Music is universal. People from every corner of this little blue marble, even with a hefty language barrier, are able to identify with one another once someone begins playing Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ or the opening brass of Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. Music can be irrational or thoughtful, loud and chaotic or dim and sorrowful. Each person has their own soundtrack and a constantly evolving theme song. Whatever your life experience, for a good portion of the human race, music means more than just notes and lines on a page or streaming beats and strings over a speaker system. If you haven’t yet figured out your own life’s playlist, perhaps the following selections will inspire a new outlook:
1. The Beatles, ‘Because’
‘Because’ is one of those pieces that makes you stop what you’re doing, lean back, close your eyes and drink in every slide note; According to John Lennon, who penned the song, it was a beast to record, the three main vocalists (Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison) having to sit on stools around a mic, singing in harmony, all a Capella. After about the billionth take and whinging from all parties involved, Lennon reportedly yelled, “I wish I had never written the bloody song!” Still, the end result was a magnificent one and a soulful experience for the Fab Four: Ringo, who sat quietly in the small circle of chairs as they recorded, later reminisced that it was the most connected they had been in a long time. The harmony of the voices and the lyrics combined make for a staggering mind-trip. As a huge Beatles fan myself, this is a must have on my day-to-day playlist.
2. Bon Iver, ‘Re: Stacks’
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has been writing and playing for many years, but has only recently received the deserved recognition, taking home a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2012. ‘Re: Stacks’ has been used in various media, including on the Fox drama “House” (in the episode “Wilson’s Heart”). Its simple acoustic sound and the heartbreaking progressions are so painfully beautiful that they seem to breathe. With lyrics like, “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/ It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away”, the words take on a life of their own. When things are difficult and the daily motions have become too much, ‘Stacks’ is a come-down and a stillness to settle your soul.
3. Nina Simone, ‘Be My Husband’
Nina Simone is a legend. Her wild, spinning ‘Sinnerman’ usually grabs the spotlight, but it’s Simone’s raw, unadulterated voice in her lesser known ‘Be My Husband’ that tells who she is as a singer, with literally no backing track and only a simple clap/stomp beat to accompany her deep-chested wailings. “Please don’t treat me so doggone mean/Oh daddy now, love me good” is sung with so much pain, it’s as if Nina is looking her lover in the eye and pleading with him, and not in a Disney-fied, saccharine way. She’s screaming inside and it comes out as a throaty appeal to be the man she hopes she’s found.
4. Luciano Pavarotti, ‘Che Gelida Manina’
Since the beginning of this century, the world has scarcely witnessed a voice as moving and emotional as Luciano Pavarotti’s. With his passing in 2007, the opera world lost a great legend and a masterful artist. My favorite performance appeared in the opera “La Bohème”, in the form of Pavarotti’s towering rendition of ‘Che Gelida Manina’. While many enjoy his ‘Nessun Dorma’ better, or perhaps because it is all they know him by, ‘Che Gelida Manina’ will always be my favorite: Pavarotti’s voice soars, and his words break your heart.
5. Cinematic Orchestra and Patrick Watson, ‘To Build a Home’
Up until recently, I had no idea who these people were or who Canadian musician Patrick Watson was, until I stumbled across a random “Sherlock” fanvid using the above mentioned track as a backer; I forgot all about the pictures on the screen as the music of this talented group and this stunning singer/songwriter coursed through my brain like something far more addicting. I like to keep this song at the ready when the weather is bleak and the cold sets in. It’s a tragically moving piece with an orchestral heartbeat and a lead voice that you’ll be mesmerized by until you realize that there are tears on your cheeks and a knot in your throat.
6. Jet, ‘Come On, Come On’
I’ve been a longtime fan of Aussie band Jet since they smashed the charts with their hit ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ way back in 2003. I was a feverishly obsessed, slightly awkward (understatement alert) teen at the time and I knew I had struck gold with Jet’s album “Get Born”. One of my very favorite songs, ‘Come On, Come On’, is featured at track #9 on their sophomore production “Shine On” (2006). The dazzling lyrics and smash-and-grab attitude of its rock ‘n roll spirit sucker-punch you and make you want to scramble for its hems like a little baby; After so long without a proper rock band, Jet tore a hole in the music world and let the genius flow.
7. Etta James, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’
You’ll go blind. With love. This song means so much to me for so many reasons; James’ recognizable siren-call is evident in this heart-wrencher. When she practically screams “I would rather/I would rather go blind, boy/than to see you walk away from me, child”, you want to scream too and run to her, just to wrap her up in your arms. Always a classic.
8. Velvet Underground, ‘Sweet Jane’
Obvious. This one’s a great classic rock piece from a great band. If you’ve not listened to something from the Velvet Underground at least once in your life, start with this one, then delve into ‘Sunday Morning’. ‘Sweet Jane’ is a memorable tune to keep buzzing at the back of your brain when work is boring or “mundane” has become “everyday”. Like your first love, you never forget it.
9. Damien Rice, ‘The Blower’s Daughter’
If you’ve seen the movie “Closer”, you understand the depth of this song. If you haven’t, you’ll appreciate the simplicity and the shimmering chord progressions, paired with the wiry, uninhibited swell of the Irishman’s voice. ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ is rooted by a haunting cello track that gives depth to his efforts to replay a love story gone wrong. Seriously underrated, this song will ingrain itself into your psyche and will follow you from love to love.
10. Max Steiner, “Gone with the Wind“: ‘Tara’s Theme’
There are no words to adequately describe the depths to which I ardently love this piece. Written by musical prodigy Max Steiner for the film “Gone With the Wind”, it quickly gained recognition as one of the most magnificent compositions to grace the big screen. I viewed the entirety of this film as a child with my grandmother and watched as she cried during this song, its sweeping string section carrying the listener up and beyond the clouds to that bit of sky between the atmospheres where the moon is so bright that it makes your heart ache.
What is your personal soundtrack? If you don’t know or you haven’t quite figured it out yet, maybe this (long-winded) list will help. I’m not sure. Either way, I hope, at the very least, that it gives you the one thing I intended it for, one solitary morning, afternoon, or evening of tremendous music that will, at least for a small moment, change your life.
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