I love music. I know that’s not a unique thing to say. In fact, I have to admit that I’ve never heard anyone ever say “Music? I hate it” or “Eh, it’s all right but I could live without it.” I guess, though, there must be some people who don’t like any music, if only to balance out the people whose entire lives center around their love for it.
Growing up, in my pre-teen days, you would think I fit into the “Eh” camp. Music was okay, but I had other interests (for instance, repeatedly listening to a cassette tape of the audio from Star Wars). To be fair to my younger self, most of my exposure to music when I was really young was in the family car or my dad’s trucks, where my parents would listen to their radio stations which would play (as the joke goes) both kinds of music, country and western. I wasn’t a big fan of the music, although there were some songs by Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard that I liked. No offense to anyone who loves the music (such as my parents, for instance), but it just isn’t my thing.
As I grew older and bought or received my own radios and players, I started to listen to pop and rock music more, most often on a central Minnesota radio station, KCLD 104.7 and MTV. In time, I would buy a few CD’s and cassette tapes, but never that many. My brother was the bigger music buff. He owned a whole host of CD’s and cassettes and seemed to know the words to every song.
I remember that sometimes he would make some mixed tapes, recording songs off of the radio onto a cassette. I never liked doing that. It seemed to be too much work to get a copy that was only okay. Admittedly, I did make my own mixed tapes later on as I took up running with my Sony walkman, but I probably made only two tapes. I don’t think I ever made a mixed tape for a girlfriend.
In the 1990’s, after I moved away from home, music became a bigger part of my life. I generally bought rock and alternative music CD’s. Usually every time, if after buying the CD, I liked it, I would listen to it the same way my son watches TV shows, the same ones over and over again. For instance, when I was a junior in college, I practically wore out Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” album, listening to it, and pretty much only it, for a month straight.
When the iPod came out, and little later the Apple iTunes program, my love of music grew. Suddenly, a multitude of songs were almost instantly available and I started to discover new music or at least music that was new to me. The iTunes program had two features that I especially loved for this purpose. The first was “Celebrity Playlists,” which featured playlists compiled by musicians, songwriters, and actors with information about each of the songs on the lists. I remember seeing a number of musicians write glowingly about Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley, two artists with whom I was completely unfamiliar. After enough references, I went out and bought a bunch of their music (although due to Buckley’s early death, there was not much there).
Then of course, there was the “Playlist” function. It was essentially the evolution of the mixed tape, but with a interface that drastically simplified a user’s ability to put together a “tape” of their own favorites in any way they wanted. A mixed tapes could take hours to put together and once finished, was set in stone. A playlist, however, could be created in minutes, improved later by adding or deleting songs at any point in the future or put on shuffle to mix up the order of songs with each listening experience.
I soon discovered that I loved making playlists and, over the years, have spent a good deal of time creating a host of them. For instance, I have a number of lists of songs by genre, such a Roadtrip Rock, Jazz, Alternative, Pop, Power Pop, Alternative Pop and so on. I have playlists by years, starting in 2007, that contain select songs released in each year or that I discovered that year, or in some case, that marked certain events from that way (such as the placement of “Sometimes in Snows In April” in the 2016 playlist to mark Prince’s death).
My favorite playlists, though, are theme lists, where I can choose artists and songs that would likely never be played on the same radio station ever, but on a playlist seem to make sense. In many ways, these playlists are sort of like soundtrack albums for movies by Quentin Tarantino or Cameron Crowe: a hodgepodge of songs some familiar, some less so, but all gems from a variety of genres.
One of my favorite theme playlists is one I called “Sunday Morning.” The playlist started off one day when I was listening to Faith No More’s cover of the Commodores song “Easy.” The song is a break-up song about a guy leaving his girl, but he’s not devastated because he realizes that he’s done all he can for the relationship. That’s why, he sings, he’s “easy, easy like Sunday morning.”
I recognized that feeling of “easyness” instantly and started to make a playlist of songs that either had similar thoughts or conveyed a similar feel. The songs are mostly ballads and could arguably be called “Easy Listening.” I hate that term though. It reminds me of stations that routinely, and quite gladly, play Kenny G and smooth jazz songs.
There are no Kenny G songs on this playlist, although some of the songs could be heard on an Easy Listening radio station. They wouldn’t play Foo Fighters, Faith No More or Pearl Jam though. The lists contains love songs and break-up songs. There are songs about death and the beauty of life. There are songs of hope and of mourning. All of the songs though stir within me a sense of contemplation, as if I’m sitting on chair on a summer Sunday morning, looking out over a beautiful lake, lost in my thoughts.
In the spirit of the “Celebrity Playlists” that I used to peruse on iTunes, here is my Sunday morning playlist with a (generally) brief discussion on each of the songs. (If you would like to listen to the playlist, click here):
- “Easy” Faith No More (1993). I prefer this cover to the Commodores original, if only because every time I hear it, I imagine this heavy metal band playing this smooth R&B classic and it makes me smile. Plus, it has a great guitar solo.
- “Book of Love” Peter Gabriel (2004): This song, Peter Gabriel’s cover of The Magnetic Fields original, is one of two songs on this playlist that I first heard while watching a television series finale. This song played during the finale of “Scrubs” while the lead character, J.D., imagined his future with his love Elliott. It’s a simple, but beautiful song with a playful side: the Book of Love has music, some transcendental, some “just really dumb.”
- “Lovely Day” Bill Withers (1997): “Then I look at you/and the world is alright with me/Ahh, just one look at you/and I know it’s going to be/A lovely day.” If you’re having a bad day, listening to this song will put some pep in your step and glide in your stride. If it doesn’t, call in sick and go back to bed. Your day is shot.
- “Into the Mystic” Van Morrison (1970): I have three Van Morrison songs on this list and none of them are “Brown-eyed Girl,” Morrison’s most popular song. This song about the transcendence of love beyond our physical experience is, perhaps, my favorite of all of his songs.
- “Romeo and Juliet” Dire Straits (1981): Despite the title, “Romeo and Juliet” is not a love song; it’s a break-up song. A lovestruck Romeo sings to his Juliet, at times angry (“how can you look at me as if I was one of your deals”) and other times grieving (“can’t do anything except be in love with you”). I love the composition, I love the words and I especially love the guitar solo that closes out the song.
- “Home” Foo Fighters (2007): It’s a cliche for rock stars to sing about their hard days on the road, away from their loved ones, such as KISS (“Beth”), Bob Segar (“Turn the Page”), and Motley Crue (“Home Sweet Home”) all famously did. In Dave Grohl’s take on this idea (in his own words, the best song he’s ever written), he appears to be singing about something broader. His Home seems to be not only a physical place from which he is absent, but perhaps also a transcendent place containing everyone he has loved: “some I remember/some I forget/some of them living/some of them dead.” All he wants is to be home.
- “Tupelo Honey” Van Morrison (1972): The first time I heard of this song was on an episode of “Friends” when Ross said this was his favorite love song. While not my favorite love song (or even favorite Morrison love song), it’s still pretty high on the list, even if Morrison mixes his metaphors by saying his love is “as sweet as Tupelo honey” and is an “angel of the first degree.”
- “I’ll Stand by You” The Pretenders (1994): I think Chrissie Hynde has the best voice of any woman in in rock and popular music. It’s like whiskey, smokey but smooth. There are a number of great songs about support (such as “Stand by Me” and “Lean on Me.”), but this one holds a special place in my heart. It was relatively new when I fought cancer in 1995, and I listened to it often, thinking of the incredible support I received at the time.
- “A Change Is Gonna Come” Sam Cooke (1964): I love Sam Cooke’s voice, too. It’s like honey, sweet and smooth, but in this song, it’s also tired. Cooke, who reportedly wrote this song after he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only motel, sings that he’s been running throughout a life that has been too hard living. Yet, he’s hopeful. The change may be a long time coming, but he knows, he knows, it’s gonna come.
- “Jersey Girl” Tom Waits (1980): Tom Waits’s voice isn’t whiskey or honey. It’s gravel, perhaps, though, from drinking too much whiskey. Maybe that’s what gives this song its power (and the edge over Bruce Springsteen’s cover of the song). Waits is the everyman, but that doesn’t mean that his love for the Jersey Girl is any less than the love of someone with a better voice. He lets you know that as he belts out “Sha-la-la-la-la, laaa, laaa, la/I’m in love with a Jersey Girl.”
- “Closing Time” Leonard Cohen (1992): From one love song by one gravel-voiced poet to a love song by another, this song about youth and lust and old age and death has beautiful, evocative lyrics. In the first verse, Cohen sings of youth, sex and lust as fun time at a bar, where “Johnny Walker wisdom running high.” Later in the song, in old age, Cohen is back at the bar, but it’s as “dead as heaven on a Saturday night.” Still, he notes his love has endured,“I loved you when our love was blessed/I love you now there’s nothing left/But closing time.”
- “Hallelujah” Jeff Buckley (recorded 1993-released 2007): There are a plethora of covers of this Leonard Cohen song, but I’ll only listen to two: the one by John Cale that was used in “Shrek” and this one (the more emotional and powerful one) by Buckley. I won’t listen to any others. I just won’t. The song has just been over-“covered” and/or abused by too many people, whether on singing shows or, usually around Christmas, by some religious artists that rewrite the words. I have nothing per se against religious songs (see the next song, for instance), but I’ve found that such covers, in zealously changing the words to on-the-nose praise of the Almighty, remove the poetry, and therefore the subtle beauty, of Cohen’s words (sort of like rewriting Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” from “rage, rage against the dying of the light” to “don’t surrender to death/fight it!”). Go back to this cover and listen to Buckley sing of both glory and sadness, hope and despair. When I listen to the song, it’s almost always the same line that gets to me: “it’s not a cry that you hear at night/it’s not somebody whose seen the light/it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Yes, it’s cold and broken, but it’s still a hallelujah. For me, those may be the most powerful hallelujahs there can be.
- “Prayer of St. Francis” Sarah McLachlan (1998): I first heard this song on the sixth season finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (you know, the one where Xander talks down Dark Willow from destroying the world; see, I knew you’d remember it). I immediately started searching for it, but it took some months before I found a streaming version off of a album released in Japan. The song is a beautiful rendition of my favorite prayer which reminds us that the things we need in life (love, forgiveness, etc.) can’t be demanded, but are received only after we give those things to others.
- “Downtown Train” Everything But the Girl (1988): I came across this cover of the Tom Waits classic while watching the series finale of one of my favorite sitcoms, “How I Met Your Mother.” The song played over a (mostly) controversial montage of Ted and the Mother’s future, but also, more importantly, during the scene showing Ted actually meeting the Mother (named Tina, in case you forgot) waiting for a train. A lot of people were angry with how the show ended. I thought the choice was rather bold, but, regardless, given how it ended, this cover, with its melancholy words, sung so beautifully, was the perfect accompaniment to the scene.
- “Solsbury Hill” Peter Gabriel (1977): Apparently, Peter Gabriel wrote this song after he departed from the band Genesis and went solo. Gabriel said that it means “it’s about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get … It’s about letting go.” Having done that once or twice in my life, I especially relate to the last verse of lyrics: “I will show another me/Today I don’t need a replacement/I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant/My heart going boom, boom, boom/Hey”I said, “you can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home.”
- “Father and Son” Johnny Cash & Fiona Apple (2003): Despite my general apathy towards country music, I do love Johnny Cash, whether it’s his earlier music or the later incredible American Recordings albums he did with Rick Rubin. This song is nowhere near the best of Cash’s songs, but it’s on my list because the timing of the song (Cash died months after recording the song and his death) and Cash’s aging voice give the lyrics (advice from a father to a son) incredible power, especially as it ends with Cash singing “I know, I have to go.”
- “Just Breathe” Pearl Jam (2009): I added this beautiful song to the playlist relatively recently and it’s because it essentially shares a message to one I read in the book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck” by Mark Manson. In the book, Manson writes that “[c]onfronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life.” Similarly, in this song, Vedder acknowledges that death awaits us and that knowledge gives him both gratitude for what he has and reminds him of the important part of life, to be with the one he loves and to “just breathe.”
- “These Are The Days” Van Morrison (1989): I fell in love with this song the first time I heard at the end of the mediocre movie “Nine Months,” where Hugh Grant soothed his infant son to Van Morrison. When I heard the song, I was mostly struck by Van Morrison’s soulful voice, but over the years, I came to enjoy his message more. We need to be forget the past and be mindful of the present (“there is no past, there’s only future/there’s only here/there’s only now) and that we need to enjoy what we have while we can (“These are the days now that we must savour/And we must enjoy as we can”).
- “Closer To Fine” Indigo Girls (1989): My Sunday morning contemplation playlist ends with what is perhaps the ultimate contemplation song. The song, the Indigo Girl’s biggest hit, details the search for answers to life’s questions and the numerous sources to which we turn in that search, whether it be religion, science, philosophy, doctors, or even a bottle. The song notes that the different answers point “in a crooked line,” but the more open minded one is, and less demanding of a “definitive” answer, the closer to fine one will be.
Just as there can be more than one answer to a question, there can be many interpretations or opinions of a song or its meaning. Let me know what you think of these songs or the playlist as a whole in the comments below.