Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.

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A Mercury Prize Primer

by Justin McCarthy (@JustinSMcCarthy)

WHAT IS THE MERCURY PRIZE?

The Mercury Prize is an annual music award given to an album by a British or Irish artist# founded in 1992 by the British Phonographic Industry (mm, yes, quite) and the British Association of Record Dealers. It functions similarly to high-profile literary prizes (think the National Book Award, or the Man Booker Prize) in that it’s voted on by a panel of third-party experts, and the rollout includes the announcement of finalists in the form of a shortlist. Since 1998, there have been 12 finalists each year. The contest is not genre-specific; it’s open to rock, rap, jazz, classical, crabwave, whatever.

What tends to win, however, is the type of music folks used to refer to as “indie” and now refer to as “the music that soundtracks the TV shows I watch about people who live in cities.”

 
DOES IT MATTER?

For the artists who win, hell yeah. Not only do they get the hardware and bragging rights, they also get an all-but-certain Colbert Bump-esque sales boost and a fat check to the tune of 20,000 pounds. If you’re a musician whose finances look less like Adele’s and more like circa-2011-Sly Stone’s, fuck a Grammy; this is the award you want to win.

Being a finalist is pretty rad, too. You’ll often hear literati-types opine that the winner of the Booker prize for fiction is never as good as the rest of the shortlist, and the same can be said of the Mercury#. Remember Klaxons? No? Their debut album won in 2007, beating out a little old LP called Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. So, yeah.

But what about audiences — does it matter for us? I say yes, particularly for non-British ones, and here’s why: As thoughtful listeners of pop music in the U.S., it sucks to watch the Grammys every year and act like it’s a communal event worth participating in. It’s gotten worse and less meaningful every year, because it can, because it’s the only game in town. Is the Mercury Prize perfect? No. Will the American version be perfect? Definitely not. But if we’re ever going to get the chance to have something like the Mercury in the U.S., something that treats pop music like art and not like native brand advertising, we have to show the powers that be that this is something we want/like/care about. We should maybe even vote with our dollars and keep that Mercury Bump alive, even if it means (gulp) buying a Badly Drawn Boy release every now and then.

 
WHO IS NOMINATED THIS YEAR?

Aphex Twin – Syro
Benjamin Clementine – At Least for Now
Gaz Coombes – Matador
C Duncan – Architect
ESKA – Eska
Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin
Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys
Slaves – Are You Satisfied?
SOAK – Before We Forgot How to Dream
Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool
Jamie xx – In Colour

 
WHO WILL WIN?

The bookmakers are going with Jamie xx, and it’s hard to argue against him; the chromosomally-christened producer cobbled together a truly great collection of dance music for his debut, inclusive and innovative at once. What’s a world-dominating pop-rap moment like “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” and a deeply personal tribute to London pirate radio like “Gosh” doing on the same LP, and why does it make so much sense? Plus, the panels have been kind to debuts in the recent past: three have been honored in the last five years (Young Fathers, Alt-J, and Jamie’s own The xx).

 
WHO SHOULD WIN?

In this humble writer’s opinion, the incomparable Richard D. James and his IDM nom de plume Aphex Twin should be given the nod, if only for past achievements and if only because who the frick knows when he’ll go back to that nutso genius well again. Which isn’t to say that his latest effort, Syro, isn’t amazing – it totally is, and for reasons that are wildly different than those that make the schizo headrush that is The Richard D. James album or the ethereal dreamscapes of Selected Ambient Works Volume II amazing. It’s complex but listenable, and it allows Aphex to check off an item on the increasingly short list of “virtues the project has yet to master”: subtlety.

 
ANY PAST WINNERS WORTH CHECKING OUT?

Portishead’s Dummy#, PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea#, Young Fathers’ Dead#.

 
IS THERE A DRINKING GAME FOR THE CEREMONY?

Fuck yeah there is! Now watch it tonight, and pretend like you care about these limey Brits, kids. Maybe we’ll have our own American version someday: does The ComcastCitiFedExAT&TBankofAmericaVick’sVapoRub Prize sound good?

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Made of Oak and the rise of Synth-Hop

by Lindsay Hogan (@LindsayHogan88)

I’m going to propose that we are in the early days of a hip-hop/synth-pop fusion genre I’ll tentatively refer to as “synth-hop” (here’s to hoping I don’t regret that term in a few months, but ya gotta stick your neck out sometimes).

This combination has been festering for a few years now, with trip-hop floating in and out of style and hip-hop artists increasingly curating their beats and electronics, but the concise pairing of the two genres is protruding more and more into mainstream music. The big-name examples are that Danny Brown/Purity Ring collaboration in 2014 and more recently Phantogram and Big Boi’s album.

The marriage of these two styles seems obvious. These days producers are just as famous as the performers they make beats for, and synth-pop artists are inherently talented beat-makers with a purposefully sense for danceable, smooth and sexy music. It seems only natural that the line between producer, performer, and artist should be blurred even more. Synth-pop is also cursed as the genre whose sound is so tied to newness and innovation that tracks and albums become worn out and novel in a year’s time; collaborating outside their comfort zone with hip-hop artists who also strive to push the limits of their predecessors can breathe life into both genres, as both collaborators reap the rewards of increased exposure and accessibility without compromising their sound.

The real indicator of this trend, however, is not when superstars pair up to make bank on a single, but when smaller artist pair up because of the natural fit of their sounds, like Made of Oak’s Nick Sanborn collaborating with other artists from his home town of Durham, NC.

On its own, Make of Oak’s first release, Penumbra, is a delightfully glitchy and electronically luscious EP. Tracks “Pinebender” and “Blue Zipper” are dark and introspective instrumentals that share the same sharp production as Sylvan Esso, but stand on their own as independent synthy experiments.

However, when I got the chance to see him last Wednesday at DC9, the highlight of the show wasn’t solely Nick’s silky electronics.

After teasing his hip-hop blend with a seamless Lil’ Wayne sample on the track “Blue Zipper,” he brought out North Carolina MC, Professor Toon to perform alongside the track “Slide Rides.” Made of Oak hinted at this collaboration a month ago in the simplistic but compelling video for “Slide Rides,” which teases the incorporation of verses from Prof Toon and Durham rapper Well$, and onstage, the pairing seems effortless as prof Toons used Nick’s dramatic but sedated backing to rap a few furious verses. The collaboration brought intensity and complexity to Toon’s verse while bringing energy and urgency to Made of Oak’s ambient production.

This could’ve been and should’ve been the whole show.

I hope we’ll start to see more and more performances like this, either with two independent artists collaborating or groups forming on the basis of this sound. Prof Toon and Made of Oak aren’t the first to put the pieces together, but they were duo that opened my eyes as to how easily this pairing could become the norm.

After the show, Nick pointed out the pragmatic reality of the pairing: The solo nature of an electronic artist makes it financial feasible to tour with a featured rapper, or a rapper with a featured electronic artist, and sonically, electronic production is flexible and limitless. A single artist can create song after song that sound nothing like the each other and easily apply this to the work of other musicians, i.e., hip-hop artists. That being said, a fully fleshed out electronic track like “Pinebender” or “Slide Rides” would have to be reworked and muted to fit in rap verses and vocals, so its not without a trade-off.

Lucky for us, Made of Oak intends on remixing some of his songs to this end. But for right now, the live show is the only place to get a taste.

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A Polite Reminder about K.A.A.N.

by Bryce Rudow (@BryceTRudow)

Way back in Some Songs Considered #004, I introduced my favorite musical discovery of the year, K.A.A.N out of Columbia, Maryland. With his breakneck pace, cut-to-the-core lyricism, and awe-inspiring personal manifesto, I was sure this guy was destined for greatness in 2015. And I still do.

But he’s running out of time…

Fortunately, the brisk fall air signals the start of the season when music lovers pause to reflect back on the year that was. It’s when we start realizing just how high a pedestal we put Leon Bridges on and discuss whether or not we should count D’Angelo’s Black Messiah as a 2015 album even though it was released on December 15th of 2014. It’s when we’re allowed to catch up on everything we’ve missed only to act like we’ve been there all along.

So, for those of you beginning to mentally compile your Top 15 Artists of 2015 lists, consider this a polite reminder about K.A.A.N.

Since I posted “concealed the outro,” “KAANCEPTS,”#, and “Ampersand”# back in May, K.A.A.N.’s been one busy man. He’s released a slew of new songs on his Soundcloud page — peppering in fully original tunes with tracks of him going over beats like “Control” and “Rap God” — and a recent interview with Steez revealed that he’s got a whole new management team in place as well.
 

Though I should note that the ever verbose K.A.A.N has only double-downed on his belief in coming up ‘the right way’:

I think the exposure, and all that, will come when its time. It’s all about patience, consistency, and timing. This Internet stuff is all smoke, and mirrors. You’ll have guys with investors, and be signed to labels low key, and will have the machine behind them, but not say anything to make they’re come up look organic when its was strategic. The funny thing is people really believe the shit they see. They really think these guys can get millions of views, and start popping up out of nowhere, and do shows all over the place just off the strength of throwing out songs online, and the reality of it is it doesn’t work that way.
 
It’s called the music business for a reason. These labels want to make money, and the best way into fooling people into thinking something average, or just new in general is great is by using perception. Give it the bells, and whistles, shove it down peoples’ throats until it becomes relevant, and watch it blow. Me personally I have far too much pride for all that. I’ll do masonry work for the rest of my life before I become apart of some fake ass shit. To me, that shit is just plain embarrassing.

He’s essentially the Bernie Sanders of up and coming hip-hop artists.

I do wish there was one definitive K.A.A.N. album I could really campaign for, but I dare any that dare make best-of lists to compare K.A.A.N.’s Soundcloud uploads from the past year with something like Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Go Outside, an album that will surely find its way on a few Top 15 lists. When you play the two back to back, there’s no doubt in who deserves that precious list spot more.
 

K.A.A.N. in 2015 (lists)!