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(93 ‘Til line from Hiero + Adapt)

Question from Morgan: What would you rank as the top three albums you enjoyed in the last ten years that would have surprised the guy you were back in 2003? Follow up: Same question, but for the guy you were in 1993.

Answer: The 2003-2013 question is hard to answer in the way you’re asking if only because 2003 marked an important shift in my thinking about/relationship to music. It was the year I re-embraced pop music in a profound way, leaving behind the “strictly underground/keep the crossover” attitude that defined my 20s. I could get into all the reasons why but the short story is that I, as a music writer, no longer felt like I needed to be an advocate/cheerleader. I was more interested in simply trying to find something interesting/insightful to say about music but whether that was the biggest pop act or an artist no one had ever heard of wasn’t a distinction that held much meaning for me anymore.

As a result, I became far more open-minded by the end of 2003 and therefore, I’m not sure if there’s much that would have surprised 2013 Me vs. 2003 Me given that 2013 Me is still living out the shift that 2003 Me began. Does that make sense?

That all said, in the spirit of actually addressing your query vs. over qualifying a non-answer, here’s three artists/albums/songs that reflect the shifts I’m talking about:

Rufus Wainwright: O What a Wonderful World
From Want One (Dreamworks, 2003)

I can’t say I’ve loved Rufus’s entire catalog…in fact, there was about ten years (after this album and before last year’s album) where I stopped listening to him for reasons I’m still not completely sure why. But I’ve gotten more pleasure out of his first three albums than most other artists I can think of (for example, for sheer listenability, I’d take his first 3 over Gang Starr’s first 3).1 The only thing is that I started listening to Rufus around 2001, not 2003, but Want One was the first of his albums that I reviewed and at the time, was really one of the few examples of a “non-hip-hop or soul” album I had ever tried to tackle.2

Alton Ellis: I’m Still In Love With You
Available on I’m Still In Love With You

Alton Ellis. I can’t peg this to a specific album if only because I love his singles more than any single album but the general point is that, ten years ago, I simply wasn’t that into any kind of Jamaican music. I never got that far aboard with reggae or dancehall; I doubt I ever will in a substantial way. These are genres that I admire and respect but I can’t see myself jumping deep into them. That said, I definitely have listened to way more rocksteady over the last ten years and I think that would have been a surprise to 2003 Me. Ellis had much to do with it, especially when I discovered songs like “I’m Still In Love With You” and “Rock Steady.”

Lykke Li: I Follow Rivers (The Magician Remix)
From 12″ (LL, 2012)

I was asked to play this at a wedding I DJed last fall and I hadn’t heard it before. I knew, vaguely, about Lykke Li dating back to her first album circa ’08 or so but I never followed her. And if someone had told 2003 Me that “one of your favorite songs of 2012 would be a disco-laced house remix to a moody, electronic-y Swedish singer/songwriter” I might very well have said “f— outta here.” If I had to unpack what I like here, it starts with the piano…just two chords from what I can tell, but totally catchy. And the difference between this and the original song are night/day. Li sounds so much brighter and dreamy than the darker album mix, which reminds me of something I might have heard on KROQ in 1986, back when I listened to a lot of new wave.

As with what I was just saying about reggae a moment ago, I very much doubt I’ll ever get deep into EDM but the important thing is that I’m open to getting into any given song. That, more than anything, is the biggest shift that’s happened over the last ten years.

As for the second half of your question, that’s much easier to answer since, back in 1993, I was totally locked into “hip-hop, fuck everything else” mode (I mean, I was 21 then). My listening tastes were uber-narrow. How narrow? So narrow that here’s the first album I thought of when I read your question:

Dr. Dre: Lyrical Gangbang
From The Chronic (Death Row, 1992)

When The Chronic originally dropped, I simply wasn’t feeling Dr. Dre. The reasons are numerous (and all kind of silly in hindsight but they mattered to me at the time): Ice Cube > NWA, I didn’t like all that “synth shit,” I was far more of a NY-rap fan than LA-rap fan even though I grew up in LA and was still living on the West Coast then. Basically, I judged The Chronic mostly on merits that had nothing to do with it as an album and everything to do with what I thought it symbolized.

Of course, back then, that shit was real. Silly as it may seem in hindsight, at that moment, The Chronic and its success felt felt threatening to a particular world view of hip-hop that I had adopted. The fact that I now admire its achievement – and more importantly – think it’s a pretty damn good album of music actually took me those ten years, from 1993-2003, to come around to.3

Pete Rodriguez: Pete’s Boogaloo
From Latin Boogaloo (Alegre, 1966)

The biggest shift from 1993 to 2003 was my discovery, via my old DJ partner Vinnie Esparza, of Latin music and boogaloo in particular. Unlike The Chronic, it wasn’t like I was purposefully, stubbornly “opposed” to Latin music, but it simply wasn’t a genre/tradition I was remotely checking for in 1993. I was too busy trying to cop A Tribe Called Quest promo 12″s. But since then, Latin has become one of my favorite bodies of music, as any reader can tell.

Bobby Reed: The Time Is Right For Love
From 7″ (Bell, 1970)

In 1993, I bought what I think was probably my first box set, volume one of The Complete Stax/Volt. Much as I had very narrow opinions about what “real hip-hop” was, I also held a fairly myopic view on what “real soul” was. At the time, real soul = Southern vs. Northern/Motown-style R&B which I associated with such bad words as “popular” and “crossover,” both of which were codewords for “sellout.” This was, of course, asinine thinking and represented blind allegiances to rigid ideologies. But again: back then, that’s the kind of music fan I was. The idea that, 15 or so years later, one of my all-time soul songs would be a very Northern-esque 7″ on Bell would have mightily surprised 1993 Me.

What’s funny is that this very morning, as I was sitting down to right this, a friend was talking about discovering Grimes and said, “I love it when there’s new/new to me stuff that excites me.” I couldn’t possibly agree more.

Question from Karl: “A while back, I picked up Jean-Marc Cerrone’s “Supernature” on a whim, which is a dope record. How familiar with him are you, and what can you say about his other records?”

Answer: Easy…I know next to nothing about Cerrone except that he recorded this Ultimate Beats and Breaks classic:

Disco is one of those genres that I enjoy but that I know woefully little about besides a few, obvious acts and whatever random assortment of disco records I have.

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  1. Keep in mind though that 1) Gang Starr’s first album was rather inconsistent and more of a hastily thrown together Wild Pitch effort than the kind of focused efforts Guru and Primo would put together later. And 2) I never really liked Daily Operation much. I was always more of a Hard To Earn guy for that era. Gang Starr’s second album, however, is perfection.
  2. fun’s Some Nights album, one of my favorite of 2012, could have fit into this space as well though that album has more of a hip-hop pedigree than Rufus ever did.
  3. What explains that is I ended up writing the entry for The Chronic in my album guide, Classic Material. I wasn’t supposed to write it but the original writer had dropped out and with a looming deadline, I decided to just take it on myself but that meant really listening to the album in a way I never had previously (which is to say: actually listen to the album from beginning to end).