Clannad – Legend (1984)

Clannad were pioneers both in bringing a new idea of Irish music to the global mainstream and in laying the groundwork for what would eventually become new age music. Their early work borrowed deeply from traditional Celtic music and imbued it with a sense of mysticism that anyone whose idea of Irish music stops and ends with sweater-clad folkies would find shocking. It’s music that was very much a part of my childhood, but my introduction to Clannad was an old CD of their most aggressively commercial work, at least in how it was presented. I hadn’t heard Legend for a long time before this; though I could recall some fond memories of the ethereal folk played on the album. Listening now, I no longer feel that sense of warmth, but the album is still deeply fascinating for other reasons.

First, some context: while Legend was officially a Clannad album, it was also the soundtrack to a Robin Hood TV show that only aired in Ireland. The album’s opening track, a spacey slice of corny synth pop called “Robin (The Hooded Man),” served as the show’s opening theme, and it plays on the album as exactly the kind of song fragment used to open cheap TV shows. That rounded, dated synth tone is the through-line; it pops up everywhere and turns some of the stranger tracks into schmaltz almost instantly. There are moments of verve, for sure; the introduction of organic instruments on “Together We” presents a jauntiness that stands out amid the forced, languid serenity of most of the tracks. Later, I would go on to discover the rest of Clannad’s music and found in it depth and true beauty. It’s just shocking to me that my introduction to the band was probably their emptiest work. – Kevin Korber

Material Issue – International Pop Overthrow

It was a random Facebook group convo about favorite cassettes (shout out to the down girls of Baby Teith Clubhouse!), and someone posted an image of Material Issue’s International Pop Overthrow. Yes! Hard agree! But wait. What was the single? Were they Britpop or no? I remember it from “120 Minutes.” I liked that song! What the hell was that song? Gah, it sucks getting older. But this was a scratchable itch.

I knew I had the CD (of course I have the CD, I’m a Gen Xer with sentimental attachments), and I found it sandwiched between Shonen Knife and Youth Lagoon. “Valerie Loves Me”! That’s the fucking song, and it’s great! This is an album you put on in the car and turn the volume up and up and up with each new song (next “Diane,” then “Renee Remains the Same”), because they’re all so contagiously sing-able. Material Issue was not Britpop (good grief, they’re a Chicago band) but in my defense, they did have somewhat of a Madchester look to them. I feel even more like a doof because this was a pretty formidable release in 1991, just as the era was turning to grunge over power pop. (And listen to Hole’s cover of “Valerie Loves Me” for a fascinating recontextualization.) Don’t ever throw anything away, because sometimes you will do the disservice of forgetting the unforgettable. – Stacey Pavlick

Scholasticism: Principles and Personalities of Medieval Philosophy by Josef Pieper

Now, you may assume a book with this title’s no great loss even if found. But Josef Pieper (1904-1997), a skilled interpreter of formidable theories, summed up well two overlapping and daunting subjects. I’d just finished (or re-read as I used it in college to supplement my studies) his 1960 Scholasticism: Principles and Personalities of Medieval Philosophy. Surprisingly readable, and the subtitle shows his balance between enlivening these forgotten figures from a millennium-odd ago with explicating their ideas within about 150 pages. Wanting to complete my backwards survey with his 1962 Guide to Thomas Aquinas, I figured I’d have to wait until the public library re-opened sometime in the indeterminate near-future. But moving around a few books on my shelf, there it suddenly appeared from behind larger volumes. Based on lectures, Professor Pieper narrates, as did its predecessor in passing, the contribution of a formidable thinker in the West. I’ve been trading off the happy loss of my L.A. commute and catching up on weightier texts. Even if this matches its companion volume in brevity, it demands attention and rewards concentration. A mental workout, but its dynamic questions about how much we can know and how much we must leave to speculation remain, as we’re confronted six decades on by unpredictable or elusive threats. – John L Murphy

3 of a Kind – “Baby Cakes”

Between a poorly catalogued Discogs collection, a further few yet-to-be-immortalized-online stragglers set aside for their first spins and a conspicuously gappy CD rack, I found a number of contenders for this bracket. A picture disc here, a club 12” there, maybe a charity shop find thrown in for good measure – there were plenty of dust-gatherers and forgotten gems alike, any one of them ample source material. And yet, the one that enticed me the most is probably the most recognizable of the lot – a 12” of 3 of a Kind’s “Baby Cakes”, lodged in at the very beginning of my collection. At the very least, I can safely say my records are well alphabetized.

British people of a certain vintage – well, those of us in our 20s – will be all too familiar with it. This bona-fide pop garage staple arrived a fair while after the initial crescent of charting UK garage hits from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Along with myriad other forays by garage into the mainstream, it remains surprisingly ubiquitous on the playlists of easy listening stations across the country (it’s a sure sign that the weekend has arrived when Kisstory is blaring on a Friday afternoon in the office), and I say “surprisingly” because “Baby Cakes” in particular feels like a strange curio of a bygone era. Saccharine and chintzy to the extreme, with an almost-unnerving boy-girl MC dynamic from a one-hit wonder group, it’s the sort of tune that should< form part of a suppressed memory; in a post-PC Music landscape, though, it feels more like an oddly prescient gaze into PoMo pop’s aesthetic mining of kawaii, and all of the body horror that comes along with it. Oh, and it’s catchy as hell. — Joe Sherwood

Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures

Let’s not fuck around here: Amy Winehouse should have lived long enough to be the earth-shattering musical presence she was already showing signs of being with her only two records: 2003’s Frank and 2006’s Back to Black. A candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, though, and Winehouse was just another example of how true that can be. As with any other member of the famed 27 Club, it’s hard not to wonder if self-destructive demise is the cruel price paid for raw talent.

In reviewing my own record collection, I remembered the existence of a third item: Lioness: Hidden Treasures, a collection of unreleased tracks and demos compiled by producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, as well as the late singer’s family. Every song here glows with the same radiant energy her two albums did, even though there’s a definite lack of cohesion – which is to be expected, since it is an odds-and-ends collection. Who cares, though, with songs as good as “Between the Cheats” or “Like Smoke,” the latter of which features Nas, of all people? And, of course, there’s some killer covers: “The Girl from Ipanema,” Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You,” and “Valerie” by The Zutons.

There’s also other little gems, like Frank-era stray “Best Friends, Right?” or Winehouse’s slower, original take of “Tears Dry On Their Own,” before she injected her devotion to Motown into it. Lioness also gives us jazz standard “Body and Soul” – notable for not only being her final studio recording, but being a duet with Tony fucking Bennett. These songs span the last 9 years of her life, but no matter what turmoil existed in her life during the recording of each song, it was clear that it didn’t matter once she stepped into a recording studio. All that mattered was the music. – Holly Hazelwood

Livingston Taylor – Man’s Best Friend

Sweet Baby James Taylor was the most popular of his musical family, but his siblings made records too, albeit nothing as catchy and ubiquitous as “Your Smiling Face.” I bought a box full of cassettes at a church rummage sale for 10 cents each, and among the homemade tapes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and folky unpublished demos, this one had a singer-songwriter posing on the tiny cover with a smug expression and a golden retriever. It’s the most likeable thing about the album. In this time of crisis, it behooves us to be more charitable, but it’s hard not to hear Livingston Taylor’s cover of “Dancing in the Street,” despite the support of Carla Thomas and Steve Cropper, as the nadir of American coffeeshop banality. Taylor sounds like Thomas had to wake him up when they get to the anthemic, “It doesn’t matter what you wear/ Just as long as you are there.” Fortunately, the tape pad is out of whack, rendering it nearly unlistenable in a different way; the muddled soupy sound is kind of an audio equivalent of a vintage filter on Instagram, distorting the signal so it sounds more interesting than it is. Tracking down one of the songs on YouTube (the album isn’t on Spotify), autoplay led directly to a duet with brother James, and the contrast makes you realize how much personality that platinum-selling, seemingly benign soft rock staple had after all. Fortunately, I remembered that I have a cheap copy of JT. — Pat Padua

Ladytron – Ladytron

I not only forgot I bought Ladytron’s 2019 self-titled album (their first in eight years), I forgot it so thoroughly that I bought it twice online. Three times, if you count the aborted PledgeMusic release—and yes, I’m still bitter not to have the hardcopy. And yet it sat virtually unheard in my iTunes for months. Admittedly, I was a rabid fan of their brilliant 2005 Witching Hour, and my subconscious may have been afraid that, all these years later, they couldn’t match the electropop gorgeousness of “International Dateline” (is there a more perfect song about a relationship ending on a trans-Pacific flight? No, there is not) or the driving, darkwave “Destroy Everything You Touch.”

I needn’t have worried. Twenty years after the group formed, Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo’s delicate voices still spike out like a ray of sun through storm clouds. The foursome’s synthesizers are still tight and powerful. And the songwriting is as maximalist as ever. Standout tracks on this first proper listen: “The Island,” “The Animals” (the lead single) and “The Mountain.” Every track’s not adoration-worthy, of course; I’d prefer to lose the tiring “Paper Highways,” but your mileage may vary. All in all, Ladytron still sounds like exactly what we’d hope for. Is the album self-titled because it’s a distillation of everything Ladytron is? Possibly. Do I regret paying for this album three times? Not in the slightest. – Valerie Polichar

Moulin Rouge! Special Edition DVD

Remember in the early ‘00s, when exploring DVD extras was almost like playing a videogame? My earliest memories of DVD collecting are of The Matrix, both Kill Bill volumes and Moulin Rouge!. I’d forgotten about them mostly, preferring streaming or the occasional Blu-ray these days, but in the coronavirus-induced organization of my entertainment center, I unearthed my old collection.
The actual DVD menus of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, with their glittering red curtains, sexy green fairies and looming French landmarks, are still stunning over 18 years after the DVD’s release. But, of course, content is king, and that’s where this special edition set really shines. While the two sets of commentary, star interviews and behind-the-scenes footage are all dazzling, it’s the extended dance sequences that are the real draw here. In addition to abandoned edits of existing scenes, the DVD includes extended, multi-camera editions of the film’s four major dance scenes, and the sheer scope of them is a sight to behold. Luhrmann is an expert at excess, but the amount of music and choreography they laid out for mere seconds of screentime is absolutely mindboggling. Some of sequences are even better than their flimsier in-film versions, particularly the famous “Can-Can” scene.

Of course, the film itself stands up wonderfully as well. I never fully appreciated Nicole Kidman’s wonderfully melodramatic performance. She is an actress playing a prostitute in a musical who herself is playing an actress who is playing a prostitute in a musical. She gives the film a dual shot of glamor and humanity that really carry it, as do her crystal-clear vocals. – Mike McClelland

Talking Heads – The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads

Back in the Before-Time, I used to comb the thrift stores to buy stacks of records and CDs, many of which got stockpiled in bins and forgotten about. Talking Heads was a band I always admired for their weirdness, but a lot of the music only halfway clicked for me. The world-music vibe on their later albums struck me as an affectation. David Byrne’s thin, warbly vocals didn’t really jive with the layered percussion and samba flavor, and their massive stage productions swallowed up the band’s personality. They sounded to me like they had bitten off more than they could chew. The parody of their Stop Making Sense concert film in the second season of “Documentary Now!” gently satirizes the pretension and ambition of these years.

But when I unearthed The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads in a record bin in my garage, I felt like I’d rediscovered the band’s elemental form. A live double album from 1982, the cover shows a series of snapshots of the young foursome playing in a living room, cables and gear strewn around. The sound captures the energy of a garage band playing a house party. If you heard the noise while filling a cup at the keg, you’d push your way down the hall to check out the show. Byrne’s lyrics are a charming contrast to the fuck-the-government ethos of their punk rock peers (“Some civil servants are just like my loved ones/ They work so hard and they try to be strong“). His voice works with the stripped-down sound, and his rhythm guitar meshes with Jerry Harrison’s lead guitar as tightly as the symbiosis of Keith Richards and Ron Wood. This is the band I always wanted Talking Heads to be: scrappy and raw, and weirder than everybody else. The long, freak-out jam at the end of “Psycho Killer” is joyous energy and noise—not world music at all, but elemental American rock. – A.C. Koch

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul

Dark Night of the Soul by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse has floated in and out of my life over the last decade. My first experience with this collaborative project came before it was even formally out, back in 2009. Danger Mouse bristled at legal disputes with EMI that delayed its release. He leaked it on the internet, where it spread through music forums and college campuses, including my own. At this point, I was only just starting to lean into indie music. I downloaded the album and liked what I heard, its creative jumble sounding like a collage of college radio stations. Its songs were thrown into shuffle on my iPod, until it died. Having lost the download files, I thought that was the end of that.

Flash ahead to 2016, and I’m record shopping in Nashville at Grimey’s when I stumble upon Dark Night of the Soul on vinyl. As I’d spent the last several years diving into all types of music, the tracklist jumped out at me with its list of heavy-hitters, making it an instant purchase. Where else can you go from the drunken sway of “Angel’s Harp” with Black Francis to the corroded punk of “Pain” barked out by Iggy Pop to the woozy lullaby of “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It)” featuring David Lynch?

While the songs have stayed in rotation, the vinyl itself wound up buried in my collection. Breaking it out again last weekend, it felt nostalgic yet still fresh. “Little Girl” with Julian Casablancas could’ve been a lost Strokes song. But the dark molasses of “Everytime I’m With You” fits much better into these nervous, morose times than in the bright months after Obama’s election. Then there’s “Insane Lullaby,” a mess of noise that defines categorization, but is grounded by James Mercer’s comforting, familiar voice. Every time Dark Night of the Soul re-enters my life, I gain something new from it. Like the best gems, this album has grown and changed alongside me. – Joe Marvilli

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