Seven decades. Seven songs.
Karma, existentialism, and music for meditation. Plus J Dilla.
1920's-50's: "Moanin' For My Baby" by Howlin' Wolf (1958)
Howlin' Wolf is noted as one of the bluesmen who heavily influenced the Rolling Stones over in the UK, and songs like this clearly indicate why. From a soft hum to a despairing cry, his intonation is a spot on representation of love gained and love lost. With a constant piano riff, bassline, and drum beat grounding the groove, the guitar and harmonica weave in and out of the sonic foreground as supplementary elements.
The only thing that could serve as a chorus here are the falsetto moans of a dejected man. The snarling rasp evident in the verses could only belong the Wolf himself, no matter how hard Mick Jagger tried to copy it.
1960's: "You Don't Love Me When I Cry" by Laura Nyro (1969)
The immensely underrated Laura Nyro was one of the most polished songwriters of her time. She could craft entire songs around one feeling, one moment that stuck with her. This selection is incredibly somber, with her piano accompaniment often the only sound beside her voice. Organs, strings, harps, and an assortment of other instruments creep just under the surface, making momentary appearances at impactful moments.
The lyrics are absolutely mournful, and Nyro's vocal delivery matches the mood. Sustained notes turn to near shrieks and settle down to a whisper throughout the four-minute elegy.
1970's: "If You Don't Like The Effects, Don't Produce The Cause" by Funkadelic (1972)
Funkadelic get karmic on this track, preaching of the control that we all have on our own lives. The message is a simple but timely reminder that what happens to you is often a direct result of what you've done. Emphasizing the power of perspective, the lyrics give practical advice. For instance:
"A situation is just that, it has no special power to do you harm. It's your reaction that counts."
In other words, mind over matter is magic.
The group of singers hit some nice harmonies throughout the song, but the tail end of the song is where Funkadelic expands musically. It's surely just a section of one of their storied studio jams, and if I could have it my way they wouldn't fade out so quickly.
1980's: "Open Letter (To a Landlord)" by Living Colour (1988)
Always ahead of the curve, Living Colour made this ode to the harms of gentrification when they were starting to see it happen in the communities they were raised in. In a band of Bronx and Brooklyn natives, the burgeoning movement to price longtime residents out of their own homes was as personal as it gets.
The hard rock quartet was as musically proficient as they were lyrically, and the arrangement on this track is well polished. It comes off incredibly smooth but with closer listening, you can tell that the song was meticulously crafted.
1990's: "Bullshit" by The Pharcyde (1994)
The fact that J Dilla and The Pharcyde only worked together one project is a real crime to hip-hop. It was a seismic clash of everything that was "alternative" in early 90's hip-hop, from the spaced out jazzy beats to the group dynamic to the bizzare flows the rap foursome offered up. As soon as they figure out time travel I'm going back and making sure the Pharcyde stay together and make another project with Dilla.
Anyways, anything I could say about this song pales in comparison to Questlove's retelling of the first time he heard it. In fact, it was actually the first time he heard Dilla's production. So here's Quest himself, talking about the beauty of "Bullshit".
2000's: "Stillness Is The Move" by Dirty Projectors (2009)
It's always a risky proposition to be in a band with your significant other, and the dissolution of Dirty Projectors it a prime example of why. However before the band became a David Longstreth solo project, they were cranking out some of the best projects of the mid-aughts. 2009's Bitte Orca can easily stand up to the stellar alt-rock classics of the time.
"Stillness Is The Move" was undoubtedly the standout track on the album, with Pitchfork calling it the second best song of the year and Rolling Stone ranking it as the 85th Best Song of The Decade. Brooklyn-based at the time, Solange was romping around the indie music scene when this track came out. Obviously it caught her ear because she covered it, and I'm eternally grateful that she did.
2010's: " I Never Dream" by A.A.L (2018)
Nicolas Jaar is one of the top electronic musicians in the game right now, and his productivity is something to admire. Since 2010 he's released 12 projects and worked on two movie soundtracks, but he's somehow found more time to create. He recently released a full-length project under the alias Against All Logic, and the change in name didn't change the quality of the music.
Ironically enough, this track builds a soundscape that's dreamlike in nature. Drum samples contribute heavily to the main beat, which he supplements with soft 808s. Jaar's work with the vocal samples builds a chorus that sounds nigh on angelic. Like the best house music, it becomes a meditative experience, one that you shouldn't miss.