Album Assignments: Highway 61 Revisited

So here’s the thing with Highway 61 Revisited. It’s hard to find anything new to say about this album. Entire books have been written on the topic, and I’ve even read some of them. I also wrote extensively about “Desolation Row” since it was quoted in Watchmen. Not to mention the three different posts I’ve already written about Bob Dylan in this Album Assignments series. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about him.

So I’m taking a different approach with this post, a more personal approach. I write a lot about how music feels to me, and I often try to capture with words how a particular song or moment works, but while I will sometimes introduce that stuff with a little bit about my life, I tend to write about music a lot and life very little. But music is woven into my life, and among other things serves me as touchstones, allowing me to time travel back to specific moments that emblematize greater relationships or themes.

Take “Like A Rolling Stone”. Obviously it’s a rock classic, and a huge milestone in Dylan’s career, and your local library is full of explanations about that. But I listen to the first two lines of it, and more often than not, I have Bob Herd in my head. That story you won’t find in the library.

Album cover of Highway 61 Revisited

Robby and I cemented our friendship when I was about 15 years old. We spent a lot of time at each other’s houses in high school, and during summers and breaks in our college years. So that meant we got to spend a lot of time with each other’s parents. Robby’s dad Bob was a kindly giant to me, a big tall goofball with Texas roots who would always try to crack us up as he made his way through the house. He was always especially good to me — in fact one time we even hung out together without Robby around, as we both really wanted to see Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie and Robby had zero interest.

Bob loved classic rock in general, but specifically he was a huge Dylan fan. Robby tells me how on Sundays, his dad would sit down with him and play through some favorite record, pointing out great bits and telling stories as they’d listen. That’s where Robby’s appreciation of Dylan came from, or at least where it started. Bob and I would talk Dylan sometimes too, taking turns rhapsodizing about the musicians and especially the lyrics.

I have an image of Bob in my head. He’s coming down the stairs in Robby’s old house, while Robby and I are hanging out in the living room. His steps are heavy, and once he’s sure he has our attention, he drawls out: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine! Threw the bums a dime, in your prime!” A call, waiting for a response. We wouldn’t let him down, giving it our best nasal Dylan as we belted, “Didn’t youuuuuu!” We all three laughed at each other’s silliness, having a blast.

Bob passed away in 2007, much too young. When I hear “Like A Rolling Stone” now, I feel like he’s with me, just for a few moments, right at the same time as I wish that I could see him again.

There’s another touchstone for me at the beginning of the song “Highway 61 Revisited.” Dylan blows this wacky siren whistle a couple of times in the first five seconds of that song, a wild and silly sound that immediately sets the song apart from any other rock and roll tune before or since. Plenty of ink has been spilled about that creative choice, but none of it is about my friend Tashi.

Tashi and I worked together for many years at the University of Colorado, first for the central IT office that serves all the campuses, and then for the Boulder campus IT group. At various times I was his peer, his manager, and his colleague. He’s one of my favorite co-workers ever, and pretty much one of my favorite people in the world. Like me, he loves comedy and music, and he especially appreciates when they come together.

Tashi and I shared an office for a long time, which was the source of many a delightful conversation, sometimes trying to make each other think but usually trying to make each other laugh. At one point I was working and I suddenly heard, out of nowhere, those few notes of organ and — wOOOOOOooooo! — that siren whistle. Then it almost immediately stopped. I looked up, and the sound repeated. It was then I realized that Tashi had made that his ringtone. Hilarious.

Health issues eventually forced Tashi out of his job at CU, but we’re still friends. He comes over pretty regularly to help tutor Dante in math, not because math is a huge struggle for Dante but because Tashi absolutely loves it and gets immense pleasure from helping teach it. Much to Dante’s delight, Tashi always sticks around after the math work to play a board game or computer game or something. Our whole family loves having him around, because not only is he a wonderful mentor to Dante, he’s also super fun and incredibly funny. That siren whistle pretty much nails how I feel about him. wOOOOOOooooo!

I’ve got lots more memories attached to this stuff. Robby and I were counselors in the early 90s at a college-style camp for gifted middle and high school kids – they stayed in dorms at night, took awesome classes during the day, and participated in counselor-led activities in the afternoons and evenings. Some of the time was just “dorm time”, where the kids could hang out, play cards, and whatnot, while counselors stationed themselves at some central location. I remember clearly my little boombox in the center of a first floor dorm hallway, blasting out this album and some others (Freewheelin’, Another Side) to a small cadre of fascinated kids, getting intiated into the mysteries that had captured generations prior to theirs.

More recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Bryan Ferry in concert, and he played a cover of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that gave me major goosebumps. And now that moment is with me too, even as I dig Dylan’s very different version. Like Pretenders II, this is an album I just never get tired of. I could listen to it over and over, and sometimes I do, because it brings back such happiness to me, and more great memories await.

Put On Some Silver

Because I’m sending these year-end CDs to Wales, my listening year runs November to October, giving me time to assemble and mail a mix in time for Christmas. This year, that meant I’d done most of the assembly work during the first week of November. Shortly after that, you may or may not have heard, the United States held a presidential election. It was a pretty low-key affair — only about 55% of us actually bothered to vote. What’s more, we have this quirky system that gives more power per voter to rural (ahem, whiter) areas of the country than to more diverse urban areas, a system we’ve decided to reinforce by drawing super-crazy boundaries around congressional districts in order to keep them as ideologically homogeneous as possible.

Anyway, when faced with a choice between the most dangerous and least qualified major party nominee, like, ever, and a woman with decades of political experience and a clear, proven track record of working to help vulnerable people with compassionate policies, we of course chose the qualified woman. That is to say, more people voted for her. Like, a couple million more. But, funny thing, she’s not actually going to get to become president, because the couple million extra people who voted for her live in the wrong states. Did I mention we have a quirky system?

Anyway, for people like me who were rooting for the qualified woman to not only win the most votes but also to get elected president, it’s been kind of an emotional time. You know how after you go through a big breakup or suffer some kind of major loss, every single song that comes on the radio seems to gain this halo of extra resonance, to get freighted with a bunch of additional meaning so that it turns out all those songs are about EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUFFERING, who knew? Listening to music was kind of like that for a few weeks in November.

That experience seems to have permanently infiltrated my experience of making this mix, and thus of listening to these songs. So it’s possible these liner notes may feel a bit repetitive for that reason. Oh, and also for the reason that a bunch of these songs have already been written about in the context of my ongoing album assignments project. All those messy caveats aside, here’s a mix of songs I was listening to in 2016, and a few thoughts about each one.

1. Taylor SwiftClean
This was the year I got around to 1989. The Taylor Swift album, I mean. I’d never been drawn to her stuff too much previously, though she did always seem to me like the real thing, a talented singer-songwriter who was committed to a musical life, rather than being a video pop tart. But the country idiom isn’t a natural one for me, so I never sought her out until I heard the infectious and addictive “Shake It Off.” (And stay tuned for that one.) A few singles into this album and I knew it was for me. I wasn’t wrong, either — I love the whole thing, and this track is especially compelling to me. It’s a collaboration between TS and Imogen Heap, who herself vaulted onto my list after this. Her album is on the docket for next year. “Clean” is a relationship song, clearly, but heard in the November context it was how I was hoping to feel on the 9th. That didn’t work out.

2. Jefferson AirplaneEmbryonic Journey
As I wrote in my review of Surrealistic Pillow, I think this is my favorite rock instrumental of all time. I find it absolutely transcendent, in a way that defies encapsulation in language. Maybe that’s part of the definition of “transcendent.”

3. Joni MitchellCarey
Blue was an assigned album this year, and listening to it I was struck anew at just how gorgeous it is. Every note sounds so pure and right. Every song feels on par with all the others, so picking a song from it was a bit arbitrary. “Carey”, though, feels emblematic of the album, musically joyful and lyrically both aching and celebratory. I love the bohemian images, and the feel of reveling in the sweetness of life just as we still revel in the sweetness of this album. The lyric “put on some silver” makes me think of making the choice to embrace life and happiness even in dark times. It seemed a fitting title for this collection.

4. Fountains Of WayneAction Hero
After getting to know FoW last year, I dove deeper this year, branching into some other albums, including their (presumably final) entry from 2011, Sky Full Of Holes. It’s a typically great collection, but for me this song stands above most of the rest. There’s the usual lyrical cleverness, stringing together rhyme chains like “tests”, “chest”, “best”, “guess”, “rest”, and “stress”, with an internal rhyme of “suggest” thrown in there as a flourish. But the moment that gives me goosebumps everytime is after the second chorus, when the music swells underneath “and he’s racing against time.” Where the action hero metaphor starts out comical, with the man serving as a bit of a punchline, by the end of the second chorus his true heroism reveals itself to us, reflecting upon us the way we’re all racing against time.

5. The LumineersSubmarines
On a musical level, I find this song hypnotic. The way it switches time signatures back and forth keeps me wonderfully off-balance, and the mix of instrumental voices is a pleasure — strong piano, subtle cello, stomps and snares for percussion. Lyrically, it’s about seeing a danger coming that nobody else believes. I can imagine there were a few who could relate to that feeling recently. I wasn’t one of them, though — I’m not sure whether I wish I’d seen it coming or not. That’s a bit like the old philosophical question about knowing the time and manner of your own death.

6. The MotelsSuddenly Last Summer
I think The Motels are one of the most underrated bands of the 1980s. I love Martha Davis’ voice, and her writing often has a mysterious, evocative quality, hinting at truths greater than the words can capture. This song is a perfect example — I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but you can’t miss the the yearning, regret, and pain in the music. It always makes me think of how some incident can change your life completely in an instant, branching you into a future very different from the one you expected. For me, the words “one summer never ends, one summer never begins” are about that inflection point.

7. Bob DylanPositively 4th Street
I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan this year. The subtitle of this mix may as well be “Hope Ya Like Dylan!” He’ll be showing up frequently in this list. This song is one of the best kiss-off tunes of all time. In Dylan’s context, I think it’s about the false friends he had in the Greenwich Village folk community, people who pretended to love him but were in fact jealous of his success and ready to undermine him at any turn. (At least, from his perception — no doubt there are many sides to that story.) In the 2016 context, it’s about seeing through bullshit, something we’ve all had to become well acquainted with.

8. Peter GabrielLovetown
Here’s a little-known Peter Gabriel track, from the soundtrack to the 1993 movie Philadelphia. Like many of the soundtrack’s songs, it’s an interpretation of the tone of the movie — a complement to Neil Young’s “city of brotherly love, don’t turn your back on me,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?” Gabriel’s song is more subtle, more translucent than transparent. But that’s where I think its power resides. It brims with powerful images, like “do those teeth still match the wound” and the corresponding “whose lonely lips will find these hidden scars?” I listened to that soundtrack this year, and even though I love most of the other songs on it, this one felt the richest and the deepest to me.

9. The Velvet Underground & NicoVenus In Furs
As I wrote, this is the song that captivated me most when I listened to the VU’s debut album on assignment this year. It illuminates an unusual relationship to suffering — pain as release, pain as freedom, pain as comfort. It’s not my path — as Armatrading said, “It’s their way of loving, not mine.” But I’ve learned about it from friends, and come to see it as another aspect of diversity, and possibly even a different approach to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. It’s a brilliant purple candle flame in a darkened room, casting weird shadows on the wall but nevertheless an irresistible cynosure.

10. Bob DylanUp To Me
Oh, “Up To Me.” The way these mixes come about is that as I go through the year of music listening, I keep throwing standout tracks into a playlist, and then I pick from that group when November comes around. There are always more songs than would fit on a single CD, so some culling is necessary, and that’s all to the good. Some songs, though, I mark as sure keepers, that will make the mix no matter what else doesn’t. This is one of those songs. I found it on the third disc of Dylan’s 1985 box set Biograph. I listen to music mostly during my commute, and when a song particularly catches my interest, I repeat it. And when it obsesses me, I repeat it until I’ve learned it. That’s what happened to me with this song, which is every bit as good as anything from Blood On The Tracks, one of my favorite Dylan incarnations. It feels like an epic novel to me, but condensed down into a series of scenes that indelibly carve the runes of friendship, regret, responsibility, loyalty, and memory.

11. Stevie NicksSisters Of The Moon (demo)
There was a period, probably about a decade ago, where conditions in my life and conditions on the Internet were ripe for gathering lots and lots of Stevie bootlegs. People had web sites up where they’d feature some collection of mp3s for a week, then take those down and put up a whole new set, week after week, site after site. Some of this stuff gets pretty repetitive — how many fan-taped shows from the 2002-03 Fleetwood Mac tour does one person need? (Answer: a combination of “the best quality one” and “the one from early in the tour where they hadn’t dropped the rare songs yet.”) But there’s one collection that stands as my favorite. It was labeled “Gems” by whoever put it up, and the description is apt. It’s piano demos, mostly young Stevie singing by herself, accompanying herself, doing versions of her songs from when they were freshly written. Of that collection, this one is my favorite, an acoustic “Sisters Of The Moon” before it became a Fleetwood Mac powerhouse, when it was just a spooky, hushed, mystical gauze draped over a Tiffany lamp.

12. Buckingham NicksCrying In The Night
When I saw her on October 27th, Stevie’s set was full of surprises, but none more surprising than this one. This is the opening track from the Buckingham Nicks album, the one she and Lindsey released before they were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. This album isn’t even available to buy — it’s been out of print since a few months after it was released in 1973, and has never even come out on CD. (At least, not in a version released by any record company.) I never, ever expected to hear it live, and it was a huge thrill. Maybe that means we’ll see a disc one of these years? We keep hoping.

13. The PretendersStop Your Sobbing
Yes, The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks are side by side in this mix because they were side by side in concert. And yes, pairing “Crying In The Night” with “Stop Your Sobbing” was no accident. But I’d likely select this song even without the thematic connection, because Chrissie’s performance on it was her fiercest of the night. Yeah, it’s a Kinks cover, but for me this is a Pretenders song through and through, and one of the best. This month, it also represents what to do next.

14. The PoliceTruth Hits Everybody
Now here’s a song that resonated in November. I’d just assigned Outlandos d’Amour the month before, and rediscovered the furious allure of The Police as a young band, especially Stewart Copeland. Now, listening back to the music I’d selected from the year, this song jumped out at me and took me by the throat. Reality has seldom felt so merciless.

15. Bob DylanTombstone Blues
Here’s another version of merciless truth, one flooded with metaphor and cloaked in symbol, but the chorus is pretty plainspoken: “Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes / Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food / I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues.” Sure, there’s Belle Starr and John the Baptist and Galileo and Gypsy Davey and on and on, but at its heart this song is about poverty, desperation, and death. It turns out those are powerful forces that, in a democracy, can be harnessed and pointed at a target. Sometimes, the target is even the people themselves, though they only find that out later.

16. Jenny Lewis with the Watson TwinsThe Big Guns
The commander-in-chief says, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry.” Okay, I’m still on the previous song, but it connects right up. This Jenny Lewis solo album is much closer to the parts of Rilo Kiley that I love than was the actual last Rilo Kiley album. This track was a standout when I listened to it months ago, but it really jumped up when I was putting the mix together. “I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace / Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me / Cause we’re tired and lonely and we’re bloody.” Some people just love the big guns, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more from them soon. Not that the last 8 years were some peaceful haven — we’re still in some kind of 1984 state of constant war — but it was directionally correct, and we’re about to lose that, I think.

17. HeartGoodbye Blue Sky (live)
Which leads right into this. I think it’s very hard to cover Pink Floyd successfully — I’ve not even heard that many people try. But I absolutely adore this version of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” It comes from a Heart live album in which they play the entirety of Dreamboat Annie, and then go on to cover some of the other people’s songs they loved from that period. The original of this is fantastically sinister, but the Ann Wilson treatment just launches it into the stratosphere, no unsettling reference intended. The incredible sense of menace and power fit my November mood perfectly.

18. ColdplayAmsterdam
The turning point. This song captivated me when I listened to A Rush Of Blood To The Head on assignment. I connected with it emotionally far more than any other song on the album. To me, this song is about being in the deep well of despair, for a time that feels it will stretch into eternity, and then finally seeing a shaft of sunlight break through. Right at 3:57, the song absolutely takes off, and the feeling changes from hopelessness to freedom. I’ve been through this once already. In 2004, I gave up on us in disgust, only to witness what felt like a miracle in 2008. This time, I’m not giving up — we just have to keep climbing until we get to that sunlight.

19. Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’
This song was first played on October 26, 1963. Less than a month later, and before the song was released on an album, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, giving the clarion words an entirely different cast. Yet when we hear it now, it signals all the good changes that came out of that painful decade. The words, though, can play either as hopeful or foreboding, or maybe both at the same time. “The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” That’s where we are. But the change doesn’t stop, and we can be a part of it.

20. Taylor SwiftShake It Off
So here we are. I started with a wish to be clean, but it’s a dirty time that lies ahead. But I can’t stay mud-encrusted. As much as I can, I have to rise above, and the only way I know to do that is to connect with human joy. This song crystallizes that for me. Haters gonna hate, and that’s not something we can change. What can we do? Shake, shake, shake it off. 🙂 And look forward to 2017, despite everything.

Happy New Year.

Wait Another Day

This year’s music mix has a new factor thrown in. Normally these collections are culled from the music I’ve been listening to over the previous year (with “year” being defined as November – October, so I can get the CD mailed to Wales in time for Christmas). That part hasn’t changed, but the new factor is the album assignments game I’ve been playing with Robby over the fall. That’s changed my listening habits, so that a couple of days out of each week are now devoted to a particular album, with the aim of writing about it later. That’s brought in some things that wouldn’t have been in my regular rotation — Elvis Costello and The Clash among them. It also means that some of this stuff I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Of course, that means I may be a bit briefer than usual on some tunes.

1. The Airborne Toxic EventNo More Lonely Nights
Case in point. TATE is now on my “to-do” list after this track, which performs the minor miracle of resurrecting this Give My Regards To Broad Street tune into something subtle and moving.

2. Stevie NicksBelle Fleur
Okay, I just wrote four paragraphs of background about Stevie’s 24 Karat Gold album, then realized that they’re supposed to go in my article about the album itself. Robby doesn’t know it yet (as I write this), but I’m assigning that album to him next.

Meanwhile, a few words about this song. It’s an example of a song that I’ve had in demo form for decades, but never really connected with that much. This re-recording, on the other hand, moves me a lot. To me, it’s a story of love and magic, but not magic love — it’s no ticket to dreamland. What it is, though, is an exchange of stories, and a sharing of lives — you sing to me, and I’ll sing to you.

3. Joe JacksonOde To Joy
Speaking of new albums from old friends, I just saw Joe Jackson in concert in October, touring to support his new record Fast Forward. This was my favorite song he played that night, and my favorite from the new CD. I love its wholehearted embrace of joy, joy as a pure experience unfettered by the material and phenomenological planes. The New Yorker did a wonderful profile of Joe, and one of my favorite parts of that is this quote:

Some of my early stuff was infected by the deadly disease of cynicism, which is a disease of the young, I think. When you’re young, it seems very clever to be cynical. But as you get older, hopefully, if you’re not completely stupid, you realize that you have to be a bit more positive, as a simple matter of survival.

I happened to listen to this album right before reviewing Don Henley’s Cass County, and Joe’s optimism is a lovely contrast to some the harshness on display there. And being Joe, he cleverly quotes Beethoven in the bargain.

4. Elvis CostelloMystery Dance
I wonder if the kind of world that could produce this song is gone forever. Can sex still be mysterious when so much information about it is so easily retrieved? Sure, there’s a world of difference between reading about something and doing it, and lots of what’s out there could warp a kid’s perceptions and blur the difference between fantasy and reality, but there was a time in living memory when you could try and try and still be mystified. Does that happen anymore?

5. The ClashDeath Or Glory
I can hardly say more about this than I did in my London Calling post. Suffice it to say that I put it on repeat in my car for a day, and never got sick of it. And I drive a lot! It’s as energizing the 20th time as it was the first.

6. Fleetwood MacSongbird (live)
This last year was a special one for Fleetwood Mac fans, because we saw something we never thought we’d see again: Chrstine McVie touring with the band. I actually saw them in December 2014 *and* April 2015, which is why there are two songs from the set list on this CD. In April, she didn’t play “Songbird” — apparently she was dealing with some kind of injury, because it came back to the set later. She played it in December though, and it’s just the most perfect set closer. I never got the chance to see Fleetwood Mac in its prime — my first FM show was the 1987 tour where they replaced Lindsey with two other guitarists, and my first time seeing the classic lineup was in 1997. That was also my last time until now. It was such a joy to hear this song at the end of the show. This recording is from 1977, and was included in the Rumours expanded edition that they released a couple of years ago. [The YouTube clip I linked to above is from a different 1977 show — I couldn’t find the expanded edition one online.]

7. Tori AmosPromise
I’ve been a Tori Amos fan for a long time now, so I was aware that she had a daughter named Tash. But that wasn’t uppermost in my mind while I was listening to her new album Unrepentant Geraldines this year. So when I heard this song, I could tell it was a duet, but I didn’t recognize the other voice — all I could hear was that it was somebody who had a lot on common with Tori vocally. As I listened to the lyrics, discerning that this was a conversation between mother and daughter, I started to wonder, “Could this be Tash?” And sure enough, it is. That realization sent chills through me. Tash was born on 2000, so she was probably 13 when this song was recorded. Given that, it’s a remarkable performance, and as a parent I find the lyrics very moving.

8. Roger McGuinnIf We Never Meet Again
I revisited McGuinn’s album Back From Rio this year — I’ve always liked his twelve-string guitar sound, and this is my favorite of his non-Byrds releases. This time around, “If We Never Meet Again” latched onto me. The tone is just golden, and the message of acceptance for whatever may come sits well with me.

9. Best CoastEach And Everyday
I came across this band on a Fleetwood Mac tribute album done by a bunch of indie groups, called Just Tell Me That You Want Me. There were lots of great covers on that album, but Best Coast’s version of “Rhiannon” really grabbed me, mainly I think because of singer Bethany Cosentino’s voice. So I sought to know more about them and ended up quite enjoying both of their first two albums. (I haven’t got their third yet, but it’s on my wish list.) This is a track from their debut.

10. The ClashThe Card Cheat
There are so many great things about this song, but it has to start with the production. Contrary to what you might expect from a punk band, this song is as well-produced as any pop gem. The ringing piano, valedictory horns, majestic rhythm section — it’s like a classic Phil Spector “Wall Of Sound” record, infused with a cathedral grandeur. Wedding this incredible sound to the tale of a lowlife gambler is like the aural version of a Scorsese film, elevating the dismal criminal world to an operatic level.

11. Paul F. TompkinsKing Hat
My friend Tashi put me onto this comedian, whose records I just adore. Many of his bits have now become part of the conceptual vocabulary in my mind, especially the ones from his most recent album Laboring Under Delusions, which is a concept piece about all the various jobs he’s done in his life. I listened to that album a bunch over this last year, and knew I wanted to include something from it. I had a hard time picking. I went with this one because a) it’s a great showcase for his style, b) it’s a linguistic rant, which I find endearing, and c) it reminds me so much of the stories Laura tells me about her retail-esque experiences at the library. Oh, and because it’s so freakin’ funny, of course.

12. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary LambertSame Love
Here’s another album I spent an awful lot of time with over the last year. I was a bit late to the Macklemore party, but boy The Heist is great. A number of songs from it got thrown into the hopper for this mix, but if I had to pick just one (and, it turned out, I did), it’d be “Same Love.” I so appreciate the personal story flowing into the cultural analysis, and the strong, clear call for hip-hop to stand behind marriage equality. Damn right I support it.

13. Dan WilsonFree Life
Dan Wilson was the lead singer and writer of the 90’s band Semisonic, who were a one-hit wonder with the song “Closing Time.” It’s a shame that they never found greater success, because Wilson is an absolutely brilliant songwriter, who did amazing work with Semisonic and then went on to co-write such killer songs as Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This song is from his 2007 solo debut, and it stands out for me this year because my iPod dialed it up as I was driving back from New Mexico, having just participated in the 2015 Geek Bowl in Albuquerque. It felt so perfect for that specific moment in my life that I put it on repeat a few times, just listening to the music and feeling free.

14. Elton JohnRocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long Long Time)
Sometimes a classic just jumps out and reminds you why it’s a classic. I was listening to Honky Château in the car, and when this song came on I marveled at how intensely gorgeous it is. Plus, it’s a fantastic song to sing along to, which is probably why I sang it over and over on that 45-minute commute.

15. Elliott SmithJunk Bond Trader
I’ve had XO in my collection for a while, and while I enjoy it, I never really imprinted on it. Figure 8, on the other hand, knocked me out. So many great songs on that album — as with Macklemore, there were a bunch in the running and it came down to this one. The lyrics to this are so fantastic — elliptical and evocative, with the occasional razor-sharp one liner, like “Checking into a small reality / Boring as a drug you take too regularly.” What’s it about? I really don’t know. But I sure do dig how it’s about it.

16. Fleetwood MacSisters Of The Moon
This was the highlight of the April 2015 Fleetwood Mac show. It’s always been one of my favorite Stevie songs — I love the power chord progression and the mystical vibe. She can’t hit those high notes any more (the backup singers do it for her), and the cocaine-fueled frenzy that used to characterize live performances of this song is long behind her, but still, it is a powerful, spellbinding incantation, and it lifts me up every time I see it.

17. Florence + The MachineDog Days Are Over
Speaking of powerful. Ceremonials was a big record for me in 2014, so I decided to check out Florence’s debut as well, and I’m glad I did. There’s a reason this song got so famous. I love rock songs with big drums and a big voice like this — they make me feel like I’m flying.

18. Best CoastThe Only Place
Here’s a song from Best Coast’s second album. True to their name, it’s a paean to California, and I have to say they make a pretty good case. Especially for somebody like me who could be perfectly happy never seeing snow again, Southern California seems like a pretty amazing place to live. Oh, except for the earthquakes. And, I guess the mudslides. And the forest fires. And how expensive everything is. But other than that, aces!

19. Fountains Of WayneBright Future In Sales
One final showcase from another album I really got into in 2014. My friend Trish has been a huge FoW fan for ages, and always told me I should check them out. You know how it is with that kind of thing, though — I’d always think, “Yeah, I should,” and then go listen to something I already know. That’s the beauty of the wishlist, though. I can just tag something based on a passing thought, and then some angel will bring it into my life, where I can give it the attention it deserves. This album, Welcome Interstate Managers, dominated my car for about 3 weeks, and I got to love each and every song on it. There were a bunch to choose from, but this one does a great job of encapsulating the humor, the characterization, the storytelling, and the awesome power pop slam that Fountains Of Wayne brings to its music.

Geek Bowl IX question recap

Well, another Geek Bowl is in the books, and once again, I am happy. We didn’t win, but we came in 2nd place! Given that 134 teams played, and that the 2nd place prize is $3000, we feel pretty damn good about that. This year, sticking with the “Mothra” theme from last year, we were “The Mothras of Retention.” (No, not that kind of retention. Like, retaining facts. Come on.) We had the same lineup as last year, and boy do I love this team. Not only is it a great mix of specialties and styles, they’re also just a lovely group of people, with whom I always enjoy spending time. Not a blowhard or prima donna in the bunch. Oh, and did I mention that they’re all really frickin’ smart? Oh my god, I can’t even tell you. (But I’ll try.)

Mothras Of Retention team photo
L to R top row: Larry, Don. Bottom row: Brian, George, Jonathan, me

This year the bowl was in Albuquerque (henceforth ABQ), at an Indian casino called Isleta. I drove down from Denver, which was mostly fun. I’m always up for a road trip, but boy is there a whole lotta nothin’ between, let’s say, Colorado Springs and Santa Fe. (Uh, no disrespect to anybody’s town in “driveover country.” You could make a case for Pueblo.) Anyway, I got into ABQ around 5:30pm and checked into my hotel. (As always, hat tip to the awesome “name your price” feature on Priceline.) Teammate Don is a former ABQ resident, so he made reservations for us at a great New Mexican restaurant. Our team met up with another team, comprised of a couple former members of the Anti-Social Network and the friends they recruited to play along. That team’s excellent name: “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rutter.” Also, teammates Brian and George had brought their wives, and Don invited a couple of ABQ friends. It was a big table. Great meal, too.

After that, about half of us headed to a house rented by Shane Whitlock and his wife, where a towering collection of trivia minds ate awesome food, drank good wine, and answered question after question, most prominently a Buzzer Battle tournament run by “Not Rutter” member Bill Schantz. There was also a really fun pub quiz created by Jeremy Cahnmann, whose game you should totally check out if you’re ever in Chicago. Ah, a fine time indeed. The next day I slept until 10:30am, which I mention because it is an AMAZING occurrence which never ever happens in my life anymore. The team got together at 4:30pm to run warmup rounds for 90 minutes or so, and then it was on to the main event!

As we gathered near the door, George passed around a small sheet of paper, upon which he had written down some guidelines that we’d always talked about but never formally codified. We quickly came to call them the Commandments, and here they are:

  1. Read/listen to the damn question.
    1. Read it again.
    2. Pay attention to the category.
    3. Don’t interrupt the question/audio. Let it finish before guessing.
  2. If you think of an answer, say it/write it, so the whole team knows.
  3. Everyone look over each answer sheet before turning it in.
  4. If the answer is a name and surnames are enough, don’t write the first name.
  5. If spelling doesn’t count, don’t sweat it.
  6. If an answer is used once in a quiz, nothing prevents that same answer from being used later in the same quiz. (The Quincy Jones rule – so named because QJ was an answer twice in one Geek Bowl.)
  7. “No” is not enough. Offer a solid alternative or a clear reason why the suggested answer is definitely wrong.
  8. Avoid facetious answers.

Following all these rules consistently is a lot harder than it sounds, and in fact we flubbed one of them one time at this Geek Bowl, but more about that in the answers post.

The event was held in a large auditorium, which apparently serves as a Bingo hall most of the time. It was very well suited for this night — good sound, lots of space, broad tiers with no fixed seating, friendly staff, etc. As has been the case for the past few years, the Bowl itself was very, very well-organized. Geeks Who Drink (GWD) has really got this down to a science now, and it came off expertly. The big change this year was that they had a headlining musical act, an outfit known as The Dan Band. In case you’ve never heard of these guys (I hadn’t), they’re a comedy/music group led by a guy named Dan Finnerty, who dresses like a gas station attendant (literally) and sings all songs by women. They were the wedding band in Old School, and also appeared in The Hangover. Knowing nothing else about these guys, I feared they would be boorish and obnoxious, but they actually turned out to be pretty funny and charming. As Don pointed out, the concept could be done in a very lazy way, but these guys weren’t lazy. For instance, their opening number — a medley of “Genie In A Bottle”, “No Scrubs”, and “I’m A Slave 4 U”, was proficient and professional, from the actual instrument-playing band to the smooth choreography. Sure, it’s a goof to have this guy singing these songs, and he throws in a lot of “fuck”s, but they don’t expect the gimmick alone to do the work of the act.

The Dan Band

In fact, the same thing can be said of Geek Bowl itself. As I’ve said before, the signature GWD tone is “self-consciously edgy”, but as time has gone on they’ve gotten a lot less self-conscious. I even noticed a considerable difference between this year and last year in terms of the questions. Last year had a round about nasty team names, songs about sex, and historical figures’ faces Photoshopped into vintage porn. This year had half a round about incest, and that’s about it for the raunch. It used to feel like GWD had a compulsory smut/obscenity quota, and that it could get in the way of, y’know, actualy having good or interesting trivia questions. Now it feels like they’ve got good question writers who don’t happen to be constrained by the bounds of good taste, but aren’t particularly obligated to leap over them either. (Nothing against sex and swearing, by the way — these are a few of my favorite things, actually — I just don’t like it when they feel mandatory in writing.)

Now here’s the part where I copy/paste and adapt the rules & disclaimers from last year’s post. If you don’t care, you can skip ahead to the questions, directly after the video.

As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!) Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink, and I have not been supplied with question material. The recap below is not a verbatim representation of the Geek Bowl 9 questions. They are reconstructed from my notes and memories, which are very fallible. This year I had the bright idea of taking photos of some of the question slides — cameras are allowed at Geek Bowl as long as they can’t receive data. However, even those slides are very frequently paraphrases rather than verbatim reproductions of the questions as read. I am certain I have left out some of the cleverness, some of the humor, and some of the pinning precision. Anything in the questions and answers below that is wrong or crappy is my fault, not theirs.

Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters. (Though the final round has a 5-minute timer.) The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions — usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, one other round was upgraded from 8 potential points to 15 — we could see from the pre-printed answer sheets that question #8 in Round 4 would have 8 answers, for a total of 15 answers in the round.

Finally, teams can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 15 or 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. The Round 2 threshold was 14 — in other words, if we felt very confident about 14 out of 16 answers in Round 2, we would joker it. We didn’t end up settling on a Round 4 threshold, but it turned out not to matter. We probably would have jokered on at least 13, and failing that we’d automatically joker Round 8.

Now, for posterity and enjoyment, the questions of Geek Bowl 9. I’ll note our team’s experiences in [square brackets.] As I did last year, I’ll put the answers in a separate post, since this one gets long enough as it is.

Round 1: Duking It Out In The Duke City
Albuquerque is apparently nicknamed “The Duke City”, so this round was all about dukes.

1. Born in 1899, Duke Ellington came to be a major participant in the “Renaissance” of what New York City neighborhood? [I think all of us answered this one in unison.]
2. If you wanted to correctly spell the name of Duke University’s basketball coach, how many “z”s would you use? [I’m so out on questions like this, but between Larry, Don, and Jonathan, we got there.]
3. Patty Duke played both roles, Helen and Anne, in separate film versions of what play?
4. Here’s something you won’t understand: what band, on the album track following “How I Could Just Kill A Man”, sampled the song “Duke Of Earl”, by Gene Chandler? [We were clueless on this one. Took a wild guess.]
5. Due to a 1982 contract dispute, cousins Coy and Vance briefly replaced what TV siblings? [Brian (who served as our scribe) actually has a running “Coy and Vance” replacement joke on one of his podcasts, — I think he was writing the answer before they finished asking the question.]
6. Which was longer, the infamous gap between Duke Nukem 3D and Duke Nukem Forever, or the infamous gap between Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums and Chinese Democracy? (Just answer “Duke” or “GnR”.) [We guessed wrong on this one.]
7. What “P” word means the entire system of noble titles? [Slam dunk by George.]
8. According to Channel Islanders, and despite her presumable lack of male sex organs, who is the Duke of Normandy?

[Not our best round. We ended up with 6 correct answers.]
See the answers

Round 2: Dude Sings Like A Lady
Round 2 is always a music round, and for the last few years, they’ve had 8 different live bands each play about 25 seconds of a cover version of some song, and then performing that same 25 seconds again. This year, though, since they’d gone to the trouble of obtaining a “name”(ish) band, Round 2 was all about The Dan Band performing snippets of 8 different songs. Same approach — about 25 seconds, repeated once. The extra twist was that the round was “Bechdel Tested, Mother Approved” — true to The Dan Band ethos, all the songs were both by women and about women. The round description made a fairly big deal of specifying that we were to name both the song title and the “original female PERFORMING artist” for each tune, for reasons that will become clear below.

Previously I just listed the answers here, because I couldn’t describe the round without giving them away. But in late 2016 the Geeks posted a video recap of the round, so now I can just embed that! The answer summary has moved, appropriately enough, to the answers post.


[We felt really, really good about this round, and jokered it without hesitation. We were right to do so, as we aced it. So that gave us 32 points, plus our previous 6 made a total of 38.]
See the answers

Round 3: Red Or Green?
Round 3 at Geek Bowl is pretty much always some kind of 50/50, speed round, or multiple choice situation. This year it was a 50/50, based around New Mexico’s official state question: “Red Or Green?” In case it’s not clear, the question refers to what kind of chile you’d like on your food. (Though when I was asked on Friday night, I was also offered the option of both!)

1. Who bought Reddit in 2006: Condé Nast or Yahoo? [We guessed wrong on this one, and I’m sorry to say I was one of the ones steering us wrongward.]
2. Which team wore a green shirt at the 2014 World Cup: Italy or Mexico? [Don’s a soccer guy, and was all over this one.]
3. Which chain has more U.S. locations: Red Lobster or Red Robin?
4. In which book did the Red Wedding occur: A Clash Of Kings or A Storm Of Swords? [Don is also a Game of Thrones guy, and once again, was all over it. Go Don!]
5. Did Greenpeace’s initial cause concern nuclear testing or whaling?
6. Not including gulfs, which has more Red Sea coastline: Egypt or Saudi Arabia? [Jonathan drew a map for us that looked not terribly different from the one that accompanied the answer.]
7. The Green Book is the credited work of which controversial political figure: Gerry Adams or Moammar Qadaffi?
8. Which color of light is most conducive to photosynthesis: Red or Green? [Jonathan got to this by knowing about optics, Brian got to it by knowing about the habits of Colorado pot growers. We all got to it! (Not that Brian is a Colorado pot grower, mind you.)]

[We got 7 of 8 here, for an updated total of 45.]
See the answers

Round 4: The World According to LARP
Now, here is where things started to get seriously awesome. I mean, they were already good, but this is where they started to get awesome. This round was done all in cosplay, with each new cosplayer coming out and defeating the previous one, and then asking a question, in character, somehow related to the character. Not only that, sometimes the character was a clue to… well, you’ll see. Now, my account of this is going to be a little bit compromised by the fact that I was furiously taking notes while it was going on, but I’ll try to give you the gist.

The first thing that happened was a wizard took the stage, with resplendent robes and staff and so forth. After an impressive pretend-magic display, she asked us this question:
1. With a name that comes from the Latin words for “heap” and “rainstorm”, what kind of cloud normally produces lightning?

Suddenly a knight emerged, in full Crusades regalia! A mighty battle ensued, in which the wizard was struck down, the knight emerged triumphant, stepped to the microphone, and asked:
2. While we were killing Muslims during the Crusades, Paladins like myself called them by what slightly longer term, which is the same as the name of the quarterback on the show Friday Night Lights? [I knew the word, Don and Brian know Friday Night Lights. Cross-referencing FTW!]

Like a shadow, like a ghost, the ninja struck. The knight never stood a chance. Over his dead body, the ninja asked:
3. Speaking of things white people know nothing about: every year, dozens of people go to the Aokigahara Forest to do… what? [Boy did we struggle with this one. I’ll put the full story in the answers post, but suffice to say we got it wrong.]

Zzap! The phaser blast of a dour Klingon proved in short order that no pajama-wearing human is a match for an honorable descendant of Kahless The Unforgettable. The Klingon approached the mic and asked us a question… in Klingon. We could make out the words “falcon”, “eagle”, and “kestrel”, but that’s it. Then on the screen behind her appeared a translation:
4. What bird is biologically closest to a falcon: a hawk, an eagle, or a kestrel?

Klingons are strong with honor, but you know their challenge area? Friendship. Especially the magic of a magical friendship, which can really be magically friendly, and magical. Thus it was that a very approximate human equivalent of a My Little Pony character defeated the Klingon, and asked:
5. Ponies are defined as measuring less than 58 inches at what specific shoulder area, which the composer of “Lean On Me” would be proud of? [I knew the “Lean On Me” part, and as soon as I thought of it the horse part made sense.]

POW! What puny pony can withstand the full fury of the Rampaging Hulk? Down went the pony, and Hulk asked:
6. WHAT 2012 NBC DRAMA CENTER ON KATHARINE MCPHEE TRYING TO PLAY MARILYN MONROE IN BROADWAY MUSICAL?

You have a Hulk? Well we have a Quiz-Bot! A large robot, carrying a large pencil in one claw and a large drink in the other, with a digital crawling display on its chest reading (I think) “42… 42… 42…” battled the Hulk. Hulk is strongest one there is, but Quiz-Bot is smartest one there is, and it was victorious. It asked us:
7. In statistics, the standard deviation is signified by what 18th letter of the Greek alphabet?

Finally, the players’ mom stepped onstage. Everyone got up, and she distributed some tasty snacks from her purse to all players. Everyone munched happily, while she strode to the mic. Remember how I said that we could see from the answer sheets that question #8 in this round would have 8 possible answers? Well here’s that question:
8. Besides Barbara Walters, name eight of the nine women to date who have been panelists on The View for more than one season. [The full team collaborated to come up with seven, and at the last minute Brian pulled an eighth. WHOO!]

[A strong round – we got 14, raising our total to 59.]
See the answers

Round 5: LandMark Wahlberg
This was a video before and after round. I used to have a long explanation here about it, but happily, just about a year after Geek Bowl 9, the Geeks finally posted the video itself in all its glory on YouTube. So here you have it:

I’ll copy the old explanation, and the answers, over to the answers post.

[We aced this round. 59 + 8 = 67 total points now.]
See the answers

Round 6: The Round You And Your Sister Have Been Waiting For
This was a round on inheritances and incest — that old-time GWD spirit shining through, or at least partway through.

1. According to the King James Version of the Bible, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit” what?
2. Named Adult Video News #21 All-Time Greatest Porn Film, what 1980 family fuckfest shares its name with a family board game from Hasbro? [Oh, Geeks. Then again, George later said, “I had it at ‘family fuckfest.'”]
3. Named for a geneticist called Reginald C. Something, what’s that quadrilateral chart that biologists use to determine the likely genotype of offspring? [Jonathan came through here.]
4. A pair of federal agents encounter an inbred Pennsylvania clan called the Peacocks in “Home”, a classic 1996 episode of what TV series?
5. A product of over 100 years of inbreeding, the drooling, slow-witted Charles II was the last Hapsburg to rule what nation?
6. Owners of most of Colorado’s sports teams, plus a few others, the Kroenke familly actually got most of their cash by marrying into what Southern family? [Larry knew this one right away.]
7. Unpublished for almost 150 years, The Inheritance was the first novel by what precocious teen, who later quite extensively covered the March family? [Yay, a literature question! I had this one right away, and Jonathan was a half-second behind me.]
8. What famous actress thankfully inherited her looks from her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, rather than her father, the title star of Midnight Cowboy?

[Another perfect round for us. 67 + 8 = 75.]
See the answers

Round 7: Bust A Movie
Okay, so I’ve been a trivia guy for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of great, clever concepts for questions and had a lot of fun. And I am here to say that Round 7 of Geek Bowl 9 was, I think, my favorite trivia round I’ve ever seen. As the moderators explained, “We’ve had video rounds, audio rounds, movie rounds, singing rounds, celebrity rounds, and lots more. But tonight, for the first time ever, we are having a dance round at Geek Bowl.” Here’s what this means: GWD hired a dance troupe called the Keshet Dance Company to re-enact 8 dance scenes from movies. Players had to name the movies.

Keshet was phenomenal — exuberant, fun, and accurate. They drew enthusiastic cheers throughout, and a MASSIVE, IMMEDIATE standing ovation at the end. God, I loved it. My descriptions could not possibly do justice to the round, but lucky for me, there is video!

[Brian was an absolute star on this one, naming 2 dances the rest of us didn’t know at all, and getting there first on several others, even sometimes before they started dancing. Thanks to him putting us over the top, this was another perfect round for us, bringing our total to 83.]
See the answers

Round 8: Random Knowledge
Round 8 of any Geeks quiz is always called “Random Knowledge”, and random it is. At a regular pub quiz, it’s 8 questions whose point values vary anywhere between one and four, for an ultimate total of 16. At Geek Bowl, the Random Knowledge questions are all worth two points each. In addition, at Geek Bowl 9, the Random Knowledge round was EXTREMELY FREAKIN’ HARD! There were 16 points theoretically possible, but according to their official recap post, the highest anybody scored was 13, and the average was SIX points. Out of sixteen. It was brutal. And here it is:

1. According to Statista.com and several other sources, what two countries have the most Facebook users?
2. Which two cable shows were the last ones to win the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama series more than once?
3. a) What is the relative minor key of C-major? b) What’s the mathy-sounding name of the wheel that shows the tones of the chromatic scale with their major and minor relative tones? [Hooray for Jonathan, who spent his middle and high school years as a cellist.]
4. a) The Pleiades and the Crab Nebula are both in which Zodiac constellation? b) The Australian flag features the Southern Cross, otherwise known by what Latin name?
5. a) Now in Lebanon, what ancient Phoenician city lent its name to the purple dye favored by ancient rulers? b) Chemically, that dye owes its color to the presence of what halogen element?
6. a) What sort of environmental sensor did Apple add to the iPad Air 2? b) To the nearest hundred, what was the U.S. retail price of the original entry-level iPad?
7. a) The Bhagavad Gita takes the form of a conversation between a Hindi prince and his driver, who is actually what deity? b) They spend a lot of time discussing what Sanskrit word, which signifies the Hindu concept of “what is right”?
8. a) Half the people currently on the International Space Station are from what country? b) Since it’s expedition #42, they made a mission poster that’s ultimately based on the works of what novelist?

As with last year, there was a pre-emptive tiebreaker, a great idea to reduce the awkwardness of two teams standing on stage answering an extra bunch of questions. Also like last year, this was a convoluted and time-consuming question:

Take the number of ounces in a bomber of beer (B), then subtract the number of living original members of the Wu-Tang Clan (W). Multiply the difference by the number of landlocked member countries of the European Union (E). Add to the product the number of seasons the show Gossip Girl (G) ran. Or, in simplified form:

[(B-W) x E] + G

Thankfully, this round had a five-minute countdown to write down answers rather than two minutes.

[We scraped out of this one with 8 points. I sure am glad we didn’t wait to joker! So, our final Geek Bowl score was 91.]
See the answers

And there they are, the questions of Geek Bowl IX. If and when the Geeks release new video from the rounds, I’ll incorporate it here. Until then, see you next year!

$3000 novelty check made out to Mothras of Retention

This Promise Of Paradise

Another year, another music mix. I’m a little later with the liner notes this year — sorry about that. For the past few months I’ve found myself with a whole bunch of short-term, unduckable, hard-deadline projects. (Christmas counts as one of these. :)) My time is opening up a bit more now, so I’m finally able to get to these notes! This year’s mix is heavy on the Neko Case, a singer/songwriter I’ve loved for a few years but really dug deeper into during 2013. It’s also got plenty of the usual suspects (Folds, Nicks, Beatles) and some other stuff that grabbed me this year for a variety of specific reasons.

1. Ben Folds FiveHouse
I got hold of Ben’s box set in 2012, but it didn’t reach the front of the queue until early 2013. The discs are themed — rarities, live stuff, and “greatest hits.” He also got back together for a few tracks with the other two guys in Ben Folds Five (the Five was always a trio), and the hits disc has a couple of new songs from the band, including this one. I loved this song almost immediately. It reminds me of people I’ve known who have been traumatized in a family setting and then left the house behind. Maya Angelou talks about leaving her childhood home of Stamps, Arkansas — not just the place but “the condition that was Stamps, Arkansas.” The places where you go through great pain live inside your head themselves, and even if you can’t burn the house down, you can certainly choose never to re-enter that condition again.

2. Neko CaseAt Last
Oh Neko. Her songs are mostly short but I find them so electrifying. First, there’s her lyrics, elliptical and evocative in that Stevie Nicks way, but with an earthy, bloody touch that gives them a different tang in the brain. Then there’s the music, spooky melodies on country instruments, folk rock with the occasional jagged edge. And finally, the voice oh my god the voice. Neko has one of my favorite voices of anyone, ever. It is almost literally intoxicating to me — I can feel my nervous system lighting up like fireworks when I hear it — my breath gets short and my pulse gets quick. This song has a Dickinsonian quality to it as well, contemplating death with equanimity even as it embraces and longs for life.

3. Neko CaseRed Tide
One reason I dove depeer into Neko’s work last year is that I bought a ticket to see her sing in September, and wanted to know her ouevre a little better before I saw the show. As it turned out, she was sick for the concert, so although she still sounded PERFECT her energy was muted. I think my favorite performance was of this song, which is from the first album of hers I really got to know, a record called Middle Cyclone. Like many of her songs, it is compelling, immediate, and vivid to me. She sings it with this incredible full-throated authority, and again, it makes my brain buzz and my whole body want to be alive.

4. Johnny CashFolsom Prison Blues
I keep falling farther and farther behind on current music, because I find myself fascinated by filling the gaps in the knowledge I grew up with. Johnny Cash was one of those gaps. I’m not usually a country guy, but Cash to me transcends genre. He’s another one with an unforgettable voice, though in a whole different way than Case. (Hm, one letter difference. How about that?) But I only ever knew the barest outline of his work, so I got hold of an “essential” collection for him and added to my repertoire. This song is one of his most iconic, and for good reason. It’s got the great storytelling of folk music, delivered in a way that’s solemn, knowing, and a bit playful all at once. And he performs it *at the prison*. It’s a stunt, but what a stunt. (Apparently the cheers for “I shot a man in Reno” were added in post-production. Cheating!)

5. Ben Folds FiveAway When You Were Here
The BFF experiment on the box set was so successful that the band decided to get together for a whole new album, released in fall of 2012. My musical shelf being what it is, I didn’t listen to it until 2013. It’s very typical of their work, which is to say it is part rockin’, part silly, part thrilling, and part heartbreaking. This song falls into that latter category. I just love his lyrics, the way he can capture the interior experience with an image — “Sometimes a phrase or a manner that’s you / Comes through me and goes in a flash” — and then enact that image by paralleling “You seemed lost in clouds” and “When I’m lost in clouds.” God, that’s good.

6. R.E.M.The One I Love
In February 2013 I went once again to Austin, Texas, to compete in a big trivia contest called the Geek Bowl. That was the second time I’d gone, and as we’d done the first time, some teammates and I went to a great record store there called Waterloo Records. There among the incoming used CDs was R.E.M.’s Document, an album I’d always had on cassette but never had a digital copy of. So I snagged it for some low low price and revisited it later that year. It’s funny to come back to albums that came out when I was in my teens. (Document came out in 1987, when I was 17 years old.) I remember at the time wondering what it would have been like to be alive and aware when something like Sgt. Pepper, or Pearl, or Surrealistic Pillow was released. Well, now I know, and it’s lovely to get the same pleasure now that I got from the album 25 years ago. It felt like a classic at the time, because it was.

7. Glen HansardLies
I saw the movie Once when it was in the theaters — in fact, I didn’t know this at the time but the showing I saw was the very last movie shown at the movie theater on 30th and Pearl in Boulder, before they tore it down to build a Barnes & Noble. (Boulder used to have at least 4 different movie theaters — now it has one. Apparently the town can’t support that many movies?) I really liked the movie at the time, especially the music, so I put the soundtrack on my wish list some time later, and finally got it in time to listen in 2013. It’s hard to pick a song from this album, but this one seemed quite emblematic of the angst, longing, and fierceness that runs through the film and its music.

8. Lindsey BuckinghamThis Nearly Was Mine (instrumental)
I get impatient with a lot of Lindsey’s solo work lately, all breathy vocals and superfast virtuoso picking. It’s fine, but it gets pretty samey, especially compared with the record I see as his masterpiece, 1992’s Out Of The Cradle. That collection had some of his picking and sing-talking, but it also had fantastic pop songs like “Countdown” and “Don’t Look Down”, lovely ballads like “Surrender The Rain” and “All My Sorrows”, and beautiful instrumental passages like this one. I got the mp3 album from Amazon, burned it to CD last year, and spent some time reacquainting myself with it. “This Nearly Was Mine” is actually a Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, from South Pacific — it was a favorite of Lindsey’s dad, so it got included here as a kind of tribute. Lindsey’s treatment of it is uncharacteristically gentle — even his softest songs tend to have an aggressive edge to them, but not here. (Though the only link I can find is to a live version where he can’t help himself from slipping into virtuoso mode at one point.) He brings out the poignancy of the melody so much that I had to look up the lyrics, and having done so I decided to quote them for the title of this collection, promises of paradise kept, broken, and found at last.

9. The BeatlesHow Do You Do It?
Most of my Beatles Anthology listening was in 2012, but a bit spilled over into 2013. This is from the first one, which had lots of very early stuff from their formative days. That has limited appeal for me, but this tune I found fascinating. I’m used to stories of Lennon-McCartney compositions not recorded by the Beatles but made famous by other artists (e.g. The Rolling Stones having one of their first hits with “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which the Beatles only recorded later.) This song, though, wasn’t by Lennon-McCartney, but fits that early Beatles sound nicely. They recorded it but didn’t release it, and then Gerry & The Pacemakers took it to a giant number one. Great going, Beatles. Of course, they had their revenge when “From Me To You” knocked it off the charts. 🙂

10. Steven WrightCross Country
For Christmas 2011 I made my sister some comedy mix CDs, which allowed me to go out and collect lots of comedy I didn’t have digital copies of before. Steven Wright’s I Have A Pony was one of these. Picking a favorite Steven Wright joke is like picking a favorite Far Side cartoon, but one I’ve always loved is: “Last summer I drove cross country with a friend of mine… The whole way across we only had one cassette tape to listen to. I can’t remember what it was.” Seems like a fine inclusion for a music mix.

11. Iggy PopLust For Life
I’ve been doing an independent learning/writing project revolving around Alan Moore’s Watchmen, pursuing all the cultural texts it references (or is said to reference by fans.) There’s a panel in Watchmen that quotes Iggy’s “Neighborhood Threat”, which led to me getting the Lust For Life album and reading a biography of him. (I wrote up the Iggy/Watchmen connection here.) There are plenty of great songs on that album, but this one is just so magnetic to me, even after it’s been worn smooth by Trainspotting and endlessly repeated cruise commercials. I learned that Iggy actually improvised all the lyrics to this on the first take. Wow! Though I suppose it does explain the “hypnotizing chickens” and “had it in the ear before” parts better than anything else can…

12. Greg WellsDisarm
Okay, so here’s an odd one. This guy Greg Wells? He played a big part in my life recently — he hired me into my current job. Though an IT guy by day, Greg’s true passions are music and photography. He’s a talented musician with a home studio, and during my first couple of years on the job he was developing his most recent album, which is mostly covers with a couple of originals thrown in. He plays all the instruments on all the songs. Greg knew I was a music guy, so he’d periodically bring in draft copies of the album for me to listen to and give feedback on, which was a lot of fun. I ended up really liking this Smashing Pumpkins cover. I think his phrasing is actually better than Billy Corgan’s. I owe Greg a lot — he helped me out of a really bad work situation into something much better — but I’d enjoy this even if I didn’t know him.

13. Ben Folds FiveThe Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
I couldn’t restrict myself to just one song from this album. Nick Hornby wrote the lyrics for this one, as he did for Ben’s previous album Lonely Avenue. I absolutely love the Taupin-John thing those two guys do, and this time Hornby’s lyrics seemed to tap into Folds iconography, recalling the bright but dissatisfied Sara (spelled without an h) from “Zak And Sara.” I have a special affection for people with noisy brains, and I just adore the portrait of how disconnecting it can be to live among people who engage life on a different level, as well as how profoundly satisfying it is to find the life of the mind at last. Plus, this song rocks like a mother.

14. Ben FoldsNot The Same (live)
One more tune from the box set. I got introduced to Ben’s music when I saw him open for Tori Amos at Red Rocks. He played this song at that show, and he did the thing you can hear on this recording, introducing the harmonies to the audience so that they could sing them when the time came. At the end of the song, he climbed on top of his piano and conducted 9,000 singers. Our voices rang off the rocks, in three-part harmony, and I knew I had to find out more about this guy.

15. Neko CaseThe Pharoahs
This is another song from Middle Cyclone. It came very close to being included in the mix from a few years ago, when I was listening heavily to that CD, but in the end it didn’t quite make the cut. I decided to resurrect it since I was doing so much Neko this year — I’d always regretted just a little bit my decision to leave it out. I find the melody so hypnotic and elevating, along with the fucking brilliant imagery — “I listened in when you thought you were alone / Calling the sphinx on a tornado’s phone.” It’s such a perfect vignette of a young crush, that moment of growing up when “the wanting in the movies and the hymns” crashes up against the facts of real life and real people. And my GOD, that voice.

16. Stevie NicksBattle Of The Dragon
This song and the next one are from the same source: a Christmas 2012 mix CD I made for my sister called “Good Songs Bad Movies.” This pensive Stevie rarity is from the perfectly awful movie American Anthem, a starring vehicle for Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord. Mitch plays a guy who, uh, wants to be a gymnast. Anyway, this is pure 80s Stevie, a picture of a complicated and vexing relationship, played over sparkling, chiming synths. It deserved a better fate than exile to the American Anthem soundtrack.

17. EvanescenceBring Me To Life
Then there’s this song, which appeared on the Daredevil soundtrack. I’m a big fan of the character and I really, really wanted to like the movie, but I just couldn’t, which should tell you something about how bad it is. The song, on the other hand, I absolutely love. Amy Lee is like a heavy-metal Stevie herself, and this is my favorite thing she ever did — I always have to turn it up loud whenever I hear it. I relate to the lyrics probably more than I should. What I mean by that is they tap into that part of me that wants to save the people I love from their misery and pain. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I always have to keep an eye on how much it drives me, because it can lead to distorted decision-making. It’s really the perfect song for superhero movie, as it addresses the part of the superhero metaphor that I’ve imprinted upon very deeply. Too bad it couldn’t have come with a better movie.

18. AdeleHe Won’t Go
Speaking of rescues, this song is very personal to me. A major feature of my 2013 was watching a close friend spin into an extended crisis, which actually just hit its peak (Jesus, I hope so anyway) a couple of weeks ago. As I watched him go through cycles of recovering and relapsing, I worked hard to blunt the edges coming at him, to ensure he wouldn’t lose everything to a force he couldn’t control. I don’t know how much of that was being a loving friend and how much was my rescuer complex, but I think I did some good things in the end. So when Adele says, “If this ain’t love, then what is? / I’m willing to take the risk,” I hear it right down to my core.

19. Thompson TwinsLay Your Hands On Me
One more song about love and healing. I always thought the Thompson Twins were underrated, and this song is probably tied with “Hold Me Now” for my favorite of theirs. I was listening to a greatest hits collection last year, and this one jumped out at me for reasons similar to the Adele song above.

20. Bob MarleyHigh Tide Or Low Tide
Okay, perhaps more than I realized, the theme of this past year for me has been loyalty and dedication in love. Funny how you don’t always know what something’s about until you make it. I saw the movie Marley in 2012, and listened to the soundtrack in 2013. Bob Marley has always been a greatest hits artist for me, and he still is, but I really enjoyed digging a little deeper into his catalog. This is a gem that was overlooked until the movie featured it prominently — I don’t think it was even on any of Bob’s albums, though as I said I’m not an expert. In any case, it fit perfectly into my year.

21. The BeatlesThe Long And Winding Road
Yes, this song continues the love and loyalty theme, but the reason it featured in 2013 for me was that I finally got around to acquiring Let It Be… Naked, the version of Let It Be without all the Phil Spector overdubs and instrumentation. The biggest difference was on this song, stripped of the choir and orchestra that Spector layered onto the original version. I loved the original, but I think I like this one a little more. It is more powerful in its simplicity.

22. Neko CaseI Wish I Was The Moon
I close with one more from Neko, a piercing melancholy ache. I think I want to let this song speak for itself. “How will you know when you’ve found me at last? / Cos I’ll be the one, be the one, be the one / With my heart in my lap / I’m so tired, I’m so tired / And I wish I was the moon tonight.”