I am a member of two Mix CD clubs. They’re great! You get 12 people together and each month someone is responsible for sending the other 11 members a mix. You get new music, new perspectives, all for the price of the effort it takes to make one of these yourself and the subsequent packaging and postage.
For various reasons, I wanted to put together a mix of American music for my latest mix. Partly, I was trying to understand what American music means to me, and what kinds of songs and sounds I find distinctly American. To a large extent, I found that American music to me is very often sad sonofabitch music. I’m guessing that that’s just me, but American suffering takes on so many interesting forms, that it makes sense that it’s so well represented in our music. Don’t worry, there’s also lots of songs about places in America, partying, thinking about partying, and thinking about how much better partying used to be back when we were younger. Also, there’s “Uptown Girl”!
Most of the decisions were carefully made, and I do feel the need to explain myself, as you will find commentary about all of these songs, below.
My arguments are for these songs, not against anything I might have left out, as I’m sure I left out many songs you might think are essential. Feel free to comment below and let me know what I missed.
For your downloading pleasure, here’s the mix! Enjoy and have a swell 4th!
TRACKLIST: Do you like American Music? Mix (Click on the track for a few werds of explanation on each song)
1. Parties in the U.S.A. – Jonathan Richman
2. Nobody Cares about the Railroads Anymore – Harry Nilsson
3.Louisiana – The Walkmen
4. 4th of July – Aimee Mann
5. Rainbow in the Dark – Das Racist
6. Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache – Bob Dylan
7. You’re Slightly Less Than Wonderful – Fats Waller
8. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive – Hank Williams
9. First Few Desperate Hours – The Mountain Goats
10. Detroit City – Alice Cooper
11. Money (That’s What I Want) – Barrett Strong
12. Going Back to New Orleans – Joe Liggins
13. Lydia the Tattooed Lady – Groucho Marx
14. Firing Squad – Curtis Eller
15. Lilac Wine – Nina Simone
16. The Novelist – Richard Swift
17. Uptown Girl – Billy Joel
18. Hey, Good Lookin’ – Ray Charles
19. Unchained Melody – Willie Nelson
20. Tennessee Waltz – Sam Cooke
21. Salon and Saloon – Jim Croce
Please comment if you have any songs you think should be on any American Music mix. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and the songs.
“Parties in the U.S.A.” – Jonathan Richman. I would’ve been hard to start the mix without this one. It was a pretty obvious starter, since JoJo sings about a lot of other “American” songs, like “Louie Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” so my penchant for the meta in things begins at once in the mix. In addition, the song is a take on wistfulness for past experiences, which I found, about halfway thru creating the mix, to be a theme I hold dear in my American music. This was one of the Jonathan songs my now-wife knew about when we met. She’s heard many, many more since, so putting this at the front bumper of the mix is a little homage to her as well.
“Nobody Cares about the Railroads Anymore” – Harry Nilsson. Talk about wistful! This song has the old-timey feel that I find so attractive in much of Nilsson’s music, and it also does some place-name dropping (Baltimore, Virgina), which I found, throughout the mix, to be very important in signifying my U.S.A.
“Louisiana” - The Walkmen. Everytime I think to myself that The Walkmen are overhyped, I just go and listen to some of their music and am always immediately proven wrong. Hamilton Leithauser has one of my favorite voices of any vocalist working today, and those horns are spirit-lifting. This will also be the first of a few Louisiana/New Orleans references in this mix. My wife and I went to NOLA for our honeymoon and (as a note to any of you newlyweds to be) this was a fantastic idea. I’d rather spend time in New Orleans than any other place I’ve ever been to on this green Earth.
“4th of July” – Aimee Mann. I had a very short post about this song quite some time ago. Aimee Mann is one of the few artists whose music I spend lots of time with every single year, whether she has a new album out or not. Patriotism is not the central theme of this retrospective tune, but it’s just one of those songs that I felt needed to be here, even though the title makes it way too obvious.
“Shadows in the Dark” – Das Racist. I effing loved that “Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” song when it came out a couple of years ago and was thrilled to get the Brooklyn-duo’s album when it came out. As soon as I got it, I let it linger, but recently picked it back up. This song has so many killer name-drops of American-ass shit that it was irresistible.
Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache – Bob Dylan. I’ve been listened to Dylan since a day in 11th grade when I spent an entire afternoon in bed listening to “Ballad in Plain D” on repeat for 2 hours. But lately, I’ve pretty much been listening to Love and Theft and Modern Times, his latest, old-fogey records. But then again, I really love old-fogey music, so new old-fogey music from one of my heroes has been a great treat. But somehow, this cover song from Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records has been the Dylan song I’ve listened to the most over the past couple years, according to iTunes.
“First Few Desperate Hours” – The Mountain Goats. I’ve never actually gotten all the way through a Faulkner novel, but it seems to me as though this song could’ve been written by him. Allusions to the Bible, ominous warnings of bad tidings, a stoic optimism of the actors against the possibility of real evil afoot–these are elements of American Gothic, and there is something at the core of American, and particularly, the lore of southern American life, at the core of this masterpiece of a song by John Darnielle.
“Detroit City” – Alice Cooper – This song came out in 2003 on The Eyes of Alice Cooper, which I wouldn’t have known if my neighbor Kenny hadn’t said “This sounds like later Alice Cooper. You can tell in his voice.”
Upon hearing the song, I immediately wondered why this song wasn’t playing at every Detroit bar and sports arena/stadia instead of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” People, for the up-teenth time, there is no South Detroit! South Detroit is Windsor!
The bridge–”6 mile, 7 mile, 8 mile, 9 mile, 10 mile, 11 mile, DETROIT CITY!” caused another friend to laugh uncontrollably at the cheesiness of the whole affair when I played it for him. So be it–it is cheesy. But marvelously so!
“Going Back to New Orleans” – Joe Liggins. This is another song that made it due to my recent honeymoon in the greatest city in North American: New Orleans. My lovely wife and I were taking a break mid-day in our hotel room from the heat and had WWOZ on the radio (just like the Better Than Ezra song) and this NOLA classic came on. I fell in love immediately, and have be listening to a helluva lot of Joe Liggins lately.
“Lydia the Tattooed Lady” – Groucho Marx. Even if you’re an indie music snob and aren’t interested in “old stuff,” I can’t see anyone disliking this song. Especially in a generation where tattoos have become so pervasive that when we’re all in our 40s and 50s a sleeve or upper boob tattoo will likely not prevent you from climbing the corporate ladder, this song should have a bit of a resurgence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some tattoo’d 20-something isn’t already trying to replicate all of the tattoos Groucho sings about here. I really wanted to put a Marx Brothers song on this mix, as I believe the Marx Brothers are really a supreme example of truly American comedy. The added historical references are just icing on the cake.
“Firing Squad” – Curtis Eller’s American Circus. The entire reason for making this mix was to evangelize to my Mix CD club the music of Curtis Eller. I first saw him at the Galaxy Hut in Arlington, Virginia, and he’s been one of my favorite songwriters/performers of the last five years. His songs primarily use references to American history. He plays the banjo, but his music isn’t bluegrass. His last album had not one, but two songs about John Wilkes Booth. His performances are full of unpredictable hi-jinks, but are always predictably excellent. If your musical tastes are anything like mine, you should listen to his entire catalog, which is on bandcamp.
“Lilac Wine” – Nina Simone. Most people know this song from Jeff Buckley’s Grace. It’s worth knowing the Nina Simone version as well. Hearing it from the viewpoint of a woman, and especially from the voice of Nina Simone, gives the song a less ghostly quality and a more dramatic feel. You can’t say one version is better then the other. They’re both outstanding interpretations of a great song by true artists.
“The Novelist” – Richard Swift. As I was playing selections of this mix to my wife, she noted that I’ve used this song in a mix before. My first reaction was to remove it, especially as some of the people who will be receiving the mix will probably think this as well. But I left it in. There must be a reason I keep wanting to include it in every mix, and I’m willing to accept it without trying to discover the reason why. It’s a sorrowful, somber tune, heartfelt and aching. It’s a superb song, and it’s portrait of the artist as a struggling, poor writer, encompasses much of what we think of the artist in the big city. Just beautiful.
“Uptown Girl” – Billy Joel. The best transition from the previous song I could find, and perhaps the best transition I’ve ever made on any mix.
A mini-essay on how I’ve turned around on Billy Joel:
Chuck Klosterman’s unbeatable essay on Billy Joel in “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” is monumental in Billy Joel scholarship (I’m sure such a thing exists) and began to shift my thoughts of him as a second-rate, lucky-to-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-cultural-time artist. It’s required reading. But what really pushed me over the hump into legitimate Billy Joel appreciation was a night I spent with my friend Richard in Washington, DC. We had a night of drinking and went back to his place to continue imbibing after the bars had closed at 3am. Richard recently bought a turntable and a selection of LPs at a local Salvation Army. Among these was Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man” LP. We were drinking expensive cheap whiskey and chatting as it played, but were suddenly taken when “The Longest Time” came on. We were awestruck, stunned: It sounded so fucking good! We listened to it again. And then again. And then we slowly passed out. But in the morning, as I was just feeling the first stings of my hangover, I thought to myself “Could that song really have sounded that good without the influence of alcohol? Was it just hearing it on vinyl? Is it true that all songs just sound better on vinyl, or is that song legitimately amazing?” The answer? It really is actually that good, even on cassette or 8-track, I’m sure. And so is “Uptown Girl.” Really.
“Unchained Melody” – Willie Nelson. A great American song, and to my mind, the truest interpretation of the song. The famous version of the song by the Righteous Brothers is wonderful, but Willie Nelson’s more vulnerable interpretation makes Bobby Hatfield’s more soaring and showy singing sound like Meatloaf in comparison. Willie’s voice breaks at the songs famous apex, “Are you still mine?” which makes it sound like a genuine question that the singer needs answered.
“Tennessee Waltz” – Sam Cooke. I kind of don’t understand this song, but I don’t question its excellence. Sam is singing pretty jauntily about his old friend stealing his baby, but Sam Cooke is also irresistible, and I like to give it the justification that that Tennessee Waltz was so beautiful that its music was enough to make a let down and betrayal seem insignificant to the music itself. Now that’s American music! Also, the song “Tennessee Waltz” isn’t a waltz, which is the kind of meta-irony I always enjoy.
“Salon and Saloon” – Jim Croce. I’m surprised this song isn’t more famous. I think Jim Croce is one of the great American songwriters, and this might be his best song. The “Oh Mary” is enough to break your heart. But the persona full of wistful, reflective regret, wondering what might have been, is what a large part of what American songwriting is all about–it’s a large chunk of the Blues, of Country music, and a lot of Rock. It’s a lot of Billy Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Weezer, Elvis, you name it. Croce performs it masterfully. It’s just a perfect song, and the reason it closes the mix is because the last song on the mix is, to me, the song people pay the most attention to. Any song that you save till the very end must be really good.