Radio Dead Air

The Soundtrack of You

November 20th, 2009

I’m gonna give you a preview of what’s coming up on next week’s RDA. It occured to me that I never do countdowns, and rarely if ever do theme nights anymore. Just something we sort of floated away from in the transition to being more of an out of character thing, and what with the new segments and the comedy and all that, the musical focus has drifted. After hearing two recent songs that got my attention (“Who Says” from John Mayer and “Can’t Stop” from MoZella), I thought a bit more about the way songs used to turn my head and give me more than a few moment’s pause.

I considered other songs that had done the same, over the long course of my life and up until now. Everyone has these songs. Everyone. You hear a song, and not only does it fix a point in your memory it changes the way you hear and perceive music from that point on. It’s always a part of your mental iPod; at any given moment, you find pieces of them drifting through your thoughts. You know them by heart. They’re integrated into who you are, and they color the way you experience the world.

I tried to do just ten songs, but that proved impossible. I broadened it to twenty, and even that was something of a challenge. Stop and think about all the songs you’ve heard over your entire life; now pick the twenty most important. And it’s not just the songs, either. The artists themselves have an impact, so I had to make sure my list represented the singers and songwriters who make the biggest dent in my psyche.

These will get played next Monday, probably with more commentary. For right now, here’s the list.

#20) Blue Oyster Cult – In Thee

I first heard this song on WNMF in Tampa, on the wrong side of my first serious breakup in my lifetime. I’d long been a fan of BOC, but before then I’d never heard this particular song. I can still see the particular stretch of US-19 I was driving on, halfway home in the rush hour traffic, thinking sad thoughts and coming into my “What do I do now?” phase. It’s a song about not just losing love, but our place in the world at that moment . . . what we are to each other and to ourselves. Couple that with a breezy harmony and a lilting, flowing chorus, it’s easily one of my unforgettables.

#19) Queen – Save Me

I’ve always loved the music of Queen. When I was very young I had an 8-track of their album News of the World, and I literally wore the poor thing out on my parent’s home stereo system. Later on I got deeper and deeper into it, and when Freddie passed on I took the death hard. This song in particular was one that struck me not once, but over and over in my life. Situations changed, but sometimes this song just fit the times I was in. More than that, it’s a great representation of Queen’s work . . . Freddie’s strong singing, Brian May’s legendary guitar and forceful, pleading lyrics shine through in particular on this track. It easily passes the “I still know all the words” test.

#18) Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell

Oh, Meat Loaf . . . some people love him, some people hate him, but the man has left his mark. I chose thing song not just for the singer but also because it’s a stand out of the music of Jim Steinman, a songwriter whose work is so unique that when you hear one of his songs you immediately know who wrote it. I loved this album when I was in high school. I’d just acquired my first vehicle, a cherry red Mustang named Michelle, and I spent many a day and night with this tape repeating its way in a loop on my stereo. It’s wild, it’s bombastic, it’s operatic, and it draws a vivid picture in the mind of youth, rebellion, daring and rock and roll. It certainly changed my expectations for music, and few if anyone else’s work stands out so well or so sharply.

#17) The Blue Dogs – A Simple Complication

How many times have you fallen for someone who belongs to someone else? I’d be hard pressed to come up with an accurate count. This song is by a band from my home town, the Blue Dogs. It got a lot of airplay on 96 Wave back in the day, and it turned up on the dial at a point in time when I was head over heels for someone with a ring on her finger. The song kept time with the beat of my own young, demanding heart, and touched on exactly what I was feeling. When a song seems as though it were written for you and you alone, it’s a powerful work.

#16) The Exploding Hearts – Making Teenage Faces

This one is by a group that got taken well before its time; they only released one album (Guitar Romantic) before a car accident killed most of the band members. Yet it really shook me not only because it’s fantastic music, but because it evokes the sound of early punk pioneers like the Buzzcocks, the Damned and the Ramones. The fact it was recorded twenty years after the rise and fall of that era is even more remarkable; you can’t hear it and not swear it’s far older than it sounds. It’s a tight, lo-fi tune that jerks you right out of your seat with classic three chord hooks and harmonies. When I first discovered them I was so excited I felt like I had to call everyone I knew, just to tell them about how amazing the song was. It’s rare when music gets that huge a response from me.

#15) Pink Floyd – Nobody Home

We have all had our Wall phase. Everyone at some time or another discovers The Wall and either relates to it, appreciates it, hates it immensely or discovers how the music speaks to them. Kids like me found it and played the whole thing beginning to end, over and over, drinking in every nuance of the performance. “Nobody Home” was one of the standouts, mainly because it represents a moment of almost-but-not-quite lucidity on the part of protagonist Pink; he takes a brief, accurate stock of his place in the world, what’s come, what’s gone, and where he is right there and then. It may seem bleak, but for a brief moment he understands what he’s lost, if not why he’s lost it. The brilliant piano work that brings us into this song and the strings and brass that join it defy the conventions of rock and roll, and the quiet, helpless and sardonic lyrics not only strike home but spell out the story of a soul on the edge of ruin. The whole album’s a masterpiece, but this one never fails to give me pause and sometimes get me to take my own existential inventory.

#14) X – Fourth of July

X was an LA band that made good back in the 80′s, but slowly and surely faded away over the years. They had a vibe that was distinctly out of sync with the rest of the decade, joining other garage heroes like Husker Du and the Replacements. This song in particular has always been a favorite of mine, mainly for its near-rockabilly simplicity contrasted by the very vivid picture the lyrics evoke. It’s just a simple tale of a couple about to fall out of love once and for all, yet holding on because all they really have is each other. It’s simple and quick but it stays with you, and the chorus dares you not to sing along.

#13) Drivin’ N Cryin’ – Straight to Hell

This was one of those bands that burned itself into its era; when you hear one of their songs, it doesn’t just take you back, it yanks you by the scruff of the neck to the then and there. Of all the many and varied tunes this band released, this one stands out in my memory. It’s another storytelling song, but its done so matter-of-factly and unabashedly that you can’t help but connect to it. Not only that, it’s got a refrain that everyone knows by heart.

#12) Melissa Etheridge – I Will Never Be The Same

This one is as straightforward as they come. It felt like the song has stolen my story and spread it to the four winds, but the fact is it’s one of those things that’s universal. We’ve all fallen into that relationship that changes the course of your life, of who and what you are, of what you’ll be from then on. Etheridge has always had a flare for the passionate, and this song is one of her best. It starts softly and quietly and builds to a wail of realization, of the knowledge of the mark someone else has left on the deepest parts of us. Utterly timeless, utterly pitch perfect.

#11) Tegan and Sara – Back in Your Head

I came on this song when I was at a point where music just wasn’t touching me like it used to anymore. It was like there was a blind spot in my heart and whatever I’d connected to in song before was lost to me. Then I randomly heard this song at the end of a television show called jPod, and my heart just plain jumped up. It struck me. It was fascinating, in lyrics, in tune, in the choices of instruments, in structure . . . it was just stunning. I hadn’t heard its like before. I utterly and completely fell in love and became a Tegan and Sara fan from that moment on. It made music feel new again, and the fact I wanted to share it with everyone I knew spoke to how exceptional it was.

#10) Tom Waits – I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You

Tom Waits is one of the most talented and eclectic voices in the history of music. His songs have been covered by dozens of artists, and he’s left his mark with what I call “The Best Worst Voice in the World.” This song is a simple slice of life, a night in a bar, mulling over a drink and eying a woman with a heart full of could-have-been. My own personal experience with this song is strange; I’d already listened to it and loved it, but once while out in the wilds of Georgia, I listened to it and came to the realization I was in love with someone I really shouldn’t be in love with for a host of reasons. I screamed and cried, pounded the steering wheel, cursed so loud I rattled the windows. It sounds horrible, but it was one of the very few pointed, honest outpourings of emotion I’ve had in my life. You never forget them when they happen, and you never forget what brought you to them. The fact that this song caused my own situation to click into focus speaks to just how powerful it is.

#9) Tori Amos – Silent All These Years

For some reason, in 1991 I just hadn’t connected to Alternative yet. I dunno what it was; lack of exposure, where I was at the time, who I was at the time . . . it hadn’t touched me. What little I was hearing just wasn’t doing it for me. Don’t get me wrong; the talent in that time was all there, but none of it was speaking to me. Then I heard this song for the first time, and it was like falling in love. It was allegorical, poetic, deeply personal and charmingly simple. It made me think harder, outside the edges of the music and the words. It brought home poetry to me in a way nothing else at that time had done. I adored the rest of the album just as much, but it’s always this song I remember as being the one that opened a door to a wider world.

#8) Stan Rogers – Barrett’s Privateers

When I first came on this one, I was well into RDA and well and truly set in my rock and roll ways. I’d heard some folk-type songs through the years that had caught my ear, but nothing that had left an impact. This one did that. The viscous, larger-than-life description of one would-be seadogs trials and travails hit me square on, coupled with the beautiful and unforgettable power of Stan Roger’s voice. It was an absolutely brutal song, one that took root in the heart of you and commanded your attention. It also changed how I saw folk music, a change that would progress as I went along in years but got one of its big pushes right here. Truly an immortal song.

#7) Jenny Owen Youngs – Fuck Was I

I first heard this song on an in-flight radio station on my way home from a convention. It was like a wake-up call in its matter-of-fact recounting of realizing how you can go into a relationship with such stupid, short-sighted notions of the outcome that when it finally arrives, you’re kicking yourself black and blue. Yet also in the lyrics is a tale of how we leave ourselves open and vulnerable, and when everything comes crashing down we can’t do anything but look in the mirror and feel chastened, humbled, and most importantly, different. It’s also presented in an unconventional lilt of back and forth, up and down counterpoint of guitar and strings, and the stark voice of Youngs standing out among it all. This song knows where you bleed.

#6) The Mountain Goats – No Children

John Darnielle is one of the most talented songwriters out there today, and this song is certainly evidence of that talent. It’s a blunt, brutal, and almost cheerful tale of a marriage gone to hell, to the point where there’s simply no logical or rational escape except bitter, spiteful fantasies. Yet despite that (or even because of it), it’s an enrapturing song just because of its unrelenting honesty and unblinking scrutiny of the situation. The lyrics are so sharp and so dead on the money that you’re left reeling when it’s over and done. I’d never heard its like before and to date still haven’t. I first heard it at the urging of a friend not that many years ago, and it made me an unwavering supporter of Darnielle’s work ever since.

#5) Syd Straw – CBGB’s

Ever seen someone you were desperately in love with years and years after the fact? That’s this song. It’s two lovers meeting again at random, still connected in some vague way despite the gulf of time between them. Syd Straw’s strong voice drives a fun and rollicking melody through the question of, “What happened to us?” It’s a bittersweet tune that’s made unforgettable due to the brilliant music it’s set to, a rowdy and brilliant bar band style that’s flat out infectious. I heard this in my youth, long before I could experience this kind of complexity in my life, but it was so perfect a song I never forgot it. Somewhere in my closet is a jacket signed by this lady, a real sweetheart who couldn’t believe I wanted her autograph to adorn my sleeve. You can hear how much of a gem of a person she is in this song.

#4) Blue Mountain – Soul Sister

The third “blue” on this list, and the one I’m closest to; longtime readers will recognize the band name. 96 Wave played their stuff back in the mid-to-late 90′s, and when I heard this song, it just shook me. It was such a brilliant expression of the style, making me learn to appreciate the vibe in a way I’d never done before. This was how country was intended to be: rough, raw, honest and pure. It’s a song about mistakes made, regrets suffered, and the fond hope of setting it all right someday. Couple this with meeting the band and in later years striking up a friendship with them that’s lasted to this day, and I can’t help but remember the very first time I heard their music and how it changed the way I regarded music in general.

#3) Richard Shindell – The Next Best Western

This man has one of the clearest, evocative, powerful voices in the world of music today, and he couples that with lyrics that feel little removed from conversations yet still flow with the grace of poetry. I heard this song long ago in my Tampa days, and regarded it as utter magic. It’s a tale of a long night on the highway, in the depths of the morning where the road belongs to you and you alone, and what that solitude does to how you see things and how you see yourself. It’s a simply perfect song, sweeping and grand in a conversely understated manner, showcasing the very best of Shindell’s talent. It altered how I wrote my own music and how I heard the music of others, and when it comes to “good songs” this is one that others are measured by.

#2) The Indigo Girls – Fare Thee Well

Few if any songs set me straight to tears the way this one does. It’s the ultimate goodbye song, sad, sweet and gentle, reflective and regretful. It’s the horrible shudder in your chest when it’s over, when you let go, when you try to pick yourself up and move on. These two have a list of legendary songs a mile long, but this in the one song of theirs that sets me to trembling like a guitar string. It’s not a fancy song, or a complicated song, but it’s piercing and direct. In a word, it’s majestic. Songs like these feel like spells being cast, unseen powers being called down, magic being weaved. They’re few and they’re rare, and it’s rare you can listen to them without crumpling a little inside. When music can strike right at the heart, every time, no matter how many times you hear it, then it’s music to be treasured.

#1) Richard Thompson – 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

For anyone who knows me, this one’s a no brainer. This song is lightning in a bottle. It’s a tale of boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy dies in a hail of gunfire and leaves girl his prized motorcycle. Yet beyond that, it’s a stunningly crafted song played by a master guitarist. Thompson played professionally from the age of 16, and the years of experience shine through. When you first hear the song and realize that the rich and complex tones are all coming from a single guitar, you’re absolutely floored. Not only is it heartbreaking and achingly beautiful, it’s a song that showed me the absolute pinnacle of what could be done with a piece of wood and a bunch of wire. I first heard it on a mundane morning in Tampa on WMNF while driving to work, and I was so taken with it I literally had to pull over the car and listen to it. If you’ve never heard it before, find it and listen to it. It’s the kind of song that will change your life.

And there we are. You’ll hear them all Monday. See you then.

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