I avoid the top tier of my favorite songs with the deft recoil of a jaded Hollywood publicist. Like the sweet reek of a fading teen queen client — so beautiful, so over — I find it impossible (or more likely imprudent) to be in the same room with them. I seem to be able to sing them to myself without incident, filtering their total recall down to a rough sketch of melody and words, but hearing the whole picture, as it were, would be unbearable. As it were.
I’m finding that as the years amass so too do the opportunities for the combination of music and an ever-scrolling memory to present me with my heart in a soft-serve twist. It’s a humbling thing, yet it is not the soundtrack to my summits, nadirs and summits of my nadirs that send me sailing for the earmuffs, but the songs I met cockeyed, that hung out on the fringes, chucking cigarette butts at the curb of my every day. It’s the riff raff coming home to roost that I end up holding in what I consider to be the highest regard: pained refusal.
Perhaps what I find to be the rending genius of these songs can be broken down into formulaic conflations of chord progressions, vocal inflections, sudden key changes and sky-opening harmonies. I have to doubt it. To send the uproars of the body reeling out of a speaker — teeth clenching, fists balling, scalp contracting, pupils dilating, knees buckling, lips curling, peristaltic waving — there’s no formula for that. How does a song come to make the sound of who you were when you first heard it, tell you things about yourself that are not available to your rote memory? There’s the five-years-ago-you, but from behind, below, aerial shots of you loitering at a bus stop: that person doodling through life down there, how can she not break your heart? That power puts the fear of God in me. I avoid God too.
In Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex the lack of Germanic “train car construction” words in the English language is lamented. We don’t have words to describe twizzled emotions like “the disappointment of sleeping with your fantasy” or “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar”. I would add to these “the realization that your favourite song now portends a nervous breakdown in 3/4 time”. No, no I wouldn’t actually; there’s a Carpenters song that conveys that feeling perfectly, in a way that a word — no matter how crowd-pleasingly cumbersome — never could.
Draping sound around the indescribable can throw it into relief. That is a musician’s job, and this is my list of over-achievers. I haven’t listened to these songs in ages, and likely never will again, but if and when you do, there’s a good chance I’ll be singing along.
All of In Utero, Nirvana: Not since the day I heard, although I have a theory that after ten years I should try again. Rather than explain my adoring aversion, I once faked a debilitating charlie horse to get myself out of a moving car with “Rape Me” on the radio.
Picture in a Frame, Tom Waits: All the boys love Tom Waits. Show me a girl who discovered him on her own and I will show you five thousand more who can no longer hear his voice without reliving their introduction via an earnest ex.
Jamie, Weezer: Rivers Cuomo’s voice is my private wishing well. It can wend, skitter, soar, plummet and skid out with waterbug ease. This song is a better showcase for those glitter-sharp guitar hooks, but when he goes “hoo-oo-oo-oo-ooh,” you will close your eyes and smile.
Piss Up a Rope, Ween: Infectious, somehow raunchily innocent.
Far, Far Away, Wilco: I would run to Being There twice all the way through every morning in the summer of 1997 and attempt to will myself into love with the boy who gave me the tape. Today, my hometown streets look like a huge disemboweled treadmill, and this song is the sound of my arches falling.
I Don’t Know, Beastie Boys: Touchingly, unexpectedly sweet. Like Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street.
Bells On, Sloan: "I dreamed that I kissed your mouth/ and you thought about me/ over Christmas . . . " I put this on a tape for someone who hated Sloan and it became his favorite song before he realized who recorded it.
Pretty Flamingo, Manfred Mann: That someone made the best tapes, I still listen to them. Except this one.
Nature Boy, Nat King Cole: My dad’s favorite song as a kid. I think of the little dude, famous among the barns, swooning to Nat in his short pants and I’m a goner.
I Remember Me, The Silver Jews: Learning to play this one on guitar is my concession. David Berman murmuring "I’m just remembering . . . " will double you over.
Theme song to As It Happens, CBC Radio, Moe Koffman: This snazzy, loopy little number seemed way too “out there” to be the opening of a talk radio show, and that delighted me every night when it came on at 6:30. Track in on a diorama of our steamed-up kitchen, radio on, pork chops frying, dad stirring the noodles and 8-year-old me doing a balls-out, leotards-on-linoleum air clarinet. Not too close, now.