August 24, 2011

The Beauty of the Top Five List

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The film High Fidelity, with John Cusack as its brooding narrator, is a testament to all of the most important things in life — music, the confusing nature of getting older, love and, of course, the city of Chicago. At this point in my life, though a few years shy of Cusack’s 20-something-going-on-30 existential crisis, all of the themes in his life mirror mine. College is a time in one’s life unmercifully dynamic in nature, when the cliché sentiment behind “change as the only constant” rings all too true. Music helps to slow down this forward trajectory because it makes you remember — in part due to its ability to so prominently define a lifetime, an era or even a single semester.

High Fidelity is the premise for this column not only for the themes it exudes, but also because it pays homage to the simplistic beauty of the “Top 5 List”. Writing about music relies on hierarchical commentary, something that the “Top 5 List” does all to well. In the spirit of the movie, and because any audiophile can’t help but feel a strong affinity for Cusack’s musical elitism, this column will be a collection of top 5 lists, plain and simple.

For my first column, I’ll begin with something universal. Everyone has their own top 5 albums list, regardless of whether they have taken the time to put pen to paper. The albums that you listened to on repeat and the bands that you worshipped like they were your very own personal Jesus, piously holding service everyday at the temple of your boombox. These are my “Top 5 Albums,” not so much in the sense that they’re the greatest  albums ever made (though some of them may very well be), but because they are the top 5 albums that really meant something to me. If you disagree, that’s fine as well — because if there is one thing I enjoy almost as much as listening to music, it’s arguing about it.

Funeral — Arcade Fire

If you have ever met me, talked music with me, or even just seen me in passing, then this should be a no brainer. I may have loved music before Arcade Fire, but I loved music after listening to Funeral for the first time. All of a sudden something that I had thought I’d known transformed into something entirely new. Sure, I had favorite songs before and bands that I adored (NSYNC, anyone?), but Funeral opened my eyes to the sheer beauty of expression that music was. To my eager eighth-grade self, Funeral provided the foundations for what would become a lifelong love affair with music.

Funeral was a promise of what music could be. It was bold and euphoric, while also laced with just enough grief to derive an unusually haunting power. Every song seemed so uplifting, when upon further listen they told tales of death, rejection, longing and fear. In my uncertain adolescent state, Funeral allowed me to find something for myself — it wasn’t an album playing everyday on TRL and, at the age of 14, that seemed different and dangerous. Win Butler and co. sing with such a ferocity that it demands an emotional response from the listener. With every new album Arcade Fire releases and every concert-bordering-on-religious-experience that I attend of theirs, this feeling becomes renewed. But Funeral, and all of its astounding ten songs, was the start.

Exile On Main Street — The Rolling Stones

For me at least, this album is rock and roll — bursting with energy, pervaded by gritty blues influences and so eclectic and full of life that the record makes you want to dance, fight, fuck and do pretty much everything else that’s worth doing to excess in this world. The exceptional songwriting of Richards and Jagger ascends above the riff raff — a sweaty, lusty and whiskey-soaked tale of the Stone’s time without a home, having been sent into exile from the harsh grasp of England. Exile is a lively tribute to the forces of survival, redemption and rebellion — themes that would continue to define the 1970s both in the United States and across the pond.

Exile on Main Street earned its spot on this list because it changed the way I thought about rock and roll. It was not the first rock album I ever listened to, and it certainly won’t be the last, but nothing may ever compare. If anything can make someone wax nostalgic for a time they never knew, then this album is it. Listen to the album on vinyl if you’re lucky enough to find one, turn the volume all the way up and, drink in hand, have yourself a hazy stroll down memory lane.

Nevermind — Nirvana

Nevermind was released when I was one month and three days shy of being one-year-old. As absurd as that may sound, if anything defines what I think of as the music of my childhood, then this is it.

Kurt Cobain died before I was even in school, but I remember riding around in my Dad’s car, bobbing my head to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” with my brother. Probably reflective of both my father’s excellent taste and his penchant for enjoying seeing his young children naively sing alternative rock (we also blasted Violent Femmes), I owe a lot of my passion for music to those car rides. As I got older and revisited Nevermind at every stage of my life, I understood it more each time and found new meaning in its songs. Cobain became a symbol and an idol for me just as he had inspired so many in the early-90’s, fixated by the intensity with which he skyrocketed into the mainstream and the fantastic blaze with which he disappeared.  Nevermind has been hailed by many as the greatest album of the ‘90s, providing the quintessential sounds for an entire generation.

Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — Lauryn Hill

A lot has been said about Lauryn Hill in recent years, but damn, no one can doubt that the woman has soul. No album will ever have the ability to make me forget how awful my voice is and belt out  songs like life depended on it the way Miseducation does. I may not have much in common with Miss Hill, but when she sings about motherhood, love, heartbreak and faith, my head instinctively nods in approval.

With Miseducation, Lauryn Hill solidified her place in the man’s world of hip-hop, and even showed the boys a thing or to about rhythm and rhyme. She effortlessly melded hip-hop with the musical styles of R&B, soul, reggae and even gospel, creating an exceptional and unique sound. Aside from the fact that every song is dynamic in its own way, the commentary between songs is reason enough to give the album a listen. Capturing conversation between young students and their “teacher,” played by poet Ras Baraka, these sound bites taught me every thing I ever needed to know about love. Their knowledge was unadulterated and maybe even a little naïve, but when paired with the powerful emotion of Hill’s songs it created a seamless path from beginning to end. Miseducation, in all its fervent, astonishing glory, is a miraculous testament to what a woman’s confidence can be.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — The Beatles

This album earned its spot in a more particular way — equally accredited to the music and the physical album itself. My father is as much a musichead as myself and has an unbelievable record collection as a result. I can’t recall the exact day I found this album and its bright, colorful cover lurking among the other records. What I do remember though is listening to it almost every day I came home from school in 7th grade, just as my Dad had done when he was 12 years old and Sgt. Pepper first took the world by storm.

The album was in excellent condition for being almost 40 years old and I’m sorry to say that my inexperience with a record player added quite a few scratches to its surface. Sgt. Pepper was a revelation because of its innovative and gorgeous songs, but I took to it more because of what it represented. Just as my Dad had done before me, I would carefully take the fragile vinyl from its case, place the needle at the start, and become enveloped in the world of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life.” When the A-side finished I’d dutifully flip it over so the B-side could play, inevitably touching the same edges my father had decades before. Sgt. Pepper was a bridge between my father and I, connecting us in a way that time couldn’t hinder. I only hope the record can survive forty more years, so I can pass it on to my children and let them add scratches of their own.

Original Author: Sarah Angell