A little while back, I was surfing my favorite Internet message board when I found an interesting thread. The author proposed a thought experiment: imagine that it’s the late 80s or early 90s. You have a car with a tape deck, and you’re going on a road trip. Which 15 tapes would you bring with you?
He only proposed two big rules: the album had to be released in cassette format, and the cut off date was the year 2000. Aside from that, anything was fair game.
I made my own list, which you can see below. But keep a few of my “rules” in mind:
1) I got my first CD player for Christmas in 1985, and stopped buying pre-recorded cassettes shortly thereafter. So, in my mind, the “Age of Cassettes” is 1980 – 1986.
2) I was the “King of Mix Tapes” in my day. I bought a lot of cassettes in the 80s, but I mostly bought LPs or CDs and dumped them to blank tapes, and later took the best songs and mixed them in with tracks from other albums. So, when I think of cassettes, I tend to not think of “albums”.
3) It was often cheaper to buy a band’s domestic “greatest hits” CD than it was to buy their import LPs and cassettes. By the time I got into The Smiths, for instance, I just bought a compilation instead of the individual albums. Also, thanks to used record stores and Columbia House, I’d often own a dozen copies of an album over time, and would finally “trade up” to a greatest hits disc. I probably owned The Police’s Synchronicity a dozen times. I bought it, got sick of it and traded it for something else, then got a new copy for 1¢ from the record club, then traded it again, and so on and so on, until I finally just bought Message in a Box.
4) There are certain bands from back then that I’m just done with. I loved The Cure in high school, but with the exception of a few early tracks, I never want to ever hear them again. Same with Siouxsie and the Banshees. You might expect to see Faith or A Kiss in the Dreamhouse on a list of my “Top 20 Albums of All Time” but not on a list of stuff I’d take on a road trip.
5) Lastly, my high school friends all liked different music. My best friend was a former New Wave guy who got into metal and 70s stoner rock, while other friends liked European Industrial Dance or Tom Waits. So I’ve tried to make a list that would (sort of) please them all.
And so… finally… the list:
The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me – I’m actually not a big Replacements fan, which was a serious breach of hipster coolness back in the day. But I went on two car trips in which “I.O.U.” was the first song to be played rollin’ out of the driveway, so it’s kind of seared in my memory. I like other tracks on the album, but “I.O.U.” was (and still is) a great driving tune.
Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bullocks – Amongst my clique in high school, Bullocks was the kind of album that everyone owned, and everyone liked. And even though I’ve had two copies of this album on vinyl, two on CD and countless cassettes, I still never tire of it.
R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction – Being from Georgia and growing up in the 80s, you were kind of required to like R.E.M., and this is my favorite album of theirs by far. I’ve heard it a million times, and still love every song on the album, especially the lesser known tracks.
Cocteau Twins – Treasure – This isn’t my favorite Cocteau Twins album, but it’s probably the best for listening with a crowd. Victorialand is great, but entirely too mellow; Garlands is good but too rocky and not ethereal (“Cocteau Twinsey?”) enough.
This Mortal Coil – Filigree and Shadow – A surprising choice. I loved It’ll End in Tears, but I associate it too much with breakups, anger at my parents and other teen angst. Blood was also good, but I’ve under-appreciated this album for far too long.
Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music for Airports – I picked this album because I like the music, but also because you can listen to it 100 times in a row and not get tired of it. The whole point of the album is that it’s not to be “listened to” directly, so it would be perfect for when my friends and I would get into one of those long conversations about politics or religion or what have you.
Pet Shop Boys – Discography – I chose this partly because it’s a long tape full of hits, but also because I have fond memories of it from a trip to Germany. A friend and I flew into Frankfurt and got a rental car. At the time (1991), most American rental cars only came with AM\FM radio, and we were surprised that the German car had a tape deck. Neither of use had brought any tapes, so one of the first stops we made was a music store in Stuttgart, where I got this tape and my friend got Achtung Baby. We listened to those two tapes over and over again throughout the trip.
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures – It’s fucking Joy Division. Enough said.
Duran Duran – Duran Duran – Well, I don’t think I’d actually bring this along… but I can’t deny that it was my first favorite album, the first album that really “spoke” to me, as it were. All the other boys in my elementary school wore AC\DC and Kiss t-shirts, and I thought all those bands were just awful. The first Duran Duran album – the original British one from 1981, where they look like a bar band from Blade Runner on the cover – was the first album where I said “this is for me”. What’s more, I know for a fact that I went through 10 copies of this on cassette. If I were required to stick to pre-recorded cassettes, I’d take the 1983 re-issue with “Is There Something I Should Know?” on it… but if I were allowed to cheat a bit, I’d prefer to copy the original 1981 British LP (with “To The Shore” instead of “Is There Something…”) to a blank tape instead.
Emiliana Torrini – Love in the Time of Science – I know that this one came out in 1999. But if you’re at all into mellow electronic pop, it’s one of the best albums ever released in that genre. Every single sound is perfectly placed, and although it’s not a concept album, every song seems to have something to do with the title of the album. And it was perfectly produced by Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears, too.
Japan – Exorcising Ghosts – I’m cheating again with another “best of” compilation. I actually don’t know what songs came on the cassette version of the album (the double LP clocks in at 88:02, while the single CD loses FIVE out of sixteen tracks to come in at 62:48). Either way, it should still have all my favorite Japan tunes on it, even though in a perfect world I’d just bring their last two albums individually.
Madness – One Step Beyond – This is another tough one. There are tons of Madness compilations out there today, and if the list was about CDs instead of cassettes, I’d probably choose one of those instead. But here I’ll take Beyond. It was such an incredibly different album, unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
The Jam – Snap! – Again with the “greatest hits” tapes. Nowadays I usually keep 2-3 Jam albums on my iPod at all times. But I’ll go with Snap! here, as it’s one of the best “greatest hits” albums ever.
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ – Scarred But Smarter – Another “support the local team” choice. It seems like everyone in my high school clique liked this album, even the folks who normally didn’t go for the loud rock-n-roll thing. I guess the fact that they went to high school 20 minutes from where we did made an impression on us. Still, this is a damn good album. And since this list is imaginary, my tape will be the original 688 Records version, not the Island Records reissue that came out later.
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew – I can totally picture my friend Richard and me driving somewhere in the middle of nowhere, at dusk, smoking, with this cranked up to 11.