When I create a playlist, it’s a labor of love. There’s just something about the way a perfectly paired tune so carefully juxtaposes a scene, whether in my own life or on screen, that satisfies some strange part of me that can’t otherwise be reached. Think “Stuck in the Middle with You” during Michael Madsen’s carving session in Reservoir Dogs. Think Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as Ewan McGregor trips on the stankest smack in Trainspotting. Think of the impermeable melancholy Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” imposes on The Graduate.
None of my song pairings are remotely comparable in their gravity to any of these timeless examples, unless you count the profound meaning behind blasting Spice Girls every morning as I brushed my teeth in the first grade — I did like to spit out the foam at the end of every “Really really wanna zigazig ah,” if that counts. To this day, I can’t listen to that song without tasting Spearmint Colgate Cavity Protection in my mouth, forever conditioned like Pavlov’s dog to never disassociate the two. And so, my most personal playlist is comprised of all my retired traveling songs, music played so often during certain adventures and occasions that listening to them, even in the dark, frigid cave that is the Stacks, just takes me right back. It’s that sting of nostalgia that just hurts so good. Here are the songs that do just that:
“Fall in Love” by D’Banj ft. Yemi Sax
When I was 16, I kind of just took off to Ghana by myself and settled in the beach town of Cape Coast for the summer. It started just as a whim, like some pre-quarter life crisis to “find myself” or some existential shit I sold to my parents to fund my wanderlust. I swear this was somehow the only song being played anywhere, like some inescapable social experiment to force-feed us a summer anthem. I felt like Zoolander, being primed with “Relax” to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia. I ended up liking “Fall in Love” so much I asked some tiny music shack guy to burn me a copy of it; he labeled the scratch disk: “Hip Pop Mosquito Park Mohits, for my sweet potato.” I even started asking the cabbies and bartenders and locals what the weird Ghanaian slang in the lyrics mean (“My sugar banana / As I don get you ebe say I make hammer”). I mostly got a lot of rumbling laughter in response. Whatever it means, the beat off this track is ridiculously infectious and Yemi Sax, the vocalist in the chorus, has a honeyed voice uncannily like a favorite ’00s throwback of mine, Ashanti.
“Calypso Gold” by Princeton
A year later, I was in Kenya, on safari with some random international social workers. On 6 a.m. ‘game drives,’ freezing, half-dead and chasing trails of wildebeests on the Maasai Mara, I’d play “Calypso Gold,” since the only thing you can stomach at such an ungodly hour is some charming synth-pop. The rest of the album is replete with adorable dreaminess, with several tracks sounding like some melodic vignette Zooey Deschanel might write with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (complete with the doo-wop finger snaps). “Calypso” has just enough upkick in the tempo to gently wake up a cranky traveler in a chiming tropical reverie. However, mornings were the only time I got control of the speakers, as the couple from Oklahoma in my jeep would blast The Lion King soundtrack in the afternoons and our safari guide (whose life story is more or less the plot from The Jungle Book) exclusively played that Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers duet, “Islands in the Stream.”
“You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry
Don’t ask me why, but Chuck Berry was the only artist that played during the two-week period I confined myself in a Starbucks to complete my college admissions applications. To this day listening to his twangy ’50s rock and roll makes me feel like I’m clicking “Save Changes” on the Common App, arguably the bleakest period of my high school career.
“Dream a Little Dream of Me” by The Mamas & The Papas
Although the Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald versions of “Dream” are obvious classics, there’s something about the unshakable, sorrowful lullaby quality in The Mamas & The Papas’ version that soothes me into a state of cool calm. It’s the perfect easy listening to pump while reclined in the white sand of Nha Trang’s beaches, a coastal city in Vietnam. Its sounds of wan longing and old timey hypnosis go surprisingly well with the rhythmic lapping of waves over the shore. Even now, playing this song puts me in a near catatonic state instantly.
“Drummer” by Coconut Records
Crashing in a cheap Palm Springs motel before the start of Coachella, my friend and I would float in the pool, spinning fantasies about the celebrities we’d meet on Indio’s hallowed grounds. Strangely, when “Drummer” came on, we mutually decided that we’d kill to meet Jason Schwartzman, the frontman of Coconut Records. This had more to do with the revelation that Schwartzman is the autobiographical subject of “Drummer,” hitting us at the third margarita that he was “the drummer in a band that you’ve heard of” (as the former drummer of Phantom Planet), and less to do with the actual desire to meet him — though my friend does have a thing for guys with mustaches holding babies.
“Animal” by Cocorosie
Cocorosie is a pretty divisive group. Its cult status, to some, seems contrived, and the alien affectations the two girls adopt on their vocals seem more try-hard than charming to some. It’s true — sometimes Cocorosie is guilty of experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but hey, I got a ticket to a show day-of for just 10 euros. I mostly went to see the historical venue, the famous Paradiso concert-club in Amsterdam. Shockingly, the rather intimate performance was less of that “weird voice thing they do” and more folksy and soulful resonance. The band played to crowd favorites, with much of its earlier stuff like “Animal” and “Rainbowarriors” rather than the muddy, exploratory fare of its most recent studio album, Grey Oceans.