Every year I put out lists of my favorite albums and songs. I base them solely on what I listened to on repeat. This year Australia and North Carolina artists lived in my ears and topped my charts. I don’t know what it says about these locations, if they are the heart of emergence or if their sound is the reflection of the year I had.
It was a phoenix kind of year for me. I wrote the first draft of a novel out of the ashes of a pile of words that once told the story of retribution but became a beautiful tale of self-discovery and hope. I wrote essays, poetry, and flash that spit flames and sparked some interest.
One of the bands that I listened to over and over, used for kindling is Phantastic Ferniture, a young Australian super group: Julia Jacklin and her friends Elizabeth Hughes and Ryan K. Brennan. Their songs fueled an inner “fuck all bad assery” attitude that I used to get my self out of cold and dark piles of questioning doubt.
One of my go-to, crank-it-up songs is “Dark Corner Dance Floor.” Throw this log on your bonfire and let it burn into you, warrior paint your face, strike the page with your words and see what ignites, what lights up.
This was the coolest song I ever heard to this point in my life when it tiptoed up to me and my MTV near the end of 1992. I was in a pretty unusual, somewhat brief country music phase around that time. I grew up around so much music. The moment I heard a whisper of upright bass, those crisp finger-snaps, a beat that kicked in like the crack of a knuckle, and the bounce as the music crept skillfully towards brass and strings, I knew I was hearing something really special.
Those lyrics rolled off my tongue constantly as the holidays and a new year of more awkward teenage life approached. The mellow ease of the rhymes that recalled life, exploring, music, experimenting, going to shows… it all felt inspiring, real, and more like poetry than a lot of music I had heard back then.
“We be to rap what key be to lock” is one of many lines delivered so straightforward and confidently by Digable Planets. It’s one I can’t seem to forget! Hip-hop was changing up a bit with groups like De La Soul and Arrested Development (to name a few) also showing that lighter fare using homespun stories, humor, and mindfulness wasn’t just novelty, but conscientious and relevant in its own right.
I love that even years later I can hear this song and find new layers I had not yet uncovered. Now I understand and recognize certain samples used in “Rebirth of Slick” from jazz artists like Art Blakey. Girl Talk sampled this Digable Planets song but that’s not too strange because he samples everyone. I just love the alternating rhymes by different members of the group, the valuable perspectives from all the musicians in the mix.
The video always had me so infatuated with the wide array of races of people in the same room together, digging that sound. They seemed to want to dig deeper and coexist in equality on the same planet upon which we are all rotating.
My husband and I both cut our teeth on punk rock. Our shared music tastes was one of the first things we bonded over — our music collections had so much overlap that we argued about whose copy of the same CD was whose (answer: the one in better shape was always mine.)
He likes to say I’ve gone soft as we’ve gotten older. While he’s barely expanded his playlists to include a few songs we haven’t been listening to since the 90s, I’ve found countless loves in indie, folk, and other genres that are, yes, decidedly mellower. Maybe I have gotten soft.
But sometimes I need something angrier. Something louder.
Back in the day, Ministry was one band that punks, metal heads, and industrial music fans (do they have a name?) could agree on. I heard it a lot from group to group, and I’ve never forgotten the visceral reaction I had when, in the back of a small black car piled alongside four other teenagers, I heard The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste for the first time. It embodied all our anger — at the world, at our parents, at injustice — and gave language to our frustrations.
You have to listen to Ministry as loud as possible. And you need to prepare yourself for the inevitable adrenaline rush, the overwhelming impulse to shout, the catharsis. The urge to resist and say “fuck you” to authority and oppressors.
So sometimes, like during the holidays when I’ve heard “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” for the umpteenth time, or when the world being on fire collapses my lungs, or when I’m driving down a long stretch of high desert highway, I put on “So What” and I scream:
I’m a time bomb inside
No one listens to reason
It’s too late and I’m ready to fight
The streaming age is well and truly upon us. With it has come the omnipresence of music, the simple access to nearly any song you could want to listen to.
The downside to this overwhelming array of choice is, of course, that very little music sticks. It’s common to tire of a song and move on to another one fairly quickly; and as a corollary, it’s harder than ever to truly be entranced by a song, let alone an album.
It was a truly wonderful moment for me, then, to listen to Cubicolor’s ethereal Mirror Play for the first time — to find a piece of music that could pull me out of my digital distractions and get me to pay attention.
Strange that Cubicolor’s understated, evocative electronica could arrest me so — they don’t exactly make the catchiest music. But perhaps therein lay their appeal. In a soundscape that’s always looking for the next massive, sonically outsized hit, the plainspoken vocals and the simple yet moving guitar over subdued techno-kicks were the auditory equivalent of a drink of freshwater from a clear, crisp spring.
Mirror Play unfolds gently over a nearly 6-minute runtime, an almost glacial, gorgeous song that demands patience but rewards the listener mightily. In our attention-starved, always-consuming world, a piece of music such as this is an essential, and reassuring, rebellion.
When you come upon a song like “Who Saw Who,” you definitely wonder who is behind it. You do some research, and voila! After checking her Instagram account to gossip a little bit, and then reading her interesting interview for i-D VICE, you come to the conclusion you have found a diamond in Tara Lily.
Although this diamond is just 20 years old, she says she has been working hard in music for ten years. And for the last two, she has worked on her future EP and this song in particular (Jammer, the grime MC rapper, as producer). You just have to see her photos and read her words to find her big personality, and something unique. Tara Lily is special. Her voice is amazingly strong and her look is like heaven on earth. Jackpot!
What does she sell? She sells urban jazz. It seems her influences are a blend of the rappers and beat makers from her Peckham origins (South London), and also classical-jazz trained musicians. And this is exactly what we get from this single. I’m saving the comparison you are all thinking about; let’s give her a try to be herself first.
These days it’s easy to hear people criticizing some music genres because they don’t consider them to be good enough; those are just prejudices. So it’s a pleasure to hear from this young voice that you can get inspiration from different backgrounds.
And remember, you heard it first here at Memoir Mixtapes.
I got interested in Memoir Mixtapes by a happy accident involving a tragic musician. A few months ago I saw a Twitter post about “Elegy for Jason Molina” by Andrew Jones published in Memoir Mixtapes (Vol. 6). Jones had selected “Hold on Magnolia” from the Molina canon for the playlist.
I’m a huge fan of Jason Molina/Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. I had a ring engraved years ago with the same title Jones had chosen to pair with his poem. I had also written a poem about Molina months back.
I borrowed Songs: Ohia records from a friend in 2002. There was dark poetry in those lyrics and restless guitar. I bought the earlier records and followed Molina’s music for years. I saw Jason play twice. His music stunned the crowd silent with slack-jawed respect. His guitar cried out like broken birdsong. His voice carried in the air, lost.
In 2005 I got a tattoo from the “Trials & Errors” LP back cover art by his Magnolia Electric Co. project. In the banner, I got the names of my paternal grandparents; both were very close to me and both were very long gone.
These memories, coincidences, lyrics and albums are important in my musical journey. Molina’s music provided solidarity in strange, magnificent times. That someone wrote a poem for him, had it published in Memoir Mixtapes, I heard about it and have now been a regular enthusiast and contributing writer here couldn’t have been a better path.
Jason died in 2013. I was spun around. I didn’t aim to mourn someone I didn’t know, but that music had been in my home, sat next to me, put lyrics in my throat. I couldn’t listen to his records for 3 years. His music often saved me yet it couldn’t save him. When I listened again, tears poured all over my turntable for days.
For me, it all comes back to “The Lioness” LP, where my exposure to Molina began. Despite the heartbreak inside his music, it’s basically why I ended up here at Memoir Mixtapes…
I moved back to Chicago in February of 2012, just before the crest of Malört Mania. Malört, for those who live elsewhere or who have nicer friends, is a brand of Swedish liquor flavored with wormwood, which can only be found in Chicago. It entices you with a wave of grapefruit and honey before punching you in the throat with an aftertaste of earwax and battery acid. It is watching a house party go from delightfully raucous to out-of-hand in a split second.
Once a drink just enjoyed by the handful of natives who could stomach it, Malört stumbled into the spotlight, first as cult phenomenon, then a dare for out of towners, then as fashionable ingredient. Malört cocktails started popping up everywhere. You could even find it baked into a pie. I even participated in a charity 5k where shots of Malört waited at the start and finish line, as if you could find a way to make running less fun.
Maybe this is cynical and dismissive but I often wonder if my friends who drink Malört genuinely enjoy it or just love the appeal of drinking something so universally reviled, or rather, drinking something so gross that is also unique to Chicago. Like they’ve passed some grit test to deserve to call this beautiful, difficult city home.
Listening to “I Hate Chicago,” a garage-y, self-aware divorce anthem about how deeply our relationships to people and to places are intertwined, I feel the same way I imagine people who can tolerate Malört feel after a shot of the stuff. A rising bitterness, but a comforting sense of kinship with everyone around you who has also known heartbreak and heartburn. Just as we commiserate about the bitterness of lost loves, so do we take pleasure in complaining about all the things that frustrate us about where we live, the traffic and the sports teams and the corruption and the violence, and Grace lays out that parallel so perfectly in this song.
In any city, locals will take hammers to sacred cows amongst each other, and I can’t help but smile and nod when Grace spits the words, “learn to make a pizza, you fucking jagoffs” (emphasis on the local insult of choice). I have yet to see her and the Devouring Mothers live, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this song gets the biggest cheer and beer-hall singalong reception with the home crowd. Grace said it best herself when asked about the song in the Chicago Tribune in November: “They were into it. It speaks to what Chicago is about. People get it. It’s a hard city to live in, but we’re all in it together.”
The bridge of “I Hate Chicago” ascends like a hazy, illuminated cab ride north on Lake Shore Drive, and indeed, Grace’s journey ends with a reference to the Magic Point, and I immediately thought of the Magic Hedge at Montrose Point, a small bird sanctuary on the shore of Lake Michigan, a woodsy respite from the chaos of the Lakefront in the warmer months. It’s always a shot to the senses to hear a reference that’s just so specific to your experiences in a song, even one about the place where you live. This little respite amongst excoriations of the neighborhood where Grace’s ex lives and declarations of how she’d “rather rot in Gary.” No place or relationship can be distilled to a simple bottle of liquor or a three-minute song, but as far as capturing the frustration and rage and some of the magic, too, the reminder that we’ve all been there or all will be there at some point, “I Hate Chicago” comes damn close. And I’d much rather belt along to this than drink a shot of Malört any day.
The holidays for many are bitter-sweet, particularly New Year’s celebrations; as we look toward the future breaching the horizon, promising bountiful opportunities for a better life, we may also find ourselves reflecting on the doors closing behind us.
Did the job not pan out? Did they leave? Was your heart broken? Has it just been relentlessly tough?
So many of us are lured into mulling over our losses and laments and consequently carry the weight of them across the threshold with us. No Bueno, my friend. No Bueno.
But you know what? You do not need to shed any more tears for the year that has passed. You do not need to call it quits on your dreams. You do not need to hobble into the new year defeated.
And News Flash: You do not need someone to kiss at midnight!
Here to reinforce this message of emboldened positivity & offer you an unapologetic power ballad to kick off this — the next fantastic year of your life — is the incomparable Lake Street Dive!
This “Pop-Soul with Rock&Roll” band never miss! Whether they’re firing out a soulful break-up song like, “Musta Been Somethin” or “I Can Change,” or a spunky, carefree banger like, “Side Pony” or “Can’t Stop,” their flawless combination of groovy, honest and unquestionably cool makes every album an absolute non-stop, hands-in-the-air, rollercoaster ride.
So right now, stop everything you’re doing, especially if it’s slipping slowly into seasonal depression, and wrap your ears around this dazzling F.U. anthem!
No kiss at midnight this time around? Who cares! Tell ‘em I’m a good kisser!
Sometimes, it’s a real bitch. It can feel like everything and everyone is working against you.
In those times when your luck is running low, it’s easy to wallow in self pity. And there’s really nothing wrong with indulging in that impulse for a moment, or even a day or two depending on which show you decide to binge watch.
Sooner than later, though, that’s bound to get old. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll definitely run out of episodes at some point. When you reach either of those pivotal moments, and you’re ready to start kicking ass again, press play on this gem from The White Stripes’ Elephant, and be like the squirrel, girl.
What David Bowie Taught Me About Art, Death, and Letting Go by Grace Loh Prasad
To read this piece, click on the album cover below.
About the author: Grace Loh Prasad was born in Taiwan and raised in New Jersey and Hong Kong before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. Grace received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, and is an alumna of the VONA workshop for writers of color along with residencies at Hedgebrook and the Ragdale Foundation. Her essays have appeared in Catapult, Jellyfish Review, Ninth Letter, The Manifest-Station, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Hedgebrook Journal, and she is a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America. Grace is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and Seventeen Syllables, an Asian American writers collective. She is currently finishing her memoir entitled The Translator’s Daughter (www.translatorsdaughter.com).