Last weekend I was at a family get-together. Somewhere along the way MP3 players became a popular topic, which caused my dad to pose the immortal question, “Who the hell cares what’s on my iPod?” Now chances are pretty good if you’re reading a music blog you already know the answer to that, but pretending that you don’t since I can’t think of any other way to open this up: it’s because it allows you to know a person without actually knowing them.

For example, if your iPod is loaded with songs from Type O Negative, Burzum and Scandinavian death metal sensation Vordghackf, it means you have you several pentagrams carved into your arm, like to write overlong and half-racist internet dissertations on why “rap music” sucks, and it’s only a matter of time before you shoot up the post office you’re inevitably working for. If your iPod is loaded with songs from George Jones, Daddy Yankee and Godsmack, it means you’re going through a mid-life crisis and can’t decide whether you want to want to embrace a conservative adulthood or put up the façade that you’re twenty years-old again, ‘cos god forbid that you should accept your age and move on. Finally, if your iPod is loaded with nothing but Ani DiFranco, it means you’re one of those feminist types with a butch haircut, lots of beads and a huge ass (stolen courtesy of “That’s My Bush!”).

I know what you’re thinking, “Who the hell are you, what you done with Mike and why should I give a rat’s ass what you’re listening to?” I have a very good answer to each of those inquiries:

1.) Common (Feat. Slum Village) – Thelonious (2000)

This is one of the best songs off Like Water for Chocolate, and considering the quality of the album, that’s really saying something. Strange thing is, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the lyrics. If you’ve ever listened to Slum Village song, you know what to expect here (bland braggadocios laced with bland gangsta posturing). It goes without saying that Com whups the lot of them effortlessly, but the real star of the show is J Dilla. Even though I think the “Dilla is the greatest producer of all-time” argument is a crock, his boardwork here is otherworldly. The rolling pianos, the hazy synths, the light thump of a beat; it’s tranquility on wax. Hell, these guys could be rhyming the phone book and it’d put you in a good mood.

2.) Beck – Beercan (1994)

The first time I listened to Mellow Gold I thought it was….how should I put this politely…tuneless shit. But a few years later it’s become one of my favorite Beck records, if only because it’s interesting to hear Beck as a normal guy on a shoestring budget versus a junkyard demigod with the Dust Brothers/Nigel Godrich/Danger Mouse in his corner. Really, when you break down all the abstraction, most of the songs on this record are about being a normal shlub trying to cope with all the pitfalls life throws at you (a dead end job, love, self-loathing, upper-class idiots, a plastic celebrity culture…the apocalypse etc.). “Beercan” would be Mellow Gold’s version of a party song: a ten dollar hip-hop beat skipping around as Beck raps on about drunken liberation. Quitting your job blowing leaves has never been so fun.

3.) Smashing Pumpkins – Tristessa (1991)

Early Pumpkins. Sounds like a precursor “Cherub Rock.” Billy Corgan plays the shit out of his guitar and everybody’s happy.

4.) Thrice – The Messenger (2007)

A tear the head off your shoulders and scream into the hollow number from Thrice’s Fire walk through the elements. It’s the kind of hardcore punk the band could do in their sleep with a bare-boned dance beat (and split channel firebombing) thrown in for good measure. It’s apparently loaded with bible references, but hell if I could tell you what they were.

5.) Lyrics Born (Feat. KRS-ONE & Evidence) – Pack Up (Jumbo Remix) (2005)

Same !@#$ Different Day is one of those records I don’t really appreciate unless I’m actually listening to it. This song has a considerably more East Coast sound than the rest of the record, which probably has to do with the presence of Evidence (from the Dilated Peoples crew) and the legendary KRS-ONE. I’d be lying if I said this was a classic posse cut (wait, are three guys enough to be a posse?), but it’s three talented MCs doing their thing over a cinematic stomp of a beat. What else could you ask for?

6.) LL Cool J – Jack The Ripper (1988)

I’m a little conflicted about this one. As a battle song, it sucks. Horribly. The few times LL does focus on Kool Moe Dee (the object of his ire), it’s nothing but tired “you fogey” punchlines and ironic references to his music. But as a braggadocio it’s awesome. Hearing a young LL furiously rhyming over a vintage funk beat—it’s the definition of electrifying. What the hell happened to this guy?

7.) PJ Harvey – C’mon Billy (1995)

To Bring You My Love is one of those records that everyone but me seems to love. Ms. Harvey has a great voice, I won’t deny that, but some of the music itself is just god awful, and “Down by the Water” has to be one of the most bafflingly stupid songs ever recorded. Ooh, she drowns her daughter. How deep, evocative and not forced is that? I mean c’mon, some of those songs are just her moaning over synthesizer reverb!

All of this is to say that I really like “C’mon Billy.” Harvey sings the hell out of her acoustic guitar/faint string backing, and her performance (as a single mother begging the father to take care of their kid) is actually compelling. I guess five out of ten isn’t bad.

8.) TV On the Radio – Wolf Like Me (2006)

Listening to this reminded me that it’s been too damned long since I’ve cracked open Return to Cookie Mountain. “Wolf Like Me” was one of those songs that got everybody excited about a record, and then pissed a good deal of them off by not sounding anything like the single. This is indie pop at its finest: the shoegazy guitars, the infectious beat, the howling. They rarely come together as perfectly as this.

9.) Bob Marley & The Wailers – Exodus (1977)

I think of this as one of those songs that everyone’s heard whether they realize it or not. Probably because it’s one of the Legend tracks and every Bob Marley track that appeared on that compilation has since becoming a fixture of airline commercials, Simpsons episodes and art classes alike. But if you haven’t heard it, this is Bob Marley’s epic: a seven minute march on…injustice? Stagnation? Civic dormancy? It sounds like the revolution storming by your doorstep. I don’t know if Bob was a Pink Floyd fan or not, but it’s very Floyd-ian. If you’re one of those folks who thinks every reggae song sounds the same, then this’ll do a pretty good job of shutting you up!

10.) Refused – Worms of the Senses / Faculties of the Skull (1998)

Growing up as an angsty adolescent outcast, I was heavily into the newer punk scene. Your Rancids, your NOFXs, your Dropkicks, your Less Than Jakes etc. etc. Then when I hit college, started listening to the likes of Radiohead, Public Enemy and Skinny Puppy, and officially made music my religion, many of the bands I listened to in high school started to sound…kind of shitty in-comparison. Refused are one of the few bands that still sound as awesome now as they did then. If you’ve never heard The Shape of Punk to Come (their swan song and masterpiece) they took hardcore punk and fused it with jazz, funk, psychedelia, electronica, indie rock and Eastern European folk music. “Worms of the Senses / Faculties of the Skull” is basically punk rock’s answer to “Paranoid Android.” I thought about giving a piece by piece description of the song, but it wouldn’t do it justice. There’s street level spoken-word. There’s a blaze of guitars. There’re tambourines. There’re about four different shifts in the music. There’s a techno remix to one of their other songs transmitted via pirate radio that closes out the set. There’s Dennis Lyxzen’s inimitable shriek. God, I love this song. Ginsberg’d be proud.