Just in time for everyone to be done with decade-related lists, I thought that I’d do one myself. For me, the last decade was a period of humongous personal and artistic growth – I began in 2000 a greenie freshman at UMiami, a total jazz snob with a saxophone and not a single clue. Over the decade, I was introduced to more amazing music than I could have possibly foreseen – during that period of time, the music I listened to affected me more than the music I studied.
This list is far from definitive; it’s not even a real “top-ten,” since I’m sure that just after posting it, I’ll remember something amazing that I left off. These are just ten songs that had a big effect on me, that changed the way I listened to, thought about, played, and wrote music. More than that, though, they’re ten songs I dug the most. They are listed in roughly the chronological order in which I heard them.
Maria Schneider – Hang Gliding – from Allegresse (listen)
Oh, how this piece enchanted me and my friends at Miami. We were so into it, and with good reason – Maria came down to Miami a couple times while I was there to direct the Concert Jazz Band on her material, and not only is she one of the most lovely creatures on the face of the planet (you should see her tai-chi directing), her music is so beautiful, soaring, and dripping with incredible melody that it’s kind of this… undeniable thing. Hang Gliding is, for me, the pinnacle of Maria’s writing – the peaks and valleys are so epic, by the time its 11-minutes are over, I really feel like I’ve been taken somewhere. When she does the piece live, she tells this story about how it’s based on the first time she went hang gliding. With that in mind, it’s easy to visualize the build-up to flight, the initial leap, drifting in the clouds, etc – it is, at its heart, music about freedom, about flying. Allegresse can be a tough album to track down, but this piece alone makes it worth the trouble (the rest of the album is pretty great, too). This recording’s uber-Miami connection, with Greg Gisbert (who is now a Miami trumpet professor) handing his seriously ridiculous trumpet solo over to the that really, really creative tenor playing by UM-alum Rick Margitza… that makes me like it even more.
MUSE – Micro Cuts – from Origin of Symmetry (listen)
Listening to Origin of Symmetry for the first time was like having a window opened in my brain. And through that window, the rock flowed in. Here was a band making music I could get behind – really strong melodies and really, really ripping hooks, played by three guys… when I heard this record, it was late 2002, and you couldn’t even get the disc stateside. We were years away from MUSE’s eventual rise to prominence (and, I would argue, fall from total musical awesomeness) in the US, and this little trio with the huge sound was the first band that made me realize that I didn’t want to just play jazz for the rest of my life. Micro Cuts in particular, with its crazy-creepy verse and EXPLOSIVE chorus, was practically the most awesome thing I’d ever heard. It still is.
Jeff Buckley – Grace – from Grace (listen)
In terms of where and when I first heard it, this album went hand-in-hand with Origin of Symmetry, so much so that I’m going to ignore the fact that it didn’t come out in the 2000′s. All the tunes were amazing – I’d never heard anyone sing like Jeff, and Lilac Wine and Hallelujah were both really emotionally draining, beautiful songs. But the thing that really sold me on Buckley was the title track from the disc, Grace. It’s got so much going on, and it builds and builds, climaxing in a scream that is so fucking awesome that it, like, switched the part on my hair. He holds the scream for like five minutes, and that was cool enough, but it’s at the end, when he takes it farther up before taking a breath, that I knew I was hearing something one-of-a-kind.
Joshua Redman – Enemies Within – from Passage of Time (listen)
Josh Redman was a really important guy for me, growing up – he was the first modern sax player I got into (modern meaning post-1965), and if I really had to choose the ultimate Redman tune to list here, it’d be his joyous, incredibly playful introduction to “St. Thomas” on his live record “Spirit of the Moment.” But while his youth and energy on that recording are really great, “Enemies Within” is a much more refined bit of awesome, featuring some terrifyingly perfect playing, and the most awesome “Pent-Up House” quote I’ve ever heard. I did this on my senior recital, and while in retrospect, I can’t believe I even attempted it, I’ll never forget the tune, or all the time I spent listening to this record.
Me’shell Ndegeocello – The Way – from Peace Beyond Passion (listen)
Speaking of people I got really into in 2003, Meshell is right up there, too. I believe this is another album that didn’t come out in the 00′s, but no matter – Peace Beyond Passion still ranks as one of my all-time favorite albums, and this tune is a big reason why. It was the first thing of hers I heard, and in addition to having the absolute most grooving programmed drums I’ve ever heard (they groove almost as hard as Gene Lake does on the rest of the record), it features Mr. Josh Redman, again, ripping it apart with a wah-wah sax solo that is uncharacteristically weird for him, and fits the tune perfectly. The rest of the album also features Dave Fuiczynski, whose band Screaming Headless Torsos I would’ve included had I had another couple of slots on my arbitraily-decided “top ten” list. But instead, I’ll just mention that he is good. Me’shell was the first of my monday’s people I wanted to be, and everything I said there about her is still true. She is possibly the coolest, most spiritually interesting, musically compelling writer on the face of the planet.
Gabe Dixon Band – Expiration Date – from On A Rolling Ball (listen)
This one, fewer of you are probably familiar with. So I’m gonna put in a link to buy the song on iTunes. Comprised of dudes who were a few years ahead of me at Miami, GDB doesn’t exist anymore – Gabe, Winston and Jano are still playing together and making some great music, but the band has most assuredly moved past “Experimental Jazz-Pop” and into “Really, Really Solid Songwriting That Will Pay Bills.” It’s all still great stuff, but doesn’t have the jazz-geek rhythmic virtuosity that made me love them so much while they were still down in UM. This tune, off of the full band’s major-label debut, will always be my favorite. From the beat-displacing intro to Jano’s constant drum hits on 4, through the incredibly epic chorus (listen to the drumming! He plays like three notes per bar!), and the crazy-pants outro… it’s just an utterly unique song, with a melody that’ll get stuck in your head. For real, give it a spin.
Rufus Wainwright – Oh, What A World – from Want One (listen)
This tune is on here instead of the four or five other real Wainwright standouts because it was the first thing of his I’d ever heard, and it just blew me away. I’ll never forget where I was when I first heard it, too – sitting at my desk at the law firm where I worked for a year after moving to SF. I’d gotten the record based on some review I’d read, and put it on my iPod, and as I filed envelopes, listened to it. And a few minutes later, I was just cracking up, kinda unable to believe what I was hearing… the people in my work area must’ve though I was a complete freak. But I was loving it so much – the unrestrained grandiosity, the shameless pompousness, the huge orchestra, the hilarious lyrics… to this day, this tune gets at what I love most about Rufus. He doesn’t take anything too seriously, and as a result, is able to write huge, strutting songs about little things.
The Shins – Pink Bullets – from Chutes Too Narrow (listen)
I got Chutes Too Narrow a good three or four months before Garden State came out, so I’m totally that guy who got into The Shins before they were cool. For approximately five seconds, I couldn’t get into the record, and then I heard “Saint Simon” for the first time, and realized what they were all about. So why did I chose “Pink Bullets,” instead? Hang on a sec, I’m getting there. The music was really great stuff, and I enjoyed it, but was having a hard time understanding James Mercer half the time. So, I turned to the lyrics on their website, and that was when the true magnificence of The Shins, and Mercer’s writing, became clear to me. I bet that some people make fun of his twisting, poetic language. Those people are wrong. James Mercer might be one of my favorite lyricists ever, and “Pink Bullets,” a song that imagines two lovers as kites flying and twisting together in the air, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Haunting, and beautiful. I also love the part towards the end of the video when the cow starts to sing.
Arcade Fire – Wake Up – from Funeral (listen)
The first time I listened to Funeral, I listened to it wrong. I was running, listening on my iPod, and I heard the first few songs, but somewhere in there my headphone plug came a little undone. So, everything became this crazy mess of sound effects and half-deconstructed beats. I thought that Arcade Fire had lapsed into electronica or something, and I was being all hilariously critical, thinking, like, “Hmm, interesting choice to deconstruct the beat here… not sure if I love it, though…” It wasn’t until the end of my run, when I wiggled the plug and suddenly was hearing “Lies” in full stereo that I realized what’d happened. So, I gave it another listen, and, as was the case for so many other folks, it was when “Wake Up” came on that I realized what a truly special band Arcade Fire was. Enough ink has been spilled on this song that I don’t have much to add – it’s one of the few times that I’ve felt in-step with the hipper music fans out there. The song is so orgiastic in its climaxes, so cathartic that even though I don’t totally love when they change the beat up in the last minute or so, nothing could detract from those first three minutes. To have one’s own work held as a high-water mark for all future efforts seems a bit unfair, but I’m not sure the band will ever match this song.
Sufjan Stevens – Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, Pt. I: The World’s Columbian Exposition / Pt. II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In a Dream – from Illinoise (listen)
I had a similar experience listening to Sufjan Stevens as I did when listening to Arcade Fire – well, except my iPod worked the whole time. I was on a run, enjoyed the first two songs just fine, and then Come On! came on, and I couldn’t believe it. First off, they were grooving really weirdly and interestingly – playing in 5 was only part of it.. James McAllister’s drumming is so interesting; he leaves a lot of space, and it lets all the wild orchestration of the tune really come out. Chicago totally won my heart, too, and was sort of the “Wake Up” of Sufjan’s album, but this was the tune that I heard and I said… I can do this. I can totally make an album like this. And that was a pretty big moment for me.
There are a ton of other songs that should go on this list – a hundred musicians and artists, including pretty much anything anyone I went to school with has recorded, should all be featured. Alas, I don’t have time to do the top-50 or so that I really would love to share.
Something I’ve noticed is that I don’t listen to as much new music as I used to, that I don’t have the time and energy to dismantle the workings of the new bands out there. I think that, above anything else, my new decade’s resolution is to seek out new music again, and hope to find ten songs this decade that’ll inspire me as much as the ten on this list did.
It’s a lot to live up to, but I kinda think the songs are already out there, half-sketched little melodies in the head of some composer or songwriter, waiting to be written, waiting to be heard.