Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Diet Coca-Cola and Unlit Cigarettes

This essay might steer in a different direction than usual, since I've tended to avoid memoir-type writings on this blog. However, I did get positive responses to my James Dean work (written awhile back for Culture Snob's Self-Involvement Blog-a-Thon). A friend of mine e-mailed me saying that he would like to read more essays in that style.

I love music, but I don't pretend to know everything; in fact, the number of classic albums that I've not listened to is probably staggering. On the flip side, that can be strangely comforting. Every entertainment website, television channel, and magazine loves to put out lists, categories, and best-of compilations: "The Top 100 Albums Of the 90s," "The Top 500 Albums Of All-Time," "The New Classics," and so on and so forth. My comfort comes with knowing what I like to listen to, everyone else be damned, plus the perverse fun of usually guessing what albums make said lists, since they're usually all the same. Key word: usually. For instance, Pitchfork named Radiohead's OK Computer as the best album of the 1990s, whereas Entertainment Weekly placed it at number 62 of the albums released since 1983. I mainly turn to friends for music recommendations, but it was sort of by chance that I picked up Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the winter of 2002.

That spring, I had joined my college newspaper as a film critic, a tiny campus office filled with music writers. As I sat in on those first meetings, I was always quiet when music discussions came up, since I simply didn't know much about it. Film and literature were my specialties. That winter, the other writers put out their year-end compilations, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was at the top of every list. One cold afternoon, on the way home, I stopped into a little record shop under the train tracks and bought it.

In the first paragraph, I mentioned the phrase "life-changing album," and it's meant without hyperbole. I listened to it once. Then twice. Then everyday for a solid two weeks on my way to class. Up to that moment, I had no idea what I had been missing. Never had I been fully aware of the combination of lyrics, music, and mixing. Jeff Tweedy's voice was (and still is) not the best singing voice, but it's never been about being pretty. Glenn Kotche's drumming is probably the most artful in the music world today, evident yet never overpowering. And one can only wonder how Nels Cline would have contributed to the album had he been in the band at that time. Thankfully, the live shows are evidence. Every Wilco fan knows the story of Jim O'Rourke's influence on the album, as heard in the slight static and harmonies that bridge song gaps and appear in various points in every song.

I've never been that good at writing about music (I think I contributed maybe 3 music articles to my college newspaper, none of them very good), so I'm not going to attempt to get into technical analysis. The point is, we all have albums that have literally changed us and veered us into new directions. As eclectic as my music tastes can be, every album that I love can ultimately be traced back to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I'm sure I would have come around to it eventually, but my discoveries have all stemmed from that moment.

I'd love to hear your picks. The albums don't necessarily have to be your favorites, but like I said, I'm sure everyone has that One Album where they cannot remember what their listening was like before it.

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