Those of you who know me know how truly and utterly into music I am. I’m not quite as hardcore as a few people I know – all performance music majors of some sort – but I fancy that I know a fair bit about what’s decent for someone who herself isn’t much more than a fair musician. I played bassoon for years and probably still could, if I’d bother to pick the instrument up once in awhile. I like to fancy that I have an ear for good melodies and lyrics.
Of course, musical preferences are totally subjective. I have several friends who are die-hard metal heads, others who are insufferable hipsters perpetually seeking to build their “indie cred” (okay, that was me in university), and others who are lovers of all things acoustic and folksy. For my own part, my musical tastes are somewhat diverse. I like just about everything from techno and electronica to folk music to pop and classical. (Isn’t classical music just pop from a bygone era? What if someday, someone thinks that Katy Perry is a genius classical artist? Dear God.)
I’m in no better position to recommend music to you than anyone else, but I like doing it. I enjoy making playlists for my friends when I see them, since most my friends are fairly into music themselves. I always appreciate a good music swap, and since I’m hungering for a new discovery myself, perhaps part of me is hoping that someone will come forward with a hot new recommendation for me. My ears are always open!
I wish I’d gotten into Ani when I was younger. I resisted her for years, and a big reason behind that was someone I know/knew who was obsessed with Ani. We didn’t get along all that well – frenemies might be a good way of describing us – and I held a grudge against Ani for years because of that. My friends Kendra and Julie finally got me to a live Ani concert – the only real way to be introduced to Ani – and I was hooked. I never looked back. I’m still kicking myself for allowing my opinion of someone’s personality to get in the way of listening to good music.
Part of the reason I’m including Ani in this list is because she just put out a new album, but I haven’t bought it and don’t intend to. I love Ani dearly, but I’m firmly of the opinion now that her best years are behind her. Her first album was released way back in 1990 (!), and she has been an extremely prolific artist, sometimes to her detriment, I think. Her earlier albums are her best, and they markedly different from her later albums. Her early albums feature more of her signature finger-picking, which is mind-blowing at times, especially if you really appreciate fast fingers in guitar work. Her lyrics are powerful and draw the listener in, and she is incredibly relatable.
Her new album is mostly political, and I even though I am a devoted fan, I have never agreed with Ani’s politics. I appreciate her, but a libertarian will never agree with a socialist or whatever it is that Ani really is. Her new album is relaxed, happy, and… Well, to be perfectly honest, Ani is at her best when she is angry. She attacks her guitar, and when she’s live, it’s amazing, the kind of rapport that she has with her audience. Those vitriolic songs are best when she has someone with whom to share that mass of emotion.
In any case, I wouldn’t recommend her later work as a starting point. Like most Ani fans, I would probably recommend Dilate or Little Plastic Castle, which are arguably her two best, most solid works, though Living in Clip is a great place to start too, as Ani is always at her best live. Dilate has always been my favorite album. I used to drive around my university town belting out Dilate songs. In fact, I used to consider the song “Dilate” to be my personal anthem.
I’m less dedicated about listening to Ani now, but like any good friend, she’s always there, and whenever I put her on play, it’s like we never parted. I shared some of the best and worst times of my life with her, and I still find her relatable. If you have never checked her out, do so immediately. You won’t be sorry, I promise.
Townes Van Zandt
If you are a country music fan and don’t know who Townes is, punch yourself in the face. Hard. Then go out and buy one of his albums. Any one will do. Townes Van Zandt is pure magic. That said, not everyone loves him like I do. My husband thinks he’s utter rubbish. My husband also thinks “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees is the best song known to man, so I don’t put much stock in his musical opinion.
Townes Van Zandt was an interesting character. His family threw him into a mental institution during his college years due to his struggles with bipolar disorder, and due to insulin shock therapy, Townes lost most all recollection of his childhood. He emerged a changed man and began writing amazing music shortly thereafter.
He had an up-and-down life that was mired with alcoholism and drug addiction, but he always managed to write beautiful, inspiring songs. Faithful fans have declared that he’s better than Bob Dylan (he is). His finger-picking ability is incredible, and his lyrics are moving beyond imagine. That said, he is not for everyone. Most of his songs are understandably tinged with melancholy. They are often deceptively simple, leaving your mind to wander and color in the missing details that lie just under the words. I’ve found myself able to more clearly picture scenes of Townes’ music more so than any other artist I’ve encountered. The downside to Townes, for some, is that his singing pretty much sucks. He isn’t an on-key crooner, but it is honest singing, and I find that I enjoy his older, whiskey-and-cigarette hardened voice more than I enjoy his technically “better” voice of youth.
My personal favorite song is “If I Needed You,” which literally brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it. Most of his songs are fantastic, but some of the most popular are “Pancho and Lefty,” “Waiting Around to Die,” “To Live Is to Fly,” and “Be Here to Love Me.” Lots of these songs have been covered by other, more well-known artists like Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, and others. Most people don’t know that Townes was the author, though.
As a side note to this post, Townes’ official record label is Fat Possum Records, which is my personal favorite recording label. They are home to other great acts such as Tennis, Dinosaur Jr., The Black Keys (very popular right now), and the Heartless Bastards. One of my friends knows the band members of Tennis, and they are well worth checking out, too. I just can’t hate a record label whose varmint of choice is a possum and whose slogan reads, “We’re doing our best.”
If you like Björk, you’ll probably like the Sugarcubes. The Sugarcubes were Björk’s first major project. They were big on college campuses back in the 1980s, but they never really went any further than that. They have a lot of Björk’s signature sound, but they aren’t quite as blatantly “out there” as Björk herself. I guess the best way I can describe the Sugarcubes is like Björk without the performance art side of what she does.
I’ve always felt that in order to fully understand and appreciate Björk, you have to embrace her videos and the performance art side of her music. Her work is very much a total package, I find, but that is not the case with this band. So if you have always wanted to like Björk but couldn’t quite get your head around her Björkness, this band could also work for you. That said, they’re still kind of weird. Whatever the case, I love the Sugarcubes. They’re fun and funky, and they were definitely different from most of the other acts out there at the time. Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s anything like them today, either.
This is Katie-Jane Garside’s latest musical project, having left Queenadreena behind. I still miss Queenadreena, and Ruby Throat definitely ain’t Queenadreena. It’s just KJG and a guitarist, so it provides a showcase of her unique vocals and interesting lyrics. For me, it’s very much mellow jam music. It’s not generally something that I would drive around listening to, since I find it rather relaxing. It’s nice background music for a lazy afternoon of reading or chillaxin’ around the house.
One thing I’ve always noticed about KJG’s lyrics are that they have the tendency to sound somewhat soft while being somewhat strange and even somewhat gory at times. She is able to create interesting visuals for me, at least. If you don’t like mildly pretentious artsy music, you’ll want to give Ruby Throat a miss. If you like weird indie rocker chicks singing quietly along with a guitar, this could be a winner for you.
Here is a video of the duo live in London performing “Bear-Baiting,” so you can get a glimpse of KJG’s full-on spritely weirdness for yourself. In the words of one of the YouTube posters, she’s a “beautiful mess.”
Jucifer is like a cross between Queenadreena and any of a variety of metal bands. Made up only of husband and wife team Edgar Livengood and G. Amber Valentine, I’ve heard Jucifer live described as a sonic onslaught. They came to my university town when I was still there, and I didn’t go because I wasn’t yet into them, and I’m so angry now that I didn’t go just for the sake of going with my friend. Ugh. Amber Valentine is supposed to be pretty dang bad-ass on stage.
Jucifer has been around since the 1990s, and they don’t stay anywhere for very long, just touring and such. They put out an album every few years. I’m not so much on their latest album, but everything before that was great. There are usually one or two songs on their albums that I don’t care for or that move too slowly for me. Jucifer is at their best in attack mode, more often than not.
Weirdly, they will often use historical themes, such as the Civil War or the French Revolution for their music. It’s different, but it works. The song “Antietam,” about a nurse working in one of the field hospitals, is strange and disturbing and yet thought-provoking at the same time. Yes, it’s a bit off that a metal band is giving a history lesson, but I enjoy it, and quite a few of my friends like this band, too, so it’s not just me.
Personally, I think their first two albums, Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip and I Name You Destroyer are the best, although I also quite like L’Autrichienne (The Austrian, referring to Marie Antoinette) and If Thine Enemy Hunger, too.
This is a music video of “When She Goes Out” created and filmed by a fan. This song is from I Name You Destroyer.
The Jesus and Mary Chain
Love the Jesus and Mary Chain. They’re basically an electro-noise band. I don’t really know if that’s the technical term, but there is a lot of “fuzz” in the background of their music. It’s a chain-sawing, grinding sound, but it’s not an unpleasant sound. It’s reminiscent of the Cure and Depeche Mode, somehow, but I think they’re better than the Cure. My aunt once told me that it reminded her of something my cousin would’ve listened to when she was young.
The Jesus and Mary Chain reminds me of a memory that I don’t really have. If The Breakfast Club were an indie film classic, I’m sure this music would have been part of the soundtrack. To me, this music is perfect for those first days of spring and summer, when you can slip on your sunglasses and cruise around with the windows down and the sunroof back, music blaring, head bopping, driving slightly over the speed limit and hoping that no cops notice you. It just has that feel-good quality to it.
In the words of the Pixies themselves, “Try this trick and spin it.” The Pixies are amazing – always emulated but never copied, they were and still are their own thing, for sure. They influenced Nirvana, and they started off as nothing more than a garage band from UMass. The Pixies themselves were influenced by a variety of bands: the Beatles, Les Paul, Elvis Costello, Husker Du, Iggy Pop, Black Flag, Hendrix, etc. Their own sound comes off sounding, at times, like rock-and-roll, punk, alternative, and even some Beach Boys-esque surfer rock.
The Pixies weren’t the most prolific band, and Black Francis wrote almost all of their material. The band broke up after a few short years due to personal and artistic differences between Black Francis and bassist Kim Deal, who later went on to found The Breeders, which gained a fair bit of popularity in their own right.
My cousin saw them in Charlotte on their 20th anniversary Doolittle tour, and I’m insanely jealous that I was stuck over here in Korea. I would really like to see the Pixies before they decide to never get together again. They have no plans to tour this year, but I’m hoping that maybe next year… Or the year after…
Whatever the case, the Pixies are my band of choice for the summer months. To me, their music is the sound of cruising with the windows down. It’s drinking on a bar patio with your best friends and eating greasy appetizers. It’s having a BBQ and watching 4th of July fireworks. It’s going on a float trip. It’s getting wasted with your friends and doing stupid things that make for great stories later. The Pixies are the soundtrack to the best summer of your life. Every time I put on this album, it’s like turning on the sunlight and letting the good times wash over me. You can’t go wrong with these guys, a carload of friends, a few cases of beer, and a destination at the end of a long, dusty highway.
Here they are live in 1988 playing their most popular song, “Where Is My Mind?”