30 Years, 30 Songs
As John Mulaney might say, “I’m 30 now. That’s young, but it’s also not.”
Ever since I read Bob Nystrom’s 40 Songs, I knew I wanted to write a list of my own. I’ve been procrastinating on it for a while, but “30 years” slips further away as I inch closer to 31, so it’s time to buckle down and do it.
The list is in rough chronological order, by my relationship to the song — not necessarily when I first heard it, but when it became most important in my life.
1. Wannabe — Spice Girls
Our story starts in 1997. The country is gripped by Spice mania, and Spice Girls lollipops are hot commodities in the schoolyard. I’m in second grade, on a play date with my friend Emily, watching Spice World and making baked potatoes in her fireplace.
As a 90s kid, I feel a moral obligation to start off with the Spice Girls. Though they weren’t the first CD I owned (that honor goes to, if memory serves, the Space Jam soundtrack) the Spice Girls were the first artist I liked with any real agency.
2. A Hard Day’s Night — The Beatles
The Beatles had to show up somewhere on this list, right? They were a terminally uncool band for an elementary schooler to like; I spent lunches enduring barbs from my friends for listening to something so passé. This phase coincided with the heyday of Napster, and I amassed a digital library of their music, waiting hours to download songs that were ultimately confined to the family computer.
The catalyst of my fandom was the movie A Hard Day’s Night. Dozens of Beatles songs are still seared into my brain, but it feels appropriate to pick this one.
3. Bitter — Jill Sobule
Car trips often meant listening to whatever album my parents were into at the time. In the summer of 2000, that album was Jill Sobule’s Pink Pearl. I liked it enough to ask to hear her other albums as well, and the one song I kept coming back to was Bitter. Too young to understand most of the lyrics, I did at least realize that overt references to breasts and the word “bitch” precluded me from choosing it when a teacher asked us to bring songs we liked into class.
My family went to see her at Frank Sinatra Park in Hoboken, and in an uncharacteristic act of bravery, I approached Jill before her set and asked if I could sing this song with her. If she wondered what sort of parents thought this song was appropriate for their nine year old child, she must not have been too bothered, because she invited me onstage. (Crazier still: after her set, we found out that same teacher was in the audience!) We would reprise that performance almost two decades later, after booking her for a house show for my parents’ 60th birthdays.
4. One Step Closer — Linkin Park
Nu metal, for me, didn’t age too well as a genre, but I always thought Linkin Park was a head above their peers. I remember listening to the radio with a blank cassette in my boom box, ready to hit the record button the second I heard that opening guitar riff. When the album dropped, the CD might as well have been permanently installed in my Discman.
At this point, I was too young to go to concerts by myself, so my parents were forced to chaperone. Once, my mom drove me and the girl on whom I had a crush all the way to Nassau Coliseum in the snow to see them play.
Later, I would go through a period of years where I was embarrassed to ever have liked them. These days, I’m embarrassed that I went through that period. Hybrid Theory is a flawless album.
5. Flavor Of The Weak — American Hi-Fi
It’s weird how you can relive otherwise unremarkable moments purely by the music that was playing. I’m in the car on the way a Yankees game, hearing this song for the first time on the radio. My family is driving to Six Flags and I’m fighting with my brother, trying not to admit I don’t know what “too stoned” means. I’m visiting my grandparents in Ben Lomond, running around the house and listening to the CD through my headphones.
American Hi-Fi was just too early to break with the tidal wave of pop-punk bands that inundated the next decade, but this is an album I can still spin front to back.
6. The Middle — Jimmy Eat World
Is there a better encapsulation of 2001 than this song? It was released as the second single from Bleed American, which was renamed Jimmy Eat World in the wake of 9/11. Upon release, it rocketed up the charts, a reminder to a grieving country that everything everything would be alright alright.
(Years on, as the War on Terror picked up steam, it would become increasingly clear that the reminder had been ignored).
Characters in fiction never recognize foreshadowing for what it is. When The Middle came out, I had never heard the word “emo”, and I certainly couldn’t have predicted the impact this band would have on the music I listen to or the artists that make it. I just knew that I liked what I heard. And although other Jimmy Eat World songs have since supplanted this one in my musical pantheon, there was really no other choice for this list.
7. The District Sleeps Alone Tonight — The Postal Service
Such Great Heights was the band’s runaway hit, but I always preferred the darker, more serious mood of this song. Very on brand for me.
On the 10th anniversary tour for Give Up, Ben Gibbard would impart this sage advice about making it in the music industry: “just put out an album, do nothing for ten years and then come back to play to a stadium full of people.”
8. Grand Theft Autumn / Where Is Your Boy — Fall Out Boy
Listening to 92.3 K-Rock in the early 2000s, I had heard my share of pop-punk songs, but the radio omitted a crucial bit of context. They were only spinning the tip of the iceberg, while there was a whole scene thriving just below the surface. I found out about Fall Out Boy from a girl I was trying to impress, and I was blown away that something like this could exist without being on the radio (of course, not too much later, it would be).
Although Fall Out Boy wasn’t the first third-wave emo band I heard, they were easily the most pivotal. I mention that I found out about them before their mainstream success not to flex any hipster credentials, but because it was the moment in which I realized that I could discover music on my own.
9. The Girl I Can’t Forget — Fountains of Wayne
It was tough finding a place for Fountains of Wayne on this list. Not because there are so few memories, but so many, woven throughout my childhood like a pattern on a quilt.
The obvious pick would be Stacy’s Mom, which I cajoled my seventh grade class into singing as we walked through the halls of our school. But that doesn’t feel right. My parents had been big Fountains of Wayne fans from the start, and they made it known how silly it was that the group nabbed a Best New Artist Grammy nom for their third album. Those first two releases are chock full of bops, but for some reason I’m drawn to this one — a single from Out of State Plates, an album of B-sides that I played on repeat while away at camp.
10. The Only Difference Between Martyrdom And Suicide Is Press Coverage — Panic! at the Disco
If Fall Out Boy was a musical treasure map, then Panic! at the Disco was my shovel striking the buried chest. I’d known a latent scene was waiting to be discovered, and now I knew where to find it: on my friend Diana’s MySpace.
When I pine for the old days of the web, this is the memory that’s most painful. There was something special about being a teenager online in the 2000s, before things became algorithmic and corporatized. You could create a space that was uniquely you: aesthetic, music, friends, personality. Not just your content in a generic feed, mined by amoral companies looking to sell off your data in order to show you ads.
11. The Truth About Heaven — Armor for Sleep
I don’t remember when I first heard this song, or even this band, but it would be impossible to leave them out. They were the soundtrack to my teenage years, and it’s not a close competition.
If you ask me today, my favorite song of theirs is Frost and Front Steps, and my favorite show is when my parents ate their anniversary dinner at an Outback Steakhouse in Sayreville so my friend Seth and I could see them play Starland Ballroom. If you’d asked me at the time, though, my favorite show would have been seeing them at Bamboozle — my first ever music festival! — and my favorite song would have been this one.
12. Blankest Year — Nada Surf
I could have easily missed Nada Surf. I was a few years too young for their only big hit, Popular, which came out in ‘99. Luckily, my parents were too cool for their age, and Nada Surf found a permanent spot in my music collection.
There are plenty of songs I could have picked, but anyone who’s seen them live knows it has to be Blankest Year. The dancy beat, the extended outro, the whole audience screaming a cappella “FUCK IT!” Some songs are personal experiences between music and listener, and some are group therapy sessions, where everyone in the audience merges into a single consciousness bouncing to the beat. As soon as you hear that telltale kick! snare! kick! snare! you know it’s going to be the latter.
13. My Own Worst Enemy — Lit
In my senior year of high school, I decided on a whim to teach myself guitar. I would come home from school and spend hours in the basement, practicing switching between two chords, then three, then four. Eventually, I worked myself up to playing full songs, and this one was simple enough to be the first.
14. Me And Zoloft Get Along Just Fine — Dance Gavin Dance
Dance Gavin Dance is a band that never should have worked. They took every genre they had even a passing interest in, threw them in a blender and poured out hardcore songs. They replaced their original singer, Jonny Craig — whose R&B-inspired vocals would spawn hordes of imitators — and then dropped a sophomore album that was just as good as the first. In fact, almost all of their members were constantly rotating, like a little league team trying to make sure every kid got a chance to play. I first saw them, like many bands in that era, at the School of Rock in South Hackensack.
Enamored as I was with Dance Gavin Dance, I thought they were unknown enough that I was part of a somewhat exclusive club. Imagine the surprise when my future college roommate Chris — late at night, as we were getting to know each other over AIM — revealed that they were one of his favorite bands too. In that exact moment, we both knew an enduring friendship had just taken root.
15. Carry On — Valencia
Years prior, when my younger brother Kevin was first getting into music, I had taken him to see Armor for Sleep play at the School of Rock. The opener was a band named Valencia, whom I had heard of but my brother had not. He loved them — and through osmosis, I came to as well.
They were from Philly, so I got to see them a bunch when I went to Drexel for college. The most fun was a whirlwind weekend in which Kevin and I saw them three times. He came down on Friday to catch the singer, Shane Henderson, play an acoustic set at a local bar (after a nascent Man Overboard, who sold me a self-printed EP in a manila folder sleeve). The next day, we took a bus back up to New Jersey to see them play a memorial show for an employee at School of Rock who’d recently passed away. Finally, we went back down to Philly the next day to be extras in the video for this song.
16. Blame Game — Kanye West
Up to this point, you could credibly describe any issues I had as teenaged histrionics. My life wasn’t perfect, of course, but I had never experienced any real loss as sentient human being.
That was about to change. My most vivid memory of this song is playing it as I walked from Drexel’s campus in University City to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. I was visiting my Pop-Pop, who was fighting against a brain tumor in a battle he would ultimately lose.
17. New Storms For Older Lovers — La Dispute
A common pejorative for the mid 2000s emo scene was “mall rock” — vapid, overproduced music designed to sell CDs and T-shirts at Hot Topic. It was a thoroughly rockist critique, put forth by people who saw no contradiction in shelling out to see classic rock bands play arena tours. Although some of the lyrics don’t move me like they once did, there’s not a single band on this list on which I regret spending so much time.
All that said. When I first heard La Dispute, I felt a rawness and sophistication many of those bands lacked. Jordan Dreyer delivered eloquent poetry and prose, as much spoken word as it was screamed, over a chaotic progressive hardcore backline. Simultaneously aggressive and vulnerable, La Dispute was the intensely emotional band I needed during the dissolution of my first serious relationship.
Unexpectedly, my dad — who, modulo an abiding love for Hüsker Dü, generally avoids hardcore bands — also got into them. I suppose they’re very literary, and he’s an English professor. Whatever the case, we saw them a bunch of times around New York City.
18. Crew Love — Drake
Punctuating a list mostly filled by punk bands with Kanye and then Drake makes me feel like a walking Hard Times article. That said, I think Take Care was fairly natural bridge from those bands to a wider musical world. It was “emo rap” before emo rap was a thing. My brother played this album for me, and while I was initially resistant, the infectious hooks and introspective lyrics won me over.
This song also introduced me to The Weeknd, and if this spot had to go to a different song, it would probably be Wicked Games.
19. Maggot Brain — Funkadelic
Venture a bit further into my left field and you’ll find Maggot Brain. At the time, my favorite bands’ guitar work mainly consisted of power chords and octaves. This was something entirely different. I would sit in my room, put on my headphones and zone out, mesmerized by Eddie Hazel’s otherworldly shredding.
20. Pictures On My Wall — XV
When he was a senior in high school, my brother and his friends started a rap group. They spent a lot of time recording in my parents’ basement, and I would hang out with them there on weekends home from college. Of the rappers to whom they introduced me, XV was the most interesting. Many of his songs were silly or nerdy, but this one stood out to me — a story about the posters of rappers he idolized hanging in his room.
I saw XV once, when my brother’s rap group opened for him at the Studio at Webster Hall. After that, he was signed by Warner Bros, but for some reason would never really materialize.
21. I’m Still A Loner, Dottie — Troubled Coast
Troubled Coast was a criminally underrated band that I never got to see live. I first heard them on the late Turntable.fm, which was a source of many new bands until its untimely demise at the hands of record labels.
This song was from their stellar EP I’ve Been Thinking About Leaving You. A calmer song nestled between two absolute bangers, it was an unlikely candidate to become my favorite. But where the others exuded existential angst, Dottie had a melancholy anguish — and as someone in my early 20s trying to figure out love and loss, I could relate.
22. Crave You (Adventure Club Remix) — Flight Facilities
While I was neck deep in emo, I was ignoring a burgeoning electronic music scene. By the time I was old enough to go to clubs, it had hit the mainstream, and I spent many late nights and early mornings showing off my utter lack of coordination on dance floors around New York.
Naturally, I gravitated toward DJs that shared the same musical roots. My friend Cynthia, with whom I had been going to rock shows for years, suggested I check out Adventure Club. They had remixed Brand New and Alexisonfire, and they played Bring Me the Horizon and A Day to Remember in their sets. We packed seven people into a Toyota Corolla and drove down to DC and back in one night to see them play.
One of their members, Leighton James, also loved glassJAw — a common interest that led to a Twitter friendship, and then a real life friendship.
23. Vacation Bible School — Tiny Moving Parts
The first time I heard Tiny Moving Parts, I didn’t know what I was listening to. Apart from La Dispute and the rest of the bands in the The Wave, skramz had never really been my thing. But this band made it sound almost… happy? I couldn’t tell which part I liked best — the frantic tapping, the dissonant chords or the constant time signature changes. I had just discovered math rock.
I first saw Tiny Moving Parts opening for Modern Baseball in the Marlin Room at Webster Hall. I was on a date. The romance quickly fizzled, but the band stuck around, and I would see them play many more times after that.
24. Never Meant — American Football
Chill indie rock was never going to be my thing at 15… much less 9, my age when this song was released. By 24, though, I was ready — and with the emo revival in full swing, so was everyone else.
I caught the American Football reunion tour when it came through NYC in Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom. I would later learn that my babygotbacktalk partner in crime G’Ra was also in attendance, shortly after shipping down from Boston, remarking to his friend “I wouldn’t be surprised if a future bandmate is here right now.”
25. One Man Drinking Games — Mayday Parade
I’ve only ever been in one real love triangle. I met a girl, Sarah, at work, and we had chemistry — but she had a boyfriend. After trying to convince myself that I wasn’t into her, and failing, I played this song to wallow in my futile feelings.
Years later, I would play it at our wedding.
26. St. Patrick — PVRIS
Shortly after that boyfriend exited the picture, Sarah and I went to see PVRIS at the Studio at Webster Hall. I’d seen them before at the Ernie Ball stage on Warped Tour, but now they were on the cusp on blowing up, and I knew that it would be the last chance we’d have to see them in a venue so small.
Our tastes in music would take some time to converge, but St. Patrick was a song we could agree on from the jump.
27. There’s Alot Going On — Vic Mensa
I think I’m cursed to never see Vic Mensa live. Traffic prevented me from seeing him at Coachella, rain prevented me from seeing him at Governor’s Ball and a long line prevented me from seeing him at the makeup show at Webster Hall.
In a way, this song reminds me of early La Dispute: a structureless, diary-esque outpouring of emotions and story, delivered in a single long verse. The political tracks on the EP such as 16 Shots turned out to have more staying power in my rotation, but it was a long time before I took this song off repeat.
28. Jesus Christ — Brand New
When I was younger, I thought that liking Taking Back Sunday meant I had already picked a side in their feud with Brand New. As a result, I slept on the latter for far too long. My friend Cynthia forgave me, and we spent the better part of our twenties chasing them around the east (and west!) coasts. They ended unceremoniously, when at the height of #MeToo it came out that the singer Jesse Lacey had preyed upon underage girls years earlier.
Rewind back to a couple months before that news. To promote their new album Science Fiction — their first in nearly a decade — Brand New booked a tour with Nada Surf, and I moved mountains to see them play. My parents and I drove down to see them at the Tower Theater. After playing onstage, Nada Surf played a bonus acoustic set in the lobby, and then hung around to chat with us after. Brand New gave a fantastic hour-and-a-half performance, playing new songs to keep it fresh and enough classics to make the old fans happy.
It would be the last time I ever saw them. I’ve managed to keep the memories compartmentalized from my feelings about the band in general, to whom I have not felt the urge to listen since.
29. Goose — Polyphia
Familiar as I was with most genres even tangentially related to math rock and hardcore, Polyphia still threw me for a loop. Where emo rap paired traditional hip hop production techniques with sung vocals, Polyphia took the opposite approach — starting out as an instrumental prog metal band, then replacing the rhythm section with trap-inspired electronic drum kits.
When I first heard this song, I was driving upstate. Instantly hooked, cautiously bumping the stereo up notch by notch so I could hear better without disturbing Sarah asleep in the passenger’s seat.
30. Standing Alone — Armor for Sleep
If you’ve ever had to suffer through a playlist I’ve made, you know that my single most sacrosanct commandment is to never repeat an artist. Well, rules are made to be broken, and there’s no more “me” way to break this one than with a B-side from the 15th anniversary edition of Armor for Sleep’s What to Do When You Are Dead.
30 is a weird age. You are unambiguously an adult, but you can see your youth right there in the rear view — almost tangibly close, slowly shrinking further and further into the horizon.
Maybe that’s why unearthing an old demo from a throwback band evokes such a dissonant combo of freshness and nostalgia. It’s a new lens on something you thought was intimately familiar, a remastered version of your memories. The song plays, and the distance collapses.
I’m 9, singing with Jill Sobule at Sinatra Park.
I’m 15, crowd surfing to Armor for Sleep at Bamboozle.
I’m 18, practicing guitar chords in my basement.
I’m 23, on the dance floor at Pacha at 4am.
I’m 30, marrying the love of my life.
The Ataris warned that being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up. But I am all those Jakes, they are all me, and there’s no reason that getting older means leaving your past selves behind.