A Not-Going-to-SXSW Playlist

devin.JPGHe'll make it back up to New York eventually, right? Right?

Most of the country's music critics are in Texas right now, enjoying the annual South By Southwest music festival, which I understand is sort of like CMJ except not as infuriating. Everything's in walking distance of everything else, there's more free beer, and Southern rap types like Devin the Dude, who hasn't done a New York show since before I moved here, are performing. It sounds like a lot of fun, and those of us who work for publications too cheap to send us down to Austin are generally feeling a little disgruntled. Add to that the fact that God has apparently chosen this moment to remind New Yorkers that it's still winter by slamming us with deluges of nasty-ass sleet and it feels like a pretty good day to indulge in a little self-pity and enjoy some of the most depressing and misanthropic songs that my iPod has to offer. (And yeah, I'm mostly just doing this by hitting shuffle and then writing about whatever sad songs come up. There's nothing going on today. Sue me.)

1. Curtis Mayfield: "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go" Preview/Buy from iTunes

Musically, this is one of Mayfield's most dazzling, psychedelic works: reverbed-out fuzz-bass, overdriven bongos, squelchy chicken-scratch funk guitar, regal horn stabs, swirling strings, everything gorgeously layered-up into a towering eight-minute vamp. But Mayfield's not going for beauty here; he's painting a grand tapestry of a world where nobody gives a shit about anyone else and we're all doomed. Sounds about right today.

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2. Raekwon: "Heaven and Hell" Not on iTunes because God hates you

The track is one of RZA's most downbeat and understated: hazy Fender Rhodes, muted drum-thumps, disembodied soul-diva moans. On the one verse, Rae and Ghostface do a neat little ping-pong trick, talking conversationally about moving drugs or whatever but barely rapping, sounding more like they're just tossing words back and forth because they're bored as fuck and there's nothing else to do. Oh, and look: the hook, which is pretty much the entire second half of the song, is all about how we're all in hell, just like the Curtis Mayfied song. I didn't even plan that. Spooky. 3. William DeVaughn: "Be Thankful for What You've Got" Not on iTunes because Jesus wants you to buy the Portrait and Massive Attack covers instead

This one is another piece of woozy, downbeat, beautifully orchestrated Vietnam-era soul, but for once it's not about how we're all in hell. Instead, it's all practical advice: you may be broke, you may not have all this cool shit you wish you had, but you can still be proud of who you are. The thing is that DeVaughan does not sound especially thankful for what he's got; his falsetto is all wistful longing, and the part of the song everyone remembers is the one where he's describing the shit that you don't have: "diamond in the back, sunroof top, digging the scene with the gangsta lean." This is one of those songs that contradicts its own message through its delivery, sort of like "White Lines (Don't Do It)."

4. Shangri-Las: "I Can Never Go Home Anymore." Preview/Buy from iTunes

Oh man, just try to listen to this one without opening up an abyss of despair in the pit of your soul. Mary Weiss doesn't really sing here, she just talks dejectedly, recounting a heartbreaking story from the point of view of a girl who leaves home for a boy even though her mom begs her to stay. The boy disappears, the mom dies of a broken heart, and the girl is left with nowhere left to go, ending the song by dropping a bomb of an understatement on us: "And that's called sad." George "Shadow" Morton's imitation-Spector production drives the point home by piling on the breathtaking melodrama: weeping strings, ghostly backing vocals, a lonely echoed-out tambourine. Hey, Mary Weiss just came out of a forty-year retirement to do a show at SXSW. I bet that was fun.

5. Townes Van Zandt: "Rake." Preview/Buy from iTunes

If you can't wallow in dejection while listening to a dead reclusive Southern singer-songwriter lamenting his lost youth, you're way too happy and well-adjusted to be reading this blog entry.

6. Joy Division: "Twenty Four Hours" Preview/Buy from iTunes

Implacably dark, skeletal fuzz-rock from a guy who hung himself: my iPod totally understands me. Ian Curtis pours on the lizard-king theatrics a little thick here, but the faraway guitars and shivery bass would be pretty fucking eerie even if he weren't singing about feeling his future slipping away from him.

7. Nine Inch Nails: "Something I Can Never Have" Preview/Buy from iTunes

I'm usually not one of those nostalgic pessimists who goes on and on about how much better music was when he was younger. Most of the time, I think pop music is as healthy and powerful and innovative today as it was in any long-lost golden age. But seriously, when today's middle-schoolers get in screaming fights with their parents and storm off to their bedrooms and slam the door, what do they crank up loud? Linkin Park? Taking Back Sunday? Daughtry? Thanks in large part to the efforts of Trent Reznor, the early 90s really were a great time for bitchy, cathartic brood-music, and this song is pretty much guaranteed to make a sullen pout feel way more grand and dramatic than it actually is.

8. PJ Harvey: "Send His Love to Me" Preview/Buy from iTunes

Over the past few years, the forces of historical revisionism have aligned to convince you that Rid of Me is PJ Harvey's best album. Don't believe them. Charged-up discordant fury is great and all, but it has nothing on the softly expansive desperation of To Bring You My Love. Once I decided that I was way too sophisticated for Nine Inch Nails but I wasn't too mature to get all pissed at my parents, this was totally what I'd jam when I stared at my bedroom wall.

9. UGK: "One Day." Preview/Buy from iTunes

Every once in a while, you need a reminder that your sneery teenage self-pity is really just a whole bunch of petty bullshit. So here's Pimp C: "My world a trip; you can ask Bun B, bitch, I ain't no liar / My man RoRo just lost his baby in a house fire / And then when I got on my knees that night to pray / I asked God why he let these killers live and take my homeboy's son away." Oof. Pimp layers on the burbling bass, the cooing choirs, and the muted acoustic guitars, and he builds a song so gorgeously and plainspokenly lonely that I can't even say much about it. UGK played SXSW last night, of course.

10. Tricky: "Hell is Around the Corner." Preview/Buy from iTunes

Impenetrably surreal mumbles, ghostly film-score strings, a track that sharpens RZA's wounded, stoned paranoia by making it more languid. And it all comes back to hell. Suddenly, I'm in a better mood.

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