Wednesday, May 26, 2021

50 Years, 50 Albums

 Just turned 50... no particularly insightful reflection to offer, although I try to do some degree of introspection on every birthday :-)

The milestone has, however, been a good excuse to look back through the years and think about albums that have influenced me... so here goes:


  • '71 - Bill Withers - Just As I Am
  • '72 - Steely Dan - Can't Buy a Thrill
  • '73 - Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  • '74 - Minnie Riperton - Perfect Angel
  • '75 - Earth Wind & Fire - That's the Way of the World
  • '76 - Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life
  • '77 - Rufus - Ask Rufus
  • '78 - Chic - C'est Chic
  • '79 - Michael Jackson - Off The Wall
  • '80 - Stevie Wonder - Hotter Than July
  • '81 - Quincy Jones - The Dude
  • '82 - Luther Vandross - Forever, For Always, For Love
  • '83 - The Police - Synchronicity
  • '84 - Art of Noise - Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise
  • '85 - Sade - Diamond Life
  • '86 - Anita Baker - Rapture
  • '87 - Prince - Sign O' The Times
  • '88 - New Edition - Heartbreak
  • '89 - Janet Jackson - Rhythm Nation
  • '90 - Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet
  • '91 - Nirvana - Nevermind
  • '92 - Arrested Development - 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of...
  • '93 - Cassandra Wilson - Blue Light Till Dawn
  • '94 - Weezer - Weezer (Blue Album)
  • '95 - D'Angelo - Brown Sugar
  • '96 - De La Soul - Stakes is High
  • '97 - Kurt Elling - The Messenger
  • '98 - Black Star - Mos Def & Talib Qweli are Black Star
  • '99 - Basement Jaxx - Remedy
  • '00 - Lucy Pearl - Lucy Pearl
  • '01 - Zero 7 - Simple Things
  • '02 - Raphael Saadiq - Instant Vintage
  • '03 - Meshell Ndegeocello - Comfort Woman
  • '04 - Kanye West - The College Dropout
  • '05 - Common - Be
  • '06 - J Dilla - Donuts
  • '07 - Burial - Untrue
  • '08 - Matthew Halsall - Sending My Love
  • '09 - Maxwell - Blacksummers'night
  • '10 - Scuba - Triangulation
  • '11 - Feist - Metals
  • '12 - Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
  • '13 - Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
  • '14 - D'Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah
  • '15 - Kamasi Washington - The Epic
  • '16 - Solange - A Seat at the Table
  • '17 - Sampha - Process
  • '18 - Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings
  • '19 - Jamila Woods - Legacy! Legacy!
  • '20 - Little Dragon - New Me, Same Us

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The World's Shortest Tribe Called Quest "We Got It From Here..." review

In a word...

[ Pic above an obvious (to the heads, anyway) homage to Tribe joints past... ]
In a few more words:
  • Cop it!!!!!
  • Talkin' Loud and saying something
  • art is always a source of strength:
    • sometimes as a refuge from the world that is, and/or a vision of what could be...
    • sometimes as piercing and clear-eyed view of what we're dealing with right now
        This LP is all up in the zeitgeist... 
  • A fitting, and immensely satisfying finale to Tribe's ouevre
  • Respect!
( A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You For Your Service is out now. )

Sunday, March 13, 2016

NYT knows the Shape of Things to Come?

H/T to a good friend (and pretty great Food/Beverage blogger) for hipping me to this NYT Magazine piece about "where music is going" as viewed through the lens of some current tunes.

Whenever I see long-form music writing, I always think of this quote:
    "Writing about Music is like dancing about Architecture"
 (variously attributed to Thelonius Monk,  Frank Zappa, and Laurie Anderson, among others...)

For the busy people among you, and echoing the NYT piece, I'll give my impressions in list form, with a simple Agree/Disagree/Neutral scale about whether the song in-question "tells us where music is going".
  • Introduction - Liked it, good essay by Nitsuh Abebe
  1. Sorry - Justin Bieber - Disagree
  2. Say No to This - Hamilton Cast - Disagree*
  3. I Watched the Film, The Song Remains the Same - Sun Kil Moon - Neutral
  4. Get Away - The Internet - Disagree*
  5. One Sunday Morning - Wilco - Neutral
  6. '06 - Vince Staples - Disagree*
  7. Hurtin' (On The Bottle) - Margo Price - Neutral
  8. John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16 - Keith Urban - Neutral
  9. Consideration - Rihanna - Agree^
  10. Blue boy - Mac DeMarco - Neutral
  11. Marvin Gaye - Charlie Puth - Disagree
  12. The Blacker the Berry - Kendrick Lamar - Agree
  13. Early - Run the Jewels - Disagree*
  14. The Colours of Life - CFCF - Neutral
  15. Hymn for the Weekend - Coldplay - Disagree [editors note: I almost abandoned my review effort when I saw that Coldplay was in the list!]
  16. Trap Queen - Fetty Wap - Neutral
  17. Hello - Lionel Ritchie - Disagree*
  18. Untitled - Pharrell  - Agree^ [editors note: this article was written by the most awesome street artist JR... if you're not up on him, you should be.]
  19. Partitat for 8 Voices - Caroline Shaw - Neutral
  20. El Taxi - Pitbull - Neutral
  21. Really Love - D'Angelo - Agree
  22. Weh Dem Feel Like - Vybz Kartel - Disagree
  23. Stressed Out - 21 Pilots - Neutral
  24. Sunday Candy - Chance the Rapper - Disagree*
  25. Habibi - Azis - Agree^^^
About my ratings:  If I was Neutral, I haven't heard the song.

Rating footnotes:
* - I actually like the song :-)
^^ - I haven't heard the specific Rihanna or Pharrel songs, but they've historically been really good predictors of where music might be going, so I've given them the benefit of the doubt.
^^^ - I don't agree that this particular song points the way to anything interesting, but... I do think that music in the US is headed towards a more cosmopolitan and internationally diverse set of influences (basically the way the UK has been forever) so I agree with this song as an example of that trend.

huh, would you look at that... Pareto-optimal... aka the 80/20 rule... didn't plan that, I swear!
So, about that premise...

Before you write me off as a crotchety old critic for the apparent harshness of my assessment.  I have to confess that I disagree with the premise that we can reliably identify the sign-posts towards the musical future beforehand.  It's usually only clear to us in the rearview mirror :-)

I definitely predict getting several blog posts out of deeper dives into some the the NYT selections though!

Yours in music,

- Cliff

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Recording rappers these days...

Ok,  so I've never done any professional sound recording or engineering, but this clip had me rollin' :-)


Friday, May 8, 2015

Happy Birthday Ronnie!

Ron Hardy is to House Music as Big Star is to Indie Rock.... supremely influential, yet little known in the mainstream. 

While others may have been more technically proficient, Ronnie gave many of us Chicago DJ wannabes our first evidence that we could reach for and, at times, touch the sublime using only some records, turntables, and the occasional reel-to-reel tape player.

It's an over used phrase, but that brotha changed my life. For real… Happy Birthday, Ronnie!

Further reading
  • Wax Poetics feature which gives a great overview of Ronnie, The Music Box, and their influence.
  • (for the DJ / music-obsessive) Gridface's list of Ronnie's mixes with track IDs

Friday, January 23, 2015

Gilles Peterson: Hanging with a master

There's a  zen phrase along the lines of "do not seek the wise, seek what they sought".

I consider myself a musical seeker, and while I do not 'seek the wise', I'm grateful when I find myself in their company on our shared quest.  Props to selector-par-excellence Gilles Peterson for a great set in Brooklyn this evening.

Gilles doesn't play in the States very frequently, so it's always a treat to be able to catch him.  While this set wasn't as revelatory as the first time I heard him, it was excellent nonetheless...

As is his wont, he crossed genres at will, moving from new D'Angelo joints, to Carioca Funk, to Banging House, to Jazz Dance stormers, to Cumbia jams, to Classics, to... well you get the point.

Eclectic though he is, he has a very strong conception (as the jazz cats like to describe it...).  I always learn from him, and just as importantly, I dance like a fool :-)

Speaking of dancing, I also have a great appreciation for the diverse crowd that Gilles brings out... definitely more about the music than "the scene".  Kindred spirits.  Respect!

To learn more, check out

Monday, January 19, 2015

What dreams may come. Reflections on Dr. King

( dug this out of my email archives... it was a draft of an internal company communication for 2013, meant to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the March on Washington... this version never survived the committee editing process... but a few friends have thought it was decent, so I figured I'd share )

I'm writing on behalf of Black@TW to let you know that today marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom here in the U.S.

The first thing I want to do is ask you not to read the rest of this email... not right now anyway... much better would be to spend a non-billable hour doing the following:
  1. Reading Wikipedia's comprehensive and imho balanced entry on the march (estimated time: ~45 minutes, but I'm a slow reader)
  2. View the Rev. Dr. Martlin Luther King Jr.'s full I Have a Dream speech ( time: ~17 minutes )
By doing these two things, you'll have much greater knowledge of this event than the average American, and you'll be able to make an informed choice about whether the rest of this email is worth your time :-)

Go ahead, I'll wait...

... you back?  Cool!  And why might the rest of this email be worth your time?

[ warning, the opinions expressed below are solely those of Cliff and not necessarily those of Black@TW or any other TW person or entity ;-) ]

The "standard narrative" is a simplification

The standard narrative about The March on Washington typically goes like this:

On a hot August day in 1963, 250,00 people peacefully assembled in our Nation's Capital to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech.  The March on Washington had a major influence on the passage of the Civil Rights act in 1963 and the Voting Rights act in 1964.

I think most observers would agree that this description is factual.  And I get it, narratives that last need to be simple.  My issue is not with the facts, but it's with the connotation of inevitability, magic, and divine providence that this simplification supports & promotes.  This was destined to happen, right?  On August 28th, there was this spontaneous gathering in the Capitol on the side of justice and righteousness.  A great historical figure gave a kick ass speech and then we passed the Civil Rights Act... yay! (yes, that was sarcasm)

Because you read the Wikipedia entry, you already know that this march was in no way predestined.  There were active attempts to prevent it.  The PA system was sabotaged the day before the gathering.  There were extensive compromises made so that the event could go forward, speeches were edited so as not to provoke the powers that be... if you don't believe me, ask John Lewis.  You know that the National Mall's Park Police were in position to cut the audio if they deemed it necessary ( see that uniformed white guy next to Dr. King during his speech? ) You know that even in this time, the Black community did not necessarily speak with one voice, with Malcolm X being a key critic.  

Why is the "destiny" implication an issue for me?  Because the tacit assumption that "sooner or later, things will just work out", is morally lazy at best, and an abdication of each of our personal responsibility at worst.

Another simplification is that the march was "The Dr. Martin Luther King show".  Again, I get it.  It is a really kick ass speech... one of the best ever.  King's prodigious oratory skill combined with a mass media capable of broadcasting this into "every home in America" certainly had an impact... I would never deny that, and I'm thankful for it.

But, because you've read the Wikipedia article, you know that the march was "coordinated" by multiple organizations and their leaders (known as the "big six").  You also know that the nitty gritty organizing and coordination was overseen by by Bayard Rustin, a gay black man who will posthumously receive the Medal of Freedom today from the President.  You also know that Rustin worked with several hundred volunteers in Washington D.C. and hundreds more around the country to pull off the event.

The point:  Dr. King deserves every bit of praise and admiration he receives for seizing that moment and helping us all see what is possible for this nation,  but it's important... no, critical to remember that he was just 1/250,000th of the story on that day.

Our common historical recollection "shifts the frame" towards the land of feel-good

Again, I blame this on the greatness of the back half of the speech.  Because you watched the entire speech, you notice how most contemporary "looks back" on this day focus on the final 7 minutes or so, where Dr. King is looking forward and articulating his "dream".  As many times as I've seen the speech, it still gives me goosebumps.  I get why we would focus on this.... it's ridiculously inspiring.

However, if you widen the frame to the full speech, you know that Dr. King spends just as much time talking about where Black people stood in that moment, and it wasn't pretty. He spoke of obligations that America had yet to meet.  "Checks returned marked 'insufficient funds' ".  He talked about "rude awakenings" that lay in store if the Nation did not follow a path towards justice and righteousness.  He also implored Black folks not to quench their thirst for justice by drinking from the cup of hatred... what does it say about those times, our history as a nation, that he needed to implore us so?

That was then...

Fast forward 50 years... how much progress towards justice and righteousness has been made?  I want to pause here and make a comment about the coverage of this anniversary in the media... they ask the same question I just asked:  How much as changed in the last 50 years?  But again, there's an implicit message that this march should have changed so much more.  Marches and speeches can inspire individuals, they can threaten power structures, but they cannot in and of themselves effect real and lasting positive change... I think we're seeing that in other global contexts in the present, sadly.

All of that to say, I don't ask "where are we today?" with the assumption that The March on Washington should get all the credit nor all the blame...

So, where are we today? (imho)

The Good
  • Symbolic political progress:  Obama's election is the obvious one.  A fair number of African American cabinet members over the past few decades, even in Republican administrations ;-)
  • (relative to pre-civil rights act, a little bit of ) Economic progress:  in 1965, things *really* sucked for Black folks economically, today they suck a little bit less. (See "the bad" below)
  • Some progress on reducing education, employment, and residential discrimination - Anecdotes: In the late 60s, in order to get to her newly integrated honors high school, my mom had to dodge dogs let out by residents of the White neighborhood between her house and school.  In the 80s, I went to an integrated, middle class public high school where we had very few racial issues.  in 1974, my Dad was able to get a job as a Systems Analyst with IBM in part due to their active efforts to hire minority candidates (which they did as a way to avoid antitrust action, but still...) I write this email after having put my biracial daughter to bed in the moderately affluent (but predominantly white) Chicago suburb in which we live.  I feel a consistent low level of isolation living out here, but the schools are good, and no one is throwing bricks through my window.  That's actually progress. But there's some serious discontinuity of even this progress when you look at different socio-economic strata within the Black community.
  • Moving towards parity in base-level educational attainment:  In 1960, Whites graduated high school at twice the rate of Blacks.  Today, while there's still a gap, it's much smaller.  [ Image | Source ]
The Bad
  • Not enough economic progress by a long shot!
    • Income:  Since 1965, the gap in median income between Whites and Blacks as been remarkably consistent.  One could interpret this as the U.S. having made no progress towards income parity.  [ Image | Source ]
    • Wealth:  Even as the income gap has held steady, the White/Black wealth gap as widened, with Black wealth trending very flat.  Wealth parity is getting worse [ Image | Source ]
    • Tenuous upward mobility:  According to one study, Blacks born into middle class families in the 1960s had a 45% likelihood of sliding down to the "lower class" as adults.  Whites, by comparison, had a 16% likelihood. [ Source ]
  • Educational attainment gap widens after High School.  [ Image | Source ]
  • Despite Legislation, High levels of segregation persist (De Jure, De Facto, Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to...)
What can I do?

Something symbolic you can do is ring the online Freedom Bell today at 3pm.

As far as more substantive actions... remember that funny story from The March?  The "big six" were late because they were meeting with members of Congress, so The March started without them!  They eventually caught up to take a picture "leading" the people :-)

What do you think  you can do? The one thing I know you don't have to do is wait.