First Beat

Gimme, gimme, gimme my daily playlist

In pandemic-induced self-isolation, music can become a crucial aid to life. Algorithms, recommendations and TV soundtracks can keep playlists from going stale

Sanjoy Narayan
Updated23 May 2020, 10:20 AM IST
American alternative rock band Pixies in Amsterdam in 1988.
American alternative rock band Pixies in Amsterdam in 1988.(Photo: Getty Images)

On a typical day in self-isolation, my recurrent dilemma in the morning is all about finding a playlist to start the day. Should it be old bands that rekindle memories from decades ago? Or a talented new saxophonist that I discovered last week? Folk-rock ballads? Or some heavier stuff? At times like these, when I am lacing up my walking shoes, it’s often easier to surrender to the whims of the almighty algorithm served up by Spotify.

I live in a part of the world that is not locked down; at least, not yet. The coronavirus pandemic has touched our little town on the western coast of Finland but the population is sparse and more than three-quarters of the land uninhabited, so you can go for walks and jogs and still be isolated.

This morning, Spotify made for me a daily mix with the music of several bands, including Joy Division, the short-lived post-punk British band from the mid-1970s; CAN, the German rock experimenters of the late 1960s; Pixies, the influential alternative rock band that is still going strong; and so on. The algorithm is usually spot on. I like all those bands. So I started my walk to Pixies’ All I Think About Now from 2016’s Head Carrier. Up next was Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control, a rather nice 2007 remaster. I had settled into my walk, a quotidian route that runs along the sea. It was a good day, cold but sunny and crisp. And the songs were coming up nicely. Mostly familiar ones, but some, like The Stooges’ Down On The Street, that I hadn’t heard in ages.

Then Spotify decided to mess with me and served up a song called A Pox On You by Silver Apples. I had never heard them before. Silver Apples are a pioneering electronic duo, formed in New York in the late 1960s. They were way ahead of their time, making surreal electronic music that was innovative (for instance, they used a 1940s’ sound oscillator).

If you go by the lyrics, A Pox On You is an angry breakup song (A pox on you, you love and you run/ A pox on you, you spoil all my fun/ A pox on you, you didn’t say goodbye/ A pox on you, you didn’t even cry) but the use of oscillators, a banjo (yes!), drums and percussion make it sound like something you have never heard before: a drone with a strangely irresistible hook. As the 5-minute song wound down, Silver Apples quickly got liked on my app.

The same daily mix served up yet another unknown (for me) band. Department S are a post-punk band from Britain that was formed in 1980 and the song that Spotify decided to cast at me was Is Vic There? It’s a 3-minute song with one verse that’s repeated with a couple of instrumental breaks. The lyrics are strange and wide open for interpretation (The night is young/ The mood is mellow/ And there’s music in my ears/ Say, is Vic there?/ I hear ringing in the air/ So I answer the phone/ A voice comes over clear/ Say, is Vic there?) but the music, with its compelling, repetitive tempo is strangely calming. Needless to say, Department S soon got into my favourites list and on to a rolling, dynamic playlist I have been listing for I don’t remember how long.

At other times, new music comes to me from friends. Like when Toni, a heavy metal bassist but one with an eclectic taste in genres, sends me a link. Last week, it was Slift. A three-member French band from Toulouse, Slift can best be described as a garage-psych band and the album he sent, Ummon, released early this year. Dense, spacey, fuzz-drenched, the tracks on Ummon are trippy, with heavy metal-type vocals. The songs are long—a couple breach the 10-minute mark—and perfect for my dishwasher-less old kitchen where I find myself perennially at the sink washing stuff. The guitars surge; the jams are formless and the flow protoplasmic enough to take the drudgery out of dishwashing.

Killing Eve’s third season is a bit off. The BBC black comedy series about a female assassin and the protagonist, a secret service investigator, kicked off well but the third season seems to go off on weird tangents, at least for now, when I am into its fifth episode on HBO. But the redeeming feature is the music. Such as the British rock band Archie Bronson Outfit’s Hoola from their 2010 album, Coconut. The song is played as Kenny, a character who later dies, is cycling next to a canal, commuting to work. It’s a stoner-rock-meets-punk-meets-disco sort of track but forget all that, it’s mighty agreeable.

The other TV series whose soundtrack throws up fresh nuggets is High Maintenance, the HBO series about a New York City cannabis courier and the stories involving his clients. In season 4, I discovered Molly Burch, a Texas singer-songwriter with jazz-style vocals. To The Boys, from her 2018 album First Flower, is the song I heard on one of the episodes. Thoughtful, disconcerting, yet delicate, First Flower is an album worth checking out. Thanks to High Maintenance, I discovered the relaxed but literate songs of Ohtis, a project by the American singer Sam Swinson; the pop jazz of Italian singer Mina. I rediscovered The B-52’s and their New Wave from the 1970s; and was pleasantly surprised when an episode included Lilac Wine by the talented Jeff Buckley, who drowned when he was 30.

Even as I direly miss the socializing with friends, the weekends at the bars, and, well, normal life, at least the algorithms, the recommendations via WhatsApp, and sundry TV series keep my playlists from going stale.


Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘A Pox On You’ by Silver Apples from ‘Silver Apples’

2. ‘Is Vic There?’ by Department S from ‘Substance’

3. ‘To The Boys’ by Molly Burch from ‘First Flower’

4. ‘Hoola’ by Archie Bronson Outfit from ‘Coconut’

5. ‘Ummon’ by Slift from ‘Ummon’

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

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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First Published:23 May 2020, 10:20 AM IST
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