A while back twitter directed me to an article claiming that Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard was lying about his song list for running. Because I am a narcissist, this made me immediately thing about my running list—it is several hundred songs long and not all of them are actually that good to run to.
I run a bit—I don’t call myself a runner because I have never run ‘officially’ or in any public capacity, but I do run enough to know the names of different shoes, the arguments for and against going barefoot, the ideal amount of hydration before, during and after runs, etc .etc. I do it because I enjoy it, because you can’t play basketball for three hours a day when you’re a real adult, and because my grandfather and father died young.
But mostly, it gives me peace. My favorite time to run is before dawn—I like to get up around 4 AM and run in the dark. Running in the early morning like this feels like a dream state: the distances seem shorter, the world seems quieter and I rarely see anything alive other than rabbits and armadillos (who scare me something terrible).
Sometimes I run in silence, but then the thoughts begin to crowd out the sound of my voice, the push of my breath, and the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground. Learning to run for longer distances is all about winning the battle against your mind. If I don’t listen to something, my doubts, regrets and fears overwhelm me.
My wife is incredulous because at times I will listen to folk music while running (Nick Drake, Iron & Wine) or often I listen to radio shows (This American Life and Radiolab). After making the transition to a smart phone I can run even longer using the Stitcher app or Pandora (I know, this sounds like an advertisement). Audiobooks? I have run listening to Frank Herbert, Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. (Hey, geeks can run.)
But when I don’t want to listen to any of these things, I have a running list I have been compiling for years. Here are some highlights
Alkaline Trio, “Time to Waste”
A friend of mine from school, the Wizard (whom I keep trying to persuade to write guest-posts), first introduced me to the Alkaline Trio. Their sound is unique and recognizable—muscular and emotional at the same time. This song, the first track from their album Crimson, is a good wake-up call—intense, yet still able to provide a crescendo with a repeated piano riff that reminds me of the toll from a bell tower. The crisp harmonies and clean guitars (far too clean for punk) are pleasant to listen to. At over four minutes, the song feels shorter than it is.
(As an aside, the entire album Crimson is high on the listenability scale; unfortunately, many of the tracks are also high on the forgetability scale.)
The Dandy Warhols “Cool as Kim Deal”
Ah, the Dandies. I have a love/hate relationship with them. (I hate that I love them.) They ooze irony and self-love. I can never tell if the narcissism is an act; I never know if they are truly as contemptuous as they seem. And I don’t really care. Their first few albums are classics.
This track so totally targets and demolishes a scene and mindset that I have loved it since I first heard it late at night in the home of The Lead Singer. Their album Come Down, with a series of songs that are well-cut yet not too clean, listens well from beginning to end. This song is smooth and fast, but not too fast. It doesn’t demand a speed, but it won’t let you sit still. A good track when you start to really hit your stride.
Soul Coughing, “Super Bon Bon”
“Take the elevator to the Mezzanine”: Has there been another alt-rock band in the past 20 years that makes reading subway signs aloud sound so good? I remember where I was when I heard that Soul Coughing broke up. It broke my heart. Mike Doughty’s subsequent solo career made the hurt a lot better.
This song is a great song for when you start to push your breathing a bit. It lets you feel urgency, but not anger. Few of Soul Coughing’s songs move with such intensity (their speed is usually slower, perhaps the pace of the opiate drug fugue.) Warning: do not drive to this song. It is a traffic violation waiting to happen.
Micah P. Hinson, “Yard of Blond Girls”
Sometimes during a run you need to slow down and catch a steady pace; sometimes, what you need from a song is something that will occupy your mind. This lark of a tune, a cover by the raspy-voiced and passionate Hinson, basically gives you the same tune three times—but each repetition adds something new: a doubling of voices and new instruments combine until the final iteration. The whole song is a beautiful exercise in building a crescendo. If you’re tired, listen to this song, start slowly and build back up.
Matt & Kim “Daylight”
While Matt & Kim’s self-titled album is a better running album (in fact, from beginning to end there aren’t many recent albums that keep you wanting to move; the songs “Don’t Slow Down” and “5K” seemed designed for running), this song has a great beat (the remix is good to). The voices are good, the hook is memorable and at under 3 minutes it is a brisk and refreshing.
Mates of State “Think Long”
Like all of the early songs of Mates and State, “Think Long” goes through almost too many movements to be even enough for running; at the same time, it is involved enough that its transitions and sounds (especially the challenging harmonies) demand attention. By the closing coda, the speed and volume have built to the point where you feel like you can run forever.
From beginning to end, fast, bright and unforgettable. As I write elsewhere, this song also has a special connection for me. When I first went to college, we listened to this album almost every day for a semester. This connection takes me back—I feel like I am running through time from when I first heard it, to when I tried to play it to all the times I heard it live.
Bedouin Soundclash, “Walls Fall Down”
Reggae inspired beats aren’t always the best for running; the harmonies in this chorus will make anyone pick up their feet. From the same album (Street Gospels) “St. Andrews” is also a great track, but it is better for a cool down.
Cake, “Shifts and Safety Belts”
A little late 1990’s rockabilly imitation. Short, fast and fun.
The Decemberists, “July, July!”
The Decemberists are a great band but few of their songs work well as stand-alone singles. This track is great—it tells a story, has a great hook, and some great lines (a crooked French Canadian uncle who gets “gut-shot running gin”: I have no idea what is going on here, but I like it). A nice follow-up for the Cake song, and less intense than the next one.
Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out”
As I discuss elsewhere, a good song for killing Zombies. Or running from them. IF you’re heart isn’t racing, this song will start it up. The entire album is good—but only if you want to feel the need to sprint for 45 minutes or so.
Rusted Root, “Send Me on My Way”
When this song was released in the 1990’s I hated it. I hated the band, I hated the hippie-dancers who loved it. Then, I forgot about it completely. About five years back, I heard the song on XM Radio and found myself humming along. It stuck in my head for the rest of the day. By the end of the week, I had to order it.
The rest of the album? Disappointing. But this song was worth the cost. It is faced paced, light-hearted and sounds different from anything else on my iPod. If you’re feet are feeling heavy, but you find yourself far from home, put this track on.
So, as it gets cooler in the warmer climates and before it gets too cold to run in the snowy lattitudes, make a song list and head out for as far as you can go. And don’t forget to feel sorry for those poor bastards of yesteryear who had only their thoughts to pace them.