Category Archives: Music


“an eerie yellowing photograph” by Melvin Peña

 Happy release day to Mike and the whole Hiss Golden Messenger family! The new record, “Heart Like a Levee,” is out now on Durham’s own Merge Records!

No less a luminary than David Bowie once called Hiss Golden Messenger’s music “mystical country,” synaesthetically comparing the sound to “an eerie yellowing photograph.” That may have been true of “Bad Debt” (2010) and earlier, maybe even as late as “Poor Moon” (2011), but not anymore.

Go listen to “Haw” (2013), “Lateness of Dancers” (2014), and now “Heart Like a Levee.” You’re going to find warmth, welcome, and increase of joy.

Go see Mike and the crew play when the tour comes to your town; those shows are vibrant, pulsating, and alive.

All the same, to celebrate the new record, I reinterpreted its cover art to reflect Bowie’s words on mike’s art. It’s one of the black and white photos by William Gedney which were the original springboard for the Duke Performance events last fall that gave way to the album’s creation.

Listen, buy, or stream; however you listen to music these days, spend some time with this record and enjoy it!


Melvin’s Top Songs, 2015 Edition

As with 2014, my list of favorite songs from 2015 is put together according to a certain loosely-structured formula. The songs are first arranged by sheer volume of plays as compiled by my account. Duplicate artists are excluded — a dictum that doesn’t apply if one is a cover — as are songs that tally as perennial favorites.

01. Burial, “Temple Sleeper” (358 plays). I write freelance for a living, so I listen to music constantly as I research, draft, and edit. This year, I wrote and wrote and wrote until I burned out a week or so ago. There were entire days this year during which I listened to nothing but this song by Burial. I’m bonkers about Burial anyway; I’ve never yet gotten tired of listening to “Untrue” (2007) on repeat. When the “Temple Sleeper” single dropped in January, it became an instant favorite.

02. Sia, “Chandelier” (284 plays). “Hostage” was my most-listened to Sia track in 2014, and this year, I found that the more I listened to “1000 Forms of Fear,” the more wonders, comfort, and karaoke ecstasy I drew from it. For a sold-out Pinhook karaoke in February, a benefit for the LGBTQ Center of Durham, hosted by Sylvan Esso, I wanted to sing “Hostage.” Of course, the only Sia that the Singsnap app had available at the time was “Chandelier,” so I devoted myself to learning it, having not really paid attention to it while the song was busy conquering Earth previously.

My friends Alexis, Julia, and Derek agreed to do backup dancing during the performance. In front of a packed Pinhook, my friends and I went to town. It was an absolute highlight for me; one of the best moments of the entire year. Our mischief was mentioned in the Indy, and that article gave a title to what became, not only one of my favorite art-pieces, but the banner image for most of the episodes of Pinhook karaoke that followed.

coordinated outfits and choreographed routines

“coordinated outfits and choreographed routines,” by Melvin Peña

That Sia record hasn’t been long out of my ears. I keep returning to it, song after song, and locating within it all of the things, among them, strength, empowerment, perseverance, and release. It’s just a glorious pop monument.

03. Badbadnotgood & Ghostface Killah, “Ray Gun (feat. DOOM)” (224 plays). Despite an erratic release schedule for his own projects, I don’t think there’s been a year since 2004 that the metal-faced villain, DOOM, hasn’t appeared in my list of top or favorite tracks, usually in a guest-starring role. That’s certainly the case here, as he pops up for a touch in my favorite hip-hop record of this year, “Sour Soul.”

The album is a collaboration between Toronto’s jazz/hip-hop trio BadBadNotGood and Tony Starks of the Wu-Tang Clan. As another writing-friendly record, I’ve probably heard the entire thing through at least 60 times this year, and this song way, way more than any other.

04. Felicia Day & Neil Patrick Harris, “My Eyes” (122 plays). Pinhook karaoke matters to me, and little brings me more unfiltered joy than taking the stage and rocking the mic. When Alexis asked me to duet with her on a song from “Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” in July before she moved away, I had a lot of work to do.

I still haven’t heard the entire production, which I know is shameful. I’ll work my way around to it at some point! I loaded the particular song she wanted to sing, “My Eyes,” onto my mp3 player and listened to nothing else until I mastered it utterly. Our karaoke performance ruled! It was so much fun being the NPH to Alexis’s Felicia Day.

my eyes

“my eyes,” photo by Maria Williams

05. Flash Chorus, “Elastic Heart” (109 plays). You know what else is excellent, liberating, and restorative? Choir practice. When my first Monday-night drinking choir dissolved in the spring, I felt a little bereft. Good things and pure joy are rarely long-lasting. I knew that successor Flash Chorus would arrive with autumn, but had no idea whether it would be as fun or transportive. Well, on our first night in September, the first song we sang happened to be exactly the one I was most absorbed by at that moment — Sia’s “Elastic Heart” — and the results were magnificent.

In the weeks leading up to the Flash Chorus premiere, my excitement for choir practice was at fever pitch. All through the summer, I’d missed the community and camaraderie that inevitably manifested every Monday. On anticipation alone, I designed an art-piece blending the album covers of the two tracks we were slated to sing; the aforementioned “1000 Forms of Fear” and of Montreal’s “The Sunlandic Twins.”

so many red flags

“so many red flags,” by Melvin Peña

If “Chandelier” got the most plays by numbers alone, the songs that did the most work for me this year off that Sia record were “Elastic Heart” and “Big Girls Cry,” both of which I’ve trotted out at various Pinhook karaokes. Even now that the fall season has ended, that first song and that first Flash Chorus video remain my very favorite of the whole run.

06. Daddy Issues, “Fuck Marry Kill” (108 plays). When a track plants a flag in my ears on first listen, no matter when it comes out, it’s almost guaranteed to make the year-end list one way or another. Greensboro’s Daddy Issues released their first and only LP, “Fuck Marry Kill,” in early November, a couple of months after the vicissitudes of life meant that the band’s dissolution had already occurred.

Just like their live show, the entire record is wonderful, full of life, happiness, and wild energy. The band announced ahead of time that, with no tour forthcoming — and thus, no need to invest the record’s earnings back into the live act — they’d donate all sales to Girls Rock NC. At only $7, you really have no excuse not to buy it immediately.

07. Axons, “The Athlete” (99 plays). It’s inspiring to me when people I know maintain a consistent dedication to both their work and creative lives. Civil rights lawyer by day, rock star by night, how Chicago’s Adele Nicholas keeps these balls, and many others, in the air is beyond me. One of Adele’s several musical projects, Axons, released “Unmanageable” in December 2014.

I went bonkers for “The Athlete” this year. It’s marvelous and speaks to the simultaneous rush and peril of lives in constant motion. With too much to do and too many goals to meet, the weight of expectation and risk of failure, when do we make time for reflection or connection? I had this song on quite a lot as I bounced back and forth between Raleigh and Durham and it always made me happy.

08. Mikal Cronin, “Change” (96 plays). I have neither the time, energy, or patience to hear every new record as it comes out just for the sake of staying current. The way I listen to music now means that, while I listen to tons of it, I do so based on what catches my ear, feels comfortable, or fills a particular need. Mikal Cronin’s “MCII” came out in 2013, but it wasn’t until fall of 2014 that certain tracks really started to connect with me.

I knew that 2015 would bring with it a number of significant changes and departures. What I didn’t anticipate was a flood of others that I was ill-prepared for and ill-equipped to handle on my own. I’ve been stronger in the past, and better at embracing the idea that “faith in change is something you can find.”

09. Phil Cook, “Ain’t It Sweet” (84 plays). If you know anything about me, you know that, to my mind, North Carolina is the best. The music of North Carolina started calling to me when I was visiting the Triangle during a school break in 1997 and heard a tune from Whiskeytown’s “Strangers Almanac” on local radio. Ten years later, on a different stopover in NC, my brother Peep and I went to see Megafaun play at The Pour House. Once I moved back in 2009, I started seeing Phil and Brad Cook everywhere; if there was a band I liked, one or both seemed to be playing with them.

For his own part, Phil Cook, whether he is supporting another artist or playing on his own, is a perpetual purveyor of ecstatic joy in performance. Perhaps my favorite 8 minutes of live music all year was at Duke Gardens in June. Backed by an all-star roster of talented musicians, including Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath, Phil and his pals delivered an all-conquering rendition of Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Northeast Texas Women.” All props to Dan Schram, who preserves these incredible moments, conferring boons upon us all.

What a treat and a pleasure it was when anticipation started to build for Phil’s first major solo record, “Southland Mission.” As with many of the things and people that I spend a deal of time contemplating or treasuring, Phil’s record inspired its own celebratory art-piece.

dem cook boys, tho

“dem cook boys, tho,” by Melvin Peña

10. Sweden, “Waterloo” (81 plays). As far as making art goes, one of my secret dreams and goals has long been to design an album cover. I was fortunate enough to be handed that opportunity in 2015. A group of my pals — Will, Rochelle, Alexis, Julia, Andrea, and Ricky — got together at various times to record an album of folk covers of Swedish pop hits under the aegis of Sweden – Band.

sweden - band

“sweden – band,” by Melvin Peña

I still can’t believe that a piece of art I created is visible all over the planet on services from Spotify to iTunes. By far, my favorite track on the record is a cover of ABBA’s “Waterloo.” Every time it comes on, it makes me smile and laugh, and I can’t hear it once without having to listen to it several times in succession. Same goes for the video version, which is totally bonkers. It’s a song and a record that sound like friendship to me.

Honorable Mention!

The Mountain Goats, “Blood Capsules” (67 plays). It wasn’t the next one in the queue as far as play-count goes, but this is my list and I can do whatever I like! I — and my baby puppy — love that 2015 Mountain Goats record, “Beat the Champ.” One of my deepest hopes is that Flash Chorus one day takes a crack at “Foreign Object,” which, in concert, became an instant shout-along classic.

beat the champ

“beat the champ,” by Melvin Peña

That said, the track that made me feel the best this year was actually from the 12″ that came with the deluxe package from Merge Records, “Blood Capsules.”

Hooray for music! Listening to it, singing it, playing it, or witnessing it being played, music rules. I’m looking forward to what jams I’ll be overwhelmed by in 2016!

Flash Chorus Premiere: Sia’s “Elastic Heart”

This is extraordinary and I’m never going to stop sharing it.

Durham, North Carolina’s Flash Chorus had its premiere outing at Motorco on 14 September, 2015. We sang one of my favorite pop songs, Sia’s “Elastic Heart.”

I’m so proud of how this came out. We ran it through, practiced it for about 45 minutes, and then recorded it. I was surrounded by friends and having the best time. Monday night choir practice is such an absorbing experience. I’m so glad it’s back.

If you’re in the triangle, you should come along and try it out. If you’re not, but have a pal who is, send them along!

Flash Chorus:


No Rest for the Wicked at PopUp Chorus

Monday, 9 March 2015, Motorco.

I love going to Monday night choir practice at Motorco. I make a point of getting there at least an hour before the doors even open each week. It’s such a place of safety and comfort. It never ceases to astound and amaze me that, within about 45 minutes, 200-some-odd people can turn a pop song they might never have heard before into a thing of almost ecstatic beauty.

Such was certainly the case for me on this particular Monday night. I’d been trying to stave off sinus problems and an issue that was affecting both of my ears for about a week. It had gotten so bad that earlier that day, I went to make an appointment at a doctor’s office to have my ears looked at. That night, I could barely make out what people four feet away from me were saying. It felt like I was hearing everything through a sheet of glass, and the sensation of not hearing clearly was terrifying.

In the midst of all this, PopUp Chorus remained a haven. I’d not heard Lykke Li’s “No Rest for the Wicked” before choir practice began. Not because I couldn’t hear it, but because I tend to find that it’s more fun to learn a song on the fly. Songs I’ve never heard before become instant favorites, while songs I know very well going in are bogged down in expectation. Wanting to get it “right” intervenes in the learning process, which is something I happen to really enjoy.

I’d just recently picked up this earth-shatteringly awesome 12th Doctor/Peter Capaldi shirt with a ThinkGeek gift certificate, and this turned out to be the perfect night to give it a test drive. In the video, it shows up just as boldly as you please, and I was glad to do my part to rep for Capaldi’s Doctor Who.

hsnp_doctor_xii_ddThe wild choreography in the video, especially coming from the bleachers, where my buddy and I are quite clearly doing work, was equally impromptu. Not only had I not heard the song before we started practicing it, neither had I given the least bit of forethought to accompanying gestures. What we came up with is a gentle blend of wizardry and theurgy, with a dash of Danzig, and a finishing move that suggests southern folk-rock harmonizing of the 1970s.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some people thought we’d planned these things out in advance, or were doing them on purpose to be in the video. We’re always in the video — everyone is. It actually makes me uncomfortable to be a focal point. PopUp Chorus is about community and fun, not the individual. To my thinking, the videos that are made and posted are there to preserve what the choir creates. The true fun of choir practice is the process itself.

When my pals and I are acting up, know that we’re doing it every time, even when the cameras aren’t rolling. I’m doing it because I’m having fun. Sort of “dance like no one’s watching,” if you will. It’s one of the few free spaces to play, laugh, and cavort. It’s like the first day of school every Monday. People are happy to see each other, catch up, and sing. There’s something very nearly holy about everything that goes on at Motorco in beautiful downtown Durham, North Carolina, on Monday nights.

Choir practice is a rare thing. During the time we’re devoting to a particular song, everyone is working together toward creating a new thing. We’re all there to learn, to participate, and do so in a spirit of unfettered joy. People meet up with friends and make new connections. For a few hours on a Monday — traditionally, the least favorite day of the working week — adults can act like children, children’s contributions matter as much as anyone else’s, and every voice has value.

If every city, if every town, had something like PopUp Chorus, the world would be a kinder, sweeter place. I love it. I need it. I don’t know what I’d do now without it. If you live in the triangle and aren’t coming to choir practice, you should really make time to try it out.

My 10 favorite songs in 2014

I completely agree with Nick Sanborn’s dictum about year-end lists, especially where music is concerned. It’s easy enough to make stuff up, or proclaim something a masterwork that you’ve only heard a handful of times. I like to live with music, to wade through it and wallow in it. When a song catches my ear, I listen to it until I’m either sick of it, or the song and I live happily ever after. is a wonderful service, and it’s been collating listening data for me since May 2005. Aside from mix discs in the car, streaming services that don’t scrobble, like Digitally Imported, or the occasional vinyl record, has borne faithful witness to everything I’ve listened to on laptops and mp3 players over the last decade. I can’t recommend the service more highly if you’re at all fastidious about such things.

The only further conditions I imposed were: a) one song per artist, b) no big carry-overs from last year, and c) no eternal classics. Holdover status takes Clear Soul Forces’ “Gotham City” featuring Idris Elba (113 plays) and Camera Obscura’s “Troublemaker” (103 plays) out of the list. By the latter, I mean songs that haven’t left heavy rotation in years, which disqualifies Massive Attack’s “Paradise Circus” (173 plays), Murray Gold’s “This is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home” (122 plays), Mount Moriah’s “Social Wedding Rings” (113 plays), and the Danger Mouse/MF DOOM remix of Zero 7’s “Somersault” (105 plays). Even being that selective, all ten of the following songs are in the overall top 25 for the year. Play counts are accurate as of 21 December.

01. Sia, “Hostage” (249 plays). I love that the crackling fury of Sia Furler’s voice is unrestrained. I love that Sia writes bonkers pop songs that take typical pop-song themes to their most absurd extremes. I love the sound of the xylophone/marimba/glockenspiel tumbling over itself through the bridge, like some kind of mischievous Slinky, ramming home the cartoonish nature of the entire enterprise. There’s nothing I don’t love about Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear (2014), and I’ll gush about it without reservation.

02. PopUp Chorus, “Paper Planes” (224 plays). The most soul-replenishing thing I did all year was join Durham’s PopUp Chorus. I say “Durham’s,” but people come from every corner of the Triangle to create improvised choral arrangements of classic hits and indie gems. Meeting regularly at Motorco, this community choir experience made Mondays not only tolerable, but even worthy of anticipation and excitement. I had this particular song, a version of MIA’s “Paper Planes,” on repeat into the wee hours of the morning as I rushed to complete an essay for Avidly/LA Review of Books on the confluences between Moral Mondays and attending choir practice.

03. Sylvan Esso, “Coffee” (211 plays). I’m not much of a dancer, but my friend Heather and I danced like maniacs at both the Sylvan Esso record release show at Cat’s Cradle in May and at their Hallowe’en show in Saxapahaw. Nick Sanborn’s energetic beat-crafting and Amelia Meath’s vocals, big enough to fill an arena and delicate enough to feel endearing and intimate, are more than the sum of their parts. Add to this the joy of singing “Coffee” at PopUp Chorus the week before the album dropped, and the glorious video, only enhanced by its final scene taking place at The Pinhook, and the confluence of joys was inescapable.

04. See Gulls, “Don’t Write Me Love Songs” (205 plays). I came to See Gulls through PopUp Chorus, since their former guitarist, Jacki, also created the original run of videos for our community choir. I liked the couple of songs they had up on Bandcamp well enough, but it wasn’t until a day party at Hopscotch in early September that I officially went over the deep end for See Gulls. My head exploding that day was both witnessed and remarked upon.

That enthusiasm has only gained momentum, as I’ve seen them play six times since Hopscotch. In performance, See Gulls seem to convey a mixture of energy, joy, and liberation. There’s a decided impulse to use the disappointments of love as a springboard into the new vistas opening before them. See Gulls’ “Don’t Write Me Love Songs” encapsulates all of this for me. It’s break-up music that is fueled, not by the frustration of loss, but by a nearly-ecstatic fervor to explore all that comes next.

05. Lost in the Trees, “Daunting Friend” (149 plays). Like “Paper Planes” and See Gulls, my first exposure to this song was through PopUp Chorus. We sang “Daunting Friend” in early June at a choir practice in Chapel Hill, and it stayed with me thereafter. There were times — thinking of all the new people I met this year, the few friendships that truly daunt me, deepening affections, and the prospect of being a part of communities that ensure I never have to feel truly alone — that this song would come on and tears would force themselves from my eyes before I could corral the impulse.

06. Tuomas Holopainen, “A Lifetime of Adventure” (106 plays). From the theme tune re-enacted with live ducks to the sultry slow jam version, 2014 was a year when my life-long preoccupation with Duck Tales was amply rewarded. When Tuomas Holopainen’s symphonic metal album about my first childhood idol, Scrooge McDuck, was announced, you can believe I was primed for it. As a kid, I admired Uncle Scrooge’s single-minded drive to be the world’s richest duck. At the same time, I saw how his family, friends, and long-lost love countered and tempered his ambitions. In a 6-minute track, complete with a massive guitar solo, Holopainen manages to involve all those feelings and memories, as well as the wisdom that derives from them. It’s a real achievement as far as I’m concerned.

07. Lykanthea, “Naked” (101 plays). I spend a lot of time trying to focus and write in front of a computer screen, so finding music I can write to is of the utmost importance. Under the Lykanthea banner, Lakshmi Ramgopal put out two really intense, challenging, and beautiful EPs in 2014, “Sundrowned” in January, and “Migration,” which I adore, in July. Both are free to download from Bandcamp, so if you’re looking for reading, writing, relaxation, or meditation music, you cannot go wrong with Lykanthea.

08. Mandolin Orange, “Cavalry” (96 plays). I only created 4 new pieces of art in 2014, so each one took on larger significance to me. A late coda to my 2013 monthly Doctor Who art project, I didn’t complete a piece for Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor until just before Series 8 debuted in late August of 2014. In late May, I attended my first Mandolin Orange show, at Durham’s American Tobacco Campus. “Cavalry,” a song told from the perspective of a horse in The Lord of the Rings, moved me quite profoundly, and while I worked out the design of my Capaldi piece, I happened to have the song on repeat.

09. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Southern Grammar” (92 plays). I was in the midst of a See Gulls obsession when Hiss Golden Messenger’s Lateness of Dancers came out in September, so it took a while for me to get into it. By the time Mike Taylor rolled with a nine-piece crew of heavy hitters onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre in mid-November, I’d become much more familiar with the record’s brighter and more cheerful sound. The album version of “Southern Grammar” doesn’t come close to the energy and power the HGM clique put on display for David Letterman. I’m still euphoric about this performance.

10. NehruvianDOOM, “Darkness (HBU)” (86 plays). I heard “Darkness” when this video dropped in July, and it was sufficient to make DOOM’s collaboration with Bishop Nehru my most anticipated hip-hop record of the year. When the record finally came out in early October, it more than exceeded my expectations. Not too many hip-hop albums have a principal vocalist who presents himself as an apprentice and an active learner, rather than as a finished product. As for DOOM’s involvement, it’s his most accessible and compulsively listenable full album of material since 2005’s collaboration with Danger Mouse, The Mouse and the Mask.

Special Mention: Koh Ikeda, “Tobe! Gundam” (97 plays). I watched Gurren Lagann on Hulu this summer; probably the first complete anime series I’d seen in several years. A young boy goes from a menial, cringing life of digging holes underground to flinging galaxies from the cockpit of a giant robot over the course of 27 episodes, which is as insane and wonderful as it sounds.

Following that experience, I wanted to go back to the start of the giant robot genre, so I started in on Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). It’s a bleak show, maybe grittier and more realistic, despite its bright color palette, than Battlestar Galactica. The theme tune, “Tobe! Gundam,” is also surprising, bringing together the despair of never-ending conflict with the impulse to persevere, cloaked in horn-flourishes and crowned by Koh Ikeda’s smooth, crooning vocals.