Musically speaking, a lot happened in September. We lost Charles Bradley, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart. My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher turned 56 and Lil Wayne turned 34. Rolling Stone magazine is up for sale and I learned that the late, great WFMU DJ William Berger coined the term “lo-fi.” George Thorogood and Oddisee stopped by the office to play for us. Oh, and the Insane Clown Posse’s fanbase of Juggalos descended on Washington, DC.
But indulge my inner rock geek for a minute: can we just talk about how awesome “Crimson and Clover” is?
I truly believe that every time you listen to this song, you become a measurably cooler person. Think about it: because Prince and Joan Jett listened to it so much, they each recorded their own covers. Do you know anyone cooler than Prince or Joan Jett? Neither do I.
Tommy James and the Shondells recorded “Crimson and Clover” in 1968. And in doing so, James inadvertently turned himself into a guitar (more on that in a bit). Not only does the song have the sexiest electric guitar tremolo ever recorded to two-inch tape, but the epic five-minute-and-23-second album version boasts three guitar solos: a weepy pedal steel solo, a psychedelic wah-wah solo and a scuzzy fuzzbox solo. But really, it’s all about the strobing guitar tremolo meticulously dialed so it oscillates in time with the song’s tempo. James thought it sounded so cool that he plugged a microphone into his warbling tube amp and sang, “Crimson and clover, over and over” for the reprise. And that, friends, is how he turned himself into a guitar.
But here’s the best rock history tidbit: the recording we all know and love is an unfinished version. James wanted to show Roulette Records what he was working on, so he threw together a rough mix of “Crimson and Clover” and brought it over to label exec Morris Levy. A few days later, this rough mix was leaked to a WLS radio DJ in Chicago, who made it an on-air “world exclusive.” It subsequently climbed the Billboard Hot 100 for four months and stayed at number one for a week in the states before topping the charts in six other countries.
Upon release, the song still sounded unfinished to James. Yet to my ears, it’s the best example of what a rock recording should sound like. Most recordings today are made on laptops where the temptation to overproduce is tough to resist. But I’d invite today’s music makers to listen to the simple mix of “Crimson and Clover.” It’s a good reminder that sometimes we’ve finished something before we even know it.
We just launched four new genre stations that highlight different strains of African music. Afro Pop takes a broader look at modern music emerging from the continent, and highlights both established and up-and-coming artists. For those seeking the gritty guitars and hypnotic rhythms of the Sahara desert, there’s African Desert Blues. And we have two stations focusing on African music of the 1970s and early 1980s, a period rich with innovation, pan-African pride and syncretism. 70s African is where you’ll find the best of national orchestras, legendary singers and some forgotten masterpieces, while Afro Funk zeros in on the short-lived era when western funk rhythms met traditional African elements, creating a whole new style of swing.
Norwegian producer Lindstrøm is releasing a new full-length album, It’s Alright Between Us As It Is, next month. I can’t say Lindstrøm has been top-of-mind for me as of late, but this news has me excited. Few dance music producers leave me eagerly awaiting an album release these days, but the challenging, driving and often unpredictable music for which Lindstrøm is known has always been a blast to explore.
It’s not just Lindstrøm that has had me thinking about his particular strain of electronic music, often called “space disco” or “cosmic house.” Earlier this year, Norwegian producers Prins Thomas and Bjorn Torske released the sparse experimental collaboration Square One, and French producer Too Smooth Christ offered up straight-ahead midtempo house grooves on his most recent solo offering, Cleopatra’s Diary. And with this year’s Northern Disco Lights, a documentary about the history of Norwegian dance music, space disco has suddenly become as ubiquitous for me as it was when I first discovered it years ago.
The term “space disco” itself is misleading in that it doesn’t necessarily describe danceable songs about outer space. Rather, it’s an umbrella term for art and artists that explore dance music’s farthest boundaries. It encompasses a variety of interpretations, from complex, harmonically rich funk to totally electronic, often tongue-in-cheek instrumental disco.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, pop culture’s fascination with science fiction and futurism (heralded in large part by the 1977 release of Star Wars) began seeping into popular music. Futurist takes on disco and funk instrumentation (arpeggiated synthesizers and vocoders) and aesthetics (spaceship stage sets and astronaut outfits) abounded. This obsession with the stars paved the way for early space disco releases from Meco (a disco cover of the main theme from Star Wars)‚ Droids (The Force) and Boney M (Nightflight to Venus). Artists began pushing the boundaries of disco music, like Patrick Cowley with Megatron Man and Asha Puthli on the funk-disco hybrid Space Talk. At venues like New York’s Paradise Garage, trailblazers like DJ Larry Levan experimented with eclectic playlists, bringing diverse sounds to eager clubgoers. One of the first space disco tracks to break into the mainstream was Cerrone’s “Supernature”, a bonafide hit from the drummer and disco voyager whose percussion-centric recordings would influence producers and DJs for years to come.
Lindstrøm and Oslo contemporaries like Thomas and Todd Terje are part of a new generation of space disco pioneers. This group of Norwegian producers came to prominence in the mid-2000s. They’re musically diverse, working in nearly all styles of disco, but it was Lindstrøm who first broke out with his seminal single “I Feel Space.” His collaborations with Prins Thomas, especially the 2006 Balearic-inspired song “Boney M Down,” were my entry point into space disco. These recordings marked a turning point in my love for disco music and inspired me to backtrack into space disco’s original forms, from the ultra-cheesy to the stunningly intricate.
It’s admittedly difficult to draw a straight musical line from Asha Puthli to Todd Terje. But in many ways, space disco’s fluid definition is what has made it so special. What it lacks in specificity it makes up for in creativity and openness. It challenges artists to lean into their unique influences, to blend any and all sounds into something danceable.
That innovative spirit persists today. Thousands of miles from the Paradise Garage, and a generation removed from Star Wars, producers like Lindstrøm carry the space disco torch. They’re influenced as much by Italo disco and new wave as earlier styles, but they have created their own brand of space disco that, more than 15 years later, continues to evolve.
A “lost” album recorded in a single day in 1976, Neil Young’s Hitchhiker contains stripped-down performances of songs he would eventually release in different forms on other albums. “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger” and “Ride My Llama” would all be repurposed for 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, while the title track wouldn’t emerge until 2010’s underrated Le Noise. In fact, only the mellow “Hawaii” and the determined “Give Me Strength” are new. What sets these tracks apart, though, are Young’s performances. “Pocahontas” is played like a dopey love song as Young — aided by weed, booze, and cocaine during the sessions — wails and strums in a carefree mood. “Powderfinger,” stripped of its smoking guitar solos, becomes much more anguished and dark as Young’s farmer’s tale becomes more late night campfire story than jaunty folk legend. “Human Highway,” heard on 1978’s Comes a Time, is also played slower and with a sense of mournful sorrow. Throughout the album, one hears a man thinking about where he’s been and where he’s going. These recordings are a reminder that even at his most bare, Young remains one of the most captivating performers of the ’70s rock era.
Almost 50 years after MLK declared “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” his observation, unfortunately, remains true. But give an ear to Tasha Cobbs Leonard’s third album, Heart. Passion. Pursuit., and you’ll hear a change coming. Best known for her 2012 Grammy-winning hit “Break Every Chain,” Leonard sets out to build bridges across cultural and sonic divides on Heart, collaborating with songwriters outside the gospel sphere like Matt Redman (“10,000 Reasons”), Jonas Myrin (Hillsong, Natasha Bedingfield), and Jesus Culture’s Kim Walker-Smith. Leonard even invites her friend Nicki Minaj to guest on the chart-topping “I’m Getting Ready.” Heart. Passion. Pursuit. is an extraordinary collection, and nothing short of historic for the genre.
Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie elevates African hip-hop to a new level of sophistication on his latest album, Highest. For almost a decade, he’s perfected his distinct rapid-fire flow that intertwines English with his native language, Twi. It’s a style that has helped him attain the top spot in the West African hip-hop scene. Now, with the potential to reach a wider global audience, Sarkodie has put together a thematically cohesive album that synthesizes the latest trends in West African pop without ignoring his hip-hop roots. Radio-friendly songs like “Your Waist” and “Far Away,” which feature some of Nigeria’s top pop artists, sit comfortably alongside hardcore boom-bap numbers like “Come to Me” and the nod-along opener “Silence.”
EarthGang’s latest EP, Rags, is perfect for hip-hop heads with an open mind. This duo will change your perception of typical Atlanta rappers with something a lil’ original. “Meditate” cracks it open, setting the pace with J.I.D spitting crazy flows over a spooky, bouncy beat. “Legendari” is a future soul bossa nova trap with Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot rapping and singing their way through the universe. Kick back and enjoy that sax solo, because “House” will bring you back to an ATLiens funk vibe with a 2017 twist. EarthGang grew up on classics by Goodie Mobb and Dungeon Family, but you can still count on these two to push hip-hop’s boundaries.
– J Boogie
Soca music isn’t music for a quiet night at home, mulled wine in hand. Quite the opposite — it’s designed to make listeners leap up and engage in frenzied, rum-soaked waistline “wining,” faces dripping sweat and paint into the early hours of the morning. On Turn Up, Bunji Garlin captures the fever pitch of a Trinidadian parade, playing the role of Carnival monarch and growling orders to grind on the first person within reach. Production by Stadic, Jus Now and 1st Klass ranges from slinking grooviness to full-throttled party beats with touches of electronic dance music boiled in. As soca music continues to reach new heights internationally, the “Soca Viking” has established himself as one of the genre’s champions, and this album proves he has no intention of turning back.
What do you get when you cross Hans Zimmer and Morbid Angel, or Deicide and Ennio Morricone? Like the score to a Hollywood blockbuster performed by a symphony of fallen angels, Greek death metallers Speticflesh return to answer those questions with their tenth album. And while in some ways, Codex Omega is a return to a heavier, guitar-oriented sound, the band’s over-the-top symphonic bombast is still in full effect. Codex is a glorious tangle of metal crush and orchestral majesty, where serpentine strings swirl around blurred blastbeats and martial percussion underpins frantic, technical riffing. And while that mix might seem odd, if one Hollywood director were willing to roll the dice, these guys could be penning symphonic death metal scores for the big screen in no time.
Even at his most eccentric — check the custom synth he commissioned for last year’s moogmemory — Matthew Bourne remains anything but self-indulgent. The British keyboardist practices ascetic minimalism, perhaps nowhere more than on his latest album, Isotach. Make no mistake: though exceedingly delicate, these intimate piano meditations simmer with friction. Bourne tends to linger on dissonance, letting his notes decay into rumbles and overtones. Like Bourne’s earlier, jazzier work, many tracks feel loose and improvisatory, like “Isothere,” in which scattered chords threaten to wreck the piece’s initial balance. Straightforward ballads “Duncan” and “Candela,” meanwhile, are no less moving thanks to a haunted cello droning just below the surface.
Issa Bagayogo is a musician from Mali known for his blend of electronics and traditional West African sounds. His first album, 1998’s Sya, combines drum machines and synths along with traditional African percussion, harmonies and instruments like the ngoni (similar to a banjo). Even as house DJs create their own dance floor edits of African music, “Techno Issa” presents an authentic take on dance music with crossover appeal 20 years later.
Before fronting Painted Hills, Los Angeles singer-guitarist Josh Schwartz played in Further, the Summer Hits, Beachwood Sparks, the Tyde and the criminally underrated Fairechild, a band formed with Drag City songstress Elisa Randazzo. Schwartz’s musical experiences converge on Painted Hills, an album with one foot sifting through the fertile soil of classic rock’s roots and the other stomping on a distortion pedal. Schwartz opens with a reworked version of Fairechild’s “Come On Down,” setting the album’s warm tone with a smoldering slice of cosmic Americana. But it’s on the standout “Kaleidoscope Eyes” that Schwartz takes psychedelic canyon rock far beyond the genre’s margins. “Everybody” reveals a lifelong affinity for the crunchy twang of Neil Young’s hot-rodded Les Paul, “Old Black,” but it’s brilliantly contrasted by Schwartz’s breathy and alluring vocals.
RIP Josh Schwartz (1972–2017)
Feedback-drenched, Eyehategod-style doom/sludge. Harsh, hateful and heavy with super sick vokills.
Cool, weird, experimental electro-R&B. Gorgeous vocals and twisted, creative production.
Dew-pop that warms like a California sunrise. Spend the day in bed with your special someone and this song.
Killer math metal fused with slow-burning post-rock. Add a little folkiness and some serious progginess = catchy and melodic and really, really great.
An “S.O.B.”-style, radio-friendly hoedown with an abundance of heart.
Adria Otte (Librarian-Curator)
Who: I’m Adria Otte, a Librarian on the Curation team at Pandora. Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve played music in various contexts: rock bands, free improvisation and contemporary performance ensembles, traditional Korean drumming groups and experimental electronic music projects. I’m currently in a duo called OMMO, and actively work as a sound designer and composer for dance and theater works. In the past, my primary bands were Citay and the Dry Spells, both with fellow Pandora Curator Diego González!
What: My primary instruments are violin, electric guitar and various analog and digital electronics.
When: I began studying classical violin when I was 3 and took piano lessons shortly after that. In middle school, I begged my parents to trade one set of lessons for an electric guitar so I could play all the ’90s alternative rock songs I loved at the time. I played violin in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and in chamber groups, but longed to play electric guitar in a rock band, which I finally was able to do in college. I joined the Dry Spells as an undergraduate, and we moved out to the Bay Area together after graduating. I started seriously playing shows and touring with them and Citay. Around 2010, I started working with dancers, and since then, I’ve immersed myself in electronic media, eventually heading back to school in 2014 for an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording.
Where: I was born in South Korea, but came to the US at a very young age. I grew up in St. Louis, earned my undergraduate degree in upstate New York and moved to the Bay Area in 2004.
Why: Music has been an obsession and the central focus of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s the common thread through everything I have pursued, and one of the primary ways I have made meaningful connections with others. When I started to investigate my Korean roots, music was an extremely powerful and deep way to connect with my culture. I continue to seek out opportunities and projects that resonate with me in ways that go beyond just the music, though I’ll never stop loving making music for music’s sake.
Ask a Curator
Q: What was the first album you ever bought?
This was the first music I bought with my own money. As a parent of teens, I can’t believe my parents let me listen to this, but it was iconic (ironic?).
I don’t know what prompted this — maybe the hype from Back to the Future? “The Power of Love” was a big hit at the time, so I must have been exploring their back catalog. I bought it at a PayLess drugstore on cassette.
The first kind of music I loved without influence from my parents was hair metal. This first Poison album — on cassette, naturally — was a constant companion in middle school. “I Won’t Forget You” shows off what great writers of unrepentant pop they could be.
I’m a child of the digital era, so I was buying music online long before I ever set foot in a record store. For my first full-length, I downloaded this record on iTunes (yep). I liked the U2 hits I’d heard, plus the red and black iPod was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Impressionable youth meets effective marketing, I guess.