Monday, December 9, 2013

100 Songs for 2013

 (the awesome dog featured on this year's album art)

For four years in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and one year in San Jose, California, I was, to be honest, a fairly mediocre student of literature. I liked to read, and I liked to write, and I enjoyed discussing the surface virtues of my favorite novels, but there were always analytic depths I wasn’t ready to risk. I was a concrete thinker, and there were certain abstractions that I rejected out of hand. Even in an entirely subjective field like literature, I could not operate without bedrock truths, some kind of non-negotiable starting point for understanding the world.

I could not even begin to interact with New Criticism. 

Let’s cite from Wikipedia in an attempt to make this as non-intellectual as we can: 
“New Criticism argued that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote in their essay The Intentional Fallacy: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing - the text is the only source of meaning, and any details of the author’s desires or life are purely extraneous. Such thinking essentially states that the author’s intended meaning and purpose for the exposition are fundamentally unnecessary to the reader’s interpretation.” 
Authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature.” This exploded my young mind. This was absolutely a bridge too far. I hoped to write a novel someday, one rife with symbolism, and undercurrents, and allusions, and I assumed it went without saying that I would get to decide what it meant. But no, it turns out that art is just released into the cold, dark, misunderstanding world, and the masses do with it whatever they want. 

I spent entire class periods attempting to show the absurdity of such a position. We’d be discussing James Joyce’s Dubliners and I would confidently tell the class that the collection of stories was, in fact, about a dystopian future where the Mole People had risen up and enslaved humanity. Since the Mole People went to great lengths to censor all forms of human communication, we had to encode our plans for rebellion in stories of turn-of-the-century Irish life. I made a huge deal out of references to the underground, tunnels, or darkness. I was insufferable. I did not convince anyone to reject New Criticism.


There’s a bit in a recent episode of the always-wonderful Parks and Recreation where Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger character is attempting to glean parenting advice from Nick Offerman’s stoic Ron Swanson. Ron is horrified to learn that Chris believes Ron’s woodworking lessons are actually metaphors for fatherhood: 

Metaphors? I hate metaphors! That’s why my favorite book is Moby Dick. No frou-frou symbolism, just a good simple tale about a man who hates an animal.” 

Later, Ron has a brief moment of doubt: 

Does the white whale actually symbolize the unknowability and meaninglessness of human existence?” *giggles* “No, it’s just a s****y fish.” 


It’s funny because we know that Ron is forcibly ignoring the depths of metaphor in the novel. Now imagine that Herman Melville, in his infinite wisdom, gave an interview immediately following the publication of Moby Dick where he said, “You know what? It’s really just about a guy trying to catch a fish. I wanted to take a break from deep themes and philosophical musings and any attempt to understand the human condition, and I just wanted to tell a story about whaling, because I think it’s cool.” For a proponent of New Criticism, it would not even be worth the time to note the existence of this opinion. We would remain free to speculate on the unknowability and meaninglessness of human existence, even if we knew this was contrary to Melville’s intent. 

I don’t know why this upset me so much. It takes a unique kind of person to pursue a liberal arts education while at the same time maintaining a healthy respect for authority and a subconscious need for hierarchical power structures, but apparently I was that person. I apologize to anyone who had to listen to me speak in class.


I mention this because, when it comes to music, I don’t feel that way at all. I believe every song is about me, written with me in mind, and (where applicable) starring a protagonist who shares my exact worldview. I have no problem saying “Here’s what this song means to me” even when my interpretation could not possibly have been the songwriter’s intent. 

Here’s an example: 

I first heard “Gun” by CHVRCHES from a hammock in Bocas Town, Panama. After years of wedding-centric vacations, Ilana and I set a goal for ourselves to get away for a non-event-based long weekend, to go somewhere random and affordable-ish and sit on remote beaches and drink strange beers and eat local foods and disconnect from everything. It was glorious. 

On our last day in Panama, I made a halfhearted attempt to catch up on news, to sift through the hundreds of work emails that didn’t require a response, to skim reports of Family Dog Rescue emergencies that had already been resolved. And, for a fleeting second, I thought, “Would it really be so bad to just never go back to any of this?” I didn’t want to seal myself off from the world completely, but I felt like I had lost track of any sense of the relative importance of information. I would routinely leave emails from family members unanswered for days at a time but feel a creeping unease if I hadn’t read every available online reaction to an insignificant baseball free agent signing. I wasn’t sure if the internet, as a whole, was really working out for me. 

And then I saw that a new CHVRCHES song existed, and that it was “Gun,” and that it was wonderful, and I started to feel better about making my way back into the hyperconnected web of my life in San Francisco. But here’s the thing – if you want to read the lyrics to “Gun” so they are about that exact moment in my life, you can. The first-person protagonist becomes our whole online culture, ominously explaining to those ensnared that, sure, you should be trying to escape, but it's already too late. Maybe just make the best of it.

Did it make you feel so clever?
Did you wear it on your sleeve?
Did you see another picture
Where I was not a part so far entwined?

There is no other way, never run far
Take a good swing at me, and everything is even
So finally, we agree, no place for promises here
You'd better run, you'd better run so

Listen, I understand that Lauren Mayberry is not thinking about my near-obsessive need to check Twitter during sporting events when she sings that song. But … that’s what it means to me.


Why am I so willing to do this with songs when a younger version of me flatly refused to do it with novels? I think it has to do with the fragmentary nature of lyrics. A novel requires such a carefully assembled structure, an internal consistency, a narrative plan executed from the outset, that it feels like such a construction deserves respect. (A corollary to this is that novels that have none of these elements are distinguished by the author’s conscious decision not to have them, equally difficult to ignore). In stark contrast, many songs (many of the best songs) look terrible as lyrics on paper, often lacking any real sense of cohesion. Meaning often derives from delivery and performance, one further layer of abstraction that turns a lot of my favorite songs into virtual Rorschach tests. And they’re better because of that. 

Think about the protagonists of your favorite songs. Some songwriters (John Darnielle, Craig Finn, Jason Isbell) craft fully developed, novel-worthy characters in a few lines, with the intent that you’ll empathize with that level of detail. Think about how little you know about the character of Eleanor Rigby, then think of how easily you relate to her anyway. Now think about if Sir Paul wrote that song as an abstract musing on loneliness. The explicit character can be a great narrative device.

Other times, the artist has all but installed him or herself as a first-person narrator. In “Royals,” I believe Lorde is singing from the point of view of Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor, teenager from New Zealand. I don’t believe she needed to invent a character to express her distaste for ostentatious wealth. This can cause friction with a New Criticism-style theory of interpretation. Are you really going to tell Kanye West he can’t explain what “New Slaves” is about? You’re not going to take his word for it? 

Most times, though, you get a detail or two, and you’re forced to create a protagonist from bits and pieces that you can’t ever prove were meant to be combined or analyzed. To me, these are almost always the most fun. The “Coast to Coast” referenced in the Waxahatchee song of the same name is “Coast to Coast AM,” a late-night talk radio show that caters to conspiracy nuts and paranoid apocalypse fetishists. What does it say about the characters in that song that they are purposefully trying to find that program? Now what does that mean to you? Now create an entire world from there.


If we’re inventing characters out of the fragments of ideas found in pop songs, a Hero and a Villain emerge in 100 Songs for 2013. 

Here are the first five lines of “Over and Over” by Smallpools: 

It was a company event 
With a margarita tent 
I said “How’s your week?” 
She said “Man, I’m spent” 
And I could use a crazy night 

Immediately … I hate these people. I do not want them to be happy. If possible, I would actively oppose their happiness. And I know this is hypocritical. I know this. I know that, as a privileged white dude living in a gentrified neighborhood and pushing dangerously close to the hated One Percent, I don’t get to make fun of yuppies. I don’t get to hate these people. I am these people. I can’t think of a time where my law firm literally had a margarita tent, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this has happened, and there are probably even more egregious instance of conspicuous corporate consumption we’d have to plead guilty to, but somehow these things aren’t a problem when they involve me and my friends. 

We’re all inching our way toward something that looks like the traditional concept of adulthood, but we’re crafting very different philosophies to deal with the stresses and anxieties this creates. One such coping mechanism seems to involve maxing out the contrast on everything. Bright colors, perfect blacks and whites, life is just a simple game and you can win. Narrow your personal worldview to yourself alone, narrow your definition of success to money only, remind yourself that success is supposed to make you happy and so, if success doesn’t make you happy, the problem is yours, and could potentially be solved by more success. Everyone thinks like you do, everyone shares the same desires, life is a meritocracy, you deserve everything you have. Anxiety is your fault. Stress is a sign of weakness. You can and should be living your life in such a way as to eliminate them entirely and forever.

I am reading a lot into these lyrics. I know this. And I’m also reading quite a bit into Smallpools’ Los Angeles scenester alt-rock-radio sound (shared with Foster the People, Youngblood Hawke, Neon Trees, The Naked and Famous, and others) which seems hell-bent on eradicating nuance, introspection, reflection, and anything non-danceable or in a minor key. That’s what it sounds like to me. And I wind up with a grotesque straw-man who keeps repeating “Work hard, play hard, brah. Personal brand. Sluts. Homopobic slur in the comments of an online news story that would evoke empathy in a normal person.”

That's one way to deal with the stresses of adulthood. Can’t say I recommend it. Makes for such a catchy song, though.


My Song of the Year is “Sonsick” by San Fermin. Ilana is horrified by this choice. This whole essay is my attempt to justify that choice to her. And now we’ve reached the section where I will attempt to do that. 


Here are six predictions for your life:

You will work at your current job until you retire. 
Someday, you will work somewhere else. 

You will never have children. 
Someday, you will have children. 

You will live in the city where you currently reside for the rest of your life. 
Someday, you will leave. 

Each of those predictions, in its own unique way, is a crushing weight.  In the abstract, it's difficult to grasp just how massive each statement is. Each one requires the negation of another.

At the same time, for each of those predictions, it’s easy to craft a very happy story to explain why such a prediction came to pass. In a vacuum, each could be a very good omen. You could start with any of these and live Happily Ever After.

Here’s the thing, though – three of those predictions are coming true, and only three. I am one of the lucky few who will probably get to choose which ones. Maybe you are, too.

So ... how confident are you?


Growing up, I never thought that much about the future. I can’t tell you where I expected to be at 32. What I can tell you, though, is that I fully expected to have strong opinions on which of those six predictions I would prefer come true. And I don’t. At all. 

Most days, this fills me with such incredible hope for the future. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I’m cherry-picking my list of future uncertainties here. I’ve probably found more than my fair share of life-long sure things already (Ilana is at the top of the list, of course, but there’s dog ownership, pop music enjoyment, running for as long as my legs will allow it, and so many people who are stuck with me as a friend for life). We’ve made it this far, and the overwhelming majority of my brain believes that we’ll have little trouble crafting our ideal future, whether we’re living in Portland with our pack of adorable-genius children and raising free-range alpacas (that’s what you do in Portland, right?) or climbing the corporate ladder in San Francisco and spending what would have been our children’s college fund on annual trips around the world (though still not being able to afford property in the city, obviously). I know we will look back with the understanding that it all worked out. 

Other days, uncertainty is terrifying. It just is.


Someone described “Sonsick” as “a panic attack at a birthday party” and that is just incredibly perfect.* It's so close to being a happy song. A little disjointed-on-purpose, but it’s light and uplifting, it has horns and pleasant female vocals, it makes frequent use of the phrase “don’t be scared.” It’s like 85% of a summer jam. But there’s an undercurrent of … something.

* Wanna unravel this entire essay? That quote comes from Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the composer behind San Fermin. But we just decided that authorial intent is meaningless! 

The protagonist looks ahead at all the trappings of traditional adulthood – “a dog and all the rest,” new furniture, fixing up a house, potentially succumbing to heat stroke at a tee-ball game – with a distant fear that I can’t help amplifying: 

Oh, don’t be scared / That it’s a harder kind of feel 
Hold on tight / You must hold on unless you’re in it 
Ease your mind / And when you think, you’re thinking clear 
It’s alright / You’re really tied up and committed 
Won’t you say? / But it’s an awful lot of talk 
Stop the fight / Before the fire burns too quickly 
Don’t be scared / Why do you wanna hurt at all? 
Hurts all right / Someone’s summer kind of sickness 

There are dissertations to be written on the phrase “summer kind of sickness,” and it looks negative on the page, but by the end of the song, after a few refrains, it comes off like an affirmation. A summer kind of anything is better. Sickness isn’t good, sure, but come on, it’s summer. Whatever you’re feeling, it will pass, and then hey, it’s still summer. Summer is pretty great.


And I know that exactly zero of you feel that way about “Sonsick.” Zero. And not only is that okay, it is the best thing. Music is for you, and sometimes only you. If it helps at all, if it casts light into the dark corners of your life to read Cut Copy’s “We Are Explorers” as an explanation of the power dynamics between you and your siblings, awesome. If you view MGMT’s “Alien Days” as a pointed critique of the War on Terror, if you imagine that “Little Games” by The Colourist is a verbatim transcript of a conversation that actually took place between Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love … great. Don’t lose that. Continue to believe ridiculous things about your favorite songs, to pour all of your insecurities and fears into them and to come out with something a half step closer to understanding. 

“Sonsick” makes me happy because I hear an unflinching willingness to confront uncertainty and anxiety, that summer kind of sickness. It helps me to believe that other people view happiness in something other than all-or-nothing terms, that it’s okay to look at a bright future and not feel the immediate need to tweet about how you’re “crushing it.” Knowing that someone else is thinking, “What if everything isn’t okay?” somehow makes me feel like everything is going to be okay. No other song made me feel that way this year.


(1) San Fermin - "Sonsick"
(2) Radiator Hospital - "Our Song"
(3) CHVRCHES - "We Sink"
(4) Vampire Weekend - "Step"
(5) Autre Ne Veut - "Play By Play"
(6) Twin Shadow - "Old Love / New Love"
(7) Haim - "The Wire"
(8) CHVRCHES - "Gun"
(9) Lorde - "Royals"
(10) The Colourist - "Little Games"
(11) Portugal. The Man - "Modern Jesus"
(12) Okkervil River - "Down Down the Deep River"
(13) Vampire Weekend - "Ya Hey"
(14) Cut Copy - "We Are Explorers"
(15) Lorde - "Team"
(16) Panama Wedding - "All of the People"
(17) Babyshambles - "Nothing Comes To Nothing"
(18) Jason Isbell - "Flying Over Water"
(19) Ms Mr - "Hurricane (CHVRCHES Remix)"
(20) Charli XCX - "SuperLove"
(21) Haim - "Falling"
(22) The Preatures - "Is This How You Feel?"
(23) San Fermin - "Bar"
(24) Swearin' - "Dust in the Gold Sack"
(25) Phosphorescent - "Song for Zula"
(26) Mas Ysa - "Why"
(27) The 1975 - "Chocolate"
(28) Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - "Nightwater Girlfriend"
(29) Neko Case - "Man"
(30) Kanye West - "New Slaves"
(31) Daft Punk - "Get Lucky"
(32) Paramore - "Still Into You"
(33) Bruno Mars - "Treasure"
(34) Capital Cities - "Farrah Fawcett Hair"
(35) Purity Ring - "Grammy"
(36) Bastille - "Pompeii"
(37) Waxahatchee - "Coast to Coast"
(38) Generationals - "Say When"
(39) Default Genders - "Stop Pretending"
(40) The Wonder Years - "We Could Die Like This"
(41) Son Lux - "Lost It To Trying"
(42) Mikal Cronin - "Weight"
(43) Smallpools - "Over & Over"
(44) Rhye - "Open"
(45) Saturday Looks Good to Me - "The Everpresent New Times Condition"
(46) Kisses - "The Hardest Part"
(47) Kitten - "Like a Stranger"
(48) Lucius - "Hey Doreen"
(49) Arcade Fire - "Here Comes the Night Time"
(50) AFI - "17 Crimes"
(51) Los Campesinos! - "Avocado, Baby"
(52) Volcano Choir - "Comrade"
(53) Stay Bless - "Always"
(54) Blood Orange - "You're Not Good Enough"
(55) Sky Ferreira - "You're Not The One"
(56) Cut Copy - "Take Me Higher"
(57) Foxygen - "No Destruction"
(58) Say Lou Lou - "Julian"
(59) MGMT - "Alien Days"
(60) Chester Endersby Gwazda - "Skewed"
(61) Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - "Hiding"
(62) Shout Out Louds - "Sugar"
(63) The Fratellis - "Seven Nights Seven Days"
(64) The So So Glos - "Son of an American"
(65) Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - "Young Presidents"
(66) The Avett Brothers - "Apart From Me"
(67) The 1975 - "Girls"
(68) Los Campesinos! - "What Death Leaves Behind"
(69) Little Green Cars - "The John Wayne"
(70) Polica - "Chain My Name"
(71) Okkervil River - "Stay Young"
(72) Regina Spektor - "You've Got Time"
(73) Hockey - "Wild Style"
(74) Diarrhea Planet - "Field of Dreams"
(75) Swearin' - "Watered Down"
(76) Kanye West - "Black Skinhead"
(77) Arcade Fire - "Afterlife"
(78) Josh Ritter - "Joy To You Baby"
(79) Satellite Stories - "Scandinavian Girls"
(80) Superchunk - "FOH"
(81) Eleanor Friedberger - "Stare at the Sun"
(82) The Colourist - "Yes Yes"
(83) Cold War Kids - "Miracle Mile"
(84) Guided By Voices - "Flunky Minnows"
(85) Snoop Lion - "Ashtrays and Heartbreaks"
(86) The Killers - "Shot at the Night"
(87) Betty Who - "Somebody Loves You"
(88) Still Corners - "Berlin Lovers"
(89) Generationals - "Put a Light On"
(90) Tegan and Sara - "Now I'm All Messed Up"
(91) Fol Chen - "A Tourist Town"
(92) Free Energy - "Hangin'"
(93) Sleigh Bells - "Bitter Rivals"
(94) Small Black - "Free at Dawn"
(95) Young Galaxy - "Pretty Boy"
(96) Waxahatchee - "Peace and Quiet"
(97) Great Good Fine Okay - "You're the One for Me"
(98) The Viceroy - "Friday Nights"
(99) The Polyphonic Spree - "Hold Yourself Up"
(100) Pet Shop Boys - "The Last to Die"

1 comment:

  1. This is my second time reading the above essay. I have listened to Sonsick about 20 times since you posted it on the blog. I LOVE reading about why certain songs become someone's #1 song of the year. I love when lyrics are dissected. I love that these tiny pieces of music contain so much power and so much possibility. And, I liked that you loved the song while Ilana was horrified! So, after hearing the song (and it causes a slight jolt every time it comes on unexpectedly) I like it. I want to say I love it because it resonates with me on many levels. Yet, it is disconcerting, uncomfortable in many ways. It's is uplifting, sort of. I think, a lot of life is a summer kind of sickness. The 85% analogy is a good one. Or, like Rob Gordon said, "I can't say we had a good time, I can't say that." Or, how he described his relationship with Laura as not great but good. Sounds shitty at first. Then, you realize that good is a big deal! How much of day to day life is truly good?