Frank Sinatra- “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”.
You know what, actually, fuck “no particular order”. This is the one song that gets me every single time. Side 1, track 1 of the first Frank Sinatra concept record, one of those perfect afterhours songs that, with the help of your poison of choice, will have you weeping within the first five plays.
The Mountain Goats- “Song for Lonely Giants”.
Anybody who’s ever met me knows why this song’s title alone was enough to grab me and pull me into its web of minor-key chords and simplistic lyrics. A sort of folk song, a sort of Brechtian ballad, sparse instrumentation and subdued vocals.
Chet Baker- “Embraceable You”.
This is I think my favorite jazz standard. The melody slips and slides in such a particular way I’ve come to love most every recording I’ve heard of it, but I think my favorite is Chet Baker’s sparse, guitar-and-bass, bossa-inspired reading. There’s a live performance of it by Sarah Vaughn floating around that is a lot more trad-jazz and equally mesmerizing.
Spiritualized- “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space”.
A gorgeous song built on the ever-familiar note progression from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, that builds and bursts into a multi-layered singalong celebration of love and sadness. I’ve ended many a drunken night by nodding out to this song on repeat.
The Velvet Underground- “Pale Blue Eyes”.
Of course, even at his most touchingly romantic, Lou Reed doesn’t quite play it straight. This is one of those songs that you hear when you are a 16-year-old angst-ridden punk-rocker, and all of a sudden you… change. There’s something about that wonderfully off-kilter guitar hook, and the lyric “if I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see, I’d put you in the mirror I put in front of me”. Jesus.
Leonard Cohen- “Anthem”.
A song of joyous celebration and sobering fragility. This is the song I try to start every year off with (meaning I stumble back home drunk at 5AM January 1st and play it post-celebration, not the first song that iss forced into my eardrums because of the precarious situation I find myself in). What better way to start the year than with this quote: “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong- “Stars Fell on Alabama”.
My favorite version of a beautiful yet often overlooked jazz standard. There’s something about the contrast between Armstrong’s growl and Ella’s smooth, plaintive vocal that goes so well in this particular song. Sugarshot wide-eyed romantic jazz sweetness.
The Cure- “To Wish Impossible Things”.
This gorgeous piece of gloomy emo-ness is buried in track 11 of an album doomed from the start because it’s the followup to “Disintegration” (only the BEST ALBUM EVER RECORDED BY ANYONE EVER), but this is a whole different animal: there are no icy-cool synth lines. All we have is some guitars, a lot of delay effect, a few faint splashes of percussion in the background and what sounds like the saddest viola in the history of music. And that combination has never been more effective.
Dani Umpi & Adrian Soiza- “Como Eu Quero”
This little Brazilian song is all heart– a slice of tender sincerity. The rendition by Uruguayan musicians Dani Umpi and Adrian Soiza (a duo I’ve written about before) is all fragility and drama. It’s a quiet (and disquieting) moment in a set punctuated by blasts of histrionics.
The Low Anthem- “Charlie Darwin”
The most beautiful song about a shipwreck you’ll ever hear. This makes “My Heart Will Go On” sound like the theme to Gilligan’s Isle. I listened to this once while sitting on a dock in the middle of the night in a little house in El Tigre (pictured at the top of this entry) and it was one of the most perfect music-listening experiences of my entire life. I also felt like a giant pussy afterwards. Whatever. This song is stunning. Go listen to it right now.
Wilco- “She’s a Jar”.
It’d be a bit long and overly complicated to explain just exactly why this song has such a special place in my heart, or how I came to find it. Long story short, this sleepy alt-country ballad (possibly) about (maybe) a (allegedly) abusive relationship gets me singing along with my eyes closed like a complete idiot, with a very earnest look in my face. If this song ever comes on while I’m hanging out with you, you should look away. It’s pathetic.
Tom Waits- “Barcarolle”.
A feverish love song of devotion and acceptance of unrequited love. One of the most gorgeous melodies Tom ever came up with, and this is someone who writes Top 10 hits for Rod Stewart in his sleep. “And the branches bend down to the ground here to swing on, I’m lost in the blonde summer grass. And the train whistle blows and the carnival goes til there’s only the tickets and crowes here”. Delicate and wistful.
Chopin’s Nocturnes Op. 27 No.1
Actually, any of Chopin’s Nocturnes will do the trick– these beautiful little pieces are immeasurably sad, but this one in particular cascades with an elegant intensity that zigzags across the harmonic spectrum in a way only the Romantics knew how. Performances by Rubinstein and Pollini are my favorites.
Elvis Costello- “Suffering Face”.
I felt horrible when I realized I’d left this gorgeous gem of an outtake off of my Elvis Costello starter mix. To correct this, I am calling your attention to one of the most heartbreaking songs this incredible songwriter ever wrote. Nothing more than a demo version of a tune that was never properly recorded for an album, this absolutely heartbreaking drunken plea of a song is up on youtube for your listening pleasure. Unless you’re in Germany. Youtube told me it’s blocked in Germany, for some reason.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2- Adagio Sostenuto.
Ignore the fact that you can sort of hear the melody to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” here (two Celine Dion references in one blog post? What the hell is wrong with me?), this is one of the most stunning pieces of music ever. My roommate knows I’m not having a good day when she hears Rachmaninoff coming out of my room, and she knows I’m really feeling fucked if it’s this part of the second piano concerto. This is probably as close to perfect as any music can get.