We all periodically reach a stage in our lives where it’s pretty obvious that a change is necessary — a new job, perhaps, or a new relationship, a move of physical location, or a million other things. The realization is the easy bit — the hard part is actually acting on it, and it’s fascinating that times of tumult and renewal are often associated with a single song. So if you’re looking for one such song, or maybe you just want a killer playlist for summer, here are 25 to choose from.
The Clash — “Clash City Rockers”
“So don’t complain about your useless employment/ Jack it in forever tonight/ Or shut your mouth, and pretend you enjoy it/ Think of all the money you’ve got.” Sure, in this post-millennial shitshow of an economy, the the idea of just being able to can a stupid job — and/or the idea of that job providing enough money to be able to spend beyond necessities — seems kinda quaint. But the sentiment is laudable!
Interpol — “NYC”
Sure, Paul Banks and his all-caps aesthetic can be endearingly ridiculous, but occasionally Interpol absolutely nail it, and never more so that in this song. The subway may or may not be a porno, but the song’s outro — Banks singing, “It’s up to me now/ Turn on the bright lights” as his bandmates repeat the refrain, “Got to be some more change in my life” — is enough to give a shiver to anyone thinking the same thing.
Funkadelic — “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow”
Sage words from George Clinton: change has to start from within, not without. Or, as the great man puts it, “Open up your funky mind and you can fly/ Free your mind and your ass will follow/ The kingdom of heaven is within.” Damn right.
Madonna — “Into the Groove”
On a similar note, here is a young Madonna proclaiming, “Only when I’m dancing do I feel this free.” And it’s true, right? There’s something liberating and energizing about dancing around like a fool in your bedroom, or ripping out a good air guitar solo, or whatever else it is you do when you’re alone and the music is blasting.
Tupac — “Lord Knows”
All your typical 12-step rhetoric tends to include the idea of hitting “rock bottom” — and if you want to know what rock bottom feels like, then Tupac can draw you a pretty compelling picture. This song found him sitting up late, no sleep to be had, smoking a blunt and reflecting on lost friends. He sounds weary and depressed, and by the time the album was released, he was incarcerated, just like too many other young black men.
Cat Power — “Colors and the Kids”
There’s something desperately sad about this Moon Pix track; the title comes out of Chan Marshall’s opening declaration, “It must be the colors/ And the kids/ That keep me alive/ ‘Cause the music is boring me to death.” But subsequent lyrics, though they harbor all the pain of nostalgia for happier, more picturesque times, also betray a hunger to make a fresh start. “I could stay here/ Become someone different/ I could stay here/ Become someone better,” Marshall sings, in a voice so reaching it can’t help but grab you by the throat. “Colors and the Kids” is, I think, about using the idealism of your past to convince yourself that you have a future. — Judy Berman
John Cale — “Changes Made”
The only full-band song on the spectacularly bleak Music for a New Society to feature a full band, and apparently the one that Cale wanted omitted from the album (for exactly that reason, perhaps). And yet, it fits in a strange way — a song about taking control of your life in the middle of an album that’s all about losing that control, it functions as both bitterly ironic and still, somehow, shot through with hope.
Manic Street Preachers — “William’s Last Words”
“I’m really tired/ I’d love to go to sleep/ And wake up happy.” Wouldn’t we all.
The Notorious BIG — “Juicy”
A summertime classic, and also one of the most profound songs about going from rags to riches that the hip hop canon has to offer. It’s all the more poignant given that he’d be dead less than three years after its release, gunned down in LA at the age of only 24.
EMA — “Red Star”
The final track from the masterful Past Life Martyred Saints, and the one that finds Erika Anderson looking beyond the harrowing events related in its previous songs, toward new possibilities and, ultimately, a new life. “I know nothing lasts forever,” she declares, “[And] if you won’t love me/ Someone will.”
Lower Plenty — “Nullarbor”
“Do what you must/ ‘Cos soon you’ll be dust.” Words to live by.
Iggy Pop — “Lust for Life”
Iggy is an unlikely figure to serve as an inspirational role model — this is a man, after all, who once described the ’70s as an entire decade of “[waking] up with bumps on the head, blood on my shirt and something green coming out of my penis.” But there’s always been a deep wisdom about his music, and this bruised anthem is the sort of song you write when you emerge from a decade-long binge and realize, shit, the sun’s still shining.
Pulp — “Sunrise”
Also on the sunrise front: a song by weary former party animal Jarvis Cocker about realizing that he rather likes seeing the sun rise, after all. His lyrics here are some of the best he’s ever written, and that’s saying something: “I used to hate the sun because it shone on everything I’d done/ Made me feel that all that I had done was overfill the ashtray of my life/ All my achievements in days of yore range from pathetic to piss-poor, but all that’s gonna change/ Because here comes sunrise.”
Colleen Green — “Things That Are Bad For Me (Part 1)”
“I really wanna get better,” Green sings on the catchiest track from her 30th-birthday-crisis album I Want to Grow Up, elaborating that she hopes to “change [her] body’s destiny and start listening to [her] own advice” — which entails distancing herself from a person who drives her to self-destructive behavior. It’s all rather encouraging… well, until you hear the opening lyrics to “Things That Are Bad For Me (Part 2).” (And then it just sounds familiar.) — JB
Blur — “Parklife”
You should cut down on your parklife, mate! Get some exercise!
Kendrick Lamar — “Backseat Freestyle”
Sometimes, you just need a song that’s going to fire you the fuck up — and if so, you can’t really do much better than bouncing along with Young Kendrick’s exuberant braggadocio. If it’s good enough for Taylor Swift…
The Mountain Goats — “This Year”
No one does weathered defiance quite like John Darnielle, and this is one of his best-known songs for a reason. It’s an adolescent escape fantasy par excellence, and even if it doesn’t work out quite the way he planned — “The scene ends badly, as you might imagine/ In a cavalcade of anger and fear” — there’s an abiding sense that it’s opened doors that will never, ever be closed again.
Bruce Springsteen — “Born to Run”
Springsteen has made an entire career out of romantic let’s-get-out-of-this-shitty-town anthems, but it’s hard to go past this, which remains probably his biggest hit and also the most pure distillation of his aesthetic. And c’mon, if you don’t get a swelling feeling in your chest when Bruce shouts “1-2-3-4” before the “Highways jammed with broken heroes…” bit, well, you’ve got a colder heart than I do.
Tracy Chapman — “Fast Car”
In a similar vein, except with the starry-eyed romanticism replaced by a decidedly bleak realism. The dreams of escape here are just that: dreams. But if anything, this only reinforces the desire of Chapman’s narrator to find something more to life than what she’s experiencing, if not through literal escape, then at least through some sort of metaphysical one.
Marianne Faithfull — “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”
Don’t be poor Lucy Jordan. Go and find that sports car, or it’ll come and find you.
Chemical Brothers — “Out of Control”
Notwithstanding some characteristically clunky lyrics from guest vocalist Bernard Sumner (“Could be that I’m just losing my touch/ Or maybe you think my mustache is too much” — come on, dude), this is an intoxicating rush that kicks one of the best MDMA albums ever into top gear, and also captures the feeling of being out on a Saturday night, bouncing from club to club in search of… something.
Drake — “How About Now”
Only Drake could make a song that is so entirely vindictive sound so… so whiny. But then, this is part of his charm, and honestly, haven’t we all looked back at someone who spurned us in the past — an ex-lover, an ex-friend, an ex-employer, whoever — and gone, “Well, how do you like me now?” It’s juvenile, and it’s not exactly great karma — but damn, it feels good.
The Ramones — “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”
A song for anyone who’s dreamed of running away to the big city and starting a new life: “New York City really has it all, oh yeah, oh yeah!” And it’s true — despite the sky-high rents and obnoxiously oppressive humidity and terrifying subway rats and all the other daily tribulations of life in the city, would you really want to be anywhere else?
Liz Phair — “Fuck and Run”
For the morning when you wake up so exhausted by the fuckboys and narcissists the one-night stand lottery always seems to produce that even heterosexual monogamy sounds like a compelling alternative. –JB
David Bowie — “Changes”