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Stepping into a new year with a mix of tracks

Courtesy Spotify’s Release Radar, an eclectic mix of tracks perfect for the last few days of a nightmarish year and also a good segue into 2021

Frank Zappa performing at Ahoy in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in May 1982. Image courtesy Getty
Frank Zappa performing at Ahoy in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in May 1982. Image courtesy Getty

Spotify’s Release Radar, a weekly playlist that pops up on your home page, is an array of new songs released by artists that you happen to follow. Compiled by the streaming site’s algorithm, it invariably also has a bunch of songs by other artists that you might not have heard. So, a couple of weeks ago, when 2020’s last instalment of the Radar playlist popped up on a dark December evening, I rejoiced. For it was a delightfully eclectic mix of tracks, perfect for the last few days of a nightmarish year and also, perhaps, a good segue into 2021.

First, there was the familiar stuff. I had just watched Zappa, Alex Winter’s new documentary on Frank Zappa. It’s an immersive, captivating film that captures—through rare footage and information—the life of the hugely talented musical maverick in a manner that has never been done before. Zappa, who died at the age of 52 in 1993, was a prolific multi-instrumentalist who experimented relentlessly and refused to conform to convention or norms. The film is a must-watch for Zappa fans; they are sure to be wowed by the way Winter has used his access to archives, old footage, and little-known stories about the man.

So it was serendipitous to see Watermelon In Easter Hay, a live track from 1978, on the playlist. The track is part of a new EP, A Very Zappa Birthday, released to mark what would have been Zappa’s 80th birthday on 21 December. Vintage, instrumental Zappa. Very satisfying.

Then came a track from yet another maverick musician, New Orleans’ Dr John (birth name Malcolm John Rebbenack Jr). The late Dr John’s singular blend of blues, funk and rock ‘n’ roll can be infectious. The track that the Radar served up, Walking By The River, recreates a walk by the Mississippi, its muddy waters, and the melancholy of the lyrics as Dr John sings: Walking by the river/ Watching my tears roll out to the sea/ Walking by the river/ Stormy trouble will never drown for me. Very blue but also curiously uplifting.

An exquisite version of saxophonist John Coltrane’s Greensleeves, an English folk ballad transformed into a transfixing composition, followed. The 10-minute track on the Release Radar was deeply moving. I could play it on repeat as a soundtrack for a slow weekend, which is the way weekends have been for the past several months.

Among other “newly released” oldies was a remastered 1960 version of Otis Redding’s Gamma Lama, a delectable old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll song: If I searched this whole wide world/ I’d never, never, never find me a girl who’d love me/ The way that you do huh/ Cuz you’re/ Shama lama huh.

As usual, the Radar served up some newer artists as well, such as a live performance of The Fox In The Snow by the Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian. A bittersweet, gently wafting song with lyrics that can make you feel warm and happy—but then that’s what B&S are always able to do. The track reminded me of their gorgeous 1998 album, The Boy With The Arab Strap, which was my introduction to their music.

The Radar then jumped genres, moving to Detroit rapper Boldy James’ On Ten. The explicit lyrics are perhaps better not reproduced here but James, who is 38 and a relatively late bloomer as a rapper, has a way with words. On Ten evokes an old-school style of rapping that I prefer to the egregious misogyny and violence that many of the new crop of rappers dish out.

The real surprise on the playlist came from the Italian multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Marco Ragni. Everything Will Be Fine is, as the title suggests, a reassuring love song. As Ragni’s collaborator, Bjørn Riis, guitarist and founder of the Norwegian band Airbag, plays an extended riff, the song’s slow tempo transforms into a prog-rock-meets-jam-band sort of improvisation that is truly transporting.

Most Release Radar playlists end up introducing me to a few new musicians. Ragni and Riis are two such artists.

The year-end Radar had other surprises, such as Elton John's J’veux D’la Tendresse, a new version of the song (sung in French) that he released in the early 1980s. And a demo version of Angelene by the veteran British singer P. J. Harvey. It’s a bright and beautiful version that accentuates its moving lyrics (My first name Angelene/ Prettiest mess you’ve ever seen/ Love for money is my sin/ Any man calls, I’ll let him in…) more than the original, subdued version.

The Radar, as it does often, also handed out some really heavy stuff. Such as Boris, the Japanese doom metal exponents. The track on the list, simply titled Boris, is from their new album, 2ROI2PO, in collaboration with another Japanese noise musician, Merzbow. Boris’ music is not for the faint-hearted. Their live performances can be heavy and loud enough to make ears bleed but an open mind (and loosely fitted earplugs!) can yield rich dividends.

The song Boris is actually a cover of an original by the pioneering American sludge metal band Melvins. Boris and Merzbow experiment freely through the track, creating a part-psychedelic, part-ambient soundscape, electric but soothing—a fitting track to end a playlist and begin a new year with.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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