medium.

After the 60s, the record industry rearranged itself around the sale and promotion of full-length LPs. Instead of a string of singles, bands began churning out ten songs at a time once every year or two. While some albums were worth listening to from beginning to end, most albums — even by otherwise great bands — consisted of a few good songs surrounded by mediocre filler.

Even then, the record industry still relied on singles to promote albums. Many casual music listeners only ever bought singles — remember the cassette single in the 80s, or those old piles of 45s that used to be common among music collectors?

The album as Art will never truly go away, but it is obvious that the way we consume music now is shifting back towards a singles-based approach. We listen to our mp3’s on shuffle, we create mix CDs, we cherry pick songs from iTunes. And for an independent artist, free from the restrictions of record labels and traditional methods of physical distribution, it is now possible to release music in smaller quantities at more frequent intervals.

The Proposal

Instead of primarily releasing music as full-length albums every 1-3 years, I propose that artists experiment with releasing music in the form of singles or EPs every 3-9 months. I believe there are several advantages to this approach, both from a creative and commercial standpoint.

Greater Quality and Creativity

Currently, with the full-length LP paradigm, a band decides that it’s time to put out a new album. Over a period of weeks or months (sometimes while sitting in the studio), the band writes a batch of songs, all very similar in sound and intent. Some will be good, while most (at best a few) will be mediocre.

I can’t say for certain that this is how every band writes an album. But for most bands, it’s probably close enough to the truth. An LP is supposed to sound cohesive — to fit a particular sound or mood. Back in the glory days of the rock LP, bands created full-length albums as complete works meant to be listened to in one sitting. If a band doesn’t approach an LP as a complete work, then it is merely a bunch of songs that sound fairly similar. And some of those songs will undoubtedly suck.

There are valid creative reasons for recording a full-length album, but it is not always necessary or even desirable to do so. If a band has written several good songs, then shouldn’t they release those songs on their own merits without half an album’s worth of filler? If anything, it may decrease the crap ratio of most bands’ output.

By releasing music more often, a band can be freed from the full-length release cycle of writing and recording, and create music regularly and spontaneously. Never mind that another album isn’t due for a while. Assemble a few great songs into an EP. Put it out on iTunes, or press some limited edition CDs or vinyl.

The idea is to make the creation of music a more natural, relaxed endeavor, one that is not tied to the release of full-length albums. Create and release music as it comes, and it might actually result in more good music.

A Gradual Evolution

The current gap of 1-3 years (on average) between releases means that bands sometimes tend to evolve in great leaps. Bands change, and the sound they’ve pursued on their newest album may be far removed from the sound of their last album. It’s almost like watching a child grow up in two-year increments. The change is often dramatic.

How many times have you listened to a band’s new album, only to find that it sounds considerably different than the last album that you fell in love with? At best, a change in sound might earn a band some new fans (if it were a more commercial shift). At worst, it might result in an exodus of old fans.

By releasing music in shorter cycles, the feedback on a band’s musical direction would be more immediate. A full-length album that turns out to be a commercial mistake can be a big blow to a band’s career. By the time the follow-up comes out, the band’s older fan base might not be interested anymore.

From an aesthetic perspective, a band that releases material more often will evolve more naturally in the ears of its fans, even in the face of huge stylistic leaps. It’s the difference between Rubber Soul and Revolver (1 year) vs. Revolver and Abbey Road (3 years). Imagine if Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album were never recorded. By today’s model, that’s pretty much what would have happened.

More Experimentation

For any musician that is so inclined, shorter releases can provide an opportunity to experiment musically in ways that are not viable on a full-length LP. Try that dub reggae experiment. Make that mini-concept album. At worst, some fans will like it, and some won’t. Instead of wasting $14 on an album that they weren’t expecting, they may have given up a few dollars to download it from iTunes. And those fans can always buy your next, non-experimental release.

Successful experimentation may point the way towards a more commercially or artistically successful direction. It could earn your band a rabid cult following. At least you can get those creative impulses out without permanently alienating large sections of your fan base and getting dropped from your record label.

Short releases can also provide a model for experimenting with multimedia. Although hybrid CDs with extra content have existed for years, the record industry has yet to fully embrace multimedia content. You could release an EP with music videos, live performances or whatever your imagination can conjure.

Maintaining Fan Interest

A band can have a breakout single and be the hot new thing, but by the time they get off tour, head back into the studio and release their follow-up two years later, most of the music-buying public has lost interest and moved on to the next big thing.

How many bands have lost sales between one album and the next? Sure, the dedicated fans will buy the next album, and a long-awaited album from a great artist is always an event. But in a short-attention span culture such as ours, wouldn’t it be nice if the fans didn’t have to wait two years for new material?

By releasing new material sooner, a band could capitalize on their new found popularity and extend their public exposure. Fans would be treated to great music a lot sooner. It could even be used to build up anticipation for a proper full-length release.

How to Make it Work

The Web and digital downloading have revolutionized the way that musicians promote and distribute their music, so it’s easy for artists to release and promote their music on their own terms.

Digital distribution through iTunes and other music download services eliminates one major barrier: the need to manufacture and distribute many short EP and single releases. Of course, you can still do that (see below), but digital distribution means that your material will always be in print, and you won’t have to carry more stock than you’ll need.

A band website with a mailing list and a blog is essential, as well as MySpace and any other social networking and promotion opportunities you can take advantage of. Since you won’t have the promotional push behind full-length releases that a record label can offer, it’s up to you to market directly to the fans.

Physical Releases

Of course, the record industry is still based at least nominally around the sale of physical hard copies of music. For the artist who releases music more frequently, there are several paths to take.

One method is to print limited edition runs of EPs and singles. Add some artwork, maybe an extra track or two, put out some colored vinyl. If you have the fan base, limited edition releases could be a good way to stimulate fan interest and turn your records into collectors items. Plus, you won’t need to press more copies than the initial demand requires. If you have the distribution, sell some copies in record stores. The rest, sell at shows or through your website.

Another is to release regular anthologies of your single and EP output. On the same schedule that you would normally release full-length LPs, release a full-length anthology of your work to date. Stereolab regularly does this with their limited edition single and EP output between albums. If you have the fan base, it shouldn’t be hard to find an indie label that will handle manufacturing and distribution for you.

The Future

This proposal may sound a little risky to some. After all, who wants to deviate from a comforable, time-worn business model and litter the market with singles and EPs? But the fact is that selling copies of music is no longer the business model that it once was. Most bands never made much money selling albums anyway. For the typical working musician, the real money is in live performance.

I’m not suggesting that this model will work for everyone, nor am I proposing that we should dispose of the full-length LP. Rather, I’m suggesting that independant artists could experiment with different types of releases other than the obligatory full-length album. At the very least, it will distinguish you from other artists.

The idea is not necessarily more music, but better music more often. Let’s face it: Most songs on full-length albums are mediocre, and most people don’t listen intently to a full album in one sitting anymore. Some of the best releases I’ve heard are EPs. The means are available and the risk, if any, is minor for an artist who self-distributes their own work online.

Addendum: I found this after I wrote this post, but this recent New York Times article summarizes many of the same conclusions.

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New Sarolta Zalatnay compilation

Mar 28, 2007 in Music

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I finally got around to upgrading the blog from an outdated Movable Type installation to the much cooler and easier-to-use Wordpress. Dig the cool theme?

Eclectic British reissue label Finders Keepers has just released the first-ever English language compilation of 70’s Hungarian sexpot Sarolta Zalatnay. The US release is slated for April 24.

Here’s my previous post on Zalatnay’s Hadd Mondjam El.

Crate-digging DJs from the UK and elsewhere have long coveted rare vinyl copies of Sarolta’s early work — as well as that of other 70s Hungarian funk rock bands such as Locomotiv GT, Skorpio and Omega — for their funky, wide-open breaks and Sarolta’s searing vocals, which are reminiscent of Janis Joplin.

A notorious celebrity in her native country, Zalatnay recently served a two-year sentence for fraud, and in 2001 posed nude in Hungarian Playboy — the oldest woman ever to do so.

MP3: Sarolta Zalatnay - Sracok, Oh Sracok

The Lost Music Videos of Jan Terri

Sep 29, 2006 in Music

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One consequence of the Internet is that embarrassing moments – even those created 15 years ago and circulated on nth-generation VHS cassettes – can be rediscovered and preserved for posterity.

Such is the case with Jan Terri, a Chicago-area musician who will be remembered for a trove of low-budget music videos, circa 1991-94, that rank among the best (or worst) moments in outsider pop culture.

Online music magazine Jammed has written what is, for now, the definitive profile of Jan’s brief career. The short version is that she peddled a VHS collection of her videos while working as a limo driver. Copies of the videos began circulating and Jan Terri became an underground sensation.

In 1998, Marilyn Manson invited her to play his birthday party and open for his band on tour (documented on Manson’s God is in the TV DVD). Yo La Tengo began covering her song “Rock ‘N Roll Santa” in 2000, and she was featured on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show that year.

Now that her videos have made their way onto YouTube, more people are discovering and even appreciating Jan’s musical talents. “Losing You” is her most popular video, which features Jan badly lip-syncing to her own song.

A MySpace profile exists, although it’s dubious whether it actually belongs to her. (Nevertheless, you can hear “Journey to Mars” and “Rock ‘n Roll Santa”). Jan’s website, now defunct, is mirrored at the Wayback Machine.

If “Losing You” has whet your appetite, here are the remainder of Jan Terri’s videos on YouTube:

National Day of Slayer

Jun 06, 2006 in Music

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Today, 06/06/06, has been declared as the National Day of Slayer. If you don’t have it already, procure a copy of Reign in Blood and play it full blast. Practice throwing the devil horns with both hands while shouting “Slayer!” Show your dedication by carving the Slayer logo into your skin.

Ok, who let the hipster rock critics into the Library of Congress?

Apr 12, 2006 in Music

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The Library of Congress has released the list of 2005 entries into the National Recording Registry. Every year, 50 recordings are selected for their historical, cultural or aesthetic significance. There are 200 recordings in the registry as of this year.

Last year, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet made the list. (The aforementioned albums are also the most recent entries in the registry.) The highlights of this year’s list:

  • Crazy Blues, Mamie Smith (1920) - The first commercial blues recording. The surprising success of Crazy Blues convinced the record labels that black people were actually interested in buying music recorded by blacks. And as jazz, rock and hip hop soon proved, so were white people.
  • Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith (1952) - The legendary box set of roots music 78s that helped spark the ’60s folk revival. Just in case you were looking for someone to blame for that.
  • Poeme Electronique, Edgard Varese (1958) - The first avante garde piece to be admitted to the registry. A massive musique concrete installation that premiered at the 1958 Brussels Exhibition.
  • We’re Only in It for the Money, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (1968) - The second avante garde piece to be admitted into the registry. Not only Zappa’s best work, but probably the album that truly captured the zeitgeist of the 60s. (Anyone who had the foresight to make fun of hippies in 1967 is deserving of immortality.)
  • Switched-On Bach, Wendy Carlos (1968) - Still going by the name Walter Carlos at the time, Switched-On Bach featured Carlos performing Bach on the Moog synthesizer (an instrument previously pioneered by jazz musician Sun Ra, who used it to make appropriately spacy sounds). Music would never be the same again. Dark Side of the Moon and prog rock would soon follow.
  • Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, Firesign Theatre (1970) - Remarkable if only for its title. The Theatre were a surrealist sketch comedy troupe that got their start in the late 60s.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron (1970) - Radical black activist and poet Gil Scott-Heron released this scathing and hilarious putdown of televised mass media. [Lyrics and music], and in the process became one of the forefathers of hip hop.
  • Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth (1988) - The third avante garde piece to be admitted into the registry. Honestly, when I heard that Sonic Youth was on the list, I was expecting Dirty. This album is considered by many to be their best, although Evol is my personal favorite. Hey, at least it wasn’t Goo.

Things I like: Stoner metal

Feb 25, 2006 in Music

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I’ve been getting back into metal lately. I spent my formative years as a teenage metalhead – albeit a rather dorky one, with a greasy mullet and a wardrobe consisting solely of sweatpants, “skater” pants and metal t-shirts that were often a tad too small for my bulky frame. I cut my teeth at the age of 12 with tapes by Twisted Sister and Motley Crue, lent to me by my slightly older but ever so cooler uncle. By the age of 15, I had dived full on into the thrash metal underground, guided by magazines with names like Metal Maniacs, college radio, and the few cool videos they managed to play on Headbangers Ball.

By the time I was 19, I had pretty much outgrown the genre, its glory days outshined by the grunge/alternative revolution. (Of course, just two years later I would abandon the now-hopelessly commercial “alternative” for the greener pastures of indie rock.) But nostalgia has a way of creeping up on you. I still consider Ride the Lightning to be my favorite Metallica album, and one that I have recently taken to listening to again. I still get a rush of adrenaline listening to Slayer’s Reign in Blood.

My interest in stoner metal was borne out of curiosity – one day I found myself browsing the genre on eMusic for reasons I can’t quite recall. Stoner metal bears obvious comparisons to the music of Black Sabbath: slow tempos, heavy riffs and the occasional solo. The Sabbath classic “Sweet Leaf,” their ode to Mary Jane, is the genesis for stoner metal.

Many stoner metal bands also bear a close relation to doom metal, another genre heavily influenced by Sabbath. Early 90s bands like Kyuss and Monster Magnet solidified the sound that would be dubbed stoner metal – detuned riffs, lengthy jams and heavy psychedelic leanings. And there’s the obvious affinity for marijuana, which becomes apparent in the titles and subject matter of the following albums.

I’ve sampled quite a few of the fruits of the stoner metal genre, and as far as I can tell, there are really very few albums truly worth owning for the non-metalhead. So, without further ado, here’s a non-metal fan’s guide to the essential stoner metal albums. All two of them.

Sleep - Jerusalem/Dopesmoker (1995)

Sleep’s breakthrough album, 1993’s Sleep’s Holy Mountain, was hailed as a doom metal juggernaut in it’s day. But it was their long-delayed follow-up that cemented their status as the ultimate stoner metal band.

Dopesmoker was a concept album with a single, 63-minute long track, reportedly conceived after the band blew their advance on vintage amplification and weed. The lyrics, what few of them there are, marry biblical themes with stoner mythology, replacing the Jews with a wandering tribe of dope smokers (”Weedians”) searching for “the riff-filled land”.

Musically, Dopesmoker is a plodding, droning, buzzing, mammoth opus that has more in common with Metal Machine Music than Black Sabbath Vol. 4. The opening chords slow the basic Black Sabbath riff down to a glacial crawl. From there on it’s 60 minutes of hypnotic, repetitive dirge, highlighted by the occasional guitar solo (the solos alone are worth the price of admission) or lyrical passage.

Sleep’s new record label, London, refused to release it, even in a shortened and resequenced version dubbed Jerusalem. The label soon dropped the band, who broke up shortly thereafter. Jerusalem was eventually released in 1999 to much acclaim. The full 60+ minute version, Dopesmoker, was remastered and released in 2003, and to this day stands as the definitive stoner metal album.

Julian Cope has a brilliant review of Dopesmoker at his site Head Heritage.

Electric Wizard - Dopethrone (2000)

Electric Wizard has been called “the heaviest band in the universe.” I can certainly say that Dopethrone is the fucking heaviest album I’ve ever heard. This was my introduction to the doom/stoner metal genre and the best metal album I’ve heard in years.

Dopethrone is so heavy that if it were any heavier, it would supernova upon itself. Electric Wizard had become known for massive doom metal opuses, but Dopethrone runs the gamut from the relatively brief opener “Vinum Sabbathi” to the 20 minute title track. The 15 minute “Weird Tales” trilogy begins with the thrashing “Electric Frost” and devolves into 12 minutes of Hawkwind-style space rock. The riffs on “Barbarian” and “Funeropolis” could saw through bone.

I mean, the guitar amp tones on this record are heavy. It’s the most impressive thing I’ve heard since I first picked up a My Bloody Valentine record, or listened to Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. It makes me want to start a doom metal band of my own. Anyone got a huge amp for sale?

In My Room’s Top 5 of 2005

Jan 02, 2006 in Music

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Better late than never, I guess. I was going to do a top ten, until I realized there were only five new albums that I really liked — and had a chance to thoroughly listen to. So, without further ado…

1. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois

The album that was on more top ten lists this year than any other (often at #1), Illinois is about a close as you’ll come to a masterpiece in 2005. Truth be told, the second half of the album is rather boring. But any album with songs like “Decatur,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” and the six minute suite “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” deserves to be the best album of the year.

2. Dungen - Ta Det Lungt

In 2005, I discovered that it was often necessary to leave the shores of North America (and the English language) to find new and fantastic music to listen to. The third album from Dungen, a Swedish psych/folk/rock group from the forests of coldest Scandinavia, was re-released stateside in 2005 — thus its inclusion on this list. Ta Det Lungt is a psychedelic tour-de-force that combines elements of the Beatles, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Santana and vintage 70s Euro psychedelia to create a work that seems more 1975 than 2005.

3. M.I.A. - Arular

With a bio ready made for publicity (the daughter of a Tamil rebel commander, her family fled Sri Lanka for London, where she discovered hip-hop, became an accomplished artist and then a musician when Peaches introduced her to the Roland MC-505), M.I.A became the first big buzz artist of 2005. Arular combines revolutionary politics, sexual innuendo and multilingual street slang with bhangra, dancehall and hip-hop beats to create a refreshing, unique and trailblazing sound.

4. Konono No. 1 - Congotronics

Belgian record producer Vincent Kenis traveled to the Congolese city of Kinshasa to record the now-legendary amplified likembe group Konono No 1 on his Mac G4 laptop. In existance for over 25 years, Konono pioneered the use of rudimentary homemade amplification to lift the sound of their instruments above the urban din, in turn lending their traditional Bazombe trance music a touch of the avante garde. The recent release of Congotronics 2 continues to expose Kinshasa urban music to the Western world.

5. The White Stripes - Get Behind Me Satan

The White Stripes extend their musical range on Get Behind Me Satan and continue to push the boundaries of their traditional sound. From blues stompers such as “Red Rain” to the country-flavored “Little Ghost” and “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” Jack and Meg White have uncannily succeeded in creating their best album yet — no small accomplishment given the success of their last two albums.

Blow up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

Nov 28, 2005 in Music

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On their inexplicable 1995 major-label debut, the Columbus, Ohio band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments (led by local legend Ron House, who could often be seen eating a sandwich in the back of uber-cool record shop Used Kids) did a song called RnR Hall of Fame, exorting the destruction of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which had just opened up the road in Cleveland.

Blow it up!
Before Johnny Rotten gets in!
Blow it up!
Before Steve Albini makes a speech!

Looks like Ron’s worst fears just came true. Although there are no plans for Steve Albini to appear, Johnny Rotten has indeed just gotten into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This year’s nominations, announced today, include Black Sabbath (who truly deserve it, and have waited seven years to be nominated), the Sex Pistols (who, while truly influential, could probably give a rat’s ass), Lynyrd Skynyrd (can you believe I actually had to look up the correct spelling for Lynyrd Skynyrd?), Blondie (weren’t they nominated last year with the rest of the CBGBs punk alumni?) and Miles Davis (is Bitches’ Brew a rock album?)

The day that Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Sex Pistols are simultaneously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an unusual one indeed. Just a few years ago it seemed unlikely that the staid Hall of Fame would nominate an old metal band, a Southern rock band, and a bunch of anarchists.

Sarolta Zalatnay: The Janis Joplin of Hungary

Nov 23, 2005 in Music

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Via the always entertaining WFMU blog, I was able to hear about Sarolta Zalatnay’s Hadd Mondjam El, a rare, sought after piece of Eastern European funk-rock goodness from 1973.

I’ve previously written on my fascination with foreign language music here. My adventures around the musical world have unearthed a few gems worth constant, repeated listens — from a few early 60s tracks by Francoise Hardy to Dungen’s amazing discography.

So far I’ve listened to Hadd Mondjam El at least a dozen times in the last 24 hours alone — it’s that good. Sarolta has the pipes of Janis Joplin and her backing band can churn out a funky, heavy mix of early 70s rock inspired by the likes of Traffic (who toured Hungary in the 60s). For an album that came from behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1970s, this is some pretty sophisticated shit. Soulful, funky and with some great songs — it’s a shame that it’ll be bound to remain in obscurity.

This album, and many others from the same era of Hungarian rock, are sought and prized by the crate-digging community for its funky, wide open breaks. An original LP of Hadd Mondjam El can easily sell for over $100. There is no CD release that I know of, so you’ll need to turn to your favorite file sharing service (I recommend Soulseek).

Sarolta Zalatnay is Hungary’s most famous female pop singer, and is still a public figure today, albeit for controversial reasons. In 2001, at the age of 54, she posed nude in Hungarian Playboy (She’s hot. Check it out.) Currently, she’s serving a three-year prison sentence for fraud. If you thought American reality TV was bad, her last few days of freedom and subsequent prison furlough were the subject of a reality show on Hungary’s largest TV network.