Listen to this track by producer, rapper, and genre-crossing hip hop auteur Missy Elliott. It’s “Get Ur Freak On”, a monster hit single as taken from her third album, Miss E … So Addictive from 2001. The song is a bona fide classic by now, and covered by many from Eels who made this song a staple during their 2003 tour, to Britney Spears during her Vegas residency, to FLOTUS Michelle Obama featured in her recent appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, with Missy Elliott herself joining in while riding in the backseat. Talk about cultural reach!
“Get Ur Freak On” borrows heavily from bhangra in terms of its rhythmic make-up and with music of the Asian continent generally in terms of its texture. That latter aspect is particularly reflected in its use of the very sticky six-note riff sampling what sounds like a koto, that being a 13-stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music. Other sources say it’s a tumbi, which is something akin to a Punjabi one-string banjo. Either way, that’s pretty far from just an 808 programmable drum machine and a microphone.
In that regard alone, “Get Ur Freak On” represents an evolutionary jump for hip hop in general, going beyond urban America and into whole new geographical and cultural territories by the early two-thousands. It opened the gates culturally speaking, and it has wider implications thematically, too; that of empowerment, and on all kinds of levels. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Elephant 6-affiliated power pop psych trio The Essex Green. It’s “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”, a crackling power pop tune as taken from the band’s third album, 2006’s Cannibal Sea. The group is connected to a web of many indie bands, most notably Guppyboy, once based in Burlington, Vermont. Upon the dissolution of that band, members Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter moved to New York to start anew and with a fresh moniker to define them; The Essex Green.
Their sound is clearly based in sixties and seventies jangle pop, power pop, and folk pop. That’s a lot of pop! On this third album and on this song, those influences are apparent, although much more integrated than they are on earlier releases. A big part of this is down to producer Britt Meyers and his more elaborate studio set up and mixing skills. Another part of course is a step up in the songwriting and performance department, as good as the previous album, The Long Goodbye, was. Perhaps this was because the band had recently come off of a big tour by then. It could also be that each member was concurrently involved in making music with other bands (Ladybug Transistor, The Sixth Great Lake) allowing new ideas to flow from one project to another.
Overall, The Essex Green provided an example of what it is to be indie in a post-major label era. In this new paradigm musicians have to be constantly on the move to cover their bases in various side projects, holding down day jobs while honing their craft, and knowing where to find their audience in the absence of big label budgets and in the light of fragmented media. Read more
Listen to this track by pure pop singer from Victoria BC with diverse musical interests Nelly Furtado. It’s “Powerless”, a hit single as taken from her 2003 record Folklore. This was the follow up to her 2000 debut Whoa! Nelly , and Furtado had quite a job to do to follow up her ubiquitous “I’m Like A Bird” single, which was an international hit. Like that song, “Powerless (Say What You Want)” was a personal statement to frame the identity of the artist, this time in an even more overt way.
This song was one of three hit singles on Folklore that offers a pan-cultural smorgasbord of sound, matching breakbeats with a sterling contribution by famed banjoist Béla Fleck. This emphasis on diversity and tonal variation on multiple levels was a mandate from the artist who viewed a lot of the pop music on her level at the time as becoming too synthesized and culturally homogeneous.
This isn’t just about the music and how it was made, though. It’s about the subject of identity and about how the mainstream (mis)treats the concept of cultural diversity. Read more
Listen to this track by Pacific Northwest rainy day indie-rock heroes Death Cab For Cutie. It’s “Title And Registration”, a single as taken from their 2003 landmark record Transatlanticism, their fourth LP released toward the latter half of that year. This tune was released in early 2004, initially as an Internet-only offering, and represented their third and final single from the record.
At the time, this record was almost universally praised. Perhaps one reason this song and the record off of which it comes had such impact is because for all of its freshness at the time, it deals with a very pressing issue that has been a part of pop music for over a century and longer; the bad, old-fashioned break up. Head writer Ben Gibbard demonstrates his a knack for positioning this well-trodden thematic path in an interesting and unassuming way that makes it a song that’s more relatable than most in the “breaking up is hard to do” stakes.
And how does he do that? He starts this song with an everyday task. Looking to find the titular documents, the song’s narrator takes a trip to the car and to the humble glove box, which turns out to hold a whole Pandora’s worth of trouble for him.
Listen to this track by soft-spoken singer-songwriter from Louisiana and then Memphis, Tennessee who made Montréal his home for many years, Jesse Winchester. It’s “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding”, a track taken off of his latter day album Love Filling Station in 2009.
The reasons for his stay in Canada from 1967 onward were less than ideal. The Vietnam war was ramping up, and Winchester was a pacifist. This meant taking refuge in Canada to avoid the draft like so many of his generation. But what it also meant was meeting with The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who would produce his self-titled first album in 1970, complete with the sepia-toned cover shot that made Winchester look like an outlaw on the lam, which in some respects I guess he actually was before President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1977, along with all other American conscientious objectors, after which he could finally tour the States. He stayed in Canada anyway until 2002.
Since that period, he recorded his own albums and penned songs for other artists as well. By 2009, he was not exactly a household name, and his output had slowed considerably. But this tune demonstrates the depths of his talent that remained undiminished, and reveals something about the passage of time and the ways we perceive things as we get older. Read more
Listen to this track by Vancouverite orchestral art pop pioneer Veda Hille (that’s Vay-da Hil-ee, for you out-of-towners). It’s “Lucklucky”, a track as taken from her 2008 record This Riot Life, released on Andy Partridge’s Ape records label.
When it comes to being an indie artist who knows no artistic boundaries, Veda Hille has been a poster child in Vancouver for a while by now, putting out her first effort, Songs About People And Buildings in 1992 when I heard it for the first time on cassette in my friend’s basement apartment in far away Toronto. Her work as a recording artist is in addition to being very much grounded in the Vancouver arts scene working with dance and theatre companies, and in Berlin where she enjoyed a residency in 2013 while writing her most recent album, Love Waves.
What about this song, though, recorded after she’d set up what seemed to be an unwavering schedule of putting out records, playing live shows, and being involved in various stage productions for many years by this time? Well, among other things, it’s rooted in some pretty solidly Canadian themes as usual. Read more
Listen to this track by Chicagoan progressive pop-rock sextet Wilco. It’s “Deeper Down”, a gem of a song as it appeared on their 2009 album Wilco (The Album), their sixth LP.
At this point in their arc, the band as led by frontman and head writer Jeff Tweedy had drifted away from the more abrasive and experimental textures they had established at the beginning of that decade. In their place, they added more vintage AM/FM radio textures and more accessible song structures. But at the same time, the proficiency in the playing and in the arrangements were on another level from their past output. Thematically speaking, there was certainly a lot going on that was not traditional for rock songwriting.
In “Deeper Down”, and using various strains of rock music, particularly progressive rock, Tweedy takes on a subject that writers of all stripes have taken on for thousands of years; the mystery of life itself. Of course in this song, he goes one better. He doesn’t try to solve it. Read more
Listen to this track by Croydon London three-piece Noisettes. It’s “Don’t Give up”, a single which would eventually appear on their 2007 debut album What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf? .
The band appeared in a new paradigm of pop music when songs had a life on more than one platform simultaneously. This is a good example of that, making it a true 21st century track. The song would also appear in other media as well, most notably on television shows and movie soundtracks, and in video games. It seems to lend itself to alternate media, being a particularly propulsive song, full of frenetic energy that made it a pretty common choice for montage scenes. The one I remember it from was the aborted Bionic Woman series, in a scene wherein (a very, very grim) Jamie Sommers is in training with her new bionic limbs as this song cheers her on. Maybe too that the idea of “don’t give up” is pretty applicable across many different contexts. It fits within the drama, whatever that drama happens to be.
Another thing to which this song connects on a basic level is the idea of struggle and conflict in general, attached to the musical traditions, and their social origins, from which this band draws. Read more
Listen to this track by Lemonhead Head and one-time nineties alternative poster boy Evan Dando. It’s “Hard Drive” a Ben Lee-penned song as taken from Dando’s 2003 comeback record Baby I’m Bored.
That album was the follow up to the 1996 Lemonheads album Car Button Cloth. That’s a seven year hiatus between albums, which is practically a geological period in the pop world. To boot, this record was not the jangly, peppy alternative pop of Dando’s prime period either, which had many a fan and music critic at the time of its release wondering whether they’d ever get anything as era-defining as It’s A Shame About Ray from Dando ever again. Well, to that I say pshaw, friends. I say that for many reasons. But, one big one is that this isn’t a Lemonheads record anyway. It’s an Evan Dando record, albeit with the work of other songwriters featured on it. This includes the aforementioned Ben Lee who wrote this one, and had a hand in writing two others on this release as well.
If you take the view that an album is meant to be a whole artistic statement, an extension of where the artist or artists were at the time of its creation, then this one certainly makes sense. This song is certainly appropriate to where Dando’s head may have been at at that time when he recorded it. Read more
Listen to this track by melancholy and moody musical banner as fueled by the creative engine of one Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse. It’s “Shade and Honey”, a song that appears on Linkous’ last album, 2006’s Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain. The song would also appear in another version in the film Laurel Canyon, sung by Alessandro Nivola.
By this time in his career, Linkous was a very well-respected musician, having collaborated with top flight artists ranging from Danger Mouse, to Nina Persson, to Tom Waits. The resulting music he created seemed to plumb the depths of the human soul in the quietest and most subtle sense, without self-aggrandizement or overblown sentiment.
Linkous was also known as a troubled spirit. This seemed to be confirmed when he ended his own life in 2010. So, like his contemporary Elliott Smith, the overall sound of his music suggested to many that his own struggles with mental illness had to be found in it. This is a common enough approach that many listeners take; to conflate the sound of something with its content, meaning, or its intention. This tune is very easily heard as a sort of elegy or anthem of loss. But, in listening to this song, I wonder if Linkous was actually trying to communicate the exact opposite. Read more