2020 has been… rough. We all know this. There’s no tip-toeing around it. Many have lost jobs and loved ones, and with Christmas upon us, many are staying at home in lieu of the usual holiday travels. My husband and I spent Thanksgiving together, just the two of us, cooking a massive dinner of Cornish game hens, corn pudding and sweet potato pie, and watching Demolition Man with old-fashioneds in hand, courtesy of a front stoop cocktail drop off by a friend.
While I find Wesley Snipes films unbelievably satisfying, I could never shake the feeling that something was off. We had planned to make the three-plus hour drive to visit my family, then backed out after pleas from our PA governor to stay home. Christmas is shaping up to be quite similar, but something happened in the last week. Something that made me feel closer to my family without visiting, without yet another Zoom call: Philadelphia’s XPN radio station did a countdown of the 2020 greatest songs of all time.
In September my sister sent an ecstatic message in our group chat, keying our parents and my husband and I into the news that XPN would be doing a countdown and we were all to come up with, and submit, our top 10 song list to the station. The best ever songs weren’t being determined by radio hosts or music critics, they were ordered, ever so democratically, by the people. Submit your ballot and wait patiently for the countdown to begin.
We got to work and within hours lists were created, shared, fawned over. I praised my sister’s inclusion of “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits. She applauded my Dylan submission, ‘Girl From the North Country”. My husband was mocked a wee bit for choosing “Uptown Funk” and my step father was chastised for sharing his top 11. “Everybody gets 10,” we protested, saying this was not of our doing, but was the decree of Radio Jesus, the pet name my brother-in-law bestowed upon the radio station.
Even my elementary-school-aged nephew was inspired to come up with a list. His featured “YMCA” (as performed by The Minions) and “Sweet Home Alabama”. We had discussions on whether or not recency bias delegitimizes the ranking. We ended up deciding it does not reduce the quality of the list, so much as put a time stamp on it, placing the songs into a capsule with “2020” scrawled across it.
Fun was had by all that evening. A Spotify playlist of our selections was compiled and shared, which I listened to for days. Then within weeks the submissions slipped from my mind — Replaced by election anxieties, COVID fears and holiday woes. Then on December 10th it all began with “Time is Tight” by Booker T. & The MG’s, which I missed. My sister messaged everyone that the countdown had begun and “Coming To America” just clocked in at 1692 (Neil Diamond being a favorite of my mothers). By then Psychedelic Furs’ “Pretty in Pink” (1986) had played, along with “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground (1860), “This is America” by Childish Gambino (1890), Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” (1754), Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (1796) and The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” (1794).
The field was open to anyone and everyone no matter the genre they played.
From that text onward I kept a tab open throughout the day of the countdown. I was thrilled when LCD Sound System’s “All My Friends” placed at 207 and appalled that Nena’s “99 Luftballons” didn’t place at all.
For productivities’ sake, I kept track through this tab, but never actually tuned in live. Then the morning of December 18th, after nine inches of snow fell on Pittsburgh the night prior, I opened my laptop, took a sip of coffee, and found we were in the double digits, with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” at 94.
I panicked. Within seconds I had XPN coming at me online and all was well. Then during Fleetwood Mac’s devastating “Landslide” things cut out and I found myself downloading the XPN app at warp speed and playing it for the remainder of the day. Working from home, I’d turn the volume off for meetings and plug my ears when the radio host would spoil what song they were just about to play (is there anything more exhilarating than hearing a couple chords and immediately knowing the song you’re listening to?)
Thank Radio Jesus I didn’t listen to the list live for the full week. I would have gotten nothing done. By the time we were in the top 20 I was running between floors in my house predicting to my husband what the next songs would be. I was boasting that I knew just where “The Weight” would come in and predicted that “Gimme Shelter” would be the top Stones song well in advance. When “Born To Run” placed fifth I told my husband that was it, “Thunder Road” would indeed be number one, and when it played out I bounced throughout our kitchen feeling giddy and fiendish and young and it’s rare that a syzygy like that can come together in a year like this.
Throughout it all I found out things like my brother-in-law hates Hozier and that we as a group are a bit mystified by the aura of Adele. But more than anything, I found myself understanding just how much my upbringing influenced my taste in music. I did not pick up on Neil Diamond, but I did fall terribly in love with Springsteen through my mother’s vinyl collection. I remember pulling Born in the USA off the shelf, that red hat shoved into the back pocket of those beat up blue jeans, red and white stripes in the background, and not knowing just what I was looking at, but being terribly intrigued. I was not alone in my adoration. When it came time for my sister and I to name our newly adopted black lab, we agreed upon “Bruce” within minutes.
I’ve picked up on my step fathers love of The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Pink Floyd. In my teenage days I never had enough patience for long instrumental interludes and I remember trying to change the station when the “Comfortably Numb” guitar solo came on. At this, my step father shooed my hand away and replied “this is the best part”. He’s a guitar player himself, and while I didn’t understand his reaction at the time, I can now say that I do. Who the hell wants to skip that song when it starts to play?
From my father I inherited my love of Bob Dylan. His CD case was stacked with Dylan’s albums, and during a high school flea market I picked up Bringing It All Back Home on vinyl, which I wore out in the coming years to the point where I could sing in time with the skips. When given a junior-year task to develop a presentation on someone we found inspirational, Dylan was my choice (my teacher gave me an A- saying that while I did well, my recitation of “Mr. Tambourine Man” lyrics felt “rehearsed”).
The day after “Thunder” Road played I messaged my sister to say I knew she was continuing work on her list and that I fully expected her to share it by day’s end. I knew this because I know that just as we’ve both developed high levels of anxiety and restless hands (the latter a trait of our mother), we’ve also developed the same obsessive personalities that prevent us from dabbling in a new interest so much as planning days around it.
She countered my request saying she’d send over a Spotify playlist that had accrued over 70 songs on it — She’d begun to develop her top 20 months ago but couldn’t seem to narrow it down. I said I’d try to develop a top 50 and send that over, since I’m sure that would end up with 75ish songs on it.
Hours later I received a playlist link and immediately recognized myself in it. Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe” was listed, which was already on my rough draft. Just like that, I was transported back to our home on Hemlock Lane with us curled up on the couch watching High Fidelity where John Cusak is carried off to the credits with that song. Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” were also listed — Songs I know by heart. I’m pretty sure my sister and I are the only two left out there who love Meat Loaf unironically.
There were oodles of Simon & Garfunkel and Springsteen and while there was more Billy Joel than I’d include, there was no denying that this list came from someone who I grew up beside, whose tastes have bled into my own along with character traits and character flaws.
Beyond understanding where my musical preferences related to my family, developing my own playlist brought me back to the times in my life where those preferences were born. My list includes classics from Fleetwood Mac and Tina Turner and Paul Simon, but also Nirvana, Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop.
I remembered driving around with my high school boyfriend in his pewter blue Volvo, listening to the With the Lights Out box set that was gifted to him the Christmas prior. It played when we drove to friends’ houses or to the local diner where we’d do nothing but drink coffee and feel that boredom that only teenagers can feel.
I remembered the first time I heard “Venus In Furs” — It was just after college, when I went to a Wes Anderson themed burlesque in Philadelphia’s Eraserhood with my now-husband. A Margot Tenenbaum look-alike came onto a blue-lit stage and slowly dropped her fur coat to her ankles. My mind was less on her pale skin than it was on the song she danced to and I wrote the lyrics down on my phone’s notepad so as not to lose them.
Around that time in Philadelphia, a Friday dinner was attempted at a chic restaurant in Northern Liberties where our group found that the place was filled up for the night. Behind the hostess shaking her head and the bar conversations I heard a song, repetitive and haunting and I couldn’t place any of the words but the guitar chords hung with me, never knowing what it was. Years later when I was living in Seattle I heard the song again — “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop. I think of it now as the song that came back to me.
As I learned from my family, people define “the greatest” differently. My husband created his list based off of what resonated with him most at the time. It was what he paid the most mind to, what was the most relevant. The greatest, for me, is based on memory. That’s not to say all memories morph into greatness — Did I add Dashboard Confessional’s “Hands Down” to my list, a favorite while playing tennis with my friend Onalee? No. But did I add Nirvana’s “Sliver” from those high school drives? Hands down.
The buddhist Hui Neng said that “Music is a means of rapid transformation”. I believe this is true, but I’d also tweak that to “rapid transportation”. A song has the same effect as a nostalgic scent — Just as a whiff of honeysuckle can transport me back to camp while the first few chords of “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” can bring me back to my old bedroom with its walls collaged with magazine clippings and its record player spinning.
At a time where few can see family and fewer can travel, I highly recommend starting up a chat with those you love to build out the ultimate playlist. I’ve listened to my family’s while cleaning and cooking dinner and it can turn the most mundane activity into something special. Listen to it when you can’t be near family and friends. Listen to it in place of stepping on a plane or train. We can’t always go somewhere new and exotic, but we can go back to recapture a moment or to say a quick hello to who we once were. And while there, we can attempt to understand a bit more about how we got to be just where we are.
My Top 10:
- Girl From the North Country by Bob Dylan
- Graceland by Paul Simon
- Wait So Long by Trampled By Turtles
- Proud Mary by Tina Turner
- Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen
- The Wind by Cat Stevens
- This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) by The Talking Heads
- Postcards From Italy by Beirut
- 99 Luftballons by Nena
- Sweet Thing by Van Morrison