This is part three of a series chronicling each year of my life as viewed through the lens of a song that was meaningful to me in some way that represents a significant aspect of my life experience in that year. This segment covers the third decade of my life. Be sure to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 first.
1998: “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer
Sixpence became one of the biggest one-hit wonders of the late 90s with this song. I’m sure pretty much all of you know it, whether you want to or not. But I was actually familiar with it before it became a mainstream hit. (*Puts on hipster glasses*) I’d gotten into the band when I bought their previous album This Beautiful Mess, which was much darker and more brooding than you might expect from hearing a song like this. Even on their self-titled record that “Kiss Me” came from, it felt like an odd fit with the mostly downbeat, cerebral material surrounding it. I knew from reading reviews in magazines like CCM and Christian music sites I was starting to read on a semi-regular basis that they’d recorded a playful song with this title, and back in those days when I couldn’t preview albums before buying them, I took a chance on the record largely because I wanted to hear this one song. There aren’t a lot of “Christian” songs about kissing, after all. In October of 1998, I had finally grown close enough to a fellow student at Occidental whom I had been getting to know since the beginning of my junior year, that I was willing to take that step of making the relationship official – and she had liked me long before I had realized I had feelings for her, so I was really the only one holding us back up until that point. It’s a bit contrived, how I not only planned to have this song show up on a mixtape for her right after two songs that kind of served as “theme songs” for each of us individually, but how I also planned down to the day when that fateful moment would happen, because I wanted us to share a dating anniversary with some good friends of ours who had been dating for a few years at that point. In hindsight, maybe hijacking someone else’s special day wasn’t such a great idea. But I knew they’d be happy for us to finally get together. That was my first serious relationship, lasting for over 2 1/2 years. And while it ultimately didn’t work out, I’m grateful for the things I got to learn from that much-belated experience. It’s quaint that I experienced my first kiss at age 20, right? I feel like most teenagers experience a great deal more than that a whole lot earlier. In retrospect, since my desire was more for genuine companionship and romance than just the physical stuff that I figured was supposed to symbolize the emotional stuff, I’m fine with being a late bloomer.
1999: “Murlough Bay” by Iona
“And here at last, I’m on my own with you.” This song, named after a beautiful place in Northern Ireland that was special to lead singer Joanne Hogg and her husband, is one of the most intimately romantic and spiritual songs that I’ve ever heard. You can imagine it’s about a couple spending some much needed alone time in a mystical far-off place, or about someone encountering God in that special place, or maybe both. I listened to it a lot during the second summer I spent working at an InterVarsity camp called Campus By the Sea out on Catalina Island, since to me that was a place of seclusion where I intentionally sought out a lot more “quiet time” to pray and journal than I did in my everyday life on the mainland. I’m cheating a bit by choosing it to represent the year 1999, as the song was originally released on the album Beyond These Shores in 1993, but Iona did an orchestral version for their live album Woven Cord in 1999, so I got yet another reminder at the end of the year of just how much the song meant to me. The name of this song would later inspire the handle “murlough23” that I typically use as my screen name online, and I ultimately chose it as the song for me and my wife to slow dance at (however awkwardly) at our wedding in 2005. Perhaps one day, when our travels finally take us overseas, we will make a pilgrimage to that special bay.
2000: “Sorry” by Five O’Clock People
I was asked not too long ago to name my favorite breakup song, and after going through a long list of candidates, some of which were chart-topping angsty rockers, I ultimately chose this obscure tune. Even though it’s about a man admitting rather defeatedly that the time has come for he and his lover to part ways, the breakup aspect of it wasn’t what initially drew me to the song. What it reminds me of was the summer of 2000, a period of about two months that I initially dreaded due to my girlfriend getting an internship at the lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico, while I was stuck in L.A., all by my lonesome. I was dealing with my second bout with depression that year because the transition out of college and into full-time career life had not been easy for me, and being apart from her for a few months seemed like it was going to make that even harder at first. But when I look back at that summer, I see a veritable explosion of new avenues in my life that I was excited to explore. I had just gotten my first car, and now that I could drive anywhere I wanted to at any time, I had taken up hiking as a hobby, and it was great to have mellower, more cerebral music like Five O’Clock People’s slower-paced take on alternative folk/rock to contemplate on those hikes. I hung out a lot that summer with a mutual friend of mine and my girlfriend’s who was one of her sorority sisters and was actually renting out her room at the Zeta house while my girlfriend was gone for the summer. This was close enough to where I lived in Pasadena that it was easy for the mutual friend and I to tag up for meals or gaming sessions or outdoor excursions. This friend was possibly even more of a music geek than I was, and knowing that I liked Five Iron Frenzy, she had stumbled across Five O’Clock People due to mis-remembering the name of the band I had recommended to her. We both became fascinated with the unintentional purchase this led to – their lone full-length album The Nothing Venture. It got to the point where, if she had it on in the background while we were hanging out talking or playing computer games or whatever, she would shush me in the middle of track two just to take in the aching beauty of this song’s violin solo. I think of the joy of new discovery and the feeling that the boundaries previously placed on my life had suddenly been lifted, whenever I hear this song. I learned to enjoy being by myself more that summer, and investing in platonic friendships that didn’t have the goal of dating in mind, because I was already satisfied in that department, and in general just to not be so needy. Just because I had a girlfriend didn’t mean that I needed her by my side at all times or else the experiences I had without her would be categorically less happy. (Though my girlfriend and I did get to see some beautiful places together when I visited her in New Mexico over the 4th of July weekend.) In a way, that newfound sense of confidence and contentedness I found made our breakup the following summer at least a little bit easier to deal with.
2001: “In the End” by Linkin Park
As mentioned in the 2000 entry, my girlfriend and I actually broke up in the summer of 2001. I was not ready for it, though mostly because I’d been in denial of how increasingly dysfunctional our relationship had become, as she prepared to graduate from Occidental and move on to bigger and better things like grad school that I was selfishly worried might not leave room in her schedule for me, or that might even take her far away from Southern California. She saw the end coming long before I did, and were it not for my prodding her to tell me what was really bothering her on that fateful July afternoon, she might have waited a few more weeks or months to drop that truth bomb on me, for all I know. We honestly both should have been mature enough to realize it wasn’t working months earlier, but sometimes two people who had once felt the giddy high of young love together can end up fighting in futility to keep something going that isn’t really worth the fight. Looking back at “In the End”, which became a colossal hit as Linkin Park amassed an audience of fans who were mostly younger and angstier than I was, I can see how it’s about a lot more than just a breakup. In the wake of Chester Bennington’s suicide last year, it became apparent that he could have been dealing with his personal demons and fending off the desire to just end it all a lot sooner than any of us had fully realized. So I don’t want to narrow the scope of what this song could be about by describing it as a breakup song. But for better or worse, Hybrid Theory was my breakup soundtrack that year, and this was the one song that felt like it went a few steps beyond the anger and really tried to get to the bottom of what went wrong in a situation that had come to a tragic end. As much as it’s handy to have angry songs to vent frustration when I’m at a low point in my life – and the back half of 2001 sure felt like a conga line of the lowest of all the lows I would ever feel in my lifetime – the songs I’m most intrigued by tend to be the post-mortems that try, however much sadness and despair they may still be fighting off, to glean some wisdom while rummaging through the ashes.
2002: “Million Pieces (Kissin’ Your Cares Goodbye)” by Newsboys
When I compare 2001 to 2002, it’s like looking at a grimy, dimly lit monitor, and then suddenly wiping it clean and turning the brightness and contrast WAY up. I was happy in the summer of 2002, because I had fallen in love again, this time with a young woman from Hawaii, who would be the woman I ended up marrying a few years later. We had met online in January, and struggled to figure out, as we visited each other in our natural habitats and realized we had genuine feelings for each other that lasted beyond the novelty of “Hey, I met someone cute who I had some fun Instant Messenger conversations with on the Internet!”, how the heck we were gonna make this long-distance relationship worth. We were excited, but the obstacles before us seemed almost insurmountable. I’m a worrier by nature, so often times, if I don’t have a solid plan in place for how I’m going to address the unknowns ahead of me, it can be hard for me to live in the moment and focus on the things that are already going well. This song was a much-needed reminder to give those worries over to God and to not take what was going so well for us thus far for granted. For me, it was the highlight of the Newsboys’ set at the Christian music festival FishFest in Irvine that summer, which was the first concert we ever attended together. I had bought her a plane ticket to come visit L.A. for her birthday in August, since after we hung out for a week in Hawaii in June and became an “official couple” at that time, I couldn’t bear waiting until the Christmas break to see her again. She had a youthful, playful spirit that reminded me of a part of myself I once had and wanted to reclaim, and I can remember that during this song, she had a glow-in-the-dark necklace that she tried to put around my neck, but it just hung there on my forehead, bouncing around as I bobbed my head to this feel-good tune. I looked ridiculous, and I was having so much fun that I didn’t care. And that little island of just going with it and not caring at all, in a great sea of huge worries that seemed insurmountable at the time, was a true gift – a reminder that maybe God had some wisdom in placing me with this hopeful optimist who helped to keep the cynical realism I’d grown comfortable with over the past few years in check.
2003: “Clarity” by John Mayer
2003 was such a musical hodgepodge for me that picking a representative song was truly difficult. I could have easily picked a counter-cultural indie rock track, since some friends who were budding music critics were gradually lighting the path for my future exploration into that genre. But some mainstream pop heavyweights and some old favorite Christian rockers were still competing valiantly for space on my playlists. So there’s no single song that feels like it sets the right mood for that year. One that I remember strongly relating to, though, was this delightfully bouncy track with a smooth, carefree melody from the likes of John Mayer. My new girlfriend and I had finally realized our dream of becoming an everyday couple, living and working in the same city after her move to L.A. in April of that year, and trying to figure out what being together long-term looked like now that we were beyond the “vacation phase” of our relationship. We had great fun as I gave her the grand tour of pretty much everything I loved about life in Southern California. But finding a job and a more stable place to live was really tough for her, striking out on her own after having lived with her parents in Hawaii for her entire life up until that year. “Clarity” came along as the opening track on Heavier Things that summer, and I thought it was interesting how John sounded like he had found peace in NOT knowing whether a relationship was meant to last forever. The song wasn’t celebrating that it was temporary or anything – it was just content to not know things that couldn’t yet be known, and to not let worrying about that ruin the special experiences they were having in the here and now. In a way, this was the mainstream pop response to the very same things that I had connected with on “Million Pieces”. It’s still my favorite John Mayer song all these years later.
2004: “Harbor” by Vienna Teng
I had spent much of 2003 being utterly fascinated with the intimate “chamber pop” on Vienna’s first album, Waking Hour. Her second album Warm Strangers, especially after seeing her perform a lot of it live at the Hotel Cafe (still one of my favorite small Hollywood music venues) not long after its release, cemented her as my favorite singer/songwriter of all time. Her music ranges from intimate and romantic, to abstract and challenging, to dark and downright unsettling at times, but even when she’s showing off her poppiest tendencies on a track like “Harbor”, she’s still clearly thinking WAY outside the box. I can’t think of another song that manages to be so catchy and effortless to sing along to despite having an entire labyrinth’s worth of time signature changes. It’s a song of bravery, in which one lover wishes for another to go out and have grand adventures, knowing they’ll always have a safe harbor back at home, and an eager ear to recount all of their travelogues to, when each adventure is done. It’s an unselfish love song, offering a sacred space to return to, but not holding too tightly to a person who needs to experience life both as a true individual and as one half of a deeply bonded pair. There’s something immensely empowering about that.
2005: “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” by Sufjan Stevens
August 7, 2005, was the day that my wife and I tied the knot. That crossed the #1 dream off of my bucket list. So you’d probably expect that I’d pick some sort of a happy romantic song to represent 2005, but honestly, the songs that were most significant on our wedding day were ones that had already been meaningful to us for many years, some of which have appeared earlier on this list I’m making now. In terms of music that best captures the mood of that year, I had to go with my favorite track from what became my favorite album of all time – Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois. This landmark indie folk/baroque pop masterpiece dropped during the months leading up to our wedding, and I had it on seemingly endless rotation to help me get through that maelstrom of to-do lists and financial stress and making sure I was truly emotionally ready for such a massive life change. What the songs on Illinois, an album full of colorfully orchestrated character studies and historical vignettes taking place in a state I’d never set foot in (outside of an airport layover, anyway), were actually about might not be terribly relevant compared to the album’s impact on me as a work of art. I can’t say that I relate as strongly to this off-beat tall tale that might be about the world’s tallest man (or maybe Abraham Lincoln, I’m honestly still not sure) as I do to many of the other picks on this list. But oh my God, that off-beat piano riff (which is in 11/8 time, I think?) and those handclaps and woodwinds and clattering drums and exuberant background vocals might just comprise my favorite musical composition EVER. All seven minutes of it are pure joy.
2006: “Umbrellas” by Sleeping at Last
Another strong entry in the “baroque pop” genre came from Sleeping at Last’s second album “Keep No Score”, kind of a transitional entry between their indie rock trio origins and the more acoustic, cinematic work they’re known for as a one-man band nowadays. Ryan O’Neal was imagining the feelings he’d have as the dreams of marriage and parenthood finally came true on this track. It was a vow to be his family’s defender, come hell or high water, and to always make sure his loved ones knew how much his heart gushed with love for them. “You were meant for amazing things.” This is always something I’ve wanted to tell my own child. I sure wish every child could get to hear their parents say those words. I actually spoke to Ryan briefly about this song after a show in Santa Barbara in the fall of 2006. When complimenting him on how beautiful it turned out to be, I referred to the glorious instrumental outro as a “string-gasm”. I’m such a dork! I sure hope he took that in the positive spirit it was intended.
2007: “Wanderlust” by Björk
I was emphatically NOT into Björk before 2007. To me, she was just the weird chick in the swan dress with the funny accent. I couldn’t handle her voice. Then I saw her perform this song on Saturday Night Live, and a switch flipped in my brain, and suddenly I was weirdly infatuated with her music and I had to devour her entire back catalogue. I don’t always understand or appreciate everything she does, but she’s one of the most eclectic and boundary-pushing artists I’ve ever enjoyed listening to. This song was my gateway into her music, and of course it didn’t hurt that it was about growing restless with a familiar place and a familiar culture and wanting to see what was going on in the rest of the world. Since my wife and I visited Alaska for the first time that summer, and I’m willing to bet some of the tundra and taiga scenery we saw bears a resemblance to the landscapes of Björk’s native Iceland, I feel like this song perfectly encapsulates the sense of awe I felt at finally getting to behold that place with my own eyes. I had been fascinated with the idea of visiting Alaska ever since I saw it on a map as a kid, and wondered why the heck this far-off place disconnected from the rest of the United States had actually become one of the 50. That trip (and for that matter, my earlier visits to various Hawaiian islands) might not have been as high up on my bucket list as getting married or becoming a dad, but they were certainly in the Top 10.