Scribes Sounding Off: Listmania!

by Chris Estey

This installment of SSO is a bit like the Droste effect: It is a list of great books about great music lists. (I also would say it’s a great list, but that’s my own opinion.) Three old, new, and not yet published but on the way collections of collections collected below.


Keeping in step with the strangeness of this theme, hot as hell independent publisher Soft Skull announces the publication of Hang The DJ: An Alternative Book of Music Lists currently only available from Faber in the UK, but now being reprinted in the States. This is at the top of the list because, by the time it comes out in a few weeks, it will be one of those books KEXP listeners will want either next to the bidet or on top of the orange crates while sampling favored vinyl.

Edited by Angus Cargill (lives in South East London, works in publishing, probably favors Steve Earle’s Train a-Comin’ as his favorite LP), this thick tome is not concerned with simple ‘best of’ genre Top tens, or whether anything sold that much or not. Instead, Cargill tapped some of the finest minds working in rock write to type out some strange, crucial, personally relevant, or culturally significant selections:

Amanda Petrusich (author of It Still Moves) covers ten spoken interludes in pop songs, from the Shangri-Las “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” (which seemed to spark the muse for both the NY Dolls and Ryan Adams) to Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” which, if you count how much is sung versus talked, might be considered spoken word. I’m a little weirded out the author of one of the best books on Americana left out the middle part of the Louvin Brothers’ title track to Satan Is Real (due as a vinyl reissue soon from Light In The Attic! Yay!) but actually that rant is really creepy, so hey.

Simon Reynolds blows our minds by reminding us the songs that didn’t quite make it to number one, including The Who’s “My Generation,” “Rock & Roll Part Two” by Gary Glitter, “Common People” by Pulp, and many others a lot of people without iPhones could lose money on in a bar bet about #2s. I was just glad to see his enthusiasm for a few of my favorite tracks which must be absolute winners in another dimension — “Golden Brown” by The Stranglers (what year doesn’t a movie use this as an emotional scene stirrer? Hello, “Away We Go” …) and “O, Superman” by Laurie Anderson; two songs I actually think are so exceptional I’m surprised enough “common people” bought them to be that high up on the (UK) charts.

Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy you just know knows his scary stuff, hence “Wails From The Crypt: Songs To Make Your Skin Crawl.” Novelist Miriam Toews picks some lachrymose gold from the mine in “How Not To Get Laid: The Saddest Tom Waits Songs,” I mean, these are really bawling-bent tracks, but I must insist: Waits will always be a turn-on for most people who love his work, no matter how sad. Also here: Jonathan Lethem’s howl-yanking “Ten Smutty Moments From Bob Dylan”; “Ten Nightmarish Stories with Black Francis” for the Pixies lover in all of us; “Music To Get Killed By”; and a side-splitting breaking-up narrative in list form “Music To Try And Help You Get Through,” a short story almost up there with Raymond Carver.

This is no “albums you must own” list, more a “hanging out with your friends talking about the best tunes in Tarantino’s films” anthology a lot of smart, funny, and talented writers and musicians have put together. It’s an “Alternative Book of Music Lists” in that it will give you lots of new ideas on what to listen to or how to think about what you do listen to; not just the stack the facts.


For a deeper book of lists that has a richly expanded singular theme, that is, it’s one list but a big one: Apocalypse Jukebox: The End Of The World In American Popular Music by Edward Whitelock and David Janssen (also from Soft Skull) is the way to go with the way we go (in song). This historical view of doom and disaster in our lifestyle soundtracks came out after I’d read Petrusich’s It Still Moves, and was gobbling up every “Goodbye, Babylon” style song collection I could find. From the ontological bitterness of early blues, to the Faustian dilemma in much of the past century’s classical and avant-garde themes, this fat dictionary of the lights going dim is a great guide to the grim.

Of special note are the segments which let us in on the profound terror behind the plastic-shining satire of Devo’s dance-rock, with “getting worse” as a scheme; the previously untold revelations behind Various Positions, Leonard Cohen’s transitional album that over time has stood as his personal apocalypse (“If It Be Your Will”) and creative pinnacle (“Hallelujah”) — though it’s the creator’s own favorite of his canon it was quickly pulled and only available as an import in the States; the wicked bliss John Coltrane sought in on top of a two-note bass riff in A Love Supreme; and how well college rock carried on punk’s study of world destruction through the solid songwriting of REM and Sleater-Kinney. And Dylan, good Lord, lots of Dylan (can’t escape him on this topic).


Speaking of a millennium, for those with a jones for more normal assessments of quality music should definitely read the just-released 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die: A Listener’s Life List. Workman Publishing hired NPR’s incredibly knowledgable Tom Moon to spend I guess his whole life writing this two inch high yet still portable consumer odyssey through every genre and style of recorded music.

Usually focusing on albums, but also occasionally spotlighting songs and certain performances, this is an autobiographical round-up for everyone. Moon has been a regular contributor to All Things Considered and many national magazines, and even played sax in Maynard Ferguson’s big band. I really thought, from how slick and pretty it was, that its tales of obscure glories and generation-charging songcraft probably would only put everything in one place, not amp me to check out much new I wasn’t already on top of. But open it up and the South African jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim Trio’s Yarona is right above Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, which is just before the “thundering groove ecstasy from more than 100 drummers” on Canto Negro by Ile Aiye. That’s pages 378 and 379, and like the rest of this book, the assessments and descriptions are succinct, substantial, and communicate the unusual value of the music in the dense text on each of its 1007 pages.

So many underground classics by cult artists are covered — John Fahey’s The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death; Jimmy Scott’s Falling In Love Is Wonderful – with unique projects by mainstream performers — Johnny Mathis’ Open Fire, Two Guitars; We Insist! Freedom Now Suite by Max Roach. Moon flicks a wrist at vanguard rock critic opinion by openly displaying kindness toward the passion on Whitney Houston’s first album, picking The Pretenders’ third album over the first — and leaving out a ton of Stones and Dylan records. But he has a handy list of leftovers, most of which I’d never heard of. It’s a posh chunk of publishing, but it’s pure.

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