I Saw You Staring Out In Space
My flagship playlist.
Beat Happening - Other Side (1989)
Wireheads - Sagan (2014)
The Garbage and the Flowers - Carousel (1992)
Big Star - Kangaroo (1974)
The Lovely Eggs - Wiggy Giggy (2018)
Wireheads - Holiday (2014)
Alabama Sacred Harp Singers - Windham (1942?)
A Listening Autobiography
The number one song when I was born. Alex Chilton would go on to make music that was more challenging and less popular, and I've followed a similar path.
This video blew my mind at age four, and it might be my biggest single influence.
Gordon Lightfoot - Don Quixote (1972)
On family trips my dad would play music on the car stereo, and this was my favorite of all those songs.
The first song I really loved. At the time I was drawn to the vocal melody of the chorus, and now I admire the crystalline soundscape of echoey low notes and high vocals.
The first band I really got into, and back then I liked their hits, but now I think this was their one great song.
This was the number one album of 1982, and when you like the same music as everyone else, it's easy to believe in objective quality. Now, not so much. Asia was my gateway from pop to the complexity of prog-rock, and soon I was listening to harder stuff like Genesis
I got obsessed with Rush around 1983 and bought all their albums. At the time I preferred Xanadu
Blue Oyster Cult - Astronomy (live 1978)
At some point in high school I got into Blue Oyster Cult, and this song stood out, and still does, for its gothic poetry and hammering climax.
Their Making Movies album felt like higher quality music than I had previously been listening to, and I got even more into Love Over Gold. This song has an incredible guitar solo at the end.
...but this guitar solo is the best, then and forever.
Their Call of the West
album was a new level of weirdness for me, and I loved it. Another gem from that album is Factory
, a massive upgrade of Machines
by Lothar and the Hand People.
It's too melodramatic for me now, but I listened so heavily to The Final Cut
that I knew all the lyrics. The only Pink Floyd album I still listen to is Meddle.
My perennial second favorite band for 35 years. Now I like their heavier stuff, but this smooth and catchy song from their Zones album was an early favorite. See the Hawkwind
section of my albums page.
My hipper friends were already into R.E.M., but I didn't like them until I heard this unearthly masterpiece.
In college in Seattle, I heard this song when Beat Happening opened for Billy Bragg and immediately bought their Jamboree album, which was much weirder and more real than anything I'd heard before.
I had been following this band since their first album, and their fifth, Key Lime Pie, blew me away with its complex, luminous music and poetic lyrics. These two songs blend together, and All Her Favorite Fruit was my favorite at the time, but June was the one I played louder.
The first heavy song with female vocals that I really liked. Compare it to Esben and the Witch's No Dog
from 2014, or Le Tigre's The The Empty
The bit starting at 1:25 is like nothing before and not much since. I write more about them on the albums
The Muffs - Lucky Guy (1993)
I heard this on college radio, immediately bought their debut album, and became obsessed with the Muffs for years, for their catchy songwriting, tight fuzz guitar, and especially for Kim Shattuck's voice. Her best screaming is on Ethyl My Love
, and Upside Down
is a great song from their third album.
This was the only time I really liked a new popular song, and I like it even more now that I understand the lyrics, in which unrequited love is a metaphor for this entire world of dark surfaces with bright depths that we can't touch.
For years this was my number one, but it faded into the background when I discovered Big Blood
. Another great Jeff Mangum song is this informal live version of Little Birds
My first long-term girlfriend lived in Pittsburgh, where this band is from, and we listened to this a lot around 2006. I'm not a fan of heartland rock, but this is a profound and beautiful song about yearning for the undefinable. "Under an open sky, he stands with his eyes closed. If anyone asked him why, he would not know."
I'm not a fan of emo, but a friend stayed with me and introduced me to this concise and luminous breakup song. The lyrics are a subtle gutpunch, from the setup, "Don't forget to kiss me if you're really going to leave," to the climax, "Keep your eyes on the road." I interpret it in more detail here
In the years they were active, 1996-2004, they were the greatest band in the world, but I didn't discover them until 2011. This is my favorite of their late songs.
Orphans & Vandals - Argyle Square (2009)
My girlfriend has highly developed taste in music, which sometimes overlaps with mine, and nowhere more than this beautiful song from an obscure one-album project by London singer-songwriter Al Joshua. Again, here's her top 100
from a few years back.
Joanna Newsom - En Gallop (2004)
I heard this in 2013 and fell in love with Joanna Newsom's voice, which put me only one step away from...
Extremely raw, extremely schmaltzy, and extremely epic, with my favorite singer's most intense performance and lyrics like a fairy invocation, this song owns me. I discovered Big Blood in 2014 through Graceless Lady
, and have since decoded and devoured much of their massive and varied discography. See my Big Blood fan page, Ecstasy and Doom
Wireheads - Sagan (2014)
Country Space Junk
is the first non-Big Blood album I've been obsessed with in years. The band made one video from it, 8 Minutes and 19 Seconds
Deceptively simple, this is one of the best written songs of the decade. I slowed it to half speed and added distortion, and loved it so much that I used my best saved art to make a video.
All my favorite songs that, when ordered by year, don't throw off the flow of sounds. Mostly for my own curiosity, I've added the number of YouTube views (as of December 2018).
Neil Diamond - Holly Holy (1969) [3.5M]
Neil Diamond - Soolaimon (1970) [14k]
Exuma - Baal (1970) [410k]
David Byrne said "Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music," and this song's vocals are just a teaser for the heaviest jam ever. After a slow buildup, it goes into high gear at 3:26 when the bass drops, and when the keyboards come in, it's a supernova.
Big Star - Kangaroo (1974) [29k]
The first time I heard this, I thought it was a soft and pretty song, sloppily executed, and sad. I was completely wrong. This song is fucking metal. Never has so much dissonance and chaos been shaped into such beauty. And despite Alex Chilton's plaintive tone, the lyrics are all desire and triumph, filthy and spiritual.
Hawkwind - Infinity (1979) 
Kirsty MacColl - They Don't Know (1979) [480k]
R.E.M. - Wendell Gee (1985) [110k]
Beat Happening - Indian Summer (1988) [72k]
Camper Van Beethoven - June (1989) [17k]
Like Space Is Deep, the lyrics are over in the first half. But this time, the jam is not the heart of the song, but a wild exclamation point on a tight and luminous poem of yearning.
R.E.M. - Belong (1991) [17k]
Beat Happening - Godsend (1992) [210k]
The Garbage and the Flowers - Carousel (1992) 
The Muffs - Eye to Eye (1993) 
Bone Cellar - Dryrot (1994) 
The Gathering Field - Lost In America (1996) [19k]
Joanna Newsom - En Gallop (2004) [100k]
On the first listen, this was the most astonishing thing I'd ever heard. By the tenth listen, this song was my god. I actually believe that Colleen Kinsella was possessed by a divine entity, as incomprehensible as Cthulhu, but completely joyful.
Orphans & Vandals - Argyle Square (2009) 
Big Blood - Destin Rain (2010) 
The best song possible about the beauty of small moments.
Wireheads - Holiday (2014) [∅]
I know why Calvin Johnson wanted to work with this band. The vocals have all the raw innocence of early Beat Happening, but more intensity, and the music is space garage rock as good as it comes.
Big Blood - Camper Van Beethoven Playlist
Spotify only has four of the nineteen songs.
Camper Van Beethoven - Heart (1986)
Big Blood - Dead Song (2010)
Camper Van Beethoven - Jack Ruby (1989)
Camper Van Beethoven - Surprise Truck (1986)
Camper Van Beethoven - Klondike (1998?)
Camper Van Beethoven - Five Sticks (1986)
Big Blood - Sequins (2007)
Camper Van Beethoven - Sweethearts (1989)
Camper Van Beethoven - June (1989)
Space Elf Convergence
Cocteau Twins - Pandora (1984)
Joanna Newsom - En Gallop (2004)
This is the twee Stairway to Heaven.
Soft Hits 1971-1980
Probably my favorite category of popular music. It was a big project to whittle this list down to an hour and a half. All but one of these are on Spotify, so I've posted the list there
, along with the four lists below.
Colin Stetson - Spindrift (2017)
Moondog - Torisa (1995)
Retro Remix Revue - Gerudo Valley (2009)
Dick Dale - Misirlou (1962)
Nisennenmondai - Mirrorball (2008)
American Indie Rock 1985-1993
Another category of music that I know really well. Here's the list on Spotify
Camper Van Beethoven - Ambiguity Song (1985)
It's getting hard to find a version of this that doesn't have a shitty live performance of another song tacked on the end.
More revisionism. The superior Wishing Chair version of this song has been so well suppressed that both Spotify and YouTube misidentify the Secrets of the I Ching version as the Wishing Chair verson. This is a pretty good live performance.
Hüsker Dü - Powerline (1985)
I finally decided this is my favorite Bob Mould song.
And right after it on the same album, my favorite Grant Hart song.
The Add It Up version.
And right after it on the same album...
In the blend of sounds, this is like practice for Belong.
Beat Happening - Bewitched (1988)
"Sting me, queen me, queen sting dream me, dream queen sting me, sting queen!"
They were never quite my favorite band, but no celebrity death hit me harder than Kurt Cobain. Only recently has this song emerged as my favorite.
Nirvana's famous live version is basically a cover of this, which covers a Leadbelly version of an old folk song called In The Pines. At the time it was a radical sound, and a milestone in grunge.
Mazzy Star - Halah (1990)
The Fireworks version, actually recorded in 1988.
Antenna - 7 Times (1991)
Screaming Trees - Bed of Roses (1991)
Easily their catchiest song.
I love to dance to this.
The Isabel Bishop EP version.
Corndolly - Come Out (1992)
Not sure about the date on these two.
The Muffs - Lucky Guy (1993)
I think that around 1965-1985, culture, economics, and technology converged into a golden age in which popular music was unusually beautiful and creative. Since then, with the rise of independent labels and the internet, the most creative musicians no longer have to compete or compromise for a mass audience; so there's more good music than ever, but it's more diverse and obscure. Thanks Leigh Ann for helping me find most of these.
Moon Duo - Mazes (2011)
Silver Summit - Child (2012)
One of the best rhymes ever: summer dress with some duress.
Diane Coffee - Green (2013)
A timeless gem of songwriting.
Your Friend - Bangs (2014)
Her most distinctive song, but Tame One
is also great.
Your Friend is from Lawrence, Kansas, and Living Hour is from Winnipeg, 800 miles north on the same plains.
Benjamin Clementine - Cornerstone (2015)
This doesn't fit the list, but I think it will stand the test of time.
Heimat - Pompeii (2016)
Lala Lala - Destroyer (2018)
The Lovely Eggs - Wiggy Giggy (2018)
Automatic - Humanoid (2019)
Leigh Ann helped me put this together for the blog and I archived it here. My favorite argument against suicide is that certain moments are worth staying for. From a 2016 reddit thread
: "A sunny spring day, and the rain clouds were moving in. I went past a daycare where a little girl was dancing around, away from all the kids, by herself. You just never know, I thought to myself. What if I had killed myself, all that long time ago."
Nothing here about dying, but it's very sad, and it leads into the next song, by a band that sounds a lot like Big Star's third album.
Benjamin Clementine - Cornerstone (2015)
Again, the lyrics don't mention a suicide, but I like that interpretation.
That edge in her voice is so unsettling.
The lyrics and video are carefully balanced between two interpretations of "I go out."
The band has said that the lyrics are a suicide note from a mother to her son.
This is so similar to Ballad of Hollis Brown that it's almost a cover, and a really good one.
Clearly about a suicide, but I can't imagine the Decemberists ever being that unhappy.
About the poet John Berryman.
I love that weird crescendo.
Band of Horses - The Funeral (2006)
About living on the edge of death as a heroin addict.
Orphans & Vandals - Terra Firma (2009)
A long and challenging song that I didn't appreciate until listening several times.
The first verse is about an experience so wonderful that everything after feels bleak and empty, and that theme has never been done better. Then the song just piles on the lamentations. How depressed do you have to be before oversized drunk girls are a bad thing?
This must be the saddest song possible, because it also has so much beauty.
Unlisted Top Tier
The rest of this page is mostly for my own reference.
The song I want played at my funeral.
My favorite lyrics.
This makes ordinary music sound like it was recorded with a cat sitting on the microphone. Every sonic texture is sharp-edged and beautiful, the mix is airtight, and the high keyboard and electric guitar, at 2:30 and again at 4:00, are brighter than the sun.
Red Fang - Wires (2011)
Esben and the Witch - No Dog (live 2014)
Play it loud.
unknown - Misirlu (1927?)
OOIOO - Ina (1999)
The Kinks - Strangers (1970)
By Dave Davies. Ray is the brains of the Kinks but Dave is the heart.
Michael Stipe says he hates sentimental songs, which means he'll only record one if it's this good.
"September's coming soon, I'm pining for the moon, and what if there were two, side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?"
This has even happier music and sadder lyrics than "Tom Dooley". The narrator is unreliable: his hometown is the depressing place and it's his life that's being wasted.
Orphans & Vandals - Metropes (2009)
This is like an old Kinks song that cynically mocks the elite, but it's darker and stronger. The bit from 3:30-3:42 should last five minutes.
This makes Bohemian Rhapsody sound like children's music.
Sigur Rós - Svefn-g-englar (Sleepwalkers) (1999)
My favorite foreign language song, except for this
This is like the definition of psychedelic folk, unless it's Secret Garden
To my knowledge, the only song with this stunning symmetrical structure: first verse, different verse, chorus, solo, chorus, different verse, first verse.
Harriet Wheeler was the hottest woman who ever recorded a great song. "The only thing I ever really wanted to say, was wrong, was wrong, was wrong."
Instrumentals and Jams
Yo La Tengo - Spec Bebop (1997)
Is it pronounced Space Bebop? This whole thing is actually riffing on a sound near the end of Miles Davis's song Billy Preston.
Like my favorite classical piece, Beethoven's Great Fugue
, this whole album was despised by contemporaries. I don't think either Beethoven or Davis were trying to be weird or difficult. They were just trying to be good
, and they pushed quality so far that almost nobody got it.
Ten minutes of primal space rock with a barrage of low horns playing the same two notes over and over.
Rachel Flowers - Piano Phase (2011)
Probably the biggest influence on my own piano playing.
The Velvet Underground - What Goes On (1969 live)
The first part with vocals is nothing special, but the jam for the last six minutes is unprecedented and all-important in the history of my favorite music.
Sort of a cover of What Goes On.
I love Bob Dylan's voice, and somehow he also did one of my favorite instrumentals. From the soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The Voyager space probes recorded electromagnetic signals from around the solar system, and back on Earth these were converted into sound. Collages of these sounds were released as NASA Voyager Space Sounds, separated into ten 30 minute tracks from different places, and also as Symphonies of the Planets, with different planets blended into five 30 minute CD's. All the prettiest and spookiest stuff, mostly from the rings of Uranus, is on CD 1.
Godspeed You Black Emperor - Gathering Storm (2000)
GYBE took the slow buildup to a whole new level. My other favorites include East Hastings and Moya.
Sting's songwriting was a trick to get people to listen to the genius of Summers and Copeland, which was never better than this.
One of the deepest roots of my favorite newer jam music.
Yes - Würm (1970)
The last section of Starship Trooper. It's no Space Is Deep, but it's still the best jam in prog rock.
This inspired Neil Diamond cover sounds like children's music on acid.
The Beach Boys - Sloop John B (1966)
Brilliant upgrade of a folk song from the Bahamas.
Also the guitar solo covers and improves the Our Man Flint movie theme.
R.E.M. - Crazy (1987)
Originally by Pylon.
Originally by Yoko Ono.
Loreena McKennitt - Greensleeves (1991)
Improvised in one take, and its rawness makes it sort of her best song.
Big Blood - Vitamin C (2007)
Originally by Can.
It's easier to unlock genius by trying to be bad than trying to be good, and this masterpiece of badness must be what Song For Baltimore sounds like to other people. Related: Guy Plays A Cat Organ
, and a mind-blowing version of Greensleeves on Otamatone
Joanna Newsom's "En Gallop" is sort of a cover of this. They have the same theme, the conflict between the world of spirit and the money economy. They use the same uncommon meaning of the word "flesh" for how your body chains you to an unpleasant material world. And the riff near the beginning of "En Gallop" is almost the same riff that starts at 2:09.
Camper Van Beethoven - Lulu Land (1986)
The band's best lyrics were written by David Lowery's otherwise unknown roommate, Paul McKinney. "In Lulu Land the walls are soft and dark, in Lulu Land your secret heart is in command, in Lulu Land."
Joanna Newsom - Sadie (2004)
"And all that we built, and all that we breathed, and all that we spilt, or pulled up like weeds, is piled up in back; and it burns irrevocably."
Best breakup song ever. Check out this interpretation
I love the verse about the birds.
Bob Dylan - Idiot Wind (1975)
I can never resist singing along with this.
Bob Dylan - Visions of Johanna (1966)
Like many of my favorite songs, this is about the tension between the world of spirit (Johanna) and the world of flesh (Louise).
Bob Dylan - Girl From The North Country (1963)
On a good stereo the final harmonica solo is the heaviest thing Bob Dylan has ever played.
Bob Dylan - One More Cup Of Coffee (1976)
After REM's Belong, this is the song I'd play to convince aliens to not exerminate humanity. (If I wanted them to do it, I'd play We Are The World.)
Beat Happening - Tiger Trap (1992)
Dire Straits - Skateaway (1980)
Their most magical song.
Like Skateaway, this is a beautiful song about the divine feminine. It's not as precise or complex, but the whole sound on Communique has a depth that's not on any of their other albums.
Sultans of Swing has a great guitar solo, but otherwise this leaves it in the dust.
Melanie Safka - Lay Down (1970)
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
You have to go back to "Like a Rolling Stone" for a song that's both this good and this influential. After listening to 90's rock inspired by Nirvana, it's incredible to listen to this and hear how much better it is.
Red House Painters - Katy Song (1993)
Not a fan of their sound, but these are great lyrics.
Weird song about the ancient conflict between sedentary and nomadic culture.
U2 - Bad (live 1985)
Originally from his tinny-sounding first album, Gary Numan's best written song sounds
much better live in the movie Urgh! A Music War
Galaxie 500 - Flowers (1988)
This is what reverb was invented for.
The full-length version totally rocks!
The Flaming Lips edge out Neutral Milk Hotel in the category of best band worst name.
I like the KEXP live version best, and made the video with a camera toss image I found on the internet years ago.
The Velvet Underground - Candy Says (1968)
Their best written song. Sung by Doug Yule.
This is like Space Is Deep backwards, with an incredible rising jam in the first half, and pretty good vocals in the second.
This song has never been released or even bootlegged -- you can only hear it by watching the movie Cutter's Way
, and only the first verse plays clearly. I bought the dvd just so I could extract it for the video.
The second best song title ever, after Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun".
I love the structure of this song: a simple 18 note vocal melody repeated 16 times with changing lyrics.
The most mature breakup song I've ever heard.
The superior Gord's Gold version of this song was cut from the CD and to this day has not been offered for sale in digital form. But it has been ripped from vinyl and it's on YouTube now.
Violent Femmes - Never Tell (1984)
More like a collection of scraps than a song, but every scrap is intense and inspired.
The Beatles - Rain (1966)
My favorite Beatles song and Ringo's best drumming. I write more about the Beatles here
Did ZZ Top take their whole sound from this?
Neil Young - Helpless (1970)
Neil Young - The Needle and the Damage Done (1972)
A perfect song, and I love the unexpected quick ending.
Neil Young - Powderfinger (1979)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins - I Put a Spell on You (1956)
The songwriting is nothing special but the performance is one of the most interesting things in the 20th century. Instead of covering it, other artists should try to play their own compositions with this kind of wild intensity.
The Old 97's - Valentine (1999)
Loudon Wainwright - New Paint (1972)
The best version of Kris Kristofferson's best song.
The best classic punk song.
The second best classic punk song, and my favorite band name.
The third best classic punk song.
Flying Burrito Brothers - Sin City (1969)
The original alt-country band.
It's like a post-punk When The Levee Breaks.
Their purest love song, from their brilliant second album, Leave Home
This would make an awesome country song.
Donovan - Atlantis (1968)
The first half is an embarrassing spoken word bit, and the second half, a fourteen syllable repeating chorus, is one of the best things ever.
The Shins - New Slang (2001)
Here's another video
showing the album cover references in that video.
Helicon - Seraph (2017)
This is like the new wave Space Is Deep.
Have A Nice Life - Earthmover (2008)
Again, pretty good song, great jam.
The live version from The Secret Policeman's Other Ball
Forgotten political song about how people are tricked into believing in the system that feeds on them.
Appendix: top by letter of the alphabet
- Argyle Square - Orphans and Vandals
- Belong - R.E.M. (Baal - Exuma)
- Carousel - The Garbage and the Flowers
- Destin Rain - Big Blood
- En Gallop - Joanna Newsom
- Fade Into You - Mazzy Star
- Godsend - Beat Happening
- Holiday - Wireheads (Haystack - Big Blood)
- Indian Summer - Beat Happening
- June - Camper Van Beethoven
- Kangaroo - Big Star
- Lost In America - The Gathering Field
- Mirrorball - Nisennenmondai
- No Gravity Blues - Big Blood
- Once In A Lifetime - Talking Heads (Oh Country - Big Blood)
- Picture Postcard, A - The Promise Ring
- Questioningly - Ramones
- Rise of Quinnisa Rose, The - Big Blood
- Song For Baltimore - Big Blood (Space Is Deep - Hawkwind)
- They Don't Know - Kirsty MacColl
- Untitled - R.E.M.
- Visions of Johanna - Bob Dylan
- Watery Down Pt II, A - Big Blood (Wiggy Giggy - The Lovely Eggs)
- Xanadu - Rush
- You Burnt The Toast - Hana Zara
- Zero - Yeah Yeah Yeahs