Music has always been not only a huge comfort to me, but also a major influence in my art. My girlfriend and I love sending each other new music we find, and we curate a monthly playlist to share with friends. Once a month we pick 11 new songs - some dark acoustic, a little soul, a healthy dose of outsider weirdness, some completely odd covers, maybe a little jazz or country thrown in for good measure - that we've been listening to recently. The first listing below is the current month's playlist, and former months are listed below that.
Notes (Quotes are either from song lyrics, or from artists themselves):
"There's alligators in the water and the boat has all but sunk, now your clothes are not your own"
This wonderfully weird cut is probably on my top 5 all time Spotify finds.
"I don't have to do a performance. This is a living room rehearsal." -HDS
Harry Dean Stanton can do whatever the hell he wants as far as I'm concerned.
"We'd talk or we would sing all day, collecting sorrows to throw away, but nothing ever seemed to cease the pain"
I have a special love for artists who sound (and write) older than they are. Holly Macve sounds like the love child of Tom Waits and Kitty Wells, and writes likes she's alreday lived quite a life, even though she's young. You can hear a lot of presence in her voice - I'd recommend checking out her Tiny Desk Concert.
"What has happened down here, is the wind have changed, Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain"
I've been a fan of Jolie Holland for a long time, and she was nice enough to let me use a quote from her song "Alley Flowers" in a book of photographs and stories I published about ten years ago. Start with her voice and style, add the experimental percussion of Thor and Friends, have them cover a Randy Newman song, and you can't go wrong.
"John (Coltrane) was like a visitor to this planet. He came in peace and he left in peace; but during his time here, he kept trying to reach new levels of awareness, of peace, of spirituality." -AA
When John Coltrane (who once said that Alvin Ayler "filled an area that it seems I hadn't got to. I think what he's doing, it seems to be moving music into even higher frequencies") died of liver cancer in 1967, he wanted Ayler (and Ornette Coleman) to perform at his funeral. During that performance, Ayler stopped twice. Once in angish, and once in a cry of joy to symbolize his friend's ascension to heaven.
"God bless them, handsome men, I wish they was mine, their breath is as sweet as the dew on the holy vine"
Speaking of artists who can do whatever they want, Cat Power. With a voice that says "I'm both cooler and smarter than you will ever be able to appreciate, so it's clearly a waste of your time to fuck with me", here she is from an early record, covering one of folk's most covered songs, in her own meandering and drunken style.
"Tell me I'm pretty, tell me I'm rare, talk to the boy in me, he's there"
Big Thief's Adrian Lenker's voice walks the fine line between confident and frail, giving us mysterious hints of her smart and dark little world.
"I'd be crazy not to follow, follow where you lead. Your eyes, they turn me"
Another "uncoverable" Radiohead gem, freshly and beautifully covered by British singer/songwriter Lianne La Havas.
"It's powerful. Three young black men coming together and making good music and making a statement." -GC, Jr
When three young black men sing about injustice, would you expect them to cover a protest song by four 1970 folkie white dudes? This is what makes music so amazing to me. In the end, it's not about genre, decade, race, or anything else. All that matters is music. This is just beautiful. And powerful.
"Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name, Lord I can't go a-home this a-way"
When Georgia folk singer Hedy West went to college in New York City the late 1959, she heard so called "Folk Revival" musicians playing the music she had grown up hearing in everyday life. "500 Miles" was written in her early 20's, and is her best known song. This famous Peter Paul & Mary version is probably the most widely known, but it's been covered by hundreds of artists (and by sheer conicidence is our second playlist entry that was performed in the 1960's by Waynesboro, Virginia's Sometime Singers, featuring my sister), in dozens of languages.
"In a land there's a town, and in that town there's a house, and in that house there's a woman. And in that woman there's a heart I love, I'm gonna take it with me when I go"
Australian Angie McMahon (whose self-posted Spotify bio says only "Yells words into microphone") is among my favorite people I've been listening to. Please check her out. And her "Take It With Me" is my from fave cut from last year's "Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits" compilation. Be sure you check that one out too. There's Tom's voice, yeah, but there's a better reason Waits/Brennan have been ackowledged among the greatest living songwriters.
Notes (Quotes are either from song lyrics, or from artists themselves):
"My love is growing stronger as our affair affair grows old"
As any David Lynch fan will tell you, in addition to his artistic weirdness, saturated stylishness, and downright terror, the director's other filmmaking gifts include a fluency in the storytelling language of music, and his surprising ability to tell a love story. So when, after decades of failure, we at last see Norma Jennings' hand on Ed Hurley's shoulder, and we hear Otis Redding singing this song, we allow ourselves a glimmer of hope, not just for these two lovers, not just for ourselves, but for our time.
"And it's colder than before, on the other side of the world"
There are songs with catchier melodies, and songs that feature more complex lyrics, but "Indian Ocean" is an illustration of the undefinable of what makes great music great. It's not just the sum of its parts, it's the way it seeps into your ears and through your brain and buries its way in your soul.
"It's in the soul to feel such things, but weak to watch without speaking, oh what mercy sadness brings, if God be willing"
I will confess to being a fan of Sheryl Crow ever since she Left Las Vegas. Sure, she can be guilty of some silly pop songs, but when left to her own devices she can get dark with the best of them. And she can be a fine songwriter. The original cut of this song has long been a favorite of mine, but this posthumous collaboration with The Man in Black gives this version even more gravity.
"And you who watched from your great gates, watched us as we met our fates, then took our pride and stole our babes, you will one day die of something"
What if a woman named Mary and a man named Joseph and their baby tried to get into Trump's mercy-less America? Josh Ritter knows. With an assist from the Milk Carton Kids.
"But you take a look around you, don't it seem like something's missing, I said something that weren't missing, Lord, the last time, somebody died"
Lyle Lovett at his smart and complex songwriting best.
"You can bury me in some deep valley, for many years, there I may lay. Then you may learn to love another while I am sleeping in my grave"
The original version of "Man of Constant Sorrow" was published (though not recorded) by a blind man from Kentucky named Dick Burnett, has been recorded by a wide variety of artists, and was prominent in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou. This fun version only hints at the earnest power behind Sawyer Fredericks' voice.
"For reasons better discussed in the history books, in the Spring of 2020 Gillian and I dusted off an old tape machine and did some home recording." -DR
Maybe "All The Good Times Are Past and Gone", but Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' new record spends this uncertain year covering Norman Blake to Bob Dylan to Elizabeth Cotten in their own lost-in-the-completely-wrong-decade style. It's never easy to pick a favorite song from a Welch/Rawlings effort, but it's hard to go wrong with a John Prine song.
"In the grand scheme of things, we're just travelers..."
On my all time list of most listened-to CD's has to be Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez's 2003 release The Trouble With Humans. Their voices are so different but blend together so gracefully, and the songs are both fun and timeless. I recently found their 2015 collaboration Red Dog Tracks, which features this beautiful cut.
"It's a quiet song for a quiet boy, well you came in here just to escape the noise, and now all this silence flows like joy"
While we're on the subject, that same list also probably contains the 2005 eponymous studio release by Redbird, the trio of Jeffrey Foucault, Kris Delmhorst and Peter Mulvey. This cut (written by Delmhorst) is from their 2011 live release Live at the Cafe Carpe.
"The best art comes from artists who have an unending, life-or-death urgency to speak their heart." -JB
Let's get one thing straight. Jeff Buckley was the best singer of my lifetime. No one matches his combination of subtlety, power, phrasing, vocal range, genre range, and artistry. As evidence, I present Exhibit A: the then-26 year old white dude from LA singing this song.
"We'll give each other all of our best and then time can do what it wants with it"
Normally a musical tour-de-badass, Brittany Howard turns down the in-your-face-ness and turns up the subtlety. It's finding music like this that makes putting this list together each month so much fun. The perfect song to end on this month, I urge you to listen to this one a lot.
We listen to a lot of jazz. And I love a lot of jazz, but not all. Jazz, like most musical terms, covers a lot of ground, and there are enough sub-genres of jazz to confuse anybody. And don't go telling me "smooth jazz" is jazz.
This is the jazz I love: It's got an edge, it's smart, it's complex, it's both improvisational and orchestral, both loose and arranged. From the album The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, which Mingus called "ethnic folk-dance music", "Track A - Solo Dancer" is both challenging and just plain fun to listen to.
Let me tell you a little about the way we put together these playlists. My girlfriend and I start out by both picking ten songs, stuff we've been listening to recently, ideally tracks we think the other might like, but pretty open about style and mood and genre. Then after listening to each other's ten songs, we get together and narrow our 20 total songs down to the 11 that you see. So basically a few of hers, a few of mine. It's tough, because most of the time you want more of your ten to make the cut. So it was with this song, which just missed last month's playlist. I brought it back this month for an encore nomination, and I'm really glad it made it.
The Americans' (who take their name from Robert Frank's 1950's photography series) describe their initial approach to making music: "We were suspicious of modern rock music. When we got together to form a band, we had to make everything from scratch. We had no template. There was no band we wanted to be like." At times simple and basic, their music also has moments of lush complexity. Read to me your stories, and I'll follow along with open eyes.
I've always been slightly surprised how much I like Radiohead. On the surface, their 90's electronica has never been a genre that's done much for me, but there's no denying their songwriting craft, and that's the main reason their music lasts. There have been a lot of great covers of Radiohead songs over the years, but "Faust Arp" stood out as probably Radiohead's least coverable song until I heard this version. Eddie Berman's covers are always unique and a little out in left field. So wakey, wakey, rise and shine.
"She was only my second cousin but it don't mean that I'm not here for her or that I wasn't meant to give her life poetry, make sure her name is known across every city". If you don't know Sun Kil Moon and its frontman Mark Kozelek, you should. As a solo artist he's covered everything from Modest Mouse's "Float On" to "Moon River" to "Away in a Manger". With Sun Kil Moon he shines a soft light on quiet stories with his haunting voice and tender phrasing. If you can listen to this song a lot and not get at least a little teary, I'm not sure I would like you in real life.
The folk song "All My Trials" came to prominence in the 1960's folk boom, largely because of Peter, Paul & Mary's iconic version (though it's been recorded by everyone from Harry Belafonte to Paul McCartney to Waynesboro, Virginia's "Sometime Singers", whose mid-60's version features my sister - one version that Spotify somehow lacks). The song's origins are unclear, but it may have been a white spiritual that fell under the influence of Bahamian rythyms, and returned to the US in the late 1950's. It carries a sense of loss and suffering, but with hope that the struggle would "soon be over".
Much like the song, Azniv Korkejian, the musician better known as Bedouine, has made the rounds. Born in Aleppo, Syria to American parents, she's lived in places as diverse as Lexington, Kentucky, Saudi Arabia, and L.A. (as well as having connections to Richmond's Spacebomb Music). Her music carries a beautiful sense of displacement, and "All My Trials" is at once sweet and wandering and sad.
British singer/songwriter and producer Nick Lowe once said, "When I find a cover song that I like, I'll work away at it until I kind of believe that I wrote it". The best covers are ones where an artist takes someone else's song and makes the listener forget the original. Though I really like Sia's original version of "Chandelier", Damien Rice takes this song and makes it something else entirely. Rice's quiet intensity serves this song perfectly, and the song fits in well with his existing catalog.
Earlier, we were promised that all of our trials would soon be over, but in Mexican folklore, La Llorona is a legend about a ghost woman who drowns her children and then mourns their deaths for eternity. So there's that to consider.
Beirut's Zach Condon's musical journeys go anywhere and everywhere, rooted in a tradition of wind instrument arrangements from a lost decade and a foreign continent. Whether Condon's La Llorona, which was recorded with The Jimenez Band, a 19-piece ensemble from Teotitlán del Valle, is the same from Mexican tradition I honestly have no idea, but this song takes me places.
Kentucky's Ben Sollee also rides all over the musical map, equally comfortable in folk, bluegrass, jazz, and classical. He's composed for film and the ballet, and often tours on his bicycle while towing his cello (whose name is Kay) behind him. While we give him high marks for both his music and his activism, we remind the listener that there's really only one immaculate confection.
Sam Amidon has been making music for close to twenty years, and until I heard this song I didn't know a damn thing about him. He's recorded and toured with everyone from Bon Iver to Bill Frisell to Nels Cline to Beth Orton (to whom he is married). Here's a fun live version of this song with Shahzad Ismaily on ukulele.
In keeping with our brief but important tradition of vast improvements on Eagles songs, we now present "Desperado", as performed by 9 year old Sheila Behman. In the 1970's, Canadian elementary school music teacher Hans Fenger, who admittedly knew next to nothing about teaching music, other than that he knew of German composer and educational theorist Carl Orff's Schulwerk, a focus on creative, educational activity through speech, music, and movement (hey, it was the seventies...), came upon the radical idea of actually listening to what his students wanted to learn, and wanted to sing.
He considered traditional children's music "condescending, and ignores the reality of children's lives, which can be dark and scary... The kids had a grasp of what they liked: emotion, drama, and making music as a group. Whether the results were good, bad, in tune or out was no big deal -- they had élan". A quarter century later, Fenger wrote to his former students, "It's been said that music is the language of the soul singing. If that's true, then our souls were captured together on those recordings. This music was not made for profit, or even necessarily to entertain, but simply to express a feeling, to explore and to play together."
As someone who has always valued the outsider tradition of making art for my own reasons, not for public reaction, this song perfectly embodies my own priorities of what being an artist is supposed to be. It's raw, pure, and made only for the sake of making art. In all seriousness, this is one of my favorite pieces of music I've heard in years.
Speaking of the outsider tradition in art, the late great Daniel Johnson, who wrote this song, initially distributed his music by handing out cassettes of his stuff while working at an Austin, Texas McDonald's. The lyrics sum him up well. He had a sweetness, as well as some pretty serious mental health issues (including being convinced that Metallica wanted to kill him).
M. Ward, for his own sake, has some oddness and outsider cred of his own. He's one of those rare artists who exists pretty much outside of any genre (or rather, he's his own genre). His phrasing on "The Story of an Artist" is a sweet tribute to Johnson, in all of his outsider weirdness and wonder. Both these last two songs move me so much.
We all know that there were a lot of Motown/R&B acts in the 60's and 70's who covered rock/pop songs in an attempt to get "crossover" audiences/sales. And a lot of them did so because some record exec thought it was a good idea, not because the artist had creative reasons for doing so. That said, Etta James makes the Eagles sound like, well, the Eagles.
if you spend a lot of time thinking about what it would be like to hang out with Tom Waits and Keith Richards (and really, who doesn't?), this cut (co-written by them, and with KR singing background and playing guitar) is probably as close as you're gonna get.
I love musical oddities and mysteries. Karen Dalton is high on both lists.
This Okkerville River song hits me for reasons I don't understand. I don't really like a lot of their stuff, and I don't usually like songs like this. But I can't stop listening to this one.
I've heard a bunch of really good covers of this Townes Van Zandt song. I think Michael Kiwanuka's voice (and this arrangement with its desperate piano solo) fits the mood of the song as perfectly as any I've heard.
See, this is why I like covers. Prince doing Joni. All you need to know.
Lisa Hannigan sounds like she's at the Roadhouse on season three of Twin Peaks. This song is so Lynchian that pie and coffee actually come out of my speakers.
Devon Sproule is a great and thoughtful singer-songwriter from Charlottesville (who rarely does covers). The song was originally done by the fantastic, decades-old sister-act The Roches. Honestly, I can't believe this song exists. It's so beautiful.
I get Phoebe Bridgers. I don't know Julien Baker very well, but I like what I've heard. But it's RVA's Lucy Dacus that makes boygenius... genius. Ketchum, ID is spookygood.
RIP, John Prine. And I really like Jeffrey Foucault.