Thirty is one of those ages that causes reflection on the people, events, and decisions that got you this far. Personally, if only for my own curiosity, I wanted to take a look back on the songs and artists that made an impact on my life. My favorite feature over at Pitchfork is called “5-10-15-20″ and consists of musicians talking about their biggest influences over the years. Full credit to them for the idea as we explore 3 to 30:
Elvis Presley – “Suspicious Minds”
While I can’t claim to have any specific memories of this song (or any song) from when I was three years old, I know that my parents listened to some specific artists. My dad never actively listened to music when I was around, but we talked about music quite a bit. He saw early concerts by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, among others, but his most memorable was catching Elvis Presley in Las Vegas in the late ’60s after returning from Vietnam. He once told me that “Suspicious Minds” was his favorite song of all time, so I have to figure the tune found its way into my ears at young age.
The Beatles – “Yesterday”
Similar to the Elvis entry, this song stems from my parents’ taste. My mom was a huge Beatles fan and – since girls had to take sides back then – a huge Paul McCartney fan. She often recounts the two times she saw the Beatles perform, where she no doubt screamed “Paul!” for two hours straight. There’s not much to say about “Yesterday” other than the fact that it might be Paul’s best song. If not the best, I feel like it’s the one most closely associated with him. Regardless, it’s a great song and as the Beatles have influenced countless others, they definitely factor heavily into the development of my musical tastes.
Foreigner – “I Want to Know What Love Is”
I wanted to start this list at age three because it was a good number to match up with 30, but I didn’t have any additional “sentimental” songs to include prior to my earliest musical memory. That’s where Foreigner comes in. In my last music discussion with my dad, while watching a performance of an ’80s song on “American Idol”, he mentioned to me that “I Want to Know What Love Is” was his favorite song from the decade. I couldn’t help but laugh because in a time with so much exciting music, this song oozes with AOR cheese: backing choir, airy synth, big, but brainless, sing-along chorus. I have to admit that upon further listening, I actually started to like parts of this song. The opening vocal melody is great and the dreamy pop style is reminiscent of a lot of bands that are popular right now. Furthermore, the song is way better than Foreigner’s adult contemporaries Styx, Journey, et al.
Billy Joel – “Uptown Girl”
Okay, now we’re on to my legitimate first musical memory. I had probably heard this song many times prior, but I have a specific memory of sitting in my mom’s car listening to “Uptown Girl” while we were at a gas station. Aside from being masterfully written and performed, the song is an incredibly infectious pop jam. In turn, I remember singing along in my head to the catchy “whoa-oh-oh-oh” bridge part repeatedly instead of switching back to the verse. When that phrase repeats at the end of the song, I was shocked to find that what I was singing matched up exactly with the song. I wouldn’t learn what a time signature was for many years to come, but learning what rhythm was from Billy Joel is my earliest and possibly most profound musical memory.
Phil Collins – “Two Hearts”
This is another song first heard in my mom’s car. We’d just moved to Yorba Linda and my mom had the cassette soundtrack to the movie “Buster”, which also starred Phil Collins. I actually have still never seen the movie, but what I remember most distinctly about this song was the way his voice sounded. There was a richness to it that I was attracted to and would appreciate later in vocalists like Jeremy Enigk and Ben Gibbard. I went on to listen to a lot of Phil Collins, which led to Genesis, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, and the other logical connections, all because of this song.
New Kids on the Block – “Step by Step”
As embarrassing at it is, Step by Step was the first CD I ever owned and I listened to it a lot. I wasn’t obsessed with individual band members or their dancing and didn’t even really like or know their other albums aside from the singles, but I genuinely liked this album’s 12 songs. I remember being particularly interested in the strings on “Tonight” and was quite curious about the “rapping” on “Call It What You Want”. My favorite song was the lead single “Step by Step” because of its vocal melody, propulsive beat, and synth parts. Listening to these songs again is a challenging experience and I can’t specifically say what influence this album had on my tastes (maybe my enduring love for Justin Timberlake?), but for at least a year this was the whole of music to me.
The Simpsons – “Do the Bartman”
Having already been banned from watching The Simpsons at home, I was ecstatic when one of my buddies in the 4th grade dubbed me a copy of the Michael Jackson-penned song from the show’s soundtrack Sing the Blues. After listening to the song on repeat for days on end, my mom eventually caught me and threw the cassette away. It was too late, however, as the damage had already been done. No, I did not follow Bart’s lead and challenge the authority of my elementary school staff. I had become a life-long fan of the The Simpsons. Although, I did get my friend to make me another copy a few weeks later, so maybe Bart was a bad influence on me.
“Weird Al” Yankovic – “Fat”
Perhaps because of my love for “Do the Bartman” – or maybe the simple fact that I was a kid – the first genre of music I started exploring extensively was novelty music. A couple friends and I would listen to and record Dr. Demento’s radio show as often as possible and swap tapes with each other if we missed a week. Weird Al is obviously the undisputed king of the genre and it’s no question why. His talent is genuine and, as anyone who has attended one of his yearly OC Fair appearances can attest to, he is an impressive performer. In addition to his talents, Al has always had a finger in the pop culture zeitgeist. “Fat” is a great parody not just because it’s clever, but because it came at the height of Michael Jackson’s pop relevance. Another great example is his “Trapped In the Closet” parody.
Pearl Jam – “Oceans”
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Pearl Jam, so it should go without saying that the first moment I heard their music changed not just the way I think about music but changed the course of my life. Their impact on me in my most formative years is too profound to go into here, but my first steps into understanding music, art, poetry, and even things like love and death started the day my new brother and best friend Hesam walked across the street with the Ten cassette. Ten was released a week after my 10th birthday, but the night I heard it was another year or so later. That was just fine with me at the time because the wait for Vs. was a lot shorter.
Everything about Ten was magical to me: Eddie’s voice, the crazy guitar sound, the live footage in the videos, the handwritten liner notes with their scratched out words and secret messages. The songs are permanently burned into my brain. Two years after hearing it, my schoolmates and I sang the album a cappella, start to finish, on a particularly long walk through Madrid. Twenty years later, I still hold the same revelry for the album, even though I don’t listen to it very often. I don’t really need to.
My favorite moments on Ten aren’t found in “Oceans”. Those moments would be the impassioned bridge in “Black”, the ferocity of “Porch”, Mike McCready’s guitar solo in “Even Flow”, and the beauty of “Release”. “Oceans”, however, was the song that always stood out to me the most on that album. At the time, I remember it sounding like nothing else I’d ever heard before. I loved how circular the song sounds – almost like being caught in an ocean swell. The open-D tuning, the flanger effect on the vocals, and unconventional percussion (tympani, pepper shaker, and fire extinguisher) all left me flummoxed at the time. I still can’t wrap my head around the mysterious bass tone. “Oceans” also opened the set the first time I saw Pearl Jam live in November of 1995.
Nirvana – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
I was probably a little too young to be in the social position of picking sides between Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but we all know which team I’d end up on. To be honest, I didn’t understand Nirvana at first. I liked all the radio singles well enough, but I didn’t have the necessary frame of reference to understand Kurt Cobain’s music. Had I been five years older, Nevermind would have resonated much more deeply than it did as a middle-schooler. While I would grow to love Nirvana, their MTV Unplugged in New York television show and album were an instant hit with me.
The acoustic format made all the songs a little bit more accessible to me, but the covers were really what grabbed my attention. The Meat Puppets songs were my immediate favorites, but there is one special moment in “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” that sticks with me to this day. In the last line of the song, right after Kurt sings “the whole…”, he pauses and looks dead ahead in this insane and intimate moment of clarity before continuing the song. It’s as if all the emotions of that entire song, the Unplugged performance, Nirvana’s career, and his own life came together in a singular moment. It’s haunting. Even more so considering he was dead five months later. It affects me to this day and I’m hard pressed to think of a better live moment in all of music.
Weezer – “In the Garage”
While I might not have had enough angst built up to fully understand Nirvana, I could definitely relate to the youthful alienation in Weezer’s self-titled debut. I felt like “In the Garage” was speaking directly to me – swapping KISS for Pearl Jam, of course. This was my final year of middle school and the stars aligned to give me a great soundtrack to my waning adolescence. Dookie, Diary, Jar of Flies, Vitalogy, and the “Blue Album” all got me through a really tough year.
Radiohead – “High and Dry”
I don’t need to tell anyone how good Radiohead or The Bends is. To put it simply, “High and Dry” is the song that made me want to learn to sing and play guitar. I never really accomplished either of those things, but I can certainly bust out an identifiable rendition of this fantastic song. “The Bends” was the first album to spark my musical imagination; I wanted to be Eddie Vedder, but Radiohead made me want to make music. They still inspire me to this day as they undoubtedly do to countless others.
Tool – “Ænema”
I listened to a lot of metal during the second half of high school. I mean, like, a lot. It just seemed right at the time and I’m sure teenagers still listen to metal – or Odd Future – as an outlet for their frustration. Nevertheless, amongst all the shitty nu-metal (which I still listened to) there was a number of great heavy albums that came out in the later part of the 90s. I will defend to this day acts like System of a Down and Deftones, but the best of the bunch and the band I still listen to the most is Tool. Ænima is their best album on many levels: the right balance of prog and metal, acerbic lyrics, and a fresh style. “Ænema” is the perfect song for an angsty teen in Southern California – so satisfying were the images of all the “fake” people in the city meeting their death in the Pacific.
Mineral – “Gloria”
I went to Palm Desert one weekend to visit my childhood best friend (a very talented and successful guy) and while discussing Queens of the Stone Age, he told me about three records I had to hear. They were At the Drive-In’s In/Casino/Out, Pinback’s debut, and The Power of Failing. Those might have been the best music recommendations I’ve ever received as they helped me discover music that I still cherish today. Mineral has many detractors, but they are one of my all-time favorite bands and Chris Simpson may be my favorite lyricist.
Unlike most of the 2nd wave emo/post-hardcore indie rock/whatever-you-want-to-call-them bands, Simpsons lyrics weren’t about girls and the inability to talk to them, they were about deeper, more meaningful scenarios. I can’t listen to “Gjs” without being brought to tears thinking of my own father and “Slower” perfectly encapsulates the helpless feeling of realizing that life isn’t fair, but we’re stronger because of that fact. “Gloria” might be Mineral’s most “emo” song, but Simpson handles unrequited love in a much less juvenile and more poetic way than his peers. The song’s chorus remains the high water mark for the genre: “Cause I just want to be something more than the mud in your eyes / I want to be the clay in your hands.” I could probably talk about this band for hours so I’ll cut it short, but Mineral is a big part of my musical identity and I’ll always be grateful to Joseph for the tip.
Sigur Rós – “Svefn-g-englar”
I heard Sigur Rós during my first week of college. My music composition teacher also performed in an avant-garde chamber group and one of his bandmates had turned him on to this otherworldly outfit from Iceland. He played “Svefn-g-englar” for our class and we were all left speechless. It was alien music – the sound of an endless, beautiful dream. Its very existence seemed impossible and I often wish I could hear Sigur Rós again for the first time. A handful of my friends and I had the opportunity to see them play at the Wiltern in 2002 and I’ll never forget looking down our row of seats at all of the rapt faces and watery eyes. The fictional languages and twee mannerisms make it easy for some to call the band contrived, but anyone with the power to move that many people to tears – or even to feel something – cannot be dismissed. There is always a place in my world for beautiful, timeless music.
Modest Mouse – “3rd Planet”
Back in the day on LA’s local metal station, KNAC, there was a recurring segment called “Mandatory Metallica”. When I started doing a radio show at KUCI in 2003, I did a weekly feature called “Mandatory Modest Mouse”. That was several years after my first encounter with the band, but upon hearing The Moon and Antarctica for the first time, I knew I’d be a fan of the band for life. I was already familiar with the Pixies and Built to Spill at this point, so the music wasn’t exactly “new” to me, but Isaac Brock’s voice, lyrics, and bizarre phrasing hooked me in a way few singers ever have. The lyrics on “3rd Planet” were so out there that I couldn’t stop listening to them until I’d wrapped my head around it. After all these years, I still find Brock pretty inscrutable – the mystery and magic of “baby cum angels” and hearts dripping pitch stick with me.
Neutral Milk Hotel – “Oh Comely”
Best album ever? Probably. I don’t have any great stories about how I discovered this album and there are no romantic stories about my very first listen. I got the album online, listened to it at my desk, and had my mind blown. The album’s insane and morbid tale are well known, and no song represents all the themes of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea better than “Oh Comely”. I remember being immediately enthralled by the lyrics – much like the aforementioned Modest Mouse song – but it was the two-chord simplicity in which the dense story unravels that had me in awe. I had several folk records, but never before had I heard something so simple and so complex at the same time. I’d always regretted getting into Neutral Milk Hotel a couple years too late to see them live, but thankfully I’ll get to rectify that at the beginning of October. Excitement does not begin to describe the way I feel.
The Books – “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again”
Aside from some 30-second clips online, I really had to work to listen to this album. Thought for Food was released on Tomlab at a time when they didn’t have great distribution in America – I couldn’t even order from their website! Left wanting so much more after the snippets I’d heard, I finally found a link to Amazon where someone was selling the imported album for upwards of $40. I quickly ordered it and have never regretted that purchase. In fact, looking back, I would have paid hundreds for that album (assuming I had hundreds at the time).
The Books have come to define what I think music should sound like. The perfect marriage of art, tone, musicality, and outré ideas. Throw in some digital knob-fuckery and some sparse but bizarre lyrics and you’ve got one of my favorite bands. “Enjoy Your Worries…” was the first Books song I’d ever heard and it is still my favorite of all their myriad winners. The sample of the lady talking about her checks, the frantic, swirling music, and bizarre instrumentation will stay with me forever. I suppose if every artist made music like this I’d be less enthused, but, to me, the Books have stood alone as one of the best bands of the last ten years and perhaps ever.
Iron & Wine – “Lion’s Mane”
Oh, Sam Beam… the love I have for that hirsute man. The Creek Drank the Cradle was a revelation to me in a similar way as Neutral Milk Hotel. The songwriting and melodies were so simple, yet there was a startling mix of darkness and beauty in the songs. However, whereas Neutral Milk Hotel felt alien to me, Iron & Wine seemed to come directly from the earth. Before seeing him live for the first time, I was convinced that his voice naturally sounded like a scratchy piece of vinyl. The subtle charm of “Lion’s Mane” made me want romance in my life – I’d soon go get it – and, more so, made me wish I wrote that song. It’s lovely and perfect.
Four Tet – “No More Mosquitoes”
I’d always listened to electronic music, but not to the extent of my brother. He was listening to a lot of Chemical Brothers and their ilk in high school while I was listening to shitty metal. I’d always liked the Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, the Pi soundtrack, etc., but I never thought seriously about electronic music until I was introduced to Four Tet. I actually heard “No More Mosquitoes” for the first time on a CMJ sampler CD that they included with their monthly magazines. The strange titular sample and the laid-back groove were compelling to me and showed me a side of electronic music that I hadn’t considered before. I practically wore out that CMJ disc just listening to one song. Ironically, “No More Mosquitoes” ended up being one of my least favorite songs on Pause when I finally got the album, which should be a testament to how great a record it is. More importantly than the album itself, Four Tet was the gateway for a lot of music. I quickly devoured the rest of the IDM scene and moved on to glitch and ambient, followed by experimental and straight up noise. The radio show I started a year later, which featured mostly experimental electronic music, wouldn’t have existed were it not for one Four Tet song.
Sufjan Stevens – “To Be Alone with You”
If you’ve read the handful of posts on this blog, then you know my relationship with Sufjan Stevens is strained as of late. When Seven Swans was released, however, I had nothing but pure, unwavering love for the man. I’d heard his Michigan album prior to this and really enjoyed it (and bought it for my Michigander mom for Christmas), but it was this sacred album disguised as secular music that truly won me over. I am not a religious person, but I’m always interested in the art created by the devout; whether it be massive cathedrals or insane outsider paintings, individuals who believe in something so strongly usually create at an equally extreme level. “To Be Alone with You” is one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard and the fact that it’s about [g]od doesn’t change the sentiment or impact of Sufjan’s words. And the whole album is like that: intense, passionate songs that move you despite your relationship with the subject. Additionally, the banjo and acoustic guitar interplay over the course of the album matches the tone perfectly. Seven Swans is my favorite in a catalog of great records, but I truly hope Sufjan returns to these sounds and ideas sooner rather than later.
Joanna Newsom – “Sawdust & Diamonds”
It took me awhile to get past Joanna Newsom’s Lisa Simpson-esque voice and really enjoy her first album. However, upon hearing Ys – and this song specifically – I became her biggest advocate and a fan for life. It was like hearing Björk for the first time (who also deserves a spot on this list, but probably lost out to Pearl Jam or Nirvana). The combination of Newsom’s harp and the orchestration from Van Dyke Parks was transcendent and moved me in a unique way. The bizarre lyrics and twisting melody captured my attention immediately and made the song feel like one minute instead of ten. What’s with the door? The bell? The mystery of the song keeps it magical and keeps me listening time and time again. Despite the track’s length, I’ve probably listened to this song more than any other in the last six years.
Clipse (ft. Slim Thug) – “Wamp Wamp”
This list is woefully short on hip-hop, but that shouldn’t be a reflection of my tastes. Albums like Deltron 3030, Madvillainy, Dr. Octogynocologist, and cLOUDDEAD changed my perception of what the genre is capable of. Tupac, Jay-Z, Aesop Rock, and Lil’ Wayne get frequent “spins” on my iPod. And, according to this blog, Kanye West released my favorite album of last year. It’s Clipse, however, that I listen to and celebrate the most. All the guys I listed have great wordplay, flow, and production, so it can’t be that. It’s certainly not the lyrical content, which is not only unrelatable, but also ably delivered by guys like Ghostface. It’s something intangible that I still have yet to figure out.
Nevertheless, Pusha and Malice have perfect rap voices, swagger, and egos. I don’t believe them for a second when they talk about how they’re still cooking crack, but I’m helplessly compelled by the world they’ve created. They rhyme about an insulated world and unattainable wealth, but their songs are all inclusive. Whereas I know that Immortal Technique would hate on a personal level despite my love for his songs, I feel like Clipse would welcome all comers to “ball around the world” with them. Still, like I sad, I can’t put my finger on the exact reason I love these guys so much, but Hell Hath No Fury is my favorite hip-hop album. *insert Pusha T ughck noise*
The Dodos – “Fools”
In 2008, I’d just returned from South America and found myself dealing with some bouts of listless depression. Not the suicidal, “I hate my life” depression, but indifference towards my job, my living situation, my direction in life. In an uncharacteristically reactionary move, I quit my job and spent the summer on a couch in San Diego playing video games and eating Korean BBQ. Okay, only one of those things is uncharacteristic. Nevertheless, the soundtrack to my summer was The Dodos’ Visiter. I honestly listened to this album multiple times a day for three months, only stopping occasionally to check out the new Immortal Technique and Clipse mixtapes. The Dodos sounded completely fresh to me and it was the perfect sound for that time in my life. The unhinged acoustic guitar, drum rim percussion, and possessed vocals lodged themselves in my brain and helped keep me sane during a really strange time in my life. That aural psychiatric help really worked for me because life only got weirder after that, but I didn’t compromise my new life plan. I’m sitting in a cafe in Brighton, England, listening to Visiter and refusing to compromise.
Bon Iver – “Skinny Love”
I’ll keep this entry short since it seems like there’s a growing backlash towards Justin Vernon and I don’t want to drag myself into some kind of debate because, honestly, the guy doesn’t deserve it. So his songs are in Twilight, so he gets tween panties wet. So what? The guy is amazingly talented and For Emma, Forever Ago is one of the best examples of a musician being so completely immersed in his craft he creates a timeless piece of art. This album found me at time in my life filled with tragedy and loss – I’d already given up on romance and love – but I related to the heartbreak and isolation inherent in the songs and found solace in the music. Say what you will about the oft-told log cabin story or the Bruce Hornsby sound of Bon Iver’s new album, but For Emma… deserves a lot of respect.
Dirty Projectors – Cannibal Resource
I first saw Dirty Projectors open for Xiu Xiu at the Echo back in 2006, I believe. A couple friends at the radio station said that they had the most amazing live show, so I had to go early and catch them. Not only were my friends right, but Dirty Projectors only gets more amazing over time. I think I saw them four times in 2010 and they still haven’t gotten old or failed to impress me. The line-up has changed a bit since I first saw them, but Dave Longstreth seems to have found the best group of musicians to fully support his sound and vision. If Longstreth is the brain then the three female projectors, Amber, Haley, and Angel – oh, how I love Angel – are the backbone. Their intricate harmonies, hocketing, and other vocal calisthenics complement Longstreth’s crooning, but they are also critical to the artistic success of the project as a whole. I could have picked any song from Bitte Orca but “Cannibal Resource” felt like as good a choice as any. It’s the first song on the album and the introduction to a musical masterpiece. This will always be one of my favorite bands.
tUnE-yArDs – “Bizness”
Technically, I’m still listening to this record all the time as I didn’t pick up until the twilight of my twenties. But, I anticipate listening to it all the time for years to come because it’s fucking awesome. I have to admit to judging tUnE-yArDs purely on aesthetics – I thought the band name and spelling was stupid and the female lead of the project was ugly. I know how awful that sounds, especially when the only other female artists on this list are really pretty, but I’m happy to say that I couldn’t have been more wrong or ignorant. Merrill Garbus is incredibly talented and this record is easily one of the standouts of an already great 2011.
I still don’t like the spelling of the name, but it is indicative of the frantic and constantly changing sounds of the album. I feel like “Bizness” is tailor made for my own musical taste. I mean, it opens with cut up vocals! That’s one of my three favorite things in music, along with handclaps and boy/girl harmonies. Of course, the song has much more than that, including manic and arhythmic screaming, a catchy chorus hook that sticks in your brain for days, and a bridge part where the song almost derails by eating itself alive, demonstrating that it isn’t just a song, it’s a living entity. As I’m writing this now, I actually have just returned from seeing tUnE-yArDs live in London and they were fantastic. While the sound isn’t as big as the record, the stripped down instrumentation was tight and Merrill emits pure, infectious joy onstage.
Girls – “Honey Bunny”
Since I’ve only been 30 for a couple weeks, there hasn’t been that much compelling new music, but I have a feeling that if I wrote this a year from now, the new Girls record would still be my pick for the year. I loved their debut and the subsequent EP, but they shattered my expectations when I saw them play at FYF last weekend. I found myself watching the show and wondering what kind of music Kurt Cobain would be writing if he had stuck around a little longer. It might sound something just like this; Christopher Owens is the real deal. The new songs are bright, alive, and stick to your soul. This is the best pop/rock album I’ve heard in a long time.
Jonah’s Onelinedrawing – “14-41″
I hate relegating Jonah to an honorable mention section, but he holds a unique place in my musical life that doesn’t quite fit the theme of this exercise. While I love his music, his real impact on me has more to do with changing my definition of performance, the relationship between audience and artist, and my own music “career”. If you’ve seen Jonah play, you probably know what I’m talking about, but there’s one specific example that illustrates all of these things.
In 2001, just days after 9/11. Jonah came through town with New End Original and decided to book a one-off gig in Fullterton. He put out on open call on his message board for local guys to play short sets before he went on. I decided to participate despite having never played live before and not really liking my own songs very much, but, looking back, I couldn’t be happier that I mustered the courage. Maybe one hundred folks showed up and everyone was still reeling from the attack days earlier and there was a real tension in the room. Jonah set the tone before anyone played and said that we’d have night of communion, share songs, and try to help each other make heads or tails of our feelings. The crowd was silent through all the songs – we were all warmly received – and when Jonah played, in his typical fashion, he would stop mid-song and have open discussions with us.
Needless to say, it helped all of us make a little more sense of a very confusing time. That sort of performer is rare, but it’s something there needs to be more of. Yet, of course, there can only be one Jonah. As for my own songs, I never really played again after that. It just didn’t seem worth it. The memory of playing that show is more than enough of a music “career” for me. As for the song choice, what better tune to end a post all about age?