This week’s question comes from senior editor Sean O’Neal:
What music do you only listen to under very specific circumstances?
My iTunes “gym” playlist contains lots of gangsta rap and aggro industrial like Ministry to get me pumped up for my obligatory, thrice-weekly attempt to stave off total entropy. But while I won’t hit skip on most of that stuff if it shuffles up outside the fitness center, White Zombie is strictly for weightlifting and weightlifting only. The down-tuned churning and growling on songs like “Thunder Kiss ’65” and “Black Sunshine” just sound silly to me in most other contexts. But—in addition to being good, pummeling meathead music—when heard on the bench, it brings out the inner, bullied 15-year-old who used to blare La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume 1 in his headphones, allowing me to channel his adolescent anger at being pushed around into a few more pathetic reps.
While I, too, enjoy the cartoon posturing of White Zombie only when I’m at the gym (thus furthering my theory that Sean O’Neal and I are the same person living out alternate-reality versions of the same initial consciousness), I have an even more particular music routine. My parents have moved to Florida in their retirement, so I tend to make a yearly pilgrimage to the Sunshine State with my significant other for some fleeting relaxation. And when we’re there, it’s the only time I listen to The Citizen Abortion, the nearly flawless album by punk band Toys That Kill. I listened to it endlessly when it first came into my possession, but now, it’s a treasured ritual to only be heard while driving around my folks’ sunny retirement locale. It’s a record best played while driving through a sun-dappled blue-sky scenario, because it’s dirty, and loud, and everything you want in a fun vacation listen. Shit, I should really start looking for cheap flights.
I mostly clean or do dishes at night, and when I do, I put on what I think of as my “night shift” soundtrack. These are songs I pretty much only listen to when it’s late and I need to get things done. Sometimes it’ll be World Premiere’s Paradise Garage classic “Share The Night” on endless repeat. It’s a great piece of post-disco to bob your head to while wiping the stove and kitchen counters. Another late-night-only favorite is the live performance of “China Cat Sunflower” off the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72. The odd thing about that one is that I’m not even a Grateful Dead fan. I just like the groove of this one performance of this one song, though on the album, it goes right into something called “I Know You Rider,” which I never, ever play.
This is such a theater kid answer, but here we go. Whenever I’m alone in a cab or on the subway late at night and I’ve consumed some alcoholic beverages, I’ll cue up some really bombastic modern day show tunes. I have a rotation of songs, but usually they are they are the type that would require serious belting skills that I do not actually possess. Luckily, I’m not performing them out loud, just lip-syncing animatedly and making others think I’m nuts. A selection: “Wig In A Box” from Hedwig And The Angry Inch, “It Won’t Be Long Now” from In The Heights, and “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop Of Horrors. Frequently, I’ll head to The Last Five Years original cast recording, but which track I choose depends on whether I’m feeling depressed or optimistic as they vary wildly. I guess being solitary and tipsy makes me feel super dramatic.
I hate driving and just being in cars in general, so I’ve structured my life so that I spend as little time as possible behind the wheel. Considering the atrocious condition of my rusted-out remnant of a car, that’s for the best. But occasionally, even I have to drive. And when I do, my music of choice is the CD of the Death Proof soundtrack that’s been in my car for years. I must have once thought it was funny to have that be my special driving music, considering the film’s focus on vehicular homicide. That’s irrelevant now, though, since I’ve listened to the soundtrack in its entirety many times over, to the point that it’s become second nature. Thus far, “The Last Race” by Jack Nitzsche hasn’t caused me to get any speeding tickets. Let’s hope that trend continues. I will say that I feel a sense of accomplishment each time the CD reaches its final track, “Chick Habit” by April March.
Before the iPod and streaming services put just about everything at your fingertips, I’d lug one of my CaseLogic CD sleeves with me to my old job every day, where I’d play them on my office boombox. I was working at a monthly magazine at the time, and during those stressful weeks we were going to press, I listened almost exclusively to the three-disc set of Glenn Miller: The Popular Recordings 1938-1942. Something about the big band sound really soothed me, particularly the instrumental tracks, but even the cornball vocal ones like “The Lady’s In Love With You” or “But It Didn’t Mean A Thing.” These days I get my Miller mostly through SiriusXM’s ’40s Junction, but the songs from those CDs—now easily available on Spotify or on my old iPod—are always at the ready when I need some calming background music.
The Hives come out almost exclusively when I’ve been drinking with my good friend Lura. It’s been some years since we’ve lived in the same city, but for a time we were in the habit of having drinks at my house, which would then devolve into a spazzy two-person dance party. The Swedish garage-rockers’ Veni Vidi Vicious served as our dancing peak, with a silent understanding that we were to go all-out once we heard the opening licks of “Declare Guerre Nucleaire.” At some point in our flailing, I’d run to my closet to get my tennis racket, and if you think that I didn’t use that racket as a guitar and that I didn’t strum its strings while sliding across my apartment’s hardwood floors on my bare knees, then you don’t know the rock ’n’ roll hero that lives inside me and only needs a few whiskeys and the manic guitar of “Main Offender” to emerge. I don’t know who gave me my copy of Veni Vidi Vicious, but Lura and I (if not my knees) thank you.
Twelve years after moving to Chicago, I’ve gotten pretty used to the idea of living in a massive city. It’s only when I walk around downtown, in the shadow of skyscrapers, that my brain reminds me that I’m a single person in a sea of millions—and for reasons that allude me, that sensation still gives me a buzz of excitement, like feeling… I don’t know, profoundly insignificant while staring at the stars. Such awe and wonder demands a proper soundtrack, of course. So when wandering Wacker or crossing the river—especially at night, especially when drunk—I like to listen to really loud, majestic post-rock. There’s no better audio accompaniment to these really deep thoughts bro than the enveloping instrumentals of, say, This Will Destroy You or Explosions In The Sky or (if I need a little extra heaviness to go with the grandeur) Alcest. Interestingly, I almost never listen to any of that stuff in transit or on the treadmill or anywhere else, really. Only when walking, glass, and steel are involved does it apply.
Back in my bad old unemployed days—after I failed out of neuroscience research, but before I lucked into my current job—I used to kill my days by wandering around Chicago, hitting up whatever museum happened to be free that day. My favorite was the Museum Of Contemporary Art, which consistently made up in energy and dynamic curation what it lacked in size, name recognition, or prestige. (No shade to the Art Institute; I’m just a sucker for underdogs with a lot of hustle.) My favorite musical accompaniment on those lazy Tuesdays was Wilco—specifically, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I’d slip in my earbuds, cue up “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” and just kind of drift away, buoyed along by soft-spoken lyrics, discordant guitar crashes, and beautiful art. I don’t listen to Wilco much anymore, but I can’t imagine a better sonic accompaniment to meandering my way through a new gallery collection, idly people watching, humming softly to myself, and trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing with my life.
I’ve had nearly 15 jobs, one of which I held for 12 years before being laid off (don’t worry, it worked out). Most of those gigs were summer jobs or positions I aged out of (student worker, etc.), but there were a couple that I was compelled to quit. And on those two occasions, I psyched myself up to put in my two-weeks notice by listening to Weezer’s “Surf Wax America” on repeat (on my Discman) for the entire commute to work. I do not own a surfboard, nor have I ever lived near the ocean, but I knew I didn’t want to be one of those rats that “run around and around in a maze.” I haven’t had to cue it up for such purposes in a long time, but when it comes up on shuffle—or upon another Blue Album listen—it tends to snap me out of a daze.
I think it’s safe to say our musical tastes change with the seasons. No one is settling down at the beach on a simmering July afternoon and popping on head phones to listen to Leonard Cohen’s Songs Of Love And Hate. But there are a few bands I only enjoy within an even narrower timeframe. I haven’t listened to Dead Can Dance regularly for about 20 years; not since what I cringingly recall as my poet’s blouse years. But for a specific three-week stretch of late November, I get that old urge to listen to a pair of zither-wielding druids yodel about world mythology. It’s a set of criteria so specific, it may as well be the kind of fairy-tale scenario the duo writes songs about: “When no tree bears more than three leaves but before a flake of snow touches the ground; only then can you put on Toward the Within and think about old D&D characters.”
During both undergrad and grad school, the only thing I would listen to while taking notes on assigned reading was James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1. And if that doesn’t sound idiosyncratic enough, I would only listen to the vinyl copy that was gifted to me by an old friend. I think this started as a way to track the time I had spent reading, as I didn’t have any sentimental attachment to the songs. I just knew that each time I had to flip the album, approximately 20 minutes had gone by. Six years of listening, though, and not only had I learned about both journalism and teaching, I also fell hard for a few of Taylor’s tunes (I legitimately find “Something In The Way She Moves” and “How Sweet It Is [To Be Loved By You]” swoon worthy.) and am instantly transported back to a time of textbooks and tests whenever I hear that soft rock crooner.
This will certainly not win any awards for originality, but when I fly to a city, I generally like to listen to a song about that city while we’re touching down and when we hit the runway. I know I’m not supposed to be using small handheld portable devices during this time but what can I say? I’m a rebel. And if any of you snitch on me to Spirit Airlines, I swear to God I will cut you. So when I hit New York, I always listen to the ultimate New York anthem, the quintessentially Big Apple jam that is Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove.” It’s the one song on the four KISS solo albums that crossed over and became an instant classic. I am on record as thinking Paul Stanley’s album is actually pretty great, but nothing on it compares to “New York Groove,” a mildly throwback glam-rock anthem with a hook as big as the five boroughs; some wonderfully theatrical, gleefully effete talk-singing from Frehley; and the eminently imitable Bo Diddley beat. Listening to Frehley wail about the joys of New York lets me hit the great state with a certain glam-rock, platform-boots swagger, albeit of the borrowed variety.
I cannot remember the exact circumstances under which my wife and I discovered that our infant daughter really, really likes the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)” as performed by The Tokens, but it wasn’t from browsing our own record collection, where that song only sort of appears as part of the They Might Be Giants song “The Guitar.” But it quickly became her clear favorite, capable of making her laugh with delight in almost any circumstance, which meant it’s become a song we listen to primarily when she’s cranky or needs a distraction—and absolutely never when we’re not around her, because we’ve both heard it enough for a lifetime. Now that she’s almost a year old, it functions less as a miracle cure, but it can still get her to smile more often than not. We can tell her about how the song’s original author and performer Solomon Linda was screwed over by the music industry when she’s older.
These days, I’m so tired at night that I tend to fall asleep (and stay asleep) easily. When I was in college, however, I was a night owl with a touch of insomnia, mainly because I couldn’t shut off my brain. To help calm myself down enough so I could sleep, I used to throw on an MP3 playlist of Massive Attack’s Protection. The album’s taffy-pulled tempos, sparse BPM, and understated instrumentation made the title track and “Karmacoma” feel like creepy lullabies, while “Weather Storm” and its rain-reminiscent effects and glassy piano chilled me right out. Although I own a copy of the album, I haven’t listened to it in years, meaning that whenever I do hear a song from it, it takes me right back to those quiet, late nights where I was the only one awake.
I mean no disrespect to singer and songwriter Dennis DeYoung or any other fine members of Styx, but what does it mean when I’ve drunkenly sung one of their songs at closing time for more than a decade and I can still not remember the lyrics? Sure, there’s the “drunkenly” part of that sentence, but my friends and I aren’t the cast of Barfly—cheap tap PBR isn’t a memory eraser. Yet, whenever 1 a.m. rolls around (it’s Maine), invariably someone pays to dig deep into the bar’s corporate, computerized jukebox to pull up “Come Sail Away,” and I fake the hell out of it. The reason why this Styx-typical overwrought, operatically goofy tale of regret and—being carried off to the stars by aliens, I guess—was chosen as my friend group’s croon-along is lost to the alcoholic mists of time. But its absurdly repetitive and passionate chorus (that goes on for seemingly ever) is just right for a bunch of drunk dopes to really throw themselves into it. Plus, I can at least remember the fully 11 times the song repeats the lyric “Come sail away/Come sail away with me” just fine.
I know exactly what you mean, Dennis. My karaoke addiction has been well-documented and endured by many of my fine friends and co-workers, and it’s about the only time I enjoy the radio-friendly classic rock of my youth. Tracks like Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Journey’s “Separate Ways” instantly turn large crowds into giant sing-alongs, because, like Dennis, everyone knows all the words to those songs, even if they don’t know they know them. Sometimes I over-shoot: Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” or any Queen cuts definitely shouldn’t be attempted by amateurs. But toss in some Billy Squier or Def Leppard’s “Rock Of Ages,” and once again, you’ll have to wrestle the mic away from me.