Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Soundtrack of My Life

You've seen the meme, I'm sure, and this is just the excuse I've been looking for to chronicle my life with the soundtrack behind it.

Music is really how I organize my life. Last night I was in a discussion about Bond movies, and the way I was able to keep them straight was through the themes. I've got a pretty big CD collection (not extensive, by any means), and my tastes are varied, so the list will be eclectic. Furthermore, I've gone between picking albums that were influential to me at the time, to ones that I've come to love later in life. Bob Marley shows up a lot in this list, for instance, and while I wasn't exposed to his music while he was recording, his albums were always on the car stereo in my late teens, twenty years after he died.

My relationship with music is complicated (what in my life is simple, really?); songs are both historical artifacts and art, and I view them constantly in relation to the world around me. Not only when songs were released, but also how they relate to my life when I listen. I'm not saying that clearly enough, but I think you probably get the gist of it. Music is personal, and the function of all art is to elicit a reaction. So while this list contains some of the greatest artistic geniuses of the last third of a century, it's not about them.

It's about me.

So here is my musical narcissistic indulgence.

1975-Not a particularly important year, but nonetheless the year of my birth. Musically, the middle of the decade was a banner year, with some of the best music of the 70s being released. Tom Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner was released, and though I came to Waits very recently, I've been very impressed with that album. Queen's A Night at the Opera was also released, with Bohemian Rhapsody still regarded as one of the greatest songs ever recorded. Not by me, but apparently by some. Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson paired up to release Oscar and Ella. And ABBA's self titled album, while not containing anything significant, still launches the career of one of the least likely phenoms in the music business. But my pick of the year is Live! by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Recorded during the Natty Dred tour, it contains the seminal recording of "No Woman, No Cry", an all-round kickass tune.

1976-I don't know what happened in 1975, but 1976 turned out to be a stellar year: Hotel California by The Eagles, Rastaman Vibration by Bob Marley and the Wailers (you may not know the album, but Jah Live, Crazy Baldhead, and War are really great songs, despite the religious overtones of the first), and Blondie's self titled debut. It gets an honorable mention, though X-Offender and He Rips Her to Shreds are about the only songs on there that I know well. This punk crossover band has big things ahead of them in '76, and though they don't make this list, they're on my iPod for a reason. But I'm going to have to go with Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder for '76. Ambitious, genius and lyrical, Elton John called it the best album ever recorded. There would be no late 80s or early 90s hip hop without 70s funk, and this album was sampled liberally later.

1977-The year my beloved was born, as well as Apple computers and the Toronto Blue Jays. Trudeau dances behind the Queen, and Star Wars changes SF forever, some say for better, though Jar Jar Binks takes the whole Lucas thing down a peg or three. Fortunately, Jar Jar wasn't even a twinkle in Lucas' eye when he filmed Star Wars, and before there was Jar Jar, there was Carrie Fisher in a very, very small bikini. The Sex Pistols go briefly mainstream with Never Mind the Bollocks, and promptly implode. Eric Clapton releases Slowhand, with Cocaine and Wonderful Tonight. But the gold star goes to Bob Marley again, for Exodus. Check out this track list:

Side one
"Natural Mystic" – 3:28
"So Much Things to Say" – 3:08
"Guiltiness" – 3:19
"The Heathen" – 2:32
"Exodus" – 7:39

Side two
"Jamming" – 3:31
"Waiting in Vain" – 4:15
"Turn Your Lights Down Low" – 3:39
"Three Little Birds" – 3:00
"One Love/People Get Ready" (Marley, Curtis Mayfield) – 2:53

Exodus and Natural Mystic are my two favourites. I once lectured for an hour in a religious studies class about the lyrics in Exodus, and the biblical story. Compelling stuff, really, and on the strength of that one song alone this album could make it for the year. You'll note that five of these tracks make the Legend album.

1978-I ceased to be an only child, and my parents begin regretting the fact that they didn't take advantage of readily available contraception. My sister was LOUD, a strident counterpoint to The Cars and Dire Straits first (and self-titled) albums, as well as Blondie's Parallel Lines. But to be true to my actual experience here, I'm going to go with The Gambler by Kenny Rogers, which my mother played constantly, probably enamoured of the thought of a quiet death, or maybe just with quiet.

1979-A pretty decent song in its own right, but we won't get there until the 90s. Big year here, with The Clash releasing London Calling, Blondie hitting again with Eat the Beat, and Bob Marley getting Survival in (which contains my favourite Marley song, Babylon System). The Bee Gees released their Greatest Hits double album, interestingly leaving two of their best songs off: To Love Somebody (beautifully covered by, most notably, Blue Rodeo), and I've Gotta Get a Message to You. I'm going to give the honours to The B-52's by, you guessed it, The B-52's. Planet Claire and Rock Lobster. That's all I have to say about that.

1980-The long dark period of our soul begins: sould crushing materialism is the dominant theme, and after the oil shock, we shake off the sensible warning and start driving really big shit all over the place, preferring to get our exercise in aerobics classes. People actually drove to the gym to run on treadmills and ride stationary bikes. Just a small glimpse into how fucked up we actually got during the 80s. A slow start musically, but great things are to come, with Prince releasing Dirty Mind (not his first album, and not quite his breakthrough, but establishing him as totally inappropriate). Bob Marley takes it again for Uprising, which I wore out on cassette. I don't care that I've given the honour to him twice already. He deserves it. Redemption Song appears on this album, which is enough, but Coming in From the Cold (my second favourite tune by the Wailers) and Could You Be Loved put it over the top.

1981-Don't know what happened here. All I could find that I found remotely interesting was Stray Cats, by the Stray Cats. Brian Setzer managed to keep rockabilly alive and current during the New Wave era, with a respectful nod to straight-up punk. Oddly never released in the States, it still takes the cigar.

1982-I've read the blogs of two others who did this exercise, and I don't know what they were thinking. Prince's 1999? Pretty fucking cool, fo' shizzle. Rio, by Duran Duran? Yeak, since they made the music video a genre of its own, I'll give it to them. But come on people: Thriller. I know he's crrepy. I know he barely looks human. I know, I know, I know. But seriously. The greatest selling album of all time. My parents bought it twice on vinyl, and then a CD later, because they wore it out. Beat It, Billie Jean, P.Y.T., Wanna Be Startin' Something, and The Girl is Mine. And that's not even including Thriller. I'm afraid there's no contest. Easily the most important album of the year, and arguably the most important album of the decade, and probably the most important pop album of the last century. And while Duran Duran elevated the music video, this one is all by itself.

The Phillipino prisoners, and the original.

1983-The year my little brother emerged squalling, and a solid year musically. Weird Al Yankovic's first album came out, and the parody was about to become almost mainstream again. Bob Marley's Confrontation was released, with Chant Down Babylon to lead off. This cassette was also worn out in the tape deck of my parents' K car later. The Police released their last and possibly best album, Synchronicity, and David Bowie hit us with Let's Dance, the source of much of his mainstream success (Modern Love, China Girl & Let's Dance). In fact, I'm going to go with a twofer this year: Let's Dance, and Sports, by Huey Lewis & The News. Here's Patrick Bateman, from the film adaptation of American Psycho (courtesy of

Patrick Bateman: Do you like Huey Lewis and the news?
Paul Allen: They're OK.
Patrick Bateman: Their early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Sports came out in '83, I think they really came into their own, commercial and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He's been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far much more bitter, cynical sense of humour.
Paul Allen: Hey Halberstram.
Patrick Bateman: Yes, Allen?
Paul Allen: Why are there copies of the style section all over the place, d-do you have a dog? A little chow or something?
Patrick Bateman: No, Allen.
Paul Allen: Is that a rain coat?
Patrick Bateman: Yes it is! In '87, Huey released this, Fore, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is "Hip to be Square", a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it's also a personal statement about the band itself. [raises axe above head]
Patrick Bateman: Hey Paul! [he bashes Allen in the head with the axe, and blood splatters over him] TRY GETTING A RESERVATION AT DORSIA NOW YOU FUCKING STUPID BASTARD! YOU FUCKING BASTARD!
Couldn't have said it better myself.

1984-Came and went without an actual Big Brother, though since then, there has been a marked increase in surveillance and in paucity of thought. Orwell basically pulled the number out of his ass, I know, and he was about 20 years too early. Big year in music: Madonna with Like a Virgin, Prince with Purple Rain, and Bananarama with Bananarama. One of the first albums I owned (that wasn't Sharon, Lois & Brahm or Disney or Sesame Street or some Muppet populated drug haze) was Stay Hungry, by Twisted Sister, which gets an honourable mention for the year. However, the most personally important album for me was Weird Al Yankovic in 3-D. Brilliant, funny, and insightful, it also gave Yankovic a chance to show off his versatility. On one album, he channels Ricky Ricardo, Sting, Michael Jackson, Fred Schneider and Survivor. He plays several instruments, and he's also really fucking funny. Weird Al made me feel better about being an awkward, bright and bookish kid. His persona helped me shape mine, knowing that even real weirdos could find acceptance. It was a licence to grow into whatever I needed to be.

1985-Weird Al, on a roll, brings us Dare to Be Stupid, which continues in the same vein of In 3-D. As much as I want to put it here, it's not as important as several other albums from the same year. Riptide by Robert Palmer was largely ignored until Palmer died, and then the guy's a genius. Power Station's last album came out this year, too. Palmer's videos were a study in sexism, though there was little actual misogyny therein. Corey Hart gave us Boy in the Box, a pretty good follow up to First Offence which gave us Sunglasses at Night. Never Surrender was the hit from Boy in the Box that everybody's sick of now. Two albums from this year, for two reasons. First, both were very popular, and while I don't like one, Patrick Bateman does. So, Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits (with Money for Nothing and Walk of Life), and Whitney Houston's Whitney Houston:

Patrick Bateman: Did you know that Whitney Houston's debut LP, called simply Whitney Houston had four number one singles on it? Did you know that, Christie?
Elizabeth: [laughing] You actually listen to Whitney Houston? You own a Whitney Houston CD? More than one?
Patrick Bateman: It's hard to choose a favorite among so many great tracks, but "The Greatest Love of All" is one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation, dignity. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it's not too late to better ourselves. Since, Elizabeth, it's impossible in this world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It's an important message, crucial really. And it's beautifully stated on the album.

There you go. The first third of my life in music. Rickey Henderson was right. It's time consuming and exhausting. But strangely satisfying. Expect a marked increase in hip hop over the next 11 years.

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