Too Cool For Spotify

Spotify is a great tool, but it’s not perfect.  It has a lot of songs, but it doesn’t have ALL the songs, which is a problem.  Here’s a playlist composed entirely of songs that you can’t find on Spotify.

O Holy Night – Tipitina’s Foundation

Just because it was recently Christmas, here’s an old favorite covered by a New Orleans brass band including Troy Andrews aka Trombone Shorty.  This song was featured on Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60, and was featured in the Christmas episode in a very moving finale.

Wicked Games – Coeur de Pirate

You’ve heard The Weeknd, but until you’ve heard ‘Wicked Games’ covered by the Canadian and mostly French singing Béatrice Martin with a simple piano accompaniment, you haven’t heard Shakespeare the way it was meant to be done.

Another Reflection – Nujabes

It’s hard to know what to say about this one, other than you can sit there and groove to it.  That, and I wish youtube had better sound quality.  Also, this is how much I care about lyrics: not at all.  I mean if they’re exceptional then it’s a bonus, but I straight up cannot make out the words to this song, and it doesn’t matter at all.

Crystal Blue Persuasion – Morcheeba

This is an old song covered with a generous helping of cheese.  I find something very sensual in the vocals.  I might prefer it to the original.  Hands up if you first heard the original on Breaking Bad; one, two, everybody under 50?  That’s what I thought.

Wicked Little Town – The Breeders

First of all, this is from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and if you haven’t seen it, you should do so immediately.  It’s an amazing movie built around some amazing music.  This particular song is from a tribute album where various artists – Ben Folds, the Polyphonic Spree, the Pixies – covered songs from the movie.  ‘Wicked Little Town’ is fine as a standalone, but do yourself a favor and check out the film as well.

Happy Song – Victor Wooten

This song is ‘as advertised;’ it’s super happy.  There was a time in my life when I was so psyched with Wooten that I may have OD’ed and now it’s a well I almost never go back to, but once in a while…

These Days – The Tallest Man on Earth

Here’s a special one.  Tallest Man is great, and I’m happy to see he’s finally getting some recognition.  This is him covering Jackson Browne’s “These Days” (for some reason the video link says it’s a Nico cover; that’s completely wrong).  What makes the video special is the location; the Music Inn in New York.  It’s him wandering around the music store and basically fucking around and creating a beautiful song.

The Tom and Jerry Show – Hiromi

Hiromi is probably my favorite contemporary musician.  Why?  Briefly, she has incredible chops and plays with unbridled joy.  Here’s a song that demonstrates both, though it’s more of a show piece than a compositional masterwork, of which she has several.  The amazing thing about this song is you truly don’t grasp how hard it is to make what she does look easy.  That is, until you start looking at some of the attempted covers:

Here’s one

Here’s another

What’s striking is that these are pretty competent musicians; just to get to that level to play that speed with that accuracy you have to be pretty good.  I could probably practice that song for 6 months and not get to that level.  But you can tell, right away, that they’re playing with about 5% of Hiromi’s flair and fluidity.  She’s got the incredible chops, but she’s also got incredible musicianship, creativity, and feel.  That’s a scary combination.

Reptilia – The Punch Brothers

These guys play very technically good bluegrass, but they’re creative about it too.  Known as much for their interesting covers as for their more traditional fare, this one hangs out on the far side of that dichotomy.  “Reptilia,” of course, being a Strokes song, and if you’re familiar with the original, it’s hard to imagine it being driven by mandolin, fiddle, and banjo.  Nevertheless, this works like gangbusters, capturing much of the dark urgency of the original and imbuing it with a bluegrass flair.

Latin Lover – Mi Ami

So I’m pretty comfortable with extreme hyperbole, which means if I said this was the best song of 2010, no one would care.  That doesn’t make it not true, however.  This song just bites its fangs into your neck until you get on board with the sickness.  It might seem like your standard dance-punk extendo-blast, but just feel yourself get swept up in the noise, how the guitar seamlessly morphs into a series of staccato laser blasts, the banshee wail of a voice inciting you to, basically, riot.  This song is categorized on Allmusic as “Post Punk/Noise” and the album is called Steal Your Face.  Have I sufficiently hyped it?

Piesta 8 – Keith Jarrett

Just for kicks, here’s one of my favorite songs of all time.  This is one of three songs that tops 100 plays on my iTunes library.  It’s one of the most beautiful solo piano pieces I’ve ever heard.  Check that, one of the most beautiful, period.  And it was improvised.  Chew on that for a minute.  This track is a part of the Radiance album, a totally improvised concert Jarrett played in Osaka in 2005.


Music For Writers, Part II


In Part II of our two-part series, we continue to examine songs that are particularly helpful when it comes to writing.  Specifically, writing scenes.  It could be a scene in a novel, dialogue for a play, a piece of creative nonfiction, a screenplay, a letter to a friend recounting something important in your life – but the idea is that you’re trying to capture a mood, a feeling, a tone.  Oftentimes when I write, I run the scene through my head like a movie and I think – what song would be playing here?


The Underdog – Spoon

Every writing session, for me at least, includes a healthy dose of vacansopapurosophobia (that might not be a real thing).  There’s something undeniably daunting and exciting about a blank page, and to swing yourself over to the correct side of that teeter-totter you need to get irrationally cocky.  This song is a perfect blend of catchy instrumentals and good old fashioned generation-bashing lyrics.

Half Asleep – School Of Seven Bells

Once you’re off and writing, you need someplace to go.  For me, the best mental state for creativity is when you’re, wait for it, half asleep.  Out of reality enough to silence a little of your internal critic, still aware enough to be sharp and playful.  The awesomely-named School Of Seven Bells has music that fits that state like a glove.  This whole album is solid; I picked this song because the chorus is triumphant.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, ‘Pathetique’ – Hiromi

This is a cooler, a comedown song.  It takes some context.  If you know Hiromi, you know she plays at a million miles a minute, notes cascading out of the piano like a runaway train.  The last time I saw her live, she played three such songs in a row, and the whole place was almost out of breath, overloaded.  Then she started this number.  The downshift, the elegance, the smooth playfulness… it was pure pleasure.  My brother and I looked at each other with huge, impossible grins.  Right at 0:31 where it goes from classical to jazz, I could have melted.  I’ll always remember that moment, and I’ll always use this song to go to that place.

Burden of Tomorrow – The Tallest Man On Earth

This guy has some of the most evocative lyrics outside of a Waits/Dylan song.  This simple song has deceptively complex guitar work, and while Kristian Matsson’s voice isn’t for everyone, I’m a big fan.  And the lyrics…

Ah, but rumor has it that I wasn’t born,
I just walked in one frosty morn,
Into the vision of some vacant mind.

Oh once I held a pony by its flagging mane,
And once I called the shadow in the turning game
But I will fight this stranger that you should fear
So I won’t be your burden of tomorrow dear

Talk about evocative… for me, these are the kind of lyrics that suggest rather than declare.  In my mind, that’s what the best writing does as well.

Heysátan – Sigur Rós

This song is all about the mood it conjures.  It’s just intensely, achingly beautiful.  Love and tragedy supervene on this song.  This is a big gun to pull out, and I don’t do it often or lightly, but when a scene demands that level of grief, romance, and depth, this is where I go.

The Hungry Rock/The Sleuce Gate/Evening Comes Early (Reels) – John Doyle

Sometimes you hit a wall.  You’re trying to form a thought, to make it coherent, or to find the perfect word.  Whatever the situation, when the gate is down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming – use this.  It’s a musical palate cleanser; just close your eyes, put on headphones, and pay attention.  You could let this song wash over you in the background as you did something else, but you’d be missing the true pleasure here.  If you honestly focus on it, follow the winding, up-and-down guitar line, and stay with it, you’ll see what I mean.  The rhythm of the notes, the punctuation of the musical sentences, the subtle changes in a repeated phrase… you’ll come out of it refreshed and ready to write.

I’m Still Here – Tom Waits

Truthfully, you could make an entire list of Music for Writing of just Tom Waits songs.  Here’s one that will quietly break your heart with little fanfare.  If you can inject even a tenth of the pathos of this song into your writing, you’re on the right track.

Operation Ground and Pound – DragonForce

Doing a quick 180, this one is fairly self-explanatory.  At some point, you’re going to want to write a fantasy novel, and at some point in that novel, you’re going to want your main character to have an epic sword fight with twenty demons while his dragon-army battles evil wizards all around him while the moon is slowly exploding above them, well, you’ll probably want to write that scene while you listen to this song.

Hora Ca la Usari – Taraf de Haïdouks

The one will drive the point home.  Sometimes you just need to blast on through it, the frenetic, almost hypnotic beat and half chanted, half shouted words will get the job done.

Desoto – Jeremiah McLane

A song featuring accordion and concertina shouldn’t be this lovely.  As far as writing goes, this is the perfect late-night journey song.  It’s dark out, no one is around, and you’re creating worlds in your head.  That’s kind of absurd, and you have to laugh at it a little even though you have to embrace it completely.  It’s absurd, but it’s a good thing.  It’s joyful.  This song captures that.