When I first moved to the US, Hugh Koeze made five records for me that became my starting point for learning about American pop music. Now it is my turn to pass on the gift with my own highly idiosyncratic playlist. Here is a Spotify playlist that I recently recommended to few Chinese friends and some (probably embarrassing) words I wrote as an introduction.
The Beatles - I’ve Just Seen A Face (1965). We begin with the most classic band of all time, the Beatles, about whom tomes have been written. They were not simply a pop culture phenomenon; they are also really good musicians. Give them a proper listen and you might find polyrhythm, surprising key changes, exotic instrumentation, sweetness, and urgency in their music. Among their many albums Rubber Soul is my favorite. Unfortunately Spotify does not have Beatles songs yet, so here’s a Youtube link instead.
The Beach Boys - God Only Knows (1966). The Beach Boys was the other boy band that drove Baby Boomers completely nuts. They created beautiful sounds, sounds you will hear in shopping malls come Christmas every year, as now suburbanized Baby Boomers shop around for gifts for their kids and imagine their own happy childhoods. Those imagined childhood must be pretty darn perfect.
Sam Cooke - A Change Is Gonna Come (1964). Continuing with this theme of protest songs, here is a classic for the civil rights movement in the 60s. Often crowned the King of Soul, Cooke composed this song shortly after his son died. His own life was then cut short by a shooting. The tragic story surrounding it only makes this song all the more poignant.
Aretha Franklin - Respect (1967). Aretha wanted to follow in Sam Cooke’s footsteps and that she did. Hailed as “the voice of black America” and “a symbol of black equality”, she is very culturally important and also very good. This groovy song, as you can probably tell, is a feminist call-to-arms.
Simon and Garfunkel - Sound of Silence (1963). This beautiful song is actually written shortly after JFK’s assassination. Lovely and haunting.
Bob Dylan - Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (1962). I wanted to include at least one breakup song in this list and here it is. But of course Bob Dylan is much more. A counter-cultural figure while Beatlemania raged, he became the voice of the anti-war hippie generation. His song such as “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” were anthems for the civil rights movements and later the anti-Vietnam War movement. When Dylan plugged his acoustic guitar into an amp and made the landmark album, Highway 61 Revisited, the world was electrified. My own favorite Dylan song, “Like a Rolling Stone”, is the first track in this album. He continues to play even today after an incredibly prolific career.
Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues - Live (1968). Legendary Johnny Cash performs Folsom Prison Blues in Folsom Prison. A major event in rock history. His music is countercultural and his performances were often volatile, yet he is loved dearly for the power of his lyrics. Of course he never did shoot a man in Reno as he sings in this song, but his ability of the emphasize with prisoners is palpable. You get the sense that he has confronted darkness and understands it. Check out A Girl from North Country (a famous collaboration with Bob Dylan). He continued to write music until he died. His music video Hurt was also a major event. I also quite like his late work, which not many people do, particularly the album American III: Solitary Man.
The Supremes - You Can’t Hurry Love (1966). Who doesn’t love the Motown sound? If you’re like me, this song will make you want to dance.
The Who - I Can’t Explain (1965). What a sound. This is perhaps the best known song by this British Rock band. Writing in Rolling Stone in the early 1970s, the lead singer Townsend mused, “It seems to be about the frustrations of a young person who is so incoherent and uneducated that he can’t state his case to the bourgeois intellectual blah blah blah. Or, of course, it might be about drugs.”
Arlo Guthrie - Alice’s Restaurant Massacre (1967). Yes, this is 18 minutes of someone telling a story while playing acoustic guitar. It’s also portrait of America in the Vietnam years. I would have never learned about this song if not for Hugh Koeze. To be honest I didn’t understand it for many years. But once I did the story was hilarious.
The Stooges - I Want To Be Your Dog (1969). The sound of the Iggy Pop and Stooges is very different from the stuff that came before. The sweet sex revolution and youthful confidence of the 60s takes a dark turn as everything goes wrong–the 70s is a decade defined by events such as Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the Gas crisis, and the Iranian hostage situation. This song came out in 1969 and to me seem to forebode things to come. Wikipedia: “The lyrics have been described as evoking a sense of lubricity and self-loathing, a monument to a state of blue-collar tedium and alienation of their era, late 1960s industrial Michigan.” Quite a contrast to the “Motown sound.”
Bob Marley - No Woman No Cry (1974). At first blush, this song title seems break-up related. But, actually, after properly listening to the lyrics, I realized it’s actually a wholly different kind of song. It’s about about growing up in the ghetto and persuading a woman that things will get better, so there’s no need to cry. Apparently, in Jamaican English, “no” can mean “don’t.” By the way, knowing Bob Marley (“Bob”) songs will give you a lot of credibility when interacting with an important American demographic: the pot-head. In my experience, the first sign of a pot-head is that he owns a Bob poster or he professes love for Bob. But even if you’re not a pot-head, reggae music is really fun too and Bob Marley is the most important reggae artist who ever lived. Of course, I can’t guarantee that listening to his songs won’t be even more fun with a bit of ganja. (Don’t try at home, kids.)
Ramones - Beat on the Brat (1976). Ramones are 70s classic and very important for the development of punk and heavy metal. I don’t know their music very well but maybe you’ll like them. From Wikipedia: “When I lived in Birchwood Towers in Forest Hills with my mom and brother. It was a middle-class neighborhood, with a lot of rich, snotty women who had horrible spoiled brat kids. There was a playground with women sitting around and a kid screaming, a spoiled, horrible kid just running around rampant with no discipline whatsoever. The kind of kid you just want to kill. You know, ‘beat on the brat with a baseball bat’ just came out. I just wanted to kill him.” Pretty funny, if you ask me.
The Clash - London Calling (1979). The last years of the 70s in Britain were very hard. This was the eve of the election of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. There were riots, rampant unemployment, racial conflict, class struggle. All this is captured in the title track of this album by the Clash, who are really, really good. The album is worth listening to in its entirety. My favorite is Lost in the Supermarket, which is one of the best songs responding to the rise of consumerism and suburban life. This is a theme which the Talking Heads later picked up, as well as Radiohead and Arcade Fire.
Journey - Don’t Stop Believing (1981). 80s mainstream pop is over-the-top, gaudy, cheesy, glitzy, and unabashedly sentimental. And honestly? Everybody loves it. And everybody loves this track by Journey. Many a time I’ve felt truly alive when belting this song at the top of my lungs in a room filled with drunk people. I cannot describe how good that feels. You’ll just have to experience it at some point. For example, go here.
Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime (1981). Now for a completely different sound and subject matter, check out this new wave song from the 80s. It is made by a band called the Talking Heads headed by David Byrne. Let me tell you. All the cool kids listen to the Talking Heads. (Or, if they don’t, they should.) Their songs deal with the confusion of adult life in a consumerist society. You will hear Byrne’s yelping about a mid-life crisis: “You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” Other songs to check out by the Talking Heads include This Must be the Place, Psycho Killer, Burning Down the House. If you like their stuff, we might want to do a viewing of “Stop Making Sense”, which is one of the best rock movie ever.
David Bowie/Queen - Under Pressure (1981). David Bowie should need no introduction. Which is an excuse since I don’t know how to write it. If you haven’t given him a good listen yet, please do. He has so many great songs: Be sure to check out Space Oddity or Ziggy Stardust or Suffragette City or Rebel, rebel or Changes. Queen is another very classic band, despite the fact that a good deal of their songs were really “out there.” You have probably heard of Bohemian Rhapsody or We Are The Champions or Another One Bites The Dust (which is potentially a break-up song).
R.E.M. - The One I Love (1987). R.E.M. came out of Athens, Georgia, a sort of Mecca for American music. R.E.M. drew on a lot of punk influences but pioneered a more folksy, clean sound that I really love. They are often considered one of the first alternative bands. But I’m not really sure what that means: “alternative” is a very poorly defined genre which is really a catch-all genre for many kinds of music that isn’t “mainstream”. But what is clear is that R.E.M is enormously influential and was a sort of prototype for many future bands. I love “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and “Losing My Religion”.
The Presidents of the United States - Peaches (1994). Sometimes you just need a real goofy song about something completely unimportant to cheer you up. I don’t know anything about the context of the song and there probably isn’t a whole lot interesting about it. And sometimes that’s fine. Just enjoy.
The Flaming Lips - Do You Realize?? (2002). The Flaming Lips produce this incredibly lush yet edgy sound. Their subject matter is fairly unconventional given song titles like “She Don’t Use Jelly” (as in lubricant) or “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”, which are both very, very good. But “Do You Realize??” wins as one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I am certainly guilty of listening to it on repeat many, many times. From Wikipedia: ‘In an interview with Mojo, Coyne revealed that during the recording of Yoshimi…, band member Steven Drozd was trying to kick a heroin addiction. When they took breaks from playing, Drozd would have a really tough time with his withdrawal. Listening to him cry, and with the death of his father in mind, Coyne wrote “Do You Realize??”.’
Arcade Fire - Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) (2004). Arcade Fire make big transcendent statements about death, religion, the suburbs, technology. And they sing about tragedy and yet do so in a way that makes you fall in love with life. I cannot describe their sound effectively, so perhaps you read [this famous review from Pitchfork][pitch]. Listening to Arcade Fire probably changed my life and made me a happier person. If you want, come over to my place to check out my speakers. I will gladly play it for you.
LCD Soundsystems - All My Friends (2007). This song is about… well… growing up in the 21st century, and it hits right home.
Sigur Ros - Gobbledigook (2008). Not long after my high school graduation, I walked into a record store in Hong Kong to pass time. They had a few new albums on display, so I put on the headphones to check them out. Little did I know how much the polyrhythmic blissful beauty that then flowed from the headphones into my ears would affect me. So I bought the record, went over to my friend Plato’s home and listened to it again and again. Perhaps there was something magical about the setting. At the time everything was rosy: I was falling in love for the first time. I was heading to college. Life was open and full of possibilities. When I heard this music, it spoke to me like no band ever did. And maybe it’ll speak to you as well.
Louis Armstrong - What A Wonderful World (1967). Oh! Before you go, let me show you what I think is the greatest Christmas music ever made. I’m pretty sure this song will never get old. So please go find the albums that Louis Armstrong recorded with Ella Fitzgerald. And no, you don’t have to wait till Christmas to play this song. Play it any time and you’ll realize that, actually, you can have Christmas all year round.