When I was young I loved cassingles. The Wiz in East Brunswick stacked a towering wall of them near the cash register. As a lifelong Repeater of Songs Until Destroyed—my wife never fails to comment, “you’re playing that album again!”—the two tracks featured on a cassingle were perfectly utilitarian. By the time I scored a sweet 1986 Chrysler Laser in 1993, the automatic cassette flip function meant I could drive for hours on less than three dollars of music.
The tape inevitably outlasted the cheap cardboard it was sandwiched inside. Soon my glove compartment was overflowing by the sea of cassettes, a technology soon rendered obsolete by the compact disc. CDs not only changed the form of music, but also the function of artistry. No longer did you have to flip a vinyl record, eject a cassette, or whatever the hell happened with an eight-track. Even the very sound of the cassette decks auto-flip signaled that one side was done. CDs destroyed the side. Artists were forced to create continuous music.
While that may seem an advancement (and in many ways it was), musicians started getting lazy. You could embed a record with a bunch of shitty songs as long as you had those one or two hits. With the death of the cassingle, singles weren’t relevant to consumers. You had to purchase an entire CD for $17 (or $11 at The Wiz; when I worked at Sam Goody I sent customers up Route 18 to save them a few bucks). Sure, that happened on vinyl and all other forms of media, but not nearly as much. And yes, there were CD singles, but paying up to $10 for a song and a shitty “B side” simply made no sense.
iTunes changed that. Singles again were in fashion. Yet it was streaming that really returned us to the world of singles. In many ways, for all the (often justified) grief Spotify gets, what it got right was holding artists accountable by listing play counts. If you’re half-assing an album, you’ll know. So will everyone else. You have to treat every song as if it were going to be a “single,” meaning a “released” track, another concept now effectively meaningless.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love me an amazing album. Knowing that I can hit play and let it ride is an essential component of having a true relationship with an artist. But great singles are just that: three, four, twenty minutes to journey with music you love.
The full list of my favorite tracks of 2018 is available here. Below are ten, with commentary, because every song we love becomes part of our story.
Anderson Paak: 6 Summers
The thing about music is you never know who it inspires. When you’re writing a song you fill it with intention and let it go. Songwriting is also cathartic. One song I wrote after a break-up helped me through the process; the vocalist who sang it, Lucy Woodward, nailed the sentiment I was trying to capture. Duke, my production partner, brought the instrumentation to life. Then I let it go.
Years later I met a woman at a yoga conference. She told me that after a break-up, she listened to that song over and over again walking along the beach near her home; it helped her get through that dark time. Discovering that the intention of your song resonated with another human is the reason we make music in the first place: communion.
While I love the entirety of Oxnard, when “6 Summers” came on for the first time I knew it was the track. I could write a chapter on the textures, both sonic and lyrical. The video below, however, is beautiful. Though Paak himself is an incredible dancer (start here), this tribute to his music by a collective of Los Angeles-based dancers is a perfect mirror.
Paak cast the line. This returned.
Modern Tuareg music is constructed of war. Members of Tinariwen, the band that brought Saharan desert blues-rock to the world, were part of a resistance force fighting against an oppressive Malian government in the eighties. While in combat they were inspired by Jimi Hendrix tapes. Now they fight with music.
One of my favorite photos that I ever took is Tinariwen, performing at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge in April 2009:
Nothing warlike about them, though they are certainly fighting a good battle with their songs.
Blues music comes from Africa and there it returns. Mali is one of the bluesiest nations on Earth, but you have to travel into the desert to find the soul of Tuareg music. The Algerian band, Imarhan, captures the soul eloquently on both of their albums. “Imuhagh,” on their second album, Temet, captured mine.
Chancha via Circuito: Ilaló
The first time I sat in an ayahasuca ceremony, the guy next to me was having a rough go at it. Apparently, he’d been on a dieta for a month and was coming to the end of his journey. It was obviously an emotional juncture because he was losing his shit. The guides helped him out and he came through the other side—psychedelics teach valuable lessons; good and bad is a pretty useless descriptor of this education—but the pitch of his screams would normally set my nervous system into flight.
And yet, there he was, three feet away, and all I felt was compassion. It was an important breakthrough in my normally anxiety disordered life. The fact that he wasn’t invoking terror but instead kindness was a lesson that I’ve tried to instill since, sometimes with success, others not. Yet that’s what a journey is: fail and learn. Just make sure to implement the learnings. As American entrepreneur Jim Rohn said,
If you let your learning lead to knowledge, you become a fool. If you let your learning lead to action, you become wealthy.
One thing I love about the ayahuasca ceremony is the icaros, the songs the curandero sings during the ritual. Yet outside of that context the music isn’t highly listenable. (I’m sure curanderos and those heavily invested in aya would disagree, and I honor that. For general consumption, however, it’s a challenge.)
That’s why I immediately fell in love with Argentinean producer, Chancha via Circuito, when I first discovered his music on ZZK samplers. He doesn’t remove Amazonian jungle music from its proper context, as the video for “Ilalo” shows. He just makes it groove.
Claptone: Animal (featuring Clap Your Hands Say Yeah)
Like many people, I first came across German duo, Claptone, with their remix of Gregory Porter’s “Liquid Spirit.” It’s one of those songs I couldn’t imagine anyone on the planet not loving. House music was created out of an intriguing blend of disco and gospel; the Porter remix digs right to the roots.
Claptone has a habit of doing service to singers. Alec Ounsworth’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah stands on its own. Hearing him produced by Claptone is another experience entirely, one that I’ve been spinning ceaselessly since Fantast dropped.
Amber Mark: Can You Hear Me (Rework)
There was an entire period where trip-hop went out of fashion. I’m not sure how long it lasted, but any length of time was unnecessary. Amber Mark’s 3:33 am EP immediately raised my ears. It sounded like potential—solid on its own, but also someone reaching for something.
That’s what great music does: it’s always striving for something beyond itself while being complete in itself. Mark uses a straight trip-hop beat on “Can You Hear Me (Rework)” and nails that junction between ambition and presence. I expect a lot of incredible music coming from this one.
Curtis Harding: It’s Not Over
The internet has created a timeless time. No longer do we have to wait for musical trends to emerge, for the seventies, or Afro-Cuban music, or thirties jazz to find their footing. They all exist, always. If you like a genre you’ll find your tribe. This wasn’t always the case.
I love soul music. For all the ills Motown caused an industry—or should I say, created an “industry”—the music coming from that generation and place is incredible. I’ll never get tired of soulful music, which is how I felt when finding Curtis Harding. He’s got a pretty wide range; he refers to his sound as “slop n’ soul” due to his penchant for incorporating psychedelic rock and gospel, yet that’s what makes him so interesting. During timeless time you can pull from everything. On this track, it’s straight up soul filling your ears.
Everything Is Recorded — Mountains Of Gold (ft. Sampha, Ibeyi, Wiki & Kamasi Washington)
Richard Russell founded XL Recordings in 1989. The label is one of the most interesting and diverse in history. One day my friend Christian texted me a link to his latest project, Everything is Recorded, and all those good feelings came rushing back.
I wanted to post the gospel-inspired “Carry Me,” but it’s not on Youtube and I’m anal about consistency. That’s okay because, really, you can listen to any of his songs and get it. Album or single, every track he touches is a journey. Given the guests he assembles for “Mountains of Gold,” it’s not a second choice but an ideal companion.
Tom Misch: It Runs Through Me (featuring Da La Soul)
I discovered Tom Misch through Jordan Rakei; the two play together and guest on each other’s tracks. I don’t have a lot of words for this song because it speaks for itself. Hearing Pos from De La Soul hop on makes this sunny track even summerier. That’s what it invokes: a late August night, about to get lost in something good, not really concerned when or if the evening ends.
Susheela Raman: Annabel
Salt Rain blew my mind open. When it was released in 2001, I was heavily into my yoga practice, but I’ve never liked modern interpretations of Sanskrit music. A lot of kirtan leaves a lot to be desired.
British-Indian Susheela Raman, along with her husband/guitarist, Sam Mills, created something otherworldly with that album and haven’t stopped since. In 2003, my close friend, Fabian, tour managed them for their first US appearances and I got to spend time with them. They proved as intense live as on record:
My favorite photo is from Cumbre Tajin, Mexico, a year later, when we were both performing at a festival:
More recently they’ve been exploring qawwali and Gamelan music, the latter resulting in this year’s Ghost Gamelan. It’s an eerie, gorgeous album start to finish, yet something about the most melodic track, “Annabel,” always causes me to pause and reflect a moment. It always works nicely near the end of my yoga classes. It digs into the notches and settles you.
The Carters: Summer
One evening I consumed 5 mg of cannabis and slipped into a sensory deprivation tank for 90 minutes. Upon returning to my car, Spotify informed me that The Carters had released a new album. That feeling of floating, that everything is one—the water, the temperature, your body, your mind—seems like it should be relegated to the tank, yet as I floated home, the road, car, my body, space, this song, all remained one.