Thursday, May 13, 2010

Today's Playlist (or why I don't listen to FM radio)

I have a large collection of music that goes back several decades. It started with LP's and cassettes, but almost all of it has now been converted to mp3's for use in my Iphone. And I manage my playlists daily. In other words, I am an active music listener.

In fact, I am one of those people who believes that life is better with a soundtrack. I have worn out countless pairs of earbuds as I rock out for hours each day.

Curiously (or not), I rarely listen to the radio. Between podcasts, audiobooks, and music, there just aren't enough hours in the day to listen to what I WANT to hear, let alone spend any time listening to the dreck on commercial radio. My local FM stations could burn to the ground, and I would barely notice. (Except for the NPR station. I might miss that one.)

"But, J.J.," you ask, "if you're such a fan, how do you keep up with the latest music?"

The fact is, I don't. I don't even try. I subscribe to Chuck Klosterman's idea, which I heard in an interview (but not this one), that I should make zero effort to listen to any music that isn't at least a year old.

Klosterman's rationale, as I understand it, is that there's so much new music coming out that trying to keep up with it is like trying to sip the ocean through a straw.

And if you get your musical tastes from commercial radio, I don't even know where to begin to help you. There are very good reasons why the vertically-integrated music industry is crumbling in the face of Itunes and internet piracy, one of which is an incredible lack of quality at the top of the radio charts. Taylor Swift has a fine voice and may one day develop into an interesting artist, but right now, she can't hold a candle to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Or Alison Krauss.

Also, borrowing from an idea that I think I first heard from the poet Auden (i.e, "Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered."), music that survives that first year has probably earned itself a listen.

So, the one-year filter cleans out lots of bad music. After all, life is short. Besides, even without being plugged into the heavy rotations of FM radio, I get plenty of new music news. From NPR to podcasts (like Sound Opinions) to friends, I still have sources pushing new music onto me. I just don't chase it like I did when I was a kid.

Still, I do love music. Its ability to change and heighten mood is invaluable. Music flavors life, as they say, and, I, for one, have always had a sweet tooth.

And so, for purposes of further discussion, I will now disclose the contents of today's top-20 playlist, randomly-generated by my Iphone. Judge me if you dare:
1. Social Distortion, "Ring of Fire" - From the same 1990 album that brought us "Ball and Chain" and "Story of My Life" comes this standout cover of Johnny Cash. It's a straight-up, stripped-down, uptempo homage to the Man In Black, and it rocks with a primacy and power that I think Cash would applaud.

2. Eric B. & Rakim, "I Know You Got Soul" - From their debut album, Paid In Full, which came out in 1987, this hiphop classic features a thumping bassline, cool samples, and flawless rapping. This song supplied the title lyric and signature sample for the M/A/R/R/S hit, "Pump Up The Volume." So it not only sampled greatness -- it provided it.

3. Jet, "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" - The lead single from their 2003 album, Get Born, this song is reminscent of Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" with its driving rhythm and in-your-face vocals. Bar-band flavored rock-and-roll at its best.

4. Daft Punk, "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" - Featuring robotic vocals and a danceable melody that develops and deconstructs through the course of the song, this tune is also surprisingly funky, given its automated base materials. Which just goes to show you: musical soul transcends instrumentation. Forget that Kanye West piggybacked on this song in "Stronger" -- the Daft Punk original is a masterpiece of club pop.

5. Squeeze, "Tempted" - This 1981 track helped usher me into the embrace of the New Wave in a way that still paid homage to the history of pop music. Unlike the punks, who seemed to hate all that came before them, Squeeze saw themselves as part of a larger, ever-developing tradition, and this song is a tasty bit of British R&B-tinged smoothness.

6. Rush, "Spirit of Radio" - From 1980's Permanent Waves album, this one is a personal favorite from my days as a wannabe headbanger, although Rush was more prog-rock than heavy metal. Lots of music from then has aged badly, but not this song. An all-time great track about a time when FM radio was a force for good, although it acknowledges the threat of corporate pressures. And its funky, final break, with its lyrical homage to Simon & Garfunkel, is the stuff of genius.

7. The Gourds, "Gin and Juice" - Snoop Dogg's classic tune gets the alt-country treatment here to incredible effect. When I first heard this song, I was told it was a cover by the Barenaked Ladies, but I was soon disabused. The song, however, totally rules, and the Gourds deserve more acclaim.

8. OK Go, "A Million Ways" - This 2005 release is the band's breakout song, riding the popularity of a YouTube video featuring some splendid homegrown choreography. They have a real pop sensibility, crafting nifty little gems of tongue-in-cheek drama. "Here It Goes Again" is one of my all-time favorite songs ever, but this one is a close second.

9. U2, "Desire" - This may be my favorite U2 song. It comes from Rattle and Hum and sports not just the usual pounding beat but a tight, traditional, un-U2-like structure, reminiscent of a Bo Diddley tune. From the band's "American roots" period, it begs to be sung along to.

10. Us3, "Cantaloop" - This 1992 chunk of jazz-rap bites off a piece of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" to very groovy effect. I love jazz, so the historic samples sprinkled throughout this song really bring me back. The catchiness of this tune is totally infectious & always brings a smile to my face.

11. Saul Williams, "List of Demands (Reparations)" - I first heard this song in a commercial, but subsequent listenings have made me appreciate its raw, insistent poetry. It's the declaration of an angry, ambitious soul rendered in noisy, marching beats. A song to get your blood racing and your fists clenching.

12. Al Green, "Let's Stay Together" - If I have to explain why this song is great, then there's no hope for you. No collection is complete without this song. Let the Reverend Green shine his soulful light upon you. Perfect for setting the mood when you're entertaining a guest, if you know what I mean.

13. The Roots, "How I Got Over" - A personal violation of the Klosterman rule, this new song is just too catchy (their catchiest since "The Seed (2.0)") to ignore, so I count myself lucky that I got an advanced copy of this tune, since the album won't drop for another month. The Roots have always enlightened me, so it's especially rewarding when they also entertain. (See, some new music does manage to find me.)

14. Jellyfish, "Baby's Coming Back" - Classified as one-hit wonders with this 1990 mid-level hit, Jellyfish nevertheless crafted a wonderful piece of power-pop that's both bubble-gum and timeless. The song has an immediate hook and great production, and the video (via YouTube) is a freakin' hilarious throwback to the days when videos ruled the airwaves. These guys got chops.

15. Joe Cocker, "Feelin' Alright" - The original Dave Mason tune is older than I am, and this 1969 cover by Joe Cocker is piano-powered, bluesy goodness. Cocker's raspy vocals are perfect for the paranoid lyrics and are offset by upbeat rhythms and a rousing backing chorus, creating a disjointed masterpiece. If I'm ever caught in a smoky karaoke tavern on the wrong side of town, having to sing for my bartab, this is the song I'll dust off. It worked well for Huey Lewis in Duets.

16. The Broken Bells, "The High Road" - Another violation of my Klosterman rule, I first heard this tune on Sound Opinions. This song, created by Danger Mouse and James Mercer (lead singer of The Shins), is a moody, electronically-inflected slice of darkness featuring cinematic production and dramatic vocals. For Danger Mouse, it marks quite a departure from the sound he creates in Gnarls Barkley, although its spiritual sense seems right in line. The same goes for Mercer and The Shins. This is a case of two ingredients mixing together to create a third, wholly-different thing.

17. The Clash, "Train in Vain" - Billed as "the only band that matters" in their heyday, the Clash were labelled as punk, but, as this straight-up rock tune shows, they were so much more. Incorporating a classic locomotive rhythm with love-song lyrics and harmonic vocals, this song couldn't be any less punk. And yet, for all its classic rock trappings, it retains an iconoclastic attitude, despite its catchiness. It's pure Clash, and it's a song I want played at my wake.

18. AC/DC, "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" - The original Australian stadium-rockers provide the bluesiest track from their Back In Black album. I recently read a book arguing that AC/DC is the greatest rock band in the world, and I kind of believe it. Their sound is instantly recognizable, and their licks are timeless. AC/DC are blue-collar to the bone -- all attitude, guts, and power chords -- and they've been that way for 30 years.

19. Cage The Elephant, "Ain't No Rest For The Wicked" - What starts as a herky-jerky alt-folk collage tune soon becomes a jangly, sharp-edged, full-throated narrative about the underbelly of human nature. It gets you clapping and singing along. This song deserves to be a hit, and I bet it's a gas in live performance.

20. Everything But The Girl, "Troubled Mind" - Tracey Thorn's voice just does something for me. Her cool, clear, plaintive tones are evocative without resorting to the overblown stylings that blight "American Idol". This song is great, but it's not even the best song on Amplified Heart, which isn't even their best album. They're that damned good, and I love this song.

It should be noted that this playlist is just what I listen to when I'm in the mood. And it changes daily, according to the algorithms in my Iphone. But it's a representative sample of my collection. Why do I say this? Basically, I'm bragging.

However, when I'm writing, I listen to a completely different list of songs featuring electronic instrumentals, jazz, and classical favorites. I can't have someone singing when I'm composing, or their voice just confuses my own. I got enough problems when I write.

Still and all, there it is: My personal top-20 chart for today. I know you've got one. How does yours compare?

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