A couple of articles recently got me thinking about the evolution of music in my life, and in particular the period that remains strongest and most influential in my memories.
Each Sunday, a popular online music site features a review of an older record they’ve never reviewed before.
Reading this week’s selection coincided with another post I read about a well respected songwriter, discussing how difficult it is to gauge what people (will) listen to now, and how music he wrote a decade ago is more popular (as in, streamed more and listened to more) than his most recent work.
So when releasing new music, he’s competing now not only with other new music being released currently, but potentially all other music ever released, including his own, that people are discovering for the first time.
And more often than not, his former self is proving far more popular than his current self, as are artists dead for decades.
Now, to some extent, this has always been the case in my lifetime.
You could go into a record store and see not just the latest music of your favourite acts, and new music from artists you’d not previously heard of, but also the sizeable back catalogues of hundreds of others.
Maybe now streaming, the ease of searching, and the algorithms that present us with new music we might like but would otherwise be oblivious to, have made it all easier than, you know, actually going to a record shop and thumbing through CDs, cassettes, or vinyl, and trying to gauge whether a new-to-you record was worth a punt based on the cover alone.
So anyway, this reading got me thinking about the music I hold most dear, as the revisited album this week was one I played on heavy rotation on its release, the Cranberries’ 1993 debut, “Everyone Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”.
I, along with I’m sure thousands of other young men and women, fell head over heels for Dolores O’Riordan’s dreamy Irish lilt.
When I discovered at the end of this article that she’d died in 2018, I reached for Spotify and dived back into “Linger”, possibly their best known track. The combination of memories of when I first heard the track, plus the sad passing of Dolores, meant I didn’t even reach the chorus before welling up.
I realised this was the era I really began to immerse myself in music.
Whilst I had maybe a dozen cassettes from the tail end of the 80s and early 90s, it was after buying my first CD player (A Sony Discman) in 1992 I think, that I started to listen more.
And, of course, it started to impact me more deeply, rather than just being something I saw on Top Of The Pops with a toe tapping tune.
Ah, let’s spend a moment revisiting the Sony Discman.
I recall having a series of cassette Walkmans prior to this, well actually usually the cheap brand equivalent that had those lightweight headphones with orange foam earpieces that ripped within a couple of weeks and exposed parts of your ear to the cold metal speaker underneath.
Once I had my own income some years on, I did invest in an authentic Sony Walkman.
With auto reverse (endless listening, well at least until the batteries ran out), Dolby B Noise Reduction (which made the tape hiss slightly less, well, hissy, but did make it sound a bit like you’d been swimming and your ears were still half blocked with water – ironically some years later when I started making my own music I sought out and sampled the hiss on old records to layer up as part of the sound collage), and its discrete yet surprisingly great sounding ear buds (functional dark grey with a splash of pink on the right bud and blue on the left), it gave me many hours of happy listening, before I took the plunge with that Discman.
The sound quality was undeniably far superior than cassettes (especially cassettes that had been played a hundred times or more), but the Discman seemed laughably non-portable compared with the go anywhere cassette based predecessors.
Oh and you were supposed to keep them horizontal too, so the disc didn’t skip – pretty tricky when stuffed into a pocket.
That is if you could find a garment with pockets big enough to fit a Discman in in the first place.
In practice, mine spent nearly the whole of its life (which was much shorter than the Walkman I recall, once it started skipping, the writing was on the wall, and gradually it went from working nine out of 10 times when you pressed play, to around one in 10 times) sat on the top of my old twin (cassette) deck hi-fi, plugged into the aux in socket at the rear.
This being before I upgraded to a snazzy, handsome three disc (the indulgence!) Kenwood system in matt sparkly grey that meant you could line up and play three whole CDs in succession and not have to get up to change sides or discs for hours.
Anyway, back to the music.
1993 also saw the release of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream”, an album I have very fond memories of, not least of all because it introduced me to someone who became my best friend for years.
He was humming “Today”, stacking bags of sugar in the back of the supermarket where we both worked (but we had never spoken before) and I walked past and said “ah, Smashing Pumpkins, do you like the album?”, and there the friendship began.
This was the same friend who I went on to spend many a late night with, either in his room or my car, listening to “Siamese Dream”, “Ten” by Pearl Jam, and The Cranberries’ debut, the latter two especially a kind of catharsis for him after a devastating break up.
“Black” (Pearl Jam) and “Linger” (Cranberries) formed a devastating yet soothing one-two punch-hug to his wounded young heart, and somehow bathed me in similarly deep emotions.
I later came to know his ex-girlfriend pretty well. She was quite wonderful in many ways, and I understood with even greater empathy at what effect her leaving him had had. If she hadn’t had a history with my friend, I would have certainly have pursued her romantically myself.
So, 1993 was probably the start point of an era of what I’d call the music that most affected me, and has stayed burned into whatever the aural equivalent of one’s retinas is, to this day.
Along with those mentioned above I strongly remember Sugar’s two albums in two years, “Copper Blue” (1992), then “Beaster” (1993), which forever endeared me to the songwriting craft and big shiny noise of Bob Mould, now a long time hero. In fact I’d nearly worn out the cassette version of “Copper Blue” in my car before I’d bought the Discman and later the CD album.
A friend heard a snippet of “Beaster” playing in my car and proclaimed “Wow, didn’t know you were a metalhead!”, and I was aghast at not only being labelled as such (then to me, metal was bands like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, neither of which I though much of), but at them not hearing how far from any kind of metal Bob Mould’s twin masterworks were. Calling it pop music would have been less far off the mark, and less insulting.
Oh and also around this time, in considerable contrast, Suede allured me utterly with their thrilling debut and its epic follow up, “Dog Man Star”, which was about the sultriest, earthiest, sexiest yet so very English music I’d ever heard, and quite possibly still is!
1997 was possibly the pinnacle of this era, unleashing a veritable explosion of memorable new music.
This for me included my discovery of Mogwai, with “New Paths To Helicon”, then later their debut album, “Young Team”, which was more satisfyingly noisy (yet beautiful) than anything I’d heard, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, also noisy and beautiful.
I swear the mild tinnitus I have now in very quiet environments is a result of a monumentally loud Mogwai gig in a tiny basement of a venue around 1997. When we exited the club, we could barely walk in a straight line, let alone hear anything.
Spiritualized and The Verve also released fantastic records that year, and a small band from Oxfordshire came out with “OK Computer”, at least as impressive as their previous record, The Bends, which I’d already had looping round my head for a couple of years.
Here was a band packing more interesting and affecting music in one record than most others would manage in multiple lifetimes. Which they’re repeated multiple times again since.
On another side path I’d also discovered artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin, who were making distinctly electronic music but so far from the mainstream dance fodder of the clubs.
For a young man who generally shied from anything mainstream, their awkward, fractured beats were an absolute revelation, and a healthy counter balance to all the guitars ringing in my eardrums.
Autechre’s Incunabula came out in 1993, though it took me three or four years to discover it, I forget how.
Not too long after (1998) I stumbled across Boards Of Canada, another long held love I barely go a couple of months without returning to. Like Autechre, they created something so original, equal parts exhilarating and comforting, alien yet warmly familiar.
Listening to Godspeed introduced me to Kranky records, and acts like Labradford, Stars Of The Lid and Windy and Carl, whose incredibly immersive ambient music opened whole new horizons to me.
Indeed, Labradford’s “Mi Media Naranja”, and Stars Of The Lid’s “Tired Sounds” and “And Their Refinement Of The Decline” remain masterpiece of the genre (or any genre) in my mind.
I followed the ambient route backwards to Eno, inevitably, and this genre remains probably the one I listen to most, most recently via artists like 36, willamette, Library Tapes, Porya Hatami and Celer.
Another trail led me to My Bloody Valentine (“Loveless” remains possibly my favourite record ever) and Slowdive and Ride and the whole “shoegaze” scene, though this was already well past its first peak by the time I found it later in the 90s.
I was so inspired I bought an e-bow to add to my old guitar, effects pedal and Tascam four track, to try to recreate some of the glorious and jubilant sounds Kevin Shields and co were managing to coax out of their guitars.
Incidentally, the two bands I’m listening to most currently – Alcest and Deafheaven – both have roots in (black) metal but with very strong shoegaze influences, another example of that era having a lasting impact – on me personally, and on artists too.
Back to the mid to late 90s, there were other diversions into music from a former era, like David Bowie, Kate Bush, and REM (all of whom were still making music, but arguably past their most revered) and the former two probably remain the two artists I respect most across all music.
But in terms of contemporary music, it was the 15 years or so from 1993 onwards that cemented my strongest connections and memories with music, and ensured it would remain an essential cornerstone of my life.
And virtually everything I listen to today, even if it’s not from that era, seems to have its roots there, like the aforementioned Alcest and Deafheaven looking back to shoegaze like Ride, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, and ambient artists like willamette and Celer standing on the shoulders of Labradford and Stars Of The Lid.
Another article I read a while back suggested that after a certain age you stop listening to new music, and your tastes by that point are firmly cemented, with no room for anything new.
I think they mentioned the late 20s being the time this occurs for many.
Whilst I regularly discover new (to me) artists, I think there is some truth to this, and any of us into music on a deeper level than whatever the pop music on the radio is at the time, can cite a certain period that had such a profound impact on us, and trace how virtually everything we’ve listened to since, somehow harks back to it, directly or indirectly.
How about you? Which music era do you remember most vividly in your life, and how does it continue to influence what you listen to today?
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