I met Mark Sorkin through a mutual friend a couple years ago when he moved with his family to Hyde Park. I've talked to some of my old friends in recent years about how difficult it can be to make new friends, now that we're well out of the incubator of college and head-down busy with our lives. Outside of work, it can be difficult to connect with people with enough regularity to build any kind of relationship. Mark has been the exception that proves the rule, and although we don't get to hang out often, it's always a pleasure when we do. Sure, some of it is the kick I get out of palling around with someone even shorter than me (an absolute rarity outside of my immediate family), but mostly it's because he's a super-smart dude with a great sense of humor and a fine-tuned cultural barometer. A journalist and editor, he has two adorable kids and works in the communication department at the University of Chicago's Harris School for Public Policy.
The xx - Intro - My old rule about mix tapes was that each one should drop you right into the present tense. Even if the first song isn’t brand-new, the mood it evokes should speak to the current moment in some important way. So what am I trying to communicate by opening with this track—which, in turn, opens the band’s self-titled 2009 debut album? I’m not really sure, but that’s what I like about it. There’s a definite mood in this murky composition, even the hint of a narrative in the progression, but it’s ambiguous, open to interpretation. My take on what’s happening is bound to be different from yours, which is just fine with me, and presumably with xx too. They made the space; we fill it in.
Beach House - Sparks - Like xx, Beach House conjure up dream-pop lullabies that often circle around the subject without ever naming it. I spent a long time after the revelation of their 2012 album Bloom waiting for the follow-up. Wouldn’t you know it, they gave us two last summer: Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars. Someone at Stereogum described “Sparks,” the first single off DC, as an “intricately woven loop of samples that mimic the moments before waking up, as an echoing voice from the outside pulls you up and out of slumber and into waking consciousness.” To which I’d add that the woman whispering in your ear is also keeping the sheets warm. Maybe don’t get out of bed just yet.
Kevin Drew - Mexican Aftershow Party - Do you wanna go to the Mexican aftershow party with Broken Social Scene frontman Kevin Drew? What, you might ask, is a Mexican aftershow party? I have no idea, but Drew really, really wants you to go with him. This synth-heavy track, off the underappreciated 2014 solo album Darlings, follows “Body Butter,” “Good Sex,” and “It’s Cool.” Like those, the single is sweaty, its beats pulsing, its lyrics direct in their intent. But there’s a refreshing lightheartedness here, some playful irony in the insistent repetition of a silly pickup line that makes the whole thing seem like a lark. Do you wanna go to the Mexican aftershow party? Sure, sounds like fun.
Dan Deacon - Feel the Lightning - I came to Dan Deacon by way of “Drinking Out of Cups,” the absurdist all-vocal track from his 2003 debut album Meetle Mice that, in turn, spawned the best viral video the Internet has ever produced. Turns out Deacon is not just an avant-garde clown. He’s also an insanely talented electronic musician, wildly inventive with his loops and arrangements, and increasingly invested in appealing to a wider audience. “Feel the Lightning,” which opens his 2015 album Gliss Riffer, is as close as he’s come to radio-ready, with a discernible pop structure and a danceable beat—out there but not way out. Listen more closely and you’ll discover that Deacon hasn’t outgrown his pranksterism, even if he is starting to mellow and mature. That sweetly feminine voice in the chorus? It’s Deacon at the soundboard, and he’s telling you that you’re on fire.
Tame Impala - 'Cause I'm A Man - More synth pop. The first time I heard this song, a standout in the stellar 2015 album Currents, I knew I had my summer jam. Here’s what to do when you pump this through your earbuds: Get some dark sunglasses, put a bounce in your step, and start cruising around your neighborhood pointing at stuff. The lyrics, delivered by Kevin Parker in buttery falsetto, are all about apology. He’s telling his girlfriend that he blew it, he’s not proud of what he’s done, he lost control, he’s weak. But the music isn’t making any excuses, and Parker, as always, is in complete control.
Spoon - I Turn My Camera On - Hang on to those sunglasses, dude, and step up the strut. You’ll need ’em both for this soul-drenched crowd-pleaser, recently reissued to mark the tenth anniversary of the 2005 album Gimme Fiction.
Deerhunter - Ad Astra - “Snakeskin,” the first single off Deerhunter’s new album Fading Frontier, would make a funky trifecta paired with the previous two tracks on this playlist. But the thing about Deerhunter is that they operate so well in so many modes—they’re always shape-shifting, shedding skin. Immediately following “Snakeskin,” they turn to “Ad Astra,” the only track on Frontier written by guitarist Lockett Pundt (the rest are by frontman and resident alien Bradford Cox), which catches the band in its more sedate psychedelic mode. This track is heavy on synthesizers—apparently I can’t get enough of them—and reverb and fuzz, and the ethereal lyrics are appropriately hazy as well. “In an ancient mist/They gazed into the flame/Around a dying one/They chanted out a name,” Pundt sings. There’s a sort of resurrection ritual being enacted here, maybe an oblique reference to Cox’s recovery after a near-death car accident in 2014. As the album makes clear, there’s a lot of life left in these guys. And I, for one, am very glad for that.
Arcade Fire - My Body Is A Cage - I rediscovered this song last summer while watching a YouTube video of the world’s best surfers. As one surfer after another disappeared into a tube of water and emerged, amazingly intact, on the other side, the hypnotic soundtrack slowly built up until it came crashing down, hard—a perfect metaphor for what these lunatics were subjecting themselves to. The last track on Neon Bible, I never thought much of it on the first few listens and then promptly shelved the whole album. But paired with the surfing video, it took on new energy and demanded a fresh listen. If a bit heavy-handed lyrically, musically it’s a small gem, an object lesson in tension and release that starts with the slow heartbeat of drums and builds toward cacophony.
Explosions In the Sky - Disintegration Anxiety - These post-rock shoegazers, most famous for the soaring theme song to Friday Night Lights, haven’t put out a full-length album since 2011. But they recently released this enticing single as a way of announcing a new direction with The Wilderness, due out this year. At 4:11, it’s much shorter than many of their best songs, which are more like orchestral arrangements and often expand to oceanic scale. This track doesn’t carve out a cavern of sound, but there’s a lot packed in here. Dense, intricate, and searching, “Disintegration Anxiety” is less likely than the band’s earlier stuff to hand your emotions back to you, prettified and puffed up like a Jeff Koons balloon dog. The song, which muddles through a minute of noise before settling into a dense build that never actually peaks, is more likely to set you wandering.
The War on Drugs - Under the Pressure - What would ’70s-era classic rock sound like if it were recorded today with the industry’s most sophisticated equipment and produced to perfection? This, that’s what.
R.E.M. - (Don't Go Back To) Rockville - R.E.M. are formative, a big trunk on my rock ‘n’ roll tree. These days I’ve got all their albums in a Spotify playlist—all, that is, that precede Bill Berry’s aneurysm, after which the band entered a sort of afterlife I never really believed existed. I frequently play the whole collection on random, but lately I’ve found myself cheating a bit, privileging this vintage, country-twang single from their sophomore album, Reckoning. This is the sound of an otherwise heady band discovering its sunny side. What better way to indulge in nostalgia than with a catchy pop song that warns against the pitfalls of going home?
Bob Dylan - Goin' To Acapulco - If you can’t go home again, well, where can you go? How about a dirty whorehouse south of the border? Recorded with the Band and captured for posterity on the legendary Basement Tapes sessions, this is Dylan in the guise of the dusty outlaw—broke, on the run, way past redemption. Cultural critic and mad Dylanologist Greil Marcus described the overriding sentiment of this song as “bereft.” “As the singer rises to the chorus,” he explains, “the words ‘goin’ to have some fun’ translate as ‘crawl into a hole and die.’” In other words, this is the exact opposite of a Mexican aftershow party. Do you really, really wanna go down to Rose Marie’s? Not especially. But we’re all goin’ to Acapulco sooner or later.