The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.
Perhaps the greatest asset to punks in the 1990s was the compilation album. Epitaph Records had its Punk-O-Rama series, Hopeless Records had one called “Cinema Beer Nuts” and several others, I owned several godawful ska compilation albums, and then there was Fat Wreck Chords.
The Fat comps were, to my taste, the absolute best comps out there. Many of the first bands I loved, whom you have already read about in this series, were under the Fat banner, so it was easy to pick up a comp and basically know it was going to be great. I don’t particularly care for Fat Mike the lead singer and bass player for NOFX, nor do I particularly care for what I’ve read about Fat Mike the person, but Fat Mike as head honcho of Fat Wreck Chords is among my favorite businesspeople of all-time. Every band I’ve talked to under his label has said without fail that Mike is always straight up with them, does what he says he’s gonna do, and actually pays them on time, which is apparently a sad rarity in the music industry.
Where Mike is diabolically brilliant is where he basically demands a new, unreleased song from a band for his Fat comps. He’s diabolical because bands are understandably annoyed at having to give up a primo cut they could have released themselves as singles or as album cuts. But he’s brilliant because he’s basically guaranteeing that a potentially even bigger audience is going to gain exposure to your band, and if they like you, they’re going to have to find (and maybe buy) the rest of your shit.
This is how I first fell in love with Strung Out.
Released in November 2002, Fat Music Volume VI: Uncontrollable Fatulence, featured the song “Your Worst Mistake” by Strung Out slotted into Track 6. It was one of two songs I played more than any other on that comp (the other being “Generation Lost” by Rise Against, conveniently situated at Track 7). It was a short month until Christmas, my girlfriend asked me what I wanted, and in the most 2002 response possible, I told her VHS tapes of the MTV show Jackass, and An American Paradox by Strung Out.
I listened to that album constantly for the next few weeks. Its relentless speed, precision, and fire hooked me, and I couldn’t get enough. Then someone told me they thought Strung Out’s previous album Twisted by Design was superior, which… no way, bro. C’mon. Then I bought it. And holy shit, it was superior!
It’s a no-skips album for me. Except for maybe Duck and Cover by Mad Caddies and Losing Streak or Hello Rockview by Less Than Jake, it’s probably the album I’ve listened to from start to finish the most times. I’ve never gotten tired of listening to it. Hell, it’s 25 years after its release, and I’m still not tired of listening to it. I literally stopped writing this piece after that last sentence to listen to it again just now. It fucking rules!
I’ve written about this song before in the Top 5 Fun Friday piece called “Top 5 Favorite Songs That Have No Chorus,” and in it I wrote:
In addition to being an absolute face melter musically with a suicidal, breakneck tempo, “Too Close To See” features lyrics that sound like they were written in a hypermanic fugue state, delivered as a dispatch from inside the narrator’s own mind. Entirely in the second person, the lyrics read like part honest inventory taking, part pep talk.
I don’t drink caffeine outside of how ever much is in regular iced tea, a fact which mystifies most of the people I tell that to. But the reason I don’t is because if I have a cup of coffee, my brain and my body feel like this song, only it’s radiating out of my bones to the point that it feels like my skeleton is trying to leap out of my skin and run chattering maniacally down the street. I think I’m unintentionally making this sound cool as shit, but I promise it isn’t. I had one friend describe me as “chill, but intense.” That’s about as tidy a description of my overall demeanor as it gets because I can be quiet and low maintenance and am generally a very good listener… but ask me to weigh in on something I care about, and the floodgates open with a tidal wave of opinions, tangents, anecdotes, obscure references to shit that doesn’t seem related at first but ultimately is, and whatever else forces itself through the brain to mouth pipeline.
My brain is like this song just about all the time. This is probably the primary reason why I took a liking to weed. Weed was just about the only thing that slowed my brain down effectively and allowed me to quiet the incessant cacophony tap dancing on my poor melon. It’s particularly great while I’m watching sports because I tend to lose myself in a game, find myself very present, and notice the games’ subtleties, nuances, and small moments in an exquisite and beautiful way. I’ve generally grown used to this flurry of baseline brain activity and mostly enjoy it, but too much of it can be exhausting.
The reason this song is near the top of this list isn’t because I can gaze at it and see myself (although I can), it’s because it reminds me that our real rewards lie outside of ourselves. A line at the end recontextualizes the second person narration. Up until this line, it seems, as I wrote above the lyrics “sound like they were written in a hypermanic fugue state, delivered as a dispatch from inside the narrator’s own mind.” True enough. But then the hammer drops:
This is my song to a friend that never needed anyone until now.
A lot of friends, colleagues and acquaintances have approached me and asked for my counsel in either starting their own business or their own podcast. They think we’re going to talk about which editing software they should use or the value of hiring an accountant, which we do, but that which surprises nearly all of them is the fucking pep talk I give them encouraging them to make whatever leap they’re considering.
I want them to walk away from talking to me with renewed vigor, with an unconquerable spirit, with optimism and with the confidence to make a scary decision and believe it will turn out well. I will never forget my friend Zach encouraging me to branch out on my own in 2014 when I had an option to either start my own business or join another firm. He was unequivocal in his encouragement, and I’m glad he was because I was waffling. I now take that energy and pay it forward.
This song is rocket fuel. And when I think about how I want to be remembered by the people I love, whether we’re talking about helping someone start an entrepreneurial journey, getting through one of life’s rough patches, or simply encouraging them to lean into that which makes them unique, I hope to serve as some of their own rocket fuel. Because:
Sometimes we get too close to see
A different side of what life can be
And if stare too long it all becomes a blur
And it’s easy to forget just who we are
Don’t stare too hard, just take a look around…
We are who we think we are. And if I can help someone realize the best version of themselves, then I’ve done my own small part in making the world a more beautiful and rich place.
Up next: Number 3.