From Anderson .Paak to Magik*Magik, California Artists Defy Labels in 2016

Minna Choi of Margik*Magik. (Photo: Manchul Kim)

Thinking back about some of the other most impressive releases by California musicians this year, there's a striking rise of artists for whom such questions as “What does it sound like?” and “What kind of music is it?” are not just irrelevant much of the time, but often miss the point.

Take Thao Nguyen, Yea-MingAnderson .Paak (who just scored a Best New Artist Grammy nomination), the Gaslamp Killer, Jay Som, Vinyl Williams and several others we discussed in our 2016 reviews. You could add Frank Ocean, La Santa Cecilia and Gaby Moreno to that list. These are artists who move fluidly in explorations across styles, genres and in some cases, even cultural and gender identifications.

It’s not as if they are defying us to categorize them, they’re defying any attempts, the very instincts, to categorize. Which, of course, makes a critic’s job harder, but makes for some very bracing music. In the year that David Bowie and Prince died, it’s all a perfect tribute to their spirits and legacies.

In that light, it was amusing to hear the strings on the song “Weep,” the opening track of the self-titled debut album by Magik*Magik, with their dramatic, melancholic sweep sounding like they could have been on a recent James Bond theme. Well, Bond has a secret identity, and Magik*Magik is the secret identity of one Minna Choi, a.k.a. Magik*Magik, also the name of the Bay Area orchestra Choi, the Berkeley-born daughter of Korean immigrants, founded about eight years ago.

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Leading the orchestra, she’s collaborated with artists ranging from Death Cab for Cutie and Weezer to Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and Narada Michael Walden, as well as serving as the house orchestra of producer John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studios. Now with the first album in her own right (if not her own name), she is a moving target in terms of artistic focus, sliding across a spectrum of moods and sounds, from the somber, slow, cinematic melancholy of “Weep” and “Treacherous Road” to the glitchy electronic blips of “Sting Operation” to the bubbly pop of “Life of the Party.”

It’s not the orchestra part that becomes the link — though it’s there, even mixing with the electronics — but rather he strong, naturally expressive voice. But the other thread is the naturalness with which she moves between styles, not willfully eclectic, but joyfully free. A bee in a field of colorful flowers, a foodie at a vast buffet.

Arguably, looking over some of the year’s top artists, the shared sensibilities, such as they are, start with individual and collective multiculturalism: Paak, from Oxnard, is African-American and Korean. The Gaslamp Killer (William Bensussen) is Jewish of Turkish, Lebanese, Mexican and Lithuanian heritage. Thao Nguyen, Vietnamese-American, was born and raised in Virginia, where she played in a pop-country duo in high school. Gaby Moreno, who incidentally co-wrote the “Parks and Recreation” theme instrumental, was born in Guatemala and lives in Los Angeles, but also has Nashville connections. All have cultural roots and identification, but reach well beyond them, not calculatingly, but naturally.

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s “A Man Alive,” a collaboration with her friend Merrill Garbus of the always-shifting tUnE-yArDs, was called by many a “departure” from her activist folk-rock as she examined her feelings about her absentee father in settings that maybe sounded closer to Prince than to Pete Seeger. But it seems really more an expansion, an evolution, not a break from anything — though in some ways the musical changes drew attention first to the point that the emotional depth of the album was somewhat overlooked when we discussed the album upon its release earlier this year.

Further listens have revealed how fully the range of sounds and styles ties to Nguyen’s personal explorations, largely dealing with her family having been abandoned by her father when she was very young and the difficulties for her, growing into adulthood, grappling with that absence. That an album can reveal more and more on repeated listenings is testimony to its depth and strengths, the power of the revelation, a further extension and expansion of the art.

Gaby Moreno’s “Illusión,”  nominated for Best Latin Alternative album,  is basically Memphis soul en Español (for the most part). Opening song “Se Apagó” starts with a lick that could have been from “Dusty in Memphis.”  Though even here there’s more doing on, with “Fronteras” carrying a bit more country and “La Malaguena,” a showcase for her full vocal powers, she draws on Mexican traditions. She’s called her style “Spanglish folk-soul,” but that just tells us that even she has trouble pinning it down.

Coverage of Anderson.Paak’s nomination for the Best New Artist Grammy this month often saw him called a rapper. But despite an association with Dr. Dre, his music more often than not isn’t rap. That’s abundantly clear not just on his bracing album “Malibu,” but in live performances including a delightful, playful NPR Tiny Desk Concert appearance, Paak on drums leading his sharp compact band the Free Nationals as they flow between soul and jazz and pop and rock, even surf, with grace and wit and a sense that anything is possible. EVERYTHING is possible. In what in many ways was a very tough year in the music world, a year filled with loss and sorrow, this is a positive note.

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