Here are my thoughts on the last “personal soundtrack” that I made as a bachelor. In trying to get this long-dormant blog series going again, I’ve realized that I’m currently about eight years behind real time. I’m not sure if I ever want to catch up to real time, since it’s easier to blog about the songs I loved at a certain point in my life when enough time has passed to put a bit of perspective on it. But, I hope to catch up to the point where I can write about this stuff before I completely forget why I picked the songs in the first place!
In with the New:
Rob Thomas (as a solo artist – appears previously with Matchbox Twenty)
Out with the Old:
Joseph Arthur (as a solo artist – appears later with Joseph Arthur & the Lonely Astronauts)
Listen on Spotify:
Christine and I drove up to Mount Wilson one day in June, when it was extremely overcast in L.A., and from the summit of the mountain, all we could see were clouds, as if the entire megalopolis had vanished. It’s an interesting place to explore – my Dad used to take me up there when I was a kid because he worked on the radio antennas and stuff. They have an observatory up there that you can tour, and some great viewpoints and trails leading into the hills below.
Where in the world is this?
1) “I Am an Illusion”, Rob Thomas (Something to Be, 2005)
It’s weird when you catch yourself undergoing a significant transformation in your personality, and when you compare the person you are now to the person you were familiar and comfortable with before, it can seem a bit surreal. I was discovering that year what I really like when faced with stress, emergencies, and a higher level of responsibility that I was used to. I realized that I didn’t respond to these things as my younger, more idealistic self would have assumed I would. And that really bugged me.
2) “Painless”, Mae (The Everglow, 2005)
I can still distinctly remember the day when Mae’s music first clicked with me. It was when Christine and I were driving up the 101 in mid-June, and I discovered as we passed by the windswept cliffs outside of Santa Barbara and the lush green hills of the wine country north of there, just how tailor-made The Everglow seemed to be for road trips. The conceit was that the album was some sort of child’s storybook, each song representing a chapter. But the situations describes in these songs revealed a lot of very grown-up hopes and worries. Much of it seemed to be a dialogue between a couple dealing with some serious monkey wrenches thrown into their relationship. “Painless” in particular connected with me, because in addition to its killer cascading piano riff, it spoke to a tendency to self-medicate and wall oneself off from stressful problems as if they didn’t even exist. I think the summer of that year was when I first recognized my own habit of doing these things when the stress piled up.
3) “Peculiar People”, MuteMath (Reset EP, 2004)
A bouncy electro-reggae collaboration between Mute Math and Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman. I could easily picture Earthsuit jamming on this one back in the day.
4) “Plenty of Paper”, Eisley (Room Noises, 2005)
Room Noises was probably my most frequent “escapist” listening experience that year. I didn’t even know what wacky songs like this were really about – playful young children pulling parts of the solar system out of the night sky and using them as fashion accessories, perhaps? – but the music may as well have been borrowed from the soundtrack to a Tim Burton movie.
5) “Saturday”, Olivia the Band (Olivia the Band, 2005)
“This is our home, this is North Shore.” Just a simple pop/punk song about life in Hawaii. Watching the band hang loose in the music video as the camera gives us a virtual tour of their hometown, Haleiwa, taps into a sentimental part of me that has come to see Hawaii as a second home. I don’t surf, and I sunburn alarmingly easily, but the never-ending pull of wanderlust deep within me seems to finally feel satiated when I set foot on the red dirt of a trail leading into the jagged hills of an island like Oahu.
6) “Tropical Ice-Land”, The Fiery Furnaces (EP, 2005)
Oh, those crazy Friedbergers! I didn’t realize that this song was loaded with drug references until years later. The zany indie-pop personality of this one is probably better appreciated on a surface level, just for being goofy, without worrying too much about what it all means.
7) “Little Superhero Girl”, Corrinne May (Safe in a Crazy World, 2005)
Corrinne’s second album was probably one my most highly anticipated new releases that year… a lot of her simple but earnest, coffeehouse-ish love songs had taken on deep personal meaning in our relationship, and I was looking forward to how her newest songs might serve as a backdrop for this new chapter in our lives. We managed to catch her album release show at The Mint in May, which is where the first signs of trouble appeared… despite the use of a live band, Corrinne’s music was now more produced and a lot of the backing tracks were coming from her iPod, as if to replicate the album versions as closely as possible. I didn’t really understand the reasons for the change, personally, and that made the album a bit of a disappointment to me, since a lot of the more organic acoustic stuff was gone and the songs overall weren’t as well-written. Still, I always loved the humorous approach that she took in this song, describing the pressures of grown-up life from the perspective of an overwhelmed woman who still feels like a little kid on the inside, having a heart big enough to want to save the whole world, but not knowing where to start. The Power Puff Girls were apparently an inspiration here.
8) “Fix You”, Coldplay (X&Y, 2005)
I think this was the big, nigh-inescapable Coldplay single that year. It hit all of the obvious notes and tear-jerking climactic movements that you’d expect from a power ballad, but the story behind it was pretty cool – Chris Martin wrote it to comfort his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, when her father died. The organ heard on the song was inherited from her late father. The idea of a man trying in vain to fix someone who had been broken down to the point of tears made me think that this would be a good theme song for the character Jack on LOST.
9) “All These Things that I’ve Done”, The Killers (Hot Fuss, 2004)
This may be the only Killers song that I’ve ever been able to take seriously. It might just be the best song they’ve ever written. Sure, there are others I might regard a little higher on the list for being ridicuously catchy, but most of those seem like they’re inherently silly on the surface and meant to be taken as such. Here, despite how much Brandon Flowers might have risked derailing me by repeating such a ridiculous line as as “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” twenty-odd times against the increasing wailing of a Gospel choir, I still have to admit he manages to make me feel some genuine sympathy for the guilt that he appears to be dealing with here.
10) “Love and Peace or Else”, U2 (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004)
A pacifist anthem as earnest as their 80s material, with a slinky electronic groove reminiscent of their 90s material! What’s not to to love?
11) “No One Like You”, David Crowder Band (Illuminate, 2003)
“Thereisnoonelikeyoutherehasneverbeenanyonelikeyouthereisnoonelikeyou – THERE – IS – NO – ONE – LIKE – OUR – GOOOOOOODDDDDDD, YEAH!” I sort of rediscovered this one a few years after the fact; it became a favorite of mine to use in small group worship for a while there. (Just for fun, go look up the remix of this one heard on Sunsets & Sushi, and then compare it to the Postal Service song “Such Great Heights”. Crowder was really flirting with a lawsuit on that one.)
12) “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Our Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! AHHHH!”, Sufjan Stevens (Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, 2005)
This one should be a contender for the “Most Hilarious Song Title Ever” award. I honestly wasn’t sure what Night of the Living Dead had to do with the history of the state of Illinois, but… killer bass line, killer background vocals, killer horns and strings, so who cares? Just one of a great many reasons why Illinois very quickly earned its place as my other favorite “escapist” album to listen to over and over that year… and for several years to come.
13) “Sarala”, Caedmon’s Call (Share the Well, 2004)
An American-born Indian girl visits India for the first time, and struggles to make sense of all the foreign sights and sounds and smells. I loved to try to sing along with Andrew Osenga’s harmony vocal instead of Cliff Young’s lead vocal on this one.
14) “Grey Stables”, Iron & Wine (Woman King EP, 2005)
This song always made me think of one of those old fairy tales, in which a lowly stable boy would fall in love with a woman of a higher station, someone who he could supposedly never be with. Sam Beam and his sister harmonize gorgeously here, but as pretty as the song is, there’s an element of illicit danger to it, as if the “grey lady” is carrying on some sort of an affair, trapped between the man she loves and the man she’s betrothed to. It’s all so abstractly stated that you could probably make up about six different stories here.
15) “Born”, Over the Rhine (Drunkard’s Prayer, 2005)
Most of Drunkard’s Prayer was an exercise in stripping back the sultry showiness intrinsic to OtR’s style, and laying bare the stark confessions of a marriage in peril. it was heavier stuff than I knew how to process at the time. But this song exemplified the album beautifully – nearly six minutes of the same four chords, and yet the simplicity revealed some serious layers of depth due to how skillfully Linford and Karin pulled it off. I was fortunate enough to see them perform this one live at the Knitting Factory with Kim Taylor that year – still regrettably the only OtR live show I’ve ever managed to catch. Those still, late nights spent with nothing but a few glasses of wine and some brutally honest conversation might not have been this couple’s most romantic moments, but being able to face those fears and frustrations without flinching is probably what saved their relationship.
16) “Thou Lovely Source of True Delight”, Jars of Clay (Redemption Songs, 2005)
Another very simple chord progression milked for all of the elegance it’s worth by way of a slow, sleepy, but soul-nourishing song. In this case, an obscure hymn with new life breathed into it, thanks to Jars’ delicate, pedal steel-drenched approach. I liked that these dusty old lyrics, with all of their “Thee”s and “Thou”s, were honest about feeling fear, complaining to God, and struggling to have true faith, yet relying on God as a source of emotional and spiritual stability that we don’t have to be perfect Christians to tap into. I would come back to this comforting hymn many times during that year’s many ups and downs.
Wedding stress started to mount as spring became summer. I was feeling it due to the rush to get invitations out and the lackluster response – even people who told us previously that they’d really like to go to Hawaii and celebrate with us were declining. We were also feeling a lot of financial pressure, especially after the various problems that my old Neon was having. Miraculously, the car held up when we decided to get away from it all for two days and take an overnight trip to San Luis Obispo. We spent the night at a KOA in nearby Santa Margarita, and in the morning before making our way back, we did a two-mile hike up Bishop Peak, which provided a nice panoramic view of SLO. It was the first time either of us had visited the town, and we both really enjoyed it.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Freedom to Feel”, John Reuben feat. Adrienne Camp (Professional Rapper, 2003)
Live drums and a creepy bass line gave this a lot more bite than Reuben’s more light-hearted fare. I think it’s common to fear what others in a community of Christians will think when you reach out to them during a moment of weakness. Will they hear you out as you divulge your worries and doubts and weaknesses, or will they grow distant because your honesty makes them uncomfortable? This is one of those filters that I often lacked, so I wouldn’t realize that spilling my guts about whatever stress I was going through could be alienating to fellow Christians. It’s possible that one can only learn through trial and error who their real brothers and sisters are in a time like that, and who is only a friend for purposes of “hanging out”. Being real with people doesn’t always mean you should divulge every single detail to absolutely everyone.
2) “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”, The Killers (Hot Fuss, 2004)
Back to the extremely catchy and patently ridiculous side of The Killers’ sound! Thankfully I did not have any life experiences that related in any way to the protagonist of this song denying (in suspiciously specific terms) that he killed his girlfriend. But the song proved to be perfect fodder for parody when I decided to write my own little theme song for the audacious, over-the-top lawyer drama Boston Legal. The title of my parody was “Denny Crane’s a Friend of Mine”.
3) “The Seduction”, He Is Legend (I Am Hollywood, 2004)
Speaking of over-the-top, this one took the cake with its aggressive, stalker-ish vibe and the kind of “Cookie monster” vocals that I normally abhorred in hard rock bands. Dressing it all up in some pretty sweet guitar antics and an earworm of a chorus melody probably helped. But the real kicker was the music video, which featured a puppet growling and headbanging to many of the lyrics.
4) “Holiday”, Green Day (American Idiot, 2004)
This one’s basically a big “neener neener” to the increasingly militant political climate that emerged in America during the Bush years. A lot of my beliefs were in flux at the time, and I often found myself disgusted with the way folks who I thought were on “my side” of an issue would try to win out over the other side not through reason, but by shouting them down and launching low-blow personal attacks. Of course, I was raised to believe that only the other side resorted to such tactics. In truth, there are plenty on the “liberal” side of the equation (which Green Day obviously leans toward) who are just as obnoxious as those on the “conservative” side. But to me, this song was about being sick of it all and just pointing out how ridiculous the ongoing culture war had become. There had to be a more constructive way to discuss politics than this.
5) “Stumble and Pain”, Joseph Arthur (Our Shadows Will Remain, 2004)
Man, I must have been trying to get all the dark stuff out of my system so that it wouldn’t cause mood whiplash later in the mix. This one’s slow, brooding, just acidic enough in its tone to make you worry slightly for the songwriter, and most notably, it’s got a killer mix of trashy beats and dramatic strings. Arthur’s music has always been hit-and-miss for me, but he really tapped into something compelling with this album that he’s never quite been able to replicate since then.
6) “Square One”, Coldplay (X&Y, 2005)
And here we get the mood whiplash anyway, despite my attempts to minimize the damage. Ah well, at least it’s a somewhat energetic synth/rock song to bridge the angry stuff and the introspective stuff. There’s a feeling of starting fresh that I get from listening to this song – casting off the ashes and sackcloth of a bitter, mournful persona and optimistically embracing a wide open future full of unknowns. Which is probably a cliché that a ton of rock albums have started off with, but at least here it’s a cliché done well.
7) “Let It All Out”, Relient K feat. John Davis (Mmhmm, 2004)
This was definitely the most mellow, mature, and surprising song that Relient K had come up with, up to that point. It was notable for how seamlessly it flowed out of the highly aggressive “Which to Bury, Us or the hatchet” that preceded it; here the contrast isn’t as striking, but it still represents a moment of vulnerability, just stopping to admit a moment of weakness and to cry out for help. I love how beautifully the band glides through this one, despite the piano ballad style being so foreign to them and the time signature changes between the verse and chorus. The string arrangement is gorgeous without being overbearing, and the vocal harmonies are a great use of John Davis’s and the entire band’s talents.
8) “I Wasn’t Prepared”, Eisley (Room Noises, 2005)
The weird imagery in this sad, wobbly little song sort of enables me to look at one of my fears from afar. It’s implied here that a young woman lost someone she loves to a swarm of bees, which is all kinds of spooky if you’ve ever seen My Girl, or if you’re like me and are actually allergic to bee stings. But the song is beautiful in its state of mourning. As Christine and I emerged at the top of that trail to Bishop Peak, and I struggled to catch my breath while surveying the San Luis Obispo cityscape, I suddenly became aware of a bee landing on me, and I thought for a second that it had stung me, and there was a brief moment of panic until I realized it hadn’t. I wasn’t quite sure what we would have done in such an emergency, a good two miles or so from the nearest road by foot. But then any other time I’ve been stung, the swelling has been entirely local, so I probably shouldn’t panic so much about it. Unless I manage to anger a swarm of killer bees or something.
9) “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”, Sufjan Stevens (Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, 2005)
Continuing on the bee theme is this similarly beautiful song in which Sufjan plays the role of… a young girl scout? Again there’s a story about a young friend and lover getting stung several times. In this case, I think he survives, and the ordeal just cements their feelings for each other. I get so caught up in all of the woodwinds fluttering about like busy insects during this song that I kind of lose track of the story most of the time.
10) “Dance, Dance Christa Päffgen”, Anberlin (Never Take Friendship Personal, 2005)
Okay, I knew all along that this one was about drugs. But I didn’t know for quite a while that it was a tribute to Nico, a model/singer possibly best known for her association with Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, and apparently for doing her fair share of drugs. The song – which began Anberlin’s tradition of capping off their albums with epic finales – remains upbeat and takes a tone of admiration despite describing a tragic figure, as if to say, “Who needs drugs when you can be in the presence of someone this intoxicating?” Since I was big LOST fanatic at the time, this song reminded me of the relationship between Charlie and Claire on that show (him being a recovering heroin addict and all).
11) “All that I Am”, Rob Thomas (Something to Be, 2005)
This song was a beautiful experiment, full of lush, exotic bells and strings that sounded like they came from some remote part of the Orient, definitely one of the stronger examples of Thomas stretching his wings apart from the stylistic confines of Matchbox Twenty. There was a sense of vulnerability and devotion that I admired, as a man preparing to take on the lifelong challenge of marriage – I may not have felt like I had much to give, but I wanted to give all that I could to protect and care for someone I loved.
12) “Time Enough for Tears”, The Corrs (Borrowed Heaven, 2004)
This one was more of a showtune than a “band” song – it probably would have made more sense for Andrea Corr to save it for her solo album, but it was beautiful either way and it did benefit from having her sisters provide the gorgeous backing vocals. It was co-written with Bono and Gavin Friday, and despite sounding like sentimental schmaltz on the surface, I thought it was an incredibly comforting and intimate song, depicting a certain amount of stoic resolve that a couple had to weather the absolute worst that life could thrown at them, and not let it ruin the joy and romance that they had found together. Sometimes I have a difficult time focusing on the good parts of life when some other aspect of it is stressing me out – and then that stress eats into the events and the people that I should be freely enjoying at the times when I’m supposed to be taking a break from the stressful stuff. I’m kind of “all or nothing” in that sense, and this song was sort of a reminder to myself not to be such a perfectionist about it.
13) “Beautiful Redemption”, Joy Williams (Genesis, 2005)
It can be quite a shock to go back to Joy’s squeaky clean, CCM pop days when I’m used to her now as one-half of the stripped-down folk duo The Civil Wars. Genesis was an attempt on her part to stand out as an artist beyond just the teenybopper stuff, and most of it didn’t really convince me, but I thought this song was just breathtaking. The way she relates to different people who knew Jesus personally, and who let Him down in some way or felt shame in His presence, but were loved and redeemed nonetheless, shows a bit more depth in the songwriting. And I think this one hits just the right balance between the candy-coated pop stuff and the more sublime, layered, smatly produced stuff. The piano melody is just infectious. Listening to this one, I get happy memories of a late evening drive back from our first trip to Santa Barbara together, the sun setting into the Pacific in my rear view mirror as we pass underneath the steep sea cliffs.
14) “Open Skies (Dirty Beats Mix)”, David Crowder Band (Sunsets and Sushi EP, 2005)
Here, a celebratory major-key worship song is given a moody, trancelike, minor-key groove. It changes the mood of the song from “happy party” to “awestruck wonder”. Actually, a lot of my favorite worship songs operate in the latter mode. Songs that can work either way are rare.
15) “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand”, Jars of Clay feat. the Blind Boys of Alabama (Redemption Songs, 2005)
One thing that I loved about Redemption Songs was how in covering some of the old hymns and spirituals, the band unabashedly leaned toward country and bluegrass influences without losing their personality in the process. This song about being bounded for the Promised Land, with its delicious mandolin and fiddle solos, almost sounded like it could have been recorded by Nickel Creek. Except that there was a Gospel group on background vocals. That added a whole other multicultural dimension to it, which I loved.
16) “Dalit Hymn”, Caedmon’s Call (Share the Well, 2004)
I definitely cheated by ending with this one – it violated my usual rule that my mixes can’t start with an album’s first track or end with its last. Since Share the Well had two hidden tracks, I figured I could get away with it here, since the actual song wasn’t the end of the album. Thematically, there was nowhere else that it would have worked, other than to put it with the contemplative stuff at the end of the disc – it paired well with “Jordan” in the sense that it was a Western folk/rock group making music with someone entirely outside of their genre. In this case, Caedmon’s Call had recruited several Dalit musicians that they had met during the mission trip to India that inspired their album, to play percussion and sing background vocals in their native language, on a song that begs for equal treatment and respect for a group of people seen as the lowest caste in their country. When we all cross that river into the Promised Land, these differences will no longer divide us. It’s easy to embrace that idea from a far away perspective, figuring it’ll all work itself out in the afterlife – but it’s much harder to actually behave like it’s true when you’re born into a position of privilege here on Earth.