Over the last several years, I’ve evolved a Christmas tradition with my friends Siân and Kelly, in which my gift to them is a mix CD of songs that I’ve been listening to over the last year. (The year goes November-October, so that I can send it in time to Britain, where they live.) Siân often reciprocates with a mix of her own. More recently, we’ve started writing “liner notes” to accompany these mixes. I just finished writing up the liner notes to the compilation I sent her for Xmas 2009, titled Easy Ready Willing Overtime. Since it turned out rather detailed, and I haven’t posted anything here for a while, I thought I’d add some links and throw it out here.
1. BREAKING US IN TWO (LIVE 1986) – Joe Jackson (MP3)
This track is from a JJ rarities CD I got from somebody on a JJ fan list that I used to read back before my life went crazy. 1986 is when I really became a Joe fan. I was only 12 when Night and Day came out, and though I’d heard the songs on the radio, I wasn’t really dialed into music much. In 1986, I was working in the sound booth at our high school auditorium, and they had Body and Soul there as one of the records to test the sound system. That album made a huge impression on me, possibly in part because I first listened to it over really good auditorium speakers. At that same time, the songs from his Big World album were getting played on KBCO, back when KBCO used to play lots of different songs from the same album. I loved those too, so I embarked upon the journey to learn all his music. “Breaking Us In Two” became my absolute favorite Joe Jackson song, and it still is. I find it just beautiful, piercing, and so real. “Though it’s oh so nice to get advice, it’s oh so hard to do.” Also, I love the live version because there’s a great transition on his Live 1980/1986 album where he plays “Be My Number Two”, takes a breath, and goes immediately into “Breaking Us In Two.” I get the chills from it.
2. CHROME PLATED HEART – Melissa Etheridge (MP3) (CD)
At some point, it became a joke to me how Melissa uses images of sleeping, angels, and dancing, over and over and over again in her songs. My sister took the challenge of finding a song that mentions all three, and this is it! I love that. (By the way, can you name the body part that Melissa mentions on every single album? It’s not the heart…) Anyway, I was spinning her first album for a while last year, and really re-appreciating this song.
3. CHRISTMAS WRAPPING – The Waitresses (MP3) (CD)
This is one of my very favorite Christmas songs. It’s unsentimental but still sweet, which is a very tough balance for holiday songs to strike. Also, I just love the horns, and Patty Donahue’s kinda-sung vocals. My appreciation of this song has grown over the years; my strongest memory of it by far is from shortly after my grandmother died, in 2002. I was out in Ohio for the funeral the week before Christmas, and after a long day of travel, somber services, and family functions, I met with my mom, dad, and sister for a drink in the hotel bar. It was a tangible, physical relief to be together, just sitting and talking. I have a clear memory of this song coming over the speakers, and feeling a crystalline appreciation for it in that moment. I eventually (as of last year) picked up the Waitresses’ greatest hits, and this was my natural choice from it.
4. FIREFLIES (EDIT) – Fleetwood Mac (unedited MP3) (CD)
First, an explanation of the “(EDIT)” notation: this is a studio song, but it comes from FM’s 1980 live album. It’s the first track on the 2nd CD, and at the end of it, there’s a long pause, and then applause fades up to go into the next song. The track divisions on the CDs are a little odd, so when the cut sat by itself, that transition basically just turned into long silence and then weird sounds at the end. So I needed to open up the track in an audio editor and just trim that last part off. Hence: “(edit)”. Anyway. Because I saw FM in concert last year, I was listening to a lot of their catalog, and this song jumped out at me. It’s a song about the band — they’re the “five fireflies”, and of course when they’re together, “Everyone fights, and the fire flies.” To me it’s about the intensity, both good and bad, of being on a long, long journey with someone else.
5. SPECTACULAR VIEWS (EDIT) – Rilo Kiley (unedited MP3) (CD)
Another edited song, albeit for a different reason altogether. It’s from their 2002 album The Execution Of All Things, which did a clever bit of song sequencing by taking one rather quirky song and splitting it up across the album, so that pieces of it appear at the ends of various tracks. Obviously, when you take a song by itself for a mix, that little snippet doesn’t work so well. So out it went. This is one of those songs that I played obsessively in my car for several days. I love the crashing majesty of the guitars, the imagery of the lyrics, and Jenny Lewis’s vocal, moving around between plaintive, angelic, and snarling. There are tons of great songs on that album. After the disappointment of their most recent CD (Under the Blacklight), it was wonderful to reach back into their catalog and find such a gem.
6. THE WAY YOU DO THE THINGS YOU DO – The Temptations (MP3) (CD)
For Christmas 2008, my friend Trish got me a Motown box set with bunches of great songs on it. That’s the impetus for both this song and the next one. The reason I chose this one is because it’s a great song, of course, with wonderfully clever Smokey Robinson lyrics, but also because Dante really latched onto it when I was listening to the CDs at home. When he connects with a song or album, he currently has the half-adorable, half-irritating habit of walking over to the stereo no matter what’s playing and switching to the thing he wants to hear. That won’t fly forever, but I don’t mind it right now, especially when it’s so delightful to watch him appreciate a song. “Why a cool crook?”
7. UPTIGHT (EVERYTHING’S ALRIGHT) – Stevie Wonder (MP3) (CD)
During my teen years, the time when I was imprinting on music the most deeply, Stevie Wonder was hopelessly stranded in his “I Just Called To Say I Love You” phase. God, and worse. I so related to that scene in High Fidelity where Jack Black savages 80’s Stevie Wonder. Anyway, because of that, I went for many, many years with the opinion that Stevie Wonder was horribly overrated. Turns out I was just listening to the wrong stuff. This Motown anthology really brought that home for me. I love love love this song, so much so that I can forgive him for everything else from “Ebony and Ivory” forward. Mostly.
8. REWIND – Northern State (CD)
The story behind Northern State’s first album is that they made a 4-song EP called Hip-Hop You Haven’t Heard, which somehow made its way into the hands of Robert Christgau, who gave it a 4-star review in Rolling Stone. 3 of those songs got remixed and revised into new shapes for the album. “Rewind” is the fourth. For years NS didn’t release the EP, but they finally put it up for sale on CD last year, and I snapped one up. This song was the most fun for me, because it was all new. I’m a little sad about Northern State right now, because in a recent interview, Hesta seemed to indicate that the band was breaking up. But if nothing else, I’ll still have 3 really fun albums. And an EP.
9. TAKE ECSTASY WITH ME (LIVE) – The Magnetic Fields (YouTube)
The Magnetic Fields do songs in lots of different styles. But when they play live, it’s just piano, cello, vocals, guitar, and Stephin’s bozouki. I never connected much with the studio version of this song, from the Holiday album. I still think it’s just so-so. But I absolutely adored the live version when I saw them in October of 2008. I think it is so, so lovely. Claudia Gonson’s vocals make a big difference. If you ever get a chance to see them live, I highly recommend it.
10. SUNDOWN – Gordon Lightfoot (MP3) (CD)
And speaking of concerts… I had this weird summer last year where various people I was listening to on CD kept coming in concert. It kept feeling like signs from the universe, that I was supposed to go see these concerts. Trouble is, the concerts were mostly not all that great. I wrote about seeing Etta James, and what a weird experience that was. I also saw Hall & Oates. That was a lot better, though I was a little worried after a while that the structural skeleton of the Paramount Theater would buckle under the weight of Daryl Hall’s massive ego. Weirdest — and worst — of all was Gordon Lightfoot. I didn’t write about it, because there was always too much other stuff going on, but boy was it weird. I’ve always loved his voice, and had a couple of albums of his on tape. I put his greatest hits CD on my wishlist, after a particularly lovely moment with “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” Laura gave it to me, and sure enough, just as I was listening to it over and over in the car, here he came in concert.
Now, I’ve seen lots of 60’s folks in concert — McCartney, Simon & Garfunkel, Rolling Stones, Roger McGuinn, CSN, etc. But this was the first time I ever thought, “That is an old man up there on stage.” Here’s a picture to give you some idea. And if his face looks ravaged, his voice was much worse. Thin, reedy, often barely there. It was so disappointing. The whole reason to see Gordon Lightfoot is to hear his singing voice, at least according to me. It was fun to hear him talk and tell stories, but every time he’d sing… well, “sing” is probably too strong a word. Also, the show itself was structured really strangely, with a half-hour long unannounced intermission, during which they brought up the house lights and about 30% of the audience left, thinking the show was over. I had a front row center seat, believe it or not, but I was not exactly blown away. Oh well — back to the albums. My god, that voice, before it died.
11. I’D RATHER GO BLIND – Etta James (MP3) (CD)
Then there’s Etta, who’s in the opposite situation. Her voice still sounds amazing, but she herself is no longer too compos mentis. This song commemorates having seen the concert, but it’s also a memory from a really fun trivia game I set up for one of the basement bowls. I made a CD of 66 song clips — all female artists. Each song had a 20-second (or so) clip, and if you recognize it, you buzz in. You get a point for naming the artist, another point for naming the song. And in the case where the artist’s name isn’t the same as the singer’s name (i.e. Heart, The Pretenders, etc.) you get yet another point for naming the singer. Or singers, in cases like the B-52s or The Mamas & The Papas. Anyway, this was the Etta song I excerpted for that game.
12. PAPER PLANES – M.I.A. (MP3) (CD)
I actually made two trivia CDs worth of song clips from women, and in the process of making them, I bought and/or downloaded a lot of new music. This song was one of those. I’d seen M.I.A. on the Grammys, and read about her several times in Rolling Stone, which adores her. (I had a free Rolling Stone subscription during part of last year due to some promotional deal they have set up with Amazon.) I decided I needed to know more, and this was the opportunity. I’m so glad I did. This is the rare track that I just had to hear over and over again. I was obsessed with it for a couple of weeks last year. I just love everything about it — the words, the coolly hypnotic flow, the sound effects, the brilliantly-used Clash sample. As I’m accumulating the list of songs that are candidates for the annual CD, the ones I know for sure should be on it get a star. This one was the brightest star of them all.
13. BOOTS OF CHINESE PLASTIC – The Pretenders (MP3) (CD)
I’m a big Pretenders fan, especially of their first several albums. I think Chrissie’s been sort of gradually losing her mojo over the years — I wasn’t crazy about their last album, Loose Screw, and probably wouldn’t have sought this latest one out if not for the utter splendor of this song. I’m just crazy about it. I greatly appreciate when the Pretenders rock, as they don’t tend do to that as much anymore. In fact, pretty much the rest of the album is a bunch of samey slow-to-midtempo numbers, but “Boots” just kicks ass. I love the “street buddhist” vibe of the lyrics, not to mention PETA Chrissie’s punky and spunky spin on Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” imagery. It’s also one of those songs that Dante has totally latched onto. He’ll play it 10 times in a row if left to his own devices.
14. HALF MOON – Janis Joplin (MP3) (CD)
I picked up a copy of Pearl from the library. It’s one of those albums that I’ve known and listened to on tape for a long time, and some of it is almost overfamiliar to me, due to airplay and general cultural ubiquity. Even those songs (“Me And Bobby McGee” “Mercedes Benz”) are great, but so are many of the rest of them, and those feel that much fresher for being overshadowed. This one particularly moves me. The energy of it is just phenomenal — it’s really “full tilt boogie” (the name of her band at the time). Joplin’s voice and her delivery invests those lines — “You fill me like the mountains, you fill me like the sea” with such immediacy that it feels like the expression of an emotion that goes right down to the bone.
15. FACE TO THE WIND – Grace Slick (YouTube) (CD)
Okay, yes, it’s highly melodramatic. For me, Grace can get away with delivering lyrics that would sound totally ridiculous coming out of someone else. This is from her 1980 solo album, Dreams, which I got as an import on CD last year. It didn’t become a major favorite, but this song always made me think of some people close to me and what they were facing this last year. That’s why it’s on here.
16. DID IT IN A MINUTE – Hall & Oates (MP3) (CD)
Like I said, I was delving a little deeper into the Hall & Oates catalog last year, and rediscovered this song. Since high school, the one H&O compilation I had was called Rock & Soul Part 1; despite the fact that “Did It In A Minute” was a top 10 hit, for some reason it never appeared on that collection. I was glad to reincorporate the song — I think it’s such an exultant little pop gem. Singing along to it always makes me feel good.
17. GHOST OF THE GANG – Indigo Girls (MP3) (CD)
This ended up becoming my favorite song from Poseidon & The Bitter Bug. I think Amy’s songs are just generally stronger this time around, and this one in particular struck a chord with me. It also, for some reason, resonated with Dante — not that he has a gang to get nostalgic about! We were listening to this album at bathtime for a while, and he always took pains to point out to me that his favorite line is “Yeah we huddled against the cold in those days / By the light of the fire in a pep rally haze.” Why? Couldn’t tell you. The feeling that I relate to in the song is of wanting to reach across the chasm of time and reconnect. Facebook was a feature of 2008 for me, and while it has its downsides, I loved how it brought me closer to people that I’d lost track of, people of whom I’m very fond. “Ghost Of The Gang” could practically be the Facebook theme song.
18. I CAN’T GO FOR THAT (NO CAN DO) – Hall & Oates (MP3) (CD)
Back to H&O! This song stands out to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, when I saw them in concert, it was the last song they played of the regular set, and the first song during which the audience stood up! It was a drag having to sit for most of the concert, but at least we got to stand for some of the biggies. Interestingly, it was the first song for which they stood as well. Most of the set had them sitting on stools, playing acoustic guitar (with a band behind them), but Hall stood up to play the piano for this one. Maybe the audience took the cue. Anyway, the other reason I connect with this song right now is that it encapsulates an aspect of how I’m feeling about work: I’ll do almost anything you want me to, but there is a limit beyond which I will not be pushed.
19. ALL DRESSED UP IN DREAMS – The 6ths (with Mary Timony) (YouTube) (CD)
20. NIGHT FALLS LIKE A GRAND PIANO – The 6ths (with Clare Grogan) (MP3) (CD)
When I saw The Magnetic Fields in 2007, they played a bunch of songs I didn’t know, which led me to explore the side avenues of Mr. Merritt a little further. One of those side projects is this band, whose concept is that each song gets sung by a different vocalist from the indie rock world. (Or other worlds, in some cases — Odetta, Marc Almond, and Melanie are among the guests.) I don’t care much one way or the other about Mary Timony and Clare Grogan, but I do love female vocals on a Stephin Merritt song. Many of my favorites spring from this template — “No One Will Ever Love You”, “Sweet-Lovin’ Man”, “The Nun’s Litany”, “Drive on, Driver”, etc. These two are a fine addition to that canon.
21. AIN’T GOT NO/I GOT LIFE – Nina Simone (MP3) (CD)
Nina Simone is another “legacy artist” that I learned more about last year. I just love her voice, and she makes such interesting choices musically. I’ve also loved Hair for a long time, so was very pleased to see that she did a version of these songs. I find this medley very moving. It was written to be so, but Simone’s performance brings such depth and power to the tune, it sure doesn’t sound like musical theater anymore. Though 2009 had some wonderful parts, like the inauguration of Barack Obama, my sister’s wedding, and the joy of kid Dante, it was in many ways a painful and difficult year. Certainly it was the worst year of work I’ve ever had. But this song reminds me to celebrate what I’ve got: life.