For years, I took playlist creation very seriously, and now, in the ides of marathon training, I’m very glad I did: there are thirty two of them on Spotify, days’ if not weeks’ worth of songs. It’s 2018 and I am thirty but a few hours ago it was 2011 and I was twenty three and scuttling through rainy Anaheim while “Daylight” blasted or else cemented the density of venues and neon and fang-like cul-de-sacs and paucity of people not in cars. It was 2004 and I was gripping the handle of a teammate’s ancient Jetta as he whirled it around the Wayland Pool parking lot to the thump and bleep of “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It was 2007 and I was listening to Sea Wolf’s “You’re a Wolf” as I crunched over beech leaves and unapologetic cretes on my way to the old hotel particulier where I and seven other unfortunates gathered for acting class. Paris was grey and canary yellow and portent and the song’s line about the young Gypsy woman made me think of the Romani who plied their cheap wares under the Eiffel Tower instead of my looming Beauvoirian butchery. Songs-as-transporters: not a new concept, but, in this rushed hush of fall and all its gather-ye-leaves-while-ye-may sentiments, a poignant one. Below, a few more, starting at the beginning.
- Elliott Smith, “Needle in the Hay” / “Angeles,” / “Waltz No. 2”
The Christmas of my junior year, I received, quite unexpectedly, an iPod. I had not asked for one, nor thought to, for I was not, at that time, particularly interested in music. My younger siblings all had hangers and display cases and binders full of CDs, but I had maybe a dozen, most of them gifts or selections hastily picked from the $3.99 bin at Tower Records. Still, the iPod was milky white and appealingly dense in my hand. It seemed silly not to at least fill it with the $25 in iTunes credits that came with it.
I hardly knew where to begin, but I had just watched Good Will Hunting and remembered especially liking one of the songs that had played during the Minnie Driver Flies Away montage, which turned out to be Elliott Smith’s “Angeles,” and led me to another Smith song I remembered liking that had played during another, far grimmer montage: Luke Wilson’s mirror scene in The Royal Tennenbaums. At which point I went all in on Elliott. I also bought Jack Johnson’s “Bubble Toes” and “Taylor,” along with most of Sublime’s Greatest Hits, if I’m being honest. After all that stocking up, some amount of time elapsed wherein I brought the iPod around to places but did not use it, and then I went for a walk and everything changed.
It was winter, and I was in the woods — but not the woods behind our house and not the woods in Vermont, either. I’ve been racking my brain trying to pinpoint which woods they could have been, but anyways. Strange woods, and I was alone and wearing duck boots and flannel pajama pants from our swim team’s annual Candy Cane Classic. There was snow on the ground, but not enough to cover the leaves. I put the earbuds in and started listening to “Waltz No. 1” and “Angeles” and “Needle in the Hay” and the world flooded in. No, that’s too dramatic, but there was depth and pathos and luster where before had been only dead leaves and thin snow and my own internal self. I guess what happened was that the music broke down the wall between my internal world and the external one, and both were the richer for it.
2. The Killers, “Mr. Brightside”
February of that same year, at a team sleepover in a nearby town. It was Valentine’s day, or near to it, and I wore a black spaghetti strap dress and a black top hat I’d yanked from the head of the boy I half-liked/half-loathed at the time. I don’t remember if I was actually drunk or just felt that way, but I do remember that Mr. Brightside was playing on the radio during the drive to the house and then it was playing at the house, and that its dark shimmer perfectly matched the night and my own longing to dance on the line of recklessness.
3. Beck, Guero
Cut to spring, somewhere on the brutish stretch of 95 between DC and Durham, North Carolina. Ye olde college tour, in the Toyota Sienna I had just been licensed to drive — though my mother was at the wheel, and my siblings clamoured and scrabbled in the back. We stopped at a Starbucks and bought the new Beck album they were featuring. I knew Beck but I didn’t know I knew him, and then “E-Pro’s” fuzzy half-snarls came on and then “Girl” with its loafing, sing-song sprawl and mysterious phrasing — was it cyanide girl? Sun-eyed girl? I was wearing a red and white floral cotton blazer and a pale green sleeveless top with Grecian pleats, and I took the blazer off and watched the sun dance of my wintery skin. Duke was rowdy and Georgetown was dull but Guero was a real treasure, and kicked off a Beck deep drive that lead me to “Lost Cause,” off Sea Change — a song that, all these years later, is still one of my top three heart-strummers.
4. “Caring Is Creepy” / “New Slang”, The Shins
And now I’m realizing that what I said in number one, about life pre- and post-iPod, isn’t entirely true, because Garden State came out before I got the iPod, and I distinctly remember listening to it as I walked the Dish in Palo Alto, in rolled red Sofees and a shrunken tank top printed with primary-colored trucks. “Don’t Panic” really set the atmospheric scene (hard to believe it’s by the same band that came out with such mawk as “Fix You,” but there you are), but the two Shins tracks sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before — or like each-other, for that matter.
5. The Frey, “Over My Head (Cable Car) / Gnarls Barkley, “Smiley Faces”
My father let me host a graduation party for our entire class at our house in Vermont. And by “let me host,” I mean, put extra hay in the barn and booted the cows from the near pasture and bought hundreds of burgers and installed signs from Williamstown all the way to our house, as well as porter potties that I’m sure only the boys used. My contributions were to get lost, twice, on the way up, and to make a playlist that included these two songs, one of which was playing when I slid into the lap of the boy I would go onto date for the next five years.
6. El Pus, “Thing Thing”
This song is summer after dark, the crunch of my boyfriend’s Explorer pulling as q u i e t l y as was possible up our gravel driveway, the crickets and peepers thick as thieves. The things I had wanted, I suddenly had, or was about to have; I carried with me the thrill of reinvention, and this song was exhibit E. It was boppy and cheeky, with a refrain that could have been maudlin but instead came out like the embodiment of the word ‘hella.’ More crucially, it was part of the first mixtape the aforementioned boy made for me (damn, I miss making — and getting — mixtapes!). Most crucially, it was something I never, ever would have found on my own.
7. Tokyo Police Club, “Nature of the Experiment”
And now I am running around the rooftop track that tops the crestfallen cake of the old NYU gym. Soho’s to the left of me; Noho’s to the right. Here I am, skinny as all get out and wrapped up in the spininess of this song, which I pair with Bloc Party’s “Banquet,” for an electric jolt, and the first half of Silversun Pickup’s “Lazy Eye,” for its LoFi Nirvana-esque perfection, and Razorlight’s “Girl with a Golden Touch,” for its adherence to checkpoints of yore. Freshman year was a mess, in some ways, and a joy, in others, and the runs around the rooftop were where the twain met.
8. Ween, “Ocean Man”
Good grief, this post is going to be a 2 or 3 or 10-parter! But jeeze: Ween is one of those bands that sometimes transcends its pastiche and other times bellyflops into parody (unlike Blitzen Trapper, which went so far beyond transcending pastiche that it almost invented a new alt-western-gothic-noir genre). “Ocean Man” falls into the latter camp, and hurtles me into the Wrangler my friend Z is driving barefoot. It is the morning after her birthday party; we are in DC but also somehow in a deciduous parkland, and my friend’s house was in the thick of its bristling green. A real house with a pool, in the center of a park in the northwest quad of the capital: it didn’t make sense to me, but I had slept in the house and swam in the pool. I had grown up in the country and figured people didn’t drive in cities and if they did, did not drive barefoot, and if they did drive barefoot, did not drive Wranglers from whose stereos boomed a song anyone would have sworn came straight from Santa Monica or else Amagansett, sand and all. “I don’t know; it’s from a mix Brendan made for me,” my friend said, when I asked about the song. Brendan was the cokehead on our floor, which made the song even more incongruous. And yet: pastiche is Ween’s game: having their sunniest song burned onto the CD a Westchester future iBanker made to impress the DC future farmer whose on-point headbands and seasonal swing coats made her the subject of multiple Lucky “Girl on the Street” spreads… I mean, they couldn’t have written a more apt outcome. great song even in the waning fall. Also, it’s the sonic equivalent of John Frieda’s Beach Blonde. Go give it a listen.