I’ve got three for you.
Waiting Room by Fugazi
Fugazi were on the first punk rock mixtapes my friend made for me on my 14th birthday. This song represents me going down the rabbit hole and discovering this whole other world of music for the first time. Fugazi were my second punk gig after the Ramones. There were art-school kids, skinheads, and the band was trying to calm them all down. It was so thrilling.
Are You That Somebody by Aaliyah
About eight years later, this song blew my mind in a different way. I heard it on an R&B radio station and it just sounded so strange and alien. It was produced by Timbaland, who had these stuttering rhythms that reminded me a little bit of jungle music. Then he sampled a baby laughing for the chorus which just seemed so audacious. This is the song that really got me obsessed with R&B.
It Just Comes Natural by George Strait
This is when I was discovering the joys of country music – not just the old stuff everybody talks about, but the commercial, super catchy stuff on the radio. However you measure it, over the 80s, 90s and into the 2000s, George Strait had more country hits than just about anyone. It Just Comes Natural is a really handsome, well-made love song. It was the first dance at my wedding.
It’s hard to know where to start, but I can give you a couple here.
She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper
This record is just great. It feels like so many things came together to make it. It’s an anomaly both in the history of 80s pop and in her career. If anyone who’s into modern pop music (whatever that means) from Robyn and Katy Perry to Kim Petras goes back and listens to this, they’ll find it familiar and strange in an interesting way. There are things on it that sound like now, but also things that reflect a different direction pop music never went down.
Ready To Die by The Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie’s first record is so complete and self-sufficient, and also so old fashioned. Someone who loves hip hop now and hasn’t spent time listening to the older stuff – this came out in ’94 – could think it sounds like something from a different planet. And the way he tells stories, for anyone who doesn’t care about hip hop, Ready To Die feels a bit like reading a novel. It’s a really powerful gateway drug for people to fall in love with that sense of storytelling.
I usually say Paul Simon is the GOAT. He’s brought me more joy than any of the other Mount Olympus songwriters like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or whoever the greats are. I love the way he’s an unassuming guy who’s reinvented himself multiple times and drawn from music across the globe. He gets interested in African music, obviously, for Graceland, but before that he’s into reggae with ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ and then he draws from Brazilian music for The Rhythm of the Saints. As a hip hop fan, I love his wordiness and the way he uses rhythm to bounce his words in interesting ways. I last saw him live a few years ago and he was great.
People make fun of slow jams; it's easy to snicker at make-out music, and at the idea of people putting on music to set a romantic mood. But I think the slow jam tradition is one of the greatest traditions in popular music, precisely because it's so shameless. I tried to avoid the most obvious selections, while including big names and cult favourites, hits and misses – and a few curveballs.