This one was a tough nut to crack. The first four songs seemed to come to me effortlessly, I couldn't think of any other sequence they'd come in, but following Bon Iver's "Heavenly Father" isn't an easy task, and it took quite some time for me to figure out what was going to come next. In the end, I couldn't be happier with how Volume 64 of The Dylan Samson Mix Series turned out. This entry in the series is titled "Back to Being Whole Again," and features music from Robyn, Blood Orange, and Destroyer. Those interested in finding it should check out West 18th St. in Manhattan.
1. Robyn : Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do
“Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” feels master-class on how to put together an excellent dance pop tune. It builds itself right in front of you. First, the core lyrical refrain. Then comes a single note, the root of the first chord, played on the off beats. The the bass kick comes in, not drawing attention to itself, but just pulsing, and before long a short synthesizer lick brings in the full beat, and the song is suddenly there. Little things are added or removed throughout the rest of the track, moments go by without lyrics, but Robyn presents us with the core of the song and everything that makes it up within the first 30 seconds. Her thesis is clear: keep things simple, and don't overthink it. It’s very easy for a great song to get lost among the extraneous noise.
2. Aesop Rock : Rings
If you’ve followed along with this blog, you know I’ve written a good amount about a trend within the underground hip-hop world of Rappers writing these really personal, open, and emotionally honest songs. Artists like Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar and El-P have all released records in the past 4 years that were startlingly personal, dealing with subjects like personal and racial identity, extreme poverty, or loss of those close to you.
“Rings” feels like a culmination of that trend. Hell, most of Aesop Rock’s outstanding seventh album, “The Impossible Kid,” feels like a culmination of that trend. About 50 minutes of Aes pulling back the curtain on his own past, his tormented psyche — an area he has spent his entire career dealing with indirectly, or obscuring all together. It’s a gift to fans, who have spent the last two decades attempting to decode the meaning behind his lyrics. No longer do we have to try and discern what Aes is talking about, he's being straightforward with us. Almost startlingly so. Instead we're given the opportunity to learn, to form an image of Aes not just as a wildly skilled rapper, but as a person. And by giving us this opportunity, by bringing himself down off a pedestal and to human size, he makes himself even more relatable, and only serves to make us connect with him even more. It's the reason this trend has enthralled me so much, and why I've continuously praised it for years.. But if “The Impossible Kid” represents a the climactic moment of this trend, if it's now acceptable for rappers to deliver wildly personal, human records, we have to ask ourselves an important question: where do we go next?
3. Frank Ocean : Novacane
I’ve found myself returning to Frank Ocean’s “nostalgia,ULTRA.” a lot in the last month or so. With the release of “Blond,” it’s been very interesting to return to Ocean’s starting point, to attempt to trace a through-line across a career that’s been so defined by radical experimentation within a form. “nostalgia,ULTRA.” is easily Ocean’s most conventional record. It’s as close to a straight-up R&B record as we’ll likely ever get from him, before the radical forward thinking of “channel ORANGE,” or the exercises in reduction and minimalism that so defined “Endless” and “Blond.” And here’s the thing, Ocean is really good at straight-up R&B. He could have easily made a career by simply churning out more albums that sounded just like “nostalgia,ULTRA.” “Novacane” is an excellent example, a story song about a drug-filled sexual encounter with a porn star who is studying dentistry. It sounds sexy, with the thumping bass drum and repeated sample of what sounds like a pitch corrected grunt or moan, as if Ocean and producer Tricky Stewart used the common fantasy of sleeping with a porn star to shape the beat itself. But the lyrics are conflicted, exploring themes of emotional emptiness, drug use and physical intimacy in a way that treats them like the multifaceted ideas they are. It’s sexy without sacrificing complexity, a characteristic that has defined Ocean’s entire musical output. It's not the only connecting quality that can be traced through Ocean's career, but it's helped keep his music interesting, no matter what form it takes.
4. Bon Iver : Heavenly Father
I really appreciate that Justin Vernon has consistently evolved or re-defined Bon Iver’s sound with each new release under the moniker. It’s something I appreciate in any musician who takes that step, that they’re willing to risk the success they’ve already found in order to try something new. The sounds of “Heavenly Father” or the songs off of “22, A Million” are almost completely unrecognizable from the music of “For Emma, Forever Ago.” The sounds here are even quite a jump from those found on 2011’s far more experimental “Bon Iver, Bon Iver.” But if you listen closely, you can find points of connection, clear sonic sensibilities that have informed each step, each Bon Iver release. And so while “Heavenly Father” shares little in common with early Bon Iver recordings, it remains anchored Vernon’s musical tastes. The sonics might have changed, but the beauty is still there.
5. FKA Twigs : Two Weeks
I've still not spent a huge amount of time with the music of FKA Twigs. Part of it is her stage name. I frankly think it’s kind of dumb, and you know what they say about first impressions. Sonically I have nothing against her, particularly when you hear the haunting textures she brings to her music, or the clear passion in her vocal delivery. I know that the more time I spend with her music, the more I’ll appreciate what she does. But it’s hard to make yourself devote time to something that a small part of you will always think is foolish, even when your rational mind tells you not doing so would be a mistake.
6. Archy Marshall : Swell
Archy Marshall’s “A New Place 2 Drown” ended up being one of the most surprising last minute releases of 2015. Not because of its quality — Marshall’s two fantastic releases under the King Krule moniker had already proved his clear talent — but because of its focus. Compared to the staggering synthesis of sounds found on Marshall’s previous releases, "A New Place 2 Drown" is surprisingly definable, far more informed by trip-hop and instrumental hip-hop than anything else. Full of rich, dark textures that are easy to get lost in, the album feels very visual, even without the short film of the same name it was accompanied by. It’s imperfect, as are most of Marshall’s past releases, but the ideas he’s toying with are fascinating, even more so because we’ve still yet to see where he takes them next.
7. Blood Orange : Best to You
It’s very clear that Dev Hynes kept busy in the time since releasing “Cupid Deluxe” in 2013. Signs of his work as a songwriter for artists like Solange, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sky Ferreira and Kylie Miogue are all over this summer’s fantastic “Freetown Sound,” an album full of structurally complicated songs that are held together by beautiful pop melodies. “Best to You,” a song that confronts internal conflicts surrounding a one-sided relationship, uses lengthy instrumental breaks to divide chorus/verse couplets, as well as the bridge from the final chorus. None are ever long enough to lose the thread, but they give the listener a chance to breath as Hynes shows off his impressive technical chops. It’s the kind of thing that would be scoffed at in Top-40 pop radio — an instrumental break is just more time for the listener to change the station — but Hynes uses it to advance the medium, exploring techniques that will undoubtedly be woven into future hits he helps pen in the time between now and the next Blood Orange record.
8. Passion Pit : Take a Walk
Though it’s not my favorite Passion Pit song (as I’ve said before, that would be the excellent Bubblegum Sci Fi remix of “The Reeling”), “Take a Walk” has a real strident energy to it. A get-up-and-go attitude that you can’t help but admire. It’s pounding, driving. It might not be the most complicated song ever — though it’s lyrics cover a large amount of ground without ever feeling forced — but feels like it has purpose. It’s stakes aren’t particularly high, but it never fails to meet them with gusto.
9. Yazoo : Don't Go
It’s sort of startling to see how clearly influential Yazoo’s music has been to the modern era of electronic and indie music. Yes, there are parts that can feel a little dated at this point in time — such 80s drum sounds — but so many of the sounds found on “Upstairs at Eric’s” and “You and Me Both” have been re-appropriated by today's electropop and indietronica groups that, with only a few tweaks, you’d likely be able to convince someone those albums came out within the last year. Their music itself might one day be lost to time (helped along by the fact that they had to go by “Yaz” in the states), but when you’ve so shaped the course of popular music in the way that they have, you can never really disappear.
10. Destroyer : Kaputt
I didn’t have much of a relationship with Destroyer’s music until pretty recently. Not that I have ever had anything against Dan Bejar, his work has simply been a blindspot for me. But I was visiting friends in Los Angeles this past May, and one of them threw this song on as we drove to the beach, and everything about it felt perfect. The relaxed maximalist sound, the lyrical sendup to classic rock-’n’-roll decadence, that god damn saxophone. Mix that with the California air rolling in off the ocean, and hanging out with a few dear friends. It made for a pretty stellar introduction to his music.
11. Beach House : Wild
I’m still not sure about the “dream pop” moniker. I don’t know why, but it’s always felt a little safe, the kind of term that a marketing executive comes up with because there’s no way it will offend anyone. But then you listen to Beach House’ music, and the only way to describe its beauty is dreamlike.
12. Crystal Castles : Child I Will Hurt You
It’s strange to realize that “Child I Will Hurt You” was to be Alice Glass’ final song with Crystal Castles. Though “Amnesty (I)” was a fine if somewhat routine album, the first three Crystal Castles records felt so defined by Glass’ singular presence that her absence can’t help but be felt by the group’s fans (regardless of how much Ethan Kath has attempted to downplay her importance since she left the group). So now we’re left with this beautiful, twinkling, song about the impermanence of innocence as her final foray with the group. Given Glass’ ability to make even the ugliest sounds exciting and oddly beautiful, it feels like a fitting end to her era.