Many people have mourned the death of music, or at least the music business, over the years. They’ve erroneously blamed a number of innocents including, but not limited to: radio, video, downloading, synthesizers, MuchMusic’s and MTV’s strange love of reality TV, and Justin Bieber (well, there might be a little something in this last one; but let’s imagine music is stronger than one dead-eyed brat from small-town Ontario).
The above have been, and continue to be, challenges to the making of quality popular music, but they have not and will not kill it. The only thing capable of starving music to within an inch of its life is a music-lover deciding to go to grad school.
While the other members of my PhD cohort quickly lost the ability to read just for fun, I retained it–smugly. I righteously proclaimed I would, without regret, drop out if things ever got to that point with me. (I was the last one in my year to finish, which is likely just a coincidence; I don’t even know why I’m mentioning it.)
But I did lose something in grad school that I loved very much: I lost music. It went in degrees, and so I didn’t realize what was happening. At first, while I had neither time nor money to buy new CDs, I still listened to the radio a great deal. But I was listening to small-town pop radio and it wasn’t hearty enough fare to keep me engaged over the long run. When the radio died, I didn’t rush out immediately and adopt a new one.
Then, I listened only to CDs I already had. Later, I regressed into listening to audio files of South Park just to bring some joy into my cursed life in front of the computer screen; I was locked in a fight to the death with a thesis that hated me and wished it’d never been born, so music really got neglected. Then, a long, sad silence.
Eventually, I finished grad school and moved directly into running a bookstore; the people we bought it from left us their iPod and I played it all the time–but it was mostly a collection of olde-timey jazz and show tunes which, while enjoyable, didn’t tend to stick with me. (Indeed, the only tune I can remember now from that seemingly endless collection is a duet, something about Georgia and calling a taxi; but I can’t really remember any of the lyrics or who sang it).
Bored one day after the jazzy loop had looped for the hundredth time, I decided to get all tech-savvy and began searching the lower reaches of this iPod–and something magical happened: I found Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. For the first time in years, I began to take real joy in an album, I found myself committed to learning the lyrics to every song.
And I began recalling things I’d heard before and enjoyed but had never followed up on–like Arcade Fire and Iron & Wine. I began to wake up. Yes, our dearly departed Amy was the prince that kissed me out of my terrible non-music coma. Darling, the following list is for you.
So, this is part one of a two-part list of my favourite albums of all time. My criteria for inclusion: 1) I had to have been entirely obsessed with the album at some point, and for more than 3 months running; 2) I had to have loved every song on the album; and 3) thinking about whether or not to include it on this list made me want to listen to the whole thing again RIGHT NOW.
If you draw any conclusion from the following, it’ll obviously be that I’m extremely cool.
I obviously didn’t listen obsessively to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours when it first came out in 1977; no doubt my Sesame Street album or talking picture book of The Fox and the Hound were my musical loves in those dark times.
I was introduced to the awesomeness that is this record in high school (or maybe first year uni? those years are blurry) when local radio stations inexplicably began playing “Secondhand News” all the time. One of the best songs ever, I figure, but even more so because it started playing on the radio when this guy was breaking up with me in his car; I just turned it up real loud and pretended he wasn’t there and it didn’t go badly at all.
A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of the CD in the bargain bin at a pharmacy and realized I actually knew, and loved, almost every song on it. But listening to the whole thing beginning to end, especially in a rented car speeding out of town for a road trip, makes it sublime. The one song I’d really never heard before, though, I think is the best: “The Chain”, probably the most bitter and satisfying break-up song in the history of the world.
Rain Dogs, Tom Waits (1985) is also a gem of my early childhood that I came to quite late in life, and also by picking up at some insulting (to Tom Waits) discount. I really had never heard of Tom Waits until I met the Catastrophizer and it still took me years to get back to him. Those were empty, barren years without old Tom Frost.
This album is insanely good and totally perfect. It’s also just pure crazy and there’s nothing and no one like Tom Waits in the world. Or, at least, I can’t imagine it–because if you sounded anything like him, wouldn’t people just be punching you in the head all the time for ripping off the genius?
I don’t know how to choose favourites from this album so here are the two that make me most wish I could engage in some demonic modern dance and not embarrass anyone: “Singapore” and “Cemetery Polka”.
MuchMusic, the Canadian counterpart to MTV, introduced me to Robbie Robertson and his superlative self-titled album (1987). They played the super-hot video for “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” all the time, and it may single-handedly have caused me to go into puberty over-drive. Christ, that voice! So. Damned. Sexy. And he’s like my dad’s age. Come on. You have to have a pretty sexy voice if that doesn’t turn a 12-year off you.
A totally not sexy but good story song is “Showdown at Big Sky”; and then there’s “Broken Arrow”–a beautiful song ruined by that shriveled disease of a pop singer, Rod Stewart. I don’t need to tell you how disturbing it is to think I like any of the same music as Rod Stewart. (And yet, he also did a terrible and cheek-rending cover of Tom Waits’s “Downtown Train”. This bastard has to be stopped.)
1987 was the year of the British invasion–of my heart. For not only was I introduced to Depeche Mode, but that was also the year Shakespeare became part of my soul; we read Romeo and Juliet in school in English class. Shakespeare and DM together changed so much–I began abandoning the V.C. Andrews and the Whitesnake in favour of more cultured intellectual and artistic pursuits. From this album of pure synthy and slightly pervy perfection\; “Strangelove” and “Never Let Me Down”.
It’s funny that 1987 was such a good year for music–it was one of the worst of my life. Maybe that’s why I was so aware of the music, which maybe made that year not as bad as I’ve always remembered it to be. Well, that’s an insoluble pancake I’ll leave for another day.
U2’s The Joshua Tree is one of those special albums that not only contains only amazing songs, but its unreleased singles are infinitely more awesome than the ones everyone knows because of constant TV and radio rotation.
“With or Without You”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”–my god, yes. Brilliant. But people: You don’t know how amazing U2 actually are (were? sigh) until you find yourself overwhelmed by “Exit” or “Running to Stand Still” or “Mothers of the Disappeared”. Genius, genius, genius. Also perfect. Genius ad infinitum, forever, and beyond redundancy because one can’t put a limit on the genius of this album. How did “Lemon” ever come into being after a collection like this? *Tears hair*
Yes, another Depeche Mode–this time 1990‘s Violator. I think I adore(d) this album even more than Music for the Masses. It’s a sign of how deeply catchy this whole record is, not that my step-father grooved to it the whole way overland between Edmonton and Victoria, but that I loved it just as much after this trip as I had before it.
If an old step-dad doesn’t test your love of a favourite album, then listening to it while driving through the backwoods of west coast redneckland will; I recall waking up (I napped a great deal in the back seat during this trip) to note two things: Violator was still playing, and we had just passed through the 30th circle of hell, also known as Spuzzum, BC. For realz. Violator remained an untouched thing of beauty after this trip, thus proving its perfection and durability.
Two things. First, “Policy of Truth”, not either “Enjoy the Silence” or “Personal Jesus”, is the best song on this record, although both those songs are totally boss. Second, there is a DM cover band (called DMK) in Bogota, Columbia comprising a dad and his adorable kids; together they are pretty much the best damned thing that’s ever happened on the interwebs.
Once upon a time, I was pretty good at doing math(s) in everyday situations like buying or selling things in stores. (I know this is no longer the case as the owner of my favourite coffee shop recently mocked me as he watched me flounder and flop about trying to make sure I gave the barista a proper tip.)
I was also pretty good at math(s) as a subject in school in the 80s and 90s, although by grade 12, it was becoming less natural; indeed, I could only really get into a math-studying groove while listening to music, but not just any music: only U2, and only Achtung Baby (1991).
I still love this album; I think it’s not as truly great, overall, as The Joshua Tree which is a once in a lifetime sort of affair, but Achtung Baby still takes me higher. Every song is super-awesome but “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “The Fly” are the ones that still make me want to do math(s) and dance simultaneously. And that’s saying something for someone who hasn’t done math(s) in 20 years or danced in 10.
Part two coming up…sometime this summer. Summer jams should be spread out and listened to relaxed-like. We’re in no hurry.