I won’t lie. I thought that writing this was going to be an absolute cinch. Write about the music that I love: something that’s been one of the driving forces in the last ten years of my life, that starts and ends my days, that might as well be the blood flowing through my veins for how much it means to me? How hard could that be? And yet when I first started writing about my musical tastes, I sat and stared at a blank Word document for a good fifteen minutes. Because how do you accurately describe something that important to you? And then I realized that music hasn’t been one thing to me; it’s been many.
It’s been a fellow traveler, one that has come along with me as I’ve moved from America to Germany and Japan and hopscotched across the world. It was a rescuer, one of the many grappling hooks that hauled me up from depression. It’s doubled as Cupid and led me into love. It’s been a megaphone, when my own voice wasn’t strong or clear enough. It’s been a bridge to new friends with whom I’d originally thought I had nothing in common. It’s been a teacher, leading me into new sonic territory that I’d never appreciated before. But most importantly and definitely most obviously, it’s been my ever-present companion, one that has followed me throughout the years, provided constant support, alternatively kept me calm and amped me up, and chronicled my accomplishments and disappointments.
When I was growing up, I didn’t have much of a musical landscape to speak of. My mum loved country music, so that was normally what I’d listen to in my early years. (And I still believe to this day that those prolonged years of exposure are the reason I abhor anything that twangs, aside from Mumford & Sons.) My dad, being more of a radio talk show fan, wasn’t too vocal about what music he liked, but anytime I caught a glimpse of his musical tastes, they were usually rock-oriented.
There’s one memory that really sticks out, though: one summer day while we were in the car, my dad popped in a CD of AC/DC’s greatest hits. I was thrilled at the raucous guitar licks and devil-may-care vocals; he was thrilled that his teenage Fall Out Boy-loving daughter showed appreciation for one of his bands.
Of course, like pretty much every other citizen of the modern world, I was born knowing the words to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (That’s a thing, right?) and other classic rock hits, but at the tender age of thirteen or so, that car ride was the first prolonged exposure I had to classic rock ‘n’ roll. And looking back, I think it laid the groundwork that later led me into Nirvana, Boston, Foreigner, and Oingo Boingo. (If you ask me for my favorite songs, Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” will inevitably pop up. It’s kooky, weird, and a perfect summation of everything that was so awesome about rock in the ‘80s.)
Aside from that tinge of classic rock, when I was left to my own devices, I liked the usual dozen or so Top 40 hits that played every hour on the radio. My most embarrassing vice? That title probably goes to Avril Lavigne; so obsessed was I with Let Me Go, her debut album, that I dressed up as her one year for Halloween.
During my junior high and early high school days, I was very much a subscriber to the pop-rock and –punk scene. Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, Boys Like Girls, Amber Pacific, The Academy Is…, The Starting Line, The Hush Sound, Jack’s Mannequin, and Cobra Starship were among the major players on the soundtrack of my high school life and even bled a bit into college, when the day that the Vans Warped Tour rolled into Pittsburgh was the most important of my summer.
I’ve almost entirely outgrown those bands and have left them behind for more alternative pastures, but two bands have followed me into my mid-20s: Anberlin and Bayside. The first time I saw “*fin” live, I’m not ashamed to say I cried. Anberlin’s the kind of band that’s pulled me up from some pretty nasty depths, and even when I profess that I’ve left behind the bands of my younger years, my love and respect for Anberlin has never wavered. The same goes for Bayside; Anberlin lifted me up, but I felt like Bayside’s angst and pain got me when I was at my lowest.
Yeah, that band was Muse. “New Born” was the song that started it all; specifically, it was the version played at the trio’s 2004 headlining Glastonbury set. In front of my laptop, with a pair of subpar headphones jammed into my ears, watching a grainy YouTube video in the spring of 2006 – that was the defining moment in my musical history.
From the first time I heard Matt Bellamy transition in seconds from playing a delicate, lullaby-esque line on the piano to coaxing a squealing, mind-rending wail from his Manson guitar, I was hooked. It was like someone had stuck a crackling live wire into the base of my spine and the charge blazed up to electrocute every neuron in my brain, and I loved it. And then Chris Wolstenholme’s blisteringly fast bass thundered in, and I was a woman lost to the Teignmouth Trio, as I fondly refer to them.
For a few years, I was positively obsessed. I downloaded every bootleg, B-track, and demo that I could find, and scoured the Internet for videos of old gigs. The end result? Well, my iPod’s home to nearly seven hundred Muse tracks and over fifty gig bootlegs, and I’ve developed the totally useless ability of knowing within the first five to ten seconds of any live recording where it was played, when it was played, and probably which guitar was used, too. I’ve seen them seven times across three continents and four separate countries. No matter what I think about their subpar recent albums, nobody puts on a live show with these guys. I’ll defend them as the best live performers in the world till I’m blue in the face. (Just don’t bring up “Neutron Star Collision”, please.)
My first tattoo was Muse-inspired, as well: I have the silhouettes that adorn the cover of 2003’s Absolution, my favorite album, on my right foot. In 2010, I even jumped on a plane and headed to the UK for a weekend to see Muse in concert in Manchester.
And inevitably, I became known as “that girl who likes Muse” among certain people at my college. After Muse won a Grammy for The Resistance (which even I, super-fan that I was, thought was pretty preposterous), one of my college professors congratulated me. As in, “I heard Muse won a Grammy. Congratulations, you must be so proud of them!” (For the record, I wasn’t. I wanted to send them back into the studio to make the second coming of Absolution or 2001’s Origin of Symmetry.)
I’ve gone to some pretty far lengths for that band, and though my love for them has tempered and faded a bit in recent years with their last two (mostly disappointing) albums, they’re still my musical home: I always come back to them eventually, and it’s like I never left. It only takes hearing the first few seconds of hearing “Bliss” or “Map of the Problematique” or “Stockholm Syndrome” before my heartbeat quickens. (And if it’s a bootleg track, I probably mutter some nonsense to myself like “Shepherds Bush, 2006” or “Earls Court, 2004.”)
But aside from my love for their music, Muse is the major player in my musical history because of where the music led me. That band threw the doors open to a musical Narnia the depths of which I’m still discovering, even today. After Muse, I truly started exploring different bands and genres that I’d never even dabbled in before. And with that shift I almost entirely left behind my pop-rock days.
Some of that came from the bands I saw open for Muse. That’s how I fell in love with Biffy Clyro (who, in turn, introduced me to Moving Mountains, who opened for the Biff when I saw them headline a few years later), Band of Skulls, White Lies, Silversun Pickups, Editors.
Other expansions to my musical horizons came from the friendships that my newfound love of Muse fostered; a year or two into my Muse obsession, I became “newdawnnewday” on the (now mostly defunct) fan forum Muselive, and I quickly wedged myself into a friend group that included people from England, Wales, New Zealand, France, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Norway. (Yes, I am one of those weirdos who doesn’t bat an eyelash at maintaining a friendship through a computer screen).
Those friends introduced me to, in no particular order, Elbow, The National, Metric, Amplifier, Frightened Rabbit, And So I Watch You From Afar, The Antlers, Foals, The Black Keys, Deerhunter, Uematsu Nobuo (who composed the music of the Final Fantasy franchise), Florence + the Machine, Two Door Cinema Club, Ghinzu, St. Vincent, Stars, Marina and the Diamonds, The Joy Formidable, Eisley, and Fang Island – just to name a few.
I went down the rabbit holes of genres that I’d never encountered before, too. Suddenly I was jamming to the gypsy-tinged rock of Devotchka and Gogol Bordello. Through Porcupine Tree and Pure Reason Revolution, I delved into the swirling, madcap time signatures of prog rock, and those two bands quickly climbed the ranks of my last.fm scrobbles. Pure Reason Revolution’s gorgeously moody The Dark Third is probably my favorite concept album of all. Aside from Muse, Porcupine Tree at Mr. Small’s in Pittsburgh is probably the best show I’ve ever been to, in part because it displayed the sort of musical ability that was jaw-dropping and somewhat terrifying in its complexity. Steven Wilson, Gavin Harrison, Richard Barbieri, and Colin Edwin play their instruments (guitar, drums, keys, and bass, respectively) like they’re extensions of their own bodies. These guys didn’t even seem human. Their mastery was, still is, and probably always will be, the most impressive show of musicianship I’ve ever seen.
In other ways, the expansion of my musical horizons was a reeducation. With my introduction to deadmau5, Pendulum, and The Prodigy, I lost the prejudice that electronic or D&B music was somehow less valid or that the musicians were less proficient, only because there were fewer “proper” instruments. In the span of Pendulum’s Immersion, I went from looking down my nose (not something I’m proud of, looking back) at electronic music to being unable to stop myself from dancing my way through at least one song. That change is still resonating through me today. CHVRCHES’ The Bones of What You Believe was one of my favorite albums of last year, and GEMS is my favorite unsigned band (though how they’ve remained that way is beyond me). Even as I write this now, I’ve got Clean Bandit’s New Eyes on repeat (and have since I got my hands on it).
Iceland’s Sigur Rós marked my first foray into music that wasn’t in English, and I fell in love with their ethereal, intoxicating, oftentimes baffling post-rock from the get-go. When I saw them in the summer of 2012 at Chiba’s Summer Sonic Festival after four solid years of despairing that I’d never get to see them live, it was as close to a religious experience that this professed atheist has ever had. It was the rawest expression of music I’ve ever heard, and I had goosebumps from the first moment till the last, from the joyous exultation of “Hoppipolla” to the tinkling opening keys of “Seaglopur”. The morning after was perhaps the worst “concert hangover” I’ve ever had; I’d’ve done some pretty crazy stuff to relive even one song of that set.
Once Sigur Rós came into play, Kaizers Orchestra, an alternative rock group from Norway with an affinity for over-the-top drama, rock opera, and pipe organs, quickly followed suit. Soon after, my discovery of Kent and La Vida Boheme added Sweden and Venezuela, respectively, to my global musical pantheon. Those bands taught me the invaluable lesson that I don’t need to understand a song’s lyrics to fall in love with it.
And my interest in bands that had flitted across my radar in earlier years now reignited with a vengeance. All of a sudden, I was newly addicted to Franz Ferdinand, Rage Against the Machine, Interpol, Bon Iver, Gorillaz, Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys, and Massive Attack, because I was hearing them through an entirely fresh set of ears that was now attuned to E-bows, moody reverb, and the insane noises that Tom Morello can wrangle out of his guitar. I blew the virtual dust off dozens of albums, like Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm, that I hadn’t listened to in literal years but were suddenly in constant rotation.
As the years pass, I love watching my tastes flux and change. Sometimes I think I’m veering more towards the indie track, and then a band like Clean Bandit will snap me back to the electronic side. Or the new Elbow album will send me on a moody British listening spree until I get the itch to listen to Arcade Fire’s Funeral and The Suburbs, and then I’m off down a rabbit hole filled with “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Month of May” for a while.
I get just as much pleasure when my iTunes grows with leaps and bounds and gigabytes as I endlessly discover new bands to play as the soundtrack of my life. These past few years alone have yielded some real doozies, like HAIM, Imagine Dragons, The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, From Indian Lakes, Cults, and Waxahatchee. They’ve joined the ranks of all the bands that came before them as my matchmakers, educators, rescuers, and all those other roles that music has played for me. I hope that growth never ends, just as I hope my own tastes never stop evolving.
(And for the record, I will always hold a torch and hope that Muse makes another Absolution. Fingers crossed.)