Mixing Desk

Psst!

How to find the best hip-hop of the year (hint: not in a store near you); plus, the cooling tones of Air.

CD cover

Rage Against The Machine “Calm Like a Bomb” (Epic) Click here to listen. Political dissent was Rage Against the Machine’s bread and butter, and if the band hadn’t broken up in 2000, they’d now be writing a song a day. Their caps-lock rap rock expressed that moment of clarity that teenagers overvalue and adults repress: “Life is unfair! Corporations only care about money! Nobody cares about the little guy!” Recorded during their final shows in September 2000, Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium proves Rage’s impact didn’t depend on studio enhancement. In “Bulls on Parade,” singer Zack de la Rocha compressed the hypocrisy of the family values platform into one line: “Rally ‘round the family/ With a pocket full of shells.” The music’s raw, physical force allows even de la Rocha’s weak lyrics to carry a righteous weight. Subtle? Feh. “Calm Like a Bomb” isn’t just a song title; it’s a game plan for both form and content. Technically, de la Rocha is rapping over heavy metal, but his anger sounds more like a plea or a religious testimony than the macho bleating we associate with rap rock.

A-Frames “Nobot” (S-S/ Dragnet)
Click here to listen. Punk made a philosophical stand by championing simple tools. Cheap gear and three-chord songs were accessible to lots of people and hence, punk musicians thought, intrinsically potent. British post-punk bands of the early ‘80s like the Fall kept the philosophy but ditched the idea that punk needed to sound like fast Chuck Berry. If the music stayed simple, you could bang or squawk and make any crazy noise you wanted. A-Frames, a Seattle trio, belong in this post-punk continuum, even if they’re 20 years late. (Or is that right on time now?) Three unnamed people bang away on bass, guitar, and drums and sing with as little affect as possible. The lyrics favor disdain over enthusiasm and the concrete over the fantastic. True to punk orthodoxy, love songs are off the menu. A song like “Nobot” from their debut A-Frames doesn’t swing or rock exactly—it clomps. Like Kraftwerk and Devo before them, A-Frames listen to their machines, not their hearts: “Nobody wants to walk with me/ nobody wants to talk with me/ maintaining my buffer zone, no character, left alone/ I am the nobot.” Wait—there is one love song: “Surveillance camera, I’m in love with ya.”

Steve Marcus “Rain” (Water)
Click here to listen. Recorded in 1968, and originally released on Herbie Mann’s Vortex label, Tomorrow Never Knows has all the makings of kitsch: ‘60s jazz musicians covering the Beatles and Donovan, with an emphasis on wild solos. (You can imagine the Beavis and Butthead-style response some will have on hearing this: “Heh heh, they messed up ‘Mellow Yellow.’ Heh. Jazz guys.”) But this album ends up nowhere near kitsch. To combine the rock music of his generation with the jazz improvisation he was trained in, Steve Marcus, a saxophonist, assembled Count’s Rock Band. Hearing the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the Byrds’ “Eight Mile High” as “vamp tunes,” Marcus and his band emphasized the repetitive patterns within rock; their version of the Beatles’ “Rain” grabs the resonant drone at the center of the song and lets it blossom. Marcus’ flurries aren’t quite as inspired as John Coltrane’s (whose are?), but he is a fierce player, better than many of the lionized players of the day. Anyone who knows Coryell from his recent work will be astonished at his keening, distorted incantations. (Reissued on CD for the first time by the excellent Water label, which is mining the fruitful moments of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when free music, jazz, and rock collided exuberantly.)

DJ Olive “Rooster Rooster” (theagriculture.com)
Click here to listen. Can we be nostalgic for the ‘90s yet? If it’s OK with you, I’d like to start here. In downtown Manhattan in the early ‘90s, a loose collective of DJs and musicians orbited a roving club called Soundlab, hosted in various loft spaces. The press dubbed the movement “illbient,” to acknowledge the atmospheric pace (ambient) and submerged hip-hop beats (ill). The scene’s celebrity was DJ Spooky, but the majority of acts in the scene didn’t get their work heard. Some are now recording for the theagriculture.com label, which has its own term for the sound: “roof music,” encompassing “dub, dancehall, breakbeat, brokenbeat, drum&bass, downtempo, ambient, chillout, and mutations thereof.” DJ Olive, the label’s co-founder, is responsible for one of the label’s best releases to date, Bodega. New York’s state of cultural overlap and fast-moving street commerce are represented in Olive’s crackling, flowing collages. “Rooster Rooster” captures the mille foglie of sound that is New York: Dub reggae bleeds into the lonesome ballad leaking from someone’s iPod as everyone heads into a noisy tunnel on the A train.

Air “Run” (Astralwerks)
Click here to listen. It probably isn’t a stretch to say that most people seek music for comfort. Even those of us who love bafflement and emotional spikes need a cool washcloth sometimes. We get headaches, we fall down, we want everyone to just go away. French duo Air has the soothing-music market locked down, and they deserve every aromatic penny. This isn’t faint praise: Calibrating a record like Talkie Walkie (2004) so that it relaxes and invigorates in equal proportion is just as hard as creating an unbridled hootenanny. Anyone who reads Talkie Walkie’s credits will notice the presence of engineer Nigel Godrich (best known for producing Radiohead), but the success of Talkie Walkie surely can’t be ascribed to him alone: The album fluently speaks the language Air invented with its debut Moon Safari (1998). Band members Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin do sing, yet the music still reads as primarily instrumental. (Pink Panther fans will be pleased to learn they pronounce “another” as “anuzzah.”) “Run” is a “Baby please don’t go” song that belongs to neither the singer nor his love; everything goes all fuzzy and orange and tingly. The result is not unlike painting a room the perfect new color or getting a good back rub. I am not going to look down on either.

Jay-Z & DJ Danger Mouse “Public Service Announcement” (no label) and Eminem & DJ Green Lantern “Freestyle” (djgreenlantern.com) Click here and here to listen. MP3s aren’t the only evidence that music moves faster than the law—mix tapes have become the dominant conversation in hip-hop, the place where ideas are worked out first and fastest. Did you like Jay-Z’s The Black Album? Would you like to hear those rhymes over samples from the Beatles’White Album? DJ Danger Mouse did, so he created The Grey Album. (It’s just one of four remixes of the entire Black Album out now.) Would you like to hear Eminem respond to his critics at the Source magazine? Then find a copy of the latest mix tape by DJ Green Lantern. 50 Cent made his reputation on mix tapes, and two of the best hip-hop albums of 2003 were released only on mix tape: Timbaland’s Bubba Sparxxx and the Mudd Katz and Jay-Z’s The S. Carter Collection. Most of these CDs aren’t bootlegs in any sense—they’re created with or by the artists themselves in order to create a buzz for upcoming releases and circulate songs that might be otherwise be hampered by sample clearance issues. Priced between $7 and $10, they reach fans where they live. On mixtapekings.com you can find the work of DJs like Enuff, Kay Slay, and Green Lantern (all of whom have commercial radio shows), who get early versions of tracks by Top 40 artists, while sandboxautomatic.com, hiphopsite.com and Turntable Lab favor releases by independent artists. The current mix-tape trend? The Beatles, who are all of a sudden hip-hop’s favorite backing band. If you want to hear Ghostface Killah rhyming over “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” don’t look on his official album, Pretty Tony. It won’t be there.