Maybe you’ve read the Pitchfork or Stereogum lists thinking about how to encapsulate the way music transforms and shifts you; trying to figure out how it does so for others, figuring out what has moved you and what also excels technically. Lists are kind of shitty, and we can debate over patterns: why technicality and trends are at times praised over genuinely, or what truly defines influence in circles that are so secluded. In the end, there’s a common love and struggle in putting into words these inexplicable things that as easily divide as they unite us.
There’s no reason to value my list. What I can offer however, is another take after seeing these 200 song-long collective curations–having lived this decade through music and records that were essentially formative. I sometimes recall the moment I was transformed and had found my first outlet in music in a summer in the Philippines, back in middle school, listening to America’s Suitehearts off Fall Out Boy’s Folie à Deux for the first time (when I got more “seriously” into music, it was also my first vinyl purchase). Since then, I, like the universal story of every other person who was once a teenager and a bit more lonely than average — moved through years with music by my hand, music guiding me through awkward conversations, music being the only time I would genuinely smile, music being something that destroyed me when I was deprived of it. It’s dramatic, but isn’t that what our teen years are for?
In no particular order, here are some stories about some of them.
Magic – She’s Only Sixteen
She’s Only Sixteen is a Filipino prom staple. I knew it as so when in the fourth grade (2011), a girl was telling everyone in class to listen to them — a recommendation passed on from her older brother who went to Ateneo. The next year, their self-titled EP dropped: playing the five songs that would dictate their setlist for the hundreds of gigs, performances, and events thereafter. The Manila indie rock scene is small: they would soon become homegrown names, even more lovable in these circles because of their “friend-of-a-friend” intimacy, while being just distant enough to be cool. They sounded like the Arctic Monkeys, had an edgy name, sounded like the Arctic Monkeys, but did it amazingly so.
It took She’s Only Sixteen another five years — at the tipping point of my junior year in high school to come out with Whatever That Was in 2017, their full-length album. But just as long as this drift took, every teenager in Manila took them in. Every line, lyric, embedded as part of our landscape and sung back at them as they played school festival gigs to headlining 40-cap bars every other week. Magic is their seven-minute closer – a beautifully painful narrative that is embedded not only with my own memories, but the memories of my entire generation. This song was played back in car rides, in the prom that I skipped with all my friends because we all felt so fucking alone with half of us regretting that decision, in tasting things for the first time, in believing that I was in love. It so easily acts as a memory as it does a music piece; when I hear this, I remember Manila, my high school life, and all the things I desperately wish I could relive and redo. Not many songs will be able to capture what this one has, and forever will have on me.
Dareka Umiwo – Aimer
You get introduced to certain pieces of media that transform the way you see life forever after that; maybe not because they’re inherently powerful, but because of timing, and all the associations that come with these things. For Aimer’s song, I feel like it could easily be both.
Dareka Umiwo is the closer for Zankyou no Terror, a popular psychological anime (with retrospectively, an absurd but respectable amount of Sigur Rós references) about terrorists in Japan with a hidden agenda. The show captivated me in a weird way, effectively shaping my views on goodness, neutrality, and thrusting me into politics when my previous opinion was a clean “politics is stupid” before being 14. This song touches on that weeb part of my youthhood, yes, but it also carried this independent weight that was as empowering as it was haunting. Aimer sings of rooftops, oceans, needles, and whirlpools with the piece translated literally to “Someone, The Sea.” With the political push came the feeling of entrapment that this song helped me bare through. On the internet, there is little English conversation about the nuances of the series and how this ED plays so well to its message beyond jokes on dead characters and surface commentary on her vocals: but the very weight that comes from first listen still carries the story and all it inflicts.
Elm – Clever Girl
Where No Drum and Bass in the Jazz Room is a math rock masterpiece, Elm has to be here. I listened to a lot of math rock over the past decade, and I don’t really have a good reason as to why or recall how I stumbled onto it — but this record in particular made me burst into tears for no good reason on first listen. It also made me so much more attentive. I could hear every instrument and its pure crispness; I found myself listening so closely unintentionally that I was anticipating the ba da ba das! before they even came. Where Lady Bird says that love and attention are the same thing, I think that truly manifests here. This record taught me a lot about music: about the pleasures of patience, and was the first piece of music that I had to listen to front-and-back: so in honesty, putting Elm by itself here feels a bit sinful. Clever Girl is another one of my favorite bands that will live in YouTube compilations and music charts from 2016, but I’ll never forget what it taught me and how.
Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…) – Panic! At The Disco
A year after Panic! At the Disco released Pretty Odd! – their folk masterpiece – they drifted apart. Vices & Virtues picks up the last bits left by Ryan Ross; so fragmented that parts of the record were debuted on the promotional Fall Out Boy mixtape circulated on the internet for Folie a Deux. (In the demo version, Brendon sings “I eat my wishes on golden toothpicks and digested them with wolf intestines, I fell from the heavens as a fetish blessed with an operatic skeleton” which is five times as grueling as it in its present form, which is a lovely add.) Nevertheless, Nearly Witches is a beautiful final parting pieced together from people who were no longer there. Maybe it’s the fact that the gimmicky French opening is just so Ryan Ross-y that I’m drawn to, or that this is the last time they really played with language and metaphor to the degree of their peak that brings this all together. The way this is sung, the french choir, the outro — they all tie together so beautifully. This was Panic!’s goodbye to me. It still is.
Carry Me Out – Mitski
For the past two years, the first thing I would hang up in my dorm room was this album slip from Bury Me at Makeout Creek — every line just written straight with no breaks or pause in Courier New. Basically as Mitski as it gets. Every time I look up from my laptop, or when I’m frantically pacing around my room or changing or waking up, my eyes go to that square poster and immediately sink to the lines of this song. Mitski gave so much of herself this decade that this song might not make the most sense out of all the others in her collection – like how it was actually her hit Be The Cowboy album just last year that let me discover her in the first place (years after any Tumblr/Bandcamp crazes, unfortunately) — but this was the song I’ve always found myself drawn towards. I felt seen in a song for the first time. I didn’t have to twist myself or apply so much thought into trying to see me in something; with her words, I was just there. I was alive. When she closed with Carry Me Out in Central Park in her last indefinite show this September, I was alone in New York. So fucking alone with bodies pressed, only being able to see her head through the cracks between the couple in front of me’s neck, trying to hold together a bag with all my belongings in the middle of my feet, etcetera. I had never felt so lonely, but so empowered. I walked for more than an hour back to where I was sleeping that night, completely alone with the glisten of New York City almost being a blur, almost understanding her in every sense.
Youth – Daughter
Youth is a song that circulated on your Tumblr dashboard and was on your YouTube suggestions next to an Of Monsters and Men video in 2013. (There is also an Of Monsters and Men song in my list, if you didn’t know.)
On the surface, this is another love song giving pretty ways of describing the ends of relationships and feeling small. When you’re thirteen and are learning about depth and the world and emotion, this evokes everything while giving you the beauty of trial. I think I was discovering love and infatuation at this point, thinking about chances and experience and Elena Tonra’s singing of how emotion is so much better than emptiness or the numb. On my YouTube window (my only space for listening to music, then occasionally iTunes or whatever was in the remnants of my Music app). In the comments and conversations here, you have teenagers recounting love, complaining about being labeled “emo” or an outcast for listening to a song with 10 million views, retyping lyrics from the song but managing to fuck up their spelling, grammar, or complete arrangement, or just talking about pain and depression. At that time, and perhaps still, it is me.
On Melancholy Hill – Gorillaz
The common theme with these songs is that they’re okay and hold lots of meaning. On Melancholy Hill is no exception to that. It came in middle school summers, introduced me to a weirder side of art with the dynamic of the band, is designed for nostalgia and feels like a dream. I can recall the times that I was disgusted at this song, learning to understand it, reinventing its meaning, and more.
The funny thing is that this was never a song that I had on playlists or put on repeat. I heard it as it was; played in the distance or slipped in the conversation by a friend — never by choice until I was putting this list together. Right now, it feels ethereal and light, uplifting. Coming from 2010, I’m wondering about all the times it was in the background or just whirring as a radio tune or a result of YouTube autoplay. It feels like summers that are so distantly far, and it feels almost dirty that for once I’m listening to it again as I try to write and offer something more than these memories. I can’t reach it; nor might it ever feel mine to play.
Beach Life-In-Death – Car Seat Headrest
On Valentine’s Day this year, probably at one of the coldest and lowest points of my life, I took a train to the heart of Boston from New Haven and saw Car Seat Headrest perform live on a Thursday night. It was disgustingly last minute: I booked a nearby hotel that took out my paycheck, tugged a small suitcase with my readings and a change of clothes, bought overpriced resale floor tickets from SeatGeek, and lined up three hours early for Will Toledo’s first show of the next round of Twin Fantasy stops.
At the very front of the show, I must have bawled my eyes out over a dozen times that night. I couldn’t breathe or think of anything but of a narrative on love-and-loss that wasn’t even mine. When Will pounds on moments on Skype with his friends and queer identities, when he relives his teenage heartbreak in front of a crowded, sweaty floor of white teenagers and Boston University students — I feel me. Fuck, I know nothing about his influences or stories, and I can do as much as I can to read into them and try to put myself in his skin: but I know that the music triggered something in me when everything was gone. There’s so much authenticity in his lacerations that it forces you to inflict something on yourself too; a disgusting stab that embraces rawness in all its war between cliches and perfectionism. Being in this crowd it felt like me and the lyrics only. It felt like me coming to terms with everyone and everything that I could love and couldn’t.
When “Pretty soon you’ll find some nice young satanist with braces and one Capital ‘O’ significant other, and you can take him home to your mother and say ‘ma, this is my broTHER!’” is screamed by the entire, sold-out crowd of hundreds, I can’t begin to imagine what Will references. Maybe it’s a memoir pounded into song fodder or a dumb webcomic idea thrown around while high. But there is something transformational in these words filled with depth and stupidity and youth when you sing back and discover your own self in it. I found a new body in my own surface, a retrospective as much as it is Will’s on the 2011 version of the album. Something special about this thirteen minute piece is that it doesn’t close the album: it’s another passage and story in this capsule of a piece. There was so much catharsis that I’m still trying to unravel, there’s dumb monologues, and there’s my utter gratefulness that this artist has decided to put this back into the world and sing it with us every night. Why is there a fucking cult around some guy singing about a failed relationship and how much he was an asshole? Is it okay to lay down your sorrows and stories for some sort of pity or piece? Perhaps for the same reasons why I fall in love with fantasy, or creating the lives of those I love in my own mind.
I’m a perfect target. I’m disgustingly repressed, have no idea what my identity reflects or who I want to be, am nervous and rambling and lived my teenage years in online chatrooms with people who don’t even know who I look like. I am suffocating and read the Bible front-to-back before declaring I did not believe and quote poets and buy tickets four hours away to try and escape and reinvent myself. I read somewhere that Car Seat Headrest is the only artist that captures the full range of emotions that the internet can inspire; I think I understand why I’m so drawn to them, then. This Bandcamp-born band, Will in college answering questions from crazed tumblr asks; the miraculousness of a queer boy’s life mirroring that one eight thousand miles away, like birth and death and all our critical moments told through webcams and cities that aren’t our own. There’s no other artist that has articulated this as well as he has yet. It takes a specific type of heartbreak and hurt — which is everything I needed at this time of the world.
Miss Missing You – Fall Out Boy