This year’s music mix isn’t nearly so autobiographical as last year’s was. I’m back to making mixes that are just songs I’ve listened to and loved during the year, and I like it just fine that way. Emotional pain, even when you’re emerging from it, makes music feel more meaningful, but it’s a pretty rotten trade-off. I prefer being happy, thank you very much. I certainly don’t love the music any less.
1. The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby (Strings Only)
This was a very Beatles-y year for my listening habits. I found that in my job upheaval and subsequent office moves, I’d inadvertently packed away a Beatles A-Z collection my friend Robby had made for me, so I retrieved and listened to those. Besides that, I also dug into the Anthology series for the first time. I’m obviously a Beatles fan, but when those Anthology CDs came out, I wasn’t all that excited about them. They seemed like alternate, inferior versions of the tracks I knew, alongside tracks that didn’t make it onto an album because they weren’t all that good. Recently though, Trish told me they were worth listening to, and since my Beatlemania had been reawakened by the Love show, I decided to put them on my wish list. Now I’ve got them all, and I find that we were both right. There’s a lot of stuff on there that doesn’t excite me, but there are also a number of very cool tracks, and this is one of them. I went to a couple of great lectures this year by a guy named Scott Freiman, a Beatles scholar who does a series called “Deconstructing The Beatles.” He explains everything about the history and behind-the-scenes info of a particular Beatles album, and then plays tracks where he’s pulled apart the different parts of the mix, explaining how the song was put together, talking about earlier “draft” versions, playing sounds in isolation that you’d always heard but never noticed, mapping out how the technology of the time influenced the group’s sound. Super cool. This track reminded me of those lectures — it’s amazing to hear just one part of a Beatles song in isolation, and this one really emphasizes the loveliness of George Martin’s string arrangement. Plus, it makes an excellent backing track for car karaoke. Woo hoo!
2. Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
It is seemingly becoming a trademark of mine to enthusiastically latch onto a group long after the rest of the world has taken a seat on the bandwagon. This year, it was Arcade Fire. My sister has been trying to get me into them for a some time now, and while I haven’t been hostile, I also just hadn’t put them on my list. That changed when I was preparing questions for a trivia bowl, and decided to do a bonus question on musical mash-ups, where two songs get blended into each other. I found great ones where Madonna merged into the Sex Pistols, or Nirvana into Michael Jackson. I also found this song merged into Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass”. I knew I had to seek out the song on its own. The lyrics grabbed me immediately: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” It also has just a beautiful energy to it, and a great vocal. I found myself listening to this song over and over again, and then doing the same with the whole album. The parenthetical title comes from a book by Tracy Kidder called Mountains Beyond Mountains, about a physician who fights tuberculosis around the world and who encounters and embodies the Haitian proverb, “Beyond the mountain, there is another mountain.” I relate to that.
3. Indigo Girls – No Way To Treat A Friend
In the early days of seeing Indigo Girls concerts, they didn’t have very many albums out, so they’d play all kinds of unreleased stuff. Some of this would show up later, and some of it wouldn’t. This was one of the songs I saw them play a couple of times back in the day, but which never made it to a studio album, so I more or less forgot about it. This year, I downloaded some tracks from the amazing Lifeblood site, which included a collection of pre-1989 studio recordings. I rediscovered this song on that collection. I think it’s a gem. Why did they never put it on an album? Maybe Amy was embarrassed about “walking right out of your eyes.”
4. The Beatles – Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
This is one pulled from the Beatles A-Z collection. I listened to those CDs at work a lot, and because I was sharing an office with someone, I tended to listen on headphones. That helped me really appreciate the sitar part in this song. I always liked the tune and the words (so sneakily risque for the day), but it’s amazing how headphones can illuminate details in a recording that you just don’t notice or appreciate as much without them. This song is also the source for the title of this year’s collection. I quite like how it expresses appreciation and doubt simultaneously. (Though in the song, I think the contrast is between sincerity and sarcasm.) I want to notice how good things are, even as I remain alert to the ways it can go wrong.
5. U2 – Silver And Gold (live)
I’d had Rattle And Hum on tape for ages, but burned it to CD for the first time this year. On revisiting the album, this song stood out for me. Not, mind you, because I think it’s the best song on the album, or even the best version of “Silver And Gold” — I prefer the studio B-side. No, it’s all about Bono pausing at the end of a long rant about apartheid to say, “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to BUG YA.” I just love that. It’s so funny to me. I even made it my email signature quote at work for a while.
6. Miles Davis – Blue In Green
For the most part, I’m not really a jazz guy. Most of the time, it just makes me think of the Paul F. Tompkins routine about jazz — “It’s just a bunch of dudes playing solos at the same time. It’s like a genre of music that is defying you to like it.” In fact, instrumental music in general I find hard to latch onto. I’m a lyrics guy. (Interestingly, I don’t think of the first track on this CD as instrumental music… because I can hear the voices singing over it even when they’re not there.) However, as part of my ongoing project to obtain on mp3 everything that I currently have on tape, I picked up Kind Of Blue, since a friend of mine had put this track on a mix tape. I liked it. It’s still not anything I’d seek out on my own, but I found that listening to it while driving put me in a calm, meditative state of mind. So long as I was sufficiently caffeinated, that is. Otherwise, it made me kinda sleepy.
7. Pink Floyd – What Shall We Do Now?
My concert-going habits have been drastically curtailed due to the one-two punch of lack of funds and lack of time. However, I did make it a point to see Roger Waters perform The Wall this year. He’d come around with it once before, and seemingly 50% of my co-workers and friends went to it and loved it, whereas I’d blown it off immediately because I’m not a fan of solo Waters. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I bought a “cheap” seat (yeah, like $90) and watched the show from the back of an arena. It was AWESOME. The Wall is one of those albums I listened to over and over again in high school, and Waters pulled it off impeccably, with tons of clever staging approaches, and some very clever updating of the material. He also performed this song, which isn’t on the album (the much shorter “Empty Spaces” is in its place), but is in the movie. I decided after that show that I needed a better version of The Wall on my iPod. I own these crazy 24k gold CDs of it, but ironically their sound is mastered so quiet that whenever a song from them comes up in a random shuffle, it fades into the background unless I notice the lack of music and turn up the volume. So I found a remastered version that is much better, and on top of that ripped the audio from the movie, so now I have two different versions of this great stuff. This one is from the movie.
8. Jonathan Coulton & GLaDOS – Still Alive
For Christmas 2011, my friend Tashi gave me a couple of computer games: a game called Portal and its sequel, Portal 2. Now, normally I’m just as late to the gate with computer games as I am with any other kind of entertainment, and this was no exception, at least in part. All my IF friends had raved about Portal when it came out in 2007, but it never even made it into my queue. However Portal 2 came out in April 2011, so for me to play it in January 2012 was amazingly current, for me. Anyway, the plot of Portal is that you’re a test subject running the gauntlet at the whim of a crazy computer named GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain). At first, everything seems legit — you’re even promised cake and a party at the end of your tests. But it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well. You have a “neat gun” — one that doesn’t shoot bullets, but instead can create dimensional warps — portals — that let you travel between different parts of the landscape. The game constructs a bunch of clever puzzles around this mechanic, ending in a climactic scene in which you dismantle GLaDOS (by directing her own weapons at her via the portals) and “throw every piece into a fire.” At the very end of the game, this song plays. It blew my mind when I first heard it. I’d never heard pop music used in a computer game like that, just exactly the way movies sometimes play a new song over the credits to sum up the emotional journey of the story. I thought the song was brilliant, the way it recast the adversarial video game relationship as a failed romance. Plus, it eerily informs you that GLaDOS wasn’t really destroyed, setting up the sequel. I immediately bought the song. It comes on an album called The Orange Box (named after the game bundle in which Portal was originally sold), and thus wraps up the colorful section of this CD — silver and gold to blue and green to pink to orange.
9. Arcade Fire – We Used To Wait
Here’s another selection from that Arcade Fire album I kept listening to this year. Again, it’s the lyric that grabs me. I love the observation, that slow communication imparted a kind of hope. You could always believe a letter was on its way — something email, facebook, etc. just doesn’t afford. I think we’re still working to understand all the ways in which the Internet changed our lives. I love it, and I would never want it to go away, but I do understand a bit of the nostalgia in this song. I don’t necessarily equate paper with authenticity in the way that it does, but I do believe in patience, despite the constant acceleration of our lives around us.
10. Elton John – Pinball Wizard
I picked up the rerelease of Caribou and listened to it this year. This was one of the bonus tracks. I knew and loved Elton’s Beatles cover (Lucy in the Sky), but I never realized that he’d covered The Who. I adore piano rock, and this is a fantastic slice of it. The arrangement brings in the piano beautifully, and I love the way he works the “I Can’t Explain” riff and chorus into parts of the song. It was also wild to listen to it and hear new lyrics, which (at least according to Wikipedia) were written by Townshend. Of course, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I totally should have switched the order of this one and the previous one. “Pinball Wizard” would have continued the game theme from the Portal song, and the sense of bafflement would have transitioned into “We Used To Wait”, which in turn would have fit well with “Your Mother Should Know” in looking backwards. What was I thinking? Oh well.
11. The Beatles – Your Mother Should Know
More Beatles. I’ve always dug this song, partly because it has one of those impeccable McCartney melodies, and partly because I like the idea that even as they were at the top of the world, the group still paid its respects to the music that came before it. It’s funny, too, to hear it as I age and my musical taste gets just a bit more mired in the past, little by little, all the time. I still try to keep up with at least some of what’s new, but as time goes on I’m just out of touch. I have to laugh at myself when Jeopardy! runs a category about current music. I’m a music guy, but I am hilariously CLUELESS on those questions. (Also, based on its sponsors, I surmise that the Jeopardy! audience itself is not exactly a bunch of spring chickens.) I’m not sure if that’s how it has to be, but that seems to be how it is.
12. The Zombies – Time Of The Season
And now, let’s all get up and dance to this song, a hit before I was born. I have always loved “Time Of The Season” (along with the other classic Zombies tune, “She’s Not There.”) The unique rhythm, the breathy vocal, the keyboard part… it’s just so much fun. I’d burned a CD this year of classic rock mishmash, and this is the standout from that collection.
13. Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
I’m a Paul Simon guy, and have been since I was about 8 years old. Amazingly, he is still writing great songs. This one was the title track from his 2011 album, which fell into my 2012 music year due to backups in the queue. The basic message of this song — “life is what you make of it” — is so simple as to be a cliche, but the way he puts it across is just beautiful, grounding it in everyday details like cooking and parenting. Then the chorus lifts into a higher realm of observation, distilling wisdom into quotable rhyme — I especially love the bit about “mistaking value for the price.” And then, unexpectedly, he draws the scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Did that story have a happy ending? Maybe yeah, maybe not.
14. Indigo Girls – Gone
Those Indigos. I love how they’re still at it, after all these years. This was another 2011 album that fell into my 2012 music year, partly because I mark the year from November to October. Beauty Queen Sister was a nice return to form after their Christmas album, and it had a number of highlights — “Share The Moon”, “We Get To Feel It All”, the title track, and “Damo”, but I finally settled on this one. I love the romantic feel of it, how you meet your new life and wave your old life goodbye. Also, I have a fond memory of Dante hearing “I’ve seen a million suns go down on this tired town,” and replying, “A million suns? What planet is she on?”
15. The Beatles – Get Back (rooftop version)
Here’s the final Beatles entry in this collection, another entry from the Beatles A-Z collection. Robby and I have been doing this A-Z thing for decades — the first one was a Steive Nicks A-Z he made for me for my 18th birthday, which I thought was one of the most epic gifts ever. One of the fun things we do with these is try to introduce interviews, rarites, and other fun stuff to spice up the collection. This was a great example — I’d never actually had the rooftop version of this song in my collection. I love this song, and I love this version. John’s famously witty topper — “I hope we’ve passed the audition” — ushers in the comedy section of this CD.
16. Flight Of The Conchords – Business Time
A few years ago, Trish recommended that I watch season one of HBO’s Flight Of The Conchords show, a comedy built around Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, “New Zealand’s 4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a capella-rap-funk-comedy-folk duo.” She loaned me the DVDs and everything. I loved it, and began the process which eventually landed all their albums in my house. It’s a tough, tough choice to select a favorite from their self-titled album, but I eventually landed on this one. It’s just such a perfect choice to lampoon gettin’-it-on songs by casting one in the context of a long-since-settled domestic partnership. “Then you sort out the recycling — that isn’t part of the foreplay process but it is still very important.” The self-deprecation is dead-on — the song wouldn’t work without it, really. I’ve heard this song dozens of times, and still find it funny.
17. Loverboy – Working For The Weekend
Okay, so this isn’t technically a comedy song. For me, though, it is inextricable from two hilarious images:
1) Mike Reno in his ultra-80s outfit (headband, bandana, leather jacket & pants)
2) Shirtless Chris Farley competing for a Chippendales spot against Patrick Swayze
So it makes me laugh every time. Also, it’s just a totally fun song. I don’t subscribe to the “guilty pleasure” concept — I’m over having shame about the things I like. So it’s just a pleasure. Also, pairing it with “Business Time” pretty much covers the whole week!
18. Stephin Merritt – What A Fucking Lovely Day!
As I noted a few years ago, when I saw The Magnetic Fields in concert, they played a bunch of songs I’d never heard before, from the various crannies of the Merritt catalog. This is one that just cracked me up, predictably, from the moment I heard the first line. Especially coming from Merritt’s deadpan baritone, it was just so funny. The recording took me a while to track down. It turns out that Merritt wrote the music for a few different theatrical musical adaptations. This one comes from a musical version of a thirteenth-century Chinese play called The Orphan Of Zhao. It’s sung by the cast member from the show, which is too bad, as it loses something without Merritt’s voice, but nevertheless, it’s well worth the 82 seconds it takes up.
19. Steve Martin – Grandmother’s Song
Laura and I have evolved a little tradition for Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. It’s a two-part gift. First, the honoree gets the day off from childcare (an ironic but still delightfully freeing way to observe the day.) Second, the honoree buys a gift for the partner to give. It saves effort and takes the pressure off the day. So this year, my gift from Laura to me for Father’s Day was a couple of Steve Martin CDs — Wild & Crazy Guy, and Let’s Get Small, from which this track is taken. I had these on vinyl, but never transferred them to tape, so hadn’t listened to them for ages. When I finally did listen to them, I happened to have Dante in the car when this track came on. He was utterly tickled at how this song gets sillier and sillier. He couldn’t wait to come home and play it for Laura. We all sat in front of the computer listening to the song, and he just about burst, waiting for “Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant” to come on. I like sharing all kinds of cultural artifacts with him, but it’s especially fun to share the ones I myself loved as a kid, since it gives me both the pleasure of nostalgia and the joy of watching him experience it for the first time.
20. Stevie Wonder – Sir Duke
We finish with a couple of songs about the joy of music. I said a few years ago that I’d rehabilitated my image of Stevie Wonder, which had been unfortunately maimed by the fact that when I was discovering music, he was all, “I Just Called To Say I Love You, Part-Time Lover!” So this year I got the greatest hits, and started allowing the exuberance of songs that everybody else has already known and loved for ages. It was awfully hard to pick a highlight, but I went with this one just because it so gorgeously exudes a love of music, while encased in an excellent tune of its own. Plus, I just know that one of these days I’m going to ask a trivia question about which musicans he names in the lyrics. (Okay, that day was yesterday.)
21. The Byrds — Mr. Tambourine Man
Here’s another love letter to the elevating power of music. Now, I’m a language-oriented person, and I favor lyrics over music. In a contest between this version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan’s original, I would have to favor the original — it just has so many brilliant words that this one leaves out. However, musically, it’s no contest. While Dylan has some mostly monotone strumming and a bit of lead guitar, The Byrds have a killer riff, a hypnotic beat, and harmonies as clear and sparkling as diamonds. This is the song that invented folk-rock, and it still sounds good after all these years.
That’s it! At least, until next year.