Day 11: A Song From Your Favorite Band

As I’ve documented at length elsewhere, my favorite band for the past 12 or 13 years has been British indie dance-pop trio Saint Etienne. As with most favorites, it’s difficult to pick just one song, so I looked for one that at least had an interesting video.  “Nothing Can Stop Us”, from their nearly 20-year-old (!) first album Fox Base Alpha epitomizes the early-period St. Et. sound, crafting euphoric retro-pop out of a drum machine and a symphonic array of samples from other people’s records. Given that the song eventually received a remix and an accompanying official video for its US release,  I had never seen the original until today. Shot in what looks like super-8, it’s simply the band driving around London, breezily taking in the sights. It exudes bliss and a sense of discovery that I find irresistible.

Day 10: A Song That Makes You Fall Asleep

I used to joke that I could never make it all the way through Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See without falling asleep. However, since I haven’t listened  to anything off that record (apart from “Fade Into You”) in over a decade, my pick is a song from an album I’ve grown to love over the past five years. Brian Eno is as admired for his forward-thinking, mid-70s pop (anticipating new wave years in advance) in some circles as he is for his ambient music in others. I’m more with the former camp, but his last solo pop album, 1977’s Before and After Science, is nearly perfect in how it kicks off all herky-jerky and funky and proceeds to calm down, track by track until it reaches beatific enlightenment.

I can’t recall if I’ve ever fallen asleep to the album’s penultimate track, “Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd)”, but I can easily imagine doing so. It’s a wonderfully lethargic instrumental that sl-o-o-w-ly fades in, hovers around the edge of consciousness, and then just as slowly fades out. Put it on auto-repeat and drift away into the restful void…

Day 9: A Song That You Can Dance To

Well, if I have to pick just one (out of thousands of songs I could easily dance to), it would be Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart”. It never fails to draw me to the dancefloor (not to mention seemingly everyone else in the room) and twenty years on, it has aged beautifully (perhaps the video below, not so much). When it comes to dance music, it’s best not to think, but just do. On that note, it’s not vicious or malicious, just de-lovely and delicious…

Day 8: A Song That You Know All The Words To

I almost chose “The Alphabet Song” or “Happy Birthday” because I indubitably know all the words to those, but that’s a little too snarky, even for me. In that spirit, however, I felt I needed to pick something from Tom Lehrer’s tiny (he only recorded three albums of original material) but rich catalogue. Talk about your anomalies: a piano-playing math professor performing funny, satirical, often sick songs in the conservative ’50s and early ’60s. By around 1970, he gave up performance for good, only writing a few songs for The Electric Company. Although many of his deceptively silly ditties were topical and of their time, they endure because no one matched Lehrer in terms of subversion.

Take “The Vatican Rag” – if  you scan through the lyrics, there’s nothing particularly blasphemous in them. Still, watch the video and listen to how Lehrer sings and accompanies them and you can see why you’re unlikely to hear it in a church. Of course, since then popular music genres have infiltrated religious services to a ridiculous degree (see the U2charist), so perhaps some liberal parish out there has added Lehrer to their playlist. Anyway, when first discovering Lehrer as a teenager, this song was about the funniest thing I’d ever heard (perhaps appealing to the lapsed Catholic in me); listening to it on repeat, I still know it by heart today.

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want, if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Kyrie eleison,
Doin’ the Vatican Rag.

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playin’ it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!

So get down upon your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Make a cross on your abdomen,
When in Rome do like a Roman,
Ave Maria,
Gee it’s good to see ya,
Gettin’ ecstatic an’
Sorta dramatic an’
Doin’ the Vatican Rag!

Day 7: A Song That Reminds You Of a Certain Event

August 1995: Two friends (one of whom is the guy referenced here) and I drive from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to visit another friend from our high school who is attending the U of M. It’s a six-hour drive, but it seems like it takes us ten, possibly because of all the stops we make along the way. Somewhere between Eau Claire and the Minnesota border, we listen to the Purple Rain soundtrack because, after all, we are visiting Prince’s hometown.

By the time we reach the epic title track at the album’s end, a hazy summer sun has given way to overcast skies. Over the song’s eight-plus minutes, I nearly doze off, lost in the music’s all-encompassing, lighter-waving majesty. Towards its conclusion, I open my eyes and notice how violently dark the sky is now, almost like a purple bruise. Then the rain comes pounding down as if someone let open a floodgate–so extreme that we have to pull off the interstate at the next exit. More than the famous scene it frames from the movie it comes from, whenever I hear “Purple Rain” I always think of that trip, that highway, that severe downpour.

(This ends up unintentionally the third straight entry in a mid-90s college years trilogy for me. I assure you that music related to another time in my life will be coming up soon!)

Day 6: A Song That Reminds You of Somewhere

This “somewhere” is less a specific, concrete place than an era or state of being. In the mid-1990s, I was an undergraduate student at Marquette. Following a tumultuous Freshman year of commuting from home, I moved on campus. On my own for the first time, I didn’t change much (apart from growing out my hair a bit), but I have vivid memories of the music I listened to around this time, much of it borrowed from libraries or purchased from weekly pilgrimages to used record stores.

A good chunk of it came from a friend I was close to at the time (and haven’t spoken to since). Concrete Blonde was one of his favorite bands, and even though it was four years old before I first heard it, their album Bloodletting became one of my favorites as well. Every time I put it on, I’m always transported back to being 19, walking aimlessly around Milwaukee’s East Side or hanging out on Madison’s State Street. “Caroline” in particular carries a wistfulness and yearning that’s well-suited for reflecting upon a somewhat awkward, transitional time I remember fondly but would never want to relive.

Day 5: A Song That Reminds You of Someone

I first saw Trainspotting in 1996 at the Downer Theatre in Milwaukee. It was one of those proverbial “films that changed my life” and the next day, I biked over to the Exclusive Company on Farwell to buy the soundtrack. A few months later, I took my friend Laura to see it at the Varsity Theater at Marquette University, where we were both seniors. I had known Laura for a year, but we only began hanging out together around this time.

It was Laura’s first viewing, and I think our mutual love for the film is what solidified our friendship. She was particularly taken with the inimitable Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”, which opens the film at a breakneck pace, informing you right away that you’re watching something new, unique, cheeky, passionate and exhilarating. She loved it so much that afterwards, whenever we listened to the song, she made up her own little dance for it. Not only do I always associate “Lust For Life” with the film (how can you not after watching the video below?), but also with my friend (whom I’m still in touch with) and her lust-for-life dance.

Day 4: A Song That Makes You Sad

Although I’ll stubbornly sit through the most depressing, feel-bad films you can imagine, I don’t like sad music all that much. The best movies stay with you for a long time, but the act of experiencing one is finite (unless you’re obsessed enough to watch it over and over again). With a song, the experience is more amenable to repetition. I want to listen to my favorite songs on repeat, but I don’t want to be sad for a long period of time.

Having said that, Kate Bush’s “A Coral Room” (from Aerial) is a sad song I don’t mind hearing often. In fact, even though I’ve heard it many times, its spare, piano-and-voice setting still startles me given that it’s coming from someone whose oeuvre tends to be more theatrical and symphonic. The lyrics, which reference her mother’s death and the tenderness with which Bush sings them gives the song much of its mournfulness, but I love how she can do the whole piano-and-voice thing this late in her career and still sound like no one else.

Day 3: A Song That Makes You Happy

Makes me happy? Practically every song I love makes me pretty happy, but Alphabeat’s “Fascination” is so upbeat and teeming with giddy ecstasy that I can’t help but smile whenever I play it. This was one of my favorite songs of 2008, and the only thing sad about it is that this Danish group still doesn’t have a US record deal.

Day 2: My Least Favorite Song

Actually, “With Arms Wide Open” has a few things in common with my favorite song: a catchy melody, vocals that couldn’t come from anyone else (at least at the time it was recorded) and hooks that add layers and texture. However, it does not make me feel good; it makes me want to vomit, which is fitting since Scott Stapp sounds like he desperately wants to vomit but can’t, so he sings instead.

Creed is such a punchline now that it’s easy to forget just how popular they were a decade ago. Not only was this a number-one hit, the album that spawned it (Human Clay) sold over 11 million copies. The band’s “sensitive” nu-metal sludge and Stapp’s nauseating vocals also influenced a slew of awful, awfully popular followers from Nickelback to Daughtry. Say what you want about auto-tuned-to-death teen pop–in my opinion, the song stylings of Creed were the past decade’s greatest debacle.

Bonus points to anyone who can make it through the whole video; I barely lasted 30 seconds. Given that it has 2 million plus views on youtube, perhaps they aren’t as big of a punchline as I thought. Anyway, the only good Creed is Creed Bratton.