Playing Favorites (Part 1)

As a music writer of dubious note, I often get asked one question: “What are your favorite bands?” Which is, of course, the worst possible question you can ask a music writer. It’s the easiest way to get our brains to seize up with option paralysis. So many factors! So many things to consider. Do they mean all-time, current, what? What do I do when you stare at me blankly because you’ve never heard of the bands I mention? IT’S HARD.

So, let’s look at the question. It seems so deceptively simple, but it’s so very deep. It’s a deeply personal, illogical thing. Like, for example, do I consider bands/artists like Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy, Nightwish — bands that I loved back in my formative years, and still do, but rarely listen to these days? They can’t be a favorite artist if I don’t listen to them, right? Do I go with the current crop of bands I listen to a lot but haven’t necessarily passed my test of time yet?

Priest or Maiden? PRIEST OR MAIDEN?

Plus there’s the instinct to include representative artists that cover the sheer breadth of music I listen to. My high school and college listening focused mostly on rock and metal, so while that’s what I’ve probably listened to the most, and have the most sentimental value for, they don’t necessarily indicate who I am right now. Then there are all the artists I really like but, for reasons due to the sheer amount of new music I inhale, I haven’t really sat with enough to bestow upon them the superlative of “favorite.”

In order to answer your INSANELY COMPLICATED question, let’s start with the perennial shoe-ins:

Monster Magnet. Blue Oyster Cult. Sisters of Mercy. Judas Priest. Rush.

The bands that I turn to when I need to find my grounding again. Not a lot of variety, I understand. A bunch of white dudes from the 70s and 80s playing, basically, rock music. I offer no excuses; those bands were important to me and I still love them. They will always be at the top of my list. Those are all bands I discovered in high school or college that not only made an indelible impact on me, but stood the test of time.

Monster Magnet, I knew “Space Lord” from the radio and “Look to Your Orb for the Warning” from the Matrix soundtrack, but when I picked up Dopes to Infinity on a whim from the Princeton Record Exchange, it blew my mind. That’s still their best album, but Dave Wyndorf’s weird, poetic lyrics, psychedelic freakouts, and knack for hooks grabbed me and fired up my imagination.

Blue Oyster Cult, of course I’d heard “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” “Godzilla” was the big one for me, though — that was during my big Godzilla phase in high school, and it prompted me to order the Workshop of the Telescopes anthology from Columbia House (LOL), which opened my eyes to how weird and wonderful their music really was. No two albums are the same; they all contain idiosyncratic tunes ranging from proto-metal to doo-wop to AOR to the most beautifully sinister track ever composed, “Astronomy.”

My first exposure to Sisters of Mercy came from fishing the single of “Detonation Boulevard” out of the throwaway bin at my college radio station. Certainly not their finest hour (although I still have a soft spot for it), but the arena goth grandeur of Floodland perfectly articulated a niche in my soul that I didn’t know existed. Andrew Eldritch’s sardonic misery and unusual blend of influences (Bowie, Meat Loaf, Joy Division) will forever be the perfect soundtrack to a rainy day.

Judas Priest and Iron Maiden are always neck-and-neck for me, metal-wise, but Priest always wins out slightly. They had a more varied career (for better or worse), but even their worst albums had at least one all-time classic on it — Ram It Down may be rancid garbage, but “Blood Red Skies” might be the greatest cyberpunk song ever written. Nobody (except maybe Maiden) wrote metal anthems as iconic, and nobody encapsulates everything I love about metal quite as well.

The first time I heard Rush I though Geddy Lee was a woman. Then I saw a picture of the band and still thought he was a woman. I have since been corrected. As much as I love their 70s prog stuff, it’s actually the 80s synth records that put them over the top for me — talk about a band with a diverse discography. As much as people make fun of prog for being cold and detached, “Subdivisions” hit me really hard as a misfit growing up in the unforgiving suburbs.

Anyway, those are the sentimental faves. Tune in next week for a look at what I’m digging now!

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