My Desert Island Songs
“If you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you, assuming of course, that you had a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles?”
— BBC Radio, Desert Island Discs, 1942
I have less time for the music discovery process lately, which is OK. My priorities have simply had to change a bit with age. Not long in the past, though, I regularly trawled through related artists on music streaming services or listened through my feed on Hype Machine to find new songs.
Podcasts are what’s playing most often through my headphones, now, including BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
I’ve noticed that the program’s famous guests don’t often pick current hits in this hypothetical scenario. A solid choice, instead, has much more to do with the guest’s own personal history than a song’s cultural relevancy today.
Since I haven’t consciously approached song selection through the lens of nostalgia much before, I thought it might be fun to try to give shape to my own playlist of songs in this exercise.
[Note: I realized at some point that I might have taken the isolation element of the island scenario too seriously. A lot of my choices were picked to hopefully prevent me from losing my marbles under the palms.]
“The Christmas Song” (1957) by Frank Sinatra
While I know that it’s appalling to most other adults in modern society, I find joy in the spectacle of Christmas, and that includes its music. No matter how many times others groan about its early arrival on the speakers in spaces like grocery stores and pharmacies, I still like Christmas music.
My mom’s top two musical artists right now are, I believe, Tony Bennet and Muse — one of those is an 80-something-year-old singer of American standards and the other is an English rock band. Her eclectic musical choices have always been on display during the holidays. Our Christmas rotation, determined by her, included both Bing Crosby and Mannheim Steamroller.
Frank Sinatra wins here, because he managed to be one of those rare musicians who was beloved both by my family and my own friends at school, even though my pals were mostly otherwise into punk at that point.
In the mid-2000s, I hurt my knee playing a silly soccer game and a Sinatra album came with me to the medical facility as my choice to have on headphones while going through the MRI machine. He soothes me still.
“At Last” (1960) by Etta James
I was exposed to a ton of Great American Songbook tunes growing up. “At Last” isn’t one of those from my childhood, to my memory, but one I developed a fondness for as a young adult in college.
This song (specifically, this one, by Etta James) is really perfect. I can’t think of much more to say about this track than that.
Recently, my husband and I were walking around doing weekend errands when we came across a man singing — well, more like shouting — “At Last” to nobody in particular, much to the chagrin of the brunch-goers on Fort Greene’s patios. It was pretty obnoxious, but I felt like maybe I also got it. He must have found love.
“The Girl From Ipanema” (1963) by João Gilberto and Stan Getz, featuring Astrud Gilberto
I was introduced to Astrud Gilberto in my undergrad years. I remember that this song was on in someone’s car while we drove out of student parking one bright morning, and that I promptly asked who was on the car stereo. I’m not sure who made that introduction, but I’m thankful to them now.
This song never grows old to me. Gilberto’s voice is so sweet and pure, even though she’s singing about something desired but never quite gained. It has a nice tropical, breezy feel to it that would fit in well with island life, too.
“Thriller” (1982) by Michael Jackson
For a long time, I thought that I had seen Michael Jackson up close in person, though later my mom would set the record straight on it for me.
My father traveled on business quite a lot. During my youngest years, my mom and I would see him sometimes by staying at some fancy hotel. It was on one of those trips that she told me that Michael Jackson was nearby.
I understand now that she meant he was playing a concert in town that day, to explain why it was so crowded. But being only a little tyke at the time, I thought she was telling me that Michael Jackson was right there in the lobby of the hotel!
I decided that a man who was wearing a short leather jacket and surrounded by a lot of other people dressed in a similar way was Michael Jackson. In awe of his proximity to us, I waited for him to get close and watched him walk past us with the required amount of reverence.
I held onto this extremely fuzzy memory for a long time as a child. It was a moment surrounded with a golden halo, as if I had been near a divine entity.
“Thriller” is my pick by him, even though it’s a bit of a spooky one, and that’s mostly due to its music video, which blew me away with its length as a kid. I, like so many other kids throughout the decades since, tried with my gangly arms to replicate its zombie dance in front of the TV at home.
“Bizarre Love Triangle” (1986) by New Order
To be honest, it wasn’t the original song, but rather the cover version by Frente! that I first heard, in the 1990s.
It was that version that I repeatedly had on within the comforting walls of my preteen bedroom. It later became the official go-to for me when I found myself in a potentially scary environment or situation (which seemed to happen a lot to teen girls). It was a sort of Lord’s Prayer for me that helped me to feel safe when I sang it out loud, until I was comfortable again.
I tend to prefer listening to the original more nowadays.
“You Beautiful Bastard” (2000) by The Sea and Cake
In my hometown in Florida, there is exactly one hangout for young people: Barnes & Noble Booksellers. It was like that when I last lived there and, as far as I can tell, it’s still the case. It’s a small city designed primarily to accommodate tourists and retirees. It wasn’t the greatest place to be a kid.
It was while drinking a Frappuccino on the patio at Barnes & Noble, sometime in high school, that I first spotted the album art for Oui in a magazine. Discoveries like these were incredibly important back then. Alternative magazines offered a small glimpse into a segment of the population that might contain people like me out there — far away, but there all the same. It looked interesting, both visually and in the magazine’s description, so I bought it on CD and was delighted by what it delivered.
“Marry Me” (2007) by St. Vincent
St. Vincent, a.k.a Annie Clark, is a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire. I have always been impressed by her as a person and it’s been interesting to hear her sound evolve over the years since Marry Me was released.
“Marry Me” was often on repeat on my little iPod Shuffle during my introduction to Brooklyn life. I had moved there from Florida and was subletting a room in a shared apartment, sight unseen. The shower and kitchen cabinets were infested with tiny cockroaches, and it got so hot in my room that my MacBook shutdown repeatedly from overheating.
Still, the hurrying people all around me, waiting on the subway platforms and riding the trains, all of it felt electric. I had finally left Florida and I had the promise of an interesting year at graduate school ahead of me.
“7/11” (2014) by Beyoncé
The surprise release of Beyoncé in 2013 made me more ecstatic about an album than I have maybe ever been. Later that month, I encouraged friends I was staying with in Texas around Christmas to arrange a Beyoncé viewing party, so they could all see every single music video that came out with it.
“7/11” is on the 2014 Beyoncé reissue and I can’t stop myself from moving every time I hear it. It isn’t the most interesting song of hers, granted, but those irresistible semi-commands in its lyrics have put it on my list. I’ll get my exercise while I’m “spinnin’ with my hands up” on my lonely island.