From Phil, over at “Dial M”:
I issue this challenge to my fellow pointy-headed music-bloggers: post a randomly-generated Ipod playlist on your blog, with relevant commentary.
Apparently this is a new activity among the cultural elite. Phil mentions an alternative weekly in Seattle in which “hipsters hand over their Ipods and get grilled on the most incriminating songs that reside therein.” Of course, among musicians, the whole idea of any song being “incriminating” runs afoul of Guerrieri’s Law of True Musicianship, which is why I’m mildly ticked that my own random sample failed to turn up either The Chipmunks or Ferrante & Teicher. But this particular exercise puts us at the mercy of the machine—so here’s the baker’s dozen that the gods of chance have decreed to be a window into my soul.
1. “Take This Job and Shove It” (Johnny Paycheck)
A good example of the Comedy Song Inverse-Absurdity rule, which I just made up: the goofier the lyrics, the more polished and elegantly constructed the music needs to be in order for a song to work. “Take This Job and Shove It” wouldn’t get half the laughs it does if it was a sloppy, parodistic country song, instead of a real, solid, well-crafted one. This, incidentally, is why faux-country numbers in musical comedies are never, ever funny.
2. Fauré: “Fleur Jetée,” op. 39 nº 2 (Barbara Hendricks/Michel Dalberto)
I have a weird history with this song. The first time I encountered it, I was sight-reading, and I was apparently having an unusually good day, as I read it down cold. Since then, every time I’ve played it, things haven’t gone nearly so well, but I really hate practicing it; because of the memory of that first read-though, I can’t shake the feeling that the song is, somehow or other, wasting my time. Still, a great song, although it ends up sounding way too bombastic on non-Pleyel modern pianos.
3. Barraqué: Sonata pour piano: premiére partie (Stefan Litwin)
I’ll admit, I don’t dial this one up on my own very much (40 minutes of free time doesn’t come along that often), but it’s a big smile when it happens to turn up on shuffle mode. Every time I wonder about the historical worth and necessity of serialism, a shot of Barraqué reminds me: exquisite, astonishing music that couldn’t possibly be conceived of in any other vocabulary. One of the greats.
4. Tchaikowsky: The Seasons, op. 37a: August, “Harvest Song” (Dmitry Paperno)
“The Seasons” is the piece that finally sold me on Tchaikowsky, who for the longest time didn’t inspire much affection beyond “Sleeping Beauty.” But these twelve polished jewels are so sure-footed not only musically, but physically at the keyboard, that you end up appreciating not only the craft, but the aesthetic. (Prof. Paperno was my piano professor at DePaul; he’ll shake his head knowingly when I reveal that “Harvest Song” is one of the movements I still can’t really play.)
5. Heuberger: “Im chambre séparée” (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf)
From the album Elizabeth Schwarzkopf Sings Operetta, which I listened to all through college, thus completely missing out on the whole grunge thing. To which I can only say: thanks, Liz!
6. “Be With You” (The Bangles)
Not my favorite off their Greatest Hits (those would be “Eternal Flame” and “Everything I Wanted”), but the fade-in from a warming-up orchestra is a nice touch. One great thing about this album: it contains harmonic dictation examples for all skill levels. Keeping it close at hand saved this TA on more than one bleary morning.
7. Gershwin: “Mine” from Let ‘Em Eat Cake (McGovern/Kert/Tilson Thomas)
The Gershwins were meta before meta was cool. The leads sing a fairly standard (if melodically adventurous) romantic song (“Mine / more than divine / to know that love like yours is mine”), after which the chorus joins in contrapuntally, explaining the number to the audience (“The point they’re making in the song / is that they more than get along”). Ira Gershwin is a god.
8. “Don’t Worry Baby” (The Beach Boys)
The most romantic song ever written about a drag race, and the fact that it’s not a left-handed compliment to say that is testament to its indelible genius. Brian Wilson is a god.
9. “I Only Have Eyes For You” (The Flamingos)
This is a cool mind-bender. Listen to this song while reading the chapter on the uncertainty principle (the one that says that the more you know about an object’s position, the less you know about its trajectory, and vice versa) in Werner Heisenberg’s The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory. You’ll swear that’s what the song is really about.
I don’t know if I’m in a garden, or on a crowded avenue… are there stars in the sky? Maybe millions of people pass by, but they all disappear from view; for I only have eyes for you.
10. “We’ve Got a Groovey Thing Goin'” (Simon & Garfunkel)
I often wonder what phrase I’m blissfully batting around today that’ll sound as hopelessly dated as “groovy” twenty years from now. Sometimes I think it might be “human being.” Then I wake up in a cold sweat, screaming incoherently about evil robots. (I actually use the word “groovy” quite a bit. “Swell,” too.)
11. “Oh Boy!” (Buddy Holly)
Here’s something interesting about Buddy Holly songs. When the persona he’s adopting is totally earnest, the rhythm is straight-eighths (“Peggy Sue,” “Everyday,” “Oh Boy!”); when the persona is one of you-cannot-be-serious sarcasm, the rhythm is a triplet-based shuffle (“That’ll Be the Day,” “Think It Over”). Someday I’ll write an article on this for an academic journal. I’ll call it “Triplets of Incredulity: Disbelief and Hermeneutic Swagger in the Buddy Holly Oeuvre.”
12. “The Way We Were” (Barbara Streisand)
When you think about it, Streisand is one of the great crossover artists of all time—the crossover being from straight musical theatre to radio-ready Adult-Contemporary. “The Way We Were” is the perfect example: essentially a typical second-act Broadway ballad that effortlessly becomes a 70’s pop hit with just a little wah-wah guitar and one Babs melismatic excursion towards the end. Go ahead: imagine Ethel Merman singing this song. Works just fine, doesn’t it?
13. “Nearer to Thee” (Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers)
I don’t know if there’s a heaven. If there is, I don’t know if I’m going. But I know this: if I get there, Sam Cooke’s going to sing me in the door.