This post is dedicated to my dad, who taught me to sing in the car with my whole voice, use the steering wheel as a percussion instrument, and consider any room too quiet without music.
You know that moment when “Karma Police” comes on the radio, and it’s definitely far from your favorite Radiohead song (sorry, Thom Yorke), but then, somehow, you find yourself careening down a country road belting “I’VE GIVEN ALL I CAN AND IT’S NOT ENOUGH” all teary-eyed and croaky-voiced?
I may know something about that.
I’ve always believed that music is both powerful and corporeal, a true force of nature. I think many of us believe that. Bob Marley’s famous line from “Trench Town Rock, “One good thing about music…when it hits you, you feel no pain” may be a popular quotation on Instagram bios, but I’ve experienced quite the opposite. I feel a lot of pain when I listen to music, and a great deal of of joy, too– indeed, often a whole host of emotions that feel much more imbedded into my skin than abstractly produced in my brain. I love that something inanimate is capable of that.
Science Leads Us to Freddie Mercury, as It Should
According to a 2013 study conducted by the University of Missouri. Queen’s 1978 hit “Don’t Stop Me Now” is the “world’s happiest song.”
I don’t have much to say about this particular study (To be honest, I prefer the soaring joy of “Ooh you make me live!” in “You’re My Best Friend.”), but this viral news item got me thinking about the music I find life-affirming. Though I owe a great debt to those artists’ whose songs have at times saved my life,* and certainly to the music that has allowed me a good laugh on a gloomy day,** I have compiled a list of upbeat anthems more suited for driving along the highway, singing aloud to the anonymous humans moving beside you in traffic, rather than laying in your bed and staring at the ceiling after 2.5 glasses of wine. I hope you get what I mean.
There’s no reason, of course, why you can’t listen to this music with a partner or a car full of friends. But for me, they are especially resonant when played full-blast on a solitary and/or quarter-life-crisis-induced car trip. These songs make me feel more joyful, more alive, more confident, and more human. Some are a little angry, but for generally submissive people-pleasers like me, a little anger can be surprisingly good for the soul. In this lonely century, with depression at a national high and self-esteem at a national low, I think that many of us could use more of all of these powerful feelings. So here are just a handful of songs that animate my easily tired bones and my sometimes heavy heart. I hope some of them do the same for you.
“Body Was Made” is a defiant manifesto about celebrating your soul and your body in the face of ~the man~. In fact, the entirety of Perpetual Motion People, the raw*** and ecstatic album that features this song, is particularly well-suited to times when you are feeling bad about yourself, your appearance, or culture at large. The truth is that I don’t know a single thing about music, but I think that Ezra Furman is one of the most creative rock artists working today.
Also see: “Take off Your Sunglasses,” “Ordinary Life,” and “Haunted Head”
Lines to shout into the void: “MY BODY WAS MADE IN THIS PARTICULAR WAY. THERE’S REALLY NOTHING ANY OLD PATRICIAN CAN SAY. YOU SOCIAL POLICE CAN JUST GET OUT OF MY FACE. MY BODY WAS MADE.”
Since high school, I have turned to this song for its gentle sense of optimism and community. For an especially tender and light-filled version of “Man on Fire”– rendered in all its magic during a Bloody Sunday Sessions shoot in New Orleans, check out this video:
Also see: “Fiya Wata (Live)”
Lines to shout into the void: “ONLY ONE DESIRE THAT’S LEFT IN ME. I WANT THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD TO COME DANCE WITH ME.”
A quick trip to Genius.com has verified that this song is probably about LSD. But the horn section on this thing. Wow. It gets me. It sounds like the purity of happiness before it gets ruined by life. This one has some nostalgic connotations for me, because it’s one of my dad’s favorite songs. As the dedication in this post indicates, my dad is an excellent car-singer and dancer. It is because of him that I take pride in my own ability to pretend to play brass instruments.
Lines to shout into the void: “WAITING FOR THE BREAK OF DAY. SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING TO SAY. DANCING LIGHTS AGAINST THE SKY. GIVING UP I CLOSE MY EYES.”
This is probably the least self-interested song of the bunch, but Leon Bridges’ music makes me feel so good that I had to share it in this playlist. His nods to artists like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke never feel forced or trite, and his style– a fresh-sounding take on old school soul and R&B– is damn catchy. I have danced to Bridges’ debut album more times than I can count, and I nearly always feel better after doing so.
Also see: “Better Man”
Lines to shout into the void: “I LIKE THE WAY YOU SAIL YOUR SHIP. LET ME BE YOUR CARGO.”
In graduate school, my partner Evan taught me what it means to go on a drive. I’m from California, where if you are not driving along the coast, you probably have somewhere to be. And that somewhere often involves a sea of honking cars on I-5. So when I was introduced to the expansive magic that is driving through Oregon woods on a spring afternoon, both getaway car and its passengers dappled in light, after three hours of brain-melting literary theory, I became an instant fan of going on drives without destinations.
On our drives through the woods, we have a few favorite albums we like to play. One of these is Lord Huron’s Strange Trails. “The World Ender” offers not only excellent descriptions of revivification and reanimation– always handy during a depressive episode– but there is also just a lot of yelping and yowling in it. I have found yelping and yowling to be good for the spirit.
Also see: “Louisa”
Lines to shout into the void: “I’M A WORLD ENDER, BABY AND I’M BACK FROM THE GRAVE.”
Someday, I would like to write a book-length essay called “Stuff Grunge King Boyfriends Like.” **** In the meantime, though, I will skip a rant about unread copies of Infinite Jest and focus on grunge king boyfriend favorite Lou Reed– in particular, the freeway-friendly majesty of his 1972 song “I’m So Free.” This song isn’t exactly subtle about its thematic relationship to this playlist, but c’est la vie, okay? This is my playlist, and I am not going to be subtle about it.
Lines to shout into the void: “I AM MOTHER NATURE’S SON. AND I’M THE ONLY ONE. I DO WHAT I WANT AND I WANT WHAT I SEE. COULD ONLY HAPPEN TO ME. I’M SO FREE.”
I love the quirky chaos of Devendra Banhart’s music. Like Ezra Furman, his creativity is marked by courage. He writes abstract lyrics, sings, dances, and dresses in feminine ways, and always seems to be experimenting with unconventional themes and sounds. I admire him a lot. Though some of his songs are strikingly beautiful, “Carmensita” is better described as an anthem of wild and undisciplined joy. It isn’t obvious to me whether the lyrics of this song are profound or just absurd for absurdity’s sake, and I like that. The video for the song, ft. Natalie Portman, is notably odd, too.
Also see: “Shabop Shalom”
Lines to shout into the void: “SOMBRITA DE REFLEJO. DÁME ALGO TIERNO. ME COMO TU AMOR Y CAGO EL INFIERNO.”
I knew I would include The Clash in this playlist, but I have to say it was a toss-up between “Rudie Can’t Fail,” which I highly recommend singing to with your own name in place of “Rudie,” and “Train in Vain” I settled on the latter because it’s a classic of self-satisfied anger, and it feels good to sing it with someone who has wronged you in mind as you sail down the American highway. Do you find that petty and/or immature? That’s okay. You are probably a bigger person than me.
Lines to shout into the void: “BUT SOME THINGS YOU CAN’T EXPLAIN AWAY. BUT THE HEARTACHE’S IN ME TIL THIS DAY.”
Like Leon Bridges, Anderson Paak makes me want to dance. The first time I heard this song, I felt my brain sigh and say Thanks, universe. This is exactly what I needed in this very moment. It’s not necessarily the lyrics in this song that revive me, but its perfect, bouncy rhythm– the kind that only belongs to genres like hip-hop and soul.
Lines to shout into the void: “YOU MAY NEVER COME DOWN. IT TOOK THIS LONG TO GET THIS HIGH OFF THE GROUND.”
Also see: “Celebrate”
I’ll admit that Nathaniel Rateliff’s “S.O.B.” is actually pretty great song to jam to with other folks, so if you want a break from the downward spiral of solipsism, I would pick this one. I love when my Evan and I are tapping out the beat to this song, humming along, and then, as the chorus approaches, we suddenly look over at each other and shout “Son of a Bitch!” It’s cathartic. And communal.
Also see: “Howling at Nothing”
Lines to shout into the void: “I’M GONNA NEED SOMEONE TO HELP ME. I’M GONNA NEED SOMEBODY’S HAND. I’M GONNA NEED SOMEONE TO HOLD ME DOWN. I’M GONNA NEED SOMEONE TO CARE. “
Anyone who knows anything knows that the soundtrack to the film Matilda is a work of art on its own merit, Maybe I just love this song because it reminds me of little Matilda successfully cooking a hearty American breakfast when she can hardly reach the counter, one of the few happy moments in the film’s portrayal of her childhood. But I think it also makes me happy because of the song’s carefree vibes and Burning Man-esque music video.
Lines to shout into the void: “NOW PICK ME UP WITH GOLDEN HAND. I MAY SEE YOU. I MAY TELL YOU TO RUN. YOU WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THE YOUNG.”
It was difficult to choose among my favorite Arcade Fire songs. “Wake Up,” though pretty much perfect for these purposes, felt a little too on the nose (even for me), and “The Suburbs”– one of my old high school favorites– a little too reminiscent of the disenchanted hipster. In any case, this song comes from an album that incorporates some disco vibes, White Stripes-y guitar, and teen angst about feeling different. And if that doesn’t call out to the core of my being, I just don’t know what does.
See also: “We Exist” and this fantastic video of “Here Comes the Night TIme,” which features Win Butler’s excellent dance moves and Michael Cera speaking some halfway-decent Spanish:
Lines to shout into void: “I’M SO CONFUSED, AM I NORMAL PERSON? YOU KNOW, I CAN’T TELL IF I’M A NORMAL PERSON. IT’S TRUE, I THINK I’M COOL ENOUGH. BUT AM I CRUEL ENOUGH. AM I CRUEL ENOUGH FOR YOU?”
When I was a teenager, my self-care routine primarily consisted of splitting an entire cookie sheet of tater tots with my brother while listening to the entirety of Bob Marley’s Kaya.
Another trip to Genius suggests that “One Drop” refers both to “a reggae-style drum beat popularized by Carlton Barret, the drummer for Bob Marley and the Wailers” and the “one drop rule” used to classify black Americans in the United States’ legal system. As a kid, I did not know about either of these definitions, but I loved the song. I thought that “One Drop” meant something like a soul, a little encapsulation of everything good and holy about you that nothing physical could ever touch. I thought that the “One Drop” could be accessed by feeling the drum beat that Marley sings about in this song.
Also see: “Coming in From The Cold”, “Soul Rebel” … really anything from the Bob Marley & the Wailers discography. Reggae is often so full of joy, and certainly good for these purposes.
Lines to shout into the void: “SO FEEL THIS DRUM BEAT. AS IT BEATS WITHIN. FEELING THE RHYTHM. FIGHTING AGAINST THE ISM & SCHISM.”
Honorable & Miscellaneous Mentions
Kishi Bashi’s “Manchester” (“I haven’t felt this alive in a long time.”), Kendrick Lamar’s “i” (“I love myself.”), The Wild Reeds’ “Where I am Going” (“You think you know where I’m going. The truth is you haven’t got a clue.”), and Kurt Vile’s Pretty Pimpin (“I could be 1,000 miles away. But still mean what I say.”)
An Approximation of a Conclusion
Please comment below with songs of justified anger and unabashed self-love that you might sing on a crowded interstate, with an eye toward what you might play alone or on a spontaneous, beatnik-y sort of field trip to regain your sense of self. Maybe we can create a little archive for those who need to harness the restorative properties of music during a difficult time.
*The Tallest Man on Earth, Lucy Dacus, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes, and Wagner, to name a few
** Namely, The Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” the entire oeuvre of Sugar Ray, and the theme song to the teen drama One Tree Hill, Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Wanna Be.” If you don’t feel better after singing “I DON’T WANNA BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN WHAT I’VE BEEN TRYING TO BE, LATELY” at the top of your lungs, then we have some work to do.
*** I have started to hate the use of this word as a synonym for “gritty” vulnerability, but I can’t think of a better one to describe Furman’s unique blend of roughness and sincerity.
**** Subtitle: “You Don’t Have to Like Them Just Because Your Grunge King Boyfriend Does.” Audience: Me at 17.