Need a new play list? These four tracks should be in heavy rotation. Plus: Liner notes, band pairings, and behind the music scuttlebutt.
"Can't Stay Awake"
Liner notes: One-man band Dylan Baldi unleashes a swarm of fuzzy guitars, lurching beats, and incomprehensible lyrics on this instant classic, recalling the murky exuberance of early R.E.M.
Behind the music: Employing a computer and a cheap microphone, this Cleveland teenager started recording songs in his parents' basement in late 2009, quickly becoming a favorite among music bloggers. This fizzy set collects those low-fi gems, some originally available only on vinyl or cassette. A proper album is currently in the works.
"The Dance Class"
Liner notes: Powered by a twangy high-octane groove, Old 97's front man Rhett Miller purrs, "I am in love with whoever you are," displaying his gift for creating unsettling, even creepy, characters in this portrait of a lonely voyeur.
Behind the music: The Grand Theatre is the eighth studio album for the genre-stretching alt-country quartet, which launched in Dallas in the early '90s. It also includes the bracing "Champaign, Illinois," a Bob Dylan-sanctioned rewrite of his classic "Desolation Row."
DISC 3, TRACK 13
"Is It Because I'm Black"
Liner notes: "Something is holding me back/Is it because I'm black?" croons Johnson on this gloomy 1969 ballad. Recorded after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it was a startling departure from the R&B cult hero's raucous party fare, such as "Dresses Too Short."
Behind the music: This underrated Mississippi-born shouter first enjoyed success on Chicago's tiny Twinight Records, as chronicled on this terrific four-disc, 81-track set (spanning 1959 to 1977). The collection also includes Johnson's efforts on the even more obscure Zachron and Cha Cha labels. Unfortunately not included: his '70s recordings for Memphis' Hi Records, where Al Green scored his landmark hits.
"So Is Cardboard Clouds"
Liner notes: This addictive song from Stereolab's 12th (and perhaps final) studio album epitomizes the band's enthralling retro-futurism, fusing analog synths, dreamy melodies, and Laetitia Sadier's serene yet hard-to-decipher vocals.
Behind the music: Founded by French-born Sadier and British guitarist Tim Gane in 1990, Stereolab is now on hiatus, with no return scheduled. Sadier, who recently released a solo record dealing with her sister's suicide, has also appeared on albums by Blur, Sigmatropic, and Mouse on Mars.