Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Beginner's Introduction to Jonathan Coulton

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of going to my very first Jonathan Coulton concert ever. I've been a fan of his music for several years now, and he is one of only 8 artists to be played more than 1000 times on my In fact, as I look at my now, he has jumped from being my third most played artist to being the second, surpassing Groovelily and sitting right behind Glee Cast (which is only that high because they've released over 300 songs so far).

I wanted to put together a little collection of my favorite JoCo songs for those who maybe are not quite so familiar with his music. He is one of my very favorite songwriters, with a wonderful talent for mixing comedy and tragedy to tell stories with unexpected protagonists. Although he's primarily known as a comedic musician, some of my very favorite songs of his are beautiful, sweet, and sad.

So here is a beginner's introduction to Jonathan Coulton.

The Essentials

These are the songs that even the most casual JoCo fan knows... and they also happen to be some of my favorites.

1. Code Monkey
Possibly the first JoCo song I ever heard. I love the cheerful punkish rock sound and the reoccurring JoCo theme of impossible unrequited love.

Code monkey like Fritos
Code monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew
Code monkey very simple man
With big warm fuzzy secret heart
Code monkey like you

2. Still Alive
Probably the first JoCo song most people heard. He wrote this song for the end credits of the game Portal, to be sung by the computer antagonist GlaDOS. The song doesn't actually make that much sense for those not familiar with the game, but the lyrics are clever and interesting.

I've experiments to run, there is research to be done
On the people who are still alive
And, believe me, I am still alive
I'm doing science and I'm still alive

3. The Future Soon
One of my very, very favorites, I think this song is the perfect blend of funny and sad. It's a song about a young nerdy boy who dreams of someday not being such an outcast, and while the story is entertaining (his ultimate fantasy is of taking over the world with a robot army he's built himself) the inner desire to not be the underdog, for once, is very relatable. I'm pretty sure everybody has felt like this at one point or another.

It's gonna be the future soon
And I won't always be this way
When the things that make me weak and strange
Get engineered away

4. Skullcrusher Mountain
I suspect this song is telling us what's happened to the Future Soon kid... he grew up to be this evil genius, living on Skullcrusher Mountain with his assistant, Scarface, kidnapping women and making crazy half-pony-half-monkey monsters for them in an attempt to earn their love. This song is really funny... and, fun fact, it has somehow become "our song" for my fiance and I. Even though I promise he's nothing like this.

If you could find some way to be
A little less afraid of me
You'd see the voices that control me from inside my head
Say I shouldn't kill you yet

5. Re: Your Brains
What nerd rocker's repertoir is complete without a song about zombies? This zombie song is sung as a memo from a recently turned zombie to his human co-worker, trying to convince him that resistance is futile. In concert, JoCo encourages the audience to chime in on the chorus with their best zombie impressions.

All we wanna do is eat your brains
We're not unreasonable
I mean, no one's gonna eat your eyes

My Other Favorites (In No Order Whatsoever)

6. Today With Your Wife
One of JoCo's rarer serious ones, this song is perhaps one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. Although I haven't heard any official word on what the song is about, it sounds to me like it's about running into the wife of a good friend who has died, and the song just breaks me. It's simple, with a gorgeous melody and incredible, melancholy lyrics.

Everyone seemed okay
But then she'd never say
You should have been there
You should have been there

7. Blue Sunny Day
In true Coulton fashion, this song features a protagonist you don't usually hear much about in music - in this case, a heartbroken vampire - but the song speaks so easily to the human experience that there are really only a few lines that indicate it's about anything unusual.

Birds are singing, bees are buzzing, sun shines overhead
I'd be there to see it but I can't get out of bed
Since the day you left, the weather always feels this way
One more blue sunny day

8. Baby Got Back
Pretty sure this is the best cover of all time. A gentle acoustic version of Sir Mix-A-Lot's original. However, just as a warning, FYI: when this song gets stuck in your head and you quietly sing it out loud to yourself, it is VERY hard to explain to anyone around you.

9. Over There
This song is a satirical look at American elitism, singing about how horrific it is to travel to Europe. He sings so earnestly about the unpleasantness of overseas culture that it makes me laugh a lot. I'm including my favorite video of him singing this, where it is requested at a concert in Glasgow.

Over there, you'll never feel at ease
'Cause there's not much soap and there's too much cheese
And everyone wears clogs and rides on trains

10. I Hate California
This song never seems to appear on anybody's "favorites of JoCo" list, but it really is one of mine. I love the simplicity of it, and how halfway through the song it becomes apparent that, it's not California the singer hates, it's the memories associated with it, and suddenly the song stops being just a silly song about disliking a state and becomes a break-up song.

I don't blame the Beach Boys, I don't blame Hollywood
I don't blame L.A., although I probably should
I don't blame the sky for its careless shade of blue
Lord knows I don't blame you

11. Mr. Fancy Pants
One year, Coulton did something called Thing a Week where he tried to put out some sort of music-y thing every week. Some of the songs were better than others, but one week he put out this ridiculous little song about a competition for the fanciest pants. There's something very fun and cheerful about it, and I absolutely love it, but I think he was a little befuddled by the way it kind of took off among fans. The song is just over a minute long, so when he plays it in concert, he does a little Zendrum solo in the middle of it, as you will see in the following clip.

Chances are your pants are not as fancy as the pair
Of very fancy pants that Mr. Fancy Pants will wear
When everybody's marching in the Fancy Pants Parade
He's gonna pass the test
He's gonna be the best
The best in terms of pants

12. Chiron Beta Prime
A quirky Christmas song about a family celebrating their holiday in exile on a robot-governed asteroid. It takes all the holiday season cliches - snow, Santa, Christmas dinner - and turns them into something with... not so much Christmas cheer. This one's not on his newly-released Christmas album, but it is one of my favorites.

Merry Christmas from Chiron Beta Prime
Where we're working in a mine
For our robot overlords--
Did I say overlords? I meant protectors
Merry Christmas from Chiron Beta Prime

13. You Ruined Everything
I love how Coulton can write sweet songs that are never sappy or overly sentimental. This particular song is about parenthood, and while I *hate* most parent/child songs, I love this one. It's loving and honest and genuine and very, very sweet.

You should know how great things were before you
Even so, they're better still today
I can't think of who I was before
You ruined everything in the nicest way

14. Space Doggity
Songs and stories about space always connect very deeply with me for some reason, and this one is no different, as it tells the story of the first dog sent into space, who died just a few hours after being launched into space. It's a reimagining of Bowie's "Space Oddity" and although the title is a silly one, this song is completely heartbreaking.

Guess what, Malashenkov? I took the collar off
I'm holding my own leash and walking myself outside this door
I don't think I want to be a good dog anymore

15. I Crush Everything
And... I lied about these being in no order. I deliberately put my all-time favorite Coulton song at the end. It's a terribly sad song about a giant squid who hates himself. Heh. Weirdly, though, the melody and the melancholy lyrics get to me in a way that none of his other songs quite manage, much as I love them all. I tried to write something about this song *while* I was listening to it, but I just sat listening to it. The melody is beautiful, the lyrics are a wonderful mix of quirky and heartbreaking... there's just nothing about this song I don't love.

I can't do that thing anymore
Can't be the way I was before
Maybe I am better off alone
Because I crush everything


  1. Wow, awesome list! Thank you for the recommendations; I'm a Coulton fan but I haven't heard all of his songs, not by a long shot. Glad you're blogging again and congratulations on your engagement!

    -from a random follower

    1. Thanks, Emma! Yeah, Coulton's released a massive amount of songs so although I do *own* all his songs, there are still quite a few I don't know very well. I wanted to make sure I included some of the ones that tend to fly under the Coulton radar, because sometimes those are the best.

  2. Thanks for the primer! I've often felt that, as a nerd, I should be more into JoCo than I am; a curated list is quite helpful.

    1. Yeah - like I said in previous comment, Coulton's released 100+ songs so it's kind of overwhelming to figure out where to start. I figured mentioning a few of my favorites (both serious and silly) to try to share precisely for people like you who should like him more than you do :-P

      If you need any more recommendations, a couple more that JUST missed the cut: I'm Your Moon (a love song from Pluto's moon to Pluto), Creepy Doll (about exactly what it sounds like), Shop Vac (about being trapped in suburbia), Tom Cruise Crazy (about Tom Cruise), and Flickr (but you have to watch that one with the accompanying video otherwise it makes ZERO sense - he took a bunch of random Flickr photos and turned them into a song).