30 Songs for 30 Years

Cal W. Stannard
17 min readJun 20, 2021

In what is probably the least surprising confession ever; with my 30th birthday approaching I’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing, ruminating and re-living. The other night I found myself alone in an old fashioned boozer in the medieval market town I’ve just moved to. I’ve never sat in a pub on my own before and I felt every bit as old as the senior regulars around me. It was just then that my phone pinged with a link from one of my oldest and best friends Shep (pictured above) I guess he’d been feeling some of the same things with his 30th year rapidly approaching and had compiled a retrospective of the 30 songs that acted as checkpoints for him in his journey through life so far. Go and read that here, it’s a special and inimitable read (with bonus points for the High Fidelity nod.) Knowing I’m a fellow die-hard music nerd, he challenged me to have a go at my own version, so I’ve had a go in earnest.

Music has always been important to me and a crucial part of how I’ve made connections with other people as well as with the different parts of myself. I grew up around music — so much music, of every genre. There was never a moment of silence and I loved that. My dad showed me how to make mixtapes from about 8 years old (yes, real cassette ones!) which I still have to this day. Ever since I’ve archived and collected all the songs and albums that I’ve loved month to month; saved for posterity and sanctity. But as Joe stressed when he gave me the brief — this shouldn’t be my favourite 30 songs of all time; but rather the 30 songs that bookend or represent key moments over my 30 years. Naturally, many of them are favourites too, but there are some I actually avoid because of the memories tied to them. For better or worse, they are all here, laid bare in autobiographical order. I hope as my child grows I can show her how much music can do for a life, and that it never has to end.

Lullaby of Broadway’ from 42nd Street (1935)

Along with other lullaby jingles, the first music I remember hearing as a child was my mum’s voice singing hymns and showtunes. She performed a lot with the local musical theatre company and loved this one from 42nd Street which was sweet, playful and had that classic Broadway wink about it. The song came back to me when my own baby was born in 2019, as my brain brought forth those same songs that had lay dormant in my subconscious for 30 years. It felt so good to be passing on to my baby the same sense of comfort and love my mum had given to me.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles (1966)

My first tangible opinion on music as a child was that I loved songs that told a story. Growing up my dad had a ‘music room’ which was wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves of CDs and vinyl. To a child it was overwhelmingly magical and we’d sit on beanbags as he’d play classics like this to me. I’d close my eyes and let the pictures form in my head from the lyrics. My Dad got me into music and most of the bands I still love today. He has a better music taste than most people half his age and continues to get me into brand new music even now.

Baggy Trousers’ by Madness (1980)

This one reminds me of just being a kid, running around like a lunatic with my little brother shouting and laughing. It’s crazy to think Madness weren’t intentionally making music for 5 years olds. Putting this or ‘One Step Beyond’ on the hi-fi were the equivalent of pouring sugar into me at that age. I saw Madness live at the Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace with my mum in 2012 and hearing ‘Our House’ and ‘It Must Be Love’ was such an unanticipated hit of nostalgia. We ticked a few legends off the list that day including Grace Jones, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Stevie Wonder.

Unintended’ by Muse (1999)

Don’t get me wrong, I listened to a lot of S Club 7, 5ive and the like growing up too, which my parents dutifully tolerated. But the first Muse album was one that me and my Dad bonded over, playing very loud in his car. When I found a new song I loved I was always excited to go for a drive with Dad and hear it through those speakers as we raced along. The heavy stuff was great but ‘Unintended’ struck me as so beautiful - it was the first alternative love song I remember hearing and would listen to it every night like a lullaby. Muse are still the major band that I think I’ve seen live the most times.

Vibin’ c.1995

‘Lithium’ by Nirvana (1991)

Like many kids born in the early 90’s, Nirvana kick-started an obsession with grunge (and later nu metal) that would dominate my pre-teens. Kurt Cobain was easily my first musical hero and I grew my blond hair very long as an homage. The problem with that being I was only 11 years old and so was repeatedly mistaken for a girl…but I didn’t care. The repeated “Yeahhh-Yeah!” of the chorus was pure primal angst that connected with me at that age. When I was a baby my parents used to leave my bouncy chair next to the stereo speakers because they said loud noises soothed me. This might go some way to explaining my love for extreme sounds, as well as my rapidly worsening tinnitus. No regrets.

‘My Iron Lung’ by Radiohead (1994)

Another band my Dad got me into that are still some of my all time favourites today — he loved Oasis and Blur too but the 90’s were all about Radiohead for us. My buddy at middle school learned this on electric guitar when we were really young and I was so impressed. It really opened my eyes to the amazing things you could do with 6 strings other than just thrash away. An unlikely album cut to get me into a band that I’d love forever after — there are so many Radiohead songs for so many moments for me, but this was the first.

Plugged in c.1997

‘Ms Jackson’ by OutKast (2000)

I recently wrote about my first experiences with hip hop in a deranged, imagined interview written during Lockdown 1 and this was the first song of the genre I really remember getting into when I was a kid. It’s not even in my Top 5 OutKast songs these days but I owe it a lot for giving me my first taste of a corner of music that would come to mean so much for me — even if it did take nearly another 10 years for me to get properly into it. Between this and later hit ‘Hey Ya’ OutKast showed you could make vibrant music coupled with deep, personal lyrics that was impossible not to be drawn into.

‘Volcano’ by Damien Rice (2002)

I was always a big sucker for singer-songwriter artists and that first Damien Rice album was a revelation to my young ears. I think he’s since been written off as coffee-shop, David Gray, M.O.R type, but there’s a really experimental sound palette on O and ‘Volcano’ came right at a time when I was becoming aware of having ~emotions~ It reminds me of first pining after girls, sitting at home and being absolutely devastated for no real reason.

‘The Killing Moon’ by Echo & The Bunnymen (1984)

When I was about 13 I watched and became obsessed with the film Donnie Darko. It put me onto loads of incredible new wave 80’s music like Joy Division, The Church and of course E&TB. This song is so full of mystery and grandeur, plus the extended 9 minute version blew my tiny mind.

‘Lycanthropy’ by Patrick Wolf (2003)

This whole album reminds me of driving around in the backseat of my parents car on holiday in France aged 15, trying to figure out who I wanted to be. Patrick Wolf was a really important early role model for me in learning that traditional ideas of masculinity were not essential, or even really desirable. “Let no foot mark your ground, let no hand hold you down” was such a mantra.

A motely crew c.2003

‘Oxygen’ by Willy Mason (2004)

This is another one that’s come back to my since becoming a parent myself and I sing it to my daughter all the time. It was the ultimate protest song for peace during the Iraq War era, but every word still rings just as true today — in some cases more so. I believe that humility, simplicity, truth and love are still, and will always be the best tools we have in raising the next generation of children. I saw Willy Mason in a tiny bar in Brighton recently and it a real bucket list moment, he’s the real deal.

‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime’ by Beck (2004)

Another song from a film; this time ‘Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind’ which I’ve watched about 100 times. Beck’s cover here perfectly captures the isolation and dejection of the film’s breakup storyline along with the same woozy surrealism to match it. I was about 14 when I got into this which was I guess around the start of what would be The Great Sad.

Moody teen angst c.2007

‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’ by Arcade Fire (2004)

Arcade Fire are one of the Great bands of our time and many of their songs mean such a lot to me. This one sticks out though as it always puts me right back into that teenage longing for a great romance; one unbound by the confines of curfews and pocket money. No-one captured that childlike optimism like they did. My first proper festival weekend was Reading 2007 and I saw these guys on the main stage there — unforgettable jubilation. We all went there every year for about 5 years after that. Such great memories of friendships forged through terrible beer and amazing live music.

‘Like Eating Glass’ by Bloc Party (2005)

Looking back, the mid-noughties are my halcyon days music-wise; and were when I consciously starting following new bands. There was so much amazing indie music at that time — many people look back to The Strokes or Arctic Monkeys as the defining bands of the time, but for me Bloc Party had my heart. One of the best opening songs ever, this one came out on Valentines Day and I remember walking to the shops after school to buy it. Played it to absolute death.

‘I Know It’s Over (Live at Sony Studios New York)’ by Jeff Buckley (1995)

This cover of The Smiths encapsulated 2 of my formative musical loves but also acted as a chilling foretelling of Buckley’s own passing. I guess I was about 16 when I got really into this, and had created a large playlist on my iPod called ‘sleep 4eva: funeral songs’ which I listened to every night. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about the kind of teenager I had become. I was always drawn to the maudlin but Buckley elevated everything to a more celestial place.

‘Not Yet’ by The Veils (2007)

To this day The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of and another one I have to thank my Dad for. Their first 2 albums are total masterpieces and this is the opener for the sophomore. As a teenager I never really understood what it was about (and still don’t fully) but listening to the desperate howl of the song’s title at the climax on full volume got me to grit my teeth, eye skyward and carry on.

‘I Didn’t Understand’ by Elliott Smith (1998)

Like a lot of sad, future hipsters I got into Elliott Smith by watching The Royal Tenenbaums at a young age and immediately became obsessed with his entire back catalogue. So many of his songs soundtracked so many low moments for me growing up but none more frequently than this one. So much of what he sung in his career connected with me deep down. There are 2 types of music fan: those who listen to upbeat music when they’re down in order to pull them out, and those who just need to hear their mood reflected back at them and wallow. I’ve always been the latter.

The first time any of us played music live c.2009

‘Genesis’ by Justice (2007)

Justice’s first album sums up the best times I had at the end of my teens. Me and my best friends used to burn a CD of songs to bring to house parties which we’d storm the stereo with— you can imagine how popular we were. ‘Genesis’ was often track 1 and I think we felt the horn sounds heralded our (often unwanted) arrival perfectly. My buddy James and I made a stencil of the album cover and used to graffiti it around our neighbourhood and years later he got it tattooed on him. They were the last great rockstars, and they didn’t even use musical instruments.

‘Say You Will’ by Kanye West (2008)

808s & Heartbreak was the first hip hop album I fell in love with and it was thanks to my little bro playing it to me. Until this point I still thought rap music was in its ‘bling era’ which I hated. But this showed me that actually the genre could create more emotive music than any other. This song became the swan song for the messy start/stop end of my first proper relationship and when the stunning Caroline Shaw version emerged years later I was thrown right back into those memories of lovesickness. My relationship with Ye at least, was everlasting…if no less painful. I was torn between this song or ‘Ultralight Beam’ which has had more recent impact on me. It sounds like salvation and came out when I was 25 and things were looking better. The Kirk Franklin prayer at the end felt like it was specifically for me. When it came out me and my brother put it on full volume on some speakers in a department store — hearing those gospel voice bursting through the shop still makes me grin to think of it now.

‘Juliette’s Dead’ by Elle Milano (2008)

This is tough to replay but one I couldn’t omit. It was the final release from my then-favourite band as they were splitting up and marked a sharp turn into glitchy electronics for them. For me, it will always represent when I felt I was coming fully undone for the first time. I was desperate to escape my hometown and had my sights set on moving to London for university but many days I felt I’d either not get the grades or something even worse. One day I took a hip flask of stolen whisky into college, getting drunk in the photography dark room then wandering around the town listening to this on repeat for hours.

Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx — NY Is Killing Me (2010)

Jamie xx — Far Nearer (2010)

The good news is that I did get the grades to go to university in London (just!) and 2 weeks after my 18th birthday I left home for E1. The xx had just released their game-changing debut album which I was enamoured with. Their music (along with These New Puritans and The Horrors) inspired me and some new friends to make electronic-leaning, reverb-soaked music of our own and we were lucky enough to play Latitude festival in 2010 to a small crowd in the forest that included Jarvis Cocker (who was very nice) But when Jamie Smith revealed his solo production my mind was really blown. These 2 songs represent the brutal dichotomy of my mental state during my time in London. His stunning rework of GS-H’s final works reminds me of both the menace and danger of the depression at the core of many of my nights in the city. On the flip side though his Janet Jackson-sampling ‘Far Nearer’ always lifted me up and I would quickly stub out any cigarette to rush back inside whenever those marimba sounds started chiming. In hindsight perhaps the centre of the capital wasn’t the best place for me to be at the time but I wouldn’t change it.

‘Love Is Blindness’ by Jack White (2012)

Spent most of my early twenties hurt and hurting people and I found myself playing this incredible cover a lot. The way Jack White sings “Baby, a dangerous idea, that almost makes sense, dead! dead!” fully sounds like a man on the absolute edge and I found it endlessly compelling. White is also responsible for some of the best guitar work of my lifetime and this one has an absolute face-melter of a solo. The high melodrama is so potent that it hits you right in the chest. Give the man his flowers.

Playing Latitude festival 2010

‘Angel, Angel Down We Go Together’ by Morrissey (1988)

In 2012 I crash landed back in my hometown after uni, broke and quite broken. This was when I hit rock bottom for the first time and found myself home alone in my childhood bedroom playing this song very loud on repeat. I don’t know what I was doing but I very nearly worked up the necessary mania to make a final mistake. I fucking hate Morrissey and I fucking hate this song. 100 seconds of absolute pain.

‘Titus Andronicus’ by Titus Andronicus (2008)

This song to me is about submitting to complete abandon; it’s about knowing and acknowledging the inherent nihilism at the root of all existence but finding a way to enjoy it all anyway. It was my oldest friends who picked me up and got me through this time, without even knowing it. New years eve was always a big deal for us and we’d never be apart for it. One year round this time we were smashed and remembered to flick Big Ben on just in time for the countdown. As the clock hit midnight my friend Luke switched this song on so seamlessly that I was convinced the BBC were playing it. We all lost it and danced, hugged and kissed the new year in while “Your life is over! Your life is over!” blared out the speakers. I wouldn’t have got through those years without those guys.

‘The Game (Live from The Barbers Chair)’ by George McCanna (2014)

George is one of my oldest and best friends but I maintain he’s one of the best songwriters living. We moved in together in Brighton around this time and it was so good for me. I felt lucky to hear him trying out new ideas for songs all the time. I write a lot of words, but I’ve still never written anything as pure and powerful as “Sure, I grew up slow but I got there in the end / All that time spent below was just my time to spend” It makes me choke up every single time I put it on (and I wouldn’t like to admit to him quite how often that’s been over the years) I think where we grew up in the same place around a lot of the same experiences he has the power to write straight to my heart.

‘0 to 100 / The Catch Up’ by Drake & James Blake (2014)

While in Brighton I fell head over heels for hip hop. I saw the new stars as superheroes — larger than life titans who had the power to instil confidence and resilience in anyone who listened. This was vital for me then (and still is) and I owe a lot to Kanye, Kendrick, J Cole, Pusha T, Danny Brown, ASAP Rocky, Chance, Future, Vince Staples Travis Scott, Young Thug, Freddie Gibbs and sooo many more. But love him or hate him, Drake was the MVP of the era. So many of his songs kicked me up the arse or comforted me when I was down, but this one with the one and only James Blake did both. The 2010s were truly the best decade for hip hop and, as ever, do not @ me.

‘Mortal Man’ by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

In 2015 I went to 4 weddings over the course of about as many months. The first was my oldest friend’s wedding where I was seated with the Groom’s Sister at the reception. We started dating right away and I knew immediately that this was something important, possibly the Most Important Thing, and that if I messed it up I’d never forgive myself. So naturally, by the last wedding that season, I had excused myself from the budding relationship altogether. I went back to my tower block hotel room that night alone and blind drunk, and trashed the room then sat on the windowsill smoking and leering out over the edge. The next morning I listened to this song in bed on repeat, particularly the poem at the end. Some precious family friends strong-armed me to the doctor’s soon after to talk about my mental health and thank God that they did. This song marks the end of a long chapter of my life; maybe as many as 8 years or more of pinballing through life, making deep, scarring mistakes. Speak to your doctor, speak to Samaritans or Mind. A better life really is out there.

Karaoke fiends c.2017

‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ by Elvis Presley (1961)

The Groom’s Sister became my talisman for recovery, my shining light to get better for. She told me since that I’d pushed her away back then the exact right amount to let her know I hadn’t really wanted to, but felt like I should. I’ve no idea how she perceived that but I’m so, so glad that she did. In Summer 2018 I married my lovely Frankie, and this song was the first dance at our wedding. The 2 years leading up to it were the most magical and happy of my whole life (so far!) She moved from Canterbury to Brighton and Elvis’ kooky Blue Hawaii soundtrack record was a regular on the turntable in our first little flat together. Uninterrupted bliss and unbridled joy.

‘For Your Precious Love’ by Otis Redding (1965)

So here we are. Just over a year after we married, little Roma Roo arrived in our lives and changed everything all over again. I sang to her when she was still in the womb, and had music playing as soon as we got home from the hospital. I wanted her to feel that warmth, that life is happening Here from as young an age as possible. I’d just picked up The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads on vinyl and this one was the perfect welcome song:

For your precious love, now
It means everything in the world to me
And I’m just so wildin’
Just to have you right home with me

It was the theme song for our nest in those early days and always takes me back to those gentle, fragile moments. Since then we’ve left Brighton, weathered the pandemic and Roma is now 3 months away from turning 2. It’s gone so fast, even though remote-working has meant I’ve been able to experience so many small milestones I would have otherwise missed. It hasn’t been easy, any of this, but I’m so grateful to be here experiencing this as I am. I’m writing this on Father’s Day now, looking over at a painting she did for me this morning and I am floored again by how lucky I am to be hers. She’s already showing a love for music; particularly dancing along to it. Her current favourites include Paramore, Lizzo, and The Wiggles. Turning 30 doesn’t seem daunting at all when she’s around.

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Cal W. Stannard

I write short stories, lyrics without songs, talk about music and mental health and share photography. “I speak that ugly elegant”