Once upon a time I was an enthusiastic and prolific poster on a web forum called Warseer (more on this later.) On that forum we used to have a tradition of once a year composing mix tapes of whatever music we were into at that time and then getting paired up with someone else and swapping mix tapes, then reviewing the results for the edification of the other gaming nerds. This was probably my favourite thing that i’d ever done on that forum. I organised it a couple of times and on the tracklists from the 5 different years I’ve done it I can clearly chart my progressing musical tastes (and I still think that the second year, the one I did just after I moved back here from Britain, was the best in some ways, definitely the most eclectic, it had an 18th century Irish ballad with a cracking Uilleann Pipe solo next to an Olodum and jimmy cliff cover of Bob Marleys No Woman No Cry, Immortal Technique, ADF and The Fall among others).
The last time I did it I posted the song list, links to the songs (which I had temporarily up loaded to Soundcloud) and the short paragraph about why i picked each song so i could share the track list with anyone who had internet access and wanted to listen, and I cross posted this into my Facebook as a Note. This proved reasonably popular among some of my friends, a few people didn’t even listen to any of the music but did like reading the post.
This is going to be quite long so I'm breaking it down into 4 parts, each consisting of 7 tracks. The latter 2 parts are the sort of thing I like to listen to when I'm out or would like to spin myself if I got the chance, so they'll be all banging electronica across the various genres I like. The first two parts are basically everything else, this first part being the stuff I enjoy for its lyrical and poetic qualities.
Akala – Where I’m From
One of the events that the last year will always be remembered for will be the riots that started in central London and spread through the rest of the inner cities this summer. It was a tense time and tempers were fraught, I got deefed by an ex-housemate after an argument about the riots. I fully went to war on facebook as it was kicking off. Mostly I railed against the hypocrisy of people, many of whom should have known better, who were quick to judge the rioting as mindless violence and thuggery, as if the people involved weren’t people but some animal sub-species. That was why I was so glad that in the middle of the rioting channel 4, in a stroke of pure IRL dramatic irony, showed a documentary about the people and the culture of those very inner cities that were exploding in rage. This documentary was The Life of Rhyme (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/life-of-rhyme), its subject was the UKs indigenous rap culture and it was presented by Akala. This set me off on a whole tip of listening to this stuff for those weeks over this summer and was one of the things that just got me back into hip hop in general. Out of the stuff that i came across from the UK scene I was really impressed with Akala who, as well as being a thoughtful and articulate spokesperson for the scene in that documentary, actually has some serious skills on him himself. I liked this track in particular because it uses the sample from my favourite Siouxie and the Banshees song (actually he’s good at picking out good samples to rap over, see for example Shakespeare) and his flow is exquisite, shifting naturally from spitting to just speaking.
POS - De La Souls
The other thing that got me back into listening to hip-hop was POS. I’d been trying to get a set playing something at one of the fundraisers for Gerry Carrols election campaigns, and gave a general shout out on my facebook for tips on conscious / political hip hop, which I was intending to play since its the sort of thing that I reckoned would go down well with a bunch of lefties. It ended up not happening but in the midst of it a friend of mine sent me a link to some P.O.S and i was impressed enough with that one track that I got two of the albums, which i completely loved and ended up rinsing out on my I-Pod. If you could wear out mp3s by repeatedly playing them, that shit would have happened. I picked this track for my selection of the tracks of the year not because it’s his best (its up there) but because it displays what P.O.S does very well, which is an articulate poetic flow, conscious of the music’s roots in black culture (its so-called because its based on an old De La Soul track) and uses elements from P.O.S’s other musical love, Punk. It makes for a good mix and is indicative of the brilliance of the rest of his work, and it is catchy as hell, I can never resist joining him on that “cause I’m always on the run run run” bit.
B Dolan – Joan of Arcadia
The best live gig I saw all year was a show in Dublin that I went to with Mischa, the friend that put me onto P.O.S. B. Dolan does cracking hip hop but is from a performance poetry background and it’s this that comes across in this particular track. This is a slam poem with beats. The poem itself is a deep sweeping meditation on rapture, sexual and religious. It sweeps in and shows Dolans warmth and humour (both of which come across even better when you see it live).
Baba Brinkman – Gilgamesh
Continuing the theme of hip hop as a story telling medium, one of the real finds i had this year was this nerd-core I picked up on the /mu/ section of 4chan. They post “Share threads” which are a series of links to places where music, whole albums and EPs, are archived online. This is off one by Baba Brinkman, a professor of poetry who moonlights as a rapper. It’s off an album of hip hop adaptations of ancient literature which as well as this re-telling of The Epic of Gilgamesh includes Beowulf and one of the Canterbury tales. The whole thing is class but i like this one in particular because it tells you a lot about the original text, is a great feat of rapping and rhyming in its own right and does actually capture the epic themes of the original story. I know that liking this makes me a complete nerd but I could give less of a fuck, a ten and a half minute track that makes you not just understand, but feel the very first story ever recorded in all of human civilisation? How can you not like that?
Gil Scott Heron – I’m New here
One of the sadder deaths of the last year was that of Gil Scott Heron who left us just when he seemed to be crawling out of the pit of obscurity that he’d been consigned to by the unforgiving media, his own negative tendencies and the persecution of the state. I like this track because it’s so simple and so beautiful, it just captures him, (or rather my idea of him). It’s broken, rough, ironic, soulful, funny and sweet. He was on such good form and it’s such a hopeful positive song in spite of everything he’d been through that it’s a shame that I’m New Here (of which this is the title track) and the remix album are his swan song rather than the beginning of a new chapter in his career. Still, if you could choose a note to go out on you’d be hard pressed to do better than this.
RIP you absolute legend.
Mountain Goats – No Children
This is a strange wee track that I came across messing around on Spotify. I had actually heard this one before years ago when it was used on an episode of the brilliant adult swim cartoon Moral Orel but I only got to know what it actually was when I came across it again this year and its stuck with me since for a lot of reasons. It’s a very precise, well-structured, elegant bit of lyrical story telling that manages to paint a whole picture of an unpleasant doomed marriage in a few sparse pieces of imagery and factual detail, a good example of how a good story teller does so by showing rather than telling that speaks to me as a writer as something to aspire to. Another wee technical thing I like about it is it’s use of the second person and how much you can convey just by doing that. But the thing I really like is that it’s all done to an up-beat sea-shanty riff that belies the darkness of the story that’s being told. This dissonance creates a real tension in the track that makes it extremely memorable, that and the catchiness of the tune itself. Love it.
Thats part one. Join me next time when I go through what I would loosely describe as the guitar -y stuff that I still like.