56th birthday playlist

For the second year in a row, I’ve indulged myself by pulling together a YouTube playlist of songs that speak to where I am in the world, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I made it purely for myself and didn’t really intend to share, but in the shower this morning I thought of a few specific people who might be interested in this mix of folk, metal and country, and posting it here seemed the simplest way to do that, given that I try to avoid the whole birthday hoopla on social media. And I suppose a few people who only follow me for my poetry might be interested in what sort of emotional terrain I’ve been inhabiting lately.

Last year’s playlist had a lot of tunes I loved (I mean, was it even possible to have a greater opening track than Gojira’s “Born in Winter“?) but they didn’t necessarily work well together. This year I conceived of it more as a (long) album, with pieces that spoke to each other, while trying to avoid repetitiveness and monotony. I tried to keep it positive and focused on healing rather than just wallowing in sadness. Like last year, purely by chance, there’s one band from Ukraine (Jinjer; Stoned Jesus), and not by chance at all, there’s another Gojira track. This playlist isn’t as metal, but if anything, I think, it’s heavier. Intriguingly, there are nearly as many female vocalists and lyricists as male, which wasn’t intentional but may suggest which gender sings more authentically about emotional turmoil. (Shout-out to Johnny Cash and Trent Reznor for the exception to the rule here.)

Here’s the playlist, which I’ll also list separately below (because when YouTube removes a video for a copyright claim, it never tells you what was removed).

Song links go to lyrics:

1. Oceans of Slumber – Winter
Progressive metal from Houston. This is the title track of their first full-length from 2016. Vocalist Cammie Gilbert’s bluesy style is a rarity in metal, but it all works so well.

2. Venom Prison – Pain of Oizys
Welsh death metal superstars. From their just-released album Erebos. “The song is about … finding strength in suffering and not giving up.”

3. Wardruna – Lyfjaberg (Healing-mountain)
Neo-pagan Norwegian folk. Somehow not at all cheesy, which is a bit of a feat.

4. Mean Mary – Dark Woods
You know I had to include some banjo! Also, Mean Mary is a total freaking genius as a musician and a lyricist. I’ve never heard anything of hers that wasn’t great.

5. Stoned Jesus – I’m the Mountain
Stoner metal from Kyiv. “Mirror, mirror, show me now / What will I become and how / For now I’m just a mountain / I’m a mountain”.

6. Johnny Cash – Hurt
You would think that the Nine Inch Nails original would be a better fit for this playlist, but I’m sorry, NIN fans, Cash’s version is just heavier, more raw (to say nothing of the excellent, biographical video).

7. Wolves in the Throne Room – Mountain Magick
Cascadian black metal legends. This is off their 2021 album Primordial Arcana. Yes, it’s deeply cheesy, but when you go all-in on the cheese it becomes like Camembert or something: irresistible.

8. Call of Luna – An Offering to the Wild
Swedish post-metal legends. This is off their just-released album The Long Road North.

9. Gojira – In the Forest
Everyone’s favorite biocentric French melodic death metallers. From their very first album in 2001. “I want to live in the forest forever…”

10. Tsunekichi Suzuki – Omoide (Memories)
Japanese alternative folk. Yes, it was used as the theme song for Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories on Netflix, which I loved.

Pandemic Blues: a playlist

Listen on Spotify or Listen on YouTube (which includes two tracks not on Spotify)

Fred McDowellA blues playlist for the Covid-19 pandemic is an idea only slightly less obvious than a metal playlist, though the results are likely to be considerably more popular. There’s no shortage of blues songs about being home alone, or about sickness, hard times and death. I used a very broad definition of blues here, including some jazz, gospel and R&B. And I grouped the songs thematically, so listeners may experience a bit of whiplash as it goes from sad to rollicking or vice versa. The one Sahelian track, “Djam Leelii” by Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, concerns the plight of refugees, so it’s only tangentially related but it’s such a great song with such deep blues feeling, I couldn’t leave it out. A similar logic dictated my inclusion of Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues.”


Apocalyptic Anthems and Memento Mori: Metal for a Pandemic

Listen on Spotify or Listen on YouTube (ideally with your ad-blocker on)

cover of Black Sabbath - Black SabbathHeavy metal turned 50 years old on February 13, the release date of Black Sabbath’s self-titled first album — just in time for a global pandemic. That’s a grim coincidence, but it does give one indication of why the genre has had such staying power, in all its diverse manifestations (folk metal! Doom Metal! Progressive Metal! Stoner metal! Symphonic Metal! And on and on, for a total of approximately 666 distinct sub-genres): we live in grim and increasingly brutal times, and metal speaks to people like me who believe there’s value to looking horror in the face. Memento mori (“Remember that you must die”) is an ancient and very multicultural wisdom path, and I was fascinated to discover while pulling this playlist together that Lamb of God, one of the most popular and influential metal bands of the past 20 years, have just released a single (and stunning video) with that very title, adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Randy Blythe, their lead singer and lyricist, gives the background:
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