2016 has been rough. Good riddance, you shitty year! Right? Well, maybe. It feels like everybody experienced some bigger bumps in the road this year than what we are accustomed to. Sure, no year is perfect for a full 12 months, but 2016 has got a lot of people from around the world feeling down of a number of reasons. Throughout the world there have been instances of horror in the form of some brutal terrorist attacks, and war ravages many poverty stricken places. Such conflict has led to an increased number of people leaving behind everything they have to find a chance at life for them and their children just about anywhere else. Unfortunately for them, few places have received them with open arms. In fact, this surge of refugees has exposed many ugly underlying nationalist sentiment around the globe, and we have seen major political action taken in response to this that leaves the future in uncertain, and perhaps troubling territory. Now this is merely one observation from an opinionated author, yet there is more that caused us to wish for the end of this spin around the sun, chiefly the seemingly high number of deaths of notable people. 2016 started by stealing away the Starman and now it wants to ruin my Star Wars! Fuck this fucking year!
I try to keep a cooler head than the zeitgeist when it starts to shoot steam out of its ears, but when Carrie Fisher had heart trouble a few days ago, I started to ask if this year was over yet too. (I hope that when she was being tended to on the airplane she was at least able to tell the pilot, “Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited.”) However, I had a snap back to reality today after hearing someone call for a perspective look at the past and urged us not to get swept up in the here and now, which came from the surprising source of ESPN. On one of the radio shows today, the hosts scolded the masses crying out, “woe is us; it’s this damn year’s fault!” They said that while 2016 has been hard on the world, it is by no means the worst year humanity has ever seen. They asked if we would prefer to live in an era ravaged by disease, such as the bubonic plague, when medicine was far from effective against such illnesses. Even in the last 100 years we have had to endure horrendous outbreaks like Ebola in Africa in recent years (good news regarding this!), and 1918 saw even wealthier denizens of the West killed by a deadly strain of influenza, not to mention the atrocities of the end of World War I. They also mentioned the year 1963 when JFK was assassinated, frightening everyone in the world. If the United States’ president can be killed, who is safe? Even with this real terror, I consider the previous year the scarier one considering the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us this close to a full-scale nuclear war. You couldn’t see it, but I pinched my fingers together so closely that they were almost touching. The scariest and most influential year that I have experienced is without a doubt 2001, which stands out because of the September 11th terror attacks. Our society, both in America and globally, has changed forever because of that awful event.
2016 may not have been as peachy as the state of Georgia (especially for the one next to Russia), but it has not been the worst we have ever seen. Nevertheless, it couldn’t hurt to have a bit of a pick-me-up, so it feels like the right thing to keep my annual medley of must-hear songs going. For the past two years I have provided a list of songs I feel should be listened to by everybody as they have a message or melody that can help clarify in times of confusion, and grant peace in times of trouble. Music is able to illicit emotions in us that other mediums cannot, and this year’s additions to my previous listings (2014’s and 2015’s) have helped me channel my hurt, anger, and frustrations into positivity in one way or another. As usual, they mostly fall within the genre of rock and roll as it is my favorite, but there are selections from outside of it, as well as my first featured song that is in a language outside of English (the original anyway). They are not all exactly happy; many are quite melancholy, but recognizing and working through pain can often do more than hearing a happy tune. That being said, the final selection is one of my favorite songs that is both a hard look at the harshness of reality and a cheerful ditty that offers a major key to enjoying what the world gives you. Frankly, I’m surprised it has taken me this long to include it. Better late than never, I suppose, and given the bumpy ride that we had this year compared to the last two, it seems most appropriate here now. Enjoy it and all the rest.
“Better Man” by Pearl Jam – Recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Pearl Jam have a long list of hits and hidden gems that helped them achieve status among the genre’s elite. A major player in the Seattle sound grunge movement in the 1990s, Eddie Vedder and his pals scored their best song with this telling of a woman who remains with the wrong guy because she “can’t find a better man”. She lies to him and others regarding her feelings to keep the status quo, but worst of all she is untrue to herself and is stuck in a bad situation due to her reluctance to take charge and break it off, as well as her need for support from him (even though he doesn’t really give her any). The love she once had for him has died away, but she is too frightened of the world without him, so she swallows her raw deal and deals with it.
The song opens with a spooky echoing trill that flows into a gentle melody as the narrative of this stuck woman is presented. Gradually the volume rises until the rhythm picks up and takes on the tempo that we are used to from Pearl Jam. A great song about an unenviable situation that shows how a good thing can go bad, but you cannot let yourself become reliant upon someone who is not helping you be the best you can be.
“Stay (Faraway, So Close)” by U2 – The first verses of this one also seem to be about a relationship that is hard on the woman who has become content with a man who is no good for her, but in this case she is being physically abused by him. The rest of the song doesn’t quite fit this theme, but there is a good reason for it: that’s not really the theme. “Stay” was written at the request of Wim Wenders for his 1993 film Faraway, So Close about angels who desire to live as humans, but have to sacrifice their immortality to do it. The second half of the song’s lyrics reflect this aspect more clearly, but what the h-e-double hockey stick does Bono mean with those opening two verses? The theme of accepting pain and death as consequences of a natural life are present there too, but they are harder to pick up on without the proper context. Regardless of how you hear this song, it provides motivation to follow your heart in spite of your fears, and it does so with some great sound.
“I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” by The Byrds – I first heard the Tom Petty cover of this song and thought it fit well with his collection of tunes about relationships that have soured, but The Byrds bring it with their original. Our narrator does not say much about what happened between him and his baby, but he makes it clear how he feels about her deception. Whatever it was that she did, it was a dealbreaker, and he calls it quits. He doesn’t exactly sound happy about ending their union, but he is true to his heart and we can almost see him shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Well… at least I won’t have to deal with that anymore.” It is worth noting that he says he’ll “probably” feel better, not certainly, because he’s not certain. He might not be at his happiest for a long while, but at least he won’t be miserable and full of doubt like Pearl Jam’s reluctant-to-leave-lady who can’t find anything better, for he knows that anything – even nothing – is better than what he’s got.
“Desperado” by The Eagles – My morning Spanish class collectively sang a voice-cracking rendition of this during my junior year of high school (we’re all men), but not all of us were aware of the message it holds. While some people find themselves in relationships that have lost that loving feeling (that song is not on this list) through the shortcomings or disrespect of their partners, others are the person who can’t quite seem to make it work with anyone due to their shortcomings and misplaced priorities. Sadly, you can get burned by someone, but the worst thing that can happen in the search for connection with another is to burn yourself. In this song, Don Henley and The Eagles tell us to take notice of the good people and things around us and embrace them. Oh, damn it, we lost Glenn Frey this year! Okay, well, hardships happen – that’s in there too – but you have got to keep moving and look at the positive, lest you get too caught up in what will keep you from what you need.
“Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema)” by Antonio Carlos Jobim with original Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes; English lyrics by Norman Gimbel – This classic bossa nova jazz piece about a Brazilian beauty on her way to the beach is a prime example of everyday unrequited love at first sight, or at least hopeful happiness. The eponymous girl turns heads each day she strolls down the street, and every man instantly is smitten by her graceful walk. They all smile, but she just keeps on walking without notice. In a time before earbud headphones and the ability to listen to this song on your phone, the girl’s continual focus on her walk and the seeming ignorance of the men in awe of her is remarkable. We can look at it in two different ways. First, the girl is truly unaware of a man who has fallen for her at first glance and is only set in her course toward the water. We pity the man whose heart was stolen in an instant, but crushed just as quickly. It serves as an important lesson to not let yourself fall too quickly in love with anyone, especially a stranger on the sidewalk. Maybe someday she’ll turn her own gaze toward him and return the smile and they can start something, but for now his smile must fade in disappointment that he was not even a blip on her radar.
Second, we can assume that the girl is fully aware of the men gazing – no, glaring at her. She is blessed with beauty, but cursed with creepers who follow her every move with their darting eyes. Should she soak up the admiration they give her? No. Might one truly love her? Perhaps, but she mostly has to swim through a sea of men looking with lust, not love. Intentionally ignoring them all allows her to glide past with grace that both attracts and repels them. They cannot reach her if she does not acknowledge their presence. If people want you to acknowledge them for the wrong reasons, then don’t. Power past them as best you can and make yourself the best you can be without letting them drag you down.
Most realistically, the song probably describes some combination of the two. The girl has been hardened against the constant wandering eyes and trained herself to ignore them. This has caused her to miss the man who truly pines for her though, and he is left devastated in her wake along with inferior men with less chivalrous intentions. We can sympathize with both, perhaps even empathize with them.
“Habits (Stay High)” by Tove Lo – We all react differently to lost love, but we’re pretty unanimous in not feeling great about it. On the one hand, we can take small comfort in some facts that put the pain in perspective (“I’ll probably feel a whole lot better;” “What did I expect from a girl I literally just walked past?”). On the other hand, you could fall into a self-destructive routine to distract yourself from your pain. The latter is the subject of Tove Lo’s “Habits, which I whiffed on including in my 2015 list of best songs that contain drugs as a central theme. This oversight is probably due to greater popularity of the Hippie Sabotage remix of the song, which is more attuned to inclusion on a dance club playlist, yet lacks the honest pain you feel from the original. Our narrator is doing everything – and every one – to keep intentionally blind from the facts of her failures in love, despite the danger it puts her in. This is a great song belted out by somebody who can sing it, not just technically, but emotionally.
“Adam’s Song” by blink-182 – Keeping with the theme of self-destruction to avoid pain, this most serious of songs from blink-182 deals with the most destruction one can inflict upon oneself: suicide. Bassist Mark Hoppus started writing the song to ease the strain he felt from touring but not having anyone to return home to, unlike his fellow bandmates who had girlfriends at the time. It evolved into an expression of teenage hardship, depression, and loneliness after he read about a teenager who had committed suicide and left a note for his family to find.
“Adam’s Song” is melodically similar to Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” in that it starts slower and softer than the band normally plays, then picks up in tempo and volume as they get into the crux of the narrative. Nonetheless, the subject and style of this song stop you in your tracks. It is hauntingly well written to tap into the psyche of a young person who has run out of options in his or her mind to deal with the pressures of life. The line “Please tell mom this is not her fault” is especially devastating.
blink-182 recorded this song in the hope that it would give anyone contemplating ending their life an understanding that they are not the only ones dealing with those troubles.
“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John – Many associate this song with Princess Diana as he played it at her funeral in 1997, but he actually wrote it 1973 about another inspirational glamorous female figure: Marilyn Monroe. The song contains direct references to Monroe and the reaction to her death by the media; however, it can be applied to tribute any person who impacted you whom you never got to meet. I played this song a lot this year after the deaths of many people I felt connected to without ever actually having a connection to them. The best rendition I heard came from the Rocket Man himself, so thankfully whenever the sad day he goes comes along I will have at least had that magnificent concert experience.
“Cult of Personality” by Living Colour – Let’s step aside from death for a moment and talk about something lighter, like politics! Don’t worry, we’re not going to get bogged down in any arguments about the Electoral College, nor will we bother with any stuffy discourse about the logistics of Euro versus the Pound, not when we can utilize an 80’s style shredding and screaming electric guitar to do the talking for us! The distortion of the guitar adds to the message of the song that anyone in power is a more than a man to the people he governs. That leader is a god to many who live under his authority, but never a true one. Living Colour highlight some of the most notable “cults of personality” (leaders who take advantage of their status, charm, media, and national sentiment to propagate an image of themselves that is more divine than they ever could be) from the 20th century within their song with snippets of their famous speeches and rallies. They clearly adhere to the idea that power corrupts, and tearing the roof off the sucker is the best way to open the world’s eyes to it.
“Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie – This song is an easy pick for inclusion on this list for a few reasons. For one, it’s a David Bowie song, and I’ve had one of those on each of these lists I’ve made; it’s easy to include such an excellent artist with such a varied repertoire. Secondly, it fits well to have a song called “Rebel Rebel” after “Cult of Personality” that establishes the unscrupulous authority that pervades the modern world. Thirdly, Bowie died this year – really kicking off the string of celebrity deaths – and this is a means to honor him (I already did that). Fourthly, David Bowie looks cool as shit in that picture. I hate cigarettes and smoking, but that image could sell me a pack, along with some rose-tinted glasses. However, the main reason why this song makes the ever-expanding, yet still short list is because of its subject matter regarding the angst and ambiguity of the young lovers at the center of it. Bowie is singing about how his romantic partner is driving her mother loony because of how she dresses and acts. Her unconventional nature and attire set her apart from the ideals her mother desires her to uphold. I’m sure Bowie’s character isn’t scoring many points with mom either. But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that our young rebel rebels love each other and are comfortable with who they are. That’s why Bowie is loony about her in the loving way. They do not rebel directly against the standards of the their parents’ generation as much as they are different from them and are unafraid to show this. This is an inspiring message we should all appreciate and respect.
“Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve – Sometimes hitting things cynically on the nose is refreshingly needed. It is hard to think of a song as depressing as this one that sounds so uplifting. Reflecting the same thing touched upon in some other songs on this list, The Verve paint an honest description that the power to change for the better lies within us all, but that requires effort and bravery, chiefly in being true to ourselves, and complacency is so much easier. Just settle in, get a good thing going – well, good enough – and stick with it for the ride.
This symphony is truly bittersweet as The Verve experienced. The string set they sampled comes from a Rolling Stones production, which in turn had been influenced by another song, and there was also another song taken from the Stones’ song, and this is the song The Verve used, I think? Maybe? Whatever the case, legal suits were filed and The Verve lost out on almost all the money and writing credits from the song.
“The Ballad of Serenity” by Joss Whedon – Sang by Sonny Rhodes, this was the theme song for Joss Whedon’s criminally short-lived sci-fi series Firefly. The show (which is on Netflix and you should watch it right gorramed now) focused on a lovable, plucky crew of misfits who wound up on the losing side of a major galactic war and now have to survive on the fringes of space and civilization with the help of some plucky new friends while the big bad Alliance and other not-so-nice guys chase after them. The song that opens each show is short, but highlights the glorious freedom that the wide expanse of stars and the plucky ship Serenity offer our heroes. You can take everything I own and care about, but “you can’t take the sky from me”. This song has served as a sort of mantra for me at times, reminding me that no matter how badly things may seem, the sky and the worlds beyond it, and more locally, my world, are still there for a man to fly freely among them. Damn it, we lost Ron Glass this year too! Well, fortunately, Serenity is within reach.
“Purple Rain” by Prince – Sure, it’s another tribute to another lost rocker, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fault in any of the music from Prince’s movie of the same name. Much of it relates to the protagonist’s (played by Prince) insecurities regarding his growth personally and professionally, and his family life, so there is a lot to be inspired by, or to learn from, both with what’s positive and what’s negative. Nevertheless, the climactic title track is the most lasting piece of music. It marks the moment Prince’s character makes his peace with everyone who he hurt or was hurt by, and combines a soft and gentle opening with a guitar-driven jam coda that can go on and on and on as long as the crowd feels it. This is Prince’s “Hey Jude”.
“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by Monty Python – (SPOILS in the link) From one cinematic closing song to another, this wraps up the best film from the Monty Python bunch, Life of Brian. In the wake of some pretty serious shit going down for our hero, he feels utterly hopeless, when the man next to him asks him what the problem is before dispensing this nugget of wisdom upon him. The whistles and humorous context are the most memorable moments from this little ditty, but the message is the best that I’ve heard in anything. Beyond encouraging taking an optimistic viewpoint on things, this song lays out some harsh truths regarding the way life works, chief among them: everyone dies and loses everything they ever had and obtained. Family, friends, money, material comforts, Star Trek collector plates – they all go away when you do. I mean, they all still exist, but do you? The Python bunch didn’t and don’t think so. That’s kind of what the movie is about. Operating under this assumption that you won’t be following Mary in making an Assumption, it seems to take the wind out of the sails of life. If there is no afterlife to look forward to, what’s the point of this time on Earth? Eric Idle and the gang take the opinion that it’s a privilege to be alive, one that is laughable for how randomly lucky you are to have been given it. Thus, you have the responsibility to treat it like a joke; not in the sense that it is meaningless, but in the sense that you give it meaning out of meaninglessness. Those stupid stickers sold at tourist traps that proclaim, “Love, Laugh, Live” are at least right to promote such behavior, for to love and laugh is to live; it makes living worth being alive. The end of life is just another laughable affair and marks the bow out from your stage show. So however you perform your show, make sure you play it how you want with the supporting cast you choose, and help them laugh their way to the grave too. For death is what gives life meaning, just as the joke makes the telling of it worthwhile, so long as it’s good. Make sure you do your best to make your joke a good one. [Whistle, whistle]
Thanks for reading and listening. I hope that you have a happy New Year. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. You are always welcome here, and I enjoy your company, so why not return next week for more whatever the heck I have brewing? Until then, I hope life treats you splendidly.
Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?