My Relationship with Music (& My Top 10 Albums of the Decade)

I’ve been thinking about music a lot lately.  Well, let me clarify.  I always think about music.  I live for music.  I breathe music.  My recent surge in musical musings, however, has been sparked by all of the end-of-the-decade music lists being published.  Spin. Rolling Stone. Paste.  Best Albums.  Best Songs.  Best Bands.  Etc.  Etc.  Of course, unsurprisingly, I’ve read every one, cross-referenced against my own collection, made lists of new songs and albums to check out, already listened to such samplings from iTunes, purchased some new stuff, crossed out certain items from my lists, made new lists.  And so on.

I realize now that this crazy, obsessive relationship with music has been going on for decades.  Frightening.  I suppose there’s help for this sort of thing, but I don’t want help.  I’ll even take that “first step” and admit I’m an addict, but that’s it.  No apologies. 

Growing up in suburban New York, I came to cherish Saturday evenings.  Though we were only a small family of four, we rarely spent time together.  My father worked on that strange, foreign isle of Manhattan and then in his home office most evenings and weekends.  My mother had other things to do.  As inseparable as Emily and I were, we would also occasionally scatter off to separate corners.   On Saturday nights, however, the four of us would hang out together, watch an old movie or The Love Boat or…Listen To Music.

To this day, my parents have a record collection that would make most audiophiles drool.  Back then, I would sit for hours just tilting my head to read the titles, alphabetizing if necessary, inhaling the woody smell of cabinet and vinyl.  Nina Simone.  Dave Brubeck.  Harry Chapin.  Chris Connor.  Paul Williams.  Wings.  Bread.  I’d beg my mother to let me sing along to some of them while wearing headphones the size of saucers and banging wooden spoons against the Sears-Roebuck catalog. 

Saturday Night, however, meant we would spin records, let loose, rock out together.  Dance.  Lip-synch into our fists.  Laugh.

As time stretched forward, Music and I moved to my room for a little more privacy.  And this is where the magic happened.  I slipped The Smiths “The Queen is Dead” record out of its yellow Tower Records bag, and fell in love with Morrissey.  (I am still in love with him after all these years, though have cheated along the way with Dave Gahan, Peter Murphy, and Michael Stipe.  I have also taken turns loving Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith.)

And then there were the women.  I remember as though it were yesterday the long, sweltering summer I hung out with Suzanne Vega.  Well, not actually, though it did feel as though she was the only one who “got” me.  There was a time I figured if I could be as raw and beautiful as Chrissie Hynde, I’d hold the world in the palm of my hands.  The Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, and Liz Fraser each took turns touching me, stealing my breath, ripping my heart out.   They still do.

I moved out of that two-story suburban saltbox long ago, but Music has remained with me ever since, the one standby, loyal friend and lover.  Stumbling around campus on my very first night of college, I heard “How Soon is Now?” blaring from a crowded dorm window and felt my breathing slow.  I’ll be okay here, I thought.  Years later in New York, PJ Harvey and Jonatha Brooke kept me company in my cozy walk-up on Jane Street.  They reintroduced me to Joni Mitchell, whom I introduced to Björk and Siouxsie.   For some reason, one of the only songs I could listen to as I huddled in my apartment during the days and nights after 9/11 was Sheryl Crow’s “Safe and Sound,” which she performed live on one of the televised benefit concerts.  It’s a beautiful, crushing song I find difficult to listen to now.  (I’ll leave all the songs that have moved me for another day’s musings.)

A couple of months ago, I enjoyed taking an intensive meditation class at a local community college.  I listened intently to every word of my teacher, a calm, pleasing woman, highly experienced in a variety of meditative practices.  She had me hook, line, and sinker.  Then she dropped The Bomb.  In order to achieve a complete state of reflective calm and peace, one must create pockets of silence.  Tune out loud, vexing people.  Avoid turning on the television upon returning home.  Take pleasure in preparing a meal without the evening news blaring in the background.  Try driving in silence without music.  Screeeeeech.  Halt.  What?!  Drive without my music?  Is she nuts? I thought.

I huffed and hmph-ed for one week straight, resisting the teacher’s advice.  Then, deciding to test her theory (and wanting to get my full money’s worth out of the course), I drove to and from work one day in pure silence.  In both directions, I felt as though my iPod glared at me from its dashboard jack while the pile of cd’s buried in the armrest fumed in muted anger.  Even so, my teacher was on to something.  I marveled at the vanilla strawberry swirls of a sunrise, slowed to admire the deer grazing in a field, felt calm and relaxed behind the chain of school buses trudging along without a care in the world.

And so I betrayed Music, turning her off that day, and many subsequent others, to foray into hushed stillness.  Yet I’ve realized something from my betrayal.  While the quiet does me good, I’m incomplete without Music.  I’m hopelessly hooked on her.  She knows me, cradles me, gives me kindness when it’s hard to find elsewhere.  And when I leave her for some silence, she is always waiting for me when I return.


(I could tell you the exact moment I first listened to each of these, how much they’ve meant to me and why, but a woman needs to retain some mystery about her, doesn’t she?)

1.  Radiohead – Kid A

2.  PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea

3. Coldplay – A Rush of Cold Blood to the Head

4. Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

5. The White Stripes – Elephant

6. Various Artists – Garden State

7. The Boxer Rebellion – Union

8. Imogen Heap – Speak for Yourself

9. The Weepies – Say I am You

10. Interpol – Antics

Runners-Up:  Björk – Björk’s Greatest Hits; Muse – Black Holes and Revelations; Snow Patrol – Eyes Open; Foo Fighters – Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace; Madonna – Confessions on a Dance Floor