I make a lot of food, and I listen to a lot of music. In some ways, these days, them’s my main things. And when it comes to making food, I particularly like to make pizza. I’m not one of those people with a perfect recipe you gotta try – I’ll give you a couple recipes if you want, but I’m a little more interested in hearing yours. It doesn’t really matter, though, because it’s the process of making pizza that I love: pouring flour, kneading dough, the carpal-tunnel exercise that is rolling, the occasional, never successful attempt at a toss, and the flick of dough from peel to stone, a perfectly satisfying moment of truth. Pizza can be anything, topped with anything, and it can take any amount of time, which makes it a perfect activity for listening to a whole album with.
A whole album is a unique piece of art. Regardless of length, genre or theme, an album is a curated collection of smaller art, an exhibit in intention. The songs an artist places on an album matter; the order of the songs matters. Like a delicate recipe, an album is constructed from the right ingredients in the right place. But which album is the best for making pizza?
Here is a no-rise pizza crust recipe I learned from someone and adapted slightly. It’s crispy and easy, but won’t compare to a real overnight dough. It will make two 12-14 inch pizza crusts – the sauce is up to you. Collect:
1 Tablespoon of Dry Active Yeast
1 Cup of Warm Water
1 Tablespoon of Honey
1 Tablespoon of Salt
3 Cups of All Purpose Flour
I began my investigation the same way I begin any investigation – by making a pizza with my wife. She’s a Zeppelin fan from way back (‘91); she’s moshed with me at Dillinger Escape Plan shows and cried with me at Punch Brothers shows. Her first choice was Capacity by Big Thief, a spectacular album full of raw and chaotic emotion. She spread sauce on the dough as “Pretty Things” played, and described how it reminded her to slow down and appreciate the physicality of the act of cooking. It’s true: “Pretty Things” is deeply physical in sound and lyric – buzzing, clattering guitar strings laying the foundation for an intimate exploration of body. She also suggested Pup by Pup for actually eating the pizza, another gorgeous and manic piece of art. Pup makes good cooking music too – at this point, it almost exclusively reminds me of bouncing around the kitchen, or of my friend Sean almost getting kicked out of a show for being from Wisconsin.
Set your oven to preheat as high as it will go, and place your pizza stone, chunk of iron, or whatever other primordial mineral you like to roast dough on. Start by mixing the water, yeast, and honey. Let it sit for a couple minutes until it looks foamy and opaque.
This may all be well and good, but we live in a bubble that is pretty much only punctuated by our cats, who cannot agree on what is ‘good petting’, let alone ‘good albums for making pizza’. I asked my friend Angelo, a thoughtful musician who occasionally texts me pictures of his gourmet dinners – truly a potential expert. Angelo started by reminding me that the context of the pizza making could matter almost as much as the context of the person making the pizza. He suggested Beat the Champ by The Mountain Goats as an adventurous exploration, perfect for a ‘pizza that’s greasy and flavorful and going to send me to an early grave.‘ He also suggested a Frank Turner album, “Love, Ire, and Song”. I refuse to listen to Frank Turner during a quarantine because my psyche is already balanced on a very thin pizza crust, but I took his suggestion to heart.
Add the salt, and then slowly mix in the flour. Knead the mixture into a consistent, sticky dough, adding a little more flour as necessary. Separate into two equal balls and let them sit for another couple minutes.
I asked a couple of other people, who gave me suggestions like Personal and the Pizza’s “Raw Pie,” (vetoed) or the soundtrack to Atlanta, which is actually a great suggestion but not an album. I decided to push further into the professional world of music by asking Erik Lobo, the phenomenal drummer for our recently featured artist Bernie and the Wolf, who suggested Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette. A genuine classic, Jagged Little Pill will push your pizza making towards chaos as you fling flour and sauce around your kitchen with abandon, full of indignation and wonder at the incredible art she built from an industry determined to drain her. Chaotic abandon seems to be a common theme in these choices, but I had to know more.
My investigation took me all the way to the top, where our esteemed Editor-in-Chief Dom reflected on the physicality of cooking: ‘A celebration for the senses, a celebration of the ingredients that go into whatever dish you’re preparing‘ and recommended We Move by James Vincent McMorrow. He said that the mood, light and calm, lets him dive into the process, sometimes singing along or even dancing between the steps of the recipe. McMorrow describes his music as an embrace of chaos, but he synthesizes that chaos into lovely music with the skill of a busy chef. You can hear that in “Headlights”, the extra noise and conversations coalescing into the context for the song. There is so much joy to be found in cooking, and so much music that accentuates that joy.
Roll out the dough on a clean, flat surface. Try pulling at the edges a little, or toss and spin if you know what’s up (I don’t). Use your fingertips to push little dents into the surface to make it extra crispy. Spread a thin layer of the sauce and toppings of your choice (don’t forget the cheese!) and toss it in the oven for ten minutes, or until it looks good. Devour.
It should be clear by this point that I have embarked on a fool’s errand: like every critic in search of ‘the best’, I have only filtered my own values and opinions through the lenses of my family and friends. But declaring a best album would be as divisive as declaring a best pizza; whether you prefer a beautiful thin-crust, a fat Sicilian loaf, or lasagna masquerading as ‘deep dish’, you surely have a preference in pizza and musical accompaniment. I’d encourage you to push your boundaries a little – to explore a new, more complex recipe, and to pair it with stranger and more challenging music than you may usually pick, but it’s just as satisfying to crush a familiar recipe with your favorite artist as a soundtrack. Truly, in pizza as in music, all is good and kind and full of love. Happy eating, happy listening, and thank you for indulging in this cheesy, futile investigation.
P.S. A couple days after I finished this article, I found my best album for making pizza, Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog by Norma Tanega. I was introduced to her by the 2014 film What We Do In the Shadows – the first song, “You’re Dead”, serves as the theme song for the film and the TV show that followed. It feels like the ultimate Taika Waititi joke to use an acidic critique of the bloody Vietnam War for a film about vampires. The album is full of 60’s sparkle – a sort of wide-eyed west coast optimism tempered with a self-assured moral conviction against brutality. It has the noisy production of a social kitchen, and it maintains some of the gospel swing that the entire genre is indebted to. For me, this is a great pizza making album.