Opinion | Song recommendations from a hip ex-prez
Barack Obama’s summer playlist has become a traditional end-of-season release. This year’s list of 53 songs is a guide to exploring great music you may not have heard
ast week former US president Barack Obama made news when he made his speech at the Democratic National Convention and scathingly took down his successor, President Donald Trump. But elsewhere, in the somewhat smaller world of music connoisseurs, Obama made news of a different kind—he released his 2020 playlist, a list of 53 songs he and his family have been listening to this summer.
Obama’s love for contemporary music is well-known. As is his fondness for the blues. In 2012, at a blues concert that he hosted at the White House—Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Mick Jagger were among the performers—he sportingly sang a few bars of Sweet Home Chicago with King at the persuasion of the stars. Obama’s playlists, which he releases at the end of summer, have become a tradition over the past few years. Because he listens to so many varied genres, it’s always nice to check out the former president’s favourite tracks. They are full of surprises too.
Last year, for instance, Obama’s list featured the song Juice by Lizzo, a 32-year-old flautist, singer and rapper whose bold and in-your-face retro funk, teeming with self-confidence, had made her an instant sensation. But then his 2019 playlist also had tracks from the distant past: Ella Fitzgerald’s How High The Moon was on it; so was Frank Sinatra’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Modern rap and rock rub shoulders with old pop, jazz and blues classics on the 59-year-old ex-president’s playlist, showing how wide and diverse his music taste is.
This year’s list quickly established his high hipness quotient. The very first song on it, which Obama tweeted last week, was a track that was the outcome of an unlikely but excellent collaboration between Texas natives: the psychedelic pop, mainly instrumental band Khruangbin and the soul singer Leon Bridges. The track is titled Texas Sun and in an unexpected musical alchemy, two very different genres mesh in an exceedingly pleasant manner.
Obama’s list can also throw up interesting songs or performers you may have missed. Or may have stopped following. This year, I rediscovered The Chicks. Formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, the alt-country trio has been around since the late 1980s but they dropped “Dixie", perhaps because it was a reference to the Mason-Dixie line, a former demarcation between slave-owning southern and free northern states. Obama picked Gaslighter, the title track from the band’s new album. Written after The Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines’ difficult divorce, it has lyrics that are angry (Gaslighter, denier/ Doin’ anything to get your ass farther) but sounds remarkably upbeat and cheerful. Gaslighter, their first album in 14 years, shows the band has not lost its verve and penchant for unapologetically punchy country music.
An ex-US president’s list may seem like an unorthodox guide to finding good music but Obama’s works rather well for this. I found several tracks by artists that I like: R&B singer Teyana Taylor; the singer-songwriter Moses Sumney; the pop-rocker trio of sisters, HAIM; a song from Bob Dylan’s new album, Rough And Rowdy Ways; and more. But I also found some songs I hadn’t heard. Here are just a handful of pickings from that long playlist, which runs for more than 4 hours.
I got introduced properly to Common, the American rapper who has been around since the early 1990s but to whom I hadn’t paid attention. The song on Obama’s list was Forever Begins from Common’s 2007 album, Finding Forever. It’s old-school rap and the theme is political (Victory won in a world of Hennessey and guns/ Too young for the marches but I remember these drums/ To start reality of wars and battles we fought for ours/ Caught in ghetto tragedy) and eerily predictable at a time when racism and xenophobia have raised their ugly heads again in the US and elsewhere. It nudged me to explore Common’s discography of a dozen studio albums.
I had not heard H.E.R. (birth name Gabriella Wilson), the 23-year-old singer-songwriter from California. H.E.R.’s style is R&B and her songs are ballads themed on love, relationships and break-ups, not uncommon in her genre—but her impressive vocals can make for a compelling listen. Obama’s list had As I Am from H.E.R.’s 2019 compilation album, I Used To Know Her, which has 18 other songs, all of them on heavy rotation on my current playlist.
It has been nearly 10 years since I first heard Tank and the Bangas, the New Orleans band that creates a lively, occasionally boisterous and instantly infectious funk and soul atmosphere. And though the band came out with an album, Green Balloon, in 2019, it had slipped my notice. Thanks to Obama (he had a song from it, Spaceships, on his list), I rediscovered a band I had nearly forgotten. Tank and the Bangas made waves a few years ago when they won the National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest, and if you check out their videos, you can see how spontaneous and exuberant singer Tarriona “Tank" Ball and her seven bandmates can be when they perform live.
This time, Obama’s list introduced me to a host of new rappers, but notably CHIKA (Jane Chika Oranika) from Alabama. I also discovered a band that goes by the name of telco, via their first single Say Hello, an indie alt-rock ensemble whose vocalist is so angsty it can transport you back to grunge’s early days. And Bone Nest, a producer and singer-songwriter whose soulful vocals are set against a background of experimental electronic music.
There are dozens more to explore on Obama’s list but one thing is for sure. The ex-prez has good taste.
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