Light snow is falling on the other side of the window as I write this in Colorado, trees and grass dusted white. I've had a few memorable trips here, first and foremost my family's visit to Rocky Mountain National Park one summer. We spent a few relaxing days with only intermittent connections to our normal life. Each day included a hike, one much longer than we planned.
We left our cabin in the morning and expected to be back before lunch. Previous hikes had included well-marked trails, but this one less so. There were also fewer distinguishing landmarks. As we continued on, unsettled at just how long this was taking, we saw a clearing and eagerly stepped through it, only to find ourselves on a road so far afield it didn't even appear on our map.
With no clear idea where we were or signs of other hikers, we decided to try to retrace our mistaken footsteps. After an hour, things were beginning to look less familiar, not more. We were lost.
Before that moment, I always thought that lost was a matter of degree, but this was the binary, unambiguous version.
We put in a lot of effort into not losing our place, from ubiquitous GPS to picking up right where we left off in our books and streams, podcasts and playlists. For me, it's a source of context and comfort.
I didn't enjoy being lost. We found our way back hours later, tired and sore. The extra miles were mostly stressful and frustrating.
I made sure we wouldn't get lost next time; higher quality maps, GPS, thoroughly planning the route in advance.
Looking back, though, I wish I had spent more time getting better at being lost.
Last week's dispatch asked, Which album do you know best?
This prompt sent me on a synesthetic flashback tour through my iTunes archive of CDs frantically converted into MP3s one summer home from college, so I apologize for not being able to pick one. The albums I know most intimately brought me back to the places and devices where I got to know them. I have visions of rocking out to No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom and Weezer's Pinkerton in the privacy of my room on the Aiwa three piece speaker system that has moved around with me since middle school. And I picture the Christmas where I voraciously devoured the new Fiona Apple album When The Pawn... on my Philips CD player, shielding my moody teen self from family and wallowing in her carefully crafted lyrics that (of course) spoke directly to my unrequited crush.
Other albums have a vivid association with driving around in my crank-sunroof Volvo, like listening to Guster's Lost and Gone Forever on constant repeat with my best friend and drumming along on my steering wheel bongo. I flash back to the moment a friend showed me that the speakers on my inherited car had been left/right imbalanced, and subsequently having my mind blown by the second half of the pinging electronic introduction of "Such Great Heights" on The Postal Service's Give Up. And then I see the strip of road I was driving down when I first heard the arresting spoken poetry of "Hey Pretty" on our local independently radio station. I subsequently devoured Poe's Haunted album and loved it for its strange, palimpsest of layered sound and narrative exploration. And then years later, discovering its book counterpart House of Leaves and hearing the words I had listened to so many times—"There's someone knocking in the wall/was it like an echo/ ba da ba ba"—whispering from the page. Certainly uncommon, and appropriately uncanny.
10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe. I used to listen to it during my long treks across campus at Michigan State. Since it was always on headphones, the experience felt more intimate—it was my music. Everything about it was perfectly suited to that season in my life, and I wonder if I'll ever be as close to another album.
Paul's Boutique —Beastie Boys. I haven't listened to it in a while, but I don't really have to you know? It's in my BONES.
The album I know best is Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. As soon as one song ends, I know the next note that will start the next song and even if I'm listening to songs independently, I still expect that next song on the album to show up, no matter what.
I've always been a "music first, lyrics later" kind of music appreciator. The lyrics could be pure gold, but if the music - the sounds and the feel - doesn't capture me, I'm moving on. So the album I know best is actually one of the first full albums I probably ever listened to, and it doesn't have any lyrics at all. It's saxophonist Stan Getz's album "Verve Jazz Masters 8." I played saxophone in middle and high school, so he was an idol to me for years. Here we are some-teen years later, and I get as much pleasure listening to that album today, not having touched a saxophone in over a decade, as I did when I was throwing on my neck strap and squawking away in my room, imagining myself playing alongside Stan in a concert hall all those years ago. I can hear the timbre of his sax and feel the emotions of the songs without ever pushing play all these years later.
I do tend to get a bit obsessive with music. I find myself caught up in one album for a period, before something else catches my attention and I move on. Currently, the album I know best is Beyoncé's new self titled offering, before that it was Laura Marling's latest, and once upon a time there was Declan O'Rourke's Since Kyabram and Missy Higgins' The Sound of White. My favorite albums are those that make me feel like I'm really getting to know and understand the artist. It's like making a new friend, and revisiting their work is like reconnecting with a long lost comrade - they usually represent a very precise moment in my life and bring back that exact point in time.
August and Everything After, by Counting Crows
"Tapestry" by Carole King is probably my all time favorite album. Then, rounding out my top five favorites are (in no particular order) "Wide Open Spaces" by the Dixie Chicks; "Desireless" by Eagle Eye Cherry; "Let Go" by Frou Frou; and "Jagged Little Pill" by Alanis Morisette. They are all albums that feel like home to me, that I could listen to at any given moment and sing along to the whole way through.
Morning View, by Incubus has to be the album that my brain has memorized completely end to end. It is simply the soundtrack to my formative years. I must have listened to that album a thousand times or more, and what’s wild is I got back to it know and the reality of it somehow still lives up to my memory of it. It represents a time period where all I did was skateboard, ride my bike, and spend time on the beach. It’s something I love looking back to, though I wish I could just be living it out. Amazing how those memories flood back almost instantly. I can close my eyes and be there, but we all know that’s not the same as actually doing so.
The album I know best is Metals by Fiest. I feel her voice inside my body when she sings - the music is that visceral to me. I realize it's a newer album, and I have known others in my 42 years which ushered me through particularly trying times in my life, but because I spend so much time driving these days, I am alone in the car a lot. The joy in this drudgery is that I can hear a new facet of a song each and every time it plays. Depending on my mood, her lyrics mean something different to me, so it's as if I am experiencing something fresh and new each time the disc repeats.
Jimmy Eat World -- Bleed American. A great album, the soundtrack for my 2001. This Will Destroy You -- Young Mountain. My writing album, it ebbs and flows perfectly with my writing style.
I feel embarrassed that my first thought is, "Oh, totally N*SYNC's very first album." Because, let's be real, that was targeted for young saps like myself and I loved it (and can STILL sing all the lyrics.) The interesting part was that at the same time as I was so into that kind of music, I fell in love with Frank Sinatra. Every night that I had math homework in high school, I listened to Classic Sinatra: His Greatest Performances 1953-1960. I would play it on my little, grey Sony boom box. I can still hear the the beginning "I've got the world on a string." Any time I hear a song from that compilation, my mind anticipates the next song in the queue. It's still one of my favorites.
Two of my favorites: Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan and ( ) by Sigur Ros.
I love the idea of listening to an album for an entire week. It reminds me of when I listened to Phil Collin's No Jacket Required for the entire summer of 1985 while on a cultural language camp in Taiwan. Listening to this album on cassette on my Sony Walkman soundtracked this summer of being away from my parents for the first time and experiencing heady street food vendors. It was the start of my adulthood, I'd like to think.
When I was a little boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, I remember walking up to my Father’s stereo system aglow with dials, toggles and pulsing green lights, and selecting one LP from below all the buzzing metal. The cover, a deep rose color with a cowboy clad in all black, pistol at the ready, promised stories of courage, cowardice, heartache, death, and broken redemption. The album was Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins.
Balancing the adult size black leather earphones on my head and reclining against the gently heaving belly of my sheepdog Sadie I would dream of cowboys, horses, criminals, lovers, and murderers. I could smell the smoke of a gunfight while “…the folks had gathered round. There before them lay the body of the outlaw on the ground.” I listened to the fearful confession of a prisoner on death row, put there by jealousy and heartache. I even fell in love with a “wicked” and beautiful Mexican maiden.
Whether the desolation of “I’m as sad as the cold wind that cries in the treetops.” or the joy of “Up at dawn to greet the sun. I’ve forgotten what a care or worry means.” came through the headphones, Marty was there making sure my path stayed true. An angelic voice as clear as a bell ringing in the fog, promising a way through the darkness.
My little world was about absolutes. The hero always wins. Crime doesn’t pay. Marty’s world was grey and dusty. Simplicity and humility saved the innocent, not the Hero. The only shadows villains hid in were wrong decisions or bad timing. Anyone could jump either way at any time. Conviction of action was the only constant.
I’m older now. I’ve known love, loss, and nearly everything in-between. But even today I still listen to that album through headphones. My Father, young and strong, is there too. Smiling at me while Sadie gently grooms my shoulder, checking for imagined fleas and matted hair.
One of these days I need to visit El Paso.
There are more than a few albums that I could shortlist for "the one I know best"", but I think the top choice has to be Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid. Like many of their more recent fans, this album was my first introduction into Elbow’s musical genius. The song that first had me hooked was "The Fix", a story of cheating a horse race, but perhaps the best place to discover Guy Garvey’s unique lyrics is the opening track, "Starlings". Here’s their version with the BBC Orchestra and choir. Watch out for the brass!
I could happily put "The Bones of You" on repeat (with the volume up) for half a day. Other songs from the album, "Weather to Fly" and "One Day Like This", have hooked themselves into my personal narrative over the last few years, and devouring this album led me to discovering the rest of Elbow’s works. I’ve also had the great pleasure of catching them live in both their home town (Manchester) and mine (Melbourne). I better stop this message now, else you’ll think I’m more than a little obsessed.
My favorite album this week is Jamie Cullum's Catching Tales.
In high school, I fell in love with Christian folk-pop band Caedmon’s Call, the first Christian musical group I had found who cared about good poetry but also had something to say. My freshman year of college, they released their second album, 40 Acres. Too broke to pony up for it myself, I borrowed it from my next-door neighbor, Jeff. I then proceeded to play it non-stop for three months. The band had moved in the direction of a more straightforward folk style, but with higher production quality. I suppose if I bought the album now I would still like it, but at the time, to a kid who had only ever been allowed to listen to Christian music growing up, it was the most addictively catchy pop-Calvanism I had ever heard.
After the first month, Jeff saw me in the hallway one day and and asked me to please stop playing it when he was around. “You can keep that CD. I never want to hear it again.” I felt too guilty to actually keep it, so I eventually gave it back. Jeff went out to the parking lot with the CD, where he and his roommate spray-painted it, then took a baseball bat to it.
So I guess what I’m saying is: I could sing you that whole album right now.
Though there are a number of U2 albums that come close, the album I know best is The Who's "Quadrophenia". I listened to it so much during high school that I wore out the cassette. It so perfectly captures the turbulent emotions of growing up and trying to find your place in the world. For me, it remains a masterpiece.
Our Powerful and Fragile Attention by Linda Stone:
If we want to harness the superpower that is our attention, instead of talking about distraction and a need to unplug and disconnect, let's talk about what it is we choose to connect to. As we reach for what we prefer, we can stop stressing and shaming ourselves regarding what it is we're getting wrong.
How to Have a Year That Counts by Umair Haque:
We’re taught to be obedient rationalists—super-nerd-brains running computer programs that optimize the lives other people tell us we should want—instead of, you know, human spirits capable of creating the lives we could live. What gets measured, goes the old adage, gets managed. So analyze, test, explain, iterate! But the universe is not just greater than what we can explain—it is infinitely richer. Can you put love in a spreadsheet? Can you iterate towards friendship? Can you explain happiness?
When was the last time you were lost?