Adam Theisen: 12 songs for when you have no idea what you’re doing this summer (part one)

Sunday, April 10, 2016 - 4:27pm

These aren’t songs that will directly help you get an internship or figure out what your true passion is. Conversely, I hope this list still has value even if you already know yourself and what you’re going to be doing when school takes a break. But as the end of the semester comes and shit gets (more) stressful and the unknown quantity of these next four months looms large in my life, I’m just taking stock of some songs that I really enjoy.

1. “Work From Home” by Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign

Don’t have a job lined up yet? There’s more than one way to work. As Fifth Harmony proves in this song, you can always go to work even if you’re not in an office. And they make putting in hours at home sound way more appealing.

In all honesty, though, this is the kind of song that holds me hostage. Just writing these few sentences right now has required a Herculean effort on my part (you’re welcome). This beat just opens up a vacuum in my brain and eliminates all thoughts (including how to spell “vacuum”). That’s not always a bad feeling, and “Work From Home” is a nice way to kill three minutes.

But really, I just wanted an excuse to make you watch the “Work From Home” video, which serves as undeniable proof that the next “Magic Mike” needs a construction site setpiece. (Also, how the hell was this director able to sexualize cement?)

2. “The Knock” by Hop Along

I feel like I’ve been drowning in new music lately. I’ve been chasing every offhand recommendation on Twitter, obsessively exploring any band that gets interviewed by a writer I like and trying really hard to actually listen to songs when my friends tell me “you should listen to this song.” I have musical FOMO, and it’s a problem.

But Hop Along has been a brilliant reward for this slight insanity. The band’s Painted Shut, which came out in 2015, is one of the best rock records I’ve heard in the last few years — this really thoughtful brand of punk punctuated by the gruff yet breathlessly pretty vocals of Francis Quinlan. Maybe picking the opening track as the best feels like a cop-out, but the lyrics are hypnotically inscrutable and even though it doesn’t even have a chorus there’s a secret catchiness in the chaos. “The Knock” is a song that motivates me to keep searching for more, to look up all the unfamiliar band names I see each day. Hustle gets results.

3. “These Days” by Drake

In what’s probably the first ever intersection of Drake and Wes Anderson, this Drizzy cover of a track you probably best know from “The Royal Tenenbaums” hit the Internet a couple weeks ago. It’s weird, and it’s not especially great. Drake competently handles himself on the verses, but his straining voice when he tries to sing the title phrase feels awkward and out of place. It’s hard to fault the singer of a Nico song for having a bad voice, because Nico herself usually sounded like she was singing from bed with a major cold and giant headphones playing a different song in her ears, but her ugly German vocals owned this song.

When the Drake cover came out, I also made the unfortunate discovery that Nico was maybe kind of a Nazi (at least according to Wikipedia). This sucks for me, if I’m allowed to make someone’s hardcore racism about myself for a minute, because “These Days” was a revelation for me when I first heard it. Jackson Browne’s expert guitar picking and Nico’s terrible, bitter-trying-to-be-sweet voice somehow combined to make a stunningly beautiful track unlike anything I’ve ever heard since. I listened to it over and over again when I was like 15, to the point where I almost became depressed that I’d never hear another track that hit me for the first time in the same way “These Days” did (I’ve been proven false on that point multiple times since).

I like, then, that Drake’s version carries the torch of “These Days” while also being kind of a middle finger to an artist who once, to quote Wikipedia, “attacked a mixed-race woman in a restaurant with a smashed wineglass, saying ‘I hate black people.’” I like how unexpected it was, that it was this risky music that surprised me, and that it twists the legacy of Nico and this song into something more playful and loose. I’d pay good money to hear him do Bridgette Bardot.

4. “Come On a Cone” by Nicki Minaj

I sometimes wonder if I listen to too much music. I’m almost never not putting songs in my ears, whether it’s earbuds when I walk to class or blasting songs out of the speakers of The Michigan Daily Arts computer or even putting on jazz when I need to read in concentrate. The amount of silence in my life is practically zero.

Sometimes, then, I worry that all the music I listen to just blurs into one big hulk of noise, like this single static note that I can’t appreciate because I’ve forgotten what life is like without it.

But then I hear something like the unapologetic mania of Nicki Minaj’s “Come On a Cone” and I get so excited because I know that no matter how many times I hear it, I will always be equal parts perplexed and thrilled by how a world-famous pop star was able to put this song together.

With a beat set in what sounds like an ’80s space arcade game, Minaj roleplays a whole soap opera’s worth of characters, from the angry rapper doing the verses to the hysterical voice repeating the title phrase to the aspiring American Idol contestant belting “dick in your face!” like it’s “God Bless America.” No matter how weird and abrasive future music gets, nobody will ever be able to sit and listen and just calmly accept this song, and it makes me crack up and smile every time.

5. “Please Do Not Go” by Violent Femmes

I have no idea how the Violent Femmes happened. Their self-titled debut is one of the most underrated records of the ’80s, and while everybody knows “Blister in the Sun,” there’s a whole spectrum of emotion and experience on just these ten songs.

The most fascinating part of this record is how “Please Do Not Go” and “Add It Up” sit right next to each other on the track list. You might know “Add It Up” if you’ve seen “Reality Bites” — it’s the song Ethan Hawke sings that’s like, “Why can’t I get just one kiss? Why can’t I get just one screw,” et cetera.

That song is obviously a lot over overly aggressive nonsense, but it works so well because it’s preceded by its ultimate contrast in “Please Do Not Go.” One of the most sensitive and vulnerable songs you’ll ever hear, “Please Do Not Go,” is singer Graham Gano begging at the doorstep of this girl he loves, sounding way too drunk with the way his voice warbles and cracks. Somehow, these folk-punk malcontents find a way to break your heart on this track, but “Please Do Not Go” is especially incredible because it’s just one part of what feels like a single record’s attempt to capture every emotion of the human experience. It also has a killer bass solo.

6. “Beauty School Dropout” by Frankie Avalon

I just love how in “Grease” they decide to stop the whole storyline for four minutes and let this Frankie Avalon hallucination steal the entire show. And don’t be misguided: “Beauty School Dropout” is the best song in “Grease,” neither overly cheesy nor rape-y nor lacking actual words like its most popular numbers. Hilarious and wonderfully sung, Avalon is simultaneously fatherly, cool and heavenly, which is a combination I think only John Legend has pulled off since.

Can anyone confirm if pink-haired Frenchy actually goes back to high school after hearing this song? I can’t figure it out. If I was alone at Hunter House and Aaron Carter showed up to give me catchy advice, I’d probably just go home and never tell a soul what I saw. But then again, I never flunked shampoo.

Anyway, this song is a classic, and it just narrowly beats out Andrew Rannells doing the ridiculous conviction of “I Believe” in “The Book of Mormon” as the musical song that inexplicably inspires me in this moment.

Confused about what these songs have to do with summer? Look out for part two, same time next week. In the meantime, email Theisen at