I turned 40 today. Well, actually, as I’m writing this, I’m not yet 40. And, unless you happen to be reading this on the very day I post it, it’s no longer my birthday. Chronology in text is weird.
I’m not gonna lie. This number is hitting me hard. Intellectually, I get that the fact that it’s a round number is merely an artifact of our base ten numeral system, which is in turn an arbitrary quirk of the evolutionary history that led to us having ten fingers. I get it.
But what it really feels like is the midpoint. As a male in the US, 40 isn’t that far from the halfway point of average life expectancy. I have more memories accrued than new experiences to anticipate. In the great hallway of life, there are more doors behind me than ahead, which makes the regret of those unopened ones all the more acute.
I was talking about all this with my sister-in-law a few months ago. Her milestone is coming soon too. She plans to celebrate by writing a list of her top forty favorite songs. I’ll be damned if I don’t love a good list, so here’s mine.
It’s in chronological order of my personal relationship to the song. It appears when it appeared in my life. The luxury of this being my list is that I get to scramble time as it suits me.
40 is a pretty long list of songs. Heck, some days it feels like a long list of years. So we’re going to need some speed, and what better way to get moving then…
La Grange - ZZ Top
As you’ll find out, I live for a good build-up, and there is none better than this. A couple of sticks on the edge of the snare and a palm-muted riff and holy crap what just happened to my pulse. ZZ Top is possibly the tightest band that ever lived. Every punchy ghost hit on the snare is so locked into the guitar and bass that it must have been played by a single giant six-armed demon.
If your car is on fumes, wheezing out its last few yards, threatening to leave you stranded in the desert, crank this song up and I promise you you’ll get another mile or two out of the tank.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) - Eurythmics
This is the first song that I distinctly remember hearing for the first time. Picture tiny me standing in front of a TV, staring mouth agape at Annie Lennox’s bright red hair and that weird-ass video, wondering what the hell was going on and why I liked it so much.
I sometimes wonder if imprinting on this song at such a young age twisted my brain. Lord knows I love a synth bassline and a four on the floor kick to an unhealthy degree. That thing I have for short hair on women must have come from somewhere.
Maneater - Daryl Hall & John Oates
I’m just old enough to remember roller rinks. My older brother and I would go, and I have vivid memories of how cool it felt to be in that dark, cavernous room, surrounded by pulsing sound.
“Maneater” is one of the songs I remember from there. (“Mickey” is another.) It ticks almost every checkbox for what I still love in a song: tons of reverb, high string pads, machine-precision drums, rhythmic bassline locked to a minor chord progression. I know I should hear 80s cheese when I listen to it today, but it still sounds just as spacious and moody today as it did then.
What I also remember is strapping on my skates every time and never once having the courage to venture off the carpet onto the rink. It took me thirty years and a friend’s skating party to face that fear and finally get out there.
Send Me an Angel - Real Life
Alright, I gotta speed this up if we’re going to get through all forty in a reasonable amount of time. There is a special place in the dark–of course it’s dark–corner of my soul for sad synthpop. I don’t know what it is, but slap some maudlin lyrics on top of a dance beat and I’m all over it. Fast + sad is my jam.
The whole genre pushes my buttons, but “Send Me an Angel” stands out because:
David Sterry really goes for it lyrically. It’s hard to top “if a girl walks up and carves her name in my heart, I’ll turn and run away” for abject pathos.
That little synth choir melody is six notes of absolute perfection.
Decades later, I was at a show for a friend of a friend’s band. The singer said they were going to do a weird cover and if anyone knew the song, to shout out the name of the band. He played the first three notes of that melody and it was like the heavens opened above, presumably so angels could watch me yelling “Real Life!” over and over at the top of my lungs like an idiot.
Enjoy the Silence - Depeche Mode
Speaking of synthpop songs with aching melodies. I’ve listened to Depeche Mode so much over the years that they are all over my memories. But the best, the one I’ve shared with literally no one until now…
My best friend in elementary school had an older sister. My friend and were two total nerds (still are), but his sister was so cool–serious and artistic. Exhibit A: giant Depeche Mode posters on her wall. Exhibit B: a complete and utter disinterest in interacting with us for even a second. At that age, that was about all it took for a crush to blossom.
Walk Like an Egyptian - Bangles
At some point in my childhood, I informed my parents that I liked music and desired the ability to listen to it in my bedroom. My Dad, being the music snob he is, solved that problem by buying young me an honest-to-God record player. No cassette tapes in this household, young man!
One of the first records I got was “Different Light” by the Bangles. I spent a lot of time listening to the bassline in this song, gazing at the photos on the cover, and having thoughts about Susanna Hoffs I wasn’t quite old enough to process yet.
Istanbul (Not Constantinople) - They Might Be Giants
Look, I don’t know what happened. I’ll blame it on incredible middle school awkwardness, but I went through a phase where I, I shit you not, listened to nothing but TMBG. For like two years. I still know all of the lyrics to every single song on “Flood”, “Lincoln”, “Apollo 18”, and “John Henry”.
They aren’t my thing very much these days, but the lyrics are still up there in the wetware should a particularly odd karaoke night have need of them.
Run Through the Jungle - CCR
I mentioned intros, right? This is another of the greats. I think most people like the happy-dumb CCR hits, but for me I want the ones that remind me that the US was goin’ through some shit when those songs came out. This tops that list.
Nights in White Satin - Moody Blues
One of the things I truly lament about my generation and the generations to follow is our acute self-awareness. Ironic detachment of the 90s followed by ironic attachment left us basically unable to produce art without constantly obsessing about what the art says about the artist.
Can you imagine anyone today sitting down to record a rock album with an orchestra, and then slapping a poem on the end? And doing it with complete, heartfelt, unironic sincerity? It’s an ability that seems to be completely lost.
Thankfully, this song embedded itself in my subconscious before that cultural shift happened. I love every single bit of this song, completely, totally.
Stayin’ Alive - The Bee-Gees
Speaking of things I love un-ironically. For a nerdy white dude, I have spent a surprisingly large amount of time shaking my ass on various dancefloors across the United States. Not with any particular skill mind you, but with great enthusiasm.
I like basically any kind of dance music, and disco is certainly on that list. The genre is a distillation of everything that makes a song danceworthy, with everything unnecessary filtered out. Picking one disco song is hard, and picking one played by white guys is a borderline travesty, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know every single cymbal crash in this song and had my arm thrust, finger extended, for each.
Groove is in the Heart - Deee-Lite
Bootsy’s bassline. That beat. If this don’t get your booty movin’, your booty must be dead.
Free Fallin’ - Tom Petty
Thomas Earl Petty is another one like Depeche Mode where it’s hard to know where to slot him in. His music is a constant companion in my life. Narrowing his presence on this list down to a single song was hard enough. “You Wreck Me”, “Learning to Fly”, “American Girl”, “Breakdown” are all strong contenders.
I picked this one because it spans what I think of as the two sides of Petty – the straightforward timeless American rock, and the bittersweet character studies.
Stand By Me - Ben E. King
A high school friend got a cheap acoustic guitar and I eventually got my hands on it. Tinkering around, I figured out the bassline to “Stand By Me”, playing that guitar like a bass, upside down. (I’m left-handed and it was strung right-handed.) This was the first bassline I ever learned.
Did you know King never intended to record this? He wrote it for the Drifters and only reluctantly recorded it himself when he had some extra time in the studio. Listen to that vocal performance. Can you imagine being so good that you can just toss something like that out there?
Children - Robert Miles
Apparently, there was a whole house and techno scene going on in the world. Maybe if I’d been a kid in Chicago or Detroit, I would have noticed. But none of that made its way to southern Louisiana until this instrumental, piano-driven electronica song improbably came down from space and landed on commercial radio.
The first time I heard this song was a revelation. I didn’t even know music like this existed. I loved everything about it, the rigid tempo, heartbeat kick, offset bass, heart-stirring melody. I couldn’t get enough.
Dark + Long (Dark Train) - Underworld
Right around this time, I met a guy at work who wore these weird pants with huge legs. What was that about? He told my brother and I he was a “raver” and there was this music called “techno” and you could hear it at these things called “raves”.
In one sitting, he gave us a rundown of artists that kept my ears full for several years. The band that I forged the strongest bond with is Underworld. I rushed out and got the “Pearl’s Girl” EP, then later “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” and “Second Toughest in the Infants”. Eventually, I had almost everything they ever recorded.
I met some of my closest college friends by bonding over Underworld. We once drove 900 miles from Baton Rouge to Chicago, non-stop, because that was the closest place to us that Underworld was playing during the “Beaucoup Fish” tour. Still one of the best shows I ever saw.
Picking a single Underworld song is hard. Picking this particular song is frustrating because for most, it’s associated with Trainspotting. But that’s not what I think when I hear this. To me, it’s driving home from raves at the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans as the sun comes up in our rearview mirror.
Halcyon + On + On - Orbital
A lot of techno at the 90s was, well, kind of dumb. Maybe a good beat to dance to, but it didn’t leave you thinking or feeling much of anything. Aphex Twin took care of the “thinking” part. Orbital took care of feeling. They showed that music made with computers could have as much heart as anything else.
I’m not the kind of person to fret about what song I want played at my funeral, but if I had to pick, this might be it.
Roads - Portishead
Oh, the tremolo on the Rhodes, mirroring Beth Gibbons’ vibrato. Those ghost hits on the snare. The strings. That bassline. Every ounce of this is flawless.
Like most people at the time, I got into trip-hop. Some of it doesn’t hold up, but some of it, like this, I seem to respond to more and more the older I get.
Gorecki - Lamb
Around this time, I was working at an Internet start-up during the first dotcom bubble. Amazon had just started selling CDs and they had this new “Customers who bought this also bought” thing. Today, we are inundated with machine learning that knows every single connection between ever human artifact every produced. It’s hard to remember what the world was before recommendation engines.
But there was a time where if you liked some song, you might be totally unable to find other stuff like it, even if that other stuff existed. If you were lucky, the guy at the music store knew stuff. That was literally it.
So when I typed in the one trip-hop band I knew into the search box at www.amazon.com, and then saw a list of other bands I might also like, and other bands linked to from them, and so on, it was like the gates to Paradise had opened up.
I ordered a stack of CDs, the largest music purchase of my life. They showed up a week later. I took them home, put Lamb’s debut album in, and put on my headphones. The first time this song came on, I was moved nearly to tears.
Granted, I was going through some girlfriend stuff at the time, so tears weren’t as far away as usual, but it’s still the most profoundly emotional listening experience of my life.
La Femme d'Argent - Air
One day, the roommate of the girl that caused the aforementioned troubles put in a CD in her car stereo. She said, “You like electronic stuff, you might like this.” I was totally flummoxed by what came on. It sounded like it had been recorded in the 70s. Was it even “electronic” music? She insisted it had come out recently. I’d never heard anything like it. It was, and still is, magnificent. An album that stands outside of time and genre.
Much much later, it occurred to me that I had dated the wrong roommate.
Kathy’s Song - Apoptygma Berzerk
I love this song first because it reminds me of discovering a whole new genre of music (synthpop and EBM), a circle of friends (“the Baton Rouge goth community” as my friend used to say) and a new bar (The Spanish Moon) all at the same time.
Going to that bar led to throwing parties with the same people and music, which led to me DJing at our house, which eventually led to me DJing at the Spanish Moon, which was a huge step for me to get past some of my crippling shyness.
I love this song second because my sister-in-law’s name is “Cathy”, and I played this at her wedding to my brother on the day that I got to officially call her family.
There are a number of BT songs that could be on this list, but I picked this remix because it’s the track I’ve listened to the most over the years. “Flaming June” and “Poseidon” are up there too.
But, also, because every time I hear that little fuzz effect come in at :15, I can still perfectly picture the owner of The Spanish Moon sprinting across the dancefloor towards the DJ booth, panic in his eyes, because he thought I’d blown his sound system.
Autumn Tactics - Chicane
That couple year span when “progressive house” was the thing brought a lot of great artists to my attention. Of all of them, I probably sunk more time into Chicane’s first two albums than anything else. This isn’t really a house track – I don’t know how to categorize it, honestly – and maybe that’s why it’s held up so well for me. I’ve been listening to it for close to twenty years, and I still haven’t tired of it.
Poor Leno - Röyksopp
We’re getting closer to the modern era, witnessed by the fact that I stumbled onto this song from a video on the Internet. This song led to me buying turntables. I was going to clubs listening to house all the time, but most of the DJs were playing stripped down tribal or tech house that sounded soulless and empty to me. I didn’t necessarily need a full set of lyrics, but I at least wanted a chord progression.
I realized that if I ever wanted to hear this track or others like it on a dancefloor, I was going to have to make it happen myself. I filled up my online shopping cart at Turntable Lab. A few weeks later some very large, very heavy boxes showed up at work, and I was off learning how to beatmatch.
Tracey In My Room - EBTG vs Soul Vision
This song is a two-fer. Tracy Thorn from Everything but the Girl is one of my favorite vocalists. When Ben Watt took EBTG in a decidedly electronic direction with “Walking Wounded” and then “Temperamental”, I was right there with him.
But around this time was also when I started to get fully into house music, the more heartfelt the better. This record, a mash-up of a house song and the vocals from “Wrong” merges those two better than it has any right to.
Unspoken - Four Tet
In my twenties, my friends and I used to hit Park Ave. CDs every Tuesday when new music came out. This album was at a listening station on an end cap. When the first song came on, it was as if the lights in the building gradually dimmed, leaving nothing but sound.
Back of my Hand - Gemma Hayes
We went to this record store so often that the employees would hook us up with samplers and other merch. This song was on one. It’s not my usual genre and I can’t say I’ve listened to much else by her. But the production on this song pushes it out of generic singer-songwriter and into something really interesting to me.
I love the contrast between the folksy guitar – twelve-string? double-tracked? – and that that tinny mechanical drum loop. When the fully-EQed beat and organ drops, my heart goes a-flutter.
I had this song as my alarm clock for several years. It was a gentle way to wake up and the end result was the lyrics embedding themselves in my subconscious. Years later, my kids started asking me to sing them bedtime songs. This was one of the few whose words I remembered and whose melody fit within my not-so-wide vocal range.
Listening brings back peaceful mornings sipping coffee in Orlando, and gentle nights in Washington stroking my daughters’ hair as they fall asleep. It’s hard to imagine a better pair of bookends.
Such Great Heights - Postal Service
The drag about being into electronic music in Orlando back then was, well, the other people into it. Instead of the fun rave scene of New Orleans where kids were down to Earth and just wanted a good time, Orlando was a club scene – overdressed bros and over-made-up woman desperately trying to impress each other while trying not to look desperate.
Indie dance music and Orlando’s Independent Bar (called “Barbarella” at the time) saved me from that. The indie night there remains the absolute best dancefloor, and the most fun crowd I’ve ever experienced. Like clockwork, every Friday night ended with a packed, sweaty, grinning mass of euphoric people.
There are a number of songs I could pick to be the anthem for that time in my life, but this one also happens to mark a great point in a relationship (before the relationship went no-so-great).
Move Your Feet - Junior Senior
One of the few things I love as much as dance music is pixel art, so this song’s video pushes all of the buttons on the 747 control panel of my heart.
September - Earth, Wind, and Fire
I expected more soul music to make this list, but somehow it didn’t. It would have been a real shame to omit this gem. Thursdays were soul night at I-Bar and I can’t hear this song without picturing my friend Amy cutting up the dancefloor.
This song gets twice my love because I also used to spin the fantastic Phats & Small house remix.
Under the Milky Way - The Church
You know those songs that reside in a primordial part of your brain? I can’t recall ever not knowing this song. I’m wired towards the low end of the frequency spectrum. I play bass, and tend to focus on the bass and rhythm side of songs. That extends to vocals. I can’t do histrionic screechy singers. Nothing sets my soul at ease quite like a soft baritone.
This is another song I used to sing to my kids as they fell asleep.
Maybe Tomorrow - Stereophonics
The beginning of the video for this song is a dirty lie. This song wasn’t crafted by imperfect human hands. It was plucked, flawless, from some sonic vein deep within the Earth.
Stop - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Hanging out at Independent Bar opened one of the most fulfilling chapters of my life. It was there that I met my friend Mikey, which led to us starting a band. Playing music with others was a transcendent experiences – to hear four people produce one single harmonious sound. To give birth to something better than we could have made on our own. Being on stage is a bonus. Just to play is the thing.
My bandmates introduced me to a lot of great rock, including BRMC. I used to listen to this track on the way to shows and by the time I got to the gig, that bassline had me feeling like I could walk through a brick wall.
Baby in Two - Pernice Brothers
My drummer Shannon introduced me to Pernice Brothers. Our band days are over, we live about three thousand miles apart, but he will always be my drummer and I will always be his bassist. There’s a special kind of love that forms only between two halves of a rhythm section and this album is the soundtrack to mine.
Cupid - Sam Cooke
God, did they know how to record back then. Take one of the world’s greatest voices. Add beautiful, authentic reverb, and just enough tape saturation, and you get a sound so rich I can practically taste it.
But the technical merits are an aside. The real reason this is here is because it marks the time when I met my wife. This song is inseparable from her, from us.
Blue Ridge Mountains - Fleet Foxes
By this time, I was burned out from eight years in the game industry. Tired of the heat and sameness Florida–every month indistinguishable from the previous, the days an unending blur of sunlight.
My wife and I discovered the Pacific Northwest on a work trip. We played this album non-stop during our honeymoon on the Olympic Peninsula, and by the end we were ready to uproot and move. Back in Florida, during the months it took for me to find work in Seattle, this record was a constant reminder of the promise awaiting us out west.
I Will Follow You Into the Dark - Death Cab for Cutie
There is a Seattle city ordinance that you must like Ben Gibbard.
Shooting Stars - Bag Raiders
My love of disco and house naturally turned into a love of nu-disco. I don’t know what’s going on in Australia, but there’s a whole pile of bands out of Sydney and Melbourne that sound like they took everything I love about the 70s and 80s, mashed it all together, and somehow made it sound fresh again.
One of the joys of being a Dad is playing music with my kids. I get to choose the songs that will form their subconscious musical memory. They love this album, perhaps largely because I used to pick them up and dance with them in the kitchen every time we played it. I hope when they are much older and hear this, they still think of me.
Elevate - St. Lucia
Like I said, the 80s is new again. I won’t lie. Listening to music that apes a genre that I still remember the first time it came around makes me feel pretty old. That weird cringe I get when I see fashion come full circle and the young folk start wearing stuff I still have jammed in the back of my closet.
I try to ignore that twinge because, honestly, St. Lucia is fantastic. This isn’t some ironic winking aping of the past (looking at you The Darkness and Steel Panther). St. Lucia is a gushing love letter to everything great about beachy 80s pop. It’s mai tais, sand between your toes, coconut sunscreen. Endless summer and eternal youth.
Fade Into You - Mazzy Star
We’re nearing the end of the list, nearly through forty years of living and listening. It’s been a long drive down a winding road, and the sun will be up soon.
I’m on Fire - Bruce Springsteen
Forty feels like all my younger selves are lost, receded far into the past. Yet, at the same time, they still burn vibrantly alive inside, refusing to be forgotten.