Musical Foliage: 10 Songs for Autumns Past and Present

  Photo credit:  Denis Collette

Photo credit: Denis Collette

Editor’s note: Toward the end of the summer, I asked music gurus Rob Masiello and Mike Nelson to compile a list of fall music. It turned into a weepy email exchange that lingered for weeks. There are some great tunes on this list, but brace your heart for whatever palpitations, longings, or stirrings that may result.—Daniel Ford

Rob Masiello: I should preface by saying that I'm at my moodiest during the fall, and my playlist selections will shamelessly reflect that.

Mike Nelson: The things I associate most with the fall are apples, foliage, and getting sick for an uncontrollable amount of time. My criteria for music that fits the bill here is going to be super weird.

Rob: I'm going to take your apple reference and run with it, even if that makes this selection a bit too on-the-nose. Fiona Apple's "Parting Gift" is the perfect soundtrack for regretting your summer fling. "Oh you silly, stupid pasttime of mine" she scoffs, full of scorn where other songwriters would be tempted to imbue such a line with wistfulness. Apple's trademark sardonic wit ("you looked as sincere as a dog does when it's the food on your lips with which it's in love") pairs exquisitely with that crisp autumn air.

Mike: We're only one song in, and you've already introduced me to a beautiful song I had never heard before. Without even glancing at the lyrics, you know it's a song about heartbreak (or at least a break-up) from the style and from her changes in cadence and volume. Like Fiona, I, too, associate the fall with breaking up. I don't know why; I can't recall any major breakup in my life happening at this time of year. At least not after like, eighth grade, and if I'm going to sit down and figure out who of the many out-of-my-league ladies dumped me during the fall in middle school, we're going to be stuck on this email for months.

So if we're talking breakups, heavy emotions, and not wanting to let things go, I have to make my top pick "Bell Bottom Blues" by Derek & The Dominos. There's no better musical manifestation of hopeless, forbidden love than D&TD's “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” And if you don't know the story behind that, I highly recommend you look back on it.

But like, if we want to keep things light, let's just pretend "Bell Bottom Blues" is about summer going away and how sad Eric Clapton was that summer was leaving. Yeah. Summer.

Rob: I'm glad we've wasted no time delving into the depressing aspects of the season (I certainly played no part in steering it that way). For me, fall has always been about leaving, about endings. My inability to process summer's passing is no doubt somewhat juvenile, but I am who I am.

Anyway, "Bell Bottom Blues" aches. And it's a more fleshed out rock song than anything I'll likely offer up over the course of this conversation, so anyone reading this who doesn't feel like falling asleep would be wise to check it out.

I'll also dig back into the ‘70s and submit Nick Drake's "Place to Be." Anything in his catalog would be suitably autumnal for these purposes, but when Drake sings, "I was strong, strong in the sun" on this track, that glimmer of hope amplifies the tragedy of a talent gone too soon.

Mike: Yes. The acoustic bouncing around the room and the soft voice with a little hint of "raspy" at the start makes you feel like Drake just woke up and started singing this as he rolled out of bed in the morning. I, personally, have never slept with a guitar, but I imagine if you do it enough times you figure out how to snap right into a tune.

I want to dive down this rabbit hole with you and just scream Ray Lamontagne's "Like Rock & Roll and Radio," but these first few songs have me down, and I'm sure they have the seven readers of this post down as well. Fall isn't just coming down from the summer, there's a certain excitement to fall. Sure, nature is dying all around you, and winter is com…winter is close. But going back to school was as fun as it was dreadful. For me, I liked only the whitest of music when I was in school. Classic rock. Grunge. Dave Matthews Band. But over time being a DMB fan exposed me to a bunch of great other musicians they had on as guests or as opening acts.

Which brings me to Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. I could spin a wheel and pull out any song of theirs, but I'll roll with "The Sinister Minister," which was their first song I had ever heard a clip of. I once heard this band described as the Harlem Globetrotters, and I have a tough time disagreeing with that except "Futureman," which is a pirate that plays a "drumitar."

I'd love to take a deep dive into the lyrics for you, Rob, but...well...there aren't any.

Rob: I'm glad you think we'll get seven readers. I'm thinking maybe five (including me and you) and then Daniel can read it two more times and get us to seven. Not to try and one-up you on bad taste, but my favorite band in high school was Evanescence, so...

I won't pontificate anymore about why fall is the worst season, but I'll never forgive you for calling it exciting. I'll have to give a listen to the Fleckstones when I'm not at work. I'd try to roll with something sonically similar for the sake of ~flow~ but since I've never heard them, I'll just have to wing it. (Side note: somewhere in the course of this week, I remembered that Fiona Apple has a song called "Pale September," and I'll never forgive myself for not using it.)

I'll evade the singer-songwriter fare for a moment for something a little more lush (but still hushed and lovely). Mutual Benefit's songs always let the light peek through, even though the passage of time never seems far from the band's thoughts. "Advanced Falconry" is probably the closest thing to a straight-up love song I'd ever put on a playlist, but it makes me swoon even in these chilly months.

Mike: My third pick is going to be extremely literal and come with a great deal of recency bias. Last night I saw one of the great live acts around: Future Islands. Their album, “The Far Field,” is easily my top album of 2017 so far, but I have to roll with their biggest hit: undeniable all-time jam, "Seasons (Waiting On You)." Not just because it's an awesome song, but also because the lyrics sync up pretty perfectly with this weird little "what is fall?" discussion we've had. This is what fall is: just whatever comes between summer and winter. We're being tugged between these two rascals:

"As it breaks, the summer will warm/but the winter will crave what is gone/will crave what has all...gone away"

As for your Mutual Benefit tune, it's funny, I had never heard them (him?) before, and I had the new Andrew Bird album queued up right behind it. And from the first 20 seconds or so, I thought it had skipped "Advanced Falconry" and jumped right into the Andrew Bird album. Beautiful tune. I'm saving that one to the archives. Thanks for the listen.

Rob: I just have never been able to get on board with Future Islands. Probably simply because some horrible guy I knew in grad school always told me how great they are. It's not fair, but it is what it is. But "Seasons" is a jam, and the band's performance of that song on Letterman a few years ago is a must-see for anyone who hasn't yet.

The ‘80s/new-wave-y sound of Future Islands is inspiring me to get straight up corny with this next song. I can't listen to Rod Stewart's "Forever Young" without crying (fight me), so it'll be the only track I skip when listening to our completed playlist. But summer is over, the kids are going back to school, youth is fleeting, etc. It's maudlin and maybe even tasteless, but so am I, so whatever.

I've now sat with this email open for about 30 minutes, debating if I really want to hit send and include Rod Stewart on our playlist. Here goes nothing.

Mike: Somebody hurt you real bad once, didn't they?

I don't mind having Rod on the list one bit, though my song choice would have been a little different, and here's why! I've been binging on “The Office” for a little while now, since I never watched the show in its entirety, and I can only assume Netflix will pull the plug on it before the year is through. The British version—aka the original, aka I can hold it over every basic chump that I watched that before the American adaptation—has a phenomenal theme song, pulled from Rod's "Handbags & Gladrags."

And so now I come to a theme we have totally flown past here: the fall means television is back! Or, at least, it meant that when most TV shows were watched on a weekly basis and not just dumped into an app for us gluttons to ravage without any consideration to the elements of pacing and time in art. There are some shows I still watch on a weekly basis—most notably “Survivor,” which I will likely never stop watching—but it feels like forever since the last time I gathered around the TV to watch a show's premiere besides “'vivor,” and that brings me to college when I would gather in my friend's dorm every Thursday night to watch “The O.C.” I never had a fake ID, so I wasn't old enough to get out to the bars yet on Thursday. Get over it.

Anyway, the show's theme song, Phantom Planet's "California," is one that not only stands out as a real song that could hold its own without the "theme song" tag, but it puts you directly in a place and time in life. And for most of the show's viewers, I think it also means you're being suffocated by enough drama to make you cry.

Rob: Wow, with TV premieres you've uncovered a whole new dimension of the season I hadn't even thought of. That Phantom Planet song is perfect because it's pure nostalgia, both for the memories it unearths in anyone aged 25-40, as well as the general wistfulness of the song itself. My dream job would be deciding which songs to put in TV/movie credits. How do I land that? Anyone know a guy? Actually, it's probably better for the world that I don't have that job. No one would want to hear "Forever Young" as the theme song for “Rugrats.”

So I guess this will be my fifth and last song. I believe Daniel's original request was for five each, and any more than that would probably be self-indulgent anyway. I could throw a curve ball here, finish with something buoyant and optimistic. But instead I'll stay planted in this weepy niche I've carved for myself.

“Songs About Leaving” by Carissa’s Wierd (intentionally misspelled) is perhaps my favorite album of all time, and contains the most autumnal music you will ever hear. It is one of those albums that just feels special, and you want to hold it as close to your heart as possible. The track called “Low Budget Slow Motion Soundtrack Song for the Leaving Scene” feels like the most appropriate way for me to end this piece.

The cascading melody and piano flourishes are as delicate as one last leaf clinging to a bare November tree. Singers Mat Brooke and Jenn Champion blend their voices, but sound like they’re each singing the same words from seedy hotel rooms on opposite sides of the country. The whole album is exquisite, and in all seriousness, I hope it touches at least one person reading this the way it touched me.

Mike: Okay, ya know what, Rob? I tried. I tried to bring you up and make you happy, and now I'm giving up. Yes, that song was beautiful, but come on man, all is not lost. It's perfect weather outside, basketball season just started...you're not going to drag me down with you into the winter music pit. Not yet, at least.

I had so many options to consider with my last pick. Do I pick a song where I can tell a great story to go along with it? Do I pick something ironic? Do I pick something I discovered in the fall, making this selection unnecessarily literal? No. I do none of these things.

The fall, for most of my life...hold on, let me do the math on that real quick...okay, yeah, for most of my life has meant going back to school. And when I think of the music I listened to in school, I think of ‘90s rock. Grunge, alternative, washed up classic rockers trying to get one last paycheck, it was all there. And despite the many, many contenders for this slot, I have to go with "Interstate Love Song" by Stone Temple Pilots. No song embodies the music I grew up with quite like it. If I even just hear someone say "the '90s," that song comes in my head. It's probably some kind of disease, but it's not one I'd ever want cured. On the scale of 0 to Perfect, this song comes as close to Perfect as possible for me.

Follow Writer’s Bone’s fall playlist on Spotify!