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Endtroducing

DJ Shadow

1996

DJ Shadow's debut album was met with widespread critical acclaim, toping numerous best-of lists for 1996, and eventually best-of lists for the 1990s as a whole.  In some circles (including mine) this is not only one of the best albums of the 90s, but also one of the best albums of all-time.

A sprawling, down-tempo instrumental masterpiece, Endtroducing plays out like a dark, intimate journey through the history of soul, R&B, jazz, and of course: hip-hop.  Listening to this album is like taking a trip through an endless urban cityscape of dark alley-ways, dim-lit jazz clubs, seedy backstreets, glitzy skylines, basically through the heart and soul of a city.  Along the way, haunting and timeless characters pop up here and there, which only serves to enhance the unique, mysterious spell that Endtroducing casts on its listeners, or at least those listeners that are picking up the vibe.

That vibe can be described in many ways: soulful, sensual, smooth, dark, etc.  Those are the predominate themes that permeate throughout the album, propelled forward by a steady undercurrent of down/mid-tempo hip-hop beats.  This album is incredibly sensual and smooth.  One moment you will find yourself bobbing your head to the music, and the next you'll find yourself transfixed by the all-encompassing, spiritual mood.

Take "Building Steam With A Grain of Salt" the first proper song on the album.  This song never fails to send chills up my spine, and sets the tone for the entire album.  It is almost impossible not to bob your head to this song, but there is no hype to be found here.  Like most songs on the album, there is a dark undercurrent to the hip-hop beats that is quite engaging and demands attention.  The subtle textures to the track, like the piano, the guitar sample, add a sense of drama to the song.  "Building Steam With A Grain of Salt" acts like the gateway inviting the listener into the world that is Entroducing.  It's intense.

The next track "The Number Song" kicks up the tempo a notch, and is probably the most up-tempo number on the entire album.  But that up-tempo quality does not sound forced or hype, as there are enough twists and turns on the song to keep the listener's attention, including a very cool jazz/soul breakdown, and then an otherworldly and brooding drum-solo to close out the track.  Wicked.

Possibly the smoothest track on the album "Changeling/Transmission 1" has a warm/numbing vibe to it that is almost mournful in quality.  It's a really beautiful piece.  "What Does Your Soul Look Like" follows, featuring an equally smooth sound, but perhaps a bit darker in mood and overall vibe than the prior track.  After a brief skit that adds personality to the album, "Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2" kicks in, and kicks up the intensity in the process.  One of the longest compositions on the album, this piece is a roller coaster ride of varying tempos, moods, and emotions, a good microcosm of Entroducing as a whole.  It is truly a haunting piece with an almost spiritual quality to it.  Beautiful.

"Mutual Slump" kicks up the tempo similar to "The Number Song" and still manages to retain that dark/mysterious quality that the other songs possess.  "Organ Donor" does a masterful job of merging the two disparate ideas of combining an organ with hip-hop beats to create an infectiously head-bobbing track.  The brief, but sensual "Why Hip Hop Sucks in 96" quickly transitions to "Midnight In A Perfect World" one of the best tracks on the entire album.  It combines the best elements of some of the prior tracks into a more focused, tight and smooth composition.  It's incredibly soulful, sensual, and spiritual.

The next track "Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain" starts out with a slow, grooving, chill, head-bobbing beat that eventually transitions into a borderline house-flavored sound.  After peaking out in intensity, the track ends with a calming keyboard/synth that really adds to the atmosphere.  The last track on the album "What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1): Blue Sky Revisit/Transmission 3" closes out the album in a soulful/mournful kind of way.  It too is a beautiful piece, and a fitting way to end an incredible album.

So I've probably ran words like "dark, soulful, sensual, smooth, etc" into the ground by now, but these are all fitting descriptions for an amazing album the likes of Entroducing.  Listening to this album is an experience, the same way people say listening to Dark Side of the Moon is an experience, or Sgt Pepper.  It has its on unique vibe, its own unique soul, its own unique spirit.  Truly a special album, and one of my personal favorite albums of all-time.

9.8/10

The Private Press

DJ Shadow

2002

First things first, The Private Press is not in the same league as DJ Shadow's epic and groundbreaking debut album, Endtroducing.  But is it disappointing?  Perhaps initially, but upon repeated listens you come to appreciate the uniqueness of The Private Press, a borderline great album in its own right.  Each DJ Shadow album has a unique personality about it...it's familiar, in terms of the mood and soul of it, but each album has its own quirks.  TPP starts out pretty fantastic with "Fixed Income" but it soon becomes apparent that Mr. Shadow is going for a different vibe on this album.  It's a bit more eccentric in nature, with more variety between the songs, and while the overall vibe has that brooding, haunting, soulful, warm sound to it, the thing that stands out about TPP is that it is not a purely instrumental album like Endtroducing.  Yes, there are a few songs with actual lyrics and choruses, and there are a fair share of shorter songs/samples that are more playful and less brooding/moody in nature.  There's also a vaguely 80s flavor to some of these songs, in terms of the sampling, and many of these songs sport a more up-tempo vibe to them.  Overall, considering it would have been practically impossible to top Endtroducing, you have to give Shadow credit for expanding his sound somewhat here.  Even though TPP is less encompassing and epic than Endtroducing, it's still a very good album, with many transcendent tracks to be found that would be right at home on Endtroducing.  You just have more variety and quirks to wade through here, but it's ultimately a very rewarding album once you finally absorb it.

8.8

The Outsider

DJ Shadow

2006

Really?  A hyphy album?  Probably the worst sub-genre of rap music to emerge, like, ever? I understand Shadow is a Nor-Cal guy, and is trying to rep the Bay Area scene, but just because something is popular doesn't mean it's good (obviously).  Hyphy is just that: hype, and did I mention it sucks?  Because it does.  Hyphy is the devolution of rap/hip-hop music, but Shadow manages to make some of these songs somewhat interesting, but the 1st half of the album is just guest hyphy rappers rapping to standard whack-ass hyphy beats, etc.  Shadow rarely does anything to deviate from the hyphy sound on the 1st half of the album, so a large chunk of The Outsider just sounds like a Hyphy complication album...great...  The 2nd half of the album is much more interesting, but it's hard to say there's anything compelling to be found here...Shadow had a tune on Endtroducing called "Why Hip-Hop Sucks in 96"...The Outsider is a perfect encapsulation of why hip-hop sucks in 2006...pretty dissappointing...

7.4

The Less You Know, The Better

DJ Shadow

2011

TLYKTB is an eccentric album.  It's all over the map really, showcasing a broad range of styles.  There's definitely more of a rock sound to many of these tracks than anything else he's produced before, but overall TLYKNB manages to recapture that classic, subdued, soulful, and comforting sound that characterized Endtroducing and most of TPP.  There's no hyphy to be found here (thank God) but there are a couple of modern-day sounding hip-hop tracks that are actually pretty good.  This album is pretty evenly split between instrumentals and songs with actual lyrics, but most of the songs with lyrics are actually good and fit the broader mood of the album.  Perhaps the most compelling song is "Sad and Lonely"...leave it to Shadow to resurrect old ghosts from decades past and bring them back to life in 2011.  It's a really affecting, poignantly beautiful song, and really captures the special vibe and feeling a DJ Shadow album can have on the listener...very well done.  Shadow albums only drop once every 5 years or so on average, so when it happens, it's kind of like discovering an old friend again, and TLYKNB has that familiar, warm feeling to it, and several songs really resonate with me.  For all it's eccentricities, TLYKTB works as a whole.  It's not in the league of Endtroducing, but it's a step foward in that direction...another great album from DJ Shadow

8.9

The Mountain Will Fall

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DJ Shadow

2016

Keeping with his standard 5 year schedule as of late, DJ Shadow has returned with his new album The Mountain Will Fall.  Each Shadow album typically has it's own personality so to speak, but regardless of each album's variable styles, you can always tell you are listening to a DJ Shadow album.  And for the most part, that is the case with The Mountain Will Fall.  Haven said that, this is probably Shadow's most stipped-down album in his catalog, relying mostly on hard, down-tempo beats to get his point across most of the time.  It's got a vaguely sci-fi vibe about it, with slow-motion, futuristic sounding beats that try to go for a hypnotic effect, but most of the tracks here end up sounding more on the tedious or mundane side of things.  That's probably because there's a distinct lack of texture and atmosphere on this album, at least compared with most of his prior efforts.  It's almost an entirely beat driven affair, but the rhythms rarely satisfy and everything sounds a bit too distant here.  The whole futuristic slow-mo thing works best on "Bergschrund", where the heaviness of the beats are pretty infectious.  But far too many other songs here try to replicate that effect with mixed to underwhelming results.  That said, it's not all slow-motion/down-temp beats here, as there are a few tracks that are light on their feet, like "The Sideshow", which kind of recalls "Walkie Talkie" from the Private Press, or his collaboration with Run The Jewels "Nobody Speak" which unfortunately falls a bit flat to these ears.

That's not a bad description of the album as a whole.  It falls a bit flat overall.  Although The Mountain Will Fall finds Shadow exploring a new down-tempo, beat-driven approach to this sound, it unfortunately doesn't really amount to anything compelling.  This album lacks the personality and depth of "Entroducing" or "The Private Press", and the eccentric flavor and variety of "The Less You Know, The Better" are sorely missed here as well.  It's probably a smidge better than "The Outsider", but that's not really saying much.  Overall, it's not a bad album, just a bit too cold and mechanical.  It lacks soul unfortunately.

I mentioned earlier that each DJ Shadow album usually has it's own "personality", but the main downfall of The Mountain Will Fall is the fact that it seems to have no personality at all.

7.5

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