Pitchfork has an interview series they call “5 10 15 20” with the conceit that the interviewee pick an album for every fifth year of their lives which had an impact on them at the time. One of those biography-via-music things. Because I’ve been so deep in music lately, I figured I’d give it a go.
5 / Billy Joel: An Innocent Man
When my father listened to music, it was almost always the radio. Usually, Casey Kasem’s top 100 playing top hits of the week. I was born in 1981 and so grew up hearing all that Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Madonna. Choosing a single release for this period is tough, but I’m gonna go with Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. I don’t believe I ever listened to this entire record before today, but I sure as hell knew all the singles. The production of The Longest Time just perfectly captures what the 80’s felt like for me. All browns and ochres. That unguarded sappiness. Popped jacket collars. Those art nuveau-esque lamps and windows with bits of colored glass; wood paneling. Cheers. In Indiana, the 80s were more of a 70s hangover than what you’d generally think of that decade. Big Boomer energy. Billy Joel up in all of it.
10 / The Beach Boys: Still Cruisin'
For a long long while — maybe for six months or even a year — I went to sleep to a cassette player beside my bed playing The Beach Boys' Still Cruisin'. Why that tape? I wish I could say. It was one my parents owned. The mix was soft and soothing, the harmonies quieting. As I’m now a solid Brian Wilson fan, it’s hilarious to me that this record was the one I had first been obsessed with. It’s currently out of print, which is fine. You don't want it. You should, though, take a look at the fantastic video for Still Cruisin'. Bring on the 90’s! And a lifetime of Beach Boys fandom.
15 / Fountains of Wayne: Fountains of Wayne
During my early teens, music wasn’t yet important to me, but it was always there, like a benign soundtrack. I listened to whatever was around: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, but also Third Eye Blind, Matchbox Twenty, Bloodhound Gang. I had an undeveloped taste, no perspective on what I was buying and listening to. At 15, if you asked me who was my favorite band, I would not have had a confident answer. I’m sure I would not have told you Fountains of Wayne. But, looking back, I can now say that Fountains of Wayne got the most plays by me. Other records came and went, yet this one kept finding its way back into the rotation. I loved its pop, filtered through a fashionable level of fuzzy grungy sound. The melancholic sadness in songs like She’s Got A Problem and Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight, well, they spoke directly to me. A teen. All moody and whatever. Survival Car was fun, though! And Radiation Vibe is a perfect example of the bluesy groove I love in a pop tune.
20 / Blur: Blur
No record had a greater affect on me and my life than Blur’s Blur, 1997. The Brian you would have met in 2001, at 20, was more defined by this album than any other single thing. It’s impossible to overstate how deep this record went into my psyche and self-perception. I spent my entire high school years turning myself into a midwestern Damon Albarn. I tried to dress like him, cut my hair like his, had my ear pierced like him; I even made myself and wore a colorful beaded necklace like his (!), which I’m sure made me seem quite odd for central Indiana. Even more than the superficial fashion stuff was the influence Blur had on how I thought about life and art. Hearing Blur was the first time I fully understood what art was, how it was both a reflection of and a comment on its environment. Art, when done right, takes the internal, turns it outward, and then allows another person to re-internalize it into themselves. After Blur, the entire world opened up for me. I got gold card soul. Also, Graham Coxon is a fucking phenomenal guitarist.
25 / Guided By Voices: Alien Lanes
I was a deeply introverted kid. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began to have a normal social life. Music was what bonded me to all my friends. I played in bands. Spent damn near every conversation chatting about records. We went to indie club shows in Bloomington every week. Multiple times a week. I saw hundreds of bands, but none better represented those years than GBV. They played at the Bluebird about once a year, and we all went, poggoing to every song, singing along, sloshing beer all over each other. Their essence pervaded everything for us indie rocker types. Alien Lanes was a 10 year old record in 2005, but it exemplified everything about my life at that time. We lived it. It was life. “As you run through the places you love. I remember the faces that cry. And they’re pulling me back so I have to die …”
30 / The Walkmen: Heaven
At 30, I was finally in love. Had just met the woman I would marry. The record which was there for me during that time, which really caught the sparkle of my expanded emotions, was Heaven by The Walkmen. Right time, right place, I suppose. I was a barista in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, NY. Had no money at all. Life seemed simple, bare bones. For the first time, I could see a future for myself, because Lisa was finally in it. Song For Leigh was the key track for me. “I sing myself sick. I sing myself sick. I sing myself sick about you!” That yelpy chorus. Glorious.
35 / Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
Man. The years 2016, 2017. What the fuck. Goddamn nightmare. The world had been headed one way, and then it took a nose dive into this hellish other dimension. Only hip-hop could make any sense of it for me. I needed direct, no bullshit, truth-telling. I needed to hear voices which could explain the new reality we were living in, from perspectives which had seen it coming, had already been living a version it. Kendrick Lamar was ascendent and the man of the day. To Pimp A Butterfly, for me, had captured the hesitant optimism at the end of the Obama years. Maybe the future was going to keep getting better, I thought. But no. Not gonna happen. With DAMN., Lamar taught me how to be a citizen solider. How to put on a new face for going out in the different world. Shit’s tough, but there’s still beauty in it.