10 Years in Music

Looking back is looking forward.

I’ve been known to indulge in my share of excavating. As I prepare for my next big move, I’ve been looking back, not only on the decade-long 10 Cities/10 Years, but also on my youth and even more recent history. Writing these chapters from my life has been rewarding, allowing me to scrutinize my memories and re-examine pivotal moments in my history, recontextualizing my history as it relates to my present. But there are other ways to explore the past.

One of my favorite tools for documenting my life in real time is Last.fm, a website I’ve mentioned not infrequently in these pages. It’s the simplest of ideas: the website tracks the music you listen to on your various devices and compiles that information into charts and data points. It’s extremely nerdy and entirely unnecessary, and I love it.

I started using Last.fm just a few months before I set out on my decade of travel, so I have a document of all the music I listened to throughout the entire journey from day one: my ups and downs, my relationships come and gone, my periods of depression and moments of hysteria, all of it soundtracked. It’s the kind of thing that I can nerd out over for hours, and often do.

I decided it would be informative to look at my Top Songs charts for the various years of my 10 city project to get a sense of the tenor of each year through my musical obsessions. I’ve taken a snapshot of my Top 5 tracks, so now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take another look back at my project, this time through song.

Call it 10 Cities/10 Years: The Soundtrack.

Or don’t, IDGAF.

1. Charlotte


How predictable. In my first year of traveling, I was still mostly listening to the artists who had gotten me through college, so Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright had been getting heavy rotation for a few years by this point (and still do). “Fake Plastic Trees” was my go-to favorite song for years, though its stature has diminished some over the years.

In terms of evolving musical tastes, The Decemberists were one of the many new artists a friend introduced to me while I was living in Charlotte. Especially in those early days, the Pacific Northwest band was known for their whimsical and eccentric mix of British folk and sea shanties. I was besotted with “The Engine Driver” which has this one verse:

I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I’ve written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones

It’s the kind of melodramatic sentiment that I absolutely adored back then. (Eh, still do.)

2. Philadelphia


Not much had changed in terms of favorite artists, though I was definitely listening to a more varied selection. “Come Pick Me Up” is my all-time most listened song and has never lost its “Favorite Song” status, but by this point I was starting to seek out more obscure artists. Mirah was another new discovery from my year in Charlotte, and she rapidly ascended into the realm of favorites. Though I’ve only followed her career intermittently recently, I was fortunate enough to see her play live just a few months ago at an intimate benefit show for LGBT youth. She was lovely.

Ghosty, for those that don’t know, is (was?) a band from my hometown in Kansas. They played a set at the famous World Café in Philadelphia and I saw them perform. Staying after to talk with the guys, I was surprised when the lead singer said that he actually knew me because he had seen me read poetry back in Lawrence. That was wholly unexpected and kind of cool.

3. Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa

For a time, Beirut was the musical artist I felt most spoke to my increasingly disparate tastes in music. I used to say that if I had any musical talent (I do not), I would make music exactly like Beirut. It’s interesting how, as especially so-called “indie” music has expanded in form and genre, the once unique Baltic sounds of Beirut have become just another common trope. I still enjoy Beirut, but my fervor has lessened considerably.

4. San Francisco

San Francisco

Starting to see some more female artists gain prominence in this list, though none of these three particular artists would be in my favorites. Still, Beth Orton’s Central Reservation did receive considerable play for a few years. “Concrete Sky,” which is off of a different album, features one-time Orton beau, Ryan Adams, so that probably helps explain its high chart position here. It’s also just a beautiful song.

“No Children” is, for me, the perfect song about a doomed relationship, that kind of love where the two people are terrible for each other but still work in a twisted sort of way. John Darnielle is a storyteller, and the entire Tallahassee album is arguably the best novel he’s ever written (though his two actual novels are worth a read). 

5. Chicago


My fifth year was, at times, arduous, as you might recall, so it’s not really surprising that the songs that got the most airplay in that year were in large part downcast affairs. I adore Neko Case’s entire oeuvre, and I consider her song, “Star Witness,” to be one of the defining songs of 10 Cities/10 Years (I’m frankly shocked at its absence on these lists). Although “Don’t Forget Me” is a Harry Nilsson cover, she definitively makes it her own.

Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” stands out from the other songs on the chart with its propulsive and infectious rhythms. It appeared on the Dark Was the Night charity compilation (along with Iron & Wine’s “Die”) and was basically the standout track from two discs of excellent but mostly similar sounding indie rock and folk music. Worth tracking down.

6. Nashville


In the wake of a bad break up in Chicago, Nashville’s list consists of a lot of old favorites; comfort food, I suppose. Ironic that the one Adele song that I was really into that year was actually one of her more upbeat tracks. Also, “Dear Chicago”? How on the nose could I be? (Granted, it’s a fantastic song.)

7. Seattle


Ryan reclaims the top track, but this time with a song that was never officially released. Both “Karina” and “Angelina” appear on the famously unreleased 48 Hours (bootlegs are available, obviously), which was scrapped in favor of Demolition, a solid but ultimately less cohesive album. I’ve said this elsewhere but, after Heartbreaker48 Hours is Ryan’s greatest album, and the fact that it has never officially been released is a tragedy (a few songs appear on Demolition). “Karina” is his most sympathetic and piercing character piece and deserves to be loved by millions. 

Otherwise, this list clearly reflects the counter-intuitively sunnier times I was having in Seattle. Also, funny to note just how much Childish Gambino has evolved as a writer and performer since those early days. “Freaks and Geeks” is still a banger.

8. New Orleans

New Orleans

This was another hard personal year, but still a year with a lot of partying, which is nicely exemplified in the dichotomy of Justin Timberlake and a pair of The National’s bleakest songs. The Divine Fits’ “Shivers” splits the difference, an old school proto-punk cover with the lyrics:

I’ve been contemplating suicide
But it really doesn’t suit my style
So I guess I’ll just act bored instead
And contain the blood I would’a shed 

Considering my state of mind that year, the song was clearly speaking to me. (The song also includes one of my all-time favorite lines of shade: “My baby’s so vain / She’s almost a mirror”.)

9. Boston


I’d been a fan of Death Cab for Cutie since college, and yet, somehow, I had never bothered to acquire their most critically acclaimed album, Transatlanticism. I rectified that in Boston and soon after became enthralled with the eight minute centerpiece. I was also still obsessing over Hurray for the Riff Raff, a folk/mixed genre band from New Orleans that you should also be obsessed with. Get on that.

(Also, yes, Justin Timberlake made the list two years in a row; no shame.)

10. Brooklyn 


And then came Brooklyn. Kanye West is an asshole. Kanye West is too full of himself. Kanye West lacks impulse control. All true. Also true: Kanye West can produce some amazing music. When Boston roommate, Emily, helped drive me to my tenth and final city, “Power” literally started playing the moment we passed the city limit sign. There couldn’t have been a more thematically appropriate song for that moment.

I had a brief fling with a French girl when I first moved to Brooklyn; my infatuation with The Stills’ french-language “Retour a Vega” lasted much longer. At the same time, I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with HAIM’s debut. Their latest release is very good, but I still play the hell out of Days Are Gone.

Goddamn right JT threepeated.

Album Credits

Notably, while many of my favorite artists are represented in these lists, there are plenty of others that don’t appear (no Sufjan Stevens, no Elliott Smith, no Spoon, no Rilo Kiley), while a number of artists who I barely listen to anymore (Night Terrors of 1927, really?) showed up.

I could have done this kind of list with my Top Artists or my Top Albums and gotten some very different results. For instance, these were my top albums from my year in Charlotte:

Charlotte Album

All five albums came out between 2005 and 2006, yet only one, Picaresque, is represented on the most played songs. I suspect that I was still getting to know these albums and thus listening to them straight through instead of just cherry picking my favorite tracks.

I chose to look at my top songs instead of albums or artists because I think they reflect my moods in those years more accurately. The album lists lean heavily towards recent releases, and my top artists stay pretty static from year to year (Radiohead and Ryan Adams are almost always in the top spots). By contrast, my ever-changing top song lists across my ten year journey illustrate not only an evolving musical taste, but they also provide insight into my mental state in those particular years.

Perhaps this sort of thing is only interesting to me (if so, you probably aren’t still reading, so who cares), but if you have a Last.fm account, I recommend taking a gander into your own past. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself.


For the completists in the continually dwindling crowd, I’m including my second and third year lists from my time in Brooklyn. As I’ve written about previously, the music of Songs: Ohia carried me through a very difficult post-project year, hence The Lioness charting so many tracks. And then, this current year’s list is a result of my concerted effort to seek out more diverse artists and voices, in particular more women. 

Brooklyn (Year 2)

Brooklyn 2

Brooklyn (Year 3)

Brooklyn 3

Ideally, the list will continue to evolve every year because I will continue to evolve. In that way, these charts serve both as a document of the past and a challenge for the future. Who knows what my playlist will look like after a year in Spain? I look forward to making fresh comparisons next August.

The 6 Best: My Favorite Albums of 10 Cities/10 Years, So Far

As I head into my 7th year of a 10 year project, I’m looking back on the art that I’ve discovered in my first 6 cities.  I’m examining the music, films and literature that have had the greatest impact on my life throughout the previous 6 cities.  In doing so, I’m only discussing the albums, movies and books that were released since June 1st, 2005, the official start of the project.  My intention is not to proclaim these as the greatest works of art in the past 6 years, but rather to spotlight the art that has had the deepest, most consistent effect on my life and the entire 10 Cities Project.

Regular readers will probably recognize a few of these from previous posts.  But maybe a few will surprise you.

Listed in order of release date.


Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (a.k.a. Come On Feel The Illinoise)
Released: July 4, 2005

How I came across it:  I was living in Charlotte, the first city of 10, and a girl I worked with gave me a burnt copy of it.  The rest is history.
Thoughts:  What can I say about this album that hasn’t been said a million times?  It is a masterpiece, best album of the year and in top running for best of this (still young) century.  If you haven’t given it a chance yet or if you have and haven’t fallen in love with it, nothing I say is going to change that.  I just feel sorry for you.

Margot & the Nuclear So And So’s – The Dust of Retreat
Released: March 28, 2006

How I came across it: I was living in Philadelphia, my second city, and a lot of my online writer friends were raving about a few of their songs.  I liked what I heard, so I tracked down the whole album.
  Probably the most obscure album on this list (not counting a couple of the honorable mentions), but among a certain subset of Indie folks, this is a holy work.  But don’t let that turn you off, because this album has an emotional resonance that most of the Too-Cool-For-School type albums couldn’t touch.  Nothing the band has done since has been even a tenth as rewarding, but at least we’ll always have this one album.

Thom Yorke – The Eraser
Released: July 11, 2006

How I came across it: I was working at the infamous used CD store in Philly when this album came out.  Being a huge Radiohead fan, I tried to get the store to bring in a few copies.  After waiting a week, I grew impatient and bought it from another store down the street.
Thoughts: Some might be surprised that Radiohead’s excellent “In Rainbows” isn’t on this list.  Well, I truly love that album and it almost made it to the top 6, but while I was thinking about it, I had to admit, this album has engrained itself into my life and memory so much more.  Perhaps it was getting to see Thom Yorke and his Atoms For Peace band play it live, or maybe it was just listening to the album while I walked the streets of Philly alone, but this album is an indelible part of my past now, a landmark work for me and 10 Cities.

Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog
Released: September 25, 2007

How I came across it: This album had been out for probably a year before I bought it.  I had an mp3 of standout track, “Boy With A Coin,” on my computer and loved it, but for some reason it took me months and months to pull the trigger.
Thoughts: Idiot!  That’s all I can say, because I should have had this album in my life for a year longer than I have.  Oh, how I have deprived myself!  Iron & Wine has always been a band (or act) that I’ve liked, but this album truly transformed my feelings into love.  Yes, it’s more produced and filled out than earlier albums, but contrary to common opinion, I don’t think intimacy and beauty can only be achieved by lo-fi recordings and poor sound.  This album deserves your time.  Don’t make my mistake.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Released: February 19, 2008

How I came across it: Another album where I had songs off of it for a few months before I bought it (thanks to Paste).  I can’t remember when I bought it exactly, but since it was released in 2008, I must have been living in either Costa Mesa or San Francisco.
Thoughts: Like Sufjan’s album, there is nothing I’m going to say about this album that is going to convince anyone to give it a chance if they haven’t already.  And also like Sufjan’s album, this is one that has become so big it’s broken out of the arena of strictly Indie kids.  And good for it.  I’m not one of those scenesters that needs my music to be obscure.  Great music should belong to the world, and deservedly this album has found a large audience.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Released: March 3, 2009

How I came across it: I’d been loving on Neko since Philly.  When this album came out, I think I probably bought it the first day.
Thoughts: Frankly, even I’m a little surprised that “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood” isn’t in this place, but I have to face reality.  While “Fox Confessor…” is the album that introduced me to Neko, and my favorite Neko song, “Star Witness” is from that album, I have to say that Middle Cyclone from beginning to end is the better album, and many of the songs on it have embedded themselves into my mind so deeply, even a hint of a melody from them can evoke an emotional response.  An album that deserves to be loved as much as “Illinois” or “For Emma, Forever Ago.”

Truly Honorable Mentions:

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Beirut – Gulag Orkestar
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Florence + The Machine –  Lungs
The Mountain Goats – Get Lonely
The National – Boxer

Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Paul Duncan – Be Careful What You Call Home

Radiohead – In Rainbows
Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Next:  My Favorite Films of 10 Cities/10 Years, So Far

Year End Lists

I’ll admit it.  I’m a sucker for Best Of lists and Top 10 anything.  I’ll read through a Best Opera of the Year list if I see it.   I eat it all up.

So when my favorite sites/magazines/bloggers put out their annual Best of the Year lists, I read them religiously, listen and watch samples and vote in their polls.  Some years I feel like I have a very vested interest in who tops the lists and I root for my favorites.

Something kind of unusual happened this year, though, while I was reading through Pitchfork’s Top 50:  I realized I didn’t care.  Now, it could partly be because any list that doesn’t include Arcade Fire’s killer third album, The Suburbs, in their top 10 has epically failed (and maybe Kanye’s new album is amazing, but I just can’t work up enough interest to care).

But even more so, I realized that 2010 just wasn’t a big year for music, for me. I like to make my top 10 list every year just as much as everyone else, but I realized that I couldn’t do it this time.  For one, I don’t think I bought 10 new albums this year (albums that released in this year), and for another, of the new albums I did buy, only a few made much of an impact on my listening habits.

Frankly, I’m surprised how much Arcade Fire stuck out for me this year, because despite their solid first two albums, I never gave them more than a cursory listen before this year.

Both Rufus Wainwright and Antony and the Johnsons released albums this year, two artists who I love religiously.  And while both albums are solid entries, neither has managed to wiggle their way into regular rotation for me (yet; sometimes it can take as much as a year or two before an album really grabs me, so we’ll see).

This is why I love Last.Fm.  Instead of racking my brain trying to scrape together ten albums that I can say I liked, maybe even embellishing a bit so that my tastes seem hipper, I can just look and see what albums I liked this year.  I simply zip over to my album chart and click on ’12 Months’ and I can see exactly what albums I’ve listened to throughout 2010, with a Top 10 (Top 20, Top 50) list already made out for me.

So, what do I see?  (Click picture to enlarge.)

Well, Arcade Fire’s is the only album released this year that even cracked my top 10.  Florence + The Machine’s addictive album Lungs is essentially tied with The Suburbs, but it came out smack in the middle of 2009 (I just didn’t get it until this year).

Spoon’s stereotypically strong Transference made the top 20 in the kind of unassuming way they have of always hanging around the periphery of my favorite bands, and then Rufus’s All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu squeaked in as well.  Otherwise, my top 20 consists of pretty well all modern classic albums (Radiohead’s OK Computer, Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker, etc) and albums I discovered late (Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog, The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America).

Now, to be fair, the one flaw of making a Best Of list based purely on listens is that albums released throughout the year just don’t have the opportunity to be listened to as much as older albums in my collection.  Of course OK Computer is going to have a lot of listens, it’s my all time favorite album and I’ve had years to grow accustomed to it and find all its charms.

New albums take time to unravel.  I can honestly say that Jónsi’s Go and Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz (and his All Delighted People EP) are in my top 5 of the year, but I just haven’t owned them long enough to earn a high playcount.

All the same, looking at the album chart is fairly revealing of where I was throughout this year.  It was a hard year, and for that reason, I turned to the comfort of familiar albums quite often, it seems.

One interesting anomaly is Ryan Adams’s 48 Hours.  It’s an album that was never officially released but dates back to Heartbreaker/Gold era Ryan.  It’s a great album and it doesn’t surprise me that it has charted so high, but I do think it’s interesting to have something that was never officially released be my 2nd most listened album of the year.

As we’re all making our year end lists and looking back on the past 365 days that has arbitrarily been determined to end and begin January 1st, I think it’s fascinating to examine our past behavior for true patterns, not just tidy Top 10 ready snapshots.

So, tell, me, who have you been listening to this year?

P.S.  And feel free to send me your Top 10 lists, cause I friggin’ love ’em and I’m always open for musical suggestions.