The Songs I’m Embarrassed By

I have an ongoing playlist project that I have been maintaining for the past decade. It’s a time capsule, of sorts — a decade-by-decade look at music from the 60s through the 10s. Each playlist has a stringent but small set of rules: 200 songs, 20 from each year, no album repeats. The limitations help fuel the creativity — like a designer forced to fit within a box and nothing else, creativity flows within constraints. (Yes, they’re linked at the bottom.)

February 2024: On Hiding the Embarrassing Songs

  • “Last Train to Clarksville” — The Monkees
  • “Strange” — Wire
  • “Peur Noire (Instrumental)” — Oxmo Puccino
  • ”Hip Hop” — Mos Def
  • “Strangers” — Portishead
  • “C’mon Billy” — PJ Harvey
  • “Hazey Jane I” — Nick Drake
  • “Award Tour” — A Tribe Called Quest (w/ Trugoy the Dove)
  • “3 Tha Hard Way” — Bahamadia
  • “Infected” — The The
  • “Wish” — Nine Inch Nails
  • “At Home He’s a Tourist ” — Gang of Four
  • “Vanishing” — Shannon & The Clams
  • “Burning Down the House” — Paramore
  • “I Palindrome I” — They Might Be Giants
  • “Old School Rules” — DANGERDOOM (w/ Talib Kweli)
  • “The Right to Remain Silent” — Silver Jews
  • “Every Rose Has Its Thron” — Vitamin String Quartet

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

Because of this, these decade playlists serve less as a theme — in the sense that a “decade” is not a theme as much as a filter — and more of a snapshot, which reflects the nature of the first playlist I made: the 1990s.

200 songs, 20 from each year, no album repeats, and the answer to my one question, nearly 10 years ago: Why were the 90s so w e i r d ?

There are a lot of answers to that question! They’re boring, surely, but they all really boil down to do with two things:

  • The 90s pop backlash that led to the rise of Nirvana (and the alternative gold rush that happened directly after)
  • How the internet democratized expansion of small, weird, previously insular micro-genres, making the world of music So Much Bigger.

(I once joked that my midlife crisis was easy because all I did was buy a PlayStation 5, but my kids will tell you that the real midlife crisis began when I started exclusively reading books about the history of popular music.)

The history of shifting moods and musical subcultures is the history of shifting away from the mainstream, and there was a point in the 90s when it felt like anything was possible. And the fantastic thing is that, for what felt like the first time ever, popular culture felt markedly different for everyone all at the same time. Monoculture took a fatal hit, and we all found our own unique 90s playlist — even more so for those of us (like me!) who went from 11 to 22 over those ten years. A chaotic change in mindset, those ten years. I often marvel at how The Beatles created an unmatched legacy in just seven years. Then I think about how my own musical tastes shifted in the 90s, and it doesn’t seem as crazy.

Which is to say, these decade playlists were a fun experiment in balance. How much of my own life goes in, and how much reflects the critical landscape? Is this for me (yes!) or is it for everyone else (also yes!). How close to real do I get, you know?

How close to embarrassing do I dare approach?

The answer: not too close.

Regardless of how much it affects us, our past is always, in some part, defined by our embarrassments. That’s just how life works! The embarrassments are there, and they help shape who we are. The question isn’t if, but how. How do we manage the backlog of stupid things we’ve done? How much do we let it affect us? How willing are we to laugh at ourselves?

I spent a lot of time making those decade playlists because they helped define and contextualize how I grew up around music. They married my unique experience as a metal-to-punk-to-emo kid with the trends and feelings of that time. More than that, they helped me create a retroactive recreation of who I might have been if I had been born in an earlier decade — they allowed me to pretend I was both a Hüsker Dü guy and a Pink Floyd guy. They shaped who I thought I was and who I think I am.

But that’s not really the whole story. While these decade playlists have been adjusted and updated over the past nine years, there’s an even older project. A project I’ve never quite gotten off the ground.

One playlist. One life. Mine.

No rules, except that the songs could only be those that still give me nostalgic vibes. Starting at the beginning, as far back as I can remember, and rolling through to today.

Some of these memories are still at my core. I cherish them. I brag about them! I still own the first album I ever got as a kid — The Monkees’ Then & Now… The Best of the Monkees. I remember when my parents let me pick two cassettes from their BMG “Get A Billion Cassetes For One Penny” membership, and I selected the Batman soundtrack, giving me enough Prince credibility to last a lifetime. I remember when I first heard Nine Inch Nails (“Wish”) and when I first figured out They Might Be Giants (“I Palindrome I”). I was a metal kid who fell in love with Metallica, and I was an emo kid who fell in love with Sunny Day Real Estate, and I liked that first Offspring album from before they became the best selling indie act of all time. These are the things that made me who I am.

Yet, that’s not really who I am. Not completely! While my 80s playlist can ignore Bon Jovi and Poison because they reflect my aspirations as a snooty music critic, my musical past is always, in some part, defined by its embarrassments. As much as I might want to deny it, Bon Jovi and Poison play a very large part in what my tastes became. As did other embarrassing bands that I don’t much want to talk about anymore. Megadeth. Candlebox. Both Live and Bush, for god’s sake. Bands that sounded close enough to the real thing, at the time, to latch on to. Bands that I chose over, say, someone whose t-shirts I might actually still wear. Megadeth over Slayer. Candlebox over Mudhoney. Live over Fugazi, if Fugazi actually sold t-shirts.

The question isn’t if we should be embarrassed by parts of our musical past but how we choose to handle it.

The coolest kid in the room is the one unashamed of their taste. Who refuses to be defined by whether they liked Poison, or whether they can recite the lyrics to a cheesy musical, or whether they’re thankful beyond belief that Rush gained some cultural cache over the past decade, shining a more positive light on the fact that he wore a Rush hat for their just released, unsuccessful album, proving that he was such a big dork that he actually liked the new stuff. Hypthoetically.

And sometimes, I get to be that kid. Sometimes I’ll hear the opening chords of “Everything’s Zen,” and it will be a sunny spring day, and I’ll think to myself … god, I should make that playlist.

I’ll sit down at my computer. I’ll crack open a spreadsheet and start sorting out several songs. I’ll get started, and then …

… I’ll stop.

The thing with nostalgia — with smelling the spring air and remembering, for example, the times you’d listen to Anthrax’s Live: The Island Years on the city bus — is that it’s only really good in that split second. The prospect of the playlist is only exciting for those first few minutes until I realize the scope of the entire thing — the organization, the frustration, and the fact that I really don’t want to listen to Poison once that nostalgic moment has passed.

They fade back into the shadows, and I worry that the playlist is a testament to the embarrassments that saddled my musical journey.

I forget, again, that they’re part of who I am. These songs — these situations, these nostalgic memories — are our life, and we can do what we can to compartmentalize and minimize them. They don’t go away. Every rose has its thorn, I heard someone once say. Catch me at the right time; I’ll even act like I know who that was.

The Decade Playlists

Spotify only, sorrrrryyyyyyy.

This was lovingly handwritten on February 29th, 2024