This started out as a Top Five List, but there were just too many, even for a Top Ten. Maybe I should have split it into two lists (or even three) or simply been more selective. But I did none of those things. To carry on…
There are gaps in my musical memory.
For instance, there’s the late ’70s, when I was too busy starting a family and launching my late lamented newspaper career. Popular music of that time was in the very distant background for me, so I didn’t discover the Clash, or even Elvis Costello (just about my all-time favorite), until years later.
Music videos pulled me back in in the early ’80s — first TBS’ Night Tracks on the weekends, then later MTV. I loved the medium. Video may have killed the radio star, but it turned me on to so much music I would otherwise have missed. Madness, for instance. For a time, I told everyone, in all honesty, that if I could figure out how to become a director of music videos, I would give up newspapers for that.
Then, in the early to mid-’90s, MTV quit showing videos. Or at least, quit showing them all the time (video killed the radio star, and reality TV killed MTV). I had this routine in which I’d go down to the basement gym at The State and turn the tube onto MTV and watch videos while I worked out. This kept me current up to Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, but then all of a sudden, the videos disappeared and I lost touch.
Consequently, I missed a lot of great stuff by Radiohead and Weezer and Green Day and Death Cab for Cutie and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and Adele, to mention a few of those I’ve been listening to on Pandora or Spotify or YouTube lately. (At first, I was put off by Pandora’s way of refusing to play the song I asked for, and playing other things like it, but that has introduced or reintroduced me to a lot of great stuff I would not consciously have sought out).
Then, there are songs that came out at a time when I thought I was paying attention to music, but that went right by me — either because I was listening to the wrong stations, or my tastes hadn’t matured to the point that I fully appreciated them.
Here’s a list that just gives a sample of the stuff I find myself appreciating lately, and wondering how they got past me the first time (by the way, I’m not ranking these 1-12; I’m not sure I could. But I don’t mind naming these as, more or less, the top 12 in the category):
- “Love and Happiness,” Al Green. I could just as well have named “Tired of Being Alone,” or “Let’s Stay Together.” I was actually living in Memphis at the time that he was recording these classics, but was too focused on The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Elton John, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, The Band and other international stars to pick up on the richness that was right there at my feet. I choose “Love and Happiness” because I actually heard it recently and thought, I’ve heard that forever and never appreciated how awesome it is, and even thought, who is that?, before realizing a split-second later that of course, of course, it was the Rev. Al. And kicking myself.
- “Creep,” Radiohead. I had half-heard this many times before really listening to it once and realizing how good it was, how it qualified as rock in a way that so little other new music I’d heard in recent years did. This was two or three years ago. Then, when we visited Oxford and stayed on Abingdon Road, I somehow became aware that Radiohead was from Abingdon, and resolved to look into them further. Much later, I did, and now listen to my Radiohead “station” on Pandora as much as any other. Best bit: When the soft opening is first interrupted by the stuttering “CHA-chunk, CHA-chunk” of distorted guitar, and the whole nature of the song changes.
- “You Can’t Hurry Love,” The Supremes. Or almost any of their greatest hits, really. In the couple of years after I returned to this country in 1965 (after 2.5 years in South America), when I just could not get enough of American popular culture, the Supremes were always there — on the Sullivan show, everywhere. But I wasn’t into them. I was the stereotypical little white boy, into English guitar bands and Americans who imitated English guitar bands, with an occasional side trek into Herb Alpert or whatever. I just wasn’t that into those three elegant black women dressed like old people going to a formal affair. It was decades later before I realized how deeply they had imprinted their sound into my fondest memories of the period. Maybe it was Phil Collins’ special-effects tribute to this particular song in the early, exciting days of MTV that made me look back and consciously realize how amazing the Supremes were. Or the effective way “China Beach” used “Reflections” to, well, reflect the era. (I never actually watched the show, but I can remember pausing the channel long enough to list to the intro a number of times.)
- “Life on Mars?” David Bowie. I could swear to you that this song did not exist before I first watched, on DVD, the British time-travel-cop show of the same name (sans question mark). I had zero memory of it. Of course, I wasn’t at all into Bowie in his initial iteration, but still — I had heard and enjoyed “A Space Oddity” and heard other songs of his in the background. But I had completely missed this. Even now, I’m not sure if it’s just that the song itself is so great (which it may be; a critic in The Telegraph listed it as the single greatest song of all time, with “Let it Be,” one of my personal favorites, in second place) or it’s just the way it shaped the wonderful opening scene in which the protagonist of the TV show is transported back to 1973 that imprinted it so favorably on my mind. (Wonderful touch — the song begins the scene playing on the character’s early iPod, which itself now looks dated, then ends up on an 8-track.) In any case, I listen to it a lot now. Oh, a word in your shell-like: Don’t bother putting the American series based on this into your Netflix queue (despite the presence of Harvey Keitel in the cast); just watch the original. (Best bit: 37 seconds into this clip, as the character “wakes up” into 1973 and the music reaches its climax.)
- “Say It Ain’t So,” Weezer. In this position I could put Green Day’s “Basket Case,” or any one of a number of super-catchy way-post-punk, post-grunge tunes. But I’ll just pick this one, because I’ve been listening to my new Weezer station on Pandora a lot the last couple of weeks. I got into them through their relatively recent hit, “I Want You To,” which has everything a pop song should have, despite the feckless theme of the lyrics (assuming it’s up to a girl to make the first move — although, when you see Weezer, you understand this better).
- “I Want You to Want Me,” Cheap Trick. Not much to say about this except that the title of Weezer’s “I Want You To,” got me to thinking about it, and wondering who had played it — because I assure you, I had never been a Cheap Trick fan (I was way too busy in 1975). But I finally recognized it as a very well-crafted pop song, which has a classic feel to it after all these years. It’s sort of anthem-y. After all, doesn’t the title rather economically state what most pop songs are about?
- “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen. I wrote about this before, wondering at the alchemy that made it so hypnotically beautiful. Ever since I was quite young, I had known that cool people were supposed to be into Cohen — it was more of a measure of coolness even than being into Jeff Beck. But I was aware that I was not cool, and was satisfied not even to try to listen to him. It was the use of this in the love scene of “Watchmen” that made me focus on this song finally (which followed on a cover effectively used in “Shrek”), and I’m glad I did.
- “Such Great Heights,” The Postal Service. First, I heard the cover by Iron and Wine, which was on a copy of the soundtrack of “Garden State” belonging to my daughter. She referred to it as “that Postal Service song,” and later she persuaded me to spend a gift certificate for Best Buy on “Give Up” — which is probably the last complete album that I have bought and really, completely gotten into, to the point of listening to it scores of times they way I did, say, with Abbey Road in 1969.
- “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” Otis Redding. How did I live all the way through the 1960s thinking that Otis Redding was just that guy who had sung “Dock of the Bay”? Yes, that was a magnificent song, and no one could have done it better, but it wasn’t even really representative of what he did. I didn’t learn how wrong I was until I borrowed a greatest-hits CD from my brother (which I fear I never returned). This song moved me more than any other, but I could just as well have chosen “Try a Little Tenderness,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” or “Mr. Pitiful.” One weekend recently, my wife and I were walking up St. Philip Street in Charleston, and heard the echoing sound of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” coming out of one of the old Charleston-style houses turned into apartments. It made my day, and made me think highly of the tastes of the person (probably a very young person, since everyone in that neighborhood seemed to be about 24 — in which case, it’s someone who is much more hip to what’s good than I was at that age) who lived in that apartment.
- “Bring It On Home to Me,” the Animals. After what I said about the Supremes, I guess I shouldn’t pick the version of this by a white guitar group, but hey, Eric Burdon wanted to be black more than any other white boy ever to come out of Newcastle. And this version is pretty soulful, I think. I think I like it better than the Sam Cooke version (which, I hate to say, seems to have most of the soul bleached out of it, in the deliberate effort to create a “crossover” hit). Anyway, I didn’t get into it until I bought an Animals greatest hits compilation on CD, sometime in the past decade. Eventually, I put the song on the playlist of my band — you know, for when I get around to starting a band.
- “Goin’ Down,” The Monkees. I’ve mentioned this before. It’s sort of a special category. I thought it was cool when it came out (I had the album), but as I got older peer pressure brainwashed me into thinking that nothing by the Monkees could possibly be cool. Then it was used as background for a frantic meth-cooking montage on “Breaking Bad,” and I couldn’t place it for a moment, then recognized it. At first, I thought it was maybe someone else doing it, not Mickey Dolenz, it was just so good. Finally, I realized I had been right the first time, when I was 13 years old — it was a great song, very well done. And the “Pre-Fab Four” should probably get more respect than they did. (Oh, and yes, I know that The Rutles actually called themselves the Prefab Four, but the sobriquet was applied to the Monkees first, intended as an insult.)
- “Mais que Nada,” Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. So yes, I heard this at the time, but it was in the background, and I never could have named it, the way I could have Mendes’ covers of Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel tunes. After I’d seen “Austin Powers” — which uses the song very effectively to evoke the period — several times, I set out to learn what that signature Brasil ’66 song was called. (It’s interesting to me how a Sergio Mendes or Herb Alpert or Petula Clark song, played in a background, can evoke the 60s more effectively than a Beatles or Rolling Stones song can do.) Once I figured it out, I’ve listened to it a lot.