Ben Folds’ decade-and-a-half commitment to smart-ass, piano-based pop remains true to form on Way To Normal (Epic), a perfect combination of orchestral maneuvers and snark. Ranging from break-up romps (“Bitch Went Nuts”) and widescreen laments (“Cologne”) to a vamping duet with Regina Spektor (“You Don’t Know Me”), Way To Normal is the 42-year-old Folds’ most complete album, examining all the funny things that happen en route to heartbreak.
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Petra Haden is a member of one of America’s most prolific musical families: Father Charlie is a jazz bassist who played with Ornette Coleman, brother Josh fronts slowcore outfit Spain, and sister Rachel is in pop act the Rentals. Although Petra is best known as a violinist (for the Decemberists, that dog and others), she’s currently in a singing mood. Having released an a cappella version of The Who Sell Out in 2005, she’s now working on an album of a cappella film themes, tentatively titled Petra At The Movies.
JO STAFFORD “He’s Gone Away” (1959)
My dad introduced this song to me a few years ago, and the melody still haunts me. It’s a traditional song, but Jo Stafford sings my favorite version. She’s a legendary singer; she did jazz and standards. My dad plays mainly classical music for me, but this is kind of like a lullaby.
CHEAP TRICK “Surrender” (1978)
Simply the greatest rock song of all time. This is not an overstatement. It has the exact ingredients of a perfect rock song. It’s in the (1979) movie Over The Edge, which was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. It’s a movie about suburban kids who trap their teachers in the school and blow up cars and stuff. I think my brother rented it on VHS, and he was also really into Cheap Trick at the time.
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As a founding member of the Delgados, singer/guitarist Emma Pollock used her soaring voice and intricate songwriting to place the Glasgow band beside Belle And Sebastian at the forefront of Scottish pop. Through their Chemikal Under-ground label, the Delgados launched Mogwai, Arab Strap and Bis. On solo debut Watch The Fireworks (4AD), Pollock’s sincere, searching lyrics and aching melodies remain the focus.
IAN MENZIES & HIS CLYDE VALLEY STOMPERS “Salty Dog” (1959)
My dad was a jazz clarinet and saxophone player. He used to play this song quite a bit, and it was one of my mom’s favorite tracks. The Stompers are from Clyde Valley, which is just outside Glasgow in the country, and this is just a great trad-jazz song that I used to dance around to. I have early memories of it being my favorite song when I was seven or eight. The vocalist is Fionna Duncan, and she’s got a really raucous voice.
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Strung out on drugs, abandoned by their record label and on the verge of collapse, Dimitri and Melanie Coats—the husband/wife team behind Burning Brides—decided not to fade away. Moving from Philadelphia to L.A. and adding drummer Pete Beeman, the band reclaims hard-rockin’ grunge from the whining, goateed dolts with Hang Love (Modart/Caroline), making it evil and weird again.
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On his fifth album with backing band the Pharmacists, Ted Leo continues to dole out perfect prescriptions. Living With The Living (Touch And Go) is an acidic mixture of mod pop, punk and a little bit of reggae. Always the road warrior, Leo selected songs by some of his recent touring comrades.
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Michael Cerveris does Broadway plays (The Who’s Tommy), Bowery rock shows (as a solo artist and member of Bob Mould’s band) and things in between (Hedwig And The Angry Inch). Nominated for a Tony Award earlier this year for Sweeney Todd (he won one in 2004 for Assassins), the actor/musician will release The Hinterlands EPs next spring on the Low Heat label, with guest performances by members of Teenage Fanclub and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Cerveris selected a playlist of songs by his friends and acquaintances.
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Jolie Holland sometimes sounds like she stepped out of a folk/blues fog that lifted 60 years ago. Her third album, Springtime Can Kill You (Anti-), isn’t merely retro, it’s downright strange. Filled with bohemian piano laments, midnight ramblings and boozy waltzes, it’s the work of an old soul with a deep record collection.
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Rhett Miller is a believer. Putting his iPod on shuffle, the Old 97’s frontman entrusts it to make the perfect mix tape for MAGNET. Miller also has faith in The Believer (Verve Forecast), his second solo outing of smart, countrified pop. From his home in Hudson Valley, N.Y., Miller dances the iPod shuffle.
OPAL “Harriet Brown” (1989)
Opal is the guitarist (David Roback) who went on to form Mazzy Star. It was his earlier band, super-psychedelic and with a different vocalist. Instead of Hope Sandoval, it was Kendra Smith. Now she lives up in Humboldt County on a farm. Dude, it’s this really beautiful, spacey stuff. I feel like Kendra never got her due.
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Husband-and-wife duo Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang are a psychedelic power couple. Since first making the scene with Galaxie 500 in the late ’80s, they’ve served as ambassadors of international acid folk (collaborating with Japanese gurus Ghost) and have acted as at-home historians (performing with Pearls Before Swine’s Tom Rapp). The Earth Is Blue (20/20/20) is a pristine reflection of Damon & Naomi’s vision and taste, featuring eight gauze-pop originals alongside covers of songs by George Harrison and Caetano Veloso.
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