Soundtracking Life, a new monthly feature created by Lior Phillips and co-developed with Matt Melis, aims to pair everyday life with the music that underscores, speaks to, and enhances our experiences. Last month, we took on 10 albums and books that make perfect fits. This month, the CoS Staff soundtracks our time spent cooking.
For some, cooking offers a moment of serenity and respite after a long day at the office. For others, it’s a painful chore only to be undertaken when the thought of takeout Thai for the sixth day in a row seems unconscionable. In my case, I taught myself to cook in order to make others eat crow. After years of receiving verbal abuse in the kitchen from nearly every person in my life—“Gee, Matt, if you hadn’t helped with dinner, we’d already be eating by now.” “No, no. I cook. You just make.” “I’m not gonna tell you how long to microwave that for; stick your finger in it, and see if it’s warm.” “These cookies would make good doorstops.”—I finally snapped like a bundle of raw spaghetti.
So, I set myself out on a grueling crash course. Every day for three straight weeks I holed up in the family kitchen to cook dinner, and before long I was putting out a damn nice spread each and every night. The secret ingredient to my success? A mixtape with nothing but Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the “Gonna Fly Now” Rocky theme playing nonstop, essentially soundtracking my own training montage. Only instead of racing Apollo Creed along a beach in Larry Bird shorts or growing a hockey playoff beard and scaling a Russian peak to call out Dolph Lundgren, I watched cooking shows, whisked and tenderized my little heart out, and even caught myself bitching out the produce guy at my local supermarket. In the end, I had my “Yo, Adrian” moment, and my detractors had to concede the fact that I had culinary chops.
Now, not everyone blares hokey sports movie anthems while making Caribbean stew in order to deliver a gourmet F-U to loved ones, but as it turns out, my fellow CoS staffers do have certain records that play in heavy rotation in their kitchens. Some of these albums set or fit a certain mood, while others seem to go well with a specific type of cuisine or occasion. So, here they are: 11 albums that you’ll hear playing in our kitchens. What’s playing in yours?
The National – Boxer
Perfect for: Dinner for one.
Boiling a single serving of pasta, defrosting a lonely chicken breast: Dinner for one can be a downer, especially if you’re pining for an absent dining companion. Throw on The National’s Boxer and let Matt Berninger and company set the mood with delicately bruised indie rock. Mourn over “Start a War”, and pour one out for friends gone by during “Green Gloves”. Later, you can entertain the possibility of future romance (and that ever-present vulnerability) via “Fake Empire” and “Slow Show”. The best thing about Boxer? This one’s been out for a while, so chances are you’ve heard it at low moments before — and they always pass, eventually. In the meantime, cook that chicken like you mean it, girl. –Megan Ritt
LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
Perfect for: The chef who needs a little time to safely find his or her groove in the kitchen.
Cooking, I Love You but you’re Bringing Me Down. Ever met someone who needs to prep before they get in the kitchen? Crushing stereotypes one failed Pavlova at a time, I’m genuinely fearful for my life and my loved ones after managing to burn a salad, and let us pray for the great blowtorch incident of ’05. Like a sharp, heated knife to a block of baking butter, James Murphy’s voice melts right to the core, and it’s LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver that indulges me the most. “Get Innocuous” works like a karmic kick-start forcing this profoundly pulsating record to support my maniacal butter fingers. Throughout the hour it provides miniature revelations during tiresome tasks, so when the bullet train piano riff in “All my Friends” steams in, I’m frantically hunched over whisking ingredients in my right hand, wielding metal spatulas like drumsticks in the left, and chiming any available pots and pans that lay in my wake. The no wave pounding kneads into the perfect epilogue, “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down”, leaving the cheese cake practically begging to be baked. –Lior Phillips
Bomb the Music Industry! – Scrambles
Perfect for: Month-old pasta, paired nicely with a half-bottle or more of Charles Shaw. Best served in a room where only some of the lights turn on when you flip switches.
A lot of my cooking depends on two key factors: what’s currently in my house when I get home at 10 p.m. or later most nights, and how much energy I can muster to cook something of legitimate value at that hour. Usually the answers land around “not much” and “none,” in that order, so I’m left to come up with another creative assortment of olive oil and whatever spices I have left to make my remaining half-box of pasta taste like different dishes. What better to accompany a dish that’s only the next meager step up the latter from Ramen noodles than an album about how much being in your mid-20s sucks sometimes? Jeff Rosenstock made the BTMI! name (until earlier this year, which I’m still trying to fully accept) on oft-hilarious, emotionally naked bursts of punk angst about trying to remain upbeat when everything feels like two steps forward and one step back. And as I boil my apartment’s weird-tasting tap water and wait to eat egg noodles for the fifth time that week, it couldn’t be more fitting. –Dominick Mayer
Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A.
Perfect for: Scrambling eggs at 6 a.m.
Sleepy? Bruce Springsteen has the antidote. Pour yourself some coffee, and put on this record. The title track starts with a steady percussive beat that will not be denied. “Cover Me” picks up the pace, and the lovable rascals of “Darlington County” beckon you to adventure. By the time the Boss is “Dancing in the Dark”, you will be too. –Megan Ritt
The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There
Perfect for: Angry cooking. Anything that requires a knife or heat and is even remotely dangerous.
Ever cook when you’re a little ticked off? Need to blow off some steam? Home, Like Noplace Is There, by emo rockers The Hotelier, makes working with food — chopping, seasoning, roasting, you name it — feel like a much-needed therapy session. Maybe it’s a little dangerous to bounce around to the stormy breakdown of “Among the Wildflowers” while standing beside a pot of boiling water, or to scream along with the tormented “Life in Drag” while slicing up carrots, but hey, it feels good as hell. For more quiet moments, like before the oil in the pan starts to simmer, Hotelier’s got “Your Deep Rest” and “Discomfort Revisited”. These songs are melodic and charming … that is, up until the emotional tension finally hits a breaking point. I’ve personally had this album on repeat while cooking up pan-roasted, Rosemary chicken breasts. You work up a little sweat, a big appetite, and you let out a few demons, too. Yes! –Michelle Geslani
Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special
Perfect for: Experimenting with a new recipe.
When you’re going out on a limb — making Thai peanut sauce for the first time? — it helps to have a reliable soundtrack. Orange Blossom Special fits the bill and then some, combining some of Cash’s best-loved tracks and old-timey folk standards. “Long Black Veil” is a classic heartbreaker, while Cash’s cover of “It Ain’t Me Babe” turns the Dylan hit into a rousing stomper. So you put in too much sriracha — what is that next to the grand tragedies of country music? “Don’t think twice/ It’s alright,” and so is dinner. –Megan Ritt
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Perfect for: A summer barbecue with friends (international food potluck optional!)
Sure, Ezra Koenig coyly veils his disdain for the Ivy League lifestyle with laid-back afrobeat instrumentation on Vampire Weekend’s debut album, but those songs are still catchy as hell. Lyrical content aside, the LP exudes the warmth of spring and summer. From the lively “A-Punk”, whose guitar riff pulses with energy, to the whimsical “Mansard Roof” and “Oxford Comma”, it’s hard not to have your spirits lifted or a smile on your face when hearing these songs. So there’s no haute cuisine in order while cooking and listening to this record; it’s the perfect music for grilling burgers and dogs outside on a sunny day while enjoying a cold hefeweizen or sweet tea. –Killian Young
Eric Dolphy Quintet – Outward Bound
Perfect for: Those meals when you strive for something more sophisticated than carrots and hummus.
After a long day of work, looking around the empty apartment for some sort of inspiration to make dinner for myself, I need some reminder that I’m a sophisticated adult (I swear!) and not some scrounging, barely self-sufficient monster (No, seriously!). Nothing does the trick quite like Eric Dolphy, particularly the Freddie Hubbard-featuring Outward Bound. The fluidity and improvisation of Dolphy’s alto on “Les” inspires me to reach beyond the carrots and hummus and try to put together an actual meal. Am I ever as imaginative or masterful as Hubbard’s trumpet on “245”? As expressive and controlled as the rhythm section of drummer Roy Haynes, bassist George Tucker, and pianist Jaki Byard on “G.W.”? Maybe once or twice in my life. But hey, at least I’m trying.
Also, because pouring yourself a glass of gin to go with solo dinner needs to feel more classy than downtrodden. –Adam Kivel
Neil Diamond – Early Classics
Perfect for: Baking cookies.
Give me a glass of wine and some Neil Diamond, and I will happily bake for hours. Tracks like “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” and “You Got to Me” rock an energetic drive that sends me grooving around the kitchen, and everything is familiar enough that I can hum along without screwing up the flour measurements. There’s just enough pathos in “Solitary Man” and “Red, Red Wine” to keep things interesting without getting too heavy, and if classic “I’m a Believer” doesn’t make you smile, you’re doing something wrong. It’s been tested enough times at my house to be considered a fact: The cookies always taste better if you sing while you make them. –Megan Ritt
Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like a Bell
Perfect for: Making the most interesting damn oatmeal ever.
When I was a kid, I used to hate eating oatmeal. “Anything but oatmeal!” I’d tell my mom, who would prepare my breakfast a few times a week. Why does she go through all that trouble? I often wondered, especially since she knew that all I wanted was a pack of Pop-Tarts or a bowl of Lucky Charms. Now, about 15 years later, I truly appreciate the goodness that is oatmeal. However, it’s still not really all that exciting to make. You pour a bunch of oats in a boiling pot, add a few pinches of your own preferred spices and ingredients, and that’s about it. But hear me out: The Moon Rang Like a Bell, by experimental pop outfit Hundred Waters, is perfect for making simple, no-frills cooking experiences feel 10x more epic. Why? Because the album itself — admittedly one of my favorites of the past few months — consists of so many various textures, big and small, shiny and spiky, and comes peppered with the tiniest, yet most flavorful details. “Show Me Love” is a bare-bones, gospel-tinged number, but boy does it lift the spirits. Meanwhile, “Murmurs”, “Cavity”, and “XTalk” are songs that take you to five different universes and back, journeys that are dizzying, tasty, hypnotic, scary, and everything in between. –Michelle Geslani
Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful
Perfect for: Cleaning up afterwards.
The ultimate washing-up record, Beware and Be Grateful makes short work of dish duty. It’s upbeat from the first, starting with the backing chorus on “Old & Gray” and peaking during joyous “Be Three Years Old”. Running water can dull a lot of sounds, but Maps & Atlases’ funky math-rock guitars and uniquely pitched vocals cut through that mountain of greasy dishes and lipstick-stained wineglasses to squeaky-clean victory. If you have to do chores, you might as well be dancing. –Megan Ritt