I have had a love/hate relationship with end-of-year “Top Music” lists. At their best, they’re insightful, helping me save time and money by sorting through the morass of music out there and singling out the experiences I might enjoy most. At their worst, though, they are akin to a retelling of someone else’s dreams: abstract, solipsistic…
Too, these lists remind me of time’s petty pace, are beginning to highlight how the physical experience of listening to music has changed for me. I grew up listening to 45s and LPs. There were sounds and rituals involved in listening to vinyl that surprise me now when I remember them–as if they’ve emerged from some other person’s memories: the shoosh of an album as it slipped from its wrapper; the slight wobble of a diamond-headed stylus as it skimmed like an ocean bird just above a spinning disk; and the rhythmic, popping white noise of a needle circling in a redundant widow’s walk after the music had gone silent at the end of an album side. I once lived and relived these small moments regularly, but like solitude or liner notes they are no longer a part of my normal experience–and I am suddenly sad that they have passed without a more appreciative recognition of how they helped form me.
I remember the first iPod commercial with a clarity most people reserve for successful assassinations. Or their first kiss. I had a visceral, immediate reaction to the image of that modest-looking techie exploding into pulsating dance: I WANT TO BE THAT GUY! I wanted to experience music THAT WAY. I didn’t care about iTunes or understand what people smarter than me meant when they said, “The device is cool but the real game changer is going to be the iTunes software.” I didn’t foresee the demise of the music store or know to expect a loss afterward. I was happy to move beyond my CD changer, my boombox, my turntable. Delighted. I adore my iPod still, but it does not yet seem to be the communal memory-maker my older, clunkier sound systems were.
When my grandfather downsized to a modular home near the Jersey Shore, my dad inherited his phonograph player: a credenza-sized, rosewood-embedded console that clicked and whirred with a cantankerous mind of its own whenever I leaned into its belly to coax music from it. Sometimes I would have to beg for whole minutes before it deigned to play a record–with each attempt, the stylus would hover teasingly over my album and slooooowly begin its descent…only to jerk back and click off peremptorily.
“That thing is haunted,” my younger sister would cry out in annoyance after each fruitless exchange with the machine.
“Or…it just doesn’t like Duran Duran,” I’d reply helpfully.
In my memory, there is no sound as beautiful as my dad playing Walk, Don’t Run at full volume through the speakers of that console and out our back porch, late on sun-slanted summer afternoons.
My mom would fuss: “Dammit, Jack! The neighbors! They’ll complain!”
My tax-accountant dad, normally the peacekeeper, would shrug and just say, “Let ’em. What are they gonna do? Call the police?”
Rock. And. Roll.
This is somewhat morbid…but I keep a list of moments that I believe will flash in my head when I die (decades hence, I hope). One favorite is of me playing on my mother-in-law’s expansive lawn with my children. I am lying flat and the earth is radiating heat upwards through the velvety grass into my back, the boys are tumbling like puppies over and around me, and the sky overhead is the most-amazing deep blue. Everyone is laughing and safe and Joni Mitchell is playing from a boombox. Nothing significant occurs in this moment (or in most of the others in my list)–it is simply a perfect moment where I am fully present, encased in a beautiful song.
Most of my cherished memories are tied to songs, actually–and I am probably not unique in that regard. That is why “Best Of” lists have merit, I guess, why we revisit the idea waning year after waning year. Their value is not as aesthetic barometers but as reminders of moments we have had and as promises paid forward on moments that haven’t yet occurred.