Butch Walker scored his first hit as the frontman of Marvelous 3, who recorded the alt-rock smash “Freak of the Week” in 1998, before he launched a lengthy solo career as a singer-songwriter with a cult fanbase. But over the last two decades, Walker’s most widely heard work has been as a producer or songwriter. With his lyrical wit, his bottomless well of guitar licks, and his ear for big catchy choruses, he’s a pop punk power player who’s helped with Fall Out Boy’s comeback as well as singles for Bowling For Soup and American Hi-Fi. But his versatility and work ethic have also made him a crucial collaborator for pop stars like Katy Perry and Pink, hard rock bands like Sevendust, and even country singer Keith Urban.
Vince Staples came to prominence as an associate of the L.A. underground rap collective Odd Future, making multiple appearances on Earl Sweatshirt’s 2013 album Doris. Two years later, Staples released the acclaimed album Summertime ’06 on Def Jam, which featured an appearance by frequent collaborator Jhene Aiko and established the Northside Long Beach rapper as a brilliant and distinctive voice in hip hop. Despite his irreverence toward traditional hip hop gatekeepers, Staples has proven an able collaborator for conscious veterans like Common and Dilated Peoples, as well as an agile MC who can tackle adventurous tracks from producers like Flume and Clams Casino. With the sheer variety of collaborators he sounds at home with, Vince Staples has enhanced the unique place his solo work occupies in the musical landscape and the ways he can express his sense of humor and political perspective.
Subscribe to the Spotify playlist here.Just as the Flamers mixtape series from 2008 to 2010 made Meek Mill the toast of Philadelphia, the Dreamchasers series became the franchise that made him a national star. The first volume in 2011 celebrated Meek’s signing to Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group and featured his breakthrough single “Ima Boss,” as well as the first of his narrative “Tony Story” tracks, demonstrating the MC’s commanding voice and his chemistry with Philly producer Jahlil Beats. 2012’s Dreamchasers 2 was so highly anticipated that its arrival crashed the servers of mixtape sites, and 2013’s third installment was a star-studded affair with multiple appearances from Nicki Minaj and French Montana. And 2016’s DC4 was a confident comeback after a year of beef and controversy.
Click here to add to Spotify playlist!For over two decades, R. Kelly has been brimming with ideas. In addition to the hundreds of original songs he’s penned, he often revisits his own singles, adding entirely new lyrics, beats, and melodies on remixes. Many of these, such as “Bump N’ Grind (Old School Mix)” and “Down Low (Nobody Has To Know) - Live To Regret It Mix,” became quiet-storm radio staples in their own right, while “Step In the Name of Love (Remix)” even eclipsed the original cut in popularity.In modern rap and R&B, remixes typically add guests to bring extra star power, like R. Kelly’s single version of “Did You Ever Think,” which features Nas. But even “Fiesta (Remix),” with verses from JAY Z and Boo and Gotti, features an update of a beat from the Trackmasters and a rewritten chorus. When writing original hooks for other artists, Kelly goes above and beyond, providing two distinct versions of Cassidy’s “Hotel” and Twista’s “So Sexy.”“Ignition (Remix)” is, of course, the most famous of all R. Kelly remixes, with a dancehall spin on the original track’s groove that almost abandons the song’s automobile-themed metaphor for a string of whimsical riffs. The original and the remix are meant to be heard together as one six-minute epic, as presented on 2003’s Chocolate Factory—and, in hindsight, 2001’s “Feelin’ On Yo Booty (Hypnosis Mix)” can be seen as a dry run for many of the melodic and rhythmic ideas heard on “Ignition (Remix).” Kelly’s revisions have spawned their own compilations—like 2005’s Remix City Volume 1—but our three-hour playlist brings together his remixes, their original tracks, and more. And with R.’s recent overhaul of the 1993 hit “Your Body’s Callin’,” it’s clear that he’ll always be willing to apply a fresh coat of paint to his masterpieces.
Young Thug says “Metro Boomin want some more,” Kodak Black says “Lil Metro on that beat,” and most famously, Future says, “If Young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you.” Regardless of which rapper is identifying Leland “Metro Boomin” Wayne at the moment, odds are you’ve heard his name and his beats on the radio a lot in the last few years. The St. Louis native began driving to Atlanta to collaborate with musicians as a high school student. Since his flashy piano work on 2013’s “Karate Chop,” he’s been one of Future’s closest collaborators, and he’s slowly expanded his clientele across the music industry, from Kanye West to Nicki Minaj.Although Metro Boomin is a master of the heavy bass and busy hi-hat programming of Atlanta’s ubiquitous trap sound, his work isn’t as singular or distinctive as previous kings of the scene like Lex Luger and Mike WiLL Made-It. Instead, Metro has distinguished himself with the sheer variety of sounds that he’s integrated into the trap blueprint, from the haunting chords of “Bad and Boujee” by Migos to the ethereal flute sample of “Mask Off” by Future.Metro Boomin is also a big collaborator, crafting the woozy groove of ILoveMakonnen’s quirky hit “Tuesday” with Sonny Digital and working alongside three other producers on Big Sean’s “Bounce Back.” His ear for bringing together the contributions of others served him well as he executive produced Drake and Future’s hit collaborative album What A Time To Be Alive and 21 Savage’s breakthrough mixtape Savage Mode. Sample 2017’s hottest producer with this playlist of his greatest hits.Click here to follow this playlist on Spotify.
New Jersey singer and musician Jack Antonoff fronted the band Steel Train for a decade with only a small cult following before pivoting into an unlikely career as a producer and songwriter behind Hot 100 hits by platinum pop stars like Taylor Swift and Lorde. It all began when he joined The Format’s Nate Ruess in a new project, fun. The band’s second album, Some Nights, launched “We Are Young,” an anthemic track that became one of the biggest pop hits of 2012. Ruess followed up the album with a solo project while Antonoff fronted a new band, Bleachers. But Antonoff went on to gain most of his success behind the scenes.Antonoff’s early outside credits include co-writing with Canadian indie pop heroes Tegan and Sara, including a track on their 2013 breakthrough album Heartthrob, and a bonus track for Carly Rae Jepsen’s Kiss. He also landed a big hit for Sara Bareilles, helping her write the Grammy-nominated, triple-platinum single “Brave.”By then, Antonoff and girlfriend Lena Dunham were rubbing elbows with a number of Top 40 stars, including Taylor Swift and Lorde, who both began seeking out his ear for nostalgic ‘80s pop sounds and confessional lyrics. Antonoff co-wrote several tracks on Swift’s 1989 and also her recent hit duet with ZAYN, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever.” He’s frequently collaborated with Lorde, both on her recent hit “Green Light” and on the second Bleachers album, Gone Now, due out June 2nd. He also collaborated with Grimes on “Entropy,” from the soundtrack for Dunham’s HBO series Girls.Though he sings in Steel Train and Bleachers, Antonoff’s Terrible Thrills series defers to stars like Tinashe and Charli XCX for their own spin. His affinity for female voices and perspectives has served him well as a songwriter, and ultimately, he might be happiest when handing the mic to a woman, even on his own records.Click here to follow this playlist on Spotify.
For over two decades—first as the frontman of Chisel, then as a solo artist—Ted Leo has cemented his status as one of indie rock’s most respected songwriters. With literate, layered lyrics that are as personal as they are political, Leo has honed a unique voice in part by wearing his influences on his sleeve, merging punk, folk, and classic rock. And the songs that inspired his sound have often crept into his live repertoire and, occasionally, his recorded output.Although Leo has had some of the most viral moments of his career by showing his appreciation for pop singers like Kelly Clarkson and Robyn, the covers that have made it onto stopgap EPs between albums stick closer to his roots. The Anglophile singer/songwriter affects a slight British accent when singing songs by The Jam and Stiff Little Fingers. And when he released one of his most urgently political records, the Rapid Response EP, during the 2008 election season, songs written by the Brit punk bands Cock Sparrer and Amebix sat alongside his own agitated anthems. He’s covered more famous acts like The Beatles and David Bowie for tribute albums, but even in the latter case he put his own stamp on “Heroes,” turning the song into a slow burn that works its way to an anthemic climax.Thin Lizzy’s soaring guitar leads and Phil Lynott’s dense storytelling have always been some of the most distinctive and undeniable influences on Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. So it’s no surprise that he’s covered Thin Lizzy on multiple occasions, including “Little Girl In Bloom” with the Pharmacists and “Honesty Is No Excuse” with The Both, his 2014 side project with Aimee Mann. But an equally important influence may be the New Zealand-bred bands Split Enz and Crowded House; Leo has covered the former’s “Six Months In A Leaky Boat” on multiple releases, and even took a line from the song as the title of one of his most beloved albums, 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were already anachronisms when they met as jazz-obsessed teenagers in the late ‘60s and began to write the droll, harmonically complex songs that made Steely Dan one of the greatest and most unique bands of the ‘70s. So it’s not surprising that the duo who worked tirelessly to get the best performances out of skilled session players never had much interest in hip-hop and the art of sampling. They even made it difficult to clear samples; they negotiated for the entire songwriting credit and publishing for the Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz hit “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” and only allowed a “Kid Charlemagne” sample on Kanye West’s “Champion” after West sent the duo a passionate handwritten letter. But even Steely Dan’s stingy attitude towards sample clearances hasn’t stopped dozens of artists from doing the necessary paperwork to obtain use of the band’s gloriously recorded jazz-rock grooves (though De La Soul may not have, which could be why one of the most famous Steely Dan samples, the “Peg” loop on “Eye Know,” isn’t available on streaming services). But while the Dan’s tightly syncopated grooves and densely detailed arrangements clearly attract crate-digging producers the most, Donald Fagen’s voice figures into a surprising number of samples, boasting “Yes, I’m gonna be a star” on Amiri’s “Star” or chanting “They don’t give a fuck about anybody else” on one of Super Furry Animals’ biggest UK chart hits. The Steely Dan songs that have been sampled by multiple artists offer a case study in how many options the band’s rich arrangements offer to beatmakers. Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz went for the obvious but irresistible opening bars of “Black Cow,” while MF Doom zeroed in on a lovely keyboard flourish that happens just once in the song’s bridge. And where Audio Bullys looped the hypnotic guitar lick from “Midnite Cruiser,” legendary Atlanta production team Organized Noize played the riff at three different speeds to create a whole new chord progression for Sleepy Brown’s solo track “Dress Up.” Becker, sadly, passed away on September 3, 2017. But his music lives on—and continues to find new audiences—through the many hip-hop, rock, and R&B tracks collected here.
Hip-hop brought black America at its most unfiltered into the mainstream like never before. And rappers have been pushing the envelope for sexual content dating back to even the genres earliest pop crossover moments. (Recall the "Rappers Delight" verse about "super sperm.") But it took some time for hip-hop to get really dirty. In the late 80s and early 90s, it was often gangsta rap pioneers like Ice-T and N.W.A. that set the bar for explicit sex talk, but it felt almost like a side effect of their penchant for breaking other taboos.Miamis 2 Live Crew became one of hip-hops first major acts to center their image on sex, and, in the process, upset the same censorship advocates that had been so focused on Prince a few years earlier, becoming unlikely champions of free speech. Throughout the early 90s, gangsta-rap albums continued to be peppered with odes to orgies and oral sex, and even relatively clean-cut acts like MC Hammer made ass-shaking anthems like "Pumps And A Bump." LL Cool J evolved from hip-hop love-song pioneer to the sex god of "Doin It." Sir Mix-A-Lots "Baby Got Back" became a pop phenomenon in part because of his cleverly cartoonish approach to sex, but, as his career continued, he got even more anatomical with songs like "Put Em On the Glass."In the mid-90s, the burgeoning hip-hop underground allowed more leeway for kinky lyrics that didnt even try to get past radio censors. Akinyele of "Put It In Your Mouth" fame dedicated his career to obscenity. Kool Keiths Dr. Octagon project became an indie-rap touchstone with a playfully absurd cocktail of sci-fi themes and sex raps. And R.A. The Rugged Mans 1994 debut album contained such perversely nasty lyrics that even the presence of rising mainstream star Notorious B.I.G. on "Cunt Renaissance" couldnt keep it from being shelved for several years.Early sex-positive female rap stars like Salt-N-Pepa gave way to X-rated pinups like Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, and in the early 2000s, Khia and Trina. By the 2010s, nearly every female rapper of note is as comfortable and unapologetic in rapping about ass and pussy as their male contemporaries, from superstars like Nicki Minaj to underground upstars like cupcakKe. Meanwhile, the rise of the Internet has reduced radios role as a gatekeeper, giving tracks like "Fuckin Problems" and "UP! (Beat the Pussy Up)" more room to thrive on the pop charts without being cleaned up for broadcast.
Chicago native Kanye West is one of midwest hip-hop’s biggest stars, and he made his name producing hits for JAY-Z and other New York rappers. But West has maintained his relevance over the years in part by keeping a finger on the pulse of southern hip-hop, drafting rising stars from Atlanta, Houston, and Miami to appear on his albums and producing hits for Dirty South stars like Ludacris and Jeezy. Most recently, he served as “executive producer” on Atlanta trio Migos’ new album, Culture II, where he co-produced the 21 Savage collaboration “BBO (Bad Bitches Only).”Kanye West’s track record below the Mason-Dixon line dates back to the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when he was a relatively unknown producer placing tracks with southern trailblazers like Goodie Mob and Scarface. In 2003, he notched his first No. 1 on the Hot 100 producing Ludacris’ club banger “Stand Up,” along with a pair of tracks on an album that would help define the next wave of southern rap, T.I.’s Trap Muzik. Over the next few years, as West became a solo star who bridged many divides in hip-hop, he became the kind of rare stylistic chameleon who could make trap hits with Jeezy or screwed ’n’ chopped grooves with Paul Wall in between his excursions into east-coast boom bap and futuristic EDM.As the founder of G.O.O.D. Music, Kanye West has signed Atlantans 2 Chainz and CyHi The Prynce, and helped mentor Houston rapper/producer Travis Scott. G.O.O.D.’s 2016 posse cut “Champions” brought together some of the above with Gucci Mane, Yo Gotti, and Quavo. Some of Kanye’s southern collaborations are better off forgotten, like the treacly Future duet “I Won” and the ill-fated Lex Luger-produced Watch The Throne single “H.A.M.” But by and large, Kanye West has been present for moments of greatness in southern rap, from Scarface’s The Fix to Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.