What seemed a bit corny at first really isn’t at all. And while I don’t want to bring myself to agree with the book’s opening tenet that “it’s individual tracks that matter,” when it comes to downloading music, the books has a point. Rough Guide to Playlists covers an admirable swath of styles and artists, and while people inclined to look for issues with a book like this are bound to find them, it certainly earns points for providing enough jumping-off points for enough styles that it’s best feature becomes the familiar and unfamiliar musical directions in which it points its readers. There’s Gypsy Music, Congolese, separate lists for South African Pop and Jazz, Tango, salsa, and samba, Cajun and zydeco, calypso and soca, Qawwali, and lists for the music of Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Cape Verde, Brazil, Central Asia, and more. Reggae, raga, Trojan reggae, Dancehall reggae, Euro-reggae, and Roots Reggae get separate lists. There’s a list for Krautrock. Jungle, House, Techno, and Acid Jazz are also represented.
A rundown of represented artists goes something like this:
Dylan gets 40 songs, split up as “The Protest Years,” “Electric Messiah,” “After the Crash,” and “Bob Ain’t Dead,” and 10 more for cover versions of songs he wrote. Still, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” doesn’t make it anywhere. The Beatles get 40 songs also, including their 10 covers. John, Paul, and George each get a list for their solo work. And Ringo’s “Back Off Boogaloo” tops the “Singing Drummers” list. The Rolling Stones get a measly 10, plus 10 more thrown in for “Solo Stones.” Prince gets 10 (check “Alphabet Street” but not “Pop Life”). “Off The Wall” is called Michael’s “watershed” song and tops his list of 10. Eight of Public Enemy’s 10 songs come from their first three releases. “Regret” makes it onto New Order’s playlist at number seven. Ditto “Marquee Moon” on Television’s. Their list for Genesis is split up into the Gabriel days (six songs) and Collins-era (four). Peter Gabriel as a solo artist gets 10 entries (somehow “Come Talk to Me” doesn’t make the list). Mogwai gets a list, as does Lambchop, PJ Harvey, Eels, Mercury Rev, Tindersticks, My Bloody Valentine, The Fall, Cat Power, Sparks, Captain Beefheart, Madness, Dizzee Rascal, Yo La Tengo, John Cale, The Bevis Frond, the Pixies, and the Clash. Spoon, and the Feelies.
The Flaming Lips don’t get one. And neither do Gang of Four. Or the Buzzcocks.
And on: There’s an entry for Dexter Gordon, Elvin Jones’ 10 best performances, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, and Ella Fitzgerald. John Coltrane gets two lists, one for his work as a sideman and one for his own work. Miles Davis has his electric and acoustic work divided into separate lists. Motown gets a list and Holland, Dozier, and Holland and Smokey Robinson get their own as well. Phil Spector gets one but Leiber and Stoller don’t. There are two lists for “Britpop”, but nothing for Brill Building, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, or Doc Pomus.
Like I said, there are holes. But just when you think you’re so smart, try critiquing their picks for George Formby. Or Jamaican vocal trios. Or Mary Coughlan. So while I can’t exactly speak to the quality of the 10 choices under, say, “South African Jazz,” at least their inclusion of it gives me a place to start looking so that perhaps I’ll have more to say about it by the time the next edition of this book comes out. These lists don’t aim to be definitive best-ofs; simply springboards. For now, I can say that their Kinks choices are just fine (yes to “Days” and “Dead End Street” and I’m not sure what I would have left off in order to include “Better Things”). And while their choices for the Beach Boys suffer for including only one post-Pet Sounds song (“Good Vibrations,” hardly a bold choice) and they somehow leave “Can’t Explain” off of their Who list. I do like that they include “You’re Crazy for Taking the Bus” for Jonathan Richman and that “Talk of the Town” comes first on their Pretenders list. Their Velvet Underground list is pretty much just fine (check “Sister Ray”) and I would have included “Bags’ Groove” on my Miles list, “A Case of You” over “California” on my Joni list, made room for “Man Out of Time” and “Oliver’s Army” on my Elvis Costello list, found a place for Rush, and most definitely found a place for Buddy Holly.
A more useful complaint is that with 500 lists, at between six and 10 songs per list, it can be hard to get a complete picture of the book by just flipping around it. A table of contents would be useful or even better, an index. More artists are deserving of longer lists, while it’s a wonder why some newer bands with so few albums out (in some cases, just two), are included at all. It might be useful, too, to know who some of these Rough Guide writers are. I’m supposed to be taking advice from them, after all. Names are listed, but no backgrounds, no qualifications on which to interpret their decision making. But this can all (hopefully) be fixed down the road. This first edition, especially given its handy cover price of $9.99, could easily earn its keep by helping you get your footing in unfamiliar musical ground when you’re poking around a download site. And since they skip over it, allow me to give you a playlist of my own:
PowerPop Songs (I’ve Heard This Week):
1.“Fitted Shirt” Spoon from Girls Can Tell
Spoon by way of Face to Face.
2. “Nobody I Know” Martin Luther Lennon from Yellow Pills vol.3
Thank you WFMU’s ‘Beware of the Blog’.
3. “American Squirm” Nick Lowe from Labour of Lust
If you’re feeling British.
4. “Sleepwalker” The Kinks from Sleepwalker
Whatever gets you through the night.
5. “Hey, Hey You Say” Papas Fritas from Helioself
Thank you Tony Goddess.
6. “Hangin’ on the Telephone” The Nerves from The Nerves: 25th Anniversary
Thank you Max Martinez.