You know the drill: it’s another mixed-genre, multi-decade playlist, inspired as always by the heyday of so-called “progressive” radio stations. Only think about how many more decades of music we have at our disposal than the DJs had back in the mid-’70s! Such opportunity here, once we break out of this fever-dream of separation and isolation. Give it a try, tell your friends, and stay strong. You may notice a bit of a netherworld-related interlude here; let it serve to remind us of Churchill’s famous piece of advice: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”

Random notes:

* “We All Go Back To Where We Belong” was the last official R.E.M. release and maybe we had a bit of R.E.M. fatigue at that point, still unconvinced that the Bill-Berry-free version was ever really any good, but I feel in retrospect this song was kind of just kind quickly heard and then forgotten. To my ears, it’s a fabulous song, with bonus points for the charming and somehow poignant video, which is just a black-and-white close-up of the actress Kirsten Dunst listening to the song in real time. (As the story goes, Michael Stipe was actually singing it to her live, a capella, which she found something of an overwhelming experience, as a long-time fan herself.)

* The Smiths were such a singular-sounding band that they couldn’t really influence anyone else without the influencees sounding merely like pale imitators. “The Headmaster Ritual” was I think the Smiths song that really turned my head around back in their heyday. Who writes these words? Who finds these melodies, and employs these chords? Still gives me goosebumps if I really stop to listen.

* “Presidential Rag” sounds kind of quaint now, huh? Being worked up over a president who didn’t admit everything that he knew? Now we have one who is too stupid to know what he doesn’t know, leading a cult of hatred and resentment whose members don’t give a fuck. Someone should write a song as good as this about *that*.

* Hadestown, now on Broadway, was just nominated for 14 Tony Awards last month. But the project has been around since 2006, when singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell first put it together as a community theater production in Vermont. Four years later, with the help of Ani DiFranco, Hadestown became a concept album, on DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, with a number of stellar guest vocalists, including Justin Vernon, Greg Brown, and DiFranco herself. The song “Flowers” first came to my attention early in 2010 as a free and legal download, which was featured here in February of that year. Still a stunning piece of music. (Also stunning, especially in retrospect, is the song “Why We Build The Wall,” which you might want to check out here——and think about in conjunction with Arlo’s sense of righteous grievance.)

* Were Adam and the Ants, all the rage in the UK for a year or two, merely a novelty band? Probably. But a song like “Antmusic,” as silly as the words may be when simply read, was constructed with such great pop know-how that I find it irresistible still, nearly 40 years later.

* “In a Long White Room” is a fun example of a straight-laced standards-oriented songwriters doing their best to dive into the psychedelic vibe of the late ’60s. The end result is not really psychedelic at all, but it’s oddly engaging in the effort. The lyrics here came from Martin Charnin, whose career soon enough led him to Broadway, where he hit it big for having conceived, directed, and written the lyrics for the musical Annie. The music was written by Texas songwriter Clint Ballard, Jr., who also wrote the songs “Game of Love” and “You’re No Good,” among many others that were not big hits. As much as I appreciate talented singer/songwriters, I guess I remain rather entranced by the pre-singer/songwriter days, and connecting unexpected dots between who wrote what. On top of all this, kind of a weird song for Nancy Wilson, but it’s the one of hers, from my long-ago childhood, I recall most vividly.

Full playlist below the widget.

“Presidential Rag” – Arlo Guthrie (Arlo Guthrie, 1974)
“Pedrinho” – Tulipa Ruiz (TU, 2017)
“Angels” – Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey (Mavericks, 1991)
“To Be Gone” – Anna Ternheim (Halfway to Fivepoints, 2008)
“Antmusic” – Adam and the Ants (Kings of the Wild Frontier, 1980)
“Ask the Lonely” – The Fantastics (single, 1970)
“Come a Long Way” – Michelle Shocked (Arkansas Traveler, 1992)
“Heart Full of Soul” – The Yardbirds (single, 1965)
“The Headmaster Ritual” – The Smiths (Meat is Murder, 1985)
“Imposter” – Jonatha Brooke (Imposter EP, 2019)
“In a Long White Room” – Nancy Wilson (Nancy, 1969)
“Carolyn” – Steve Wynn (Kerosene Man, 1990)
“See No Evil” – Television (Marquee Moon, 1977)
“Flowers” – Anaïs Mitchell (Hadestown, 2010)
“Lucifer Sam” – Pink Floyd (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967)
“The Pharaohs” – Neko Case (Middle Cyclone, 2009)
“Caught” – Anna Domino (Anna Domino, 1986)
“A Hit By Varèse” – Chicago (Chicago V, 1972)
“Didn’t Cha Know” – Erykah Badu (Mama’s Gun, 2000)
“We All Go Back to Where We Belong” – R.E.M. (single, 2011)

Lauran Hibberd

“Hoochie” – Lauran Hibberd

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century: guitars still excite, catchy and uncomplicated melodies still delight, and can still be put in service of sardonic young folks, especially those possessed of the right combination of charisma and purpose, as young Isle of Wight singer/songwriter Lauran Hibberd surely is. (And that’s no typo: it’s Lauran with an “a.”)

One of the main glories of rock’n’roll, well illustrated by “Hoochie,” is how musical strength renders all in its path worthy of attention. I’m not sure, for instance, that the lyrics here would be all that impressive if stripped from the music and read aloud, but the point is that this doesn’t matter in the slightest. Riding on top of this heroic groove, nestled in their textured setting, and delivered with Hibberd’s casual aplomb, the words acquire a primal sort of substance that supersedes precise meaning on the one hand, and then (this is the extra magic) delivers a new level of meaning on the other. I’m not sure I can explain this properly, but for me, the lyrics in a great rock song often don’t need to be paid close attention to and yet, then, as they present as an intrinsic part of the sonic experience, become great in their own inscrutable way. This is why it’s not often necessary to pay close attention to lyrics, even as the words nonetheless become a pivotal part of the final package.

Anyway, give this one a few listens and maybe you’ll sense that extra magic going on here too. If I were still tracking my Top 10 songs of the year, I have no doubt that this would end up there in December. You can check out all of Hibberd’s releases, six songs to date, on SoundCloud. “Hoochie” is her latest and, to my ears, best—so far.

Shana Cleveland

“Face of the Sun” – Shana Cleveland

So one thing I’ve learned after reviewing songs here for the past (now) 16 years is that one of my signature sweet spots is when contradictory elements coexist in one piece of music. An easy example of this from the realm of pop music is a song that sounds happy but has sad lyrics.

Another example: songs with slow melodies and fast accompaniments—such as this one, from Shana Cleveland. Note that musical juxtapositions such as this often happen a bit below conscious recognition. For instance, only after sitting down to write this, a process that involves a lot of close listening, did I actively notice what was going on musically beyond a basic “Hey! I like this!” Once I was paying closer attention, however, I found that the song announces itself right from the start, with that leisurely slide guitar motif working against a rapid-fire acoustic guitar, mixed far enough down that the ear picks it up more as rhythm than notes or chords. When Cleveland begins the verse (0:18), her reverbed voice mimicking the slide guitar, she luxuriates in the deliberate pace of the melody, and in the general lonesome-western vibe, even as the acoustic guitar continues its tense support. Once you notice it it’s not subtle at all, but because a piece of music by necessity presents itself as a whole—the ear is forced to listen in real time—separate elements are easy to overlook, whether in isolation or in conjunction with other elements. This is in fact precisely what I make an effort to listen for in doing these reviews; my intention all along has been less to say “I like this” (anyone can do that) than to try to tease out as precisely as possible what it is I’m liking about it.

Another enjoyable bit of subtlety in “Face of the Sun” is how the verse and the chorus are differentiated more by choices in accompaniment than in melody or structure—first, the introduction of backing harmonies (0:56); and second, the insertion of a conspicuous chord change in between the two sections of lyrics (1:10-1:13). This is surely as nuanced a way to say “Here’s the chorus” as you are usually likely to hear. Even in its closing moment, the song offers us a subtle gesture: that descending guitar line starting at 3:21, four notes long, strongly implies one last resolving note that it pulls up short of delivering. And yet as that last note is held for a few seconds, the ear manages to hear resolution in that unresolved. This is a very subtle effect, which I may be entirely imagining, but it feels aligned with the song’s sense of playful mystery, so there you are.

Shana Cleveland, based in Seattle, is the lead guitarist and vocalist for the group La Luz (who have been featured here previously, in February 2013). “Face of the Sun” is a track from her recently released second solo album, Night of the Worm Moon. You can listen to a few more songs from the album, and buy it (digital, CD, vinyl, cassette) on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Strand of Oaks

“Weird Ways” – Strand of Oaks

I am not often a fan of the slow build, I will admit that up front. In particular I usually run screaming from songs that have introductions that are both slow and long; bonus (negative) points for being overly repetitious. I’m always thinking, “This is a friggin’ pop song! Get to the point!”

But what we have here with “Weird Ways” is a slow build I’m down with. For one thing, the singing starts right away. This may be a slow build, but it’s not just a tedious beat; there are expressive lyrics, and, best of all, an impressively well-built melody. Things may not entirely cohere in your ear during this slow introductory section, but when the song opens up at 1:30, abetted now by riff and backbeat, we soon get re-introduced to the opening melody and can hear it now in all its anthemic glory. This is the kind of melody that feels classic as soon as you hear it in this setting.

A minute later, the song veers into misty reverie, but with enough texture and pulse to keep things interesting. A minute after that, a head-bobbing bridge, with layered vocals, leads into a big-time guitar solo. The bridge returns nearly a minute later, with additional drama in the vocal layers, culminating in a portentous sustain that closes things out. So much going on! But wait a minute. What happened to that anthemic melody? We hear the last of it at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark of a nearly six-minute song. As a listener, this is maybe slightly frustrating but also slyly engaging. Look, Strand of Oaks mastermind Timothy Showalter could have easily given us more of that haunting refrain but consciously decided not to. Part of it relates to the wise dictum of “Always leave them wanting more.” But he could have done that with, simply, a short song. “Weird Ways” is a long song, but only about a minute of it delivers its rousing, straightforward hook. Given that the lyrics, as much as I can follow them, talk about leaving something established behind while finding an unanticipated new path, I’m surmising that the music here is intended as thematic corroboration. Maybe ear-pleasing melodies come too easily for Showalter; maybe his soul is calling him in another direction. Or, maybe I’m reading too much into what is no more or less than an excellent 21st-century rock song.

Born in Indiana and based in Philadelphia, Showalter has now recorded five studio albums as Strand of Oaks, plus an adjunct album of demos, b-sides, and alternate takes. “Weird Ways” is the opening track on his most recent album, Eraserland, released earlier this year. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy Eraserland (digital, CD, vinyl) at Bandcamp. (Thanks to Glorious Noise for the screen cap!)

Maybe it’s somewhat obvious to those who’ve been around here a long time, but I will say this out loud: when all is said and done, the Kinks are my favorite band of all time. Which maybe makes it a little strange that for this year’s presentation of a Kinks song in a playlist—and remember, no artist appears in a mix here more than once in a calendar year—I have selected a little ditty of a song of theirs that I have never really thought much of one way or another. They after all have so many many great songs, and over the decades found such deft ways to communicate via rock’n’roll. So, why did I choose “Monica,” among a multitude of others that I probably like more? I am not actually sure, except to note that these playlists are constructed as intuitively as possible. I can’t usually explain why I put any of these songs in here. But maybe, with the Kinks, an extra factor was this: because I can’t play all of my favorite-favorite Kinks songs in the context of these mixes, it’s easier to go for a left-field choice like “Monica”; in this case, all the favorite-favorite songs are treated equally—i.e., overlooked (for now). Another potential explanation: there’s no way to understand any musical preference, for anybody, when you get right down to it. This song just highlights the serendipitous beauty of what catches the ear and makes the world feel right, if for a moment or two.

Other random notes on this month’s playlist:

* I’m still happily absorbing Mitski’s well-regarded 2018 album, Be The Cowboy, and while I particularly like the single, “Nobody,” the song I ended up with here, “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?,” grabbed me after a few listens, with its insistent pulse, crunchy guitars, looney-bin synth motif, and remarkable conciseness. The whole album is a study in how to be succinct; only two songs out of 14 are longer than 2:36, and nothing is even four minutes long.

* Marvin Gaye would have been 80 earlier this month; instead, he died tragically, murdered by his own father, the day before he would have turned 35. This song is one of the many great unreleased songs of his that have floated around over the years. This year, at long last, a group of songs that had been recorded in 1972 and intended to be made into a follow-up album to What’s Going On had their long-awaited release as an album—it’s called You’re The Man, and while it might not represent exactly the album Gaye had planned, it’s good to hear this stuff.

* Leonard Bernstein, meanwhile, would have been 100 years old this past August. He died rather too young too, but at age 72 he at least had a pretty good run of it, and boy did he do a lot of things in the time he had. This little overture from the Broadway revival/reinvention of his musical Candide, in 1974, is super charming—a great example of music that can be both complex and accessible at the same time, which is my sweet spot in all genres.

* “Helpless,” by Kim Weston, is another one of those great lost Motown singles that for one reason or another didn’t really hit the big time, despite its terrific appeal. I’ve never wanted to dive too far into what went on at Motown and why some artists got more support than others but Weston appears to have been one of those who never quite got a fair shake there despite her great talent. This was her last recording for the label; she later sued them in a royalty dispute. I’ve previously featured another fine single of hers, “I Got What You Need,” back on EPS 4.11 in 2017, that one being her first post-Motown release.

* Matthew Sweet’s Kimi Ga Suki was initially released in Japan only, as a thank-you to his legion of Japanese fans. While it did get a US release a year later, it has remained somewhat beneath the radar, despite its actually being something of a reunion for the band with which he recorded his seminal Girlfriend album. He wrote the songs in a week and recorded without any initial demos. There’s something to be said, at least sometimes, for spontaneity.

* Bonus Kinks tidbit: lacking any successful single or chart position around the time of its release, The Kinks are the Village Preservation Society, where you’ll find “Monica,” has gathered a slow but steady following over the decades, and was just certified gold in the UK last year, at age 50.

Full playlist below the widget.

“Halo of Ashes” – Screaming Trees (Dust, 1996)
“Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” – Mitski (Be The Cowboy, 2018)
“I’m Gonna Give You Respect” – Marvin Gaye (previously unreleased, 1972)
“Loud and Clear” – The Last Town Chorus (single, 2008)
“King of the Bayou” – Joe Strummer (Earthquake Weather, 1989)
“The Rain, the Park & Other Things” – The Cowsills (single, 1967)
“The Conservation of Energy” – Vanishing Twin (Choose Your Own Adventure, 2016)
“Overture” – Leonard Bernstein (Candide – Broadway Cast Recording, 1974)
“Don’t Go” – Yaz (Upstairs at Eric’s, 1982)
“Helpless” – Kim Weston (single, 1967)
“Breakable” – Ingrid Michaelson (Girls and Boys, 2006)
“Corduroy” – Pearl Jam (Vitalogy, 1994)
“See The Sky About to Rain” – Neil Young (On The Beach, 1974)
“Joanna” – Southern Boutique (Southern Boutique, 2014)
“De Cared A La Pared” – Lhasa (La Llorona, 1998)
“Monica” – The Kinks (The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, 1968)
“The Ocean in Between” – Matthew Sweet (Kimi Ga Suki, 2003)
“Known Better” – Meg Mac (single, 2013)
“Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” – Dexy’s Midnight Runners (Searching for
        the Young Soul Rebels
, 1980)
“Mister Magic” – Esther Phillips (What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, 1975)