Songs For A Drab And Unfulfilling Existence

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TadejZupancic/iStockphoto
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TadejZupancic/iStockphoto

If you're reading this between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., chances are pretty good that you're at your desk at work, which means you've still got a job. Congratulations! You're not desperately unemployed, and you're not working on an assembly line in which you melt the beaks off of chicken carcasses all day. Worse hands have been dealt than the one you now hold, and yet you remain overwhelmed by the gnawing sense that you're but one tiny, crushingly insignificant speck in an indifferent, even hostile world.

As grateful as you may be to continue drawing a paycheck, it's easy to wallow in unfulfilled potential — mountains unclimbed, memoirs unwritten, crushes unconsummated and enemies unvanquished. As you sit in your drab, gray cubicle and wrap up those third-quarter reports, be sure to take a moment, sweep away the ashes of your dashed dreams, don a pair of headphones, and listen to this five-song playlist as you plod grimly through this waking life.

For more entries in NPR Music's Listen While You Work series, click here.

Songs For A Drab And Unfulfilling Existence

Fountains of Wayne art

Hackensack

  • Artist: Fountains of Wayne
  • Album: Welcome Interstate Managers
  • Song: Hackensack

For all its skill at crafting sugar-sweet pop melodies, Fountains of Wayne is even better at capturing the often-delusional yearnings of people trapped in mundane lives. "Hackensack" tells the story of a loser who pines for a high-school crush; sadly, she's already gone on to far bigger and better things than he'll ever experience. Those only familiar with Fountains of Wayne's tongue-in-cheek hit "Stacy's Mom" may be taken aback by verses this devastating: "I used to work in a record store / Now I work for my dad / scraping the paint off of hardwood floors / The hours are pretty bad / Sometimes I wonder where you are / Probably in L.A. / That seems to be where everybody else ends up these days."

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Song
Hackensack
Album
Welcome Interstate Managers
Artist
Fountains of Wayne
Label
S-Curve/Virgin

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Troubled Hubble art

14,000 Things to Be Happy About

  • Artist: Troubled Hubble
  • Album: Making Beds in a Burning House
  • Song: 14, 000 Things to Be Happy About

The misleadingly titled "14,000 Things to Be Happy About" is a sparkling pop-rock gem, complete with a shiny, bashing chorus about dying "young and exciting." But there's so much more to singer Chris Otepka's brilliant lyric, as his song addresses the way the idealistic belligerence of youth gives way to the compromises and mounting disappointments of adulthood. Along the way, he punctures the hollow rewards of human interaction -- "We'll take the fake happy over knowing what's wrong / and give you the stuff that you need to belong" -- while expertly chronicling the ways in which youth's hope and promise can be extinguished before the opportunities themselves fade away for real.

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Song
14, 000 Things to Be Happy About
Album
Making Beds in a Burning House
Artist
Troubled Hubble
Label
Eenie Meenie
Released
2005

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David Mead art

Ordinary Life

  • Artist: David Mead
  • Album: Indiana
  • Song: Ordinary Life

It's hard to make boredom and dissatisfaction sound as romantic as David Mead does in "Ordinary Life," which opens with the question, "How did we ever end up here?" before it laments a life spent "shuffling cards at the breakfast table, watching the world go around." The love of Mead's life never seems in doubt, but the song practically bursts with a desire for more than he's got -- dreams of travel and adventure, an escape from daily routine. In the end, he pleads for "you [to] save me from an ordinary life," but the subtext remains loud and clear: He can't cast off the shackles of his ordinary life without losing the one thing that makes it worth living.

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Song
Ordinary Life
Album
Indiana
Artist
David Mead
Label
Liberty
Released
2004

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Richard Buckner art

Ollie McGee

  • Artist: Richard Buckner
  • Album: Hill
  • Song: Ollie McGee

For a much-needed bit of perspective, try cracking open the Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters' unrelentingly bleak 1915 book of poems. Masters' lost, battered and broken souls make perfect foils for singer-songwriter Richard Buckner, who adapted an entire album's worth of the poems into grim song sketches. For all the death and anguish Buckner channels, he's never more devastating than in "Ollie McGee," sung from the perspective of a dead woman who haunts her husband in an attempt to drive him "to the place where I lie." As Buckner spends 106 seconds singing of "secret cruelty" and a justly vengeful afterlife, a world of conference calls and petty obligations doesn't seem so bad, does it? Pour yourself another cup of coffee. You'll be just fine.

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Song
Ollie McGee
Album
Hill
Artist
Richard Buckner
Label
Touch and Go
Released
2000

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Jolie Holland 200

You Painted Yourself In

  • Artist: Jolie Holland
  • Album: Living and the Dead
  • Song: You Painted Yourself In

Jolie Holland's languid, timeless ballads often speak directly to emotionally paralyzed shut-ins: In "Springtime Can Kill You," for example, she warns of the dangers inherent in staying cooped up as the world roars by. But in "You Painted Yourself In," Holland answers the literal definition of painting oneself into a corner with a less literal solution: "You have no choice except but to fly." It's a more hopeful prescription than some might require, but if the world is weighing too heavily on your shoulders, it wouldn't hurt to take her advice, walk to the break room and grab yourself a candy bar. It's not flying out of the hellish rat maze on invisible wings, but at least candy is delicious.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
You Painted Yourself In
Album
Living and the Dead
Artist
Jolie Holland
Label
Anti
Released
2008

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