Gather 'round kids. Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, back in the '80s and early '90s, kids like you had total control over their music.
"Oh C'mon," you might chortle. "You gotta be kidding. Y'all could only buy whatever was on tape or CD and you had to go to the store...and pay...a lot." Well yes, this is true. The options were fewer. And yes, today there are a myriad of ways you can slice and dice your music collection, creating, uploading, sharing and downloading playlists via iTunes, Genius, Spotify, Facebook, MySpace, Pandora, Last.FM, etc., etc., (Bit Torrent, shhhh...), etc.
These services provide an amazing amount of convenience and options. But what you may not be aware of, or just choose to ignore, is that all of those things are corporate products, and by using them, you're agreeing, in essence, to allow them to use you. To monitor, track and profile you to improve their services, to market to you, and sometimes to sell information about you to third parties.
I'm getting off track. Anyway, back in good ol' days, it wasn't like that. If you wanted to create a mix of songs and share it with friends it was nobody's business but yours, and it was super simple. Any 8 year-old could do it. All you needed was a a dual cassette player with a radio and you were all set.
Of course, I'm talking about the mix tape. That magical piece of media that millions of youths (and adults) assembled in the complete privacy of their own homes and either shared with friends or kept for their own enjoyment. Just like an iTunes playlist, you could drop in any song you already owned or even copy one off the radio. Unlike an iTunes playlist, neither Apple nor any other corporate entity could find out what you were up to. It was all you. You could assemble your own greatest hits collections, build a mix tape with a particular theme (songs made up of girls' names, for example), or just tape new songs off the radio that you didn't yet own (a no-no, but since you weren't getting perfect digital copies like you can today, no one really cared).
I had quite a few mix tapes, mostly recorded onto TDK SA-90, which was my favorite brand, since its higher quality meant that it sounded better for non-radio copying. And 90 minutes was the perfect length too, allowing you to fit about 10 songs on each side.
In recent years, the mix tape is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance, although in a significantly different form. The term is being used to describe collections of songs, often by new artists, that are more than EP but not quite an album, often containing remakes, remixes and lack of unifying concept that would signify an album.
Many of the year's most exciting "mix tapes" are by R&B artists doing exciting work that's far from the mainstream David Guetta/JR Rotem sound that's all over pop radio today. The nice thing about all three of these is that you can download them for free and not illegally, as they're intended to be free. How novel.
Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra (4/5). The year-end accolades keep piling up for Frank Ocean and his self-released debut, the mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra. The melodies are easy to recognize: Coldplay, Radiohead, MGMT. But listen to the lyrics and you'll notice they've been mostly re-written. "Spaceships are lifting off of a dying world; millions are left behind while the sky burns," he sings over what would normally be the instrumental middle 8 of Coldplay's Viva la Vida hit "Strawberry Swing," put a much darker spin on the uplifting song. Original track "Novocane," a Tricky Stewart production, is smooth, horny R&B, while "We All Try" is even smoother and "Lovecrimes," during which the unmistakable sounds of sex can be heard, even hornier. The lovelorn, autotuned vocals on "There Will Be Tears" reminds me of Bon Iver. The interludes are clever too: "Bitches talkin'" features what the title says--a few women wondering who Radiohead is while Radiohead's Kid A track "Optimistic" plays briefly. Best of all, Ocean nods to the cassette origin of the mix tape, with the sound effects of tapes being played, stopped, rewound, turned over, etc. during several interludes. Best: Strawberry Swing, Novocane, There Will Be Tears, American Wedding.
The Weeknd - Thursday (4/5). I already reviewed The Weeknd's first 2011 mix tape, House of Balloons, which I thought was really good. Although Thursday isn't quite as great, it's pretty similar. Like Ocean, The Weeknd churns out modern, electronic-flecked R&B. He's horny too, such as on "Lonely Star." Baby, I could fuck you right" he offers on the downbeat piano tune. I'm sure the girls are lining up, even if he might be a jerk (he's certainly not coming off as a nice guy on these mix tapes). "Life of the Party" is a nice change of pace, pulsing with an insistence swagger and a harsher arrangement. It feels very '90s, bringing to mind Lords of Acid with a slower tempo (I imagine The Weeknd loves the Sliver Soundtrack). "Thursday" has a nice vibe, both cool and cold, owing to its slow tempo and processed sound. Fellow Canadian and superstar rapper Drake shows up on "The Zone," a highlight of hollow beats and tinkling keys. Things get really dark on "The Birds, Part 2," during which Tesfaye sings about who gives him all her pills and ends up on the floor. Best: The Zone, Life of the Party, Rolling Stone.