Weird New Pop, Vol.1

photo of Jersey City: Stephen Mejias

Track 1
What kind of music do you like?

A simple and entirely reasonable question, and one that gives me fits. I hesitate, stutter, stumble, and fall.

Track 2
Last Friday in New York City was unusually sunny and warm, as though summer had leapfrogged spring. Heading south on Second Avenue, I braced myself as an older man came barreling my way, all gut and cuffs and frazzled hair.

I imagined being swallowed, along with the rest of Manhattan, into his dark, consuming force. As I fell forward and our bodies grew closer, he raised a sweaty arm and pointed at my chest: "W – A – S – P," each letter punctuated by a snap of his wrist, the letter "S" given special emphasis.

"It's 'wasp'!" he declared.

I smiled, nodded, continued toward Fifth Street and turned left, relieved. I was wearing my Fetty Wap t-shirt—the one that reads just WAP.

Willie Maxwell, better known as Fetty Wap, is a young rapper from Paterson, New Jersey. His single "Trap Queen," ostensibly about a woman who cooks and deals crack cocaine, combines the oozing synths, tight pops of snare hits, triple-time hi-hat patterns, and gritty vocals that often characterize Atlanta's trap music. I fucking want to eat it.

It makes me want to jump from a roof and fly into the blazing sun.

I want to be Fetty Wap.

Which is exactly what I was thinking moments later when Alex Halberstadt arrived. We had arranged to meet at Sobakoh, which turned out to be the best idea either of us had had in months, possibly years. Their soba is made with love, tenderness, and enormous appreciation for life. Like "Trap Queen," it fills you with strength and satisfaction.

Inside the restaurant, an unusual demographic—of the five guests, three were audiophiles: Alex, me, and the idiosyncratic circuit designer Nori Komuro. (I only encounter Komuro-san in the strangest of places. This time, I did say hello.)

People, Places, Music, & Gear

Random Thoughts: On Not Saying Hello to Nori Komuro

Alex and I talked a little about hi-fi, a little about music, but mostly about dreams and fears.

Track 3
When I was very young, I was afraid of pretty much everything: dogs, cats, roaches, mice, heights, stairs, cars, buses, bikes, sleeping, not sleeping, loud noises, the sound of a man's voice, my father, my grandfather, knowing, not knowing, girls, teachers, beer, cigarettes, candy, rollercoasters, water, fire, the list goes on.

I was not afraid of music.

Whenever I felt uncomfortable or sad or nervous or otherwise bothered by any number of uncountable, unclassifiable scary things, I would go into my room, climb onto my bed, and wrap myself around a little GPX boombox—a gift from an aunt.

I wish I still had the thing. Just for old-times' sake.

I would turn it on, press Eject, and smile as the drawer slowly opened. I would grab a cassette and stuff it into the slot. Close the door, scan the dial, and wait for the right song.

In those days, you'd have to keep a couple of fingers poised above Play and Record, ready to push down, simultaneously fast and hard, so as to capture a song to tape—like catching fireflies in glass jars. At the same time, miles away, some faceless DJ also pressed Play. It was some kind of love affair.

I didn't think of it this way then, but I see now that the little boombox, with its simple tuner and tape player, was a way for me to explore and, in a sense, control the world—from the safety of my bedroom.

I was also practicing for now.

Track 4
When someone asks, "What kind of music do you like," they never want to hear that you like "all kinds of music." That's not an acceptable answer. They want to hear rock or jazz or classical or metal.

But, to me, there are only two kinds of music, and I don't mean good and bad: There is pop and there is noise, and I really do love it all.

Of course, I do have some principles. I am not entirely uncritical. For instance, that horrible, infectious pop song played to the tune of "Chopsticks"—the one that follows me from Duane Reade to Key Foods, the DMV, and everywhere in between—should be banned. I don't know how it is even legal.

Seriously, do not play that song. Don't press Play!

Track 5
Music is either pop or noise, and, increasingly, it's a bit of both. Today's pop music is more creative and more adventurous than ever before, largely because…well, because the Internet.

Just kidding. The Internet has a lot to do with it, but I was really going to write about technology, communication, artistry, Cashmere Cat, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Arca, Demdike Stare, Miley Cyrus, the blurring of time and space, and more.

We can talk about that stuff later. For now, let's listen. When I was very young, I collected songs for myself. Today I get to share them with you.

"Weird New Pop" is a playlist—today's version of the mixtape, freed from finger cramps, inadvertent DJ patter, and twisted tape. Volume 1 features a few of the aforementioned artists, as well as musicians and composers relatively new to me, including Yussef Kamaal, Yazz Ahmed, and Sven Helbig.

There will be more to come. Each volume will include about 15 tracks for about an hour of music, and, if all goes well, our worlds will grow larger, stranger, and more beautiful.

  1. Yussef Kamaal: "Black Focus" (from Black Focus)
  2. Yazz Ahmed: "Al Emadi" (from The Shoal of Souls: La Saboteuse, Chapter Two)
  3. Jlin: "Nyakinyua Rise" (from Dark Lotus)
  4. John Adams, Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson: Chamber Symphony: I. Mongrel Airs (from Splitting Adams)
  5. Travis Scott: "goosebumps" (from Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight)
  6. Thundercat with Kendrick Lamar: "Walk On By" (from Drunk)
  7. Cashmere Cat with The Weeknd and Francis & the Lights: "Wild Love" (from 9)
  8. Flume: "Never Be Like You" Teengirl Fantasy Remix (from Skin: The Remixes)
  9. Clem Leek: "What Happens Next?" (from America)
  10. Ryuichi Sakamoto: "ubi" (from async)
  11. Arca: "Anoche" (from Arca)
  12. Sven Helbig, Vocalconsort Berlin, Kristjan Järvi: "Gedenken" (from I Eat the Sun and Drink the Rain)
  13. Dirty Projectors: "Keep Your Name" (from Dirty Projectors)
  14. Kendrick Lamar with Zacari: "LOVE." (from DAMN.)
  15. Steve Reich, Kristjan Järvi: Duet for two Solo Violins and String Orchestra; Dedicated to and written for Yehudi Menuhin (from Duet)
Bonus Playlist (solely comprising tracks that were released on 5/5/17)

Stephen Mejias has worked at Stereophile and AudioQuest. He now works to live—in Jersey City, NJ, with his wife, Mrs. Little, and two cats, Avon and Stringer.

Exquisite Biscuits's picture

I'm very happy to see you back writing, Stephen. Also very glad to have these playlists to explore while I work! Keep 'em coming!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks! And thanks for listening. I hope you enjoy some of the music.

garysi's picture

It's been a while since I have seen you posting, glad to see you at it again. It is easy to see you have not lost your sense of adventure and amazement when it comes to new music. One of the things I liked about your tenure here back in the day(please shoot me for using that term). You keep posting your choices and I will send some of mine. Good to have you and Michael with ears wide open. If you have the time check out the new Planetarium recording with selections by Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and Sufjan Stevens.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Excellent! One of the things that Michael has taught me is to listen with all of my sense engaged. I love that! I'm looking forward to sharing and learning more. Thanks so much.

GarkM's picture

Can this web site get any better? It just did.
Good name too, it reminds me of "Old Weird America".
Thanks for the playlists!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Michael has put together an outstanding team of exciting, thoughtful writers, and has created an environment that encourages adventurous listening and intelligent conversation. It's a real pleasure to be a part of it.

Steven Plaskin's picture
Welcome back Stephen.
grantray's picture

I've got a friend in sunny warm LA and we text new audio finds to each other. Or an album that's perfectly defining our day. I don't live in sunny warm LA anymore. I live in foggy windy perpetually cold SF.

Occasionally, I'll send him a Tim Hecker or Etienne Jaumet. Maybe a Boulez album with vibraphone and voice. Or if it's been especially gross all week, something like the soundtrack to Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At which point he reminds me, again, that it's sunny and warm in LA. Where there's no place for enduring even a single track of Alessandro Cortini in all that sunshine.

He sends me an Amadou & Miriam and suggests I hop in the car and keep going until there's a visible sun.

When I lived in New Orleans several years until the hurricane, I barely touched my "serious" records. Then I relocated to Brooklyn after Katrina, where the Soul Rebels and Quintron took the backseat to Blowout Comb, Mos Def, Panda Bear, Dan Deacon, Albert Ayler, Max Roach, and large doses of metal thanks to living around the corner from St. Vitus.

Listening to the "Weird New Pop' mixtape, I'm reminded of just how intense those New York winters and springs are for the people who liver there. But summer's coming. At least, that's what I'm telling myself as I put on Jonathan Richman's Rock'N'Roll With the Modern Lovers.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Yes! I'm in the process of collecting some music to send to my good friend who lives in the relative seclusion of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. He's sort of in a musical rut and I'm hoping to offer him some inspiring sounds.

The impact of time and place on music is something I've thought about often. Could the sounds of Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, and others come from anyplace other than NYC in the 1970s? Could grunge have emerged from anyplace other than Seattle in the early 90s? DC hardcore? Jersey emo? LA metal?

And how has the internet and increasing globalization influenced music? Is music getting weirder, more diverse, less connected to specific times and places?

I certainly hope that our geographies -- physical and emotional -- maintain an influence over our listening habits, musical interests, and artistry. But it's also interesting to imagine music that is made entirely within the confines of the internet and social media. What would it sound like? What impact would it have on its listeners?

longbowbbs's picture

Welcome back to it Stephen!

Eric Neff

WELquest's picture

Seeing you set free to write from your heart makes me feel not-so-bad about the great loss of you moving-on from AudioQuest :-) Congratulations! Bill Low

pdl345's picture

I connected via Stereophile, where your writing provided a refreshing contrast to that of the stalwarts. You were (and continue to be) missed.
The joy of playlists: I usually shun them, but was seduced to return by one available on Spotify -- some 242+ hours of Haruki Marukami's vinyl collection, lovingly compiled from his website Q&A's and essays by one Masamaro Fujiki. My listening years are numbered -- I entered upon my 88th year last week -- but what a helluva cornucopia of joy there is out there now to feast upon!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks so much. And happy birthday! You are so right: There is such a wealth of wonderful music to explore and enjoy. The Murakami playlist is one compilation that I haven't gotten to yet, but I'm looking forward to it. Incidentally, I just picked up his new collection of stories, Men Without Women. He continues to inspire.

Dinny's picture

Welcome back, Stephen. I've always been a fan of your writing and look forward to more. Cheers!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks, Dinny. I've really missed this kind of interaction with readers and writers, and I'm looking forward to exchanging ideas and stories. :)

jrhud's picture

Excited to see you writing again! My only question is what took so long, seems like such a natural fit with Michael?

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you! I'm thrilled to be here. It feels like a perfect fit to me, too, which is partly why we wanted to do it. It makes sense and feels right. I think it's happening at the perfect time, too. :)

Alex Halberstadt's picture

Just saw this. So lovely. So great to read your writing Stephen! Mwah!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Back at you, amigo. xoxoxo

cuban_b's picture

Glad to see you back writing about audio. I really enjoyed your adventures with audio and Mrs. Little. I really appreciated how you wrote about how music makes you feel. Keep up the good work Stephen!