End-of-year playlist: what year is it, again?

Today I really loved my job. In the morning I taught Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, which takes place in the summer of 1985, when the narrator is 15. (The book’s climax, if it can be called that, is the day that Lisa Lisa—and Cult Jam!—come into the ice cream shop where the narrator works and order waffle cones.) The class was a freshman seminar. The students were born in 1993. They want to know: Did we really rollerskate that much? What did New Coke taste like, and why was it such a big deal? Why were arcade games so fascinating?

1985. Reader, it made me proud that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Purple Rain, and that I saw The Goonies in the movie theater several times that summer.

In the afternoon I taught Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. (The goon in question, if you’re wondering, is Time. The destroyer.) The novel won the Pulitzer last year and, if you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do so right away. It begins in the punk scene of the 1970s and goes several years into the future. Kind of a Gen-X Remembrance of Things Past. Makes you wonder where we’ll be ten years from now, and what popular music we’ll be digging by then.

In between, at lunchtime, I thought a lot about how this year’s mix was shaping up and how ambivalent I feel about the synthetic eighties production drenching most of the tracks. Were the eighties really that great? Post-punk and new wave, sure. But this year’s music doesn’t ape Joy Division or even The Cars. (That’s so five years ago!) No, we’re talking unabashed Top-40 plundering, Billy Ocean and Belinda Carlisle-type shit. Can’t we just let those sounds rest in peace? And does it sound so unwelcome to my ears because it was bad the first time around, or merely because it was the soundtrack to my most awkward years? (Also: does pop always get more sugary the worse the economy becomes?)

My students love this music fervently, nostalgic for a time that never really was. Then again, The Breakfast Club is their Citizen Kane. (Doesn’t it make you happy for Molly Ringwald, that she grew up just fine and moved to France? And glad for all of us, that we grew up, too?)

Listen here. (p.s. Some of the tracks are from 2010. It’s hard to keep up. “Time is a goon.”)

1. The Fight—Sia
2. Junk Of The Heart (Happy)—The Kooks
3. Fair Game—The Like
4. Little Numbers—Boy
5. Amor Fati—Washed Out
6. Paradisco—Charlotte Gainsbourg
7. When We’re Dancing—Twin Shadow
8. Paradise Engineering—Yacht
9. Hoop of Love—Dominant Legs
10. Bicycle—Unknown Mortal Orchestra
11. Romance—Wild Flag
12. Lazy Bones—Wooden Shjips
13. Last Legs—Army Navy
14. Jesus Fever—Kurt Vile
15. Boxer—Lovers
16. Who Am I to Feel So Free—MEN
17. Sutphin Boulevard—Blood Orange
18. Lose It—Austra
19. Book Of Revelation—The Drums

10 responses to “End-of-year playlist: what year is it, again?”

  1. Dave says:

    It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Thanks!

  2. Tim says:

    Oh, man, am I excited to listen to this! Unfortches, it will have to wait until later. Thanks!

  3. Swells says:

    Ooh, you are about to make me lift the needle off the English Beat’s “Sugar and Stress” for this mix! (I only wish I could have said it was something from 1985 instead of 1982!) I have been wondering how “Goon Squad” would teach and would love to talk to you about it (in what context did you teach it? etc.)–it would have to go over better than “The Tortilla Curtain,” which tanked with my students last night. And also, so should I read “Sag Harbor”? I’m assuming? Thanks for all this morning excitement!

  4. Rachel says:

    Swells, that is probably my favorite English Beat song! Hooray!

    It has been a very unusual semester for me, in that both my classes have been all contemporary novels. I guess that’s one of the perks of being at a small school, that you can stretch yourself a lot. Anyhow, one class was a freshman seminar in multicultural lit called “Coming of Age in America.” The students loved Sag Harbor, which really surprised me. It has an almost lapidary devotion to the mid-80s. The other was a Topics class I called “9/11 and the Novel.” “Goon Squad” is our last book. It has been a very exhausting class. I don’t think I would do it again. The students were all in grade school when 9/11 happened; it ended up being more American studies than straight-up lit. Lots of documentaries and background reading.

    “Goon Squad” works well because it is a post-9/11 novel in the most literal sense: it doesn’t try to deal with the events head-on so much as it takes place in a world where they are simply part of the world we live in. Thematically, the preoccupation with time marching on, with before and after, is how we engaged with the other stuff in the class–much of which has to do with time standing still. Structurally, there’s so much in the book to talk about, with all the different POV and narration. Plus, it’s just a really good read.

    I guess I should be glad we’re reliving synthpop and not hair metal.

  5. swells says:

    Wow, I’m drooling–our department is down to major-survey-only lit classes until the state budget improves. Send me your syllabi so I can fantasize! One more week till I can read whatever I want, so let me take your class as an independent study!

  6. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Funny that they’re nostalgic for the nonexistant 80s of John Hughes just as we loved John Hughes for being about a high school experience none of us was actually having. That’s a vague, collective “we” since I always found those movies kind of alienating. I could identify neither with the kids who were whooping it up at these huge parents-out-of-town parties nor the sad sack dorks who really wanted into that world. I think The Breakfast Club inspired the kind of “which archetype are you” game I now associate with gay men and Sex and the City but I never really knew anyone like any of those kids. Was this just me?

  7. cam says:

    Thanks for the playlist! I ended up on your site googling “playlist I’m depressed” and tadada! These songs cheer me up! Thanks!

  8. Rachel says:

    Thanks for stopping by, cam!

  9. J-Man says:

    FP, it wasn’t just you. In John Hughes’ world, even the sad-sack dorks were kind of cool in their own way, whereas many of the dorks that I knew were happy to be in their own dorky world, and the rest of us just fell through the cracks into a social netherworld.

    Speaking of which, I’m downloading your playlist now and looking forward to hearing the music that all the cool kids are listening to. I’ve never even heard of many of these artists, a consequence, I suppose, of keeping my head buried in the dollar bin.

  10. josh k-sky says:

    Mrs. K-sky is grooving the fuck out on this mix. “I love every song so far,” she says.