It’s another year of music from me, and this year I think a little bit of a theme emerged in a few songs: saving people. If there’s one overriding neurosis in my life, it’s my desire to rescue the people I care about from the danger they’re in, at least as I perceive it. Or sometimes even people I’ve just met, or never met. I could blame it on too many superhero comics, but I suspect the cause and effect goes the other direction. In any case, this is not the worst personality flaw in the world, and in fact I think it has some pretty positive aspects, but I do have to watch it, lest it override my better judgment. For instance, it drew me into and kept me trapped in a very toxic relationship when I was in college, and has sometimes prompted me to lead with my emotions at work rather than my rational brain — not always the most productive approach. So I maintain awareness, and do a reality check every so often, but it’s no surprise that I find myself drawn to songs about transcendence, or pulling people out of the dark. This is not a “concept mix” by any means (except for the usual concept: songs I listened to and loved in the last year), but I find this theme recurring in several of the songs that compelled me.
1. Melissa Etheridge – Enough Rain
Case in point. Melissa came out with 4th Street Feeling in the fall of 2012, but in my typically belated fashion, I listened to it in early 2014. I don’t think it’s one of her stronger works, but it’s flawed in some interesting ways. Like this song, where the speaker is reaching out to a troubled friend. “Haven’t you had enough rain?” she asks, implying that the subject wallows in misery, but the metaphor is telling. Somebody who is suffering from a mental or physical illness (or a spicy combo plate of both) can no more shut off their suffering than somebody who’s sick of bad weather can say, “Okay, I’ve had enough rain.” Well, I guess they can say it, but that doesn’t make the rain stop. A close friend of mine went through a lot of trouble with a sleep disorder this year, so the line “Don’t go back to sleep” hit home with me. But when it’s raining, it’s raining.
2. Arcade Fire – It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
Here’s the rescue-iest song of all the rescue-y songs. I reviewed an IF game that invokes the Orpheus myth, and part of what I wrote is pertinent here, so let me quote myself: “I identify very strongly with the Orpheus myth. There have been various times in my life… when I find myself questing about desperately to find the magic that will retrieve a loved one from the underworld into which they have descended. And even when it seems like I’ve succeeded, it is very difficult to maintain a belief in that success.” This song speaks directly to that experience, making the point that unlike finding your way out of Hades, when it comes to ongoing relationships, there is no finish line. Crises come and they pass, and they do the damage they do, some of which might even be averted by great effort on everyone’s part, but there’s no crisis that we can call final, save of course for the end of life itself. Because I’m in the midst of an ongoing Watchmen analysis project, I’m strongly reminded of Dr. Manhattan’s final words to Adrian Veidt: “‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” Needless to say, I love this song. It’s probably the thesis statement of the whole mix, and hence its title.
3. The Cure – The Hanging Garden
As Arcade Fire emerges from the underworld, The Cure dives deep into it. I revisited their album Pornography this year, and my GOD is it dismal. I don’t mean it’s bad — it’s excellent — but it is just the pits of depression. Even for The Cure, it’s a depressing album, and that is saying an awful lot. But this song has always stood out to me. There’s a reason why it was the single. Where the other songs are dirgelike, it is propulsive, and angry where the other songs are helpless. I mean, yes, the animals are still screaming and dying, but those drums carry me through.
4. David Gilmour – Murder
Robert Smith and Roger Waters know how to be depressed. David Gilmour, on the other hand, never quite got the knack. Even this song, meant to be an angry cri de coeur, tends to feel mostly mellow. But I absolutely love Gilmour’s voice, and his guitar playing evokes emotion from me like no other guitar player I have ever heard. Gilmour and Waters needed each other, and on their own neither one ever reached anywhere near the heights of Pink Floyd’s best work. But after they split, I was never able to tolerate a Roger Waters solo album, whereas I could listen to Gilmour’s over and over, which I did again this year. This is a little odd for me — I always think of myself as a lyric person first, with music a distant second. But with Gilmour, the music makes up for even the most labored lines. The sweeping crescendos in this song get me every time.
5. Death Cab For Cutie – Why You’d Want To Live Here
I embraced Death Cab a few years ago, and since then I’ve been slowly making my way through their catalog. This year I spent a little time with The Photo Album, and this song jumped out at me. It’s a scathing anti-L.A. track, and while I’m no L.A.-hater, Ben Gibbard does a fabulous job of making me want to hate it. A great riff, a great melody, and most especially great lyrics sung in Gibbard’s sweet-angry voice, with (again) a giant sweep into a bridge full of spitting venom, make me put this song on repeat.
6. Stevie Ray Vaughan – Wall Of Denial
Less a song about saving somebody else than saving yourself, Stevie Ray wrote this song (and many others on the In Step album) to document his own recovery from alcoholism. By coincidence, I happened to be listening to this album when a friend of mine disclosed that he had finally faced and surrendered to the reality of a lifelong addiction that had controlled him for decades, and entered a 12-step program. As I talked with him, these lyrics kept ringing in my head, so much so that I was practically reciting them by the end of the conversation. I’ll always associate this song with that day in 2014.
7. Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas
Rememember when I characterized myself as somebody who cares about lyrics much more than music? I still believe it’s true, so how is it that I have always been utterly enchanted and fascinated by The Cocteau Twins, who are notorious for having absolutely incomprehensible lyrics? I tried to learn any of the lyrics to their Heaven or Las Vegas album, only to find that they almost never print their lyrics, and even their most ardent fans, who put together encyclopedic web sites full of lyrics, tend to say stuff like “These lyrics transcriptions are almost purely hypothetical… what you see is what I imagine them to be, or what I have managed to piece together from my own ideas and those of others.” Nevertheless, I can’t get over how gorgeous this gibberish sounds. Apparently I am large and contain multitudes. Also, I had a stroke of amazing luck when I was in Vegas for a conference in 2014, so that’s why I picked this song in particular.
8. Pink – Wicked Game (live in Melbourne)
I finally got to see Pink this year, and while my seat wasn’t the greatest, I still had a great time. Being up in the rafters isn’t so bad when an artist can fly. 🙂 She played lots of hits, and lots of tracks from her latest album — there’s some crossover between these categories. But for me the most memorable moment was when she played this cover. First, I love it when an artist does the unexpected in concert, either a surprise cover or an album track you’d never expect to hear. Second, in keeping with this song’s sexy image, the staging for this tune involved Pink doing various trust falls and being caught by a cadre of men, then hoisted, passed around, flung, etc. Whew! It was a whole thing. Here, it looked like this. Kinda stuck with me.
9. The Alan Parsons Project – Games People Play
I am a fan of The Alan Parsons Project. In fact, the first CD I ever bought was their their Best Of album, partly because their sound is so clean and full at the same time — that was the first digital music I wanted to hear coming out of my own speakers. After spending time with both “Best Of” volumes, I dove deeper into their albums, mostly on cassette at the time. I’ve been slowly replacing those, going digital with them once again, and this year I spent some time with their Turn Of A Friendly Card album. They did such a beautiful job of braiding some of the very disparate strands of music from their time — progressive rock, California harmonies, disco, funk, soul. Soul and prog are not normally heard in the same sentence, let alone the same song, but many Alan Parsons songs, especially those with Lenny Zakatek on vocals, marry them effortlessly. “Games People Play” is a perfect example, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.
10. Jonathan Coulton – You Ruined Everything
When Jonathan Coulton’s daughter was born, he quit his job as a computer programmer to become a full-time musician, figuring that if he didn’t go for his dreams immediately, he’d never have the courage to do so at all. Besides, he wanted to set a good example for her, trying for the brass ring. I just read an Alan Moore biography that says he did pretty much the same thing — quit his day job as soon as his first child was born. I am risk-averse, and cannot relate to these people, but I do relate to this song. It’s a love song Coulton wrote to his daughter, about how a kid changes everything, into something often even better than before.
11. The Magnetic Fields – Goin’ Back To The Country
The Magnetic Fields’ album Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is 15 tracks of typical Stephin Merritt cleverness. I spent some time with it this year and this song called out to me. Merritt is a modern-day Cole Porter to me, with rhymes so literate and clever that they’re the intellectual version of fireworks. “Let Laramie take care of me til they bury me.” I also love Shirley Simms’ voice on this and all Magnetic Fields songs she sings.
12. Rodriguez – Can’t Get Away
I had a long journey with this song. I saw Searching For Sugar Man in late summer of 2012, and wrote about it here (well, back when “here” was LiveJournal) a couple of weeks later. I was surprised and honored to get a response from Eva Rodriguez, the artist’s own daughter, who shows up quite a bit in the film. I enjoyed the music too, so put the soundtrack on my wish list. By the time I’d gotten it and worked through the backlog in front of it, 2014 had arrived. There are quite a few songs on that soundtrack that really resonated with me, so it was a bit of a toss-up to decide which one to put on this mix. The melody of this one hooked into me, and I found myself singing it at odd times throughout the day. I love the sense of foreboding and doom in the lyrics, the sense that when something is ingrained in you, it doesn’t matter how far you run.
13. “Sirvana” – Cut Me Some Slack
Dave Grohl’s documentary film Sound City is about the studio where dozens of classic albums were recorded, including parts of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s got tons of great commentary by Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, and a bunch of others. Of course I was going to love it. The other part of the plot, though, was that Grohl recovered the Sound City’s big mixing board after the studio went under, and recorded an album’s worth of new music with his various guests, using that board. Consequently, the Sound City soundtrack has some pretty special moments, including a new Stevie song that doesn’t appear anywhere else. However, this song stands out for me, even above the Stevie tune. It’s Paul McCartney basically taking Kurt Cobain’s place in Nirvana — Grohl on drums and Krist Novoselic on bass. That sludgy Nirvana sound, with the rockin’-est possible version of Paul Freaking McCartney singing lead, is AMAZING. To me. I didn’t even know that version of Paul still existed. I love the way he sounds on this track.
14. Toto – Rosanna
Toto was one of the first bands I ever got into — their Toto IV album was huge in 1982, when I was 12 years old and just starting to tap into popular music in any kind of attentive way. I played that LP over and over, starting with “Rosanna” and going through to “Africa“. I wasn’t terribly taken with the music they made after Toto IV, but I never stopped liking that album. Still, I hadn’t heard it for quite a while when I started learning a little more about Jeff Porcaro, their drummer. My friend Trish’s son is a drummer, and through him I learned that Porcaro is seen as a virtuoso, a genius among drummers. It’s not the sort of thing I have an ear for, but when I watched a video about how he created the Rosanna beat, I was able to get the sense of why he’s so revered, and why that beat is seen as such a challenge. Last year, my Sony credit card rewards people ran a deal that essentially resulted in me getting a bunch of free CD’s from them, including “The Essential Toto.” I listened to that CD this year, and heard the song with new ears.
15. Thompson Twins – If You Were Here
I think the Thompson Twins are a pretty underrated band, and this is definitely one of their most underrated songs. Its music feels intimate and romantic in an 80’s, 16-Candles-Soundtrack kind of way, but its lyrics are just the opposite — detached, depressed, uncertain. I burned a CD of soundtrack songs this year, and this was the one that jumped out at me. Its contradictions hook me.
16. Florence And The Machine – Shake It Out
And now, a return to transcendence. Florence Welch’s voice is perfect for this song, gathering in power (and multi-tracked) as the synths swell, the drums kick, the choir bursts free. I never fail to get gooseflesh at “tonight I’m gonna bury that horse in the ground” — such an incredible image. I want nothing more than to pull that devil off people’s backs, but Florence acknowledges the truth, and ownership, of that situation: “Looking for heaven / found the devil in me / Well what the hell / I’m gonna let it happen to me”. I can’t hope to keep up with this song vocally, but I love to sing along — it feels like flying.
17. The Beach Boys – Don’t Worry Baby
So, on one level, this song is about racing cars, male competition, and teenage insecurity. But after those opening lines, nothing else matters. “Well, it’s been building up inside of me for oh, I don’t know how long / I don’t know why but I keep thinking something’s bound to go wrong.” Who can’t relate to that? Plus, it’s just one of the most beautiful damn melodies ever, matched with a perfect vocal.
18. Sting – Someone To Watch Over Me
I first learned this song through Sting’s version, and it wasn’t until I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s that I understood how Sting’s gender-flipping of the song did some damage to it. It was originally written to be sung by a woman, which is how it got internal rhymes like “a certain lad I’ve had in mind.” Somehow “a certain girl I’ve had in mind” doesn’t quite have the same snap. But in another way, the flip is rather subversive. “I’d like to add her initial to my monogram,” Sting sings. How often do we hear that sentiment from a man? In any case, I love this song, whoever is singing it. And I feel it too — each of us needs someone to watch over us, even those of us who are self-appointed guardians ourselves.