1. Caetano Veloso | Onde Andarás
When I was living and traveling in Argentina a couple of years ago, I had a small nylon-string guitar with me and spent my low-key moments learning how to play Bossa Nova. While I was staying in a town called La Plata, I hung out with a Brazilian musician who shared my admiration for Caetano Veloso, and sitting on the front steps together one afternoon, passing a joint and watching girls walk by, he taught me how to play this tune. It’s from Caetano’s self-titled Tropicalia debut from 1968, and although it’s not as adventurous as some of the other tracks on that record, it’s still impeccably crafted and perfectly executed - a simple, lovely song by a seriously brilliant writer.
2. Francis Bebey | Ngoma Likembe
This summer I made a habit of staying up and biking to Lake Michigan to watch the Sunrise. Usually I’d just sit with the sound of the waves, but when I felt like listening to music, I put on Francis Bebey’s Akwaaba. This is beautiful, weird, hypnotic trance music, built upon dense layers of thumb piano, pulsing bass, haphazard percussion and double-tracked vocals that moan, drone, chant and strain. The production is lo-fi and heavily atmospheric, which adds an eerie but beautiful color to the tunes. Similar-sounding African records have been making the rounds for years now, but this one really is a standout, definitely worth a listen.
3. Brian Wilson | Surf's Up (Demo)
In 2005, I was somehow afforded the opportunity to talk on the phone with Brian Wilson. We covered a few different topics, but when given the chance, the single music-related question I chose to ask him was about the origins of this song. It’s definitely a high point in the Beach Boys catalogue - it’s so romantic, sophisticated, and dense, with the music building and cascading beneath that gorgeous vocal melody. To think that he was writing stuff like Surfin’ Safari only three years earlier is pretty staggering. I’ve always preferred the demo version of this tune - a simple 1966 recording featuring Brian alone at the piano, his vocals double-tracked - to the fleshed-out, (over-)produced version the band eventually released in 1971; it’s much more intimate and haunting and profound. When I asked Brian where this music came from, he said that he wanted to create something that showed the love he felt at that time, and explained that the music’s constant shifting was intended to reflect the changes he saw happening in the World. That’s fine, but in retrospect, it was probably a dumb question to ask him - why should anyone want to reduce something this expansive and beautiful to a simple, verbal explanation? It’s better just to sit and listen in astonishment.
4. Moondog | Bells Are Ringing
Moondog composed in a few different modes, but my favorite is the exotic Chamber Music you find on records like Moondog 2: brief, percussion-heavy exercises built on odd time signatures and featuring interweaving vocal rounds, dulcimers, horns, and ambient sounds (dogs, traffic, babies, lions). The work is intricate and intelligent, but there’s something strangely naïve-sounding about it at the same time, sort of like combining Native American chants with Bach and ending up with children’s songs. That his biography is so unusual (a classically-trained blind man who chose to busk on Sixth Avenue dressed in full-on Viking garb) certainly adds to the mythology, but it doesn’t overshadow how singular and special his music is. Truly a man making his own way through the wilderness.
5. Faust | The Faust Tapes
I went through a phase in 7th grade where my favorite thing to do after school was assemble sound collage cassettes. I’d gotten really into things like Revolution 9, Kurt Cobain’s Montage Of Heck, and Lumpy Gravy, and would spend hours with my mom’s two-tape-deck stereo, randomly bouncing and overdubbing layers of found sound I’d taken from TV, my CDs, or the radio. I didn’t hear The Faust Tapes until a few years later, but listening to it always reminds me of that period of my life. This is a collection of home recordings haphazardly edited into a single 43-minute collage that covers a lot of ground: noisy art rock jams, acoustic interludes, psychedelic echo exercises, whimsical piano pop, spoken word, minimalist doodling, and on and on, all crammed together into a loose and messy mosaic. Admittedly, some of the individual passages aren’t all that compelling, but the point here really is the overall effect, making your way through this weird hallucinatory soundscape they’ve constructed. It’s strange and adventurous and unpredictable, which is how I like things to be.
6. Lizzy Mercier Descloux | Room Mate
Our buddy Scott from Chandeliers (best band in Chicago, check them out) turned us on to Mambo Nassau a few years back, and hearing this record for the first time was one of those great, rare moments where you get an incredulous grin on your face and proceed to replay an album endlessly for weeks. The record features an incredibly tight, Funky band playing some mutant strain of cubist Caribbean Disco Art-Rock, fronted by a girl who doesn’t sing so much as chant, hum, and yell with total exuberance and abandon. The guitar work on this record is incredible - clearly African-flavored but really inventive, very angular and intricate, always working off the bassline in surprising ways. It’s definitely had an impact on my own playing. This music is exciting and totally out of nowhere - just a really, really fun listen.
7. Can | Halleluwah
A monster 19-minute Psychedelic Krautrock jam and probably my favorite Can song, featuring a series of improvised sonic elements (hazed-out organ washes, warped tape loops, noodly guitar solos, overdubbed tom-tom circles, tape-delayed vocal rants, etc.) painted over a huge, relentless syncopated rhythm section. I like listening to this song on buses and trains – its length lets you get thoroughly lost in the unfolding sounds, and even if your attention strays for a moment, you come back and inevitably find the groove still barreling forward. It’s the kind of music that can make you lose your sense of time, like Indian Classical music or extended dance mixes. This tune exemplifies why Can were my favorite kind of experimental musicians: as uncompromising and unconventional as they were, they could still serve up the jams. The dudes were visionaries.
8. Emitt Rhodes | Promises I've Made
This is taken from his self-titled debut, which is a totally flawless record – perfect Pop music that bears an obvious McCartney influence but rivals anything the Beatles ever put out. This song is typical of his writing in that it's catchy as hell and perfectly constructed - every element is simple but thoughtfully precise, the playing is never showy, and nothing's there that doesn't need to be there. He plays all of the instruments on this record himself, and while he’s solid all around, I think his drumming stands out on this track: it’s the most basic beat ever, but the restrained hi-hat patterns he uses on the verses really make the tune move. Very tasteful and intuitive playing. On a personal level, listening to this song brings me right back to dating a girl in college and going through one of those prolonged breakups that takes a few tries before you get it right.
9. Miles Davis | Maiysha
How many nights have I spent getting high with friends and listening to this? The track is from Get Up With It, which is the last of Miles’ Electric albums from the 70’s. His sound during this period tended to be pretty sinister and intense, but Maiysha has a decidedly laid-back, almost tropical vibe to it, with washes of wah-pedaled organ (beautifully played by Davis) and affected trumpet hovering over shuffling drums, echoed claves, lazy electric guitar, bouncing bass, and tape-delayed flute solos. Some people complain about Miles’ lack of discipline during these years, but I’ve always loved this era of his work - it’s such visual music, totally unprecedented in its arrangements, production (look up Teo Macero), and attitude. I respect anyone who runs towards change rather than away from it, and Miles clearly made a point of never looking back.
10. Roy Ayers | Chicago
I recently moved to New York, but I'll always be from Chicago, and this track is definitely the hometown anthem for my friends and me. Listening to it brings to mind so many good times: dancing after-hours with friends at the Hideout, commandeering stereos at House parties and blasting this song whenever the scene got boring, etc. My buddy Jeremiah and I played in another band together before we joined Icy Demons, and we closed a show once with a cover of this tune that turned into a 15-minute dance party. I still have this vision of our friend Mike B (who's this shy, quiet 6'5" dude) grabbing the mic and completely going off, wading through the crowd and barking those ad-libbed party calls: I REALLY THINK THAT I’M MARCHING AT THE BEAT OF A DIFF-ER-ENT DRUMMERRRRRRR!... It’s one of my favorite memories ever of playing live; the whole scene was wild and totally fun. It seems like this track just has that kind of effect on people.