#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.

So Hot Right Now: December 2013 (by Claire)

oh hey super early sunset. you're pretty and sad.

Oh hey super early sunset. You’re pretty and sad.

We ambled over to the beach to learn the truth: The sun sets at 4:15 pm. The three of us stood in the sand and watched the thick fog unfurl over the ocean, the departing sun leaving lavender and grey smudges over the cliffs. When it was over, it was maybe 5:00 pm, voluptuously dark and cold. Lights twinkled in the trees on the drive home. The idea of dinner bounced around in our brains.

At 5:00. 5:00! I know I’m an adult person who shouldn’t act surprised about seasons, but after three months in sweaty, sunshiney climates, this it-looks-like-it’s-midnight-before-I’m-even-finished-working routine is a gloomy shock. Welcome back to the US! Here’s some seasonal depression.

I spent last December listening to “Young and Cold” by The Raveonettes on repeat and only wanted to listen to similarly evocative, cold weather songs. But I need some bounce and verve this year, the mixtape equivalent of a light therapy lamp. “Lightning” by Air Waves is slow burning pure joy, unexpectedly dance-worthy after a gentle start. “I Can Hardly Make You Mine” starts big and somehow grows more expansive and thrilling with each verse, with it’s steady heart-racing drums, twinkly reverb laced sound, and Madeline Folin’s sweet pleading vocals. Look forward to appearances by “The Mother We Share” by CHVRCHES and most of Haim’s debut album Days Are Gone on all worthwhile New Years Eve playlists.

I know we’ve entered 2013 music catch up season—can we be honest here? Some of the 2012 catch up I’ve done for this month has knocked my 2013 favorites out of rotation. Sorry topical music fans. Vivian Girls spin-offs killed in 2012—-all of Our House On The Hill by The Babies is worth a listen, but “Alligator” is a great start. La Sera’s dreamy “Love That’s Gone” already sounds like a classic, and is maybe the loveliest “Screw you” breakup song ever. On a non-Vivian Girls related note, Tame Impala’s Lonerism has never stopped sounding fresh and delicious. I find new things to love on that album every few months; right now “Elephant” is my walking-through-the-city anthem.

So we’ve got new and not-quite-new covered—how about not remotely new? If it’s cold outside, I’m listening to Astral Weeks. Humming “Sweet Thing” and daydreaming is my favorite variation on wedding planning at the moment (so much better than skimming the overwhelming “buy this!” and “lose weight!” buffet that is wedding blogs). A few months ago, Pavement kept me mostly calm as I sat in a car that nearly careened off the highway in Bangkok. “Range Life” reminds me of the hyper bliss of stumbling out of that experience, alive, intact, relentlessly grateful. (Also the mini 90’s rock history lesson towards the end of the song is pretty great. Read Hey Nietszche! Leave Them Kids Alone if you, like me, have the urge to know too much about The Smashing Pumpkins).

So Hot Right Now: October 2013 (by Claire)


I miss you, pumpkin sweets

It’s black tights season. It’s unpack-your-sweaters season, stop-ordering-your-coffee-iced season. It’s AUTUMN—cool and crisp, no searing sun or sweaty humidity, no bloodshot eyes from perpetually blasted air conditioning. It’s the first autumn after my first month of summer in ages, courtesy of Japan, and I’m hungry for autumn music: a little dreamy, a little moody, a little heavy on guitars.

I’m in love with the mixtapes in Love Is A Mixtape by Rob Sheffield, an excellent ode to the power of carefully arranged tunes and life stage soundtracks housed in cassettes. I’m in love not because I loved the book (I did though, and recommend it highly if you’re on the hunt for some Fall reading), but because reviewing his mixtapes reminded me of a few rules I’d forgotten:

  • It’s authentic for a song to appear on every mix throughout the course of a year
  • Mix high and low, embrace Top 40 alongside classics and newly minted mainstay bands
  • Bring back old favorites. You haven’t forgotten them—you probably want to hear them.

Lets start with welcoming back old favorites. I’ve had “Walt Whitman’s Niece” stuck in my head for the past ten years, and the volume gets turned up in autumn, when the rollicking blend of Billy Bragg, Wilco, and Woody Guthrie feels season-perfect. Sweet, Swedish country ballad “Emmylou” by First Aid Kit graced several mixes last year. It’s Fall and I’m far away and I have a hankering for fresh, country-laced takes on classic themes. So welcome back “Emmylou,” and “We Almost Had A Baby” by Emmy the Great, another gorgeous genre-referencing song that belongs in the same musical cannon as Loretta Lynn and Roseanne Cash.

The BBC says new music rewards your brain, so here are a few tastes of new 2013 releases for your brain bolstering needs. London Grammar sounds like the dreamy lovechild of The xx and Florence and the Machine. Valerie June’s sultry, bluesy “Wanna Be On Your Mind” has been on mine since I first heard it, as has her entire album, a delicious cocktail of soul, country, and impeccable songwriting. Laura Veirs is back with her shadowy, epic brand of folk on “Sun Song,” while BOY and Lorde provide some necessary autumn pop with “Seven Little Numbers” and “The Love Club.”

Playlists that pop up between September and December are incomplete without Van Morrison, the Replacements, and the theme song to “Pete and Pete.” I have no idea when I came up with these rules, but I’m extremely devoted to them. It’s not Fall until “Wait until you see our submarines, with Polaris” is blasting in my ears.

A Mixtape for Fireflies and Summer Storms

The East Coast is alive and well in San Francisco. At a birthday party Saturday night, I compared notes with my side of a long table and three of us went to high schools so close together we could’ve run into each other at the same McDonalds. It’s New York, it’s Boston, it’s the suburbs of DC—and for a couple months of the year, it’s the same conversation: Isn’t it so nice to be done with winter?

Disliking winter is simple: Who wants to slip on ice or endure those long months when it’s bitterly cold without the chance of snow? Who enjoys those days when it’s just never-enough layers and cutting wind, and one sad grey face after another?

Summer is it’s own strange beast though, my first love/hate relationship. I was not built for summer in Baltimore. I’m hilariously pale, perpetually dehydrated, and fairly certain that my blood is just sugar and perfume, since having upwards of 20 mosquito bites at a time is very normal for me.

I loathed the long summer months—but I loved the surreal, magic tinged bits.  Pale  green fireflies outside my bedroom window, crackling thunderstorms in June, the warm scent of honeysuckles in the heat, an olfactory memory that sums up the word “luscious.” Driving at dusk to the snowball stand, slurping crunchy ice and cherry chocolate syrup from a Styrofoam cup, bare feet perched on the dashboard. The sweet, heady boredom of suburban adolescence in the summer, all tied up in movie theatre air conditioning and cheap sunscreen, drinking Evan Williams in a field or backyard and wondering what to do next.

Are these memories a little far-fetched? Do they ignore relentless sticky days where the outdoors seem sweaty and downright hostile?  Yes. But I recommend embracing the idyllic and silly side of things—I recommend embracing that side whenever you get the chance.

So this is a soundtrack for staying out late with nothing to do, for driving barefoot while a storm gathers, for navigating leafy side roads as the sun sets and the day’s sweat cools on your bare arms and legs.

Claire’s So Hot Right Now: April 2013

My very wise & owl-y engagement ring

I am back on the first substances we ever embrace—caffeine and sugar. I have Easter egg foil on my bedroom floor and heaps of coffee grinds rotting in my compost bin. I devour a square of chocolate on the walk home from the grocery store, handfuls of dried chili rubbed mangoes (“They’re healthy?” I think, despondently scanning the label). Another black coffee, another, a third—I would like to sip it straight from the pot. I stopped drinking alcohol a month ago: out of nowhere, it started giving me vicious heart flutters. So now I embrace caffeine shivers and scrape together spare quarters for candy like a kid. The Cults sing ‘What I most want is bad for me, I know,” and I nod in agreement.

“What a perfect love song,” I thought the first time I heard “Baby” by Devendra Banhardt. It’s a tall order, modern love songs—so easy to be cheesy or overly simple, so much easier as a listener to lean on the greats from a few decades ago when it comes to romantic music. But this song is silly, pure and joyful, fun to hum and play loudly. And my heart is silly, pure and joyful, it hums and plays loudly, because last month the person I love the most asked me to marry him and I said yes. You can see the happy, bejeweled owl that sits on my left ring finger and makes me smile.

It’s warm and there are little jasmine blossoms on the bushes when I take my walk, there’s a cherry tree that’s flushed and frilly. The sun is out at seven o’clock and I swear I was wrong, San Francisco does have seasons, you just have to live here for three years to feel them. It’s Spring, and the cheerful chorus of “Polaroid Song” is spot-on: “Feel like dancing on my own/ To a record that I do not own/In a place I’ve never seen before.”

It’s Spring, and Van Morrison is a man for all seasons. Every crunchy leaf or drift of snow, every soft pastel April day or first humid morning is best met with a Van Morrison song. I’m sending you glad tidings, from San Francisco.

“Strawberry Bubblegum” sounds like being a teenager in the summer, when you just started driving and there’s that one song that makes you feel sexy and alive, so you play it as much as you can, and the local station follows suit. I’m so tired of the eight minute song, a new favorite of intelligent popstars and rappers, but my weak attention span and jam band hangover didn’t stop me from loving the new Justin Timberlake album. I didn’t expect to, but how can you say no to something so fun and summer-perfect when soaring temperatures and swimming pools are around the corner?

And speaking of things I didn’t think I’d love, a lesson learned: Try the music you hate again. Just like every taste, your music tastes change without you even noticing. And speaking of songs that sound like being a teenager in the summer: “Keep the Car Running” by Arcade Fire fits the bill. Yes, I said I didn’t like them and believed it. Changing my mind was refreshing, and made me wonder what else I was missing. Could I enjoy other things I’ve disliked for years, like Twizzlers or horror movies? A Freon and fake butter scented movie theatre in Baltimore is surely the place to find out. I’ll keep you posted

Top 5 Rainy Day Songs (by Claire)

San Francisco, I thought we had a deal: I fork over the astronomical rent and sit through more conversations about militant veganism than I would like. You, in return, provide me with year round sun dappled sweater weather, the kind that makes my East Coast friends contemplate growing third arms just so they can flick me off thrice.

So what’s with this dark rainy stuff, huh? I saw a child wearing mittens today. MITTENS.  The handful of serotonin that I still have woke up this morning, threw open the curtains, and said “Nope!”

But, there is a bright side: Rainy day songs!  In honor of this terrible-no-good-very-bad-weather, here are my top five rainy day songs.

“And It Stoned Me” by Van Morrison

A rainy day song list wouldn’t be complete without Van Morrison. “And It Stoned Me” is a classic, full of awe and childlike wonder. If you need a solid empowerment slogan, I say skip all the over-Tumblered quotes and write “Oh the water/Get it myself from the mountain stream” on your mirror.

You know those comedians who could read you a phone book and you would laugh? Their jokes are impossible for other comedians, who lack magical, inexplicably humorous voices. Van Morrison could sing me the latest Bieber trifle, or even his grocery list, and I’m sure it would glue me to the spot, widen my eyes and fill my thoughts with vastness and strange joy.

“Shipbuilding” by Elvis Costello

“Shipbuilding” is about the Falklands War of 1982 and the prosperity that it brought to shipbuilding towns, who then had to send their sons to war on the ships they built. It’s slow and rich, with sparse luscious stretches of piano and cymbals and Chet Baker on jazz trumpet. I didn’t know what this song was about until I started writing this, but that didn’t make it less haunting, particularly the lines “With all the will in the world/Diving for dear life/When we could be diving for pearls.” Something about it has always reminded me of driving in the rain.

“Dry the Rain” by the Beta Band

I found this song the way most people did: through the moment in High Fidelity when Rob turns it on with the promise that merely playing it will sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band. It’s a nice nod at the earnestness inherent in music obsessives like myself. We’re not always snobs, sometimes we’re not snobs at all, but we are people who hold the delusional belief that if we play you a song, you’ll understand everything we want you to understand. You’ll hear it just like we will and together we’ll embrace the best kind of empathy: the kind that comes with a soundtrack.

I wish we could stand in a record shop together and listen to this while drinking a plastic cup of cheap red from a bottle stashed behind the register.  We would listen to this song that starts with so much sadness and vulnerability, then becomes something joyful and overwhelmingly comforting. How perfect is that for a rainy day?

“Cigarettes and Coffee” by Otis Redding

I think my brief smoking career really ended when I couldn’t smoke in 24 hour diners any more. If that treat still existed, I don’t know that I could consistently ignore the siren song of cigarettes, black coffee, and the promise of late night pancakes. Otis sums up the end of one of those nights so perfectly—when the cups are empty, the pack is almost over, and dawn is around the corner. Where will you go? Will you go to sleep, or will you stay awake and savor the twinkling promise of adventure that exists when the day is long over and you’re running on adrenaline?   Wherever you end up, know this: If it’s late and raining, make sure you’re listening to Otis Redding.

“Cherry Wine” by Nas and Amy Winehouse

Hide out from the rain and curl up with someone who knows you so well, just coming home to him or her proves that “Life is good.” This was one of my favorite new songs this year; it’s so charming and full of genuine affection. And it brought Amy Winehouse back, if only for a few minutes.

Smile, dance around, fall in love a little—the rain isn’t all bad. Pour some cherry wine. Let Amy Winehouse and Nas cheer you up.

Top 5 Autumn Albums (by Claire)

It’s autumn. I want sweaters, pumpkin beer, tomato soup, a new hair color (I’m thinking dark brown? I know you guys care), and these albums. In no particular order, but in particular I’d like them all at once, thanks.

These are all albums that I listen to here and there throughout the year. Come October 1st, I start playing them on repeat through Thanksgiving. I have no idea why. They fade out with pumpkin spice, holiday flights, and that first clean whiff of impending snow.

Lost In Space by Aimee Mann

Autumn has it’s own class of sweets. We might add frilly pastel frosting flowers on spring cupcakes, or blanket a tart with stone fruit in late summer, but we don’t introduce an entire suite of flavors only to forget them for nine months the way we do in autumn. Cinnamon, nutmeg, dark brown sugar, molasses—any edible goodie that’s given a “harvest” or “fall” moniker features a combination of these flavors. It’s a dark, warm, and ultimately complex flavor backbone, even though it feels simple and comforting.

Lost in Space is musical harvest cake. The tone is somber but complicated. Though the lyrics and themes are dark, it’s not music you listen to if you want to lean into sadness, or cultivate it. Mann’s impeccable grasp on pop song craftsmanship keeps each song catchy and hummable, even though a million tiny pieces are working to make the songs so warm and easy to digest. Listen to it with the windows open on a crisp day while eating something lousy with nutmeg and pumpkin.

Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair

I listened to whitechocolatespaceegg about a thousand times (not an exaggeration) before I ever heard Exile in Guyville. And it took me years to finally listen to it—I started obsessing over Liz Phair in late middle school, I heard Exile in Guyville for the first time when I was 24. The only reason I listen to this album in autumn is because I bought it the first time my family visited me in San Francisco, about three months after I moved, and it was October. We went to Haight Ashbury and bought armloads of CDs at Amoeba, including this one. It was a really perfect day, and the first day that I felt pretty certain that I lived in San Francisco and wasn’t just on some endless visit.

The Queen is Dead by The Smiths

I feel like I’m supposed to like The Smiths a lot more than I do. Which is weird, because I do like them, this isn’t a band I’m supposed to like but don’t. But I’m not obsessed and they’re not a go-to if I were to list bands that were indicative of my taste. I think they have some really good songs, and some boring stuff, and Morrisey seems like a wang.

I heard this album for the first time in Autumn, again way later than seems appropriate (I think I was 22. I’m not even sure how that happened. It was also sort of embarrassing because 500 Days of Summer came out around the same time and I felt like a total poser, even though I hadn’t seen the movie yet. Isn’t there a joke about The Smiths and posers in High Fidelity? Five bucks if you find it. Leave it in the comments.) (P.S. I probably won’t give you five bucks.)

Tupelo Honey, by Van Morrison

There’s nothing like driving around on back roads with the windows down on a crisp Autumn day, playing Tupelo Honey. It’s great during any season, of course, but something about big pretty leaves falling and that waning end of the day sunshine makes it even better. Also good music for the beginning of a party, before everyone is there, on a chilly night. And for when you’re up much too late, writing a paper, drinking a cup of very hot coffee.

The Best of the First 10 Years, by Elvis Costello

I know, a compilation! How embarassing! But it’s a really good one, and honestly I just get a hankering for Elvis Costello in general and it felt like a cop-out to put “Elvis Costello” down as though he were an album. Why Elvis Costello in autumn? He’s clever, bright, a little slow on the tempo (sometimes), and a lot of his songs have a distinct dreamy quality. Good soundtrack for drinking boozey cups of apple cider, or very hot coffee, while letting your mind wander. So far this month I can’t stop listening to “New Lace Sleeves” and “Living in Paradise” (which isn’t on this compilation. I’m breaking all the rules here. Eep.)