“Big For Your Boots”
Gang Signs & Prayer (out 02.24 on #Merky)
About halfway through my first listen of the lead single from Stormzy’s debut LP, I got the feeling that I was listening to a future classic. Maybe it’s the way the beat shifts gears — how the hi-hats accelerate then Read more
I'm gonna try to bring back the monthly Round-Up/Best-Of column. Except this year, I'm only going to focus on the stuff that I haven't previously covered. So if you want to hear my thoughts on Sampha, Mount Eerie, Stormzy, Julie Byrne, J Hus, The xx, Father John Misty, etc, all you Read more
Early this week, tragic news broke that James Laurence, better known as one half of production duo Friendzone, had passed away at the impossibly young age of 27. Laurence grew up in Danville, CA — a leafy suburb at the foot of Mt. Diablo in the East Bay — and along with Read more
"(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano"
Process (out 02.03 on Young Turks)
The soft-spoken Londoner's delicate piano ballad feels like the first truly great song of 2017. Over his nimble, mantric piano melody, Sampha bares his soul, expounding on the way music can allow you to be yourself beyond the constraints of your Read more
31. Huerco S
For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
Though the K.C.-producer’s debut LP Colonial Patterns enjoyed overwhelming acclaim, he seismically shifted his sound for his second one, veering from opaque beat music to oceanic, drifting synthscapes. Though it's a risky move, it pays big dividends, and Read more
Mr. Mitch “Priority” (f/ P Money) Devout (out 04.21 on Planet Mu)
Today, the London grime-ish producer announced his second LP, the follow-up to 2014’s excellent Parallel Memories. Lead single, “Priority,” is a contemplative, mid-tempo cut that features the twinkling, emotional synth melodies that he’s known for. And Lewisham veteran P Money comes through with some reflective, low-key verses that touch on parenthood, sobriety, and growing up. Mitch is that rare artist who has crafted a signature sound without being beholden to it, constantly looking for new ways to branch out while staying true to his sound. Can’t wait to hear the whole project.
“What Is Love” (f/ SZA) Tears in the Club (out 02.24 on Fade to Mind)
The third track from the Fade To Mind honcho’s debut LP is the perfect soundtrack for your Valentine’s Day. Kingdom (né Ezra Rubin) has a sparkling track record of crafting forward-thinking slow jams, and “What is Love” is another notch on his musical bedpost. His seductive synths and choppy percussion sets the mood, and SZA knocks it out of the park, never raising her voice but still pushing all the right buttons.
Phoebe Bridgers “Smoke Signals” Digital Single (PAXAM)
The first song from the LA folk singer’s debut LP has been in heavy rotation for me since it dropped in early January. There’s a wonderful spookiness to “Smoke Signals,” and its cinematic, uneasy atmosphere reminds me of classic horror movies from the dawn of Hollywood.You can almost feel the smoke lingering in the air, as her fingerpicked electric guitar and haunting vocals undulate gracefully before slowly receding back into the darkness.
Stormzy “Big For Your Boots” Gang Signs & Prayer (out 02.24 on #Merky) About halfway through my first listen of the lead single from Stormzy’s debut LP, I got the feeling that I was listening to a future classic. Maybe it’s the way the beat shifts gears — how the hi-hats accelerate then drop off like a NASCAR. Or maybe it’s the magnetic, endlessly quotable bars, tailor-made to be screamed by hoards of sweaty kids. It could also be Sir Spyro & Fraser T Smith’s grime Game of Thrones synth chords. It’s probably a little bit of all of that, but more than that, it’s the relentlessly joyful spirit that Stormzy always brings to his music, which makes him impossible not to cheer for. All hail.
I’m gonna try to bring back the monthly Round-Up/Best-Of column. Except this year, I’m only going to focus on the stuff that I haven’t previously covered. So if you want to hear my thoughts on Sampha, Mount Eerie, Stormzy, Julie Byrne, J Hus, The xx, Father John Misty, etc, all you have to do is scroll down.
The Migos Rightfully Claim The National Spotlight
Though their commitment to staying independent was questioned by many, the Migos’ unquestioned rise to the top of the rap universe (and Billboard charts) is both a vindication of their rare talent and their refusal to kowtow to major labels. Their second studio LP, Culture, is joyous and triumphant effort that showcases all three of their members and a clutch of some of the best producers on the planet (Metro Boomin, Cardo Got Wings, Nard & B). As influential as they always were, they’ve been slept on way too long, and it’s fantastic to see the world wake up.
Ryan Adams Is… Back?
I’ve spent the last 10 years trying talking myself into decent but flawed Ryan Adams albums, almost like I’m trying to trick my brain into caring as much about them as I did Love is Hell, Cold Roses, and Pneumonia. Frankly, it’s not been that effective (even though I swear Easy Tiger is underrated), but early returns on his new breakup LP have been incredibly exciting. While lead singles “Do You Still Love Me?” and “To Be Without You,” are solid, but not spectacular late-career Adams, I’ve been obsessed with a pair of Tunnel of Love-recalling live songs: the title track and the heart-crushing “Haunted House.” I never listen to live YouTube rips, but these feel like the two best songs he’s written in a really long time, and I’m dying to hear the rest of it.
PnB Rock Drops His Long-Awaited Debut
After falling in love with his 2014 RnB 3 collection, the Philly native’s major label debut was high on my most-anticipated list. The 24 year-old didn’t disappoint, as GTTM: Goin Thru the Motions is an engaging collection that lives in the potent nether zone between R&B and street rap. A talented vocalist with knack for crafting unescapable earworms, Rakim “PnB Rock” Allen is fast cementing himself as one of the genre’s foremost rising stars.
Our Ol’ Pal Jens Returns
Five years on from dropping my favorite album of 2012, I Know What Love Isn’t, the amiable 35 year-old is dropping his fourth full-length. Early returns — a pair of singles and live set I caught late last year — have me eagerly awaiting its arrival. Lekman is one of the most talented, unique songwriters we have, and Life Will See You Now looks to be another sonically versatile, unexpected collection that deals with life’s innumerable grey areas and micro-moments that are hard to pin down but form the meat of our lives.
Note: A new version of “Postcard #17” will also feature on the LP.
Akira Kosemura’s Enchanting Piano Playing
On his contemplative EP, Our Own Picture, the Tokyo resident strips everything back for a trio of gorgeous and naked piano compositions. Though he doesn’t get a ton of American press, Kosemura is one of the most talented pianists working today, and this bite-sized collection will hopefully inspire people to check out the rest of his fascinating catalog.
M. Lamar’s Ghostly Avant-Opera: Funeral Doom Spiritual
Though I haven’t listened to this challenging, unique LP nearly enough to come to any conclusions, the first few listens have been quite stunning. Funeral Doom Spiritual is a striking LP that fuses Lamar’s operatic, ultra-expressive vocals with melodramatic melodies, spectral piano, spiritual influences, and occasional harsh electronic elements performed by Liturgy frontman, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. In short, I’ve never heard anything like it, and I’m looking forward to getting to know it even better.
King Terius Drops a Low-Key EP
It won’t be mistaken for a project from The-Dream’s god level, four-disc run between 2007’s Love Hate and 2012’s Terius Nash: 1977. However, Love You to Death is a tasty little collection that will hopefully serve as an aperitif to his forthcoming full-length Love Affair, which is meant to drop in March. Nash keeps the BPM as low as the lights and glides through five, easy slow jams in the way that only he can.
Sinai Vessel’s Convincing and Cathartic Brokenlegged
The North Carolina trio’s Sophomore LP is a packed with evocative indie rock with nimble, jangling guitars and hooky songwriting that reminds me of the 90’s alt-rock that I grew up on. Frontman Caleb Cordes has a steady, expressive voice and a restless spirit, and his songwriting helps separate Brokenlegged from the rest of the crowded emo/indie-rock world.
Strand of Oaks Yearns For His Youth Crushing, crashing, bashing, smashing, thrashing, face melting, head exploding, etc. You can pick your fave rock writer cliche when talking about the leadoff single from Timothy Showalter’s upcoming LP, Hard Love. Though I’ve never been a huge fan, “Radio Kids” is miles away the best Strand of Oaks track yet. It is built around a huge guitar riff that is powerful enough to drag his pedestrian vocals and sadboi biker dude schtick to the transcendent heights that he’s always shot for but never come anywhere near.
Early this week, tragic news broke that James Laurence, better known as one half of production duo Friendzone, had passed away at the impossibly young age of 27. Laurence grew up in Danville, CA — a leafy suburb at the foot of Mt. Diablo in the East Bay — and along with production partner Dylan Reznick, was one of the main architects behind a dreamy, ambient sound called “Cloud rap.” Inspired by video games, Japanese culture, and a vast knowledge of music from all over the spectrum, the duo crafted unabashedly emotional, lofty beats that remain hugely influential to this day.
They are probably best known for their frequent collaborations with fellow East Bay natives, Main Attrakionz. Mondre M.A.N. and Squadda B’s messy, exuberant flows were the perfect match for Friendzone’s unique beats, and though they went on to work with heavyweights like A$AP Rocky and Yung Lean, nobody sounded better on a FZ beat than Main Attrakionz.
As always, I am loathe to speak about people I did not know. But I just wanted to salute James Laurence’s awesome contribution to music and pick a couple of my favorite Friendzone tracks. Rest in peace, James. And all my thoughts go out to his friends and family in the wake of this tragedy.
Friendzone “I Have Nothing” Collection I (2012)
The first FZ track I really fell in love with, “I Have Nothing” has all the hallmarks of that dreamy, woozy sound that they helped create. Like much of their best stuff, it has an oceanic feel, undulating between calm seas of synths and storms of percussion and vocal stabs. For me, it’s also the best example of their skillful vocal programming, often using sounds rather than words to convey a hell of a lot of meaning.
Main Attrakionz “Perfect Skies” (produced by Friendzone) 808s & Dark Grapes II (2011) The one that really blasted the MA/FZ partnership into the stratosphere, “Perfect Skies” is probably the archetypal “cloud rap” track to me. For three blissful minutes, Mondre M.A.N. and Squadda B smear their freewheeling verses over pristine, video game synths, 808s, and a soaring vocal sample from Japanese girl group Perfume. It captures the carefree, technicolor vibe of the genre and is perhaps the most beautiful beat the duo ever crafted.
Main Attrakionz “Summa Time” (produced by Friendzone) 808s & Dark Grapes III (2013) The sun hardly comes out during Bay Area summer, so Laurence and Reznick decided to make their some of their own on this gooey, luminous track. My favorite bit of this beat is at the end of the chorus (“The summer, the summer Wet paint and runners…”), because the descending synth melody feels so much like sun-rays breaking through thick summer clouds.
Friendzone “8 AM” DX (2013)
Gaming was always a core tenet of the Friendzone experience. And though I’m not much of a gamer, there was one I loved on Playstation called Jumping Flash — a bizarre Japanese game where you pilot a robotic rabbit around a fantasy world, hunting for Jet Pods. It was a placid and gorgeous game, and “8AM” feels just like it — a serene and innocent adventure through a surreal and magical universe.
Squadda B “Love U” TAG CHAMPZ BUNDLE It’s hard for me to write about Friendzone without mentioning the East Bay’s favorite son, Lil B. Though they surprisingly never worked together, much of the MA/FZ catalog shares the Based God’s ultra-posi nature and chain of consciousness flow. You can really hear that on this ecstatic, freewheeling cut that pairs delicious keys with Squadda B’s love letter to his fans. He delivers it with ab unhinged, coming-down-off-ecstasy sincerity, which highlights the imperfect authenticity that caused so many people to gravitate to the whole scene.
Brent Barstow x Friendzone “Growing Apart” Digital Single Though it’s far from an essential FZ track, I had to tack this one on the end because it is just so fucking weird and atypical of their sound. A bizarro slow jam from their early years, “Growing Apart” is a spare, piano-kissed love song that feels sooooo 2011 Soundcloud. If nothing else, it’s a nice reminder of good times gone by and how far they came in such a short time. RIP, James.
“Performance” I See You (out now on Young Turks)
Unlike most, I am an xx classicist. Jamie xx seems like a talented guy, but I tend to prefer Romy and Oliver-centric, hyper intimate tracks like this (see also: “Night Time,” “Fiction,” “Stars,”), my favorite moment on their very good third LP. “Performance” ranks right up there with Romy Madley Croft most affecting compositions. Never one to spill her guts, Croft would rather pull you in and whisper in your ear, achieving the sweetest, most delicate catharsis possible.
Father John Misty
“Two Wildly Different Perspectives” Pure Comedy (out 04.07 on Sub Pop)
The world is fucked up, and our ol’ pal Father John Misty has some thoughts about it. This poignant piano ballad is a second taste of his upcoming third LP and carries the same lyrical focus as the rambling, darkly funny, “Pure Comedy.” However, this track differs from much of the 35 year-old’s previous political work (i.e., “Bored in the USA,” “Holy Shit”), as there’s no humor at all here — just a grim exploration of a world hopelessly divided and coming apart at the seams.
Dave x J Hus
“Samantha” Digital Single
Two artists responsible for a few of my favorite tracks of 2016 come together for a low-key singsong that highlights both of their versatile skill sets. Think of it as (sad)Boyz II (road)Men, “Samantha” is a moody, mid-tempo track along the lines of Dave’s sleeper hit, “Wanna Know.” The two MCs interchange effortlessly, switching between reflective bars and easy crooning over minor-chord piano and staccato percussion. As good as this is, it feels like it’s just the tip of the iceberg for both of them.
Real Estate “Darling” In Mind (out 03.17 on Domino) Though they recently bid farewell to founding guitarist Matt Mondanile, everybody’s favorite Jerseyites are back with a follow-up to their languid 2014 LP, Atlas. More than anything, “Darling” will assuage any fears about the viability of the group sans Mondanile. Real Estate has always been known for their hooky, nimble guitar riffs, and they come through with a trademark one here that buzzes and floats with the same easy grace of much of their best work.