Musical Psychotherapy for Everyone!

Jens Lekman. Photo by Julien Bourgeois

There are so many lists out there in the blogosphere for the “coolest new bands” and the “best songs of the year,” but this list is different. This is a list of ten outstanding songs that help us get through what it is that makes being human difficult.

February and March were some arduous months for me with a series of unexpected, unfortunate events that refused to settle. Dealing with family matters while living in a foreign country is simply very emotionally straining. As with most people, music is one thing that helps me get me through such lows. This is a music-based website. That said, I’ve decided to create this top-10 list of songs to listen to when you’re in a not-so-desirable place. Cheers.

10. Jens Lekman, “If You Ever Need a Stranger (to sing at your wedding)”

There is a simple, classic tone to this song; the piano, light drum, whistling, and Lekman’s gentle vocals are all stripped down. There are no silly sound effects or excessive production.

The 50-second introduction and the song’s title prompt a clear image of a wide, white, immaculate, wedding-esque hallway, and there’s Jens Lekman, sitting down in the hallway with his head between his legs, singing. Maybe a glass of champagne rests beside his shiny patent leather shoe. And he’s singing this song. He would have been singing at the wedding, but the wedding is over now, and he’s wallowing in the hallway, alone.

This song isn’t about singing at weddings, though. It’s about losing the person you thought you were supposed to be with and letting him or her go off with someone else. It’s not that depressing because the song is about coming to terms with such a situation, and kind of letting it go, and moving on.

9. Pavement, “Gold Soundz”

Okay. Huge change-up for this track. Nothing is depressing about this song. “Gold Soundz” functions as a pump-up and cheer-up anthem. So if you have a job interview, or if you’re having a bad Monday, listen to “Gold Soundz.” Also listen to it if you’re “so drunk in the August sun” and you’re getting nostalgic about your drunken collegiate summers. This song is pick-me-up medicine.

Also, Pavement started the whole trendy put-a-“z”-on-everything hipster writing revolution. The song was released in 1994.

8. The National, “Racing Like a Pro”

Dipping back down into a bit of sadness, here. “Racing Like a Pro” is what you listen to when you’ve had a distressing night and you have to walk home in the rain. You put it on repeat and you kind of sway while you walk and curse yourself while Matt Berninger sings about a fragile lady who loses it.

“Sometimes you get up and bake a cake or something / Sometimes you stay in bed / Sometimes you go la dee da dee da dee da da / Til your eyes roll back into your head.”

Berninger captures the basic feeling of what it’s like to be lost and not have much direction in life…to have seen good things before, but to not be able to see them anymore. The winding, perpetual guitar and doleful accompanying piano help listeners grind into whatever’s bothering them and take a real good look at life before the song’s over and they can pull themselves out again. Again, listen to this song at night in the rain.

7. Emperor X, “Go Captain and Pinlighter”

Awww, gosh. No one really knows what Emperor X is singing about in this song, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone can identify with the musician in “Go Captain and Pinlighter” because of how Emperor X sings the song. The first time a former boyfriend of mine played this for me, he gave me a forewarning: “This song’s really good, but I don’t listen to it too much because it makes me sad.” But it’s not so much that the song makes listeners sad, but more that it encourages reflection. Deep reflection. “Go lions!”

6. Sufjan Stevens, “Vesuvius”

I don’t care that Mr. Stevens is singing about an Italian volcano in this song. There’s a lot more to “Vesuvius.” The song’s tiny quirks and backup vocals, and the whining electronic keyboard or whatever that instrument is at 1:41…it’s good. This song wasn’t ever a real favorite of mine, but when I saw Stevens playing it live in Berlin, the performance added so much to it. Stevens was also pretty emotional at the show, which was just pleasant to see–it’s nice to see musicians being human. “Sufjan, the panic inside / The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” Stevens has had quite an introspective phase in the last few years. It’s nice that he’s been able to share it.

5. Why?, “Light Leaves”

Is that a remnant of a Gregorian chant at the beginning of the song? I’m not sure.

“Light Leaves.” The dudes from Why? are so talented at articulating emotions and describing life’s unfavorable predicaments. In this song, Why? talks about the loss of relationships and hair (Yoni has Crohn’s Disease) before rapidly hurling the song into an epic ending that ponders the experience of death.

Why? doesn’t always take life too seriously, but every now and then there’s some incredibly deep material that’s catchy and cleverly worded as well: “And when I finally do it / I want to do the dirt like the dead leaves do / And if you do leave the earth when the earth leaves you / Cold and hard as a marble tabletop, with nothing on top / There’s no hip-hip-hop hooray.”

4. Elliott Smith, “New Disaster”

The best relationship song on the list! All music lovers know Elliott Smith had a way with his words. There’s no other musician who can quite express emotion and pain like Smith could (he died in 2003). “New Disaster” is about a person who is unable to maintain a “healthy” relationship, with one disaster after the next. The song describes the bad relationship habits people can get sucked into and not pull themselves out of…”New Disaster” is about serial daters who proclaim themselves to be innocent in their hurtful romantic patterns. All of that, and of course Smith sings it in such a beautiful, tender way. I listen to this song when I feel screwed over, but also when I end up somehow screwing someone else over. I guess everyone can always be on both sides, and I think that’s why this song is so good–it manages to grab both sides and confront them.

3. Modest Mouse, “Parting of the Sensory”

Putting on an old Modest Mouse record is like visiting your hometown, stopping by your erstwhile favorite bar, and watching as that pleasant familiar bartender pours you your favorite draft. Yes. I wish there were more MM songs from the turn of the century. “The Parting of the Sensory” is off 2005’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. It’s a great post-breakup song, when you’re angry and confused, after you’ve kind of already figured things out. “Who the hell made you the boss?” lead singer Isaac Brock questions displeasedly as he spits lines about betrayal and loss.

The song speeds up and slows down between choruses and then picks up at the end with a busy, marching refrain: “Some day you will die and somehow something’s gonna steal your carbon.”

2. Daniel Johnston, “Some Things Last A Long Time”

Daniel Johnston doesn’t need to say a lot to express himself. He writes short, concise, powerful songs about love and loss. The psychological obstacles in his life (he was diagnosed manic depression and schizophrenia) have inspired a lot of his work and have opened him up to his friends and fans alike. Like most of Johnston’s songs, “Some Things Last A Long Time” has been covered numerous times. The Built to Spill version is particularly good.

This song taps into what it’s like to hang on to the emotion you felt for someone after things have already ended. You kind of have an undying hope that you can’t push away, and you’re secretly wishing that one day your old love might come back and forgive the old mistakes you made, or the problems you had. There aren’t too many lines to the song, but it gets the job done.

1. Radiohead, “Videotape”

I had not listened to Radiohead’s In Rainbows in over a couple years and right when things got hard for me in the last month, “Videotape” came on while I was listening to music on shuffle and I stopped what I was doing and sat down and just listened. The song is Thom Yorke’s divine musical masterpiece. If he were to ever have an exhibition at a world-famous gallery, “Videotape” might be the centerpiece. We all hold our breaths as he delivers the jarring line, “You are my center when I spin away / Out of control on videotape.”

Fans and critics have different interpretations of the song, some saying it’s a suicide note, others saying it’s a gift for the musician’s children. One convincing  explication I read was the following:

On [Radiohead’s] new album In Rainbows, there is a song called ‘Faust Arp.’ Faust is a figure in Christian mythology who made a deal with Mephistopheles (the devil). The deal was that Faust would get whatever he desired but if he ever acknowledged that day was the greatest day of his life, Mephistopheles gets his soul. It is also said in Christian mythology that when you die, you go through your life to find that one moment when you were the happiest you ever were. That moment is then put onto a ‘videotape’ and you live in that moment for all eternity. Mephistopheles is directly mentioned in the song. Remember the deal Faust made with him? The album ends with the words, ‘Whatever happens now, I won’t be afraid because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.’

“Videotape” dissects the deciding moment at the end of one’s life and presents it beautifully. Yorke’s lone voice engages listeners, reassuring them that the end–whatever it is–will be okay. The track is appropriately In Rainbows‘ closing song, bringing the album to a composed and peaceful finish.

Ten tracks worthy of endless listens. Check them out, download them if you like them, and enjoy. Remember: If your friend doesn’t have your back when things get hard, you can always listen to one of these bands.

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