In 1999, the Roots were in limbo. The Philadelphia hip-hop band had released three critically acclaimed albums but were still considered something of a novelty act, featuring a big guy with a big Afro on drums (?uestlove), a sharp but unshowy MC (Black Thought), two beatboxers (Rahzel and Scratch), and a stellar live show—all anomalies in the gilded age of Puff Daddy and the million-dollar sample clearance. The Roots had by this time amassed a faithful cult following, but none of it translated to mainstream success. They were selling more records and slowly moving beyond their dedicated base of jazz and traditional rap purists, but their career wasn’t headed anywhere in particular.
Reflecting these tensions, the Roots opened their fourth studio album, Things Fall Apart, with dialogue from a scene from Spike Lee’s 1990 film, Mo’ Better Blues, in which characters Bleek Gilliam and Shadow Henderson—played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, respectively—debate the state of jazz music. Gilliam doesn’t want to sacrifice his creative vision to pander to crowds, and he thinks black people should come to his shows simply because he’s making black art. “That’s bullshit,” Henderson quips. “The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like.” The clip seemed to acknowledge the Roots’ reputation: They were too smart for their own good, too self-aware, and they were getting in their own way. It was as if, from the very beginning, the band sought to be misunderstood, to find somewhere to hide from the mainstream.
Katie Dey’s debut is very short, clocking in at just over 20 minutes. But within that brief space of time she has produced a wonderful, weird and quite original piece of experimental pop. The first time I heard asdfasdf I wasn’t quite sure what I’d just heard. All I knew was that I liked it, a lot. It’s easily one of the most interesting albums that I’ve come across in recent years. The type of music that Dey produces is often referred to as “bedroom pop”. More recently though it’s also been labelled as “hypnagogic pop”, a term coined by David Kennan to describe artists with a similar lo-fi approach to recording, but that don’t necessarily create the same style of music. Ariel Pink is probably the most well known in this particular corner of the music world.
Dey’s music first came to the attention of Coma Cinema’s Mat Cothran, who discovered her work via Tumblr. They soon started talking and she sent him over some demo tracks. Cothran went on to show them to someone at his label Orchid Tapes, which in turn offered to release Dey’s work. Being a big fan of the label, which has released albums in recent years by Cothran’s band Coma Cinema, as well as Alex G and Foxes In Fiction, she was understandably delighted at the opportunity to work with them. Dey had already built up a decent little following online which resulted in the first batch of cassettes selling out on the same day they were released.
Haiku Salut (“Haikoo Saloo”) are an instrumental trio from Derbyshire, England who were formed in 2010 by university friends and multi-instrumentalists Gemma and Sophie Bakerwood and Louise Croft. Their clever mix of baroque pop, folk and electronica (or “Baroque-pop-folktronic-neo-classical-something-or-other” as the jokingly refer to it), uses a wide array of instruments that includes accordion, classical guitar, ukulele, melodica, trumpet, glockenspiel, a slightly battered looking old keyboard, drums, synth pads and other forms of “loopery and laptopery.”
Etch and Etch Deep is their second full length album, coming two years after their full debut Tricolore. Their wonderful 2013 debut was met with an assortment of positive reviews – although the LP didn’t receive as much attention as it perhaps deserved. The debut was driven by the use of live instrumentation which gave it an old world kind of feel, with electronic elements playing a more accompanying role overall. It was a fantastically arranged album which was bright, diverse and full of warmth. For the bands 2015 sophomore release Etch and Etch Deep those electronic elements come to the fore and play a more prominent role.
Among the Living is the third studio album by influential thrash metal band Anthrax. Often considered the weakest of the ‘Big Four’ thrash metal bands, this album is not only their defining moment but also a defining album within the genre. It was released during a period of a few years where the other ‘Big Four’ thrash metal bands also came out with their defining albums: Metallica with Master of Puppets, Megadeth with Peace Sells… and Slayer with Reign of Blood. Drummer Charlie Benante has referred to it as their “signature album, the one record that really pushed us over the edge.” Anthrax were probably the second hardest hitters of the genre after Slayer and this album shows it with its relentless aggression. But despite its fast riffs and powerful drumming, its also fun while managing to maintain a decent groove. Despite the vocals not being the greatest, some of the lyrics are socially conscious but are also balanced against less serious topics. This can be seen in the two singles that the album produced: ‘I Am the Law’ (a Judge Dredd tribute) and ‘Indians’ (about the treatment of Native American Indians, the video of which appeared frequently on MTV at the time). The iconic cover art was designed by the same artist behind Master of Puppets, illustrator and painter Don Brautigam.
Origin of Symmetry was Muse’s second full-length album and is easily among their best along with their debut Showbiz and their third LP Absolution. Their fourth release Black Holes and Revelations is also worth a listen but it’s after this where they start to lose their way a bit. Despite this they’re still worth catching live if you ever get the chance as they put on one hell of a show. On Origin of Symmetry it has been stated that Muse tried to sound like Radiohead but taking it to “preposterous, bombastic, over-the-top levels”. You definitely hear OK Computer on this but regardless of how obvious their influences are, they did an pretty superb job on this album. Their sound can be described as containing strong elements of prog and glam rock, electronica and also some classical piano flourishes thrown in there with the high-pitched delivery of vocalist/guitarist Matt Bellamy also standing out. Top tracks include: New Born, Plug In Baby, Citizen Erased and a magnificent cover of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good.
‘The third Unknown Mortal Orchestra was recorded during a tumultuous time in Ruban Neilson‘s life, when his ideas about love and marriage were blown apart, forever changed, and then carefully rebuilt. Fittingly, the music on Multi-Love is different too, changed from warped psychedelic weirdness into something a little more focused and song-oriented. Also, something less guitar-heavy and with a strong classic soul influence, almost like what Mark Ronson could have done if he overindulged in cough syrup one night. Even with the songs being on a tighter leash, and some different influences (Prince, disco, soft rock) informing them, Neilson is still far from a traditional singer/songwriter or neo-soul crooner.’ (Read the full review by Tim Sendra @ All Music)
‘Toronto-based jazz trio BadBadNotGood‘s third album is their first on the Innovative Leisure label and also the first full-length to feature all their own compositions. The Canadians first made waves early in the 2010s while posting videos of them playing jazz covers of hip-hop tracks by the likes of Odd Futureand MF Doom. They maintained this ethos into their first two records, BBNG and BBNG2, by covering the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and Kanye West as well as My Bloody Valentine and Feist. III captures the raw energy, togetherness, and musicianship of a live concert, at points drifting off at a tangent and then rejoining to climactic chord structures and beautiful jazz melodies. (Read the full review by James Pearce at All Music)
‘How many albums like Songs From Suicide Bridge are out there in the world? Hundreds? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? In 1982, two aspiring singer-songwriters named David Kauffman (from Madison, N.J.) and Eric Caboor (from Burbank, Calif.) met at a venue called the Basement in Los Angeles, threw together a couple of their best tunes, pressed a couple hundred copies of a record, and then went their separate ways. Since then the only album they made under their own names has been consigned to estate sales and flea markets, waiting for subsequent generations of cratediggers to fish it out, dust it off, and find something that resonates across the decades.’ (Read the full review by Stephen M. Deusner at Pitchfork)
‘Few bands can call themselves contemporaries of both the heartbreakingly earnest self-destruction of Whiskeytown and the alienating experimentation of Radiohead‘s post-millennial releases, but on the painstaking Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco seem to have done just that. In early 2001, the Chicago-area band focused on recording their fourth album, which ultimately led to the departure of guitarist Jay Bennett and tensions with their record label. Unwilling to change the album to make it more commercially viable, the band bought the finished studio tapes from Warner/Reprise for 50,000 dollars and left the label altogether. The turmoil surrounding the recording and distribution of the album in no way diminishes the sheer quality of the genre-spanning pop songs written by frontman Jeff Tweedyand his bandmates. After throwing off the limiting shackles of the alt-country tag that they had been saddled with through their 1996 double album Being There, Wilco experimented heavily with the elaborate constructs surrounding their simple melodies on Summerteeth. The long-anticipated Yankee Hotel Foxtrot continues their genre-jumping and worthwhile experimentation.’ (Read the full review by Zac Johnson at All Music)
‘It may not have been the most natural match in music history, but the marriage of Sparks‘ focus on oddball pop songs to the driving disco-trance of Giorgio Moroder produced the duo’s best album in years. From the chart hits “Number One Song in Heaven” and “Beat the Clock” to solid album tracks like “La Dolce Vita,” No. 1 in Heaven surprises by succeeding on an artistic and commercial level despite the fact that neither the Mael brothers nor Moroder tempered their respective idiosyncrasies for the project. Moroder’s production is just as dizzying, chunky, and completely rhythm-driven as on his best work with Donna Summer, and the Mael brothers prove on “Tryouts for the Human Race” and “Academy Award Performance” that their bizarre songwriting wasn’t compromised.’ (John Bush for All Music)
#AlbumoftheWeek ~ People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm by A Tribe Called Quest (1990)
‘One year after De la Soul re-drew the map for alternative rap, fellow Native Tongues brothers A Tribe Called Quest released their debut, the quiet beginning of a revolution in non-commercial hip-hop.People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm floated a few familiar hooks, but it wasn’t a sampladelic record. Rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dawg dropped a few clunky rhymes, but their lyrics were packed with ideas, while their flow and interplay were among the most original in hip-hop. From the beginning, Tribe focused on intelligent message tracks but rarely sounded over-serious about them. With “Pubic Enemy,” they put a humorous spin on the touchy subject of venereal disease (including a special award for the most inventive use of the classic “scratchin'” sample), and moved right into a love rap, “Bonita Applebum,” which alternated a sitar sample with the type of jazzy keys often heard on later Tribe tracks. “Description of a Fool” took to task those with violent tendencies, while “Youthful Expression” spoke wisely of the power yet growing responsibility of teenagers. Next to important message tracks with great productions, A Tribe Called Quest could also be deliciously playful (or frustratingly unserious, depending on your opinion). “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” describes a vacation gone hilariously wrong, while “Ham ‘n’ Eggs” may be the oddest topic for a rap track ever heard up to that point (“I don’t eat no ham and eggs, cuz they’re high in cholesterol”). Contrary to the message in the track titles, the opener “Push It Along” and “Rhythm (Dedicated to the Art of Moving Butts)” were fusions of atmospheric samples with tough beats, special attention being paid to a pair of later Tribe sample favorites, jazz guitar and ’70s fusion synth. Restless and ceaselessly imaginative,Tribe perhaps experimented too much on their debut, but they succeeded at much of it, certainly enough to show much promise as a new decade dawned.’ (John Bush for All Music)
‘One of the cornerstones of the New York hardcore movement, The Infamous is Mobb Deep’s masterpiece, a relentlessly bleak song cycle that’s been hailed by hardcore rap fans as one of the most realistic gangsta albums ever recorded. Given Mobb Deep’s youthful age and art-school background, it’s highly unlikely that The Infamous is drawn strictly from real-life experience, yet it’s utterly convincing, because it has all the foreboding atmosphere and thematic sweep of an epic crime drama. That’s partly because of the cinematic vision behind the duo’s detailed narratives, but it’s also a tribute to how well the raw, grimy production evokes the world that Mobb Deep is depicting. The group produced the vast majority of the album itself, with help on a few tracks from the Abstract (better known as Q-Tip), and establishes a spare, throbbing, no-frills style indebted to the Wu-Tang Clan. This is hard, underground hip-hop that demands to be met on its own terms, with few melodic hooks to draw the listener in. Similarly, there’s little pleasure or relief offered in the picture of the streets Mobb Deep paints here: They inhabit a war zone where crime and paranoia hang constantly in the air. Gangs are bound together by a code of fierce loyalty, relying wholly on one another for survival in a hopeless environment. Hostile forces — cops, rivals, neighborhood snitches — are potentially everywhere, and one slip around the wrong person can mean prison or death. There’s hardly any mention of women, and the violence is grim, serious business, never hedonistic. Pretty much everything on the album contributes to this picture, but standouts among the consistency include “Survival of the Fittest,” “Eye for a Eye,” “Temperature’s Rising,” “Cradle to the Grave,” and the classic “Shook Ones, Pt. 2.” The product of an uncommon artistic vision, The Infamous stands as an all-time gangsta/hardcore classic.’ (Steve Huey for All Music)
The third album from west coast rapper Kendrick Lamar, who originally released material under the name K.Dot. He was signed up by Dr. Dre (who serves as executive producer here) in 2012 after his first official album in 2011, Section.80. His next and previous album good kid, m.A.A.d city was a huge critical and commercial success in 2012, largely because it had plenty of pop appeal. One of the best things about Kendrick Lamar is that he knows how to write catchy hip hop tunes but with socially aware lyrics. It’s actually quite rare, but very refreshing, for rappers achieve critical and commercial success while earning respect for their social commentary and awareness. To Pimp a Butterfly has less pop appeal but is even better than its predecessor. It’s a bold, complex, complete album that requires your full attention and maybe two or three listens before you fully begin to appreciate just how good it is. Each song has its own distinct identity but weaves into one complete and rewarding whole. His previous album took a look at his adolescence growing up in Compton, but this takes a look at his adult self and you can hear the maturity throughout. Lamar has described the album as “honest, fearful and unapologetic.” The topics covered include institutional racism, justice, consumerism and capitalism, hip-hop culture, and his own choices as a African-American adult male. The album manages to sound old school but also very modern. You can hear a heavy influence of funk and jazz throughout, and I also can’t help but feeling that Flying Lotus has had an influence on the sound and structure of the album a little more than his single production contribution on the opening track. The start of the album in particular (but not exclusively) has that experimental and abstract jazz sound, but also the sort of cohesive untidiness heard on Flying Lotus albums. Kendrick actually appeared on the last Flying Lotus album You’re Dead! on the excellent track “Never Catch Me” so it’s very possible that he picked up some ideas during their time working together. If you wanted to liken the album to previous hip hop releases, it can be said that Outkast’s Aquemini, for its for its approach, shape and depth, bears some similarity. But also albums like De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead and Blowout Comb by Digable Planets for its seeming rejection of the mainstream appeal gained by their prior releases. While those points can be argued, you certainly won’t find a hip hop album as good this from the last decade. It’s easily the best since 2004’s Madvillainy by DOOM and Madlib.
Ghost Culture is James Greenwood, a 24 year old Londoner who began making music in his bedroom in 2013. After releasing a series of singles which quickly gained him a following, he was picked up by Erol Alkan‘s Phantasy label. Alkan, who co-produced and mixed Greenwood’s self-titled debut, described the moment he heard the track “How” as “what The Strokes would have sounded like, had they been produced by Delia Derbyshire.” Ghost Culture features a diverse set of electro-pop tracks incorporating elements of synth-pop, house, techno and more. Many influences can be heard throughout, from older ones like Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk, to more recent ones like Caribou and Hot Chip. Despite these, Greenwood’s music is his own. It sounds fresh and accessible but also adventurous, containing enough nice surprises that take things into more left-field areas. Greenwood’s soft, sleepy vocals work on the albums more upbeat tracks but also on the albums more laid back ballads. Kate Travers excellently described it as “a house fan’s Alice in Wonderland experience.”Ghost Culture ends as it begins with strong set of tracks that leave you wanting more. A superb debut.
Their first release in ten years and eighth album overall. Many only released just how good they were until they took an indefinite break after 2005’s The Woods. They weren’t just the best all-female band of their era, but were easily one of the best bands around during the ten year period from 1995 to 2005. Formed initially as a side project, they decided to become a full band after recording their debut album. With a sound that can be described as a mix of 90’s alt-rock, punk and feminism, they went on to release seven albums in ten years. No Cities to Love is a great return. It’s short, at just over 30 mins, and packs one hell of a punch. No Cities is more than just a revival by an old band who hammer out some half-assed tunes, get paid but are unable to capture anything close to what made them great in the first place. The band worked onNo Cities for two years and ditched anything that sounded too much like their past work. It’s hooky and full of energy, with complex rhythms, creative riffs, powerful vocals and excellent drumming. Whether you’re a big fan from the past or relatively new to them, there’s something here for all to love.
Their 2013 debut EP Cassette was OK but it didn’t exactly leave you thinking that this band had any great potential. That all changes on their self-titled debut LP Viet Cong. At just over 35 minutes and containing seven tracks, it’s great a mix of lo-fi noise, post-punk and art rock. Containing a good balance of repetitive noise grooves, dark hooks, as well as some nice twists and turns thrown in there which keeps things interesting. The album is heavy, energetic, passionate and imaginative, with tight song writing and great production. You can hear the obvious influences of 1980s’s noise/art rock and post-punk (Wire, Sonic Youth etc.), but the album is more than just an attempt to copy and paste the sounds of that era into the modern one. Not many bands come along that stand alone, completely separated from their influences. What matters is what they do with them and Viet Cong do a fine job of refashioning these sounds into their own. You can also hear that the band is made up of two former members of Women (bassist and drummer), though Viet Cong are definitely less of a challenging listen. An excellent debut album and a nice surprise from a band for whom expectations were initially not that high.
1993’s Buhloone Mindstate was De La Soul’s third release and final album with producer Prince Paul who worked with them on their two classic LP’s, 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul Is Dead. The albums title is in reference to the group trying to stay grounded in light of their recent success which is echoed in the line: “It might blow up but it won’t go pop,” on the album’s intro. It’s a more upbeat album than their previous one having more in common with their debut release, though it is more reflective and not quite as colourful. The standout tracks include ‘Patti Dooke,’ ‘Ego Trippin’ (Pt. 2)‘ and ‘Breakadawn,’ the latter two being released as singles. But it’s Posdonus’ line on ‘In The Woods‘ that steals the show lyrically and in many ways sums up much of De La Soul’s style: “Fuck being hard, Posdonus is complicated.”