Author Archives: Claire M

So Hot Right Now: January 2014 (by Claire)

San Francisco is playing that game where it swirls autumn and spring into something evocative, laced with warm breezes and crisp days. I walk around feeling awake and reminded—of elementary school autumns, of the first Spring on campus, of a million standout memories framed in cold fresh air and ruddy cheeks.

In proper Autumn, I crave the classics. In proper Spring, something sweet and rough around the edges. In January’s SpringAutumn? New songs by bands I just discovered, ones I’m rapidly falling in love with. Big rough 60’s sounding guitar hooks. Rich velvety voices. Dizzying blends of classic and brand new sounds.

Mynabirds fit the bill. So do Those Darlins, who I first listened to based solely on the description of them sounding like a blend of Shonen Knife and The Carter Family. “Let Her Go” by Jagwar Ma is less than a year old, but belongs on a classic alt 90’s soundtrack. King Tuff’s “Sun Medallion” is lo-fi garage heaven with traces of a classic 60’s sound. The fact that “Josie” by Go Violets isn’t by a 90’s all girl indie-pop band is absurd. And, awesome.

Is it okay to have a musical discovery of the year when they year is two days old? I’ve had Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s Ripely Pine on repeat all day, especially “Aubergine” which took a few listens before it became an obsession. I’ve had Haim’s flawless freshman album Days Are Gone on heavy rotation since it debuted. Every month I fall in love with a new song from them. For January, it’s sweet “Honey and I,” the track where the constant Haim/Fleetwood Mac comparison makes the most sense.

“Wings” by Haert was the runner-up on nearly every #HolidaySurvival list. This song belongs in the cannon of new songs with a bright infectious 80’s pop beat. Throw it on your own January playlist alongside “You’re in Love” by Betty Who and “Is This How You Feel” by The Preatures. Second constant runner-up: soulful worldly “Don’t Wait” by Mapei.

The perfect mix of classic and fresh is the warm, crackling “Well You Better” by Yo La Tengo, one of a million 90’s comeback kids in 2013. Pure classic? Late 60’s folk singer Vashti Bunyan’s Mick Jagger/ Keith Richards’ penned single “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind.”

Happy new year, to all you crazy kids! And a belated happy birthday to this blog, which recently turned two. If you’re in the market for a birthday present, more music suggestions would be perfect, thanks. Meet me in the comments and let me know what’s on your January playlist.

 **Artwork by Ashley Jones. Check out more of her work at The Vainglory or catch her on Twitter @theRealAshleyJ

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2013: 5 Songs My Kids Forced Into My Head/ 5 Songs With Meaning (by Anita Jackson)

Charm City Jukebox is doing their annual review of the year in songs and I’m totally honored to contribute a post for it. Claire, one of the editors, literally grew up in a house made of vinyl records. Nope, not figuratively– literally. (Ok, not literally, figuratively, but I’m working to build up her legend.) She really knows music and has great taste in it.

So she’s going to be thoroughly sorry she asked me to write this because most of the songs I associate with 2013 come from my kids, who one way or another hear –and sing — a ton of pop.

To alleviate the pain, then, I’m going to make two lists: One of songs I can’t shake out of my head due to sheer exposure, and one of songs I love for their artistic merit. Some may argue that something has artistic merit if the listener can’t get it out of her head, but I leave that for the comments…


“I Knew You Were Trouble,” by Taylor Swift. 

My older daughter P performed to this as part of her acrobatic gymnastics work. So it has sentimental value. Also, she doesn’t know many of the lyrics so she makes them up, which is always hilarious.

“Home,” by Phillip Phillips

I think P liked this because she knows it was associated with 2012′s Fierce Five. Billboard says it peaked in January of 2013, so there we go.

“Roar,” by Katy Perry

Their school mascot is a large wild mammal, so P’s school principal made them learn and sing this at the grand opening of their new school library. What has public education come to? Please, could they sing a song about Common Core? I would like to hear that song.

“The Fox,” by Ylvis

Well, now you’ve done it. There’s no going back, Norway.

“Palladio (Diamond music)” by Karl Jenkins (aka That Diamond Commercial, aka the Russian acro pair with the guy with the ponytail)

As new acrobatic gymnasts, one of my kids’ favorite things to do is watch acro videos. They’ve learned to love dramatic music, which I’m thinking is my gateway to playing for them other kinds of music to which they’ve been woefully underexposed, like Western classical and jazz.

If you’ve seen the diamond commercials with the fake Vivaldi, you’ll recognize the music from the acro video they refer to as “that Russian guy with the ponytail.” I recommend giving it a watch; acro is amazing!


“Heart of Gold” by Neil Young

I’m sure I’ve heard this song at various times in my life. But the other day during a rare and wonderful moment in which I was writing alone at a cafe, I heard this song come on. All I needed to be enchanted was the key line, “I’m a miner for a heart of gold.” There’s enough visually and emotionally inspiring there to prompt me to write a story. But I didn’t write about longing or love or mining; I dashed out a couple of pages about a woman and her sister opening a cafe and what the woman thought about the people who came there. But it was that song that nudged a story out of me. A song that can nudge (or coax or provoke) stories out of me belongs on this list.

“Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys

Starting the new year at the inauguration and hearing Alicia Keys sing this song was a highlight of the year, no doubt. Besides the fact I was at the inauguration and hearing Alicia Keys live, I was grateful to just be at a live performance. I love all kinds of live performance and haven’t had a chance to go for some years now. But now I’m starting to make time for it again–just at the point when my kids are about at the age where they’re able to absorb, enjoy and even analyze live performances. We’ve made it to another milestone, at which there’s a higher potential for fun than disaster in going to some performances together. So even though they enjoy mangling “Girl on Fire”–loudly–, this song reminds me how many good times we have in store.

“Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire

This selection is less about keeping with the fire theme (though I love themes) and more about the lyrics, which I couldn’t get out of my head. The line that stays with me is where the song’s protagonist, when asked what her name is, says she has none. Among the many nightmarish ways of dehumanizing someone, stripping away their name is one of the most profound and effective. It’s standard practice for dictators around the world to strip away a person’s name before kidnapping, illegally imprisoning or executing them. Names can signify nationality, religion, personality and more. The way your boss, teacher, or judge says your name may feel different from how your partner, friend, or mother says it. Names are part of our humanity in this sense, and “Abraham’s Daughter” expresses this powerfully.

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” by Leadbelly, covered by Nirvana  

Another highlight of the inauguration was meeting Krist Novoselic, bassist for Nirvana. It was the beginning of a year in which Nirvana happened to figure prominently for me, from the spotlight of 20th anniversary of In Utero to my rediscovery of the band’s poetic, aching longing and betrayal conveyed in their cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Grunge was so good to me the first time around, and it was good to come home to it again.

“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman

To really purge the dead-to-me lyrics of the Disney pop stars my kids expose me to, I need a good dose of Tracy Chapman. Nothing clears away the debris of bubblegum glitter pop like Chapman’s lovely voice telling the story of Fast Car. Nothing quite breaks me every time like:

I know things will get better

You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted

We’ll move out of the shelter

Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs

I remembering hearing that right after the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and all right after one school shooting sometime in the past year, and it probably would have been a good idea to pull the car over and just cry and cry and cry.

There’s a song to wrap up this list, a song and a video I come back to when I grieve as well as when I seek beauty. There’s a video of super slow motion ballet set to Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place (gigasmesh discoteque remix).” I saw this a couple years ago and marveled at the precision and softness, the strength and ease. But the song comes back to haunt me. Remember when those children were murdered by their nanny in New York City? “Everything In Its Right Place” sounded like a prayer that could not be answered.

Perhaps if there’s a thread running through these songs, it’s a thread of humanity–what it is to be human, what it is to share a life. There are many ways to remember and celebrate that, and maybe these are the songs that will help me do it.

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#HolidaySurvival: How to Make a New Year’s Eve Playlist

This holiday season, consider me your mixtape therapist. Every week throughout December, I’ll be posting five songs to help you soundtrack various holiday season scenarios. And while you get your mixtapes ready, you can catch up on the insane abundance of quality music from this year, since all featured songs are from 2013.    –Claire

We did it! The holiday season is over, 2013 is over—-lets send them off properly with a big fun party playlist worth toasting.

New Year’s Eve has ample potential to be weird. You’re on the cusp of a new year, expectations are high, and everyone is doing that thing where they make impossible demands of themselves that they’ll abandon in three weeks.

This New Year’s Eve, lets pass on stress and expectations that guarantee letdowns. Lets just throw on something sparkly, dance our feet off, and eat something awesome. And for all of those occasions, extremely fun splashy music is required. Mix these 2013 gems into a batter made of your favorite classic hits, guilty pleasures, and tried-and-true floor fillers.

“Is This How You Feel?” by The Preatures

“Is This How You Feel?” is pure bliss. It’s a bolt of energy with a tight rhythm, the kind of song that makes you feel like you’re in the upbeat sequence in a movie, the part where you dance and sparkle and love. If you take my advice and get ready while blasting “You’re In Love” by Betty Who, this is the ideal playlist chaser for when the party starts. Aussies are the 2013 masters of joyful 80’s inspired pop.

“Summer Skin” by Teen Girl Scientist Monthly

It’s always wise to have a rowdy song on hand. It can set the mood if that’s what you’re going for, or reset the tempo if things have gotten to mellow (i.e. Once you spot, or contract, the dreaded “I might not be that fun anymore” post-midnight yawns). Wake everyone up with “Summer Skin,” the sonic equivalent of a tray of espresso shots. Every New Year’s party could use a jolt of smash ‘em up, jump around, thrash and dance rock delivered at an insane speed.

“My Number” by Foals

What if disco was awesome? What if you stripped out the 70’s cheese and reduced it to it’s potential floor-filling, shimmying, absurdly catchy essence? What if it was released in 2013? You would have “My Number” by Foals, an obscenely fun song that’s easy to love and hard to stop replaying. It’s disco and Britpop in a blender, full of explosive hopeful moments and adrenaline rushes.

“We Were Rock And Roll” by Janelle Monae

It’s a big night made for big songs, and sound-wise it doesn’t get much bigger than Janelle Monae. Layer upon layer of sound builds into something that sounds like a funk orchestra. The results are  exhilarating breathless funk with a sick beat, call and response chorus, and Monae’s luscious vocals.

“Hold On (We’re Going Home)” by Drake

Nothing Was The Same sounds better on second listen but, like most Drake albums, makes you wonder how he so frequently comes out with hits since he’s kind of morose and full of feelings, infrequently in a “lets dance and forget the lyrics!” way. But! In the theme of delicious 80’s sounding tracks, “Hold On (We’re Going Home)” is one of my favorite songs this year. It is an ideal pop song: playful, a little retro, instantly recognizable, and it’s got that twinkle. It seems like everyone has covered “Hold On” in 2013; my favorite is this version by The Arctic Monkeys.

 **Artwork by Ashley Jones. Check out more of her work at The Vainglory or catch her on Twitter @theRealAshleyJ

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2013 in Song (by Noura Hemady)

Much as I am loathe to admit to being one of the sheeple for look for Pitchfork’s end of year best-of lists, I do. I’m always curious to see if my perception of the year’s best  music corresponds to “expert opinion.” There are usually a handful of songs I picked up throughout the year on there (Courtney Barnett represents that category for 2013). Mostly I read Pitchfork’s year-end list and I think a) someone bought you out, these albums are boring; b) why so much rap?; and c) EDM is awful, bring back britpop. Now I didn’t listen to the Beyonce album and likely won’t, ever, but I’m going to make a bold statement here. 2013 was not a good year for music. It was disappointing, in some cases, overly ambitious, and over hyped. Arcade Fire, I’m looking at you. Innovation is one thing, but making good songs is another.

With that said, my top five listen is not made up exclusively of songs released in 2013, though a few were. It’s a list of songs that meant something to me this year.

“Hail Bop” by Django Django

Don’t listen to Alt-J. Listen to Django Django. Put on “Hail Bop” while you’re walking somewhere. You’ll feel purposeful and you’ll get there faster.

Hail Bop is the second song on Django Django’s eponymous album. It comes after an “Introduction,” two minutes of weird techo feedback that you don’t really need to listen to. With “Hail Bop,” you’re immediately into the meat of the album. It starts with ominous synths in minor key, drums build into a crescendo, and then guitars lift the song into a purposeful, march. A few drafts ago, I described the song as an “inter-gallactic space march,” felt stupid about that then deleted it. But in reviewing the lyrics of “Hail Bop,” I’m fairly certain the song is about a meteor, so I’ll let that description stand.

But don’t just listen to “Hail Bop.” Listen to the entire album.

“Never Seen Such Good Things” by Devendra Banhart 

Devendra Banhart: classic hippie weirdo who makes: some strange motherfucking music (see: Megapuss, “Duck People Duck Man); some invigorating but still weird music (also see: Megapuss, “Theme From Hollywood”); and some music that is incredibly beautiful and melancholy. See: “Never Seen Such Good Things” from his 2013 release, Mala.

I’m not one to analyze lyrics too deeply. I think the melody typically provides the bulk of the narrative of the song, while the vocal are often just another instrument. “Never Seen Such Good Things” is an exception (as is Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener,” below). The verses are witty, evocative, and haunting. I’m particularly fond of the line “Should have known someone so much like me/would give me heaven send me to my knees,” an acknowledgement – and one with which I fully agree – that the greatest pleasure can only be accompanied by the deepest of pain.  After three minutes, the song bows out in a refrain of “Sad Lady, you win, Sad Lady, you win” accompanied by a twangy guitar, softer each verse until the next song rises.

“Right Action” by Franz Ferdinand

While this is not one of my favorite songs of the year, I feel obliged to mention it in some way since Franz Ferdinand is one of my favorite bands.

Franz Ferdinand put out a new album this summer. It isn’t their best and it isn’t their worst. “Right Action” is a stand-out on the album: danceable (very important), kind of obnoxious, and irreverent. Some critics panned the song for recalling the “classic” Franz Ferdinand sound, but to me, that is its best quality.

Now, Franz Ferdinand does not tour often. I’ve only seen them once in nearly 10 years of fandom. So, when they toured the U.S. this fall, I went to New York to see them. I arrived on a Friday night. Franz Ferdinand played the following Tuesday. I almost didn’t make it to the show due to a last-minute collapse in civility between me and my show-going partner. Between tears and hugs and complaints and stress and lashing personal criticisms, we made it to the M train, conducted a thorough analysis of our argument, and arrived, 15 minutes late, at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I hadn’t cried like that in ages and forgot how utterly exhausting it is to sob. I wanted to jump, bop, shake to the songs that I love. But when Alex and Co. played “Right Action,” I could barely muster a two step.

“Avant Gardener” by Courtney Barnett

“Avant Gardener” is a story of depression told in deadpan. More so than most songwriters, Barnett’s verses, woven together, tell a coherent story. In this case, she’s out in the morning for a bit of gardening, has an anxiety attack, and ends up in an ambulance and rushed to the hospital. But she’s not panicked. She’s not even particularly worried about anything except the hospital bill. Ambivalence is the ultimate defense mechanism here. Even the guitars sound lazy and uninterested, muted and punctured by feedback.

Make no mistake, “Avant Gardener” is still catchy as hell.

“Brand New Start” by Little Joy

The first time I heard Little Joy in Prospect Park was on the most perfect summer evening last August. Earlier in the day, we’d been to Coney Island. We were sunburned, hungry, tired, and waiting for Beck to go on. I say I heard Little Joy because I did not see them. We laid in the lawn and watched the clouds pass into dusk instead of the stage. But the songs, joyous and melancholy all at once, caught my attention.

In “Brand New Start” Fabrizio Moretti, moonlighting as the singer of Little Joy while on hiatus from The Strokes, sings of “taking advantage of the season to take off your overcoat.” In the context of the song, it’s an obvious metaphor: shedding the superficial constraints that burden and doom relationships. The lyrics mirror the melody: “Brand New Start” is sweet, soothing, and optimistic: a song for dozing on the lawn on a warm night.

Honorable Mentions:

“Modern Love” by David Bowie: Did you watch Frances Ha five times in one week this year? Because I did. And next time I go to New York, I’ll queue “Modern Love” on my iphone, plug in my head phones, and pirouette through crosswalks all over the city.

MCII  by Mikal Cronin (Yes, the entire album): Because it’s 40 minutes of fuzzy, singable, catchy rock music. And every year needs an album like that.

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Five Songs From Whenever That I Enjoyed In 2013 (by Amy Berkowitz)

Confession: I don’t really keep up with new music. So much of it is just lousy, you know? “Moves Like Jagger” alone is enough to make a person build a fort with her Fleetwood Mac LPs and never come out.

Thankfully, Claire knows my backwards listening habits, and said that I was welcome to include songs from any year in my year-end top-five list, so here it is:

5. “To Be of Use” by Smog (1996)

One of the worst things about depression is anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable. When I’m super depressed, I stop liking music, which is a very strange experience. Sometimes, I’ll find one or two artists that can penetrate the anhedonia, and the ones who win that prize in 2013 are Smog and Karen Dalton.

While Karen Dalton’s 1966 is a beautiful album, songs like “Mole in The Ground” and “Misery Blues” simply reinforce one’s depressive mood. Smog songs are more dynamic. Bill Callahan’s lyrics are written from the perspective of a clever and deadpan and somewhat depraved ex-con who’s into violent sex and is probably not a safe person to be alone with. But he sounds like he could be a fun person to be alone with. That’s partially due to his baritone voice, and partially due to songs like Dress Sexy at My Funeral (“Tell them about the time we did it / On the beach with fireworks above us / On the railroad tracks / With the gravel in your back”) and, depending on what you’re into, Cold Discovery (“I can hold a woman / Down on a hardwood floor”).

So in the depths of my depression, I’m making out with a friend, and I want to put some music on. “Hm,” I say, “all I’ve been listening to is Smog. You okay with Smog?” I put my Smog playlist on shuffle, and we pick up where we’d left off, put a condom on, and the first song that plays is To Be of Use. Now, if you know this song, you’re already laughing or shaking your head. If not, really all you have to know is that it’s a very spare, somber, five-minute song, and it starts, “Most of my fantasies are of / Making someone else come / Most of my fantasies are of / To be of use.”

It’s actually a really beautiful song, and it’s certainly sexy, but not in the sly or flirty way many of his other songs are sexy. It’s sexy in such a direct, sincere way that it demands all of your attention.

Anyway, my friend and I laughed and met the challenge of having sex to the Smog song that was too sexy to have sex to, and if I’m remembering correctly, my depression faded in the weeks that followed.

4. “Seattle” by Jeffrey Lewis (2001)

While loads of musicians write songs about New York City (Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z come to mind), few write songs about the markedly less romantic experience of being from New York City.

I was born and raised in Manhattan, as was Lewis, and Seattle is a song about the conundrum of wanting to start a new chapter in life when you’ve got no little-town blues to lose: “I’d leave home for New York / But New York is where I’m from / I’m just looking for a way / To feel my life has begun.” I’ve never heard that particular sentiment in a song before, and Lewis says it well.

Really, I could’ve picked any Jeffrey Lewis song to put on here; I’ve been listening to him a ton this year. Start anywhere; all his stuff is good.

3. “Call Me in The Day” by La Luz (2012)

There is a really nice vintage surf rock / girl group sound going on here. The song describes a troubled relationship: “Well you see me only on the need / In the evening, when you’re feeling mean.” Yet despite the dysfunction and the melancholy organ and tremolo that illustrate it, there is a moment in the song when the lyrics attempt to assert a healthy boundary: “Call me in the day / Before the sun goes down / If it’s getting late / I won’t pick up the call.”

More often than not, pop music gives horrible relationship advice. And especially when you’re considering songs in the ‘60s girl group tradition—which includes classics like “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”—it’s refreshing to hear lyrics that at least gesture toward more functional relationships.

Which is not to say her “Call me in the day” mandate will do her any good. The situation is hopeless: The man is an unfortunate force of nature, “a boulder slowly gaining speed on down a hill.”

The good thing about the singer’s situation being so dramatically hopeless is that sad surf guitar is the best surf guitar and listening to this makes me feel like I’m floating in a jar of molasses.

La Luz’s full-length was released this year, but I prefer the version from their self-released 2012 EP, Damp Face. According to their Bandcamp page, the EP was recorded “in a Bothell, WA trailer park on a hot day.” The new recording sounds less muddy, more perfect. Too clean for my taste. I guess it’s just missing that “trailer park on a hot day” sound.

2. “Flowers for Julie ” by Shellshag (2010)

It seems like this song has been stuck in my head for the past six months, and maybe it has.

I first heard it on an unlabeled mix tape I picked up from a take-one leave-one mix tape cubby at the Luggage Store Gallery. I didn’t know what the song was called or who it was by, and that gave me a uniquely intimate relationship with it. The tape was full of good punk songs, but this one had the best hooks.

I like this song so much that I’m having a hard time trying to explain why. Here is a list of reasons, in no particular order:

1. I like it when he says “Shove me / Up against a wall.”

2. I like thinking about who “Julie” is and why he feels obligated to buy her flowers.

3. Shellshag is just two people, yet they play their instruments with the might and passion of many.

4. They are also a couple, and I really like it when punk couples make great art together.

5. The song ends with the same riff that begins it, only played slower, as if it’s threatening to start again.

6. I would not mind if it started again.

1. “Street Hassle” by Lou Reed (1978)

I was having a Lou Reed Thing all summer and fall, so hearing about his death in October had an especially heavy impact on me. Long before he died, I’d developed a special fondness for this 11-minute song: a three-part opera composed of scenes from gritty New York life. It feels like a privilege to eavesdrop on these darkly sexy, debased, and ultimately tragic characters.

In part one, a woman pays for sex and the experience transcends its unglamorous context. Part two is a monologue by a host tactfully explaining to a guest that he’s responsible for dealing with the body of a dead companion who OD’d at the party: “Why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet / And just lay her out in the darkest street / And by morning, she’s just another hit and run.” Part three is a dirge about death and desire (with an incongruous and uncredited Springsteen cameo).

Something that adds to the eavesdropping sensation and mystery of the song is that the three parts don’t add up to a whole. The woman in the first part could be the woman who ODs in the second part, but that’s not particularly implied. And the male voice singing at the very end of the song says, “Oh how I miss him,” not “her.” And no “him” has gone away, unless he’s singing from the first woman’s perspective and she’s talking about the john. It’s more haunting as a collage of sorrows. Just letting all the characters’ pain bleed all over and into each other.

Amy Berkowitz lives in San Francisco, where she writes and reads poetry, runs Mondo Bummer Books, and abhors the cultural strip-mining of this once-vibrant city.

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#HolidaySurvival: How To Make a Dinner Party Playlist

This holiday season, consider me your mixtape therapist. Every week throughout December, I’ll be posting five songs to help you soundtrack various holiday season scenarios. And while you get your mixtapes ready, you can catch up on the insane abundance of quality music from this year, since all featured songs are from 2013.    –Claire

I have a very clear dinner party music strategy: Boys and Girls by Alabama Shakes and Van Morrison (often Astral Weeks), on shuffle, with a smattering of delicious add-ins. Van Morrison guarantees at least one “Oh, I love this song” moment, hopefully simultaneously between possibly shy guests who just found happy musical common ground. Alabama Shakes always deliver the right amount of energy; Boys and Girls  dips and expands perfectly, it’s great all the way through but doesn’t need to be listened to in order.

The add-ons? You have to trust them. They need to be a little timeless, even if they’re recent. Something that will either pleasantly fade into the background (not in a Muzak way, but in a “Everyone is having a good time and the soundtrack is perfect and the cheese plate is being scavenged in a delightful, friendship affirming way”… way) or will make someone say “Ooh, what is this?” and you can praise them for their excellent taste and start a little conversation and give them the lovely parting gift of some good music recommendations (and pie. Send people home with pie. I have few rules, but these two are ones to live by.)

Lucky for you, 2013 offered up some excellent new add-ons for your holiday dinner soundtrack. Here are my top five—meet me in the comments and let me know what’s on your holiday dinner playlist.

“You Put the Flame On It” by Charles Bradley 

“This is from this year?” —universal reaction when I play this for people and call it one of my favorite songs from 2013.

Charles Bradley spent decades playing small gigs, periodically impersonating James Brown, and is now making sharp soul albums that sound like they’re fresh out of another time. “You Put The Flame On It” is a joyous insta-classic. Bradley’s gravelly voice and smooth backup singers, the Menahan Band’s sunny rush of horns followed by upbeat percussion, all come together in one great big love song.

“Stranger to My Happiness” by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are back which is worth a holiday-level celebration on it’s own. Post-Christmas, pre-New Years, it’s Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings day and we should all celebrate by seeing them play with Valerie June somewhere next year (seriously, I think this will be an absurdly good show). Again, classic, but so fresh. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have consistently produced bright, fresh soul that sounds brand new and timeless, a rare feat.

“Green Garden” by Laura Mvula

“Green Garden” is luscious and playful. Laura Mvula’s tremendous voice is carefully restrained, her delivery is reminiscent of Nina Simone. The playful childhood imagery and natural imagery is haunting and lovely: dancing in gardens, taking your shoes off, flying on the wings of a butterfly. There’s something simultaneously wistful and joyful about this track, and what’s a more spot-on note for the holidays than that combination?

“When I Knew” by Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger has the songwriting chops and voice of a classic 70’s singer songwriter. She was born in the late 70’s, but based on her excellent solo album Personal Record , she was meant to be the fourth singer in Girls Like Us. The chorus is peppy, borderline girl group cheer, and pairs well with the bouncy beat and vivid storytelling about falling in love. Sweet teenage images stand out: wearing overalls and playing records together, telling mean jokes and feeling bad, wearing bright white socks and antique roller skates. It’s teenage love with an old school beat. You need a few high energy tracks in the mix to keep everyone buzzing on holiday spirit and happily mingling. This is perfect for that.

“Seeds of Love” by Brianna Lea Pruett

It’s hard not to love Brianna Lea Pruett’s rich voice and delicious, expertly crafted folk. “Seeds of Love” sounds like an adventure with the windows rolled down. The rolling tempo and slide guitar, the insistent repetition of the lyrics—this is a perfect first song for your playlist. The sound opens and invites, promises something exciting around the bend, and introduces your guests to their new favorite folk singer, all at once.

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2013 in 5 Songs: Getting Back to What Matters (by Nick Burka)

I Keep On Rising Up

I Keep On Rising Up

This year I realized that I didn’t relate to music like I used to. It’s not that I’d become less interested in music, quite the contrary (if anything I’d become more obsessed than ever: playing it, listening to it, finding friends with whom to collaborate or compare new obsessions, and, of course, writing about it). It’s just that this year I noticed the level of personal introspection that usually accompanies my musical experiences to be surprisingly low. Almost nonexistent.

((No one likes a person whose only thought is always “this song is totally about me!!” but a dose of healthy introspection never hurt nobody.))

In fact, it wasn’t until after I selected these 5 songs and began looking for common themes within them that I realized how little I’d really been paying attention to the music I was finding myself most connected to in the first place. As it turns out, each song speaks of frustration in one form or another. Frustration with love. Frustration with unrequited love. Frustration with the state of the world in general. Frustration with being frustrated.

Was my year really that sort of mess? Well no. In fact there was a lot to be happy about: new job with new experiences, new heights reached in a loving, intimate relationship, new (or renewed) appreciation and fervor for old pastimes and hobbies— a satisfying resume to be sure. But frustrations could be seen creeping in around at the edges, sometimes overshadowing those highlights: the stress of acclimating to a new job, the anxiety and uncertainty of moving a relationship to the next step, the difficulty in trying to keep it all together while still having time for one’s self.

Maybe that’s not exactly what these songs are about, but they’re not far off either, and these songs teach us a lot more than just how to express the trouble we feel. They also teaches us how to grieve, how to get by, how to overcome, and how to thrive once more. Not all at once, but gradually, eventually. Line by line, and verse by verse.

“How to See the Sun Rise” by Ben Sollee

Yes, O Lord, yes. Let’s set the mood and get in the groove. I first heard this charming, amiable Kentuckian during the summer of 2012 as an opening act. With just a cello, a high tenor warble, and a healthy dose of southern charm he managed to blow the headliner clear out of the water, and with waltzy little numbers like this one it’s easy to see why.

It’s a classic story of unrequited love told with greater poise and levity than I could have ever hoped to muster in a similar situation. The pain, the crestfallen looks, the misguided hope for returned affection— it’s all there, beautifully laid out in a jaunty, expertly paced 6/8 time signature that makes you want to howl at the moon and hear it all over again.

“Pretty Girl from Michigan” by The Avett Brothers

This band became something of an obsession with me from about February through May and this song fast became the symbol of that mania. We’re talking the kind of obsession that makes you disregard friends, family, work, and other obligations for days at a time. I went from not having listened to a lick of their music to coveting every EP and B-side I could find.

This story of a man who has lost interest in his partner— if ever there was interest to begin with— is told in a way that speaks volumes about the band’s versatility in song craft and ability to just plain crank it up and have a damn good time doing it. When being kind and being polite has failed to express your displeasure, why not just rock it out this way. Heck, by the sound of things she may even be so dense that she won’t even know this song is about her.

“Unaware” by Allen Stone

Of all the new acts to hit the scene in the last 18 months, this is the one you must look up. Like right this instant. His ability to channel 50 years of soul music tradition is unbelievable, and his sheer sonic range is incredible.

This is the wonder of Allen Stone. Endlessly talented, with a brand new album due out sometime next year, and yes, Ms. Springfield, you guessed it—son of a preacher man.

This song stays with you long after the final fadeout. The lyrics ache with raw and honest emotion, and the musical horse on which they ride pairs so perfectly: a resonant guitar line weaving in and out of the coordinated cacophony of electric organ, bass, and drums. A lone poet against the rush of midday city traffic.

“Push, pull, tear… can’t stretch any farther.” Preach it kid, preach it.

“You Never Need Nobody” by The Lone Bellow

If Allen Stone is the artist you should listen to from the comfort of your favorite armchair, then The Lone Bellow is the group you should see front row center when they come to your town in 2014. How they are able to move so deftly from plaintive and reflective soliloquies to romping and rollicking swells of sonic desperation and back again all within the same song is astounding. And that they do so without collapsing under the weight of sheer adrenaline and sweat — beyond me.

This song breathes, shudders, and shakes with the best of them of their debut album. Such expressive quality. Such honesty in songwriting. Such a masterful swell of sound and emotion. Yet even as frenzied and as stratospheric as the song climbs in intensity, somehow the trio is still able to give it a meditative, resolved quality. There is a light at the end of tunnel, even if the light comes from a place of acceptance.

“(I Keep On) Rising Up” by Mike Doughty

Sometimes, when the going gets tough and the music gets heavy, you just need to tell yourself that it’s going to be okay, whatever the cost, and this song was that sort of refuge this year. The job gets crazy, the relationship gets heavy, life does that “moving too fast” thing, and you’re contemplating the “what’s it all mean” thing for the        x-tieth time today.

Hang on. Give it a moment. Pour yourself a glass of lemonade and sip on the fact that, eventually, it all gets worked out. Even if it does take a lot of work to get there and a good dose of ingenuity. Of getting back up when the world gets you down. Of going your own way when all others seem silly or fraught with worry. Or even of just being impulsive and hoping for the best: “I ripped the rules up / Said I loved you on day three…”

This song recognizes the cynics and the skeptics, thanks them for their opinions, and says I respect your opinion, but right now I’m going to go about my business my way. Maybe it sounds too optimistic or even idealistic— but it feels right. And that’s a good way to get thinking about the new year ahead.

Nick Burka (@nickburkaotm) writes about music at NickBurkaOnTheMusic, keeping track of recent releases, local concerts, and the art of crafting the perfect top-five playlist.

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If You Want to Destroy My First Love’s Sweater (by Nate Logan)

It seemed too complicated to find out the band behind the song “Buddy Holly.” X103, Indy’s “alternative” station, was pretty loose on giving the names of bands they played, often cutting songs short or talking over their final seconds. A DJ must have said “Weezer” at some point though, that’s the only way I could find the album. The minimalist cover, the band standing in front of a blue screen, gave no hint as to what the music would sound like. All I had to go off of was “Buddy Holly” and its music video.

Directed by Spike Jonze, the music video for “Buddy Holly” is a classic and marvel to watch. Jonze places the band in an episode of Happy Days where they play “Buddy Holly” and get adoring glances from girls, a stern look from Richie Cunningham before he runs into a bathroom, and The Fonz busts out in a jumping jack-like dance. I didn’t know about The Velvet Underground then. Weezer made me want to start a band.

This want solidified upon listening to the album in full. I was surprised that I could listen to it all the way through. Almost. My only hang-up was the closing track, “Only in Dreams,” because it was just so sad for a lovelorn boy from the Midwest like me. Matt Sharp’s bass trudges along as more and more instruments come in and Rivers Cuomo’s singing changes from wispy to desperate as the band hits the chorus:

Only in dreams

We see what it means

Reach out our hands

Hold on to hers

But when we wake

It’s all been erased

And so it seems

Only in dreams

As lame as it sounds, this chorus is how I felt in junior high. Cuomo’s predicament made me feel better about myself—I felt like I wasn’t the only loser in the world. Still, I could really never listen to this song. I always popped the CD player after the penultimate song, “Holiday,” or I skipped back to the beginning. And as I did this, I’d often be standing in my room by my bed, imitating Cuomo’s moves from the “Buddy Holly” or “Undone—The Sweater Song” music videos and singing along.

Of all the songs, it’s “Undone—The Sweater Song” that I love most. This song’s video, also directed by Jonze, has the band performing in front of the same blue screen as on the album’s cover. It’s a seemingly simple performance video, with elements of humor (Patrick Wilson running around his drum set) and oddness thrown in (a wide angle shot shows a small pack of dogs galloping past the band). I like this video and the song more than “Buddy Holly” because the song seems more intricate (the speaking intro, multiple voices in the chorus) and, as a teenager, was more in line with my general feelings. The song’s elements are delivered in a cheery package though—the song doesn’t sad. Devoid of music, the chorus is bleak:

                        If you want to destroy my sweater (Woah-ah-woah-ah-woah)

Hold this thread as I walk away (As I walk away)

Watch me unravel, I’ll soon be naked.

Lying on the floor, (lying on the floor)

I’ve come undone.

Despite this, I loved the song. I sorted out Cuomo’s vocals from guitarist Brian Bell’s and Sharp’s in the chorus and would eventually only sing his vocal when I sang by myself in my room or in the car. I scoured the Internet at dial-up speed to find lyrics to the song (I needed to know what Cuomo was singing at the end) as well as to try to find any and all other information on Weezer that I could.

I found the “rebel weezer alliance.” I found more than one Cuomo fan page made in Geocities. I found the Weezer symbol: =w= and learned to make it with my hands. I saw all sorts of Weezer paraphernalia on eBay that I wanted to buy because Weezer would never come to play in Indianapolis—bands only came through my town to get to Chicago or Detroit or Cincinnati or Louisville. Never Indianapolis. I wanted to be as close to the band as I could.

Though Weezer was the only band I could think about for a long time, soon there were more bands. And soon the CDs were stacking up in my room. After the release of Pinkerton, Weezer disappeared. And when they came back in 2001 with “The Green Album,” neither of us were the same. I was a sophomore in high school and slightly less melodramatic. Weezer had a new bass player and their new album didn’t echo anything found in the dark tone of Pinkerton, nor was it quite like the sad lyrics and hook-laden music combo of their first album. I could tell something was off and not just because my mom said she liked the song “Hash Pipe.”

Weezer had taken T.S. Eliot’s words in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and made them reality: “[the] progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” This new album seemed empty, formulated, too much like science and not enough like rock ‘n’ roll. Further Internet research revealed that Cuomo possessed a binder of extensive information that would give him formulas to create perfect pop songs. One only has to look at the Billboard charts since Weezer’s comeback to see if that binder was useful or not.

That said—I did go to see Weezer when they came to play an outdoor show in Noblesville, Indiana in 2002. It was a childhood dream, after all. My LiveJournal entry from that show indicates that I really had a good time and they played songs that I liked, “Undone—The Sweater Song” among them. But my memory of that show has been tarnished by the albums Weezer released since “The Green Album.” At the time I saw them, Weezer only had three albums to play songs from—two great and one that was crappy. Now, the odds are not in my favor or anyone else’s who grew up loving Weezer’s twentieth century output. They’ve released six subpar albums since 2001, none of them even approaching the quality of their first and second albums.

In the end though, it comes back to love. “The Blue Album” was my first love—the album that pushed me into the music collector and snob that I am today. And for that I’ll always be glad. I was in the right place at the right time. But like most first loves, both of us have moved on and that’s OK. Weezer can make the music it wants and I can listen to other bands. There’s a new legion of fans who love Weezer for different reasons than I loved them and that’s OK, too. I’ll always remember “The Blue Album” fondly and still spin it. I still have my original CD from 1994. I’ve never replaced it and I don’t think I ever will.

Nate Logan is the Chief Editor of Spooky Girlfriend Press. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas. He doesn’t want you to destroy his sweater.

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#HolidaySurvival: 5 Songs to Beat the Winter Blues

This holiday season, consider me your mixtape therapist. Every week throughout December, I’ll be posting five songs to help you soundtrack various holiday season scenarios. And while you get your mixtapes ready, you can catch up on the insane abundance of quality music from this year, since all featured songs are from 2013.    –Claire

So you had a little meltdown, or maybe one is in the wings: That’s okay! Now that your holiday freakout is soundtracked, lets get that cheerful post-freakout soundtrack started. Because, though occasionally stressful, the holiday season is a silly, whimsical slice of the year, full of cartoons and peppermint sweets and twinkly lights. But if you’re tired of traditional holiday music (like yours truly), these upbeat 2013 jams will get you back in the happy holiday spirit.

“Closer” by Tegan and Sara

I’ve loathed the pop makeovers of other indie darlings. Any regular reader knows about my bitter dated rants about the glitzy pop-ification of Liz Phair. But Tegan and Sara? I don’t know how they did it. They’re brilliant. A million listens later “Closer” is still an adrenaline rush, a joyful burst of energy that keeps expanding, growing faster and more exciting with each verse. This entire album is a delight, each song more addictive than the last.

“The Wire” by Haim

The second sister act on the list, and the second band to create a deeply fun, joyous pop album this year, albeit with a more 70’s, Fleetwood Mac-ian (new adjective, start using it, happy holidays) sound. “The Wire” has an epic, empowered sound. It’s an anthem complete with clashing cymbals and hand claps and a chorus that you can happily shout. Still not cheered up? Check out the musical discovery of 2013,  from Matthew Perpetua, that connects this song to the theme song for Family Matters. 70’s sounding anthems and cheesy 90s TGIF sitcoms—what could be better?

“Dream the Dare” by Pure Bathing Culture

Pure Bathing Culture has created pure joy here with a transcendent, otherworldly sound. “Dream the Dare” is so odd and lovely, it instantly transports you to some far away, glittering place. The lyrics are rife with vivid nature imagery; crashing ocean-like cymbals, twinkly sounds and echoey percussion permeate the song. It’s comforting and disorienting, like a sharp jolt of bliss, and you awaken at the end to the apt instruction to “Find your way home.”

“Oh The Places We Will Go” by Postcards

“On the Places We Will Go” is immediately delightful, starting with the jaunty instrumental intro and Julia Sabre’s charming, grinning voice. The song is a conversation between hopeful kids, dreaming about the future, of all the places they will go.  The lyrics promise that you can escape, run far far away on a grand adventure. “Oh the Places We Will Go” reminds you that even if you can’t afford the adventure right now, the world is full of beauty, the promise of future adventure, the potential to make stressful situations or despised cities more lovely and warm.

“Hiding” by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

From the get-go this song is a party, even though it’s technically about a breakup. It’s hopeful though, full of promise and adventure, and a readiness to face the new. “Hiding” is laced with yelps and claps,  a chorus worth shouting, and the exciting tension of dramatic cliffs of sound. It’s pure energy, and “I ain’t hiding/ I ain’t hiding no more” feels like a solid anthem for when you’re emerging from your winter blues cocoon.

 **Artwork by Ashley Jones. Check out more of her work at The Vainglory or catch her on Twitter @theRealAshleyJ

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#HolidaySurvival: 5 Songs for Your Holiday Freakout

This holiday season, consider me your mixtape therapist. Every week throughout December, I’ll be posting five songs to help you soundtrack various holiday season scenarios. And while you get your mixtapes ready, you can catch up on the insane abundance of quality music from this year, since all featured songs are from 2013.    –Claire

Tis the season: Winter is here, ready to alter your emotions. Something about this season makes everything a little more dangerous, exciting, and exhausting. It makes the night longer so that driving around in it or sitting outside in it watching your breath can occur hours before it usually would. It drops your serotonin, then launches you into a sea of cheery festivities. All that light deprivation and cold air and the spinning whirlwind of holidays, maybe travel, maybe returning back to your family or town of origin, the coming new year—it’s exciting, and it’s a lot. How was your year? How do you want the next year to be different? How daunting are these questions? No wonder most of us chirp something fitness related and change the subject. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, sure, but it can also be the most heady.

So be prepared! Holiday freakouts are as normal as eggnog….by which I mean, really weird and bound to give you a stomach ache, but hey, it’s tradition. A mini soundtrack can help. (Not with the eggnog. I think people solve that with booze.)

“Sun Song” by Laura Veirs

I’ve had many Laura Veirs’ soundtracked winter freakouts. If you’ve ever sat at your desk wondering where your career is going and why the sun never seems to be out and thought “Wow…this introspective and sort of depressing moment needs a song…but by who?” Veirs is your girl! And cheese is your snack. Can’t recommend this combination enough.

Lucky for you, Veirs put out a new album this year featuring her signature brand of luscious ominous folk. “Sun Song” is an ode to the return of the sun after a long winter. As always, it’s packed full of lovely rich imagery, soaring violins, and dreamy layered vocals. The lyrics are pretty hopeful, if you need some joy sprinkled through your emotional meltdown music. (Don’t worry sad kids—cheerful holiday freakout recovery list coming soon.) 

“Wasting My Young Years” by London Grammar

Hannah Reid’s crisp, evocative voice and gentle strumming were tailor-made for your existential angst soundtrack. And those lyrics? Mini-freakout-goldmine. A common end-of-the-year “where did the time go?!” crisis is summed up in the chorus: “I’m wasting my young years/ It doesn’t matter/ I’m chasing my ideas/ It doesn’t matter.” By the end Reid sounds like she too is on the verge of tears as she sings “I don’t know what you want/ Don’t leave me hanging on.”

This entire album is gorgeous, rich, and dark. It’s made for driving around with the windows down, for trying to hash out something far too large to easily whittle into a solution. It’s made for cigarettes and coffee, for cold winter and old memories, for delicious soundtracked sadness.

“Fool of Me” by Say Lou Lou and Chet Faker

“Fool of Me” is slinky and intoxicating, laced with feedback crackle and silky, pained voices. Lovers cooly outline their relationship’s demise. Accusations from the heartbroken party are delivered wearily “You made a fool of me/ How funny.” Her vocals are glossy, a pretty monotone that conveys weariness and cold rage. He’s unrepentant.  “How funny” transforms into “how dare you,” her voice rising like a sob caught in her throat. The imagery becomes more vivid and vicious:  “Had a dream I would teach you how to love/ My machine, I would reach inside your rib cage/ Flick a switch and you engage.” The confrontation ends with a primal howl.

There’s so much pain, and it feels exhausted, like this has happened before, or has happened for so long. Repetition has made the sophistication of sharp comebacks or the raw power of bellowing rage impossible. And if you’re in the market for a holiday existential crisis, this rings true, right? You’ve probably been here before. You’ve been to this place. You’ve had these feelings. You could take a note from Say Lou Lou and have a confrontation, or release your own howl. Or you can listen to voluptuous, sad songs once in a while and know that, like it has before, this too shall pass.

“Swim and Sleep” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

“Swim and Sleep” is like a lullaby for escapist naps, when you just need to shut your eyes and take a break from the chaos (It also works for “How can it BE this cold?!” naps—same nap family.). It’s fuzzy and forlorn, with a 60′s sound and Ruban Nielson’s gentle voice, quiet lyrics about sadness and exhaustion and craving an escape. When it comes to lyrics, this is the darkest of the bunch, even if it sounds the most upbeat.

“Somebody to Love” by Valerie June

The vulnerability is heart wrenching, as Valerie June lays out her qualifications to fill the void in your life and become the person you love. Her voice is reedy and rich, her sound marries soul, gospel, and Appalachian folk into a song that feels classic but fresh. Layers and luscious, church-sounding backup vocals surround her lyrics. Hope, desperation, and sadness intermingle. This song will break your heart and make you pause mid-freakout to buy Pushin’ Against A Stone, one of the best albums of 2013. You deserve a break and a treat. Enjoy.

 **Artwork by Ashley Jones. Check out more of her work at The Vainglory or catch her on Twitter @theRealAshleyJ

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