By Jake Shenker
Last week I was talking to a friend of mine about his hatred of iPods. It’s not that he has a personal grudge against Steve Jobs — no, my friend has a problem with MP3 players in general. “Yes, they’re convenient,” he says, “but no one listens to albums anymore. People just skip through their thousands of songs until they find the one track in ten they want to hear.”
In a sense, my friend is right. The concept of an album is fairly young — some might argue it started with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul — and it’s frightening to think that the genre is going the way of the dodo, replaced by iTunes Top Tens and Singles of the Week. But I love my iPod — all 80 gigabytes of it — and it’s not just because I can store the last 100 years of recorded music on a slab of metal smaller than my wallet. My iPod lets me discover forgotten songs, those album closers and filler tracks that never quite made it past my ears and into my memory.
I routinely pop my iPod on shuffle and pray for the best, and I’m routinely disappointed. When I’m dancing while I shop for groceries, it gives me J.S. Bach; when I’ve got dinner guests, it gives me System of a Down. But one day last month, I hit the shuffle button and my iPod got it right. Perfect song after perfect song, I was treated to the kind of playlist they must have in heaven. I never skipped a single track.
Here is my epic shuffle playlist.
1) Barenaked Ladies — “Brian Wilson” from Gordon (1992)
What self-respecting Canadian doesn’t love the Barenaked Ladies? What makes this song even more awesome is that apparently Brian Wilson himself has played it to open shows.
2) Talking Heads — “Don’t Worry About the Government” from 77 (1977)
The original song about buildings, from Talking Heads’ debut album 77. “Government” is the quintessential quirky, upbeat David Byrne composition, and never ceases to make me laugh (and dance).
3) Hey Rosetta! — “Red Heart” from Into Your Lungs… (2008)
These guys have been impressing critics since before their newest record won them the album of the year award at XM Radio’s Verge Music Awards (no lame statuettes here: they won a cash prize). “Red Heart” is a recent single and epitomizes the slick production, tight songwriting, and flawless instrumentation that make Hey Rosetta! great.
4) Jeff Buckley — “The Way Young Lovers Do” from Live at Sin-é: Legacy Edition (2003)
Jeff Buckley is of course best known for his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and his debut album Grace, but true fans cherish the triple-disc Live at Sin-é: Legacy Edition. This masterpiece features a pre-Grace Buckley alone with this guitar, singing mostly haunting covers of classic rock, soul, and folk. “The Way Young Lovers Do” is from Van Morrison’s seminal album, Astral Weeks.
5) Kelly Joe Phelps — “Crow’s Nest” from Tunesmith Retrofit (2006)
Originally a world-class slide-guitar player, Kelly Joe Phelps has slowly morphed into a world-class songwriter. Phelps’ soft, blues-infused voice shines on this track – the opener from his 7th album, Tunesmith Retrofit – and the Irish-inspired violin solo after the bridge is exceptional.
6) The Holloways — “Fit For a Fortnight” from So This is Great Britain? (2006)
I’ve long described The Holloways as the bastard child of The Clash, The Jam, and The Specials — a kind of hybrid neo-brit-punk-ska-rock superband. This track features the group’s signature double lead vocal by singers Alfie Jackson and Rob Skipper, and opens with a fantastically catchy harmonica lick. It simply doesn’t get better than this.
7) Elvis Costello — “No Action” from This Year’s Model (1978)
The opening track of Elvis’ second album, This Year’s Model, is a frenetic track with painfully catchy vocal harmonies in the chorus. At just two minutes long, “No Action” breezes from verse to chorus to bridge, packing more melodies than I can count on one hand.
8) Marcia Aitken — “I’m Still in Love” from Jonny Greenwood is the Controller (2007)
Jonny Greenwood is no reggae superstar — he’s just a guy with a lot of old reggae records. Of course Greenwood’s day job as the lead guitarist of Radiohead gave him the credibility — and funds — necessary to release this compilation of old reggae tunes. “I’m Still in Love” has all the features you’d expect of classic reggae, but also borrows some classic soul influence. For a modern equivalent, think James Hunter with more dub.
9) Michael Franti & Spearhead — “Food For the Masses” from Live at the Baobab (2000)
Although Michael Franti & Spearhead’s more recent music has lost the edge of their classic funk-infused hip-hop, their 2000 live album, Live at the Baobab, is as honest and powerful as hip-hop can possibly be. Franti’s charisma stands out in the tiny Baobab, and Spearhead’s stripped down, partly acoustic sound lends itself perfectly to the venue’s intimate size. The front half of this album is mostly solo-Franti spoken word, and “Food For the Masses” is nothing less than eloquent poetry delivered with passion.
10) Cat Stevens — “On the Road to Find Out” from Tea For the Tillerman (1970)
To me, Cat Stevens has two styles: big, cheesy 70s arrangements and timeless acoustic folk. I love it all, but “On the Road to Find Out” is definitely of the folksier variety. This is the kind of tune I’d imagine singing to a child as a lullaby, and it’s the perfect follow-up to Michael Franti’s aggressive rapping on the previous track.
11) Frank Zappa — “Peaches en Regalia” from Hot Rats (1969)
“Peaches” is one of Frank Zappa’s most succinct instrumentals, and, potentially, his most beautiful. If you never got into Zappa because “he’s too weird,” give this track a listen. It might just change your mind.
12) Michael Jackson — “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” from Off the Wall (1979)
I don’t want to live in a world where shuffle playlists don’t contain at least one classic Michael Jackson track.
13) Tumi & the Volume — “Signs” from Tumi & the Volume (2005)
This organic hip-hop group hails from South Africa and is comprised of emcee Tumi Molekane and members of dub outfit 340ml. While I’d love to write a nice long review of this track, I really need only say one thing: if you like hip-hop, check these guys out — you’ll be blown away.
14) Stillwater — “You Had to Be There” from the EP included in the Almost Famous: Untitled Bootleg Cut DVD set (2000)
Yes that’s right, Stillwater is the fictitious band from the movie Almost Famous. Make fun of me all you want, but this fake band had some fucking catchy songs. Of course, the songs were actually written by Peter Frampton, director Cameron Crowe, and former Heart vocalist/guitarist Nancy Wilson, but… well, a great song is great, fake or not.
15) Tim Armstrong — “Oh No” from A Poet’s Life (2007)
Tim Armstrong is the frontman of punk band Rancid, but don’t let that scare you — his debut solo album, A Poet’s Life, is all ska and dub. Remember the Rancid single “Time Bomb?” Yeah, this is like a whole album of that.
16) Nirvana — “About a Girl” from MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
Forget Nevermind — I think MTV Unplugged is the best thing Nirvana ever did, and I’ve read enough interviews to believe that Kurt Cobain agreed with me. Take some simple grunge songs, slap on a string quartet, bring along the Meat Puppets, and you’ve got one hell of a post-grunge alt-rock acoustic extravaganza. It’s all kicked off by “About a Girl,” a once-forgotten track from Nirvana’s indie debut, Bleach.
17) The Beatles — “Two of Us” from Let it Be… Naked (1970/2003)
If you subscribe to Beatles lore, you believe that Phil Spector ruined Let it Be. That notion is the basis for the recently released Let it Be… Naked, which has been re-mixed, re-mastered, re-sequenced, re-designed, and re-released free of Spector’s “damaging” influence. Whether you dig the original Let it Be or want Phil Spector burned at the stake is irrelevant — sonically, this re-release is far superior to the original 1970 album. It might be the best indication of what we’re in store for when the Beatles’ remastered catalogue is released this September.