023: Song of the Summer, 2020
Tone Glow's writers highlight their song of the summer
|Jul 20|| 9|
In reading Victoria Chang’s Obit, a book in which poems are presented as obituaries, I found myself reflecting on the way in which its conceptual gambit shapes its reflections on loss. We all crave structure in some sense—a semblance of control, a comfort in familiarity; it’s in the obituary that Chang finds a way to grieve, a way to grow.
Obit’s framework is key because it primes the reader for a sense of what’s to come: death on every page. But just as potent is how Chang subverts expectations—these poems are far too personal, too riddled with anecdotes to hold space in any local paper. Every now and then, a poem appears in traditional form: a moment of repose, of breath.
Before editing this piece, I never thought a “song of the summer” feature could be as beautiful as the one that awaits. I’m convinced now. Like Obit, the writing here is of a familiar form—we know what a “song of the summer” should be, we all know what ‘list blurbs’ should look like—but goes beyond what we expect it to be or do for us as writers, listeners, and readers.
But also like Obit, there’s a constant sense of loss: our writers muse on a summer that feels dead on arrival, on summers that have come and gone, on past selves that feel incredibly distant. But that’s the thing: summers remind us of summers past, and everything else that comes with them. It’s only fitting that for a season beholden to memory-making and memory-cherishing, our songs of the summer are from any year, are about any summer. After all, the best songs and best summers stay with us forever—we just memorialize them in writing. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Tatsuro Yamashita - “Mirai no Theme” (Warner Music Japan, 2018)
2018 brought so many new things into my life: A new job, a renewed relationship with my family overseas, a new sense of purpose when it came to music writing. It was the year I really began keeping up with new Japanese music and writing about it. A single I vividly remember from that summer is Tatsuro Yamashita’s “Mirai no Theme,” partly thanks to the July arrival of Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda’s 2018 blockbuster anime film in which Yamashita’s song serves as the title track. The song’s jolly pianos signal the arrival of better things to come, and the city-pop king sounds taken over by a newfound joy, so much so that he decides to spin baby talk into pop hooks without shame. He’s singing about a newborn coming into the family, alluding to the titular child of Mirai. But as the song dropped in the middle of July, he may have well been welcoming the beginning of a new summer: a very wholesome embrace of what could lie ahead. —Ryo Miyauchi
Lost Tribe - “Gamemaster” (Hooj Choons, 1997)
Summer has always been about escape. School’s out, festival tickets, beach friends, road trip—three months out of the year where, apparently, we can actually live. Unfortunately, summer’s been cancelled this year, which means my big plans mostly involve looking through my IG story archives, trying to live through my blurry 4AM club posts. I’m not here, this isn’t happening, etc. Those days it was all reclamatory gabber spazzing, tasteful updates on Chicago house, the rare fly-in from a batida giant—all quite classy, even when they weren’t (shoutout to Bored Lord for dropping a Prodigy song AND a hardcore remix of Linkin Park at the Octo Octa & Eris Drew party). Amidst all these beautiful nights, I had heard buzz of trance “actually being sick, man”; but it wasn’t until this summer that I finally stepped onto the beach to cleanse myself in the holy waters.
Stuff like “Gamemaster” usually gets an eye roll for its monologues about “embracing the goddess energy” (this is to say nothing of the genre’s reputation for basically being gentrified progressive house). But frankly, with the state the world’s in, we’ve moved past the need for “guilt” in terms of what’s getting us by day-to-day. The rise and fall of the main hook, those anticipating strings, the reverb reaching out forever into some endless sunset—it’s the kind of thing people mean when they say utopia is impossible. I’m not here, this isn’t happening, etc.
Before COVID, I had been living in a sort of endless summer of my own. After the 2016 election, something awakened in me, and it suddenly became clear that there was no use waiting to become the person I wanted to be. In the years following, I came out of the closet, traveled around the world, dyed my hair, went clubbing more, and started to feel more in touch with the person I always imagined in my head. Now, being stuck inside all day again has hurt in more ways than one; knowing what’s out there now, but not being able to live it feels like having life given and then immediately snatched away. This summer, living outside and being free has felt like some fantasy that I once had, something so beautiful it couldn’t possibly be real. At least I have “Gamemaster.” —Sam Goldner
Joni Mitchell - “My Secret Place” (Geffen, 1988)
The first time I introduced my partner to my secret place, I told him it was where I wanted my ashes scattered. It’s a mile-long, out-and-back trail in Vermont adjacent to a trio of waterfalls, a short ten-minute drive from the house we had to ourselves that weekend, where we would hole up as the pandemic hit New York five years later. The topmost pool opens out to a cavernous swimming hole fed by a side-facing cascade; when my cousins and I were kids, a slanted outcropping of rock near the falls we dubbed “Pride Rock” was our point of focus as we would work up the nerve to jump into the numbing cold. In times of low flow, in the midst of mental illness or writer’s block, when talking takes up space and the urge to cool off my hide is persistent, this little world was and still is my Walden. When we gazed out at those gushing, gurgling off-season waters that one evening, time stopped if only for a second. What followed was the first of many comfortable silences we’ve shared.
Here, Joni’s chords of inquiry complement questions asked by new lovers sharing the same scenic view to full effect: “Why did you take me to a place so wild and pretty? Why did you choose me?” She bounces an ever-pensive melody back and forth with Peter Gabriel—what we hear when their voices mesh is less of a duet, more a union of sharp-eyed spirits reflecting on the thresholds of intimacy. It’s the sound of two city mice becoming acclimated to a country setting, of love’s flame starting to spread—doubtless the definite highlight of Joni’s most fervent and overlooked decade. In a turn of phrase, it’s the song that takes me right back to that moment where it became clear I was falling for him face-first. —Nick Zanca
Radiohead - “The Tourist” (Parlophone / Capitol, 1997)
The summer of 2017 was the first summer that I ever felt the pure freedom of independent living. One night, I found myself in someone else’s family apartment overlooking Central Park, at a random party where we drank champagne while Channel Orange blared from speakers in the background. I left at midnight and caught the PATH train back to the room I was illegally subletting in Jersey City.
For years, I hated OK Computer. But that night, in a moment of drunken curiosity during the bumpy ride home, I fumbled for my phone and turned it on. You can’t hear much on high-speed trains; the racket of clanging metal and screeching halts is much louder than Jonny Greenwood’s riffs. But somehow, my discharge at the Newport stop aligned perfectly with the beginning of the album’s last track, “The Tourist.” The din of the train immediately dropped out as it exited the station, and I was left with just the music in my headphones.
Radiohead notoriously ends albums with extended, sentimental songs. But I’m a sucker for the sort of music you want to turn on in the middle of the night and see your whole future with. That’s the kind of song “The Tourist” is; it oozes melodrama and effortlessly commands nostalgia. It consumes you.
After that night, “The Tourist” became my soundtrack for the push and pull between fear and hope, for the feeling of freedom, for the uncertain darkness of nights. I’ve listened to it many times: in cars riding back to Brooklyn from tiny shows on the Lower East Side as the twinkling city lights from the Manhattan Bridge blinked behind me, amongst the bright yellow flowers at dawn behind the brick walls of MASS MoCA, on a walk during the vibrant pink sunset where I realized I had fallen in love.
For me, summer mirrors those wistful moments that feel both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s a season where I find myself in a constant feedback loop of reflection. So many of my most poignant memories are accompanied by the hazy drama of gushy electric guitars and howling lyrics of “The Tourist”; so many of my most poignant memories are colored by the gentle breeze of a summer’s night. —Vanessa Ague
Marissa Nadler - “Drive” (Sacred Bones, 2014)
In a snowy December day in 2013, upon writing my last university exam, I immediately accepted an offer to transition to a full-time job. I had just moved out. I was doing the vague thing called ‘adulthood’ as it had been outlined to me at a young age: get an education, get a job. (The part that’s not mentioned by Chinese parents that is key to this whole adulting thing is neither: get happy.)
By the summer of 2014, I had fashioned myself a solid routine on most weekdays that might’ve seemed banal, but it kept me going: wake up early to beat rush hour to get to work at my corporate job, rush home, drive to the gym, workout, go home, sleep. In the 15-30 minutes it took me to drive to the gym that summer, this song was everything to me.
Revisiting it now, I’m shocked by how few distinct lines there are in this five-and-a-half minute song, and how there are only two that actually spoke to me, directly: 1) The opening line, chilling in its simplicity, “If you ain’t made it now, you’re never going to make it,” and 2) The chorused “Nothing like the way it feels to drive.” The rest of these lines feel autobiographical to Nadler, especially when she sings “17 people in the dark tonight […] familiar faces behind cellular lights,” painting a picture of her performing in front of a few uninvested audience members.
But that speaks to Nadler’s ability to create an ash-grey aesthetic from little more than just an acoustic guitar and multi-tracked vocals, and how the choruses of this song are able to pull you out: She gives you both resignation and escapism in one place. The chords peaking in and getting louder just to retreat back into the fog of the pedal steel guitar—it makes me think of highway lights as you drive past them. It’s weird to say that what could be the ultimate driving song would be one without any drums; even Joni Mitchell's road album Hejira had bass. It’s weird to say that my song of the summer is one so wintry, but it was released on an album titled July after all.
For 15-30 minutes a day, I found happiness in a beat-up Honda Civic, driving to the gym to forget about everything else: the downtown Toronto traffic around me and the cliche-grey cubicle that waited for me the next day. I’m happy to report to Nadler that she was wrong about, “If you ain’t made it now, you're never going to make it,” but she was certainly right about the other thing: “Nothing like the way it feels to drive.” —Marshall Gu
Weyes Blood - “Mirror Forever” (Sub Pop, 2019)
Titanic Rising got me through 2019 more than anything, or anyone, else did. It came out in April, when I was just starting to emerge from the longest and deepest depression of my life. “Mirror Forever” isn’t the best song on the album—probably not even top three—but it was the one that first caught my attention. It starts off forcefully, a high guitar tone covered in reverb acting as the pedal point for a massive string swell that brings the song in with a chord progression that will never reappear. About 15 seconds in, the real strings give way to a slow synth bass and a kick drum that only hits once every two measures, and Natalie Mering’s heavenly voice rolls in. Her opening words are, “No one’s ever gonna give you a trophy / For all the pain and the things you’ve been through / No one knows but you.” At the time, it felt like a mantra. Isolated from its song, the lyric could be posted on the wall at a 12-step program, a bit of tough-love wisdom that rings true the first time you read it but makes you cringe thereafter. But delivered in the capsule of “Mirror Forever,” it tasted true, and I swallowed it whole.
That summer was my last in New Orleans. I’d called the city home for six years, and it was where I’d experienced both the happiest and most miserable moments of my life. My mid-July departure date loomed large, and even as I stabilized on my medication and began to feel human again, I couldn’t shake a nagging sense of defeat. I was moving back to my childhood neighborhood to live with family friends. I was going to journalism school, a decision I knew would burden me financially and had only a marginal chance of landing me a “career in media.” And I was doing it because I felt I’d hit a dead end in the place I loved most on Earth. But in my many moments of self-doubt, I’d throw on the best orchestral pop album since Scott 4 and forget my troubles.
“Mirror Forever” is about the end of a long-distance relationship, two lovers facing their inability to overcome the physical distance between them. Mering sings matter-of-factly on the chorus: “And I see it so clear / We played hard / Yes, we love our love / Most of all // But the timing spent / In this situation circumstance / I’ll see you around / The next time you come to town.” I had no illusion of latching onto a long distance relationship to maintain my emotional dependence on New Orleans, but the song’s elegant resignation still stuck with me; it helped me see the bigger picture. It told me to treat my last months on the Mississippi as a summer romance, rather than the dramatic crumbling of a years-long, tumultuous affair. And it reminded me that the city would still be there the next time I came to town. —Raphael Helfand
Madness - “Our House” (Stiff Records, 1982)
I was eight years old in 1982, attending a summer day camp on Long Island. The camp, as I recall, had a swimming pool that campers were obligated to use at some frequency—whether it was every day or a few times a week, I’ve no clear memory. But here’s what I can remember quite clearly: there were changing rooms where kids set down their dry clothes and switched into bathing suits. The whole place reeked of chlorine, which stung my nose and throat so fiercely that the sense-memory returns with a vengeance every time I’m around the chemical; even thinking about the wretched stuff makes it seem nauseatingly fresh. In fact, as I sit here in my living room in rural Massachusetts with no pool in sight, I can effortlessly bring the strong chlorine sharp olfactory assault of the summer camp swimming pool changing rooms back to the front of my mind. It’s an awful smell, and yet… not entirely unpleasant.
That’s probably because there’s another summertime sense-memory attached to it. See, the changing rooms and pool area also had loudspeakers through which camp counselors (probably teenagers themselves) blasted pop radio so loudly that the speakers distorted. In the summer of 1982, “Our House” by the English ska/pop band Madness was on frequent pop radio (and early MTV) rotation. I loved the song then and love it still today. Along with its buoyant bass line and crisp horns come the artificial aroma of sunblock and the sharpness of a hyper-chlorinated swimming pool; the feeling of warm 1982 summer sunshine floods back along with the attendant joy of playing with my friends at camp. Sure, today I’ll listen to a digitally remastered version of “Our House” on an audiophile-quality home stereo sound system, but my kid-brain adds the crackle remembered from those overloaded little swimming-pool speakers playing it off FM radio and the peculiar acoustics of changing rooms full of screaming children on their way into or out of a suburban pool.
In hindsight, it’s strange that my madeline de Proust is Madness’s rather conservative pop hit. The theme of the tune (and of several other Madness songs) is warm anemonia for the “good old days,” looking back at one version of an impossibly-idealized fantasy childhood and comparing it favorably to the (by implication) corrupted current times. “Our House” seems to be asking: Weren’t things better back then? When dad went to work, mom stayed home to do ironing and take care of us kids, brother went on dates, the family went to church on Sundays… where home was “our castle and our keep”? Didn’t it seem that way? Or at least seem that it should have been that way? In the gauzy security of the outwardly innocent past, everyone fulfilled their expected/gendered roles and, as Madness is implying, society functioned as a result.
The band’s charismatic frontman, Suggs, sings: “I remember way back then when everything was true… I remember how we’d play, simply waste the day away…”. Those lines speak of summer bliss, no obligations, nothing to trouble a child’s mind other than the thrill of existing. But Suggs’s own upbringing in 1960s England was nothing like the made-for-daytime-TV images painted by the song, and neither was mine in 1970s suburban New York. Maybe it’s a common tendency to recall cleanly-scrubbed elements of youth and hold them as totems or mantras carried into confusing adulthood, symbols of a time when we didn’t quite understand the world or have to do more than observe it and exist. Even though the specifics of the song’s family don’t resemble my own at all, “Our House” does hit nostalgia buttons for me, as it was clearly designed to do for everyone who could apply the general warm nostalgic feeling (if not the manicured specifics) to their own childhood. I didn’t have a house like the one Madness describes (did anyone, really?), but I do have the strong impression of being suddenly excited by music when I was a kid at summer camp. Madness’s self-titled American compilation, released to capitalize on this breakout hit and introduce the band to a US audience, was probably the first record I ever bought aside from “Weird Al” Yankovic. Whatever happened at home or in the world in 1982, “Our House” invokes the naive joy of air-brushed innocence. For me, it forged sense-memories that would last decades and shape who I’d become. It always reminds me of summer. —Howard Stelzer
Jorge Ben - “Hermes Trismegisto e Sua Celeste Tábua De Esmeraldas” (Phillips, 1974)
In South Texas the summer heat starts in March and threatens to stretch out past the end of September. It’s the kind of heat that you strategize for, that saps your strength and instantly sparks a sheen of sweat on your face. The kind of heat that melts the asphalt in front of each bus stop, black tar cresting the curb like a wave. In this kind of heat you want to spend as much of that time as possible in your house, in a car, a shopping mall movie theater, anywhere that has air conditioning.
Every state I have been to claims some special aspect of weather all their own and for Texans it’s the heat. They brag about how well they can stand it and complain about how horrible it is in the same breath; they worry and gossip about it, compare tips and tricks to help mitigate it, and derisively say “it’s just a dry heat” anytime someone mentions how hot the summer is somewhere up north. This simultaneous sense of prideful ownership and wary annoyance is probably common to any people who are forced to reckon with forces beyond their control.
Many of my most stereotypically idyllic summer memories—mowing the lawn while my father trimmed the hedges, laughing and joking together with my mom over lemonade, sneaking beers to the top of Enchanted Rock and watching the sun go down the sky—end with me cooling off in the shower and listening to music. Sometimes I would sit in the bathroom in my towel while the rest of an album played itself out. One of my most special memories, which, I am sorry but I cannot share with you, ends like this: “Hermes Trismegisto e Sua Celeste Tábua De Esmeralda” is playing softly while I gaze out the window, lost in my memories. —Samuel McLemore
Os Mutantes - “Panis et Circensis” (Polydor, 1968)
I hadn’t heard Tropicália music until meeting Ambre. The first day we crossed paths was a freakishly warm February outlier in 2017. I was living in Owatonna, Minnesota—a small farming town about an hour south of Minneapolis on I-35—but would come to Chicago on weekends. I was co-running the Chicago-based label Moniker, hustling records, trying to make music work as my lifeblood. I worked a volunteer shift (alongside Felix Havoc) at punk co-op Extreme Noise Records in Minneapolis on Sundays from 4PM-8PM, so I would have to leave Chicago by 9:30AM in order to get to my shift on time, close up the shop after, drop off the day’s cash at the bank, and then drive the hour back to Owatonna before waking up for my job at 4AM. It was hell, but it built my work ethic, and I loved it.
That February weekend, Chicago’s Empty Bottle held a record fair that Moniker had a booth at. Our friend Xela, who worked at Permanent Records with my label partner Robert Manis, was supposed to be holding down a table next to us, but she dipped at the last minute due to an eye infection. I met up with Xela and some of her friends afterwards, one of whom was Ambre. They were taking generous swigs of red wine and offered me some, but I didn’t drink back then, which mostly made me avoid people and parties, but Ambre took me a bit out of my caveman curmudgeon comfort zone. I wanted to spend as much time with her—we even stayed at famed Chicago 4AM bar The Owl until close that night. Never again.
Before heading to Logan Square for dinner and dancing, we took a break at Xela’s house, playing each other songs we loved, dancing without touching like nervous fools. Ambre put on the famous Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis compilation, and the first track—the title track by Os Mutantes—blew my mind. Those gorgeous dueling vocal harmonies, the lethargic, sensual rhythm, the propulsive bass line, the song’s final sped-up send off. Rita Lee, Sérgio Dias, and Arnaldo Baptista sung together so effortlessly, so lovingly: I wondered what my voice would sound like dancing around Ambre’s. I feared overstepping boundaries, but wanted to be the hand guiding her as she spun—she spun on her own. I am comically unable to read flirtation or gauge romantic interest, so thankfully a few weeks later she kissed me. We’re married now. These days, we guide each other through dance to this song and compilation—the summer light and heat reminding me of the warmth in my chest that balmy February day. —Jordan Reyes
D'Angelo and the Vanguard - “Ain’t That Easy” (RCA, 2014)
Although it exposes the usually-undisclosed extent of my youth, I was way too young for Black Messiah when it came out just before the end of 2014. I’d lived almost my entire life since 2000’s Voodoo, D’Angelo’s second and last studio album before his decade-and-a-half-long creative hiatus, but even aside from being oblivious of the comeback record’s contextual significance, I wasn’t at a place in life where I could truly appreciate the music itself. Black Messiah is the legendary artist’s most collaborative and communal work, and the palpable trace of interpersonal love that lives within the music is what gives these songs their addictive energy and soul—something my self-absorbed teenage self couldn’t (and quite possibly still doesn’t) yet understand.
There couldn’t have been a better choice to introduce the record than “Ain’t That Easy,” which sprouts from understated, atmospheric initial moments into a loose, faintly off-kilter funk groove that embodies the whole of what makes Black Messiah’s sound so memorable. The emphasis on the off beats, the earthy vocal layering and group harmonies, the way each musician slightly stutters, stumbles, slides through their contributions in complementary, serendipitous ways… the track is so steeped in this dark subterranean warmth that one feels as though they’re right there in the musty, wanly lit studio space with the musicians, grooving with the room as both the people in it and the walls that form it undulate with the rhythm.
For someone who despises the punishingly hot Midwest summer temperatures to which I’m subjected each year—thus motivating me to spend most of my time inside—“Ain’t That Easy” is a validating anthem of interior comforts and the joys of loving company. It’s a perfect song to appreciate with friends or partners whose “lovin’ brings out the best in you,” or by yourself on a pensive drive home when the night air is like a warm bath. “Let your days slip away, come with me and ride.” —Jack Davidson
Minnie Riperton - “It’s So Nice (To See Old Friends)” (Epic, 1974)
No album cover photo conjures the feelings of summer more for me than Minnie Riperton’s Perfect Angel. Beaming sweetly at the camera with a circular afro, bare chest under overalls, and an ice cream cone melting into her hand, she immortalizes lazy days outside in the sun. Thankfully, the album’s softly silky music, with Minnie’s five-octave vocal range boiling into a hair-raising whistle tone, flawlessly matches the cover’s vibe. This is helped in no small part by Stevie Wonder, credited with the alias El Toro Negro for his instrumental contributions and Wonderlove for his production.
It’s perpetually devastating to think about Minnie passing away from breast cancer at age 31, but she left us with a treasure trove of recordings between her solo career and work with psychedelic soul group Rotary Connection. Her daughter Maya Rudolph (whose first name becomes a hook in the closing moments of live versions of Loving You”) has also carried on this musical legacy as a member of The Rentals and her Prince cover band. Just look at this SNL bumper with Maya in her mom’s pose and try not to tear up.
The summer of 2020 has been one like no other before, as the usual time spent with loved ones is left to small groups and safe distances. I’ve been listening to Perfect Angel for as many sunny seasons as I can remember, and while it’s incredibly easy on the ears from front to back, the song that cuts deeper than ever this year is “It’s So Nice (To See Old Friends).” There’s a trace of soft-rock schmaltz in its languid twang, but when Minnie hits the chorus it’s impossible not to long for a time with more closeness allowed. “I know it won’t be long / Before we’re one.” —Jesse Locke
Love Letter - “Ursa Minor” (Rok Lok Records, 2014)
Endings fall short of new beginnings; summers' promise, solemn faced, fingers crossed behind its back, never seeming to fulfill its vow of letting go. July sun is unforgiving; parched earth, parched lips utter silent prayers, echoed by frenzied cries of cicadas. Desert sky holds its breath like a grudge; jagged exhale, at last, it weeps for the soul you lost.
Left with so little to hold on to, the fury of a thunderstorm feels like a blessing. Air heavy with creosote; exultation. There is beauty in broken tree boughs, burden lifted, roots still steadfast. Thunderheads recede, glow violet and amber. Damp air shrouds your shoulders, catharsis through embrace. Each monsoon, an oath that penance made brings promise of reprieve, accession to deliverance.
Somewhere, soft mists rise to welcome you, calm horizon after rainfall, gentle breeze bows yarrow blossoms, the still hours after a storm suspended ad infinitum. Steady your weary legs, carry onward, fulfill for yourself the promises the summer never kept. —Mia Antoinette
Led Zeppelin - “Good Times Bad Times” (Atlantic, 1969)
Here’s an unpopular yet correct opinion about music: Led Zeppelin is for girls.
Don’t believe me? Just read any straight man music critic on Zeppelin and you’ll find them completely missing the point of this greatest of rock bands by focusing in on shit like a) what guitars Jimmy Page used and how he used them b) the sound of Bonham’s drums on “When The Levee Breaks” c) why Led Zeppelin II is a superior record to Houses of the Holy (no), etc., as if trying to break a magic spell by pedantically examining each of its parts on the material plane. But they will never break the Zeppelin code because Zeppelin is not for men to understand, they are for girls to feel.
I chose “Good Times Bad Times” as my song of the summer because it’s the first song off Led Zeppelin’s first record and as good a statement of intent as any, packed with all the musical elements that made Zeppelin great. Though lyrically incoherent (he’s sad his girl left, he doesn’t care his girl left, etc.)… actually, forget I even said anything about the lyrics, none of that shit fucking matters. What matters is the feeling you get when the needle hits, sticky and sweet and liquidy, all those hot vibrations running through every expanse so that all you want to do is submit to the power of electrified instruments coalescing into music geared to make you submit again and again and again.
Lest I be accused of reverse sexism (LOL) I would like to clarify that it’s not that men can’t enjoy Zeppelin, only that they lack capacity to understand them on the emotional level on which this band can ever be understood i.e. being a girl. Also, it’s not even me saying that Zeppelin is for girls, it’s Zeppelin themselves with every riff, drum beat, lyric, inflection, every yip, scream, unneeded yet completely warranted guitar/bass/drum solo that fairly drips with “you want it, I got it” sexuality that makes you want to scream and moan and grab your face and tear your clothes off immediately. This is deeply primal music about men fucking women and that is all it’s about. I don’t know how to break it down more clearly than that. If you disagree, go listen to Rush.
As an aside, it’s always curious to me that everyone is always trying to cancel the Beatles, but Zeppelin’s name is never brought up when it comes to retroactively sweeping problematic bands into the dustbin of history, even though Zeppelin arguably and famously did way more cancellable shit than the Beatles ever did. I can only assume that’s because everyone can’t help but respect the unapologetic sexual power of this band, no matter how much they try to deny it. There’s just something deeply attractive about a group of men who decided they were going to be the greatest rock band there ever was and then did it, period end. Summer isn’t a season, it’s a vibe, and Zeppelin is for all the girls who know that this band is all theirs, for all times, good and bad. —Mariana Timony
LFO - “Summer Girls” (Arista, 1999)
“I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch,” a little portable speaker sang from the sidelines as I attempted to strengthen my one-handed backhand. My tennis instructor, Gus (short for Agusto), told me his favorite song was “Summer Girls” by LFO because he, similarly, liked girls that smelled like Abercrombie & Fitch. I thought that was pretty mature, because I was 12 and he was 22.
It was the summer of 2007 and we were sweaty with girlish pubescent sweat on dusty clay tennis courts. I think that summer (“That summer”) I used some kind of Dove cucumber deodorant, and I remember Ilana, the token Girl With A Push-Up Bra, told me to apply five or six coats of it. Sometimes, on top of that, I’d spritz some kind of fruity American Girl Doll body spray. In terms of mall staples, I smelled more like a Bath & Body Works.
If “Summer Girls” is divisive, it’s because of its lyrics, a frat bro soup of basketball references and Home Alone call outs—undoubtedly, the song is a product of 1999. But something about embracing a totally stupid song, especially one with hi-hats that sizzle and synths that bounce and crackle (listening now, they most closely remind me of Suzanne Ciani’s Buchla-generated bubble-pop jingle for Coca-Cola), felt undeniably romantic at the time. We, like the song’s progenitors, were simply sharing an inside joke—“isn’t this song so ridiculous.”
Flirting is, in its basest form, a shared vulnerability—”I like the way you laugh / When I tell a joke”—and it was slightly thrilling to walk around, listening to these nonsense lyrics about The Color Purple, and hold a little secret in the lycra of my tennis skirt.
“But she’s been gone / Since that summer.” Gus got kicked out later that summer for coming back drunk from his night off. When I found out he had left, I cried at the flagpole raising. Two years or so later, he commented on an Instagram post of mine, “Run a lap!” or something like that. When the first few notes of “Summer Girls” twinkle into the air on the radio or at a bodega, I immediately think about the gap in his teeth and the way he wrapped my grip tape. I’m 25 now, but I’m still 12, mouth of braces, overly sarcastic, when I hear “In the summertime / Girls got it goin’ on.” But after months out of the club, nostalgia’s a potent a drug as any, and I can’t say I mind the twisted high. —Arielle Gordon
Vanessa Carlton - “Nolita Fairytale” (Universal, 2007)
I first heard “Nolita Fairytale” on an episode of Gossip Girl a few weeks ago. I’ve been watching the series for the first time for the past two months (I’m addicted to the drama!). Since then, I’ve listened to this song a nearly unfathomable amount of times, spending several days with it stuck in my head as I fall asleep (particularly the part where Vanessa Carlton sings, “Take away my record deal (Go on, I don’t need it).” The instrumentation feels very quintessential 2000s alt-pop to me. The piano is frilly and campy and unaware of it, the soft acoustic guitar refrain is like wistfulness made audible, as if it had been generated in a teen drama music machine, and Carlton’s delivery is nasally and extremely earnest. The lyrics are ridiculous, but pushed along by the melodramatic heart of everything else in this song, they make you want to question your judgement before you question them. Maybe you’re simply misunderstanding Carlton when she confidently delivers a dumb line like “I know / you know / we don’t / see.”
Unfortunately, you understood correctly, those lines really are just dumb, but I’m obsessed with the lyric that gets stuck in my head—“Take away my record deal (Go on, I don’t need it).” When I hear it, I am immediately satisfied and soothed, like I just got out of a bubble bath in a big tub, but it’s probably the lamest “fuck you” ever. Like, aren’t you delivering this line from a song on an album that you made as part of your record deal, Vanessa? But there’s something I like about telling everyone that you don’t need your career—the only reason that anyone knows who you are. Writing makes me feel so visible, and sometimes I crave visibility more than I admit. I know that has something to do with learned societal norms of success and the unfortunate expectation of “social media star” that has been placed upon writers in the past few years, but it still makes me feel gross when the little attention-hungry part of me starts growling. I don’t need that. I don’t need anything.
Something else—Nolita is a neighborhood in New York City that I hate a little because when I was younger, walking through it made me feel poor and unfashionable. My favorite summers are in the city, walking through a park eating street hot dogs that make my stomach hurt. I don’t know why I eat those street hot dogs. Naturally, none of us can really go outside this summer (except if you’re some sort of outdoor dining public menace), so “Nolita Fairtytale”’s inherent New York-ness engages the summer daydream part of my brain. When I was about four, the first thing I wanted to be career-wise was a princess. That hasn’t worked out, but I love walking through my neighborhood listening to “Nolita Fairytale” and thinking about how special and misunderstood I am. I like acting like I’m the main character. I could be, if I tried. —Ashley Bardhan
Nicolette - “It's Only to Be Expected” (Shut Up and Dance Records, 1992)
I’ve never much loved the summer. Its layers—the slick of sweat mixed with city fug; mosquito welts and humidity blemishes; the ughhhhhhh of a window unit; the way the first bass booms of the season gradually devolve into unwelcome belches of car horns, drivers smug in their nerves; fashion’s value as distraction from the horror of one’s body proven utterly useless, at least for a season—just wear me out. This summer is more trying and tragic than any heat wave, but it’s also demonstrating its recurring power to make everything sound different: music with space in it becomes valuable when everywhere around my ears is filled with heat and fug.
When Nicolette released her 1992 debut Now Is Early, I missed it, and when it was reissued five years later it sounded very of its moment, a minimalist sketch for her maximalist epic 1996 album Let No-One Live Rent Free in Your Head or her blockbuster collaborations with Massive Attack on Protection. Now, though, this early work is a wonder, especially highlight “It’s Only to Be Expected,” which I’ve been listening more than maybe any song over the past few weeks. Constructed by UK hardcore visionaries Shut Up and Dance, the track is massive yet barely there. A rickety break ricochets like a screen door off a frame while a few chords plume the way corporate air conditioning can chill a step or two along a sidewalk, and apart from her voice that’s more or less it.
And what a voice: Nicolette often draws apt comparison to Billie Holiday in the clarity of her warble, and Holiday could make (just terribly suddenly topical) wry scolding lyrics like “Oh mask wearer / oh axe bearer / too late to change” fly. She’s just as likely to go for restraint, though, declaring from the start that “I shall sit here, for days, all alone,” with an insouciant poise somewhere between Ronnie Spector and FKA Twigs. But the way Nicolette wanders around the song, sure it will follow her but content if it doesn’t, also reminds me of Arthur Russell’s charismatic timbre, and what is “Let’s Go Swimming” but a perfect summer record. “Oh, what a luxury, to swim in all this sound,” she sighs, and he’d surely find value in that. —Jesse Dorris
De La Soul - “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays” (Tommy Boy, 1991)
It’s comforting to have a reminder that things can be better. Good, even. “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays” serves as the perfect salve by which any despondent person can look to and be enveloped by. The Instant Funk sample at the beginning lets us know that disco’s carefree spirit is imbued within the track, spliced in between signature Prince Paul scratches. The verses are easy and complementary, with jokes and mirth traded between the premier rappers of the era. It’s akin to a sitcom cameo: De La Soul get their good friend Q-Tip to spit a funky freestyle that has the crowd in an uproar. The vital core of “Saturdays” is Vinia Mojica’s outstanding chorus work, lending an emotional core that leaves faint traces of partygoing ecstasy.
What’s most important is that this song is a representation of Black joy. In a summer that has been littered with police brutality specifically targeted against Black people and their resistance, a De La Soul classic provides timeless expressions of Black love, Black unity, and Blackness as an ethos. 2020 has left America naked in terms of how it will treat Black people in the future, branding a stark line culturally, but even within the conflict to come and the undercurrent of pathology ravaging Black communities, there is always music speaking to the unflappable soul of Black Americans. —Eli Schoop
Max Roach - “It’s Time” (Impulse!, 1962)
How long can life distract and dissipate fury,
how old is silence?
The Chorus & Orchestra gather
on Atlantic, on Broadway, on Bedford, on Park.
The drummed heartbeat, driven erratic and heavy
by the unthorough evaluation of the price of air:
a 20, a subway token, a tossed coin;
The flustered tenor, translating horror, rage, inherited fatigue;
The amplifying mass of grieving voices—some come out like song,
some like brass, others like sobs.
None ever losing sight of now
and the temperature always rising
What volume communicates injury?
outpouring from every corner, aimed at barriers.
They arrive with muscles tensed, shaking subtly
—bodies as close as they’ve ever been—
threatened with rainclouds and arms,
knowing a flinch is all it takes.
The shifts and surges come at random,
but escalation is constant.
A beginning and a continuation.
On Flatbush, The Orchestra are dragged and zip-tied.
On Dekalb, a squad car aflame.
And none ever losing sight of now,
and another composition to follow,
and the temperature always rising
Roberta Flack - “Compared to What” (Atlantic, 1969) /
Les McCann and Eddie Harris - “Compared to What” (Atlantic, 1969)
Roberta Flack and Les McCann each performed “Compared to What” as if they were simultaneously commiserating with like-minds and calling complacent audience members to action. Like an incantation, the lyrics, written by Gene McDaniels, invoke the weight of the fight against oppression, the longevity of which can feel like an individual burden too heavy to bear—especially if one is new to, or returning to, tying together the strings that bind “possession,” “hat[ing] the human,” “the president,” and “trying to duck the wrath of God.” Listening to an artist as popular as Roberta Flack (who has had seven No. 1 singles) perform a song like “Compared to What” reminds me that music disseminates information to a geographically and chronologically expansive network of listeners, redistributing that weight so it is lighter and easier for all of us to bear.
Acknowledging the absurdity of a 51-year-old song’s longevity and continued relevance is not insightful, nor is calling the themes of “Compared to What” revolutionary. But embracing, appreciating, and learning from a generation that used anti-war, anti-capitalist lyrics in popular music is restorative and nourishes the radical compassion which oppression is wont to extinguish. Flack’s and McCann’s instrumental and vocal timbres are both soothing and riling. “Looks like we always end up in a rut:” it rings so true, personally and globally. When Flack reaches the end of her first stretched-out “rut,” and after McCann punctuates his and Eddie Harris’s layered introductive melodies with the word “rut,” I’m good, I’m ready to listen, I’m in the fight. —Rebecca Jones
Green Day - “American Idiot” (Reprise, 2004)
‘Song of the summer’ partly means nostalgia, remembrance, mining the past—which, for me, means the pristine and frightening depths of mid-2000s Top 40 pop punk: Avril Lavigne, Simple Plan, Yellowcard. Something about this unholy genre—a perversion of punk’s original spirit that took what began as basement tapes, sloppy playing, plosives, and molded it into a grotesque science, a million-dollar exercise in precision and perfection rather than a show of ‘raw power’—tickles a frozen and inaccessible part of my brain; to be clear, this is definitely a curse.
But ‘song of the summer’ is also future-oriented, an aspiration, a projection: it establishes the terrain of the coming months, the mood, the possibilities. So where does “American Idiot” fit in on this spectrum? On the one hand, just as the mid-2000s pop punk rock opera is so blatantly the death throes of ‘rock ‘n roll,’ a desperate attempt to rescue a decaying medium by simply Supersizing it, “American Idiot” is the absolute endpoint of ‘protest music’ that openly markets itself as such: it’s locked in time, instantly dated, almost dull and robotic in its singleminded pursuit of every possible way to give the middle finger with music. It’s an absurd relic of a bygone era—the bizarre and horrifying netherworld of popular Bush-era ‘protest’ politics (Rock Against Bush, anyone?)—that mostly belongs in the dustbin of history.
On the other hand, while “Ocean Avenue” and “Sk8er Boi” sit breezily in the past, in the warped recesses of my mind, “American Idiot” refuses to be neatly tucked away; just from a musical perspective, it’s so obnoxious, so outrageously garish, so violent in its pursuit of its goals—the gates of hell will open to the brickwalled thwack of the mid-2000s pop punk snare—that it’s physically impossible to bask in the warm glow of the past while it plays.
But beyond the music itself, “American Idiot” perfectly reflects the disintegrating, disjointed boundaries of time here, in America, in July 2020. Right now, there is little to aspire to other than total revolt; the future, in many ways, is closed, fastened shut. Beyond issues of immediate survival or open rebellion, any ‘aspirational’ thinking is largely directed backwards, grasping for clarity and familiarity: on a large scale, we’re examining history, looking for answers, parallels, that could help orient us as the world implodes; on a personal scale, we’re holding onto small comforts, memories, time spent with loved ones. Past and future merge into one; likewise, “American Idiot” feels counterintuitively like a living, contradictory object, simultaneously the symbol of a mythologized, sanitized, supposedly bygone era—the stuff of throwback parties and YouTube playlists—and a sad reminder that the unsanitized realities of that era live on today, from the American genocide in Iraq to liberal celebrity-helmed ‘protest’ culture, the one that so successfully grinds liberation movements down to dust—of which “American Idiot” is the most textbook example.
“American Idiot” is a dead end, a middle finger to the void. If the sound of 21st century class struggle and collapse will be, in Phil Neel’s words, “guns cocking over trap snares unrolling to infinity,” on bad days—when it feels like everything good is doomed to co-optation, outright repression and reaction—it feels like the sound of what’s to come is just a LimeWired 128kbps mp3 of “American Idiot” blaring in the overgrown backyard of a suburban McMansion, poorly-encoded cymbals glitching to infinity. “American Idiot” is the dead-end song of the summer, not a nostalgia trip or an aspirational anthem, but a warning of what may be doomed to repeat, endlessly—until the pin is pulled again and “Faneto” rushes in on a chariot of flames and shows what it truly means to resist. —Sunik Kim
Silvio Rodriguez - “Al Final de Este Viaje en la Vida” (Areito, 1978)
Last summer was the worst. Sometimes I didn’t want to get up, because I knew that after breakfast I’d be in bed again, unable to do anything, feeling drained physically and emotionally, craving for more sleep to make reality go away. Mostly, though, come nighttime, I didn’t sleep at all. I stayed up as long as I could, dreading the awful mornings—grey and rainy and cold and hopeless—like nothing I’d ever dreaded before. I knew that no matter how many cigarettes I stashed for the night, it wouldn’t be enough. I knew I would have to go to the store, a hopeless tobacco addict, baggy eyes and all, drifting athwart the inrush of the hurrying crowds of energetic people. The paranoid fear of looking defeated, feeling defeated and being defeated paralyzed me and made me look defeated, feel defeated and be defeated for real.
A year later, when the world is being shattered to pieces as we speak, there’s no more depression. I’d like to think so. I moved on, cut on cigarettes, found a job, changed the apartments, started writing again. Yet it’s never been more obvious that things way beyond my control can plausibly make it all so much worse than anything I’ve ever experienced. Since March, me and my wife have left our flat only for the essentials: the store, the pet shop, the pharmacy, the usual. We’ve been wearing masks and gloves and sanitized our every step. But when Moscow, seemingly deserted and empty for the previous two months, reopened in early June and the flood of people without protective gear invaded the store, the pet shop, the pharmacy, the usual, we both got COVID in a matter of days. The incubation period followed, and then Ann started coughing and losing her senses of smell and taste, and then, a day after, me. Thankfully, no hospitalisations for us, though the mild cases we got stuck with weren’t fun at all. The worst, though, wasn’t living almost two weeks straight with health on the verge of a breakdown that never came, but the sense that no matter how hard I tried, no matter what I did and no matter how precarious I might have been, I got it. It’s inevitable. And it’s frightening. And it’s a big reason for freaking the fuck out.
And I should be freaking out. I’ve already read whatever I could about immunity (could last as short as two weeks) and a possible second time the virus should have struck me (could be far more damaging than the first), and I know that the Moscow government still adds a couple thousand new cases into the count every day. Knowing myself and my paranoid tendencies to always consider the worst possible outcome, I should be in a familiar state of catatonic dread right now, unable to sleep, think or speak. But this dread never came. It has yet to come. I know it won’t come. I know the last summer and the way I felt then— and the years of paranoia and dread that came before, always in multi-year intervals, but always hitting my very being hard and numbing it and making me lose my shit and this and that and etc. and etc.—are gone.
When the future’s uncertain and the present is hallucinatory, it’s the past that will come back to haunt you. Except when it doesn’t because you finally feel what you haven’t been able to feel for so long. Self-assurance. Determination. Will to live.
And so that’s why this summer I fell in love (once more, it happened before, and it will happen again) with Silvio Rodríguez’s album Al Final de Este Viaje. Recorded in 1978 in Madrid, which only just opened after Franco, this record was an effort to present Rodríguez as a survivor. And he was one. In the late ’60s he served as an avatar of Cuban counterculture, his songs widely believed to criticize Castro’s government, his hair all wrong, his voice too audacious, his audience too young to know better. In 1969, on the height of his short-lived popularity that began only two years ago after a television appearance, Rodríguez was officially let go of his state-approved occupation of a musician. To avoid a prison sentence for social parasitism, he had to venture on a sea voyage in a 94-meter fishing boat with 100 other young men.
Rodríguez had all the reasons to be demoralized and humiliated, yet he came back from his exile/expedition with a new set of songs that radiated calm and peace of mind. Their wildly metaphorical lyrics and daring compositional techniques were full of unabashed, if cryptic, optimism. These were the songs he recorded almost a decade later on Al Final de Este Viaje, and even a decade later they still clearly meant a lot to the Cuban bard. Unlike his other records of that era, there are no strings and drums and flutes here. Rodríguez is alone with his guitar, focused and giving the most he could give to every song, one perfect rendition after another.
By that time, however, Silvio Rodríguez was all but the pariah he used to be. The Cuban government made a 180 and accepted the nueva trova that the singer personified. He was given a house, a car, an allowance a hundred times more than that an ordinary citizen could dream of, and freedom of international travel. His songs, once presumably critical of bureaucracy and misery that were failing the Revolution, at once became the weapon of the Revolution, serving as dispatches from a lone socialist state left standing in the region where all others of its kind were thwarted shortly before. Rodríguez’s voice now officially was that of a solitary man going against powers of evil. In turn, this transformation began a change in Rodríguez himself, who in the early ’80s publicly aligned with the party. Eventually, he entered politics, becoming a state deputy and forever taunting his reputation in the eyes of the more radical Cuban audience. The tone of his songs switched towards patronising during the ’80s and the ’90s, articulated not only by the loss of youthful impressionism in his lyrics but the gradual loss of singing powers that served as a testament of the many demands advancing age presents to a vocalist.
But it all came after 1978. On Al Final de Este Viaje, Rodríguez still boasts incredible vocal delivery, and his songs are still cosmic, ignoring the mundane and the everyday he’d become fond of later. They glide through the air despite their structural idiosyncrises. They form a cycle, a continuum, and they speak with a voice that never lets itself go too hard or too soft or too much, but acts like a welcoming guide and a reliable friend. At their best, like on “Ojalá,” they make the world stand still and listen with a single change between the verse and the chorus. And when that chorus repeats itself twice the second time around, the world is transfixed forever.
It’s the title track, though, which serves as a finale, that is the most cosmic, the most powerful, the most arresting. Two long labyrinthe verses, each going through multiple dramatic changes, as if Rodríguez has not only to sing and to play it, but to overcome numerous obstacles in order to reach the focal point. But when he does reach it, there are no more memories of the path taken. The majestic cry of “en plena luz” makes you forget the twists and turns each verse took to end. That cry cuts deep.
Yet I became obsessed with “Al Final de Este Viaje en la Vida” long before I understood what Rodríguez was singing about. Long before I knew that he either speaks of inescapable death or reincarnation, or, what I really assume, of the power that comes along with surviving, of overcoming, of beginning again and starting anew. Of the past never coming back to haunt you. Of heart and soul, and the fact that heart and soul are more than enough to move on and to disregard what’s not under control.
“En plena luz” is the cry bringing acceptance and endurance. It means those who hear it shall overcome all at once, be it a crowd, be it a morning, or a tobacco addiction, or a potentially deadly virus. Or a very real danger of losing the person you love more than you once thought you could. Or, what surely was more relevant for Rodríguez in 1978, a total destruction of a socialist Latin America, complete with forced disappearances and imprisonments and murders of friends like Víctor Jara, complete with embarrassment and a crisis of faith.
Though really, it doesn’t matter what lies next. That cry is the cry of perseverance. It’s the reason to be, and to live, and to struggle again. It’s the reason to come back again, “en medio de la muerte, en plena luz.” En plena luz. —Oleg Sobolev
Van Dyke Parks - "Vine Street" (Warner Bros., 1967)
Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy” theme from his Ninth Symphony is a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem of the same name. The poem reckons with the sheer improbability of joy and Beethoven’s iconic setting—at once sublime, triumphant, and harrowing—follows suit, drawing on elation to the point of cacophony. Schiller’s poem remarks:
“Whoever has succeeded in the great attempt,
To be a friend’s friend,
Whoever has won a lovely woman,
Add his to the jubilation!
Yes, and also whoever has just one soul
To call his own in this world!
And he who never managed it should slink
Weeping from this union!”
By the measure of this poet, the pursuit of joy is characterized by the near-impossibility of finding it.
Van Dyke Parks—with his neck permanently craned over his shoulder—buttoned himself up for his big debut, opening the album with “Vine Street” as though his best was already behind him.
This original recording of the Randy Newman-penned composition begins by throwing us in the midst of a Steve Young recording of “Black Jack Davy,” an English folk song about a nomadic balladeer whose song is so alluring that it permanently sweeps a young lady out of her position in monied society. After about fifty seconds of Young’s picking and humming, the recording fades and Parks enters atop warm symphonic accompaniment. Sweeping us off into a sun-washed, soft-focus daydream, the singer recounts remorsefully:
“That’s a tape that we made
But I’m sad to say it never made the grade
That was me, third guitar
I wonder where the others are”
This forlorn feeling doesn’t last long as Parks quickly resumes with a jaunty couplet atop ragtime piano: “I sold the guitar today / I never did play much anyway.” Onwards and upwards, one might assume as the singer painlessly severs himself from his past. But Parks is stuck endlessly remembering.
He paints a classic scene of summer: Parks and his “group [sitting] out on the stoop,” serenading a local perfumer and other passersby on Los Angeles’s Vine Street. It’s a scene that seems too good to be true. As Richard Henderson writes in his book Van Dyke Parks’s Song Cycle, the lyrics of “Vine Street,” “speak to a small town mindset that may or may not have existed in the past, in a more bucolic Los Angeles that may only ever have existed in the singer’s mind.”
The album that follows haphazardly charts Parks’s steady migration across the country before his residence in Los Angeles. Collage and pastiche devour the album and “Vine Street” is no exception. The result is a post-modern mishap, an incredible sonic adaptation of Los Angeles’s chaotic sprawl and self-mythology: a sun-drenched fantasy, expressionistic and painfully aware of its own artificiality. Hollywood is chasing its tail and Parks finds himself yipping at its side, egging it on.
To this point, Henderson notes that the introductory recording of “Black Jack Davy” had been “recorded at a studio in Hollywood, then purposefully degraded in the mix, the better to simulate an older form of recorder.” Even Parks’s own memory of playing third guitar in Steve Young’s band isn’t satisfactorily distant enough, it had to be pushed further back into the depths of nostalgia if only to protect himself from its terrifying proximity.
As Parks achingly croons the name of “Vine Street”—the site of his glorious summer’s day—a second time, the arrangement suddenly interpolates Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme and the existential reckoning buried within it. This interpolation is hasty, a rushed footnote included for good measure, and it quickly gives way to a second interpolation of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” a 1902 composition first published as sheet music in the dawn of popular music and later resuscitated when Marvin Hamlisch’s recording of it reached #3 on the Billboard pop chart in 1974. Because it gained later popularity as a historical artifact, “The Entertainer” is susceptible to being imagined as chiefly historical with its 1974 renewal overwriting its initial cultural existence. In our public imaginary the piece had never lived a life of its own, its joyous stride is endlessly haunted by its own historicity. This is Parks’s hauntological summer, an impossible space which may have never really happened, something worth recalling if only he had lived it. —Leah B. Levinson
The Beach Boys - “Surf’s Up” (Brother / Reprise, 1971)
History seemed to have left the Beach Boys behind, all the elements that made them attractive rendered out of fashion by the new crop of pop and rock artists, now focused on social commentary. With their main songwriter facing a confidence crisis, they were in a hard spot and forced to reinvent themselves. “Surf’s Up,” a song originally intended for Smile, is the sobering realization that the days of careless enjoyment in the sun were over, replaced with bittersweet reflection and melancholy. As I watch the days go by in an interminable sequence of undifferentiated routines in isolation, summer seems to me a distant memory, and I’m not sure if I want to spend my time reminiscing about my own summer experiences, themselves filled with stories in which the pleasure principle was the guiding light.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I got everything I could get from partying and frolicking in the tropical sun, and I could pick any number of summer classics that were the soundtrack to those years without problem. But “Surf’s Up” feels like the only honest choice in 2020, a song that keeps the timeless beauty but does away with the optimism and the lush arrangements to focus on the essential, with piano and horn taking center stage in an almost minimalist approach to arranging and production. Much has been said about Brian Wilson’s way of modulation, how he employs wide leaps upward with the melodies to great effect, but these considerations and analysis are a bit unnecessary when the goosebumps arrive.
In Wilson’s best compositions, one can feel that he was very confident about his harmonic findings, not wanting to disguise them under a wall of arrangements. Very spare piano, bass guitar and winds, and of course, Carl Wilson’s heavenly voice, are enough to elicit a whole gamut of understated emotions and summer memories. This summer I’ve been playing lots of comfort food music, with Jamaican roots music featuring heavily, but “Surf's Up” scratches an existential itch these days that no other song is able to provide. —Gil Sansón
Various Artists - “cloudhopper” (World Music, 2018)
Ten years ago, Hot Tub Time Machine was playing at some cinema near a Ritz Carlton hotel in Florida. The Ritz Carlton had a balcony per room that was a perfect area to listen to chillwave. Riding around not playing golf, but in a cart on the course, blaring Flamingo Breeze—this was one of the last great memories I have with my nuclear family. The only way I can experience that moment again is watching Hot Tub Time Machine 2, and it’s edited for cable.
August 2018, I’m with my new family at summer camp in rural New Jersey. Lake swimming, slip and slide kickball, Golden bags of Flamin’ Hot CHEETOS® saved from last night’s dinner. Kids are sneaking out of cabins at night to be on their cell phones by the lake, and I’m the only adult using sunscreen up until the moment we leave. Listening to “cloudhopper” on repeat from World Music’s Muggy vol.1, I’m the only person awake on a full bus returning to the city, waiting for Snapchat singalongs to “I Like It.”
“cloudhopper” has been on repeat again in Summer 2020. Its song lyrics are comfort, like longing for memories to be dreams, or the other way around. Intoxicating melodies interweave and exhale. There’s conflicting longing for all family members—I’m never expecting to see half my nuclear family, and anticipating my new family won’t see each other until Halloween 2020; the rest of 2020 we’ll only know each other by our costumes. Look at you. 💯 you. Wholly accept you. Let’s be all of us together again.
The audio of “cloudhopper” plays-out through alternating channels, so if you fall asleep on the subway wearing only one earpod, there’s either haunting lyrics breathing, or a lush and strolling instrumental clockworking the gears of your dreams. The audio experience melted together is a cavity searing through the other side of your mind. Keep turning to get comfortable. Keep “cloudhopper” on repeat. —C Monster
Red House Painters - “Grace Cathedral Park” (4AD, 1993)
I still remember my mom coming into my room, shocked that I was listening to Red House Painters; she knew I was trying to feel miserable, and she was unwilling to accept that her always-happy son had a depression that was getting much worse. I dropped out of school earlier that year and spent the following months holed up in my room, ashamed of who I was. My parents suggested I live with my aunt and uncle—time in the Bay would do me some good, they thought, so off I went. I spent that summer trawling recording stores, going on hikes, making new friends. It was nice, but I didn’t get happy.
What I remember most from that summer are the questions I’d ask myself. I remember my aunt, sitting next to me in her living room, confessing she felt incredibly lonely in her marriage. Would I always feel lonely? I remember singing karaoke with people I’d just met, giddy on the surface but numb inside. Why can’t I enjoy this? I remember taking long strides on the beach, thinking about the time I almost drowned. Should I have died then?
Mark Kozelek asks a question on “Grace Cathedral Park” that’s pained me for half my life: “Why do you treat me like this?” It’s a question asked not because someone is hurting him, but because someone is treating him well. It’s a question that points to bigger ones I’ve asked myself: Why don’t I love myself? Why do I feel undeserving of love? Why can’t I feel happy?
It’s painful to hear this song because it reminds me of how unwilling I’ve been to let joy into my life. Kozelek’s descriptions of self-sabotaged romance, of life’s ever-ticking clock, of inescapable anhedonia—they capture the nothingness and sluggishness of depression, and I hear it in every stately drum hit and unhurried guitar strum.
Listening to this song two weeks after being dumped, five years after living in the Bay, twelve years after almost drowning, I feel surprisingly okay. I’ll be okay. I’ve come to understand that to love myself is to acknowledge that one day I’ll die. I embrace it, not because I want to die, but because I know it’s inevitable. And as such, life has a new sort of light: I want to do as much as I can to make it meaningful, so I can feel happy, so I can love myself. In the flickering guitar melodies that close out the song, I sense a glimmer of hope for what could be, for all the life that lies ahead. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Prince & The Revolution - “When Doves Cry” (Warner Brothers, 1984)
When you’re raised in a Black family and have light skin and a head full of loose bouncy curls, Prince is an inevitable point of comparison. I endured being told I look like him at many family gatherings, and I started to resent Prince before hearing even a second of his music. It was clearly not meant as a compliment; Prince Rogers Nelson, although born to two Black parents, was seen as a little too “white” to some due to his fashion sense, his androgynous presentation, and his falsetto. Too white for my Black family and too Black for the white kids at school, I hated my hair. I got so tired of being picked on for my curls that I took it upon myself to press the life out of them with a straightening iron and went to school like that—I got picked on for that too. I couldn’t win. I didn’t want to look like Prince; I spent my entire childhood believing he wasn’t cool.
Well, it’s not as if I was cool anyway. Quiet and painfully anxious, it became obvious to me that I wasn’t the type of person who could maintain an image of coolness. As I retreated into music as a way to fight back the loneliness of being bullied at school and abused at home, I figured I might as well give Prince an honest shot. I was using the Rolling Stone list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” to educate myself about music, and Prince was unavoidable—four of his albums feature there. In the summer of 2007 I hopped on LimeWire and downloaded as much of Purple Rain (the album) as I could find, which was only about half of it because my piracy skills were weak. I didn’t even manage to get “Purple Rain” (the track). Oh well.
I spent a lot of time that summer taking long walks around my small town of Easley, South Carolina; it was better than being at home and dealing with the constant haranguing of my stepfather. I had a cheap mp3 player (this piece of garbage!) that could only hold about 256 MB of music that I shoplifted from a closeout store called Roses—I used that thing until it broke. I had to be judicious in choosing which songs to put on it for my walks, but “When Doves Cry” didn’t leave the rotation all summer. I didn’t quite understand that it was a song about a troubled romantic relationship, but I appreciated the lines about a hotheaded father and a mother that’s never satisfied with you. I felt a bit more understood, and Prince became a little cooler to me. I appreciated his company.
I forgot about Prince for a long time after that, and he wouldn’t enter my thoughts very much until his untimely death in 2016—that summer, he was all I thought about. A lot of things changed in those nine years in between: I felt more secure in my Blackness, I thought more about my own expressions of gender and sexuality, and I decided that I love my hair. Though I still didn’t have much experience with Prince apart from half of Purple Rain and probably a couple hundred listens of one track in particular, I felt compelled to go and see the one-time showing of Purple Rain (the film) at my local theater to honor his passing.
To be honest, Purple Rain is a bit of a lame underdog story, but it still managed to reinforce my outlook in a powerful way. To see someone that looks like me endure the hardships of an abusive household, a failed romance, and a social life where he’s given no respect and coming through the other side of it being successful and sexy and cool—that was exactly what I needed at a time in my life where my self-esteem was being tested in ways I hadn’t felt since those younger days, when I could only cope by picking a direction and walking away from it all. When the opening lick of “When Doves Cry” started to play, the memories of a summer long past came rushing back and I exploded into a mushroom cloud of emotion right there in seat E2 of theater 10. On my way out of the cinema, someone tapped me on the shoulder and remarked that I’ve got curls just like Prince—for the first time ever, I was happy to hear it. —Shy Thompson
“Blue” Gene Tyranny - “A Letter from Home” (Lovely Music, Ltd., 1978)
On a warm day in April, I sat down to lunch with the guy I thought I was still dating, only for him to tell me he was dating someone new. It is utterly humiliating, yes, to be dumped without realising it, but that’s not what really affected me. I had only moved to New York from Australia six months prior. I barely knew anyone, I was never invited to lunches or parties; the only friends I’d made were his friends. Suddenly, I felt well and truly alone here. That summer, with nowhere to go and nobody expecting me, I took to hours-long walks in circles around Manhattan, just to be physically around other human beings.
I’d spent the year before diving into my most hated music—the folky, new-agey, ambient fringes of the ’70s. I had always been repulsed by the era’s cheesy flourishes; the dippy philosophising, the harps and flutes and sitars. Most of all, though, as someone who grew up on harsh noise and the most austere minimalism, I distrusted anything that strived to be ‘pleasant’. Nevertheless, I have always believed you can’t grow as a listener unless you seek out what you find most challenging to your taste. In that year, I discovered what quickly became some of my most beloved albums. I discovered a label with a name that once would have been anathema to me—Lovely Music Ltd.—and with it, “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s Out of the Blue.
The album, and particularly its massive closer, became the soundtrack to my long, solitary walks around the city. At twenty-six minutes, “A Letter from Home” could almost be an album unto itself. The only persistent element is a high-pitched, violin-like drone which both precedes and outlasts everything else. Yet everything else that comes and goes in the interim—the long spoken voiceover, the soprano choruses, the airy synth arpeggios—feel totally of a piece. By the end, you spend a minute just listening to that angelic drone, before it too fades out, gently dropping you back in reality.
That summer, I easily spent more time listening to “A Letter from Home” than I did any other artist, let alone another single song. The music wasn’t quite like anything else I’d ever heard—yes it is new-agey and quintessentially ’70s, but it is simultaneously poppier and grander, more operatic, than even the closest comparisons I can think of. The galaxy-brain monologue—ostensibly a long letter written by an unnamed friend, about inner voices and past lives and eleven-year cycles—was interesting and just a bit silly enough to distract me from my own situation. Perhaps this is the influence of that ‘letter’ talking, but it felt like a song that found me precisely when I needed it. So, I’m not sure if this will ever be the song of anyone else’s summer, but it was indisputably the song of my summer—that arid, lonely summer in that crowded, empty city. This summer, of course, there have been no long walks around the city. Most weekends, I like to spend the day with my partner, on a quiet beach. —Mark Cutler
A behind-the-scenes photo with Kelley’s cat George.
Thank you for reading the twenty-third issue of Tone Glow. We hope you enjoy the rest of your summer :~)
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