Pete Seeger, "This Land Is Your Land" (Smithsonian Folkways; 1958).
Bob Dylan, "Dixie" (Columbia; 2003).
Todd Snider, "The Ballad of the Kingsmen" (Oh Boy; 2004).
Randy Newman, "The World Isn't Fair" (Dreamworks; 1999).
Kimya Dawson, "My Heroes" (K; 2004).
The Undertones, "Teenage Kicks" (Sire; 1978).
The Go-Betweens, "Going Blind" (Jetset; 2000).
William Shatner, "Common People" (Shout! Factory; 2004).
The Mekons "Last Dance" (Quarterstick; 1985).
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, "This Land Is Your Land" (Daptone; 2005).
About a year ago, my girlfriend signed us up for a friend's "CD-R of the month" club. Neither one of us is in the same social circle as the club's organizer, which put us in the strange position of receiving a new CD every month that's been arranged by somebody we've never met. I learned that Stacey in Brooklyn was relying on Belle & Sebastian and Nick Drake to recover from what appeared to be a romantic funk; that Ben in Oakland cultivated the peculiar yearning to share 45 minutes of bombastic noise with his friends; and that Mike in Portland is the kind of guy who signs up for a mixtape club, then pads his disc with Beatles songs.
Each month, a new CD would arrive and I would dutifully kvetch about it. "They really shouldn't have asked you to join," my girlfriend said. But oh, how wrong she was! "Just wait until it's our turn," I replied. "These fools will be slain by my years of musical know-how!"
Our assigned month crept up on me in the middle of the night: It was nearly 3 a.m. when I realized our song cycle was due the next morning. I leapt from bed and got to work. Our mix would be book-ended with dueling versions of America's proudest song: A lonely reading by Pete Seeger, then a modern reworking that throws tacit, funky daggers at George W. Bush. It would include my favorite political song (Randy Newman's pitch-perfect "The World Isn't Fair," which explains the failure of Marxism in three minutes) and my favorite artist (Bob Dylan, represented from the mean soundtrack to Masked and Anonymous). It would include the only band in history to reunite with class (the Go-Betweens); two of the most underrated songwriters currently at work (Todd Snider and Kimya Dawson); and, for those who enjoy music, the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks."
I mailed the CD-R to all of the people in the club, then sat back and waited for the accolades to roll in. I was sure that Stacey in Brooklyn would promptly cheer up, that Ben in Oakland would expand his palette beyond noise, and that Mike in Portland would realize that there is, indeed, life after the Beatles. Yet the raves from these strangers—whose tastes I had reveled in criticizing for months—never came. After an agonizing period of silence, I swallowed my pride and asked our friend who had organized the club if there had been any response to my masterpiece. "A lot of people felt it was too short," she said. "And a few said it was angry and depressing." She paused. "Honestly," she added, "I thought it was a pretty good first-time effort."
Jay Ruttenberg is a staff writer at Time Out New York and the editor of The Lowbrow Reader.