Category Archives: Top 5 Lists

Top 5 Songs for English Majors Who Are Really Into Grammar (by Nate Logan)

Contrary to popular belief, English majors don’t just read books, talk books, and say, “The book was better than the movie.” Speaking as a member of this illustrious group of party animals, I can say without a doubt that we love good tunes almost, if not as much, as hardback first editions. Here are some songs that speak to our MLA ears.

“Oxford Comma” by Vampire Weekend

[Oxford comma: a comma between the final items in a list, often preceding the word `and' or `or', such as the final comma in the list newspapers, magazines, and books]

“Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” Ezra Koenig sings in the first line of this song. Well, some of your professors care about it. And while it may seem a small thing at first, as you take more and more English classes, you latch onto it. Grammatical things will start to bother you, you will become entrenched in a position on the Oxford comma, among other things. Personally, I think two spaces after a period is pretty irksome.

“Parentheses” by The Blow

[parentheses: either or both of a pair of signs () used in writing to mark off an interjected explanatory or qualifying remark, to indicate separate groupings of symbols in mathematics and symbolic logic, etc.]

This is the love song for the English major into indie pop. This track from Paper Television is cute and danceable—a must for the mix you plan to give the alluring man or woman in class who always brings up punctuation when talking about poetry. “When you’re holding me / we make a pair of parentheses” makes even the most Norton-hardened heart flutter. I can’t think of a set of cozier set of grammatical marks.

“I Palindrome I” by They Might Be Giants

[palindrome: a word, line, verse, number, sentence, etc., reading the same backward as forward, as Madam, I'm Adam  or Poor Dan is in a droop.]

This is a classic older TMBG song and demonstrates, maybe more than any other TMBG song, the band’s penchant for wordplay. John Flansburgh’s sings “Man o nam / Man o nam” while John Linnell sings the song title during the choruses. The song’s numerical length is a palindrome (2:22). The most impressive palindroming comes at a lyrical bridge, where Linnell sings:

“Son I am able,” she said. “Though you scare me.”

“Watch,” said I.

“Beloved,” I said, “watch me scare you though.”

Said she, “Able am I, Son.”

Of course, this isn’t the only TMBG song that has literary references (see: “I Should Be Allowed To Think,” “Lie Still, Little Bottle,” and “Rhythm Section Want Ad” among others).

“When I Write My Master’s Thesis” by John K. Samson

You’ve graduated! Congratulations! Oh, you wanted to do something with your English degree? Time to go to graduate school and sit back as it consumes your life. John K. Samson, lead singer of The Weakerthans and a literary fellow in his own right, penned this song that is maybe too relatable for the graduate student in English. Even after completing a thesis that you’ve worked tireless on, there’s no guarantee of a stable job. But it’s not all bad news. When it’s over, the English major’s heart can rest easy. In a life outside of the Academy, there’s “No more marking first year papers / No more citing sources.”

“My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors” by Moxy Früvous

I dare you to find a song with more literary name-dropping. I can’t help singing along to this fun, a’cappela-infused song. There are books everywhere in this song which creates a lighthearted tension that escalates through the choruses: “My heart’s so broke and bleedin’ / Baby’s just sittin’ there / doin’ some readin’,”; “We’ve been livin’ in hovels / spendin’ all our money on / brand new novels.” Even though these lyrics sound a little dire, the music and harmonized vocals assure that the couple’s story ends well, and it does:

I like to go out dancing,

my baby loves a bunch of authors.

We’ll be together for ages

eatin’ and sleepin’ and (x3)…turnin’ pages.

Check out the version of this song on Live Noise for a faster, hand-clapping good time.

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What To Listen To After Haim’s “Days Are Gone” (by Claire)

Life After "Days Are Gone"

How great is Days Are Gone? It’s the toast of 2013! And maybe 2014! It’s delicious Fleetwood Mac and 80’s pop in a blender! Haters to the left.

…but what’s next? Not for Haim; that’s clearly world domination (and an upcoming album inspired by Kanye West). What’s next for your listening habits?

Every new band that you like provides you with an opportunity to expand your musical palate. Those moments where your ear is open to new music are magical, and (for me at least), inconsistent. When they happen, capitalize them: Find out why you like what you like, and what else you might want to try out in the process. Add new bands to your music rotation. It’s fun and exciting and adds some verve to your life soundtrack—which, as we all know, adds some verve to your life.

Fellow Haim lovers, try these next steps for your listening life.  And well-connected Haim lovers, I also very genuinely wish all of these bands would join forces and have a festival. Maybe one that doesn’t sell out in two hours? Can anyone out there make this happens? We’ll just call it “Claire’s Dream Festival.”

Heartthrob by Tegan and Sara

Fellow sister act Tegan and Sara produced sleek pop gem Hearthrob last year to similarly buzzy rave reviews. Like the ladies of Haim, they’re sharp songwriters, slipping vivid haunting imagery into infectious pop jams. Pre-Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara made heavenly folk-punk that sometimes showed it’s pop roots; with Heartthrob, it’s pure pop, perfect for breakups and dance parties and falling in love.  The layered, echoey, vaguely electronic sounds, the gleam and gloss, is reminiscent of 80’s pop foremothers like Cyndi Lauper and early Madonna.

Journal of Ardency by Class Actress

Wikipedia points to Fleetwood Mac as the band Haim is most often compared to—it seems like reviews, good or bad, can’t help but throw some Stevie Nicks love in every time. I get it, I want to talk about Stevie Nicks all the time too. But you hear the 80’s pop mixed in with that Fleetwood-Mac-goodness, right? That’s what makes Class Actress’ Journal of Ardency an obvious next step. Class Actress lead singer Elizabeth Harper has the songwriting chops and clear, folky voice from her coffeeshop singer songwriter days. Like Haim, she pairs that with some serious 80’s pop influences. For Class Actress, unlike Haim, the results are less 70’s folk rock and more ethereal synthpop.

The Movement by Betty Who

Betty Who is creating great big glorious modern 80’s music. Who’s songs contain elements of pop anthems in old school teen movies, paired with 80’s mainstays like drum machines and loads of synth.  These are energetic songs: blissful, loud, huge, with Betty’s impressive pipes blaring on each track, framed in delicious pop-happy noise. Who is already huge in her native Australia and is due for some serious fame in the US.

Ride Your Heart by Bleached

Bleached is another sister act producing polished tracks with clear punk and indiepop sensibilities. Bleached’s sound is more guitar forward and aggressive than what you’ll hear on Days Are Gone. But the bands share a similar affinity towards tightly crafted, absurdly catchy songs featuring ear weevil choruses, clear narratives, and clean three to four minute time frames.

Hemiplegia by Haerts

Bring in the fellow indie darlings! Haerts’ features Nini Fabi’s haunting voice, spacious tracks, and absurdly catchy choruses, especially on “Hemiplegia” and “Wings.” You’ll find yourself walking around for days singing “I will never ever let you go/ I melt away into your afterglow.” Both tracks start slow then build into something glorious. That emotional manipulation is a trick that Haim pulls off well too, especially in “The Wire” and “If I Could Change Your Mind.”

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Top 5 Albums Letdowns (by Joshua)

Have you ever been a superfan? Have you ever been hopelessly devoted to a band or a show or a book series, so much so that you debate its merits in every from you can? Have you ever been so obsessed that you read every bit of news about the thing-in-question (TIQ) the instant it comes out? Do you rush to defend every mistake the TIQ makes, rush to show off every triumph as proof of its greatness? It becomes all too personal – at some point your support of the TIQ becomes so ingrained into your personality that any slight someone makes of it you take as a direct insult. And you wait on baited breath  for the next instance of this TIQ to present itself to the world.

This is what it’s like to be hopelessly devoted to a band, as I have been many a time in my life with a few bands. And when, after sometimes years of waiting, the band releases its next album, I would rush to the store to buy the CD (I might not be all that young) and excitedly pop it into my Discman (really not helping that youth point) and play it over and over again.

But sometimes, I would go through all the waiting and consternation and impatience and finally get an album that was as if the band laid a turd in the jewel case (I’m a child of the 90′s, we get it). It felt like a betrayal, like the band personally came over to my house and spit in my face and punched my mom in the tits. This feeling is wildly irrational, obviously – the band is making music they want to make (presumably) and as much as I think it might be, their music is not for me. But that’s the core issue of being a superfan – you can’t rationalize that idea, that their art isn’t for you, it’s for them.

MaroonMaroon by Barenaked Ladies (previous album: Stunt)

I came into my fandom of Barenaked Ladies in the oddest of places: in a communal, barrack-style showers in a Jewish sleepaway camp in Western Maryland. (That may be one of the weirdest sentences I’ve ever written.) At this camp, Camp Airy, we all took showers at the same time, and it was 20 or 30 pre-pubescent kids in a long row of shower heads and a floor with a few drains, all while a 16 year old counselor sat in a lawn chair and watched to make sure of…something, I guess? That we didn’t fall? I don’t know. Anyway, I remember very vividly once a counselor was listening to Rock Spectacle - specifically, he was listening to “If I Had $1,000,000″ and all the hilarious hidden stuff after that track. I asked for only one thing that Hanukah – a copy of Rock Spectacle. I got Stunt, and I’ve been grateful for it ever since. It’s a wonderful album for a fresh-aged teenager: It’s delightfully sad, with a great sense of timing and wordplay. Maroon, however, seems like a pop afterthought. It seems like an album that was contractually obligated and therefore hamfisted by the record label producers. I hate the term “sell-out” because I don’t think that fame equates to a lack of artistic integrity, but it might apply in this album. It sounds like a shameless attempt to pander to a wider audience, and that’s just a shame.
showroom of compassionShowroom of Compassion by Cake (previous album: Pressure Chief)

I literally cannot get enough Cake – I constantly crave for more from this band. Perhaps this is because they have an album problem; namely, they cannot, in my opinion, put together a good album with a cohesive sound that’s engaging top to bottom. That being said, I think Pressure Chief came as close as possible to doing that as they are capable of. It’s tight, it’s poppy without being glib, and it’s heavy in moments only. Showroom of Compassion utterly fails at this. The album is wildly uneven, and is a tough sell from the jump: “Federal Funding” is a monotone, droning, mid-tempo’d disaster of a lead-off track. The album does have its moments, sure, like every Cake album, but they are few and far between. What’s worse is that from what I can glean, the band is moving closer and closer to breaking up, which means this is possibly their last album. That’s a pretty shitty way to leave out, Cake.

in through the out door

In Through The Out Door by Led Zeppelin (previous album: Physical Graffiti)

Ok, so this might be cheating a bit, as this album came out before my parents had even the chance of meeting, let alone getting pregnant with the gloriousness that is me. But my fandom of Led Zeppelin took a very linear route. As a teenager, I was all about the numbered Zeppelin albums, perhaps due to the fact that I thought that’s all the music they ever made. When someone finally smacked across the head and played me Houses of the Holy, I nearly shat my pants in reverence. This was the band at their pinnacle, taking everything they had learned from IV and applying it perfectly. Their next album, Physical Graffiti  was legendary. It had one of their most famous songs on it, “Kashmir,” as well as being the model for all rock double albums to come. Physical Graffiti  is Led Zeppelin’s White Album; it’s taking their pop roots to their logical artistic extremes. In Through the Out Door, however, is a soupy deuce. With songs as bad as “South Bound Saurez” and “Carouselambra” (perhaps the worst song they’ve ever written), it’s hard to justify the existence of this album. And fucking “Hot Dog?” When did Zeppelin become a goddamn honky tonk band?

Absolute Zero

Absolute Zero by Little Green Cars (debut album)

This might be a little tough to justify my (initial) disappointment for this album. I’ve talked about my love for their song “The John Wayne” in my end of the year post, but I feel I glossed over exactly what made this album so disappointing to me on first listen. I had been listening to “The John Wayne” practically on repeat for months at that point, and Spotify graciously let me know they now had their album. I got this notification, however, while I was drunk, so I decided to listen to it the next day at work, which proved ruinous. I didn’t get enough sleep and was totally hungover, and the lead track of the album, “Harper Lee,” begins softly, with an acoustic guitar and lilting harmonies. It was not what I wanted! I wanted the driving electric guitars of “The John Wayne,” along with the oppressive heat from the oven, to beat the hangover out of me. That is not what I got, at all, and while giving the album a few more songs, eventually turned it off for something more abrasive. Had I just taken the time and been in the right mood, I might’ve come to the conclusion I reached recently, that the album is (mostly) wonderful. But for months I pointed to this band as a great example of a single that overshadowed their album.


Everyday by Dave Matthews Band (previous album: Before These Crowded Streets)

This album inspired this post. I may not have been a superfan of any band like I once was of Dave Matthews Band. Shameful, I know, but being a white suburban 90′s child, it was almost unavoidable. I was utterly convinced of their infallible greatness, and that faith was grounded on the artistic achievement that was Before These Crowded Streets. Despite my current opinion of the band, I still think that album is a perfect “next move” album for the band; that is to say, it’s a solid move in an albeit similar but relatively new musical direction, and is a showcase of a band at its absolute peak of songwriting and lyricism. I waited for what seemed like an eternity (four years is a long time when it’s, by that point, 1/4 of your life) for more of this artistic perfection.

Then the news started coming out that they were having problems in the studio. The material they were recording was dark and not at all radio friendly. They then fired their long time producer, which is sort of like a football team firing their coach in the middle of the season: It’s a fucking emergency. But it looked up, at least to me – they hired Glen Ballard, the producer who co-wrote and produced one of the best albums of the 90′s, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. This was a good sign, I thought, the guy who did “You Oughta Know” should be able to handle a deep, dark album.

What came out, however, was a pop mess. Matthews mostly switched to electric guitar (despite that he still was a difficult asshole about it and played a baritone guitar), and the switch negated half of what the appeal was of his guitar playing. His odd runs and bizarre chord shapes sounded fresh and vibrant on acoustic, but on electric they sounded both muddled and generic. And the lyrics were hopeless banal, with none of the depth that was present in nearly every song of Before These Crowded Streets.

The worst part of this is that I really tried hard to like the album. I told myself it was actually ok, the electric guitar did work sort-of alright, the lyrics were never the strong part of the band anyway, the move of focus away from the rest of the band and soley onto Matthews wasn’t egotism but was actually supported by the rest of the band…That’s how I thought, as a superfan, that I somehow knew the specifics of the dynamics of the band interpersonal relationship. But even all that rationalization couldn’t help the knot in the pit of my stomach that told me my favorite band had just released a really bad album.

The worst part of all of this is that not long after Everyday was released, someone leaked the apparently entire album the band had recorded with their now ex-producer, Steve Lillywhite. And it was nothing like Everyday. It was the natural extension of Before These Crowded Streets, meaning it was dark and brilliant. It confirmed, finally, everything I wasn’t willing to let myself believe about Everyday: It was a musical mistake, and my musical gods were fallible. It shook my fandom to its core, and it never recovered. Everyday isn’t the only reason why I don’t listen to Dave Matthews Band anymore, but it’s perhaps the biggest.

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Top 5 Ways to Deal With Your Co-Worker’s Taste in Music (by Joshua)

I have a pretty eclectic taste in music, and certainly a fairly wide breadth of  artists I know and love. An ex-girlfriend of mine used to joke that despite this, I still have a “sound” to my music taste; namely, that I, at the time, favored punchy, up-beat songs with a funky edge. (This was, of course, around about when I was 22.) I’m quite sure my taste has changed a fair bit since then, and it mostly has gone the way of indie folk rock. I’m a terribly big fan of the Decemberists (as even a casual reader of this blog would know instantly) and their stuff is, at face value, not the most accessible to your average music fan.

What is an average music fan? That’s a fair question. I would say your average American music fan is, by the numbers, a fan of Top 40 pop and a healthy dose of rap and R&B. Now, I can’t say all of this stuff is bad (Justin Timberlake, last year, put out perhaps one of the finest pop albums since Thriller), but I can’t listen to Lady Gaga or K$sha (having to spell someone who’s in Mensa like that makes me feel dirty) with any regularity before I want to kill myself with a rusty spork to the brain through my eye socket.

Which brings me to my new job and my new co-worker. She’s a very nice person, to be sure, but she is the poster child for Mix 106.5. She controlled the music during our overnight shift, and it was wall to wall Lady Gaga, K$sha, Eminem, Katy Perry, and fuck-if-I-know-who-it-is Top 40 hit after hit. It was truly a worse hell than listening to Radiohead’s OK Computer on repeat for forever, my previous definition of a musical hell. 

The astute reader here will notice that I am talking about this hell in the past tense. I have supplanted my co-worker (well, technically, my boss) as the primary music player in the kitchen. How? Well, it took a few weeks, but eventually I was able to convince her I had better taste than her. Well, perhaps that’s a bit crass. What I did was far more manipulative than that: I planted the idea in her head that I had better taste than her though extensive musical training, thus making her come to her own conclusion that I would be better suited to handling the music than her. Ok, so I’m making this sound meaner than I should. I really do want her to listen to better music, and I am the perfect person to do so (besides Claire. She could do this ten times better than me, and do it with better music.).

1. Be Nice

Your first response when you hear Katy Perry three songs in a row will be to pick up the speaker and hurl it into the nearest wall (or, if you’re a baker like me, into the closest oven). Ignore that. Instead, do your best to ignore the music for as long as you can. I managed to last nearly a whole work week, so most people could probably stand two weeks. Aim to do nothing for at least a week, and after that period your co-worker will assume you don’t have a problem with their music. After a week, start complimenting the decent songs that come up. Any Top 40 station worth its weight will undoubtedly play some Justin Timberlake, and bam, you have something in common. (If you don’t like Mr. Timberlake, then perhaps stop reading this blog. You are just wrong.) Praise their taste in Justin, and finding that common ground, move on to step 2.

2. Be A Human Pandora/Netflix

This is where it pays to be a huge music nerd. Have you heard of those books called Eat This, Not That? If not, the basic idea is to suggest a healthier alternative to a popular junk food. That’s what your goal is with this step. You need to pick up on the general musical ideas of some of the songs played, and offer a healthier alternative. “Oh, you like Eminem? Yeah, he’s pretty good. If you liked Recovery, maybe you’d like Let’s Get Free by Dead Prez? It has that same energy, only it’s a bit more political, rather than introspective.” This is where it Spotify Premium pays for itself over and over again. You have to have all of your suggestions ready to go. Your suggestions will do no good if you it’s all talk, you gotta back that shit up, son.

3. Have A Soundtrack/Know Your Audience

And that feeds perfectly into this step. You need to be ready with exactly what you want to play. At first, you may only get a song or two here or there, but always be ready with a couple of songs or more if necessary. Do your homework. Create some playlists of stuff that is similar to stuff they like, that way when you get your turn up at bat, you don’t strike out on the first swing. If they like what you’re playing, there’s no reason not to let it ride. This is also where you can bring in the other people in the shop/office/kitchen/wherever the hell you work. After two or three songs, carefully gauge the response to the other people besides the co-worker in question. If they’re digging it, keep your list playing as long as possible.

4. Don’t Blow Your Wad Early/Don’t Hesitate

This is where being good at creating playlists comes in handy. You have to start small with your suggestions and playlists. They’re not going to go from K$sha to Arcade Fire in one step. It’s a process, and you have to respect that. But you also have to make your musical point quickly – If you take too long to get to the real good stuff, they will have never kept up interest all the way there. I find the best way to hit this balance is by starting with something they know they like, then move to an artist who is a household name with a song they’ve unquestionably heard before, to an artist that they may or may not know by name but they know the song, then move on to something a bit more obscure. Confused? Don’t be. Let’s say they love that song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. First, compliment them on a good song choice, then ask if they’ve heard the song it’s based on, “Got To Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye (too bad Marvin is dead, he would’ve made a bunch of money suing Robin Thicke for plagiarism). They more than likely won’t know the song by name, but I’m sure once you put it on, they’ll recognize it. Then while they’re looking away, queue up a few more songs. Move onto “Get Ready” by the Temptations, a perfect follow up. Then throw them a change ball and play “Hold On” by the Alabama Shakes. I will guarantee two things about this song: First, if they’re a purely Top 40 fan, they shan’t have heard it before, and second, they are going to like it enough to ask who it is because you lead from the last two songs so well. You would’ve never gotten the same reaction had you gone straight from Robin Thicke to the Alabama Shakes.

5. Set Up A Schedule

At this point you’ve got them on the hook. But you can’t be a dick about it – I know my inclination is to lord my good music taste over people, something I’m slowly learning to stop. You can’t just take over the music 100%, as much as you may want to. Maybe the first time you really get a crack at the tunes, play one playlist then relinquish control back to the co-worker. You’ll look like a good person, especially if everyone in the place prefers your lists to theirs. You want to act fair, even if it makes no sense to. The idea here is to make people want your music more than the co-workers, and you help this along by setting up a schedule. Maybe you alternate hours of the day, or you get half the day and the co-worker the other half, or switch off days, or whatever. Just as long as your other co-workers begin to yearn and pine for your music shift. Once this happens, you’re in like Flynn, baby.


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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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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#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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