Music was my first love. My parents like to recount that even before I could stand without assistance, upon hearing my favorite songs I used the edge of the coffee table in order to pull myself to my feet and dance, i.e., holding onto the edge while bouncing my knees. What I can explain now is that I most appreciate music’s ability to transcend language. Perhaps strange coming from a writer, but even lyrics move me beyond their literal expression, whether via metaphor or some other inspiration.
The corollary is that I am mildly obsessed with playlists. Growing up, I constantly made mixed tapes. At first I mimicked my friends, who made tapes with no particular intention. But without any direction, my resulting tapes always seemed messy. So I decided to organize songs thematically, the way editors assemble anthologies. Those compilations always sounded much more cohesive.
Nowadays, my iTunes has lots of themed lists: home yoga practice, yoga class, relax, singalong, gospel, motivate. (The latter is particularly effective when I face reluctance, such as getting up early on the weekend or cleaning my apartment.) Other lists focus on lyrical content: birds, body, cities, fire, time, water. And some I created for specific occasions, such as a dance event I attended on 9/11/11.
One list is labeled simply “sk,” initialed shorthand for songs essential to my existence. Sometimes they make me want to laugh and shout for joy. Other times they make me want to cry. Oftentimes they make me want to dance around the room. Most often, though, they inspire some combination—whether rejoicing as I spin around, laughing in celebration, or when nearly-forced laughter seems the only remedy to uncontrollable sobbing. And then sometimes dancing ensues.
The following is a subset of that list—the songs which have changed my life profoundly and irrevocably, for whatever serendipity or other forces have been at play.
The reasons vary: musicality, lyrics, the timing of when I first heard them. Worth noting that this list is in not at all representative of my favorites, whether songs, artists, or albums. In fact, many of those (for other reasons) are excluded. Rather, these songs have shaped me in fundamental ways; I would be a different person had I never heard them.
I listen to these songs just as much on specific occasions as on no particular occasion.
Sometimes Frequently on repeat. Album names are included because most of the linked pages have the songs on them. So happy listening, if you choose to do so. That’s definitely the best part, but I included some liner notes too.
Indigo Girls – “Kid Fears” (Indigo Girls)
Since childhood I have loved the Indigo Girls both as musicians and songwriters. After the ubiqiutous “Closer to Fine,” this was one of their first songs I ever heard. It also features guest vocals from another well-known local.
R.E.M. – “Texarkana” and “Country Feedback” (Out of Time)
These two belong together—they are consecutive tracks on one of my favorite R.E.M. albums. And though the latter song rarely inspires dancing around the room, something about the songs’ contrast between hope and despair stays haunting.
Ani Difranco – “Amazing Grace” (Living in Clip)
I grew up singing hymns. “Amazing Grace” is certainly one of the most iconic, and this is by far my favorite version.
Sarah McLachlan – “Elsewhere” (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy)
Many songs are part of my high school soundtrack, but this one actually encompasses how I felt during those years. Sarah McLachlan was the first concert I ever attended—though I already appreciated “Possession” when it was a radio hit, hearing her live convinced me to buy the CD, and this track affirmed me when hardly anyone else did. Even now it still keeps me grounded.
Bob Marley – “Soul Rebel” (Soul Rebels)
My best friend from college and I bonded over many musical genres and artists, from obscure to stereotypical. (No stereotypical posters on our walls, however.) When we need to follow our hearts, when we need to ignore the haters, we text these lyrics or sing them on voicemail.
Robert Plant – “Shine It All Around” (Mighty Rearranger)
I encountered this song during one of the darkest times in my life—a time from which the few pleasant details remain fuzzy. This song was one of the few encouraging reminders of light.
Tracy Chapman – “Change” (Where You Live)
While living in Kerala, I became friends with a Sicilian painter. On Christmas Eve, I found him in the normal spot where many of us gathered to watch the sunset. Without warning, he put his headphones over my ears. By then I had been living in India for a few months and had barely listened to any western music, so hearing Tracy Chapman initially felt shocking. The song was new to me, the album released two weeks before I departed for India.
Just before the sun dropped below the horizon, my friend left, insisting that I keep his CD player. So I watched the pink orb disappear alone, and in the ensuing days never listened past the first track of his CD. He gifted me a musical summary of my ponderings during that time of profound change, when I questioned all of my longtime assumptions about mySelf, as I realized that formulating questions could be more illuminating than answering them.
Krishna Das – “Baba Hanuman” (Breath of the Heart)
I first heard this song in my first ashtanga class—the first three minutes are a masterpiece. My first yoga teacher loved this Rick Rubin-produced album. My appreciation for kirtan was born in the same moment as my appreciation for ashtanga, and both have changed my life beyond measure.
Flying Mystics – “Mongolian Steppes” (Begin Within)
More locals. I love these guys for many reasons; they have influenced me both musically and personally. They inspire powerful consciousness, and I am grateful how frequently I hear them play. Their music is the most common soundtrack to my yoga classes and my own practice. Several of their songs qualify for this list, but the others are unreleased. This is still one of my favorites, and after they released the CD I begged for months to make this song longer because I liked it so much. The guitarist explained that his fingers hurt too much to play it longer, but he ended up composing another section as introduction and conclusion (though it’s not on this recording).
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – Winter movement 3
I first played some of these concertos around the same time I heard this movement live for the first time, when I sang in Christmas concerts conducted by Robert Shaw. Singing in that concert series (with the Atlanta Symphony Orhcestra and Chorus) was a tradition for years; I heard this movement at every concert. I freely admit my preference for the ASO interpretation, with Cecylia Arzewski on violin. She captures what struck me as compelling and yet discordant about this movement—the vibrancy Vivaldi composed for winter, an energy that I would not encounter until later in my life.
James – “Sometimes” (Laid)
The chorus says it all. And I never really know how to choose—sing, cry, dance, laugh. Yes.
Samuel Barber – “Adagio for Strings”
I could mention the paradox (at least for me) of the title, the contrast betwen “at ease” (adagio) and the many moments of exquisite tension. But ultimately more compelling is that I couldn’t stop crying when I first heard this piece. Later, when I heard the choral version (released as Agnus Dei), I relived the first listen.
Nina Simone – “Sinnerman” (Pastel Blues)
Wary of sounding overly dramatic, I hesitate to declare this one of the most epic recordings ever, by one of the most epic artists ever. But both of those assertions are true.
Stevie Wonder – “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” (Fulfillingness’ First Finale)
A few years ago, a next-door neighbor invited me to meet her and my downstairs neighbor for a listening party, where we had to bring music new to the others. Fond of teasing me (affectionately), she instructed me to “bring some yoga shit.” (I did, and my choice changed her opinion.) Our other neighbor, upon his turn, played this song without any introduction. Before hearing it, I didn’t know a song that so fully embodied what moves me about life—the heartbreak and the delight, the confusion and the insight, and ultimately the divine presence both within and without.
George Winston – “Variations on the Kanon by Johann Pachelbel” (December)
Saved the first for last, as far as when this song appeared in my life. I don’t know who else heard this album incessantly in the 80s (on tape back then), but it was on heavy rotation throughout my childhood. A few years later, I learned to play the canon on violin because my orchestra director had it as the spring concert’s finale every year. Though I always love orchestral renditions, George Winston’s is still my favorite. I play it when I want to savor and celebrate, when I want to withdraw, when I need to be more present. And when my grandmother was dying in hospice, I put it on repeat and held her hand.
In the words of one master, “If music be the food of love, play on.” As much as I love wordplay, I recognize its limitations. And thus my gratitude for what I consider the most powerful of many universal languages.
SK © 2012