2011 was a year that I’d dreamt about, and a year that I’d dreaded. I got married in April, which counts for the former, haha. We had a stupidly happy, lovely day; we got to wave at people from the top of a Routemaster; we danced to the Boss and The Mavericks; we ate oysters and got drunk.
I would turn 33 this year too, the age my dad was when he died: a marker that had loomed before me throughout my adult life. I’m pleased to say that my husband and I (cue a chorus of woos from the wedding reception) got married the same day that that milestone arrived. I like to think it’s what the old man would’ve wanted.
At the beginning of the year, I also set up a Spotify playlist. It was – and still is – called Songs That Made My Day in 2011. I started it one murky, sad afternoon in January, recovering from a hangover, switching on the iPlayer to hear Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service. Seconds in, like a lightning bolt, came Scott Walker. The Plague.
I remember it was cold in the house; I was in the kitchen doing the dishes. Scott was lying on his back, waiting for dawn to pierce a crack in the ceiling. Christ, I remember thinking, stopping dead, hands still in the sink. Music still does this. Never let that feeling leave your bones, girl.
The playlist, at this point, has 129 songs on it. I got daftly excited about it in those first few weeks, listening to lots of pop to lift me out of the dragging dark. The Tubes’ Don’t Touch Me There, Kate Bush’s Wow, Jack Penate’s Pull My Heart Away, and – brace yourselves – Frost by Salem, a big icy rave-beast. My test was that the songs had to properly jolt me, whether they were as well-tested as Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come (January 7), or as fun as Fern Kinney’s Groove Me (thanks to my friend Mark Wood for that one – a welcome Facebook wall-post on January 11, my father’s birthday).
Other rules? Well, I tried not to repeat songs, but that failed pretty quickly. I learned to go with my heart, rather than the rulebook. That’s the way music works, anyway, not by rote, but by magic. OMD’s Souvenir made me euphoric, as it always does, in both May and September. Bobby Jean by Springsteen (him again) hit me hard in both August and October – it’s that post-middle-eight final flourish that gets me every time, when Bruce imagines his long-lost love hearing him on the motel radio. Three groups got two entries on the playlist on the same day – a weird trio of Cybotron, Eighth Wonder and Electronic. The last act also get the prize for having the same song added twice, albeit in original and 12” versions. I blame Neil Tennant’s voice for never disappointing me.
Some songs have even deeper associations than that. There are those sent by friends, like The Bee Gees’ Kilburn Towers from Kathryn, or Dark Dark Dark’s Dreaming from Dan C, who I’ve known for more than half my life (we’ve been exchanging songs like billy-o for most of the year, just like we used to do with letters when we were teenagers). Then there’s Dolly Parton’s Mule Skinner Blues, listened to just before I interviewed her, while R.E.M.’s Diminished floored me as I wrote up my face-to-face time with Michael Stipe. My first musical hero, he had been everything I wanted him to be – just as that song had been everything to me.
But it’s the songs from May 31 that still get to me the most. These are the songs from mine and Dan’s honeymoon across America, quickly found and tagged on the day we came back. Here are the Rebirth Brass Band, enjoyed in a hot, sweaty bar in New Orleans, where an old lady grabbed onto me to help her dance along. Here’s Elvis Presley’s Let Yourself Go, a vivid reminder of Memphis, and the hotel where his ’68 special played endlessly in the bar. From our long drives listening to satellite radio, here are the soft-voiced Caravelles, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley’s Tennessee Border no. 2, and the great Tom T. Hall, with a sentiment we endorsed when we finally parked up: I Like Beer. And here are Wendy Rene, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs, from the Stax singles box set that took us from the bayous, up the Mississippi. Just one song and I’m back there. All of them together and I’m gone.
It’s not a perfect playlist, by any means. Our wedding songs are hidden away separately (walking down the aisle: Colleen’s Summer Water; register: Shirley Collins’ Brigg Fair, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s In A Sentimental Mood; walking out: Pure Imagination off the Willy Wonka soundtrack, of course). I kept forgetting to the add songs I’d loved on our stereo or turntable. Some songs I really loved, like Friends’ I’m His Girl, seem to get lost in it. In the last few weeks too, there’s been a rush of the new, mainly because I’m someone who writes about music. And in that time of year when everyone’s filing their definitive lists, I’ve rummaged around and found lovely things that I’d missed.
But if I could be honest, these are the songs that mean the most to me. In a year that’s been brilliant in so many ways, but so tough in others, these have been the songs that have shored me up, got me giddy, smacked me sideways. They’re in my meat and my muscles. And they’ll be here ’til I’m gone.