A Year's Worth of Music About Places

Musicians from all varieties of musical genres spent the past year pondering, celebrating, and complicating our perception of places.

9 minute read

January 22, 2016, 8:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Sutro Tower

f11photo / Shutterstock

The ideas and desires contributing to the creation of this post are explained in detail by the inaugural "music about places" post, published last year. So for a few more words (and songs) on the subject, please check there.

The following list, however, focuses on music released in the year 2015, with an effort made to sample across genres and without too much judgment about the quality of the music. Though the sample of songs presented here reflects my own taste (i.e., it will probably be pretty obvious which songs on this list are my favorite), I aspired to curate a list that captures how the world of music held up a mirror to our place in the world in the year 2015.  

All of these songs are collected in a public playlist on Spotify, titled "Places 2015," which I've embedded below. I've also embedded a few of the music videos that did the best job of celebrating specific places to conclude this list.

Place Abstractions

Abstract references to streets, cities, and even bodies of water sometimes make the biggest, most insightful points about life.

Ought, "Beautiful Blue Sky" – Last year I mentioned The Modern Lovers' singular position among bands making music about places. Perhaps their only rivals in that effort are The Talking Heads. Ought continues the style of these bands by regarding modernity with bemused detachment: condos, new developments, and oil freighters are regarded like items on a grocery list. The song's response to all the modernity must be experienced to be appreciated (i.e., you'll have to turn up the music and dance).

Tennis, "Mean Streets" – This is easy listening from the get go, with a reference to "summerin in the Catskills" dropped on the first beat. This song tells the story of a woman who got famous by being cool. But where does one acquire the rarefied skillset required to navigate such a path in life? The mean streets, of course.

Majical Cloudz, "Downtown" – I remember how I used to think about the big city on the peninsula west of the suburb where I grew up. The structures of the world seemed fundamentally altered in The City—tract houses became rowhouses and sunshine became fog and normal people became people living under newspapers. The idea here is that "going Downtown" is just like being in love in its transformative power. I'd be surprised if this is the first time someone has noticed the common experiences of excitement, fear, and adventure shared by love and the city, but I'd also be surprised if there was ever a reason to stop singing about these subjects.

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, "Uptown Funk" – Here's a three song set of music referencing places almost certain to be played during the 2016 wedding season: "Conga" by Miami Sound Machine, "Love Shack" by the B-52's, and "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.

Sleater Kinney, "No Cities to Love" – Someday I'll find someone who agrees with me that Carrie Brownstein is one of the leading urbanists in the United States. Brownstein might be more famous for her work on Portlandia, but for some of us Brownstein's greatest hits are all by Sleater Kinney.

Ultimate Painting, "I've Got the Sanctioned Blues" – This song narrates the frustrations of the daily commute, including some NSFW language. If it weren't for music, NSFW language would be the only kind of language that works for describing the frustrations of the daily commute. Here you have both.

Deerhunter "Duplex Planet" – Setting aside the obvious reference to a specific building typology, this song offers perhaps the most esoteric of place references on this list. "Duplex Planet" is a zine by David Greenberger, published since 1979, that gathers the stories and testimonies of elderly residents at a nursing home in Boston. Through the vessel of the zine, this nursing home is like a fountain pouring forth memory, life lessons, and so much more. The song is also really great.

Where the Rivers Have No Names

Rivers are the lifeblood of so many communities and a musical neighbor for the lucky few who can fall asleep to the white noise or a flowing stream. Future residents of St. Louis: how much more beloved is your river without the NFL vacuuming up space on its banks?

Mikal Cronin "ii) Gold" – This is a rock and roll course in self-discovery. We're instructed to "walk the river," sink our feet in, and "watch the dance take hold." I know what Mikal Cronin is talking about, which is why I love this song so much.

Leon Bridges "River" – For Leon Bridges the river is a place for ablution and repentance—a place to be forgiven and to be reborn. What will we do when we've polluted, diverted, and drained all our rivers beyond usefulness in their primordial duties?

Shout Outs

CityLab recently shared the news about a map of New York that renames streets for the musicians who sung about them. Place names have always been a worthy subject for song, and the tradition of immortalizing the most meaningful place in song continued with strong new artifacts in 2015.

Vince Staples, "Norf Norf" – Vince Staples made a prominent appearance on last year's list as well. No other artist on this list shows such consistent attention to the experience of living in a specific place. The entire album Summertime '06 references the parks, neighborhoods, streets, and people that live in North Side Long Beach. The title of the song "Norf Norf," named for that same part of the city, is evidence of how intimate, local relationships with places are what make then unique.

A$AP Rocky, "Canal St." – For A$AP Rocky, places are powerful signifiers of status. The point of this song: that A$AP Rocky hustled enough to start racking up more signifiers: the Oval Office, Paris, and Canal St. The question of the song: whether the rest of us have hustled enough, or whether we're all talk.

Wimps, "Capitol Hill" – Here's your annual anti-gentrification punk anthem. "Capitol Hill" is just one of a suite of songs describing what's it like to be out of step with the world, with specific reference to the changes occurring in Seattle. "Capitol Hill," however, stands out for its specific references to the old Pike and Pine, as well as the signifiers of change. The Wimps speak for disaffected people in cities like San Francisco, New York, London, or Nashville when they ask: "Oh where did you go? The people I know? You've been replaced with bro after bro after bro."

Jeff the Brotherhood, "Karaoke, TN" – When I first saw the name for this song, I thought there must be a town called Karaoke in the state of Tennessee. After several Googles I have determined that there is no such place. However, this song really leans into a chorus devoted to the joys of singing karaoke in Tennessee. Therefore, I think the song can be read in two ways. First, like a list: karaoke, check; Tennessee, check. Or second, it's about achieving some kind of karaoke nirvana in Tennessee, thus achieving a new realm of consciousness called Karaoke, Tennessee. Either way, I want to go there.

Toro y Moi, "Half Dome" – The title of this song and the first few lines set the grandest possible of natural stages, but the remainder of the song describes a somnambulant relationship status. Curious, but not in the spirit of the venture to think too much on it.

St. Vincent, "Teenage Talk" – this is the quickest of all the place references in this list, but one too searing to neglect. With this song, Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, or also as one of the world's greatest humans, describes the misadventures of teenagers, who navigate between Chryslers in driveways and their mother's azaleas. The song's characters are so grounded in place, that they "carved the state of Texas in their forearms." For those keeping track at home "that was before we had made any terrible mistakes."

Fidlar, "West Coast" – This song glorifies everything some people hate about millennials. Skipping school, bailing on mom and dad, driving up the coast, barfing in Seattle, struggling to buy liquor in Portland, losing phones, and generally avoiding gainful employment. Fidlar has heard your opinion of millennials, and replies: "I'm so sick of this stupid place. It's so suburban and so boring."

I Love L.A.

I live in Los Angeles, as does no small portion of the entertainment industry. It's natural then that musicians have created a complicated portrait of the City of Angels over the years, and it's also natural that I find an outsized amount of music about Los Angeles every year.

YACHT, "L.A. Plays Itself" – YACHT is a party band that proves very erudite in referencing Thom Andersen's classic film Los Angeles Plays Itself. The song hits a little too close to home for this Southern California transplant, who had no intention of moving to Los Angeles and staying for going-on ten years, one month, and four days. This is a song about lying to yourself about the effect Los Angeles is having on you. Someone do me a favor and replace "I Love L.A." with "L.A. Plays Itself" as the post-game track at Dodgers games. This is the first song about Los Angeles that describes being overwhelmed by the ocean.

Grimes, "California" – The great, wailing entreaty of this song is directed to California, but it's pretty obvious Grimes is talking about Los Angeles, which says something about California and Los Angeles. This is the second song about Los Angeles that describes being overwhelmed by the ocean.

Lower Dens, "To Die in L.A." – Another song title about Los Angeles—another cultural reference. This time, Lower Dens is referencing a song by Tupac Shakur called "To Live and Die in L.A." That the title of the song by Lower Dens only includes the second half of Tupac's title is not an accident, of course. This is the third song about Los Angeles that describes being overwhelmed by the ocean.

Place Making Music

I grew up with MTV back when it was MTV, so I believe that making a great music video is basically the coolest thing anyone can do. Here are the videos that made cultural capital out of on-location shots in 2015.

Missy Elliott, "WTF" – Thanks to Missy Elliot, WTF no longer means something NSFW. It also means "Where They From." That's clever—and totally appropriate for the ideas examined by this list. Also, the music video for this song features hoverboards, some great into b-roll of Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles, interiors of the Pershing Square station on the Metro Red and Purple lines, and some of the last on-screen love for the old Sixth Street Viaduct, which is already in the grips of doom. Adrian Glick Kudler provides a tour of the locations on display in this colorful, fun, and unapologetically urban music video.

MIA "Broader Than A Border" – This video combines videos for two songs, "Swords" and "Warriors." It features people getting loose in ways that boggle the mind. Swords was shot in India, and Warriors was shot in Côte d'Ivoire. See it to believe it.

The Internet, "Get Away" – The fourth word in this song is the queen-mother of dirty words. Now that you've been warned, before the first beat of the song, the video locates the scene of the party in the Hollywood Hills. A change of setting has the band performing (read: absolutely killing it) in a very industrial section of Los Angeles…complete with a bonus shot of the Metrolink commuter rail zooming past.

James Brasuell

James Brasuell, AICP is the former editorial director of Planetizen and is now a senior public affairs specialist at the Southern California Association of Governments. James managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen from 2014 to 2023, and was promoted from manging editor to editorial director in 2021. After a first career as a class five white water river guide in Trinity County in Northern California, James started his career in Los Angeles as a volunteer at a risk reduction center in Skid Row.

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