Tuesday, October 14, 2008
WXPN's 885 Countdown 2008 - The Essential XPN Songs
WXPN's fifth annual 885 countdown begins tomorrow, this time it's the 885 essential XPN songs. For anyone unfamiliar with WXPN, it's a non-commercial radio station and online music service based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and it is one of the most listenable music stations that you're likely to ever find. If you're not in the Philadelphia area, you can always listen online at XPN.org.
As one of the best AAA (Adult Album Alternative) stations in the country, it's easy to sometimes take XPN for granted and nitpick their airplay choices, but over the course of several decades they have helped define the musical landscape in Philadelphia and elsewhere, more recently online. Program Director Bruce Warren describes the concept of the 885 Essential XPN songs as "“These are the tracks that are at the heart of the XPN listening experience. They’re the songs that define the listening experience for our audience. In essence, they define who we are.”
Now that's a pretty wide ranging and subjective concept, but as a longtime listener and subscriber, I'm happy to offer up my top ten XPN essential songs, all streaming below for your listening pleasure. To narrow the field for selection, I limited my consideration to great songs that I first encountered on XPN, or songs that got significant airplay on XPN to forge an identity as an XPN staple.
To determine the complete list of 885 songs that will be counted down over the next few weeks, over three thousand listeners submitted a top ten list of their essential XPN songs. Here's mine.
1. Once Blue - "Stardust and Snow", from Once Blue (Capitol/EMI, 1995)
An All-Time Favorite: This gorgeous song quickly made it's way from Sleepy Hollow to the general XPN rotation in 1995 (or maybe it was the other way around). This gem of an album also made my top ten list for the XPN 885 best albums countdown in 2005. Once Blue was a short lived band that featured the voices and songwriting talents of Rebecca Martin and Jesse Harris. It was ultimately the songwriting that really made this album special, combined with performance and production perfectly suited to the material. Both Rebecca and Jesse have made songwriting their forte in their respective solo careers, Jesse winning the Song of the Year Grammy award for writing Norah Jones' "I Don't Know Why". Rebecca has maintained an artistic integrity and an obession with writing that is second to none, incorporating a beautiful jazz sensibility into her music.
2. Johnny A - "Oh Yeah", from Sometime Tuesday Morning (Aglaophone, 1999)
A Most Talented Guitar Player: It wasn't until sometime in 2000 that XPN began airing this song in heavy rotation. "Oh Yeah" comes from the uniformly excellent debut release by Johnny A that had actually been released in 1999. Unlike Once Blue, which I simultaneously heard through record company channels when it was first released, this may be the quintessential essential XPN song on my list because if not for that XPN airplay, the Philadelphia listening audience might never even have become aware of this most talented player. This album combines originals and inspired covers like the Beatles' "Yes It Is", "Walk Don't Run", and "Wichita Lineman", and is one perfect album. Having seen Johnny A play live numerous times, I can only say "thanks XPN" for that initial introduction.
3. Loreena McKennitt - "The Lady of Shallot", from The Visit (Quinland Road/Warner Brothers, 1991)
An Amazing Voice: I'm quite sure I would have come to know and love the music of Loreena McKennitt with or without the frequent XPN airplay of this beautiful song from her fourth album (and her major label debut). In any case, "The Lady of Shallot" certainly sounded great every time it got a spin on the XPN air, and that happened a lot in 1991. The lyrics are a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the rest is Loreena's gorgeous voice and meticulous arrangement and production. Not too many stations would put an eleven plus minute track into heavy rotation.
4. Zero 7 - "In the Waiting Line", from Simple Things (Quango/Palm, 2001)
A Groundbreaking Debut: Originally a studio creation of Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker in the UK, Zero 7 mixed instrumentals having electronica leanings with powerful vocal tracks utilizing the talents of Sia Furler, Sophie Barker and Mozez. By their second album, they had added Tina Dico to the vocalist roster and brought all four excellent singers out on tour to give their studio compositions a live workout in some very special shows. If for nothing else than to introduce the audience to Sia and Tina Dico, who both have superb solo careers, XPN would have my gratitude, but Zero 7 too has a great career rolling, now totalling three albums, a career that started with Simple Things. If you ventured anywhere near 88.5 FM on your radio dial during 2001 you would likely have encountered Zero 7's "In the Waiting Line".
5. Jonatha Brooke - "Inconsolable" from Plumb (Blue Thumb, 1995)
Perhaps the Most Essential: Jonatha Brooke was already an XPN essential even before she left her band The Story in 1995 to release Plumb, her solo debut. When WXPN moved to their current building in October 2004 and inaugurated the fall tradition of 885 countdowns, Jonatha Brooke opened the World Cafe Live world class venue playing the inaugural concert in the same beautiful facility in the same time frame in October 2004. I would be very surprised if Jonatha doesn't place high and often in the countdown of XPN essentials. While Jonatha has written and sung many great songs over the years, "Inconsolable" stopped me in my tracks the very first time I heard it (on XPN, of course) and it still maintains that power.
6. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals - "Nothing But the Water" from Nothing But the Water (Grace Potter Music, 2005)
Loud Rock Music as Good as it Gets (all that and she plays the Hammond B-3 too): In 2006 XPN discovered Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and gave them the full XPN push, culminating in a standout performance at that year's summer music festival, another annual event that is integral to the XPN experience. Back with a new album in 2007, Grace and her band did a totally mind-blowing burn down the house performance to highlight the 2007 XPN festival, which is where the above live version of "Nothing But the Water I & II" was recorded. If you play your computer sound through some good speakers with subwoofer and crank it up as loud as you can stand, you'll get some idea as to what Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are all about.
7. Kasey Chambers - "The Captain" from The Captain (Virgin, 2000)
A Fantastic Young Singer from Down Under: XPN was all over the debut album by Australian alt-country rocker and singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers. Kasey grew up in her family's country band enamored of the music of Lucinda Williams among others; her highly skilled songwriting combined with her brother's perfect sounding production to result in several top notch albums in a row, Kasey's dad also played guitar in her band. "The Captain" had a very memorable inclusion in an episode of The Sopranos, gaining her additional audience, but we XPN listeners were already well familiar with Kasey, she also did an excellent live performance at The Point in Bryn Mawr.
8. Dada - "Dorina", from Puzzle (I.R.S., 1992)
Hold On, I'll Be There in a Minute: Every once in a while listening in the car, you hear such an astoundingly great song that although you may have arrived at your destination, you can't get out of the car until the song finishes and you find out what it is. Such was the case when I first heard "Dorina" by Dada on XPN. This could also place on the list of XPN one hit wonders if they ever try that for an 885 countdown, because even though Dada has a string of albums to their credit, this may be the only track that ever dented the playlist on XPN. But make airplay it did, regularly and repeatedly in 1992 and to find out why, you need only to click the above player and have a listen, preferably loud.
9. Shemekia Copeland - "It's 2 AM", from Wicked (Alligator, 2000)
Aretha - The Next Generation: Shemekia Copeland's "Its 2 AM" broke out from Jonny Meister's Blues Show to make the XPN general rotation, leading the way to her booking at the XPN festival in 2004 when it was still known as "Singer-Songwriter Weekend" and then took place on Penns Landing on the Philadelhia side of the Delaware River. Here's what I wrote after seeing her performance at that festival: Shemekia Copeland performed the best set of the two days and basically blew everyone else off the stage. Her voice is more soulful than bluesy although it works great for both types of song - absolutely on par with the greats like Aretha. Her songwriting is excellent too - no stretch at all to include her in Singer-Songwriter weekend. Her band was smokin' hot, totally excellent all the way around - guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards - two electronic keyboards, one set to sound like a piano, the other as the classic Hammond B-3 organ - all players sounding as great as one would ever hope to imagine. By the time she did "It's 2 AM" the entire crowd was up and dancing and didn't sit down for the rest of the set. It doesn't get more XPN essential than this.
10. Jill Sobule - "Cinnamon Park", from Underdog Victorious (Artemis, 2004)
Seeing Her Live Made All the Difference: Jill Sobule's "Cinnamon Park" grabs your ears the first moment you hear it, with it's insistent piano riff lifted directly from Chicago's "Saturday In the Park" re-purposed to good use, blending with Jill's own infectious melody and nostalgic lyric. Jill's been an XPN darling from early on in her career, but I never quite got her appeal until seeing her headline the downstairs venue at World Cafe Live. Bringing this list to full circle, I'll admit that I had gone to that show to see the opening artist, Rebecca Martin (see Once Blue, above). The folks I sat with were such Jill Sobule fans that I couldn't leave after Rebecca's set and stayed to thoroughly enjoy Jill's performance. Warning: If you play "Cinnamon Park" it may well get stuck in your head, it's been stuck in mine since 2004. Thanks XPN!
There are certainly many more XPN essentials than ten, but this topic was so subjective that it did not require agonizing over the choices like past countdowns that asked for best all time song, album or artist. If you spend some time listening over the next few weeks, you'll hear why XPN is such an essential radio station. Click here to see the songs played on the countdown so far and to link to random top ten lists submitted by XPN listeners.