In the beginning of the summer of 1991, as I played a session of Call of Chthulu, the game master, a bartender at the restaurant where I worked, played a particular CD softly in the background. There was something familiar about the music, but it was a bit low to make out. The melodies stuck with me, subconsciously, for the next week, until, at the next game session, when he played the CD again, I asked him what we were listening to. He handed me the case, a bright red image forever since burned in my memory. He told me a story of how his friend was a rep for Sony Music, and this was a band that Sony was very excited about. His copy was a prerelease, and sure enough there was bold type on the back of the CD about how this copy was not for sale and other legalese.
The music, the deep baritone vocals, the sheer power of it all, was apparent at low volume in the background of a role-playing game. He played the CD twice that day, and the song “Evenflow” found its way into my humming and whistling repertoire while at work the next week. It was a great album. I couldn’t wait to buy it when it came out. What a funny name for a band, I thought, Pearl Jam. It would be cool if they caught on, though.
A cusp in music existed at that time. Pearl Jam’s Ten was just a small part of it. (Okay, commercially, it was a huge part of it.) But the album was a wonderful example of what would be called Grunge, and what would dominate the radio and MTV for the next couple of years. It was a happy time for me, audio-wise. Hearing the album, then, I knew something was changing within the music world. The album had longevity written all over it. It happens rarely—the instant classic in everyone’s music collection.
Boy bands, Britney, and Beyoncé have dominated the past eight years of music, much to the detriment of sanity, taste, and record sales. NüMetal becomes the next incarnation of 80s hair band. Despite the lust for the exalted position of “the next big thing” in rock and roll, the stuff is tired as soon as it comes out. Friends used to debate me against the punk-cred of Green Day, but no one now seriously thinks that Avril Lavigne could be punk even if you lit her head on fire and used her to light fireworks.
In 2001, the best selling album was a soundtrack built around songs that were popular 70 years ago. Last year, the best albums were re-releases from previous years. One of these, White Blood Cells, by the White Stripes, originally released the year before, gave me some hope for the state of music to come. It’s a great album. This band would go far, I thought, and they did indeed get some radio airplay and video rotation on MTV2. But the end of 2002 produced a disquieting silence from Jack White, and an odd backlash against the rise of this talented duo. Why would the White Stripes not take advantage of the success of their rising star? Why would they not promote the shit out of themselves and make an even bigger wave?
I needn’t have worried. Elephant, their latest, is the seminal album of this decade. This is the one that we will all have in our music collections, and remember the first time we heard it. I, for one, was in Katherine’s new car, and we were heading to dinner at the Curry Club. I popped in the CD into the player, and by the third song, my head swam with memories from 12 years before—a change in the air, a harbinger of good music to come, an amazing achievement for a humble rock album.