As the leaves turn and the weather shifts from sauna-esque to dry and frosty, I notice my listening habits shift away from the loud and expansive. I end up listening to a lot of chamber-piecey things, acoustic and downbeat—what my wife calls, tongue and cheek, my “orphan music.” It’s also futon music. It’s futon music for orphans, sipping pumpkin lattes, or whatever your warm beverage predilection might be. The last part, though, is the most distinct. Not every orphan song is also an autumn pumpkin latte song. Autumn pumpkin latte songs need to invoke A Separate Peace or fire pits or bulbous gourds. Sirius/XM should jump on this.
There is something about the autumn which inspires a kind of melancholic introspection and careful listening. The summer is over, long cold darkness lies waiting for us like a beast waiting for its prey to emerge from the thickets. We are the prey. Warning: you might need a Paxil after this list. Or at least a caffeinated beverage.
Here are 12 songs to help you sip your pumpkin spice latte:
- “Only the Lonely” by the Motels. The 80’s minor-key classic is a little oxymoronic poem of liberation, of sorts. The relationship has soured, but the lonely can still play. Can they? As Mr. John Waite crooned, I ain’t missing you at all. Right? The keyboard and sax give the song an utterly 80’s vibe, but this song is perfect for watching the crinkly deciduous leaves float in the slanted sun.
- “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone. Most of the Nina Simone oeuvre works perfectly with cinnamon and oatmeal. That moment when Simone’s a cappella intro gives way to the cascade of horns and strings is perfectly October. That instant late in the song when Simone descends into scatting—she’s feeling good, and you should too. The days of sunscreen and insect repellent are over; the days of Chapstick are just beginning. Even when raging, Simone was always touch brittle, a tad remote—and yet feeling good.
- “People Ain’t No Good” by Nick Cave. Maybe it’s the election season getting under my skin, but Nick Cave’s piano ballad from his 1999 album “The Boatman’s Call” seems especially to resonate at this time of the year. Like Paul Simon’s “April Come She Will,” Nick Cave uses seasonal variation to set up the spring to winter love let-down. In a world where good and altruism do exist, people do ultimately dissatisfy and disappoint on some level—politicians, talking heads and spin-artists in an interminable election, especially? This must be on heavy rotation on Morrissey’s I-pod. It’s not elliptical at all—a straight shot of Nick Cave despondency.
- “The Greatest” by Cat Power. Watch this video in which the camera stays trained horizontally on a slew of average-everyday women as they bowl under piercing fluorescent lighting. No video in recent memory speaks as directly to the “commoner’s experience.” No gloss, no sheen. Power’s song embraces worldly disillusionment: “Once I wanted to be the greatest/No wind or waterfall could stall me/And then came the rush of the flood/Stars at night turned deep to dust.” Not even a lucky loser here in sight. Gutterball!
- “Mayonnaise” by Smashing Pumpkins. From the outset the slow build up to the Smashing Pumpkins’ best power-ballad makes this a pumpkin latte special brew. The 90’s slow grunge guitar underlay is perfect for another song about love withering on the vine. “We’ll try and ease the pain/But somehow we’ll feel the same.” No such thing as progress here. This song is so pumpkiny in its pumpkinness it’s, for me at least, become almost kitsch. Almost. Nevertheless, I still listen and watch the vapor rise.
- “Honey Honey” by Feist. Feist is another autumn artist (even her upbeat songs belie an underbelly of leaf crunch) and of her many wonderful, tuneful songs nothing is more pumpkin latte than “Honey, Honey.” True, honey and coffee may not exactly mesh, but the sly little guitar riffs, harp and especially the echoey “Ahhh-haaah” background vocals make this a fall classic. This is a song about biding one’s time and separation and with its slightly distorted syntax Feist’s song sounds like something out of Scottish balladry. Goes well with vanilla and nutmeg.
- “Morning Hollow” by Sparklehorse. This song is so fragile it feels as if it might break in two at any moment, yet it has become my favorite song on their unforgettable “Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain.” If you have never listened to this song before or don’t know the work or tragic story of Mark Linkous (who passed six years ago—not long after this song appeared), you are in for an awakening. This song is pretty clearly about the loss of his dog—“She don’t get up when I come into the room/She don’t run through the fields anymore.” Yet the song is not maudlin as performed, not for one second. Tom Waits on piano. Sophie Michelitsianos with the willowy backing vocals.
- “Black Star” by Gillian Welch. Let’s get this out of the way first: Welch’s cover of Radiohead’s 1995 song is not better than the original. However, it’s darn close. “Blame it on the black star/Blame it on the falling sky/Blame it on the satellite that beams me home.” Like “Honey, Honey,” “Blackstar” is a melancholy blue plate separation special. Yet, in invoking celestial bodies and space, Thom Yorke’s lyrics give the distance an epic, otherworldly and especially apocalyptic feel. Dave Rawling’s acoustic pluckings (the most underrated of guitarists) provide the italics.
- “Sin City” by Flying Burrito Brothers. Speaking of apocalypse. Speaking of election season. “This old town is filled with sin…Satan is waiting his turn….It seems like the whole town’s insane.” Say no more.
- “A Song for You” by Donny Hathaway. The tinkling, icy ivory descending us into Hathaway’s warm fire pit vocals make this a late fall song, especially. This is a November song, really. Lyrically this is not Hathaway’s most accomplished song, nor is it my favorite of his songs (hard to beat “The Ghetto,”) but the mood he creates is impeccable for the moment. Also, given Hathaway’s tragic end (he took his life in 1979) the song has additional gravitas.
- “Autumn Leaves” by Cannonball Adderly. I saved the best for last—it really doesn’t get any better than this. Appearing as the first song on one of the best jazz albums ever made, 1958’s “Somethin’ Else,” alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis on trumpet, Hank Jones on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Art Blakey on drums turn this Johnny Mercer standard into poignant, high art. Blue notes, indeed. Also highly recommended: Eva Cassidy’s take, Chet Baker and Paul Desmond’s version and Bill Evans’ as well.
- Actually, scratch that. The ultimate pumpkin latte song has to be “Green Arrow” by Yo La Tengo, a song replete with a cricket soundscape. Nothing is more pumpkin-lattey than crickets. Yes, perhaps crickets in your neck of the woods are less vociferous than they were in August or not in evidence or earshot at all. Here in the D.C. suburbs we have a few stragglers of the Jimminy kind. However, October is also when the camelback crickets emerge and boing-a-doing all over their basement. “Green Arrow” is about those crickets and the warm caffeinated mug of goodness steaming in your hand as you watch them dance along the walls.