My five “favorite” songs (AKA 3 pints of blood and a kidney)

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Chris Butler is doing a specialty show on KUMM this semester that opens with an hour-long interview segment. He’s asked me to be his guest this week (6-7pm tonight, Wednesday, 17 Sep), and as part of that I was asked to list (and bring) my “5 favorite songs”.

Five.

Just five.

Yeah, right.

My 5 star iTunes playlist here at the office has 388 songs on it and runs over 21 hours, and that’s just based on things I’ve bothered hauling up to the office and ripping at some point, and includes almost none of our old vinyl.

And I’m supposed to choose five.

Five.

I eventually gave up pretty much entirely on the idea of “favorite” songs ’cause there was just no way to whittle things down that way. I instead started to focus on songs that have been important to me (“life changing”?), which narrowed things down a fair bit. There are a lot of songs I adore that didn’t really change me, but there was still a surprising number left even after that – a number considerably larger than five.

So there was swearing, consultation, swearing, trolling through playlists and CD racks, swearing, notes scribbled on battered sheets of paper, and more swearing. And here’s where I ended up, in no particular order. All these are great songs and songs that I’ve enjoyed consistently for many years. Would I make the same list if I had to do this again next year? Probably not, but I don’t think I’d be unhappy with this list.

  • “Jelly Roll Stomp” – Skeleton Crew – Hallelujah anyway: Remembering Tom Cora – This album was my introduction to an entirely new world of experimental music, and Cora and Fred Frith (the founders of Skeleton Crew) remain huge faves of mine. (This is the kind of stuff that my family semi-affectionately refers to as my “Weird noise music”.)
  • “Can’t truss it” – Public Enemy – Apocalypse ’91: The enemy strikes black – Discovering P.E. was such an eye opener in a totally different way, and their sonic landscape may never be heard again now that the law has made their style of sampling inviable. I was seriously considering “Welcome to the terrordome”, but I came back to this because the combination of massive beats and heavy, heavy history is something I’ve never gotten out of my system.
  • “Awungilobolele” – Udokotela Shange Namajaha – Indestructible beat of Soweto – My sad little tribute to the enormous amount of great music outside of the U.S. This is a Zulu wedding song, and conveys a spirit of community that is totally compelling, as is that brilliant shuffle beat. You just have to dance to this one.
  • “Death letter blues” – Son House – Legends of the blues, Vol. 1 – Still one of the two songs (along with Blind Willie Johnson’s “Lord, I just can’t keep from crying”) that totally defines the blues for me. The story is so rich and painfully matter of fact, and the guitar work is sonically incomprehensible. Listening to this for the first time lead directly to the writing of the earliest song of mine that I can still remember and perform. (But my song, and my performance of it, sucks by comparison.)
  • “Trashman’s shoes” – Shoulders – Shoulders – Much, much, much of my sense of music was developed in the years I lived in Austin, Texas. The scene there was so cool, and I could easily hear great shows every week in an enormous range of styles and genres. It was in Austin that I discovered that there was lots of really great country music, and not just the Nashville drivel I’d grown up with, and where I finally began to understand punk. There are so many great songs that I first came across while I was living there that choosing is effectively impossible. Other tracks were arguably more groundbreaking (“People in the house” by Glass Eye) or more crazy-in-your-face-fun (“Reading” by Ed Hall) or more likely to upset your neighbors (“Sweat loaf” by Butthole Surfers), but in the end I picked this because it’s the one that I’ve always wanted to be able to perform.

And here are a few alternates just ’cause I couldn’t entirely leave them off, again in no particular order:

  • “I’m so lonesome I could cry” – Hank Williams – I sing this when I’m sad, or when I’m walking by myself. I sang it a _lot_ when John Peel died. When they say songs are poetry set to music they’re mostly talking crap. Here, though, it’s true.
  • “Reading” – Ed Hall – Albert – Hands down the best 2 minute burst of noise on the value of a liberal arts education that I know of. Really.
  • “People in the house” – Glass Eye – Bent by nature – This entire album really shifted my head about what “rock” music could be, and was the soundtrack to probably at least two years of my time in Austin. Glass Eye is still one of my favorite bands of all time and one of the most influential on how I think about music. Of all the really hard decisions that I had to make in forming this list, leaving them off the top five was probably the hardest. This song is a great example of their dead pan off-kilter lyrics and their weirdly familiar-but-not approach to music.
  • “Sweat loaf” – Butthole Surfers – Locust abortion technician – What a great, great song, going from that deliberately over-the-top “dialogue” into a howl of noise and fun. Their “22 going on 23” from the live bootleg album is also totally brilliant.
  • “Waiting for a train” – Jimmy Rodgers – American roots music – I’ve never performed this in public, but there are few songs I think about performing more often. Unfortunately I can’t yodel, and I’ve never figured out a reasonable alternative. Jimmy Rodgers captures such a wonderful feel of life on a rails, which was already just a memory when I was growing up.
  • “Present joys” – Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – Anthology of American Folk Music – A gorgeous example of shape note singing, and a song that opened up a whole new set of music doors for me, especially about the possibilities of singing. One of about a zillion spectacular songs from this remarkable collection; it’s remarkable, really, that none made the final five.
  • “The coo coo bird” – Clarence “Tom” Ashley – Anthology of American Folk Music – Ashley’s early recordings are full of a wonderful rough, flat singing style that perhaps didn’t come into its own again until Dylan (perhaps via Woody Guthrie). This is probably my fave of his, in part because it makes no sense. I had the honor of performing this with Eagan Heath while he was a student here at UMM, and I’m unlikely to sing with a better banjo player anytime soon.
  • “One road more” – Flatlanders – One road more – Discovering the various members of the Flatlanders in Austin was a key part of the realization that country music didn’t have to suck, and this (their one and only album in their original incarnation) remains a great example of drawing that thread up from Jimmy Rodgers through Hank Williams to the present day without getting lost in Pop Country along the way. Some spectacular writing here, and a wonderful old-time twang.
  • “The singing leaf” – Wang Chong Lor – River of song: A musical journey down the Mississippi – A mind-bending performance on a banana leaf by a Hmong gentleman in St. Paul. Apparently Hmong is tonal to a degree that this sort of playing can be heard as “vocals” with lyrical content. This was always the most arresting song for students when I used this collection in FYS years ago.
  • “Baked beetles” – Ivor Cutler – A wet handle – An single CD of over 80 tracks, all of which are short little spoken word poems like this. Dozens of absolute gems here; this one is the basis of one of our “liners” with Tom.

Lord only knows what I just gapped in the rush and will slap myself for later, but such is life.

I actually tried uploading this playlist to iTunes, but not surprisingly iTunes only has a handful of these songs (4 or 5, I think), so the exercise is clearly futile and I canceled. So, unfortunately, you’re left with my words instead of the wonderful music that inspired them. Check out the show (89.7 FM or on-line at kumm.org) tonight and you can hear the first five, intermingled with far too much of me talking…

P.S. In reading through this I realized that I never actually mention my wonderful family anywhere in here. This is really weird because my parents, my sister, my wife, and my son all weave through this in all kinds of deep, important, and mysterious ways. But none of that made it onto the page. Hmph.

P.P.S. There’s no jazz or classical on this list in any traditional sense. I made a decision to largely set those huge and important (to me) areas aside for this exercise just because things were already so desperate and thinking about those areas only made it worse. But Miles, Mingus, and Monk (not to mention Ellington, Coltrane, and Louis) all belong here, along with gregorian chants, Bach, Beethoven, Kodaly, and Shostakovitch. Life’s a challenge, isn’t it?

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3 Responses to My five “favorite” songs (AKA 3 pints of blood and a kidney)

  1. Jen says:

    That reminds me of the time I was rendered speechless when my tween cousin asked me who my favorite musical artist is.

    Uh..buh…duh…wha?

    Impossible.

  2. CoryQ says:

    I wish I had read this blog earlier, as in last night, because I would have gladly tuned in!

    Dang it. And I’m going to be out of town this week and no where near a computer at noon on Saturday for your show.

    I think this excercise is an interesting glance into the Inner Working of Nic. The fact that it took you so much to narrow down your choices and what sort of critera you decided on for a ‘top’ selection is in itself enlightening.

    Two quotes come to mind from your blog as well:

    “A mind-bending performance on a banana leaf” reminds me of something Leo Kottke said in concert; If you are a virtuoso on the lint trap, you are still probably playing just for yourself.

    And from the Blue Brothers; “What kind of music do you have here?” “Oh, we have both kinds. Country and Western.” A lot of folks have never heard honest-to-goodness country and you clearly have.

  3. Phi says:

    Jen – absolutely!

    Cory – Don’t worry about it quite so much – it turns out that the quality of our on-line stream was pretty awful last night. We have people working on fixing it, but I don’t think listening to the interview would have been loads of fun with all that distortion.

    I’d also meant to record it, but a previous event ran long and I didn’t get a chance to. Sigh.

    BTW – My show with WeatherGirl is on Sunday from noon-2pm (not Saturday as you said). And Sub-Evil Boy’s new solo show is 8-10am on Sunday.

    I love the lint trap line :-).

    Getting my head right-er about country music was one of the many great things that came from living in Austin. At the time I was rather embarrassed to realize how irrationally prejudiced and uninformed I was. Now, with a little more distance, things like that bother me less. There’s a finite amount of time in life to wrap your head around different things, and you never get them all.

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