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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 breakup storms
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 little crush. It’s frustrating when someone treats you horribly,
but being a jerk back to them just doesn’t seem worth it. Instead
I pretended to be sternly nice and above it, but that farce left me with a lot of anger to work out. Power-walking to a collection of songs full of venom, vigor, and a dash of bitter longing got me through that romantic humiliation and the feeling of annoyance with myself for not telling him off. I didn’t get the guy, but I did get Elvis Costello.
I quickly became a devotee. I still get chills listening to certain turns of phrase in his songs. His album When I Was Cruel came out the next year, and I tumbled head first into obsessively listening to it, dissecting it. I saw him live three times. I worked my way through most of his catalog over the next five years, first focusing on his pop albums with the hits. I still discover new songs to love when I re-explore those albums. Next I delved into his collaboration with songwriter Burt Bacharach, his classical compositions,
and even his British TV program scores. The man has a giant back catalog of material, and I’ll admit I cheated and put him on my Top Five list before I owned everything. I’m still growing into some of his work. I expect when I get older and tired of pop music, Elvis Costello will still have something to offer me. I’m not sure I can say the same for anyone else on my Top Five list.
Elvis Costello is my number one with a bullet because I want to own all of his work and can’t get enough of listening to him.
That is how you should feel about the number one on your Top
Five. Number one becomes your family, your boyfriend, and your comfort food. It’s indispensable.