First Favorite Songs Are Like Sonic Baby Pictures

Before he returned it to the video store — F.B.I. agents, look away! — my dad gamely taped the closing credits for me on a blank VHS. It’s still an inside joke in my family, the story of a 3-year-old future music critic constantly asking her parents to put on “the ‘Lethal Weapon tape,’” just so she could listen to this Harrison song over and over.

You can learn a lot about a person from asking about their first favorite songs — it’s the sonic equivalent of looking at someone’s baby pictures. And since I’ve been dropping into your inbox twice a week with this newsletter, I figured it was only fair that you heard a few of mine.

Listen along on Spotify as you read.

I am pretty sure someone sang this as a lullaby to me when I was a baby, and to this day the-artist-formerly-known-as-Cat-Stevens’s voice can still make me feel an almost preternatural comfort — a feeling of being swaddled beyond what even the heaviest weighted blanket can offer. My parents got a CD player (state-of-the-art technology) when I was young, and I can still remember being taught how to place “Cat Stevens: Greatest Hits” into the tray very, very carefully and cue up track 8, which was of course my song, “Moonshadow.” (Listen on YouTube)

I grew up in New Jersey and did not visit the West Coast until my mid-20s, so throughout my youth the proper nouns in this song sounded exquisitely exotic to me: Mulholland, Ventura Boulevard, this surely indescribably glamorous oasis called “Reseda.” “Free Fallin’” would now probably land on the shortlist of the most overplayed American rock songs of the 20th century, and yet — perhaps the reason I cannot imagine ever getting sick of it — I can still travel back to a time when its lyrics sounded alluringly strange to me, and when I believed there might be actual vampires haunting Ventura Boulevard. (Petty also co-wrote “Cheer Down,” and Jeff Lynne helped produce both of those songs — so clearly the Traveling Wilburys had a hold on my musical taste from an early age.) (Listen on YouTube)

After it came out in late 1991, U2’s angsty, glammy “Achtung Baby” was an absolute staple in my parents’ steel-blue Ford Taurus. Taking it in over and over again from the back seat, this album seemed to contain all of the mysteries of the adult world, set somewhere just beyond my realm of understanding. All I knew was that it sounded cool. And a little scary! On “Achtung Baby,” relatively straightforward rock songs are haunted by weird, ghostly sounds, like the mournful, malfunctioning tape loop at the beginning of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” the eerie distortion of “Until the End of the World” or any number of ghost noises that lurk throughout the tone-setting opener “Zoo Station.” I later realized that a lot of this strangeness was the result of the Edge’s adventurousness with effects pedals and, even more ineffably, Brian Eno’s arty production. (I also realized much later — for shame — that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was an iconic second-wave feminist slogan, not a funny lyric that Bono made up.) No matter what U2 does or how many albums it forcefully installs on my iPhone, “Achtung Baby” will always have a special place in my heart for being one of the first records to freak me out — in a good way. (Listen on YouTube)

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