Around the 2007 release of Wilco’s sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky, Jeff Tweedy talked a lot about classic rock. Sky Blue Sky eschewed much of the experimentation that had characterized the album’s immediate predecessors (2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born), favoring a more straightforward musical and lyrical style. In several interviews, Tweedy insisted that he preferred not to give too much credence to the “alternative country” and “experimental” labels that had followed him since his earliest days as a founding member of Uncle Tupelo. Instead, Tweedy insisted, Wilco should be known as a rock ‘n’ roll band.For a piece in the Wall Street Journal, Tweedy acknowledged the influence that 1970s rock had on Sky Blue Sky, listing his five favorite albums from that era. The first five songs on this playlist are sourced from that article, wherein Tweedy confesses he “often tries to emulate” Nick Drake’s picking style and claims The Clash’s “Train In Vain” “was huge” for him growing up. Considering Wilco’s sound, those choices—as well as the inclusion of Dylan and Wings—make sense. The outlier in his list is Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” which Tweedy calls “a great pop record.” However, despite all the talk of experimentation surrounding Wilco, Tweedy has always known how to make catchy music.The remaining tracks on the playlist were added based on covers Tweedy has done, both live and on record, with Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. A version of Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart” appears on Uncle Tupelo’s swan song Anodyne*, and a cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” appears on the 2003 reissue of that album. Wilco has frequently covered Bill Fay** and Big Star, including the latter’s “In The Street” (a.k.a. The theme song to That ‘70s Show). During an all-covers set at 2013’s Solid Sound Festival, Wilco played the classic songs by The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, and Television that are featured here.Sticklers may note that The Band’s “The Weight” was technically released in 1968. However, this version with The Staples Singers was recorded at the group’s 1976 farewell concert and released two years later as part of the Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz. Tweedy, who has collaborated with Mavis Staples throughout the years, joined an ensemble of musical greats—including Nick Lowe, whose “Peace, Love, and Understanding” Wilco covered for Spotify’s Singles Series—to perform a rendition of “The Weight” in 2014 in honor of Staples’ 75th birthday.Tweedy is gearing up for the June 2017 release of Together at Last, which features acoustic versions of songs by various bands throughout his illustrious career. By playing in a stripped down form, devoid of any attempts at musical experimentation, Tweedy will likely reinforce just how influential this decade of classic rock was on the formation of his own, unique sound.*This song isn’t on Spotify, and was replaced with Sahm’s “Don’t Turn Around,” from his 1973 album Doug Sahm and His Band.**Tweedy typically covers Bill Fay’s “Be Not So Fearful,” which isn’t on Spotify, so I’ve replaced it with Fay’s cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.,” which, of course, was not released in the ‘70s.
Los Angeles rappers have a propensity for giving themselves two letter names. YG is the city’s most well-known export, but there’s also RJ (pictured), AD, T.F, and KR. Most of these artists have collaborated with each other, and are a hit or two away from breaking through at the national level.This playlist contains songs by these two-letter rappers, as well as the rest of the city’s best young talent. “Young,” of course, might not be the best description. Some of the artists, such as RJ and G Perico, hover on either side of the 30-year mark. Many of the artists have been releasing music for several years, cultivating loyal regional fan bases. But no matter their ages, all of these rappers are poised to have lengthy, promising careers ahead of them.They were certainly born in a good place to become a rapper. Los Angeles has long been a hub of the music industry, as well as an historic hip-hop city. Still, L.A.’s scene can be as insular as any other town. Many rappers achieve local hits on Power 106, but never make it across the country to Hot 97’s airwaves. Part of the reason is the specific sound the city embraces, largely fueled by the distinctive production of DJ Mustard.Many of the rappers on this list, especially those who’ve collaborated with Mustard, hail from South Central Los Angeles. Gang affiliation, either red or blue, plays a significant role in the music of rappers like G Perico, AD, and Boogie. But, given L.A.’s massive sprawl, there is, naturally, diverse music being made in various pockets of the city. Natia and Cam & China hail from Inglewood; Warm Brew is from the beachside community of Venice. It’s easy to detect a slight difference in the tone of these artists, simply based on their being born a few miles closer to the beach.Despite the hyperlocal loyalty that pervades L.A. hip-hop, many of these rappers are putting the pieces in motion to move beyond the borders of Greater Los Angeles. Cozz has signed with J. Cole’s Dreamville Records. Hugh Augustine landed a feature alongside Jay Rock on Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade. Bricc Baby’s “No Smoke” features Young Thug. And though Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, and YG are already popular enough that they probably don’t need to be on this list, they’re good enough (and still young enough) that they deserve to be.Although New York is the birthplace and Atlanta is the current epicenter of hip-hop, these artists prove that the west coast is continuing to push the genre in creative directions. Soon, the rest of the country should recognize the music being made in the nation’s second biggest city. And if they don’t like it, then—as YG says on his track with Sad Boy, AD, and Bricc Baby—“Don’t Come to L.A.”
As the lone R&B singer on the Top Dawg Entertainment roster, SZA has been the label’s go-to source for melodic contributions since she signed on in 2013. She’s loaned hooks and guest spots to most of her labelmates’ albums, appearing on Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade, ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP, Ab-Soul’s These Days, and Jay Rock’s 90059.This month marks the release of CTRL, SZA’s long-awaited debut studio LP. While Rashad and fellow TDE rapper Kendrick Lamar return the favor with featured verses, CTRL demonstrates that SZA is more than capable of carrying a project on her own. If there were any doubts about SZA as a solo artist, she puts them to rest in the three minutes of album opener “Supermodel.” The track features skeletal instrumentation, allowing the full range of her voice to breathe over minimalist guitar and drums.The rest of the album’s production is similarly stripped down, with sparse samples accentuating SZA’s vocal work. “Broken Clocks” features a reverb-heavy loop of Toronto artists River Tiber and Daniel Caesar’s song “West.” “Anything” contains a subtle quote of Donna Summer’s “Spring Reprise” atop stuttering electronic drums. Even subtler still, SZA slips in a quick sample of Redman’s “Let’s Get Dirty” midway through the Kendrick Lamar-assisted, definitely dirty “Doves In The Wind.”SZA has been upfront about her eclectic influences. She’s indebted to powerful vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill, who grew up near SZA’s hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey. She’s professed love for Purity Ring, who produced “God’s Reign,” an Ab-soul song on which SZA appears. And SZA’s music exudes a calming effect akin to that of Little Dragon, blending elements of other genres to push R&B into stranger and more interesting territory. Outside of her work with TDE, SZA has collaborated with several top names in R&B: She appeared on “Consideration,” the opening track of Rihanna’s ANTI, and she helped write “Feeling Myself,” Nicki Minaj’s collaborative track with Beyoncé.It must be difficult to be a singer on a label dominated by rappers, but a few years of background work seemed only to prime SZA for a stronger solo debut. Not every song on CTRL is perfect, but each is presented in SZA’s unique voice and refined style. With CTRL, SZA cements a place for herself not just as a collaborator or supporting act, but as a standalone artist.
Though the term is tossed around a lot, there’s really no such thing as a “one-hit wonder.” If the criteria were simply having one Top 40 Billboard hit, then blink-182, Gorillaz, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix would all be considered one-hit wonders. Even artists that produce only one successful single can have a profound musical impact beyond that song. And there must be at least one power-pop enthusiast out there who knows every Fountains of Wayne song—or at least one besides “Stacy’s Mom”—by heart. Still, we all know what the term “one-hit wonder” generally implies. It’s an artist that produces one massively popular song that completely overshadows all other aspects of their career, whether it lasts for one album or several decades.This playlist consists of one-hit wonders in the post-millennial indie-pop realm. The majority of these groups adhere to the strict definition of the term, having produced at least one single that landed in the Billboard Top 40 charts. But researching this playlist yielded some surprises about artists that I incorrectly assumed only had one recognizable song. Foster the People has actually had a bunch of hit singles, though only “Pumped Up Kicks” has reached No. 1. Noah and the Whale has had several songs chart in the UK, but “5 Years Time” is the only song that resonated elsewhere. Of Monsters and Men has had other successful singles, but “Little Talks” is the only one that has breached the Billboard Top 40. And The Ting Tings were going to be included on this list, until Wikipedia informed me that the band actually had a handful of other singles that charted in the US besides “That’s Not My Name.”Aside from Fountains of Wayne, the most obvious one-hit wonder on this playlist is Gotye. “Somebody That I Used To Know” was a huge No. 1 hit in at least 10 countries, and is likely stuck in your head now that you’ve read its name. But does anyone even remember “Eyes Wide Open,” Gotye’s single released before “Somebody That I Used To Know,” and his only other song to chart in the US?The truth is that someone out there definitely knows that song, and also considers a few other Gotye songs “personal hits” to them the same way, say, Louis XIV’s “Finding Out True Love Is Blind” is to me—it may never have been a literal chart hit, but it was a smash single in my heart. That’s the tricky thing about calling artists one-hit wonders: They never truly are. In the world of indie-pop, however, that distinction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not having hit songs gives you more cred, anyways.
There was a time, not too long ago, when the term “LGBT rapper” did not exist. Of course there were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rappers out there but, the truth is, they simply were not accepted by the mainstream hip-hop community. As recently as 2012, it was considered somewhat taboo for Jay-Z to come out in support of gay marriage. Around the same time, Odd Future was catching flak for their overuse of a certain anti-gay slur that’s been around rap for decades. In 2017, Jay-Z’s mother came out as lesbian on 4:44 and Tyler, The Creator confirmed on Scum Fuck Flower Boy that he’s maybe, but maybe not, gay or bisexual, like fellow Odd Future members Frank Ocean and Syd.Those are still the most high-profile examples in hip-hop, and, despite Macklemore’s best intentions with “Same Love,” the genre has yet to accept a truly mainstream LGBT artist. But advances have still been made, and the fact that there are enough rappers to fill this playlist (as well as enough bad LGBT rappers that not all of them had to be included) shows how far the genre has come in a relatively short period of time.This playlist begins with the hits, in an attempt to prove that ILoveMakonnen and Young M.A. make songs we all like, regardless of their sexual preferences. Then we get into artists that have become icons of LGBT rap, like Le1f (pictured above), Cakes da Killa, and Big Freedia, as well as younger artists like Kevin Abstract and his Brockhampton group that consider being gay normal and probably wouldn’t even want to be on this list at all.The only non-LGBT artists here (aside from the aforementioned Jay-Z) are Chance the Rapper and Jeremih, who feature on Taylor Bennett’s song “Grown Up Fairy Tales.” They’re included because Taylor Bennett revealed earlier this year that he’s “a bisexual man,” and the fact that Chance—one of the world’s most popular, Christian rappers—is supporting his brother’s sexuality is yet another small but significant testament to the genre’s progress. (Even though Bennett’s other song on this list is called “Straight from the Bottom,” it’s also good.)There are a lot of openly LGBT rappers now, but things will be better when we don’t categorize them in that manner at all. In the meantime, enjoy these songs, all of which are great regardless of their creators’ sexual orientations.
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.