Album of the Week: John Holt – 1000 Volts of Holt (1973)

Detail from Trojan Records

John Holt was one of the great songwriters in Reggae, and you are probably familiar with his work whether you’ve heard his name or not. As a teen in 1967 he wrote “The Tide Is High” for his vocal group The Paragons, which was more famously covered by Blondie 13 years later (“I’m gonna be your nuuuumber oooone…”). Destined to be covered, the young Holt went solo in 1970 and recorded many cover songs himself.

“The best selling single artist Trojan album of all time” according to the monumental label (whose compilation albums include a mind-blowing collection of some of the best rocksteady, dub and dancehall reggae ever), 1000 Volts of Holt is comprised of all cover songs. Lushly orchestrated in Jamiaca, Holt tackles such diverse artists as The Ronettes (“You Baby”) Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”, a hit in the UK), Jobim (“Girl From Ipanema”) and Roberta Flack (“Killing Me Softly”). Its most genius moment comes halfway through “I’d Love You to Want Me”, when Holt switches up the rhythm mid-chorus to sing the chorus of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”. I live for reggae brilliance like this.

Holt followed up 1000 Volts with 2000, 3000, and yes, 4000 Volts of Holt. Gems are scattered throughout (notably 2000 Volts‘ “I Will” [Beatles], which was sampled heavily on Jay-Z’s “Encore”), but 1000 Volts is the best selection and a very accessible collection for Reggae neophytes and fans alike. If you dislike heavily orchestrated music, these albums might be too saccharine for your taste, but I would recommend them to anyone else. Holt continued a productive music career for many years and passed away in 2014.

Listen to 1000 Volts of Holt on Spotify. Or, if you’re feeling really crazy, check out the super deluxe 4000 Volts of Holt.

Weekly Mix: 7/19/20

This week’s addition to the mix begins with one of my favorite dream-pop songs, Darling Effect by Insides. Things remain ever-dreamy with chanteuse Alizée’s Lui ou toi and take a turn for the doo-wop in The Chandeliers’ Blueberry Sweet. An underrated Awful Records track is next – GAHM’s Sun in Your Eyes. One of the most mellow Can songs, She Brings the Rain, follows. Dirty Projectors come after that with the stoned Maybe That Was It. Eden Ahbez, who I mentioned in my review of Miles Davis’s Blue Moods, follows with the surreal spoken-word piece The Wanderer. Then comes Heralds of Change’s Spotted, Underground Rebellion’s Westbound and Karin Krog’s Hymn to Joy.

As always, check out the playlist on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Denmark Vessey’s Martin Lucid Dream (2015)

As we enter the 2020s, one of the most interesting and productive rap scenes to keep an eye on is the Earl Sweatshirt school of artists like MIKE, Medhane, Maxo, Liv.e, Pink Siifu, Akai Solo, Adé Hakim, and others who form a loose collective of bright new ideas in music, and have released a plethora of outstanding projects and collaborations (each word links to a Spotify stream of a great release).

Now, when I say “Earl Sweatshirt school”, I must clarify that Earl isn’t really a ringleader for these young artists. But, in addition to frequently collaborating and touring with them, his footprint on their music is indelible. The weed-drenched, emotionally direct and proudly black music that Earl has been making since his teenage years is reflected in this newer scene.

So where does Denmark Vessey fit in? The Detroit rapper and producer is older than all of these artists and isn’t strongly aligned with any of them, except maybe Earl, with whom he has collaborated several times. But I think his music forms something of a missing link in considering what has influenced this new scene.

Enter Martin Lucid Dream. This album is like a blast of fresh air – equal parts hard-hitting and tounge-in-cheek. Guilty Simpson comes repping Detroit out the gate with a brash “Warning”, then on the title track we hear Denmark rap for the first time. Over a kaleidoscopic beat, Denmark strings along stream-of-consciousness bars before Little Brother affiliate Von Pea steps in with “I wrote an article for Lifehacker / It simply said ‘Don’t Be a Rapper'”.

Vessey clearly isn’t afraid to switch things up. “Nerd N***as” closes with a long speech from the 1972 blaxploitation film The Final Comedown, and “Chemtrails” features no rapping at all, only singing. The variety in sound and concise runtime seems like a potential blueprint for a project such as Medhane’s FULL CIRCLE.

The greatest song on Martin Lucid Dream comes last with “Everyday”. Over a fantastic flip of Leon Ware’s “Rockin’ You Eternally”, Denmark and fellow Detroit rappers shine effortlessly. And before you know it, Martin Lucid Dream is over. Reissued in 2017 with the bonus tracks “Katt Williams” and “Snowing in L.A.” (prod. by Earl), the album (or EP) still barely scratches a half-hour. Brimming with fresh ideas nearly 5 years later, this is one of the tightest and most underrated underground rap projects of the 2010s.

Stream Martin Lucid Dream on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 7/12/20

This week I locked myself out of my house, so you could say things are going pretty well! Here’s what some are saying on twitter: The good singing gum playlist… made my week. Thanks, listeners!

The late, great Nate Dogg begins this week’s addition to the mix with She’s Strange, then The Wake with the prescient (for 1985) Of the Matter – Version. From Solange’s underrated Saint Heron compilation (2013) I included Cassie’s smooth Indo. Then, old-school (I’m talkin 60s) Philadelphia singers The Orlons follow with the Muskrat Ramble. To reflect how I feel this week I included Meat Puppets’ instrumental I’m a Mindless Idiot. Next, Soft Location mine Diamonds and Gems. 21 Savage follows with his most sentimental love song, Special. Another reggae cover song (there’s a lot of great ones!) is included in Delroy Wilson’s take on Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues. The, the fiery Toni Braxton debates whether or not to do it on Maybe. Closing out this week’s mix is Deptford Goth with the ballad Bloody Lip.

As always, check out these songs on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Sade’s Stronger Than Pride (1988)

I won’t pretend…

One may be forgiven for dismissing Sade’s Stronger Than Pride as something of a transitional album between Promise and Love Deluxe. Both albums are tighter than this one, with better songs and a more expansive sound. But what speaks to me here is the subtlety. The atmosphere imbued in every track of Stronger Than Pride is like water to me. There was a period of time in 2017 where I listened to this album every night, and it comforted me from the first second.

The title track is a sublime ballad, while “Paradise” is one of few upbeat tracks on the album. These two are highlights, but I love the second side of the record most. “Keep Looking” recalls the rhythms of Sade’s classic debut Diamond Life, where “Clean Heart” and “Give It Up” are more easygoing but with no less impact. I have a soft spot for songs with no drums, and the penultimate “I’d Never Thought I’d See the Day” fits the bill. “You shed a shadow on my life,” begins Sade over an ambient keyboard melody which acts as a platform for her to show off her vocal prowess.

Stronger Than Pride is almost perfect. Its weak spots are “Turn My Back On You”, which plods on for too long without much substance, and the instrumental closer “Siempre Hay Esperanza”, which would be eclipsed by Love Deluxe‘s much-stronger (also instrumental) closer “Mermaid”. But these tracks hardly negate the brilliance on display here. It’s not the Sade album I’d recommend to a beginner, but don’t underestimate it. Give it some patience and you’ll fall deeply in love.

Listen to Stronger Than Pride on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 7/5/20

This week we hit 60 songs as some rap, reggae, and pop are added to the mix.

The eternally cool Strawberry Switchblade kick it off with Trees and Flowers, then French producer Myd teams up with Atlanta rappers Twice and Lil Patt on No Bullshit. The late, great Shawty Lo is assisted by Lyfe Jennings on the beautiful My Love, after which the funky Faze-O are Riding High. Underrated R&B singer Dwight Sykes follows with an old favorite, the lo-fi In the Life Zone. Then the great Bobby Hutcherson with the jam Goin’ Down South. The best dressed chicken in town Dr. Alimantado sings Plead I Cause. Heather Woods Broderick takes us to Wyoming and Saafir tells the tales of a Light Sleeper. Finishing up this week is one of my favorite songs of this year, Kehlani and Jhené Aiko’s Change Your Life.

Listen to the mix on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Lykke Li’s so sad so sexy (2018)

If this one slipped under your radar at the time then don’t worry, because I missed it too. But in 2018, Lykke Li’s sound changed for the better. Since the retro rock hit of “I Follow Rivers” in 2011 and the lowkey followup I Never Learn in 2014, the Swedish singer relocated to Los Angeles, had a baby, and made the best work of her career.

“For the first time in my life, I was actually inspired by what was happening right now in music. Before, I would only listen to old shit and just kind of reminiscing of the past,” she told The Fader. And working in the present with pop producers brings a much-welcomed direction to her sound.

Malay stands out as a key component of so sad so sexy. The producer who crafted much of Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE and Blonde, as well as 3 tracks on Lorde’s Melodrama, was at the helm of production on 7 of the 10 tracks on this album. Sonically, we hear echoes of Frank’s futuristic, ambient beats. Structurally, the songs are uninhibited in their display of emotion, like Lorde’s “Sober”.

I first discovered this album last summer when Li released the follow-up remix EP still sad still sexy. The “sex money feelings die” remix features Lil Baby, and the existence of a collaboration between the two seemingly disparate artists caught my attention. Surprisingly, the combination was not bizarre at all. Since Lykke Li is no longer stuck in the past, she is using her talents as a songwriter and singer to make some of the most outstanding pop music of the present.

Listen to so sad so sexy on Spotify

Weekly Mix: 6/28/20

My Spotify playlist today hits a minor milestone: 50 songs!

This week’s installment begins with Donna Lewis’s hit I Love You Always Forever, then Raphael Saadiq’s Still Ray, a standout from his debut album that interpolates Dr. Dre. Elzhi’s brilliant storytelling is on display with Weedipedia, then Charles Mingus’s sublime Profile of Jackie. Next, Judee Sill becomes the first artist to feature twice on the playlist as I couldn’t resist featuring the amazing Sunnyside Up Luck. Australia’s The Triffids follow with Wide Open Road and British rapper Jadasea fades (from his EP entirely produced by Archy Marshall aka King Krule). My favorite Stereolab song The Emergency Kisses flows into the laid-back Memphis Bleek/Beanie Sigel/Jay-Z collab Hypnotic. Closing out this week is the track from which my website’s name is derived: my favorite band Cocteau Twins with Spooning Good Singing Gum.

As always, check out the playlist here.

Album of the Week: Miles Davis’s Blue Moods (1955)

from user dennislamenace on rateyourmusic

The prolific Miles Davis rarely ever played with a vibraphonist (I don’t believe he ever did after the 50s), and he played with the legendary Charles Mingus even less often. In July 1955 the two artists were on the cusp of brilliance: Miles was about to form his First Great Quintet, which would eventually feature John Coltrane, and Mingus was only 6 months from recording Pithecanthropus Erectus, arguably his first masterpiece. Miles was in debt and agreed to a hastily-arranged session with Mingus for Mingus’s recently formed Debut label. The resulting album is Blue Moods, a short and oft-overlooked record that features the only full-length collaboration between Miles and Mingus.

Although the two legends had something of a love/hate relationship, the 4 songs on Blue Moods are fairly quiet standards. The album begins with “Nature Boy”, the best-known song of bohemian writer/oddball Eden Ahbez, whose Eden’s Island album is something of a lost exotica treasure. Teddy Charles’ vibraphone creates a deep atmosphere for Miles’ trumpet, and Mingus’s strumming about 4 minutes into the track. Miles’s wonderful interplay with drummer Elvin Jones (perhaps best known for becoming a mainstay in John Coltrane’s 60s bands) about 6 minutes into “There’s No You” is another highlight of this brief album. Perfectly mellow, Blue Moods is both a unique early entry in the discographies of two jazz giants and a go-to for when I want to play something relaxing.

Weekly Mix: 6/21/20

Since we should never need an excuse to celebrate them, this week’s update to the mix features 10 songs written and/or performed by women! Some are originals, some are covers, all are jams.

Kicking things off is Yvonne Archer’s fantastic version of Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody, followed by ESG’s You Make No Sense. Linda Ronstadt‘s breakout Stone Poneys hit Different Drum is next along with Til Tuesday’s (Aimee Mann’s 80s band) Coming Up Close. Denmark’s Erika de Casier celebrates Puppy Love, then reggae singer Ebony with one of my favorite songs, a cover of Valerie Simpson’s Silly Wasn’t I. The underrated Ydegirl follows with I need this, before things get wild with Spellling’s Real Fun. To close things out this week, TLC’s album cut (and closer of the classic CrazySexyCool) Sumthin Wicked This Way Comes and Inoj’s banger Love You Down.

As always, find the playlist in its entirety on Spotify.