The Dylan Samson Mix Series returns with Volume 54, or "I am Truly Not Superficial Enough (but I'm Trying)." This month's mix features music from artists like Swans, Gil Scott-Heron, Fiona Apple, and Killer Mike. Those interested can find it on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
1. St. Vincent : Cruel
Like so many of the songs on Strange Mercy — Annie Clarke's amazing 3rd album as St. Vincent — Cruel is a very calculated reveal. Without any major mid-song shifts in tempo, tone, or even sonic pallet, the song is undeniably different by the end, with darker and darker lyrics, and some of the most fantastically melodic and understated guitar playing around today.
2. Franz Ferdinand : Do You Want To
While there was almost no way Franz Ferdinand's second album would ever be able to stand up to their flawless self titled debut, Do You Want To was the album's clear highlight. It has that energy, that sexy quality that dominates their sound and just drives you to the dance floor. And really, what else do you need?
3. D'Angelo and the Vanguard : Sugah Daddy
I was visiting my parents when D'Angelo broke the internet with this one. He'd announced his return the night before, and his first album in 14 years would drop that coming Monday, but waking up that Saturday morning to find Sugah Daddy waiting on every music site I visited was a truly wonderful experience. It quickly went on repeat for the entire day, yet somehow it never felt tiresome. Those drums, clicking away and holding that groove down so perfectly. Pino Paladino's peerless bass skills. Those horns. And though I'd heard the song when he'd performed at the 2012 BET Awards, the studio recording was sounded as close to perfect as anything I'd heard before. It was like Christmas came early. I couldn't have hoped for anything better.
4. Gil Scott-Heron : I'm New Here
This might be my favorite song that Gil Scott-Heron ever recorded. That's a bold statement to make; a career as long and as influential as his is bound to produce a lot of jaw-dropping moments. But I'm New Here just has this quality to it that sends shivers up my spine every time I hear it. I can't place the source for sure, but if I had to guess it would be his voice. The way it just sounds like he's struggling to bear the unbelievable burden of a life as difficult as his own, all while reflecting on a past full of regrets, and on the nature of redemption... Man, count yourself lucky whenever a song like this gets made.
5. Earl Sweatshirt : Grief
Earl's newest record was a thing of beauty, and Grief gave us a pretty accurate litmus test for what I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside was going to deal in. This is internal conflict put down on tape. Conflict with himself, with his mother, his friends, his fans. It's concise, it's honest, it's brutal, and it's a fantastic step forward for one of the most important rappers around today.
6. Swans : The Seer Returns
I've been wanting to put a Swans song on a mix for a while now, but as anyone who knows them can tell you, their music doesn't really play well with others. No other band has ever conjured up such feelings of impending doom in such a nuanced and exploratory fashion, and as such, it's hard pretty hard to find other songs that bookend their music well. I think I pulled it off here, placing a song about doom between a song about conflict and a song about realizing you've just died, but I could be completely fooling myself. Either way, The Seer Returns is just too good a song to not share it with the world, even if it does end up throwing the rest of the mix off course.
7. Flying Lotus feat. Captain Murphy & Snoop Dogg : Dead Man's Tetris
This song is just so damn angular. Those old-school video game sounds that hit right on the beat feel like the noises from some demonically warped version of Pac Man or Super Mario Bros. It's eerie, a feeling I'm sure Steven Ellison wanted to evoke while exploring the what goes through someone's mind upon realizing they've just died. His own vocals as Captain Murphy feel just as angular, especially when contrasted with Snoop's, who in his guest role as the Grimm Reaper glides across the beat in a way only he is capable of. It's a truly inspired rapper/producer pairing, one I pray we get to hear more of in the future.
8. Kendrick Lamar : King Kunta
I love a good walking song. Something with a steady groove, with a pulse to it, where you try and make sure your foot hits the ground with beat. King Kunta is a fantastic walking song, with Thundercat's bubbly, funky bass persistently driving you forward. Meanwhile Kendrick meditates on fair-weather fans, the commercialization of hip-hop and other historically black musics, and the nature of celebrity, all while recognizing that none of those topics have easy answers.
9. Fiona Apple : Hot Knife
I'll admit, I came to Fiona Apple late. I've only really started to explore her catalogue in the last 6 months, but everything I've found has been amazing. She truly defies convention, something many artists like her have a hard time pulling off. Just listen to the way she mixes pop song-form with free jazz and what is essentially a traditional black spiritual chant on Hot Knife. It's all so seamless, with the disparate styles blended just enough that they don't loose their individual characteristics, but gaps between them don't show. Beyond that, at no point does it feel like Apple is saying "look at me, look at how interesting and artistic I am by bringing this into my music." There's no posturing here, just someone bringing in the sounds she needs to make her song work. It's pure artistry, something the music industry could really use more of.
10. Battles feat. Kazu Makino : Sweetie & Shag
This on is a fantastic example of how to make an opportunity out of a problem. After Toyondai Braxton left Battles, he left behind a real void that needed addressed. His voice — that warped, chanting shout — was a defining part of the band's sound on their first record. So for their second full-length album, Battles used his absence as a way to explore a much wider sonic pallet, one that might not have always worked with Braxton as the lead. The result was fantastic, and with singers like Kazu Makino and Matias Aguayo, Battles was able to deliver one of the most exciting and varied experimental albums of 2011.
11. Mister Heavenly : Pineapple Girl
I REALLY loved this record. It was actually my favorite album that came out in 2011. That might seem a little strange from me. It doesn't really play to my tastes, and is definitely not the most important or adventurous album that came out that year. In fact, it's a relatively low stakes project, something fun for three guys who'd made their names elsewhere (Nick Thorburn of Islands, Honus Honus of Man Man, and Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse) to do in their free time. But it's Out of Love's simplicity that I love the most. It's chock full of simple songs that are just perfectly crafted, bringing in unique sounds (like the jangley, slightly distorted keyboard right here on Pineapple Girl) to keep things interesting, and turning the contrasting voices of the band's two lead singers into a thing of beauty. It probably won't change your life, but Out of Love will bring you nothing but joy every time you listen.
12. Danny Brown : ODB
While there's part of me that wishes ODB had made it on to Danny Brown's 2013 masterpiece Old, I actually think this is one of the more perfect singles released in recent memory. It sets the stage for Old, still dealing in the perverse activities that dominate so much of Brown's music, while teasing at the themes of aging and maturity (not just for the rapper, but for hip-hop as a genre) that he would explore in full later that year. It's a banger for sure, but one that reveals infinite layers of depth if you start to take a closer look.
13. Killer Mike : R.A.P. Music
A sermon on the importance and influence of music (and by extension, art of any medium) on identity from a true rapper's rapper, as well as the beginning of one of the most important partnerships in modern hip-hop. Killer Mike is in his finest form here, closing out his socio-political opus, R.A.P. Music by exploring how music has not only effected the African-American identity, but helped it persevere throughout years of oppression. It's 40 years worth of thesis work condensed into 4 minutes and 26 seconds, and presented in a way that is not only understandable, but makes you tap your foot while Mike continues to school you on the intricacies of politics and race relations. Preach.