And, we’re back! I know, weird to be leaving a mix on a Sunday, but I figured with everyone traveling for Thanksgiving, it would be easier for everyone to delay volume 71 by a day. How was your Thanksgiving though? Did you go anywhere, or stick around? See any family? Get in any ideological arguments? Are you ok?
But anyway, back to why we’re all really here. Volume 71 of The Dylan Samson Mix Series is out! No, for real! It’s called “Congratulations,” and features new music from Nicolas Jaar, The Radio Dept., and A Tribe Called Quest, as well as songs from Fugazi and Cheap Trick. Stream it at the links below, but those interested in grabbing the physical copy can find it on McGuinness Boulevard in Greenpoint.
1. Massive Attack : Safe From Harm
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Massive Attack’s first album was such a straight-ahead trip-hop record. True, they have always been (and likely always will be) associated with the genre, but they have innovated and altered their sound with such regularity over the last 25 years that doing so almost seems reductionist. The sound of “Blue Lines” and “Protection” bears little to no resemblance to the sound of “Mezzanine,” which in turn bears little resemblance to that of “Heligoland.” Hell, “Blue Lines” even sounds drastically different from the sound of other pioneering trip-hop records like Portishead’s “Dummy” or Tricky’s “Maxinquaye.” But while the argument that Massive Attack can only be defined as a trip-hop group has become weaker and weaker with every new release, it is safe to assume that their work will always be informed by the genre’s dark textures and moody rhythms. Their product may change, but the guiding sensibility that created it remains.
2. The Radio Dept. : Swedish Guns
It’s funny, the more I have listened to “Swedish Guns,” the more divided my opinions about it have become. The sounds — those menacing creepy drums and haunting synth lines — are truly excellent, I can’t get enough of them. But the lyrics, though not bad on a technical level, are wildly repetitive. This is by design, the members of The Radio Dept. are hammering an important point home, but with repeated listening, hearing them end each line with “Swedish guns” can quickly become tiresome. It’s a strange dilemma, and though the song works beautifully in this context, I’m honestly not sure how often I’ll be listening to this album for a little while. I guess it’s true what they say about having too much of a good thing is true.
3. Kanye West : Black Skinhead
I still maintain that “Yeezus” is Kanye West’s most interesting record. Yes, its subject matter and apparent disregard for women is all highly worrisome, and (like many of his records) its second half is somewhat 'hit or miss. But this is the album where we see West venturing far outside his own comfort zone as a musician. Having made his name as a maximalist producer, and delivering the style’s magnum-opus in 2010s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” to then make an album that is largely informed by a minimalist and industrial production style is a striking left turn. West himself even had difficulties completing the album, bringing in legendary “reducer” Rick Rubin to help trim any excess sounds. But the resulting product is not only an example of West experimenting outside of his comfort zone, it is a rare example of a mainstream artist dragging his audience outside of their own. The angular production, aggressive tone, even the troubling, problematic subject matter, it all forces the listener to consider and re-evaluate their relationship to West’s music. It challenges their perceptions of him as an artist, and makes it clear that to expect a specific style from him would be a fool’s errand.
4. Nicolas Jaar : Three Sides of Nazareth
I don’t feel like there is a lot I can say about “Three Sides of Nazareth,” or about Nicolas Jaar’s excellent new record, “Sirens.” I’m still unpacking it, still finding its nooks and crannies, still trying to place it in the larger context of Jaar’s body of work. So, all I can say right now, about both the song and the album, is this: straight fire!
5. Danger Doom feat. Cee-Lo : Benzi Box
In some ways, “The Mouse and the Mask” and “Madvillainy” feel like the two sides of the coin that is MF Doom. Where “Madvillainy” showed off Doom’s chops as an experimental lyricist, “The Mouse and the Mask” gives us a far more straight-ahead version of Doom’s flow. This is largely in step with each album’s production; “Madvillainy” is so defined by Madlib’s experimental beats and wildly varied song structure, while Danger Mouse’s production “The Mouse and the Mask” is — aside from the frequent appearances by characters from “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”“ — far more conventional, sticking to traditional song structure and delivering a much more unified feel. And while neither approach is inherently superior to the other, they each allow Doom to show us what a versatile and skilled rapper he is. His flow is so malleable, his vocabulary so vast, that it can easily morph into the compliment to whatever beat comes his way, almost as if he is challenging his audience to predict what shape he’ll take next.
6. Battles feat. Matias Aguayo : Ice Cream
Energy is a very difficult force to harness. It’s easy for a group to start off with a lot if it, only to lose control and see the energy they created get away from them. They might never give a song the energy it deserves, or just build in build until they have nowhere left to go. No, successfully harnessing and controlling raw energy takes a serious amount of skill, and on “Ice Cream” Battles shows us exactly why. Listen to the way this song builds up, starting with just these little affected guitar dings, and steadily increasing in pace and intensity until the riff comes in at around the 50 second mark. Then a steady beat and vocals come in to keep things grounded, but little bursts of excited sound show up in refrains and interludes. The band sticks together through various tempo changes, ranging onto the energy they’ve created as a single unit. And then, finally, everything is released in the climactic section, before the band gives us what is essentially a 20 second cool down to end the song, leaving us with only a thumping bass and scatted, nonsensical vocals. It’s a kind of musical work out, the kind only those truly dedicated to the craft have the skills to attempt.
7. Fugazi : KYEO
As of late, one of the habits I’ve been trying to break myself of is a tendency to repeatedly return to a single album whenever I want to listen to any specific group. I’ve played “The Idler Wheel…” far more than any other Fiona Apple record. I’ve spent more time with “Oh! Calcutta!” than the rest of The Lawrence Arms’ catalogue combined. With Fugazi, the album I find myself returning to most often is 2001’s “The Argument,” and as is the case with most of the other albums I do this with, there isn’t really a good reason for it. It’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the rest of their catalogue. On the contrary, I’d say I absolutely love the vast majority of their records. And yet, 80% of the2001s time I put them on, I reach for “The Argument.” Why is this? Is it out of comfort; do I instinctually go for the album I know will bring me nothing but joy? And is it even always a bad thing? Do the joys of returning to a less frequented record after a long time away from it — as was the case with my recent re-discovery of “Steady Diet of Nothing” — make up for allowing those albums to collect dust? I don’t have a great answer for this, and though I’m still going to try and listen to more albums I’ve historically neglected, I’ll still keep the question in mind when I find myself reaching for an old favorite.
8. Cheap Trick : Surrender
I’ve only recently started to appreciate the pleasures of Cheap Trick. I didn’t grow up with their music (they were never my parent’s band), so I spent years mentally dismissing their music as power rock or hair metal, two genres I have never had much patience for. But a couple years ago, I learned that Steve Albini was a fan of their work. Then I learned that Joey Ramones as a fan, as was Kurt Cobain and Buzz Osborne. I love all of these people, and if they all were so into Cheap Trick, maybe they were worth a shot.
And so, about a year ago, I was able to get my hands on their complete discography. There is still plenty I haven’t listened to — I’ve stuck mostly to their late 70s/early 80s output thus far — but what I have heard has frequently left me floored. These are songs written by people with a clear and deep knowledge of pop song-form. Their sound is far more restrained than the power rock groups I’d lumped them in with (listen to the subdued, lovelorn studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” for proof), their hook ridden anthems far more clever than any hair metal group could ever be. And then there are the harmonies, those achingly gorgeous harmonies. It’s a common comparison, but they really are Beatle-esque in the way Rick Neilsen and Tom Petersson will come in very close to Robin Zander’s vocal melody, before quickly moving to these big, open vocal harmonies. It’s amazing that I’ve ignored this group for so long, and my discovery of their music has forced me to reconsider other lingering opinions about groups I haven’t spent all that much time with. Who else might I have missed out on for all these years?
9. James Blake : CMYK
In a lot of ways “CMYK” represents the beginning of the sound that has come to define James Blake. His earlier recordings, while still excellent, are far more rooted in UK electronic styles like early dubstep, drum & bass, and grime. They are exercises in crowd control, experiments in ways to wring the maximum amount of ecstasy out of a live audience (a sort of DNA shared with the dubstep craze that had just beginning to go viral at the time of his first release). But CMYK is really where we first see Blake’s ear for melody come into play. From the plinking guitar that dominates the song, to the repeated vocal sample, even in his own warped, affected vocal line, we hear Blake’s love of these fluttering, dramatic melodies, powerful enough to move an audience, but still so delicate they feel as if they would fall apart at the slightest touch. He would grow a lot in the year between “CMYK” “and his self titled debut, and even more in the years since, but the roots of his style can still found right here.
10. Flying Lotus : Satelllliiiiiteee
I still remember falling completely in love with this album. Like many others, “Cosmogramma” was my introduction to the work of Flying Lotus, and to say it blew my mind would be a vast understatement. All of those clashing, disparate sounds, held together by a clear love of hip-hop, IDM, and experimental jazz. There was some kind of overarching concept to the album that I’d heard about in passing, but to me it just felt like a beautiful collage. The songs had interesting structures, and the album moved through different moods almost as if it was a living, breathing thing. Understanding it took concentration, a real effort on the part of the listener, but everything you invested returned with at least twice the reward. It became one of my favorite albums of 2010, and remains one of my favorite albums to this day.
About a year or so after I first heard “Cosmogramma,” I played the album for some friends I hadn’t been spending as much time with. They hated it, didn’t even get past “Clock Catcher” before making me put on something else. And looking back, that was the moment I realized that those people would not be the ones I remained close with after college ended and we no longer had physical proximity keeping us together. No, it would be the people who introduced me to “Cosmogramma,” the ones who loved and appreciated it in the same way I did that were going to be my friends for life. And, you know what, I was right.
11. A Tribe Called Quest : Mobius
Do you remember when comeback albums were almost pre-destined to suck? It wasn’t that long ago. “Chinese Democracy.” “A Bigger Bang.” “Endless Wire.” These were not good records. They were bands cashing in on their name alone. But then, in 2013 we got “The Next Day.” And then at the end of 2014, we got “Black Messiah,” and then a month later we got “No Cities to Love,” and suddenly the idea of a comeback record being something truly special was no longer so far fetched.
And now, after 18 years, we have “We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service,” a record that is not just fantastic, but feels truly important and vital to the times we are living in. This isn’t A Tribe Called Quest cashing in on their name. They didn’t just record this record because the bills were piling up. No, this album came about honestly, from a group rediscovering what it was that made them love making music together in the first place, and then seeking to recapture that feeling without sacrificing what made their music so unique and special to begin with. In a lot of ways, it just feels like the newt (and decidedly final) A Tribe Called Quest record, one that fits perfectly into their existing discography. And though I couldn't be happier to have it, there is something about “We Got it From Here…” that makes me achingly sad. It made me remember what it was I loved about A Tribe Called Quest in the first place, why this group was so special, but it also never let me forget that, with the death of Phife Dawg, this is the last time I’ll get a new album that makes me feel that way. But that’s ok. Really, it is. I was lucky enough to feel that way in the first place, and lucky enough to get 6 albums that kept that feeling alive.
12. The Roots feat. Malik B. & Dice Raw : Here I Come
I remember the day I bought “Game Theory,” and not just because it was the first album by The Roots I’d ever bought. It was September 2006. I’d just started my sophomore year of high school. I had seen “Game Theory” reviewed in the back pages of the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, and knew it was something I wanted in my collection. But T.I.’s “King” had been all the rage that summer, and I desperately wanted to add that album to my burgeoning collection as well. A poor high-school student, I only had the money for one, so after school while waiting for the bus, I asked two of my friends which I should buy. They told me to stop being an idiot, that there was no comparing the two, and that I should absolutely buy “Game Theory.” To this day, it’s still one of the best pieces of buying advice I ever received.