Five Quality Tracks: November 2016 (+ October 2016)

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We’re in the home stretch. The Best Songs of 2016 list is coming soon! But for now, let these ten tracks from the last two months hold you over.
 
NOVEMBER

1. A Tribe Called Quest: “We The People…”

Comeback albums are not supposed to be this satisfying. Or smooth, or cohesive, or playful (at times), or important (at other times). But somehow, A Tribe Called Quest pulled it off with panache.

The Tribe got the whole gang back together for their newest album, We Got it From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Jarobi, Consequence, and Busta Rhymes all make their mark on the album, along with guest contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Andre 3000, Kanye West, Anderson Paak, Elton John, and more. But since A Tribe Called Quest’s inception, the highlight has always been the verbal tango between the two frontmen, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Most of the album’s tracks feature multiple rappers, but on “We the People…”, Q-Tip and Phife take the keys and run with it. There’s absolutely nothing more pleasurable in the world of hip-hop than Tip and Phife’s chemistry together on the mic. But with such a long (and somewhat acrimonious) period of time since their last album, there was a significant chance that the magic between those two would be gone. But they don’t miss a single (Q-Tip-produced) beat.

On “We the People…”, Tip and Phife trade verses like the old days, but the subject matter is very current. The group directly addresses intolerance that many face today, taking on the part of the oppressors with the chorus: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.” While the subject remains consistent, the duo’s unique styles still come through. Q-Tip (the philosopher) brings up empty-headed reality shows, but instead of outright demeaning them, he points out their appeal: “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with / Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality / And for a salary I’d probably do that s— sporadically.” And Phife (the everyman) is always good for some sports-related similes, going after the unprepared haters who are “like a AL pitcher on deck talking about he hittin’“, or how the Tribe at their best are “like Tony Romo when he hitting Witten.”

Phife Dawg passed away earlier this year of diabetes at the age of 45, eight months prior to the album’s release. Not only is the album impressive in its own right, but it’s a fitting, worthy tribute to his memory. R.I.P. Phife, and Thank You 4 Your Service.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: September 2016

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Grad school and work at the same time is hard. Sorry for the huge delay in posting my favorite tracks from September. Hopefully you don’t shrug this off as *so last month*, because September was pretty cool, music-wise. Let’s dive in.
 

1. Local Natives: “Dark Days”

One of the most underrated albums of the current decade is Gorilla Manor, the 2010 debut album from L.A. band Local Natives. In an indie rock genre saturated with cookie-cutter versions of the same band, Local Natives stood out with their wide-eyed songs and incredible, unique gift for complex harmonies. They’ve now released their third album, Sunlit Youth, which features a song we’ve already showcased as a quality track back in May (“Past Lives”), but the album is full of solid songs.

“Dark Days” is a joyous, hopeful, exhilarating 3-minute slice of winsome pop. Vocals, both lead and background, have always been the band’s strong point, and “Dark Days” showcases their vocal talent with subtle beauty. Kelcey Ayer takes lead, sounding vulnerable as he sings about the dark days of summer, while the band harmonizes behind him. They bring on guest vocalist Nina Persson of The Cardigans (the band that brought you the smash ’90s hit “Lovefool”) to sing the second verse and duet with Ayer towards the end, complementing each other beautifully. “Dark Days” gets into a groove right from the beginning and never lets up — the hook is full of guitar flourishes and drum fills, all anchored by a simple, effective bass line. The whole song is just so catchy and well-executed.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: August 2016 (+ July 2016)

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The transition from July to August brought vacations and final exams and a LOT to do, so apologies for no previous July edition of Five Quality Tracks. But never fear — after going over the five tracks from August, we’ll double back to July and make up for lost time with five additional tracks.
 
AUGUST

1. Frank Ocean: “Self Control”

Frank is back! It’s hard to believe this actually happened. I still can’t shake the feeling that we’re all living a fever dream and Frank Ocean’s two new albums (yes, two new albums!) will be yanked away from us when we wake up. But my iTunes still has 35 more Frank Ocean songs than it did a couple weeks ago, so it’s real!

Two days after releasing a “visual album” called Endless (a project largely full of vignettes and a smattering of really good, but also really short ideas), Ocean released Blonde, his proper follow-up to channel ORANGE. As a whole, Blonde floats along with less immediacy and fewer hooks than channel ORANGE, but it washes over you with ambient moments of unadulterated beauty, punctuated by bursts of brilliance. “Self Control” can be classified as one of those “bursts.”

On “Self Control,” Ocean opens with a jarring chipmunk effect on his voice before going into his gorgeous, raw croon over a rhythmic electric guitar groove. Ocean’s ability to create a thick, fully realized atmosphere in the studio is enough to put him in the upper echelon of songwriters, but then he has that extraordinary voice to go on top of it. He’s a talented dude.

The song then gives way to an absolutely stunning chorus of Franks singing “I I I know you gotta leave leave leave.” It’s the kind of thing that makes you stop in your tracks and pause to take in the beauty.

Frank is back. Let’s enjoy it.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: June 2016

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1. The Avalanches: “Colours”

In Stereogum’s review of the Avalanches long-awaited sophomore album, Wildflower, Chris DeVille points out the group’s knack for creating a “sensation of somehow simultaneously swimming and soaring.” After captivating the underground music community with their thrilling, unique debut Since I Left You in 2000, the Avalanches fell off the face of the earth for 16 years. They would occasionally tease a follow-up album, but nothing would ever come of it — until now. That swimming and soaring sensation DeVille mentioned is what makes the Avalanches so special, and the wait for Wildflower completely worth it.

“Colours” is a vibrant smorgasbord of swirling sounds, floating in an out of focus, resulting in a song both stimulating and soothing. “Colours” demonstrates another quality unique to the Avalanches: their ability to make a song that can soundtrack a party as naturally as it can drift through your ears as you fall asleep. Unbelievably, counter to the Avalanches’ usual modus operandi, the track contains no samples, so the backmasked vocals and whirlwind of sound were all recorded by the group. The flutes, bells, strings, and airy vocals combine to form a kind of ice-cream truck psychedelia.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: May 2016

Featuring discussions of the Strokes’ career trajectory, the single most important quality of a great pop song, and more.

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1. Radiohead: “Burn the Witch”

Much of Radiohead’s music takes a while to sink in. It took me a repeated listens to fully appreciate the intricate brilliance of OK Computer and Kid A, and the band’s newest surprise album, A Moon Shaped Pool, is proving to be a slow-burner as well. There are exceptions, however. In Rainbows was an album that revealed its pleasures immediately. While most of Kid A took some time, opening track “Everything in its Right Place” was spine-tingling from the start. Similarly, the lead track on A Moon Shaped Pool, unlike the rest of the album, was instantly engrossing.

“Burn the Witch” is eerie, full of an anxious energy that boils over by the time we reach the end. The song highlights multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood’s proclivity for discordant string arrangements. Greenwood’s strings were almost like another full-bodied character in films such as There Will Be Blood and The Master. Greenwood uses the same pizzicato technique on “Burn the Witch,” and as a result, the song sounds huge, important, and cinematic in scope. It forges forward with Thom Yorke’s ethereal voice floating on top until about the three-minute mark, when it kicks up a notch and builds to a fever pitch. Jillian Mapes of Pitchfork said it best when she called it “simultaneously unsettling and gorgeous.” The lyrics match the sonic paranoia — “Stay in the shadows, cheer at the gallows,” “Avoid all eye contact, do not react, shoot the messengers,” and “This is a low-flying panic attack.”

 
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Just Throw This at the End: Kanye West’s Gift for Outros

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Over the past few years, Kanye West’s outsize persona has eclipsed his music-making ability in the public consciousness. When someone is married to a Kardashian, can’t stop dissing Taylor Swift, and tweets whatever idiosyncratic musings come to his head, it’s not surprising when that person’s extracurricular activities consume all the attention. But to me, Kanye’s legacy will always rest on his brilliant production work.

One of my favorite aspects of Kanye’s music is a bit random — his outros, i.e. the way he ends his songs. He has a gift for knowing what sample will hit the spot, or what groove will bring the whole track home. He’ll either ride whatever beat he already has going for just the right amount of time, or he’ll switch it up in an invigorating or even beautiful way.

On Kanye’s latest album, the messy and overwrought but sporadically dazzling The Life of Pablo, one of his outros gave me chills: Frank Ocean’s pained voice singing out into the night on “Frank’s Track,” coming right after “Wolves.”

“Wolves” is constructed in a way that gives Ocean’s outro maximum impact. The portentous aura of the song builds until everything is stripped away except for just an electric piano and Ocean’s raw, passionate voice. You can hear his voice catch when he sings “BLACKENED” and “LIFE IS… precious.”

Let’s take a look at the other masterful outros in Kanye West’s catalogue. I’ve broken the songs/outros into three categories: (1) Riding the Groove; (2) Switching it Up, Subtly; (3) Switching it Up, Dramatically. As I mentioned, Kanye’s best outros can either be built on the already-existing beat (Category 1) or on a subtle (Category 2) or dramatic switch-up of the beat or production (Category 3).

Before jumping in, I should give honorable mention to “Runaway”, which has an iconic outro (and, not to mention, is one of the best songs of the decade), but the outro goes on a little too long. Another small note: the tracks that I’ve listed here from Yeezus and The Life of Pablo can have fairly explicit language, but the rest are SFW.

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Five Quality Tracks: April 2016

Including initial thoughts on BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade and Drake’s VIEWS

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1. Weezer: “California Kids”

We’ve gotten to a point where we judge Weezer too harshly. They were one of the most celebrated bands of the ’90s with their first two albums, the Blue Album and Pinkerton, but they slowly fell out of critics’ (and even some fans’) good graces as Rivers Cuomo opted instead for cheap hooks and obvious lyrics. While a lot of their decisions were unfortunate, they still cranked out fun, catchy songs. Their two most recent albums, 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End and this year’s White Album, both even echo the magic of their old stuff. The White Album may not be quite as inventive as the material from their earlier days, but the songs are plenty satisfying. “California Kids” has a melody that’s ready for summer, harmonies straight from the Beach Boys’ playbook, and most importantly, huge, fist-pumping, “Say It Ain’t So”-style guitar riffs. If you still haven’t forgiven Weezer for past transgressions, it’s time to open that cold heart of yours.

 
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