Handel’s Messiah, really any of the choruses. These are important to me because my college choir performed the “Messiah” every holiday season. It was physically demanding, and I remember standing in rehearsal, singing to the edge of my ability, and feeling like the music was coming up through my feet, that my body was a conduit for something so much larger than me. I half expected the music to come from my throat in color, it was so pure. It was transcendent. I’ve experienced it only a few times since, but singing parts of the “Messiah” will do it more reliably than anything else.
U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Again, this is one of many songs from this band/album that I could choose. There’s something about a band you’ve loved for almost your entire life. My admiration for U2’s aid work in Africa, the release of singing the Bono wails, the connection to what they’re singing about— it’s the sort of thing that can turn a day around.
Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On” sung by Sarah Vaughan, or “Ain’t Misbehavin'” sung by Billie Holiday, or “I’m Feelin’ Good” by Nina Simone. I can appreciate how good Ella Fitzgerald is at what she does, and I have a fond spot for Dinah Washington than runs pretty deep. But Sarah Vaughan makes you feel the surprise and sly delight of that first real spark with someone in a way that I haven’t ever heard anyone else deliver, singing this song. And Billie—it takes awhile to get used to the way Billie Holiday sings. It’s not clear and pure, like Ella or Sarah, but it’s visceral and powerful. You know she’s all in, for her man. No empty promises of fidelity, here. She’s sacrificing, and she can’t even help herself. And Nina Simone— if someone ever delivered a song with a straightforward title like “I’m Feelin’ Good” with more intensity and emotional complexity, I’m not sure I’ve heard it. Any time I hear it, I feel like I have to stop what I’m doing, really connect with the song. And when I do, I feel wrung out, but blissful.
Yes, it’s more than three songs. But give me one from every category, and my time on the island will not have been in vain.