Confession: I don’t really keep up with new music. So much of it is just lousy, you know? “Moves Like Jagger” alone is enough to make a person build a fort with her Fleetwood Mac LPs and never come out.
Thankfully, Claire knows my backwards listening habits, and said that I was welcome to include songs from any year in my year-end top-five list, so here it is:
5. “To Be of Use” by Smog (1996)
One of the worst things about depression is anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable. When I’m super depressed, I stop liking music, which is a very strange experience. Sometimes, I’ll find one or two artists that can penetrate the anhedonia, and the ones who win that prize in 2013 are Smog and Karen Dalton.
While Karen Dalton’s 1966 is a beautiful album, songs like “Mole in The Ground” and “Misery Blues” simply reinforce one’s depressive mood. Smog songs are more dynamic. Bill Callahan’s lyrics are written from the perspective of a clever and deadpan and somewhat depraved ex-con who’s into violent sex and is probably not a safe person to be alone with. But he sounds like he could be a fun person to be alone with. That’s partially due to his baritone voice, and partially due to songs like Dress Sexy at My Funeral (“Tell them about the time we did it / On the beach with fireworks above us / On the railroad tracks / With the gravel in your back”) and, depending on what you’re into, Cold Discovery (“I can hold a woman / Down on a hardwood floor”).
So in the depths of my depression, I’m making out with a friend, and I want to put some music on. “Hm,” I say, “all I’ve been listening to is Smog. You okay with Smog?” I put my Smog playlist on shuffle, and we pick up where we’d left off, put a condom on, and the first song that plays is To Be of Use. Now, if you know this song, you’re already laughing or shaking your head. If not, really all you have to know is that it’s a very spare, somber, five-minute song, and it starts, “Most of my fantasies are of / Making someone else come / Most of my fantasies are of / To be of use.”
It’s actually a really beautiful song, and it’s certainly sexy, but not in the sly or flirty way many of his other songs are sexy. It’s sexy in such a direct, sincere way that it demands all of your attention.
Anyway, my friend and I laughed and met the challenge of having sex to the Smog song that was too sexy to have sex to, and if I’m remembering correctly, my depression faded in the weeks that followed.
4. “Seattle” by Jeffrey Lewis (2001)
While loads of musicians write songs about New York City (Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z come to mind), few write songs about the markedly less romantic experience of being from New York City.
I was born and raised in Manhattan, as was Lewis, and Seattle is a song about the conundrum of wanting to start a new chapter in life when you’ve got no little-town blues to lose: “I’d leave home for New York / But New York is where I’m from / I’m just looking for a way / To feel my life has begun.” I’ve never heard that particular sentiment in a song before, and Lewis says it well.
Really, I could’ve picked any Jeffrey Lewis song to put on here; I’ve been listening to him a ton this year. Start anywhere; all his stuff is good.
3. “Call Me in The Day” by La Luz (2012)
There is a really nice vintage surf rock / girl group sound going on here. The song describes a troubled relationship: “Well you see me only on the need / In the evening, when you’re feeling mean.” Yet despite the dysfunction and the melancholy organ and tremolo that illustrate it, there is a moment in the song when the lyrics attempt to assert a healthy boundary: “Call me in the day / Before the sun goes down / If it’s getting late / I won’t pick up the call.”
More often than not, pop music gives horrible relationship advice. And especially when you’re considering songs in the ‘60s girl group tradition—which includes classics like “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”—it’s refreshing to hear lyrics that at least gesture toward more functional relationships.
Which is not to say her “Call me in the day” mandate will do her any good. The situation is hopeless: The man is an unfortunate force of nature, “a boulder slowly gaining speed on down a hill.”
The good thing about the singer’s situation being so dramatically hopeless is that sad surf guitar is the best surf guitar and listening to this makes me feel like I’m floating in a jar of molasses.
La Luz’s full-length was released this year, but I prefer the version from their self-released 2012 EP, Damp Face. According to their Bandcamp page, the EP was recorded “in a Bothell, WA trailer park on a hot day.” The new recording sounds less muddy, more perfect. Too clean for my taste. I guess it’s just missing that “trailer park on a hot day” sound.
2. “Flowers for Julie ” by Shellshag (2010)
It seems like this song has been stuck in my head for the past six months, and maybe it has.
I first heard it on an unlabeled mix tape I picked up from a take-one leave-one mix tape cubby at the Luggage Store Gallery. I didn’t know what the song was called or who it was by, and that gave me a uniquely intimate relationship with it. The tape was full of good punk songs, but this one had the best hooks.
I like this song so much that I’m having a hard time trying to explain why. Here is a list of reasons, in no particular order:
1. I like it when he says “Shove me / Up against a wall.”
2. I like thinking about who “Julie” is and why he feels obligated to buy her flowers.
3. Shellshag is just two people, yet they play their instruments with the might and passion of many.
4. They are also a couple, and I really like it when punk couples make great art together.
5. The song ends with the same riff that begins it, only played slower, as if it’s threatening to start again.
6. I would not mind if it started again.
1. “Street Hassle” by Lou Reed (1978)
I was having a Lou Reed Thing all summer and fall, so hearing about his death in October had an especially heavy impact on me. Long before he died, I’d developed a special fondness for this 11-minute song: a three-part opera composed of scenes from gritty New York life. It feels like a privilege to eavesdrop on these darkly sexy, debased, and ultimately tragic characters.
In part one, a woman pays for sex and the experience transcends its unglamorous context. Part two is a monologue by a host tactfully explaining to a guest that he’s responsible for dealing with the body of a dead companion who OD’d at the party: “Why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet / And just lay her out in the darkest street / And by morning, she’s just another hit and run.” Part three is a dirge about death and desire (with an incongruous and uncredited Springsteen cameo).
Something that adds to the eavesdropping sensation and mystery of the song is that the three parts don’t add up to a whole. The woman in the first part could be the woman who ODs in the second part, but that’s not particularly implied. And the male voice singing at the very end of the song says, “Oh how I miss him,” not “her.” And no “him” has gone away, unless he’s singing from the first woman’s perspective and she’s talking about the john. It’s more haunting as a collage of sorrows. Just letting all the characters’ pain bleed all over and into each other.
Amy Berkowitz lives in San Francisco, where she writes and reads poetry, runs Mondo Bummer Books, and abhors the cultural strip-mining of this once-vibrant city.