“This song knocked me out all month. At under two minutes long, it packs an incredible amount of narrative punch, summoning a whole short story's-worth of characters and situations with the barest amount of lyrical information. I imagine using this in a creative writing class as an example of how powerfully a work can be improved by decisive editing, whether it's a song, poem, story, etc.”
Featuring: The Shins, Pongo, Natalie Prass, Ebo Taylor, and more.
“We took advantage of a work trip to a conference in New Orleans to spend a couple days tooling around that fantastic music city. I made a pilgrimage to Euclid Records, where my fond memories from a visit in 2014 were confirmed. Euclid is just one of the best record stores I've ever been to, both expansive and expertly curated at the same time. Every section is chock full of gems, including the seemingly off-to-the-side world music section, where I stumbled on a record by Mlevhu, whose cover caught my attention.”
Featuring: Jean Grae & Quelle Chris, H. Hawkline, Lord Huron, Bombino, and more.
“This song exposes the asymmetry behind male grievance. It's about the way that the practical realities of living in certain bodies decimates the hypothetical framework of false equivalences. In short, there are real differences between negative feelings towards different groups, based on how likely those negative feelings are to contribute to the physical harm, or death, of their targets. And you thought you were listening to a jaunty indie rock song.”
Featuring: Angélique Kidjo, Wu Man, Clara Rockmore, Pussy Riot, and more.
"I thought of this song after watching news reports about people in Philadelphia rioting to celebrate the Eagles winning the Super Bowl. Many, many people pointed to the hypocrisy in the way officials and media treated these riots, as compared to Black Lives Matter and similar demonstrations. It's really kind of crazy how blatant the bias is on this front. Of course, Joe Strummer is talking about white riots in a different way in this song -- almost in reverse."
Featuring: Bilal, Manu Dibango, U.S. Girls, Lee Morgan, and more.
"New Years is an opportunity to collectively step outside the rush of everyday life for a couple days and recenter. This year, these moments have been an opportunity to inhale deeply and find a measure of tranquility. To recognize tranquility as an important counterbalance to the urgency of our disturbing political and cultural moment. Like twin planets that keep each other in orbit through mutual gravity."
Featuring: Bedouine, Ron Miles, Claude Debussy, Les Filles de Illighadad, and more.
I went to Mexico City in search of this psychedelic sound, manifest in any way possible. The problem with the record shops was that they were full of American imports, things I could easily buy in 10 different record stores in Chicago. Finally, seeing my relative disinterest, the owner asked what I was actually looking for. "Things I can't buy in the States. Especially psychedelic cumbia, stuff like that." He immediately named two shops I needed to check out. I never did get to either of those shops, but looking them up online (especially Dedos Sucios) it was clear that what I was looking for did exist. I'll be back...
Featuring: Sonidos Gallo Negro, Elton John, Irreversible Entanglements, Juan Gabriel, and more.
"This month I hit a major wall in my life as a grassroots political organizer. Back when I was leading meetings of our neighborhood Indivisible group, I got in the habit of encouraging everyone to find some time in their week to do something joyful that has nothing to do with politics. I guess that's what I've been trying to do this month. This music has been a major part of that recharging."
Featuring: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Lonnie Johnson, Sampa the Great, Alessandro Cortini, and more.
"Seeing basically every woman I'm friends with on Facebook write "#metoo" (and sometimes much more detail) really breaks my heart. And, even though I feel generally confident that I'm on the positive end of the spectrum of male behavior, hearing so many stories has me revising my take on some things in my past and thinking deeply about the way I move through the world, connecting some dots that needed connecting. My personal take-away: Keep learning, keep listening, keep striving to be better."
Featuring: Tanzania Albinism Collective, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Témé Tan, Snoop Dogg, and more.
"Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor introduced his song "When the Wall Comes Down" by commenting on how ridiculous the idea of a wall with Mexico is. Although his music is never explicitly political, it's clearly on his mind. His descriptions from the road of seeing Trump signs disappear in towns that were littered with them prior to last year's election has been one small spot of hope for me this year."
Featuring: Mastodon, Jane Weaver, Youssra El Hawary, Nilüfer Yanya, and more.
"Everything Ishmael Butler has a hand in sounds amazing, and the two new albums from Shabazz Palaces are no exception. I've said it before, but this music is leading the vanguard of hip-hop, pushing the outer edges of what it can be. This group has perfected the formula for blending spaced-out experimentalism with street attitude. Yup, this is rap music, but, damn, it's got very little to do with, say, Gucci Mane, or even Kendrick."
Featuring: Dizzee Rascal, fIREHOSE, Colin Stetson, The Damned, and more.
"My god, this is the kind of music we need right now, especially in the country music world. I know there are so so many people who identify with this sound, who maybe speak with a twang and drive a pick-up truck, but who are compassionate, intelligent, progressive. I'm so grateful to Isbell for giving them a voice."
Featuring: Jason Isbell, Kevin Abstract, Amara Touré, Sex Bob-Omb, and more.
"Between the political echo between Nixon and Trump and the revival of '60's soul sound (courtesy of Daptone Records and similar units), it was actually hard to suss if this song was contemporary or from the '60's. It's about Nixon, but, damn could it just as easily be about the current crook in chief."
Featuring: Algiers, Yazz Ahmed, Soundgarden, the Honey Drippers, and more.
"Ken knew a lot about a lot of stuff. He was a self-educated cantankerous iconoclast in a classic mold. He could be a pain in the ass, I'm sure. The main event for me, though, was getting to back him on guitar while he spun old-timey American gold on his banjo. Ken was one of my all time favorite musicians to play with. I can't say exactly why. It was just always fun."
Featuring: Tamikrest, Wheelchair Sports Camp, alt-J, Gorillaz, and more.
"I love it when great rappers get political, socially conscious, whatever you want to call it. Especially when they continue to sound like they're doing the same old rap braggadocio. Nope. This is a song about black power. Period. And Staples doesn't pull any punches."
Featuring: Vince Staples, Jesca Hoop, Oddisee, Las Cafeteras, and more.
"This month has been all about resisting apocalyptic notions - adjusting to the new political reality, the new social reality, the new personal reality. Hell, this month has been just about resisting, period."
Featuring: Elza Soares, Laura Marling, Idriss Ackamoor, Killer Mike, and more.
"We went to Cuba for six days this month, the first time I've been out of the country for at least 15 years. As usual, searching for vinyl was a central activity. Like most things in Havana, this isn't as simple as it is here in the States."
Featuring: Benny Moré, Run the Jewels, Psalm One, Benny Thomasson, and more.
"I just don’t recognize my reality, my America, in all this crap. I know that my life, and the lives of so many people I know, has nothing to do with these cartoonish characterizations. So, to battle this maddening reductionism, I want to state for the record who this real American is."
Featuring: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, A Tribe Called Quest, Laura Marling, Run the Jewels, and more.
"It's interesting to compare the parallel careers of Solange and her sister, who both released albums in 2016 that are largely about black pride and the empowerment of black women. With her lower pop-profile, Solange seems to be able to come at it from a sharper angle - the lyrics more plainly and assertively hew to the theme, and the music is more stripped down, much further out from the center of pop radio accessibility. Delightfully, the album still hit number 1 on the charts."
Featuring: Deerhoof, Kate Tempest, Danny Brown, EL VY, and more.
"Margaret Glaspy could hang with the gutsiest belters around, but chooses not to - which makes her even more magnetic. Like just a small handful of concerts in my life, I left the Green Mill that night feeling sure that I'd witnessed the earliest days of a major artist, one likely not to play such a small venue the next time around, or ever again."
Featuring: Swet Shop Boys, Arvo Pärt, Kevin Morby, Jody Stecher, and more.
"One day at work my co-worker Sammi asked me if I ever listened to Ought. "Are they a punk band?," I asked, likely with barely disguised disgust. "Ah, yeah, I guess so," Sammi replied. "Oh, I don't like 'punk' music," I declared, using actual air quotes, and walked away. What. The. Hell?"
Featuring: Mbongwana Star, Juan Gabriel, Twenty One Pilots, The Avett Brothers, and more.
"I found myself being incredibly moved by RP Boo's set at Pitchfork. It was getting a glimpse into a genuine Chicago, an organic and utterly unique expression of culture from a part of the world that is reliably portrayed in the negative. It felt like a clear and forceful refutation of the idea that all Chicago's south and west sides have to offer the world is violence and poverty."
Featuring: Xenia Rubinos, The Frightnrs, PWR BTTM, William Bell, and more.
"One of the surprising things I've learned is how much more moving I find dance performances than classical music. Spurred by that experience, I've been trying to develop my classical music knowledge a little. As I suspected, knowing something about the historical/musicological context and technical skeleton of the music really helps."
Featuring: Margaret Glaspy, Vince Staples, Christian Scott, Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band, and more.
"This month was my 40th birthday. Leading up to my birthday, my friend Robb jokingly told me I was 'halfway to 80.' I think it was partly meant as a needle, but it has actually served as a pretty great way to put everything in perspective. "
Featuring: Har Mar Superstar, ANOHNI, Bee Gees, White Denim, and more.
"The greatest perk of my job at the Harris Theater is the opportunity to see some incredible dance. It seems pretty clear to me when a choreographer cares about the music - and it can just wreck a dance for me when either the music is terrible or it just doesn't seem to have anything to do with the dance."
Featuring: Anna Wise, Rachmaninoff, Billy Paul, Big Black Delta, and more.
"I've been trying to slowly educate myself about Chicago's deep bench of new music ensembles, and I'm betting it will be hard to find any more interesting, virtuosic, and soulful than eighth blackbird."
Featuring: Christian Scott, Yeasayer, Gabby Pahinui, Ron Funches, and more.
"Lately I've been serving as iTunes valet for my favorite 11-year-old. We sit and search for songs that she wants downloaded on her iPod, with her largely guiding the search and me trying to throw golden nugget in front of her ears every once in a while. To my utter horror and amazement, I found myself feeling a sense of relief when we landed on Britney Spears. It's an experience I would have sworn would never happen."
Featuring: The Arcs, Carlos Malcom, Kronos Quartet, Pell, and more.
Regardless of your conclusion about what gates have or haven't been knocked down, or what technological/political changes in the music industry have taken place to create opportunities for women in music - women around the world are clearly making some of the most exciting, diverse, confident contemporary music.
Featuring: The Coathangers, Tune-yards, Sisyphus, Quilt, and more.
Even though it was kind of like eating candy for me, I felt slightly guilty about the retro focus of last month's playlist, with its severe dearth of new music. This month I renewed my commitment to finding new music, and also devoted energy to researching some new sources, a few of which I'll mention below. Looking at this mix now, I wonder if I've swung too far in the other direction - but that anxiety is assuaged by what I think is a pretty tight, well-paced mix.
Featuring: Xenia Rubinos, Sharon Van Etten, Black Milk, John Lurie, and more.
A good cover honors the original and puts a new spin on it. A great cover can make you completely reevaluate an original (no matter how mediocre) by seizing the kernel of genius within and spinning it into something barely recognizable.
Featuring: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Moondog, Neneh Cherry, Tinariwen, and more.
When trying to fulfill a New Year's resolution, it helps mightily if you've chosen to nudge yourself in the direction of something pleasurable, rather than trying to force yourself on an odious task. With one of my two musical resolutions in mind, I've been spending some time checking out Bandcamp as a resource for new music, and it's been pretty rewarding, turning me on to this incredible collection and more.
Featuring: Asaf Avidan, El Rego, Martin Carthy, Sharon Jones, and more.
For me, this month essentially began and ended with Ry Cooder. I've fallen in love with albums of his before, especially the stellar I, Flathead, but the enormity of his genius, the sheer amount of time he's been making great music, escaped me until I started sifting through his catalogue (which goes back to 1970) this month.
Featuring: Cate le Bon, Arcade Fire, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and more.
Last week I had the privilege of visiting my friend Johnny Suh's music appreciation class at Linblom High School and playing some music for them. The opportunity to blather on about music for 45 minutes to a group of people who have to listen and can't leave the room is a dream come true for me.
Featuring: Tanya Morgan, U2, Linda Thompson, Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, and more.
I used to rely on the library heavily for new music, checking out CDs regularly from the public library and hitting the music section of my college library hard for four solid years. Without thinking about it too much, that habit tapered off into nothing long ago. A few weeks ago, though, I found myself killing some time in the music section of the Harold Washington Library downtown, and wandered into the world music CD section.
Featuring: Lucius, Cam'ron, Moderat, Eleanor Friedberger, and more.
The Pitchfork festival was this month, and was my second year of going - but only for one day this time. It was especially fun because I got to take Gabe to her first outdoor music festival. There are more details about what we saw below, but I walked away with a general impression - younger artists need to step it up.
Featuring: Kobo Town, Mikal Cronin, Bjork, Tyler Ramsey, and more.
I've been interested in the incredibly diverse and all-around badass music coming from Mali for probably about 15 years. Probably about 60 seconds into hearing Bombino's new album Nomad I thought to myself, "This is the next evolutionary step of Touareg music."
Featuring: Bombino, Blood Orange, Bassekou Kouyate, Bronski Beat, and more.
Thank god for the Carter Family. There's something so elemental, so foundational about their sound. Even though I grew up with their songs, and experience the same kind of spiritual relief when hear them as when I hear my mom sing, there's still so much of their music I've never heard.
Lots of sentimentality in this month's mix, which I guess is fitting for the holidays. And romance, which is also fitting for a month which hosted a very romantic trip to New York City, and New Years Eve - which is my personal favorite holiday.
Featuring: Ella Fitzgerald, Nico, Frank Ocean, Radiation City, and more.
Every once in a while I get obsessed with just one song, and listen to it over and over again - which I'm sure, if you are someone who spends a lot of time in my company (like, say, a really patient girlfriend), can become insufferable.
Featuring: John Fahey, Macklemore, Cody Chesnutt, Solange, and more.