Notes (Quotes from song lyrics):
"Well, the only person talking about love thy brother is the preacher, and it seems nobody's interested in learning but the teacher"
This is one of those great Motown hits that's just as fitting now as when it was released. But the song started as nothing more than a jumble of ideas by legendary writer and producer Norman Whitfield. Session man Bob Babbitt remembers, "Putting it together was simple, we just did that one song in the three-hour session and we had enough time left over to eat some BLT sandwiches. We didn't know it was going to be political, because the lyrics weren't written when the rhythm track was recorded. I heard the song four days later. It was a Saturday morning, I was running errands and it came on the automobile radio."
"There ain't no asylum here, King Solomon he never lived 'round here"
The Clash had all the in-your-face calling truth to power of the punks, but they were so much more interesting. And musical. And smart. Plus, to help get the right beat for "Straight to Hell"'s Bossa Nova-esque rhythm, drummer Topper Headon had Joe Strummer beat the bass drum with a lemonade bottle.
"If you got love trouble, got a bad woman you can't control, I got just the thing for you"
Mac Rebennack was the son of a New Orleans appliance repairman. Interested in voodoo, he came up with the Dr. John persona in the late 60's not for himself, but based around a Senegalese herb doctor and spiritual healer, who supposedly had 15 wives and 50 kids. Mac was producing a record and stage act with the voodoo priest fronting it and Rebennack backing him, but when real Dr. John dropped out of the project, Mac took over the role, and The Doctor went on to cure all your troubles.
"Like a box of positives is a plus, love, as the Tribe flies high like a dove"
It's just not possible to move around to the throwback love and fun of A Tribe Called Quest. Do you think Lou Reed knew his "Walk on the Wild Side" sample had a rhythm recipe that you'll savor? I think yes.
"Walk but you'll never get away, no, you'll never get away from the burning a-heartache."
Laura Nyro has one of the most interesting stories in music that you'll ever hear. Her soulful yet delicate voice was beautiful, and she was a gifted songwriter. By her early 20's she'd already had songs covered by everyone from the 5th Dimension to Three Dog Night to Barbra Streisand, she turned down the job fronting Blood Sweat and Tears in 1969 when Al Kooper (who started the band) left, and for a while she had a thing with her opening act, some guy named Jackson Browne.
"How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me"
I think a lot about how and why we became the people we are. Of course, family always has the biggest impact, but lots of other things mix together to make us turn into whatever we become - people we're friends and lovers with, places we live or visit, art we experience. When I was going through my own picks for this month's playlist, I was struck by the music that hit me as a kid. The 1970's were not a good time for music in so many ways, but there were also these odd little pockets of life-changing music going on, too.
I don't think it occurred to me before re-hearing this song recently, but Randy Newman was that kind of pocket for me. His 1972 Sail Away album was so many things: dark, funny, sweet, melodic, smarter than you, and sardonic as fuck. Re-discovering this record, it occurs to me that maybe the only thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a Randy Newman song. And though I was already pretty soured on organized religion when I first found this record, "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" pretty much sealed the deal.
Without getting into get into what flavor of God I do or don't believe in, I'll just say that "God's Song" might be one of Andrew's God's gifts to Andrew.
"You best believe you came in with a real thang, your own gait and way of walking in this simulated world"
This video is one of the best things I've seen recently. There's so much beauty everywhere you look. And in all of us.
"Do you only care about the bleeding crowd? How about a needed friend?"
Speaking of music that somehow has an unexpected but profound effect on you, can I tell you a little story?
I grew up as a sheltered little white kid in a sheltered little white town. I had cool older siblings, but once they left home, music in the house was basically limited to a few cheesy folk records and the easy listening radio station. My future was not bright.
Then I was invited to a fifth grade party at the house of this amazingly cute girl named Michele. She was smart, tall, outspoken, full of life, and a redhead. The fact that there was only one L in Michele seemed both enticing and significant. The party was fun, people were dancing (this was maybe the first time I had ever danced, certainly the first time with girls my own age), and though I didn't really understand the concept of being smitten, Michele was oddly paying attention to me. I had no clue what to make of that, but I liked it.
At some point, Three Dog Night's Golden Biscuits was on the stereo, I was laying on my back on the floor of Michele's basement, tired from dancing. Pretty sure "Easy To Be Hard" was coming through the speakers, the lights went out, and somebody kissed me! WHAT? Two seconds later, the lights come back on and Michele is kneeling next to me, looking down with a smile on her face.
In a few seconds, the whole world had changed.
The next day, I went downtown and bought Golden Biscuits and played it non-stop for months.
I'm not going to lie and tell you that Three Dog Night is a great R&B band, but I will say that "Easy To Be Hard" is a pretty great song. And I'll also say that listening to that album opened the 12 year old me up to the idea that music is capable of expressing deep emotion, capable of touching the soul in profound and varied ways. "Easy To Be Hard" was very much my gateway drug to "Superstition", which in turn led me to everything I've ever loved since. And while I'm giving credit where credit's due, that kiss from Michele was probably my gateway drug to TDN. (Not to mention my interest in other things, but that's obviously another story).
Michele, I doubt you're reading this, but I owe you one.
"Well, when you hear me buzzin', baby, some stingin' is going on"
The Rolling Stones did their best to cover this song on the first album (Pink Floyd also recorded a cover of it, supposedly the only cover the band ever released), but Mick Jagger is famously quoted as saying, "I mean what's the point in listening to us do 'I'm A King Bee' when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?". Mick speaks the truth.
"That's the way it moves in the city, call it sticky living, put on my best shirt, goin' to the dance, buy myself a bottle of wine"
One great thing about the internet is its wonderful absurdity of information. Anybody with an internet connection and endless amounts of time on their hands can spend every waking hour writing, researching, and publishing about anything from the Napoleonic Wars to chicken salad - maybe somebody will care and read what you've written, maybe not - but you're free to avail everybody and nobody of your efforts. Such people always have my admiration, and readers here are free to draw parallels between those who spend time writing about odd subjects and people who curate Spotify playlist about odd music.
B.B. Blunder was the offshoot of a British 1960's underground psychedelic rock band called Blossom Toes, who counted Frank Zappa as a fan and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones as an occasional sideman. Bruno Ceriotti is a freelance music journalist, writer, researcher, and rock historian. He's compiled a history of the band far more extensive than you will ever need. I invite you to dive into both rabbitholes.
"Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints, as heads is tails, just call me Lucifer, 'cause I'm in need of some restraint"
"'Sympathy' is quite an uplifting song. It's just a matter of looking the Devil in the face. He's there all the time. I've had very close contact with Lucifer - I've met him several times. Evil - people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn't rear its ugly head... You want to think the world is perfect. Everybody gets sucked into that. And as America has found out to its dismay, you can't hide. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. 'Sympathy for the Devil' is a song that says, Don't forget him. If you confront him, then he's out of a job." -Keith Richards
Rickie Lee Jones has just gotten even more interesting as she's gotten older. Never one to settle into a style she's done before, she just keeps getting weirder and wiser. We love her owl-esque "whoo-whoo"s in this version so much. The original versions' "whoo-whoo"s were actually an invention of Keith's girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who appears in the Stones' version along with Mick's girlfriend (and talented singer/songwriter) Marianne Faithfull and the rest of the boys.
We'll whoo-whoo right outta here and see you next month. And with May's eleventh playlist, we'll bring you a special "greatest hits" list of our eleven favorite songs!
If you're interested, email updates with new content (including a link to a new music playlist) are sent out once a month. Info is never shared.
Notes (Quotes from song lyrics):
"I am a loner, I am stubborn, can you handle this world I live in?"
This brilliant (but tentative) love song by Courtney Marie Andrews is both tenderly simple and marvelously atmospheric. Her intense singing and thoughtful lyrics make this my favorite song for this month.
"Secrets are written in the sky, looks like I've lost the love I've never found, though the sound of hope has left me again, I hear music up above"
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's 2007 album Raising Sand might be my favorite example of a collaboration of two artists who you'd never expect to hear together.
"Ruler of my heart, robber of my soul, where can you be? I wait patiently"
I've heard two versions of this Irma Thomas classic. There's another one that's a little more "smooth 70's R&B", but this one, with its halting rhythm and bluesy piano, suits the song a whole lot better.
"I tell all your friends that you're bound for glory, and how long did you know that you'd make it there before me"
Songs: Ohia was the project of various musicians revolving around the late singer-songwriter Jason Molina in the late 1990's and early 2000's. If you don't know him, please check out Songs: Ohia, as well as his later project Magnolia Electric Co.
"My only child, my only daughter, how will I leave your body?"
Big Thief returns to the playlist this month with this tender beauty. Adrianne Lenker lives in a very different atmosphere than most of us humans.
"And I had control in the driver's seat, but my hands are slippin' off the wheel"
At least we have a Swedish musician who actually sounds like they could be from Sweden! John Magnusson takes RALPH's "Tables Have Turned" to a wonderfully dark and Nordic place.
"When you are leaning on a friend, you lean upon a higher self, sometimes you need good feelings, come on, come on and take you where they lead"
Coming come from the same aesthetic as last month's Handmade Moments (and in fact they've performed together), The Copper Children bring us the authentic "Lose Feeling". I like their fun music, but if I'm being totally honest, they also made the playlist because of their goofy photos.
"And I watch the black clouds roll in chasing me back again, back to the flat fine line, the Wichita skyline"
Shawn Colvin is almost two different artists. Her studio work is known for its sharp and direct arrangements and production (often thanks to the great John Leventhal), but her live solo work speaks to the immediacy in her talents as a musician and vocalist. I saw her solo (in the mid-90's), and was amazed at what a great singer and guitar player she was, and I love that she's put out some live music recently that show off these gifts. Here's a nice live version of this one.
"In between two tall mountains there's a place they call lonesome, don't see why they call it lonesome, I'm never lonesome when I go there"
"How sad, how lovely". Connie Converse is the artist that artists understand. She worked at her art, she struggled for her art, she suffered for her art, and she disappeared into the void because of her art. Please, friends, check her sweet and wonderful music out, and read Howard Fishman's piece in The New Yorker. On hearing "Talkin' Like You" for the first time at a friend's party, Fishman writes, "The song swallowed me. The party froze. The room disappeared." If there's any reason at all why I do this playlist, or any reason why you should pay attention to this playlist, Connie Converse might be that reason.
"Sunlight on your eyelids, you were sleeping, sunlight on your back, you were dreaming"
Rostam Batmanglij was a founding member of Vampire Weekend, and produced their first three albums, and has clearly had a diverse set of influences, as well as talents. It makes me happy to find weird new songs like this! Here's a fun video of him performing this song.
(No lyrics, no info, no quotes, no nothing)
We'll send you out this month with the gypsy/flamenco/rumba sounds of LucasGitanoFamily! Winter is almost over! Get up and dance around the room!
Notes (Quotes from song lyrics):
"Last night while you were sleeping I heard you say "Oh Ronny", when you know my name, when you know my name, when you know my name is Donny"
"I Believe to My Soul" is a Ray Charles song. Yes, "Ray" rhymes with "say", while "Donny"... ummm... doesn't. But with a badass horn section like this, we'll cut Donny Hathaway some slack here.
"Singing into the belly of a whale, Leviathan's ribs, a drowning jail. The desert at the bottom of the sea, the devil with his finger on the scale"
Jeffrey Foucault is back in the playlist this month with this wonderful track from 2011's album of the same name. I love the review of the album in The Telegraph (UK) that noted: "John Updike once wrote of a character who was like an open window through which the rain poured. Foucault's album captures that poignancy."
"If I thought about it long enough I just might make some kind of move, watchful lies are too hard on the soul"
Jolie Holland is such a creative force, I will gladly follow her wherever she wants to go. From their 2017 release Wildflower Blues, she and fellow Be Good Tanya Samantha Parton cover the famous Townes Van Zandt song.
"Remember the first time we slept together, you said it felt like when you learned to float"
The Handsome Family combine goofy eccentricity with genuine thoughtfulness. If you don't know them, I hope you will give them a listen. Here's a wonderful live version of this track.
"There will be nothing left if this madness runs its course except the gleaming buildings to the sky, with solitude unknown and every friendly word, with the sound of feet as the old world shuffles by"
Michael Chapman's lumbering vocals, dancing with violin and cello, make this 50-year-old track as relevant today as when it was recorded.
"And you said that I could stay here, open my chest for just you to see, all these acres of quiet fires, that are burning down in me"
Centralia, Pennsylvania was a town that literally burned to death from underneath itself, going from over a thousand residents to 62 in ten years (and down to five in 2017), because of a fire in an underground coal mine. The town was eventually condemned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1992, and even lost their ZIP code in 2002. Jeffrey Martin takes the story of that town and gives us one of the saddest and truest songs I've ever heard. This one makes me feel things.
"Dead Sea as barren as a stutter and colored laughter, I don't trouble nobody, nobody troubles my body after"
Asheville's Moses Sumney brings us a minimal little jewel! The video is kind of the same way. He's not here to overwhelm you, he just leaves you full of atmosphere...
"Think about now with my legs wrapped around you, how many times before have you seen me run?"
This bright little pop number speaks to Laura Marling's lyrical talents, but maybe overshadows the sheer talent of her voice. It's a great smart song, but given the choice, I'll probably opt for a more minimal Laura.
"Every body seems to know what they're comin' here for, they seem to know what they're after. No but there ain't no chicken pot pie that is worth the time, so I gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now"
I love writing up these little notes. I mean, sure, making this whole playlist is really fun: finding new music, living with it for a while, then the process of deciding which songs to include each month has been a highlight (and positive distraction) of these last 8 months. But in the process of finding more info about each artist and song, sometimes I find wonderful treasures. Like I said about Laura Marling, you might find a version of a song you like more than the original, or in the case of Handmade Moments, the duo of Anna Moss and Joel Ludford, sometimes you start with a fun and joyful little song, then find something even more fun and joyful, that you didn't even know you were looking for. Keep looking, and you might find something even funner and joyfuller than that!
"Tap your boots, dandelion time, toot that flute, dandelion time"
What is it with these Swedish artists who sound like they can't possibly be Swedish? First Aid Kit sounds like two old ladies from Arkansas, and Daniel Norgren might be fresh out of a Mississippi juke joint.
"Don't cry to me, don't cry to me no more"
Most people (myself included) first heard of Marc Ribot as Tom Waits' guitarist and collaborator, and you can't listen to this cut and not feel at home in Waits's music. But his musical career is varied and diverse, and his collaboration here with Los Cubanos is good evidence of that. So let's shimmy off to a slow Cuban beat, and see you next month!
Notes (Quotes from song lyrics or artists themselves):
"You are only coming through in waves, your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying"
The Bad Plus was the midwest-based jazz trio of Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and David King, joined here by vocalist Wendy Lewis. I don't really like jazz covers of popular songs. Or didn't. But art should be about taking the rules, smashing them to bits, and putting them back together in new ways that say new things. Do that well and you can rule the world. I can't tell you how much I love this cut - it's the definitive cover of this song. (Hat tip to Christina.)
"I tell old Bill when he gets home, to leave them downtown women alone, this morning, this evening, so soon."
When you're an elder statesman to everyone from Tom Paxton to Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan, you've got something going on. Perhaps known more for reworking older blues than for his own songs, Dave Von Ronk was all that. He's an artist whose music and story are worth learning more about.
"Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn't have." -DR
Django Reinhardt's mix of genres, along with his crazy virtuosity, are why he matters. And you can't listen to this music and not want to get up and move around.
"Come the winter I'm driving blind, a tuxedo doing doughnuts on the ice, black-and-white on white"
It's really a treat to be able to comment about such a smart and literate song as this. Read the lyrics. Listen to the carefully built instrumentation and textures and harmonies. The band name came from a songwriting class they took as students. Advised to "kill your darlings", they changed "darlingcide" to "Darlingside" because "s" is easier on the eye. That's enough to catch my interest right there, but it's the songs here that matter.
"Yes, most doors open briefly and then they are shut, the circle of life is a wheel that gets stuck in a rut"
When we think about the things we miss from being able to gather, a big one is live music. And when we think about how much we miss live music, we go back to the intangibles. The intensity, the movement, the silliness, the passion. And just the unbridled joy of being in the same room with all of that. I've seen David Wax Museum a few times, and this is the joy. It's the joy that makes me weep with all of their joy. You won't often see performers having this much fun, and I can't recommend them highly enough. This studio cut is great, but if and when live music ever returns, you need to go experience this band in person. Til then, please use this and/or this as joy-laden substitutes.
"Cause everything I do or say makes it hard for you to stay, we both know what it is"
Amy Winehouse is one of the great musical voices - and losses - of our time.
"I said sister if you only knew you'd wish that you were in my shoes, You just keep on usin' me, until you use me up"
We've been having a debate about which is cooler here, the horn section of the background singers. There is not a wrong answer. Oh, Esther, feel free to use me however you see fit.
"That's how I know I'm not winning, I don't know where but I'm a sad or mad. Sleeping without you is a drag"
Portsmouth, Virginia's Jerry Williams once said, "I became Swamp Dogg in 1970 in order to have an alter-ego and someone to occupy the body while the search party was out looking for Jerry Williams, who was mentally missing in action due to certain pressures, mal-treatments and failure to get paid royalties on over 50 single records". Of this new record, he says, "I just didn't want it to sound like Swamp Dogg. This time, I wanted to shock the shit out of them." Swamp Dogg is a treasure.
"Left a light on, shut the door, won't be back here anymore, some parts of me were built in you"
We can't seem to get enough of the Irish. Sammy Copley is just sweetness. Here he is covering Édith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose". Crush.
"If you come around I hope you stay the whole damn night, and bring some friends and bring some foes and come along and tell some jokes, and if you're anything like me, oh baby, just you wait and see"
I'm a fan of minimal Spotify bios. Alejandro Rose-Garcia, better known as Shakey Graves', reads only, "I heard he killed a guy" (unclear - though hopeful - that this might be a reference to Laura Palmer saying "Bobby killed a guy..."?). I also love the fact that you can buy any of Graves' music for whatever you want to pay every February 9 - 11 on Bandcamp. No, I don't know the significance of these dates. Which makes me like this fact even more. Need extra Shakey? Here's an older Tiny Desk Concert from 2015.
"Oh, sinnerman, where you gonna run to?"
Nina Simone often closed out her shows with "Sinnerman", explaining, "I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I've performed, I want them to be in pieces." With that, we close out this month's playlist. See you next month!
Notes (Quotes from song lyrics):
"I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say, I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be, but if you'll wait around awhile, I'll make you fall for me, I promise, I promise you"
Sturgill Simpson is just a really good singer. He hits you right off with the rough and tumble, but there's such delicacy in his phrasing. Have you ever heard the original version of this song? It was a forgettable hit by the British band When in Rome, a genuinely bad late-80's pop song. If you're an artist looking for songs to cover, it's hard to imagine this would even be on your radar, but Simpson's skillful touch gives this song a sadness and thoughtfulness that the original never even hinted at.
"Our hearts our racing, let's go chase them down"
The Bones of JR Jones is the one-man-band project of Jonathon Robert Linaberry, inspired when he first heard 1920s bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson. "He didn't care what was going on - he would just wail on his guitar - he had something to say and he was there to say it," Linaberry remembers. "Hearts Racing" might be my favorite song in this month's playlist, and this video makes me very, very happy.
"Old soul, waiting my turn, I know a few things, but I still got a lot to learn, So I'm alright with a slow burn"
Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath met at Vermont's Bennington College and start performing as Mountain Man in 2009. They made Made the Harbor in 2010, then went their separate ways, but came back together (with two alpacas on the album cover) for 2018's Magic Ship. Here they're covering Kacey Musgraves' 2018 hit "Slow Burn".
"I needed you to see me, needed you to see me, That is not a bad thing to ask for at all"
One thing we look for when we pick songs is a quality of timelessness. Or maybe the song can be of a time, but the decade it reminds you of is vastly different than the decade in which it was made. When we were talking about this song, the consensus was that it was both oddly weird and oddly beautiful and oddly 1958-beatnik-coffeehouse-esque, even though the song is brand new. On first listen there's something almost grating about Brigid Mae Power's unearthly voice, but as soon as the song is over, you spend the rest of the day wanting to hear it again. And on the subject of timelessness, you might recognize this cover.
"I am an Ulster man, a goddamn liberal, a man of reason, oh the little things we tell ourselves to give us back a bit of meaning, I mean God's been dead for a while"
Yes, lately we seem to be all about the Irish. I didn't really think I liked Irish music. But making a playlist every month means learning to ignore genre (as well as other attributes), and try and just listen for good music. Joshua Burnside is good music.
"I am guilty of something I hope you never do because there is nothing sadder than losing yourself in love"
Chris Smither has paid some dues. He's been performing since the 60's, and he's collaborated with, and had his songs recorded by, a lengthy list of artists. Here he's covering Rowland Salley's "Killing the Blues" (also well-covered by some other great people). One of my favorite versions of one of my favorite songs.
"Can't you hear me calling from beneath, with black and frozen feet, white roses all around and covered on the ground"
Canadian/Grenadian (which is fun to say, right?) Kaia Kater lists Nina Simone, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill as some of the influences in her blend of folk, soul, and Appalachian roots music. I like this one a lot, and there's a lot going on here, in both lyrics and music. The more you listen, the more you hear. Bonus: Here's Kater covering Gillian Welch's Everything Is Free.
"Sprouted seeds turned to shoots, grew some roots, wound around from my eyes to my mouth, sweet and sinful now let them all call you, grow so quietly that no one will know"
"Love in some way you choose, God's plan can easy bruise, one bone and blood mass we fuse, and I can be a beast for thee"
I've been a Bonnie "Prince" Billy fan for a long time - he's never lacking in either outsider weirdness or genuine sweetness. He's recorded this one before, but this version (collaborating with The National's Bryce Dessner and the Chicago ensemble eighth blackbird) is my favorite by far... and the most BPB-esque.
"You've been a lot of places
Left me forgotten by your side
And maybe the feeling's baseless
But something still stirs in me when I look in your eyes
Cause you've been kind to me
I never quite believed you when you said it's over
Well what is wrong with me
I trusted you, you watched me open like a flower
Over my dead body"
Johanna Warren's "Black Moss" is such a dark and great song.
"Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughter, Away, you rolling river, And for her I'd cross your waters, Away, I'm bound away, cross the wide Missouri."
Sometimes we all miss that beautiful daughter of the stars.
Notes (Quotes from song lyrics):
"Take the blankets off, show me under your clothes: The tattoos you don't have, but believe me, your body knows"
Yes, friends, when the opening lyrics to this month's playlist are "You fuck like a racehorse...", you know we're in for quite a ride (not to mention a parental advisory label). But really, November is all about the slow and gentle descent into.... something? Maybe fall? Maybe quiet? Maybe something else... This weird song features both a surprisingly catchy vocal melody and thoughtful lyrical turns-of-phrase. (Hat tip to Vera for this one.)
"Yes and there are projects for the dead, and there are projects for the living, thought I must confess sometimes I get confused by that distinction"
When you grow up around Pentecostal Christians, then work as a professional surfer, boxer, New York City cabbie, and a fashion model, then at some point maim your left hand in a bandsaw, you probably have some stories to tell. Jim White (whose real name is Michael Davis Pratt) has been in the music business for over 20 years. I need to listen to more of this.
"And where will I find this, perfect and wondrous? I look into shops, I slip into rain."
While we're on the subject of lesser-appreciated artists, do you know The Innocence Mission? Why the hell not? Their debut album came out in 1989, and they've been making sweet, poetic music for over thirty years. I ask this question not of you, but of myself.
"From the ashes grew sweet liberty, like the seeds of the pines when the forest burns, they open up, grow and burn again"
Chapel Hill's Mandolin Orange is a band I've listened to some but haven't paid nearly enough attention to. I'm trying to catch up. Definitely a band whose total magic is greater than the sum of its parts. Listening to Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz's lonesome intimacy is like being let in on a quiet secret on a beautiful foggy day. See also their Tiny Desk Concert.
"Did you ever find the pool, love, that was promised?"
Another North Carolina band, River Whyless, brings us this sad and beautiful song, written about a friend dying from breast cancer. They wrote, "We've all been touched by suffering, as we have also been touched by love". Hearing them perform this on an active ski lift seems sort of perfect.
"This wound is gonna cancel me out"
I have an apology to make, friends. Yes, we have brought you some interesting and thoughtful music. Music that has hopefully brightened your day, opened your eyes, and warmed your heart. But in all that time, there's been something missing. This month we finally right the wrong. We've wasted the last four months with nothing from the man who might be the most real and honest artist in music today. So here we go. This is what it's all about, friends. Nathaniel Rateliff. (As penance, I leave you this small offering.)
"Well I give you my money and all my loving too, oh, tell me baby, what more can I do?"
Georgia singer Jake Xerxes Fussell sings traditional southern music and other old-time blues, and has an absurdly cute dog. This cut is from his second album, 2017's What in the Natural World.
"If you were to think of me, a beautiful thing to be reckoned with constantly, strapped to the pew, trapped at low volume, so close to you"
This early cut is our playlist's second entry from Charlottesville's Devon Sproule (though the first to feature her smart and thoughtful writing. It's an old song, but a really good one.
"Shut the door to the moon and let the birds gather. Play no more with the fool and let the souls wander and bleed from the soul"
Most people have heard "Falling Slowly", the Glen Hansard track from Once, and that's a fine place to start with his music. But the Irish singer has a lot more to show for his career than that song. A member of both the Frames and the Swell Season (the latter with Czech singer/songwriter Markéta Irglová, who also sings on this cut), he's always pushed his own genres and boundaries. His smart lyrics and emotional singing are well worth a deep dive.
"And why do you sing Hallelujah if it means nothing to you, why do you sing with me at all?"
While we're on the subject of intense Irish singer/songwriters... of all the beautiful music we've brought you on this playlist, this might be my favorite song. And of all the passionate and heart wrenching voices we've heard, Damien Rice might be the most... delicate. It's probably a good thing I'm not a heterosexual woman, because Mr. Rice might have a stalker problem. Please be happy for both Damien and for me. Or go watch this video and develop your own crush.
"The shingles, man, they're shaking, back door's burning through. This old house she's quite the keeper, quite the keeper of you"
The whole playlist this month moves me so much! As we move into fall, and then winter, our whole world slows itself down. The intensity's still there, but maybe we're all seeing things from a different place, and hopefully that's a good thing. And with that in mind, what better artist to end on than Gregory Alan Isakov...
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.
If you want one giant playlist with all the songs on this page, check out the ItD,O - All Time Playlist.