In Random Rules, The A.V. Club asks some of its favorite people to set their MP3 players to shuffle and comment on the first few tracks that come up—no cheating or skipping embarrassing tracks allowed.
The shuffler: M. Ward, an acclaimed neo-troubadour whose latest album, Post-War, is full of songs that evoke sea chanteys, campfire songs, carny barkers, and varsity rags.
The Beatles, "It's Only Love"
M. Ward: How did that get on here? It's one of the first things I put on here, probably.
The A.V. Club: Would you describe yourself as a big Beatles fan?
MW: Yeah, well, that's how I learned how to play the guitar—going through Beatles books and following the pictures of chords. That's how I learned diminished chords, and augmented, and all that mumbo-jumbo. So when I hear this song, I just think of the chord progression. This particular song is all majors and minors.
M. Ward, "Bad Dreams 1997"
MW: This is the first version of a song that came out on a record called End Of Amnesia, around 2001. There's a bunch of my songs on here. I work with a four-track, and a lot of times, I'll take the four-track recording and put it on my iTunes so I can listen to it on the airplane. It's the best way for me to organize, because I have hundreds and hundreds of songs that I've written on four-track, and a lot of them are snippets. When it comes time to make a record, it's just a matter of going through all these old four-track tapes and finding ideas that seem to fit together. That's the way every record has been made. A combination of old and new.
Buena Vista Social Club, "Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?"
MW: The best thing about that record is Ry Cooder and the vocals of Ibrahim Ferrer. It's beautiful. Ry Cooder is definitely one of my guitar heroes. Him and George Harrison. Making the simple sound complicated is the ultimate goal. Chet Atkins was a master at that too.
Composer and artists unknown, Concerto #12 in C for Piano and Orchestra
MW: I'm not sure who composed this one. I got this track from one of the greatest books I've ever received as a gift. It's called Classical Masters, and it's an introduction to classical music. It comes with CDs, and you follow along. It's really nice when you're in Europe to know a little about these composers, because you're whizzing by them at 60 miles an hour, the birthplaces of these amazing composers. The first time I went to Europe, which I guess was in 2000 or 2002 or something, I got this CD, I burned it, I spent lots of time with it, and now I have an appreciation for these small towns in Switzerland or Austria where these composers were born. It helps your understanding of the history of music. And it really helps me put things in perspective when I'm hearing something and I can tell if it's modern or Baroque or whatever.
Bob Marley, "Crazy Baldhead"
MW: You know, I don't really listen to Bob Marley that much, but my friend has his greatest hits and Natural Mystic. I have it on my iTunes, but I don't really listen to it that much. But I've always loved the song "Natural Mystic." Incredible voice.
M. Ward, "Were You There?"
MW: This one came out on a reissue of my first record, Duet For Guitars #2. My mom says it's her favorite song. That's all I can say about that one.
Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five, "Skid-Dat, De-Dat"
MW: Over the past four years, I've rediscovered his music. My parents had Hello Dolly on vinyl when I was really young and first discovering music. That's still one of my favorite CDs, because it makes you feel happy when you hear it.
AVC: There's definitely a connection to that sound and some of the sounds you've been going for in your last couple of records.
MW: Well, I love what he does with vocals. He's able to put joy inside the vocal in a way that's not cheesy or contrived. I definitely look at his vocal style as probably the best in the world. To say nothing of his trumpet playing. And what he did for the country.
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, "Snake Rag"
MW: I bought King Oliver's CD after watching a documentary about Louis Armstrong and the influence King Oliver had on him. You know, I really don't know that much about King Oliver.
The Kinks, "Waterloo Sunset"
MW: I discovered The Kinks when my friend gave me The Village Green Preservation Society as a gift not very long ago. I devoured that CD, and it's still the main Kinks CD I listen to. Their greatest hits is a great record too. That's where this song comes from. Another song that's good to know when you're in Europe and you're waiting for a train and you're at Waterloo. It makes you feel happy.