Bach: ‘Herr, Unser Herrscher’, from St John Passion (1724)
The opening notes of this are harrowing beyond description. The melody gradually ascends away from its mournful origins, until being plunged back into swirling pain by the entry of the choir. The piercing wind section is a constant reminder of the nails driven into Christ’s hands, but amidst the suffering is a bittersweet recognition that sorrow can be redeemed, in art if nowhere else. I first heard this sung by the Jesus College choir in Lent term last year, and made the mistake of refusing to buy a programme, which I meant that for two and a half hours I had no idea what the choir were singing. In a way it didn’t matter: the music is so perfectly mimetic, so (to use a loaded word) passionate, that it tells the story as eloquently as words could (also in the second half I realised I could read the words off my neighbour’s programme without him noticing).
Phillip Glass: ‘Prelude’, from Akhenaten (1983)
I first heard this piece as the soundtrack for the film Leviathan (2014), about an individual oppressed by Russian bureaucracy. The music seems so cold, a perfect fit for the film’s grey artic beaches, that I was surprised it is a sort-of overture to an opera set in ancient Egypt. Aside from its temperature, Akhenaten does have much in common with Leviathan; the former is also a story of excessive state power, as the pharaoh moves from traditional polytheistic worship to monotheism. The music is stripped back to its barest components, repeating the same theme with only the smallest incremental developments. The result is hypnotic, lilting, dance-like. It evokes all the monolithic power of autocracy, and perhaps a little of the boredom too.
Kanye West: ‘Through the Wire’, from The College Dropout (2004)
On this track the chipmunk soul style Kanye pioneered as a producer in the late ‘90s is in full force. A high-pitch sample of Chaka Khan’s (unbearably syrupy) ‘Through the Fire’ provides the ideal counterpoint to Kanye’s deep, relaxed vocals. As Kanye points out at the beginning of the track, his jaw is partially wired shut as he records this song, due to a serious car accident. Kanye himself, then, has come through the wire in that he has narrowly escaped with his life; his lyrics are heard through the wire which holds his jaw together, but also creates a slightly muffled tone; and the song itself is transmitted through wires to the listener. (This is about as clever as Kanye’s lyricism gets so it’s worth making the most of it.) This is certainly not Kanye’s most polished song, but as his first single (and also the first song of his I remember enjoying) it ends up being greater than the sum of its parts, and is deservedly much-loved.
MF Doom and Madlib (as Madvillain): ‘Figaro’, from Madvillainy (2004)
For MF Doom, hip-hop is not a means of conveying his power, nor a social , but a buffet. In ‘Bistro’, on Madvillainy, he promises the album will serve up ‘the finest of the finer things’; Doom expands the conceit into an entire album later in 2004 with MM…FOOD. Doom and Madlib treat music and language like a buffet throughout Madvillainy, with the former throwing words together for the simple joy of how they sound, and the latter drawing samples from everywhere, from obscure TV shows, to jazz records, to Steve Reich. Doom’s references are similarly genre-spanning: his name is a reference to the Marvel character Dr Doom (the ‘MF’ stands for ‘Metal Face’, or perhaps something else), and references on ‘Figaro’ span from the Bible (‘get Ishmael [who died of thirst] a shot of jack’), to Star Trek, to the operatic hero of its title. That’s not to say his verses are inaccessible or pretentious; they’re dense enough to reward scrutiny, but are rewarding on a first listen, if nothing else for the sheer sound of Doom’s impossibly complex rhymes. The song’s opening bars go:
“The rest is empty with no brain, but the clever nerd
The best emcee with no chain ya ever heard”
Every line abounds with intricate, multisyllabic rhymes, creating a thick soup of interlocking words. It is a joy to listen, and easy to see why Madvillainy has had such a massive influence on rap music in the fifteen years since its release.
LSDXOXO: ‘Death Rattle’, from Body Mods (2018)
From New York based producer LSDXOXO’s latest mixtape, this is a bizarre remix of ‘Heads High’, a reggae track by Mr Vegas. LSDXOXO renders Vegas’ relaxed diction almost unintelligible (although it sounds worryingly like he’s chanting ‘kill ‘em’), then places the vocal on top of an insistent, echoey drum beat. These two components joust for a while, until Vamp’s eccentric 1991 acid house record ‘Outlander’ surges in, creating a mix which should be too much, but at only a few minutes is if anything not enough. This track is dissonant, a little bit disturbing and oddly danceable.