Playlists for parties we can’t have right now

The band World Brain will get your feet moving before you know it. Artwork by Alison Rosenfeld.

Greetings from Los Angeles – where I write to you, floundering between violent boredom and mania-fueled productivity, tucked within the confines of my two-bedroom apartment. Maybe you too are spending far too long surfing the endless ocean of digital content. Maybe you too can’t decide if you should clean the house, work out, send emails, or watch the paint dry. Maybe you too can’t decide whether you should go to sleep at a reasonable hour or just continue to be awake. What once was “not enough hours in the day” has quickly turned into “far too many.” I miss the old world, where time felt concrete and our days weren’t so nebulous. It’s not like I was living life to the fullest before we all self-quarantined, but I certainly didn’t think about the boundless possibilities until now.

There’s a lot we’re missing out on. Going out to restaurants, running into friends on the street, or casually window shopping all seem like rich distant memories. I find myself making lists of all the things I can’t wait to do when I can finally put my face mask in a shoebox and venture outside. What will I do first? How will I maximize my experience? Checking the news each morning feels like I’m asking my parents from the back of the car, “Are we there yet?”

In a sick twist of irony, right before the pandemic I was asked to put together a dinner party playlist. No prompt, no theme, but complete freedom to construct the perfect soundtrack to socializing over a shared meal. As always, I overthought the assignment, stressed about it, and eventually made three separate playlists of different sounds and styles, all of which now sit collecting dust in my Spotify account. Since we have the time, let’s throw a few different types of dinner parties and see how it goes. What else do we have to do?

Go one on one
I think the best place to start is somewhere private—I’m talking one on one. Maybe it’s an old friend you need quality time to catch up with, or a crush you’re trying to woo with your culinary skills and recently cleaned home. Whatever or whomever, you’re going to need a playlist that’s warm, embracing, and open enough to allow conversation to flow freely between gulps and bites. If you read my letter from February, it’ll come as no surprise I find that a robust collection of jazz will do just the trick.

Start off strong, maybe with Blue Note Record classics like Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” or Bobby Hutcherson’s “Yuyo,” something that your guest might recognize and perk their ears toward. The goal here is to begin with a sequence that grooves, carries a sense of pace, but doesn’t come across as too busy. At this point, beverages have been handed out and it’s likely time to sit down to a small bite. Let’s dial back the energy oh-so-slightly—try some sounds from Brazil, like percussionist Dom Um Romao or famed songwriter Marcos Valle, to mellow the mood with a sense of sophistication. The bouncing Bossa Nova guitar will maintain the tempo of the evening, while the traditionally soft vocals of Brazilian jazz will allow you to settle back in your seat and get comfortable.

As the night progresses, feather your foot on the gas pedal. Stick around the speed limit with some light instrumentals from Joe Thomas or Les Hooper, but make sure to rev the engine every once in a while with something more active or vocal from a few of my favorites, French psyche-jazz outfit Cortex or Washington-based crooner Primo Kim. Throw the car in cruise and take it to wherever you need to go; assuming you’ve cooked up something delicious, you’re heading exactly where you’ll want to be.

All of that sounds sophisticato and a bit sexy, but maybe that’s not your style. Perhaps you want to expand your invite list and bring over your favorite houseguests. The entire scene is slightly more active, but still maintains a similar sense of intimacy. Shift gears and sprinkle in some funk and soul to set the tone. In these instances, I like to keep my music upbeat and full of brass, especially when you’re trying to transition from dessert into parlor games and successfully leap over any residual sluggishness from a full stomach.

I love the palpable energy from a good old-fashioned solo to guide you through: saxophone solos like those in Ramsey Lewis and Earth Wind & Fire’s “Sun Goddess,” or the synthesizer shredding in Les McCann’s “Someday We’ll Meet Again,” keeps spirits high. Your ears find themselves accustomed to familiar melodic motifs while still being tickled by the excitement of a kinetic instrumental feature.

Don’t be afraid to slow it down and heat things up with a series of more sweet and soulful songs. Joe Bataan’s version of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” or Milton Wright’s “All I Know Is That I Have You” find a perfect balance between something spirited and conclusive, a host’s gentle way of saying, “This was fun, but it’s time to go.” Once you’re left to your own devices, start the dishes while you treat yourself to a song that says “mission accomplished.” Try Allen Toussaint’s “When the Party’s Over” to get you in a scrubbing mood.

Go big
Let’s imagine you want to go big and start inviting everyone over. This is happening. People are coming to your place and you’re gearing up to entertain on a grand scale to which no host has ever entertained before. It’s time to text the neighbors about future loud noises, purchase a tub of ice, and get ready to set your stereo to “stun.” We’re having a house party. But we’re also adults here, so we want to keep things tasteful.

The formula for a fantastic night of music isn’t too different from our smaller get-togethers; you need to stimulate a sense of excitement without drowning out your guests with excess activity. You need thick bass lines and perky tempos, and a whole lot of it. Don’t turn an ankle right out the gate. Start simple and ramp things up throughout the night. You don’t want your first guests arriving to an empty house with your speakers thumping off the walls. Launch into some skipping guitar riffs and four-on-the-floor drums from some of my favorites: Germany’s World Brain or LA’s own Secret Circuit, and leave the door open. Guests will kick off their shoes and help themselves to a drink in rhythm with the beginning of the night just before you dive into a series of more robust songs, like Krystal Klear’s ‘80s infused tune “Dekryptic” or Rainbow Arabia’s “Plena.”

As the party takes form, don’t be afraid to take requests or toss in some throwback tunes. I personally like to work in a song from ’90s Japanese rockers Buffalo Daughter, or even end the night with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. As a host, no matter what you put on your stereo, your aim is to please, so keep an eye and ear on how everyone is feeling and act accordingly.

Even through we’re on our own for the time being, it’s never too early to start weaving together a playlist and fantasize about putting it into practice. While you’re at it, try a few of my recent favorites on for size. Pour a morning coffee to new sounds from London’s Cleo Sol or brood in contemplation with Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s latest compilation of jazz legends of yesteryear, Jazz is Dead 001. Until then, I hope to see you out and about real soon.

Listen to my monthly playlists of songs assembled for The Charlotte News here.

Signing off,
John Moses

John Moses is a former Charlotter and a musical host of The Lab, a radio show on KCRW in Los Angeles (an NPR affiliate). You can each John via email.