Organizing by themes V: Popular music

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

While I have told many stories from my life (and those of my ancestors), I rarely discuss my personal tastes (with exceptions here and here and, to a lesser extent, here).

This includes my taste in music (other than what is written on my home page).

In fact, it usually takes the death of a musician I admire for me to write about music, as I did with…

Walter Becker (of Steely Dan)

Pat DiNizio (of The Smithereens)

Pete Shelley (originally of The Buzzcocks)

And in every case, I was less describing my tastes than I was telling a larger story.

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One reason I rarely write about my tastes in music is that on March 24, 2018, I pretty much said everything I need to say about them. Inspired by giant wall charts detailing the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox seasons—superior examples of what I call “data art,” I created a graphic that displayed—in technicolor splendor—all 9,500+ tracks on my classic fly-wheel iPod by year, artist and genre.

Cropped data art screen shot

What I intended to be a quick overview of the chart’s highlighted became an epic, 4,300+ word journey through dozens of my favorite musical artists, more or less chronologically by genre.

It remains one of the best posts I have ever written–certainly the most comprehensive.

Enjoy.

Until next time…

A Musical Mosaic

This is a LONG post, even accounting for the 28 footnotes. While I encourage a complete read, please feel free to skip the introductory sections and cut right to the chase: the iTunes chart and subsequent personal musical history.

When I enrolled at Yale in the fall of 1984, I was undecided between majoring in political science or mathematics. A less-than-stellar experience in Math 230—required for freshman mathematics major—quickly decided me: political science, it would be.

Luckily, two courses I took sophomore year taught by Professor Edward TufteData Analysis for Politics and Policy and Politics and the Economy—allowed me to merge these interests. They expanded my knowledge of advanced statistical methods, a branch of applied mathematics which would undergird a two-decades-long career as a health-related data analyst[1].

One textbook from the former course fundamentally altered how I viewed the aesthetics of data presentation: the landmark Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Tufte’s purposes for graphical display[2] have informed every chart, graph and map I have constructed since:

  • show the data
  • induce the viewer to think about the substance […]
  • avoid distorting what the data have to say
  • present many numbers in a small space
  • make large data sets coherent
  • encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data
  • reveal the data at several levels of detail […]
  • serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration
  • be closely integrated with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set

This is data presentation as art…or data art.

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In two previous posts, I described…

  1. How I manipulate mix tape/CD/iTunes playlist data to generate lists of favorite tracks (a term I prefer to “songs”), albums and artists, organized by year and musical “genre,” and
  2. My desire to create a visual representation of my iTunes data (as of March 6, 2018), displaying the number of tracks released each year (if any, 1721-2017) by an artist/in a musical genre.

I actually started the latter project in May 2014 before abandoning it the following month. Recently, however, I devised a simpler way to generate all necessary cell entries using the statistical software package SPSS.[3]

Before I present the final chart (the first of two I intend to create), just bear with me while I briefly detail some necessary prior data organization steps.

Feel free to skim the next section.

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The raw data consisted of 9,552 tracks (40,610 total “plays” beginning in January 2013, when I purchased this computer) performed by 1,311 unique “artists.” However, many “artists” are simply variations on what I call a meta-artist. For example, I subsumed the 23 tracks by “Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band,” eight tracks by “Bob Seger” and one track by “Bob Seger System” under the meta-artist “Bob Seger (+).”

Applying this logic to all 1,311 artists yielded 1,217 meta-artists; please see attached PDF for details.

Artists within Meta-Artists

Similarly, I collapsed 242 musical genres—based upon with the first listed “Genre” on the track’s (or parent album’s) Wikipedia page, supplemented as necessary by its AllMusic page—into 89 meta-genres. For example, I subsumed all “Darkwave” (n=15), “Neue Deutsche Welle” (2), “New Romantic” (3) and “New Wave” (1,098, most by far) tracks under the meta-genre New Wave/Darkwave (+). Please see attached PDF for details.

Genres within Meta-Genres

To keep the chart from becoming unwieldy, I settled on a maximum of 200 rows (i.e., meta-artists/meta-genres). With up to 89 meta-genres, that allowed me 111 meta-artists.

I began with the 76 meta-artists with ≥20 tracks AND ≥100 total plays. An additional 157 meta-artists had ≥20 tracks or ≥100 total plays. Of them, I selected 13 meta-artists (Modest Mussourgsky, Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller (+), Sergei Prokofiev, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Charlie Parker (+), Nat King Cole (+), Dave Brubeck Quartet, James Brown (+), Frank Sinatra (+), John Coltrane[4]) whose first track in my iTunes was released before 1960. I then selected two meta-artists (Geoff Martin (+), Steve Hackett) whose first track was released after 2000[5].

These “expanding the musical horizons” additions put me at 91 meta-artists.

A total of 99 meta-artists had a “Product” (number of tracks * total plays) of at least 2000 (i.e., 20 * 100). Of those, 20 were not among the 91 meta-artists I had already selected for inclusion. I rejected a) Mark Isham (19 tracks, 294 plays, all from his 1992 The Public Eye soundtrack) and b) Abba, ABC and Altered Images (artificially-inflated play counts from inadvertent iPod [treasured classic fly-wheel model] plays in order of artist name, starting with A3).

That left 16 additional meta-artists (increasing my total to 107): Tony Banks, Bee Gees, Berlin, Blondie, Kate Bush, The Cure, Chris Isaak, Gary Numan/Tubeway Army/Dramatis, Oingo Boingo, Robert Palmer, The Rolling Stones, Todd Rundgren (+)/Utopia, Simple Minds, Suzanne Vega (+), Violent Femmes and George Winston.

I rounded out my selections with three meta-artists with Products between 1972 and 1978: Marvin Gaye (+), The Motels and Thomas Dolby. This gave me a total of 110 meta-artists and up to 89 meta-genres, or 199 possible rows.

Perfect.

I constructed the chart this way:

  • Each selected meta-artist (n=110) had his/her/their own row. Cell entries are number of tracks released by that meta-artist in a given year, if any. Years go from left to right.
  • Remaining tracks are enumerated in a separate “Miscellaneous” row for each meta-genre.
  • Cell values between 10 and 19 have a thin black border; cells with value≥20 have a thick black border.
  • Meta-genres are color-coded (different colors for cell and text) as shown in the attached meta-genre summary.
  • Meta-artist name and track total (1st 2 columns on left) of the 110 are color-coded according to the predominant meta-genre of their tracks (g. “Genesis” and “288” shaded Progressive Rock [6] because 57.3% of tracks have that designation[7]). I used total plays to break ties.
  • Each cell is color-coded the predominant meta-genre of tracks released by that meta-artist in that year (g., 12 of 15 tracks released by Talking Heads in 1978 are Post-Punk/Revival[8]). Every meta-artist/meta-genre cell between first and last release is color-coded[9], even if no track was released in a year in that range.
  • All text is Palatino Linotype Bold. Any row (meta-artist/meta-genre) with <10 tracks was 13 point, increasing as follows: 10-20 tracks (14), 21-40 (15), 41-60 (16), 61-80 (17), 81-100 (18), 101-150 (23), 151-200 (28), 201-400 (32), >400 (36).
  • Any column (year) with 0 tracks has width=6. Years with 1-10 tracks has width=10, increasing as follows: 11-20 (11), 21-50 (12), 51-100 (13), 101-200 (15), 201-300 (17), 301-500 (19), 501-600 (21), >600 (23).

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At 137 columns and 195 rows[10], the final chart does not fit onto one page for printing; the best I could do was “Fit All Rows on One Page,” which still requires two pages to print. Ultimately, I will have this chart professionally printed as a large wall poster.

My printer is low on cyan and magenta ink, so I took this (cropped) photograph of my computer screen (magnification=12%).

Cropped data art screen shot

This piece of data art, if you will permit some self-congratulation, is gorgeous AND serves its purpose—to display the key artists, genres and chronology of the 9,552 tracks in my iTunes—very well.

Your eye is naturally drawn to the vibrant yellows and blacks of the 1ate 1970s and early 1980s, an era musically dominated for me by variations of Punk, Post-Punk, New Wave and Synthpop (46.3% of 3,490 tracks, 1977-84). Overall, 20.8% of all 9,552 tracks are subsumed under this loose family of genres, so that is precisely what should happen.

Moreover, as your eye runs from the upper left to the lower right corner of the chart, you travel through time from Classical through various forms of Blues and Jazz and into the Pop and Rock era, with a special emphasis on Progressive Rock; along the way, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, Funk, Disco and assorted post-Disco forms of Dance emerge. The Punk/New Wave era morphs into Alternative in the second half of the 1980s. Finally, the last 10-15 years are a hodge-podge of musical forms, with the most recent meta-artist of interest being the The Four-Legged Faithful, shown here performing in March 2014 at Toad in Cambridge, MA (I regret not capturing the mandolin-playing talents of Jonathan Kaplan).

IMG_1008.JPG

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Between 1721 and 1922, excepting eight Scott Joplin tracks between 1901 and 1909 (Dixieland/Early Jazz/Ragtime), Classical is the dominant meta-genre. The severe truncation of those two centuries reflects the relative dearth of tracks (n=110) I own from those years; fully 71.8% were composed by Ludwig von Beethoven, Mussourgsky or Tchaikovsky.

The first recordings by Bessie Smith mark the emergence of Blues/Classic Female Blues in 1923[11]. Over the next 10 years, this meta-genre competes with Dixieland/Early Jazz/Ragtime (Louis Armstrong (+)), Jazz (+) and Progressive Jazz (Ellington (+)) for dominance.

By 1935, however Jazz, writ large, had taken center stage, establishing full dominance through 1960; the genres of Vocal Jazz, Jazz, Swing, Big Band, Early Jazz, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz and Bepop account for 72.1% of tracks. Of the 662 tracks released during these two-and-a-half decades, fully 55.4% were by Billie Holiday (+), Miles Davis, Waller (+), Ellington (+), Parker (+), Miller, Coltrane, Cole (+) and Ella Fitzgerald (+).

This was also the era of Classical artists like Prokofiev (25) and the Comedy/Novelty parodies of Jones (+).

The catch-all meta-genre Music for Film and Stage first appears in 1953, with the Broadway production of Kismet. Other dominant meta-artists in this genre, besides the afore-mentioned Isham, are John Barry (e.g., jazz-inflected soundtracks to Hammett and The Cotton Club), Leslie Bricusse (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and the composers/performers of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Indeed, a favorite self-deprecating observation is that I was raised primarily on a combination of Fiddler and Superstar.

My personal jazz peak is 1959: my favorite album (Davis’ Kind of Blue), containing my favorite track (“Blue In Green”), was released then, as was the Cool Jazz masterpiece Time Out by Dave Brubeck Quartet. Baker (+) also released seven iTunes tracks that year.

However, starting with the Rockabilly “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash in 1956 and a handful of Bobby Darin singles two years later[12], a new musical form—Rock and Roll—began to assume dominance.

Led by the emergence of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Who and The Rolling Stones between 1962 and 1965, Rock (+) (24.0% of 918 tracks, 1962-1970), would dominate the 1960s. Such variations as Folk Rock (e.g. Rubber Soul) and Psychedelic/Acid Rock (Revolver, Pet SoundsSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) would emerge in 1965 and 1966-67. Folk Rock would return with a vengeance for me in the 1980s with the ethereal Vega (+) and The Waterboys, whose epic 1988 Fisherman’s Blues is the closest my wife Nell and I have to “our album.”

Other meta-genres were emerging as well. Ray Charles kicked off Rhythm and blues (+) in 1954 with “I Got a Woman.” Sinatra (+) did the same for Pop (+) in 1957 with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Instrumental (+) debuted in 1962 with Herb Alpert (+)’s “The Lonely Bull[13]

In 1963, a young gospel singer from East Orange, NJ named Dionne Warwick launched Soul (+) with “Anyone Who Had a Heart” despite being predominantly Pop (+). The first predominantly Soul (+) artist, another young church-trained singer named Marvin Gaye, would debut in 1964 with “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Two years later, a blind 16-year-old Detroit singer named Stevie Wonder released “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” For me, the Soul (+) pinnacles of these two extraordinary artists are What’s Going On and Songs In the Key of Life.

In 1967, a meta-artist who had been releasing Rhythm and blues (+) and Soul (+) tracks since 1956 took a radical turn. With “Cold Sweat, Pt. 1James Brown (+) would become synonymous with Funk (+); the meta-genre would blossom in the early-to-mid 1970s before spinning off a new meta-genre, Disco (+), which would peak between 1976 and 1980 (91.9% of 86 tracks).

In the early 1980s, Funk (+) would dramatically reassert itself in the person of a multi-instrumental musical genius from Minneapolis, MN named Prince (+). His Purple-ness inspired the base color I use for Rhythm and blues, Funk (+) and various Dance-related offshoots; the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince also dabbled in Synthpop and Psychedelic Pop/Neopsychedelia. Rest in peace, Mr. Nelson

Straight-ahead Folk (+) appears in 1965.[14] Two years later, a 33-year-old Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen would release The Songs of Leonard Cohen; five tracks, including the shimmering “Suzanne,” remain Folk (+) classics. Rest in peace, Mr. Cohen.

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Four teenagers from the storied Charterhouse public school in Surrey, UK would play a major role in the development of Progressive Rock, accounting for 653 (6.8%) of the tracks in my iTunes, third behind only New Wave (+)/Darkwave and Rock (+).

Classmates Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks had formed The Garden Wall, while fellow classmates Anthony Phillips and Mike Rutherford had formed Anon. At some point in 1966 or 1967 they combined bands and, employing a series of short-term drummers (until bringing Phil Collins on full-time in 1971; Collins would achieve superstar status in the 1980s as a Pop Rock (+) meta-artist), acquired the name Genesis. In 1967 and 1968, they released 15 demos, and in 1969 they released From Genesis to Revelation, which promptly went nowhere.

First hearing them in 1978, when “Follow You, Follow Me” became their first American Top 40 single (of 17), the track that cemented my enduring love for Genesis was 1980’s “Turn It On Again.” I saw them live for the first time in the summer of 1982 (and thrice more through 1992), at the since-demolished JFK Stadium[15]. They headlined an all-day stadium show that also featured local favorites Robert Hazard and the Heroes, A Flock of Seagulls, Blondie, and Costello (+). That fall, early in my junior year of high school, a senior would introduce me to the live album Seconds Out—a brilliant introduction to Gabriel-era Genesis—cementing them as my “favorite musical artist.”

More than three decades later, that designation still holds; their 288 tracks lead all meta-artists.

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Many Progressive Rock meta-artists quickly followed (all dates are earliest iTunes tracks): King Crimson in 1968, Todd Rundgren (+)/Utopia in 1970, Pink Floyd and Yes in 1971, Renaissance in 1972, The Alan Parsons Project and Gabriel in 1977, and Banks in 1983[16].  The related meta-genre Art Rock emerged with Roxy Music’s third album, to be followed by Kate Bush’s 1978 debut The Kick Inside[17]. Lead singer Bryan Ferry would begin a parallel, predominantly Dream/Sophisti-Pop (see 1987’s Bete Noire, as well as albums by The Dream Academy and Danny Wilson) solo career in 1973.

Rock music was also branching in other directions in the late 1960s. Led Zeppelin’s eponymous 1969 debut signaled the emergence of Hard Rock/Heavy-Alternative Metal. Fusion/Jazz Fusion, first pioneered by Davis in 1967-68 with the Water Babies recordings, would find fuller rock expression from Chicago (+) with 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority and 1970’s Chicago II; two years later, Steely Dan/Donald Fagen would launch Jazz Rock with Can’t Buy a Thrill. Rest in peace, Mr. Becker.

Other Rock (+) meta-artists to emerge between 1969 and 1971 are

Although they had existed as a Blues Rock band for years, the first Fleetwood Mac in my iTunes is 1973’s Mystery to Me (a long way away from the Experimental Rock of the uneven, but often breathtaking, Tusk)

That same year, a struggling singer-songwriter from South Jersey named Bruce Springsteen (+) would release Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., which includes the gorgeous “Spirit in the Night.” Another singer-songwriter from Long Island named Billy Joel would release Piano Man that same year, containing the iconic title track and “Captain Jack;” Joel’s predominant designation is Soft Rock, thanks in large part to his 1977 breakthrough The Stranger.

The consequential year 1973 also marks the debut of the first predominantly Pop Rock (+) (Hall and Oates), and Orchestral/Symphonic meta-artists (Electric Light Orchestra).

Electronic (+) debuted in 1974 with Kraftwerk’s deeply influential Autobahn. Seven years later, the predominantly Electronic (+) Depeche Mode with the infectious Synthpop track “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

In 1974, two favorite male meta-artists debuted, predominantly-Rock (+) Palmer (even if some of his best work is New Wave (+)/Darkwave and Dance/Rock (+)) and predominantly-Adult-Contemporary (+) Rupert Holmes, whose 1979 Partners in Crime is a Soft Rock gem. Seriously, EVERY aspiring singer-songwriter should memorize this album.

Before launching into Punk (+) and its many offshoots, a quick word about Bee Gees and Michael Jackson. Starting as Funk (+) in 1975[18], they passed through Disco (+) with the still-exceptional Saturday Night Fever soundtrack before landing on Soft Rock with 1979’s Spirits Having Flown. Jackson, meanwhile graduated from the infectious Rhythm and blues (+) of 1979’s Off the Wall to the exemplary Post-Disco of Thriller, the best-selling album of all time.

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Split Enz actually started as an Art Rock band in 1975 with tracks like “Titus” and ”Time For a Change.” By 1980[19], with the phenomenal True Colours, they were firmly New Wave (+)/Darkwave.

In between those years, a series of bands had begun to play at the infamous CBGB’s in the Bowery section of Manhattan. These bands, including Ramones[20] and The Patti Smith Group, would soon be labeled Punk (+). Most salient between 1976 and 80 (123 of 159 tracks[21]), it would yield the rise of such meta-artists as The Pretenders.

Punk (+) quickly spin off other musical meta-genres, most notably Post-Punk/Revival and New Wave (+)/Darkwave.

Another regular early CBGB’s meta-artist, Blondie, launches New Wave (+)/Darkwave in my iTunes with two 1976 tracks,[22] while The Stranglers do the same for Post-Punk/Revival with three 1977 tracks.[23]

Ranked by number of tracks, chart-selected predominantly-New Wave (+)/Darkwave meta-artists are Simple Minds, Berlin, Spandau Ballet, INXS, The Motels, The Stranglers, Costello (+), Dolby, The B-52’s, Numan (+), Oingo Boingo, Split Enz, The Fixx, Icehouse, The Police, The Cars, Joe Jackson and Talking Heads.

And Post-Punk/Revival?  Adam Ant (+), Joy Division, U2 and The Clash. And let us not forget the Art Punk of Wire or the Folk Punk of Violent Femmes.

Finally, there are the Synthpop meta-artists: Duran Duran, Blancmange and Yello. I 1989, Blancmange would spin off this delirious piece of Avant/Experimental/Leftfield/Post Modern.

Collectively, these 29 meta-artists combine for 1,137 (11.9%) of my 9,552 iTunes tracks—and that excludes meta-artists like The Cure and Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall that evolved into Alternative Rock (+), as well as the 1979-82 era Ska/Two Tone, exemplified by English Beat, Madness and Specials/AKA, and Mod Revival  (The Jam).

Overall, 3,701 (38.7%) of my iTunes tracks were released in this time frame: between 1976 and 1984.

This is MY music.

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In mid-1970s Los Angeles (L.A.), Stan Ridgway was running Acme Soundtracks, an Ennio-Morricone-inspired film score company. By 1977, drawn to the burgeoning L.A. Punk (+) scene, he and four other men—Chas Gray, brothers Bruce and Marc Moreland, and Joe Nanini—had formed Wall of Voodoo. Debuting with a stunning 1980 Darkwave cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,”[24] their two studio albums, Dark Continent and Call of the West are New Wave (+)/Darkwave masterpieces.

Their formation and rapid dissolution are bitingly chronicled in “Talkin’ Wall of Voodoo Blues, Pt. 1.” In the song, Ridgway mocks “the single they still talk about”: the inimitable “Mexican Radio.”

Ridgway collaborated on two film scores in 1983 and 1984 before releasing his first solo album in 1986—the stunning The Big Heat. Given that Ridgway has been called a “noir balladeer,” he likely drew inspiration from the 1953 film noir.

In 2002, however, all I knew were the “Ring of Fire” and “Mexican Radio” (and its B-side, “Call of the West”—I have the original single). A coworker who moonlighted as a disc jockey told me about “Drive She Said,” from The Big Heat. Curious, I purchased The Best of Stan Ridgway: Songs That Made This Country Great.

I was immediately hooked, especially by this lyric from The Big Heat’s “Walkin’ Home Alone” (boldface added for emphasis):

“The telephone’s dead––I guess they turned it off today

Turn the key on the mailbox slot

Lookin’ for a letter, but bills is all I’ve got

And even the cat she left me with

Is goin’ out with someone else

So put another quarter in the jukebox, Pete

But don’t play that one with the sad trombone

‘Cause tonight, I’ll be walkin’ home alone”

Five years later, I saw Ridgway live for the first time, in Manhattan. Three tours later, in August 2015, someone took this photograph of us at the now-defunct Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA.

Stan Ridgway and I at Johnny D's August 2015.jpg

IMG_2076.JPG

Designated Alternative Pop Rock, Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall is second in tracks (192, not counting 23 Wall of Voodoo tracks and 13 from wife Pietra Wiexstun’s band Hecate’s Angels); he still releases new material.

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The first tracks labeled “Alternative” were released in 1979: two Alternative Rock (+) tracks from The Cure[25] and the indescribably weird (and brilliant) Pere Ubu sophomore effort, the Alternative Dub Housing.

In 1981, an Athens, GA (home of The B-52’s) band called R.E.M. released an Alternative Rock (+) single called “Radio Free Europe.” They and The Smiths would help foment the shift to Alternative Rock (+) in the mid-1980s with albums like 1984’s Reckoning, 1985’s Meat is Murder, and 1986’s The Queen is Dead.

In 1992-94, Tori Amos brought harrowing personal experiences and singer-songwriter chops to Alternative Rock (+) (e.g.,Crucify”), while Geoff Martin (+) brought hard-rock sensibility and social conscience in the first decade of the 2000s, especially on such excellent tracks as “Laura” and the 9/11-inspired “32nd Floor,” both from the band Days Are Golden in 2003[26].

An early spin-off of Alternative Rock (+), Adult Alternative/AA Pop Rock, first appears in 1984, with lush albums by The Blue Nile and Mitchell Froom. Two years later, Crowded House, formed by Split Enz vocalist Neil Finn following the demise of Split Enz, would release their eponymous debut album, quickly achieving the American commercial success that had eluded Split Enz.

Alternative Pop Rock would peak (for me) in 1987 with albums by Cindy Lee Berryhill and Curiosity Killed the Cat.

One quirky, short-lived spinoff of Alternative Rock (+) was Madchester, a 1989-92 “psychedelic revival” that spawned Charlatans UK, The Stone Roses and, especially, Happy Mondays.

The alternative to “Alternative” is apparently “Indie,” as the rise of first Indie Pop (1986-1990: It’s Immaterial, The Ocean Blue, The Sundays) then Indie Rock (1999-2003: Sleater-Kinney, Del Rey) suggest.

Before leaving the 1980s entirely, here are five disparate artists:

  • George Winston: This superior pianist, a direct musical descendant of Waller (+) and The Vince Guaraldi Trio, brought New Age to the mainstream with Autumn and December.
  • Uncle Bonsai: This Folk (+) trio, two women and a man, emerged in the mid-1980s with ironic, wickedly-funny songs delivered with angelic harmonies. “Silent Night” from 1986’s Boys Want Sex in the Morning may be the most beautiful song I have ever heard.
  • The Smithereens, a Rock (+) band who nevertheless dominated alternative rock airwaves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their 1988 Green Thoughts is songwriting at its finest. Rest in peace, Mr. DiNizio.
  • Madonna, the Dance Pop avatar from Detroit who evolved from girlish pop star to international icon. “Lucky Star” was a track I continually listened for on the radio of my black 1979 Ford Fairmount in the summer of 1984.
  • Chris Isaak, who led a Rock & roll revival in the late 1980s and early 1990s with moody, yet catchy albums like Heart Shaped World and San Francisco Days.[27]

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Brian Eno first started making Ambient records in the 1970s, but my best exemplar is Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II by Aphex Twin. I confess to knowing nothing about this 1994 album until I read this terrific book[28].

And, with a nod to the anarchic Comedy/Novelty of Cartoon Planet Band, that brings us to the late 1990s, when I stopped paying close attention to contemporary pop music and began exploring older blues and jazz.

Still, older artists were releasing fascinating music in the first decade of the 2000s, such as ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. I categorized him as Classical, but he could easily have been Progressive Rock because of his 2003 To Watch the Storms.

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I will close by identifying key meta-artists and years associated with remaining meta-genres with at least 10 “Miscellaneous” tracks across any three successive years:

Until next time…

[1] And more than 20 years later, I would circle back to mathematics, earning a Master’s Degree in biostatistics and a PhD in epidemiology.

[2] Tufte, Edward R. 1983. Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, pg. 13.

[3] SPSS Statistics 17.0 for Windows; SPSS Inc. Released 2008. Chicago: SPSS Inc.

[4] I excluded Oscar Peterson (20 tracks, 29 plays) because all but one of his tracks were released in 1995 or 1996, and I excluded Henry Mancini (8,111) and Nelson Riddle (13, 111—all but one track 1966) because they had fewer than 15 tracks.

[5] I excluded Murray Gold, because he only had two tracks (“Doctor Who XI” and “I Am the Doctor”), both released in 2010.

[6] Cell shaded “Aqua, Accent 5, Darker 25%,” text “White, Background 1, Darker 25%”

[7] Remaining tracks: 21.9% Pop Rock (+), 11.8% Rock (+), 5.9% Baroque Pop, 3.1% Art Rock.

[8] Cell shaded “Black, Text 1, Lighter 5%,” text “Yellow”

[9] For a meta-artist, the predominant meta-genre color scheme was used, though sometimes a color scheme would simply be extended to the right from a given cell.

[10] Six meta-genres were entirely subsumed by a single meta-artist: Children’s Music (Stan Ridgway (+)/Drywall), Folk Punk (Violent Femmes), Jazz Rock (Steely Dan), Modal Jazz (Miles Davis), Progressive Jazz (Duke Ellington (+)), Third Stream [Jazz] (Miles Davis),

[11] “Downhearted Blues,” “My Sweetie Went Away (She Didn’t Say Where, When Or Why),” “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”

[12] “Early in the Morning,” “Queen of the Hop,” “Splish Splash”

[13] Plus three Henry Mancini tracks: “Days of Wine and ‘Roses,” “Hatari,” “Baby Elephant Walk.”

[14] Donovan’s “Colours” and “Catch the Wind”

[15] In July 1985, this was the site of the American portion of Live Aid.

[16] That does not even mention other favorite meta-artists like The Moody Blues and Jethro Tull.

[17] I would be remiss if I did not mention Supertramp and late-1970s Brian Eno.

[18] “Jive Talkin,’” “Nights on Broadway”

[19] OK, technically 1979’s “I See Red” is their first New Wave (+)/Darkwave track in my iTunes.

[20] Their eponymous 14-track debut album, clocking in at just 30 minutes, is often considered the start of Punk (+).

[21] Including the 19 tracks on a single Punk (+)-inflected 1999 Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry cover album.

[22] “In the Flesh,” “Rip Her to Shreds”

[23] “No More Heroes,” “Peaches,” “Something Better Change”

[24] Even if Nell disdains the closing distorted electric guitar solo as “screaming cats.”

[25] “10:15 Saturday Night,” “Grinding Halt”

[26] Martin is my first cousin.

[27] I had the pleasure of meeting Isaak, a San Francisco native, at NOIR CITY 12 in 2014. http://www.noircity.com/

[28] Weidenbaum is a college friend.

How do I love Steely Dan? Let me count…a whole lot of stuff and such.

Sometime in the spring of 1977 (probably), my mother found herself in a suburban Philadelphia record store. Maybe it was the (now long-since-gone) Sam Goody store on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore. We were living only a short drive away in Havertown at the time, so why not?

My then-39-year-old mother rarely payed attention to music playing in stores, and she was heavily into her Cat Stevens/Neil Diamond phase. But for some reason, on this day, the music coming out of the ceiling speakers caught her attention.

She asked a store employee who the artist was.

“Steely Dan” was the response.

Not normally impulsive, my mother bought a copy of Steely Dan’s 1975 album Katy Lied on the spot.

Forty years later, and more than 42 years after its March 1975 release, I still have that album.

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A few years earlier, I had begun to listen for hours on end to Philadelphia’s WIFI-92 FM, a mix of top 40 and rock album tracks (meaning, they would play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” even though it had never been released as a single).

By the time I was ten years old, and my mother was impulse-buying Katy Lied, I had at least a passing familiarity with Steely Dan standards like “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ in the Years” from the 1972 album Can’t Buy a Thrill, “My Old School” from the 1973 album Countdown to Ecstasy, and “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number” from the 1974 album Pretzel Logic. I was probably not as familiar at that time with tracks I would later come to love (“Kid Charlemagne,” “Don’t Take Me Alive,” “The Royal Scam”) from the 1976 album The Royal Scam.

And the magisterial Aja, which would dominate the worlds of pop and rock for years to come, would not be released until the following September.

No, in the summer of 1977, as my mother and I were recovering from her recent separation from my father and our move from a three-bedroom house to a smaller two-bedroom apartment, it was songs like the propulsive “Black Friday” and the laidback “Bad Sneakers” that were in heavy rotation on our newly-purchased stereo system.

From the album’s liner notes, I learned that Steely Dan was actually the singer-songwriter duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Fagen sang and played keyboards and saxophone, while Becker—who died on September 3, 2017 at the age of 67—played bass and guitar. They employed a wide range of studio musicians (including many future members of Toto) to play on their albums.

Becker died at his home in Maui, Hawaii. In 2001, a college friend of mine and I often frequented the bar at a Philadelphia-area TGI Friday’s. We became friendly with a young woman who tended bar there. One day she told us about the time she had been on Maui “with Steely Dan” enjoying some particularly potent “Maui Wowie.” She may well have meant the late Walter Becker.

My mother often made the same mistake, thinking there was a person named “Steely” Dan. I would remind her that it was actually a group, but I do not recall explaining that “Steely Dan” was originally the name given to a metallic dildo in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch.

The Katy Lied LP (“long-playing record”) and a handful of radio staples—including “Peg,” “Deacon Blues” and “Josie” from the ever-listenable Aja, and the title track from the 1978 film FM (a serious guilty pleasure)—were the sum total of my Steely Dan knowledge for the next three-plus years.

In November 1980, Steely Dan released Gaucho, their first new studio album in more than three years. The first single released from Gaucho was the shimmering “Hey Nineteen.” It had such a pure, clean sound that I quickly bought the single, which I still have to this day.

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I became equally fond of the B-side, a live recording of their 1973 song “Bodhisattva,” featuring one of the truly epic band introductions ever.

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This was just as I was beginning high school, and my musical horizons were rapidly expanding. In fact, I became such a frequent visitor to the renowned used record store Plastic Fantastic in Bryn Mawr that I was one of the only customers allowed to pay with a personal check.

It was there that I bought used copies of Can’t Buy a Thrill and Aja in around 1983, having already taped “Reelin’ in the Years” off the radio in February 1982.

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Just bear with me while I present a brief history of 36 years of “mix” making.

In August 1981, I had just bought a dozen or so new LPs, including (relatively) recent releases by Steve Winwood, The Moody Blues, Foreigner, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac and The Cars. (Side note: I still regret selling my original vinyl copy of Foreigner 4), and I decided to put my new (monaural) tape recorder to work.

By which I mean: I would put on an album, put the toner arm down on the start of a track, put a stereo speaker next to the tape recorder and hit “RECORD.” This required absolute silence during the playing of the track, of course.

But when I was finished I had produced a 60 minute Maxell cassette containing 15 or so tracks (the cassette and its clear plastic case are long gone, so I am relying upon my memory) that I cleverly called My Stuff. The tracks were grouped by artist (an average of 2 tracks per artist) in no particular order.

That first labor-of-love “mix” cassette was only the beginning. Over the next 35 years, I would produce 309 such mixes, getting progressively more sophisticated both in terms of technology (a series of beloved Walkman portable cassette players, Dolby noise reduction, high-end turntables, CD burners, digital CD burning, downloads) and the ordering of tracks (tracks should have a clean musical “flow,” no back-to-back tracks by the same artist except on rare occasions, alternating “new” tracks with “reruns”).

Originally, mixes were a mish-mash of tracks from my personal collection, LPs and cassettes borrowed from friends and relatives, and songs taped off of the radio (or, for a handful of “video” mixes, off of MTV or VH1). I spent countless hours in the summer of 1985, my first summer home from Yale, flipping back and forth between radio stations, creating Summer ’85 Vol I-VIII.

That fall, I abandoned the ad hoc nomenclature, as I christened an October 1985 mix cassette Stuff and Such Vol I. With few exceptions, every mix cassette from then through the May 2003 Stuff and Such Vol LXXXIX followed that naming convention. In August 2003, with the bluntly-titled CD Stuff Vol I, I abandoned cassettes entirely.

Over time, mixes shifted from primarily “one-off” creations (recording new favorite songs to play on my Walkman, filling in the rest of the cassette with old favorites) to carefully-planned multi-cassette productions, following my own evolving set of rules, specifically intended to be played on vacations or other long car drives. By 2005, I had permanently switched to creating playlists on my computer and rapidly burning those onto a CD; this meant that rather than being limited by time to at most four cassettes, I could create and burn as many as 12 CDs at one go. And by 2014, I had abandoned CDs entirely in favor of simply creating iPod playlists (each corresponding to a CD, as I liked to alternate “rocking” with “mellow” CDs) I could play in my car through a cassette adapter.

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When I graduated from high school in 1984, one of my two yearbook quotes was this line from “Reelin’ in the Years:”

The things that pass for knowledge/I can’t understand

When I arrived at Yale that fall, among the dozens of LPs and 45 RPM records I brought with me were the three Steely Dan albums listed above, as well as the “Hey Nineteen/Bodhisattva (live)” single. Thus, I could record the tracks that open Side 1 of Can’t Buy a Thrill (“Do It Again,” “Dirty Work,” “Kings”) onto Yet More Good Stuff Vol I in January 1985. Among the tracks I taped off the radio for Summer ’85 Vol I-VIII were “FM (No Static At All)” and “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”

When I moved from Philadelphia to Boston in September 1989 to attend my first doctoral program (the one I left ABD after six years), I already had created 56 mix cassettes containing 919 unique tracks covering 1,121 total “slots.” The six Steely Dan tracks, each occupying only one slot, accounted for 0.7% of all tracks and 0.5% of all slots[1]. Those six tracks put Steely Dan in a 10-way tie for 32nd and those six occupied slots put them in a six-way tie for 44th, and were far above the overall artist averages of 2.6 tracks and 3.2 slots. Thus, when you only look at the number of tracks finding their way on to a mix cassette, Steely Dan was already one of my 40 or 50 favorite artists. Throw in the three LPs and one single, and they may well have been ranked even higher.

Early in 1990, I bought my first CD player, which meant I needed to start acquiring CDs. So I joined Columbia House (or was it BMG Music?), and I received my 11 or 12 CDs for one cent (plus shipping and handling). I do not recall which CD I was later required to buy at a 200+% markup.

One of those CDs was the compilation A Decade of Steely Dan. Interestingly, when I next recorded a Steely Dan track onto a mix cassette (Stuff and Such Vol XVI; April 1990) it was not from that CD. Rather, it was “Josie” from my vinyl copy of Aja.

And that was it for the next nine years in terms of Steely Dan. I would play Decade from time to time, but Steely Dan somewhat faded into the background for me as I spent most of my time listening to Boston’s pioneering alternative station WFNX (101.7 FM) before abandoning listening to music on the radio altogether around 1997.

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In January 1993, I began to muse on what my favorite songs, albums and artists were, and I realized that I had a seemingly straightforward quantitative way to answer the question: tally up all of the times a track had appeared on a mix cassette.

The logic was simple. The more I liked a track, the more times I would have recorded it onto a mix cassette. And the more tracks from an album I had recorded onto a mix cassette, and the more slots those tracks occupied, the more I liked the album. And the more tracks appearing, and slots occupied, by an artist, coupled with the number of albums I owned by that artist, the more I liked that artist.

Voila!

The reality was not quite that simple, but I spent a very entertaining week or two compiling a list of every track appearing on each mix cassette (starting with the Boston Drive mixes, as I had not bothered to bring the previous 56 mix cassettes to Boston with me[2])

The end product was a list of my 100 favorite tracks; a corresponding Top 50 albums and Top 75 artists no longer survives.

However, here is where Steely Dan ranked throughout the 1990s, as this became an annual project:

  • #51 in January 1994 (favorite track “Josie”, favorite album Aja)
  • #50 in Summer 1995 (favorite track “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number)
  • #58 in Summer 1996 (favorite track “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number)
  • #42 in Summer 1999 (favorite track “Kings,” favorite album Can’t Buy a Thrill)

In August 1997, I treated myself to a brand new Panasonic turntable, and I began to rediscover my vinyl. One album I pulled out was that copy of Katy Lied my mother had bought 20 years earlier.

I know this because in March 1999, “Doctor Wu,” the last track on Side 1, became the first new Steely Dan track to appear on a cassette mix (Stuff and Such Vol LXVI) in nearly nine years. While I no longer have copies of the charts, I recall that in 2000, “Doctor Wu” became the first Steely Dan track ever to crack my Top 100, somewhere around 85 or so.

I must have continued to play that album side often, because the next new Steely Dan track to appear on a mix was its third track, “Rose Darling” (Stuff and Such Vol LXXXVIII; May 2003).

That fall, inspired by a recent VH1 “Steely Dan Storytellers” performance, I purchased a CD copy of The Royal Scam, my first new Steely Dan record in more than 13 years. In November 2003, “Don’t Take Me Alive” and “Kid Charlemagne” appeared on CD Stuff Vol IV and Vol V, respectively. “The Royal Scam” then appeared on CD Stuff Vol VII in April 2004.

Meanwhile, in late December 2003, having purchased a powerful new computer complete with the latest copies of Microsoft Excel and SPSS (my preferred statistical software package), I embarked upon my most ambitious project yet to determine my favorite tracks, albums and artists. I gathered together the 54 of the original 56 mix cassettes I still had (or still had a record of) and set to work creating a brand new Excel workbook compiling every piece of information I had.

This is how I calculated that, in January 2005, Steely Dan was now my 18th favorite artist overall.

Over the next ten years, I would record an additional seven Steely Dan tracks on various CD mixes: “Black Friday” (March 2006), “Time Out of Mind” (April 2008), “Deacon Blues” and “Hey Nineteen” (December 2008), “Peg” (June 2012), and “Aja” and “Midnite Cruiser” (May 2014).

As of August 206, there were 19 Steely Dan tracks (0.6% of ~3,380[3]) occupying 33 slots (0.5% of 6,338) across the 309 mix cassettes, videos and CDs, well above the artist averages of 3.5 tracks and 6.5 slots. In fact, Steely Dan is in a four-way tie for 16th in tracks and in a three-way tie for 19th in slots.

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Since 2005, I have not performed a complete analysis of my favorite tracks, albums and artists, mostly due to a lack of time to regularly update the Excel workbook.

However, there is a quick and dirty way to assess how much I like Steely Dan, relative to other artists, based on the data I do have entered: multiply each artist’s number of mix cassette/video/CD tracks or slots by the number of albums I own by that artist.

A quick word about owning “albums.” A few years ago, I “cleaned” my iTunes data by obtaining, for each track (n=9,500, as of this post), its correct title, the studio album (or single) on which it was released (as well as an image and number of tracks), its position on that album, its year of release, and its “genre.”

For example, having just purchased from iTunes the four tracks on Gaucho I had not already owned, I now own five complete Steely Dan studio albums. I also own two tracks each from Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic, as well as the FM title track and the live recording of “Bodhisattva.” That makes an additional six tracks. If we assume that a typical album has 10 tracks that would be an additional 6/10, or 0.6, albums. That means that I “own” 5.6 Steely Dan albums.

Multiplying 19 by 5.6 yields 106.4, which ranks 14th overall, making Steely Dan one of only 15 artists to crack 100 (Genesis, at 2735.4, laps the field). Similarly, multiplying 33 by 5.6 yields 184.8, which ranks 19th overall.

By a variety of measures, then, Steely Dan still ranks somewhere among my top 20 artists.

And that ranking might improve slightly when I next compile lists of my favorite tracks, albums and artists.

Of the 39,499 total track “plays” on iTunes (or my iPod) since I bought my current computer in January 2013, 492 were by a Steely Dan track (n=49). This ranks 4th overall, behind only Genesis, Miles Davis and Stan Ridgway, my top three artists overall. And while all 9,500 tracks have been played an average 4.2 times over this period, the average Steely Dan track has been played 10.0 times, which ranks 11th (among the 327 artists with 10 or more tracks).

This surge in plays is led by five tracks among my 300 most played: “Doctor Wu” (20 plays, tied for #236), “Midnite Cruiser” (29, tied for #93), “Aja” (35, tied for #55), “Hey Nineteen” (48, tied for #26) and “Deacon Blues” (53, #20).

Basically, the more Steely Dan I play, the more I love Steely Dan.

Rest in peace, Mr. Becker.

Until next time…

[1] From these mixes I created a six-cassette “best-of” collection of 136 tracks (including nine “new” tracks) called Boston Drive Vol I-VI. The only Steely Dan song to make the cut was “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”

[2] I relied on my memory to give an album credit for any listed tracks appearing on those original 56 mix cassettes that had not either appeared on Boston Drive or been recorded on a subsequent mix cassette.

[3] I have not yet completed the data entry for the 150 tracks appearing on eight CDs I created in August 2016. However, I estimate that 75 of the 150 tracks are “new.”