Free Radicals is THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful.
My family had a few rituals to prepare for hurricanes. In the final days of an approaching storm, we'd head to the store and stock up on the essentials (batteries, bottled water, dollar bin DVDs starring Bruce Willis), toss the patio furniture in the garage so that it didn't blow through the front door, and fill the bathtub with water in case things really went south. As we all scrambled around the house occupied with our final preparations, The Weather Channel droned on in the background, beaming in reporters in ponchos stationed in the Caribbean, or Florida's more Southern reaches—Tampa, my hometown, was often spared the worst of the storms—as they fought to stay on their feet against gale-force winds and whipping rains.
Seeing the anxious looks on these reporters faces was often the closest we'd come to experiencing real terror in the storm, but there was something exciting about these hours my parents, sisters, and I spent obsessing over the weather. As a little kid, not really understanding the gravity of the threat these storms posed, it felt like a slightly scarier Christmas Eve. But the programming on The Weather Channel itself had something to do with the atmosphere. Six times an hour, their doomsaying meteorological segments were interrupted by a brief program called Local on the 8s, which showed off satellite scans and brief forecasts for your zip code at any time ending in 8. Airing without narration, these interstitials were brief moments of peace, magnified by the music that accompanied them.
The segments would start with a lazy saxophone lolling into the mix like a big dog on a summer day, or an electric guitar whipping like a jump rope pulled tight. The songs were almost entirely instrumentals, and over the course of the minute or so they'd take shape into sunbeat smooth jazz, or jumpy dad rock jams—something like what might happen if a slick Joe Satriani-type huffed a little hydrogen from a weather balloon. These songs exist in my memory as a sort of meteorological muzak that's bound to Bright House Networks Channel 63.
As a kid, I didn't really consciously process the music, nor was "anxiety over the potential demise of my house and family" really part of my vocabulary, but these delightfully corny pieces still had a calming presence—especially in the year where over 16 tropical storms hit the US, most of them making landfall within a couple hundred miles of my house. You take whatever bliss you can get.
Over the past few months, whether due to New York getting a little colder or the anxiety-inducing state of the world, I've been seeking out music that provokes the same feelings of refuge within a vortex. So thought I thought that it might be nice to revisit some of the songs that soundtracked Local on the 8s. As it turns out, a lot of other people felt the same way. Back in the late 2000s, The Weather Channel released a series of compilations of the music that accompanied those segments and based on forum reactions from the time it seems like people went nuts for the stuff. Self-proclaimed "huge Weather Channel" fans spent days debating the merits of the selections on the first comp, Weather Channel Presents: Best of Smooth Jazz. They bemoaned the fact that a Pitchfork reviewer unfavorably compared a Wilco guitar solo to the music on the channel. A guy lucky enough to snag the username Phish swears he "heard a muzak version of 'Tweezer'" that may or may not play in some markets. Their commentary was riveting, so I took to the internet in an attempt to recapture those moments of childhood bliss, assuming that the tunes must hold up.
Sadly, however, they do not. I've listened to a lot of music that most people consider cheesy, but few recordings feel as much like the bar band playing in the uncanny valley as those compiled on The Weather Channel Presents series. Affectless covers of "Margaritaville" worked just fine when paired weather map of Florida, but on their own they present a uniquely uncomfortable listening experience—as itchily sickening as putting on a swimsuit that's already wet.
So join me on a tour of some of The Weather Channel's musical arms most...striking moments. A note: striking most often that means "bad," but there's still charm to be found, if you think it's worth the effort.
The Weather Channel Presents: The Best of Smooth Jazz
Hair-blowing in the breeze on a clear spring day in an open field near a seaside—that's the image on the cover of the meteorological institution's first foray into compilations destined for supermarket endcaps. It's not wrong exactly; breezy is certainly one way you could charitably describe some of the mellow moods here. But you know how sometimes you're walking down the street and little clumps of trash and leaves will get stuck in miniature cyclones of refuse? It's more like that kind of wind. Smiling saxophone squeals butt up against samples of the ocean and quiet storm synthesizers. It's anonymous stuff that can feel surreal in the right headspace—but you're more likely to just ignore it.
The Weather Channel Presents: Best of Instrumental Classic Rock
Announced at the same time as The Best of Smooth Jazz, this compilation was set to display the shreddier side of the Local on the 8s offerings. But save for a brief mention in the Billboard article announcing it and some forum nerds clamoring for a tracklist, there's little to no information about this comp out there. It seems to have been quietly killed, a peril for any person looking to navigate the treacherous waters of licensing archival reissues. RIP.
The Weather Channel Presents: The Best of Smooth Jazz II
The sequel, however, is the real shit. Where the original mostly relied on easier-to-license standards and originals, The Weather Channel's major-label backing paid off on II, allowing them to snag a Charlie Parker Quartet cut and a jaunty salsa outing from former New York Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams (?). It's just about as sedate as the original but they stay away from the sub-Enya synth voicings in favor of pianos, guitars and real music, man—which generally wouldn't be a quality that I favor, but it feels a lot more like the songs that actually end up on the 8s. It's the sort of CD you'd snag at a truck stop on a long road trip and listen to in full a couple of times before never listening to it again—as opposed to its prequel, which you might fling out on the interstate at 70 miles per hour.
The Weather Channel Presents: Winter Wonderland
Smooth jazz is right for the winter holidays, a soundtrack to the boiling rage of spending too much time in close quarters with your extended family. That said, the tracklist consists mostly of covers Christmas standards; nothing too offensive. It's something for the weirdo in your life who'd rather stare at weather maps than the yule log. (A side note: in 2011, TWC released a similar compilation called Sounds of Winter, but it was just a bunch of Colbie Caillat and John Legend songs, so it was just the normal kind of boring).
The Weather Channel - Getaway
This 2010 compilation of covers seems to be the platonic ideal of what The Weather Channel wants from their music. It's breezy music that's curated with the idea of making you feel like you're somewhere else—for example, in "Margaritaville," instead of the middle of a hurricane. The crayon-synth scrawls of the rendition of Blondie's "The Tide Is High" is particularly upsetting in the way it apes the swooning rhythms of the original. That's largely the project here: unwieldy covers of beach hits, lite funk reinventions as imagined by our AI overlords. Whether you find that cool or not depends on how prepared you are to be overtaken by robots, which isn't a question I was necessarily expecting The Weather Channel to make me ponder.