25 Songs For the Hard Days

We all have to learn how to manage suffering – it’s part of our fallen nature. For this reason the saying originally penned by Ian MacLaren is adopted by many: “be kind to everyone you meet, for you don’t know what kind of battles they are facing.” Being a particularly difficult subject to understand, sometimes the greatest respite from suffering is just having someone understand what you are going through or even being able to relate to your unique experience.

Over at NPR last month on All Songs Considered, Stephen Thompson had a great article about what makes a better song: the music or the lyrics. The gist of the article was that it’s up to the listener to decide because both play an equal part in the beauty of the song (“beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – could have seen that one coming, right? it’s still a great read if you have the time). In my experience, I find that the music comprises the essence of a song, but have recently made it a personal goal to invest emotionally in the lyrical content, too. This has allowed me to find a handful of songs that have really changed my perspective on a number of topics. Music has the capacity to heal for many reasons, no doubt, but I would argue that it finds the best opportunity to do so when it builds a story that the listener can relate to. This can happen through lyrics or composition alone.

As a registered nurse, I have spent a lot of time helping people through their suffering. I have found that people manage their hardships in different ways, but a common medium for finding peace is through music. Just the other night, after having a tough night at work where I once again did not have the right words at the right time, I went home and began to compile this list of songs that I believe can be supportive for the grieving person. Whether they are mourning the death of a loved one, managing tension in a marriage, having trouble finding hope, or are sad for no identifiable reason, I hope these songs give hope to any one who is going through a tough time.

As before, these cuts are all from my own music collection, so feel free add any others that I missed in the comments section below. Hope you enjoy!

Continue reading “25 Songs For the Hard Days”

Suicide – The Awkward Elephant in the Room

A topic very near to my heart. My middle brother, Jack, was lost to suicide in January of 2014. According to the CDC, 113 suicides occurred each day in the U.S. in 2013 – that’s one death every 13 minutes. I would venture to say you don’t need to go as far as 6 degrees of separation before identifying someone you know who has died by suicide or knows someone who does. In an age of ceaseless social media posting, it is hard not to be acquainted with suicide, especially since suicide itself and mental illness are still so severely stigmatized.

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“Never speak a word again
I will crawl away for good
I will move away from here
You won’t be afraid of fear”

~ Kurt Cobain, You Know You’re Right

Continue reading “Suicide – The Awkward Elephant in the Room”

John Mark McMillan – Enemy, Love

What do you get when you combine the soulful, heartfelt pining of Hozier with the cheery, uplifting falsettos of Mat Kearney? You get this new single from John Mark McMillan. I’m eager to share it because it is about John’s relentless battle with anxiety and how he needs to give up his desire to control everything in his life to God every day. This theme is something I have had trouble with my life, too, so this song has special importance to me.

John Mark McMillan isn’t the first CCM artist to sing openly about mental illness. Josh Wilson wrote “Carry Me” about the panic attacks he was having before his shows. I saw Josh in concert around the time of this release and recall him telling stories about how he couldn’t even get up on stage without having a nervous breakdown. The stage fright was so heavy on his soul that he couldn’t even muster the courage to perform. Needless to say, he is doing much better now and has been successful in his performing career.

You can hear more of John Mark McMillan’s music and see where he is touring in the United States on his website here.

Music to Make You Scratch Your Head, Part II

Check out another list of songs that are so raw and peculiar, you’ll grow chest hair just listening to them. From the island of misfit toys itself come 20 more songs to make you rethink your sanity:

1) David Bowie – Life on Mars?

“Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?”

A song for our times. Noted by Bowie himself to be about disillusionment and the “promise of a greater life elsewhere” that is unattainable. The lyrics themselves are enough to frown a brow, but check out the video too – Bowie with his womanly signature look that set the stage for a gender revolution in the U.S. and anisocoric pupils that add an extra depth of peculiarity.

2) Mannheim Steamroller – Night Party

Mannheim Steamroller is the brain child of New Age composer Chip Davis. His Christmas roster is heard every year; his songs are easily identifiable, notably for his prodigious use of synthesizers and electric instrumentation. Very similar to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This cut makes the list because while every song of Chip Davis should be on here, this one had the most most thought-provoking title to accompany the dark, almost theatrical themes; it was very easy to imagine a night party of animals roaming around a foreboding, dark forest before the dawn spots them.

3) Frank Zappa – Jazz From Hell

Frank Zappa is almost synonymous with weird in the music world. Mentioned in my first list, he has been influenced by the likes of John Cage and Edgard Varese and has himself influenced too many artists to count. With a song title like “Jazz from Hell” (he himself not identifying as a jazz musician); the multiplicity of rhythm, dynamic, and volume changes; the squeaky timbre of his instruments; and the songwriting virtuosity akin to Chick Corea, this cut is a head scratcher for sure. Also, the thought alone of jazz coming from hell does it for me.

4) System of a Down – I-E-A-I-A-I-O

“Mine delusions acquainted,
Bubbles erotica,
Plutonium wedding rings,
Icicles stretching,
Bicycles, shoestrings,
One flag, flaggy but one,
Painting the paintings of the alive”

[NSFW] Serj Tankian’s System of a Down should not come as a surprise on this list. Since their eponymous debut album, they have helped to define (and push) the boundaries of nu-metal with strange, borderline delusional songwriting. Like Zappa, multiple tracks could have fit this list, but in my opinion this is one of SOADs most representative cuts. It always puzzles me when bands use sounds as song titles – makes it hard to request them at concerts.

5) Eminem – Insane

“If you could count the skeletons in my closet
Under my bed and up under my faucet
Then you would know I’ve completely lost it
Is he nuts? NO! He’s insane!”

[NSFW] Eminem openly admits that the album where this cut was pulled, Relapse, was a complete and utter disaster. He jumped in with both feet and realized that his whole shtick was TMI to virtually every person on the planet. Luckily, his follow-up Recovery was a huge hit with multiple singles that got near constant airplay. It also demonstrated the importance of moderation and appropriate self-disclosure. We could have all done without the sadistic graphic imagery.

6) Lil Wayne – I Feel Like Dying

“I can mingle with the stars, and throw a party on Mars
I am a prisoner, locked up behind Xanax bars
I have just boarded a plane, without a pilot
And violets are blue, roses are red
Daisies are yellow, the flowers are dead
Wish I can give you this feeling… I feel like buying
And if my dealer don’t have no more, then…
(I feel like dying)”

It is no secret that Lil Wayne struggles with substance abuse. Working as a registered nurse in a hospital, I am sensible to the immense struggle of dealing with opiate addiction, and I could spot this one a mile away. This cut makes the list because it invites the listener to dive deep into the psyche of a [very gifted and talented] rapper struggling with anxiety and/or depression. Ever want to know what it feels like to live in the spotlight with a mental illness? It feels like dying.

7) Yes – Yours Is No Disgrace

“Silly human race on a sailing ship to nowhere, leaving any place
If the summer changes to winter, yours is no disgrace
Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are
Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, show me where you are
Lost in summer, morning, winter, travel very far
Lost in losing circumstances, that’s just where you are”

Does anyone ever really know what Jon Anderson is talking about? Doesn’t matter – Yes made some of the best 70’s progressive rock music regardless of the absurd, unintelligible lyrics. Fragile is a masterpiece I highly recommend, especially for bass players. This cut was the bands first anti-war song and is directed specifically at the Vietnam War.

8) John Mayer – Bold As Love (Live)

“But all that means is that I’ve just somehow or another
Found a way to synthesize love, or synthesize soothing, or..
You can’t get that and what I’m saying is
I’ve invested with all the approaches except for one, and
It’s going to sound really corny but that’s just love

This cut makes the list because John Mayer has a habit of talking nonsense halfway through his concerts. I have seen him twice and have witnessed it first-hand; this performance is another example. I still don’t understand what he’s talking about in this cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Bold As Love, but at least this [recorded] instance is somewhat coherent. [Also, as an unrelated sidebar this version of Bold As Love is very, very good, if you don’t own it yet. Recommend.]

9) Red Hot Chili Peppers – Nobody Weird Like Me

“Riding down the path
On the back of a giraffe
Me and the giraffe laughed
Cause I passed some gas”

I don’t want to appear naive to the fact that many of the songs that sound most bizarre and abstract are drug-induced. However, Anthony Kiedis, I believe, is truly a weird individual, who is probably just as capable of writing strange lyrics sober as he is hooked on heroin. I would be remiss not to include him and his band in a list of songs that are supposed to rack your brain.

10) Mr. Bungle – Carry Stress in the Jaw

“And of Berenice I more seriously believed
That all her teeth were thoughts
The white and ghastly spectrum of the teeth
Meditations were never pleasurable
The phantasma of the teeth maintained its terrible ascendancy”

I’m not even going to attempt to dissect these guys. They were before their time in terms of incorporating multiple genres (metal, post-hardcore, funk, even pop). I have no idea what they’re singing about in this cut and will just leave it at that, as I don’t know that the band necessarily had a lyrical direction or an important message to drive home. Have a listen for yourself for an interesting story of barbaric proportions.

11) Axel F – Crazy Frog

“Bing bing bing ba-ba-ba-ba”

Why?

12) Ludwig Von Drake – The Spectrum Song

As a kid, my brothers and I got a double-CD Disney “greatest hits” of sorts and this track was late on the second disc. At the time, I never knew which Disney movie it came from or how it fit into Disney at all. It wasn’t until later that I learned it was an avenue for teaching kids about color (go figure). This addition to the list is probably more personal and less relatable, but try to imagine listening to it from my (10-year old) perspective.

13) Modest Mouse – Exit Does Not Exist

“‘Does not Exist, Take an Exit’
I hear voices insinuating
Feeds me lyrics to this song that I am saying
Sunlight 7:20 PM, early September
Standing looking at a photograph
That you do not remember being taken”

Every serious songwriter, I believe, has hit writer’s block at some point, where you sit down to write and nothing comes to you. No inspiration. I don’t even write regularly and I can relate to the third bar of this cut off the album This Is A Long Drive With Nothing to Think About. [The album is about rural life and how it can be exceptionally boring and uninteresting.] However, that’s about where Brock Isaac loses me (as he usually does about this far into a Modest Mouse song). For a good batch of songs that will make you question everything you think you know about everything, I recommend Modest Mouse.

14) The Ballad of Sweeney Todd – Opening Suite

“Inconspicuous, Sweeney was
Quick and quiet and clean, he was
Back of his smile, under his word
Sweeney heard music that nobody heard”

The premise of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd is that Sweeney Todd is a [demon] barber who kills his “customers” by either pulling a lever that propels them back through a deep revolving trap door or slitting their throats with his cutting tools. He conceals of the bodies by blending them up into “meat pies” and selling them at the bakery next door. I don’t know what makes me more creeped out: the plot, the cannibalism and disrespect for persons, or the fact that Sweeney Todd is a British urban legend who may or may not have be a real barber.

15) The Flaming Lips – The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine

“What
What does it mean
To dream what you dream
To believe what you’ve seen?”

Reminiscent of a particular George Orwell novel, this cut is about the oppressive nature of surveillance. The sparrow symbolizes freedom and the machine is, well, “Big Brother” if you will. A note of caution: if you end up really enjoying this song, know that the album was purposefully produced at full volume (I’m not certain why they chose to do this) – you need to turn down the volume for each song, including this one, or they will blow your ear drums out!

16) The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Mama’s Fried Potatoes

Because we all have that one dish Mom makes that we just can’t get enough of!

17) Vitas – Седьмой элемент

[All Russian, sorry.]

Probably the most bold of all of the additions to this list, this guy is actually a very popular Russian pop singer/tongue clicker. I believe he acts as the opera singer in the movie The Fifth Element, too. Despite the weird costume and rigid choreography, this video is oddly mesmerizing. No explanation needed as to why I included it.

18) Meshuggah – Rational Gaze

[Indiscernible]

Very similar to Animals as Leaders from the previous list. Too much syncopation, too much polyrhythm, too much counting for my little head. These guys are experts of their craft(s) for sure. If you were curious, yes – every single one of their songs sounds like this.

19) Geert Chatrou – Csardas

Have a Dad that likes to whistle in public? Don’t shush him – he might end up like this guy one day.

20) Tiffany Trump – Like A Bird

“Kinda like that drama that Madonna brings
Plan my escape in the drop top Cobra
No spoiler, we living it up
Shine like aluminum foil in the club
The moon and the stars ain’t got nothin’ on us”

DISCLAIMER: This is not actually in my collection. I stumbled across this on YouTube and thought it’d be a good closer to songs that make you scratch your head – no explanation needed.

Music to Make You Scratch Your Head

I’m not talking about Stairway to Heaven or Hotel California, both of which are purposefully imperceptible (both bands left the lyrical interpretation up to the listener – because art). These tunes will make you think big thoughts (“your future self is thinking about you in the form of a memory right now”) or just give you a good laugh. All are from my own collection, so the list is obviously not comprehensive.

‘would love to hear anyone else’s recommendations, too! Comment and tell me what’s missing from the list.

1) The Mars Volta – Eriatarka

“Trackmarked amoeba lands craft
Cartwheel of scratches
Dress the tapeworm as pets
Tentacles smirk please
Flinch the cocooned meat
Infra-reco forgets
Gotta be a way of getting out”

Cedric Bixler-Zavala has been known for absurdly outlandish and bizarre lyrics and this cut from De-Loused in the Comatorium is no exception. The album is a concept album about a friend who accidentally overdosed on pain pills, entered a week-long coma, then recovered long enough to tell the band about his experience(s). He apparently passed away soon after.

2) Jaco Pastorius – Crisis

If there was a song that sounded any more like a violent nervous breakdown, you’d have to convince me twice. Jaco Pastorius wrote all of the parts for this cut and asked that each musician record their part individually in closed-off rooms so they could not hear one another. Obviously, the final product had to be fine-tuned to make sure it all matched up, but Jaco was so happy with the result he got, he decided to make it the first track on the album for shock value. He definitely got what he wanted.

3) Incubus – You Will Be a Hot Dancer

“What if your brain,
Unexpectedly and suddenly,
Picked out things to flip around
And view a lot differently?
What if blue sky,
All of a sudden turned a purple hue?”

[NSFW] In the liner notes for this album (Fungus Amongus), frontman Brandon Boyd explains that the band (at this point in their career) wanted to sound like an amalgam of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mr. Bungle, and Primus. For this reason alone, the band Incubus fits the bill with songs that make you scratch your head; it’s also the existential lyrics that earn this song in particular a spot on the list.

4) The Roots (feat. Monsters of Folk) – Dear God 2.0

“Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?
And why is livin’ life such a fight to the finish?
For this high percentage
When the sky’s the limit
A second is a minute, every hour’s infinite”

[NSFW] I appreciate the Roots because they ask the tough questions but still keep things real. This song is excellent musically, so it’s the lyrics that earn it a spot on the list. Anyone who has ever had a crisis of faith can probably identify with Black Thought’s (lead rapper) doleful musings.

5) Primus – Tommy the Cat

“The air was thick with cat calls (no pun intended),
But not even a muscle in her neck did twitch as she sauntered up into the heart of the alley
She knew what she wanted
She was lookin’ for that stud bull, the he cat
And that was me”

[NSFW] Les Claypool. Need I say more?

6) Flying Lotus – Zodiac Sh*t

Steven Ellison (that is, Flying Lotus) has said explicitly that he doesn’t want his music to be predictable. He wants it to take his listeners on twists & turns and never to where the listener believes the music is heading. Even though this is one of his shorter cuts, it is just a taste of what Flying Lotus does so well – the unexpected. [Also, the trippy video augments the experience so well that I had to include it.]

7) Miles Davis – B*tches Brew

“See, if you put a musician in a place where he has to do something different from what he does all the time, then he can do that – but he’s got to think differently in order to do it. He’s got to play above what he knows – far above it. I’ve always told the musicians in my band to play what they know and then play above that. Because then anything can happen, and that’s where great art and music happens.” ~ Miles Davis

Miles Davis is my music idol, and the quote above provides just a small taste of his stylistic genius. He was the first jazz musician to incorporate electronica into his music, and while it damaged his fan base at the time, it allowed him to explore previously uncharted musical territory. B*tches Brew was a studio recording experiment that incorporated electronica, but more importantly was a totally unstructured “jam session” with loosely prepared music and little to no direction from Miles. He encouraged his musicians to essentially feel the piece out for themselves, even proffering that mistakes are welcome. Naturally, this cut (and the album itself) became a masterpiece.

8) Frank Ticheli – Blue Shades

My high school symphonic band played this piece (Oakton High School class of ’08). At the time, I struggled to understand what statement was being made in the music. My young musician mind couldn’t comprehend the abstract, staccato delivery of musical motifs that characterize the first 12-bars of the piece. Nearly a decade later, I recognize the genius and have to include it on this list because it is rhythmically and harmonically complex and hard to understand on first listen. Give it a second chance and I bet it will grow on you, too.

9) Daft Punk – Touch

“A tourist in a dream
A visitor it seems
A half-forgotten song
Where do I belong?
Tell me what you see
I need something more”

The album this cut comes from is called Random Access Memories and is one of the best albums I have ever heard. Highly, highly recommend to any EDM/dance music fans. However, I still can’t wrap my head around what part this song contributes to the full statement of the album. If anyone has any insight into this, please leave a reply and let me know – I am very curious.

10) Gwen Stefani – Harajuku Girls

“Wa mono – there’s me, there’s you (hoko-ten)
In a pedestrian paradise
Where the catwalk got its claws (meow)
A subculture in a kaleidoscope of fashion”

In my opinion, Gwen Stefani should have stayed in No Doubt, where her music was at least somewhat decent. Once she went solo, it seemed to be all downhill for her. This cut had to be included in the list because it is, in my honest opinion, an incorrect fusion of genres. Gwen’s combination of American and Chinese culture doesn’t appear to blend well and the production is not only cheesy, but almost sounds sardonic. Not quite sure what she was going for with this tune.

11) Andrew Rice – Heaven on Their Minds (from Jesus Christ Superstar: Rock Opera)

“Nazareth’s most famous Son
Should have stayed a great unknown
Like his father carving wood
He’d have made good
Table chairs and oaken chests
Would have suited Jesus best
He’d have caused nobody harm, no one alarm”

This one is a personal favorite because the music from this rock opera is absolutely incredible. The production itself was [rightly] ill-received due to the many inconsistencies in plot as compared to the true Gospel story and the certain artistic liberties, which many considered deliberate blasphemies, so watch with good judgment please.
Looking at the opera without an eye for Biblical accuracy, the character of Judas brings up an interesting theological question – what if Jesus had decided not to accept His ministry on earth as God in the flesh? What would have been the metaphysical and spiritual fallout of that decision? What would the implications of that decision have been for those of us who are Christian (or those who at the time were Jewish)?

12) XTC – Scissor Man

“So be kind and helpful to your mother
Just think twice before you try and steal
When he cuts with sticky silver snippers
You may find the wounds will never heal”

I don’t have the backstory on this song – I actually heard the cover by Primus first – but it still deserves mention on this list. My [sober] mind still has trouble conceiving where XTC got the inspiration for this song or what it is about. The silly lyrics and uppity, almost polka-esque influence in this song are what earn it a spot as a head-scratcher.

13) Edgard Frise – Ionisation

Had I not stumbled on the Frank Zappa chapter of Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, I probably would never have discovered Edgard Varese. Not for the faint of heart, his music is often very jarring and abstract. His work is difficult to digest because he often incorporates non-instrument sounds into his pieces or uses prolonged periods of silence to make a musical statement. It is no surprise, then, that Zappa was so influenced by him. Fans of Edgard Varese should also check out John Cage.

14) Outkast – Chronomentrophobia

“It’s beginnin’ to look a lot like the endin’
And got to be more careful know what corners you be bendin’
Revelations gettin’ impatient and now I’m dead
Remember what I said I’m gone bow ya heads”

I’m pretty sure this song is about the fear / inevitability of death. Chronomentrophobia – the fear of time or clocks – could be a misplaced phobia, as the real fear is what it means for time to stop (for you or in general). This is the gist of the song in my mind. Andre 3000 has a cornucopia of songs that could fit on this list, but this one was the most thought-provoking.

15) Hamilton – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

[WASHINGTON:]
Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control

[WASHINGTON AND COMPANY:]
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

If you have the means, go to Amazon or iTunes or wherever you buy music and buy The Hamilton Musical Soundtrack [NSFW]. It flows quickly because it’s a Broadway play performed with rap. You can pack a lot more script (and therefore more plot) into rap songs, so even though you aren’t watching the show with the soundtrack, you can still follow the story very well with just the soundtrack. It is a work of genius that could (and should) be included in high school History curricula.

16) Animals as Leaders – Cafo

Read this. Matt Garstka is the drummer for progressive metal band Animals As Leaders. He talks in the above interview about “curating” odd meter and “parallel time signatures” that will literally blow your mind. It’s not even worth me attempting to explain – just read the article and you’ll have an indelible appreciation for the band (and polyrhythm subdivision).

17) Charles Mingus – Pithecanthropus Erectus

Free jazz not unlike that of B*tches Brew (#7). This song is about the evolution of man, his cognitive development, and eventual self-awareness beginning at the beginning. It didn’t happen overnight. Ponder that as you soak in some mean upright bass by one of the best in jazz.

18) Nas – Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)

“Peoples are petrol, dramatic automatic four-four I let blow
and back down po-po when I’m vexed so
my pen taps the paper then my brain’s blank
I see dark streets, hustling brothers who keep the same rank”

[NSFW] Nas is a true poet. His music is phenomenal without any lyrics, but the added angst and indignation Nas infuses into his music stands out among the plethora of wash, rinse, & repeat rappers who [unfortunately] make it big. I also enjoy how he raps about real issues, not just the trivial rags-to-riches stories. This cut makes me scratch my head because it’s an authentic portrait of life in Queens as a youth during the birth of the Hip-Hop movement. It makes me so curious to learn more about the culture during the period and specifically how it shaped Nas’ self-identity.

19) Parliament – You’re a Fish and I’m A) Water Sign

“Let’s go down now baba
(we gonna be two freaky fish)
Baba baba baba baba boo byeohhhwhoaeyah…..
(two freaky fish together)
When we go down, when we go down…”

[NSFW] Probably the greatest WTF moment on this entire list. Self-explanatory.

20) Soundgarden – Spoonman

“All my friends are Indians
All my friends are brown and red, spoonman
All my friends are skeletons
They beat the rhythm with their bones, spoonman”

First and foremost, R.I.P. Chris Cornell. You will be sorely missed. This song makes the list solely because it has a spoon solo in it FTW. Excellent way to close up a list of songs that make you scratch your head.