In Sunday’s post, I introduced my weekend project—my baby daughter’s formative playlist. Tonight, after spending a few days futzing around with iTunes and WordPress to get the music files lined up, it’s time to unveil the list. If you’ve shared your thoughts, thanks. There will probably be another iteration of this before long.
It will be pretty clear once this gets going what my musical biases are; there are some areas in which this list will be woefully lacking. It’s light on classic rock, the music of my twenties (which may have something to do with that). And it seems as if I’d rather pretend that the last three decades of music never actually happened. If you can help me fill a few of these holes, much obliged.
So, without further ado…
Miles Davis: So What, All Blues (both from Kind of Blue, 1959)
These songs are perfection to me. Kind of Blue is the epitome of American classical music. Miles Davis made sweeter tones than anyone who ever blew breath into a trumpet. When I discovered the album, I immediately set myself to the task of memorizing Miles’ solo from “So What,” and played it over and over again (badly) instead of practicing our assigned pieces for my school jazz ensemble. I can still hum the whole thing, for what it’s worth. If the Internet exploded, erasing all recorded music in existence, and some additional set of ridiculous circumstances transpired to grant me the power to choose one album that would survive for the next generation, it would be this one. So… this was an easy choice. I hope my daughter never gets mixed up with a guy like Miles Davis… but I want her to know that beautiful sound.
John Coltrane: Acknowledgement (A Love Supreme, 1964)
We get Coltrane as a sidekick on the first two songs; his power and fury filtered through Miles Davis’ unflappable cool makes for a great mixture. Coltrane as a bandleader is different, the supporting players built to support and showcase that big, emotional sound coming out of his horn. A Love Supreme is, to me, almost sacred music. There is no other piece of music I imagine to be powerful enough to match the intensity of the emotional bond between parent and child. Which I’m just guessing at because, you know, I’m not technically a father yet.
John Coltrane: In a Sentimental Mood (Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, 1962)
This is Coltrane possibly at his most restrained, playing within the contours of Ellington’s classic composition. Accompanied only by a bass and drums, the Duke on piano and Trane on tenor sax recorded a spare and impossibly beautiful rendition of the melody.
Kermit the Frog: Rainbow Connection (The Muppet Movie Soundtrack, 1979)
You may have noticed this from the hint I dropped earlier… I’ve decided that my daughter needs to know the Muppets. I grew up during the heyday of the Muppet Show on TV; the Muppets are always great fun, for kids and for semi-grownups like myself. One reason for the broad appeal is that the Muppets are not as nakedly didactic as some of today’s kid-friendly entertainment. Still, there is a powerful and positive message the Muppets demonstrate again and again through music, movies, and goofy Internet videos: no matter what you are, it’s OK to be you. You might be a frog or a bear or a pig or a Gonzo living in a human world… but no matter what you are, you can go out and do your thing on your terms. This song is an apotheosis of the Muppet worldview: your dreams are real; hold onto them and follow them, even if people doubt you. Someday we’ll find it, the Rainbow Connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me. Unfortunately, Jim Henson is no longer around to match the voice of Kermit’s classic body of work… we can only hope our daughter takes to New Kermit.
Louis Armstrong: When You Wish Upon a Star (Disney Songs the Satchmo Way, 1968)
Classic Disney song, in the inimitable voice of Louis Armstrong. For trumpet icons, Louis Armstrong occupies the opposite pole from Miles Davis. Miles is all smoothness and cool… and Satchmo is all warmth and charm. Satch’s gravelly pipes make the words flow like maple syrup: When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you. We should all start out believing that, and hold onto it even when the world demonstrates otherwise. If I can give that to my daughter, I will have done well. There is no place for cynics in an enterprise like fatherhood… Anyhow, What a Wonderful World may have been too obvious a choice here; we will come back for more Satchmo in a minute.
Beach Boys: Surfer Girl (Surfer Girl, 1963); God Only Knows (Pet Sounds, 1966)
The Beach Boys get a two-fer. Brian Wilson harmonies=super soothing. “Surfer Girl” may as well be a California lullaby… though there are relatively few opportunities to ride the surf along Eastern Parkway. “God Only Knows” is maybe one of the purest and sweetest Beach Boys tunes. So many are about teenage love (too early!), racing cars (definitely too early) and waxing down the surfboard (yeah, umm…). “God Only Knows” is just a simple love song. While it is associated with the HBO show Big Love, which is about polygamy, the series ended, and for my daughter we can pretend it never happened.
The Beatles: In My Life (Rubber Soul, 1965); Blackbird (The White Album, 1968); Octopus’ Garden (Abbey Road, 1969)
Once every few months, I get into a running conversation with a particular friend of mine comparing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. One note to add to that conversation: the Beatles go on this list; the Stones quite obviously do not. “In My Life” is Lennon at his most sentimental. “Blackbird” is Paul… Paul can sing a soft ballad about perseverance like nobody. “Octopus’ Garden” is a Ringo song; fanciful and fun. Even if we all know an octopus can’t really have a garden. But hey, frogs aren’t supposed to be able to sing, right? This should be a Muppets song. Wait a minute, hold on…
Stevie Wonder: You Are the Sunshine of My Life (Talking Book, 1973); Happier than the Morning Sun (Music of my Mind, 1972)
There is nothing more joyful than a Stevie Wonder song. We ended our wedding ceremony, and danced our first dance to Stevie Wonder. He always sounds as though his heart is about to burst, unable to quiet his voice from dancing within and around the melodies. Just a unique voice, a unique understanding of the human condition.
Crosby Stills Nash & Young: Our House (Déjà Vu, 1969)
The CSNY harmonies are always nice when they work, but this song especially is the musical equivalent of a warm fire on a cold night for me.
Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: People Get Ready (1965)
There are a lot of R&B singers I enjoy who felt too raw for this list. Curtis Mayfield, though, has a voice like honey. This is maybe the most perfect vehicle for that voice, the gospel-steeped civil-rights era spiritual covered, but never equaled, by a thousand other folks.
The Jackson 5: I’ll Be There (1970)
My daughter is going to grow up in a world where she doesn’t ever have to know Michael Jackson as a sickly-looking freakshow scandal magnet. To her, he can always be 12-year-old Michael with the little Afro, singing his heart out.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Summertime (Porgy & Bess, 1957)
Miles Davis: Summertime (Porgy & Bess, 1958)
Our baby will be a summer baby, and this is the classic song of summer… leading to the conflict I laid out at the top of the list. Miles’ cool version? Or Satchmo’s hot version? They couldn’t be more different: Satch’s horn pierces the orchestral opening with his horn; Miles eases into it, floats above it like an August haze. Armstrong brings Ella Fitzgerald with him, though. Shockingly, I realized after I was done that hers is the only female voice on this list. I may need to work on amendments. If there is only one female voice, it should be Ella, clear as a bell and soft as a pillow. Your daddy’s rich and your ma is good looking/so hush little baby, don’t you cry… even if only half of that is true.
Nat King Cole: L-O-V-E (1965)
A gorgeous little pop trifle. Nat is a crooner in the greatest sense of the word.
Hall & Oates: Sara Smile (Daryl Hall & John Oates, 1975)
I had been planning to have Hall & Oates represent for the 1980’s until I realized they recorded this one in the seventies. Whatever. I was a sucker for top-40 blue-eyed soul before I got into the real thing—and I challenge you to find anyone better at it than Hall & Oates, or a ballad plainer and more sincere than this one. When you feel cold I’ll warm you, and when you feel you can’t go on, I’ll come and hold you… won’t you smile a while for me?
Paul Simon: Loves Me Like a Rock (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, 1973)
When I was President / and the Congress called my name / I said now who do, who do you think you’re fooling?
Ray Charles: Somewhere Over the Rainbow (?)
I shouldn’t need to explain this one. Classic song meets classic musician.
John Lennon: Instant Karma! (1970)
I had a very serious John Lennon phase in my early teens, and the first draft of this list had a few more songs from his solo career. Imagine, especially, is a beautiful thought wrapped up in a beautiful song, but Instant Karma is just happier. This was post-Beatles Lennon at his least-preachy, most-positive, feel-good. It feels like a celebration.
I’ve ignored plenty, but what’s here has meaning. Did I really skip the 80’s? The 90’s? No love for Lil’ Wayne? Please, help me fill in the gaps I’m sure you’ve found. Hopefully, I will return to this list and finish it before the baby gets to first grade.