WOUB’s Summer ’18 Playlists: Josh Miller< < Back to
It’s feeling hotter than July here at WOUB (in fact, it’s August!) so several of your favorite voices from your regional public media outlet are clueing you in on their favorite tracks of summer 2018. Check out this one from WOUB’s Josh Miller, and watch for new installments in the series throughout the month. Check out the Spotify playlist link at the end of the list!
The most mythical of all seasons. That time of year we daydream of while curled up next to space heaters, and the one we eulogize when the humidity drops at the end of August. For me, it always feels a bit somber when the air becomes lighter because that discomfort of summer, the wet and sticky heat, is the type many of us thrive in. Our minds open to the possibilities of wearing rags (or nothing at all) in public, staying up all night on weekdays, using the pool as an excuse for personal hygiene, throwing away our status quos for a taste of more adventure. In summer the possibilities are endless and so is our imagination.
It’s no wonder that it is the season most commemorated by music. From Vivaldi, to Ella Fitzgerald, to XTC, and everywhere in between, summer has been glorified and iconized into the behemoth we know it as today, taking on the meaning of a thousand different voices that all seem to be saying the same list of things. Voices saying it is inspiring, magical, maddening, awakening, and most of all, elusive. The list could go on but the strangest thing is, it doesn’t usually disappoint these expectations and often times transcends them. So here is my ode to the most furious and romantic of seasons, a list of songs that, for me, encapsulate that summer feeling, whatever it is.
“Buzzin’ Fly” – Tim Buckley
Album: Happy Sad (1969)
Not only does this tune musically feel like you’re hearing the fireflies emerge for the first night of June, but the theme impeccably captures the slippery thrill of summer love and the sobering realization that it will likely come to an end. Tim Buckley perfectly epitomizes both the beginning and the end of the season at once. It’s fitting that I first heard this song around a campfire as my friends and I passed whiskey and stories about adventures past. That memory embodies the spell of summer, just as this song does, one where you can’t grasp it but only revel in it while it’s there and memorialize it when it’s not. The silver lining; it always returns the next year, but just like a buzzin’ fly, it will slip away again.
“Red Lady” – Phil Cordell
Album: B-side of single “Pumping the Water” (1969)
From the first second of this bouncy love song my mind explodes with summery visions. I can see a breeze blowing through scenes that Claude Monet could have likely conjured up himself. There is almost a similar quality to the production of this song and Monet’s expressionist style, too, one I have always found to evoke this time of year. It’s that kind of watery blur that meshes the color and makes everything flow into a cohesive mess, one that is just clear enough to let you know what lies underneath. As you hear sitar and vocals sing about the excitement and pains of new love, you start to notice how well it is blended with bells and harps and whistles and pianos, among many other things. It truly is a wild concoction but one that makes it easy to picture a riverside stroll with someone new as madness leisurely drifts beside you. If that doesn’t sound like a good first date then I don’t know what is (I probably don’t but it’s a good song anyways).
“Wild in the Streets” – Garland Jeffreys
Album: Ghost Writer (1977)
This song could easily be the anthem for teenage summer mischief. It’s hard to hear this song and not feel like gathering your friends to go joy riding around town. The great thing about a song like this is it can transport you to a time when that was a regular possibility. As we get older our mischief becomes more accepted (thus ceasing to be mischief) and so do we as people. We actually have places to be and things to do and sometimes life becomes a bit less unpredictable that way. There is a certain magic to having nothing to do because you have to get creative and rely on what you do have; your friends and too much free-time. In my personal experience the results can vary anywhere from having a milk chugging contest behind the movie theater to throwing an impromptu punk show in an Odd Lots* parking lot. If someone were to document that adolescent madness and montage it, “Wild in the Streets” would undoubtedly be the soundtrack. May it inspire more mischief for decades to come, no matter what your age.
*Odd Lots was the name of Big Lots back then. Yeah, my age is showing, I know.
“Woke Up Laughing” – Robert Palmer
Album: Clues (1980)
Yes, I’m talking about THAT Robert Palmer, the sweaty ’80s guy best known for his 1986 cocaine anthem subtlety titled “Addicted to Love”. I had to play that song so many times in high school marching band that it became my second least favorite song of all time, right behind “The Final Countdown.” So it was to my surprise when I discovered Robert Palmer had something to offer that was much more pleasantly addictive, his practically unknown 1980 release “Woke Up Laughing.”
There are actually many things surprising about this song, first of all, the time signature. It is totally out there. I’m pretty certain there is 4/4 and 6/8 happening at the same time, only to line up every three measures. That’s pretty cool (did I mention I was in marching band?) and what’s even cooler, he is drawing those influences from Caribbean calypso music which gives the whole song a chill, island ambience. Cue visions of palm trees, white sand, and snorkeling. I am admittedly a sucker for those kind of beach vacation vibes, but only when it is used genuinely and with artistry. (No, no, Jimmy Buffet)
Surprise number two, it is used well here. What could easily have been a cornball attempt at expanding the sound of an ’80s pop star actually becomes a fascinating mesh of cultures that produces a very unique sound. It comes as no surprise that Robert Palmer actually lived in the Caribbean for many years and became entrenched in the traditional music world of various islands. His familiarity and respect for that music is evident in his take on it which I feel is something that is not easily done. The fact that it also sounds like it could be a Panda Bear song in 2009 is all the more impressive, but most impressive is that he pulled it off in 1980 and created a summery existential jam that completely defied expectations while creating new ones. It just took the world 25 years to catch up.
“Dieuleul-Dieuleul” – Aby Ngana Diop
Album: Liital (1994)
Having almost zero context for what this song is about or who Aby Ngana Diop actually is I have to let the music speak for itself. I could tell you that she is Senegalese and released music through the ’80s and ’90s but those little tidbits are just distractions to the fact that this song sounds like the happiest street riot you’ve ever been to (because there are sure a lot of those these days). Picture it. It’s the hottest day of the year, no one has AC, and the ice cream man ran out of bomb pops hours ago. (Yeah, this is eerily similar to an episode of Hey Arnold, but stick with me.) What could end in death and destruction quickly becomes a mass of sweaty bodies tearing open the fire hydrants and dancing shirtless together to THIS. The mood lifts, the rains come, and everyone makes a friend. The End. How no one has ever sampled this for popular dance music is beyond me.
“Shock Wave” – Index
Album: The Index (1968)
It should be no coincidence that Index is practically an unknown relic of the psychedelic era. It actually serves their mystique quite well. Being completely shrouded in mystery (and black), Index is an anomaly of the flower power generation, playing darkly tinged surf rock in way that likens surfing to existential dread, and maybe motorcycles. Can you surf in a leather jacket? Because I’m pretty sure these guys would have. What’s even better is, despite their music sounding like it was produced in a wet pizza box, it washes over you like an acid washed tsunami wave. The viscerally wah-wahing guitars are noodling through grooves that feel like fish hooks and the drums are pouring over you like the rush of sticking your face out of a moving car window. It’s no wonder it makes the perfect soundtrack for driving at night. Oh, and they’re from Detroit. I hear the waves are killer up there.
“Bonny” – Prefab Sprout
Album: Two Wheels Good (1985)
Sometimes you just need a really good pop song, one that brings on genuine feels without feeling too cringe-worthy or overplayed. I can admit I have secretly jammed Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” on more than one occasion but I couldn’t, in good conscience, put a Don Henley song on this list and still maintain my dignity. Luckily there is Prefab Sprout’s “Bonny.”
It has everything you’d want from a song like that; a good love story, a hooky chorus, immaculate production, but it also transcends your typical summer radio jam, namely by not being played on the radio. It steers clear of the commercial toxicity that permeates most pop music like Henley’s. Even better, this is truly a good song with a strong originality and an emotional tangibility. I will confess, it starts as a slow-burner, but the pay-off comes as it explodes into a chorus that feels like the climax of an ’80s teen flick. The whole thing tips over to spill his guts on the floor right next to jangly guitars and hooky lines that are impossible to not bob your head to.
Like the best parts of “Boys of Summer,” this song makes good use of reverb and synth in a way that makes it feel spacious, like a melancholy sunset drive, as he spins familiar lyrics about the love that got away. Best of all, they do all this without ever crossing into the commercial nausea that’s induced every time you listen to “we play everything” radio station. Here we have a song that gives us our cake and lets us eat it too, and when you’re in need of a good summer pop sing-along that even music snobs can enjoy, “Bonny” will humbly rise to the occasion.
“Tezeta (Nostalgia)” – Mulatu Astatke
Album: Ethiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974 (1998)
There is no piece of music out there that completely melts me into a pool of goo faster than this one. It’s an arrangement that feels more like an environment than music and that environment is pretty damn relaxing. You can easily get lost in dream-like visions that epitomize the very best this season has to offer; bees collecting pollen off wildflowers, sunsets slowly drooping behind still water, the vibrantly green countryside flashes by you through an open car window. It all sounds quite cheesy up until the point you hear this song and get lost in your own daydreams. While most jazz is either terse and intense or boringly smooth, this piece manages to live in its own category of relaxing yet still edgy. The best part, it can smooth out the edges of any moment in an instant.
“Summer Wind” – Frank Sinatra
Album: Single, 1965
I’d like to dedicate this last one to my grandfather, William Miller. He passed away last week and with a touch of synchronicity, this was one of his favorite songs. Even without the influence of my grandfather’s passing, this song, with its themes of letting go of love and beauty to begin again, would have been an excellent ending to my playlist as a eulogy to summer. Now that he has passed on, it takes on a double meaning and becomes a eulogy to someone else, as well. It’s that sort of serendipity that provides a bit of comfort in how it brings to mind those grand mysteries of the universe and of life and death. I can’t begin to provide answers for these mysteries or what these sorts of coincidences even mean. What I can say for sure is that he was a real lover of music and singing was one of his understated talents. I have many childhood memories of him entertaining parties by singing karaoke to Ray Price, Dean Martin, or Frank, as people swooned at his smooth, golden voice. I’m certain his love of music was passed on to me as it was to my dad, and in way, this playlist might not exist without that. Grandpa, we “lost you to the summer winds,” but you will live on through those countless memories.
(The final song on the playlist has a write-up to honor my grandfather but there are plenty of great tracks in between that do not. The full playlist is linked in below. Enjoy!)