Tag Archives: Shuffle

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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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 4

1. “In Step” – Girl Talk, Feed The Animals

This track kicks off with Drama’s “Left, Right” over a mash of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” and Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.” Gotta love that spray paint can rattling noise over Orbison singing. Second part kicks off with “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa over Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which is an insanely creative appropriation of that grunge riff. It’s interesting that Girl Talk opted out of the instantly recognizable (to ’90s kids) hook of the Salt-N-Pepa song, that synthey “bah, BAH bah bah bah…” and instead just used the rap and some of the beat I think.

This track definitely starts low and crescendos by the end, with Ludacris’ verse from Fergie’s “Glamorous” over Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” The “take your broke ass home!” chant over EWF’s “bah-dee-yah” refrain is just awesome. The song caps off with Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” over what I’m assuming is chopped up beats from Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s “1-2-3” OR Diddy Feat. Keyshia Cole’s “Last Night,” but in reality I can’t hear the beat element in either of those original tunes.

Overall, not one of my favorites off of this album. There are some alright mash-ups (EWF x Luda is pretty great), but no real “oh no he didn’t!!” moments like many of the other tracks.

2. “Choux Pastry Heart” – Corinne Bailey Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae

One of the many understated beauties off of Corinne Bailey Rae’s self-titled debut album. The entire album is essentially an experiment of combining jazz, folk and soul genres and seeing what happens. The result is fantastic, and it’s probably only made better by the fact that you can occasionally hear CBR’s soft English accent in her voice. So pretty. This song is, as many of this album’s songs are, easily ignored. “Ignore” has too negative of a connotation, what I mean is that it very easily fades into the background of the listener’s environment. If you want to truly hear this song, get some headphones and quiet everything else down. What is she singing about? I never know. I never really need to though, because her voice naturally emanates a kind of melancholy in the way she hits notes, how she controls her breath and the cadence of her lyrical lines. I just gave this song a solid three listens in a row, and I still don’t know what the song is about, but I sure do know she’s heartbroken. I love CBR and this song for that reason; she has this emotional command over her voice that is memorizing, but only if you work for it. The second you start to pay attention, she’s got you hooked.

3. “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson, Thriller

I’ve been a little nervous to get a song like this in this series. What the heck do you write about one of Thriller‘s deeper tracks, let alone the arguable grand daddy of them all? I’m just going to take it at face value and run with it.

So I’m a huge fan of this song, mainly because I’ve only really known it for no longer than 10 years. One of the very few advantages of not growing up on secular music is the older-aged discoveries of all of this incredible music I essentially missed out on (I’m looking at you, Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes”). This is one of those songs that I never listened to as a kid and subsequently never got sick of. However, contrary to popular belief, I hate hearing this song at weddings or organized group events where I’m expected to dance to it. As much as I love this song, it’s just a little too slow for me (or most white people at the weddings I go to) to feel comfortable dancing to it. It’s almost too stripped down for reserved people to feel able to let loose and dance.

But it’s exactly that sparceness that makes this tune so great. The drums, that ridiculously catchy bass line, the funky rhythm guitar, each element here has been meticulously chosen to form this cohesive end product. Like nearly everything on Thriller, it’s a beautiful example of how MJ knew how to write an infectiously catchy tune and what a genius producer Quincy Jones was/is.

4. “Something About Us” – Daft Punk, Discovery

Easily one of my Top 3 Favorites off of Discovery, my favorite Daft Punk album. One of only two legitimately slow songs on the album, this is just a heartfelt and romantic song sung by a robot. One of the greatest things that Daft Punk has ever been able to do is play with this robot persona they’ve had for almost 20 years and juxtapose it alongside true emotion in their music. This song is all blips and bloops and synth and yet it’s got this inherently sad feeling to it. This robot is pleading for love and connection. This song exudes the most authentic emotion capable from artificial intelligence. This song is the best way to slow down the relentless pace of great song after great song on Discovery.

5. “Dreams” – Fleetwood Mac, Rumours

My iPod must be sad today cause it grabbed three sad songs out of 1000. Here is another pretty depressing song about the heartbreak of being left and the remorse of leaving. This is one of the songs that originally hooked me from Rumours. I’m not in love with Stevie Nicks’ voice, but it grabs me in this song. “Dreams of loneliness, like a heartbeat, drives you mad, in the stillness of remembering what you had…” Yikes. Hell hath no fury, amiright Justin? I also love the under-instrumentation in this tune. The verses are basically just the steady drum beat and heartbeat-like bass line, with the occasional sliding guitar riff thrown in. There’s not a lot more on top of that, and that serves to highlight Stevie’s part even more. This is a very pretty, very sad song off of a decently happy album.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 3

1. “Love Gun” Feat. Lauren Bennett – Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer

This is one of my lesser played tracks off of Cee Lo’s genius 2010 solo album, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad tune. It’s probably got a much higher skip count than it should. What’s tough about an album as solid as The Lady Killer is that it’s easy for strong tracks to fall through the cracks while one is obsessed with the four or five truly stand out tracks.

This one starts with the cocking and shooting of the eponymous “love gun” and it sounds like Cee Lo’s audition for a James Bond theme. The guitar sounds lifted directly from a Bond movie’s opening credits, and the orchestral strings sound like they’d be accompanied by stylized “BANG!”s and “POW!”s, a la the old Batman TV show. Cee Lo’s got this fantastic way of nailing down very specific genre sounds with his music, and this whole tune is a perfect example of that. It’s also maybe the most thematic tune on the whole album (The Lady Killer…love gun…). It might not be immediately catchy like “Wildflower” or “Cry Baby” so it’s easy to skip, but it’s a fun, albeit slow, song.

2. “I Love N.Y.E.” – Badly Drawn Boy, About A Boy

This is an instrumental from the soundtrack to the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book, “About A Boy.” Good book, and surprisingly even better movie. About a self-centered rich guy whose life runs into that of a socially outcast boy with a depressed single mother. The whole soundtrack is awesome too, Badly Drawn Boy’s got very unique sounds that lend themselves well to the feel of the movie. I believe this particular song plays during the scene where Will first meets Rachel and is completely floored by her. The musical theme of the song is carried through much of the soundtrack, but it’s teased out most thoroughly on this track, and it is a very simple melody over achingly beautiful chords. Add some strings and you’ve got a tear-inducing instrumental piece that I’ve loved since I first heard it.

3. “In Repair” – John Mayer, Continuum

This is a great JM tune, an anthem about coming back to the land of the living after a particularly bad break up or other such depressing life event. I don’t think I’ve heard him do this one at any of the shows I’ve seen, but I’ve heard several live versions of the tune, and boy does it have room to open up and be a pretty kick-ass show closer. Even on the album, JM’s got an extended chorus that he just riffs on, so multiply that by 100 and you’ve got the live version. In this very cool documentary video of the writing and recording of this song, it was done in one afternoon and as soon as he found that weird reverbed, delayed pedal tone that made his guitar sound like an organ, the rest of the song came quickly after. What I love about that video is that it completely breaks down how this song was put together from the very first seed of the idea to the end product. You hear JM find the pedal combo that gets that organ sound, you see Charlie Hunter (guitarist featured on D’Angelo’s Voodoo) come up with the transition to the bridge completely on the fly on his 8-string guitar. You can even hear lyrics that were eventually scrapped once JM got the lyrical theme hammered down, but you can hear him sing the lyrics before he’s got the final melody in place. The most impressive thing is how he rips the actual guitar solo you hear on the finished product not 6 hours since the song was born. Watching that documentary gave me a completely new respect for a song that I originally kind of shrugged off. This tune is a great example of what happens when great musicians get together and get inspired.

4. “No Pause” – Girl Talk, Feed The Animals

I’ve been afraid of getting a Girl Talk song since I started the Shuffle Lessons series. But it was bound to happen, so let’s get into it. The song starts with Missy Elliott’s “Work It” and it really blasts off at 0:18 with Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait” providing the backdrop over the chorus of “Work It.” It then transitions into Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause” over Heart’s “Magic Man.” We then jump over a short interlude of mixed songs and get into “Shake That” by Eminem Feat. Nate Dogg over Yael Naim’s “New Soul.”

As with every Girl Talk song, this is an insanely complicated mash-up of tunes new and old. Obviously I did not list every single sample that Girl Talk used for this particular track, but the easiest ones to hear are covered. In terms of lyrics, the “Rebel Without A Pause x Magic Man” is an awesome mash-up, but musically I like the “Work It x I Can’t Wait” portion, as the musical foundation from Nu Shooz elevates Missy Elliott’s original song. The end of this track kind of tailspins for me and seems to jar my ears with the transition from Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” lyric into the bouncy jingle of “New Soul.” It’s just not the smoothest transition and my ear doesn’t like it.

5. “Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream” – James Taylor, In The Pocket

This is a fantastically sad song about an alcoholic old boat captain who has forsaken his love of the sea for the safety of the mainland and can’t get over his regret. This is one of those killer JT tracks that I serendipitously stumbled upon because it is the song after “Woman’s Gotta Have It” on the album, and every few months or so I go on a tear of listening to that song because it is awesome. But letting the iPod play on after that one ends led me to this tune and the melody is what kept me from skipping back. JT’s got this great skill of mixing lyrical melodies so well with the rhythm of his tunes; they just live so harmoniously together. His line that begins “All I need is the sea and the sky…” is not only a heartbreaking lyric, but the way his melody jumps in time with the rhythm sounds so good.

And yikes, talk about a terribly sad song. Why did Captain Jim leave the sea? He doesn’t get into that, which is a great move for the song. Sadness that comes from feeling like you’ve got untapped potential is common, but even worse is the sadness that comes from having what you loved and being the reason you don’t have it anymore. Captain Jim is completely cognizant of the position he’s placed himself in, that he’s looked at like a crazy person and that he’s lost his mind in The Bottle, but the memories of where he belonged, where he fit and where he found purpose is such a downer. Captain Jim is the case for better never to have loved at all than to have loved and lost, because he loved and lost and he’s continually paying that price through depression, alcoholism and social ostracism.

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Shuffle Lessons, Volume 2

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.

1. Take Your Time Feat. Corinne Bailey Rae – Al Green

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.

2. The Only One I Know Feat. Robbie Williams – Mark Ronson

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.

3. The Cave – Mumford & Sons

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.

4. Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois – Sufjan Stevens

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?…

5. Quiet – John Mayer

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.

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Shuffle Lessons, Volume 1

I have an iTunes playlist named Top 1000, and it is the 1000 songs with the highest playcounts. Last night, Colleen and I were hanging out and listening to some music, and I had a great idea. I am going to put this playlist on random and write about the first few songs that play. Might be my personal review of the song, or what influenced the song or who it influenced. Not only does this give me a chance to relisten to songs I probably have listened to in awhile, it will help me learn more about the incredible music I own. Let’s get to it.

1. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” – Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

This might be the easiest to unpack on this first set of five. This is a song off of Lonely Avenue, the joint album between Folds and Hornby. It’s written from the perspective of poor Levi Johnston, an Alaskan kid whose life would be completely different had he just worn a condom. When they were just 18 years old, he and Bristol Palin announced (via Sarah Palin’s campaign) that they were pregnant. And getting married. Poor kid. And that’s essentially the message of the song. He clearly had no idea what he got himself involved in and was in over his head. Obviously, this song paints an unpleasant picture of the entire gang involved. Johnston, the Palin women, and the moral value system their campaign was based upon is not looked on in a favorable light. But whatever your political view is, the song does get its message across in an effective way as most Ben Folds songs do. It takes the pretty awful protagonist and makes him relatable, so rather than judging the kid for being a douche bag (which he clearly is), you’re left shaking your head at how much of a kid he was when the whole thing happened. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it makes me feel bad for him and Bristol more than anything else. The song has a very pretty pre-chorus too.

2. “The Root” – D’Angelo, Voodoo

Definitely my favorite of this set of five, and the most dense. I listened to this song during my break outside tonight. As the song gets into the penultimate chorus, my head bob got increasingly inaccurate. That’s where the groove lies. The interplay between ?uestlove’s drumming and Charlie Hunter’s bass guitar playing is so laid back. It sounds like they’re playing a game to see who can be behind the beat more often, and they each have their turn. It’s a crazy beat to follow. And the guitar is insane. I mentioned Charlie Hunter; he not only plays bass for this tune, but he is simultaneously laying down the guitar track. The guitar he used was an 8-string guitar/bass combo, so the three low strings are actually bass strings, and the top five are guitar. The way he marries the two sounds so good.

Now focus on D’Angelo. This is how good his whole album is; when I listen to it, I often find myself overlooking his vocals because of how good his instrumentation is. And his vocals are from another world. His voice is saturated with soul. His voice is so strong and stirring that he doesn’t need to stand on the shoulders of the giants of soul, he stands among them. And this song is a perfect example. He sings of the emotional remains of a love that has broken down. This woman has done worked a root on our man D. What I love is the drama he brings to this tune. He speaks about his failed love in terms of life and death and all things in between. “In the name of love and hope, she took my shield and sword, from the pit of the bottom, that knows no floor. Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine, from the alpha of creation, to the end of all time.” While this might seem a bit sensational, this is how it feels to have love mess you up. Clearly this poor guy is wrecked. But his emotional trauma makes for the funkiest,dirrtiest break-up song ever.

3. “Midnight Cruiser” – Steely Dan, Can’t Buy A Thrill

Not much to say about this one. This is off the album Can’t Buy a Thrill, which is a great album, and that’s the reason this song made it into the Top 1000. While not a terrible song, it is one of the more forgettable tracks from the album, with Stewart Mason of Allmusic.com* calling it “musically faceless.” A great description.

4. “Up With The Birds” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

One of my lesser favorite tunes off of Mylo Xyloto. Musically I feel like this belongs way more with Prospekt’s March than this album. Or maybe this whole album is really just a continuation of that EP. I’d say due to a few key musical elements (specifically Jonny Buckland’s super fast guitar riffs), there is a big connection between that EP and this new album. And while this particular tune has some nice sounds (first half), the second half reminds me so much of Now My Feet Won’t Touch The Ground. Just kind of a bland way to end a pretty cool, large album.

5. “Like A Star” – Corinne Bailey Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae

This was the second song I ever heard by CBR. The acoustic version of Put Your Records On was offered as a free download of the week by iTunes and I remember thinking I had to hear more of this voice that just oozed British soul. Whenever I can hear a woman sing the word “can’t” and it sounds like “caaaan’t,” I very nearly fall in love. So once I heard this tune, I lost my mind. The way this song is set up is so perfect. The feeling of the song sounds like one acoustic guitar following this beautiful chord progression, but then when the drums and strings comes in just before the 1:00 mark, it brings it to this other level of sexiness that really draws the listener in and overwhelms them. I don’t know how CBR spans so many different music genres and blends them together so seamlessly. It’s R&B/soul with the genetic code of jazz. While I’m sure creating a song this fluid is not easy, it’s a credit to her talent that she is able to make it sound so effortless.

-Jon

http://www.allmusic.com/song/midnight-cruiser-t2372527

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