According to the database I maintain in Collectorz Music, a great majority of my collection consists of titles from the late ’80s, coinciding unsurprisingly with my high school years. But one year has managed to intrude on that decade’s monopoly: 2002.
What’s so special about 2002?
Personally, it was the year I developed a true sense of my taste in music. I was working at Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas, and I was bombarded day in and day out by music I didn’t particularly like.
For the year I worked there full-time, I ended up actually disliking music on the whole. I retreated further into the genre that captivated me at the time: Japanese indie rock.
NUMBER GIRL, Quruli, SUPERCAR, LOVE PSYCHEDELICO, Shiina Ringo — all these artists were putting out some of their best work around that time.
But I couldn’t completely escape the influence of the workplace. An in-store performance by Hem made me a fan. UK music magazines exposed me to The Streets and Dizzee Rascal.
If 2000 was the last hurrah for the CD format, 2002 represented the tipping point. At that point, CD sales still accounted for a majority of sales, but the trajectory was apparent. File sharing was rampant, and Apple was a year away from unveiling the iPod and iTunes.
Music discovery started to move online, with blogs posting weekly MP3s creating a taste-making gold rush that would shorten the shelf life of one-hit wonders. Is Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah still a thing?
Pop culture was splintering. After the bubblegum pop boom of the late ’90s gave way, nothing followed to capture the zeitgeist. Even if file sharing could expose you to an array of genres, communities built around super-specific tastes allowed niches to grow.
I may have been listening to Utada Hikaru, but I had no bone in the Utada vs. Hamasaki Ayumi rivalry. Not that the backpacker listening to Aesop Rock or the aficionado on Italian spaghetti western scores would fathom it.
A decade’s identity doesn’t really assert itself till at least a year into it, and 2002 served that role for the 2000s.
Indie rock had The White Stripes, Wilco, Sleater-Kinney, … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, RJD2 took hip-hop underground, while Missy Elliott continued with her freakings on. Norah Jones unfathomably became a thing.
There was a lot to discover, and there was a lot to share.
That also meant there was a lot to filter.
2002 was the year I set my filters in place. Unsurprisingly, music released after 2002 started to account for less of my collection. It doesn’t really start to taper off till about 2007, when I hit the magical age of 35.
Every last weekend in June, the main thoroughfare in my neighborhood closes down for a street festival celebrating gay pride. I usually spend about 10 minutes walking up and down the street to watch people, but I seldom stop at a booth.
That ended in 2016 when the newly-relocated Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop set out a bunch of used CDs and vinyl for sale at $0.10 each. Of course, I had to stop and browse. I ended up with Juice Newton, Kim Carnes and Glenn Gould on vinyl, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, k.d. lang and This Mortal Coil on CD.
I had to go into the store to pay with a card, and that’s when I discovered the store’s basement. From street level, all I saw were vintage clothes. I didn’t know about the home furnishings and media down below.
Since that encounter, roughly 130 new titles in my collection come from the Lifelong Thrift Store. I visit the store twice a week, and it’s rare when I don’t leave with a disc or two. It’s tough to beat the $1 price point, but discount days netted me some real bargains. New York Dolls for $0.10? Pink Floyd’s The Wall for $0.75? Sure, OK.
I’ve also started visiting the Goodwill in my neighborhood, but that store’s stock isn’t as extensive as Lifelong’s. The Friends of the Seattle Public Library Annual Big Book Sale is another source of discounted discs.
Of course, many of the bargains I’m plundering could be heard through my Google Play Music subscription. How have visits to the thrift store introduced me to more new artists than automated suggestions based on my listening habits?
Simply put, recommendation engines can’t account for the research I’ve already done on my own. Yes, I know that fans of Perfume may also like Utada Hikaru and ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION. I probably fed the engine with the data to make that conclusion.
The engines also don’t seem to encourage much serendipity. I listen to Ty Herndon and Jason Isbell. The autogenerated recommendations would probably suggest something along the lines of either artist, but rarely anything that would intersect both. And if I listen to both Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, does it really need to bother offering Patty Griffin?
The shelves of thrift store are organized by alphabet and little else. The new arrival cart isn’t organized at all. You have to put in the work to scan each shelf for something interesting, and an encounter with one name can send me on a hunt for something else.
On one visit, I ran across the first two albums by the Streets. I’ve always been curious about Mike Skinner, and for a $1 each, it was a low-risk investment. Not a few weeks later, I found Boy in Da Corner by Dizzee Rascal, which I wouldn’t have thought to pick up had it not been for the Streets.
Thrift shops are usually dumping grounds for stock unwanted by record stores, as previously placed price tags on the discs can attest. And yes, it’s a lot of work sifting through piles of unwanted Ani DiFranco albums to find a copy of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew with few surface scratches.
But it’s the random encounter with something interesting — for example, a stage work by Harry Partch — that makes the effort worthwhile. It’s also nice to know that the $1 spent on a new favorite album goes to a charity that I support.
My first encounter with Weezer was at a concert. A friend of mine had an extra ticket, and I was curious about the band, having heard about them for years.
It was not a pleasant introduction.
First, I had a beer in my hand and was about to take a sip when a frat boy bumped into me, spilling my drink. The motherfucker turned to me and said, “Watch where you’re going.” That did not put me in a receptive mood.
Weezer got on stage, and the only thing I heard was a bunch of songs ripping off the Pixies.
I said as much to my friend who asked me what I thought. He hadn’t yet discovered the Pixies.
I wrote off Weezer from that moment on.
There was just one problem. Rivers Cuomo is so totally my type.
Whenever I flipped through rock magazines, I would do a double-take whenever I spotted Cuomo, then feel let down when I discovered the cute guy in the pic was in that band I totally hated.
By 2002, I surrendered to my hormones and gave Weezer a chance. So I picked up Maladroit. I still wasn’t impressed, mostly because I was deep into Japanese indie rock. Among my friends who were Weezer fans, the post-Pinkerton albums were varying degrees of disappointment.
So Rivers Cuomo joined that cadre of musicians who I found attractive but could not support. I was not the target market.
I do make one exception: Pinkerton.
I found a copy of the album at the Lifelong Thrift Store and bought it on reputation alone. Whatever traces of the Pixies at which I scoffed in the concert aren’t found here. I might buy another Weezer album if it sounded like Pinkerton.
Similar to Billy Joel’s Storm Front, Pinkerton is the album to own if you don’t really like Weezer all that much.
The album that started my collection was Extensions by Manhattan Transfer. The hit single from the album, “Twilight Tone”, took the iconic hook of The Twilight Zone theme song and turned it into a post-disco hit. My 7-year-old ear loved it to death, and I wouldn’t stop pestering my parents till I had the album in my possession.
That’s the earliest, cognizant memory I have of music. Before that, I just hummed along with whatever was playing on the radio, my vocabulary not developed enough to understand any of the lyrics, let alone remember song titles or artist names.
The majority of albums on this list were discovered many years after their original release. I didn’t want to exclude music from the first decade of my life just because I hadn’t yet developed listening habits.
Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra, Xanadu
I checked this record out of the library back in high school, but I didn’t understand it at the time. I had to go through a schooling in punk and post-punk before I could seek this album again. I became so enamored of it, I snatched up tickets to the original line-up’s tour in 2005.
Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
I didn’t take the plunge with this album till it was available on eMusic, but I’ve known about it since high school.
Yvonne Elliman, Love Me
I heard Elliman’s singles all over radio, but I never learned who she was because DJs had that awful habit of never mentioning who was playing. It would take a few decades before I would seek out the album with her most memorable music.
Clannad, Clannad 2
No Clannad collection should exclude the six folk albums, but if I had to choose one, Clannad 2 would be it.
Emmylou Harris, Pieces of the Sky
No Emmylou Harris collection should exclude her first six albums, but if I had to choose one, Pieces of the Sky would be it.
New York Dolls, New York Dolls
My introduction to David Johannsen was not through the New York Dolls but through Buster Poindexter. Given the Dolls’ Velvet Underground-like influence, I’m sure I would have found my way to this album through some other means.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.