My Dopamine Hits Playlist (and why you should make your own)

“We’re going to snatch every bit of joy we can out of this moment, because that’s what it’s about now.” –Rhiannon Giddens, at what we now know was, sadly, the very last Rhythm and Roots Festival, 2021, Charlestown, RI

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a DJ–the radio kind, not the standing at a mixing board in front of a dance floor kind. I had forgotten all about that dream before I was old enough to pursue it, but I still love curating music, and have always made mixed tapes, then CD’s, and now digital playlists. I’ve shared a couple of them here on this blog related to the 2020 election, but other than that, it’s been mostly a private pastime. Maybe that’s because sharing music can be oddly personal. If you’ve seen the movie “Begin Again,” (and if not, you should!) you might remember when the main character, songwriter Gretta, was reluctant to share the music on her phone with her new friend and record producer because it contained “many embarrassing, guilty pleasures.” There are a few of those on the list I’m sharing here.  

It’s February—the coldest month of the year here in New England. Not the darkest, but the bleakest. The time when winter blues can hit some of us hard (not every year for me anymore, yay!). This is a playlist for when I need a little pick-me-up. I started it a while back, but added most of the songs in January, a time when most of us are doing some type of reflection, so it was a good time to think of ways to keep my mood elevated through the rest of the winter. Making this playlist has helped me start the New Year off in a positive way. 

DISCLAIMER: I’m not suggesting it’s always a good idea to try and engineer a better mood. Sometimes, we just need to feel our painful, uncomfortable feelings without trying to chase them away with music or anything else. In fact, I have another playlist for times when what I really need is to wallow in it for a little while, but that’s another post for another day. 

DISCLAIMER #2: Yes, I thought about whether I should be sharing or even still using material off Spotify. I would rather support platforms that don’t promote and profit from the conspiracy theorists and science deniers who have prolonged this pandemic and contributed to countless preventable deaths and mass suffering. Plus, I hear the sound is much better on other platforms. So I will probably switch eventually, but right now that’s way down low on the to-do list. After the Dakota Access Pipeline atrocities, I made a decision to remove our tiny little speck of business from two of the big banks funding that project by refinancing our mortgage and switching bank accounts to our local credit union. It took me three years to get around to it, but I finally did.

Ok, moving on. This is not even a list of my very favorite songs, necessarily. Some of them might be, but there are so, so many I love as much or more that don’t belong on this playlist, simply because they evoke different feelings. These songs light me up in a particular way. I catch myself smiling spontaneously. I CAN’T not sing. Some of them might provoke raucous chair dancing while driving (which could also be embarrassing, but whatever). And if I really needed another cup of coffee some morning, one of these songs would have the same effect, energy-wise. In other words, if I need a boost for my mood or energy level or both, these songs will do it, reliably. 

This playlist is heavily skewed to songs that are many decades old. My kids would say, “That’s because you’re an Old Head listening to Old Head music, Mom.” And sure, that’s part of it. But when I started digging and learning more about dopamine responses to music, another reason for this became clear. Dopamine involves memory in the sense that when its release is associated with a particular stimulus, the brain is prompted to seek out that same stimulus over and over, and repeating the experience becomes a positive feedback loop. (That’s why it’s the primary neurotransmitter that drives addictions.) Take two songs you love that are both “up” songs for you, one from back in the day and one newer one, and the one you have a history with will probably deliver a stronger dopamine response because it’s been reinforced repetitively over time. Understanding this, I’m not surprised this list is mostly older stuff, and the newer songs tend to be the ones I’ve been obsessed with and had on repeat for weeks. 

A few of them are there because they hold that special kind of excitement that comes from hearing a song and feeling the hair on the back of your neck stand up while you say to yourself, OMG WHO is THAT?! And nothing else can happen until you find out. 

Lyle Lovett—walking past Goldy Records on Thayer Street and hearing that song coming from their outdoor speakers ,and running up the stairs to ask who it was. 

PJ Harvey—driving up Doyle Avenue, PRAYING the DJ would announce who it was after the song was over (no Shazam app back then!). 

Sarah Jarosz—sitting in labor room 18 at the hospital in the wee hours of the night with a beautiful laboring woman who needed some music and didn’t bring any, so I found a blank CD someone had left in the old CD player we had (this was before EVERYONE, not just the early adopters, just played music on their phones). It was so unexpected and so perfect for that moment, and I knew I had found a new forever favorite. Since it was a blank CD with nothing written on it, and no one working that night knew who it was or even whose CD it was, the next day I had to google lyrics I had made a point to memorize, until I found her name. 

Some of them, older still (like Hall and Oates) are tied up with childhood memories of hanging out in the backyard at single-digit ages with my little transistor radio, listening to Kasey Kasem’s top 40. Or running errands with my mom, singing along to some of her favorite songs in the car (Gary Wright, Doobie Brothers). Or the tangible body memory of putting the same record on my turntable in my bedroom, dropping the needle on the precise spot over and over—the Old Head version of “on repeat,” if you will (Grease soundtrack). 

One of the songs, “Take the Long Way Home,” is one that never particularly resonated when it came out, by a band I had absolutely no use for. Then, years later, I read a novel whose title I don’t even remember, but the main character talked about that song as the one that never failed to make him feel better when he was down. So I gave it a fresh listen and GOT IT. 

Still other songs got me through specific ordeals or entire time periods. Our Lips are Sealed helped me weather years of being slut-shamed in high school. Now it works not only as general mood-lifter, but also for times when I’m a little too concerned with what people think. As a teen, listening to Led Zeppelin, Prince, the Allman Brothers, Aerosmith, Little Feat—walking for hours while chain smoking, never without my Walkman—absolutely helped me survive a couple of particularly hellish years. In adolescence and through my 20’s, music was just about the only healthy thing I used to alter my mood.   

Speaking of The Go Go’s, that and the Police song are tied to the very specific memory of those being the first two songs on an episode of “Video Jukebox,” the half hour video series that ran on HBO in the early 80’s. I waited for it to come on again so I could put my little tape recorder next to the TV and stand there, hand poised over it to make sure to press “record” at precisely the right time. (Fellow Gen-X’ers know)

Springsteen’s lyric in Thunder Road–

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night

You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re alright

Oh, and that’s alright with me

Only recently have I been able to pinpoint why I always loved that lyric so much (besides the fact it’s awesome songwriting). When I was younger, that line made me feel OK about not being pretty enough (you know, by the usual standards…).

And Statesboro Blues—because the first words, “Wake up, Mama” spurred the stream of consciousness that led to naming this blog. And because Allman Brothers concerts were a huge part of my teenage years. I never missed them if they played near me, and theirs are still some of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, even decades later. And because thinking about it sparks nostalgia for some long-ago gone and more recently lost Rhode Island institutions where I saw them play. The Leroy Theater. McCoy Stadium. 

Those are just a few—lots of other goodies in there–72 of them at last count!

Because dopamine is tied to memory, my list, while it could have some overlap with someone else’s, can work only for me in its entirety, and yours might work only for you—even if we happened to have near-identical taste in music. Because our memories are different, even within the same genre or artists or generational cultural frame of reference, our neural pathways are likely wired up with different songs.  Apparently, there is science to support this: 

“Hearing a song from our adolescence brings back a flood of feelings and memories. But why do those songs have such a strong hold on our emotional core? Our brains develop rapidly between ages 12 and 22 (there’s a reason they call it our “formative” years), so when we make a connection to a song during that time, it’s a strong neurological connection. The massive rush of hormones associated with our pubescent years tells our brains that everything is super important, and that includes whatever music we’re listening to at the time. That’s why when we hear a true throwback to our high school days, it’s a powerful thing.”  —SCL Health

This reminds me of a fun game I like to play: Say a song I grew up with comes on the car radio and I’m all excited to hear it and sing every word. But t’s definitely NOT one of the handful of artists I loved back then whose whole catalogs I still go out of my way to listen to. I try to listen to the song objectively and decide if I only love it because it’s nostalgic or if I would like it if I heard it for the first time today. I never find this question easy to answer! I guess that’s because there’s a lot of complex brain science involved. 

I hope you enjoy at least some of this evolving playlist. I would love to hear yours—please drop it in the comments!