In 2016 I laid out My 11th Grade Sad Bastard Playlist for Valentine’s Day. 3 years on I’m here again to drop what a still very sad Wes was bumpin’ during his second year of university. As a sophomore at Boston College 2003 -2004 I was as mopey & self-involved as I had been in high school but I had listened to way more music, watched a lot more movies, had no parental supervision, and I was surrounded by thousands of strangers on a campus. With fondness, disgust, and dread let’s take a look back at my sophomore soundtrack.
- Gary Jules — Mad World
If you didn’t cry yourself to sleep at least once a month in the early 2000s to this song then you didn’t build your entire personality around a devotion to the film Donnie Darko. And if you didn’t do THAT then you weren’t a sad bastard, period. Prior to going all-in on identifying with a moody schizophrenic guided by a time-altering giant bunny the only Tears For Fears song I was really aware of was their all-time classic “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” (multiple childhood viewings of Real Genius on cable helped tremendously with this). Then director Richard Kelly dropped this Gary Jules cover over the closing montage of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career-making angst-fest and every 20 year old boy with a journal suddenly had an anthem.
2. Télépopmusik — Breathe
If you thought 19 year old Wes was above taking a song he heard in a Mitsubishi Outlander commercial and making it part of the emotional bedrock of his college years, well…you thought WRONG. I ate this shit up. The weird thing is that the vibe of that SUV ad was undeniably upbeat…like pretty much any vehicle ad ever… But I didn’t let that stop me from cranking this gem of glittering European electronica in my headphones as I looked wistfully out of trolley windows on the MBTA’s Green Line and wondered if anyone could ever truly grasp the depths of my torment & disaffection.
3. The Cure — Lullaby
I don’t remember the first time I heard this song but I know I was addicted to it from note one. Listening to it is like having someone who you find unbearably sexy tell you their deepest and most painful secret: you’re incredibly sad for them, and thankful they trust you enough, and also weirdly turned on…but you manage to not seem like it. I have no way of knowing this for sure but I’m fairly certain this is Jareth from Labyrinth’s go-to karaoke jam.
4. Talk Talk — Desire
I vividly remember the weekend that I discovered post-rock. Before I got into Wikipedia I was in the habit of falling down allmusic.com rabbit holes, jumping hyperlink → hyperlink for hours at a time as I ate up the histories and catalogs of artists and genres hoping that the knowledge would both make me look cool at the parties I was sure I’d one day go to and earn me some points at the weekly quiz bowl meetings that I never missed. I laid down on a bed for 5 hours and listened to Spirit of Eden on a loop and I actually managed to do it with as little affectation as possible. In many respects I’ve never topped this feat.
5. The Flaming Lips — In The Morning of the Magicians
Late in freshman year, after repeated viewings of Donnie Darko, 12 Monkeys, & The Graduate I developed pretensions of one day becoming a director and declared Film as a second major. (My mom made it extremely clear that she was not sending me to college to get a degree in watching movies so I was impelled to keep my original major of Political Science which was cool too). Given my flair for the dramatic I imagined a career path like Jean Vigo where I’d pump out 2–3 masterpieces and then die young, possibly of Tuberculosis, who knows? Long story short, I had visions of this song being played over the portion of the In Memoriam section of the Oscar broadcast devoted to me (which naturally would be several minutes long and feature only the most flattering clips and photographs). You know that vague feeling of disgust you feel for me after reading all that? I knew it intimately and this mini-masterpiece by Wayne Coyne & Co. is the perfect accompaniment.
6. The Roots [ft. Common] — Act Too (The Love of My Life)
I have never bullshitted a school assignment harder than I bullshitted a 5 page research paper on the French writer/activist/mystic Simone Weil for my Intro to Christian Theology class in sophomore year. We’d been given months of advance notice before the due date. We’d had to submit a written proposal with our thesis statement and a prospective bibliography. We’d been offered additional office hours to discuss any ideas or setbacks. Yet somehow I ended up staring at a blank Word document at 2am the day this assignment worth 35% of my grade was due with no substantive knowledge of Simone Weil other than that she resisted fascism, she embraced suffering, she was very hungry, she loved the poor, and she really really loved Jesus. I had no substantive opinions about any of this. Still, I somehow managed to bang out 5 pages of borderline incoherent babble that resembled nascent scholarship enough to earn a low B. Religious miracles CAN happen.
It was an anguished all-nighter and I can honestly say that I was ashamed to put my name on that academic travesty. But I got it done and for the entire 6 hours it took me to write it I listened to this track on repeat.
It’s beyond doubt my all-time favorite track by The Roots and I was listening to them on heavy rotation that year after working “security” for their on-campus concert a few months earlier. This just meant that as part of the student government (which booked periodic & random entertainment) I wore a blue t-shirt and pulled sentry duty in the 100% empty half of our hockey arena that lay behind the stage that had been set up for the show. There was truly no one back there and I could see absolutely nothing of the concert and could only hear it muffled, but I knew I was a new fan of Questlove and the crew. (Sidenote: Howie Day opened for them and I think about that randomness at least 5x a year).
I won’t sit here and try to force a connection between Common & Black Thought’s wistful love letter to Hip-Hop purity and a mid-century ascetic anti-fascist philosopher that Trotsky dubbed the “Melancholy Revolutionary” but that track was my “getting shit done while glum” anthem for a minute back in the day.
7. Elliott Smith — Needle In The Hay
My uncle bought me a DVD player as a high school graduation gift in the summer of 2002. The first 5 DVDs I bought to go with it were The Woodstock concert film, Fight Club, The Ultimate Fights from the Movies compilation, The Usual Suspects, & The Royal Tenenbaums… What can I say? I was 18 and a dude. As far as I was concerned this was the the fruit of world cinema.
For real though: If you didn’t watch Luke Wilson’s “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow” bathroom mirror razorblade scene in The Royal Tenenbaums and then immediately download the sparse & insistent Elliott Smith tune that soundtracked it so that you could add it to every sad jamz playlist you created for literally the next decade then were you even really melancholy in the aughts??? And as messed up as it may have been, Smith tragically dispatching himself not long after the film dropped only cemented its legacy as a depressive classic
8. Radiohead — How To Disappear Completely
I wasn’t good at parties in college and I went to them rarely. But if you had the misfortune of meeting me in the kitchen at one while you were trying to top up at the keg I might just have averted my eyes from my shoes long enough to ask you what your favorite Radiohead album was.
After “discovering” them on the SoulSeek file sharing service the summer after freshman year I’d developed what I thought was the profound idea that knowing someone’s favorite Radiohead album would somehow give you a window into their soul. This was neither true nor original but it was what I had for a conversation starter so I went with it.
For me it was Kid A from the jump. I liked, but just liked, The Bends. And I never felt the legendary reverence for OK Computer that all the critics seemed to. But Kid A??? Got damn. It was utterly foundational. (Of course this meant I was also deep into Amnesiac which was recorded during the same sessions, but Kid A was THE ONE). The National Anthem & Idioteque were bangers, Everything In Its Right Place was excellent for learning how to smoke weed to, and Morning Bell was a superb chill study song. But How To Disappear Completely??? Wow. I dare you to find an anthem better suited to doing laps around a gothic college campus in the winter dusk while searching for a reason to live in the face of the collapse of a torrid romance that you never actually had. I’ll wait.
9. Bjork — Undo
I can’t actually remember how I got into Bjork but I do remember having to explain who she was and what she did to every American student I talked about her to, so I know I didn’t hear about her from friends or anything. If you’re curious, my shorthand for her work was “She’s like the arty European Madonna” which was painfully reductive but serviceable enough in context. Most probably I saw her star turn in the uber-depressing Dancer In The Dark by Lars Von Trier and decided to check out her music. (I had thought I was sad then, but nope. That movie painted the new official portrait of BLEAK…WOO!). Regardless it took me about 5 minutes to fall in love with her voice and sound and I gobbled up everything from her first solo record to her latest stuff to her work with the Sugarcubes. Vespertine definitely remains my favorite album and I had the swan album cover poster hanging up in my room for years. I don’t think I’ve ever said that in public…but I did, and I still have love for everyone’s favorite Icelandic forest deity. This song isn’t even really sad (it’s actually been on 90% of the sexin’ playlists I’ve ever made) but it did make me feel an intense physical/spiritual yearning for a kind of love I’ve still never known so yeah, it makes the cut. Thank you Bjork for everything.
10. Nirvana — You Know You’re Right
Kurt Cobain died a few days before my 10th birthday. I have no recollection of hearing about it when it happened and I absolutely had no idea who he was at the time. I can’t remember if any of the other 10 year olds I knew did either. A few years later at my (very white & very South Shore Massachusetts) junior high you could rely on seeing at least a few Cobain/Nirvana t-shirts in the halls on any given day. The shirt released to accompany the posthumous From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah live album was especially popular. By then I knew that Nirvana was a band and that the singer had committed suicide. I probably rocked out to Smells Like Teen Spirit if I heard it on the radio but I don’t know if I would’ve realized it was by that band.
By senior year of high school I had finally buckled and gotten into alternative (by way of Rage Against The Machine’s 2000 performance at the VMAs). I liked Nevermind and didn’t really get Incesticide or In Utero but like a lot of brooding high schoolers I was obsessed with the idea of the tortured artist so I devoured the Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven and then got really into the Unplugged album. So into that I actually put up a poster of Cobain during the unplugged set in my high school bedroom and moved it with me to freshman & sophomore dorm rooms. As you can imagine, when “new” Nirvana track that sounded like their classic best dropped on their 2002 greatest hits compilation I snapped it up and got it into heavy rotation immediately. It stayed there for a long time.
11. Interpol — Turn On The Bright Lights (The Whole Damn Album)
I first heard Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights while browsing CDs in the Newbury Comics at the Providence Place Mall in Rhode Island two days before I moved out of my mom’s house for my freshman year of college. Whoever was in charge of the PA that day just put the album on from track one and let it run. By the third track I heard I asked the cashier who was playing and by the 5th track I owned the album. I listened to it all that night, all the next day, and then pretty much every day for the next 3 years. Literally. I think I played TotBL in full at least once every single day of freshman year and at least a few songs a day for every year of school after that. First on a classic Sony Discman, then on an iriver SlimX iMP-400 CD / MP3 Player, then on a Rio Karma 20GB MPR player (trash design that broke in a month), then on an iriver H120 20GB MP3 Jukebox, then finally on a 2nd generation iPod.
I had never heard of Joy Division before that day at the mall, but I quickly became familiar with the 80s Factory Records icons due to them being mentioned in the first paragraph of more or less every single review of Interpol’s first album. The comparisons of each band’s angular guitars, insistent rhythm section, stark/pained vocals, and bleak vibe were valid and it was a sound that my post-breakup, firmly virgin, socially awkward, sadboy self just couldn’t get enough of. I wore cargo pants and black graphic t-shirts every day and I’d rotate between thinking that “Untitled”, “Hands Away”, & “Leif Erikson” most accurately portrayed the depths of my 20 year old wretchedness. (If I’m being honest every single song on this album got a turn with the title belt).
This was 100% my favorite and the most psychologically influential album of my early 20s. It was my daily soundtrack, the chamber in which I heard every note of the loneliness and detachment I felt in the new world of college sounded, the relief from that detachment, & my passport to Post-Punk & New Wave. I resolved to dedicate myself to becoming a stand-up comic and performer after seeing them perform one night in freshman year and returning to a campus that was all but empty for spring break. After what remains my most emotionally crushing breakup in my junior year I screamed way too dramatically in a graveyard across the street from my dorm building then went inside and cranked the last two minutes of “PDA” over and over.
I’ll confess to only digging a few songs off of Interpol’s follow up Antics and pretty much losing track of what they did after that, but I’ll thank them forever for making this. I’d like to think I’ve grown a lot, but I needed it then.