Top Five Childish Gambino Songs – Neeharika’s List

10 Aug

No matter what arena of entertainment you subscribe to, chances are that you are familiar with Donald Glover. Beyond being a well-known musical artist, Glover is something of a modern-day renaissance man. He’s the award-winning creator / actor of the FX show Atlanta; a big-name movie star for properties such as The Lion King and the Star Wars universe; a prodigious young writer for 30 Rock; a bonafide TV star on cult show Community; and much more.

However, our viewpoint here at Top Five Records is of course on his musical avatar. Last week, our writer Nikhil Murthy took a critical look at the life and times of the artist known as Childish Gambino. Nikhil had choice words against the earliest part of Gambino’s career, especially around the Camp era.

It wasn’t all negative though: Nikhil next listed out his top five tracks from the Childish Gambino discography. Here’s his list if you missed it.

After Nikhil put up his list, we had a bit of a heated internal discussion within the Top Five Records team. Did we agree that “This Is America” is his best song? Did we think that “Les” is the best song from Camp? Which is more impressive: time-withstanding lyrics, or tongue-in-cheek pop-cultural one-liners? And so on (as you may imagine from a group of music nerds).

Ultimately, the discussion boiled down to this: Did his best tracks come at the earlier part of his career, or the latter part? So, with that, here’s another look at Childish Gambino’s best songs; this time from our writer Neeharika Palaka.

Honorable mentions

Heartbeat” from Camp: This is a great song from Childish Gambino’s debut album Camp (2011). Although it starts off like it could be a slow-jam R&B track, Gambino quickly dispels the notion with an angry volley of hurt sentiments at a girl who chose someone else over him. It’s immediately apparent that he’s a comedy writer. For example, these lines in which he puts down his rival for being (of all things) a bad blogger, and backhand-compliments his would-be lady’s figure: “He ain’t cool, he ball and all that, but he just a fake nigga who blog in all caps / You coulda’ wait to date, I’m going straight for your thighs like the cake you ate”. “Heartbeat” is not just about the lyrics; Gambino also impresses with his oscillating emotional delivery, the sludgy synths, and a catchy chorus to boot.

Bonfire” from Camp: This is another track from Camp, and really the first Gambino song I ever heard. One could write a long-form essay on the vast array of jokes, double-entendres, clever brags and other sleights-of-hand that Donald Glover, the professional writer, manages to fit into just over three minutes on this track. “Bonfire” works almost like Glover’s intro-slash-autobiography, of growing up as an artistic Black man in rural Georgia, of not quite fitting in with his heritage while attending the best high school in Georgia, of ultimately making peace with his eclectic scenario. Naturally, being Childish, all of these hefty topics are conveyed through a series of improbable one-liners. “Black and white music? Nigga, that’s a mixtape”; “My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over Es”; “Yeah, they say they want the realness, rap about my real life / Told me I should just quit ‘First of all, you talk white! Second off, you talk like you haven’t given up yet’”; and many more. It’s honestly a fascinating song.

5. “Redbone” from “Awaken, My Love!”

Clocking at number 5 is “Redbone” from the peculiarly-named “Awaken, My Love!” album. I know Nikhil rated it much higher, and I understand where he’s coming from: this is perhaps one of the funkiest, slow-burn songs in Childish Gambino’s line-up. Moreover, the song has deep meaning. The entire album was said to have been inspired by the birth of his child with his non-Black partner; a light-skinned African American child is occasionally known as a redbone, so that’s likely the inspiration for this track. Although this is an undeniably groovy jam – especially the plethora of Gambino’s “Stay woke” wails – it’s perhaps not endlessly listenable.

4. “Sweatpants” from Because the Internet

“Sweatpants” is the first of my picks from Because the Internet (2013). This was the album that moved my image of Donald Glover from his Troy Barnes avatar to his Childish Gambino avatar, although I did take a shine to his debut Camp (2011) when it came out.

The entire track is filled with the kind of slick, clever writing that earlier resulted in 23-year-old Glover being personally picked by Tina Fey to write for the legendary 30 Rock (fun fact: Glover is actually from Stone Mountain, Georgia, which is famously the hometown of immortal 30 Rock pageboy Kenneth).

I’m just a sucker for braggart puns ( “I got more tail than Petco / You faker than some Sweet ‘n Low”), and this song has them by the truckloads. Another favorite line is “And I’m too fly, Jeff Goldblum” which works two ways because Goldblum is indeed super-fly, and also appears in 1986 film The Fly. And so on. The music video is a cracker too, featuring Gambino playing every role at a greasy spoon, from diners to frilly-frocked waitress.

3. “3005” from Because the Internet

Another great track from Because the Internet is that album’s lead single “3005”, which is at its heart a sweet love song about wanting to stay with someone until the year 3005. There are only two verses on this track, but Gambino makes those verses count. His flow modulates impressively between tones, volume, and emotions, while still delivering clever one-liners like “Girl why is you lying, girl why you Mufasa / Yeah, mi casa su casa, got it stripping like Gaza”. Interspersed between these two verses is an extremely catchy (and sweet) chorus: “No matter what you say or what you do / When I’m alone, I’d rather be with you”.

2. “This Is America” (single)

No Childish Gambino list can be complete without a mention of this zeitgeist of modern-day America. Released in 2018 as a stand-alone single, two years into Trump’s presidency, the song summed up so many elements of culture and conversation at that point in time – from Black Lives Matter and police brutality, to a lessening divide between church and state, to America’s gun violence problem. By far, the most chilling part of the song is the ice-cold delivery that Childish Gambino employs at the most deviant lines (“Police be trippin’ now, Yeah, this is America / Guns in my area, I got the strap / I gotta carry ’em”).

The best part of the song, of course, is its iconic, truly memorable music video, in which a crazed-looking Gambino slow-writhes his way through gospel choir, point-blank murder, African dance and too much more to recount. If anything, this song and its visuals have gotten better and more important with time.

1. “Telegraph Ave” from Because the Internet

My personal favorite Childish Gambino song is, for many years now, “Telegraph Ave” from Because the Internet. The song is subtitled “‘Oakland’ by Lloyd”, and there’s a reason for that. Gambino sets up the song as if it were a song called “Oakland” by singer Lloyd, playing on LA’s Power 106 radio as Gambino drives from LA to Oakland. In that way, the song serves two functions: one, of course, as a Childish Gambino song. The other is as a paean to the city of Oakland – and the lover it holds – that Gambino, the character in this song, pens as he drives “up the 5” toward the iconic East Bay city (and its most famous street, Telegraph Ave). Again, I’m a sucker for exactly the kind of multi-layered, multi-media texture that early Gambino excelled in, so perhaps that’s why this song just clicks for me. All in all, this is a lovely song about Gambino meditating on his relationship – settling down, making the distance work, growing up, parenthood – on a long, lonely drive. What’s more relatable than that?

Final thoughts

So there you have it. When it comes to early Gambino vs. later Gambino, I definitely count myself in the former “camp” (get it?). With the latter albums, Gambino has great hits; but I feel that anyone with a gold-plated budget and access to top-notch producers could theoretically produce similar songs. On the earlier albums, Gambino leveraged a distinct point-of-difference, in marketing speak: his undeniable writing talent. And it’s that talent which made for highly enjoyable, layered tracks that I still cherish to this day.

Related:

Top Five Childish Gambino Songs – Nikhil’s List

8 Aug

I just put up a post about the early CG and why I prefer his newer stuff earlier this week and so naturally I have to follow that with an official Top Five list, so here are the Top Five Childish Gambino Songs.

Honorable Mentions

Heartbeat: This was the first CG hit for me. Look at how young the man is here! There’s a lot to like in this too. His beat is aggressive here and he matches it faultlessly. He’s sneering and rough and clearly in pain. There are issues, he just can’t stay on topic and there’s so much here that doesn’t do anything, but it’s still a song that can hit hard.

Zombies: This is a bit of an overlooked song from CG, but he brings so much funk into this one. He is absolutely free in this, there are just the most delightful bits of musical noodling here and it’s really good music. Having fun suits him.

Freaks and Geeks: CG really goes all out with his rap on this one. There are minutes here without a pause for breath. It’s just bar after bar and reference after reference. He moves recklessly across lines and topics. This song is an onslaught.

5. Feels Like Summer

There’s such an incredible lightness to this song. It feels outside of time in the way a summer vacation day outdoors can be. I don’t think he’s ever done as good a job at setting a tone. It’s a song that’s got nowhere to be, it’s happy just to be. It’s also an incredible video.

4. Les

The over-the-shoulder cam as CG deals with dating in the Lower East Side is compelling and he’s at his sharpest when his knives have something to stab. He’s got all of his best lines here and a lot of that is this is too heavy on his mind for him to stray far from. You can see he wants to tell you his side of this and he does it well enough to keep you from straying too.

3. Telegraph Ave.

That sung chorus is everything. It promises so much and gives you so much space to build on. It sticks to you and he sticks to the singing for a good two minutes there. The rap may not be the highlight here, but it does build on the rest. I can’t think of a better song for the city.

2. Redbone

This song alone makes a compelling case for CG as the successor to Prince. Just listen to that scream halfway in and tell me it doesn’t flash purple. CG’s dalliance with funk made for some really good music and this is the best of it.

I’ve never made much sense of the lyrics here, but like the P-Funk it draws from, the pieces that float up don’t really need contextualization. Who can resist the peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid sobriquet? You don’t need that explained. You just need to stay woke.

1. This Is America

This is a song that’s very difficult to separate from the stunning video and I don’t even want to try. That video is amazing and unforgettable. Not only does it have a lot to say, but it says it loud. It’s crafted impeccably and you cannot take your eyes away from it.

Even with just the audio, that music video comes through, but video aside, the sense is unmissable. The song spoke to the moment then and has only gotten more topical since.

That song also just hits. That choir sets you up every time for the industrial rap right after. “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ now” is a fully distilled chorus. It’s the perfect chant.

This is CG showing us what he can do. It’s brave, it’s experimental, it’s smart, it’s topical and it’s excellent music. This may be the peak of his musical career so far, but it feels certain that it’s only a matter of time before he eclipses even this.

Related:

Hold You Down – Against The Early Childish Gambino

5 Aug

We put up a review of the new Childish Gambino album a few months ago and it got me thinking. Karthik liked the album, but misses the old CG. I don’t. I strongly feel that leaving rap was the best thing Donald Glover could have done and I thought I would put down why.

It’s a hard thing to say, but I don’t think that Childish Gambino was ever that great at rapping. Donald Glover has always been an easy person to like and that covers up for a lot, but the fact that it is Donald Glover rapping has always been the bit that most commands attention. He is the actor who raps some. His flow is fine, but honestly forgettable. He’s a little nasal and his emphases are too self-indulgent.

In fact, as a rapper, he reminds me a lot of Aminé. I like Aminé a lot, and you owe it to yourself to at least check out “Spice Girl” if you don’t know him, but liking Aminé comes with the fact that there’s a hard ceiling on what he’s ever going to become. He’s a fun goofball who makes quite a bit of solid music, but there’s only so far that you can go like that, and it’s hard not to say exactly the same thing about the old CG.

Going back to Camp doesn’t do much to shift me on this either. I really empathize with his feeling out-of-place everywhere, it’s a life I still live, but he really says all that he needs to say about it in a couple of songs and beyond that it doesn’t do anything. To unfortunately compare him again to a lower-tier rapper, it reminds me of Logic’s albums where his unwillingness to moderate how far he takes a central conceit causes his albums to drag. Logic is, in fact, my go-to parallel for a CG who stuck to rap. “1-800” is a very good song and the song that really made Logic. It’s a major hit and deservedly so and it’s a song that means a lot to a lot of people and had CG stuck to straight rap, I’m sure that it was only a matter of time until he struck it big like that, but it’s also what feels to be Logic’s peak and the new CG has already passed that.

A big part of that feeling of limitation is that I think there’s only so far you can go with hashtag rap. It seemed interesting in 2011, but looking back, I’m really glad that rap went in a different direction. “Heartbeat” is one of my favorite songs from Camp, but the J and Keisha line is disruptive. I’m in the middle of his story and he drops in such an out-of-place line. It takes me out of the moment for an honestly meaningless line. This is worsened by throwaway lines like “Put it down like the family dog” in “Crawl,” which just feels pointlessly edgy. He doesn’t have the lyricism or the verbal dexterity of Eminem and he’s nowhere near as off-the-wall as Tyler, the Creator and he just can’t pull off the pose anywhere near as well as they do. Similarly, he just doesn’t have the imagination or the flow of Lil Wayne or Thugger, who both have made an art of non-sequiturs and ad-libs. They do almost Joycean things to the language and they rap with such joy. CG has never had anything like the same abandon.

This leads into what I think is CG’s biggest problem when rapping, he never really figured out who he is. I’m going to look at legitimately my favorite of his straight rap songs for this, “L.E.S..” His story of this New York girl is really good. Calling out hipster trends in this song adds detail.  “White boys used to trip and send me over a gin / But they busy showin’ off each other Indian friend” is clever and has a fantastic sneer to it and is followed by my favorite CG line of all ” She got ironic tattoos on her back / That ain’t ironic bitch, I love Rugrats.”

However, then we get things like the free association of the next stanza, which has internal rhymes that could have been interesting, but which he ruins by trying too hard with them and with a needless and sort of tame attempt to shock. Similarly, a line like “Our relationship has gotten Sylvester Stallone” is the kind of wordplay that can seem clever in a poor light, but it just doesn’t do anything for the song. It breaks you out of the flow of the song for a not very funny joke.

He just cannot commit in the way of the Arctic Monkeys or the Afghan Whigs to this lifestyle. He uses jokes to create distance and to cover up the fact that he’s not willing to open up in his music. He’s got an image that he builds up of being a loser on the outside, but making up for fucks you miss in high school is not a compelling aesthetic. It’s also a very tightly controlled image. He’s so reticent that there’s nothing to really humanize him. It comes across as a caricature and an unlikable one at that. Even that story at the end of “That Power” feels so iterated on, so polished, so story-told that it loses authenticity. Sometimes, you need something raw. Also, the Asian fetish gets pretty uncomfortable to listen to.

This might have been tempered had I ever watched Community and had that to balance him out, but I’ve never seen a Donald Glover TV show. Actually, I think the only place where I have seen him is in Solo, a movie that I quite liked and a movie that I quite liked Donald Glover in. However, it’s just not enough to build a picture of him separate from his music for me.

As a contrast to this, it’s time to finally get to the other actor-rapper of the mid-2000s, Drake. It’s easy to dislike Drake. There’s the pettiness, the fake tough-guy stuff, the clout chasing and the puffery, but we only see these because of how open he is and it’s really hard to be a superstar in the confessional that is rap if you’re not willing to be open. CG’s music feels like it wants you to like him and that insecurity doesn’t fit in the rap game. Also, Toronto Sadboy is a slightly comical pose, but it’s one that’s easier to get into than CG’s image of being clever, but immature. This is especially true for the Weeknd, but even when Drake does it, it’s more menacing, more dark and most importantly more sexy than CG’s stuff.

Also, Drake is just the better rapper and the better sing-rapper. You could argue that it was close in the Take Care vs. Camp era (although I wouldn’t), but it’s not at all close at this point. Drake has put in the work while Donald Glover has been busy becoming a movie superstar. Every year, Drake tries out new stuff with rap. There isn’t a trend over the past five years that he hasn’t dabbled with and the work shows. 

Even from the beginning though, Drake always felt like the more comfortable rapper and he committed to sing-rapping in the way that CG didn’t. The best song from CG’s first two albums is “Telegraph Ave”. (which I’ll remind Neeharika that I got to see at Telegraph Ave.), and you can see how well he does in the R&B-adjacent space with his songs with Jhené Aiko. He just feels more natural in that zone. Even with “Telegraph Ave.” I feel like it’s the singing that stands out rather than any of his rap and so it’s welcome that is what his focus is on now.

With R&B, he gets to focus more on feeling than on words and yet with “This Is America,” he has made the most meaningful song in his career. He even gets to be visual in “This Is America” and the wonderful “Feels Like Summer” and the upgrade from the Because The Internet screenplay to the very likable Guava Island is clear-cut. He gets to be unambiguously sexy in “Redbone” which the cleverness of rap doesn’t allow and it’s the best music he’s ever made.

He just feels more confident and here than he did before. “Zombies” from Awaken, My Love is a lot of fun and it just didn’t feel like he was comfortable enough to play like this before. This is an older and more mature CG and maybe the time has come for him to put down Childish things.

Related:

Monthly Playlist: Jul. 2020

2 Aug

This month in music, we saw everything from surprise albums, to much-awaited sophomore albums, to some unexpectedly good remixes. Read on below for a quick breakdown of our top five songs this month – plus, a bonus track!

5. “SWAG” by YG

With its bouncy, summer-ready beats and the titular use of the 2010s-peak slang word, “SWAG” is almost a blissful blast-from-the-past, before the hellscape that is 2020. Compton-based rapper YG’s lyrics on this track are definitely nothing to write home about – the chorus is largely a repetition of the word “swag” – but damn, is it catchy. The best part about this song, however, is the music video. Aside from the 90s style visuals (think “Drop It Like It’s Hot”), the clip features an homage to Colin Kaepernick and cameos from two very special fellow Compton natives (check out around the 1:17 mark below).

4. “Night Garden” by BENEE feat. Kenny Beats & Bakar)

20-year-old New Zealand singer-songwriter BENEE has been blowing up for a few months now. In 2019, she released not one but two EPs, Fire on Marzz and Stella & Steve, the latter of which featured the TikTok viral mega-hit “Supalonely”. Her laidback vocals and relaxed vibe – like a Kiwi Corinne Bailey Rae – prove especially alluring in today’s times. New track “Night Garden” features producer Kenny Beats’ slick arrangements, as well as a choice verse from young London singer Bakar, whose cool vocals fit quite well with the entire ethos. BENEE is surely one to watch, because “Night Garden” really does evoke a nocturnal, wistful stroll. Check out the animated music video below:

3. “Televised Mind” by Fontaines D.C.

We have yet to fully absorb Irish punk band Fontaines D.C.’s sophomore album A Hero’s Death – released just two days ago – but the single “Televised Mind” has been top-of-mind for us since its release at the start of July. Like many other of this band’s songs, the track features uneven guitar sounds, steady drums, and lead singer Grian Chatten’s magnetic, poetic Dublin-drawl vocals. “All your laughter pissed away / All your sadness pissed away / Now you don’t care what they say,” describes he of the ostensible televised mind, before ending with the kicker: “Nor do I”. We’re looking forward to taking in the rest of the album; let’s hope it lives up to their spectacular 2019 debut Dogrel.

2. “Psychonaut” by Mr. Gnome

The excellently named Mr. Gnome is a husband-wife duo with a floaty, psychedelic vibe to their tunes. Singer-songwriter Nicole Barille and drummer / pianist Sam Meister have released a quartet of albums over the past twelve years or so, followed by July’s single “Psychonaut”. The song’s pulsing, memorable intro section sounds a bit like the famous laser scene in Ocean’s Twelve, and the entire song does have a similar air of nonchalant coolness. Special props to Barille’s spindly, dreamy vocals here, for making the listener want to do nothing less than walk on the moon, as the lyrics suggest. “Psychonaut” will be featured on the band’s upcoming double-LP The Day You Flew Away, out in October.

1. “Pac-Man” by Gorillaz feat. ScHoolboy Q

Since the start of the year, Gorillaz have released a song every month or so as part of the Song Machine series – a deconstructed take on the traditional album format that, to be honest, better fits today’s social media-driven world. In July, the band released the series’ fifth song “Pac-Man” featuring LA rapper ScHoolboy Q.

The song starts off with a tinny, MIDI-esque riff, in line with the theme of being like Pac-Man stuck in his little maze. Damon Albarn’s mantra-like vocals (“I’m stressing out, I’m stressing out..”) mesmerize like a high with malignant undertones – until you’re shaken awake by ScHoolboy Q’s sharp flow. Incongruous as they may seem, the pieces fit; and the result is a track that you can’t help but replay. Also, if you are a fan of the classic “Feel Good Inc.”, you may be happy to know that “Pac-Man” is probably the closest that Gorillaz have sounded like that in a long time.

As with all Gorillaz songs, one is meant to enjoy the music in a complete multi-media sense through the music video – after all, it is at its core a collaboration between Damon Albarn and artist / illustrator Jamie Hewlett. So, without further ado, enjoy:

Bonus:

We typically don’t include remixes on our Monthly Playlist – there’s enough great music every month to not need repeats – but we must make special mention of the Tensnake remix of Dua Lipa’s “Hurricane” from this year’s astounding Future Nostalgia. The ramped up bassline and Giorgio Moroder-esque synth breaks give the song a decidedly Daft Punk edge to the already-flamboyant disco vibes.

Listen to these songs along with all of our other 2020 Monthly Playlists on Spotify:

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

27 Jul

The music that 25-year-old Californian Phoebe Bridgers makes sounds like the antithesis of that sunny west-coast sound you’d expect. With a debut album (the critically acclaimed Stranger in the Alps) and two music groups (indie cult favourites boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center) under her belt, Bridgers returns to the forefront with emo-folk Punisher.

Phoebe Bridgers has a talent for the unexpected; her lyrics swing between bitingly honest introspection and wry, deadpan humour, often in the same breath. On Punisher, Bridgers explores themes of resentment, fame and troubled relationships, but adds texture to her tracks with a subtle running motif of an apocalypse that’s right around the corner. The end result is an album that is simultaneously emotionally complex, and yet surprisingly funny.

Punisher sets itself up as sinister and cinematic on intro track “DVD Menu”, and immediately shatters that expectation with “Garden Song”, a Sufjan Stevens-esque track that conveys its message of resentment and nostalgia, through mixed metaphors of murdered skinheads and haunted gardens. Bridgers introduces us to the concept of a ‘punisher’, with her title track “Punisher“. According to her, it refers to a fan who doesn’t know when to stop talking. Throughout her album, she explores both sides of the narrative, of being a punisher and of dealing with a punisher. The track itself, though, is musically underwhelming and its lyrics veer on the edge of cheesy (“What if I told you/ I feel like I know you? / But we never met”).

Bridgers truly hits her mark on “Kyoto”, which was released as a single in April. Possibly the only uptempo song on the album, the track contrasts feelings of wanderlust and homesickness, a peculiar mix of emotions that every young adult has experienced at some point. Yet somehow, the track is also simultaneously about Bridgers’ strained relationship with an estranged parent, without sounding like the topic was shoehorned in.

On “I See You” (initially named “ICU” and changed because of the pandemic), Bridgers pulls a classic bait-and-switch. She draws you in with a beautiful, deep metaphor that makes you think about the nature of adult relationships (“If you’re a work of art, I’m standing too close/ I can see the brush strokes”) and immediately hits you with an almost laugh-out-loud petty complaint (“I hate your mom/ I hate it when she opens her mouth”). The closing track, “I Know The End” starts with some classic Americana lyrical imagery and suddenly shifts gear into visuals of apocalyptic billboards, government drones and alien spaceships. The album fades out with a literal cacophony of screaming voices, which is an oddly fitting end to an album that leaves you feeling raw, introspective and just plain sad, to be honest.

That’s the overall direction that Bridgers’ music seems to take. Punisher feels like a dream you wake up from with a sense of impending doom. The metaphors wander, the lyrics weave strange imagery, but you wake up with a general idea of what transpired. Punisher may not be for everyone. This is not, by any means, an easy listen: it’s complex and depressing at times, and Bridgers’ lyrics can be a little heavy-handed with the cynicism and gloom. But what you do get with Punisher, is flawless production value, interesting lyrical work and perhaps most importantly, a strong feeling of catharsis and closure.

Madhoo Palaka

Nadine Shah – Kitchen Sink

21 Jul

Nadine Shah is a 34-year-old English singer-songwriter of Norwegian-Pakistani origin. Her fourth album, Kitchen Sink, is an exploration of every part of that identity: looking ethnically ambiguous, being British in today’s world, and most of all – being an unmarried, childless 30-something woman.

If that sounds hefty, be heartened: it’s not. Shah navigates these weighty topics with ease, wit and humor, all bound together by her enchanting voice.

We’ve already lauded the title track “Kitchen Sink” here on Top Five Records – a sparse, tightly coiled ditty on not giving a damn about your detractors. We had made special note of Shah’s dark, deep voice; that instrument carries many more songs on the record. “Wasps Nest” could be a love child between PJ Harvey and Devendra Banhart: slow-moving mystique made more mysterious by Shah’s tremulous, rich vocals.

Of course, to be a great singer, it’s not enough to just have the voice: it’s also important to have the right milieu for the voice to shine. Kitchen Sink does well to showcase Nadine. For example, “Kite” is a chilling, sparse hymn built primarily on a few plucks and echoing chorals – a black-and-white outline for Shah’s voice to color in. “Walk” mixes South Asian street beats and jazzy quirks to produce a quirky stop-start rhythm – and no surprise, this suits Shah’s brawny pipes.

Beyond her awesome voice and great musical sense, Kitchen Sink is, as we noted at the start, remarkable in the way it encapsulates so many pieces of Nadine’s identity. On the aforementioned “Kitchen Sink”, Shah talks about the suspicious glances that her inscrutably ethnic looks invite from neighbors. Meanwhile, on “Ukrainian Wine”, she paints a striking picture of getting shitfaced on shady wine while others are “playing mummy and daddy” and buying homes (she’s still renting hers). “Trad” could be the morning after a night of hard drinking, where she visits the same themes in a much more sober light. “Shave my legs, freeze my eggs / Will you want me when I am old?” she asks an unseen man, before liltingly requesting: “Make me holy matrimony”.

In fact, it’s the naked balance she delivers on “Trad” – between want and need, vulnerability and boldness – that best defines the album. Kitchen Sink is an auditory banquet that alternates between fast and slow; between deep and tongue-in-cheek; between the slice-of-life and the quite surreal. And Nadine Shah’s powerful, expressive voice is the singular driving force through it all. Recommendation for this one: listen on good headphones. You won’t regret it.

Best songs: “Kitchen Sink”, “Wasps Nest”, “Ukrainian Wine”

HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III

18 Jul

HAIM’s debut album in 2013, Days Are Gone, instantly made them the most likeable thing in music. It just felt good to see three sisters making really good pop-rock together, like a Jackson 5 without all of the ugliness. Now, with their third album, the novelty is gone, but instead they have a sophistication to their music that wasn’t there before.

The core is still the L.A. pop-rock that they’ve always unabashedly been, but now more experimental than most of their earlier sound. There are excellent screams in “All That Ever Mattered”, for instance, that feel like something they wouldn’t have tried before and which elevate the song now.

The album highlight “3 AM” has a deep funkiness that they have flirted with before, but never fully committed to. It’s a sound that they pull off expertly though. The stuttered cadence is compelling and the groove is undeniable.

None of this pushes them to let up in their more comfortable songs though. “Man from the Magazine” is fairly straightforward guitar rock, but impressively stark, which works very well with the chorus of “I don’t want to hear / it is what it is, it was what it was.” I really like their single “I Know Alone” despite a mild dislike for the music video. It’s both gentle and heartfelt and the electronic twinges are very nice. “Summer Girl” is a standout with a memorable brass lick and clean, understated singing and is matched perfectly by the other bookend “Los Angeles” with its still-funny gratuitous put-down of New York winters.

Women in Music, Pt. III is exactly the album I wanted to see after HAIM’s mild sophomore slump. It’s bold, it’s confident, it’s intelligent and it’s very listenable music.

@murthynikhil

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

12 Jul

It’s a little bit against the spirit of the man, but listening to Bob Dylan in 2020 is reassuring. His voice has just been a part of my life for my whole life, as with practically everyone else with access to American music and born anytime in the past 50 years. Despite the irony, Dylan is an institution.

Rough and Rowdy Ways may not be quite at the standard of his absolute best, but it’s not that far either. It’s alive and accomplished and empathetic and funny all at once.

The opener “I Contain Multitudes” contains the wonderfully bald line “I paint landscapes and I paint nudes / I contain multitudes.” that still makes me laugh. He drops in excellent body-horror in “My Own Version of You” that takes the high concept of the title and makes it an earthy thriller of a carnival.

For all of that though, he can still rock hard as in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and even throws a couple of harmonica licks in there. He follows it up with an equally good treacly ballad in “Mother of Muses” and goes from there to a strong laid-back blues rock track with “Crossing the Rubicon.”

The album ends with the 17 minute “Murder Most Foul” which naturally is quite a ramble, but Dylan has always been at his best when rambling. He has a gift for phrases with exceptional resonance and it’s always enjoyable to just float with him and let thoughts bubble up from the music.

It has been close to 60 years of Dylan now and with Rough and Rowdy Ways, we don’t have Dylan at his most urgent or meaningful, but we do have a wonderful, quiet and very human album to listen to and as I listen to it, there’s nothing more that I could want.

@murthynikhil

Spilling the Beans with Iyer’s Filter Coffee

7 Jul
L-R: Rushil Mishra, Sachin Iyer, Pushkar Ravindra, Dennis Dey

Garage band Iyer’s Filter Coffee has been making waves in India for a couple of years now. Back in 2018, their first track “Soma” garnered buzz among Indian indie audiences, and the song later featured on their crisp five-song EP coldturkey (2019). In May 2020, the band released their first, full-length album Is This How You Do It.

With references ranging from The Strokes to fellow Indian indie rockers The F16s, Is This How You Do It has quite a few high-energy tracks and some poignant, more mellow ones, too. A particular stand-out is boisterous, Arctic Monkeys-esque first single “Noize”, which caught our eye back in May. We also liked the subtler back-to-back tracks “Deytime” (spelling a reference to bassist Dennis Dey) and “Nitetime”, the latter of which served solid Comedown Machine vibes.

We caught up with the boys from Iyer’s Filter Coffee for a chat about their musical journey, managing a music career alongside day jobs, what’s behind their peculiar band name, and lots more – read on below!

Top Five Records: Welcome, guys, and thanks for doing this! Let’s start at the beginning. How did the four of you meet? How did you end up deciding to make music together?

Iyer’s Filter Coffee: Rushil [Mishra, guitar / vocals], Sachin [Iyer, drums] and Pushkar [Ravindra, guitar / vocals] went to the same college [BITS Pilani] where they were part of the music club and played together quite a bit. After all three of them landed in Bangalore, we started to jam in early middle 2017 with vision to eventually be able to perform in the Bangalore pub circuit. Dennis [Dey, bass / vocals] and Pushkar happened to become flat-mates around the same time. Since Dennis was also a musician, he joined us in these jams and eventually Iyer’s Filter Coffee was born.

TFR: Interesting! And when did your interests in music begin? When did you start honing your musical skills?

Pushkar: I was forced, like a significant number of South Indian kids are, to learn South Indian classical music by my parents. This happened between the ages of six and 13. And then I discovered metal. My parents bought me an acoustic guitar right after my Class 10 exams. I learnt everything I know about the guitar via the Internet (though a background in music helped accelerate the process). Bought my first electric guitar a day before my AIEEE [All-India Engineering Entrance Examination]. It’s been going on since.

Sachin: I started playing the drums soon after my Class 10 exams – my childhood friends wanted to form a band, and they were short of a drummer, so I decided to fill in. I’m largely a self-taught drummer, so the Music Club at BITS was great not only for the opportunity to play live quite often, but also for the chance to learn from some really talented musicians.

Rushil: My father got me classes for the keyboard when I was around five. Since my family moved cities every two to three years, I couldn’t continue with it for long. I did briefly learn some tabla and classical singing (which I absolutely hated). I did keep playing some keyboard until I got to BITS Pilani in 2010. That’s where I started with most of the “technical” skills – playing the keyboard correctly, learning my scales, and working with synths. I also started playing some guitar there, and got a bit better after college because of how accessible it is (and because I thought it was a bit cooler to be honest; I was wrong). I started writing music with some friends in 2015 using GarageBand and a really basic setup. “Lazy Day” [which appears on Is This How You Do It] was one of the first tracks we wrote back then, and has been rewritten multiple times since then. This is the first group that I’ve sung with though, so I’m pretty new to singing right now.

Dennis: Lucky for me my dad is also a guitarist, so I grew up listening to Dire Straits, Scorpions, Eric Clapton and other amazing artists. Initially, I started with keyboard but switched to guitar around Class 10 (after realizing the aforementioned coolness factor). Initially a rhythm guitarist, as Dad was shredding most of the solos, I picked up lead and bass guitar in college (IIT Roorkee 2010). Bass guitar was something that stuck with me even after college and I bought a used bass guitar with my first salary. Also, I was a part of the church choir at Roorkee where I learnt how to harmonize, something that I’ve been using for backing vocals with the band.

Happiness is rarely found in a day job, and hence the music career. Money is rarely found in a music career, and hence the day job.

TFR: You have mentioned the Black Keys and the Strokes as your influences, and we certainly hear those references in the contrasting tight / laidback elements in your tunes. What are some other influences to your music – musicians or otherwise?

IFC: We have always had an ear out for alternative genres of music. The Strokes, Black Keys and the Arctic Monkeys most definitely inspired us to lay the foundations on our sound, which you can see on coldturkey [their 2019 EP]. Apart from that, I think we have a newfound love towards newer indie artists like Rex Orange County, Boy Pablo and the F16s, who have inspired us to find a new direction for our sound. However, all four of us have listened to our share of rock music from the 90s and the 2000s which has definitely contributed to how we play and how we write on an individual and a group level.

Also, the post-punk-revival sound was something we wanted to build around – bands like Muse, Libertines, Two Door Cinema Club and Franz Ferdinand. That fused with a bit of the new wave of indie music is what most of our sound written as a group sounds like. Of course, we all also have our own influences which we keep adding into the process as we finish the songs up.

TFR: How have you navigated the journey from Engineering to indie rock? How has your experience been, balancing your day jobs with a burgeoning music career?

IFC: It has been fun honestly. Happiness is rarely found in a day job, and hence the music career. Money is rarely found in a music career, and hence the day job. Like we mentioned in our TEDx talk, it’s been One for the kitchen, One for the soul for us!

Honestly though, writing and producing music would happen a lot faster if we did not have the day jobs, because there’s more time to channel the creativity, and an ample amount of time because the group isn’t forced to jam on weekends only.

TFR: What’s the story behind the name? Is [drummer] Sachin [Iyer] the inspiration?

IFC: We couldn’t think of a good name for the group at all. There were many below par suggestions. We tried out names like 1023 (when we still did not have gig), Geek Chutney, and many others that were thrown away minutes after inception.

All suggestions from Iyer, who probably was channeling his inner Alex Rose, seemed contain his name. These included “Iyer Learns to Rock” and “Iyer Learns to Groove” and “Iyer and the Boys”. Iyer’s Filter Coffee, one such suggestion, seemed to stick because it does not sound like a band’s name. It sounds like the name of a cafe (which is the backup idea if this music thing doesn’t work). So yeah, it just sorta stuck and we seemed to like it.

As a side note, we have other joke names for ourselves in the same fashion. “Mishraji ka Paan Bhandaar” after Rushil Mishra, and “Robindro Sangeet” after Pushkar Ravindra. Dennis Dey might be a little disappointed that “Deytime” has now become a song!

TFR: Your EP coldturkey [Ed. Note: Our review here] released last year on Apple Music’s New Artist Spotlight program. How did you get that opportunity? And more broadly, what advice would you give to young and upcoming artists such as yourselves that want to break into the Indian indie scene?

IFC: Tejas Menon connected us with Apple Music, and after listening to the EP, they got back to us with their New Artist Spotlight program which enabled us to have a two-week exclusive release on Apple Music. Our distributor OKListen was quick to help and worked with the launch dates accordingly.

For new artists, we would like to say just put your music out there. Soundcloud and YouTube are great free platforms to do so in the beginning.  Also, videos matter a lot too. Dennis has this habit of recording our live gigs, which in turn helped us get more gigs and eventually became parts of our music videos. So just shoot videos or ask (bribe) your friends to do that for you.

TFR: Congrats again on the new album! Can you walk us through your process writing and recording Is This How You Do It? How was your experience working with Vivek Thomas?

IFC: We were writing even while we were recording coldturkey. We had almost a third of this album back then itself. The lessons learnt from coldturkey allowed us to revisit these songs, and improve and polish them further before we hit the studio. Also, in that time, we learnt more music, listened to more music and consciously tried to expand on our writing as well, which is reflected in this album.

Working with Vivek [Thomas, producer] was an amazing experience. He is a delightful and cheerful personality that makes working with him feel natural and a lot of fun. He understood our sound from the very beginning, not only with the way he dug through our inspirations but also with how well he knows and understands the scene. His touch really added a whole new dimension and color to our work.

TFR: Our favorite track from your album is first single “Noize” – we’ve already talked up the Josh Homme-era Arctic Monkeys vibes here on Top Five Records. Can you fill us in on your inspiration for this song, both musically and lyrically?

IFC: “Noize” was a unique song in that it was the only song that was written from the drum riff up, which is never the first thing we put on paper while writing. Pushkar brought his Morello-inspired wah guitar on top which was complemented by Dennis’ very melodic bass line.

Lyrics wise, it is loosely based on a prose that Rushil wrote which was condensed into a lyric so as to put something on top of the instruments.
We’ve been covering Arctic Monkeys for a while so we’re sure that someone who listens to “Noize” can hear elements of “Crying Lightning” or “Fake Tales of San Francisco” or maybe even hints of “Brianstorm”. The drums and the lyrics are very Monkeys, definitely.

TFR: Another favorite is the instrumental “Nitetime”, probably because it somewhat reminds us of that oft-forgotten Strokes gem, “Call It Fate, Call It Karma”. How did you end up putting such a stylistically different track on the album?

Rushil: Comedown Machine is such an underrated album! [Ed. Note: Agreed.] I really like the synths they use in the whole album – very vintage, analog, 80s, Stranger Things vibes – and this was similar to Julian Casablancas’ solo projects. 

“Nitetime” has a bit of an interesting story though. Since we don’t play keys in jams, I had a rough idea what to play for the song – some piano through the song, with some airy sounds towards the end of the song. For the album, he wanted to do a short extension to the song with a similar sound palette. I ended up knitting a few short pieces I’d written over time in the studio, and arranged it in the studio. 

I think the chord progressions in the two songs are somewhat similar, and the synths are similar to the Strokes’ / Julian’s work in some of their more ambient songs, too.

TFR: Naturally, you probably did not expect your album to release in the middle of a global pandemic. But now that it’s here – how are you getting the word out about Is This How You Do It in the COVID era?

IFC: We were ready with the album early March and were working towards setting up a country-wide tour. However, those plans took a backseat due to the pandemic. As a launch tour wasn’t an option in the near future, we decided to put the music out for the listeners.

More than us, our friends and fans helped us put the word out for the album. There were a lot of Instagram stories shared with the songs from the album. Also “NewNew” made it to the Spotify playlist Rock in India which also helped in getting new listeners. We are also releasing music videos for the songs slowly and are planning to do a livestream launch gig too.

TFR: With an EP and an album under your belt, what’s next on the radar for Iyer’s Filter Coffee?

IFC: Interestingly, we think the band would have gone into a temporary hiatus if not for COVID, because of personal situations of certain members that would have geographically separated the group. So, COVID was a blessing in disguise in that way, because we are still together and writing more.

We are trying to improve in the craft and bring in a lot more to the table than we did in the past. It would be best to get some writing done now before we eventually start gigging again. As of now, there is no clear picture of what is coming next. But stay tuned to your social media because you never know when we decide to drop a single!

RAPID-FIRE QUESTIONS

TFR: Who’s an Indian artist that you’d love to open for / collaborate with?

IFC: Open for: TAAQ. Collaborate: Peter Cat Recording Co, Skrat, the F16s.

TFR: What would be your Desert Island discs?

  • Pushkar: Led Zeppelin I by Led Zeppelin;  Is This It by the Strokes
  • Sachin: By the Way by Red Hot Chili Peppers; Chapter V by Staind; Undertow by Tool
  • Rushil: Random Access Memories by Daft Punk; Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not by Arctic Monkeys; Mm.. Food by MF DOOM
  • Dennis: Avenged Sevenfold by Avenged Sevenfold; Being So Normal by Peach Pit; Absolution by Muse

TFR: What’s been your favorite gig so far?

IFC: It’s between Oasis [BITS Pilani’s cultural festival], Zomaland 2020 or the coldturkey launch gig at the Humming Tree.

TFR: What’s an album or song on heavy rotation right now?

  • Pushkar: “BTFL” by Abhi the Nomad 
  • Sachin: Tourist History by Two Door Cinema Club
  • Rushil: “Memory Box” by Peter Cat Recording Co
  • Dennis: Apricot Princess by Rex Orange County

Visit the Iyer’s Filter Coffee website to stay updated on the band!

Monthly Playlist: Jun. 2020

2 Jul

We are now past the halfway mark of this hellish year. One silver lining, though, is the sheer volume of great music that seems to be coming out of artists young and new. Living legends Neil Young and Bob Dylan both released new albums, days of each other, as did rising stars like Phoebe Bridgers and HAIM. Read on for our breakdown of five standout tracks from June 2020.

5. “Kitchen Sink” by Nadine Shah

British-Pakistani singer-songwriter Nadine Shah has what one would call a striking voice: deep, resonant and able to convey as much with her notes as with her pauses. On the eponymous song from her fourth album Kitchen Sink, Shah’s voice precisely fills the gaps between two piano notes, discordant guitars and gospel-like handclaps. In the lyrics, Shah seems to be giving herself a sermon – to let go and stop caring about the mean things that people say. “Don’t worry about what the neighbors think / They’re characters from kitchen sink,” she states mysteriously, before breaking into the song’s chant of a chorus: “And I just let them pass me by.”

4. “I’m Alive” by TTRRUUCES

TTRRUUCES have all the markings of a future breakout act. Like many a musical star, they are unusual with a conviction.  Leaving aside their lackadaisical name, they describe their self-titled debut album as an operatic story of Sad Girl Sadie and Lost Boy Syd in the search for, strangely, a drug called TTRRUUCES. Beyond the character names and thematic elements, there’s a sense of seedy psychedelic underbelly (think Charles Manson) on “I’m Alive” that just draws you in. It’s just a catchy tune overall and we aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed – “I’m Alive” is on the FIFA 2020 soundtrack.

3. “JU$T” by Run the Jewels feat. Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha

Just the sheer combined talent of Killer Mike, El-P, Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha would lead one to think that “JU$T” would be a straight-up hit, and thankfully the song doesn’t disappoint. We’ve already spoken about it in our review of this year’s most important record, RTJ4, but it’s worth rehashing. “JU$T” is packed with hard-hitting critiques (as are most RTJ songs) with lines such as “The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar”. Moreover, with Pharrell in the mix, these lines are hidden in crisp, swaggering beats that could almost make you think this is just a summertime banger.

2. “EXHALE” by Kenzie feat. Sia

Speaking of Pharrell, young pop singer Kenzie channels Skateboard P himself on the highly enjoyable “EXHALE”. On the surface, it’s a pop song, but once the bass and drums-loaded chorus pumps through, you know this is a different kind of deal. To sweeten the pot, the song features Aussie hitmaker Sia on a choice verse or two. And let’s be honest, with the way 2020 is going, everyone needs to hear their advice here: “You need to, you need to exhale so let everything go / Baby, you in control”. Fun fact: Kenzie aka Mackenzie Zeigler is the younger sister of Maddie Zeigler, the famous dancing wunderkind in Sia’s break-out track “Chandelier”; we’re definitely glad the family connections got Sia involved here!

1. “False Prophet” by Bob Dylan

In June, Bob Dylan released his 39th (!) feature album, roughly half a century (!!) after his debut album. There is possibly no other living artist who could pull this off, but this 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is quickly turning out to be one of his best (yet). “False Prophet” features a fairly sparse instrumentation and Dylan’s truly inimitable voice. He growls, laughs, boasts, flirts – sometimes all within a ten-second stretch. If you heard this track out of nowhere, you would think it’s at least a couple of decades old; it feels that well-worn and classic. For a song that sounds like it could have by itself birthed the blues, it’s almost fathomable that it was released just this year; but that’s Dylan for you. At 79, this guy sure is alive and kicking, the end times be damned.

Be sure to check out all of our 2020 song picks on our handy Spotify playlist!

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