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Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week

Carsick Cars – Zhongnanhai (2007)

You don’t need to know what a Zhongnanhai is to sing along to this song. You can pretend it’s about a brand of electric scooter, an imperial garden, a long-lost lover’s lingering last name. You don’t need to know that it’s about singing cigarettes; you can forget that fact. My friend Mitz played it once and then I was Zhongnanhai all week, singing the chorus, humming the riff, hanging on by the fender. Carsick Cars, from Beijing, consists of two guitarists and a drummer. They were inspired by the Velvet Underground and toured with Sonic Youth. They have a million friends and fans, or probably do, with a song such as this, an anthem for the Chinese indie underground in the Li Keqiang years, a song with guitars like 12V appliances, and guitars like throbbing headaches.

The gift of Zhongnanhai is that it works whether the world’s feeling right or wrong. Even if it feels indifferent. Carsick Cars will show you how to work it out. They’ll show you the secret exit.

Jo Mango – Cordelia (Choral Version) (2012)

This is a song of dreaming, grieving, remembering, performed with the patience of a singer who understands what she has lost. Mango, who is from Scotland, first arranged the song as a kind of piano hymn. This made it stately, steady as a tomb. But something marvelous took place on the song’s second try, in a collaboration with Glasgow’s Madrigirls choir. The piano went away, replaced by the choirists’ answering echoes, and instead of making Cordelia even statelier, more entombed, these formal voices bestow an incredible lightness upon the music. Everything seems to lift up into the air, from “a hum of bees” to a beloved’s last breath. Mango quotes Lear – “pray you, undo this button” – yet the song has none of that king’s messy anguish.

Cordelia is never crowded. There aren’t any funereal horns, swoops of elegiac strings. It is as plain as a hand leaving a flower beside a gravestone. “My final lesson,” Mango sings: “Letting go.”

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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