Kurt Vonnegut said that “a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.” I think that’s exactly right. And these are the songs that make me appreciate being alive. My existence would be darker without them. They are lanterns, staked out in the dark night to mark my way, ensuring that my steps always lead back home. These are the songs–of all the millions that we humans have brought into this world–that bring me the most joy.
Spotify playlist with (almost) every song from this project.
10. Realiti (demo) – Grimes (2015)
Her voice is ethereal as she weaves her way through a woozy forest of synths and tightly clipped percussive lines. It feels otherworldly, but also strangely familiar–like stepping inside a Van Gogh painting. The title is fitting, since this song–more than any other I have ever heard–communicates the strangely madness that comes from grasping the world in its unadulterated form. If it feels unreal, it’s only because our whole lives are spent building the artifice that encloses us.
It came out less than two years ago, and is probably already one of the 20-30 most listened songs of my life.
9. Elevator Love Letter – Stars (2003)
Shimmering, tender, lovestruck, and just about the prettiest thing in the entire world, even as it’s breaking your heart. No part exemplifies this more than the bit where he says “I don’t think she’ll know that I’m saying goodbye” and her voice comes right over the top, with eyes fixed upward and the purest sound of hope and wonder: “My office glows all night long, it’s a nuclear show and the stars are gone. Elevator, elevator…take me home…”
8. Trailer Trash – Modest Mouse (1997)
The song contains one extended verse which bleeds into something of a chorus, and is then repeated. Over this, the pace slows and while Isaac initially sounds emotional, maybe even a little tortured, by the end, he is just speaking the lyrics over a drum beat, and the guitars have almost disappeared. You can almost feel the burden of life pressing down. But then, that weariness reaches its snapping point, and the entire world shatters around it. The drums go crazy, and the guitar riff dances around. There are no lyrics, just the commotion of the music. All weariness is forgotten, and if you’re not quite sure where things are going, you do know that it is exciting. I like to think that’s sort of how life works. Frustration, fear of stagnation, and discontentment can be shattered. It’s a back-and-forth thing, but there’s still some reason to hope that you can learn from your mistakes and be a better person. I’d like to believe that.
7. You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve – Johnny Boy (2004)
It begins with the drum beat from “Be My Baby,” and right away you know it’s going to be something special. Then in come the guitars, the background starts to swirl, and then: “I just can’t help believing, though believing sees me cursed…” After one time through the verse, it explodes and she sings it all again, this time accompanied by the Wall of Sound. Before the next verse, the “oh baby baby”s fly back and forth. And then, at the 2:01 mark, the whole song is set on fire. The fireworks go off (literally), and all she sings is “Yeah, yeah! Yeah, yeah!” but it sounds like poetry. There’s the smallest respite as it cuts back into the last verse when the music recedes, apart from the occasional burst of fire and light. The verse ends, there are a couple more “yeah, yeah!”s, and then, before you know it, the song is over, and you realize you’re about to pass out because you haven’t breathed in three minutes.
6. Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen (1975)
It’s an entire movie in four minutes and fifty seconds. And not just any movie, this is the Casablanca of rock and roll. All the tropes, all the references, all the things that you’ve heard in hundreds of songs since then…this is where it all comes from. If it sounds tired or worn down, it’s only because you’ve replaced the real thing in your imagination with the imitation.
As the credits roll and the kids drive away into the sunset, we know deep down that bad times will come to them, and probably sooner rather than later. But that doesn’t matter for the song because he’s not asking us to believe in the objective truth. He just asking us to believe that the characters in the story really believe it. And to remind us of when we believed, too.
The kid sits there with hand outstretched, and asks her to share his dream. But the dream is not the magic of the highway. The dream is the dreaming itself. The finding out, the testing, the endless faith in the possibility that there must be something more. And if we can’t find it here, then we just have to keep looking.
5. Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2 – Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)
Wittgenstein famously closed his Tractatus with the line: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” That’s how I feel about this song. I love it, but I’m hesitant to say more – in fear that my futile attempts to explain that which can’t be explained will somehow ruin the magic. It’s sui generis, an impossibility, a revelation. And it contains what might be my single favorite lyric in the history of music:
And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle
God is a place where some holy spectacle lies
And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle
God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life
I wrote about seeing Mangum perform live a few years ago. It probably the closest I’ve ever come to a true religious experience.
4. The House That Heaven Built – Japandroids (2012)
The sound of it all. Oh god, the sound. The drums are insistent, marching along with implacable resolve. There is a single stomping beat that drives everything forward faster and faster. And then there is a backbeat, the clashing of cymbals, and the ever-rising sense of explosive potential. This is a song to build empires around.
And it’s the greatest rock and roll song ever written, with all apologies to the Boss.
3. Abbey Road Medley – The Beatles (1969)
This is the conclusion to their final album, and it is a fitting end. The Beatles were a supernova, a flash of light and power that exceeds all possibility of measurement. But it could only last for that brief moment. A year later, John would be singing that “the dream is over.” But it’s never truly over. Because the dream survives in the hearts of everyone who has a copy of Abbey Road, who can listen to the conclusion to the greatest album by the greatest band in history–-a band splitting apart at the seams, but who held it together long enough to create their masterpiece, and to give us all one last goodbye. Starting with You Never Give Me Your Money and finishing with The End, this is everything The Beatles had to offer, condensed into fifteen glorious, impossible, earth-shattering, joyous, beautiful minutes.
It should be pretty obvious that there would be plenty more Beatles songs on the list if not for the one-song-per-artist rule. In fact, my rough estimate is that they probably account for somewhere around 12-15 of my 100 favorite songs. I really like this band is what I’m saying.
2. Romeo and Juliet – Dire Straits (1980)
I can’t think of a single thing in the world that forces me to catch my breath, that causes a bigger lump in my throat, that incites more tears than the chorus of this song. When Knopfler sings “I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you til I die” it’s an earth-shattering thing. The way the guitars and drums rise up like a tidal wave and then crash down. The way you can tell that his heart is breaking at the memory. The way the music recedes into the background for the final verse, while his voice remains, echoing out into the darkness:
I can’t do everything, but I’ll do anything for you
I can’t do anything except be in love with you
And all I do is miss you and the way we used to be
All I do is keep the beat and bad company
All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme
Julie, I’d do the stars with you anytime…
We struggle, we strive, we fall deeply in love and give up slowly, if at all. We love because we must, because it is what gives us our humanity, our purpose, and our joy.
1. All Apologies And Smiles, Yours Truly, Ugly Valentine – Carissa’s Wierd (2001)
I simply do not have the words to express how deeply I love this song. It’s my favorite song in the entire universe, and honestly, nothing else is really even that close.
Listening to it today, it feels just as fresh as it did on that late-summer afternoon in 2001 when I first heard it. It sings to me of who I was then, who I am today, who I could someday be. It is my pain, my moments of despair, my wishes unfulfilled. It’s emotionally ragged, hesitant, fearful. It knows everything that haunts me, every dream lost. And yet it still lifts me up. It shows me all those things in the bright light of a morning sun. It is falling in love. It’s long evenings with friends, and a soft shoulder to lay my head on at the end of the day. It’s a warm blanket and a fire on a cold night. It’s tears running down your face, unspeakable loss, all the joy and pain of a life held together. It’s the tender love shared by two people at the end of a long life together. It’s the tolling of bells that calls us home.