The Music Junkie's Guide To The Galaxy: Space in Music
The unimaginable void of space is matched only by its limitless potential for discoveries that could change the course of human history or even the very definition of humanity. Out there, cold is beyond what we can conceptualize, light is a physical entity, and distance is measured in years instead of miles.
This heady mix of profound amazement and eye-widening dread has inspired artists across every medium ever since astronomers realized that Earth was revolving around the sun, not vice versa, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the art of songwriting. Space can be a stand-in for feelings of disillusionment and loneliness, but it can also represent the ultimate sense of freedom: being fundamentally unattached from all expectation and the excitement in not knowing what to expect – not surprisingly, sometimes all of these things can be addressed in the same song, just ask Major Tom.
The songs on this list are all inspired by space or space travel - some are blinded by the irradiating possibilities of First Contact, some are bound to crash and burn on Earth’s surface, some are concerned with nomenclature – and while not asking the same questions in the same way, what they all have in common is the desire to see and feel a world outside of our current reckoning. All the characters in these songs are driven by a desire to outgrow a symbolic Earth, one made of tradition and expectation and conformity, in order to find a truer version of their inner selves out among the galaxies and nebulae.
Whatever your feelings on space travel or sci-fi as a genre, there is something in that desire for all of us. With that in mind, let's talk about (and listen to) some of music's best forays into the final frontier.
David Bowie / Space Oddity : Bowie needs no introduction, nor does his most popular literary creation, the technologically-unfortunate Major Tom. Though he evolved over the years into nothing but “a junkie” and even made appearances in the songs of other artists, we all got to know him as the O.G. doomed spaceman in modern rock-n-roll. We felt along with him the isolation of being trapped in his “tin can”, and we felt the magnitude of his craft being suddenly set adrift after its fateful malfunctioning – but Bowie captures the awe of such an end with a musical progression that ends on a note of triumph and wonder. That the triumph comes with such a high cost is no matter for the Major, and his willingness to pay it transforms a tearjerker into an unequivocally happy ending.
Gorillaz / Sound Check (Gravity) : The first of many mood-inspired pieces on this list, "Gravity" boasts the bottom-heavy production and able-bodied record scratching of Dan the Automator butted up against the falsetto of Damon Albarn at its most raspy and vulnerable. “Never let me down gently” comes across as both an accusation and an order as the narrator seems torn between a desire to float and a desire to fall; one can imagine this song on a loop in the International Space Station soundtracking a life that is devoid of any sense of earthly normalcy.
Modest Mouse / Space Travel is Boring : Modest Mouse brings their signature brand of restless ennui to the idea of space travel with this song about a girl who may or not be going insane but is definitely on her way to a "far off moon", even though she has to travel "second class". The band have always been great at creating earworm guitar licks, but the stop-and-start component of this one lends it a little something special - a protracted launch with restive periods of zero-gravity affability in the song's smaller and more intimate moments. The venerable PNW rockers look toward a day when flights to space are so commonplace that they become perfunctory, but in this song they show themselves to be anything but "boring."
Failure / Another Space Song : Though generically named, Failure’s classic of 90s alt-rock has a guitar riff that simply won’t be denied. Unlike other space travelers in other songs, the narrator here has “no Houston to whine down to” – he is completely untethered from Earth, but is driven by his enduring love for an unnamed “she” that will “always be what [he] can’t find”. The beauty of the sentiment here is that one can disconnect from everything one knows, but love will always be a force that entwines and connects.
Pinback / Walters : This is probably the least space-y song to make an appearance here, and in order to even reach the possibility of its inclusion, a couple of logical leaps are necessary. The song concerns a man who ties himself to a deck chair and floats away, all the while screaming “get me down”. It’s a terrifying prospect, the idea of floating away and not being in-control of any sort of descent. But, if you squint just the right way, you can pick up the glimmer of the dream that started it all: the idea that he wanted to leave his life and fly off into the unknown. Similarly, if he keeps ascending, there is only one place for him to go. The ideas in this song are similar enough to those behind other space-based art that I think it makes sense here.
2 Skinnee J's / Pluto : When I was a child in the 1980’s, things were simpler when it came to science. Greenhouse gases trapped in heat and made things warmer, dinosaurs were large and terrifying reptiles, and our solar system had exactly nine planets. At the risk of sounding like an aging, grumpy dude talking about the "old days", things are more complicated now and I am not always here for it: the truth of climate change is now politicized beyond the scope of reasonability so that it’s difficult to tell facts from lies; dinosaurs apparently had feathers (which makes them somewhat less scary...but still really cool – honestly, this one is a wash); and our solar system is made of eight planets, and crazy rings of debris and space rocks (or something), and way out there is Pluto – a large-ish spherical thingy that doesn’t even qualify as a planet anymore. 2 Skinnee J’s use Pluto's plight as a plea for reason, likening its status downgrade to legislation aimed at immigrants ("To deport it's an offense / it's an upstanding member of the solar system"). Importantly, the band understands the issue here, and all they want is fairness and consistency as they plead, “do it for the children, if not for yourselves”. I can get all the way behind this. #reppinforpluto2018
Mutual Benefit / Terraform : As far as I know, "Terraform" is the only song on this list actually created using audio from space. Well, OK, there’s a bit more to it – the short version is that frequencies of celestial bodies were translated into audio, and the audio was given to several artists for Lefse Records’ compilation, The Space Project. While many of the songs are space themed (naturally), this one stands out as using particularly appropriate symbolism for a relationship, begging the object of the narrator’s affection to “terraform this barren heart”. While a bit heavy-handed as a metaphor, the song crackles brilliantly with subtle emotion and the music lends a catchiness and urgency that keeps things engaging.
UNKLE / Celestial Annihilation : Unkle’s 1998 breakout Psyence Fiction leans heavily into sci-fi tropes even if the subject matter doesn’t always follow the same influences. Among the brilliant collaborations and classic songs lies this instrumental gem that uses samples from old movies and radio plays to recreate the excitement of an aerial dogfight in the cosmos. Owing equally to the tenets of Noir, Futurism, Hip-Hop, and to DJ Shadow’s mastery of musicality, this track deserves a lot of credit for the way it showcases the aesthetic of Unkle and provides thematic glue for the album.
Shabazz Palaces / Moon Whip Quäz : Other songs may imagine First Contact, that mythical moment when humans meet representatives of an extraterrestrial race - "Moon Whip Quäz" is the song that actually provides it. Over an addictive beat with retro leanings, Shabazz Palaces give voice to their own literary creation by introducing us to Quazarz, an alien "born on a gangster planet" and sent to observe humanity. The song is danceable like old school hip-hop but reverent to the Sci-Fi ideas that it extrapolates from, never using them for anything cheap or gimmicky. If anyone were going to travel light-years through space to bring a message to Earth, one could only hope it would turn out to be something this bouncy and flow-tastic.
Spiritualized / Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space : There are a couple of ways to read “we are floating in space” within the context of Spiritualized and this album: 1) as a riff on J. Spaceman’s (ahem) continued fascination with the outer reaches, one that imagines the sublime feeling of floating without gravity while being completely relaxed and in-tune with all; and 2) as a riff on the fact that the album is packaged to look like a pharmaceutical product, with the “weightlessness” being a pleasant side effect of a particular drug. While I grant that the subtext of #2 is probably more in keeping with where Spiritualized was at the time (see also: recreational drug use), I choose to believe that the more overt #1 holds some water here. And besides, if this gorgeously melodic backdrop isn’t the perfect aural equivalent of what weightlessness feels like, than I don’t wanna know.
Lou Reed / Satellite of Love : Lou Reed earned and kept up his reputation by being confrontational to audiences and establishments alike, but the man could croon with the best of them. As such, it was always a special treat when we got a window into his softer side. Out of dozens of well-known songs about satellites, this one is the most iconic and arguably the biggest pleasure to listen to (Guster’s is a close second). But the fact that its lyrics present real space imagery means it’s also the best fit on this list. “Satellite’s gone way up to Mars / soon it’ll be filled with parking cars” – this is the rare piece of social commentary that manages to capture both futuristic fear and dystopian present, and the even rarer one that makes it sound pleasant.
Man or Astroman? / With Automatic Shutoff : A mad scientist's concoction of odd sound effects, aggressive bass picking, clattering drums, and dissonant guitar, held together with vocals that sound like the product of a hive-mind - to listen to this track is to be assimilated into an alien culture, but the successful melding of left-field experimentalism into high-energy rock is well worth it.
Hum / Little Dipper : A band who titled their third and most well-known album You'd Prefer An Astronaut can be expected to have a preoccupation with space, and nowhere is that more apparent than then on the LP's opening salvo, "Little Dipper". When taken together, the mix of lyrics about space ("She's at the milky way now / spelling into snow") and the shoegaze-inspired layering of heavy guitar can be said to create genre unto itself, let's call it "stargaze". The dense instrumentation also calls to mind to the specific strain of anxiety we imagine when we consider being faced with the limitlessness of a universe that is still expanding around us, wholly uninterested in our emotions.
Japanese Breakfast / Soft Sounds From Another Planet : Perhaps one of the flimsier entries here, thematically speaking, in that beyond the name there isn’t that much to make it a “space song”. But considering that the album for which it is the title track was originally conceived of as a space-set rock opera, its place on this list seems more than justified. The fact that the album didn’t necessarily end up as expected at its outset doesn’t take anything away from its charm, instead it shows how the journey can often lead to a different destination than planned and be more affecting because of it. Few ideas encapsulate the idea of space travel so fundamentally.
Prodigy / Out of Space : I never understood why this track is called “Out OF Space” as opposed to “OutER Space”, but then again I gave up trying to understand Prodigy's syntactical idiosyncrasies around the time they came up with a song called “Climbatize”. All kidding aside, the dub/reggae grooves here do double duty during the song's refrains: calling to mind, not unlike Spiritualized above, both leaving Earth’s orbit and leaving one’s headspace with the aid of narcotics. The frenetic synth-based segments amp the energy up to something approximating a shuttle launch to bring a shifting but ultimately coherent balance to one of the 90’s best rave-culture jams. “I’ll take your brain to another dimension / pay close attention!” Indeed.
The Long Winters / The Commander Thinks Aloud : The Long Winters’ entry on this list is easily the most devastating. The narrative follows the thoughts of a space flight’s officer as the craft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and begins to disintegrate. What begins with the narrator looking forward to all the small pleasures of being on earth (“Dogs and birds on lawns”) and proceeds through the excitement of their imminent arrival ("Can you feel it? We're almost home") ends with an unbelievable sense of loss upon the realization that they won’t see their homes again (“The crew compartment’s breaking up”). It’s a testament to the song that we not only feel empathy for the character, but also for the rest of the crew, and their families, and the ground control team that can’t do anything but watch and listen as their comrades give up the ghost ("Houston knows the score"), all of which is bolstered by the fact that the song is based on the actual ill-fated Columbia mission that ended in the loss of seven crew members in 2003, the fifteenth anniversary of which is this very month. But even among all that untold pain, there is a sense of euphoria here musically that serves the song well and does right by those departed heroes, perhaps providing a minuscule amount of relief and closure to a tragic chapter in NASA's history.
Daft Punk / Contact : There are so many Daft Punk songs to choose from for this list. Discovery alone contains at least three songs that could easily qualify (“Aerodynamic”, “Voyager”, and “Veridis Quo”), but each of them would take varying amounts of wrangling to fit into our “space song” conceit. Not so with “Contact” – with its opening sample of astronauts communicating with their land-based counterparts and describing a spinning object that defies classification, it becomes a song that is manifestly dedicated to the idea of far-off contact with something unknowable. As if that weren’t enough, the song’s final moments give an ear-splitting ode to the idea of accelerating into (or out of) Earth’s gravity, ratcheting up the tension until it’s almost unbearable before one final push and then the prolonged sound of the boosters fading, depleted. The cut is emblematic of the French duo who have never shied away from sci-fi, cultivating associations with both Interstella 5555 and the Tron franchise, but beyond that it is categorically brilliant as a piece of electronic music (though much of the instrumentation is live, listen to those DRUMS!). On an album where it seemed no ending would be able to top the achievements of the previous 68 minutes, DP push out past music, past convention, and past humanity itself to find the possibility of something even greater among the stars.
Whether you're into heavy falcons or just love the escapism of music for its own sake, I hope this playlist provides suitable accompaniment while you look at the stars, or perhaps allows you to connect (or reconnect) with something, be it a song, artist, or idea. Infinity awaits...let's go.