Fela Kuti – “Unknown Soldier” (1979)
Make the time for this track, I promise you won’t regret it. “The personal is political/the political is personal” doesn’t even come close to getting it for Fela Kuti. This track has everything that’s great about Fela’s music and Afrobeat–all participants serving the groove in the best JB’s-like way, some playing a repeating, individually tiny sound figure repeatedly for the duration of this 30-minute track in order to create something much larger than the individual, something hypnotic and transcendent.
But this is one instance where I’d insist on paying attention to the lyrics, too: the story Fela tells here is astonishing, and the way he tells it keeps my hair standing on end for the duration. I can think of few moments in music more wrenching, heart-breaking, and astonishing than Fela’s description of the murder of his mother peaking at the pure sound of loss at 22:55-23:05. But the whole thing is the most effective contrast of humanity versus the dehumanising effect of military-minded “order” I’ve ever known, in any medium. This is one of the high achievements of popular music.
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.
Pharoah Sanders – “Astral Traveling” (1971)
This is jazz that escapes the entrenched dichotomy one might associate with 1971. It’s neither “traditional” nor “fusion” or “experimental” per se. It has a compositional feeling and an exploratory vibe that feels “astral” indeed, but it’s not necessarily head music, and there’s no funk or rock foundation. It is contemplative in a way that feels like a classic jazz ballad, but there’s no piano here, and the instrumentation is small-group but not strictly standard. It’s simply rich, beautiful, spiritually resonant music, effortlessly both accessible and experimental. [Sanders is featured in a Sensory Replication Series mix at Musicophilia.]
Miles Davis – “He Loved Him Madly” (1974)
Don’t miss this one. This is deep, intense listening, and it won’t grab you if you don’t have the attention (and about half an hour) to devote. But I promise, it rewards the effort. This is beyond the cosmic-exploration of the Germans we love; this is an exploration of the infinite spirit, the depths of mourning, the heights of love. It is minimal, subtle, undulating, meditative, careful, above all beautiful. Anyone who questioned Davis’ motives for “abandoning jazz” and going fusion couldn’t have maintained that incredulity if their ears were open to the sheer expressiveness of this music. This wasn’t booty-funk, this wasn’t stoner-rock, though its elements are guitar, flute, drum kit, keyboards, electric bass, and echo effects: this is simply, utterly human music. Give it the time, give it your ears, and it will build itself slowly through you. [The glory of “Judas” Miles Davis is featured here, here and here at Musicophilia.]
The Del-Byzanteens – “Girl’s Imagination” (1981)
From the final ‘1981’ mix up today over at Musicophilia, “Girl’s Imagination” is further proof of just how cool New York was in the world of ‘Downtown ’81,’ or at least in the minds of its art-participants. (One participant here of note is director Jim Jarmusch, on vocals and keyboards.) The EP earns its hieroglyphic cover with a beguiling, snake-charmer sound and a fascinating storyteller approach. The sound of the coolest mental breakdown ever, a nightmare you want to hang out in for a while.
Fever Ray – “Dry and Dusty” (2009)
I have Jon at Portland’s Anthem Records to thank for The Knife. In curmudgeon mode, I’d written them off, guilt-by-association with that farming implement-entitled nexus of hipster ephemera–to my loss. Jon got me to listen to ‘Deep Cuts,’ and I was instantly won over–the warmth, the electronic buzzing, the wonderful melodies, the taste of experimentalism: who could resist. ‘Silent Shout‘ was released the next year, and while I missed the pop sensibilities at first, the album now strikes me as a classic of the genre. Fever Ray is the Knife in all but name, with little appreciable fall-off from the main body of work despite being the work of 1/2 its personnel–it’s no singer-songwriter side-project or noodley indulgence. That multiple-personality-disorder vocal approach is as haunting as ever.
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.
Arthur Russell – “Terrace of Unintelligibility” [Part 2] (1985)
This is an excerpt from the short film that was included with the first copies of Audika Records’ reissue of ‘World of Echo,’ featuring live performances of tracks from that album (especially “Answers Me”). The meditative fullness that Russell could achieve breaks my heart every single time, hundreds and hundreds of listens on, after so many years. I can’t begin to fathom how he could do so much with so little, but I’ve heard nothing truly like it. This film nicely reflects the intimacy one feels when hearing ‘World of Echo’ in the dark through headphones. [Find previously featured incarnations of Mr. Russell at Musicophilia Daily here, and mixes which incorporate his music at Musicophilia here.]
Maurice Ravel – “Sonatine 1: Modere” (1905)
Though I know little about classical music broadly speaking, I know I’m a sucker for the impressionistic, painterly styles of compositional music from around the turn of the 1900s: Satie, Debussy, Ravel. This is one of my favorites, though I have little language to describe it properly. It is delicate but not slight, rhythmically adventurous without being mathematical, virtuosic without being flashy, dynamic and sensitive. If pressed, though, I’d simply call it beautiful. [Ravel can be heard here and here in two of my favorite mixes at Musicophilia.]
Matthew Herbert – “Rendezvous” (2006)
Matthew Herbert can get a little polemical with his conceptualizations of his art; but fortunately for the listener (though he might disagree) whatever meta-concepts Herbert carries with his art, very little of it encumbers the music. He can sample a McDonald’s wrapper and call it an observation on food politics; but it just sounds good to me, all technical innovation and political conceits aside. That’s why this track seems to me to be what Reich is trying to achieve with his choral-sampling work, but never really has: where Reich can’t escape his ideas and isn’t the master of contemporary sampling methodology (much as he contributed to its infancy), Herbert isn’t afraid of beauty as an inherent good, and he has the chops to match his techniques to his ambitions. This certainly isn’t house music (even by Herbert’s stretched definitions); but neither is it a severe, cold choral abstraction like Ussachevsky. “Rendezvous” brings electronic dance music’s warmth to choral music’s structural nuances and creates an immensely listenable, immediate sort of high art in this score for a ballet. [Herbert is featured here in a sultry Bill Evans-like idiom in a mix at Musicophilia.]
Unknown Burundi Umudli Musician – “Hail to Micombero” (1974)
Many non-Africans are familiar with Burundi’s drumming traditions (via “Burundi Black,” Joni Mitchell’s “The Jungle Line,” or Adam & The Ants or Bow Wow Wow circa ’81). But there seems to have been a lot going on musically in this tiny landlocked country despite decades of political unrest and ethnic warring. This track features a zither-like instrument called an umudli, which has an almost electronic, “phasing” sound. Spare, hypnotic, minimalist and surely an inspiration to plenty of the sort of musician-weirdos who bought this music before “world music” was a commodity, in 1974. (I imagine everyone reading this knows that the Nonesuch ‘Explorer Series’ LPs from the 60s-80s are almost all mind-expanding as introductions to (mostly traditional) musics from around the world, often wonderfully well recorded “in the field,” preserving traditional and evolving forms of music that even at the time were disappearing. If you didn’t–go buy the discs reissued from Africa, South America, and Pacific Asia as soon as you can, and cross your fingers that the rest of the series from India, China, and Europe are eventually reissued.)
Gamelan Semar Pegulingan Club – “Gambang” (1972)
Apparently representative of an older, more traditional style of gamelan from Bali, to Western ears this still sounds like the future, even after Steve Reich, speed metal, math-rock, d’n’b, etc. Nothing I’ve ever heard matches the rhythmic intensity and complexity of the faster styles of gamelan, especially not whist being so beautiful: those ringing bells, the floating flute lines, the subtle drumming, those deep resonating gong-like bells. Played by an orchestra or a small group, it sounds like it could only have been played by a hundred-armed computer with a soul.
Peter Zummo (with Arthur Russell) – “Song IV” (1985)
Peter Zummo collaborated with Arthur Russell on seemingly every disco and experimental work Russell headed up. Here trombonist Zummo gets top billing, but it’s clearly a collaboration of equals. This piece was a revalation to me when I first heard it–yet another side to Arthur, a sublimely spiritual instrumental work rooted in his study of Indian music, with Russell on wordless vocals and cello, Zummo on delay-trombone. Simply beautiful–and reissued last year, so pick it up! [Arthur Russell is featured in various incarnations here, here, here, and here. If you don’t know Arthur yet–rent ‘Wild Combination’ and buy ‘World of Echo’ (recently re-pressed) and you’ll never look back.]