If you missed part one last week, check it out here.
7. “Hey Darling” by Sleater-Kinney
Confession: I thought No Cities to Love, the most recent Sleater-Kinney album, was merely average when I first heard it. I was once dumb enough to call Sleater-Kinney “the female Spoon,” because they were too predictably consistent to be exciting.
I’m an idiot. Sleater-Kinney is my favorite band now, and I live with the burden of my past comments as best I can. No Cities gets better each time I hear it (“A New Wave” should’ve been a hit); “Hey Darling” stands out because it’s tantalizing and seemingly half-formed.
In the song’s chorus, Corin Tucker sings this descending run of notes that makes me wish the song was 20 minutes long. Not only is the sentiment fascinating — with lyrics like “It seems to me the only thing / That comes from fame is mediocrity” — but it’s also the single catchiest moment on all of No Cities.
The chorus of “Hey Darling” is four lines long. The song is barely two minutes. I hear parts of tracks like that chorus, or the Sister Nancy sample on Kanye’s “Famous,” and I get greedy, wondering why the artist couldn’t just take this golden moment and multiply it for everyone’s benefit. Instead of listening to the whole song, I end up rewinding to that specific part several times in a row, getting this quick, fleeting high from just a few bars of music.
But isn’t there an old showbiz adage about “leave them wanting more?” Isn’t “enjoy the little things” an old nugget of wisdom we always hear? Perhaps these short glimpses of perfection are far better than lengthy gazes.
8. “Young Americans” by David Bowie
I’ve never actually tested this out, but I believe the best place to hear this song is while shooting baskets by yourself. It’s a freeform activity based on nothing more than impulsive movement. You move around from spot to spot on a court or a blacktop or a driveway, trying your best to get the ball in the basket, but honestly, it doesn’t matter to anyone if you make it or not.
That’s how “Young Americans” works for me. It’s not a high-stakes adventure. Nobody’s watching. Bowie is just grooving with his gospel choir — working up to danceable greatness, as he so often would, but doing it while barely breaking a sweat. The song doesn’t change, and Bowie settles into a routine, but he still seems to sing and own the track without any guiding lines or rules boxing him in. “Young Americans” is familiar, freeing and loose, and listening to it is an exercise in refocusing and relieving tension
9. “Helena” by My Chemical Romance
Senior Arts Editor Ben Rosenstock wrote this really cool thing a couple weeks ago at a site that’s not The Michigan Daily about how we look back with irony on a lot of the art we loved when we were younger and how a loss of sincerity probably isn’t a good thing. “Just because you liked something years ago doesn’t mean it’s automatically shitty,” he wrote.
I’ve held onto My Chemical Romance for an unbelievable amount of time. They were never my absolute favorites, and I never saw them live or anything, but I loved the cult-like following they inspired and how overly vulnerable and emotional their music was. If I were in a famous band, I used to think, I’d like to be making music like My Chem.
And I’m sort of embarrassed by that. I’m listening to them on Spotify in the library right now, and part of me is actually self-conscious about someone looking at my computer and judging me. I guess I think listening to My Chem would paint me as immature, pointlessly angry or simply as someone whose taste in music is stuck in development.
But I’m still listening, and I know I’m not the only one, and I think that makes My Chemical Romance secretly great. Secretly legendary, even. Truly, “Dead!” has energy near-unmatched by any other song ever, and “Teenagers” is insane, and “Black Parade” is iconic and “Helena” has a beautiful emo chorus. My Chem’s inevitable future reunion shows will be weird as hell, but I’ll proudly go to them if I can.
10. “Everything is Embarrassing” by Sky Ferreira
I don’t really know how to write about this song. Sky Ferreira’s big early single is a track I always gravitate towards when I’m anxious, or when I have this feeling like my heart’s sinking lower and lower into my stomach or when I want music to just give me emotional support while I sit around passively.
“Everything is Embarrassing” is a gift. It’s a beautifully crafted pop song that feels like so much more, a tidal wave of feelings you can somehow also dance to. Ferreira is one part chanting cheerleader, one part jilted lover and one part therapist. No matter what’s going on in your life, you’re always going to want support from at least one of those.
11. “They Reminisce Over You” by Pete Rock & CL Smooth
If somebody tells you they don’t like this song, run. Run far away. From old people who think they hate rap to Young Thug-loving kids who think golden-age hip hop is lame, that iconic saxophone hook and CL Smooth’s, um, smooth lyrical delivery cuts across all demos and ages.
But it’s not just musical perfection. “T.R.O.Y.” also ends up being one of the most philosophical hip-hop hits of all time. Over 10 years before Kanye’s “Family Business,” Smooth raps about his young single mama, his absent father, his alcoholic grandfather and all the other branches on his family tree that he admires.
Most importantly, the song is a tribute to Trouble T Roy, a rapper and friend of Rock and Smooth who died way too young. Rock immortalizes him in the notes of an unmistakable saxophone sample; Smooth takes it on himself to more explicitly dedicate the track to him, telling the story of how they first met and ensuring T-Roy’s belief in him gets passed on for generations. All this love has been carried on for decades now, just out of a few poetic words and a few-second sample of a cover of a Jefferson Airplane song.
12. “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order
If you’ve actually reached the bottom of this list, you’ve figured out that none of these songs really seem to have anything to do with the summer, or not knowing what to do with the summer. What they are, in reality, are songs that get my mind spinning, that get me thinking about what’s important in my life and what I’m feeling and what I still need to learn. They’re one means of enjoying the world through all its stress and confusion, of helping to get your mind healthier. I hope that’s at least somewhat apparent.
But no kidding, I’ve saved “Bizarre Love Triangle” for last because it is actually the most inspirational song I’ve ever heard, and it’s all because I can’t deconstruct it. Most songs, I can take what I hear and work backwards to imagine how they were written. Even if I can’t figure out the order they came in, I know the guitar part and the bassline and repeated samples and the drums and the melody and all that. Most songs are just several separate pieces that sound great when layered on top of each other.
Of all the songs in the world I really can’t figure out “Bizarre Love Triangle,” New Order’s club hit from the ’80s is at the top. All the disparate synth parts disorient me. The wildly up-and-down violin sound before the chorus that gets layered on top these choppy chords, the irrepressible, hopping bass and the notes just above it that seem to zig-zap through its cracks, all of these are impossible to keep track of.
The beautiful (all-instrumental) climax to this song comes three-fourths in, when the synths get bigger and higher, where they’re almost imitating a wordless gospel chorus and the bass gets louder to the point that it becomes the primary carrier of the melody. And then the song ends.
I don’t know how this song was written. Every time I listen, I try to figure out what the starting point was, and I still have no idea. It’s elemental — I can’t pull any part of this song into separate building blocks.
But it’s not important that I find out how “Bizarre Love Triangle” came to be. I’m so happy that I’ll probably never find out how. Because the fact is, somebody in New Order had these sounds in his head, something beautiful and dancey, complex yet light as a feather. And that person somehow took this little embryo of an idea, figured out how to translate it into music, and now it captivates me and probably a million others. He took nothing — literally, noises in his brain — and created “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
And so even when it feels like I don’t even have a step one to begin doing what I want to do, I know that as long as there’s an idea — as long as I have a working mind — there will be some way to make it happen.
You can keep looking out for part three, but like the “Cha Cha Slide,” that’s probably never going to come. Email Theisen at firstname.lastname@example.org.