Archive For The “Music” Category
YouTube screen grab by NPR
This week’s Saturday Night Live asked a lot of Harry Styles, as it brought the former One Direction star onboard to serve as both its host and its musical guest. At every turn, he brought something extra: He trotted out accents — as an Icelandic impending dad, a presumably Southern airline copilot, a drug dealer’s hired muscle and so on — and sang in both a musical-theater satire and a prerecorded video in which he played the human embodiment of Aidy Bryant’s dog. When he took the stage as the night’s musical guest, he even introduced the world to a brand-new single, “Watermelon Sugar.”
Styles’ gameness consistently elevated an uneven night. The show mercifully left him out of a grim cold open — one of those brutally thudding SNL bits where they trot out an endless parade of celebrity impersonations, but they’re just the week’s newsmakers, so each new person has to be clumsily introduced in the dialogue. (“Michael Avenatti?!”) But whenever the show wasn’t plodding through the grim formalities of the news cycle, Styles turned up as a steady and welcome comedic presence.
Musically, the singer steered clear of massively ambitious stagecraft, opting instead for fairly straightforward readings of his two newest singles: “Lights Up” and a vibrant unveiling of “Watermelon Sugar.” Given the audience’s reaction — and the overall public anticipation for Styles’ new album Fine Line, due out Dec. 13 — the singer’s in no danger of needing to shed his day job. But the guy’s got a future as a comic actor if he wants it.
Musician Joe Henry was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. He tells NPR’s Scott Simon that the news set into motion a songwriting flurry, creating a new album, The Gospel According to Water.
Taylor Swift, performing in Shanghai, China on November 10, 2019. The pop star has been embroiled in a public dispute with the head of her former label and the company he sold it to over the right to perform her songs publicly.
China News Service/VCG via Getty Images
China News Service/VCG via Getty Images
On Thursday night, Taylor Swift threw another volley in her ongoing battle with the two men she considers the captors of her legacy. In an emotional Tumblr post (is there any other kind for Swift?) she claimed that Scott Borchetta, the chief executive of Swift’s former label Big Machine, and Scooter Braun, the mega-manager who purchased that label for $300 million in June, are preventing her from performing songs from her Big Machine catalog — the bulk of her work — at this Sunday’s American Music Awards ceremony, where she will be honored as Artist of the Decade. Borchetta and Braun have denied this claim; and so this complicated saga involving artist rights, label investments and the complexities of copyright continues. (Here’s a good recap of the whole affair.)
What could Swift do if she truly were barred from belting her way through a medley of “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me” and “Tim McGraw”? The history of recorded music actually offers her a lot of options. Myriad artists have vented their frustrations with label executives, managers and other music biz movers in three-minute tirades, often released on the very labels they decry within them. Last night, the writer Claire Willett tweeted the suggestion that Swift cover Billy Joel’s “Getting Closer” — a bitter account of his impossible-to-break contract with the publishing and management company Family Productions — instead of singing her own hits. Willett’s idea gave me an idea: I asked for more suggestions of songs about hating the record-label bosses, and my feed overflowed. The playlist below extends from the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” possibly aimed at former manager Brian Epstein, to GZA’s “Labels,” which calls out pretty much everybody in the record business.
Taylor: I’m sure these artists would be happy to have you perform their songs — if they’re allowed.
Derek Smalls, “Faith No More”
The Spinal Tap bassist pays “tribute” to his erstwhile manager Ian Faith.
Sample lyric: “An office closed on weekdays / Contracts disappeared / Waking from a slumber deep / Only when the smoke has cleared.”
The Beatles, “Baby You’re a Rich Man”
Some people think this critique of the counterculture’s “Beautiful People” is also a jab at longtime Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
Sample lyric: “You keep all your money in a big brown bag inside the zoo.”
Joni Mitchell, “For the Roses”
Written after Mitchell retreated from fame and the pressures of the industry for a brief, monastic period in British Columbia.
Sample lyrics: “In some office sits a poet and he trembles as he sings / And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around.”
Queen, “Death on Two Legs”
About former the band’s former manager Norman Sheffield.
Sample lyric: “You suck my blood like a leech.”
The Clash, “Complete Control”
About CBS Records releasing the song “Remote Control” without permission.
Sample lyrics: “They said we’d be artistically free when we signed that piece of paper / They meant let’s make lots of money and worry about it later.”
Graham Parker and the Rumour, “Mercury Poisoning”
About the failure of Mercury Records to break Parker in the States.
Sample lyric: “Their promotion’s so lame, they couldn’t take it to the real ball game.”
John Fogerty, “Vanz Kan’t Danz”
Originally titled “Zanz Kan’t Danz,” this song is about Fantasy Records label owner Saul Zaentz, who sued Fogerty over song rights several times.
Sample lyric: “Vanz can’t dance, but he’ll steal your money.”
About resolving his endless struggles with Warner Bros. Records.
Sample lyric: “I’ve been tryin’ 2 break the chain / get my little ass out the game.”
Liz Phair, “And He Slayed Her”
About former Capitol Records chief executive officer Andy Slater, who kept Phair stuck in a contract that she wanted out of.
Sample lyric: “Dang dong, this crooked soul hanged himself on rock and roll.”
A Tribe Called Quest, “Check the Rhime”
Classic, and good, advice from the crew.
Sample lyric: “Industry rule number four thousand and eighty / Record company people are shady!”
This song targets a huge swath of labels, including Tommy Boy, Def Jam, Mercury and Capitol, in a diatribe against record company control.
Sample lyric: “Throw that A&R n— off a boat in the Atlantic.”
Spoon, “The Agony of Laffitte”
Addressed to their former A&R man, Ron Laffitte, this song is about getting dropped by Elektra Records and names Sylvia Rhone, the label’s then-head (and now the CEO of Epic Records).
Sample lyric: “When you do that line tonight, remember that it came at a steep price.”
Bon Jovi, “Burning Bridges”
About the band’s bitter split with Mercury Records, after 32 years on the label.
Sample lyric: “Here’s one last song you can sell, let’s call it burning bridges / It’s a sing-along as well — Ciao, adieu, good nacht, guten abend — Play it for your friends in hell.”
Still not enough? Here’s a full playlist of songs (including those above) from artists who were — and perhaps still are — fed up with the recorded music business. Thanks to everyone who submitted songs: @undeadsinatra, @clairewillett, @judyberman, @cvcjr13, @TheKimAustin, @donnablakey, @raymondj, @wipeoutbeat, @namethebats, @heatherlose, @taterpie, @katbeee, @seanpmeans and @bissen608.
Taylor Swift, attending the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards in Newark, N.J. in August.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for MTV
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for MTV
Back in August, it seemed as if the pop megastar Taylor Swift had found an end run around an acrimonious battle for control of her recorded catalog. She announced that beginning in November 2020, she would re-record the six albums made under contract for Big Machine Label Group, which owns those master recordings.
But Swift now says that things won’t be that simple. On Thursday night, Swift made public the newest chapter in her battle for artistic, financial and intellectual control of her material. She claimed that Big Machine, which was founded by Scott Borchetta and is now owned by music impresario Scooter Braun, has blocked her from performing a medley of her hits later this month at the made-for-television American Music Awards, and that the company will not give permission for her Big Machine-era hits to be included in a scheduled Netflix biographical documentary. She claims that Borchetta said that she can only use her old songs if she doesn’t proceed with her plans to make copycat versions.
In a lengthy social media post, Swift addressed her fans directly and asked them to take action on her behalf, writing in part: “Please let Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun know how you feel about this. Scooter also manages several artists who I really believe care about other artists and their work.”
Genderizing the fight, Swift continued: “Please ask them for help with this — I’m hoping that maybe they can talk some sense into the men who are exercising tyrannical control over someone who just wants to play the music she wrote. I’m especially asking for help from The Carlyle Group, who put up money for the sale of my music to these two men.”
The Carlyle Group is a private equity firm and a major investor in Scooter Braun’s company.
In a statement released Friday morning, Big Machine emphatically denied Swift’s assertions, saying that it was “shocked” by her statements. The company added: “At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special. In fact, we do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere. Since Taylor’s decision to leave Big Machine last fall, we have continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties as she promotes her current record in which we do not financially participate.”
Back in July, Big Machine Label Group was sold to Ithaca Holdings, an umbrella company owned by Braun, who manages artists including Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. Under Borchetta, Big Machine signed Swift as a teenager in 2006, and released all of her albums until this year’s Lover. The following month, Swift announced her plans to re-record her catalog under a new deal with the world’s largest record company, Universal Music, and its subsidiary Republic Records.
Swift continues to be one of the most powerful and popular artists in the music business. In this chapter of the ongoing saga with Big Machine, however, she has called upon her phalanxes of impassioned, everyday fans to enter this business fray, writing that she doesn’t “know what else to do” at this juncture. The planned Netflix documentary was not public information until Swift made her anger known on Thursday.
Swift has performed at least one of her old hits for a video recording of late: In her NPR Music Tiny Desk appearance last month, she sang “All Too Well” from 2012’s Red album, which is part of the Big Machine-era catalog.
Bad Bunny (left), Ricky Martin and Residente collaborate on a new track, just in time for the Latin Grammys.
Alejandro Pedrosa/Courtesy of Sony Music Latin
Alejandro Pedrosa/Courtesy of Sony Music Latin
Three generations of Puerto Rican hit makers join forces this week as Ricky Martin, Residente and Bad Bunny kick off our new music offerings. Rosalía continues her stellar run of singles and artists definitely deserving of more recognition are also represented.
Ricky Martin, Residente & Bad Bunny, “Cántalo”
Just days before the Latin Grammys air on Thursday, three of Puerto Rico’s G.O.A.T.s released “Cántalo” on Tuesday. The salsa-reggaeton hybrid sounds almost perfectly calibrated to offset the criticism the Latin Grammys have received this year for shortchanging urbano in all categories except the urbano-specific one. A reimagined version of Hector Lavoe’s “Mi Gente” with the help of giants like Johnny Pacheco, Rubén Blades and Danay Suaréz, “Cántalo” celebrates the uplift of the Puerto Rican people through music — a mission all three artists championed this year during the #RickyRenuncia movement. Their performance of the song at the Latin Grammys will provide a much-needed (if still lacking) urbano presence on that stage. — Stefanie Fernández
Rosalía, “A Palé”
Rosalía’s 2019 has included collaborations with Ozuna and J Balvin, an EP half in Catalán, and a much-deserved conversation about appropriating Latinidad. Since her album El Mal Querer came out a year ago last week, the pop-flamenco singer has been trying on new identities in more ways than one. On “A Palé,” produced by El Guincho and Frank Dukes (who both produced “Con Altura”), she gets a little more experimental with electronic sounds and her lower register, reverting to the industrial aesthetic inspired by the trucking industry of her childhood neighborhood. Even if I don’t totally get it, I think I much prefer Strange Rosalía. (Though something’s up with that false unibrow and gold teeth.) — Stefanie Fernández
Miami producer Mike Diaz has been serving delectable chillwave for a decade as MillionYoung, and his latest track is just as elegant. “Respiro” breathes with loops of synths, bongos, and bass that sound pulled from a Miami mall twenty-five years ago, colored with the pastel nostalgia that gave us vaporwave, but better. — Stefanie Fernández
Henry Cole & Villa Locura, “Caminando (feat. Tego Calderón)”
As a kid from the hip-hop generation, Henry Cole was inspired by Puerto Rico’s rich drum history. The jazz drum set called out to him and he forged a path heavily influenced by the music he heard on the streets.
“Caminando” is a ’70s funk-styled groove with reggaetonero Tego Calderón making a guest appearance not so much as a rapper or a singer, but as a spoken word artist.
It speaks to good karma and the chameleon-like career of iconic songwriter, musician and producer Nick Lowe that, at age 70, his next musical move is not performing acoustic and alone. He is not going gently into the night, no sir. And although his mom probably warned him about this, he is riding the open roads, rocking the nation with surf-guitar dudes wearing Lucha Libre wrestling masks.
Widely known for such hits as “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” Lowe has been tag teaming with Yep Roc labelmates Los Straitjackets since 2014. The masked, instrumental heavy hitters have toured with everyone from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to El Vez, racking up almost 20 albums in 20 years. For Lowe, these tours with Los Straitjackets have spawned new, incredibly fresh and fun collaborative material: Tokyo Bay / Crying Inside, a four song 2018 EP, and Love Starvation / Trombone, a second EP released in May 2019.
Mountain Stage host Larry Groce gave Lowe a nod for his ability to evolve and reinvent himself, and shortly thereafter Lowe and Los Straitjackets revved up the rockabilly engines, casually throwing aces out the windows all the way to Memphis on “Without Love.” Next was the sunny, jangly surf pop of the infectious new EP title cut, “Love Starvation.” Lowe’s voice floated over it in lyrical heart breakers like “I’ll tell you something about love starvation / It’s like a prison in your mind you’re locked up in / Disappointment and desperation / Your two old friends.”
Together they honky-tonk shuffled into “Somebody Cares for Me” and “Tokyo Bay.” Like an experienced team, Lowe tagged in Los Straitjackets. The band also put out an EP in June called Channel Surfing, which included righteously surfed up versions of the themes from Game of Thrones and The Andy Griffith Show. The band showed its instrumental prowess on two Eddie Angel-written songs, starting with “Aerostar,” a floating, tremolo beachscape. The group then ventured into the sand and salt of gritty surf-guitar romp, “Kawanga!,” complete with band solos, including Greg Townson’s tasty, Duane Eddy-esque riffs.
After a wardrobe change, a rare occurrence on Mountain Stage, Lowe came back in a fresh shirt and fell into a deep, sweet pocket with the band on a beautiful reading of “Blue on Blue.” It was back into high gear for Lowe’s rollicking wedding party song, “I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll),” before the soft, sweet landing on Lowe’s timeless pop hymn, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Nick Lowe, acoustic guitar and lead vocal; Eddie Angel, guitar and backing vocals; Chris Sprague, drums; Greg Townson, guitar; Pete Curry, bass.
- “Without Love”
- “Love Starvation”
- “Somebody Cares for Me”
- “Tokyo Bay”
- “Aerostar” (Eddie Angel)
- “Kawanga!” (Eddie Angel)
- “Blue on Blue”
- “I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)”
- “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”
*All songs by Nick Lowe unless otherwise noted.
Few rappers have been as entertaining to listen to this year as DaBaby. In the often hyper-masculine context of hip-hop, his new album proves he’s not afraid to be goofy.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Over the past two years, the rapper known as DaBaby has become one of the most popular artists in hip-hop. Known for his high-speed rapping and wide grin, DaBaby has become a frequent guest on other rap stars’ songs. His own videos have parodied the exaggerated machismo of other male rappers. His new album, his second in 2019, is called “Kirk.” Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OFF THE RIP”)
DABABY: (Rapping) Straight off the rip. You know I don’t wait for the drop. I go out to eat with my kids and my momma, you know I ain’t dating no thot (ph). Believe what you see, [expletive]. I can’t name a rapper that’s out here and breathing that’s [expletive] with me, [expletive]. I’m taking they [expletive], Forces, Adidas pants and a tee, [expletive]. They like, how? That don’t even match.
UNIDENTIFIED BABY: (Unintelligible).
DABABY: OK. Hold on. Take my phone, baby. Let’s go.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Few rappers in 2019 have been as entertaining to listen to as DaBaby, whose new album “Kirk” is one of the year’s best hip-hop collections. Born Jonathan Kirk, DaBaby is from Charlotte, N.C. At the age of 27, he’s prolific. “Kirk” is actually his second album this year. The first, released in April and called “Baby On Baby,” yielded this big hit single called “Suge,” a little ditty that bounces with energy as DaBaby raps about his success as a businessman.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SUGE”)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Pooh, you a fool for this one. Oh, lord, Jetson made another one.
DABABY: (Rapping) Pack in the mail, it’s gone. She like how I smell, cologne. I just signed a deal, I’m on. Yeah, yeah. I go where I want. I’m good. Play if you want, let’s do it. I’m a young CEO, Suge. Yeah, yeah.
TUCKER: In the video for “Suge,” DaBaby plays a mailman doing a ridiculously bad job of delivering the mail. He displays a flair for slapstick comedy in keeping with the sense of humor that first got him some mainstream attention. In 2017, he showed up at that year’s South by Southwest music festival roaming the grounds wearing only an adult diaper. He had just recently, and I would say wisely, changed his stage name, which had been Baby Jesus.
The newly christened DaBaby soon proved himself irresistible. His rapid wordflow (ph) and springy rhythms attracted attention. And soon he was being invited to perform guest versus on other rappers’ records, including those of Chance The Rapper, Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion. Numerous star rappers return the favor on this album, chiming in on various tracks. Listen to the way DaBaby sets up a guest verse for Chance The Rapper on the track called “Gospel.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “GOSPEL”)
DABABY: (Singing) Right here sound like some gospel. I lost my daddy the same week that they lost Nipsey. Ain’t got no love left in my heart, my [expletive] be empty. I’m ready to fire on all my opps (ph). Let a [expletive] tempt me. And the day I die, bet lil Jon be going down in history.
YK OSIRIS: (Singing) ‘Cause I’ve been solo, rocking Dolo. I’ve been stunting. No, [expletive], it’s a no-go. I don’t want you.
DABABY: (Singing) And everybody wondering why he come around and don’t say nothing.
YK OSIRIS: (Singing) ‘Cause it’s been so long. It’s been so long. I came from nothing.
CHANCE THE RAPPER: (Singing) Chance The Rapper, yeah. Put yourself in my shoes, like I abandoned the race, and you ran in my place. Shoes too big, but they use hair strands as a lace, and they break. When it’s hot outside, you don’t want fans in your face. But you might want a fan in your face when your man got a heat and the hand in the waistband.
TUCKER: While most of DaBaby’s videos emphasize his wide smile, there are undercurrents of seriousness in his music. At various points here, he talks about how hard he’s worked to be able to display that smile. And the first cut on “Kirk,” called “Intro,” memorializes his late father, whom he says died just as he was becoming popular.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “INTRO”)
DABABY: (Singing) Thinking about my grandmama and [expletive]. I got the No. 1 record. They acknowledged the jit (ph). They going crazy when they play it, head bobbing and [expletive]. And I’m just somewhere [expletive] up thinking about my father and [expletive]. They found him dead a couple days before I started the tour. Same day I flew back to the city from Miami, I was out there with the family, just looking at my daughter, thinking to myself, like, damn, my baby look just like my daddy. Same time I got the news, I went No. 1 – that’s [expletive] up. That [expletive] there was confusing a little bit.
(Rapping) You know I flew in with the stick. OK, like, let me know what’s up before I lose it in this [expletive]. And everybody trying to talk. I ain’t trying to talk; I’m trying to click. I’m trying to send somebody with him. Somebody let me know what’s happening. My last name K, I, R, K – Kirk. You know how I rock behind my daddy. You know I never gave a [expletive] about the world, just about my family. How the [expletive] I make it to the top same day I lost the [expletive] that had me? How a [expletive] perform on BET and a year ago couldn’t afford a sandwich?
(Rapping) I had to move in with TG when I went broke moving out to Cali. What you know about smiling every day for all your fans, acting like you happy? I spent a hundred thousand laying my daddy to rest, but I ain’t bragging. I got some questions I’m going to die about respect if I don’t get answers. My mama stood up in that chair, took it like a G when she had cancer. My brother be thinking that we don’t love him and let him struggle like we ain’t family, like I won’t give up all I got to see you happy, [expletive]. We shocked the world…
TUCKER: In the often hypermasculine context of hip-hop, showing a sense of humor can be interpreted as being weak, but this is a label DaBaby has thus far avoided. To judge from his videos, he’s not the tallest fellow, but he’s got a heavily muscled frame and a dashing handsomeness that lend conviction to his boasting about romance and sex. The fact that he’s not afraid to be goofy also works in his favor. Fans like an occasional good laugh in the midst of other artists’ grim raps about hard times. When you combine it with unusual instrumentation and decorating a vehement beat, his music can seem irresistible. As he himself says on the track called “Bop,” he’s unorthodox.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BOP”)
DABABY: (Rapping) I’m unorthodox than a [expletive]. Hey, when you going to switch the flow? I thought you’d never ask. [Expletive] ain’t [expletive] with me and ain’t about what the [expletive] they be rapping about with they little scary [expletive] – ha. But to each his own, [expletive]. If you like it, I love it, no biggie – no big. That boy say he get money. Oh, really? How much they just cut you a check for? A milli (ph).
(Rapping) I’m going back to Cali, like Biggie – go back. About to go get a pound just to smoke – I smoke. They told me to come work on my album. I’m trying to go find out the price on a boat – OK. My little [expletive] act like Megan Thee Stallion; she ghetto and nasty. She driving the boat – drive the boat. All this [expletive] that they making be boring. Play me something to bop while I ride with the pole. Here you go – ha, OK. I needed some [expletive] with some bop in it – let’s go.
(Rapping) I flew past the whip with that blunt in my mouth. Watch the swerving; that whip had a cop in it – woo. My [expletive] got good [expletive], fly her across the country. I finish the show, and I hop in it. I got me a milli. I did it legitly (ph). I’m still with the [expletive]. I’m a hot [expletive] – I’m hot.
TUCKER: Right now, more and more people are discovering the pleasures of DaBaby’s Southern-style rapid-fire rapping, the way he begins almost every song with an urgent need to start talking even before the music begins. He blasts through “Kirk’s” 13 tracks in under 35 minutes, being simultaneously concise and chatty. He’s a fast talker, but he’s not a hustler or a fraud; he’s the real thing.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed DaBaby’s new album, called “Kirk.” After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new book by journalist Susannah Cahalan about the indistinct boundary between diseases of the body and the brain. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI’S “THE GREAT PRETENDER”)
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The Record Company performs live on the AmericanaFest Day Stage presented by NPR Music, WMOT and World Cafe.
- “Make It Happen”
- “Off The Ground”
- “Life To Fix”
- “I’m Getting Better (And I’m Feeling It Right Now)”
This past September, the 20th annual Americana Music Festival & Conference featured a broad range of showcases from diverse musicians across alt-country, roots-rock, bluegrass, R&B, blues, folk and the singer-songwriter genre. The 2019 AmericanaFest Day Stage at the War Memorial Auditorium, produced jointly by WMOT Roots Radio, NPR Music and World Cafe, presented over 20 showcasing artists, including The Wood Brothers, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, Maggie Rose, The Mavericks, Molly Tuttle and more.
Today, we present The Record Company, a blues rock trio whose gritty debut album launched its members from living room recording sessions to late night television appearances. The band’s most recent album, 2018’s All of This Life, was recorded in a proper studio but retains all the nearly-unhinged rock swagger that made the previous record impossible to ignore. The relentless energy of The Record Company’s albums is matched by their performance in this set of hard rocking favorites from both records.
Kajsa Lindgren’s neoclassical ambient album Everyone is here is featured on this week’s Viking’s Choice.
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Are y’all subscribed to the NPR Music newsletter? You get the week’s music news, Tiny Desks and personal stories from behind the scenes. I work here and I can’t even keep up with everything we do, so that Saturday morning reminder sets up my weekend listening and reading.
Most recently, I contributed an exclusive Viking’s Corner to the newsletter where I asked myself: What does a decade in Viking’s Choice sound like? I picked 10 albums (okay, 11), one to represent each year of the 2010s, for a column that regularly darts from metal to punk to psych to noise to whatever’s lighting up my ears. It was hard!
The list itself is screencapped for posterity, but I was struck how some artists have been constant companions this decade. Krallice, Giant Claw, Circuit Des Yeux, Daniel Bachman and Holly Herndon, in particular, all challenge their scenes, sounds and listeners — and me — to move music and ourselves forward. There’s reward in that relationship, an understanding made richer and weirder by the artists who dream new sounds and the listeners who show up, scream and vibrate along.
You can find this week’s picks below, plus my updated playlist on Spotify and Apple Music, which features music from the decade-spanning newsletter list. Did I mention you should subscribe to the NPR Music newsletter? (Note: Some of these tracks can only be found on Bandcamp.)
What to do with the busy, baffling music of Liturgy? H.A.Q.Q., the experimental metal band’s fourth album, got a surprise drop today and, per usual, its prime provocateur, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, is still so, so much. For every wild leap forward (headbanging glockenspiel and strings! Melodramatic minimalism! Clashing counter-melodies!) there are aesthetic curve balls that make me scratch my head, like a persistent insistence on glitch, the “CD skipping” effect popularized by Autechre and Oval. Why mess with the metallic mess? And, yet, I still can’t quit Liturgy.
Katie Gately, “Bracer”
Electronic music offers sound design a portal to vivid songcraft. Though her tools are digital, Katie Gately‘s sonically sprawling music curls like vines. The 10-minute “Bracer” rattles, whooshes and moans with haunting detail, building to a sublime, synth-spiraling finale.
Colin Self, “Dispossessed”
A sweeping, swooping astral-rainbow of an electro-pop song streaked with strings, arpeggiated synths and a tabula rasa of new life. Colin Self‘s voice and optimism are positively irresistible.
Mass Arrest, “Spooks”
Oakland’s Mass Arrest lights several eras of hardcore punk together in bruisingly catchy songs with a short fuse. “Sickle to prison, a life among cells” is not only a clever turn of phrase, but a line loaded with a desperate a call to action.
Kajsa Lindgren, “How it sounded in my mind”
Memory and reality blur in the ambient music of Kajsa Lindgren, previously featured in a Viking’s Choice on long songs. Based on archival recordings found in her parents’ basement, the Swedish composer sends sonorous strings and piano through echoes of the past.
Tunes of Negation, “The World is a Stage / Endless Sea”
Maybe Shackleton just wanted to get out of the club and dig his toes into the earth. The electronic music producer, adept at bangers and mind-benders alike, takes his rhythmic rituals to a garden of psychedelic flora. With Heather Leigh on guest vocals, droning harmonium and a bevy of keys and synths, this two-part epic calls up the resplendent imagination of late ’60s psych-rock band The United States of America.
OOIOO, “kawasemi Ah”
OOIOO locks into a beat-tape-sample-worthy, trumpet-forward groove on this psychedelic workout like never before. Is this what happens when a veteran Japanese avant-rock band goes straight? Sort of. The edges squiggle into a trippy Beatles hypnosis, but burst into mecha-rock band mode in the final minutes.
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Gabriela Ortiz’s Yanga had its world premiere late last month at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Ortiz is one of Mexico’s most sought-after classical composers and her work has been performed by musicians all over the world, from soprano Dawn Upshaw to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to Kronos Quartet.
Yanga, her most recent commission, came from the LA Philharomic’s music and artistic director, Gustavo Dudamel, who asked Gabriela Ortiz earlier this year to write a piece for orchestra and choir, with the choral parts sung in Spanish.
“Gabriela is one of the most talented composers in the world,” Dudamel says. “Not only in Mexico, not only in our continent — in the world. She has an ability to bring colors, to bring rhythm [and] harmonies that connect with you. That is something beautiful, something unique.”
Ortiz’ work, Yanga, is named for a 16th century liberator of slaves in Veracruz. As the story goes, Yanga was a prince from what is now the country of Gabon, in western Africa.
“He came in the 16th century to Mexico as a slave and he managed to escape. And then with other slaves [who] also escaped from the Spanish crown, they start organizing a revolt,” Ortiz says. “And finally, he was able to negotiate with the Spanish crown and founded the first free town in [North] America.”
Gabriela Ortiz grew up in Mexico City. Her father was an architect and her mother was a psychoanalyst, but they were also founding members of Mexico’s leading folk music ensemble, Los Folkloristas.
“During my childhood, I had the opportunity to meet people like Víctor Jara, the Chilean singer that came to Mexico. He stayed in my house,” Ortiz says. “I met Mercedes Sosa … And so I was exposed to all this music, not only from Mexico, but from Latin America.”
When she was six years old, Ortiz remembers visiting a small town in the Gulf state of Veracruz with her parents. “They were doing some research about music from Veracruz, so I remember that we rented a boat through the Papaloapan River and my parents used to play folk music along with the people from Tlacotalpan,” she says.
That family experience was the foundation for a piece she composed in 1995 called “Rio de las Mariposas,” or “River of Butterflies.”
Ortiz’s music doesn’t only draw from the sounds of Mexico. One day, when she was a teenager, her piano teacher introduced her to a series of pieces by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók called Mikrokosmos.
“For me, it was a window open to the 20th century music. That definitely changed my mind in a completely new way,” Ortiz says. “And then I decided: I want to be a composer.”
Ortiz went on to study at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música, or the National Conservatory of Music, in Mexico City and got her advanced degrees in London. She brings both influences to bear in a work commissioned by Kronos Quartet.
Altar de Muertos, a piece about the Mexican tradition Day of the Dead, uses Aztec percussion instruments called huesos de fraile (also known as ayoyotes) or “friar bones” that the musicians attach to their ankles.
“Every time they see an accent on the score, they have to step,” Ortiz says. “It’s a very energetic movement, very rhythmic and it has a lot of influence from the ‘Danza de Concheros’ … one of the oldest dances that we know [from] when the Spanish came.”
That period is also the setting for her latest work and it, too, uses percussion.
LA Phil’s Gustavo Dudamel thinks Gabriela Ortiz’s compositions need to be heard. “This piece deserves to be played many times because it sends a beautiful message,” he says. “It shows our culture, our blood, our rhythm as one America and that beautiful connection and that beautiful message of ‘libertad,’ of freedom.”
But getting her music into the concert hall hasn’t always been easy, says the composer.
“It’s even more difficult if you’re a woman and if you’re Latin American,” Ortiz says. “Because normally, in the concert music world, people look to Europe. They don’t look to Latin America. They don’t know that, in Mexico, we have a very important scene of composers doing lots of things.”
Gabriela Ortiz says one of the things she wants to do in her music is create a connection between tradition and the modern world, between different kinds of music and different cultures. Yanga‘s cross-cultural roots with a debut for an American audience just might accomplish that mission.