Brilliant Flukes and Curmudgeon Heroines: Liner Notes to the 2015 Mix by Becca Klaver
At the end of every year since 2008, I’ve made a mix of my favorite songs of the year, a ritual that began with burned CDs, converted to Dropbox files, and now finds its form in Spotify playlists. I collect songs all year, and then spend the month of December binging on year-end best-of lists, gleefully consuming all the tracks I’ve inevitably missed. The rules are simple: the songs had to have been released that year (re-releases, covers, and singles for albums that haven’t come out yet are all allowed), and no artist can appear twice (harder than it sounds for some albums). The following liner notes for my 2015 mix range from music criticism to cultural commentary to personal anecdote to fangirl adoration. These songs contain the catchy hooks, soulful grooves, clever lyrics, and anthemic choruses that made my heart soar, accompanied me on trains and buses, and helped me keep putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes even with a little hop in my step, during the long year that was 2015.
“Ryderz” – Hudson Mohawke
“Ryderz” was one of the first songs I heard this year that made it onto the mix, and I’ve listened to it over and over again in every season. On the sidewalks of Brooklyn, on the New Jersey Transit train—wherever I was, “Ryderz” could buoy me and remind me that this American moment has felt so dark because revolution is turning its gears, and change is painful. This is a necessary moment in a long movement, and we are in the thick of it. As I stare down 2016, I’m grateful for all the freedom “ryderz” who risk so much to resist, to educate, to pull back the veil, often at the expense of their own well-being—from activists filling the streets and highways and bridges, to civil servants working for structural change, to visionary writers like Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Robin Coste Lewis. This song reminds me that the process of “riding” is risky, relentless, and possibly redemptive. I doubt that any of this was on Scottish producer and musician Hudson Mohawke’s mind when he took the sample for “Ryderz” from D.J. Rogers’s obscure 1973 track, “Watch Out for the Riders,” but “Ryderz” became a touchstone of 2015 for me.
“California” – Grimes
The new Grimes album hit me out of nowhere; I had it on a list of albums to listen to for the mix before the year was out, and played it for the first time out of a sense of doing my homework. I had no idea I would love it so much. Although there are lots of great songs on Art Angels, my favorite is “California”: first because it’s so catchy, and second because it fits the aesthetic that I call “Southern California Gothic” (see my book of poems, LA Liminal). Many people love California for the sun; I love the feeling of disenchantment it seems to endlessly offer. “California” makes me giddy with melody and with the feeling that Claire Boucher understands my SadSoCal sentiments, too: “Ca-a-a-a-alifornia, you only like me when you think I’m lookin’ sad / I didn’t think you’d end up treatin’ me so bad.”
“Dream Lover” – Destroyer
Dan Bejar is another Canadian with a charming disdain for America, but this is not one of those Destroyer songs. “Dream Lover” is the sort of perfect pop song that Bejar will allow onto an album just to be like, “Hey, I could be doing this if I wanted to,” irritating music critics and making fans like me giggle with delight, because he gave it to us, anyway—even he couldn’t resist its charms.
“Dream Lover” is my favorite song of 2015. It can’t come first, though, because it’s too brash: Bejar says in an interview that his band confused the audio engineers by playing this version of “Dream Lover,” the third take, with the drum hut torn down and the studio doors wide open, loud and wild. In that way it’s like my favorite song of all time, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” also something of studio accident. At the very end of the track, you can hear Bejar laugh the tiniest bit through his nose, as if to say, “Holy shit, what just happened?”
In the same interview, Bejar describes the formula for a typical Destroyer song as “the harrowing, terrible state of the world in flames in the background while some minor romantic drama plays out in the foreground and seems all the more insignificant because of the circumstances around it.” In “Dream Lover,” he just gives us those characters in the foreground (although the fact that they’re “lovers on the run” suggests something mildly disastrous, I suppose). “Dream Lover” also pulls that classic Destroyer move of referencing other songs, including other Destroyer songs (the title references songs by Bobby Darin, Mariah Carey, and The Vaccines, among others, while the rakish lament “Ah shit, here comes the sun” alludes both to the Beatles and to Destroyer’s own “Here Comes the Night,” from 2002’s This Night).
“Dream Lover” was the first single released from the first Destroyer album in over five years. It appeared just as spring was promising to become summer, that season of dream lovers and street-longing, and I had been starving for it.
“Sparrow” – Eskimeaux
When I played this song for one of my oldest friends, driving in her car from Jamaica Plain to Cambridge, MA after dinner, she said, “It has that anthemic quality that you like.” It’s true that I’m a sucker for almost any song that can be described as “soaring”: add killer drumming, and I’m hooked; add a lyric that includes “wrecking ball,” and it’s all over. The tension between frenetic drumming and melodic singing in “Sparrow” feels like the inside of my body, like the dual rhythms of heartbeat and breath. There’s something both spare and huge about the song, or maybe it’s that the spareness leaves room for you to enter its hugeness, like the windy seascape Gabrielle Smith sings about.
“Garden” – Hinds
This Spanish girl band called Hinds that last year was called Deers makes these garage-rock grooves that give me a spinny feeling and remind me of the mix cassettes my older sister used to send me from college in the late 90s. “Garden” is my latest favorite from Hinds, because who can resist a danceable chorus about dancing? Hinds have shown up on my mixes two years in a row, but hadn’t even released a proper debut album until this month (Leave Me Alone, released on January 8, 2016 via London-based label Lucky Number).
“The Dirt” – Waxahatchee
Girls with guitars. Girls with crunchy guitars. Girls with twanging guitars. Girls with guitars are still here. “The Dirt” is over before you knew what hit you. There’s bitterness, disillusionment, and then a guitar driving forward. Katie Crutchfield says her new album Ivy Tripp is about “lacking regard for the complaisant life path of our parents and grandparents,” which is maybe what she means when she delivers the enigmatic lyric “You’ll deliver a fable I could live /And I’ll throw it off the nearest cliff.”
“Depreston” – Courtney Barnett
The language of a realtor should not be such compelling lyrical material, but the languorous pace of “Depreston” combined with lyrics like “a garage for two cars to park in / or a lot of room for storage if you’ve just got one” lulls us into the world of this California bungalow in a Melbourne suburb. Barnett’s journey to Preston begins with a hope of escaping her own overpriced city life, and then gets caught up in the house’s clues about its former owner’s life—kitchen canisters, a shower handrail, and “a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam.” Like a true storyteller, Barnett seems to forget herself completely and be absorbed into the haze of someone else’s memories. The second half of the song repeats the lyrics “If you’ve got a spare half a million / You could knock it down and start rebuilding” over and over until we hear the sense of loss behind the mockery. In the end, “Depreston” isn’t depressing at all, as it insists on the importance of real lives over real estate, and on the mysterious auras of home.
“Got Old” – The Babies
You get older; your friends die; your heart splinters. At some point loving new music starts to seem like an impossibility, so you love the songs that sound old. Once I had a listening partner, and then I started making the mixes alone. But it is very hard to stop sharing music with someone with whom you used to share music every day. He sent “Got Old” my way, and it stuck. It is an indulgence, in that it permits me three-and-a half-minutes of nostalgia that I otherwise try hard to resist.
“Holy Shit” – Father John Misty
It’s easy to feel annoyed by Father John Misty’s persona, but his dance moves are pretty legit, and there’s something Whitmanesque, or at least “We Didn’t Start the Fire”-esque, about the propulsive catalogue of “Holy Shit,” which gathers up everything from “dustbowl chic” to “incest dreams.” Besides, I can’t help but love a song that seems fixated on cynical theories of love, from the emotional to the economic, only to swerve into a grand, romantic—and, okay, yes, myopic—gesture at the last minute: “But I fail to see what that has to do with you and me.”
“Rock & Roll is Cold” – Matthew E. White
At first, I couldn’t tell if I loved or hated this song: Is it obnoxious? Irresistible? Both? Perhaps what it is most of all is infectious: it gets in your head and in your bloodstream. It’s a lot of fun to sing along with “everybody likes to talk, everybody likes to talk shi-i-it,” and then let the lyric get swallowed up by the background singers. “Rock & Roll is Cold” signals the mix’s turn away, for a while, from rock ‘n’ roll toward some “gospel licks.”
“Sunday Candy” – Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment
My favorite part of “Sunday Candy” is the way you can just hear Chance the Rapper grinning as he sings about his grandmother: “I got a future so I’m singing for my grandma.” The fact that this wholesome moment exists in a song that’s also propelled by the pure desire and utter sacrilege in Jamila Woods’s voice as she sings “You gotta move it slowly / Take and eat my body like it’s holy” confuses me a little, but this song is having too much fun to let me worry about it for long. What kind of love is Sunday candy? Sacred or profane, duet or entire swinging congregation, it’s warm and sugary sweet.
“On the Regular” – Shamir
It might seem predictable to say that when I first heard this song on NPR’s SXSW preview playlist, I thought it was a woman singing. But Shamir’s countertenor voice (their preferred term) is an important counterpoint to the lyrics of “On the Regular,” whose simple repeated chorus, “This is me on the regular, so you know,” insists not only that nonconformity is normal, but that it’s nearly banal, no big deal—tossed off, “so you know,” without a lot of fanfare. Shamir doesn’t need your acceptance: both “guy” and “bitch,” they already know they’re “the best.”
“Here” – Alessia Cara
“Here” is an introvert’s theme song (“But really I would rather be at home all by myself,” nineteen-year-old Cara sings at one point), the second one I can think of this year (Courtney Barnett’s “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” with its chorus “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home,” being the other). When Cara sings to a fellow partygoer, “I know you mean only the best / And your intentions aren’t to bother me,” she reminds me of Jessa Crispin’s brilliant “Concepts With Which Boys At Parties Have Asked Me If I’m Familiar” spreadsheet meme. When she goes on to sing—
But honestly I’d rather be
Somewhere with my people
We can kick it and just listen to
Some music with a message, like we usually do
And we’ll discuss our big dreams
How we plan to take over the planet
—she reminds me of the college students I taught this year in a course on millennials that I designed in part in order to learn how millennials think of themselves. What I learned is that they’re doing just what Cara is singing about, and that I’ll be glad to hand over the planet to these people who are already changing the world before they even leave school.
“Feel You” – Julia Holter
This song sounds like nothing else I heard this year. I feel simultaneously like I’m in an airy ice castle in heaven and in rainy Mexico City on a festival day. “You know I love to run away from sun,” Holter sings, like Cara hiding out from the party, Barnett trying to leave the city, and Grimes escaping California. The year of the curmudgeon heroine?
“My Baby Don’t Understand Me – Live” – Natalie Prass
“Our love is a long goodbye”: Sometimes it’s clear from the moment you meet that you’re going to lose someone. Death comes for all of us, yes, but sometimes life comes for us, too, and you sit in some liminal space, “waiting on the train” to wherever you’re meant to go next.
“How Could You Babe” – Tobias Jesso Jr.
After you’ve analyzed everything to death and gotten a grip on it and turned it around and started to tell yourself stories about what happened that make a lot of sense, you begin notice how many versions of the story there are, and all that intellectualizing starts to fall apart, and you’re left only with questions like, “How could you, babe?”
“Bird on a Wire” – Kristin Diable
Diable borrows Leonard Cohen’s title, but refuses his role (“I never meant to be / your bird on a wire”), rejecting the idea of sitting way up there, protected from the mess of human desire. Almost all year I had Diable’s “I’ll Make Time for You” on the mix, but after listening one more time to Create Your Own Mythology, her fabulous country-soul (she says “roots”) album, I made a last-minute switch to this power ballad that swells and crashes along with its cymbals, as the narrator stays stuck: “I just can’t get out of here.”
“Then Came the Morning” – The Lone Bellow
Okay, we’re finally breaking out of the sad slump. It’s music that will let you go down there, and music that will pull you back out. Eventually, the sun rises (“Ah shit, here comes the sun”) and the sound is similar but the feeling is different. I have found, in the time of uncertainty and grief that 2015 has been for me, when I couldn’t find solid ground to stand on, that natural cycles could provide some sliver of solace. Morning does come, and spring and summer, too: to fully feel their power, you’ve got to pass through the long night.
“Like a Rolling Stone – Take 5, Rehearsal (Short Version)” – Bob Dylan
Any new bootleg release of my favorite song probably would have made it onto the mix, but I love the way this one, from The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, suggests how many lives “Like a Rolling Stone” had even before it was recorded (and has had on tours since, when Dylan plays so-called “unrecognizable” versions of his songs), and underscores that the iconic recording we all know was, in fact, a brilliant fluke.
“Ship To Wreck” – Florence + The Machine
This is the first Florence song I’ve ever loved. I feel like I’ve been waiting for it for a long time. It’s a paradox all the way through: the “wreck” that she suspects she is also lends the song its ferocity, lungs, guttural soundings. I know that woman, those women. When Florence sings “And good God, under starry skies we are lost, / And into the breach we got tossed, / And the water’s coming in fast” it seems like a song for 2015, for all of us trying to figure out how personal and global harm are linked.
“WTF (Where They From)” – Missy Elliott
It was a hard year on the internet—more online friends than I can count deactivated their social media accounts out of sheer anxiety—but there was this one afternoon where everyone was sharing this jaw-droppingly good video for the first Missy Elliott song in ten years, along with lots of exclamation points, and it was pure joy.
“Cel U Lar Device” – Erykah Badu
When I used to burn CDs, there would always be a hidden track at the end of the mix, not listed on the front cover. There’s no way to do that on Spotify, but you can consider this the honorary hidden track.
Just when you thought “Hotline Bling” couldn’t go any further, Erykah Badu released this cover, and somehow it was even better—not only for its funny title and chorus, but also for the interlude about Badu’s voicemail messages, which expands the themes of “Hotline Bling” to include a commentary on the price of fame. The problem of people wanting to use you for your power and money seemingly only applies to the rich and famous, but those larger-than-life figures also get weirdly humanized when we see that life in the spotlight threatens the potential for genuine human connection. And this seems to me very much related to ordinary people’s relationships with smart phones—the way that hotline bling, those notifications, that buzzing in our pockets keeps us connected to wider and wider networks of people to whom we’re figuring out how to respond and be responsible.
Return to LA
That rocking dirge
followed me back
out of place
in the mountain view café
Scrolled my mind out of time
the Hollywood Forever Cemetery
leaving Melrose in the exhaust
Everything used to seem so slick
but now all I could see
was old lettering
on ancient signs
And all your ghosts in the Biltmore
and all my girls clinking glasses
and even the Black Dahlia
helped me dig
Becca Klaver is the author of the poetry collection LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010), the forthcoming Empire Wasted (Bloof Books, 2016), and several chapbooks. She co-founded Switchback Books and is currently co-editing the anthology Electric Gurlesque. She was born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, and studied at the University of Southern California, Columbia College Chicago, and Rutgers University, where she is currently a lecturer.
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