Sometimes I think I’d like to build a sensory deprivation chamber that lets me have only my hearing, and only hear music.

Music has always been an important part of my life. I like haunting music. I like raw, aggressive music. I like happy songs and everything between.

From Bach and Beethoven to Metallica, from Basie to the Birth of the Cool, from Lee Moses to Jimmy Hendrix, from the Jimmy Page to Slash, from Elvis to Johnny Rotten, I’ve been captured more times by a song than by any other influence in my life.

I have a playlist of songs for this depravation chamber. It’s by no means comprehensive, but what follows are a few selections that have stuck with me through decades, some recorded recently, some from before I existed. Songs that make me feel things I love, whether sorrow and loss or pure joy, and things feelings I don’t always have words for.

I think you can tell a lot about a person by the songs that matter most to them, and rarely will two people’s lists be the same. Consider this our first date, and I’m telling you all about me, except I’m not attempting to not scare you off.

Gimmie Shelter – Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed - 1969)

War is a shot away, love just a kiss away. And yes, when Let It Bleed was released, the track was spelled “Gimmie Shelter.” I’m a purist. Or something.

Like many songs in my life—especially songs before my time—I didn’t truly appreciate it until I had a translator. In this case, it was one of the dozens of cover versions that came into my life, this one by Patti Smith. Her cover made me hear it—really hear it—and adding the context of the history of the Vietnam era helped me understand why it’s been such a mainstay in popular movies and media, and proclaimed one of the greatest songs the Stones ever recorded.

Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers (Just As I Am - 1971)

Wonder this time where she’s gone
Wonder if she’s gone to stay
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
And this house just ain’t no home
Anytime she goes away

I don’t think I need to say much about this song. It’s hauntingly beautiful, in natural minor with a string arrangement by Booker T. Wither’s story (9 years in the Navy, then factory jobs, shopping demos around, recording hits while refusing to quit his job) further increased my appreciation of the song. It was a pleasure to see him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.

Perfect Day – Lou Reed (Transformer - 1972)

The lyrics to this song can be interpreted in a few different ways. As someone who’s gone through my own addictions, my interpretation is an appreciation of a still moment in a chaotic life. Whether during a life on the run or in the aftermath, those moments where you float above the fray are special.

Chelsea Hotel #2 – Leonard Cohen (New Skin for the Old Ceremony - 1974)

Leonard Cohen has been the soundtrack of my life. His lyrics are as good on the page as they are in a song, and his voice has comforted me at the same time it’s raised my passions. I had the opportunity to tell him that a few years ago, and it’s one of the moments that I’ll remember in detail for the rest of my life. And the next thing I knew, I was sitting and talking to Sharon Robinson. It would be hard to top the thrill of that night1.

Cohen actually didn’t play Chelsea Hotel in the 4-hour set that night, but it’s one of my all time favorites. It’s also worth hearing Rufus Wainwright’s cover from the “I’m Your Man” soundtrack.

Ain’t It Fun – Dead Boys (We Have Come for Your Children - 1978)

Ain’t it fun when you just… can’t seem to find your tongue
Cuz you stuck it to deep into something that really stung

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard this song was on a bootleg from a 1979 show at (The Other) Masque. I was at the peak of my addiction at the time, and its sarcastic take on the life I was living locked it in my brain.

It was later covered by Guns N’ Roses with Michael Monroe (Hanoi Rocks) on vocals for The Spaghetti Incident?, but my heart belongs to the recorded version on We Have Come for Your Children.

People Who Died – The Jim Carrol Band (Catholic Boy - 1980)

Though Catholic Boy didn’t have many tracks that were memorable for me, this song is still on almost all of my driving and exercise playlists. I’m not sure how to describe its upbeat but very matter-of-fact approach to the idea of friends dying, but in my 20s I came to strongly relate to both the lyrics and the sentiment.

One – Metallica (…And Justice For All - 1988)

A song about one casualty of a war. The video for the song is intercut with scenes from Johnny Got His Gun, and it’s always reminded me of why I’ve hated violence since childhood.

As I learned more music theory, I began to appreciate the finer points of Metallica’s early work in the thrash scene, and especially this song, with chord modulation, time signature changes, and movements that could be easily correlated with symphonic classical pieces. It’s one of the few metal songs that goes instrumental at the end and I still let it play all the way through. Every time.

Promises – Fugazi (13 Songs - 1989)

Stupid fucking words
They tangle us in our desires
Free me from this give and take
Free me from this great debate

From Middle School on, I grew up with Fugazi, and it was a two-way street. Fugazi is one of the few bands who has unapologetically evolved their sound with every album, and the maturity of the lyrics with it. It was as if we were literally growing up together.

I had this song on a 12” record in high school, and many a night I could be found laying in bed, the scratchy sound coming from my garage sale record player (softly, so as not to wake my family), just staring at the ceiling.

Touch your hand to the wall at night

Old Friend – Rancid (…And Out Come the Wolves - 1995)

Rancid is another band that grew up as I did. Their eponymous release on Epitaph was brash and careless, Let’s Go had more direction but even more frenetic energy, and when …Out Come the Wolves came out in 95, almost every song on it became an anthem for me.

Listed MIA played at my graduation party, Lock, Step & Gone when I embarked for college, Junkie Man as I settled into my more serious addictions, and Old Friend was on one of the few mix tapes I took on tours when I played with Onward To Mayhem2.

Unholy, Dirty and Beautiful – David Usher (Little Songs - 1998)

Hold tight, everything’s fine

Every song on every album that David Usher has released is anytime listening for me, but Little Songs was the album that sold me as a lifelong fan. This song spoke to me in ways I can’t describe.

Hold on – Tom Waits (Mule Variations - 1999)

I didn’t discover Tom Waits until I was working on the set crew in the theater at the University of Minnesota, where the two women who ran the department listened to little else. It became a life-long love of mine.

Hold On, a long time favorite for me, was featured as an a cappella rendition in The Walking Dead (S3E11), and it was one of the most moving covers of Tom Waits I’ve ever heard. I Don’t Wanna Grow up also showed up in S4E2, proving that the producers know exactly what they’re doing.

I See A Darkness – Bonnie “Prince” Billy (I See A Darkness - 1999)

I discovered this song (and Will Oldham) via the Johnny Cash cover on the amazing American III, which Oldham (Billy) sang backup vocals on. It hit me hard and I’ve never stopped listening to it. It’s about depression, a light in the soul, living despite an occasional overwhelming desire not to.

Bonnie Prince Billy recorded a redux with a more upbeat backing track that’s absolutely worth hearing once you’ve absorbed the original.

Creation Or A Stain – Joseph Arthur (Come To Where I’m From - 2000)

These are my wild years I’m trying to enjoy the pain The euphoria of dying, toxins wrestle in my brain

In writing this post I’m realizing that a disproportionate number of songs in my favorites are about addiction. That seems like an apropos topic for many musicians, though. This one is about nothing but. If you took Heroin by the Velvet Underground, gave it a year of recovery and a lot of coffee, I think this is what would happen.

Joseph Arthur is amazing, and you’ve probably heard some of his work in soundtracks (The OC, Scrubs, House, True Blood, Hung, Numb3rs, Shrek 2, Bourne Identity, Saved!). You really should check out his collection of over a dozen studio releases and as many EPs.

Ain’t No Easy Way – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Howl - 2005)

My first exposure to Black Rebel Motorcycle club was in college. I almost forgot about them until my friend Jeremey put In Like The Rose from Take Them On, On Your Own on a mix he sent me. I might not have fully appreciated them prior to that, but it clicked for me. I’ve listened to everything they’ve done, and I think it’s some of the best rock and roll made in the last decade. It fits my tastes these days perfectly, anyway.

Howl was a departure album for them, moving away from Psych Rock and into a more acoustic realm with some amazing “Swamp Stomp” beats and jangly guitar. The video for this song is great, too.

In My Coffee – Johnson Family Band (Old Ruby - 2008)

If I could turn water in to wine I’d go swimming all the time I’d be dancing with the devil in the rain

There’s a local festival here called Boats and Bluegrass. I don’t listen to a lot of bluegrass the rest of the year, but for one weekend a year I’m a huge fan. I think it’s because it’s so much better live. Sometimes you get a combination of sweat and moonshine misting off the stage—barely holding together at punk rock speeds—that rivals any other kind of show I’ve seen.

That’s what this song was for me. The recording is kind of a shell of the song, but the lyrics are wonderful. Here’s a video of them performing at Ed’s (no name) Bar here in Winona (with a few of my friends sitting in).

So that’s the playlist right now. Actually, that’s how it was when I started writing this a few months ago. Since then I’ve fallen in love with songs like The Funeral and the entire album Trouble Will Find Me by The National (especially I Need My Girl and I Should Live In Salt). Like I said, this list could never be comprehensive, I just thought I’d share a few of my favorites.

P.S. I made a Spotify playlist of everything mentioned here (at least what exists on Spotify):

Also, an Apple Music playlist.

  1. My other goal would probably be to play Cards Against Humanity with David Wain and Paul F. Tompkins some evening. 

  2. My Walkman™ also saw a lot of action from Sinead O’Connor and the Sisters of Mercy while riding in the back of the “tour bus,” as odd as that might seem at first blush.