I'll be honest: I've dreaded Songs for January since I started this project last winter.
I began with Songs for February, because late January's when I had the idea, and February lends itself easily to a monthly playlist: pick the single most depressing, bleak, stark, sad, or weird song by 28 different artists. That's February. It's the height of winter: a time to embrace the darkest days of the year, listen to Tom Waits, and generally get moody with the blues. Cool, right?
Wrong. Because, for me, January is that too. I have some slightly--and arguably--different associations with the month, but winter has always been one grey, bleak, hate-able monolith to me. So here's my question:
What's January to you? Do you hate it? Do you love it? Do you somehow dissociate it from the Monthlong Blanket of Ugly that is February? And, in a bigger sense, does winter have stages to you, the way spring and fall do to me? Help me understand this new, mysterious phenomenon of "enjoying wintertime." You're my only hope.
Let me know, and give me your Songs for January in the comments!
In the meantime, here's the final chapter to my yearlong project:
Songs for January!
Bob Dylan, "I Was Young When I Left Home"
I associate January with two artists more than any others: Lucero and Bob Dylan. Lucero, because I rarely listen to That Much Further West outside winter; it's deliberately a cold-weather album.
Dylan leads the charge, though, because he moved to New York in the winter. In his earliest songs, you can hear the violent wind, the cold, steel skyscrapers, the crowded heat of an overpacked Cafe Wha?, acoustic guitars somehow generating warmth. You can feel that conflict of a new kid in a huge, cold city, carving out a warm little world. Whenever I hear "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance," or "Girl From the North Country," or "I Was Young When I Left Home," I picture Dylan's New York of the earliest 60's. And I wish I was there.
(Also: "I Was Young When I Left Home" is, to me, Dylan's best vocal performance. I love him as a singer because of how evocative he is, but Dylan rarely sounds this heartbroken. This came before Dylan started wearing different masks--or maybe before he wanted to--but the result is a rare glimpse of the singer fully exposed. For five minutes, he sounds like he can't sing another line. Then he takes a breath, and keeps going.)
Bruce Springsteen, "Waiting On a Sunny Day"
I'll concede that January's not as totally depressing as February. Enough that I'll invite Bruce in for the cautious optimism of this, my favorite song off The Rising.
Uncle Tupelo, "No Depression"
The second of many acoustic-driven tracks on this list. Anything that owes itself to folk music will sound like January to me. Also, "No Depression" gets the nod because Uncle Tupelo takes on figurative depression rather than a literal one. They almost win.
Wilco and Billy Bragg, "Joe DiMaggio's Done It Again"
Re-vamped Woodie Guthrie. Can't you just smell the Cafe Wha? I warned you.
Joni Mitchell, "Court and Spark"
All of this album sounds like winter to me, so why not pick the title track? This introduces a subplot for January: it's a romantic purgatory. Things usually settle themselves--one way or the other--in November and December. But for those with unresolved storylines, January's often a mess of manic courtship and bad ideas. It's the month where you don't have a clue what you want.
Avett Brothers, "January Wedding"
Gabe Dixon, "All Will Be Well"
Something about the hurried keys, the imagery, the letter-writing, and the exercise of self-persuasion sounds like January to me.
David Gray, "This Year's Love"
A good thing to hear on New Years Day. Right before you watch football for twelve hours and fall asleep in a bowl of queso.
Band of Horses, "Our Swords"
Most of BOH's catalog sounds wintry to me. Maybe it's the haunting, echoplex vocals. Maybe it's the dark, evocative, bass-led arrangement of this song. Maybe it's this guy's beard. Either way, it works.
REM, "At My Most Beautiful"
Gorgeous keys. Generous songwriting. Generally optimistic. Specifically bizarre. REM, ladies and gentlemen. REM.
The Four Tops, "Just Ask the Lonely"
Speaking of artists from the 60's who had a knack for making records in winter that still sounded warm and inviting, The Four Tops! I have a vision of those great Motown groups singing a'capella on the frozen sidewalks, puffs of icy breath jetting out between lyrics. There's something wonderfully reassuring about sad songs that sound happy, and that's a sound we need in January.
Alberta Cross, "Old Man Chicago"
Thanks to the Brother, I heard this in December and loved it immediately. If anything can make the wintertime streetwalking in Chicago bearable, it's this song. Pitch-perfect, and endlessly likable.
Amy Winehouse, "Back To Black"
Because the song opens with her meeting in a bar downstairs. Everyone knows it's too cold in January to walk more than 30 feet for a beverage. Am I reaching? Probably. But as stated, January's a romantic purgatory--Miss Winehouse is honest enough to fill the time with the occasional bad idea.
Green Day, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"
A testament to smart business: this single broke in the winter of 2005. Of course, it's a great song that would've been a hit regardless; but an unwise record exec would've released it in July, when nobody wants to walk on boulevards of broken anything. People in July don't want to paint their eyes black and consider their shattered hopes; they want to listen to Joe Satriani and play beach volleyball like extras in Top Gun.
Cory Branan, "Love Song 7"
No singer/songwriter does more with fewer words. This is an incredible lyric--sweet, accusatory, invested, detached--that ends with a question rather than an answer. The musical landscape matches the portrayed headspace of the girl, and in its weird dreaminess, confusion, and swirling electronics, somehow suits the season.
Elliot Smith, "Everything Reminds Me Of Her"
The acoustic-with-doubled-vocals production has been well-used in the last few years by such wintertime standards as Bon Iver and the Swell Season. But sometimes you gotta go to the source.
My Morning Jacket, "Dondante"
Specific memories attached to this one in January.
Radiohead, "How To Disappear Completely"
Radiohead has made dozens of creepy, dark, depressing, and downright bizarre songs. I love 98% of them. But none are as successful as "How To Disappear Completely," because none are as convincing. Sure, anyone can create a bleak, uninviting world; but can you make me still want to go there? Radiohead can.
The Hold Steady, "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?"
Their cover of Dylan's hilariously-tragic plea for reciprocation straddles the line between cocksure and hopeless. Points here for the arrangement (rollicking keys with a full rock set remind me of certain Highway 61 treatments) and the Dylan association. In January, sometimes that's enough.
The Killers, "I Can't Stay"
Because I couldn't resist this transition...
Lucero, "That Much Further West"
First, an epiphany; then, action. In the past, January has felt so long, slow, and tedious, that I'm itching to travel by mid-month. And nobody accompanies you on the road better than Lucero.
(Side note: The instrumental section of this song was when I knew Lucero was going to make another leap. For its deft composition and gorgeous segue into "I'll Stop the World and Melt With You," it marked a new level of songwriting for Ben and the Boys.)
The Beatles, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"
A winning combination of folk-inspired production and romantically embittered lyrics. John does January right.
Josh Ritter, "Wait for Love"
Because now I'm just going for awesome transitions. And, by mid-January, it might be wisest to wait...
Bright Eyes, "Lua"
...Or settle for something else. This song lives in winter, and is equal parts fatigued, confused, and genuinely sad.
Tom Petty, "Alright For Now"
Props to longtime reader Ross K for this recent mention. "Alright For Now" is Tom Petty's version of a sad January tune, which is to say it's:
1) Acoustically driven.
2) Bittersweet but never pessimistic.
6) Everything you'd want it to be, and then some.
Wilco, "Red Eyed and Blue"
Being There is the rare album that lives in two opposite seasons: half of it is quintessential winter music ("The Lonely One," "Misunderstood," "Somebody Else's Song," etc.), and half of it is undeniably sunny ("Monday," "Outta Mind, Outta Site," etc.). I can't think of any other record I own that polarizes me as a listener more, which (I think) was the intention. Either way, "Red Eyed and Blue" is beautiful, inauspicious, and lost. In the words of Ron Burgundy, "beep, bop, boop."
Emmylou Harris, "Making Believe"
Two of the most reassuring things in the world:
1) Emmylou Harris
Ryan Adams, "Dear Chicago"
Working the Chicago motif with Alberta Cross, "Dear Chicago" closes out our lovestory on an ambivalent note. Of all Ryan Adams's sonically cold songs (including all of Love Is Hell), this is my favorite, and the most generous.
Tom Waits, "Closing Time"
You thought I'd make it through a whole January playlist without Tom Waits, didn't you? What is this, amateur hour?
Bob Dylan, "Queen Jane Approximately"
The other sound of the season: that "thin, wild, mercury" Dylan described for his middle-electric work. Key-drenched, rollicking, golden, and incapable of holding back. One of my all-time favorite Dylan lyrics.
Pearl Jam, "All Or None"
Because, by month's end, we've reached a breaking point...and still got a miles to go.
iTunes Random Pick!
"Not In Nottingham," from Disney's Robin Hood soundtrack
I kid you not. Yes, I own this song. Yes, I love this song (the whole Robin Hood soundtrack is brilliant). Yes, iTunes actually picked it. No, I don't know what to do with any of this, but concede temporary defeat and hatch a new plan.
What are your Songs for January? Hit up the comments and let me know!