I’m squeezing this playlist into February even as it was actually March 1 when I hit the “publish” button. The short month always takes me a bit by surprise. The playlist took me a bit by surprise as well, from its over-reliance on the 1980s (not usually my thing) to its ongoing parade of strange bedfellows. It started when I got sidetracked into watching a documentary on Genesis, took a detour on George Harrison’s birthday (when I discovered via WXPN that he did not in fact write “Got My Mind Set On You”) and was thrown for another loop at the last minute by the word of mouth swirling around Cassandra Jenkins’ brand-new album, which required finding a place for “Hard Drive.” Lots of other goodies in here, including what is surely one of the great covers of all time (Cake doing “I Will Survive”; I mean come on–the arrangement, the vocals, the bass line, just perfection) and an admittedly unusual side trip into what might be considered “smooth jazz” (yikes?) except that Bob James/Earl Klugh song, however mellow (okay, smooth), has a beautiful inevitability about it. Consider it a respite ahead of the more prickly tracks to follow, including a blast of sound from the Chromatics and that unexpected spoken-word journey from the aforementioned Ms. Jenkins. Here, specifically, is what you’ve got in store:
“Turn It On Again” – Genesis (Duke, 1980)
“This Mess We’re In” – PJ Harvey, w/ Thom Yorke (Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, 2000)
“Mourning Sound” – Grizzly Bear (Painted Ruins, 2017)
“Got My Mind Set On You” – James Ray (b-side, 1962)
“Driving” – Jane Aire and the Belvederes (Jane Aire and the Belvederes, 1979)
“Regret” – New Order (Republic, 1993)
“Misguided Angel” – Cowboy Junkies (The Trinity Session, 1988)
“Kari” – Bob James & Earl Klugh (One on One, 1979)
“Kill For Love” – Chromatics (Kill For Love, 2012)
“Hard Drive” – Cassandra Jenkins (An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, 2021)
“I Will Survive” – Cake (Fashion Nugget, 1996)
“What” – Judy Street (b-side, 1968)
“On the Rocks” – Dennis Brown (Foul Play, 1981)
“Sweet Heart Said” – Shelley Short (Captain Wild Horse Rides the Horse of Tomorrow, 2006)
“Born To” – Jesca Hoop (The House That Jack Built, 2014)
“Mumbo Jumbo” – Squeeze (East Side Story, 1981)
“I Wished on the Moon” – Billie Holiday (All Or Nothing At All, 1958)
“The Adults Are Talking” – The Strokes (The New Abnormal, 2020)
“Borderline” – Joni Mitchell (Turbulent Indigo, 1994)
“On My Way” – Sandy Denny and the Strawbs (All Our Own Work, 1967 [released 1973])
* I’m not sure anyone writes songs like “Mumbo Jumbo” at this point in time, and the world is a worse place for it. After the short, ear-catching intro, we get five or six really strong hooks in a song that doesn’t have one moment that feels like it’s treading water. The chorus alone is a multi-faceted wonder of movement and development. Tilbrook and Difford at their best were among the best we’ve had. Let’s not leave them behind.
* Leave it to the Strokes to record an album in 2019, call it The New Abnormal, and release it in April 2020. We’ve been living in the new abnormal ever since. You may recall that their debut album was released in October 2001, a month after 9/11.
* Reggae is (clearly) not my specialty, but over the years, certain songs have stuck with me. I don’t know much about the late Dennis Brown, except that he was a huge star in his native Jamaica, and put out a gazillion albums during a career that was cut short in 1999, when he died at the age of 42. “On The Rocks” is not especially representative; it came out during his stint with A&M Records, when he shed his lovers rock sound for more of a pop/R&B sheen. Purists probably object but I’m no purist so I think it’s pretty wonderful.
* It’s hard to believe that Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo, considered a late-career highlight, is now itself 27 years old. I remember feeling that the album was over-praised when it came out; and yet here in 2021 I’m countervailingly inclined to feel that it is underappreciated. Even as she lost interest in melody, her sense of musical space and texture never dimmed. And let me say this while she’s still with us: Joni Mitchell is in my mind the best singer/songwriter of them all, and to me it’s not even a close contest.
* Jane Aire was one of three singers to emerge from Akron, Ohio in the late ’70s–the other two being Chrissie Hynde and Rachel Sweet. Hynde you know, Sweet perhaps you know, but Jane Aire probably not. She recorded for Stiff Records and Virgin Records in England, made one full-length album, and either left the business or the business left her. The internet has little else to offer. I do know that “Driving” was a cover of an independently-released single by the Bay Area new wave group Pearl Harbor & The Explosions (they called it “Drivin'”), whose follow-up song, “You Got It (Release It),” is itself a bit of a lost power pop classic. Meanwhile, if you wanted to hear music that crystallizes the sound of the American new wave, you could do a lot worse than Jane Aire.
* As for Genesis: while I find their early, prog-rock sound rather too precious and noodly for my taste, and their last few albums veering towards the insipid, I am a big fan of their middle years–let’s say 1973 through 1981. There was a sweet spot in there when the songs grew shorter and sharper even as they retained a complexity well beyond standard pop fare. “Turn It On Again”–catchy demeanor covering a tricky progression of time signatures–is a highlight from the later part of this fertile period.