Happy December. Are you still here? Did your November treat you well? I spent most of mine in a haze, peering anxiously out of the window and pacing around the living room muttering ideas, sentences, and dialogue to myself. Phrases like, “What if this character did this…” or “but that doesn’t make sense because of that…” or “how does that stay true to the central theme…” and finally “THEMES ARE FOR 8TH GRADE BOOK REPORTS DIDN’T THE GAME OF THRONES ASSHOLES TEACH YOU ANYTHING?” All of this while shuffling a footpath around the couch and coffee table, my dog snoring on her pillow and my cats observing with their ears perked and eyes wide. They’re attuned to my eccentricities. They’ve seen me fall apart before.
I don’t think I’m losing my mind; I think I’m losing pieces of it.
If writing is like sex, then self-editing is spectatoring and I can’t go longer than twenty minutes without worrying if I’m doing something wrong. It helps to put on music (while writing, that is), and I’ll find a lo-if playlist on Spotify to get into the groove. Aside from being background noise, music closes the void before it can swallow me whole. The aching loneliness of doubt fades with just a few bars of a favorite song and suddenly, I’ve got two pages written and two hours done for the day.
My musical taste has not varied over the years. I was born in the early 1980s and raised a lower middle-class child from Detroit, so the bulk of my upbringing consisted of hip hop and 90’s alternative. I don’t stray much from those genres today, and living in Atlanta, I don’t have to. Spotify released its Your 2020 Wrapped lists and — surprise, surprise — I listened to virtually nothing new this year. In college, I had a brief dalliance with indie/folksy stuff, but we’ve mostly parted ways except for the occasional nostalgic hookup. I’m not an expert in any music, so don’t come at me with your accusations of “Oh, so you listened to THAT band when you were younger? NAME ALL THEIR MEMBERS including the ones who were in the band BEFORE they signed with Columbia!” I’m not going to know that level of trivium and I don’t care about it. Music is just music to me. I enjoy it and I move on.
But what I do have are ten songs that I go to for comfort when I need them — for writing, for anxiety, for fun, or for grounding. They’re the Album of Me, the songs I’ve heard and loved and would tell you without question are the ten songs that explain me (even though they’re certainly not about me in any way).
I have them in the order I want, the music video if one exists, a sample lyric, plus an explanation of why I picked them.
10. “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore
Sample lyrics: “And don’t tell me what to do/don’t tell me what to say/and please when I go out with you/don’t put me on display…”
One may not look to 1963 for too many Female Empowerment Anthems, but from the first time Lesley Gore coos, you don’t own me in the opening line, I swell with solidarity. We assume Gore is singing about breaking a relationship with another man given the line “don’t say I can’t go with other boys,” but it could mean a business dealing too. She feels trapped in whatever her relationship is, and every time the chorus rises she chides her owners for encasing her when she does nothing of the sort to them.
I hear you and see you, Lesley.
9. “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison
Sample lyrics: “So I’m back up in the game/running things to keep my swing/letting all the people know/that I’m back to run the show.”
I’ll refrain from making puns on my last name with this one because it’s one of the coolest songs ever. Put this song on at any 90’s-themed dance party and watch people get out of their chairs and start swinging their shoulders. The beat is easy without being lazy; the lyrics defiant without being cocky. Morrison vows to come back after a relationship setback and we believe him because he’s so insistent (how many “you know that I’ll be back” declarations are there in this song?).
But this song sits with me because I don’t know the scope of his heartbreak or if I really believe it. Was he cheated on, or did his girl leave him because she was tired of waiting around for him to make it? The vocal break would tell me the latter, but he’s more focused on announcing his return than going over the details of the pain. Maybe that makes him a class act or maybe that makes him dodgy. But he tried, tried, tried.
8. “Pretty Penny” by Stone Temple Pilots
Sample lyrics: “Gone/Pretty Penny was her name/she was loved and we all will miss her.”
Watching the frontmen of favorite bands from our childhoods die over the years isn’t the single contributing factor to Millennial depression, but it doesn’t help. Scott Weiland’s death, in front of another favorite (spoiler alert), reminded me that my parents’ favorite bands also had frontmen that died way too young and that one day I might outlive them.
Anyway, Pretty Penny isn’t the best or best known song off STP’s “Purple.” It’s haunting and low tempo. It meanders and swirls and you get lost in its mystery. Who is Penny? A mother, a sister, someone loved, someone missed. Some days I listen to this song and I’m the audience and other days I feel like Penny — when you wake in the morning gone.
7. “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” by Spin Doctors
Sample lyrics: “Other people’s thoughts, they ain’t your hand-me-downs/Would it be so bad to simply turn around?”
When we were children, my cousin had a Sega Genesis and he wouldn’t let me play Sonic 2 or 3 with him. He said he worked way too hard to get to certain levels and was afraid that I’d mess it up. Begrudgingly, I accepted this, but I told his mom (my aunt). She freaked out and said, “You share your video games with everyone or I’ll take it away!” Being the older one of us, I smirked and gloated, and my cousin responded by relegated me to the position of Mile “Tales” Prowler, the orange fox who could do virtually nothing but passively collect rings while Sonic did most of the work. To get back at him, I bossed him around when we played other games: “NOW WE’RE PLAYING OFFICE! I’M THE BOSS AND YOU’RE MY EMPLOYEE! GO GET ME COFFEE!”
This continued for 45 minutes — me, ordering him around, having him bring me books, rearranging books, then listening to me read the books to him — all until he got fed up and marched back over to the Sega to play more. I shrieked, “WE’RE NOT DONE PLAYING!” and he shouted back “YES WE ARE!” until we had a fight and my aunt broke us up. Later, she took us for ice cream and Spin Doctors’ “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” spun up on the radio. Sayeth my cousin, “Ha, ‘little miss can’t be wrong’ — that’s you, Nina.”
I pretended to be offended, but at 11 years old, it was a badge of honor. At 36, I’ve yet to live that down.
6. “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden
Sample lyrics: “Hang my head, drown my fear/Till you all just disappear”
I’m not going to lie; this one hurts. The morning I found out Chris Cornell died, I crawled out of bed, wandered into the bathroom, slumped against the tub and ugly cried. Not two weeks before, I fulfilled a childhood dream and saw Soundgarden perform live — live — in Tuscaloosa, AL. I got to see Black Hole Sun sung in real life. It meant the world to me, and now the voice of Soundgarden was gone forever. I mourned with so many fans that day and played the entirety of Soundgarden’s discography over the next few days.
Why “Black Hole Sun” though? Surely there are better, harder, faster songs — “Rusty Cage,” “Spoonman,” “My Wave,” and “Outshined” to name just a few. “Black Hole Sun” is the amateur’s choice, you might say. Name any Soundgarden song and of course the novice would pick “Black Hole Sun!” Of course, I’ll retort. For me, it was a novice’s introduction to alternative 90’s rock. For me, music was Lite FM until I came home from school one afternoon, switched on MTV, and saw this music video. My musical tastes changed for good and I owe it to this song.
No one sings like you anymore, Mr. Cornell.
5. “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie
Sample Lyrics: “If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks/Then I’ll follow you into the dark”
Put this up there with one of the few songs that brings me to tears every time I hear it. Occasionally, when I go back and listen to DCFC’s “Plans” I’ll skip it just so I don’t end up bawling. Goddamn it, I’m crying now. Moving on.
4. “Possum Kingdom” by Toadies
Sample lyrics: “I’m not gonna lie/I want you for mine/My blushing bride”
I’m reminded how wonderful the internet is only when its intended purpose — a hub for all the world’s knowledge — comes into use for me. From middle school to high school, I heard “Possum Kingdom” dozens of times, sang along with it in car rides with friends, without ever knowing its name or who sang it. Then, in my twenties, it popped into my head while driving home one evening and I thought, Oh that’s right — the internet exists now. I got home, Googled the lyrics, and had my answer.
This song is dark and creepy. It could be about a serial killer or some ethereal being offering a young woman eternal life in exchange for her soul. When I was a kid, I thought it was about Thumbelina; Don Bluth’s version of Thumbelina to be specific. It’s incongruous title doesn’t offer any suggestions (though Genius goes into more details). Still, this song is fun to sing. It begins with growling threats to make up your mind. The last minute explodes with multiple demands of do you wanna die? before cries for Jesus fade out.
Put this song on at any karaoke party and watch the 90’s kids straighten up and scream out, Give it up to me in unison (myself included).
3. “Hypnotize” by Notorious B.I.G.
Sample lyrics: “I put hoes in NY onto DKNY / Miami, D.C. prefer Versace / All Philly hoes go with Moschino / Every cutie with a booty bought a Coogi”
A white girl from metro Detroit has no place to weigh in on East Coast vs West Coast rap. But until Eminem came around and put Detroit on the map, the closest thing we had to representation was Biggie shouting “MY DETROIT PLAYAS!” when “Hypnotize” came on MTV. Ergo, I’m a bit East-leaning.
Though I had listened to rap well before “Hypnotize,” I had never heard someone with skill like Biggie. At a middle school dance, this song came on and everyone got off the wall. In high school, kids got in trouble for grinding to it (I wasn’t there and didn’t participate in said grinding). Biggie’s rhyme scheme is so effortless it’s easy to forget Puff Daddy’s in there punctuating a near perfect song with his incessant “uhs,” “yeahs,” “that’s rights” and “come ons.” Mad respect to Diddy today for his incredible empire-building, but my god those drop-ins are tedious.
The chorus lauds, “Sometimes your words just hypnotize me.” It’s a prescient observation — the flow of this song is hypnotizing: pink gators, Detroit players, hooligans in Brooklyn, dead right, head right — bouncing like ping pong until I’ve forgotten we’ve come to the end of each verse. It’s a song I can hear hundreds of times over the years and still feel fresh.
2. “Walk” by Pantera
Sample lyrics: “Be yourself by yourself/stay away from me”
When you see me in public, back rigid, rictus smile on my face, eyes wide and alarmed, trying to force myself to get through uncomfortable social situations of which I am not familiar, one of two thoughts are going through my head. The first is a white horse galloping on a beach (it’s an old childhood stabilizer I used to keep from throwing up when I got nauseous). The second is this song.
I’m a very polite, courteous person. Dignity and social niceties mean a lot to me. But I don’t express my anger healthily. I ball it up, squish it down, and swallow it whole until my insides turn black and firey. If I were a cartoon character, the animation would zoom in on my brain and there would be a cartoon wolverine in a tiny one-room apartment clawing the absolute shit out of the walls, furniture, and curtains. “Walk” would be the song playing in that cartoon apartment’s background.
“One step from lashing out at you,” promises Phil Anselmo. Backed up by the late Dimebag Darrell’s menacing, thundering guitar, the promise becomes a threat with the repeated lines of re-spect! WALK! But it’s not frightening; it’s empowering. Inspiring even. Every person, stranger, or family member that ever flaked on me, talked shit, or just got on my nerves becomes persona non grata. Get out of my way, stay out of my way, and we won’t have problems. Walk on home, boy.
Before I get to number 1, I want to list a couple honorable mentions.
- “The Longest Time” by Billy Joel: The first album I ever heard all the way through was “An Innocent Man.” That was my mom’s doing. We used to sing the songs together while she drove me around town, running errands. Don’t underestimate the power of acapella.
- “Break Stuff” by Limp Bizkit: Shut up. Just shut the fuck up. Don’t lie to me and tell me the opening rifts don’t straighten your spine, too. It’s nowhere near as good as “Walk” so it got bumped.
- “If” by Janet Jackson: I’m too embarrassed to put a sex song on here. But I have an entire Spotify playlist called Sex Songs that are just sex-themed or sexy songs and this is near the top. One day I will march out from a doorway covered in scarves, then do a complicated choreographed dance routine.
- “Criminal” by Fiona Apple: If I ever sang karaoke (which I don’t), this would be my go to song.
Ok, now that’s over. Number 1 on this list is:
1. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” by Elton John
Sample lyrics: “It’s four o’clock in the morning, damn it/listen to me good/I’m sleeping with myself tonight/saved in time/thank god my music’s still alive”
Along with “An Innocent Man,” I heard “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” scores of times in my early childhood thanks to my mother’s own nostalgia for her own past. She, an Elton John fan, loved singing along with this cassette tape and telling me stories about herself when she was a girl. “I danced with a boy to this song,” she said. “It was really special.” Strange how this song, the pall of a suicide attempt embedded into its lyrics, can conjure feelings of joy for one person. I would liken it to “Every Breath You Take” played at weddings. While I don’t get immediate feelings of joy (though I’m not unhappy thinking about singing along to this song with my mother) about this song, I don’t associate this song with suicide.
Instead, I project my own depression, a mental health issue I’ve struggled with for most of my life. No, this song isn’t about me. No, this isn’t my struggle. But nevertheless, I feel the pain and I can’t help but apply it to myself. “You almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you dear? You nearly had me roped and tied, altar-bound, hypnotized.” Elton John is addressing his fiancé, but I’m addressing my Dark Passenger. “You’re a butterfly and butterflies are free to fly,” might have been intended for the call of defeat; but I feel the pull of recovery.
There you have it. Ten songs across several genres, creating the compilation album that is me. It’s a jarring yet accurate soundtrack of a good portion of my life, culminating to now.