Mix: Nothing Left To Lose

No overarching theme here, just some songs I’ve been listening to lately that are split nearly evenly between old and new. Most mixes I’ve made for other people tend to follow this non-format with selections I think they’d like to hear; this one, however, is for me.

Much of the new-ish stuff has a retro-disco tint that is always welcome; we’re so many decades past the “disco sucks” era (it arguably vanished once Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” hit in 1990) that such a notion now looks not only misinformed but positively quaint. Not that it’s suddenly fashionable, give or take a Dua Lipa or Lady Gaga, but just the idea of wistful, joyous, throw-all-caution-to-the-wind dance music endures whether it’s an unlikely duet between Carly Rae Jepsen and Rufus Wainwright, a kaleidoscopic anthem from former Savage Garden vocalist Darren Hayes, or an unlikely but euphoric ode to formalwear from U.S. Girls’ just-released album Bless This Mess. A choice cut from Pet Shop Boys’ best LP of the 21st century, 2013’s Electric, fits right in with these glitterball newbies.

And yet, I reiterate this isn’t a thematic mix since most of the other new songs aren’t danceable at all. Former Go-Betweens member Robert Forster takes stock of a thirty-year relationship and the profound meaning it has given his life, Yves Tumor crafts an itchy, rhythmic, onomatopoetic earworm, the onomatopoetically named beabadoobee pays inspired tribute to a similarly-titled classic by The Cure and The National ascends towards dad-rock heaven on their latest (and maybe best?) single. Listen as they all complement older tunes such as Blossom Dearie elegantly essaying another standard, Richard and Linda Thompson exhibiting fine defiance and drollness and Sky Ferreira constructing 21st century 1980s music out of such time-honored tools as melody and urgency.

The new song that kicks the mix off and gives it a title is a musical reunion for a duo who has recorded separately since the year 2000. I always wondered if Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt would ever work together again since they’ve remained a couple all this time; the first released track from the forthcoming album Fuse seems to almost pick up where they left off on 1999’s Temperamental with its electronic fervor, chill breakbeats and Thorn’s diva-like croon. But she sounds intriguingly deeper and wearier than she did just five years ago on her own great Record. “Kiss me while the world decays / Kiss me while the music plays” she repeats near the end and for sure, Everything But The Girl are firmly standing in 2023.

Haunted Jukebox Mix #2: Nothing Left To Lose

#MWE February 2023

My second year participating in #MWE (Music Writers Exercise) where for the month of February, I listen to an album for the first time every day and tweet about it. A productive way to go through all the albums I’ve added to my Spotify library but haven’t yet made the time to listen to, but if I do it next year, it won’t be on Twitter, which has devolved into a ghost town/shit show since its unfortunate Musk-ification. These days, tweeting almost anything feels like flinging thoughts into a void and I didn’t experience nearly as much engagement as I did last year. Perhaps in 2024 I’ll try Facebook or Instagram or just save everything for here.

Here’s what I posted for February 2023:

1. Primal Scream, Vanishing Point (1997): Not as highly regarded as Screamadelica but maybe it should be for its sample-heavy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach actually coheres. A close companion to Morcheeba’s debut from the year before, if not exactly trip-hop.

2. Peggy Lee, Sea Shells (1958): In stark contrast to the era’s maximalism, this is simply Lee trilling folk songs over harp and occasional harpsichord. Her readings of “Chinese Love Poems” anticipate the verses of “Is That All There Is?” minus the droll detachment.

3. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People (2002): Harder to get a handle on than that other Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers, call it scrappy “Indie-rock” (for lack of a better term) with unflashy hooks even if “Pacific Theme” could almost be 1970s Chicago.

4. The Wild Tchoupitoulas, S/T (1976): A glorious one-off: Mardi Gras Indians performing Allen Toussaint-produced funk-rock. With songs primary about how much fun it is to be them, it emanates so much pure bliss, deserving a place on the shelf next to Dr. John’s Gris-Gris.

5. Robert Forster, The Candle and The Flame (2023): A beacon of solace in a world we have can’t control. Intimate and direct but rarely ever obvious. Might take weeks or months for some of these hooks to resonate but they’re there and just one facet of the grand design. 

6. Charles Mingus, East Coasting (1957): Less formally radical than what he’d record in the following years but that doesn’t mean less effective or interesting. As always with Mingus, he constructs a nimble but solid foundation that encourages all the players on top to shine.

7. Gem Club, In Roses (2014): Could’ve been recorded in a bedroom or a cathedral. Near-ambient pop that probably needs more than one listen to sink in for all I can recall are the legato, echoing piano chords, occasional strings and Christopher Barnes’ ethereal sigh. 

8. Meshell Ndegeocello, The World Has Made Me The Man Of My Dreams (2007): A groove record that, after caffeinated near-drum-and-bass salvo “The Sloganeer” drifts unpredictably but languorously like an ultra-chill George Clinton. Most revealing song title: “Elliptical”.

9. Neu!, S/T (1972): Today, I learned that Negativland named themselves after a track off this; also learned that (last track aside) this is far more accessible than what I expected of krautrock, so either it seems less radical than it did fifty years ago or I’m just a weirdo. 

10. The Loud Family, The Tape Of Only Linda (1994): Okay, now I get why Aimee Mann liked Scott Miller enough to make an (unreleased) LP with him. This proves he did have a tight ten-track pop record in him; not that it would ever cross over like even Mann occasionally could.

11. Leonard Cohen, Recent Songs (1979): His only pre-2000 LP I hadn’t heard; coming off his Phil Spector disaster, it’s a model of restraint and consequently a tad boring until the Mariachi horns appear and one can safely resume questioning whether he’s being serious or not.

12. Yo La Tengo, This Stupid World (2023): Could be titled Death, Taxes and Yo La Tengo for all the consistency/dependability it emits. Not much stands out but everything coheres and gently sparkles like a vast starry night. Easy to take them for granted, so listen closely.

13. Van Dyke Parks, Discover America (1972): One of my more delightful first listens in months. Public domain tunes with a little whimsy, a lot of personality and as usual with Parks, ingenuous arrangements, anticipating those he’d compose with Nilsson for Altman’s Popeye.

14. Various Artists, One Kiss Can Lead To Another (2005): I thought this 52-minute digital distillation of an out-of-print, vintage girl group box set would be sufficient but now I wish I had access to the whole thing. An underrated genre from a not-so-innocent era, really.

15. FKA Twigs, MAGDALENE (2019): Obvious comparisons aside, I can’t get a handle on who she is which I suppose is the point. Acting unknowable can run the risk of obscurity but the production’s so striking it serves partially as a way in rather than just fancy window dressing.

16. Caroline Polachek, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You (2023): Likening her to Dido didn’t occur to me until she popped up on “Fly To You”; actually, this is near-worthy of early, edgier Sarah McLachlan, buffed and shined to a cool gleam other guest Grimes should aspire to.

17. Tennis, Pollen (2023): This couple/duo has raised “staying in one’s lane” to an art form but such interchangeability works when there’s consistency and ample hooks. Might sound better over retail loudspeakers than headphones but that comes down to one’s own preference.

18. Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly (1972): The joy in doing this exercise is to find a classic record you can’t believe you’ve never heard before. I don’t need to tell the world how sublime and definitive this soundtrack is, only to give it another chance if you’re unconvinced.

19. The Teardrop Explodes, Kilimanjaro (1980): On the basis of some of Cope’s solo work, not as wild and surely poppier than contemporaries such as Echo and The Bunnymen or The Soft Boys. Sirius XM’s “First Wave” could stand to play them (and so many other artists) more often.

20. The Upsetters, Blackboard Jungle Dub (1973): Knowing very little about dub reggae, this was exactly what I expected until it quoted both “Pop Goes The Weasel” and “Tijuana Taxi” in the same track. Such mischief broke up the repetition but was it more than just a goof?

21. Tame Impala, “Lonerism” (2012): The real test of a supposed stoner-friendly album is how well it holds up when listened to while sober. Even when favoring texture over melody, this makes the grade, though as a one-man band he might be better off revering Eno than Rundgren.

22. Life Without Buildings, Any Other City (2001): I spent years looking for this in used CD stores based on hype and hearsay; while it lives up to its postpunk-with-quirky-spoken-vocals description, not even that prepared me for Sue Tompkins’ cadences and fizzy demeanor.

23. Scott Walker, The Drift (2006): Sure, I prefer Walker’s more accessible earlier work, but there’s enough of it and this is purposely something else, pushing beyond accepted parameters of song structure toward a sound that’s compelling and confounding in equal measure.

24. Al Stewart, Past, Present and Future (1973): Of course he’s so much more than his two big hits even if those wistful, mealy vocals all but define him. Unlike fellow 70s art-poppers Supertramp, his wispy Anglo-quirk endures because he leans closer to folk-rock than prog.

25. Phish, The Story of The Ghost (1998): Got off the bus just prior to this one and I might’ve liked it more back then. Same issues as usual with them: heartfelt but patchy (and dorky), dexterous but diminished by studio confinement, insular despite all the genre-blending.

26. U.S. Girls, Bless This Mess (2023): “Fonky” as opposed to funky. Emulates Steely Dan, quotes from Jimi Hendrix and sounds like Daft Punk. Best songs are about monkey suits and the color spectrum. Increasingly slick and exceedingly weird (and enough to hold my attention.)

27. Destroyer, Trouble In Dreams (2008): Barely hints at the big pivot Bejar would make three years later on Kaputt but I’ll give him this: over time, I’ve pivoted from him as that guy w/the annoying voice in The New Pornographers to someone incapable of making a bad record.

28. Robert Wyatt, Shleep (1997): Tuneful and dissonant (often simultaneously), he seems as versed in and enticed by classic rock tropes as with free-floating, sing-song poetic improvisation. Challenging but rarely boring, not one second of it feels wasted or redundant.

Favorite Albums of Every Year Since 1975

Years ago, possibly even before I began my 100 Albums project, I participated in a then-popular meme where one would pick their favorite albums of each year since birth. Now that I’ve recently completed another trip around the sun, here is an update along with links to all the albums I wrote about in that project and elsewhere. Not too many changes, although Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing is one of my best discoveries in the past decade (checked it out after reading her memoir, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs which quotes the album track “Art Groupie”); other records such as Bad GirlsPurple Rain and Cosmic Thing continue to grow in my estimation and endure, even if I didn’t originally include them among my 100 favorite albums:

1975: Brian Eno, Another Green World

1976: Joni Mitchell, Hejira

1977: Brian Eno, Before and After Science

1978: Blondie, Parallel Lines

1979: Donna Summer, Bad Girls

1980: Talking Heads, Remain In Light

1981: Grace Jones, Nightclubbing

1982: Kate Bush, The Dreaming

1983: Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes

1984: Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain

1985: Kate Bush, Hounds of Love

1986: XTC, Skylarking

1987: Prince, Sign O’ The Times

1988: The Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane

1989: The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing

1990: Concrete Blonde, Bloodletting

1991: Seal, Seal

1992: R.E.M., Automatic For The People

1993: Pet Shop Boys, Very

1994: Everything But The Girl, Amplified Heart

1995: Pizzicato Five, The Sound of Music By Pizzicato Five

1996: Belle and Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

1997: Ivy, Apartment Life

1998: Saint Etienne, Good Humor / Fairfax High

1999: The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs

2000: The Avalanches, Since I Left You

2001: Sam Phillips, Fan Dance

2002: Stew, The Naked Dutch Painter (…and Other Songs)

2003: Calexico, Feast of Wire

2004: Kings of Convenience, Riot On An Empty Street

2005: Saint Etienne, Tales From Turnpike House

2006: Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55

2007: Imperial Teen, The Hair, The TV, The Baby and The Band

2008: Sam Phillips, Don’t Do Anything

2009: Florence + The Machine, Lungs

2010: Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can

2011: Emm Gryner, Northern Gospel

2012: Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t

2013: Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

2014: Future Islands, Singles

2015: Roisin Murphy, Hairless Toys

2016: The Radio Dept., Running Out of Love

2017: Saint Etienne, Home Counties

2018: Tracy Thorn, Record

2019: Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet

2020: Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?

2021: Aimee Mann, Queens of the Summer Hotel

2022: Beth Orton, Weather Alive

Mix: Cold Comfort

In an effort to live up to this blog’s name, I plan on posting a new mix/playlist at least once a month going forward. Some will have a theme of sorts, others will be centered around one artist (or perhaps a related group of them) and a few will have no connecting thread at all and consist of new and old songs that I’m into at the present moment.

I’m kicking off this series with a thematic mix mostly culled from an ongoing playlist I keep of songs I want to listen to when it’s cold outside—scratch that, when the temperature dips below freezing, the sun occasionally peeks out through the terminal gray skies and all feels blustery and raw, an invitation to sit by the fireplace with a mug of hot tea (or perhaps a glass of cognac.) When linked together, the words “cold” and “comfort” bring to mind a stark contrast between the outside world and refuge taken from it indoors.

To find solace in this bleak midwinter, I often turn to (mostly) acoustic folk-pop. The first three tracks here come from late ‘60s/early ‘70s UK-based artists in reverse order of renown—I’d likely be unfamiliar Scot Bert Jansch if not for his inclusion on The Squid and The Whale soundtrack nearly two decades ago. I could’ve made an entire playlist of such likeminded folk (in both senses), but although they did this sort of stuff very well (Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny had an exquisite, peerless voice), that doesn’t mean Americans weren’t up to the task decades later. Sufjan Stevens, for instance, has sustained a career by defying expectations from album to album but he’s arguably never matched the stripped-down intimacy of Seven Swans (2004) and its guitar-and-vocal instant standard “To Be Alone With You”.

Most of these songs are defined by their sparse instrumentation, calm sense of wonder and general quietude. After a while, amidst an excess of acoustic guitar, other elements emerge and gain power they wouldn’t necessarily retain in isolation: the dwindling piano riff on Kings of Convenience’s “Riot On An Empty Street”, the disarming fiddle laced throughout Grant McLennan’s “Hot Water”, the harmonica adding texture to Saint Etienne’s “Former Lover”. Even when things briefly turn electric, as on Nicole Atkins’ “If I Could”, its restraint and tone is enough to sit alongside purer, acoustic-guitar-and-voice selections such as Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins’ fable-like “Rabbit Fur Coat”, Rufus Wainwright’s campfire sing-along cover of his father Loudon Wainwright III’s “One Man Guy” and Concrete Blonde’s plaintive but effective “Make Me Cry”.

I also can’t help but place a classic hit everyone knows like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” or even the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back” (note that vaguely sinister guitar hook) next to a relatively more obscure and recent number like Belle and Sebastian’s “Piazza, New York Catcher”; together, they show how, through the decades, music (and folk music, in particular) may evolve but also evoke an ongoing tradition that, no matter what adjustments or mutations occur is as recognizable and heartening as a sliver of sun during a cold snap.

Haunted Jukebox Mix #1: Cold Comfort