The PFG Whatever

Introducing The Geekdown Podcast

Sometime in 2014, the Doctor Who relaunch hit Canadian Netflix. To that point my only familiarity with the show was a vague recollection of being terrified as a child when that creepy theme music started playing after Polka Dot Door ended on TVOntario. But with the 2009 reboot, and especially David Tennant’s turn as the Tenth Doctor, the show became a sort of phenomenon in my circle of friends, specifically with young women I knew who never expressed any tendency to nerdery before. So I made an effort to check it out.

And I hated it.

I could spot the reasons why I hated it (the camp, the mugging, the threadbare special effects), but every so often I saw what others saw in it: when the Ninth Doctor inadvertently stumbled on The Last Dalek in the Universe and proceeded to taunt and torture it, I thought I was all in. By the time the Tenth Doctor was fighting werewolves with Queen Victoria the next season, I was throwing up my hands. And I was troubled by what I seemed to be missing. Of course no one has to like everything, but this was something of “my people,” and I felt lacking because I couldn’t get over whatever was keeping me from just enjoying it. It couldn’t be the space travel, I loved Star Trek: TNG. It couldn’t be the time travel, I loved Back to the Future as much as any eighties baby. Was it the Britishness? I grew up loving American superheroes and Japanese anime (still do). Did my fandom fall along nationalist lines? I took these concerns to my friend Caitlin, one of the aforementioned young women who loved Doctor Who, from well before its 21st Century reboot. We never really reached an answer, but I never stopped thinking about this idea that Caitlin and I were both nerds/geeks/dorks, but in completely different ways. Surely our fandoms had to overlap somewhere?

And that’s when Geekdown was born. Every Tuesday, Caitlin and I will bring each other things from our various areas of interest, things the other likely wouldn’t check out, and talk about whether we like it, and why or why not, as we try to find the sweet spot where fandoms intersect.

There will also likely be high levels of nonsense, of the sort that only good friends of five-plus years can provide.

Subscribe to Geekdown on iTunes and Soundcloud.

The 2015 PFG Playlist

*pulls tarp off of website, shakes out the cobwebs*

Hey. How was your year?

I meeeeeaaaan, look. I’m not going to defend the lack of activity here. I work nights, I’m not perpetually tired, but I’m pretty tired a lot of the time. I wrote some stuff for some people, but a lot of where my non-day job hours of consciousness ended up was on the retooled RadioPFG. What was once a semiregular directionless podcast has now become, on the strength of the two years I’ve spent as a junior-intermediate crate digger, a weekly hourlong show I produce myself live every Saturday at 2:00 pm. I broadcast it on Mixlr every week, then toss the newest episode on Soundcloud for the following seven days. I’ve really enjoyed doing it, and the feedback from the friends who are listening regularly has encouraged me enough to keep  working on it from week to week.

If there’s one thing working on the show has done, is that it’s allowed me to re-engage with music on a deeper level than I have in a few years. After years of writing these preambles and lamenting that music was boring me or that I couldn’t find 20 songs that I loved in any given year, I had more music than I could handle in 2015, and what’s more, I was actively seeking it out, which is new. Record collecting and programming a show has made my tastes weirder and (no surprise here) more global. Let’s take a stroll through the songs that blessed my ears the most this year, not the objectively superior, not necessarily the most innovative, just the ones I liked the best, in no order.

(more…)

The 2014 PFG Playlist

Let’s ignore for the moment that you could count on both hands the number of posts between the 2013 and 2014 editions of this list. I wrote a book, people!

The last time I drafted my annual list of favourite songs, I was surprised to find that there were actually tracks that I had to leave off to keep it at ten, the first time in recent memory that had happened.

Yeeeeeaaaah. Didn’t really have that problem this year.

While I still ended up with more than ten songs (opting to scrap my self-imposed limit this year), my sense of disconnect and indifference with the current musical landscape returned more ferociously than before, for a few reasons, chief among them my two-footed jump into record collecting.

Devoting so much of my extracurricular efforts to educating myself on what vinyl’s worth my time turned my musical attentions backwards. I refocused on the things I always loved and started self-directed studies in the jazz and soul records that formed the foundations that built hip-hop; it’s an endeavour that’s proven rather labour-intensive. Turns out there’s a shit load of music that’s been produced in the last sixty years, who knew? But I still try to stay out here.

If there’s any thematic unity among 2014’s selections, it would be a sudden surge of female artists onto the list in the year’s latter half and the abrupt end of my brief flirtation with guitars, following Deafheaven’s surprising appearance last year.

I was saying to a friend last weekend, and I’m aware of how arrogant this sounds, but I really feel like after a certain point, you just start to get bored with the sounds that things like six strings through distortion pedals can produce. The kids at my job are getting their lives over Ty Segall and King Tuff, and I just caaaaan’tBecause all that music makes me want to do is listen to Dinosaur Jr or like, I don’t know, The Cave-In. Or Hot Water Music. Or Quicksand. Or any of the dozens of rock bands I was into at their age that they would undoubtedly find wack as hell.

Look at  it this way: back when I was playing in the band, our mandate always seemed to be that we were trying to play as loudly as possible to punch through to some sort of transcendent emotion, and personally, I don’t feel like we ever fully pulled it off because we were limited not only by our skill set but by the instruments we were using. I find that synthesizers and software are twanging that note in my soul more lately, and 2014 was the year I fully accepted them into my life.

Not that anyone cares nearly two weeks into the year, but I’ve already come this far, so let’s get this over with, in no particular order.

(more…)

On Bob James

In what’s been a monumental development for me but standard operating procedure for most of you, I am now finally, legitimately on Spotify.

You’re confused. You would be. I will explain.

Despite being available to our Southern neighbours for over three years, the online streaming music service only launched in Canada last week (making it the site’s 58th market. Oh yeah, Lithuania had Spotify before we did).

I’d managed to finagle backdoor access to the site here and there and understood the appeal, but having the full experience via the app on my phone has been game changing. I’m using the service for free for the time being, so there are some limitations, of course, but who cares if I can only shuffle my playlists, I made them, so I like everything on them.

As an aspiring and inexperienced vinyl collector, Spotify’s already proven itself a godsend. I can search for songs I might have own on vinyl but not digitally, or albums I’ve been thinking about copping, add them to a playlist, and check them out while working overnight at the day job. It’s given me a chance to gain a deeper appreciation for songs I knew, but couldn’t really listen to closely because I’d only ever had them on vinyl.

Songs like “Nautilus.”

“Nautilus” is the last song on One,  the debut solo album by jazz keyboardist Bob James. Blending a stinky groove from bassist Gary King and drummer Idris Muhammad, the spacey pings and tones of James’s organ and cinematic string flourishes, the song immediately caught the ears of hip-hop producers rifling through their parents’ record collections.

In the subsequent years, flipping “Nautilus” became a compulsory part of a producer’s education: everyone has taken a pass at it. Which is amazing enough in itself, but what’s even crazier is, according to an intervew James gave to Noisey last year, the song was kind of a throwaway to begin with.

“It was almost completely ignored in 1974. Back then you put the best track on Side A at the beginning and outside of the record because it always sounds best because the groove is wider. “Nautilus” was towards the end of Side B, a filler track really,” said James. “It was the last track we recorded and it was recorded last minute. I had a little bass line and everything else we [improvised] in the studio. So it wasn’t the focus of the album whatsoever.”

I spent a morning this week exploring some of my favourite interpolations of the track, amazed at how a truly exceptional producer will find some kernel of the song that hasn’t really been explored yet, or slice and dice the track like a samurai and reassemble it into a speaker-blowing monster.

(more…)

The 2013 PFG Playlist

Every year since I started running down some of the songs I enjoyed most in the previous 12 months, I’ve lamented in the intro about what a chore selecting the songs had become, as I grew more and more distant from the popular tastes of our age.

To my surprise and delight, 2013 broke the streak. I have no idea if that’s due to an improved ability at finding things I would like or an overall increase in quality this year; I have no overarching ideas or unified theories on music in 2013, but the fact that I actually to cut my list down to ten selections was a welcome surprise. Even more surprising is how this year’s selection ran across more genres than in previous years. There are actual guitars, y’all! Enough preamble! Let’s dig into this, in no order.

(more…)

Settling Accounts [for Amy]

photo-2Since I have two and a half hours left on this train and need to keep tuning up the band [Blogging: For when writing is too damn hard!].

Up top is Amy Clarke. I used to work with Amy Clarke, then I stopped and she went off and got a grown up life with things like ‘desk jobs’ and ‘health benefits’ and ‘a wife.’ Lives diverge, doesn’t mean you love people any less.

ANYWAY. Back in March [MARCH!] the lovely Amy Clarke left a comment here that she’d nominated me for some sort of award. Which, upon further inspection, turned out to be a sort of glorified chain letter, but when I swung over to her blog and read her original post, she said some very nice things about me, which has guilted me into answering the questions she laid out. Oh boo-hoo, you have to talk about yourself? Everyone knows how much you hate that!

Yeah, yeah….

So, since I don’t read enough blogs by actual people, I’m only doing the requested portions I can do by myself, which is a total cop-out, I admit, but I’m doing it anyway. Because reasons.

1. List 11 Facts About Yourself.

  1. I abhor lateness, in myself and others. For casual meetups I will always try to be early; for important appointments I will show up early and then wait, timing my arrival to the second. It’s a problem.
  2. I am terribly afraid of dying from an embolism. Because you can’t plan or prepare for that shit, just BAM, and that’s it. Which is probably one of the better ways to go as opposed to cancer or AIDS, but I still worry about it more than a normal person would.
  3. I consistently worry about being exposed as a fraud, for not being as smart of as good a writer as other people like to describe me as. This is a problem most writers have.
  4. I hate labeling myself as a ‘writer.’ Despite having done in most of my life, and in professional capacities for almost a decade, paycheques and all, I don’t feel I’ve earned it. People who bandy it about nonchalantly irritate me.
  5. I drank two liters of chocolate milk over the course of yesterday afternoon and evening. I’m not sorry.
  6. I love hard. Probably too hard, because it leads to attachments that typically backfire on me. Comfortably in my 30s, I can acknowledge this has made me somewhat distant to most people.
  7. I sometimes worry I’m a sociopath. I know this is a trendy self-diagnosis to make, but it still worries me. It’s not that I lack empathy, I just feel like I have a very limited supply, reserved for my parents, a dozen friends, and baby animals. I rarely find children interesting [but will likely think my own, should I have them, will be fascinating, and superior to yours. I’d like to think most parents do the same. Gonna be rough times at the swingset if not].
  8. I hate falling asleep. Not insomnia, I can fall asleep. I just don’t like it. Control issues, most likely. Being “the cousin of death” doesn’t help.
  9. My tragic flaw is knowing what I want to do, but inability to act. I’ve never really known where this came from.
  10. A combination of accepting my own introversion and having some small measure of success and affirmation of my writing has only made me less willing to compromise and do shit I don’t like. I am trying to figure out how to feel bad about this. It’s not working.
  11. Since moving into my place, while not increasing my income much, I’ve been amazed at how well I’ve acclimated a  to minimalist way of living. Well, as minimalist as you can be when you have an Xbox, giant TV, Macbook, iPad, iPhone and DJ controller, among other toys. The only thing I ever spend money on anymore are the bills and food, which I’m still terrible about. Probably because I justify it as an expenditure on a ‘need’. Food is a need. Doritos and Pepsi are not.

AMY HAS QUESTIONS!

  1. What website do you subconsiously always type first in your internet browser even though you mean to go to a completely different website? 

    I wish I could say something smart like The New Yorker, but it’s usually Facebook or Twitter, since most of my web consumption comes through things other people post. Social! Synergy! Buzzwords! Kill Yourself!

  2. What are you MOST looking forward to in spring? (Patios? Birds? Women wearing less clothing? (that’s obviously mine)) 

    I have never understood this city’s insanity for eating food and drinking beer while sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs crammed shoulder to shoulder on an unshaded slab of concrete. Honestly, Toronto, what is your damage with the damn patios?Daylight Savings Time is the thing I always look forward to. I was out of the house at 6:00 a.m. to catch the train I’m currently on and the sun was up and it was lovely and I was all, ‘Why don’t I do this every day!‘ then realizing with no train to catch I would have slept until 11:00 which totally defeats the purpose. I hate heat, but I love me some sunlight.

  3. What’s one of the weirdest gifts your parents have given you since you became an “adult”? 

    Is it weird if I asked for it? Last Christmas I got a pair of insulated Contigo travel mugs, and they have been life changing. One of them was eaten by the lunchroom gnomes a month ago and I’m still salty about it. When you realize you can brew your own for a month for what it costs to get two cups of Tim Horton’s, you’ll never go back. I had to stop at Tim’s today and I’m so angry, Amy. SO ANGRY. $1.65? Come on, now.

  4. Did you ever read a book all the way through even though you knew you weren’t enjoying it/going to enjoy it? School books don’t count. 

    It’s an interesting question, since I have a much more vivid memory of the books I let defeat me [looking at you, Roberto Bolaño]. The last Jonathan Lethem boks were a bit of a slog, but I loved his other work so much I powered through. If his next novel [sitting at home on the post-draft pile] has another pretentious know-it-all stoner in it, I may have to tap out and stick to his non-fiction.

  5. Ditto the above for movies (though replace “read” with “watch”/”pay for”) 

    Back before we had Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, if your taste in movies ran towards the weird or underground, you normally bought DVDs on the box art and then hoped for the best. I’ve sat through a number of Asian horror and action moves because I spent money on the DVD. They now, with few exceptions, live at the Annex BMV. I’m sure you can still find my copy of ‘Versus‘ in the basement.

  6. If you had to write a haiku (and you do have to) about your favourite Superhero, how would it go? 

    Superstitious lot,
    Criminals need a symbol.
    I will be a bat.

  7. What is your least favourite board game and why? 

    Previously, I would have said Risk, but having watched people play it at a recent outing to Snakes and Lattés, I take that back. Probably Trouble. I can’t abide anything that gets over on a gimmick.

  8. You’re trapped on an island. You can only bring with you one celebrity of your choice. Who do you choose? (For sexy times? For eating? Who would be the best at figuring out an escape plan?) 

    I’d love to say I’d pick Tom Hanks for all the amazing raft building skills he picked up on Castaway, but really, I just want to watch Alison Brie spearfish topless. I’m a base, base man, Amy Clarke.

  9. What is your go-to easiest meal to make yourself? 

    Besides Doritos? Vegetable noodle bowl.

  10. Sprite or crab juice? 

    EEEEEUUUUUAAAUUUGH!! I’ll take the crab juice! Amy didn’t actually have 11 questions, which I feel absolves me of any guilt I might feel about leaving this for four months, but I’ll steal one of the ones she was asked.

  11. Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? 

    Change or die.

Cool, I just gave you more content today than I have in months. Between the two entries, I wrote almost 2,000 words. If I do that 15 times, I’ll be done the book!  Piece of cake!  If you know, the cake is made of anxiety and frosted with tears.

The 2012 PFG Playlist

This gets harder and harder to do every year, friends. My relationship with new music in 2012 was a lot like my relationship with people who still watch Glee: I have a vague idea of what they’re talking about, I used to be more heavily invested, now I really don’t care enough to pay much attention to it. The few times I did pop my head out from the wormhole to 1994 I typically live in, there was nothing but poverty-fetishizing dustbowl folk music at one end of the musical spectrum and monosyllabic raps over trap beats on the other. Growing disconnect with the musical landscape is not an atypical condition to find oneself in, and God knows I’ve been on the wrong side of the cultural fence over the years as both a player and a listener. I’ve grown to accept and embrace it.

That said, despite the increased difficulty factor, there were still ten songs that managed to cross the divide to my lonely island. Some clarifications:

These songs are the ten songs I liked the most. Not the most perfectly constructed, not the most beautifully melodic, not the ones that had something to say about the human condition. I might be able to appreciate that the military precision with which Taylor Swift’s team of drones can craft a chorus, but it’s not anything I’m ever going to want to listen to. Perhaps that’s a deficiency in my musical genome, but something in a song has to speak to me on a level I can’t articulate. There has to be something in there that summons a mood, or a feeling, something I’ll want to go back to again and again. These are the songs that I’ll still be listening to when I draft next year’s list. So, in no particular order.

Large Professor f/ Cormega, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, & Saigon: M.A.R.S.

The clear standout from the fourth album by 90’s-era beat king Large Professor, Professor @ Large. This song is everything you want from a grimy, East Coast street cut: Snares crack like a 2×4 over your head and kicks slug you in the chest over a suspenseful pulse of sampled strings, while four of NY’s finest underground MC’s spit some ‘grown man rap.’ Special shouts to Saigon’s surprising show stealer of a verse, and for those 16th notes on the hi-hats. That’s the sort of thing that makes an okay beat a great beat. Class is in session.

BJ the Chicago Kid f/ Kendrick Lamar: His Pain II

Kendrick is the MVP of the year, no one can really argue with that. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is probably the best complete work of art any musician made this year [I don’t know how well it works as songs, I find I have to listen to the whole thing instead of dipping in and out via the shuffle on my iPhone. This is a good problem to have, the last album I felt that way about was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy]. But even as incredible as his flow his on the album is, there’s something about this guest spot on ‘His Pain II’ that connects with me more, abandoning the galloping, triple time flow he pulls out a little too often and delivers a verse like a conversation, confronting the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. Which would be impressive enough by itself, but the rest of the song, delivered via BJ’s scratchy, Sam Cooke-lite voice over a head-knocker of a breakbeat, is nothing to sleep on either.

Nas: Daughters

Look. He’s never going to make another Illmatic. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better off we’ll all be. Instead, he dropped the first album of rap’s middle age, an album that isn’t perfect, but when everything clicks into place, Life is Good just soars, never higher than it does on this song addressing a topic rarely if ever discussed in hip-hop: the relationship between a father and his daughter. Nasir comes real on the struggle he faces trying to set good examples and solid boundaries despite being…well, a rap star. Great rappers should always come with the real, even [especially?] if the real isn’t life in the streets, or poverty, or flossing. Nas may never be the King of New York again, but he’s claimed the spot as Rap’s Elder Statesman: the man who’s seen it all and come out the other side ready to drop jewels for anyone with ears to listen. While Jay-Z watches his throne, Nas is teaching in the trenches.

ScHoolboy Q f/ A$AP Rocky: Hands on the Wheel

Kendrick Lamar’s able lieutenant in the TDE crew, ScHoolboy stands poised to be a guy who has an incredible 2013, and the highlight of Habits and Contradictions partners him with a guy in the same position. Yes, it’s just a song about the pleasures of non-sobriety, but the sample selection, a reclamation of folk singer Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s ‘The Pursuit of Happiness‘ [seriously, stop it white girls], gives it a sort of sinister undertone that suggests as much fun as they’re having, everyone involved is well aware of the prices that may end up being paid.

Also? Don’t roll weed on your MacBook. Come on, now. This is why we can’t have nice things.

J. Dilla & Katy Perry: The One That Got Away

My favourite album, the thing I listened to more than anything else, was an amateur mashup album of Katy Perry vocals over known and rare J. Dilla beats mixed by someone calling himself De’von. As with all mash-up projects, there are some uneven patches, not all of the pairings work as well as they could, many are good, and a few, like this one, do that thing all good mashups should: surpass both original components and make you wonder why it didn’t sound like this in the first place. De’Von tweaks Perry’s vocals so they slide perfectly into the pocket of Slum Village’s ‘Tell Me’, adding a dose of funky melancholy to the tale of lost love. Another fine testament to the usefulness of remix culture: no one’s making money here, it’s just a way of making something new and interesting by blending two individual pieces.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib f/ BJ the Chicago Kid: Terrorist/Shame

My problem with Madlib is simply that he’s too good. There’s way too much quality for me to keep up with at any given time, but when he teams up with one of my favourite rappers I pay closer attention. Freddie Gibbs is not someone I would have ever pegged to work with Madlib, but his tales of stickups and dope deals sound tailor made to the 70’s stained funk of ‘Terrorist’ and soulful strings of ‘Shame’, complete with a video that makes selling cocaine to hipster girls look like a sensible career alternative.

Usher: Climax

At this point, anytime Usher releases a song that clocks in under 130 BPM and isn’t produced by David Guetta it’s cause for celebration. It helps if it’s an earworm of a melody sung in breathy falsetto over a Diplo-crafted quiet storm beat. What takes it from a radio-only confection to an iTunes addition is the trick played by the title and chorus. In the oversexed pop landscape of 2012, it would be easy to assume ‘Cimax’ referred to…well, what we all would think it does. But the song is actually talking about that moment in a relationship when it’s as good as it gets, when you’re lying with her and you know nothing will ever surpass that moment, and what a humbling and painful realization that can be. Grown folks’ music.

Y.N.RichKids: Hot Cheetos and Takis

Just so we’re all clear: this song is the product of an after-school program at a YMCA in Minnesota. All the kids in it had to maintain good grades to participate in the song. And when they got in a studio, they rapped about what they liked: snack foods. The catch is that it’s really fucking good.

Nevermind that the beats sounds like it was left off a Rick Ross album, the simple fact is the kids can rhyme, and I’ve yet to see two write-ups that agree on which kid had the strongest verse [Personally, I rep #11]. This song was just such a fun reminder, after how depressed I was after the Lil Reese shitshow that contemporary sounding hip-hop can still have that foundation of fun, innocence and party-rocking that the music was built on in the first place.

Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz: Mercy

Cruel Summer worked like pretty much every other hip-hop compilation album since the dawn of time: one or two awesome songs, two or three more okay songs, filler filler filler and the continued inexplicable presence of DJ Khaled. ‘Clique’ was the best beat, ‘I Don’t Like’ was the hypest song, ‘New God Flow’ had the best all around rapping. But ‘Mercy’, while not being the best of any of those subjects, kept a high enough average among them to claim the overall victory. From Big Sean’s ‘ass’-play to Pusha’s lyrical dominance and Ric Flair fixation to Kanye’s hook to an anchor verse by 2 Chainz that solidified his career, you couldn’t deny this one.

Knxwledge – wntwrk

My beatmaking discovery of the year was Philadelphia’s Knxwledge, who put out the four-volume Karma.Loops series in 2012 [the above track comes from Vol. 3]. I’m predisposed to love his work, considering it blends the jazziness of Nujabes with the vocal-chopping of J. Dilla. Quick little 90-second bursts of genius. One day the right people are going to start jumping on his beats, and we’re all done for.

BONUS! Three Songs Not Released This Year That I Discovered in 2012 and Probably Like Better Than Any of The Above

Pete Rock & CL Smooth: It’s On You

I have a dream, friends. It’s a dream to DJ [ie, just play songs, I respect the title too much to claim it] a night I’d call ‘Mellow My Man‘ at some lounge in Toronto where they care more about a dope atmosphere and bobbing heads no faster than 96 BPM than cold rocking a dance floor. This song is the reason I want to. Popping up on a Songza playlist this fall, I fell in love immediately. Pete Rock & CL Smooth were already responsible for some of my favourite rap songs, I have no idea why I never delved deeper into their album cuts, but there’s much to love there, especially on The Main Ingredient, which definitely owned the later months this year for me. Dusty drums bouncing over a plaintive piano loop, CL’s flow perfectly in-pocket. Can’t beat that.

Washed Out: Feel It All Around

This is so unlike me, but listen: when I was in journalism school, back in 2003-2004, listening to Royksopp and The Postal Service, this song would have owned my life. So, credit where due. Breathy vocals and airy synths over a chopped and screwed Gary Low sample. People seem to have claimed this as a summer song, but I know it’s the sort of thing that’ll be soothing me through the long Toronto nights.

Phat Kat f/ Elzhi: Cold Steel

The most intimidating part of the book project [so far] has been trying to get a full sense of J. Dilla’s discography. I started to resolve myself to the fact that as far as his musical progression was concerned, I might have to paint in broad strokes. Then a kid at work who’s a total head said he was so excited because he just got the ’64 Beats’ tape, and was horrified to learn I had no idea what that was. To my surprise, he sent me a copy, and buried near the end of that batch [which I’m pretty certain was put together by fans after the fact] is the original sketch to this song. And my jaw just. fricking. dropped. This is maybe the ‘street-est’ Dilla beat I’ve ever heard, more than ‘Fuck the Police’ even. It’s got the bounce of his Soulquarian stuff, a pinch of some Donuts-era vocal chopping but the drums slap your mama, and Phat Kat and Elzhi, two of Detroit’s best MC’s, just eat the track alive. I’ve no idea if this is Dilla’s attempt at a ‘keyboard beat,’ but if it is, he would have been just fine in an era of trap music and ratchet beats.

Image: “Sound Wave” by Jin Shin. [h/t]

Christmastime is Here.

This may surprise you to learn about me, friends, but I can be a bit of a handful. Surly, seasonally depressed, emotionally volatile, all of that mess. Luckily, I’ve always been blessed with friends and associates [usually women] who are adept at negotiating the rolling waters of my emotional seas. The role is currently being filled by my friend Caitlin, who is acting as my Editorial Assistant throughout this book writing adventure, mostly because she wants me to write her a reference when it’s over. Previously the post was held by my friend Sarah, who can no longer meet the demands of the position as she is (a) a law professor and (b) has a life to live.

I met Sarah for coffee here in Toronto recently and asked her if she had any tips she wanted to pass along to Caitlin regarding what to expect in being my emotional handler for the next ten months to a year.

“It’s all very temporal,” she said. “From about mid-September up until your birthday, you’re miserable, because you’re thinking about your impending death. Late January until April is just as bad or worse, because it’s directionless, there’s nothing for you to focus it on. You just hate that it’s dark all the time. When the thaw comes, you shake out of it. Oh, and you have a minor uptick during the holidays.”

It’s true. I actually do really love the holidays. I love the way my Dad still won’t put some presents under the tree until the morning of the 25th, or the fact that he still signs them ‘From Santa’. I love my Mom’s baking and laughing about stupid shit with her. I love Christmas so much that by December 23, I’m already saddened that all the lights and decorations will come down, which probably says as much about my personality as you ever need to know [shouts to all those cities and neighbourhoods that treat Christmas lights as ‘Winter Lights’ and leave them up until March].

But what I really love about Christmas is the music. To me, the best Christmas songs are the ones that capture the joy you felt as a child, but add a sprinkle of melancholy to acknowledge the passage of time and change and loss of innocence. The popular knowledge likes to state that when you get older the season becomes something you do for your kids. As a childless, single for the first time in six years adult male, that’s not something I can do. So I find the meaning and peace and joy where I can. These are five songs that help.

1. The Pogues – ‘Fairytale of New York’

Just my opinion, the greatest Christmas song [with vocals] ever produced. Does everything I mentioned above, is beautifully melodic, Shane MacGowan’s whisky-scorched, near-tuneless voice suits the mood perfectly, and who hasn’t been longing for a Christmas song with lyrics like, ‘you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap, lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.” The coda to this one always leaves me misty, but bear in mind folks: “I built my dreams around you,” is a staggeringly gorgeous sentiment, but not an acceptable philosophy. Trust me.

2. The Vince Guaraldi Trio – ‘O Tannenbaum’

The soundtrack to ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ was a revelation to me, having only heard it for the first time maybe six or seven years ago. I remember I was at the local youth centre, where I volunteered. It was the last meeting we had with the kids before holiday break, so it was a blow-off, fun and games kind of night. Somebody brought a pile of holiday music and put this one on. And I was fucking floored. I don’t know why I never hear Guaraldi’s name mentioned more often in conversations about jazz pianists, possibly I don’t follow them closely enough, but the swing he gets going on this song just puts me at such peace. You know the spirit’s hit me when this album enters my rotation.

But the true moment of genius comes at the end of the song. Listen, I don’t know where this thing of adding the opening bars of ‘Jingle Bells’ at the end of a Christmas song came from [Nat King Cole may have been the first to do it] but it is so overdone anymore. It’s a lazy and manipulative way to accomplish what I stated above, because no grown person really likes ‘Jingle Bells’. Can you find me one? No. ‘Jingle Bells’ is a song for kids, which is fine, but all these shit-ass Christmas songs that put a few tinkles on the outro to make you go ‘D’awww…‘ are disgusting. You know what Guaraldi does? Jump to the 4:53 mark. He plays ‘Jingle Bells’, but he plays a totally deconstructed version of it, in 3/4 time signature. You can hear ‘Jingle Bells’ in it, but it’s not really ‘Jingle Bells.’ THAT‘S why this is the best Christmas song ever, just nudging out the Pogues. Gets me every time.

3. Vanessa Williams – ‘What Child is This?’

Never let it be said I wanted to take the “Christ’ out of ‘Christmas.’ The simple fact is, I was raised Catholic. Whatever my feelings toward the faith as an adult, that shit will stay with you.

This rendition comes from one of those ‘Very Special Christmas’ compilations from like…1992, I think. It’s a fairly straightahead jazz arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’ but might have extra resonance for me now, since I remember watching this video as a kid in the subterranean hidey-hole I’d carved out in my parents’ basement, looking at the black and white shots of New York and thinking, to borrow a phrase, ‘I want to go to there.’ Twenty years later, I made it to Toronto. It’ll do.

4. James Taylor – ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’

That rare Christmas song that acknowledges, without self-pity, that the holidays sometimes heighten the fact that the twelve months leading up to them might have been horrible.

In a year we all will be together, if the fates allow.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…

I’ve heard versions of this song that back away from that last line, changing it to ‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough…’ NO. That undercuts the entire meaning of the song, which is to provide comfort for those who might not be exceedingly happy during a time when the world demands that of them. It’s the depressive’s holiday carol, and who better than James Taylor to deliver it? Bonus points go to this version for pulling a Guaraldi and dropping half a lyric of ‘The Christmas Song’ on the outro.

5. Ella Fitzgerald – ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’

I first heard this song on a Gap commercial, of all things. Rufus Wainwright sang the chorus at about five times the speed he should have, but hey, thirty-second ad spot, what can you do? I thought there might actually be a better version of this somewhere, as Fitzgerald’s voice bugs me sometimes [BLASPHEMY!] but there really isn’t, except maybe for Lena Horne’s which does a weird pronoun flip I’m not a fan of, suggesting the woman should wait for the man to ask her. You stand up for equality, Ella.

Again, this is one of those songs that stares down the potential for loneliness in the season and finds the truth and beauty in it. The singer is well aware he or she is overreaching by asking the other person to spend New Year’s, but the potential embarrassment trumps the guaranteed solitude of not asking. Also interesting to note: the original lyric has the singer mustering a bit of confidence with, ‘Ah, but in case I stand one little chance…’ in Wainwright’s version from the commercial, he sings, ‘And though I know I’ll never stand a chance…’ So nineties.

So, that’s what I’ll be relaxing to in a couple of weeks as I catch up on reading and eat too many brownies at my parents’ place. Let me know if I glaringly missed one. And no, I didn’t forget this. Too obvious.