5-10-15-20 is a regular feature on Pitchfork where we ask musicians about the music from their lives in 5-year intervals; I’ve done fun interviews with Johnny Marr and John Cale. If you wanted to do one I’d love to read it. I’ll add mine at some point. You could give the year for each age.
5 (1983): Lipps Inc. - “Funky Town” In 1983 my family moved from my original home town of Franklin Square to the snobbier nearby town of Garden City. I don’t have any musical memories associated with this per se, but I do recall that this was something of a golden age for pop songs involving voices that sounded like robots. Since I loved Star Wars and He-Man, this was music to my ears. I know I had a 45 of “Funky Town” that I’d listen to on my Fisher-Price turntable, which I remember dancing to in the years before we moved; slightly after the move I remember digging “Automatic” by the Pointer Sisters and “Jam On It” by Newcleus for this same reason. These were big, big songs at Laces, the roller rink that kids my age went to for birthday parties.
10 (1988): Guns n’ Roses - “Paradise City” I got this album for Easter from my grandmother, despite a cover consisting of a cross, a bunch of skulls, the words “Appetite for Destruction,” and an enormous parental advisory sticker. Maybe it’s because I was the oldest grandchild and a woman of my grandma’s generation hadn’t yet learned to pick up stuff like that, or maybe she just didn’t GAF, I don’t know. It had to have been Easter of 1988 since the record came out in summer of ‘87. I remember G’n’R being ridiculously, omnipresently huge among kids my age, and the subject of intense speculation and rumor — what Axl’s real name was, what Slash looked like, just generally marveling at the idea that you could put curse words in a song. I think “Paradise City” was the biggest song for me because it sounded the biggest, most open-hearted, and most exciting; a lot of those other songs, as much fun as they were to listen to, radiated a squalid and unpleasant set of emotions that I wasn’t really ready for in the fifth grade.
15 (1993): Smashing Pumpkins - “Cherub Rock” At this point, post-Nirvana (and post-Jane’s Addiction, don’t let’s erase them from history), it was all alternative all the time for me. That change became a permanent one, I think, when I got Ministry’s Psalm 69 for Christmas ‘92. Unwrapping that black angel on the cover under the tree strikes me in retrospect as something of a commitment. This was also the year that I got into what came to be My Favorite Band, nine inch nails — I think I got broken for my birthday. Another record I became hugely attached to this year was “Love U More” by Sunscreem, which is odd because I listened to absolutely nothing else like this at the time; I have such vivid memories of coming home from one of the cast parties from my first high school musical and listening to it through my headphones on my boombox, late at night, no one else awake, feeling like I was truly in another world. But I picked this song as representative because I sang it as my audition for the lead singer slot in what became my band for the next couple years, Special Agent Gumby; I got the gig and we ended up performing this more often than Billy Corgan probably did. You can shred so hard on the higher notes in this thing — “WHO IS RIGHTEOUS, WHAT IS BOLD,” “TELL ME ALL of your secrets,” “LET ME OUUUUUUUUUT!!!” You just knock people out if you do this song right.
20 (1998): Archive - “Londinium” One of my friends from high school wound up at the University of Edinburgh, learned how to DJ, and would send us these four-volume continuously mixed mixtapes featuring all sorts of “electronica” shit otherwise available to us only on absurdly expensive import CD singles. I repaid him by buying him a copy of Liquid Swords for his birthday but keeping it for myself instead of actually mailing it to him. I was a shithead in many respects, which is why my four years in college remain my psychological Chinatown to this day. Anyway, one of my favorite discoveries in these massive mixtapes was some trip-hop outfit called Archive. Imagine my delight when I saw a copy of the CD from whence the tracks that graced my buddy’s mixes had come sitting unplayed in the CD library of the college radio station where I DJ’d, before some careerist asshole kids who were the officers of the station literally fired all of us and replaced us with a commercial format to burnish their planned radio careers. Since no one had played it I had no compunction in, well, let’s say liberating it from the library and adding it to my collection. To me it’s this perfect little jewel that exists only for me and the friends close enough for me to play it for them. I still listen to it from start to finish probably once a month; it’s one of my all-time favorite albums by anyone. Just a perfect encapsulation of the “cinematic” electronic music and hip-hop I loved so much, soundtracking walks in the dark across campus, living as glamorous and decadent a life as I could muster.
25 (2003): The Postal Service - “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” I might not have picked this song but for the recent Coachella-provoked music-critic roundelay on Twitter about this band (“band”)’s quality/popularity/influence, but it triggered a memory of one of the strongest and strangest associations of an album with a period of time in my life that I’ve ever had. I first listened to this record while driving with my wife and her best friend on a road trip from Long Island to Chicago on a working vacation to the Wizard World Chicago comic con, where I was headed to photograph shock-jock-style Scottish superhero writer Mark Millar (you know him as the co-creator of Kick-Ass) for the publication for which I worked, Abercrombie & Fitch’s magazine/catalog/Bruce Weber soft-porn hybrid A&F Quarterly. This road trip was designed to be a last hurrah of freedom for my wife, who was very very ill with anorexia at the time, and who’d just been convinced via an intervention by me, her therapist, and my therapist to check into a residential treatment facility for eating disorders the following week. We listened to the album there and back again; while we were there we met cartoonists Jeffrey Brown and Craig Thompson, who became our friends and whose not topically or emotionally dissimilar comics we also associate with this record. Just a few days after our return, the night before were were supposed to drive down to Philadelphia to check Amy into Renfrew, the power went out across the Eastern seaboard, so Amy had to drive in the dark into Brooklyn to pick me up at the coworker’s apartment we’d fled to from our West Village office, drive back home to sleep in the sweltering heat for five hours, get up and head down to Philly, hoping that the power would come back on in time for us to gas up the car in New Jersey before we ran out. I’d listen to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and its lyrics about being a visitor and wearing a nametag with big black letters on it while visiting Amy wearing just such a nametag. She would call me up and leave messages singing “Such Great Heights” when she was allowed to use the phone. So yeah, the Postal Service are alright in my book. If it weren’t for that Coachella thing I might have picked Fischerspooner or the Rapture or LCD Soundsystem or Yeah Yeah Yeahs — big big year to be a young music person in New York, that was for sure — or Azure Ray, which maybe pinned our emotions to the wall even harder than this, or Beyoncé, which I fell in love with in a convenience store parking lot down the road from the treatment facility, the first time I really admitted to myself I loved a genuinely popular American pop act. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write all that shit down.
30 (2008): Portishead - “Machine Gun” 2008 was an optimistic year and yet my favorite song was maybe its most pessimistic one. More than that, it was a return by one of my old favorite bands, only on a record with no beats, with really very little at all in common with its trip-hop heyday, and with Beth Gibbons sounding even more crippled by agony than before. But to this day i just get such a charge out of that BOOM POP POPPOPPOPPOPPOPPOPPOPPOP BOOM POP BUDDABUDDABUDDABUDDA, and the John Carpenter/Brad Fiedel ’80s sci-fi dystopian-future synthesizer figure at the end of the song. I just nod my head along relentlessly. It’s a visceral experience that opens up the rest of the album. It’s a lame and stupid and dishonest thing to say that the song sounds like they saw something coming the rest of us were missing, but, well.
35 (2013): A$AP Rocky - “Long Live A$AP” I don’t turn 35 until the end of April, but don’t let’s stand on ceremony. I’ve listened to this song in the neighborhood of 75 times in the week since I bought the record — I think there have been whole working days when I didn’t listen to anything else. You could put it back to back with “Machine Gun” and not really see any emotional or tonal daylight between the two of them other than how happy or unhappy the vocalist sounds about the world constructed by the sinister music he/she is vocalizing over. Writing this out just now I find myself a little alarmed about that, like my arc has plateaued, in a valley.