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I have been digging into artists from underground scenes across the globe for years, but that group has always been a bit amorphous. It ranges daily from childhood classics like Chicago’s Poi Dog Pondering to Korean band Wave To Earth to Austria’s Fennesz. But I swear, answering the question of what I listen to and how I find new music used to be more simple.
When the collaborative streaming site Turntable.fm launched in 2011 (it went on hiatus in 2013), I spent hours every day on the site, sometimes DJing, but mostly just absorbing. While I was in high school in Florida, a group of teens out of Ames, Iowa took me under their wing and gave me a master class in indie–we explored everything from The Antlers to Sweet Valley. The well-known New York Times analysis that concluded the songs we listen to during our teen years set our musical taste as adults certainly makes sense in my case. Those few years spent critiquing songs in Turntable.fm chat rooms laid the groundwork for my preferences (this 2013 DJ Koze FACT mix was pretty significant too), and ultimately kickstarted my passion for finding new music.
Since high school, my music discovery methods have remained rooted in simply paying attention (and having Shazam at the ready). But lately, I spend more time actively digging and have widened the scope of where I search. Aside from keeping an eye on publications like Pitchfork, FADER, and Pigeons & Planes, as well as my music journalist friends, I also enjoy embarking on a more manual excavation, like going through the Viral 50 Charts country by country. That's how I found my way to the world of K-Pop via TWICE's “Signal” in 2017, and also discovered one of my favorite songs of all time—”Graduation” by K-Indie band HYUKOH, right as it was released in 2018.
I’ve found that the related artist feature on Spotify is also consistently reliable, and especially useful when I’m in the mood to go down rabbit holes. While watching the now-defunct Japanese reality show Terrace House, I learned that a participant was a member of the band SPiCYSOL. I went exploring on Spotify, and although I concluded that SPiCYSOL weren't necessarily doing it for me, I explored their related artists and found my way to Lucky Kilimanjaro and Helsinki Lambda Club, two bands who are now at the top of my concert bucket list.
When I dig deeper into specific niches, like indie music from Korea, I go for a more guided approach. The YouTube channel ONSTAGE, funded by the NAVER Cultural Foundation, showcases underground Korean music and has led me to artists like MPC wizard, Lionclad, and Pansori pop band LEENALCHI. The channel's constant flow of emerging artists is a valuable go-to for me, and it's great for exploring archives. I also keep an eye on Poclanos, a music distribution and management company with the goal of “supporting the sustainable activities of independent artists and producers [based in Korea].” They maintain a playlist called Poclanos Weekly on Spotify that has become a regular point of reference.
In my post-teen years, wading deep into music from non-Western markets has become my passion, and it's vastly expanded my personal catalog. With over 100 million tracks at my fingertips on streaming services, discovering new music has always just been a matter of knowing where to zoom in, being patient, and finding people I trust to guide me when I need help.
Sofia Coppola decorates tales of female yearning and melancholy in lace, sugar, and decadence. Her dreamy aesthetic and ironic depictions of feminine frivolity have inspired a new generation of women who are interested in romanticizing their loneliness online, whether paying homage to messy teen girl bedrooms or developing the #coquette personal brand.
There’s currently a sound trending on TikTok (170.7K posts since it was first used in October 2022) in which users reveal unsavory realizations they’ve made about former friends and partners who mistreated them. The accompanying sound for these videos mashes up the audio from Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette with the song “Playground Love” by Air, which was on the soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides, her directorial debut. The aesthetic and emotional worlds Coppola creates in these films—both depicting young women living seemingly charmed lives that are nonetheless fated for tragedy—are so consistent that the two references compound on one another seamlessly to establish a heightened sense of foreboding and despair. The audio serves as a fitting template specifically for a trend about betrayal and more broadly as inspiration for Gen Z users who are prone to aestheticizing and accentuating their sadness online.
This trend gained momentum after the March 13 re-release of The Virgin Suicides, and may have also been bolstered by a viral TikTok made by Coppola’s daughter in late March. There is a general, sustained interest in Coppola’s work: Numerous other musicians have been brought into her cinematic universe via short-form videos in the past. Fan edits of The Virgin Suicides are often paired with Lana Del Rey songs, which fits tonally, as she has been singing about female melancholy and ennui for years and was even an inspiration to a previous generation of sad girls online. Last year, the same “Let them eat cake” audio that’s currently trending was used with “Deceptacon” by Le Tigre in 1.8K videos that copied Marie Antoinette’s bright aesthetic. Audio from The Virgin Suicides has also been overlayed on “Silver Soul” by Beach House in 6.6K videos that dissect the male gaze in cinema.
For the women in Sofia Coppola’s films, the world is on fire and no one notices, so wearing a pink linen dress and eating a cream puff is a temporary reprieve. Teen girls are used to their interests being derided as shallow and their pain being overlooked entirely, and in that context Coppola’s work becomes a glimmering, necessary moment of recognition.
This collection of Japanese indie, ambient, and city pop spans almost 50 years and attempts to capture the simultaneous optimism and moodiness of changing seasons. To kick things off, Keiichi Sokabe, former lead singer of ’90s indie group Sunny Day Service, sings “Guess it's a little bit different than usual,” as rain glistens on his Tokyo porch. City pop legend Taeko Onuki tells a story of whiling her lunch break away in a garden laying beneath the shade of a tree, and current J-pop star Fujii Kaze pleads “Flowers bloom and perish… Still, I'd love to keep my garden safe until it's gone.” In between, there’s some high-energy modern city pop, a little dive into Hokkaido indie, and quieter moments perfect for the warm (but not too warm) days ahead.
TBC Score: 69
Almost a year after he released his 2022 song “Tomioka,” 24-year-old New York rapper Jay Eazy decided to heavily re-promote it on TikTok this March, determined that it would again be “the song of the summer.” After one TikTok featuring Eazy's girlfriend got 5.5M views, the Demon Slayer-referencing track became a sleeper hit and spawned 251.1K videos. Though Jay Eazy had his first minor hit with the 2021 gimmick song “Pinkeye,” he’s been able to reel in his core audience of anime fans (which he’s built from his many anime-inspired songs), yet also appeal to a mainstream crowd with the catchy Ponderosa Twins Plus One sample on "Tomioka." The success of “Tomioka” is also translating off TikTok, as Jay Eazy’s Spotify monthly listenership has climbed from 226.6K to 686.6K since March.
TBC Score: 75
Equal parts gaudy and gloomy, 6arelyhuman’s take on dance pop is introducing a new generation to the forgotten sounds of the Myspace era. Self-described as “the hottest alien in the club,” 6arelyhuman makes colorful pop songs that recall the Pixy Stix-snorting energy of 2000s Eurodance and the chaotic scene-dance of once-maligned acts like Brokencyde. The Auto-Tuned EmoDM banger “Hands up!” is 6arelyhuman’s first viral hit, garnering 73K TikTok creates and placements on playlists like Spotify’s hyperpop and Ultimate Pop Gaming. But other tracks like “XOXO (Kisses Hugs)” and “Death City” are on the rise too, each generating millions of streams of their own. No doubt, 6arelyhuman is set to bring some chaos to the club this summer.
TBC Score: 71
For St. Louis rapper Sexyy Red, desire is an art. A string of viral tracks has kept her on rap's radar, with her brazen bars catching everyone's attention. Her breakthrough single "Pound Town," a collaboration with Memphis producer Tay Keith, is a maximalist's approach to bedroom banter. With an 89.1K increase in Shazam counts, it's clear that fans want in on Sexyy Red's charisma. Since March, the track's popularity soared and led to the artist’s rise on Spotify: She has 431 percent more monthly listeners (1.8M in total) and has received placements on prominent Spotify playlists like Get Turnt and Feelin' Myself. Sexyy Red's stellar features—on tracks including NLE Choppa’s similarly ribald “Slut Me Out” and Memphis rapper Gloss Up’s confident “Check”—has only left fans wanting more.
TBC Score: 59
As a new signee to Latin Grammy winner Carin Leon’s label, Kakalo is the latest musician to successfully bring regional Mexican music to the global stage. Together, the two Hermosillo natives released “Mil Maneras de Morir,” inspired by American folk while using mariachi and crooning '50s rock to convey all-consuming heartache. The song has racked up 4M streams since its release on March 28 and has been added to major Spotify playlists like Top México (500,000 likes) and La Reina: Éxitos de la Música Mexicana (2.5M likes). With an influx of listeners, a viral hit, and the backing of one of the genre’s most established artists, Kakalo is finding his footing as a pioneer of this rich Mexican movement: Since April, his Spotify monthly listeners have increased from 50K to 1.6M.
We're at least two generations into the world of big data, where data points are generated by the millions and uses for them are multiplying exponentially, all the time. Data can be a powerful tool for understanding what's happening around us and making educated guesses about what's going to happen next. But it's only one type of information, and it will never completely unseat human intelligence and intuition as a likewise valuable tool for evaluating context. This is especially true when it comes to realms that are non-scientific, such as culture. Culture—meaning all the creative and decidedly human things we generate and exchange—is unpredictable and irrational, and that's a large part of what makes it so interesting.
Every day, people around the world are listening to music using dozens of platforms. And that generates big sets of data that can provide some level of insight into what's trending and what is meaningful. With something as subjective and amorphous as music, though, the cultural knowledge and intuition of humans is essential to making sense of the data. The key is to connect the quantitative (the data) with the qualitative (the human insights that contextualize it). Using those two analytical perspectives in tandem, it's possible to make sense of a mountain of information—combining, sorting, and analyzing it to discover where tastes, trends, and creativity are headed.
We're calling this music intelligence. The term refers to collecting and analyzing music consumption data and looking for patterns and also diversions from patterns, and then interpreting that information using human knowledge and learned intuition. This approach creates countless opportunities for companies that work in or partner with cultural enterprises of all kinds, including music.
Take the quirk from late 2022 where Lady Gaga's "Bloody Mary" (off 2011's Born This Way) saw an abrupt spike in traffic. What was going on? The wildly popular Netflix series Wednesday had featured a very memorable scene where the titular character performed a dance right up there with Napoleon Dynamite's most indelible sequence in terms of wonderful weirdness. TikTok noticed. TikTok could not resist the temptation to meme it to infinity. But instead of setting the memes to The Cramps' "Goo Goo Muck," which Wednesday danced to in the episode, the world of TikTok landed on "Bloody Mary." The platform is known for being an incubator where ideas get melted down, stirred together, and spat out as something new. But it takes human understanding to follow the data up the chain, find its apex, and contextualize a phenomenon so particular to its moment.
Viral trends on social media, like that one, often drive surges in catalog listening habits, and music curation projects need to examine those trends in order to understand what is happening and why. Then they can use that information to create experiences that are relevant and compelling to listeners. They can also assist owners of vast swaths of user-generated music in identifying the value in their portfolios in ways that are meaningful and even predictive. And the marketing departments of streaming platforms need data to identify and engage with highly relevant, on-brand emerging talent.
Doing this work effectively requires designing systems that strategically intertwine human expertise with the data, each providing checks and balances on the other. The first step is analysis of the data points, including their sources. For example, an artist or track surging on TikTok is an entirely different phenomenon than one surging on a traditional DSP. The music on TikTok is often not the centerpiece of the content, and while a spike on that platform can sometimes lead to lasting success, it’s frequently ephemeral. To get a sense of what direction a trend is headed, that signal needs to be analyzed alongside ones from platforms where music is the focus.
With understanding of the significance of relevant data signals in place, it's possible to construct a simple algorithm that establishes baseline criteria around artist performance across multiple platforms and then weights those signals appropriately. This algorithm can sift a pool of artist candidates to see which of them are likely gaining serious traction, versus enjoying a viral flash. Literally millions of artists (and AI bots) are looking for their big break at any moment, but only a fraction have the skills and timing to earn it.
Human intelligence re-enters the process at this point. Metrics measuring engagement (the number of people listening) and velocity (how quickly that number is growing) are invaluable, but in isolation they can be misleading. That's where highly specialized music experts spanning genres, scenes, and territories lend the big-picture context that's crucial to identifying what's actually happening. This team can include taste makers, DJs, writers, and people who are themselves musicians, past or present. They can discern the difference between an emerging act being signed to a buzzy label and a sound or genre entering the actual zeitgeist, making it more likely for adjacent artists to gain a broader audience. With the list of relevant emerging talent now sifted again, the remaining pool can still be large—as many as 1,000 artists.
To further winnow it down, data and human intelligence need to operate in tandem again. An algorithm that looks at the variance in the performance metrics between the remaining artists can produce a simple weighted score that accounts for those signals. The above visualization is an example of a Third Bridge Creative tool that presents a score to allow a subject matter expert to quickly orient around priority artists. This score enables the expert to provide the final—and crucial—layer: actually listening to the artists and evaluating their music and brand. This is perhaps the most important step, because regardless of what the data indicates, an artist is not going to be popular if their sound isn’t compelling.
Though the process laid out above is oriented around identifying emerging artists, music intelligence isn’t a single product or service. It's flexible and modular, a highly customizable approach to strategic content development and decision-making. The insights can identify trends in catalog music or help streaming platforms prioritize new releases. Marketing teams can also use the information to identify trends within the music world so they can make key alignments.
In the current world of music consumption, where more than 7 billion tracks are streamed every day, it's impossible to keep track of what's going on without the benefit of data. But to use that data effectively and figure out how to anticipate which 7 billion tracks will be queued up tomorrow and also next month, human intelligence is equally essential, and this is where the music intelligence approach produces results that either method can't achieve alone.
For TBC’s Video Mix series, our team of movie and TV experts makes recommendations so that you’re never stuck with a million streaming services and nothing to watch.
Some actors can't say no to a challenge. Cast as twin gynecologists in Amazon Prime's 2023 reimagining of David Cronenberg's 1988 psychosexual thriller Dead Ringers, Rachel Weisz delivers the performance(s) of the moment with a pair that are as skillful and startling as anything you'll see this year. Better yet, they're free of the gimmicky air that has often hampered actors playing multiple roles. Below are five more examples of actors who transcend the many challenges that come with having yourself as your co-star.
Spike Jonze's ultra-meta comedy could've been a purely cerebral exercise if not for all the emotion Cage invests in his balancing act. While Charlie's heartbreaking vulnerability and insecurity may make him the most obvious object of sympathy (and frustration), Cage never makes Charlie's more confident brother Donald seem like a buffoon. The brothers' need for each other is touching, too.
Where to watch: VOD
Nothing in Alfred Hitchcock's twisted tale of sexual obsession can be taken at face value, least of all the apparent lack of connection between the ill-fated woman that Jimmy Stewart's tortured detective falls for and the one he remakes in his dead lover's image. What's clear as a bell is Kim Novak's finesse as she secures the two highest spots in Hitchcock's fabled gallery of blondes.
Where to watch: VOD
Few actors are as gifted in complicated roles as Tatiana Maslany. She’s an unstoppable force as the many-accented iterations of a cluster of clones in this crafty Canadian science-fiction series. If we had to choose a favorite of the "sisters" (Maslany played 11 in all), we'll go with Alison, always more than your average soccer mom.
Where to watch: Paramount Plus
Hollywood's preeminent nice-guy actor has never seemed more playful than he is when dialing his usual charms up and down as a sadsack longing for a better life who ends up saddled with a clone eager to supplant him. The ingenious choreography of the series' bravura Rudd-on-Rudd fight scene is hard to beat, too.
Where to watch: Netflix
Ex-Machina director Alex Garland devised a striking means of exploring the theme of male toxicity by surrounding his horror drama's heroine (Jessie Buckley) with a wide variety of increasingly sinister men, each of whom is played to extremely creepy effect by Rory Kinnear. What could've been ludicrous unfolds with the eerie logic of a nightmare.
Where to watch: Showtime
Reggaetón has a complex history, dating back to the '80s and shaped by migration. Characterized by its instantly recognizable "dem bow" rhythm, the music draws on ideas from Panamanian reggae en español, Jamaican dancehall, Puerto Rican el underground, and New York hip-hop.
Though once propagated exclusively by and between Latinx artists outside the mainstream, reggaetón has grown to be one of the most popular and influential musical forms worldwide. Bad Bunny has captured headlines thanks to his record-breaking dominance—he was recently named the world’s most streamed artist on Spotify for the third consecutive year—and before him Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, Rauw Alejandro, and Romeo Santos did plenty of the legwork that's made reggaetón a household word (and sound).
Most of the artists who’ve been celebrated for their contributions to this music have been men, but it's a mistake to overlook the amazing women who’ve paved the way for many modern-day reggaetón acts. The feminist bops of lvy Queen (who hosted 2021's LOUD podcast) and La Sista—like “Yo Quiero Bailar” and “Destino Cruel,” respectively—are as propulsive as the songs of their male peers, and often contain powerful messages. The former, for instance, became a rallying cry for women reserving the right to dance freely without owing men sexual favors.
Today, a new class of women reggaetoneros continue to challenge traditional images of the genre. In the last few years, more women have succeeded in the streaming space, adopting a kind of bravado typically associated with reggaetón’s boys' club. That reflects a culture shift: The popularization of transgressive, anti-colonialist thought in the countries reggaetoneros call home is a factor, as well as progressive opinions on gender identity and sexuality (Bad Bunny’s not alone in his rejection of gender norms).
Women are at the forefront of this movement. In 2017, Mexican American pop star Becky G, formerly known for her Katy Perry-esque viral hit “Shower,” dropped “Mayores,” a collaboration with Bad Bunny and her first foray into reggaetón, and the music video currently has 2.2B views. “Sin Pijama,” her 2018 collaboration with Natti Natasha, celebrated women’s sexuality in a way that was relatively unheard-of in the reggaetón space. No longer: Natasha has over 12.9M monthly Spotify listeners herself. Colombia’s Karol G currently has 49.5M monthly Spotify listeners and climbing. Puerto Rico's Young Miko is a challenger to the urbano scene, with over 25M views on her trappy “Lisa.” And fellow Puerto Rican paopao has become a streaming powerhouse as well.
These are all artists experiencing exponential growth on their own terms, a historic gain for the genre and Latin music at large.
By the time Backstreet Boys’ Millennium was released in May 1999, the music industry was up to its neck in teen idols. A few years prior, acts like BSB, Spice Girls, and NSYNC had opened the proverbial floodgates for a new generation of talented young pop stars, with artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera emerging a short while later. The fandom for them delighted label execs, and soon a river of similarly fresh-faced performers was flowing.
BBMAK never had a song as big as “I Want It That Way,” but their 1999 single “Back Here” remains an underappreciated Top 40 gem. Ireland-based quartet B*Witched never became as big as Spice Girls, but "C'est La Vie” brims with optimism and sprightly bounce that evokes pantheon teen pop (and it sold over 3 million copies worldwide). And though 98 Degrees are properly designated as a Second String Boy Band, there’s no shame in having been even in the same league as BSB and NSYNC. Their “I Do” is a romantic ballad at its unashamed best.
These B-team artists range from genuinely talented to enjoyably corny, and in the shadow of the Britneys, Justins, and Christinas, they found a measure of spotlight.
TBC Score: 79
It’s hard not to be moved by Sam Barber’s fierce, sorrowful singing and delicate finger-picked guitar. After years of singing covers (a video of him singing Dani and Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Sky” received a whopping 4M views), the Missouri-born musician’s original songs are getting just as much buzz. Earlier this month, a snippet of “Straight and Narrow,” a contemplative country ballad, garnered 3.4M views on TikTok, with 40.6K users flocking to the sound since April 6. Barber’s earnest lyricism and rock influences have even translated to the Billboard charts: “Straight and Narrow” debuted at No. 24 on the Hot Rock Songs chart and No. 38 on Hot Rock & Alternative Songs. At just 18 years old, Barber is heralded as country’s next great storyteller.
TBC Score: 70
BLP Kosher’s dizzy drawl resembles fellow Sunshine State artists like Kodak Black and SpotemGottem, but the Broward County native stands out from his contemporaries thanks to some inherent contrasts in his presentation. He wears his hair in wicks—a Florida-born hairstyle brought to the mainstream by Kodak—while centering his Jewish background in his public image. A snippet of his single “The Nac 2” generated nearly 2M plays on TikTok since January. On March 31, the provocative rapper released “Mazel Tron,” a punchy track featuring Michigan rapper BabyTron ripe with on-the-nose wordplay. Even without attention from legacy media publications, he’s received the ultimate co-sign from Lyrical Lemonade: a video directed by Cole Bennett. In the weeks since the premiere of “Mazel Tron,” the video has garnered nearly 2M views.
TBC Score: 67
DJ/producer BAMBII has been a fixture in Toronto’s rave scene since the early 2010s, when she launched JERK, the cult queer party centering Caribbean music. After acting as a touring DJ with Mykki Blanco, she gained confidence to be a solo artist: She’s been issuing a steady stream of club-ready heaters since 2019—always an electrifying mix of dancehall, jungle, and garage. In February, she gained recognition for co-producing nine tracks on Kelela’s new album, Raven, and shared her rowdy new single “One Touch,” which earned Best New Music from Pitchfork. Since its release on April 3, her Spotify monthly listenership jumped from 31,554 to 124,283, signaling a breakthrough.
TBC Score: 75
While most high school seniors are focused on graduation, rising rapper Kanii is still excited about his major-label debut single. His latest offering, "I Know," a song about a failed love has the right components for virality: a memorable hook and the popular Jersey Club bed squeak. When YouTuber Penguinz0 used "I Know" in a video a week after its release, it became the go-to sound for gaming and anime content. A student at Washington, D.C.'s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Kanii represents the intersection of traditional musicality and internet culture. With nearly 7M monthly listeners on Spotify, he’s a fixture on playlists like Mint and big on the internet.
The following is an excerpt from Sound Signal, Third Bridge Creative's biweekly music intelligence newsletter produced in partnership with Chartmetric. In the newsletter, we identify emerging artists and tracks, as well as other scenes, trends, or new genres. If you like knowing what's next, you can sign up for Sound Signal here.
Guardians of the Galaxy fans have been eagerly anticipating a new soundtrack ahead of the release of the franchise's third installment on May 5. Earlier this week, director James Gunn revealed the tracklist for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3: Awesome Mix Vol. 3 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. By repurposing oldies but goodies, GotG soundtracks have done very well for themselves: Vol. 1 topped the Billboard 200 in 2014, and Vol. 2 (released in 2017) made it to No. 4 on the same chart. These were soon followed by a slew of other nostalgia-minded sync opportunities, and music synchronization revenue from TV, film, and advertising has seen an impressive 29.9 percent increase year-over-year by the midyear mark of 2022.
The GotG syncs—largely mined from '60s and '70s gems—also established a parallel nostalgia timeline that the film and TV industries have followed. Marvel’s 2017 blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok famously made use of Led Zeppelin’s thunderous 1970 hit “Immigrant Song,” quickly resulting in a 189 percent spike in Spotify streams worldwide. In the past year, that timeline has inched up to the '80s. Kate Bush’s 1985 cult classic “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” appeared throughout Season 4 of the Netflix series Stranger Things, driving streams of her music to grow over 20,000 percent, while the use of Depeche Mode’s 1987 synth-pop banger "Never Let Me Down Again" in the 2023 HBO series The Last of Us tripled its official on-demand U.S. streams overnight.
The new GotG soundtrack continues to push the timeline forward, drawing on songs from artists not only from the '80s but also from the '90s and 2000s, including “Creep” by Radiohead, “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + the Machine, and “We Care a Lot” by Faith No More. It’ll be interesting to see if audiences are ready for this jump and how this impacts the nostalgia timeline of the sync economy.
For TBC’s Video Mix series, our team of movie and TV experts makes recommendations so that you’re never stuck with a million streaming services and nothing to watch.
Road stories have captivated audiences since the advent of storytelling; a desire for movement and exploration is practically baked into human nature. These five films take to the road to share the realities of wanderlust, whether the journeys are self-directed or imposed upon characters by forces beyond their control.
When we first meet the dusty Travis Henderson (played by Harry Dean Stanton in top form), he’s drifting through a desolate West Texas landscape for what appears to very possibly be eternity. Over the course of the film—co-written by the late, great Sam Shepard—the details of the schism that led him into the desert trickle out in a clear-eyed exploration of the textures of love, jealousy, guilt, pain, and damnation. (Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz even wrote a strip that seems at least partly inspired by the film).
Where to watch: Criterion
Iconic French director Agnès Varda’s film begins at the end, with its titular wanderer Mona frozen to death in a ditch. Varda retraces the path that led Mona to her end with piercing clarity and without embellishment, in the process creating one of the silver screen’s most complex and uncompromising protagonists. Vagabond’s investigation of the true meaning of freedom and the consequences that can accompany its expressions leaves an indelible mark.
Where to watch: Criterion
Werner Herzog’s mythic status comes in no small part from his seemingly inexhaustible drive for adventure. Herzog found a kindred spirit in the stories, photographs, and friendship of travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who died of AIDS in his late 40s. In this documentary, Herzog follows the trails Chatwin traced through his personal life and books like In Patagonia and The Songlines, celebrating the perpetual nomad’s singular body of work.
Where to watch: Mubi
Chloé Zhao’s meditative 2020 Oscar-winner follows Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow who loses her job at a US Gypsum plant and opts to live in a van while working seasonal gigs. While the story paints a bleak portrait of 21st-century America, Fern also finds an abundance of tender connection in the people she encounters, with McDormand turning in an unassuming yet utterly heart-rending performance.
Where to watch: Hulu
Although it’s difficult to deny the inherent cuteness of a donkey (any donkey!), Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO, told from the perspective of one such beast of burden, is many degrees more affecting—and funny—than viewers might expect. EO makes his way through trials, tribulations, and triumphs, buoyed by stunning cinematography and economic storytelling. On the human side of things, the incomparable Isabelle Huppert has a commanding turn as the Countess.
Where to watch: Criterion
Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954); Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973); Kevin Smith’s Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (2001); Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016); Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim (2019); Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All (2022)
Building a name on his introspective raps since 2015, Navy Blue has found his mainstream breakthrough with Ways of Knowing, his debut album for Def Jam. The Brooklyn-based rapper, producer, and skateboarder born Sage Elsesser is an established figure in the indie hip-hop scene, having collaborated with Earl Sweatshirt and provided crackling, soul-sampling beats for the likes of Wiki and MIKE. The reflections on love, family, and relationships on his new LP (released March 23) are the result of four years of soul-searching and closely working with the producer Budgie, which has led to a 129K percent increase in his Spotify editorial playlist reach.
Genre: Pop, Hyperpop
Sometimes, when hyperpop sibling duo Frost Children are asked what kind of music they make, they respond “it’s confidential.” It’s a cryptic answer that nonetheless reveals the winking, satirical sensibility at the core of their music. On tracks like “BL!NK,” the duo reference Blink-182 and SpongeBob SquarePants over a beat that morphs from jittery and glitchy to a cyclone of raspy vocals, ricocheting drums, and chaotic, video game-like blips. Since getting their start during the onset of quarantine, they have released three full-length albums, with another slated to be released on April 14. With this new project, they are primed to bring their singular sense of humor to hyperpop.
Destroy Lonely has been making massive waves in internet rap’s everchanging vortex. In 2021, the Atlanta rapper signed with Playboi Carti's label, Opium, where he released NO STYLIST, a 19-track project bringing fans into his euphoric soundscape. Before he released “if looks could kill” last month, the single leaked and became hugely popular on TikTok and SoundCloud, building anticipation for its official release. As evidenced by over 14M Spotify streams and his appearances on coveted playlists like Rap Caviar, Destroy Lonely's growing popularity is positioning him as a must-see this festival season, when he'll perform before crowds at Rolling Loud, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza.
Boston-born artist Khamari is paving his own lane in R&B and soul. After leaving Berklee College of Music in 2017 to pursue a recording career, Khamari released Eldorado, an EP that bears acoustic and progressive R&B sensibilities. Khamari's now a Los Angeles resident, and his latest single, “On My Way,” is an autobiographical look at the singer-songwriter aiming to strike it big. The gentle song prominently samples 1972 Al Green classic “Love and Happiness” and as of this publication has achieved nearly 300k Spotify streams since its release, with Khamari garnering 428K monthly listeners (and climbing). Featured on noteworthy playlists like R&B Weekly, Lowkey, and R&B Rising, Khamari is writing his way into R&B’s future.
When The Strokes released their debut album, Is This It, in October 2001, the singer/songwriter Alden Gardner Robinson (known best to fans of internet-addled pop music as Aldn) was just a little over four months old. And yet, despite his distance from the scuzzy New York bars that launched that band to international fame, their sound has loomed large as he’s come into his own as an artist channeling a lot of feelings into genre-blurring pop music.
Over the past few years, there have been a lot of artists like Aldn—young kids who started making music amidst the post-everything Gecsplosion of hyperpop, who look back to the sounds of early 2000s indie rock as one of their major influences. This mix collects a few of the major players of this foggy scene, each of whom approach these sounds from different directions. At one end, there’s straightforward post-punk revivalists like Kenny Hoopla and EKKSTACY, whose grayscale emoting recalls Interpol and Bloc Party at their most raw. At the other, there’s genre-blending pop pranksters like Frost Children, who occasionally evoke the rattle and hum of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' most prickly arrangements. In between, there’s a wide-ranging collection of experimenters, reaching back to a recent past that they can’t remember. Still, they find emotion and meaning in the haze of borrowed nostalgia.
Generally speaking, artists don't literally break through overnight. For weeks or months or sometimes years before their name is on the tip of everyone's tongue, they've been working, creating blips in the collective music-listening radar, turning a few heads here and there. And right before the big moment, the velocity data—that is, the data that indicates how many new people are paying attention to them over time—gives a clue that the moment is nigh. They're ready to emerge.
These four artists are the ones we’ve identified for the latest installment of Sound Signal—a biweekly music intelligence newsletter, produced in partnership with Chartmetric, in which we identify emerging artists and tracks, as well as other scenes, trends, or new genres. Check out their music in the accompanying playlist. And if you like knowing what’s next, you’d probably enjoy Sound Signal.
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With blazing punk riffs and catchy pop melodies, Meet Me @ The Altar have emerged as pop-punk’s new leaders since signing with Fueled by Ramen. After forming online in 2015 as teenagers, the trio started getting buzz with punchy, uplifting tracks like 2020’s "Garden" and 2021’s "Hit Like a Girl," an anthem of female solidarity. After opening for Green Day last summer, they released Past // Present // Future, a bold debut album that veers from honest self-deprecation to boundless optimism, earlier this month. Connecting with listeners who have waited for mainstream pop-punk to reflect its diverse fandom—all members of MM@TA are POC, with two of the members being queer. The LP has grown their Spotify playlist to 14M listeners.
The colorful K-pop girl group FIFTY FIFTY made a splash when they debuted in late 2022, impressing listeners—including The Recording Academy—with their remarkably self-assured approach to pop songcraft and a uniquely dreamy visual identity. Still, they’re rising even higher in early 2023 thanks to the success of "Cupid," a breezy cut that recalls both the simmer of early ‘00s R&B and the plasticine sheen of city pop. The track’s become a hit on shortform, notching over 41K creates on TikTok in just over a month, resulting in prominent playlist placements, including Spotify’s big on the internet and Pop Rising. All eyes are on FIFTY FIFTY, one of K-pop’s most ascendant new acts.
1nonly is a rising star of the internet-addled hip-hop scene known as aesthetic rap, owning his gruff-voiced cool on his 2022 single "Mine." He twists the TikTok-popular indie rock cut “Notion” by the Rare Occasions into a heavy-lidded, club-minded rap track. It’s not the only time he’s coasted over a beat featuring a viral sample—but he does so in a way that feels familiar yet true to his identity. He’s adopted other internet-popular genres like Phonk ("Step Back!") and rage ("GHOSTKILLA")—landing him on big editorial playlists that document online music (for example, Spotify’s Internet People and Top Gaming Tracks). With 6M monthly listeners on Spotify, he has a knack for reaching new audiences with every track.
Hailing from the UK, emerging singer and producer JayO blends smooth R&B and the heart of Afrobeats. "22," a sensual single, is nothing like the cheeky Taylor Swift track of the same name. After teasing a snippet on TikTok in January, 22-year-olds on the app rejoiced: The song has been used for over 200K creates, despite the Tottenham singer releasing the track in late February. In the month since its release, JayO has banked over 13M streams on Spotify and earned more than 4M monthly listeners.
The TBC Queue is Third Bridge’s playlist of new music, featuring songs our staff is currently obsessed with. This update kicks off with a stretch of playfully aggressive tracks perfect for soundtracking the coming summer. It starts with DJ Manny’s “Raga R&B” ft. Teklife, selected by TBC Senior Editor Colin Joyce, who shared: “Out of all the rhythmic contortionists in the Teklife orbit, few are as interested in lushness and melody as DJ Manny. This new single further indulges that side of his work, floating effortlessly above the dance floor while everyone footworks down below.” Recently released bangers from rapper billy woods, R&B singer Victoria Monét, and rappers Killer Mike and Sha EK continue the forward momentum. Later in the set, TBC Senior Producer Hannah Elliott selected the punchy rocker “DIRTY ROOM” from Korea’s Snake Chicken Soup because she’s “going through a phase where I'm looking for the stuff so loud it hurts a little.” Turn it up.
One of the benefits of working at Third Bridge Creative is having the space to discuss music with coworkers. I’m surrounded by passionate people with deep knowledge, and every day I’m learning about artists and records that are unfamiliar to me, some of which have become favorites. Today we’re launching a playlist series at Third Bridge that’ll allow our staff to share music that they love in a format that is assembled to resemble a mixtape. Each Third Bridge Staff Mix will be built around a theme—spotlights on labels, aesthetics, eras, moods, and more—and we’ll try to make them all worth an hour or two of your listening time.
We’re kicking off the series with a mix I call Stereomagic. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, there was a strain of electronic music that featured a strong emphasis on melody, dub rhythms and textures, and a general sense of musical playfulness. A lot of this stuff was coming out of Germany—specifically Dusseldorf, Berlin, and Cologne—and was released on labels like A-Musik, Sonig, and ~scape. This mix puts two artists in particular at the center: Mouse on Mars, including tracks from several side projects, and Jan Jelinek, who also appears under a few aliases. In their music, and others included here, I hear an exciting combination of technological sophistication—digital workstations were improving rapidly during this era and brought all sorts of new possibilities—and human warmth, including sly musical humor. Beats and percussion are prominent early on in this set, but over the course of the mix the percussion drops away and the last few tracks operate in a space closer to drone, but with dub elements intact. I hope you enjoy it.
For TBC’s Video Mix series, our team of movie and TV experts makes recommendations so that you’re never stuck with a million streaming services and nothing to watch.
When there's white fluff gathering on the ground, there are few better feelings than pulling the curtains closed and spending a whole day in front of the TV, secretly enjoying the excuse to power down for a bit. There's no shame in leaning into the icy gloom, watching other people try to traverse situations and landscapes more treacherous than the ones outside the window. Below are a few excellent films that revel in the bleakness and the beauty of the snowy season.
Sergio Corbucci’s nihilist Western features an ending so bleak and dire that one early screening of the film in Sicily reportedly ended when a frustrated audience member fired a gun at the cinema screen. Before the bloody denouement, The Great Silence is a tense document of slow-boiling rage and revenge, set in the days after a blizzard has blanketed a small town in Utah.
Where to Watch: Criterion Channel, Apple TV
Wracked by religious anxieties, the introverted engineer Jean-Louis spends a long night mulling his place in the world when a snowstorm prevents him from leaving the apartment of a new friend named Maud. Like the rest of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, My Night at Maud’s is a contemplation of life’s big questions—this time provoked by the experience of being stuck inside in the winter.
Where to Watch: Criterion Channel, HBO Max
Robert Altman’s beloved snow Western is a tale of harshness of frontier—violence and power struggles disrupting the oasis that Warren Beatty’s McCabe has helped build in Washington State. Still, the warmth of the Leonard Cohen songs that populate the film and McCabe’s lush fur coats make this a surprisingly cozy watch.
Where to Watch: Apple TV
Werner Herzog loves extremes. He’s spent time in volcanoes (Into the Inferno), on death row (Into the Abyss), and in the depths of a dank Peruvian jungle (Fitzcarraldo, and its Sisyphean making-of doc, Burden of Dreams). But Encounters at the End of the World may very well capture some of his most intense and strange subjects—the research scientists and divers who live and work in Antarctica.
Where to Watch: Apple TV
Paranoia, panic, and fears about the extinction of the entire human race permeate this beloved horror classic. Set at an American research station in Antarctica, it captures the sinister edge of the coldest nights in a way that very few other films do.
Where to Watch: Apple TV
It's a pop cultural truism that OK Computer is in the upper echelons of the modern rock canon, so it makes sense that the venerable Charles Aaron would plunge into Radiohead's masterpiece in The New York Times. According to Aaron, this is the "Sound of Rock Being Deprogrammed" and he dives into each track to prove just that by tracing the songs source material ("the before") and its reverberating effects ("the after"). While there have been plenty of pieces dissecting the inner workings of Radiohead's monumental third album, few have put their analyses to playlist form.
In the article, Aaron elaborates on his picks, using his own discerning ear alongside Radiohead's own stated influences (Miles Davis, Ennio Morricone, The Beach Boys) and other critics constant comparisons (Wilco, Muse, Coldplay). He links Jonny Greenwoods Mellotron on tracks like "Exit Music (for a Film)" to Genesis "Aisle of Plenty," Phil Selways blurred breakbeats on "Airbag" to DJ Shadows "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt," and the computer speak of "Fitter Happier" to Stephen Hawkings "A Brief History of Time." His "afters" tend to be even more straightforward, as he connects Coldplays tear-jerking "Fix You" to "Let Down," Grizzly Bears woozy "Knife" with "No Surprises," and the Selway drum sampling of Lloyd Banks "Cold Corner 2 (Eyes Wide)" to "Climbing Up the Walls."
His selections are mostly based in sound rather than cultural context, so even without knowing the reasons for his picks, the playlist flows fairly seamlessly. That said, there are a few jarring transitions, from the maddening rock opus "Paranoid Android" to Queens sillier multi-part beast "Bohemian Rhapsody," or from the doomy "Fitter Happier" to Daft Punks heart-pumping "Harder Better Faster Stronger." But overall, this works as a solid aural document of rock at some of its most daring and cerebral yet emotionally moving moments. And if you don't buy that, just take a listen to the moody, slinky stretch of "Karma Police," "Sexy Sadie," and TV on the Radios "Staring at the Sun" and try to convince us otherwise.
Improvisation is not solely tied to one genre of music. The notion of free-form performance is generally tied to jazz, but women in blues, experimental music, and even punk rock have all engaged in off-the-cuff creations. Women are very rarely highlighted for their ability to improvise on stage and in recordings, but everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Patti Smith has made an art of it. Even the quintessential all-female punk band, Bikini Kill, improvised on stage very often as well.
These women embody the art of interacting with their audience as if they were interacting with their fellow musicians. When Nina Simone played her many interludes (before, after, and in between her rehearsed music), you felt electricity in the air. Her fingers flew across the keyboard with the ease of a sultry virtuoso, and her declarations were jarring, honest, and, at times, slightly demented. Improvisation is what pushed funk-music queen Betty Davis over the top, and it’s what made avant-garde vocalist Pamela Z and jazz pianist Geri Allen masters of their respective crafts.
When women improvise, you get to see their raw talent in action and gaze into the innermost depths of their personal creativity. That’s why these women are being highlighted here: They gave their audiences, their stages, their instruments, and microphones everything they had, and they should be recognized accordingly.
“I am a DJ, I am what I play,” David Bowie sang on his 1979 single, “DJ,” and just a few weeks prior to its release, he was putting that philosophy into action. At the time, Bowie was on the verge of releasing Lodger, the final instalment of the “Berlin trilogy” that saw him drift away from guitar-based rock into futurist, synth-smeared pop and abstract electronica.
But when invited by the BBC to play disc jockey for a couple of hours, Bowie treated listeners to a This Is Your Life-scaled journey through his many phases and obsessions, with a set list that effectively doubled as a brain map. Much as Bowie’s own records pushed rock audiences to explore more esoteric sounds, his BBC broadcast began on familiar turf (The Doors, John Lennon, and, in a nod to his theatrical roots, an old Danny Kaye showtune) before thrusting listeners into the avant-classical of Philip Glass and the caterwauling no wave of Mars.
Over time, many of these selections have become familiar to even the most casual record collectors, but they’re emblematic of Bowie’s rarefied position at the time as a conduit between the rock establishment (Springsteen, Jeff Beck, Bob Seger) and post-punk’s new wave (Blondie, Talking Heads, Mekons). After Bowie’s death in January 2016, YouTube rips of his BBC stint began circulating in tribute posts, but they appear to have fallen victim to copyright claims.
So, in honor of the ultimate musical curator, we’ve reconstructed his set in playlist form so that, in a world without Bowie, he can still be what he played. * A couple of Bowie’s selections—Little Richard’s “He’s My Star” and The Staple Singers’ “Lies”—aren’t available on Spotify.
The original version of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” also isn’t available, so we’ve subbed in a live take instead.
In his various roles as a producer, collaborator, theorist, or composer himself over the past 50 years, Brian Eno has enjoyed nothing more than throwing wrenches into musical spanners. Indeed, there may be no fiercer opponent of the tried and true. Back when he was at art school in London in the late ‘60s, the young painter devised a variety of ways of getting himself creatively unstuck. The trick, as he explained it to journalist Glenn O’Brien in 1978, was that in “performing a task that might seem absurd in relation to the picture, one can suddenly come at it from a tangent and possibly reassess it.
”Such tactics proved to be even more useful after his focus shifted from art to the rock world. While recording For Your Pleasure with Roxy Music in 1973, he would put odd little instructions on cards and scatter them to help introduce a random variable to the high pressure and often rigid context of the recording studio. “You tend to proceed in a very linear fashion,” he said. “Now if that line isn’t going in the right direction, no matter how hard you work you’re not going to get anywhere. The function of the cards was to constantly question whether that direction was correct. To say, ‘How about going that way?’
”Full of instructions like “do nothing for as long as possible,” those cards were the basis of Oblique Strategies, a deck that Eno and artist Peter Schmidt published for use by other artists in 1975. The spark of vitality and ingenuity those cards fostered is the quality that most connects a wildly disparate body of work by an artist whose guises and capacities can seem just as varied.
True to his word, Eno has never gotten stuck in one place, swiftly shape-shifting from the feather-clad self-professed “non-musician” of his Roxy Music days and thrilling early solo albums, to the intrepid experimentalist who invented ambient music, to the invaluable creative foil for David Bowie and U2, to the modern multi-tasker whose artistic and technological ventures include 2017’s Reflection, a work that exists as both an album and a generative-music app. And as these playlists demonstrate, those various spheres contain their own multitude of reliably random variables.
Despite his later reputation as rock’s preeminent egghead, Brian Eno clearly delighted in his showman tendencies when he arrived on Roxy Music’s stages looking like a space-age ostrich before smothering the band’s high-concept art-rock rave-ups and decadent ballads with synthesizer whirrs and squeals. Even by the standards of early-‘70s glam, he was wildly flamboyant, so much so that Bryan Ferry grew weary of competing with him for attention from audiences and critics. The tensions prompted Eno to quit the band in 1973.
Starting with the same year’s Here Come the Warm Jets, Eno then released a series of solo albums that were just as packed with wild new ideas as his albums with Roxy Music had been. With the help of friends like Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, and Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, he would demolish just about every piece of existing rock methodology in songs that turned and twisted while somehow retaining their headlong velocity.
Eno claimed to have invented ambient music while convalescing after a car accident. Immobilized, he was unable to adjust the volume on a recording of classical harp music that was partially drowned out by the sound of rain. From that experience, he got the idea of creating music that was explicated designed to stay in the background, subtly coloring its environment. The notion wasn’t entirely original—French composer Erik Satie developed very similar ideas about “furniture music” back in the 1910s—but Eno most definitely was the one who popularized it as a genre when his first ambient album, Discreet Music, was released in 1975.
Over the next decade, Eno continued to be a crucial nexus point between the rock and experimental music worlds via endeavours like Obscure Records, the label on which he released early works by future avant-classical giants like Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman. Meanwhile, on his pioneering Ambient series and beyond, he’d develop more elaborate sound worlds, working with such collaborators as Daniel Lanois, Jon Hassell, Laraaji, Harold Budd, and his brother Roger. (His fascination with Germany’s experimental-rock scene would also culminate in several albums with Cluster and Harmonia, as well as the Krautrock-influenced instrumentals on David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Low.) Surely anyone who’s ever blissed out at the end of a yoga class owes him a sizable debt of gratitude.
What can you say? The man’s a people person. Even before his tenure with Roxy Music was done, he was networking with just about every member of the art-rock elite. Dalliances with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, John Cale, Kevin Ayers, and Nico would lead to his collaboration with David Bowie on his Berlin trilogy. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he’d prove his mettle with rock’s new vanguard as a producer for Ultravox, Talking Heads, and Devo, as well as the no-wavers he included in the No New York compilation.
His work with an ambitious young Irish band is what truly established Eno’s rep as someone who could bring the best out of musicians in a recording studio. Eno and Daniel Lanois’ wide-screen production aesthetic for U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree became the gold standard for Important Rock of the 1980s. But rather than apply the same brush to every artist’s music, he’s continued to adapt his methods to whatever the situations require, thereby eliciting extraordinary moments both from blue-chip clients like Coldplay and Damon Albarn and fellow avant-pop artists like Owen Pallett.
Being in such high demand as a producer meant less time for his own musical ventures. As a result, Eno’s releases became more sporadic after the original run of Ambient recordings. Yet the century thus far has been one of his most prolific periods, both in terms of his many musical installation works and the recordings under his own name, and with collaborators such as Leo Abrahams, Jon Hopkins, and Underworld’s Karl Hyde. In fact, his relationship with Warp Records has yielded a run of albums that are as richly enthralling (albeit less frantic) as his first four solo efforts in the 1970s. Not bad for an artist who still doesn’t consider himself a musician.
Not to take anything away from Ms. Lauryn Hill—Miseducation is fearless, timeless, etc.—but seeing her in Berkeley reminded me that she essentially only has three albums of material (and that’s being generous). As much as we all love “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Nothing Even Matters,” and “Everything Is Everything,” she’s a bit fossilized, and her performances, no matter how vibrant, are exercises in nostalgia.
Watching her, my mind began to cycle through artists from that era who haven’t succumbed to self-parody, grown creatively stagnant, disappeared for long stretches, or turned their attention to weird sex cults. It’s a short list, and Erykah Badu is near the top. Badu may have peaked commercially in the late ‘90s, but her releases since 2008 (New Amerykah Part One and Part Two and But You Caint Use My Phone) have been more restless, expansive, and experimental than anything she did in the first half of her career.
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is arguably the most important album of the 2000s. A woozy, psychedelic, politically prickly, endlessly esoteric album, it ultimately reaffirms the self in face of crippling oppression. Badu’s masterwork remains a singular artifact of the Dubya years, and serves as a precursor to everything from To Pimp a Butterfly to A Seat At The Table. Think you’re woke? Badu (along with underrated soul singer Georgia Anne Muldrow) popularized the term on “Master Teacher.”
But You Caint Use My Phone is similarly mercurial. Putting aside the fact that it’s a mixtape framed as a radio show that feels like a playlist—yeah, all of our definitions for collections of songs are blurred now—it skitters between pointed political commentary, melancholy slow jams, ham-fisted stand-up comedy, and rambling sound sketches—often within the same song.
Check out “Cel U Lar Device,” her remake of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” that skirts the line between homage and satire, and throws the original’s Caribbean rhythms against her own stilted Kraftwerkian vocals for a cheeky takedown of cell-phone culture. Later in the album, she’ll trot out a Drake impersonator to kick a few bars. It’s all unbelievably awesome, and probably better than anything the 6 God has ever made.
Of course, her first three albums—1997’s Baduziam, 2000’s Mama’s Gun, and 2003’s Worldwide Underground—are classics of their period. If you know anyone between the ages of 15 and 20, there’s about a 32 percent chance that Badu played some part in their conception.
But more than just baby-making machines, tracks such as “On & On,” “Didn’t Cha Know,” and “Next Lifetime” redefined R&B, updating Philly and Memphis soul for a new generation, and songs such as “A.D. 2000” (off Mama’s Gun) foreshadow the Alpha Centauri agitprop of her later work. She brought the vibes back to the genre, but, unlike some of her soul contemporaries, Erykah also had songs to cut through the nag champa fragrance. As always, she was in her own lane.
Being a feminist music critic is much less restrictive than it may seem. I put this specific mixtape together because I’d been having a number of conversations about the blatant misogynistic content in contemporary trap music. Back in the ‘90s, when Goodie Mobb, Outkast, and Master P were laying the foundation for trap, the lyrics were much less abusive towards women, our bodies, and general existence. But these days, when I talk to younger trap listeners, they treat me like I had never heard the genre before, while cis male music enthusiasts who are my age tell me I’m being too rigid with my music taste.
When you’re a female-identified music critic, there are going to be those times when you have to say, “I know what I like.” Not only do I know what I like, but I can make a collection of trap songs that are not overwhelmingly exploitative and abusive.
When Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap” came out in 2012, the song felt truly empowering. It was in-your-face, sexy, and had the quintessential elements of trap production style. I loved her interaction with 2 Chainz, so when they came together again in 2017 for “Realize” on 2 Chainz’s latest album, Pretty Girls Love Trap Music, I was excited. For me, finding good music takes patience—I’d rather wait five years for a collaboration I know I’m going to like than to listen to every single thing on the radio that comes my way.
The feminist aspect of this playlist comes from me being clear about what I enjoy as a female-identified listener—and it also comes from having the discipline to listen to music that isn’t profoundly violent towards women and female-identified queer music listeners.
This playlist includes cis and LGBTQ women as lead rappers on their tracks, it features trap originators from the mid-’90s, and it consists of music that has a bit of depth—not to mention authenticity, a little sexiness, and dope beats. Not all trap music is offensive, and even if some of the artists on this mixtape have other songs that are disrespectful towards women, I want to highlight those rare tracks where they show who they are without having to demean anyone. I’m not about censoring artists, but rather giving listeners the freedom to choose safe music.
Kudos to Secretly Canadian and Chimera Music for their reissues of Yoko Ono’s early albums. Though I don’t think any one of them is an outright masterpiece (Ono is too Fluxus-inspired to achieve, or desire, perfection), each contains a clutch of brain-twisting pieces that rank as some of the most boldly experimental freak-rock of the ’70s. “Mindtrain,” from 1971’s Fly, is 17 minutes of her freely improvised shrieks and ululations puncturing muddy, hypno-blues riffs that have more in common with Krautrock than classic rock. Then there’s “Mrs. Lennon,” an atmospheric piano ballad so sublime in its bleakness that Alex Chilton felt compelled to use it as a template for Big Star’s downer plea “Holocaust.” These reissues continue to spark endless, combative debates between the anti- and pro-Ono contingencies.
The former largely are rock dudes (though not always) who dismiss her as a talentless, caterwauling hanger-on; the latter, meanwhile, are underground heads who hail Ono as an avant-garde visionary and The Beatles as a silly over-hyped band for dads. It’s a battle in which I’ve never partook, and I have my mom to thank.
When I started exploring The Beatles’ universe in high school, she instilled in me two opinions: (1) Ono is unique, strong artist to be taken seriously, and (2) The Beatles were at their most interesting on 1968’s self-titled release (a.k.a. “The White Album”), a strange, 30-track beast riddled with heavy metal, atonal blues, electronic music, lo-fi, and acid folk.
Because I’ve never harbored prejudices one way or another, I don’t hear a gulf separating The Beatles’ eccentric late-’60s work from Ono’s own. Rather, I hear a natural progression in sonic radicalism, one that begins with the all-over-the-map “White Album,” winds its way through the earliest solo efforts from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, and reaches peak intensity on Ono first few full-lengths.
Let’s take the aforementioned “Mindtrain”: It’s far out, no doubt, yet it also feels of a piece with a whole clutch of bluesy, experimental rock songs. In addition to Lennon’s primal-scream scorcher “Cold Turkey,” there’s the Abbey Road epic “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” whose final three minutes is proto-doom metal soaked in Moog-generated white noise; the intentionally shattered “Yer Blues”; and, of course, McCartney’s “Helter Skelter,” which very nearly matches Ono in terms of sheer bludgeoning cacophony.
As for her barbed vocal acrobatics—of which the proto-no waver “Why” and plodding “Dont Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)” are prime examples—it should be noted that Harrison himself tried out a similarly shrill approach on the closing 30 seconds of his ghostly, ambient lament “Long, Long, Long.” Over violently rattling percussion that sounds like it belongs on a free-jazz record, he wails and moans like a mortally wounded cat. So yeah, if you don’t dig Ono, then you probably don’t dig the chilling finale to one of the most striking ballads in The Beatles’ entire catalog.
As any Beatles fanatic will tell you, this represents just the tip of the iceberg. The 1968-1972 stretch contains a wealth of interconnected experiments that push rock and pop into music’s outer limits. When the musique concrète composition “Revolution 9” appeared on “The White Album,” it marked the beginning of a whole slew of electronic-based exploration. Lennon and Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions submerges listeners in grainy field recordings and sound collage on par with William S. Burroughs’ own tape experiments (recorded around the same time, in fact). Harrison also got into the act, releasing Electronic Sound, which consists of a pair of forays into longform synthesizer music. Also not to be overlooked is McCartney’s “Kreen-Akrore," a Brazilian-inspired percussion track that sounds like the spiritual ancestor to Animal Collective’s psychedelic tribalism.
If you’re an anti-Ono classic rocker, please approach my playlist with open ears. Who knows? You may hear a searing guitar jam that will surprise you. (“Don’t Worry Kyoko” features Eric Clapton, as a matter of fact.) And if you’re a pro-Ono Beatles disser, kindly do the same. You, too, may discover that the band unleashed some wonderfully challenging music. The rhythm track alone on the phantasmagoric “It’s All Too Much” is sure to give you a contact buzz. In the name of great music, it’s time to make peace, folks.
How Björk managed to become such a powerful force in mainstream pop culture is one of the great unexplainable mysteries of our time. Over the course of her 40-plus-year career making music, Björk has epitomized the ideal of the free-spirited artist, taking her work wherever her muse may lead it without bending to the will of commercial trends or mass-market crowd pleasing. And yet she is one of the most distinct, consistently celebrated voices of the turn of the millennium, a pop-art maven whose work is difficult to even put into words, and yet whose sense of emotion and sonic innovation is unmistakable.
Part of Björk’s rise to stardom can certainly be attributed to the wonderfully eccentric music videos she deployed with the help of directors like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze right as she was emerging as a solo artist. The early ‘90s very well may have been the right place and the right time for weirdos like Björk (and Radiohead and Aphex Twin) to shimmy their way into the mainstream via MTV, even if, in Björk’s case, her videos were always more popular than her singles (at least in the U.S.). Not that that ever slowed her stride; tracing the evolution of Björk’s work, her earliest material is probably the most accessible music she ever made, her albums becoming more mutated and surreal with each release while always remaining a present and powerful locus of the cultural moment.
To say that Björk is an acquired taste would be an understatement, and that’s exactly how her music should be. Between her uncannily raw voice, her assorted spread of disorienting producers and collaborators, and her childlike commentaries on love and sexuality, Björk’s work is about as confrontational and avant-garde as it gets, only magnified to a level of public consciousness that few artists ever achieve.
Whether you’re a curious newcomer unfamiliar to her strange world or a hyper-fan just seeking some nourishment, we’re here to break down Björk’s music into something that almost resembles common sense.
Björk’s major breakthrough as a solo artist in the ‘90s largely fit in with certain sonic trends of the era. House music, trip-hop, and an umbrella sense of “alternative” were all having their moment, and these sounds largely informed the surreal dance pop of Debut and Post. “Army of Me,” with its Led Zeppelin-sampling backbeat and grimy production (courtesy of 808 State’s Graham Massey), sounds like a Portishead song that’s been set on fire, and these influences would carry through even to her modern work.
Tracks like “Joga” and “Pagan Poetry” stir dark electronics with an orchestral sense of melody, while “Lionsong” drifts in and out of its beat as Björk delivers a painfully intimate serenade on dissipating love. But lest her sound become too easily categorized as “electronic,” let us not forget the shimmering, theatrical opus that is “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a surprise hit if there ever was one, thanks to its old-school brass-band arrangement and unhinged sense of release.
Part of what’s made Björk’s music so enduring over the years is the way she’s managed to synthesize a plethora of influences into something wholly her own. Take “Where Is The Line,” for example, a highlight off the a capella concept record Medúlla: The track combines a flurry of throaty beatboxing with distorted programming and operatic singing to bizarre effect, creating something otherworldly that still manages to call back to Björk’s early fascination with drum ‘n’ bass.
Songs like “Possibly Maybe” and “Cocoon” show off just how atmospheric Björk is capable of being as well, both numbers swelling with deep synthesizer tones and light glitchy effects that contrast with her stark, passionate voice. Her knack for composition shines through as well on songs like “Black Lake” and the film-scoring “Ambergris March,” the former a somber requiem of slowly unfolding strings, the latter a peculiar yet lovely parade of bells and hand drums.
Whether she’s teaming up with collaborators or exploring the most extreme recesses of her sound, Björk is anything if not adventurous. Her earliest hit came with the Icelandic jangle-pop group The Sugarcubes, whose song “Birthday” may very well have set the stage for Björk’s massive solo career. Her starring role in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark resulted in a soundtrack of original songs as well, with “Cvalda” blurring the line between old Hollywood theatre and skull-crushing factory sounds.
But Björk’s primary interest has always been revealing the physical intricacies of the body through otherworldly distortion, whether through the thrashing dance rhythms of “Pluto,” the primal a capella funk of “Triumph of a Heart,” or the echoing siren song of “Storm.” Entering Björk’s unusual sonic world can be unwieldy business, but as alien as it might seem, what’s consistently enthralling about her music is how utterly human it truly is.
“1967 - Sunshine Tomorrow documents one of the all-time paradoxes of rock history: the sound of a band taking a major creative turn at the exact moment pop culture dooms them to obsolescence.” It’s a key point made in Pitchfork writer Jesse Jarnow’s review of The Beach Boys’ compilation, a grab bag of stereo mixes, outtakes, and live recordings that shed further light on the months immediately following the Smile project’s dissolution and Brian Wilson’s subsequent abdication of his role as de facto creative leader.
I’ll go one step further and say this major creative turn resulted in a run of albums—Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, Surf’s Up, et al.—that represent the band’s zenith as a recording unit. And while just about every one of these records was greeted with a mixture of indifference (from the music-buying public) and ridicule (from the pop press), the sheer number of brilliant tunes littered across them represent, in total, one of the most expansive visions in the history of American pop and rock.
The earliest gems from this run, the throbbing, Theremin-lined “Wild Honey” and the waltzing meditation “Let the Wind Blow” among them, find The Beach Boys (now operating as what Jarnow calls a “fully democratic band”) articulating a homespun, R&B-kissed brand of pop that stands right alongside Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (recorded mere months earlier) as the first expressions of rock’s post-psychedelic turn towards earthy simplicity.
In this newfound democracy (one as easily contentious as our own), it frequently falls on the shoulders of Carl and Dennis Wilson to pick up Brian’s slack by developing their own unique voices. The first to blossom is Carl, who produces and sings the otherworldly lead on 1969’s “I Can Hear Music,” a slice of Phil Spector-inspired gloriousness.
When the band make the leap to Reprise Records in 1970, it’s Dennis’ turn, and boy does he ever deliver. Among the handful of his stellar contributions to Sunflower is “Forever,” a ballad Brian once declared the “most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard."
Arguably The Beach Boys’ most confident-sounding album after Pet Sounds, Sunflower also contains the dreamily hypnotic “Cool, Cool Water,” a piece of Smile detritus transformed into bubbling ambient pop that sets the stage for both Kosmische Musik explorers like Cluster, as well as Brian Eno’s mid-’70s avant-pop.
With the addition of guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar in 1972 they pivot once again, cranking out raw, punchy rockers like “Sail on Sailor” and “Funky Pretty,” all the while maintaining a link to their roots in harmony-rich, AM pop (see the gorgeous “Marcella”). The era finally grinds to a halt when the 1974 greatest hits package, Endless Summer, goes triple platinum and forces the group, concerned with commercial survival, to become an oldies act. Though they would release one more great album in 1977’s extremely eccentric Love You, The Beach Boys as creatively potent, contemporary entity basically ceased to exist sometime during the Carter administration. (And, no, “Kokomo” doesn’t count.)
From Motown to Eminem, Detroit has long been a music city. For a certain, electronically minded type of music lover, though, Detroit will forever mean techno, a genre that (with apologies to Kraftwerk) originated in the Motor City around the turn of the ‘80s. Even now, seeing “Detroit” alongside a DJ’s name on a club line-up is like a guarantee of quality for techno fans, who recognize the city’s unparalleled history in tough, danceable electronic music.
For all its panoply of talent, Detroit techno will always be associated with the Belleville Three, a.k.a. the three Belleville High School friends—Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May—who helped give birth to techno with their groundbreaking electronic productions and DJ skills. Today, all three are still among the most respected DJs and producers in the global electronic-music community and, in 2017, formally began working together officially under the Belleville Three moniker, playing at the Movement festival in Detroit. And yet the history of Detroit techno goes back even further—Derrick May once compared the music to "George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator.” Another key influence could be found closer to home: Richard Davis, a Vietnam vet from Detroit who produced the stunning electronic soundscape “Methane Sea” in 1978.
Atkins met Davis in 1980 and the duo formed Cybotron, whose 1981 debut single “Alleys of Your Mind” is sometimes referred to as the first techno record, in one of those late-night arguments that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. (“Shari Vari” by Detroit electro group A Number of Names is another popular contender.) Cybotron’s third single, 1983’s “Clear,” is their classic cut and has been widely sampled, most notably by Missy Elliott on “Lose Control.”
Atkins left Cybotron in 1985 over musical differences: Davis wanted to pursue a rock direction, while Atkins wanted to further develop Cybotron’s electro sound, a direction that was evident on Atkins’ first solo release, the brilliantly dark drive-time thrust of “No UFO’s” under the Model 500 name. Atkins may have been the first of the Belleville Three to release a record but it was (arguably) Derrick May who first produced something we would recognize as techno today, with Atkins’ productions hewing closer to electro.
May’s debut as Rhythim Is Rhythim, “Nude Photo” (a collaboration with Thomas Barnett), was a hugely sophisticated record that sounded a step removed from anything else coming out of Detroit thanks to its jazzy syncopation. But it was Rhythim Is Rhythims second record, the yearning, iconic “Strings of Life,” that really lifted the lid on Detroit techno internationally. “Strings of Life” is still regarded by many as one of the greatest techno tracks of all time. Saunderson, meanwhile, is known for two very different aspects of his productions: The classic sound of Inner City, which married techno-influenced production to house vocals, and the harder-edged sound of his various Reese/E-Dancer/Tronik House productions, whose tough bassline style influenced the nascent jungle and rave scenes in the UK.
THE SECOND WAVE
The Belleville Three (alongside Blake Baxter, Eddie "Flashin" Fowlkes, and Chez Damier) were the key names in the first wave of Detroit techno, which ruled the late 1980s. The new decade then saw the emergence of the second wave of Detroit techno, which would be dominated by Underground Resistance (and its various constituent members) and Derrick May protege Carl Craig. Suburban Knight, a.k.a. James Pennington, was the link between the two waves. His first record, 1987’s “The Groove,” was released on Derrick May’s Transmat label, as was his classic “The Art of Stalking,” a lurching, rock-hard extraterrestrial groove still capable of slaying dance floors to this day. He later joined Underground Resistance.Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen, and Octave One aside, the Underground Resistance collective would at one time play host to pretty much all the key artists and DJs of Detroit’s second wave.
UR was formed in the late 1980s by Jeff Mills and former studio musician "Mad" Mike Banks, and its members included James Stinson and Gerald Donald (later of Drexciya and, respectively, The Other People Place and Dopplereffekt), Robert Hood, DJ Rolando, and Claude Young.UR’s own music, released largely on the Underground Resistance and Red Planet labels under a variety of names, manages to mix seat-of-your pants insurrectionary techno (see: “The Seawolf”) with sky-scraping electronics (“Inspiration,” or The Martian’s “Star Dancer”), barn-storming gospel house (Galaxy 2 Galaxy’s “First Galactic Baptist Church”), and jazz (Galaxy 2 Galaxy’s “Hi-Tech Jazz,” a song that does more than any other in the history of electronic music to rehabilitate the saxophone solo).
In a neat squaring of the circle, Underground Resistance would later remix Kraftwerk’s 1999 single “Expo 2000,” which evolved into “Planet of Visions,” a song that would be a staple of Kraftwerk’s live set in years to come.UR’s former members’ work also demands to be explored. Jeff Mills remains one of the biggest names in techno thanks to his thundering, loop-based productions and occasional excursions into theoretical ambience, as well as his exhilarating chop-and-change DJ skills. (He would also work with Mike Banks and Robert Hood as X-101.)
Drexciya’s mixture of aquatic electro, vocal hooks, and Afrofuturist mythology has made them one of the most revered names in electronic music (with their career tragically curtailed in 2002 when James Stinson died). Robert Hood essentially invented minimal techno with his ground-breaking 1994 release Minimal Nation, a record that still sounds menacingly futuristic over two decades later. And DJ Rolando (as The Aztec Mystic) would give UR a global hit record in 1999 with the I’m-not-crying-it’s-just-dry-ice-under-my-contact-lenses, string-led revelry of “Knights Of The Jaguar.”For all that, if there is one artist that sums up the brilliant, emotive technological innovation of second-wave Detroit it is probably Carl Craig, an artist, DJ, and label boss who has produced everything from Kraftwerk-ian synth classics (“Science Fiction”) to chilling ambience (Psyche’s “Neurotic Behavior”) to screaming house bangers (Paperclip People’s “Throw”) to breakbeat elegance (69’s “Desire”) to proto drum ‘n’ bass (Innerzone Orchestra’s “Bug in the Bass Bin”).
THE NEXT GENERATION
Detroit’s influence is such that its classic artists continue to dominate the techno landscape today. But this hasn’t stopped a new generation of local producers coming through, post-second wave. The best known of these are probably Moodymann and Theo Parrish, although neither are exactly new, having debuted in the ’90s, while much of their work nods more towards deep house, disco, and jazz than straight-up techno.New generations of talent continue to emerge from Detroit, sometimes springing, quite literally, from the loins of the pioneers: Robert Hood is now working with his daughter, Lyric, in the wonderful Floorplan, while Kevin Saunderson’s sons Dantiez and DaMarii Saunderson DJ as The Saunderson Brothers, alongside their solo careers.
Elsewhere, the raw, funked-up techno of Omar-S, the UK bass-leaning Kyle Hall, and the wonky jazz productions of Jay Daniel give further proof of the incredible wellspring of electronic-music talent in the Motor City.
So how come the greatest R&B girl groups of the 1990s are—to crib the line that En Vogue borrowed from Curtis Mayfield—still giving you something you can feel? That’s because girl groups have always been a high-drama proposition, whether in their original heyday in the early ‘60s or in this second golden age, which roughly spans the period between the launch of En Vogue in 1989 and the first solo Beyoncé single in 2002. (The death of TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes the same year may be a more tragic capper.) And that drama has more to do with the nature of these acts’ creation and the contradictions that result than anything in the songs.
Consider the tension that inevitably arises between the typically male Svengalis who often assemble the acts—a lineage that runs from Berry Gordy with the Supremes to Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy with En Vogue to Simon Cowell with Fifth Harmony—and the women who make them what they are. Though an act may start with all the partners united in the quest for chart domination, the best often achieve greatness because of a messy internal clash of competing imperatives and ambitions. As so the usual prefab male fantasies presenting women as sweet, pliant, and/or sexy get complicated by more strident and authentic expressions of power, autonomy, and the general not-taking-of-shit. In other words, there may be a whole lot going on beneath the slinky surface of even the most buttery ballad by Brownstone or the tastiest jam by Jade.
Then there’s the musical ingenuity that so often came into play as the R&B and gospel elements that had been fundamental to Gordy’s formula for Motown’s girl groups were realigned with the “hip-hop soul” that Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs cooked up with Mary J. Blige at the decade’s dawn. Indeed, cameos by MCs became another staple of the genre, whether it was Jay-Z with Changing Faces, Biggie Smalls with Total, or Missy Elliott with 702 on the mighty “Steelo. ”But like every golden age, the one for R&B girl groups sadly had an expiry date.
Beyoncé and Rihanna gave the solo diva such preeminence in the 21st century that Fifth Harmony’s superb 2016 single “Work From Home” was the first major hit by a girl group in a decade. In honor of greats like TLC, we have ensured that this playlist of essential ‘90s R&B girl-group tracks is entirely scrubs-free.
Freed from historical context, Wu-Tang Clan’s 1997 sophomore album, Wu-Tang Forever, is one of the best albums of that or any year. It contains some of the strongest verses from legendary emcees Ghostface Killah, GZA, and Method Man. The production gushes a cagey, synth-fueled dread, with (frustratingly brief) excursions into the Wu’s signature minor chord hip-hop minimalism for a sonic palette that absorbs all the claustrophobia and chaos of urban life in the mid-90s. There’s also an epic grandeur to it: This didnt sound like eight guys sitting in their basement, playing chess, smoking dust, and plotting a global takeover. Wu-Tang Forever sounds like the victory parade, exuding the scope and swagger of gods roaming the earth, surveying the spoils of a bloody but decisive victory. And though there was some grumbling from critics and old heads, audiences responded.
Wu-Tang Forever went to No. 1 in both the U.K. and U.S., drew widespread critical acclaim and further launched Wu-Tang to the upper echelons of pop-cultural ubiquity. This was the culmination of leader RZA’s famed five-year plan, which outlined how a group of rough-and-tumble NYC CMS with little traditional pop appeal would essentially take over the music world.Still, despite all of this, Wu-Tang Forever has always had its detractors. In fact, most Wu fans consider it to be the group’s first major misstep. Some of the blame for this can be laid at the RZA’s feet, while other reasons were beyond his control.
By 1997, hip-hop had changed dramatically. The golden era (whichever period you call that) had long since ended, and the jazzy, rugged beats that defined NYC hip-hop in the early to mid-90s were no longer fashionable. This coincided with RZA’s Staten Island basement studio flooding, which also forced the Abbott to move to a more digital and less sample-based sound. Wu-Tang Forever also lacked the chemistry and intertextuality of the original Wu releases. The group’s MCs were becoming more confident in their skills, and they stopped seeing themselves as pawns (or even knights) in a larger chess game being orchestrated by the RZA. They were also, it should be noted, battling various court cases, legal proceedings, intrasquad beefs, and personal issues.
All this meant that Wu-Tang Forever sounded drastically different than its predecessors. It was more commercial and polished, and largely lacked the griminess and insularity of Wu’s output during their “classic” period. But, still, this is a extremely talented group of rappers and producers, and there are flashes of brilliance. Over the past 20 years, the group’s rabid fan base have engaged in a parlor game of sorts to tease out those streaks of genius, while trimming the unwanted bloat. This is our entry, and we’ve cut the album down to 11 lean, mean classic cuts.
The first on the chopping block is the lead-off “track,” “Wu-Revolution.” This six-minute, meandering, morally confused, self-congratulatory piece encapsulates the album’s rambling sprawl. It didn’t help that this was also the first track on the album, and it set a horrible precedent. It was an easy call to drop. Tracks like “For Heavens Sake” were harder choices. This song is fine; the warped vocal sample is classic RZA and the detuned keys at the end of the chorus gives the track a velocity. On most albums, this would be a stand-out, but here it gets a little lost. The same with “Cash Still Rules/ Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But the Money).” Aside from the fact that it has three titles jammed into one, this would be an awesome single from a middle-period Raekwon album. But as the sequel to one of the Wu’s most beloved songs, it disappoints. The loop at the center of the track doesn’t go anywhere, an Method sounds a little bit lazy.
“Hellz Wind Staff” is classic Wu: grimey, kung-fu whiplash beats, with the world’s best MCs trading lines. It’s a vibe that is carried through to “The M.G.M.,” which sounds like a banger from Wu’s golden era. The beat is dusty, the vibe violent, and the verses from Ghost and Rae are pure fire. “The City” survives based on the intro alone. Violent menace meets ghetto vérité, which nicely kicks off classic verses from Inspectah Deck. The song has problems—the chorus stumbles, and it could’ve used a verse from GZA—but it’s still classic Wu. Ominous, angry, and esoteric, with a haunting soul sample at its core, “Impossible” is flawless, and arguably the strongest track on the album—though “Triumph” has always been the default choice for that distinction. Both tracks are tough-as-nails.When stitched together, these tracks probably still don’t quite rise to the level of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). But this playlist still constitutes the best hip-hop album of 1997—and most years thereafter.
The 1990s were a crucial turning point in the history of electronic music, the moment when rave culture started to percolate into the mainstream and lay the foundation for EDM’s dominance today. But your perspective on the decade’s best electronic music depends on what side of the pond you were on at the time. So instead of trying to determine a single master list of the best ‘90s electronic tracks, we present you with two—one curated by U.S. native Philip Sherburne and the other by Brit Ben Cardew. Both currently based in Barcelona, they’re the hosts of the Line Noise podcast, and we got them together to discuss their picks, and how their experiences of the decade differed. (Philip’s playlist is to the left; Ben’s is below.)
Ben: Looking at my list in comparison to yours, I would say mine is a lot more poppy—do you agree?
Philip: Thats probably a fair assessment. But then, maybe from a UK perspective, 90s dance music was not that far removed from pop music, and vice versa?
Ben: Exactly. I think one of the keys to electronic music in the 90s—from a British perspective—is how incredibly mainstream it was. Obviously in the ’80s you had raves, the Summer of Love, and hit records. But in the ’90s dance/electronic music was everywhere: the charts, Top of the Pops, Radio 1, etc. And I wanted to get that across.
Philip: This is probably a good place to talk briefly about our criteria. To what extent are these personal faves, and to what extent are you trying to represent some objective picture of the 90s as it was? Because I know that you were an active raver yourself, yet my 90s experience was really limited to listening to records. I got into electronic music in 94 or so via Aphex Twin and Warp and Rephlex, and up until maybe 98, most of my listening was more experimental and ambient and IDM. I started listening to techno then, but didn't really start going out to clubs or festivals until the 2000s. So my list is pretty idiosyncratic—even though I did try to balance personal quirks with some vaguely objective overview.
Ben: Mine is a personal view, but influenced by the fact that I don't think you can talk about ’90s electronic music without the likes of Armand van Helden's Tori Amos remix, which was a No. 1 hit in the UK. I love it. But it is also an important record I think. And as you know, I find it unexpected that many people who are into electronic music in the U.S. don't know that song (I think). I was too young for raves, which petered out about 1991. But I did go to a lot of clubs from ’95 to ’98. I was trying to work out what percentage of these songs I have heard in clubs. Maybe 50.
Philip: But you do have some picks that I certainly wouldn't bring to a desert island, like that Bass-o-matic track.
Ben: You don't like “Fascinating Rhythm”! Oh my good lord, what a tune.
Philip: It's not that... fascinating?
Ben: No, agreed. But it is a great pop tune. The melody is delicious. Maybe we should speak about our number ones?
Philip: You went with Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash," a stone classic—and my No. 3, in fact.
Ben: “Energy Flash” for me is magical. It seems so simple. But so many people have tried to recreate that magic and failed. I literally cant explain why it is so good. Also, it is for dancing. And for me, dance music and electronic music, while not quite synonymous, are very close.
Philip: Thats an interesting point. I know that we discussed that divide, and wishing to keep this list to "dance music" rather than "electronic music," just to keep it semi-manageable and not sprawling. Yet your Primal Scream pick (“Higher Than the Sun”) I wouldn't necessarily call “dance” music.
Ben: You could sway to it. Maybe.
Philip: Im sure many Glastonbury attendees did, quite woozily.
Ben: But I agree with you. I guess I included it because back when it was released—1991, I think—there wasn't so much of a division between "dance" and "electronic." Plus, I had to have something from Screamadelica.
Philip: To get back to number ones, I went with a somewhat counterintuitive pick.
Ben: Yes, I was surprised: why “Domina”? It's not even on my list—although it is a great track, undoubtedly.
Philip: Its pretty simple: When I was ordering the list, I realized that song gave me far more pleasure than any canonical picks. But I also like the fact that its a trans-Atlantic collaboration—Basic Channel and Carl Craig (pictured)—which pretty much sums up two of the most important traditions of the period: Detroit techno and Berlin techno.
Ben: Absolutely. And, as I think we both found, a lot of the Detroit techno classics were released before the ’90s, which made it a little difficult. Hence, no Derrick May, no Juan Atkins… Okay time to be honest: Anything on my list that you thought, what on Earth is he thinking?
Philip: Not really! Im not crazy about that Bass-o-Matic song, and I don't think of Björk's "Isobel" as “dance” per se but theres nothing that makes me screw up my face uncomfortably. And Im pleased to see you got some Altern 8 in there, because I know you love some Altern 8.
Ben: My good lord, do I love Altern 8. I got into them when I was about 13. Their whole schtick was very appealing to a teenager. I did, I must confess, try on a dust mask. I mean, its pop-rave. If they came out today with that, I doubt I would love them so. Can I call them a cousin to KLF?
Philip: Right. Its a reminder that there is a place for pop-rave—every generation needs it. Im intrigued by the cases where we have different tracks by a given artist. For instance, Galaxy 2 Galaxy's "Jupiter Jazz" for me vs. "Hi-Tech Jazz" for you.
Ben: “Hi-Tech Jazz” was one of those tracks I heard in a club and rushed to the DJ to ask what it was. Luckily, the club was pretty empty so he told me. Its still one of my very favorite techno tracks. It makes the saxophone acceptable. Why “Jupiter Jazz” for you?
Philip: It just has it all for me—the choral pads, the piano, the squealy lead. It's so lush and exuberant. A perfect track, really.
Ben: Ive just realised I forgot Stardancer. For shame.
Philip: Speaking of Stardancer, did we forget Stardust? "Music Sounds Better With You"?
Ben: Stardust aren't on Spotify.
Philip: The songs that aren't on Spotify just mystify me. The biggest culprit: "Deep Burnt." It pains me that there’s no Pepe Bradock on either of our lists.
Ben: Obviously, artists are free to do what they like with their music. But it's going to go on YouTube pretty much whether you like it or not. So why not put it on Spotify? Oh well...
Philip: It was so hard to pick a Moodymann song. I don’t think any one song really represents what’s so amazing about him. Though I would have picked “J.A.N.” if it were on Spotify.
Ben: For me the Moodymann choice was simple: “I Cant Kick This Feeling” is a) so joyous and b) sums up what he is about: a relatively unimportant part of someone else's song looped to brilliant lengths.
Philip: We differed again with MAW: "The Ha Dance" vs. "I Cant Get No Sleep."
Ben: “The Ha Dance” is more influential. But the last half of “I Cant Get No Sleep” is so perfect. I also wanted “To Be In Love.” But it wasnt there.
Philip: Before we wrap this up, are there any songs of yours you particularly want to shout-out as deserving of special attention?
Ben: Good question. Its hard for me to know which songs here aren't more generally known. Because for me they all seem obvious. But maybe Romanthony’s “Hold On” and Todd Edwards’ “Push the Love.”
Philip: Dettinger would probably be my far left-field recommendation; an early Kompakt release that is among my favorite ambient techno. Oh, the other song I have to highlight—again, I was surprised to find it on Spotify—is Crustation's "Flame (Borderline Insanity Dub)," a Mood II Swing remix that is one of my favorite deep house tunes ever. The deepest, swirliest house music imaginable.
Ben: If we're Crustation-spotting—and this, it appears, is the level we have descended—then the Air remix of their song “Purple” is a total classic too.
Philip: Any final observations before we go?
Ben: Yes—when you listen to my list and get to the rap on The Shamen's “Move Any Mountain,” please dont judge me. I was young. And you?
Philip: I’d just like to point out that the “oh” sound in FSOL’s “Papua New Guinea” sounds uncannily like the “oh” in MJ Cole’s “Sincere.” I don't know what that means... but Im sure it means something.
Ben: It means the ’90s circle is complete!
Philip: There you go! This has been fun, Ben. See you back in 2017.
Click here to follow Philip’s playlist on Spotify.