Posts Tagged ‘Hip Hop’

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Best New Music: Q1 in Review

April 9, 2010

We’ve finally entered Q2 of 2010, so I thought I’d revisit some of the best music I’ve heard this year so far.

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Beach House put out the best record of the year so far, Teen Dream. What we at Radio Cure call “beach pop” has been surging in popularity within the past year and a half and it all came down to Beach House’s third album release. It’s a doozie, romantic pop perfection. Buy it or may God have mercy on your soul.

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Another one of the best beach pop releases of the year is the Something in the Way single by Best Coast. It’s a magical, pristine pop song that harkens back to ’60s rockabilly. Best Coast hasn’t released a full album quite yet, but they’ve been making huge splashes on the blogosphere with their great one-off songs, so definitely check them out.

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Apparently even major label pop music is jumping on the beach pop bandwagon; Gorillaz recently released their oceanic third album Plastic Beach. It delivers in much the same way that their previous albums have, churning many great hip hop and rock tunes with a guest list nothing short of incredible. Damon Albarn and company continue to prove that major label acts can still deliver truly vital albums.

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Grouper and Roy Montgomery put out a Split EP on the first day of the year that rivals other releases this year in terms of inventiveness. On Roy Montgomery’s side, epic, ambient middle-eastern guitar strumming. On Grouper’s side, wistful, understated melodies. Both are gorgeous.

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Four Tet put out the stellar There Is Love in You in January, maybe the best electronic album since Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles. It’s minimal techno at its biggest and most physical, influenced by Hebden’s work with Burial. Hebden still has a way with organic sound and makes another dazzling album to fascinate until the next one.

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The Knife along with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock put together the sprawling, progressive Tomorrow, in a Year, the opera based on the life of Charles Darwin as well as the history of the earth. It is difficult, abrasive and also incredibly beautiful and brilliant. If you’re up for a challenge, give it a listen.

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Finally, Gil Scott-Heron released I’m New Here, his first new album in fifteen years, on XL. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard before, a moving mix of Scott-Heron’s strong vocals, post-industrial production, spoken word and awesome cover songs. If you are into poetry or want an eclectic set of tracks, this is a must-have.

What have YOU been listening to?

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Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner

February 23, 2010

Dizzee Rascal - Boy in da Corner

I haven’t heard an album that describes the rugged, lower class youth culture of the 2000s better than Dizzee Rascal’s Grime masterpiece Boy in da Corner. It’s definitely music from a specific time and place, but it is still highly applicable today. It sounded refined but also ahead of its time in 2003, and it hardly reserves itself to Great Britain, and very well comes close to describing an entire world culture.

Dizzee is an electrifying personality on Boy in Da Corner, an eighteen year old Londoner who got kicked out of four secondary schools in as many years, stole cars, and we can reasonably assume saw and participated in the culture he represents on this album. Interesting, then, that he practically begs the listeners, we can assume his peers, to “get what you can at school.” It sounds like it’s coming from a grizzled, world weary traveler, but in actuality Dylan Kwabena Mills was, really, a kid when he wrote the majority of this album (sixteen for “I Luv U”).

What’s really amazing is that he, as a teenager, paints a focused, unique and stylized portrait of what he sees and hears. The stories Dizzee spins are brutally violent and emotionally schizophrenic, and the sounds he produces are spastic, electronic and postmodern. And like many brilliant musicians before him, he doesn’t compromise his vitriolic commentary when cranking out catchy, unique pop music of his generation’s scene. In that sense, it makes sense that Boy in da Corner is both an underground cult hit as well as a Mercury Prize winning sensation.

The number of highlights here is staggering, but not all of them are immediate. The singles got the attention they deserved: “I Luv U” deals with possibly the hugest taboo for youth, love, over a warzone of a sonic landscape, “Fix up Look Sharp” is a minimalist piece that threatens to unite rock and rap in ways that Rage Against the Machine never could, and “Jus a Rascal” is a vocally acrobatic pseudo-hype track. Some less obvious highlights are no less impressive: “Hold Ya Mouf” is as violent as it is addictive, “Brand New Day” is a woozy psychotic break and the ending “Do It!” is the height of grime’s achievements, a brutally honest street manifesto. When Dizzee says “I swear to you, you can do anything,” it’s hard not to believe him.

What really shines through here is how literate and smart Dizzee is. Youth are a vitally important part of any culture, and it’s a rare treasure when a youth can step up to the plate and really describe what’s going on. The image on the album cover is ominous, mysterious and yet somehow obviously appropriate. Dizzee expresses the corner’s ambiguity himself on the album’s first track. He’s listening, watching and thinking, and his fingers may be loser Ls or antennae as easily as devil horns. We’re lucky that we have him as a figure in hip hop, and it’s no surprise that Boy in da Corner skyrocketed him to fame; no one had more to say in 2003.

Dizzee Rascal

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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An Exploration of Indulgence – SkiFree and Lil' Wayne

May 3, 2009

It has been busy here at GWU. And when it’s busy, people get frantic, and when people get frantic, they also get stressed out. Between registering for next semester’s classes, the final studying and the term paper crunching, things can be pretty intense. I had to learn the following college equation the tough way.

sad

But in between the reading, writing and studying, students need time to appreciate the finer things in life. I didn’t need to take six credits in Quantitative and Logical Reasoning to figure out the following.

happy

I find some of the times that I am happiest, most energized and pure in Mad 301 are the times that Dave and I are blasting Lil’ Wayne and playing SkiFree. It has become something beyond roommate bonding, or a ritual of habit, or even a means of relieving stress and a way to get our minds off of things. It has become a sort of aesthetic indulgence, an exploration of our psyches will immersing ourselves in the highest of low art. It is a bit like sampling dark chocolate (no racial implications intended).

I will first explore and evaluate SkiFree, as I believe that it is the element of the process that people will likely be least familiar with. It is a bit of a cultural obscurity, but for a crappy old computer game, it holds a small but memorable place in many Windows-users experiences. Programmed by Microsoft employee Chris Pirih in 1991, it ended up being an inclusion in subsequent Windows Entertainment Packs and was exposed to thousands of users worldwide. The game is simple. You play a little skier dude who skis down a mountain, dodges trees, goes off jumps, etc. You can choose between three games: Slalom (dodge around little posts as fast as you can), Freestyle (do little flips and stuff for points), or Tree Slalom (Slalom in the presence of trees). Or you can just ski down the mountain for fun with no regard to score or time, which is I suppose what most skiiers do, that is, Ski Free.

It is worth mentioning that the player is not the only thrill-seeker on the mountain. There are other skiers, clearly unskilled, blue in the face, and hopeless. I don’t know if this practice was widespread, but what I often did when I was a kid was purposefully knock them on their asses. There are also snowboarders, who go down the hill at an extremely fast pace and inevitably knock you on your ass if they hit you, and you can’t do the same to them.  If you stick to the middle of the track, you’ll occasionally see a couple of the dudes riding up the mountain on a chairlift. You don’t really care about these guys. They may be annoying, but there’s just doing what they are told to do.

This is about as simple and limited as it sounds. This was by no means the cutting edge in 1991, a year when Japan saw the release of the Super Famicom (in America, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System), Final Fantasy IV, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, while America got the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) home console and Street Fighter II in arcades. But even comparison to the rest of Windows’ time killers, SkiFree is simply missing something. Jezzball was logically stimulating, Chip’s Challenge was (appropriately) challenging, Minesweeper was better for killing time, Tetris was impressive in how simple it was, and Solitaire was a classic that a lot of people already knew.

SkiFree, on the other hand, is almost transparent in its limitations. Even the game’s setting, a snow covered mountain, is rendered predominantly by blank space. Success in gameplay is mostly determined by luck; placement of obstacles and jumps is about the only factor that makes scores on a game by game basis variable. And only a small ratio of players would even waste their time with a simple game like this enough to fish for high scores. So that leaves everyone else, including a very young narrator, to glide down the desolate mountain taking simple pleasure in going off of jumps and doing little flips as well as entertaining themselves with the mountain’s schlocky easter eggs: little evergreens that move, dogs that woof if you run over them, dead trees that light on fire if you hit them, etc. SkiFree’s gameplay is really anything but memorable.

But what everyone DOES remember is this:

Yeah, if you remember this game at all, this guy was inevitably a source of not only superficial annoyance, but also a deep, unexplainable frustration. Most people call him the abominable snowman, but the game never names him.

By 1,000 meters down the mountain, even the longest of the three game modes are done, and you are left to ski down the rest of the mountain without any specific goal. Any normal player would naturally want to see what happens when you get to the bottom, assuming it isn’t of indefinite length, but at 2,000 meters down the mountain YOU GET FUCKING EATEN.

The abominable snowman is really the only figure of any significance in SkiFree, little skier dude included. He is always on the 2,000 meter line waiting to engorge you, which he inevitably will. You may be able to dodge him momentarily, at which point he will chase after you in a terrifyingly erratic and fast manner and will then eat you, and he always will, because he’s just faster than you, simple as that. Most of any given player’s time playing SkiFree is spent just waiting for that last dreaded moment, where some might try elaborate tricks to evade the menace by launching themselves off of jumps or cutting a path through specific trees. It is all impossible. He WILL eat you, and then do his little dance.

All of this begs for the question to be asked, are there any cheats in this game? Is there any way to actually dodge the thing, even if it means cheating? The answer is actually yes. Pressing the F key in the middle of gameplay increases the player’s speed significantly. The cheat makes Slalom virtually impossible, Tree Slalom more challenging but also more fun, and Freestyle somewhere in the middle (I should note that I don’t really play Freestyle, which is the territory in which Dave has undeniable skill, while I tend to focus most on Tree Slalom). In any case, the increased speed makes outrunning the dreaded creature feasible, but there are other hurdles. Cutting past him and skiing straight down until he disappears off of the top of the screen, too slow to keep up with the cheating player, but then appears right in front of the player’s path, to eat them yet again. I have actually seen situations in which two of them were on the screen at once when either Dave or I get consumed. Yeah, that’s right. There’s more than one.

If you take a diagonal path with the F cheat, for whatever reason you are still slow enough that the creature can catch up with you almost effortlessly fast. The most effective means of escape is to take a diagonal path with a very short angle to the x-axis, which seems to put the player going at their fastest speed possible. But cutting across the stage almost horizontally means that dodging obstacles becomes more of a matter of their height, and it becomes harder and harder to evade trees and rocks and thus truly escape the monster’s clutches. I have never completely outran him. I always get eaten eventually.

For this game to be engaging in any way, you pretty much have to be in an altered state of mind. That doesn’t necessarily imply being drunk or severely blunted, although if I drank alcohol or smoked weed, playing SkiFree would be somewhere below reading Dr. Seuss Books and above playing Scrabble on my prioritized list of things to do while baked. The altered state could be as subtle as intellectually silly; ergo some of the allegorical interpretations of the gameplay Dave and I have drawn (life as a whole as well as on a day-to-day basis, the Abominable Snowman being a figure that represents either death or sleep, respectively, which will ultimately consume every “player” and send them back to the beginning, only to partake once again in trivial goals and try to escape the inevitable). But most of the time, for me, that state is simple forgiveness. I find myself more tolerant in my early adulthood, and more willing to accept the simple pleasures of skiing down a mountain and trying to escape my fate, and having a good laugh about it. And really, when you are playing a game as potentially cheesy as SkiFree, a good sense of humor is drawn out of the player with ease. That is just one of the reasons that this game is one of the most playable of all time despite being so unplayable, so memorable despite being so nondescript, so enjoyable despite being so crappy. In short, SkiFree was shamelessly ghetto fly in an era where the cutting edge was what mattered to people.

Which is where Weezy comes in.

I’m not going to begin to pretend that I’m anywhere near a Lil’ Wayne connoisseur or even a long-time fan; my exposure to his music is pretty much limited to Tha Carter series. I’m also not going to go in depth about how I transformed from a critical doubter, someone who absolutely loathed Lil’ Wayne, around six months ago to where I am now, that is, what I would consider to be a casual fan. What I will say about the transformation is that it occurred mostly due to sheer fascination. I couldn’t figure him out, for the longest time. I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not in his music, if he really did believe that he was the best rapper alive, or if his trashy singles had any real worth to them. His biggest convincing factor is his exposure. Lil’ Wayne is big. Bigger than big, at this point, and probably on his way to being a household name. You can’t really ignore him, even if you hate him. My attitudes toward him mirror those that I have for SkiFree, although on a much more expansive level. Basically, the key to enjoying bot SkiFree and Lil’ Wayne is realizing that that they a.) are consciously aware of everything they do and b.) don’t take themselves too seriously, just like their fans. Maybe those are just opinions, but I stand firmly by them; I can’t think of any other reasons why I would like either thing.

In any case, Lil’ Wayne has a chemistry with SkiFree that rivals that of, say, his chemistry with Kanye West. The relationship is difficult to explain, and I feel that the best way to do it might be through example, namely with the three Lil’ Wayne albums I am most familiar with, namely those in Tha Carter series. I won’t be too critical of anything here. After all, what is the point of being critical of Lil’ Wayne, or really measuring him against anything other than himself? I will start with the Grammy Award winning Tha Carter III, simply because it is the one that has gotten the most reception lately.

It should be obvious for anyone who even has a basic understanding of contemporary hip hop that Tha Carter III is Lil’ Wayne’s most innovative album yet, and he plays all of his cards at once. He clearly feels that he has the right to compare himself to both the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, artists who have already pulled the kid on the cover trick, and the tracklist is an all-star get-together – Wayne associates himself with a lot of important pop rappers such as Kanye West and T-Pain while also garnering support of old school stars Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes. It is also by far the headiest release in The Carter series, his lyrics more confusing, nonsensical, hilarious and somehow meaningful than ever before (“Flyer than Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice”). Beyond that, it is also stylistically all over the place. He hits club anthems, funk, R&B, and Jazz, and more, while delivering some pretty varied song structures here and there (particularly “Dr. Carter”). In addition to this, the album hits a pretty jarring middle stretch (“Tie My Hands,” “Shoot Me Down,” “Playin With Fire”) which is so unexpected and underhandedly emotive that one has to check to make sure it’s still even Wayne, the gangster rapper that has produced all the hits he has. And he produces those here too (“A Milli,” “Got Money,” and the superhit auto-tune indulgence “Lollipop”), although they seem to be the less accomplished tracks on the album. In any case, Tha Carter III will surely be considered the quintessential Wayne album in the future, because it has just about everything. However, all of those elements come together to make something that is actually quite engaging, and thus not ideal for slaloming or going off of jumps. More often than not, I find myself pretty distracted while listening to Tha Carter III and riding down the mountain, and although it is prime listening, it is a little too heavy for as light of a gaming experience as SkiFree.

In that sense, Tha Carter II is conversely the best Wayne album for playing SkiFree, because as Dave notes, it requires very little effort on the part of the listener. Beats are sugar coated, hooks are flashy, rhythms are walking pace, songs are easy to follow, and there are no surprises. It’s an album made for a mass audience but it doesn’t betray who Lil’ Wayne is. It’s the glittery, superlatively gangster, badass Wayne album, knowingly extravagant and shameless. Although it is the odd duck out in Tha Carter series, being the only one that doesn’t lyrically claim to be flyer than anything (although it does bravely proclaim “Dear Mr. Toilet- I’m the shit”), it is also the one that feels it has the least to prove. Although he definitely does know his course in the music. “I’m so vain its a problem,” he practically sighs on “Money on My Mind.” But he clearly doesn’t care how big of a problem it is, and even if it is a big problem, it’s not big enough to stop him from fucking bitches and getting money. After all, when you name a track “Best Rapper Alive,” you’ve already got the ego necessary to do whatever the hell you want and not care about what anyone thinks. And if what Wayne wants to do is make an easy album, then so be it. Out of the three albums in the series, Tha Carter II is the one is the safest, but also the most assured. Lil’ Wayne is new money, and he’ll fucking kill you if you want to make something of it. In relation to SkiFree, this music takes about as much effort. It’s just as incredibly easy and undistracting to listen to ghetto club anthems like “Fireman,” “Hustler Musik,” “Fly In” and “Money on my Mind” as it is to go off little jumps and dodge around trees. To say it is the best of Wayne’s repertoire would be missing the point. What Wayne wants you to know is that every new album of his is his best, and if you can believe for three seconds that this one is number one, he’d be proud.

But put all the philosophy aside. Are we seriously trying to have an intelligent discussion about Lil’ Wayne? It may be wrong of me to make assumptions about Weezy’s intentions, but if I can make one convincing argument about them it is that on tha first Carter album, he just wants you to shake your booty. For this one, I put aside all my deep thoughts, logic, philosophy, bullshit assumptions. I don’t even care about who Lil’ Wayne is for the extent of this album, or how much he takes himself seriously. The only thing I care enough about with this album to comment on it to any extent is that it is funky, southern hip hop catharsis, and for that reason probably my favorite Wayne Record. The more popular ones including “That’s My DJ” I actually find to be the most overrated, but many of the tracks are downright infectious, namely “On My Own,” “Who Wanna,” and my favorite Wayne track, “Ain’t That a Bitch.” He is at his most instrumentally soulful here, often pulling pianos and funky guitars out of his sleeves. If we’re skiing at the same time as listening, it’s more distracting than II but less than III, mostly just because I get downright cocky while listening to it. It’s the album that challenges you to pull tight turns, to do just another flip. Maybe that’s because it’s so shamelessly self-assured. In any case, failing never feels so good. “Flyer than a motherfucking pelican.”

Life is long, it’s tiring, it’s difficult, and I’m sure I’ve got more than three years left of finals studying, paying the bills, gettin’ the money, hustlin, and inhaling noxious fumes while I slowly disintegrate. When all is said and done, we get fucking eaten. The bottom line is that if we’re going to go down the mountain in the first place, we might as well be cash money millionaires on the way, and this unlikely combination of low culture forces make it that much more tolerable for however minuscule an amount of time every once in a while, regardless of how irrelevant it is.

GIFs courtesy of http://ski.ihoc.net/, the Most Officialest SkiFree Home Page.

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Aesop Rock – Labor Days

February 26, 2009
Aesop Rock - Labor Days

Aesop Rock - Labor Days

One of the things that makes Aesop Rock’s third full album of mystic urban tale-spinning so consistently fascinating is that it seems to narrate the struggles of millions. This is the album that perfectly characterizes your job, whatever it may be. Struggling to get out of bed in the morning, trudging to the subway station, riding the bus, stuck in traffic, driving the steamroller, disintegrating in the cubicle, waiting for the train home, and collapsing in the bed, muscles throbbing. The fact that Aesop Rock was working full time as a waiter during the creation of Labor Days makes its overall concept all that more genuine, but it is the execution of the album that is truly impressive. Aesop’s delivery is stark, uncompromising, funny, intelligent, and without match in flow. Pick a line – “I smoke cigarettes down to filter smoke the filter down to space / now I’m gonna roll this question tight and smoke that shit up in your face / now if you were to alter masks every time fame circus approaches / do you really think your maker wouldn’t notice? (Think about it.)” Aesop’s brilliant, philosophical, often cross referential lyrics seem endless, and are held up by a rock solid albeit rough foundation of production from Aesop himself. The subtle eastern flavor and harrowing dynamics of the music highlights his mystical, burning representation of the plight of the working person. Every song is classic Aesop: the shocking delicacy of “No Regrets,” the dragging heat of “Daylight” and the flowing zen of “Battery” only scratch the surface of the album’s highlights. One would be hard pressed to find a more challenging and rewarding hip hop album than Labor Days, in any era.

Aesop Rock

Aesop Rock

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1. Portishead – Third

January 1, 2009

Portishead - Third

In a year where many notable works were about making great melodies with simple tools, Portishead are all about the opposite – that is, meticulously crafting complex atmospheres and destroying them brutally. Everything from the start of Portishead’s first album in ten years is an utter knock out, and something unlike listeners have ever heard before in the band’s already groundbreaking pop discography. However, almost nothing on Third is poppy, except the greatest pop song of the year, The Rip. And yet we also have what seems to be the ultimate anti-pop, the dark matter crashing of drum machines on Machine Gun. But we also have a gentle folk ballad, Deep Water. In fact, nothing on Third sounds like anything else on Third. The only indication that the songs were even made on the same planet are the still central vocals of Beth Gibbons, which sound like finely aged wine after a decade of relative inactivity. She still hits home runs every at bat, both vocally and lyrically. The second song Hunter initially sounds like the mystical clairvoyance of a crystal ball, until electric guitar rips the curtains apart and Gibbons smoothly asserts “I stand on the edge of a broken sky, and I will come down, don’t know why.” Her delivery is crucial; it is as uncertain as it is asserted, which makes little to no sense in theory, but in practice Third is one of the finest vocal performances heard in years because Gibbons makes the subject of her vocals, heartfelt explanations of social rejection and confusion which she has honed for years, into something completely tangible and utterly scary. But Portishead is a band of more than one talent, and would be lost without the backing music of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley. The dynamic duo craft the band’s most harrowing set of tunes yet, leading off with noir jams that break off suddenly, terrifying organs over cataclysmic waltzes from hell, ever-changing rhythms and jarring atmospherics. The spirit of the album is the dynamics, which will continue to shock, surprise, and haunt until the next Portishead record, and interviews tell us that may not be as far off as one would gather from the bands previous hiatus. However, Third is a house of cards that listeners could be content hearing built up and burned down for decades. It is a horrifyingly heavy album, not in the hardcore Finnish death metal way, but in the classic heavy metal way, or the way in which one feels while extremely sick and when the nauseous world seems to bear down onto the tiniest of breaking points. By the end of the album’s closer, Threads, one might actually believe that the world and everything in it is coming to an end. Of all the hyped reunions of the past few years, Portishead are just about the only to not only match but surpass the hype and their previous work with a monumental album.

Portishead

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Space Monkeyz vs. Gorillaz: Laika Come Home

October 7, 2008

In some ways, releasing Laika Come Home, a remix album consisting entirely of dub remixes of songs from the first Gorillaz album, was a good idea, because dub remixes very well might have appealed to the same market that the first Gorillaz album did. However, Laika Come Home was both peripheral and unnecessary. The intention was to make chilled out versions of the songs from the self titled album, but whoever made the executive decision to make Laika somehow forgot that Gorillaz was already a chilled out album, and the cutting edge of modern hip hop. So making a reggae remix album for it was both redundant and pointless. However, it seems apparent that the Spacemonkeyz have some kind of talent. Laika at the very least is quite well produced, and they write some fairly good hooks to accompany Damon Albarn’s work here. However, the album feels like less of a remix album so much as a dub album of its own that samples the Gorillaz every once in a while (and pretty poorly at that). Song selection is also rather scattered. Hard rockers M1A1 and Punk are chosen for the mix, the former simply a bad decision to remix and the latter having virtually no resemblance to the original whatsoever. Also, songs with obvious dub potential are ignored, Latin Simone and Dracula. Beyond these objective facts, Laika Come Home simply is not a fun listen. During a continuous play, the listener will likely either get bored, develop a strong desire to smoke a joint, or simply fall asleep. For that reason, this album will mostly only appeal to reggae fans, and mostly bore the rest of us. But despite these fundamental flaws, there are a few scattered treasures to be found here. Strictly Rubbadub and Crooked Dub are the obvious winners, and a couple other songs can be enjoyable if the listener is in the mood for this kind of thing