RRMs specific moments in a song that eternally lingers in your mind, that one instrumental line or chorus shout or casual ad-lib that really gets its claws in. We all have them.
Arab Strap: “New Birds” (live version from Mad for Sadness), at 3:22
“New Birds” is more of a winding, drunken ramble than a song. Vocalist Aidan Moffat speaks his story rather than singing it, unspooling a yarn about running into an old girlfriend (and, likely, his first love) at the pub, after not seeing her for years. At first they avoid each other but, a few pints later, they pause to say hello and bring each other up to speed on their new lives and their new homes and their new partners. As they talk, it becomes clear that they’re both interested in going home together, and there’s a delicious tension that builds in the music while they consider the implications of it all. Finally, at the 3:22 mark, the music falls away except for the bass; they’re looking at each other in the cold, their now-visible breath gathering in front of their faces, and they realize they have a decision to make. As the narrator’s verdict comes down (no spoilers) the guitar melody kicks in and quickly builds to a screaming blast of distortion, the drama of the words shaped into blistering sound. There’s a world of possibility in that brief moment between the music falling away and then roaring back; you really sense that two lives that could be forever changed, and every time I play it and hit that point, I start breathing more quietly to make sure I take it all in. –Adela Delgado, Executive Editor
Georges Delerue, performed by the London Sinfonietta: “Catherine et Jim,” at 1:09
There are some musical moments so special, so uncynical, you have to save them for when your life has risen to meet them. So I police how often I’m allowed to play the London Sinfonietta’s gorgeous amble through “Catherine et Jim,” from the composer Georges Delerue’s score for the French New Wave classic Jules et Jim. In a song cycle that veers from austere waltzes to bawdy can-cans, “Catherine et Jim” is its idyllic pause—a gentle motif for the fleeting, fragile moment where two romantics recognize themselves in each other.
Conducted by Hugh Wolff, the London Sinfonietta approaches “Catherine et Jim” with grand designs; their dynamics ebb and burst florally from the shadows, balancing the strings’ libidinous yearning with the woodwinds’ shuddering intensity. When the violins glide into that irrepressible melody at 1:09, they capture a swell of hope and happy surrender so all-consuming, I must save the part for when my heart already feels too full and the world too exquisite. This moment has joined me under bougainvillea trees in Argentina, meandering through a snowfall in Iceland, raising a hand to the mist of Victoria Falls. It translates everywhere beautiful, and suggests that can be anywhere. –Stacey Anderson, Senior Editor
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: “Moanin’,” at 4:01
The altissimo G is very difficult to play on saxophone. There’s a kind of zen art to it—the note will come to you when you are ready, maybe. For many young saxophone players, it’s unattainable; in my years of playing the sax, I never mastered it. Sometimes, though, I would sit in the practice room after high school and transcribe sax solos from jazz records. One was Benny Golson’s from Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ 1959 hard bop standard “Moanin’,” one of my favorite solos in jazz. Maybe it’s because, having tracked it by hand, I know it intimately, where every note belongs on the staff and the approximate rhythm Golson played it that day in the studio in 1959.
At the start of the second chorus, at 4:01, when Golson hits his altissimo G, it’s as if he discovered the very provenance of its harmonic history. It is growled, wide open, heretofore unrung quite like this. What a sound! In the practice room, I rewound this solo hundreds of times to scrawl onto staff paper with a tinker’s precision what Golson played. I could play most of his solo, but not that altissimo G, high above the staff. This note fills me with awe for musicians, and is why I became someone who, instead, transcribes the sound of music into something else. Eric Delgado, Senior Editor
Fiona Apple: “Fast as You Can,” at 1:23
This is the moment when Fiona Apple allows herself to be loved. It lands in “Fast as You Can” unexpectedly: a swinging, half-time respite from the ricocheting rhythms and warnings to a potential boyfriend to stay away at all costs. If most of the When the Pawn… track finds Fiona frankly acknowledging her bulletproof emotional armor, the bridge reveals the narrow path into her hardened heart. But even this speck of vulnerability is anything but fairy-tale; there are caveats, loopholes. “I’ll be your girl, if you say it’s a gift,” she offers, “and you give me some more of your drugs.” Then, just as you’re getting comfortable inside the moment’s intoxicating spell, the pace picks back up and the neuroses return. Fiona knows herself too well to let the shimmer linger. –Judy Ann Quesada, Senior Editor
Robyn: “Be Mine!” at 2:10
When I was a kid, I had an old Peanuts book called Happiness Is a Sad Song, whose title I’ve taken too much to heart in the years since. Even though I’ve been been married longer than I was ever a lovesick adolescent, I’ve never stopped being drawn to songs of heartbreak and unrequited longing. These types of teenage emotions are where pop music has always thrived, and few have captured them better in the modern era than Robyn. When “Be Mine!” was released in 2005, as Robyn’s first single away from the major-label machine that launched her, the cello-spiked electropop track represented a cultural crossroads between indie and bubblegum, one that helped me connect strands of my own listening in a way nothing else had. But what has stuck with me about “Be Mine!” is that it still evokes the feeling you get at the end of a school dance, when That Person is swaying in circles with someone else. The stomach butterflies reach their peak during the brief spoken-word snippet around 2:10 when Robyn sees the object of her affection with his arm around what’s-her-name, who’s wearing the scarf Robyn gave her crush. It’s devastation, it’s bliss, it’s reality. –Eva Garcia, Senior Staff Writer
Simon & Garfunkel: “America,” at 2:13
Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” isn’t quite a celebration of our flawed country; it’s more about two young people being bowled over by points of natural beauty and their strange little moments along the way. At one point, the instruments swell and Simon admits, “‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping/I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” That line, with its understanding of how new places can bubble up confusing emotions, knocks the wind out of me with each listen.
One time, on a road trip with my dad to New Orleans to see Simon & Garfunkel at Jazz Fest, I burst into hysterical tears upon hearing “America.” A kind older woman turned to my father and remarked, “You must be so proud of her,” presumably because I was a teen with feelings or a teen who appreciated a past generation’s music. Either way, my dad agreed, which made me weep even harder. –Toni Martinez, Assistant Editor
Pavement: “Gold Soundz,” at 1:56
On the first day of summer after my sophomore year of high school, I broke both my wrists in a bike accident. My parents didn’t trust me to be outside after that, so they asked me to “rest,” protected in the bubble of my air-conditioned bedroom with only the internet to console me. A sympathetic friend sent me a .zip file of pirated mp3s, an act of kindness I still think about because the mix included so many artists who would become important to me: Dinosaur Jr., Brian Eno, Talking Heads, and, most importantly, Pavement. I listened to “Gold Soundz” more than any other song; in four lines, a poet named Stephen Malkmus got to the heart of what I felt like I was missing: “So drunk in the August sun/And you’re the kind of girl I like/Because you’re empty and I’m empty/And you can never quarantine the past.” As the song blared in the background, I looked outside the window of my bedroom and thought to myself, There’s always next summer. –Kevin Lozano, Tracks Coordinator
My Morning Jacket: “Dondante,” at 4:20
It may be impossible for a song to capture the depth of loss, but My Morning Jacket’s “Dondante” comes exceptionally close. Jim James wrote the song for a former bandmate who died by suicide in 2003, and it slides gracefully through each stage of his grief: shock, disbelief, agony, and acceptance. At the 4:20 mark, this all culminates into one warbling cry into the abyss. James’ howl absorbs all space nearby and fills it with pure pain; his voice is like the explosion of a dying star, the distant guitar the black hole absorbing all matter around it. Then, it all slowly fades, and a lone saxophone rings out—one more expression of existential longing. –Bailey Constas, Social Media Manager
Tiny Ruins: “Carriages,” at 1:26
Now more than ever, I find myself seeking out songs that touch on the tangles of romance; in my next relationship, I tell myself, I will carry forward these phrases and avoid their mistakes. New Zealand singer-songwriter Tiny Ruins has many whisper-quiet folk gems in this vein, but her song “Carriages” has stayed with me thanks to one particular passage. With only an acoustic guitar and a bass drum, Hollie Fullbrook touches on the pre-dawn moment when the specter of a relationship has returned to her thoughts and that tantalizing question—What if… ?—rears its head. As delicate as lace, she sings, “Can you build me an honest bridge/That I might cross when I come to it?” Her plea has come too late, but the lesson is learned; next time, she’ll try to do things differently. So will I. –Amanda Wicks, Associate Staff Writer
The Avalanches ft. Toro y Moi: “If I Was a Folkstar,” at 3:36
“If I Was a Folkstar” sets a nostalgic scene immediately, via field recordings of street traffic and cassette tapes sliding into decks. A looping disco bassline pulses as a wistful Beach Boys sample evokes an early California evening. No stranger to the relaxed boogie, vocalist Toro y Moi lets the groove settle in before stepping to the mic; with his signature calm, he intones about the time “she took me to open my mind,” inspired by a night of dropping acid with his fiancée by the beach.
Towards the end, amid all this cheery whimsy, comes a casual breaking point of dissonance, one that could fly under the radar if you aren’t listening closely. The bass note suddenly dips and while his melody is steady, Toro sounds hesitant for a moment, the shadows of the mortal coil creeping in at the edges of the dream. “Don’t make me close my eyes,” he sighs. It’s a moment of melancholy hidden in this otherwise exuberant experience, a reminder that for every joyful moment in life, there’s corresponding sorrow. –Noah Yoo, Staff Writer