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 – 04/10/15

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.



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

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 03/29/11

Childish Gambino – Freaks and Geeks

Since Childish Gambino is the rapper alter ego of comedian Donald Glover, you’d be forgiven for initially assuming that this song was a comedy novelty rap (I did).  And yes, the lines in here are quite funny, but not in a Weird Al sort of way.  He’s crass, sexually explicit and witty as hell, with a beat that holds the whole thing together.  The EP that carries this track (go here to download for free, legally) is solid all around, though admittedly the lyrical content leans on the emo-side of rap (this isn’t Outkast).  “Freaks and Geeks” is the standout track, but if you like it, you’ll enjoy more of what he has to offer.

Justice – D.A.N.C.E.

It’s like the Jackson 5 had an elicit, possibly illegal threesome with Jamiroquai and Daft Punk.  If you aren’t sold based on that description, may God have mercy on your soul.

Loudon Wainwright III – One Man Guy

I love Rufus Wainwright.  He is one of my favorite singer/songwriters (second after Ryan Adams).  He does an amazing cover of this song, and gives it an extra level of meaning because he is gay.  But, recently, I’ve been interested in the music of his father, Loudon.  Talk about a talented family:  Loudon, his wife Kate McGarrigle and their kids Rufus and Martha (and poor Lucy Wainwright Roche, too, having to live up to that pedigree).  Is this a situation where the cover is better than the original?  Maybe.  But there is undeniable power in the original version, especially for me, as it is a song about living a solitary life.  Quite simply, I relate.

Adele – Someone Like You

Holy crap is this song beautiful.  If every pop song were this effortlessly gorgeous and affecting, hipsters would have nothing to hate.  Every few years, a song comes about that fully captures the melancholy of a relationship (good or bad) ending.  This is it.

Go ahead, listen to it again.

Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People (Original Version)

Sufjan Stevens released an official album last year (The excellent, engrossing, “The Age of Adz”), and there are songs on it that I adore.  Yet, I keep coming back to the title track of the pre-album EP he released shortly beforehand.  Taken together, both albums are strikingly different and strangely complementary.  While not as immediately enticing as “Illinois” (or “Come On Feel the Illinoise” if you insist), Sufjan’s 2010 input is easily as rewarding.

But, it’s this sprawling, schizophrenic, nearly 12 minute long piece of stricken majesty that I return to most of all.  Usually Sufjan compartmentalizes his music, presenting either the achingly personal or exploring the world through grandiose, detached narratives.  Here, he manages to combine the miniscule and the epic in one perfect song.  J’aime.

Bonus song:

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

These mighty bearded ones are Indie darlings, especially among the folky set.  And for that reason, they should be on the top of my list of beloved bands, and yet I’ve never really gotten into them.  Don’t get me wrong, I like their sound and the few songs of theirs that I have on my computer I enjoy thoroughly, but I’ve never been all that enticed to buy an album.  Well, this is the first single from their new album (of the same name), and it’s making me seriously consider buying it the day it comes out in May.  So good.  It’s like a journey through blooming woods in the first weeks of spring.

Vote on my next city

Thoughts during an illness.

I’m flu-ish and on medicine and I thought of writing this post while I was unable to sleep last night, so let’s hope it manages to stay coherent.  If not, enjoy the ride.

(Some fitting musical accompaniment for this post.)

Ever since I’ve been on my own, starting with my freshmen year of college, there has been one consistent theme in my life:  a lack of money.  Granted, that’s a pretty common theme for most people (like, ninety percent of the world’s population, actually), but we’re focusing on me today.

In college, I dated a girl who went to college in Chicago while I studied in Kansas.  Having to be apart so much, we decided to live together during the summers while she did internships with newspapers.  First, in Washington D.C. and then, the summer after I graduated, in Charlotte (which is where my 10 Cities Project began).

While I only lived in D.C. for 3 months, in many ways it was the practice run for these yearly moves.  I had to find a job within a short period of time while exploring a city I had never been to before.  (For the record, D.C. is an amazing city.)  While saving up money to make the move, there was a constant fear of not being able to make enough, and then, once I was in D.C., there was the concern that I wasn’t going to be able to find a job and be able to pay my half of the rent.  Well, I made it, but just barely.

And then Charlotte:  Wash, rinse and repeat.  All the same concerns, all the same pressure.  In fact, every year since the year I moved to D.C., I have had to deal with the same series of concerns:

Would I have enough money to make my move?
Would I have enough money once I moved to last until I found a job?
Would unexpected expenses sideline the whole endeavor?

Repeat ad nauseum.

It’s that last concern that is particularly stressful, exactly because it’s all about the unknowns.  While I can’t control how good the job market is going to be in any city I move to, it’s my responsibility to get out there and apply over and over again until something comes of it.

And saving money is, if I’m allowed to boast, my one special skill.  Every year, I must hit my savings goal without being such a tightwad that I miss out on opportunities to enjoy the city I live in, and I’ve been fairly successful.

But there’s no way I can possibly plan for unexpected expenses.  Obviously.

It could be an illness that waylays me for a few days (I’m missing a couple shifts of work because of this current bout).  Maybe it’s the sudden and unforeseen implosion of my laptop.  Maybe it’s the death of someone I know requiring that I fly out for a funeral (thankfully, this hasn’t happened, but it’s conceivable that it could).  Any number of events could pop up out of nowhere and throw a wrench in my plans.  And they have.

For instance:

When I was dating the girl in Chicago, I managed to snag a few pricey speeding tickets while visiting her (in fact, the only speeding tickets I ever received in my life were in route to or from seeing her).  One particular time, while driving home from Chicago late at night, I began feeling woozy and nauseous.  I was zipping down the road, attempting to get home as quickly as possible so I could sleep.  Which is when I passed a cop car that was crawling on the highway.  He nailed my ass going 90 in a 70 (I was actually going faster, but I had managed to hit the brakes).

After that, I was sick for the next couple of weeks.  I assumed it was the flu.

Two weeks later, I was back in Chicago (flying this time) for my girlfriend’s birthday.  I bought her tickets to see a concert (Ben Kweller, with The Unicorns if I remember right, though I was pretty sick so there’s no guarantee I do), at which I spent most of the show in the back hallway, barely able to stay on my feet.  It wasn’t the flu.  It was strep throat.

The next day, having no money and no insurance, the girlfriend and I went to a free clinic in a sketchy part of Chicago (I’m guessing South Chicago, but I can’t honestly remember).  There we waited for approximately 2 hours (maybe longer) before I managed to see someone who confirmed what I already knew, strep.  They gave me a shot of penicillin.  In the ass.

I’m not sure if there is an ideal place to receive a shot of penicillin, but the ass isn’t it.  My right leg went completely numb and I hobbled out of there like Frankenstein’s monster in a cast.

For the next two years, I came down with strep throat at the same time of year, like it was a holiday.  Unlike Chicago, Charlotte and Philly didn’t have free clinics (at least, that I could find).  I had to pay a couple hundred dollars each time for clinic visits and antibiotics.

The point, if I feel like getting to it, is that there are always these kinds of unpredictable costs every year.  I haven’t gotten strep in a few years, but every year there is some random expense that, in the moment, seems like it’s going to ruin everything.

Which makes me wonder, what if those unexpected expenses didn’t pop up?  In a hypothetical world where I didn’t get strep throat, where my computer never crapped out, where any number of financial surprises didn’t appear like a Cheshire Cat, how would my travels have been different?

Would I be sitting on a larger pool of savings right now, or would I just have more stuff?  Assuming I didn’t have to spend that extra couple hundred dollars to have the porcupine removed from my throat, likely I would have bought a few extra CDs, some books and movies,  maybe gotten a few extra drinks with friends.

Would I be better off with more money, more things?

I don’t own much right now.  Other than a little bit of furniture that I’ll leave behind when I move again, all I own are my clothes, a laptop, some kitchen supplies and a couple boxes of books and DVDs.*  I don’t really need any more than that.  Want more?  Sure, but need…

Make no mistake, I’m not grateful for strep throat.  No one who has ever had strep would ever be grateful for that throat holocaust.

But having these extra expenses in my life over the length of my travels has taught me, forcibly, just how minimal a life I can live.

I have a sort of odd fear that someday I’ll achieve enough financial security that I’ll be able to fill my life up with stuff.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live my whole life stressing over money.  I would love to have a steady enough income that I wouldn’t have to worry about paying my rent or buying groceries.  But, at the same time, I know how security leads to complacency and laziness.

I’d like to think that if I ever get to a place where I’m financially secure, I won’t completely lose the ability to live minimally.  I want to have enough money to take care of myself and my loved ones and to travel and experience the world and art.  But once those basic needs are taken care of (and traveling is a basic need for me), I hope I find better things to do with my money then buying a TV with 3D glasses or sheets with a 500-thread count (both perfectly nice things, I’m sure).

It’s too easy to forget the difference between what we want and what we need.  Sometimes, an unexpected financial crisis helps bring things into focus.

*I realize that in most of the world, owning what I own would practically make me a king.  I have no delusion that I am by any means poor or lacking, not in a global sense.