Fall finally arrived yesterday, at least in North Carolina, and the cool, overcast weather today made it official. One day is an anomaly, two days is a change. Fall has always been my favorite season, but it’s also the saddest. There’s a wistful feeling in the air that always makes me nostalgic, even if I don’t know exactly what I’m missing.
And why is it that when we’re sad, we like to listen to sad music? Isn’t that strange? We choose songs that reflect our mood rather than ones that might change it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put on upbeat, jangly music to cure our melancholy? The answer is yes, it would, except that it doesn’t work. Or, if it does work, it works about as often as someone saying, ‘hey, cheer up!’ It would be impossible for me to say why this is true, but if I had to form a broad guess, I’d hazard that we’re not simple creatures, and in reality it makes more sense for most of us to deepen our moods, do some spiritual wallowing, and then emerge on the other end. It’s paradoxical, but sometimes a paradox contains a hidden logic.
At this time of year, I find myself returning to the same handful of songs that have accompanied me in winters past. Call them ‘Fleeting Season’ songs. Fall, after all, is the shortest season. Sometimes it barely seems to come at all. If I had to pinpoint a common thread among the songs that follow, it’s that they contain an elusive quality that washes through your stomach and leaves you sad without quite knowing why. These are not ‘heartbreaking’ songs. Heartbreaking songs can be wonderful, but they’re usually overt. You know what you’re hearing, and they’re designed to move you. These are not epic songs, with concrete stories and a narrative arc. These songs are about love, but they’re not love songs. These songs are not tornadoes or hurricanes, but fleeting gusts of wind that evoke some memory you can’t quite place. And you feel that if you could just find that wind again, that same rush of air, you’d know for sure.
1. “Summer Song” – Chad & Jeremy
I feel the need to start in the ’60s. In fact, I could probably make an entire list from that decade if I let myself. This is one of two songs on the list that I first discovered in a Wes Anderson movie (Rushmore), and it personifies the feeling I’m going for here. Melodic, low-key, sad. In describing an idyllic summer, the singers make us feel, more than anything, the season’s end.
2. “When U Love Somebody” – Fruit Bats
The music is beautiful, and the lyrics, in their minimalism, are perfect. “Baby, I am the cub who was washed out in the flood. When you love somebody, bite your tongue, all you get is a mouthful of blood.”
3. “Death of a Clown” – The Kinks
In some ways, this song sounds almost nothing like the more famous Kinks songs, but the imprints are all there. The wordless ‘la la la’ preceding the verses is a perfect example of that gust-of-wind feeling that’s so hard to describe. Also, the best use of the word “clags” in music history.
4. “White Winter Hymnal” – Fleet Foxes
Just as Chad & Jeremy sang a fall song with a summer title, so the Fleet Foxes give an autumnal vibe to their winer hymnal.
5. “Faded from the Winter” – Iron & Wine
And now we’ve covered every season. “Faded from the Winter” implies spring, but Sam Beam’s wisp of a song gives off a definitely autumnal aura.
6. “Beanbag Chair” – Yo La Tengo
I have a feeling it will annoy Yo La Tengo fans when I say this is my favorite song by the band, but I can’t help it. A perfect short, airy pop song.
7. “Oh No” – Andrew Bird
I should probably try to learn the meaning of the lyrics to this song at some point, but I can’t stop singing “ooo-ooo-hooo” over and over.
8. “Is it Wicked Not to Care?” – Belle & Sebastian
This is one of the few older songs where Isobel Campbell takes lead vocals, and it’s certainly the best of that subgroup. The distanced sound of the melody and the uncertainty of the final lyrical couplet—“Would you love me til I’m dead? Or is there someone else instead?”—makes this an easy pick.
9. “To Find a Friend” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
You didn’t think you’d see Tom Petty on this list, right? This song, at least to me, is unlike anything else in the band’s catalogue, except maybe “Yer So Bad.” It’s got that faint, life-passing-by feeling that’s not really typical of a band like the Heartbreakers.
10. “New Slang” – The Shins
Yeah, yeah, I hated Garden State too. Doesn’t change the brilliance of this tune.
11. “Jesus Etc.” — Wilco
Again, not a typical sound for Wilco. There’s a transience here that feels lighter than anything else Tweedy has written.
12. “Waltz #2” – Elliott Smith
This song is almost too devastating to include, but the lyrics are just vague enough to qualify. In my mind, the depressive quality doesn’t quite overwhelm the melancholy. If you disagree, substitute “Pitseleh” here. Or “America” by Simon & Garfunkel, which just missed the list.
13. “Flapping Your Broken Wings” – The Handsome Family
Strange song from a strange band about a couple of lovers being drunk on a golf course late at night, but no less jarring for the humor. I saw the Handsome Family live after this album was released, and they didn’t play it. That was hard to take.
14. “Alone Again Or” – Love
This is the other one from Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket this time). Just a great pop variation on loneliness.
15. “Kim & Jessie” – M83
To me, this is what ‘80s music would have sounded like if ‘80s music weren’t quite so awful.
16. “Change of Time” – Josh Ritter
Most of Ritter’s music falls flat to me—there’s a sense of trying too hard—but I can tell this is one I’ll be listening to for a long time.
17. “Flume” — Bon Iver
Unlike a Fleet Foxes-type group, where you get the sense they’ll be writing brilliant material as long as they stay together, I have a feeling “Flume” will be the best song Justin Vernon ever writes. And that makes it perfect for fall.
18. “These Days” – Jackson Browne
The man wrote this song when he was 16 years old. If I had talent like that, I would probably own a pair of jeans that didn’t have holes in them. Or I’d be capable of owning such a pair, anyway.
19. “Killing the Blues” – Robert Plant and Allison Krauss
Call it sacrilege if you want, but I think this version does more justice to the sadness than the John Prine original.
20. “Pink Moon” – Nick Drake
You had to know this was coming.
21. “Walk Away Renee” – The Left Banke
There’s no other way to close it out. You won’t see me following you back home.
The full playlist: