Earlier this week, we highlighted the 20th anniversary of Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain with an essay about its haunting, nocturnal beauty and solitary mysticism. The album showcases the most elegant aspect of Jason Molina’s songwriting, the manner in which he depicted loneliness in unusually beautiful terms, and his poetic look at his often unglamorous surroundings. We’re following that up with a unique spin on our regular Greatest Hits feature by inviting a number of different musicians, writers and label owners to discuss their own nominations for the best Jason Molina songs.
“Best” is perhaps not the operative word here; these are all very personal choices, songs that are each experienced deeply and intimately, with different meanings for each of the artists who selected them. Molina and his two main projects—Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.—didn’t have “hits” per se, though “Farewell Transmission” is always one of the first to be mentioned. Interestingly enough, as we reached out to all of the participants for this feature, many of them opted to highlight the deeper cuts, the slower tracks, the lo-fi early material or harder to find cuts. And some artists even ended up having different things to say about the same songs, suggesting that some of those deeper cuts had greater resonance than you might think.
Jason Molina’s music has that effect—his most devastating material always had a tinge of hope, and his most upbeat was always undercut with grief or sadness. It was rarely bleak, but it often felt lonely—then again, when plugged in with Magnolia Electric Co., he could also rock out with the best of them. His passing in 2013 at the age of 39 makes this sort of list bittersweet, but the stark beauty of his music remains timeless. Here are 12 artists on their picks 10 of the best Jason Molina songs.
“Long Desert Train”
from Pyramid Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian; 2004)
“I have to confess I didn’t hear Jason Molina’s music for a long time. I didn’t hear what was uniquely special about it because of something I would describe now as a deficit in my attention, and this makes me think about attention and how much listening is an active process. It takes time. Now, much later, with love for so much of this music, I think about how much attention is written into these often slow, carefully intentional songs: attention to every shift in feeling, every degree of relationship. In these songs everything can slip and pivot on a perfect line (these songs are filled with perfect lines and anyone reading this can likely recite their own canon of favorites) to such a degree that you understand every line is perfect, necessary, and that these songs are a deeply humane engagement with what has been called necessity but could be called the ‘curse of a human life’ or simply the sorrows of a universe in which everything is always shifting, pivoting, turning away. These songs pay attention and give dignity to an existence shared with the ‘things you can’t change’. The things time takes. I will love this song forever for the way the long sequence of all the things one might never be, ‘old enough, or young enough, tall enough or thin enough or smart enough or brave enough, rich enough, pretty enough, strong enough, good enough‘ is met simply and bravely with ‘Well, you were to us.'” – Steven Lambke, Constantines
“Get Out Get Out Get Out”
from Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go (Secretly Canadian; 2006)
“Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go, the coda to Molina the man and artist, always seemed to me the darkened, inside-looking mirror twin of Nebraska. Springsteen’s sketchbook of intertwined class and personal struggle reduced to its essential salts, far more real removed as it is from the self consciously slumming it context of that record. Within that reduction Get Out is the most brutally plaintive little howl of all, the gritted, faintly repeating exhalation of a man crushing himself. As a songwriter, how does one compete with the brutal utility of “I lived low enough so the moon wouldn’t waste its light on me“? It’s all so Beckett-ish; elliptical, spare. “Something must have happened.” “Get Out. Get Out. Get Out.” An exhortation to run aimed inward, to the listener, to a subject unknown? Either way ultimately none can fulfill it. The song does not haunt, it is a haunting.” – Andy Curtis-Brignell, Caïna
“Two Blue Lights”
from Didn’t It Rain (Secretly Canadian; 2002)
“I think that all of that stuff he’s singing about—there are so many steel mill references. I’m kind of pigeonholing myself as enjoying that stuff as a Midwestern guy. But it’s just about driving up 94 to Electrical Audio. And I’ve done that trip countless times, and seen the same shit he’s talking about, the wiper blades and factory flames. That’s so in my wheelhouse, driving to Chicago. ‘Two Blue Lights’ is probably my favorite composition. That track is nuts.” – Doyle Martin, Cloakroom
“Lightning Risked It All”
from Ghost Tropic (Secretly Canadian; 2000)
“The bad luck taste of the dark
The broad luck of blood on the water
I can see it will be red, the choice if it is a choice”
-From “Lightning Risked It All”
“Ghost Tropic came out the fall of my sophomore year of high school and was one of the most important albums of my teenage years. I’d always been a fan of Jason Molina’s work but something about this record really resonated with me in a way that’s incomparable to any of his other creative output. One of the only memories I have of high school is self-harming in the bathroom with Ghost Tropic playing in the background—a perfect album from start to finish made by another musician who so deeply struggled with self-destructive behaviors. As much as I love this music, I’ve been unable to revisit until recently, but holy shit it’s still an absolutely flawless listen.” – Megan Osztrosits, Couch Slut
“It’s Easier Now”
from Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go (Secretly Canadian; 2006)
“That whole record is untouchable to me, just how personal it is—you can even hear people closing doors in the background. The first song, ‘It’s Easier Now’, is devastating. It’s first song I heard and maybe even the first one I really liked. Every song on that record is devastating, but that record also really sparked in me that this is very good. I’ve even recommended it to people who like this kind of music, who are more normal, I guess, will say ‘That is way too intense for me to listen to.’ But it’s a great record.” – Lee Buford, The Body
“I covered this song when I was asked to participate in a tribute, though I do think all of Molina’s songs were great. It was really hard to do that song because it’s so beautiful. I love sad music, and that’s kind of what I’ve always gravitated towards, and nostalgia, and it kind of reminds me a little bit of that [Hoagy Carmichael] song ‘I Get Along With You Very Well.’ I was very drawn to the melody as well.” – Marissa Nadler
“An Ace Unable to Change”
from Impala (1998; Secretly Canadian)
“In 2002 I had freshly graduated from high school and I was quickly learning some difficult truths about the world and about myself. It was the first time I became aware of my mental illness and I was struggling with many aspects of my life and my belief in God. My music taste began expanding beyond Metal and hardcore as I identified with more singer/songwriter types—Elliott Smith, Rocky Votolato, Nick Drake, and other artists like that. Musicians that I felt were expressing emotions I battled with at the time. A new friend I had made through my job at the record shop showed me the Songs: Ohia album Didn’t it Rain that had just come out. I was intrigued by the band name and found the album interesting enough to dig through the back catalog. I immediately discovered the previous album, Impala, and I was floored. The opening track, ‘An Ace Unable to Change,’ seemed to cut to the core of how I felt at the time. The lyrical themes paired with the haunting organ and slow tempo made the song feel like a funeral dirge. I was obsessed. I began hunting down every Songs: Ohia album I could find. I understand why so many folks look towards other Molina albums as being objectively his finest work, but ‘An Ace Unable to Change’ would become the theme song for a period in my life that would define the person I would become and it played as I climbed the rope out of a dark pit. ‘Tonight I am dammed to my soul'” – Adam Bartlett, Gilead Media
“Being In Love”
from The Lioness (2000; Secretly Canadian)
“I’ve always been one to be hit first by the sonics of the music or melody of the vocal, and eventually I come around to hearing the words. I absolutely love the repetition of the organs and drum machine here, and Jason’s quick little guitar noodles overtop of them. Adding the lyrics to it all really paints the picture of how much weight can come from being in love.” – Thom Wasluck, Planning for Burial
from Sojourner (Secretly Canadian; 2007)
“Choosing a favorite Jason Molina song is like choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream — they’re all wonderful, delectable and good for the soul. Because each work nourishes, pierces, wrecks me for various and deeply personal reasons, it’s a tough ask. I’ve shared my connection to ‘Cabwaylingo’ countless times at this point, so here I’d like to praise ‘North Star,’ which was released on the Nashville Moon album from the 2007 Sojourner box set. This song is Molina at the height of his powers. The lyrics and melody are buoyant and devastating, his voice is silken and incredible and the band plays like family, with a particular psychic connection. This album is my favorite by the Magnolia Electric Co. band, and this song never grows old, never falls out of rotation, never ceases to be what I need. A couple of years ago I was blessed to go on tour with the Magnolia guys, and it was such a delight to see Pete Schreiner, the band’s bassist and occasional drummer, sing this night after night, in honor of his dear, departed friend. It really rattled my core. Also, there’s an incredible live recording of this song, from a solo radio session Jason did in the Netherlands. Listen to the album version and then listen to that live version. You won’t regret it.” — Erin Osmon, music journalist and author of Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost.
“Blue Chicago Moon”
from Didn’t It Rain (Secretly Canadian; 2002)
“Jeez, the entire b-side of Didn’t It Rain. It’s such a staggering and stark declaration of lonesome restlessness—’Blue Chicago Moon’ being, for me, the perfect distillation of that, a ‘hope against all hope’ sort of upnote set against a slow-burn Youngian guitar meditation. It seems classic, one of those songs forever playing at 2 a.m. on a car radio somewhere, woven into the fabric of a better-but-sadder, more reflective place than this.” – Stephen Pierce, Gold Dust
“Hold On Magnolia”
from Magnolia Electric Co. (2003; Secretly Canadian)
“‘Hold On Magnolia’ is maybe my favorite JM tune. It’s a journey both musically and lyrically, and seems to touch on both hope and despair at the same time in a way I’ve never really heard before. I love Mike Brenner’s steel guitar part especially. It’s just a timeless and beautiful song. I never had the chance to see Jason play live but my wife was lucky enough to catch him in Albany. I got into his music later in my life and have become a pretty big fan of his recently.” – John Ross, Wild Pink
“When I first heard ‘Hold On Magnolia’ it immediately hit me. The air between the notes of the music, and the way the vocals are sung made me realize I was hearing something special and unique that was captured on this recording. Like lightning in a bottle. It sounds like such a personal and private moment, shared here in song for others to relate to or gain comfort from. Jason Molina’s lyrics to me have always seemed so open ended, specific, and timeless all at the same time. There’s perhaps a specific meaning, but it’s open for your own journey within it as well.
We have been wanting to cover a Jason Molina song for awhile now, we ended up doing ‘I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost‘ because it sort of made the most sense for Sweet Cobra. It served as a nod to our late friend Matt Arluck in a way, as well as an homage to my days in Bloomington, Indiana kicking around at the same time Molina was active there. I’ve also enjoyed covering ‘Farewell Transmission’ on tour with Cloakroom as well. It was always a cathartic way to end the set, and somehow made everything comfortable no matter where we were.” – Jason Gagovski, Sweet Cobra
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.