Music infiltrates every part of our lives. In homes, arenas, clubs, churches, bars, and bedrooms, music is there to tend our emotions, feed our thoughts, and express the parts of ourselves we can’t, and some of my dearest albums have become a central tenet of my identity.
Music wasn’t a huge part of my childhood (the songs I liked in primary school were a jumble of TV themes and Top 40 hits I was never too fond of) but getting a Spotify account in year 9 and being able to listen to entire albums for free allowed me to immerse myself in melody in a way I couldn’t before. I was 13 and bored when, surfing YouTube, I rediscovered a track I recognised from my childhood, as a song that had been blasting from my sister’s bedroom since time immemorial, or at least since 2010; the track was “Mr. Brightside” and the album it came from, “Hot Fuss”, was the first I ever listened to and the first I ever loved. I don’t listen to the Killers often, but I still remember staring at my laptop as I listened to the final notes of “Everything Will Be Alright” and feeling a dreamlike sense of calm I hadn’t known in months.
Over the next few years my taste would spiral out from my friends’ recommendations and my older sister’s favourites to albums from every genre and every decade. In my head are mental mixtapes for every occasion: happy (“Dancing Queen”), angry (“The Rat”), nostalgic (“One Eleven”), and every emotion in between. At the end of bad days, hearing “Take Care” or “Float On” gave me the reassurance I needed; in the weeks I felt most stressed, I had“Sugar for the Pill”, “The Fall”, and “Girl” to calm me down; and some songs have been evergreen, offering constant comfort irrespective of my mood (“Nikes”).
But my best-loved songs have always been the ballads. The way Lou Reed whimpers “help me in my weakness, cause I’ve fallen out of place” on “Jesus” makes him seem, in spite of his other songs about heroin, BDSM, and “sucking on a ding dong”, like the most vulnerable man in the world; and on “Memrise”, a two minute track dropped in the four year interim between “Channel Orange” and “Endless/Blonde”, Frank Ocean’s falsetto pleas to a lover to stay true to himself are so tender as to be painful. Both have soundtracked me crying alone in bed, and while I’ve not listened to either in a while, the way those voices make me feel is still lucid in my memory.
And while the music in “Dance Yrself Clean” is dazzling, it’s the lyrics that made listening to it for the first time so monumental. “Killing it with close inspection” was about my overthinking, “sometimes friends are mean” my feelings of isolation, and the beat drop my adolescent baptism, the pure catharsis of shedding away everything I disliked about myself, of dancing myself clean. Maybe I shouldn’t have sympathised as much as I did with a 40-year-old white guy from New Jersey, but LCD Soundsystem were to me not only danceable but acutely relatable.
Like poetry and microscopes, music takes the small things we see every day (love, hate, happiness, sadness) and magnifies them for close inspection. People often associate their favourite songs with when they were young, and maybe it’s because it’s in the years when our emotions are most vivid and our identities most in flux that we most need songs to make sense of ourselves.
Alone in my bedroom, listening to my most treasured albums, the tunes gain importance from how they touch my soul, but listening to music with others creates a different kind of buzz. At concerts, discos and weddings, where all are equal on the dance floor, one nation under a groove, music unites people from all walks of life, and that’s not to be taken lightly – liking the same song or album as someone else is seeing into their soul a little, inspiring empathy between people with little in common and highlighting the humanity we share. Even trading playlists with a friend has a magic all of its own. The best tracks don’t just make me feel, they draw meaning from the memories I make while listening to them, striking right at the border between individual and communal experience.
Not only has the Internet made finding new music easier, it’s also made it so these communal experiences can span the globe. The YouTube comments sections of my favourite tracks are littered with stories of music changing lives: the newly single listening to Frank or Adele and finding solace after heartbreak; suicidal teenagers hearing “Float On” and finding the will to live another day. As for me, these last few years have been confusing, but the albums closest to my heart have been like roadmaps, directing, motivating and teaching me things about myself I never would have realised alone. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of music in widening my worldview, connecting me with people I never would have talked to otherwise, and giving me the courage to be myself; and from the stories I hear, both online and offline, I know I’m not alone.
Music really did change my life, and given that I’ve always loved writing, I’ve thought of starting a music blog before. That said, the thought of trying to be objective always put me off; I was sure that good music reviews were meant to inform, not to be informal, and yet talking about albums without mentioning the personal stories behind them seemed dull if not impossible, so in the end I didn’t write at all.
But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realised the idea of objectivity in music and art in general is mad, and that the criteria writers use to distinguish a good album from a bad one (originality, influence, beauty) are all largely personal. That’s not to say that music is entirely subjective, but stripping music to its objective realities is to strip it of its power.
Some cling to “canon”: the concept that, in popular music’s short history, there are already albums to be venerated above all others. These canons can be helpful; when I first started listening to music, lists like Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” were a godsend, not only useful in finding new albums to listen to but also addictive in the way I could check off albums like bucket list items as I listened to them. But the more music I listened to, the more I realised the idea of a concrete canon is revisionist, biased, and self-perpetuating, elevating the preferences of a few and writing off good albums not on the list as irrelevant.
Other writers tie music to popular culture to give it an emotional resonance, every LP part of something bigger; but while it’s true that the two are strongly linked, it’s not the thing that gives music importance. When Prince and Bowie died last year, they were mourned not because of their albums sales or how culturally relevant they were, but because of the difference their notes and words made in the lives of countless people. Connecting albums to movements or generations or zeitgeists can be illuminating, but it should never be the whole story, because the best albums, even if they are just collections of tracks, stand on their own. Music isn’t about genres or Big Monocultural Events or even culture itself – music is about the people who make it, the people who listen to it, and the silent agreement between both parties as to what the melodies mean.
This blog is not about being objective. It’s for talking about my favourite songs and albums, new and old and how they make me feel: the way I connect with them; the memories I have tied up with them; and their effect on my life. I probably don’t have it in me to write about artists I don’t like, mostly because it would be something of a chore, so I’ll just write about what I enjoy; but if I’m gonna keep this thing going, it needs a solid purpose for it to motivate me, and so I’m starting this blog for three reasons.
Number one is that this blog is writing practise. I’m an aspiring journalist so hopefully having something in the public eye to maintain will hold me to writing regularly and often and becoming better and faster at what I hope to do as a career.
Number two is that this blog is a forum. Music is there in every part of our lives, but with tastes more polarised than ever, most people don’t really talk about it, and when they do it’s shallow – either angry disagreement or fervent accord. We might talk about bands, but only the ones we know our friends will like; we might talk about songs, but never speak about what they really mean to us. But we have to talk about the things we love, even if they’re unpopular or uncool or disliked by the people around us, or we run the risk of losing the vulnerable joy that comes with sharing them. My hope is that, in talking and sharing stories about the music that’s special to me, I’ll inspire other people to do the same, or at least to appreciate their own valued albums a little more than they already do.
And number three is that this blog is a time capsule. In every generation, there are people who say that good music is gone – that music died with Mozart, or with rock ‘n’ roll, or with disco, or with hip hop, or with their adolescence – but these people will always be wrong. Music was around long before everyone I know was born and it’ll continue long after everyone I know is dead. The only feature of good music is that it makes people feel, and as long as there are people to make music and people to listen to music, there will always be music that is beautiful and true and that fits that criteria.
My hope is that I never forget that, but when I’m old and jaded, and the way I look at music is clouded with the fog of nostalgia, I very well might. And it’s not that I’m resigned to the possibility that aging will make me closed-minded to what now makes me the most happy (it’s absolutely terrifying) but maybe it’s unavoidable. My interests as a 16-year-old are not the same as when I was 6, and they’ll probably be completely different when I’m 26, when I’m 66 and when I’m 106. I’m excited for the future, but I can barely decide on my A-level options and I’m already being asked to think of university, of finding a career, of starting a family, and sometimes it can feel like I’m at the beginning of a long, open road with no clue where I’m going. All I can hope for is to capture the present moment now, to immortalise some part of my teenage experience while my ears are still open and my body is still resilient, preserved like fossils in amber on the Internet for that rainy day when the passion is gone.
My reasons for starting this blog made finding a good URL important (if this is something I’m going to look back on in 10 or 20 years time, it would have been dumb to name it something like ilovejamesmurphy.wordpress.com) but finding a decent name that hadn’t already been taken was a nightmare. In spite of all my brainstorming, the best one I could come up with was “parallel peaks”, so clearly I’m not much of a title guy. But even though it’s a syllable too long and the alliteration makes it sounds like a children’s book character, I’m happy with it because it alludes to three of my favourite things: the peaks of the soundwaves that music is made up of; the lyric on “Rushes” that goes “twin peaking highs and lows”; and the universality of music itself. I can listen to a song simultaneously to someone on the other side of the world, but our listening experiences never intersect. Yet even if we never meet, the stories I see shared on the comments sections I frequent make it clear that we can still have the same reaction, parallel peaks in emotion. Like a good starter pack meme, the best music reminds us that we’re all different, but we’re also all the same, and I think that’s really beautiful.
There’s lots of things I’ve touched upon in this post that I could have gone on about for much longer, and when it comes to songs and albums that are important to me, I’ve barely scratched the surface. But this is just a debut – hopefully, like the best musicians, I’ll only get better over time. So until my next post, here’s to music. Here’s to dancing to hits from every decade, to crying in our bedrooms to the same tune over and over, to blasting primary school bangers at parties and laughing at ourselves. Here’s to ABBA and Arctic Monkeys, the Beatles and the Beastie Boys, Carole King and Chance the Rapper, David Bowie and D’Angelo, Elvis Presley and Eminem, Funkadelic and Frank Ocean, Gorillaz and Grimes, Hank Williams and Hüsker Dü, Isaac Hayes and Interpol, Jimi Hendrix and J Dilla, Kanye and Kendrick, Lou Reed and LCD Soundsystem, Miles Davis and Michael Jackson, Nina Simone and Nirvana, Patti Smith and Prince, Queen and Queens of the Stone Age, REM and Radiohead, Slint and Stevie Wonder, Talk Talk and Tame Impala, U2 and Underworld, Vampire Weekend and the Velvet Underground, Wire and the Wu-Tang Clan, the xx, Yes and the Zombies. Here’s to listening to music to figure out the world within us and the world around us. Here’s to all of us, listening to our favourite songs, alone, together. Here’s to parallel peaks.