May 15, 2014


A couple of days ago I experienced what people nowadays would term a “ultimate first-world problem” - a song came on the radio that I really liked and I didn’t have my phone with me to Shazam it. I’d run out during my lunch break at work and my phone battery was low so I left it charging at my desk. On the drive back a song played that was so instantaneously catchy that I actually pointed at my radio and said, “yes.” I’ve relied on Shazam for so long to identify new songs that I was actually anxious that I’d forget this one. To compensate I started singing the chorus over and over to myself in the car (and mumbled it to myself as I hurried through the office) until I was able to get back to my computer to do a Google search.

The song, as it turns out, was "O Valencia!" by The Decemberists.

This brings up an interesting thought. Has anyone else ever experienced anything like this (I don’t mean feeling helpless without your phone)? You hear a song that grips you right away and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? You get that feeling that you’re hearing that what will end up being one of your favorite bands for the first time? All of a sudden you’re compelled to stop everything that you’re doing and think, “I must buy this song”?

If you’re me that happens every couple of weeks and you get the song or album and listen to it forty or fifty times a day until you’re completely sick of it but don’t regret your purchase. Along with "O Valencia!" here are a couple other instances of this phenomenon that stick out in my memory:

-Ted Leo & The Pharmacists: “Little Dawn” on Late Night With Conan O'Brien in 2004

This was my first experience with Ted Leo, who is now probably my all-time favorite artist, although once I got to know his music "Little Dawn" ended up being my least favorite song on the Shake the Sheets album. At the time though I was pretty taken with the song (as well as the bass player and drummer, who both had outstanding beards) and I remember jotting down "pharmacists" on my informal list (i.e. pre-smartphone Shazam) of bands I should look into. Ten years later I own just about all the music Ted Leo has put out and I've seen him live twice.

-Wilco: "Dawned on Me" on the radio while driving through Troy in 2011

I'm embarrassed to admit that despite living in the Chicago area for six years I didn't really look into Wilco, one of the biggest Chicago-based bands there is, until I moved away. WXRT in Chicago played their stuff pretty regularly and yet I barely acknowledged it. As it turns out, Wilco's most radio-friendly songs happen to be the ones I like the least. I'm not sure why that is but I guess it explains why I was basically oblivious to them for so long. "Dawned on Me" is unique in that it's radio friendly and I like it a lot - so much that when I couldn't get my Shazam app to open in time I instead switched to the voice memo app and (poorly) sang a couple of lines for later Googling. 

If you want to know how obsessed I was with this song, the fact that it ended up featuring prominently on my wedding video should be some indication.
Like Ted Leo I've also had the joy of seeing Wilco live twice, most recently at their superb Solid Sound Festival in Massachusetts last summer, speaking of which...

-Neko Case: "Night Still Comes" at the 2013 Solid Sound Festival

Neko Case is another artist whom I've come to appreciate much later than I should have. I was vaguely aware of her work with the New Pornographers but was almost wholly ignorant of her activities as a solo artist. She played on the main stage right before Wilco and unfortunately for me she opened with the one song of hers I knew, so I spent the rest of the performance lost while everyone around me sang along. But I ended up liking nearly everything I heard, and there was one song in particular that lodged itself in my head the remainder of the night, even as Wilco was playing. 

It's a very good song but I guess because I heard it live first the album version feels a little hollow to me. Maybe it's because it lacks that energy you get when you're standing right up against the stage and you can feel the bass thumping against your chest and you're surrounded and jostled by people singing, laughing, dancing. And when it's over and your ears are ringing and you feel like you're floating back to your car - exhausted but still so full of adrenaline and happiness that you don't really care about anything. I guess I shouldn't really expect a studio recording to capture that feeling.  

-R.E.M.: "Lotus" sitting in a car...some time in 1998 or 99

Some of the details on this one are a bit fuzzy because it was so long ago but I distinctly being in the car with my mom and my brother Spenser and stopping mid-sentence when this song came on. I was already pretty well versed in R.E.M. because my father was a huge fan and it featured heavily in the rotation of music he blasted through the house on his giant stereo system ("and if they neighbors don't like it, they can go to hell"). It was completely unlike anything I'd ever heard, especially coming from R.E.M. (this sentiment was shared by a lot of people, as their previous album had been heavily acoustic and this new one marked their first foray into electronic-themed music). 

"Lotus" and the album Up were met coolly by critics. It was the band's first album without drummer Bill Berry and the consensus was that the remaining members never really regained their footing. There were still plenty of praise-worthy songs to come but from 1998 up until they split in 2011 they never put out another truly great album, certainly nothing on par with their late 80s and early 90s efforts. I'm inclined to agree with this view but Up will always hold a special place with me because I think of it as the first R.E.M. album I "discovered independently." Up until then most of the music I heard had been whatever my dad was listening to. "Lotus" marked the first time I heard a song, liked it, and wanted to buy the album without any sort of prior input from my parents. It was the beginning development of my own unique tastes in music.

These are just the first ones I thought of off the top of my head and are just the tip (heh, "just the tip") of a big musical iceberg. Does this happen to anyone else - hearing a song once and becoming almost instantly obsessed?  

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