This year I decided to write myself a birthday present: one short essay for each year I’ve been alive, about a record that was released in that year. The rules for choosing each record were simple:

  1. No repeat artists. I could choose a band one year and a solo artist from that band in another year, but never the same band twice.
  2. I have to love it enough to own it on CD. Maybe if I do this again when I’m 80 I’ll allow mp3 albums, or whatever music distribution system we’re using then, but not this year.

Beyond that, I could use any criteria I wanted to choose which record would represent the year. The choices I made were based on a combination of these factors:

  • How much I liked the record.
  • How much I liked the artist the record was allowing me to talk about.
  • How into the record I was at the time.
  • How into the record I still am today.
  • Whether I had a good story about the record’s place in my life or my affections.
  • Perhaps most importantly: how the record fit into the story of my love of pop music.

That last point means certain albums have a lock on certain years. 1981, 1982, 1986, and 1995 are pretty much set in stone, and unless I change my mind before I get there, 1987 is going to have to be about a genre of music I don’t listen to much anymore (and which is arguably dead as a doornail in 2014). Fortunately, I’m allowing myself to write a few lines about a few other records per year (which are not bound by the “repeat artists” restriction) and honorably mention a bunch of the rest, so even though 1981 is about the record that contains the first pop single I remember hearing, I’ll also get to mention three other bands who released their first albums that year and ended up being much bigger parts of my musical biography.

This is obviously going to be a fairly personal project, more confessions about the role these records played in my life than “objective” criticism (whatever that would be) of the music itself — but I will talk about the music. It’s the music that taught me to sing, that gave me rhythm (both skills I lacked as late as 1987), to read past the surface of things while still appreciating that surface; it’s the music that gave me another world to curl up in when the regular one wasn’t cutting it, that altered my moods when my moods needed altering, that gave me all my best and worst ideas of who I could be and who I wanted to be.

Please comment, if you’re so inclined. I’d like to hear what you think of these records, which ones mattered more to you that year, which choices surprised you, which ones seemed to be just what you’d expect. I ask only that you temper your comments with a spirit of celebration, so that we can, unimpeded, all fall in love again with the crazy dreams that rich record companies conveyed from often-struggling musicians’ mouths and fingers through our ears and into our heads for so many of our formative years. Like you, probably, this is where I came from, this is where I return whenever I shuffle my iTunes library, and this is where I want to live out the rest of my days. I can’t wait to tell you why.