Skip to main content

A thousand songs on Spotify, and some more that aren't

For the past five years, I've been slowly building a playlist that I call The Big Shuffle. Sometimes songs get added to remind me that an artist exists, and I should play their albums from time to time. Sometimes they're added because of something exceptional about the song itself. Sometimes, I add songs like "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen, just because I can.

Often, looking at the "Date Added" is enough to bring something half-forgotten to the surface; the music changed as my life changed. As I approached the thousandth song last month, Spotify serendipitiously suggested a new release to me -- an exuberant live recording of Glen Campbell performing Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." Recorded in 2008, just two years before his Alzheimer's diagnosis, it seems especially poignant in retrospect.

But this post is about something else: to celebrate a thousand songs on Spotify, I'll talk about a few dozen that aren't.

Before finally giving in to DRM, I was one of those people who liked to own media: books, music, movies. I have binders full of discs, almost all from the 2000s and early 2010s. I used to think that investing effort and money into obscure CD releases made me appreciate what I had much more, although I've found that I don't really miss it now. Still, when I needed to spend $10 to hear a new album, I was much more likely to dive deep into a particular zeitgeist; for me, that was usually 1980s Britain. Following those bands and their world has taken me across Europe twice; using them as an anchor, I've been able to experience much more of the world.

I think that as the true memories of that decade continue to recede and Day-Glo misconceptions advance, some real gems have been overlooked. All of these are available online if you search around, but I'm not inclined to link to YouTube uploads that might infringe on copyright.

Adventures in Modern Recording, The Buggles

For most people, The Buggles are the answer to a trivia question. "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first song played on MTV back in 1981; after that, they faded into obscurity. The truth is, though, that The Buggles were deeply embedded into the British music scene at the time. Lead singer Trevor Horn would later come to be known as "the man who invented the eighties" for his production and songwriting work; he also spent time with prog rock band Yes.

Consider, then, their second album, which was a commercial failure at the time but has since gained a cult following. Briefly available on Spotify several years ago, it has been out of print for years. CDs cost upwards of $40 on Amazon. It's a stronger album than their first: the influence of their work with Yes is clearly evident. The extra demo tracks included with the most recent reissue are strong too -- in fact, Yes themselves finally recorded and released Buggles composition Fly from Here a few years ago.

English Garden, Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club

Speaking of "Video Killed the Radio Star," its first recording was actually made for this album, a year or two after Woolley and Horn started working on what would become The Buggles together. A pre-"Blinded Me with Science" Thomas Dolby played keyboards. It's unmistakably the clean, energetic sound of early New Wave, but somehow more British than their contemporaries like Talking Heads -- it's easy to imagine them playing in a club in London or Manchester in 1979.

The album was re-released in 2009 -- lucky for me, I was involved in Thomas Dolby's fan club at the time and heard about it through them.

The Gunman and Other Stories, Prefab Sprout

Continuing to walk the network of people around Trevor Horn and Thomas Dolby that produced so much in the 1980s, I come to Prefab Sprout: much of their best work was produced by Thomas Dolby. Thankfully, most Sprout albums have been slowly appearing on Spotify as their record label remasters them, but one remains elusive -- 2001's The Gunman and Other Stories, a collection of country songs that Paddy McAloon originally wrote for other artists.

Prefab Sprout is one of those bands that inspires obsessive fansites and devotion in fans (like Spike Lee!). They're shrouded in myth and legend: for every album Paddy McAloon has released, it seems likely that he has made demos for two or three more that may never be heard.

In the liner notes (remember those?) to Let's Change the World with Music, Paddy McAloon writes about his fascination with the phrase "blue like yawning caves," found in a 1976 Rolling Stone article about Brian Wilson's lost album Smile, and his desire to make music that could evoke such depths of feeling. It's a lovely essay, if you can find it.

In some ways, McAloon's career has followed a similar trajectory to Wilson's; every great song he has written carries with it the hints and whispers of another dozen lost masterpieces. In that context, every recording he has managed to release is precious. I wouldn't recommend The Gunman as a first Sprout album -- that would be Swoon or Steve McQueen -- but it's well worth a listen.

Speaking of Let's Change the World with Music, the recent Rehab Sprout project was another window into one of those alternate realities. One can imagine what Paddy McAloon might have done with that album, had his health problems not prevented him from recording with a full band. With luck, perhaps we will hear more from them in the future.

Traffic, ABC

Moving on to another part of the early-80s scene, I come to Martin Fry and his band ABC. They have one of the most distinct sounds I know, built on equal parts synth, soul, and stardom. Their 1982 debut The Lexicon of Love helped define what synthpop would sound like, before they moved on to create a string of eminently listenable albums. But only their 1980s albums are available on Spotify. Gems like 1997's Skyscraping, 2008's Traffic, and 2016's The Lexicon of Love II are missing. I chose Traffic because its ratio of obscurity to quality seems the highest; Skyscraping sometimes feels like a warm-up exercise, and Lexicon of Love II was heavily promoted prior to its release.

ABC makes big music. I had a chance to see Fry perform a short set a few years ago, but maybe someday I'll get to see a full show, complete with orchestra and the famous gold lamé suit. (The one he didn't flush down the toilet in Tokyo).

Tenants of the Lattice-Work, Mainframe

Mainframe -- a 1980s band name if ever there were one -- also came to my attention through the old Thomas Dolby fan club. Their appropriately rero fansite, hardly touched since I first saw it more than a decade ago, hosts MP3 downloads of much of their music. Although they eventually signed a contract with a major record label and released the bombastic single "5 Minutes," their earlier work stands out as some of the first electronic music that feels, to me, like it was intended to be heard purely as a recorded, synthetic artifact, rather than something to be performed live. Much like Kraftwerk, Mainframe were not only musicians, but were involved in the development of their instruments.

Although someone on YouTube is fascinated enough with this obscure corner of music history to have remastered their sole music video and a long-out-of-print cassette showing off Murray Munro's composing skills, it's highly unlikely that this album will ever make it to Spotify or come up in your YouTube recommendations.

This album is, then, truly a rarity. The other bands I've mentioned here are all fairly well-known even today; it's just these few albums that are missing. With Mainframe, I feel like I'm listening to something that fell through a wormhole from 1985 to the present. It's yet another gift that the Centre for Computing History interviewed co-founder John Molloy before his passing in 2018.

These days, everything is always available, sounding better than it did when it was first made. On YouTube and Spotify, there is no dusty album cover, no discount bin. Everything is always new. Perhaps in another few decades Mainframe, and the rest of these bands, will get another shot at stardom. In the meantime, I'm always happy to rediscover them when I shut down Spotify and browse through my old music collection.

Contractual Obligation Album, Van Morrison

And, finally, for something completely different: I just discovered that this one is actually on Spotify, buried as disc three of this album. Don't bother. But it is a pretty funny story.