We’re entering the heights now. These are the songs that blow my world away every time I hear them, songs that make life worth living, songs that are as holy as the work of Michelangelo or Keats or Austen.
Spotify playlist with (almost) every song from this project.
20. The Card Cheat – The Clash (1979)
London Calling is more devastating. Spanish Bombs is more tightly constructed. And either could have been my pick here. But at the end of the day, I have to go with my heart, and my heart tells me that punk rock has never risen higher, never said more, never spoken more truly than the final verse of The Card Cheat. Empires fall, the oceans recede, and all falls into dust. And yet, somehow, we find a way to rage against the dying of the light.
19. No Woman No Cry (Live) – Bob Marley & The Wailers (1975)
There are just a few songs in the world that can drive me to tears. The very best ones can also make me smile at the same time. This song pulls me in both directions, and fills me so completely with feelings that it’s a wonder I don’t burst apart every time I hear it. It’s relentlessly, impossibly hopeful. A salve for pain unending. It believes in a brighter tomorrow, against all odds. Because what else is there? After all, “my feet are my only carriage, so I’ve got to push on through.”
18. 32 Flavors (live) – Ani DiFranco (1997)
There aren’t many songs that leave me totally defenseless, no matter how many times I hear them. This is one of the few. A defiant stare. A blushing cheek. A prayer sent upward into the unyielding heavens. A poem written in the stars.
17. God Only Knows – The Beach Boys (1966)
Considered by many the greatest love song ever written, and it begins with the line “I may not always love you.” The second verse also starts with equal blandness: “If you should ever leave me, life would still go on.” But these cross-cutting statements provide the needed tonic against which the sweeping grandeur of the harmonies can be properly placed. The promise of a love universal—of feelings that can transcend this narrow plane of existence—is just too much for the mind to really comprehend. We strive for it, we need it, but we can only grasp it in the margins. So in that final minute, when the harmonies layer infinitely deep on top of one another, it’s an invitation. It says: heaven lies somewhere over the horizon…let’s be worthy of entering once we finally get there.
16. The War Criminal Rises and Speaks – Okkervil River (2003)
The tension rises, the music begins to pound on the brain and Sheff’s voice crackles with intensity, bending and breaking, threatening to shatter at every moment. The singer makes no excuses, he cannot even cry, but it is clear that the mistake of thirty years ago has haunted him for every second of his life since. He does not ask to escape punishment, he only asks that those reading and watching to understand that he is not really any different from them. It’s a narrow sort of forgiveness, but it’s all that remains. And then, the camera reverses, to focus back on us, watching at home, comfortable and secure—certain that we would never fall so low. But do any of us truly know the madness in our souls? Is any of us truly prepared to face the evil that lurks behind our eyes?
15. Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd (1975)
The opening is a bit of pure genius—the song itself coming on the radio and the singer strumming along in accompaniment. It’s such a simple thing, but it adds almost infinite layers of depth to the song. When the two merge back together, it achieves a level of tonal clarity that would have made Bach proud. And then the singer emerges: “So you think you can tell, heaven from hell…blue skies from pain…” and the song has already stepped outside the confines of rock and roll history. Eventually, the climax arrives, when everything collapses back upon itself, and all that remains is a plaintive wish for the impossible: “how I wish you were here.”
14. Fairytale Of New York – The Pogues (1987)
It opens with Shane MacGowan singing as no one else can: with a tenderness only matched by its raggedness. And then, even though you’ve heard it so many times before, you’re still completely unprepared for the way Kirsty MacColl’s voice emerges, triumphant, joyful, alive beyond words. As the verse unfolds and their voices intertwine you can almost see them, dancing together under the falling snow. It’s all there: the joy, the pain, the anger, the lost dreams, the hope, and the love. And on the final verse, when he sings “can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you” there’s nothing left to do except weep for the sheer beauty of it all.
The tension in the song is, of course, whether to believe in the hope that they start out with, or whether to accept the pain of their conclusion. It would be a lie to pretend that you can simply wish away the bad stuff, but the sheer beauty of the song is the living proof that there must be something more.
What we hear in this song is the truest possible meaning of Christmas: a lament for the long winter, an expression of all the pain and suffering, the enduring human spirit. It speaks to our need to share the darkness with those that we love and the hope that this will somehow renew it, and allow another year to be born in the ashes of the past. One brighter, nobler, happier, and more secure. The need to believe, to hope against hope. That tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…And one fine morning…
13. Years Ago – Super Deluxe (1996)
I lost my heart to this song years ago. More than half a lifetime ago, now, in fact. But it still feels every bit as close as it did back when it came through the radio that first time. It breaks my heart that this band never made it big, but I treasure those few years – back in the pacific northwest – when it felt like anything was possible.
12. God – John Lennon (1970)
It begins with one of the greatest lines ever sung (“God is just a concept by which we measure our pain”), and then he goes through the list of things he no longer believes in: magic, religion, politics, music…and then ends with:
I don’t believe in Beatles…
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that’s reality
And I just fall apart. Even after hearing it hundreds of times, it’s enough to split me into a thousand pieces. Because he’s right – that is reality. All the other stuff seems so important, but it’s when you find that one thing, that one person, it all clarifies. For John, all these things—God, magic, politics, music, even The Beatles—weren’t enough. They weren’t wrong, just incomplete. And this song is about the beauty that comes from being able to give them. The discovery that grand narratives only gain meaning once they’re refracted back through our own true realities. For him, that clarity came with Yoko. The way he felt about her, and the way that satisfied his need for explanation.
For someone else, it might be God, or The Beatles, or anything. The important thing is just that we find our own answer. That we not settle for life as it presents itself, that we dig down and settle into our true reality. And, hopefully someone to share it with.
11. Wildflowers – Tom Petty (1994)
I can still remember how I felt the very first time I heard it. I was in 8th grade and home sick with a cold. I borrowed the CD from my brother and hit play. And this song, this wonderful, impossible song poured out of the speakers. I sat back, full of wonder, and scared to move even one inch, for fear that it might break the spell and turn back into just another pretty song. So I loved it from the start, but over the years, those feelings have grown stronger, and more complex. Which is appropriate, because in lots of ways, Wildflowers is an old man’s song. A love that no longer speaks in terms of passion. A goodbye to someone you care about but know that you can’t hold onto. And with every year that passes, it grows just a little bit more poignant for me.