A Leading Music Journo Shares His Favourite Finds | SLMan

A Leading Music Journo Shares His Favourite Finds

Kelefa Sanneh has been obsessed with music since he went to a wild punk gig in his early teens. As a music critic for both the New Yorker and the New York Times, he’s spent a lot of this century living out that obsession. Kelefa filled Tobias Gourlay in on where everything’s at right now: from the classic albums you might have missed to the new acts to know – and how Lionel Richie once wrote the perfect song.
Photography AVID PHOTOGRAPHER/ISTOCK; JASON LEUNG/ UNSPLASH
AVID PHOTOGRAPHER/ISTOCK; JASON LEUNG/ UNSPLASH

It’s an exciting time in music right now. But it’s always an exciting time in music. If I think about the last 50 years, I try to imagine if there was ever a moment when I wouldn’t have said it was an exciting time in music. I’m not sure there is. If I ever feel like there’s nothing interesting going on in music, my suspicion is that there is something interesting happening – I just don’t know about it. As long as so many people around the world are interested in music and using it to define who they are, there’s always going to be amazing new stuff coming out.

To me, music means curiosity. That’s what’s driven me to become obsessed with music: wanting to know and understand what's going on out there in the world. What music are other people making? What music are other people listening to? Part of the fun of music is that often the answers are surprising. This curiosity might originally come from being an immigrant. I was born in Birmingham, lived for a little while in Ghana, then in Aberdeen. We moved to the US when I was a five year old with an Aberdonian accent. Like many immigrants, I got a bit obsessed with America and trying to figure it out. What do people here like? What do they value? And why? I started in earnest with punk rock and broadened out from there into all sorts of genres across all sorts of places. It could be the latest country hit or a new two-hour techno set, it’s all interesting to me. There are so many great musicians and so many great songs – music’s like a pool you can jump into and never hit the bottom.

Everyone’s trying to work out how to drink from the fire hose at the moment. There’s so much music out there and available, you need a limiting principle. Some people are happy to stick on playlists and let the algorithms choose for them. Other people get single minded: they pick their favourite act like they pick a football team and it becomes their whole life. Being a stan is a way to put a limit on things – and it’s also a way to join a community of people who are going to war for the same band on Twitter every day.

The algorithms are actually pretty good. All they’re doing is reflecting what other people are listening to. It’s not a computer telling you what to listen to; it’s just another way of learning from our neighbours. In the past, we’d be guided to new music by the layouts of music stores that grouped similar stuff together, or by magazines and fanzines. The algorithms are the latest way for companies to get us to the stuff they think we will like. Music is unpredictable, so sometimes they’re wrong, sometimes they’re right.

I’m not too proud to take advice from a computer program. I’m often seeking stuff out because it’s part of my job, and I don’t mind getting a little help from the algorithms – using Soundcloud to sift the latest house music. But I’m also finding other sites where the punks or the metalheads are hanging out and talking about what they’re excited about. Or listening to the singles that are doing well on country radio.

I grew up at a time when you couldn’t really try a record before you bought it. You just had to hope for the best, which was fun when the record was good, but kind of disappointing when you’d wasted your lunch money on crap.

The fact we have access to so much music is exciting. I grew up at a time when you couldn’t really try a record before you bought it. You just had to hope for the best, which was fun when the record was good, but kind of disappointing when you’d wasted your lunch money on crap. And cassettes and CDs were expensive back then, which might have meant we all played it a bit safer with our choices. Sticking with the same group or the same genre. It’s easy to be nostalgic for the rituals of that era of scarcity, but living in the current era of musical abundance seems like a great privilege to me. Being stuck on a desert island with only eight songs? That would be hell. I think I’d rather have none.

One song I always come back to is All Night Long by Lionel Richie. I love the song and I love the moment it comes from. It’s just after disco, but before the Michael Jackson era. Musicians were still drawing from disco to make something that’s elegant and danceable, but they were changing the rhythm to show that they understood the disco moment was over. It’s a perfect song and a great example of how a great singer can reflect the times he comes from. He went from being in a great funk band, The Commodores, to hearing what was happening and making this song that could only have been made in the early 80s. I never get sick of it and am just in awe of how it was made.

EDM is a bit like the modern version of disco. It was huge. We’d never had anything like acid house or the second summer of love in the US, so this stuff was marginal, then suddenly EDM was everywhere. There was all that money in it, but the hipsters considered it insufferably uncool. I really like those Avicii records, but we’re living in the aftermath of EDM now and it remains to be seen where mega club culture and festival culture goes from here. Is it going to end up being a smaller-scale thing? The recent Koreless record was really cool and interesting in terms of sound design, giving it such a high gloss. In the mainstream, someone like Porter Robinson is maybe showing us what post-EDM might look like – there are still big, accessible melodies, but it’s a little mellower.

I’ve never found a genre of music I don’t like. If I hear something that’s too obviously jokey, that’s difficult for me. I also have a general prejudice against anything that’s too completely retro, that’s just reproducing some bygone era. That’s not exciting to me. I also don’t like it when someone comes along claiming to be a more high-minded, idealistic version of something else – someone’s always claiming to be rescuing country music from bad country radio by doing it like they used to back in 19-whatever. That’s the only thing that puts me in a bad mood, but even then, sometimes the music itself is good enough to overcome my bad mood.

You don’t have to stay on top of everything. In fact, it’s not possible for one person to do that. I learnt that when I was a full-time music critic for the New York Times back in the 2000s. It wasn’t possible back then and it’s certainly not possible now. Learning that no one knows everything was a big relief. To realise that the job is to find the interesting stuff and highlight it – not mapping every inch of the terrain – takes a little bit of the pressure off.

I don’t collect physical music at all anymore. I throw songs onto playlists. I have one called ‘Singing’ that’s got about 4,000 songs and another called ‘Rapping’ that’s also about 4,000 songs. All the new songs I think I like go onto a playlist, and I stick the playlist on shuffle. This way I can really hear the songs – I have a gut reaction to them when they come up on shuffle. If a song comes on and it annoys me, perhaps I don’t actually like it. So it comes off the playlist.

You don’t have to stay on top of everything. In fact, it’s not possible for one person to do that. I learnt that when I was a full-time music critic for the New York Times back in the 2000s. It wasn’t possible back then and it’s certainly not possible now.

It’s hard to say whether Spotify is good news or bad news. If you look at what it pays as streaming rates, you say, oh, musicians aren’t making much at all. But are we listening to more music? Are more musicians getting a chance because of streaming services? Are more people going to see live music as a result of what they hear on them? Are there more different kinds of revenue streams?

For me, more tools are always better than fewer tools. New studio technology is opening up new spaces for musicians. More people have home recording equipment and they can send files to each other electronically. This creates opportunities for all sorts of collaborations. Musicians aren’t physically stuck in one place making music. You don’t have to go to Nashville to record a country record anymore. This does raise some questions: is it still possible to get that intimate sense of a tight-knit community that’s traditionally been important to musicians? People are still figuring that out.

There are still tight-knit musical communities out there. Over the last five years, for example, UK drill has felt very much like its own world with its own rules and own stars. I’m always drawn towards these communities, but the model of the moment is global artists like Lil Nas X, someone who draws from a bit of everything and can’t really be defined as just one thing or part of just one thing. And that’s fun too – he’s engaging with everyone and everything.

We’re just starting to see the impact of Tik Tok on music. This is a place where you have success with snippets. Maybe that means the intro to your song now has to be super memorable. Maybe that means artists take off really quickly like trends take off on Tik Tok – but that they can also disappear really quickly. Are musical careers about to get a lot shorter?

I don’t know what comes next. And that’s part of the excitement. Some of the technological stuff is truly unprecedented. It’s not only the access to new music, but to musical history. Kids can hear something about, say, Memphis hip hop in the 1990s and they can go listen to all the essential tracks in an hour and have a sense of that movement. Of course, no one has the bandwidth to process everything that’s out there – there’s too much happening and too much history – so maybe the future belongs to people who are doing the best and most artful picking and choosing.

One day people might look back on 2021 as the era of Bad Bunny. I say this partly because he’s making great music and partly because he makes music that doesn’t sound like stuff that was happening ten years ago. But partly also because one of the stories of the next decade is going to be the increasing prominence and influence of Latin music. Bad Bunny is a rapper from Puerto Rico who makes what’s sometimes called Latin trap. In the past, Latin music stars learnt to sing in English in order to cross over. Now we’ve got Justin Bieber learning enough Spanish to appear on ‘Despacito’. I wouldn’t be surprised if future listeners are, like, wow, you were alive when Bad Bunny was making those albums. We could be at ground zero for the next generation right now.

I look forward to being surprised by whatever happens. In 2022, a lot of people are looking to see what PinkPantheress does next. I’ve also been loving Adrianne Lenker and Big Thief, and I think there’s another Big Thief album on the way. That could be a real moment – she’s done so much great work over the last couple of years. But a lot of my favourite records of 2022 will be by people I haven’t heard of yet. That’s the exciting thing about music.

KELEFA’S FAVOURITE…

…Song?

I’ve got three for you.

Waiting Room by Fugazi

Fugazi were on the first punk rock mixtapes my friend made for me on my 14th birthday. This song represents me going down the rabbit hole and discovering this whole other world of music for the first time. Fugazi were my second punk gig after the Ramones. There were art-school kids, skinheads, and the band was trying to calm them all down. It was so thrilling. 

Are You That Somebody by Aaliyah

About eight years later, this song blew my mind in a different way. I heard it on an R&B radio station and it just sounded so strange and alien. It was produced by Timbaland, who had these stuttering rhythms that reminded me a little bit of jungle music. Then he sampled a baby laughing for the chorus which just seemed so audacious. This is the song that really got me obsessed with R&B.

It Just Comes Natural by George Strait

This is when I was discovering the joys of country music – not just the old stuff everybody talks about, but the commercial, super catchy stuff on the radio. However you measure it, over the 80s, 90s and into the 2000s, George Strait had more country hits than just about anyone. It Just Comes Natural is a really handsome, well-made love song. It was the first dance at my wedding.

…Album?

It’s hard to know where to start, but I can give you a couple here.

She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper

This record is just great. It feels like so many things came together to make it. It’s an anomaly both in the history of 80s pop and in her career. If anyone who’s into modern pop music (whatever that means) from Robyn and Katy Perry to Kim Petras goes back and listens to this, they’ll find it familiar and strange in an interesting way. There are things on it that sound like now, but also things that reflect a different direction pop music never went down.

Ready To Die by The Notorious B.I.G.

Biggie’s first record is so complete and self-sufficient, and also so old fashioned. Someone who loves hip hop now and hasn’t spent time listening to the older stuff – this came out in ’94 – could think it sounds like something from a different planet. And the way he tells stories, for anyone who doesn’t care about hip hop, Ready To Die feels a bit like reading a novel. It’s a really powerful gateway drug for people to fall in love with that sense of storytelling.

…Artist?

I usually say Paul Simon is the GOAT. He’s brought me more joy than any of the other Mount Olympus songwriters like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or whoever the greats are. I love the way he’s an unassuming guy who’s reinvented himself multiple times and drawn from music across the globe. He gets interested in African music, obviously, for Graceland, but before that he’s into reggae with ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ and then he draws from Brazilian music for The Rhythm of the Saints. As a hip hop fan, I love his wordiness and the way he uses rhythm to bounce his words in interesting ways. I last saw him live a few years ago and he was great.

People make fun of slow jams; it's easy to snicker at make-out music, and at the idea of people putting on music to set a romantic mood. But I think the slow jam tradition is one of the greatest traditions in popular music, precisely because it's so shameless. I tried to avoid the most obvious selections, while including big names and cult favourites, hits and misses – and a few curveballs.

Kelefa Treated SLMan To A Bespoke Playlist...

Kelefa’s new book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, is out now (Canongate, £20). Check it out here.

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