The task seemed simple. Create an album that includes your favorite songs. Easy, right? Turns out, not so much. We all have our go-to songs. The ones that pick us up when we are feeling down; the ones that move us in ways we can’t describe; the ones we turn on after a bad break up and play on repeat; and the ones we crank up while driving too fast with the windows down.
From as early as I can remember, I have loved music. I cannot imagine a world without it. A good song has the power to make you think, to change your outlook, to alter your mood, to force you to reflect, to make you just . . . feel. From guilty pleasures to songbook standards, the more genres the better.
In compiling this list, I thought of the songs that have the most vivid memories for me. The ones I turn to when I am blissful, blue, frustrated, excited, mischievous, angry, anxious, or nervous. The ones I just love to sing along to no matter that I can’t actually carry a tune to save my life! So, instead of an album, I give you my box set. I know, I should have been able to pick just 8 to 12 songs, but I couldn’t. In no particular order, here are the 22 songs that comprise the soundtrack to my life.
Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah (1994; Grace; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8AWFf7EAc4)
Written and originally performed by the late, great Leonard Cohen in 1984, this is the one song I have in every playlist I make. It’s interesting that it was never made popular by Cohen, in fact, his label didn’t even want to include it on his Variations Positions album because they didn’t think people would understand it. The song that took Cohen 5 years to write has been recorded by over 300 artists, from Bon Jovi to Willie Nelson. In 2015, Newsweek ranked 60 performances of the song by various artists. The full list can be found at: http://www.newsweek.com/60-versions-leonard-cohens-hallelujah-ranked-303580.
REM – Losing My Religion (1991; Out of Time; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwtdhWltSIg)
I bought Murmur in the early 1980s and was hooked at first listen. It was at a time I was exploring what has been termed “alternative” music. Other than college radio stations and late night MTV shows, their songs didn’t get commercial radio play until they became popular with the release of Document in 1988. I chose this song despite its mainstream recognition because I love the haunting beauty of it and find the lyrics can apply to many situations in life.
Insane Jane – Why Am I Living This Way (1991; A Green Little Pill; https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/a-green-little-pill/206025267)
When I had my college radio show on the FM dial at WNYO 88.9 while a Communications and English major at SUNY Oswego (https://www.wnyo889.org/), I always played this song as part of my Saturday morning show. It brings back some great memories whenever I hear it now.
Beyoncé – If I were a Boy (2008; I am . . . Sasha Fierce; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWpsOqh8q0M)
Amazing singer and a great song.
Twenty One Pilots – House of Gold (2013; Vessel; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDyxykpYeu8)
Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun are definitely a dynamic duo. It was way too hard to pick just one song because no two songs are alike. I chose House of Gold because I love the melody and their live performances of it are so much fun to watch.
New Model Army – I Love the World (1989; Thunder & Consolation; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnZD61tynS4)
This album was—and still is—the one I play when I am angry or in a bad mood. Rather than take my frustration out on others, I retreat to a solitary place and listen to it. Loudly. It always makes me feel better.
Nina Simone – I Want A Little Sugar in my Bowl (1962; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCTP5zjQTWE)
Nina was a diva. This song is sultry. She wasn’t afraid to put it all out there. She owned her sexuality and wasn’t ashamed about it.
Cruzados – Summer’s Come, Summer’s Gone (1987; After Dark; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyfMmekFHtY)
I bought the After Dark cassette in my junior year of high school for $1.99 while rummaging through the bargain bin at the local Record Town. I had never heard of the band, but the cover and description of the “Chicano rock band” intrigued me. I chose this song because it reminds me of one of my favorite places—Sodus Bay/Lake Ontario in upstate NY. I spent my summers there at my grandparent’s cottage and the end of summer was always bitter-sweet. When I moved across country five years ago, I begrudgingly departed with my 300+ cassette collection but kept just this one! And, I still listen to it on an old cassette player.
Concrete Blonde – Tomorrow, Wendy (1990; Bloodletting; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCwIHwSt8RU)
This song wasn’t written by lead singer Johnette Napolitano (it was penned by the lead singer of Wall of Voodoo in the mid-'80s), but it is one of my favorites from this album. It tells the story of Wendy, a real person, who commits suicide after being diagnosed with AIDS. The subject matter is difficult, but the song is hauntingly beautiful and offers a glimpse into Wendy’s real struggle and her choice to die on her own terms.
Bob Dylan – Shelter From the Storm (1975; Blood on the Tracks; http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x23447t)
Dylan has claimed to have written this about a failed marriage, but the metaphor of the storm can mean so many different things. One never knows with him. I like the mystery and the way he handles the verses.
Brandi Carlile – The Stranger at My Door (2015; Firewatcher’s Daughter; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcI7s4WeqX4)
It’s a shame that such a prolific singer/songwriter is so underrated by the commercial radio stations. Brandi and the Hanseroth twins are captivating in their live performances and have an energizing stage presence that can’t be captured in a studio recording. This song is from her fifth album and I chose it because of the intensity in which she tells the story and the swell of the music draws you in from the first note.
Soundgarden – Outshined (1991; Badmotorfinger; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNh-iw7gsuI)
Chris Cornell. What more is there to say? He could sing the phone book and it would be incredible. Despite this being one of their mainstream hits, I am still captivated by it. Cornell’s passing was a great loss to the music world.
They Eat Their Own - Like a Drug (1991; They Eat Their Own; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9kNjw22ieo)
Written by lead singer Laura B., I chose this song because it was on heavy rotation my freshman year of college. It inspires nostalgia, and every time I listen to it now I can picture my dorm room, my purple hair, my tie skirt, and my favorite Doc Martens.
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (1975; A Night at The Opera; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9rUzIMcZQ)
Freddie Mercury was a musical genius. The lyrics, melody, interchanges, instrumentation . . . it is perfect. The meaning is opaque and that is why I find it so intriguing.
Guns & Roses – Paradise City (1987; Appetite for Destruction; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rbm6GXllBiw)
This is a guilty pleasure. I remember when it was released in 1988. I was a junior in high school. This was the song . . . and still is . . . that I crank with the windows down while driving!
Foreigner - Juke Box Hero (1981; 4; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ic02W1bWeFU)
Written by Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones and lead singer Lou Gramm, this song was the soundtrack of middle and junior high school because Lou Gramm is from my hometown of Rochester, NY and his niece was one of my classmates. His real last name is Grammatico and he often came back to Rochester to visit family.
Michael Jackson - Dirty Diana (1988; Bad; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUi_S6YWjZw)
Written by Michael and produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, this song is unlike anything else on the Bad album. It was a departure for Michael. I love the grit and fierceness of this song.
Ed Sheeran - Nancy Mulligan (2017; Divide; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFlZXlfda6Y)
I admit it. I am a fangirl. I even have great seats to see him live at the Rose Bowl for in August 2018. This song always makes me smile. Great story. Excellent musicality. Nothing like his top 40 hits!
Violent Femmes – Add it Up (1983; Violent Femmes; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHapDS2fcFE)
Like REM, the Violent Femmes were one of the first alternative bands I discovered and I heard this song while hanging out with some new friends. I was immediately drawn to it because of the beat and when I actually began to listen to the words, I started laughing. There’s no mistaking what this song is about and I love the boldness of it despite its crudeness. The Femmes are funny and you can’t take them too seriously.
Lee Ann Womack – I Hope You Dance (2000; I Hope You Dance; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RV-Z1YwaOiw)
This song was released when my daughter Alivia was just turning 3. It conveys everything I hoped for her then and now.
ABBA – The Winner Takes it All (1980; Super Trouper; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92cwKCU8Z5c)
The ultimate break-up song. The end of a romance. The lyrics are smart and the drama starts with a slow simmer and builds to an explosion . . . you can feel the tension. “The winner takes it all - The loser's standing small - Beside the victory - That's her destiny.” – Wow. And, yes, I love ABBA and I am not afraid to admit.
Luciano Pavarotti - Ave Maria (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXFhqG8G5uI)
Composed by Franz Schubert in 1825, and based on Walter Scott’s poem Lady in the Lake, the lyrics to the original have been altered over the years. My favorite version is by Pavarotti. I remember when I first heard it as a young child. It followed “O Sole Mio” on one of only two cassette tapes my father owned and played in the car on a continuous loop. I was struck by the power of his voice and the beauty of the melody even though I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I remember closing my eyes while riding in the back seat of the car and just listening . . . feeling every note.
-Michelle Rogers, KDAWG Advisor