Sometimes I wish I’d had a cooler childhood. Many of my friends have neat stories about discovering The Smiths at age 13 or getting drunk and listening to Springsteen (which I certainly do, but it’s for a different reason when you’re 30). My experiences were a little different. Sure, my dad used to play Electric Light Orchestra and Supertramp vinyls when we would clean the house and Paul Simon and B.B. King cassettes when we went on drives, which was awesome and formative, but most of my meaningful early experiences with music were with the classical music my grandparents and teachers would tell me about.A lot of my childhood was spent alone at the piano. After school, on weekends, when I would fake being sick so I could stay home alone with it, I revelled in the time I had with the instrument. I would play whatever I could get my hands on, as long as I liked it. My grandparents, who were very passionate about all kinds of music, would buy me CDs of famous works performed by illustrious pianists and conductors, and I would fall in love with certain sonatas or movements, sometimes buying the scores but usually printing them out from illegal sheet music sites in my high school library, daydreaming about them until I could go home and work on them. I loved Chopin’s nocturnes and Beethoven’s sonatas, Joplin’s rags and Ravel’s chamber music. I grew to love Serkin, Horowitz, Rubenstein, Bernstein, Goode, Abbado, Toscanini—so many great pianists and conductors.In addition to the piano I began playing saxophone when I was about 10. When I entered high school I decided to start taking lessons and I somehow made it into the studio of the St. Louis Symphony bass clarinet player James Meyer. Mr. Meyer taught me a tremendous amount about a whole range of cool things, such as zen meditation, martial arts defense moves, how to select and prepare reeds, and, most importantly, how to think about music. He exposed me to jazz, playing me my first real jazz record. It was Oliver Nelson’s 1961 Blues and the Abstract Truth, a hard bop masterpiece with unreal orchestration and elegant solos. I remember very clearly feeling like it was the dopest shit I’d ever heard. I bought the CD the following day at Borders. He also taught me about modern and postmodern music, from Debussy to John Adams. We played through everything we could.One summer Mr. Meyer was playing in the pit orchestra for a production of John Adams’ excellent 1987 opera Nixon in China. He showed me some of the sheet music and explained what post-minimalism was about. He said it was one of the hardest pieces he had ever played. I knew nothing about Adams or opera, but when I told my grandparents about it, they insisted that I have the opportunity to see it. My grandfather and I went to see Nixon in China a few weeks later—I found it exhilarating, new, and inspiring, but as a lifelong Puccini and Verdi fan, he did not like it very much at all. To this day I sing arias from that opera to myself when I am alone. Maybe it’s not as cool to some people as singing Springsteen, but I still think it’s pretty fuckin’ rad.
If you were a teenager in the ‘80s (as I was), you could be forgiven for thinking the ‘60s were lame. Between yuppies dancing around to Motown milestones in The Big Chill to classic rock radio’s ossification of a couple dozen hippie-era hits (whose ubiquity proved that familiarity does indeed breed contempt), any right-thinking young person was bound to eschew the Aquarian age in search of greener pastures. Most likely, you gravitated toward the bright, gleaming light beckoning from the New Wave/post-punk realm, where everything seemed fresh and vibrant.But as I discovered pretty quickly into my obsession with college radio—and contemporary chronicles like Trouser Press, New York Rocker, and Creem—punk’s tabula rasa/year zero ideal didn’t hold much ground when you got into the nitty-gritty of what followed it. The flood of ‘80s acts who arrived in punk’s wake, for all their bold new moves, still sported a slew of influences from the ‘60s—sometimes overtly in the form of cover tunes, and sometimes more subtly in the influences they’d assimilated.The more I viewed the music of the ‘60s through the filter of ‘80s bands who were breathing new life into the airwaves and record stores again, the more attractive that bygone era seemed. Sometimes a cover version could put you on a direct route to the original artist’s oeuvre: For instance, ‘60s L.A. psych underdogs Love, who would be posthumously deified a couple of decades later, were more popular than ever as an underground phenomenon in the ‘80s. The Damned’s cover of their “Alone Again Or” made it easy to find your way to the seminal Forever Changes; and once you were there, the spelunking was endlessly rewarding.Even on the less obvious end of the spectrum, it didn’t take a cultural anthropologist to trace the links from, say, the power chords of The Jam and Secret Affair to mod OGs like The Who and Small Faces. Nor was it too tough to determine that the chiming guitar riffs of R.E.M. and The Cleaners From Venus led straight back to first-gen jangle kings The Byrds.It wasn’t just ‘60s rock that revealed itself to me in this manner. The ‘80s synth-pop bands may not have had much of a musical investment in psychedelia and such, but the pop, R&B, and girl group sounds of the ’60s were another story. It was easy to follow the paths of the likes of Naked Eyes to the glittering legacy of singers like Dionne Warwick, who previously might have seemed like a middle-of-the-road musician from another generation to my amateurish ears. And while New Orleans R&B wasn’t especially accessible to an ‘80s kid growing up in The Bronx, Devo’s mechanized take on the Allen Toussaint-penned Lee Dorsey classic “Working In the Coal Mine” illuminated a whole new world to be explored.Of course, in a pre-Internet world, these explorations of the past were far more difficult than they are for teens, or anybody else, today. But the thrill of the chase was as much a part of the fun as the end result.
I’m old enough to remember a time before Spotify, iPhones or even the Internet. These weren’t such bad times. We all looked a little bit different -- a lot of us wore flannel shirts and our jeans were baggier -- but we slept, ate, drank and fucked pretty much the same. To discover music, we’d listen to the radio or MTV, or maybe read Rolling Stone or Spin. If we wanted to listen to something other than top 40 pop, classic rock or mainstream rap, we had to search for it. If you lived in some place like New York, Los Angeles or Seattle, this wasn’t too hard. You could go to a cool record store, or maybe check out a show at a local venue. But I didn’t live in one of those places. I spent my high school years in Charlotte, NC -- a city that was aggressively unhip. Charlotte imagined itself as the “new Atlanta,” and was a sprawl of strip malls, megachurches, and fast food restaurants. No major band had emerged from the area; there were more gun shops than there were record stores. Information trickled in, but just barely. In an article about David Bowie, I’d discovered the Velvet Underground; and from a Bob Dylan biography, I’d found Leonard Cohen and Arthur Rimbaud. I took notes and gradually began to piece together a map of a larger, more exciting world beyond the top 40 and creationist textbooks. For most of those years, this was a solitary journey. Most of my friends wanted to talk about girls or basketball or Saturday Night Live skits. They weren’t interested in Tom Waits, Tom Verlaine or even the Tom Tom Club. There was no message board that I could go to congregate with the like minded.In the 10th grade, this changed. I met a girl. She was from Atlanta, scrawny, a bit boyish and a pretty mean drunk. She smoked constantly, wore scruffy Doc Martin ripoffs and made exaggerated gestures when she sang aloud, which meant that she rarely used her hands when driving. She worked at a place called the Silk Plant Forest -- an artificial flower shop that was in a vast warehouse just south of downtown. When business was slow, we’d get high and explore the warehouse’s outer-edges, the various display rooms curated to resemble distant, exotic locales. The girl introduced me to Front 242 and Skinny Puppy, Happy Mondays and Siouxsie. But, mainly, we listened to The Smiths. It’s long been a given that Morrissey was the patron saint for misplaced teenagers, but we didn’t know that. My other friends regarded him, at best, as a curiosity -- an effeminate R.E.M. knock-off -- and my parents burst out laughing when they heard “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” We assumed that the rest of the world was like this - that The Smiths was ours alone. We’d make tapes of our favorite songs for one another. She had a soft spot for Morrissey’s first two solo releases, which I thought were garbage, and I leaned towards later-period Smiths (Strangeways Here We Come is a fave). Of course, it’s clear now that I was right about that, and that we were both wrong about nearly everything else. But it didn’t matter then; it was just nice riding in her car.
Unless you’re the prom queen or the captain of the football team, high school is generally filled with way more embarrassing moments than it is triumphant ones. Hell, even my triumphs — winning a couple debate conferences, being elected to the school senate — are pretty embarrassing. It’s fitting, then, that this playlist of 3rd wave ska and loser punk served as my soundtrack for those years. I got into ska for the same reason you get into all kinds of stupid crap in high school: because of a girl. I’d had a crush on her since freshman year, and when she started singing lead vocals for our high school’s ska band, I gleefully hopped on the bandwagon. My first real show, i.e. not Starship at the county fair, was a ska show: The Goodwin Club (my crush’s band), Nuckle Brothers, Skankin Pickle, Voodoo Glow Skulls. I stage dove for the first time at that show, which resulted in my pair of thrift-store-purchased corduroy pants being ripped from crotch to cuff. Because this was a ska show, however, there was an abundance of safety pins holding various patches to various kids’ backpacks, and a very kind random girl helped me pin my pants back together. In hindsight, I probably should have asked her out instead. Oh well. Not surprisingly, I was far from alone in obsessing over my crush. Half the guys in the ska scene wanted to date her and/or write a song about her. There are two such songs on this mix, “Martian Girl” by The Aquabats and “I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend” by Reel Big Fish, both written specifically about the girl in question. Said girl’s band played shows with many of the bands included here. I saw them open for No Doubt, Sublime, and Dance Hall Crashers (all favorites of mine), and I have vivid memories of driving around in the passenger seat of my crush object’s Jeep — her parents spoiled her rotten — listening to tapes by Propoghandi, The Descendents, The Skatalites, etc. Indeed, we became close friends, a situation that delighted her (who doesn’t want an obsequious fanboy at their beck and call), but destroyed me. I’ll spare you the details, which quickly reach Lifetime-movie levels of maudlin and depressing. Suffice it to say: I made it out alive. Once we got to college, my friends, my crush, and I all bailed on ska, swapping it out for various strains of trip-hop, indie rock, and, uh, jungle. There are plenty of songs from those genres that are near and dear to my heart, but nothing brings the memories back quite like a silly horn line and some offbeat guitar chords. I mean, listen to Skankin Pickle’s “I Missed the Bus.” That song is completely stupid and totally embarrassing, and I love it.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.