Refusing to exit

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.03 – March 2021

We have this time a month of challenging segues, as a disconcerting number of the songs selected for the March playlist have what music folks call a “cold” ending–which means a song that has an actual end point, often an abrupt one, versus a song that fades out. The more abrupt an ending, the harder it can be to create an effective segue; and an extra problem this month is that a noticeable number of songs likewise feature cold openings, starting either suddenly or loudly or both. This is the first time I can remember having to change a number of songs around, or even kick songs out of the mix, based on an inability to construct a workable segue. And there remain a few here that are a bit bumpy for my taste. But it’s worth it, I hope, for the songs to follow.

And this: there have now been a year’s worth of pandemic-shuttered playlists. On the bright side, this is an activity that in theory is unaffected by physical lockdowns. But, that’s merely theory; in practice, everything is affected, while so many things still refuse to exit: degenerative idiocy in the public sphere, systemic racism, proto-fascist tendencies in state legislatures, and oh yes this persistent virus. All things must pass; we just, in advance, never know quite when.

“Heaps of Sheep” – Robert Wyatt (Shleep, 1997)
“Stay” – The Blue Nile (A Walk Across the Rooftops, 1984)
“Mirrorball” – Taylor Swift (folklore, 2020)
“Tattler” – Ry Cooder (Paradise and Lunch, 1974)
“New Resolution” – Heartless Bastards (Stairs and Elevators, 2005)
“Argos Farfish” – Sharhabi Ahmed (1960s)
“Day After Day” – The Pretenders (Pretenders II, 1981)
“The Night” – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (single, 1972)
“Hysteric” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (It’s Blitz!, 2008)
“The Hunger” – Bat For Lashes (Lost Girls, 2019)
“The Universal” – Blur (The Great Escape, 1995)
“2.A.T.” – Fingerprintz (The Very Dab, 1979)
“Every Little Bit” – The Royalty (The Royalty, 2012)
“Sword” – Ian Sweet (Show Me How You Disappear, 2021)
“Angels” – David Byrne (David Byrne, 1994)
“Call On Me” – The Dynells (single, 1968)
“Postcards From Italy” – Beirut (Gulag Orkestar, 2006)
“Downtown” – Christine Lavin (Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind, 1988)
“Wake Up Everybody” – John Legend & The Roots (Wake Up!, 2010)
“Salt of the Earth” – The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet, 1968)

Stray notes:

* I’m never sure how far into these mixes that listeners tend to get but please do yourself the favor of hanging in there this month at least until you get to the majestic Frankie Valli single “The Night,” which elevates melodrama to the awe-inspiring. The bass-driven beat will lure you in, the horns will charm you, and the theatrical melody, with its heroic intervals, will all but take your breath away. Many thanks to George from Between Two Islands for the tip on this brilliant ’70s nugget.

* I will say up front that I have very little knowledge when it comes to the vast array of sounds that have been recorded outside of my limited Anglo-American musical bubble, and in particular had zero exposure to Sudanese jazz before the song “Argos Farfish” had a moment in the spotlight over on Hype Machine a few months ago. The artist, Sharhabil Ahmed, is known in some circles as the “King of Sudanese Jazz”; seven of his recordings were gathered last year into a compilation on the German label Habibi Funk, which specializes in reissuing “Arabic funk, jazz, and other organic sounds.” Their 16 album releases to date can be found on Bandcamp. Try as I might I cannot locate a specific date for “Argos Farfish,” but it seems to have been recorded some time in the 1960s. I obviously still know very little about any of this, but I know that the song caught my ear and wanted to work its way into a playlist so here it is.

* At another end of the spectrum, we have Taylor Swift. I’ve never previously connected to her music but also never doubted her talent. And while her widely-praised Aaron Dessner-produced 2020 albums didn’t turn me into a fan per se, they did have me listening. On the one hand, even in a new sonic setting, her songwriting style veers too much towards the “spill words out in double time without a melody” end of things to hold my interest.  On the other hand, there is “Mirrorball,” in which she lets a graceful melody take root in a gauzy, quasi-dream-poppy setting–to me, an encouraging detour. (With a different but related vibe, “Marjorie,” from the follow-up, evermore, is another good listen.)

* Two of my favorite all-time songs share a title: “Stay.” Then again, maybe not surprising, given that Wikipedia lists more than 90 songs with that same one-word title. But I am particularly partial to David Bowie’s “Stay,” from Station to Station, and, best of all, this one from the Blue Nile’s debut album, 1984’s  A Walk Across The Rooftops. Paul Buchanan’s voice may be an acquired taste through the album’s more meander-y tracks, but on the comparatively buoyant “Stay,” he and the band hit it out of the park.

* Ian Sweet is the performing name of the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Jilian Medford. “Sword” is from Show Me How You Disappear, her third album, released earlier this month on Polyvinyl Records.

* As disconcerting as it was to have a David Byrne solo album, in 1994, after being so indelibly presented as Talking Heads’ front man all those previous years, he has long since succeeded in making it seem almost equally disconcerting to think that he used to be in a band. Anyone with access to HBO: I all but demand that you go and watch “American Utopia” at your earliest convenience, if you haven’t done so already. It will bring a smile to your pandemic-weary face; in fact, watching him perform “I Zimbra” during the show made me so happy I started crying.

* Sadly little is known about the group called The Dynells, except that that were fronted by the dynamic Brenda McGregor, and that this song, originally released on a Philadelphia label called Vent Records in 1967–and more widely released on Atco Records in 1968–was produced by none other than Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. This was a few years before they founded Philadelphia International Records, but in the same time frame as when they produced their first big hit, which was “Expressway To Your Heart,” by the Soul Survivors. Why wasn’t this a hit also? It’s a mystery; the song is fantastic, with a groovy guitar riff and fully developed horn charts. Just about every piece of information about McGregor on the internet is word for word the same sentence about how she was later in a group called the Vonettes and how she died at age 25.

I can see you’ve had a rough few months

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.02 – February 2021

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])

Stray notes:

* 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.

Everyone else has lost interest

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.01 – Jan. 2021

The Eclectic Playlist Series enters its eighth year. Many things were very different eight years ago, but the guidelines here remain the same: I feature 20 songs each month, and look to spread the songs out somewhat evenly among the decades. I also aim for male-female balance, but I don’t mind it if there are more songs sung by women than men in a given month–consider it a small gesture towards symbolically overcoming rock’n’roll’s longstanding misogyny. And then there’s the primary rule, self-imposed from the beginning, that no artist can be featured more than once in a calendar year. As the years have gone by I have also done my best to keep introducing artists who haven’t previously been featured here; I like at least half of the artists in each new mix to be making their EPS debut but that doesn’t always work out. (The passing years have made this increasingly challenging.) This month, for instance, there are only seven new artists. Conversely, here in January, Kate Bush moves quickly into the all-time lead, having been featured once each year to date, including, now, 2021.

With those guidelines in place, the playlists are otherwise constructed via intuition alone. I don’t have any concrete theme in mind when I start, and I don’t purposefully juxtapose songs based on lyrical similarities. When, say, “If You Change Your Mind” arrives two songs after “Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind,” which itself comes after “I Meant What I Said,” I consider it a bonus; I don’t usually plan this kind of thing, although I don’t rule out that there’s some unconscious architecting going on. The same goes for the segues. I will rule out songs that just don’t fit next to each other because of how one ends and the other begins, but when a really great segue occurs (for instance, this month: “Song For Zula” into “Uncle Alvarez”), it’s almost always a happy accident. And the immediate lyrical reference to “Ring of Fire” right after a song from Rosanne Cash? Definitely an accident, but an enjoyable one.

And so, for those who haven’t lost interest, here we go:

“This One” – Paul McCartney (Flowers in the Dirt, 1989)
“The Dirt” – Waxahatchee (Ivy Tripp, 2015)
“Couldn’t Believe a Word” – The 45s (single, 1979)
“Linger” – Jonatha Brooke (Steady Pull, 2001)
“Fall On You” – Moby Grape (Moby Grape, 1967)
“Teardrop” – Massive Attack (Mezzanine, 1998)
“Three of a Perfect Pair” – King Crimson (Three of a Perfect Pair, 1984)
“I Meant What I Said” – Rosehip Teahouse (Fine EP, 2020)
“Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind” – The Stylistics (Fabulous, 1976)
“My Maudlin Career” – Camera Obscura (My Maudlin Career, 2009)
“If You Change Your Mind” – Roseanne Cash (King’s Record Shop, 1987)
“Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent (Muchacho, 2013)
“Uncle Alvarez” – Liz Phair (Whitechocolatespaceegg, 1998)
“Girl Don’t Come” – Sandie Shaw (single, 1964)
“‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” – Keith Jarrett (Belonging, 1974)
“Astronaut” – Ass Ponys (Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, 2000)
“Wuthering Heights” – Kate Bush ([new vocal] The Whole Story, 1986)
“Romeo’s Seance” – Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters, 1993)
“Sparrow Song” – Acrylics (Lives and Treasure, 2010)
“Bulbs” – Van Morrison (Veedon Fleece, 1974)

Bonus explanatory notes:

* Earlier this month I posted a playlist on Spotify featuring Paul McCartney, noting how many excellent and overlooked songs he’s written in his long post-Beatles career. I started that playlist with the same song that starts us off here: “This One,” from 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for weeks. You’ve been warned.

* I somehow missed the kerfuffle way back when over the similarity between Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and Keith Jarrett’s “‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours,” which came out six years earlier, in 1974. Jarrett brought a lawsuit, or at least threatened a lawsuit (the internet record is fuzzy on this), and in any case did up end with a songwriting credit. The two songs are clearly related in vibe and musical details, even if sticklers can find no note-for-note melodic plagiarism. The Dan later admitted they were big fans of the Jarrett tune and did in fact find more than a little inspiration there for “Gaucho.” In the end, both songs are wonderful. Me, I say it takes no small talent to do what Becker and Fagan did to the Garrett tune to create “Gaucho”; it’s right for them to have credited Jarrett, and this takes nothing away from their own artistry.

* Rosehip Teahouse is a five-piece band from Cardiff, fronted by Faye Rogers and trafficking in a bittersweet, echoey, guitar-washed vibe that I find very appealing. “I Meant What I Said” is a song from their debut EP, called Fine, released in December. You can listen to it, and buy it, via Bandcamp. A brand new video for a second track from the EP, “No Gloom,” just came out this week. The band was originally scheduled to play in Austin at SXSW last year; this year, they will participate in the virtual SXSW that’s happening in March.

* While Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is wondrous classic–written by an 18-year-old!–I always found her teenaged voice to be a little harsh in conjunction with the song’s melody and vocal range. Perhaps Bush herself thought as much in retrospect; how else to explain her re-recording of the song in 1986, in conjunction with the release of a “best of” collection that year. The song was remixed but presents as largely the same, except the vocal. And wow: to hear Bush, in full command of her mature voice, revisiting this remarkable song is, to me, goosebump-inducing. I could listen to this over and over, for all the subtle grandeur of her phrasing and intonation. “Wuthering Heights” was her first-ever single, and a smash hit in the UK, although not even released as a single in the US. Fun fact: Bush was inspired initially by a BBC production of Wuthering Heights; she later read the book, and then discovered that she and Emily Brontë have the same birthday.

* I love Liz Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg to pieces, and have always been particularly captivated by “Uncle Alvarez,” for reasons that seem to be beyond my conscious awareness. I still eagerly await her forthcoming album, Soberish, slated however vaguely for release this year.

* I have a soft spot for Ohio’s Ass Ponys from my years of living in Cincinnati right around when the band was having their major-label moment in the mid-’90s. As melodic as they could be, the Ponys were too quirky a band to satisfy A&M’s commercial needs. Some Stupid With a Flare Gun was their first post-A&M album, released in 2000. That album’s title comes from the lyrics to “Smoke On The Water,” for those keeping score at home.

Nothing stays the same

Eclectic Playlist Series 7.11 – December 2020

You don’t need me to remind you what a poisonous year this has been so I’ll sidestep the rants and simply express gratitude for surviving, gratitude to everyone who has persevered, everyone who has displayed resilience in the face of 2020’s twin plagues (COVID-19, malignant ignorance) and still dares to look ahead to something better. As I mentioned in the most recent Fingertips email, the writer Deborah Eisenberg noted in an essay this fall that “if things could only get worse, we would all have been dead millennia ago.” And I added that I find that this offers a weird sort of consolation during the kind of year 2020 has been.

Music is an ongoing consolation as well. I don’t need songs to be outwardly cheery to be consoling; for me, beauty will do it, or finesse, or even just the way this chord turns into that chord, the way a particular voice sings a particular word. Kirsty MacColl’s “Autumngirlsoup” is truly one of the saddest songs I know but at the same time, its grace and brilliance provide a bittersweet sort of inspiration; that someone could write that and sing that means that the world isn’t a lost cause, even if the singer herself met a tragic end (more below). I like that this playlist leads ultimately to Jenifer Jackson–whose timbre has a Kirsty-like smoke to it–and her anthemic declaration of “We Will Be Together,” complete with the mighty Spector beat and an indefatigable spirit. Enjoy the music, look to the horizon with curiosity and hope and we will be together again next year.

The playlist:

“Back of My Hand” – The Jags (UK single, 1979)
“The Magic” – Joan as Police Woman (The Deep Field, 2011)
“Without a Doubt” – Major Lance (single, 1967)
“Radiation Vibe” – Hem (No Word From Tom, 2006)
“Careless” – Paul Kelly and the Messengers (So Much Water So Close to Home, 1989)
“Off My Mind” – Hazel English (Wake UP!, 2020)
“Take Me For a Little While” – Jackie Ross (single, 1965)
“Something in 4/4 Time” – Daryl Hall (Sacred Songs, recorded 1977; released 1980)
“Say Anything” – Aimee Mann (Whatever, 1993)
“Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” – Julia Jacklin (Crushing, 2019)
“Everything Under the Sun” – The Walker Brothers (Images, 1967)
“That Year” – Uncle Tupelo (No Depression, 1990)
“Autumngirlsoup” – Kirsty MacColl (Tropical Brainstorm, 2000)
“Turn Your Lights Down Low” – Bob Marley and the Wailers (Exodus, 1977)
“Never Stop” – Echo & The Bunnymen (Songs to Learn and Sing, 1985)
“Shouting at the Dark” – The Mynabirds (Be Here Now, 2017)
“Footsteps” – Alison Moyet (Hoodoo, 1991)
“Surrender” – Will Butler (Generations, 2020)
“The Things That I Used to Do” – Guitar Slim (single, 1953)
“We Will Be Together” – Jenifer Jackson (So High, 2003)

Bonus explanatory notes:

* If you’ve been around here a while you’ll know I have a hard time resisting power pop nuggets from the late ’70s and early ’80s and this month’s mix launches with one of the most nuggetty of all. The Jags were one of any number of bands who got lazily tagged as Elvis Costello wannabes; like most of those bands, their story was neither that simple nor mercenary. The sound was in the air back then, and it flowed through a lot of outlets. “Back Of My Hand” is top-notch power pop, but it has somehow faded further than some of the era’s other hits. I blame part of that on the record company, which took the original UK single and mucked it up for the US release with a revised version (additional production provided by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, otherwise known as The Buggles), which added a hermetic sheen that retained the hooks but, to my ears, took some ineffable part of the charm away. I think the Buggles-infested version sounds soulless and calculated and I gladly present you here with the earlier UK iteration.

* From roughly the same era but an entirely different space comes a song from Daryl Hall’s first solo album, Sacred Songs. This has an even worse record-label-messes-with-things story, as the album was recorded, in a collaboration with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, in 1977, but the record company, RCA, didn’t think it sounded commercial enough and simply shelved it, with no intention of release. For three years. Hall at some point went rogue and began sending bits of it to journalists and disc jockeys; eventually RCA relented and released the album in 1980. I think it’s excellent work, showing off both Hall’s ever-impressive vocal prowess and his willingness to venture musically beyond the realm of whatever you’d call what Hall & Oates were doing. Note that this was recorded after Hall & Oates first go-round with top-40 success and before the duo went platinum (and multi-platinum), which started later in 1980 when Voices came out, during a somewhat fallow commercial period for them. I really like the vibe on Sacred Songs, but then again my favorite Hall & Oates album by far is 1978’s Along the Red Ledge, a release from their supposed “lean years.”

* As one more 2020 nod in the direction of the late great Adam Schlesinger, here is one of my favorite covers of all time, because first of all it’s a such a friggin’ good song and second of all the subtle but sure means by which the band Hem has transformed it. Typically a cover version is either super loyal to the original or works hard to find a whole new approach. What Hem does here is rather magically splits the difference. As sung by the very appealing Sally Ellyson, and arranged by whoever arranges their stuff, “Radiation Vibe” is both instantly recognizable and rendered different and new. The amusing backstory to the song is that Chris Collingswood once told an interviewer that the song “was written in less time than it takes to play.” He also confirmed what you kind of have to suspect, even as your brain works hard to overcome the suspicion: that the song quite literally doesn’t mean anything. It’s a bunch of words that sound cool together.

* And, yes: Kirsty MacColl. This month marks the 20th anniversary of her death in the ocean in Mexico, at the hands of a reckless motorboat driver, a fate that stings doubly for both how unfair and how horrific. I’ve featured her a few times here over the years because my heart beats strongly for her still, and while I’ve so far presented her catchy and flashier material, at the end of the day I’m not sure she wrote and performed anything quite as deep and moving as “Autumngirlsoup,” from what turned out to be her final album. An unexpected bonus is that the thing is also pretty hilarious; her extended metaphor (woman as a dish devoured by man) is both over the top and razor sharp, at once skewering and despairing over the ingrained misogyny of human history. I mean who would think to write this?: “Carve up my heart on a very low flame/Separate my feelings then pour them down the drain.” Kirsty did. A singular presence, and talent.

* As for Jenifer Jackson, consider her another talented musician all too easily lost in the unending waves of digital music that have washed up on our cultural shores in the 21st century. (She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, something that I might go about fixing.) Her 2003 album So High, her third, released on the acclaimed Bar-None label, was well-regarded and remains a pleasure to listen to; succeeding albums drew successively less attention, with no notable drop-off in quality. She continues to make records to this day–her most recent is the album Paths, released last year. You can find all her stuff here. (Note that a  bunch of her older albums were just this year put up on Bandcamp, so their release dates are off.)

Until you get heard (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.10 – Oct. 2020)

(Note from the future–November 6, to be precise: The original post accompanying this playlist in October has gotten lost in the transition to the new hosting service and the accompanying site redesign. It’s maybe just as well–that post was a pre-election rant that, while still relevant to the extent that our country remains deeply wounded by misinformation and disinformation, we at least managed to elect a decent human being. That the horrific man currently occupying the White House wasn’t rejected by everyone is worrisome to say the least. How awful would a person have to be, now, to be obviously unworthy of elected office? Not a rhetorical question. Anyway: here’s the playlist.)

“Worried Man Blues” – The Carter Family (1930 recording)
“You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen (You Want It Darker, 2016)
“Don’t Talk To Me About Love” – Altered images (Bite, 1983)
“Bloodline’ – Orenda Fink (Invisible Ones, 2005)
“13 Questions” – Seatrain (Seatrain, 1970)
“Vow” – Garbage (Garbage, 1995)
“Thousands are Sailing” – The Pogues (If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1987)
“Ole Man Trouble” – Otis Redding (Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, 1965)
“Shark Smile” – Big Thief (Capacity, 2017)
“Bored By Dreams” – Marianne Faithfull (A Secret Life, 1994)
“Sing the Changes” – The Fireman (Electric Arguments, 2008)
“Can You Get To That” – Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, 1971)
“Everything Works If You Let It” – Cheap Trick (All Shook Up, 1980)
“Here Goes Nothing” – Jess Cornelius (Distance, 2020)
“Dusty Trails Theme” – Dusty Trails (Dusty Trails, 2000)
“Say Goodbye” – Sophie Barker (Seagull, 2011)
“Someday, Someway” – The Marvelettes (b-side, 1962)
“Put The Message in the Box” – World Party (Goodbye Jumbo, 1990)
“The Walls Are Coming Down” – Fanfarlo (Reservoir, 2009)
“I Know The End” – Phoebe Bridgers (Punisher, 2020)

Between reality and madness (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.09 – Sept. 2020)

The famous Becket line keeps playing in my head: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” That pretty much describes my head space here in September 2020, with corruption institutionalized, the pandemic yet untamed, and democracy itself on the ballot. We’ve been stuck, somewhere between reality and madness, for months on end. Someday this will all make sense, in retrospect, like everything else. In the meantime, I invite another playlist into your lives. And I’ve done you the service of putting the song I’d most like you to hear right at the top this month, so you won’t miss it—it’s a song from the Paris-based Brit Kate Stables, who does musical business as This Is The Kit, and it’s itchy and insistent and preternaturally wonderful. (“You thought you didn’t like the banjo but you were wrong pal,” says her Bandcamp page.) “This Is What You Did” came out in June; her album is coming in October. I of course would like you to listen to all the rest of the songs too but I know how life goes. But if you happen to have the time, I hope you enjoy the latest meandering adventure through the years and the genres, this time including three from our damaged new decade. Music doesn’t help, music helps. Stay strong.

The playlist:

“This Is What You Did” – This is the Kit (single, 2020; album due in October)
“Ain’t Nothing Gonna Change Me” – Betty Everett (single, 1971)
“Wounded” – Nik Kershaw (To Be Frank, 2001)
“Mary’s Prayer” – Danny Wilson (Meet Danny Wilson, 1987)
“Lost On You” – LP (Lost On You, 2016)
“Queen of the Night” – Michel van der Aa feat. Kate Miller-Heidke (Time Falling, 2020)
“Little Red Book” – Love (single, 1966)
“She’s a Girl and I’m a Man” – Lloyd Cole (Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe, 1991)
“No Man’s Woman” – Sinéad O’Connor (Faith and Courage, 2000)
“Lay This Burden Down” – Mary Love (single, 1967)
“Panic in the World” – Be Bop Deluxe (Drastic Plastic, 1978)
“Class” – Chicago – The Musical (feat. Bebe Neuwrith, Marcia Lewis) (1996 Broadway
Revival Cast album, 1997)
“Been Here Before” – Jeremy Enigk (World Waits, 2006)
“Hum Dono” – Joe Marriott, Amancio D’Silva Quartet (Hum Dono, 1969)
“She’s a Sensation” – The Ramones (Pleasant Dreams, 1981)
“Placeholder” – Hand Habits (Placeholder, 2019)
“Late Night Conversation” – Josh Rouse (Dressed Up Like Nebraska, 1997)
“Feels Like the First Time” – Corinne Bailey Rae (The Sea, 2010)
“Summer, Highland Falls” – Billy Joel (Turnstiles, 1976)
“I Do” – Misty Boyce (single, 2020)

Bonus explanatory notes below the widget…

* Kate Miller-Heidke is a long-standing Fingertips favorite (first featured back in 2005), not least because of her idiosyncratic range of musical interests. And of course that incisive, wide-ranging voice. Here she has hooked up with a Dutch composer named Michel van der Aa, who has previously written in “contemporary classical” mode but has a background in indie rock; this comes from his first effort to make something of a rock album–Time Falling, released back in January. Idiosyncratic and prickly, it’s apparently a bit of a concept album, circling around the concept of infinity, and inspired by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Federico García Lorca, Emily Dickinson, and others. Miller-Heidke handles all the lead vocals, and co-wrote two songs, including this one. You can check the whole thing out, and purchase it, on Bandcamp.

* I’m hoping that Lloyd Cole’s insistently catchy “She’s a Girl and I’m a Man” is intentionally sexist-sounding, in order to make a point, but just in case I’m reading this wrong (it was after all released in 1991), let’s run that one into Sinéad O’Connor’s blazing anti-patriarchy anthem, 2000’s underrated “No Man’s Woman.” And no, Sinéad doesn’t always write lyrics that scan, but for my ears anyway her voice makes up for it.

* Where has “Lay This Burden Down” been all my life? I only recently stumbled upon it, which I guess goes to show what great soul nuggets remain out there to be found. That chorus with the delayed melody line (i.e., how those opening lines each begin on the measure’s second beat): it’s as iconic sounding as an old soul record can be, and no doubt became so some years after its original release, on the UK Northern Soul scene. All of Mary’s original singles, most recorded for the L.A.-based Modern Records label, were first gathered onto an album in 1994, along with songs from the gospel-oriented second phase of her career, in the 1980s. A more recent version of her collected singles was released in 2014.

* Danny Wilson, from Scotland, was a band, not a person. They were originally named Spencer Tracy, but got some blowback from the actor’s estate. This was the song they were known for, although the album had some other good things. The band split with no hard feelings after two albums. Front man Gary Clark went on to a successful career as a songwriter and producer, which continues as we speak.

* At this point, the methodical, reclusive musician Jeremy Enigk seems like a figure from another time and place entirely. First coming into some renown as leader of the somewhat mysterious and influential band Sunny Day Real Estate, in the 1990s, Enigk has had a slow-moving solo career, highlighted by a long hiatus or two and the distinct lack of a public-facing persona. “Been Here Before” is a stately, gorgeous piece from his 2006 album, World Waits, released 10 years after his first album. His most recent recording is 2017’s Ghosts.

* I’ve always loved “She’s a Sensation,” a somewhat forgotten gem in the Ramones catalog. You can really hear their Brill Building fandom cooked into this one, and the way Joey funneled his adenoidal pique into something that veers into genuine tenderness by the second hook.

I’ve been through enough lately

Eclectic Playlist Series 7.08 – August 2020

Even as I take pains to keep it from dominating these playlists, good old classic rock, my long-time area of focus and expertise, is always going to have a place here. It is something of my task, in fact, not only to keep worthy classic rock songs in people’s awareness, but to enhance their impact, by mixing them in and around music from other genres and other eras. A simple idea, so rarely done in this age of siloed listening. I would draw your attention to all three classic rock entries this month, as two of them in particular epitomize the kinds of great songs that have been generally ignored by what’s become of the genre both on the radio and on the internet. First there’s the opener, Thin Lizzy’s “Do Anything You Want To Do,” which is wonderfully emblematic of this underrated band’s sound without (thankfully) being “The Boys Are Back In Town.” And then, about halfway down, you’ll hear “Immigration Man,” a song that was regularly heard on FM radio in the ’70s—it even cracked the top 40—but dropped off the radar with the passing of years. This was Crosby and Nash without Stills (or, of course, Young), from the first of four studio albums they made as a duo. A few songs later you’ll hear one of Steely Dan’s finest compositions, perhaps a little less forgotten, and about which more below. In and around these chestnuts, I’m offering the usual mix of the unusually mixed—old soul, 2020 pop, Brazilian instrumental, new wave, singer-songwriter, indie rock, reggae: it’s all in here, and then some, including at least one great if accidental segue. Stay safe, stay strong, and happy listening…

The playlist:

“Do Anything You Want To” – Thin Lizzy (Black Rose: A Rock Legend, 1979)
“What It Is” – Angel Olsen (All Mirrors, 2019)
“Un bacio è troppo poco” – Mina (b-side, 1965)
“I’m In Love With a German Film Star” – The Passions (Thirty Thousand Feet Over China, 1981)
“Heart’s Desire” – Ron Sexsmith (Cobblestone Runway, 2002)
“Flavor of the Month” – The Posies (Frosting on the Beater, 1993)
“Daisy” – Kate Davis (Trophy, 2019)
“Me and the Wind” – XTC (Mummer, 1983)
“Immigration Man” – David Crosby & Graham Nash (Graham Nash David Crosby, 1972)
“My Future” – Billie Eilish (single, 2020)
“Stronger Than Love” – James Carr (A Man Needs a Woman, 1968)
“Westby” – Kathleen Edwards (Failer, 2003)
“Doctor Wu” – Steely Dan (Katy Lied, 1975)
“Best Intentions” – Satchmode (Collide, 2014)
“2:1” – Elastica (Elastica, 1995)
“Got To Be Tough” – Toots and the Maytals (Got To Be Tough, 2020)
“Glamour Boys” – Living Colour (Pride, 1988)
“Maria Moita” – Sérgio Mendes (The Swinger From Rio, 1968)
“Lightning Strikes Twice” – Saint Etienne (Tales From Turnpike House, 2005)
“After This” – Kate Rusby (Ghost, 2014)

Bonus explanatory notes below the widget…

* Kathleen Edwards released her first album in eight years this month as I was curating this playlist. I’m still absorbing the album—it’s good!—and in the meantime felt moved to return to her stellar debut for one of its many incisive tunes. “Westby” is jaunty, mischievous, and brazenly catchy, a sure sign of a 25-year-old singer-songwriter with a promising future. That she, burnt out and disillusioned, interrupted her musical career to run a coffee shop in Ottawa (named Quitters) for eight years merely enhanced her credentials as an honest to goodness human being. Now 42, she sounds sharp and unfettered. Check out the new album at Bandcamp: https://kathleenedwards.bandcamp.com/album/total-freedom.

* Public service announcement: I suggest that you do not search for the Sérgio Mendes album A Swinger From Rio without your “safe search” settings on, unless you are sure you are alone. And even then.

* “Doctor Wu” is a high-water moment for Steely Dan, and (I’d argue) for rock’n’roll. Its flowing melodicism, harmonic craftiness, lyrical flair, and exquisite musicianship speak to the goals of a different generation, maybe, but it still sparkles to my 2020 ears. (#TwinstheNewTrend actually did dive into some Steely Dan a while back; a simpler song—“Do It Again”—but well worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqITzPGD0Ko) It’s moronic to me that the Dan caught any backlash for their craft but I guess there will always be those who choose, to quote the poet, to criticize what they can’t understand. My only complaint about Fagan & Becker is that they seemed to lose their melodic gifts in their advancing years (as many older artists do for one reason or another), rooting their later-catalog songs in groove and atmosphere. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but I will always prefer “Doctor Wu” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Deacon Blues”—songs that manage to be easily accessible and musically interesting at the same time.

* For a number of mental-health-related reasons, I have trained myself to steer clear of the over-heated, insta-feedback world of social media, so I have no idea where Billie Eilish stands in this precise moment within that culture. All I know is what I hear with my ears and as such, from my perspective, this still very young musician (she’ll be 19 in December) is proving herself to be a durable and dynamic star, capable of blending up-to-date sounds and rhythms with a sense of melody and musical know-how that feels wise beyond her years. I respect most of all those who themselves show respect. (Note that if this were more generally true we could not be in the pickle we’re in, a country led by a human with no respect for anything or anyone.) I look forward to witnessing whatever Ms. Eilish chooses to do with her future.

* For you Elvis Costello fans who appreciated “Sulky Girl” last month, I have an Elvis-adjacent nugget this time around—the song “Un bacio è troppo poco,” from the Italian songstress Mina. Born Anna Maria Mazzini, she was and still is a huge star in Italy, having recorded some 79 albums (!), including four since 2015. The Elvis connection, which is how I know this song: the sultry beginning of “Un bacio è troppo poco” is used as an offbeat, ongoing sample throughout EC’s offhandedly monumental “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” the semi-title track to his 2002 album.

* Accidentally great segue of the month, for you segue fans: “Daisy” into “Me and the Wind.” I’m generally aiming for reasonably effective segues but this kind of thing I pretty much stumble into without planning it. Simple pleasures feel especially powerful right now.

You wouldn’t believe me if I said

Eclectic Playlist Series 7.07 – July 2020

Little did Natalie Laura Mering, doing musical business as Weyes Blood, realize what a wild time was yet in store when she released Titanic Rising last year. Or maybe she did: “Everyone’s broken now and no one knows just how/ We could have all gotten so far from truth.” I will spare you the rant that I wrote after this in my first draft, and move us right into the mix. Just note that it’s up to any of us who are trying to remain sane and well-informed and compassionate to continue to find the wherewithal to be a human being, and offer comfort and solace to others attempting the same bravura feat. Let music be an ongoing gift through these wild times.

The playlist:

“Slow Burn” – David Bowie (Heathen, 2002)
“Tired of Toein’ the Line” – Rocky Burnette (The Son of Rock’n’Roll, 1979)
“Glass Jar” – Tristen (Sneaker Waves, 2017)
“Think Too Hard” – Syd Straw (Surprise, 1989)
“Feeling Good” – Nina Simone (I Put A Spell On You, 1965)
“Sulky Girl” – Elvis Costello (Brutal Youth, 1994)
“Jaco” – Pat Metheny Group (Pat Metheny Group, 1978)
“Julia’s Call” – Lake Ruth (Birds of America, 2018)
“Mississippi” – Bob Dylan (Love and Theft, 2001)
“No New Tale To Tell” – Love and Rockets (Earth Sun Moon, 1987)
“Look The Other Way” – Lesley Gore (b-side, 1968)
“Wild Time” – Weyes Blood (Titanic Rising, 2019)
“Your Racist Friend” – They Might Be Giants (Flood, 1990)
“Read My Mind” – The Killers (Sam’s Town, 2006)
“Detroit or Buffalo” – Barbara Keith (Barbara Keith, 1972)
“Black Metallic” – Catherine Wheel (Ferment, 1992)
“Tesla Girls” – Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (Junk Culture, 1988)
“Band of Gold” – Freda Payne (Band of Gold, 1970)
“I’m Not Getting Excited” – The Beths (Jump Rope Gazers, 2020)
“Night Train” – Oscar Peterson (Night Train, 1963)

Bonus explanatory notes below the widget…

* “Feeling Good,” rendered extraordinary by Nina Simone, is a song from the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, composed by Anthony Newley and Lesley Bricusse. Simone’s now-classic interpretation takes the song into a new place, and so richly that the source has been all but forgotten. (Newley’s own take, though, is actually quite good if differently nuanced [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYF__H4PSUA], and exhibit A for anyone wondering who David Bowie’s biggest influences were.)

* Speaking of Mr. Bowie: of all the various “comebacks” of the great man’s career, one of the more overlooked is his return to form in the early ’00s, with the albums Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003). These accessible and high-quality releases followed 15 years of post-Let’s Dance albums dominated by experimentation and musical wandering that largely disappointed both critics and fans (the one exception being 1993’s underrated Black Tie White Noise). This time frame saw his veering off into the Tin Machine era, and culminated in three difficult to digest albums in the later ’90s that each found a smaller following than the last (ending with 1999’s oddly titled ‘hours…’). Heathen, conversely, sounded like a Bowie album for the ages, its melancholy grandeur aligning rather bleakly with our post-9/11 world. And yet, in all the career summaries emerging after his death in 2016, it seemed largely forgotten. I offer “Slow Burn” as a reminder of the album’s power, generated in part by Pete Townshend’s heroic guitar work. And now you can’t not hear Anthony Newley.

* There is oddly little information out there about the trio Lake Ruth, but I do know that I have a particular affinity for front woman Allison Brice’s vocals—she’s got that rounded, smoky tone that you don’t hear very often, and remains difficult to describe. Vocally, I am reminded of dear, departed Kirsty MacColl, which prompts immediate hearts here in Fingertipsland. The music is synthy but warm, and quite different from Brice’s work with the ’00s London-based sextet The Eighteenth Day of May (previously featured in a playlist this past November, in the before days.) This song comes from the band’s second full-length release, 2018’s Birds of America.

* “Your Racist Friend”: always, sadly, in season.

* Rocky Burnette, as per the title of his album, is in fact the son of early rock’n’roll star Johnny Burnette. This song is by and large Rocky’s only claim to fame to date, but it’s a fun one; what “Tired of Toein’ the Line” lacks in depth it makes up for in earnest glee and unrelenting hookiness. It was a top 10 hit in the U.S., and a number of other countries, back in 1980. Burnette is still out there somewhere, but not musically active since a spurt of new activity in the ’90s.

* One more note about Weyes Blood: check out the album cover when you have a chance—the scene was constructed and photographed under water, for real.

* While I continue to try to take in Bob Dylan’s latest ramblings (i.e., the intermittently compelling, extravagantly praised Rough and Rowdy Ways), I feel compelled to return to what to my ears was his last great album: Love and Theft. This too is tied to 9/11 (released that very day, in fact), but has otherwise little to do with that calamity, being instead a loose, often humorous, ongoingly offbeat collection of songs and performances. While this album introduced us to the shuffly, old-timey persona Dylan was unexpectedly morphing into, it also contained honest to goodness musical variety and lyrical sharpness. To this day I count “Mississippi” as his last masterpiece, a song that stands up to most anything in his ’60s and ’70s pantheon.

* Speaking of later compositions that belong in an artist’s pantheon, I will tip my hat here to the fierce and melodic “Sulky Girl,” a generally disregarded gem from Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth album. The release was notable to us Elvis lovers for reuniting the Attractions for the first time since 1986; his long-time backing band, complete with personality kerfuffles, recorded together on five of the album’s 15 tracks. “Sulky Girl” is a standout, calling to mind the vehemence of his “angry young man” days tempered with the mature dynamism of his ongoing artistic evolution.

* And then we have “Band of Gold,” one of 20th-century top 40 radio’s shining moments, a song with such mysterious pull that its lyrical enigmas and/or unconventionality glide right by. Without listening too closely, you can read this as a standard tale of heartbreak. But the lyrics reveal a marriage in which the man, for unstated reasons, can’t perform sexually, and abandons his newlywed bride, leaving her frustrated and disappointed. Not the usual pop song fare in those days. Written by the mighty songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the song was credited to two other names, for contractual reasons at the time. But it is one of their very best.

A chance to talk (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.06 – June 2020)

I’m not here to preach, but I am here to try to be a human being, however lost a mere human being has become in the chaotic sea of systems, policies, memes, propaganda, and brutality that characterizes life in 2020. First and foremost, at this consequential moment in time, I recognize, in my own humanity, many flaws and failings. (By the way, name one honorable and effective person in the history of civilization who claimed always to be the best, who could confront detractors only with insults. I’ll save you time: you can’t.) I recognize that for all my liberal ideals and progressive tendencies, I have lived a long adult life without deeply considering the lived experiences of people of color in America. I mean, I knew about it, and was in pain about it at some abstract level—but at another level, I can see that I simply went about my (privileged) day, unable and/or unwilling to let the uncomfortable reality sink in. Of course I’ll never know, experientially, what it’s like and what it’s been like to live as a person of color in this pseudo-democratic and deeply hypocritical country of ours. But here’s what I can do: I can put myself in the position of needing to learn, needing to have new conversations, needing to have new responses to this world we’re in, this congenitally damaged country that looks much better on paper than it does on the streets where we live.

But: there’s no doing this with a playlist. I won’t even pretend. The best I can do is offer a mix of songs this month, similar to my usual efforts, some of which you may find thoughtful and relevant to the present moment, others of which have no particular connection besides being intangibly part of the flow I put together as someone striving to observe and feel into this fateful hour. As I said, I’m not here to preach. I am simply here to say that we can and must do this together. I’ll let the musical current of this latest mix pull us eventually towards Rickie Lee Jones’ world-weary grace, in the elegiac “Running From Mercy”:

Oh sacred patience with my soul abide
There’s a rainbow above me that the storm clouds hide

Keep hope alive, through the darkness. It’s what humans do.

Full playlist and extra notes below the widget:

“Keep On Keeping On” – Curtis Mayfield (Roots, 1971)
“Praise Song For a New Day” – Suzzy & Maggie Roche (Zero Church, 2001)
“Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” – The Korgis (Dumb Waiters, 1980)
“Cara de espejo” – Juana Molina (Halo, 2017)
“Love You To” – The Beatles (Revolver, 1966)
“Actor Out Of Work” – St. Vincent (Actor, 2009)
“Can’t Fight” – Lianne La Havas (single, 2020)
“Spinning Away” – Brian Eno & John Cale (Wrong Way Up, 1990)
“Smile” – Cristina (Sleep It Off, 1984)
“Try to Remember – The Fantasticks (featuring Jerry Orbach) (Original cast album, 1960)
“Baedeker” – Gabriel Kahane (Book of Travelers, 2013)
“Freedom Rider” – Traffic (John Barleycorn Must Die, 1970)
“Maiden Voyage” – Herbie Hancock (Maiden Voyage, 1965)
“The Charade” – D’Angelo and the Vanguard (Black Messiah, 2014)
“Held Down” – Laura Marling (Songs For Our Daughter, 2020)
“No Mermaid” – Sinéad Lohan (No Mermaid, 1998)
“Zero Hour” – Attention (single, 1983)
“Solace” – Scott Joplin/ Richard Zimmerman (Scott Joplin: His Greatest Hits, 1974 [1909 composition])
“Albert” – Ed Laurie (Meanwhile in the Park, 2006)
“Running From Mercy” – Rickie Lee Jones (Traffic From Paradise, 1993)

* This is the second song I’ve featured here from Gabriel Kahane’s ongoingly impressive Book of Travelers. It was released in the aftermath of one tragedy—the election of an historically ill-prepared and unprincipled man to the U.S. presidency (these are facts, not political statements)—and continues to fit the mood of the country, in its effort to find dignity in our individual stories, despite where we find ourselves collectively.

* From its origins in an unadorned Off-Broadway show, “Try To Remember” became a drippy standard covered by several zillion crooners and divas and wedding singers over the years. There’s a part of my ear that overlooks all that to remain charmed by the song’s plaintive melody and semi-miraculous chord changes. I keep hearing something elusive and profound in the simple progression in the verse—the movement from “When life was slow” to “and oh so mellow.” Extra points here for a chance to recall that the late great Jerry Orbach was far more than a network procedural fixture.

* “Zero Hour” from the NYC band Attention is a song with next to no internet trail. I discovered it via a Spanish blog offering a thrillingly exhaustive overview of semi-forgotten and entirely forgotten new wave songs, El ABC de la New Wave. I was mostly scanning the offerings for songs I used to know but have lost track of, but along the way I’ve unearthed a few gems I’d never heard before, including this one. According to Discogs, there was the “Zero Hour” single in 1983, a five-song “mini-album” in 1985, and that’s that. Given the generic nature of the band’s name, even if there’s some biographical information buried somewhere online, it’s not going to be easy to find; to make matters worse, another band named Attention has come along in the 21st century, so the earlier band is effectively a ghost.

* And then we have Zero Church, the album released by two of the three Roche sisters, originally slated for a 9/11/01 release, but delayed four months in the aftermath. It’s an unusual album; the origin story is too complicated to explain in a brief note, but the album’s exploration of complex social issues via prayers set to music seems as timely as ever.

* Laura Marling gets deeper and more astonishing with each album. And she’s only now 30. That she has been in a master’s program studying psychoanalysis for the last couple of years endears her to me all the more. Too many of today’s musicians seem so relentlessly one-dimensional, and all too ensnared in our culture of shallow digitalia. I’ll take a singer/songwriter working on her master’s degree over a YouTube sensation singing about his girlfriend every time.

* The trailblazing singer and writer Cristina Monet Zilkha, who performed simply as Cristina, died at the end of March of complications related to COVID-19; she was 64. A pioneer in a new musical realm combining punk attitude with pop sensibilities, Cristina has been retroactively credited with laying the groundwork for the mainstream success of a series of acclaimed pop stars, from Madonna through Lady Gaga. She was associated with the legendary “no wave” record label ZE Records, recording the label’s first-ever release. The song “Smile” was recorded for her second album, 1984’s Sleep It Off, but didn’t appear until a 2004 re-release, as a bonus track. Its sure-handed chops—you might almost call this power pop, with an edge—are due as much to Cristina’s vocal presence as to songwriters Don and David Was, whose band Was (Not Was) was originally signed to ZE Records.

* Lastly, I’m going to let D’Angelo speak for himself. That song came out six years ago.

Got any what? (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.05 – May 2020)

Months tick by. I hope you all are hanging in there, and trust that if you have the time and energy and life circumstances to be reading this right now, that you’re doing basically okay, which is to say better than many. But it’s still weird and stressful and surreal, all the more surreal because we’ve all kind of gotten used to the surreality: the people in masks, the deliveries, the not-gatherings, the endless Zoom-ing.

So here’s the latest playlist to accompany our collective dream state, which isn’t a dream at all, sadly. We open with an indescribably great track from the indescribably great new Waxahatchee album (a song with the all too appropriate title “Can’t Do Much”) and travel on from there: we’ve got classic rock nuggets, obscure garage rock, an all-time Northern Soul standard, and (wait for it) Wham!. Among others. We aim for joy, surrounded by a “chain of sorrow,” to use the indelible words of the late great John Prine. To belatedly join in the outpouring honoring his brilliant-humble memory and legacy, I found myself latching onto one of his strangest and most affecting songs, from a Bruised Orange album that came at the height of his powers. You can read about the back story elsewhere but I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy its quiet grace. Full playlist below the widget.

“Can’t Do Much” – Waxahatchee (Saint Cloud, 2020)
“No Matter What” – Badfinger (No Dice, 1970)
“I Walked” – Sufjan Stevens (The Age of Adz, 2010)
“A New Love Today” – The Debutantes (single, 1966)
“You’ve Had Me Everywhere” – Of Montreal (UR Fun, 2020)
“Freedom” – Wham! (Make It Big, 1985)
“City Morning Song” – Sarah Shannon (City Morning Song, 2006)
“Eleventh Earl of Mar” – Genesis (Wind & Wuthering, 1977)
“Precious Little” – Eleanor McEvoy (What’s Following Me?, 1996)
“Charlie Don’t Surf” – The Clash (Sandinista!, 1980)
“He Will Break Your Heart” – Jerry Butler (single, 1960)
“Stay Alive” – Hollie Cook (Vessel of Love, 2014)
“Kiss Them For Me” – Siouxsie and the Banshees (Superstition, 1991)
“Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone” – John Prine (Bruised Orange, 1978)
“New Orleans Blues” – Tom McDermott & Lucia Micarelli (Treme: Music From The HBO Original Series, Season 1, 2010)
“(You) Got What I Need” – Freddie Scott (single, 1968)
“Put On Your Light” – Hezekiah Jones with Clare Callahan (Come To Our Pool Party, 2007)
“Das Model” – Kraftwerk (The Man-Machine, 1978)
“May Queen” – Liz Phair (Whip-Smart, 1994)
“See How We Are” – X (See How We Are, 1987)

More notes to note:

* To my ears the Of Montreal album UR Fun deserved a bit more attention than it seemed to get. There were any number of songs I might have selected, settling on one that just seemed to fit best into the playlist flow. I will take a side swipe at the perpetually imperious critic class, some of whom with tiring inevitability blind themselves with preconceptions and misperceptions, such as the Pitchfork critic who said that UR Fun “often sounds more like a patchwork of soft-boiled singles than an album with a cohesive narrative arc.” All of a sudden an album requires a “cohesive narrative arc”? The thing is musical, endearing, and, yes, fun. Give it a stream if you get a chance.

* While I hesitate to too readily turn each month’s playlist into an “in memoriam” segment, it’s hard to resist reaching into the catalog of a just-passed artist to remember and reflect and, sometimes, even to re-assess. So, me, I was never a big Kraftwerk fan back in the day. But as the decades passed it became clearer and clearer what a visionary band this was. Sometimes it seemed to me music to appreciate more than enjoy but a lot of great artists were far more tuned in to them and their accomplishments from the outset than I certainly was—their focus on repetitive rhythms often obscured their melodic sensibility, to my ears. With the death this month of the band’s co-founder Florian Schneider, I took some time to go back and check out some things I’d never properly listened to. This little pop number is from an album, The Man-Machine, that came out the same year as Bruised Orange. The ’70s were a wonderful thing, musically.

* I managed to overlook Liz Phair’s terrific Whip-Smart for many years. As in love as I became with her next one, Whitechocolatespaceegg, I finally tip-toed back into album number two and discovered lots of great things, including the little gem of a tune presented in this month’s mix. The way she sings the words “Got any what?” is so brilliant (listen to how she slightly delays, draws out, then snaps closed the word “what”) I had to bring extra attention to it here. What a fantastic, intuitive singer and songwriter she is; just about everything she’s done turns out to seem even better in retrospect, including her much-decried self-titled album in 2003. I am super excited about her upcoming album, Soberish, due for release some time later this year.

* I think I’m turning into a Siouxsie and the Banshees fan after all these years; in any case, their singles in particular are never anything but a welcome addition to a playlist.

* “New Orleans Blues” is a short, appealing instrumental found on the soundtrack to the great, semi-forgotten HBO show Treme, one of my favorite television programs of all time. (Everyone knows The Wire, another David Simon co-creation, but seems to ignore this one.) The violinist here, Lucia Micarelli, was also an actress in the show, which featured incredible music and a mix of real-life and fictional musician characters. Steve Earle had a regular role, playing a character, but (slight spoiler) don’t get too attached to him.

* Yes it’s Wham! Always loved this song and probably always will.