I decided to make a playlist based my record shelf at the onset of shelter-in-place. That turned into picking one song off each album on the shelf (that is available on Spotify). It's either the song I most associate with the album, or in the case of some absolute classics that can't be parsed, the first track. The next challenge was to write a bit (~200 words) on each selection. This is the archive of that chronicle that I'll update weekly (more or less). This is a link to the playlist.
Makaya is an absolutely incredible drummer and “Black Lion” is a great example of that: The patterns and fills, the constant yet unhurried motion/propulsion of his playing gives the song shape and an emotional core. As far as drumming goes, he’s at the top rung of the ladder and went ahead and put another ladder on that to climb to the top of.
Makaya’s also a great composer and collaborator and guess what—this is also a great example of that. Joel Ross is on the vibraphone, which to my ears, acts as a sort of vocalist. Specifically, his playing comes off as a rapper that’s staying on the beat, adding hooks within the cadence, and has a refrain that drives home the point—that constant chime is saying, “Listen up.”
The other players—Brandee Younger on the harp (yes, a proper fuckin harp), Tomeka Reid on the cello (bowed and plucked on this song), and Dezron Douglas on the double bass—all weave their voices into the mix at different moments in the song. They’re kept under the drums and vibraphone in the mix, their voices a bit buried before fading out entirely and giving way to the beat of time and the chime of the main voice.
At least, that’s the pattern ‘til we hit the song’s climax. Makaya hits the big cymbal a couple times and the sounds hollow out for a beat before everyone comes in and proclaims their piece, crying out to be heard. It’s frenetic and vital. Pretty easy to fill in a story here—in June of 2020, I don’t think you need me filling in those blanks.
I will refer back to a conversation I had years ago, though, while setting up the bar for service. I used that time to explore records I was still getting to know. I don’t remember what was playing this day, but my coworker commented on how great the lyrics were. “Oh? I love this song, but lyrics are usually the last thing I hear.” This led to one of the most harmlessly absurd statements I’ve ever heard made in person: “Lyrics are the whole point of music! I know: I’m a musician!”
The reason I love music is that lyrics are a part of it, but great music gets its point across without you needing to hang on every word. In the hands of an artist, music can tell a story that spans time and space without words or in a language you don’t understand. Music communicates soul to soul when the artist and audience are open. Go see Makaya play and tell me he needs a singer out there to tell you a story that will resonate in your soul.
The first turntable I set up was my dad’s old table from his college days and I set it up where I was more or less living—the basement of my parent’s house. I was pulling myself out of a bad few years and access to his turntable and records was one of the stitches that mended our relationship.
Small Change is one of the first few records that I put on that table—for sure the first by an unfamiliar artist. There was a hint of Tom Waits’ legend floating in my mind and it was absolutely the roguish character in the foreground and not the pasties in the background that had me pulling the vinyl out of the jacket.
If not for the bouncing bass and immediate vocal power of “Step Right Up,” I may not have made it through the record. With the opening track (“Tom Traubert’s Blues”) as my only point of reference, this knocked me on my ass. The demonic circus barker, sex-fueled corner salesman, skillful, emotive, insightful, unhinged vocal performance utterly intoxicating.
There are too many lines to keep up with or recall in whole, but every listen allows for new surprises—”you need perfume? we got perfume, how bout an engagement ring?” In my early 20s, I was infatuated by the writing and performance that went into the body of this song. In my early (fine, mid) 30s, I’m gobsmacked by the ending:
How do we do it how do we do it how do we do it how do we do it
We need your business we're going out of business
We'll give you the business
Get on the business end of our going-out-of-business sale
Anyone barking at you for business has some small print ready to take away all their promises. Anyone listening to you and then has an offer is probably dubious, too, but maybe there’s a chance. Anyway, we should go play some bocce.
Fuck me running is this is a perfectly written song. The verses suit my preference towards “specificity nodding to universal” and general concern about connection in the modern world—seeking it through “tiny screens” and lacking it in the sheets next to “me.”
It’s not really the verses, though (and is it ever?), that elevate this song above the rest on the album. The chorus is timeless:
I need you more than I ever have
Because the future’s here
and we can’t go back
Put me in a big room or field with thousands of other fans singing along with Corin and Carrie, but make it not a coronavirus nightmare please and thank you. Everyone (fine probably not everyone) can relate to that chorus—why am I even trying to come up with a description? Let the song crank and feel it in your bones.
This band rips and I have Rachel to thank for getting me to really care about them. We watched them in a field together and sang along (when appropriate) and it was great. I miss live music. As I get older, there are definitely things about attending a concert that I have started to complain about, but no more (unlikely—I'll complain again eventually). I will cherish being in the church of live music.
“Hang Loose” | Alabama Shakes | Boys & Girls 
Not every record on my shelf is a current favorite and there are some that got a lot of play at first, but now sort of sit there. Boys & Girls had a good run of spins back around 2012 and up to the release of their second record. Now, though, it’s more or less shelved.
That’s not a knock on this bluesy beauty of a debut record. Alabama Shakes came out the gate with songs that grab ya by the ears and hips. Zac Cockrell’s bass gets “Hang Loose” off to a rippin start and provides the backbone and propulsion for Brittany Howard’s big voice and reassuring lyrics.
“Let the ocean worry ‘bout being blue.”
“Sound & Color” | Alabama Shakes | Sound & Color 
This was the first tough choice. There were four songs that jumped out from reading the back of the jacket. A breeze through those choices narrowed it down to the first two tracks—“Sound & Color” and “Don’t Wanna Fight”—and I had no idea how to split ‘em.
First move was to ask myself which song features more prominently on playlists. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is a banger with energy and attitude. It has definitely been on its fair share of bocce playlists and I’d put money on it being the song I’ve heard most from the record.
The deep chime of the first chord (vibraphone + bass?) is so primal and beautiful. The intro of the song sounds like the dawn of a new age—Sam Esmail has it close out Mr. Robot’s first season—or some brand new bit of tech opening for the first time—Mr. Tom Apple chose it when debuting a new iPad. To me it sounds like our wedding ceremony transitioning into the cocktail hour.
So yeah, that plus this record being a bona fide classic in my book means Sound & Color gets “Sound & Color.”
“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” | The Animals | Best of…
Bartending at Charlatan was generally great and even off nights benefited from the turntable and record collection. Lyle and Anthony provided a great foundation of records which Enochs, Ryan, Kevin, patrons and myself would bolster with our own contributions. It was a great place to explore.
It also had a vibe. These were the Three Aces guys. It was rock n roll. A record store rule of thumb for me used to be every trip includes a $25 budget for used records. These forces led to a best of The Animals record sitting on my shelf. I had no preexisting relationship with this band.
Solid songs and sound, but I don’t know that I care all that more about them than I did before the impulse buy. I don’t really understand the idea of putting a best of record on at home, though, so this would be one of the first to go if pressed.
“Criminal” | Fiona Apple | Tidal 
We splurged on cable when I started careening towards puberty and I'd watch MTV before bed with my finger hovering over the “channel return” button. There are probably plenty of great long-form articles dedicated to the video for “Criminal," but here's my short list of reactions: 1) freaked me out, 2) I couldn’t look away, 3) I dug the song, and 4) I was too insecure to say I liked the song.
This record isn’t on my shelf because of the confused feelings of my prepubescent self, though. Technically, it’s on there cuz of my Vinyl Me, Please subscription and they collaborated on the first pressing of this record. So, I was stoked to see that Tidal would be coming my way. There isn’t a song to skip front to back. This album fucks, to use the parlance of our times.
I might second guess this proclamation later on in this project, but right now it feels like this is the best debut album on my shelf. She wasn't even in her 20s yet. What a tremendous artist. Ten year old me didn’t appreciate that, but I’m sure glad I grew up and listened to Apple’s music again with mature ears. Final note: Holy shit, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
“Haiti” | Arcade Fire | Funeral 
Well, I guess I’m going to have to write about Arcade Fire for a bit, eh? There are 8 bands/artists with three or more records on the shelf. Arcade Fire have four, which is more than all artists aside from Wilco. They’re not quite second behind Wilco when it comes to closeness to my heart.
I would respectfully listen to anyone that doesn’t care for Arcade Fire or plainly thinks they’re wack. I think they’re fun and interesting and a song like “Haiti” is hard to argue against if you like tapping your toe, nodding your head, shimmying your shoulders, etc.
I put this song on repeat while writing and I’m confident it played 8 times without me getting even a little sick of it. The bassline is just interesting enough to roll through you pleasantly for four minutes straight without changing. The bass, snare and shimmering acoustic guitar are enough of a hook to make a winner, but I hope I’m not the first to tell you that this is not a power trio.
The multi-instrumental, dynamic, and textured songs get to me. The idea of a collective. Singing to the back row, to the kids that don’t know where to go or how to move their bodies when the music moves ‘em. Treating the album as the full statement and not the box you put your songs in. Other sentence fragments.