Tell the story of my life so far in just 7 songs? It was a hell of a challenge, but I think the songs below, and my thoughts around them, should give you a broad outline of what I've done so far. in my 29 and a bit years. The blurbs for each song are longer than they were for my break-up playlist or the 'I think I like you' tape, but I'm trying to tell you about my life so I think it's justified!
Where I can, I've tried to make the song choices ones that not only tell the story, but are also what I was listening to at the time. But sometimes a song from a few years earlier/later just sums up a time in your past so well. Anway, I hope you'll enjoy my choices (all infinitely great songs) and learn something about me.
Follow along the 7 tracks in the Spotify playlist here.
N.B.: Hover the cursor on the pics to read the captions detailing who and when.
01. The Lightning Seeds - “Three Lions” (feat. Baddiel and Skinner) (from The Beautiful Game - The Official Album of Euro 96, 1996)
The first thing I loved, probably like most English children, is football. Watching it on TV (even if I only wanted to see goals), playing it in the back garden, talking about it in school. Although I do have some vague memories of World Cup 1994, it was Euro 96 that really sticks in the memory, like it does for my whole generation. Of course, this song has so much to do with it. The fact that the tournament was being hosted in England, the first major tournament there for 30 years, and football was “coming home” was everything that summer. And we had a scorcher to go with it. And you know what? England actually did pretty well for once. I still think about how we beat Holland 4-1 in the groups, Gazza’s wonder goal against Scotland, the penalty shootout against Spain, and, of course, losing on penalties to Germany in the semis. Unforgettable stuff.
And as for the song itself? Well it’s still unstoppably repayable to this fucking day. No denying it, The Lightning Seeds and the two comics knocked it out of the park on this one, with the melodramatic, tripping verses ascending into the indisputably hopeful and triumphant chorus. It’s impossible not to sing along. And this was a pretty good indication of the kind of music I liked at that age, with the whole Britpop thing being unavoidable. It all just conjures up the most glorious of sunny English summer days, the ones that only seem to exist in memory.
02. Radiohead - “Let Down” (from OK Computer, 1997)
As anyone who knows me knows, music is a basically the main thing that sustains me, and that utter devotion to it started in my teens. The range of bands I could have chosen for to sum up my teenage years is fairly diverse, but there’s no looking past the mammoth influence on my life that is Radiohead. The first Radiohead songs that I heard were in skateboarding videos, which my friends and I used to watch religiously in our skating days, and after hearing so many weirdly different tracks on different tapes (“No Surprises” on First Broadcast, “Idioteque” on Headcleaner, “The National Anthem” on The End - so many more), my friends and I gradually started buying all their various albums and burning them for each other, until we each possessed the 5 albums that they had released at the time. Later, when they released Hail To The Thief in 2003, that would be huge too.
It wasn’t long before I basically thought that Radiohead had released the 5 best albums of all time. And, undoubtedly OK Computer was head and shoulders above any other musical album ever released. To this day, at a push, I would probably still say that it is the best album of all time. And at its heart sits “Let Down,” a song that I would listen to on repeat for hours, and every time I would scrunch up my insides at the acute emotion that I chimed with in this song. Puberty means slowly figuring out your place in the world, and starting to understand more of the adult world. Thom Yorke keeps it simple here: “transport, motorways and tramlines/ starting and then stopping/ taking off and landing/ the emptiest of feelings” - as a despondent teen it was pretty easy to connect to that. Even more so the cathartic ending of the song: “one day I am gonna grow wings/ a chemical reaction/ hysterical and useless,” which leads back into the all-conquering, heart-bludgeoning, I-am-the-ugliest-creature-in-the-world-but-I-am-still-beautiful chorus: “let down and hanging around/ crushed like a bug in the ground.” You have no idea how many hundreds of times I wailed along to these words in my room, squeezing out every last drop of the angst I felt.
Then the break down at the end, where Thom’s voice splits into 2, a different vocal in each channel, which still to this day has the power to send shivers down my spine. An unassailable, classic song.
03. Arctic Monkeys - “From The Ritz To The Rubble” (from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, 2006)
When I was in 6th form, just as I was starting to get into drinking, using a fake ID to get into the shit pubs and clubs of Canterbury, Arctic Monkeys were starting to make waves in the indie scene. With the confluence of timing, as well as Alex Turner’s poetically sharp lyrics observing the activities and habits of young people getting up to no good, it was hard not to think that they were soundtracking our social lives.
"From The Ritz To The Rubble” tells the story of trying to get into a club underage, being rejected, making strategies to try again. Turner’s lyricism paints this scene perfectly, feeling “you’ve got something to prove”, going past “all the smirking faces” in the line, running into some other pissed up lads who “want it all to kick off.” Later on we get “too deep, but how deep is too deep?” Then we’re confronted with the miserable hangover: “last night, what we talked about it made so much sense/ but now the haze has ascended, it don’t make no sense anymore.” (Facsimile Sheffield accent required when singing along.) I went through this cycle so many weekends in my last school year and in my gap year.
The whole of Arctic Monkeys’ debut album, which came out when I was in upper sixth, is ridiculously good, and is a perfect encapsulation of all the kind of guitar music I liked at the time. It sits somewhere in between the shit laddy stuff like The Kooks or The Fratellis and the more cerebral rock of Radiohead or Bloc Party. The lyrics are things to marvel at, while their breakneck musicality makes them an unending thrill. It’s one of those albums that I will sing along every word to until the day I die.
04. Wolf Parade - “Modern World” (from Apologies To The Queen Mary, 2005)
After school I moved to London for university. It was something I’d always dreamed I would do, and I absolutely loved (and still love) living in the best city in the world. But, even in the best city in the world, there are so many things always dragging you down. I failed my first year at UCL, and I felt truly depressed for the first time in my life, going on medication which I’ve taken more or less ever since.
My arrival at university also coincided with the rise of “blog indie,” and with my new super fast university internet connection and seemingly all the time in the world, I dug in hard on all the new music I could get my hands on. One of the most important albums in that period of discovery was Wolf Parade’s debut, Apologies To The Queen Mary, which is a good example of the kind of ramshackle indie rock that I mostly loved at the time. But, while many of those bands hold much less interest to me now, Wolf Parade’s first 2 albums will always stand the test of time.
“Modern World” succinctly sums up a lot of what I felt during these tumultuous years of university in the capital. I was studying science communication and policy, which brought me into contact with lots of contemporary developments, both good and bad. While the overarching message is “modern world I’m not pleased to meet you/ you just bring me down,” there is also an underlying awe that one can’t help but feel as someone who has watched the city grow over the last decade: “modern world don’t ask why/ ‘cause modern world will build things high/ now they house canyons filled with life.” The more I’ve grown up the more I’ve learned to marvel at the way the city works, but in those early years I felt like I was lost in the crowd.
05. Car Seat Headrest - “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem)” (from Teens Of Denial, 2016)
Straight after finishing university I moved out to Los Angeles to work on my website, beatsperminute.com, which had grown from a hobby into a genuine potential business in the years we’d been running it. Being self-employed in Los Angeles meant I had a lot of free time - much like a lot of the people who live in that crazy city.
Happily, I fell in with a crowd that introduced me to the kinds of substances that many of you out there won’t approve of, but for me opened me up to the world in ways that make me feel like I don’t even know who I was before these years. We did countless mushroom trips and nights out on ecstasy while I lived in LA. California is one of the homes of psychedelic experiences, and the place opens up to you when you’re tripping. In this song Will Toledo describes his trip as like a walk through Sodom where he meets Jesus - and walking through Silverlake and Echo Park on a balmy summer night, tripping on shrooms and taking in all the natural beauty and human-made weirdness, can feel like that.
And then when I moved back to London in the summer of 2012 I found that one of my close friends had also undergone the same psychological shift as I had, and we shared many more psychonautic experiences together in parks, clubs, bedrooms and anywhere we felt like it. I had two heavy, heavy visits to Amsterdam in these years.
It’s hard to put into words how or why these experiences changed me so much, unless you’ve been through it. It certainly makes you look at the world in a whole new way, not just because of the effects of the drugs, but because when you realise that these things that you’ve been told your whole life are bad are actually some of the greatest tools available to mankind - it makes you question who or what you can trust in the world. And, of course, there is their inextricable link to music, which it enhances and deepens in so many dimensions. Their usage has undoubtedly broadened the way I listen to, understand and appreciate music.
Over the years I have had several experiences where, as Will Toledo puts it in this song, “I did not transcend/ I felt like a walking piece of shit/ in a stupid looking jacket,” but I still loved it. I have done hallucinogenic trips and ecstasy-fueled club nights on my own many times, and loved them, but overall I guess I would agree with Toledo’s final summation: “drugs are better with friends (are better with) drugs are better with friends (are better with)…” (repeat ad. infinitum).
06. Real Estate - “Had To Hear” (from Atlas, 2013)
After a year in LA and then a year back in London where I couldn’t figure out what the hell to do with my life, I moved to Daegu, South Korea to teach English. Around that same time Real Estate’s third album Atlas was released, and just like Days had been so embedded in my memories of moving to LA a couple of years before, this one will forever be inextricably linked with those early months in Korea.
Real Estate will always be the quintessential sunshine stroll band, and arriving in Daegu at the height of summer, I certainly made the most of the pairing. Opening track, “Had To Hear” sums up my feelings at that time, being “out again on my own” - on another continent to my family once more. I lived on the very outskirts of Daegu, a city of 2.5 million, which was quite developed in the centre, but became fairly rural and run down the further out you went. Coming out of my building to go to school each day, I would look directly across a large green farm (from which I’d hear frogs all night long) to some large hills in the distance, which looked so different to what I was used to in London. I’m always reminded of it when I hear the lines “I don’t need the horizon to tell me where the sky ends/ It’s a subtle landscape where I come from” in this song.
And then, of course, there is the kicker of this track: the chorus. “I had to hear you, just to feel near you/ I know it’s not true, but it’s been so long.” Being thousands of miles away from your friends and family is not easy, and this was so much more difficult than LA because I wasn’t in an English speaking country. Sometimes talking on the phone to someone back home, remembering that people were thinking of me, was the only way I kept going through a year that was actually pretty difficult at times.
07. Deerhunter - “Nothing Ever Happened” (from Microcastle, 2008)
Earlier in this piece I said that, at a push, I would put OK Computer as the best album of all time. But, if I were to pick my favourite album of all time, then it would have to be Deerhunter’s opus, Microcastle. Ever since this album was released in 2008 I have never been able to leave it alone for too long, often finding that my mood and desire shifts in the direction of delving into this deep and dark hallucinogenic album. (“Saved By Old Times,” from which my website takes its name, is also on Microcastle.)
At its centre is the monolithic “Nothing Ever Happened,” possibly my favourite song of all time - definitely of the 21st century. When we ended Beats Per Minute in 2013 we voted this as the greatest song released between 2008-2013 (the years the site was running) and I expressed my full love for it there.
I’ve always felt that the simplistic summation “nothing ever happened to me/ life just passing, flash right through me,” around which this song centres, is an accurate summation of where I always am in life. Even though it might seem like I have done some fairly significant things in my life, I don’t think I’ve achieved anything worth shouting about. Then again, there are so many exciting things in my life that I do want to shout about. It’s the same contradiction in this song: lyrics claiming that nothing’s happening, while the band is on jet propulsion fuel burning a line straight for the next galaxy over. The song never fails to make my hear rate pick up; the gallivanting bass, the kraut-like guitar interplay, the subtle synthesizer elevation, the burning-up-on-atmosphere-re-entry that is the scorching final minutes of this song… I can’t even express it. Needless to say, the 10 times I’ve seen Deerhunter play this song live, and seen them extend it to 10+ minutes on stage, have been some of the most exhilarating moments of my life.
Since returning from Korea, and once again not having a fucking clue what to do with my life, I have decided to dedicate myself more to writing, and especially writing creatively. The main thing that I've undertaken in the last couple of years is achieving my Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster. In that year I learned so much about writing, and expressing myself, but the most important thing I got from it was a bunch of amazing new writer pals.
The kind of indestructible energy that this whole album gives me when I listen to it is the same kind of excitement that I am trying to channel into my writing, and specifically into my novel, which is aptly titled Nothing Ever Happened To Me. That has been my main project for the last year or so, and will continue to be my passion for the foreseeable future.
All of that is why this playlist had to end with this song.