Monday, June 21, 2010

Now That's What I Called Music Vol. 1

As I mentioned in this post about YA novels of the 80s and 90s, I'm purging some childhood belongings in an effort to make room for all of the stuff we're not bringing with us to Boston. Among the myriad treasures unearthed in my closet was a box of cassettes. Some Beatles tapes, some cassingles, and buried at the bottom, a mixtape.

This tape was actually one of a trio--a tape of happy songs, a tape of sad songs, and this, the third, a tape of the best songs. The other two are long gone, probably left in friends' cars over the years. I made the mixtape in 9th grade, just a couple of years before I'd listen to my first burned CD and then, soon after, my first mp3 playlist. It's strange how the days of cassette tapes and mp3s rubbed up against each other so close.

My husband and I freely admit that we are stuck in the late 90s--a fact that we owe, perhaps, to the fact that we first met in 1995. Also stuck in the 90s is my beloved car, the Spruce Goose, who was born in 1998. Same as the mixtape. It has a tape player, of course, so I popped it in yesterday morning on my way to work.

The case with its handwritten track listing was long gone, but I had my suspicions about what I might find on the tape. I'm a creature of habit who still relishes many of my favorite albums from ten or fifteen years ago. But listening to my busted old car stereo playing a busted old tape, I felt myself floating on the hissing, popping, clicking reel. My 98 Avalon was a time machine to 1998.

do you hear that clicking?

This mixtape is a snapshot of my teenage life, but more than that, it's pretty good. Okay, mostly.


Track 1: "Uncle John's Band" originally by The Grateful Dead, covered by the Indigo Girls

I once read an interview with Meshell Ndegeocello in Seventeen where she called "Eleanor Rigby" the most "musically perfect song" she had ever heard. I've never been able to get it out of my head. At the time, I decided that the most musically perfect song I could think of was the Indigo Girls covering "Uncle John's Band" and therefore it probably ought to be my favorite song.

Remember how I'm a creature of habit? I still name "Uncle John's Band" almost reflexively as my favorite song of all time (a distinction that's pretty absurd anyway). I wasn't surprised at all that it was first on the tape.

The track comes from Deadicated, an awesome Grateful Dead tribute album from 1991 that I stole from my dad based solely on the gnarly cover.

This album has it all--Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Jane's Addiction, and even a haunting rendition of "Friend of the Devil" by Lyle Lovett. I listened to this CD until I almost wore it out. Oddly enough, to this day I have never owned a Grateful Dead album and when it comes to their many zillions of songs, I basically only know "Touch of Gray," "Scarlet Begonias" (because Sublime covered it), and the songs off this album.

This is all heresy to Deadheads but quel dommage. Admittedly, some of the production and instrumentation of this album is pretty dated and maybe even a little hokey, but something about the way Amy and Emily harmonize on "Uncle John's Band" is so wholesome and American and reassuring. It calls to mind warm Southern summer afternoons--creekbeds and sunburns and fish fries. Even I type this I am bopping around and snapping. This song is a hell of a drug.

Track 2: "Eleanor Rigby" by the Beatles

I told you that Seventeen article made an impression on me.

Track 3: "Vox [extended remix]" by Sarah McLachlan

Sarah McLachlan was among my first musical loves from the moment Fran Blumenkopf gave my mom a copy of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy that we proceeded to listen to for several years straight. Sarah didn't really hit the public eye in a big way until 1997's aptly-named Surfacing, so for many years I considered her to be my special secret favorite artist who I had all to myself.

Basically the highlight of my whole life (at least, up until that point) was getting to actually meet Sarah when I won a contest in Seventeen* that sent my mother and I to the 1999 Lilith Fair in Denver--limo at the airport, swank hotel, plum seats, and a meet-and-greet on Sarah's tour bus.

*I did not realize until I started typing this how prominently Seventeen was going to figure. Hey, I guess that's what we read for fun before we had stuff like Amanda Bynes' Twitter.

wearing my very special angel necklace that I gave her--she wore it on stage that night.

The original "Vox," off Sarah's 1988 album Touch, clocks in at almost five minutes. So of course, Sarah threw a seven-minute extended remix on her neat Rarities, B-Sides, and Other Stuff album.

This is not a great song. Sarah hasn't quite learned how to ground her ethereal voice yet. The lyrics are the stuff of my own poetry circa 1998--tangled webs and velvet and yearning. I don't know what it is about this song, maybe the Latin title, but this endless song became my favorite song to listen to on repeat, sometimes for hours at a time. There's something so zen and soothing in that kind of repetition. I spent so many hours listening to this song that the main theme still feels like a security blanket to me.

Track 4: "I Will Survive" originally by Gloria Gaynor, covered by Cake

Cake's incredible Fashion Nugget album was introduced to me by none other than my dearest Lanier, whom loyal readers will know as my current Sunday dinner partner. Before there was Sunday dinner, there was Thursday night. We couldn't drive yet, so my mom would pick us up after school and take us for whatever adventures our afternoon held. We insisted that nothing but Fashion Nugget play in the car on Thursday afternoon. My mom's favorite song was "Nugget", which we found scandalous and hilarious and wonderful.

I'm a sucker for covers so I instead gravitated to "I Will Survive", the classic disco anthem originally recorded by Gloria Gaynor that tells the story of the rebirth and freedom that comes with lost love. Cake's cover, with John McCrea's almost spoken vocals and Vince DiFiore's soaring brass solos, recasts the original in a whole new way that's real and relatable and raw beside the glossy finish of the original disco instrumentals. Pop-Up Video or some other informative cable program taught me that Gloria Gaynor eventually went born-again and changed the lyrics to as long as I have Jesus' love I know I'll be alive when she performed it later on in her career. Sadly, the closest thing I can find to confirmation of this is a video of Jesus lip-synching to the disco original.

"I Will Survive" turned out to be the soundtrack to mine and Lanier's inevitable teenage heartbreaks. Because, as everyone knows, when you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe them. Our breakup routine included chocolate ice cream, ritual destruction of relationship trinkets, and vigorous sing-alongs to "I Will Survive." Stuffed with ice cream, surrounded by love letter confetti and smashed ceramic doodads, dancing with your best friend, who has time to give a thought to that jerk who made you cry? Oh not I.

In our next installment, I'll bring you four tracks that give a fantastic a cross section of the best of late 90s through the eyes of a suburborural teenage girl.

Discussion Question:
If you just HAD to pick one favorite song, like at gunpoint, what would you say?


  1. Middle school is when I really started to listen to my *own* music, and not just what my parents listened to, so it had an impact. I've listened to and loved almost all kinds of music since, but to this day I think I would still say Smashing Pumpkins' Bullet with Butterfly Wings. I remember my BFF and I requesting it at our middle school dances and thinking we were such badasses!

  2. no spoilers but Smashing Pumpkins will be making an appearance in this blog series :)

  3. late 90s music - chemical brothers, coldplay, tricky, delerium, prodigy, white zombie, air.... man it's all so damn good.

    man I could never pick a favorite song but gun to my head - I'll always bop my head to some old aphex twin - yellow calx - damn that clacker is ethereal. Speaking of which aphex twin - awesome 90s music.

  4. I would say, "Dude, seriously! Put the gun down. It's not that big of a deal. I'm serious! Look, this isn't funny."

    Then I'd probably say something like Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, but really only if it's with the amazing music video, and even then it's not my favorite, but seriously put the gun down.

  5. At gunpoint you say?
    Bjork's "Joga".
    When I heard it live for the first time, my heart basically exploded and then I died in a mess of blubbering tears and laughter.
    Speaking of Bjork, my mom just found a stockpile of my posters when she was cleaning house and I am now in (re?)possession of the Bjork poster you gave me!
    Y'know, the summer of the seeeeesterhood of the traveling chalupas?
    And now it's totally going up in Ella's room.

  6. Alex, I guess you're just one of those people who thinks the gunpoint-favorite-song-game only happens to OTHER people

  7. Denise, I can't believe that poster still exists! I love that it is being passed down to the next generation of the seesterhood. Ella's gonna have to show all my babies how its done whenever they come along.

  8. if someone had a gun to my head (right now) and demanded to know my favorite song, i would have to just blurt out the first song title that popped into my head. this would be after i pooped myself.

    however, now that you've revealed the possibility of such an event to me (and thank you for that) i will spend some time thinking of either:

    a) an answer that could be construed as true since the result of this game just might be listening to that song for the rest of my life (smog's "held", perhaps) or

    b) something hilarious that might convince the gun-holder to not become a shooter (bob marley's "i shot the sheriff" is not it, but you see where i'm going).

  9. JDogg, it is incredible to me what lengths people will go to to avoid naming a favorite song. I mean there are lots of awesome colors and foods in this world too and people can generally commit to a favorite color and favorite food. Why is "favorite song" such an unanswerable?

    I really like idea B btw

  10. i don't think your response was directed at me specifically, since i did mention a candidate and a second song. but let me say, for the record, that i have a lot of trouble identifying favorites. i don't have a favorite color or a favorite food.

    maybe it's similar to how 'best friend' is a very serious distinction to you and isn't pulled casually from the word bank. i feel like naming something my favorite devalues all other things from that category, and i'm not prepared to do that in most categories.

  11. I just don't see it as such a serious thing. But I'm also just teasing you.

  12. fav hymn: How Great Thou Art
    fav Christmas: Silver Bells
    but for fav song of ALL time? hands down, sans hesitation: "Me and Bobby McGee" by Janis Joplin, and now I shall be singing it all day long - thank you Miss KJDeP!

    love ya!