In what is becoming an annual tradition, former president Barack Obama released his summer playlist on Saturday morning. "With so many folks getting together with family and friends, there's a lot to celebrate this summer," wrote Obama in an accompanying tweet. "Here's a playlist of songs I've been listening to lately — it's a mix of old and new, household names and emerging artists, and a whole lot in between."
Indeed, it is quite the mix, but it has a specific point of view: songs from any genre that are enriched in some way by elements of jazz and r&b. It’s also not your typical politician’s playlist. There isn’t a single obvious pick among the 38 tracks, and, with the exception of “Tears of a Clown,” none of these songs are anything like the historic, blockbuster songs that political candidates always use to project a “hip but uncontroversial” image.
In place of classics like “A Change is Gonna Come” or “Respect,” Obama went with “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” by the acid jazz pioneer and godfather of neo-soul, Roy Ayers. It seems as though Obama is in a neo-soul phase because he also included a track from Erykah Badu’s seminal neo-soul album Mama’s Gun, which—fun fact!—contains multiple tracks featuring Roy Ayers. Elsewhere on the playlist, Obama showed off his good taste in pop music by picking songs by critically approved artists like Jazmine Sullivan, Koffee, H.E.R., Lil Baby, and Anderson .Paak.
Even when Obama did include a household name like Bob Dylan or Stevie Wonder, the tracks he chose were deep cuts, not massive hits. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is from Dylan’s early album John Wesley Harding. Recorded around the same time Dylan was working with the Band on what would eventually be known as The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding is a sparse and strange album that’s full of biblical references. Diehard Dylan fans consider it an underrated masterpiece. Casual listeners likely encounter it via an interest in “All Along the Watchtower,” which is perhaps the only well-known track on the album.
Obama’s Joni Mitchell track is relatively obscure too. “Coyote” is from 1976’s Hejira which, in terms of popularity, is a far cry from Blue or Ladies of the Canyon. Only the most dedicated Joni Mitchell fans explore Mitchell’s post-Court and Spark, jazz fusion era (which includes Hejira). By picking “Coyote,” Obama is essentially labeling himself a serious Joni Mitchell fan, different and separate from those who only know Joni Mitchell for “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Obama’s picks by JAY-Z, Stevie Wonder, and the Rolling Stones give off a similar crate-digging energy. Ask the average person what the best song on the Black Album is and they might say “Encore,” “Change Clothes,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” or, let’s be honest, “99 Problems.” Obama skipped all of those options and went with “Allure.” The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street is more famous for its legendary origins story than it is for any of the songs featured on the double album, but that didn’t stop Obama from picking the soulful “Tumbling Dice.”
Like most music listeners today, the former president likes to share what he digs with others. In addition to his favorite summer songs playlists, Obama has released Songs of the Year playlists dating back to 2018 and recently put out an official playlist for his Renegades podcast, and another one related to his memoir “A Promised Land.” What I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if Barack Obama is the headlining DJ at Coachella next year.
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