When I was a kid I listened virtually every week to the American Top 40 radio countdown of Billboard magazine-ranked singles. It was broadcast here in Oregon on the long-gone Salem station KSKD, “Cascade 105”.
Without any sense of irony (this was elementary-school age we’re talking about), I loved host Casey Casem and his smooth, yet almost Muppet-like voice. Years later I can do a pretty decent imitation of him saying something like, “This song jumps up five notches to number seven,” with “five notches” in a higher-pitched voice and “number seven” more of a bass-like low pitch.
I remember the sense of drama I felt as Casey neared the top of the list, listening on a clock radio in my bedroom, or a Walkman as I walked the dog. I instantly date myself by the bands and songs that come to mind. Is “Man Eater” by Hall & Oates #1 again? Certainly they’re here to stay. Whereas Madonna, author of “Borderline” and “Lucky Star”, is clearly a flash in the pan. And when, after a succession of top 10 hits, will Duran Duran finally score a #1 single? I can’t remember if it was “The Reflex” or “A View to a Kill” that finally did it. And I want to know who’s falling for a cheesy anthem like Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” enough to take it to the top of the chart.
For the next couple decades or more, until I got my i-Pod, I didn’t really think of music in terms of individual songs. I clung to the notion of an album as the artform. But an i-Pod and, more specifically, i-Tunes software, make me think of songs again. I gravitate to the list of my Top 25 songs played. Sometimes I even find it affecting my listening habits. I can create my own singles chart. I am my own Casey Kasem. (Thankfully Jean Kasem and her pony-tail sprouting from the top of her scalp are nowhere to be found.)
As it happens, though, my top 25 is a little bit out of whack. The statistics for some songs are artificially high because the software incorporates times that Valarie has listened to them on her i-Pod. For example, the #1 song on my list has been one of the tracks from Mali Music, the album Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz fame) made with several Mali musicians (hence the title). Called “Spoons”, it’s a great song, and a great album, but I’ve listened to it about three times on my i-Pod, and Valarie the other 20.
Several movements from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are more literally at the top of my i-Tunes chart. I listen to them regularly as motivation, particularly on weekday mornings when I’m trying to shake off fatigue. I think of the Concertos as going hand-in-hand with the espresso I drink. What’s also curious about this is that Valarie and I have long had a friendly disagreement about how it’s best to listen to music. She likes to program certain music for certain activities, like up-tempo rock and pop for washing the dishes or soft classical for reading. I often prefer to make the music itself the activity, just lying on the couch and listening. But with Bach, I must say that the pace and complexity switch my mind into a higher gear, and that’s helpful for activity.
A handful of Beatles songs unsurprisingly occupy the upper portion of my list as well. In the past I’d always eschewed the collection of #1 Beatles hits called simply 1, because I don’t like greatest hits albums – there’s no flow, no sense of the album as its own entity. But I downloaded a few songs from Valarie’s copy, and I must say I’ve been hitting “Lady Madonna”, “Paperback Writer”, “Day Tripper” and “The Ballad of John & Yoko” pretty hard.
I’ve also listened several times to certain Beatles album tracks that never became big singles. From Let It Be I love the George Harrison song “I Me Mine” and Lennon/McCartney's "Across the Universe". From the “White Album” (I use quotes instead of italics because it’s not the literal album name), I love “Cry Baby Cry”, “Savoy Truffle” and “Sexy Sadie”.
For many years, Rubber Soul ranked among my favorite and most-listened-to Beatles records, but about five years ago my CD got a scratch on the second song, “Norwegian Wood”. I found I just couldn’t listen to the album at all with that song missing, and I never got around to buying a new copy. (I was paralyzed—how can I buy a whole new album but the case and all but one song work great?) But now I’ve finally downloaded “Norwegian Wood” and uploaded the rest of Rubber Soul, making the album come alive again on my i-Pod. People shower lots of praise on Revolver because it marked a transition between The Beatles’ early career of relatively simple pop songs and their later, more psychedelic period. But I think you could say the same about Rubber Soul. (Incidentally, I remember when I was growing up, it was always Sgt. Pepper that was considered the band’s greatest masterpiece, but it’s for some reason been overtaken since then by Revolver.)
Two David Bowie songs are also ranked high: “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Life on Mars”, both from the classic album Hunky Dory. Interestingly, my favorite Bowie recordings have usually been his later albums from the 1970s, particularly the “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, Heroes, and Lodger that he made with Brian Eno, as well as Station to Station. But hearing “Life on Mars” in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic accounted for the film’s most transcendent moment, and now it’s become a favorite.
A guilty-pleasure pop/R&B song from the early 80s is also in frequent rotation: “Let It Whip” by The Dazz Band. I fell in love with that song as a child when I bought the Neon Nights compilation album from K-Tel Records.
The first track from Bjork’s Vespertine, “Hidden Place” also gets played a lot. Valarie bought us that album in New York just a couple weeks before September 11, and the spiritual quality of the songs hit us right away. But Vespertine ultimately didn’t get listened to very much over the ensuing years, because it lacked the peppy, danceable quality of her previous records. But a couple months ago while in Brooklyn I had the good fortune to meet harpist Zena Parkins, who plays on Vespertine, and that inspired me to listen to the album again. And it’s actually quite exquisite—but nothing beats that first song for me.
Although it’s cooled off lately, for quite some time I was listening to the second half of The Clash’s Combat Rock almost incessantly. In particular, I love “Ghetto Defendant”, which includes spoken word by Allen Ginsberg alternating with Joe Strummer’s singing. Sometimes Ginsberg and his recitations seems out of place in the song or even outright silly, but I fall for them anyway: “Starved in metropolis/hooked on cosmopolis”.
When I was a kid, my dad got me into 1950s music like Chuck Berry (my first concert) and Jerry Lee Lewis. I was also greatly influenced by a compilation album my childhood friend Joe Czekalski gave me called 25 Rock Revival Greats. So I’ve downloaded some digital versions of the singles I loved from that old vinyl copy: “Black Slacks” by The Sparkletones, and “Just Because” by Lloyd Price.
Finally, I’ll wrap up with some other random songs I’ve listened to a lot, with the albums in parenthesis:
Joy Division, “Atrocity Exhibition” (Closer)
Paul McCartney, “Fine Line” (Chaos & Creation in the Backyard)
Duran Duran, “My Own Way” (Rio)
The Evens, “Mount Pleasant Isn’t” (The Evens)
The Beta Band, “Squares” (Hot Shots II)
Colleen, “Ritournelle” (Everyone Alive Wants Answers)
The Decemberists, “The Engine Driver” (Picaresque)
The Police, “Tea In the Sahara” (Synchronicity)
Tom Waits, “Alice” (Alice)
Ben Webster, “Tenderly” (King of the Tenors)
The Chills, “Tied Up In Chain” (Submarine Bells)
Count Basie, “April In Paris” (April in Paris)
Galaxie 500, “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” (This Is Our Music)
Gene Ammons, “Pagan Love Song” (Bad! Bossa Nova)
Jimi Hendrix, “Rainy Day, Dream Away” (Electric Ladyland)
John Lennon, “I Found Out” (Plastic Ono Band)
Prince, “Dirty Mind” (Dirty Mind)
Tricky, “Black Steel” (Maxinquaye)
Morphine, “I’m Free Now” (Cure For Pain)