Come On Come On Come On Come On Come On

I wrote about my 2023 playlist three separate times last year, and I’m doing it again this year. (That’s no surprise; even last year was the second time I did it.) The thinking behind it is simple: it’s songs that I’ve been obsessed with that I add to the playlist in real time. (Originally, it was primarily songs I’d discovered for the first time, but that’s slipped a little this time around with old favorites I’d forgotten and rediscovered entering the mix.) As I did last year, I’m sharing the playlist as it hits multiples of 50 entries, so here’s the first lot, and if you want to listen to it for yourself (Hi, Alex), you can do so right here.

Sweat Out That Angry Bits of Life

“I remember thinking murder in the car.”

For all manner of reasons, I’ve been revisiting a bunch of music from the late 1990s recently, and have zeroed in especially on Blur’s self-titled album from 1997. That was a big year for me, in terms of what I was listening to: the trinity of Super Furry Animals’ Radiator, Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point, and David Holmes’ Let’s Get Killed took me outside of my indie kid/Britpop era and into more interesting areas thanks to my curiosity in hunting down the originators for all three of those albums, each of which wore different (but overlapping) influences on their sleeve. Without those three, my self-mythology goes, I doubt I’d be so eager to find new sounds even today, and to be willing to give almost anything a listen for a few go-rounds before deciding if I’m into it or not.

Looking back now, though, I’m probably shortchanging Blur in that version of the story. Of course, I loved that album — it’s still my favorite Blur album, I think, even now — and I remember getting a copy of it early through a record mart or something similar, someone selling a pre-release review copy for a tenner and me going “I loved ‘Beetlebum,’ and I think Blur’s a great band,” because I was 22 and it was the start of ’97 and of course I did. What I wasn’t ready for was what the album sounded like, all the sonic gruffness and stutters and self-conscious attempts to do something different from the pristine, over-worked Britpop glory of The Great Escape.

It’s still very much a pop album, but one that pulls from a different lineage of pop music than what the band had previously stolen from, even if the hooks remained admirably intact. It was those hooks that brought me into the obsessive re-listens immediately (“Song 2”! “Movin’ On”! “I’m Just A Killer For Your Love,” with that bassline!), but within days, it was the more awkward stuff that I found myself playing over and over again.

For weeks after, I’d find myself walking through Aberdeen streets at night on the way home from being out with friends, or visiting folk, or whatever, listening to “Essex Dogs” on repeat — the sound of this 6+ minute spoken word track with grumbling, discordant guitars squealing as backing feeling just right for the headspace I was in at the time; I was transfixed by the possibilities the song suggested not just as music, but as storytelling and narrative. It felt like there was something more out there to find, if I knew where to look.

I got distracted by other bands, other sounds, other things happening in life before I really had the chance to look; it would be years before I started listening to things like the Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron, or even John Cooper Clarke. But I can see a through line there that I hadn’t before, stretching back to Blur. Maybe I should give that album more credit, in retrospect.

What’s The Plan, Baby? Obliteration

I should have done this earlier in the month, but… I didn’t. Such is life. Anyway: here’s the tail end of my 2023 playlist, which I’ve earlier shared in a couple of posts last year in 50-song increments. The final 32 songs are here, added towards the end of the year. (The screenshots were taken in the closing days of the year, so the “1 week ago” added date for the last couple songs is really the end of December.)

The rule for the playlist was basically either that it was a new song that I’d just discovered, or one I already knew that I’d recently become obsessed with for some reason. The other rule was simple enough: one song per act. (I fudged that at least once, but shhh we won’t talk about that.) Two songs ended up being deleted off earlier posts: one of them because I got bored of it, another because I added an entirely different song by the same musician. Spot the difference!

You can find the actual playlist on Spotify here if the link works. And, yes, I’m already doing the same thing for 2024, because of course I am.

How to Have a Number One the Easy Way

Little makes me feel that I’m in my 50th year on this planet as surveying the music scene and thinking to myself that I have almost no idea what the fuck is going on anymore.

This is, let’s be honest, the natural order of things: I’m 49 years old and therefore intended to be someone who should complain about whatever the kids are listening to these days and how it’s all just noise. That’s surely my role in pop culture at this point. But, as I look down the listings for upcoming concerts here in Portland, I’m struck by how uninspired and boring it all seems.

I don’t mean that in the sense of, who are all these whippersnappers with their newfangled sounds — if only that was the case! Instead, there are countless tours by bands that were around during, or worse, before “my time.” And those few new acts playing are described in ways that reference their predecessors in such reverent, glowing terms that they feel, if anything, even older.

I’m reminded of asking people what they were listening to during my UK trip in an attempt to find something new and unexpected. One friend excitedly told me about “the hottest act in the country right now” and how groundbreaking her music was, but upon exploration, it was banal pop sounds with someone’s confessional overlaid over, as if Olivia Rodrigo’s “bad idea right?” had been taken as a signpost by people who frown in photos because they think it makes them seem interesting. Worse yet, asking my teenage nephew — himself a musician — offered up a list of bands I’d listened to myself at his age.

(I’m referencing Olivia Rodrigo; does that make me contemporary? Am I secretly hip after all?)

My ears are restless, still, and seemingly more restless than other people’s. I scroll through apps and music reviews online, looking for things I’ve never heard before. It’s not novelty I’m looking for as such, but just something different. Maybe this is how it’s meant to be at this age, as well, but I kind of doubt it.

We Love the New Idea/I’m Bringin’ A Bunch, Then

I shared the first 50 songs from my 2023 playlist a few months back, but now it’s time for the next 50. Yes, somehow this playlist has breached 100 songs already. (By the time you’re reading this, it’ll almost certainly be higher.) Again, this is a playlist of music that it, for the most part, new to me, or something that I’ve rediscovered for whatever reason and gotten newly obsessed by. There’s some really fucking good stuff on here; it’s been a pretty fucking great year for my musical discoveries, even if other parts of 2023 haven’t been too kind.

As before: go search up some of these songs yourself. Ideally, you’ll find some new favorites of your own.

If I Scream It, I Mean It

When I started this, I was just going to embed a Spotify playlist in this post, but for some reason, WordPress and Spotify don’t want to play nice together right now, so instead, I’ll just link the playlist here, and instead just list the tracks.

My idea was, simply, to offer an introduction to Super Furry Animals, one of my favorite bands and one that — as I’ve recently written — acts as an unexpected key to the way my brain works. They were active from the early 1990s through about a decade ago, although their core period was probably from the release of their first album Fuzzy Logic in 1996 through 2003’s Phantom Power; this playlist goes all the way up to their last full album, just because I’m that nerd. I’ve nonetheless tried to keep it reasonably contained — it’s just 24 songs, and runs a little over 90 minutes, because pop music.

  1. Hometown Unicorn
    2. Fuzzy Birds
    3. Something for the Weekend

All three of the above were from that debut album, Fuzzy Logic, and you can hear a band that is simultaneously unsure about who they are, and confident enough to push at the edges of the dominant Britpop sound of the moment. (“Hometown Unicorn”‘s prog-inspired guitar solo! “Fuzzy Birds” ending with a folk flourish!)

4. The Man Don’t Give A Fuck

A b-side that was excised from the single it was intended for because of rights issues — it’s based around a sample of “Showbiz Kids” by Steely Dan, who initially didn’t give clearance quickly enough, as the story goes — it subsequently became a single in its own right, and an anthem that let would be fans know exactly who the band was at that moment in time.

5. The International Language of Screaming
6. Hermann Loves Pauline
7. Demons

Three songs from Radiator from 1997. By this point, not only was the band settling into its particular musical groove — taking influences from all over the place, predominantly outside of the Britpop norm while remaining firmly pop music — but my fandom was firmly in place. I’d seen them live just ahead of the release of this album, and “Demons” was introduced by lead singer Gruff Rhys asking the crowd if they could applaud after he’d sung the first line even though we didn’t know the song. “I want to feel like Frank Sinatra singing ‘New York, New York,'” he explained. (We obliged, of course.)

8. Ice Hockey Hair

The lead track of an EP released between Radiator and the next album, Guerrilla, and a song that I remember drove my then-best friend away from his own fandom of the band, purely because a vocoder was used for the verses. It’s strange what things we will, and won’t, accept from bands sometimes.

9. Citizen’s Band
10. Night Vision
11. The Teacher
12. Fire in My Heart

All four songs from Guerrilla, which came out in 1999. It’s a weird, messy third album, as third albums tend to be — bands are struggling to prove themselves on the first, confident to varying degrees and filled with the need to find their voice on the second, and then the third is the one where they go, “Wait, do I do more of this or something different now?” Guerrilla is uneven and disunified, but there’s some great songs on there — including “Citizen’s Band,” one of my favorite SFA tracks overall, which was originally hidden as the secret bonus track you could only find if you tried to rewind from the first track on the CD. Technology!

13. Sidewalk Serfer Girl
14. (Drawing) Rings Around the World
15. It’s Not The End of the World?

2001’s Rings Around the World might be the band’s most complete, most coherent album; it came out around the time I was traveling back and forth to the US for the first few times, and I have really clear memories about listening to it a lot on my Discman — oh yes — while walking the streets of San Francisco. Both “Sidewalk Serfer Girl” and “(Drawing) Rings Around the World” were most definitely personal soundtrack songs for a long time, while “It’s Not The End of the World?” feels oddly fitting given that I was listening to this a lot in the aftermath of 9/11 and everything that possessed the world around that time.

16. Slow Life
17. Golden Retriever
18. Liberty Belle

By the time we get to 2003’s Phantom Power, things are beginning to fracture; it feels at once like the second half of Rings Around the World and somehow a lesser album, as if the band themselves are starting to get tired and in the need to do other things. That said, “Slow Life” is perhaps the song they’d been trying to make for years. The closer to the album, it might as well have acted as a final statement on something greater.

19. Zoom!
20. Lazer Beam
21. Psyclone!

I still remember how excited I was for 2005’s Love Kraft, where all three of these songs come from; I was working at the call center in San Francisco, and I had the CD in my bag waiting for me to listen for the first time on the way home. I was so disappointed that it didn’t give me the same excitement that all of the earlier SFA albums had, although I still love these three songs very, very much. One of the fun things about the recent “deluxe” reissues of those earlier albums are the unreleased and demo tracks included on them, which reveal that “Lazer Beam” had been something that had been in the works for almost a decade by the time this album came out, as an incomplete jam called “John Spex.” (Versions of it show up on the deluxe versions of both Guerilla and Rings Around the World.)

22. Suckers!
23. Neo Consumer
24. Crazy Naked Girls

And so we come to the somewhat slow decline of the band, with tracks from their last two official albums, 2007’s Hey Venus! and 2009’s Dark Days/Light Years. (“Suckers!” and “Neo Consumer” come from the former, “Crazy Naked Girls” from the latter.) Both albums, to me, sound like a band that’s going through the motions and want to be elsewhere, bereft of the playfulness that marked their best work; to be fair, by this point, they all had other bands or solo projects they were working on, so it’s very possible that they did want to be elsewhere.

The band came back for a reunion single in 2016, “Bing Bong,” which is… fine…? Otherwise, I’m happy to let them go off and follow their individual muses as they see fit. What they came up with for that decade-and-a-bit together is more than enough for me. And now you get to see if it’s enough for you, too.

Sense-Surrounded by Pies and Books

Beyond the new Blur album, much of my walking about out in the real world recently has been soundtracked by the first three albums by Super Furry Animals, a firm 1990s favorite that I’ve been revisiting with no small sense of wonderment.

This was a band who, after a fun but uneven first album — 1996’s Fuzzy Logic, at turns fueled by Prog Rock, folk, and the confused directionless Britpop zeitgeist of the time — immediately reinvented itself with a single made from a discarded B-side and quickly became part of my musical and spiritual identity for a good five or six years afterwards. Listening back to all this stuff now is a weirdly, strongly nostalgic experience where specific lines or guitar licks feel like sense memories is the strangest of ways.

The discarded B-side was “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck,” built around a looped sample of a single line from Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids” — “You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else” — that is repurposed as an anthem against cultural and societal oppressors that feels relentless and undeniable. It fed into the next album, Radiator, released a year or so after Fuzzy Logic but sounding like almost an entirely different band: one more comfortable in their own skins and happier being more esoteric and angry even as the hooks and the catchiness in every track only increased.

There are lines throughout Radiator that I can tell now pushed my head in certain directions at an impressionable time, listening back now: the nervy contrarian attitude of things like “Why do you do/What they tell you?” sure, but also the humor and silliness of “Marie Curie was Polish born, but French bred/Ha! French bread!” in the same song. That’s also the song that says, entirely seriously, “I live my life in a quest for information,” which to this day feels like a key to everything in my head.

All of this against music that reached outside my traditional musical interests of the era and retired my head to some degree: there are echoes and influences of dance music, of Can, and Arthur Lee and Love, and Sun-Ra and mariachi music and all of it felt like a puzzle to track down and work out at the time. Radiator came out in the same year as Primal Scream’s similarly restless, inspirational Vanishing Point, and the two together were endlessly important in pushing me out of my comfort zone.

What’s been so rewarding about revisiting this stuff (and their third album, Guerilla, which is sonically even more diverse) is that, thankfully, it still sounds as fresh, as catchy, and wonderfully, as fun as it did when I first heard it, a quarter century or so ago. It’s not the same as stepping back into my own history, but it’s at least a sign that not everything I was thinking back then was the product of an eager, impressionable, and naive mind that should’ve known better.

It Pays Us All to Forgive

Still thinking about the new Blur album; I read a review that quoted an interview with Damon Albarn where he said, bluntly, that it was a sad album because he’s a sad 55-year-old, and that you don’t get to 55 years old without being sad unless you’re very lucky. That stuck with me for days after seeing it for the first time, playing on my mind as I listened obsessively over and over to an album that is, very clearly, about loss and missing people.

Those feelings are both something that I am all too familiar with; I’m not 55 yet, but close enough, perhaps — I’ll be 49 later this year — and also Scottish, which I feel is a shortcut to saying that I have a particularly melancholy disposition. That’s been especially true over the past year or so for reasons I’m not going to share publicly, but it does explain why I found myself nearly in tears while listening to “The Swan,” one of the tracks off the so-called “Deluxe” version of the album, the other day.

As self-conscious as I felt by the near-outburst — I was walking to the library in the middle of the day, which really doesn’t feel like the most appropriate time or place to just start crying, although perhaps that’s my age and upbringing showing, who knows? — there was something almost comforting about the whole thing, too: I felt so moved because there was some innate sense of recognition with the lyrics of the song, even if I couldn’t map my own life onto the them directly.

Nonetheless, there was something in the crack of Albarn’s voice as he sings, “Know that I will always be here for you/Even when I’m gone, gone from this world… What do you really want/What do you really need…?” that I understood deep inside my heart and my bones; a feeling of such intense recognition that it honestly, effortlessly, almost brought me to tears. There’s something to be said for the feeling that you’re not as alone in your feelings as you might think, sometimes.

With Headphones On, You Won’t Hear That Much

In one of the least surprising developments of the year, I have become utterly obsessed with Blur’s new album, The Ballad of Darren. It’s a new Damon Albarn project, it’s a new Blur project, and it’s a melancholic album about aging and loss and regret; it’s absolutely catnip for this particular droog, which feels entirely appropriate on several levels.

I’m telling you this not to exhort you to give it a listen yourself — although you should, of course; it’s a genuinely lovely, gentle middle-aged album, for want of a better way to put it — or to pick apart the ways in which it both sounds like and unlike Blur as they’ve traditionally presented themselves. I’m not even writing this to point out the really odd, unexpected influence of late-era Bowie on the album even though I’m very curious where that’s coming from and who’s bringing it. (Albarn? Graham Coxon, maybe?)

Instead, I’m sharing this because I heard this album for the first time during San Diego Comic-Con. It was released on the Friday of the show, and I first heard it wandering through the San Diego streets walking to and from the show, and I wonder if there’s something about that experience that’s changed the way I heard it, and will always think about it from now on.

It’s not simply that it was an odd show that for many reasons — primarily, the emotional state of those around me, and my own aging and aching — left me at times in a melancholy mood of my own that echoed the album’s tone and left me receptive to everything it’s all about, although that counts, of course. It’s that there’s something about hearing music almost ambiently initially before you have a chance to really pay attention to it is a strangely, wonderfully hypnotic experience. I didn’t have a chance to properly listen to The Ballad of Darren until I got back from the show, by which point I already had memories and experiences attached to it: “This sounds like that moment I was turning onto Fifth Avenue, and the crowds started picking up,” or “This is the walk back to the hotel at midnight, when the streets started transforming into local party people instead of nerds up late,” or whatever.

There’s something about this feeling, the immediate nostalgia that feels at once authentic and lived-in that I’m trying to fully understand with as I listen to the album over and over right now. The feeling that it’s at once brand new and already part of my personal history.

We Won’t Care, Just You See

A side effect of getting older as a lover of pop music is, I think, coming to accept that The Kinks were one of the greatest bands of the ’60s. Oh, sure; everyone knows their hits — “You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of The Night,” even “Lola” — but the older I get, the more I just kind of step back and think, holy shit, they just kept putting out shockingly great music for fucking years, didn’t they?

I’m not entirely sure what it is about the band that prevents them from being up there with the Beatles and the Stones, the two iconic bands of the era; listen to songs like “Stop Your Sobbing,” and it’s got the arrangement (vocal and instrumental) of an early Beatles song, while “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” has all the sneering posture of the Stones at their anxious, nervous angry best. (Something like “Nothin’ In The World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl” has the blues riffs and rip-offs of the Stones’ early days, too, but paired with a vulnerability that Mick could never.)

There’s so much more the Kinks are capable of, though, at least for that first decade of their existence: songs like “Days” and “Shangri-La,” or the so-famous-you-forget-how-good-it-actually-is “Waterloo Sunset” have a wistfulness and longing and sadness all their own, while “The Village Green Preservation Society” and “All of My Friends Were There” are informed by the British Music Hall tradition in a way that other bands only claimed to be, outside of things like “Your Mother Should Know” or brief intros to more raucous songs. (Hi, bands like The Move and The Creation.)

Maybe that’s what I missed before, and am only coming around to now — a recognition and appreciation of how vast and varied the Kinks’ output was at their height, and how restless a band they were during that period. It’s not just that they could do it all, it’s that they did, for a time there… and that’s something that I find myself thinking about more and more often, as I age.

Maybe I’m just jealous, at the heart of it.