THE $100 “NOW PLAYING” ALBUM CHALLENGE
To the first person who knows all 13 records, I will DONATE $100 to the music-based charity of your choice
[UPDATE: $100 was donated to Sweet Relief’s COVID-19 fund]
THE $100 “NOW PLAYING” ALBUM CHALLENGE
13 DAYS, 13 RECORDS, $100
It’s been fun to see what has inspired people in the past, and it made me curious about what they’re listening to NOW. Musical taste expands, evolves… and it does seem harder to find new music as we get older, and IDK if infinite digital choice really helps. As a very-part-time music writer and a bedroom DJ, I try to keep a hand in.
13 ALBUMS I’VE BEEN LISTENING TO A LOT IN THE PAST YEAR OR SO
I’ll post one a day, and I’m adding context because my keyboard only works in run-on sentences these days. And I’m putting my money where my mouth is, betting on the Blue Room’s eclecticism: To the first person who knows all 13 records, I will DONATE $100 to the music-based charity of your choice. You have to have listened to every record front-to-back at least once, and provide “Slumdog Millionaire”-style proof. If no one knows them all — IDK, I’m making up a thing here — maybe we’ll go with whoever comes closest? Or who goes most out of their way to hear them all?
Inspired by friends on my Facebook feed who likely don’t know ea other.
- Robyn — Honey
I’ve been rabid for Robyn since first seeing the video for “Konichiwa Bitches.” Somehow I missed the release of “Body Talk” until Holly brought it around, and then I was full-bore buying everything post-2005 I could find of hers on wax — her sound became the linchpin for Toozday Nite Dance Party. It was a long wait for “Honey,” and it’s a very different record. Pretty much everybody called it “sad dance music,” and Robyn herself admitted it was full of “sad love songs.”
Strictly tempo speaking, it has far fewer songs than “Body Talk” in the naturally danceable 120-ish BPM range, but many tracks are danceable (eg, “Between the Lines”) and — even better — it hangs together as a great album of sad love songs. If rock, country, and the blues have taught us anything, it’s that sad love songs are everything. Robyn makes us want to live through it. “Dance Yrself Clean,” indeed.
We saw her play the first show of the “Honey” tour at MSG, which was great. Even better was the later show at Barclays: the band had been touring for months, and played it like a jazz set, re-mixing the songs live and turning the beat around like a sick DJ. It was a knockout. And yes, the crowd at her shows is a fun one — all-around inclusivity and letting your freak flag fly. Buy this record. Accidentally learn all the lyrics to “Ever Again” because you played it so many times.
2. Lowly — Hifalutin
I found Lowly’s “Heba” in an online list of synthpop releases, which I don’t think belongs under “synthpop.” But it is a breathtakingly beautiful record, and difficult to categorize. There’s very little out there about the band — I’ve talked a little with their people, and still want to interview them — but their press materials say that the only band they can agree on is Radiohead. It reminds me how fucking weird “Kid A” was when it came out, how unlike anything else, and it was only a few years later that it just sounded like music. Same for Lowly.
“Heba” is more accessible, and I had a hard time getting into “Hifalutin” when it was first sent to me by a publicist. But I kept listening, bought the record, and am convinced it’s brilliant on a “Kid A” level of, “you’ll totally get this in about five years.” Both records are frequent players in our weekend morning music section (where we keep stuff like The Sundays and Slowdive). I don’t know where I’d put them otherwise, they’re uncategorizable. If I were trying to sell them, maybe I’d put them with other Uncategorizable Bands? — like Portishead or The xx? (BTW, both “xx” and “I See You” were contenders for this list).
Nope. Lowly sounds nothing like either of those bands. If nothing else, listen to “Baglaens” and tell me it isn’t the most beautiful melody you’ve heard all year — comparable with, say, your child’s laughter, or the wind in the reeds near a mountain lake. It’s just gorgeous.
IDK much about this band but I know they deserve to have much more money, and to use it to make many more records.
3. Arcade Fire — Reflektor
I got “Funeral” like everyone else but never went all in. When they played from this album on SNL, all dressed in silver, I thought “whoa, these guys are weird,” and snapped this up, and then kind of forgot about it. It resurfaced from the collection in the last couple years and has been in constant rotation. The title track gets a night going, “We Exist” is anthemic, “Normal Person” hits the societal nail on the head, and the lyrics of “Afterlife” are downright upsetting. It’s a great record, one that rewards repetition.
Win Butler and Régine Chassagne took members of Preservation Hall to Haiti in 2015, and formed the Krewe du Kanaval to celebrate the twinned cultures.
This year, Arcade Fire headlined the Kanaval Ball during Mardi Gras at the Mahalia Jackson, a 2100 seat venue — tiny by arena rock standards. The attendees were costumed, and the set was stellar, with Win like a Neil Young-styled shaman and Régine an erotic robot. Richard Reed Parry seemed almost possessed, the air was electrically charged — and they built to a climax with dozens of people onstage, all the opening acts joining them, Preservation Hall Jazz Band musicians rocking with the band, dancers swirling to Haitian rhythms, until everyone formed a second line and marched off the stage and into the house. My wife, our friend Jay, and I all truly thought the roof was going to pop off the place.
This is the last live show I saw. But I think even if we weren’t in this new reality, it would still have gone down as the best show of 2020, and definitely lives in my Best Shows Ever list.
4. Soulwax — From Deewee
A front-to-back album for me. No misses. A particular joy on vinyl as each of the four sides ends with an infinite inner groove that even non-record nerds can enjoy, so subtle that in some cases you almost don’t notice the side has ended. It’s more of a fire it up, rock out record than DJ fodder, though it has a couple of ass-movers. (The follow-up record “Essential,” which they reportedly banged out in two weeks for the BBC, is just turntablist candy — especially now, with the vocal refrain “essential.”)
I don’t know how I missed Soulwax in the early aughts when they (and I, and everyone else) were doing mashups. Their extended mixes as 2ManyDJs are as inspired as they are comical — some of the mix choices are criminally brilliant.
“Missing Wires” was my first turn-it-up-to-11 pick on this album — that synth bass is disgusting — but lately I’ve been bitterly grooving to “Here Come the Men in Suits.”
Fun fact: Igor Cavalera, of Sepultura fame, plays on this record — first of two appearances on this list.
5. Ada Lea — What We Say In Private
Stumbled across this medium rock, singer-songwriter album randomly online, listened to it front to back without wanting to stop, immediately ordered the record (of course got the glow-in-the-dark version), realized that I was on her publicist’s list, and went to see their show at Union Pool and was completely Knocked the Fuck Out. The keyboardist Edwin de Goeij added so much, with such subtle backing vox. Talked to the drummer a bit and briefly met Alexandra Levy herself. (There was talk about a piece, but the interview didn’t happen, and I hope to try again.)
It would be easier to dismiss this as a break-up album if it weren’t so well done. “The Party” has had a good life online and deserves it, but check out the video for “Wild Heart” for a transcendent audio/visual experience. Some days, that’s my favorite song on the record; other days, the on-the-nose “What Makes Me Sad.” This record fills up the whole house with yearning. Such a vivid memory of cheering up my wife — in affirming tears — by blasting “Easy” in the bedroom after a death in the family. And yes, that was us, at that show in Brooklyn, yelling at the band and getting them to play “Easy,” though they hadn’t planned on playing it. That’s the one, “Easy,” that’s still the one to turn up loud. Except when it’s “Wild Heart:”
“Long live the wild heart, babe
Always groping for answers.”
6. Thelonious Monk — Monk’s Dream
Personally, I’m partial to “Straight, No Chaser,” but since now we all have roommates who never leave the house… my wife has been spinning this frequently, after she asked me to beef up the Monk collection. It whispers Monk’s individualism with melody and pacing. I play a disproportionate amount of jazz considering what a small part of my collection it is, maybe because it’s so versatile, useful in every part of the spectrum from active listening to background.
My friend Jon Solo has been playing for us every Friday at noon on Insta, and usually he’s playing his hauntingly beautiful, original ambient works (as Naneum), but a couple weeks ago he did all jazz and played a lot of Monk. It was the perfect thing to hear at noon on a Friday (especially while tasked with corporate drone work that couldn’t possibly matter less in the current world’s curriculum).
Maybe he’s not as popular as Coltrane or Bird or Miles — wind instruments are more flashy, led us right into the dazzling guitar solo era. But the piano holds the widest world, and Monk seemed to know it intimately, differently. He breaks up experience into shapes unfamiliar, but excitingly so.
7. Ladytron — Self-titled
I was late to Ladytron, and the band quickly became my #2 record-collecting obsession after Robyn. They have so many dark dance tracks, many with terrific remixes that are sick to spin and mix. “Witching Hour” is just a perfect record. “Seventeen,” from “Light and Magic,” is perhaps more haunting now than it was in 2002. It was a pretty big deal last year when they put out their first album after a long hiatus, and it was in the news for all the wrong reasons — it was part of the Pledge Music program, which died in an explosive paroxysm leaving artists unpaid and “Ladytron” tied up in storage and lawyers. The band’s team performed miracles to make it available, and around the same time I had the good fortune to see them play at Brooklyn Steel and interview Daniel Hunt for Bedford + Bowery.
A fun side note was the one-liner I couldn’t run in that article. I asked Hunt if he or Ladytron would do the soundtrack for the film version of Killing Williamsburg, and he said: “That sounds right up my street actually.”
Everyone called this record “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic,” and that was over a year ago. Play “Deadzone” as loud as you can bear.
Fun fact: Igor Cavalera, of Sepultura fame, plays on this record — second of two appearances on this list.
8. Rachel’s — Music for Egon Schiele
Rachel’s were a modern classical/experimental group, like chamber music with train tracks sound effects. This was the first album of theirs I heard in the late ’90s, and is more straight classical than their others. Later, I got obsessed with the record “Selenography,” and listened to it so much in 2016 when editing The Painted Gun that it became the soundtrack. I revisited “Schiele” while revising my Bangkok book and it’s still in heavy rotation. I picked up the vinyl even though the experts will tell you classical music sounds better digitally.
It’s crazy that a record this beautiful was created for a live theatre piece that, I’m guessing, ran for maybe a week at the University of Illinois. Like, is Rachel’s just one of those obscure pre-internet bands that only total nerds (or maybe punks in Kentucky) knew about, like Slint before Slint became so hipsterfied? Or does every neo-classicist worship them? I got to see them perform at the old Galapagos on N. 6th with a local chamber act (Invert) that put the show together, and it was hauntingly beautiful. Strings are alive, and in person you literally feel their warm vibrations.
Core members seem to be still working, including Christian Frederickson (viola) and the brilliant composer and pianist Rachel Grimes; sadly, guitarist Jason Noble died of cancer at 40 in 2012.
It’s great music to work to, beautifully constructed. My all-time fave is the track “Wally, Egon & Models in the Studio,” the cello melody gets me every time.
9. Sleigh bells — Kid Kruschev
I first heard “Crown on the Ground” at a burlesque show and thought, what the fuck is that? I bought “Treats” and flipped the record over, over, over and over for a solid week. They sound like ’80s industrial paired with screaming guitars, as played by humans fighting the robots for control of the dials. It’s aggressive. We saw them open for the Pixies (who opened for Weezer; I don’t want to talk about it) a couple summers ago at Jones Beach and were among maybe 50 people early enough to catch Sleigh Bells. They were slamming, even in daylight. I’m still yearning for a late-night, small club, dark and sweaty set — and so long as we’re dreaming, I’d also like to do a piece on them and get VIP-listed — and I was psyched for them to play the album “Treats” front-to-back this month in Brooklyn (now postponed indefinitely).
I waited in line for two hours to score “Kid Kruschev” at Record Store Day, a “mini-album” that has the usual album fat trimmed off — just seven blistering tracks. I’ll overplay it, then put it away for a bit and come clamoring back. “Blue Trash Mattress Fire” is so cinematic I wrote it into a TV pilot. In “Panic Drills,” the simple line, “Fucked me up when my dad died,” is so skewered by the music it cuts clean and deep, and the sentiment is driven even deeper in the tear-jerker “And Saints.” This record wants a convertible doing 90 on an empty highway. At night.
10. Stereolab — Emperor Tomato Ketchup
In 1994 (I think?) I went to Lollapalooza in Dallas and saw two bands on a side stage that I never forgot: an obscure Philly hip hop outfit called The Roots (whose drummer I’d get to meet 19 years later), and Stereolab. As the bassist in a punk band, I had no idea what the fuck these Euro-electro stylists were doing, but I knew it was awesome. Last year, Stereolab re-released a slew of their records, and I happily re-visited their heavier stuff from my era, “Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements” and “Mars Audiac Quintet.” But I keep coming back to my battered, fried-egg sounding, crap-quality ’90s release of “Emperor Tomato Ketchup.” Certain grooves are inscribed in my nostalgia, not tied to other memories but memories of their own.
“Metronomic Underground” gets me every time. We caught their tour at Brooklyn Steel and they did an eight-minute version that wasn’t long enough. That show was probably my favorite of 2019 — I’d expected it to be all aging hipsters and was surprised to find it completely mixed, nostalgic tourists like me pressed up against 20-somethings, all grooving. And my wife — who prefers their French Euro-pop stylings over their distorted, droning tracks that I like — snapped a picture of the crowd, recognizing the irony of her actions, because she couldn’t believe there were virtually no phones out. Almost nobody filming the moment, just a bunch of people in the moment.
11. Missy Elliott — Under Construction
Strictly speaking, I’ve been mad spinning the “Gossip Folks” Fat Boy Slim remix on the flip of the “Back in the Day” 12-inch, but that I’m cutting it into more recent house remixes is part of why I’m still so dazzled by Missy. Whatever she drops becomes the common style five years later. Did you see her latest? It’s so strange, but so was “WTF” just four years ago.
I was spinning a lot of hip hop in the early aughts. Beat Street in downtown Brooklyn was THE place to score your top-40 12s and all the bootleg classics you needed to fill out a set (I still have illicit pressings of Prince, Marvin Gaye, etc.) “Under Construction” came out the same week as the movie “8 Mile,” and my friend Kim and I were pretty much obsessed with both. This was a year after September 11th and New Yorkers were trying to get their groove back. Eminem used the “8 Mile” record to showcase a bunch of other artists that we didn’t know — particularly 50 Cent, who would drop his debut a few months later and turn “In Da Club” into the biggest earworm since “Happy Birthday.” 50 got a verse on the remix of “Work It,” which was a fun one to spin at parties since Missy actually yells out “Reeeeemix!”
I mean, everything about “Work It” was fun. It taught white people “Badonkadonk.” It was a woman in hip-hop bragging about getting some. She and Timbaland took the line, “I put my thing down, flip it, and reverse it,” and played it BACKWARDS as a hook. Seems simple, but it was mind-shattering at the time.
I love that the deep cut “Ain’t That Funny” is straight electro, and fits seamlessly into mid-teens mainstream, where everyone is EDM sometime. “Back in the Day” celebrated the ’80s, which dominated the decade, blasting synth-pop thru everything. And she featured both Jay Z and Beyonce, a year before they got together on “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” and then got together, changing culture forever.
The heartfelt between-track preaching is just a joy to revisit: “All that hate and animosity between folks — you need to kill it with a skillet,” she says. “We all under construction.”
12. Lucinda Williams — Car Wheels On a Gravel Road
Emmylou Harris — Wrecking Ball
I’m totally cheating and putting these two albums together, because in my house my wife often plays them as one and in my brain they’re just kind of melded. That Emmylou covers Lucinda’s “Sweet Old World” helps, as does Emmylou singing harmonies on the Lucinda track “Greenville.” Also the only records on this list that I don’t have on wax, embarrassingly. (Ugh, I covered Record Store Day in 2016, and completely failed to notice the Emmylou vinyl release — that record is now $100, minimum.)
Lucinda is one of the greats. The harmonies on “Right On Time” will grab you with that first track. “Lake Charles” is a personal fave. And Emmylou’s voice is pure spring water. I can’t think of another record of mostly covers that sounds like it was written and performed by the singer. All of these songs are hers now, and it’s a banner list of songs: Steve Earle, Jimi Hendrix, Gillian Welch, Neil Young. (PS, the record narrowly cut from this list is Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” which hasn’t been as prevalent in the last year, but has been on and off my turntable for 25 years.)
Somehow this became the perfect afternoon mellow music in our home, go-to Mardi Gras crafting music and just an overall warm, cozy sweater.
(RE: $100 contest, this one’s a gimme. If you know either record, it counts.)
13. AC/DC — High Voltage
If you asked me back in my metal days what band I’d still be listening to decades later, I’d probably have said Queensryche. I was never ride or die for AC/DC. I did see them play once, and it was both awesome and mostly about watching Angus freak out. But somehow they’ve become the metal I crave when I need something “crunchy,” as Maz calls it. I’m totally lying about playing this a lot lately, BTW — my wife, a Madonna girl, didn’t come from metal, but I did blast the fuck out of it last weekend just to scratch the itch.
Sure, everyone knows AC/DC, but do you really? Maybe you’ve danced at a wedding to “You Shook Me All Night Long” — hilarious that a track with the lyric “She told me to come but I was already there” became a wedding song, BTW — but that’s some Brian Johnson AC/DC. I’m talking Bon Scott AC/DC, the original gasoline. Take another look at “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll)” — remember the credits of “School of Rock,” when Jack Black chops it up like a jazz round, letting all the kids take a solo, and it goes on forever? — well, the original is just as long, with fucking bagpipes. It’s almost terrible.
And you can spin this shit, too — I’ve totally dropped “TNT” into house music — 125 BPM is 125 BPM, and it killz.