So, here we are. The end of Season 6. Like last year, I figured I’d end this season of The Dylan Samson Mix Series with a longer, more reflective post. So, here goes.
I didn't really know what to expect going into this season of mixes. This new weekly release cycle was something of an experiment for me, and though I didn’t expect it to be nearly as consuming a process as it ended up being, I can honestly say I’m really happy to have pulled it off. I like the weekly release cycle. I like that the posts feel timely, and that the mixes have sort of dominated my online presence for a while. I like the rituals I developed for making and promoting each mix, and I honestly kind of like the pressure the weekly deadline puts on me. I like the new restrictions I put on each mix to increase the variety or artists I featured—never using more than one song off of a given album all season, and only repeating an artist every 4 weeks—and am proud that I stuck to them. All in all, I’m really proud of how this season turned out, and I’m happy that others have really seemed to like it too.
But there is a downside to this new release cycle. Like I said, it is a wildly time consuming project. I’ve basically spent the last 6 months splitting my time between work, and working on these. And though I like the pressure of the weekly deadline, I’m honestly not sure how sustainable it is as my professional life develops. It’s scary to think of a world where I don’t make these mixes, but at the same time I have a hard time believing I can keep doing them and still pursue some of the other projects I’m interested in. If life is a balancing act, I’ve still got a lot of work to do until I find the right way to integrate these mixes into my act.
Last year I rhetorically asked what the future held for these mixes. And, like last year, again I’m not sure. I definitely like the weekly release cycle I tried this season, but it has eaten up a lot of my life. I know I also want to try some new things with future mixes, to make more people aware of them and make the physical release feel even more special, but again, that’s all very time consuming work. So right now it’s about finding that balance. For now, I’m going to take some time off from this, listen to some stuff I’ve been meaning to get to, and just try and enjoy music without listening with a critic’s ears for a while. I can’t say for sure when these mixes will be back, nor can I say what the next batch of them will look like. But I promise they’ll be back, in some form or another.
For now though, here’s this week’s mix. Volume 74 of The Dylan Samson Mix Series is called “Love is a Crazy Thing.” It features new music from Bon Iver and Frank Ocean, as well as songs from Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, and LCD Soundsystem. Those interested in grabbing the CD should check on Perry Street in Manhattan’s West Village. Like I said, this is the final mix of season 6, so it will be your last chance to grab a physical copy for a while.
Thanks again for all of you who have stuck with us this season. It’s been a fun, crazy experiment, and a good distraction from what most of us can agree was a pretty awful few months. Here’s to hoping 2017 will be better.
1. LCD Soundsystem : Christmas Will Break Your Heart
There was this moment, back in 2011, that I'm pretty sure will stick with me for the rest of my life. I was sitting in my friends’ dorm room, ostensibly for the purpose of hanging out with those friends. Others were coming in and out of the room, some trying to talk to me, but I wasn't really paying attention to any of them. No, I was staring at my laptop, wearing headphones that drowned out the rest of the world, watching a broadcast of LCD Soundsystem performing what was then billed as their farewell show live from Madison Square Garden.In retrospect, ignoring everyone else so I could watch this streamed concert was wildly rude. If I’d wanted to tune out the world and watch my favorite band perform from hundreds of miles away, I should have just done so in my own room. But I’d started it with my friend who had subsequently lost interest, and honestly, this didn’t feel like something to experience alone (and I didn’t want to risk losing the Wi-Fi signal on the walk back to my room). This was a big moment. Arguably one of the most important bands of the last 10 years — the band who had brought indie rock back to the dance floor, who'd released three nearly flawless records and a string of incredible singles — were calling it quits. At that point, it didn’t really matter that LCD also happened to be my favorite band. This was an important moment in modern music history, and I wasn’t going to miss it.
And like that, LCD Soundsystem was gone. Sure, they were all still around, doing cool things. Nancy Whang kept recording as part of The Juan MacLean. Al Doyle was still part of Hot Chip and started the group New Build. Tyler Pope still performed and recorded with Cake and a bunch of other bands. Pat Mahoney released the fantastic “Museum of Love” LP with Dennis McNany. And James Murphy was acting in and directing short films, starting a coffee line and opening a wine bar, and still DJing around New York City pretty frequently. Yes, LCD Soundsystem was gone, but all of these incredible artists were still leaving their mark on modern music. It felt like a new era had begun, and though I missed LCD, I had come to accept and really appreciate the trajectory they’d taken.
And then last Christmas Eve, just shy of 5 years after that final concert at Madison Square Garden and after months of reunion rumors, “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” came out, and LCD Soundsystem was back. I was out to dinner with my family when friends started texting me about it, and I actually excused myself to step outside and listen to it on my phone’s shitty little speaker. Suddenly my favorite band seemed to be back from the dead, but after my excitement over how incredible the new song was (Tyler’s bass line, Pat’s simple yet unforgettable drum beat, those classically James Murphy deadpan lyrics) began to fade, all I was left with was questions, lots of them. Were they really back? Would there be more music, or was this a one off single? Would they tour, or just be a studio thing? Why now?
Over the next 10 days, those questions would start to be answered. The 2016 Coachella lineup leaked and then was officially announced. Murphy wrote a long note, confirming LCD’s return and detailing their plans to tour and record in 2016. They were officially back, and though I was excited, I found myself thinking back to watching their Madison Square Garden performance in 2011. Suddenly, that moment felt a little different. Not necessarily ruined, or cheaper, or anything like that. Just different. In 2011, LCD’s final show felt like something of a symbolic close to the 2000s. They came, they changed the landscape of popular music, and then left with one hell of a bang. That final show had weight, it felt like an appropriate end to an important moment in music history. So their return changes things. Not necessarily for better or worse, but it changes things.
A year later, and I still don’t fully know how to feel about their return and this upcoming album. On one hand, I couldn’t be more excited for my favorite band to be back, releasing more music, and making us feel like it’s ok to be weird, and alone, reminding us it’s alright if we haven't really accomplished anything yet, because we’re only in our 20s. LCD Soundsystem’s music always made it clear that there are a bunch of other people who felt the exact same way you did, who felt confused, and alone, and unsuccessful, but it was ok, because they all still wanted to dance with you. But at the same time, I can totally sympathize with the people who weren’t at all excited that LCD was back. People who had invested a lot of emotional energy into that moment back in 2011, and feel a little betrayed by what they perceive as its importance and weight being taken away. Hell, there is a part of me that kind of feels that way too.
But if anything can be said about LCD Soundsystem, it’s that they've earned our trust. Again and again they put out records and singles that were not only amazing in their own right, but always seemed to build upon everything they’d already released. They put on shows that were better than the best party you’d ever been to, but always put pure musicianship over showy theatrics or excessive technicality. They worked their asses off for almost 10 years to make sure that when they announced ANYTHING, our first thought as fans would be, “Oh man, I can’t wait!”
So now that they’re back, it’s time to draw on that trust. True, putting out new music and going back on tour puts them at risk of tarnishing their near perfect track record with some kind of dance-punk “Chinese Democracy.” But, as James’ beautifully worded comeback announcement showed, they’re aware of that, and they know that they’ll have to work harder than ever before to prove to us that their reunion was the right decision. And though their shows over the past year have largely been a resounding success, we wont really know whether or not this was the right decision until they’ve released this promised 4th album. So while I’m skeptical, at the same time, oh man, I can’t wait!
2. Le Tigre : Deceptacon
I often feel like Le Tigre doesn't get the attention they deserve. No, they are not as important a part of Kathleen Hanna’s career as Bikini Kill was, nor did they have nearly the impact on music history as those Riot Grrrl innovators did, but god damn did they make some great songs. Just listen to the way those drums kick here on “Deceptacon,” or to that rock solid bass line, or the way those muted guitar strums and buzzy little fills compliment Hanna’s natural energy. The lyrics too are sly and loaded, challenging the audience to just try ignore the political messages the band’s debut album would put center stage. And that’s the inherent greatness of Le Tigre. For 5 years they made music you could dance your ass off to, but they’d never let you ignore what they were saying while you did.
3. Big Freedia : Make Ya Booty Go
There are moments when I have to actively stop myself from critiquing something. At this point, after doing this in some form or another for almost 8 years, listening to music with the ears of a critic is something of a natural state for me. But some songs aren't meant to be critiqued as high art. Some songs are just supposed to make you have fun, or in the case of almost anything by the great Big Freedia, just meant to make you shake your ass. It’s important to keep a song’s goal in mind if you’re going to critique it, so if “Make Ya Booty Go”’s goal is to make you twerk with a big grin on your face, I’d say it’s wildly successful.
4. Dan Deacon : Lots
I can’t listen to “Lots” without a big grin on my face. Like so much of Dan Deacon’s music, it seems to exude a sense of joy. Maybe it’s the breakbeat energy. Maybe it’s how big everything sounds, those pouring drums, distorted synths, and Deacon’s own affected voice. It doesn’t sound like the creation of one person, because despite only bearing his name, Deacon is far from the only person who appears on this song. Though there aren't song specific credits to tell us exactly who play on “Lots,” the credits for “America” show a range of woodwind and brass instruments, full string sections, and numerous percussion players all contributed to the album. And while they are clearly not all found on “Lots,” that ensemble quality only bolster’s the song’s sense of joy. It gives the listener the sense that was recorded by a group of people who were all working towards the same thing, and makes you feel like they’re all waiting for you on the other side of your speakers, with arms stretched open and smiles just as big as the one you’re wearing.
5. Run the Jewels feat. Gangsta Boo : Love Again (Akinyele Back)
It would have been easy for “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” to become just as misogynistic as some of the early hip-hop songs it was designed to pay homage to. But while groups like 2 Live Crew or Naughty by Nature treated women as sexual objects, Killer Mike and El-P view women as equal participants, as human beings with their own sexual desires, preferences and kinks. They affected by their partners’ sexuality, sometimes even surprised by the intensity of it (“You be takin’ all of this, pleasure come from punishment, Your threshold astonishin’”), but they never let that same sexuality define their partners as people (“You little freak, What you are is so unique, Smart and full of filth and joy”). This all gets compounded by the appearance of former Three 6 Mafia member, Gangsta Boo, who delivers lines like “His tongue is bomb, And he love for me to ride his face,” and “Let's have an orgy, I’mma share your ass with all my friends,” that make her bombastic verse is far filthier than anything Mike and El have said throughout their respective careers. It’s a flip of the gender roles that have been long established in hip-hop culture, a long awaited rebate of music that puts a woman’s sexuality before her humanity.
6. Kendrick Lamar : Swimming Pools (Drank)
There are these moments in history when some of the most daring and forward thinking art catches hold with the public, and becomes wildly popular. This used to be more common than it is today, a side effect of a rapidly growing and diversifying array of choices when it comes to any and all mediums of art, but you’ll still see it happen occasionally. The Sopranos. Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” Kendrick Lamar’s post 2012 output. It can be exciting when art like this crosses over into the mainstream, exiting to be able to talk about cool, interesting, challenging things with people you may not have been able to engage with before. But this popularity comes with some baggage as well, often in the form of what one of my favorite critics calls the “bad fan.” These are the people who experience these incredible works of art, but came away focusing on all the wrong things or having missed the point altogether. They only paid attention to The Sopranos when someone was getting killed (or worse yet, still complain that the ending was “too ambiguous.”) They're the people who took pictures posed to look like they were fondling the breasts of Kara Walker’s giant sugar sphinx, despite the fact that the installation was a piece of commentary on slavery and sexual violence. These are the people who party and take shots while blasting “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a song about the destructive affects of alcohol.
My memories of people partying to this song are still very strong. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” came out the summer before my senior year of college, and by the time school was back in session, you couldn’t go out on the weekends without hearing it blasted from some frat house or dorm room as other students prepared for their own festivities. It always struck me as wildly tone deaf, to drink while listening to a song about alcoholism, but then the people who were drinking to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” weren't recalling listening to it for the lyrics. They were listening because they liked the way it felt, liked its club banger aesthetics. They liked that it seemed like a party, that it had a catchy hook and memorable lyrics. They didn’t care about its artistic merits, they didn’t want to think about what Kendrick was saying or his cadence and flow as a rapper. They were listening because by the time “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” was released that October it had already become part of the cultural zeitgeist. But while that was no and likely will never be my main motivation for exploring and experiencing any work of art, maybe this deceptive nature is part of “Swimming Pools (Drank)”’s greatness. Maybe its ability to lure people in with an accessible form before hitting them with a message was its trickery all along. I’m not sure if this was Lamar’s goal with the song, and if it was, I’m still not totally convinced he was successful. But I can’t know, not without talking to one of those “bad fans” that I’ve viewed with so much contempt. Maybe it’s time to talk to someone who came to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” as a party song, to consult with an opinion other than my own in the hopes of finding a more realized truth. Maybe…
7. Danny Brown : Party All the Time
One of my favorite lines from “Atrocity Exhibition,” Danny Brown’s experimental deep dive into the roots of his destructive impulses and the damage his hedonism has done, is “Some people say I think to much, I don’t think they think enough.” Those two lines seem to sum up the Detroit rapper’s entire worldview. He has never been one to spoon feed his audience, never one to let them rest on their laurels. No, listening to a Danny Brown album, means you’re going to have to engage your brain, to work to decipher his meaning or appreciate the ways he’s innovating within the form. He’s never one to present a two dimensional view on anything, always looking to develop a more complete, nuanced portrait, even if that means facing some ugly truths in the process. So after loading the first half of his 2011 breakout “XXX” with anthems of debauchery and excess, he fills the end of the record with songs about desperate, broken people who use the same drugs he’s just been celebrating as a means to numb the pain in their lives. The pictures produced from lines like “wanna do the right thing, but you probably won’t,” or “laughing at the world cause her life is a joke” are not pretty. They’re sobering, forcing the listener to reckon with the idea that every action has consequences, that what might seem like a good time today, could become a debilitating need tomorrow. After all, get high enough, and the fall can be devastating.
8. Blockhead : Attack the Doctor
I’ve been trying to get “Attack the Doctor” on a mix all season. Seriously, I think this song has shown up on some version of every mix since volume 62, only to be removed because I couldn’t find a place where it fit. Here it works perfectly though, channeling the downtempo beat of “Party All the Time,” and introducing enough new textures and sounds that it can transition us out of our current hip-hop section, and into the experimental indie that defines our next three tracks. So while it’s taken quite some time for “Attack the Doctor” to find its place on one of these mixes, I’m completely thrilled with the place that it has found.
9. Sparklehorse : Morning Hollow
Like so much of the music Mark Linkous released under the Sparklehorse moniker, I have a hard time listening to “Morning Hollow” without tearing up. On the one hand, its beauty is undeniable. A slow dirge, complete with little touches like a faint harmonium and fragile female harmonies in the chorus. That warped, Wurlitzer piano in the outro, or the light, plodding drums, it all creates this delicate, intimate song that, at over 7 minutes long, is easy to get lost in. But at the same time, I can’t help but think about the gaping hole Linkous’ death has left in the music community, about the impact his music had on me and the void his absence has created. It doesn’t help that “Morning Hollow” is so clearly about the death of a loved one (in this case, possibly of a beloved dog), and of the pain in seeing them suffer through the end of life. Mark Linkous will always be the first of my heroes to die, the first person who’s work had a profound effect on me, and then suddenly, unexpectedly left this world. And while I don’t I’ll ever stop listening to his music, I doubt I’ll ever be able to hear a song like “Morning Hollow” and not feel at least some of the pain his absence has left.
10. Yo La Tengo : Big Day Coming
I'm pretty sure “Big Day Coming” was the first Yo La Tengo song I ever heard. I was given my copy of “Painful” during a long afternoon of trading, burning, and ripping CDs with a young woman I knew in high school, the same day I received albums like “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes” and “For Emma, Forever Ago.” As a kid who’s first musical loves were punk and ska, who was only just starting to get into the indie scene through groups like Beirut and Iron & Wine, I remember being kind of startled by how slow of a song “Big Day Coming” was. There weren’t any drums, nothing really moving the song forward other than the lyrics. There were just these droning, floating tones and these quiet, revealing lyrics. It felt intimate, in a way few things I’d listened at that point did. I can’t help but think about that first impression whenever I pick up “Painful,” whenever I put on this slower version of “Big Day Coming.” That day was an important one for me, a day when I took a big step down the path I’d been on for a little more than a year, slowly but surely becoming the insane music nerd I am today.
11. Bon Iver : 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
It should come as no surprise that I was a fan of “22, A Million.” Strange title notwithstanding, I’ve long been a fan of Justin Vernon’s musical sensibilities, and those who have followed along with this blog are well aware of my love for artists who take big, bold risks with their sound. So “22, A Million” is something of a natural fit for me. But while I love all of the songs that draw on Vernon’s newfound electronic impulse, your “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” your “715 - CR∑∑KS,” your “33 ‘GOD,’” I haven't been able to fall in love with the more “traditional” Bon Iver songs in the same way. Songs like “29 #Strafford APTS” or “00000 Million,” though perfectly great songs in their own right, felt somewhat out of place with the more experimental parts of the album.So while I’m thrilled with the risks Vernon took on “22, A Million,” I still want to see him take these ideas further, to really commit to this new sonic palate and make an album completely informed by it It would be another bold step for him to take, but if “22, A Million” has proven anything, it’s a step Vernon is likely willing to make.
12. Frank Ocean : Futura Free
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I heard “Futura Free.” I was walking home alone, kind of late, on a Saturday night. Frank Ocean had released “Blond” a few hours earlier, but I was on my first listen (I was a couple hours late to the party). I’d seen that the Boys Don’t Cry magazine was being given away for free at a magazine shop in Manhattan, so I’d quickly thrown on the album and rushed out the door, beginning my journey to see if I could snag one. I didn’t get terribly far before the internet informed me that the magazines had already sold out, so I decided to walk back home, disappointed that I'd missed the magazine, but immensely enjoying all of the sonic treasures “Blond” was clearly full of. And then “Futura Free” came on, and it just floored me. Those gorgeous, ascending major chords on piano. The simple, pulsing beat that you could only hear if you were really listening for it. The half-spoken half-sung lyrics that meditated on the way personal success changes those around you in an almost stream-of-consciousness style. And then there’s the hidden skit, the interviews from various points in Ocean's life, backed by the simple little electric piano arpeggios that had already shown up a few times on the album, and covered in a static that instantly gave me the feeling of watching old VHS home movies, full of loved ones at random moments in your life. All of this hit me while I was walking through my favorite city in the world, the place that’s been my home for the past three years, but has felt like home for my entire life. It filled me with so much joy that I shed a couple tears, not something I’ll do very often. And you know what, every time I’ve listened to this song while walking around New York since, I’ve felt the same exact way, and have teared up again and again. I knew pretty quickly that this was going to have to be the final song in this season of The Dylan Samson Mix Series, and I really don't think I could have found one that closes things up any better.