Whaddaya think about 1981? I created an 8-hour long Spotify playlist exploring the music of that year, to go along with my previous exercises listening to 1968, 2003, and 2013. Like the others, 1981 is a combination of longtime favorites and new finds across a wide variety of genres. This was a year when Arena Rock ruled, the British were doing amazing stuff, R&B shimmered with the fumes of Funk and Disco, and Hip-Hop still had a scrappy, urban aesthetic. Personally, it came as a surprise how much of the playlist evoked a visceral, “riding in mom’s car on the way to the mall” reaction.
In 1981, I was thirteen – an age when many kids transition from passively enjoying something to becoming more deeply involved. That year, I had my own little clock radio in my bedroom. The radio was undoubtedly tuned into a lot of safe local Pop/Rock stations then, although the thing I enjoyed the most was tuning into Dr. Demento every Sunday night with a portable tape recorder on hand. A lot of the hits included here – “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Rapture,” “Queen of Hearts,” “Urgent,” “Private Eyes,” “Physical,” “I Love A Rainy Night” – are the aural equivalent of chocolate chip cookies. It kind of astonished me how much fantastic music came from that year (or, in a few instances, late in the previous year). There’s a few silly things in there as well, such as “Hooked On Classics” – a tune I forever associate with the campy fashion sequence from the TV special Night of 100 Stars. I suppose you don’t have to have been a youngster in 1981 to appreciate this, but it sure helps.
I don’t know about you, but for me New Years Day serves as a time of contemplation, a bit of relaxation from the holiday hubbub spent simultaneously looking back and anticipating the future. Unlike many recent years in which my life seemed to be in a holding pattern, I had an eventful 2013 filled with some letdowns (getting sick in February and being dogged with vaguely flu-ish feelings for the next eight months), a dose of the same-old same-old, and lots of delights. Here’s some of the accomplishments:
- Debuted three new designs at LitKids – Little Bo Peep, Winne the Pooh, and Sherlock Holmes. Also, I’m starting to see signs that this LitKids thing might become something other than a wallet-draining labor of love.
- Related to the above, in August I addressed a roomful of Etsy users about the ins and outs of selling there (conquering public speaking fears = very healing).
- Opened Pishtosh, Bullwash & Wimple, an outlet for selling quality vintage designs and kitsch. Unlike LitKids, this enterprise has turned into a quick, modest profit.
- Read Pride and Prejudice and biographies of Pauline Kael, Flo Ziegfeld, Vincente Minnelli, and Willy Wonka actress Julie Dawn Cole.
- Designed about a dozen manga books for Viz, another ten-odd books for various individual authors (including my spouse), a t-shirt, a personal branding logo, six theatrical playbills, and four or five projects that never came to fruition for various reason.
- Hit ten years as a freelancer with all the ambivalent feelings about my profession intact (only now the competition is even younger!). I still haven’t designed or illustrated a Little Golden Book, Criterion Collection release, New Yorker cover, Taschen book, hip record album cover, or indie film poster, damn it.
- Filed 90 reviews at DVD Talk. Best one: The Big City. Worst: Twisted Romance.
- Watched five films in a theater, and 181 films (including documentaries) at home.
- Listened to a lot of Cilla Black, Everything But The Girl and Margaret Whiting (the top three artists of 2013, according to my Last.fm stats).
Believe it or not, I also listened to a lot of current music over the past year. The stuff that caught my attention has been assembled into MRH 2013, a bloated marathon of melodic pop and retro-music of all types (videogame music, disco, psychedelic, soul, even a ’20s jazz cover from Bryan Ferry). After at least a decade of being indifferent to most new music, it came as a pleasant surprise that there was so much refreshing, unique stuff gaining popularity in 2013 – I mean, you wouldn’t find something like “Thrift Shop” hitting #1 in the immediate past, would you? When relatively tame, mainstream singers like Celine Dion come up with weird-ass tunes like “Loved Me Back to Life,” you know you’re in for an interesting year. Part of it comes from the fact that genre lines in music are blurring into each other – yet, instead of being a boring, awkward mishmash, the resulting music is kind of invigorating. This Grantland article by Steven Hyden uses the latest album by teen heartthrobs One Direction to delve into that, articulating the phenomenon far better than I could (the 1D song singled out by the author, “Little Black Dress,” truly is a fantastic blast of power pop, by the way).
Anyhow, the playlist. While some of my favorite artists are represented multiple times (Haim, Camera Obscura, Quadron), most of it is limited to one or two tracks per player. I kinda wish it was more concise, but at the very least it’s arranged by mood and feel – there’s a mini-suite of tracks produced by Greg Kurstin, for instance. Enjoy.
Over the past couple of years, the staff at All Music Guide has collaborated on All Music Loves, a series of blog posts celebrating a certain music genre or year. That inspired me to make my own hand-picked playlists devoted to personal favorite songs released within a certain year – on Spotify, of course. While the naming of the playlists with initials was cheekily swiped from AMG music critic and Spotify user Stephen Thomas Erlewine, doing a playlist cover which spotlights a design from that particular year is all mine (above, a set of watches designed by Phillippe Starck for Fossil). I’ve already completed one for 1968, which is 128 tracks strong. This latest one is only half as long – 2003!
And why did I pick 2003, of all years? I thought it was a good opportunity to catch up on a year in which I was too bogged down with work (my final year designing at the newspaper, consigned to doing the non-creative, crap jobs at twice the work volume) and blogging (Scrubbles.net was once quite popular, unbelievable as it seems) to think about music. Most of what I heard back then was old stuff – discovering bossa nova, MPB, French and Sunshine Pop, and all sorts of vintage junk on mix CDs from friends. The new stuff didn’t attract me all that much (I believe I bought all of three albums by current artists that year). If anything, this project served as a catching-up on what was going on back then.
The music in MRH03 probably isn’t the hippest stuff around (I’ve even heard a few tracks playing at Wal-Mart), but it does have a good selection of melodic, somewhat underrated pop. Three tracks each come from two of my favorite albums of that year, Belle and Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the Eels’ Shootenanny! (both albums also use the same font on their covers – the wonderful Clarendon). Putting together this playlist netted a lot of surprising finds. The popular songs of that year were, by and large, awful. Only two US #1 singles wound up here (Beyoncé and Eminem). Unexpectedly, I found a lot of great stuff by super-slick, commercial acts from the UK such as Girls Aloud and Dannii Minogue, along with Indie Twee Pop groups like The Shins, Club 8 and Camera Obscura. Some tunes were gathered by reading through old Rolling Stone magazine issues, Wikipedia, and year-end lists from places like Pitchfork; some were discovered by chance. The beauty of these Spotify playlists is that more songs can be added to them as they’re discovered.