Best of 2016

For the 13th year in a row, I’ve assembled a long playlist of my favorite songs of the year—which is to say, the songs I liked best from the 2016 albums that I listened to, plus assorted singles and other tunes that caught my ear. Because I impose a one-song-per-artist rule, it’s not quite true to say that I preferred these 138 songs to all others. Rather, they’re the highlights of What I Heard in 2016.

For the last few years, what I’ve heard has largely been shaped by my reliance on Spotify to stream new music. In terms of the annual playlist, that means two things: 1) I simply hear many more albums and songs than I did in the pre-streaming days, meaning that the size of the playlist has expanded considerably; and 2) if it’s not on Spotify, I’m less likely to include it. I’m not proud of that, but the fact that my Spotify subscription provides me with access to almost everything I want to hear (and plenty more besides) means that I’ve become lazy about seeking out what it doesn’t have. (An exception in 2016: I bought Lemonade from iTunes.)

The sequence of the playlist always takes a little work to get right. Despite the fact that it’s 10 hours long and no one is realistically going to listen to the whole thing in one go, I still strive to order the songs in a way that makes for a pleasurable listening experience. In other words, this isn’t 138 songs on shuffle; the goal is to transition through clusters of similar genres and/or production aesthetics. So we begin with glittery pop, end with rootsy folk and country, and in between take detours through electronic, jazz, hip-hop, indie rock, R&B, and modern composition.

For the record, my favorite track—#1 on my Pazz & Jop ballot, if I still voted—is probably “Closing Shot” by Lindstrøm, a caffeinated space-disco jam that I fell in love with as soon as I heard it. I’ve been a fan of Lindstrøm going back to “I Feel Space” (2005), and “Baby Can’t Stop” (a collaboration with the singer Christabelle) was one of my top tracks of 2010. But “Closing Shot,” with its swirling synths and focused zip, feels like a pinnacle.

Best of 2016 (listen on Spotify)

  1. Shura, “What’s It Gonna Be?” (Nothing Real)
  2. Teen, “Gone for Good” (Love Yes)
  3. Chairlift, “Moth to the Flame” (Moth)
  4. James Vincent McMorrow, “Rising Water” (We Move)
  5. Britney Spears ft. G-Eazy, “Make Me…” (Glory)
  6. Blood Orange, “Best to You” (Freetown Sound)
  7. Charlie Puth ft. Selena Gomez, “We Don’t Talk Anymore” (Nine Track Mind)
  8. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Cry” (E•MO•TION: Side B)
  9. Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend” (Love You to Death)
  10. The 1975, “The Sound” (I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it)
  11. Classixx ft. How to Dress Well, “Just Let Go” (Faraway Reach)
  12. Ariana Grande, “Into You” (Dangerous Woman)
  13. Katy B ft. Chris Lorenzo, “I Wanna Be” (Honey)
  14. Sylvan Esso, “Radio” [single]
  15. Calvin Harris ft. Rihanna, “This Is What You Came For” [single]
  16. AlunaGeorge, “I Remember” (I Remember)
  17. Kiiara, “Gold” (low kii savage)
  18. Banks, “Gemini Feed” (The Altar)
  19. Tove Lo, “Cool Girl” (Lady Wood)
  20. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles” (SremmLife 2)
  21. Zayn, “Pillowtalk” (Mind of Mine)
  22. Anohni, “Drone Bomb Me” (Hopelessness)
  23. Porches, “Be Apart” (Pool)
  24. Bat for Lashes, “Sunday Love” (The Bride)
  25. Junior Boys, “Over It” (Big Black Coat)
  26. Jessy Lanza, “VV Violence” (Oh No)
  27. Lindstrøm, “Closing Shot” [single]
  28. Alex Anwandter, “Siempre Es Viernes En Mi Corazón” (Amiga)
  29. The Avalanches, “Subways” (Wildflower)
  30. Leon Vynehall, “Paradisea” (Rojus (Designed to Dance))
  31. Gold Panda, “Time Eater” (Good Luck and Do Your Best)
  32. CFCF, “Pleasure Centre” (On Vacation)
  33. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, “Stranger Things” (Stranger Things, Vol. 1)
  34. Com Truise, “Sunspot” (Silicon Tare EP)
  35. The Range, “Skeptical” (Potential)
  36. Lone, “Backtail Was Heavy” (Levitate)
  37. The Field, “Pink Sun” (The Follower)
  38. Underworld, “I Exhale” (Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future)
  39. Cymbals Eat Guitars, “Wish” (Pretty Years)
  40. Shredded Sun, “Oxidation” (Land Lines)
  41. Merchandise, “Lonesome Sound” (A Corpse Wired for Sound)
  42. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, “Robot Stop” (Nonagon Infinity)
  43. Savages, “Sad Person” (Adore Life)
  44. Warpaint, “New Song” (Heads Up)
  45. Sleigh Bells, “Hyper Dark” (Jessica Rabbit)
  46. White Lung, “Below” (Paradise)
  47. Wye Oak, “If You Should See” (Tween)
  48. Yuck, “As I Walk Away” (Stranger Things)
  49. DIIV, “Dopamine” (Is the Is Are)
  50. Wild Nothing, “TV Queen” (Life of Pause)
  51. M83 ft. Jordan Lawlor, “Walkway Blues” (Junk)
  52. Wild Beasts, “Big Cat” (Boy King)
  53. Bullion, “Never Is the Change” (Loop the Loop)
  54. Field Music, “Disappointed” (Commontime)
  55. Lydia Loveless, “Heaven” (Real)
  56. Brandy Clark, “Girl Next Door” (Big Day in a Small Town)
  57. Maren Morris, “80s Mercedes” (Hero)
  58. Whitney, “No Woman” (Light Upon the Lake)
  59. Bibio, “Town & Country” (A Mineral Love)
  60. Esperanza Spalding, “Judas” (Emily’s D+Evolution)
  61. Xenia Rubinos, “Don’t Wanna Be” (Black Terry Cat)
  62. David Bowie, “Lazarus” (Blackstar)
  63. BadBadNotGood ft. Colin Stetson, “Confessions Pt. II” (IV)
  64. Donny McCaslin, “Shake Loose” (Beyond Now)
  65. Jeff Parker, “Executive Life” (The New Breed)
  66. Homeboy Sandman, “Talking (Bleep)” (Kindness for Weakness)
  67. Kanye West, “No More Parties in LA” (The Life of Pablo)
  68. Danny Brown, “Ain’t It Funny” (Atrocity Exhibition)
  69. Joey Purp ft. Chance the Rapper, “Girls @” (iiiDrops)
  70. Beyoncé, “Formation” (Lemonade)*
  71. M.I.A., “Visa” (AIM)
  72. Temi Dollface, “School Your Face” [single]
  73. A Tribe Called Quest, “Dis Generation” (We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service)
  74. Kendrick Lamar, “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014” (untitled unmastered.)
  75. De La Soul ft. Snoop Dogg, “Pain” (and the Anonymous Nobody…)
  76. Anderson .Paak ft. Schoolboy Q, “Am I Wrong” (Malibu)
  77. Bruno Mars, “24K Magic” (24K Magic)
  78. Nite-Funk, “Let Me Be Me” (Nite-Funk EP)
  79. Robert Glasper Experiment, “Day to Day” (ArtScience)
  80. Mayer Hawthorne, “Love Like That” (Man About Town)
  81. Jamila Woods, “Blk Girl Soldier” (HEAVN)
  82. KING, “The Greatest” (We Are King)
  83. Ngaaire, “Diggin” (Blastoma)
  84. NAO, “Get to Know Ya” (For All We Know)
  85. Laura Mvula, “Phenomenal Woman” (The Dreaming Room)
  86. Santigold ft. B.C, “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” (99 Cents)
  87. D.R.A.M. ft. Lil Yachty, “Broccoli” (Big Baby D.R.A.M.)
  88. GoGo Penguin, “Unspeakable World” (Man Made Object)
  89. The Bad Plus, “Staring at the Sun” (It’s Hard)
  90. Bon Iver, “33 ‘GOD’” (22, A Million)
  91. Sarah Neufeld, “We’ve Got a Lot” (The Ridge)
  92. Radiohead, “Burn the Witch” (A Moon Shaped Pool)
  93. Nico Muhly, “Coffee Expert” (Confessions)
  94. Phantogram, “Barking Dog” (Three)
  95. Jóhann Jóhannsson, “Heptapod B” (Arrival OST)
  96. James Blake ft. Bon Iver, “I Need a Forest Fire” (The Colour in Anything)
  97. Jenny Hval, “Conceptual Romance” (Blood Bitch)
  98. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, “Envelop” (EARS)
  99. Floating Points, “For Marmish Pt. 2” [single]
  100. Tortoise, “Gesceap” (The Catastrophist)
  101. Clipping, “A Better Place” (Splendor & Misery)
  102. Cavern of Anti-Matter, “Blowing My Nose Under Close Observation” (void beats/invocation trex)
  103. Róisín Murphy, “Ten Miles High” (Take Her Up to Monto)
  104. Beth Orton, “Moon” (Kidsticks)
  105. Alicia Keys, “In Common” (HERE [deluxe version])
  106. Drake ft. Wizkid and Kyla, “One Dance” (Views)
  107. El Guincho ft. Mala Rodríguez, “Comix” (Hiperasia)
  108. Chance the Rapper ft. Knox Fortune, “All Night” (Coloring Book)
  109. Rihanna ft. Drake, “Work” (ANTI)
  110. KAYTRANADA ft. Anderson .Paak, “Glowed Up” (99.9%)
  111. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky” (A Seat at the Table)
  112. Maxwell, “Lake by the Ocean” (blackSUMMERS’night)
  113. Frank Ocean, “Pink + White” (Blonde)
  114. Charles Bradley, “Changes” (Changes)
  115. Michael Kiwanuka, “Love & Hate” (Love & Hate)
  116. PJ Harvey, “The Wheel” (The Hope Six Demolition Project)
  117. Iggy Pop, “Gardenia” (Post Pop Depression)
  118. Parquet Courts, “Human Performance” (Human Performance)
  119. Anna Meredith, “Taken” (Varmints)
  120. Twin Peaks, “Walk to the One You Love” (Down in Heaven)
  121. Frankie Cosmos, “Sinister” (Next Thing)
  122. Colleen Green, “U Coulda Been an A” (Colleen Green)
  123. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up and Kiss Me” (My Woman)
  124. Miski, “Your Best American Girl” (Puberty 2)
  125. Beverly, “Victoria” (The Blue Swell)
  126. Beach Slang, “Punks in a Disco Bar” (A Loud Bash of Teenage Feeling)
  127. Against Me!, “Crash” (Shape Shift with Me)
  128. LVL Up, “Pain” (Return to Love)
  129. Car Seat Headrest, “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” (Teens of Denial)
  130. The Hotelier, “Sun” (Goodness)
  131. American Football, “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long” (American Football (LP2))
  132. Cass McCombs, “Bum Bum Bum” (Mangy Love)
  133. Ryley Walker, “The Halfwit in Me” (Golden Sings That Have Been Sung)
  134. Case/Lang/Veirs, “Atomic Number” (case/lang/veirs)
  135. William Tyler, “Gone Clear” (Modern Country)
  136. Steve Gunn, “Ancient Jules” (Eyes on the Lines)
  137. Big Thief, “Masterpiece” (Masterpiece)
  138. Miranda Lambert, “Vice” (The Weight of These Wings)

(*not on Spotify)

Nothing Inside the Box (1999)

Mark and Brandon are dancing around the parking lot of the Kalamazoo 10 movie theaters. They’ve got all four car doors open, flanking this huge, cream-colored Grand Marquis; stickers are plastered over the back windshield, and they’re kicking up their bare shins at the ska that’s pumping out of the car stereo. They’re art students at the community college, they’re pleased to meet me, and now they grab Rachel and start jumping around on the sidewalk.

Here’s where the kid with the video camera finds them. He’s been walking around, from tent to tent, and he can’t believe his luck. “This is great,” he enthuses, as he squints at Mark and Brandon through his lens, flashes a crooked smile. “I gotta immortalize this whole thing on tape.” But this is not actually a dramatic event that he’s capturing. It’s not the fictional dramatic event, nor is it the line to buy tickets to the fictional dramatic event. No, right now, this is two kids dancing in a parking lot.

I pose, too, crouching on the lawn, huddled around someone’s cardboard sign, smiling. We’ve gone to check out the scene, for this is history, we say, and I start asking questions as if I were a real journalist: So how long have you been out here? How many times have you seen the trilogy? And then frantically scribble these numbers down as if they’re somehow meaningful in themselves. All of us here are excited in some way. I’m ecstatic that I’ve got some material.

35 screenings on May 19, I scrawl, and about 300 in line when tickets are finally sold. Less than ten are black, I note, roughly a quarter female. The sign reads maximum twelve tickets per person. Seven televisions set up, including two showing the original movie, one playing Spaceballs, the 1987 spoof, and two hooked up to video game systems. Three separate Trivial Pursuit games running simultaneously at 2 a.m. Eight tents. This is all dutifully collected, recorded, notes like facts about the movie itself. Things we can tell others, know ourselves.

I don’t ask about the full quart of skim milk on the hood of their car. It’s gone when I return the next day, but I bet it’s somewhere on film, nicely preserved.  


They say, “I’m not really a hardcore fan. I just like the movie. If I couldn’t see it on the 19th, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.” But then they panic: “Dude, you don’t have a ticket? You’re out here, and you’re not going to see it opening day—what the fuck?” Heads turn, people get nervous; they want nothing more than for me to have a ticket, like everyone else. I look down. You’ve been up all night, I say; you already have lost sleep, I point out.


Almost immediately, I go check out the first person in line. He’s got a lawn chair, a blanket, and a baking tray of cookies decorated and shaped like Darth Maul, the movie’s flashy villain. Someone tells me he’s been out here since 9 p.m. Monday night. Right now it’s just past midnight, already a little into Wednesday. But what’s most surprising is that he looks so normal.  Of course I expect the fat guys spreading their role-playing games across card tables; there’s that weird bald dude with the black vest, Animaniacs umbrella, and pink sunglasses. As for this man, he’s got neatly coiffed hair, a powder blue IBM sweatshirt and Levi’s; he seems like he could be any old K-Mart shopper, a nameless, faceless 33-year-old corporate drone. I strike up a chat. I want to know what it is about this movie that’s got him, above everyone else in Kalamazoo, so psyched.

“I grew up with Star Wars,” he says, “saw it in fifth grade when it first came out.” Traces of nostalgia in the twinkle of his eyes. But it’s more than that. He’s got two young children, he explains, and by now, they know the trilogy better than he does. They deserve to see Star Wars on the big screen, just like daddy did. And they definitely need to see it on opening day. “Some parents pull their kids out of school for family vacations … I … Well, I know it’s a movie, but it’s a big deal.” I see him in the front row of the theater, popcorn in his lap, daughter on his right side, son on his left. Blue glow enveloping the whole family. The myth transmitted to future generations. I have to admit, it’s sort of touching.

When I come by to see him before I leave for the night, the man’s head has rolled back, he’s snoring, a paperback book is left open on his chest. These are the things a father will do.


The kid’s incredulous: “Once I camped out for a Tori Amos show in Detroit, but this shit’s probably happening at every theater in the fucking nation!”  I start thinking about these endless lines, stretched out across California in the middle of the night, where every other guy’s got a light saber, a Wookiee suit. I think about the stories these people could tell.


I’ve got to keep Peter Zillmann company; he’s agreed to buy my ticket when I finally decide I need one. The point of the movie, Peter says, gnawing on the muffin I’ve brought for him, is that it’s the only secular mythology Americans have. This is something we want to believe in, we want to worship. The point of the line, Peter says, is that we all get to feel like big assholes together. We know that none of us really has a life.

“I’d feel like a shithead for watching the trailer on the Internet so many times,” he adds, “if I didn’t actually go see it right away.”

I now understand why it was such a big deal that I didn’t have a ticket. I’m pretty sure I watched it on TV when I was nine or so, and I think I saw the sequels at a friend’s house. I remember the theme music, the light sabers, the droids, the galaxy far, far away. I even owned the Ewok Adventure board game. But that could’ve been any child of the eighties. I can’t rattle off, like some friends of mine, the precise moment when the guy who played Cliff on Cheers makes a two-second cameo, or how the song in the cantina goes, or where Yoda came from, or even, for chrissakes, basic plot points. All I know is that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and somehow Alec Guinness is involved. That was enough, I thought. I wasn’t prepared for encounters like these.

On Wednesday afternoon, Peter is beached under an umbrella, trying to catch some Z’s. He and his line companion Beckie were arguing on and off all night, he tells me. “One minute, we’re best of friends, the next, she’s saying she doesn’t want to see me ever again. It was surreal,” he says. Overnight, the line ebbs and flows, gets up, sits down, gets incredibly excited, becomes bored by the wait. Simultaneous stillness and motion. Everyone’s head hurts in the morning.


They know that this is part of it, not just the way Natalie Portman’s costume will look on the big screen, what new secrets of the universe George Lucas will reveal, but this, too, a week before the reels are even fed into the projectors: Curling up in your sleeping bag, grilling burgers for the hungry fans, shuffling your sci-fi collectors’ cards long into the night, through rain and lightning, and yawning as you get off your ass the next day to stand in single file. This is part of the package.

But then sometimes it feels like there’s nothing inside the box at all. Sometime a few hours after midnight, as the crushed pizza boxes and broken donuts start cluttering the landscape, and the street hockey game, this swarm of shirtless men on skates, gets noisier and sweatier, the idea that we are waiting, that this is for something, momentarily slips away. This is the event, this is the spectacle. And the Channel 3 news van suddenly swings into the lot, and the cops grin as they make another spin around the building. The words Episode One, Tickets on Sale loom above the scene, announcing the revelry below. This can’t be just part of an event if we are actually on the marquee. This is the real action.

And never before have I had the desire to recapture what I’ve forgotten over ten years, to compensate for this pop culture void in my life.  But here I am now, traipsing around outside a neon-lit theater at three in the morning, digging into my wallet without even thinking, making sure I can get that ticket, see it as soon as I possibly can. And I don’t know what this movie’s trying to do, and I half expect to be bored by the action sequences, by my ignorance of the myth.  But by God, I want to consume. I want to participate. And I even want to exploit this consumer act, this mass phenomenon, right here, write a piece about it, without really knowing what it is I’m writing about.

Best of 2014

For much of the past year, I figured that the Best of 2014 playlist to which I’d been occasionally adding songs would never reach the absurd length of the previous year’s attempt at cataloging my musical favorites. When everything shook out, though, I ended up with 162 tracks—exactly two more than on my 2013 playlist.

Which should tell you a few things: how much excellent music is released in any given year, how easy it is to access it these days, and, well, how obsessive I am about it. Throughout the year, as I listen to new albums, the question, “Which song should I put on the playlist?” is never far from my mind. As the year comes to a close, I cram to check out various critical darlings I’d overlooked (or had been ignoring). Only after that can I begin carefully arranging the bloated digital mass I’ve compiled into a sequence that feels right, with what I hope are smooth and artful transitions from one track to the next.

As usual, the songs below cover a range of genres—including pop, R&B, hip-hop, indie rock, punk, EDM, country, and jazz—though my aesthetic predilections ensure that some types of music are better represented than others. (It’s tempting to try to summarize these taste preferences, but I’m afraid they’d come across as overly vague: “I like music that’s melodic!”) I’m also rather beholden to what gets attention from others (critics, tastemakers, friends). While more-adventurous listeners may chase their interests down esoteric corners of the musical universe, I’m happy to dwell mainly within the circles of buzz and consensus (as I explained back in 2006) to find new music that moves me.

One pedantic note: Since 2004, when I began making these massive year-end mixes, the general rule has been one song per artist. I’ve occasionally made exceptions for remixes—in 2006, for instance, I included both “SexyBack” and the DFA remix of “My Love”—but never two songs from the same album. This year, however, choosing between two Ariana Grande songs I like a lot (and that sound very different from each other) was too difficult, and so to hell with it, I said. Both “Problem” and “Love Me Harder” made the cut. (Arguably, there are also two tracks from Röyksopp & Robyn’s Do It Again EP, but one of them’s a version that appears only on The Inevitable End, an album credited solely to Röyksopp. Technicalities!)

Best of 2014 | Listen on Spotify

[Grayed-out text indicates tracks not on Spotify. For what it’s worth, Pharrell’s “Marilyn Monroe” can be found on Spotify in the version that appears his album GIRL. I can’t stand how indulgently long that version is, however, so I’ve subbed the radio edit, which unfortunately isn’t available to stream in the U.S.]

  1. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, “Stranger to My Happiness” (Give the People What They Want)
  2. M.O ft. K Koke, “For a Minute” (single)
  3. Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea, “Problem” (My Everything)
  4. Kendrick Lamar, “i” (single)
  5. Kelis, “Jerk Ribs” (Food)
  6. Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk” (single)
  7. Usher, “Good Kisser” (single)
  8. D’Angelo, “Back to the Future (Part I)” (Black Messiah)
  9. Michael Jackson, “Love Never Felt So Good” (XSCAPE)
  10. Pharrell Williams, “Marilyn Monroe [Radio Edit]” (various compilations) 
  11. Ed Sheeran, “Sing” (x)
  12. Ana Tijoux, “Los Peces Gordos No Pueden Volar” (Vengo)
  13. Bruce Springsteen, “High Hopes” (High Hopes)
  14. The Nels Cline Singers, “Canales’ Cabeza” (Macroscope)
  15. St. Vincent, “Birth in Reverse” (St. Vincent)
  16. Sondre Lerche, “Bad Law” (Please)
  17. Hospitality, “I Miss Your Bones” (Trouble)
  18. Ex Hex, “Don’t Wanna Lose” (Rips)
  19. Twin Peaks, “I Found a New Way” (Wild Onion)
  20. Sloan, “Keep Swinging (Downtown)” (Commonwealth)
  21. School of Language, “Dress Up” (Old Fears)
  22. Nils Felder, “Lights” (Golden Age)
  23. Sun Kil Moon, “Ben’s My Friend” (Benji)
  24. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, “Lariat” (Wig Out at Jagbags)
  25. Mac Demarco, “Let Her Go” (Salad Days)
  26. Real Estate, “Crime” (Atlas)
  27. Horsebeach, “Midnight” (Horsebeach)
  28. The War on Drugs, “Under the Pressure” (Lost in the Dream)
  29. The New Pornographers, “Backstairs” (Brill Bruisers)
  30. Tennis, “Never Work for Free” (Ritual in Repeat)
  31. Jenny Lewis, “Head Underwater” (The Voyager)
  32. Echosmith, “Cool Kids” (Talking Dreams)
  33. Foster the People, “Coming of Age” (Supermodel)
  34. Broken Bells, “After the Disco” (After the Disco)
  35. Big Data ft. Joywave, “Dangerous” (single)
  36. Phantogram, “Fall in Love” (Voices)
  37. Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting for You)” (Singles)
  38. Nick Jonas, “Jealous” (Nick Jonas)
  39. Coldplay, “Magic” (Ghost Stories)
  40. Lykke Li, “No Rest for the Wicked” (I Never Learn)
  41. Lorde, “Team” (Pure Heroine)
  42. Tove Lo, “Habits (Stay High)” (Queen of the Clouds)
  43. Charli XCX, “Boom Clap” (SUCKER)
  44. Bleachers, “I Wanna Get Better” (Strange Desire)
  45. Bombay Bicycle Club, “Carry Me” (So Long, See You Tomorrow)
  46. Eno · Hyde, “Daddy’s Car” (Someday World)
  47. Tune-Yards, “Hey Life” (Nikki Nack)
  48. Ibibio Sound Machine, “The Talking Fish – Asem Usem Iyak” (Ibibio Sound Machine)
  49. Prins Thomas, “Hans Majestet” (Prins Thomas 3)
  50. Kleerup ft. Susanne Sundfør, “Let Me In” (As If We Never Won)
  51. Todd Terje, “Delorean Dynamite” (It’s Album Time)
  52. The Juan Maclean, “Charlotte” (In a Dream)
  53. Hercules & Love Affair, “Do You Feel the Same?” (The Feast of the Broken Heart)
  54. Kiesza, “Hideaway” (Sound of a Woman)
  55. Katy B, “5 AM” (Little Red)
  56. Röyksopp & Robyn, “Do It Again” (Do It Again EP)
  57. Taylor Swift, “New Romantics” (1989 [Deluxe Edition])
  58. Kylie Minogue, “Million Miles” (Kiss Me Once)
  59. Yelle, “Complètement fou” (Complètement fou)
  60. QT, “Hey QT” (single)
  61. Skrillex, “Recess” (Recess)
  62. Lone, “Airglow Fires” (Reality Testing)
  63. The Range, “Ed Reed Jersey” (Panasonic EP)
  64. Caribou, “Can’t Do Without You” (Our Love)
  65. Leon Vynehall, “Goodthing” (Music for the Uninvited)
  66. Actress, “Gaze” (Ghettoville)
  67. Jacques Greene, “No Excuse” (Phantom Vibrate EP)
  68. Ten Walls, “Walking with Elephants” (single)
  69. Gui Boratto, “Take Control” (Abaporu)
  70. Kölsch ft. Gregor Schwellenbach, “Cassiopeia” (Speicher 79 EP)
  71. Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne, “Rather Be” (New Eyes)
  72. Duke Dumont ft. Jax Jones, “I Got U” (EP1 EP)
  73. Jessie Ware, “Want Your Feeling” (Tough Love)
  74. Tensnake ft. Nile Rodgers and Fiora, “Love Sublime” (Glow)
  75. Javiera Mena, “La Joya” (Otra Era)
  76. Chromeo, “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” (White Women)
  77. Les Sins, “Why (ft. Nate Salman)” (Michael)
  78. Mr Twin Sister, “Rude Boy” (Mr Twin Sister)
  79. Ramona Lisa, “Lady’s Got Gills” (Arcadia)
  80. Sylvan Esso, “Coffee” (Sylvan Esso)
  81. Herbert, “One Two Three” (Part 6 EP)
  82. Hollie Cook, “99” (Twice)
  83. Erlend Oye, “Garota” (Legao)
  84. Mark McGuire, “The Instinct (Prins Thomas DISKOMIKS)” (Along the Way)
  85. To Rococo Rot ft. Arto Lindsay, “Many Descriptions” (Instrument)
  86. Taylor Mcferrin, “Place in My Heart” (Early Riser)
  87. Jhene Aiko, “Spotless Mind” (Souled Out)
  88. FKA twigs, “Two Weeks” (LP1)
  89. Röyksopp ft. Robyn, “Monument – The Inevitable End Version” (The Inevitable End)
  90. Indiana, “Solo Dancing” (single)
  91. Sofi de la Torre, “Vermillion” (Give Up at 2 EP)
  92. Ariana Grande ft. The Weekend, “Love Me Harder” (My Everything)
  93. Tinashe ft. Schoolboy Q, “2 On” (Aquarius)
  94. Jeremih ft. YG, “Don’t Tell ‘Em” (single)
  95. Iggy Azalea ft. Charli XCX, “Fancy” (The New Classic)
  96. Future ft. Pharrell, Pusha T, and Casino, “Move That Dope” (Honest)
  97. Run the Jewels, “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” (Run the Jewels 2)
  98. Shabazz Palaces, “They Come in Gold” (Lese Majesty)
  99. Young Fathers, “Get Up” (Dead)
  100. Schoolboy Q, “Man of the Year” (Oxymoron)
  101. Katy Perry ft. Juicy J, “Dark Horse” (PRISM)
  102. Cibo Matto, “Check In” (Hotel Valentine)
  103. Neneh Cherry ft. Robyn, “Out of the Black” (Blank Project)
  104. Wild Beasts, “Sweet Spot” (Present Tense)
  105. These New Puritans, “Fragment Two” (Field of Reeds)
  106. Owen Pallett, “On a Path” (In Conflict)
  107. Mica Levi, “Love” (Under the Skin OST)
  108. alt-J, “Hunger of the Pine” (This Is All Yours)
  109. José González, “This Is How We Walk On The Moon” (Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell)
  110. Tinariwen, “Toumast Tincha” (Emmaar)
  111. Warpaint, “Love Is to Die” (Warpaint)
  112. Wye Oak, “Glory” (Shriek)
  113. Silversun Pickups, “Cannibal” (The Singles Collection)
  114. TV on the Radio, “Happy Idiot” (Seeds)
  115. The Afghan Whigs, “The Lottery” (Do to the Beast)
  116. Death from Above 1979, “Trainwreck 1979” (The Physical World)
  117. White Lung, “Snake Jaw” (Deep Fantasy)
  118. Cloud Nothings, “I’m Not Part of Me” (Here and Nowhere Else)
  119. Protomartyr, “Ain’t So Simple” (Under Color of Official Right)
  120. Braid, “East End Hollows” (No Coast)
  121. Against Me!, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” (Transgender Dysphoria Blues)
  122. Lydia Loveless, “Really Wanna See You” (Somewhere Else)
  123. Chrissie Hynde, “Dark Sunglasses” (Stockholm)
  124. Paramore, “Ain’t It Fun” (Paramore)
  125. Merchandise, “Enemy” (After the End)
  126. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, “Eurydice” (Days of Abandon)
  127. The Notwist, “Kong” (Close to the Glass)
  128. Kevin Drew, “Bullshit Ballad” (Darlings)
  129. Cymbals Eat Guitars, “Jackson” (LOSE)
  130. Wussy, “Teenage Wasteland” (Attica)
  131. Foxes in Fiction, “Ontario Gothic” (Ontario Gothic)
  132. Beverly, “Honey Do” (Careers)
  133. Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Pure Stuff” (Make My Head Sing…)
  134. EMA, “So Blonde” (The Future’s Void)
  135. Angel Olsen, “Forgiven/Forgotten” (Burn Your Fire for No Witness)
  136. Broncho, “Class Historian” (Just Enough Hip to Be Woman)
  137. Spoon, “Do You” (They Want My Soul)
  138. Courtney Barnett, “Avant Gardener” (The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas)
  139. Perfume Genius, “Queen” (Too Bright)
  140. Ariel Pink, “Put Your Number in My Phone” (Pom Pom)
  141. Alex G, “Black Hair” (DSU)
  142. Tweedy, “Summer Noon” (Sukierae)
  143. Beck, “Blue Moon” (Morning Phase)
  144. First Aid Kit, “Master Pretender” (Stay Gold)
  145. Sam Amidon, “Walkin’ Boss” (Lily-O)
  146. Kira Isabella, “Quarterback” (Caffeine & Big Dreams)
  147. Sturgill Simpson, “Turtles All the Way Down” (Metamodern Sounds in Country Music)
  148. Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, “He Died Fighting” (Landmarks)
  149. The Bad Plus, “Gold Prisms Incorporated” (Inevitable Western)
  150. Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar, “Never Catch Me” (You’re Dead!)
  151. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib ft. Danny Brown, “High” (Piñata)
  152. Moodymann ft. Andres, “Lyk U Use 2” (Moodymann)
  153. DJ Quik, “Pet Sematary” (The Midnight Life)
  154. Lily Allen, “Insincerely Yours” (Sheezus)
  155. Vic Mensa, “Down on My Luck” (single)
  156. Azealia Banks, “Chasing Time” (Broke with Expensive Taste)
  157. Tkay Maidza, “Switch Lanes” (single)
  158. Shamir, “On the Regular” (single)
  159. De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig, “De Toneelacademie” (“Ja, natúúrlijk!”)
  160. Aphex Twin, “CIRCLONT6A[141.98][syrobonkux mix]” (Syro)
  161. Com Truise, “Mind” (Wave 1 EP)
  162. East India Youth, “Total Strife Forever I” (Total Strife Forever)

Review of Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman for my high school newspaper, 1996

One doesn’t normally expect big names at a record release party for an obscure band’s debut album. Quirky Asian hip-hop groups aren’t exactly “the thing” in modern music, either. It’s all the more reason to notice Cibo Matto, a pair of Japanese women living in Greenwich Village, whose first musical celebration was attended by, among others, Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, and performance artist Laurie Anderson. Although the music Cibo Matto creates consists of mostly hip-hop rhythms, layered with broken English, jazz riffs, and other various sound effects, these elements, which initially may seem disparate, result in a wonderfully effective fusion of genres, as witnessed on the album, Viva! La Woman

Probably the first sign of Cibo Matto’s uniqueness is their name, which means “food madness” in Italian, and which is appropriate since seven of the ten tracks have as a title some sort of food or drink. “Apple,” for example, gives way to “Beef Jerky” at the four minute mark of the album. Understandably, this unusual obsession also makes for some bizarre lyrics, a feature compounded by the fact that the group’s songwriter, Miho Hatori, has only spent three years in the United States and is not fully accustomed to the English language. The instantly catchy “Know Your Chicken,” boasts the puzzling line, “We got 2 babies / Isn’t it cool? / One is Magenta, the other is Blue.” 

Like the Manhattan neighborhood in which they live, Cibo Matto’s musical style is a melting pot, a mix of jazz, dance club beats, trip-hop, rap, and even, on one occasion, 1940’s Andrews Sisters swing. In “Sugar Water,” for example, Hatori (also the lead singer) begins the song with a spoken intro, which when accompanied by synthesizer, resembles the audio to some narrated Epcot Center ride. Soon, a bass-heavy rhythm ensues, and by the end of the song, we’ve encountered eerily detached backing vocals, a touch of acoustic guitar, and a dance-pop chorus of “la’s.” What may be the group’s strength, however, is that whicle all of the tracks on the ablum certainly contain similar elements, not one really sounds like another. “Birthday Cake,” released as a single last year, is an aggressive Beastie Boys-style rant, whereas “White Pepper Ice Cream” is a slow, moody poem, its lazy reading and muted trumpets bordering on beatnik pretention. 

In some ways, paradoxically, this variety works to Cibo Matto’s disadvantage as well. The first few times I spun Woman on my CD player, I found myself wishing there were more songs like “Le Pain Perdu,” apparently a paean to maple syrup, which relies heavily on a Duke Ellington sample. An album chock full of horn-tinged, energetic nonsense would delight me to no end; however, since Cibo Matto is still in the experimental stage of the band, I must also put up with “Artichoke,” a long (6:38) and repetitive ballad of piano chords. 

And yet in the end, the good does outweigh the bad. Although they don’t necessarily have pop hooks as strong as Pizzicato Five (the “other” Japanese dance group, responsible for last year’s novelty hit “Twiggy Twiggy”), Cibo Matto make up for it with a lot more depth structurally. There’s a moment in the opening track, “Apple,” in which the beat stops to reveal a muffled melody that could have been lifted from a classical Oriental opera, complete with percussive bells and woodwinds. A minute later into the song, Hatori repeats the simple theme, but takes it a step further; with a strong, clear voice, she extends the high notes, more or less “breaking free” of the constrictive Eastern sound. It reinforces the idea that although the women’s roots may always be in Japan, the band Cibo Matto is concerned with far more than just Asian styles. And when that means an album as strangely fun as this one, it’s definitely a plus. 


Best of 2013

[Spotify playlist]

Although I’d used Spotify intermittently for a couple of years, in 2013 the vast majority of my music listening migrated to that platform, especially after my midyear acquisition of a smartphone transformed my iPod from a jacket-pocket mainstay into a nightstand curio. With hundreds of thousands of songs immediately accessible, I found myself tracking new releases to a degree I’d never before bothered to attempt, and just about every Tuesday, I checked Metacritic—or Spotify’s own New Releases playlist—to see if anything caught my eye. (After years of downloading leaks, the actual release date of an album suddenly became significant once again.) The result of that voracious approach (“Bobby McFerrin? Why not?”)  was that I heard way more new music in 2013 than in any previous year—at least a couple of hundred albums, probably.

Early in the year, I created a playlist to keep track of my favorite new songs, as I’ve habitually done every year since 2004. (Until recently, I used iTunes.) Every so often, I’d add a song or three to the “Best of 2013” playlist, and by late December, it had ballooned to more than 160 tracks. Given the change in my listening habits, this was, unsurprisingly, quite a bit more than I’d ever before featured on a year-end playlist; the nine I’d previously assembled averaged about 90 tracks and never exceeded 110. But while I ultimately axed a couple of songs that I wasn’t all that wild about, I couldn’t bear the thought of paring down the entire playlist just for the sake of year-to-year consistency.

And so here it is: all 160 tracks, of which 149 are available on Spotify in the United States.  (The remaining 11 songs appear grayed out below.) As usual, I’ve obsessively and laboriously sequenced them into a mix that I’d like to think has a pleasing flow as it moves from one genre/aesthetic to the next. Still, 10+ hours of music can be a little overwhelming, so I’d encourage listeners to dip in and out at random points. The first few songs are in that position mostly because I thought they’d make a good energetic start, but you might find a better place to begin. Enjoy.

  1. Paramore, “Still Into You” (Paramore)
  2. Best Coast, “This Lonely Morning” (Fade Away EP)
  3. Camera Obscura, “Do It Again” (Desire Lines)
  4. Eleanor Friedberger, “Stare at the Sun” (Personal Record)
  5. Fleetwood Mac, “Sad Angel” (Extended Play EP)
  6. Neko Case, “Man” (The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You)
  7. Superchunk, “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” (I Hate Music)
  8. The Joy Formidable, “This Ladder Is Ours” (Wolf’s Law)
  9. My Bloody Valentine, “New You” (M B V)
  10. The Besnard Lakes, “People of the Sticks” (Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO)
  11. Yuck, “Lose My Breath” (Glow and Behold)
  12. Veronica Falls, “Teenage” (Waiting for Something to Happen)
  13. Ducktails, “Ivy Covered House (The Flower Lane)
  14. Frankie Rose, “Sorrow” (Herein Wild)
  15. Haim, “The Wire” (Days Are Gone)
  16. The Preatures, “Is This How You Feel?” (Is This How You Feel? EP)
  17. Phoenix, “Entertainment” (Bankrupt!)
  18. Charli XCX, “You – Ha Ha Ha” (True Romance)
  19. The 1975, “Chocolate” (The 1975)
  20. The Strokes, “Tap Out” (Comedown Machine)
  21. Sky Ferreira, “You’re Not the One (Night Time, My Time)
  22. Delorean, “Destitute Time” (Apar)
  23. Wild Nothing, “A Dancing Shell” (Empty Estate EP)
  24. Bibio, “À tout à l’heure” (Silver Wilkinson)
  25. Junip, “Your Life Your Call” (Junip)
  26. Beck, “I Won’t Be Long” (single)
  27. Arcade Fire, “We Exist” (Reflektor)
  28. Jagwar Ma, “Uncertainty” (Howlin)
  29. Toro y Moi, “Say That” (Anything in Return)
  30. Cut Copy, “We Are Explorers” (Free Your Mind)
  31. Capital Cities, “Safe and Sound” (In a Tidal Wave of Mystery)
  32. !!!, “Station (Meet Me At The)” (Thr!!!er)
  33. Holy Ghost!, “Dumb Disco Ideas” (Dynamics)
  34. Classixx feat. Jeppe, “I’ll Get You” (Hanging Gardens)
  35. The Juan Maclean, “You Are My Destiny” (single)
  36. Lindstrøm and Todd Terje, “Lanzarote (Radio Edit)” (single)
  37. Grizzly Bear, “Gun-Shy (Lindstrøm Remix)”  (Shields: B-Sides)
  38. Todd Terje, “Strandbar (disko)” (single)
  39. Justin Timberlake, “Suit & Tie (Aeroplane Vocal Mix)” (single)
  40. Duke Dumont feat. A*M*E, “Need U (100%) (Radio Edit)” (single)
  41. Jessy Lanza, “Keep Moving” (Pull My Hair Back)
  42. Annie, “Back Together” (The A&R EP)
  43. Sally Shapiro, “All My Life” (Somewhere Else)
  44. Jessie Ware, “Imagine It Was Us” (Devotion [U.S. version])
  45. Dawn Richard, “Riot” (Goldenheart)
  46. Selena Gomez, “Come & Get It” (Stars Dance)
  47. feat. Britney Spears, “Scream & Shout” (#willpower)
  48. CHVRCHES, “Gun” (The Bones of What You Believe)
  49. Tegan and Sara, “Closer” (Heartthrob)
  50. Calvin Harris feat. Florence Welch, “Sweet Nothing” (18 Months)
  51. Kelly Clarkson, “Catch My Breath” (Greatest Hits: Chapter One)
  52. Taylor Swift, “I Knew You Were Trouble” (Red)
  53. M.I.A., “Come Walk With Me” (Matangi)
  54. Sleigh Bells, “Bitter Rivals” (Bitter Rivals)
  55. Marnie Stern, “Year of the Glad” (The Chronicles of Marnia)
  56. Queens of the Stone Age, “My God Is the Sun” (…Like Clockwork)
  57. Pelican, “Vestiges” (Forever Becoming)
  58. Polvo, “The Water Wheel” (Siberia)
  59. Iggy & The Stooges, “Ready to Die” (Ready to Die)
  60. Savages, “She Will” (Silence Yourself)
  61. David Bowie, “Love Is Lost” (The Next Day)
  62. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Sacrilege” (Mosquito)
  63. Nine Inch Nails, “Everything” (Hesitation Marks)
  64. Kanye West, “Black Skinhead” (Yeezus)
  65. Jay Z, “Picasso Baby” (Magna Carta Holy Grail)
  66. Run the Jewels, “Run the Jewels” (Run the Jewels)
  67. Angel Haze, “Echelon (It’s My Way)” (Dirty Gold)
  68. Lady Gaga feat. R. Kelly, “Do What U Want” (ARTPOP)
  69. Drake feat. Majid Jordan, “Hold On, We’re Going Home” (Nothing Was the Same)
  70. Ciara, “Body Party” (Ciara)
  71. AlunaGeorge, “You Know You Like It” (Body Music)
  72. Blood Orange, “Chamakay” (Cupid Deluxe)
  73. Jacques Greene feat. How to Dress Well, “On Your Side (Radio Version)” (single)
  74. Disclosure feat. Sam Smith, “Latch” (Settle)
  75. Danny Brown feat. Purity Ring, “25 Bucks” (Old)
  76. Hot Chip, “Dark and Stormy” (single)
  77. Maya Jane Coles, “Stranger” (Comfort)
  78. Emiliana Torrini, “Speed of Dark” (Tookah)
  79. Glasser, “New Year” (Interiors)
  80. Julia Holter, “In the Green Wild” (Loud City Song)
  81. Kate Boy, “Northern Lights” (Northern Lights EP)
  82. The Knife, “A Tooth for an Eye” (Shaking the Habitual)
  83. Atoms For Peace, “Default” (Amok)
  84. Darkside, “Freak, Go Home” (Psychic)
  85. Blondes, “Elise” (Swisher)
  86. Gold Panda, “We Work Nights” (Half of Where You Live)
  87. Lusine, “February” (The Waiting Room)
  88. Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory, “Photon” (Elements of Light)
  89. Gregor Schwellenbach, “Kaito’s Everlasting” (Gregor Schwellenbach Spielt 20 Jahre Kompakt)
  90. Dawn of Midi, “Io” (Dysnomia)
  91. Brandt Brauer Frick, “Ocean Drive (Schamane)” (Miami)
  92. The Range, “Loftmane” (Nonfiction)
  93. µ-Ziq, “Houzz 10” (Chewed Corners)
  94. Oneohtrix Point Never, “Zebra” (R Plus Seven)
  95. Four Tet, “Parallel Jalebi” (Beautiful Rewind)
  96. Boards of Canada, “Cold Earth” (Tomorrow’s Harvest)
  97. Fuck Buttons, “The Red Wing” (Slow Focus)
  98. Colin Stetson, “High Above a Grey Green Sea” (New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light)
  99. Dustin Wong, “Cityscape Floated” (Mediation of Ecstatic Energy)
  100. Cave, “Arrow’s Myth” (Threace)
  101. Brokeback, “Don’t Worry Pigeon” (Brokeback and the Black Rock)
  102. NEXT Collective, “Perth” (Cover Art)
  103. Christian McBride & Inside Straight, “Gang Gang” (People Music)
  104. Chance the Rapper, “Pusha Man/Paranoia” (Acid Rap)
  105. James Blake, “Retrograde” (Overgrown)
  106. Rhye, “The Fall” (Woman)
  107. Quadron, “LFT” (Avalanche)
  108. Laura Mvula, “Green Garden” (Sing to the Moon)
  109. Allá, “Without U” (#feedthedragon volume one)
  110. Thundercat, “Oh Sheit It’s X” (Apocalypse)
  111. Beyoncé, “Blow” (Beyoncé)
  112. Janelle Monáe feat. Erykah Badu, “Q.U.E.E.N.” (The Electric Lady)
  113. K. Michelle, “V.S.O.P.” (Rebellious Soul)
  114. Lady, “Money” (Lady)
  115. Charles Bradley feat. Menahan Street Band, “Strictly Reserved for You” (Victim of Love)
  116. JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, “Rouse Yourself” (Howl)
  117. Mavis Staples, “Can You Get To That” (One True Vine)
  118. Mariah Carey feat. Miguel, “#Beautiful” (single)
  119. Emeli Sandé, “Next to Me” (Our Version of Events)
  120. Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop” (Bangerz)
  121. Ariana Grande feat. Mac Miller, “The Way” (Yours Truly)
  122. J. Cole feat. TLC, “Crooked Smile” (Born Sinner)
  123. Justin Timberlake, “Take Back the Night” (The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2)
  124. Bruno Mars, “Treasure” (Unorthodox Jukebox)
  125. Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, “Get Lucky (Radio Edit)” (single)
  126. Mayer Hawthorne, “The Innocent” (Where Does This Door Go)
  127. Pharrell Williams, “Happy” (Despicable Me 2 soundtrack)
  128. Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell, “Blurred Lines” (Blurred Lines)
  129. Elvis Costello and the Roots, “Walk Us UPTOWN” (Wise Up Ghost)
  130. Lorde, “Royals” (Pure Heroine)
  131. Pentatonix, “Daft Punk” (PTX, Vol. 2)
  132. Petra Haden, “Psycho Main Title” (Petra Goes to the Movies)
  133. Kronos Quartet with Bryce Dessner, “Tour Eiffel” (Aheym)
  134. Blue Hawaii, “Try To Be” (Untogether)
  135. Goldfrapp, “Drew” (Tales of Us)
  136. Laura Marling, “Undine” (Once I Was an Eagle)
  137. 78violet, “Hothouse” (single)
  138. Laura Veirs, “Sun Song” (Warp and Weft)
  139. Low, “Just Make It Stop” (The Invisible Way)
  140. The National, “Don’t Swallow the Cap” (Trouble Will Find Me)
  141. Au Revoir Simone, “Crazy” (Move in Spectrums)
  142. Xenia Rubinos, “Cherry Tree” (Magic Trix)
  143. Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young” (Modern Vampires of the City)
  144. Parquet Courts, “Stoned and Starving” (Light Up Gold)
  145. Lee Ranaldo and the Dust, “Home Chds” (Last Night on Earth)
  146. Kurt Vile, “KV Crimes” (Wakin on a Pretty Daze)
  147. Deerhunter, “Back to the Middle” (Monomania)
  148. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “The Opposite of Afternoon” (II)
  149. Yo La Tengo, “Well You Better” (Fade)
  150. Paul McCartney, “New” (New)
  151. Foxygen, “No Destruction” (We Are 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic)
  152. Blitzen Trapper, “Ever Loved Once” (VII)
  153. Caitlin Rose, “I Was Cruel” (The Stand-In)
  154. Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round” (Same Trailer Different Park)
  155. Anna Kendrick, “Cups (Pitch Perfect’s ‘When I’m Gone’)” (single)
  156. Sam Amidon, “My Old Friend” (Bright Sunny South)
  157. Brad Paisley, “Southern Comfort Zone” (Wheelhouse)
  158. Pistol Annies, “Hush Hush” (Annie Up)
  159. Ashley Monroe, “Weed Instead Of Roses” (Like a Rose)
  160. Brandy Clark, “Stripes” (12 Stories)

I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of choosing baby names that are somehow special or unique or personal. Names that aren’t unbearably common or tainted by external associations. Names that feel like they belong to you alone. For a lot of parents, it seems, this is an important value to be upheld in the naming process.

As Laura Wattenberg has pointed out, the drift away from tried-and-true traditional names began in the 1960s with the increased focus on individuality in American culture. The Internet then exacerbated the trend. The online publication of baby-name statistics (which began in the U.S. in the late 1990s) now lets you see which names are the most popular — which has the effect that a lot of people will deliberately avoid certain names.

But precisely because so many people are turning toward less-popular names, the popular names really aren’t as popular as they once were. In 1950, the #1 name constituted about 5% of all names given that year for each sex. By 1985 this was down to 3%. Now it’s 1%. Parents these days freak out about giving their kid a name in the top 20, even though the 20th-most-popular girls’ name (Aubrey) is given to only about 1 in 280 girls. (Obviously, it might be somewhat more popular in certain geographic areas or socioeconomic circles.)

I’d submit that the Internet also creates an illusion of popularity simply by the fact that you can type most any name into Google and find at least a few examples of it in use. Before, a name felt fresh and novel if we didn’t personally know anyone with it. Now, people feel frustrated if a single stranger on a blog “stole” her idea for a name. The bar is much higher.

All of this raises some questions: Why do we crave “special” or “unique” names for our kids? Do our kids even want the zany names we give them?

I got a kick out of the cartoon above because the scenario was so hard to imagine. And yet we act like we are doing our kids a favor by bestowing them with unfamiliar or difficult-to-spell names, the product of either laborious research or creative brainstorming, supposedly so that they don’t go through life feeling like they’re boringly interchangeable with their peers*. Throughout elementary school I was one of three Johns in my class. Honestly, it didn’t really bother me. Perhaps once in a while I daydreamed about being called something less common, but it was usually on the order of Benjamin or Justin instead of anything outlandish. Are kids today any different?

Ultimately, I feel like parents who prize specialness may claim a concern about their children’s well-being, but they’re just as often driven by their own desire to appear cool and clever and creative. With the options for names nearly limitless these days — free of the restrictions (Biblical names, family names) that traditionally governed selection — names increasingly function as a marker of status or taste. But I can’t help but dwell on the fact that it’s the parents’ taste that’s on display in a name, even though the kids are the ones that will be saddled with it.

*It’s also been suggested that some parents want to help their children stand out to the admissions counselors and HR representatives in their future. I’m not sure I buy it, but maybe I just find the idea depressing.


A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for Stylus about songs that list women’s names. Well, one of the biggest hits in the UK right now follows this conceit as well. The chorus of “That’s Not My Name” by the Ting Tings runs down several names that lead singer Katie White is mistakenly called, including Stacey, Jane, and Mary-Jo-Lisa. (It also incidentally reminds me of Whitney Houston’s bizarre 1991 single “My Name Is Not Susan.”)

Strangely enough, not long after I made this observation, I found another song that fits the formula. Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ amusingly narcissistic “I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby” concludes with a disco vamp over which August Darnell goes over the names of women with whom he’s presumably scored. “Let’s start with the A’s,” he instructs, listing a half-dozen “A” names before giving up and settling for “Sophie.”

I’d originally heard the song on the great Mutant Disco compilation but rediscovered it recently when Drew Gaerig put it on a collaborative mix we made as part of the Stylus Summer Jamz ’08 project. (The site is no longer operational, but the annual feature was too fun to let the lack of a centralized venue stop us from continuing it.) So far the mixes, most done in pairs, have been co-hosted at Screw Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Passion of the Weiss, and What Was It Anyway. But on the chance that someone’s reading this who doesn’t already check those sites, I’ll throw it on here, too.


Summer Jamz ’08 #7: Daydreamin’

For this mix we focused on the theme of “daydreams,” the kind you have while gazing out the window on the last day of school or while absent-mindedly dipping your toes into wet sand on the beach. We went back and forth, each drawing inspiration from the other’s selections, which led to some nice surprises along the way. Pour yourself a drink that requires an umbrella, kick off your flip-flops, and take a listen.

1. Allá, “Un Dia Otra Noche”

The Chicago-based psychedelic pop band Allá worked on their debut album Es Tiempo for six years (I heard some early mixes, courtesy of a mutual friend, way back in 2003) but chose just the right time to release it: the beginning of summer. On this, the opening track, the busy arrangement—anchored by a restless Swedish string section—threatens to swallow up the whole tune, but Lupe Martinez’s dreamy vocals keep it as light as a swiftly floating cloud. [John M. Cunningham]

2. Kid Creole and the Coconuts, “I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby”

Strut. Buy new hat. Strut with new hat. Wonder aloud if that too expensive “Africa ’76” t-shirt from the too expensive t-shirt shop is 1. too expensive and/or 2. unacceptable on a white boy. But what if the hat matches the t? Ponder. [Andrew Gaerig]

3. Shuggie Otis, “Aht Uh Mi Hed”

Like Stevie Wonder, Shuggie Otis was a 1970s soul-music polymath, playing every last instrument on Inspiration Information. I particularly like his use of a primitive drum machine, though, which lends yearning songs like this an intimate homemade feel. [JC]

4. Serge Gainsbourg, “Daisy Temple”

What happens when a narcissistic French crotch-scratcher rings Sly & Robbie and they take him exactly as serious as he needs to be taken, composing rhythms out of those whirl-around party favors and … bass guitar. The latter of which is pretty standard, granted. I hope these backup singers are well-compensated. [AG]

5. Calle 13, “La Jirafa”

Calle 13 is nominally a reggaetón duo, but this 2006 single, with its lush strings, conversational flow, and romantically surreal lyrics (one is translated as “I want to wrap you in a tortilla”), is miles away from the gruff shouts of someone like Daddy Yankee. As the video makes clear, it’s also perfect for lying in the grass and conjuring up some sun-fueled fantasies. [JC]

6. Rancid, “Hoover Street”

I once suggested to my high school girlfriend that Rancid’s “Old Friend” should be “our song,” which was shot down about as fast as mom used to shoot down “chocolate cake” as “our breakfast.” “Hoover Street” ain’t that song, but it has always elicited my most churlish Tim Armstrong mumble-alongs. [AG]

7. Stephen Malkmus, “Dynamic Calories”

This breezy miniature (from the Pig Lib bonus EP) finds Malkmus asking us to imagine ourselves in an ‘80s underground rock band that never quite made it, a whimsical conceit that nonetheless retains a measure of wistfulness. [JC]

8. Ugly Casanova, “Things I Don’t Remember”

Funny how attaching a good hook makes absurdum palatable. Like if Billy B. had a little more Alex Chilton in him I might’ve made it more than 30 pages through Naked Lunch. Either way, best use of “alligator” in a song since Anthem of the Sun. [AG]

9. Pinback, “Concrete Seconds”

I’m kind of a sucker for precise, crystalline indie pop (there’s a playlist on my iTunes called Clean Guitar), and Pinback does it better than pretty much anybody (though the Sea and Cake are also right up there). Once they’ve locked in to a groove, the effect becomes almost trance-like. [JC]

10. Phoenix, “Lost & Found”

Listen for the shrugging “hmph” before “You don’t know what you’re doing” and the first chorus. For those days I wish I was younger, Frencher, and cockier and my friends were younger, Frencher, and fuller of shit. [AG]

11. The High Llamas, “Go to Montecito”

Sean O’Hagan catches a lot of flak for aping late-era Beach Boys, and recent High Llamas albums have proven that he sometimes has trouble crafting songs that transcend their retro details, but “Go to Montecito” frames its melancholic summer’s-end harmonies within a bossa nova that I find impossible to resist. [JC]

12. Gilberto Gil, “Mamma”

The opening syllabic nonsense might be the daydreamiest bars of music ever recorded, in a Highlights magazine kind of way. Then dude goes on about setting off and leaving mom behind, which, come to think of it, is exactly the sort of daydream you might have when you’re part of Highlights magazine’s target demographic. [AG]

13. The Avalanches, “Two Hearts in 3/4 Time (Edit)”

Rarely have I heard a voice more weightless than the anonymous one sampled here: the descending pattern of those la-la-las even suggests a lazily drifting feather or leaf. Completely inconsequential, and totally beautiful. [JC]

14. Low Motion Disco, “Things Are Gonna Get Easier”

One of those remixes where it sounds like your vinyl is skipping in a really cool way, a way that your vinyl never actually skips after you drop it on the ground. Saying we need more edits like this is akin to saying we need more summers. Well, of course. [AG]


More summer:

Summer Jamz ’08 #6: It’s Not the Heat by Jeff Siegel and Kevin J. Elliott
“This mix is a reflection of soupy, unrelenting humidity. A heat mirage. A little dancing, but not too much, because we must lie down and rehydrate.”

Summer Jamz ’08 #5: Compiled by Jayson Greene and Stewart Voegtlin
“Oh, geezus. Didn’t we all wanna give up the goose when the sweat ceased to dribble and ran?”

Summer Jamz ’08 #4: Compiled by Paul Scott and Ian Mathers
For their summer mix, Paul and Ian decided to have a conversation, or maybe an argument, thanks to one inarguable fact: Ian hates summer.

Summer Jamz ’08 #3: Dear Summer… by Jonathan Bradley
“My mix is for the times everything is still and quiet and perfect … I haven’t included any yacht rock or Eagles tunes, but that’s all I can guarantee.”

Summer Jamz ’08 #2: State of the Union, Jack by Mike Orme and Nick Southall
“Two former Stylus Magazine compatriots … celebrate the summer by splitting halves of a mix CD, each trying to fill their side with songs the other writer would put on a summer mix.”

Summer Jamz ’08 #1: Compiled by Alfred Soto and Dan Weiss
“In the context of summer, vastness suggests the abrogation of responsibility: school and relationships, mostly…”

On “Bobby”

Bobby, the Emilio Estevez film about the day Robert F. Kennedy was killed, sets itself up as a classic Altmanesque ensemble drama. The obvious antecedent is Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, which uses the country-music capital of the world as the backdrop for a set of intertwining stories. Like that film, Bobby focuses on a single location (the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles) and features two dozen major characters in or around its sphere. Perhaps coincidentally, both films also feature presidential candidates that don’t appear onscreen (except, in the case of Bobby, as archival footage) and climax with an assassination.

What interested me about Bobby was the decision to extend the scope of the Kennedy shooting beyond the senator, his family, and campaign entourage to the rest of the hotel’s staff and occupants who happened to be there on June 5, 1968, many of whom went through the day with plenty of other things on their minds. (Freddy Rodriguez, for instance, plays a kitchen worker who’s bummed that he can’t watch Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale attempt a sixth straight shut-out that night.) Historical fiction films provide an opportunity for a writer or director to tilt the narrative prism away from the oft-told tales, and in not even bothering to introduce Sirhan Sirhan, much less examine his motivations for killing RFK, Estevez’s tack is admirable.

At the same time, most of the narratives Estevez weaves in Bobby are just as concerned with the bloated momentousness of the occasion as the ones they’ve ostensibly replaced. We get a pair of eager campaign volunteers dropping acid for the first time, a young man getting married to avoid the draft, and a Czech reporter taking a break from the tumult in Prague to request an interview with Kennedy, all of whom seem to exist for no other reason than to make the shallow point that 1968 was crazy, man. This allows the film to promote its thesis that Bobby represented a unified hope for the future, bringing the ensemble together metaphorically as well as literally, but it treats its characters as simple stand-ins for a hastily sketched zeitgeist.

Perhaps if these vignettes were more dramatically satisfying, I’d have less of an issue with them. (A well-acted, racially charged scene in which chef Laurence Fishburne presides over a table of Latino cooks is a notable exception.) But while watching the film, what I longed for, I suppose, was the way United 93 strips away all the bluster and symbolism that continue to surround 9/11 and depicts exactly what happened that clear Tuesday morning, however mundane. Or maybe the way that Nashville uses its large cast to embody the growing fragmentation of American culture, instead of forcing a hokey sense of unity at the end, as Bobby does, with a long-winded speech by someone we’ve only seen on TV.

August and everything after

Rondi Reed, Francis Guinan, and Sally Murphy in August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Despite Chicago’s reputation as perhaps the best regional theatre scene in the country, I don’t make it out to as many plays as I’d like. This is undoubtedly in part because many of my cultural choices are determined by whether or not there is a pre-existing discourse surrounding the work in question. For better or worse, critics play the role of gatekeepers, and when I’m likely to stumble across only one review of any Chicago theatre production (in the Chicago Reader), I rarely get an overwhelming sense that anything is a “must-see.” Furthermore, for me, half of what’s exciting about a great work of art is the opportunity to join a dialogue, and the dialogue regarding any theatre work is necessarily limited by the few people who have access to it (a single city, a limited number of seats), not to mention the marginalized status of theatre in relation to other art forms.

(This is why I’m sympathetic to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars [2000], a book-length harangue about how Hollywood and the media pre-determine our cinematic choices at the expense of great [usually foreign] films, but don’t entirely identify with his forlorn attitude, since I care as much about popular culture as I do about aesthetics. [The book is an instructive reminder about how popular culture, even so-called art films, is manufactured, however.])

That said, I went to see Tracy Letts’s new August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf last night on the recommendation of a more theatre-savvy friend, who after seeing it in previews, predicted it would win a Pulitzer next year (sadly, the sort of statement that heightened its relevance factor for me), and I found it a pretty remarkable piece of work. It’s a three-hour ensemble drama about an Oklahoma family torn apart by years of anger and resentment and brought together again by the disappearance of the patriarch, and Letts structures the whole thing beautifully, managing the rising tension in brief, two- or three-person interactions until it builds to a climax in a crowded, 11-character dinner scene at the end of Act II. It’s also funny as hell, and that humor is not just a welcome respite from the cruelty and melodrama but an organic response to it and a measure of the characters’ complexity.

The performances of this original cast were mostly superb, especially Amy Morton as eldest daughter Barbara, but a couple rang false for me. I hate to pick on 15-year-olds, but the high-school student who played the admittedly apathetic Jean was wooden throughout, and I wasn’t sure what to make of Sally Murphy, either. The fact that she doesn’t look anywhere close to 44 (despite the fact that she apparently is) made me wonder whether she was miscast as the middle daughter, Ivy, but then (spoilers ahead) I’m not sure I buy her childish vulnerability and her kissin’-cousins relationship with Little Charles if both of them aren’t younger and more naive. (Ian Barford’s Charles reminded me, oddly, of Ben Katz). I’d be curious to see how this is handled in future productions; at the very least, a Broadway version would expand the discourse on this finely wrought drama.

Baby name bonanza!

Much recent discourse on baby names has focused on the explosion of spelling variants within the last few decades, the tendency for Aidan, for instance, to breed Aiden, Aden, and Aydin, which then frequently surpass the original in popularity. I’d wager that this is mostly true of “new” names—those debuting after 1965 or so—where the original name hasn’t been able to establish a foothold before parents start getting creative.

The history of the name Caitlin seems fairly typical:

Caitlin, etc.

Though it’s a traditional Irish name, Caitlin remained obscure until the late 1970s, perhaps riding a wave of interest in Irishness—in 1976, the year it debuted, the female names Shannon, Kelly, and Erin were in the top 25, and Megan wasn’t far behind. Within five years, it had spawned two variants (Kaitlin and Katelyn), and two years after that, two more (Caitlyn and Kaitlyn). During the period 1994-2002, with the exception of a single year, there were no fewer than nine variations of Caitlin within the top 1000, and in 2006 the original spelling was only the fourth most popular. I was born in 1979, so it’s unsurprising that I’ve only known one Caitlin (b. 1980) and that she spells her name as such; it’s similarly unsurprising that Marissa Cooper’s little sister on The O.C. (b. 1991) goes by Kaitlin.

Obviously, variants in and of themselves are nothing new, as any Sarah who has ever been asked “H or no H?” can tell you. The difference is that, for older names, one spelling has usually dominated over time. When I was younger, for instance, I never understood why other kids would occasionally assume my name was short for Jonathan. Only Jons were short for Jonathan (or at least, there were 12 times as many Jonathans than Johnathans the year I was born), and Jons weren’t nearly as common as Johns. Similarly, Chris has long been the default over Kris (for boys, anyway), Mark over Marc, Eric over Erik, Jeffrey over Jeffery over Geoffrey, etc. I can think of only one “traditional” boys’ name with multiple spellings in which neither has clearly dominated over the past century: Stephen/Steven. Maybe Sean/Shawn, too, though neither was known in the U.S. prior to the 1940s.

For the past few years, however, Jonathan (which I realize is more than just a spelling variant) has been poised to overtake John on the Social Security Administration’s annual list of the most popular baby names, less because Jonathan is hot (it’s steadily hovered between #15 and #23 every year since 1980) than because John is not (it’s been out of the top 10 since 1987) . In fact, last year, when the two names appeared back-to-back at #18 and #19, I predicted that 2006 would reveal a reversal.

It didn’t. Both names slipped by about the same amount, and they’re currently at #20 and #22, respectively. But further down the list, I noticed that a similar milestone had taken place: Bryan had usurped Brian. Oddly enough, Bryan predates Brian within the U.S., having appeared in the low reaches of the top 1000 long before Brian’s 1925 debut. But for decades Brian was considered the dominant variant; during the period 1939-74, there were always at least four times as many Brians as Bryans (in 1952, there were 6.8 times as many).


So why, then, did this figure start to fall in the mid-1970s? One explanation is that as Brian reached a point of oversaturation (it peaked in 1972 and held on to 8th place for much of the decade), parents who liked the name but were wary of bandwagon jumping found Bryan (and, less commonly, Bryon or Bryant) a useful alternative. Another explanation is that Bryan benefitted from one of the hottest boys’ names of the 1970s, Ryan, whose popularity can be traced directly to one man: Ryan O’Neal.

The name Ryan1 entered the top 1000 in 1946 but rose only gradually until the late 1960s, when O’Neal starred in the TV soap opera Peyton Place, and then skyrocketed into the top 100 following Love Story, the 1970 box-office smash that made O’Neal a household name. (It’s also worth noting that Ali MacGraw’s character in the film is named Jennifer, which likely contributed to that name ascending to #1 that year.) By 1976, after high-profile roles for O’Neal in Paper Moon and Barry Lyndon, Ryan was in the top 20, and it’s stayed there ever since. (Other public figures probably helped keep the name current after O’Neal’s star fell, notably Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan [played 1966-93], actress Meg Ryan, and cause celebre Ryan White, the teenager who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. In recent years, there’s also been the award-winning film Saving Private Ryan and The O.C. character Ryan Atwood.)

As with John and Jonathan, Bryan’s recent fortune has less to do with with its own popularity (it peaked, along with Ryan, in 1986) and more to do with the precipitous nature of Brian’s drop. (You may recall that I targeted Brian as a candidate for the dad names of tomorrow.) For those of us who are used to Brian as the dominant variant, however, it will be interesting to see if the new positions are maintained and how that affects our perceptions of the two names in the future.

1 Like Kelly and Shannon, Ryan is an Irish surname repurposed as a first name. It is interesting to note that all three names, though usually identified with one sex (Kelly and Shannon = female; Ryan = male), have often been given to the opposite sex as well.