What started as a glorious fling has settled into the drab day-to-day reality of a relationship that might not be working out. Oh Spotify Discover Weekly, you seemed so right. You understood me. You knew what I liked and you gave it to me. Now, only 4 weeks into our time together, it just all seems so empty. How did it all go so wrong so fast? Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think so.
It’s not that you picked bad songs for me this week, it’s that you curated such a boring mix. The playlist is almost all so listenable, so nice, so predictable, so Adult Alternative. Music that’s good for me, but not always good music.
Much of this week falls under the umbrellas of World Cafe or Music by Starbucks or just plain Dad Rock. I want to curl up with a mug of tea and read a book. It’s music for people that don’t like music, but don’t want anyone to know. Make it stop! Make it stop! Give me some gristle, give me some bone.
I read a great piece earlier this week on Wired about the science of bad music playlists. The gist is the “brain privileges music that’s like stuff you’ve heard before.” Spotify and other streaming services takes advantage of this familiarity and the chemical response in your head. From Wired’s article:
“When you hear music that you find intensely pleasurable, it triggers a dopamine response,” says Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at the Rotman Research Institute.
When the music is so predictably similar, “the dopamine response will quickly diminish. It’s why people love improvisational music like jazz—it’s different every time.” So that Discover tab? It’s just giving me a short-term high, then I’m crashing hard.
None of this challenges me. Sure, there are some great tracks here, but I’ve heard it all before. It makes me want to change the channel and find something new.
Let’s get to the highlights, lowlights and the one crazy curveball of Week 4.
The playlist opens with “Pretty Good,” the closing track on side one from John Prine’s 1971 eponymous debut. And it is, um, pretty good.
I know I am supposed to like Paul SImon’s solo stuff, but it’s always been a big fat NO for me. Sure, “Kodachrome” was a giant hit from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, but why do I have to hear it again? Two songs in and you’re losing me.
However, track 3 has us back in business. The Nerves perfect two minute blast of angsty power pop from 1976, “Hangin’ on the Telephone” (later covered by Blondie) is an explosive rush of despair, passion and just plain awesomeness. Jack Lee, Peter Case and Paul Collins only released a handful of songs, but damn they were good.
“Pressure Drop,” a 1969 single from Toots & The Maytals, is a stone-cold classic. It also appeared on their 1970 album Monkey Man and The Harder They Come soundtrack in 1972.
“Lungs” comes from Townes Van Zandt’s eponymous 1969 album. With nothing more than an acoustic guitar, tambourine, powerful lyrics and his yearning vocals, Townes hits an easy home run.
Then we’ve got the batshit crazy “Spill the Wine” from Eric Burdon & War. I remember this song snaking out of AM car radios as a kid. Burdon had already lived two lives as leader of the R&B version of the (original) Animals, then leader of the hippy version of the Animals and now he had teamed up with funk/jazz band War. While Burdon wouldn’t have another hit after this, War went on the crush it repeatedly in the 70s.
What began as a side project for Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of The Jefferson Airplane became a full time band. Hot Tuna was a showcase for their musical chops and the instrumental “Water Song” from 1972’s Burgers is no exception.
“Farewell Transmission” from Jason Molina’s final Songs: Ohia album, Magnolia Electric Co. is the opening track to a masterful album. Steve Albini recorded the album and Molina was hitting his peak as a singer, songwriter and player. Haunting and gorgeous.
From the 4th J. Geils Band album, Bloodshot, “Give it to Me” captures their raucous live intensity in the studio. This one found its way into the lower reaches of the top 40 in 1973.
1974’s Natty Dread was the first album released as Bob Marley and the Wailers (as opposed to The Wailers) and the first recorded without former bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. “Lively Up Yourself” opens the album and became Marley’s perennial concert opener.
Graham Parker and the Rumour’s “Local Girls” comes from 1979’s Squeezing Out Sparks, their 4th album. Funny how he, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson were all lumped together back then as new wave’s angry young men.
The first real surprise is Dorothy Ashby, jazz harpist (yes, jazz harpist), laying down a funky groove on 1968’s “Afro-Harping.” This one swings and grooves like nobody’s business. A-plus!
There’s nothing really wrong with Dire Straits and they managed a handful of stellar tunes, but I just don’t need to hear them too much. “Down to the Waterline” opened their 1978 debut and it’s great. But there’s a reason I walked away so long ago. And I won’t be back very often. Sorry guys
Jerry Garcia lived to play music. In the early 70s when The Grateful Dead weren’t on the road he often teamed up with keyboardist Merl Saunders and they melded rock, jazz, country and blues in legendary live sets. Here they offer up a version of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” from 1973’s Live at Keystone.
Beck’s surf music inspired “Gamma Ray” from 2008’s Modern Guilt gets roughed up with a ragged Jay Reatard remix. Finally a little volume to counter the soporific haze of Week 4.
One of the biggest clunkers is Phish bassist Mike Gordon’s reggae-light “Yarmouth Road” from 2014’s Overstep, his 4th solo album. I am sure the fans love this one live, but NOPE, just nope.
In 2002 Broken Social Scene seemed to come out of nowhere with the gorgeous pop of their second album, You Forgot It In People. “Looks Just Like the Sun” is just one of the many great songs on that sleeper album.
Shortly after the Jimi Hendrix Experience broke up in 1969, Jimi began jamming with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. They played four shows on New Year’s Eve, 1969 and New Year’s Day, 1970 at the Fillmore East. Out of these legendary concerts they culled the Band of Gypsys 1970 live album. “Who Knows” is an epic track pitting Hendrix against Miles in nine minutes of vocal and musical improvisation.
Backed by most of Fairport Convention, Nick Drake brings us the electric folk of “Hazey Jane II” from his perfect 1970 album Bryter Layter.
Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso wrote “Panis Et Circenses” (Bread and Circuses), the opening track from the debut album by tropicalia legends, Os Mutantes.
Richard Swift is currently a member of The Shins and a touring member of The Black Keys. In 2008 he released the Ground Trouble Jaw EP. “The Bully” combines his surly spoken vocals with a ridiculous falsetto in a faux-fifties knockoff. Recommended.
Kraftwerk’s influence on electronic, dance, hip-hop and popular music in general can’t be overstated. “Computer Love” was the lead single from 1981’s revolutionary Computer World. Classic song from a classic album by a classic band.
“Cannibal Resource” opens Dirty Projectors’ 2009 album, Bitte Orca. Arguably their finest work and easily one of the best albums from that year, the music defies easy categorization, but rewards repeated listening.
“Range Life,” the song that got Pavement kicked off the 1994 Lollapalooza tour for dissing Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins, was the third single from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
“Bitterblue” comes from Cat Stevens’ 1971 juggernaut, Teaser and the Firecat. Unfortunately overshadowed by three hit singles, the track still packs a punch 44 years later.
Then it gets WEIRD. You may know “Look at Your Game, Girl” from Guns ‘N Roses “The Spaghetti Incident?” but it was originally recorded by Charles Manson in 1967. With his weak voice and acoustic guitar, the song is notable only for being a shitty song recorded by one of the the 20th century’s most notorious criminals.
Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills teamed up in 1968 for two days of recording that yielded Super Session. Bloomfield and Kooper tracked side one on the first day while Stills and Kooper cranked out side two the follwing day. Side two features a marathon version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”
Closing out this week’s playlist, it’s Genesis with “Squonk” from 1976’s Trick of the Tail. A squonk is a legendary creature from the forests of Pennsylvania. If captured it dissolves in pool of tears. Phil Collins reluctantly tracked the lead vocal on this track and became the lead singer in the wake of Peter Gabriel’s departure.
Spotify, my strategy for this week is to game your curation algorithm and spice up our relationship. Everything I listen to this week will be difficult, obscure and unpredictable. I will know Monday if I can beat your machine at its own game.