5-10-15-20 is a regular feature on Pitchfork where we ask musicians about the music from their lives in 5-year intervals; I’ve done fun interviews with Johnny Marr and John Cale. If you wanted to do one I’d love to read it. I’ll add mine at some point. You could give the year for each age.
I don’t much remember what I was listening to at age 5. I actually have much stronger musical memories from being 2 and 3: riding my rocking horse, Rusty, to the sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller; dancing with my dad in the living room of our townhouse to Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong’s sublime rendition of “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut”; digging through my parents’ record collection, marveling at the cover of Osibisa’s self-titled album, laughing about the fact that there was a band called Bread (come to think of it, I still do that now).
At 5, we moved to Connecticut; I started Kindergarten; I spent a lot of time watching He-Man and Transformers and USA Network’s Cartoon Express. Those are the things I remember about that time; I don’t think music was ever quite absent from my life, but there’s a gap there that opened shortly before and would close again a few years later.
There was a car my dad had, an ugly orange thing with a decaying inner roof lining and an 8-track player, the cassettes for which were prone to melting in the sun. Cassettes like The Doors’ Greatest Hits and Paul McCarney & Wings’ Ram. The sound of thunder in “Uncle Albert” scared me. I think that was around this time.
The age intervals for this exercise are very awkward; my real transitional moment, the point at which I truly fell for music and everything changed, came at 11 or 12. Perhaps that’s by design? – from my experience, many, perhaps even most, people who grew into “music people” hit their stride at around that same age, so maybe this is intended to capture folks at the awkward age immediately before.
At 10, I was still pretty in-the-dark about the musical world around me; it wasn’t something I actively sought out, or had strong feelings on. I’m actually sitting here Googling songs I have random memories of from around that time, catching a snippet of a video on MTV or remembering a moment from the radio or something, to see when they came out; I haven’t found one that was actually in 1989 yet. I have some weird, vague memory of listening to a cassette of Springsteen’s Born In The USA, particularly the song “Darlington County,"before school one morning on a portable tape player. I don’t know why I had it, or how. I certainly didn’t know anything about Springsteen, or care, or have particularly strong feelings (or any feelings at all, really) about his music. I hesitate to even list it; I’m sure it’s not representative of what I was listening to at the time (if I was even listening to anything), and it isn’t in any way meaningful to me (though, a good two decades later, I did rediscover – and have a brief infatuation with – that album). But I don’t know what else to put down.
No, the big year for me was 1991; that was the year I discovered everything. The Shamen’s En Tact. Nirvana’s Nevermind. B-104’s Sunday night hour of "modern rock”, Planet B. 120 Minutes. College radio from WMUH. And most of all, Live’s Mental Jewelry. I loved everything about it, from the first time I saw four kids from just a few miles southwest of me dancing around a fire on MTV. The righteous anger of “Operation Spirit” and “Waterboy”. The spiritual yearning of “Mother Earth Is A Vicious Crowd” and “10,000 Years”. Everything about it spoke to me, and I wore that cassette tape out, to the point where I had to unspool it, cut out the mangled bits and splice it back together with scotch tape on multiple occasions. Live (+Live+, for those who were in the know) were my band.
So when I discovered in 1994 that they were finally putting out a second album, I could not have been more excited, in the way only 15 year olds can’t be more excited. Advance lead single “Selling The Drama” felt like a bit of a departure (where were those frenetic, popping basslines?); still, I grew to enjoy it pretty quickly. But it was no preparation for the full album – whatever Throwing Copper lacked in uncontrolled energy, it more than made up for with a more sharply-directed, heavier-hitting (if more cryptic) anger, from the dark pulse of “The Dam At Otter Creek” (still one of the best album, and concert, openers ever as far as I’m concerned) on through to the burn-it-all-down armageddon of “White, Discussion”. Indeed, the only track on the album I didn’t care for, the one I skipped each time as I listened on my Discman at Camp Airy that Summer of 1994, was “Lightning Crashes”. I didn’t hate it, per se; I just found it boring. The ballad that broke up the album’s pummeling flow.
So naturally, “Lightning Crashes” was the album’s third single, and the one that, after a year-long slow burn, finally catapulted Throwing Copper to #1 on the Billboard charts, exactly one year after the its release. It became the song that defined the band; suddenly, this little thing I had loved in private for three years was “that band with the song with the placenta”. Suddenly, everyone loved this private thing of mine. Just a hair less suddenly, everyone hated this private thing of mine. It was weird and wonderful and terrible all at once, to see this little band of mine become something so definitively not mine.
It’s something that’s happened to me countless times since, but you never forget your first.
Like a lot of people around the Turn Of The Millennium, I fell hard for the alt-country scene. Granted I was listening to a ton of other stuff too – everything from Moxy Fruvous to Bad Religion to Reel Big Fish to Our Lady Peace to Blur – but if you were to ask me for my current favorite artist in 1999, I would have said Old 97’s without hesitation, and both Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo would have been right behind. I was an avid reader of No Depression; I was already spinning Johnny Cash’s American and tracks by the Jayhawks and Beechwood Sparks and whatever else I could on my new music show at WBRS, and would soon start DJing a weekly country/bluegrass/y’allternative show.
I saw the band debut this track during a marathon show at TT The Bear’s that January, a two-and-a-half-hour-long sweat-drenched bodies-crammed-in-at-twice-capacity epic of a show that I still rank among the best I’ve ever been to. The 97’s were riding high on their career-defining Too Far To Care, and while Fight Songs ultimately proved to be a much lighter affair, “Jagged” was a brooding jolt of electric desperation that stunned everyone in the room, myself included. It was soul-stirring; I’ve been a die-hard fan ever since.
2002-2005 rivals the early 90’s musically in terms of importance to me; it was another period of seismic shift in my listening habits. Alt-country had burnt itself out; alternative decayed into NickelCreed; indie rock was dreadfully uninspiring, with all the joy I’d taken in acts in the late 90’s like Belle & Sebastian snuffed out by the brooding, art-damaged likes of Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, bands that (so far as I could tell) only people in New York and readers of Spin even pretended to care about. I was listening to a lot of music, but finding myself inspired by less and less of it.
It was also a transitional time of my life. Boston led to San Diego; San Diego led to boredom; boredom led me to MakeOutClub; and MakeOutClub led me to an emo scene that was just on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. That was late 2002, and I lept in headfirst, gobbling up all ends of it, everyone from the likes of Akaline Trio to Coheed & Cambria to The Blood Brothers to From Autumn To Ashes. The scene bubbled bigger and bigger until, in the summer of 2004, it seemed like the world suddenly flipped on its head in a way I hadn’t seen since Seattle kicked hair metal to the curb.
I had seen My Chemical Romance live a couple years prior, and had enjoyed their set, so I was expecting good things from the band’s upcoming second album, but I was still completely blown away by the awesome, hooky power of Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. I wasn’t the only one, either; if emo had been forcing its way through the cracks in the dam for a year, “I’m Not OK” (and, perhaps, Hawthorne Heights’ “Ohio Is For Lovers”) was the drop that cleaved the levee in two. I liked that one, but it was “Thank You For The Venom” that really captured me; I remember sitting on my floor playing the album for the first time over my computer, and feeling the guitar solo suck the breath out of me, only to gasp it back in as Gerard Way exploded into the final chorus as the drums kicked into half-time. The power, the intensity, the tunefulness despite; I knew I was right where I belonged, and I haven’t left since.
By 2009, I was writing about music here and compiling yearly Top Ten lists, so what I was listening to is all right there. It was the height of the scene’s neon phase and the apex of laptop-pop, and I was all for it, though that’s not so much reflected in my year-end picks. Looking back, it’s probably due to the fact that that era was marked more by great singles than by great albums. At this point I was living in NYC, settled in and going to shows 4-5 days a week. I spent a large chunk of the year out of work, and took the opportunity to both listen to and write about a lot of music; it was a key time for me deciding to take the music writing thing more seriously.
I was a big fan of Owl City’s prior work, and the two single releases which preceded Ocean Eyes – “Hot Air Balloon” and “Strawberry Avalanche” – were pure gold. So it was both a pleasant surprise and a bit of a relief when Ocean Eyes actually lived up to the anticipation I had laid on it. I spent many a late night during that period when I was out of work wandering lower Manhattan with that album on my iPod; it was a soothing, warming accompaniment, it turned what could have been a series of sad-luck strolls into genuinely enjoyable experiences. Adam Young’s wide-eyed optimism comes in unceasing tidal waves; they crash down over the top of you, there’s no way to avoid getting soaked in his positivity, of sucking it into your lungs, of not giving in to the joyous, peaceful baptism of sound. It was exactly the music I needed exactly when I needed it, and until “Fireflies” took off at the very end of the year, it was very much the private pleasure I needed it to be.