The Half Light: Knowing Yourself Through iTunes History

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On the left side of the iTunes interface, beneath the Playlists category, is an icon for Top 25 Most Played. Click here, and you can see a list of your most frequently played songs since you first downloaded the program. Due to some combination of luck and poverty, my MacBook dates back to 2006, and the Top 25 most played provides a weirdly comprehensive window on the last six years of my life.

Is it as good as an iPod? Probably not. The computer stays at home while the iPod goes everywhere. But I left my ancient fourth generation iPod Nano on a plane three weeks ago, so even if that data was accessible, the ship has sailed. (Fun note: if you buy the new sixth generation iPod nano, but have an old computer like mine, you can’t use it with the old iTunes, and you also can’t update to the newer version. Thanks for strong-arming me into buying a new computer, Apple! Sorry to foil you, but I went to eBay instead.)

But maybe it’s better to reduce the sample to those times when I’m at home, in front of the computer, in a state of calm. Without the distractions of subways and cars and city streets, maybe my inner musical self is more easily lured to the surface. In any case, the top ten songs listed below provide a glimpse into my life, a sort of bullet-point musical diary tracing the timeline from post-college malaise into adulthood. Counting down:

10. “Our Swords,” Band of Horses
The album Everything All The Time dominated my library for a long time after its release in March 2006. This song takes me back to my first apartment in Brooklyn, a tiny walkup room disconnected from the main apartment area (and, crucially, the bathroom). From a practical standpoint, this was the most insecure part of my life; I had no money and no job, and no real prospects. When my dad dropped me off, seeing the ugly Bushwick landscape for the first time, full of concrete, graffiti, and garbage, he told me we could drive straight home. But I just laughed. Man, it was nice to be young and naïve.

9. “If It’s the Beaches,” Avett Brothers
I heard this tune on an episode of Friday Night Lights, and began listening obsessively. I still love the way the chorus hits you out of nowhere two-and-a-half minutes into the song, after a long violin section and an acoustic guitar comedown. Here, I’m transported to a different room in a different Bushwick apartment one L-train stop away. This one was just a few steps from the bathroom, but it lacked a window. The architectural highlight was a lofted bed area so musty that I’d sometimes wake up gasping for breath.

8. “Dee, Oh Dee,” Alec Ounsworth
This is from the demos Ounsworth made before forming Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, and in some ways it represents his most beautiful work. Those who have seen Ounsworth perform solo with just a guitar (I’m not one of them) claim he’s got a Dylan-esque charisma; something gripping and distant at the same time. You can hear it best in the demos, free from the (admittedly great) bells and whistles of the average full-band song. I’ve never stopped listening to them, but the song takes me back mostly to the New York subways, from the brilliant novel vibe they gave off at the beginning, to the ugly, crowded routine it became at the end.

7. “Been So Long,” Vetiver
This song has an epic, destined quality that fits perfectly in the mind of a melodramatic twenty-something with a tendency toward the broken-hearted. If, walking through Union Square park at age 24, I felt a little like a world-weary mid-forties traveler coming face to face with a lost love after decades apart, maybe that’s the romantic fantasy I needed to survive.

6. “Found Bird,” Papercuts
I entertained the notion of making movies once upon a time, and this was the song used (without permission—oops!) at the end of a short video I shot with my best friend. As the sun set near McCarren Park in Williamsburg, we got footage of him walking along Bedford Avenue, and standing atop the wheel well of a truck, mugging for the camera, playing a desperate comedian unsure how to cope with the sudden onset of fame. And in that film, with all its weaknesses, reflected our desires, and the desire of a generation, for the stardom we grew up worshiping, along with the hollowness we could sense at the heart of it.

5. “Wicked Gil,” Band of Horses
Back to Ben Bridwell and his tortured, unintelligible delivery. This was my favorite track from Everything All the Time, and I particularly loved the strange poignancy of this lyric: “I know evil people will save me.” It felt like the admission of a horrible safety net for middle-class kids like me, at a time when America still felt like a very prosperous place. Stuck at a dead-end job at a cancer hospital while my writing career fizzled, I felt like I was just biding my time until I leapt onto that safety net, heading for law school or wherever else. It turns out that I heard the lyric wrong, but I love it anyway.

4. “I Think I’d Like To Go Back To Heaven Sometime,” Alec Ounsworth
The second and last repeat artist on the list, and again, it’s from Ounsworth’s demos. This evokes the subway memories, like the first track, but for whatever reason it takes me to a raised 7-platform in Queens, a very above-ground borough where I never lived but where I’d change trains on the way from Greenpoint to midtown Manhattan. I made that commute for approximately three months, before one of the two sisters I lived with turned out to be a completely miserable human being whose innate misery was compounded by Crohn’s Disease. I dashed back to Bushwick a week before Christmas, leaving them high and dry for the holidays. I felt it was the least I could do. Wait a second, why did I ever say that I miss being young?

3. “In Your Own Time,” Iron & Wine
Continuing the demo theme, this is Sam Beam recording on what sounds like a four-track in his basement before releasing The Creek Drank the Cradle and becoming an indie-folk darling. For a long time, this was my go-to song when walking home from long nights at improv classes or expensive drinking sessions in Manhattan. It’s tremendously sad, like a lot of Iron & Wine songs, but there’s a sense of redemption coursing through the fatalistic melancholy that made it a perfect tune for trekking through Brooklyn in the dark at 3 a.m. after what was, usually, a disappointing night: “In your own time, you’ll dream something evil, sing like an old crow and worship the land. Don’t be scared if I walk like the devil, run down the mountain and ask for your hand.”

2. “Sans Soleil,” Miike Snow
This one was discovered in the pilot episode of Justified, a show I’ve been devouring over the past month. The frequency of plays here attests to nothing but an obsessive listening habit. I’d never heard of Miike Snow before, and was a little shocked to discover that “Sans Soleil” wasn’t even one of the singles from their self-titled debut album. The music is nice throughout, but there’s something extra in “Sans Soleil,” from the moment the lead singer plays draws out the word “down” in melodic quivers after the opening line: “Morning breaks at the water’s edge…the city was bringing me down.” It’s a beautiful moment, and as someone who is no longer in “the city,” the sentiment helps me reflect on how life has changed since the New York days. Everything is on more of an even keel, for good and for bad.

1. “Killing the Blues,” Robert Plant and Allison Krauss
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this is number one, but I don’t think I should be embarrassed. It’s a cover of a nice John Prine song, and I discovered it watching a J.C. Penney’s ad (oh right, that’s why it’s embarrassing). Again, the frequency of listens has more to do with a period of intense obsession than a reflection of my actual preference. I can still remember the day when I listened most; the Giants lost to the Eagles in the NFC playoffs, and a thing with a girl hadn’t worked out. I shut myself in the windowless room with the musty lofted bed, and I sat there in the dark, brooding, a bit drunk, with the song on repeat. Great times.

I checked my old computer, a Dell PC I’ve had since 2002, but the top 22 songs there were all instrumental Mark Mothersbaugh tunes from Wes Anderson movies used as background for writing. After that, it was the Ben Folds version of “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” the soundtrack to a screenplay about a high school football team I wrote just after college in Asheville, “New Slang,” which I listened to in a manner that went beyond obsessive when it came out, and “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” by Billy Bragg and Wilco, which got me through a horrible work-study job proctoring physician’s assistants’ exams my senior year of college.

Hey, you know what? I didn’t expect it, but this list has made me feel pretty good about 2012. iTunes may force me on long, frustrating odysseys to Best Buy and eBay, but it can also raise my self-esteem. I’ll take the tradeoff.

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