Earlier this week, my friend Kirsten (whom I have known for 28 years – how is that possible!?) posted “A Top Ten (or Nine) List” about songs she loves. Even though she and I have different musical taste, her post stayed with me this week and I thought I would try to compile a list of my own along similar lines.
Before I can begin, I have to mirror Kirsten’s caveat that a list like this is essentially impossible. So much of my love for music is about my associations with a given song. There are some songs I adore that I know are pretty dull, but when I think of the time and the place where that song first clicked for me, it gains depth and meaning that are all external to the song’s own merits. Hence, if you read this list, and you think, “these songs suck!” just imagine how great the circumstances must have been for them to gain such a hold on me.
To compile this list, I could have stared at the ceiling and tried to think of songs with no prompting, but that would have been hard. Instead, I fired up Last.fm and checked out my listening history there. I did not just pick my top ten songs from that list, but they were a useful guide to what I listen to as opposed to what I think I listen to. What follows then are songs I really enjoy, and not an actual attempt at my favorite ten songs, in no real order. With two exceptions, the video links are simply to make sure you can hear the song – ignore the visuals.
- Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street” – No matter how many times I listen to this 1986 song, its meaning always eludes me. Yet the confusion and the uncertainty add to the song. It’s hypnotic and sad and evocative and mysterious. The arrangement and the lyrics are perfectly matched. I once listened to this one song over and over as I clacked my way from New Haven to Hartford, and the song’s suggestion of loss was so mirrored in the fleeting glimpses the train affords you of people’s homes and lives that I always associate this song with the towns near Wallingford. (video)
- Frou Frou’s “Hear Me Out” – I came across this group in 2004, after the pairing had already split up. At the time, I’d never heard of Imogen Heap, but I loved her voice, and I listened to their 2002 album Details as compulsively as anything in the last ten years. Imogen’s breathy voice balances over the drum machines and odd synthetic noises in a way that always catches me off guard. She’s seductive, and powerful, and calm, and overwrought. I really find it captivating, and this song in particular grabs me and won’t let go. (video)
- Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” – I love this song. The guitar, the drums, the clipped lyrics – it’s essentially perfect. From way back in 1983, part of my memory of the song is the striking, black and white video, which added a lot of atmosphere to the song back when videos were cool. The narrator’s wistful nostalgia, mixed with some less rosy memories, make this both sweet and bleak. “A little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back. I thought I knew what love was, what did I know? Those days are gone forever, I should just let ’em go.“
- Joni Mitchell “Case of You” – I managed to somehow miss Joni Mitchell until my junior year in college. That spring my friend Jason lent me the album Blue, and it hit me like a bomb. The unmistakable phrasing, the wanton lyricism, the carefree joy and the heartache – I was hooked. Junior spring had profound ups and downs, and I think that those peaks and valleys meant that the music I listened to then sunk in deep. I hear this song with its open, vulnerable, defiance, and part of me is right back in the midst of all that tumult. “Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time.” (video)
- Ryan Adams “New York, New York” – Most of these songs have personal significance for me, but this one is different. I’ve never paid much attention to Ryan Adams, but shortly after 9-11, CBS Sunday Morning played his video for this song on their show. The video was filmed on September 7, and when you look at it, the World Trade Centers feature prominently throughout. This was pure coincidence, but after the attacks, it adds an incredible bittersweet poignancy to the video, and from there – in my mind at least – to the song as well. This was one of my first iTunes purchases and I’ve listened it to death. I think it’s a wonderful love song to New York, and it’s also a very catchy tune, but beyond that I think of that strange and horrible day six years ago. The song haunts me a bit.
- Kate Rusby “Our Town” – I have Iris DeMent’s albums, and I love this song by her, but it was not until Kate Rusby’s cover of it that this song stopped me in my tracks. It’s such a visual story, and Rusby’s accent gives it such a sense of location and time – reminding me that the mind is far more powerful at conjuring up images via suggestion than via description. “And you know, the sun’s setting fast, and just as they say, nothing good ever lasts.” Captivating. (video, by DeMent, who’s really worth checking out if you don’t know her)
- Jackson Browne “I’m Alive” – I still remember the first time I heard this song, way back when I listened to the radio and heard singles, in 1993. I had just graduated from college, and much like Joni Mitchell a year earlier, things were still very up and down. This song hit very close to home, and Browne’s incredible renunciation of the past, his willful embrace of the future, and his affirmations about leaving behind things that dragged him down spoke to me very, very deeply. Trite, I know, but 14 years later this song is still a milestone in my mind. I should also mention that it’s even better loud. (video)
- Patty Griffin “Long Ride Home” – This may be the most recent song on this list, at least in terms of when I became aware of it anyway. It was on the soundtrack to Garden State, which I saw on DVD quite a while after it came out. I think this song is one of the best written songs I’ve ever heard. The narrator’s observations are so piercing, the construction of the lyrics so perfect, and the tone so even and unyielding. It’s breathtaking. “Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed, Forty years of things you say you wish you’d never said, How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead.” (video)
- Talking Heads “This Must Be The Place” – Of the songs on this list, this is one that doesn’t have that much emotional significance – I simply love it. The Talking Heads have such a distinctive take to their songs, and this winds up being almost an inadvertent love song. The song builds wonderfully and suggests a variety of backstories, seen as an incomplete mosaic. It’s a little trance-like, and I can listen to it over and over. (video)
- Cowboy Junkies “Speaking Confidentially” – I have to end with the Junkies, because I love them so. I love the band, I love their groove, and I love Margo Timmins, their singer. This song is off of the 1996 Lay It Down, and since that’s the year I was married, this album of course speaks to me of that new and giddy state. The counterpoint to this song on the album is “Hold On To Me” and really you should make this list go to eleven and count that one too. I don’t know what this song means, and basically I don’t care. I love the arrangement, I love Margo’s voice, and I love thinking back to our little house on Tower Road and listening to this while reading in the evening before bed. How little quiet time like that life affords now, with the joyful bustle of kids, but how sweet it was when we had it.
Phew. What a ramble. More than anyone wants to know I’m sure, but I cannot ponder ten songs I love in any sort of half-hearted manner. Thanks for suggesting this exercise Kirsten. I’m sure if I tried this a month from now, I’d wind with different things, but it’s fun nonetheless.