Archive for Mixes

The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3

This week’s #PlagueSong is dedicated to my mother, Gloria Hardman. This is her favorite song, her motto, and very good advice.

The song is funnier when sung as Eric Idle’s “Mr. Cheeky” character (as it is in The Life of Brian). I suspect the song’s mixture of irony and sincerity is one reason it resonates with my mother, with me, and with so many others. Dark humor leavens its “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” optimism and makes that optimism somehow more plausible.

That said, in my performance (such as it is), I lean more into the song’s sincerity. When my mother sings it these days, she too draws more on its hopefulness than its irony. Indeed, she really only recalls the chorus.

Edward Lear, “The Owl and the Pussycat”
(from Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, 1871)

Poetry she heard as a child (Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”) and some songs — from her childhood, my childhood, and the life she lived in between — are most likely to elicit a spark of recognition. So, when I visited her earlier this month (during the week of Spring Break), I signed her up for Spotify, and made her a playlist of songs she still “knows” — evident via a reference either to just the chorus, or to some other lyric.

For example, when I’m about to take her for a walk, I’ll say, “Let’s grab your coat, and get your hat.” She replies, “Leave your worries on the doorstep.” Then we sing a bit of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” But Mom knows the lyrics to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the best: during my last visit, after we had sung it a few times together, she managed a rendition unaccompanied.

I chose “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” because it’s her favorite, because I don’t know when I will see her again, and because I wanted her to have a recording of me singing this song to her. At any time, one of the good healthcare workers at the “Memory Care” facility where she lives can pull up this YouTube video and press play. Though Mom once programmed computers and taught students and faculty how to use theirs, she cannot now operate the computer in her room. For that matter, she cannot find it.

Gloria Hardman and her son, Philip Nel.  Concord, Mass.  9 March 2020.
Mom and me. Concord, Mass., USA. 9 March 2020.

Shortly after my visit began earlier this month, The Commons — the Massachusetts retirement community where she lives — went into lockdown. I could continue visiting only because I was staying in a guest room on site. As of March 10, everything was cancelled: all family visits, all trips off campus, all events, all tours (for prospective residents and prospective employees). Since I left on March 13, no other family member has been allowed in to The Commons. Mom and I still chat via Skype at least once a week — I have set up my computer to mirror hers so that I can answer the Skype on her end. But, like many people with elderly relatives, I do not know when I will be able to visit again.

That is one reason I say “I don’t know when I will see her again.” Another reason is that she is receding further into the fog of Alzheimer’s. During this visit, she recognized me about 80% of the time. Will she know me when next I see her? Possibly. Possibly not.

Although I could write other, darker paragraphs on the subject of “I don’t know when I will see her again,” context already implies these paragraphs and so they can remain, for now, implicit.

More important is that she is and has been The World’s Greatest Mother. Truly, when it comes to mothers, my sister Linda and I won the lottery. (Yes, exactly — who knew there was a Mother Lottery? We don’t even remember buying a ticket! And yet, here we are. Remarkable.) Most important of all, Mom knows we love her, we know she loves us, and her love is with us even when she is not.

And so. We look on the bright side of life. We also look on the bright side of death — as per the song’s third verse…. And we sing songs via Skype.

Will you sing this one with us?


If you’re interested in performing a #PlagueSong, but lack ideas for which one, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist!


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Do Not Touch Your Face. #PlagueSongs, no. 2

Welcome to the second in my series of #PlagueSongs! As I say in my inaugural #PlagueSongs post,

Each Tuesday, I will post a video of me performing a “plague-themed” song, very broadly defined. It is my way of standing on my balcony and singing to you…. I am also inviting you to sing and post yourself singing whatever songs are keeping you going these days. I’ve deliberately defined “plague-themed” very broadly — this can truly be any song that is sustaining you.

In this week’s, I perform an international pop hit from 5 years ago that offers some excellent advice for life in the age of corona. Apologies in advance for my falsetto because no, you will not be able to unhear it.

The keen observers among you will notice that I do adjust my glasses near the end there — a near-miss that is common for the bespectacled. But I do not touch my face. And you should try to avoid touching yours.

It’s hard! I know. But perhaps the plaintive screech of my falsetto will help this stay in your mind. Or, better, check out The Weeknd’s version.

And… have any of you recorded Plague Songs of your own? Emily Wishneusky Petermann has recorded one, which she has posted to Facebook. Enjoy!

Looking for suggestions of what to sing or play? Perhaps you’ll find ideas on my COVID-19: A Coronavirus Pandemic Playlist 🎵💃🦠🕺🎶

Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other.

And stop touching your face already.


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Sing. Sing a Song. #PlagueSongs, no. 1

Inspired by videos of Italians singing to or playing music for each other, I am starting a new feature on this blog: #PlagueSongs

Each Tuesday, I will post a video of me performing a “plague-themed” song, very broadly defined. It is my way of standing on my balcony and singing to you. Since I do not have a balcony and you may be anywhere in the world, I am doing this via YouTube, and will be sharing via this blog, Twitter (@philnel) and Instagram (@thephilnel). I will be tagging them all #PlagueSongs.

I am also inviting you to sing and post yourself singing whatever songs are keeping you going these days. I’ve deliberately defined “plague-themed” very broadly — this can truly be any song that is sustaining you. Sing with those you’re quarantining with. (Do NOT go and find people to sing with.) Sing a cappella. Or sing with instrumentation. But do sing.

When we sing to each other, we offer hope. We have fun. We come together, even though we cannot be with one another. We affirm our bond to each other. Because we will need each other to get through these many months of quarantine, overwhelmed health care systems (such as in Italy and the U.S.), a collapsing global economy, and whatever other challenges we face.

So. Here I am, singing to you. Will you sing to me?

As the above makes evident, I am not a professional musician. Indeed, I chose Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic in part because it must be sung with enthusiasm, and in part because it was definitely not written to be performed on acoustic guitar. I knew I would look a little ridiculous.

Indeed, I hope I look a little ridiculous. I figure that you could probably use a laugh right now.

So, pull out your trombone, sidle up to the piano, pick up the banjo, dust off your flute, or just open your mouth in song.

Looking for suggestions of what to sing or play? Perhaps I can help. I’ve been assembling COVID-19: A Coronavirus Pandemic Playlist 🎵💃🦠🕺🎶

Because, yes, we are in a plague year — an older term for what we might now call a time of pandemic (or, to borrow a hashtag from Twitter yesterday, #coronapocalypse). And, in a plague year, daily life is different.  But remember that humankind has faced plague years before. As people have done in the past, we too will persist.  We will carry on.  We will do the best we can.  Because that is what we do.

And, to sustain our spirits during this plague year, let us make music together — even if we must be physically apart. We will survive! (Sing it! We will survive!)

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Best of 2019: Music

Covers to 2019 albums by Sleater-Kinney, Sundara Karma, And the Kids, Tones and I.
The Future Is Here: Best of 2019

Just under the wire, here’s my “Best of 2019” playlist. Have I missed some good music? I expect I have. That’s what the “comments” section is for. It’s also why I’m including a few other “Best of 2019” playlists here.

First, here’s mine, named for Sleater-Kinney’s “The Future Is Here.” I probably listened to their The Center Won’t Hold more than any other record this year.

2019: The Future Is Here [Phil’s Best of 2019]

The above gives you 39 tracks, including Lizzo, Wilco, Big Thief, Big Lazy, Ex Hex, Lil Nas X, Lana Del Rey, Miranda Lambert, Karen O, Odette, Rapsody, Raphael Saadiq, Kate Tempest, Billie Eilish, The National, The Highwomen, Leonard Cohen, and clipping.

For something a bit more focused, give a listen to the 18 tracks on my friend Scott Peeples’ Best of 2019: “Not in Kansas” (also included on my playlist, and my favorite song from The National’s I Am Easy to Find).

19: Not in Kansas [Scott Peeples’ Best of 2019]

Now, let’s turn to Sound Opinions co-host Greg Kot’s carefully curated 2019 Mixtape. Listen to their whole end-of-year episode, too.

I love that President Obama continues to offer lists of his annual favorites. He reads and listens widely. This is his 2019 playlist — I assembled it from the list he posted on Instagram. In that post, he writes, “From hip-hop to country to The Boss, here are my songs of the year. If you’re looking for something to keep you company on a long drive or help you turn up a workout, I hope there’s a track or two in here that does the trick.”

Enjoy! Happy New Year!

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The Many Moods of Christmas: Playlists

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Just for you (yes, you!), here are some musical selections — in many genres. The mixes’ themes cover a range of moods, and the songs themselves are in many varieties.


Countdown to Christmas

An eclectic, mostly peppy mix — it winds down a bit at the end. Many genres: jazz, punk, big band, rock, R&B, and Rankin-Bass animated Christmas specials. Some songs you’ll recognize, and others you won’t. All are favorites of mine.

Countdown to Christmas

Cool Yule

Primarily swing, lounge, big band.  Mostly from the 30s, 40s, 50s, but a few from the 60s, and a few from even later — the Swan Dive and Squirrel Nut Zippers tracks. Featuring Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, the Andrews Sisters, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, and many others.

Cool Yule

A Very Jazzy Christmas

This one is all instrumental jazz. And by jazz, I mean real jazz. There is no Kenny G. on this playlist. Instead, you’ll find Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Vince Guaraldi, Oscar Peterson, Dexter Gordon, Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Stanley Jordan, and many others.

A Very Jazzy Christmas

1980s Christmas

Christmas songs from the 1980s! Kurtis Blow, U2, Prince, Ramones, RUN-DMC, Wham, Squeeze, Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Madonna, Pretenders, Siouxsie and the Banshees, John Denver and the Muppets, and more! Yes, I’m counting the Springsteen as 1980s: I know it was recorded in 1975, but its first commercial release was 1981.

1980s Christmas

Blue Christmas

Melancholic holiday music. John Prine, the Pilgrim Travelers, Hem, Shawn Colvin, Gregory Porter, Mark Kozelek, Aimee Mann, Lyle Lovett, Bruce Cockburn, Regina Spektor, Madeleine Peyroux and k.d. lang, and others.

Blue Christmas

Thank God It Isn’t Christmas Every Day

Unusual holiday selections named for a Mitch Benn song not available on Spotify. If you enjoy slightly off-beat and/or weird Christmas music, then this is for you.

Thank God It Isn’t Christmas Every Day

Rockin’ Through the Holidays: Classic Christmas Mix

This is a version of a mix that I gave my sister some years ago. Of all that is represented here, this includes the highest percentage of Christmas Songs That You Will Recognize — if you’re from the U.S., at any rate.

Rockin’ Through the Holidays: Classic Christmas Mix for Linda

Duke Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite

This is not a mix. It’s Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky, recorded in 1960. And it’s fantastic, of course. (I’ve included “Sugar Rum Cherry” on the Jazz mix and “Peanut Brittle Brigade” on both Countdown to Christmas and Cool Yule.)

Duke Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite (1960)

Merry Christmas from Sesame Street

Also not a mix. It’s the classic Sesame Street Christmas album from 1975! As Kermit would say, yaaaaaay!

Merry Christmas from Sesame Street (1975)

Finally, to encourage singing, may I present someone who should really not be recording himself singing? That’s right — it’s me, in December 2016, singing. So, now you can feel much better about your own singing voice.


image source (for musical-staff trees at top of blog post): “Free Finale Holiday Music,” The Finale Blog, 9 Dec. 2014.

Enjoy the holidays!

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Concentrate: Instrumental Playlists

image credit: VectorStock.

As those of us in North American academe stare down the final weeks of the term, it can be hard to sustain focus. Heck, whatever your job may be, there is much to distract you — in your environment, in your life, in your own head. So, here are some playlists to help you attend to the task at hand.

Inspired by Victoria Ford Smith‘s “Butt in Chair Mix” and Stephen Thompson‘s “Thinkin’ Songs” (both embedded below), I’ve created what is currently a 16+ hour playlist featuring jazz, classical (both older and contemporary), ambient, soundtracks, electronica, some rock. Whether all of it helps you focus will be partially a matter of taste, I know. But I offer it in the hopes that it does help!

Concentrate. Instrumentals.

Victoria Ford Smith’s “Butt in Chair Mix” inspired the above, and I included some of her selections in mine. Her playlist — and other such playlists — help me concentrate not only because of their selections, but also because they are not mine. When I listen to my playlists, somewhere in the back of my mind, I start thinking about how to improve it — what other tracks I might add, where I might add them, whether some tracks should be cut or moved, etc. When I listen to Victoria’s playlist, I just work.

Victoria Ford Smith’s Butt in Chair Mix.

As I say, NPR cultural critic Stephen Thompson’s “Thinkin’ Songs” was another inspiration; indeed, I incorporated nearly all of his selections into my (much longer) playlist.

Stephen Thompson’s Thinkin’ Songs

Depending on the sort of work you’re doing, you may also seek more uptempo music. For instance, I often find myself grading exams to the music of Raymond Scott — tunes you will know from their frequent use in classic Warner Brothers cartoons. (Carl Stalling, who scored the cartoons, loved to use Scott’s compositions.) Here’s a playlist featuring both Scott and a bit of Leroy Anderson — who, like Scott, enjoyed music that evoked an idea.

Raymond Scott and Leroy Anderson

I am inclined to say that this Scott-Anderson playlist is less “music for concentration,” and more “music to sustain my energy through a stack of exams,” but in sustaining my energy it actually does help me focus. I couldn’t write to this music. But I can grade exams to it.

Fans of 1980s music might enjoy this mix of mostly uptempo instrumentals from that era. Some are songs you’ll know but absent their usual vocals. Others were released without lyrics.

1980s instrumentals

If you enjoy post-rock, I recommend the soundtrack to Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica (2007) — which I have assembled via the music named in the film’s credits. (No soundtrack was officially released.)

soundtrack to Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica (2007)

That’s all! May you be as productive as you need to be. And don’t forget to take a break, too!


Other recent music posts you may enjoy, including their length at the time of this posting (when I originally posted these playlists, about half were shorter):

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Peace Pieces

album covers: Harry Kalahiki's Mungo Plays Ukulele, Kronos Quartet's Pieces of Africa, Django Reinhardt's Monsieur Guitare: The Very Best of His Early Recordings 1934-1939, and Dmitri Alexeev's Chopin: The Complete Preludes.
Peace Pieces

In these unsettling times, I turn to music to help me calm down — especially at day’s end, when I need to sleep. While calming melodies might not grant complete tranquility, they do nudge me in that direction. Thinking that others might also appreciate some soothing sounds, here is a playlist — roughly two CDs of music, incidentally — that I’ve named “Peace Pieces” (after the Bill Evans tune). It’s a mix of classical, new age, and jazz.

Looking for other relaxing music? I very much enjoy the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Orphee (2016). The opening track is #22 in the above playlist.

And there’s Moby’s Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep. (2016), which is also available for free on his website. (Breaking news: while creating that link, I learned that last week Moby released Long Ambients 2 via Calm. Within a month of its Calm release, the new album will become available via Spotify and Apple Music.)

The classic ambient record — my Desert Island Discs ambient record — is Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978). It’s excellent for relaxing.

If (for variety’s sake) you’d like a slightly different version of Eno’s album, check out Bang on a Can’s 1998 recording. I’ve listened to Eno’s so often that I lately find myself gravitating just as often to the Bang on a Can record.

I find Max Richter’s 8.5-hour Sleep (2015) to be a bit uneven. I like some pieces, but others are, frankly, less conducive to sleep. However, From Sleep (a 1-hour version of Sleep) is more likely to invite slumber. Indeed, two tracks included in From Sleep appear in my “Peace Pieces” playlist.

One more (added on Sunday, after this post went live): Winged Victory for the Sullen. Don’t let the name throw you off. The music is very grounding and not depressing — or, at least, I don’t find it to be. “A Symphony Pathetique” (from their self-titled debut) appears on my “Peace Pieces” playlist. Below are two albums and a couple of singles.

And with those bonus playlists (well, bonus albums, really), I’m concluding my week of posting a playlist each day. Miss any of the week’s musical delights? Links to the rest are below. And you can find others via my Spotify account.


The full list of the week’s mixes/playlists


Final thought. When I began this blog back in 2010, I imagined that one of its primary functions would be sharing mixes. Back then, that proved far too labor-intensive. Indeed, I have since had to take down mp3s that I posted. The Yahoo interface through which they were playable (but not downloadable) has long since been abandoned, leaving the files vulnerable to theft. So, I swiftly complied with copyright holders’ requests by taking down not only the files I was asked to remove, but all of them. (I have begun reconstructing those mixes via Spotify: The “meta” mix is now available again. Others will become available when I find time…)

Now, perhaps, the blog is finally realizing its initial mix-sharing aspiration — though, yes, you do need to be on Spotify in order to listen. (Using Spotify is free, but using it without ads requires a subscription.) I hope these mixes have been enjoyable for you!

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12″ Mixes from the 1980s & 1990s

Soft Cell: “Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go” (1981)

From the late 1970s into the 1990s, producers issued extended mixes — accompanied by instrumental versions, remixes, bonus tracks (songs cut from the record, live versions) — on 12″ records. The same size as a regular LP, each 12″ record had but a few songs on it. It might play at 45 rpm (like a single) or at 33 1/3 rpm (like an LP). By the mid-1980s, 12″ records were everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. Spotify doesn’t have it, but Google Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark (Blaster Mix)” (1984). It’s his famous hit song but with more drums, and placed more prominently in the mix. Also: more glockenspiel. And just… longer.

The Cure: “Boys Don’t Cry (New Vocal Mix)” (1986)

The production on that Springsteen track — and on many of these — can be excessive to the point of parody. But not always. Though they’re not available digitally, Peter Gabriel’s 12″ singles for his So album (1986) included some beautiful, different arrangements of those songs. (You can find the 12″ arrangement of “In Your Eyes” on his live albums.) Turning to songs included here, the “Mendelsohn Extended Mix” of INXS’s “Need You Tonight” (1987) begins by dropping out the drumbeat and a guitar part while placing the synthesizer further up in the mix. When the drums arrive later, and the omitted guitar later still, the song already has already established a slightly dreamier feel. It’s familiar, but different.

Some of these also will not feel like “new” renditions of familiar tunes. The 12″ of Soft Cell’s cover of “Tainted Love” (1981) has become the definitive version of that song. Likewise, the 12″ versions of New Order’s “Blue Monday” (1983) and “Bizarre Love Triangle” (1986) are likely the recordings of those tunes that you know best. And some of these exist only in their 12″ versions — Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” (1980), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982), Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” (1988).

Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock: “It Takes Two” (1988)

Likely because I was a teenager when most of these songs were released, I’m fond of these 12″ singles, however bombastic or excessive they may be. I like the massive chorus that opens Depeche Mode’s 9-and-a-half-minute mix of “Never Let Me Down Again” (1987). And as far as I’m concerned, Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin can sing “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (1985) for as long as they like. So, then, here are 74 extended mixes — running a total of eight hours — mostly from the 1980s. (There are also some tracks from the 1990s, and two from the 1970s.) Enjoy!

New Order: “Blue Monday” (1983)

Coming tomorrow… the final playlist in this week-long experiment in musical delights!


The mixes/playlists thus far

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Go! (a travel playlist)

Nearly 30 years ago, when my nephew Graeme was born, I sought music to give him. But most of what I found in record stores proved unsatisfying. (Why listen to kid-i-fied cover of a great song when you could listen to the original?) So, I started making mix tapes for kids — which later became mix CDs. Now that we have arrived in the era of the playlist, here’s a playlist (mixlist?) of songs about travel, all derived from those earlier mixes. Needless to say, all are suitable for children and their adults — though most were not written expressly for children.

walk / don’t-walk signal in Maastricht, 2013.

Continuing this week’s theme of musical delights, tomorrow (Friday) we will party like it’s 1989. Or even 1979. Bring your dancing shoes!


The mixes/playlists thus far

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Mah Nà Mah Nà: Italian Cinema, 1965-1976

Album covers for Fumo di Londra, Svezia Inferno e Paradiso, Ad Ogni Costo, & I Giovani Tigri.

Need a pick-me-up in the middle of the week? Whether you’re listening on Wednesday (the day I’m posting this) or not, welcome to this collection of sonic uplift! I’ve named it after the song you almost certainly know: Piero Umiliani’s “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” made famous in various versions performed by Jim Henson’s Muppets. On this playlist, however, you’ll hear the original, from the soundtrack of Svezia, inferno e paradiso (1968). You’ll also hear 49 other songs, composed by Umiliani, Ennio Morricone, Armando Trovaioli, Piero Piccioni, and others.

To give credit where due, this selection of film music by Italian composers, all recorded between 1965 and about 1976, draws inspiration (and a good portion of its playlist) from a 90-minute mix created by Bill DeMain over 20 years ago. He gave it to me on a cassette, but without song titles.

The original "Italian Cinema" mix tape compiled by Bill DeMain
The “caffeinated” side of Bill’s original mix.

Maybe 5 or so years ago, assisted by the Shazam app, I managed to reconstruct much of it digitally. (It has long been a favorite mix of mine!) When I couldn’t find a particular track, I added something in a similar vein. I had such fun making it that I made a sequel. This playlist includes tracks from both — the attempted recreation of Bill’s original and my “Part II.” Though not everything is available on Spotify, a surprising amount is.

Tomorrow, this week-long experiment in musical delights continues with… a travel-themed playlist for children and their adults. See you then!


The mixes/playlists thus far

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