Tag Archives: iTunes

Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 14

1. “Maybe” – N*E*R*D, Fly Or Die

This was probably the second song I fell in love with on N*E*R*D’s sophomore album. Fly Or Die is absolutely one of my favorite records of all time (it currently sits ranked within the Top 25) and that was mainly due to the ear-catching weirdness of the first single “She Wants To Move.” I purchased the album on impulse (probably the best impulse record purchase I’ve ever made) and after the sheer confusion of what I was hearing wore off, I kept coming back to “Maybe.”

This tune immediately sucked me in. “Love was the egg…see?” Spoken by Pharrell before the song actually begins, this is a perfect example of so many elements on this record, both spoken and musical, that were way over my head. There’s no real explanation of what this means, but I loved the weirdness.

Throw in the militaristic drumline (that’s Questlove on drums, he’s in the music video sporting a mohawk) and I was hooked. “Maybe” is a really great example of how well the songs on Fly Or Die are built. Piece by piece, with so much hidden, waiting to be discovered on further listens. But “Maybe” is a really straightforward song, where you can hear the pieces being added. The uber-catchy piano riff, guest musician Lenny Kravitz’s bendy guitar lick, the bass subtly added underneath.

I have to hand it to Kravitz, he does some pretty awesome guitar instrumentation here. The solo licks all over this song play so well off the crunchy power chords in the chorus. And actually, listening to the song now, I’m realizing that one part of the chorus that I used to think was the guitar lick is actually Pharrell’s ethereal background vocals. They sound shockingly like a guitar effect. So cool.

And then, after a verse-chorus (2x) structure (I’m also just hearing the weird video game sound effect that quietly comes in at 1:54 in the second pre-chorus), the band blows into the sexiest sounding bridge this side of a Prince song. Right at 2:30, the chords change from minor to major with some major augmentation thrown in, creating a very suspended sound. Good interplay between instruments here too.

And then back to the verse for a few bars before closing in the bridge. This is just such an unearthly sounding song. I guess that’s appropriate for the lyrics, which again, are way over my head. Stuff about love and eggs? I don’t get it Pharrell, but I don’t care, because you created a song that ensured I wasn’t going to give this album two listens and give up on it. A real masterpiece of prog-pop weirdness.

2. “These Walls” – Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator

This is a mellow cut from the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s stunning debut album. While I absolutely love this album, this is one lesser known tracks to me. It broke into my Top 1000 mainly due to the rotation I had been giving to the whole record and hadn’t really focused on this particular song.

It’s a sweet one though. Very soft instrumentation, soft drum brushes, no hard rocking guitar, just lots of electric slide work provided by Derek Trucks, and an almost Oriental sounding acoustic slide providing the intro and coloring the song throughout.

This is a very melancholy song. The music is so soft and unassuming that I feel like it could be the music behind the montage scene of a romantic movie when the leads have split and are pondering where their relationship is headed. Pensive looks out the window, walking in chilly autumn weather on a busy New York street, etc.

In reality, the lyrical content of the song is sadder and more reality based. This is a song sung by a woman who’s been abandoned by her man and she’s left to make ends meet while trying to leave her past with him behind. Tedeschi imbues the voice of the song with so much feeling and while I don’t relate to the content, I feel like I understand the difficulty and sadness of this woman’s day to day experience. Tedeschi’s voice helps you understand. She has so much restrained power and soul in her voice. This is a song that illustrates perfectly why Tedeschi’s voice makes this entire record.

3. “Sara Smile” – Hall & Oates, Daryl Hall & John Oates

It’s always funny to me when a song like this one shuffles up because had I been asked whether “Sara Smile” was in my Top 1000 Most Played Songs in my iTunes library, I would’ve said no. I like Hall & Oates as much as the next guy; in fact, probably a little more than the next guy (their second album Abandoned Luncheonette is the subject of an upcoming blog post). I’ve given all of their core albums quite a few more listens past just the singles. But often, artists like Hall & Oates are remembered for their hits because their hits are fantastic.

This song is no exception. While it doesn’t have an immediately catchy hook like “Rich Girl” or “You Make My Dreams Come True,” “Sara Smile” could be considered H&O’s breakout hit, as it was their first single that broke the Billboard Top 10.

Daryl Hall handles the main vocal, but the harmonies in the chorus are a great example of what these two guys could do together. “Sara Smile” is the perfect example of why H&O are often labeled “blue eyed soul.” Soul music done by white artists. This whole song is so R&B heavy; there is a very good chance if you’d never heard of H&O before and heard this song, you’d assume it was a black group singing it. The soft, atmospheric feel of the music and the interplay of vocals in the chorus make this feel like a cut straight off an O’Jays record or Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. This might not be Hall & Oates at their catchiest, but it’s definitely their grooviest.

4. “Bigger Than My Body” – John Mayer, Heavier Things

It’s crazy to think that this song takes me back more than a third of my life span. “Bigger Than My Body” was the first single released from John Mayer’s sophomore album, Heavier Things. By the summer of 2003, when this album’s release was announced (it came out September 9th of that year, great birthday present for me), I had completely devoured his first album because I had found an artist who spoke more directly to me than anybody I’d ever heard before. This was also right when I was really starting to gain a foothold into what I liked musically aside from DC Talk and Dave Matthews Band and I’d venture so far as to say that this was the first momentous album release of my musical lifetime. The first one that made a real, significant impact. I loved his debut album, Room For Squares, and kept pinching myself to think that I was about to get more music from this guy.

And I’m glad this was the first song I heard from the album, because it prepared me for the stylistic changes JM was undergoing. He was still a pop artist to the core, but he was slowly starting to integrate a wider range of genres into his music. “Come Back To Bed” is a straight blues-burner and “Daughters,” although released on the album as a sappy acoustic ballad, started as a slow blues jam that he co-opted back into its original form just a few years after this with the John Mayer Trio. He also started playing with electronic effects, not in any way that would actually scare off listeners and fans, as is evidenced by “Bigger Than My Body.” The intro line alone is just a effects-heavy electric guitar and he was able to easily replicate this sound live, but when my 15 year old ears heard it, I thought it was a universe away from what he’d brought us on Room For Squares.

Listening to it now, it’s almost quaint. If I heard a song like this now, at almost 30, I’d probably give it short shrift, but I get completely why it spoke to me. This is an inspirational tune, dealing with the feeling that you’ve got so much more inside of yourself than what you’ve been able to let loose. It’s about untapped potential, and what kind of teenager feels like they’re able to completely and accurately communicate their identity to the world? I was an easy mark for this song and it hit the bullseye.

Does this song hold up? I’m not as moved by it as I used to be, and I’d say my primary motivation in listening to this one would be nostalgia. As I said before, a little quaint, just a tad kitschy, but damn if JM doesn’t know how to write an effectively mesmerizing chorus. This guy is a guitar-driven hook machine, and the fact that this chorus sounds as good as it did 12 years ago is the proof.

5. “Tonight You Belong To Me” – The Bird And The Bee, One Too Many Hearts EP

“You know, while you were playing that just now, I had the craziest fantasy. That I could rise up, and float, right down the end of this coronet, right through here, through these valves, right along this tube, and come right up against your lips, and give you a kiss.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Well I didn’t want to get spit on me.”

This song is a little ditty from 1926, but you might know it best if you’ve seen the 1979 Steve Martin movie The Jerk. In the scene, Martin and his lady love, played by Bernadette Peters, walk along the beach at night, serenading each other with this tune. It’s a very sweet scene.

If you’ve never heard The Bird And The Bee, let this song be a brief introduction to the gorgeous vocals of Inara George and the bubbly pop art musical tableau of producer Greg Kurstin. This duo has been making music as The Bird And The Bee for almost 10 years now, and this tune is a decent representation of their sound.

There is something so special about their music. It’s so dreamlike; very atmospheric and ethereal. The instrumentation is so very electronic, done on synthesizers and keyboards and effects-heavy machines, but they manage to create the most organic sound from all of these machines. On top of that, Inara George’s voice has the softest and sweetest timbre I’ve almost ever heard. Her voice is breathy without being obnoxious. She sounds like a backing track on Pet Sounds.

If you like this tune, there is a huge chance you’ll like the rest of their stuff, because this is certainly not their best. Certainly, the sweetness of this song is perfectly suited to the blend of The Bird And The Bee. But George’s vocals are best when they are just purely hers with no blending male harmonies. And there is more shimmering in this tune than normal. Kurstin’s orchestrations might consist of many of these same instruments and machines, but his arrangements are often more unique than this. Some are more complex, some are less, but there is less to dig into in this tune than on their records.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 13

1. “Sir Duke” – Stevie Wonder, Songs In The Key Of Life

This is probably the first song of Stevie’s that I heard and really heard. I know I’d probably heard his songs growing up, at least the big ones, like “Superstition” and “My Cherie Amour” and “Pasttime Paradise” (by way of Coolio, by way of Weird Al), and most like “Sir Duke.” But I remember really hearing this song for the first time, back in 2004, I believe I was listening to the radio in the car with Colleen and she perked up when “Sir Duke” started playing. If her ear perked, so did mine, so we gave this a listen while we drove.

I remember being struck by the hookiest hook of all time in that opening horn riff. Talk about an earworm; that riff can get stuck in your head for days. I was so moved by it that I resolved to learn how to play that riff on my newly purchased electric guitar. It was fantastic ear practice, and it came at just the right time for me, when I was beginning to discover lead guitar and how awesome it can be to play more than just chords. This horn riff was like honey to me.

But the song has a lot more than just some kick ass horns. The rhythm guitar in the verses is pretty great, and even more subtle, the bass guitar part throughout the song is either mirroring the horn riffs or going all over the freakin’ place on the last few choruses. It’s layered on pretty softly though, so you’ve got to focus to hear it. Once I heard it, my hat flew off in honor of the bassist Nathan Watts, because he really evokes the magnificent lines of guys like James Jamerson and Joseph “Lucky” Scott.

But what’s awesome about this tune, aside from just being super fun, is that it is an ode to Stevie’s musical heroes, and in a more general sense, an ode to music itself. “Sir Duke” is a celebration of one of the purest and most wholesome aspects of music as an art: it’s universality. Music has a way of breaking down barriers and uniting people in a very primal way, and that’s so perfectly illustrated in the way Stevie’s created this tune. At their most uninhibited and vulnerable, I feel like most people would have to find some pleasure or joy listening to the song that Stevie’s written, and that’s a beautiful testament to both Stevie’s talent and also his art.

2. “Mind Trick” – Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales

This tune is a perfect example of how Jamie Cullum manages to stay a middle-of-the-road artist for me, despite the fact that he’s got more talent and musicality than 95% of artists today.

There isn’t anything inherently bad about this song. But it lands in the filler category for me. Cullum is a very unique artist; he can perform a straight forward jazz standard and sound right at home among Sinatra or Martin or any of the jazz crooners from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then he turns into a chameleon, shifting effortlessly between genres and embarking on covers that sound so radically different than the originals.

And if that’s all he did, without a doubt, he’d be one of my Top 5 Favorite Music Artists. But then I run into a tune like this, which again, is not a bad song, but it just doesn’t ever really take off for me. I don’t feel compelled to put this on repeat.

It’s a really simple ditty about how music helps get through a break up. Nothing too fancy, and the music fits it well. It is a really pleasant mix of jazz organ, a nice upbeat pop tempo, some “na-na’s” from the background vocalists. It just doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s pleasant, and that’s about it.

If this is your first introduction to Jamie Cullum, please keep listening to him. Go find another song. Listen to “Get Your Way” and “My Yard,” this album’s opener and closer. Both fantastic tunes. Or if you’re looking for his skill with covers, listen to his cover of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music.” It still floors me. What has always left me wanting with Jamie Cullum is that while he has the ability to write songs that stop me in my tracks (like the Rihanna cover, or “Wheels,” or “Take Me Out (Of Myself)”), I feel like songs like “Mind Trick” are a lot easier and therefore more common on his albums. But again, I’d take middling songs like this one over the pap that other jazz-pop musicians put out (I’m looking directly at you, Bublé).

3. “Bell Bottom Blues” – Derek & The Dominoes, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs

This song has the distinction of being the earliest Eric Clapton song that really touches me. Sure, Clapton’s got loads of good songs from his work with John Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, but I remember hearing this song for the first time and reacting differently to it than I had to any of Clapton’s other early work.

Listening to it now, I keep coming back to the hook. There’s something about hearing Clapton plead with his love, “I don’t want to fade away…” He communicates some serious anguish. This is a man on his last leg, begging to be able to stay with his love.

His vocal is almost indistinguishable from Delaney Bramlett, and I wrote briefly on a review of Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shot why I wasn’t in love with them or Delaney’s voice. However, while they sound shockingly similar, Clapton’s vocal is bolstered completely by the musical component. He employs such a perfect mix of guitar tones all over this song, some clean and when he needs it on the chorus, some very crunchy.

It’s the crunchiness of his tone on the chorus that sets off this interesting juxtaposition between it and his vocal. His vocal sounds as crunchy as his axe does. But when these are placed on top of this gorgeous chord progression and added to the interplay between his multiple guitar parts (this song was recorded before Duane Allman joined the album sessions), it creates this southern rock symphony of sadness. This is the only way this guy would be able to beg for his love to stay.

Urban legend has it that he wrote this song for Patti Boyd, Clapton’s future wife yet then-wife of his friend and former Beatle, George Harrison. I’m not sure what you want to call it, irony, a slap in the face, a gauntlet thrown, but his guitar solo could not sound more like Harrison.

4. “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” – Coldplay, A Rush Of Blood To The Head

I must have tons of Coldplay in my Top 1000, because they are definitely making the biggest showing in all of my Shuffle Lessons volumes. Thankfully though, my iPod gave me a more vintage era Coldplay track, as most of the previous ones have been from Mylo Xyloto.

It’s difficult to hear a Coldplay song from AROBTTH or Parachutes without feeling a twinge of sadness. Coldplay now is nothing like Coldplay back then. They are a band that blew up almost too quickly. Their debut, Parachutes, was so highly lauded that by the time AROBTTH came around, they were battling expectations so unfairly high that they were nearly doomed to fail. This was magnified tenfold with the arrival of their third record, X&Y. For my money, AROBTTH is a fantastic sophomore release, despite the constant comparisons to U2 and derision from critics about abandoning the sound of their debut.

This album continues the slow exploration of expansive anthems that Coldplay would eventually become known for and would become their undoing. This particular track is a great example of that. While tunes like “The Scientist” and “Politik” take the anthem theme and run with it, “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” is a great example of Coldplay’s early skill in knowing how to build the tension of a song really well.

It starts with a simple acoustic guitar strumming the oddly tuned chords that form the basis of the whole track, and without anything else, it’s a difficult to tell where the song is headed. Everything changes with the introduction of the drums at the 0:45 mark. While all the other instrumental parts of this song are hinged around the strummed chord progression, this drum beat is barreling along all on its own. It creates this sense of urgency, like a train in danger of derailing. All the instruments are working together but the drums are on their own and keep this song moving.

But, as with many Coldplay songs, the release they find in their hooks is just so palpable. This is exemplified in each chorus, but especially in the last bridge at 3:45. I think it’s this release that made Coldplay hammer out so many wildly popular singles. They’ve got this incredible skill of building up all this tension, creating this urgency and then letting every instrument hit its mark and everything culminates in this fantastic hook or explosive bridge and it really makes you feel the emotional/musical release. It makes for some really satisfying music that keeps you coming back.

5. “Blue In Green” – Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue

And then my iPod throws me a curveball. This is the first time Miles is making a Shuffle Lessons appearance, which isn’t all that surprising as most of the Miles in my collection probably hasn’t broken through to the Top 1000.

But what a great song to kick off the jazz genre. This is my favorite tune off of Kind Of Blue, one of the most famous jazz records of all time. Interestingly enough, there is some dispute as to whether Miles actually wrote this song (he contends he composed each tune from the album) while pianist Bill Evans is often thought to have written this particular song. Either way, both men create true beauty on this song.

I enjoy this album most at nighttime, in a dimly lit room, needle hitting the vinyl as I’m hitting my second or third cocktail. The beginning piano chords are hypnotic and arresting. It’s these kinds of chords that made me start playing the piano again this year. Hearing the intricacies of the intervals, seeing a thousand accidentals on a page of music and thinking it could never sound good with so many sharps or flats and yet when played, Bill Evans makes this riff sound so sublime. I can’t explain it but it makes me feel so many things when I can stop, close my eyes and let this music wash over me.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 10

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons posts here.

1. “Wait Until Tomorrow” – John Mayer Trio, Try!

JM3 was the product of JM’s musically-rebellious career phase. Radio made him a pop star with “Wonderland” and against his wishes, further boxed him in with the release of “Daughters.” In response, he grew his hair out and started this power trio with Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan. As a JM fan since around 2002, this was an insanely exciting part of his career where I learned a great deal about his musical influences. For example, I knew he was a Hendrix fan before this, but his covers of Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Bold As Love” were concert staples during the JM3 tour and really reinforced how nuanced his Hendrix fandom was. This particular song was a fantastic choice for a cover, and it fit perfectly into his goal of breaking boundaries and finding out how far he could take his new-found musical freedom. “Wait Until Tomorrow” was a song where Hendrix highlighted his rhythm guitar skills, and that’s exactly why JM chose it. In this cover, JM has the chance to stretch some rhythm playing muscles during the extremely complex verses (while he’s singing to boot) and then blast through an intense solo at the end. If you listen to his guitar during the verses, it is all over the place. It’s not just some simple I-V chords underneath the words. His hands are making the most of that guitar neck, and he’s keeping the guitar singing it’s own melody alongside his voice. This cover is a fantastic example of how good the JM3 was for JM’s career. With the JM3, JM had nobody to hide behind. It’s like taking your guitar amp’s reverb knob down to zero; you’re left with just your naked guitar tone and you hear every single mistake you make and it helps you improve. Trial by fire. Playing with the JM3, he had nothing to stand behind other than his own guitar chops. You can hear it in this song completely. The solo itself is a masterful mix of a blistering lead guitar solo while still holding to the rhythm section of the melody, keeping the song moving and keeping the listener conscious to where they’re at in the song.

2. “Princess Of China” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

I’d argue this as my favorite song off of Mylo Xyloto. Coldplay swung for the musically-experimental fences and parked one in the “hits” section. When I first read Rihanna was featured on the album, I was extremely dubious, but I shouldn’t have been. I’m not sure why this song works so well for me, but it’s got this futuristic blend of musical styles that’s rooted in an incredibly gorgeous soundscape. In my review of this album, I remember describing it as having a decidedly “steampunk” sound, or something to that effect, and I think this song was the one that really conjured that image in my head. There’s feedback, there’s tinny sound patches, all on top of this stainless steel, factory-like beat. I see robot workers sweating grease and oil as I listen to this. I doubt it’s what Coldplay was shooting for (lyrically, this seems to be a relationship song), but whatever this song is, it’s something that has real beauty behind its mechanics. The coda (“cause you really hurt me…”) is classic Coldplay, finding a chord progression designed to crush human emotions.

3. “Up In Flames” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

Two songs off the same album? A Shuffle Lessons first. Unfortunately, most of what I wrote about the tune “Us Against The World” is perfectly applicable to this song. One of the weaknesses of Mylo Xyloto as an album is that there were a few songs like this that seemed like fraternal song twins, but bordering dangerously close to identical. One big difference between these two songs is this one is slow, methodical and sparse in its production, with a lot less going on than “Us Against The World.” When Coldplay keep their songs simple, with no instrument overload, they manage to create this musical ecosystem unlike any other artist, and this song is just a really nice example of that. This song is pretty heavily rooted in simple piano chords and the metronome-like drum beat. Lots of reverb, but without lots of instruments to fill up that reverb space, it creates this gorgeous transitory white space. All instruments drop out just before the 2:00 mark and the listener is left with literally just musical ephemera. It’s breathtaking. And as if it wasn’t enough, the last chorus finally hits this emotional release with the addition of a beautiful guitar riff. It’s an extremely simple guitar tone, very straightforward but adding so much depth to the overall mix of sounds. These sorts of musical climaxes are why I will never stop listening to Coldplay. At least their old stuff.

4. “Spanish Joint” – D’Angelo, Spanish Joint

The story of this song is smooth groove, the depth of which I know I will never fully understand. There’s too much going on here, too many influences and genres and vocal layers and instrumental layers that most likely, there are probably only like three people that truly understand how much this song represents and encapsulates. I don’t know enough about Afrobeat musical culture to get from where this song is really born. What I do know is that given a focused listen, you can find new elements every time. For some reason, the percussion is standing out to me more than normal. Actually, more than ever, because I didn’t really ever notice it before. Aside from the beautiful salsa beat laid down by Questlove, there are some intense congas going on behind it. Technically, this song is a stand out on Voodoo, I just wish I could explain why. I do know that guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter is laying down the guitar parts on this one, both rhythm and bass simultaneously on a custom eight-string guitar/bass combo instrument. Insane. Even in the intro, the way Hunter pulls off such a clear sound from both bass and guitar parts at the same time is miraculous. The quality of the recording is due in large part to Russell Elevado, the sound engineer during the Voodoo sessions. For Hunter’s weird guitar/bass combo, Elevado tied the separate pickups for those two parts into distinct outputs so while there is a slight blend, you can still hear the parts so uniquely in the recording. Phenomenal work. And like other songs off of Voodoo, you can hear like 32 vocal layers on this one. This entire record feels so vibrant and real, like it’s a first take recording. There isn’t a moment on all of Voodoo where I feel differently; a perfect example of that feeling is at 4:42 on this tune, when you can hear D’Angelo tell the band they’re going back to the chorus during the last instrumental breakdown. It feels organic, like we’re listening in not on a final product but rather something being created in real time. Makes for a fascinatingly groovy listen.

5. “Life In Technicolor ii” – Coldplay, Prospekt’s March

Seriously, three Coldplay songs out of five randomly chosen? My iPod must love them. This song alone is almost worth the purchase price of this culled-from-Viva La Vida-sessions EP. It’s basically just the intro from Viva La Vida but morphed into an actual song with lyrics and a chorus. And while I think I like the instrumental better as it fits so well with the theme and feeling of Viva La Vida, this is a very rousing number that makes your heart feel big. Listening to this extended song after devouring Viva La Vida for the five months in between these releases was interesting because it made me wonder why they chose the shorter instrumental to intro Viva La Vida and didn’t just turn it into the full-blown song that’s on this EP. I think lyrically they had used the “Now my feet / won’t touch / the ground” concept more than once, especially as it’s the title of another song off of this EP. I’m glad they chose the slightly more restrained version for the full album, but this tune is a pretty cool look into their song-selection process.

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iPod Problems

ipod_shuffle

After 7 years, I’ve finally been faced with a problem I’ve been dreading for some time. I bought my 60 GB iPod Classic in September of 2006, a birthday present to myself. I had been using the first gen iPod Shuffle (remember this thing?) and I had way more music than could fit on there so I splurged. It’s been a chunky little survivor, living through drops and spills and even traveling to several different countries with me. My iPod was one of my most treasured possessions when I studied abroad because it allowed me to learn about myself as I learned about the world. At times, it functioned as a soundtrack to beautiful foreign landscapes. Other times, it was a translator; but a social one rather than a foreign language one. I remember the exact moment in Spain when the hipster students from Oregon accepted me as a cool person (thank you, Meters).

I’ve got two options: buy a new iPod or start to limit what I put on mine. If I bought a new one, I’d go with the newest gen iPod Classic which has over 2.5x the space as my current, so I wouldn’t run out of room for easily 10 years, at the very least. They cost around $250 though, which is a little pricey. So picking and choosing what goes on my iPod looks to be the winning solution.I’m getting sentimental. In a strictly functional sense, my iPod has been perfect; no frills, just space. And this year, my music library has finally grown larger than 60 GB. This has led to some serious soul searching.

But how to even begin? I see two viable options for this harrowing process:

  1. Choose the least listenable
  2. Choose the most listenable

Let me break this down. In terms of starting big and narrowing down, the main pro is that it’s easier to add new music to the collection. With my eMusic subscription, my collection grows by 3-6 albums a month, and you can’t tell whether or not an album will become a must-have-on-iPod after two listens. That comes with time and album absorption. The main problem with starting big and narrowing is that choosing what to cut is nearly impossible. When I first hit the limit earlier this year, my first cut was easy: all Christmas music. I think it was around March, and it didn’t hurt to lose about a gig’s worth of space for holiday-themed songs. But then once I hit the limit again, then it became a question of what do I listen to least? My next cut was (almost) all my live albums. This was another good cut because live albums are usually longer than an average studio record. But again, I’ve long since hit that limit.

Since this is a cyclical process, what do I cut? Do I go with artists with the most albums? Frank Sinatra’s an easy target, that cuts down like 20 albums right there. Eric Clapton is another good one, as is Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Al Green, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ray Charles, etc. But some of these are my favorite artists, who have written some of my favorite songs. And as my Top 1000 is a list I occasionally like to shuffle at work or in the car, I can’t just do an immediate chop of all the artists who have lots of albums. I could cut by genre, but then you get into the impossible genre-categorization game. Are the Beatles pop or rock? How about Stevie Wonder, pop or soul? Or Stevie Ray Vaughan, blues or rock? This kills me. If I wipe out jazz, I’m not only knocking out all the “traditional” jazz artists (Davis, Coltrane, Monk, Hancock, Guaraldi, etc.), I’m cutting out Jamie Cullum, Norah Jones, and Madeleine Peyroux. All of whom have songs in my Top 1000, so I’m already limiting my favorite playlist if I lose all their albums.

I love thinking about this so much. I should go be a library cataloger.

So the alternative, which I think I’m leaning towards, would be to start with nothing and add in what’s most important. I think I’d start with every album represented in my Top 1000 playlist. Maybe even any album that’s got a song with more than 10 or 15 plays makes the cut. Then from there, maybe look at genre, artist, or album I’m currently listening to most. For the last two months, it had been folk/pop/rock from the ’60s/’70s/’80s (Eagles, James Taylor, Wings, Cat Stevens, America, Doobies, Elton, Billy Joel, Harry Nilsson, etc.), before that it was funk/soul/R&B from the ’60s/’70s/’80s (Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliment, Ohio Players, Prince, Sly & The Family Stone, etc.), and now I’m moving into a phase of jazz from ’50s/’60s/’70s. After the jazz is on, I’ll probably add the last six to twelve month’s worth of albums most recently added. I like to keep that stuff fresh because if I’m not listening to it, what’s the point of buying it? I’ll probably top off the iPod with randoms from there on out, albums I love that somehow didn’t make one of the other addition rounds. And then if there’s room, Christmas music. December is coming up fast…

Thank you for reading what is, possibly, the most niche post I’ve ever written.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 7

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons volumes here.

1. “You Can Call Me Al” – Paul Simon, Graceland

If anyone ever needed justification for Paul Simon winning the first ever Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the phrase “roly poly little bat-faced girl” should be enough. Paul Simon’s got this frenetic lyrical style, where his songs begin to border almost on spoken word versus actual songs that are sung. It’s amazing how he fits a legitimate short story’s worth of content into a four and a half minute tune, but he pulls it off without breaking a sweat. I’ve never really understood what this song is about, but if I’m being honest, most of Paul Simon’s songs kind of fit that bill for me. This is one of Paul Simon’s most popular solo songs, and for good reason; it’s a fantastic song. Graceland marked a return to the critical spotlight he had been out of for a few years, and there are some strong flavors of international music throughout the whole album. He explores those musical themes even more on his next album, but for my money, the international influences are used to best effect on this album, and a great example is this song. Nothing in your face, just a subtle feeling and an odd background vocal here or there. And in terms of the music, look out for the sickest bass lick in reverse at 3:43.

2. “Gold Watch” – Lupe Fiasco, The Cool

I loved Lupe’s first two albums, because they were full of beats like this one. The entire beat is founded around this female voice saying “oh, give the drummer some, yeah…” and it’s chopped every so slightly, so when it’s put on top of a simple drum rhythm it creates a very unique rhythmic sound. It’s a really simple beat but if simple is done well, it creates some of my very favorite hip hop tracks. The linked video is not the exact song on the album, but it does incorporate the sample material really well and shows you where exactly it came from. Lyrically, Lupe uses the verses to essentially list every odd, non-mainstream, obscure cultural thing he’s into. Fashion, manga, international cultures, old school video games, music, etc. He’s calling out the 95% of hip hop culture that celebrates the same material objects; essentially tearing down the material idols (the eponymous “gold watch”) that have been constructed by hip hop culture of the last decade. It’s not too many shades away from identifying himself with black nerd culture and demonstrating how stereotypes are very often broken when you really begin to learn about a person.

3. “Pray” – Jay Z, American Gangster

This wasn’t one of first favorites off of this album, but its stock rises with repeat listens. Lyrically, you’ve got a pretty straightforward song where Jay Z discusses the two sides of the drug dealing culture. Who’s to blame for the society that pushed him into drug dealing, and was he even pushed into it to begin with? Should he be remorseful about his life’s success when he feels he was forced into it by the hand he was dealt? Ultimately, regardless of his success, he’s admitting that he falls back onto faith when he’s threatened. The beat here is good, but certainly not an attention-grabber. Again, it took me a fair amount of listens to begin to appreciate and enjoy this track much more than the first time I heard it.

4. “Postcards From Far Away” – Coldplay, Prospket’s March

Total time of this track: 48 seconds. A filler instrumental piece on this EP, released from Viva La Vida sessions. It’s a very beautiful solo piano piece, sounding like something from a Jane Austen book. It makes me wonder how many of these Chris Martin comes up with during any given writing session. I would assume most of his songs start as a seed of an idea, something very much like this ditty, then blossoms into a fully-fledged song with the help of the rest of the band. But since we only get around 12 songs on a Coldplay record, what the heck happens to the rest of those song seeds? Makes you think what these little things might’ve become.

5. “Charity Case” – Gnarls Barkely, The Odd Couple

Cee Lo and Danger Mouse! It’s sad to think what a fitting album title this was. It was almost foreboding; the world hasn’t heard new Gnarls Barkley in nearly five and a half years. This is the opening track to their absolutely brilliant sophomore album (love the opening projector sound). These two guys were able to create sonic landscapes unlike anything we were hearing in 2005-2009. They incorporated a bevy of styles, fashions, and rhythms into their music and the end result was just so special. I don’t imagine Cee Lo doing too much in the way of instrumentation, but that could be a naive perspective. He seems to have a very conductor-like way about him, orchestrating the grand spectacle that are his performances. What’s interesting is that Danger Mouse, especially within the parameters of Gnarls Barkley, seemed to have the controlling hand in the music, producing everything according to his very particular, eclectic style, aside from the singing. I’m curious if these two worked well during recording, as they both seem to have a pretty Alpha Creator persona towards their music. Whatever the case, they made fantastic music together, and this is, hands down, one of my favorite songs off of The Odd Couple. The track builds on itself very quickly, and you can hear so many parts blend right away. The James Bond vibrato guitar (Cee Lo must love that), the bass that just glides over the soft rhythm of the drums and the quickly paced hi-hats. Throw in some hand claps and some vocal percussive work by Cee Lo and it’s the perfect way to open a solid gold record.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 6

1. “Us Against The World” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

I listened to this tune for about a minute and a half and couldn’t think of a thing to say. It’s a really pretty song, as most Coldplay songs are, and I think that’s the problem. Since they released X&Y in 2005, they’ve seemed to work on perfecting their very specific sound. Viva La Vida was the last album I feel was a stretch for them. And this isn’t meant to rip Coldplay apart, they could release 10 albums of “their” musical sound and I’d love each one. I just don’t know how much evolution the band has left, based strictly on the evidence from Mylo Xyloto. It’s a great album, but it’s no different thematically or musically from the last few. This particular song highlights that pretty well. A really nice acoustic guitar strum, layered with ephemeral, reverbed and echoed electric guitar riffs. Don’t get me wrong, this is a gorgeous song. It’s inspiring. It’s just not a stretch for Coldplay.

2. “Call Me The Breeze” – John Mayer, Paradise Valley

One of the very newest additions to my Top 1000, as this album just came out four days ago. I’ll do my best to focus on the song itself rather than the entire album, about which I have a lot of thoughts. Confession time, I had zero clue when I first saw the track list of Paradise Valley that this was a cover. It was only after looking at liner notes that I saw this was originally a J.J. Cale tune. Which was an interesting connection to make, because when I first heard this song, I immediately thought of anything Eric Clapton has done past the year 2001. This is a smooth little number that meanders along at a nice little clip, and JM’s guitar tone is seriously a carbon copy of recent Clapton. Again, this isn’t bad, it’s just nearing a bit too close to derivative for me. For my money, JM has a dicey track record when it comes to covers:

  • Hendrix’s “Bold As Love” – A
  • Cream’s “Crossroads” – C-
  • Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” – A+
  • Police’s “Message In A Bottle” – B-
  • Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” – A

Throw this song on that list and I give it a B. It’s a nice song, pretty fun, good for a few listens, but it’s just so easy to not realize it is on until after it ends and you realize there is silence or another song started. There’s no reason I’d listen to this one twice in a row.

3. “Alma-Ville” – Vince Guaraldi Trio, Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus

Good grief! This is as close to a Charlie Brown song as we’ll probably get on this list. Vince Guaraldi is the genius behind all of the music of the Charlie Brown cartoons from the ’60s, and therefore is the genius behind the sound of my every single Christmas season. This is one of his explicitly non-Charlie Brown themed albums, and it’s by far my favorite. Guaraldi had this style of piano playing that was so very unique. That’s why you can hear when a Charlie Brown cartoon is on. His style was so distinctive, and it permeates all the music he released. This album is full of rhythms that change ever so slightly, song sections that highlight drum brushes and hi-hats, bouncy upright bass (imagine Pigpen playing it), and Guaraldi’s own wandering riffs. I feel like to play his music well, you’d have to look kind of dopey. Just loose and silly and behind the beat a tad. That’s what this song feels like to me, just a tad dopey. Not caring what section comes next or how to nail the transition. It keeps it very light and colorful.

4. “Reptile” – Eric Clapton, Reptile

This is the opening track off of my favorite Clapton record. I’m not sure why, but my ear tends to gravitate toward smoother, fully-produced music. I love studio-recorded music that’s been tweaked and engineered and mastered well. This album is the second in a phase-change in Clapton’s career. Pilgrim started this move towards blues-based pop songs with slick production, and this album perfected it. This song is a beautiful instrumental, and the tone of Clapton’s electric is what I wish I could always make my guitar sound like. It overlays a very bossa nova rhythm section, with brushes and some pretty awesome rhythmic finger picked acoustic guitar. For any aspiring lead guitarists, this tune is also a fantastic exercise. I learned the entire lead guitar part note for note, and it was a great lesson in how to construct an awesome solo, how to incorporate great blues licks in a non-blues style, and simply how to get your fingers to move fast. Clapton’s entire lead part on this song is an exercise in understated soloing. He creates a memorable lead line without overtaking or monopolizing the entire song, which is awesome. Clapton’s versatility shines so brightly here.

5. “Doc Pomus” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

Another fascinating tune off of BF and Hornby’s collaborative album. What’s interesting is that Lonely Avenue was written in the style of the men BF sings about in this song, and that title is even an homage to one of the biggest hits they wrote. Doc Pomus was a songwriter in the ’50s and ’60s, writing songs for a host of popular artists including Ray Charles, Elvis Presley & and Dr. John. He often collaborated with Mort Shuman; Shuman providing music while Doc Pomus would write the lyrics (how BF and Hornby created this album). Doc Pomus was stricken with polio as a child and was in crutches or a wheelchair for his whole life. This song describes a bit of his life, where he spent his time, celebrities with whom he rubbed elbows, and the normal/crazy folk he came in contact with and who provided inspiration for his songs. This song almost becomes a sort of statement on songwriting as a therapeutic output. The second verse/last tag is a reference to how Doc Pomus described himself later in life:

And he could never be one of those happy cripples / the kind that smile and tell you life’s OK / He was mad as hell, frightened and bitter / He found a way to make his isolation pay

It’s also a very musically Ben Folds song. One of the great things about BF’s music is that it all sounds very Ben Folds without sounding overly derivative or incestuous. He doesn’t ever really need to shoot for far outside his wheelhouse because he’s got such an eclectic songwriting style that allows for a wide range of sounds and styles. This song is a great example of the Ben Folds sound in the post 2005 world.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 5

1. “Alright” – D’Angelo, Brown Sugar

My first thought when listening to this is that I almost heard this live a month ago…but didn’t. This is one of the songs off of Brown Sugar D’ had been playing live in the last few months, and we almost certainly would’ve heard it had he not cancelled his Chicago House of Blues show. Anyway.

This is one of the Brown Sugar songs I like most. Brown Sugar is a great album, but I too often fall into the trap of listening to it with the ears of what could’ve been. Had Questlove and D’ been collaborating earlier than they started and worked on this album together, could it have gone from pretty awesome album to stratospheric album? Most likely. So when I listen now I subconsciously look for things that could be improved upon, which is a listening mistake. There is a lot in this song to enjoy. I believe it’s one of the fastest-paced songs on the album (which actually isn’t saying a lot), and the fantastic bass work is what drives the song along for me. I usually love it when an exploratory bass line sits on top of a slow beat (a la “Lay It Down” by Al Green, anything off of D’Angelo’s Voodoo), so I can really dig my teeth into what’s happening. But in this tune, the pace is faster and the bass certainly keeps up well. It starts very controlled, adhering strongly to that main bass hook, and by the end of the tune it’s going all over the place.

2. “First Love” – Adele, 19

The lullaby song. This is one of those Adele tunes that can be overlooked due to the simplicity of the instrumentation. It sounds like it was recorded on a xylophone in a nursery. There’s nothing musically complex here. This is not a catchy song, but the oddness of the music draws out unique emotions from the pleading words of Adele. It’s a weird pairing of music that sounds like a lullaby and lyrics about tiring of your first love. It’s a sad mix because as a listener, the music makes me connect the singer with youth, and most likely immaturity. This is one of those relationships that’s sad when it dies because it will inevitably be one neither person truly ever forgets. It’s a tragic crime of the universe that we often fall in love before we know how to handle it and most often those loves leave us because of our immaturity or inexperience or inability to handle the emotion and responsibility of love. The fact that the singer is pleading for forgiveness for wanting to leave over what is essentially a nursery rhyme tune has a lingering, depressing effect.

3. “Don’t Stop The Music” – Jamie Cullum, The Pursuit

Nobody reimagines tunes like Jamie Cullum. He can take an old standard or a modern pop/rock song and his piano is his transmogrifier, injecting the DNA of the song being covered into this completely new creation. He’s covered the widest range of artists, from Frank Sinatra to Radiohead to Rihanna to Cole Porter to Jeff Buckley to Jimi Hendrix. And all to fantastic effect. This particular cover of the awesome Rihanna song was the first song I heard off of Cullum’s 2010 album The Pursuit and it was the first music I’d heard of his in a while. Needless to say, it completely blew me away. Rihanna’s song is suitable to be danced to while you’re clubbin’ with your girls. Cullum plays it like an unknown trio in a smokey jazz club in NYC. There isn’t anything pounding in his cover. It’s silky smooth, with brushes on the drums and an upright bass playing off his beautiful jazz piano licks. If you don’t know Jamie Cullum, look him up. He’s like Michael Buble, except not a vanilla-bland a-hole. He’s got the voice that delivers this old-school standard style so well, very much like Michael Buble, but his piano playing chops are other-worldly. His solo in this song is so beautifully understated and cements his genre-bending vision of this cover. It’s a testament to his talent that he takes this awesome dance track and morphed it into something completely different. If you’re not careful, you could easily listen to it and not realize it’s originally a Rihanna song. There are so few covers that truly elicit a different sound, a different genre or feeling from the original, and it’s such a delight to hear when it happens. It’s maybe my favorite song on this whole record, and absolutely the song that sold me 100% on Jamie Cullum.

4. “Lovers In Japan” – Coldplay, Unreleased

If you’re a Coldplay fan, that link is not the version you’re thinking of. I somehow got my hands on a very stripped down version of the tune, mainly acoustic with some percussion, and even in a different key. This version is very tempered, and I like that a lot because Coldplay is known for anthems. It’s almost like the version of this tune had they written during the recording of Parachutes. It’s nice to hear how they sound when it’s fewer instruments, or at least fewer grand, supernova-esque instruments. Chris Martin’s vocals are less energetic, which coaxes a different emotion out of this song, which is really cool to hear.

5. “Reminder” – Jay Z, The Blueprint 3

Not my favorite off of BP3, and I think it ended up in my Top 1000 mainly because the beat used to be a great pace for me to run with (it’s since become a little bit too slow to serve that purpose anymore). For me, the biggest issue with Jay Z is that he is the king. He won the game. He didn’t die young, he went from a poor childhood to selling drugs to survive to selling millions of albums and being one of the very biggest names in the rap game. He’s a billionaire. Hip hop is so very often fueled by lyrics about The Chase or The Game or The Struggle or The _____. Jay Z has beaten all of that. He is married and has a baby daughter. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” One of my favorite lines, but it illustrates why he almost certainly won’t reach the zenith that he’s already reached. Critically, he’ll never live up to the fantastic output earlier in his career. Reasonable DoubtThe BlueprintThe Black Album (among his others) are all recognized as seminal hip hop albums. So back to my original thought, “Reminder” is a song where he’s calling out critics who don’t think he’s hot anymore and giving them a reminder that he’s still the king. If I’m honest with myself, while I love his recent albums much more than I’ve loved other current hip hop (MCHG >>> Yeezus), a lot of it is grounded in this sort of defense of his royalty status, his place as king. Which can only really sustain a listener for so long.

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