Edited by: Maya M. Haidar (UG 20)
The soundtrack to a mellow afternoon that no one asked for. Its tunes soothe and its messages fight to widen our knowledge on different struggles and modes of being. This list is unfortunately populated by more white than non-white artists, and more men than women. I am aware that my music pool is skewed and am looking to expand it. I’d like to think of this list as one that will grow with time.
- For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
This is a song that envelops you in its stuporous mood until it turns around and accosts you with the unrelenting chorus. The simple riff hovers over the rest of the instrumentation, its two-note melody a reliable recurrence, resounding in the higher registers, its tinkling echo immediately slows down your thoughts. Popularly used as an anti-war and protest song, it was written in the wake of riots against a curfew in the Sunset Strip. The lyrics are simultaneously wise and confused, prophetic and fearful of the future: an attempt to make sense of a situation spiralling out of control.
- Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed
One witnesses Lou Reed throwing gender conventions and moral righteousness out the window, all with the casual ease of a man fooling around with his guitar at the back of the tour bus, misdirecting you from the fact that the track has been produced to perfection. Walk on the Wild Side is a hazy dream, filled with characters as absurd as they are real, all brought to life in an anecdote. Reed’s vocals are morally indifferent, allowing us to peek into a world where people can wallow in a kind of personhood that isn’t fixed but merely exists, materializing and disintegrating as he takes us in and out of their stories. We, the listeners, are passive recipients of this sage wisdom, except for when he calls on us to walk with him, imbuing us with a bit of his nonchalance. Holly shaves her legs, and just as easily, Lou Reed recognizes that “he was a she”, and so she was. In this way, Lou Reed effortlessly sidles into our easy listening playlists despite his seemingly controversial lyrics.
- Blackbird – The Beatles
Written by Paul McCartney around the time of the American Civil Rights movement, it unsubtly refers to the black struggle in the USA and wonders about finding hope in a situation made desperate by historical oppression. Catchy, soft, but not really reinventing the wheel in terms of melody, Blackbird is familiar even if you have never listened to it before.
- Ottoman – Vampire Weekend
It plays at the very end of the delightfully pretentious movie Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, just as the titular characters walk into the urban sunrise together. It is that emotion, of something brewing, that the melody captures while the lyrics make a plea for the ottoman, disregarded by the elite it once served. Pitifully redundant in the present, it is a funeral song for a piece of opulent furniture that simultaneously humbles the aristocratic classes of old (for, really, it is their funeral too) and quite adorably personifies a forgotten antique.
- Ruin – Cat Power
A lyrical mapping of the world beyond North America and Britain, but not without them, Ruin sings heartbreakingly about the indiscriminate reach of suffering across the world and universal complacency to it. Featuring a kind of circular melody that mimics the lyrical circumnavigation, Ruin is so catchy for a song that worries about inequality.
- Halfway to Nowhere – Chelou
A delicate song that sounds like a cross between an eco-friendly spaceship and a forest chant, Halfway to Nowhere isn’t specifically political like the others but speaks more of a personal struggle: one of having to wake up in the morning. “Sing for pleasure and pain”, encourages the vocalist, even when you’re halfway to nowhere, or maybe especially when you are. The song is accompanied by a vividly animated video that follows a girl travelling through a forest, learning how to appreciate herself in all her grotesque manifestations, until the demon she sees in her reflection is no longer frightening.
- Your Woman – White Town
Your Woman features sass and techno, a formidable duo. How many songs can sneak in a line that criticizes the spurned lover for their “highbrow Marxist ways”? The singer appears to be making fun of an academically-inclined social justice warrior who, in the course of fighting, has forgotten their sympathy, or so the narrator complains. This social commentary is in service of the deliberately ambiguous narration: is he singing about dating a lesbian? Does he identify as a woman? Is he singing to his gay lover? Who knows? He certainly doesn’t want to clear it up for us.
- Bum Bum Bum – Cass McCombs
The second white man on this list to sing about black rights, Cass McCombs paints a dismal picture of race relations in the USA. The repeated utterance of “Bum Bum Bum” encompasses the juvenility yet haunting circularity of racist arguments. A sad but lovely song, it leaves me asking along with the singer, “Oh please tell me, you academics, how do you wake up from a non-dream?”
- Licking an Orchid – Yves Tumor
Perhaps the most novel listening experience on this list, Yves Tumor brings us a strange, gender distorting work, making our hearts ache to the solemn, weary beat, a rhythmic witness to pain in love. James K’s section features yet more poignancy and misery, voicing a fear that has been universal for too long: losing our girls to a toxic world.