March 24, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
The Soundtrack to your Life
Music is probably our greatest invention. What else can so quickly lift our spirits or reduce us to tears, the two often being only seconds apart? Philosophers debate whether music really was an invention. Perhaps it was discovered. It might exist in a Platonic realm, which is our aspiration to comprehend. Certainly there is a mathematical structure to music, as Plato noted.
Other animals may have got there before us: whales and birds have their own musical song. But it is the music we humans have created for ourselves that is the most truly meaningful to us. And while there have been great composers through the ages, music can also be immediate and of its time, as much of pop music is.
In recent weeks I have realised that I have a new favourite album. The tunes in pop music tend to be simple but designed in that way deliberately so that they stay in the listeners’ heads. That’s how I often realise I have a new favourite. The song’s there even when it’s not playing.
I have a long, growing list of former favourite albums. They last about half a year and are superseded. But that is good because I can then look back and think of them as forming the soundtrack of my life. Old favourites evoke memories of past times, good and bad. Each of the following carries a distinct meaning for me, which I shall not relate here. In rough order in which they have been my favourites, and without remotely attempting to be complete, I have loved in my time Queen’s News of the World (my first album record when I was 13), Joy Division’s Closer, Birthday Party’s Junkyard, Einstürzende Neubauten’s Drawings of Patient OT, Sonic Youth’s Dirty, Homogenic by Björk, Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix, virtually every Pet Shop Boys album as it came out, Pink Floyd’s first album featuring Syd Barrett, and a recent rediscovery of Sparks had me fall in love with both Propaganda and Hello Young Lovers. It’s an admittedly eclectic mix. But good music can be found in any genre. There was even one summer I was into Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill!
If you know some or all of these albums, then you know at least some of my life. And if you tell me your favourites, I will know something about yours. So what has been the soundtrack to your life?
My soundtrack has some overlap – Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Beastie Boys (Ill Communication, though). In a restaurant recently Moby’s Play came on and I was immediately transported back to a house in Chapeltown (the Leeds one) with green curtains and a distinctive aroma. I’d completely forgotten about Moby. My newest favourite is Alt J’s debut; I do wonder whether I’ll have forgotten them entirely in 10 year’s time.
In addition to all of the above, music can often be an efficacious method of medication, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart. Whenever I used to be lovelorn, the back catalogue of the Smiths, played loudly through headphones, usually did the trick for me.
What a great post which i’m just not going to think about too deeply!
As a youngster, I was given the complete Abba vinyl collection which did for a number of years! The first album that i remember really enjoying was Duran Duran, Rio. A huge gap where music wasn’t really explored. Though dabbled with Robbie Williams and Texas (alongside S Club 7 and Aqua!) .
Then…………………………a 6 month period where anything and everything classical was followed by Travis, The Singles; Keene, Hopes and Fears & Perfect Symmetry; Stereophonics, Gotta go there to come back; Coldplay, X&Y; massively The Waterboys (all of the albums), an adventure into Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon alongside Roger Waters; Amused to Death and David Gilmour; On an Island.
However, Macy Gray; id and Toni Childs; A Woman’s Boat are two artist albums which would definately be on my desert island disc list!
I hadn’t heard the music on your list before, so as my nose was bothering me, I did do a quick google search! Your music taste and style is quite different to the impression that I had of you! Must be suit!
That’s right. Not many people in suits when I last went to a Sonic Youth gig.
Well now. The first records I ever bought with my own money were by Ian Dury and the Blockheads (Do It Yourself, Reasons to be Cheerful Pt.3). A pretty high starting point, though I didn’t know it at the time. And after a hiatus of a couple of years, there was the phase of finding my taste (a lot of U2 records, Marillion, and Deep Purple)… Before I hit my stride with records I really think of as “my” records: The Smiths’ first; New Order; Billy Bragg; and – especially – Cabaret Voltaire and Hawkwind (and I make no apologies for either). As a student important for me were Daydream Nation, Zen Arcade, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Halber Mensch; A Certain Ratio, Test Dept., early 808 State, Orbital (throughout, though lets not mention the Blue Album) and The Fall. Gradually I found my way into jazz, which for me mainly means Miles Davis and, later, John Coltrane and oddities like Brotherhood of Breath. I also get a thrill out of late 70s rock and Metal (Led Zeppelin, Motorhead and Bon Scott-era AC/DC) and snatches of anonymous Drum and Bass. And through all this – David Bowie.
Almost all music by Bear McCreary. Particularly the Battlestar Galactica albums. Some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.
The soundtrack to my life starts with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, intermingled with Ghanaian highlife music wafting over from the student residences at the Kwame Nkrumah University. It encompasses Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3 (the silver cover), and Ziggy Stardust (they told me I wasn’t allowed to like both. I didn’t like both – I bloody loved both). And Bartok’s 2nd violin concerto, with the pizzicato opening and then the soaring violin. It embraces Jimi Hendrix (aka god)’s Electric Ladyland and King Crimson’s Red. Pet Sounds and Smile. Kirsty MacColl’s Kite and Patti Smith’s Horses. The Smiths (echoes of those African sounds in the circular guitar patterns). The White Stripes’ Elephant, and the Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever they say I am… There are so many more – my soundtrack is 55 years long and counting. I’m as passionate about music as I ever was. I’m dismayed at what I’ve left out but what I’ve included gives a sense of who I am, of the contradictions and contrasts. Every day has a soundtrack of its own – todays has included Nick Lowe’s What’s so funny ’bout peace, love & understanding, and Soft Cell’s Torch, with a dash of Hendrix (Gypsy Boy) thrown in… Who knows what will feature tomorrow?
I should’ve mentioned Pet Sounds, for it is surely one of the greatest albums of all time. And I’d never thought of the comparison between Marr’s guitar-sound and African music. But you’re right.
First album: Ian Dury’s New Boots and Panties. Other life soundtrack albums Stiff Little Fingers Hanx (the underrated live album), Hendrix (the first three albums are a constant fixture), AC/DC If you want blood (I like live albums). Now in a big Aretha Franklin phase though I still have a soft spot for Crass even though they are completely unlistenable.
I’ve really struggled with this and finally whittled it down to 16. Limited to those listened to repeatedly at the time. In an approximate order of acquisition. Since the arrival of the iPod though have found that I rarely listen to albums as albums any more. A pity.
The Stranglers – Black and White
The Cure – Three imaginary boys
Joy Division – Closer
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico
David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust
Tracey Thorn – A distant shore
Echo and the Bunnymen- Ocean Rain
The Smiths – Meat is Murder
Kate Bush- Hounds of Love
The Fall – Palace of Swords Reversed
The Bible- Walking the Ghost Back Home
Oasis – What’s the story?
Blur – Park Life
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the aeroplane over the sea
Arcade Fire- Funeral
The XX- XX