Lettermans

Songs In The Key Of Life – Stevie Wonder

Hollywood, CA
1976

A big part of my self-education in music has been going on blogs, forums, and comment sections to seek out great records from the past, but there's a certain genre of "classic album" that I've just never been able to get behind. I'm talking about albums like Sgt. Pepper's, Pet Sounds, Dark Side of the Moon, Are You Experienced, etc. etc. etc. The type of stuff that winds up on college dorm room walls just because the kid's parents listened to it. But, if you, like me, had never heard any of those records before, there's a good chance you'd have to perform the mental gymnastics of imagining what it was like to be white in the 60s just to have a chance of enjoying the album. I shouldn't have to do that. It's not that serious. Just listen to whatever you like. And yet, it's a tricky conversation because on one hand, maybe music should be enjoyed purely for its sensuous and aesthetic value (see: Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag), but on the other hand, maybe context adds value too. And what about representation? Anyhow, I'm not going down that rabbit hole. I say all of this because Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life is maybe the first album of it's kind that I've given a chance and just... completely and utterly fallen for. I mean, what an unbelievably flawless album. In the words of Salieri, it's "the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God". There's a stretch from "If It's Magic" to "Another Star" that rivals anything I've ever had the privilege of hearing. "If It's Magic" sputters along with only a harp to complement Stevie, but the songwriting and general arc of his vocals are gripping enough to capitalize on the sparseness of the song. There's "As", which I could listen to exclusively for the rest of my life. The arrangement is just so warm, so rich, and so pure that it distills an almost overwhelming dosage of love for music and life itself. The vocal performance at the song's climax is rightfully the stuff of legend. Anthems like "Isn't She Lovely" are tossed around like nothing. I recognized the motif from "Pastime Paradise" immediately and just sat, listening with my jaw open as if I were watching history unfold in real time. "Summer Soft" almost feels like a victory lap less than halfway into the album; he'll tap into a burst of genius and return to human form in the same breath. And where do you even begin with a song like "Another Star"? The audacity of even throwing a song with such Latin hues in the middle of a 1976 Motown record... The propulsion of that choir, that piercing entrance by Stevie himself... I'm not a religious person, but this is truly other-worldly, divine music. I don't care if my love for this album sounds corny, because wait til you hear the album itself: verse after verse on the changing of the seasons, ruminations on childhood, systemic racism, first love, heartbreak, sex, religion, and of course, death. Stevie gives you 100 years in a little under two hours, and yet, it would've been even better had he given us three. Every second of music here is purely additive. This is the rare case where more truly is more. God bless Stevie Wonder, king of kings.

Pray For Paris – Westside Gunn

Buffalo, NY
2020

I know I'm a bit late to this.... but, what a heartwarming album. Kid from Buffalo, NY makes a trip to Paris to hang with his idols – notably Virgil, among others – and has such a great time he decides to make an album about it. Pray For Paris is littered with the sheer joy of finally being recognized by the institutions that Gunn used to only have access to through the internet: Tucked away somewhere in the middle of "French Toast" he hits a strut with bars like "Heard you just killed 'em at the Raf show / Used to sell crack out the backdoor / But now I'm out here in Paris...." The celebratory air of the album makes it a bit more commercially bent than previous Gunn and Griselda projects, and you can tell that they really tee'd it up for a crossover too. Where they might normally have limited features to guys from the NY old head palette (e.g. Alchemist, Roc Marciano, Raekwon, etc.) they open the floodgates here for guys like Tyler (who drops a reference to the Safdie brothers...) and Wale. And of course, there's the fact that the cover is instantly recognizable to anyone who had too much money on their hands in 2013. Optics aside, this is very much still a traditional Griselda record, and even has Gunn getting out of his comfort zone at times. The track with Boldy James, "Claiborne Kick", features an uncharacteristically pitched-down Gunn over a stretched-out vocal sample from Alchemist. Boldy drops one of my favorite verses of the year too. As much as I love literally every moment of the record, I can't tell if it's just because Gunn and I are both so starry-eyed for the mixtape era... Maybe we should get over it? Move on?? Get with the times???

No Foolin' (Post Panic: Prelude) – Navy Blue

Los Angeles, CA
2020

I'm slowly but surely getting more into this post-Earl lo-fi rap scene... Navy's been dropping a handful of loosies on SoundCloud to get through the quarantine, and this one was my favorite. Like the rest of Navy's stuff, it blurs the line between triumphant and depressed; victorious and dejected. The production features a gorgeous sample flip and some basic drums that never really pick up tempo or volume. It moves at a very leisurely pace, as if Navy were to drag his feet across the track for 3 minutes. His music has an almost Drake-like appeal to it where you know you're clearly listening to a winner, but they've just grown weary and paranoid with along the way... "Who am I kidding cutting through the frigid air / It's Navy Blue, I'm catered to, I made it work / I hate to lose, I made it through with all this hurt".

AR℗ Radio 001 – Thomie

Los Angeles, CA
2020

I found this kid Thomie while digging around on SoundCloud one night, and this mix was my entry point. I'd made a few mixes before myself, and what I always strived to do was something different from the standard 60-minute, 120bpm thumping dance mixes. That's boring. Not fun to make, and even less fun to listen to. I liked this idea of blending together music that wasn't necessarily supposed to be heard side-by-side, and yet still making it work. I think this is the first time I've seen someone else doing the same thing, and the fact that their selection is incredible makes it even better. The whole thing is just really tastefully done. The intro features a little excerpt of a Brian Eno interview where he discusses his unexpected preference for natural tones and textures, which is funny because his career was obviously built on electronic sounds and synth manipulation. What follows the intro is an unbelievably lush mix of ambient, pop, soul, acoustic, and synth music spanning dozens of subgenres and countries in-between. Highlights include Tennis's "Runner" (19:34), Lou Rebecca's "Waiting" (27:25), Scott Gilmore's "Europe" (42:10), and a ton more. There is no tracklist, so yeah, I had to Shazam those. A ton of tracks aren't even Shazam-able. Thomie has some other cool stuff on his SoundCloud too, like a remix of Kanye's "Jesus is Lord", which I thought was an under-appreciated track from Jesus is King, so that was cool to see.

Anti Racism Tech House – Four Tet

London, UK
2020

I went to Coachella for the first time last year (2019) and saw a lot of good shows. I was front row for what I think was Aphex Twin's 9th live performance of the decade; I saw Kanye's first-ever public Sunday Service; I saw Yves Tumor while standing in the crowd directly next to Virgil Abloh, who I then watched DJ the very next day. All of these were good experiences, but my favorite set of the weekend was easily Four Tet. They gave him the ideal slot: 7:30pm under the Mojave Tent. It was starting to get darker just as he began his set, and I remember the whole show had an almost film-like arc where the music became a bit more ethereal as the sun slowly set on the festival... There were no lights or anything for his show, either. Kieran literally just had 2 lamps on a standing desk on stage, used to illuminate his decks. Towards the end I remember it being so dark I could hardly see my own hands, and it was then, that Kieran dropped this track. I didn't think it would ever be formally released, but here we are. There was just something really pure about someone on stage in a grey tee shirt, no lights, doing an absolutely no-frills performance and mixing this a capella sample about racism in the 90s. Coachella is obviously a safe haven for hippies and "progressive" types, but his mid-set PSA felt appropriate and borderline required even in 2019.

Heaven To A Tortured Mind – Yves Tumor

Knoxville, TN
2020

Let's be honest... this is probably album of the year. No one is topping this in the next 8 months. Since I first caught wind of his music on the 2017 PAN compilation, Mono No Aware, Yves has been arguably the most difficult artist to grasp, label, define, confine, or control in any sense of the word. He is totally amorphous. When you think you've got him figured out, he shows an entirely new dimension that you never knew was within him. He deliberately obfuscates pretty much all physical or autobiographical information you could ascertain from him outside of his music; when performing live, he literally renders himself as a silhouette in a cowboy hat: an amalgamation of contradictions. And to me, the novelty of this whole Yves Tumor "project" is rooted in contradiction. Tumor is black, non-binary, sexually fluid, and almost completely absent from the public sphere, and yet, he's an undisputed commercial rock star, arguably one of this generation's best album artists, and surely one of the most emphatic live performers we've seen. What makes this crazy is that he hasn't even given us much to see. And let's not forget the reason we're even discussing him: The music... the music is just undeniably good. Unpredictable as ever, Heaven to a Tortured Mind is essentially a stadium rock album, channeling Shoegaze, Britpop, Krautrock, and psychedelic rock all at once. Again, these weren't even reference points for him prior to this album. He has pulled this out of thin air. Two years ago people were comparing him to Brian Eno, and now it's Prince. Both comparisons are warranted. The intro here, "Gospel For A New Century", features one of the most satisfying basslines I've ever heard. "Kerosene" is just a strikingly beautiful duet; his attention to song structure really comes to the fore here with an almost window-shattering guitar solo somehow slotting into the middle. Like his previous album, there is a "middle stretch" that serves as the album's climax. Here, we get "Romanticist" into "Dream Palette" and then "Super Stars". The first 38 seconds of "Dream Palette" build tension with literal fireworks leading up to arguably the album's finest moment. And then there's "Super Stars," which sways back and forth like the hands of the imaginary stadiums he's filling. It's a shame he hasn't filled any yet, but more than any album this year, Heaven to a Tortured Mind deserves to be heard by an audience of 60,000, minimum.

The Unseen – Quasimoto / Madlib

Oxnard, CA
2000

There's some music that just feels so near and dear to me before I even give it that many spins... I think it's because you can tell when an artists loves music as much as you do, and even more so when they love the same artists, genres, albums, whatever. That's why I love Madlib. When Madlib chooses to sample a track, it almost feels like an homage to the musical forefathers that came before him, even if he pulled their music out of a dusty crate for less than a dollar. The lineage of music that Madlib draws from on this record just feels so deliberate, and I appreciate every decision at every turn. That little horn sample that skips across "Microphone Mathematics" moves with so much swagger. "MHB's" sounds like the opening of heaven's gates. The David Axelrod sample on "Return of the Loop Digga" is shamelessly identifiable, but who cares, because does Madlib really need the credibility as a crate digger? Earlier on the track he hilariously sons a record store owner for having a weak collection: "Would you happen to have any uhh... Stanley Cowell? Like 1970s stuff...? Oh you haven't heard of him?... Nah?... Aight man." His commitment to resurfacing music that he loves, regardless of it's geography, era, or popularity is just so pure, and I think that's what draws me to his music. I don't even think he makes it a point to show that he loves music. He just does, and we get to watch.

Own Pace – Medhane

Brooklyn, NY
2019

One of my friends has been trying to put me onto this whole sad boy rap circuit for a while now. The stars of the show are Earl, MIKE, Mavi, Navy Blue, Standing on the Corner, Medhane, and a couple more guys I'm surely missing. I was apprehensive to give the whole scene a chance, because I feel like the older you get, the more you really have to muster up the energy for "sad" music. I was obviously wrong for having believed that, and I was even more wrong for mislabeling their whole movement as "sad". These guys aren't sad; they're just tired. Their music is basically about self-actualization, much like the 2015 album that sparked this whole thing: Earl's sophomore LP, IDLSIDGO. It's music that's relatable by design, but in a way that's just more piercing and vulnerable than you'd expect. Navy, on "Stranger" spells it out: "Fightin' by the lead / Had to tighten up the leash .... / Keep on trekkin' 'til the goal is in reach." They sound exhausted. Young, but definitely weathered. The production styles show that their ears are definitely beyond their years too. The texture of "Walk With Me" is surely a Dilla reference; "Affirmation #1" feels like a dejected Late Registration B-side. At the same time there's some outrageously forward-looking stuff. That beat on "Whispers"? Son... I'm running out of room for that.

Second Life – Omar S

Detroit, MI
2020

Please don't take it lightly when I say that this might be my favorite Omar S song... Omar was basically my foundation in house music. The Best! was one of those very, very special albums in my life that introduced me to a world of music I never knew existed. This track, "Second Life," is arguably the centerpiece of his new album, You Want, and yeah, it delivers. The song is almost deliberately corny in topic: A club-going girl's life is crumbling due to her partying habits, and yet she just can't stay off the dance floor. Omar, who isn't exactly known for his vocals, kicks off the track by belting out a hilarious a capella performance to tell the story. By the time the bassline starts thumping, it becomes clear that Omar isn't here to help this poor girl... he is enabling her problem. At about 2:13, these keys come in and sit just behind his vocals, and it's subtle, but it's these little details that make the track so unbelievably good to me. The climax of the song is stretched into a 2-3 minute ordeal where it becomes unclear how many more ways he can bend the synth before the song snaps. It's aggressive, funny, and melodic in a way that only Detroit house can be, and that only Omar S can do. Oh, and the video is an instant classic. Probably my favorite of 2020.

Every Day I Ran – James Blake

London, UK
2013

Overgrown was my introduction to James Blake. I was late, and even when I started listening, it took a while for me to appreciate his whole... uhhh... dynamism. He would have these really interesting drum patterns that technically labeled his music as dubstep (not what you think) or even garage, but then there were obviously his vocal and acoustic piano performances that layered over top. Beyond the music, there were interviews where he would shoutout rappers, and they (read: Kanye) would even show love back. He was all over the place, but when he brought his influences together in a way that made sense, it was straight explosive. I went digging through my iTunes last weekend and revisited "Every Day I Ran," a bonus track from the album. I've had it on repeat since, and yet, every listen feels like hearing it for the first time. The song starts with a Big Boi a capella sample and pretty much maintains that air of unpredictability throughout. At about the 1:02 mark there's this synth that he brings in... and it just stays... and believe me, you never want it to leave. You'd think that a warped Southern rap sample over synthy, atmospheric production would be the type of stuff you'd find in the Yung Lean-influenced depths of SoundCloud, but somehow Blake makes it work.

What Kinda Music – Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes

Peckham, London, UK
2020

I discovered Yussef Dayes a couple years ago as one half of Peckham-based Jazz duo Yussef Kamaal (the other half being multi-instrumentalist Kamaal Williams). As a group, I thought their music was "cool" but also kinda sterile and inoffensive, almost designed to slot into those "chill lo-fi instrumental study music" playlists. It was alright, but just not my thing. So, when I saw that Yussef was doing a joint album with Tom Misch, I thought it would be a good chance to hear him play in a totally new, presumably more vibrant context. "What Kinda Music" is the first single off their namesake album, and I think they've definitely got one here... At first I thought it was weird to credit a drummer so prominently on a pop record, but it's mixed in a way that makes Yussef's drums the single most piercing layer of sound; when he really gets going, you can physically feel it in your ears. The production in general also just feels expensive... The string orchestra that comes in around ~2:49 brings a sweeping movement that might've been pulled straight from one of Radiohead's In Rainbows sessions. Tom's vocals aren't bad too, yeah? If this is the general palette they're running with, and if Tom continues to try his hand at being Thom, I definitely won't be mad at it.

Fading Love – George Fitzgerald

London, UK / Berlin, Germany
2015

When I was in the 5th grade I had some cousins from Iran move in with me and my immediate family, and with them, they brought a ton of euro-trash techno music that all the Persian kids were up on in 2005. That was my introduction to electronic music. I'm not gonna lie, I was into it, and I still have some of those Tiesto mixes from way back. They're still good! Nonetheless, there was a stretch from about 2009 to 2017 where I didn't even touch anything electronic in the slightest. But then I spent a good 5 months in London... bro... London... it wasn't until I came back that the digging began. One of the dance records that I'd saved the following summer was George Fitzgerald's Fading Love. It somehow stayed out of my rotation for 3 years, but I finally got around to it and... it's incredible. Normally I'd scoff at this sort of vocal-heavy, pop-y, almost Scandinavian-sounding dance music, but track after track, it manages to win me over despite itself. The pulse on "Full Circle" is just undeniable. That synth on "Knife to the Heart" is more like a tractor beam. At under 40 min, the pacing is almost flawless, and yet, on some listens it's taken me over 2 hours to get through because of tracks I just couldn't let finish. One of the most universally accessible dance records I've ever heard. Guaranteed to get a room moving.

Summer14inBrazil – Floating Points

Manchester, England / Minas Gerais, Brazil
2014

Back in 2015 I was on a road trip with my family and needed to put something on to help me fall asleep in the back; I threw on Floating Points' Elaenia, and what I got instead was one of the most meticulously-crafted, slow-burning electronic albums I'd ever heard. I was up from start to finish, probably making that cringe face people do when listening to something really good. Since that first spin, Elaenia has grown to become arguably my favorite electronic album, and likewise Sam Shepherd my favorite artist of his kind. No matter how deep I've dug into his catalog over the last 5 years, I've always found some sort of hidden gem that I somehow missed on previous searches. Last week I went digging into his SoundCloud and found a handful of mixes from 2013 and '14, one of which was an 86-minute compilation of classic Brazilian records... I rarely find music this tailored for me, and bro... it delivered. Highlights include Tim Maia's "Contato Com O Mundo Racional" (17:50), Simone's cover of "Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser" (28:46), Azymuth's "Melo Dos Dois Bicudos" (59:10), and a ton more. For those of you who are into ripping .mp3s, there's a download link in the track description and also a guy in the comments posting a link to the tracklist. I'm not going to make separately-dedicated posts, but I also recommend his "Summer13at45" mix, and obviously Elaenia, Shadows, Crush, Vacuum Boogie, etc.

Best Interest – Tyler, the Creator

Ladera Heights, CA
2019

I grabbed dinner with some friends earlier this week and we talked about Tyler's evolution over the last 10(!) years; I was surprised to be the only one that preferred his more recent work. Don't get me wrong – his early stuff was always cool to me because I could tell he was a part of that lineage of my favorite weirdo rappers, and also that he had an appreciation for the music that came before him: Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers, Ronnie McNeir, Krautrock, whatever. You could also tell he was a real "music kid" by how he recalled his favorite songs by their track numbers. This IGOR era though... musically, it's just different. It feels lush and expensive in a way that pop music hasn't been since, well, the days of Pharrell. The way he layered the electric guitar with the soul sample here immediately took me back to the guitar solo at the end of "Christian Dior Denim Flow". If you ask Tyler though, his analogue is probably N.E.R.D. Nonetheless, it's all one and the same. It's pop, but it's also subversive. It's triumphant, but in a way that's intended to let you know he's not supposed to have the life he has now. All this for a song about being someone's sidepiece. And the video? Man...

The Ecstatic – Mos Def

Brooklyn, NY
2009

I remember exactly where I was when I heard "Auditorium" for the first time 10 years ago. I was in the 9th (10th?) grade and had caught the bus to my friend's house after school. It was ritual to spend 1-2 hours a day digging through YouTube and WorldStar for new music. Being a Persian kid who played the cello and who was deeply obsessed with production styles, the Bollywood sample here caught my attention in the most... natural way. The album in general is dominated by Middle Eastern sounds and internationalist, Pan-Islamic ideas, blending the conscious Brooklyn style you'd expect from Mos Def with the sounds of Indian, Brazilian, and Moroccan pop music. I'm sure I'm missing more than a dozen other geographic references. One of my favorite details is how it also served as a precursor to Kanye's whole Good Friday / Rosewood era. I was actually prompted to revisit the album a few weeks ago with the 9-year anniversary of MBDTF, accidentally uncovering so many details that I didn't catch the first time around: the loop on "History"; the way he guides the pulse of "No Hay Nada Mas"; the careful restraint of "Pistola"; the shameless positivity of "Priority"... It's just an all-round genius and lovable album.

Olha O Menino – Caetano Veloso

Santo Amaro, Bahia, Brazil
1977

I found this record by digging up the sample from Karriem Riggins's "Summer Madness". Earlier this year I'd already started to make the foray into Brazilian pop music with Milton Nascimento's Clube da Esquina, some random Arthur Verocai records, and the obligatory Madlib Flight to Brazil. All of them were good, but they seemed like foundational starting-point type records. I'm still trying to learn more, and this Caetano Veloso record might be the one to finally push me further into the rabbit hole. "Olha O Menino" fits right into the whole "Música Popular Brasileira" (MPB) canon with one of the most infectious, sun-bleached hooks I've ever heard. The bassline on this song is... not from this planet. Like pretty much all of my favorite artists, Veloso brings an unusual use of textures, like the random rhodes keyboard hanging out somewhere in the back, and the ornate string arrangements that would normally feel out-of-place on a record likely inspired by kids playing barefoot street soccer.

See Line Woman – Songstress

Detroit, MI
1997

Coming from more of a rap and soul music background, the Nina Simone sample here showed me a fusion of worlds that I never knew existed... This was definitely one of the first songs that got me into house music back when I first started going down rabbit holes on YouTube. It all started with the guys from Detroit: Omar S, Kerri Chandler, Norm Talley, Andrés, etc. They were able to take my favorite Motown textures and recontextualize them in a way that I didn't know was possible. On "See Line Woman", Kerri Chandler and Jerome Sydenham repackage the percussion and vocals from Nina Simone's 1964 original into one of the most tribal dance records I've ever heard. Sampling 30-year old records is obviously nothing new, but there's something futuristic and sophisticated about the way they layer the vocals and drums with the synths here. Insane record, all 7 minutes of it.

Smoke (Remix) – Blood Orange, Yves Tumor, & Ian Isiah

London, UK / Knoxville, TN / Flatbush, NYC
2018

I'll admit that I was really late on Blood Orange. It wasn't until Negro Swan that I gave him a spin, and even then it was only because of the Project Pat feature. I've never been too keen on the whole "bedroom pop" thing, but the album somehow grew into one of my favorites of 2018. The original "Smoke", which closed out Negro Swan, was one of the tracks that made me obsessed with the album; it's really an accessible pop song but Dev just twists your ear by making you wait a few minutes to get to the loop. For the remix, he recruits Yves Tumor, who adds an entirely new dimension over chopped up patois samples. It's just a crazy, crazy amalgamation of references and textures that no one else could even try to imitate.

Deeper Than Rap – Rick Ross

Miami, FL
2009

One of the things that's started to make me feel old as a music fan is having to defend Rick Ross. Kids these days are just not up on his catalog. From 2006 - 2012 dude basically lead the charge for mafioso rap with some of the most outrageously expensive-sounding music of our time. Between Port of Miami and Rich Forever, I imagine every beat cost north of $1 million. It's funny – I recently went through some old kanyeuniversecity archives and saw a post where 'Ye said Deeper Than Rap was one of the only rap albums he felt comfortable playing in his apartment, and it kinda makes sense. Ross's full orchestra and horn ensemble probably go well with Italian marble. Kanye himself actually stops by in full Louis-Vuitton-Don-mode, dropping one of the most flexed-up verses of his career. Although Ross is borderline delusional in his commitment to this whole kingpin fantasy, it brings out the absolute best in his ear for beats and features.

Limp Biscuit Anthem – Gerry Read

Suffolk, UK
2015

I know very little of Gerry Read, but I do know that he's affiliated with the "weird house" movement and that I'm very interested. If I wanted any confirmation that he was weird enough, "Limp Biscuit Anthem" was it. You could maybe get away with playing this on a dance floor, but the song doesn't initially feel designed for it... It kicks off with – no joke – a Tommy Wright III sample and other classic Memphis sounds you might recognize from the latest A$AP Rocky single (yeah, the babushka one). About halfway in, it somehow twists into an absolutely thumping house track. I've always been a fan of "outsider" music, so I immediately took to how rule-breaking the song felt. Needless to say, I'm excited to check out the rest of Read's catalog. Shoutout Pampa Records too.