Like a colander scooping up green peas, I intersect with many of these artists; some arrived before me, some arrived after. Some helped to shape me, others say I helped them to form. We’re all midwives to each other’s talent. —Robyn Hitchcock
Fiona Apple “Every Single Night” from: The Idler Wheel…
The Medusa of psychodrama; several times I had the immense challenge of following her onstage at Cafe Largo on Jon Brion’s show. Her eyes, her hair, her voice and the spirit that fuels them make her the most intense performer I’ve seen, this side of vintage Captain Beefheart. When she sings “Cry Me A River,” you sweat one.
Syd Barrett “Terrapin” from: The Madcap Laughs
There’d be no me as a musical entity without Syd Barrett. His words, his tunes, his guitar playing are so pictorial I could almost eat them. So dark, so funny, so full of … him. This song is a relaxed meander around a sunlit fish tank, waving a fin at your passing loved one. It’s also not in the key that it’s in—one of the many magical facets of the man they call Syd who spent most of his life being Roger. He started and named Pink Floyd, then lived invisibly for 35 years in the back streets of Cambridge.
The Byrds “Eight Miles High” from: Fifth Dimension
Like much of the best music of 1966/7, this captures the acceleration of liftoff—on a jet plane, a culture or by any other means available. It’s a blissful amalgam of jazzy 12-string lead guitar, impressionistic lyrics about flying from L.A. to Swinging London and formal, choral harmonies. It took three people to write it, and this was their only creation.
The Decemberists “Down By The Water” from: The King Is Dead
Colin and the girl and boys generally manage to encompass the Stones, XTC, Morrissey and me without sounding like any of them. It takes a boy from Montana to be that British. They rock history like no one has since the Band, to my ears. This song leans to R.E.M. in the guitars, giving Colin the platform to declaim across the music like the Colonial-era soldier who must be his spirit guide. Where Britain lost America stand the Decemberists, just checking to see if it really happened.
Bob Dylan “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from: Bringing It All Back Home
Bob Dylan in his momentum years could cram a song with so many conflicting feelings and fly it straight into your heart. Here he stirs contempt, cruelty, regret, humor, sarcasm, sadness and his trademark resigned wisdom into an exhilarating four-minute farewell to…himself? Joan Baez? The human spirit? There are more flavors in this than in the mint vanilla cinnamon Oxford latte I’m cradling here in my local coffee groovarium.
Feist “1234” from: The Reminder
I was on a floating Russian hotel with Feist—and many other artists and scientists—off the coast of Greenland in 2008. We were taken there to witness the vast glaciers melting into the sea. They’re still melting today, faster than ever; according to current climate projections, all our coastal cities will be underwater in 150 years time, if no other catastrophe has demolished them. But back in the here and now, this is a very catchy song.
Katrina And The Waves “Walking On Sunshine” from: Walking On Sunshine
Kimberley Rew, who wrote this, was in the Soft Boys with me some years back. He was incubating this and other songs while the SBs played my material—the SBs being essentially my band. But “Walking On Sunshine” would never have been the monster hit it became with me singing it. Kim told me later that he wanted to take a slice of 1965 into the 1980s and, by Jove, he succeeded. A brilliantly simple idea, like a child’s drawing, that it took Kim to actually have.
The Kinks “God’s Children” from: Percy
There’s an unusual connection here: Ray Davies wrote this for the soundtrack for the 1970 British movie Percy, which was based on a book written by my father, Raymond. The story concerns a young man who receives a penis transplant and tries to track down the donor. This takes him awhile, but it’s a fun saga in all its vintage Brit libido way. The song is one of the best of Davies’ “I’m a human, get me out of here” type from that era. That’ll be 12 guineas, Ray.
Alison Krauss And Gillian Welch “I’ll Fly Away” from: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A simple connection here: I’m writing this in an East Nashville coffee shop to which Gillian herself introduced me. I love to hear her sing with Dave Rawlings more than anybody, but she—like Dave—is a generous and frequent collaborator, and this performance with Allison Krauss is exquisite. Both singers avoid over-emoting and let the feel of a song come through un-fussed. I just love Gill; I always have.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” from: Some Time In New York City
Not my fave John Lennon track, partly because the n-word now grates coming from any white lips (no fault of John’s, but time draws new lines) and partly because of the sax, my un-favest rock instrument. However, Lennon remains my favorite rock singer, whether he’s singing soft or hard, and Yoko’s input is showing in his feminist tone here. The lyrics are spot on: “While putting her down we pretend that she’s above us.” Right on, brother.
Nick Lowe “Cruel To Be Kind” from: Labour Of Lust
I always wonder which bits Nick composed here and what was the input of Ian Gomm, his former bandmate in Brinsley Schwartz. It’s a catchy hit that Nick performs to this day. I saw the Brinsleys open for McCartney & Wings in 1973; five years later, Nick and I were both briefly on Radar Records, and 20 years after that I ran into him in a cheese shop in West London. He introduced me to my current label, Yep Roc, and we were neighbors for many years. These days I get mistaken for him as I pad around East Nashville: My hair and glasses echo his. So weaves the thread of time.
Neutral Milk Hotel “Two-Headed Boy” from: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
I’ve never met Jeff Mangum, but I think he and I probably have similar record collections. Legendary Athens, Ga., alumni find their own world in the woods and sing it.
Beth Orton “Stolen Car” from: Central Reservation
Beth Orton was the first musician I heard in the 1990s who made me feel the new-wave police had finally lost their grip on Britain. Great track, this one: I love the backwards-y guitars and the lyrics “Your fingers like fuses, your eyes were cinnamon.” She has a kind of downbeat cheeky rage that murmurs East Anglia, quite loudly.
R.E.M. “We All Go Back To Where We Belong” from: Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011
This is a beautiful elegy from the last days of their career. Rather touchingly, they seem to hang out together much more now they’re not tethered to each other professionally. This wistful Mike Mills tune reminds me of their Automatic For The People era. So many people measured out their lives in R.E.M., myself included, and I was grateful to be part of their extended family. Fare forward, travelers…
Sleater-Kinney And Fred Schneider “Angry Inch” from: Wig In A Box: Songs From & Inspired By Hedwig And The Angry Inch
Penises! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. Whether viewed as part of a trans parable, a primal boy terror or a desire to know how it feels to be the Other, this is a surprisingly fun song for an ode to genital mutilation. Fred Schneider fits in well here, and the Sleater-Kinney dames play like demons.
Patti Smith Group “Pissing In A River” from: Radio Ethiopia
Patti Smith is another intense performer, though she stops short of psychosis. She’s always struck me more live than on record; I can’t take my eyes off her onstage. Lenny Kaye is a great performer, too—still as magnetized by the music as he was when they started playing together in 1971. A few years ago, I was on a terrifying bus ride round a twisting Norwegian fjord a 1,000-foot sheer drop above the sea when my phone rang: It was Barre, Patti’s tour manager, asking if I’d like to join them onstage in Bergen for the encores. An hour later, we were belting out “Gloria” in a bright wooden hall. Terror and excitement hold hands so often.
The Smiths “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” from: The Queen Is Dead
Some people can generalize their pain, others merely bore you with it. Morrissey, like John Lennon, is one of the former. With a lot of help from Johnny Marr (his McCartney?), the agonies and bitchings of this shy, gay, erudite Manchester lad resonated with teenagers the world over, just as Dylan and Lennon’s once had. And this song, with its unpredictable chords and candid vocal, is so Manchester that you can practically feel the damp night air and see the bleak, menacing underpass. Also, perhaps, the double-decker bus that might drive into the motoring couple to end their pain. At a recent Marr gig, my Australian girlfriend was very moved by the sight of a roomful of gruff Englishmen leaping up and down as they sang along to this vision of a romantic death on a Northern back road.
TV On The Radio “Happy Idiot” from: Seeds
“I’m a happy idiot, to keep my mind off you.” This is a hymn to the beauty of dejection. Driving, uptempo and sad. The racing-car sounds are an echo of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver” for a more somber era. At least the future has happened—so far. I met TVOTR’s frontman Tunde Adebimpe on the set of Jonathan Demme’s indie hit Rachel Getting Married, in which Tunde sings a poignant a cappella version of “Unknown Legend” by Neil Young.
XTC “Senses Working Overtime” from: English Settlement
Knowing Andy Partridge a little bit as I do now—in a gradual English way—I’m inclined to take this literally. He’s a sensitive man who can get capsized by the intensity of his feelings; but he’s buoyant and strong—he floats back up the right way soon enough and continues to mine his creative seam. We’ve had some great sessions in his shed in Swindon, and hopefully one day we’ll actually finish something together. A pop maestro is Andy.