Eight Songs That Shaped Me
Music is undoubtedly my main passion and focus. Discovering records, diving into artists’ discographies, and sharing music with friends are life-giving exercises for me. I am drawn to the way both sound and words are intertwined to present a message that is unique from other mediums. Various combinations of rhythms, textures, and instrumentations are tools for artists to convey different emotions and feelings. Certain albums transport me to specific times and locations, providing me context and understanding of the scenes, cultures, and art movements that birthed the respective work. Music is communal, connecting me to like-minded people, whether it be dancing together at a live performance or simply discussing mutual adored jazz records.
Through my time devoted to discovering music, there have been important tracks that impacted the way I approached and heard it. The tracks on this list are not necessarily my favorites – that would be a far more difficult list to narrow down – but every song on here has informed my taste in a profound way.
“In My Life”
I started in high school primarily drawn to the classics. I devoured everything by The Beatles and was immensely drawn to their perfected songwriting and stellar harmonies. “In My Life” in particularly showed me that music could be innovative and artistically driven, yet still be accessible to a broad audience. It also rid me of the idea that depth is only found in complexity. “In My Life” is a simple folk/pop tune packed with beauty and significance.
“I Don’t Wanna Hear It”
Minor Threat was my first exposure to punk. A close friend of mine at the time wore one of their patches on his backpack. It peaked my curiosity. I was captivated by how direct it was. Nothing was held back in its aggressiveness. The way Ian MacKaye viscerally shouted his frustrations directly resonated with me. I learned from Minor Threat that technical ability wasn’t always the important thing to concentrate on when critiquing music, especially when it is sold this convincingly and with so much raw energy.
“What’s Going On”
My introduction to soul, “What’s Going On” is a spiritually stirring experience. Marvin Gaye distances himself from the Motown sound, focused on teenage love and heartbreak, and matures it, challenging his listeners to a greater social awareness. For a track dealing with such heavy subject matter, the music is airy and weightless. I easily get sucked into its hazy backdrop and layered vocal tracks every time I listen.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart”
Prior to being exposed to bands like Joy Division and The Smiths, I did not know it was possible to honestly unpack personal anguish and emotional unrest into a pop song. While the icy, cacophonous sound that make Joy Division so distinctive is still found in “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” there is also a sense of tranquility and beauty present in its nihilism. The quiet synth lines and punchy bass work from Peter Hook nest some of Ian Curtis’ most inspired lyrics. The song was recorded just two months before Curtis’ tragic suicide.
I still believe Bob Dylan is the greatest lyricist of all time. Dylan is a pop artist, but he brings a literary quality to his craft that at the time was nonexistent, one that is still only aspired to. Dylan crafts surrealist vignettes of various characters, some real and some fictional, that symbolizes societal decay and its forgotten members. My favorite aspect of Dylan’s work is how he takes high art and subverts it, using heady word craft in his blue-collar folk songs to call out the detached and apathetic upper class.
“Move Your Body”
After witnessing a set from the Chicago DJ Derrick Carter, I fell in love with vintage house music. Sifting through the Trax Records catalog, there were a number of essential dance tracks that captivated me. Marshall Jefferson, one of the fathers of house music, cemented the burgeoning Chicago movement by creating this house music anthem about house music. It’s infectious bass grooves, rolling piano line, and persistent kick make it difficult to not do as the track title says and “move your body”. Understanding house’s importance for the black and gay communities of Chicago, these DJs prove that music whose appeal is physical instead of cerebral can still hold as much weight.
“All My Friends
Indie rock fused with dance music. This one has been a staple at parties and dance nights for the past ten years. Constructed on top of a continuous piano loop, layers of percussion and synths are added and the tension doesn’t stop building until Murphy stops shouting “Where are your friends tonight” at the outro. It’s an exercise in artful repetition, one that really resolves itself. Deceptively joyous and lively, there is a deep sense of melancholy dripping through every clever line as James Murphy deals with ageing, growing distant between friends, and personal regret. Many times I’ve celebrated to this song in a packed room; It hasn’t stopped feeling euphoric.
“Bring the Noise”
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was one of the first hip-hop albums I was enamored by, “Bring the Noise” being the standout track for me. Chuck D’s rhymes are complex and his delivery is ferocious. Rap was just as political poignant and willing and capable of blasting the establishment as the punk movement of the previous decade. They didn’t take themselves too seriously though, allowing for some comedic relief through Flava Flavs well-timed and memorable ad-libs. With record scratches and hard-hitting sampling, Public Enemy packs a riot in just under four minutes.