Southernism in Song

I was reading an article about Dolly Parton’s heart-tugging 1971 hit “Coat of Many Colors” today, and it referenced a 2005 survey done by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to identify the 100 greatest songs of the American South. I had to see that list, of course, and finally found it on an old Prince fan site. “Coat of Many Colors” came in at #10, while Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” topped the list. That “winner” is an epic, important, amazing, historic song, for sure, though it kind of stings to think that lynching turns up as the subject of the most notable song from/about the region that spawned me and my kin for generations and generations. (And, yeah, for many of those generations, my ancestors trafficked in human misery as slave-owners, so maybe “Strange Fruit” is the right song for such a list, hmmm, and alas).

But that point of musical and historic darkness didn’t stop me from thinking about my own most meaningful Songs of the South, the ones that speak to my own experiences and understandings of the region over the past half-century, in all of its weirdness, implicit and explicit. My songs may not be as important or topical or well-known as the ones on the Journal-Constitution‘s list, but they do take me home when I hear them, or at least make me want some boiled peanuts and okra and country ham while they’re spinning. Here’s a baker’s dozen worth of the ones that resonate most strongly with me, for one reason or another, most of those reasons not anchored in explainable logic.

For those readers from the region, which of your favorites did that old newspaper and I miss?

“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by The Sanford-Townsend Band

“Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips

“Heartbreaker” by Nantucket

“Satan’s River” by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner

“Moving to Florida” by Butthole Surfers

“The City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie

“Driver 8” by R.E.M.

“Creek Bank” by Mose Allison

“Breakfast Song” by Minister Cleo Clariet

“I Love” by Tom T. Hall

“I’ll Take You There” by The Staples Singers

“Down On The Farm” by Little Feat

“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” by Washington Phillips


(Don’t Go Back To) Five Songs You Need To Hear

In which we return to our occasional mini-series, for links to five songs that I know and love, and you probably don’t, but you should, so now you can, no excuses. These five cuts were all released in the past year, all culled from albums that you’ll likely read (much) more about in my “Best Albums of 2019” feature coming in a month or so. Fresh baked, as it were. Warm and tasty. Ready? Open wide your brain, and dig in . . .

#1. “Hollow” by Sin Fang

#2. “Three Sisters” by Daniel Khan (featuring Vanya Zhuk)(Audio Only)

#3. “Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft” by Lingua Ignota (Audio Only)

#4. “Almost It” by Sacred Paws

#5. “Wolf Totem” by The Hu

My Top 200 Albums Of All Time (2019 Update)

I’ve been keeping lists of my favorite albums since the very early ’70s, when I was a grade school Steppenwolf fan. My tastes have evolved dramatically over the years (though I still like Steppenwolf), so I review and update this list periodically, dropping things that haven’t aged well, and adding new things that excite me and seem to have staying power. It’s been 18 months since a freshening, so today seemed a good day to update.

For many years, this was a “Top 100 List,” but as I’ve gotten older, I feel entitled to expand the roster beyond the century mark, since I’ve listened to a whole lot more music now than I had when I was younger. I also used to exclude “Greatest Hits” and other compilation or live albums, but I’ve gotten less uptight about that, too, since for some artists, their best work may have appeared on singles that only saw long-form release in the form of “Best Of” collections.

So here’s the update, in alphabetical order by artist name. As soon as I post this list, I will invariably change my mind about something, but that’s the beauty of updates, right? Watch this space in 2020 to see what I got wrong this time!

  1. AC/DC: Back in Black
  2. Allison, Mose: Swingin’ Machine
  3. Bauhaus: The Sky’s Gone Out
  4. Beef: Stink, Stank, Stunk
  5. Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: Clear Spot
  6. Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: The Spotlight Kid
  7. Birthday Party: Junkyard
  8. Black Flag: Damaged
  9. Bogmen: Life Begins at 40 Million
  10. Bongwater: The Power of Pussy
  11. Bonzo Dog Band: Keynsham
  12. Bonzo Dog Band: The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse
  13. Bowie, David: “Heroes”
  14. Bowie, David: Lodger
  15. Bowie, David: Blackstar
  16. Buggy Jive: The Buggy Jive Mix Tape
  17. Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey
  18. Bush, Kate: Hounds of Love
  19. Bush, Kate: The Dreaming
  20. Butthole Surfers: Hairway to Steven
  21. Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician
  22. Camberwell Now: All’s Well
  23. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Henry’s Dream
  24. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Tender Prey
  25. Chance The Rapper: Coloring Book
  26. Chap: Mega Breakfast
  27. Christian Death: Catastrophe Ballet
  28. Clash: Combat Rock
  29. Clutch: Book of Bad Decisions
  30. Clutch: Elephant Riders
  31. Clutch: Robot Hive/Exodus
  32. Coil: Backwards
  33. Coil: Horse Rotorvator
  34. Coil: The Ape of Naples
  35. Collider: WCYF
  36. Coup: Sorry to Bother You
  37. Coup: Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack
  38. Cramps: Bad Music for Bad People
  39. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Deja Vu
  40. Dälek: Absence
  41. Dälek: Gutter Tactics
  42. Davis, Jed: Small Sacrifices Must Be Made
  43. Death Grips: Ex-Military
  44. Death Grips: Government Plates
  45. Department of Eagles: The Cold Nose
  46. Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo
  47. Diamond, Neil: Tap Root Manuscript
  48. Dogbowl: Flan
  49. Dolphy, Eric: Iron Man
  50. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf
  51. Dunnery, Francis: Tall Blonde Helicopter
  52. Eagles: Desperado
  53. Earth, Wind and Fire: All n’ All
  54. Einsturzende Neubauten: Halber Mensch
  55. Einsturzende Neubauten: Haus der Luge
  56. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus
  57. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Trilogy
  58. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery
  59. Eno, Brian: Here Come the Warm Jets
  60. Eno, Brian: Another Green World
  61. Eno, Brian: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
  62. Eno, Brian: Before And After Science
  63. Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking
  64. Fairport Convention: What We Did On Our Holidays
  65. Fall: Hex Enduction Hour
  66. Fall: The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)
  67. Fall: Imperial Wax Solvent
  68. Fall: New Facts Emerge
  69. Family: Bandstand
  70. Family: Fearless
  71. First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
  72. First Aid Kit: Ruins
  73. Fleetwood Mac: Future Games
  74. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
  75. Focus: Live At The Rainbow
  76. Funkadelic: Maggotbrain
  77. Gabriel, Peter: Peter Gabriel (III/Melt)
  78. Gang of Four: Entertainment!
  79. Gay Tastee: Songs for the Sodomites
  80. Genesis: Duke
  81. Genesis: Abacab
  82. Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
  83. Genesis: Wind and Wuthering
  84. Good Rats: Birth Comes to Us All
  85. Good Rats: Tasty
  86. Grateful Dead: American Beauty
  87. Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead
  88. Hall, Daryl: Sacred Songs
  89. Hanslick Rebellion: The Rebellion is Here
  90. Hawkwind: Doremi Fasol Latido
  91. Hawkwind: Space Ritual
  92. Hitchcock, Robyn and the Egyptians: Element of Light
  93. Hot Tuna: America’s Choice
  94. Hot Tuna: Yellow Fever
  95. Human Sexual Response: Fig. 14
  96. Human Sexual Response: In a Roman Mood
  97. Husker Du: Zen Arcade
  98. Idles: Brutalism
  99. Idles: Joy As An Act of Resistance
  100. Imperial Wax: Gastwerk Saboteurs
  101. Jarre, Jean-Michel: Equinoxe
  102. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: Jesu/Sun Kil Moon
  103. Jethro Tull: Songs From the Wood
  104. Jethro Tull: The Broadsword and the Beast
  105. Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses
  106. Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick
  107. Jethro Tull: A Passion Play
  108. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures
  109. Joy Division: Closer
  110. Juluka: Scatterlings
  111. Kamikaze Hearts: Oneida Road
  112. Kaukonen, Jorma: Quah
  113. Keineg, Katell: Jet
  114. Killdozer: Twelve Point Buck
  115. King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black
  116. King Crimson: In The Court of the Crimson King
  117. King Crimson: Lizard
  118. King Crimson: Meltdown: Live in Mexico
  119. Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express
  120. Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum
  121. Kurki-Suonio, Sanna: Musta
  122. Lateef, Yusef: Eastern Sounds
  123. Lateef, Yusef: The Complete Yusef Lateef
  124. Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken
  125. Michael Nyman: A Zed and Two Noughts (Original Soundtrack)
  126. Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime
  127. Mitchel, Joni: For the Roses
  128. Mitchell, John Cameron and Stephen Trask: Hedwig And The Angry Inch
  129. Mos Def: The Ecstatic
  130. Napalm Death: Time Waits For No Slave
  131. Napalm Death: Utilitarian
  132. Napalm Death: Apex Predator — Easy Meat
  133. New Order: Movement
  134. New Order: Power, Corruption and Lies
  135. Octopus: Restless Night
  136. Parliament: Chocolate City
  137. Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance
  138. Pere Ubu: Terminal Tower
  139. Phair, Liz: Exile in Guyville
  140. Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
  141. Pink Floyd: Animals
  142. Pink Floyd: The Wall
  143. Presley, Elvis: Peace In The Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings
  144. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
  145. Public Enemy: Apocalypse ’91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black
  146. R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant
  147. Renaldo and the Loaf: Songs for Swinging Larvae
  148. Replacements: Let It Be
  149. Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
  150. Robbins, Marty: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
  151. Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.
  152. Rose, Caroline: Loner
  153. Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure
  154. Rundgren, Todd: Healing
  155. Rush: Signals
  156. Sanders, Pharoah: Karma
  157. Schnell Fenster, The Sound of Trees
  158. Sepultura: Roots
  159. Shriekback: Oil and Gold
  160. Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence
  161. Smiths: Louder Than Bombs
  162. Snog: Last of the Great Romantics
  163. Soulfly: Ritual
  164. Special A.K.A.: In the Studio
  165. Steely Dan: Aja
  166. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam
  167. Steely Dan: Can’t Buy A Thrill
  168. Steppenwolf: Gold
  169. Stevens, Cat: Buddha And The Chocolate Box
  170. Swans: Filth
  171. Swans: Holy Money
  172. Talking Heads: Fear of Music
  173. Television Personalities: Closer to God
  174. This Heat: Deceit
  175. Tosh, Peter: Mama Africa
  176. Tosh, Peter: Equal Rights
  177. Tragic Mulatto: Italians Fall Down and Look Up Your Dress
  178. Tsukerman, Slava et. al.: Liquid Sky (Original Soundtrack)
  179. Utopia: Utopia
  180. Utopia: Swing to the Right
  181. Wailer, Bunny: Blackheart Man
  182. Wall of Voodoo: Happy Planet
  183. Wall of Voodoo: Seven Days in Sammystown
  184. Wasted: We Are Already in Hell
  185. Weasels: Uranus or Bust
  186. Weasels: AARP Go the Weasels
  187. Weasels: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow
  188. Ween: Quebec
  189. Ween: The Mollusk
  190. Who: Who’s Next
  191. Wings: Band on the Run
  192. Wings: Venus and Mars
  193. Wire: The Ideal Copy
  194. Wire: Send
  195. XTC: Black Sea
  196. XTC: English Settlement
  197. Yes: The Yes Album
  198. Yes: Fragile
  199. Zappa, Frank and the Mothers of Invention: One Size Fits All
  200. Zappa, Frank: Joe’s Garage, Parts I, II and III


A Celebration: King Crimson in Chicago, 10 September 2019

King Crimson’s timeless and titanic debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was released in October 1969. The current “Seven-Headed Beast” incarnation of the band have been marking the record’s 50th anniversary with an audacious 50-concert Celebration Tour, which rolled into Chicago’s Auditorium Theater last night. The last time the Crims played Chicago in June 2017, the group (rightly) deemed the performance to be so stellar that they reworked their planned release dates for the year to get Live in Chicago into the hands of those who could not be in the Court that evening. While Marcia and I lived mere blocks from that show’s venue (the venerable Chicago Theater) at the time, the Scheduling Fates had us in the Netherlands that week, so we just experienced the show after the fact via CD, before catching a later date on the same tour in Milwaukee.

And now we live in Des Moines, but this year, the Scheduling Fates actually smiled upon us: I was in Chicago for work this week, and Marcia flew over to join me for the show. This is our third time seeing the Beast, twice with seven heads, once with eight; sadly, keyboardist Bill Rieflin’s wife Francesa Sundsten (who also created the modern Crims’ wonderful art work) passed away after a long illness in August, and he has been unable to tour with the group this year. Marcia and I also saw the fractal incarnation ProjeKCt Two together back in Albany in 1998, and I caught the five-piece 2007 version of the band in New York City. So on one hand, we theoretically know what to expect at a King Crimson show, but on the other hand, part of the magic of a King Crimson show is that if you leave your expectations at the door when you arrive, you’re likely to have a more magical, perhaps even spiritual, experience in the presence of music that transcends its creators.

King Crimson and its management company, Discipline Global Mobile (DGM), are exceptionally attuned to the sweet spots where audience and artist come together to create unique moments that cannot exist one without the other. One aspect of this culture manifests itself in strict prohibitions against photography during performances, flying hard yet consistently in the face of modern social media culture where audience members are often more obsessed with capturing the perfect Instagram shot or getting wobbly clips up on Youtube tomorrow than they are with being in the moment with the music today. Having been to countless shows marred by idiot audients in this way, I cannot tell you how refreshing a King Crimson concert feels with the gadgets put away until curtain time. It is Crim Policy that after all the music that is to be played has actually been played, bassist Tony Levin raises his camera to snap the audience, and we in a spirit of good faith and reciprocity can snap the band as they take their bows as well. I wish this practice would spread.

Another facet of DGM’s audience engagement is their “royal package” approach to the traditional VIP experience. Rather than some seedy backstage grip and grin photo opportunity where ticket holders are shoved through a rope line for a few seconds of reflected, resented glory with their heroes, DGM actually acquires the best seats in the house directly, and invites those who wish to purchase them to a nearly hour-long pre-show conversation with band members and management. We heard, at some length, from Crimson founder, composer, guitarist and visionary Robert Fripp, bassist Tony Levin, and manager David Singleton. And after the pre-show conversations, but before the concert, we enjoyed our complementary signed programs and other high quality merch from our amazing seats in the front row, on the right center aisle. It’s an exceptionally decent and dignified approach to audience engagement, and I applaud it.

I especially appreciated, as I always do, hearing from Robert Fripp, either speaking in person or sharing his thoughtful written words. (For example, over breakfast today, he summarized a portion of his remarks last night thusly). He’s one of a very small number of people in my life who have actively shaped my understanding and appreciation of music not only through what they write and play onstage or in the studio, but also in the ways in which they frame their work and practice, and place their artistry within a context beyond commerce. (Pere Ubu’s David Thomas also comes to mind on this front). Fripp is deeply thoughtful about what he does, and why he does it, and what it means. And he has been deeply committed for decades to sharing the perspectives he’s gleaned from those experiences and reflections, and I find that thought-provoking and inspiring. He’s also very funny, and he loves his wife very much and is never afraid to tell people that, and I hold those traits in the highest regard too. He moves me, at bottom line. I’m glad to spend time with him.

And then we get to the music: two sets, starting at 8pm sharp, wrapping at 11pm sharp, with a sharp 20-minute intermission that began, sharply as promised in the taped welcome from the band, immediately after the first set, and concluded immediately before the second set. After five years together on the road, the Seven-Headed Beast is truly monstrous at this point, making sounds unthinkable in their complexity with brilliant, pointillist precision,  tone and timbre and texture deployed in the full service of the music, which is almost always audibly King Crimson, but which almost never sounds the same, from moment to moment to moment, as the concert careens onward.

Since the Crims’ reboot/relaunch in 2014, I’ve often encountered eye-rolling about the very existence of the band’s triple-drummer front line (Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, and Jeremy Stacey, the latter most ably doubling on keyboards, often in the same song), which somehow seems to trigger certain critical types into exegeses on excess and essays grounded in stale musical verities from four decades ago. All I can say on that point to the disbelievers is that until you’ve seen and heard it in concert, it’s hard to comprehend how perfect and powerful it is, both in the context of supporting the four back line musicians (Mel Collins on woodwinds, Tony Levin on basses, Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar, with the later on lead vocals as well), and as an exercise in its own right in high-wire, seat-of-the-pants technical expertise that’s simply dazzling in how incomprehensibly impossible much of it looks and sounds.

Both sets opened with the drummers drumming, and it was delightful to peek up at the top riser every so often and see how much the non-drummers also seemed to enjoy watching their percussive pals playing. The technical wizardry and auditory audacity continued unabated in the early going of the first set, as the gnarly and knotty “Pictures of A City” and “Neurotica” offered a pair of peeks (written over a decade apart) into the perils of big city living, with “Suitable Grounds For the Blues” following as a most apt third element, here in the hometown of electric urban blues. A mid-set block of “Red,” “Moonchild” (with improvised cadenzae from Fripp, Stacey and Levin), and “Epitaph” felt spacious and soaring after the claustrophobic density of what which came before it, though it was no less technical, just less frenetic. Marcia and I got to hear the quirky “Cat Food” (which earned the Crims an improbable lip-synching spot on Top of the Pops in 1970) live for the first time later in the set, which ultimately wrapped up with the electrifying “Elektrik” and the title track from In the Court of the Crimson King, still as haunting and evocative as ever, even with digital Mellotrons.

The second set’s opening drum fest segued into the gamelan-like “Frame By Frame,” which found Levin and Jakszyk harmonizing the vocals sweetly, as Stacey and Harrison created circular marimba tones around them. After a swarming installment from the five-part “Larks Tongue in Aspic” suite, the sweetness resumed with the utterly lovely title track of the Islands album, an almost jazz chamber music number that allowed Collins to shine most brightly as the music swayed and swelled inexorably like the sea against some lonely summer shore. The epic “Easy Money” is featuring new lyrics this year, carrying the themes of economic malfeasance that shaped the original forward into these most venal of populist times; Jakszyk’s wordless ululations through the swelling bridge section gave the song a sense of passion and fire and perhaps even despair in the face of market evils, then and/or now. A potent instrumental pairing of the final “Larks Tongue” segment with a chunky cut from the contemporary “Radical Action” suite returned the band to the knotted instrumental complexity that opened the show. Then an inspirational “Starless” (with its memorable theme, powerful vocals, and that epic building bass bridge that got the audience whooping well before it had run its way back to the final verse and chorus) and a thunderous “Indiscipline” (featuring more of the Drumsons’ incredible “pass the beat” collaborations) carried us into the second interim.

While King Crimson set lists are written by Fripp and presented to the band the day of each concert, always tailored to the moment, never stock repetition of the prior day’s glories, it was a reasonably safe bet that we would receive “21st Century Schizoid Man” as an encore last night, having not yet heard it, and that’s indeed how we ended the evening. Whenever I hear this song — live or at home — I never cease to marvel that (a) it’s half a century old now, (b) it opened a then-unknown band’s debut album, and (c) it was written by a quintet of very young musicians without much academic or technical training between them at the time when they created it.  The song is so titanic, so sophisticated, and so iconic that it simply boggles the mind to ponder the fact that it even exists, never mind the fact that it can actually be played, and then never mind the fact that when it is, it’s as if it’s the most current, most present, most right here right now musical moment imaginable. Everywhere. Always.

I’m not often awed by audio, but that song gets me there, and it was the perfect capstone to a concert that was filled with jaw-dropping moments beyond count. This review is already probably longer than it needs to be, and I could append paragraph after paragraph describing each of the seven players’ performances, but I think it’s sufficient to summarize by saying that their deepest collective strength is how well they work as an ensemble, every one of them using their most formidable technical skills to support the whole, solos (when they occur) appearing less as acts of creative onanism than crucial elements in catapulting the canon forward, upward, onward. As the sole member who has appeared at every occasion when King Crimson has manifested itself live, Robert Fripp often consumes much of the media’s attention and focus, but in concert, he’s the consummate team player, content to create quiet textures from his back corner perch just as often as he called attention to himself with fire and flash, allowing Jakszyk to spin off as many guitar solos as he did over the fully packed course of the evening. It worked. It works. It’s wonderful.

A moving and powerful evening, at bottom line, with some notable elegiac elements for me and Marcia: with our move to Des Moines earlier this year and my retirement from TREE Fund in October, this is the last planned concert of our wonderful years together in Chicago, and the date also marked the 17th anniversary of my father’s death. We remember. We celebrate. Life happens, change changes, and music matters, most especially if we open ourselves to its ministrations, and let it move us as it may.

End of concert photo time. Bravo to all!!!

And here is the post-show view of the sold-out room taken from the stage, courtesy Tony Levin. Click to enlarge, and spot the happiest couple in the front row.

Five Songs You Need to Hear (Slight Return)

About a decade ago, I had a recurring feature here called “Five Songs You Need to Hear.” The premise was to offer a peek into what happened to be rocking my world at the moment, with a focus on things that might be slightly off the beaten track for most folks. I was spinning an older favorite cut this morning, and would have shared it enthusiastically on social media if I still used social media, so I have decided instead to return to this occasional blog featurette about “gotta share” songs of the right now, right here. So with no further ado, here’s another edition of Five Songs You Need to Hear!

“Bleeding” by One King Down: Crunchy, riff-fueled hardcore from the Albany/Troy quintet’s 1995 Absolve EP, with original singer Bill Brown on the mic, before the law chased him out of town. OKD went on to achieve some national notoriety in Straight Edge circle in the years that followed with Brown’s replacement, Rob Fusco, doing the jumping and shouting parts, but this one song, for me, stands as their most titanic moment, and is perhaps my favorite hard-music cut from all of my years as a critic of record for the Albany region’s phenomenal hardcore and metal scenes of the 1990s. The song maintains a stately pace, with a six minute run time, giving itself far more room to grow and swell than most tracks by similar genre bands, with an absolutely killer breakdown for the time in which we must do the circle dancing. (Note that the image on the video is from the cover of a later album, the CD of which included Absolve as bonus tracks).

“The Creator Has a Master Plan (Peace)” by Leon Thomas: Pharoah Sanders’ 1969 album Karma dedicates its entire first side to the 19-minute  “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” one of the most astounding and electrifying recorded freakouts in the history of jazz, if not music as a whole. It’s one of those songs that I occasionally and literally plan to spin, as it requires full attention, and once you start it, you can’t stop it. That is not allowed! Co-writer and vocalist Leon Thomas offered another version of that titanic cut on his own ’69 album Spirits Known and Unknown, preserving the beautiful core melody and sentiment, but in a more readily digestible four minute arrangement. Lovely!

“I, John” by Elvis Presley: My grandfather had Elvis’ three great gospel albums on eight track tapes, and he played them incessantly at his house in Piedmont Cackalacky, when he wasn’t watching Hee Haw. I know and love them all dearly accordingly, and this is probably my favorite track from the three, a weird apocalyptic counting song with a beat than you can darn near dance to. The King is in fine voice and fettle here, and it’s worth noting that this was released in 1972, the same year as his last great pop hit, “Burning Love.” That’s about as good of an absolute “spirit vs flesh” creative dichotomy as I can come up with in a single year from a major artist’s catalog, Prince possibly notwithstanding.

“Long Island Iced Tea, Neat” by The Coup, feat. Japanther: Boots Riley’s incredible 2018 flick, Sorry to Bother You, had a long and complicated creative gestation. The first public glimmers of the project emerged with a 2012 album of the same name by Riley’s group, The Coup. It’s a bangin’ record, soup to nuts, and the 2018 soundtrack to the film provided a perfect second act of new music to help in telling this craziest of crazy stories. This cut is my favorite from the first album, and it features the late lamented Japanther, a deliriously eclectic duo who made the most exciting and trippy noises with their drums and guitars and voices. It was a match made in heaven. I wish they’d both “feat.-ed” each other more often!

“Heaven and Hell” by William Onyeabor: In my remembrance for Johnny Clegg after his passing a couple of months back, I wrote a bit about what a chore it was to find records and tapes by African artists in the pre-World Music and pre-Internet eras. William Onyeabor was a popular Nigerian musician, label owner and record producer who issued an incredible string of albums in his native country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, thought it was damned hard to get your hands on his stuff States-side. After his 1985 album, Anything You Sow, Onyeabor abruptly ceased recording and refused to speak of his musical career, having undergone a profound religious conversion experience. This cut is from his 1977 debut album, Crashes in Love, though you can more readily find it these days via the Luaka Bop compilation Who Is William Onyeabor? (2013), which annoyingly is now the type of thing that populates the checkout racks at your local Starbucks. Grumble. The lyrics make it clear that William, who passed away in 2017, was already thinking about his eternal soul, long before he walked away from music to protect it.

A Most Atypical Song (Or Ten)

I have a fond spot for The Police’s 1983 album Synchronicity, having first played it (many, many times) right after its release, on a Sony Walkman while out in the North Atlantic for a couple of months on an epic sailing adventure. It was a great soundtrack for laying atop the ketch’s pilot house at night, gazing up at the incredible offshore stars, singing along to “King of Pain” and “O My God” and being angst-ridden like nobody’s business. (Yeah, The Police were still borderline edgy when that album first came out, kids, as Sting had not quite yet become STING!).

I occasionally load Synchronicity up onto my iPods for nostalgia’s sake, and yesterday the randomizer queued up its fourth track, “Mother.” I would bet very good money that this song is the most skipped/least played of any track released on any Police studio album, hands down, no question, end of argument. Why? Well, if you don’t aren’t familiar with it, give it a spin:

Long way from “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Every Breath You Take,” huh? That’s guitarist Andy Summers singing, and he wrote the thing too, where Sting obviously composed and sang the lion’s share of the Police canon. (Drummer Stewart Copeland also chipped in on occasion, but his voice and compositional styles were close enough to Sting’s that I don’t think casual listeners would even notice the difference). “Mother,” on the other hand, sounds nothing like the rest of the group’s catalog, standing as a true, weird, “what were they thinking?” outlier on an otherwise hugely popular album.

I should note here for the record that I actually love Summers’ mutant blues ode to his maternal frustrations, whereas I suspect that most Police fans most emphatically do not. This got me to thinking about other groups whose catalogs contain such one-of-a-kind, what-the-hell-is-this numbers that somehow made the cut for release, and have likely been ignored (at best) or hated (more likely) ever since listeners first spun them, and then never did so again. There are some fairly obvious cases where some big names did some big experimental things (e.g The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” or Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”), but I kinda sorta think in those cases that the artists in question knew they were doing something that nobody really wanted to hear, for their own edification. More interesting (to me, anyway) are cases where artists put out cuts within their main studio album catalogs that were nominally song based and listenable, but which diverged so radically from their creators’ “normal” sound that they have mostly ended up being known (if at all) as the songs that the artists’ fans most love to hate.

I scrolled through my music library this morning and found ten fine examples of these most atypical songs, which I share below. Probably not surprisingly, if you know me and my weird tastes, I’m actually fairly fond of a lot of them, though a few are such transgressions that they even rub me the wrong way. I provide some brief statements of context on what makes each of them so anomalous, and a summary judgment on how I feel about the cut in question. Git to listening!

Genesis, “Who Dunnit?”: So let’s make one thing clear right up front: I am not a Phil Collins hater, by any stretch of the imagination. Phil is great. He really is. He just tries too hard sometimes, and we can’t gig him for that now, can we? (You don’t need to answer that). I regularly listen to the Philisis era albums Wind and Wuthering (1976), . . . And Then There Were Three (1978), Duke (1980), and Abacab (1981) more than I do any of the Peter Gabriel-fronted records. “Who Dunnit?” is from Abacab, which I consider to be the last great Genesis studio album. It’s one of two anomalous songs on the disc: “No Reply At All” features the Earth, Wind and Fire horns — but by the time it came out, people had already heard Phil sing with brass, so it wasn’t that much of a departure — and then there is this thing, a goofy, noisy Prophet V-fueled New Wave sort of number with ridiculous lyrics being delivered ridiculously, years after New Wave stopped being fun. Amazingly enough, they actually played this one live for a (short) while, with bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford playing drums while Phil mugged about in the way that probably makes most Phil-haters hate Phil the most. My verdict: I like the studio version well enough, but the live version (see it in all of its terribly glory here) is too much even for me.

Black Sabbath, “It’s Alright”: This track comes from the unfairly maligned 1976 album Technical Ecstasy, and it was written and sung by drummer Bill Ward. It features absolutely none of the ’70s-era Sabs trademarks: no Ozzy howling, no Tony power chords, no scary Geezer lyrics. While subsequent history demonstrated that Black Sabbath could function reasonably well without at least two of those things (most especially when the late lamented Ronnie James Dio was penning and keening the words), nothing else in the catalog gave any inkling of a hint that the band could have made a go as sweet middle-of-the-road balladeers. Had this one gotten single release, it might could have followed Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” onto the short list of shocking rockers impressing the adult contemporary crowd, lucratively.  My verdict: I love it. It’s a stone cold classic cut.

The Grateful Dead, “France”: When I considered the Dead’s formidable catalog, the anomalous studio songs that immediately popped to mind were Donna Jean Godchaux’s compositions and solo spotlights “From The Heart of Me” and “Sunrise,” just because it’s unusual to hear her on her own given the group’s normal sausage party mix on the vocal front line. But those songs did get some live workouts, and when you hear them that way, with the usual noodling and doodling, it’s clear it’s the Dead you’re dealing with. So for me, the biggest outlier in their canon ends up being “France,” a cut from 1978’s Shakedown Street that was so very ennnnggghhhh from the git-go that the group never once bothered to take it to the stage. Never! The song also bears the very unusual writing credit of Hart-Hunter-Weir, and it seems that those three formidable composers somehow sort of neutralized each other when they put their chops in one place at one time. The Dead were collaborating with Lowell George and his friend, Cocaine, at this stage in their development, and “France” sounds like (at best) some deep album cut by George’s Little Feat, or (probably more approximately) like something you might hear at a Margaritaville happy hour, on a Monday night. My verdict: I don’t hate it, because it’s too harmless to inspire that level of emotion, and I don’t know if I would skip it if it came up on the stereo, because I haven’t been able to get past the studio “Good Lovin'” that opens Shakedown since about 1980. The most memorable thing about “France” is its forgetability . . . one hour after I type this paragraph, I will not be able to remember how it goes.

Steely Dan, “Dallas”: Before their smash hit debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972), Steely Dan released a single with the Walter Becker/Donald Fagen composition “Dallas” on the A-side, backed with their “Sail the Waterway.” It was definitely pressed, it was definitely released to radio . . . and then it vanished. Becker and Fagen disavowed it from their catalog, on the only other quasi-official re-release that it ever received under the band’s name was on a four-song bargain EP called (sensibly) Four Tracks From Steely Dan, which ABC Records released for reasons mysterious in the Royal Scam to Aja era. That’s where I heard it the first time. It’s a sweet, sweet country song with lead vocals by Jim Hodder, who also sang the stellar “Midnight Cruiser” on Thrill, and was the first member of the original band to get the big heave-ho a year or so later. So atypical-Dan is “Dallas” in its style and structure that MOR country rockers Poco even managed a credible cover of it in 1975. My verdict: I love, love, love it. Hodder did some session work after the Dan, then died in a swimming pool. Based on this cut and “Midnight Cruiser” alone, he’s one of my favorite singers.

Captain Beefheart, “Captain’s Holiday”: A good number of songs on this list (e.g. “Mother” and “Who Dunnit?”) earn their spots because they’re far more abrasive and offputting than their creators’ usual fare. This is the opposite case. “Captain’s Holiday” is from Captain Beefheart’s widely loathed (and not without reason) 1974 album Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The core of his original Magic Band had bailed on him after their prior album, Unconditionally Guaranteed, and the group of largely anonymous sessioneers assembled to replace them have come to be known as “The Tragic Band” for their work on the notably unremarkable Bluejeans. Although he later denied it, the general critical consensus is that Beefheart was trying to offset years of penury by crafting a radio-ready, easy-to-digest record. While a couple of tracks bear the lyrical or vocal quirks that define the man, most of this record is pap, with “Captain’s Holiday” standing as the most egregious of the lot, as the song’s title pretty much tells you exactly what it is: Captain Beefheart did not write it, he barely appears on it (possibly only tootling a little harmonica), while lead vocals are by a group of women, singing such lines as “Oooh Captain, Captain, play your magic note.” That’s quite a step backwards from (say) “Her little head clinking like a barrel of red velvet balls, full past noise, treats filled her eyes, turning them yellow like enamel coated tacks, soft like butter hard not to pour.” (“Pena,” from 1969’s epic Trout Mask Replica). My verdict: This is a terrible song. Truly the worst anomaly in the Beefheart canon.

The Fall, “Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes”: I’m sticking with the esoteric side of things here, noting that the late Mark E. Smith’s long-running Fall group arguably took significant inspiration from Captain Beefheart’s catalog (they once covered his “Beatle Bones ‘n’ Smokin’ Stones” on one of their many Peel Sessions), though not likely from Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The Fall covered a lot of sonic turf over the years, and Mark E. Smith’s voice is so very distinctive that the easiest way to pick an epic Fall anomaly might seem to be to focus on one of the small number of tracks sung by other members of the group. But I’m going to take a different tack, and pick this jazzbo number from 2000’s The Unutterable album. Yep, that’s definitely Mark singing, no doubt about it. But is that a jazz flute accompanying him? Or worse yet, a synth jazz flute? And did that irascible Northern poet really just sing about how pumpkin soup and mashed potatoes keep his bowels regular? I think it was, and I think he did. And I think most Fall fans tend to avert their gazes and pretend they didn’t hear what you said when you mention it to them. A later incarnation of the band returned to vaguely jazz-informed stylings more successfully, to these ears, with 2008’s “Alton Towers,” a weirder and wiggier beast, and therefore far more popular with the Falloisie, of course. But “Pumpkin Soup” still stands alone, and mostly despised. My verdict: I like it, and it’s always nice to hear Mark and company seeming to have fun. It’s catchy and it makes me smile, and that should be good enough on some plane, right?

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “T-Bone”: And on the subject of mashed potatoes: Mark E. Smith is happy to have them; Neil Young, not so much. Neil has covered so much stylistic ground over the years that a lot of songs in his catalog could qualify for biggest “Huh?” factor in his collection (I was also thinking about “We R In Control” from Trans, for example), but I think this greasy slab from 1981’s re-ac-tor album is the one most likely to raise hackles, and the most likely to invoke the “skip” button when it comes on. If it comes on. I doubt it does very often. The skuzzy riff is pure Crazy Horse, sure, and it’s got one of Neil’s trademark one-finger/one-string guitar solos, so nothing out of line there (except that re-ac-tor is recorded with such a teeth-grindingly brittle sound that is almost hurts at high volume), but the lyrics and the length of the song are what truly try the patience of the folks who might be hoping for a little “Harvest Moon” when they see Neil pop up on the playlist. Here’s the complete lyric sheet: “Got mashed potatoes. Ain’t got no t-bone.” Now repeat. For over nine minutes. My verdict: I distinctly remember the very first time I heard this song, after walking into a record store in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Mall when the record was new. It stopped me in my tracks, and I stood there by the cash register waiting for it to run its course, which got increasingly awkward for me and the cashier alike as it went on and on and on. I loved it then, and I love it now, and re-ac-tor is the very best of all possible Neil Young albums. There. I said it. Let’s fight.

Joni Mitchell, “The Jungle Line”: Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns opens with “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” which wouldn’t have felt stylistically out of place on Court and Spark, her prior, most commercially-successful studio album. I’m sure many, many fans of her work just loved “France” when they spun Hissing for the first time, happy that they were gonna get another fine collection of Joni’s sweet folk-rock magic. And then “The Jungle Line” happens: four-plus minutes of Burundi drums, Moog synth squiggles, and Joni singing a melody line with a tonal structure that might have pleased Arnold Schoenberg, but not likely many fans of “A Free Man in Paris.” Joni pushed her jazz chops ever-harder after Hissing with varying degrees of success over her next three studio albums (Hejira in 1976, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter in 1977, and Mingus in 1979) before returning to more pop-flavored fare with 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast. Despite a wide variety of wild and weird throughout her jazz period, the majority of the music is all recognizably part of the jazz canon, or the pop canon, or the folk canon, or some combination of the three. “The Jungle Line” stands alone, and there’s not much of anything, anywhere, that sounds quite like it, for better or for worse. My verdict: I like the concept and the forward-looking experimental vision better than I like the execution. I’ll usually get all the way through it when it spins, but not always. Which is weird, because I love African drums, and I love Moogs, and I love atonality, and I love Joni . . . but the disparate pieces just don’t quite hold together in any meaningful way for me.

The Pogues, “Lorelei”: The Pogues were a true force of nature when they blasted out of London with their shambolic Celtic Punk debut album Red Roses for Me in 1984. They moved from strength to strength over the next five years, both onstage and in the studio, but by 1989, singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan’s punishing drinking regimen had begun to take its toll on his creativity and performing capabilities, and other members of the band stepped up to try to fill the gaps that their snaggle-toothed frontman opened for them. Most of the tunes penned by other band members on 1989’s Peace and Love and 1990’s Hell’s Ditch were recognizably Poguey, and MacGowan was still singing the lion’s share of them. By 1993, though, MacGowan had withdrawn, and penny-whistle player Spider Stacy took over as lead vocalist on Waiting for Herb, offering a similar slurry, shouty style, on mostly similar slurry, shouty Irish-infused post-punk songs. The group pushed on without MacGowan and a few other founding/long-term members through 1996, but the shtick got old, and the band members went their separate ways soon thereafter. But right in that cusp between the original inspired piss and vinegar days and the tired post-MacGowan afterlife, guitarist Philip Chevron (since deceased) penned and sang lead vocals on “Lorelei,” a big-sounding, guitar-stoked, plaintive rock ballad, recorded with nary a tin whistle nor cittern nor banjo nor accordion to let you know that it had any conceptual ties to the rest of the Pogues’ catalog. Guaranteed to make a casual, first-time listener wonder if the CD player didn’t somehow auto-skip to the next record during that Pogues playlist. My verdict: An utterly killer song that I never grow tired of, one of the most played in our family playlists since I started keeping track of such things over a decade ago. But I almost think of it as a Chevron solo song, so far removed it is from everything else that this group did and stood for.

Paul McCartney, “Temporary Secretary”: I opened this by noting that I am on Team Phil, and I close by noting that Paul is my favorite Beatle, and that I love Wings and listen to them more than I spin the Beatles anymore, and that I see some goodness in just about everything that Paul does musically, always. Classic case in point: “Silly Love Songs,” which seems to make a lot of folks apoplectic for its lyrical content and lite disco beats, but Jeezum Krow, listen to that bass!! That’s a six-minute “Here’s how you do it” clinic for the kids with the four-string guitars. That said, there are certainly a lot of eye-rolling moments in Paul’s catalog, especially in the early Wings days with things like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Bip Bop” and “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and suchlike. But they’re all obviously Paul (and Linda), and they obviously bear the usual guitar, bass, drum, and/or piano-based arrangements of his work at the time. And most of the time before and since. In 1981, though, after Paul’s weed arrest in Japan put Wings to sleep for the last time, Paul issued McCartney II, marketed in title (if not really in reality) as his second solo disc. Paul plays and sings everything on it, bar some incidental vocals from Linda. A good friend of mine bought this when it came out, spun it once, and told I didn’t have to buy my own copy, because I could have his, so terrible was it. It’s heavily electronic, has but one marginal hit, “Coming Up,” which was actually released in a live format featuring Wings to make it more palatable, and it has a lot of dogdy lyrics and wanky instrumental bits. If there’s one song that Macca fans know well from it, and usually hate, it’s “Temporary Secretary.” With nasal singing, misogynistic lyrics, and sequenced backing tracks, it’s about as far from “Yesterday” or “Hey Jude” as one can get. It’s also a sound that Paul’s never revisited, hence me picking it as this great artist’s greatest anomaly. My verdict: I love it, of course. Duh.

So there you go, ten truly atypical songs, most of which I like in varying degrees. Because me. Hit me with other weirdo suggestions in the comment section. I’ll listen to them all. And probably like them as well.