A lifetime mix is an audacious and difficult challenge. For a music lover, attempting to choose just one song from each year of your life so far presents all kinds of discomforts, questions, and considerations. Is this a mix of the best songs from each year? Or of my favorites? Are they songs I actually listened to at the time? Or is this mix as much an index of my taste today as it is of years passed? And, depending upon those answers, how would I make this mix something I — or anyone else, for that matter — would actually want to listen to?
A friend introduced me to the idea of the lifetime mix just before the holidays, and I took some time to mull it over. I thought through all kinds of approaches. The best-of approach. The what-I-was-listening-to-when approach. The unlistenable-timeline approach. All of them seemed to have problems and I could barely keep track of a few years of it in my head, forget thirty-four! So, I made a spreadsheet. Across the y-axis, I created a column for each year, starting with 1980. Underneath the year headings, I began listing songs. And thank god for the internet, because in some cases, my memory of when a song was released was way off, and in many cases, I needed help remembering anything that was released that year. Of course, I first looked to Rdio, which turned out to be little help in this bit of research. Besides being an incomplete archive (thanks record-label licensing killjoys), the listed release years for albums they do have are often flat out wrong. Then, I turned to Wikipedia, home of a vast archive of historical interest pages. Things like “1980 in Fine Arts of the Soviet Union,” or “1981 in Spaceflight,” or “1982 in Paleontology.” All of these pages actually exist. But I stuck with the program and started with 1980 in Music. Over the course of a few days and hundreds of tabs, I gradually filled in my spreadsheet. As I added songs, I tried not to think too much about which I would actually choose to represent each year. But if one did stand out as a clear favorite, I made it bold. And then unbolded it. And bolded it again. This was a fussy process. Nevertheless, the mix started to take shape.
Once I had filled my spreadsheet completely, I fell back upon my original questions. Take 1984, for example. That was the year when Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” was released. Was it an important song that year? Absolutely. It was a huge hit, so, check. Do I like the song? Well, sure, it’s not bad. Was I listening to it at the time? Actually, yes! I mean, technically, yes. I have a particular memory of riding with my Mom in her maroon Volvo 240, looking out the window of the back seat while that song played on the radio and we passed the streets and shops of Cambridge. But I was just a kid in earshot of the radio, not an active listener, really. And certainly not a fan. So, should it represent 1984? I wasn’t sold. “The Unforgettable Fire,” the title track from the album U2 released that same year was listed in the same column. It wasn’t nearly as popular as other songs on that particular U2 album, but it’s my favorite. It has been since I started listening to U2 intentionally, which, honestly, was probably almost a decade later. Ok, so it wasn’t a huge hit, and I wasn’t listening to it at the time, but I still like it. As in, I’m still listening to it today. So should it represent 1984? Ultimately, almost every year presented these kinds of quandaries. So I settled on three rules: (1) The mix would include songs that are my current favorites. So what if I was listening to Korn in 1996. If I don’t like it now, it doesn’t make the cut. As in, no Korn. (2) The mix would prefer artistic diversity. So, I’d need to take into consideration other years’ choices in order to avoid the same artists appearing over and over again. Since I knew U2 would show up in several years, I wanted to make sure I played the U2 card when it really counted. Which meant that, in the end, I played it twice, just as I played the Peter Gabriel, Sinead O’Connor, and David Byrne cards. Looking back over the spreadsheet, that’s an achievement — I could have easily included multiple songs by a long list of other artists, and it’s difficult to not rethink my choices now with those artist in mind. And finally, (3) the mix should be a considered whole. A good mix has as much to do with sequence as it does the presence of any discrete track, however great. But in this case, the sequence was pre-determined: Chronological order. Without the ability to reshuffle the songs later, the weight any individual choice had on the whole was that much more significant. Rules (1) and (2) were my priorities, but if I needed to choose a different song for the sake of a more listenable mix, I did. Luckily, I didn’t have to do that much, and it wasn’t too difficult to come up with a better mixer from my spreadsheet list. Anyway, enough with the caveats and process! You can browse the final list or the spreadsheet I created for yourself. For better or for worse, this mix is what I chose this time around. Thirty-five will let me rethink it all over again, plus one ;)
Oh, and in case you were left in suspense over my 1984 pick, in the end, I rejected Stevie Wonder, U2, and Madonna, all in favor of Prince. “When Doves Cry” is the fifth song in the mix.
Creating a mix like this is excessive enough on its own, but I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I’ve written some “liner notes,” too. Some will be longer than others, especially as I get closer to now in the chronology. Chances are you already love St. Vincent and don’t need me to say much about how cool her music is or why I chose “Prince Johnny” for my 2014 song. But I might run on a bit in some other cases. The point is, what follows is a list of entries. THIRTY-FOUR of them. So it’s long and there ain’t no tl;dr. So feel free to skim. Either way, enjoy! Also, I’m going to skip the usual “Heavy Rotation” and “Recent Tabs” sections this time. I’ll be back to the normal format next week, though, I promise.
THIRTY-FOUR (a Lifetime Mix)
Get ready. I warned you.
1980: “Games Without Frontiers,” Peter Gabriel
As a child, I had no idea what this song was about. But I could sense it was subversive — or some kind of critique. There was something about the words (knockout, games, war, tears) sung in the way Gabriel sings them that seemed edgy and a bit cynical. Keep in mind, I’m a little kid listening to this. I later discovered that the song was an allusion to Jeux Sans Frontières, a European game show originally created by French President Charles de Gaulle in which youth from towns in France and Germany would compete against one another in “funny games.” Kind of a proto-reality show. The gray areas between entertainment, control, war, and freedom were things that Gabriel was tuned in to way back then and throughout his career. (See “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” on So or “The Barry Williams Show” on Up.) But the later songs were more satirical than they were edgy. By the way, this song’s production was also pretty innovative. The rhythm track was created with a PAiA Electronics Programmable Drum Set, one of the earliest programmable drum machines, and several samples were included using the Fairlight CMI sampler. Peter Gabriel was one of the first musicians to use it. The Fairlight would become so ubiquitous that, in the liner notes of No Jacket Required, Phil Collins wrote, “There is no Fairlight on this record.” He was that proud of those live strings and horns. #NoFairlight or whatev. But live or synthetic, if you ask me, Peter Gabriel still made the better music.
1981: “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads
I kind of cheated on this one. “Once in a Lifetime” was the fourth song on Remain in Light — Talking Heads’s fourth album — which was released in 1980. But it wasn’t released as a single until 1981. So, on that technicality, it squeezed ahead of “Don’t You Want Me?” by The Human League. It’s funny how this song is, ostensibly, about the banality of the American dream and the onset of midlife crisis — potentially dark themes — while the music itself is upbeat, playful, and joyful. I think that, plus the Brian Eno touch (the song had no chorus and was almost scrapped until he added the “letting the days go by…” melody), is what makes this song endure. Also, Kermit the Frog covered “Once in a Lifetime” in 1996. You really must watch it. The suit! The dancing! The bare feet! The band in silhouette! Oh, and the projected imagery. This was a kid’s show! I imagine Jim Henson would have been overjoyed. More on what I assume Jim Henson would have liked later…
1982: “O Superman (For Massenet),” Lori Anderson
Another one on a technicality. Lori Anderson released this song in 1981 as a performance art piece. It was an unexpected hit in the UK and was included in her 1982 album, Big Science. As a child, I found this song mesmerizing and a bit frightening. The “…ha ha ha ha…” sample that runs throughout the song was strangely hypnotic and urgent — almost like a pulse going a bit too fast — as were all the other musical lines that are interwoven with it, while Anderson’s serene vocal track had a calming and slowing effect over it all. There was something about her identifying as “the hand that takes” and the line, “Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice / And when justice is gone, there’s always force / And when force is gone, there’s always Mom” that filled me with dread. Now, it feels more mournful and detached than it did when I was younger. But still, so odd (and encouraging) that a song like this would have been a hit anywhere!
1983: “New Year’s Day,” U2
My sister turned thirteen in 1992, and promptly entered a pretty significant U2 phase which she now describes as “eew.” But back then, she was really into them and that rubbed off on me. War, in particular, stands out as the album we probably played the most (besides Achtung Baby; more on that later), and this track, especially. In fact, I recall that almost every New Year’s eve starting around then until when we no longer spent them together, this song would play at some point on the radio or MTV and it always felt like it was just for us. Our teenage angst was otherwise expressed in very different ways, but we had enough overlap in our musical tastes to preserve a good bond. Within that venn sliver were some other pretty choice selections, like Billy Idol, KMFDM, Dead Kennedys, and others, but there was something about the sincerity of U2′s early rebelliousness that connected with both of us. Anyway, I was starting to learn guitar at around that time and found this song to be a particularly frustrating one to attempt to recreate — at least as far as the guitar part is concerned. But I was pretty pleased with myself for being able to play the bassline over and over again on my low E string, probably to my family’s deep annoyance. A few years later, my buddies on the marching band drumline (yes) and I were rehearsing outside in the cold, each of us wearing fingerless gloves just like the ones our Irish friends wear in the video. Somehow we all took notice of this at the same time and we struck up a drum and a cappella version of the song and felt a little bit cooler and a little less cold. Well, at least as cold as they did about 45 seconds in, when they do their move-like-a-wind-up-soldier-or-die-frozen bit. By the way, did you know that Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry were just too cold to do the horseback riding for the video, so they recruited four Swedish teenage girls to stand in for them? That’s why they’re wearing masks.
1984: “When Doves Cry,” Prince
I wasn’t a Prince fan as a kid. I had this idea that he was bubblegum — just a pop star, nothing more. This is because I’d never really listened to his music. But sometime later — 1997 probably — I saw a clip of him on TV playing live, just absolutely shredding on guitar, and was blown away. I remember showing up to band practice after that and exclaiming to my three bandmates, “You guys, Prince is sick!” Side-eyes back at me. We were a metal band. Called Conspiracy. So you get the idea. Much later, though, I was able to go back through his discography and hear just how innovative he was. How many risks he took. This song, for example, has no bassline. No baseline! Also, it starts with a guitar solo. Then a weird loop of his voice in full possessed-Regan mode. Then the dancey synth line you’re expecting. The low-end harmonizing kind of fills in for a bass part — kind of. The song ends with this odd baroque synth solo and layered, harmonized Prince shrieks. It’s just weird.
1985: “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God),” Kate Bush
This song was originally titled, “A Deal with God,” but EMI execs were scared that the word “God” would offend people. Little did they know the controversies awaiting them over the next decade. But for then, they were especially wimpy, so, “Running Up that Hill.” The song wasn’t really about running up a hill or making a deal with God, though. It was about the idea that men and women can’t ever fully understand each other’s experience as a gender… but what if they could switch places (hence the masks in the video)? As a child of the 80s — where everything came in boy and girl versions — that idea made a pretty strong impression on me. That there was more to being female than different colors, clothing, and toys, and that much of it I’d never understand, remains a humbling truth. (Also, Kate Bush quietly set a course in music that you can absolutely still hear today. See my 2009 choice for one of her direct descendants.)
1986: “Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush
This song is still teaching me. For most of my life, I thought of it as a story. A boy grows up, becomes a man, goes off to work, loses his job, returns home to find it barren, and moves on to find work again. That the woman’s part breaks that story up into chapters didn’t make much of an impression on me until much later. It seemed necessary to the song to have a refrain that thematically countered the story the verses told. But the song — at least for me now — isn’t about a particular biography. It’s about the timeless human story of chasing after meaning by force of will, and the disappointment — the despair — of discovering that meaning cannot be bought or earned. The voice of the woman is the teacher. She offers unconditional love and hope. She says, rest, it’s going to be alright. I remember listening as a younger boy; I’d think of the times my Stepfather would come home burnt out and defeated by work and wonder if all men, no matter how good, faced such hard times. I’d worry that when and if I faced them, I wouldn’t be as strong as he was. I remember listening to it through the ups and downs of my first relationship, and how it seemed to take on the desperation of our clinging to one another while the end of one life stage and the beginning of another pulled us apart. I listened to it through a few more cycles of the same. I’ve listened to it through the ups and downs of my adult life so far, and it’s always had something new to offer — some new depth of sadness to absorb and some new glimmer of hope ahead. Yet I’ve still burned the striver’s candle from both ends learning the lesson it’s patiently offered me since I was six: Love is free.
1987: “Troy,” Sinead O’Connor
“Troy” was a pretty unlikely choice as the first single from an unknown artist’s debut album. While it absolutely showcases Sinead’s incredible voice, it’s just not a radio song. For one thing, it’s over six minutes long. And though there’s some thematic repetition, there’s no clear verse/chorus backbone to it. It follows a more orchestral structure. The record execs wised up and released the album’s opener, “Mandinka,” as the next single. It’s a great song, too, and much catchier. And I might have chosen it for 1987, but it’s just no “Troy.” All the beauty and staggering power that Sinead O’Connor became known for is in her performance of this song. It has never failed to move me.
1988: “Where is My Mind?” The Pixies
A decade after this song was originally released, it played over the last minute of Fight Club, earwormed its way into millions of people’s heads, and enjoyed a major renaissance after they all rushed home to download it over Napster. Back then, that the song was over ten years old but still sounded current probably didn’t seem like that big of a deal. But it does now. It’s the kind of song that sounds just as at home among other indie fare of the time (e.g. “Stand,” by REM) as it did in the nineties, among the many bands that only ever wanted to sound as good as the Pixies yet soared to heights far beyond them, and as it does today. If Bob Boylan and Robin Hilton nestled it in between the latest Perfect Pussy and Alvvays tracks on All Songs Considered this week, I’d hardly blink. It still holds up, is what I’m saying. In a big way. The Pixies were so good!
1989: “Lovesong,” The Cure
I adore this song. Something that has always stood out to me about it is the way each instrument is doing something totally different, but is interwoven with the others so perfectly. There is no duplication, instrumental harmonization, or layering in this recording. The bassline is a distinct melody. The keyboard/organ part is a distinct melody. The guitar parts (all four or five of them) are distinct melodies. Of course, this isn’t totally unique; many great pop songs do this and do it well. But Lovesong does it really, really well, and its production is certainly a cut above your typical late-eighties pop song. Even now — twenty-five years later — the song sounds current and fresh. Every time I listen to it, I recall being ten years old and hearing it through the floor of my bedroom coming from the living room below, where my Stepfather had his good stereo set up. He had a big chair in the center of the room where he would sit on Saturday mornings in his robe, often holding the CD jewelbox and booklet. I can hear him whistling the organ melody.
1990: “Enjoy the Silence,” Depeche Mode
This is another song that I’ve listened to regularly since it was first released, and I almost always see the images from the music video in my mind when I do. There was something about the tone of it that was a perfect match of sound and image: A king wandering a desolate land on foot carrying nothing but a folding chair — walking almost in time with the steady, perfect march of the drum machine — while a slow, searching melody of the acoustic guitar line repeats again and again atop a solemn chorale, almost as if to bend and warp the sense of time in the song. It’s as if the beat is the body — the constant striving of the march of human life — while the guitar is representative of the spirit — the innerspace of the person, searching for something other than the more he’s accumulated for himself. The lyrics, of course, tell that story more literally. He says, “all I’ve ever wanted is here in my arms.” Who couldn’t relate to that — the simultaneous drive to build, make, gather, possess, while also wanting to let it all go and just be. Oh, by the way, did you know that the music video was directed by Anton Corbijn, director of many other music videos but also my favorite film of 2014, A Most Wanted Man?
1991: “Losing My Religion,” REM; “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” U2
The first tie. Both also strongly impacted by visual accompaniment. The music video for “Losing My Religion” probably had a greater impact on how I experience and think about the song than it should have. You probably remember it. It’s crammed full of religious imagery and shot like a moving Caravaggio painting. But what’s interesting is that the song isn’t about religion. I certainly thought it was. For most of the time I listened to it, I interpreted the you Michael Stipe was singing to as God. But, as it turns out, “losing my religion” is just a southern way of saying “losing my s**.” Didn’t know that. I’m from New England ;) But that little cipher helped me get the creepier obsession angle to the song, which, according to Michael Stipe, is all there is. But the cipher came too late. I still hear it as a religious angst song and might just like it better that way. So there. On the other hand, I’ve never heard “Ultraviolet” as a spiritually-themed song, though plenty of people on the internet seem to want to claim Bono as their pastor. I think it’s just a simple love song about how the right person can shed some light on anyone’s darkness. There’s a moment in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly* in which the protagonist — a libertine suddenly locked in by a traumatic paralysis — remembers speeding down the highway in his convertible with a beautiful woman by his side. As the camera pulls back and the car speeds forward, her hair blows in the wind, almost matching the rhythm of the shimmering guitar that carries through in “Ultraviolet.” I tried to find a clip of this and failed. But if you’ve seen the film, perhaps you remember this scene. It’s stayed with me and now every time I hear “Ultraviolet,” I see that hair blowing in the wind and think about how love is all the freedom we need.
1992: “Crucify,” Tori Amos; “Come As You Are,” Nirvana
Much of the music played in my house in the early nineties could be filed under the “religious angst” category, and still, in that millieu, “Crucify” stood out. There was plenty of Trent Reznor, too, but while his angst scared me, Tori’s stuck with me. It’s partly the lyrics. Reznor tended toward aggressive, violent or shocking language, and while Tori’s was no less dramatic (“I crucify myself” jeez), it at least left me wanting to know more about her experience and understand her better, whereas Reznor tended to leave me feeling more angry than I ever needed to. Tori also got there first, at least for me. It was another couple of years before I’d get my first exposure to Nietzschean philosophy in an industrial package (“Your God is dead and no one cares!” O rly). Incidentally, that introduction came in 1994, when Tori’s second album, Under the Pink came out. For the record, it sounds much better than her first. “Come As You Are” is the best song the Pixies never wrote. And while “On a Plain” and “Drain You” are actually my favorite songs on Nevermind, I chose “Come As You Are” because it shows just how musically connected Nirvana was to the other groups already on this list. I mean, come on, it’s much more new wave than punk or (gulp) grunge. And anyway, this song would have been way more grungy if Frank Black sang it, but Butch Vig made sure it was way shinier (if music can be that) and prettier than anything the Pixies ever recorded.
1993: “Mayonaise,” The Smashing Pumpkins
Good lord, listen to this song and take in what a huge leap forward it is sonically from the songs in the few years before it. Especially when you consider how similar “Where is My Mind” and “Come As You Are” sound. They are absolutely cut from the same cloth, grounded in the same world. Comparatively, listening to “Mayonaise” is like being blast off into space. That’s kind of how I always thought of The Smashing Pumpkins’ aesthetic. There’s something about the atmosphere of the mix — the distortion of their guitars, the punctuated explosiveness of the drums, and then the high register of Corgan’s voice — that feels like combustion and machinery, like the vibrations of a ship blast out of our atmosphere, all muffled by my space suit’s helmet while my scared inner voice weaves its way in and out of the noise. I like how, toward the end of the song, Corgan cries out, “Can anybody hear me?” — which is, honestly, a bit of a rock ’n roll cliche — but when I envision him strapped in to some rocket, shouting that to his crewmates who obviously cannot hear him, I like it a whole lot more.
1994: “Corduroy,” Pearl Jam; “Last Goodbye,” Jeff Buckley
For years, I thought that Vs. was my favorite Pearl Jam album. And, to be fair, it probably still is — if I’m judging that by the fact that it is the Pearl Jam album that has the most songs I like on it. And that I liked it best back in the 90s makes perfect sense — it’s the hardest of their albums, mostly thanks to Dave Abbruzzese, the drummer the rest of the band eventually hated because he bought a Mitsubishi after the Vs. checks cleared and then fired after he laid down the tracks for Vitalogy because they’d had enough of his bro-ing. Ok, Ok, it was probably more because he was pro-Ticketmaster while the rest of the band was like eff-no-BRO! And, again, to_be_fair, Abbruzzese should have been in a different band. But Mike Portnoy was already in Dream Theater. OK. Enough! So, what I’m getting at is that “Corduroy” is such a good song that it, and it alone, may put Vitalogy over Vs., at least for this nostalgic thirty-four-year-old. Kidding. “Not for You,” “Nothingman,” and “Better Man” are all great songs, too. As for “Last Goodbye,” is there any other song that is as good at being a break-up song than this one? Well, around the time that I burst into band practice with the “dudes, Prince!” thing, the drummer in my band had a similar epiphany that climaxed with a “dudes, Jeff Buckley!” and hitting play on his stereo and the room being filled with “Last Goodbye” and three reluctant metal punks opening their minds to a softer sound and after four-and-a-half minutes of emotional catharsis having no idea how to react together as bros so they commenced their metal-ing and spoke of it no more. But each of them bought that record and played it all the time and still do.
1995: “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was,” Radiohead; “Say It Ain’t So,” Weezer
Including this Radiohead song is really a bit of a Hail Mary. I’d include just about every song from The Bends, especially “Black Star,” “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” “(Nice Dream,” and “Planet Telex.” IN THAT ORDER. Look, basically, The Bends is the greatest Radiohead album (I know I know OK Computer is GREAT but this is the one that captured my heart) and I would have chosen additional songs from it as well as songs from OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac but, per my mix priorities, this could not be. So I chose the one that I played on_my_minidisc_player on repeat as I moodily walked the dark streets of Providence night after night for months in 1991 when I was in love and scared to death; for two days straight because if was one of three minidiscs (again) when I got stuck on an Amtrak train slowed to a frozen stop by a blizzard in Albany; on heavy rotation when I moved overseas and knew virtually nobody; and every other emotional bump on the road of life since. Lyrically, it’s a little over the top, but come on, who isn’t a drama queen when they’re hurting? The Blue Album is the greatest Weezer album (and probably among the greatest rock albums of all time) and “Say It Ain’t So” is the greatest song on it. It’s a surprising song. It starts out with a kind of loungey vibe and eventually rocks out so hard that I guarantee it’s one of the most loved songs by the widest array of genre-affiliated music geeks (including metalheads) out there. This song is so good it would be hard for any group to reach its heights again afterward and, frankly, I don’t know that I can say that Weezer did. But that’s OK, because, man, they wrote this song.
1996: “H.,” Tool
A good portion of you are likely to skip over this if I don’t say that “H.” is the Tool song for everyone who thinks they don’t like Tool because that reminds them of blacklit basements filled with pimply teenage guys drinking Mountain Dew, waiting for Aenima to finish up so they can order a pizza, smoke a bowl, and start the Primus marathon because you totally need to hear this one bassline, man. Because it is, really. It’s the least indulgent of the songs on Aenima, and therefore, the least alienating to people who would much rather be listening to “Last Goodbye.” So, what I’m saying is, give it a chance. It’s a pretty great song.
1997: “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (I Can’t Help Falling in Love),” Spiritualized
It’s repetitive but good. And 1997 wasn’t that good overall, considering that my mix rule commitments prevented me from choosing “Paranoid Android” and “All is Full of Love.”
1998: “Angel,” Massive Attack
“Angel” is the kind of song that gets the blacklit basement stoners to explore trip-hop (which, let’s be honest, extends to the twelfth track on Mezzanine and shouldn’t go much further except for the naive and courageous who try to like Tricky’s Maxinquaye for a while but eventually have to admit that they don’t because it’s really kind of bad). But, “Angel,” guys. It’s the door opening to one of the most exciting recordings of the nineties that, at some point in your life, must be listened to from start to finish on headphones in the dark at night. Also, interesting historical fact: Did you know that Mezzanine was one of the first albums to be made available for download on the web, and basically the first commercial use of the MP3 file format? Pretty neat.
1999: “She’s a Jar,” Wilco
1999 was a really mediocre year for music. Now, before you freak out. I realized that The Fragile came out that year. And I really liked that album. But Nine Inch Nails just hasn’t held up that well for me in the years since, and when it came down to which songs — of the three that I was able to choose — I’d want to listen to again, “She’s a Jar” was it. And it’s a great song. From a great album (Summerteeth). Which probably had a lot to do with Jay Bennet still being in the band then. That says a lot about my taste, because the other Wilco album I like is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which ultimately became the Exit door for Bennet. Ah, well. Also, in 1999, was “No One Will Ever Love You,” by The Magnetic Fields, and the more I type here, the more I second guess my choice because I love that song, too. Better move on.
2000: “Don’t Panic,” Coldplay
I’m as surprised as you are. I did not expect Coldplay to make my list, either. But this was the most beautiful and sincere song among my turn-of-the-millennium genre-confused choices, and honestly, I listened to it so much in 2001 (it was on the same mix minidisc as “Bullet Proof” so you now know where my head was at) that it had to be the choice. This was the one that, in addition to accompanying me on my street-wandering pathos-exorcisms, was played numerous times while I and my girlfriend at the time laid on our backs in dorm rooms late at night, in a post-9/11 world, in awe of the idea that we might still live “in a beautiful world.”
2001: “Pagan Poetry,” Björk
I already gushed over Vespertine in a previous post, and all my emoting there is sufficient to explain my choice for 2001.
2002: “Do You Realize??,” The Flaming Lips
Wikipedia says that this song is “widely considered to be one of the group’s most accessible and popular songs.” Which must be true, because I had never heard of The Flaming Lips until I heard this song played on someone’s little stereo at three in the morning in a printmaking studio at RISD. And in my exhausted delirium, I became obsessed with the song (and the rest of the album), went home (eventually), and downloaded it on Kazaa. Like “Don’t Panic,” it’s a beautiful song that is better taken sincerely. The other day, I was driving to work, listening to my thirty-four mix, and it came on, and I almost teared up a bit, as if my body had time-traveled back to that late printmaking session thirteen years ago and, suddenly, I was an exhausted college senior “enjoying” a few last moments of being a student and suppressing the abject terror at being cast out into the real world where I’d have to finally figure out how to be an adult. In light of “everyone you know some day will die,” this was a heavy thought.
2003: “Such Great Heights,” The Postal Service
Back around when this song was released, I used to send a lot of mail — a lot more than I do now — and even then it seemed like an anachronism. But some friends and I would clog the mail system with all kinds of weird creations. Sometimes it was fun to see how things would arrive at the other end — how beaten and scarred by the process, how strangely marked with stamps and stripes and smears — and other times it was amazing to see the thing arrive at all. A friend once even sent me a “postcard” which was just a piece of LEGO grass with a stamp on it. We had fun. So of course when I heard that a couple of musicians had been collaborating by sending recordings back and forth between two cities by mail, I was interested. It didn’t matter (yet) what the music was like; the simple fact that it was done by mail was enough. As it turns out, the music was pretty much right where I would have wanted it. It’s the small sliver of overlap in a Venn diagram of many genres, and beautifully, catchilly so. About the same time, another friend used this song in a little short film he made about discovering that his roommate was a robot. Kind of a perfect pairing; I’ve always thought of this song — and the rest of the record, really — as what love songs for robots might sound like.
2004: “Naked as We Came,” Iron and Wine 2005: “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” Sufjan Stevens
I’m lumping these two together because it was around this time that I kind of went through a “quiet music” phase. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure that I recognized it at the time, but most of what I was listening to at the time was pretty much at the same register as these songs. A quiet murmur. Barely more than a whisper. While both songs are sonically delicate and gorgeous, they’re lyrically quite dark — the Sufjan song, especially — which is what probably drew me to them. I’ve often been drawn to music where there is a clear balance of dark and light, of beauty and ugliness. Most of the metal I like has that balance — where the music is loud and extreme and machine-precise, yet always have some element which, though delicate and fragile, remains intact throughout and carries you, the listener, through. These songs are kind of like that element, isolated.
2006: “Here We Are (Family in the Hallways),” The Appleseed Cast
There’s something almost post-apocalyptic sounding about this song, and the entire record, Peregrine, from which it comes. The Appleseed Cast are from Kansas City, which isn’t exactly a rust belt locale, but for some reason, I envision their studio as this rusty, Mad Max-like outpost. I think this is partly because the songs themselves are composed of pieces that all feel, sonically, like they are of different times. The drums are probably the most futuristic-sounding element. They’re rhythms are intricate and precise, and the processing of the sound makes them sound even more synthetic than they are, though there is the occasional use of drum machine. The guitars sound like the entire three decades this list covers — all manners of distortion and effect, from new wave through grunge. And the vocals are buried in the tracks, sometimes overdriven, sometimes just barely audible; what you’d expect of an early nineties noise rock band more confident in what their hands can do than their mouths. But all of that makes for a fascinating pastiche of sound. One of my favorite live music experiences was seeing The Appleseed Cast live back in 2008. The club was overfilled with fans. It was a million degrees in there. I was imagining that post-apocalypic future where people reach resource detentes at night so that they may peacefully rock out in clubs like this one. They played this song toward the end of the set, which made a perfect accompaniment for my daydream. The lyrics are so bleak. “Everyone walks alone / we don’t care here we are / we proclaim the start of / with false fronts and shattered dreams / we don’t care… all we are / all we are is watching / all we are is crazy / we are standing on a road / on a road to nowhere / there’s a place for all of this / they don’t care / we don’t care / you can’t break us down.” They’re the voice of the generation born after the cataclysm — literally, the post apocalyptic voice — the voice that knows only the desolation afterward, but in knowing the history, knowing how it all came to be this way, they can only retain apathy. Whew, it’s dark.
2007: “There’s a Limit to Your Love,” Feist; “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” Spoon
These songs are pretty different — one is slow and sadly seductive, the other quick and playful. But both have sonic elements that feel like they were recorded with the same equipment used in 1960s Motown studios. There’s something in the space — the echoes and the reverb — but also in the way that certain instrument lines lock in with the bass at just the right times, where the “hook” is in the instrumentation, not always the vocals. In Feist’s song, it’s the refrain’s synced piano and bass lines — “bu-bummm… bu-bu-bu-bummm” — that do it. In Spoon’s, it’s the horns that kick in at the refrain — “daa da da-da da da.” They make a great pair.
2008: “Strange Overtones,” David Byrne and Brian Eno
Look, I’m not really that much of a dancer, but if you can listen to this song and not want to dance, then you are the Tin Man and you need your oil can, STAT.
2009: “Daniel,” Bat for Lashes
Remember when I said that Kate Bush’s influence lives on? Well, that’s especially evident to me in Bat for Lashes’ music. I adore Natasha Khan’s voice, it’s just as unique as Kate Bush’s is, and sits in the mix just like her’s does. And there’s something about the sonic space of this song that feels just like the space in “Running Up that Hill.” But in this song, I love how the absolute flatness of the drum machine doesn’t deflate that space at all. It’s as if this machine is ticking along in the midst of this dense, smokey fog swirling around it. And maybe Natasha Khan somewhere in there, dancing to the beat. I imagine her wearing eighties head and wrist bands, which is a bit weird.
2010: “Madder Red,” Yeasayer
Speaking of the eighties, here’s another band composed of people raised in the eighties, who have carried the sounds of that decade forward into a truly odd (but in a good way!) mix of past, present and future. Since I first heard them, I’ve always thought of Yeasayer as the group that inherited mantle of the The Talking Heads. It’s the oddness, the dancability, the basslines, the entire sonic landscape. And just enough pop to make it palatable to a larger audience than a group with these sensibilities would otherwise garner. (Also, Yeasayer put on the best show I’ve seen in the last ten years.) If Sinead O’Connor hadn’t bumped them from the 2012 slot, I would have included “Henrietta,” from Fragrant World, another song absolutely linked to their Talking Heads lineage.
2011: “I Don’t Want Love,” The Antlers; “The Wilhelm Scream,” James Blake
I mentioned The Antlers in my last post of 2014, and I wouldn’t add much here. This is a beautiful song about encountering love after grief and thinking you still want the grief. The Wilhelm Scream is the standard “AIEEEEEE!!!” scream added in post to violent scenes in Hollywood movies. Why it’s the title of James Blake’s cover of his father’s song, “Where to Turn,” I do not know. He’s a weird guy. And the song is really weird. But I love it.
2012: “Take Off Your Shoes,” Sinead O’Connor
I wrote about Sinead O’Connor in a post back in November. Check that out. This song is, in part, why her 2012 album is among her best, if not the best.
2013: “Provider,” Midlake; “Hrafntinna,” Sigur Rós; “I Should Live in Salt,” The National
“Provider” is the psychedelic worship song that would have converted Jethro Tull and George Harrison to whatever it is they’re preaching. It comes from a gorgeous record. “Hrafntinna” is the song that would have gotten Jim Henson to pick up the phone and beg Sigur Rós to score the sequel to The Dark Crystal. I can’t listen to it without envisioning the Mystics engaged in some kind of slow ritual. “I Should Live in Salt” is nothing like either of these, but it’s a beautiful song that I’ll probably write about more at some point.
2014: “Prince Johnny,” St. Vincent
Like I said, you already like this song. You like the entire album, but you think this song is the best of them.