I tried an interesting experiment with this week's mix. I came to it knowing the first and last songs I wanted to use, but nothing else, and had to find a way to move from one to the other in a way that felt absolutely natural. The only limitation, the length of a mix CD (roughly an hour and 10 minutes). I think it worked pretty well, or at least well enough that it’s something I might try again on future mixes. For now though, here's volume 65 of The Dylan Samson Mix Series. It's called "A Better You," and features music from Kate Bush, Death Grips, and Anderson .Paak. Those of you interested in deciding whether or not my experiment worked for yourselves can find the CD on Joralemon St. in Brooklyn Heights.
1. Carly Rae Jepsen : Run Away With Me
A year ago, if you had told me I'd be including a Carly Rae Jepsen song on one of these mixes, I would have laughed in your face. "The girl who wrote that 'Call Me Maybe' song?" I'd have said, “No fucking way!" But then last year Jepsen released "E•mo•tion," an admittedly flawed record, that was full of great little pop gems like this one. I was admittedly skeptical going in, but when Jepsen reaches the startling highs like she does durning the chorus of "Run Away With Me," it's hard to really argue against it. At it’s core, a pop song is just supposed to make you feel really good, so even when you’re dubious about the source, at some point you just have to lean back and enjoy yourself.
2. Kate Bush : The Hounds of Love
I’ve always found Kate Bush’s music to be wildly intimidating. I’ve sort of lumped her in a group with artist like Björk, Vic Chestnut, or Madlib; artists who’s work I really respect and almost always end up enjoying, but have such a huge and varied catalogue that simply finding an entry point becomes a daunting task in and of itself. Luckily enough for me, a dear friend recently played “Hounds of Love” for me, which provided a perfect start to Bush’s music. I’ve still got a ways to go, but I’m excited to go further up that road.
3. Ra Ra Riot : Too Too Too Fast
For a song about fading love, “Too Too Too Fast” has a buoyant energy to it. From the pounding drums, to the synth chords, to the sonic explosion during the chorus, it’s all very driving. It’s a good example of what made Ra Ra Riot sound so immediate, so vital, when they released their debut album in 2008. These were songs that needed to get out, to be shouted to the world. Whether or not someone listened would always be a secondary concern.
4. D'Angelo : Spanish Joint
When I first sat down to write about “Spanish Joint,” my first instinct was to talk about how sexy it is. Those feather-light drumming. The simple guitar noodling, and tight horn section. Pino Palladino’s peerless base line that simultaneously locks in with the percussion, offers a melodic counterpoint to the guitar, and keeps the song moving forward. It all comes together to create a potent aphrodisiac. But then I stopped myself, because in a D’Angelo song, all of this is kind of a given.
That’s not to say his songs are all the same. They are absolutely not. Rather, it speaks to the simple fact that if you are trying to create a song with a rock-solid foundation, the individual elements you use to do so need to be equally strong. Each needs to stand up to rigorous individual scrutiny, because if just one starts to crumble, the rest of the song will go right along with it.
However, in the case of “Spanish Joint,” you’ll also find a case for the idea that a great song is more than the sum of it’s parts. Yes, “Spanish Joint” is all the elements I described before and more. It’s also D’angelo’s voice. It’s the wonderful hand percussion, and the beautiful call and response vocal harmonies. And yet, if you were to add up all those parts in a vacuum, you wouldn’t be able to get quite the same song. Because “Spanish Joint” still has that, something. That undefinable piece that pushes a song (or any work of art for that matter) beyond goodness, beyond greatness, right up to the precipice of perfection.
5. Anderson .Paak : Come Down
If there was ever an artist to make a stringent case for why the idea of genres is horribly reductive, Anderson .Paak is that artist. He moves so freely between hip-hop, contemporary and classic R&B, funk and soul that the blurred lines that once divided these genres seem to disappear all together. Just in “Come Down” alone, we can hear classic rock ’n' roll guitars, traditional call and response backing vocals, straight rapping, traditional African percussive rhythms in the tambourine the saturates the background, and even a klezmer melody in the sample. All of it gets set to a funk groove, anchored by a rock solid bass line. So, tell me, what genre would you call this? Yes, genres might be a helpful identifier, especially when describing a group to someone who has never heard of them before, but they make it very easy to box an artist into a specific style. Musicians like Paak show us that the most exciting and innovative music doesn’t come from breaking down walls created by the genre system, but by simply ignoring them all together.
6. Vince Staples : Big Time
Vince Staples is never just anything. He’s not just a rapper, he’s now an actor and filmmaker as well. He’s not just a gangsta, he’s also an ex-private schooler. He’s made a serious effort to portray himself as a complicated, conflicted, human being, and he’s all the more interesting for it. His lyrics are similarly conflicted, with the dueling forces of his current success and his tangled past rearing their heads again and again. He’s happy with his current life, but is still fond of the life that got him there. He doesn’t have much respect for rappers who's bark is far worse than their bite, but will pay tribute to his heroes in the blink of an eye (see the extended André 3000 sample that opens the “Prima Donna” EP’s “War Ready”). Staples’ internal conflict is all over “Big Time,” as he brags about his newfound success and wealth, but laments his emotional inability to grow into something beyond the player he’s been for most of his life. He moves all over the track, mixing up end and internal rhymes and leaving the listener slightly off balance, stuck in his confusion with him. It’s all buoyed by James Blake’s fantastically simple production that is instantly memorable without ever getting in the way of the main event, Staples’ lyrical prowess and top notch flow. Throughout “Big Time,” and across all of his fantastic new “Prima Donna” EP, Vince Staples continues to be one of the most exciting young voices in hip-hop. He’s not yet reached the echelon of modern greats like Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, or even his friend Earl Sweatshirt, but provided he stays on his current trajectory he’ll be there before we know it.
7. Death Grips : No Love
At their best, there is something so completely vital about Death Grips’ music.Maybe it’s their DIY, punk-ish, “fuck you” ethos. Maybe it’s their sound, that mix of electronics, industrial rock, straight ahead beat making, and MC Ride’s violent delivery and deceptive lyrics, which always manages to feel raw and exciting. Or maybe it’s simply that they’ve consistently been willing to take huge risks, that they’re dedicated to wild experimentation, even when that means coloring outside the lines of what might be considered the “traditional” hip-hop form. We need artists like this to push their genre forward, to try new things and keep it from becoming stale. Their music might not reach the masses, but it will inform the music that does. So while Death Grips will likely never have the audience of someone like Kanye, some of his most sonically interesting work — the kind that makes people label him an innovator — wouldn’t have happened without them paving the way.
8. HEALTH : Victim
No, this is necessarily the HEALTH track I would pick if I was introducing someone to their music. The truth is that “Victim” is an intro track, pure and simple. It sets the stage for whats still to come, and does so remarkably well. But after the almost animalistic intensity that is “No Love,” you kind of need to pick up the pieces and start putting things back together. So in this context, “Victim” offers the absolute perfect solution.
9. Sleigh Bells : Riot Rhythm
A few years ago, in a Facebook discussion about the debut record from the band Savages, a friend of mine introduced me to the idea of a hype group. In his words, a hype group was one that had received lots of buzz on the internet — often before putting out a proper record — but then either failed to deliver a release that lived up to people’s expectations, or were almost completely forgotten by the time they’d put out a follow-up. This was rarely (if ever) the group’s fault. Fame is fickle, especially in the internet age Nor is it a referendum on the quality of a hype group’s music, which frequently deserves at least some of the attention it gets. So the idea stuck with me, and is something I find myself thinking about whenever the internet really tries to push a new artist on me.
With less than a month until the release of their fourth record, I’m still unsure as to whether or not Sleigh Bells is a hype group. Their first record was full of wildly exciting highs like this one, but had more than a couple songs that I’ve never had any problems skipping over. Their second record didn’t have quite as many duds, but it also struggled to reach the same highs as the first. Their third, largely forgettable. And while the internet hyped the hell out of “Treats” when it first came out, Alexis Krauss and Derek E. Miller were always doing interesting enough things (such as their truly unique blend of pop melody with industrial and noise rock) that the hype felt at least somewhat justified. How much of Sleigh Bells’ initial success was because of the hype and how much was because of their music? I’m not sure. I’m holding out hope that “Jessica Rabbit” will include enough interesting moments to prove that it was the music. If not, maybe it was the hype after all.
10. Chairlift : Amanaemonesia
I can not claim to be anything but peripherally familiar with Chairlift’s music. That’s not to say I have anything against the work of Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly. I’ve found everything I’ve heard to be at least somewhat interesting, and really appreciate their willingness to incorporate some serious weirdness into what are essentially pop songs. In fact, I was first introduced to “Amanaemonesia” when a close friend of mine showed me its truly bizarre music video. And though the main reason she wanted me to watch the video was to show me Polachek’s utterly fantastic dance routine (especially this absolutely perfect butt wiggle), I found myself more interested in “Amanaemonesia”’s propelling, post-punk bass line, the weird little synthesized-marimba break after the second chorus, and Polachek’s unconventional vocal melody. None were startling strange to me on their own, but together they were truly compelling, making something I didn’t want to turn away from. I’m still not sure if Chairlift’s catalogue will ever make it out of my peripherals to become something I really dig down into, but maybe it’s better this way, to let them remain an occasional treat rather than a regular staple.
11. Bruce Springsteen : Dancing in the Dark
On some base, instinctual level, I think there will always be a part of of me that wants to poke fun at Bruce Springsteen. I tell myself that it’s because of how wildly earnest he always sounds, that I wouldn’t really be able to be a real fan until I’m a middle-aged dad trying to maintain some semblance of cool, but the reality is that his music is not mine. I wasn’t raised by Springsteen fans; I was 20 before I ever even bothered to listen to “Born to Run” or “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Plus, as a middle-class New Yorker, who grew up in and around the arts, I never saw myself reflected in his work. So it’s always been very easy for me to simply dismiss his music as stuff for other peoples’ dads. But then I hear bruce speak about music, or I see him in conversation with some other giant who’s work is part of my cultural vocabulary, or I really listen and drill down into a song like “Dancing in the Dark.” And each time, little by little, my preconceived notions about him get chipped away. I’m not sure the punk-rock-loving-little-shit of a kid in me will ever let me become a true Springsteen enthusiast, but the grown up music fan I am to day seems to respect him more with each interaction.
12. M83 : Midnight City
There is part of me that hates using this song here. I've never included an M83 song in any of the mixes, so it feels like a missed opportunity to have the first one be THE M83 song. But damnit, "Midnight City" just works very well here.
13. Jamie xx : Sleep Sound [Single Version]
I tried and tried to find a way to use the album version of “Sleep Sound” on one of this season’s mixes. It’s tighter, not just in length but in the amount of sounds it incorporates. But like so much of Jamie xx’s beautiful “In Colour,” the LP version doesn’t really work outside of it’s context within the album. It’s too much a part of the larger piece, too reliant on what comes before and after it to work elsewhere. Luckily enough, the single version not only works in whatever context you want, it finds its own powerful beauty in sprawling sounds that would have made the album version lose the thread and cause the larger piece to fall apart.
14. Broken Social Scene : KC Accidental
Even before I listened to the record, I’ve always been enamored with the title “You Forgot It in People.” I’ve since learned that the album itself is nothing to shrug at either, filled wall to wall with exciting indie-rock anthems that are as sonically visceral as they are emotionally powerful. But that title, “You Forgot It in People,” there’s something about it that I’ve never been able to shake. As a phrase, it has this weight to it, the kind of thing you’d say to someone with whom you’d had a complex history. It’s a title that’s dripping with painful emotion, one perfectly suited to the album it serves to introduce.