What I learned from 365 days of classic discographies
This past year I had a very delayed revelation: I can stream basically any record I want. As a kid, I remember combing through the CD shelves dreaming, "What if I could buy every Beatles record?" Naturally, my weekly allowance hardly put a dent into this musical fantasy. In a streaming world, I’ve been amazed at how quickly I’ve become desensitized to having basically everything at my fingertips.
This is where a timely New Year’s resolution came in. What if I spent a year immersing my eager ears in classic discographies, those same catalogs I used to fantasize about owning on disc. This ended up being a bigger task than I thought, 200+ records and countless hours of listening. I wanted to span catalogs across the spectrum and timeline.
Here's 15 key takeaways...
It’s not cliche, the Beatles are the G.O.A.T.
Like so many, I became obsessed with the Beatles at an early age. I was enamored by their music, endlessly curious about their personalities, and amazed by their cultural impact. I would devour every Beatles record I could ahold of. In my adult life I've always wondered whether my childhood affection matched their place in music history, and to no surprise, it did. There is a reason so many believe they are the greatest band of all time. That reason is simple, they are the greatest band of all time. It's unreal how they transitioned from a British invading pop group to the most influential studio innovators we've ever seen. No inch of music was left unchanged after they hit the scene. No cliches here, just an astounding catalog from front to back. Like a fine wine, their music matured well over time, continuing to reveal nuance after nuance through the decades.
John pushed the limits of self-expression.
Fewer folks have pushed the limits of music more than John Lennon. After writing and co-writing some of the most noteworthy songs with the Beatles he went on to reinvent himself. Though his final years in the group brought their share of turmoil, his songwriting was unchained upon their breakup. He unleashed a catalog of music that sought to pay homage to his beginnings packed with creative surprises. I hate to admit it, but Yoko pushed him forward. Now if only she'd stop singing background vocals.
Paul was chasing the perfect Pop song.
One of the most influential musicians to have ever lived. He continues to make his mark on music. Whether it was penning classics like Yesterday or crooning with Michael Jackson on The Girl is Mine, he's been on an endless pursuit of the perfect pop track. Paul revolutionized what that genre even meant. Transitioning from decades where rock and pop were synonyms he forged a way forward always leading the pack and then stepping back to watch what became of that charge. He's made the best of his post-Beatles career but has seemed to chase concepts that could have been perfected by his former bandmates.
George just needed an outlet.
George was always the quiet, mysterious one. Though most of his Beatles career he took the creative backseat to John and Paul's larger than life personalities, he had so much to offer that never came to fruition in fab four's heyday. We see glimpses throughout the later years where George blew audiences away with his simple but beautiful songwriting, those tracks seemed to jump out of the grooves. He embodied this craft this in his solo career. George was set free and our ears have never been the same. His catalog is dense and complex getting even better with time. He pushed not only rock forward but inspired his peers through endless collaborations.
Dylan transcends music itself.
What can even be written about Bob Dylan that would do his legacy justice? It feels like an understatement to say that no one musician has ever made a bigger impact on music. I think Beethoven and Mozart would agree. Dylan's unmatched catalog winds its way through years and years of persistent reinvention. A discography so deep it can truly only be appreciated fully in chapters, something Dylan does well. He constantly defied expectations by seeking after only what fed his soul, and man, can you hear it. He left no genre untouched and none of those genres have ever been the same.
The Stones are consistent.
I'm ashamed to admit that I shied away from The Rolling Stones discography for many a year. Sure I knew some hits, but I never knew where to even begin. The Stones' trajectory shared so much with many of the British invaders, but they did the impossible and turned it into a career spanning over five decades. Though Jagger never intended to be belting Satisfaction at 70, baby he's doing it. In that vast catalog there some standout anthems, hidden gems, and countless surprises but all in all, the Stones are consistent. Consistent can sound like a lackluster adjective for such an influential act, but it's true. Consistent in the best way possible, staying solidly in their lane pushing the limits of their groove.
Bowie is always ahead of his time.
I'm not convinced David Bowie is from Earth. Like seriously, is there proof? Bowie pushed every boundary, ignored every line, and fearlessly sought after a sound much bigger than himself. There are still Bowie records I feel like history is catching up to. Whether it was his revolutionary performance or character acting, the moment he got too comfortable he changed things up. He's one of the only musicians I've ever encountered that can pursue a persona and nail it every single time. Bowie's discography moves from complex moments to pure fun back to just the right amount of weird. To know Bowie is to experience him through his records, all glimpses into an endlessly inventive mind.
Springsteen epitomizes Americana.
It's hard to think of an America without Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Every generation dating back to the beginning of culture had a bard for the working man. Whether it was lamenting the woes of the world or rejoicing in the simplicity of American life, Springsteen carried on a modern legacy started by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and thrust it in the new age. What amazes me about Bruce is that whether it's a raucous full-band setup or an intimate, lo-fi recording he captivates listeners with every song. His songs are vibrant. You know the characters personally, you experience the settings, and you either feel patriotic or restless with your country. Springsteen has not only established himself as an icon, he never stops striving to reinvent, and our ears are eternally grateful Bruce.
Petty made the masses believe in Rock & Roll.
I still get chills when I hear the first chords of American Girl strike, it's just the pure, uncorrupted rock & roll. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers took a monumental career and catalog across the decade and never lost their vigor. It's remarkable that Tom was always searching for the perfect song, but never overdone. He kept things beautifully simple a trait that allowed the masses to fall in love with every record. His chemistry with his band is undeniable, every member offering a crucial element to the timeless sound.
Michael the prodigy is as interesting as MJ the icon.
What can be said of the King of Pop that hasn't already been written? Michael Jackson was a pop star, unlike the world, has ever seen. As a child of the 90's I felt like I was well steeped in the music of Michael Jackson. What I didn't realize then was his lifelong legacy as a musical prodigy. He was a natural talent that was just as captivating in the 70's and early 80's as he remained through his heyday. I firmly believe that the true Michael can only really be fully understood through the lens of his early years. It's impossible to fully appreciate his crowning achievements without understanding the early inspiration that grounded them.
U2 are always in search of a bigger sound.
From their early days touring the pub-circuit of the Emerald Isle to their uncanny ability to match the size of their modern stadium domination, U2 has always had their eyes set on pushing the limits of sound. Their sound has grown bigger and bigger over the years constantly reimagining the scope of rock music. What's amazing about U2 is they are so much bigger than their seminal releases. They move seamlessly from record to record attempting to top the last with taste and class. Though Ireland gets to claim the group, they feel like the world's band, a status that seems fitting of a band whose catalog seems larger than any genre could contain.
The Cure’s catalog goes beyond a teenage obsession.
As a teenager obsessed with the Emo scene, I became enamored with the Cure. They embodied the moodiness I felt in these years but also offered the right amount of synthy brightness I needed to break out of the goth-rock phase. As years went on I always wondered, how would I view this teenage obsession in the years to come? Would I get just as much satisfaction listening to record teenage Jeremy wore out on CD? The answer was a resounding yes. The Cure's catalog is more than it's early punk foundation, even more than their formational goth stage, it's emblematic of a group who always experimented with interesting moods. Robert Smith's brooding poetry layered atop these soundscapes created an experience unlike any of their peers.
The Smiths connect so many dots of influence.
Coming back to the scene of my teenage years, the Smiths were always the band that all of my favorite bands worshipped. I remember seeing countless Smiths t-shirts at shows growing up and wondering, "What's with this 80's band these dudes seem to love?" After curiously diving into their catalog, I quickly realized how many dots of influence the group connected between so many of the bands I loved. They seemed to flip every generalization of rock and punk on its head. Morrisey's crooning, emotional lyrics on top of Johnny Marr's untouchable guitar tone made for a sound that no other band could recreate. For this influence and inspiration, I'm eternally grateful.
Radiohead’s complexity is timeless.
Singing the praises of Radiohead in today's day and age almost feels too cliche to touch. This is only because their musical legacy has been solidified for so long now that we hardly have to even think about it. Every record becomes an instant classic for good reason. Radiohead releases are dense and nearly perfect, a group so astounding as individual musicians that when combined almost feel like a power-group. Their enigmatic making complexity sound so striking yet so beautiful. It's taken me years to fully appreciate records that were released a decade ago. I'm consistently impressed at how timeless their innovative sound is. If a Martian were to listen to Kid A, they would find it nearly impossible to place on rock & roll's timeline, that's an achievement.
Wilco should be everyone’s favorite band.
Simply put, if Wilco's not your favorite band you may want to reconsider your musical priorities. They are so consistent, so energetic, such a fixture in modern rock. Tweedy & Co. have meandered through the trendy ebbs and flows of alternative and come out the other side kings. Their catalog can be intimidating to those unfamiliar with anything outside of the hits, but all one has to do is dig a little deeper to find accessible music with no loss of depth. Every record has such a distinct personality to it, songs that can be reimagined thousands of times in their live shows. Though their music is classic and their musicianship unmatched, they never take themselves too seriously. They allow themselves to explore the fuzzy edges of rock with an unmatched energy.