It’s been around 100 degrees in New York City lately. It’s impossible not to organize your life around heat like this—in terms of activity, food, sleep, fashion, and yes, music. Heat like this insinuates itself into your consciousness just like the right songs can—irresistibly, maddeningly, humidly, sexily—so I’m not going to resist it. We are a special breed, those of us who love New York in the summer. We need to be laid out sometimes, and we know it. Left to my own devices, I tend to move so fast that it’s a relief to just get leveled occasionally by a power greater than myself. Masochistic? Maybe. I did write a book about spending four years in the S&M industry (Whip Smart just came out in paperback). But I don’t think you need experience as a dominatrix to understand the pleasure of giving in.
So, for the days of sweaty thighs, garbage reek, and watery iced coffee, I give you a heat wave soundtrack. Late summer jams need to fit certain criteria, and despite obvious genre-based differences, all these songs meet it. Swagger, soul, and a call to surrender—your body wants to give in to them, the way it has to sometimes to survive: slow your step, pop a hip, lift your hair, drop some clothes, and sweat it out.
Act I – Rocksteady
1. “No No No” – Dawn Penn
When I was 19, I went hunting for this song. I had heard it somewhere, and ever after it bobbed periodically through my consciousness, driving me crazy. I needed to own it. I needed to listen to it until my ears bled. I have always listened to music like a crackhead, and that period of my life was no exception (especially given that I was also smoking crack like a crackhead around then). This was before the internet, before mp3’s, before iPods. All around Bed Stuy (where I lived back then) there were these record/junk shops that were really just some guy’s basement, accessible from the street. Summer afternoons, I dug through stacks of disintegrating LPs in dim, mildew-smelling cellars, until I finally struck gold. Feel Like Jumping: Best of Studio One Women was maybe the best musical purchase of my life. Indeed, I listened to it until my ears bled. Now, you can just download it from wherever, but I promise you, it sounded better crackling on my shitty record player, in my un-air-conditioned apartment, with a shwaggy joint and an uncertain future. Music is always better when you need it.
2. “Police & Thieves” – Junior Murvin
I’m an enormous sucker for a man with a good falsetto, and it doesn’t get any better than this. Only reggae can produce songs about the gnarliest violence and atrocity, and make it sound like liquid love pouring all over your sticky body.
3. “You are Mine” – Alton Ellis
I grew up loving the “oldies” (Does this qualify anymore? Are eighties hits “oldies” now?), that is, the hits of the fifties and sixties that my dad loved. My first mixes ever were made by him, studded with favorites like “Runaround Sue,” “Blue Moon,” “Stand By Me,” and “Love is Strange.” Well, unbeknownst to me, around the same time, the “Godfather of Rocksteady” had taken the very elements I loved in songs of that era, and infused them with, how do I say this? SOUL.
4. “Feeling is Right” – Susan Cadogan
Okay, Susan Cadogan started out as a librarian. Love, right there. But then she went on to be discovered by Lee “Scratch” Perry and subsequently recorded some of the grooviest reggae tunes of all time, including killer covers of “In the Ghetto” and “Fever,” and including this one. Speaking of which, Perry is unarguably a genius, having produced virtually all my favorite reggae artists, but have you ever seen him live? I saw him at the Middle East in Boston back in the late 90’s and the man had pictures of Jesus taped all over him (among other things). He threw pieces of raw chicken at the audience while his statuesque Swiss wife handed him blunt after blunt after blunt. That’s the life. Or, a kind of life, I guess.
Act II – Soul
5. “Hotline” – Reggie Garner
“Baby, you I could never deceive/I’m so in love with you it hurts me to breathe.” For a writer who tends toward long, lyrical phrases, I sure do like my music simple, straightforward, and romantic. No need for verbal gymnastics if you mean it, and Reggie Garner means it like nobody’s business. I’ll call that hotline ten times a day. I have actually; I never get sick of this song.
6. “Opportunity” – The Jewels
Did I mention that I loved falsetto? How about harmonies? How about fables about how outlandish ambition will take you down?
7. “Make Me Yours” – Bettye Swann
I am a feminist. But it doesn’t stop me from loving the ladies of soul, their desperate (or jubilant, or begrudging, or swooning) complacency. What makes soul music soul music is that it taps into the rawest wish: the ache in your guts (or your heart, or your pants) that doesn’t give a damn what your politics are, or your thoughts, or your morals, just please, please, make me yours. It’s not even about the words; it’s about the sound of that feeling, that pure need that we hate to let ourselves feel. And that feels so good when we do.
8. “I Wish Someone Would Care” – Irma Thomas
Um, see #7. No one has ever been pitiful so powerfully as Irma Thomas.
Act III – White People
9. “Stay Monkey” – Julie Ruin
Kathleen Hanna doesn’t write a lot of love songs. Good songs, yes. But love songs? No. But that’s not what makes this song great. It’s spooky and jangly and robotic and desperate and yes, romantic, all at the same time—that’s what makes it great. It sounds like a girl in love alone in her room, or her head, and there’s hand-claps. What more do you want?
10. “Can’t Explain” – The Spells
In 1999, Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony released one album as The Spells, which included this Who cover. It totally has that loosey-goosey, lo-fi, danceable je ne sais quoi that makes a really good dog day tune. Makes me want to dance with a little mod haircut and white jeans and a cigarette and a devil-may-care attitude. See video of the original for style guide.
11. “Future Starts Slow” – The Kills
I hadn’t listened to these guys in a while, but their newest (Blood Pressures) might be my favorite album of 2011 thus far. It’s bursting with heat-wave masterpieces—hot and rocking and simple—just one after another. This song is great, but I could have picked anything off the album.
12. “Future Crimes” – Wild Flag
Okay, I know Carrie Brownstein is already on this playlist, and I used to never double up on mixes, but I’ve mellowed in my old age. I’m writing a novel that takes place in the nineties and has a lot of music in it, so I’ve gotten back in touch with the music I loved from back then. Did you know she has a new band, Wild Flag? If not, you should get with the program. This is the single, and I dare you to listen to it just once.
13. “Who Am I to Feel So Free” – MEN
I was psyched when this song got featured on Weeds. I can think of so many queer/feminist/political artists who would be stupid famous if they were straight (because their songs are excellent). Can we make this happen, please? Also, have you seen the video for this song? Go, now.
14. “You’ve Already Gone” – Jenny Hoyston And William Whitmore
I was late to discover this collaboration (Hallways of Always) between Erase Errata’s Hoyston, and her ex-roommate Whitmore, but thank god I did. This song isn’t about giving in to smoldering heat, but it’s about giving in, of a sadder gorgeous sort.
15. “By Your Side” – GAYNGS
I was going to put a Bon Iver song on this mix, but ugh, isn’t everybody sick of how much everybody loves Bon Iver? Well, part of Bon Iver is in Gayngs (along with parts of a bunch of your other favorite indie bands), and this is a truly inspired cover. Granted, Sade is hard to beat when it comes to the sultry-heartachey-sexy summer jams, but Gayngs pays pretty breathtaking homage. This is a band formed out of love for eighties soft-rock. How can you not love it? Just give in.
– Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart, which came out in paperback on July 19th. She teaches writing and literature at SUNY Purchase, The New School, and NYU, and also co-curates and hosts the monthly music and reading series, Mixer, on the Lower East Side. She is currently at work on her first novel.
Click here to read Melissa Febos’s interview with Electric Literature.
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Need more music? Check out other EL Mixtapes:
July Mix by The Faster Times
June Mix by Helen Phillips
May Mix by Benjamin Hale
April Mix by Fiona Maazel
March Mix by J. Robert Lennon
February Mix by EL Staff