When you love music as much as I do, you tend to reflect on moments in your life, even entire years, through the lens of the songs that were playing. Summer camp as a kid is reflected back to me through the sounds of Motown. Finding myself through the guitar at age 12 is distinctly Nirvana. Falling in love is all Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Even people in my life come to me through songs. My mom is "Ocean" by the John Butler Trio. One of my brothers is "At Least That's What You Said" by Wilco. A dear friend is "Honestly?" by American Football. Someone great I never got to meet is "Wild Blue" by John Mayer. Songs have always been the way I understand the world, and my most comfortable way of interacting with it. When you pair that with a love for writing prose-y flower-y run-on sentences with an overuse of commas, writing 31 mini essays to celebrate your own 31st birthday starts to make a lot of sense. I loved doing this project last year, and there was no way I wasn't gonna do it again.
If you like this kind of thing, I put out a monthly newsletter of music writing, playlists of new music, videos and much more. You can find it on my website. And if you've got a project or an idea where you could use someone who loves music enough to write this many words on it, my team and I would love to hear from you over at Radish Music. We've got some awesome things in the works, and are always looking for inspiring collaborative people to tell great stories with.
I hope you enjoy. As always, be well and happy listening.
Note: You can also listen to all 31 songs on this Spotify playlist.
'made this on the spot' by Yaya Bey & V.C.R
When I hear "made this on the spot," I take Yaya Bey at her word. I imagine being right there in the room, lights low, a purple bulb in the corner casting a faint hue on the ceiling, and Bey and V.C.R are sitting right there, one with hands on a keyboard, and the other feeling spirits pass through and spelling out their tales as song lyrics. She has no more control over what comes out than they do. Their purpose is found in the vocal shape of an exhale.
'The Lightning I & II' by Arcade Fire
"Waiting on the light, what will the light bring?" This line, more than maybe any other that comes to mind, feels like a summary of what Arcade Fire is at its core. It's grandiose, it's got a sense of childlike awe baked in, and it strives to answer something in the form of a question. This is what they've been giving us since the very beginning, all the way back to that snow-filled neighborhood and the lead turned gold that opened up their debut Funeral almost 20 years ago. Here, it sounds like they've dug their way back home.
'Stars' by The Weather Station
I first heard "Stars" by The Weather Station in a dark and crowded room, where the audience hushed after singer Tamara Lindeman announced she wanted to play a new song. I was alone that night, in the thick of grief, and I remember the song's first line embracing me like a pair of strong, compassionate arms: "How is it that I should look at the stars?" I've always looked heavenward ever since I was young. The simplicity and mind-bending vastness of those dots in the sky have always felt like a reflected piece of me. The stars are maybe the rarest thing about our planet—they are objectively not of Earth, but we have the luxury of getting to see them as part of the deal of being alive. No wonder they are so often referred to as our way home.
'Masculinity' by Samora Pinderhuges & Immanuel Wilkins
Recently, a man I've known for years told me he always thought it was cool how I crossed my legs. I, it should be known, cross my legs nearly every time I sit down, and have been doing so since I was … 8? I wanted to ask him why. Not why he thought it was cool that I did it, or even why he never did it himself if he liked it so much, but why he never told me. But I didn't ask because I knew the answer. This song holds an answer to that question, and just about every other one I can think of as to who we are and where we're bound to go if we don't give ourselves our most critical of permissions.
'Louie Bag - Live at Electric Lady' by Yebba
Pino Palladino and Questlove—the guys who helped shape D'Angelo's Voodoo, back together again at Electric Lady Studios. It's such an electric delight hearing Yebba, staking her claim for the next great generational voice, letting loose in the company of these masterful musicians. I remember catching a video of her years ago in her late teens/early twenties, and her potential for shutting a room down was spectacularly obvious even then. But hearing her hold it down with these players, in this room, singing this song, promises her as the real damn deal.
'G3 N15' by Rosalía
When comprehension of language isn't available, we gather the information we need by the performance of the speaker. What experience, emotion or question are they trying to communicate to you? How does the intensity and dexterity and universal emotional quality of the performance of words you don't understand move you? Does it allow for a deeper understanding that commonly understood words never could? I don't know that I ever would have thought so, but then again, I'd never before heard anything like "G3 N15." Many people, like me, won't understand a word. But she barrels right through that, singing and singing and singing until you understand her.
'Cosmic' by Amber Mark
There is so much that Amber Mark wants to express about this love she's found. She uses the grandest language and imagery possible—all spaceships and planets and otherworldly feelings. But there's a moment in the chorus, the part of a song designed for the message to cut through, where words fail. "Is there some kind of magic?" she asks. "It seems so automatic, baby." And in that moment, for nearly a full bar, she just stops to revel in it all. Only a single "yeah" can escape her lips. Every time it happens, I feel what she feels; total, pure, astonishing awe. Beyond words, beyond the cosmos. Beyond everything.
'Let's Do It Again' by Jamie XX
Last year, I ended this same piece with "We Lost Dancing" by DJ and producer Fred Again. It is, to this day, the song that symbolizes the pandemic in its most crystalized form to me. The stakes on that song feel so high, as does its catharsis. Near its end, The Blessed Madonna sends a hopeful signal out into the universe. "If I can make it through these next six months, what comes next will be marvelous." That was in February 2021. I'm not sure we've reached that marvelous place just yet, and maybe we never really will. But as much as I needed "We Lost Dancing" then, I need "Let's Do It Again" now. Because its insistence on getting up, shaking off the cobwebs and doing what you love feels like the most potent of revolutions.
'Something on My Mind' by Supershy
It can be argued that Tom Mische is nearly single-handedly making the guitar cool again—a guitar hero for a generation largely without one. If I was 14, I'd be watching his every move with fervor. And if I was in fact 14, and he'd come out with "Something on My Mind" from his new electronic alter ego Supershy, it may have expanded my own musical palette a whole lot earlier. Daft Punk is the clear point of reference here, and in their absence since their breakup, I'm all for it. His first single, "Happy Music," was a beautiful ode to their debut Homework, but "Something on My Mind" is pure Discovery; blippy arpeggios and lush soundscapes galore. Human After All seems to be the next logical step, which thankfully for us, includes way more guitars.
'Try' by Nilüfer Yanya
Do I love Nilüfer Yanya's new album PAINLESS because it sounds like Radiohead's The Bends, or do I love Radiohead's The Bends because it sounds like this? Oddly timed melodies, hauntingly gorgeous vocals, unexpected moments that take songs from something arguably typical to anything but—these are just some of the elements I see in both of these records. And while other songs maybe stand a little taller, I keep coming back to "Try," largely for the moment about two-thirds in when the floor falls out, everything goes quiet, and then bam—the band comes back full force but with a calmness only possible with mastery. I'll follow wherever she goes next.
'Hey' by Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul
Time to admit something—I have a huge Talking Heads blindspot. I've seen Stop Making Sense once, in a car with a little TV screen hanging between the front seats, and it was so obvious that what I was seeing was brilliant, such art, that I actually … didn't totally connect with it. I can only presume Remain in Light was as absolutely mindblowing to people at the time as Topical Dancer is to me right now—an album clearly influenced by David Byrne's tribe of misfits. It bobs and weaves, defying categorization, often multiple times in a single song, while still being so damn listenable. And not just listable, but danceable. "How?" I find myself asking over and over again. "How do you come up with something like this? And how do you execute it?" But I know Talking Heads have the answer, which they put in front of all of our faces. The answer is: Stop making sense, or rather, don't be bound by it.
'The Dress' by Dijon
I would never call myself a student of pop music, even though I love pop music, but it feels very student-y to say that a song is efficient. But I'll be damned if that isn't the word that comes to mind every time I hear "The Dress," my favorite pop song of 2021. When you press play, he's got nearly a whole phrase out of his mouth "Do you still" before the song hits the :01 mark. No big intro, no world building or scene setting, no warming up. The man's got something to say and he knows he only has so long before you walk out on him. So he's gonna do his thing, singing his damn heart out, and he'll keep dancing far after you've left, half-singing "We should go out" to no one until he's forced to leave that dreamlike dive bar he's built for us here.
'Age Difference' by Christian Lee Hutson
How many songs do you need to write, how many diary entries, therapy sessions, deep drug-induced conversations, panic attacks, avoidable freakouts, and transitional loves do you need to have under your belt to write a song like "Age Difference"? If you're Christian Lee Hutson, these are the kinds of thoughts one has "on the dark side of my thirties." The vulnerability here is staggering, but it's performed so matter-of-factly, so accepting of his own little world, that its intimacy doesn't feel like trespassing. It's far too generous for that.
'Sacrifice' by The Weeknd
Before he turns into a teen wolf, and then later a zombie, even before his name appears on-screen, Michael Jackson takes a moment to stress that "Thriller," at the time the most expensive music video ever made, in no way endorses a belief in the occult. "Sacrifice," which to my ears is the closest thing we've heard to "Thriller" since, plunges straight into that supernatural underworld, daring you to jump. Like so many songs in Abel's discography, there is delight found in the fall, and with no safety net in place, the ride lives up to the King of Pop's masterpiece title.
'Hold U' by Indigo De Souza
The first 10 times I heard "Hold U," the exact same thing would happen: I'd listen to it, have my mind completely blown out of my skull, and when I'd return to it later, the beginning would lead me to question "What was it that I loved about this song so much again?" Usually, the best songs announce themselves right from the jump. When "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem starts, its ambition is clear from its first moment. But here, the setup is so unassuming; a soft programmed drum beat and a simple three-chord lo-fi synth progression. But that's what I love about it. The understatedly brilliant melodic ideas, the tones, the steady build, the big holy shit dance all night catharsis before the final come-down—it's brilliance that sneaks up on you.
'Go Away' by Omar Apollo
I find so much pleasure in hearing young artists find new ways to express things we've all felt forever, especially the headspace of being newly in love. Take "Go Away" by Omar Apollo, for example, where on the chorus, he repeats the lines "I just don't see you enough, I wish I saw you enough." How real is that? That feeling of nothing else even remotely comparing to just wanting to be with someone all the time. To wanting them in your eyesight as often as humanly possible. You can feel the ache in his voice of being separated from this person, even for a short space in time. But musically, I'm transported to those moments right after your newly loved one leaves, and you're alone just in total wonder of what they've done to you and all they've left you with. Until you see them again.
'nightqueen' by Hurray for the Riff Raff (ft. Ocean Vuong)
I recently had the joy of seeing the poet Ocean Vuong speak, and the discussion largely revolved around language, identity and grief. To me, Ocean's great gift as a poet is guiding us, his readers, on a path of exploring, confronting and finding new understandings within these ideas. It seems Alyanda Segarra, who performs as Hurray for the Riff Raff, agrees, sampling Ocean's words on death as an act of transformation in the middle of her breathtaking ode to the callings of something just beyond reach or understanding. It's all very mystical, yes, but it doesn't feel intangible to me. The song takes place in the dark, but I hear the softest shadow of light in every note.
'Buddy's Rendezvous' by Father John Misty
Father John Misty's new album Chloe and the Next 20th Century is unusually hard to decipher, its focus and narrative perspective as hard to pin down as his reasoning behind abandoning his signature instrumentation in favor of jazz big band sounds. I believe the point is to highlight history repeating itself; that all signs point to our current century being little more than a repeat of the one we just lived through. If that's indeed the case, it explains why the music on the album, although released in 2022, sounds straight from the '20s of last century. Maybe, he seems to be asking, if we're in a repeat of the "roaring '20s," we should stop and think about what kind of an animal roars, and what that tends to mean for whatever's in its path.
'Glacial Amenity' by Rikard From
Anxiety seems to be hiding around every corner these days. It's a word that has come to define entire years, entire presidential terms, and quite possibly an entire generation. And in our collective anxiety, we've found many things to turn to for respite, some healthy, some not, some new and some old. When I need a breather, I find myself gravitating toward ambient music, lo-fi hip hop beats, and in many cases jazz. "Glacial Amenity" feels like a cold breath, like someone rubbing right between your shoulder blades, like a day spent doing nothing and being utterly pleased with that. Is the opposite of anxiety calmness? Serenity? Or is it contentment?
'Hometown Dream' by Helado Negro
I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I went to college just a few hours south of the place I was born. My first apartment out of school was here, as is the one my wife and I moved into when we got married. Aside from a four-month stint in Italy on a study abroad program, I've lived my whole life in and around Chicago. And that's about to change. Two months from the publishing of this piece, I'll be hitting the road heading west to start a new adventure. And we'll have "Hometown Dream" to comfort us along for the ride. " 'Cause now my mind's made up, there's no looking back now. And now your mind's made up, so let's leave together."
'Shida (Bella Suite)' by Khruangbin and Ron Trent
Years before the movie Palm Springs used a Khruangbin song to soundtrack a guy drinking beer on a floatie in a pool, I sync'd a Khruangbin song for a commercial that soundtracked a beer on a floatie in a pool. It's one of my favorite syncs of my career. Khruangbin have been a treasure of mine for years, and I've loved every second of their on-its-face improbable rise to headliners around the globe. This remix, brought to life by famed Chicago house DJ Ron Trent, is a must for any pool parties involving beers and floaties from here to infinity.
'16' by Baby Keem
"16," the last official track on Baby Keem's The Melodic Blue, isn't the album's most talked about song, nor was it the one that won Keem a Grammy this year, but I have a hunch it'll end up being the one that stands the test of time best. This is Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home" but from a kid who loves throwing crazy sound design in his songs. The ramping blasts of distorted drum hits panned as hard as possible to the right speaker, the 8-bit vocal accents in the second verse; it all adds to a feeling of things spinning out of control. But the chorus, begging to be sung by the thousands at festivals to come, keeps everything in place. This is the sound of a 21-year-old lapping just about everyone, knowing he's got an all-timer on his hands.
'Thinking of a Day' by Leo Nocentelli
Imagine, if you will, being a young impossibly gifted musician from New Orleans who was backing Otis Redding at 14 and appearing on records for the Supremes and the Temptations at 17. Then you get drafted and spend two years in the armed forces, forming a band called the Meters once you're out. In a brief moment while your band is split up, you run to a nearby studio and cut your first solo album, but before you release it, your band that is technically still split up scores a record deal with the world's biggest record company, and that little album of yours sits on a shelf for not one year, not two, but 50 years, finally getting a proper release on something called a "streaming service." Put all of that in your head and in your heart, imagine being that person, and then press play.
'As It Was' by Harry Styles
I think about Harry Styles a lot, largely in terms of what he must mean to the generation coming up behind mine. Yes, of course in terms of the way he dresses and the audacious permission he's granting to untold millions. But he's maybe the biggest pop star alive where very little is actually spoken about the quality of his voice. Can you describe it in the way you'd describe any of the other giants of our time? He's not a belter, it's not otherworldly, I wouldn't even classify it as "cool." I have a hunch it's not often discussed because it's alluding to a wave of voices we haven't really heard yet. Voices that aren't transformative on their own but carry something transformative on their wings.
'Tell, The River / A Synonym for Singed' by Alec Stern & Kara Jackson
I kept seeing the word "river" over and over again. It was there in prefaces to books I'd pick up at our local bookstore, in the names of streets, and increasingly in my dreams. I came up with this idea of an album that felt like a river of stories, always flowing with each new piece of uniquely held truth someone somewhere in the world was speaking. I wanted to make a song that felt like you'd fallen in that river, and what it would feel like to be surrounded in that space. An overload to the senses, weightlessness, everything all at once, but … calm. serene. comforting. What, in this world or another, would that sound like?
'Human' by Emmit Fenn
As part of my job as a music supervisor, I'm often tasked with transcribing language into something communicable through music, or just as often, going the other direction. As a writer and musician, lover of words and sound, I live for this challenge, and feel uniquely suited to do it. One word that gets brought up a lot is "human," and there are a lot of ways to make that idea feel manageable. But they always end up feeling like souvenirs; cheap take-home representations of something totally indescribable. When I hear this song by the brilliant Emmit Fenn, I don't hear what it feels like to be human so much as I hear a snapshot of something completely and utterly beyond what a single word can do.
'First Class' by Jack Harlow
Goddamit, Jack Harlow. You went ahead and gave us the exact perfect Jack Harlow song for this exact perfect moment in Jack Harlow's career. Say what you will, but this man knows what to do when he gets passed the ball, be it a Lil Nas X feature or a beat with a pitched-down Fergie sample. Knowing to shut up and let the chorus breathe shows the man's been studying the greats. I can't believe I'm writing this many words about Jack Harlow, but this word count pales in comparison to how many times I've already hit repeat on "First Class." Goddamit.
'La solassitude' by Stormae
You don't need to understand the French language to have a sense of the place the shape-shifting artist Stormae is singing from on "La Solsassitude." The title, which translates to "the solitude," is apt for the environment the song lives in. A few chord plucks that sound submerged in dark water, a distant sparse beat, and a lone eastern violin near the song's end are all that accompany Stormae and his astounding voice and delivery. There's a distinct loneliness here, and without reading the translated lyrics, you get the sense this isolation may be self-made. This isn't music for the listener to dance to, but its movement clearly alludes to a dance of sorts; with the devil, with a lover, or most likely, with himself.
'Lifer' by Bleed Singers
Life is short—do what you love and do it in a way only you can. The highest compliment I can give to my friend Gabe McDonough, a mentor of mine who records under the moniker Bleed Singers, is that he makes music that sounds like him. It moves through you the way he moves through the world, riding along the wind seemingly with ease. Of course this would be his first release—all the harmonies, chugging jangly guitars, tones, obscure punk rock references, and throwaway lines better crafted than anything you could have thought of. Long live the lifers; Bleed Singers has made the song for you.
'Sidelines' by Phoebe Bridgers
I heard someone describe Kendrick Lamar's good kid m.A.A.d. city as his "classic," and his follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, as his "masterpiece," and I finally felt a long-standing internal argument settled in my head. I began to look for other instances of this happening—a "classic" (huge singles, cultural breakthrough moment, hype coming to fruition) being followed up by a "masterpiece" (more of a cohesive artistic statement, less song-focused, bigger risks but ultimately what the artist will likely be most known for). From Beyoncé to Bruce Springsteen, Frank Ocean to Radiohead, I saw this pattern over and over again. I have a hunch we're in for Phoebe Bridgers' masterpiece next. I get the sense she's the kind of artist who surely feels pressure to follow up the juggernaut of Punisher, but feels even more liberated by it. "Sidelines," to me, is the sound of an artist energized by all the new ways she gets to make herself appear now that everyone knows her name.
'MESS U MADE' by MICHELLE
Before watching the music video, I had no idea who Michelle was, how many people were in the band, where they're from, or what their backstory was, but I'd have bet quite a bit of money that everyone you hear on "MESS U MADE" calls each other family. I envisioned a group of people who have known each other since they were kids. Who've experienced every first in each other's lives; the thrills, the heartache, the mundane and everything in between. Who've grown as musicians because they've always been a little jealous of the others' growing skills. Who celebrate each other's triumphs, and if you turn on any single family member, you've got the entire squad writing a song all about you and your sorry self. "MESS U MADE" is the sound of that family opening up a seat at their table, handing you a tambourine, and inviting you into their little musical world.