My life, as told in playlist form
We pass the city of Pendelton, the high deserts of Central Oregon, and the parts of the state that look a lot more like Kansas.
We’re bound for the Wallowas. Joseph plays on the radio, the band conveniently named after the small town we’ll be driving towards. We’re clear out of the range of phone service, with no just each other for entertainment.
“I can’t do it anymore,” she smiles. “I can’t do the sad, solo indie artists.”
“Oh, but those are most of my favorite artists.”
“Who wants to pay money to watch somebody depress you? Not me.”
“Some of the best art out there comes out of sadness.”
“Life is hard enough as it is. I used to be a lot more into music. I would almost obsessively look for new bands, mostly the sad indie types. I hear a lot of these musicians and their styles and their sad songs and they remind me of a part of my life I’m glad to have way behind me.”
“See, with me, it’s like the exact opposite. There’s so many moments in my life that seem to be seared into my memory through a song. I can hear a riff or some opening bars and I’m back in some very meaningful part of my life, surrounded by people I miss, in a place very special.”
“Some, but mostly good memories. Even for the rough patches, though, sometimes it’s really helpful to hear somebody else hit those same emotional notes.”
“I’ve just never had that relationship with music.”
“I know. I definitely do. It makes me kind of sad sometimes to think that it’s hard for me to relate to the music I discover now the way I used to. I hear the sort of music you’ll always hold in the highest regard is the stuff you listened to when you were 19 or 20. It makes sense. Those were years full of epiphany and self discovery, and that journey had a great soundtrack.”
I ask her whose songs would go on the soundtrack to her life.
She tells me her life story in songs.
She takes me through her first loves, the soundtrack to The Little Mermaid, the boy bands of the 2000s, The Strokes and Postal Service in high school, to eventually being content with Katy Perry and company on the radio.
“I guess I had something a little different in mind.”
“Like, if your life was going to be made into a movie, what songs would you use for what scenes?”
“Or, I’m not sure if you remember this, but iTunes used to have random celebrities curate playlists, with little blurbs to explain why they chose each song. I used to like reading those.”
“Okay, so who would be on your list?”
I think about it. Then, I piece together my list as it comes to mind.
Andrew Bird – Pulaski at Night
Maybe it’s the warmth of the melodic violin riff or maybe it’s that cup runneth over line but this song feels like Thanksgiving. It also feels like excitement. When the plucking of the violin starts the song before shifting to the dreamy strings section, I imagine an overhead shot of a city, lights on in windows, and people fully engaged in life in full swing.
I want gratitude to be a marker for my life, and for that reason I like that this song sounds like a thank you. And when I get to Heaven’s ampitheatre and rewatch my life’s story being recounted, I would Love having this as an opening number.
Common – Be
The way the spaces in between the opening bass punctuation gives way to the synthesizer is captivating. A true soundtrack to my life would be incomplete without a little hip hop, and while Common’s Be album seems to have been too quickly forgotten, this stands out as a little piece of my high school era. It wasn’t the best time ever for hip hop, but there were some gems.
You could say that about me too. I didn’t really know who I was until adulthood, but I got there by trial and error and staying open to things in front of me. The present is a gift. And I just wanna be.
Vampire Weekend – Campus
A proper soundtrack to a full life needs some energy-driven, up-beat numbers, and the soundtrack to my life would seem a bit off if Vampire Weekend wasn’t on there somewhere. While it might not be their best song, Campus is the most fitting for some important memories.
The debut album came out just before I went off to college and began the most growth-filled season of my life. The steady thumping of the bass in this song captures all that energy and excitement of finally stepping into independence.
Sufjan Stevens – Chicago
The season of my life marked by depression, doubt, and being unsure if I could have faith or find something worth living for feels so long ago now. I know that it wasn’t a good place to be. I leaned harder into relationships that couldn’t support that weight and only felt more alone.
It wasn’t good, but man, coming out of that season was breathtaking. Every day felt rich with life and the whole journey was undeniably guided by God. And it was like life was starting back up all over again and this song felt like that emerging life.
You came to take us, all things go. To recreate us, all things go.
Regina Spektor – Laughing With
Struggles of faith versus doubt. Trying to engage the mystery of God with the limits of my own intellect. Ultimately coming to a point of belief beyond reason, belief in spite of things seen and in life that make no sense, but belief because of experiencing a deep, deep Love.
Regina Spektor can make any soundtrack better, but the combination of whimsical melodies, somber tones, and witty-yet-meaningful lyrics seem to mirror many points of my journey to belief.
Band of Horses – No One’s Gonna Love You
Allowing myself to feel God’s Love, allowing myself to feel Love overall, it can be a passionate overload at times. Love isn’t just an emotion and faith is far more than a feeling, but the emotions these things connect to are furiously strong.
Sometimes we just need to hear and feel and believe at our deepest level that someone is telling us that very line, that no one’s gonna Love you more than I do.
The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa
I Love living in a very global world. I Love that I have friends who are African born and bred, friends from Korea and Japan and Thailand and the Philippines, friends who can enlighten me with the European perspectives. I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to travel, that it’s been a big part of my life, and that you couldn’t tell my story without mentioning a few meaningful trips.
Warm Heart of Africa is a favorite for walking down a new street in a foreign city. Not necessarily an African city, but sometimes. It reminds me of dancing with the kids at 5Cees, of pondering future trips from a Santa Barbara apartment, or of being in the middle of Siena, wanting to bottle up everything around me.
Noah and the Whale – 5 Years Time
There’s that moment where you see somebody for the first time, somebody attractive, who also has that special quality you’ve never quite been able to describe. You imagine what if. It’s intimidating, and there’s a good chance you’ll never approach that person. But the thing that spurs you on is that possibility. What if.
Sometime in college, I leaned hard into this song. It mirrored all the new pockets of possibility in my life. It was also where I met her for the first time, and while it would take us three years to date, the day we got married was a convenient five years later.
Shad – Fam Jam (Fa Sum Immigrins)
My parents aren’t from this country, they came here around my age, and that’s a fact I become increasingly proud of the older I get. I come more and more to admire people like my aunt who moved here in the fifties and worked like no other to make a better life for all those to come. Eventually including myself. The immigrant story is a beautiful one.
This is hip-hop at its finest. Brilliant lyricism. Playfulness and profundity with ease. Shad raps about some of the harsh realities of many immigrant lives. Community income and crime rates. Murder in the motherland. Yet, at the end of it, this song is shrouded in joy and family.
Thrice – In Exile
At some point, everyone that’s ridden in a van for the North Korean people on behalf of LiNK has got to have felt some connection to this song. Some lines in here couldn’t be more obvious. I am a nomad, a wanderer. Let this song blare out while I’m driving that van across state lines.
I’ve grown to embrace my nomadism. You can pass through life with a knowledge of all that’s temporary and still make the most of it. You may move on to new states and cities. You may be close to people for a while before life takes you apart. But remember the things that will last in the end. Love. Justice. Joy. My heart is filled with songs of forever.
The National & St. Vincent – Sleep All Summer
Summertime romances. Love in its simplest forms. This song is a couple making crêpes together in a kitchen. Sharing a long drive. Walking hand in hand in a European city center. There’s a lot to figure out about how this is all going to work out, and there will be time to figure that out. But not now.
Right now things are sweet and sleepy and dreamlike. Matt Berninger and St. Vincent take over this Crooked Fingers cover and infuse it with early August.
Elbow – With Love
The slam of those opening guitar notes and bass drops and I’m a college student again. I’m studying abroad. I’m in Argentina, boarding subway lines, taking in new sights and smells as some great adventure. I’m embracing life.
When your dentures prevent your smile, these adventures will fill your eyes with Love. I’ve written about this line so many times, but it rings true over and over. One day, life will just be something to look back on with Love in our eyes.
Ben Howard – Old Pine
Most songs can bring back a specific memory, but this one seems to trigger a whole flood of them. Of Chi and Greg playing this at our wedding as our friends walked down the aisle. Of listening to it as our van plowed through miles of dark Colorado forest. Of camping trips just outside Yosemite under the stars
Adventure is one of my highest values, and Ben Howard captures all the sweetness and nostalgia of some of my favorite past adventures in its gentle, dreamy guitar opening. I’ve come to know that memories are the best things you’ve ever had. Cue up a montage of the very best moments in life.
S. Carey – Alpenglow
It’s slow. Heartfelt. Insanely intimate. There are those moments of life where passion gets wrapped up in a blanket of gentleness and that leads to intimacy. Hands brushing against skin. Being held.
I really wanted this song at our wedding for its sweetness, but it was a tough one to work with because of how somber it was. Chi and Greg did a fantastic job of taking it in a funk, upbeat direction.
This song is warmth in the dead of winter, and the melancholy overtones don’t hide the underlying sweetness of the mental images it conjures.
Edie Brickell – Go Where The Love Is
I’ve written about this song before, too. I danced to it with my mom at my wedding. I discovered it just before I went to the Philippines to visit my grandma two years ago, and reimmersed myself in it when I went there last month to her funeral. She was someone who always went where the Love was.
This is a song as much as it is a mission statement, and it would seem fitting in scenes with planes and bus passes and long drives on my way to see Loved ones. It’s a sweet song. A summery song.
Johnnyswim – Paris in June
This is the song that marks that moment when our relationship levels up. When all our friends and family are around us on the pier, when I take a knee and ask the question. We were eating breakfast while Gabe and Bre came to serenade us with this tune.
Love is being with each other. Sharing moments. Making moments. Not every moment will be a mountaintop experience, but some of them will be. And every moment I’m with you fills me like Paris in June.
Run River North – Growing Up
The way their voices raise when singing “growing up chi-ld, is just a matter of time” gets me every time. The first time I heard this song was when I was 22. The band was called Monsters Calling Home at the time, and Chi and Lei were practicing this song for a talent show. I saw the band now called Run River North play earlier this year and I realized that I don’t feel newly discovered songs resonating with me the way they used to, and that perhaps that’s a sign of me getting older.
But, this is a song that’s also about being okay with that growing up, realizing that time on earth is precious, and that it’s worth investing it generously among those you Love. One of the biggest realizations I had last year is that, while growing older has its hardships, it also brings along beauty that can only be seen with time. Save this song for a tender montage with the passing of older family members and the birth of new ones.
Noah and the Whale – Give a Little Love
It’s not a secret that growing up can be hard and that one of the hardest parts is facing mortality at a more frequent rate. We hit our twenties and our grandparents start to pass, and although we hope for decades more, we realize our parents are next in line, and then us, and that it can all happen quickly. It’s inevitable.
But then we think of what we want out of life in the time that we have. What do we want to accomplish? In the words of Raymond Carver its to Love and to be Loved. It’s to do the things we Love. If you give a little Love, you’ll get a little Love of your own.
Noah and the Whale – Give It All Back
Kudos to Noah and the Whale. Not only the only band to make my life’s playlist more than once, but a whole three times now. Three songs that were impossible to omit.
It was at the end of college when I had this song in full rotation. I’d give it all back just to do it again. The four A.M. trips to Dennys to play with Legos. The late nights talking about crushes and expectations. The house I shared with six guys. I’d turn back time and be with my friends.
I suppose I’d want this song to apply towards the end of my life as a whole. A lookback at all these memories knowing I’d do it all over again if I could, without changing a thing.
Gungor – This Is Not The End
We’ve all had that morbid fixation on that one song we realize we want played at our funeral. This song takes the end of life for what it is, mysterious and full of unknowns, and infuses it with the thing that makes life brilliant and worthwhile. Hope.
This song is bursting with hope. That perhaps the end of it all is just another beginning. To the well organized mind, as Dumbledore would put it. We will open our eyes. Much wider.
This is what I want as my loved ones shfit out of the auditorium, and the names roll up on the screen.
Music is one of the best and most beautiful mysteries. It’s been dissected countless times by countless people. Numerous theories have been developed, trying to represent sounds and vibrations with notes on a staff, with chords and tabs, with lyrics or soundwave frequencies. Entire universities exist to dissect, analyze, and practice music. Every culture has its own way of trying to codify the sounds and the memories and feelings they conjure up, each approach resulting in a unique and different sound.
But after all that practice and theory and comparative study, we’re still forced to give in to the mystery. To accept the fact that we can recognize the feelings and the beauty and the empathy in a single song far more easily than we can explain it.
We can hear a line in a song and have no idea what it means, yet still know the exact feeling the artist expresses.
We can close our eyes, feel a beat, jam along, digest lyrics, marvel at a solo, or just be taken away.
To a foreign subway station during a season of adventure.
To a campsite just outside Yosemite with some of the most important people.
To one final memory with a Loved one.
We drive ahead, Novo Amor now playing through the speakers. I’ve just discovered this artist, and he’s got a sound that seems perfect for granite mountain peaks and endless woods.
Or maybe a few years from now, I’ll hear this song again as an old favorite, and find myself back on this road, sharing life stories through songs, on our way to the Wallowas.