It’s later than you think. #PlagueSongs, no. 4

This week’s #PlagueSong is a cover of Prince Buster’s “Enjoy yourself” (1963).

But I first heard the Specials’ cover version (1980).

That said, Prince Buster’s version is itself an adaptation of Guy Lombardo’s 1949 version, which reached #10 on the US pop charts in 1950.

Prince Buster retains the chorus of the 1949 song (music by Carl Sigman and words by Herb Magidson), but offers completely different lyrics for the verses. The other big difference is that Buster’s version is ska — so, the beat is on the upstroke, or, if you like, on the second and the fourth. And, as my rendition (unfortunately but predictably) reveals, that rhythm was the trickiest part of this cover for me! So, do check out the other, better, versions!


This week, featuring another bonus Plague Song! Emily Wishneusky Petermann covers Tom Lehrer’s “I Got it from Agnes.” Keep those Plague Songs coming, Emily!


If you’re interested in performing a #PlagueSong and are seeking ideas, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may well have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!


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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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They Might Be Giants’ Flood is 30!

They Might Be Giants' Flood (1990): album cover
They Might Be Giants’ Flood (1990)

I thought I would begin 2020 with something joyous — the 30th anniversary of They Might Be GiantsFlood, the band’s first album with a major label (Elektra), and the one that launched them into mainstream Anglo-American culture. (“Birdhouse in Your Soul” reached #6 on the UK charts and #3 on the US Modern Rock charts.) I had been an ardent fan since I purchased the pink-jacketed cassette tape of They Might Be Giants (their debut, on Bar None, 1986). I subsequently taught myself to play “Ana Ng” (from their second album, Lincoln, also Bar None, 1988), and saw them on that tour.

But my favorite song from their 1990 record, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” was too complicated for me to play then. I would later learn, from S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer’s Flood (in Continuum’s 33 1/3rd series, 2014), that the song changes key eighteen times. And has a heck of a lot of chord changes. Now, however, I can play it — not at professional proficiency, but well enough to be recognizable. Anyway. In celebration of the album’s 30th anniversary, here it is — preceded by the a cappella “Theme from Flood” (as it is on the album)!

To shake my amateurish clanging from your ears, why not listen to They Might Be Giants’ version of “Birdhouse in Your Soul”? Here’s the video.

The whole album is excellent. Beyond its famous song narrated by a nightlight, the album covers a diverse array of subject matter, including (as Reed and Sandifer note) “pet rocks, the Young Fresh Fellows, racism, quantum physics, and the 15th-century renaming of Constantinople.”

They Might Be Giants’ Flood (1990)

As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, They Might Be Giants are my favorite band. They’re musically and lyrically inventive, and are still writing great songs. Here’s a 90-minute playlist that will offer you an appropriately idiosyncratic introduction to the band’s work.

They Might Be Giants: Filibuster Vigilantly (a 90-minute introduction to their work)

Here’s a more conventional, 3-hour compilation, presented in chronological order.

The Best of They Might Be Giants

And here’s nearly everything by They Might Be Giants available on Spotify. (At the time of this writing, this playlist runs 18 and a half hours.)

Like you, I have no idea what 2020 will bring. But I’ll continue trying to use this blog to shine some light amidst (what feels like) growing darkness in the world. Sometimes, posts will directly address some of the evils we face. Other times, they won’t. After all, celebrating joy is one way to oppose the rising tide of despair. And that’s what this post is about.

Not to put too fine a point on it:

say I’m the only bee in your bonnet.

Make a little birdhouse in your soul.


BONUS — TMBG’s original promo video for Flood.

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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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Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat

I’m borrowing the title of Charles Mingus’ tribute to Lester Young because my uncle Terry Webb liked Young, Mingus, and this song. To the best of my knowledge, Terry did not wear pork pie hats. Earlier in his career, Terry wore bowler hats. Later, he wore a Tyrolean hat. Or no hat — as in the photo below.

Philip Nel and Terry Webb, August 2018.

I could not be at Terry’s funeral in Bournemouth today. So, I sent this brief video reminiscence — which I am sharing here for any who would like to see it. Friends. Family. People who enjoy tributes for a favorite uncle.

Yes, that is an actual postcard from Terry, sent in 1975. Another annotation: the three photos that cycle through during the “same wavelength” section were cropped by Terry himself. While going through Terry’s hard drive of photos to make photo albums for Terry’s widow, my sister (Linda) came across those three, labeled terry_phil1, terry_phil2, terry_phil3. One other note: near the end, the Charlie Parker CD I hold up is one Terry gave me when he was visiting us in Nashville in the 1990s. Whenever the two of us were anywhere near a record shop, we’d go in and he would always get me a jazz CD he recommended. This particular one does indeed have “Parker’s Mood” on it. No one watching this video today could have known any of the above, of course. But hopefully the intent came through.

As I worked on selecting the music with Terry’s friends Vic Grayson and Derek Fones, I realized how much of my jazz knowledge comes from Terry. They would mention a song, and I would think: Oh, yes, Terry and I chatted about Bill Evans. And Charles Mingus. And Duke Ellington. And, of course, Charlie Parker. Here’s our Spotify playlist for the funeral.

Terry’s choices (communicated to Derek, a week or so before Terry died) are:

The Spotify playlist lists this last one as “New Orleans Function,” but don’t let that fool you: it’s actually “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble.” It’s followed by a shorter Armstrong recording of the same song, and another version by Kid Ory. Terry asked for “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” as the exit music: we’ve added a few extra recordings so that the music keeps playing as people depart the chapel. Terry wanted people to enter to “Parker’s Mood.” However, since “Parker’s Mood” is so brief (and would conclude before people had finished entering), we decided to precede it with Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece,” and then begin the funeral proper with “Parker’s Mood.” This way, people could actually have a chance to listen to the Charlie Parker. Also, how many funerals begin with “Parker’s Mood”? I think Terry would have liked this somewhat unconventional beginning.

(Derek and Vic and I discussed including Mingus’ “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” but it ultimately did not make the final playlist. As is ever the case, we had more music than time. So, check out the album Mingus Ah Um and listen for yourself. Indeed, why not give yourself a treat and listen to the whole album?)

So long, Terry. And thanks for all the delight — musical and otherwise — that you brought to our lives.

For their invaluable help in planning the funeral, special thanks to my cousin Vicky O’Neill and Head & Wheble funeral director Bob Bowater. For their indispensable assistance in making musical selections, thanks to Vic Grayson, Derek Fones, and Terry himself!

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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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