Alphabet Soup: Favorite Songs for The Letter I

Somewhat predictably, this week, I’ve a lot of songs that start with the word “I” or its variants, but that’s all right. I is for “I love these songs.”

The Letter I

1. If I Am A Stranger – Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

Youtube is not exactly forthcoming with the Cold Roses album version of this song, but this performance on Letterman is lovely too – just a bit quieter, slower. Honestly, if you have enjoyed any of the Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown songs I’ve posted throughout this series, just go buy yourself Cold Roses right now, if you don’t have it already. Your ears and heart and whatever else alights inside you will thank me later.

“If I Am A Stranger” is full of doubt, trepidation, and like “The Hardest Part,” that chronic loneliness.

If all this love is real/ how will we know/ if we’re only scared of losing it/ how will it last?

Ryan Adams is one of those musicians who makes me want to write, and when it comes to any form of entertainment, that’s about the best compliment I can give. I often write about people who try hard to get out of their own way, and Adams revisits those themes again and again. The music helps me make sense of what I’m working on, and sometimes, it sparks new ideas. The best times, however, are when I am better able to make sense of what I’m feeling.

To tell the truth it’s hard enough without a lover/ who you want to hide your darkness from/ so they won’t let you down

When one is neck-deep in their own depression, yes, it is hard enough to just be in your own presence. Forget having to be presentable to other people – how in the world can we be someone’s partner and expect them to hold us up when we can’t even begin to articulate the way? My worst days are those in which I am feeling everything in ALL CAPS, like a bad dream that I can’t shake, and I end up only frustrating my husband because he wants to help and neither of us know how.

I’ll try to be there for you/ if I can / but what if I can’t?

Lately, the worst days are few and far between. I know that I am not forever in the clear, for there will always be bad days. It is how I learn from those days that will make the difference.

2. Idler’s Dream – Oasis

When I heard “Idler’s Dream” for the first time, the noise that came out of me fell somewhere between a gasp and a sigh. As a B-side to 2005’s “The Hindu Times” single, it features only Noel Gallagher’s vocals backed by piano. Forgive the slideshow in the embedded video – I tend to find them a little too “Graduation Ceremony,” but that’s what one gets with the more rare songs.

Yes, Oasis appears in this series a lot, and for that, I make no apologies. People try to dismiss them as mere imitators, or they will try to rile me with accusations of “never did anything good since Morning Glory,” but I don’t get angry over it. Rarely can you talk a nun out of the convent once she’s gone.

Their songs have seen me through every major discovery about myself, inspired me in ways that I will spend this whole list talking about, and insulting them only deepens my faith. I have a calm defense at the ready. I am in love, and there is no way around it.

“Idler’s Dream” is a post-drugs, post-divorce, start anew, moment of hesitation, a moment of disbelief when good things start happening again, as though they’ve only tumbled into his lap when he wasn’t paying attention.

I hope you don’t break my heart of stone/ I don’t wanna scream out loud/ wake up on my own

The longing and trepidation mixed together, the waver in the voice – When have we not felt that at one point or another? The song stands right where we bring ourselves to the line of vulnerability and decide whether or not to cross.

And as I close my eyes and the sky turns red/ I realize just what you are/ You’re an idler’s dream/ and you’re singing Shangri-La

I love the imagery of keeping your vision, even after your eyes are closed. The last four lines are the most resolutely delivered of the entire song, which then dissolve into a sigh of relief. Lacking the instruments normally used in Oasis songs, “Idler’s Dream” is the perfect secret song, pocketed within its bigger single. It earns the love it receives by simply existing.

3. I’m Afraid of Americans – David Bowie

“Whatcha watching?” my dad asked me one evening, poking his head into my room.

“David Bowie concert on MTV,” I answered. I was in high school.

“Yeah… He was just a little too weird for me.” With that, he wandered off in search of another can of Diet Pepsi.

One thing I always liked about my dad’s musical judgment was that he wasn’t the sort of dad who imposed an “ethics and decency” code to what I listened, within reason. He did tell me no when elementary school-aged me asked for a Madonna album near the time of the Sex book (which I’d heard of, but didn’t really care about). However, in telling me no, he just left it at that. No specific judgments. When Marilyn Manson became popular, he shrugged off the controversy by saying, “It’s not really any different than what Alice Cooper did.” I don’t know what sort of crap I would have listened to in an effort to bother my parents if they’d been the type to place restrictions.

(Honestly, if I’d wanted to bother them, I would have turned on the country station, but that would have been cruel to us all.)

I love this stage of David Bowie. That concert on MTV (uploaded in full here) was probably my best introduction to his music, though I had passing knowledge of his songs before that early point in high school. Earthling had just come out, and everyone was talking about the collaboration with Trent Reznor. I’ve never been much of a Reznor or Nine Inch Nails fan (though I do like “The Perfect Drug”), so that didn’t really make any difference to me.

“I’m Afraid of Americans” caught my attention because it had a disjointed dance beat, rocked out just enough at the chorus, and even though David Bowie had just passed fifty, he was –is, let’s be real – hot. Eyeliner done right does set my little heart afire. As usual, the man was unlike anything else out there in 1997, and I loved the Alexander McQueen-designed Union Jack coat. Between that and the guitar Noel Gallagher toured with, the mid-90s were a very good time for the British flag as accessory.

The production on this song is top shelf. Listening to the sound bounce back and forth between headphones, I hear so many different layers without those elements overwhelming the other. The breakdown at the end picks up the song in just the right spot, saving the song from the chorus repeating in the same way again. The fact that a song like “I’m Afraid of Americans” could come out of the same person who did “London Bye Ta Ta” or “Young Americans” amazes me. The man shares a birthday with Elvis, so January 8th must be a particularly good day, should one want to breed any musical revolutionaries.
4. I Want You to Want Me – Cheap Trick, Letters to Cleo

Every time I hear “I Want You to Want Me,” I am compelled, no matter how many times I may have said it to present company before, “I love this song.” Yes, I’m aware that it basically has the same couple of verses over and over. And yes, I know Cheap Trick and “all-time favorites” probably don’t often occur in the same sentence, but it really is one of my all-time favorite songs.

I also enjoy Letters to Cleo’s cover, which was on the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack. Unlike some other cover songs, this wasn’t my first exposure to the song, and I don’t have any story about the first time I heard the original. It’s just one of those songs that’s been on the radio just often enough to avoid overkill, though I’m sure the same can’t be said for the time it was first released. On more than one occasion, I’ve sung along to distract myself from the stress mixed with boredom in driving long distances.

My reasons for loving the song are simple: it’s optimistic, it’s easy to learn the words, and its catchiness makes it a more pleasurable earworm. I’m just happy when I hear it. My reasons for loving other songs might be more complex, but not everything has to be a thinker or a heartbreaker.

In Las Vegas visiting family, my husband met Cheap Trick’s singer during the winter of 2001. He laughs now about his “whatever” attitude meeting the guy, now knowing how much I love both this song and “Surrender.” What I find funny is that I can love those songs and yet not have a particular interest in owning any of the albums. I’ll happily listen to the original or the Letters to Cleo version online, and that’s good enough for me.

5. I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine – Beth Orton

Speaking of cover songs, I love Beth Orton’s version of an old Ronettes’ song. I do know that this is one of the most beautiful songs about heartbreak I’ve heard, and I honestly prefer it to the original Phil Spector-produced Wall of Sound Extravaganza. Ronnie’s great and all, but I believe Beth when she sings:

Baby, do you know what you did today?/ Baby, do you know what you took away?/ You took the blue out of the sky/ my whole life changed when you said good-bye/ and I keep crying

It’s the anti- “better to have loved and lost…” and is not a song delivered with perspective. Beth Orton sings as though quietly surveying the aftermath, alone and awash in the despair that comes from the end of a big love. The song could also fit for someone who has passed away, as though both people would have gone on to do so many things together, and “now they will die and never come true.” It’s easy to see both ways.

“I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” stands out the same way “Feel to Believe” does on Central Reservation. Both are the second to the last songs on their albums, near-closers that grab my attention with their spareness and honesty. While the rest of the albums’ songs are excellent, the two are almost worth the album price alone. On every album, Beth Orton has one song so easy to love that seeking out the next collection feels absolutely crucial.

Honorable Mentions (Five again. I do what I want!):

I Saw Red (acoustic) – Sublime
I prefer the acoustic version because it sounds more honest than the ska-adjacent speed-through of other versions.

I Love You, Suzanne – Lou Reed
“I love you when you’re good, babe/ I love you when you’re ba-a-ad/ You do what you gotta do/ But I love you, Suzanne.”

It’s Oh So Quiet – Björk
Björk may be one of the only true originals on this planet, though maybe there’s an argument for the possibility she’s not from Iceland or any other place on Earth.

In-Between Days – The Cure
One of my very favorite Cure songs.

I Follow Rivers – Lykke Li
This one almost made the Top 5. Go listen. She’s aces.

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Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

10 thoughts on “Alphabet Soup: Favorite Songs for The Letter I”

  1. Oh man I love I’m Afraid of Americans. Such a great song.

    For the customary BNL song, I’ll Be That Girl. Such a dark, sad song. Such weird lyrics.

    If I Had a Boat by Lyle Lovett. Because if I had a pony I’d ride him on my boat. (and I love old Cowboy stuff which he references)

    I Couldn’t Leave You if I Tried by Rodney Crowell. This song is so catchy and bouncy. And the lyrics… “I cannot walk away, no mater what I say. I won’t be leaving, believe it or don’t. You’re all that I want.”

    I Hear Noises by Tegan and Sara. Specifically I love the live version from their Get Along album.

    I Feel Lucky by Mary Chapin Carpenter. A lot of my country favs are filed under I apparently. This song makes me happy. It’s a song about winning the lottery and hitting on Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett. How can that not make you happy. (Also Lyle’s face in the video! I die!)

        1. James Allan, the singer from Glasvegas, has 2 songs on their last album from a gay perspective too — “Stronger Than Dirt” and …. crap, now I can’t remember the other one. Still working on waking up for the day, unfortunately. They’re both really fantastic songs though.

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