Even though this was the month I became fully vaccinated and walked into the supermarket without a mask, I still don’t feel comfortable changing the title of this column. My psyche is still quarantining, and would rather listen to these cathartic, confident, grief-stricken songs than engage in a face-to-face conversation with someone I just met. Also, what would the new name be? “New Songs for a Strange Transitional Period Where Our Bodies are Protected but our Minds Need a Minute to Catch Up”? If you have a better idea, leave it in the comments. Even better, just press play.
1. The Linda Lindas – “Racist, Sexist Boy (Live at LA Public Library)”
So much more than a piece of content “we all need right now,” this breakout live performance from a quartet of Asian and Latinx teens and tweens boasts the kind of cathartic, no-bullshit punk songcraft that is made to last – especially in a country that is still pretending it isn’t racist.
2. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Old Jack Swing”
This hip-hop instrumentalist has said that her new album is meant “to be played when you birth yourself back outside after a long introspective period.” And this offering of funky, distorted bass and rumbling low-end piano should make every vaccinated person want to take off their masks and strut.
3. Audrey Nuna (feat. Saba) – “Top Again”
This New Jersey pop/R&B/rap triple-threat fuses ’90s angst with ’20s swagger, using “Kurt Cobain” as a verb and boasting about how her “Gabbana pants sag in the mosh pit.”
4. Sarah Barrios – “IH8EVERY1”
As I begin to spend time with people other than my wife again, this nihilistically romantic pop-punk earworm is gonna get a lot of spins.
5. Mustafa – “The Hearse”
On this grief-stricken, revenge-fueled dubstep/folk triumph, Mustafa’s voice trembles like a deck of cards: “I wanna throw my life away for you.”
6. Holly Humberstone – “The Walls Are Way Too Thin”
Claustrophobia is going to be a songwriting theme for awhile I imagine, and this UK singer/songwriter has used it as fuel for a heartbroken synth-pop gem.
7. Japanese Breakfast – “Savage Good Boy”
Michelle Zauner has already given us Sweensryche’s Song of the Summer, but she’s just getting started. The deceptively sprightly “Savage Good Boy” finds her inhabiting a truly evil character – a billionaire with a bunker, attempting to lure a woman down there as the seas inexorably rise.
8. Mach-Hommy – “Kriminel”
The mysterious, multilingual, always-masked-even-before-COVID emcee Mach-Hommy just released Pray for Haiti, a stunning achievement of hazy, soothing, organically intoxicating hip hop. “Kriminel” exemplifies this artist’s preternatural sense of calm, reminiscing about lost loved ones and childhood struggles over a quavering vocal sample, and patiently explaining why: “Fuck all that industry / Cause killers keep calm / She wrong / Cause n****s’ feelings need songs.”
9. Lucy Dacus – “VBS”
Lucy Dacus is one hell of a storyteller, and here’s one for all the lapsed Christians looking to feel seen. The singer/songwriter mines her memories of summers at “Vacation Bible School,” as a once-earnest believer who meets a Slayer-cranking naysayer who tries to poke holes in her logic, however awkwardly (“Your poetry was so bad / It took a lot not to laugh”). By the end, nobody has been saved.
10. Little Simz (feat. Cleo Sol) – “Woman”
“Innovating just like Donna Summer in the ’80s.”
11. Shungudzo – “I’m Not A Mother, But I Have Children”
Over a gravity-free expanse of gently plucked guitars and faraway synth murmurs, this Zimbabwean-American singer (and 2011 Real World cast member) sings about our shared responsibilities for this planet with desperately poetic turns of phrase: “Isn’t the point to try? / Even though some things will not be alright / Before we die.”
12. Helloween – “Fear of the Fallen”
Like plenty of legacy metal acts, Helloween has churned through multiple lead singers over its 37 years of existence. But on this new track, the German power metal institution has done something original – invite all three singers back to wail lines like “Listen to your HEART!” with flame-throwing, doubt-destroying energy.
13. Shannon Lay – “Rare to Wake”
“Without change, something sleeps inside us,” observes this California singer/songwriter, as she makes her acoustic guitar strings dance like Nick Drake vacationing in Laurel Canyon, leaving us fully and completely awakened.
As I write this, on the eve of my second vaccination shot, I’m thinking about the moments during quarantine that I want to hang onto. And they all have something to do with gratitude. While I’m excited by the prospect of being able to breathe openly in a room without tempting fate, I never want to lose the feeling of being safe with the person I love, in the house we made a home, amazed at the life we built together.
I think that’s why I was drawn to songs about intimacy, trust and hope this past month. No matter how much the world opens up, it’s what we carry inside of us that makes us free.
1. Kero Kero Bonito – “21/04/20”
This tired-but-hopeful sunshine pop song describes captures our current moment so accurately, you almost expect it to glitch like a Zoom call: “Hey, so, how are you doing? / I’m okay, you know, the usual kinda weird.”
2. Brockhampton – “Count On Me”
If this irrepressible Texas rap collective isn’t lying when they say this new release will be one of their last, at least they’re going out on top. “Count On Me” is a goosebump-raising good-vibes earworm about commitment and trust, perfect for anyone who wants to make a proclamation of love in the midst of a summer BBQ.
3. Spellling – “Little Deer”
We are all Bambi in the 2020s, trying to maintain friendships in a world full of forest fires and emboldened men with guns. And this Oakland R&B crooner has created an ideal soundtrack for us, pairing naturalistic poetry about the circle of life with the rich orchestral arrangement it deserves.
4. Jeff Rosenstock – “SKrAm!”
Jeff Rosenstock’s anthemic punk LP No Dream was a catchy, sweaty highlight of 2020. But Ska Dream – his new, track-for-track ska cover version – might be even better.
5. ILOVEMAKONNEN – “What You Tryna Do”
The self-love expressed in Makonnen Kamali Sheran’s stage name has always been more of a shelter than a boast, protecting his emotionally intelligent rap and R&B songs from the homophobic slings and arrows of the Atlanta trap scene. On this new acoustic ballad, he’s as close-miked, open-hearted, and consent-conscious as ever: “Is it okay if I have one little kiss?”
6. Vision Video – “Inked in Red”
In the same month that a U.S. president finally announced the end of the war in Afghanistan, we get a pitch-perfect retro-goth single from a band whose lead singer, Dusty Gannon, is a veteran of that war. When he sings “History has drawn these lines across my face,” it’s a long way from cosplay.
7. Polo G – “Rapstar”
A rap beat based on a ukulele riff sounds insufferably twee on paper. Polo G turns it into something enchanting.
8. Little Simz – “Introvert”
Over an epic trombones-and-choirs beat, this UK rapper confronts government corruption, systemic racism and her own personal anxieties with sensitivity and clarity, reminding us that art can at least feel like the light at the end of the tunnel.
9. Tierra Whack – “Link”
I was ready to roll my eyes at this partnership between Tierra Whack and Lego, but sometimes even product placement can move us. “You should come and build with me / We could link up,” the Philly artist sings over the kind of Rugrats-soundtrack music-box groove she’s been favoring these days. It might be a glorified ad, but after a year of humanity struggling to maintain connections, it absolutely works.
10. Lucy Dacus – “Hot & Heavy”
For anyone who’s not 100% thrilled about heading back to your hometown post-COVID, here’s a devastating anti-nostalgia rock anthem that turns Springsteen’s “Glory Days” on its head: “Being back here makes me hot in the face / Hot blood pulsing in my veins / Heavy memories weighing on my brain.”
In April, my home state will be opening up vaccinations to all adults. This is a fact that has not completely registered in my mind – even after I get my shots I’m guessing I’ll be flinching at shadows in crowded places for a long time. But I do find myself being more easily comforted by the thrumming noise of woodpeckers searching for sustenance outside my home office window. And the songs that really spoke to me in March include the work of two octogenarians, deriving joy from doing what they love, as well as a reverential cover of Dolly Parton’s most hopeful song. Things are changing out there, even more than a typical spring.
1. Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”
And here it is, the first serious contender for 2021’s Song of the Summer (for me at least) – an airy synth pop gem about the need to believe in someone that feels like it’s existed ever since Cyndi Lauper first promised “If you fall, I will catch you.”
2. Zara Larsson – “FFF”
I could spend this whole space talking about the grammatically heinous and somehow perfect line, “Is this a story arc? / Cause if it are, it’d be iconic.” But then I’d be ignoring that insanely catchy beat, which sounds like the Vengaboys trying to impress Kylie Minogue in 1998.
3. Tune-Yards – “Nowhere, Man”
This duo loves establishing a monster drum and bass grove, and then doing everything they can to get in its way. On “Nowhere, Man” they try telephone vocal effects, a shouty chorus and a bridge that throws the kitchen sink into the mix. None of it kept me from dancing.
4. Aesop Rock – “Long Legged Larry”
Did you know that March 20 was World Frog Day? Aesop Rock did, inventing an amphibious character called Long Legged Larry who rescues cats from trees and poodles from high-wire act disasters, rapping about him in a sing-song storytelling style that will have listeners of all ages jumping for joy.
5. Loretta Lynn – “I Saw the Light”
New music from a profoundly influential, 88-year-old country legend, singing Hank Williams’s timeless ode to spiritual epiphanies with palpable delight in her voice? Maybe there is a god.
6. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Mufaro’s Garden”
Evocative, jazz-inflected instrumental hip-hop that doesn’t need a rapper to resonate – it’s already rhyming with our souls.
7. Genghis Tron – “Pyrocene”
This synthesizer-fueled prog-metal group has reunited after over a decade apart, seemingly on a shared mission to uncover a new form of interstellar sonic beauty.
8. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – “Movement 4”
The 80-year-old saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders has teamed up with a British producer and world-famous orchestra on a gorgeously interconnected suite called Promises. This is my favorite bit, because it begins with Sanders vocalizing into the mic over a soft bed of mallet instruments. He doesn’t form one word, aware that his improvised gibberish has a soothing quality, like the sound of bubbles racing to the surface of a pond.
9. Lil Nas X – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
By titling his new single with his real-life first name and tossing in an homage to one of the first gay films he ever watched, Lil Nas X is not bowing to the pressure he must be facing to give the world another “Old Town Road.” He’s taking us along on his personal journey instead, rapping over a flamenco-flecked beat about a real-life COVID crush and confessing “I wanna sell what your buyin’ / I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii.”
10. Waxahatchee – “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”
As the vaccination numbers continue to rise, and more and more people step out into the world with something resembling relief, the timing was right for Katie Crutchfield to release her cover of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” hewing closely to the golden-sunrise country-pop arrangement of Dolly Parton’s cynicism-destroying original. It’s the sound of hope, pure and true.
Ever since I started these monthly playlists last January, I have posted them on the last day of the month. But in February 2021, it wasn’t in the cards. Because February 2021 was tough. Grey skies, freezing temps, a deadly virus, a new Tom & Jerry movie – it was all too much. So I hope you can forgive me for posting a bit late. I promise, the songs are worth it.
1. Nervous Dater – “Farm Song”
Rachel Lightner sings about depression so cleverly – “When it gets real bad I call it movie theater mode / Watching myself from the dark of the very last row” – it doesn’t register as sadness. And that twangy power-pop melody doesn’t hurt either.
2. Cardi B – “Up”
Three piano notes – that’s all Cardi B needs to make rap music that sounds like a goddamn event.
3. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – “White Elephant”
Anytime we have a conversation about what’s holding society back from achieving racial harmony, there’s an elephant in the room. And we know what color it is. On Nick Cave’s stunning new album with his long-time Bad Seed and film score partner Warren Ellis, he sings from the perspective of a white supremacist with an itchy trigger finger. “I’ll shoot you just for fun / I’m a statue lying on my side in the sun,” he sneers over menacing synthesizers, trying his hardest to ensure that, like an elephant, we never forget.
4. Noname – “Rainforest”
If any artist could make an ambitious anti-capitalist polemic feel like a slow ride down a gentle stream, it’s Noname. “How you make excuses for billionaires / You broke on the bus” the Chicago rapper posits on the chorus, backed by a low-key Latin groove that even the mind-boggling logic of poverty-stricken Republican voters can’t spoil.
5. Danny L Harle & DJ Danny – “Take My Heart Away”
As the world continues to mourn the tragic death of pop visionary SOPHIE, an artist who twisted club music into shapes that would shock a geometrist, a fellow artist on SOPHIE’s PC Music label carries the torch, drilling a mindlessly catchy dance hook into our brains with the commitment of a modern artist.
6. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “See Me”
I have no idea what these genre-hopping New Zealand psychedelic rockers do when they’re not in the studio – they’ve dropped nine LPs in our laps since 2017 – but you can’t accuse them of running out of ideas. “See Me” sounds like an out-of-tune xylophone soundtracking a descent into madness, aka February during a pandemic.
7. Victoria Monét – “F.U.C.K.”
My vote for the worst album title of all time probably goes to Van Halen’s 1991 experiment in brain-dead acronyms, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I have no idea if R&B singer/songwriter Victoria Monét is familiar with this Hagarrible moment in music history, but her riveting new single resuscitates the concept by playing against expectations, demanding something more meaningful than casual sex: “I wanna be a Friend You Can Keep.”
8. Vektor – “Activate”
The sci-fi thrash-metal behemoths in Vektor are back, screaming about “gyroscopic spires” and doing things with guitars and drum kits that definitely seem scientifically impossible.
9. Syd – “Missing Out”
This synth-drenched R&B virtuoso shared her first new solo track in four years – a hushed, moonlit ode to how breaking up can be the best thing for your self esteem. Just in time for Valentine’s Day.
10. Haim (feat. Thundercat) – “3 AM”
What’s a surefire way to make this “you up?” ballad from Haim’s Women In Music Pt. III album even better? Add a guest verse from Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner – one of the most convincing, and non-threatening, sonic pick-up artists in the game.
In the first month of 2021, things we took for granted before 2016 made a comeback – e.g. presidents caring about what Americans think; domestic terrorists being treated as criminals; 3 Doors Down not getting the call to perform at a globally significant event. As my cynical, traumatized brain struggles to process this Common Sensory Overload, listening to new music has helped. From idiosyncratic indie-rock to wistful instrumental hip hop to chart-baiting country, artists around the world continue to remind us that, no matter how beaten down we might feel, human beings are still capable of harmony.
1. Tune-Yards – “Hold Yourself”
Having just plowed through Lydia Millet’s hilarious and harrowing novel A Children’s Bible – where older generations get their comeuppance for doing jack squat about climate change – I was primed to fall in love with Tune-Yards’ latest single. “Parents betrayed us / Even when they tried,” sings Merrill Garbus over gently syncopated bass and drums. She’s not mad. She’s just disappointed.
2. Kiwi Jr. – “Maid Marian’s Toast”
Effervescent jangle-pop goodness from this Toronto quartet’s endearing second LP, complete with a simple-as-pie, inhale/exhale harmonica solo.
3. Yasmin Williams – “Sunshowers”
This acoustic guitar virtuoso uses innovative tunings and percussive taps to create the sonic equivalent of running water. “Sunshowers” is an intricate construction of flowing melodies, eddying bass notes, and sprays of string squeaks – a tributary from the artist’s soul to our ears.
4. Rhye – “Helpless”
“I knew it from the start / I’d grow with you,” coos Mike Milosh on yet another feather-light, Sade-inspired ballad about the miracles of human intimacy.
5. Pom Poko – “Like a Lady”
This Norwegian pop-punk outfit captures the liberating thrill of rejecting society’s definitions of womanhood – when the guitars kick in, so does the visceral joy.
6. Madlib – “Road of the Lonely Ones”
Madlib doesn’t just sample the heartsick Philly soul ballad “Lost in a Lonely World.” He invites it to haunt his house.
7. Loony – “Raw”
An R&B ballad that captures the vibe of a long, romantic morning, lit by sunlight filtered through curtains.
8. Eric Church – “Heart On Fire”
Eric Church is a Nashville star with a heavy classic rock habit. (I saw him open a show with a scorching cover of “Back in Black.”) His latest single nails that blue-collar blues-pop stomp that Petty, Springsteen and Mellencamp buffed to a sheen in the ’80s – three huge guitar chords, twinkling right-hand piano accents, and snare drums that burst like fireworks.
9. Crystal Canyon – “Pollyanna”
This Maine shoegaze outfit celebrates the few remaining sunshine-and-rainbows optimists of the world, encouraging them to not lose hope over a slow, sun-soaked riff that feels like a chopped & screwed homage to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today.”
10. Bill MacKay & Nathan Bowles – “Joyride”
This guitar and banjo instrumental might have a title that brings “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to mind. But this isn’t car chase music. It’s bike riding to the lake on a warm spring day music.
11. Shovels & Rope (feat. Sharon Van Etten) – “In My Room”
By enlisting Sharon Van Etten to belt with all her might, and backing her with stereophonic ’60s production, the folk duo Shovels & Rope have successfully answered the question “What if Roy Orbison covered The Beach Boys?”
A song can grab us in all sorts of ways. We fall for it by the time the first chorus kicks in; or it takes a dozen listens before its genius reveals itself; or it plays during a relevant moment in our lives and becomes forever attached to it; or it burrows its way into our subconscious and starts playing in our cerebral jukebox. In a year when almost everything didn’t work like it was supposed to, these 25 songs were reassuring reminders that music could still take hold of my emotions in these same old ways.
Happy listening, and happy new year!
25. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”
In 2020, I thanked god every day that I could still hug and kiss and sleep next to the person I love. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice spoke for those who couldn’t.
24. Polo G – “Martin & Gina”
“I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me,” confesses this inherently melodic Chicago drill rapper, evoking what love feels like in a way no multi-camera sitcom ever could.
23. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”
Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”
22. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”
Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.
21. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”
This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.
What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.
19. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”
Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.
18. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love“
In December, the electro-pastiche virtuosos The Avalanches released its enchanting third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by the love story of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan, who worked together on NASA’s 1977 Voyager Interstellar Project. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to romantic transcendence.
17. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control”
An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.
16. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”
A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan still had more to give: driving newlyweds around in his limo and reflecting on the universality of marriage, all while doing his best Johnny Cash impression.
15. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”
Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue made a sparkling, return-to-form album called Disco this year. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single healed through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”
14. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi”
This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”
13. Carly Rae Jepsen – “This Love Isn’t Crazy”
Per usual, Carly Rae Jepsen’s B sides were catchier and sweeter and more emotionally authentic than most artists’ A sides in 2020.
12. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”
The next time you hear a Democratic man talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.
11. Charli XCX – “Claws”
This frayed, homemade electro-pop love song had me dancing in my living room with tears in my eyes.
10. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”
I think Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is criminally underrated. And if this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song is any indication, there’s a Montreal soft-pop band that agrees with me.
9. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”
The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our 45th president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.
8. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”
Four years after dropping one of the best rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah was back with authority in 2020. And so were ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And extended scratch solos. And the feeling that hip hop could re-energize the world.
7. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”
Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like on the ominous synth-funk hailstorm “Walking in the Snow,” where Killer Mike connects the dots between the American education system, criminal justice system, and the destruction of Black lives with chilling precision and fulminating passion.
6. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”
A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.
5. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
When Thundercat’s dropped this adorably goofy R&B come-on as an advance single before his album’s April release date, is was an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.
4. Laura Marling – “For You”
At some point in 2020, I started putting little talismans on my dining room table, the place that had become my main workstation (and Dungeons & Dragons dice-rolling surface). They were little gifts and notes from my wife, whose job still required her to go out in the world every day. It wasn’t until I heard “For You” that I realized what I was doing. “I keep a picture of you / Just to keep you safe,” Laura Marling sings over a lullaby landscape of light hums and strums, appealing to anyone whose heart resides in someone else’s body.
3. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”
Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores In This House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.
2. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”
“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. Over a spare, radiant arrangement of guitar, organ and snare-rim clicks, the songwriter uses the fragrant, short-lived blossom of its title as a metaphor, not to dwell on mortality, but to drum up the courage to acknowledge the beauty that’s right in front of us: “I need your love too.”
1.Bob Dylan – “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”
A year ago, back when traveling was still a thing, I took a trip to Hawaii with my wife. We got a place in the middle of the jungle that seemed created for the purpose of sitting down, unwinding, and appreciating how beautiful our world can be. For 10 days I was able to look up from the pages of a novel and see blooms of impossible brightness, banyan trees reaching to the sky like the hands of giants, and the ocean in the distance, conducting its prehistoric symphony. Pretty much immediately, we started talking about retiring there. It was a place where we could rest in peace.
A few months later, Bob Dylan told the world about his idea of heaven on earth – an island in the Florida Keys that’s famous for attracting 20th century literary geniuses to its shores. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a hazy dreamworld of a nine-minute ballad, its clean, reverberating guitars and gently brushed snares exemplifying how time slows to a crawl when you’re in your favorite place. In his weary, 79-year-old voice, Dylan takes us down unexpected avenues on every verse, tuning in to an old broadcast from Radio Luxembourg, pointing out Truman Capote’s old house, making sure we don’t miss the gardens overflowing with hibiscus flowers, orchid trees and bougainvillea.
But this isn’t some cryptic, “Desolation Row”-style lyrical puzzle-box. On the choruses, Dylan makes his intentions as clear as a Caribbean tide pool, sighing with audible contentment about how this island makes him feel:
Key West is the place to be If you’re looking for immortality Key West is paradise divine Key West is fine and fair If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there Key West is on the horizon line
As the music slowly fades, the impact of what just happened washes over us. One of the least transparent artists in American history – who I have never seen actually speak to an audience beyond begrudgingly introducing his band – was singing, openly and earnestly, about where he wants his sun to set. I can only hope my last wishes will be so clear.
Making mixes for people has always soothed me. Something about the challenge of finding just the right songs, and putting them in just the right order, makes me feel like I have some level of control in this chaotic, ever-expanding universe. And as a form of communication, it suits me better than the art of conversation. My wife is my soul mate for a thousand reasons, and one of them is that, amazingly, she has always intently listened to, and given feedback on, the mixes I’ve incessantly made for her. As they have progressed from tapes to CDs to playlists, they have only deepened our bond, as celebrations of how our tastes, and hearts, align.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that on day 3 of the 2020 election, I have taken a break from refreshing the The New York Times Pennsylvania tracker to make a mix of my favorite songs from October 2020. I hope listening to it gives you a similar respite.
Love you Jen.
1. Wynonna – “I Hear You Knocking”
As Wynonna Judd reminds you what a force of nature she is on this stripped down cover of a ’50s R&B classic, let’s all fantasize about being able to say this to Donald Trump, very, very soon:
I hear you knocking / but you can’t come in I hear you knocking / go back where you been
2. Stevie Wonder (feat. Rapsody, Cordae, CHIKA and Busta Rhymes) – “Can’t Put It In the Hands of Fate”
An uplifting, timely, harmonica-sweetened ballad from the master of the form, who is most definitely not calling just to say he loves us.
You say that you believe in all lives matter I say, “I don’t believe the fuck you do”
3. Tierra Whack – “Dora”
“Please have common sense,” pleads this Philly singer, rapper and pop visionary over apost-Rugrats beat that features synthetic voices harmonizing in a charming, reassuring way.
4. The Mountain Goats – “Picture of My Dress”
Inspired by a tweet from poet Maggie Smith, John Darnielle gives us an opportune story-song about how good it can feel to come to terms with a bad decision. As a divorcee drives cross-country, taking pictures of her old wedding dress at various locations along the way, Darnielle writes about Burger King bathrooms like Shelley wrote about the wind.
5. Cakes da Killa – “Don Dada”
An absolute beast of a club rap single from an emcee who always seems to have adrenaline to spare.
6. War on Women – “Her?”
This Baltimore punk juggernaut gives us a space to pour all of our feminist rage, be it from 2016 or the entirety of recorded history.
7. Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean”
A year after dropping his ’80s hard rock Camaro album, Sturgill Simpson has pulled a 180, releasing an LP of bluegrass versions of songs from his back catalog. And it slaps harder.
8. Busta Rhymes (feat. Q-Tip) – “Don’t Go”
If ’90s Native Tongues rap is your nostalgic safe space, get ready to feel cuddled.
9. AC/DC – “Shot in the Dark”
The rock-solid 4/4 drums. The high-powered but simple riff. The gloriously mindless mosh chorus (“A shot in the dark beats a walk in the park”). The overwhelming feeling of celebratory camaraderie. We missed you, mates.
10. Tom Petty – “Hung Up and Overdue (Home Recording)”
This previously unreleased demo of a song from the She’s the One soundtrack is a highlight of the fantastic new Wildflowers and All the Rest box set. And while it is a somber breakup ballad in line with the tone of Tom Petty’s mid-’90s post-divorce period, its chorus rings true today in an utterly uplifting way:
We’re overdue / For a dream come true
11. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love”
In 1977, while working together on NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Project, astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan fell in love. The project involved sending two spacecraft into the great beyond, carrying recorded evidence of life on Earth, including the sound of a kiss, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and greetings in 59 languages.
Also included are recordings of Druyan’s brain and body functions, captured at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. While the tape was rolling, Druyan meditated on “the wonder of love, of being in love.”
In December, the electro-pastiche experts The Avalanches will release its third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by Druyan and Sagan’s romance. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to transcendence:
Spirit guide Love provides Spirit guide, spirit need Love provides all that we need
On October 8, a week after being hospitalized with COVID-19, Donald Trump released a two-minute video on Twitter directed to his “favorite people in the world,” the senior citizens of America. And while the obvious goal of the piece was to shore up his poll numbers – on the same day, Politico ran a piece with the headline “Why Senior Citizens Are Flipping On Trump” – even that purely selfish motivation could not compel our president to express any remorse whatsoever for the nearly 170,000 Americans over 65 who have been killed by this virus.
But as we’ve learned over the last four years, abject cruelty and the refusal to admit fault are the default state of this administration. The reason this video stands out to me is the moment at the beginning, where Trump tells his favorite people that he’s ashamed to be one of them:
“I’m a senior. I know you don’t know that. Nobody knows that. Maybe you don’t have to tell ’em, but I’m a senior.”
Presidents are supposed to at least pretend to care about their most vulnerable populations, because to do otherwise would offend a loyal voting bloc and make you look like a deranged asshole. Why on earth couldn’t this 74-year-old lie factory express pride in being a senior citizen, even if he doesn’t mean it? The answer to that question cuts to the core of why Donald Trump is extremely unfit to lead our country, and absolutely cannot be re-elected on Tuesday.
He hates vulnerable people.
In 1971, the R&B singer/songwriter Bill Withers released a hauntingly beautiful acoustic-blues ballad about how much he loved a vulnerable person – his maternal grandmother, Lula Galloway, who died when Withers was 15. Like Trump’s video, “Grandma’s Hands” clocks in at just over two minutes. It’s the loving, heartbreaking, empathetic antidote to his obscene narcissism.
Over a mournful, minor-key riff, Withers starts the song with a reassuring, now-iconic hum. The sweetness of his voice is an immediate comfort, a signal that we’re about to be smiling through our tears. Then the artist starts singing about how his grandma looked out for him. His lyrics, which often quote Galloway, are direct, honest, and effective – perhaps a stylistic homage to the way she treated others:
Grandma’s hands Used to issue out a warning She’d say, ‘Billy don’t you run so fast Might fall on a piece of glass Might be snakes there in that grass‘
In the second verse, Withers points out his grandmother’s physical vulnerability, but as a way to provide further evidence of her strength – her painful arthritis can’t stop her from offering solace to a woman who was likely being shunned by others:
Grandma’s hands Soothed a local unwed mother Grandma’s hands Used to ache sometimes and swell
The song’s simple blues arrangement continues, steady and slow, for the entire track – three verses, no chorus, no bridge. Even the studio ringers brought in by producer Booker T. Jones cede the spotlight. Stephen Stills’s lead guitar runs are quiet and gentle. Drummer Jim Keltner plays a basic 4/4 beat. All so we can truly feel the warmth and gratitude in Withers’s voice, as he passes down memories like the elder he’s memorializing.
On the final verse, we understand just how much Galloway protected her grandson – and not just from hypothetical snakes:
She’d say, ‘Mattie don’t you whip that boy What you want to spank him for? He didn’t drop no apple core,’ But I don’t have Grandma anymore
On March 30 of this year, Withers passed away at 81, from non-COVID-related heart complications. Weeks into the pandemic’s terrifying, disorienting first wave, everyone was listening to him again, finding solace in his lyrical sensitivity and deep, burnished tenor. So many of his hit songs were about love and compassion and the beauty of being together, from the blissful “Lovely Day” to the gut-wrenching “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the profoundly supportive “Lean On Me.” He wrote “Grandma’s Hands” before all of those classics, showing the world how he learned to love before teaching us.
What if Lula Galloway had contracted a horrible virus and died before her time? What impact would that have had on her grandson who loved and needed her? Would he have been inspired to write these songs that, even today, make me feel like everything’s going to be okay? Or would that legacy of love have been ripped from us?
Every time a senior dies unnecessarily from this unchecked pandemic, we are losing so much more than their physical presence. We’re losing the knowledge they have to impart, the love they have to give, the lessons they have to teach. These are precious natural resources that help our younger generations grow into well-rounded, kind-hearted adults who know what true strength really looks like – someone who uses their hands not to grab whatever they want, but to protect the people they love.
So if you haven’t voted already, please vote for Joe Biden on Tuesday. He’s an (admitted) senior citizen who understands grief. Who will tell our nation every day that wearing a mask is an act of strength. Who will work to protect the vulnerable populations of this country, and teach our children to respect them.
Until I read the headline that announces his victory, I know what I’ll be listening to.
This summer, as each month came to a close with no end in sight for COVID-19 or systemic racism or climate change or the rule of law, etc., I let my anxiety and outrage influence these playlists quite a bit. For some reason, now that we’re officially in autumn, my favorite tracks from September sound a whole lot like a mix I’d make for a backyard party – 48 minutes of braggadocious rap and glittery dance and psychedelic funk and blistering metal. Yes, the election is around the corner. Yes, that debate was a diarrhea hurricane. But I say let’s forget about all of it, and move to some music, if only for 48 minutes.
1. Rico Nasty – “Own It”
Over some bouncy synth bass, Rico pours Dom Perignon, brags about her Crocs and provides sweet relief to our battered egos
2. Kylie Minogue – “Magic”
Under the lights of a disco ball, with Kylie Minogue singing about the beauty of living in the moment, hell yes I believe in magic.
3. SAULT – “I Just Wanna Dance”
This faceless, secretive British soul-funk group has gotten me dancing in spite of it all.
4. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”
Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.
5. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi”
This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”
6. Porridge Radio – “7 Seconds”
Synth-driven goth-pop that sticks like Robert Smith’s hairspray.
7. Napalm Death – “Zero Gravitas Chamber”
These legends of extreme British metal formed almost 40 years ago, but they’re still cranking out adrenalized chaotic events like this track, which makes me feel like I’m having a heart attack while seeing the face of God.
8. Kamaiyah & Capolow – “Gimme Dat”
Sonic sunshine from two of Oakland’s finest.
9. Chris Stapleton – “Cold”
Chris Stapleton has become a crossover Nashville star on the strength of his booming, whiskey-barrel-splintering voice, and this fantastic breakup ballad gives those pipes the melodramatic, orchestral backing they deserve.
10. Prince – “Soul Psychodelicide”
In the early ’00s, I was lucky enough to see Prince play an after-hours show at a small club – his full band, including Maceo Parker, was crammed onto a tiny stage, just a few feet from me. They jammed for hours, a living dream of melody, chemistry and charisma. This 12-minute funk freakout on the mind-blowing new Sign O the Times box set brings me back to that moment – Prince calling out cues to his incredible players, channeling Sly and James and George while carving out a groove all his own.
11. Gorillaz ft. Robert Smith – “Strange Timez”
Speaking of Robert Smith, the Cure legend made a rare guest appearance this month, singing about odd sunshine and Belarusian fascists while giving Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project its best track in years.
As we say goodbye to August and look to November, Joe Biden is maintaining his slight lead in the polls. But it should be an 80 point lead. Americans are dying from a virus that our president has ignored, and from racist police officers and vigilantes that our president has encouraged. It makes me wonder, do we really hate each other and ourselves this much? Counterpoint: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion topped the charts this month with a watershed of a song that celebrated the joy that human beings can give to one another. We do love ourselves! Now we just need to apply all that positive energy to canvassing, and donating, and VOTING.
1. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”
Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores in this House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.
2. Bully – “Stuck In Your Head”
Alicia Bognanno’s alternative-nation rocker seems to be about never acting on your feelings, and then dealing with the fallout of that inaction. But its blistering hook will get stuck in your head all the same.
3. Marie Davidson – “Renegade Breakdown”
This bilingual robo-funk banger is so catchy, I don’t even mind when it reads me to filth: “Your cheap headlines, your lazy writing / I wonder how it feels for you to sit around all day.”
What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.
5. Orville Peck (feat. Shania Twain) – “Legends Never Die”
Shania Twain is indeed a legend, and she sounds as charismatic and arena-ready as ever while harmonizing with old-school country’s most compelling modern torchbearer.
6. Mourn – “This Feeling Is Disgusting”
I never understood music theory, so I can’t tell you what note this Barcelona pop-punk quartet is playing at the apex of this track’s rollicking lead riff. A seventh? A suspended fourth? I was too busy bouncing around my living room to look it up.
7. MF Doom – “Coco Mango (FloFilz Remix)”
A German producer gives a 2012 MF Doom track a summery piano-jazz makeover.
8. Laura Veirs – “Turquoise Walls”
A ballad about being alone in a room, waiting for a text from someone who betrayed you, that somehow feels like hope.
9. Black Thought (feat. Pusha-T, Swizz Beatz & Killer Mike) – “Good Morning”
This quartet of forty-something rappers might be over the hill, but holy shit are they gaining speed.
10. A.G. Cook – “Today”
Smashing Pumpkins’ deceptively sunny-sounding classic gets a loving electro-pop makeover from the head of the PC Music collective, bringing out its inherent darkness without blunting its shimmer.