The rules are as follows:
-The collection must be short enough to fit on a standard 80-minute CD.
-The song choices are not bound by “favorites” so much as songs that are, in my mind, distinctively connected to the preceding year.
Without further ado, this year’s track list:
1. I Lived by OneRepublic Hope when you take that jump, you don’t fear the fall.
This song choice is not particularly nuanced or creative. Regardless, this is a song I suspect I will always remind me of the early stages of 2014, when I completed the application paperwork for MFA programs in creative writing and, all the more so when I sat back and waited for the results to come in.
I had started tentatively making plans to apply in 2010, after an inspiring visit to a friend who was working on her MFA at that time. By the end of 2012 I had both completed my MA at Johns Hopkins and fallen in cahoots with a professor who was willing to mentor me through the application process. The initiative snowballed when he told me I had to apply to at least twenty programs, and when we started researching together and couldn’t justify crossing off any more schools after we had narrowed the list to thirty-four.
The process came to a head at the end of 2013, when the first deadlines came up, and was more fully realized in early 2014 in a flurry of requesting GRE scores and undergraduate transcripts and crafting different personal statements to suit the different programs to which I applied.
There was a lot tied into that application process. Yes, there were the sheer hours of work to compile and submit my materials, and the sheer dollar amounts for application fees, requesting all of those materials, and for shipping. But more than that, the MFA application process started to feel like it was about my very being. Was I an amateur or did I have the skills to justify full-funding at a good program? Would I remain an office worker who wrote on the side, or would I have the opportunity to pursue writing as a more-or-less full-time endeavor for two or three years?
I listened to this song for inspiration, courage, and faith.
2. Happy by Pharrell Williams I watched the NBA All-Star Game and felt tremendously out of touch when a performer I’d never heard of--Pharrell Williams--was the featured musical performer before the game. Little did I know that over the months to follow I’d be inundated by him and this song--in a cappella, in promotional campaigns, and in just about any other setting I could think of.
3. WrestleMania by Mike Stock and Pete Waterman Full disclosure: I tend to listen to this song every March and April, tantamount to a holiday anthem in the build to the biggest pro wrestling show of the year. The song, and WrestleMania event took on special meaning for me this year, though.
Since I graduated from college, I’ve watched every WrestleMania as it happened--on my own, with a living room full of friends, once in person. As the thirtieth annual super show approached I wanted to do something special to commemorate it, and thus decided to embark on the endeavor of ranking all 287 WrestleMania matches, including a narrative account and assessment of each one, for a final document that topped 65,000 words. I threw the post on Buzzfeed and hoped for it to reach a lot of my fellow fans.
I looked at it as a new opportunity to write something for a new audience. I looked at it as a welcome, low stakes distraction from the haze of MFA applications and waiting to hear back from them.
45,000 readers later, the countdown had consumed me. Mother Jones, Jim Ross, and Michael Phelps all Tweeted the article to their followers. Bill Apter, my childhood wrestling journalist idol, shared the article on his website. Two separate parties who I scarcely knew recognized me and stopped me at an a cappella show to comment on the project. And, the day before WrestleMania 30, John Bradshaw Layfield mentioned it live on the air to razz his broadcast partner Michael Cole for ranking last on my countdown.
It was a pretty cool period in this past year.
4. “Closer to Free” by The Bodeans I’ve always liked this song, most famous for its use as the theme music for Party of Five, and most particularly the animalistic celebratory hoot at the beginning it, that sounds to me like pure joy.
For reasons I can’t recall, I rediscovered it in March 2014 and put it on my phone. By that point, I’d received my first handful of acceptance phone calls and emails from different MFA programs, and knew for sure that I would be leaving Baltimore for someplace new at the end of the summer. But I hadn’t yet heard good news from any of the higher tier programs that I was most excited about matriculating to.
So, I decided that I would not listen to this song again until I either did get the news I was most hoping for or, at the less auspicious but nonetheless celebratory moment when I had decided on attending one of the other programs that had already offered me admission.
Fast forward to mid-April. I’m in Santa Cruz, California on business, with a few-day stop in San Diego to visit Heather waiting in the wings. I’d been waiting to hear back from Oregon State University--one of a very small number of those top programs I hadn’t yet been declined from, and the school Heather and I had agreed upon as our mutual top choice of destinations to move to together.
I was driving winding Highway 17 when I got the phone call--a number that my phone did not recognize, but that displayed Corvallis, Oregon as its point of origin.
I waited until I was off the highway, had dropped off my colleague at the airport for her earlier flight, and had stopped off to gas up our rental car to finally listen to the message--to hear Marjorie Sandor’s voice offering me a spot in the 2014 cohort.
In the hour to follow, I returned the rental car and checked in for my flight down the coast. I called back Marjorie and talked over details. I called Heather, and led off our phone call by asking how she felt about moving to Oregon.
And I listened to this song.
5. “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore In 2012, I added regular coverage of the Mid-Atlantic region of International Championship of High School A Cappella to my a cappella coverage regimen. Each of those years, I had the pleasure of hearing The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices sing, and each of those years, they won their way to the tournament finals in New York City.
2014 is the year when I felt most connected to this group. I met parents of the group members at their regional semifinal and talked about their group and my blog. I learned that the group had taken a throwaway line from one my reviews as their unofficial motto for that year: “Champions care.”
And, sure enough, 2014 was the year when The Highlands Voices won the big one, arriving for the first time as national champions. Their cover of this Paramore song anchored their set.
6. “Skinny Love” cover by The University of Michigan G-Men The original version of “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver is a favorite that I rediscovered in the fall of 2013 when Heather talked about how much she loved it. The song was reinvented for me when I heard it again in late April 2014 as the opening song of the 2014 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals, as sung by The G-Men. And though The G-Men went woefully under-recognized at that night’s show, in my book, their performance of this song remained the best of the entire evening.
7. “Higher and Higher” cover by Sara Bareilles I love the Jackie Wilson original of this song, and--let’s make no bones about it--I love Sara Bareilles. Thus, this was a cover-match made in heaven, recorded for Oprah.
8. “Green Garden” by Laura Mvula I first heard this song courtesy of the NYU N’harmonics a cappella group at their ICCA Mid-Atlantic Semifinal and Finals performances, and got around downloading it a month and a half later, shortly after I lost my car and started taking the train to and from work. Thus, I have a mental connection between the staccato rhythms of this song and walks from my place in Baltimore to the Light Rail Station.
9. “Heaven” by The Walkmen I first started watching How I Met Your Mother in late 2010, binge-watched to catch up on the first four and a half seasons, then faithfully watched from that point through spring 2014 when the show finally came to a close.
How I Met Your Mother was not a consistently great show, but it had enough great moments, particularly in the early seasons, to keep me hooked. It was a show about love and idealism, and the importance of maintaining a connection between the two. It was a show about friendship. And, ultimately, it was a show just as fittingly synched to my own life as Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been for me in high school, and, in a sense, The Office had been for my transition to my first two office jobs.
“Heaven” played over the closing moments of the series finale--a scene that harkened back to season one, followed by flashbacks to what all of the major players had looked like nine years earlier. And no, that finale wasn’t as good or satisfying as it could or should have been; but I’ll also maintain that it wasn’t as bad as some of the show’s critics would have you believe.
Regardless, How I Met Your Mother coming to a close just before I started my last summer as a CTY Program Manager, and as I readied myself for the next stage of my life felt like a moment of serendipitous synchronicity. We were ready to move on.
10. “Come to Me” by The Goo Goo Dolls
I heard this new track by The Goo Goo Dolls fresh off a plane in San Jose, driving to Santa Cruz to kick off my last full-time summer with CTY. The song had the odd effect of feeling nostalgic, since it had been years since I could last recall listening to Johnny Reznick’s voice, but at the same time fresh for being new music.
This is where we start again.
I thought of the new life ahead of me. Of Heather. Of Peek and Missy’s pending nuptials. Of everything.
11. “God of Ocean Tides” by Counting Crows
I spent a little over six and half years in Baltimore. About three months in, my favorite band, Counting Crows, released their fifth original studio album Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings. Lo and behold, six and a half years later, with several live albums and a cover album in between, they released their sixth original studio album, Somewhere Under Wonderland, more or less perfectly bookending that period in my life with new Crows music.
A series of pre-released tracks preceded the album’s full-on release. My favorite of those early songs was “God of Ocean Tides,” released just in time for my final tour of Santa Cruz to close out the summer. This song is deeply rooted in nostalgia, reflection, and travel, and felt like an anthem of sorts to listen to on that last plane ride west across the country and as I wandered campus as I breathed in those final views overlooking the Monterrey Bay.
Breathe the water.
I flew out of San Jose the night my work was done, bucking the four-year tradition I had built of closing the summer with a road trip down the California coast. I didn’t depart back east, though, but rather north to Portland to spend a few days with Heather, checking out the city and our new home in Corvallis. We went to a Counting Crows show while I was there and they played this song.
12. “Sweet Dream” by Greg Laswell I first heard this song on a tear-jerker episode of Angel years back, but never downloaded it until this year, when it felt like a near-perfect way to commemorate my time in Baltimore. Working for CTY full-time, not to mention earning my first grad degree in writing, were dreams came true--not to mention all of people who had such a profound influence on my life along the way.
13. “Iowa” by Dar Williams I charted a course across the country to move my relocate my life to Oregon. Along the way, I was sure to stop in Iowa City.
It’s no secret to many of you that, along my MFA aspirations, admission to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was my dream. It’s widely regarded as the top creative writing program in the world. A place where writers like John Irving, Denis Johnson, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth McCracken, and Flanney O’connor have written and have taught.
I didn’t get in.
I felt honored to be offered fully funded admission to Oregon State--by just about any measure an excellent program, with some great faculty and great fellow students. Nonetheless, I knew that to close that particular chapter of my life, I needed to at least see Iowa.
So, along the drive and on my birthday, I drove to Iowa City. I wandered past the workshop building, down the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, through three bookstores, and throughout campus.
It was a cool place. A place that celebrates the craft of literature.
But it was also just a place.
I’ve had the good fortune to travel to a number of places that have interested me--to have seen breath-taking sights and to have had all manner of experiences. But it may be experiences like this that are most powerful of all. To vanquish mystique and wonder; to recognize a place for its everyday qualities and for what it is--a college town amidst corn fields that just happens to also host a preponderance of very good writers.
Had I been admitted to Iowa, I have little doubt I would have loved my experience. Just the same, it’s no longer quite the romantic location it once was to me. It’s just a place. And I’ve moved on to another.
14. “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift After I had moved into my place in Corvallis, and while I still had a solid two weeks before my first formal school commitments, I ventured to campus, found the gym, and re-launched my routine of going there on a regular basis—one of the first bits of normalcy I established in my new home.
For each trip to the gym, it seemed as though I heard this song at least once over the speakers.
15. “Joyride” by Built to Spill I engaged in a week-long boot camp to prepare me to teach English Composition at Oregon State. The professor who led the workshops played music at the start of each session and this was one of the songs (and bands) I discovered in the process. I moved on to play the song for my class to get some practice with analysis, in my section of the course themed around representations of love in pop music.
16. “Home” cover by The Vitamin String Quartet In our first few weeks living together, Heather and I watched a lot of Modern Family, which culminated in watching the most recent season finale, in which characters Cam and Mitch were wedded. A string quartet played them down the aisle with this song, a cover of the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros track.
More than commemorating an episode of a TV show, though, this song--and this version of it--became emblematic of the new life Heather and I were building together. Our new home.
17. "Clarice" by Adam Trabold My favorite new Christmas find, courtesy of my new friend Adam on his My Name is Rudolph EP. It's a folksy spin on a reindeer love story. --
That’s a wrap for this year’s soundtrack. Thanks for reading and my best wishes to you for the new year ahead!