Mrs. YHT played host to her book club one night last week, and I made myself scarce by taking Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities memoir on a dinner date. As I was finishing my bowl of pho, I got to this paragraph, which comes just after Hancock describes making his Head Hunters album:
We already have songs covered, and doing favorite albums on Day 2 of a 5-part feature would be like Skynyrd playing “Sweet Home Alabama” at the beginning of the concert… so how’s about collaborations? Yeah? Let’s do it! Here are the 5 momentary musical marriages I enjoyed most in 2012.
[Editor’s Note: What follows is a poem I originally posted last year in anticipation of July 4th. I’ve changed a few lines and made some administrative updates here and there, so look out for those. As a bonus, I’ve also included the new Very Best collaboration with K’naan at the bottom. Have a very happy and safe 4th everyone!]
‘Tis the Tuesday before the 4th of July
and all through my street flags are set out to fly.
I’ve done all the prepping that patriots do,
my friend Ryan’s fiesta well within view …
The pig has been ordered, the smoker tracked down,
on loan from the frat guys who live across town.
That porker’s on ice at the butcher, but soon
will be part of a feast that lasts all afternoon.
A case waits with beers in their labels of grey
yearning to turn blue and jump in the fray,
and my team U.S.A. jersey’s hanging with care,
preparing to bare pasty arms and chest hair.
But something’s amiss … what can it be?
I know that I made sure to R.S.V.P.
Got my camouflage hat and tri-color balloons …
OH SNAP! It’s the music! We need us some tunes!
I need to crank up the Ameri-swag quick,
but where should I turn? Toby Keith is a dick,
and Miley is partying, but who can tell why?
(OK, I’m obsessed with that song, I can’t lie.)
There has to be music that rings pure and true
when I think of the spirit of red, white and blue.
So I scour my iTunes collection, bar none,
leaving no stone unturned, no tune unspun.
And then in the very last place I would look — the perfectest verse with perfectest hook!
But this just can’t be — a song for the 4th
that’s sung by K’naan, our friend from the north?!?
That’s right — he’s Canadian! Somalian too,
his formative days spent in Mogadishu.
But being a foreigner shouldn’t detract
from the fact that his song “Wavin’ Flag” is jam packed
with the message we’re coming together to send: That freedom and justice will win in the end.
So raise up your bottles and barbecue tongs
to this most unlikely but fitting of songs
and the two-hundred-thirty-seventh time we can say
“Suck it!” to England! It’s Independence Day!
Feeling understood is great. Songs with lyrics that make it seem like someone out in the world really gets you are worth their weight in gold. So how about music that can make you feel understood even though the lyrics are written in a language you don’t speak? That’s a serious accomplishment, and it’s how the Very Best has made me feel over and over again.
So how do they do it? What’s their secret for breaking down the language barrier? Four words: cultural points of reference.
What pops to mind when you think of Mother’s Day? 1-800-Flowers? Crowded brunches? Thoughtful cards with handwritten notes inside? WRONG! The right answer is, of course, mixtapes. To celebrate Mother’s Day 2011, The Very Best generously offered up the Super Mom Mixtape, a collection of 12 songs that are super fun, even if you yourself haven’t given birth to human children. Singer Esau Mwamwaya lends his crazy hypnotic voice to songs by Kanye West, Billy Idol, and Cee-Lo, among others, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that his vocals belong pretty much everywhere (sorry T. Pain, I think we should see other people). The tape also gives us two brand new songs, including the ridiculously catchy title track. My far-and-away favorite, however, is the “Africa to California Anthem,” in which producer Johan Hugo deftly takes the iconic sample from 2Pac’s classic, “California Love,” for an international joyride. From personal experience, this one is best enjoyed in the car, at full volume, with a single hand at 12 o’clock on the steering wheel. Check it out below and download the rest of the tape for free here. And don’t forget to send the link to your mom, especially if she likes LCD Soundsystem and 3-weeks-late Mother’s Day presents.
When you have a trusted point of reference, unfamiliar music seems a lot less daunting. I’m a big fan of Vampire Weekend, partly because they wear their African influences on their collective sleeve, and have made an unfamiliar musical tradition seem approachable. Frontman Ezra Koenig took this idea one step further by collaborating with the Very Best on their full-length debut, Warm Heart of Africa. Koenig’s appearance on the title track gave me a place to start listening, and I was handsomely rewarded for taking the chance. The album is brilliant, pairing Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya’s hypnotic voice with clever European electro-pop production to build a wonderfully diverse collection of songs, some perfect for a crowded dance club, others for an afternoon on the beach. Click below to try out Warm Heart of Africa’s title track, which sounds great, no matter where you enjoy it.