Music when you’re mad
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What music do you reach for when you’re really, really angry? And do you go for something that mirrors your rage, calms you down, or something else entirely?
Right at the moment, I’m trying to get through a massive backlog of work in spite of computer problems that are making everything five times as hard as it needs to be, so I can really relate to this question as I attempt to find music on said computer that will keep me from tossing the damn thing through a window. Lately my go-to music for pretty much everything has been Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More, an album that’s gotten me through a lot of frustration. It both expresses my rage and calms me down, because it alternates between those modes with its rise-and-fall dynamics. “I Gave You All” in particular goes from a full-band roar of fury down to a low, a cappella moan of pain. An awful lot of the anger in the song is self-directed, but the unknown recipient, the “you” in the song, comes in for a share of the blame for not appreciating whatever the singer was trying to offer. The specifics don’t matter; the emotion, that feeling of jilted, lonely frustration, does. The other songs vary in tone and energy, but they all fit somewhere on that scale between blazing anger and the cathartic exhaustion that follows, and it’s a great album to help wind me up, then ease me down afterward.
Pegboy is far from the angriest band in the world. In fact, the legendary Chicago punk outfit specializes in earworms full of singsong choruses that more often than not feel fist-pumpingly triumphant. But there’s always a dark, bitter, brooding side to even the catchiest Pegboy anthem. When I’m pissed off for whatever reason, it’s the perfect music, a tightrope-walk between sadness and rage that won’t let me steep in either. Case in point: The group’s 1991 classic, “Strong Reaction,” in which gruff frontman Larry Damore grunts and bellows, seething and melodic, about pain, loss, loneliness, broken hearts, and just about every other form of emotional desolation. He may not win in the end, but he’s sure as fuck going down with some scorched earth and burned bridges behind him. That’s my kind of anger management.
I don’t get truly angry all that often, but when I am, I want something propulsive, something that seems to match the way anger feels like a pot that’s boiled over, something that makes me want to go running as fast as I can for miles and miles and miles. And that means I’m going to turn to “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds. This is one of the most relentless, driving songs ever written, and every time it seems like it might plateau or level out, it adds another element or another tempo change to take things up to another level. Just listening to it feels like a workout, like getting all that angry energy out in an intense exercise routine. Putting this one on eternal repeat on the ol’ iPod has gotten me through more than a few bad days, and something about it calms me down, as unlikely as that might seem.
When I’m angry, I tend to listen to the music of an angry young man: Elvis Costello. It’s satisfying to sing along to the snarl and lip-curl written into his early songs about relationships gone awry, but like working on a punching bag, faking the aggression always ends up making me feel better. A great, albeit obvious, example is Costello’s “I’m Not Angry,” which is both a great angry song and a funny one, not only for the self-denying title, but the whispers of “Angry!” over the chorus. I might be angry when I start singing it, but I’m usually pretty happy by the end, which is not a bad emotional turnaround for three minutes.
There’s plenty of angry-sounding music in my collection, but I’ve generally been drawn to metal or other aggro genres because of how clearly they express and understand an existing side to my psyche. It’s a shared, almost unconscious relationship. On the other hand, if there’s a band arriving at its sound from a totally alien experience that still has a noticeable, chemical affect on my neurology, it’s Sigur Rós. It inspires me out of depression, steers me from anger, and liquefies my anxiety. Sigur Rós is my go-to artist for when I’m feeling moody, period. To that end, its discography is almost flawless—and positively psychoactive.
If I’m angry, I need to get out my negative energy, and get it out fast. When that happens, I call up Nine Inch Nails’ EP Broken. Released between Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, it’s a lean, mean eight-song collection that features some of the fastest, heaviest material in Trent Reznor’s body of work. Not as electronic as Machine, nor as melodic as Spiral, Broken is a nearly non-stop explosion of aggression punctuated by minor interludes in which I can barely catch my breath. “Wish” was the hit single from this record, but “Last” is the tune I generally scream along to when the mood arises. It’s not the specific lyrics that appeal so much as the emotion behind them.
Kenny pretty much stole my answer: Sigur Rós. I can’t do angry music; I have to do something relaxed, something to achieve serenity. But since Kenny’s already got them well-covered, I’ll cheat a little and extend this to the Sigur Rós spin-off Jonsi & Alex (a.k.a. Sigur Rós’ Jon Þór Birgisson and Parachutes‘ Alex Somers). Not surprisingly, given that Jonsi fronts Sigur Rós and Alex has worked with the band (including mixing its excellent upcoming LP, Valtari), their record has a strong resemblance to older Sigur Rós, but much denser and more shapeless, unfolding sprawling soundscapes over eight to 10 minutes. And within these soundscapes are mini-symphonies, repeating on loop, like the gorgeous strings on “Happiness.” It’s the perfect soundtrack for taking a deep breath, letting the anger clear, and letting anxiety and panic and all the other fun emotions that come with anger subside.
I don’t like being angry, a statement some people who know me might think sounds like LeBron James saying he doesn’t like being tall. I do like a lot of high-energy music made by people with chips on their shoulders, but maybe because I find it so easy to go from mild irritation to wall-punching, mind-clouding, frothing rage, I find those moments call for music that’s more likely to cool me out than fan the fire. For most of my life, I’ve been using Creedence Clearwater Revival as a dependable mood-stabilizer, especially those happy-go-lucky songs (“Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “It Came Out Of The Sky”) that I imagine John Fogerty himself might have written as a form of escape when his last nerve was being worked by his less-talented bandmates. When I’m already out on the ledge, I put on Silver City, a cherry-picking best-of assembled from Sonny Rollins’ middle-to-late period that could make Alexander the Great abandon his aggressive urges in favor of going to the park to practice the pan flute.
I’m generally not into electronic music, but Vitalic’s “La Rock 1” and “Poney Pt. 1” are fantastic for wallowing in pissiness, then gradually surmounting it. They’re both repetitive, minor, vaguely dissonant, aggressive, and angry-sounding, and either on repeat is a highly satisfying soundtrack for slouching down, folding your arms, narrowing your eyes, and losing yourself in a loop of killer belated comebacks. But at its core, Vitalic is just so goddamn European and ridiculous that after a few listens on repeat, it’s impossible to take the songs, perceived slights, or myself seriously. Vitalic isn’t initially cheerful enough to be auto-dismissed when I’m locked into crankiness, but it can infiltrate a bad mood like a sheep in wolf’s clothing. (Mental images of the airborne dogs in the “Poney Pt. 1” video don’t hurt, either.)
Unlike many of y’all, I like to engage my bad moods rather than try to soothe them, so when it comes to a rare truly angry day, I’ll turn to more rocking fare from my past, like Quicksand’s Slip or Helmet’s Meantime, the latter of which is conveniently titled for such an occasion. (Get it? We’re having some mean time!) Both of those records actually hold up remarkably well, though I’ll bring out Quicksand (along with its second record, Manic Compression) far more than Helmet, which seems totally ’90s at times.
Totally agree with Josh here. I can listen to sad music when I’m sad. When I’m mad, I’d much rather listen to something fierce. That’s why my go-to is At The Gates’ Slaughter Of The Soul. Somehow, melodic Swedish death metal simultaneously works me into a fugue state of anger before bringing me down to a nice mellow mild pissiness. Stomping along with this record allows me to both embrace my anger and work my way through it.
I’ve found that the specific disgust and dismissal of Ryan Adams’ “Burning Photographs”—which I’m pretty sure is about breaking up about Winona Ryder, but then so are a lot of rock songs from the mid-’90s through the mid-’00s—can be applied to just about any situation in which I need to start thinking, “No. Fuck you. I’m better than this.” Or as Adams puts it: “I used to be sad, now I’m just bored with you.”
For a song to play when you’re pissed off, can you beat the title “Maximum Piss & Vinegar”? Probably not. It’s from Versus God, the goddamn fantastic second album by Minnesota punk band Dillinger Four. I was going through a rage-prone period when the album came out in 2000, and this song provided appropriately angry catharsis, especially when played at high volume. (Let me now offer a belated apology to my downstairs neighbors.) The best is its brass-knuckled “fuck you” of a chorus, “And I’d like to be the one to wipe that smile off your face / to let you taste the bitterness that passing time has not erased / And when the house of cards you built has finally toppled in decline / I hope the punishment and pain will last a lifetime.” I hope the punishment and pain will last a lifetime! So bitter! The whole song is like that, a seething—but catchy!—kiss-off with a palpable sense of menace. A dozen years later, it’s still an effective soundtrack for a particularly bad mood.
Laura M. Browning
When I was 26, my great-grandmother died. She was 97 and the sort of person I thought might just beat the odds and live forever. During the days before and after her funeral, I was put in charge of errands that mostly consisted of spending a lot of time driving alone. To keep from crying (and wrecking the car), I blared the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” on a loop for four or five days. Even though my great-grandma was old, she died quickly enough that what kept bubbling up felt more like rage than sadness. “I Wanna Be Sedated” is the ideal catharsis for the second stage of grief: It has simple lyrics, a tune that even I can yell along to, and a plea for an anodyne. At the time, I just needed to shout and beg for tranquility, but it’s still my go-to rage song. The bonus is that when I listen to it now, it also reminds me of my great-grandma.
There are different depths of being mad, so sometimes I want to embrace the whole being-pissed-off thing, and sometimes I know I shouldn’t be angry and I try to calm myself down. When it’s the former, the go-to song now and forever will be Sex Pistols’ “Bodies,” as there’s nothing quite like screaming along with Johnny Rotten during the whole “fuck this and fuck that” bit. For the latter, it’s Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds all the way. It’s not impossible to wind up somewhere in the middle, though, but I’ve got a song for that, too: Damone’s “Frustrated Unnoticed.” Ever since the band’s major-label debut, From The Attic, hit stores in 2003, that track has served as an instant cure whenever I feel like my efforts—be they journalistic or personal—aren’t being appropriately recognized. I put it on the CD player, and three minutes later, my ego’s back in check and I feel refreshed. It’s amazing what a little head-banging and fist-pounding can do to clear your head.
Truth be told, I’m more likely to give my wife an earful than to crank up the tunes when my blood pressure boils these days. But if I had to blast something, I’d probably pick the only song that’s ever made me want to start a fight just for the fun of it: The Supersuckers’ “Fisticuffs.” The don’t-fuck-with-me message doesn’t hurt, but its cathartic power really comes from the rocket-fuelled riff and a beat that begs for neck sprain. Cue that and Rocket From The Crypt’s “Drop Out” back-to-back, and by the time you’re done throwing yourself around the room, you won’t remember what got you mad in the first place.
I find there’s no better vehicle for defying anger and frustration than The Mountain Goats’ “This Year.” It’s not the most pointed dose of rage from singer-songwriter John Darnielle, but that’s not the point: “This Year” is a song about breaking through, moving on, and assuring yourself that while things look bad right now, they’re not going to destroy you. When he’s not repeating the refrain like a mantra, Darnielle grinds his teeth through a narrative drawn from his own troubled youth, placing himself among a lineage of angry young men by drawing from (cars, girls) and adding to (arcade games, pilfered Scotch) the Guide To Rock ’N’ Roll Metaphors For Escape. The escape routes are all futile and fleeting—the quarters run out, the alcohol wears off, the car returns to its driveway—but underneath it all, Alex Decarville’s snare drum clicks away like a piston, each beat a reminder: “I am gonna make it / I am gonna make it / I am gonna make it.” Anger’s always lurking around the corner, but here’s an engine that can help you speed past it.
For me, nothing beats a healthy dose of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking when my blood is boiling. The combination of jackhammer drum-machine beats, janky guitar, and Steve Albini’s tortured yowl epitomizes my anger and helps me vent it by punching the air instead of the stupid face of whoever actually pissed me off. That’s a win, in my book.
Like many of my colleagues here, when my entire soul is quivering with uncontrollable rage, I can go one of two ways: I can try to tame the beast inside, or I can try to inflame it. For the latter, I tend to go for songs that speak powerfully to the anger overtaking me—defiant, anarchic ragers like Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues” and “The Man Comes Around,” or Ghostface Killah’s “The Champ,” a breast-beating masterpiece of outsized bravado whose loopy structure finds a comeback-hungry Ghostface Killah being coached, taunted, and prodded by characters representing Burgess Meredith’s crusty trainer from Rocky and Mr. T’s belligerent champ from Rocky III. It’s spectacularly, transcendently silly, but oh Lord, does it get the blood rushing. When I want to tame the beast, I often choose the work of R. Kelly, particularly his insanely peppy Happy People album (a potent musical anti-depressant recorded at the height of his child-porn scandal) and “Heaven I Need A Hug,” a perverse message song about, well, just about anything. So when I’m angry, I either reach for music that expresses my rage, or begs God for a hug. Yep, that about defines me, musically and otherwise.
To really tap into a time when I was nothing but angry at myself and the world, I have to go back to a period in my mid-to-late-20s when I was single, lonely, directionless, and miserable. On top of everything, I had a longstanding crush on a co-worker who had a boyfriend, but refused to cut me loose from a friendship she knew was going to end badly. (I wrote about that cringe-inducing time in my life for the now-defunct Jane magazine.) Whenever she—or more likely, her boyfriend—would piss me off, I’d go home and put on “I’m The One” by The Descendents. The song was one of the many songs about a guy who loves a girl who cries on his shoulder about her dicky boyfriend but won’t even give him a second romantic look. But unlike most of those songs, it’s dripping with anger and bitterness, which is what you feel when you’re in the immature throes of unrequited love. I just played the video right before I typed this, and all the old angry feelings of 1998 came flooding back. Thank friggin’ God I’m married now and don’t have to deal with this shit anymore.
My angry go-to is The Wrens’ The Meadowlands, an all-time favorite in general. Screwed over by their former label, the New Jerseyites recorded their third album over four frequently demoralized years, and their left-behind frustration is audible in every minute. The first song is “The House That Guilt Built,” and the end has them screaming “This Is Not What You Had Planned.” Between those bookends are 11 songs where even the guitar solos sound furiously resigned; The Wrens aren’t just mad, they’re made even angrier by awareness of their marginalization and lack of power. This is a level of years-built-up pissed-off-ness I haven’t racked up the years to match, but it energizes and complements my bad mood every time.