10 (or, Actually, 11) Songs That Explain Me

And here is the B-side of my roaring 20s: Frank Ocean’s tender voice was and remains a balm for whatever failure, loneliness and disappointment life decided to throw my way. (Consider “Self Control” a way to sneak another one of my favorite artists, and homes-away-from-home, onto this list, too, since the eclectic Philadelphia indie-rocker Alex G plays guitar on the track.) (Listen on YouTube)

Let’s continue wallowing while turning back the clock a bit to hear from another one of my all-time favorite singers, Gram Parsons. (I recently went on a Nashville vacation that was at least partially a spiritual pilgrimage to see his infamously sinful Nudie suit in the Country Music Hall of Fame.) A lot of the older music I love most has a kind of “near miss” quality about it — history’s beautiful losers, the artists who didn’t break through but deserved to, the ones who gesture toward all sorts of alternative presents and what-ifs. Maybe that’s why I prefer Parsons’s vocal take of “Wild Horses” to Mick Jagger’s more familiar one. (The Sundays’ version is great, too.) There’s a wobbly brokenness to it that I find incredibly moving, especially the way he emphasizes “a dull aching pain.” The origins of the song are notoriously disputed, but some insist that its titular line was inspired by something that Marianne Faithfull croaked when she came out of a six-day coma in 1969 — “wild horses couldn’t drag me away” — and that is one of those rock ’n’ roll stories that, even if it’s apocryphal, I have chosen to believe. (Listen on YouTube)

Speaking of music history’s beautiful losers: Big Star, one of my favorite rock bands ever. Like many a teenage millennial, I first came to the band through one of the numerous covers of the acoustic ballad “Thirteen” (“one of my almost-good songs,” the ever-humble Alex Chilton once said). Once I’d immersed myself in the band’s back catalog, I became belatedly furious that it had never been as famous as Led Zeppelin. I will always be exhilarated by the moment in the middle of “Daisy Glaze” when Jody Stephens’s three kick-drum thumps initiate a sudden tempo change — a perfect encapsulation of the band’s thrilling brilliance. (Listen on YouTube)

I got into the Mountain Goats toward the end of high school — my friend Matt and I would drive from Jersey diner to diner, listening to their seemingly limitless discography — and John Darnielle is probably my favorite contemporary lyricist. The album “The Sunset Tree,” and this song in particular, have gotten me through many a dark night of the soul. I have now seen the Mountain Goats live more times than I can count — I lost track in the low 20s — and I am not yet numb to the emotional power of these songs. They played “Up the Wolves” a few months ago at Webster Hall, and after all these years, it still made me cry like a big teenage baby. (Listen on YouTube)

This one’s a total cheat: a sneaky way to mention two artists I adore — Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell, who of course wrote “The Circle Game” — on a single track. Joni is probably my favorite living songwriter, and there are about 100 other songs of hers I could have chosen. But I like the story behind this cover, recorded when Joni was still a fledgling songwriter to whom the then-better-known Buffy was trying to bring some attention. Suffice to say, it worked. (Listen on YouTube)

I’ve identified as a feminist throughout many different cultural and personal phases: in seventh grade when the boys told me girls couldn’t skateboard; in college, when it was a somewhat unfashionable concern that meant I read a lot of literary theory; these days, when a more watered-down version of the word has been co-opted to sell things on Instagram. All throughout, music has given me the strength to keep fighting, dreaming and resisting psychic death. To me, the great post-punk group the Raincoats are emblematic of a kind of utopian feminist freedom: a sonic universe where women can sound like and do anything they want — yes, even skateboarding. (Listen on YouTube)

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