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For record buyers in the 1990s, there was nothing more frustrating than a tribute album. Usually there would be one or two tracks by an artist you actually liked, nestled among so many more by groups you hated or maybe didn’t even know. Pre-digital, you couldn’t cherrypick a track here or there. It was all or nothing: a steep investment that you just knew wasn’t going to pay off. Standing in the Various Artists section of Tower or Sam Goody or some other long-dead chain, you knew that John Lennon tribute with Cheap Trick, the Flaming Lips, and, well, Blues Traveler wasn’t going to be worth the money, but if you considered yourself a completist, if you were a diehard fan of a particular band, it was hard to resist the lure, even if you knew it was a lure.
Even the best tribute albums were never consumed in their entirety, but heard piecemeal: Skip that cover by the guy your parents like, ignore the song by the MTV buzz band that no one will remember in a year, disregard that Elvis Costello track (there’s almost always an Elvis Costello track), and play the songs by the band you actually like. Even then it’s hit or miss. You might pick up I’m Your Fan: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen because you love R.E.M., only to discover that their cover of “First We Take Manhattan” is actually pretty awkward and forgettable.
While labels are still releasing the occasional tribute album — even some good ones, like Still On The Line: A Tribute To Jimmy Webb — it has become possibly the most universally derided format in pop music, one defined by inconsistency, unpredictability, and precipitously low expectations. Those examples from the 1990s — when the CD had eclipsed all other music media and when the tribute album became the decadent offshoot, predatory product intended to separate a listener from his or her disposable income — have been casually swept into the dollar bin of pop history, Two Rooms and Encomium and Stone Free marked down 1500 percent but still not enough to drum up any interest 20 years later.
Perhaps because we’re far enough removed from the 1990s to get a better handle on the pop music of the Clinton era, or perhaps because tribute albums document that era so imperfectly, they become fascinating artifacts now that they’re cheap enough to actually afford. They’re storehouses for oddities and failed experiments, chronicles of pop acts collectively reconsidering music history on a mass scale. The most interesting of them (“most interesting” as opposed to “best,” which is not an especially applicable word, or “least worst,” which is too clunky) include something unexpected and surprising, like Sarah McLachlan trying nobly to sell the righteous indignation of XTC’s “Dear God” on A Testimonial Dinner or Sparklehorse turning Vic Chesnutt’s “West Of Rome” into a Rube Goldberg whirligig of rustic industrial noise on Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation. These dusty compilations remove the honored artist from the expected context, lifting them out of their own legacy to find new facets of their music.
Of course, most tribute albums were devised and produced merely to reinforce an artist’s popular context, which makes them sound redundant, overly reverent, and — if you’re lucky — entertainingly bad. The most Stone Free can muster in terms of a thesis or argument is that Jimi Hendrix played guitar real good, but at least it contains the most amazingly awful Cure track ever released: “Purple Haze”). And where else will you hear Dinosaur Jr. and Toad The Wet Sprocket rub elbows with Garth Brooks and Anthrax but on Kiss My Ass: Kiss Regrooved? That’s something, right?
If every tribute album has skippable tracks, then they must also contain some unskippable tracks: hidden gems among the pop-cultural debris. This playlist attempts to rescue some of the best entries in this discounted genre, and perhaps by doing so present a slightly different perspective on the heyday of the CD. A few rules apply. First, these songs are presented chronologically and have been culled exclusively from multi-artist compilations released from 1990 through 1999. Furthermore, compilations of previously available tunes (such as Come Together: Motown Sings The Beatles) are ineligible, as they’ve been curated using very different criteria. And let’s ignore all of those random bluegrass and string quartet tributes to AC/DC and Prince that used to clog the bins at Best Buy. Those things really are best forgotten. And finally, there were innumerable tribute albums released between January 1990 and December 1999, and we can’t possibly cover all of them here. If you don’t see a song from, say, For The Masses, it probably means that Depeche Mode tribute didn’t provide a song worthy of inclusion.
Red Hot + Blue (1990)
Kirsty MacColl With The Pogues – “Miss Otis Regrets/Just One Of Those Things”
Featuring a slew of musicians covering old Cole Porter classics, Red Hot + Blue set the tone for tribute albums for the 1990s, not just offering up some adventurous pairings but foregrounding the charitable aspect of the project (with proceeds benefitting AIDS research and treatment). That alone made it worthwhile, but with a few exceptions the album sounds surprisingly sturdy 25 years later. Sinead O’Connor, David Byrne, the Neville Brothers, and Iggy Pop acquit themselves just fine, but the highlight is this medley by Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues, a sequel of sorts to their holiday hit “Fairy Tale Of New York.” They suture these two songs together to create a larger story about a society woman and the rogue who tempts her to disgrace. Both leads sound like they’re having a blast re-staging Porter’s material, with Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan unleashing a skin-flaying howl at the song’s close.
Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute To Roky Erickson (1990)
R.E.M. – “I Walked With A Zombie”
The legend of Roky Erickson is well known: The Texas native practically invented psych rock with the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, got busted by the cops, institutionalized by the courts, and mistreated by psychiatrists. So this tribute, which features several Lone Star artists (ZZ Top, Doug Sahm, Butthole Surfers), is as much about setting him up with royalties as it is about introducing him to new fans. The best songs just assume his greatness and proceed from there; the result is loose, celebratory, fun — especially R.E.M.’s “I Walked With A Zombie.” The Georgia quartet strike up an affable jangle-groove as Michael Stipe sing-speaks the lyrics, which consist pretty much of the title repeated over and over again. Rather than simply end, the song trails off with Stipe doing his best Vincent Price impersonation, and you imagine them playing the song for hours and thinking up funnier and weirder ways to say they’ve ambled alongside the undead.
Heaven & Hell: A Tribute To The Velvet Underground (1990)
Nirvana – “Here She Comes Now”
This is a tricky one chronologically. Nirvana originally covered the Velvet Underground in 1990 for the UK-only three-volume set Heaven & Hell: A Tribute To The Velvet Underground, just before they would become the biggest band in the world. Shortly after Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, it was re-anthologized when Imaginary Records condensed the set into a single-disc tracklist. It’s obviously an early track by the band, with none of the eventfulness of post-Nevermind covers. Nirvana just goof around, launching into a soupy groove as Cobain rattles off those raw syllables with no regard for melody or sense. Yet, that aimlessness is the song’s best quality, as though they’ve gotten lost in the Velvet Underground’s original and can’t quite find their way out.
Jane’s Addiction – “Ripple”
One of the most touted tributes of the decade, Deadicated was conceived as a benefit for rainforest preservation, yet almost by happenstance it served to reconnect the Grateful Dead with an old weird America several years before Greil Marcus coined that term. The album plays like a picaresque novel, a long cross-country trek thumbing rides from Los Lobos, Lyle Lovett, and Elvis Costello. Jane’s Addiction provide a fitting denouement with their cover of “Ripple,” as Perry Farrell — every bit the golden hippie that Jerry Garcia was — muses on activism and idealism as the band fashions from everyday scraps a shimmery, rippling groove that predates Animal Collective by several years. It may be an epilogue to Deadicated, but they make it sound like a prologue to a completely new journey.
Two Rooms: Celebrating The Songs Of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (1991)
Kate Bush – “Rocket Man”
There’s no finer moment on any tribute album than the smooth transition at the 0:45 mark when Kate Bush turns “Rocket Man” into a zero-gravity reggae song. Unlike other artists on Two Rooms, who seem content to deliver note-for-note re-creations of Elton John/Bernie Taupin hits, Bush takes some real liberties with the beloved original, adding not only those sine-wave rhythms but Uilleann pipes on the coda. It might sound like a bizarre mash-up of world-music influences, but from space you can see the whole world. And don’t take my word for it: In 2007, it was voted the greatest cover of all time by readers of the UK newspaper The Observer.
I’m Your Fan: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1991)
Nick Cave – “Tower Of Song”
Robert Forster – “Tower Of Song”
Leonard Cohen is a lot of things, but hilarious isn’t really one of them. His deadpan is too severe and his lyrics too scholarly, even on 1988’s cosmic-joke-cracking “Tower Of Song.” So it’s refreshing to hear Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens emphasize the comically self-deprecating quality of the tune. He turns the song into a country ramble, as though that tower of song is actually a trailer park, and delivers the lyrics with a sly and knowing wink. Later on the same tribute, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds topple that tower with a rowdy cover that shapeshifts haphazardly from one style to another. Cave shuffles through surreal honkytonk, caustic Berlin punk, warped rockabilly, even fire-and-brimstone preaching, as though dead set on dissecting his own musical persona. Bonus points for a pretty epic belch.
Sweet Relief: The Songs Of Victoria Williams (1993)
Soul Asylum – “Summer Of Drugs”
With only two albums to her name in 1993, Victoria Williams was not an obvious candidate for the tribute-album treatment. Instead, she was a songwriter’s songwriter, peppering her lyrics with vivid details of her childhood in rural Louisiana and indulging sentiments that were both fanciful and complex. Sweet Relief sounds like a tour of her hometown of Shreveport, with acts like Matthew Sweet, the Jayhawks, and Lou Reed pointing out local landmarks. That specific point of view gave Soul Asylum the best material they ever had, and Dave Pirner instills that opening verse — about sucking venom out of a snakebite wound, which would be a gateway into harder narcotics — with the perfect mix of bemusement and regret. By the time the band gets to the chorus, it sounds like the whole city is singing along.
Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993)
Lou Reed – “Foot Of Pride” (Live)
Most of the artists on this double live album celebrating Bob Dylan’s third decade in the music industry sound shackled to the originals, whether it’s Tracy Chapman turning “The Times They Are A-Changin'” into folksy karaoke or Johnny and June Carter Cash dusting off their decades-old cover of “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” Perhaps because he’s covering an obscurity in Dylan’s catalog or perhaps because he’s Lou freaking Reed, Lou Reed breathes some fire into “Foot Of Pride,” which stomps around for nearly nine minutes. He approaches the song the way a hyena might approach a gazelle: He mangles it, rips its insides out, he gnarls it, then chuckles over the carnage. His performance is all growling antagonism and unhinged rock showmanship, making it the one precious moment that punctures the piety of the proceedings.
Kiss My Ass: Kiss Regrooved (1994)
Dinosaur Jr – “Going Blind”
Accepting rock’s misogynist streak like it’s a birthright, Kiss arguably did more to ruin rock ‘n’ roll than poor disco ever did, so a tribute to Gene Simmons et al. seems a little suspect. Garth Brooks doing his best Rod Stewart and Yoshiki turning “Black Diamond” into an actual symphony isn’t going to change the fact that Kiss are gross. While most of the bands on this scattershot compilation indulge their rock-star fantasies (most egregiously, Evan Dando on “Plaster Caster”), only one band really manages to turn trash rock into treasure: The original “Going Blind” may sound like a self-glorifying masturbation joke, but somehow J Mascis locates new stakes in the tune, transforming it into a lovelorn shredder’s anthem.
If I Were A Carpenter (1994)
Sonic Youth – “Super Star”
“Super Star” is Sonic Youth’s second song for Karen Carpenter. Kim Gordon imagined herself in the singer’s disappearing body on “Tunic (Song For Karen),” off 1990’s Goo, waving goodbye from the edge of heaven, where she’s mobbed by Dennis Wilson and Elvis Presley. The band’s contribution to this candy-coated tribute album is less a sequel than a dark inversion, with Thurston Moore singing from the perspective of a lovesick fan to add a creepy twist on the original’s unrequited love story. With its queasy production values and one of Moore’s best vocals, it stands out among the other covers here, none of which are ironic, thankfully, but very few of which can make something so powerful out of the Carpenters’ easy-listening melancholy.
Beat The Retreat: Songs By Richard Thompson (1994)
David Byrne – “Just The Motion”
R.E.M. – “Wall Of Death”
Richard Thompson may be the perfect subject for a tribute album. He’s a remarkable songwriter and guitarist with a deep catalog as solo artist, sideman, and band member, yet at least in America his commercial success has never come close to exceeding his critical acclaim. On Beat The Retreat only one or two artists try to outduel him on the frets (although Bonnie Raitt could give him a run for his money) or make too much of his notoriously rocky relationship with his ex, Linda Thompson. Instead, these 15 songs foreground his songwriting and prompt some intriguing contributions from the participants. R.E.M. sound like a convincing country band on “Wall Of Death,” a wisp of a song about carnival rides that may actually contain some profound revelations, and Michael Stipe to his endless credit sings it like he’s right there on the midway. Even more surprising, David Byrne strips down his world-pop sound on “Just The Motion.” There’s just a spidery guitar, some sympathetic percussion, and that edgy voice of his. If he has made a career out of sounding usefully detached, here he’s engaged and even endearing as he passes along Thompson’s warm reassurances. “When the landlord is knocking and your job is losing, don’t worry,” Byrne sings, sounding more human than ever.
Tulare Dust: A Tribute To Merle Haggard (1994)
Lucinda Williams – “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”
Country tribute albums were relatively scarce during the 1990s, with the exception of the blah Common Thread, which paired the likes of Travis Tritt and Tanya Tucker with songs by the Eagles. Less popular yet much more satisfying is this under-the-radar toast to the late Merle Haggard, which covers some hits along with some deep cuts to demonstrate his ability to distill country melancholy down to its irreducible components. Lucinda Williams lends her downcast vocals to this song from 1967’s Branded Man, a plaintive admission of the constant nearness of complete emotional devastation. There’s something about the quaver in her voice that makes the performance more powerful than if it was a real weeper. She learned from Hag that songs are all the more heartbreaking when the singer sounds like she’s putting on a brave face.
Tower Of Song: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1995)
Willie Nelson – “Bird On A Wire”
The second Leonard Cohen tribute of the 1990s features some big names and sounds like a big trainwreck, as one artist after the next trips over those thorny lyrics and Biblical imagery. (If you want to hear just how bad the decade could get, just listen Bono half-rapping “Hallelujah.” Or, better yet, don’t.) Willie Nelson wisely adopts a less-is-more approach to “Bird On A Wire,” paring the song down to its barest essentials: voice and guitar, melody and metaphor. And yet, there’s so much nuance in his playing and singing that he manages to put his own stamp on the song, as though it’s a missing chapter from The Red-Headed Stranger.
Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits (1995)
Ramones – “Spider-Man”
For The Love Of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson (1995)
Aimee Mann: “One”
Before it was the lynchpin in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 flick Magnolia, Aimee Mann’s cover of “One” was a standout on this winningly diverse tribute, which mixes artists of various generations and genres to show just how malleable Nilsson’s songs can be. Mann emphasizes both the sardonic humor of the song as well as its sense of intense isolation, letting each complement and complicate the other. Even when the band and backing vocals come in, it sounds like her rhymes of yesterday always fall on no one else’s ears but her own. And that may be the essential appeal of both Mann and Nilsson: Both realize that despair is best met with a quick joke and a wry laugh.
Step Right Up: The Songs Of Tom Waits (1995)
Tindersticks – “Mockin’ Bird”
While most of the artists on Step Right Up are content to vacation in the weird world of Tom Waits and carouse with the carneys and prostitutes who live there year-round, the Nottingham soul band Tindersticks settle their version of “Mockin’ Bird” squarely in the real world. They cover the song like it’s an old blues tune, gently updating it with Stuart Staples’ unflappable vocals, a horn section that erupts in violent flashes of brass, and a walking bass line that somehow keeps everything upright and moving along.
Twisted Willie (1996)
Johnny Cash – “Time Of The Preacher”
Kelly Deal With Kris Kristofferson – “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”
Johnny Cash kicks off this dubious tribute to his fellow Highwayman with a cover of the overture from Red Headed Stranger, bringing his customary gravity to Willie’s song about a man who murders to mend a broken heart. The metal guitars, courtesy of Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, might be a bit too obvious, but Cash grounds the tune in a black-and-white morality, delivering that last line (“And now the killin’s begun…”) with stark sigh of resignation. Closing out the same comp is Kelly Deal’s weird take on “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,” which slows down a sewing machine until it sounds like a slow-passing train. It’s dark and lonely, yet there’s a wistfulness to Deal’s delivery that perfectly balances Cash’s desert fatalism.
School House Rocks! Rocks (1996)
Pavement – “No More Kings”
Skee-Lo – “The Tale Of Mr. Morton”
Gen X waxing nostalgic about its own childhood shouldn’t have sounded as sweet or as fun as this charming tribute to the animated series Schoolhouse Rock, which used catchy tunes and clever animation to teach kids about politics, history, and grammar. On “No More Kings” Pavement playact the Boston Tea Party with guitar and drums, as Stephen Malkmus delivers the history lesson with his signature insouciance (“That’s what I call taxation without representation!”) and the band soundtrack the skirmishes with slacker riffs and even laser beams. The tribute ends on another high note, as Skee-Lo — the one-hit rapper known for “I Wish” — teaches us about subject-verb agreement on “The Tale Of Mr. Morton,” an toothache-sweet love story about a man too shy for action words.
Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation (1996)
Garbage – “Kick My Ass”
Mary Margaret O’Hara – “Florida”
Like Victoria Williams, Vic Chesnutt was a Southern singer-songwriter with an eye for the odd details of rural life and more medical bills than album sales. If Gravity Of The Situation doesn’t hold together quite so effortlessly as its 1993 predecessor, that might be due to the fact that his lyrics are only half the story. His songs succeed on his vocal delivery, the way he draws out certain syllables, skips over others, and chews on the words until they sound strange and new. Fortunately, Mary Margaret O’Hara is a similarly eccentric singer, just in a different way, and she makes the scrawled suicide note “Florida” into something like aural sculpture. While not attempting anything so out of the ordinary, Garbage manage to amplify the self-loathing on “Kick My Ass,” with Chesnutt’s former tourmate Shirley Manson sounding both scorned and defiant.
Crash Course For The Ravers: A Tribute To David Bowie (1996)
Quasi – “Sound + Vision”
The original “Sound + Vision” is a song defined as much by its slinky rhythms as by its cryptic lyrics, presumably but not definitively about the long wait for inspiration. The duo of Quasi — multi-instrumentalist Sam Coomes and best-drummer-alive Janet Weiss — chop the song up until it sounds like they pushed David Bowie and his platform shoes down a flight of stairs. From the raking vibrations of her highhat to the queasy warble of his synths, they make that plodding chaos sound eloquent, inviting, even hypnotic: a slo-mo epiphany on an album crowded with ponderous retreads.
September Songs: The Music Of Kurt Weill (1997)
Nick Cave – “Mack The Knife”
William S. Burroughs – “What Keeps Mankind Alive?”
The highly theatrical songcraft of Kurt Weill can be offputting, especially when paired with chaotic jazz arrangements, but September Songs argues the Weimar-era composer might have some broad appeal. The tracklist is ambitiously diverse, featuring the usual suspects (Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, PJ Harvey) with some left-field inclusions (Blind Boys of Alabama, Lotte Lenya, Betty Carter). But it’s the bookends that define the album: Nick Cave sings “Mack the Knife” like it’s a bonus track from Murder Ballads, and in fact it might be gorier. William S. Burroughs narrates “What Keeps Mankind Alive” like it’s some perverse inversion of “Howl.” “It’s time you faced the facts,” he declares in his septuagenarian burr. “Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.” And we’re sure he didn’t actually write this song?
The Duran Duran Tribute (1997)
Jimmy Eat World – “New Religion”
Any album featuring Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake has a shaky grasp of the whole tribute concept, and The Duran Duran Tribute is so unimaginative that it doesn’t even have a real title. There is, however improbable, at least one true keeper on this justly forgotten collection: an inventive and unrecognizable “New Religion.” Jimmy Eat World disassemble the Rio hit and reassemble it as a melancholy post-rock epic that’s more Spiderland than “Sweetness,” featuring some pointillist guitars, some throat-shredding vocals from Jim Adkins, and a convincingly crunchy climax.
Burning London: The Clash Tribute (1999)
The Afghan Whigs – “Lost In The Supermarket”
The Clash used punk as a springboard into so many other styles and genre — reggae, dub, blues, rockabilly — that they’re still hard to pin down decades later. As Greg Dulli proves, the best way to cover them may involve dreaming up something that sounds completely different than anything they ever did. The Afghan Whigs’ “Lost In The Supermarket” sounds like it belongs on a Curtis Mayfield tribute, and that’s the whole point. A good cover, especially a good tribute cover, demands a personal and distinctive interpretation of the source material, which this song has from its first notes. But it transforms into something wholly new and unexpected on the coda, when Dulli mashes up the Clash’s “Train In Vain” with Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”
Where Is My Mind? A Tribute To The Pixies (1999)
Nada Surf – “Where Is My Mind?”
This is the rare tribute with a curatorial theme: emo bands embracing the Pixies as an emo-before-emo band. Not everyone makes a compelling case, and most do quiet-loud like it’s an obligation; that leaves Nada Surf as the collection’s unlikely heroes. Never quite comfortable with noise or chaos (their roots are in power pop), they stretch the song out and lose Frank Black’s existential yelp. Rather than defiant or panicked, Matthew Caws sounds mournful, as if he’s grieving for the mind he never really had.
More Oar: A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album (1999)
Robert Plant: “Little Hands”
Arguably the most obscure artist to get the tribute album treatment in the 1990s, Skip Spence had been a drummer for Jefferson Airplane before drug addiction and mental illness led to his institutionalization. He wrote his defiantly hopeful solo masterpiece Oar while undergoing psychiatric treatment at Bellevue; upon its release in 1969, he disappeared from the music scene. Still, Oar became a crate-digger treasure and was covered song for song on 1999’s More Oar, which opens with Robert Plant singing “Little Hands.” Everything about the song is subdued, precarious, hesitant, with Plant letting his voice fold into the contours of the odd melodic lines. A strong wind might blow the whole thing away, but Plant locates a sense of heroism in Spence’s optimism, as though he sees the world coming together without him. Sadly, Spence died just three months before the tribute’s release.
Return Of The Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons (1999)
Evan Dando & Juliana Hatfield – “$1000 Wedding”
Either as a solo artist or with the Lemonheads, Evan Dando appeared on several tribute albums during the 1990s (and many more since), but none of his covers have the quite the same power as his duet with Julianna Hatfield on “$1000 Wedding.” Even though it was allegedly based on his own abandoned nuptials, it may have the smallest scope of any song Gram Parsons ever penned, with none of the romanticism that drives “She” or the borrowed moralism that illuminates the great “Sin City.” Yet it’s the true gem on Return Of The Grievous Angel, thanks to one of Dando’s most soulful performances and his easy chemistry with Julianna Hatfield.
HIDDEN BONUS TRACK
Toad the Wet Sprocket – “Rock N Roll All Nite”
I don’t know what to do with this one. Toad the Wet Sprocket covering Kiss makes about as much sense as… well, nothing makes less sense. Sufjan Stevens performing “Sex Machine”? Throbbing Gristle backing Ted Nugent? The weirdest thing about Toad’s cover of Kiss’ party anthem, for the previously mentioned Kiss My Ass: Kiss Regrooved, besides the fact that someone at PolyGram greenlighted it, is that they kinda pull it off. The original is toast to decadence and indulgence, yet simply by slowing it down and making it a little dreamy, Toad underscore the “I want” in the lyrics, turning it into a daydream of commercial success and rockstar indulgence. If Kiss made the song sound exclusive and even condescending — only Kiss gets to rock n roll all nite, their all day parties subsidized by the fans — Toad make it universal, somehow understanding that we’d all like to live that life, as untenable and unattainable as it may be. It’s a bittersweet reverie, an unexpected and unlikely twist on the original.
Toad the Wet Sprocket may be exactly the last band you’d expect — or want — on a Kiss tribute, but they turn “Rock & Roll All Nite” into a melancholy daydream about rockstardom, emphasizing the “want” over the “rock,” the “roll,” and the “all night.” You don’t quite believe they stay up past 10 pm, but that’s the pre-teen dream, isn’t it?
Check out (most of) the tracks above in a single Spotify playlist here.