I've been ranking songs for a long time, but this is the first I've ever written critically about them. This top 10 focuses not on the merit of the song, the amount of influence it had, or how popular the song was. This is simply the 10 songs that are my personal favorite, whether it's due to nostalgia, influence on my life, or just love for the music. Enjoy!
The 10th pick for my list was perhaps the hardest choice of all because it meant excluding so many of my all-time favorites. Songs like Mykonos by the Fleet Foxes, VCR by The XX and Plasticities by Andrew Bird were right at the cut off, but could not trump Translatlanticism in terms of emotional appeal and longevity. This album came out when I was just 13 years old and was really my first foray into the world of indie rock. In my opinion there isn’t a bad track on the album and will certainly find a place on my inevitable Top 10 Albums, but this song in particular has resonated with me for 15 years. The two verses are some of the best that Gibbard has written, bearing that poetic quality that I think Death Cab has been lacking in more recent years. They invoke such strong imagery as you listen and build up this emotional connection with the listener before moving into the incredibly long, yet satisfying refrain. A staple track on a cool, rainy day, I will never forget how Death Cab drew me into the world of indie rock.
9. Who Knows Who Cares
When I was in high school Local Natives was known as Cavil at Rest and they were generating a fair bit of hype in the indie rock community. I distinctly remember ripping Sun Hands off of Limewire and knowing that this band was going to be special. It wasn’t until 2010 that they put out their first album Gorilla Manor and I finally got to check out tracks that weren’t originally Cavil at Rest songs or previously released singles. Who Knows Who Cares represents the best aspects of the band, their volume control and three-part harmonies. While I find songs like Wide Eyes and World News catchier and great songs in their own right, this one showcases their talent effortlessly. It is one of those songs you find yourself humming as you drive home in the evening, soaking in the beauty of whatever is around. I’m not sure Local Natives will ever be able to get to the level of Gorilla Manor again, but it doesn’t matter, I’ll be listening to it forever.
8. Get Em High
It is hard to believe that over 13 years have passed since I first listened to Kanye’s The College Dropout. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of one of, if not the greatest hip hop careers of all time. I was in the midst of a new found obsession with indie rock and hardly thought about hip hop, but Kanye was able to lure me to the genre singlehandedly. Tracks like All Falls Down and Two Words had a level of production quality that I had never heard before and we see now have been massively influential in the music industry. And while I can acknowledge that Kanye has put out many more critically well-received songs, Get Em High will always be my favorite. We knew that Common and Talib could make some magic from Black Star’s Respiration, but throw in Kanye and we have the greatest call to light up in music history. From “I’m trying to catch the beat” to “th-th-throw your motherfuckin’ hands”, the opening grabs you instantly, and the humor and flow of every verse is just flawless in my eyes. Get Em High may not be at the top of most peoples’ lists, but there is not a chance I could leave it off mine.
Regina Spektor's Samson is without a doubt the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. From start to finish it enraptures me with the story of Samson and Delilah, a tragic tale of love from the Hebrew Bible. Found on both of her two best albums, Songs and Begin to Hope, Samson is what can happen when both vocal and songwriting talent match each other in a way few artists can deliver. Regina Spektor is very hit or miss for me. Some tracks are well sung, but the lyrics do not quite click, while others are very well written, yet her pronunciation and quirkiness can get too distracting. In Samson all of the negatives seem to drip away, and you feel this rawness and honesty coming out of every syllable. The melancholy feeling it evokes in me is such a powerful sadness that I can feel down for days after listening. The artists pours her heart and soul into this one and I can feel it ripping out mine at the same time, well deserving of the number 7 spot on the list.
6. Minnesota, WI
I have listened to Bon Iver more than any other band throughout the last ten years. All three albums are fantastic and have such unique sound. For Emma, Forever Ago introduces us to Justin Vernon’s hauntingly beautiful falsetto, often accompanied by sad horns and heavy choral arrangements. The self-titled record shows a huge amount of growth, from making depressing music in a Wisconsin cabin in the woods to becoming a full fledged band, exploring sound, feelings and moods with confidence. And 22, A Million, the experimental album that some have called Bon Iver’s Kid A, so wildly different from the first two, yet somehow still Bon Iver. It has been such a treat to listen to this band and I would be remiss if I didn’t include my favorite song, Minnesota, WI. The minute long intro, a groovier sound than For Emma, braces you for a more standard type of indie-pop track, but instead we get 6 lines of nonsensical poetry evoking imagery through its nonsense. The falsetto comes in strong during the refrain, “Never gonna break never gonna break…” and then with some drums and bass the song bursts into the second verse, with a fervor to it that you won’t hear on any of their other songs. Definitely check out Minnesota, WI, but even better, explore Bon Iver and all three of their wonderful albums.
Listening to Novacane in 2011, I knew we were about to embark on a special music career, one that was not afraid to be deeply personal. A love song, a drug song, Novacane masterfully fuses R&B and hip hop in a way that still no one else can do. Frank’s storytelling ability is on full display here, the story of meeting a girl and getting trapped in a downward spiral alongside her. During the latter half of the song, you can practically feel the drugs take effect as he slips down deeper and deeper, “I can’t feel a thing, can’t feel, can’t feel a thing, can’t feel a thing, can’t feel, feel, feel her” contrasting sharply with clever lines about Stanley Kubrick and doing porn in the valley from the first half. Frank Ocean can take you on a journey with his music, and we’ve seen what he is capable of, especially with his most recent studio album Blonde. I will always come back to his first single though, a powerful and personal song that still manages to feel easy to listen to. More than any artist on this list, I’m excited to see Frank Ocean continue to grow as a musician, and maybe someday he’ll see another song move into my top 10.
The Kinks, known mostly for You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night, were long a typical British Invasion band in my mind. I listened and enjoyed their music for what it was, but none of it ever really connected with me. Thankfully, Wes Anderson decided to put Strangers in at the climax of his film The Darjeeling Limited, and I instantly fell in love. Rarely has a movie drawn me to anything so strongly, in fact, I heartily recommend checking out the film as it changed my perspective in a way few movies have. But anyway, Strangers. These lyrics have a way of speaking to people, connecting with their subconscious. “Where are you going I don’t mind” and “So I will follow you wherever you go” pull you in, make you want to be a part of the group and part of the song. And then the refrain, “Strangers on this road we are on, we are not two we are one”, has this emotional, come-together-esque feeling to it that really nobody else besides the Beatles can make me feel. The odd part is, this song seems to be about mortality and the frailty of life, yet at the same time I want to join hands and be a part of it. Might be one of those that you need to listen first (and in my case watch a movie) to appreciate, but will now forever be a part of me.
3. Fake Plastic Trees
And then there were three. Fake Plastic Trees is probably my absolute favorite song to listen to. I play it near constantly, never get tired of it, will never turn it off, always want more of it. And I think Radiohead is the best band that is still touring today. Unfortunately there are other factors in this top 10: bands that might not be around anymore, songs that evoke a memory or feeling about a time and place in my past that resonates stronger than just being great listening. Music is one of the greatest gifts in this world and the way it can feel intertwined in your past memories is part of what makes it so special. Radiohead as a band certainly has a place in my past. I fondly remember getting hooked on The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A at the start of high school. They were the holy trinity of nerd rock, and I fully embraced it. And their live shows are some of the most memorable that I’ve ever seen. So why does this fall to number 3? Because I don’t have any sort of real personal connection to Radiohead songs. I don’t really know what any of them even mean, and I’ve listened to them hundreds of times. To me it is just weird alien, Thom Yorkian music I love and that is totally ok.
2. Kissing the Lipless
When I look back on my teenage years, The Shins are the band that stand head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Coming out just two weeks after Transatlanticism, the Shins’ second album Chutes Too Narrow was my first Shins experience. That whole winter was spent almost exclusively listening to Death Cab and the Shins, enveloping myself in indie pop sounds, worrying about whatever 13 year olds worry about over Christmas break. At the same time I got my first cell phone, and within hours my ring tone was already the chorus of Kissing the Lipless. At this point in my life I had never been in love, much less fallen for a friend as James Mercer sings about throughout the track. But as a chubby, nerdy 13 year old I latched onto those feelings of hopelessness and frustration. I belted out those lyrics as loud and often as I could and it made me so fucking happy. I’ll always have an incredibly strong connection with Kissing the Lipless, but even disregarding all that the song is outstanding on its own merit. I’d make it number 1 if not for one even stronger musical influence in my life…
1. In My Life
The Beatles are without a doubt the strongest musical influence on my own musical taste. I grew up a child of two teenagers of the 60s, and throughout my whole childhood they almost exclusively listened to them. My very first concert was in 2002, a Paul McCartney concert. I sat next to my parents in awe, singing along and thinking about all the other bands I now had to go see in person. It was a seminal moment of my life, one that set the course for my love of live music and subsequently traveling to concerts and music festivals all around the world. Now to narrow my focus a bit, In My Life has always been the Beatles song I have loved the most. There is some dispute on who created what, but I subscribe to the story that while Lennon wrote the lyrics, McCartney wrote the tune. And that all makes sense when you listen to it. The words look so simple on paper, concise and matter-of-fact, but with McCartney’s melody and George Martin’s piano solo this piece comes to life with that Beatles magic. I wish I could explain more about why this song, of all the Beatles’ hits. This song is about reflecting on the past, comparing the current life to the former one, so maybe that resonates with me. I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand why I like it so much, but I know what it means to me and for that In My Life gets spot number 1.