For the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I will be using this space for a series of pieces I call Mixtape – a set of personal stories about the pop music that made a positive change in my life. Enjoy and share your thoughts on these and the other songs and records that shaped the way you see and hear things now! Part of the power of music is how it can be both personal and communal at once.
A guy roughly my same age was recently talking about how he only buys music digitally now.
“The last time I got a CD?” he tried to reminisce. “I think my wife bought me something by John Legend three years ago for Christmas. And I returned it.”
The group of us listening to his story laughed, but I couldn’t relate. In the forty-eight hours before this took place, I’d bought at least three physical CDs. Today, my team at work surprised me with a Christmas gift card to my favorite local record store. If you want to ride shotgun in my car, I am going to need a few minutes to pile up the stacks of cases all over the passenger side and put them in a box in my trunk.
It’s become culturally approved again to buy vinyl records, an ode to the past and an easy conversation starter for those who like to talk about fidelity and technology. But I still unapologetically – as much as anyone and everyone is quick to tell me it’s stupid – love the compact disc as the delivery method for musical entertainment.
Even as a young kid, my ideal Christmas present was not in a big bowed box, wrapped in yards of flashy paper and lapped in ribbon. For as long as I can remember, scouting for ideal presents among the piles under a tree consisted of looking for thin squares of tightly covered plastic.
Until I was in the fifth grade I only had cassettes. Compact discs were still relatively new and definitely cost-prohibitive on my weekly allowance of $2.50. I’d stare longingly at the magazine inserts advertising Columbia House and BMG Music Clubs that would fall out of the daily stack of mail. I could think of little that sounded more exciting than 13 shiny silver discs arriving in the mail box for JUST ONE PENNY! (Follow-up purchase commitments and fine print be damned!)
I can’t remember if it was me or my best friend Ben who first achieved parental approval to try the Columbia House subscription model. My sister and I split our 13 album take, but were still relegated to cassettes. Ben has always been an “old soul” and student of jazz history, so even as a young teenager, his impulse was to stock up on vintage swing records and Blue Note back catalogue – and he got to procure the more expensive compact discs.
Ben reminded me recently, whilst enjoying a drink around a fire pit during the last fall evening of the year, that he used his thirteenth musical pick all those years ago for me. The disc he gifted me – the first compact disc I ever properly called my own – was California ska-pop band No Doubt’s 1995 mainstream success Tragic Kingdom.
I am sure I asked him for it. No Doubt had a lot of elements that were attention-grabbing to a 13-year-old male music fan:
First – putting horns in rock music seemed revolutionary. I’d heard Motown and Chicago and soft rock records from the 1970’s, but none of those made horns sound like rock music. The members of No Doubt were California surf punks – and they played brass instruments. I was too young to yet know names like The Toasters or Skankin’ Pickle and I lacked the education to understand the connection this music had to the Wailers or Toots & The Maytals. Adrian Young’s mohawk was enough to win me over.
Second – Gwen Stefani. She played part-pinup, part-cartoon character, but with a grit and flamboyance that made No Doubt HER band. Regardless of whatever was happening offstage, in the spotlight she wasn’t working for anyone else. This was the Gwen Show.
Third – the quality of the songs can’t be overlooked. Even beyond the tunes that took over radio in 1995 and 1996 and sent competing record labels clamoring to create clones or jettison bar acts to national stature too quickly, Tragic Kingdom is packed with songs that contain a potent mix of danceability and pure pop formulism. Luck isn’t the only reason that No Doubt became a powerhouse while The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones, Save Ferris and Reel Big Fish stayed mostly relegated to fringe fanbases. The songs on this album are remarkably well-written.
And those songs sounded great playing through the Discman I was finally gifted for an early teenage birthday. It took help from the guy at Radio Shack to find all the right cords, but eventually I was able to connect enough wires to push the sound from the personal player through boombox speakers positioned carefully on the plastic side table next to my bed.
Now I have a basement full of CDs, stacked in cabinets, piled on ledges and crammed into corners. There are at least 20 somewhere in my car on any given day. I have had a Spotify account that I pay for since the day the company launched in the United States. But if you gave me an afternoon to do anything for a few hours, I’d choose to dig through dusty discount bins around town looking to see how I can add to my collection.
As for No Doubt – as I was given them as a gift by Ben those many years ago, this Christmas it was someone else asking for Gwen Stefani’s singing voice under the tree. My mom – a longtime piano and vocal teacher – can’t get enough of The Voice TV singing competition (where Gwen is an on-again-off-again coach) and particularly loves holiday music. Combine those two things and she is powerless. She sent a text to me and my siblings begging for the new Christmas collection from Gwen Stefani and all I could do was smile.
Be careful what you wish for, Mom. You don’t have a basement.