2017 Songs of the Summer

Call me a cheeseball, but I’ve always been excited at the prospect of new summer music. One of the best things you can say about a song is that it sounds perfect blasting out of a car window, air conditioning be damned.

I remember exactly how it felt to discover my first song of the summer, in May 1992, when one of Buffalo’s 17 classic rock stations debuted the new Black Crowes single “Remedy” just as my mom was pulling into the driveway. I ran inside to catch the rest of it. To this day, when those incredible backup singers come in on the chorus to bolster Rich Robinson’s shaggy blues riff, I get chills. I will forever associate that moment with feelings of warmth and possibility.

25 years later, figuring out the “Song of the Summer” has become its own cottage industry. We make our predictions in May and declare the winner in September. And for the most part, the criteria is the opposite of most pop culture analysis – mainstream acceptance is a must. In 2013, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” won the season not just because of its pristine, inescapable disco hook, but because the Internet was obsessed with it as well. It’s easy to be cynical about arbitrary “awards” like this – it is the the essence of music blog clickbait, after all – but it’s important to talk about music we can generally agree on as a culture once in a while. The more I hear that our country is hopelessly divided, the more I want to prove that wrong. Searching for, and honoring, these shared musical moments every year is one tiny way to do it.

Plus, I really really like to make lists of songs. So here are the ones I’ll be running into the house to tape off the radio this summer.


Jeremih – “I Think of You”

Jeremih flirts with MJ status, yearning for a mistletoe moment in July over an utterly joyful, marimba-inflected beat.

Thundercat – “Tokyo”

An electro-jazz-yacht-rock bass virtuoso sings about how a great vacation can bring out the kid in us: “Gonna eat so much fish I think I’m gonna be sick / Gonna blow all my cash on anime!”

Haim – “Want You Back”

This California trio finds a sweet spot between Fleetwood Mac and Wilson Phillips. Hope they luxuriate in it for a while.

Bebe Rexha – “I Got You”

A pop song about building trust, with a chorus that feels like falling into somebody’s arms.

Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”

The best rapper alive, tearing a monster Mike Will Made It beat to shreds. Bring on the Summer of the Low-Register Piano.

Power Trip – “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)”

The headbanger of the summer, with a riff that chugs like a locomotive from hell, and a chorus that demands to be shouted at top volume, like a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts.

Bob Dylan – “Braggin'”

The more Dylan digs into the Great American Songbook, the happier I get. This sprightly shuffle off his excellent Triplicate album is a pure pleasure, full of folksy, spot-on commentary on what passes for leadership these days: “When you should be busy plowin’ and a-plantin’ / You stand there a-rantin’ / Get no harvest tootin’ your horn.”

Calvin Harris (ft. Frank Ocean & Migos) – “Slide”

A smooth-as-ever Frank sings about moments when “whatever comes, comes through clear” over a breezy disco groove from Calvin Harris. Positive vibes abound.

Beachheads – “Your Highness”

Shimmering, harmony-laden power-pop that sweeps you up like a hang glider.

CupcakKe – “Barcodes”

This sex work empowerment anthem is a blast of exuberance from a Chicago rapper on the rise. “Pay the damn price or go home to your wife,” CupcakKe demands, backed by the funkiest horns you’ll hear all summer.

Drake – “Passionfruit”

Over a swirling dream of a dancehall groove, a narrator mourns a fading long-distance relationship. Emotional and entrancing, it has all the makings of signature Drake summer smash.

Feist – “I’m Not Running Away”

Sparse, introspective blues songs don’t usually make me want to bat a beach ball around. But I can’t shake this tune. Its mix of slinky guitars and bold declarations are as thoroughly bad-ass as the Power Trip song on this list. I’d suggest throwing it on while a bonfire is burning.

Everybody Scream Along!

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Apparently I’ve been in need of some scream therapy lately. Because when I listen to Gods of Violence – the righteous, anti-totalitarian juggernaut of a new album from German thrash legends Kreator – the effect is deeply cathartic. Here’s a band with vast stores of energy, pouring every last volt into songs that pummel you with visions of triumph over terror. “Satan Is Real” might be the first devil-worshipping protest song, a reminder that if hell does exist, then so does justice. I couldn’t think of a better way to begin this playlist of songs to scream along to. I hope you come out on the other side feeling refreshed, with a clear head and a sore throat.

The Top 25 Songs of 2016

2016 was an incredible year for music. Icons left astounding goodbye notesLong-gestating masterpieces dropped from the sky. Artists that you thought would never come back did – and sounded unbelievably good. This is probably the toughest time I’ve ever had whittling a list of songs down to 25. “Formation” is only an honorable mention! Well enough of my blather. Here are the tracks I cranked in my 2005 Honda Civic with the most gusto this year. You can listen to the whole playlist on the player thingie at the bottom. Happy New Year, friends.

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25. Kendrick Lamar – “untitled 8 / 09.06.2014”

Over a dreamy MJ groove, Kendrick details what it’s like to be a broke American, from the perspective of a broke South African.

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24. Azealia Banks – “The Big Big Beat”

Just the latest in Azealia’s seemingly bottomless well of snappy dance-rap masterpieces. She should be on the charts as often as she’s in the tabloids.

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23. Iggy Pop – “Chocolate Drops”

In a very tough year, this I’ve-seen-it-all soul number from the retiring Iggy (with an assist from new pal Josh Homme) contained some welcome perspective – the shitter things get, the closer they are to becoming sweet again.

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22. case/lang/veirs – “Best Kept Secret”

I hadn’t heard of Laura Veirs before this collab with kd lang and Neko Case. So I was doubly surprised when she outshone them both, with this irrepressibly catchy folk song.

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21. 2 Chainz ft. Drake – “Big Amount” 

I want to hear flutes on everything now.

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20. Usher – “Crash”

It’s remarkable that Usher can still make songs like this – an R&B ballad about feeling vulnerable that takes you higher than an ego boost ever could.

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19. The Avalanches ft. Danny Brown and MF Doom – “Frankie Sinatra”

Calypso rap witchery.

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18. Anderson Paak – “Come Down” 

An ambitious R&B auteur contemplates a state of permanent highness over a crackling funk break from Hi-Tek.

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17. Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom”

The lavender Lamborghini of dance-pop hits.

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16. Lady Leshurr – “Queen’s Speech 4”

Personal hygiene has never sounded this hardcore.

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15. The Monkees – “She Makes Me Laugh”

Romantic sunshine pop to soothe our inner cynic, from the singers of “Daydream Believer” and the writer of “Island in the Sun.”

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14. Drake ft. Wizkid and Kyla – “One Dance”

Dancehall, Afrobeat and hip hop collide on Drake’s entrancing hit – one of the few things most of us could agree on this year.

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13. Kvelertak – “1985” 

A beer-swillingly addictive single from these Norwegian black metal heroes. Sounds like Van Halen fronted by one of Satan’s sandpaper-throated emissaries.

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12. Anohni – “Drone Bomb Me”

On this gut-wrenching takedown of modern warfare, Anohni rips our hearts out, if only to prove we still have them.

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11. Kero Kero Bonito – “Trampoline” 

Dance-pop that’s as blissfully bouncy as its subject matter.

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10. Solange ft. The-Dream and BJ the Chicago Kid – “F.U.B.U.”

Solange sings about racial profiling with calm confidence, over floating organ and crisp, darting horns.

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9. Fifth Harmony – “Work From Home”

When you’re in love, the worst part about being in the office doesn’t involve what you could be doing outside.

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8. Kamaiyah ft. Zay – “Out the Bottle”

Combining syrupy ’90s gangsta with the lit bluntness of Mustardwave, this magnetic Bay Area rapper shows us why the self-confident have no need for stemware.

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7. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam”

An artist who once claimed to be a god lies prostrate here, before the majesty of a gospel choir, and the nimble footwork of an all-time-great Chance the Rapper verse. He calls it a god dream, and I can’t argue.

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6. A Tribe Called Quest – “The Space Program”

When Q-Tip leans into his first verse on this, the first track of Tribe’s impossibly perfect comeback LP, I feel less silly about believing in something like fate.

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5. Frank Ocean – “Self Control”

Nobody reflects on lost love like Frank Ocean. “Keep a place for me / It’s no thing,” he sings. There’s no regret or bitterness. Just sweet humility, and warm light.

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4. DJ Shadow ft. Run the Jewels – “Nobody Speak”

Killer Mike and El-P bring mics to a gunfight.

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3. Rihanna – “Higher”

“I know I could be more creative / And come up with poetic lines,” sings our narrator, emboldened by alcohol, voice fraying from the sheer force of her feelings. They don’t make love songs like this anymore.

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2. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”

A total gem of a rock and roll song, powered by love’s frightening adrenaline.

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1. Beyoncé – “Hold Up” 

Remember how awesomely cathartic it was to watch Angela Bassett set fire to her shithead husband’s car in Waiting to Exhale? Now you can sing along.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz ft. Lil Wayne – “Bounce”; Azealia Banks – “Skylar Diggins”; Beyoncé – “Formation”; Black Mountain – “Cemetery Breeding”; James Blake – “Always”; David Bowie – “Lazarus”; Danny Brown – “When It Rain”; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Distant Sky”; Hannah Diamond – “Make Believe”; D.R.A.M. – “Cute”; Ariana Grande ft. Nicki Minaj – “Side to Side”; Homeboy Sandman – “Talking (Bleep)”; Masta Ace – “Young Black Intelligent”; Metallica – “Spit Out the Bone”; M.I.A. – “Bird Song”; Frank Ocean – “Solo”; Isaiah Rashad – “Free Lunch”; Rihanna – “Love On the Brain”; Run the Jewels – “Talk to Me”; William Tyler – “Kingdom of Jones”; Vektor – “LCD (Liquid Crystal Disease)”; Kanye West – “Real Friends”; YG – “Twist My Fingaz”; Young Greatness – “Lingo Dripping”; Young M.A – “OOOUUU”; Young Thug – “Wyclef Jean”

The Song of the Election (revised): “Give the People What They Want”

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Around 1 a.m. on election night, NBC News cut to the Javits Center, the glass-ceilinged site of the Clinton campaign’s planned celebration. And there amongst the throng of stunned supporters was Stevie Wonder, leaning against a railing, looking tired and perplexed. After so many hours wiping tears and swallowing bile, it was the appropriate capstone to my evening.

Four days earlier, I had written about how Wonder’s classic 1976 song “Pastime Paradise” was the only thing keeping my election stress at bay. An all-too-relevant warning about the dangers of nostalgia, delivered in the artist’s clarion call of a voice, it was the perfect delineation of America’s crisis. Would we be driven by fear, or by hope?

Well, more of us were driven by hope, but fear still won. More than 60 million Americans voted for a man whose entire platform fit on a hat. Donald Trump promised to bring back the steel industry, with no plan. He promised to fix the inner cities, with no plan. He claimed to love women more than anyone, even though we all heard his detailed plan for sexually assaulting them.

So forgive me if my new Song of the Election takes an especially bitter view of what we all value as humans. “Give the People What They Want” was written by Ray Davies as a commentary on “if it bleeds it leads” journalism. Over a huge arena rock riff, Davies posits that while our media gatekeepers are pretty scummy, it’s the audience that deserves most of the blame. Violence means ratings.

The more they get, the more they need 
And every time they get harder and harder to please

 

 

America loves a trainwreck. And after eight years of a president who valued calm, rational diplomacy in the face of rampant hate, we’re hungrier than ever. We haven’t gotten to rubberneck in forever.  So along comes Trump, promising to blow it all up, to drain the swamp, to grab our better angels by their pussies. His stanky middle finger of a campaign appealed to a nation that was tired of being governed. We wanted to be entertained, much like the Romans that Davies devotes his second verse to:

The Roman promoters really did things right
They needed a show that would clearly excite
The attendance was sparse so they put on a fight 
Threw the Christians to the lions, sold out every night

“Give the People What They Want” does not sound like a typical Kinks song – its rudimentary blues hook is produced to a sheen, combining the catchiness of The Ramones with the emptiness of Kiss. There’s a screaming bar band guitar solo right where you’d expect Van Halen to put one. In an inspired satirical move, Davies infused his cynicism into the music itself, giving mainstream audiences what it wanted in 1981.

There’s a level of pretentiousness to this approach. Not all arena rock is bad. Not all people who find violent stories entertaining are bad. But I can’t help but identify. The acidity of this song tastes a lot like the bile I was swallowing in those early hours on November 9. More than 60 million Americans would rather have Norman Rockwell come back from the dead and give every coal miner a hand job while yelling “All Lives Matter” than vote for a woman. Our country is still virulently sexist, and racist, and embarrassingly susceptible to con artists.

 

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I’m truly afraid that Trump will actually try to build the 1950s white nationalist theme park that he promised us. But my biggest fear is that most of us will cheer him on. That chaos truly is what the people want. As Davies points out in his final verse, this obsession is nothing new:

When Oswald shot Kennedy, he was insane 
But still we watch the re-runs again and again 
We all sit glued while the killer takes aim

There is an upside to this bleak picture. “Give the People What They Want,” and the 1981 album of the same name, is a hell of a lot of fun – irony be damned. Ray Davies translated his disdain for humanity into what was arguably the last truly excellent Kinks album. Four years of President Trump is guaranteed to inspire many such works of art. And we’re going to need them. The bond between songwriter and listener is about to get even stronger.

The Song of the Election: “Pastime Paradise”

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In a recent poll by the American Psychological Association, more than half of Americans say the 2016 election “is a very or somewhat significant” source of stress in their lives. You can include me in that group. The prospect of a President Trump has terrified me to the point where I turn into Baby Jane Hudson when I read Politico – every time I think about something nice, they remind me of bad things.

The APA’s tips on how to deal with election stress? Consume less media. Avoid talking about it. Do volunteer work. Try to have a more “balanced perspective.” I know I’m not doing any of those things from now until Tuesday, so I’ve decided to find a song that makes me feel better, that I can play on a loop until the fate of the world is sealed.

This was hard. Election stress isn’t the kind of thing I want to minimize or push away. So I went on a search for clarity through song, looking for an easily digestible, non-partisan explanation of how in god’s name we got here. When I couldn’t find a song called “America Hates Women,” I turned to the album that tends to have the answers to most things – Stevie Wonder’s monumental 1976 double LP, Songs in the Key of Life.

“Pastime Paradise” has a spiritual quality that goes beyond mere political protest. Built almost entirely of synthesized strings and light percussion, it floats into your eardrums like a Ghost of Election Day Future, warning us of the dangers of nostalgia. The lyrics are full of foreboding, yet Wonder cuts through the mood with a voice so pure, you can see to the bottom.

They’ve been spending most their lives
Living in a pastime paradise
They’ve been wasting most their time
Glorifying days long gone behind

 

 

Wonder’s diagnosis of our country’s malady is 40 years old, but it rings true as ever: When we’re unhappy with the present, when the turmoil of our lives compounds with the turmoil on the news, it’s very tempting to retreat to our own private island of memory. A place where we can personally curate what to remember and what to ignore. A paradise where we are all-powerful. It’s when we see this paradise as truth that everything goes to hell.

On the bridge, Wonder lists the side effects of electing leaders who think it’s possible to not only live in the past, but to recreate a twisted and distorted past that only exists in the minds of one demographic. It’s a cheat sheet for the true meaning of “Make America Great Again”:

Dissipation
Race Relations
Consolation
Segregation
Dispensation
Isolation
Exploitation
Mutilation
Mutations
Miscreation
Confirmation to the evils of the world

This razor-sharp sociology lesson alone would make “Pastime Paradise” a candidate for the Song of the Election. But Stevie Wonder is not a pessimist. After showing us the path to darkness, he turns his face to the sun, dreaming about the good things that can happen when we look toward the future instead. Acclamation. Salvation. Stimulation. Peace. As the song nears its climax, and Christian and Hare Krishna choirs add even more gravitas to the melody, Wonder makes a plea. And it’s here, in this moment, where my stress turns to confidence.

Let’s start living our lives
Living for the future paradise

On November 8, we can reject the lie that America was better when it was controlled by white men.  And when the day is done, our country will speak two words out loud for the first time. Two words that prove we’re closer to a future paradise for all: Madam President.

The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016

Is there anything better than crankin’ some rockin’ tunes while cruisin’? Break out your drivin’ gloves and coastin’ shades, cuz I’m about to press your boogie-woogie button with The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016. Crank it loud. Crank it far. Crank it like a dude with a ‘tude who makes the squares unglued.

SWEENDOGG’S TRACK BREAKDOWN

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Kamaiyah – “Out the Bottle”
Combining syrupy ’90s gangsta with the lit bluntness of Mustardwave, this magnetic Bay Area rapper shows us why the self-confident have no need for stemware. The I-just-don’t-give-a-fuck anthem of the year.

 

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Anderson .Paak – “Come Down”
The year’s most ambitious R&B auteur contemplates a state of permanent highness over a crackling funk break from Hi-Tek.

 

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The Monkees – “You Bring the Summer”
This lilting highlight of the superb Monkees reunion disc Good Times! is brimming with love’s wide-eyed optimism, making a chips-and-dip picnic sound like a trip to Paris.

 

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Kvelertak – “1985”
A beer-swillingly addictive single from these Norwegian black metal heroes. Sounds like Van Halen fronted by a sandpaper-throated emissary from Satan.

 

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Lady Leshurr – “Queen’s Speech 4”
Personal hygiene has never sounded this hardcore.

 

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Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom”
Full of audacious swagger and undeniable craftsmanship, this is the lavender Lamborghini of dance-pop hits.

 

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Sturgill Simpson – “Keep it Between the Lines”
Sturg goes full Stax on this groovy homage to fatherly advice, full of stabbing low-register horns and a loose falsetto refrain of “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

 

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2 Chainz ft. Lil Wayne – “Bounce”
Two rap vets going in like there’s nothing to lose.

 

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Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – “Work From Home”
When you’re in love, the worst part about being in the office during summer doesn’t involve what you could be doing outside.

 

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William Tyler – “Kingdom of Jones”
An offering to the sun god, in the form of an achingly beautiful country guitar instrumental.

 

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Kanye West ft. Chris Brown – “Waves”
Effervescent, soulful and hopeful, “Waves” feels like the old Kanye. In the thorny, paranoid sprawl of The Life of Pablo, it’s a striking breath of fresh air.

 

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Iggy Pop – “Chocolate Drops”
If you think your summer is going to shit, the indefatigable Iggy is here to remind you that you’re right around the corner from sweet relief.

 

Prince (1958-2016)

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Many of my formative years were spent going to a small Catholic elementary school. For most of my time there, I was all in – obsessed with stories of the saints; eager to partake in the sacraments; honored to be an altar boy. And as a quiet kid who bit his nails, I was totally down with the meek inheriting the earth.

Eventually, I started to see the holes in my teachers’ arguments. Why were there no dinosaurs in the Bible? “It’s a mystery,” they’d say. How could God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit be the same person? “It’s a mystery.” Why don’t animals go to heaven? “Because they weren’t baptized or something. Now shut up.”

But it wasn’t until later in life that I realized how much that experience shaped me, especially when it came to sex. In second grade, when we were prepping for our first confession, we were told that any sexual thought was a sin, literally an “impure thought.” We needed to confess them all to make sure our souls were “clean.” I took that teaching to heart. Shame and physical desire were inextricably linked. At least until I got older, met the girl who would become my wife, and started listening to Prince.

Prince died yesterday. He was 57. It’s impossible to properly explain his influence on the world as an artist, sex symbol, fashion icon and restless creative spirit. Since his debut album in 1978, he married funk with synth-pop, hard rock and slow-jam R&B, forging a signature sound whose effect on the pop landscape has been seismic. The depth of his talent was staggering – one of the most expressive guitarists of all time (and merely great at several other instruments); a coy, elastic vocalist with a pitch perfect falsetto; an innovative producer and arranger; a tireless and explosive performer. When a major artist gets stylistically ambitious, chances are they’re trying to sound like Prince – see Beck’s Midnite Vultures, Andre 3000’s The Love Below, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. There’s a long list of brilliant artists, like Miguel and Janelle Monae, who would not exist without him. His love songs were come-ons, and vice versa. He luxuriated in pleasure, in a way that felt rebellious, even political. Take this line from my favorite Prince album, Controversy – if he were a corporation, it’d be his mission statement: “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there were no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” Prince didn’t lay you down by the fire, he was the fire.

I picked up Purple Rain during a time when I was driving a lot – several 90-minute trips a week to be with my impossibly gorgeous girlfriend. I made a questionable investment in a Dodge Neon, 100% because it could get me to her. I craved her more each day (a phenomenon that’s never stopped). She washed away any vestige of those old “impure thoughts” lessons, fully exposing them as propaganda. And Prince was the soundtrack to this awakening. Take the gospel-tinged opening salvo of “Let’s Go Crazy”:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” Prince preaches over a pulsing synthesizer chord. “Electric word, life. It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else. The afterworld. A world of never ending happiness. You can always see the sun – day or night.”

This opening is so important. It haloes all the emotion and eroticism to come. It’s a preemptive strike against anybody who thinks sex is dirty. Prince was rewiring my subconscious, giving the steely nun who lived in there some pharmaceutical-grade sleeping pills, and leaving me open to fully appreciate the line on the record that stays with me the most to this day, the line that would probably still get my vote as the sexiest of all time:

“Animals strike curious poses / They feel the heat / The heat between me and you.”

Hearing this while yearning to be with the love of my life affected me more than any prayer ever could. Because my lust was not sinful. It was a feeling that connected me to all living things, to the grand, mysterious engine at the heart of “this thing called life.” It was not something I needed to confess. It was a pure thought.

Thank you, Prince. And god bless you. Now, you can always see the sun.