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Gary Himelfarb, founder of local reggae label RAS Records, e-mails his emphatic vote for Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band With the Rootettes’ “Too Sick to Reggae”—“[a] true story about ending up in prison in Jamaica being accused of being a ganja smuggler!!!!!!” He also notes that “Chuck Brown ain’t bad either.”
Tentatively speaking for his entire trio, Navies bassist/guitarist Mike Petillo chooses “Early Humans, pretty much anything they did. They were so loud live, drenching the crowd with feedback squeals while singer/guitarist Matt Vanek spewed Black Flag lyrics and ran around in his white boxer shorts. Definitely one the most underrated heavy noise-rock bands of the last couple of years.”
For D.C. MC Head-Roc, “Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ comes to mind because it speaks to the times and has to go down as a song that still retains its impact from the day it was written. That’s a masterpiece in my book….The brother Marvin lays it out in poetic simplicity and delivers his assessment with sincerity and concern for life on Earth as a whole.”
“I am keen on Mick Barr’s Orthrelm/Crom-Tech discs,” says Pig Destroyer and Agoraphobic Nosebleed guitarist Scott Hull. “Orthrelm’s music is much like the crazy, detailed connect-the-dots artwork that Mick lends his discs’ covers,” he says. “His music is intensely complicated yet retains a very organic and improvised feel.”
Unsurprisingly, PA-tape king Mike McNasty admits, “I truly like the hard-core go-go sound. Percussion drives the genre, but it is often put in the background for commercialism.” For those unafraid of D.C.’s native beat, he suggests “Drop the Bomb” by Trouble Funk, “Cise ’em on Up” by Rare Essence, “Sardines” by Junk Yard Band, and “The Water” by the Northeast Groovers.
Kevin Alvir, who as frontman for the Lil’ Hospital creates “sunny lo-fi pop straight from the bedroom,” chooses “Make Out Club” by Unrest. “I know it’s rather typical on my part,” he says. “But that song for me sums up that adolescent feeling of discovering all this exciting music from the area. It’s very teenage in spirit…but it’s very special as well.”
“I’m sure you’ll get a lot of votes for ‘Da Butt,’ and I do think ‘Da Butt’ is a fucking great song. There’s no way around that,” says Mark Noone, lead singer for the Slickee Boys, who ultimately chooses the Slickees’ own 1983 single, “When I Go to the Beach.” “Not just because I wrote it,” he says. “I just think it turned into kind of a D.C. anthem.”
Dischord Records co-founder and Evens member Ian MacKaye settles on legendary 1978 compilation :30 Over D.C., which fascinated him as a teenager. “Years later,” he says, “I was told that that when word got out that Skip Groff…was going to put out a compilation and was looking for submissions, people started making up bands and throwing together recordings to get on board. [It] ended up being a wonderful mix of artful basement recordings of one-off projects and solid active bands.”
“Speaking as director of the D.C. chapter of the American Composers Forum,” Jonathan Morris says, “I’d have to mention some of my favorite local composers”—though he also mentions Beauty Pill and the Gena Rowlands Band. For nonrockers, he selects Carrie Rose’s horn quartet “The Holy Ghost,” Steve Antosca’s “Invisible Landscape” for piano and conducted electronics, Andrew Simpson’s opera Agamemnon, and a sonata for solo violin by Nicholas Maw.
By e-mail, Ocean Orchestra director and ethnomusicologist Jennifer Cutting says, “I’d have to choose the album SirenSong by Connemara, a D.C. Celtic group fronted by vocalist Grace Griffith….[E]ach cut is as good as the next, the transitions are seamless, and Grace’s gossamer vocals can only be described as heavenly.”
Bruce Falkinburg, who plays bass in the Hidden Hand and owns Phase Recording in College Park, goes with Shudder to Think’s 1991 seven-songer, Funeral at the Movies. “It’s experimental, arty, anything-goes,” he says, “but it still rocks. It’s different from what you’d expect to be coming from D.C.”
“It was hard for me to think of anything,” says stay-at-home Rock ’n’ Romp mom Debbie Lee. “I’m so horrible. I don’t buy any new music. I’m in a time warp—my song is from 20 years ago, a Bad Brains song, ‘Sacred Love.’ I still like that song a lot. It’s the one I kept coming back to.” But, adds Lee, “I might change my mind.” (She did; we made her change it back.)
Jeff Surak, who records under the name Violet and runs the Web label Zeromoon, says that “the first thing that popped into mind” was Tiny Desk Unit’s 1981 EP Naples. “I can suggest others,” he notes, “but this has always had a special place in my heart. D.C. has never been so angular.”
“I think ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ would have to be my vote,” says songwriter Bill Danoff, the tune’s co-author. “It certainly has done the most for me….It launched John Denver’s career….And we wrote it right there in Georgetown in a little old funky basement apartment and sang it for the first time at the Cellar Door. And like I say, what’s ‘Hey Jude’ ever done for me?”
Galaxy Hut booker and musician Alice Despard has no trouble selecting Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” “Not only was this song a beautiful, sensual revelation to me as a teenager when I heard it on the radio, it was just at this time that I learned that Roberta Flack resided in D.C. for a time,” she e-mails. “My understanding and appreciation of D.C. musicians’ role in the wider world of music just blew wide open from that moment onward.”
“The thing that’s influenced me the most is probably the Autoclave self-titled EP,” says Partyline’s Allison Wolfe. Recorded in 1991, the all-female outfit’s second release was, she says, “different than most Dischord bands, and most punk. Probably because it had a woman’s touch….It sounded fuller than most stuff at the time—and more complicated.”
Musician and songwriter Timothy Bracken chooses former Autoclave member Mary Timony’s Mountains album, which he calls “[u]ndoubtedly unusual and important music. When I first heard this record, I felt the way I did when I first heard the White Album or Trout Mask Replica. I was amazed. The kind of record that stays with you and never gets old.”
Michael Thompson of Lissen, which fuses go-go, R&B, and soul, picks a mix of…go-go, R&B, and soul. “On a more national level, it would be between ‘[Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)]’ and ‘What’s Going On?’ from Marvin Gaye,” he says. “Anything Donny Hathaway has done—maybe Extension of a Man. Chuck Brown’s Live at the 9:30 Club….And Back Yard has a great album, Hood Related. I think it actually charted on the Billboard 200.”
Former WMAL, WOL, and WGAY DJ Bill Mayhugh says he has too many favorites to choose one. But he has a special fondness for the 1987 album by Pam Bricker’s vocal group Mad Romance. “And on my wife’s 50th birthday,” he says, “I had Mad Romance show up at the Portofino restaurant to sing for Cheryl. That was a surprise birthday gift. Pam was just one of those lovely people.”
Outsider musician Mingering Mike chooses a 45 by D.C. go-go pioneers the Young Senators: 1965’s “Jungle.” The song, released by the Senators’ own label, Sound Innovations, reached No. 1 locally. Why? “They was a hot band,” Mike explains.
“I think I’m gonna go with the new Medications album,” says Mary Timony. Though her choice, Your Favorite People All in One Place, doesn’t come out until June 13, Timony assures us that it “kicks ass” even in pre-release form. “[Medications are] a really amazing live band, and it really translates well on the record.”
Former Johnson Mountain Boy and current WAMU DJ Eddie Stubbs chooses Buzz Busby’s “Where Will This End?” “That record to me represents the high-lonesome sound of bluegrass at its absolute zenith,” he says. “No one, not even Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers at their greatest moments, was able to capture the…intensity that Buzz captured in that one performance.”
“My choice for niftiest recording would be Ooh Wow! by the Uptown Rhythm Kings,” says Peaches O’Dell, leader of the swingin’ He-Man Orchestra. “It is full of good spirit and exuberance, and some very snappy jump blues. I still have the old audio cassette I bought for $8 at one of [their] concerts back in the day, and I still like to play it.”
Lilo Gonzalez Jr., Cris Gajardo, and Paul Gonzalez of rock en español stalwart Machetres jointly give the nod to the Radio CPR compilation CD Begin Live Transmission—“not because we’re on it,” they note, “but rather because it features a variety of music that is like a soundtrack to walking around our city.”
Just “off the dome,” Kevin “Kato” Hammond, editor of the Web magazine Take Me Out to the Go-Go, comes up with two singles and three albums: Stinky Dink’s “One Track Mind” and Vinnie D’s “$55 Motel,” and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers’ Go-Go Swing Live, Rare Essence’s Live at Breeze’s Metro Club, and, dispelling the notion that studio go-go recordings pale in comparison to PA tapes, the Northeast Groovers’ Straight From the Basement. “I hear those comments all the time,” Hammond says. “But all of their hit songs were because of that one.”
WAMU DJ Dick Spottswood chooses a Sunday-morning broadcast by Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux made at his house of worship next to the old Griffith Stadium. “‘Happy Am I’ was Michaux’s theme, and this version was carried over telephone wires from 7th Street to RCA engineers in New York on Dec. 17, 1933,” Spottswood says. “As the record closes, Elder Michaux gives the station break with Pentecostal fortissimo. ‘W! J! S! V! Willingly! Jesus! Suffered! For Victory! W! J! S! V!’”
“I most certainly would choose one of my own,” asserts blues guitarist Bobby Parker. “I would pick something that meant a lot of trial and tribulation but we got it together and went on. I’ll pick a tune that was on my last CD, called ‘A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do.’ It’s about keeping on without any thought about it—you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Garland of Hours mainwoman and cellist for hire Amy Domingues reluctantly narrows her choices to two: Shudder to Think’s Ten-Spot and the Folger Consort’s Showers of Harmonie: Dances & Songs of Renaissance England. “John Dowland’s Lachrimae is a collection of such heartbreaking ballads it’s hard not to compare him to…Ryan Adams or Jeff Buckley…today. So what [if] it’s a lute instead of guitar?”
Reached by phone, T.V. John Langworthy wastes no time in naming his favorite tune. “‘Big City,’” he says. “By T.V. John.” The author and “legendary bard” then starts singing: “It goes, ‘Oh, big city, Washington, D.Ceee-eee-eee…./Ohhh, big city, is there hope for me?’ I’ll give you a copy of it. You’ll hear why that’s my favorite D.C. song.”
After considering “stuff by Dischord bands, Velvet Monkeys, Bad Brains, Unrest, etc.,” ex-Jawbox-er and current DeSoto Records head Kim Colletta settles on 9353’s “Famous Last Words.” “When I first heard this song,” she says, “I was mostly into the D.C. hardcore scene. 9353…made me realize the incredible diversity and depth of the D.C. music scene.”
Warehouse Next Door booker Scott “Snailhook” Verrastro selects “one of the original true outsider records,” John Fahey’s Volume 1: Blind Joe Death LP of 1959. “‘In Christ There Is No East or West,’” he says, “remains a beautiful, timeless piece of hymnal folk that almost forces an avowed atheist such as myself to reconsider the possibilities of the existence of a supreme being.”
Daniel Sheehy, director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, says, “In recent weeks, I have become a fan of chanchona music. The chanchona is an ensemble that comes from…the eastern provinces of El Salvador, the home of most Salvadorans in the D.C. area….There is a great chanchona, Eliseo y Su Chanchona Melódica Oriental, that has played every Friday and Saturday night for the past five years at Judy’s Restaurant.” Sheehy’s favorite Eliseo number? A tribute to the group’s hometown, titled “La Cumbia de San Alejo.”
Randy Barrett, president and chair of the DC Bluegrass Union, casts a vote for the Seldom Scene’s 1973 LP Act 3. One song on the album, he says, “is an all-time fave: ‘Little Georgia Rose.’” Although the tune was written by Kentuckian Bill Monroe, here’s it’s giving a distinctly D.C. spin by Mike Auldridge, John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray, and John Starling.
Velocity Girl veteran Archie Moore, now working at Rockville’s Omega Recording Studios, decides on Chisel’s 8 A.M. All Day. “It was recorded in my basement and consequently sounds kinda crappy,” he says. “But the songs and performances shine through. Ted Leo’s vocals, guitar-playing, and songwriting were ambitious in a way that was positively anachronistic in the slacker-dominated ’90s American indie world.”
Keter Betts, who’s played bass for Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, picks an album by his old friend Shirley Horn. “There are quite a few songs [I like],” he says, “but I’d pick Here’s to Life, the one she did with Johnny Mandel. Anything by Shirley Horn with Johnny Mandel.”
For go-go documentarian Rachael Storey, it’s tough to choose just one disc from “the huge volume of music” in her genre of expertise. “I’d hate to show favoritism or anything like that,” she says. As for her non-go-go favorite, “it’s probably gotta be the Fugazi album with the red cover….That was one of those albums growing up that made me feel like I was really in on something really spectacular.”
Soul singer Wayna, who’s opened for everyone from Common to Fantasia, chooses Donny Hathaway Live. “I just got it on vinyl, and it sounds even better,” she says of the Howard University alum’s 1972 LP. “Listening to Donny’s classics, it’s like he sang with no inhibition whatsoever, pouring…every ounce of hope or heartache into his songs….Donny’s music is so powerful because people felt his vulnerability.”
WPFW DJ and Transparent Productions partner Bobby Hill selects Basehead’s 1993 album Not in Kansas Anymore, which, he says, “was like plugging [triphop] back into the lamppost while keeping a caustic critical eye on planetary happenings.” Featuring one Citizen Cope on turntables, the disc covers “a range of sonic atmospherics, from the lounge-jazz vibe of ‘I Need a Joint’ to the prefigured drum ’n’ bass patterns of ‘Greener Pastures.’”
Onetime Lorelei and current Chessie member Stephen Gardner picks Rites of Spring’s self-titled 1985 LP. “My first obsession, when I was 8 or 9, was the Smiths,” he says, and Rites of Spring was like Minor Threat meets the Smiths….The album set up a template of honesty and freedom that I wanted always to be central to whatever I did with music.”
“I do believe that Duke Ellington was born in D.C.,” says jazz saxophonist Ron Holloway, who’s played sideman to both Dizzy Gillespie and Root Boy Slim. “To choose one of his compositions would be better than the compositions of most people on this list. ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.’ If it ain’t got that swing, it ain’t worth mentioning.”