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45 Albums for 45 Years: A Birthday Retrospective (1980s)

[The Art of Noise - In Visible Silence]

In 1987, I turned 15 years old, an age when music discovery exerted its strongest pull. The same Spotify analysis that charted music tastes over time claims most teen-agers highly identify with popular titles. Had the same study been done when I was a teen, I probably would have been an outlier point.

Kronos Quartet, Black Angels

The first Kronos Quartet album I purchased was Winter Was Hard, and it was something of a Reader’s Digest for modern classical music. Then Black Angels followed, and it exploded my perception of what music could be.

John Zorn, Naked City

I was a pissed-off teen for a lot of reasons, most of them mundane. But it gave me drive to find music that would alienate everyone around me, and the howls of Yamantaka Eye and John Zorn fit the bill nicely.

In Tua Nua, The Long Acre

This album introduced me to the idea that popularity is not the same thing as merit. I couldn’t find a filler track anywhere on this album, and the confrontational “The Innocent and the Honest Ones” mirrored my own dissatisfaction with being raised in a monotheistic culture. It should have been a hit, but mostly, you’ll find it in the 99 cent bins.

U2, The Joshua Tree

U2 had to score a number one album in order for radio stations in Hawaii to pay attention. I knew about the band beforehand but hadn’t taken the plunge till I saw the video for “With or Without You.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber gets a lot of flack for his signature hit tunes, but for a young burgeoning composer, his scores are incredibly instructional. I’ve yet to encounter another pop writer who can make a hook out of an atonal melody.

The Art of Noise, In Visible Silence

Before I learned about Kronos Quartet, John Zorn or Andrew Lloyd Webber, I encountered the Art of Noise. I would later learn (Who’s Afraid Of …?) The Art of Noise! had some bonafide songcraft, but its follow-up, In Visible Silence, essentially jettisoned all that.

Arcadia, So Red the Rose

Of the two Duran Duran splinter projects from 1985, Arcadia hews closest to the parent band and engenders the most sentiment from long-time fans.

Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park with George arrived at time in my life when I was just starting to learn about modern classical music. I looked to Lloyd Webber to bridge my interests in classical and pop musics, and I turned to Sondheim to go further into modernism.

Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

I loved Eurythmics singles, but their albums tended to have quite a bit of filler. Sweet Dreams is the deserved obvious choice, but Savage and In the Garden deserve some props.

Duran Duran, Rio

This tops my Desert Island Disc list, so of course, it’s going to be here.

Wendy Carlos, TRON Original Soundtrack

I listened to this soundtrack to death because I loved the computer graphics of the movie. It wasn’t till much later that I discovered how rich Carlos’ harmonic language was. This soundtrack pretty much planted the seed that would be nourished by the Art of Nosie, Kronos Quartet, John Zorn and classical music after 1900.

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45 Albums for 45 Years: A Birthday Retrospective (1990s)

[Talitha Mackenzie - Solas]

An analysis of Spotify data in 2015 quantified how listeners stray from popular titles as they age. I don’t know if the music I listened to in my 20s could have ever been called “popular”, but compared to the excitement of discovery in the ’80s, the ’90s were bit of a let-down.

Grunge was conflated to represent all forms of post-punk music, and the major label gold rush to find the next Nirvana eventually dead-ended into Nickelback. In response, I took up Celtic music, downtown New York jazz, modern classical music, Japanese indie rock and country music.

I was at sea.

Shiina Ringo, Shousou Strip

Sure, the loud guitars, infectious melodies and epic production could have won me over, but it was the conclusion of “Gibusu” where the effects go utterly bugfuck that convinced me Shiina Ringo was a keeper.

NUMBER GIRL, SCHOOL GIRL DISTORTIONAL ADDICT

I may have eventually found my way to Sonic Youth and Pixies by some other means, but it was NUMBER GIRL that was my gateway to old school punk.

Madonna, Ray of Light

This album arrived when I was exploring the gay bars in Austin after I moved away from home. I still like this album. I cannot say the same for gay bars or Austin.

Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Like probably most people who love this album to death, I didn’t discover it till about many, many years after it was released. But it has enough of a late-’90s patina to evoke that period.

Cocco, Bougainvillia

The few articles about Cocco translated into English I found on the Internet at the time seemed to credit her for paving the way for Utada Hikaru and Shiina Ringo, and we should all be thankful for that.

Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (Nonesuch)

I wouldn’t encounter this 1996 Nonesuch recording till it was compiled in a 2005 boxed set. Philip Glass was waning as my favorite minimalist, and this recording pretty much catapulted Reich to the top.

Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball

The only people in Hawaii who listened to country music lived on the military bases. But a interview promo disc of Emmylou Harris talking about Wrecking Ball got me interested in the album. It made my move to Austin, Texas two years later slightly more plausible.

Talitha Mackenzie, Solas

As much I loved Clannad and Enya, Talitha Mackenzie drew the connections between Scottish waulking songs and hip-hop, Bulgarian folk music and techno.

Duran Duran, The Wedding Album

It was great seeing people getting back into Duran Duran, but I don’t think my love for this album would have been reinforced without the aid of the Tiger Mailing List, the first Internet community in which I participated.

Smashing Pumpkins, Gish

Nevermind would have been the easy choice, but I would have never picked up the seminal Nirvana album if Butch Vig hadn’t worked with Smashing Pumpkins on Gish beforehand.

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45 Albums for 45 Years: A Birthday Retrospective (2000s)

[Shiina Ringo - Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana]

I balked when Barsuk Records released a 10-year anniversary edition of Give Up by the Postal Service. Yes, add 10 to 2003 and you get 2013. But 2003 didn’t seem so distant from 2013, as 2003 did from 1993.

That’s the thing about getting older — there’s more past to remember. In 1987, I had barely any memory of 1977. In 1997, I had only 1987 as a clear reference. Only in 2007 did 1987 start to feel distant. And now I’m shocked to think 1997 — the year I moved away from home — is pretty far chronologically from where I am today.

So yeah, 2007 still feels like yesterday, although 2002 does feel more like history.

Tokyo Jihen, Sports

Shiina Ringo’s albums from earlier in the decade saw her batting a hundred, but with Tokyo Jihen, it took a few albums before the band came into its own.

… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, The Century of Self

Source Tags and Codes was the obvious choice to include on this list, but recent spins of the album revealed a number of dead spots. Lost Songs wouldn’t show up till the next decade, which leaves The Century of Self next in line on my list of favorite … Trail of Dead albums.

ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, World World World

At first, I dismissed ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION as a watered-down version of Eastern Youth. Then World World World came out, and I became a convert.

Explosions in the Sky, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone

It took a while for me to warm up to The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, but All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone had a clarity that hooked me for good.

Utada Hikaru, ULTRA BLUE

Utada Hikaru’s US debut Exodus went too far to rub out the alt-rock influence in her music, so it was refreshing to hear it come roaring back on ULTRA BLUE.

Sigur Rós, Takk …

I was unfamiliar with Sigur Rós when this album was released, so I asked a friend of mine to describe their albums to me. He told me to imagine a cold, flat icy land, and that was Ágætis byrjun. Then he told me to picture 1,000 angels appearing in bursts of blinding light. That was Takk …

Shiina Ringo, Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana

I’m convinced if this album had been released in the US, indie rock fans would have abandoned their Flaming Lips albums.

Molotov, Dance Dense and Denso

US promoters tried and failed to conflate Latin American rap-rock bands as epitomizing Latin alternative rock. Molotov stood head and shoulders above the rest, and they shared more with Café Tacvba and Aterciopelados than with Puya or Control Machete.

Hatakeyama Miyuki, Diving into your mind

The year I started working for Waterloo Records was the year Norah Jones made a splash with her debut album. I wasn’t convinced, mostly because I had spent weeks listening to Hatakeyama Miyuki instead.

AJICO, Fukamidori

UA and Asai Kenichi came together for only one album, but boy is it a keeper. UA had found success on the Oricon charts before this collaboration, but afterward, she embraced a more challenging sound.

fra-foa, Chuu no Fuchi

Every time I put this album on, I feel the need to fuck shit up. It’s that intense.

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45 Albums for 45 Years: A Birthday Retrospective (2010s)

[Jarell Perry - Simple Things]

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.

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How the pre-web Internet fueled my interest in Celtic music

[Clannad - Clannad 2]

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.

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The history of a music fan in four decades, part four

[A shelf in the Musicwhore.org vinyl colleciton]

Read Parts One, Two and Three.

When I started collecting music, vinyl records were the medium of choice. Walkman players shifted that focus to pre-recorded cassette tapes for a short while before compact discs steamrolled over everything. I nearly joined the 21st century in forsaking physical formats till I bought a pair of decent speakers for my stereo system.

Then I played a record from my old collection on that system, and a new obsession began.

Vinyl

Records force listeners to interact physically with the act of listening. You have to care for records. You have to flip slides while playing them. You have to pay attention. Computer files can be strung together in hours-long stretches that effectively severs that personal connection.

When I started collecting vinyl again in 2013, I focused on used copies of albums I could have bought as records but hadn’t discovered at the time. But slicing through the shrink wrap of an unopened record was an act I hadn’t experienced in more than 20 years, and something about it felt communal.

So now I double down — if I really like an album, I’ll buy it on vinyl as well. For me, the vinyl purchase is the premium display of support, short of seeing a band live.

Seattle arts scene

I lived in New York City from 1992 to 1993 on an exchange program between the University of Hawaii and Hunter College. I had an internship at a classical record label. I saw Kronos Quartet twice. I went to Broadway shows I’d been craving to see since high school. And my first Duran Duran concert happened two weeks before the band released The Wedding Album.

It makes me wonder what more I could have done if I had my 2016 income in 1992.

I would probably be doing a lot of the same things. I’ve seen Kronos Quartet three times now, and my fifth Duran Duran concert happened in Puyallup. I went to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in March 2016, and I’m a subscriber of the symphony.

Austin and Honolulu couldn’t fulfill my need for classical music the way Seattle does.

Nearly half way into decade four

It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve given up trying to be a tastemaker, and I’m glad to have yielded that responsibility, not that I was great at it. I used to have a vague clue about what’s popular, but I can’t even claim that any more.

I don’t want to say I’m done exploring music, because every time I think I’m done, I fall down yet another hole. I do, however, feel my tastes have settled down. I have my go-to genres, my go-to periods, my go-to artists.

But there’s always room for more.

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The history of a music fan in four decades, part three

[Cocco - Bougainvillia]

Read Parts One and Two.

Just when I thought I was done cycling through niches, I found one last rabbit hole into which I tumbled long and hard. The earliest days of this site owes its reputation to that period, but midway through the last decade, something broke.

Japanese indie rock

I remember the moment I was introduced to Cocco very well.

A co-worker was playing a Japan Nite sampler CD, and when it reached Cocco, I got up from my desk to find out who was singing. Here was someone who could have gone the easy route and sing anime theme songs. Instead, a wail of grunge guitars backed her. It was the Japanese rock for which I was searching.

[Shiina Ringo - Muzai Moratorium]The office sent me to cover SXSW music events, and I volunteered to cover Japan Nite in 1999. That night introduced me to Missile Girl Scoot, eX-Girl and NUMBER GIRL. A trip home to Honolulu in 2000 led to Utada Hikaru, the brilliant green, L’Arc~en~Ciel and Shiina Ringo.

Web sites covering Japanese music focused primarily on pop idols. I wanted to feature more of the rock music showcased at Japan Nite. So Musicwhore.org became a webzine to do just that. My rusty Japanese needed a lot of help from online tools, but over time, I got proficient enough to localize short news stories into English.

I also used this site to hone my skills as a web software engineer, pulling together the articles I was writing with various discography services. Building the site from the ground up while also creating its content took its toll, and after five years, I pivoted to write more broadly about all the music that interested me.

Turning 35

My favorite article from the Onion is “Lifelong Love Affair With Music Ends At Age 35“. In my case, it’s less satire and more biography.

It takes a lot of work to be connected all the time, and in the heady music blog days of the mid-2000s, bands got deafening buzz from posting a single MP3 to MySpace, and then the focus would shift elsewhere before that band could make a second song.

I just didn’t have the energy to trawl music sites in Japanese to find another band to fill the NUMBER GIRL void, and Western bands sounded too similar to what I grew up with to make a non-cranky judgement. So I retreated into catalog.

Cutting out the middle man

One interesting side effect of the shift to downloads and streams is the rise of direct fan relationships with artists. Facebook and Twitter makes it easy to discover and connect with artists who don’t rely on a label for promotion and distribution.

[Matt Alber - Constant Crows]In an effort to find gay artists who played music more to my personal taste, I skimmed articles in gay publications and sites for leads, and a great majority of them sent me directly to an artist’s web presence. Similarly, I would follow opening acts at concerts if their performances impressed me.

The label system lacks such transparency that the direct fan relationship feels a lot more pure. I know when I buy directly from Matt Alber, Sacha Sacket, Jarell Perry or Shaprece, they’re getting my cash, not the middle man.

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The history of a music fan in four decades, part two

[John Zorn - Naked City]

Read Part One.

As my high school career drew to a close, I went off the rails because I couldn’t make sense of what my hormones were doing, so I channeled that insanity-making into my choice of music.

I badly mimicked Björk at a time she could barely stay in tune herself. I made regular trips to the library to borrow anything on Nonesuch. I swore off radio and depended entirely on music magazines to determine what I listened to next.

In 1993, the first alternative radio station launched in Honolulu, and seemingly overnight the music that put me on the outs with everyone was socially acceptable. Of course, my young, dumb reactionary self couldn’t abide by that. So while everyone was catching up with where I was five years earlier, I found ways to go further afield.

Anime

[Various Artists - Macross Song Collection]Robotech was a huge hit in my household, probably the only thing on which the siblings in my family could agree. But when the home video market made it possible for anime to be released stateside, a whole world opened up, particularly J-Pop. One of the first CDs I bought — and still own — is the Macross Song Collection. In fact, the first few CDs I bought were anime soundtracks — Megazone 23Bubblegum Crisis and Akira.

But the prohibitively expensive Japanese imports made exploration of J-pop economically unfeasible for a broke college student. As much I liked J-Pop, I still wanted something that something closer to the Replacements than Paula Abdul.

Downtown New York

Nonesuch’s release of John Zorn’s Naked City sent me down a rabbit hole of downtown New York jazz, but the independent nature of the scene guaranteed I wouldn’t track down a fraction of the recordings connected to it. Not from Honolulu, at least. So I concentrated on the major label artists I could access — Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb and for a while, Wayne Horvitz.

A political science class finally gave me Internet access, and a few pioneering sites attempted to connect music fans with rare recordings. I was ordering albums from the Internet even before Amazon launched.

Celtic music

[Clannad - Banba]Clannad really took off after Volkswagen featured “Harry’s Game” in one of its commercials. Enya laid some groundwork in introducing the beauty of the Irish language, but her siblings in Clannad took it further with their catalog of folk albums.

I think this passing fascination wouldn’t have spiraled if it weren’t for USENET and a newsgroup called alt.music.celtic. This precursor to the web message board offered a few more recommendations, and I spent a good part of the mid-90s listening to Altan, Capercaillie and Talitha Mackenzie.

Emmylou Harris and country music

Asylum Records sent an interview disc of Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois talking about the making of Wrecking Ball to the school newspaper where I was the features editor. I was familiar with Harris’ name but not her work, and I can’t say I was entirely open to covering country music.

But Wrecking Ball wasn’t country, and it made me receptive to listen to Harris’ previous work. A year later, Warner Bros. released the Portraits boxed set, and I became a fan for life.

I learned right away that Harris’ music bore little resemblance to the kind performed by Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Shania Twain, and the country music I preferred drew its lineage from Uncle Tupelo.

Welcome to Austin, Texas

[Bruce Robison - Wrapped]My college career concluded with an internship to the Austin American-Statesman and my first job out of college. The homegrown music scene focused mostly on Southern music — blues, country and its derivatives — but it had enough versatility to include a diverse rock scene.

In my first years in Austin, I supported the likes of Asylum Street Spankers, 8 1/2 Souvenirs, the Kiss-Offs and Bruce Robison. Toward the end of my time in Austin, I became a fan of … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Explosions in the Sky.

 

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The history of a music fan in four decades, part one

[The Manhattan Transfer - Extensions]

This month, I turn 44. I’ve been collecting music for about 81 percent of that lifespan. I bought my first album when I was 8 years old.

OK, it was my mom who caved into my whining about wanting that Manhattan Transfer album with the “Twilight Zone” song on it (Extensions, by the way.) She’s regretted it ever since. I think the last time she chided me for spending too much money on music was … three months ago?

When my collecting took off in junior high, I went through phases where I would dive deep into a particular style of music and play it to death on the family stereo. Every year, I would glom onto something new, then ditch it for something else. It was such a reliable metric, my siblings would ask, “What are you going to get into next year?”

In college, the phases started to grow longer and overlap to the point that I though I outgrew them. In reality, I was just figuring out what kind of music sustained the dopamine rush. I kept those around while I explored other things.

By then, I had figured out that anyone can like any style of music if you learn how to listen to it. When I got into post-punk music, my siblings hated being subjected to singers who couldn’t sing. They had been raised on a steady diet of radio pop and didn’t understand a lack of polish was exactly the point.

So to commemorate this birthday month, we’ll explore the various phases that marked my history as a music fan, starting our first decade with the 1980s.

New wave

[Duran Duran - Rio]I can’t say MTV influenced my music consumption because my parents didn’t subscribe to cable. But network TV attempted to ride the music video coattails with such shows as Friday Night Videos and Prime Time Videos.

It was music video that spurred my childhood interest in ABBA. And it was music video that got me into Duran Duran, Eurythmics, ABC, Tears for Fears, Huey Lewis and the News and Sting. I preferred the more theatrical videos made by bands from England and Europe than the song-and-dance numbers of American bands.

That steady diet of English bands set up an affinity for punk-influenced music that would set me at odds with my peer group. That didn’t stop me from trying to fit in.

Radio pop

In 1986, I started high school, and I wanted to establish an identity different from the one I had in junior high and elementary school. So for a time, I was listening to Club Nouveau, L.A. Dream Team Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and Janet Jackson.

But my conscience eventually won out. Some of the most popular hits played on the radio weren’t songs I really liked on first listen, and repeated plays didn’t make them any better. And the popular kids with whom I was trying to ingratiate myself? Turns out I didn’t really like them all that much.

“Hawaiian Electric” by Hiroshima

In 1987, Hawaiian Electric Co. commissioned a pair of television ads featuring music by jazz fusion band Hiroshima. It was my first introduction to non-Western instruments, and I was fascinated. Hiroshima was a staple on a new radio format for light jazz and new age. Basia, Enya, Spyro Gyra, Hiroshima — all different styles of music unified by mood. It was a diversity I’d been craving.

Musicals

[Andrew Lloyd Webber; Tim Rice - Jesus Christ Superstar]In my junior year of high school, my band instructor introduced me to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jesus Christ Superstar. Around the same time, a television broadcast of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George alternately bored and fascinated me. Jesus Christ Superstar led to CatsEvita and The Phantom of the Opera, while Sunday in the Park with George was the springboard to Into the WoodsSweeney Todd and A Little Night Music.

Sondheim and Lloyd Webber pretty much allowed me to break rank entirely with everyone in high school. I no longer felt a need to fit in. I would explore music that interested me, and the more it confused my cohorts, the better.

Music: An Appreciation by Roger Kamien

All throughout these years of exploration, I was taking piano lessons, but when I expressed interest in songwriting, those piano lessons became rudimentary lessons in music theory and composition. To take advantage of my large finger span, my teacher introduced me to works by Claude Debussy and Aram Khachaturian.

My dad also took a music appreciation course at a community college, and I used his textbook, Music: An Appreciation by Roger Kamien, as bathroom reading. Over time, I absorbed the names of composers, the eras in which they lived and the forms of music they composed. The section on 20th Century Music fascinated me in particular.

All these events came together when I ran across a description of Kronos Quartet in a music magazine, and my love for modern classical music was born.

Pulse! magazine

[Tower Records Pulse! magazine, Dec. 1989]As my high school years drew to a close, a free magazine published by Tower Records, named Pulse!, became my bible. Pulse! introduced me to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Camper Van Beethoven, the Sugarcubes, the Replacements and Steve Reich. It published some of Adrian Tomine’s earliest comics, and one of its columnists spurred me to write about music. This blog owes a lot to Pulse!

Up next …

College would deepen my understanding of classical music, but when all the underground rock I was precociously consuming during high school became mainstream, I would find new ways to differentiate myself.

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The year in music for the graduating class of 1990

[Kronos Quartet - Black Angels]

I’m writing this entry ahead of time, but when it gets posted, I will have attended my 25th high school reunion. I graduated in 1990, a nice even number made all the more significant by its relative placement to a new century, let alone a new decade.

The musical identity of a decade doesn’t get established till two years into it, so until then, a lot of gambling happens among the tastemakers. Nielsen SoundScan was a year away from launching, which meant the Billboard charts in 1990 still relied on phone reports by retailers to determine its rankings.

That year, the chart-topping albums included MC Hammer’s Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl and Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

Billboard created a new chart at the time to track what would eventually be known as alternative music. The songs on this chart would set the tone in the years to follow, but till then, radio spun hits by Wilson Phillips, Roxette and a newcomer named Mariah Carey.

For me, 1990 marked the year the foundation for my ensuing music collection solidified.

I stopped listening to radio two years before and relied entirely on magazines to direct my choices. In the days before streaming audio and widespread Internet access, I put a lot of faith in a writer’s ability to convince me to drop cash on something I’d never heard. Some of those gambles paid off, and some of them didn’t.

But it was the sense of discovery that provided that hit of dopamine on a malleable mind. Needless to say that kind of independence set me apart from everyone else in high school. My classmates were rallying around a shared experience. I was more concerned with finding something I could monopolize, perhaps even proselytize.

My new wave proclivities from freshman year evolved into a taste for what was called “college rock”. A friend ushered it in by playing Beelzebubba by the Dead Milkmen the summer before. Camper Van Beethoven, 10,000 Maniacs, the Replacements and Midnight Oil followed. And, of course, I remained steadfast to Duran Duran.

Kronos Quartet had introduced me to classical music, but Black Angels sent me down a path of study that would last the first half of the decade. The frightening timbres of George Crumb’s title piece and the anguish of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8 tapped into the uncertainty I felt about my own identity. That taste for dissonance sharpened when the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb led to John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz.

Some of my choices that year would prove prescient, as college rock morphed into the alternative rock made popular by Nirvana. I remember my sister telling me she was watching 21 Jump Street, and a character mentioned Camper Van Beethoven and 10,000 Maniacs. She wouldn’t have recognized either of those bands had I not brought their albums home to inflict on everyone in the house.

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