I may have said this before, but a large part of my life’s journey over the last 20 years has been analyzing what the media we consume says about us. Each of us is obviously more than the sum of what they’ve read, watched, or listened to, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a hell of a lot of those films, books, and albums tied into the bundle of molecules that makes up who were are. Whether it’s that record you heard at your first college party or the movie you remember watching over and over again with your father as a little kid, this seemingly disposable media is anything but…
Especially when you’re not in the most optimal mental or emotional state. That’s when you turn to those things the resonate closest to you, that help you reinforce and re-align your identity with yourself. For years I’ve kept an ever-expanding list of songs and albums under a playlist simply titled “Self Definition.” It’s my lifeline for when the water gets too choppy, for when things seems to fall in on themselves in such a way you feel like you’re buried under a million things that won’t let you breathe, let you be heard. And since the past few weeks have felt like to me, I wanted to take this edition of Nine Circles ov… to share some of those tracks that get me through the dark and remind me in a note or a chord or lyric of who I am. Let’s dive in…
“(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” – Elvis Costello, My Aim is True
I was 18 when my friend Mike gave me a Memorex cassette with Costello’s My Aim is True on one side and This Year’s Model on the other, and I was immediately hooked by the mix of snarky humor and narrative sentiment in the lyrics combined with Costello’s incredible knack for vocal melodies. The things Costello can do with the twist of a lyric are devastating. This was also the first time I was introduced to how sequencing can change the entire feel of an album – Mike starts the album with “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Shoes” and plays in order until “Waiting for the End of the World” before going back to the beginning and playing the remaining songs, ending with the essential “Watching the Detectives.” To this day it’s the only way I’ll listen to the album, one of my favorites of all time.
“Everything” – Anathema, We’re Here Because We’re Here
Everything comes together in “Everything” – the incredible vocal mix between Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, the way the piano takes that dramatic turn after the first chorus as the drums pick up and finally crash into the second verse. It wouldn’t matter what they’re singing (although what they’re singing is beautiful to my ears); the real trick of “Everything” lies in the way the chorus winds in on itself, both lyrically and musically with the notes resolving in a circle. In that way the song does something to me the best of bands like the Cure can do: move me to tears not with a word but a note choice. It’s powerful and never fails to remind me there’s a light burning somewhere, even if in the moment it’s too dark to see. “Everything is energy” indeed…
“Gift” – Sugar, File Under: Easy Listening
Those two power chords. B to D. So simple, but played such a fire and conviction that it boggles the mind. Throw into the mix one the greatest voices in indie rock in Bob Mould and you have a recipe that will never not leave me shaking and banging my head. The way Mould plays with vocal harmonies is reminiscent of what Torche would bring to the metal table with their first three albums. As the guitars ramp up their feedback and the drums hit louder and louder you never fail to hear the hook in the song. The note he hits when he sings the word “gift” in the line “It’s how / I give this GIFT to you / It doesn’t seem like much but it’s the best that I could do” is sublime and pierces my heat.
“Skyscraper” – Bad Religion, Recipe for Hate
Bad Religion is the sound of my college experience. Recipe for Hate came out in 1993 and was touted around campus because the single “American Jesus” had Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam singing background vocals on it. But it was one of the last songs that really stuck with me. “Skyscraper” may not be the most accessible song lyric-wise, but you would never know that from how amazing the background harmony vocals are. I’ve always loved how the band would always credit the “oohs and aahs” in their liner notes, and in “Skyscraper” they crafted a monument of how you can be ridiculously fast, heavy, and tuneful at the same time. It’s a crusher that never fails to make me sing along.
“He Was a Big Freak” – Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different
My love for 60s and 70s funk, soul, and R&B know no bounds. Betty Davis was a more recent discovery, but her snarling voice feels like it’s been inside my head for decades. Married for a time to Miles Davis, this comes off her 1974 album They Say I’m Different and was the first track I’d ever heard from her. There’s nothing subtle or hidden in the track: it’s a nasty, funky, dirty track about a dude who was a, well…a big freak and all the things Betty would do to him. She owns every part of her self in the vocal performance: it’s fierce and free and unencumbered by any sense of propriety. Musically it’s just as dirty and nasty, with members of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix’s bands ripping through the changes like oiled wire.
“Sanzen” – Dredg, El Cielo
“Sanzen” is a perfect example of how a chorus can overwhelm everything else in a song. “Hold on / hold on / We’ll be with you soon.” I can barely remember the other lyrics or their meaning when that chorus hits and Gavin Hayes’s soaring vocals take over. It works in a similar fashion to Anathema’s “Everything” but here the tone is one of resignation even as the message is seemingly positive. The guitars and drums all work in this dream-like atmosphere to give the song a weightless, floating feel that work wonders on restoring some semblance of self.
“Wake Up Dead” – Megadeth, Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?
I didn’t want you to think this list was going to be totally devoid of metal! I could point to at least a dozen better Megadeth songs, and even better Megadeth albums, but none have that collection of killer riffs, and none have that moment at 2:38…that chopped up, reversed blast of evil, the tapping coming in soon after with a solo rivaling anything the band had done or would do going forward. I don’t know if there’s ever been a better moment in the band’s discography.
“Down on the Street” – The Stooges, Funhouse
One of the maxims I try to live by when it comes to music is that everyone has their tastes – nothing is bad to the person that likes something. So I try not impose absolutes on anything I like, preferring to emphasize these are my thoughts on a given band or album. That being said, The Stooges’ Funhouse is the greatest rock record of all time. if I had to argue the point, I would just play “Down on the Street” which opens the album at full volume and DARE you not to feel the electricity course down your body, causing you to shake in fits and starts like Iggy does in his performances. If you’ve heard the excellent Terminal album by the Finnish metal band Circle (check it here) there’s a nice quote to the album as well. Just goes to show you how universal kick ass rock music can be.
“Inca Roads” – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, One Size Fits All
“Was it round? / And did it have / a motor? / Or was it / Something / Different?” Take away the puerile humor and sarcasm (although do that and you’re missing a vital piece of the conceptual continuity, as the man would say), take away mustache and the things you think represent Frank Zappa, you would still have in my mind one of the greatest composers, guitar players, and kick-ass band leaders who ever lived. In just over eight minutes “Inca Roads” captures everything I love about Zappa’s music – the intricate arrangement, the deep inside baseball references, both lyrically and musically, but most importantly the sheer insanity of how tight his bands were, and how they could change tempo, style, time signatures on a dime and hold it together in a way that each performance of the song varies wildly while still holding together as a singular entity. Frank Zappa was the musician that blew my mind at 17 when I first heard him, and he continues to this day to be the artist that syncs with my own unique circadian rhythms.
If wasn’t already readily apparent, music – ALL music – is vital to the way I live. Going through these songs and picking out one to represent me in this article was painful: I could have gone on for days – my Self Definition playlist currently sits at 7,592 songs. Doing something like this can be a little self indulgent, so I appreciate you getting this far with me. But what I really want to get out of this post is the sense that we all have things we turn to when we need comfort, or release, or just that kick in the ass to take another step and move forward. I’ve shared some of mine, and I’m genuinely curious to hear what some of yours are. Let’s all build a Self Definition playlist.
Seriously, I want to hear what helps you in the dark unknown. Share away, either in the the comments or online with me (I have a proper profile now with social media links, go me!)