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November 24, 2014

Book Notes - Joshua Harmon "The Annotated Mixtape"

The Annotated Mixtape

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Joshua Harmon connects music to his life and our culture in his book The Annotated Mixtape.

Will Hermes wrote of the book:

"Can all this -- mapping one's life around LP shopping, the exquisite playback rituals, and above all, the passionately empathic art of mixtape-making -- really be ancient history? Josh Harmon brings it all back home, joining Greil Marcus, Rob Sheffield, Geoff Dyer, and other great alchemists who use songs as magic portals to memory, history, and literary spelunking. Like a great mixtape, it connects music to how we live."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Joshua Harmon's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Annotated Mixtape:

"The Records," the first essay I wrote for The Annotated Mixtape, once included a brief section headed with the abbreviation "np:"—shorthand for "now playing:"—which was made up of a list of records I was listening to at the time, or at least records I wanted people to know I was listening to at the time. Now that Spotify, etc., immediately broadcast to your friends' newsfeeds what you're listening to so that they can mock you, "np:"—an addendum used by many correspondents to the music listservs I subscribed to in the late '90s and early '00s—is pointless. Does anyone except old-timers like me still even write emails more than a sentence or two long? In any case, I revised the "np:" list in that essay multiple times during the writing and revising of the essay, and then again when it appeared in New England Review, and then again when I revised the essay for the book—well over a dozen different versions (I just counted) over a dozen years, until eventually I revised that passage right out of the book. But since The Annotated Mixtape is essentially already a list of songs accompanied by explanations about their intersections with my life, I'll skip all of those and return to some of the tracks I included in various iterations of the "np:" list over the years, some of the songs that didn't make it into the book:

Acetate Zero, "Contemplating the Existence of the Leaves"

Releasing an LP in an edition of 200 copies and filling it with songs titled, e.g., "Zealous Atom's Rage," "Departure," "Metropolitan Fatal Dawn," and "Variant Critiques to Conclude There's Nothing" was potentially an end-days gesture c. Y2K. A lot of things felt long since exhausted at that point, including the descriptor "post-rock," and in any case Acetate Zero's music has always been much more intriguing than most that gets tagged with that term. This mysterious French band—their records credit the band members only with initials—has quietly released a bunch of records since then, though this beautiful downer of an LP from 1999 remains the one I return to most in their catalog.

Little Ann, "Deep Shadows"

Speaking of Y2K, it's amazing to see what's happened to the LP since then, when many labels, even indies, were only putting out new albums on CD, and a lot of the new LPs you could find were pressed pretty badly: off-center spindle holes, visible warps, etc. Now everyone's buying LPs again, and labels are making way too many really nice ones to keep up with. There are also tons of vinyl reissues and rediscoveries, some of dubious quality, but many others, like the ones put out by Numero and Light in the Attic, beautifully assembled. Thank god someone saw fit to gather Little Ann's long-forgotten tracks and reissue them on LP a few years back.

Verlaines, "Baud to Tears"

"And that guy reads and tries to write / And talks until he bores you / He wants to know all the secrets of soul / He hasn't got a shit show / And he jumps the bandwagon before it's too late / With a head full of crap / And he never loves, he never hates / He doesn't write, he imitates: he's a clown / The artist in the idiot's clothes / You know the way they go: / They go down, they drown…" Or, in more condensed form: "You'll never spend a season in hell / If you lie in bed all day." The Verlaines' Juvenilia compilation LP is a foundational text. I'm pretty sure no rock band in the '80s was remotely as cool as they were.

Popol Vuh, "Wo Bist Du, der Du Überwunden Hast?"

There are so many songs I would've loved to have written about in the book (instead of songs by, say, Def Leppard and Raccoo - oo - oon), if only I'd had something specific and interesting to write about them. For example, this staggering beauty from Popol Vuh. I don't know what to say about it other than this: please listen.

Amerie, "1 Thing"

I've never really kept up much with pop music (as is probably evident by including a nine-year-old pop song here), because often it bores me. This song is anything but boring: in its combination of Amerie's insanely compelling voice and the alchemical transformation of a brief drum break in the Meters' "Oh, Calcutta!" to this monstrous backing track, it's perfect. I'm pretty sure someone called this song "‘Crazy in Love,' Junior" back in 2005, maybe not undeservedly, but to my ears it's way more exhilarating than Beyoncé's early masterpiece.

Broken Dog, "You Should Go Home"

John Peel declared Broken Dog among his favorite bands, which ought to have been enough to raise them out of obscurity. Their 1999 LP, Sleeve with Hearts—the last copies of which can still be purchased via Broken Dog's decidedly 1990s-looking website—has been a persistent favorite during the entire time I took to write The Annotated Mixtape: even now, listening to these languid, sad, British-via-Americana songs, I might as well be sitting on the hardwood floor of my long-ago rented house on the Rhode Island shore, late at night, gradually getting colder as the fire dies inside the woodstove, listening to records on headphones and thinking I should go to bed, but not just yet. The heartbroken "Your Name" isn't on YouTube, so "You Should Go Home," another lovely track from this record, will have to do.

Congos, "Open Up the Gate"

When I was a teenager, reggae didn't make much sense to me, either because the diluted, appropriated versions of it I heard in songs by, say, Elvis Costello and the Police weren't that exciting, or because the overplayed Bob Marley and the Wailers greatest hits that the stoner white kids wearing Baja pullovers listened to turned me against the genre by association. I've spent a lot of my adult years rectifying this blunder, and thankfully I encountered the Congos' 1977 masterpiece, Heart of the Congos, before wasting any more time.

Ean Eraser, "Illegitimate Love"

I bought this 7" during the 2008 recession, and it seemed a perfect throwback to the late '70s/early '80s recession that marked my childhood. The style is power-pop from that era, when a band with a slight sneer might be considered punk or new wave, since those terms were applied at least as indiscriminately as they are now (didn't someone in those years say "new wavers are punks who still take out the garbage for their moms" or something like that?). The guitar riffing here recalls Greg Sage's playing on the first Wipers LP, maybe, but the rest of the song could be any anonymous garage band who'd heard the Only Ones and the Cars and the Sex Pistols. The record itself had no artwork, no label, no real identifiers beyond band and song names—perhaps a reaction to the hype cycle in indie music circles c. 2008, perhaps because someone wanted the anonymity to be the hype. Regardless, this song is wonderful.

Simple Minds, "Theme for Great Cities"

If you were a teenager in the early to mid-1980s, Simple Minds occupied a continuum of new wave cool somewhere between U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen, maybe: cooler than the former, not as cool as the latter: which is to say, not very cool. Jim Kerr had much of Bono's hamminess and a wardrobe filled with sparkly, too-big suit jackets, and by the time "Don't You (Forget About Me)" was being played on the radio and MTV every five minutes, every teenybopper knew his soft voice, sleepy eyes, and goofy dance moves. (My first girlfriend, c. September 1985, told me that she thought "Alive and Kicking" was "our song.") "Theme for Great Cities" has all the moody Simple Minds melodrama you may remember if you're my age, and none of the Jim Kerr. (Note: I don't mind Jim Kerr, really.)

Chrome, "Chromosome Damage"

The year 1977 has figured pretty large in my memory and imagination lately, since I'm working on a nonfiction book about cultural iterations of fantasy from that year. Despite its references to aliens and pigmies [sic] and magnetic dwarf reptiles (look, just get the LP), Chrome's scared, scary 1977 LP, Alien Soundtracks, is utterly realistic. Distorted, freaked-out, noisy, and interrupted, "Chromosome Damage" sounds more like 1977 to me than, say, Arrival, Rumours, Never Mind the Bollocks, or pretty much anything else.

Secret Stars, "N29, It's Alright"

An ode to a late-night bus ride played by one of the quieter duos of the mid- to late-'90s. I thought of their then-recent song "Wait" every time I met someone at the State Street Diner in Ithaca, NY, during grad school, but this whispered track, from the Genealogies LP, is the one that's haunted me longest.

Mittens on Strings, "Party"

Urged mostly by a couple of students and a friend who came up with the terrific name "Unpacking My Milk Crates," I briefly hosted a college radio show in summer and fall 2005. I mail-ordered this unassuming EP that summer, and it ended up being broadcast by WVKR at least once. "It was a party / just a block and a half away / Oh well, it probably / would've sucked anyway" pretty much sums up Poughkeepsie, NY, in the mid-Aughts for me.

Joshua Harmon and The Annotated Mixtape links:

the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry

LitReactor review

The Rumpus contributions by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists