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Radio Review: The National Playlist

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The National Playlist
CBC Radio One, 11/07/2005-
MONDAY-FRIDAY, 11:30 AM-12:00 NOON; SATURDAY, 9:00-10:00 PM

Some CBC Radio One listeners may remember a program called 50 Tracks, which aired in 2004.  The idea for the show wasn’t bad – find the fifty “most essential songs” in pop history and fashion an iPod list out of them.  The execution, of course, was lacking considering CBC Radio One is notoriously middle-of-the-road as far as radio goes.

If WFMU or BBC 6 Music had organized the list, it would probably contain more eclectic choices than what 50 Tracks came up with.  There wasn’t anything wrong with 50 Tracks, but its list only really touched on certain cultural milestones in popular music.  “London Calling,” “God Save the Queen,” “When Doves Cry,” “Walk on the Wild Side” – those are decent choices, and more familiar than a witch’s pet.  Who’s to say that Devo’s “Mongoloid” or Captain Beefheart’s “Bat Chain Puller” aren’t more essential than Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” or David Bowie’s “Heroes?”  Lists like this are always subjective.  Throwing Slayer’s “Angel of Death” or a John Cage composition onto the list would have made 50 Tracks FUN.  CBC Radio One being hardly fun in the first place, 50 Tracks could have alleviated the network’s dullness a bit, but it didn’t.  C’est la vie.

For all my internecine whining about the show’s conservatism, 50 Tracks became successful enough to spawn a sequel and a regular series.  The National Playlist takes 50 Tracks and steers it toward the right side of freeform radio, which is what 50 Tracks should have been aiming for in the first place.  For one thing, with three rotating panelists and host Jian Ghomeshi nominating four songs out of eight for inclusion into a top-ten list, this show could last for years.  Will John Zorn stay on the list for a third week?  Listen tomorrow to find out!

Here’s the problem with the show: the panelists CBC picks for its shows aren’t diverse enough for a show like this.  Most of the panelists are of usual CBC quality, last week featuring Jason Collett of Broken Social Scene and arts journalists/CBC mugwumps Richard Crouse and Tara Thorne.  Past columnists have included Toronto Star music journo Ben Rayner, CBC Ottawa stalwart Amanda Putz and Jowi Taylor from CBC’s Global Village.  That’s fine for fans of alternative newspapers, indie kids and the CBC, but it makes for stilted radio.

Don’t believe me?  Last week, Tara Thorne used Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” as a pick for prospective National Playlist status.  Another panelist, I believe Richard Crouse, went so far as to intimate that the song represented everything he hated about the current music business.  Well, such myopia represents what I hate about CBC Radio music programs.  Yes, “Since U Been Gone” has been played to saturation on commercial radio stations across North America.  If an American Idol winner represents everything wrong with the music business, then how about the $30 I’m supposed to pay at Music World or Sam The Record Man for one CD?  Tara Thorne thought “Since U Been Gone” was a good song.  So what if Kelly Clarkson won American Idol and has a massive marketing campaign behind her?  What makes her any different from The White Stripes, anyway?  Which is the lesser of two evils here?

The artists that debuted on The National Playlist last week, by the way?  Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, The White Stripes and AC Newman – two indie-rock favourites with new albums, a dead country singer with an Andy Kaufman-like surge in popularity (due to the biopic about Cash, Walk the Line) and one pick that didn’t have anything to do with current popular tastes.  This show should be setting trends, not blindly following them.

Don’t get me wrong.  The National Playlist is much better than other recent efforts by CBC Radio One to court “the kids.”  It’s just that John Peel managed to do this schtick a lot better than the whole of CBC Radio currently can.  There are literally thousands of songs to choose from for this show.  If it’s okay for me to hear the word “fucking” on CBC Radio News every hour this morning, it’s okay for The National Playlist to be indicative of actual freeform radio.  This could be the show that helps break CBC Radio out of its self-imposed middle-of-the-road morass.  Since when does anyone get a chance to hear avant-garde jazz-polka on CBC Radio outside of Brave New Waves, anyway?

Right now, The National Playlist lacks vision.  Maybe the show needs Joey ‘Shithead’ Keithley as a panelist.  Let’s not be afraid to push the envelope, here.

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About Cameron Archer

  • Cash’s revived popularity isn’t a result of “Walk the Line”. “Walk the Line” is a result of his renewed popularity.

    Can anyone actually find the list as it is so far? I checked the CBC website and it’s not there anymore.

    I listened to the show a lot (would have been 17-18 years old at the time… so hey, they aimed for me and got me). I seem to remember hearing a lot of new music that i was interested in. I think the panel idea is great, if they want to diversify, they just have to invite a more diverse panel.

    But panelists like Jason Collett seem quite diverse to me. You can’t just go right out there and invite people from some local Vancouver indie band to come on the show. Wouldn’t you attract more people to the show if you are bringing on people who already have a young Canadian fan base?