The only note I want to make before I launch into this set of songs is I’m shuffling my Top 1000. Rather than my whole library, I’ve chosen to shuffle just the Top 1000 playlist because I’ll have loads more to say about any of these songs rather than say, “A Horse With No Name” by America. That said, here we go.
I believe this is the very first song I ever heard off of Al Green’s Lay It Down, way back in the spring of ’08. I was in Spain and this tune had leaked a few months in advance and I remember thinking, “Whoa. He might have a massive, modern classic on his hands.” That was correct. The whole album is just the densest, richest, lushest music he’s ever made. It’s absolutely as good as his prime albums from the early ‘70s, but with a whole new layer of depth, thanks to master producers ?uestlove and James Poyser. But enough about the album. This tune is just a sweet love song about slowing things down. Corinne Bailey Rae guests on this song, and she adds just a great voice alongside Mr. Green’s. He does his little talk-ish ad-libs and she sings a more straightforward part, but when they combine during the chorus it’s just a fantastic blend that sits perfectly on top of the rest of the tune. And talk about a lesson on incorporating string arrangements into your song. Yowza, the strings float this tune along like a leaf on a crick. There is nothing here that needs to go any faster.
This one is one of the more forgettable tracks off of Mark Ronson’s Version, his album of (mostly) covers with guest artists. This particular track is a cover of a song by the UK band The Charlatans, a band I know nothing about. As I’ve never heard the original before, this is the definitive version of this song for me, which means I lose out on any artistic critique due to its nature as a cover song. Most of this album consists of covers out of left field, spun with Ronson’s trademark “‘60s soul with a modern twist” sound. Lots of great horns, addictive rhythms, etc., but while this tune has most of those elements, it just falls flat. The featured artist here is Robbie Williams, another UK singer I know nothing about. He adds little to the song that makes me want to keep playing it. And most often, this tune gets a skip from me.
I don’t think I’d heard banjo played in such a grand, majestic way before I heard Mumford & Sons, and specifically this song. I was a little behind on the Mumford train, heard them (and this song) for the first time when they played with Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers at the 2011 Grammy Awards. The performance was great for a lot of reasons, but this was the song they played, and it made an impression on me. These guys are great. The biggest criticism I’ve read of their album Sigh No More is that it’s lots of the same, which I get, but what they do, they do so well. What’s the problem with having an album that stylistically sounds very similar when that style is awesome? This song especially just has the best hook in the world. Best I’ve heard with a banjo anyway. This album helped me recognize a completely original and unseen (by me) part of folk music. Up until this song I had heard folk as primarily a quiet genre. This song blew that misconception out of the water. Yeah, folk can be quiet and beautiful, or it can be raucous and beautiful. One could almost label this song folk-rauc.
Keeping in mind the goal of writing succinctly for these Shuffle Lessons, it is unfortunate that iTunes landed on a song by Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan has an incredibly literary form of songwriting that feels at home among Emerson or Thoreau. One could easily write a seminary dissertation on his Seven Swans album. This tune, the Side 1 Track 1 of Illinois, is a perfect example. Clocking in at just over 2 minutes, the song captures the fear and wonder of those involved in an alleged UFO sighting in Highland, Illinois in 2000. If you doubt, listen to the song again. He uses the word “revenant” not four words in. Are you kidding me? What a songwriter. Listen to all of 10 seconds of any Sufjan song and you know the guy is a deeply talented artist. He can write (“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is a profoundly dark and beautiful song about the innate horror of our fallen human nature) and he can play. I don’t know how he seems to write music that seems so unheard of. Like when I first heard this song (even more so this whole album), it was like I was hearing a new genre for the first time. Or seven new genres for the first time. He just combines instruments and time signatures and melodies and song structures in such unique ways and creates something wholly his own. This song is just perfect though. Haunting, short, mysterious, affecting, and perplexing. Much like a UFO sighting?…
This was one of the first JM songs I ever heard, more than 10 years ago. Holy cow that is a long time. But this is originally the kind of music that originally hooked me, super simple guitar yet incredibly melodic, and lyrics that encapsulate feelings I hadn’t heard communicated so well in song before. This song is a perfect example of what a great songwriter JM is, even from the get-go. This whole song is about the Sunday Night Blues, which I had always felt but never really heard discussed in real life. Like Sunday nights always just felt off to me. I felt extra lonely or weird or sad or unmotivated on Sunday nights. It just felt like the world was cold and had nothing to offer that made me feel alive and happy. Kind of the same thing as the feeling I got on Christmas night. But then I heard this song, and I heard this feeling being sung. And played. Like exactly. He paints perfect word pictures here that explain exactly how I was feeling but couldn’t say. “3:02 / the space in this room / has turned on me / all my fears / have cornered me here / me and my TV screen.” He completely captured the Sunday night angst that so many 15-25 year olds (and probably others) feel. He played this song in Iowa City in 2003, and he introduced it by saying, “Sunday nights cannot be trusted.” Feel free to hold whatever opinion about the guy as a person, but damned if he can’t write.