TOP FIVE LISTS
If you’ve read the book High Fidelity or seen the movie, even
just for the sake of John Cusack, then you’ve been witness to the
art of the Top Five list. Music nerds everywhere delight in making
Top Five lists of obvious, obtuse, and obscure records tailored
to every categorization of music you could possibly imagine. I
am one of those nerds. When my mind begins to wander, I think
about what albums I could listen to if I were stuck on a desert island.
(Usually this train of thought ends with the realization that
I’d hate any album by the sixth straight year of listening to it.) Instead
of counting sheep to lull myself to sleep, I make a list of all
the songs I can think of about masturbation. (There are a lot.) I
keep a running tab of what I think are my favorite songs right this
minute vs. my most-played songs in iTunes vs. what’s accrued at
the top of my last.fm most-played list. I can’t seem to stop myself
from obsessively thinking about music.
I’ve always loved music, but I wasn’t always a music obsessive.
That started when I was a college student and worked at a radio
station in Dallas. I fell in with a group of music snob guys who
regularly debated topics like Blur vs. Oasis and whether Cat Power
was the cutest indie rock girl or just the craziest. The guys carried
on conversations as if they were characters straight out of High Fidelity,
constantly judging and ranking music. It was obvious they
believed Nick Hornby’s adage that what you like is what you’re like,
and they were judging people based on their musical taste. Girls
were generally dismissed from their reindeer games. I can’t even
tell you the number of times I’d heard them say obnoxious things
like, “Yeah, she’s hot, but she likes Alanis Morissette, so you know
she’s kind of an idiot.” I didn’t want to be one of those girls who
was so easily disregarded, so I faked being knowledgeable enough
to pass muster. After listening to them make and revise their Top
Five lists, probably hundreds of times, I developed a list of shortcuts
for making a Top Five artists list. As time went on I added
requirements of my own, and before long I had a cheater guide
that helped me narrow in on my Top Five. When I don’t have the
whole history of released music at my fingertips, it makes my listmaking
more manageable, and the guidelines force me to take an
analytical look at my music collection.
These are strictly my rules, so if you feel like adding new criteria
or ignoring one of my standards to better reflect your own taste,
knock yourself out.
Except #3. Do not ignore rule #3. You’ll see why.
The most important thing is that your Top Five list reflects
your favorites and not what you think someone wants to hear. Dare
to be uncool.
Here’s my Top Five artists list right now:
1. Elvis Costello — British post-punk artist who
developed into a multi-genre music maven
2. R.E.M. — A thens, Georgia, college rock band that paved
the way for indie-to-mainstream success
3. Sleater-Kinney — Portland, Oregon, riot grrrl rock
band with a feminist agenda
4. Stevie Nicks — ’70s and ’80s songwriter with the
world’s most amazing stage costumes
5. Fiona Apple — the songwriting port in a world full of
Here’s how I got there . . .
Rule #1: You must own all the full-length albums
released by any artist in your Top Five.
The exceptions to this rule: greatest hits albums and anything
you’ve deemed to be a low point in an artist’s career. I see no reason
to clog up your record collection with either. Completists everywhere
just hissed through their teeth at me, but why would you
own a record you don’t enjoy, or multiple copies of songs you already
have? For decoration? When music collecting becomes obsessive-
compulsive disorder, it’s time for a new hobby.
I was late in discovering Elvis Costello, both late in my life and
late in his career. I think the first time I heard of him was when I
saw his video for “Veronica.” It was inexplicable to me in 1989, the
halcyon days of Debbie Gibson and Poison, why the video for “Veronica”
was on MTV so often. Costello seemed old even then, and
his video was set in a nursing home, so in my eyes it didn’t hold a
candle to Madonna’s video for “Express Yourself.” The video got
less airplay than Madonna’s, or even Paula Abdul’s, but he walked
away with the 1989 Best Male Video award for “Veronica,” because
respect for the man was due. (Paul McCartney co-wrote the
song, so double the respect.) The melody was catchy, but the lyrics
were a mystery, and I memorized them all wrong. I couldn’t figure
out what he was talking about, because the idea of a pop song
about an old lady with Alzheimer’s was unfathomable and unrelatable
to me at age twelve.
After “Veronica” in my discovery of Elvis Costello came “Alison,”
which had actually been released twelve years earlier — yes,
the same year I was born. I grew to love this one while listening
to my parents’ Elvis Costello greatest hits album, and if you don’t
know it, I recommend you buy it immediately. His unforgettable
delivery of the line “My aim is true” is a knee-buckler — the sort of
bittersweet sentiment that I dream of a guy writing for me in some
tragic soap-opera scenario where we can’t be together.
My family and I were big perpetrators of the Columbia House
scam. It was a great way to build a collection, considering that my
allowance was a mere $5 a week. We would all constantly join,
leave, and rejoin various mail-order companies that offered eight
albums for a penny if you bought three at full price. In college I
ordered The Very Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions from one
of those clubs and found myself really getting into his clever lyrics.
His songs are so easy to fall in love with.
I went to the next level of Costello fandom when I bought the
Rhino re-issue of This Year’s Model. It was in the dead of winter at
the beginning of 2002. I had recently moved into an apartment in
Brooklyn and was consumed by a long-distance flirtation with a
boy in a band who lived in Dallas. He mailed me a loaf of honey
wheat bread (which was impossible to find in New York City) and
a packet of forget-me-not flower seeds, and he called me on the
phone nearly every day. I was totally crushed out. A few months
later, when his band toured through town, he explained to me that
it all meant nothing, that he was just a flirtatious person, and suggested
we should just be friends. It was infuriating, and I hated
him for stringing me along. Listening to the first track of This
Year’s Model, “No Action,” while stomping the cold, mile-long
walk from the subway through the housing project near my apartment
was the only time I felt like a rational, thinking person rather
than a girl who had been turned into a chump and who secretly
still had a littl...