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.

How music can save a life

I was falling apart. Just weeks after having reached the anticlimactic denouement of 10 Cities/10 Years, I’d sunk into a depression as toxic as the poisoned well from my year in New Orleans.

I felt an overwhelming emptiness. A decade of my life had been dedicated to this one purpose, and now I had nothing. Nothing to show for my efforts, nothing to look forward to, no sense of myself. I was just another broken branch thrown into the bonfire of Brooklyn, turning to ash.

There were acerbating factors, as well. Suddenly broke, I started two new office jobs on top of my bartending gig, working six to seven soul-crushing days a week. Wanting nothing but to curl up in my darkened bedroom, I’d come home to an apartment bustling with an unrelenting rotation of new roommates and temporary guests that stripped me of any sense of solitude. Making matters worse, one of those guests was a girl I had briefly dated; relations had soured between us and her presence was a constant source of anxiety.

Even once I did pass through the gauntlet of the living room, I’d step into my bedroom and onto a drenched throw rug: my room repeatedly flooded from rain water that poured in through the shoddily spackled walls. Peace of mind was always on tomorrow’s to do list.

One Saturday night, having bartended until two in the morning, I returned home but couldn’t bear being inside my apartment where the paper thin walls ensured I was never truly alone. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and ascended to the roof.

Usually, I would have the black space to myself, but that night, three of my neighbors were upstairs sitting around candlelight and listening to music off of one of their phones. Providing the bare minimum of social interaction to be part of the group, I sat and listened.

While the guys chatted about topics I couldn’t pretend to care about, a song began that immediately grabbed my attention, the first mournful strum of a minor chord ricocheting through me like a scream in a cavern.

“Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia is heavy, a love song haunted by death, or maybe more accurately, a funeral dirge pierced through with aching love. “Every kiss is a goodbye,” the singer confesses, then repeats more insistently. It’s a mournful ballad, a heartbroken and brittle cry, and in that moment, it pierced through me like a religious revelation.

I couldn’t get the song out of my head. The chorus repeated inside me – “Your hair is coxcomb red, your eyes are viper black” – like it was some sort of incantation, a summoning to a lost spirit.

In a trance, I bid goodnight to the neighbors and immediately went online to track down the song and its album, The Lioness. I spent a few days hoping to find a CD in local record shops – for some reason, I felt compelled to own a physical copy of the album – but when the search didn’t pay off, I downloaded the album and spent the next month listening to it almost exclusively.

Laid low by depression, the music of the late Jason Molina wrapped around me and kept me warm, kept me sane; kept me alive.

Songs Molina

I’m recounting this now because over the weekend I had the good fortune to see Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. at the Littlefield here in Brooklyn. If that name is a bit cumbersome, it’s because it pays tribute to a complex and troubled artist. The concert, in honor of Jason Molina, was performed by a group of his former bandmates, tourmates, and friends.

Molina was the driving force behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., among other musical acts. He was a prolific songwriter and an omnivorous consumer of genres, shaping them around his singular voice and lyricism. By the time I discovered “Coxcomb Red” on that September night in 2015, Molina had been dead for over two years, the result of alcohol abuse and addiction. He had been 39.

I wasn’t entirely unaware of Molina’s work before his death. I had a passing familiarity with Magnolia Electric Co., mostly as a name I read in headlines on Pitchfork or saw listed on compilations. There are so many artists, it’s hard to know where to start, especially when it seems like it’s just another white guy indie band. Perhaps for many, that’s all the collective output of Molina will ever be, but once I discovered it, it became a salve.

Molina put out a prodigious amount of music under his various names, whether as a solo artist or with a band. I’ve spent the nearly two years since I first encountered Songs: Ohia listening to as much of Molina’s music as possible, and yet, at the memorial concert, there were still a handful of songs I had never heard, and talk of recordings I’ve never tracked down.

Standing in that audience with people who had loved Molina’s music and hearing stories about the man from people who had known him in life, I was moved near to tears. I, like I imagine many people, had found his music in an incredibly bleak time in my life, so I came prepared for a somber affair, and while at times there were moments of solemnity, the show was more often a celebration, a recognition of both the man and the friendships that he had helped bring together.

That is the power of music, the magic of a song. On this blog which is ostensibly about traveling, there are nearly as many posts tagged “music” as there are “travel.” In my lowest times, I’ve always turned to musicians. They lift me up, console me, give me perspective, and often articulate my own emotions better than I can.

On at least one occasion, music has literally saved my life.

Sigur Ros Untitled

I’ve previously recounted my ill-fated college road trip to Seattle on this blog, so I won’t rehash the full story here. The relevant portion took place on the second night of the trip when, after having crossed into Wyoming, I was waylaid by a late season blizzard that sent my poor two-door Ford Escort flying off the road and into a snowy ditch. I spent two hours in a gulch before a tow truck pulled me out and I was able to cautiously drive my hatchback through the night until I found a rest stop.

Hoping the storm would keep the authorities otherwise occupied, I broke the rules of the rest stop and settled into my back seat to sleep through the night. I hadn’t packed for a blizzard (it was early spring and back home was already experiencing summer temperatures), so as I shivered in my back seat, I slid on any layer of clothing I could find and wrapped myself in a blanket that I always kept in the back. It wasn’t enough.

For two days, all I had consumed was half a box of granola bars and a few cans of warm Sprite. My body was sore and exhausted, I didn’t own a cellphone, and  my emergency funds were already depleted after paying for the tow service. I was also acutely aware that no one knew where I was.

While my stomach growled, I was too tired to think straight, but too frazzled by my predicament to sleep. I closed my eyes and hoped unconsciousness would arrive, but my mind was racing, my heart beating unsteadily as I couldn’t shake the fear that I might have hopelessly driven myself into a whited-out no man’s land.

To calm my nerves, I slid on my headphones and used the last of my weathered, portable CD player’s battery life to listen to Sigur Rós’s untitled album (the cover stylized as an empty parenthetical). The eight-song suite of tranquil, atmospheric instrumentals paradoxically evoked images of a snow-covered tundra and the enveloping warmth of a sun-bleached day.

The album soothed me, like aural Prozac, my panicked mind now focused solely on the lilting and crescendoing themes. If I was to be buried in a mound of snow, at least I wouldn’t be alone. By Track 5, I had drifted into sleep.

To say that Sigur Rós saved my life is not to suggest I would have died without music. But, if I had not been able to sleep, if I had continued to try to forge through the intensifying blizzard while sleep-deprived and dangerously low on blood sugar, the next day’s bad decisions would have likely been even worse. I was lucky to get through that ordeal; I very easily could have been unlucky.


I turn to music for strength, whether I’m trying to get through a long work day or in the midst of an existential crisis. All art forms – literature, film, television, photography – offer some form of comfort against the ceaseless horrors of human existence, which is why art exists. Music just happens to be the most immediate form, a mainlined narcotic.

I do not abide people who call certain types of music “depressing.” That’s not how depression works. Depression isn’t just feeling sad or thinking about something unpleasant; it’s the deeply penetrating iteration of destructive, self-hating thoughts that cannot be reasoned or wished away. Depression has many triggers, but minor chords aren’t among them.

For those who have come to love the frequently subdued music of Jason Molina – though his oeuvre can span the spectrum from exultant to funereal – what resonates so deeply is the stark honesty and humanity he projected. He was an artist who could convey raw emotions more nakedly than almost anyone, which, admittedly, doesn’t always make for the easiest listening experience. It’s not supposed to.

I was lucky to find Songs: Ohia when I did. If one wonders how someone in the midst of a depressive episode could find appeasement in the bleakness of an album like The Lioness, it’s quite simple: when Molina was singing in my room, I didn’t feel alone. Isn’t that why we listen?

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 08/03/15

For what will be my last 5 Songs of the project, I’m listing a small selection of songs that have been very important to me over the length of the last decade. These are the songs that I discovered in one of the 10 cities and haven’t let go of since.

Neko Case – Star Witness

I feel like I write about this song once every six months, which makes it the perfect choice to kick off this list. I first heard it on a Paste Magazine compilation (back when they had a print edition) while I lived in Charlotte, but it wasn’t ’til I was living in Philadelphia and working for that infamous store that I got my hands on the full album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I loved that album as well as each of Case’s subsequent releases, but when it comes down to it, “Star Witness” is still the song that has my heart. Beautiful, sad and stark, it’s Case at her absolute best.

The National – Slow Show

Like Neko Case, I was introduced to the National through the Paste music sampler, and I have similarly been obsessed with all of their music ever since. Although their song “Fake Empire” first grabbed my attention, it was “Slow Show,” the romantic centerpiece of the excellent Boxer, that cemented the band as my go-to band for sad sack moments of quiet desperation, of which I’ve had many over the years. And even though the age 29 has come and gone, and thus I will never be able to post these lyrics on Facebook for a lover, it still remains one of my favorite paeans to longing and desire.

Mirah – Don’t Die In Me

I was introduced to Mirah by my college girlfriend’s roommate, and though I haven’t followed her career all that much lately, there was a brief period in which I was fairly obsessed with her music. Her devotees might tell me she’s released better albums since C’Mon Miracle and I’d be willing to accept that, but nothing is going to change how I feel about “Don’t Die In Me.” For years, this was my poetry-writing-song. There was just something in the abstractness of the lyrics mixed with the directness of the music that inspired me. Even now, when it comes on I’m washed over with memories and a fuzzy feeling of loss, the sense that the past is past and I can only march forward.

The Decemberists – The Engine Driver

The first person I became friends with in Charlotte has remained one of my best friends throughout this whole decade. In that first year of my project, she and I exchanged essentially our entire music collections. I had the entire libraries of Radiohead, Ryan Adams and probably a bunch of Christian artists I rarely listen to anymore. She had a whole slew of indie bands that Pitchfork loved then hated then loved again (and probably now hate), including one of the most divisive artists under the “indie” banner, the Decemberists. Even as the band has lost their ‘hip’ cred, they’ve remained a favorite. And yes, “The Engine Driver” is a cheesy song for a writer (of fictions) to list as one of his essentials, but there it is. No shame: It’s over the top and excessively romantic and that’s all I want from my PNW folk music. Deal with it.

The Mountain Goats – No Children

Bleak as shit? You bet your ass. Kind of heartbreaking? Certainly. Filled with uncensored expressions of humanity? Absolutely. This may be the quintessential Mountain Goats song, so be warned if this is your first experience of them. By no means do I want to suggest that this is their definitive sound as each album has its own vibe and unique sensibilities (and themes, usually), but this exemplifies what John Darnielle does best: Craft unflinching portraits of the darker side of life. In the context of the album, Tallahassee‘s, longer narrative, “No Children” is one of many rough chapters in the lives of a couple whose marriage and lives are falling apart. Out of context, it comes off like the ultimate ode to shitty relationships. However it is experienced, “No Children” reveals a sad truth: Sometimes the person we’re closest with is the one who is doing us the most harm.

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 04/10/15

Death Cab for Cutie – No Room In Frame

The newest Death Cab album, Kintsugi, is getting mixed reviews, which is pretty much par for the course for latter day DCFC (or, really, any once critically beloved band), but for my money this is their most thoroughly enjoyable album since Plans. There’s a darkness throughout the album – reflecting Ben Gibbard’s recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel – and that’s exactly what was needed to rejuvenate the band (sorry, Ben). For that reason, “No Room in Frame” is the perfect opener, a bitter kiss off to a lover who is too enamored with her own fame and public appearance to allow room for him. It’s biting, incisive and tinged with hurt, like every great Death Cab song should be. Oh yeah, it’s catchy, too.

The Mountain Goats – Heel Turn 2

Last year, John Darnielle released Wolf in White Van, his first novel. Well, technically his first novel, because in reality most of his albums are so full of details and painfully true characters that it feels like I’ve been reading Darnielle books for years. When the most recent Mountain Goats release, Beat The Champ, was announced, I was a little skeptical: an entire album about wrestling? Well, no shock, Darnielle managed to take a subject I couldn’t care less about and find the pathos and humanity in it. “Heel Turn 2” is the centerpiece of the album, and besides for having his trademark lyrical vulnerability, it makes a genuine left turn halfway through the song: The vocals disappear and all that’s left is gorgeous, haunting piano work. In a career built on unexpected maneuvers, there’s really only one thing you can count on from Darnielle: Beautiful music.

Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July

If you’re seeing a pattern with these choices this time, there’s a reason for that. This has been a flat out phenomenal year for music so far. I feel spoiled. Not only are some of my favorite artists releasing music, but none have disappointed. Sufjan Stevens came out of hiding with Carrie & Lowell last month, and man does it pack an emotional wallop. Sonically, the album is probably his least varied creation so far – mostly unadorned vocals and piano or guitar with lilting atmospheric tones floating behind him. Yet, each song evokes very specific emotions, like the devastating “Fourth of July” (which brings to mind another holiday song by Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”). If I had any nitpicks with this album, it’s that it was released 3 months too late. This is clearly winter music.

Damien Rice – I Don’t Want To Change You

Dropping back to last year (only because I already mentioned the Decemberists in my last entry in this series), I have to give a shout out to Damien Rice’s lovely return from exile, “My Favourite Faded Fantasy.” Rice vanished after his last, not-quite-critically beloved album, 9. Folksinger with a guitar is always going to risk being a little too ‘soft rock’ for the critics, and admittedly some of his lyrics can be a bit ponderous. But Rice’s gift has always been in the gut-punch manner his songs connect both the saddest and happiest parts of love in one moment. In that way, “I Don’t Want to Change You” is classic Damien and a stand out track on an album that constantly reminds me why I used to listen to O night after night in my college years.


And finally…


Number 5…

Taylor Swift – Style

Hate if you must (must you?). Question my manhood (you wouldn’t be the first). Think Taylor Swift is annoying (eh) or a bad singer (eh) or has lousy legs (I will fight you to the death), but it doesn’t matter. I could pretend otherwise, but the truth is, I can’t get enough of this song. I thought “Shake It Off” was catchy, I enjoyed the self-deprecating wit of “Blank Space,” but “Style” is where TSwift (I promise I will never write that again) hits it out of the park. I’ve made no secret of my affection for pure pop gold, and that’s what she’s managed to create here. It’s easy to hate Taylor Swift when she’s talking about life in New York City or saying stupid, 14-year-old girl shit in interviews. It’s a whole lot harder to hate her when she just lets the music play (and, also when she’s wearing a “tight little skirt”).


10 Years On: Revisiting Illinois

Sufjan Stevens is a bit of a joker. When he released his album, Michigan, in 2003, it marked the beginning of his 50 State Project. He was supposedly going to write an album for every state in the Union. This audacious venture seemed to be confirmed when he released his follow-up 2 years later, Come On Feel The Illinoise, more commonly known as Illinois.

But it was all a lark. Stevens had no intention of creating an album for all 50 states, despite the fact that the first 2 albums were almost universally hailed as brilliant works. When he released the true follow up to Illinois many years later (not including the B-Sides collection, The Avalanche), he had dropped the banjo and folk trappings for an electronica addled album whose lyrics eschewed clear storytelling for more personal yet more abstruse meandering.

Now, on the verge of a new release, Carrie & Lowell, which promises to be a return to his folkier side, this is the perfect time to dust off an old feature around these parts (read the other 2 entries here and here) and give Illinois the ol’ 10 Year revisit.

It’s a long album with long titles and this will be an appropriately lengthy post, so strap in and get comfortable. Here we go.

Illinois Cover (Sufjan Stevens)

 “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

The album begins almost angelically, with a silky piano line and a floating flute while Sufjan introduces us to the two main themes that will weave themselves throughout the album: Christian imagery and arcane historical factoids about Illinois. One of his strengths as a songwriter is his ability to craft lyrics that are packed full of details and yet still feel open to personal interpretation and revelation.

It’s a quick intro, but it sets the mood.

“The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience, but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'”

And then those rumbling drums and escalating voices change the mood. This instrumental piece is the first of many on this album. It’s interesting that in 2005, when this album was released, buying individual songs online had already caused a major shift in the industry (that’s ongoing today). People were cherry-picking their favorite tracks and skipping whole albums, and here comes Illinois with instrumental tracks and interludes that beg you to listen to the whole thing front to back. This is the first indication that this won’t be your average Indie Rock/Folk/Whatever album.

“Come On! Feel The Illinoise!: The World’s Columbian Exposition/Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream”

This is where the meat of the album truly begins. Broken in to 2 parts celebrating, respectively, the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893 and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Sandburg. If you want a breakdown of all the references in this song (and throughout the album) head over to Genius.com. They’ll do a much better job than I could ever hope to do.

The transition in this song is my favorite part. It loops and escalates like a spring until popping free and opening up to the second, melancholy half with the lyrics, “I cried myself to sleep last night /
And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window.” It’s both celebratory and contemplative, a mixture of emotions best summed up by the refrain, “Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level.”

“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

And then, bam! This is the first stunner of the album, and probably the only song in history about a twisted serial killer that still manages to pack a massive emotional gut punch. It helps that Sufjan’s voice is never more pretty and delicate as when he sings:

“Twenty-seven people
Even more, they were boys
With their cars, summer jobs

Oh my God
Are you one of them?

This might be the song that most divides the pro- and anti-Sufjan camps. It’s beautiful but creepy, all the more so when the singer draws a parallel between himself and Gacy in the suggestion that they both have secrets under the floorboards. I think this was the first song that truly caught my attention and made me want to read the lyrics. Love it or hate it, you have to admit it’s a pretty ballsy move to put this song just 10 minutes into an hour and 15 minute album.


The 1-2 punch of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Jacksonville” right next to each other is the first indication that we’re in for an unparalleled journey here. Stuffed full of Illinois’ history, the song manages to take Andrew Jackson, Helen Keller and a whole host of landmarks and weave together a narrative that’s both a paean to freeing the slaves and a rallying cry that ends up sounding like something a school band would play as its football team runs to victory.

“A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons”

This is one of those transitions whose title takes longer to read than the song actually takes to play out. It’s just a breather before jumping into the true centerpiece of the album.

“Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”

Beginning here and running through “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Illinois makes its case for being the best album of 2005 and one of the best of the decade. Look, if you don’t like old timey music, this one probably isn’t going to be for you, but there is no denying that Sufjan is doing some fascinating tricks with his lyrics here.

Essentially a tour through the entire state of Illinois, the song still manages to tell the story of a stepmom trying her best to make her stepchildren happy even as they do “everything to hate her.” Like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” before it, Sufjan finds a way to imbue an unexpected subject with surprising emotional resonance.

“One Last “Whoo-Hoo!” for the Pullman”

The title says it all.


If the album has a ‘single’, this is it. Partly because of its prominent placement in the indie darling movie, Little Miss Sunshine, this song is the one track that even your friends who have never heard of a banjo will have on their iPod. I love this song as much as I love the actual Chicago.

It probably helps that the song involves someone taking a road trip to 2 of my favorite cities, the aforementioned Windy City as well as New York City. When I first listened to this album in Charlotte, it was the first year of my project and the thought of exploring the country was still an enticing, terrifying dream. I love to travel by plane or train, but nothing will ever beat a road trip.

“You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow”

“Casimir Pulaski Day”

If “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is an emotional gut punch, this is the emotional body slam of the album. Again, while I was listening to this album in 2005, I was living on my own for the first time in my life and I was just starting to really explore what it meant to live without the obligation of faith. So how odd is it that the most insightful song on the topic was written by a Christian?

Telling the story of a female friend with bone cancer (at least, that’s how I read it), the narrator talks about their intimacy in the face of this horrible disease. There is one line that has always resonated with me:

“Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I know it’s not meant to be a criticism of faith or god. I grew up with the message that “Sometimes God says ‘No’.” Yet, as a freshly minted atheist, those lyrics summed up everything about my religious experiences: “God always says ‘No’.”

It’s also a song about young love (again, in my reading of it), and how strange it can be for it to feel so powerful and yet be so helpless in the face of reality (another parallel to religion).

A tragic tale that ends with the mournful “And He takes, and He takes, and He takes.” It’s a song that simultaneously celebrates and criticizes faith depending on the audience. That’s an impressive line to walk.

“To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament”

I don’t have a lot to say about this other than that it’s my favorite instrumental of the album. And an important one, because it gives a necessary pause after “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

“The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”

That break is especially useful because this song begins with oddly dissonant guitar noodling and pounding drums before giving over to one of the softer tracks on the album. I’m all for dissonance in music (Penderecki is my favorite composer), but I’m always a little put off by that choice for this song.

I suppose it’s meant to mark the midway point of the album. If I was listening to Illinois on a record player, I could see flipping over the vinyl and having that be an effective kick off for the second half. On CD (or, now, on my computer), though, it’s just kind of an awkward jolt.

Still, it’s a lovely song about Superman and childhood summer vacations (and, of course, more). That’s about all I have to say on that.

“Prairie Fire That Wanders About”

Though there are lyrics, this song feels like an instrumental break probably because there is no lead vocal. Most of the tracks on this album use background singers like a Greek Chorus, singing out details to fill in or embellish the main story. Here, the whole track is all Greek Chorus. It’s an interesting transitional song but not likely to be anyone’s favorite.

“A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze”

It’s a conjunction of drones, dummy.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”

Another beautiful story about youthful love, this time between two friends. There are a lot of question marks here. Is this Sufjan confessing to having fallen in love with a male friend as a child? Is it romantic love or just the love of a friend? Is the narrator meant to be a boy at all? How much of this album are we to assume is autobiographical and how much is just Sufjan being a storyteller?

I choose to not care. I’m less interested in the question of hetero- or homosexual love as I think the more compelling aspect of this song is how frightening and potent young love can be, especially when unrequited. The narrator looks back on a lost love, a friend who ran away, perhaps scared off by emotions that hit like a “terrible sting and terrible storm.” (The wasp metaphor in this song is one of Sufjan’s best.)

Add on top of that the gorgeous interlacing of lead and backing vocals throughout the song and you’ve got one of my favorite tracks on the album.

“They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!”

There aren’t many opportunities to describe Sufjan as funky, so I won’t pass this one up: That bass line is funky. This is easily the oddest song on the album (which says something considering there’s a track about a serial killer/rapist). Beginning with the shouted spelling of “Illinois” and other words, the first vocals sound like the chanting of undead cheerleaders.

True to form, Sufjan finds the human depths within monsters, using his lyrics to seek sympathy for zombies. It’s a surprisingly affecting trick, especially when he bemoans how they have been “at last forgot.” It’ll make you rethink Dawn of the Dead.

“Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell”

Another instrumental with a title that tells you all you need to know…

“In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth”

…followed by another instrumental reprieve. Though, I guess, this one isn’t technically an instrumental as it’s just a soft hum of voices. Whatever.

“The Seer’s Tower”

On an album that no one is going to accuse of being “cheery”, this is easily the most morose track. It begins with the narrator looking down from a tower as the earth burns and the apocalypse approaches and it ends with him sleeping in the “deepest grave.” In between there is a terrible mother and a loving father and the all destroying force of Emmanuel. Unnerving in the best way.

Probably not the song to play at your next party.

“The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders: The Great Frontier/Come To Me Only With Playthings Now”

And then there are hand claps and peppy horns. Sufjan knows how to take a left turn. Like track 3, this is broken into 2 parts. There is a lot of intermixing of religious and American symbolism throughout the first part of the song, one of Sufjan’s favorite moves. It seems to be a kind of cry for Americans to rise up and fight. For what, I’m not quite sure.

The song takes a sudden downshift 2/3rds of the way through and like “Prairie Fire That Wanders About” it becomes a showcase for the chorus as they sing about Jane Addams, Benny Goodman and a bunch of other people who I’m sure were all very important to Illinois. It kind of feels like Sufjan had a pile of references he hadn’t found any other songs for so he stuffed them into this one.

If there’s any true flaw on this album, it’s that this, the last song with lyrics, ends on such an anticlimactic note. There’s no story to hold onto, nothing that really draws the listener in. It’s a fine enough song, just kind of a let down after so many emotional highs (for me, of course; someone else may find something meaningful in the repetition of “Oh Great…”).

“Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few”

A riff on a single note that leads to…

“Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt From My Sandals as I Run”

The final track is also an instrumental piece. Whether it be “Vito’s Ordination Song” from Michigan or “Impossible Soul” on The Age of Adz (or even “Djohariah” on the All Delighted People EP), Sufjan tends to end his albums with pretty heavy songs, so this is an odd outlier. Perhaps he realized that this was an especially dense album and he wanted to give the listener a calming outro by which to end their listening and get on with their day. If so, it works. It’s not the most memorable finale, but it does effectively draw the curtain to a close.

And that’s it, Illinois 10 Years On. It’s still one of my favorite albums (top 3 on my Last.fm most listened list) and one of the few albums that I still feel compelled to listen to front to back.

It’s 2015 and indie folk is no longer as prevalent or relevant as it was when I began 10 Cities / 10 Years, but a decade of shifting musical landscapes and evolving industry dynamics hasn’t changed one thing: Illinois is a masterpiece.



5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 01/26/15

The Decemberists – Lake Song

A new Decemberists album is definitely cause for celebration. Whether it’s through the music, the lyrics or just the pure spirit of showmanship that they bring to their craft, Colin Meloy and the rest of the band always produce something special. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World doesn’t have the cohesiveness of their best album, The Crane Wife, nor does it quite reach the emotional highs of most recent release, The King Is Dead, but it’s still an endearing addition to their catalog. Like their first albums, there are a lot of stylistic shifts throughout, most of them quite fun, but the Decemberists’ have always excelled at straightforward, heartfelt ballads, which is what makes “Lake Song” one of the standout tracks on this solid album. Delicate, affecting, and typically literate, this is what a love song should be.

Sia – Chandelier (Piano Version)

The original album version of this track is excellent (as is the video), but it was hearing the acoustic piano version of this song (on the sadly departed sitcom, Selfie) that revealed to me both how stunning the vocal performance is and the heft of the lyrics. Few pop songs hit with this kind of emotional resonance, an exquisitely heartbreaking account of losing one’s self (and pain) in a night’s debauchery. This is the track that makes the argument that Sia is not only one of our finest pop song writers, she is a bona fide pop star.

José González – Stay Alive

Found on the soundtrack of a movie I never saw, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, this soothing song sees José González stretching his sound, with his normal acoustic guitar replaced by piano and an incessant, enveloping cymbal build. González didn’t write this song, which isn’t much of a surprise since his biggest “hits” have almost all been covers. That the songwriter is Ryan Adams, though, does explain why I fell in love with this track almost immediately. This is the kind of track that Adams can write in his sleep, so it’s fun to hear another artist take it and make it his own. I don’t know if the Ben Stiller-starring movie was any good, but at least it resulted in this gorgeous collaboration, so that’s something.

The Stills – Retour a Vega

I have no idea how I came to be in possession of this track by the Toronto-based band, The Stills, but it’s been getting heavy rotation for the last few months. Sung completely in French (title translates to “Return to Vega”), the melody has a floating, graceful ease that lifts up the otherwise plaintive vocals. Even without Google Translating the lyrics, you get the sense that the singer is missing a girl. But after all, aren’t all songs about missing a girl?

Kanye West – Power

Is this guy annoying? Sure. Is he an over the top egotist? Absolutely. Does he still write some flat out killer tracks? Can’t deny that. How great is “Power”? It was the song that came on the radio as I drove into New York City on my first day of my 10th year and there couldn’t have been a better song for the moment. Almost all rappers put out boast tracks, but hardly any of them do it with as much style and swagger as Kanye. If you don’t get pumped up listening to those propulsive chants and crashing rhythm, you may have a fatal case of Stick-In-Ass Syndrome. Better get that checked out.

What a Terrible World