In honor of me turning 30, I’m compiling 30 different top-30 lists on a wide variety of topics ranging from trivial interests of mine to meaningful life moments. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for these lists. They were composed by a panel of one—me.
What qualifies a song as a personal favorite? The answer to that question is different depending on who you ask. For some music listeners, favorite songs come and go like seasons. Often times people will answer that question with their favorite song right now. Ask them again in a month and they will have moved on a new tune.
For others, favorite songs are like tools to a handyman. They have a favorite hammer, a favorite wrench, a favorite saw, etc. Similarly, these people have a favorite workout song, a favorite meditation song, a favorite song to dance to, and a favorite song to sing with. But asking them to name their favorite song is like asking parents to name their favorite child.
There is no single, definitive, right way to think about favorite songs. It is a seriously challenging task—seriously, try it! But for me, when I was trying to compile this list of my 30 favorite songs, I found myself falling back on two primary criteria: lyrics and context.
The vast majority of songs that made the final cut to appear on this list made it because they have personally meaningful lyrics that resonated with me at a particular time during my life. It also should not come as a surprise that many of these songs were songs that I listened to in my late teens and early 20s. In fact, there is some scientific evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we hear during that stage of life. Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern’s article “Neural Nostalgia: Why do we love the music we heard as teenagers?” explains this concept in more detail and is definitely worth reading in its entirety. In the article, Stern writes:
The period between 12 and 22, in other words, is the time when you become you. It makes sense, then, that the memories that contribute to this process become uncommonly important throughout the rest of your life. They didn’t just contribute to the development of your self-image; they became part of your self-image—an integral part of your sense of self.
Music plays two roles in this process. First, some songs become memories in and of themselves, so forcefully do they worm their way into memory. Many of us can vividly remember the first time we heard that one Beatles (or Backstreet Boys) song that, decades later, we still sing at every karaoke night. Second, these songs form the soundtrack to what feel, at the time, like the most vital and momentous years of our lives. The music that plays during our first kiss, our first prom, our first toke, gets attached to that memory and takes on a glimmer of its profundity. We may recognize in retrospect that prom wasn’t really all that profound. But even as the importance of the memory itself fades, the emotional afterglow tagged to the music lingers.
Understanding that many of these songs have been etched into my memory and become indelible pieces of the Matt Hubert life story, it’s reasonable to think that many of the sane songs that made this list today would also crack my list of top 30 songs 10, 20, or 30 years from now. But testing that theory will have to wait for another day in the future. For now, read on to check out my favorite 30 songs of all-time.
I have written, at least briefly, about several of the songs listed here as part of my ongoing 30 at 30 favorite musical artists series that started the whole 30 at 30 project. In lieu of redundancy, I kept my commentary brief about those tracks and have linked to the article I wrote about artist/group when applicable.
30. “Djohariah” by Sufjan Stevens
At 17:03, “Djohariah” clocks in as the longest song in my top 30. Parts of the song are abrasive; parts of it are beautiful. Listening to it is a prayerful, spiritual experience for me.
29. “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by Billy Ocean
This was the oldest recording to make this list. My dad owned it as a vinyl record, and it was a song that I requested for him to play over and over again as a child. Years later, it became an important part of Matt’s Mix 77, the soundtrack to 4.15.05, my unofficial first date with Jessie.
28. “So Impossible” by Dashboard Confessional
It is somewhat of a surprise that this was the only Dashboard Confessional song that made the cut. It also made an appearance on the aforementioned Matt’s Mix 77, which is a big reason why it stands out from the rest of the DC catalog.
27. “Never Let Me Down” by Kanye West feat. Jay-Z & J. Ivy
The poetry of J. Ivy actually steals the show from my two favorite rappers on this track.
26. “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz
Mraz has made a career off of melt-your-heart love songs like this one. “I Won’t Give Up” is my personal favorite of the bunch.
25. “Peng 33” by Iron & Wine
This is arguably the defining song of the mix I made for July 3, 2010, the date of my proposal to Jessie.
24. “Drunk in Love” by Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z
The head-over-heels marital bliss felt by Beyoncé and Jay-Z oozes through the lyrics and music video for this song. It’s a fitting song to cover my first few years of married life, too.
23. “We Go Together” by The Farewell Drifters
I will forever associate this song with the endorphin rush that I felt as it played to close out our wedding reception. That feeling was such a great, natural high, dancing the night away with my life partner while surrounded by a dance floor full of our closest friends and family. So awesome!
22. “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds
Just listen to the words of Ben Folds in this song and try not to get misty-eyed.
21. “Question” by Rhett Miller
When I first heard this song in 2006, I was dating Jessie. I had a hunch that I would someday “pop the question,” even though I was much too young and naive to understand all that went into true love and commitment at the time. Years later, when it came time to ask the question for real, this song was on my mind (and my iPod playlist).
20. “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” by Amos Lee
There is footage of me getting an acoustic guitar for Christmas in 2004. In my mind, I was going to write a song like this in 2005. Amos Lee did it instead, and that’s probably best for everyone. Though I do hope that someday my words can resonate with someone the way his did with me.
19. “Shade of Melancholy” by Shagg
The simple refrain of this song became a personal mantra and helped me become a more optimistic person:
Sing a song
Write a word
Everything is gonna be alright
18. “The Trapeze Swinger” by Iron & Wine
If I need to clear my head and be introspective for 10 minutes, “The Trapeze Swinger” is the perfect medicine.
17. “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show
Even though I somehow always mess up the verses, this is the ultimate bonfire singalong song. Hey, mama, rock me!
16. “Good Time” by Counting Crows
Back-to-back songs that include the banjo. Despite the title, “Good Time” is not a feel-good track like “Wagon Wheel,” but it was my favorite song off of their Hard Candy album, which just happened to be released when I was a senior in high school. “I just want to have a good time…just like everybody else” hit a little too close to home.
15. “1 + 1” by Beyoncé
There are tear-jerking love songs and there are passionate love songs. This one is the latter.
14. “The Crane Wife 3” by The Decemberists
In addition to the storytelling, I love the versatility of this song. Remember that handyman metaphor I used in the introduction? This is the musical equivalent of a Swiss army knife. It fits in so many different scenarios. I cannot think of an occasion when I have ever skipped this track when it’s come up in shuffle mode.
13. “Try” by Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore
Although it was released in 2010, “Try” is the most recent addition to this list in terms of when I first heard the song. It was late last year after hearing Ben Sollee live in concert for the first time ever. Jessie and I loved the message of the song so much that we used it to accompany a slideshow to announce when we were expecting our first child.
12. “Lullaby” by Dixie Chicks
I’d be willing to bet that 18-year-old me would be as shocked as anyone that the Dixie Chicks have more songs (1) on this list than Eminem, Limp Bizkit, and Everlast combined. With apologies to my teenage self’s misconceptions and somewhat narrow-minded view of both masculinity and music, “Lullaby” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Also, 18-year-old me had zero success when it came to dating. “Lullaby” was playing as I proposed to Jessie.
11. “Collide (Acoustic)” by Howie Day
Some people may not know this, but I have owned and played two guitars in my life. I got a red Fender electric guitar in 8th grade after being inspired by my grade school classmates Nick Krause and Aaron Keim. They made it look easy. (It wasn’t, so I gave up.) Then, in the mid-2000s when I was in college, I dabbled with an acoustic guitar. At my peak, I think I could play 3-5 songs reasonably well, but none so more than the acoustic version of “Collide.” Sadly, I put the guitar down again within a couple of years and haven’t dusted it off more than a dozen times over the past decade.
10. “Crush (Live in Central Park)” by Dave Matthews Band
One of the all-time great live jams/grooves. Every member of Dave Matthews Band was on their A game for this performance. The energy in that Central Park crowd is palpable.
9. “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree
I was all about Ace of Base and Alanis Morissette in the early 90s too, but whereas their songs still pack a nostalgic punch, Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” stirs up something deeper within me. The fact that this one-hit wonder has stuck with me all these years is something special. The song’s message emphasizes the significance of self-confidence and belief, and that is a message I value to this day.
8. “The Way I Am” by Ingrid Michaelson
“The Way I Am” is the shortest song that made this list, and that seems fitting because its minimalistic arrangement and straightforward message about sacrificial love and acceptance are what makes it great.
7. “Closing Time” by Semisonic
Every senior at Cathedral Prep has to make a senior project in theology class. It’s part scrapbook, part reflection. It was a 200-page snapshot of my life at age 18. The theme I chose for my project was a line from this song: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” I loved the symbolic implications of that line then, and it is a theme that has come up again and again in my life since then. Recently, my mother-in-law shared a video of Semisonic’s lead singer Dan Wilson explaining the meaning of what “Closing Time” was really about. After hearing his explanation, the song took on a whole new added layer of meaning for me. So cool!
6. “Ooh La La” by Counting Crows
As far as I know, this is the only cover song on my list. “Ooh La La” was originally recorded by The Faces in 1973. Counting Crows recorded it as a B-side in 2003 and then again as part of their 2012 covers album Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation). Personally, I think Counting Crows’ version is superior; it captures the band’s live performance vibe. Lyrically, the song details a conversation between a grandson and his grandfather with a chorus from the grandfather’s perspective that everyone can relate to as they grow older: “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”
5. “Wheel” by John Mayer
I was a little surprised by myself that only one John Mayer song made my top-30 list. Among Mayer’s many great songs “Wheel” was the clear frontrunner for me. More than just another love song, this is a life song. Like a wheel, life rolls onward—sometimes over and through difficult obstacles. Although there is certainly sadness in this song, I ultimately view it as a hopeful anthem based on the repeated outro:
I believe that my life’s going to see
the love I give return to me
4. “One and Only” by Adele
Given the musical history between Jessie and I, there were a lot of options when it came to selecting a song for our first dance at our wedding reception. Rather than choosing one of the dozens of songs already linked with a relationship memory, we went with “One and Only” by Adele. Musically and lyrically I cannot think of a song that would have fit that moment any better.
3. “Twentysomething” by Jamie Cullum
This was the anthem of my past decade. In “Twentysomething” Cullum fuses jazz and pop in a way that makes both genres more palatable.
2. “Crash Into Me (Live at Luther College)” by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds
It most certainly is a sweet song, Dave. “Crash Into Me” is my favorite Dave Matthews Band song ever. I’ve heard many different varieties of the song, studio recordings and live performances. This acoustic performance Live in Luther College by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds stands out to me and will always put a smile on my face.
1. “Round Here (Live in Boston, MA 10/31/99)” by Counting Crows
Unlike many people, including the types that I mentioned in the introduction, my response when someone asks me the question, “What is your favorite song?” is very detailed and specific. “Round Here” by Counting Crows, but specifically the version of “Round Here” that they played October 31, 1999 in Boston, Massachusetts. That show was affectionately dubbed “The Devil and Bunny Show” because the band was in the Halloween spirit with lead singer Adam Duritz dressed as a bunny and guitarist David Immerglück dressed as a devil.
I did not attend that concert. I was a freshman in high school at the time. I experienced my first concert three and a half years later as a high school senior when Counting Crows came to Erie. By that time, I was obsessed with Counting Crows, and that concert experience sealed the deal for me as a lifelong listener. Following the concert, I decorated my bedroom with Counting Crows lyrics and sought out as many live bootlegs as I possibly could. One of the bootlegs was that 10/31/99 show. When I listened to “Round Here,” which features an epic spoken introduction/reflection from Duritz as well as some alternate lyrics, I was convinced that he was my soul brother. And I was convinced that THAT was the greatest song I had ever heard. Duritz’s vocals take the listener and the crowd on a emotional rollercoaster that is musically mirrored by the band in a way that simultaneously feels professionally rehearsed and perfectly raw.
Today, some 12 years after listening to it for the first time, I listened to this version of “Round Here” and experienced that same sense of wonder and awe. I have never heard a more amazing song or performance, and I don’t know that I ever will.