Tuesday, June 4, 2019

35 Years Old Today: Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the U.S.A.'

Die-hard Bruce Springsteen fans love to deride Born in the U.S.A. It’s their way of telling you they’re “real” fans, not those jumping on the bandwagon as Bruce blew up. On the contrary, they’re “cultured” enough to prefer the stark landscapes of Nebraska to the dated, synth-blasted ‘80s sound of U.S.A. They use words like “overplayed” and “overproduced” to describe the famed songwriter’s biggest record, while perhaps praising something more obscure like The Ghost of Tom Joad. And they’re probably tired of explaining to their friends that Born in the U.S.A. is not a jingoistic piece of macho rock, but actually a critique of pointless wars.

In general, I don’t get along with these people.

To be fair, Born in the U.S.A. is not Springsteen’s best record. I don’t think I’ve ever met a fan who prefers it to Born to Run, which is my favorite Boss record and my favorite record, period. It also seems pretty universally accepted that U.S.A. is inferior to the records that immediately followed Born to Run: Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. These superior records certainly function as the thematic core of Springsteen’s catalog, but Born in the U.S.A. is also a lot deeper, more nuanced, and more complex than most make it out to be.

The reason for the wrongful Born in the U.S.A. malign isn’t hard to see. This record turned Springsteen from everyman rock hero to multi-millionaire pop star. It spawned seven top 10 singles, putting Springsteen in the company of Janet and Michael Jackson as one of the only artists ever to accomplish that feat for a single album. It also just sounds a lot more commercial than its predecessors, shedding the dust, grit, blood, sweat, and tears of earlier Springsteen records for something shinier and more radio-ready.

But if Born in the U.S.A. is a sellout record, it’s gotta be the greatest one in history. Instead of sanitizing his writing, Springsteen wrote with nostalgia and fury about the state of America. And instead of burying the E Street Band beneath layers of reverb and overdubs, Bruce let the full might of his sidemen and women explode behind him. The result is the most muscular Springsteen LP, but also one of the most vulnerable — at least if you take the time to look behind the roar of the arrangements.

The two most obviously misinterpreted numbers were the two biggest hits: the title track and “Dancing in the Dark.” The former was famously misused by Ronald Reagan, who took it as a pronouncement of pride and patriotism rather than a searing narrative about a damaged, neglected Vietnam vet. The latter, meanwhile, hides vitriol and bitterness behind the catchiest hook Bruce ever wrote. Springsteen penned the song in a flight of creative exhaustion and frustration after being told by manager Jon Landau that the album lacked a single. Landau was wrong six times over, and he still somehow managed to be right.

It’s the back half of the album, though, that’s always drawn me in. Side two — from “No Surrender” to “My Hometown” — is a string of songs about faded stomping grounds, squandered glory days, and enduring friendships. “We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools/We learned more from a three-minute record, baby/Then we’d ever learned in school,” Bruce sings on “No Surrender.” By itself, the song is an anthem. How could it not be, with opening lines that triumphant? In the context of side B, though — and in the context of the somber acoustic version Springsteen played on the Born in the U.S.A. tour — “No Surrender” is a heartbreaking hymn to better times. A track later, on “Bobby Jean,” Springsteen is wishing good luck to a friend who, for whatever reason, had to leave. (He wrote it about E Street guitarist and right-hand man Steve Van Zandt, who temporarily left the band after this record.) And while “Glory Days” sounds like a send-up of high school renown, it’s actually a poignant examination of how the glories, hopes, and ambitions of youth so often wither on the vine. In the final verse, Bruce boasts about going out to the bar with his friends and drinking ‘til he gets his fill. “I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it,” he muses about his wild streak, “But I probably will.”

I fell in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen during my senior year of high school. Throughout that spring, I listened to Born to Run every single day — often twice. As I approached graduation, I identified so firmly with the triumphant dreamers in those songs. I figured Born to Run would continue to dominate my listening throughout the ensuing summer (and it did), but I didn’t expect Born in the U.S.A. to land in my constant rotation too. On warm summer nights, driving home from adventures with friends, the back half of this record felt like home. In a lot of ways, I’d never felt closer with my friends. We’d defeated high school together and now we were taking our victory lap. But I was also cognizant of the fact that, in a few short weeks, we were going our separate ways. Things would probably never be the same again.

They weren’t. As August died, I drove away from that town and embarked on a new journey, at a university that none of my best friends were attending. When we all came back home the following summer, the nights were still great, but they lacked some of the “anything can happen” excitement of the previous year. We were no longer best friends staring down the barrel of a life change. Instead, we were very good friends, on hiatus from the different lives we’d started living without each other.

The one who still was my best friend — the person I could call about anything, the one whose house I’d spent so many nights at, just doing nothing — opted not to go back to school and moved off to New York City by August. On the day he left, I went back to Born in the U.S.A., once again seeking solace in its tales of friendship and home. It hit me like a cannon blast. “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean,” these songs that had once sounded like anthems, now struck me as profoundly melancholy. “We swore blood brothers against the wind/Now I’m ready to grow young again,” Bruce sang in the former. “There ain’t nobody/No way, no how/Gonna ever understand me the way you did,” he proclaimed in the latter. I’m not sure you can appreciate the full magnitude of emotions behind this album until your best friend has moved half a country away from you, for good.

On the last track of Born in the U.S.A., “My Hometown,” the narrator muses about packing up and leaving behind the only place he’s ever known. Coming after a string of songs about nostalgia and good times, it hits hard. A place can tie you to your past, and leaving it in the rearview can be symbolic of turning your back on a big chapter of your life. For Bruce, “My Hometown” was symbolic. His next record, Tunnel of Love, was largely a solo effort. The members of the E Street Band appeared, but only intermittently and never all on the same song. And after Tunnel, Bruce broke up the band and embarked upon a decade in the wilderness.

The breakup wasn’t permanent. Springsteen brought the band back together briefly in 1995 to record a few songs for his greatest hits record, and again in 1999 for a world-conquering reunion tour. And in 2002, with The Rising, he finally acknowledged that he was better with the E Street Band at his back. For a long time, though, Born in the U.S.A. was Bruce’s farewell — not just to Steve Van Zandt, but to E Street in general. Maybe that’s why fans don’t love the record: without it, perhaps Bruce wouldn’t have indulged the restlessness that caused him to chase away his band. Perhaps the 1990s would have been another decade of classic Bruce albums, instead of bringing three records that rightfully get ranked near the bottom of his discography on almost every retrospective list.

Even if Born in the U.S.A. broke the E Street Band, though, it also celebrated them. Springsteen has made better albums, sure. But he never made one that captured the spirit of friendship more profoundly than this one. That’s why I love it 33* years after the fact, and that’s why I’ll still love it 33 years from now. Even though there are people and places and things that I’ve left in my rearview, this album never fails to bring them all back.

*I initially wrote this article in 2017 for Modern Vinyl's 33-45-78 feature. That feature honored records that were celebrating their 33rd, 45th, or 78th anniversaries.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

28 Years, 29 Films: My Favorite Movie from Every Year of My Life

Two years ago, for a blog post I published on my 26th birthday, I went through and picked one defining song from each year I'd been alive. This year, I decided to do a similar exercise, this time with films. Rather than choose the most revered films of each year, or the ones that are considered masterpieces, I either picked the movies that had the biggest impact on me or the ones that have become rewatchable classics in my mind. The only rules were that 1) each year had to be represented by a movie that came out in that calendar year, and 2) I couldn't pick more than one move for any given year. So, without further ado, my list.

1990: Home Alone (directed by Chris Columbus)

When I made this list for songs, it was tough for me to think of anything to pick from my birth year. Not so with movies: I still watch Home Alone (gleefully, I might add) every year at Christmastime, and I could probably quote a sizable portion of it to you right now, verbatim. It is, for my money, the greatest Christmas movie there is, and maybe the most rewatachable movie of all time. I'll just never get tired of watching Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern get the crap beaten out of them by an eight-year-old kid. If I had to pick an honorable mention for 1990, it would probably be Angels of Filthy Souls.

1991: Beauty & The Beast (directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise)

One of the best things about being born in the 1990s was growing up in the true golden age of Disney movies. Beauty & The Beast is not my favorite Disney animated feature from the decade (it's third, after The Lion King and Aladdin), but since both of those classics got beaten out in their respective years, I had to honor Disney here. Not that Beauty & The Beast is just some stand-in. There's a reason that this movie was, for nearly two decades, the only animated film ever nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It's as enchanting, beautiful, and moving now as it was back then, with gorgeous animation and arguably the best soundtrack to any Disney film (again, give or take a Lion King).

1992: A Few Good Men (directed by Rob Reiner)

Say what you want about Tom Cruise, but the guy was absolutely on fire in the 1990s. A Few Good Men is the first of two movies this decade (at least) that should have won him an Oscar. Most people would tell you that Cruise gets overshadowed here by Jack Nicholson and his "You can't handle the truth" speech. But Nicholson's glory moment wouldn't feel so glorious if he didn't have such a worthy sparring partner, and Cruise consistently keeps the momentum rolling with the intensity and likable spark that made him the movie star of his generation. There are also some all-time-great quotes in this movie, including "That's a relief, I was afraid we weren't going to be able to use the liar-liar-pants-on-fire defense," "Sorry, I keep forgetting: you were sick the day they taught law at law school," and "You're a lousy fucking softball player, Jack!"

1993: The Fugitive (directed by Andrew Davis)

Will there ever be another movie like The Fugitive? These days, with Hollywood dominated by sequels and superhero movies, a few different types of films have become virtual endangered species. One is the romantic comedy. Another is this type of action thriller. The most iconic scene in The Fugitive might be the big bus crash/train crash set piece, and even 25 years later, that scene still looks great and delivers true thrills. But looking back, what's truly special about this film are the story and the characters. The Fugitive has a taut script, a tantalizing mystery, and a pair of central performances that make the film's cat-and-mouse premise feel genuinely epic. These days, this kind of story would go to Netflix or AMC, leaving the silver screen for Jedi Knights and The Avengers. As much as I love a good superhero movie, I'd trade most of Marvel for an era of action films this tightly crafted and well told.

1994: Pulp Fiction (directed by Quentin Tarantino)

For a time, Pulp Fiction was my favorite movie ever. At this point, it's probably not even my favorite Tarantino movie, but it's still special for so many reasons. The deft balancing of the multiple intersecting storylines; the way Tarantino plays around with chronology; the whip-smart dialogue; the surprising depth of the characters; the surprising deaths of the characters; and the way the movie straddles this tightrope walk between trash and prestige without ever toppling over into either territory. What other filmmaker could ring so much slapstick humor from a guy getting shot in the face in the back of a car, or so much intensity from Samuel L. Jackson reciting a Bible verse? I've got the answer: no one.

1995: Toy Story (directed by John Lassetter)

Toy Story was the most important movie of the 1990s. Schindler's List was heavier and Titanic made more money, but no film altered the course of film history more than this one. It's also, in my humble opinion, the best movie of the decade, and a film so good that Pixar still hasn't topped it. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Toy Story. I watched this movie dozens and dozens of times, to the point where it's probably still the film I've seen most in my life. It was delightful back then for the revolutionary animation, the clever set pieces, and the hilarious interplay between Tim Allen and Tom Hanks. It's wonderful now as the starting point to a deeply moving film series about growing up. An all-time great.

1996: That Thing You Do! (directed by Tom Hanks)

1996 was the first real battle for me (and this is even considering the fact that The Shawshank Redemption came out in the same year as Pulp Fiction). On the one hand, you had Tom Cruise giving his second Oscar-worthy performance of the decade in Jerry Maguire, Cameron Crowe's dramedy about a sports agent who grows a conscience overnight. It's a fantastic film, with both riotously funny bits and tear-jerking bits (not to mention a prominent feature for a Springsteen song). But at the end of the day, how could I not go with That Thing You Do, one my favorite music films ever and a movie I've loved since I was a kid? This gem about a one-hit wonder band in the 1960s (the Oneders; get it?) is still woefully underrated and under-watched. It's a funny movie (a pivotal moment of the film features a drummer breaking his arm while trying to hop over a parking meter), but it's also a down-to-earth examination of fame, and how a lot of the bands that bloom into overnight successes are not prepared to handle the whirlwind. "That Thing You Do" the song is also a legitimate smash and easily one of the catchiest songs in the history of film or pop music. (Fun fact: the guy who wrote "That Thing You Do" was Adam Schlesinger, frontman of the band Fountains of Wayne and writer of the 2003 smash "Stacy's Mom.")

1997: Good Will Hunting (directed by Gus Van Sant)

How do you pick a favorite scene from this movie? Do you go for the part in the Harvard bar, where Matt Damon owns a guy who dropped 150 grand on a fuckin' education he coulda gotten for a dollah fifty in late chahges at the public library? Or the part where Robin Williams starts improvising, talking about how his wife used to fart repeatedly in the middle of the night, until the camera starts bobbing up and down because the cameraman couldn't stop laughing? Or the Pudge Fisk World Series Game 6 scene? Or Ben Affleck's "best part of my day speech"? Or the scene in the park where Robin Williams wins his Oscar in five minutes, one take, and 450 words of the most exquisitely devastating writing in the history of film? Or the "It's not your fault" scene? Or the ending, where Will has to go "see about a girl"? There's no right choice: they're all perfect.

1998: You've Got Mail

Tom Hanks is my favorite actor, and I think that's because I grew up in the 90s. No one was more on fire from about 1994 to 2003 than Tom Hanks. He's still a remarkable actoreven if the Academy has been overlooking his work since 2001but he was at his peak right around this period. You've Got Mail is Hanks at his simplest and most enjoyable. He's not doing any serious dramatic heavy lifting, but he still makes charisma leap off the screen in every scene he's in. The rant about Starbucks remains relevant and funny 20 years later, but it's only as effective as it is because You've Got Mail captures the least guarded intimacy of a relationship: all the stupid, meaningless, innocuous junk you tell to someone who you feel completely comfortable with. It's a testament to the chemistry between Hanks and Meg Ryan that they sell these little, honest moments with as much romantic realism as their big climactic kiss.

1999: Galaxy Quest (directed by Dean Parisot)

Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver anchor this hilarious Star Trek parody, about the cast of a cult sci-fi TV program who suddenly find themselves living a real-life version of their show. But while Allen and Weaver are terrific, it's the murderer's row of character actors further down the bill that really sell the film. There's Alan Rickman, as a disgruntled actor playing a disgruntled spoof of Spock. There's Sam Rockwell, as a paranoid former extra who is pretty sure he's bound to get killed off in real life, just like his character did on the show. And there's Enrico Calantoni, as the alien commander who has modeled his ship and his entire crew off the "historical documents" of the Galaxy Quest TV show. The film handles its parody with levity and terrific comic timing, but it also does what most spoofs never achieve, becoming a terrific and thrilling piece of genre filmmaking in its own right.

2000: Almost Famous (directed by Cameron Crowe)

I've spent enough time talking to music writers and following them on social media to know that it's cliche for a music writer to say that his/her favorite film is Almost Famous. But this movie, a semi-autobiographical passion project for director/writer Cameron Crowe, captures the imaginations of music writers for a reason. We'd all love to be William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who gets to go on tour with his favorite band and lands a byline on a Rolling Stone cover story before he graduates high school. This film is a fond look back at a time when music criticism mattered, and a time when rock 'n' roll (and music in general) was something people lived and loved with passion and fire. The characters are beautifully sketched, from Kate Hudson's wise-beyond-her-years "band aid" to Billy Crudup's arrogant but soulful rock star. And then there's the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, giving arguably the best performance of his entire career in just a few scenes as legendary music writer Lester Bangs. There are too many unforgettable scenes to name, but it's tough not to single out the "Tiny Dancer" sing along on the bus, the plane ride to hell, or the final candid interview between William and Crudup's Russell Hammond. "What do you love about music?" William asks Russell; "To begin with, everything."

2001: The Fellowship of the Ring (directed by Peter Jackson)

In music, my big genesis moment came in 2004, with Jimmy Eat World's Futures. It was the first album that showed me how personal and emotionally significant music could be in my life. The equivalent moment in film, for me, was The Fellowship of the Ring. This movie blew the doors off my 11-year-old mind and made me fall in love with an art form that I had previously only regarded as entertainment. I saw it on Christmas Eve 2001 with my family and I still count it as the single greatest movie-going experience of my life. Fellowship swept me up into its orbit and made me laugh, cry, and sit staring open-mouthed at the screen, marveling at the technical majesty of it all. Once I finally had my hands on the DVD, I used to watch snippets of it after school on Fridays when I was home alone, just to keep myself in that world. It remains my favorite of the Lord of the Rings films, as well as my favorite book-to-film adaptation of all time. (Note: In my initial draft of this list, I had The Two Towers as my 2002 film and The Return of the King as my 2003 film. That seemed a little too boring, so I figured I'd leave The Lord of the Rings represented here, by the finest film in the trilogy. I tend to think of them more as a group than as three standalone films, anyway.)

 2002: Catch Me If You Can (directed by Steven Spielberg)

I'm not sure there's a film from this century with three stronger performances at the center than Catch Me If You Can. It's my favorite Spielberg movie, my favorite DiCaprio performance, and one of the most fun versions of Hanks. And none of those people even win the movie. The gold medal has to go to Christopher Walken, who sells a character who has to exude, at different times, natural charisma, crushing failure, and deep regret. It's a dark, nuanced performance in an otherwise snappy and fun film, and it lends weight to everything else that happens onscreen. It's fun to watch DiCaprio wear different faces and outsmart law enforcement. It's fun to watch Hanks chase him, always a step or two behind. But Catch Me If You Can ultimately resonates not because of its string of cons, but because Spielberg and his cast dig deeper. Ultimately, it's a film about lost youth, good times gone, and father-son relationships. I can't believe nobody won an Oscar for this movie.

2003: School of Rock (directed by Richard Linklater)

I don't know if I loved School of Rock more because it was a clever, funny film or because it hit right as I was starting to discover the magic of rock 'n' roll myself. This movie released in the fall of 2003, right around the time that I bought my first album and started making mix CDs like it was my job. Jack Black's earnest protagonist, with his wisdom about the power and honesty of rock, became something of a spiritual guide for me in those early years, and might honestly be credited for my ongoing adoration of rock music more than 15 years later. For awhile, my biggest fantasy was that someone like Black would come hijack my class and turn us into a ripping rock band. Even now, though, with those childish thoughts removed, School of Rock is a classic. It's funny without being crude, reverential to classic rock without indulging the worst habits of the form, and boasting one of the best soundtracks that will ever exist in a film. Black has also never been better.

2004: DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story (directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber)

One of these things is not like the others. DodgeBall is immature and occasionally outright dumb, but it was also one of my favorite movie-going experiences of all time. I saw this one with my brother on some summer afternoon where we both didn't have anything to do and were looking for a way to get out of the heat. I have never laughed harder in a movie theater and probably never will. I haven't seen this movie in a long time and it probably hasn't aged as well as a lot of the other films on this list, simply because this kind of low-brow humor rarely does. But I miss summers of no responsibility and nothing but time, and thinking about this movie brings them back for me. Gary Cole and Jason Bateman steal the show, as spoofs of all the modern sports announcers who never have anything insightful to say.

2005: Elizabethtown (directed by Cameron Crowe)

A lot of people hate this film. I've seen it mentioned before as one of the worst films of all time, or playfully labeled a "fiasco" (a reference to a plot point from the story). I myself spent the better part of a decade writing it off as Crowe's worst film. But then I gave it a re-watch in 2012 and fell in love with it. There are definitely flaws: Orlando Bloom is hilariously miscast, and the first half hour feels like it was edited by someone from a different planet. But once the movie settles in, it sings. Cameron Crowe has always been a master at incorporating music into his films, and Elizabethtown is the finest example of those gifts. The story finds a young man on the verge of suicide (Bloom) traveling to his father's hometown to bury him. Along the way, he meets a free-spirited flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) and they forge a connection. The film can't decide whether it wants to be a lighthearted rom-com, a touching family drama, or a screwball comedy, so it ends up being a bit of all three. It doesn't quite pull together, but the best moments are sublime, from the all-night phone call scene where Bloom and Dunst start to fall in love to the film's climactic sequence, where Bloom takes a road trip with his father's ashes, listens to mixtapes from the girl he loves, and finally starts to heal. The latter sequence alone wins 2005 in favor of Elizabethtown, even if the movie that houses it is unquestionably (but beautifully) flawed.

2006: Casino Royale (directed by Martin Campbell)

I didn't have high hopes when I walked into a showing of Casino Royale on Thanksgiving 2006. I'd loved Bond as a kid, but the last few films of the Pierce Brosnan era (particularly Die Another Day, arguably the series nadir) had turned me off. I didn't even follow the casting of the new Bond, and didn't even realize that Casino Royale was out in theaters until a few days after its release. But the film won me over again, rebooting Bond with grit and emotion that hadn't been there in the Brosnan films (or any previous Bond films, for that matter). Fast-forward 12 years and three more films and Casino remains, in my mind, the best 007 adventure ever. The not-so-secret weapon is Daniel Craig, keeping the charm, ego, and recklessness that's made Bond an icon, but allowing the character to bleed and break before the audience's eyes.

2007: Once (directed by John Carney)

Most cinephiles would tell you that 2007 was the best year of cinema this century. The Oscar Best Picture battle played out between two bruising, brutal films that are widely considered to be masterpieces (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood), and the Academy didn't even nominate treasures like Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James, or Into the Wild. But my favorite 2007 film will always be the quaint and quiet Once. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who play the film's main couple, aren't actors. They play musicians because they are musicians, and they fell in love in real life just like they fell in love onscreen. As a result, Once feels innately realoccasionally uncomfortably so. When you see Hansard belting out "Say It To Me Now" on a street corner in the first scene of the film, the emotion cuts to the core because Hansard has been that guy, playing for tips to people who didn't appreciate his stunning gifts. When the two discover their musical chemistry to "Falling Slowly," it's a moment worthy of the Oscar it wona moment that captures what it's like to find someone else who seems to hum at the same frequency you do. And when the camera pans out the window in the last scene of the film, with Irglova's character wondering what could have been and "Falling Slowly" playing again over the final scenes, it aches both with sadness and with a flicker of hope left hanging in the air.

2008: Iron Man (directed by John Favreau)

It's easy to forget now, after 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have taught us to expect fun, competently made comic book films at least two or three times a year, but Iron Man really felt like something special when it debuted on the first weekend of May 2008. At that point, Sony had crashed both X-Men and Spider-Man into the ground with laughable trilogy-ending films; Daredevil was DOA; Hulk got hit by a gamma ray of audience distaste; Ghost Rider was a trainwreck; and the less said about Fantastic Four, the better. The only comic book franchise still worth watching on the big screen was Batman, and that was thanks mostly to director Christopher Nolan and his dark, gritty vision. But then Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. took a B-list Marvel character and turned it into a franchise flagship. Without this film (and specifically, without Downey in the lead role), the MCU never happens. Downey oozes charisma, effortless humor, and arrogant charm in one of the most fun movie star performances of the past 10 years. With Downey's considerable presence as the foundation, Favreau builds Iron Man into the rare superhero film where the action sequences are less entertaining than what happens in between them. A decade later, it's still the most unique, well-made, and human film in the Marvel universe. (Note: Just about any comic book film fan would pick The Dark Knight here, but I actually think Iron Man is the finer start-to-finish film and holds up better upon rewatches.)

2009: Inglourious Basterds (directed by Quentin Tarantino)

My favorite Tarantino film and one of my five or ten favorite films of all time, Inglourious Basterds is the perfect mix of tension, humor, horror, and audacity. Revisionist history has never been as gleefully thrilling as watching Hitler and his compatriots get burned alive in a theater by a Jewish woman. Add Brad Pitt at his hammiest, Michael Fassbender in a breakout role, and The Office's BJ Novak as a diminutive Nazi killer, and Inglourious Basterds is already a fun house full of cinematic oddities. What gives the film the push into masterpiece territory is Christoph Waltz, showing up out of nowhere (his career up to this point had been German theater and TV movies) and acting like he owns the place. He does. His Nazi captain is shrewd, clever, logical, cruel, funny, ruthless, and horrifyingly likable. For my money, it is the greatest performance that any film actor has given in my lifetime.

All those things make this film a favorite for me, but it also holds a place near and dear to my heart for when I saw it. Inglorious Basterds released on August 21, 2009, which means I caught this violent, uproariously entertaining film with all my best friends in the summertime following our high school graduation, just days before we all packed up and went off to college. For nearly three hours we laughed, gasped, and sat on the edge of our seats as Tarantino's roller coaster of a war film unfolded. It was a perfect last hurrah, and one of my favorite movie-going experiences for how it crystallized something that would never be quite the same again.

2010: The Social Network (directed by David Fincher)
The Social Network was one of those films that just felt like a classic from the first time I saw it. Never mind that David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin supposedly played it pretty fast and loose with the so-called facts. Virtually everyone depicted in this film has, in some way or another, lambasted it as fiction. That's okay, though, because The Social Network is not meant to be an exact representation of how Facebook was born. Instead, it's a film about obsession and alienation, and it's tough to think of any movie that better reflects the zeitgeist of the modern world. There are a lot of questions here: about intellectual property and creativity; about inspiration; about friendship and connection in the internet age; about isolation and loneliness; about ethics and greed; and about the implications of everything these characters create together. But it's a testament to the quality of the film that it's just as good as a piece of pure pop entertainment, thanks to the haunting score and a slew of ace performances from future A-listers like Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara, and Armie Hammer. Plus, there's something thrilling about watching Justin Timberlake, a mainstream pop establishment hero, cavort around as one of the guys who broke the music industry.

2011: Crazy Stupid Love (directed by Glenn Ficarra an John Requa)

There is no movie from the 2010s that I have watched more than Crazy Stupid Love. Some romantic comedies drown in cliches. This one takes a whole bundle of themthe old guy finding his way back to romance after a divorce, the uptight beauty who finally learns to cut loose, the adolescent boy in love with a girl who much older than himand puts them in a blender. On the surface, it's just extremely pleasant watching the movie switch back and forth between the different storylines. The scenes with Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling are an especially enjoyable treat. But it's when the movie finally weaves everything together, in one of the ultimate rom-com "twist" scenes of all time, that the fireworks really start. If you haven't seen the movie, I won't give it away. Suffice to say, though, that every time I watch this movie and get to that part, it's still just as uproariously funny as it was the first time.

2012: Skyfall (directed by Sam Mendes)

I was so amped for Skyfall back in the fall of 2012. Leading up to the release of this movie, I'd been working my way through the better part of the Bond series as research for a paper I was writing about James Bond. (Fun fact: that paper ended up getting published in a scholarly journal.) I was the biggest Bond fan I knew, ready to mark the 50th anniversary in style. I had to wait. My girlfriend and I lived in different towns at the time, me finishing college and her in her first job. As luck (read: my careful planning) would have it, she was coming into town the weekend Skyfall hit theaters. The catch was that she wasn't coming until late Friday night, which meant we weren't going to get to see the movie until Saturday. I still remember sitting at the bar with my buddies on Thursday night around 11 p.m., watching the TV screens on the wall loop trailers of Skyfall. Every time the words "Starts Midnight" came on the screen at the end, I felt like I was being taunted. When I finally got to see the movie, it lived up to every expectation I had. Overflowing with thrilling setpieces, featuring my favorite cinematography of any 2010s movie, and packing a surprisingly emotional punch, Skyfall earned its buzz as the "Best Bond Ever," even if I still prefer Casino Royale.

2013: About Time (directed by Richard Curtis) 

About Time didn't get enough attention. Pitched as a time traveling rom-com in an era where rom-coms have largely dipped in popularity, it's actually a film that uses its high concept to tell an incredibly nuanced and moving story about life, love, family, and yes, time. It's fitting that a movie titled About Time uses time so expertly. There isn't a wasted frame here, and the story never rushes or wanders into territory where it doesn't belong. Instead, director Richard Curtis manages a years-spanning love story that actually earns the passage of time. The central love story deepens subtly as the movie goes on, and the core time travel conceit ends up being less of a gimmick to hang a story on and more a way to convey striking and deeply moving revelations about the nature of life. Every part of the movie is lovely, and every actor melts so seamlessly into Curtis's screenplay that you sometimes forget you're watching a film. But the heart of the picture is the interplay between Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Nighy, who bring to life the most deeply-felt father-son relationship I have ever seen onscreen.

2014: Kingsman: The Secret Service (directed by Matthew Vaughn)

It's hard to believe Kingsman got made in this era. Egregiously violent, politically incorrect on almost every level, and featuring a scene where Colin Firtha Best Actor winner known for playing straight-laced British rolesmurders an entire church full of bigoted maniacs (while "Freebird" blares in the background, no less), Kingsman is a legitimately insane piece of cinema. It's also maybe the most purely fun movie I've seen this decade, stacking jokes on top of stylish action sequences and stylish action sequences on top of twists. It doesn't hurt that the supporting cast is a murderer's row of top-tier British talent (Firth, Michael Caine, and Mark Strong, all superb), or that Samuel L. Jackson is having maybe more fun than he's ever had on screen in any other project. And holy hell, did I mention the "Freebird" scene? In a decade where great action films seemed fewer and further betweenor at least, more franchise-drivenKingsman was a fresh, fun reminder of a bygone era when films like this were a little less rare.

2015: The Hateful Eight (directed by Quentin Tarantino)

It took me at least a few hours to pick my jaw up off the floor after watching The Hateful Eight for the first time. Even as someone who had seen every Tarantino film more than once and who considered him a favorite director, I don't think I was prepared for just how brutal this movie would be. So much of it is vintage Tarantino, from the cast to the dialogue to the aesthetic. But it's also a wild departure from the movies that came before itbig, crowd-pleasing, "good guys win" epics like Basterds, Django Unchained, and the Kill Bill films. Tarantino described The Hateful Eight as "a bunch of nefarious guys in a room, all telling backstories that may or may not be true." There aren't any heroes here. Every character is as despicable as the next. As a result, there's no triumphant conclusion, and no one even worth rooting for. You just watch as Tarantino locks these eight people in a room, mounts a blizzard outside the doors, and tosses in a barrel of guns and a poisoned pot of coffee to see what happens. The result is one of the bloodiest, most brutal, and least predictable movies I have ever seen. I still haven't gone back for a rewatch, and I almost feel like I don't need to. That first viewing was as thrilling and memorable as any movie I've ever seen.

2016: La La Land (directed by Damien Chazelle)

I don't review movies. I don't even write about film very much, in any capacity. But I felt inclined to write something about La La Land when it came out, because I can count on one hand the number of times I've been more blown away in a movie theater. Sure, the songs are great. Sure, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have the best onscreen chemistry of any duo currently working in Hollywood. Sure, the choreography is stunning. But the best thing about this movie isn't the magic and majesty of the musical theater numbers. It's the depiction of big, impossible dreams and the toll they take on the people who dare to dream them. "I think it hurts a little too much," Emma Stone's character says in one scene, wavering on the edge of giving up. It's my single favorite line reading from any actor in any film released this decade, and it's not because it's big or showy or bombastic or even what they would put in the clip montage for an Oscar nomination. It's because that line reading captures the pain of failure with such realism and exhaustion that even thinking about it puts tears in my eyes. As someone who has chased this kind of dream and lost the race, that moment means more to me than maybe anything else I've ever seen in a movie.

2017: Coco (directed by Lee Unkrich)

I like a lot of Pixar movies. Ever since Toy Story blew the doors off my five-year-old mind, Pixar has repeatedly captured my imagination and made me reconsider what a movie could be. The company's boundless creativity, paired with a talent for populist crowd-pleasing entertainment, has resulted in a seriously enviable oeuvre of films. With all that said, Coco was the first Pixar movie in a long time to whisk me fully into its world. I liked Inside Out. I liked Up. I even liked unnecessary sequels like Finding Dory (or unnecessary prequels like Monsters University). But Coco was on another level. I genuinely believe this movie to be one of the most beautiful films ever made, whether in terms of visuals or story or music or themes. The questions this film asks and the things it has to sayabout life; about death; about family; about memory and legacy; about culture; about musicare deep, rich, and nuanced. Just like Toy Story, this film should have won Best Picture. Just like Toy Story, it wasn't nominated.

2018: The Hate U Give (directed by George Tillman Jr.)

I didn't expect to be walloped by The Hate U Give in the way that I was. For one thing, I already knew the story, having been introduced to the book by my YA-fiction-loving, publishing-industry-involved wife. For another thing, film adaptations of bestsellers tend to be hit or misshence the complete absence on this list of Harry Potter movies, or Hunger Games movies, or any number of other films based on books I love. But thanks to a perfect cast and a script that mostly gets out of the way and lets the novel do the heavy lifting, watching this movie was every bit the emotionally draining experience that reading the book was. The Hate U Give makes big, timely, important statements about race and police violence in America. But it is also a beautiful film about family and friendship and the ways those bonds are tested for some of us more than others. Much has been made about how this movie tells a ripped-from-the-headlines story, so similar to many we've read about young black men being gunned down by trigger-happy police officers with zero accountability. But what makes The Hate U Give so special is that it puts you right there in the living room or kitchen or classroom with the people forced to deal with the fallout of those tragedies. The result is searing and heartbreaking and infuriating and resilient, and worthy of so much more attention than it's gotten so far.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Songs of the Summer

The idea of the “song of the summer” is revisited every single year—in Twitter conversations, in music critic thinkpieces, on radio stations. There’s always a race to crown the one pop hit that defines the season and becomes the soundtrack to parties, wedding receptions, bars, clubs, and road trips. I have always felt left out of that conversation, because I kind of hate most mainstream radio pop. The song of the summer, according to public consciousness, is always a pop hit, which means I almost always don’t care for it. I also just don’t find the song of the summer conversation interesting, because it’s determined mainly based on radio dominance (and now, streaming numbers). It’s just another hit song. The only thing that sets it apart is that it happens to land in a particular season.

So, with the end of summer fast approaching, I decided to put my own little twist on the conversation. I realized that what bored me about the song of the summer debates wasn’t that the songs getting chosen were pop songs. Rather, it was the idea that one song was supposed to define summer for everyone. I’d much rather read about the songs that defined summers for individuals—and more importantly, about why.

With that thought in mind, I went back to 2001 and re-litigated my own personal song of the summer debates for each year since. Which song do I think of first when I think of the summer in question? Which song, when I hear it, takes me back in time to the summer when I was 10, or 17, or 23? And why did those songs end up tied to those seasons so specifically, when there were always dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other songs making their way to my to my ears during the same months?

To go through this exercise, I had to establish a few ground rules for myself:
  1. I needed to start in 2001, because it’s the first summer where I can remember music playing an active roll in my life. There are songs that I associate with previous summers. If I went back to the 90s, surely Fastball’s “Out of My Heard,” Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” The Wallflowers’ “The Difference,” Oasis’s “Champagne Supernova,” and Green Day’s “When I Come Around” would be ruling their respective years. But music at that time was less crucial to who I was or how I lived my life. 2001 made more sense as a starting point, for reasons I will discuss below.
  2. A song doesn’t necessarily need to be from the year in question to be the song of the summer, but it needs to be close. For this point, I deferred to the “Maroon 5 rule,” so named because Maroon 5 had arguably the ubiquitous pop hit of the summer of 2004 (with “She Will Be Loved”) despite the fact that the song had come out in 2002. Per this rule, a song could be a maximum of two years old to be considered a candidate.
  3. The song of the summer could not be a ballad. This rule is probably my most arbitrary, and may or may not get broken regularly with actual radio hits. Still, when I think of the song of the summer, I think of a windows-down anthem. There were a few times where I felt tempted to break this rule for a wistful summer night ballad, but I ultimately view those songs in a different category. (Cue my “top 20 all-time summer night songs” list.)
  4. Artist repeats can happen in the song of the summer conversation, but they are exceedingly rare. Looking back over the past 20 years, I think the only artist you could argue for having dominated two summers (in the mainstream consciousness, anyway) is Katy Perry. As such, I left myself open to artist repeats, but tried to steer clear, if steering clear was possible. I didn’t end up with any.
Thus, without further ado, my personal songs of the summer from 2001 to 2018.

2001: Lifehouse - “Hanging by a Moment” (from No Name Face)

I spent more time actively listening to the radio in the summer of 2001 than I probably have in all the years since combined. For some reason, I got super into following along with the top 40 countdown every Sunday morning. I’d even write out lists of the songs, in order, and try to guess what was coming next. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why I subjected myself to this truly special form of torture. Even back then, I disliked many of the songs, tolerated some of them, and only truly liked five or six. The only reason I can think of for listening faithfully every week was this song. I loved “Hanging by a Moment.” The propulsive hook; the balance of the low vocal lines in the verse and the soaring melodies in the chorus; the title. I remember listening to the countdown every weekend that summer, hoping this song would land the number one slot, and always being disappointed when it got bested by something else—usually the Moulin Rouge version of “Lady Marmalade.” “Hanging by a Moment” never hit number one on the Hot 100 or the Top 40, but it played runner-up for so long that it ended up being the top song of the year anyway. I don’t care about any of that chart stuff anymore, but I still have a soft spot for this song, which reminds me of summertime in the days of endless (perhaps too much) free time.

2002: Jimmy Eat World - “The Middle” (from Bleed American)

I spent at least half of the summer of 2002 at my friend David’s house—most of it playing video games, watching movies, or pretending to be Jedi Knights. I think I spent an average of two nights a week over at his house, just staying up late and trying to beat the latest Gamecube or PlayStation games. It was a busy summer—probably my ultimate summer of “being a kid”—and all that activity meant I definitely wasn’t sitting around my house listening to the top 40 countdown. If there’s a song that defines this summer, though, it’s gotta be “The Middle.” “The Middle” broke on the radio around the end of my fifth grade year, and its influence bled (no pun intended) right into the summer months. I remember hearing it so many times on the radio in the mornings when my mom would drive me to school. In the summer, the destination of those drives changed—usually to David’s house—but I was still always happy to hear this song on the radio. Considering what Jimmy Eat World would eventually become in the scheme of my musical evolution and my life in general, it’s still surreal to me that they had a hit big enough to reasonably contend for mainstream song of the summer status. There has not been a better consensus contender since.

2003: Our Lady Peace - “Innocent” (from Gravity)

2003 was the summer where everything started to change. I was almost a teenager, I was running with my brother and the high school cross country team in the mornings, and my brother had finally taught my sister and I how to download music and burn CDs. Not to glorify a crime or anything, but learning the ropes of KaZaa and Winamp blew the doors off my 12-year-old mind. Suddenly, every song I’d ever heard was at my disposal. The 90s gems I hadn’t listened to in years; my favorite songs off the radio; the songs I was hearing on TV shows. I burned probably six or seven CDs that summer, just loading up my collection with old favorites and new curiosities alike. “Innocent” was a song I wasn’t familiar with. I discovered it on our home computer, in a Winamp playlist full of songs my brother had already downloaded. My god I loved it. It seemed to say something about adolescence and growing up that I hadn’t quite encountered yet, but was about to. It remains one of my favorite songs about growing up, to the point where it ended up on the playlist I listened to on the drive to my high school graduation.

2004: Dashboard Confessional - “Vindicated (from the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack)

Picking one song from the summer of 2004 was very nearly impossible. By all accounts, this season was the start of my great musical awakening. Sugarcult’s “Memory” was my “beginning of summer” song. Snow Patrol’s “Chocolate” was my “summer road trip” song. Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue” was my “I’m so glad they’re playing this on the radio this summer” song. All those songs were valid candidates, as were the entireties of Counting Crows’ Hard Candy and Sister Hazel’s Chasing Daylight—my first two “summer albums.” But I don’t think anything sounds more like the summer of 2004 to me than Dashboard Confessional’s “Vindicated.” “I am seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself,” Chris Carrabba cries at the end of the chorus. What a beautiful, angsty lyric, so perfect for my first teenage summer. When I hear it now, I remember everything about that season: trips to the beach; outings to the movies; too many hours spent playing Grand Theft Auto in the basement with my brother; staying up late reading books because it was too goddamn hot to sleep; the dumbest theater camp of all time; and a burgeoning love for music, manifested in a voracious search for new songs and an increasingly meticulous approach to sequencing my burned CD playlists. “Vindicated” also moved my tastes subtly toward pop-punk and emo, setting the stage for that fall when albums like Jimmy Eat World’s Futures and Green Day’s American Idiot would change my life forever.

2005: Better Than Ezra - “A Lifetime” (from Before the Robots)

Growing up, I loved vacations, but didn’t care much for long road trips. No matter how many activities I tried to give myself to do in the car, I’d get bored and end up restless in the backseat, asking some variation of that quintessential family vacation question: “Are we there yet?” My siblings and I tried lots of different strategies for keeping ourselves entertained in the car. We tried audiobooks. We tried setting up a TV in the backseat and watching movies. One year we even rigged up a videogame setup. But those strategies were always just ways to kill time. When I fell in love with music, things changed. Suddenly, I looked forward to the long drive almost as much as I looked forward to the destination. I loved making myself comfortable in the backseat, picking out something to play on my portable CD player or iPod, and letting the music wash over me as I watched the country pass by outside. “A Lifetime,” my song of the summer from 2005, has always been a road trip song to me. I bought Before the Robots the night before we departed for a family reunion, and I played it exhaustively on that trip. There were at least half a dozen other true blue summer songs on that record, but “A Lifetime” always stuck out the most to me. It’s a song that should be sad—it’s about a girl who crashes her car and dies on the morning of her high school graduation. But the song subverts expectations, winding down a narrative path where the narrator steals the girl’s urn at her wake and takes her out for one last perfect summertime adventure. “Three and a half minutes felt like a lifetime” goes the chorus punchline. The best summer songs epitomize that line, because they pack entire seasons into their beautiful bursts of lyrics and melody.

2006: Jack’s Mannequin - “La La Lie” (from Everything in Transit)

There’s no better summer album than Everything in Transit, and no song that exudes the atmosphere of my teenage summers quite like “La La Lie.” The explosive harmonica. The shimmering keys. A hook so catchy that it has never failed to make me run a little bit faster or drive a little bit more recklessly. “I’m coming back to my girl by July.” Transit was a 2005 release, but it didn’t make its way into my life until the first week of summer vacation 2006. In a summer that had plenty of other worthy soundtrack candidates—specifically Dashboard Confessional’s Dusk and Summer and Butch Walker’s The Rise and Fall—this record still came out on top. It’s what I reached for on road trips or evening runs on the golf course, or on afternoons when I just wanted to kill time in my room and listen to music. Future summers would be more eventful, more angsty, more dangerous—and Everything in Transit would soundtrack bits and pieces of all of them. But 2006 was the last year where it really felt like I had 14 to 16 waking hours to kill every day; no responsibility, no obligations. “La La Lie” was and is the sound of that impossible, irretrievable freedom.

2007: Black Lab - “Mine Again” (from Passion Leaves a Trace)

I spent less time listening to music in the summer of 2007 than any other year featured on this list. For three weeks, from late June to mid-July, I was away at Interlochen Arts Camp, for a musical theater program. Phones were banned, and I’m pretty sure iPods were frowned upon. So I went three weeks without music at the peak of summertime—ironic, since I was in a place where music was all around me in every other way. For whatever reason, the song that kept popping into my head when I couldn’t actually listen to music was Black Lab’s “Mine Again.” It’s a fever dream of a song, one that captures flickers of memory and wraps them around a chorus that sounds like heaven. A girl in a red dress; lying barefoot in the grass; stealing hours alone together in the midst of summer; a picture in your mind of a lost love that feels as vivid as if the photo were taken yesterday. “Every day, I will wait ‘til your mine again,” goes the hook. Back then, I associated this song with a girl. Now, I hear it as yearning for a type of innocence and naivete that can only last for so long. This was my last summer of that feeling, and this song still feels like one of its very last vestiges.

2008: Safetysuit - “Someone Like You” (from Life Left to Go)

The summer of 2008 changed everything. It was my first summer with a car. It was my first summer with a job. It was my first summer at home as the only kid left in the nest, with both my siblings away. It was my first summer of drinking and parties. And it was my first summer in love. The result was the most tumultuous two and a half months of my life, and there’s no song that encapsulates that better than “Someone Like You.” Sure, there are songs that speak to the sadder moments of that season—and there were a lot of them. But “Someone Like You” was the song that taught me just how fun it could be to scream along to an anthem in the front seat of your car with the windows rolled down on a sunny day. It’s a song with enough power and drive to be that kind of summer jam, but it also had traces of melancholic angst around the edges—perfect for all the adolescent emotions I was dealing with at the time. Looking back, that season was the best and worst summer of my life, all rolled into one. On the one hand, the freedom and possibility of those nights seemed genuinely infinite. After so many summers spent mostly tethered to my house, I reveled in the ability to stay out as late as I wanted, or to go anywhere. On the other hand, I was working a job I hated and pining after a girl that I wasn’t ever going to get. By the time that summer ended, I didn’t have much left but a broken heart and a lot of sad songs. “Someone Like You” was the exception, something that still sounded hopeful even after everything that had happened. It was the first song I played after I woke up on the first day of senior year, my way of saying “Things are going to get better.”

2009: Cary Brothers - “The Last One” (from Who You Are)

If you’d have asked me at the outset, I’d have told you that the summer of 2009 was going to be the most celebratory and carefree of my life—at least up to that point. I’d finished up high school; I had three months of total freedom before I’d be heading off to college, to major in music; I had a few big concerts and trips on the calendar. By all accounts, it should have been a summer full of parties and youthful recklessness and long nights of fun and loud, blazing summer anthems. When I look back now, though, I think of the summer of 2009 in very melancholy terms. Part of it, I think, was the weather. Summer 2009 was unusually gloomy in northern Michigan, filled with rain and unseasonably cold days. A lot of it didn’t feel like summer at all, let alone what I expected from my first post-high-school summer. Another part, though, was sadness. The grief of dealing with death for the first time—when we had to put my childhood dog to sleep—still lingers over my memories of that summer. So does the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach that my friend group was never going to be as close again as we were that summer. Trying to pick a song to represent all those heavy, conflicted feelings was difficult, especially since I felt like the summer after graduation deserved an anthem. But “The Last One”—a burst of new-wavy pop from Cary Brothers’ 2007 debut album—is the song that I think captures that summer for what it was. It’s zippy and catchy enough to be a song of the summer, but you can hear the stormclouds gathering. I played Brothers’ album, Who You Are, exhaustively throughout the second half of that summer, its patient, sad ballads capturing my melancholy coming-of-age moment with the grace of an 80s movie soundtrack.

2010: Chad Perrone - “Blinded” (from Wake)

The summer of 2010 was the best summer of my life. I was enjoying my first college summer, which meant I had four solid months of freedom—versus the two and a half you get in high school. I was home for the break, which meant reconnecting with old friends. I’d landed a job at a dinner theater in my town, which meant I was literally getting paid to sing and perform oldies pop songs. And I was falling in love with a girl from high school, a girl who I would end up marrying four years later. “Blinded” captured so much of the joy and butterflies of that season. The music of Chad Perrone came into my life at the outset of that summer, recommended by an online friend who knew Chad from the Boston music scene. The first time I heard “Blinded,” driving to rehearsal for my job on some gorgeous June evening, I knew it was going to soundtrack my summer. What I didn’t know was that the song—about being ready to let your guard down and gamble everything on the feelings you have for another person—was going to be prophetic. After that girl and I started dating, “Blinded” was the first song I ever put on a mixtape for her. I listened to it hundreds of times over the next year, both in moments of that perfect, pure hometown summer and of the ensuing school year and the long distance relationship we maintained throughout it. The night before we got married, at our rehearsal dinner, “Blinded” was the song I quoted in my speech: “How do you believe in anything enough to know that it will never change?” Sometimes, there are things you just know in your gut, whether it’s a question of the song that’s going to define your summer or of the woman who you are going to spend your life with.

2011: The Dangerous Summer - “No One’s Gonna Need You More” (from War Paint)

No song ever defined a summer as much as “No One’s Gonna Need You More” defined the summer of 2011. Most of the songs on this list I played dozens of times throughout the summer in question. With this song, it was hundreds. I could not get enough of War Paint, and I definitely couldn’t get enough of “No One’s Gonna Need You More.” To my ears, it was the perfect summer song. It had the bright, sunny catchiness that had always made pop-punk a go-to genre for summer mixtapes, but it also had the emotion and angst necessary to foreground the romantic whirlwind insanity of being a young adult with some freedom left to burn. “Every lonely heart can use an honest song they can sing along to,” sings AJ Perdomo in the second verse. That summer, I really needed to fall in love with music again. I’d suffered through the worst semester of my life and an interminable winter to get back home for another summer, and I always felt like this song and the album it came from were my rewards. In the midst of a crossroads moment in my life, The Dangerous Summer made every night, drive, kiss, swim, sunset, beach day, and song feel like heaven for two months straight. I might never have needed an honest song more.

2012: Yellowcard – “Always Summer” (from Southern Air)

“I left home but there’s one thing that I still know/It’s always summer in my heart and in my soul.” In any other summer, I don’t think those lines would have meant as much to me. But the summer of 2012 was the end of lots of things. It was my last college summer, the last one before I graduated. It was my last summer in my childhood town—at least until the current summer, but we’ll get to that part of the story in time. It was my last summer working my job at the local dinner theater, before it closed shop forever. In a lot of ways, it was the last summer of my youth, and driving away from it with “Always Summer” blaring through my speakers felt like a picture perfect coming-of-age moment. This song meant so much to me that summer, on blazing hot drives or late nights after work, sneaking drinks from behind the bar after we sent audiences on their way. It was like Yellowcard had anticipated my circumstances and had written a song that would dovetail with them perfectly. I still can’t hear this song without feeling a little sadness for everything I left in my rearview when I drove away at the end of that August. The summers of 2010, 2011, and 2012 were the best ones of my life, and this song was their big grand finale.

2013: John Mayer – “On the Way Home” (from Paradise Valley)

The summer of 2013 didn’t feel much like summer to me. Instead of returning to my bayside hometown for another glorious season in the sun and the water, I was living in an apartment in Naperville, Illinois, in the midst of an oppressively humid season, in the middle of an island of concrete, far from anything that could be considered a beach. It was also a tumultuous time in my life, one where I was casting about for a job—any job—as the economy cratered around me. There were good things, too: I moved in with my girlfriend, after too much time spent doing the long distance thing. But I also crashed my car and had my soul drained working for two weeks in the worst sales job I could have imagined. It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a “bad” summer, and coming after three straight greatest hits, that broke my heart. “On the Way Home” was my song of the summer not because it gave me the kind of anthem that I’d looked for in other years, but because it felt so fitting as I yearned for the summers of my youth. This song sounds like the end of summer. It sounds like Labor Day weekend, or the last trip to the beach before the fall breezes send everyone scurrying away. It was also a fitting soundtrack for the actual end of summer, which managed to redeem most of the bad things that had happened. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, on a trip home, I asked my girlfriend to marry me and she said yes. This song wasn’t the soundtrack to that particular moment, but it still encapsulates a lot of what that season was for me: wistful, backward-looking, and a little bit bittersweet.

2014: Bleachers - “Rollercoaster” (from Strange Desire)

“It was summer when I saw your face/Looked like a teenage runaway.” Those are the first two lines from “Rollercoaster,” the kind of summer song I’d been seeking for years but never found until 2014. “Rollercoaster” has the charm and sweep of a classic 80s teen movie. It’s the kind of song that could have been in a John Hughes flick, or maybe in something like “Adventureland.” It encapsulates the anything-could-happen electricity that flows through summer days and nights when you’re young and free and falling in love for the first time. If “Rollercoaster” had hit a few years earlier, when I was living that kind of freedom, I would probably love it even more than I do. As it was, 2014 was a big summer of landmark moments for me—moments that felt pretty far removed from the youth this song describes. Instead of falling in love or sneaking kisses late at night, I was getting married to the girl of my dreams and committing to a lifetime with her. And instead of the tumultuous whirlwind of a summer vacation—and an end-of-summer return to school—I ended my summer by leaving Illinois in the rearview and moving back to Michigan for another new life chapter. Still, even though I might not have been living the wild, youthful spirit of “Rollercoaster,” I was living its sense of momentous occasions and exciting revelations. During the last month of summer, leading up to that big move back to Michigan, I played this song over and over again, using it to turn the sweltering humidity of a Chicago summer into something that felt romantic. It didn’t quite work, and summers have felt more like they used to since I moved back to Michigan, but “Rollercoaster” still brings back very fond memories of the season when I really started my adult life. One last youthful anthem to send me on my way.
2015: Kelsea Ballerini - “Dibs” (from The First Time)

“Dibs” is one of the catchiest songs of all time. It’s not particularly deep, and it didn’t have the kind of huge emotional impact on my life that many of the other songs on this list did, but my god, the hook. Kelsea Ballerini has been pitched so far in her career as the heir apparent to Taylor Swift, and this song hammered that point home with the most infectious three minutes of pop country to come along this decade. 2015 was a fantastic summer for me. It was the first summer since my wife and I had moved back to Michigan, and our first in the house we’d bought in April of that year. It was also the summer when I started running again, after years of only going for the odd run when it suited me. And, perhaps most crucially, it was the summer that I fell in love with country music. All those factors combined to make it a momentously memorable season. Being in Michigan meant we were only two hours from home and less than an hour from the shores of Lake Michigan. Being in our own house meant I wasn’t trapped inside a cave of an apartment for the summer, but could instead enjoy the season by working out on the porch for a few hours each afternoon. Getting back into running meant I had a new way to enjoy songs and albums—particularly fast, upbeat, optimistic summer anthems like this one. And falling in love with country meant that I was discovering a new artist or song or record I loved almost daily. “Dibs” was at the cross section of all of the above, the country song that sounded best on summer afternoons out on the porch, or during runs when I needed something to push me to a faster pace for that last mile. Every time it came up during a workout, I played it at least twice. Three years later, I still can’t get over the hook or how quickly it conjures up the summer where I fell back in love with summer again.

2016: Butch Walker - “East Coast Girl” (from Stay Gold)

Stay Gold was like Everything in Transit and War Paint in that, after it arrived, there wasn’t a whole lot else I wanted to listen to for the rest of the summer. Why listen to other albums on runs when this was the one that would make me push myself harder? Why blare any other albums on drives along the shore when this one sounded so damn good blasting out of the my speakers with the windows down? Most of the songs on the record sound like summer, but “East Coast Girl” is very close to being prototypical. It pairs the ‘80s teen movie romanticism of “Rollercoaster” with the Springsteenian sweep of the songs from Born to Run. Of course I loved it. “You can run, but you can’t hide/It’s a cruel, cruel summer outside/Shine on little baby, you were too good for this world/Just another broken east coast girl.” The chorus explodes and the big, bold guitar intro sounds like a dizzying theme park ride on a July night. But the verses are the most interesting: spoken word missives said into a cellphone microphone, like stream-of-consciousness love notes to a girl, or to the past, or to a girl from the past. Like the rest of Stay Gold, “East Coast Girl” is wistful and nostalgic and bright and big and beautiful. It’s the kind of song that can make it feel like summertime even in the dead of winter.

2017: All Time Low - “Last Young Renegade” (from Last Young Renegade)

I’ve been making “Summer of 20XX” playlists every year dating back to 2006. I recently went back and made a few playlists for earlier years, based on the songs I was listening to at the time. It’s fun to revisit those mixes now, to remember what life was like then and how it’s changed since. For a long time, I waited until the end of summer to make those playlists. It didn’t make sense, I reasoned, to make them earlier, when I maybe hadn’t heard all the great summer songs the season had to offer yet. A few years ago, though, I changed my strategy and started making my summer mixes on a “rolling” basis, adding new songs as they came along and eventually ending up with monster playlists of 30-40 songs. That way, I can enjoy the in-progress playlist throughout the season in question, but still end up with something that represents the entirety of summer. I was glad to have my summer playlist in 2017, in part because I wasn’t super fond of All Time Low’s Last Young Renegade as a full album. It was fine, and had a few good songs, but mostly saw the band gravitating toward a pop sound I didn’t love. The title track was the exception, a big, booming, redemptive piece of rock ‘n’ roll that hearkened back to the anthems of Springsteen and U2. I loved this song, and I loved revisiting it as a part of that “Summer of 2017” playlist over and over and over again. “Just a couple kids on a summer street/Chasing around to a flicker beat/Making mistakes that were made for us/We brushed them off like paper cuts,” goes the first verse. Right away, the song conjures up a vision of summertime romance so pure and youthful that you want to make it last forever. The love story doesn’t survive the second verse—“We used to be such a burning flame/But now we’re just smoke in the summer rain,” goes one of the lyrics—but every time the song hits its titanic chorus hook, it’s like reliving every whirlwind summer love you ever had.

2018: LANCO - “So Long (I Do)” (from Hallelujah Nights)

I’ve never anointed a song to “song of the summer” status as prematurely as I did with “So Long (I Do).” Usually, my song of the summer is a song I don’t actually hear until the summer in question. Not so with this song, which appears on an album that came out on the third release day of the year. Hallelujah Nights, the long-awaited debut album from country band LANCO, is a pure and joyful summer album. Songs like the title track and “Greatest Love Story” ache with the romantic possibility of hot nights under the stars out in the great wide open. I’m not sure why any band would release that kind of record in mid-January, but it’s a testament to how good a song “So Long (I Do)” is that it somehow stuck with me for six months to become my song of the summer for 2018. As northern Michigan slowly emerged from an endless winter and a ruthless bout with April snowstorms, I played this song constantly on drives or runs or evening walks, trying to summer the sun and the heat a little faster. On Independence Day, when I finally got to sing along with the song’s opening lyric—“Now every single summer on the Fourth of July/I think about you baby and I don’t know why”—on the Fourth of July, I felt the kind of unbridled joy that only the best songs can bring.