Two years ago, when I turned 25, I posted a playlist I’d made of songs inspired by My List of Things to Do Before I Die. Last year, I made an official birthday playlist–26 years of life, 26 letters of the alphabet, and a favorite song for each letter. I had so much fun making that playlist that I decided to make it an annual tradition.
This year, on Sunday, I’ll be 27, a number that has no immediately recognizable connections to music. I, thus, decided to make a themed list with 27 songs. Should I make a list of songs associated with 27 places I’ve been? A top song from each year of my life? 27 rules of grammar (which sounds like so much fun!)?
All of those are great ideas, but none really fit where I am right now. At 27, I have just graduated with my Master’s in English, having finished a thesis on some of the greatest books I’ve ever read and having won an award for excellence in writing. The theme of my playlist erupted naturally out of my top passion in life: literature.
I set out to create a list of 27 songs with literary references. Many are songs that I love because of the direct literary references or because they remind me of great works of literature. Quite a few are on the alphabet playlist from last year. And, of course, my favorite bands–Switchfoot, Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, The Gaslight Anthem, and Bloc Party–are heavily featured because of the literary quality of their music.
I give you, then, 27 songs about literature:
[Note: All the links are to YouTube videos of the songs, some official, some fanmade. I also created a complete playlist on YouTube, mostly for my own use, but here’s the link to that.]
1. “Great Expectations,” The Gaslight Anthem
“And I never had a good time / I sat by my bedside with papers and poetry about Estella.” This is the opening track from TGA’s fantastic album The ’59 Sound. The title and the mention of Estella are both in reference to my favorite Dickens novel, making this a natural choice for the opening to my 27 playlist. Even the music video evokes imagery of Miss Havisham’s house.
2. “Doublespeak,” Thrice
After compiling my playlist, I realized that I was a few songs short of my goal of 27, so I Googled “songs with literary references,” and this is my favorite of the few that I added from those lists that I found. “Doublespeak,” of course, is a reference to Orwell’s 1984, one of the great British dystopian novels.
3. “1984,” David Bowie
Another one of my recent finds. I had no idea that Bowie had originally planned an entire concept album based on 1984. This song and several others are the results of that intention, but apparently, that didn’t work out.
4. “Oscar Wilde,” Company of Thieves
I took a class last summer on Irish lit, and while playing my iPod on shuffle driving home from class one night, this song played. Perfect for my playlist!
5. “Resistance,” Muse
Easily one of my favorites on this entire playlist. This song mentions the “Thought Police,” another reference to 1984. However, this song has a much stronger literary connection for me. Muse’s album Uprising came out in September 2009. Around that time, I read Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go and its sequel The Ask and the Answer for the first time. Just after finishing the second book, I was driving home listening to “Resistance,” thinking about Todd and Viola and the incredible world Ness had created when it occurred to me that this song was the perfect soundtrack for those books. Ness himself has said on his blog that Uprising as a whole could be the soundtrack for his books, and I certainly agree. I listened to this song many, many times while writing about The Knife of Never Letting Go for my thesis. Actually, I listened to a lot of Muse in general while writing my thesis…
6. “The Heart is Scarlett,” The Winter Sounds
There’s only one video of The Winter Sounds performing this song, and it doesn’t do this incredible song justice. I’m not sure if “Scarlett” is an actual reference to Gone with the Wind, but what I love about TWS anyway is that this song is from their album Church of the Haunted South. The first time I heard TWS playing, I met Patrick, the leader singer, and asked if the title was an intentional reference to Flannery O’Connor, who called the South a “Christ-haunted landscape.” I’ve written a few essays about that idea over the years, and I love it, so this song makes it onto the list because of the connotations of Southern literature.
7. “Afternoons and Coffeespoons,” Crash Test Dummies
Another one of my recently discovered songs. I love that it’s in reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which has one of my favorite lines in poetry: “I have measured my life in coffee spoons.” Echoes of Eliot are throughout this song, so it’s definitely worth a listen. Also, this video is from their appearance on Letterman in 94, so it’s a classic!
8. “One Headlight,” The Wallflowers
This one was also on the 26 list, but it’s one of my favorites, so here it is again! Also, this might be a stretch, but I included it because of the reference to Cinderella. It’s a fairy tale, so it totally counts as literature. And I get to listen to The Wallflowers even more.
9. “Ready to Start,” Arcade Fire
Yet another song from the 26 list, and also, another reference to a fairy tale: “All the kids have always known / That the emperor wears no clothes.” Also, a darn good song.
10. “Ares,” Bloc Party
A mythological reference to the Greek god of war. This song is angry and alive and really fantastic to write to. Actually, along with Muse, I wrote much of my thesis to Bloc Party, particularly their album Intimacy, of which this is the first track. And I’m super excited because their first studio album in four years will be released this fall!
11. “The ’59 Sound,” The Gaslight Anthem
The second song from TGA to be featured on this playlist, this one also contains a reference to Dickens: “When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms / I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains forged in life.” The words are so literary: the idea of ethereal angels dates back to the Victorian age, and of course, they reference A Christmas Carol. Love it!
12. “Sigh No More,” Mumford & Sons
Seriously, these guys are some of the most literary musicians I know of. The title of this song (and the album), as well as the opening lyrics to this track come from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Even though I’ve owned this album for two years and listened to it hundreds of times, this song still makes me a little giddy.
13. “Richard Cory,” Simon & Garfunkel
Inspired by the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem of the same name.
14. “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John
I do love Elton and his excessively large eyewear. This one, obviously, was chosen because of the reference to L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.
15. “Faust, Midas, and Myself,” Switchfoot
My favorite track from Switchfoot’s 2006 album Oh! Gravity. They weave together the story of the man who sold his soul to the devil and the story of a man overwhelmed with greed to comment on what’s really important in life. This video is a live version from their 2009 Hello, Hurricane tour.
16. “Wandering Star,” Portishead
The first song I’ve included on this playlist with a biblical reference. Jude 12-13: “These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of sea, foaming up their own change; wandering stars for whom is preserved the blackness of darkness forever.” I don’t want to be a wandering star, but I sure do love this song.
17. “Timshel,” Mumford & Sons
Timshel is a Hebrew word, sometimes translated as “thou mayest,” that appears in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, as well as in Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
18. “America,” Simon & Garfunkel
A few months ago, I started reading Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods while my friend Jenna drove us home from Williamsburg on a rainy Sunday. I read the first 200 pages of this book in the car and was immediately captivated by the story of Shadow, who is hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, and, thus, begins a journey into understanding the mythology of American culture. Although Gaiman includes a lot of musical references in the novel, I realized, on that slow, rainy day, that no song would better fit the way I felt at that moment than this song. Thus, while there are no specific literary references, this song seems undeniably connected to one of my favorite novels.
19. “Daughter’s Lament,” Carolina Chocolate Drops
Okay, so maybe this one is cheating a bit since it comes straight from The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond soundtrack, but it directly references a mockingjay and is so perfect for the whole series that I decided to include it in the mix.
20. “Never Let Me Go,” Judy Bridgewater
Judy Bridgewater doesn’t actually exist. But in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, the protagonist Kathy H. listens to this song on repeat on a cassette, and the song is a vital plot device. When the novel was adapted into film, this song was recorded for the soundtrack and is absolutely perfect, I think, especially as it so eerily contrasts the tone of this subtle, beautiful dystopian novel that is one of my favorites.
21. “The Cave,” Mumford & Sons
This song makes me think of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature. I’ve written about it before here. Plus, this video wins bonus points for being recorded in a book store.
22. “City with No Children,” Arcade Fire
P.D. James’ book The Children of Men was adapted into the brilliant film Children of Men, marking a rare occasion when I love both the book and films versions of a text. This song, down to the title, is a perfect soundtrack for the book.
23. “The Prayer,” Bloc Party
If F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were contemporary, this would be the perfect soundtrack. The song has that same theme of being young and driven to acquire one all-encompassing desire, despite the consequences. The singer could be Jay Gatsby. (Also, the video is a little trippy.)
24. “Shankill Butchers,” The Decembrists
In Irish lit last summer, I did a presentation on a poem called “Wounds” by Michael Longley. My professor, who is a huge Decembrists’ fan, referenced this song after my presentation because “Shankill” is referenced in this poem about war in Northern Ireland.
25. “Banana Co,” Radiohead
I didn’t know this song existed until yesterday, but I’m so glad it does. This song is a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of my favorites. In the novel, members of the Buendia family work at a banana company, which is the source of revolution.
26. “We Used to Wait,” Arcade Fire
This song has a reference to Eliot, too! Eliot’s “Prufrock” opens with “Let us go then, you and I / While the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized on a table.” This song has a very similar reference: “Like a patient on a table / I want to walk again / Want to move through the pain.” Both texts question the fragility of life, of trying to hold on. These are–in all seriousness–two of my very favorite texts.
Note: this video shows the project The Wilderness Downtown that accompanies the Arcade Fire song. I love it!
27. “The War Inside,” Switchfoot
All right, so this song doesn’t have a specific literary reference, but Jon does sing, “I feel like we’re livin’ in sci-fi,” and let’s face it, I have been living in science fiction for months with the writing of my thesis. Plus, this is my favorite song from their last album Vice Verses, and I love it, so it seemed appropriate to close the playlist this way.
Happy 27 to me!