Hey, 2016. Can we talk? I’m not gonna lie to you (ding!), you’re starting to piss me off. First Bowie, then Phife, now bloody Prince? Really? Enough already. As others have already said:
Anyway, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Prince was great. He was arguably the greatest solo artist in the history of music. Not only was he a phenomenal songwriter, performer, guitar player, multi-instrumentalist and producer, you could make a reasonable argument that he was the best of his generation at all of those things.
For proof of the talent that seemingly oozed from every pore, you can make a better than average playlist of songs that he wrote (or, in the case of Stevie Nicks, inspired and elevated to another level) and gave away to other artists. Well, I did in fact make said playlist. Most artists would kill to have 10 songs this good, soulful and funky as their career top 10.
Maybe a few decades down the road, you’ll meet some youngster that doubts what a great musician Prince was. In you find yourself in this situation, show them these videos, especially the first one.
In typical Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame fashion, a bunch of older white guys have achieved the near impossible, turning a Beatles song into a complete bore. That is until Prince digs in around the 3:30 mark and absolutely blows the doors off the room with his solo. AND WHERE DOES HIS GUITAR GO AT THE END? Waiting for him in heaven is what I have to assume.
If that wasn’t amazing enough, he also managed to turn one of the most boring events of the years, The Super Bowl halftime show, into one of the most thrilling live performances anyone has ever seen. And he did it in howling wind and pouring rain, with live mics and guitars. Unbelievable.
And there’s this. Prince was so famously protective of his music and image that few if any of his songs or performance have made their way up on the YouTubes. He even tried to have this divine cover of Radiohead’s Creep removed, until Radiohead gently reminded everyone involved that this was, in fact, their song, and Prince didn’t have the power to have it removed. Watch the guitar playing in the last couple of minutes. We overuse the word amazing, I know, but I think it’s quite applicable here.
RIP to another one of the greats. I look forward to the new album from you (featuring Bowie, Lemmy, Phife and a slew of others) that will inevitably follow telling how funky and groovy the afterlife is.
Ok, so remember when I promised a new playlist every Friday, complete with insightful analysis of 10 or so of the better or more interesting tracks? Maybe that was a bit ambitious, but never let it be said that I completely welch on a promise, as I give to you a playlist from one of the greatest bands of the past 20 years, Sleater-Kinney. It’s 25 tracks of pure, 100% fried gold, rocking goodness.
Frankly, these awesome ladies deserve a few thousand worlds of thoughtful analysis and praise (seriously, have you heard how awesome Little Babies is? And You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun? And basically every song on this list?), but it’s pushing midnight and I’ve got an early class to teach tomorrow. A man needs his beauty sleep, you know.
If you follow us on Facebook, you may be saying to yourself that this playlist looks familiar, and you would be absolutely correct. I shared this playlist a few weeks ago in the wake of David Bowie’s passing, so technically speaking this entry is a bit of a cheat, but quite frankly I like this collection of songs so much that I couldn’t resist sharing it again as part of this series without modification.
You can probably count on one hand the number of performers with the depth and breadth of career that David Bowie had. What struck me immediately when putting this list together was that two of the very best songs the man ever recorded were released mere days before his death at the age of 69. Can you think of many artists recording in the 1960s that produced such quality work so late in their life? I didn’t think so.
Here’s the playlist, with the tracks in rough chronological order to give you the best appreciation for Bowie’s development, transformations, and longevity.
Quite frankly it’s a stunning body of work. Here are a few of the personal highlights for me.
The Man Who Sold The World: Though it was later made famous by Nirvana’s performance during their MTV Unplugged set in 1993, I’ve always preferred the original. (And btw, the way people talk about Nirvana’s rendition, you would have thought it was a complete reimagining of the song. But it’s not too far of field from this take.) The song floats along over an eerie organ sounds played by Bowie himself, but the real star here though are the multiple layers of overdubbed, harmonic vocals that close the song out, sounding like a group of rather melodic ghosts haunting an abandoned old mansion.
Oh! You Pretty Things: Probably my personal favorite Bowie track and a definite high point of one of rock’s essential albums, Hunky Dory. Part ragtime, part The Beatle’s White Album-era album track, it’s quintessential early 70s Bowie: bleak, philosophical lyrics about the coming obsolesce of humanity contrasted masterfully with a jaunty, almost annoyingly catch piano and chorus. True genius.
Suffragette City: It’s been said Bowie could perform basically any style, and here is the definitive slice of raw, unbridled glam rock for the ages, propelled by one of the greatest guitar openings in history and a blazing piano riff. How this song failed to chart as a single is a mystery right up there with Stonehenge and The Bermuda Triangle.
White Light/White Heat: If there’s an artist beyond Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground that was born to perform this song, it’s Bowie. This version turns up the glam on the original while still capturing the underlying thrill and eventual darkness of its subject matter.
Young Americans: Perhaps only David Bowie had the instincts and talent to pull of the “British white guy goes Philadelphia soul” trick and do it quite so well. This is because Bowie didn’t simply try and ape the style from a studio in London. He went to Philadelphia to live and record, hiring and surrounding himself with local musicians and singers, including a then relatively unknown Luther Vandross, who would tour as part of Bowie’s backing band for the subsequent tour.
Sound and Vision: Most artists would trade the majority of their careers to have an album like Hunky Dory or The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust in their catalog. The fact that Bowie claims those and a work as stunning and creative as Low in the same decade is well nigh unbelievable and frankly seems a bit unfair. The first of three Bowie electric collaborations with Brian Eno as part of the “Berlin Trilogy,” the same sessions that would produce the iconic “Heroes”.
Modern Love: How many songs can claim to have Stevie Ray Vaughn and Nile Rodgers playing guitar on the same track? Despite the overabundance of firepower on guitar, it’s the bitching horn section that really makes this early 80s gem run at top speed.
I’m Afraid of Americans: This is an icy, sardonic slice of fuzzed-out electronic bliss about the homogenization of world culture under the onslaught of American consumerism. Another output of the fruitful Bowie-Eno partnership, it features a killer video featuring Trent Reznor that plays homage to Taxi Driver.
The Stars (Are Out Tonight): After nearly a decade away from recording and performing, Bowie returned with the shockingly good The Next Day. Does this song reach the giddy heights of his very best work? Of course not, but it’s vital and miles beyond what you have the right to expect from someone in their SIXTH decade of performing and recording.
Lazarus: If The Next Day was a wonderful, unexpected surprise, then Lazarus seems like a gift from the gods. The record, especially the title track, are achingly good, especially with the narrative of the record as Bowie’s planned farewell. The video for this song is haunting, as Bowie looks every bit the part of a dying man as he sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”
Enjoy the playlist and celebrate one of the few artists of our time that deserves the moniker “genius”.
When I was considering which musical act to kick off the Artist Essential playlist series, it didn’t take me long to settle on Radiohead. Not only are they one of my favorite bands of all time, their insistence on evolving as artists and refusal to cover the same ground twice make it unbelievably challenging to try and capture the essence of their sound in one playlist. The band that broke onto the scene in the early 90s with Creep bears little to no resemblance to the one that released The King of Limbs three years ago. To wit:
At 40 tracks long, this playlist reaches the upper limit I set for myself in the series rules, but even so it seems woefully lacking, with at least a dozen songs foundering in the wake that could have easily been included. Consider then that I wasn’t even able to consider one of their very best albums, In Rainbows, which is not found on Spotify, and you get an idea of the scope of the task.
Anyway, challenges aside, I’m more than pleased with the outcome here. Rather than bore you with a 5000 word piece that struggles to find 40 different ways to say “this song is awesome,” I’ve limited this post to write ups on 10 of the more interesting inclusions on the playlist.
Stop Whispering: Hands down the best song on Pablo Honey, which somehow has become much maligned due to the ubiquitous Creep. I’m here to remind you that it’s a heck of a fun record to sing along with in the car at the top of your lungs, which quite honestly you can’t say about many Radiohead albums.
Let Down: Let Down is my by no means the best song ever written, it’s not even the best song on OK Computer (that honor belongs to Lucky), but it most definitely IS the best song ever to listen to obsessively in the dark with a decent of studio monitoring headphones. This hot mess of a song, with dueling time signatures, complex layering, and overdubbed harmonies, reaches a thrilling, exhilarating, climatic release at the 3:40 mark, signaling one pop music’s absolute zeniths.
The Daily Mail/Fake Plastic Trees: Released nearly 20 years apart, these songs in their own way represent the blueprint that multiple imitators tried and mostly failed to replicate. On the surface it seems quite simple: a simple piano or guitar ballad that starts slowly, and steadily builds into heavier, messier track before fading. The trick is, instead of coming back to a louder, more “rock” finale like you expect, both tracks simply fade away. Much like the great jazz, these songs impress as much with the notes that aren’t played as as with the ones that are. Plus, they are just awesome.
Myxamatosis: Just your typical mix of a fuzz-drenched, un-danceable dance rhythm propelled by an almost criminally complex drum line, with lyrics about a pompous, lothario cat that may or may not be suffering from an obscure disease normally found in rabbits. How could it not be good?
Lotus Flower: The killer song from The King of Limbs that launched a million Thom Yorke/Beyonce mashup gifs with one video.
How to Disappear Completely: The best track from Kid A, one of the defining albums of the 2000s. Alienation, longing, loneliness and despair, and rolled into one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre. The guitars, string instruments, and ethereal electronic sounds that pan across the track create a soundscape unlike nothing else I’ve heard in modern pop music.
Polyethylene Pts. 1&2: Here’s the truly astounding (or infuriating, depending on your perspective) things about Radiohead: of the 40 songs on this playlist, 9 of them received no official release on a studio album, surfacing only as B-sides, bootlegs, or reissues, including this one. Had they wanted, Radiohead probably had enough The Bends/OK Computer songs that sounded enough the very best tracks from those stellar records to release at least two more records that “sounded” like Radiohead. This makes the decision to instead pivot to the sound of the brilliant Kid A instead only that much more astounding. For better or worse, depending upon your outlook, they would rarely return to the three guitar sound that defined their best easy work.
True Love Waits: Barring a miracle reworking or inclusion of True Love Waits on a future release, Radiohead will likely go down as the biggest act in modern recorded music history to withhold their arguably best pure song from a proper album release.
Motion Picture Soundtrack: Radiohead excel at absolutely killer album closing tracks, and this one from Kid A may be the best. Mournful organ and accordion sounds give way to angelic, sweeping harps and the soaring ondes martenot, as Thom Yorke sings of red wine, sleeping pills, cheap sex, and sad films, culminating with a promise to see you in the next life. Simultaneously thrilling, deeply sad, and soaked to the hilt in regret.
Feel free to comment and tell me how woefully wrong I am and/or which one of your favorites I left out. I’m not even finished with this post, and already I’m kicking myself for leaving Fog (Again) out of the mix.
Allow me to be the millionth person to point this out, but 2015 was a pretty great year for music. And if you can put down your copy of 25 long enough to listen for a bit, I’ll prove it to you with this year’s best of playlist. There’s old favorites revived, established darlings exceeding the hype, new artists making a serious name for themselves, and world beating pop stars shattering sales records like it was 1983. It makes for an entertaining playlist, so please take a listen and do enjoy.
(Shout out to Joanna Newsom, whose Divers would have made the list if she didn’t think Spotify was evil.)
I Never Need Get Old – Nathanial Rateliff and the Night Sweats
This is the kind of stomping, horn-laden soul that Stax records solidified its reputation with in the late 60s. The DNA of Booker T. and the MGs permeates this track completely. Pure joy.
Surface Envy – Sleater-Kinney
When Sleater-Kinney called it quits 8 years ago, they were already one of the great bands in modern rock history. No Cities to Love was an unexpected affirmation of this indisputable fact, and they’ve never sounded better or more relevant.
King Kunta – Kendrick Lamar
Not only is Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly one of the best records of the year, he turned in one of the great television performances ever with his scorching medley of tracks on Colbert.
The Graduate – Speedy Ortiz
Certainly not a major departure from the sound of their debut record, but overflowing with tasty hooks at just about every turn.
If It Takes a Lifetime – Jason Isbell
A winning mix of country, blues and Americana, highlighted by Isbell’s rather deft observations of everyday life.
Violently – Natalie Prass
This slice of old school, soulful R&B was one of the best surprises of the year.
Dreams – Beck
After scoring surprise Grammy success with the dreamy Morning Phase, Beck returned with a straight up bid for jam of the summer with this track, which lead to one of the most surreal collaborations in many a year.
(We love you, Annie!)
Made My Mind Up – MCIII
While perhaps a notch below his first two excellent albums, MCIII delivers more power hooks than just about any other record released this year.
Pedestrian at Best – Courtney Barnett
Every write up I’ve seen of Courtney Barnett tries to compare her to another artist, usually early PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, or even Sheryl Crowe, but whatever. Her debut album is just flat out great music.
You Satellite – Wilco
Leave it to Wilco to drop a record out of nowhere named Star Wars. Their show at the Hard Rock in April was just a lot of fun.
High By the Beach – Lana Del Rey
Haters be damned, this tune is a dreamy slice of pop perfection, best consumed at the edge of consciousness. Also, could not love the video more.
The Knock – Hop Along
Possibly the hardest band to classify in the list, Hop Along’s sophomore album brims with alt-rock, Elephant 6, and classic rock influences. It all adds up to something undeniably great.
Empty Nesters – Toro y Moi
Every Toro y Moi record is a bit of an adventure, and this one takes you down a sun-kissed, power pop rabbit hole that makes for some enjoyable listening indeed.
John My Beloved – Sufjan Stevens
Admittedly I am not the biggest Sufjan Stevens fan, but the biggest regret of my year as a penniless graduate student was missing his show here in Orlando last month.
Ship To Wreck – Florence & The Machine
This album is full of unapologetically big rock, and it does what it does really well.
You’re a Gem – Wolf Alice
I’m not overly thrilled with the album as a whole to be honest, but this track made a convincing case for track of the summer.
The Moment – Tame Impala
A dose of psych-rock brilliance that ended up being one the best records of the year.
Hello – Adele
You have to give credit where is due; this is Adele’s world and we’re just living in it. I wish the songs that I’ve heard on this album were more worthy of her ability, but there’s no denying her voice and ability to elevate the material she’s got.
I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
Kudos to you, Joshua Tillman, for fronting one the great obnoxious rock personas ever. Don’t let the antics detract from how great the great is though.
Return to the Moon (Political Song) – EL VY
Hey, Taylor Swift likes it, so it can’t be wrong, right? Seriously good stuff though from National frontman Matt Berninger and Menomena multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf.
Fatal Flaw – Titus Andronicus
The Most Lamentable Tragedy is one of the best and most emotionally charged records of the year. A true album in ever respect.
TV – Colleen Green
A raised by TV anthem that rock has been clamoring for since the first parent discovered that the tube could double as a babysitter. A terrible, terrible babysitter.
Give Me a Sign – The Vaccines
This record is unabashedly a great throwback to early 80s pop and rock. It should be right in the wheelhouse for much of the class of ’88.
California – Grimes
Grimes most certainly isn’t for everyone, but I don’t think you can deny the quality of this end of the year entry.
Loud Places – Jamie xx
A fantastic, mellow, atmospheric end of the night house jam. And a great way to close out this year’s mix.
Here’s the playlist in Spotify form for your listen and subscribing pleasure.
Cheers everyone and enjoy the movie tonight!
Let me admit something to you right here and now that will likely cause my hipster music snob card to be permanently revoked: I love Christmas music. Absolutely adore it. I keep a couple of dozen Christmas songs in my Spotify library year-round and never forward past them when they pop up on random. I like classic lounge singer tunes, choral renditions, and modern rock and roll takes, just about any way it comes I like.
What makes a great Christmas song? Like all great music, great Christmas songs are heartfelt, emotional, genuine, and, often, a bit sad and melancholy. A great Christmas song can make you feel all the feels in a short amount of time, but by the end, they usually leave you feeling optimistic and hopeful. See for example Christmas Baby (Please Come Home), Good King Wenceslas, and A Fairytale of New York, the greatest Christmas song there ever was, or ever will be.
Then again, like other all other types of music, there’s some really awful holiday songs, usually made all the more awful by the fact that they are nothing more than transparent money grabs. I’m looking at you everything by Mannheim Steamroller and 90% of the pop/country versions of classics that flood the airwaves these days. You can tell within about 30 seconds when a performer doesn’t have their heart in it and are simply recording something at the suggestion of the manager or producer. And don’t even get me started on “novelty” songs.
Anyway, here’s my annual Christmas playlist, updated for 2015, and perfect for your next holiday party, sitting in traffic on the way to the mall, or just a quiet night at home by the tree.
As a bonus, here’s a couple of favorite versions that aren’t on Spotify.
Good King Wenceslas – Mel Torme
Thematically this has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs, especially the line “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing” (a sentiment that many an alleged Christian of wealth and rank could probably stand to heed more often.) The problem with the song is that traditional versions tend to be sung be serious men with deep voices in the style of a funeral dirge. Enter the Velvet Fog, who gives it a bopping jazz makeover that transforms the song completely. Hallelujah.
The Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth – Bing Crosby & David Bowie
A stone cold classic, this one. The awkward Christmas special banter at he beginning makes it all the better. Legend has it that the Thin White Duke balked initially at singing Little Drummer Boy, so the Peace on Earth counter melody was added literally a few hours before taping. And voila, a classic is born. (apologies for the ad before this one)
Cheers, and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all, regardless of how you celebrate the season.
Not much more to say beyond the title. Much love to one of the world’s great cities.
It’s high time for a new Mundanity pod playlist, don’t you think? In the spirit of Labor Day, this one is all about the working man, and, perhaps because we’ve been watching a little too much Mr. Robot lately, it’s got a bit of a revolutionary bent to it, so we’re coming down firmly on the side of labor (Not, me. I had nothing to do with this quasi-Marxist crap. I for one welcome our rich, successful overlords. All hail capital and the Invisible Hand! – Shawn).
Yes, Shawn, this one is pretty much your worse nightmare, with a heavy dose of working class anthems from Springsteen, Dylan, Lennon, Billy Bragg, and the like. Plus, Wichita Lineman written by Jimmy Webb and performed by Glenn Campbell, one of the great songs of all time. And PJ Harvey, just because she’s awesome.
While you’re mowing down ribs and domestic beers this weekend, though, do what Mick Jagger says and raise your glass and drink to the hard working people, which, considering he’s worth about a gazillion dollars is kind of ironic, but it’s a lovely sentiment nonetheless, and Salt of the Earth is an amazing song, so go ahead do what the man says.
(Ed. note – Musicians really don’t like to work apparently, so there’s more than a few f-bombs and assorted profanities strewn about, so proceed with caution if there are young ears about.)
Here’s the Spotify playlist for your listening and subscribing pleasure.
Cheers, and enjoy your Labor Day holiday!
Jim and Shawn
I’ve made a lot of mixes in my time, starting with cassettes, then CDs, and now the ubiquitous digital playlist. I take my mixes seriously, and put a lot of thought into them (see this accomplishment/boondoggle for proof), so believe me when I say to you that my latest mix is one of my favorites that I’ve ever put together. It’s an ode to the end of summer, full of bright, upbeat songs, hardly any of them approaching, much less longer than four minutes. It’s a combination of 90s/2000s power pop and 60s R&B, with a surprise or two tossed in for good measure, appropriate for end of the summer barbecues, beach trips, workouts, and killing time at work.
I’m In Love – Myracle Brah
Myracle Brah deal almost exclusively in these type of tight, joyous power pop gems, which is almost enough to make you forgive them for their pun overload band name.
Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys
One of Brian Wilson’s masterworks. You can’t watch the Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and ever listen to this song the same way again, especially the “chugg-ed-duh, chugg-ed-duh, chugg-ed-duh” cello part.
In the Midnight Hour – The Jam
Though ostensibly a punk band, The Jam always had more in common with Wilson Pickett than The Sex Pistols, and here’s definitive proof.
What You Do To Me – Teenage Fanclub
Pop perfection neatly sewn up into a 2:01 package.
Get Ready – The Temptations
Few Motown artists brought it with as much consistency as the Tempts did in the late 60s/early 70s. Get Ready is one of their very best.
Me & You & Jackie Mittoo – Superchunk
Another example of how many of the very best pop songs come in sub-2:00 packages.
I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You) – Aretha Franklin
Not her best known song, but I don’t think the Queen of Soul every recorded a better one than this.
All That Money Wants – The Psychedelic Furs
Just a great tune from one of the most underrated bands of the 80s.
I’m In Love With A Girl – Big Star
The well of Big Star hits is deep and timeless.
You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun – Sleater-Kinney
The list of bands that have recorded more than one or two records without making a dud is a short one, but S-K is near the top of it for sure.
Respect – Otis Redding
Let’s face it, this song sung from the perspective of a male takes on a VERY different and pretty unsavory meaning than the better-known Aretha Franklin anthem, but that doesn’t stop it from being completely bad ass though.
Dancehall Domine – The New Pornographers
Not going to lie to you, the whole reason I wanted to make this playlist was to have an excuse to listen to this song more. One of my favorite pop songs in a long, long time.
All The Wine – The National
This is pretty much my personal theme song: “I’m put together beautifully / Big wet bottle in my fist / Big wet rose in my teeth / I’m a perfect piece of ass / Like every Californian / So tall I take over the street / With high beams shining up my back / A wingspan unbelievable / I’m a festival / I’m a parade / And all the wine is all for me.” I mean come on, except for that bit about being Californian, that’s a perfect description of yours truly, no?
Running On Empty – Jackson Browne
A first ballot “sing-along-with-reckless-abandon-when-this-song-comes-on-the-radio” hall of fame entry.
Shotgun – Jr. Walker & The All Stars
This song is just flat-out amazing, and it’s a shame it isn’t more well-known than it already is.
Save It For Later – The English Beat
I defy you to listen to this song and not dance around the room like a maniac. Or is that just me? Whoops. Well, that’s your problem, not mine.
That Someone Is You – R.E.M.
A tasty little morsel stashed away on side 2 of their excellent final record, Collapse Into Now.
Is It Alright – Mikal Cronin
An absolute burner from the first Mikal Cronin album.
On A Saturday Night – Eddie Floyd
A sadly under-appreciated but absolutely great R&B tune. Those Stax horns are killer, man.
Super Baby – Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet is the closest thing we have these days to Alex Chilton, and that’s about the highest praise that I can give.
Eyes Of The Muse – King Tuff
A really fun and rocking tune from 2014’s great Black Moon Spell record.
There She Goes Again – Marshall Crenshaw
The self-titled Marshall Crenshaw is one of the highlights in pop music, especially the one-two opening salvo of this song and Someday, Someway.
Massive Nights – The Hold Steady
A straight up fist pumping party anthem for the 2000s and beyond. Hopefully everybody got to experience at least one or two of these nights before they woke up one day and found responsibility closing in on them.
Distantly In Love – Jimmy Buffett
Just my periodic reminder that Jimmy Buffett was a terrific songwriter before he become a trademarked, money printing machine.
Tighten Up – Archie Bell & The Drells
Every party needs a dance number. And this is the music we tighten up with…Come on now, drummer.
Here’s the Spotify playlist for your listening/subscribing pleasure.
Cheers, and enjoy what remains of your summer.