Though I wasn’t really allowed to listen to secular music as a child, somehow the Beatles were a frequent exception. It wasn’t actually until high school that I intentionally discovered them for myself. It was like I got initiated into some obvious club. Because so many of their songs existed individually, picking my favorite album feels insincere. I loved each era of the Beatles separately. Abbey Road is as good as any other, really, since their music exists in their own category. It wasn’t that they were the best singers, best musicians, or the sexiest guys. They were smart, finding the right amount of all the things at the right time in history.
Before Bjork was known for being Bjork, she was a co-singer for the band The Sugarcubes. Even then, she stood out as what made the band worth listening to. For me, the songs were all little bazaar delights. Bjork has a way of making dissonance feel like a hug. Birthday felt like the songs I was warned about, seductive, entrancing, and lots of twisted. In 1989, I got to see them live at what was once called Irvine Meadows. They opened up for PIL and New Order. It was the very first big name concert I ever saw.
Long before the internet, the way we often discovered music was word of mouth. Like so much of my music obsessions, Cat Stevens was recommended by a guy I had a crush on. Now my life story could not be told without including his music. He felt like the father figure I never had. Whatever people felt about his personal life choices, his songs were a beautiful masculinity that the world is in desperate need of today. All his songs were stories of people and places I wanted to know. I spent years finding as many of his albums as I could on record. A lot of music loses its relevance over time, but Cat Stevens music is, for me, beyond time.
I remembered a friend giving me a copy of Scatered Few’s demo tape some time in 1990 or so. While I was delving into the world of Christian alternative music, I was craving music that sang to the dark spaces in my heart. Then came Sin disease. It was like nothing I had heard before in any music realm. Their music was piercing, spastic, intense, twisty, and smart. Then, I saw them play live. I feel lucky to have lived in the time and place I did. I don’t know how many times I got to see them play, but they were never imitated.
Carole King’s Tapestry album makes me feel nostalgic for the childhood I was meant to have. Her songs make me feel like a familiar friend, a warm blanket, and the epitome of a woman who knows her voice. I didn’t discover her until later in my teens, but Tapestry became required listening on any rainy day.
No 80s child escaped the draw of Depeche Mode. They were dark, they were pop, they were androgynous, they’re music was so damn catchy. They became their own genre of music, often imitated. As much as young me wanted to resist them because of their popularity, they’re songs were so easy to sing along to. Black Celebration was this album full of hypnotic beats and angsty lyrics. I related. The volume always in increased times ten when the final anthemic song, But Not Tonight, came on.
In 1987, Strangeways, Here We Come by The Smiths was released. It was my first trip into the dark frolicking land of The Smiths. Unlike some albums I was discovering after the fact, Strangeways belonged to our 1987. The combination of Morrissey and Johnny Mar made the distinctive sound addicting. The lyrics were at once funny and sad, but also very dark and twisted. Perfect for 12-year-old me. Though they broke up very soon after, the language of the Manchester angst was one of the biggest influences of my first poems.
I had a strangely conservative Christian childhood. We were not allowed to listen to secular (non Christian) music. So when I first hear All Fall Down by the 77s, my world was blown. They sounded just like the forbidden music on the radio, but they had a very straight forward Christian message in all their songs. Musically, I was intoxicated with the dark melodies and pop rhythms. Somehow they blurred the line for me in the mid 80s. I remained obsessed with them throughout my teens.
My introduction to New Order was Substance. My first major crush told me about a song called True Faith and of course I had to become obsessed with it. They were the first band that felt a poem only I had read. Their music transported me into another quiet world. I know they were known for their dance beats and I definitely loved to dance to them, but it was something else that felt deeply personal about their music. Maybe I connected to how they came out of a dark past. Whatever it was, it was personal.
Unforgettable Fire by U2 was the first album I listened to over and over and over. U2 was the first semi-secular band I was allowed to listen to because they were kinda Christian at the time. (I wasn’t allowed to listen to non Christian music as a child.) My sister had a cassette tape with Unforgettable Fire on one side and Under a Blood Red Sky/Wide Awake in America on the other. She’d play it over and over as we fell asleep in our shared bedroom. As a result, this album always reminds me of a dream state. I either copied the tape or stole it, but either way, I’m sure I still have it. To this day, I maintain that it is a perfect album. The music is dark, mesmerizing, and sensual. They are a band that has reinvented themselves many times over, but this remains my favorite.