Toumani Diabate with Ballake Sissoko – “Bafoulabe” (1999)
Hearing the kora for the first time was a revelation; that I first heard the instrument in person, live, only made it more breathtaking: a single instrument to the eye, but the sound was that of a harp, an upright bass, the Indonesian kepaci, and a flamenco guitar together. This recording of the most well-known Malian kora musician Toumani Diabate captures the range of the instrument beautifully, without any of the cheesier “world music” fusion-trappings that diminish many a contemporary recording. The shifts in tempo here create a dreamlike feeling.
Uncle Tupelo – “Wait Up” (1992)
I’m not in love with any Uncle Tupelo album in its entirety, but this Tweedy-penned tune has stuck with me over the years. The quiet desperation, pleading from a point of exhaustion, in the three-note melody and lyrics is affecting and simple. The tantalizingly brief shifts from the jaunting banjo to the half-speed, cavernous wailing of Peter Buck’s electric guitar is like a sonic metaphor for a glimpse beyond the surface of workaday fondness into the occasionally realised, sometimes beautiful, sometimes dangerous depth of love.
Sam Prekop – “Showrooms” (1999)
Prekop’s first solo album winningly calls to mind the bossa-lite cocktails served up by Stan Getz in his collaborations with Charlie Byrd and João Gilberto, with a nice dash of West Coast sunshine pop and chamber pop. Most indie rock absorbs the surface trappings of other forms, but remains at its core unambitious indie rock. Prekop has managed to break free of such shackles, tapping into a timeless feel that is elusive to most of his peers.
Digable Planets – “Black Ego” (1994)
I hope by now it’s common knowledge that Digable Planets weren’t the hip-hop-hippies their “one-hit-wonder” single made them seem. Like the best trip-hop, their mellowness (especially on their second album, ‘Blowout Comb’) fronted a complex blend of emotions, telling stories of the personal-as-political and the political-as-personal. Plus, with their Modern Jazz Quartet-like approach to vibes-and-strings and their judicious beat-borrowing (here the eternal Zigaboo), they made hip hop sound as good as their best new-school contemporaries. They tapped a deep well, and another fifteen years on, it’s far from dry.
Rachel’s – “Forgiveness” (1999)
Rachel’s probably were the group that were most lazily tagged “post-rock” in the late 90s and early 2000s, and one of the examples that best illustrates the meaninglessness of the term–post-rock only makes sense if your musical frame of reference begins with Nirvana. They were simply making modern chamber music, carrying on a tradition of accessibly experimental and unabashedly beautiful work that calls to mind Penguin Cafe Orchestra, some of Franco Battiato’s late 70s work, or perhaps that of Luciano Cilio. I generally prefer the somewhat more traditional trio sound of ‘Music for Egon Schiele,’ but ‘Selenography‘ is often successful with its slightly larger and more ambitious palatte. [If you enjoy Rachel’s, you’ll like these mixes at Musicophilia on which they’re found.]
Beck – “Satan Gave Me A Taco” (1994)
I haven’t followed him closely the last decade or so, but I still think Beck is a pretty great merry prankster for the straight world, a real well-intentioned goofball (apparent Scientology notwithstanding). “Satan Gave Me A Taco” is wonderfully absurd narrative, an exploration of the giddy excesses of corporate Rock And Roll, or, something. It’s lyrically epic in its not-quite-four-minutes.
Smashing Pumpkins – “Starla” (1992)
Billy Corgan has grown down, into a pathetic satire of a 15-year-old internet Goth, a 40-something grade-A loser: yeah yeah. But back circa “Drown” and “Glynis” and this track, for a brief couple of years, he really had a fantastic sound going. And I don’t just mean the impressively grand rock styling–I mean the sounds themselves. The phasing, the distortions, the endless-sustain sounds he could create shaped my young ears toward an awareness of production-as-creation as much as ‘Pet Sounds’ or ‘Sgt. Peppers,” and made me think about dynamics and staging and all the stuff that eventually lead me far, far away from anything one would call “rock music”. But you know–coming back to this epic after many years, I find I actually like it a lot on its own terms. I’m not sure what any of it means, but I think it has an energy that doesn’t boil down to mere “rawk” pyrotechnics–in its own, utterly artless/funkless way it’s actually quite a groove, emphasising the expansion that comes with repetition as much as any disco or Reich.
L.S. Gelik – “Bajing Luncat” [“Jumping Squirrel”] (1996)
I picked up this album (as a Japanese import with much more appealing cover art than I can find online) from an Indonesian-import wood furniture shop owner, and can find next to no information about it. It is an example of a Sundanese form of Indonesian music called “kecapi suling,” created largely using different kecapi, a “zither-like” instrument. To my ears the music sounds something like a cross between Ivory Coast kora and the slower, plaintive varieties of Indonesian gamelan (bell orchestra) music. It’s meditative, hypnotising work, with repeating cycles of sparkling string tones and woodwind notes turning in the wind above. Beautiful and haunting.
Moondog – “Toot Suite, 3rd Movement” (1994)
Every incarnation of Moondog puts a smile on my face, from the early oddball percussion works to the vocal rounds with his daughter to the orchestral works, always with his signature playfulness and humor. This later track from 1994 combines elements of all of them, with a jazzy swing and Stan Getz-esque sax playing in canon-like melodies that are unmistakably Moondog. Joy in three minutes. [Moondog is featured here and here in mixes at Musicophilia in all his effervescent beauty.]
Huun Huur Tu – “Exile’s Song” (1994)
I don’t know enough about traditional Tuvan throat-singing and instrumental music to tell you if what Huun Huur Tu do is “traditional”. Some is obviously not; this high-and-lonely sounding lament might be; some of the instrumentation and double-note-singing surely is. I do know it’s beautiful, beguiling, and in this meditative, wind-like droning form, it’s emotionally captivating. [Huun Huur Tu can be heard dueting with Luc Ferrari and The For Carnation here in a mix at Musicophilia.]
Jeru the Damaja – “Ain’t the Devil Happy” (1994)
Though it’s a little unfair, “conscious” has come to be a near-synonym for “soft” or “hippie” or “not real” when it comes to hip-hop. Jeru, though, is conscious like hip-hop forefathers the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron were conscious: politically conscious, sociologically, spiritually, economically: not “foolin around”. Jeru felt no reason to compromise between brains and musical brawn. So also like those forefathers, he achieves the rare feat of political music that matters as much for its music as its message. Spare and efficient, “Ain’t the Devil Happy” is not the least bit dated, like even plenty of other musically enjoyable mid-school hip-hop.
With its James Brown-based beat and Tracey Thorn (Everything But the Girl and post-punk tweesters Marine Girls) vocals, though it’s dated slightly, this track is still a winner. For me, though, its impact is heightened greatly by this technically unbelievable single-shot, single-take Michel Gondry video, one of the first videos I ever remember finding simply enthralling. Typical of Gondry when given emotionally meaningful material, his faux-lo-tech wizardry transcends the technical fascination and comes to reflect its subject matter in a way more honest and accurate than any more straightforward presentation ever could. UPDATE: Argh, embedding disabled for whatever reason, so a link instead–worth your while.