Shanty for the Arethusa

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The sea shanty is about due for a revival. Since sailing has ceased being a major industry and seamanship a major career option, so the shanties have died out. But with all things old-timey and artisanal being currently on-trend, I think we can expect to see some of the more obscure and niche types of folk music becoming a hip thing for trendsetters to be in-the-know about. Bluegrass music has been steadily becoming more popular for some time, while the general interest in backyard gardening and the long-lost pickling arts shows no sign of waning. People want to do things with their hands again, they want to feel connected to some kind of heritage, they want to feel some sense of self-sufficiency, and learning musical folklore is part of that.

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Shakedown

Come at me for saying this, but Debbie Harry remains the greatest white woman rapper. She came about that distinction on the strength of one song, Rapture, which in 1980 became the first rap song to achieve mainstream popularity. Here she is again in 2003, proving that she’s still got it. Now you may point out that Harry is not very good at rapping and her verses are kind of nonsensical. Well, yeah. I never said she was the best. There’s not a whole lot of competition in the white women rappers category; to the best of my knowledge there are maybe two or three. There’s Iggy Azalea, an Australian whose emulation of black culture is one bad suntan away from straight-up minstrelsy, and Yo-landi Vi$$er, a South African whose work is only tangentially related to American hip-hop. And then there’s just Deborah Harry, who’s not a very proficient rapper but can claim credit for helping to popularize the genre, which definitely makes her the most culturally important white woman in the game.

Seven Nation Army

Welcome to the most played riff of the new century. You could even say ‘overplayed’ since the riff has We-Will-We-Will-Rock-You’ed its way into sports stadiums all over the world. But the ubiquity of the former little-garage-band-that-could from Detroit shouldn’t overshadow the importance of their impact. You could say, in the pompous tones of a newsreel narrator, that The White Stripes changed the world forever. (Changed the world… forever.) But what the White Stripes did was change a lot of lives. I remember the exact moment when that riff made me prick up my ears, in the community theatre basement where I was sewing costumes as a summer intern, age 20 and as convinced that rock music was dead as Nietzsche was about God. If I had been more musically gifted, it would have been my Elvis-gets-his-first-guitar moment. Still, it was enough of a life changer just to know that rock wasn’t really dead and there was new music worth caring about. (I told Jack White as much on the one occasion I crossed paths with him, and he said “I’ll take that.”) Now, 15 years later, being the generation that discovered and nurtured the White Stripes feels historically significant, like your parents and their punk records, or any other group whose deeply personal cultural experiences have in hindsight appeared to be the definitive cultural experiences of their time.

Rules for Living

Here’s a Blondie song you may not have heard on the radio. Because deep cuts from 2003 don’t come up through the cracks very often, not when you can keep playing the old hits. Anyhow, I thought The Curse of Blondie was a pretty great album (especially for a band that had been in and out of hiatus for nearly 20 years.) But it was definitely a weird one, thematically at least. The band was meditating on things not usually found on a pop album; aging, death, the squicky metaphysical implications of May-December romance, and the idea of reincarnation, which some people apparently find romantic.

Roy Walker

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The world needs a band that can mimic the sound of corny 70’s era Europop, and isn’t afraid of fingersnaps or gallopy-horse sound effects. The world also needs a sensitive yet witty songwriter who loves English folk music and listens to The Smiths too much. That group is Belle & Sebastian, that songwriter is Stuart Murdoch, and they’ve made their career as the millennial incarnation of twee-pop. That made-up genre title smacks of our culture’s tendency to mock anything that isn’t sweating aggression, but it’s also descriptive of a certain aesthetic type. You know, the self-consciously anti-aggressive too-smart-for-the-mainstream types who wear cardigans and Wellies even when they’re not in the north of England. You’d call them hipsters except that that’s how they really are and they can’t ever be any other way. You (we) know who you (we) are.

Rock Classics

The Knife are – were – a group known for performing in masks and/or facepaint. Though they didn’t go so far as to keep their real names anonymous, their personas were kept shrouded in mystique. However, in their own frosty Scandinavian way, their music is very intimate. Very often Karin Dreijer Andersson sounds like she’s singing straight into your head, from inside a wolf suit. With lyrics about mundane things like going out for Chai tea, The Knife’s musical weirdness becomes kind of homey. An esoteric sort of home, of course, but still cozy and full of personal touches, as a home should be.

Righteously

This is a song I’ve spend hours of my life listening to, even though I can’t say that I really enjoy it. It pushes my buttons emotionally. I can relate to its anger and love. But it’s also not something I need to hear all the time, which is why I’ve listened to Lucinda Williams much less in recent years. I don’t need emotional crutch music the way that I used to. When you’re inexperienced, young and stupid, you need something that teaches you how you should feel, a guide on how to navigate all of the feelings. Now that I’m not any longer at least two out of those three things, I don’t really care about feelings anymore. Feelings are not longer interesting. But it’s sometimes nice to revisit things that used to be massively important, and in the case of music, maybe learn to appreciate it in a new context.