A little while ago, a friend sent me a playlist filled to the brim with goodness. And I couldn’t resist the urge to return the favour, thinking: “Wait a minute, if he likes that, he might like this.” Right, like a streaming service, but without the big data and clever algorithms.
This list covers both long-standing obsessions and recent fixations. I’ll try to explain what’s going on. And as you can tell, I got more elaborate as I worked my way down the list. Enjoy!
Wire – ‘Pink Flag’
To kick off a playlist with an entire album, 21 songs in total. Yeah, what self-proclaimed genius came up with that? Well, I did. But I admit it’s not nearly as unconventional a move as Wire’s first outing. ‘Pink Flag’ remains a puzzling, abrasive and expertly sequenced work of art, far greater than the sum of its parts. So I won’t chop it up.
Essential reading: ‘Wire’s Pink Flag’ by Wilson Neate (33 1/3, 2009)
Breastfist – A Lickin’
This is the crossroads where funk, pop, absurdity and strange pronounciation meet. The hilarious Breastfist is currently signed to Snarky Puppy’s GroundUP label, also home to Sirintip, Becca Stevens, Charlie Hunter, Bokanté and David Crosby.
Further listening: Dread Fruit, a nutty homage to the ‘pleasure textures’ of raisins, prunes and figs (“I’m gonna put you on a cheese”).
Circle – Tulilintu
If Breastfist feels like a Scandinavian band to me, it’s probably because something – I don’t know what, a straight-faced sense of humour maybe – connects them to the Finnish Circle, not be confused with short-lived jazz supergroup of the same name (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton).
You could never blame Circle for a lack of intensity. I catched the band live. First with fellow-countrymen Magyar Posse and Pan Sonic in Ghent (2007), later with Isis and Keelhaul in Antwerp (2009). I felt like being hit with a hammer twice.
Tulilintu, a portion of Circle’s ode to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBH, see Saxon, Diamond Head, Def Leppard) ‘Tulikoira’, was released in 2005 and features Mika Rättö manically screaming and barking amid a raging guitar blizzard.
Plini – Inhale
Australian guitar wunderkind Plini strikes the balance between technicality, melodicism and dynamics, ranging from ambient prog to jaw-dropping shredding. Better take a deep breath.
Mission of Burma – Academy Fight Song
The first single by these Boston art punks (1980). A combative song about not fitting in, and not wanting to either.
Keith Jarrett – Mortgage on my Soul [Wah-Wah]
Jarrett puts out an assault to brutal he can’t even hear himself hum along. The groove established by a band of serious A-listers (Dewey Redman, Paul Motian and Charlie Haden) is not too dissimilar of a dark drum ‘n’ bass track. Jarrett himself played soprano. But it’s Haden’s heavy wah-wah bass that really stayed with me – if you listen close enough, you can hear two basses – one fairly clean but with a fat tone, the other drenched in wah-wah. Until recently I figured it was Jarrett on a distorted electric piano, but there’s not even a piano in this song.
Snarky Puppy – Lingus
At 04:16, the liquid fusion of Lingus breaks down. The signal for Cory Henry to start building a new groove. He does so swiftly, with full mastery of technology, immense technique and shiploads of imagination. Shaun Martin, Henry’s keyboard compadre, just can’t believe what he’s hearing. And right when Henry reaches the peak of Mount Syntherest, the horns return. With a vengeance.
Ava Luna – Steve Polyester
This is the song that pulled me into the weird and wonderful world of Ava Luna’s ‘Infinite Houses’. With its dead-pan spoken vocals, it feels like a distant cousin to Laurie Anderson’s Sharkey’s Day (‘Mister Heartbreak”, 1984). Steve Polyester lives and breathes New York, just like Laurie and her late husband Lou Reed do.
Sébastien Tellier – Wonderafrica
French eccentric and onetime Eurovision Song Contest contender Sébastien Tellier, sings the praises of African wildlife in this gently rocking Italo synthpop safari.
Donny McCaslin – Praia Grande
Much to Donny McCaslin’s amazement, David Bowie turned up at one of his Greenwich Village gigs in 2014. The album ‘Casting For Gravity’ had left a deep impression on Bowie, who gloriously resurfaced after a long hiatus in 2013 and was plotting his next move, which turned out to be his final. The bond that Bowie and McCaslin forged was immortalized on ‘Blackstar’, Bowie’s swansong. Among the songs that got Bowie excited, was the extatic, vibrant Praia Grande, with a main theme that squirms like a python and a sax solo that roars like a lion.
Knower – Overtime
“I’m the frosted side of a Mini Wheat // You, you know that I’m so sweet.” Knower – Louis Cole and Geneviève Artadi – know how to inject their infectious brand of electrofunk with humour. While not nearly as wacky as The Government Knows or Die Right Now, love song Overtime features fabulous songwriting, a spacy timeless mood, great musicianship and seductive vocals.
Tatran – Strawberry Fields Forever
Hey hey, why does it say Tatran instead of the Beatles!? Well, dear reader, I’m the first person to admit that some classics are better left untouched. But this version by Israeli intrumentalists Tatran is achingly beautiful, adding something new to a much-loved melody. No mean feat.
The Troggs – Strange Movies
In 1966, The Troggs stormed the charts with ‘Wild Thing’. And mothers and fathers locked up their daughters. Things didn’t improve by 1973, when The Troggs and Reg Presley sang about their first encounter with an up-and-coming new film genre: “Sid and Mandy they were, uh, getting randy, uh uh // When Sue and Bill joined in // Jake was waiting and uh anticipating uh, uh // Started smoothing their skin // Then just to ease the strain // They all formed a daisy chain // They went uh uh uh uh uh uh uh, well!”
Lex Sadler feat. Ari Hoenig – Shibuya Crossing
Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing is one of the busiest intersections of the world. If you haven’t visited it in person, you might know it from Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost In Translation’ (2003). New York-based producer and musician Lex Sadler used the crossing as a source of inspiration to make the musical equivalent of a timelapse video. An ever-shifting trip that starts in the early morning and moves from rush hour chaos to neon-lit nightlife.
Max Tundra – Number Your Days
Just like Knower’s Die Right Now (‘Life’, 2016) and Motorpsycho’s When You’re Dead (‘Phanerothyme’, 2001) Max Tundra’s Number Your Days ponders death in a light and funny way: “Nothing happens when you die // You don’t leave your body or fly off into the sky.” Coupled with Tundra’s outlandish, melodic and all-embracing interaction with a multitude of influences (from crystalline pop to chiptune aesthetics), it makes for a gripping song that sticks out on an already excellent album (‘Parallax Error Beheads You’, 2008).
John Zorn – Erotico (The Burglars)
John Zorn lifted the enigmatic Erotico from Ennio Morricone’s score for ‘The Burglars’ (‘Le Casse’, Henri Verneuil, 1971) and turned it into a more organic (no pun intended) and frankly superior song, thanks in no small part to Big John Patton’s roaring Hammond. The same BJP recorded the iconic album ‘Let ‘Em Roll’ for Blue Note Records in 1965. Other Zorn acolytes like Bill Frisell (guitar) and Bobby Previte (drums) fill out the sonic mosaique, while Shelley Hirsch and Laura Biscotto provide appropriately erotic voices.
Maudlin of the Well – Gleam In Ranks
Before Toby Driver secured himself and his band Kayo Dot a deal with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, he made these peculiar dark metal rollercoasters with Maudlin of the Well (as well as gorgeous ballads, like Sleep Is A Curse). Gleam In Ranks travels from the quietly ominous to the downright evil, driven forward by a frivolous piano motif, guitars like chainsaws, twin kick drums and Driver’s voice, which goes from a whisper to a scream in the blink of an eye.
Cardiacs – Is This The Life?
Cardiacs are criminally good, but also criminally underrated and overlooked. That’s why you can’t just be a casual fan, you become a zealot. On Is This The Life?, Cardiacs approach things a bit more straightforward than they normally would. The feel of the song is not unlike that of Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood. You won’t find any weird twists and turns nor batshit crazy time signatures (compare Fiery Gun Hand) here, but you do get Tim Smith’s acerbic vocals, an epic guitar assault and a fierce band performance.
Massacre – Legs
New York again. Massacre was formed by experimental musician Fred Frith after the demise of avant-prog outfit Henry Cow in 1979. Frith moved to New York and, judging from the quirky, abrasive sound and conciseness of Legs, seemed to draw inspiration from the local No Wave-movement. Legs is wild, rhythmically complex (listen for Bill Laswells wobbly counterpoint) and as a whole irresistible. It’s a short distance from Massacre to math rock.
Cluster – Hollywood
An early electronic song that still plays tricks on me, after discovering it throug Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ ‘Works’ (1968-2005). In ‘Rock. The Rough Guide’, the author wrote: “What is so exciting, if you discover or rediscover these albums [‘Cluster’, ‘Cluster II’ and ‘Zuckerzeit’] now, is just how contemporary they sound at a time when the power of the drone is being re-invoked by a the new ambient-electro bands.” And if it’s true that’ Zuckerzeit’ sparked Eno’s interest in Cluster, then this mind-boggling track was probably his first taste of Roedelius and Moebius.