We started the summertime with a list of great songs about the warmer months, but now that the season is winding down, our playlists are starting to take on a darker tone.
A very darker tone.
While I was getting ready a few weeks ago to interview Rick Springfield, the headliner at Albany's Art & Air Festival, I couldn't help but notice that one of his most recent albums is titled "Songs for the End of the World."
It's not at all the first time that popular music has flirted with the notion of the end of days. In fact, this is a long and somewhat honorable tradition that stretches back many years and has generated at least one book, "Apocalypse Jukebox," by David Janssen and Edward Whitelock, which convincingly argues that American popular music, from its earliest hymnals forward, has been shaped in part by an apocalyptic worldview, both secular and sacred. (The jazz standard "Stars Fell on Alabama," to name just one example, was indirectly inspired by an 1833 meteor shower that inspired end-of-the-world panic across the United States, according to Janssen and Whitelock.)
And it's a trend that continues right up to our current troubled moment: "The Greatest," the new single from Lana Del Ray, ends with the singer languidly tossing off lines such as "If this is it, I'm signing off. ... Hawaii just missed that fireball."
So, just in time for fall, here are some potential starting points for your own end-of-days playlist. (Got a particular favorite that I've overlooked? Send me an email, and I'll compile them later for an apocalyptic sequel:
• "We'll All Go Together When We Go," Tom Lehrer, 1959: In which a Harvard-educated mathematician looks on the bright side of nuclear holocaust.
• "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," Bob Dylan, 1962: "No other single figure in twentieth-century popular music ... has produced a more prolific body of work concerned with apocalypse than Bob Dylan," Janssen and Whitelock write. Dylan himself said he wrote the song after perusing old newspapers in the New York Public Library: "After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course." So, yeah, the song could have been written yesterday.
• "The End of the World," Skeeter Davis, 1963: It could be because you don't love me anymore. Or it could be because it's actually the end of the world.
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• "He Stopped Loving Her Today," George Jones, 1980: Country singer Joe Nichols says this is the greatest country song ever, and he's not wrong. Is it apocalyptic? Only if you think love can be apocalyptic, and we know how Skeeter Davis would answer that question.
• "Closing Time," Leonard Cohen, 1992: "Ah, we're drinking and we're dancing," but there will be hell to pay when the music stops on this Saturday night in what Janssen and Whitelock call the Apocalypse Bar and Grill. A fitting companion to the next selection on the jukebox:
• "1999," Prince, 1982: Party's over. Whoops! Out of time. Arguably, 20 years before its time.
• "Sunset Grill," Don Henley, 1984: Speaking, as we were, about the Apocalypse Bar and Grill: Here's the hamburger joint where you go grab a bite afterward. Henley says it's just about a restaurant where he used to hang out, but Pino Palladino's bass says otherwise: There is no hiding place.
• "It's the End of the World as We Know It ("And I Feel Fine)" REM, 1987: The obvious choice for this list, but there's a strong apocalyptic streak throughout the band's music, dating back to "Pilgrimage," from its first album, 1984's "Murmur."
• "Bad Moon Rising," Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969: A landmark track from arguably the most underrated American rock band.
• "London Calling," The Clash, 1979: A nuclear error. London is drowning. And we all live by the river. Fun fact: The B side of the original single was "Armagideon Time."
• "The Last Mall," Steely Dan, 2003: The Dan had wandered into apocalyptic territory before, with "King of the World" from the "Countdown to Ecstasy" album. But this track, from the band's underappreciated "Everything Must Go" album, adds a sardonic dash of consumerism to the mix and ends with a little musical joke.
• "Wristband," Paul Simon, 2016. It starts with Simon unable to get back into a club where he's playing because he doesn't have a wristband. It ends with riots. Just like in real life. (mm)