The Music of 10 Cities

Memories are the backbone of this 10 Cities project.  What do I remember, what can I remember, what should I remember?  I don’t ever want to get so bogged down in nostalgia that I forget to live in the present, but reliving and retelling the stories of my time on the road are what give this whole idea everlasting life.  Of the 5 years, there is far more that I have forgotten than I remember.  Reminiscing with old friends always brings back something that had been lost in my back storage.

But memories are flushed out in many different ways.

It’s said that of our sense memory, smell is the strongest.  A whiff of a particular perfume, the aroma of a familiar food, we are suddenly transported back to another time, another place.  It can be a surprisingly powerful experience to be thrust back in time by the wafting cilia in your nose (I have no idea if cilia actually waft… artistic liberties).

But, for my money, nothing evokes a stronger flash of memory like a song.  Almost every one of the nearly 8,000 songs in my music library is tied to a particular moment, place, event or person.  Some more tangible than others.

Music is like that for all of us and it’s why songs can be such affecting stimuli.

Because of my frequent moves, I have to work hard to hold onto the past, lest the experiences in new cities demolishes the memories of the past.  I take photographs frequently for this very reason, as much an artistic expression as a bookmark in my ongoing memoir.  It’s music, though, that will forever tie me to a city.  Just as Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” still takes me back to my college years, there are songs and usually entire albums that will forever be linked to one of the 5 cities I’ve lived in so far.

Sometimes, in those moments between waking and sleeping, if one of those songs comes on, I’ll be so thoroughly transported, that coming back to consciousness will feel like I’ve stepped back out of time.

As I prepare for my sixth city, I’m indulging in some nostalgic peeks into my rearview mirror.  We all have those songs that link us to a person, maybe a best friend or an ex-lover, but these are the songs that serve as my bridge to the cities I have loved, each in their own way:


While I was living in Charlotte, a friend of mine and I exchanged pretty well our entire library of music on multiple CDs filled with mp3s (remember when you used to put mp3s on CDs and not Ipods?  Simpler times).  From the trade, I found new favorite bands and a plethora of more music from groups and people I already liked but of whom I had only a small selection of songs.  (RIAA, you can’t prove nuthin’).  From all of that music, one band stands out as the group I listened to the most that year:  The Decemberists.

Specifically, their two psuedo-sea shanties:  “A Cautionary Song” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (from “Castaways and Cutouts” and “Picaresque,” respectively).  Admittedly, these are probably odd songs to remember North Carolina by, but it’s that oddity (and, thus, rarity) that makes them stand out.  I hear those songs and I remember hanging out with one of my best friends in Chapel Hill and driving to Red Lobster with her group of friends because she had a craving for it.  And really, what better music to listen to on the way to Red Lobster than sea shanties?

There was also a girl I was seeing briefly, an Emo hairdresser who smelled like cigarettes and had an unabashed love for Billy Joel.  Yeah, I don’t know.  We traded music (including her copy of The Shins’ “Chutes Too Narrow,” now permanently in my collection), but while most of what she gave me was of the emo/punk variety, there were two bands she turned me onto that I have loved ever since.  First, there was The Magnetic Fields and their seminal 3-disc album, “69 Love Songs” and then there was Pinback’s lesser known gem, “Blue Screen Life.”  Of the two, it’s Pinback that transports me back to Charlotte whenever I listen to it (probably because it’s the only album of theirs I’ve ever picked up).  It’s so chill and cool, it reminds me of riding around in this girl’s truck (oh yeah, she had a pick-up truck) in the mild Charlotte winter.  I don’t even remember the girl’s last name, but the music sticks with me.


As I’ve discussed and referenced in numerous posts, when I first arrived in Philadelphia, I landed the seemingly dream job of working as a sales associate in a used CD/DVD store.  It didn’t quite turn out as I hoped, but I did increase my music library (perhaps most prized of all, getting my hands on Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea“).  But of all the music I listened to that year, there is one particular song and one album that evoke walking the grimy, busted Philly sidewalks like I was still there.

Firstly, Neko Case’s gorgeous vocal showcase, “Star Witness” from her arresting album, “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood.”  I already had a copy of the song from the CD Sampler that came with an issue of Paste Magazine and had been obsessively listening to it when one day I showed up to work and found that the (fat, disgusting, smelly, crackhead) boss had picked up a dozen copies of the album for just a few bucks (probably bought it off of a junkie who had lifted them).  I snagged one of them for myself.  I love the album (and her other albums), but it’s that one song that has me walking down 2nd Street again, sweltering in Philly’s summer sun, madly in love with Neko’s disembodied voice, longing for something or someone I lost.

Around the same time I found Neko’s album, Thom Yorke of Radiohead released his solo album, “The Eraser.”  The moment I got my hands on it, I blasted it on the speakers of the music store.  The majority of the people wandering through the store, mostly tourists, ignored it, but some recognized Thom’s distinctive voice, and a few people were even grooving to “Black Swan.”  But again, like with “Star Witness,” what stands out most to me was walking home from work listening to this album, sometimes as late as 2 or 3 in the morning when the only people on the streets were the homeless and the drunk.  It was a fitting soundtrack to that sort of giddy despair.

I was able to see Thom Yorke and his makeshift band, “Atoms For Peace,” perform “The Eraser” here in Chicago, and it was easily one of the best concerts of my life, but that will never change the memory association that I have with his album.

Costa Mesa

Thanks to a roommate who enjoyed hitting the beach during the day and the clubs at night (and the fact that in Costa Mesa there really isn’t a whole lot to do but drink and lay out in the sun), my time in SoCal was soundtracked  by a bit more danceable selection of music.  It was a blast of a year, despite the fact that I could never imagine returning to Orange County.

One of the songs that will always be linked to hitting the clubs in good ol’ Costa Mexico is (I may surprise you here), “American Boy” by Estelle (yes, with Kanye).  My roommate, Amber (check out her site) and our mutual friend Michelle used to blast this song almost every night before we went out and drank ourselves stupid, and though I’m no Kanye devotee, I can’t help but find the song catchy as hell and filled with fond memories.  Specifically, it reminds me of shots of Patron, back alley dancing and ending the night with Norm’s or Jack in the Box.  Yikes, talk about a year of living unhealthily.

But it wasn’t all drinking and dancing that year.  Sometimes I had to wake up the next morning and stumble almost-sober to work.  Rather, bike to work almost-sober.  Despite frequent cop warnings not to listen to music while riding my bike, I always did.  While multiple bands filled my ears, one album stands out as connected to many memories that year:  The National’s “Boxer.”  A nearly flawless album kicked off by the enrapturing “Fake Empire.”

The band will always be tied to a particular girl, but this album represents something simultaneously smaller and bigger than her.  It’s a very personal album, but it also represents the whole year for me, the warm nights biking through the empty streets, my feeling of disconnection from the glitz and superficial artifice of Orange County, yet my feeling of belonging among the fringe elements within that culture.  This album is, for me, about finding your place in a strange land.

San Francisco

I moved here with a girlfriend, and we had a very tough year, on a financial level, on a roommate level and on a relationship level.  We survived the year and left it with a lot of memories.  With a year so intrinsically tied to another person, it would be easy for most of the music I listened to that year to be tied specifically to her.  And much of it is.  But there were still some songs and albums that remained connected to solitary memories.

As is a theme with me, a lot of the music I listened to was on my way to and from work.  One of those songs was Val Emmich’s “Get On With It.”  I have never listened to anything else by this guy (this band?).  I literally know nothing about him and only have this song because of one of those Paste music samplers.  There’s nothing about this song that’s particularly amazing, but it always reminds me of getting off the bus and walking down that steep San Fran hill to my apartment, 2 or 4 blocks (depending on the bus).  If I was in a good mood, not stressing money or a fight with the girl, it pumped me up, put a smile on my face.  It was a simple pleasure, but it was mine, and for that five minute walk down towards Golden Gate Park, it was a perfect moment.

I also bought Portishead’s latest album, “Third” while I was there.  It was one of the first and only purchases I made that year while I didn’t have a job and was looking down the barrel of being completely broke.  It’s not even so much the music that brings me back there, but that feeling of ownership, of saying, “I don’t have much right now, but I want this album and goddamnit, I’m going to have it.”  It’s an album that is still growing on me with each listen, but as it does, it brings back memories of driving through the back streets of San Fran, uncertain of what was coming, but slightly calmer with the captivating voice of Beth Gibbons filling the space in my head.


This is a little harder to say, since I’m still technically here in Chicago (for 2 more weeks).  It’s difficult to be nostalgic about something you’re still living.  There are a couple of albums that I imagine will always be inextricably linked to my time in the Windy City, though.

Numerous tracks from Yeah Yeah Yeahs “It’s Blitz!” played at my work, and so this album will probably always remind me of my job here.  At the same time, I was already digging this album before I got the job, and the best songs on the album never played at work.  I can’t say for sure that I have any specific memories of Chicago tied to “It’s Blitz”, but it seems to me that down the line, listening to any track from this album will bring me back to my bitter winter working on Michigan Avenue.

The Mountain Goats’ “Life of The World To Come” came out while I was here, and the night before it did, they had a special screening of the Rian Johnson directed performance film with the same title.  I only recently bought the album and haven’t even listened to it much, but going to see the film was the first outing I did solo when I moved here.  In that way, I suspect listening to that album won’t so much conjure up specific memories, but rather, it will likely take me down a path of remembering the many friends I made this year with whom I had plenty of memorable nights (those I can remember).

I could guess about other songs and albums that might forever evoke Chicago for me, but it’s only with time that I’ll really know.

And then there’s Nashville.  What music will remind me of Music City?  Maybe I already own it and it’s just waiting for a chance to be tied to a place or event.  Maybe it’s a band that is only now recording their first album.  I can’t know, but when I’m done with all 10 Cities, it will be a pleasure to go back and make a compilation playlist of all the music that has defined my time on the road.

The soundtrack of my life.