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.

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 04/18/13

Divine Fits – Shivers

A Thing Called Divine Fits is probably my favorite album released in 2012, which is saying something because it was a good year for music. Spoon is one of my favorite bands, and when Britt Daniel takes the lead on this album, the songs sound like classic, crunchy Spoon (some of the experimentation comes through, on tracks like “The Salton Sea“). True to Spoon-form, the Divine Fits included a slightly obscure cover song and make it their own. In this case, The Boys Next Door’s rocker, “Shivers.” The way he sings the chorus on the studio version feels so visceral, so raw that I was actually surprised to learn it wasn’t a Britt original. Well, the fact is, anything he touches he makes his own.

Robyn – Call Your Girlfriend

Robyn’s 2010 album, Body Talk, is pretty much already a classic of the dance music genre, and it’s songs like “Call Your Girlfriend” that make it so. Dance music should be fun, effervescent and impossible to forget. This is just that sort of track, while also managing to have a deep vein of pathos and truth in the lyrics. Working in a genre that can often seem light and shallow, Robyn redeems it. Plus, this exists.

Iron & Wine – Belated Promise Ring

Look, I don’t want to come off as one of those people who is all, “Studio production is bad! Music should all sound like it was recorded in a garage,” because I’m definitely not that way. I loved The Shepherd’s Dog. But one listen through Kiss Each Other Clean left me completely cold and nothing I’ve heard from the new release, Ghost On Ghost, sounds appealing to me. The music just sounds overstuffed and devoid of emotion. And it was the emotional resonance which got us all loving Iron & Wine in the first place, right? Well, luckily in 2009, Sam Beam released the odds and ends collections, Around The Well, which includes mostly sparse and intimate songs that never made it on an album. Not everything is a winner, as the is the nature on these sorts of albums, but “Belated Promise Ring” stands among the best I&W songs, and it does it while sounding studio polished but not overly so.

Tom Waits – Come On Up To The House

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, someone posted this video on Facebook and I immediately had to buy the whole album, Mule Variations. I already had the track “Hold On,” from the album, and it’s one of my favorites (and maybe more what someone would expect to hear after a tragedy), but this track (and lyric video) just grabbed me. It’s not a simplistic, “everything will be okay” message, but rather the grizzled soothing of an old man who’s seen a lot and knows the world can suck. “Does life seem nasty, brutish and short / Come on up to the house.” Yes, sometimes we all need to hear that.

Justin Timberlake – Mirrors

I could have made this entire post just songs from The 20/20 Experience, that’s how consistent and thoroughly enjoyable the album is. JT gets fairly experimental (for Pop) on his new LP, and those experiments mostly pay off, but on a couple tracks he just boasts his straight up Dance Pop bona fides. Nowhere does he do it better than this album stand out, the song I can’t stop listening to on repeat. A love song to his wife, it’s everything a casual fan of Timberlake could hope for, and as the second to last track on the album, it’s the climax to a solid build of momentum. Pop Perfection.

Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 06/16/11

Death Cab For Cutie – You Are A Tourist

I’m really enjoying the whole new album, Codes and Keys, right now, and it would probably be fair for me to put up some track other than the first single to present a better idea of the whole package.  But dammit, I just dig this song.  It feels simultaneously like classic and new Death Cab, and while I’ve never been their biggest fan, I’ve always had a soft spot for a lot of their work, even after they “sold out” to a major record label (slag off).  Plus, this video was shot live, so, you know, gimmicky.

A.A. Bondy – When The Devil’s Loose

This song is actually a couple of years old, and I’ve been digging on it for awhile, but I figured it was as good a time as any to spotlight it.  I love the sleepy vocals, the fuzzed ambiance, the guitar that just sort of flitters in and out.  The strings that casually make an appearance throughout effectively set the mood, but it’s the total package that just makes this song sink in.  Like so many artists, I still need to track down more of his music, but for now I’m content with the loveliness of this one track.

Beck – Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime

When Beck covers a song, he kills it.  Should be no surprise there, the man is a master.  While he gave this 80s original the Gary Jules/Movie Soundtrack make over, this transcends the schmaltz-factor by being absolutely heartbroken but restrained.  Some songs lose their effect once removed from the movie imagery, but that’s not the case with this song.  In fact, ignore the video, turn off your lights and just listen to the music in the stark solitude of an empty bedroom.  It’s like all of Beck’s Sea Change condensed into one track.  Gorgeous.

Justin Timberlake – (Another Song) All Over Again

So, I’m not sure if you were aware of this, but Justin Timberlake is the shit.  At this stage in the game, if I have to list all the reasons why, you just haven’t been paying attention.  When I hear people hating on him, I feel the same sort of pity that I feel for evolution-deniers.  It’s just sad.  Dude’s a force.  So, yeah, his best songs are dance grooves, and as far as album tracks go, there are better songs, but I’m still enjoying this one at the moment.  I’m a sucker for smooth R&B vocals with twinkling pianos.  Futuresex/LoveSounds is a classic, and “(Another Song) All Over Again” might be a minor cut off of it, but that’s still high praise.

A Tribe Called Quest –  Scenario

Lest I be accused of being a sad sack, here’s a hit of id for you.  I have to thank my brother Fonz for giving me this album for my bday, I’ve been enjoying it thoroughly.  This was the socially conscious, intelligent rap that the 90s produced.  I’m not gonna be pathetic and say, “They don’t make rap like this anymore” because I’m sure that isn’t true.  But just like the early social message of Dylan and his ilk eventually gave over to pure pop sensibilities and inward focused lyrics as the decade progressed, rap has definitely entered it’s mass consumption stage.  But make no mistake, smart rap still exists, and we have the Tribe partially to thank for it.

Plus, Bo Jackson reference.  Word.