31/08/2019: “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J

This is easily one of the best hip hop tracks ever. From the moment it starts, you know what song it is. When the “funky drummer” break kicks in, so does LL Cool J, with an instant memorable line.

The lyrics come thick and fast; he spits with real emphasis, which is pretty apt for a song like this.

The song is a message to his doubters. Many critics thought he’d peaked in the late 80s. “Mama Said Knock You Out” was, quite ironically, the best selling tune LL Cool J ever made…

There’s also the extremely cool origin story of the track. When LL Cool J complained to his granny that he couldn’t compete with gangsta rappers, she told him to knock them out. Pretty badass!

By the way, she features in the music video right at the end. That’s right, he got his nan to order him to take the trash out in his video!

The song was released in 1991, on an album of the same name, and reached number one on the U.S. Rap chart. It also won LL Cool J a Grammy. How’s that for a comeback!

30/08/2019: “Why Am I A Rastaman” by Culture

A lot of more hardcore songs about Rastafari can be quite impenetrable to people who don’t listen to a reggae.

The accent is thicker, the subject is religious, the version is more African influenced.

Here, the essential theme is feel good roots reggae. It’s very easy to vibe along to this. That doesn’t mean, however, that the song is somehow diluted and the message lost. The lyrics are a strong affirmation of the Rastafari faith.

The bassline is relatively restrained, but as this is a roots reggae song, it’s naturally very present…

The majority of the melodic power is from the singing. The verses and chorus flow into one, each as catchy as the other.

There’s also the guitar picking, which adds that crucial embellishment, a great little riff.

The song was released in 2000, much later than you might think, on Humble African. 

29/08/2019: “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack

A lot of people will be familiar with The Fugees’ 1996 take on this. In fairness, Lauryn Hill does a great job with it.

This version isn’t even the original. That honour goes to Lori Lieberman, who recorded the song in 1971. The writers are Charles Fox & Norman Gimbel.

But there’s something undeniably lovely about this. The electric piano glides gently over the warm and serene bassline. A guitar whispers in the background, flickering around the piano like a candle on a beach.

And her voice – incredible. The choruses have soulful backing vocals which create a truly heavenly effect. It’s much more strident than the original, but not as hard as the hip hop version. Almost a perfect balance!

Roberta Flack’s cover of the song was released in 1973, and went to number 1 for 5 weeks, far outselling the earlier version.

28/08/2019: “Music For Chameleons” by Gary Numan

Gary Numan has spent decades cultivating a unique sound and persona. I could possibly compare him to David Bowie, but Numan’s music is special because it was elaborately electronic and popular at a time where it was hard to make elaborate electronic music, harder still to make it popular!

It isn’t that the New Wave movement that brought him to fame was short on popular electronic songs. But he deserves some recognition for being something of a pioneer.

1982’s I, Assassin adds a funkier edge to the sound he was known for. Accordingly, although “Music For Chameleons” still has the trademark retro-futuristic synth sounds and ‘android’ singing, there’s an incredibly danceable rhythm section.

The drums canter along with a distinctive 3-step pattern, switching down for the chorus.

The song has lengthy breakdown sections dominated by the classic neo-noir Numan synths, building up to the next space age groove. The sound is very 80s, but still seems ahead of its time in its sheer coolness!

27/08/2019: “El Pare” by El General

The evolution of Jamaican dancehall into the pan-Latin Reggaeton was filtered through several countries, styles, and eras.

At the beginning, it was centred around Panama and other Spanish Caribbean countries. It was simply called “Reggae en Espanol”, because it was really just reggae in Spanish. Reggaeton itself is from Puerto Rico and tends to use just one riddim.

El General was one of the godfathers of Spanish Dancehall, singing over popular Jamaican riddims in Spanish even in the 1980s.

“El Pare” essentially translates as “The Stopper”; especially noteworthy because the song is a Spanish version of Cutty Rank’s 1991 song of the same name. As far as I can tell, it deals with the same subject matter of girls, fame and superior mic skills.

Spanish has a natural flow to it that works brilliantly with dancehall, so it’s interesting that there has been some interaction between the Spanish world and Dancehall.

The song was released in 1991, as a single and on Estas Buenos.  

26/08/2019: “Astral Travelling” by Pharaoh Sanders

Along with Alice & John Coltrane, and possibly Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders is behind the evolution of the cosmic jazz style, deeply spiritual in an ineffable way yet utterly entrancing.

“Astral Travelling” is a cool name, no doubt about it, but you could say it’s not a particularly creative choice; it’s like naming Moonlight Sonata “sad and serene song”. That is to say, the song does what it says on the tin!

The percussion is incredibly diverse and engaging, adding various rattles and exotic flares to the ordinary jazz drum set. The drumming is naturally of a very high standard.

The bass pretty much does its own thing, swaying between a couple of notes harmoniously. Of course, it always matches Lonnie Liston Smith’s shimmering rhodes piano, so that the two instruments create a beautifully lush soundscape between them.

When Pharoah Sander’s saxophone flits into the scene, the other elements accomodate it perfectly, then the track becomes warm, sultry and mellow.

The song is the first on the 1971 album Thembi, which was recorded in two parts, with roughly a year in between sessions.

25/08/2019: “Just A Touch Of Love” by Slave

Slave make good times music, with some serious boogie potential.

“Just A Touch Of Love” is the title track of the band’s 1979 album, which was their 4th. It got to number 9 on the U.S. R’n’B singles chart, but it’s undoubtedly an enduring classic.

Their sound on this one is a very smooth and silky sound, rather than the more hard edged sound they were known for previously.

As with most famous funk songs, it’s the twanging bassline which leads proceedings and gives the song a distinctive touch. The guitar and rhodes piano provide light embellishments, creating a beautiful groove.

The basic groove lasts for most of the song, although it does change at points to slightly busier arrangements.

The main vocals are nice enough, but it’s the backing vocals which stick in your head and give the song a dreamier character, as well as being incredibly easy on the ear…

24/08/2019: “Good Thing You Came Along” by Tapes

Jahtari artists make a particularly interesting type of digital dub music. It tends to be very lo-fi, slightly crusty, and usually containing an unusually deep low end.

The visuals and sonic aesthetic of the label is 80s arcade, with a strong dose of dub.

Tapes is one of the more well known producers on the label. Not necessarily dub songs, but often more reggae than not, Tapes makes oddly touching music considering the distorted, 8 bit nature.

“Good Thing You Came Along” sounds like Aphex Twin, if Aphex Twin loved reggae. The skank is slightly off-key, the vibraphone sound is dreamlike, the bass is massive. What more could you need?

The drums sound especially lo-fi, a cascade of hissy echos and broken snaps. It’s a strange take, but the bass supplies more than enough warmth to compensate.

The track was released in 2009 on Jahtari, and could really do with an extended version, to be honest!

23/08/2019: “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn

When you think of country music in the Deep South from the 70s, you don’t tend to think of feminism. Yet, although it is very far removed from the kind of feminism prevalent today, Loretta Lynn’s straight talking defense of women’s reproductive rights is in many ways more powerful than the more explicitly political feminisms of today.

This song was actually banned by many country radios, because of its “controversial” subject matter. Regardless of the ingrained misogyny of the time, the tune still reached number 5 on the U.S. Country chart.

The chilled out country guitar goes very well with Lynn’s strong singing voice. Her thick Southern accent makes the forthright, humourous nature of the lyrics even more effective. It’s basically a dialogue with a husband telling him she’s on the pill. The fact that Lynn had 4 kids before she was 20 probably goes some way to explaining her feelings about it…

The track can be found on the album Back To The Country, which was released in 1975.

22/08/2019: “Wave Of Mutilation” by Pixies

Particularly astute people might guess that “Wave Of Mutilation” is not a happy, upbeat song about the beauty of human nature.

It’s a song about a trend of Japanese businessmen driving their cars off cliffs into the sea. Japan has a very pressured society, and a high suicide rate.

When you listen more closely to the lyrics, the nautical theme becomes more apparent, as the song drops references to the Mariana Trench (“Find my way to Mariana”), and crustaceans.

The Pixies are not at all unfamiliar with this sort of macabre topic, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that they turn it into such an anthem. The chorus is catchy and energetic, the verses stately yet no less engaging.

The crunchy, grungy sound of the guitars lays a foundation for the hordes of similar sounding bands to follow, but it is important to note that the Pixies were doing this before it was cool. Not many Pixies songs sound exactly like this though…

This track has a detached, surreal quality to it, but as if this wasn’t enough, there’s a trippy “surf” version, which apes the surf rock trend and adds a unique Pixies quality to it!

The song came out in 1989 on Doolittle, the band’s second album.