33 1/3 albums and 78 songs

Around the turn of the century, I started sifting through my good-sized music collection to compile a personal best-of series. The working title and conceit, “Personally Counting,” helped create one of my most fascinating personal projects, and one that stood incomplete for nearly five years. The goal: whittle down my music collection into a must list of 33 1/3 albums and 78 songs (clever clever), omitting compilations and redundancy wherever possible. To quote my own notes, these are “not important songs, because being great in stature isn’t the same as being wonderful,” although more than a few items on this list are indeed both.

Not that my opinion is more or less valid than anyone else’s; my tastes are fairly easy to pinpoint (minor chords, three-part harmonies, great verse-chorus transitions) and my breadth does not quite achieve the state of relentless fanaticism that defines great music critics. It was a fun personal exercise, though, an expanded Desert Island Discs that would define to my own satisfaction the most indispensable and important items of my 20,000-song-strong music collection.

I actually finished the list, with a nice editorial flair, but never wrote a corresponding article. In 2001 and 2002 I endured a lengthy battle with my ears; when I got engaged, I misplaced the list–handwritten on old Billboard stationery–and never attempted to create it anew.

One night in June 2005, while gleefully sifting through a large folder of magazine clippings of music to explore, I found the list and typed it up. I meant to post it here but never did, although I managed to hang onto the file. A recent Facebook meme of people posting their 10 essential albums from high school brought this to mind, and so I pulled it up again. I think 15-plus years of aging is long enough, so here we go.

I present these lists in their original compilation (which includes much of this introduction). It is in alphabetical order by album/song title and only lightly edited. Some noteworthy additions are tacked onto the back end of the list. The text is from 2005, which has made for a doubly interesting experiment–some of the items I originally presented without supporting statements, as I no longer viewed them the same way, while others grew in stature in varying ways. Any 2017 text additions are in [brackets].

Herewith:

33 1/3 Essential Albums

“Achtung Baby,” U2: Most critics and longtime fans cite “The Joshua Tree” as the best U2 album, but I found “Achtung Baby” a lot more exciting. Here’s a band that has achieved career perfection, and rather than do it again, they nearly explode, integrating synthesizers and aural realms into their anthemic rock. Still a great listen.

“Are You Experienced?” Jimi Hendrix Experience: Little needs to be said in support of Jimi’s coming-out party. Not one of my regular listens but an important piece of my musical knowledge base. (I’m honestly surprised, four years on, that this made the cut back then.) [Middle-aged me is a bit glad that it did.]

“Bedbugs,” Odds: It pains and fascinates me that one of my absolute favorite bands is an act that achieved no traction despite four strong pop-rock albums. “Bedbugs” is the best post-Beatles power pop album I know, more anthemic and interesting than most of its peers, the kind of album that keeps presenting new favorites every year or so as gems are uncovered or rediscovered.

“Breakfast in America,” Supertramp: Fun, playful, a little bit campy, very MOR. Not a shred of credibility for me to include it here, I know. But I’ll be damned if I were to ignore “Take the Long Way Home” and “The Logical Song” in a personal best-of list.

“Center of the Universe,” Giant Sand: Howe Gelb’s best album is more like a great half-album. The first eight songs are good, sort of peculiar, a little grating–then the album screeches to a halt, and Gelb breaks into “Sonic Drive-In,” and from there it’s just wonderful.

“Control,” Janet Jackson: My favorite dance album, and an undeniably strong one. Janet’s coming-of-age story was perfectly captured by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and I still know all the lyrics.

“Destroyer,” Kiss: The first album I ever owned and still a great listen. I now cringe when I look back at some of it–how did my mother let me sing along to “Sweet pain/My love will drive you insane”–but the sound is transporting and defined my youth. It remains the strongest recorded effort by one of the most visually influential bands of the 1970s.

“Don’t Say No,” Billy Squier: Man, I’d love to rediscover this album one of these days. I dug Billy Squier in the early ’80s, thanks to his heavy MTV airplay and the radio-ready follow-up “Everybody Wants You.” Derivative though it may be, this is a great rock album to me.

“Dots and Loops,” Stereolab: Heresy for Stereolab fans, of which I am not one. I am, however, still in love with this CD; its soundscapes are at once invigorating and soothing to me. I still listen to this at bedtime every few weeks.

“Electr-O-Pura,” Yo La Tengo: The best indie album from indie rock’s best band. The range of sounds and emotions is fantastic, and “Moby Octopad” is transporting.

“Entroducing…” DJ Shadow: I can say without much hesitation that within this list of 33, and despite my preference of perfect power pop, “Entroducing” is a singular recording and a notch above the rest. The range of styles and moods folded into it envelops me and holds my attention from start to finish. I hate starting this album without finishing it. What rock album makes someone say that?

“Exile in Guyville,” Liz Phair: Cock rock from a cocky woman–what’s not to like? “Exile” forces you to sit up straight. I loved that quality.

“41,” Swell: I’d never heard the cinema expression mise-en-scene applied to an album until I found this one, and its immersive quality still excites me. The down-on-my-luck acoustics are unlike any other album I know. Swell’s other CDs are good, too, but none are as unique.

“Freedom,” Neil Young: way gone from my listening circuit nowadays, but a simply terrific rock album, the reinvigoration of a career and a powerful statement by one of rock’s singular artists.

“Girlfriend,” Matthew Sweet: Between the purity of its execution and the sensitivity of its lyrics (something I normally neglect) Sweet achieved rock perfection on his third album. It’s so good that I can’t listen to it unless I’m in the right state of mind–I listen to the more playful “Altered Beast,” his follow-up, far more often. But this album is the best.

“Gun Shy Trigger Happy,” Jen Trynin: I don’t get it either–maybe there’s a Billy Squier derivation within it. Something about this album grabs me, and I can listen to it straight through, singing along with every song. Fantastic unheralded rock. [By the way, I still adore this largely unknown album, and I always wish Jen hadn’t left the music business.]

“Kick,” INXS: Not much to say here, except that 15 years on, every song on this album is still pretty fun.

“Led Zeppelin IV”: I was 14 when I found this LP in someone’s spring cleaning discard bin and played it on a half-busted record player. In one day I shifted from pop fan to rock fan. Played-out or not, these are some of the best rock songs ever recorded.

“A Love Supreme” and “Blue Train,” John Coltrane: Listing both of these probably breaks my own rules, but truly, how to fairly select one or the other?

“Mama Said,” Lenny Kravitz: There was a time when I drove a car with a Sony Discman nestled between the front seats, an adapter snaking into the car’s cassette deck, and for months this album and “Time’s Up” (see below) went wherever I went.

“No Protection,” Massive Attack v. Mad Professor: I bought this album on recommendation of a review that said, “This is the perfect album to have sex to.” I never drank or did drugs; music was always my elixir, and albums that evoke emotions and bring me somewhere else are the ones that grab me. With a review like that, how could I ignore it? And indeed, this disc retains its transporting quality. Good for late late nights, dim lighting and, y’know.

“…Nothing Like the Sun,” Sting: A very good album made great for me with “Fragile.”

“Odelay,” Beck: Creating genre mash-ups ahead of everyone else. Consistently great.

“Rumours,” Fleetwood Mac: Go ahead, make fun. I’ll stand by this outpouring of emotion and musical power, and pop it in whenever I want to get mad and sad and passionate about things.

“Rubber Soul,” The Beatles: The pivot point between pop-ditty Beatles and maharishi-acid Beatles, where sophistication had entered their songs without overtaking them. “Revolver” is almost as good.

“Sap,” Alice in Chains: The 1/3 mentioned above, four great songs on an acoustic EP from a sludgy grunge band, full of desperate harmonies and minor chords. Just my thing.

“Some Friendly,” Charlatans UK: My first exposure to Britpop and still my favorite.

“Supergrass,” Supergrass: perfect later-period Britpop for the turn of the century. “Moving” is a one-of-a-kind song, and the rest of the album is playful, strong, and unforgiving.

“Symphony or Damn,” Terence Trent D’Arby: Just because, although I’m long over it now.

“Three Feet High and Rising,” De La Soul: For all the reasons this is a seminal rap album, it’s my favorite of the genre.

“Throwing Copper,” Live: Not a sophisticated selection, but man, is this a great rock album. Anthemic, crisp, exciting, emotional: everything clicked on this second album. I followed Live for years and was amazed at how limpid their music became. But from start to finish this album rocks.

“Time’s Up,” Living Colour: The best album by one of the most underappreciated bands of the past 20 years. Living Colour were breaking down walls before it was cool to do so, and “Time’s Up,” with its live studio recordings, was their strongest effort. It’s a bit dated today but no less important.

“Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd: Now here’s an album I never listen to–I only have it on cassette–yet it is forever lodged in my brain. It brings me a wide range of memories, and notably, I like this album mostly because I had friends who liked it, rather than having discovered and fallen in love with it on my own. Years later, though, I am transported to my past with it; and frankly, a Pink Floyd album is not a bad way for that to happen. Not to mention that the production and soundscapes are terrific.

Revisions, 2005: Four years on [heh], most of the album list retains its power, despite my having moved away from regular listens to many of these albums. I still play “Bedbugs” and “Entroducing” as much as anything in my collection; they’d have to top a ranked version of this list. Removed without hesitation: “Symphony or Damn” and “Odelay.” Added: “Weezer” (the Green album) and, if I can cheat, Stevie Wonder’s “Song Review” compendium. [Meanwhile,  2017 me is trying to parse how I didn’t fit a King’s X album in here, and thinking I was crazy to cut “Odelay” out.]

78 Songs

“A Day in the Life,” Beatles: Because I still consider this their crowning musical achievement.
“Abacab,” Genesis: Enveloping.
“And Fools Shine On,” Brother Cane: One of those songs that I just love to sing along with.
“Angeles,” Elliott Smith: My favorite of his mood-mope runes.
“Are You Gonna Go My Way,” Lenny Kravitz: The first time I heard this song, I nearly fell out of my chair. Then I saw the video and it almost happened a second time. Proved that Lenny is a rock star.
“Army of Me,” Bjork: This tune has become popular for remakes, but the original is hot.
“Battleflag,” Lo-Fidelity All-Stars: No comment, although it’s still catchy.
“Big Fat Funky Booty,” Spin Doctors: Still funny and still fun, if you divorce it from all the crap that surrounded the Spin Doctors once they got big.
“Black Velvet,” Alannah Myles: I used to walk around high school singing this song, I liked it so much at the time.
“Brown Paper Bag,” Roni Size + Reprazent: Just listened to this again after a few years away. Drum ‘n bass like this really had potential. Best in genre, and a really compelling, exciting song.
“California Dreaming,” The Mamas and the Papas: Harmonies don’t get better than this.
“Criminal,” Fiona Apple: This makes the list feel like it was from a long time ago, but on reflection, this is still one heck of a song.
“Cult of Personality,” Living Colour: the band’s defining moment, and one of the most powerful rock songs I know. This was the first album I bought on CD, too.
“Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin: * The deepest and scariest rock I knew.
“Detroit Rock City,” Kiss: * Still their coolest accomplishment.
“Double Vision,” Foreigner: From the days when rock to me meant 66 WNBC AM. [In 2017, the AM radio guy in me proudly listens to Yacht Rock Radio on Sirius XM.]
“Dust in the Wind,” Kansas: no comment.
“Emotional Rescue,” Rolling Stones: At the age of 7, I didn’t know Mick Jagger from his young swaggering days, but I knew the guy half-seducing, half-threatening his girl was a man to pay attention to.
“Everybodys 1,” godschild: Godschild somehow put out more than one album. I say “somehow” because the lead singer’s voice is cringe-inducing. Still, this song is very cool, and it followed me around for a long time.
“Fanfare,” Eric Matthews: It’s a shame he doesn’t put out more of his own music, because his perfectionism really plays well. The horns!
“Feelin’ Alright,” Joe Cocker: That voice.
“Fell on Black Days,” Soundgarden: Those minor chords.
“Fly Like an Eagle,” Steve Miller Band: More minor chords! Also, the effects on this song were so cool back in the day.
“Fragile,” Sting: * Sting’s prettiest song, so relaxing and distant and just a little bit frightening. A wonderful combination.
“Funk #49,” James Gang: Guitars, baby, guitars. I will forever respect Joe Walsh as a result.
“Gimme Shelter,” Rolling Stones: For the howling woman and the tonal quality of the recording, which completely pulls the listener into another place.
“Hotel California,” Eagles: I spent countless hours with this song, first learning the lyrics, then deciphering what they meant, then learning this song on piano (where it really doesn’t belong), then singing it to myself as I played. I did this with a few other songs, too, but most of them are even more embarrassing to mention.
“I Feel Love,” Donna Summer: World’s greatest disco song. Giorgio Moroder’s thumping, swirling bass is ethereal.
“Indifference,” Pearl Jam: Back when Pearl Jam mattered, this song, full of Eddie Vedder’s pain and boozy intonation, was truly special.
“Invisible Sun,” The Police: More minor chords for my enjoyment.
“Jam on It,” Newcleus: I used to sit on the floor of my bedroom re-recording this onto cassette tape during Jack the Wack’s Top 5 at 9 show to see how much of the “da-dahhh, da-dahhh” I could get before Jack talked over it. Years later I discovered the 12″ version of the song, with twice the lyrics, and fell in love with it all over again.
“King of the World,” Steely Dan: Steely Dan occurred in two phases for me: the poppy songs of my youth, and all the other amazing jazz-rock I found when I got the boxed set in my 20s. “King of the World” is my favorite discovery of the second round.
“Lady Madonna,” Beatles: For a time, my second-favorite Beatles song.
“License to Confuse,” Sebadoh: When I got the “Bakesale” CD, I put it in my car’s changer, and it didn’t have any words on the disc, so for months I didn’t know who it was–but I knew I couldn’t get enough of the dynamite first track.
“Light Rain Blues,” Taj Mahal: I could [should] write a lengthy essay about Taj. “Light Rain Blues” is the one we sung along to [when we discovered him in summer camp], the tape of which I still have. Taj is terrific–this is but one representation of his body of work.
“Like the Way I Do,” Melissa Etheridge: Before she became famous for being a lesbian crossover star, and before Alanis Morisette lay claim to angry chick rock, “Like the Way I Do” burst out of rock radio with a woman slinging a 12-string guitar like nobody’s business.
“Mary Sunshine Rain,” dada: Once upon a time there was a CD store called Phase One Music in Chatham that was one of the first outlets with listening stations. You’d take any disc in the store, bring it to the register, and they’d hand you the CD and headphones and you’d set up shop at a CD player with no time or quantity limit. I’d heard “Dizz Knee Land” on the radio and was wondering what the band dada was all about. The guitar and harmonies in track two got me. I still love them.
“Moby Octopad,” Yo La Tengo: * Just amazing.
“More than a Feeling,” Boston: no comment.
“Moving,” Supergrass: * Almost as riveting as “Moby Octopad,” if considered heavily, but Supergrass probably didn’t, so it’s better to kick back and rock along with it instead.
“Nothingness,” Living Colour: A moment of tenderness, albeit bitter, from an angry band.
“On the Loose,” Saga: I still find the keyboard and rhythm section in this song to be driving and exciting. The video was great in the early MTV days as well.
“Only the Lonely,” the Motels: props to myself for remembering to include this one.
“Open Sesame,” Kool and the Gang: Early Kool and the Gang is uniformly good. Long before I knew that, though, I knew this song, which was a favorite on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. Leave it to me to dig the heavy R&B song while everyone else was singing along with the Bee Gees.
“Paperback Writer,” Beatles: For a time, my favorite Beatles song.
“Parasite,” Kiss: my favorite Kiss song, no small statement considering I have two dozen Kiss albums.
“Plush,” Stone Temple Pilots: Perfectly wistful, and those minor chords again.
“Policy of Truth,” Depeche Mode: Ethereal and moody, and–say it with me–minor chords.
“Pop Life,” Prince: Once upon a time, my favorite Prince song.
“Pure,” Golden Palominos: * A gentler “Policy of Truth,” right down to the chords.
“Rabbit One,” Masters of Reality: for one brief, shining moment, Masters of Reality were the world’s greatest rock band, having convinced Ginger Baker to play on their sophomore CD. The drumming makes the album. This track is its standout.
“Rhinoceros,” Smashing Pumpkins: I never got heavily into the Pumpkins, but when their popularity was at its peak, I rediscovered their debut album and this sprawling rock anthem.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Pink Floyd: Take it for what it is.
“Sign O’ the Times,” Prince: The sparseness made me pay attention to the lyrics at an impressionable time in my life (read: age 14).
“Solomon’s Ride,” Giant Sand: One of Howe Gelb’s best songs, and the track that introduced me to Giant Sand. No one else crunches into their chords like this.
“Sour Girl,” Stone Temple Pilots: Power pop nugget.
“Southern Man,” Crosby Stills & Nash: no comment.
“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin: for all the blatantly obvious reasons. Historically speaking, I should really have the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” on this list, too.
“Still of the Night,” Whitesnake: For its youth, for the perceived freshness and excitement of the album, for the way my camp friend Nate’s eyes went wide as he said “He’s bowing his guitar!” and we believed it. Not until much later did I learn David Coverdale’s back story.
“Stone Cold,” Rainbow: Damn, this song was cool. And, yup, full of minor chords.
“Stone in Love,” Journey: Minor minor minor chords. This is still my favorite Journey song.
“Summerland,” King’s X: The coolest song executed by a very cool band. Other King’s X songs are just as strong, but this one is a nice keystone for their work.
“Superstition,” Stevie Wonder: Nowadays I may have opted for “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” but truly, nothing beats this rock/soul breakdown from the master.
“Sweetness and Love,” Odds: * I love many an Odds tune, but “Sweetness and Love” continually stands out.
“Synchronicity,” The Police: * The driving polyrhythms and challenging lyrics kept me riveted.
“Take the Long Way Home,” Supertramp: Makes me want to.
“The Chain,” Fleetwood Mac: * Frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t choose “Tusk.”
“The Down Town,” Days of the New: An unremarkable song, but something in it always gets me going.
“The Stroke,” Billy Squier: * The hallmark song off “Don’t Say No” and the one that got the most attention from MTV (excluding “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You”).
“The Way It Is,” Bruce Hornsby and the Range: Ah, Bruce Hornsby is a quiet favorite of mine; I don’t listen to him nearly enough. He peaked early with “The Way It Is,” but what a way to start.
“Time Capsule,” Matthew Sweet: I know there are minor chords in here, and the sound is perfectly suited to my tastes, but in actuality the bittersweet lyrics and subtle twist in the last chorus make this song a keeper for me.
“Vital Signs,” Rush: For no good reason, still my favorite Rush song.
“When the Levee Breaks,” Led Zeppelin: * I always dug “Levee” and thought it strange that I did. [Middle-aged me understands.]
“Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2: no comment.
“Where’s Summer B.?” Ben Folds Five: For a while there, I really liked Ben Folds, and this is still a great selection.
“White,” Discussion,” Live: Easily the best song Live ever recorded. Hearing this at the end of “Throwing Copper” blew me away.
“Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd: For the sentiments.
“You’re Not Very Well,” Charlatans UK: First track, first album, just right.

Revisions, 2005: I still feel good about most of these 78 songs, although I have new ones since 2001 that I’d like to include: “Island in the Sun” (Weezer), “Words” (Doves), “If This Ain’t Love” (Spiller), something by Komeda. It’s easier to find, and stay committed to, four minutes of perfection than 40. I also didn’t know how to count in 2001: there were accidentally 79 songs on this list instead of 78 (I mercifully deleted “Zooropa”).

Takeaways, 2005: As I went through this list in rediscovery, I loved the nuggets I discovered. For example, I have two Living Colour songs on in the 78 and one album in the 33, but the songs aren’t on the CD. I also have two Rolling Stones songs in the 78, and despite their many great albums, I never listened to them on an album basis. I find this to be a reminder of how much I like the album format, and I hope it doesn’t fade too far in this download- and shuffle-ready world. [Ah, well.]

A list of musicians of some renown that I did not know were still active but are, and have gigs at the Foundry in Athens, Ga., this summer and fall

Shawn Mullins
Shuggie Otis
Drivin N Cryin
Denny Laine
Albert Lee
James McMurtry
Loudon Wainwright III
George Winston

Either the Foundry is a fascinating music venue, or the old rock n’ roll hands are going down fighting, or maybe I just need to get to a show more often. (I’m thinking a bit of all three.) Also, the Foundry is a pretty cool joint. Good choice by the UX STRAT folks and their sponsors for the happy hour there.

This is a roundabout way of noting that I’m speaking at the conference tomorrow, on the subject of customer experience and how to successfully embed the discipline within a product hierarchy. I’ll post a link to the video here or on Twitter if one becomes available. Very good conference, by the way—highly recommended if you’re a UX professional.

Hey, Master DJ

As the parents of two perceptive and opinionated children, my wife and I grant a substantial amount of self-determination in their young lives. So when, on a lengthy road trip, our seven-year-old son asked to control the iPod, I saw no reason not to hand it to him. We stretched the cord as long as it could go, I handed over the iPod—a Classic model, with 17,000 songs on it—and he started exploring from the back seat.

The result, blasted into the car after a minute or two of silence: AC/DC’s “Caught with Your Pants Down.”

This track immediately became the soundtrack to our vacation. “Can I DJ?” followed by a big guitar riff and, roughly a minute later, lots of laughter at the chorus.

Our story would end here, with a smirk, were it not for our four-year-old, who, of course, also asked to DJ, and who, it should be noted, is a very good reader already. The first time he got ahold of the iPod, he clicked into albums, directly into Genesis’s “Abacab” (thanks, alphabetization!) and landed on “Keep It Dark.” Nice choice. He decided he liked the song and played it several times, not least because he knew how to find it.

His second track: “Rape Me.”

We’re thinking on the next road trip we’re going to have to bring the kids’ iPod with us.

Don’t look back, you can never look back

I casually tweeted that late one night in November, having caught the commercial on TV. The thought keeps coming back to me. Not only is it a parallel moment, it’s also a reflection of how the music industry has evolved in the three decades since “Boys of Summer” dominated charts and airwaves during the rise of classic rock.

Back then, music was more entrenched in defining societal moments. Henley, the former frontman of the Eagles, a band regularly dismissed as lightweight despite selling a hundred million albums, had begun forging a more thoughtful identity as a solo artist. From his first album, Henley reached #3 on Billboard’s singles chart with the song “Dirty Laundry,” a political commentary on negative advertising that still rings true today (and which remains catchy, if dated).

Henley’s social commentary began to mesh with introspection by 1984, when “Boys of Summer” was released. Coupled with a moody, award-winning music video, the song aimed to capture the nostalgia felt by the Baby Boomer generation as it first confronted aging. Henley, 36 years old when the song was written, had seen America grow from the postwar 1950s to the Reagan era.

“Boys of Summer,” besides being a pretty big hit—a top-five single in the U.S., anchoring an album that sold three million copies domestically, and a track still spun on classic rock radio stations—is memorable for its wistful lyrics, particularly this one:

Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said,
‘Don’t look back. You can never look back.’

Henley, of course, is referring to the juxtaposition of cultures represented in this act: the counterculture and independent spirit of rock ‘n roll, a respected but decidedly fringe band and musical genre, a subculture defined by carefree living, illicit drugs and beat-up Volkswagen vans, unceremoniously showcased on the back of the preeminent American luxury vehicle. He thought his generation had sold out. The concept abhorred him; to this day, Henley doesn’t license his music, and actively combats its commercial use.

Fast forward to now. Josh Davis is 42, five years older than Henley was when “The Boys of Summer” was released. As a 24-year-old, Davis, recording under the moniker DJ Shadow, recorded “Endtroducing…,” a striking pastiche of sampled music that is widely regarded as one of the most innovative albums of the recorded music era.

Nearly 20 years on, “Endtroducing…” has sold fewer than 300,000 copies, making it a prototypically seminal work: revered, respected, imitated, yet still somewhat fringe. Not unlike the Grateful Dead in 1984, who, after 15 years of touring, were still something of a sideline in the rock pantheon, selling albums without mainstream exposure (that came a few years later, in 1987, when “Touch of Grey” became an unlikely pop hit).

Except life has changed a lot in thirty years. In 1984, the music industry had one of its boldface names singing on a hit song about the peculiar sight of an independent act getting co-opted by mainstream tastes. By contrast, in 2014, it’s the independent act that’s being co-opted—but willfully, for a payout, to sell perhaps the most mass-market automobile on the road, the Chevrolet Malibu.

The ad is still running, and every time it airs, it reinforces our comprehension of the era we’re in, while reminding us of the parallels to music history of the generation before.

I don’t begrudge DJ Shadow his income, and certainly, music consumption has reached a point where people are discovering songs and artists via TV commercials. (Also, “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” is a fantastic song, so it’s a nice 30 seconds.) But it couldn’t be further away from the ideals and disappointments Henley so powerfully noted a generation ago.

Obsolete vs. useless

Quartz and Wired is making a big deal today out of a new survey that shows 58% of American households still have a VCR.

“It shows,” writes Christopher Mims*, “that a majority of Americans are holding onto a device designed to play a media format that isn’t even available anymore.”

But there’s a reason for this “lingering on past their expiration date,” as Mims nicely puts it: old VHS tapes.

While millions of Americans have moved on from tape formats, decades of media were created and stored on them before discs, drives and cloud storage appeared. And while it’s easy to replace that videotape of “Dirty Dancing” with Blu-Ray or a stream, doing so with home movies and one-offs taped from live TV is much harder. Many families have paid for a service to migrate their essentials; mine has dubbed its childhood videos from Super-8 to VHS to DVD over the past 15 years. But many others have not. And until they do, they’re not ditching their VCRs.

I still have roughly 800 cassettes in my possession (well, technically, they’re in my parents’ basement, to my mother’s ongoing chagrin, but still), including a number of bootlegs, one-offs, hard-to-find albums, and irreplaceable moments, from a Taj Mahal concert at summer camp in 1989 to my college radio shows. It’d be great to digitize them for posterity. But seeing how hard it is even to move all my CDs to MP3, the digitizing of my tapes won’t come for awhile. And while I wait for myself, I’m glad to have a working cassette deck, still gorgeous in its anachronistic 1988 glory.

So color me unsurprised at the persistence of the VCR. It remains peripherally useful for many, even in the rarest of moments. And so it remains, unbothered in many homes’ wall units, biding its time, and probably blinking ––:–– as usual.

* Of course, Mims is the author behind the recently infamous “2013 was a lost year for tech,” which suggests he’s in the dot-com-needling-provocateur game right now, much like Farhad Manjoo a couple of a years ago.

The best-selling albums of all time

Per independent research, the top 10 albums and millions of copies sold, worldwide:
1. Michael Jackson, “Thriller”: 66,200,000
2. Soundtrack, “Grease”: 44,700,000
3. Pink Floyd, “The Dark Side of the Moon”: 44,200,000
4. Whitney Houston et al., “The Bodyguard”: 38,600,000
5. The Bee Gees at al., “Saturday Night Fever”: 37,200,000
6. The Eagles, “Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975”: 36,900,000
7. Bob Marley, “Legend”: 36,800,000
8. Led Zeppelin, “IV”: 35,700,000
9. AC/DC, “Back in Black”: 35,700,000
10. Shania Twain, “Come on Over”: 35,400,000
Domestically, the U.S. top-selling albums list isn’t all that different, but it’s somewhat cheesier.
1. Michael Jackson, Thriller, Epic, 29,000,000
2. Eagles, Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), Asylum, est. 29,000,000
3. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV, Atlantic, 23,000,000
4. Billy Joel, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, Columbia, 11,500,000
5. Pink Floyd, The Wall, Columbia/Capitol, 11,500,000
6. AC/DC, Back in Black, Atlantic, 22,000,000
7. Garth Brooks, Double Live, Capitol Nashville, 21,000,000
8. Shania Twain, Come On Over, Mercury Nashville, est. 21,000,000
9. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Warner Bros., 19,000,000
10. The Beatles, The Beatles (White Album), Apple, 9,500,000
Just below the top 10 in the U.S. are several of the global top sellers, plus “Boston,” which apparently doesn’t scale on a worldwide level.

I did, however, throw out my collection of spare jewel boxes

I still have roughly 500 CDs in my house. The audio kind, that is; 500 hours of music, most of it somehow not yet ripped into MP3 format, everything from the Beatles to an classical improvisation trio from Lancaster, Pa., much of it slowly being forgotten as I move inexorably away from physical music ownership.
Tonight I rekindled my project to get them digitized once and for all. A stack of CDs has migrated from my wall unit to my desk, slowly but surely making its way onto my hard drive. And I’m boggling my mind with the discs I’ve somehow never gotten onto my iPod.
How is it that I have Radiohead’s “The Bends,” and every album from “Kid A” through “In Rainbows,” in iTunes, but I never pulled in “OK Computer?” Why do I have Huevos Rancheros’ “Dig In!” on there and not Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend,” which I must have played hundreds of times in my car’s CD player in the 1990s? Actually, I only have one of my six Matthew Sweet albums on my iPod. Do I really look back that little?
Apparently so. And perhaps this is why the end of WRXP, New York’s only modern rock station, resonated so heavily with me. With the exception of two pop and a few hip-hop stations, almost every spot on the commercial radio dial in New York is stuck in the past. Sure, the past has moved up from the 1960s to the 1980s; but if I want to hear a contemporary rock song–or jazz, or metal, or country for that matter–I’m going to have to turn off the radio. I want modern, interesting, progressive music on the radio: NPR for songs. Instead, I get “Eye of the Tiger.”
So I undertake this CD-to-MP3 migration in a bit of a catch-22. I can’t move these discs out of my apartment until they’re (mostly) available on my computer, yet the vast majority of the effort is going to wind up worthless, as I go years without listening to the music I’m diligently migrating; but without doing this, I could never let go of my CDs, even as they slowly collect dust until I randomly grab one to bring into the car. (I never did replace my CD player.) Maybe I should get a Spotify Premium subscription and just move on.

Slap bass, dawg

How many people remember that Randy Jackson, now famous for his role as an “American Idol” judge, was a bass player with a long history in the industry as a session musician? I remember him well as Journey’s bassist on “Raised on Radio.” Check out the still-great video for “Girl Can’t Help It” for Randy Jackson circa 1986, complete with ’80s flattop and neon leather jacket.