My Imaginary iTunes Celebrity Playlist

November 12, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

I know we’re talking ancient history here, but I very much remember the birth of iTunes (before that I used something called Winamp!) and, eventually, the launch of the iTunes Music Store (now in the press because of the big Beatles announcement). One of my favorite features of the iTunes Music Store (and it’s been a favorite from the beginning) is the Celebrity Playlist. Not so much because of the movie stars who participate (I don’t really care to hear favorite songs from the cast of The Vampire Diaries, though Sarah Silverman’s is pretty awesome) but because of the singer/songwriters who share their influences and favorite tracks. From the likes of Aimee Mann, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and Ben Folds I’ve discovered so much great music that, at this point, it’d be difficult to know how much of my musical taste has been shaped by iTunes Celebrity Playlists.
I also happen to harbor a fantasy (a rather delusional one, admittedly) that one day I might be asked to create an iTunes Celebrity Playlist. (Hey, Ted Allen has one!) Until that day comes, though (and I’m not counting any chickens) I figured it might be fun to use my “Not Food” blog to post a rough sketch of what my iTunes Celebrity Playlist might look like. So here it is with the songs embedded from various sources online, so you can hear them right away. (And I’m pretty confident that if you like them, you can find them on iTunes yourself.)

The Amateur Gourmet’s (Imaginary) Celebrity Playlist
[Note: this list is not in order of importance; I tried to structure it so if you played all of these songs in sequence, it’d make for a nice mix.]
1. “Mr. Me” by They Might Be Giants.
[Note: this is the only video I could find of this song that featured the original recording. You can ignore the visuals and just listen to the song.]

My first choice reflects a pattern (The Pattern!) that will repeat throughout my Celebrity Playlist: a funny song about something sad. Or, rather, a song that uses humor to deal with genuine emotion. Sure, when you first hear those opening notes, you think you’re watching a children’s cartoon show from the 80’s. But, as the lyrics move along, you suddenly realize that there’s some pathos here beneath the humor. And that’s what I like about it. Also, when I was miserable and working at a law firm in L.A., I would drive around listening to this song and belting “HE ENDED UP SAD” at the top of my lungs, convinced that the “Mr. Me” of the song’s title was the Mr. Me driving the car.
2. “Red Vines” by Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann is one of my favorite singer/songwriters ever and I had the hardest time narrowing down her songs to just one (so I didn’t: I chose two.) I first discovered her when Paul Thomas Anderson (one of my favorite directors) built his third feature, “Magnolia,” around her music. I bought the “Magnolia” soundtrack, then her early CDs, and then every CD she released afterwards. This song, “Red Vines,” from her album “Bachelor No. 2” has the perfect blend of wit and wistfulness (it’s The Pattern!) My favorite lyric: “And I’m the only one who knows…that Disneyland’s about to close.” Plus, that animation is pretty cool.
3. “Your Redneck Past” by Ben Folds

I think many of you know that I play the piano (sometimes I even do it on my blog) so I have particular respect and admiration for the great piano-playing pop stars in our musical firmament. Of my many obvious piano-playing role models (Billy & Elton most prominent among them) Ben Folds is far and away the youngest and, probably, the coolest. And though I can play almost any Billy or Elton song by ear, the songs of Ben Folds are somehow, for me, inscrutable. I can’t make them happen. They’re deceptively complex and though I can play the opening strains of “Brick,” I can’t manage the bridge. And though I’ve tried and tried and tried and tried, I still can’t figure out “Your Redneck Past,” one of my favorites. When I’m not kicking myself as I screw it up at the piano, this song reminds me of my Atlanta years and all the nice Southerners I met when I went to college there.
4. “Ballad of a Comeback Kid” by The New Pornographers

There’s no deep meaning behind my inclusion of this song; I just really like it. It has a great energy and a catchy hook. I once saw The New Pornographers interviewed by James Surowiecki at The New Yorker Festival: they gave him a hard time.
5. “Living Without You” by Randy Newman
[Note: this clip doesn’t have the full song, but it gives you a taste.]

Randy Newman – Living Without You
Detectives among you won’t find it surprising when you consider various elements above–my love for funny/emotional songs (The Pattern!) and piano-playing singer songwriters (Billy, Elton, Ben)–that I worship at the shrine of Randy Newman. There’s really no one else like him in popular music; and though he’s best known for composing film scores (particularly scores to Pixar movies) his best songs are edgy, dark and biting. With songs like “Political Science” (which playfully suggests that we bomb all non-American countries) and “Rednecks” (which daringly employs the N-word to mock Southern racists), Newman’s music is one-of-a-kind. And this simple song, “Living Without You,” is one of his best; it hauntingly evokes the empty feeling we feel when someone leaves our lives forever. (And I can play this one on the piano.)
6. “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” by Kate Bush

My friend Ricky turned me on to Kate Bush two years ago and, ever since, her voice comes streaming through my headphones on rainy days in coffee shops and I’m instantly transported to an enchanted forest where witches and elves and unicorns prance around to mystical music. There’s something so otherworldly about Kate Bush’s voice and music and I love it just for that; she paved the way for Tori Amos and Joanna Newsome and all the other quirky/emotional/quasi-mystical female singer-songwriters of today. This song’s my favorite from my favorite Kate Bush CD, “The Kick Inside.” [Don’t you love the super-imposed yoga dance underneath the piano in the above video?]
7. “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” by Morrissey

I know that it’s supposed to be a character-defining trait to love Morrissey (“So-and-so’s the kind of guy who sits in his bedroom, lights candles and listens to Morrissey albums on repeat”) but I came to him late in life. And I really only came to him through one album, “Bona Drag” which, interestingly enough, I discovered because of a conversation Ryan Adams has on the first track of one of his albums where he and a friend try to figure out which Morrissey album features the song “Suedehead.” Anyway. I like this song “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” because it cleverly deals with a heavy subject (death) using something lighthearted (a ouija board). Once again this is part of THE PATTERN that defines my favorite music (and books and movies) and, once again, it works to make it one of my favorite songs.
8. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John

Speaking of favorite songs, though, I think this may be my favorite song of all time. It’s not the kind of thing I can really explain. I remember being in a car with my parents in Colorado–I must’ve been 8 or 9–when this came on the radio. And I immediately connected with it; I wasn’t mature enough to read too much into the lyrics (even today I find the lyrics slightly baffling) but it was as if some blunt instrument had screwed its way into my soul, plugged itself into the radio and out came this song. One thing that can’t be ignored, and one thing that most people don’t talk about, is how wonderful Elton John’s voice was when he was young. Soulful and crystal clear, with that slight British lilt, this is one of the best pop vocals of all time. (And, like with Aimee Mann, I can’t just choose one Elton John song; there’ll be one more later.)
9. “And When I Die” by Laura Nyro

Elton John listed Laura Nyro as one of his influences on an episode of Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle” and, when you hear the song above, you can kind of see the connection. Here’s an off-beat, pudgy white woman singing with a soulfulness as uncanny as John’s. And this song, like many other songs on this list, is a study in paradox: a joyful song about dying. (The Pattern!)
10. “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” by Jim Steinman, vocals by Meatloaf and Ellen Foley

This song is like an entire three-act musical wrapped into a tidy, sweaty, hyper-theatrical package. I love it for the way it seamlessly melds so many different elements: 50s-style piano-driven pop, a sports announcer’s commentary, 70s glamor, a pinch of rock, a splash of sex, a shot of drugs. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely mine.
11. “Starman” by David Bowie

If we were to parse this list for another theme or pattern, you might point out that I have a penchant for 70’s-era androgyny, glamour and drug-fueled mysticism (Kate Bush, Elton John, David Bowie). It’s true: maybe because I’ve always been such a clean-cut, non-offensive kid, I revel in those who like to revel, fearlessly. And early David Bowie is nothing if not fearless: this is off his essential album, “Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars.” If you don’t own it and his other two great albums, “Aladdin Sane” & “Hunky Dory” you haven’t lived!
12. “Darling Nikki” by Prince

I don’t find Prince particularly sexy, but his music certainly is. This song is explicitly sexual (it involves “masturbating in a magazine”) but, more so than the lyrics, the music is steamy and seductive and before you know it, you’re naked on 5th avenue wondering where you are and how you got there. In all seriousness, though, I love this album (“Purple Rain,” for the uninitiated) and I join the crowd that places Prince on the “living god” pedestal. I’d just wash my hands after I touched it. (The pedestal, that is.)
13. “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home?” by Ryan Adams

We’ve all been there. We’re in our 20s, we’re at a bar with friends, and we start to feel a bit desperate. Our friends are meeting people, but we’re not. We go home by ourselves and put this song on and cry into our pillow. I mean, I’m not saying I’ve done that, but I’m sure some of you have. This song is for you.
14. “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright” by Simon & Garfunkel

I was so mad when Zach Braff used “The Only Living Boy in New York” on the soundtrack for that movie he made (I never saw it; it’s about New Jesey and has Natalie Portman.) I know it was on the soundtrack, though, because all of a sudden people my age were listening to vintage Simon & Garfunkel tracks and I wanted to scream out “Hey! I was the weirdo listening to all those old albums in my car in high school before any of you even knew this stuff existed!” (Assuming I was yelling at people younger than me; of course people older than me, my parents especially, were fans of this music long before I was.) This song, in particular, is one of my favorites. Apparently, Simon wrote it for Garfunkel before he left to shoot the movie “Catch-22.” I think it’s beautiful.
15. “Domingo No Parque” by Gilberto Gil

Here’s a song I never would’ve known about it if weren’t for iTunes Celebrity Playlists. I’m not quite sure whose list it was on (maybe the guys from Gnarls Barkley?) but I absolutely love this song by Gilberto Gil which is featured on an album called “Tropicalia Essentials” which I listen to all the time when I cook. The above video, which I only just discovered, is also pretty great.
16. “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” by Leonard Cohen performed by Judy Collins & Leonard Cohen

It’s funny, when I was making this list, I was debating which version of this song I was going to put on it: the original Leonard Cohen version or Judy Collins’s cover. Then along came this clip that has them both singing it together. I went through a very real Leonard Cohen phase after seeing the documentary about him, “I’m Your Man” (the soundtrack to that documentary is also pretty excellent, especially Antony’s cover of “If It Be Your Will.”) This song gets me with its simplicity and its imagery (“your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm.”)
17. “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud?” by Elliot Smith

Sometimes a song is just so on the nose during a certain period of your life, years later you can listen to it and laugh. Such is the case with this song which I used to listen to (like “Mr. Me” above) while driving around L.A. working for a law firm. The lyrics: “The question: wouldn’t mama be proud? There’s a silver lining / in the corporate cloud” seemed to describe my situation perfectly. Personal connection aside, this whole album is a powerful, emotional experience worth having.
18. “I’m Only Sleeping” by The Beatles
[This video, which I just randomly found because it features the song, has some amazing footage of a “Beatle Burning” which I imagine happened after John said they were “bigger than Jesus.”]

Choosing one Beatles song is difficult, but I’ve always felt like this song from “Revolver” is under-appreciated. It’s simple: just an acoustic guitar, John Lennon’s voice in the lead and everyone harmonizing behind him. But the song, with evocative lyrics, is kind of transporting: there aren’t any tricks, it just reveals the power of music to take you to another place.
19. “Sam Stone” by John Prine

I’m usually not a lyric person (mostly, I focus on the music the first time I hear a song and concentrate on the lyrics later) but this song, by John Prine, with its quiet insistence, forces you to pay attention. “Sam Stone / came home / to his wife and family / after serving in the conflict overseas.” Simple enough, and then it gets darker: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” sings Prine, “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” Powerful stuff.
20. “31 Today” by Aimee Mann

Here’s the other Aimee Mann song I felt like I had to include; a song that I’m convinced was composed for me specifically for my 31st birthday, which I celebrated this past February. This song lures you in with its funky hook and then comes Aimee’s clear-headed voice and before you know it, she’s holding up a mirror to your own 31 years as she sings the lyric: “I thought my life would be different somehow / I thought my life would be better by now.” Of course, my life is a lot better than I thought it would be by now (see my “It Gets Better” post) but, even so, I get where she’s coming from. Plus: I love the video (which I believe was directed by Bobcat Goldwaith!)
21. “Bleed” by The Negro Problem
[No need to study this video, it just features the song.]

I’m not a huge fan of “Weeds,” but for a while I watched it and during one closing-credit sequence I sat up in my seat because the song that was playing was so beautiful. Maybe I used the Shazam app on my iPhone (the one that tells you what song you’re hearing) to figure out what it was; turns out it was this song by The Negro Problem called “Bleed.” And turns out The Negro Problem is Stew’s band. Who’s Stew? The star/writer/composer of “Passing Strange,” one of the more fascinating shows I’ve ever seen on Broadway (you can rent the movie, directed by Spike Lee, on Netflix. I own it.) Isn’t it pretty?
22. “Acid Tongue” by Jenny Lewis

I seriously think this song, by Jenny Lewis, is one of the best songs written in the past decade. Again, pure simplicity, but in its simplicity so much power. I particularly love this video of her singing it live.
23. “Into The Old Man Shoes” by Elton John

We end with a song (the 2nd early Elton John song) that no one really knows but everyone should know. It’s a perfect ender for this list because it combines so many elements from above: a piano-playing pop icon, songs from the drug-fueled 70s, and songs that reflect particular moments/feelings from my life. Pair this one with Elliott Smith’s “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud?” for a song that captures the feeling of doing something not because you want to, but because your parents (or in this case, your community) thinks you should. If I’d stepped into my old man’s shoes, I’d be drilling teeth right now; thankfully, I was able to spend my working hours making this list!
Wow: well, for those who made it all the way through, thanks for taking the time. At the very least, I hope I turned you on to some music you hadn’t heard before (in many cases, the songs come from whole albums that are very much worth getting.) You may be asking yourselves: “Adam, you musical theater queen, why aren’t there any show tunes on your list?” Good question! I feel like that belongs on an entirely separate list, something I look forward to writing up down the road. In the meantime, happy listening!

Tags: , , ,

Categories: Music