I’ve always done this. Looked at things categorically and then within said category lined them out according to how much I feel for them. My favorites, classed according to favorite, in other words. I’m writing this under the assumption that most people don’t do this anymore, people of a certain age (I’m 33). I also feel that I’m unique in this capacity—but then, hey. You could be too. I hope so. One of the reasons that the way I think is built up along these lines (with reference to the whole “favorites” thing) is, not just that I like to share what’s going on in my heart and mind, but because of the simple fact that other people’s listmaking is not something I touch on in my day-to-day activities. I see public playlists (full of songs I don’t recognize) and wonder. What has the person done to work these out? How and why do these songs go together for them? And what’s the feeling behind it? I don’t know. There’s no description. But—and this goes without saying—I don’t know everything. And I know I don’t. Again, I’ve always done this and will continue to do so.
These songs have stayed with me. That I never advance to the next track when once they shuffle into my headphones and that they’ve never grown stale is something I cannot touch. It’s probably the first thing that led me to want to put them together. A “Top 5 Fave” playlist, as it were (“Quinary” simply means “consisting of five”). And far from being some sort of superstitiously-tinged, legalistic practice keeping me in an old way of thinking that needs to be sloughed off, I don’t question it. Why would I want to mess with that? To overthink it to death? Part of the joy inherent to life is letting it guide (and glide) you along. If you find something that works, enjoy it while it lasts. That being said, these songs have most definitely lasted for me. All of the stuff I went through in my twenties; all of the decisions made, all of the mistakes and observations and growing pains: this playlist is like a spectrum of primary colors that are irreducibly complex. There are only five (or six), as opposed to seven. Though they’re not in any order that makes sense, chromatically speaking. It’s personal.
1. Limelight by Rush
“I have no heart to lie.”
This one’s a bright, neon yellow. And before I explain why, let me begin by saying that the eminently-pragmatic phrase “one must put up barriers to keep oneself intact” has not been echoed the same way in anything I’ve read before or since. While I’m one to maintain an outgoing, gregarious personality in light of the world and all it does in conspiracy to stamp out my spontaneity, there was a time around 10 years ago where I clung to that lyric while the gooeyness of my spirit congealed into who I am today. In other words, one cannot keep everyone out, all the time. Words of wisdom; an addendum, of sorts.
How did it happen? I can’t really say. The chorus came back to me at some point in my early-to-mid-twenties and while I knew it was Rush (wasn’t a fan yet), I had no idea what the song was. I’d heard it in the past but had no notion when or where. Upon reflection, I had seriously begun to wonder if it was from my eighties childhood. Though I don’t think so as no one I knew—to say nothing of our family—had listened to Rush, to my knowledge. However you look at it, it was an idea whose time had come—for me. And before I realized that a quick search for a snippet of lyric would yield the unknown song in question, I called up my local classic rock station in order to sound out what this song might have been. The DJ was helpful and so I go it. The rest is history.
“Cast in this unlikely role. Ill-equipped to act, with insufficient tact”
It came at just the right time. My early twenties were marked with personal tragedy and alongside that, with a general feeling of being unmoored in this world. The budding emotional/psychospiritual sensitivity I had come to, not only know I was in possession of, but also feel control over, was not going away. It was part of me. And so the opening line spoke volumes to me: “Living on a lighted stage/approaches the unreal.” What was reality to someone whose family was falling apart? And why do I now feel like a lamb, shorn against the wind? Raw. I continued listening.
“For those who think and feel, in touch with some reality beyond the gilded cage.”
The song continues. As the first verse and chorus come to a close, it’s like it’s restarting. So much vigor is expressed as the instruments accelerate to the second verse. I’ve read about how Neil (the drummer) felt no kinship with fans who had come to taking a too-familiar approach to the band. He’d exit a venue or their tour bus and have nothing to give to someone who felt like they knew him but were in fact a complete stranger (“I can’t pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend”). Alex (guitarist) says that the tone of the guitar solo was meant to symbolize the loneliness of the rock-star lifestyle. And I understand all this. To me, however, the solo encapsulates everything about my search for the signal among the noise. Beginning at 2:39, it’s like everything drops off and we’re buoyed by that one note. It sustains for a couple seconds and then Geddy’s bass and Neil’s drums enter again, along with the synth (also Geddy). They roil around for a bit and then another solo is layered on top of it all. Here, the rolling bass takes a back seat to an ever-climbing, endlessly-sustained chord that gets lost in the final repeat of the chorus. Even Shakespeare (quoted in the lyrics) couldn’t speak to me on this level.
“The universal dream…”
I went to sleep one night with Limelight on repeat. At some point during a dream, I became aware. In the dream I was back in my old kindergarten (the place at which the sensitivity I mentioned was already beginning to operate in an inchoate and undeveloped state). The building was blue—Mrs. Carey would have been teaching that day. But inside the room, all I saw was a bright, neon-yellow phosphene in the middle distance. This vision coinciding perfectly with the aforementioned high point of the electric guitar chord (3:14). And the two became one. That’s why this song is yellow and this song is one of the reasons I became confident in who I was. All sensitivity and awkwardness (gooeyness) notwithstanding.
In closing, the lyrics offer a hopeful prescription for one’s separation from a shallow, peer-oriented way of making their way through the world, gifts intact, and into the wonder that’s ours to enjoy. Another one of those words of wisdom that’s never been distilled in a way that speaks to how I’m made up:
“Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation, get on with the fascination, the real relation, the underlying theme.”
2. Love’s Divine by Seal
“And all around me became still.”
I’ve slept on this one too. And whereas the high point of Limelight melded with something of my interior and of my past, the opening thunder to Seal’s 2003, Grammy-nominated song was matched perfectly with a thunderstorm outside that night. I should add that Love’s Divine was not on repeat, it just started playing (shuffle) at the exact right time. Though it was the thunder outside that woke me up.
“Then the rainstorm came over me…”
The opening swell of the strings drowns out the thunder. He speaks of a time that, for all intents and purposes, looked to be like the one in which I found myself upon first discovering this song. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I hadn’t yet found myself. I would just listen to the song on repeat when I saw (heard) how profound it was. When one is within the whirlwind, one of the simplest, life-altering answers that would help said person through that time of trial is: release. Seal goes on to sing about two things with which, I would say, we all struggle: denial and identity. If “love can help me know my name,” as he asserts throughout the song and repeats toward the end, what could be keeping me back from that knowledge? What was holding me fast in the patterns that surely weren’t caused by anything I did?
“And I felt my spirit break.”
“And I felt my spirit fly.”
The above-mentioned swell of the strings gives way to an unadorned piano flourish. I remember one afternoon around the time I woke up, seeing that simple leitmotif as “love.” It repeats throughout the song. And if it were possible that something so abstract as “love” could be communicated through the piano, then there it was. But before I got there, I had to accept the fact that I was in denial. Sometimes a little (lime)light gets in. This doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t still have uncharted depths; things we have yet to deal with.
“Well I tried to say there’s nothing wrong. But inside I felt me lyin’ all along.”
Prior to this expression, the song takes a serious turn. It’s like the sky grows dark again and furrows its brow. It wags its index finger (“Huh-uh.”). Time to give it up. Realize and admit that there are certain things in this life over which you had no control and that most certainly affected you but that by now are only holding you back. This is what the “rainstorm” and the whirlwind were sent for: to stir it up and to then wash it away. “But the message here was plain to see: Believe me.” The piano starts again. A wave of relief crashes over you at 3:46 and trust is reestablished. The song ends with love.
“Please forgive me, now I see that I’ve been blind.”
Love’s Divine is a deep indigo, maybe black. The color of a stormy sky.
3. Thank You by Dido
“It’s not so bad. It’s not so bad.”
Upon writing this, my tea has indeed gone cold. And while my day’s been good, I can remember when they were all more-or-less gray and depressing. Struggles at work, worries over bills and schedules and other life-minutiae. My future (that was a big one). Things that, now, mean nothing. But I’m grateful for all of it. The time that I’ve referred to up 'til now was rendered in retrospect as a wash of several shades of gray on a blank canvas (one brush, somehow). Gray is good, too, because I’m alive to experience it. Am I grateful? At least I’m not in denial anymore.
“The morning rain clouds up my window and I can’t see at all.”
Overcoming the denial to which I referred earlier is merely the first step. This, among other things, is why music’s so essential: it’ll help you get through the days, months, and years of wrong thinking about life. Wrongheadedness through which you’ll now need to work. The simplicity of the opening bongo (tablas?) beats on Thank You are akin to the unassuming necessity of gratitude, in my opinion. You know you’re loved, right? Act like it. Reheat your tea, if necessary. But say thank you. Tell those who mean something to you that they do. Thank them for them.
“Push the door, I’m home at last.”
Thank You is red. This is most-likely due to the album cover (No Angel). Certainly red connotes anger and rage and all that. “Seeing red.” But it’s also life. Blood. Intensity. Things that we need (and need to know how to direct) in order to employ correctly. My sensitivity and intensity were not going to change. It was there, for better or worse. What was I going to do with it?
“Then you handed me a towel, and all I see is you. And even if my house falls down now, I wouldn’t have a clue…”
So much about this song keeps it fresh in my heart. The flute and the understated bass; the spare strumming on the acoustic guitar; the bongos. All of which, in turn, centers around (and points to) this one person who makes life worth living as spoken of in the lyrics. Towards the end, the slow piano is revealed (to my mind) to be the simple skeleton on which all of the preceding hangs. It is evanescent. Dido released White Flag shortly thereafter. And while that one is about the breakup from the man for whom she wrote Thank You, the truth of Thank You remains. There’s always something for which to be grateful. And even if you may not have a significant other to whom you can pour out your heart in gratitude, be grateful that your heart is being filled—and that you have yourself.
“…because you’re near me.”
It’s snowing outside the coffeeshop at where I sit and write and reflect. I’ve since exchanged my cold mint tea for a piping-hot americano. I look out the window and see a large, black great dane tethered to a bare tree. He’s nipping at the snowflakes. This is the best day of my life.
4. Have You Ever Seen the Rain? by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Apparently John Fogerty’s arrangements are not so easy to reproduce. I’ve read this from two different sources. Do you ever see that? You might be creatively inclined and surely inspired to develop that gift. But then when you sit down to recreate what they did—either in homage or simply to work on your own creative skill set—you’re lost.
"Shinin' down like water."
This song is counterintuitive to me. Not only do the lyrics not rhyme—like, at all—the imagery presented is somewhat paradoxical. Furthermore, at a mere two minutes and forty seconds, it comes across as a simple, unset gem. But one that is also uncut and unpolished. It’s like one of those perfect examples of song craft that just happened. One of the songs that the generation prior to me had unfettered access to but that my generation has to mine and dig and dig for in order to maybe touch on the brilliance inherent to so many of the former releases. Surely our generation’s musicians were inspired by those who came before? But I don’t hear the same heart whenever I listen around. I digress.
“Someone told me long ago, there’s a calm before the storm.”
It’s over before you know it. After it begins, however, the bass and low piano step down in tandem (0:08-0:13) to herald Fogerty’s raspy vocals. He refers to legend (“When it’s over, so they say…”) and then agrees with it. He then introduces his probing question: “I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain, comin' down a sunny day?” It’s implied, if you really know how to listen, that he knows something he can’t wait to get off his chest (one of which was the coming departure of his brother Tom from the band). I personally have seen rain coming down when it’s sunny, and also snow (both phenomenons being caused by wind, plain and simple). And there’s also calm after the storm, just so you know. But getting there, “through the circle, fast and slow,” takes time. Hang on, it’s so worth it.
“Yesterday and days before, sun is cold and rain is hard. I know..."
A friend of mine once related to me how the other members of CCR wanted to take the reins after a while and put out an album that wasn’t overbearingly produced by John. I can respect that; Mardi Gras was the last album they released prior to breaking up. There’s a time and a place for creative endeavors and when the steam is gone, it’s time to move on. His vocalization of “I know!” throughout, resounds with authenticity. He does know (his “Yeah!” toward the end is one of the best yeahs in all of rock and roll, in my opinion.). CCR is one of those bands that was carried by the genius of one man and for whom the rest of the members acted as backup in the strongest sense of the word. This is my opinion—but I feel like I know. That being said, the organ threaded throughout the last half of the song is the best part, whomever may have been playing it. It starts around 1:10 but you don’t really notice it ’til the close of the second verse.
"...been that way for all my time."
Again with the paradoxical counterintuitiveness, Have You Ever Seen the Rain would be either green or violet. Or both. Like a piece of uncut alexandrite, if I may.
5. Lightbulb Sun by Porcupine Tree
“The sun is a lightbulb…”
Steven Wilson is another of those artists who carry the band (to date, he’s so much more than the lead singer of Porcupine Tree). Sure, Rush is that perfect balance of power trio—in other words, you cannot remove one without affecting the whole. But Steven Wilson is Porcupine Tree, in my opinion. That being said, the late addition of Gavin Harrison on drums inspired him to up his game, from what I’ve read. With the album Lightbulb Sun, however, Chris Maitland is the drummer. That single beat at 1:07 kicks off the song and moves it from an inauspicious lament over being home sick from school, to the struggle seeing the boundless energy of childhood break through a fever. All of this while one is bedridden, wishing they could play outside with their friends. Colin Edwin’s bass runs up and down, unbound, it would seem, by the rest of the song. The piano flourish (by Richard Barbieri) maintains a beauty to what would have been a slickly-produced progressive rock number. It only adds, in my opinion. But it’s Wilson’s guitar solos—a taste at 2:23 and then the full complement at 3:39—that take me back. The near-spiritual quality of those solos speak to me on a level of color and light (and memory) that even language cannot articulate. To my heart and mind, it is superlative.
“My best friend from school will come over and stare, at me in my bubble of germified air.”
Shortly after making this song my own, I remember reading a Youtube comment praising said solo and feeling a tinge of jealousy. This was my song and that solo so obviously harked back to my childhood. And if Limelight 15 years later somehow set (in the sense of something broken) a piece of my insides right, this song was doing its part to remind me of more of my past that I could reflect on (and in turn be grateful for). A song about being home sick from school turns into a metaphor for being handicapped by tragedy but overcoming it. Maybe even through the power of music. God knows.
“When I’m asleep, the smoke fills me. I feel the heat. My illness leaves me.”
Something about the lighthearted, childhood-nostalgic songs by Porcupine Tree ring true with me (see also “Trains”). Balancing the difficulties of adulthood with the freedom we knew as kids seems to be one of the great tests of this life. I’m grateful to my younger brother for, not only turning me on to this band (they have a large discography), but also sending this song my way by way of recommendation. While he and I have some differing musical tastes, several songs on my A-List Playlist, as it were (broader than my Top 5), have come from him. This one’s the best. And, very simply, it’s a glowing orange. Obviously because of the cover, but there’s so much more to it. A story for another day.
“My head beats a better way. Tomorrow a better day.”
Today, as I’ve mentioned, is the best day of my life. And I hope it’s the best of yours. But guess what! Tomorrow will be even better. If you feel it, take some time and really soak in the music that is yours—that fills in pieces of your soul. Even pieces you didn’t even know were missing. Sometimes the most random songs hold in their makeup a line of code that will help you become a fuller version of who you are and who you know you’re meant to become.
“But after a while, the noise from the street is making me wish I was back on my feet.”