Playlist of the Month: May 2021

My playlist for this month coincides with my recent music discoveries and rediscoveries of records old and new. But it is also inevitably marked by the recent passing of Franco Battiato. The Italian singer/songwriter/musician was probably my favorite of all Italian pop artists. His music is a constant balance of mainstream tastes and interior soul-searching, catchy melodies and daring avant-garde experimentation. La Voce del Padrone from 1981 is an album I would deem perfect.

This month I also rediscovered what is probably Kraftwerk’s most famous work, Die Mensch-Maschine. This is an absolute classic; ingenious minimalism that revels in new electronic sounds pioneered in the late ’70s. Here, they even add just enough groove to make their dystopian music danceable, which is a plus for your ultimate alternative dance party. Some of that dystopian spirit is also to be found in Chinese underground rock band Backspace and their 2021 release, Ants Corrupt Elephant.

I distinctly remember becoming aware of Prince in 2004 via the music video of the lead single and title track from his Musicology album. Since then, I have become a massive fan but it was only this month that I revisited it for the first time. It pales in comparison to his more fabled releases but that was the idea. I think Prince here was trying to be “liked,” after his career found him alienating him from the mainstream in the years prior to Musicology’s release. Signs of his genius are still there.

On the other hand, Stevie Wonder’s 1985 In a Square Circle, I discovered, is much maligned by critics who routinely deem its production outdated. I disagree and it may be time enough to begin appreciating ’80s synth and MIDI as good, especially because I find it unfair that contemporary digital production techniques are not having to endure the same type of criticism. Besides that, any album that includes a song as perfect as “Overjoyed” is always going to be worth the price of the ticket.

I’ve got to mention Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Esperanto album, where again we find some fascinating electronic experimentation. The making of this 1985 album entailed Sakamoto sampling several ethnic instruments from various parts of the world, altering them, distorting them and manipulating them to construct a fascinating and uber-international brand of world music — hence the title.

More music on this playlist includes McCoy Tyner’s rebirth in spiritual jazz and a fascinating fusion of Punjab music with more western styles, including Spaghetti Western soundtracks, in Sunny Jain’s Wild Wild East from last year. This latter record also has an amazing driving concept: the reimagining of the immigrant as a modern-day cowboy.

Tracklist:

Stevie Wonder, “Overjoyed” (1985)

Nubiyan Twist, “If I Know” (2021)

McCoy Tyner, “Asante” (1974)

Rogér Fakhr, “Had to Come Back Wet” (2021)

Kraftwerk, “Die Roboter” (1978)

Linda Oh, “Perpluzzle” (2017)

Franco Ambrosetti, “Close Encounter” (1991)

Prince, “What Do U Want Me 2 Do?” (2004)

Backspace, “Wolf & Sickle” (2021)

Franco Battiato, “Segnali di Vita” (1981)

Franco Battiato, “Proprietad Prohibida” (1974)

Franco Battiato, “Voglio Vederti Danzare” (1982)

Franco Battiato, “Cariocinesi” (1971)

Sunny Jain, “Wild Wild East” (2020)

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