Even as there are 14 artists on this month’s playlist who had not yet appeared in any EPS mix to date, you’ll also find in this mix a handful of all-time favorites who are now among the most often featured musicians in the eight-plus years these lists have been operational. So I guess it’s an intriguing blend of the old and new both chronologically and aesthetically. In any case, the all-time favorites in question—Sam Phillips, They Might Be Giants, Jane Siberry, and Cassandra Wilson—are all truly among my personal musical heroes through the decades; I’m kind of startled and delighted to find them all together here. And although we live, it would seem, under graver and graver collective shadows, I ended up with a number of songs this month that are not just peppy but in a few cases rather playful—in search of the kinder light, you might say. Besides which, we lose our playfulness and there’s not much hope for us. Man o nam indeed.
“Bad Reputation” – Freedy Johnston (This Perfect World, 1994)
“That Man” – Caro Emerald (Deleted Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor, 2010)
“Head On” – The Jesus and Mary Chain (Automatic, 1989)
“On The Run” – Scorched Earth (single, 1974)
“The Light Is Kinder In This Corner of the Corona” – Bill Nelson (Rosewood: Ornaments and Graces for Acoustic Guitar, Volume 2, 2005)
“Too Late To Say You’re Sorry” – Darlene Love (single, 1966)
“Love Is Everything” – Jane Siberry (When I Was a Boy, 1993)
“Queen of the World” – The Jayhawks (Smile, 2002)
“Hold Back the Night” – The Trammps (The Legendary Zing Album, 1975)
“Swift Arrows” – Shelby Earl (Swift Arrows, 2013)
“There She Goes Again” – The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967)
“Baby Can I Hold You” – Tracy Chapman (Tracy Chapman, 1988)
“Hurt a Fly” – Squirrel Flower (Planet (i),2021)
“Don’t Tell Me” – Blancmange (Mange Tout, 1984)
“You See The Trouble With Me” – Barry White (Let The Music Play, 1976)
“Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” – Sam Phillips (Push Any Button, 2013)
“Show Me A Love” – Cassandra Wilson (Belly of the Sun, 2002)
“Every Home Should Have One” – Millicent Martin (single, 1970))
“I Palindrome I” – They Might Be Giants (Apollo 18, 1992)
“Country” – Good Morning (Barnyard, 2021)
* Like a number of unexpected-in-retrospect musicians, Freedy Johnston flirted with commercial success in 1990s, most particularly with the album This Perfect World, which featured this simple and glorious lead track “Bad Reputation.” The world may not be perfect, the album itself may not have been perfect (although it was pretty good!), but this song is as nearly perfect as a four-minute piece of semi-popular music has any right to be, with one of those choruses that seem to transcend the idea of someone writing it, it seems just to have always existed.
* Guitarist extraordinaire Bill Nelson’s short period of semi-mainstream success came when he fronted the band Be Bop Deluxe in the 1970s. He’s always been prolific—Be Bop released five studio albums and one live album in a four-year stretch—but a look at Wikipedia will make you dizzy: listed there are some 140 or more (I lost count) solo albums released since 1981, including 12 since 2018 alone. I can’t begin to understand what this could all be about, outside of assuming he’s recording a lot of experimental/improvisational stuff. And I will admit that featuring one gentle instrumental tune from among the thousands he has recorded seems pathetically random. But I believe in synchronicity, and only after putting this list together noticed that the title has taken on quite a new meaning from when he first recorded it back in the good old days of 2005 (little did we know). I’ve always been fond of Be Bop Deluxe, feel that they are sorely underappreciated in the panorama of rock’n’roll history, and have featured them here a couple of times. Bill Nelson I have no idea what to do with but I’ve slipped one song in here if only to pay a bit of respect for the idiosyncratic path he has followed over the decades.
* Scorched Earth was the first band that Billy Ocean recorded with; this was 10 years before his international breakout hit “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run),” which if you don’t recognize from the title you’d know if you heard it. “On The Run” has no apparent connection outside of the phrase itself but it’s quite a rousing number, the kind of song that completely could have been a hit but for the vagaries of ’70s-era record promotion. Note that Ocean recorded four solo albums from 1976 to 1982 that didn’t really go anywhere before hitting the big time, bigly, in 1984. Say what you will about the corruption of the old record company system, one admirable thing it at least sometimes did was stick with an artist while he or she was working to find their voice. That kind of corporate patience stopped pretty much in the ’90s, never (so far) to be seen again.
* Shelby Earl has a Neko Case-level voice, as sure and strong as you could want to hear. “Swift Arrows” is the title track to an album released in 2013, and was featured on Fingertips here. She was also by the way featured further back, in 2011. Her most recent release is 2017’s The Man Who Made Himself a Name.
* Cato Emerald is a Dutch singer (birth name Caroline Esmeralda van der Leeuw) whose album Deleted Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor spent 30 weeks at number one on the Dutch charts in 2010, beating out Thriller as the best-selling album of all time in the Netherlands. She hasn’t made much of a dent with audiences in the US but you can check here out on Spotify and see what you think. While “That Man” risks veering towards sounding like a retro-y gimmick, the song hits my ears as infectious fun and who can’t use some of that right about now?
* I hear “Every Home Should Have One” as an early entry in the “satirize consumer culture” category that grew as the ’70s wore on. Later in the decade we’d get things like “What Do You Want From Life?” from the Tubes in 1975 and, perhaps the quintessential song of this type, “Step Right Up,” from Tom Waits in 1976. “Every Home Should Have One” was the title song from a British movie released in 1970 and starring Marty Feldman, a farce poking fun at an effort to crack down on sexual images in advertising and culture by the conservative activist Mary Whitehouse (who also drew the direct attention of Pink Floyd a few years later; that’s the “Whitehouse” they address in “Pigs [Three Different Ones],” not the US presidency). The movie ended up being released here with the title Think Dirty but was much more popular in the UK than it was here. Millicent Martin, by the way, has had a long career as a singer and an actress both in the UK and the US. In the early ’60s, she was a featured singer of topical songs on the legendary British satirical news show That Was The Week That Was, but she has remained active for decades, including countless appearances on American TV in the 21st century—she had a recurring role on Frasier at the turn of the millennium, and most recently has been a regular on Grace and Frankie.
* As noted, I love Sam Phillips to pieces; all her releases are top notch, even when they seem to fall in the musical forest with comparatively no one there to hear them. While she, like Freedy Johnston, had a bit of a moment back in the ’90s, her albums over the succeeding years have been uniformly excellent, in particular 2013’s Push Any Button, from which comes the inimitable “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You.” On the one hand I can understand why she’s an acquired taste but on the other hand I must briefly and pointlessly rail against a culture that would shunt an artist like Phillips off into the “acquired taste” classification in the first place. We are so often just too dumb, collectively, for our own good.