Music is one of the few things that predates us all, but connects us all across a lineage including everyone who came before us. We are all, in our enjoyment of music, participating in an almost religious worship of an ancient art that both escapes our understanding, but is also deeply enmeshed in our spatial, mathematical, linguistic, and psychological understanding of the world.
Music has touched nearly every single person walking this earth, regardless of age, language, race, or class. Its prevalence in our lives as individuals is sometimes even predestined; many of our first experiences with music come from our parents through the lens they choose for us, consciously or not. Whether we sat passively in the car while they played their favorites, or were carefully led through hand-selected music with intention and excitement, we are all imprinted in those first moments with our first inklings of a greater understanding, of the value inherent to what is arguably the most vivid decoration of time we have.
So how does that understanding mature when nurtured and cultivated, as us here in the Music Den have done with almost fanatical consistency and reverence?
My comrades in the audiophile community may call B.S. on what I'm about to say, but the first song I remember knowing the name of that wasn't a nursery rhyme... was Cousin Dupree off of Steely Dan's then long-awaited reunion LP Two Against Nature.
I know. Trust me, I know. In this community, we're all too familiar with this song due to its presence in every audio show/store, as well as every "serious audiophile music" playlist. That's to say nothing of its inclusion in the Harman research, which serves as the closest thing we have to a measure of listener preference regarding sound quality in headphones.
For most of my life, Steely Dan was nothing more or less to me than my dad's favorite band. I eventually came to love them myself, but my love of them sometimes feels like it does nothing more than rotate around the axis of his almost monolithic enjoyment of them; his love for them has so much gravity that it was only a matter of time before I got sucked into its orbit.
My first experience with Steely Dan was not one of audiophile-level engagement, but one of exceedingly simple, childlike imitation. In our family car going who knows where, the chorus, "How 'bout a kiss for your cousin Dupree?" crooned in Fagen's preternaturally familiar Jewish New Yorker sociolect, was just easy enough for my still-developing brain to pick out and repeat ad nauseam... which is basically all it took for me to latch onto it and call it my first "favorite song."
As time has gone on I think I've fostered my own unique perspective and respect for Fagen and Becker as songwriters. They make their way into my current rotation because their skill in songwriting economy, uncompromising approach to instrumental performance, and lyrical wit and color all speak to me in a way no other band does... and I gather it's a similar way to how it all speaks to my father. It's some of the best music of all time, and I could write an entire article (and might well do) about them as a band, but to keep it brief: they lay approximately equal claim to the title of "best rock band ever" as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or Radiohead ever could... yet get less than half the recognition of any of them.
On the other side of my upbringing was my mother, who I've spoken about in my About Me page. While she perhaps wasn't as much of a fanatic as my father was, her engagement with how she listened to music was potentially even more influential; hearing how she harmonized with music, the Beatles in particular, was no doubt a core factor in how I learned to react to sound before I even knew what I was hearing. The first time I actually remember noticing her not singing the main melody line was also in the car, listening to John Mayer's Comfortable off of his Inside Wants Out EP.
The arrangement here is skeletal, just being John's voice and his guitar... But fans of Mayer will know, that doesn't mean it's simple. His acrobatics on guitar are legend in 2022, but hearing this level of instrumental complexity in what is, at its core, incredibly accessible and listenable pop music was completely new to me in 2003. The soft breathiness of his still-maturing voice, the melodious fingerpicking of his guitar, the tender subject matter, mourning the loss of a love an exceedingly comfortable and "broken-in" love, was all I needed to fall hook-line-and-sinker for the man who would eventually play the largest role in my musical upbringing going forward.
The rest of the record stands in contrast to his debut full-length LP Room for Squares in that a lot of the arrangements are more sparse, some being just acoustic, and the mixes being not quite as compressed and "energetic." Inside Wants Out holds the best version (IMO) of his seminal hit Neon, as well as Victoria, which is both one of my favorite songs of his, and one of the strangest cases of a song from the demo tape not making the album.
Overall, these records are foundational to me as a person in more ways than one. They set the stage for my appreciation of songwriting as well as my fascination with musical performance, and revisiting them as an adult never fails to make me appreciate coming from a dyad of loving, but importantly, musical parents.
There is no Den without music. There is no Den without my parents. Both are singers. Every day of my life growing up was filled with it. Full systems in every room of the house. It’s what we woke up to. It’s what we fell asleep to. I was in every school choir from kindergarten until high school graduation. You can say it’s in my DNA.
My father loved the Motown era. He grew up in it, was in many bands, and toured all over. The theatrics, the drama, the simple and profound lyrics. All of it encompasses what he is even to this day. The importance of expression is something I picked up early on as a result. The Temptations, The Delfonics, and The O’Jays are all acts that bring back foundational memories for me.
Didn’t I is a masterpiece of storytelling, choreography, and vocal prowess. There’s a larger than life feel. Even when not watching a performance, you know there’s choreography every second they’re singing. Everyone involved is singing their heart out. Every instrument performs at its peak. Harmonies fully envelope you in the chorus. Didn’t I blow your mind this time? Absolutely.
Money money money money, moooooooney! For The Love of Money, by the O’Jays, is an iconic track. You hear it in movies, TV, and commercials as an anthem for money, but it’s a much deeper song than that. It’s more a warning than a celebration. It captures the time well. The rockstar lifestyle is the ultimate setup for a fall. Many find themselves with money and fame for the first time. It changes you and can ultimately cost you everything. I am glad that part of music never took hold of my parents.
My mother often listened to jazz when it wasn't the Motown era or gospel. I remember Diana Krall’s Peel Me a Grape rather prominently. Not because of her powerful voice. Not because of how smooth and chill it is. I remember it because my little sister used to repeat the lyrics incorrectly. There’s a line that goes “send out for scotch” and my sister would sing “send out for starch.” We will never, ever let her forget it. Just as I will never forget how Diana Krall’s music shaped my appreciation of strong female vocals similar to my mother’s.
Anita Baker is another I remember waking up to alongside the smell of the waffle iron heating up. Sweet Love has to be my favorite song of hers. She has a reassuring calm about her voice. Confident diction, cleanly controlled runs, and dancing around in her vocal range really resonate with me. You feel the longing in her words as she holds onto “sweet love.”
Sometimes I Wonder Why reminds me why timbre is important. Rich piano and Anita Baker’s flawless voice start the song, then a velvety bassline enters. Before long I’m surrounded by a full band as my ears float among the strings. This soulful ballad brings me back to a time where the music of my parents is all I knew. I am forever grateful that it stuck with me. I enjoy plenty of current music, but jazz and soul like this laid the foundation for my musical appreciation.
I could go on forever about how grateful I am that my parents shared music with us. It is such an important part of development. The way your brain activates with music around is just different. From the emotions a simple piano can pull to the way a single lyric can change your perspective. We will keep passing music on. It will carry just as much from generation to generation as the history books.