Jeff’s Wild Years

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There’s something incredibly comforting about picking a song for every year of your life. On the one hand, it’s nostalgic, and gives a warm fuzzy feeling to he who chooses to revisit those monumental and immortal tracks that came to mean something more than just mere background noise, or as Thom Yorke might say, “fridge buzz.” And on the other hand, I tend to be an obsessive list maker, and as such, the thought of compiling such a thing became a strange delight for me. There I found comfort in creating the order, in finding the perfect tracks and making sense of them. Some people work on cars, others do the jumble, I like lists. My parents always hated it; what are ya gonna do? My choices reflect more than just songs with vivid memories or songs I really like, but rather contributed to how I listen to music as a whole.

1981: The Cure “Primary”

This was the one bright spot on Faith, the band’s darkest album, which I learned to love thanks to a dubbed cassette my girlfriend gave me. She didn’t introduce me to the Cure, but rather renewed my admiration for the band. And just to clarify, I was not actually listening to The Cure after I was born, though I can’t prove it. How am I to remember?

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The Cure - Staring At the Sea - The Singles

1982: Bruce Springsteen “Atlantic City”

When I was younger I was under the impression I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen. Maybe learning to love the Boss comes with maturity, but Nebraska is an album that I had to do some growing up to appreciate. It’s his darkest album, and certainly his least commercial, but it’s also his best, and there’s no refuting that this is one of the best songs ever.

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Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska - Atlantic City

1983: R.E.M. “Radio Free Europe”

I remember lots of R.E.M. in my youth, and for some reason, the mumbly era of Michael Stipe’s singing stands out the most. I remember “Can’t Get There From Here” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” but I mostly remember this song, which I practically wore out on an old cassette a long ways back.

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R.E.M. - Murmur - Radio Free Europe

1984: The Smiths “What Difference Does It Make?”

The Smiths, too, were a band that seemed ubiquitous in the early half of my lifetime. “How Soon is Now?” was my first Smiths song, but this one became my favorite not long afterward. Morrissey’s lyrics actually weren’t the first thing that struck me, though, it was Johnny Marr’s guitar playing. When I was later asked who played a major influence on my learning to play guitar and mentioned Marr, I was promptly mocked. Idiots—Eric Clapton is for chumps.

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The Smiths - Hatful of Hollow - What Difference Does It Make? (Peel Session - BBC)

1985: Tom Waits “Clap Hands”

From the moment I heard “Clap Hands,” I was mesmerized, and soon obsessed with Tom Waits. So much that I ended up playing it for all my friends on a trip to the beach, which then hooked several of them. I know all the words to this song, and when asked, can recite them. Too bad nobody asks.

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Tom Waits - Rain Dogs - Clap Hands

1986: XTC “Dear God”

I had heard “Dear God” once or twice when I was younger, but the song really struck me when I was a teenager. Its orchestral arrangement and emotional, sweeping progression made it a personal favorite, and hell, I don’t even mind the kid singing.

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XTC - Skylarking - Dear God

1987: Depeche Mode “Never Let Me Down Again”

Depeche Mode has been a major part of my musical identity for as long as I can remember, and this song has always been my favorite of theirs. I’ve always wanted to record a cover of it, just to prove I can do a better job than Smashing Pumpkins, but doing better than the original would be impossible.

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Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses - Never Let Me Down Again

1988: Ministry “Stigmata”

I was once young and full of angst. And I still contend that The Land of Rape and Honey is a good album. Disturbing, brutal, even scary, but good.

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Ministry - Land of Rape and Honey - Stigmata

1989: They Might Be Giants “Ana Ng”

It’s funny how similar my list is beginning to look to my brother’s. But with some subtle differences, of course. As he chose “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” I went with “Ana Ng,” a classic by anyone’s standards—tuneful, lyrically clever and timeless.

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They Might Be Giants - Lincoln - Ana Ng

1990: The Pixies “Dig For Fire”

When my brother Matt left the house for college, he left behind boxes full of cassettes, many of which ended up in my hands by default. One that I ended up listening to over and over again was Bossanova, easily the most underrated album by The Pixies, yet no less an essential part of their discography.

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Pixies - Bossanova - Dig for Fire

1991: De La Soul “A Rollerskating Jam Named `Saturdays'”

I don’t really remember hearing this when it came out, but rather discovered it a few years later, and it blew my mind. I had grown up hearing some hip-hop in the ’80s, but this is, as they say, some next level shit. One of the best rap singles of the decade, for sure.

1992: Helmet “Unsung”

I recall sitting at home one Christmas break and my brother plopped a pair of headphones on my head and said, “here, you gotta hear this.” I wasn’t used to such extreme volume, but the sheer power of it all, combined with the simplicity of Page Hamilton’s thunderous metal, made a big enough impact that I immediately had to purchase a copy of Meantime.

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Helmet - Unsung: The Best of Helmet 1991-1997 - Unsung

1993: PJ Harvey “50 Ft. Queenie”

I tried getting into Tori Amos. I failed. I think Liz Phair’s one good album was a fluke. I like Fiona Apple, but I’m not even sure I care anymore. But PJ Harvey wipes the floor with her singer-songwriter contemporaries, simply because she rocks so hard. Playing this one in my car for the first time was a shock to the system, mainly due to Steve Albini’s mixing of the record, which had volume levels shooting from nearly inaudible to deafening. I don’t remember that happening on Under the Pink.

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PJ Harvey - Rid of Me - 50ft Queenie

1994: Sebadoh “Rebound”

I credit this song as the one that opened me up to “indie rock”, as it were. Though I had my Nirvana, the fuzzy, lo-fi American underground hadn’t yet been sold on me, primarily because I hadn’t heard much of it. But when I saw, believe it or not, Sebadoh performing on the short-lived “Live from the House of Blues” TV show, I was compelled by their unusual guitar and bass interplay, raw approach and melodic appeal. Without even knowing their name, I had decided I loved this band. Turns out I was right.

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Sebadoh - Bakesale - Rebound

1995: Rocket From the Crypt “On a Rope”

Growing up in San Diego (technically North County) means listening to Rocket From the Crypt. To some, it means worshipping them. I was content merely to revel in their raucous rock `n’ roll spirit. This track, a minor hit for the group, was among their best.

1996: DJ Shadow “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt”

If DJ Shadow fans are upset with him about his new album, it’s because of this. This track, which opens Endtroducing, encapsulates everything great about sample-based music. It’s a veritable symphony of beats, crackling vinyl and delicately interwoven melody. Funny thing was I picked it up on a whim, the same day that I was hell-bent on buying Dig Your Own Hole. That one didn’t impress me so much, but this one may have opened me up to an entire world of sound that I didn’t even know existed.

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DJ Shadow - Endtroducing... - Building Steam With a Grain of Salt

1997: Elliott Smith “Angeles”

It’s almost hard to put into words the importance I place on this one song. My introduction to Elliott Smith was through the Heatmiser album Mic City Sons, and since then, I’ve purchased damn near everything the guy released. I loved either/or and probably couldn’t have picked a favorite track at the time, but this one won after I heard it live during a particularly difficult and vulnerable performance by Smith during one of his more troubled periods. He hadn’t played live for some time and was forgetting the words to most of his songs. He began to get frustrated and switched to doing a couple covers, but returned to old favorites soon thereafter. Each note of “Angeles” was gorgeously sung and played with his exposed, trembling voice, and there was a heart-stopping pause at the bridge where he seemed on the verge of losing the song, when he came back from the dramatic pause with a perfect transition back to the final chorus. It was the night’s biggest victory, and from then on, he seemed more confident and even funny, shortly thereafter asking the crowd “Did I fuck up Needle in the Hay earlier?”

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Elliott Smith - Either/Or - Angeles

1998: Neutral Milk Hotel “The King of Carrot Flowers part 1”

My thoughts, sitting on a hotel bed listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: “Wait, surely someone’s done this before. Haven’t they? If not, they should have. It’s so simple, so perfect, it can’t be new.” Ah but it was. I was practically giddy. The headphones were then obligatorily passed around.

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Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea - The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1

1999: The Dismemberment Plan “What Do You Want Me To Say”

When the Dismemberment Plan broke up, they left a giant hole in music. Nobody will ever do what they did as well as they did. And nobody will put on a show quite like they did. When I discovered them, I was already into their peers Jawbox and Juno, and had somewhat expected them to sound similar. They did, to some degree, but with a lot more energy. This track sounded to me like a zig-zagging Led Zeppelin track, only temporarily committing to a straightforward melody, but bringing the lightning during the chorus. Man, I miss these guys.

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The Dismemberment Plan - Emergency & I - What Do You Want Me to Say?

2000: Blackalicious “Deception”

I discovered Blackalicious on the same day that I heard The Dismemberment Plan. No real story here, just a song that impressed me, and reminded me that the best music isn’t always made with guitars.

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Blackalicious - Nia - Deception

2001: Unwound “October All Over”

Old favorites can surprise you too. Unwound’s angular post-hardcore was what sold me in the first place, but their best album was their least typical one. Two discs, lots of keyboards and experimentation, and all around, some of their best songs, which included this haunting, odd, amazing gem.

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Unwound - Leaves Turn Inside You - October All Over

2002: Neko Case “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)”

If you put your ear really close to the speakers while this song is playing and pay really close attention, you can hear my jaw dropping. Or so it did upon my first listen. So classic, so timeless, even sexy. I mean, that’s been said about Neko Case a lot, but if I’m inclined to agree, it’s all because of the music. She owns this song, commands it, wraps it around her little finger. And she didn’t even write it. I ended up tracking down a copy of the LP on which Sarah Vaughn first recorded it because I fell so deeply in love with this song. No disrespect to Vaughn, but what Neko does with “Look For Me” is magical.

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Neko Case - Blacklisted - Look for Me (I'll Be Around)

2003: Sufjan Stevens “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti”

When Sufjan tells the story of this track live, it’s quaint and funny. Yet when I first heard it, there seemed to be so much sadness underneath. Fall of 2003, when Treble was born, was a particularly odd and, quite frankly, frightening time for me, and hearing this song brought a strange sort of comfort. I recall listening to it the day after Christmas, driving to get some coffee in San Diego and seeing empty, cold sidewalks and feeling a beautiful sort of melancholy. Typically I am loathe to indulge in such a diary entry, but such is the power of a certain song, that it can evoke such vivid memories of even the most seemingly inconsequential things.

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Sufjan Stevens - Greetings from Michigan - The Great Lake State - For the Widows In Paradise, for the Fatherless In Ypsilanti

2004: Junior Boys “Teach Me How To Fight”

Pretty much everything Junior Boys does impresses me. Floors me, really. Their new album, So This is Goodbye is one of my favorites of this year, but Last Exit was a strange and exotic find of mine in 2004. Like true geniuses, the Canadian synth pop group saved one of their most gorgeous tracks for the next to last on the album’s track sequence, creating a stunning climax to an already brilliant work. The song’s moody ambience seemed so perfect for an artsy screenplay, that maybe one day I’ll get around to writing it. I said that about Wire’s “Used To” as well. We’ll see how that goes.

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Junior Boys - Last Exit - Teach Me How to Fight

2005: Okkervil River “For Real”

In retrospect, it took me a while before I actually started listening to Okkervil River. I probably should have already been a fan by the time I heard Black Sheep Boy, but I was only casually acquainted with Will Sheff’s haunting, dark song-tales. Being baptised in “For Real” was the best thing I could have possibly done. So violent and disturbing yet so strongly constructed, it’s a truly compelling slice of gothic Americana.

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Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy - For Real

2006 Grizzly Bear “Knife”

With each of my choices on this list, I went with a song that hit me out of left field, catching my senses off guard, exposing me to something new and exciting and somehow affecting and memorable. In 2006, almost all of my favorites are records and songs by bands with whom I was already well acquainted. With Grizzly Bear, the story is a little different. I own Horn of Plenty and like it, though it wasn’t necessarily a record that made an impact like any of the above mentioned did. Yellow House, however, is a different story by almost a completely different band. Sonic portals opened up and let in varied shades and tones, propelling their Beach Boys-inspired folk to outer space. I have heard very little that sounds like “Knife,” a doo-wop song gone psychedelic post-rock. It’s simple and catchy, and it’s also quite weird. It doesn’t even have a second chorus, which may be the best part. Grizzly Bear know the secret to being great showmen: leave the audience wanting more.

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