30 Years, 30 Albums - The How and When of What We Like

Quick question: what is your favourite album of 2007? 2009? 1989?

Assuming your mind is wired to recall such specific biographical information at a moment's notice (high five for you, friend), your answers will depend on at least two factors:

  • how old you are now

  • what you were experiencing back then

I was born in 1989, so naturally the latter factor clouds my answer for the year I entered this world. 

On one hand, the only headbanging I was doing was probably in my crib (the kind for babies, not rappers). But on the other hand, there are a few albums that I came to enjoy in later years which happened to be released in AD 1989. The answer is not as straightforward as one might think.

This time-tinted thought piece emerged from a recent milestone birthday that I celebrated. As I approached 30 years (3 decades!) of existence, my mind began an almost-cliched cataloguing process that overcomes some of us at key life stages. Some choose to spew forth "30 things I learnt by the time I was 30". Some choose to find 30 photos from baby to bloke to chart the inevitable ageing. I chose to make a music list. Go figure. 

The timeline of my life does lend itself to neat compartmentalisation though. 

Oh baby, baby, how was I supposed to know?

Oh baby, baby, how was I supposed to know?

When tracking my favourite music albums from the past 30 years, I was barely there for the 80's (admittedly so), but we can still safely encompass all of the 90's, 00's, and 10's thus far in my own annual analysis. 

So here's what I learnt from digging through my iTunes library in the build-up to my birthday bash. Hopefully there's something for you to learn too.

The First Decade - 1989-1998

"Tunes from a later life to fill in the gaps"

30 Years, 30 Albums - 1989-1998.JPG

Discounting the fact that I was an infant for the first part of this period, an overwhelming nine of ten years worth of favourites in the 90's were first listened to much later in life. Clearly my childhood fads, such as the gender-group focused Backstreet Boys or Spice Girls, did not hold a sustained interest past their MTV TRL heyday.

But this was not the case for Oasis. Somehow, as a six year old kid, I came to appreciate the Beatlesque mentalities of the Mancunian modern-day moptops through songs like 'Wonderwall' and the nostalgia napalm that is 'Don't Look Back In Anger'. The Gallagher brothers commanded a sizeable real-time presence in my younger days, providing a simple-minded swagger that the realities of their rock-star lives could fuel.

However quite honestly, there were some 'lean' years when I reflected on the 90's; years with albums which don't represent music I'm particularly passionate or knowledgeable about. Years where there are not many albums which have spoken deeply enough to me (yet). Maybe they will in time (here's looking at you, Pearl Jam). 

30 Years, 30 Albums - Collage 1.jpg

Outside of populated pockets of passion (such as 1991 or 1994), the 90's feels like browsing through a family photo album: if there wasn't physical proof of you being there, you wonder if that was a world you even inhabited. 

You rely on word passed down through the generations of older brothers and sisters. You trust that had you been exposed to it, you would've totally lapped up the geeky space-rock of Radiohead's OK Computer in the 2nd semester of 3rd Grade. Wu-Tang Clan's cartoonish horror-raps would surely slot alongside sweet singalongs to the Barney The Dinosaur theme song in kindergarten.

You were there alright, but you also weren't. A most unreliable of narrators is one of that can spin some yarn about a small-scale survey of a story they can barely recall - drunken night out, or songs to soundtrack your 4th grade; it's all the same. We choose revisionism often because there's nothing else to fill in the gaps. 

The Second Decade - 1999-2008

"Very much there, maybe a year behind"

30 Years, 30 Albums - 1999-2008.JPG

Moving into the 00's, we encounter a music industry in flux; whose power structures were rapidly changing hands as bands were being born into the 'Napster' or digital file-sharing era. Selling millions of 'records' was not a given, nor was it to be the centre of consumer culture (particularly for rock-orientated artists). But you could be the centre of someone else's world.

The last time rock music could hold a decent share of the market, or be a path to mainstream success, coincided with my blossoming adolescence. Yes, I acknowledge the stereotype of that one's musical tastes remain unchanged from this between-age of one's life. Yet when you take a look around the landscape back then, it's hard not to see why this is only partially true in my case. 

Music from this period holds strong, deep-hearted connections over me, as much of it (7 of 10 years) was experienced in real time with only a few delayed appreciations (1 to 3 years at most). I was on the front-lines for the rap-rock revolution of Linkin Park as an angsty 6th Grader; I boarded the same time/hype machine as everyone else for the 60's garage rock renaissance of The Strokes; 'Mr Brightside' by The Killers was my teenage anthem well before it became the mainstay at every indie dance party or wedding reception. 

30 Years, 30 Albums - Collage 2.jpg

The same could be waxed lyrical for the names Mutemath, Bloc Party, or Switchfoot - but I'm under no illusion now how much smaller or niche these great artists are, and have always been, in the narrative of music's first decade into the 21st century. Sometimes writing for your particular audience, or no audience in particular, means that the average fan might pass you by; critics may mildly respect your best, even neglect your lesser outputs. But thanks to the Internet, I was fortunate enough to become aware of artists in their prime who weren't making the headlines in the same way the industry's last bastions were.

As expected for such a significant life period, there was a lot of inner debate and ranking for each year in the 00's to figure out some order of emotional ascendance leading up to the top spot. Yet we get the most unsurprising, representative results. In years filled with contenders, these albums earned their worth with grit and hard-earned repeats - both then, now, and through an exploratory twenties.

The Third Decade - 2009-2018

"Consistency and adulthood experience amidst experimentation"

30 Years, 30 Albums - 2009-2018.JPG

We all grow older, but not all of us grow bolder.

No longer content to be the victim of circumstance (or modern-day payola), starting around 2010/2011 I began at age 21 to hone my focus and broaden my musical reach with a specific, scientific fervour. Perhaps it was the adult wisdom and patience finally seeping in; the realisation that life needn't be lived in unsettled 1-to-2 month bursts. You can plan ahead, even if you want to go down that rabbit hole.

What this results in is my most lived-in decade (8 of 10 years in the moment when the magic was brewing), as my pool of personal power-players steadily increased with listening efforts for dozens of discographies - young and old. So many, in fact, that it's only when I filtered back down to just music released in the 10's I actually saw the marked consistency in artistic output, with 2 artists somehow taking back-to-back top spots for 4 years straight.

30 Years, 30 Albums - Collage 3.jpg

Firstly, this highlights the second factor I pointed out in the beginning of this piece: 'what you were experiencing back then'. My deliberate discography devouring as a young adult altered my perception of what was current almost as much as my carefree childhood obliviousness had in the 90's. When you're mainlining the 17th release of Bob Dylan's mammoth 38-album catalogue in a weeks-long bender, your brain blends that noise as 'new' into your listening diet - because it's new for you

Secondly, this Tame Impala-Arctic Monkeys duality reflected a shift towards introspective, amorphous artists not afraid to slip on a different genre in search of their identity. Innerspeaker and Lonerism were Tame Impala's first 2 albums; Arctic Monkeys had 3 massively-popular releases in the bag by the time they decided to Suck It And See. Their adventurous approaches yielded some of their most alluring work, and rewarded repeat listens in a time of rampant personal playlist plundering.

Thirdly, there have been some unexpectedly strong emotional responses from some unlikely sources in recent years. Opening my mind so widely to the past and the present has meant that for a single album to grab sustained attention after only one listen (leading to a scandalous second, third, even fourth...) oftentimes takes an underdog; something layered and enriched by the juices of musical touchstones and empathetic lyrical matter. 

Whether it was second or third acts from godlike guitar geniuses (Johnny Marr, Noel Gallagher) or goons (Diarrhea Planet - yes, that is their real name); whether it was the beginnings of something great (Wolf Alice's gorgeous debut) or the coalesced fragments of 7 painful years of writer's block (Snow Patrol); I found music that moved me only after I had done some moving first.

The Next Decade

So much new would eventually be too much new.

After 7 years of explicitly expanding mental territory, 2018 was the first year where I deliberately limited my (new) intake of music. Of course I kept with the times and still tracked my favourite artists’ releases (this was not some self-righteous "I swore off of the Internet for a year" gimmick. Or another favourite: "I deleted my Facebook account"). But the tide of single listens - reaching into the thousands - had swelled out of control and begged for a second impression.

Savouring the flavour was conducive to the stage my life was in. Planning a wedding and an international move was probably not the best time to be discovering the delights of Billy Joel, or speeding through a few dozen albums from Guided By Voices. Perhaps young parents feel the same, or those starting a stressful new job. It's not worth having it all go into the 'Listened Once' smart playlist without something meaningful to recall (or recoil) from the experience.

I'm still in reflective mode in 2019 (when I said thousands, I meant it), but a new reason for re-listening - as well as discovery - has emerged: gig preparation.

Hozier - Live at the Hammersmith Apollo (12-Dec-2018).jpeg

Living in a city like London has been a radical reintroduction to the live music experience. In my first 6 months here after moving from the Middle East, I'm already nearly at double digits. And with the summer festival season just around the corner, the gig count will only grow larger and more bucket list-busting. Knowing full well how it feels to be deserted, I vow to do my homework as a fortunate son.

It took 30 years to reach this point. And I'm not done yet.

You got any more of those stats?

Yes indeed. As you can imagine, this incredibly geeky (but fun!) exercise involved a lot of listing, ranking, and MS Excel wrangling.

I’ve uploaded the spreadsheet to Google Docs here if you have the inclination to try this out for yourself.

A further outcome from this endeavour was a custom scoring system that spat out the statistically best-performing artist (spoiler alert: it was Radiohead). Do with this information what you will.