The songs that saved your life, pt. I

After a harsh winter (look, I’m not complaining; my soul needs four seasons), it finally feels like spring has taken up permanent residence in central Pennsylvania – at least, as permanent as a season can do. I used to pine for the summers of my youth, the golden days spent playing with action figures in the warm grass or exploring the neighborhood with my twin brother, the long trips to New England where I’d tear through books watching the comparatively cool northern Atlantic waters slam against rocks the same way they have for eons, having long ago worn the jagged edges of the coastal stones and pebbles into pleasantly rounded things. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to really grasp the vitality and energy of spring, and my heart leaps up for the first few weeks of spring weather until the newness of it becomes rote, as anything tends to after a while.

(An aside: I apologize for my lack of brevity. William Zinsser, who famously penned On Writing Well, passed away this week, and my lengthiness would have appalled him. “There’s not much to be said about the period,” he wrote in that book, “except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”)

When I was hanging out and making pizza with my friend Bri a few weeks ago (I promised you pizza), she said that she curates a music playlist every month of the year. I didn’t test the veracity of the claim, but I don’t think she’d lie. Although I’m under absolutely no impression that anyone cares about my opinion on anything – I frankly prefer to be ignored – I decided to assemble a list of my favorite springtime songs, if for no other reason than to give myself a playlist for the time being.

Here’s how this will work: Because I’m unable to be brief (see above), this will be the first part of two posts (see title). I’ll add the Spotify link to each song in case you’re curious about how poor my taste is, and you can click here for the [edit] full playlist. While it might be obvious to me how these songs fit into the aesthetic of spring, I don’t assume that you, persistent reader, will feel the same way. I’ll talk a bit about each song (some more than others), but the beauty of music is that you can decide for yourself whether or not it fits into that context, that framework. Happy listening!

1. Fraud in the ’80sMates of State
An opening track should be a banger, yeah? Mates of State are the undeniably adorable, unbelievably joyful husband-and-wife duo Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. Their pop music is a Lisa Frank-like neon mix of crisp harmonies, snares that hit like a toy cap gun, and the familiarly buzzy sounds of a Hammond B-3, like the buzzing of bees in the air during … ah, that’s a terrible stretch of a comparison. The refrain that ends the song, “You can surely try to be more alive,” is especially apropos during the springtime thaw.

2. Let’s Push Things ForwardThe Streets
“Let’s put on our classics, and we’ll have a little dance, shall we?” Something about Mike Skinner’s The Streets, especially his first two records (Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free), always feels shockingly new to me. That’s a bit interesting considering the ubiquity of the U.K. garage movement he helped birth and the later popularity of acts like Dizzee Rascal and Lady Sovereign, but Skinner was there first. Like the static electricity in the air from the Highlands to Brighton during the Britpop movement, the United Kingdom was on the cusp of something thrilling.

3. Crimson and CloverTommy James and the Shondells
(I sense an accidental theme here.) Tommy James, as the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, wanted to dramatically shift the Shondells’ sound on their next single. Did he ever. The shimmering guitars, the distorted vocals, the spare lyrics (I mean, the song has about three words) – it’s the kind of song to listen to during a warm weekend sunset.

4. Teenage KicksThe Undertones
It’s rather difficult to sum up the entirety of the teenage experience. (I almost typed “teenage experiment,” which isn’t particularly inaccurate.) You’ve got the rough parts – the weird things happening to your body, like a Cronenberg movie gone J.G. Ballard-even-more wrong; the stress of homework plus that part time job; the irritation of feeling like an adult but still being under your parents’ roof. You’ve got the great parts – getting the driver’s license; that first kiss; the sense that independence is right around the corner, waiting to be tackled. This song takes all that vigor, angst, and intensity, wraps it up in a tight ball, and throws it directly into your solar plexus – without apologizing, in less than 150 seconds.

5. When You SleepMy Bloody Valentine
A lucid dream of a track, shimmering like waves of afternoon heat off interstate asphalt. My close friend and music collaborator, Jason, shares my affinity for My Bloody Valentine. I think some of it shines through, in spots, on the project we’re in the process of completing. Mostly because he’s a genius.

6. Fine TimeNew Order
On Technique, as might be surmised by Peter Savilles excellently decadent cover art, New Order began to incorporate shades of acid house into their sound, a Chicago-nurtured house subgenre that incorporates spoken word, electronic squelch, and samples. New Order, never any stranger to changes in the electronic music landscape that they cultivated since long before the pre-Hacienda days, put the style’s trappings to good use in this beast of a dance track. Here’s an experiment: Get on a long stretch of open road, then queue up “Fine Time.” Look down at your speedometer four minutes and 42 seconds later. Did your speed increase by at least 10 miles per hour? I thought so.

7. Gravity Rides EverythingModest Mouse
After that rush of blood to the head, a deep breath. The gentle acoustic strums and barely-there clicks of drum sticks (most of the percussiveness comes from the plectrum against nickel-wound strings) is inviting but mysterious. When he finally opens his mouth, Isaac Brock has a question: “What’s that riding on your everything?” He immediately answers himself – “It isn’t anything at all”; tension rises, but as the electric guitar slowly weaves through its welcomely repetitive fill by the end of the song, catharsis, indeed, rides everything: “It all will fall, fall right into place.” It will, and it does.

8. The National AnthemRadiohead
How does a band follow up a critical and commercial smash that arguably changed the alternative music landscape forever? If you’re Radiohead, you do the exact opposite: guitars mostly in absentia; Thom Yorke’s voice chopped and chipped apart; bleeps and bloops from synthesizers; an ondes Martinot. for. heaven’s. sake. In the resulting discord, another classic record. The lyrical content of “The National Anthem” matches the song’s taut pressure (sample lyric: Everyone / Everyone around here / Everyone is so near / What’s going on?). Agoraphobia may set in after the hibernation of winter transitions to the new unfamiliarity of springtime public life and society, but that’s what makes the spring season so dangerously thrilling.

9. HeartbreakerThe Walkmen
“These are the good days,” croons Hamilton Leithauser of The (possibly erstwhile?) Walkmen, “ah, the best we’ll ever know, these golden light years.” I can be cynical – “They’d better be, otherwise, why am I still here?” But I choose to believe it. The best is ahead, and I’m enjoying the ride.

10. God Only KnowsThe Beach Boys
What can be said about a perfect song? Every element of this track (and every other song on the seminal Pet Sounds) is immaculately conceived. Brian Wilson, the album’s chief composer, writer, and producer, famously fought with his Beach Boys bandmates over the project, who claimed that it was too radically different than the surf-and-sun style the group pioneered and owned. They weren’t completely wrong – while the album received high critical praise, its departure from the band’s sonic precedent and its highly personal subject matter led to lower-than-anticipated album sales, which Wilson took personally.

It’s no surprise that Wilson ended up going a little nuts after the project (read about Smile for more), but the album remains not only a high watermark for The Beach Boys, but is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest albums – if not the greatest album – of all time. “God Only Knows” is, perhaps, its finest moment: a gorgeous, lush, heartbreaking (no reference intended to the previous entry on this list), fully realized ode to young love, old love, and all the love that comes in between.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” are the words that begin the record. “God Only Knows” answers the rhetorical question: yes, it would be nice, but it’s also quite nice at every other step.

11. Still D.R.E.Dr. Dre (feat. Snoop Dogg)
While Detox may be the new Chinese Democracy, Dr. Dre’s sophomore (yeah, you read that right) record had plenty of treats for fans of the good doctor and his squad (not the least of which is Starlord himself rapping Eminem’s verse from “Forgot About Dre” on a radio show, unrehearsed). While the album is 1999, it (and this track) nevertheless look backward to the heyday of the original Chronic and the halcyon (joke) era of early West Coast hip-hop. It remains a sunny delight to the senses – this track, released in the fall ahead of the full album, smells like freshly cut grass, barbecues, and warmed pavement.

12. Ten MinutesThe Get Up Kids
Let me step into my dashboard confessional for a moment: for a hot second in high school, I considered myself an emo kid. (Who wouldn’t? That’s how you got the girls back then.) I always had the sense, though, even after that phase netted me no long-term relationships, that The Get Up Kids were a cut above. Sure – there were the aggressive guitars, there was the post-Sunny Day Real Estate mope-and-weep-trope, but something about it struck me as real. Especially this track. It might be an ancient relic, a shadow of someone who I was in a past life, but if I’m going to be blasting a song from emo’s pinnacle* out of the windows of my beaten-up Acura (she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid) – it’s going to be this one.

*Pinnacle, nadir, whatever. Figure it out yourself, I’m not an arbiter for what’s good and what’s not.

13. M79Vampire Weekend
It’s easy to forget that Vampire Weekend were initially considered a musical novelty, chicken a la Graceland. (Or maybe they weren’t – I’m not Zach Kelly, I don’t write for Pitchfork.) My initial reaction was essentially: “Here’s a group of Ivy League kids who are way too interested in Chinua Achebe.” And then, as it happened, I listened to the music. And the songwriting was good. And the execution was good, largely, I believe, to Rostam Batmanglij’s inherent dedication to beautiful sounds. (This is a rare quality, and a music professor in college was positive it marked the difference between McCartney from Lennon: the latter worked hard to create; the former, in his words, “wakes up every day with beautiful music in his head and just has to write it down to make a hit.”)

Hey, any band with a member whose last name begins with the word “Batman” can’t be terrible.

14. Live ForeverOasis
I love Oasis, especially the first two records. But if this was the only track they ever released, that would be okay, and the world might actually be a better place for it. Case in point.

15. Open Your HeartMadonna
“Open Your Heart” is made for the shopping mall, more than any other song in recorded music history (with one possible exception, and I’ll fight to the death on that point). The song’s tempo begs one’s feet to hustle to the rhythm, from Bloomingdale’s to Macy’s to the checkout line to the Ford Escort … wait just a moment! The song is a product of its time!

But: it’s an fantastic product from a culturally transgressive musician who both subverted and embraced the admittedly odd norms of the period (this was several years before she released that controversial book; she expertly toed the line between pariah and princess while maintaining her artistic integrity, incorporating classical motifs to welcome the skeptics, or at least calm the pitchforks. And that melody! Unimpeachable.

(Fun fact: The instrumental version of “La Isla Bonita” was originally offered to Michael Jackson. Wrap your head around that.)

16. Sitting on the Dock of the BayOtis Redding
Do I really have to explain this one?

17. DebaserThe Pixies
Kim Deal and Black Francis were always an odd couple, which is probably why their “marriage” ended in 2013. But one can’t deny the explosive verve on display here – the ragged, throaty vocals of a dude who is just really entranced by Buñuel’s surrealism, and Deal’s perfunctory explanation for the outrage: “Debaser. Debaser. De-ba-ser!” The song is steeped in nonsense – the song is nonsense, and that’s a rather clever hook for a song that pleads the listener to sing along, frame of reference be damned.

18. CatchThe Cure
An underrated Cure song. Perfect for spring. That’s about it.

Before I go…

My good friend (and former and hopefully future colleague) Tim and I have talked preliminarily about how to turn this thing from a stupid little blog into an actual website, a space where I can chat, but also display some of my work and (minor, very minor) credentials, in case anyone needs … I don’t know, a butler? Anyway, stay tuned – I’m very pleased to be in a position wherein I’m able to share, however slightly.

(Also: If you notice any linking or formatting errors in this thing, please let me know. I’ll fix them. Or I’ll get Tim to fix them.)

Enjoy your night (?) day (?) self (?). Love! All the best.

One thought on “The songs that saved your life, pt. I

  1. Pingback: The songs that saved your life, pt. II | Bryan Daniel Peach

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