We Have Plenty Of Summer Song Hit Lists, Why Not One For Winter As Well?
10.) Cherish The Day – Sade
My mother had a Sade phase. She loved the sultry British crooner’s soft love ballads and I must admit, Sade still gives me the Sweetest Taboo. In the mid 1990s, she would play Sade’s greatest hits album on repeat on our home stereo and in the 1982 Retro Dodge Ram van we drove around New York.
One chilly winter Friday, my mom, my grandmother and I were driving from Queens into Manhattan for one of our regular pasta dinners at her cousin’s Tudor City co-op in Murray Hill near the United Nations. She picked me up from school, took me home to change and then we packed into the van to meet my father at her cousin’s apartment.
We were stuck in standstill traffic on the Queens Midtown Expressway just before the Midtown Tunnel, right as the sun was setting (still before 5 p.m. at that time of year) behind the silhouette of the Manhattan skyline. The sky above looked like a giant dome colored like an Easter egg that started as orange and yellow in the west and gradually blended into a beige a little further up to a royal blue directly over my head down to a dark navy blue almost black behind me in the east.
The memory is one that I sometimes use in mediation or during a Reiki session – its one I used often during lockdown at the start of the pandemic – a happy relaxing moment under a beautiful sky and a sensual song. It’s also a reminder that whatever sucks about New York City in the winter – the icy cold, the filthy snow, being trapped in small apartments – the sunsets in winter, aided by the clearer haze-free frigid sky, are just breathtaking; an unsung staple of life in the Big Apple.
9.) Don’t Tell Me- Madonna
I knew pretty early in life that seasons effected me. From the time I was a pre-teen, my mood was just different in winter. Part of this was the loneliness I felt at night, exacerbated by the sun setting earlier, some was the fact that many of my outside activities that I enjoyed – rollerblading, bike riding, going to the beach – were on hold, and I was pretty much forced to stay closer to home. That seasonal mood only grew darker as I got into high school. I found a way, however, to process it and release the emotions that brought a smile to my face – dancing.
Dancing was something I was good at, something that I enjoyed and something that kept me fit. It helped temper my winter moods. “Don’t Tell Me” came out around Christmas in my senior year of high school. I found some solace in Madonna’s persevering lyrics, especially in those final months of high school when the scary future of adulthood and college loomed over the horizon.
I remember choreographing a dance to this song. At some point that winter, we had a big snowstorm and I stayed up all night to watch it. I danced to this song in my room while the snowstorm raged outside. If you’re from a cold climate, then you know how freshly fallen snow makes the night look brighter, almost a beige and blue hue instead of pitch blackness. I remember doing a few dance moves to walk myself up while I got ready for school, before playing it on repeat on my Discman while jumping over mountains of snow to get on and off the Q88 bus. (Yes, even Giuliani’s New York City sucked at snow removal). That winter seemed brighter and warmer than earlier ones.
The last part of the song, the long fade out guitar riff, reminds me of walking alone down a snow-filled sidewalk, with a sense of accomplishment in both my dancing abilities and my imminent high school graduation, and I definitely did not sneak into a gay bar with a fake ID and rode a mechanical bull to this song. Who told you that? Lies.
That winter was one of winning.
8.) Insomnia- Faithless
As a young teenager, I had a way of getting myself to sleep every Saturday night during winter. I’d listen to New York City’s popular 1990s-era dance radio station WKTU. Each Saturday night, they would do a dance party-style bloc from 10 p.m. to sometime before dawn where a DJ would spin on air, but live from a dance club somewhere in the New York area.
As I lie there in bed with my walkman on, I would imagine myself at a nightclub dancing with friends, an image that eventually morphed into the imagine of a worldwide night of dancing where my backyard (and everyone else’s backyards) were packed with dancing people, strobe lights and spotlights. Perhaps an idea post-COVID?
There was never a night where this song, Faithless’ fittingly-titled “Insomnia” wasn’t played. I always knew it was coming. The industrial-sounding drum and base of the first two and a half minutes of the song mimicked the anxiety of not being able to sleep, but the last minute or so, featuring the airy and pounding synth beats reminded me of driving through a city on a cold night surrounded by lit up skyscrapers, perhaps in Tokyo or Hong Kong, or perhaps closer to home in Flushing, Queens or Lower Manhattan on a cold night.
As my mind got lost in my discotheque imagery, I would inevitably fall asleep, usually with this song being the last one I remember hearing, and wake up sometime around four or five in the morning with the headphones somewhere above my head on the pillow.
I was probably 13 or 14 at the time, so way too young to actually go to clubs, but listening to KTU’s Saturday Night Dance Parties would light a fire in me that led me to Sound Factory, Twilo, Limelight and random raves on Borden Avenue many years later.
Fun Fact: I had to explain to people what a “heath” was because of this song.
7.) Don’t Let Go (Love) – En Vogue
Something weird happened in the eighth grade. I was suddenly popular.
In Reiki sessions and meditations in recent years, I explored what about me changed that I went from nerdy kid in the background to sitting at the cool kids table in junior high. Some of it might have been that I grew into my looks and my newfound athleticism allowed me to burn off baby fat and tone up. Some of it might be that I had finally decided to strike back at bullies, with mixed success; and some of it might have been that I had lost some of my shyness. Whatever the reason, I had a group of friends and the winter of eighth grade, we found ourselves, decked out in our best Starter jackets, wandering around Southern Queens doing…whatever it is 13-year-olds looking for trouble do.
One song that often brings me back to me and my “posse” that winter is En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love).” From the moment the piano crescendo builds alongside Dawn Robinson’s vocalizing, you knew you were in for four minutes of R&B power. The beginning of the chorus even makes you feel the earth move a bit; lovemaking, heartbreaking, soul shaking; Can you feel it?
Listening to this brings me back to waiting outside the Cross Bay Theater in Ozone Park to buy a ticket to see Space Jam! but actually use it to sneak into Set It Off instead. We knew someone on the inside. It reminds me of sitting on the front stoop of a friend’s townhouse in Woodhaven, Queens play fighting with the other dudes in my circle of friends. It brings me back to the time I was invited to my first Halloween party at a friend’s house in Howard Beach, which got interrupted by the New York Yankees defeating the Atlanta Braves in Game Six of the 1996 World Series, their first win in nearly 20 years, after which the city exploded in excitement.
It brought me back to a time when I felt like I wasn’t a social outcast, but actually felt like I belonged; to a time when I finally began to feel comfortable in my own skin, a journey that began that winter and continues to this day.
6.) Sweet Dreams- Beyonc´e
In the winter of 2009-2010, I finally felt like my dreams were coming true. I had gotten a job as a reporter for the Queens Tribune covering my own neighborhood and Western Queens. I started the week after Thanksgiving, 2009 and by January 2010, I had gotten into a good groove, developed sources and imbedded myself into my beat. I spent entire days going from press conference to interview to photo shoot throughout my beat. Ridgewood to Richmond Hill to Howard Beach to Maspeth and then back to the office in Fresh Meadows.
At night, I was turning in the pen and reporter notebook for a pair of Timberland boots and three button shirts and hit the bars and nightclubs of Williamsburg and the Lower East Side and celebrate away my new opportunities and seemingly bright future in journalism.
That winter, Beyonce was about a year into dominating the American musical scene with her I Am… Sasha Fierce album. She was showing up on the movie screens, notably in the bad Fatal Attraction-wannabe remake Obsessed where she, justifiably, battles “Bad Karen” Ali Larter to the death to protect her character’s marriage to Idris Elba.
For me though, I will best remember my Beyonce winter with her song “Sweet Dreams,” a total bop that had me doing Bey moves in my car at red lights in my bubble jacket and beanie, between press conferences, or on the steps at Sugar Land in Brooklyn leading up to the second floor dance floor. I could be caught humming it at the Community Board 5 meeting, or grabbing pizza in between assignment on Myrtle Avenue. The etherial dance beats on top of an R&B drum and base makes the reflexes move like Queen Bey herself on a stage. And those bright-eyed, lovestruck lyrics lauding a beau whom she knows may end up being her dream come true, or her undoing.
My guilty pleasure/I ain’t going nowhere/Baby, as long as you’re here/I’ll be floating on air
It was a relatable lyric. At the time I was having a fling with someone in the adult film industry. I was deeply into this person, and enjoyed his company and enjoyed being his plus one, but perhaps for the wrong reasons? Anyway, was it a sweet dream? or a beautiful nightmare? Ask me sometime. 🙂
5.) Tonight’s The Night – Outasight
For me, its the first 20 seconds of the song that invokes a happy winter memory.
I was 28 and spending the weekends at an ex-lover’s apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and from the bed, I could look out and see four red beacons blinking – the tops of a quad of radio towers in Maspeth, Queens. Oftentimes, the radiators in the old walk-up building would hiss like they were on the verge of exploding and the entire room would turn into a sauna. (Fun Fact: They were designed to allow windows to remain open during the winter for ventilation purposes, an invention that stemmed from that last massive global pandemic a century ago).
Anyway, I’d open the window and let the frigid winter air hit my face. Have you ever listened to New York in winter at night? There’s this low hum or groan, like a base noise for which the rest of the urban sounds – traffic, trains, planes, people – build on. It’s that hum that comes back into my mind when I hear the opening seconds of this song.
I’ve never realized it until I sat down to write this list, but I’ve always dealt with the winter blues by throwing on my sturdiest boots and warmest coat and going out, partying and being around people.There were the December nights sipping from a straw out of a fishbowl at Brother Jimmy’s with my cousins, before mediating a sister fight on the F train; or the frigid February nights fighting for a place in front of the fire behind Wiliamsburg’s Union Pool. (See my Fall list for a song that reminds me of that place) or the late January evenings trying to drag my friends from DNA, a long-closed Astoria nightclub that I can only describe to you as “ratched.” We’d leave before the DJ begins playing German techno at 3 a.m., only to end up having to carry that one girl to the car because she choose to wear stilettos when there was ice and snow everywhere.
I don’t even care for this song so much, but the memories it invokes of my late 20s and early 30s can actually be described in a lyric to the song:
Imma have as much fun as I can/
And figure out the rest when I etch out a plan
I’m still figuring it out guys. Bear with me.
4.) Take A Picture- Filter
Your probably going to wonder why I consider this a “happy” memory. Hang in there through the dark part, there’s a bright light at the end.
In December 1999, something terrifying happened to me. The internet still being a new feature, and me still not really understanding it, I was catfished. Yes, even back then catfishing happened. A friend of mine from grade school, who I trusted for some reason, instant messaged me on AOL from a fake account, pretending to be a boy from my school who I suspected (correctly) was gay. I let down my guard, the conversation got explicit. The next day, the entire conversation was emailed to everyone on my buddy list; friends, family, even teachers at school. It was mortifying and terrifying and even today, 21 years later, it makes me feel anxious.
I had been struggling for a while. Earlier that year, I had contemplated suicide, and was saved by a teacher at school who sought help for me. That spring I was nearly expelled from school due to a false allegation of sexual assault, which I only got out of by coming out to the school dean, which led to him suggesting conversion therapy. I never went, having told my parents I lied out of fear of being expelled. My grandmother had decided to move in with us that autumn. 1999 was a really, really bad year. But the actions of John, that was his name, nearly ended me.
I thought of a dozen ways to do it, I thought of running away to family in Colorado or Hawaii, but ultimately decided I would throw myself in front of an M train at the Metropolitan Avenue train station in Middle Village. It’s not important why, but on the evening of December 14, 1999, I stole my grandmother’s Green Chevy Cavalier and drove to Middle Village. I parked on the roof of Metro Mall, next to the station, which was the parking lot serving now-closed K-Mart and Toys ‘R Us. The rooftop parking lot, which explained in my Fall listicle, has probably the best view of the New York City skyline in the world. I sat there and listened to my Walkman and happened to have a recording of Filter “Take A Picture,” which I listened to on repeat over and over again. Probably 20 times at least.
What crossed my mind in that moment was just how big New York City was. There were places in the city I have never been, places where people wouldn’t know I had been outed, or wouldn’t care. I wasn’t trapped in this bubble of shame. I could get out. I could go somewhere. That’s what I had planned to do.
It was just a few weeks until the millennium. I had waited all my life for it. I would chose to live just two more weeks. I chose to live many, many more.
The next day were my friends Becky and Jess’ Sweet 16 party in Rockaway Beach. They are twins and had their party at, fittingly if you knew the neighborhood, an Irish Pub (one of the last places that still had cigarette vending machines). Later that night, we sat in the freezing cold on the front porch of whoever’s house it was we went to nearby and talked, laughing at the fact the neighbors across the street were watching porn on a big screen television with the shades up. It was a good time. Some of my friends expressed dismay at what happened to me and support for me. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like what John did would be life-ending after all.
My mother picked me up, yowling about the fact that I reeked of cigarettes and weed, and drove me home. I sat in the backseat of our minivan, my Walkman on, listening to this song and looking out the window at the skyline while crossing Jamaica Bay. Another excellent place to see the city. I felt good, content, happy.
3.) In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins
I actually only have one specific memory of this song and I don’t know why or when it was, except that I was really, really young. I believe it was Williamsburg or Greenpoint in Brooklyn, or perhaps Long Island City in Queens, late on a brutally frigid winter night, sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
We were parked in a parking lot either at a store or a restaurant. I remember it being extremely frigid, the type of cold that actually hurts your face. My mother put me in a car, I was small enough to need a car seat, and strapped me in. Then she and my dad got in. Out of the windshield, I was able to see the Midtown Manhattan skyline, all lit up in the clear dark night. The glowing lights of the skyscrapers, including the golden-topped Empire State Building, were surrounded by the rushing dots of cars scurrying on the FDR Drive and airplanes slowly gliding across the sky.
I could see our breathes smoking in the biting cold air, as my dad fumbled with the engine, which struggled to turn over. The car, whatever car it was, has trouble turning on in the weather. I remember the heat coming on, but being ice cold at first, but warming up with the low hum of the fan blowing heat from the console.
We drove home, probably on the BQE or the LIE and I looked out the window and watched the street lights zoom past like a strobe linked to the beat.
There’s something fitting about Phil Collins’ frosty, dreamy “In The Air Tonight” and a cold winter night. The irony of it reminded me of the air that night – cold and dry – and the soft drum beat echoing the quiet, frozen spirit of New York City in the dead winter.
When I hear this song now, I immediately feel my body temperature drop a degree or two.
2.) The Sun Always Shines On T.V. – a-ha
I can pinpoint the date my youthful optimism in the future of America died. It was January 19, 2010 – the day Scott Brown became the first Republican in 30 years to win a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, and ended the Democrats’ 60-seat Senate majority and any chance of actually enacting some progressive policies that could starve off the worst of climate change and economic inequality. That week, I moped around in a serious depression that made it impossible for me to even do my job – right at a time when I was started to excel at it.
This was the same winter that I was seeing someone who was involved in the adult film industry. He lived in a walkup apartment in Greenpoint and we’d hang out every Friday night. This specific Friday night, he bailed on me to go see friends in Manhattan and I sat home, being petulant. It was cold, I didn’t want to watch the news and could not focus on much else. Trolling through Facebook, I saw an ad for a party at a LGBT nightclub in Williamsburg that I had gone to celebrate a friend’s birthday several years earlier, but had been too shy to go into on my own since. A new decade had started a few week earlier, the club had been doing decade-themed parties every weekend in January. First the 60s, then the 70s, then the 80s and then the 90s. That Friday was the 1980s weekend. So I threw on the closest thing I had to gay 80s gear and drove to Brooklyn. Getting over my shyness was an issue. I walked around the block several times before I got up the nerve to go in alone. I had this irrational feeling everyone would laugh at me or I’d get kicked out or something for going alone.
Once inside though, I had a great time. Though there was a healthy playlist of 80s hits from Whitney Houston to Juice Newton to Tone Loc, for some reason this song stands out to me from that night; “The Sun Always Shines On TV,” a-ha’s overlooked follow up to “Take On Me.” It came on in a climatic moment in the night that involved a series of strobe lights, a drag queen in a long blonde wig on a stage, her mane blowing in the wind machine; a bartender dressed in a leather jacket with a crucifix earring a-la George Michael singing to a group of guys who I’m wiling to be were younger than the song was at the time. (You should’ve seen him do “Father Figure” earlier in the night). I left not long after, offering to drive two guys home to Astoria, which was absolutely way out of my way, just to keep the good times coming. (Fun Fact: I actually really enjoy being the Designated Driver). As we drove home, one of the two guys, Brendan, told me about the Shazam app for the first time and informed me he had “Shazamed” the song. Instinctively, I knew it was a-ha, but couldn’t remember the title. We listened to it driving over the now demolished Kosciusko Bridge.
On my way home, I stopped at Wendy’s for a 1:30 am snack. As I sat in the parking lot scoffing down a Baconator, watching planes take off from JFK Airport seven miles away, just as I had mentioned in the Fall, I found this song on iTunes and downloaded it. It was then I realized, I completely forgotten about the Massachusetts election for the first time. I listened to it several times that winter – driver to work in a snowstorm, driving to a friend’s wedding on Long Island, sitting at home doing work and taking a break to go some dance moves to it that involved me wrapping myself in a blanket like a cape. It helped get my mind off of depressing things and onto more exciting prospects.
1.) Middle – DJ Snake featuring Bipolar Sunshine
The last great year was 2015. That’s what I’ve been telling people this weekend as 2021 begins. Every year since has seemingly only gotten worse. But 2015 was a fantastic year. I had a great job, I was kicking ass in CrossFit, and that July, I stood on the front porch of a house in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and learned what “love at first sight” actually meant. I had found someone that summer who I wanted to go on a lifelong adventure with. It took a few months for him to reciprocate, but on November 1, while waiting outside the Barclays Center for my college radio station’s alumni event at that night’s Islander’s game, that adventure began…and it’s still going.
Like all relationships though, there are growing pains in the first several months. The early honeymoon period faded, and I had to tackle my abandonment and jealousy issues that torpedoed all my earlier relationships. I had to tackle my own selfishness (Fun Fact: It is not acceptable to tell your partner you don’t want to see him because parking is bad or it had snowed too much a few days earlier). It was a bit easier this time because I was able to share it with friends and family, which made it better to navigate. They’re the ones who open you eyes to your selfishness and irrational jealousy. That winter, 2015-2016, we grew to know each other better. We did trivia with my friend Tess every Tuesday night, and restaurant hopped on the weekend. We walked through Queens Center Mall, meeting random people along the way and having some wild adventure. We had discovered something big – we were good together.
On those cold winter nights when I would drop him off at his Brighton Beach apartment and drive home on the Belt Parkway, or wait for him outside our favorite Park Slope taco place or Long Island City bar, this song would often come on the radio. I had become a DJ Snake fan the previous summer while doing CrossFit – something that will probably come up when I do my summer list. The airy beats and soft body-moving beats in “Middle” take you to a chilly urban street on a winter night, or a forest scene blanketed in freshly-fallen snow. The The lyrics stood out to me as particularly relevant than winter; ironing out the kinks of a new relationships, apologizing for the stupid crap you did because you’re not really experienced at these types of relationships, and then a commitment to making it work. Even hearing it now takes me back to the whirlwind experiences of that great winter.
I promise to build a new world for us two/with you in the middle
That’s the world I’m still building. It seems to be working, albeit more slowly that I had hoped. Maybe 2021 will be the first good year since 2015.