"Ypsilanti / Oh, how they love to get down."
- Lee Osler, Back to Ypsilanti
Unsurprisingly, there are a ton of great songs about Detroit. It is, after all, one of the greatest music cities in the world. But based on our unscientific study, it seems Ypsilanti comes in second place for the Michigan city with the most songs written about it, with Kalamazoo not far behind in third place. In part that’s because Ypsi is a fantastic city, but also because it has an unusual name – much like Kalamazoo. It’s the same reason there are a lot of songs about Albuquerque or Timbuktu.
Concentrate's story this week on the Ypsi music scene seemed like a good prompt to put together a list of some of the best songs about Ypsi. Of course any list of great songs about Ypsi has to start with ...
1. Lee Osler, Back To Ypsilanti
This gem of a song was self-released by Lee Osler on his own Mustache Records label back in 1983 as a B-side. The song kicks off with a somewhat cheesy keyboard horn fanfare before immediately kicking into some highly danceable, early Prince-inspired funk. If you somehow haven’t heard this yet, prepare to be delighted. As an added bonus check out the video below of Osler's kids bumping the song in their car and singing it for their dad. A copy of the 45 will set you back $20-$50 if you can find it. Osler still lives in town and you can see his paintings at the Parkridge Community Center.
2. The Gories, Chick-Inn
The Detroit garage rock legends' ode to Ypsi’s most famous drive-in on Holmes Road came about pretty much by accident. "I love old hamburger stands and just stumbled across the place while I was in Ypsilanti," says Gories vocalist and guitarist Danny Kroha. "I went back there last year with my wife and thought it was cool to see our song mentioned in the menu." Here’s to hoping he writes a song about Roy’s Squeeze Inn next.
3. The Stooges, Born in a Trailer
Admittedly more of a jam than a song. While this never appeared on an official Stooges LP, it’s pretty easily tracked down. Frontman Iggy Pop immortalizes the Ypsi trailer park he grew up in in this song. The trailer park is still there – Coachville Gardens on Carpenter, just north of Target.
4. Protomartyr, Ypsilanti
Protomartyr was Detroit’s biggest indie breakthrough band last year, and their Ypsi song is also the darkest on this list. It’s inspired by the book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, which documents a controversial experiment placing three paranoid schizophrenic patients who all believed they were Jesus Christ together at Ypsilanti State Hospital.
5. Sufjan Stevens, For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
From Sufjan Stevens' breakthrough 2003 album Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State, part of his never-completed project to record an album for each U.S. state.
6. Flashpapr, Free Rides on The Bus
It's a mystery why this ode to the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority’s go!pass (a free bus pass for employees of businesses within the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority's boundaries) never got used in an ad for the program. The song by Fred Thomas’ acoustic quintet was largely inspired by Thomas' rides from his Ypsi home to his job at Encore Records in Ann Arbor. Fittingly, the song was released in 2004 on Thomas' Ypsilanti Records label.
7. Boomerang Gaines featuring Lady Heat, Ypsilanti
Ypsi rapper, motivational speaker, podcast host, and city human relations commissioner Ka'Ron "Boomerang" Gaines intended this as a "very educational" song, and he certainly succeeded. His rhymes pack in a great primer on Ypsi history, as well as references to Ypsi destinations like Abe's Coney Island. And thanks to Lady Heat's soulful chorus and backing vocals, it's hard to get this song's sunny hooks out of your head.
8. Ypsi instrumentals
Ypsi has also inspired at least two great instrumentals. Athletic Mic League’s MC 14KT spent many years in Ypsi after his band split up, honing his craft as a producer before moving to California. Ypsilanti is from his 2008 album The Golden Hour.
Songwriter, producer, and U-M grad Joe Henry’s instrumental Ypsilanti curiously appears on the soundtrack to the Judd Apatow film Knocked Up. The film does not take place in, nor was it filmed in, Michigan.
9. Great Ypsi songs you can't find online
Two great compilations of Ypsi musicians came out in 2006. Sadly, you can’t find any of the music on them online. There’s Ypsilanti Records' Ypsilanti Folk Singers, which served as an inspiration for Matt Jones' River Street Anthology project and Cerberus Records' Ypsisongs. Seems like Ypsi is well overdue for another local compilation. Similarly, these Ypsi-related singles are all worth a listen, but you'll have to track down the 45s: Nancy Adams' Ypsilanti, Randy Barlow's Willow Run, and the Hentchmen's Ypsilanti's Newest Hitmakers.
BONUS: The worst songs about Ypsi
Maybe not exactly an artist, but more of a one-man Spotify content machine, The Guy Who Sings Songs About Cities and Towns has the dubious honor of having created the worst song about Ypsi. Ypsilanti Song is from his 83-track album Michigan, MI USA Terrific Fun, if you’re in the mood to punish yourself. If you enjoy that, he has 10 other alter egos such as The Guy Who Sings Your Name Over and Over on Spotify.
Coming in second is The Ypsi Anthem by Yung Kweezy and Bill Dolla, which admittedly has its tongue firmly planted in cheek.
This is by no means a complete list. Arguably, the real reason music lists exist is to just get a good discussion going. Feel free to add some of your favorites below in the comments.
Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer.