from our Optimisticles blog series
By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings
Whether it’s figuring out how to gather with loved ones safely or how to peacefully engage with friends and family on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Thanksgiving can be a challenging time for many. One thing that could help ease any possible tension at these gatherings is good background music. So for this week’s Optimisticle, we’ve put together a collection of songs that celebrate life and love, running the gamut from country music to reggae. There’s something in this playlist for everyone to love (or hate), so happy Thanksgiving and happy listening.
Alanis Morissette – Thank U
In her 1999 appearance on “VH1 Storytellers,” Alanis Morissette discussed her disillusionment with fame after the stunning success of her debut album “Jagged Little Pill.” Burned out from constant touring and promoting, she took more than a year off to reflect and decompress and had an epiphany about finding inner peace rather than seeking validation externally. She told VH1, “I was overcome with a huge sense of compassion for myself first. That translated into my feeling and compassion for everyone around me and a huge amount of gratitude that I had never felt before… That’s why I had to write this song, ‘Thank U,’ because I had to express how exciting this was and how scary it was and all of these opportunities for us to define who we are.”
Gary Clark, Jr. – You Saved Me
For anyone who has followed the career of Austin, TX guitar slinger Gary Clark, Jr., “You Saved Me” from his 2012 release “Blak and Blue” was a watershed moment. The song was a sonic departure from Clark’s mostly traditionally-tinged blues offerings. In that song, Clark says, “… I wanted to just go to outer space. I really just wanted to see how far I could take it and just do my thing.” In the song, Clark sings about someone loving him enough to save him from a period in his life when he wasn’t meeting his full potential – “It’s taken me a little while to bounce back/ I’ve been falling from something good/ People say I took a little too long… Till you came along and you saved me.”
Laura Marling – For You
Laura Marling’s nu-folk, sing-songy “For You” from her 2020 album, “Song for Our Daughter,” has a timeless quality to it. Somehow, it feels simultaneously plucked from another era yet perfectly at home on today’s playlists. In the song, she expresses gratitude for a loved one that she practically willed into being (“I drew pictures of you /Long before I met you/ Just a fragment of my mind). In an interview last year with the BBC, she said the song is also a little homage to Paul McCartney, whom she had recently begun to appreciate more after years of being in the Lennon camp. “My forte, I think, is ambiguity,” Marling says, so we may never know if the song is entirely about the former Beatle. But her devotion to the mysterious “You” in the song is unquestionable, as she sings, “I thank a God I’ve never met, never loved, never wanted (for you).”
Sly and the Family Stone – Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa
“Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ on,” is a slowed down, funkier (IMO) version of 1969’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” The lyrics are somewhat cryptic and esoteric, but given the band’s peace, love, and power to the people ethos, it’s possible that the song is essentially about authenticity. In the following verse, for example, Sly Stone could be thanking some of the youth-fueled movements spawned in the late 60s – Vietnam War protests and the Black Power movement – for helping him find his true, authentic self and continue to create songs that speak truth to power: “Youth and truth are makin’ love/ Dig it for a starter/ Dyin’ young is hard to take/ Sellin’ out is harder.”
The Wailers – One Love
Besides making appearances in several movie soundtracks, including “Marley and Me” and “Shrek Forever After,” “One Love” by Bob Marley and the Wailers is the official tourism song of Jamaica and one of the band’s most popular and enduring tunes. The line “Give thanks and praise to the lord, and I will feel alright” makes it an obvious choice for a Thanksgiving playlist. But to keep things interesting, here’s the original ska version of the song recorded by a clean-cut Bob Marley and The Wailing Wailers in 1965 before Marley converted to Rastafarianism.
Rina Sawayama (with Elton John) – Chosen Family
With many people unable or unwilling to go home to visit family for the holidays, Friendsgivings are growing in popularity. On her 2020 album, “Sawayama,” Japanese-British singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama teamed up with Sir Elton John on the track “Chosen Family,” which has Friendsgiving anthem potential. But, as she explained to NME, the song also has special meaning for her and her sizeable LGBTQ fan base. “The concept of a chosen family is, to me, a queer one,” she said. “People are often kicked out of their homes or ostracised by their family, friends, and community after coming out. This can be an incredibly painful experience that can be remedied by finding a new ‘chosen’ family.”
Kacey Musgraves – Oh What a World
“Oh What a World,” from the 2018 album “Golden Hour,” is Kacey Musgraves’ ode to all of the magic surrounding her on Earth, and one magical human being in particular (“Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave/ All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe/ Thank God it’s not too good to be true/ Oh, what a world, and then there is you”). Musgraves, an iconoclastic country star known for championing LGBTQ acceptance among other progressive issues, touches on everything from the northern lights to bioluminescence and reincarnation in the song.
Ariana Grande – thank u, next
Foregoing the tried and true coy approach of artists like Taylor Swift, Ariane Grande names names when she writes about her exes on the title track of her 2018 album, “thank u, next.” Her former flames Big Sean, Pete Davidson, and the late Mac Miller each get a mention in the very first verse. But what could easily be mistaken as a dis song from the song title alone, reveals itself as a healthy approach to learning lessons from past relationships. Grande sings, “One taught me love/ One taught me patience/ And one taught me pain/ Now, I’m so amazing” — sincerely thanking her exes for helping her become the person that she is today.
Johnny Lang, Michael McDonald – Thankful
In his 2006 album, “Turn Around,” Johnny Lang teams up with The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald to teach a masterclass in blue-eyed soul on the song “Thankful.” The gospel-esque tune runs down a litany of societal ills such as welfare, starvation, and incarceration before reminding the listener to be thankful for what they have: “Man, I used to think I didn’t have a lot/ Now I realize just how much I’ve got/ Now every day I’m gonna take the time/ And stop to be thankful, thankful.”
Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World
Louis Armstrong’s iconic ballad, “What a Wonderful World,” was initially a flop in the U.S. when it was released in 1967, selling fewer than 1,000 copies. Reportedly, Larry Newman — the president of Armstrong’s record label — didn’t like the song. He expected the trumpeter to follow up his hit “Hello Dolly” with a similarly swinging pop record and repeatedly tried to stop the “Wonderful World” recording session. Failing that, Newman ignored the record, and the label didn’t promote it. Despite efforts to kill it, the song still gained popularity in the U.K. and became somewhat of a standard over time. It finally made the U.S. Billboard charts after appearing in the film “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
About the Author
Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis.