Thursday, May 17, 2007

In Search of the Perfect Playlist

I am an incurable creator of iPod playlists. What used to take days (mix tapes) or hours (mix CDs) now takes mere minutes, and I can’t resist the opportunity to create esoteric connections between songs.

“Listen to this,” I say to my wife. “See if you can spot the theme.” Then I play The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”

“Umm, songs about drugs?” she ventures cautiously.

“Nope,” I tell her, “songs written by people named Roger.” She then typically leaves the room.

But I can’t help it. This is the brave new world of the iPod, a world in which the most tenuous connections are only a click away. And I take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by a big music collection and a hyperactive, widely ranging mind. Recent playlists have included the Songs About New England States Mix, the Gloria Mix (with outstanding contributions from Bach, Vivaldi, Van Morrison, and Patti Smith), and the Notes and Letters Mix, featuring songs with references to Don DeLillo, Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon, and many more erudite 20th century writers. Okay, maybe I have too much time on my hands. I admit this with some trepidation, having fully outed myself as an obsessive nerd. But it’s also great fun, at least in the weird little world I inhabit, and it’s not uncommon for me to spend my Saturday mornings musing over the thematic links between, say, B.B. King and Queen (they both feature songs about fat-bottomed girls). Hey, it makes my rockin’ world go ‘round.

More than anything else, though, I look for the sonic connections. It’s what I listen for in reviewing albums, and it’s what I automatically gravitate toward when left to my own obsessive devices. I grew up with The Beatles and The Byrds, and I’ve followed the far-reaching threads of their music through Big Star and Badfinger and The Raspberries, REM and Robyn Hitchcock, The Posies and Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub. More than forty years after four young men from Liverpool remade the musical world in their own image, I still hear their reverberations everywhere. And they still sound bracing and invigorating. I am in a constant search for new power pop gems for the simple reason that the world can never have enough great three-minute pop songs with loud, ringing guitars and sweet harmonies.

And so, after much deliberation, analysis, and fretting, I offer the perfect power pop mix, circa 2005 and 2006. There were only two rules. First, all songs had to conform (more or less) to the hallowed mid-sixties power pop template. Second, all songs had to have been recorded in the past two years. And here it is:

1. The Safes – Cool Sounds are Here Again
2. Johnny Society – Don’t Talk Me Down
3. Richard X Heyman – Stockpile
4. The Broken West – Down in the Valley
5. Mas Rapido! – Girl du Jour
6. Pete Yorn – Georgie Boy
7. Fountains of Wayne – Someone to Love
8. Lemonheads – Pittsburgh
9. Apples in Stereo – Beautiful Machine, Pts. 1 – 4
10. Sam Roberts – When Everything Was Alright
11. The Sails – Peter Shilton
12. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs – And Your Bird Can Sing
13. The Essex Green – Don’t Know Why (You Stay)
14. Andy Partridge – My Train is Coming
15. Deathray Davies – Plan to Stay Awake
16. The Detroit Cobras – Cha Cha Twist
17. Graham Coxon – Freakin’ Out
18. A.C. Newman – Secretarial
19. The Orange Peels – Circling the Sun
20. Nada Surf – Always Love

This particular mix is bracketed by echoes of The Beach Boys and The Beatles. In between are sonic reminders of the early Who and The Kinks (you think Deathray Davies picked their name randomly?), two forays into late-sixties psychedelia, and two brief sojourns into the seminal garage rock of virtually forgotten bands such as The Easybeats, The Nightcrawlers, and The Shadows of Knight. But above all it’s the kind of sturdy, guitar-driven, and highly melodic stuff that has formed the backbone of rock music for the past forty-four years. What goes around comes around. The miracle is that, now well into the sixth or seventh popular wave of this music, it still sounds absolutely fresh and vital.

Like all such mixes, this one is very subjective and highly debatable. You would probably end up with a different mix, and I’d encourage you to come up with your own, assuming that you have an obsessive personality and a remarkably understanding spouse who tolerates long stretches of daydreaming in front of iTunes. But it’s my list, and it’s my story, and I’m sticking with it. At least until next week, when I’ll feel the need to come up with another playlist, perhaps a Best Songs About Sports Cars mix. Ah, the ways we fend off the midlife crisis.


jackscrow said...

I never understood the mixtape, playlist, etc....

Off topic and not probably not related to what you are doing, Andy, but I'm old fashioned (You think?) and I know the album format seems to be dying. I still buy and download whole CDs, not single songs.

I think you lose a big part of "something" when separating a song and listening to it out of sequence. Maybe it's just my limitation, but I often need those other reference points to really understand the song.

scott said...

I don't create playlists often, but my personal favorite is one I started a few years ago consiting of female name song titles. In alphabetical order. And this list has to have just the name as the title, which has caused several of my personal favorites to be left off - Dear Abby, Hello Mary Lou, Sheena is a Punk rocker and Sherry Darling come to mind. there are 102 songs on it right now, but none have been added for a couple of years.

Andy Whitman said...

Jackscrow, I value the album format, and I certainly listen to them all the way through. But I still like my "Gloria" playlist. Because nobody but me has ever made that album.

Scott, I have a "Girl's Song Names" playlist as well. I'm not as picky as you are, though. "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" and "Dear Abby" both made the cut.

e said...

Andy, I'm glad to know that the voices are in your head as well.

How did you manage to put my favorite Nada Surf song on the same mix with my favorite Detroit Cobras and Lemonheads songs?!?

And that Matthew Sweet/Bangles pop gem. Your claim to the best 05-07 altpop mix might actually be verifiable....

scott said...

"Sherry Darling" didn't make your "Girl's Song Names" play list?
Patti Smith's and U2's "Gloria" are back-to-back on mine.

SON LUX said...

if you make a walking-in-the-rain or meditating-in-the-dark playlist, please add me to it.