Mark: Last month, I took a look at the first ten songs on my friend Mike’s 2021 Top Songs playlist. I’ll bet that everyone has either forgotten about that, or has just assumed that – like last year – I would just start this “series” and never finish it.
Let me tell you… I also thought that maybe I would never get back to this.
Not because I didn’t enjoy writing the first post. On the contrary, writing with Mike was an absolute delight! That post even yielded at least one song that has landed in my fave’d songs list that I don’t skip when it comes on shuffle. We might find more!
But, really, sometimes it’s hard to bring oneself to write a blog. Life and these times get in the way! It is often easier to just… not do things. Such feelings are meant to be resisted, though. It is better to push through and try to do fun and nice things with your friends and family when you’re able.
And, with that collection of, uh… opening thoughts… I welcome back… my friend Mike.
Mike: Zzzzz-wha? Yes? Hello? Oh, we’re ready? Alright! *coughlinktoplaylistcough*
Cleo Sol – “Build Me Up”
Mark: Eight minute song right out of the gate. Mike, I thought you had a kid. How could you possibly have time to listen to this many never-ending songs?
Very warm sounding piano & vocal arrangement to this one. Super classic sounding chord progressions give it a rather timeless feel. I have zero complaints about it two minutes in. Mega-pleasant. But… will it remain mega-pleasant for eight full minutes?
Haha, okay, it sounds terrific when the bass and drums enter the fray. Terrific dry drum sound, and the bass is like a big hug. Wait. Did I just hear fucking bongos?
Song shifts to another mode at around the halfway mark, and it’s a very good decision. We move from a piano-driven vocal ballad to more of a cool, swooning jazz sound. It sounds great. The vocal work is very nice, and there’s an electric piano sound in the mix that I’m loving.
Honestly, I wish there were a shorter version of this song, because it works on so many levels… but if I am driving and this song comes on shuffle, I will immediately get intimidated by seeing its 8:02 length and hit “skip”.
Mike: Everything Cleo Sol has touched so far in her career is absolute gold. I am a super-fan. Happy to see you commenting on the instrumentation and sound, cuz the album is produced by Inflo, who is an absolute genius of sound. The song is long, but it’s a stunner, so I had to choose it for the playlist, but honestly I could have picked any song off this album. Oh, and while we’re talking about arrangement and production, the vocal harmonies around the “build me up” part are beautiful.
And to answer your original question: Very mild weed and very good headphones.
Nao – “Messy Love”
Mark: I like the guitar part quite a bit, and the off-kilter percussion gives this a really interesting feel. The chord progression keeps me guessing in a way that I have some appreciation for me. Overall, though, I’m not sure that this is for me. The vocal performance has a vampy affectation that isn’t doing it for me, and I don’t love the chorus.
This is okay, but misses the mark for me. I like some of the production choices a lot, though.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Soundgarden lately.
Mike: Layered vocals and intricate production is basically what I’m looking for in a song like this. Plus Nao has an amazing voice. She kinda hides it behind the whispy quasi-falsetto delivery on her records, but if you see her live it becomes very apparent she is a powerhouse singer.
Arlo Parks – “Eugene”
Mark: I’m surprised by how many of these songs are built around cool guitar parts. It’s like somebody took a song that I would discover in my own searches, excised 6 seconds of guitar and build a loop around it. Which isn’t really a complaint! I like this a lot.
All of the sounds are great here. Pretty sure that the central guitar sample is actually a bass, which makes me like it even more. The cavernously reverbed electric guitar that makes a few appearances is delicious, and the atmospherics that arrive to bump up the chorus work very well. I like the vocal hook in the chorus well enough and the performance throughout is pleasant, even if it does fall into the marble-mouthed enunciation that young singers seem to be addicted to these days.
Kids these days. Have they even tried to enunciate when they sing, the way that Chris Cornell enunciates as he pleads “HOW WOULD I KNOW that this could be my fate?!” to the listener in “Fell On Black Days”?
I bet they haven’t even tried it.
Mike: I think what you’re reading as marble-mouthed is just a British accent?
Arlo Parks was 20 years old when this album came out. The music is solid, but I’m really blown away by her lyrics. Really sophisticated and mature, both from a textual and emotional standpoint. Is there anything more relatable than being jealous of the relationship of a friend you’re a little in love with? “You play him records I showed you. Read him Sylvia Plath. I thought that that was our thing. You know I like you like that. I hate that son of a bitch.” Excited to see how good she gets as she grows.
McKinley Dixon feat. Sean Price – “Bare Knuckle”
Mark: Oh, this is fun as hell. The horn hits and bouncy beat both feel great. This song has a certain head-nodding vibe that I feel like more songs should hit. It puts me in a good mood.
The production work on this is killer. Loving the filtered samples and… guitar solo vs trumpet solo showdown? I didn’t know that I needed such a battle in my life, but here we are. The whole effort supports the rapped vocals so well, and everything is kept fun and cool. I’m no rapping connoisseur, but I like most of what’s going on here. I like it when people are rapping and they aren’t trying to sing and they also don’t sound half-asleep. But honestly, what do I know? I like this well enough!
Perfect song length, too. No real notes. Probably going to fave this one.
It’s no “Jesus Christ Pose”, but I might spin this on shuffle sometimes!
Mike: Yeah, I’m with you. This is a great beat and super fun to listen to. And we’ll thank god for small mercies that it’s not Jesus Christ Pose.
Priya Ragu – “Leaf High”
Mark: Very nice vocal performance. This doesn’t really start to click for me until the beat enters, and the hook is set. Good, catchy chorus. The rapping in this is far less appealing to me than the rapping on the previous song! Not for me!
The bass tone in this song is hilariously fat. I dunno, this is just okay. I don’t think that it’s so remarkable that I would ever give it another listen. They really buried the 90s gangsta rap portamento synth lead, and I have to say… if you’re going to have one of those on your song, bring it to the FRONT because it is always VERY entertaining.
Almost as entertaining as Down on the Upside, the final Soundgarden studio album from their original run of albums. It doesn’t get the kind of credit that it deserves.
Mike: I like the abrupt ending of the delay-effected guitar solo. It’s not at the top of my list of fave songs of the year. But It’s a catchy, fun song to bop to, and I’ve listened to it more times than all the Soundgarden songs ever recorded combined.
Jorja Smith – “Burn”
Mark: This song opens up with the singer requesting that the click be turned off, presumably because they want to really feel the track. I can respect that, but there’s something about the wood-block/rimshot percussion track that sounds a lot like a click track to me! Actually, maybe that’s why the singer wanted it off. Too many clicky sounds all at once.
Nice voice, but I’m very bored. There are better songs on this list that occupy similar territory. I would rather just listen to them.
Kind of like… sure, Audioslave albums exist, but they’re really just kind of crappier Soundgarden at the end of the day, so why wouldn’t I just listen to Soundgarden?
Mike: This song is perfection and I will not hear otherwise. Maybe she actually said “could you turn the dick off, please?” in anticipation of your second paragraph here.
serpentwithfeet – “Sailors’ Superstition”
Mark: Not really digging the pared back drums and vocal off the top, but there’s more to dig into by the time the chorus arrives. Some crunchy synths play around pretty subtly underneath the percussion, which dominates. The production is super crisp. The vocals have that autotune-as-an-effect quality that I’ve never been a fan of. The pre-chorus and chorus fare a little better than the rest of the song, for me.
This isn’t really my thing, but it’s got a silky vibe that I think a lot of people could get behind.
You know what else has a silky vibe? The fucking vocal performance in “Black Hole Sun”. Does it even get any better?
I honestly can’t say.
Mike: I love a lot of things about this song, but I’m here to say that my very favourite thing is the “ayyyyyyy” that leads into each chorus. It makes me smile every time I hear it and helps me lean right into that chorus with my whole body.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – “Promises”
Mark: I like the funny mouth sounds!
The twinkling, arpeggiated chords being plunked out here are gorgeous and mysterious!
I don’t know what to make of this, but I’m enjoying it. AHHHHH fuck that saxophone scared the fucking shit out of me. WOW. That thing comes out of nowhere!
This piece feels like the score from an interstitial segment in a 70s/80s film, which is to say: This rules. Would probably put this album on to get some work done, and feel very cool about it.
The saxophone wails. In an almost Chris Cornell way.
Mike: This album was the most pleasant surprise of the year. A wonderful collaboration and Pharoah Sanders simply killing it with a late career masterwork. If you liked this even a little, I recommend listening to the whole piece. It goes a lot of interesting places, anchored by that arpeggiated chord progression.
Yola – “Like A Photograph”
Mark: This has a classic vocal pop vibe that is crushing me. In a good way!
Huge, rich production. This song feels like something I’ve already heard, in that the composition and arrangement are incredibly timeless. I feel like classic R&B throwback tracks are a dime a dozen, but this kind of huge 60s/70s vocal pop sound doesn’t get enough attention. It’s not often that I get to use the word wistful, but here I am. Using it.
Great vocal performance. No notes.
Loved this one.
Mike: Agreed on all counts but one: Soundgarden. Yola’s voice is in another stratosphere. And her pairing with Dan Auerbach as producer on her two solo albums is such a fruitful collaboration.
Brandi Carlile – “Mama Werewolf”
Mark: Fuck yeah, burn it down Brandi.
This is great. I love this kind of Americana/folk sound. Another timeless feel. I’ll be honest, I know next to nothing about Brandi Carlile, but I would listen to this.
Interesting production choices. The guitar work and band overall sound pristine, but the lead vocal sounds kind of blown-out and low-fi. It gives the track a gritty quality that works pretty well. Loved the big backup vocals as well.
I wish Soundgarden had recorded a cover of “Jolene”.
Mike: I’ll take this opportunity to point out the subtly chugging guitar behind the second verse. Eye of the tiger, baby.
END OF ROUND TWO
Mark: This playlist is extremely consistent so far, in that there are very few songs that I think are terrible, a few songs that I think are extraordinary, a handful of songs that I think are very good but not my thing, and exactly zero songs that are performed by Soundgarden.
Mike, I’m hoping that things turn around before the end of the series, and that we get a little Seattle Sound up in here, but even if that doesn’t happen… your tastes seem very solid.
Mike: I’m sorry, Mark, but (SPOILER ALERT) there are exactly zero songs in any sort of rock vernacular on this playlist. The two closest were in this batch, with Arlo Parks (singer/songwriter) and Brandi Carlile (badass country). It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think the next batch might be a little more disagreeable to you. Though it also includes a song that when we started I thought might be your favourite of the bunch.
I’ll close this out with a story from my youth. When I saw Soundgarden and Pearl Jam open up for Neil Young in 1993 I was so put out by having them on the bill that I sat in my seat before the show so I could go wandering for food and merch while Soundgarden was on. Then I lied to a latecomer, who was bummed to have missed Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and told him they came out together and did Temple of the Dog just to be a dick.