As I mentioned yesterday, today is my birthday. I am 31 years old and totally okay with that. I didn’t freak out about turning 30 – quite the contrary, in fact. So far, my thirties work like this: I have the same youthful energy I did when I was 20, but I’m smarter about how I use it. I think.
Because January is a shit month for new releases (always is) – no disrespect to the Decemberists, who have kindly decided to grace us with The King is Dead next week – I’ve been forced to come up with quality content that does not have to do with new releases. Because there aren’t any. Yet.
So anyway, since it’s my birthday and I can do what I want to (as long as “what I want to” means “go to work”), I’ve decided to regale you with a list of 31 songs that have had some kind of profoundish effect on my life. They are presented here in the order that I think of them, which should not be taken as some kind of ranking of best to worst.
1. Tom Waits, “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” If you just hear the chorus to this song, you’re going to think, because of its use of “Waltzing Mathilda”, that Waits is covering the (unofficial. I think) Australian national anthem. The song is actually about a drunken night in Denmark with a chick named Mathilda (hence the subtitle “Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen”). Not only is this easily the best track from Waits’s early beatnik era, it’s an almost epic work of heartbreak. Everything about this song is sad (“No one speaks English and everything’s broken”) and yet nothing about it is emo. I spent a lot of time single in my life, and some of that time more than a little depressed; but Tom Waits howled so I didn’t have to.
2. Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” I loved the title of this song even before I heard it, but it’s another one from my single/slightly depressed college days. The great phrase of the whole song is when Jeff Tweedy sings, “Still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy/ I am trying/ to break your heart” (it narrowly beats out “You were so right/ when you said I’ve been drinking”). Now, I’ve never deliberately broken anybody’s heart (in fact, I’ve never broken anyone’s heart at all, to my knowledge), but there were times when I certainly liked the idea. I’m in a much better place emotionally these days, but this song is still tremendous.
3. Seatbelts, “Tank!”. Yeah, the Cowboy Bebop theme. Composed by Yoko Kanno, but owing a serious debt to Charles Mingus (especially Mingus Ah Um), this track is a fucking awesome blast of jazz that also happens to be associated with one of the finest animated series of all time. I’ve watched a lot of Cowboy Bebop in my life, with many of my awesome, nerdy friends and “Tank!” reminds me of all the cool people I know. Also, it’s the song that played when my wife and I ran out of the hall after our wedding ceremony.
4. Pixies, “Debaser.” Might be among the top ten opening tracks ever recorded. I listen to this song whenever I want to get completely psyched out of my mind about… well, anything. Except sex. Screaming about slicing up eyeballs is kind of a mood killer. But for everything else, I still wanna grow up to be a debaser.
5. The Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize?” There are precious few songs that are equally effective when you are deliriously happy and when you are achingly sad. But the Flaming Lips have cornered the market on that sort of thing. When my sister was dying in 2008, I listened to this song about one million times in a row. I’m listening to it right now and I don’t really think I’ll ever get tired of it. It’s fucking gorgeous and if you disagree, perhaps you don’t know what the word “gorgeous” means.
6. The Hold Steady, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” No, it’s not that appropriate to my life in any personal way, but this was the song that made me a Hold Steady fan for good. I was living in Boston when Separation Sunday came out and I saw (and worked with) a lot of girls who kinda fit this description.
7. Joe Strummer, “Redemption Song.” I’ve talked about this song a lot on Bollocks!. It’s the best cover song of all time. Enough said.
8. R.E.M., “Be Mine.” R.E.M.’s best love song. I learned to play this song on guitar to impress girls. It worked, which was surprising. Tom Waits’ “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love with You” is the only other song I’ve learned that impressed a girl, as far as I know. If you’re a girl and you’ve been impressed with other songs I’ve played, you don’t really have to come forward at this point. But thanks.
9. Wilco, “She’s a Jar.” I used to learn Wilco songs because I liked how comfortable Jeff Tweedy sounded being heartbroken (even though he’s happily married and has a kid or two). I had this tendency in college to find guitars in people’s houses and play them. At one party, I played this song and my friend Max, a little drunk, pointed out, “Matt only sings when he’s depressed.” That’s not true now, but it probably was then.
10. The National, “Fake Empire.” I wasn’t blown away by Boxer the first time I heard it, but this song blew my fucking mind. The simple truth of the statement, “We’re half awake/ in a fake empire” still grabs me by the throat. The song is beautiful, depressing, and yet somehow also uplifting. I think maybe all really great songs should be that way.
11. Public Enemy, “Rebel Without a Pause.” I think I’m old enough to say this now: “Hey, sideways-visor head kid with the 50 Cent T-shirt. Do you know where hip-hop came from? Do you know that the guys who made it back in the day had principles and didn’t just think about making money and smacking around bitches? No, you don’t know that. Listen to ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ and you will know it as surely as you know your own name.”
12. Pulp, “Common People.” You’ll know human culture has righted itself when you turn on the TV special for the Kennedy Center Honors and you see Jarvis Cocker sitting next to the President with one of those funky medals around his neck. Okay, he’d probably tear the medal off and tell the President to go fuck himself. My point is that Jarvis Cocker is deserving of very high, very public praise. Even if you don’t agree with his politics (I pretty much do), you have to love Cocker’s ability to translate snark into pure pop genius. Living in Los Angeles has given me a particularly keen appreciation for this song, especially the line “if you called your dad/ he could stop it all.”
13. Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah.” Everybody and their dog has covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but every other version of that song – including Cohen’s – should run and hide in shame when compared to Jeff Buckley’s. I mean holy shit. I bought Grace when I was in college because my friend Traci had made me a mix tape with “Grace” and “Last Goodbye” on it. And then I heard this song and I sat very still for six minutes and fifty-three seconds. This is a literally awesome tune.
14. My Morning Jacket, “Off the Record.” I drove my coworkers at Tower Records nuts with My Morning Jacket’s Z, but this song always reminds me of how fucking awesome that job was.
15. John Hammond and Tom Waits, “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” This old timey spiritual, which appeared on Hammond’s Wicked Grin album, is, to me, a definitive piece of religious music. I don’t believe half the stuff they talk about in this song, but the way they sing conveys a spirit that is undeniable, especially on Waits’ verse. Dude rips into that thing like Courtney Love rips into a bag of heroin.
16. Radiohead, “True Love Waits.” I have a kinda shitty, live bootleg mp3 of this song and I have no idea where I got it. But I love it. This song captures perfectly the sort of fragile vulnerability that you experience when you realize you really love another person. Thom Yorke, for all his disjointed, Flea-assisted “experimenting”, will never be this good again. I realize that’s a great way to start a flame war on the internet, but it’s my birthday and I’ll say what I want.
This is getting a little long already. I’m gonna call it a (birth)day and I’ll fill you in on the other fifteen songs tomorrow. Until then, remember the words of St. Joe Strummer: “Without people, you’re nothing.”