This was one of the first titles I came up with for this season of mixes. I had been at some meeting, in a building that required you to sign in at the front desk. The security guard took down my information, took a grainy, black and white photo of me, and gave me a badge with said photo, and the name "Visitor." It struck me as strange, they had taken all that information from me, yet the piece of identification they gave me was generic, devoid of almost any real identity. So, for better or worse, the word "visitor" stuck with me, and now has become the title of volume 66 of The Dylan Samson Mix Series. This week's mix features music from A$AP Ferg, Coconut Records, and Kanye West. Those interested in picking it up can check 7th Ave. in Midtown.
1. A Tribe Called Quest : Start it Up
With the new A Tribe Called Quest album on the horizon, I’ve found myself reflecting on the rest of their albums. It’s kind of beautiful that there’s not a real dud in the catalogue, that each album has stood the test of time. That’s not to say people won’t have their favorite Tribe album — each release was sonically different enough that picking the one you like most becomes fairly easy — but each album is so good that arguing why one is bad becomes harder than arguing why each is great. Just listen to the wonderful way in which “Start It Up” serves as an album opener. That simple drum pattern and those sexy, deep horns. The way Q-Tip’s vocals play off the beat, and how production group The Ummah (made up of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and J Dilla) mix things up by throwing a seriously disorienting echo on those same vocals in the second verse. Like the rest of their catalogue, this is intelligently crafted music. They’ll let you dance, but Tribe will never let you turn your brain off completely. We’ll see if this new record holds it’s own against their already monstrous output, but with a track record like theirs, I’m fairly confident A Tribe Called Quest will not disappoint.
2. A$AP Ferg : Dope Walk
I first came to this song through its music video (directed by my friend Matt Starr), a digital adventure through New York Fashion week presented as a FaceTime call with Cara Delevigne. I’d been aware of Ferg before the video, and had spent a little time with 2013’s “Trap Lord,” but I was not at all prepared for the visceral intensity that is “Dope Walk.” This song is all feel. Dead simple on paper, but it is so exciting, so breakneck in its pacing, that it seems to kick you in the ass the second it starts to pick up. The good news is that “Dope Walk”’s intensity so infectious, you can’t help but get excited right along with it.
3. Coconut Records : Nighttiming
I really don’t have much to say about this song. There isn't an aspect about it I can single out, nothing that demands careful exploration or increased scrutiny. It’s just a rock solid, indie-pop dance number , one that never fails in its goals of getting you to the dance floor with a big grin on your face.
4. Hot Chip : Bendable Poseable
Another dance number, but this one is wildly dissectible. You could focus on the sounds, the hard rock guitars, the mix of live and electronic drumming, the back and forth vocals that alternate between being classically sung, and digitized to the point where it sounds like a pissed off Siri might be singing them at you. I find myself drawn to it’s structure, a strange mutation of classic pop song structure. Hot Chip breaks the song up into two distinct sections, flirting with the Verse · Bridge · Verse · Chorus pattern that has so defined pop songwriting ever since the idea of “pop music” has been around, but never actually following that model. Instead, they punctuate two longer instrumental sections by selectively dropping in verses, bridges, and small variations to the sonic themes that define those sections. We’re left with a song-structure that looks something like this:
This irregular structure is what keeps “Bendable Poseable” interesting, what keeps the listener constantly engaged with the track for almost 4 minutes. Sure, there are other ways to engage your audience, but sometimes all you have to do is keep them guessing about your next move.
5. Shabazz Palaces : They Come in Gold
Last week, while writing about Death Grips’ “No Love,” I mentioned how important it is to have artists who are willing to experiment within their medium, who take risks and pave new paths for more accessible, mainstream artists to travel safely down. It’s more than clear that Shabazz Palaces fits that bill; they’ve consistently been making some of the most interesting, adventurous hip-hop of the last 7 years. But while Death Grips deal in raw, sonic assault, Shabazz Palaces seem to be searching for something more elusive, more abstract. They don’t have as defined a sound as many of their contemporaries do, but this is not because they’re simply still it out. Rather, Shabazz Palaces clearly think that defining their sound would be wildly limiting, treating sound like a tool rather than a descriptor. So as they explore new ideas, their sonic palate takes on new forms. We’ve seen this in the longer, multi-sectioned songs of 2011’s “Black Up,” or the song-suite structure of 2014’s “Lese Majesty.” They’re unique enough as musicians that you’ll always know when you’re listening to a Shabazz Palaces song, but Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire know that in order to chase the abstract ideas that interest them, finding the right tool is a must.
6. Flying Lotus : Coronus, the Terminator
I’ve wanted to include this song on a mix ever since I first heard it as a single in 2014 But it’s tough to work Flying Lotus’ music into a good mix. The reason for this problem is clear: Steven Ellison work is more suited to the album than the single, utilizing the larger canvas the album affords to explore bigger, more complex ideas. The result is that many of his songs as Flying Lotus work best in the context of the album they were released on, and finding a new way to present them without muting their effects requires some real thought. It’s a good problem to have, one that showcases the amount of work and forethought that went into creating them in the first place.
7. Kanye West : Facts (Charlie Heat Version)
So, here we have it. Kanye West has succeeded in writing the most Kanye song EVER.
8. Killer Mike feat. Big Boi & Sleepy Brown : A.D.I.D.A.S
It’s kind of a crime that this is the only solo Killer Mike song to ever crack the Billboard Top 100. Yes, I recognize that this is hardly the only way to measure success within the music industry, and sure, he’s had releases make it into other Billboard charts. Hell, he even won a grammy for his truly fantastic verse on OutKast’s “The Whole World.” But for his entire career, Mike has consistently released some of the most courageous hip-hop around. No, he wasn’t quite as daring and innovative as he’s been in recent years (both in his work with Run the Jewels, and on 2012’s stellar “R.A.P. Music”), but Mike has always made powerful, brave hip-hop, even if he wasn’t coloring outside the lines others in the genre had already drawn. He’s always been willing to explore complex personal and political themes, airing on the side of personal expression over commercial appeal.
None of this is to say that “A.D.I.D.A.S.” is not a great song. It really is, not only for it’s humorous yet mature discussion of sex, but also for it’s catchy, hummable hook. But there are ton of other great Killer Mike songs from across his catalogue, many of which should be in the charts right next to “A.D.I.D.A.S.” They might not all have it’s commercial appeal, but they’re beautiful pieces of personal expression, the kind that should be valued as much as a catchy melody, and be rewarded in the same way.
9. Gnarls Barkley : Transformer
This was always one of my favorite tracks off of Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere.” Something about its energy, its pitched voices used to represent multiple identities. It’s a fascinating exercise in production, one that continues to hold my interest 10 years after it was released.
10. Neutral Milk Hotel : Song Against Sex
Imagine, for a moment that it was 1995. You’d never heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, never heard “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” or been floored by “Engine.” Imagine someone gave you “On Avery Island” and you were going to listen to it for the very first time. So you pop it in your cd player, and then…
What is this? It starts with that studio intro, and then there’s that amplified acoustic guitar. There’s that driving drum part, so maybe this is punk, right? Well, no. There’s this weird layer of static that seems to cloak the whole song. Plus, the mix and production feel a little more psychedelic than punk. Then there’s the horns, but it’s not ska, nor does it sound like one of those new swing dance groups your friends are starting to mention. And by the end of the song, all of the instruments have bled into one another so much that discerning them from one another has become an impossible task. No, they’re just noise now. The only recognizable sound is the singer’s strange, nasally voice, singing these abstract and confusing lyrics.
It’s this confusing, undefinable quality that helped make Neutral Milk Hotel’s music so exciting. It’s why they’re so often labeled as “Indie” or “Neo-Psychedelia.” 20 Years later and we still haven't found a way to talk about them that accurately describes what they’re like. So, we’re left with one option. If you want to introduce someone to Neutral Milk Hotel, you’ve got to sit them down, put on the record, and make sure they’re listening. Really listening. They might not really understand what they’re hearing at first, but they’ll always be thrilled they heard it.
11. Dan Deacon : Of the Mountains
I like to think I’m at least decent at talking or writing about music. I’ve spent almost my entire life studying music (both classically and informally), and have learned how to dissect it as a result. I try not to do this too much, firm in my belief that doing so too often can quickly make you miss the forest for the trees, but I can do so if prompted. I could tell you all about melodic counterpoint, chord progress, part writing, proper harmonies.
Yet, for all of my training, I still have difficulty effectively describing a Dan Deacon song, particularly when he really exercises his classical impulses like he does on “Of the Mountains.” I could talk about the percussion, but no matter how I tried you really cant grasp how huge they sound until you hear it. I could talk about the ebb and flow of energy created by the synthesizers and other electronics Deacon employs, but you’d only experience the feeling those instruments create their sounds build and grow as the song goes on. I could talk about the melodic quoting Deacon employs throughout the song, bringing in the melody of what feels like a nursery rhyme, but even after listening to “Of the Mountains” for almost 7 years, I still can not figure out where the melody I know he’s quoting comes from. At his best, Deacon seems to work on a level that is above my ability to accurately describe. And that’s ok, because it just makes me want to try even harder.
12. Matt & Kim : Yeah Yeah
Throughout their fist two records, Matt & Kim displayed this kind of youthful excitement you don’t hear on record very often. It almost seems natural for young bands to try and seem calm and collected in the face of the success they’ve achieved. Remaining reserved gives them a cool, disinterested vibe. But Matt & Kim always just seemed excited to be at the party, thrilled that they got the chance to record their music in the first place. This exuberance infected their early releases, taking what might have been enjoyable pop songs, and infecting them with an excitement that elevated them to the level of greatness. But as they’ve become more successful, as their budgets have spiked and they’ve moved away from the DIY home recordings that shaped the core of their sound, it’s pretty clear that they’ve lost some of that spark. Sure, they still consistently include one or two great little pop gems with each record, but that exuberant joy is gone. Their innocent excitement has been lost, so to reach the same heights they once did, they’ll need to to find a way to actively re-create the feelings that used to come naturally.