10 Bands/Artists/Albums that I (Utterly) Cannot Live Without

Warning: this is a long one, so… you might want to go grab yourself some hot cocoa and buckle in for a minute or two.

  1. Wavves

It’s weird—I discovered the Wavves by accident. I was doing a really spotty job pretending to be a freelance DJ/television assistant/novelist while I lived in New York City. This was all circa 2005-2010. To be really honest, I was just a lazy grad student and I kinda sort supplanted my student loan income by occasionally being “guest” DJ alongside my friends who had regular gigs. Anyway, it occurred to me once, probably close to the time I wrapped up the whole NYC experience and packed a freight truck full of my life’s belongings back to Arizona that I should call a record company, tell them I was a DJ, and ask for stuff to play and give away. Hey, it worked when I was a hack college DJ, why shouldn’t it work as a 20-something hack NYC DJ? After several failed attempts, I finally convinced Matador Records that I was worth sending a promo kit of their newest artists’ released. I got an amazing stack of new music from The National, Kurt Vile and Wavves. I’ve come to love all three,  but I love Wavves the best. I think it’s because Wavves is that surf rock band I always wanted to grow up listening to but we didn’t have when I was a teen. Wavves is like what the Beach Boys are, to my mom. I friggin love this band, and it’s been amazing to watch them grow. I think it’s only fair I share my top three Wavves tracks. So here they are, in this order: 1. Idiot, 2. King of the Beach and 3. Afraid of Heights.

Desert island music? Oh, hell yeah!

  1. Nirvana

I was one of those grunge kids before grunge kids were cool. That’s right—I had Nevermind as soon as it came out. It was 1992, and I was 12 years old. I barely understood what rock ‘n’ roll was—but I knew enough. I knew that it gave me a tingly sensation right there in the middle of my teenage torso. I knew it made me want to get out of seat, and if not dance, then at least dash around like a maniac mock-copying what they did late at night on MTV, Head Bangers’ Ball. OK, so I got exposed to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” through the radio—we all did. But not everyone has a special memory like I do of an elementary school bus trip locking fingers (yes, fingers—not even holding hands, because, like, we were 12), with the cute boy I called my boyfriend, who also happened to love Nirvana, and was also listening to Nevermind as we drove through the desert all the way from Phoenix to San Diego to go to Sea World. Yes, listening to the cassette tapes—ON OUR WALKMANS!!

I begged my mom to take me to see Nirvana at the state fair when they played with Mudhoney and me and my little ‘tween and teenage brat junior high friends then ditched my mom, my sister, and my sister’s godmother and spent the whole time in the pit. Until we got kicked out. I nearly gave my mom a heart attack (this was the early 1990s, the era before cell phones).

When Kurt Cobain died, my junior high best friend and I lost it after D.A.R.E. And we cried all the way until I said goodbye to her as she got on the bus. Shortly after that, I went through a Nirvana backlash—a personal rebellion of sorts. Kids that I mentally deemed “poseurs” started wearing Nirvana shirts to school—like all over the place, and I couldn’t handle it. I had loved Nirvana first. I was the angsty kid first—the one who truly meant it. Like the Sallinger novel kid’s character thought, these other guys were phonies. I gave up on Nirvana all through high school and most of college.

Still, I couldn’t part with my cassettes and CDs, and slowly but surely I started listening again. It turns out that In Utero never gets old. It turns out that Cobain’s lyrics take on new, sometimes darker, sometimes brighter, meanings, the more you listen to them. So I could never be all out of Nirvana.

It took until they released that box set around 2003 and my editor at the small weekly entertainment magazine I was then working at offered to let me review it that I had to take a deep breath and plunge back into the abyss. And I’ll never deny them again. I’ll always love this band.

  1. Sonic Youth

As hard as I took it when Kim and Thurston broke up, I had to finally admit that it had nothing to do with me.

I think like a lot of coming-of-age females of my generation, the Kim/Thurston duo represented the unattainable, and that’s what made them so highly desirable and iconic. Who wouldn’t love a moppy haired glasses wearing dweeb who identified as a feminist, wrote cool ‘zines and could shred on the guitar? Thurston was the dream BF, and Kim represented what I always wished I had the balls to be—a rock star. So in my fantasy life, that could be me—a hot, confident indie mega-babe, with her nerdy prince rocker BF/husband, rocking their way to liberation, fighting fascism and taking us on a dream trip, too. Come to find out from Kim’s memoir, Girl in a Band, it wasn’t always fun and games, nor was it a love-fest the entire time. But so what? To me, these people were heroes. I love everything that they stood for. I even got into Two Dollar Guitar and once went to a film art show put on by Lee Renaldo’s wife, Leah Singer, in Seattle just because there was a Sonic Youth connection.

If it weren’t for this band, I wouldn’t know who the artists Mike Kelley or Richard Prince even were.

I owe a lot to this band for helping me find art, strength, creativity and passion, at several critical junctures in my life. Just for the record and since I’m on topic: I can probably never tire of Washing Machine or Dirty, I think Experimental Jet Set is entirely overrated. Free Kitten was cute, but I never knew whether or not I was supposed to take it seriously or not. I really liked X Girl when Kim was running it, and I wish I’d known more about Kim’s life when I was a teenager. I would have liked this band even more.

  1. The Concretes, but only with Victoria Bergsman as the singer

Like my accidental addiction to Wavves, I honestly cannot remember how I got into The Concretes. I am happy to say that I am fairly certain I discovered them on my own. But whether I heard them first in a bar, a record store, or something cheesy like Pandora, I really do not recall. What I do recall is the way The Concretes’ album Layyourbattleaxedown gently coaxed me through grad school as I was completing my MFA in Creative Writing, and then became so ingrained in my psyche that I find I can’t make a mix CD or own a personal music device without loading at least one, two or three songs—Oh, OK, at least half the album—onto it, and celebrating every musical note with joy. Lady December is one of the finest tribute songs ever written. Stop. Dianna Ross is equally a good tribute, but it also sums up girlhood in a way that is utterly, blissfully perfect. Chico is probably my favorite, most tenderest getting-over-broken-heart-song ever (I secretly hope and dream and pray it was written about a cat), and Miss You is thee best Rolling Stones cover, I think I have ever heard (a possible second-place I would give to The Sundays for Wild Horses).

I don’t know why Bergsman left the band. I tried to get into them without her, but it just wasn’t there. It’s something about her raw, quirky, sentimental yet not sappy voice that I can’t live without. I also tried getting into Taken with Trees, but I just couldn’t do it. The instrumentation of The Concretes, as a band, plus Bergsman’s angel-voice is the perfect combo. I think Taken by Trees to me feels… well… a little too much like a weak samba band. I don’t connect with it as much. But the old lineup with V.B. as singer could last me till the end of my days (I just hope my CDs and digital devices last that long).

  1. Neko Case

I once saw Neko Case and her band play the Williamsburg pool. She opened with “Favorite.” My eyes flooded with tears and I thought I was going to pass out because I believed that Neko Case had read my mind!!

Come to find out, no, she hadn’t read my mind (turns out she doesn’t even know me. Huh.) but her tarot card deck had TOLD her to lead with that song.

“Holy shit!” I thought when I found that out. “That is even BETTER!”

Whether or not Neko really is a psychic Wiccan (which I suspect. But in a good way), she can croon like nobody’s business, and I can’t imagine a single person with a cold heart so stony that he/she could not relate to her. She’s gorgeous and pure, just city enough and just hippie enough for me to relate to her. She’s not too angry, and she’s not too sad. But she, like all of my favorite artists out there, seems to know exactly what she stands for, and she doesn’t take no slack from anybody. As evidenced in her bone-chilling song “Make your Bed” off Canadian Amp. “Maybe Sparrow” seems really sweet and “Knock Loud” (Sook-Yin Lee) is a cool cover. Plus, Case shows she’s a gal who stays connected to her roots, even if she had a tough childhood with parents who were mess-ups.

Neko Case has written some of the tenderest, best versed, most emotive, crafty and intelligent songs of our generation. And I mean that honestly, and not just because I secretly really, really really want to meet her.

  1. Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith died before I could ever see him perform. It’s funny cuz I know a lot of kids from Phoenix who all have a similar story—they were on the way to see him play in Phoenix, circa sometimes around the year 2000, but his tour bus broke down in Vegas or LA or blah blah. I don’t know what I was doing at that time, but I probably did not live in Phoenix. Anyway, it’s weird, I always liked/loved his music and felt almost a personal connection to him. And, the thing I think is even weirder than that is that a lot of people would talk about him in this same way I was feeling—almost like they know him on a first name basis.

Without ever knowing, here are some things I am certain of: I am certain he was an introvert to an extreme. How do I know this? Duh. I didn’t need to watch a documentary or anything you get it from his music. This was a guy who was left alone a lot, and probably preferred it that way, and you know what? Not everyone has to be the life of the party. I think I related to this part of him as an artist so deeply because I have tried time and again, time after time, again and again to insert myself into one scene or another—tried again and again to BE the life of the party. And failed. Again and again. And I find myself alone in my own little room, wrapped deep in my own thoughts. And again and again, that is OK. The people I know who have loved Elliott Smith loved him in a deeply personal way, almost like an intimate friend, without ever knowing the guy. Somehow with his sheepish grin, his unkempt hair and his not-too-secret rocky brick path of drug use, a little part of A LOT of us could find a way to relate.

Plus, he’s the only songwriter I can really, truly, honestly name who can drop the F-bomb and make it sound pretty.

When he drops a line like: “Do you think I outta shake your mother-fuckin’ hand?” you are taken right to moment. You can actually see his shaky scary scarecrow nemesis staggering down some alley, and you just want to kill that guy on behalf of your friend Elliott Smith because for some reason that you can’t even explain he just hates him so bad.You just know he wronged your friend, you don’t know how, but you just know that other guy is bad news.

There’s a lot of reading between the lines with Elliott Smith. I once almost got in an argument with a dear friend of mine who is a bigger fan of his than I because I suggested a lot of his lyrics are code for drugs, and she did not like that. I stand by my original assessment; I just can’t think of many other meanings for so many needles and so many starry skies, and so many lyrics that overtly say things about “high on amphetamines.” Still, I think his music is pretty and enchanting. I don’t know all the demons he took down with him, and I hope to God I never know them all as up-close-and-personal as he did, but I still think he fought the good fight. And I sorta wish he was still around writing more good songs, even ones with curse words.

  1. Willie Nelson

Ha HA! I know is a curveball after reading most of my list. But let me explain. When I was a kid, I grew up in a house divided. My mom loved Elvis and the Beach Boys, and my dad was into country music—err, what was then “new country.” Almost 24 hours a day, we would have the Country Music Network on cable, and crooners such as George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, and 1980s Glen Campbell would flood through the house. For some tweens this would be seriously annoying. But I didn’t know any better. So I loved it! (P.S. once they got divorced my mom made a point of always, only playing the pop rock station in her car. I was quickly weened from Willie and fed a steady diet of Madonna, Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul. I had music identity issues well into junior high…)

When I was 8 years old, KNIX (local Phoenix country station of that era) was my favorite station. And whenever we got in the car, I’d insist we listen to it. My parents actually bought me a cheap alarm clock radio from Walgreens so I could listen to Tania Tucker and the Judds in my room. (That was the late 1980s, and I still have it—it’s a little beat up but it’s still on the nightstand). So, basically, I grew up with Willie, and Willie is nostalgia music for me.

I remember following him through the heartbreak of his bad IRS years in the late 1980s. I remember Farm Aid—hell, I probably watched all of it with my dad on CMT, both of us with tears in our eyes, touched by Willie’s great generosity. (Come to find out as an adult that he was kind of forced by the IRS to record a few records and turn over almost 100% of the profit in order to get himself out of hot water. But I can forgive the guy. Everybody owes someone something).

Even though I think of him more as a pothead than a cowboy, and his blood might run a tad more Libertarian than my own, I still love the guy as an artist and an icon. I saw him some years back at Austin City Limits, and he was and is one of the best live performers I have ever seen—a real professional.

It wasn’t too long ago that during a cable doc about him that I caught the tale end of I got a tear in my eye for Willie. It occurred to me that when he dies, I will cry—and I will cry hard. He’s one of the last holding institutions of what was once a great country music era—the 1980s. And when Willie Nelson is gone, so too, I fear, will be the last vestiges, childhood comforts and some of the nostalgia of my youth.

  1. Dinosaur Jr.

Sure, I liked grunge in junior high. But then I went through a backlash (see the previous entry on Nirvana) and then in high school I thought I was really into punk and ska. Punk I still have a stomach for, but ska—blech. It must have been the hazy brain I had in high school for the guy I was dating and went to prom with. He was in a minor local ska band, for a hot minute.

Anyway, enough high school weekend nights spent spent “skanking” with white, suburban, wannabe Rude Boys, and then I grew out of in. In college I discovered indie and quickly got my earbuds massaged by such bands as Death Cab for Cutie, Yo La Tengo and Pavement. And I liked all of them a’ight. But it wasn’t until I moved to Seattle and actually lived and commuted entrenched in the misty climes of the Pacific Northwest—the place that grunge was culled from—did I truly begin to understand and appreciate the mysticism, longing, loneliness, silliness and occasional giddiness that comes with the territory.

See, Seattle has a troll. Not everyone knows this. But I knew this. He lives under the 99 overpass in what was once my neighborhood—Fremont. And I discovered this troll about the same time I was discovering a lot of things about myself and my life, and this was when I also truly got into Dinosaur Jr. Ironically, I was working at Urban Outfitters at the time. Not ironically as in “hipster irony is cool.” It is NOT cool. I’ve never thought doing ANYTHING solely for the sake of irony was cool, and I still don’t like it. To me, (and I was an English major) irony is one of the cheapest forms of comedy. So I didn’t want to get into Dino Jr. for that. No! It just so happened that I briefly had a crush on a coworker who was legit really into them. And he used to play them in the store a lot. And I would wonder around, hating my job, feeling lonely because no one would date me that year (spoiler alert: low self-esteem is a real bummer when you are trying to attract a date. And there is nothing ironic about that). Since my crush wasn’t into me, and I was weirdly getting into his music, I suddenly started to get the downer theme that a lot of the Pacific Northwest music has to it. “I don’t see you, I won’t call you. I don’t know enough to stall you…” Not to mention I was coming off of a serious break-up with someone I’d been very, very into but had never had the guts to really come out and say it. Ugh. I was feeling like a failure at love. Not to mention life! Here I’d finished a college degree, and all I could find for work was Urban Outfitters? “I’ll be grazin’ by your window/please come pat me on the head. Just want to find out what you’re… nice to me for…”

Then the icing on the cake was when my friend who happened to be an intern at Up! Records took me to see J. Mascis live at the Tractor. The guy WAS a Dinosaur! And man, the guy could shred. I was overwhelmed at the intense amount of emotional energy he put into a show, just sitting there with his guitar. I’ve seen Dinosaur Jr. three or four times now, all in different cities, and every single time he’s been unstoppable (I heard the dude is hardcore into meditation. He is another rocker on my list of “really, really, really want to meet this person”).

I moved away from Seattle because at the end of my brief stint there I really ended up hating the climate. And I sorta thought the people acted funny, too. But I think what I really just hated most was being alone. I’ve never done well as the lonely guy. But hey, at least I had the music of Dinosaur Jr. to relate to. And there is no irony in that.

  1. Bikini Kill/le Tigre/Julie Ruin/whatever the fuck that Kathleen Hanna does

I’m not a singer. I have a terrible voice. And yet, for some sick reason, I still like to get up and torture my friends with performances at karaoke. I can’t really explain that, except… no, wait, I can—Kathleen Hanna taught me when I was a teenager that if you need to express yourself, verbally, vocally or in poetry you have every right to do it and nobody should shut you up.

Given this secret, silent unspoken message that I somehow derived from her music at age 13 has sometimes gotten me in trouble. I’ve told some folks off when I maybe probably shouldn’t have. I don’t regret it. And some people would say that is stubborn, but those people do not know what it feels like to have been constantly shut up, ignored and dismissed throughout life for not being cool enough, not being smart enough, not having Guess jeans and not being elected class president.

True, I have some chips on my shoulder. But that’s because I was an ambitious kid. And I was a kid who faced a lot of rejection. And it’s not something I always share with people as an adult, even my close friends.

But what I like about this fact about me, and what I like about Bikini Kill, is that these things made me strong. It did take a long, long time to realize—that is true. But I am a strong person. Nigh! A strong WOMAN, and that is a valuable thing. I didn’t even know how strong until recently I looked over scores of poetry I’d written when I was, oh, ages 19-25. And there is some pretty damn good stuff in there!

The first time my cousin put a Bikini Kill record on at her house, I wasn’t sure I liked it. The singer sounded shrill, and pissed, at the same time. I was into Nirvana, my cousin, Shannon, had been into Guns & Roses for a while. So, frankly, when she put the record on, I was confused.

But I read the sleeve, and the lyrics matched a lot of things I’d been thinking and feeling. Feelings of being shot down, feelings of being squashed by boy-culture, confusion about sexuality, ideas about girl empowerment. That was brand new. The first time we listened, I was confused. But the second, third and fourth times we listened, I started to like it. Bikini Kill, like Elliott Smith, is another of my all-time faves that I never got to see perform live. But I DID get to see le Tigre a couple times as an adult, and all the old feelings came back, were reinforced, and then even expanded. I don’t think I’d truly know my place in the world as a volunteer, teacher, do-gooder, woman-lover, friend and activist if it weren’t for Bikini Kill. And for that I feel I owe a lot. Plus, turn on le Tigre at any dance party and you automatically WIN as DJ. So, you know, double-good.

  1. Patti Smith

When I read Just Kids about Smith’s friendship/soulmate-relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, I bawled my eyes out. Patti Smith had the same effect on me when I saw her perform live at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Dec. 2005. I have to admit that for me there are times when music becomes something of a religious experience. And Patti Smith is paramount in this regard.

I didn’t always love her. In college I was curious. I knew zero about her back story, but I knew that some of my older, intellectual friends seemed to dig her for her poetry. I gave Horses a listen and was instantly hooked. I can’t say the same about Easter, Land or Gung Ho, although over time they’ve grown on me.

I needed a wise older friend to explain to me why Rock N Roll Nigger was OK. Why was it OK for this white woman to be saying it? No—why was it OK for her to be scream/singing it? Why was it OK for her to be claiming to be one? At first, to my overly-sensitive politically correct tuned suburban white girl ears, everything about this was evil and wrong. But that’s because I was still an outsider to the outsider subculture. Still really just a fangirl to rock and roll, I had to go through some tough shit and trying times to get to really understand what that song, and many of Smith’s others, were really about.

Now that I understand the relationship with Maplethorpe and her thirst, drive and commitment to her art, the song, “Free Money” tears my soul apart. But I could never have gotten that song if I’d never been broke, suffering for art or lived through severe disappointment and desperation. Sure, “Money—it’s what I want”—it’s what EVERYONE wants. But it adds a depth of almost depravity when you actually need it so bad because your soulmate is almost dying of pneumonia and you can’t afford to hit the doctor’s office.

I discovered Smith’s love for William Blake and immediately I knew she was kin. An ex gave me a book of just her poems at a particularly devastatingly sad moment in our relationship and I ate it up like chocolate chips. I needed it. It was comfort food. We’ve since parted ways, but I’ll always have mad respect for the person because he knew that we’d share in her words some modicum of strength and recovery.

Just looking at M Train sitting on the floor of my office on top of my “to read” pile is making my eyes well-up, so I think it’s probably time to get to that. Patti Smith is not just a poet but a lover and a lover of peace, and I have more respect for her than any teacher or mentor that I’ve ever had face-to-face. Because she lives her art. And I take this as a strength, and more than a light suggestion. I’d really like to be more like the person I observe her to be in her art—pure, honest and true. And I think when I finish her book that may have to be my New Year’s resolution.






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