Welcome to the first installment of The Amplifier — a twice-weekly note about songs (new and old) worth hearing. I want The Amplifier to bring that mixtape-from-your-friend feeling back to musical discovery. Too often, in the streaming era, our choices are at the mercy of a shadowy, impersonal algorithm. The Amplifier will be a return to something more intimate and human.
Of course, that requires you knowing at least a little bit about me and my particular musical perspective.
But the easiest way to fill a music critic with crippling panic is to pose that seemingly simple question: “What’s your favorite song?” Most of us are likely to get defensive and philosophical, asking whether you mean “favorite” or “best,” and how you personally would define those terms — all as a stalling tactic while we spin through the bulging Rolodex of all the songs we’ve ever loved, trying and probably failing to arrive at a sufficiently revealing choice.
So rather than make a monolithic list of My Favorite Songs of All Time — one that I’d immediately be adding tracks to in my head as soon as I hit send — I thought I’d opt for the more inviting language of a popular social media prompt: “10 Songs That Explain Me.”
Except that I just. Could. Not. Do it. No matter how many times I tried, I always ended up with an extra song. So consider this to be a 10-song playlist with a bonus track — or perhaps an early indication that the knobs on this Amplifier go to 11.
Listen along here on Spotify as you read.
1. Nina Simone: “Ain’t Got No — I Got Life”
Only Nina Simone could transform two relatively kitschy numbers from the musical “Hair” into a song of self that rivals Walt Whitman. Simone is a lodestar to me: The excellence that she demanded from herself, the attention she demanded from her audiences and the classical virtuosity she brought to popular music all make her one of the greats. This rousing song can lift me out of just about any funk, and with such efficiency! Simone only needs less than three minutes to remind you exactly what it means to be alive. (Listen on YouTube)
2. Fiona Apple: “Shameika”
I grew up in suburban New Jersey and came of age in the late ’90s: a place and a time when conformity was currency. I wasn’t very good at fitting in, and like many an angsty youth, I found a kindred spirit in Fiona Apple. I first heard (and became obsessed with) her poetic and moody debut album, “Tidal,” when I was on the precipice of middle school, which is about the age Apple imagines herself to be in this elegantly unruly song from her 2020 album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” I see a lot of myself in it — both in the young, dissatisfied girl Apple remembers herself to be, and in the adult writer who made it out of that environment intact enough to tell the story. In my headphones, at least, Fiona said I had potential. (Listen on YouTube)
3. The Dismemberment Plan: “Superpowers”
When I was 18, I moved to Washington, D.C., for college and lived there until I was 25. My friend Drew put this song on a mix for me a few years into that stretch, and for a time it became my anthem: The Dismemberment Plan — an arty, verbose four-piece from D.C. that had broken up shortly before I got there — was a perfect bridge between the introspective emo I liked in high school and the more experimental strains of indie-rock I got into in college. Nothing brings me back to the ennui of early adulthood like the band’s 1999 classic “Emergency & I,” but my favorite of its records is the one that has “Superpowers” on it, “Change.” Luckily I got to catch a couple of amazing D-Plan reunion shows before I left town. (Listen on YouTube)
4. Grimes: “Genesis”
I have this theory that moving to New York knocks at least five years off your behavioral age. I made it here at 25, but for the first few years it felt like a second adolescence: catching shows every night at a bunch of now-defunct Williamsburg venues, making new friends, vying for the car stereo’s aux cord. Very often, the iPod was playing Grimes’s light and blissful album “Visions,” or sometimes just “Genesis” on repeat. It’s a song that can still make me feel, for a fleeting four minutes, like I’m the main character in my own video game and I’ve figured out the cheat code that makes me invincible. (Listen on YouTube)
5. Frank Ocean: “Self Control”
And here is the B-side of my roaring 20s: Frank Ocean’s tender voice was and remains a balm for whatever failure, loneliness and disappointment life decided to throw my way. (Consider “Self Control” a way to sneak another one of my favorite artists, and homes-away-from-home, onto this list, too, since the eclectic Philadelphia indie-rocker Alex G plays guitar on the track.) (Listen on YouTube)
6. The Flying Burrito Brothers: “Wild Horses”
Let’s continue wallowing while turning back the clock a bit to hear from another one of my all-time favorite singers, Gram Parsons. (I recently went on a Nashville vacation that was at least partially a spiritual pilgrimage to see his infamously sinful Nudie suit in the Country Music Hall of Fame.) A lot of the older music I love most has a kind of “near miss” quality about it — history’s beautiful losers, the artists who didn’t break through but deserved to, the ones who gesture toward all sorts of alternative presents and what-ifs. Maybe that’s why I prefer Parsons’s vocal take of “Wild Horses” to Mick Jagger’s more familiar one. (The Sundays’ version is great, too.) There’s a wobbly brokenness to it that I find incredibly moving, especially the way he emphasizes “a dull aching pain.” The origins of the song are notoriously disputed, but some insist that its titular line was inspired by something that Marianne Faithfull croaked when she came out of a six-day coma in 1969 — “wild horses couldn’t drag me away” — and that is one of those rock ’n’ roll stories that, even if it’s apocryphal, I have chosen to believe. (Listen on YouTube)
7. Big Star: “Daisy Glaze”
Speaking of music history’s beautiful losers: Big Star, one of my favorite rock bands ever. Like many a teenage millennial, I first came to the band through one of the numerous covers of the acoustic ballad “Thirteen” (“one of my almost-good songs,” the ever-humble Alex Chilton once said). Once I’d immersed myself in the band’s back catalog, I became belatedly furious that it had never been as famous as Led Zeppelin. I will always be exhilarated by the moment in the middle of “Daisy Glaze” when Jody Stephens’s three kick-drum thumps initiate a sudden tempo change — a perfect encapsulation of the band’s thrilling brilliance. (Listen on YouTube)
8. The Mountain Goats: “Up the Wolves”
I got into the Mountain Goats toward the end of high school — my friend Matt and I would drive from Jersey diner to diner, listening to their seemingly limitless discography — and John Darnielle is probably my favorite contemporary lyricist. The album “The Sunset Tree,” and this song in particular, have gotten me through many a dark night of the soul. I have now seen the Mountain Goats live more times than I can count — I lost track in the low 20s — and I am not yet numb to the emotional power of these songs. They played “Up the Wolves” a few months ago at Webster Hall, and after all these years, it still made me cry like a big teenage baby. (Listen on YouTube)
9. Buffy Sainte-Marie: “The Circle Game”
This one’s a total cheat: a sneaky way to mention two artists I adore — Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell, who of course wrote “The Circle Game” — on a single track. Joni is probably my favorite living songwriter, and there are about 100 other songs of hers I could have chosen. But I like the story behind this cover, recorded when Joni was still a fledgling songwriter to whom the then-better-known Buffy was trying to bring some attention. Suffice to say, it worked. (Listen on YouTube)
10. The Raincoats: “No Side to Fall In”
I’ve identified as a feminist throughout many different cultural and personal phases: in seventh grade when the boys told me girls couldn’t skateboard; in college, when it was a somewhat unfashionable concern that meant I read a lot of literary theory; these days, when a more watered-down version of the word has been co-opted to sell things on Instagram. All throughout, music has given me the strength to keep fighting, dreaming and resisting psychic death. To me, the great post-punk group the Raincoats are emblematic of a kind of utopian feminist freedom: a sonic universe where women can sound like and do anything they want — yes, even skateboarding. (Listen on YouTube)
11. Van Morrison: “Ballerina”
Oh, Van the (Facebook-hating) Man, my problematic fave. “Astral Weeks” is an album I love deeply, but I’ve always thought “Ballerina” should be the closing track. Since this is my playlist, with my rules, let’s try it out. I love this clip of a very young Leonard Cohen explaining to a confused interviewer on Canadian television what it feels like to be in “a state of grace.” It’s that “kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you.” I have found no better description of how I feel when I listen to this song. (Listen on YouTube)
Thanks for listening,
The Amplifier Playlist
Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.
“10 (or, Actually, 11) Songs That Explain Me” track list
Track 1: Nina Simone, “Ain’t Got No — I Got Life”
Track 2: Fiona Apple, “Shameika”
Track 3: The Dismemberment Plan, “Superpowers”
Track 4: Grimes, “Genesis”
Track 5: Frank Ocean, “Self Control”
Track 6: The Flying Burrito Brothers, “Wild Horses”
Track 7: Big Star, “Daisy Glaze”
Track 8: The Mountain Goats, “Up the Wolves”
Track 9: Buffy Sainte-Marie, “The Circle Game”
Track 10: The Raincoats, “No Side to Fall In”
Track 11: Van Morrison, “Ballerina”
The song that explains you
I’m really excited to go on this musical journey with you. I also want to make this newsletter a place for conversations about the songs and artists that mean something to you, so I’ll occasionally be asking for your thoughts on the topics we cover in this newsletter — and I’d love to hear from all of you.
Today, I want to know: What’s a song that explains you? Tell me about it.
If you’d like to participate you can fill out this form here. We may use your response in an upcoming edition of The Amplifier.
If you want to read me going even deeper on my love of Fiona Apple, here’s an essay I wrote a few years back, as part of NPR’s “Turning the Tables” series on female artists. (My dear friend Jenn Pelly also tracked down the real-life Shameika and wrote a wonderful article about her.)
And, if you’re a Van Fan, here’s me going incredibly long on “Astral Weeks,” for The Ringer, on the occasion of the album’s 50th anniversary.
Finally, if you’re inclined to read my recent profile of the great Buffy Sainte-Marie (I was pinching myself just outside the Zoom frame!), might I suggest following it with this delightful clip of her showing Pete Seeger, on his short-lived TV show “Rainbow Quest,” how to play a mouth bow.
The post 10 (or, Actually, 11) Songs That Explain Me appeared first on New York Times.