I got my first stereo for my third birthday. It had a tape dock (first cassette: S Club Party, S Club 7) and a CD player (first CD single: Whole Again, Atomic Kitten), and since then, music has single-handedly been one of the most consistently #1 things in my life. When I was 4, I played the star in the nativity play we did at school. I had one line to say, but I don’t remember what it was, and obviously forgot at the time too. I took the microphone off the donkey, or Mary, or however the nativity story goes, and started singing Wannabe by the Spice Girls.
My dad got me into the Beatles when I was around nine, and everything since then has tailored off a love for them. Listening to music can evoke feelings of loss, appreciation, and put you back into a time you completely forgot that you were once part of. Some music gets you dancing, and some other music will form the perfect soundtrack to make out to. It’s a very important and precious thing.
The songs listed below are truly the ones that have ripped my heart apart and changed my life in some small way or another (click the images to hear them). These are songs that have smacked me across the face and forced me to stop and listen when I was doing something otherwise ordinary, like sorting out the laundry, and made me cry, dance, or write a whole essay in homage to it. I’ve listened back to these songs with fresh-ish ears and they’ve all seriously plucked hard at the chordae tendineae, which is the technical term for heartstrings. But since this is serious business, we’re gonna get serious about it: I present to you a culmination of mini-essays on the songs that have shaped the first 20 years of my life, and formed a tiny part of who I am today.
1) Step into my Office Baby – Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle and Sebastian
I have one man to thank for my six-year life dedication to Belle and Sebastian. No, not my dad, who pretty much got me into every other thing I listen to, but a guy who worked in a record store in the city where my mum’s from in Ireland. I was bumming around the B section of Rock and Pop A-Z, hoping that the Beatles had secretly released another album I hadn’t heard about in the past fortnight, and picked up a copy of Dear Catastrophe Waitress, because the artwork is so great and also, I love spaghetti. Record Store Guy recommended it, and thus changed my life forever. (Thanks Record Store Guy.)
I listened to it on my CD player before I went to bed a few days later, and have this very vivid memory of just feeling so joyous, like I was on the cusp of something really, really good. Six years down the line, I’ve danced on stage with the band twice, and would totally be the secretary of the Belle & Sebastian fan club if it exis… actually, wait. I am going to be the secretary of this club. I am going to make this happen.
2) Gloria: In Excelsis Deo – Horses, Patti Smith
I’m a sucker for an opener. Four of the songs I’ve chosen to include in this list are not only No.1 tracks, but also feature as No. 1 on the record. Confusingly, none of them have been actual No. 1s. I’ll move on.
Gloria, which features on Patti Smith’s debut album Horses, is more than just an introduction to the album, it’s the introduction of Patti Smith to the world. She paints huge fucking masterpieces with her lyrics: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” followed with: “My sins my own/They belong to me”. That lyric was penned years before the release of Horses in a poem she wrote called Oath.
“I was 20 years old when I wrote that, and it was sort my youthful manifesto. In other words I didn’t want to be good, but I didn’t want him to have to worry about me, or I didn’t want him [God] taking responsibility for my wrongdoings, or my youthful explorations. I wanted to be free. So it’s really a statement about freedom.”
It’s also a huge banging tune. I saw her at Glastonbury Festival this year, where my friends and I watched her with big, adoring eyes – we were finally seeing her, up on the stage, the preacher to the congregation. And then she brought on the only person in the world who could possibly be more of a god than she is, the Dalai Lama. It was all very confusing and completely brilliant and wonderful.
3) Will You Love Me Tomorrow? – Tonight’s the Night, The Shirelles
I love when one-night-stands are dressed up as something way more beautiful than what they possibly are. For example, Romeo and Juliet is basically about two young teenz who went to a party, had a few drinks and hooked up, even though their parents were so not into it.
For a long time, I said this was the greatest song ever written. I still stand by that, because, in all honesty, it’s true. I can’t even describe just how completely perfect this song is. It’s weighing up whether you can prepare yourself for a potential heartbreak with a guy that all your friends say is bad news. In two minutes and 36 seconds, The Shirelles perform a story of boy meets girl, girl falls hard for boy, girl gets heart broken. It’s completely timeless and totally irresistible; I listen to it on repeat.
4) Five Years – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie
This song, another opener to a smack-banging killer of an album, meant so much to me at one point of my life, that when I listen back to it now it still pierces at my heart because it reminds me so strongly of my last year of school. When everything goes to the bad, we’ll always have David Bowie. My best friend and I were working together on a project: He was the designer, and I the director. We were going through a huge Bowie phase and spoke one day about wanting to incorporate this into our theatre project somehow. Long story short, against the odds, we managed to put together a piece (with the lovely help of our fellow actor friends) that was basically a 30-minute tribute to David Bowie, and all the feels he’d given us. Whatever, if you really want to know the whole story, you can read my autobiography, which will hopefully be released within the next 15 years.
Anyway, this song represents having an idea and seeing it through, just because you really want to see it happen. It felt like a bit of a defiance at a time when I really hated everything; the lyrics were so on point as we worked our little butts off just because we wanted to prove we could pull this off to everyone else: “My brain felt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare”, and, more importantly “I never thought I’d need so many people.”
Working with others can be one of the most enriching things in life, and this song reminds me of those few months working at this project. It gives me the courage to be take a fuck-tonne of risks when tackling something creatively. After all, Bowie seems to have got himself a nice-looking pension by doing exactly that (sorry for my lame dad jokes). My favourite thing about the song is that it finishes just as it started, with a simple drum beat, like nothing’s even happened. Things continue to go on. Well, of course they do, but the difference is is that now everything’s changed.
5) Aladdin Sane (1931-1938-197?) – Aladdin Sane, David Bowie
D.B makes it twice on this list. He kind of had to really. It’s all his fault because he kept changing his mind about who he wanted to be. But that’s why teenagers are drawn to Bowie as an artist, because we’re all turning and facing the strain of ch-ch-ch-changes. In addition to everything I’ve written above, this particular song had to be on here because of its supreme transformative appeal to take you somewhere else entirely. At 1 minute 38 seconds, I get this weird feeling throughout my body like when you drink three cups of coffee in an hour, and then it just gets better and better and better and so on. When you’re sitting painting your nails with glittery polish on the floor of your box room in a village in the middle of nowhere, this piece of music proves that anything is possible. Right down to your fingernails. After all, you’ve painted those nails in homage to him, haven’t you?
6) The Chemistry Between Us – Coming Up, Suede
Again, just like The Shirelles, I’ve chosen this song because it reminds me of nights spent falling in love and then falling over at house parties in my teenage years (which are soon to go as I turn 20 next year. Sob). This song is seven minutes of pure melodic bliss, loads of heartache, lots of drama, something you can sing at the top of your lungs when everything else has gone to shit: Essentially why music was created. Yes, okay, it’s about drugs, but listening back to this a few years after forgetting about it reminds me more of that sense of longing, a kind of ‘Is this it?’ Lead singer Brett Anderson said himself that it’s about the “emptiness of it all” regarding drugs and partying. Guess I get a gold star! (Thanks, Wikipedia). But for a song about how hollow that artificial lifestyle can be, it sure is filled with layer upon layer of beautiful melodies and, yes, again, teen manifestos that I want to get tattooed (or just write in my journal): “We are young and not tired of it/We are young and easily led”. It also inspired my first ever half-decent sorta ish short story, and I haven’t written one since. So some song for getting me to do one! Kudos, Suede.
7) Mean to Me – Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan was a jazz singer who was mostly famous in the 1940s and ’50s, but is worthy of being remembered until this planet sizzles up and ceases to be. If this is a post about music that stirs up feelings of ‘things past’, listening to her recordings evokes such a strong sense of nostalgia it makes me feel light-headed, remorseful, melancholic and so wondrously happy all at the same time. Listening back to this music a few years after I first discovered it, and it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. Just like The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows could have been writtentomorrow. Ah, yes.
8) Bat’s Mouth – Fur and Gold, Bat for Lashes
This song, on Bat for Lashes’ debut album, has made it on here because it reminds me of long, cold winters as a 13-year-old wearing clashing jumpers with bright yellow tights and dyeing my hair red. The real crazy years. I used to trudge over to my friend’s house with my guitar in hand (I didn’t have a case) to work on ‘covering’ this song for our band Ariel’s Wooden Hut. I’ve given us a name-check to bump up our credibility, to make us seem more successful than we were. Our career got as far as learning how to half ‘do’ this song with a piano, guitar and a stamping foot, before parting down to our ‘musical differences’ (by that I mean we were just lazy). At the time though, for that one afternoon rehearsal, we did really feel on the brink of something brilliant. There is something about two teenage girls belting out ‘She is suuuuuuuure’, while bashing on as many instruments as we could find in the house that felt very, very powerful and witch-like, just like Ms. Khan herself.
I could have picked any one of The Beatles’ songs, so therefore I couldn’t really pick anything. This gorgeous minute and a half of joy, however, brings back a very specific memory of getting ready for a party and wearing a black dress. I don’t think it’s about a girl from the middle of Peterborough chucking a velvet dress on for a garden party, but so strong was the feeling of connection when I heard this song that night, I’ve almost convinced myself that’s what it’s about. But on YouTubing it, I found this cartoon featuring the song, where Paul is forced to marry a half-human, half-bat girl. So maybe this song isn’t what I thought it was at all. [Questions life and meaning of existence]
10) Waterloo Sunset – Something Else, The Kinks
Waterloo Sunset played at the strike of midnight as I turned 18. It really felt like a moment in a film, where everything slows down a little and you feel like you could explode with joy at simply being alive. Perhaps this euphoria was only partly to do with the song, and more so the tequila. But, no, in all honestly, this song is so gloriously sentimental, yet hopeful and philosophical in its simplicity. The Kinks are good, man. Just the way the chorus settles: “As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise.”
The same could be said for sitting in my bedroom listening to records. Music brings me right back to my childhood, learning how to play my first chord on the guitar, of boys-broken-up-with and ones that got away, feeling like I could do nothing at all, and then everything all at once.
These 10 songs add up to a total of 42 minutes, which, coincidentally, is also my lucky number. You can hear them in a much easier way on Spotify, here.