Click here to add to Spotify playlist!After a four-year silence that ended with last year’s widely acclaimed Blond(e), Frank Ocean has greeted 2017 with renewed vigor. He has dropped two singles, “Chanel” and “Slide,” the latter a pairing with Calvin Harris and Quavo from Migos. He has also released a dynamic playlist, “Blonded,” that appears far more personal and revelatory than the artist-branded content that label publicists crank out for streaming services. The first installment, revealed on February 24, included Celine Dion and Teen Suicide alongside obvious nods like Prince and Nina Simone. His March 10 update ventured further afield with jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, prog-pop enigma Todd Rundgren, and techno iconoclast Actress. “Blonded” aspires to the ideal of music consumption in the streaming era—now that we can listen to everything, we can consume anything (and switch things up when the mood strikes). It remains to be seen if Frank Ocean’s ideological generosity will eventually manifest in his music.
Its hard to believe that the Disney-loving, noodle-haired teen hanging from Britney Spears arm in the 90s would not only become one of pops biggest stars, but also a bona-fide, critically lauded hit-making powerhouse. Sure, lending his sky-scraping pipes to *NSYNC——one of the decades more successful forays into boyband-hood——guaranteed him a degree of visibility, respect, and fandom. But who could have predicted this unthreatening symbol of wholesome tween-pop would mastermind a career typified by unabashed sexuality, genre-bending sounds, and boundary-breaking hits?And with the release of his fifth album, Man of the Woods, on the horizon, Timberlake isnt taking his foot off the gas yet, with the album teaser seemingly nodding to yet another gear-change. Thanks to its slo-mo scenes of JT frolicking in nature (a field, some mountains, the snow!), many scathingly assumed he, like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga before him, planned to cast off the pronounced black-music influences that helped make his name and “rebrand as a white man.” And yet, in spite of the Gap ad-ness of the marketing campaign, one listen to singles “Filthy” and “Supplies” reveals all you need to know about this record: His signature aesthetic (i.e., meticulously produced, R&B-spiked pop) remains firmly intact and, in true JT-style, any country melodies and “southern-fried guitars” in the mix are mere seasoning to his soulful pop meat.In fact, Man of the Woods appears set to expand Timberlakes sound in much the same way each of his albums has, from the minimalist heartthrob pop of 2002s Justified to the sophisticated soul of 2006s FutureSex/LoveSounds to the chameleonic futurism of 2013s The 20/20 Experience (parts one and two), each exploration heralding a new creative phase for the industry darling. Here, we break down the man and his music into his four most distinct phases, and unpack the influences behind them.
*NSYNC might have had some monster hits (“Bye Bye Bye” being one of the best pop songs to come out at the turn of the millennium), but it wasnt until JT launched his solo career that his potential for super-stardom really registered on the industrys radar. “Like I Love You” was an instant smash, a divinely low-key debut that fused effortless vocals and Usher-style dance moves with stabbing acoustic guitar, whispered sweet nothings, and stark, skittering beats. Not only was he working hard to unshackle himself from his family-friendly, boy-band reputation, but he was also laying down his statement of intent to the record-buying public. And what a statement it was. Gone were the days of five-part harmonies and his-and-hers double-denim, and in their place were revelations of dream-shattering infidelity (“Cry Me a River”), impossibly delicious falsetto, and brazen explorations of sensuality (“Rock Your Body”). In fact, Justified really did what it said on the tin, commercially vindicating Timberlakes decision to walk away from *NSYNC, and unapologetically establishing his own sound.
Justified let us all know that JT was more than just a boy-band heartthrob, his overt sexuality and incredible songwriting merely hinting at the sophistication, worldliness, and sense of humor that FutureSex/LoveSounds would unleash on an unsuspecting public. JT had resoundingly grown up, the groove-laden R&B of his debut now eclipsed by a new electro-laced sound. He began exploring a funkier direction, riffing on Princes dirty-party dynamic on the Timbaland-helmed “SexyBack,” layering hip-hop beats and futuristic synths over meticulous production and flawless vocals (“Sexy Ladies / Let Me Talk to You”). Its both a vibe that he returns to with regularity—with the mastery and control of “Suit & Tie” nodding to perennial smoothie Marvin Gaye and neo-soul titan Maxwell—and a style that has influenced the next generation of post-boy-band hopefuls, like ex-One Directionite Zayn Malik.
Hes starred in multiple films, hes besties with Jimmy Fallon, hes hosted Saturday Night Live, hes appeared onstage with Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks, hes soundtracked multiple box-office hits, hes guested on records by Michael Jackson, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Madonna, and JAY-Z... is there anything JT cant do? Apparently not. After firmly staking his claim as one of pops biggest stars with FutureSex/LoveSounds, JT took some time out, lending his talents to a smorgasbord of side projects. In anyone elses hands, this apparent pandering to the masses might have proven to be a disastrous move, but in true Midas-style, JT turned a career breather into a chance for more creative expansion. Most notably, he wrote one of 2016s biggest hits, the interminably happy “Cant Stop the Feeling!” from DreamWorks Trolls movie.
Justin Timberlake has never been one to shy away from pushing the boundaries. When we expected nothing but tweeny ballads, he gave us minimalist pop with Justified. When we expected sultry R&B, he gave us sophisticated synthy funk with FutureSex/LoveSounds. When we expected more of the same meticulous control, he gave us the rangy, experimental two-part album The 20/20 Experience, complete with forays into neo-soul (“Pusher Love Girl), Afrobeat (“Let the Groove Get In”), and ambient soul balladry (“Blue Ocean Floor”). And right on time, just as we begin lending weight to allusions of country influences on new album Man of the Woods, JT drops singles “Filthy” and “Supplies,” and throws our assumptions back in our faces. In fact, JT seems to be mining different hometown influences here, nodding instead to his Tennessee hip-hop homeboys Chamillionaire and 8Ball & MJG in his dirgey bass and lightning-quick vocal deliveries. But JT’s albums have always been a complex feast of varying influences, from the pop verve of Michael Jackson to the filthy funk of Prince to the haunting melancholia of David Bowie, and theres no reason why Man of the Woods should be any different.
Despite its reputation as the No. 1 music-industry disruptor of 2019, Lil Nas X’s honky-hop hybrid “Old Town Road” owes a great deal of its success to an age-old formula: the promotion of the chorus from cleanup hitter to leadoff batter. Although its usage has gained considerable traction in the streaming era (when shortened attention spans demand that artists engineer their tracks to elicit love-at-first-click), you can find examples of chorus-verse-chorus songwriting throughout pop history. This playlist provides a brief history of songs in which the first verse is secondary, chronologically charting how the practice has evolved over time. Back in the days of Elvis and The Beatles, it was an instant invitation to get up and dance to the devil’s music. For iconoclastic rockers like Neil Young and The Clash, it was a means of putting their social messaging front and center. At the height of hair metal, bands like Bon Jovi and Twisted Sister put their shout-along refrains up front in anticipation of engaging with their arena-size audiences. And as hip-hop and R&B have become the dominant forms of pop music in the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly common for artists in the former camp to lure you in with hooks steeped in the latter.
Prince was nothing if not prolific, but turning out material at a breakneck pace didn’t necessarily gel with the marketing agenda of a major label. Prioritizing creativity over commerciality, he began warring with said label over its refusal to release as much material as he wanted. That’s when he began rebelling by adopting his famously unpronounceable symbol, with the world consequently calling him The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. But beginning with 1996’s aptly titled Emancipation, Prince (who eventually reverted to his given name) was freed from his contract. Releasing records through his own NPG imprint—sometimes distributed through other labels—he opened the floodgates and a startling torrent of music flowed through.Even in his earlier days, Prince had always put out records at a pretty constant pace, but it was only after he entered his indie phase that it really became apparent just how much material he was producing. It wasn’t merely the amount of music that was overwhelming; it was the broad range of styles. He worked in a multiplicity of formats, sometimes on his own and sometimes backed by groups ranging from the rocking 3RDEYEGIRL to the funkier New Power Generation, and occasionally joined by guests including Sheryl Crow, Kate Bush, and Maceo Parker. In these settings, Prince slipped into R&B, rock, hip-hop, funk, jazz, electronics, and more.The trouble is—and this is where Prince’s former label’s concerns were not entirely unfounded—wading through that much music can be a daunting, even confusing process. A lot of people had trouble keeping up with the emancipated Prince’s output. To this day, it can be a challenge, so here’s a handy guide hitting plenty of the highlights, from the steamy funk of “Black Sweat” to the smooth soul of the Stylistics cover “Betcha By Golly Wow,” the blistering rock of "PLECTRUMELECTRUM," the supple jazz of "Xemplify" and beyond.
Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusses classic composition was originally recorded by Cy Grant in 1964, and, a year later, was covered by Nina Simone, whose version became one of the iconic tracks of that decade. Since then, its been covered, sampled and remixed dozens of times, including recently by Lauryn Hill.
Thisisrnb.com is one of the best R&B fan sites on the Internet, and its recent post on Jeremih’s influences is proof. Short but sweet, these 10 tracks reveal that many if not most of the singer’s recent hits rely on samples for songwriting inspiration. It’s obvious that Whitney Houston’s deathless hi-NRG chestnut “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” informed the hook for the 2015 Jeremih smash with Natalie La Rose, “Somebody”; and that Snap!’s Euro-rave conqueror “Rhythm is a Dancer” led to his chorus on “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” But did anyone know that he copied a vocal line from Shai’s sappy a cappella ballad “If I Ever Fall In Love” for the hook of his most recent chart smash, “Oui”? One can conclude from this list that the “Birthday Sex” king has grown a little derivative, but leave it to Thisisrnb.com to assess his recent creative direction more kindly. “Some writers are just naturally gifted with the ability to remix, remake or flip a set of lyrics into a different melody or copy a melody with different lyrics,” goes the post, which is unsigned. “We’d be interested to know if he has been consciously doing remakes of big hits to hopefully land another big hit, or if it’s been more organic and just came out during sessions.”
Five years ago, Mike WiLL Made-It took over the airwaves, his murky, undulating trap beats powering Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” Rihanna’s “Pour It Up,” Ace Hood’s “Bugatti,” Lil Wayne’s “Love Me,” and many more hits. Meanwhile, he orchestrated Miley Cyrus’ emergence as a Top 40 libertine, delighting poptimists and infuriating others in the process. His sound was difficult to escape.Today, while fellow Atlantan Metro Boomin has taken over as mainstream rap’s omnipresent producer, Mike WiLL Made-It has scaled back. He’s focused on his Ear Drummers’ camp, particularly Rae Sremmurd, the brothers from Tupelo, Mississippi who made surprisingly durable pop-raps like “No Flex Zone,” “No Type,” and last year’s Billboard chart-topper “Black Beatles.” When it seemed impossible to play a mainstream rap hit without hearing his Brandy-supplied audio signature, Mike WiLL Made-It’s beats swung like pendulums—sort of like a trap version of those damned drops that bedevil electronic dance music. Listen to “Bandz A Make Her Dance” and “Love Me” back-to-back for those similar percussive builds.Mike WiLL Made-It’s latest full-length production showcase, Ransom 2, reveals that his techniques have grown far more complex. For “Razzle Dazzle,” he arranges a frizzy feedback storm over a booming kick drum; on Rae Sremmurd MC Swae Lee’s “Bars Of Soap,” he pairs 808 drums with icy synths reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder aficionado Alchemist; another Ear Drummers protégé, Andrea gets “Burnin” with a flurry of menacing cowbell percussion and dancehall chants.With cameos by Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, and other boldfaced names, Ransom 2 proves that Mike still has plenty of juice. And while no one may have paid attention to his 2015 Miley disasterpiece, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, he can still orchestrate a beautiful pop catastrophe: On the one-off single “It Takes Two,” Carly Rae Jespen and Lil Yachty remake Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock’s funky hip-hop classic into a thinly veiled advertisement for Target. Hear the latest evolutions of Mike WiLL Made-Its sound on this playlist.Click here to add to Spotify playlist!
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.
We may have reached a sort of peak America on August 20, 2016. After a fit of false starts and head fakes, Ocean revealed his masterpiece, Blonde, an album that, in many ways, embodied a greater idea of what America could be: inclusive and diverse, both culturally and aesthetically; adventurous and transparent, embracing experimentations in search of an emotional honesty; and, not least importantly, fun, and filled with an overarching optimism.Things may have gone downhill since then, but we still have Frank, and he’s been particularly productive in 2017, releasing a slew of more pop-oriented singles, and, maybe just as importantly, curating his own radio show, blonded, on Apple Music. Ocean has never been particularly forthcoming in interviews—on the few occasions he’s done them—but his taste in music offers a rare and deep glimpse into his creative processes and inspirations.For many, Ocean’s music is singular, and his talent and sound seem to have emerged from a vacuum, but there are specific antecedents to each component of his music. Like many music masterminds—from Prince to Radiohead—he’s interested in genre pastiche, extracting and recontextualizing broad and seemingly disparate forms of music. Listening to these broadcasts is like watching a master chef at work in their kitchen.We’ve combined and organized selections that Frank picked for blonded, as well as previous lists he’s provided over the years and the music that he’s sampled, dividing the playlists largely along genre lines in order to provide a key for how Frank thinks about music. The main playlist here represents a megamix of all the tracks featured in the segmented playlists below. (You can access the original blonded podcast by visiting Apple Music, or subscribing to our Spotify channel, where we’re collected them as Spotify playlists.)FRANK’S AMBIENT/ELECTRONIC/GLITCH ITCH
Frank Ocean’s video performance piece Endless was a teaser “album” of sorts, released just one day before Blonde. With the visuals’ stark, high-contrast lighting, and the tracks’ broken soundscapes and fractured melodies, it was an immersive and frequently confounding experience. There were certainly songs there—the Isley Brothers/Aaliyah cover “(At Your Best) You Are Love” remains one of the most haunting tracks Ocean has released—but for the most part, the piece was focused on generating a skeletal, unsettling, and haunting atmosphere. This vibe was carried over to the creeping sounds of Blonde tracks “Seigfried” and “Futura Free.”This focus on textures over tunes is the common denominator for most of the tracks on this playlist. A beautiful, gentle piano melody emerges from the skittering beats of Aphex Twin’s “Flim.” Todd Rundgren’s 1970 proto-ambient work “There Are No Words,” meanwhile, moves like fog—eerie, otherworldly, and all-encompassing. Rundgren’s other contribution to this playlist, his 1973 track “Flamingo”—sampled on Ocean’s track “Solo”—is comparatively less whispy, with chirping birth noises fluttering around a circular synth figure. It’s no surprise to see Arca here; the Venezuelan queer performance artist and Kanye/Björk producer has been mining the same space between operatic melodrama and jarring ambient noise as Ocean did on Endless and the last half of Blonde. The tracks here do occasionally gain momentum —with French maverick Sébastien Tellier’s reflective 3 a.m. anthem “La ritournelle” in particular—but, for the most part, the music here serves as a pensive, ambient mood board.Further Listening:Decoding Endless: Frank’s Wild YearsThe Best Ambient TechnoThe 50 Best Ambient Albums of All TimeAphex Twin’s Field DaySUNDAY-MORNING HEARTBREAK AND SOFT R&B JAMS
There’s a warmth and intimacy to many of Frank Ocean’s best tracks—think of the delicate dance of “Pink + White” from Blonde, or Channel Orange tracks like “Bad Religion,” the bouncy “Monks,” or the titantic “Thinkin’ About You.” The Rhodes-driven tracks reference, of course, the classic R&B of Stevie Wonder, but they also point towards another, more modern and gentle strand of R&B that descended from neo-soul forebearers such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. Esperanza Spalding (who Frank included on inaugural edition of blonded radio) is a great example of this, skirting the borders of jazz, funk, and soul and paying homage to each, but carving out a singular aesthetic that’s both modern and timeless.The best tracks here are those that negotiate traditional genre boundaries with a gentle grace. Yussef Kamaal’s “Yo Chavez” interweaves vibe-laced ‘70s jazz fusion with a shuffling broken beat over airy textures that points towards the looser, groovier parts of Channel Orange. The classic boom-bap funk fuzz of the OutKast/Erykah Badu collaboration “Humble Mumble,” or the loose, euphoric glow of Kehlani’s “Undercover,” also reflects the warmth of Ocean’s “Pink + White,” while Darando’s raggedy falsetto on the forgotten ‘70s classic “Didn’t I” (originally included on installment five of blonded radio) is endlessly fragile and haunting. These are deeply intimate love songs, but most of these capture a love interrupted, deferred, or forgotten—a confessional focus that Ocean has returned to time and time again throughout his career.This is perfect Sunday morning listening, but it’s pretty damn good for any day (or time) you want to push play.Further Listening:Raphael Saadiq Behind the ScenesWhy SZA’s CTRL Is the R&B Album of the SummerUnpacked: Solange’s A Seat at the TableFRANK’S RAP TRAX
In many ways, Frank Ocean is less invested in rap music than his R&B peers. When he listed out his favorite tracks for the Blonde magazine last year, hip-hop was absent save for an OutKast and, um, DRAM track. And while Ocean has provided guest turns on a number of tracks—and he actually raps on Earl Sweatshirt’s lazy, SoCal anthem “Sunday”—he’s not nearly as promiscuous as other singers, and, as frequently as not, he tilts the gravity of the track so that they become Frank Ocean songs. (Kanye, wisely realizing this, stripped his contribution from the end of The Life of Pablo’s “Wolves” and made it its own track, the appropriately entitled “Frank’s Track.”)Still, Frank is deeply invested in the genre, both through his Odd Future lineage and in rap’s culture, sound, and attitude. The hip-hop tracks that he’s included on blonded radio (episodes #4 and #6 focus on the genre) and beyond tend to be chart-driven singles, and remind us that Ocean is ultimately a pop artist. The hypnotic “Tunnel Vision” from Kodak Black has this year’s best use of the flute (and, really, that’s saying a lot) and matches the loopy, hall-of-mirrors vibe of many Ocean tracks. And while Frank famously called out the Grammys for giving Album of the Year to Taylor Swift over Kendrick—"hands down one of the most 'faulty’ TV moments I've seen"—that’s not the only thing linking Lamar and Ocean. Both endlessly distort and manipulate their voices: Kendrick changes registers, effects, and pitch with nearly every verse, while Ocean—on tracks like “Nikes”—uses vocal mutations to add both texture and narrative drama to his tracks. It wasn’t surprising that he included “LUST.” on installment #4 of blonded.But, more than any aesthetic linkage, these guys are his friends (A$AP Rocky), his collaborators (Future), and his idols (OutKast), and this playlist acknowledges those influences and associations.Further Listening:Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., UnpackedFrank Ocean’s Best Guest SpotsSongs That Prove the Flute Was Always Hip-Hop’s Secret WeaponFRANK’S INDIE ROCK FIXATION
“Indie rock” is a bit of a misnomer. It always has been. It’s more of a philosophical approach or psychographic than it is an aesthetic designation, but, however you look at it, Frank Ocean has long been a rabid fan of this spectrum of music. The surf-rock guitar line that anchors “Ivy” wouldn’t have felt out of place on any number of ‘60s-revivalist rock records from the past decade, while the clamour and noise of “Pretty Sweet” sound a lot like the psych/lo-fi groups that populated the ’90s rock landscape (though, granted, the two-step/garage drum line at the end turns it into a Frank Ocean track), while the bouncy melodies and sullen vocal counterpoints owe more than a little to The Smiths.There’s been a long-standing tradition of indie-rock critics trying to project their own music onto R&B and hip-hop musicians, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here—but it’s also undeniable that Frank has focused a lot on this type of music (particularly on the fifth edition of blonded radio). Some of the selections here are exactly the songs you’d expect from someone who spends his summers headlining festivals—MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”—but others convey a deeper investment. Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” reflects Ocean’s own penchant for creating long-form, mise-en-scene narratives over noisy, clattering backdrops, even if Alan Vega’s tale of a down-and-out factory worker killing his family is a little more macabre than anything on Frank’s albums. The shimmering, ephemeral “Wild Thing Runs Free” from Baltimore noise-punk group Teen Suicide resembles the rambling interludes that dot Frank’s own albums. And it’s not surprising to see (Sandy) Alex G show up on the second edition of blonded—after all, he did contribute guitar work to both Endless and Blonde—and his track “Mis” is imbued with a certain shambolic majesty.We don’t want Frank to abandon custom luxury cars and glitter for stick-and-poke tattoos and dive bars, but this is a great, revealing, and fairly unexpected playlist.Further Listening:Ambient Dream Folk & Beyond Dreamy Noise Sounds: The Best of Kranky RecordsFierce and Fuzzy: The Lo-Fi Revolution
There’s a tragic feeling of incompleteness to Sharon Jones’ career, and it’s best be summed up with the phrase "discovered too late and gone way too soon." The soul and funk vocalist’s story is a well-told one: a criminally overlooked session powerhouse—who clearly possessed the chops and sheer life-force to be a star when she first turned professional in the ’70s—finally achieves fame in her late-’40s only to have pancreatic cancer claim her life in 2016 at the age of 60. Fortunately for the world, the Grammy-nominated Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, made the most of her all-too-brief stardom, dropping seven stellar studio albums, including the posthumously released Soul of a Woman, recorded as the singer underwent debilitating chemotherapy treatments.What makes the group so unique is their ability to feel unapologetically old-school, yet without any residue of weepy nostalgia. Anchored not just by Jones’ attention-seizing voice, but the group’s agilely stabbing horns and preternaturally metronomic rhythm section as well, their music pops, sizzles, and jumps with a sweaty, determined modernism. (Especially relevant in this context is their funk-spiked reworking of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”) It’s a sound that has exerted a huge impact on 21st-century pop, pushing retro-soul into the mainstream while also making the Dap-Kings, as well as their sister outfit the Dap Kings Horn Section, in-demand session musicians in the same vein as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section or the Wrecking Crew.Arguably the first artist to take notice was the late Amy Winehouse, who employed the Dap-Kings when crafting her own fusion of retro and contemporary R&B for 2006’s game-changing Back to Black. The album’s co-producer, Mark Ronson, then used the ensemble’s crack horn section on his massive retro-pop hit “Uptown Funk,” featuring dynamo singer Bruno Mars. More recently, the digitally minded Kesha used those soul-piercing horns on her crushing, feminist anthem “Woman,” from her emotional tour de force Rainbow.But not every session/appearance fits snugly between the poles of R&B and pop—there’s a slew of leftfield examples, too. On her self-titled full-length from 2014, avant-garde singer-songwriter St. Vincent leans heavily on the unswerving pulse of Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss (who also plays skins for the Dan Auerbach-led Arcs), while her collaborative effort with David Byrne, Love This Giant, weaves their horns into the duo’s art-rock pointillism. Other standouts include The Black Lips, whose garage-punk rave-up Underneath the Rainbow utilizes the services of baritone guitarist Thomas Brenneck and trumpeter David Guy, and country outlaw Sturgill Simpson, who worked with the the Dap-Kings horns on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and then brought them onstage for his 2017 Grammy performance.On top of featuring cuts from each of the artists already mentioned, our playlists dips into the Dap-Kings many related projects (including The Budos Band and Menahan Street Band), as well as veteran soul and funk singers Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, and Rickey Calloway who, like Jones, found a welcoming home on Daptone, easily retro-soul’s most important record label. Of course, the absence left by Jones’ death will forever be felt; she was, after all, a once-in a-generation talent. But it becomes all too clear when exploring this diverse array of songs that her vision and style will continue to echo throughout modern music for a long time to come.
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.