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 – 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 – 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

Song of the Year

It’s that time of year again.  Year End Lists time.  Rolling Stone does it, Pitchfork does it, the New York Times, Washington Post and NPR all do it.  Time Magazine does it in spades.

We’ve come to the arbitrary end of 2011, and so now it’s time to unfurl the lists of the best (and maybe even worst) of any random thing.  Don’t mistake my snark for disinterest.  I actually love reading these lists and will be gobbling them up for the next few weeks.

But whereas I enjoy reading and being enlightened by the lists of major publications because I know their reviewers will have seen or listened to ten times as many movies and albums as me, I don’t have too much interest in the lists of bloggers.

Which is why I don’t do them.  I think I bought 10 albums all year, so I can’t very well make a Top 10 list that means anything, and I know I haven’t even seen 10 movies in theaters this year.  (I have rented a great deal and enjoyed very many of the small releases this year).

When my friends and fellow bloggers make these lists, I’m always skeptical that they’ve experienced enough variety throughout the year to give their listing any meaning.  But then I remember they’re all mostly white, middle class kids with disposable income, so who knows, maybe they really have bought 100 albums in the past 365 days.

But I haven’t.  I’ve experienced a lot of music this year, mostly one track at a time through free mp3s (I scour the blogs this time of year to snag every song I can find), and have frankly been mostly disappointed.  So much of the music has felt emotionless and remote, I just can’t say there are any new bands or artists that have really captured my attention.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed some new acts this year, but just not enough to seek out their albums. 

For whatever reason, there has been a dearth of visceral music this year.  For me.  Maybe for you this has been a great year for songs of resonance and you can illuminate in the comments what I’m missing.

My musical feast largely consisted of work by longtime favorites, with albums from Radiohead, Ryan Adams, Beirut, the Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie.  All of these albums I have enjoyed thoroughly, though none are my favorite by that particular artist.  I’ve enjoyed the new Coldplay and Florence + the Machine albums, but they didn’t blow me away.

Bon Iver’s self-titled album has probably been the most disappointing album for me, as it feels like a victim of the emotion-vacuum that a lot of indie music has been going through this year.  It’s a solid enough album, but nothing connects the way almost every song on “For Emma, Forever Ago” did.  Plus, that final song, “Beth/Rest” is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ songs that I find myself hating.  (“Holocene,” on the other hand, does stand out quite beautifully.)

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah released an unremarkable album (I really wanted to love it), whereas Nicole Atkins surprised me with a sleeper album that I just keep returning to and enjoying more and more.

All and all it was a pretty damn good year for music from bands I already love, and if I had to pick a favorite album of the year, it would probably just end up a 4 or 5-way tie.  For the record, I really dig “The King of Limbs” and find it to reward concentrated re-listens, the same way Kid A and Amnesiac did.  But I understand if people don’t get into it, it’s a 180 degree turn from “In Rainbows” in that it doesn’t seem at all interested in pleasing a wide fanbase (the recently released singles “The Daily Mail/Staircase” are definitely still worth the $2.25).

For new music, though, I feel pretty blah.  There definitely isn’t a new favorite band for me.  That’s not to say that I won’t eventually come across something from this year that will really spark with me, but at year’s end, 2011 was a year dominated by old favorites, not new finds.

So, no top 10 albums or songs this year.  What I want to leave you with, instead, is the one song that I feel owned 2011.  It wasn’t by one of my favorite acts and it wasn’t by a brand new artist.  You know this song, you’ve heard it a million times.  And there’s a reason for that.  It was the perfect pop song.*

Where the indie landscape felt like an emotionless wasteland, Adele released the most emotionally wrought and true song I’ve heard in a long time.  If “Someone Like You” doesn’t resonate with you, then you have never been in love or had your heart broken.  And aren’t those the two reasons we turn to music?

This song, and the album, will top a great deal of top 10 lists this year, and deservedly so.  In fact, any list that doesn’t have this song in it is pretty much disqualified.  I don’t care how many times you heard it, I don’t care if that annoying girl at your gym loves it, I don’t care if it was used in too many tv shows.  A great song transcends all your dumb reasons for dismissing it, and this is the One Great Song of 2011.

So, maybe this won’t be a year I return to a lot when I’m going through my library, but I guarantee that I, and all of us, will be listening to this song for years to come.  And that’s one badge of honor 2011 can claim.

So there you have it:

2011 Song of the Year – “Someone Like You” by Adele

*I don’t hear the radio or watch a lot of ABC medical dramas, so I don’t hear most of the big songs each year, but I will say another song I’m totally loving right now is Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”  It’s not a guilty pleasure**, just pure pleasure.

**Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” on the other hand, is pure guilty pleasure.

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 01/20/11

Passion Pit – Little Secrets

Yeah, some people hate this guy’s voice, and I get it. It was a turnoff for me, too, initially, but the music of Passion Pit is simply too addictive and joyous, while also having a subtle hint of darkness underneath. Just as all good dance music should.

The Decemberists – This Is Why We Fight

I could have picked nearly any song off of their new album, The King Is Dead, because the whole thing is bloody great.  “January Hymn” is the band at their most delicate and beautiful, while “Rox in the Box” just feels like old school Decemberists.  But “This Is Why We Fight” is the stand out track for me.  Right now.  In a week, that could totally change.

Anthony Hamilton – Charlene

A little left field for me, perhaps.  Let me explain.  While Nashville hasn’t really won me over yet, one cool experience I had was wandering around with my neighbor after Oktoberfest and hearing an R&B group playing songs outdoors at this tiny little club.  We stopped and listened, and while there the band covered this song.  I’d never heard it before, but I liked it immediately, typed the lyrics into my phone and looked it up when I got home.  Love.

Florence + the Machine – I’m Not Calling You a Liar

I was about a year late to picking up this album, and while the obvious stand out tracks are the ones everyone has heard (“Dog Days Are Over”, “You’ve Got The Love” “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”), the album is brimming with great cuts.  Others stuck out to me first (“Drumming Song” for one), but right now, this song is just where it’s at for me.

fun. – All The Pretty Girls

There are probably a million reasons to hate this band and I’m sure some indier-than-thou kid could list them all for me.  Maybe I’m just getting too old to care.  This song is catchier than herpes in a Tijuana whorehouse.  I’m a sucker for handclaps.  Besides, how can you hate pretty girls?

The Music of 10 Cities

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

But memories are flushed out in many different ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Costa Mesa

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

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

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

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

San Francisco

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The soundtrack of my life.