Music has been the one constant throughout my life. From when I was a child and exposed to the old vinyl my parents played on Sunday mornings that went from The Eagles to Fleetwood Mac to Marvin Gaye, and then later to my own private listening to the radio constantly in my early teens. It has been my friend, my soulmate and my confidant.
If I had to choose thirteen tracks that defined me throughout my life, then they would be those below. These are the ones that have meant the most to me and impacted me at pivotal moments throughout the years.
I’m on Fire Bruce Springsteen (1984)
Back when this came out, I was only seven years old. I wasn’t at all old enough to realise the irony contained in the title track from Springsteen’s huge mainstream breakthrough. This album was on constant rotation by my parents who played this along with Tango in the Night by Fleetwood Mac constantly in the car. The track ‘I’m on Fire’ has always haunted me, I wouldn’t know why until many years later, and would recognise the trauma that Springsteen is talking about in the lyrics. When I hear this, I am instantly transported back to the backseat of my parent’s car, travelling back from somewhere as the sun dipped behind the horizon on summer nights. It’s been covered memorably by Chromatics elsewhere and used in a couple of films very effectively.
Deadbeat Club The B-52’s (1989)
There was no escaping ‘Love Shack’ when it came out, even if you end up at a party somewhere even now, the track is inescapable. I wouldn’t come to the full album Love Shack came from called Cosmic Thing until about five years after it came out and I fell in love with its quirky charms as it soundtracked the lighter side of my teenage angst. The track ‘Deadbeat Club’ is the one that sums up my school experience. The tale of being part of a crew of misfits, always on the outside of the cool kids and struggling to fit in. It’s not sad about this state of affairs—it is celebratory, and the tears that run down my face whenever I hear this are tears of joy.
Lithium Nirvana (1991)
It’s cliche to say, but Nirvana really did change my life. When ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came on the radio, my twelve-year-old brain rejected the aggressive sound and yet was unavoidably drawn to it. By the time ‘Lithium’ came out as a single, I was fully onboard. ‘Lithium’ was the track that gave my confusion, angst and weird energy an outlet and a release. It’s a story about mental illness and the actual weight behind the track wouldn’t become apparent until many years later. Nevermind, the album, stayed in my ears constantly for two years and there was no going back.
The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite R.E.M. (1992)
A month or so after its release, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People was absolutely everywhere. Everyone had a copy—your friends, your friends’ friends, their parents. By the time ‘Everybody Hurts’ came out as a single, R.E.M. had changed the direction of music for the remainder of the decade. The third track off the album ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ was played on Capital Radio the week the album was released, and I happened to catch it while I was chilling in my room after school. I remember that moment so well and so clearly, it was just confusion, amazement and a young mind realising what music could be. It didn’t have to be all about love per se, there was a whole other world of dreams and being yourself to sing about.
Disco 2000 Pulp (1995)
I lived through the Britpop era; I was actually in Britain as it happened. I didn’t really recognise it at the time, it just felt like what was in the charts suddenly got much better than it had been. Now there are actual songs from that period that I struggle to listen to. Not because they are bad but because they are so loaded with memories, it’s hard not to cry. ‘Disco 2000’ by Pulp will always remind me of Christmas 1995, probably the last Christmas I ever enjoyed, and the last surrounded by the comfort of school friends and the safety of a dying adolescence. What made it worse was Jarvis Cocker is singing about a first love that he has to say goodbye to and hopes to see again in a better time. I was doing the exact same thing in my real life when this song came out funnily enough.
Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver Primus (1995)
You may not remember this, but MTV used to play actual music videos for a long, long time. MTV was the way I heard all of the new music that invaded my teenage years. As it was technically “MTV Europe” they played a staggering variety of stuff and had to cater to all music tastes. So there was some stuff played during the day that you cannot imagine ever being attempted these days. One such track was this which served as my introduction to punk psychedelia weirdos Primus. It’s playful, it’s silly, and yet it still somehow rocks. I wanted it as the first dance at my wedding; I was denied this, I have no idea why.
Long Time Coming Delays (2003)
Delays had a rough time of it. Coming about five years after the Britpop era ended and with an ethereal sound that didn’t quite fit in with anything at the time. They sadly never got their due aside from this debut single. ‘Long Time Coming’ is another track that is so thick with memories that I often struggle to make it through without breaking down. It was again something that emanated from a time of confusion in life, but also the same time that I met the love of my life back when we were both young and so full of hope. Listening to this now, it is similar to ‘Young At Heart’ by The Bluebells in that it seems to be about ageing and wondering where the time went. It’s still a great song and one I will always hold dear to my heart.
Forget Myself Elbow (2005)
I came to this song about three years after it came out, but I am so glad I did. Guy Garvey of Elbow is one of the best songwriters who has ever lived and ‘Forget Myself’ is like the modern remake of Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’. It tells the story of a London dweller who is possibly at the end of some kind of relationship or self-destruction and chooses to celebrate the fact instead of mourning his situation. The song NEVER fails to pick me up when I am feeling down, and it builds and builds until the breakdown becomes joyous and soaring. This is one of those songs that I will never understand how it wasn’t number one on the charts for months.
Odd Look Kavinsky (2013)
Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive changed everything. It may not have been a huge box office hit, but it dictated the direction that films and TV would head in, and its soundtrack changed the direction of music for the rest of the decade. Retrowave became a thing, but bands like Chvrches, The Naked and Famous and The War on Drugs would tap into that nostalgic look back to the ’80s and become huge deals in their own right. Kavinsky was the artist behind the track ‘Nightcall’ that opened Drive, and in 2013 he released a solo album which is as retro as you would expect. The track ‘Odd Look’ sounds like it belongs to a movie that hasn’t been made. It is full of coiled menace, atmosphere, and is mesmerising with its obscured lyrics and steady hypnotic beat. Seriously baffled how this hasn’t featured in any mainstream movie yet.
Meet me in the Woods Lord Huron (2015)
The album Strange Trails became one of those albums that was constantly in my ears for about six months at the midpoint of the last decade. As the worst year of my life became two years, then three and then four, ‘Meet Me in the Woods’ was the track I returned to again and again. Like many of the tracks on this underrated album, it tells the story of someone who has been through a terrible time and let the darkness into their life. As they emerge from this, they wonder what the hell happened, what it has done to them, and what the cost of their choices was. ‘Meet Me in the Woods’ does everything I want in a song, it is catchy, it’s lyrically dense, and it makes life seem better in the worst moments.
Best Night The War on Drugs (2011)
Before they got huge and desperately name-checked by a certain tory prime minister, The War on Drugs released their best album with Slave Ambient. This was one of the few times that I listened to an album first time, and then started from the beginning again two or three times in a row. I was amazed by this album, and its probably one of my favourites of this century so far. The opening track ‘Best Night’ sets the template for the majesty to follow. It lulls you in with its calming guitar and chiming sounds and tells the story of a relationship coming to an end. The lyrics are a beautiful account of bemoaning one’s position in life and yet wishing the one who hurt you all the best. The War on Drugs would go mainstream three years later, but for me, they never topped their work here.
Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains) Arcade Fire (2010)
For me, Arcade Fire are the best band of this century and probably one of the best bands there has ever been. Their first three albums are masterworks and seeing them live is as close to a religious experience as I have ever had. The 2010 album The Suburbs was their breakthrough, and it came to me at precisely the right moment in my life as I was finally looking back on my own suburban upbringing as perhaps less than ideal. The final proper track on the album was the one that music fans buzzed about when the album came out. It was ahead of the curve in terms of its harkening back to the ’80s and sounded like ‘Heart of Glass’ by Blondie. It’s the lyrics though that never fail to bring a tear to the eye—the longing for escape, the yearning for something new. It is perhaps one of the best final track choices of any album ever—it sums up the themes of the album as a whole and is so full of nostalgia, hope and some kind of joyous doom that it just became one of my favourite songs ever. Seeing it live several times over the years, and I’m just emotionally destroyed every single time.
The Finish Line Snow Patrol (2006)
Snow Patrol were one of those popular for four years bands from the last decade that seemed to vanish from the mainstream when the radio was done with them. It’s a shame, but it happens all the time. Snow Patrol released some really good music and were a great singles band for a while which is why they went mainstream. ‘The Finish Line’ is an album track from their biggest commercial success Eyes Open and I came to it when it was the closing song from one of my favourite films of the time. ‘The Finish Line’ is almost like a prayer rather than a song. It is the sound of someone coming out of some destructive cycle, deciding enough is enough, and finding a kind of peace. The message is simple—no matter what has happened to you, where you are or where you have been, it is never too late to start again.