B Sides: The Soundtrack to the Last Four Years

This blog here goes out to music, my oldest and truest friend. I consume music—breakfast lunch dinner, midnight snack or drunk munchies. At the start of first year I started organizing playlists chronologically by semester. While only about a hundred songs at the beginning, it’s only grown ever since. It’s a gargantuan museum of songs by this point.

Music has always ultimately been an introspective experience for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll belt out Rumors or Abbey Road with a houseful of people like the best of us. But music really starts to mean something when I’m all alone, with music being able to bridge that gap between myself and the world. In and around all the insanity of college, it’s been music that’s eased stress, calm the speed of change, and most of all capture that excitement and velocity. Now those playlists and the songs within them are probably the most cherished possession I’m taking from UBC. Examining the music which most affected me over the years becomes an examination of who I was when I was most affected by it. It stands to show exactly how much I’ve changed in four years, and writing this blog post has helped me order and calm this insane and terrifying summer. These playlists (and this post): it’s a museum, it’s a library, but it’s also intangible.

I decided to limit this list to one band or artist per semester, commenting on how that band so impacted me then in a more symbolic fashion. It might not have even been my favorite music for the time, but that somehow they make sense being the placeholder for all of this. So as much as it kills me to cut it down, this is probably the only way to keep the article to any sort of manageable degree. So yes, I know, this is an obscenely induglant blog post—no doubt, even for me—but hear me out here.

First Term, First Year (Fall 2011): The Kollection Playlists

For most of that first term, I have a pretty hard time nailing down a feeling to a certain band or album—things were just moving too fast for most of it—but it becomes much easier to nail down a certain type of music. It all centers around the website “the Kollection,” which blogs fun underground music to a mostly-college demographic. Like Songza or 8 Tracks, even though the site advertises itself as having a wide range genres and styles, there’s a very specific feeling to the songs on there; something about the chords or keys or chorus beats—it’s like you put all the elements into a Brooklyn blender and churned it all up, to (poof!) get that specific sound. That sound they specialize in hasn’t changed much four years later, but what’s amazing to me now is how new it all seemed to me then. Everything about it—the off-kilter guitars, the wordy-choruses, the generally high pitched voices and synths—seemed so cool to me at the time. It seemed to sing out “fuck yeah, I’m in college!” every time I tuned in. They gave me some of those artists that would later become huge a year or two later, like Lana Del Rey, Young the Giant, Walk the Moon, Grouplove, Capital Cities and the rest (you probably get the idea).

Today, none of those guys seem all that interesting or groundbreaking. Indi Pop Music, really. It feels tired and old now the way Totem Park Residence and that entire lifestyle of first year does to be too—getting drunk for the sake of it, making fly-by friends and thinking you’re cool you’re going to a concert in the middle of the week. I’m sure at a certain point I’ll get nostalgic about of those unfortunate first year nights (and their surrounding soundtrack), but these days I can only chuckle back the embarrassment (“Hey, remember that time we all got so drunk we went and—“).

First Year, Second Term: Bon Iver, Bon Iver

                                                     bon-iver-bon-iver-bon-iver

My first Vancouver winter! “I’m from Winnipeg, nothing Vancouver throws at me’ll be that bad, right?” Well, come back to me after your month of straight, overhanging cloud, when you go to the beach to celebrate after a midterm but the rain starts so hard you end the night trying to wring the water out of your notes. That term would eventually turn into March and April, when the West Coast would give us all a break and give me a Spring beautiful beyond all my expectations (let’s just say that, with all those flowers, it looks a little different than the mudslides that Winnipeg specializes in at the same time). When everything let up that second half, my music went back to the light, breezy fare of first term, all primed for Block Party and summer.

But Bon Iver’s second album, played throughout January, catches me in the first season I truly felt alone at this university. The rain ran on as I tried to come to terms with my two psychotic roommates from first term and all they’d done to me (I’ll spare the details, beyond mentioning that a couple acts weren’t particularly legal). The worst of their shit came down in December, but dealing with it—the sense of it being my fault, this self-victim blaming—really happened in January and February. I didn’t know where to turn to yet, with Res Life doing the housing-equivalent of driving you to a highway between the two cities you need and saying ‘walk the rest of the way,’ while many of my first term friends drifted away as I couldn’t find the will to care. I’d never needed my family so much; could I really do this, this ‘University Thing?’

But Bon Iver was there. If For Emma is a Summer-by-the-lake album, then Bon Iver is its winter equivalent: the accompanying instruments sound distant and faint, but Justin Vernon’s voice is that warmth in the center, the mug of cocoa in the cabin as the storm rages outside. It comforts as it mourns the loss of something that can’t be named. It’s also about change and travel, as each song pinpoints a stop on an imaginary roadmap, as Vernon sings his way through the loneliest concert tour in the world. I discovered this on the night the ferry sailed to Victoria: with enough stars breaking through to make outlines of the darkening islands, through the bay I was traveling too, trying to understand what it was I was actually missing. The album crashes to the close with the suddenly hopeful “Beth/Rest,” right as the lights of Victoria opened up and cast orange across the mountains. The song told me ‘c’mon kid, don’t worry about it, you can do it.’ And I fucking listened; four years later I’m still listening.

Summer of 1st year: Feist and Bahamas

                                                      bahamas_barchords_higher-1024x1024

When taken together, these two really come to capture the mood of the first summer home. Despite the one being significantly more famous than the other (thanks, in part, to a very well done Apple commercial), Feist and Bahamas are both Canadian singer-songwriters who’ve been making music for a decade or two now, with refined introspective lyrics and a twist of jazz to their minimalist stylings. Both headlined the best Winnipeg Folk Fest I ever went to. For those not from Winnipeg, the Folk Fest is the event of the year, combining the best of the blockbuster fests like Sasquatch and Coachella (the headliners, the massive out-of-control afterparties taking place across a veritable city of tents) and the more community style of regular folk fests (the sense of connection to the land being used, of generation and legacy). It’s Winnipeg at its weirdest and opennest (the irrefutable proof to exactly how different it is from the rest of the Prairies), and so when I listen to those artists I’m brought back to those moments in the one summer I truly loved my home city. It’s Feist for the sunsets at my cabin, it’s Bahamas for those mornings biking to work along the river. Those quiet moments come most vividly for that summer when things were more-or-less straight forward, when everything had a set end and beginning—the breath between real life. Nostalgic or not, I’m pretty sure it’s never been like that since.

2nd Year, 1st Semester: M83

First term of second year was definitely a season of growing pains—of rockets of excitement and optimism mixed with plummets lethargy, endless and useless play practices, and my dear old friend Mono. The playlist from that time, as a mishmash of styles and often strange songs I never was crazy about in the first place (“so why the hell’d I download it?”), reflects that awkwardness, that sense that I was still trying to figure out who I was and who I was supposed to be at this University. There’s a lot of things about M83 that annoy me (I mean really, how many tracks on Hurry Up We’re Dreaming could have just been B-sides or unused soundbytes?), but it’s the only band that seems capable of bridging the two gaps in that term of transformation. They start in the quiet rain-soaked nights of October, wandering around the low-cloud light polluted hills, their 80’s synth gives a cloistered, comforting feel. Perfect for those nights when I just didn’t feel like going to that party or that concert (that would change; from then on there’d never be a ‘no’ answer given).

But there’s the other side to M83, when sleeping is for dreaming—for that optimism and hope for things to come. It’s what makes them ultimately irresistible, most notable on tracks like “Midnight City” and “We Own the Sky.” By December I was reading Kerouac and beginning to realize exactly how small I am but how big the rest of the world is, how little of it I’d seen. And so we were driving down to Florida on an insane three day road trip and I’d just gaze out on the shifting landscape, excited to be going—somewhere, anywhere. That side of M83 captures that excitement, that evolving idea of what I wanted from my life, and where I wanted to go.

2nd Year, 2nd Semester: Vampire Weekend

This one was a no-brainer. I was obsessed with Vampire Weekend that term, acted like it was a band I just “discovered,” and I played them in the mornings to class or the evenings towards downtown. It reflects that relentless confidence of that term—everything was settling into place, with my marks were finally hitting the mark, my niche had become comfortable and effortless, and I was getting ready to tear-up Europe (actual wording, I’m afraid). Life matched their Paul Simon-lite lyrics and their beach breeze guitar rifts: nothing meant much and fun was always the end goal. And just like those kids from Columbia U, that relentless confidence-bordering-cockiness got, well, pretty fucking annoying (to myself too, eventually). But looking back, I’d say that term was pretty necessary, just months before the world ballooned and everything grew way more complicated.

Interestingly, their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, was released just weeks into returning to Winnipeg for the summer. It featured a richer sound and a more cynical worldview, leading many to declare that those boys from Manhattan had suddenly grown up. And sure, it was a summer that showed a lot of growing up for me too.

Summer of 2nd Year: Tame Impala, Lonerism

                                             Tame

Tame Impala will always be my ‘sad summer’ music. The dripping acid tones, the rambling guitars and spaced-out lyrics are ideally fitted for sweaty glaring days when all you want to be is somewhere else. In Winnipeg that summer, with most of my friends still in Vancouver, there was never a day I didn’t want to not be there. Paris at my doorstep, Van at my back, it was a limbo state that made me feel like I was just retracting the steps from years before. With Tame Impala, I’d be given those moments to tune in and tap out. It unsettled and enlivened the endlessness of those (mostly) unemployed days.

And despite the perceived negativity of Parker’s hermeticism, there’s a restless energy to the album as well, a growing sense of change and evolution—on no song more than “Apocalypse Dreams,” whose hook has Parker repeating “Nothing ever Changes” and “Everything is changing,” interchangeably. While in Winnipeg, I bitterly held on to the “never changes” part of it, though I had the sense that—well, just maybe—everything was about to change.

It wasn’t until my second day alone in Paris that I finally recognized the significance of the second part. While wandering by myself, terrified of the new city I’d suddenly found myself lost in the middle of, I came across the south gate of the Jardin du Luxembourg which is captured on the album’s front cover. Shocking me out of my fear, I played Lonerism between the alleys of those sticky street corners, and on the Seine I looked out across the city as “Apocalypse Dreams” played. Everything is changing in the city where nothing changes—the stately manors, the writing on the walls, the goddesses of freedom pointing and rising up towards the onion spires of the white Cathedral. And then, in my ears, the acid trumpets flying across the soundscape like birds—and “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” And then Paris became my city, and everything had gone and changed on me.

3rd Year 1st Term:

The Paris semester, of which I wrote an entire blog on the music I listened to for that semester alone. It’s a goodie, check it out!

If I had to choose just one, though, I’d probably have to give the prize to Edith Piaf—because it’s Paris damnit!

3rd Year 2nd Term: The War on Drugs, Lost in a Dream

  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI3H8myhJBI

Often the toughest times in my life are graced with some of the best music. It makes sense: at that moment I’m at my most vulnerable or lonely, only music has that power to cut right to the core, to hurt you as it reveals to you what’s really happening at the same time it’s healing. That was certainly the case with the ‘break down’ term, when most of the things I’d come to believe and value over the past three years essentially evaporated, leaving me to find my own answers, more so than ever before.

No album captures that change better than Adam Granduciel’s masterpiece Lost in a Dream. It’s sad in an all-encompassing sort of way, with Granduciel coming to terms with everything in his life crumbling before him—both from a slow decline over a decade and with it suddenly bursting into flames. The album starts the morning after the final collapse, a moment where you’re left half trying to figure out what happened, half already looking ahead. It fit to my own sense that I’d made the greatest mistake of my life at the very same time I knew this was all so unfair; hated this place, hated myself more.

But there’s hope in those empty moments: for everything else, Lost in the Dream shows how incredibly beautiful and important those moments of break really are. It’s that one chance you get to reconfigure, to transform and relaunch. The second half of the final song captures that more overwhelmingly than any other I’ve come across. Right at the peak of his pain, Granduciel lets her go—“I don’t mind you disappearing.” And then, an extremely simple open guitar chord solo is the catharsis—the damn’s bursting, the light’s breaking through. And in that moment of peace, the album descends into the lull of the Ocean. These days I’m amazed at all that happened this time last term. I can’t stress enough how much this album saved me.

The Summer of Third Year: Beach House, Teen Dream

What’s a summer sound like? In high school, music was always about the beat or the story an album could tell; the more it could bring me out of the place I was living the more I’d like it. UBC on, music was increasingly about forming the soundtrack to the life around it. Look through my playlists and you’ll see a general trend towards music that conforms to my vision of Vancouver at that time—light comforting sounds and brush-by lyrics (and don’t tell me that’s not fitting for this city). In my first summer here that need to forge the fitting soundtrack was at its peak, and all the (mostly indi) music demonstrates that nearness to the beach, that sunshine along with that restless need for adventure.

And it all culminated one walk down the Wreck Beach stairs. For non-locals, Wreck Beach could be said to be the only unmistakably Vancouver beach in the city—if a drug exists, someone will be on it here. But it’s also has what I’m convinced is among the more stunning views in the whole country. On one of the hottest days of the year, I played Beach House’s “Zebra” as the trees around the stairs receded to reveal the horizon, the sky, the hazy mountains of the islands. Beach House (most apt band name O.A.T.) creates an enchanting aura around their music, with spectral singing and guitars so lightly pitched they’re barely there at all. When the sun glares down on you and the sand burns, the band carries you into a dream and leaves you there.

Their seminal album Teen Dream works in capturing and creating nostalgia, but it’s as much about change and growing up—losing it the moment you realize, feeling something that’s already gone. That summer was a pretty crucial one for growth, marking the first full year away from home (getting jobs, figuring everything out on my own for once), but also giving me that summer I’d never had growing up but always knew I’d needed. It was my Teen Dream, and that’s why Beach House will always be how summer in Vancouver sounds to me.

4th Year, Term 1: Flying Lotus

I’ll say right off the bat that this was the hardest term to pinpoint a soundtrack for. This was my workaholic term, when I tried to squeeze five-and-a-half courses, a work learn, and an exec position into four months—no time, even, for music. At times the 9-12 study/eat/study/rinse-repeat schedule was thrilling, but then, saturation point was almost certainly exceeded when I had to complete six term papers, two exams, two presentations, and a JET application in the three week period to cap it all off (leading me to resort to brownies to write one essay in particular—the best damn essay I ever wrote, oooh yeah). I wasn’t seeing much daylight with a schedule like that, and so it’s only fitting that the music chosen conforms to a specific night-owl status. And so it makes sense that Flying Lotus was one of the only artists I truly got into that term, whose free flowing acid jazz romp-through-your-consciousness albums did the thinking for me after my brain had long since passed the point of functioning. Not to mention that Fly Lo is a particularly nerdy alt-EDM guy, with albums like Cosmogramma which conforms to the various math equations in space, fitting nicely in style to that, my most academic of terms. Goodbye Term 1, we hardly knew ye.

Also, shoutout to Taylor Swifts 1989, because sometimes, at the end of the longest of days, all you need is a really goddamn good pop album to keep the blood moving through you. And “Blank Space” never fails to do that.

Fourth Year, Term 2:

Other than (maybe) Paris, the final semester of my degree was more unexpected and exciting than any other, so trying to find a single sound to capture that feels wrong (if not impossible). Instead, these three come a little closer to getting at what made the term so amazing.

Marlena Shaw, “California Soul”

Right off the bat, nothing says unexpected like a last-minute overnight trip down the coast to San Francisco. It was the trip I’d always wanted to make in university, and right at the moment when it no longer seemed attainable, a million different (tiny) factors fell into place in such a way that California ended up on the reading break chopping block. The playlist from those six days is chock-full of excellent tracks, but this one has always stood out for me. With that opening brass, it’s the kind of song which crashes into you, with a beat and a voice as regal as those golden beaches. I played it as we pulled into our campground overlooking the shining feiry arches holding back the city, I played it as we pulled away 48-hours later and the city disappeared into the mountains. It’s a song of celebration, extolling all the virtues of the golden state, but the fact that it’s over forty years old also hints at how much the California I was searching for is probably long dead-and-gone—a sense of loss I mix up with only getting that city I may just love like Paris for two days. When I listen to the song now, I still get excited, caught by the spontaneity and the possibility of it all.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly  

to-pimp-a-butterfly

Now, I was hesitant about putting this on here. Kendrick’s new album is the best to have come out so far this year, giving a vision of crisis in America. Lamar’s uncompromising lyrics are met by Flying Lotus’s psychedelic production (it’s basically his You’re Dead album with substance to it), taking me on a mental ride through the hatred and doubt of the subconscious, before coming out on the other side, guns blazing, in the most powerful closing track I’ve ever heard. But this list is supposed to be about capturing me at different stages of my degree, and I’m a privileged white Canadian (as this list proves again and again). Is it appropriate for me to say anything about an album which has so much in it I can’t pretend to understand? At this present stage I can’t really answer that question—all I’ll say is that, for all that is deeply personal about every line, Lamar’s also reaching for something communal, universal. And I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so overwhelmed by an album.

Caribou, Our Love

  The quiet, introspective riggings of Caribou’s latest album made it perfect for another rainy winter, but I’m saving it for last mainly for the album’s opener, “Can’t Do Without You.” Played (according to ITunes) 56X more often than the other tracks on the album, “Can’t Do Without” relies on the EDM of using a single catchy phrase and just building on it as the song grows, but the song takes it in a completely different direction. Rather than just act as a hook, it recreates that moment of loss—the lover’s just left, and you’re slowly realizing just how fucked you are as the world crumbles down on you. Nothing like that happened to me, but the song came into my life as I began to realize exactly what I was losing—that this life I’d managed to make for myself the past for years was ending. And I can’t do without it—what the fuck else have I ever done? The build to the song is so perfect the ending bars always give me vertigo, this sudden nauseating feeling that it’s all coming too fast and I can’t stop the water if I tried. I’m sprinting up the stairs from the beach, faster and faster, and I’m running out of breath.

The song ends with a question mark, and that fits.

But first, a footnote: On April 29th, technically the last day of the last term of university, I got called up by the Japan Consulate to be part of this year’s Japan Exchange Teaching program. It was a cloudy day on the North Shore, the wind calling the waves up against the rails. Not knowing what to think, I went to shuffle and let my Ipod do the thinking for me: the first song was Air’s “Alone in Kyoto,” the best track from Lost in Translation; the second one was Florence’s “The Dog Days are Over.” Well alright then, if you say so—let’s get this show on the road! And music, I know whatever happens, you’ll be there with me.

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