The Wallflowers – Bringing Down the Horse
If not for One Headlight, the big hit song that opens The Wallflowers’ 1996 breakthrough album Bringing Down the Horse, I do not know who I would be or what my life would look like.
One Headlight was the first song I ever heard that I felt inclined to call my favorite song. My six-year-old brain was mystified by the way the guitar sounded in the first few seconds of the intro, or by the poetic force of the first words that Jakob Dylan (son of Bob) utters: “So long ago I don’t remember when/That’s when they say I lost my only friend.”
Everything I came to think was cool about music or bands was there in this song and in everything that surrounded it. The album cover of Bringing Down the Horse, a simple but stately banner of golden stars on a blue background. The same banner unfurling at the top of the One Headlight video, lending a mysterious, beguiling gravity to the proceedings. The tight-knit sound of five guys playing music in a room together. The steady, insistent drumbeat that my childhood self-mimicked (and mastered) on a makeshift drum kit made out of empty popcorn tins. The wash of keyboardist Rami Jaffee’s B3 organ, a sound that, perhaps more than any other, would be what drew me to country music many years later. Jakob Dylan’s lyrics: dark, thoughtful, full of little contradictions, like the coldness of Independence Day or the way he sang about being a guy who hasn’t changed but who knows he ain’t the same.
Most of all, I fell in love with the propulsive force of the melody – the push and pull between these dark, ponderous verses and this big, pop-radio-ready chorus. One Headlight taught me to expect a lot more out of radio than I ever got again, but it also set me on the course for arguably every single song, album, and artist I’ve ever loved. Every tree grows from a seed; my love for music grew from this one. It’s as much a part of my identity as the town where I grew up or the high school I attended. It saved my life just by existing and being the right song at the right time.
I didn’t get my first CD player until I turned 11, so the early days of my youth were spent listening to songs on the radio or on the tape player in my bedroom. I had my older brother make me a cassette tape copy of Bringing Down the Horse because I loved it so much, and I proceeded to wear it out over the course of five or so years. I spent the most time with One Headlight – listening to it, rewinding the tape, and then listening to it again – but I’d venture beyond that song every once in awhile and find other charms too: monster singles like 6th Avenue Heartache and The Difference; gorgeous alt-country ballads like Invisible City and I Wish I Felt Nothing; big arena rock songs like Angel on My Bike; swinging, tipsy bar-band rockers like God Don’t Make Lonely Girls. 26 years later, I still adore every song – and I still hear in them the very start of my musical journey.
Counting Crows – Films About Ghosts
Counting Crows are the closest I can come to saying I’ve loved a band for my entire life. Their debut album, 1993’s August & Everything After, came out a few months before my third birthday. Mr. Jones was the first rock song I ever remember really liking, even before One Headlight. I remember hearing Round Here and Rain King and A Long December a lot throughout my childhood years. And yet, it wasn’t until early 2004 that I really forged a true bond with the band that would change my entire life.
I bought Films About Ghosts on a whim. That’s a funny thing to say for a 13-year-old with maybe $100 total to his name at the time. How can you buy anything on a whim when every single transaction has the potential to wipe out approximately 20 percent of your personal finances? But Films About Ghosts had a brand-new Counting Crows song on it called She Don’t Want Nobody Near that I loved so much I knew any price would be worth getting to hear it every single day – usually more than once. And so I grabbed a copy of the newly-released Ghosts off the shelf at my local K-Mart, took it up to the cash register, and spent some of my cherished Christmas money to make this 16-song greatest hits collection my own.
In the years since, I’ve come to turn my nose up a bit at the idea of a greatest hits collection. And as a staunch defender of the sanctity and beauty of the album listening experience, I recognize that it’s perhaps even sacrilegious for me to burn a slot on my Eight Albums feature with a compilation. But greatest hits collections had an amazing utility in the CD era when you were young and just discovering music. They were affordable, they packed a lot of songs into a single-CD package, and they gave you a nice survey of an artist’s various sounds and strengths without requiring you to invest in the entire discography.
Such was the case with Films About Ghosts, an album I listened to so many times that I still sometimes get caught off guard when I listen to August & Everything After and Round Here leads into Omaha (the original track order) instead of Rain King (how those songs are sequenced on Ghosts). For months, I followed the same routine: come home from school, put Films About Ghosts on the CD player, and do my homework. What proved to be an underrated aspect of this collection was that it wasn’t just a greatest hits. I knew Mr. Jones and A Long December and Big Yellow Taxi. But the songs that really drew me in were the ones that the band had slotted into the track list even though they’d never been singles: the fall-in-love-with-your-best-friend heartbreaker that was Anna Begins, or the sweeping coming-of-age anthem Recovering the Satellites, or the entrancingly poetic Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby, or the tipsy piano balladry of Holiday in Spain. Before long, I knew I had to hear every song that Counting Crows had ever recorded – a revelation that would, over the course of that year, wipe out the rest of my meager savings.
Frontman Adam Duritz ended up being my first real rock ‘n’ roll hero. He taught me that it was okay to be vulnerable and earnest, and that being in touch with your emotions didn’t make you any less of a man. He taught me about poetry and language, and about how beautiful they could be even without the music around them. He taught me that singing like your life depended on it could be the most cathartic thing in the world. And he taught me that music could be more than just background noise, but a vitally important companion for all of my days.
So, thanks Adam: you changed my life.
Jimmy Eat World – Futures
Think back to the first song that really lit your heart on fire: the one that felt like it was written for you, or like it could have been pulled from the pages of your diary; the one that still gives you goosebumps years after the fact; the one that you can look back on and know that it changed your entire world. Kill, the fourth track on Jimmy Eat World’s 2004 masterwork Futures, was that song for me. More than any other song I love, it reconfigured the way I listened to music and what I looked for in a song.
The key annotation for Kill on Genius.com is: “This song is about that person who will always make you melt, but will never be the person you spend your life with.” While Genius annotations are frequently silly and often hilariously wrong, that one resonates. On Kill, Jimmy Eat World express the impossible ache, unquenchable frustration, and ultimate resignation that comes from wanting someone so badly but knowing they will never feel quite the same way – and of ultimately swallowing your words and your pride rather than expressing those feelings you’ve got bubbling up inside.
As an angsty 13-year-old in the fall of 2004, with a crush on a girl who would never ever see me the same way, I took Kill like a hammer through my sternum, right to the heart. It was the first time I’d ever felt a song like that, and the feeling was addicting. The romance and heartache of the song would ultimately get tangled up in something else as the fall wore on, after my stepdad lost his job and it briefly looked like my family would have to move away from everything I’d ever known right on the brink of high school. That didn’t happen, but Kill – and the rest of Futures, a big, symphonic emo-pop record full of wistful late-night songs – was like a life raft through it all. This album was the one thing that made sense to me when everything else was spinning out of control.
I don’t think you can have that kind of connection to a song or an album at just any time in your life. I think it’s something unique to when you’re young, when your emotions are extraordinarily heightened and you’re just starting to learn about what music can be. I think Kill would have been special at any point in my life: that big chorus hook; the lyrics that go around and around without ever quite repeating; the way frontman Jim Adkins sounds when he sings “Sorry, but I can’t just go turn off how I feel.” But in the grips of adolescence, yearning for something more and spiraling through a crisis of uncertainty about what my future might turn out to be, Kill and the other 10 songs on Futures held me steady. They still do.
Butch Walker - Letters
“You gave me the best mixtape I have/And even all the bad songs ain’t so bad.” So goes the chorus to Mixtape, the lead single from Letters and the first song I ever heard Butch Walker sing. It’s surreal to look back on that first listen, knowing now that it was my first interaction with the guy who would become my favorite artist of all time. But then again, it’s also fitting that it was Mixtape that opened up a whole new doorway in my musical evolution, given what that song has to say.
Mixtape is a song about the way music obsessives think about crushes or love stories: where maybe you can’t quite find the words to say how you really feel about someone, but your favorite band can. Over the years, I have made a lot of “mixtapes” for a lot of girls. Some of them I’ve given to the people they were meant for; some of them only ever existed on my computer hard drive or my iPod – little fantasy versions of things I wished I’d said. I’ve made a lot of mixtapes for myself, too: Mixes to remember long-gone years of my life; mixes to commemorate summers I loved; mixes for specific days that felt like they deserved a curated soundtrack of significant import. Every time I make a mix, I think about Mixtape and the rules it sets down. Are the “bad” songs too bad? Are the sad songs too sad? Mixtape is the song that made me look to music as a means of expressing who I was and what I cared about.
Letters itself is like a perfect mixtape. It’s a collision of different moods and influences and stories and snapshots of life. The tracklist veers from power-pop heartache (Maybe It’s Just Me) to Laurel Canyon sundowns (So At Last), and from bare-as-hell piano ballads (Joan) to epic guitar pyrotechnics (Lights Out). You can almost feel Butch mixing the tape in the background: a song that sounds like Jackson Browne here, a song that sounds like U2 there; a celebratory summer anthem at track 4, a crushing breakup ballad at track 10. Along the way, he sketches a story about love and heartbreak; about falling in love with a city and then realizing that you have to get the hell out of that city for the sake of your health and your sanity; of life and what it means to write your own story.
Since I was 14 years old, Letters has been there as I’ve written my life story, and as I’ve mixed that story into a million different playlists. Crushes and heartbreaks; friendships that lasted and friendships that faded away; all of high school and all of college; my rowdiest summer days and my loneliest winter nights; celebratory concerts and solitary drives where I reckoned with loss; leaving places behind and coming back to them years later. I’ve lived a lot of life with this album, and have a lot of stories with it – way too many to recount here. Somewhere along the line, Letters became a mixtape of moments and memories. More than any other album, this one is my life captured in song.
Jack’s Mannequin – Everything in Transit
I treat my favorite summer albums like most people treat Christmas music.
Let me explain. Every year, without fail, there are people who jump the gun and start listening to Christmas music way too early, seemingly as a means of summoning the festive holiday season that much sooner. The standard release day for new Christmas albums tends to fall around Halloween. Then, for two solid months, Christmas music die-hards listen to their favorite holiday songs over and over and over again – part as tradition, part because they love the music, part because they want to get as much quality time in as they can with their favorite holiday standards before January rolls around and it no longer feels appropriate to sing along with All I Want for Christmas Is You at the top of their lungs.
Since my teen years, I have been obsessed with the idea of the summer soundtrack. I adore songs and albums that remind me of hot sunny days, windows-down drives, fireworks dashed across the evening sky, and long nights spent with friends, chasing down endless possibilities. I adore summer songs so much that, every spring when the temperatures start to rise and the snow starts to melt, I drag out my favorite summer staples way too prematurely so I can start summoning that summertime feel when it’s not even May yet. Like a Christmas music obsessive, I don’t want to miss one single day with my summertime favorites, because they never sound as good in the fall or winter.
Everything in Transit is the first album I reach for every year when the earliest sign of spring rears its head. It is, to me, the prototypical summer album: a burst of sunny piano-drenched pop-rock so potent that hearing even a single chorus from a single song is enough to evoke a million different memories from the Junes, Julys, and Augusts of my youth.
I fell in love with Everything in Transit when I was 15 years old, and that’s perfect because it’s right around 15 that summer starts to mean what it does in these songs. When you’re a kid, summer is a vacation from responsibility – a “holiday from real,” to borrow a phrase from this album’s opening salvo. It’s months away from homework and early alarms for the school day, months where weekdays and weekends blur together into one long stretch of lazy, idyllic time. When you cross that boundary of youth to adolescence, though – usually right around that fifteenth year – summer becomes something else. It becomes late-night adventures with friends and busted curfews; it becomes cruises in your first car with songs blaring as loud as you can make them go; it becomes parties and underage drinking and stupid recklessness and tender teen romance. It becomes, in short, everything that Andrew McMahon writes and sings about in the songs that make up Everything in Transit, an album about a whirlwind season in California, a summertime love story, and a boy coming of age.
The day I finished my freshman year of college, I packed the contents of my dorm room into the back of my Honda Civic and hit the highway toward home. The first album I played, of course, was Everything in Transit – my way of welcoming a new summer. By that point, I’d already spent three summers with these songs, but that playthrough felt different. There, on the cusp of adulthood, listening to McMahon sing about days of abandon and love, I had an inkling that this summer was going to be a big one for me, that it was going to matter.
Two months later, I kissed a girl on a beach under July stars and told her how much I liked her. Three years after that, I got down on one knee on that same beach, amidst glorious August sunshine, and asked her to marry me. Less than a year after that, we said our vows less than 50 yards from where we’d shared our first kiss. The summer that started our love story remains the greatest summer of my life, and Everything in Transit is the way those memories sound in my brain.
Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
“So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.”
The last night I ever set foot on the stage of my high school auditorium, I got to sing those words to a capacity audience packed with classmates, friends, family, teachers, community members, and parents of kids I’d grown up with. It felt like the most fitting thing in the world. As I neared a major coming-of-age moment in my life, I was singing a song that walks a balance beam between wondering whether the promise of your youth is spent, and being goddamn confident that you’re “pulling out of here to win.”
My identity in my school years was built around being a musician – a singer, specifically. I was heavily involved in my high school’s choir program and musical theater productions, and I felt pretty certain that music was going to be my career path. That didn’t end up being true, but so many defining moments of my youth involve me standing on a stage somewhere and singing to an audience. None of those memories are as memorable as hammering away on the piano and singing Thunder Road two weeks before I graduated. Life doesn’t usually feel like the movies, but in that moment, it really did.
Born to Run is an album I must have heard a hundred times, in full or in pieces, before I really listened to it. It was a staple on my parents’ stereo growing up, a fixture on classic rock radio, a common reference point among artists I loved, and even an album that I’d uploaded to my first iPod the day I got it. But it never really clicked with me until I was mid-way through my senior year of high school, and I don’t think it was supposed to. So much of Born to Run is about being on the cusp of adulthood, with all the hope in the world, just ready to take the plunge and make a play for your slice of the American Dream. If it didn’t resonate with me when I was 14, that’s because I had no idea what it was talking about. I sure knew what it was talking about by the time I turned 18.
I chased after a lot of dreams while listening to Born to Run. I chased them down endless miles of highway, through sweltering days and pitch-dark nights, through years and life milestones, through good and bad days. I chased them through the metamorphosis that takes you from boyhood to adulthood. I’m still chasing them now. Sometimes, I get to delight in the triumphs of dreams realized, like when I stood in the middle of a crowded dance floor filled with my closest loved ones on my wedding day, all of us screaming along to every word of Thunder Road. Sometimes, like the protagonists in Jungleland, I have to lay my dreams to rest at the side of the highway, like when I realized that my idealized future of being a professional singer just wasn’t going to happen.
In terms of memories, there’s joy and heartbreak in equal measure in these songs, for me. But Born to Run also remains the one album that can always put a smile on my face, that can make my heart feel a little bit lighter. No matter how dark the world gets, I can never not hear the hope in Bruce’s voice when he sings “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.” It’s my favorite lyric ever, from a song that never stops saving my life, on an album I love more than any other piece of art ever created.
Taylor Swift – Red
170 miles: That’s how far away I lived from my girlfriend during my senior year of college. She’d graduated a year before I did and moved off to the Chicago area to start a job. I was still wrapping up my last year at college in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Nearly every other weekend, I made the drive from my apartment to hers, so we could spend a few days together. I was spending a lot of time in the car, which meant that the albums that came out in the fall of 2012 took on a special significance for just how many miles they helped me burn away on the highway. No album got me through more miles than Taylor Swift’s Red.
Like so many stupid boys, I’d grown up thinking that music made by women was “not for me.” If I’d been honest with myself, I would have admitted to loving so many songs made by women throughout my childhood and teen years: Sheryl Crow, Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, The Dixie Chicks, Sara Bareilles, Kelly Clarkson, Ingrid Michaelson. But I mistakenly bought into the idiotic toxic masculine idea that boys were supposed to listen to boys. Two things demolished that idea for me: The first was being in a real relationship with a girl for the first time; the second was Taylor Swift.
For this list, I could have just as easily selected Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now, which came out in the early stages of my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife), and which captured a lot of the dizzying emotions of our new love. But where Speak Now was the sound of our early honeymoon phase, Red found us at a more measured, mature point in our relationship. We’d really just been kids in the fall of 2010 – she 20, me 19 – both of us testing what it felt like to be in love for the first time. By the time Red came around, we were solid. We had two-plus years under our belts, we’d mastered the art of the long-distance relationship, and we were transitioning slowly from our youthful college lives into adulthood responsibilities.
Red was the perfect record at the perfect time for all those things: the crisp fall weather; the long drives back and forth from Chicago; the first snapshots of what life in a genuine grown-up relationship could look like. The album itself is Swift’s big coming-of-age moment – the one where she puts aside the pettiness and the guttural emotion of Speak Now for a more mature (albeit, no less doomed) love story. As the title suggests, she’s no longer seeing things in black and white. Instead, Red is all untested waters and technicolor emotions – a whirlwind of everything you feel as you commit to someone without the safety net of knowing that you’re “just a kid” or “just a teenager.” When you’re young, people expect that your relationships will crash and burn eventually; as you move into adulthood, the stakes get higher.
Listening to this album back then felt significant, just like it felt significant that my girlfriend was now off living on her own. I might have been a year shy of my own graduation, but when I’d visit her, it felt a little bit like we were starting our life together, in a way it never had when we were visiting each other’s dorm rooms or college apartments. And yet the distance was still there for us to deal with, for just a little while longer. Red, in retrospect, is the sound of all those things: that feeling of being maybe a little out of your depth in a relationship but being excited to test the waters; how much it still sucked to spend weeks apart, waking in lonely beds in different cities; the sensation of living a life in the in-between, stuck between my last months of college and what awaited me after; the joy of being 22 and reveling in riotously fun nights out at bars with my friends, just as responsibility started to close in. Most of all, Red reminds me of how deeply I love the girl who would become my wife, and how, in a way, our life together started in earnest that fall, with these wonderful songs playing in the background.
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
My first few months out of college were rough. Finally getting to move in with my girlfriend and bid adieu to three years of long-distance relationship foibles was a positive, as was getting engaged just four short months after I finished school. Just about everything else was a negative. I graduated into a disastrous American economy and a nonexistent job market. I’d finished school feeling extremely optimistic about my future. I’d earned the respect of my professors, won departmental awards, helped build the school newspaper into something to be proud of, and started making a name for myself in the online music journalism world.
But college promise doesn’t always equate to real-world success, and success did not come my way quickly. I must have applied for 200 jobs in the first two months of my post-college summer. I maybe got five interviews. I received zero job offers.
I’m someone who tends to reach for music when I’m feeling lost. Usually, it works. In this case, it didn’t – at least not at first. My favorite songs and albums and artists only seemed to remind me of better days in my rearview. Even new albums by old favorite artists just felt like boxes full of ghosts, sent to haunt me at my lowest point. When I was feeling like a failure and missing the past, I didn’t want to hear music that made me think about the past.
Jason Isbell was the first new-to-me artist whose music I fell in love with in the midst of that post-college malaise. Southeastern came out in June and immediately started garnering buzz in songwriting communities and in the circles I ran in online. I listened to it on a whim and was absolutely knocked out by it. I couldn’t believe the way Isbell expressed deep, abiding love on Cover Me Up, or aching loneliness on Traveling Alone, or crushing tragedy on Elephant. And when I heard him sing about finding perspective and seeing beauty in the world on Relatively Easy, even in the midst of your own personal struggles, it resonated with me deeply.
“You should know, compared to people on a global scale/Our kind has had it relatively easy,” Isbell sings on that song. I think that line was the first thing that made me realize I was being 1) too hard on myself; and 2) too focused on the things that weren’t going my way. I may not have had a career mapped out yet, but I was finally living with the girl I loved, and we were finally making a life together – even if it was modest and small and governed by the limitations you have on you when you’re a broke post-college twentysomething. In so many ways, I was lucky.
It took me a long time to find my way toward a career that I found fulfilling and that made me proud of how I spent my work days. But Southeastern, in a lot of ways, reframed my perspective and reminded me to focus on the good things instead of the bad ones. It’s no surprise, I guess, that it proved to be the album that most shaped the next 10 years of my listening, sending me down a rabbit hole of country and Americana artists, teaching me to love songwriting in brand new ways, and even informing the music that, a few years later, I’d start making myself.
In 2013, Jason Isbell was a “clean slate” artist for me – someone whose music I reached for in part because I needed to hear something that was divorced from the life I’d lived up until that point. So I guess it’s poetic that Isbell eventually became one of my favorite artists ever, someone whose music I can reach for no matter the occasion and know it’s going to resonate. In fact, these days, there’s maybe no songwriter alive who can level me quite like Isbell can, whether he’s singing about addiction, or love, or mortality, or his daughter. Every album he makes is a masterpiece, and every song he writes is this little four-minute world of lived-in emotion and nuanced detail. But for me, his foremost work will always be Southeastern, if only for how it helped me get over the hump of my post-grad blues, and live.
Craig Manning is a journalist, writer, author, and musician based in northern Michigan. He writes regularly about music for Chorus.fm (formerly AbsolutePunk.net) and has had bylines with Billboard, Vinyl Me Please, Modern Vinyl, and more. Craig is also a children’s book author with multiple titles published through the Illinois-based publisher Sourcebooks, including books for iconic franchises like Sesame Street and Peanuts. His books, which include the USA Today bestseller The Great Easter Race and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas on the Farm, have sold more than 75,000 copies.
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