Top 19 Songs On This Year’s Mix CD
Every year since 1998 or so, I’ve put together a year-end mix CD that not only summed up the year in music, but also offered reminders of personal memories and in some way commented on events of the past 12 months as well. Of course I don’t make copies for friends and distribute them, as that would be illegal. That Recording Industry Association of America President Hilary Rosen is one sexy, sexy lady (please don’t sue me).
Such a mix CD has to be a collection that flows well musically and thematically and that might appeal to a broad cross-section of audiences. That means keeping in mind that anyone from longtime friends to new acquaintances to complete strangers might be listening to it (when they come over to my house, of course). They may be hearing some of the artists contained within for the first time or may be intimately familiar with the songs. Ideally, the songs should both be enjoyable in the context of the mix CD and they should make people want to go out and buy the records of the individual artists (Ms. Rosen).
While some of the albums containing these songs are likely to land in my top twenty (Ben Folds, Ryan Adams, David Mead, Old 97s), others may contain only one or a handful of shining moments (Proclaimers). Moreover there are plenty of fine albums from this year that didn’t really have songs that fit the flow of the mix CD (Radiohead, Pete Yorn, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt).
With all that in mind, here’s what I came up with for a track listing this year:
The opening track is a key one. It needs to reflect somehow on the passage of time and look ahead to the future. Last year, I had a perfect one to kick things off, “One Good Year” by Slaid Cleaves. I think I’ve come up with an equally good choice this year. It just so happens it also comes from my favorite CD of the year, Ben Folds’ Rocking The Suburbs. To me, it’s the most consistent record of the last twelve months and finally fulfills the promise of the first Ben Folds Five record. “Still Fighting It” (track 1) was written for Folds’ young son. “Everybody knows, it hurts to grow up/And everybody does,” he sings. “The years go on and we’re still fighting it/And you’re so much like me/I’m sorry.” Who hasn’t felt like they were fighting getting older or worried that their kids will grow up just like them. The song has a nice dose of humor but a sweet wistfulness as well and a solid melody.
From there, the CD turns to my first “theme” of sorts. “Comfort” (track 2) is a song by New York singer-songwriter David Mead, from his album Mine And Yours. It marks the beginning of what you might call my “New York suite,” in honor of the city that has seen so much pain this year. Back in the spring, I went up to the Big Apple to attend a bachelor party for a good friend of mine who was getting married. The day after, with my head and stomach in various states of disrepair (too much Jim Beam), I headed for home. Stopped at a light as I made my way down West End Avenue to the Lincoln Tunnel, I began to search my CDs for something that would both be soothing and cut through the mush that was my brain that afternoon. Making my way onto the New Jersey Turnpike past industrial locales and signs familiar from the opening of The Sopranos, Mead’s song rolled out of my CD player. “Southern springs and summers/Maybe winter in New York… Now the dancing days are gone/You sleep alone with the radio on… You have the softest eyes/The grace to wash and comfort/All the kids on the Jersey shore… I believe in easy answers/Coming home for Christmas/Minding manners all along/I sleep alone with the radio on.” The evocative song helped the mind wander and the miles disappear.
“New York New York” (track 3) from Ryan Adams’ Gold has sort of become an anthem in the days following September 11th. Adams sings about rattling around his old haunts in Alphabet City before he had to leave the city and his girlfriend behind: “Love don’t play any games with me anymore like she did before/World won’t wait so I better shake that thing right out there through the door/Hell I still love you New York.” The dissonant, jazzy sax at the end of the song seems to sum up the cacophony of the city well. It all puts me in mind of my trip to CMJ, the annual music conference, last fall as part of the Ink 19 contingent. The subway series was going on, there was an autumn nip in the air. I remember standing on a street corner after seeing Adams at a club in his old neighborhood and hearing car alarms, honking horns, and several competing music sources from buildings and passing vehicles. Having spent several days in the city, what normally might have seemed like obnoxious noise felt like an intoxicating symphony. Such is the effect the city has.
I first came across Road Movies, the debut album by the British band Minibar, because it contains a song (“Choked Up”) that didn’t make the cut for the final Whiskeytown album, Pneumonia. Produced by the brilliant T. Bone Burnett, Road Movies has much more to offer as well. “Six Foot” (track 4) was another song I listened to during my escape from New York following that bachelor party in the spring. With a guitar solo like something off a Skynyrd or Allman Brothers record, the song further lifted my spirits and my confidence as I made my way down the turnpike: “I’m six foot tall on a good day/I’m eight miles high when I try/I can hold my own with the next man/I just need someone to tell me how tall I am.”
Former Grant Lee Buffalo leader Grant-Lee Phillips followed up his low-key acoustic solo debut this year with a surprising record of electro-pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a dance floor. He also turned up on my favorite TV show of the moment, Gilmore Girls (he has a recurring role as the town troubadour). “Humankind” (track 5) seems to have a different message in the post-September 11th world than it might have earlier: “And the point of my life is what, what if it doesn’t add up/And the trouble was all for naught/Chalk it to the state of the world/Revelations are soon forgot/If only humankind was not so heartless now, heartless now/It’s hard to love your fellow man/How ever can I help myself from harboring such evil.”
At this point in the CD, it’s time for a spooky and hypnotic reverie. I can think of none better than Gillian Welch’s “Revelator” (track 6). “Darling remember when you come to me/I’m the pretender/Not what I’m supposed to be,” Welch sings. The first time I heard the song was on a Ryan Adams bootleg a couple of years ago. It remains as haunting with every listen.
Joe Henry‘s work seems to become more challenging with every record and his latest, Scar, is another feather in his cap. “Mean Flower” (track 7) is a jazzy ballad of the first order that flows well following the Welch track. The lyrics are playful but wounded: “You raise me off the ground to see how far there is to fall/As if I don’t remember how we passed the time.“
By now it’s about time for an up-tempo musical antidote. “Glad Girls” (track 8) from Guided By Voices’ Isolation Drills is pounding, infectious pop music that will leave the reverie and thoughtfulness behind and only make you want to shake your head to the music: “Hey glad girls only want to get you high/And they’re alright.“
From there, let’s take the exuberance up a notch. Persevere, by those broguing Scottish twin brothers, The Proclaimers (remember “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”?) is a fairly average record, especially after so long a wait between discs. But it has a killer opening track, “There’s A Touch” (track 9), that’s guaranteed to get you hopping around the room: “There’s a touch upon my lips left by memory’s fingertips/I still hear her voice when there’s no sound.“
With the next song begins my next “theme” for the CD. I noticed that a number of my favorite tracks from the past year were songs about the life of songs, the way they’re born, how they’re created and how they stay with us and become a part of the tapestry of our lives. With so much disposable music out there these days, I thought it would be good to reflect on that here on the CD.
“Commissioning a Symphony in C” (track 10) from Cake’s Comfort Eagle, which sounds something like The Cars if they’d had a better sense of humor, has one of the best opening verses I’ve heard all year: “So you’ll be an Austrian nobleman, commissioning a symphony in C which defies all earthly descriptions/You’ll be commissioning a symphony in C/With money you squeezed from the peasants, to your nephew you can give it as a present/This magnificent symphony in C.”
Throughout a career spanning nearly thirty years, Tim Finn in a low profile way has proven himself nearly the equal of his brother (and Split Enz/Crowded House bandmate) Neil as both a tunesmith and a singer. The opening track on his latest album Feeding The Gods, “Songline” (track 11) has more melody than brother Neil has produced since the Crowded House days. “Out across the open spaces/Where the music sets you free/Help me spread the message/That’s inside of you and me/We come from a long line/Part of a songline,” he sings, evoking his rich musical past as well as the music that influenced him. “You’re part of your own time/I’m part of your songline.” Remembering all those well-worn Split Enz records, I realize he is, indeed.
Canadian singer Ron Sexsmith hooked up with producer Steve Earle for his latest record, Blue Boy, which is a more band-oriented effort than three previous records recorded with Mitchell Froom. It’s another gem. On “This Song” (track 12) he worries about the fate of the songs he writes: “Brought a song into this world/Just a melody with words. It trembles here before my eyes/How can this song survive… For hate is strong and darkness thrives/How can this song survive.” In the current musical climate, I, too, worry about the fate of great songs and great songwriters.
Rufus Wainwright‘s second album is one of the most inventive, fresh sounding records of the year. Combining the best of musical theatre, classic Cole Porter-style songwriting and his own unique lyrical concerns, Wainwright and his producers outdo themselves in creating a lush record. Poses begins and ends with one of the best examples of Wainwright’s brand of baroque cabaret pop, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” (track 13). He lists a few of his favorite indulgences and laments, “Everything it seems I like’s… a little bit harmful for me.” The melody effortlessly goes to unexpected places amid the soaring string section and Wainwright’s electric piano.
The second Gillian Welch-penned song on this CD is the title track from Alison Krauss and Union Station‘s latest. “New Favorite” (track 14) features Jerry Douglas’ impeccably subtle dobro and lap steel and Krauss’ impossibly perfect smooth voice: “And should I go, you won’t say so/I know it’s true/I know you’ve got a new favorite.”
At this point on the CD begins my third and final “theme.” Three of my very good friends got married this year. And it just so happens, marriage and weddings were the topics of a number of good songs in 2001.
Satellite Rides, by the alt-country turned power-pop band Old 97’s, is a great record all the way through. Buried in the middle of it is an uncharacteristic, sweet acoustic number about proposing called “Question” (track 15): “Someday somebody’s gonna ask you/A question that you should say yes to, once in your life/Maybe tonight, I’ve got a question for you.”
The string-fed acoustic ballad “Wedding Day” (track 16) is one of many highlights on Alejandro Escovedo‘s roots-rock gem A Man Under the Influence: “Long as the river runs/Long as the time to come… You were locked in time by the ring that binds you on your wedding day.”
Buddy and Julie Miller may be the oddest couple I know of. He’s a seemingly no-nonsense good old boy who likes to wear old baseball caps and scruffy-looking flannel shirts who can play a mean guitar (which he’s done for Emmylou Harris and others) and sing with rich country soul. She’s a seemingly high maintenance woman with a girlish voice who has been known to use puppets onstage and who is equally adept at fragile ballads and sexy rockers. Somehow, the two of them together make magic. On their first official duo album this year, there are a few declarations of their undying commitment to each other, none more sweet than “Holding Up the Sky” (track 17): “And our love will hold up the sky/When the rain comes down too hard/It’s a cord that will not untie/It’s a promise the angels guard… Even when dreams turn to memories/Our love will dance.”
It was Bill Lloyd’s magnificent guitar jangle on Greg Trooper’s “Once and For All” (track 18) that first attracted me to the next song. It also turns out, it’s a perfect way to close out the marriage-themed portion of the CD: “If you wouldn’t mind take a little time/Read the love letters that I scrawled/And you’ll be mine/Once and for all… Way down south/Way out west/Over Niagara Falls/Just say yes/Once and for all.”
The CD’s final track is also an important one. Again, it should somehow speak to the passing of another year. This year, the perfect choice is “Our Time Has Passed” (track 19) by Pernice Brothers. Joe Pernice’s breathy vocals and the band’s sweeping, string drenched pop leave things on just the right note: “Our time has passed so quickly/Our bittersweet hello, goodbye. Our time has passed so quickly/Do you ever wonder why… Tripping through our days at lightning speed.” Indeed.