This month, I turn 45 years old. The music that influenced me as a teen-ager is being reissued in 30th anniversary deluxe editions. The turn of the 20th century is roughly four years away from being 20 years behind us. I’m five years away from 50.
In 2016, I wrote about the various twists and turns my listening habits took over the course of four decades. Now, I’m pinpointing specific albums that mark each decade for me, starting with the current one.
The pop culture identity of a decade doesn’t really establish itself till two years into it, and my age puts me at such a distance from that zeitgeist that I have no clue what this decade means. Or perhaps the culture has moved on from rallying around music, streaming services allowing us to explore everything conforming to our highly-optimized filter bubbles.
I wonder if this list will even grow much beyond this year.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
I see A Sailor’s Guide to Earth as something of a cap to the Obama era of progress. Even after signing to a major label, the fiercely independent Simpson crafted a thoroughly-composed work. It can’t be sliced up into singles, or the architecture of the album would crumble. Would this kind album flourished under the current leadership in Washington, D.C.? I doubt it.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
So far, 2015 has been the creative pinnacle of this decade. Sleater-Kinney ushered it in with an album that barely acknowledged the decade-long gap from its predecessor, and Jason Isbell, Kendrick Lamar and Lin-Manuel Miranda followed in their wake. Madonna, Janet Jackson and Enya even showed up with some of their best work in years.
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean
I haven’t mentioned that I’ve been taking music theory courses at the University of Washington, where I work. Seattle Symphony reconnected me with classical music, and the orchestra’s advocacy of new music inspired me to fill in the gaps of my undergraduate classical training.
Jarell Perry, Simple Things
I didn’t know PBR&B was a thing till I tried to figure out just what Jarell Perry, Solange, Shaprece and the Weeknd were doing with R&B. Hip-hop has its underground tract, and evidently, so does R&B. Of course, PBR&B is a terrible term.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
You’re not supposed to judge media by their cover art, but it’s hard not to sense something pretty intense in Isbell’s gaze on the cover of Southeastern. I don’t know if I would have listened to this album otherwise.
Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS
Kuriyama Chiaki could have gotten someone like Perfume producer Nakata Yasutaka to fashion a hit-making album, but she tossed her hat into a ring that included Shiina Ringo and Asai Kenichi. I discovered she played Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 only after I listened to the album.
The clerk at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop got a kick when I approached the counter with two copies of Capercaillie’s Sidewaulk, one on CD, the other on vinyl. Even I was astounded by the serendipity.
I had surrendered Capercaillie to a collection purge more than a decade previous. My fascination with Celtic music had long passed, and I was pressed for cash.
A playlist I created on Google Play Music based on some old mixed tapes brought Capercaillie back to my attention, and I craved to hear the band again.
Capercaillie also holds the distinction of being one of the first bands I discovered through the Internet. Numerous recommendation threads on rec.music.celtic mentioned them, and I was already enamored of Solas by Talitha Mackenzie.
Sidwaulk also introduced me to medleys of reels. While Clannad included instrumental tracks on their traditional albums, they didn’t perform them with the same dance tempo as Capercaillie or Altan.
My classically-trained, pop-raised ears at first found the simple A-B structure of reels a bit … wanting. But now, I appreciate the level of virtuosity required to perform them at such a frenetic pace.
Capercaillie, like Clannad, have a keen sense when to pull back from tradition and be a straight-forward pop group. “Fisherman’s Dream” would have found a spot on an adult contemporary radio playlist at the time of its release in 1989, and “O Mo Dhùthaich” can find admirers among Enya fans.
Listening to the album again makes me realize that some of these past collection purges may have been a bit excessive. Or else I was really desperate for cash to have part with an album as enjoyable — and instructional — as Sidewaulk.
It was 2002, and I was working a minimum-wage job. I was moving to a smaller apartment, and I couldn’t house my collection in the reduced space. So I had to let go of anything to which I didn’t feel a strong attachment.
In the mid-’90s, I was a Clannad completist. I had the soundtrack albums. I had the critically-panned albums. I had the folk albums. And I had the albums with Enya on them.
But it was too much, and if I were pressed, I could admit I didn’t love all of it. Some decisions were easy: Macalla, Magical Ring and the folk albums stayed. Anam, Sirius and Landmarks would go.
Lore was on the cusp.
At the time it was released, I gave it a favorable review in the student newspaper. That was in 1996. It was 7 years later. Did I absolutely love this album this album? The answer was … no. I liked it very much, but it didn’t occupy the same space of necessity as Macalla, Fuaim or Banba.
So it went.
Lore made its way back into my collection after I compiled a Google Play Music playlist of an old mix tape that included “Seanchas”. The track was the highlight of the album, and it made me crave to hear the rest of it.
Luckily, I found a copy of the album for $1 at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop.
It’s nice to have this album back in the collection. Clannad can sometimes get a bit mired in adult contemporary smoothness, but when they craft a fine set of tunes, the tight choral harmonies and impeccable performances really shine.
Lore would occupy a higher rank in Clannad’s output if its predecessor, Banba, didn’t cast such a large shadow over it. A lot of Lore feels familiar — all the mysticism of “Harry’s Game” spread over an entire length of an album.
In a few instances, Lore stretches out. “Alasdair MacColla” feels more Scottish than Irish, and “From Your Heart” uses a drum loop more suitable for club music.
While it may seem I’m still ambivalent about Lore, I admit I made a mistake letting this one slip away. This one should have stayed.
One of my favorite albums of the late ’80s is The Long Acre by In Tua Nua. At the time, I was frustrated by the band’s lack of press in the U.S. If they were mentioned at all, it was in passing.
U2 starts a vanity label! (Oh, and there’s In Tua Nua on the roster.) Sinéad O’Connor wrote her first songs as a teenager! (Oh, and there’s In Tua Nua who co-wrote the single.)
So in 1988, I read an article about the Waterboys in Pulse magazine, and it mentioned In Tua Nua’s former violinist Steve Wickham had joined the band. That alone got me interested in Fisherman’s Blues, but since these were the days when radio or record store listening stations were the only way to preview music, I had to calculate how badly I wanted to hear this music.
And it turns out … not that much, really.
I left the album on the shelf and thought little about it till recently.
Much like Tracy Chapman’s Crossroads, I would encounter Fisherman’s Blues as I hunted the used vinyl bins for other albums. Each encounter would scratch that decade’s old itch of curiosity. I eventually bought the album on CD before becoming enamored enough to grab an old vinyl copy.
I do know one thing — I wouldn’t have appreciated the album had I bought it when it first came out.
I hadn’t yet gotten my schooling in traditional Celtic music, and I would have found Mike Scott’s voice grating. And I don’t know if I would have found may way back to the album if it confounded me on first impression.
Bands such as Clannad and Capercaillie skew closer to the traditional side of their Celtic/popular fusion. The Waterboys are a rock band first. Wickham’s violin lines pull the band’s songs toward the past, but they never lose their footing in the present.
Teenaged me would have lost patience with the album’s longer tracks, but older me appreciates their length. The cover of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” quotes the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, a spontaneous moment that works well. “And Bang on the Ear” needs all seven minutes to get through its story.
The bonus tracks on the CD expand on the Celtic influence, but the fewer tracks on the original vinyl pressing give it clarity.
Upon its release, reaction to the album was divided — the Celtic direction confused some listeners and pleased others. I fall into the latter camp, but I had a lot of help to get me there.
Long-time readers probably remember this site from 15(!) years ago as a resource for non-mainstream Japanese rock music. Had I launched it back in 1996, it might have been a resource for Celtic music.
Boy did I go through a Celtic music kick in the mid-90s.
A friend of mine from high school sowed the seeds for this fascination. Although I had learned about Clannad before he did, he convinced me the band’s folk era in the ’70s was far better than the pop band they turned out to be.
We both dug “Harry’s Game”, though.
In 1993, I took a political science class as part of my core requirements, and the instructor arranged for the class to get Internet accounts. The campus was two years away from providing Internet accounts to everyone, but till then, e-mail accounts were granted only to computer science majors and students in classes that required the Internet as part of its curriculum.
The accounts would have been deactivated at the end of the class, but I kept using mine. The web was still in its infancy, and I had yet learned how to create a page in HTML. But I did learn how to subscribe to mailing lists and to visit newsgroups.
Given my fascination with Clannad, I visited a group called rec.music.celtic. Within a week, I had recommendations for other artists similar to Clannad. Over the next three years, I would get my hands on albums by Capercaillie, Talitha Mackenzie, Altan, Boiled in Lead and Wolfstone.
I signed up for the postal mailing list of Green Linnet Records and soon afterward discovered Värttinä and the Klezmatics.
Of course, record stores in Honolulu didn’t actually stock albums by any of these artists. So how did I get my hands on them?
The first e-commerce site I ever used was not Amazon, or even its predecessors CDNow or Music Boulevard. It was CD Connection. And the service didn’t even have a website — it had a Telnet server.
That’s right — Telnet, not SSH. I bought music through a command-line interface!
That experience sold me on the potential of the Internet. I was a kid in Honolulu with little access to music outside of radio and MTV, but with the help of people from clear across the globe, I could indulge in an interest as esoteric as Celtic music.
From today’s perspective, I took a big risk handing my credit card number over an insecure protocol such as Telnet. Back then, the Internet hadn’t yet been made available to the nation at large. It was still the domain of universities and governments. Net etiquette was easier to enforce, and users really invested into the egalitarian potential of the Internet.
But using the Internet as a source of music discovery is something I learned early on, and it eventually led to the launch of Musicwhore.org as a resource for Japanese music when I saw a niche being underserved.
Rewind takes a look at past Musicwhore.org reviews to see how they hold up today. The albums featured on Rewind were part of my collection, then sold for cash only to be reacquired later.
Whew, there’s a lot of vitriol in my review of American Life. Oddly enough, my opinion has turned around somewhat on the album.
What I thought was “thin and unconvincing” now strikes me as angular and off-beat. It’s certainly one of Madonna’s weirder sounding albums, and it should get some credit for stretching her sonic palette.
So what accounted for the strong reaction in 2003?
Pretty much: Ray of Light.
The 1998 album was in constant rotation in my car CD player, and its singles could not be avoided at gay bars. Madonna’s voice had strengthened after getting a workout on Evita, and the songs were her most emotionally resonant since Like a Prayer.
Any follow up to such a watershed work would have a high bar to surpass.
I tried to give Music the benefit of the doubt, but recent plays of that album has revealed it does not hold up well. American Life turns out to have improved on the ideas of Music. The rapping still sucks, but the acoustic guitar flourishes sound fresh even now.
I still consider it one of Madonna’s weaker albums, but it no longer sits at the bottom of the heap.
And I’ve actually welcomed a physical copy back into my collection. I had owned a promo copy I snagged from my job at Waterloo Records, but once I discovered I disliked the album, I gave it back. The current copy was acquired at the Lifelong Thrift Shop for $1.
The rule was simple: the first person to buy an album from an artist had a monopoly on that artist, and other siblings could not encroach on that monopoly.
The rule was very clear about albums. Singles, however, usually threw wrenches in jurisdictional claims.
Kick by INXS could have tuned into a civil lawsuit between my brother and me.
Back in 1985, INXS release Listen Like Thieves, which spawned the catchy single “What You Need”. I bought that single after watching the video numerous times on Betamax-recorded episodes of Friday Night Videos. I did not end up buying the album.
A TV appearance by INXS in 1987 premiered the band’s then-new single, “Need You Tonight.” My brother liked it. I thought it wasn’t as good as “What You Need”.
But he liked it enough to buy the album. Technically, that meant INXS became his jurisdiction.
And boy did that rankle my feathers, especially when it turned out the rest of the album was better than “Need You Tonight”. I felt that because I had already established a claim with “What You Need”, I ought to have had first dibs on Kick. My brother pointed out that I was ambivalent about “Need You Tonight”, which could be interpreted as relinquishing that claim.
(Don’t get me wrong about “Need You Tonight” — I eventually grew to like the song, mostly because “Mediate” segued right into it.)
Of course, bratty kids that we were, we didn’t want to share. I don’t remember now how I got my hands on a dubbed copy of the album. He may have relented to making a dub, or I may have borrowed it from a friend. I got my hands on it, despite the rule.
Kick would eventually become ubiquitous, and the radio exposure coupled with my own spins eventually made me grow tired of the album. “Never Tear Us Apart” wasn’t a great single, but it seemed to be the song played to death.
By the time I embarked on building out my own collection, Kick managed to get left behind. For a time, I owned a greatest hits compilation but that too got lost in a cash-strapped purge.
Oddly enough, Kick returned to my collection only after I used the streaming services to listen to its predecessor, Listen Like Thieves. Kick is definitely the stronger album, but Listen Like Thieves is no slouch. It was the much-needed warm-up before the breakout.
It’s probably been 19 years since I listened to Kick, and it was strange to discover how familiar it all felt. That pretty much meant I had really internalized the album, even though I hadn’t owned it till now.
You heard a song on the radio. If you liked it, you bought the single. You heard more songs by the same artist. If you liked those songs as well, you bought the album.
What happens, then, when you stop listening to the radio? Easy — keep buying singles without hearing the song!
That’s how I encountered Love and Money. I was browsing the singles section of Tower Records, looking for something that might scratch my itch for non-American bands. The single to “Hallelujah Man” had a decent enough sleeve, and a name like Love and Money didn’t scream hair metal or radio pop.
So I bought it. I liked what I heard, but I wasn’t entirely convinced to sink a week and a half’s allowance on a full album. No other singles were released from the album in the US.
It would be another 28 years before I encountered Love and Money again. The album from which “Hallelujah Man” was taken, titled Strange Kind of Love, was sitting in a bin at the Lifelong Thrift Shop for $1. I spent that much on the single.
After an initial listen, I was intrigued by the band’s mix of British white soul and post-punk, as if the missing link between Johnny Hates Jazz and the Smiths were somehow unearthed. Another few spins made me seek out a CD.
“Hallelujah Man” was a decent enough single, but the title track and “Jocelyn Square” performed better on the UK charts for good reason. “Up Escalator” imagines what ABC would sound like with harder guitars and no horns, while the last vestiges of post-punk drive the adult contemporary cool of “Avalanche”. James Grant’s smooth voice could make him the captain of your heart.
Love and Money arrived a bit too late to capitalize on the revived British invasion early in the ’80s, and the light jazz radio format that emerged in the latter part of the decade flared out before it could do any good for the band.
So Love and Money remained a somewhat successful act on the other side of the ocean. I’m surprised someone had actually owned a copy of Strange Kind of Love to end up donating to the thrift store.
In 1988, the Sugarcubes, Kronos Quartet, Living Colour and In Tua Nua vied for my attention. Still, I’m a little disappointed in my youthful self for not following up on that blind single purchase. I think I would have liked the album, and it could have very well endured a number of collection purges to persist to this day.
George Michael has had a confounding influence on my life.
I remember watching videos for “Careless Whisper” and “I Want Your Sex” and recognizing that, yes, I find him desirable. But I was at an age where I didn’t know what desire was, and in an age where that kind of desire would imperil my life.
When his arrest forced him out of the closet in 1998, I was surprised on the level of “How the hell did I not pick up he was gay?” It was the kind of realization that put the past in perspective — of course, I found him desirable! He was signaling all this time!
But my brother called dibs on George Michael in our Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. At first, we were competing over who would get Make It Big by Wham! till radio played all the singles to death and gave neither of us much incentive.
My brother scooped up Faith, but Michael’s popularity was so ubiquitous, I became ambivalent. “Kissing a Fool” was great the first few times. Hearing every five minutes for weeks on end failed to entertain.
When Michael released Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, I was on my way to exploring music further outside the mainstream. The revelation of his sexuality wasn’t enough for me to become a fan, but I did pay attention when he created new music.
Three decades had to pass before I was receptive to examining his music. That ubiquitousness gives Faith a familiarity that feels comfortable. The non-single tracks don’t stand out as much.
Listen Without Prejudice got a lukewarm reception in the US, but it’s the album that shows a lot more maturity and craft. It’s not the hookfest of Make It Big or Faith, but it has a lot more heart and a greater sense of adventure.
It also demonstrated how far Michael had come since Make It Big. The optimism of Wham!’s second album captures the early half of the ’80s well, but it also sealed its fate as a sonic time capsule.
George Michael’s passing epitomizes that Joni Mitchell lyric: “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” In my case, it’s literal. It took his death for me to overcome an ambivalence formed at a time when other’s people opinions mattered.
In the past, I would try to write about every album I encountered. These days, I listen to a lot of stuff, but I’ll only post an entry if something sparks a memory.
As these statistics demonstrate, I’m leaving a lot out of this blog.
First and last purchases of the year
First purchase: Glenn Gould, Bach: The Goldberg Variations (1955) on vinyl.
First purchase of a 2016 release: Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4 on CD.
Last purchase of a 2016 release: Meredith Monk, On Behalf of Permanence on CD.
Last purchase: George Michael, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 on CD.
Purchases by format
Total items bought
Initial release within the calendar year.
Originally released prior to the calendar year but reissued within the calendar year.
Initial release prior to the calendar year.
Top catalog release years
Number of items purchased
Single titles purchased in multiple formats are counted individually.
Number of items purchased
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet
Dolly Parton / Linda Ronstadt / Emmylou Harris
These number pretty much bear out that I’m pretty much out of touch with anything new happening. Catalog purchases took up 70% of my purchases in 2016.
The death of Prince sent me on a mission to catch up with his work.
The news of a new album from Sting gave me a chance to reconsider his work from the late ’90s onward. Cheap CDs from the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop allowed me to save on Internet bandwidth.
Madonna’s presence in my collection grew due to a combination of a vinyl reissue campaign and some lucky purchases from Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop.
In fact, encountering the Lifelong Thrift Shop stall during Gay Pride had an outsize influence on my purchases. From street level, the shop looked like it sold only vintage clothes. I didn’t realize the lower level had a room of CDs and vinyl.