I think you’re gonna laugh when you see the list of songs that have been influential in my life. Partly because I’m a child of the 80’s, and the list is heavy on over-the-top music from that period. And partly because of the eclectic, heterogenous nature of the compilation, which reflects the influence of my parents’ musical taste combined with early 90’s MTV. Be that as it may, I love these songs today just as much as I did back when I first heard them, and they still move me just as deeply.
I divided my list in four distinct musical periods because that’s how I always sort them in my head when I think about them. Some of these songs I only discovered a decade (or even two) after they first came out, so that’s where I placed them. In some cases, I had to include more than one song by particular artists because they’re attached to some of my favorite albums where practically every song has special meaning for me. And some artists’ work spans decades, so they correspondingly appear in each.
From the first time I heard it on my father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder until now, “Vienna” has filled me with superstitious awe. I was really digging the New Romantic movement at the time, and bands like Spandau Ballet and Human League I still consider to be some of the best things that happened to pop music. Together with its fantastic video, “Vienna” represents the summit of the New Romantic wave.
The Police, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”
I guess ‘superstitious awe’ covers this one, as well. I was 3 years old when I first heard this song, and it simply blew my mind. The Police continue to be one of my favorite bands.
Queen, “Radio Ga Ga”
This song was on the same tape as “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” which means I was the same age (3) when I heard it. I couldn’t for the life of me explain why I like it so much, especially since Queen have made far better songs during their career, but I guess it was their first song to reach my ears so I have an umbilical chord-type of attachment to it.
Madonna, “Like A Virgin”
This was the first Madonna song for me, and the video accompanying it is one of the first ones I ever saw on TV. I remember being exceedingly puzzled by the video’s sexual overtones as represented by the man with a lion’s head. (I still find it vaguely unsettling.) Plus, it’s set in Venice, a city I got entranced with around that same time.
David Bowie, “Magic Dance” (Labyrinth OST)
There are no words to describe my eternal enchantment with Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Either you know what I’m talking about, or you don’t.
Yes, “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”
My father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder is to blame for many of my musical intoxications, which often didn’t go beyond one song that I would replay to exhaustion. “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is one of these. I saw the brilliant video for it only much later.
The Cars, “Drive”
In my humble opinion, this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. So haunting. Gotta love New Wave.
Late 80’s / Early 90’s
From 1989 to 1993 there were three albums on heavy rotation in our house, on a newly-acquired Sony CD Player: Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” U2’s “The Joshua Tree,” and Zucchero’s “Oro Incenso & Birra.” I think these were also the very first three CDs my parents ever bought. And I’d say they were probably also the three defining albums of my early teens. As it turned out, they were also seminal albums for the artists in question.
U2, “Where The Streets Have No Name” / “With Or Without You”
To my mind, The Joshua Tree is U2’s best album, and their pinnacle as a band. Selecting the most influential song(s) from an album that has no subpar songs was tough, especially since my appreciation of the album grew over the years, with some songs accruing more meaning later in life. But in the early 90’s, these two songs always gave me goosebumps. The intro on “Where The Streets Have No Name” makes me wanna go to church and pray, as well as showcasing The Edge’s signature frenetic riff.
Zucchero, “Diamante” / “Senza Una Donna”
The stuff that this Italian singer-songwriter churned out in the late 80’s and early 90’s remains his best to date, although his last album from 2010 comes close to matching it. The duet with Paul Young on “Senza Una Donna” received constant air-play and helped propel him to fame outside Italy. 1989’s Oro Incenso & Birra (a pun on gold, frankincense, and myrrh in Italian) is a one-off hybrid of blues rock and classic Italian Sanremo-style songwriting sensibility, brilliantly produced, and with no bad song on it. I’m happy to say it has withstood the test of time.
The Beatles, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” / “Getting Better” / “A Day In The Life”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was my first Beatles album, and it was a life-altering experience. Along with Revolver and The White Album, I consider it to be one of their best albums, and one of the most important of the 20th century. Choosing just one song off it was impossible.
Aerosmith, “Janie’s Got A Gun”
Aerosmith are a band I have little liking for. Their 90’s output particularly irritates me. I was barely 10 years old, however, when my father brought home “Janie’s Got A Gun” on a reel and played it. As is so often the case with me, it was the intro that blew my mind. For me, it’s still one of the best rock songs ever made.
Guns ‘n’ Roses, “Patience”
The last two years of my elementary school education were really marked by Guns ‘n’ Roses, who were then enjoying their heyday. I loved everything they were putting out in ’93 and ’94. My particular fondness for “Patience” stems from learning to play it on the guitar, and I share that fondness with my father who taught me how to play it. We both have a thing for acoustic guitar songs, and back then we had a slew of them on our repertoire that we rehearsed together. Good times. “Patience” is now a classic, praised be the absent gods.
Pearl Jam, “Jeremy”
It was 1992. I was 12 years old and sitting in front of my TV before going to school when the video for “Jeremy” premiered on MTV. Very few songs can boast such an original, perfectly executed intro. When the first couple of chords rang out in the living room, my mind quietly imploded, and I knew that my life, as I then knew it, had somehow irrevocably changed. I went on to learn to really love Vs. and Vitalogy much later, but for me Pearl Jam’s best album is Ten.
Faith No More, “A Small Victory”
For some reason, I never really got into FNM beyond their greatest hits, although I think they were a great band. But this song has stuck with me ever since I first heard it in 1992, and has been the ringtone on my cell phone for a very long time.
Red Hot Chilli Peppers, “Under The Bridge” / “Breaking The Girl”
I don’t know why RHCP allowed themselves to become so commercialized and bland, and I don’t know how their music went on to stray so far from 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. What I do know is that that album generated some of their best songs. “Under The Bridge” was hugely successful and probably became irritating to many people due to all the airplay it received, but I always found it haunting. My favorite, however, and I dare say their best song ever, is “Breaking The Girl.”
Sophie B. Hawkins, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover”
I need to be taken out on a stretcher when I hear this song. Every. Single. Time.
Madonna feat. Prince, “Love Song”
Like A Prayer represents Madonna at her best, and to me is the highlight of her career, as well as of pop music. There are almost no bad songs on this album. “Love Song” is a hidden gem on it.