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Note-Able Music

 Welcome to Note-Able Music! 

Check out our lists of suggested music, give old favorites another spin, and get a grip on new artists. 

 

Freegal Five - Kaytranada

 

Haitian-Canadian producer Kaytranada (Kaytra for short), born Louis Kevin Celestin, might be the breakout music star of summer 2016. Riding a wave of critical adoration for his first full length album 99.9%, working on two of the best albums of the year-so-far, Anderson.Paak’s Malibu and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, and delivering one of the most captivating live performances to hit the road this year, 2016 is the year that Kaytranada graduated from Soundcloud star to just a star, no qualifier necessary. And, at the age of 24, he projects as one of hip-hop and R&B’s most exciting producers for years to come.

Freegal users have access to some of Kaytra’s early singles, but anyone who is interested should also go to the aforementioned website Soundcloud where Kaytranada’s page is filled with original work, remixes, and production work for other artists, all free to stream. Here are five terrific Kaytranada songs, any of which would be a good use of your weekly Freegal downloads.

Kaytranada - At All (4:47 version) – It’s difficult to put Kaytranada in a particular stylistic container since he’s doing his best to master multiple genres, but no matter what kind of music he’s making there are some signature sounds and effects that he deploys in many of his tracks. I would argue that crispy hi-hats and limber basslines are Kaytra’s greatest strengths and his most identifiable elements, but on the basis of “At All” you could also make a convincing argument that the taffy pulling, crystal clean pitch bends he achieves in tracks like this and the insanely awesome “Track Uno” from 99.9% are his calling card. Working every last ounce of soul and weirdness out of the track’s titular Chaka Khan sample, Kaytra moves from a body jacking first act into a head nodding plateau before bringing back the funk and folding in some other staccato pitch shifted vocals to liven up the party. This is a nice starting point track for Kaytra because it provides a good before and after with some of his similar sounding recent material. As Gang Starr famously admitted, even great artists have formulas, but the truly great ones can continue elevating and evolving their formula over time.

The 2 minute and 55 second version of “At All” that’s also available on Freegal lacks the original’s electric energy, but has plenty of swagger from a pulverizing kick drum and skittering trap hats.

Kaytranada - Hilarity Duff – Usually Kaytra paints with neon tones, as he does in “At All”, but he can also get dark and sinister when he wants to. “Hilarity Duff” isn’t nearly as cute and innocent as the title would suggest, the levity reserved for the breakdowns where tremolo strings and angelic vocals raise the mood before getting steamrolled by an aggressive boom bap drum barrage. Not to get too technical or didactic, but these days the I feel like the production technique called sidechain compression should be common vocabulary for music listeners, because it is everywhere. It’s the effect, usually produced by the kick drum, which gives the impression that another sound is ducking under or getting squashed down in the mix. Some people say it helps make the track breathe, but when used too much or improperly it can make the listener genuinely nauseous.  Before hearing Kaytra’s work I was actually getting pretty cynical about sidechaining and its overuse, so it was surprising to hear the extreme but artful ways that he makes this effect work to his benefit. The best example in this track is around the 3:45 mark when the strings and choir are sidechained to the kick drum, giving a dramatic reduction in their volume and adding some extra rhythmic and dynamic variety. The more you know, right!?

Freddie Gibbs & Kaytranada - My Dope House –  It’s a whole lot easier to get work when you do a lot of different things, and especially when you do a lot of different things well, and these days Kaytra is getting a lot of work. Minimalism is the current fashion in much of hip-hop and R&B production and Kaytra speaks the language of minimalism as fluently as any other producer. Just like with simplicity in cooking, if you’re going to keep it basic, you’d better have good ingredients and the beat for “My Dope House” is whittled down to its essential components. The synth chords that come in at the chorus are a warm fire in a cold, desolate expanse and they almost seem at odds with the gritty drug-rap theme of the song. Listen for the way that Kaytra combines the kick drum with the bass hits so that the bass almost hides the kick, adding to the track’s continuity.     

Pomo feat. Kaytranada - Cherry Funk – While I’m here introducing Kaytranada, I might as well bring in his label-mate and fellow Canadian wunderkind, Pomo, real name Daniel Pimentel who is also enjoying a pretty great summer with a production credit for Mac Miller’s breezy banger “Dang!” (featuring Anderson.Paak, a man who is also having an excellent 2016).  Enjoying Kaytra pretty much guarantees you’ll enjoy Pomo, although the latter’s approach is more maximalist; a blast of tightly woven synths and drums that reek of the 70s and 80s while also feeling utterly modern. The featured artist tag is usually reserved for vocalists or rappers so it’s an oddity to see one producer with a featured credit on another producer’s track, and they’re similar enough that it’s pretty difficult to tell where the work of one ends and the other begins. But no matter who made what, this song is a bright stylish disco-funker that might take a while to launch, but when it does it’s a thrill.

The Internet feat. Kaytranada - Girl – Working with The Internet, a neo-soul outfit created by a couple of former Odd Future members, Kaytra proves that he just as comfortable when the tempo drops into slow jam territory, never losing any of his characteristic forward momentum. This song is a same-sex love note that sizzles like a hot summer sidewalk, Syd tha Kyd delivering desperate pleas that anyone with a heart would have trouble ignoring. Unlike the Pomo collaboration, it’s pretty easy to pick out Kaytra’s musical DNA in this song: the bouncy, meandering bass line that’s perfectly seated in the pocket of the beat; the pitch bent synths that come in during the second chorus; those hi-hats! Freegal offers a 6:55 version of the song and a radio edit at just under 4 minutes and you can’t go wrong with either.    

 

If you enjoy Kaytranada, be sure to check out one of his Canadian buddies and label-mates Stwo, who also has a new record out this summer...and it's on Freegal!  

Freegal Five - Open Mike Eagle

I was first made aware of Open Mike Eagle, an LA-based indie rapper, through a certain counter-cultural podcast where he appeared alongside prolific voice actor John DiMaggio. After listening to a good portion of Eagle’s discography I’ve found him to be a breath of fresh air, not only because he is willing to work outside of rap’s crude subject matter, but because he is proving that smart, mostly clean rap doesn’t have to be boring. As a lyricist he is free associative but grounded; a more political, paternal version of MF Doom, who would rather watch Adventure Time than read Marvel Comics. As a rapper he has a natural ability to find the pocket in oddly constructed beats; his voice becomes a key that slides neatly within the edges of the music revealing previously invisible grooves. As a personality Eagle is a willing everyman and aspiring cultural critic whose podcasts and podcast appearances have become annotations to the shorthand of his rap lyrics. While other rappers contort their faces and personalities into a marketable shape, Open Mike Eagle seems fairly content to cultivate an audience of dedicated fans who like him for being him.      

Open Mike Eagle is the subject of this Freegal Five - Download music by Open Mike Eagle and many more artists with your library card by using Freegal.  

Also check out Open Mike Eagle’s website: www.mikeagle.net 

And his podcasts: Secret Skin and Conversation Parade (a podcast about the amazing cartoon series Adventure Time)

Check to Check – The weird ubiquity of technology in contemporary society is a common theme that unites much of Open Mike Eagle’s work. This track, from his newest album Hella Personal Film Festival, is a snack-sized meditation on how life is increasingly lived through the filter of messaging services and social media notifications. Smart phones create a paradox because they offer a connection to a larger world at the cost of removing us from our immediate surroundings. At one point Eagle tries setting his phone down, but like attempting to end a dysfunctional romance, “it’s never a clean break.” Eagle’s wingman on this project, British producer Paul White, provides an appropriately anxious beat that is held aloft by fizzing cymbals and driven forward at the song’s halfway point by a playful synth melody.  

Qualifiers – If sex, drugs and crime are the steak and potatoes of rap lyrics, then overconfidence is the fire that cooks the meal. Recently, rappers like Drake have turned vulnerability into a marketable trait, but this approach usually just amounts to a setup for a humblebrag. “Qualifiers” is a truth serum for the fake posturing of rap; a song that needs to be great because it’s so hard on itself. It’s a corrective to the oft repeated defense of embellishment or outright lying in rap lyrics; the claim that it wouldn’t be interesting for a rapper to describe the mundane truth of their daily life. There’s so much to like in this song from the rich organic click that anchors the beat to the They Might Be Giants quoting outro, to one of Eagle’s catchiest hooks for the chorus. But it’s the run of acronyms at the end of the second verse that exemplify Eagle’s ability to make a song instantly relatable and yet totally representative of its creator.         

Dark Comedy Late Show – The opener from Eagle’s 2015 A Special Episode Of EP is a follow-up to the opener from Eagle’s Dark Comedy album “Dark Comedy Morning Show” and even uses the beat from the original track as the basis for this quasi-remix. Both of the tracks serve as the opening monologues of their respective talk show conceits, complete with a studio audience primed to laugh at the appropriately inappropriate moment. Being as this is a monologue, Eagle delivers one extended verse without a break, name-checking bits of nostalgia from Lucky Louie to the Spin Doctors and going on an inspired run where the he pits some of society’s arch-rivals (ie. Ferguson Blacks vs. Missouri State Troopers) in his own imaginary cultural Super Bowl. It’s pretty hard to laugh at some of the bleak realities in Eagle’s comedy, but he’s a fun friend for the end of the world.   

Golden Age Raps – Will the people of the future look back on this era as a Golden Age of technology, when the Internet was still in its infancy and the potential for technological progress seemed limitless? Maybe, but speaking from the present it certainly seems like a mixed bag. As Eagle discussed in a recent podcast with Chuck Klosterman, while it once seemed like a dream to have access to practically every song ever recorded, the side effect to services like Spotify is that listeners have almost too many options and don’t spend the time it takes to get a deep appreciation for an individual work. “Golden Age Raps” is similarly dubious of the way to characterize the current era, recognizing the potential of the Internet to, “start our own niche and gain little weird followers,” but also the inevitability that those same little weirdos, “can stalk all their exes at the same time.” Technology may have changed, but the people using it haven’t.

Ziggy Starfish (Anti-Anxiety Raps) prod. Gold Panda – Eagle’s most club ready track finds him speed rapping over Gold Panda’s gem of a beat. Three short vocal samples anchor the track and sound like they are trying to communicate something but are never able to finish the thought. The lyrics follow a similar theme in which Eagle feels silenced by distance, unable to reach out emotionally to others or to find a direction in his industry. Eagle has repeatedly made references to his love of games and especially word games, so it’s no surprise that his preferred way of opening up about his feelings is that, “we should all play a big Scrabble game/and make every word a confession.” 

 

Freegal 5+ - Pitchfork's 2015 Songs of the Year

Pitchfork Music's Top 100 Songs of 2015 (just the ones on Freegal)

I can't remember if there were so many year-end lists published before the Internet, but it does seem like these days everybody wants to offer a summary of highlights from the previous 12-months in music, movies, television and even Twitter. As Rolling Stone persists in flaunting its obsolescence to modern music with its year-end choices, Pitchfork has come in like a web-savvy millennial and shown the music establishment a thing or two about remaining relevant as their world undergoes seismic change. Much of its notoriety comes from championing musical outsiders, and for a signature brand of musical criticism that is unassailably well-informed, but still manages to be retain a playful side. Every year at this time, as kids are unwrapping their presents, I am busy unwrapping year-end lists. Pitchfork's many lists are always the centerpiece.

These are the songs from Pitchfork's top 100 that are available for download on Freegal, along with their numerical ranking. The comments on each song are taken from the original Pitchfork article.        

93 Bully “I Remember”

"I Remember" is a song of betrayal, about how the more we share, the more vulnerable we become. Each line carries a small part of a much larger story, and as fragments of hurt whiz past like spinning knives, it mirrors the process of memory itself. Bully's Alicia Bognanno sings in a melodic scream that any '90s alt-rocker could envy over basic-but-catchy punk chords, and the spaces between her declarations hold even more than the actual words: "I remember getting too fucked up...I remember showing up at your house....I remember the way your sheets smelt." That's how our minds work: a picture, a smell, a taste, a box of photos—all become imprinted, the senses bound to feelings that are later assembled into narrative, leading then to the long process of figuring out what it all meant and what happens now. —Mark Richardson

89 Natalie Prass “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”

What do you do when you realize you have nothing in common with the person you love, when it suddenly hits you that your entire relationship has been a slow process of growing apart? Is there any going back after a realization like that? Natalie Prass isn’t singing in hypotheticals on the lavishly orchestrated opener to her debut album—she really needs to know, and she’s posing the questions to you directly: "Where do you go when the only home you know is with a stranger?".

For all the Dusty in Memphis comparisons her album invited, Prass isn’t a belter like Springfield. She’s got a small, pleasant voice, the kind that doesn’t so much sing over other instruments as draw them in, and on "My Baby Don’t Understand Me", a magnificent congregation of strings, horns, and woodwinds shows up to console her, to offer hope when she needs it most. Like so many classic soul songs, it starts plaintively then picks itself up, and in the spirit of Gladys Knight, it ends redemptively with that most bittersweet symbol of farewells and fresh starts: a train. --Evan Rytlewski

82 Chairlift “Ch-Ching”

Inspired by New York City, "Ch-Ching" marvels with its magnitude: from the trunk-rattling bass and whip-crack snares to the pop and hiss beneath the meandering melody. Like the city itself, the song's every square inch belies tiered, towering architecture. While its sonic immediacy and textural diversity make it a stellar pop song, the primary source of "Ch-Ching"’s appeal is that it avoids the expected. Listen to the way Caroline Polachek’s willowy soprano shimmies effortlessly among ghostly whistles and hollow whoops, or how the syncopated brass lends the steeled hip-hop framework a bit of antiquated charm. "Ch-Ching" is like nothing Chairlift have done before, and is one of the more bombastic and brassy pop singles in recent memory. —Zoe Camp

80 Dej Loaf “Me U & Hennessy” [ft. Lil Wayne]

Dej Loaf came into the year with the kind of cosigns that dreams are made of:Drake on Instagram, a slew of high-profile "Try Me" remixes, a slot on Erykah Badu’s year-end tour, a feature with Eminem. In 2015, she followed through, putting out her first studio EP #AndSeeThatsTheThing, while touring on Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint Tour, after getting a shout-out from Nicki herself at the BET Awards.

By contrast, Lil Wayne was dealing with his Cash Money fallout, the indefinite postponement of Tha Carter V, and a slew of disappointing solo releases. Remixing Dej’s "Me U & Hennessy" was one of his more successful musical contributions of the year. His involvement brought wider attention to the slow-burning drunk sex jam that had originally appeared sandwiched in the middle of Dej’s Sell Sole mixtape.

Yet compared with some of the other sexytime songs Dej put out this year ("Hey There" ft. Future, "My Beyoncé" with Lil Durk, "Shawty" ft. Young Thug), there’s something a little less affectionate and starry-eyed about this one. The song slides and grinds by the flicker of a "couple candles", and there's an immediacy to Dej's lyrics. But there’s also a more tangible distance between the two, at least for Wayne: "Girl you don’t love me, you just love my doggy style," he drawls. "I guess chemistry is true, but I don’t know if it’s the Hennessy or you"—a brief thought he quickly eschews for more threesome-related pastures. Dej for one, per her characteristic, slightly-detached persona, is happy to keep it about the moment. —Minna Zhou

68 Björk “Lionsong”

A nine-song play-by-play of the demise of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney, Vulnicura was one of 2015’s most emotionally rending releases—densely layered, meticulously produced, and as creatively ambitious as anything Björk has ever done (which is no small statement). "Lionsong" is not necessarily the most devastating track on the album, but it’s arguably the best. The song documents a painful limbo—the claustrophobia of being held hostage by someone else’s emotions. "Maybe he will come out of this loving me/ Maybe he won't," she sings, as a cauldron of strings, electronic blips, and her own soaring, multi-tracked voice surges around her. The song is less of a plea for love as it is a request for respect. "I demand clarity," she sings, before admitting, "Somehow I'm not too bothered/ I'd just like to know." Like the rest of Vulnicura, the song seems to exist in a realm beyond intimacy—the sound of an artist at her most stunningly vulnerable. By so fearlessly and meticulously cataloguing her own emotional anguish, Björk manages a rare trick. She explores one of the most primal and well trod of all human narratives—heartbreak, the collapse of family—and still ends up sounding strangely like the future. —T. Cole Rachel

R&B’s tradition of tell-off records runs deep. When the genre was last in the spotlight, in the late '90s, we saw some classics of the form, including Destiny’s Child's "Bills Bills Bills" and Blu Cantrell’s "Hit ’Em Up Style (Oops!)". But those looking for a more contemporary example of the staple should start with the track that kicked off Jazmine Sullivan’s album Reality Show.

Sullivan had grown disenchanted with the music industry after slugging it out in the trenches since signing to Jive Records at 15. In 2011, she announced that she would be retiring. "Dumb" was a ferocious annunciation of her return to music, its drumline rhythms and foreboding Greek chorus supporting her fierce declaration of superiority over the song’s subject, a man foolish enough to cheat. Sullivan has said that the song wasn’t based on anything that had happened to her, but that she wanted to be sure to do "a woman’s anthem" for her first song back. It’s a fitting sentiment for an era where the voices of black women are finding new arenas in which they can be heard, dismissing any and all of those who would deny them that space. —Jonah Bromwich

60 Neon Indian “Annie”

Alan Palomo, one of the earliest and strongest voices of chillwave, released two Day-Glo bright albums before vanishing from sight for four long years. In the meantime, his peers moved on to fuzz-rock (Toro y Moi), garage rock (Ariel Pink), and screwed-down strangeness (James Ferraro). When Neon Indian broke his sabbatical this summer with "Annie", he doubled down on his '80s obsession. But instead of returning to chillwave’s vision of warped VHS tapes and MTV memories, now Palomo immersed himself in the decade’s songcraft, from its biggest freaks (Prince) to its one-hit blips (Matthew Wilder). "Annie" is the best Balearic song of the year, the sort of silken, breezy, featherweight faux-reggae, faux-tropical pop synthesis that acts like Scritti Politti and Duran Duran confected for play on la isla bonita. It sounds sterling in the present even as it inhabits a bygone time where there were such things as "answering machines." —Andy Beta

56 Earl Sweatshirt “Grief”

Earl Sweatshirt is good at writing about anxiety, and writing about anxiety is difficult. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than writing about anxiety is writing about good writing about anxiety. And when you live with anxiety you tend to cherish the rare art that manages to hit such a high level of simplicity as to relieve it. So why shake that all up and start over again by trying to break down "Grief" for you? Wouldn't retracing his "I just want my time and my mind intact" a few dozen times consecutively in a Jack Torrance style do more justice to this work than any amount of half-baked word goop about how well Earl distills the boom bap nihilism of Mobb Deep into Tumblr generation numbness or whatever? I mean let's be real—you are not going to read anything as beautiful, calming, or complete as even the shallowest bar on this song anywhere on the Internet today or tomorrow or next year. So go outside and like shit already. Earl did that so we don't have to go through that. —Andrew Nosnitsky

51 David Bowie “Blackstar”

As a boy, David Robert Jones loved a book called Starman Jones by science fiction icon Robert Heinlein. It helped spark Jones’ fascination with space, one that’s sustained him throughout the decades, long after he changed his named to David Bowie and launched his career in earnest with 1969’s "Space Oddity". Bowie’s latest single, "Blackstar", is both an extension of that fascination and a reinvention of it. Unlike the relatively restrained astral voyages of "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" and "Dancing Out in Space" from his last album, 2013’s The Next Day, "Blackstar" is one of Bowie’s cyclical retreats from rock convention; its 10-minute sprawl is fractured, episodic, and experimental, with a chant of Gregorian proportions bleeding into movements of jazzy syncopation, atmospheric pop, and breathtaking orchestral ecstasy.

The overall impression is one of cosmic awe—a filmic immersion in Bowie’s science-fictional universe that doesn’t even need the song’s astounding video to vividly evoke. Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti has admitted that Blackstar, the upcoming album due January 8, was influenced by Kendrick Lamar, and that’s evident in the single’s fluid lushness and elastic dimensionality. Still, there are plenty of clues in "Blackstar" that Bowie still genuflects before Scott Walker, from the art-rock gauntness to the cryptic mystique of his refrain, "I’m a blackstar". Bowie’s timbre is haunting and stentorian, and that enormity is driven home by the scope of his vision: Steeped in pomp, space, and myth, "Blackstar" not only rekindles his conceptual fire, it reestablishes his nomadic orbit around science fiction. —Jason Heller

44 Courtney Barnett “Pedestrian at Best”

This is peak Courtney Barnett: "I think you’re a joke," she incants, kicking out the final couplet of her most genius chorus, "But I don’t find you very FUU-uuu-UUU-uuu-UUU-uuu-UUU-uuu-NNY!" Barnett hollers that word for five full seconds—a drawl that’s so monotone and unhinged it’s like she’s finding some power inside her that she never knew was there. It sounds like the kind of confident psychic joyride that introverts typically only have in their own heads, but Barnett projects it to the heavens in one long taunting exhalation—a shy girl’s dream.

It’s a testament to Barnett’s considerable talent that the most epic song on her debut LP is also the most fun. The subterranean blues of "Pedestrian at Best" are spit too fast for anything like Dylanesque cue cards, but you try and catch them all: "The rats are back inside my head/ What would Freud have said?" Barnett speak-sings, and while she sets her stakes high, she is not self-serious, as her conclusion attests: "I’m a fake! I’m a phoney! I’m awake! I’m alone! I’m homely! I’m a Scorpio!" If you’re a quiet person with an overactive mind, prone to self-deprecation, you’ll feel seen in Barnett’s music, but "Pedestrian at Best" does one better. It offers an invitation to shout it back, to laugh, and maybe, for a second, to even feel cool. —Jenn Pelly

42 Future “I Serve the Base”

If we’re ranking Future personas (and we always should be), the sh*t-talking "I do these drugs, they don’t do me" Straight Outta Zone 6 Future should garner as much hoopla as "bummed out with love while floating in a sea of codeine" Future. While the latter brings us some downright scary moments, the former often gives us better music. Take "I Serve the Base", a damn near perfect song. As the unofficial intro to DS2, Future uses a beat from Metro Boomin that sounds like Atlanta-by-way-of-Spacely Sprockets to get everyone on the same page, letting you know things are better on his end since the Ciara breakup and subsequent Beast Mode/Monster/56 Nights three-play. "They tryna take the soul out me/ They tryna take my confidence and they know I'm cocky/ F**k another interview, I'm done with it/ ...A ni**a was depressed/ Now my mind back healthy" and that it’s back to business as usual. —Ernest Wilkins

So this guy shows up all of a sudden, and it's that one guy. Fourteen years ago you thought you had something good going, and all of a sudden he ghosted—stopped returning your calls. Or anyone's. Every so often you heard a rumor about him: he wasn't doing so hot, or he was trying to pull himself back up from not-so-hot. You'd basically given up hope and moved on. And now here he is on your doorstep... and goddamn is he in incredible shape. Kinkier than ever, too.

That's how "Sugah Daddy" presented D'Angelo at the tail-end of last year. It supercharges its funk by understating it: a clap-slap-snap beat, staccato piano stabs, and a dubbed-out, phased-up horn section, just barely tracing the contours of a groove that swings like hip-bones. Nothing obscures D'Angelo's voice, or rather his voices, as they casually dive and flip between registers, the kind of vocal performance you can't pull off unless you're utterly sure of your power. Every line is either an offhanded aside or rendered in harmonies so tight that no single melody dominates them. There's a bit of Prince in his phrasing, a bit of Funkadelic, and a lot of a knowing smirk—when you lean in to make out what he's singing, that's when he makes his move. "Sugah Daddy" plays on the pop history of both of its title's words; its lyric just barely stays on the right side of the line between super-creepy and super-hot. And it's definitely the sexiest song ever to mention a queef. —Douglas Wolk

23 Future “March Madness”

As all great street rappers do, Future walks the line between hero and villain, and the divide is typically defined by a listener's willingness to fully engage with his work. From a distance, he's an artist who glorifies Xanax binges, but if you let his music engulf your spirit you'll realize that it's about how there's no glory to be found in a Xanax binge because the world is a horrible place and only pain is real. (Fig. 1.) Usually his tales are in the sound itself—he raps in brutalist nursery rhymes that reveal meaning through repetition and over beats that derive their power from the amount of pressure they put on your chest—but "March Madness" is the one track in his recent output that explicitly connects his struggle to the struggles of the world around him. "All these cops shooting ni**as—tragic" is an incomplete thought, like basically every phrase to fall out of Future's mouth this year, but it might just provide a tangible enough source of trauma through which literal-minded listeners can recognize his more abstract cries for help. —Andrew Nosnitsky

15 Adele “Hello”

Now that 25 is the fastest-selling album in the history of the galaxy and Adele has single-handedly saved the music industry, resurrected the monoculture, and brought about world peace, it’s kinda weird to remember that there was a time when her triumphant return was not a sure thing. Adele’s years away from the spotlight had potentially portended a lengthy (or permanent) retreat from public life. Or, God forbid, a comeback full of happy songs. But the gale-force wind storm whipped up by "Hello"’s first "HALLO FROM THE OTHER SIIIIDE" blew away all that: the high priestess of heartbreak was back, and heartbreakier than ever.

"Hello" proves that Adele continues to be better than anybody else in current pop music at communicating the misery of lost love. It’s a rock-solid, no-frills torch song that makes absolutely zero concessions to the fact that it was released in 2015. (The sepia-toned video, starring a flip phone and an old-school British telephone box, drove that point home.) It sounds like it could have been written at pretty much any point in history since the days of Alexander Graham Bell. But thank God it came out now, when we needed Adele the most. —Amy Phillips

14 Miguel “Coffee”

"I wish I could paint our love," Miguel sings at the beginning of "Coffee", and the design of the song itself is painterly, a surreal, weightless swirl, like milk blooming through a cup of joe. Miguel wrote a song about love and lust and located all of its tension in a precise image: making coffee for someone else. Of course, he makes this very small, terrestrial image sound like falling through infinite shapeless atmospheres, because, as with 2012's "Use Me", Miguel's artistry is in conveying closeness and vulnerability as they actually feel, as ambiguous blurs of pressure and release; because intimacy is about bodies and their positions in space but is also about achieving a kind of bodilessness; because just after waking, reality still contains some of the texture of a dream. —Brad Nelson

9 Courtney Barnett “Depreston”

According to TripAdvisor, there are precisely five "Things to Do" in the Melbourne suburb of Preston—and coming in at number two on that list of attractions is…the local library. This is the humdrum setting of "Depreston", which finds Courtney Barnett considering a move away from the town’s quaint coffee shops to a place further out, where green space is plentiful. But whereas previous generations found solace in the predictability of tree-lined streets and boxy houses, this 28-year-old can’t help but feel depressed while eyeing the innards of a deceased estate, the ghosts of the past tugging at her in the form of left-behind war photos, sugar cans, and, most pointedly, a handrail in the shower. The house may have been someone’s dream, but not hers.

The minor tragedy plays out in Barnett’s calm, scratchy drawl along with a vaguely country-fied guitar and backbeat. "Depreston" could not be more low-key if it tried, like an old Jeff Tweedy demo, but this does not make its emotional climax any less devastating. When the hook finally comes around—"If you’ve got a spare half a million/ You could knock it down and start rebuilding"—Barnett’s scattered observations come into focus. This is a song about not being able to own things. About letting go of ancestors’ desires. About the price of denying death. It’s a generational anthem that’s not anthemic at all. —Ryan Dombal

8 D'Angelo “Really Love”

"I don’t know if I trust you, but I really love you," whispers a woman credited as just Gina, in Spanish, at the end of the dark, stringed, flamenco swoon that introduces "Really Love". Her voice fades like a memory, and a harp from a dream sequence dissolves the scene; the beat and the soft-shoe bass start knocking, and the track—an indelibly cinematic single and instant classic off D’Angelo’s magnificent surprise album—sweeps you off your feet.

Written closer to Voodoo’s release than to the Santa-like drop of Black Messiah and leaked in 2007 by Questlove to Triple J, "Really Love" feels as worn-in as it does serendipitous. It’s a relationship that’s teased and frustrated over a decade, which rises, in this six-minute rekindling, to the level of the streetlights and stars. For the length of the track, a hundred dusty particulars weave into a fantasia, in which love sounds effortless but tastes hard-won and real. "I’m not an easy man to overstand," sings D’Angelo, who falsetto-croons his affection like he’s cajoling, even apologizing: "I’m in really love with you." By the end, your heart has synced up to that lopsided, soft, gilded refrain. —Jia Tolentino

Freegal 5 - Phil Spector

Phil Spector and his music epitomize the dissonance between an artist and their art. One as beautiful as the other is ugly. Spector has always generated just as many headlines in his musical career as he has in his personal life, and it’s often been difficult to reconcile the love that Spector’s music has received with the cold and unflattering depictions of Spector by the people he encountered in his life. The darkness that had haunted his personal life for so long came to a shocking crescendo in 2003, when the body of actress Lana Clarkson was discovered in Spector’s Alhambra, California mansion. It would take six years for a jury to find Spector guilty of second-degree murder and sentence him to 19 years in prison, a fate that seems somewhat inevitable when you consider Spector’s famous temper and his equally famous love of guns.

Setting aside the salacious material from Spector’s personal life, it’s hard to deny Spector’s role in reinventing the sound of popular music and the way people make records. In the early 60s, Spector was at the center of the pop music scene in Los Angeles, refining the maximalist production technique that would come to be known as the “Wall of Sound.” One of Spector’s early protégés, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, once explained - in his own inimitable way - that, "…in the '40s and '50s, arrangements were considered: 'OK here, listen to that French horn'—or—'listen to this string section now.' It was all a definite sound. There weren't combinations of sound, and with the advent of Phil Spector, we find sound combinations, which—scientifically speaking—is a brilliant aspect of sound production.” Spector called his pop tunes, “little symphonies for the kids,” which wasn’t too far from reality since Spector’s studio band (a group of iconic studio players known as the Wrecking Crew) often consisted of more than 30 musicians.

Spector is often credited as popular music’s first auteur, famous for controlling every aspect of a song’s lifespan, but in the mid-1960s - led by bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones who were able to write and perform their own songs - the machinery of popular music began to undergo a dramatic change. Fans who hadn’t previously cared who was behind the songs on the radio, now desired a brand of music with more authenticity. Artists like Carole King were able to transition from a role behind the scenes to center stage, but others, including Spector, had a difficult time adjusting to a world where producers and songwriters were no longer the engine that drove popular music forward. Spector would go on to produce records with The Beatles, Leonard Cohen and The Ramones, but none of these projects were able to recapture the magic of Spector’s early career, only providing glimpses of a former genius.     

It’s impossible to sum up Phil Spector’s career in just five songs, and unfortunately some of Spector’s best work as a producer, including George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, isn’t available through Freegal. However, timeless records like “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” “Be My Baby,” and “Spanish Harlemare available on Freegal and, in this listener’s humble opinion, should be revisited immediately. And for those who want to delve deeper into the life of this mad genius, I would recommend the thorough, and thoroughly disturbing, biography “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound,” by Mick Brown.

   

To Know Him Is To Love Him – The Teddy Bears

The defining moment of Phil Spector’s childhood - which would reverberate throughout his life - was his father’s suicide, an event that Spector took measures to conceal from his friends and colleagues throughout his life and for which he undoubtedly blamed himself. In a dark twist of fate, it would be the epitaph on his father’s headstone, To Know Him Was To Love Him, that Spector would borrow (and slightly modify) for the title of his first #1 record. Spector formed The Teddy Bears with three of his high school classmates, Marshall Lieb, Sandy Nelson, and Annette Kleinbard who sings a lead vocal that perfectly captures both the bashfulness of young love and the isolation that Spector must’ve felt when writing the song (she would go onto a long career in music under the name Carol Connors, including co-authoring “Gonna Fly Now”, the theme for the film Rocky). Having his first #1 record before the age of 20 gave Spector his entry into the highest ranks of the American pop music industry, and it provided Spector a foundation for constructing what would become a legendary ego.    

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)Darlene Love

Despite his Jewish heritage, Phil Spector loved Christmas and its attendant music. As an obsessive student of the work of Irving Berlin, Spector found a wonderful irony in a fellow Jewish songwriter penning “White Christmas,” already a standard of the holiday season. Recorded across three grueling weeks during the height of the California summer in 1963, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector sounds like an explosion of snow-dappled joy, with no traces left of the mental and physical toll that the sessions took on the performers and technicians. Co-written with his frequent collaborators Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” didn’t exactly give Spector a Christmas song to rival Berlin’s, but its blend of classic girl-group love song with semi-reverent Christmas cheer makes it one of the few great Christmas songs in modern pop music. Darlene Love’s nearly 30-year streak of performing the song on David Letterman’s late night show might come to an end this year with Letterman’s retirement, but it has helped to make the song a staple of the holiday season. (Darlene Love’s remarkable life story, including her strained relationship with Spector, is detailed in the wonderful documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. )

River Deep, Mountain High - Tina Turner  

In the 1950s and 60s, as segregation was still thriving in parts of the country, America’s airwaves were similarly divided between music created by whites and what were known as “race records” (a term that slowly disappeared after Jerry Wexler coined the new phrase “rhythm and blues”). The irony is that the most influential white producers of the time were themselves heavily influenced by black artists and often used black performers in the studio to record songs for white artists. In fact, Spector was initially drawn to working with the Righteous Brothers because they sounded like black gospel singers. When Spector teamed with Tina Turner for “River Deep,” it seemed like a match made in music heaven. Spector was known for eliciting powerhouse performances from relatively unknown female vocalists and Turner was already a musical force of nature. Everyone involved with the making of “River Deep” heard a hit and hearing the song today it’s hard to understand how it wasn’t. But it wasn’t, at least in the US where it mattered. Some argued that Ike & Tina Turner's association with the black music scene hurt the record as many radio programmers refused to play the song on the air. In the end, the record was one of the more public flops of Spector’s career and led to him withdrawing from the public eye and the recording studio. Spector would eventually return to making music, but it could be argued that he was never the same as a producer, or person, after the failure of “River Deep”.   

Annette – The Wrecking Crew

Though they weren’t an official group with a set membership, the Los Angeles session musicians who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew were as essential to the west-coast sound as the songwriters and producers who became famous on the quality of their playing. Names like Hal Blaine (drums), Carole Kaye (bass), and Tommy Tedesco (guitar) might not ring a bell, but every person who has even a casual interest in music will recognize their work in some of the greatest pop recordings of all time. Future musical giants like Sonny and Cher, Glen Campbell and Leon Russell started their careers as L.A.-based studio musicians and were regulars on many of Spector’s sessions (including “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, which features Cher as a backup singer, Sonny as a percussionist, and Russell on piano). To learn more about this legendary group, I highly recommend the documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” produced by Denny Tedesco as a tribute to his late father.       

The custom for releasing singles in the early 1960s was to press the A-side of the record with the song assumed to be of the highest quality and the B-side of the record with an inferior track (hence the term ‘B-sides’, still used by artists to indicate unreleased material). However, the tastes of the public and radio DJs didn’t always align with the plans of record companies and B-sides would occasionally supplant the intended single in popularity. In order to avoid this situation, and to assert as much control as possible over his releases, Spector began filling his B-sides with short instrumental jams, improvised on the spot by (and often named after) members of The Wrecking Crew. The tracks allowed the musicians to indulge some of their higher musical aspirations (they mostly came from jazz or classical backgrounds), while also assuring Spector that no DJ or fan would mistake which song was intended as the hit. “Annette” is a bluesy proto-rock n’ roller named after Spector’s first wife Annette Merar and co-credited to Spector’s sister Shirley (under the pseudonym Cory Sands), a psychologically troubled woman whom Spector tried to support financially by way of royalties derived from erroneous songwriting credits like this one. 

Fingerprints – Leonard Cohen

The stories surrounding the 1977 sessions for Cohen’s album Death of a Ladies’ Man have probably resonated longer than the music that was produced. By this point in his life Spector (who had once eschewed all intoxicants) was a heavy drinker, especially while working in the studio, and was also constantly armed with at least one loaded gun. Cohen had been warned by Joni Mitchell, among others, to steer clear of Spector, but took his chances that Spector might still have a masterpiece left in him. The resulting album is a gorgeous mess as Cohen’s brooding voice tries to find space within Spector’s lush arrangements. Outside of deploying a few synthesizers and some updated effects, Spector never strays too far from his comfort zone, even hiring back many of his Wrecking Crew regulars to work on the sessions. “Fingerprints”, a leg-slapper of a country tune, takes the Wall of Sound into new territory to great effect, giving the sense of being in the midst of an unbridled barn dance. One of the more cohesive songs on the album, Cohen’s extended metaphor on fingerprints balances nicely against the rowdy backdrop. The half-time beat in the chorus is an especially nice touch.          

Freegal 5 - A Sample of Sampling

 

The idea of sampling in music can raise a lot of peripheral issues in the minds of listeners – legal issues, issues of authenticity and authorship - but I can say that personally, putting aside those concerns, I have experienced sampling as an endlessly delightful matrix of conversations between styles and eras where almost any musical outcome is possible. In the early days of hip-hop, sampling was employed by club DJs to loop the best part of a dance record and by producers to replace the flat, lifeless preset sounds of drum machines.  This very utilitarian application of sampling would quickly inspire a creative explosion in the art form, resulting in monumental efforts of sound collage such as The Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique”, produced by The Dust Brothers. The practice of sampling was dealt a heavy blow in 1991 when rapper Biz Markie was found liable for copyright infringement for sampling Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song “Alone Again (Naturally)”, putting an end to the days of unbridled appropriation of other artists’ music.

Regardless of your feelings toward the ethics or legality of the practice, there is no denying that sampling has been a part of creating some of the most memorable music in hip-hop and many genres beyond. One of the joys of sampling is the inherent mystery created by casting a section of one song in a new role as part of another song. Sampling can give the listener a tip-of-the-tongue moment of satisfaction when a snippet from a familiar song is heard and also can provide the humbling realization that the best part of your favorite song…is actually from another song.

Despite the potential monetary costs for its practitioners, sampling has now been firmly established as a tool for music composition and production across many genres. This Freegal Five looks at some of the most sampled artists of all time, their songs, and also some of the songs that they inspired. (Note: A tip of the hat to the wonderful website whosampled.com, which I relied on heavily in writing this article.)    

 

  

“Summer Madness” by Kool & the Gang– sampled in “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

When thinking about the origins of the hip-hop sound, just imagine the music that the parents of hip-hop’s founding members were listening to in their 70s wood-paneled living rooms. Soul, funk, and even disco served as the foundation upon which hip-hop was built and even contemporary producers frequently pull samples that call back to the early days of the genre. Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness” is a lazy 1974 instrumental that grooves along nicely enough until THAT synthesizer shows up and shoots it into the cosmos. The synth in question is the ARP 2600, one of the earliest analog synthesizers used in popular music. And it’s no wonder that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince chose to highlight it as part of their track for “Summertime”; it sounds like everything good about summer distilled into audible form. “Summertime” is one of the few songs I’ve heard that name-checks its sample source in the lyrics, with Will Smith dropping a line admiring, “the way that people respond to ‘Summer Madness’.”

“Take me to the Mardi Gras” by Bob James – sampled in “Peter Piper” by Run D.M.C.


His might be the least recognizable name on this list, but Bob James has had an enormous impact on the history of sampling, especially in hip-hop, and is currently listed as the 13th most sampled artist on whosampled.com. As one of the innovators of smooth jazz, James might not seem like a natural fit for the street-wise sound of early hip-hop, but James’ punchy, rhythmic percussion and moody arrangements took on a new life in the hands of producers like Jam Master Jay and Rick Rubin. The iconic introduction to James’ 1975 cover of Paul Simon’s “Take me to the Mardi Gras”, a slick drum beat against a crisp back-and-forth bell line, is an eerily accurate approximation of the type of sound that would end up defining hip-hop. Run D.M.C. uses the menacing innocence of James’ track as a backdrop to their song “Peter Piper”, which similarly blends childish elements with grown-man swagger.    

“Walk on By” by Isaac Hayes – sampled in “I Can’t Go to Sleep” by Wu-Tang Clan

Although he might be best remembered as a singing cafeteria worker on South Park, Isaac Hayes was one of the innovators of soul music in the 1960s, co-authoring such classic songs as “Soul Man,” and “Hold On, I’m Coming” for the duo Sam & Dave. Hayes’ version of Dionne Warwick’s 1964 pop gem “Walk on By” is a soul symphony, featuring full orchestral instrumentation and extending to almost 13-minutes in length. Instead of pulling a small sample of Hayes’ song to serve as the basis of “I Can’t Go to Sleep”, RZA (Wu-Tang’s production guru) plays a large portion of the song in its original form as he and Ghostface Killa rap wildly about the ills of society keeping them up at night. Although it borrows heavily from the original, RZA’s beat shows remarkable skill in the way it uses Hayes’ epic orchestral builds to complement the boiling-over aggression of the lyricists. In a rare move for sample-based music, Hayes recorded a new chorus for the Wu-Tang song and appeared in the music video (also available for download on Freegal) as a soul messiah, crooning from deep within the folds of a lustrous blue silk robe.  

“Make Me Say it Again Girl (Parts 1 & 2)” by The Isley Brothers – sampled in “Hip Hop Hooray” by Naughty by Nature

It would be natural to expect that sampling might lead to more homogenization in music, the way that Hollywood’s obsession with sequels and remakes has stifled creativity in feature films. I would argue that the opposite is true for music, and that sampling actually increases the variety of possible outcomes for musicians who use it creatively. Take the iconic Jackson 5 track, “I Want You Back”, a sample source for Kanye West’s production of “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” for Jay-Z as well as a source for the song “Jump”, produced by Jermaine Dupri for sartorial remixers Kriss Kross. Both producers sampled from the first 20 seconds of “I Want You Back”, but the resulting beats couldn’t sound more different: West’s retains the bright innocence and glamour of the original, while Dupri scuffs up the sample to lend some gritty credibility to the young duo under his tutelage. Naughty By Nature pulled a similar trick with their 1992 track “Hip Hop Hooray”, flipping the intro of the Isley Brothers’ velvety smooth “Make Me Say It Again Girl” into an uptempo party jam. While not the most iconic sampling of the Isleys by a long shot (that would go to either Puff Daddy’s sample of “Between the Sheets” for the Biggie classic “Big Poppa” or to Ice Cube’s seminal “It Was a Good Day” [this links to a version of the track without vocals, known as an instrumental], which is heavily based on a sample from “Footsteps in the Dark”), “Hip Hop Hooray” benefits from the rich sound of the sample supporting the track, while bringing another sample - of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (one of the most sampled songs in history) - to the front of the mix.  

“Long Red (Live)” by Mountain – sampled in “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” by Nas

While you may never have heard of the song “Long Red” or the band Mountain, chances are you’ve heard a snippet of the song at some point in your life. According to whosampled.com, as of the writing of this article the live version of Long Red has been sampled in 513 other songs and that’s bound to keep climbing steadily. So why isn’t it a household name? For one thing, it’s not that the song as a whole is remarkable; the recording is muddy and the performances are not notable. But the first 25 seconds of the song – a cacophonous drum beat leading to lead singer Leslie West’s exhortation to the crowd to clap along in time - have become the stuff of sampling legend. “Long Red” is a great jumping off point for a discussion of the more esoteric elements of sampling that unfortunately would require another article to do any justice. Suffice it to say that in the course of its short history, sampling has created a vocabulary through which fans and musicians can converse in a language of common sounds. In the art of sampling, where 6 seconds of drumming can inspire an entire genre, the single utterances of “Yeah” and “Clap Your Hands” in “Long Red” have become the musical equivalent of a knowing wink between savvy producers. For “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, producer Large Professor places Leslie West’s famous “Yeah” amidst cascading horns and vocals before transitioning into the verse of the song buoyed by a sample of the synthesizer from Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”. It's a stone cold classic of hip-hop's golden age.

Another download to consider:

El Michaels Affair takes sample-based hip-hop beats and performs them with live instrumentation. Their version of the instrumentals from Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) - appropriately titled Enter the 37th Chamber - does an excellent job of capturing the dusky, dusty feel of RZA's original beats. 

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