My Soundtrack, 1971-2002

Over at The World's Fair, David Ng is sorting his records autobiographically, and encouraging others to do the same:

If you make a music mix that is a reflection of your informative years, what would those dozen or so songs be, and maybe more interesting, why? You don't have to be proud of the song choices - they're not necessarily a reflection of taste, more about your history.

This could get embarrassing, but it's a grey and rainy Saturday morning, I'm getting a bit of a cold, and I need to do some major updates on the departmental web page, so thinking about my musical history seems like an excellent way to pass some time... I'll put it below the fold, though, so you have to click through if you want to read about my dreadful past taste in music.

I'll break this down by different eras, with a few songs for each. When I think about this question, I end up thinking of songs that are sort of inextricably linked in my mind with particular places or events. The songs I list here won't necessarily be representative of my overall tastes, or even of what I really liked in any given era, but these are the songs that have powerful associations with different times in my life.

Early Childhood

  • "Bungle in the Jungle," by Jethro Tull.
  • "Octopus's Garden," by the Beatles.

Let's just launch directly into the embarrassing material, shall we? These are the first songs I can remember specifically requesting, and I have weirdly distinct memory fragments of dancing around to these in the apartment we lived in when I was really little (to put this in context, most of my other memories of similar vintage involve Sesame Street). When I hear those songs, though, I always flash back to being a toddler, and jumping up and down until the record player would skip.

Early Teens

  • "Always Something There to Remind Me," Naked Eyes
  • "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Bonnie Tyler
  • "Just a Gigolo/ I Ain't Got Nobody," David Lee Roth

I almost left "Total Eclipse" off, as there are now YouTube videos burned into my brain. But the first two songs are tunes that I strongly associate with lying on the couch in my parents' basement, listening to the radio and reading huge numbers of trashy fantasy and sci-fi novels. There are other songs of similar vintage that I like better-- "Come On Eileen" being a good example-- but they have other associations for me.

The David Lee Roth is a long story, but I associate it with a particular period in junior high.

High School (sports)

  • "Paradise City," Guns 'n' Roses
  • "Piano Man," Billy Joel
  • "Hysteria," Def Leppard

Look, I came of age in the Hair Metal Era, ok? It's not my fault... The first two are associated with the soccer team-- there was a mix tape that some of the guys used to play on the bus on road trips, and once or twice while we warmed up. I distinctly remember "Paradise City" while we were warming up for a rare night game in Oxford, NY. "Piano Man" was on the other side of the tape, and we used to play it on the way back, and everybody would sing along. Yes, it's corny. Make fun of it at your own peril.

On the basketball team, we didn't get to play music out loud, and weren't allowed to talk on the bus, so everybody had a Walkman. I associate pretty much that entire Def Leppard album with being on a school bus in the pitch dark and freezing cold, on the way to some game or another.

High School (other)

  • "Begin the Beguine," Artie Shaw
  • "Wish You Were Here," Pink Floyd
  • "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," Meat Loaf

The first one is a cheat, because I remember playing it in the band, not hearing it played. (Yes, I was a band geek. Bite me, ok?) It's probably the best song we did in the jazz band, and I remember knowing the tune well enough that we didn't need to count bars-- we'd just hum along with the main tune, and come in where the trumpet fills were supposed to be.

I was big into Pink Floyd in high school, and "Wish You Were Here" is probably my favorite of their songs. I associate this with romantic misadventures, and that's all I'm going to say about that.

The Meat Loaf song, I distinctly remember being played by a DJ at a high school dance in 1988 or 1989, which forced a surprisingly large number of people to admit that they owned the album and really liked it...


  • "Fool in the Rain," Led Zeppelin
  • "Free Fallin'," Tom Petty
  • "Girlfriend," Matthew Sweet
  • "What it Takes," Aerosmith
  • "Don't Pull Your Love," Sam and Dave
  • "Night Train," James Brown

I could go on and on with songs from my college days, but we'll cut it off there.

"Fool in the Rain" I associate with my freshman year. It's one of the few Led Zeppelin songs that wasn't ruined for me by the Zep fan across the hall (to this day, I can't hear Led Zeppelin II without flinching). It was part of the standard set of songs that D.K. and I used to put on the jukebox when we would go to Colonial Pizza-- we'd order a large, and get four quarters in change, and there were eight songs we'd punch up that would fill the time needed to get and eat the pizza.

Full Moon Fever was the soundtrack of my sophomore year in college, and Girlfriend my junior year. When I hear those records, I can still see the tiny little dorm rooms I lived in.

The last three are drunken sing-alongs. The Aerosmith and James Brown were rugby team things (why "Night Train," which is mostly an instrumental? I have no idea. Alcohol was involved...), the Sam and Dave a Fugitive Pope thing.

Grad School

  • "Runaway Train," Soul Asylum
  • "Happy Birthday to Me," Cracker
  • "Every Generation Got Its Own Disease," Fury in the Slaughterhouse
  • "Let Down," Radiohead
  • "Mack the Knife," Bobby Darin

Contrary to what these songs might suggest, I wasn't actually a mopey bastard the whole time I was in grad school. I was actually pretty happy a lot of the time, I just listened to a lot of downer music.

The first track calls up memories of the basement apartment I rented for the summer before I started classes at Maryland, the second the run-down house where I rented a room my first year. The third has a weirdly strong association with driving on the Beltway in the piece of shit Ford Tempo I had in those days.

"Let Down" is from the Geographic Vagaries era, and probably my favorite Radiohead song. "Mack the Knife" was on one of the pair of mix tapes I made to listen to while writing my thesis in the middle of the night in the Physics building at NIST.


  • "Gorilla, You're a Desperado," Warren Zevon
  • "Hardest Way Possible," Rustic Overtones
  • "Mississippi," Bob Dylan
  • "Lost in the Supermarket," the Afghan Whigs

I listened to Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School a lot while I was a post-doc, and it's become linked in my mind with trying to simulate quantum phase oscillations in Bose-Einstein Condensates using Matlab in a room in the basement of the Sloan Physics Lab. The theory thing never did work, but it's still a great song.

"Hardest Way Possible" is a weird little ska ballad sort of thing that I heard my first year at Union. I associate it with summer, and with the cigar smoke and dead wasps that were in my apartment that year.

"Mississippi," off Love and Theft I associate with that same apartment, and with missing Kate. She was in her last year of law school in New Haven while I was in my first year of teaching in Schenectady. There were a lot of long drives, and long-distance calls that year, and a lot of time spent listening to music by myself.

"Lost in the Supermarket" is a cover that I found on Napster when I was in New Haven, but my strongest association with it is Kate's face when they played it at our wedding. Kate really likes the song, but I only had it as an MP3 until I found the CD in a used record store that was going out of business, and bought it for about a buck fifty. I slipped it to the DJ before the reception, and asked him to play it at some point. She was surprised, it was cute, and you're probably just about to lose your lunch at this point in the story, so I'll shut up now.

And that's really pretty much that. There are more recent songs that I like a whole lot, but they also tend to be too recent to really have the same kind of associations as the older stuff. If somebody talks me into doing this again ten years from now, there'll be some more categories, but right now, I'll stop here.

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I've actually been doing something like this in a way since the summer of 2002. It was prompted by, of all things, the first long distance bit of my current relationship. Each of us made a mix tape of the summer we spent apart - it wasn't necessarily our favorite songs of the summer (though there were a lot of those), but more the soundtrack of what was playing in the background of our lives.

I have "summer CD"s for 2002, 2003 and 2004 and then this thing took on a life of it's own and I've been putting together a CD for each season of the year. My "Summer 2006 Mix" can be found here if anyone is interested. It's amazing how putting one of them into my CD player just takes me back to certain moments in time.

To go back farther though... My first favorite song was "We don't need another hero" because it was so fun to sing out loud. Elementary School was all about being a traffic patrol and going to the rollar rink so Dance Mix 1991, 1992 held most of my favorite songs of the day. Junior High would be a whole lot of Spirit of the West, Moxy Fruvous, REM, They Might Be Giants and Guns and Roses. High School added Great Big Sea, Dave Matthews Band, Savage Garden and Our Lady Peace. Make of all of that what you may - I've always like slightly quirky music. During undergrad my music taste diversified wildly as the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, etc were ruling the airwaves and seeing as I didn't care for them I had to look elsewhere for new music. A list from that time would be a lot more work to put together.

Flashbacks... horror... Total Eclipse of the Heart.

I liked the song -- never bought it -- but enjoyed it.

Then one year I heard it on the way to a missionary style (not actual converting, but health care) trip to rural Africa. I had that earbug for almost 6 weeks -- and I only really knew the chorus. Nightmares....

Anytime I hear 80's Police, Yes, or Phil Collins, I am reminded of Asimov's Foundation series.

Cracker gets associated with sitting on the floor of my barely furnished studio debugging C code while I overheat in Chicago summers. Of course, none of that work ever saw the light of day, one of the most important lessons of grad school.

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 23 Sep 2006 #permalink

Very cool. I forgotten all about Matthew Sweet - going to have to find that "100% Fun" I use to jump around to.