It's been a couple of months since we launched a new series about the stuff we use every day. Since then, we've talked about games new and old, Netflix originals, synthpop and even a WiFi router. This week, it's time again for music and podcasts: from Radiohead remasters to Jay-Z's latest, via New York history and forgotten TV pilots.
In October of 2014, Vince Staples dropped the Hell Can Wait EP. It was dark, violent and boiling over with artistic potential. Then in 2015 he released his first full-length work: the ambitious double album Summertime '06, which delivered on all of that promise. Both shared a similar aesthetic. They were lyrically dense, almost claustrophobic in their story-telling. Fatalistic tales of drug addicts, dealers and gang life ("Knowin' change gonna come like Obama and them say, But they shootin' every day 'round my mama and them way") sit on top of apocalyptic beats.
But his latest, Big Fish Theory, takes a hard left turn. Both sonically and thematically. For one, it ditches many of the trappings of modern hip-hop production for dance music. Detroit techno, Chicago house and even hints of UK garage can be found throughout. And, instead of focusing on tales of his youth, painting bleak pictures of life on the streets of Long Beach, Staples takes broad shots at celebrity, rap culture ("How the thug life? How the love life?") and American politics ("Prolly 'cause I'm feelin' like the world gon' crash, Read a hundred somethin' on the E-class dash"). But it's no less fiery than his previous releases -- it's loaded with scorching social criticism and eye-rolling references to the trappings of wealth and celebrity ("Our father art in heaven, as I pray for new McLarens, Pray the police don't come blow me down 'cause of my complexion").
It's an album you didn't know you wanted or needed until you hear it. For two weeks straight now I've listened to it almost every day -- at least once -- and I'm no where near tired of it. Big Fish Theory is the sound of an artist at the top of his game and unafraid to take chances. And that latter part is important. Vince Staples could have simply tried to recreate "Norf Norf" for the rest of his career and people would have eaten it up. Instead he chose to release something risky and different, and that's worth celebrating all on its own. And it doesn't hurt that it's amazing.
Terrible, Thanks For Asking
Community Content Editor
As someone who spends roughly 10-12 hours a week commuting, I have a lot of time on my hands, so it's probably not a surprise that I am a big fan of podcasts in general. And while my podcast library consists largely of true crime and ghost stories, my latest listening obsession has an entirely different focus: Feelings and loss and uncomfortable truths and real-life hardships.
Initially, it was the podcast title -- Terrible, Thanks For Asking -- that drew me in as I am a) not very attuned to social niceties and b) have a tendency to answer the question "How are you?" with far, far more honesty than the person asking it intended to receive. But a podcast that centered around "talking honestly about our pain, our awkwardness and our humanness" sounded, well, pretty heavy for a long bus ride home so I held off on starting it.
I concretely remember listening to the first episode -- in less than 10 minutes of starting it I was nodding my head in complete agreement, and five minutes after that I was crying as my seatmate on the train politely pretended not to notice. Because listening to TTFA is heavy, and listening to the first episode (in which two women discuss how to raise their children after their partners have died) is heart-wrenching, but also because the stories being shared are so real, and so honest, and so incredibly genuine. Nobody is holding anything back in TTFA, and while that often results in me crying on the commute home, it just as frequently results in me laughing aloud. (Pro tip: If you laugh and cry interchangeably on public transit, no one will sit next to you!)
Nora McInerny, the host, has had her fair share of terrible (and probably a few other people's shares, to boot) but maintains a tone that is compassionate and relatable and down right funny -- even when talking about things that are distinctly not funny, like suicide or sexual assault. Her voice shines through, guiding the podcast and its participants to tell their stories in a way that honors their experiences, and feelings, and strengths. Telling friends to listen to a podcast about death and loss, titled Terrible, Thanks For Asking, is ... kind of a hard sell, but there is, quite frankly, nothing else like TTFA -- nothing so open, so unapologetic and so authentic about the terrible things we experience as humans and how we get through them.
Timothy J. Seppala
I've had Jay-Z's 4:44 on repeat since it dropped Tidal exclusivity. Unlike his past work, this is the first time Jay has worked with one producer for an entire album. It feels less like a collection of songs and more like a singular piece of music as a result. Just when I thought I'd found my favorite beat, the next track would play and I found myself enamored all over again, but for an entirely different reason.
I'm coming off a steady diet of J Dilla, Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar, so initially-reluctant producer No ID's style took a little getting used to. What keeps me coming back, though, is how his beats flow from one song to another as effortlessly as Jay's lyrics. Case in point: The title track, "Family Feud" and "Bam;" tracks five, six and seven, respectively.
Hannah Williams (via sample) on "4:44" takes what could've been a schmaltzy apology song to Beyoncé and turns it into an apology any of us could use when we're in the dog-house. Speaking of Queen Bey, I can't get enough of the layering on "Family Feud" and how her vocals float in and out of the mix, over and under the drums and piano. Then the beat drops on the reggae'd-out "Bam" featuring Damian Marley, my head instinctively starts nodding and I reach out to hit the imaginary 808 in front of me when Carter says "HOV." A vinyl edition seems unlikely, but hopefully Jay can find it in his billionaire heart to release the 4:44 instrumentals sooner rather than later — if at all.
Dead Pilots Society
I would have listened to Dead Pilots Society for the pun alone, but the podcast has a phenomenal concept: Interviews with the creators of TV pilots that weren't greenlit followed by a never-before-heard reading of the pilot's script (frequently featuring well-known talent). It's astounding that this show reaches me, because I barely watch TV -- but this podcast picks apart the great ideas that never were and tries to discover why they couldn't have been. What I needed, apparently, was a clinical eye dissecting what makes seemingly stupid-simple sitcom concepts so precisely successful and what separates those few from the mass of near-misses.
The creators bring more than hindsight analysis to the podcast as they look back on their unloved children. The adoration, care, belief and hard work they poured into these projects really comes across, and made me pay attention to all the moving parts of a TV show I dismissed. Plus, hey, there are a lot of gems in these rougher cuts, so stick around for the live readings. The podcast has been around since October, but it's one of those you "will get to" when you can stomach creatives talking about their dead dreams. Don't wait. These are gold.
I once read a study that said your musical tastes begin to ossify in your early '30s, to the point where you no longer are interested in finding new tunes. That, sadly, probably explains why I was so excited to buy a release, or rerelease, of material that's now two decades old. But I still raced down to my local record store to buy OKNOTOK, Radiohead's 20th anniversary reissue of OK Computer.
The package is made up of the album, remastered, along with the b-sides that were collected onto the Airbag / How Am I Driving EP. The big news, however, was the official release of three of the band's tracks that have long since passed into legend: "I Promise," "Man of War (Big Boots)" and "Lift." You've been able to hear live and demo versions of all three forever, especially if you own the bootleg compendium Towering Above the Rest.
The remastered album is fine, and my non-audiophile ears can hear little difference between the original and its replacement. I've spent most of my time on the second disc, reliving my love of the OK Computer b-sides, which are almost uniformly as good as the original album. "I Promise" and "Man of War" are both utter delights, and two songs that could easily slip onto a "proper" Radiohead album at any time.
The song that I was perhaps most excited to hear -- "Lift" -- turned out to be least enjoyable of the three, although I'd stop short of calling it a let down.* When played live, the song was a loose prototype of the sort of anthemic stadium rock that would define Coldplay's early sound. In fact, it's easy to map the lyrics of Coldplay's "Yellow" onto "Lift" should you, like me, have little going on in your life. As a reaction to that, the new "Lift" is aggressively downtempo and low-fi, a reaction to the idea that the band should give fans what they want.
Plus, there's only three years before -- hopefully -- the Kid A double album lands, which I'm already psyching myself up for.
* Pun not intended.
The Bowery Boys: New York City History
Senior Editor, Database
You can't live in a city as big and diverse as New York without being at least a little curious about its history. (Oh, that's just me?) Anyway, I recently had a strong urge to learn more and got myself a nice stack of New York-centric books from the library.
The subjects were as varied and esoteric as a survey of the forgotten waterways of the city and a field guide to urban internet infrastructure. My favorite of these tomes ended up being The Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York, based on the podcast by the same people, which I promptly subscribed to. The hosts, Greg Young and Tom Meyers, break down Manhattan neighborhood by neighborhood, with an in-depth look at the landmarks still standing and historic events that once transpired at each location.
As I hop between old episodes, I've taken a particular interest in the NoHo-East Village area where the Engadget NYC offices are located. That building across the street? That was the site of the Astor Place Riot in 1849, a fight between immigrants and nativists that started as an argument about which Shakespearean actor of the time was superior, Edwin Forrest or William Charles Macready (no, seriously). Even the office building we work in has its own bit of media history: It was once a Wanamaker's department store annex, but for a time it was also a TV studio for the now-defunct DuMont Network. I find this incredibly cool given how many videos are shot here at the Oath (née AOL) offices today.
"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.