A new segment on In My Ear! On the occasional-to-maybe-regular Thursday, I’ll be digging into my archive and featuring tracks that were in my ear (and on my annual playlist) a decade ago. First up, the year was 2010…..
This remains one of my favorite Gorillaz tracks and near the top of any road trip playlist I’m libel to make. I mean, really. One of the best driving songs ever.
Stylo was the lead single off British virtual band Gorillaz third album Plastic Beach— and for me the real standout highlight of the record. The bass line is so pulsing and hooky and the guest turns from Mos Def and Bobby Womack are so tight; it all just hangs together really well.
This track introduced me to Bobby Womack, who I knew by name but not by his music or his catalogue. He absolutely crushes his verses and adds some soulful grit to the otherwise polished funk and electronic sound of the song.
This one feels dated to me…but just in my memory of it, not the sound itself. Gorillaz has always been (and remains) remarkably able to adapt their sound to stay current.
This track from John Legend’s new record Bigger Love is pure magic.
I’ve been a John Legend fan for a looong time now. Hiding somewhere in my CD collection is an early demo, copied for me by a friend whose own…cousin? friend?…worked with Legend somehow and had access to early studio recordings and some live cuts of tracks that would form the backbone of his breakout 2004 record Get Lifted. Then, like now, his persona was magnetic, his musical talents were boundless, and his voice was immediately iconic.
If I’m being honest, though, I’ve drifted in-and-out of most of his ensuing albums. I tune out for the bulk of his saccharine, piano-backed-by-strings love song canon — which are most of his biggest hits AND constitute a lot of the vibe on Bigger Love. But, I tune in when he applies and layers that voice on top of more vibrant beats and toward richer lyrical content, like on 2016’s Darkness and Light.
All of that said, there is little resistance one can muster up when Legend connects on a track like he does on U Move, I Move — a string-soaked love song of the kind I just said “meh” to in the last paragraph. (Who am I, right?!)
The unique arrangement offers a more interesting, less traditional song structure than his go-to piano ballads. The production is great, seamlessly weaving lots of scratchy, jittery background drum and synth sounds into an otherwise smoothly flowing, almost liquid melody. The feel is intoxicatingly airy and atmospheric; there is so much damn space for Legend’s voice to croon and soar and blend with Jhené Aiko’s. Their voices are sublime together.
I loved this track on first listen. But, it took me a few more listens to accept the pause it provides in the midst of everything raging right now. And, to remember that there is always a need to be moved by beauty. Not just love or hope or positivity (all things Legend sought to emote with this record), but beauty. To ache at the feeling of it even, and especially, when confronted with so much that is ugly. I love this track for giving me that reminder.
At this point in his career and my fandom, I find that any singles, albums, or guest features that Anderson .Paak puts out are 100% gold.
Lockdown, the song he dropped last Friday, June 19 (Juneteenth), is more evidence to that statement. It’s a deliciously funky and soulful track with a righteous, rolling bass line groove that belies .Paak’s fiery, incisive lyrics supporting the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, speaking out on racism and white supremacy, police brutality, injustice, and reflecting on the intersections of those protests — this moment and movement — with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The accompanying video is notable for it’s visual power, the rage that doesn’t automatically come through in .Paak’s flow and smooth vocals, and how the video advances the full scope of .Paak’s political messages in the track. It’s also notable for a tight Jay Rock verse that is not included in the streaming version.
It’s heady, emotional, determined stuff set to a smooth beat, in the canon of Marvin Gaye protest music. While it might provide a sonic moment of respite and quiet in your protest playlist (set against RJT4, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, etc.), it is no less a call to action from .Paak and a verbal fist raised in solidarity against that daily threatens his Black life.
There is no single soundtrack for the moment in America we are in right now. But, my bet is that there is at least one Run the Jewels track on nearly every playlist that sets out to capture, reflect, or otherwise document in music what’s going on (RIP Marvin Gaye).
Killer Mike and El-P are back with the fourth installment of their Run the Jewels partnership. And, true to form, they are laying waste to the structures of power and privilege in this country. The police. Capitalism and the wealthy ruling class. The current President. The government surveillance state. The prison-industrial complex.
Greater hip-hop heads than me know the solo career lineages of Killer Mike and El-P, respectively, and the development of their sound over time. Full of individual swagger, political rage, and raw-sounding, industrial beats, they’ve always channeled “heavy” hip-hop. The hard-edged, rock-and-metal-tinged sound of Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, EPMD, etc. Few rap outfits active today traffic in that vein, none as consistently raucous, inventive, and tight as RTJ.
RTJ4 is packed with standout moments and standout tracks. walking in the snow is an deeep track: a visceral diatribe on police brutality and violence and, from Killer Mike, some of the most on-point social commentary on racism, modern media, and white privilege/inaction from anyone, anywhere. the ground below is as much a hip-hop track as it is punk anthem, with a middle-finger straight up to haters and some of the most deft lyrics on the record. ooh la la is somehow both woozy and a stomper at same time. But, I’m picking the opening track to feature here — yankee and the brave (ep. 4) — because it comes hard out of the gate and sets the tone for all that follows: an unrelenting barrage of tight raps, focused fury, and pounding, funky beats.
RTJ just keeps getting better. And, with this new record, they’ve created a modern classic.
This moment in time and in American history is an exceedingly appropriate backdrop for the music of Mourning a Blakstar and for their recently released double LP The Cycle.
A self-described “multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora,” Mourning a Blkstar — consisting of vocalists James Longs, Kyle Kidd and LaToya Kent, guitarist Peter Saudek, trumpet player Theresa May, drummer Dante Foley, and trombonist/founder William “Ra” Washington — comes with a message and a mission drawn from James Baldwin of artist as witness.
The Cycle (their fourth full-length release) is thematically and lyrically focused on love and personal relationships within the dissonant, chaotic present moment. Or, as the group writes on its website:
“It is our song cycle in a time that just may need a song or two in support of and in love and power to the living.“
It is a sonically ambitious, sweeping, visceral record that draws on the full gamut of Black and African diaspora musical traditions. It is a record that demands to be heard and felt in full (it is not a listen-while-doing-the-dishes kind of record), lest you miss the many messages, nuances, and influences woven throughout the album. For example, Ra Washington commented in an interview:
“One of the unseen components of this record is, I’m running a few pedals giving surface noise and hiss to a bass tone and then placing that underneath the entire recording, just constantly having that low rumble underneath the whole entire cycle of songs. To me, this acted as a metaphor for how we as marginalised POC folk have to create beauty above the noise of an imperial country, how we push past that noise to create a truth for ourselves, and then humbly share that truth with anyone willing to listen.”
My favorite track is Sense of an Ending. It is an incredibly immersive and propulsive track, dissonant, soulful, and deeply funky; a perfect encapsulation of the driving thesis of this record while also being an immediate ear worm. And, like the record as a whole, it accomplishes the difficult task of feeling timeless, timely, and futuristic all at once.
In 2000, as the capstone to my undergraduate degree (Bachelor of Arts, History), I wrote a thesis about funk music and Black identity in the 1970s. It was one of the most powerful, challenging, and joyful learning experiences of my life — despite some pretty overwrought language and ironically achieved by this white, suburban kid at a small, liberal-arts, homogenous-but-trying college in Maine.
As a course of study, it went beyond the culmination of an academic and experiential deep-dive into African-American and African history and culture. As a “life moment,” it went beyond the joining together of consciously and unconsciously impactful experiences I had had to-date (my father’s love of jazz and doo-wop; my aunt’s social activism and commitment to racial and social justice; my other aunt’s love of Lionel Richie; my innate sensitivity to and awareness of unfairness and other perspectives from my own; Whitney. Fucking. Houston).
That thesis and that entire period of my life was an admittedly overdue awakening to 1) American history that is intentionally kept hidden, 2) the white privilege I possess, 3) the white dominant culture and systems that operate every moment of our American lives, and 4) the tradition and experience of African and Black American music that I have forever loved, aesthetically, and that has taught me about the world as it truly is.
Or, as my fellow music nut @albumoperator (Instagram) wrote in a post:
“I am eternally grateful to this lineage of black American music and the transformative education it has given me, shaping how I see the world and teaching me about my role in this seemingly eternal American struggle.“
“Through musical expression, Afro-Americans are able to affirm their cultural identify in a way that supplies positive reinforcement in the midst of an imposing dominant culture.”
“From Backwoods to City Streets: The Afro-American Musical Journey,” in Expressively Black: The Cultural Basis of Ethnic Identity ed. Geneva Gay and Willie L. Barber (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1987), 134.
Or, as Q-Tip spits:
“The world is kinda cold and the rhythm is my blanket / Wrap yourself up in it / If you love it, then you’ll thank it.”
And, a call for all those who love blues, jazz, gospel, rock-and-roll, R&B, soul, funk, rap, hip-hop, neo-soul, or modern pop but who are not connecting the dots between that music and the current protests and calls for racial justice — to listen harder.
In the same vein of Wednesday’s post about Fiona Apple and artists that don’t sound like anyone else except themselves, I was stoked to see a new record from Thao & the Get Down Stay Down come out last week. Temple is the group’s fifth album and it comes four years removed from their previous release, A Man Alive, which was one of my favorite records in 2016.
The San Francisco-based band fronted by Thao Nguyen remains as vibrantly creative as always, but Nguyen talks openly how it is her and the band’s most personal record to-date. Previously unspoken or ambiguously referenced topics of Nguyen’s family, her sexuality, gender politics and norms, and her own personal journey are laid bare in the lyrics. Perhaps because it’s new lyrical territory for the band and/or that the words are just that skillfully crafted, but the record feels intimate from the jump and absolutely authentic.
Lyrics aside, it is the band’s distinct indie-pop rock sound that continues to stand out and totally grab me. There are lots of influences (punk, hip-hop, 80s synth tones, garage rock, and Khruangbin-like, Southeast Asian funk beats and range-y guitar riffs), but they all hang together on an accessible, catchy record that offers something new with each track.
Phenom, my personal favorite track, is a great example of Thao &The Get Down Stay Down’s magic. The song blends dissonant chords and a jangly, off-kilter guitar riff with a throbbing bass line and Nguyen’s vocals as instrument (sometimes staccato; sometimes veering up-and-down a minor key scale) to create a completely hypnotic, woozy, unforgettable track — ending with the anthemic, defiant scream against “I am an old phenomenon.”
There’s been a lot of ink spilled (font characters typed? what’s the digital analog for that phrase?) about this new record from Fiona Apple released last month.
It’s a fucking masterpiece.
I am not aiming to add more to that public record with this post. People who actually get paid for writing about music (unlike me) have got it covered. Check here, here, and here.
I’m writing about it here because I love it. And, y’all should listen to it. *Really* listen to it. The music is arresting; both stripped down and elaborate at the same time. Raw and rugged and heavy on the minor chords in ways that sound exactly like Apple’s other work without sounding redundant at all as it veers woozily from influences of drum-and-bass, delta blues, spoken word, and classical piano arrangements. The mark of a classic; instantly recognizable, but new and fresh all the same.
And, lyrically. I mean, damn. Apple’s lyrics are deeeep and real; an artist creatively wrestling with herself and her time in ways both exceedingly personal and universal.
Shameika and Heavy Balloon are two standout tracks for me, but this is a record to be listened to in full. Over and over and over again.
Given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just asmuch new-to-me music from the past year as I do from the current year in the first quarter of any given year — normally culminating (except in 2020) with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist fire hose that is SXSW. So, I hold off making my version of this particular list until about now; after the dust has settled a bit in Q1 and I’ve pulled out my own highlights from SXSW (even the festival that wasn’t this year), but before the traditional flood of spring/summer releases starts.
Preamble over. Part 1 was last week. Here is Part 2 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2019 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year, along with a full playlist of Parts 1 and 2.
An Ohio-raised singer and songwriter of Ghanaian descent living in Los Angeles, Kwesi has a beautiful, distinctive voice (traces of John Legend) and a great talent for blending elements of soul, R&B, folk, pop, and electronic music into soulful, catchy, honest, searching songs. I’ve been following Kwesi (formerly Kwesi K) for years. He released two fantastic EPs in 2013 and 2014 (Pronouns and Lovely, respectively) and, since then, has written/produced songs with others and personally released a series of singles — including Neck Tattoo, which slipped by me last year but is a (typically, for Kwesi) beautifully wrought song with heart and humor in equal measure.
Credit to NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga for this one. He featured Lambert and his 2019 record True in some year-end retrospective or another and I immediately sought out the album. It is magical. Lambert is a contemporary classical/classical crossover pianist and composer from Hamburg, Germany. He has a clear gift for melody and a seemingly effortless ability to construct modern melodic lines and rhythms on a classical piano framework. True is a spare record with more solo piano and trio work than orchestration, but the songs still manage to sound grand and, often, cinematic. I love the track Vienna; a mysterious-sounding song with a whiff of venom (absolutely perfect for a spy thriller soundtrack) that pairs Lambert’s deft, nimble piano playing with a hypnotic beat and scratchy percussive elements. It just sounds so fresh.
Man, Lettuce have been doin’ it for almost 30 years! Crazy. A funk band formed in the early 90s by Berklee College of Music undergrads, Lettuce has been holding it down since then with a potent and lasting blend of funk, soul, jazz, electronica, hip-hop beats, and jam band chops. Having personally seem them perform (mostly in their early years), they are a true force live and their musicianship is off the charts. They released Elevate in 2019, their seventh studio album, and are quickly following that with a new record Resonate, dropping this Friday, May 8. Elevate has a spacey vibe to it, including on their cover of one of my favorite songs, Tear for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World.
Anyone who follows me here or on Where the Music Meets knows I am a big, big Roy Kinsey fan. To learn more about Kinsey — for my money, one of the most interesting, innovative, authentic, and talented voices in hip-hop right now — start by checking out my two-part interview with him for WtMM from earlier this year and then dig into his two most recent records — Blackie (2018) and Kinsey: A Memoir (2020). Each of them are absolute fire….as is this single She/Her that Kinsey released in 2019 , spitting his trademark smart, bracing raps over a stripped-down looped piano riff and synth bass line.
Coming loud and hard out of Shreveport, LA, Seratones offer a potent blend of rock, gritty soul, funk, and R&B that — similar to The Black Keys — sounds thoroughly modern, even as it draws straight from classic 1960s/1970s sounds. Frontwoman AJ Haynes seems borne from Stax Records’ stable of artists, even as she wails over modern synth arrangements. A band that I am desperate to see live, Seratones is totally addictive.
A new discovery for me, Wiki is straight NYC hip-hop. A grizzled veteran at the age of 26, Wiki (the stage name of Patrick Morales) fronted a famed NYC underground rap trip Ratking before moving on as a solo artist. His 2019 release Oofie is his second full-length solo record. Wiki sounds like a brash rapper and he is; quick-witted and quick-tongued, nimble with a verse and a confident boast. But, lyrically, this record strikes a rueful, disillusioned, often bitter tone. It’s a cutting, visceral critique of self and of his career in the churn of the music business. Still, Wiki’s talent and skill shines through the record’s sense of resignation, like on the excellent, woozy track Grim and also on Promises (featuring In My Ear favorite duendita).
Another discovery for me and another vocalist who utterly transfixed me from the moment I heard her. UK singer-songwriter Winnie Raeder’s voice arcs and lilts and aches with grace and a burning intensity. She released her debut EP in 2019, From Here, as well as the gorgeous single She — one of the more touching, quietly brutal, and haunting songs of love lost that I’ve heard.
Now she says / All she wants is / All that I'm not
Now she says / She don't need it / Or feel it enough /
It's not what she wants
I’ll admit that I’ve totally slept on Vampire Weekend in recent years. I loved their first record and than mellowed on them a bit. I always appreciated how distinct their brand of indie pop sounded even as they absolutely blew up and I admired their musicianship and ideas. But, their ensuing records just never grabbed me. Not surprising, then, that their 2019 release Father of the Bride (their first without founding member and talented songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij) passed by me without much attention — until I heard the sweet lil’ song Stranger that brought me back to all that I like about this band. Undeniably catchy; sonically sunny, but lyrically/emotionally complex; genre-bending with those core Afro-pop influences; and just a really great, fun, unique sound.
Your Old Droog
Again, like with the Kaytranda record I featured in Part 1, Your Old Droog dropped his new record Jewelry in late December, so it’s been a feature for me more in early 2020 than the last weeks of 2019. Remarkably, Jewelry was Your Old Droog’s *third* release in 2019! Man put out three of his five full length-records last year alone! The Ukrainian American, Brooklyn born-and-raised rapper (the name “Droog” comes from a Ukrainian word meaning “friend”) has a voice and flow often compared (sometimes confused) with Nas. He’s also a frequent collaborator with, among others, the previously mentioned Wiki and underground rap royalty MF DOOM. A private artist (following in the footsteps of DOOM), Droog has said that Jewelry elevates and celebrates his Jewish heritage. Setting aside that interesting theme for the record, I’m just totally hooked on his flow and the flute loop on the first single from the album, BDE.