Songs we save for a specific season
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‘Tis the season when practically every media outlet starts publishing stories about “the songs of summer,” and the music we whip out when we head to the beach or pool. (The A.V. Club isn’t immune; we did our original AVQ&A on “songs that feel most like summer” around this time two years ago.) But is music really that seasonal? Are there any songs you only listen to at a particular time of year?
The summer-song phenomenon fascinates me, because for the most part, I really don’t have music I set aside in the summer with my sweaters, or pull out in spring along with my sandals. I can’t help but wonder whether the entire idea of the summer song is just driven by the idea that we’re all more likely to hear each other’s music when we’re all driving around with our car windows down, or leaving our apartment windows open, or listening to music in public spaces, so suddenly it seems like we’re all listening to the same soundtrack. But anyway. My only real seasonal song has nothing to do with summer: It’s Kristin Hersh’s “Your Ghost,” a song that’s always summed up the melancholy of autumn for me. It’s the one song I reliably pull out every year at a certain time, when the leaves start dropping and the wind picks up and the air gets cold, because the melody sounds like all those things to me at once.
Despite Death In June’s (kind of) summery name, I just can’t listen to the group when the sun is bright and the breeze blows warm. So it stays tucked away in my hard drive until shit starts icing over—which in my hometown of Denver is later than you might think. In fact, Denver is one of the sunniest cities in the country (no lie), so sometimes it’s November-ish before I can comfortably break out Death In June classics like 1986’s black-humored The World That Summer and get my glum on. When it was released, the band’s leader, Douglas P., had just crept out from under the industrial shadows of Joy Division and Killing Joke and into his chilling folk phase. The World That Summer is as stark and bleak as the apocalyptic winters I only wish Denver had.
I also don’t have music that’s specific to a season, although I maybe listen to a little more pop-punk in the summer and a little more Weakerthans in the winter. But I have marked the start of fall the same way every year since I bought Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising when I was 14. “Celebrated Summer” isn’t a summery song by any stretch, but it is the perfect blend of melancholy and muscle for saying goodbye to the best months of the year and preparing for the freeze. When I was a teenager, that meant lying on my bedroom floor and mourning the end of freedom and the start of a new school year. Now I mostly just jam it while I try to come up with a convincing plan for making summer office hours a year-round thing.
I’m sure it has everything to do with when I first heard it—in the middle of a long, dark, frankly crappy December—but I always associate the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World with winter, and tend to break it out when the weather turns cold. It’s a great collection that includes contributions from R.E.M., Lou Reed, my favorite Nick Cave song, a great Kinks cover from Elvis Costello, and more. Frankly, it’s better as an album than the film is as a film—though I’d love to see the director’s cut, which is reputed to work better even though it has a ridiculously long running time. And it sounds like winter to me.
There’s plenty of music I associate, loosely, with various seasons, but the only hard-and-fast seasonal song I have is Deep Dish’s “Summer’s Over.” True to its name, the song’s crisp beat, wavering synths, and hints of melancholic melody are a perfect fit for that first day when the cool breaks cold and you realize that the last of summer is gone and fall has arrived for real. For that reason, I break out the 12-inch I bought during my DJ days and play it, once a year, every year, when that day arrives.
I have a few records I associate strongly with summer—John Phillips’ John, The Wolf King Of L.A.; Beach Boys’ un-Beach Boys record Carl & The Passions—“So Tough.” But for me, the most musical of all seasons is autumn. Built around Halloween, and its more patently pagan cousin, Samhain, fall is great for listening to metal music, from the folksy to the more demonstrably heavy. As the leaves wither and the days grow shorter, nature (the devil’s playground) feels fully alive, even as it’s in the process of dying. I put together a Samhain playlist over at The A.V. Club’s Toronto site a while ago, full of songs that suit the moodiness of autumn. But of all of these, it’s Black Widow’s record Sacrifice—and especially its sing-along Samhain anthem, “Come To The Sabbat”—that most fully captures the season, when demons and evil spirits seem to tread closest to our realm.
Not sure why, but when I think of summer, I think of “Into The Groove” by Madonna. Not just because it was attached to one of the 1980s’ biggest summer flops, the so-bad-it-hurts Desperately Seeking Susan, but I can just hear the strains coming out of my radio as the “wacky” team at the Z Morning Zoo on Z100 in New York played it over and over. I think this particular song sticks in my head as a summer song because I may have had it on a few tapes of Scott Shannon and company I made off the radio that I took to sleepaway camp in 1985, the year the single and movie were released. It was a pretty brutal summer, coming in during the last four weeks in the oldest group, when most of the campers had already had weeks, if not years, to bond. Between that, my social awkwardness, and my inability to handle pranks, it was torture. Having tapes of the Z Morning Zoo probably made things even worse. Why didn’t I just listen to Howard Stern, like the rest of the 14-year-olds?
I don’t consciously pull out particular music during particular seasons, but I’m pretty positive I do it unconsciously. When the sun is shining, I’m much less likely to reach for what Kyle Ryan calls sad-bastard music, like Low. But since a huge chunk of my music collection consists of said sad-bastard music, I sometimes scan my CD shelves (yes, I do still have CDs, thank you very much) for something sunny. Frequently, funnily enough, it’s actually angry hip-hop that jumps out at me, especially N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and, even more frequently, DMX’s …And Then There Was X. Yes, I realize you’re going to picture me driving along in my Honda Civic with the sunroof open, singing “You wack / you twisted / your girl’s a ho / you’re broke, the kid ain’t yours / and everybody know / your old man say you stupid / you be like “So? I love my baby-mother, I never let her go.” But I’m still going to be doing it and enjoying myself.
I am not too proud to admit that for a solid month or so, I would listen to Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s “California Gurls” every morning immediately upon waking up. It was, and remains, the quintessential summer song, a sunny, frothy cupcake of a sticky-sweet concoction I can’t imagine listening to during any season other than summer. It’s tacky, disposable, in questionable taste, and in its own glib, utterly superficial way, strangely irresistible. Sure, it’s calculating, but it’s also a shimmering, swooning piece of pure pop, and the ultimate soundtrack to a substance-free summer.
Bob Seger’s Night Moves was the first record I ever bought that wasn’t a comedy album, and it’s always made me think of that period when the last days of summer shade into the first breezes of fall, though that’s only part of the reason I remember it as having been my real introduction to the concept of “autumnal.” (Bob Seger, meet Anton Chekhov. Anton, Bob.) Maybe only a journeyman rocker from Detroit could have been so well equipped to capture the feeling of that season when he was only, as he announced on the album’s opening cut, “sweet 16 turned 31,” but at the time, I hadn’t finished losing my baby teeth, and I thought being old enough to be full of regret about the passing of summer and the options that come with it sounded like the coolest thing imaginable. I headed towards adolescence thinking I couldn’t wait to be a nostalgic, broken-down old fart. Be careful what you wish for, kids!
No music-crit adjective catches my attention as quickly as “autumnal,” and a small chunk of my CD collection—no, Josh, you aren’t the only one hanging onto easily damaged, overpriced pop artifacts—went untouched during the four years I lived in Austin, Texas, a land where fall is but a fanciful notion. When I moved to Chicago in 2011, it wasn’t long before I was visited by crisp temperatures, changing leaves, and a new, appropriately wistful-and-chilly soundtrack for enhancing those seasonal signifiers: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy. The album ended up being my favorite of 2011, but I haven’t had much occasion to cue it up during the ensuing winter and spring months—the martial shuffle of the LP’s title track just doesn’t sound right without the crunch of dead foliage underfoot.
As one of those guys who used to be obsessive about making themed mix-tapes in the ’80s and ’90s, I have an unsurprising tendency to associate seasons with songs that actually include the names of the seasons in their titles. So, you know, we’re talking things like The Go-Betweens’ “Spring Rain,” The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade Of Winter,” and… well, you get the idea. When it comes to summer, though, I instantly think of John Wesley Harding’s “Summer Single,” for reasons beyond just its title. The song itself may be a bit obscure—as far as I know, the only place it appears is on Wes’ 1993 Pett Levels: The Summer EP, which remains readily available via Amazon for the cost of a mere penny—but it’s a sparkling little bit of Andy Paley-produced pop perfection that pays tribute to the concept of songs that exist solely to catch listeners’ ears and serve as their soundtrack while they’re cruising around town with their windows rolled down. On his website, Wes even acknowledges that it’s “the kind of song that should just come out on a single, and this is the nearest we could get.” It doesn’t matter what month of the year I spin the song. It still instantly transports me to somewhere squarely within the window of June, July, and August.
I was wondering why I didn’t have an answer for this one, until I read Erik’s answer, then realized, “Right, I live in California.” That said, there’s a very particular kind of song that suggests January in California to me. Others would scoff at our idea of “cold,” but where I live, it can get into the 30s at night. The Christmas decorations have come down. The stores are settling back into their yearlong malaise, and everything is grey. It’ll probably even rain a few times—unheard of here. And when that month, the only one that could be qualified as a “season” here, arrives, I inevitably break out The National’s “So Far Around The Bend,” one of my favorite songs the band ever did. It’s an intriguing stylistic departure from its usual material, but it carries the promise of better days just around the corner. That’s something that’s often needed in January, even in California.