Friday, November 18, 2016

26 Years, 27 Songs: Choosing One Defining Song for Each Year of My Life

A few months back, one of my Facebook friends marked his 40th birthday in the coolest way imaginable: he created a sprawling Spotify playlist, charting the course from 1976 to now, selecting one song per year. His playlist was at least partially aimed at discovery: which artists he could encourage people to check out by giving them one of his years. Of course, he was also picking songs that mattered to him personally, but his focus on smaller, lesser-known artists meant that some of his favorites (Bruce Springsteen, U2, Peter Gabriel) missed the playlist.

After seeing and listening through some of his playlist, I was inspired to tackle the project myself. My criteria were a bit different than his. I was less concerned with promoting unknown or lesser-known artists, simply because most of the people who follow me on social media or read my work on this site already know about most of the sort-of-underground artists that I champion. Instead, my quest was to pick either my favorite songs from each year, or the ones that defined those years most. I wanted to be able to listen through the playlist I made and relive my life story.

Here are the rules I followed:
  1. One song per year, no exceptions. No ties, no honorable mentions, no songs bundled together as one. I could discuss other songs in the blurbs for each year, but I had to select a clear winner.
  2. One song per artist. This rule helped me keep my list more diverse and meant that I had to be strategic about the years where I chose songs from which artists. The result was a game that was a lot more challenging and a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise.
  3. Only songs from the years in question could be chosen as winners from those years. In other words, a song from 1975 couldn't be my pick for 2009, even if it defined the year. I had to pick a song from 2009 for 2009.
  4. I also didn't include the side projects or bands of artists who were already on the list in some other capacity. Marvelous 3, for instance, was disqualified because Butch Walker already had a year, while Something Corporate was booted because a different Andrew McMahon project was already on the list.
  5. When possible, I had to give more weight to songs that I lived and listened to during the years in question over songs that I fell in love with in later years. The early years were obviously exceptions to this rule.
  6. I had to still enjoy every song on the list. So no, my Creed phase is not represented. I'm sure you're all disappointed. 
Without further ado, here are the songs I chose for every year I've been alive, posted here today to commemorate my 26th birthday. Click here to listen along with the Spotify playlist.

1990: Heart - "Cruel Nights" from Brigade

This was the hardest year on the list, for obvious reasons. For one thing, I was only alive for a month and 12 days of 1990, so the year only just barely counts in the first place. For another, I don't really care for any albums that were released the year that I was born. It's probably the only year of the decade that wouldn't put an album anywhere on my top 500 favorites list. Heart's "Cruel Nights" gets the win for being a slick anthem of heartbreak and summer nights. Think of it as more of an introduction to the mix than a true start to the story.

1991: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Learning To Fly, from Into The Great Wide Open

It took me a long time to get into Tom Petty, which means that "Learning to Fly" is not connected to any of my memories from childhood. Still, "Learning to Fly" has been an important song in my life—one that I've related to growing up and striking out on my own. In the summer of 2014, when my wife and I left behind our apartment in Illinois to move back to our home state of Michigan, this was the first song I played in the car for the long journey to my new home.

1992: R.E.M. - "Nightswimming" from Automatic For The People

I don't recall exactly when I first heard "Nightswimming," but it's certainly a song I recall hearing on the radio when I was very young (along with all of the other hits from Automatic for the People). Still my favorite R.E.M. song, "Nightswimming" captures the ache of growing up and summers that don't last for long enough. It is an inarguably perfect song.

1993: Counting Crows - "Mr. Jones" from August & Everything After

"Mr. Jones," the most successful single from Counting Crows' most successful album, was the first song I remember hearing and registering the fact that I was enjoying it. My brother used to play my parents' copy of August on the CD player when we loaded the family into the car for vacations or day trips. "Round Here" is my true favorite from the album, but "Mr. Jones" deserves this slot simply for being the song that probably first ignited my love of music.

1994: Green Day - "When I Come Around" from Dookie

I didn't have a portable CD player until the day I turned 11, which means that my childhood was either defined by what was on the radio or by what my brother was playing on his boom box. "When I Come Around" was both of those things during what I presume was the summer of 1995, and it still captures the sound of summertime for me so many years later. Eventually, I had my brother make me a cassette tape copy of Dookie so I could listen to this song in particular on my own time. Here's hoping I didn't know what "Longview" was about.

1995: Oasis - "Don't Look Back in Anger" from (What's the Story) Morning Glory?

Another album I had my brother make me a cassette copy of, Morning Glory was a huge album for me—to the point where I probably could have chosen any of its 10 proper cuts as my 1995 song. I was close to going for "Champagne Supernova," but I opted for "Don't Look Back in Anger"—the finest song on the record and the best thing either of the Brothers Gallagher ever wrote. When I listen to this song today, I still hear a lot of my childhood in there—camping trips with my dad, driving late into the night with my family on our way to see my grandparents in New Hampshire, etc.—but I also hear the indelible tunefulness of an ambitious band getting as close as they ever got to showing up the Beatles.

1996: The Wallflowers - "One Headlight" from Bringing Down The Horse

Here's where it gets interesting: the first song I can ever remember bestowing with the title of "my favorite song," from the first band I ever remember bestowing with the title of "my favorite band." "One Headlight" was a shock to my young ears: catchy, mournful, contemplative, and thought provoking. There's a reason I eventually found my home in folk, Americana, country, and roots rock—both as a songwriter and a listener—and that reason is this song.

1997: Third Eye Blind - "Motorcycle Drive By" from Third Eye Blind

Third Eye Blind was one of my favorite albums as a kid, thanks largely to the parade of hits near the beginning. Truth be told, it probably would have been more accurate to list "Semi-Charmed Life" here, but "Motorcycle Drive By" was too important a song to pass up. The best piece of songwriting that Stephen Jenkins ever gave the world, "Motorcycle Drive By" is a classic deep cut from a classic record and one of my top 10 songs of all time. It's a song that continues to hold a lot of gravity for me to this day—especially the gorgeous, bittersweet imagery of the final verse.

1998: Goo Goo Dolls            - "Black Balloon" from Dizzy up the Girl

The singles from Dizzy up the Girl were on the radio all the time on morning rides to school when I was in first and second grade. "Broadway," "Iris," and "Slide" are all classic songs that I relate very much with growing up, but "Black Balloon" was and is my favorite. A sweeping melody and a lyric that is more than meets the eye make it the band's best song, for my money.

1999: Foo Fighters - "Learn to Fly" from There Is Nothing Left to Lose

There are albums that matter more to me from 1999 than this one—from Jimmy Eat World's Clarity to the Marvelous 3's Hey! Album. But when I try to look back at what life was like in 1999, "Learn to Fly" is probably the song that comes to mind in the sharpest relief. A classic radio rock hit that just sounds like the end of a millennium, "Learn to Fly" was a song I loved every time it came up on the airwaves—even before I knew who it was by.

2000: U2 - "Walk On" from All That You Can't Leave Behind

2000 was probably the first time I ever heard a U2 song, back when "Beautiful Day" was inescapable on the radio. Still, if there's one song from All That Can't Leave Behind that will stay with me forever, it's "Walk On." At my eighth grade graduation in 2005, I made sure this song was on the soundtrack for our big class slideshow. It was also there when I graduated from high school in 2009, and when I graduated from college in 2013. Few songs say "moving on to bigger and better things" quite like this one. Seeing it live in 2011, at the end of the main set on the 360 tour, was a life-affirming moment.

2001: The Calling - "Wherever You Will Go" from Camino Pamero

2001 was one of the hardest years for me to pick a song, for several reasons. First, it's my least favorite year of music from the millennium so far. Second, my favorite albums either came from artists that are already on this list elsewhere (Jimmy Eat World, John Mayer), or were records that I discovered way after the fact (Gold by Ryan Adams, Rockin' the Suburbs by Ben Folds). Third, 2001 was during my "wasteland" years, when my brother had stopped buying CDs or making copies of them for me, and when all my listening was governed by the radio. I actually spent a lot of time back then listening to the top 40 countdown each week, and my favorite radio single was "Wherever You Will Go" by The Calling. It's kind of dated and super cheesy, but both of those qualities seem appropriate when I look back at fourth grade. It's also immortalized in the first episode of Smallville, and really, what's more 2001 than that?

2002: Bruce Springsteen - "My City Of Ruins" from The Rising

The first Bruce Springsteen song I remember connecting to wasn't "Thunder Road" or "Born to Run"; it was this fantastic closing track from the Boss's 2002 comeback album. My brother bought my stepdad a copy of The Rising for Christmas 2002, and we definitely played that record on the stereo while opening presents. I knew that "My City of Ruins" was a song that had been associated with September 11th, so I paid extra attention when the disc got there. It remains one of my favorite Bruce songs for how it mixes mourning and uplift so effectively. In 2012, Bruce repurposed it as a stirring eulogy for Clarence Clemons, one of the most poignant moments of any live show I've ever seen.

2003: John Mayer - "Wheel" from Heavier Things

John Mayer would make better albums and write better songs later in his career, but I knew from the moment that I started this project that "Wheel" was going to own 2003. Heavier Things was the first album I ever bought with my own money, and I remember listening to it every single day after school that fall—usually twice. The closing track, "Wheel" always hit me the hardest for its poetic lyrics about departures and goodbyes, as well as some extremely effective vocal layering at the end.

2004: Jimmy Eat World - "23" from Futures

2004 was the year of my musical evolution. It's the year I started buying albums religiously and the year that saw the release of three of my top 10 albums of all time. This slot easily could have gone to Butch Walker (whose Letters was my album of the year) or Green Day (whose American Idiot I played on repeat for an entire month that year, between my birthday and Christmas). But Futures has to win for how it held me together when I thought I was going to have to leave my hometown and everything I'd ever known behind. More than any other album, Futures ignited my love for music, and nothing captures the spirit of that adventurous autumn better than the climactic sprawl of "23."

2005: Jack's Mannequin - "Rescued" from Everything In Transit

I was late to the party on Everything in Transit, but I couldn't let 2005 slide by without listing a song from one of my all-time favorite records. Everything in Transit may not have explicitly defined 2005—to be honest, Butch Walker's Letters did, and that wasn't in contention. But Everything in Transit did define pretty much the entirety of my youth beyond this year—from high school summertimes to high school graduation, all the way to falling in love for the first time. "Rescued" was always my favorite, the poignant piano ballad that laid the season to rest with a contemplative dive in to a cold September swimming pool.

2006: Dashboard Confessional - "Dusk And Summer" from Dusk And Summer

It's possible that there isn't a single song in the world that means more to me than this one. Earlier this year, for the 10th anniversary of Dusk and Summer, I detailed how this song played a key role in my relationship with my wife. Four years before that, though, "Dusk and Summer" had already become my go-to summer night song. No song aches quite like this one, from the simple strummed guitar chords to the way Chris Carrabba's voice cracks up to falsetto on the outro. To this day, when I hear this song, it takes me back to the end of every summer since 2006.

2007: Matt Nathanson - "Car Crash" from Some Mad Hope

In the story this playlist tells, "Dusk and Summer" feels like the end of youthful innocence. That's fitting, since the fall of my junior year of high school brought more responsibility, more doubt, more challenges, and more mistakes than ever before. I finally had a driver's license, I was playing the lead in the school musical, classes were getting harder, college was looming, and things suddenly didn't seem so black and white anymore. But the stress and anxiety of it all was also accompanied by a newfound feeling of freedom and possibility, and for me, that's all wrapped up perfectly in the words and swell of Matt Nathanson's "Car Crash."

2008: Butch Walker - "Closer To The Truth And Further From The Sky" from Sycamore Meadows

Considering how formative Butch Walker's music was for me, both to my tastes and to who I am as a person, it's almost remarkable that it took until 2008 for him to snag a year on this list. But "Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky" was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Like the previous year, 2008 brought the unmistakable strain and excitement of growing up, along with plenty of firsts and lasts: my first heartbreak; my last first day of high school; my last musical. "Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky" not only encapsulates the antsy excitement of almost being done with one major life chapter, but it also wore its Springsteen influence so proudly that it partially inspired the deep dive I took into the Boss's catalog during Christmas break. The rest is history.

2009: Will Hoge - "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" from The Wreckage

If we're being honest, my defining song of 2009—the year I graduated from high school—was "Thunder Road" all the way. But since picking songs from 1975 is obviously against the rules, and since "Closer to the Truth" already encapsulated my end of high school excitement, I opted for a song that captures my first autumn at college. I enjoyed my first year of college, but I was also pretty homesick and had some doubts about whether or not I was in the right major. (Spoiler alert: I wasn't.) The Wreckage was an album I played a lot on the road trips I took back home on the weekends. Rather than hit a bunch of college parties, I'd frequently make the three-hour drive north to get a few home-cooked meals, do my laundry, download a shit ton of music, see friends from high school, and go to movies with my parents. I did a lot of soul searching and growing up on those solo road trips, and this song, with its battle cry of a chorus ("keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart") hit me pretty hard. It still does.

2010: Chad Perrone - "Under Different Circumstances"          from Release

2010 was the year I fell in love with the girl I ended up marrying. We shared an incredible summer together that was defined largely by two songs, both written by Chad Perrone. The first, a soaring love song called "Blinded," came from his 2008 record Wake. It was the first song I ever put on a mixtape for her and I went on to quote it in my rehearsal dinner toast. The second was this song, a shattering tune about unrequited love from Perrone's then-current album, Release. When I drove away from her and our perfect summer together, on my way back to school, Release was the album that gave me the strength to keep driving, despite the fact that I knew for certain I didn't want to be anywhere she wasn't. It was the start of a lengthy long-distance relationship, but we made it work. Years later, Chad Perrone would personally ask me to write the bio section for his website. Life unfolds in some pretty cools ways sometimes.

2011: The Dangerous Summer - "No One's Gonna Need You More" from War Paint

I'm not sure if I've ever played an album as many times in such a short period of time as I did War Paint in the summer of 2011. This album was my undisputed summer soundtrack. Every time I climbed into the car, it was War Paint. Every time I got home from work late at night and wanted to wind down with some music, it was War Paint. "No One's Gonna Need You More" was and is my favorite song on the album, and its torrential rush of sound still takes me back to those sun-soaked days and endless nights.

2012: Yellowcard - "Southern Air" from Southern Air

The end of summer 2012 felt distinctly like the end of another era. My girlfriend was moving to Illinois to start a new job, the dinner theater I'd worked at for three summers was closing, and I was finishing out the final summer in my hometown before my impending college graduation. Southern Air came out toward the end of the season and captured snapshots of all of that. When I drove away and left that summer behind, it was with this record on the stereo. "Always Summer" could have made the cut, too, but "Southern Air" wins if only for how it said the exact words I was thinking the day I left: "This will always be home."

2013: The 1975 - "Robbers" from The 1975

I never saw The 1975 coming. The day this album started streaming was the Friday before Labor Day weekend, and I remember hastily downloading a rip onto my iPod before my girlfriend and I drove the six hours home from Illinois to Northern Michigan that evening. But I happened to be proposing the next day, and "Robbers" just came along at the perfect minute to soundtrack it all. When I listen to this song, I still hear the magic and excitement of that perfect summer day, from the moment I picked up the ring to the moment she said yes.

2014: Noah Gundersen - "First Defeat" from Ledges

In 2014, I married my wife, we moved back to Michigan, and my grandfather passed away. These three events are all among the biggest things that have happened to me during my adulthood, and encapsulating them all in a single song is simply not possible. "First Defeat" was my favorite song of the year, though, an emotive marvel of a track that charts the relationship of two people who are completely wrong for each other, but who can't seem to quit each other either. If the year had a single overarching soundtrack, it was Gundersen's Ledges, a masterpiece of modern folk that added a new name to my favorite artists list and pushed my tastes in a rootsier direction.

2015: Jason Isbell - "Speed Trap Town" from Something More Than Free

2015 saw probably the biggest evolution my music tastes have seen in a single year since the formative months of 2004. There are so many songs I could have picked here, from Butch Walker's "Fathers Day" (which bottled up a lot of the residual grief I was feeling over my grandpa dying) to Dawes' "All Your Favorite Bands" (which anchored my summer soundtrack). But "Speed Trap Town"—the saddest song from Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free—has to win for two reasons. First, Isbell's music pushed me to explore country music further, which quickly became my go-to genre. Second, Isbell's style of songwriting influenced my own writing as I started crafting the songs that would make up my debut album. Many years from now, I imagine I'll look back at 2015 and see "Speed Trap Town" as one of those paradigm-shifting songs.

2016: Ryan Beaver - "Dark" from Rx

"Let the lights go out in this town and in my heart/Bring it on, I ain't afraid of the dark." If there was song this year marked by a more resilient and defiant proclamation, I didn't hear it. The song that couplet comes from, Ryan Beaver's "Dark," is perhaps my favorite song of 2016—an exhilarating Springsteen-style anthem that manages to fit all of the hopes, dreams, heartbreaks, and failures of a life into the space of four minutes. In a year that brought plenty of darkness, "Dark" was the song I kept coming back to, a sobering reminder that fighting hard and facing down the tornadoes of life—even if you have to do it with a drink clutched firmly in your hand—is always worth the risk.


I've always been told that I have a great memory. I think that has less to do with my brain chemistry and more to do with music. The songs, artists, and albums that make up this list are like signposts that have dotted the years throughout my life. I can remember when I first heard them and when I listened to them obsessively, and I can also remember what was going on in my life while they were playing as soundtrack. As a result, I happen to be uncannily good at vividly remembering key moments from my life, or recalling which year certain events took place in. I suppose that's one of the greatest gifts that music can give: the clarity and permanence of memories that might have otherwise faded. 26 years in, I am still in absolute awe of this artform and everything it can do.

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