In Our Headphones: Westside Gunn featuring Stove God Cooks, Nirvana, Going to Georgia, Brian Eno, Kali Uchis, More

In Our Headphones
12/11/2020
KEXP

In Our Headphones is a (somewhat!) new column from KEXP's Digital Content Team. Put simply, it's a sneak peek into the music finding its way into our ears and soundtracking our every day lives. 


Westside Gunn featuring Stove God Cooks - “Jose Canseco” (2020, Griselda Records)

photo by Kai Tsehay

 

It’s a practice I’ve engaged in for many, many years at this point. I tell people all the time I’ve been listening to hip-hop since the womb, so when December rolls around, I think about my favorite rap verse of the year as obsessively as my professionally required lists of favorite albums and songs. Your garden variety rap writer will try to convince you selecting the best verse of the year is a science, but I’ve been writing about music long enough to know what we as music critics do is subjective as fuck. As such, I know picking what I feel is the best rap verse of the year is just as much about a vibe as it is about technical prowess or charisma.

Syracuse native Stove God Cooks released his excellent debut, Reasonable Drought, earlier this year — produced in full by one of the greatest rap artists alive, Roc Marciano. As evidenced by his album’s title and quite a few stunning guest verses since, Stove draws significant influence from Jay Z. Not the billionaire vacation dad with the once-in-a-lifetime pop star spouse and art dealers in his frequent contacts list, but the wordy, sarcastic, self-funded lyricist not too many months removed from selling crack in Brooklyn long before it became a gentrifier’s playground.

Reasonable Drought is an outstanding effort bearing a lot of spiritual similarities to Marciano’s Marcberg from a decade ago — mostly the fact that it’ll take a couple years for the Pitchfork crowd to catch up to its genius — which is to say his true star-making turn comes from a handful of verses on Westside Gunn’s Flygod is an Awesome God 2, the Buffalo MC’s second of three full-length projects released in 2020. 

Though Gunn’s verses on “Jose Canseco” — named after the famously embattled Major League Baseball slugger whose name perks up the ears of those of us who watched baseball in the '90s — are vividly steeped in his usual obsessions which include but are not limited to fashion (Human Made clothes, $1500 sneakers) and has at least one line that made me chuckle (“My third house in my cougar[’s] name”), it’s Stove who takes command of the song’s second-half with verve. 

He starts his monologue veering outside driving lanes in a Tesla, giving advice to his friend about a bad batch of drugs, and it unfolds into a patina of writerly boasts. Stove rocks Ron Burgundy jackets and Mr. Perfect curls, he shouts out the bravery of his friend who took 12 years in prison like a champ by comparing him to Hank Aaron. He flips birds to the point where the parking lot of his grandfather’s church looks more like a Church’s Chicken franchise, his facility with cooking appliances is so exquisite he challenges Emril Lagasse to a Verzuz battle. He remains skeptical of the major label system and the rappers who project a falsely lavish lifestyle because of their contracts (“Labels still jerkin’ / I heard your deal came with $100,000 and some Jergens,” he raps practically with a smirk on his face). Due to his hustling prowess he shrugs off the streaming revenue he’s owed (“[...] I ain’t hurtin’ / I told my young nigga how much, he said, ‘I would’ve murked ‘em!’”). Stove’s verse here is so filled with lived-in pathos and illuminating imagery, he has no choice but to end it making sure you tell federal agents it’s all bountifully exaggerated if they come around asking. — Martin Douglas


Kali Uchis - Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) (2020, Interscope)

photo by Jora Frantzis

 

This year has been a monumental mountain of shit, but we cannot deny that it has been unforgettable in terms of great album releases. You can see my Top 10 Latin Albums of 2020 here. Generally, I like to talk about specific songs that I have been listening to with love and fanaticism, like one who clings to a lifeboat in the middle of the neverending ocean known as 2020. This time, however, the lifeboat was transformed into a cruise ship with wings, stunning colors, and Kali Uchis as captain. An absolute dream!

It is the latest album by the singer and songwriter who was raised between Virginia and Colombia, her second LP and first project in Spanish. It leaves me feeling as though I am in a dream with her as the protagonist and saving angel of my lost spirit in the bottom of the sea. Sin Fear (of Love and Other Demons) is not just an album, it is a perfect soundtrack to surf the end of the year and it is also a total statement of honesty and self-confidence. This is how Kali sounds, and how I am left feeling from the moment I play the heartbreaking bolero “La Luna Enamorada” until concluding with “Ángel sin cielo”, the last of the 13 tracks that make up the open book of her musical influences and upbringing.

"This album is full of so many genres that made my childhood & I am very proud of its range of emotions and nostalgia," Kali says. And he adds, as if it were a written message directly to me, "I hope it brings you any bit of the joy it has brought me."

Yes, Kali! You did. You make me enjoy your dream cruise that comes to my rescue minutes before releasing the weak lifeboat that kept me afloat. — Albina Cabrera 


Various Artists - Going to Georgia (2020, Merge Records)

If you haven’t already heard (and I hadn’t, ‘cause I’ve only been watching reruns of The Simpsons lately), the great state of Georgia is holding two runoff elections for the U.S. Senate in January, because no candidate received a majority of votes back in November. And it’s an even bigger deal, because the runoff elections will determine which party has a majority in the Senate. 

Thankfully, our friends at Merge Records haven’t been distracting themselves with the antics of Bart and Homer, and they’ve released the compilation album Going to Georgia to help. (100% of proceeds go towards Fair Fight and Mijente, two organizations fighting for voting rights in Georgia and beyond.) The label turned to the artists on their estimable roster, inviting them to either cover a favorite artist from Georgia, or even just a song with the word “Georgia” in the title, and the results are not-so-surprisingly fantastic, especially for a sudden project, with band members recording in quarantine. 

I have a strong affinity for the Athens, GA music scene, in particular, so I approached the collection with both excitement and trepidation. Post-punks Pylon are a hardcore fave of mine, so when I saw Wye Oak covered their 1981 single “Crazy,” ...well, I went a little. (“Only R.E.M. can cover that song!,” I thought indignantly and irrationally.) My fears were quickly put to rest: their cover is utterly sublime. I absolutely love the waltz-like, dreamy, yet somber approach, and Jenn Wasner’s gorgeous guitar work truly makes the song their own. Wye Oak, I apologize.

I had a similar unjustifiable reaction when I saw Torres took on The B-52’s 1989 Cosmic Thing track “Topaz,” a long-time deep-cut love. (Me: “Dammit, why didn’t I cover this song first? So what if I can’t play guitar!”) But, good lord, her layered lo-fi rendition is just beautiful. And Torres herself was raised in Macon, Georgia, so, y’know, she’s far more entitled to cover this song than my tuneless ass.

Some artists on this comp turned in more faithful interpretations: Will Butler’s version of R.E.M.’s “Electrolite” doesn’t stray far from the original, adding lovely backing vocals and ditching the güiro. Merge house band Superchunk (with the assistance of William Tyler) turn in a slightly snappier version of The Glands’ “When I Laugh.” Hiss Golden Messenger captures the lonesome, heartaching beauty of Cat Power’s “The Greatest.” And D.C. band Gauche keep the new wave zany-ness of The B-52’s “Song for a Future Generation,” only changing the band members’ personal-ad-style introductions. (i.e. “Hi, I’m Janice, and I am a Libra. I like Hello Kitty and watching The Simpsons.”) 

But, like the Torres and Wye Oak covers, I particularly love the times when the artists’ own unique voice shines through. For example, I never knew I needed to hear a growling Titus Andronicus interpreting the Indigo Girls’ breakthrough folky hit “Closer to Fine.” Speaking of that influential Atlanta, Georgia-based duo, none other than Amy Ray (teaming up with Angel Olsen!) shows up on H.C. McEntire’s take on Trisha Yearwood’s “Georgia Rain.” Their version strips out the shiny, commercial overproduction of the original, making it so much better. And Fruit Bats transform Otis Redding’s soulful single “I've Been Loving You Too Long” into a rhythmic acoustic lullaby. 

There’s so many more gems on this 17-track compilation, I can’t cover them all, but it’s truly a peach (heh). And don’t forget, Georgia: early voting period starts December 14th, and Election Day is January 5th! — Janice Headley

Bonus Pick: New Order - "Be a Rebel (Stephen's T34 Mix)" from the Be a Rebel Single (2020, Mute)

Dusty did an extra pick a few months ago, which inspired me to add one, too. This one has only been "in my headphones" for, um, a day, but I've listened to it enough times today to challenge the aforementioned Going to Georgia comp. 

I saw that New Order returned in September with the single "Be a Rebel," their first new music in five years, but admittedly, it didn't even register, despite the fact that they are probably one of my favorite bands of all time. (As a pre-teen, a New Order poster was the first one I bought with my own money to adorn my bedroom wall, purchased at Sound Warehouse for $3.99, which seemed like a lot of money at the time.) But I lost connection with the band after their 1993 album Republic, and never got back on board after they returned eight years later with Get Ready. (I think I was in full-on indie snob mode at the time.)

But today, "Be a Rebel" came up on shuffle, and it made me stop and take notice. Now, frontman Bernard Sumner has never been the strongest lyricist (“I would like a place I could call my own / have a conversation on the telephone” — CRINGE), and the lyrics on this one will definitely make you wince (“Be a rebel / Not a devil” — WHAT?). But, you know, dude is 64-years-old now, very close to my Dad's age. And something about the lyrics comes across like a fatherly pep-talk: 

Take a look at yourself
You may not be the same as everyone else
You're just different, and that's okay
We all follow our own way 

It's corny, but... heartwarming. Y'know, like Dads are. You roll your eyes, you guffaw, you screenshoot it to share with friends on social media with the hashtag "dorkdad," but then you remember those words when you need them the most, and silently thank him in your head when times are tough. (And, hey, friends? Don't do that. Go show him your gratitude NOW.)

So, why the "Stephen's T34 Mix" in particular? Well, because drummer Stephen Morris, and his wife Gillian Gilbert, have always been my favorite members of the band — they seem devoid of the ego battles of Barney and Hooky, and on social media, they come across as so humble, kind, and charming. And Stephen's take on the new single has enough elements of the old New Order I knew and loved, that it grabbed my attention in a way the single version may not have. When the breakdown comes in at 3:43, I can just picture Morris behind the decks at the ol' Hacienda, lights flashing behind him, fist pumping in the air. And the thing I've always loved about New Order's dance tracks is how they somehow retain an air of melancholy to them. Something about the chord progression or key that I'm not musically literate enough to explain (but I bet Martin Rossiter of the Why Do I Like This? podcast could). Sad on the dance floor. That's me. — JH


Brian Eno - “Always Returning” from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983, Virgin)

Brian Eno in the studio, 1983 // photo by Andy Freeburg

 

As we settle into an inevitably difficult winter, I’ve allowed my intentions to be simple. I want to create space rather than fill it. I want to enjoy small acts of healing. And I keep coming back to one song.

Brian Eno’s “Always Returning” from 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks holds particular significance for me. The entire album is a weightless trip through new cosmic territory (which is not by mistake; it was made to soundtrack documentary footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing), but “Always Returning” on its own was vital in pulling me out of a period of anxiety. 

I was 19-years-old, coming to terms with disappointment and adulthood, and a loved one unexpectedly became ill. The loss of control I felt, the mounting unknowns and resulting paralysis, manifested as a fear of flying. I was flying home from school regularly to be with my family, and when the anxiety became unbearable and prescribed solutions came up shallow, I looked to music. I got in the habit of listening to “Always Returning” on repeat during takeoff. Eno’s Milky Way-filtered guitar and keyboards that were meant to accompany an astronaut’s journey through space were just as effective, 30 years later, in guiding me through cycles of breath when I felt suspended in zero-gravity.

In those moments, I found my fear of the unraveling expanse ahead (“I’m scared to lose the people I love”) slowly being reframed as a sense of wonder (“energy doesn’t just disappear”). “Always Returning,” along with the rest of Apollo, helps us accept that vastness beyond our understanding is not something to fear, but something to marvel at. — Isabel Khalili


Joep Beving - Henosis (2019, Deutsche Grammophon)

photo by Rahi Rezvani

 

There are many incredible traits I got from my mother: independence, entrepreneurship, and thick hair to name a few (height could go either way on the pro/con list, depending on the day). But there’s one thing I inherited that makes me wish for entirely different DNA: that fickle mistress, insomnia. 

As a child, I’d lay in bed for hours, thinking up stories and fantastical futures to try to pass the time until my brain would finally give into slumber. As an adult, I turn most often to unhealthy quick fixes like a bottle of red wine or hours of mindless television in order to get there. Of course, this has been exacerbated now that I have no solid schedule to keep me regulated or incentive to try to formulate any semblance of self-control because why bother, when the world is a fiery pit of hell?! 

But I’m starting to get concerned. What used to be a 2 or 3 AM bedtime is now turning into a 4 or 5 AM bedtime and that seems so far from healthy that it’s unignorable. FitBit, who I’ve realized is essentially my mother in app form, is constantly alerting me to my failings — “C’mon Jasmine, you haven’t moved in 3 hours, just take 250 steps” and “Yes, I know you did a dance workout today but that doesn’t make up for the 23 hours and 40 minutes you spent in bed.” 

But the most worrisome is something along the lines of, “Stop drinking so much before bed, doofus, you think it’s helping but it’s actually suppressing REM sleep.” My average sleep score, according to Professor FitBit’s harsh grading scale, hovers around 63 which means I’m literally failing sleep.

In an effort to try to pass the class, I’ve turned to different calming aids. Anything to quiet the constant humming thoughts and anxieties in the brain. But as an active listener, noise is tricky. White noise is too grating, nature sounds get annoying, and music with lyrics only distract and activate my brain more. Hence, I turn to my old faithful and the one genre that’s safe to play amongst any grandparent of any family: classical music. 

As someone who started playing piano when I was 7 but never got all that great because I hated to practice and have only decreased in talent since, I adore and respect great pianists. But this early exposure to the genre and decades of listening to the same Chopin, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky has had me searching beyond the confines of composers long deceased. If you feel similarly, let me introduce you to Joep Beving

Recommended to me by Spotify because of how frequently I listen to Ólafur Arnalds, Beving is a Dutch neo-classical composer and pianist. In 2015, he was introduced out of relative obscurity after carving out some time from his day job in advertising to release the debut Solipsism. It turned out to be a runaway hit on the streaming platform, I imagine because of the many individuals dealing with a similar problem as mine. 

His atmospheric piano-based compositions take on a variety of forms, sometimes even flirting with electronica and pop, but all generate a soothing and meditative quality perfect for dream states. 2019’s Henosis, the epic final volume in a trilogy of albums, plays with the classical composition structure by adding in flourishes of synths and ominous effects amongst more traditional strings and piano. The result is a ghostly transcendent, almost spiritual, album perfect for quieting the mind. 

Now, if I could just get my FitBit to shut up. — Jasmine Albertson


Nirvana - Live at The Paramount (2011, Geffen)

I was talking with my therapist this week about trying to satiate this abundance of frustration and anger I’m feeling toward the world. It led to a conversation about the power of exalting your literal voice and the catharsis of yelling in a healthy context. He suggested I find a place to scream. I told him the best place I have for that is belting along to Nirvana in the car, which led to him telling me how he just discovered “Territorial Pissing” through an old live performance video. “Talk about a pure manifestation of anger!” he excitedly told me. 

Like many others, Kurt Cobain had me radicalized by the first time I heard him snarl, “oh well, whatever, nevermind.” Not to belabor a topic that’s a landfill’s worth of ink has been spilled over the last three decades, but it was awakening to understand the pent-up frustration building inside me. That Cobain was also from the “not Seattle” outskirts of Washington and spoke with that slight drawl you get in the state’s more rural areas only made it more relatable – even if I found the music a decade after his death. 

Many of the records I’ve written about in this column have been about (or I’ve interpreted) to be about peace. But in the search for peace, I wonder if I’ve left out room to feel anger and let that manifest itself. The idea of “music healing” us doesn’t just come with good vibes and warm feelings. Sometimes it comes with the sound of a guitar that feels like a chainsaw ramming into a brick wall. 

Almost any Nirvana record fits that bills (well, okay, maybe not Unplugged), but right now Live at the Paramount is resonating most with me. All of the band’s studio records rip like a Band-Aid, but the band’s live recordings exemplify just how brutal they were. And in a time where live music is on pause, there’s an extra comfort hearing a set recorded in my city that also speaks to the emotions I want to process. Recorded when they were still touring as a trio and in the nascent wake of the success of Nevermind, I find it to be one of Nirvana’s most exuberant performances. The songs still feel fresh and untainted from the burdens of being a pop culture phenom. 

Every hit of Dave Grohl’s drums feels like a gut punch in the mosh pit and Krist Novoselic offers not just rugged baselines, but snarky commentary throughout. But it’s Cobain’s voice that always stands out the most. That someone can sound so pissed off, fucked up, and gorgeous at the same time is still mesmerizing. While we can’t all hit those jagged notes, Cobain’s voice makes me want to metabolize my own feelings. It might not be The Paramount, but my empty car is going to get the performance of a lifetime after 12 months of what 2020 has had to offer. – Dusty Henry 

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