Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m turning 50 in April, but I’m putting aside how shocking that is. I’ve been pulling together a mix of one defining song for me for each year from 1963 to the present, in terms of the songs I most love now that was released then. I wasn’t aware of many good songs in the ’60s at that age, so including a Dylan or Velvet Underground track comes from a later appreciation. I’ve realized that the earliest album I was aware of at the time that I still consider a favorite today is Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. I was 7, listening to endless loops on my parents’ 8-track, and it was so mysterious, so poetic. There are several singles I loved on the radio in real-time, from The Beatles and others, but that’s the first album. What’s the earliest album you loved and still consider a favorite today? —Charles Eskridge
I first encountered the soundtrack to Carole King’s Really Rosie as a child when the animated special hit TV, but I gradually became addicted to it mostly because my cousin Rebekah was over the moon for it. She had the books and the soundtrack, and we sang the songs together over and over. Some of the songs are mighty simple (pro-tip: don’t center your song around ending half the lines with “sufferin’” if you have no rhyme for it other than “Bufferin”), but they’re awfully catchy, and the musical as a whole has an appealing, sunny gloss that recalls childhood pretend-games and the magic of long afternoons caught up in make-believe worlds. I’m still tickled by “The Awful Truth,” in which precocious wannabe-star Rosie drools over her dream role, as Dracula’s wife. (“Dear Academy, take note / I should get the Oscar vote / If I don’t, I’ll bite your throat!”) But the one that still gets to me emotionally the way it did when I was a kid is “Avenue P,” in which Rosie touts the power of imagination and uses it to transform a neighborhood that bores and depresses her. I don’t listen to it all that often because I can sing most of the songs from memory, but it remains a favorite to this day.
I grew up in a good, white-trash, radio-worshipping household in Florida in the ’70s. As such, we listened to FM country and rock. But every once in a while, my mom would bring home an LP for the turntable—and the first one I remember latching onto, one that I still unapologetically love, is The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). The Eagles get all kinds of shit because they’re ubiquitous, catchy, easy prey for otherwise-intelligent people who don’t know how to draw the line between quoting The Big Lebowski and having your own opinion. On paper, every complaint about The Eagles seems sensible to me. But all that goes out the window as soon as I throw on Greatest Hits and the country-rock classics start rolling out: “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Best Of My Love,” and my favorite, the upbeat anthem “Already Gone.” When I was a kid, “Already Gone” seemed tailor-made for me—I mean, why else would Glenn Frey be singing, “You’ll have to eat your lunch all by yourself?” It’s power-pop with a dollop of twang, and that’s a formula that still speaks to me. In fact, I still love “Already Gone” so much, I covered it last month when an old band of mine got back together to play a show. Yeah, I know, we’re sloppy and out-of-tune. But that song—and Their Greatest Hits as a whole—is sturdy enough to take a beating. (Naysayers, pay particular attention to my disclaimer before the song kicks in.)
I feel like this AVQ&A will be a series of apologies for picking the most obvious albums, but let me pile onto that trend and select U2’s The Joshua Tree. Released in March 1987, it came along at a time in which I was first starting to really get into music above and beyond whatever Casey Kasem played on that week’s American Top 40. What gives The Joshua Tree such a lasting impact for me is the way I keep discovering new slivers about it over the years. Sometimes it’s just a track that suddenly leaps to the forefront and becomes my go-to song when listening to it. (Right now, it’s “Red Hill Mining Town.” Next week… who knows?) Sometimes it’s realizing what a song is actually about for the first time. (“Running To Stand Still”? Not about an intense cardio workout.) Or sometimes it’s just finding a new snippet of musicality that previously lay hidden in plain sight. (I’m still unpacking the blow-your-eardrums-out guitar solo on “Bullet The Blue Sky.”) I’ve had plenty of albums that I loved more at one time or another. But this is the one that has held onto my imagination the longest, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
There’s a bit of a story here, so bear with me. Sometime in the early ’80s, my mom transferred several of her albums to cassette so she could listen to them in the car. Well, the time she transferred Carole King’s Tapestry roughly coincided with the time I was allowed to have my own music, and was gifted a truly shitty hand-me-down cassette player that quickly became my most prized possession in the world. But I only had kids’ music to play on it. (And 5-year-old Andrea could only take so much Raffi.) So I would frequently swipe cassettes from around the house and listen to them. I absconded with Tapestry before Mom even had a chance to label it, and she ended up letting me just keep it. I had no idea what album I had listened to every day for a solid six months when I was a kid until I was something like 14, because I never labeled that cassette. I also had no idea which was Side A and which was Side B. To this day, I choose to believe that album starts with “You’ve Got A Friend” and ends with “Way Over Yonder.” The latter still has some kind of calming-effect/comfort-food element for me, probably because I fell asleep to it so many nights as a kid.
Everyone who knows me finds out pretty quickly that I have an unhealthy obsession with David Bowie. (I have about 26 hours of his music, all told, and my dog is named after him.) But my first real encounter with him was when my father purchased David Live, his album from the tour supporting Diamond Dogs. I’m not sure when I actually got Diamond Dogs on CD, but by then, I already knew most of the songs by heart. For me, the album perfectly blends his theatrics, avant-garde leanings, and pop sensibility. (Basically, it’s both weird and catchy as fuck.) It has always been my answer, without hesitation, when people ask me what my favorite Bowie album is. It’s not in as steady rotation as some of his other work right now, but I’ve never lost my wholehearted love for it. When I have kids (one of whom my girlfriend demands we name after Bowie), Diamond Dogs is probably where I’ll introduce them to his oeuvre.
My dad is a big music lover with a particular fondness for the blues, and some of my most treasured childhood memories are of the joy he took in doing a silly approximation of the slickly choreographed moves of The Temptations and The Four Tops when he played Motown #1s, an album that stood proud alongside Michael Jackson’s Thriller and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club when I was a child. It doesn’t get much better than 1960s Motown, Thriller, and The Beatles, but if I had to choose a favorite among those three unimpeachable apogees of Western culture it would be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Everything about it appealed to me as a kid. How weird and crazy and cool The Beatles looked. That awesome, iconic cover, overflowing with strange characters I’d come to learn all about over the upcoming decades. The way the album seemed to tell an overarching story, but mostly was just a perfect vehicle for songs that lodged themselves in my psyche the first time around, and never left. I loved how cartoonish, old-fashioned, goofy, and beautiful the album was, and how it flowed together perfectly. The next album I remember clearly falling in love with was “Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D, but my first love was, and remains The Beatles, who I still l think are pretty fab.
When I was a wee tad, my parents separated. This in itself was reason enough to turn cartwheels down Main Street, but thanks to my father’s ill-conceived, too-brief attempt to buy my love, I suddenly had disposable income for the first time in my life. I knew just enough about music to think it would be nice to own some of the songs I liked when I heard them on the car radio on the drive to school. There were no record stores within miles of our home, so I taped a few pennies to one of those mail-in ads in TV Guide and joined the RCA Record Club. (The fact that it wasn’t even the Columbia Record Club is an indication of just how deprived my childhood was.) Of all the songs I’d really loved when they came on the radio in the preceding three or four years, the best ones seemed to be on Bob Seger’s Night Moves and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which I ordered as my introductory selections; there probably were other selections, but I have no memory of what they might have been, or what else I ever got in the mail from RCA. I still love those albums, though I knew bupkis about the artists at the time, except that I liked their hits. This album-buying technique never turned out well for me again.
In middle school, I worked for the local-access television station that broadcast out of a cramped classroom on the far end of my school. I learned to read a teleprompter and improv sports highlights like a SportsCenter anchor, but most importantly, I learned how to work a sound board, which my friends and I then used to blast loud music during recess. At the time I wasn’t into much, outside of music my parents owned (plus Disney music, Raffi, and a Hanson record here and there), but one day a friend played me something by New Found Glory, and by the time its next record, Sticks And Stones, came out, it was my favorite band. I can remember a family vacation to Hawaii where I listened to Sticks And Stones exclusively for two weeks, and it was constant pump-up music for me before soccer games. By the time its next record rolled around, my tastes had changed—and by that, I mean I bought a Rolling Stone subscription and listened my way through its Top 500 albums list—so the Warped Tour lineup wasn’t in heavy rotation anymore. Still, New Found Glory was my first step away from my parents’ music, and holds a special place in my memory. Jordan Pundik’s nasal whine makes NFG a non-starter for some, but every time I hear anything off Sticks And Stones, I can’t help thinking that I wouldn’t have found the music I like now if New Found Glory didn’t send me down the path toward more (and much better) musical discoveries.
I wasn’t listening to proper albums until pretty late in my life—that’s what happens when the first album you coax your parents into buying you is the Spice Girls’ eponymous debut album, a CD which remained dear to me for about a month. Partly this was because my parents didn’t know much about American pop culture, and partly this is because I was the biggest freak in 4th grade, a 9-year-old with a strangely encyclopedic knowledge of Celine Dion’s lyrics. But I did love music—because I listened to it in movies. I grew up on movie musicals: animated, Bollywood, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Julie Andrews. I didn’t understand half of what I was singing, but it didn’t matter, because there was dancing and bright lights and colors. I’m tempted to say the album I’ve loved longest is the soundtrack to The Little Mermaid, which wormed its way into my brain when I was 3 and has never left, but truly, the music that makes me feel just as it did when I first saw it at 14—and then when I performed it at 18—and again this year when I saw the movie—is Les Misérables, that timeless classic that in my mind is the musical to end all musicals. I have loved it for years, I still do, and I always will. Few other albums have survived the test of time for me, and most of those, I didn’t hear before high school, anyway. Les Mis stands alone, and I am fine with that.
One of my very first combined music-and-television memories as a child was being ecstatic when we finally got cable, because that meant I could watch MTV. MTV is basically irrelevant to music these days, but in its first 10 years, it was vital to how my entire generation consumed music and television; its combination of music and visuals is a confluence of everything I already loved and continue to love to this day. I watched so much MTV in those days that my music tastes were inextricably linked to its playlist, resulting in a sad, pop-and-hair-band-heavy childhood. This slavish devotion finally paid off when Guns N’ Roses exploded onto the scene with the video for “Welcome To The Jungle.” Saying I was enthralled would be an understatement: I was frankly obsessed with its shiny, faux-grit L.A. rock intensity, likely unhealthily. It wasn’t until “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was released that I could convince my mother to buy me Appetite For Destruction, and it immediately became my favorite album for years, the place I went to when I needed a pure emotional release. It remains one of my most treasured albums today, and like a security blanket, it’s never far from my side, either on my iPod or in my car. Hey, you just never know when you’ll need a “Mr. Brownstone” fix to get you through your day.
While I still like most of the music I listened to as a child, I can’t say any of it is still among my favorites. For me, the first album that earned a spot as a timeless classic came in my sophomore year of high school, with the release of The Cure’s Disintegration. I was a pretty big Cure fan before that, and considered several of its albums as favorites then, but that album quickly became my favorite, and cemented The Cure as my go-to soundtrack for moping. These days, I find most of their catalogue pretty hit-or-miss, with some great material surrounded by a lot of mediocre chaff, but I still adore Disintegration. I’d go so far as to say it was the group’s last great album, and the absolutely essential one, a near-perfect collection of dark, miserablist dream pop. It’s actually more fun to listen to these days, because I don’t feel the need to wallow in the sad while I do it.
I could answer this question in a number of ways, from my favorite album from my first Columbia Record Club order (Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age Of Wireless, which I got just to fill out the last slot of my “10 albums for a penny,” and ended up loving more than any of the others) to the first album I bought with my own money (which would be Men At Work’s Cargo). But the real answer is the second album by the short-lived, disco-inflected Southern rock-pop band Starbuck: Rock & Roll Rocket. My dad was working as a DJ in Kansas when he brought home a promo copy of that album, shortly after we saw the group perform at Worlds Of Fun in Kansas City. The band and the record were both tailor-made for a 7-year-old boy in 1977: The songs are catchy and sound semi-futuristic, like a TV variety show crossed with Star Wars. My older brother and I used to listen to it over and over, lyric sheet in our laps, taking turns singing lead. I outgrew the album as my brother started getting more into album rock in the ’80s—I tended to follow his lead on music as a kid—but five or six years ago, some retro label reissued the band’s first LP, Moonlight Feels Right (which contained Starbuck’s only real hit, the title track), and tacked on a handful of Rock & Roll Rocket songs as bonus tracks on the CD. Just the opening notes of the disco novelty number “Everybody Be Dancin’” were enough to transport me back to our living room in El Dorado.
I can’t remember the first CD I ever bought. (I can remember the first cassette tape: Elton John’s The One. I had the listening habits of a 55-year-old maiden aunt.) But I can remember the first artist I ever sought out entirely on my own, to the point where I went to a record store with the specific intention of buying a specific album: Lyle Lovett’s I Love Everybody. This was primarily motivated by seeing a video for “Penguins,” one of the album’s goofier tracks, on VH1, and thinking it was so catchy and weird that I wanted to hear more. Most of the time when it comes to the pop culture I consume, I pick carefully, and rarely venture beyond my comfort zone. But every once in a while, something will strike me, and for reasons I don’t completely understand, I’ll feel compelled to follow a hunch. I Love Everybody is an odd album, composed mostly of cast-offs and half-formed ideas, but it still feels warm and funny and kind to me, no matter how many times I hear it. When I was a teenager, I felt like I was taking a brave new step into the world, buying music that nobody I knew listened to; it’s sort of hilarious just how mundane and non-revolutionary my first CD really was. But I love it just the same. I went on to buy all Lovett’s other albums, and he was my favorite recording artist until a few years later, when my uncle told me I had “Elvis Costello glasses,” I bought King Of America to figure out just what the hell that meant.
This is a tough one, because I had pretty good taste in 45s when I was 9 years old. I remember purchasing “Hang Fire” by The Rolling Stones and “We Got The Beat” by The Go-Gos, and I played Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’N’ Roll” over and over until my family made me turn it off. If we’re talking strictly albums, I was all about Loverboy then, so I can’t count that. But I do remember distinctly falling in love with “True Faith” by New Order in about 1987, and my classic-rock-loving big brother asking me why I liked it. At some point in there, I got Substance (probably from my other brother), and that’s certainly one I’ve never left behind. I didn’t realize for a while that it’s not really even an album, but rather a greatest-hits collection of sorts, but 13-year-old me didn’t care about that shit. It’s a classic either way.
My parents were in their early 20s when The Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show and changed the pop charts. But if you ask them what they mostly listened to in that era, my dad would have probably said doo-wop and folk, and my mom would have likely said Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis. Which is why the only Beatles album they had in their collection was 1962-66, better known as the red album, for the red border around the cover art. They didn’t have the blue album, which covered the Beatles’ hits from 1967-70, I guess because they weren’t into the Fab Four’s “‘shrooms” phase, what with my dad spending the late ’60s as a crew-cutted IBM engineer, and my mom as a housewife. But since they likely bought the red album when I was but a toddler, I remember listening to it for as far back as I can remember things. It was my introduction to a band that I still love today, and a great way to trace its development from pure pop to deep songs like “Eleanor Rigby” that brought The Beatles to the cusp of their Sgt. Pepper, can-do-no-wrong phase. In fact, I can still see myself pretending to conduct to songs like “Eleanor Rigby,” mainly because I didn’t know how to pantomime any real instruments.
When I was a kid, my knowledge of albums didn’t extend much beyond Journey’s greatest-hits CD, which was always playing in my mom’s car, and the soundtrack to The Lion King, which I played so often, the jewel-case door doesn’t open so much as slide off. So technically, the first album I loved when it came out and love today is The Beatles’ 1, the 2000 compilation of their No. 1 hits. While The Lion King stayed in my parents’ cars, The Beatles came on Christmas with a CD player/radio. I lapped it up, the familiar tunes and new discoveries, the sweep and evolution. That album and CD player led to Napster, MTV, and beyond. Nowadays, I may prefer to listen to a ’60s album with all those missing oddballs, but 1 is still dear to me. I only have one CD in my car in case of emergency (iPod failure), and it starts with “Love Me Do.”
I was lucky enough to be part of a family that consumed music voraciously, meaning that trips to the local record store were routine. My family was also incredibly generous, as these excursions resulted in me getting to pick out a record of my own. At the time, these decisions were usually based on what album cover I thought was the coolest, and this led to some pretty questionable choices. Thankfully, it also led me to The Bouncing Souls’ sophomore album, Maniacal Laughter. The cover made me pick the record, but the frenetic bursts of pop-punk hooked me. Maniacal Laughter’s youthful energy made me believe I could play an instrument and start a dumb band with my friends, and inevitably, it sent me nose-diving into the world of punk and hardcore. When I listen to the album now, its flaws are much more pronounced, but hearing the opening notes of “The Freaks, Nerds, and Romantics” brings a smile to my face every time.
Long before Napster twisted the piracy knife in the recording industry’s back, my parents helped lend credence to the “home taping is killing music” campaign, converting their vinyl collection to dozens of cassette tapes with hand-numbered tracklists and sides split between full Michael Jackson, Chicago, and Steely Dan LPs. But when it came to the most popular act in the Adams household, Billy Joel, full albums were converted to cassette as well as a “favorite hits” mix featuring cherry-picked songs from Joel’s 1970s to mid-’80s discography. (The tape also let my parents listen to cuts from The Nylon Curtain free from the worry that their son’s youthful innocence would be forever sullied by that “fucking fool” line from “Laura.”) Rather than giving me a jumpstart on my adult vocabulary, the tape produced a piecemeal love for Joel’s 1977 breakthrough, The Stranger, a childhood preference for the colorful characters and AOR rock shuffle of “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Only The Good Die Young” that led to teenage years soundtracked by deep cuts like “Get It Right The First Time” and my personal “favorite hit” from the Piano Man, the wistful “Vienna.” In the event that this story now counts as evidence in an anti-piracy case against my folks, please know that they eventually purchased The Stranger on CD, as did I when I got tired of borrowing it every time I wanted to hear “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.”
I still listen to the first three albums I ever owned: Men At Work’s Business As Usual (which was my first vinyl record and first cassette, the first two pieces of recorded music I ever purchased), Huey Lewis And The News’ Sports (which has me scrambling to rearrange my summer plans, since they’re out playing it in its entirety to celebrate the 30th anniversary), and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But it’s definitely Thriller that I still truly, deeply love, and even though people may want to call bullshit on this, I don’t love it in 2013 for any nostalgic reasons. It’s just a perfect pop album with nine amazing songs, and sometimes when I’m listening to it, I wonder why I bother listening to anything else. (Until I put on Red House Painters’ first self-titled LP, my favorite album of all time, which makes me think the same thing.) There are, admittedly, some rough memories attached to Thriller—I was given the tape to distract me when my brother was in a bicycle accident that put him in a coma (he’s fine now), and of course it’s depressing the way MJ’s life played out and tragically ended—but when I’m singing along to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” swooning to “Human Nature,” or air-keyboarding to “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” every emotion I feel is connected to the present.
Although I still own the first CD I ever bought way back in 1987—Invisible Touch by Genesis—it isn’t because I love the album. I don’t think it’s been played since about 1988, but my attempts to sell it at used record stores in the early ’90s didn’t pan out. (I was similarly unsuccessful with my copy of Cloudcuckooland by The Lightning Seeds.) The album that I’ve owned the longest, in various formats, that I still play is probably It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy. I first discovered PE shortly after that album came out, and the group couldn’t have seemed more intimidating. The opening track is called “Countdown To Armageddon,” and the cover has Chuck D and Flavor Flav behind bars. (I had a poster of them with the S1W and Terminator X standing in a cell on top of an American flag, which blew my mind.) It blew my mind and scared me more than a little, but I listened to it constantly. More than two decades later, those klaxons at the beginning of “Countdown To Armageddon” still make me a little nervous.
I didn’t buy a pop-music album until I was in high school (it was the Dumb And Dumber soundtrack!), and before that, my music collection consisted entirely of Christian rock, Christian children’s albums, Broadway cast albums, and country albums recorded by groups with the word “Brooks” in them somewhere (see: Garth and Dunn). So I haven’t really loved an album since childhood, unless you want me to lie and wax rhapsodic about the “mad beats” of Christian recording artist Rappin’ Rabbit (who raps about making good manners a habit). In that case, the album I’ve listened to and loved the longest is likely Ben Folds Five’s Whatever And Ever Amen, which I bought when I was 16 or 17 and immediately devoured over and over again. I still love every song on that album, and listening to it is one of the surest ways for me to time-travel back to late high school, when I had only a vague sense of what I was even doing, and women still seemed like a strange, undiscovered country. In fact, I listened to the album so much, a friend and I tried to get “Brick” played for the grand march at our high-school prom, only half-jokingly. (Sadly, wiser heads, i.e., our high-school principal, prevailed.) As a lonely, kind of aloof nerd who nonetheless had a surprisingly good dating life, that album had at least one good song for every single one of my moods, and when the group went on tour a few months ago and I finally got a chance to see it perform live, the album got almost as many spins from me as it did in 1998.
Although I have fond memories revolving of listening to Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison on 8-track in my father’s pickup truck and swooning to Barry Manilow’s Even Now in my mother’s car, it wasn’t until I was in my teens—which more or less coincided with the rise of MTV—that I started caring enough about music to actually purchase my own. In what would quickly become a hallmark of my music-buying tendencies, the first album I really remembering spending money on and utterly devouring was a follow-up to a far more successful release: Men At Work’s Cargo. I don’t really know what possessed me to buy it. All I know is that I was out spending the money I got for my 13th birthday, I walked into Mother’s Records And Tapes at Greenbrier Mall, and I walked out with a copy of it on cassette. I presume the decision was based on having fallen for the band’s singles from its debut album, Business As Usual, and since Cargo was the latest release, it seemed appropriate to buy that one first. (It also probably didn’t hurt that the album’s first two singles, “Overkill” and “It’s A Mistake,” were still fresh in my mind.) While I wouldn’t say that every song on the record has held up over the years—Ron Strykert’s “Settle Down My Boy” continues to serve as a perpetual reminder why Colin Hay was the band’s predominant songwriter—I still feel like “High Wire” deserved to be a bigger hit.