My Top Ten Albums

I usually try to avoid whatever pointless social media challenge is trending. You know the ones. Post your favorite elbow pictures. Or random movie quotes. Or thirty days of humblebrags posed as “things I’m thankful for” but are really “reasons I think I’m better than you.”

You know those ones?

But Wife tagged me in one and it was about music, and y’know, it’s not like I have other things to occupy my time with here in the 2020 hellscape. So I guess I can cut and paste some album covers. 

If you’ve been of Facebook recently, you’ve probably seen the one I’m talking about. There are actually two of them, one about movies and one about albums. But I’m not big on movies, so I decided to only play the album one.

You’re supposed to pick ten albums that, I don’t know, are good? That define you? That were important? That you got laid to? Maybe that’s another reason to not do the movie thing. Nobody wants to know which scene we got our freak on to in Jurassic Park

(Nature finds a way…)

But here’s the kicker. You’re not allowed to say jack shit about the album itself or why you chose it. What the fuck? That’s like having a therapist say, “So your father abandoned you? Don’t tell me any more. That’s plenty.”

It’s the teenage girl or the male pick-up asshat version. Stay mysterious. Don’t let them see the real you. Just put some albums out there that you think there will be consensus on. Don’t tell anybody what makes you click, just do it for the likes. But if my favorite album is the audiobook of “Mein Kampf,” read by the author, shouldn’t that come with a little explanation?

So whatever, I played their stupid game. And now I’m here to expand upon it. 

A couple of explanations. First, you can call me grandpa, but to me an album is an entity created by the artist and should be listened to in order. One song leads into the next. So unlike virtually all of my friends, even my wife who challenged me to do this, I refused to put any greatest hits compilations on my list. Those are horseshit, and are only used as a cop-out way of saying “I like this artist.” Don’t fall for it! If you really liked that artist, you’d try to appreciate why they made a certain album the way I did. eg Let it Be was created by non-musician Phil Spector, and should not be confused with a Beatles album, even if it’s got some of the greatest Beatles songs.

I did almost put a live album on my list, but Wife said live albums are effectively greatest hits albums. I disagree because, again, the artist is making choices over what order the songs go during a concert. For instance, Paul McCartney sings “Jet” second in both Wings Over America and, fifteen years later, Tripping the Live Fantastic.  And I think he did it one other time. He REALLY likes that as a “sit the fuck back down” song. However, the live album I was going to use was 24 Nights, which was recorded over, you guessed it, 24 nights. So fine, if it’s not the actual lineup from the actual concert, then maybe I shouldn’t use it.

Secondly, these aren’t supposed to be the greatest albums of all time. Nor are these the dreaded “Desert Island Discs,” meaning the ten I would want if stranded somewhere. Let’s be honest, Desert Island Discs SHOULD be greatest hits. More bang for the buck. This list isn’t even my ten favorite albums, because then I’d probably just throw in four Beatles, three Mumford & Sons, and “24 Nights” and be done with it. It’s supposed to be the formative albums of your life, whatever the hell that means. I was using it, as with my weenie friends who used greatest hits albums, as representative albums of various genres and artists. 1. Abbey Road. The ultimate no-brainer that is anything but a no-brainer. If an album is an intentional conglomeration of songs in a specific order, then there is no better barometer of this than an album whose entire second side is one long medley of songs that flow together. Although the same could be said for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Blub Band and maybe even Magical Mystery Tour. Hell, Revolver is a damned fine album, too. In fact, I’ve probably listened to Revolver more often than Abbey Road. Pretty much any list of definitive albums, either in my life or in the world, should have a steady stream of Beatles. Hell, even their earlier shit was pretty avant garde for the time. But yeah, as far as albums go, ya gotta pick Abbey Road. Have I mentioned we named my daughter Abby Rose?

2. Travelers & Thieves. From one of the most well-known albums of all-time to one you’ve probably gotta google. I’ll save you the effort – Travelers & Thieves is Blues Traveler’s second studio album. And if you bought it back in the early 1990s, like I did, it came with an extra live disc, “On Tour Forever,” which only has four songs because Blues Traveler tend to play 20 minute long songs. I once went to a festival where they were playing with Allman Brothers and Phish. I don’t quite remember which of the three bands was playing when some hippie dude came up to me and said, “I hope these shrooms last as long as that last guitar solo,” but you get the point.

If you’re not a Blues Traveler fan, you haven’t heard any of the songs from Travelers & Thieves. Their two big hits, “But Anyway” and “”Run-Around,” come from their first and fourth albums respectively. Travelers & Thieves might not even be my favorite of theirs. Although, let’s be honest, second albums are often the best. If I were to rank the best Blues Traveler albums, I’d probably pick Bridge, their sixth album and the first one after their bassist died. While they aren’t as good of a band without Bobby Sheehan, a fact I’ve mentioned in one of my concert write-ups, there was something cathartic about that album.

But this list isn’t the best albums. This list is the albums that defined my music tastes. And when eighteen-year-old me heard the introductory track, a building crescendo reminiscent of “A Day in the Life,” delivering the listener into the driving bass line (we miss you, Bobby) of the first real song, I was hooked. I was running down to The Wherehouse to buy myself a copy of this godsend before I even made it to the first John Popper harmonica solo.

3. Babel. As with Travelers & Thieves, my first reaction when I heard Mumford & Sons was, “Holy shit! You can do that with music?” I suppose I had a similar reaction to Abbey Road, although I was probably too young to articulate it as such. 

Unlike Blues Traveler, I first heard Mumford on the radio. I don’t know how much “I Will Wait” appeared on my radar. I think I enjoyed it, but it didn’t do much to separate itself from a lot of the other songs coming out in that era. If you made me separate Mumford from, say, Of Monsters and Men or The Lumineers or Vampire Weekend in 2011, I don’t know if I could’ve done it. 

But the first time I heard “Little Lion Man,” the Lumineers had to step aside. It also helped to separate “I Will Wait” from the other songs of the previous few years. I did something crazy, something I hadn’t done in years. I went out and bought two albums. As in the physical CDs. Fortunately my car at the time still had a player.

And if you think about it, Babel is even more impressive than Travelers & Thieves because of my age when I encountered them. Eighteen-year-olds are supposed to find new bands, new genres of music. There’s a reason it’s called “College Music.” You’re not supposed to find new bands in your mid-thirties. You shouldn’t be wowed by what the kids are doing with their musical instruments these days. By God, if it didn’t exist when I was twenty, then it’s just noise. What? Bands have webpages now? Whatever happened to sending out a Christmas 45?

That’s it for the Big Three. I mentioned it on Facebook, and I’ll mention it here. Everything from here on is nitpicking and hair-splitting. Album number four might as well be album number fifteen. But the big three are on an island by themselves.

4. Pay Attention. I never really got into the brief ska phase in the 1990s, but Mighty Mighty Bosstones is good enough to be mainstream. I could also throw Reel Big Fish in to that regard. But I don’t see myself ever owning any Reel Big Fish beyond their greatest hits. Whereas I own three Bosstones albums.

Truthfully, it was kind of a toss-up between Let’s Face It and Pay Attention. The former has “The Impression That I Get” and “Rascal King” on it, which are their better-known singles. But I’ve listened to Pay Attention far more often. It’s got a greater variety of songs, many of which wouldn’t work as singles, but are as invigorating as hell. “High School Dance,” for instance, is written from a school shooter’s perspective, so maybe it hasn’t aged well. 

On one of those other Facebook games many a year ago, we had to write down ten bands and make people guess the one we HADN’T seen in concert. Nobody guessed mine. Everyone guessed Sarah McLachlan. Nope, seen her three times. Even my wife responded with, “You haven’t seen Mighty Mighty Bosstones? You listen to them all the time.” I should probably get on that if concerts ever come back.

5. Altered Beast. Matthew Sweet had three solid albums in a row and then a whole lotta nothing. Or maybe I just graduated from college so I can’t “get” his later music. Anyway, solid album. It also is distinct in that the album came out in four different colors. Same cover, just different colors. I had purple, in case you’re wondering.

I’ve also discovered that creating a Matthew Sweet channel on Pandora is the best way to drill down into the music I listened to in college. I can’t think of any other band or musician that isolates a certain sound and a certain time period. It’ll give you some Lemonheads, some Gin Blossoms, Dinosaur Jr. If you ever watched “Alternative Nation” with Kennedy on MTV, trust me on this one. Pandora’ll play shit you haven’t thought about in twenty-five years.

6. An Innocent Man. This is the first one I posted that received arguments back. And then, I don’t know, am I supposed to engage in said argument or does the “without comment” instruction extend beyond the initial posting of picture? Anyway, many of my friends were incensed at this particular iteration of Billy Joel. What about The Stranger? To say nothing of Glass Houses. Or Storm Front… Or… Or…

Says a shit-ton about Billy Joel, huh? The album with “Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl,” and “Keeping the Faith” gets poo-pooed as hardly deserving to be in his top five. 

Sure, I could’ve picked any of those others, but An Innocent Man was the first CD I ever bought, not to be confused with Hall & Oates’ Private Eyes, which was the first album I ever saved up my allowance to “buy.” I bought An Innocent Man with my own money, almost as an afterthought. My sister’s friend needed bail money, so he sold me a used (or maybe stolen) CD player for $80, which was a hell of a deal in 1989. Then I realized I had no CDs, without which said CD Player wasn’t so great of a deal. So I went to the Wherehouse after school to pick one out. I wanted one with a lot of songs I like. Couldn’t have a repeat of that mistake I made when I was eight years old and only liked one other song on Private Eyes. What a waste of weeks of allowance!

So yeah, I stand by An Innocent Man as my Billy Joel album of choice. Besides, The Stranger and Glass Houses don’t have any songs co-written by Beethoven, do they?

7. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. I needed a Clapton representation, but it’s tough to pick one. The problem with Clapton is most of his iconic songs are on different albums. If you want, say, “Tears in Heaven,” it’s a throw-in at the end of a movie soundtrack. Although that movie soundtrack, all by Clapton, is one of the greatest acoustic guitar albums of all time, even if it was hard as hell to find. I can’t tell you how many times the local CD bar thought I was asking for the new Rush album, not the soundtrack for the movie “Rush.”

So let’s see. Timepieces is way too early in his career to be a proper greatest hits. 24 Nights (see above) works better. Journeyman (see below) is probably the one I’ve listened to the most. 

This Derek and the Dominoes album, then, is about as solid, front to back, as it gets. When I first bought it, it was only for the title track, a la Hall & Oates. I actually thought the rest of the album was a little boring. A little slow. I was expecting rock and I got blues. How does the greatest song in rock history find itself as the thirteenth track of a blues album? But I’m not fifteen anymore. I now appreciate music that isn’t balls-to-the-wall. Having two of the greatest guitarists of all time (and those other three band members weren’t slouches either) find their inner Duke and Satchmo is pretty fucking awesome. 

Some of the songs grew on me after hearing other versions. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” was released as a single from his Unplugged album and “Bell Bottom Blues” came from 24 Nights. I don’t know that he’s ever re-released “I Looked Away” or “Key to the Highway,” but he ought to.

But seriously, go listen to Clapton bend the string on that “Bad Love” solo on 24 Nights.  Possibly the greatest single guitar note of all time.

8. But Seriously. Hey, great segue. This album is a bit of an anomaly on my list. I can’t 100% be sure this is my favorite Phil Collins album. No Jacket Required has “Sussudio” AND “Don’t Lose My Number.” And somehow Phil Collins clearly had a time machine when he wrote that album. How else do you explain the following lyric: “I’ve been sitting here so long, wasting time, just staring at the phone.”

Nor would I say But Seriously is the best album of the year it came out. Which leads me to my conundrum. 1989 was, in my opinion, one of the best musical years ever. I know everyone thinks the year they turned fifteen was the greatest musical year ever. But hear me out. 1989 represented the last gasp of many of the classic rockers. They were all moving into their late-forties and started to write about hardening arteries and such. In 1989, they could still have a little bit of drive. 

Oh, and I turned fifteen in 1989.

Here’s only a partial list of albums that came out in 1989. I’ve tried to cover each of them in other spots on this list. 

Full Moon Fever: Probably, objectively, the best album of the year. See below. 

Journeyman: if I didn’t have Clapton on this list already, this would’ve been my 1989 pick. This was his last rock album. 

Flowers in the Dirt: Maybe not one of Paul McCartney’s best, but it was on continuous loop on my CD changer.

Spike: Great collaboration between Elvis (the musically talented Elvis, that is) and Paul on this and “Flowers.” 

Storm Front: See Above.

Oranges & Lemons: XTC listened to Sgt. Pepper nonstop when they recorded this album, and it shows.

Best Shots: I know I said no greatest hits, but as greatest hits go, Pat Benatar is a pretty solid entry. And a great title, considering her most well known song.

9. Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1. This was a weird one. It took me a while to think of it, but as soon as I did, it was like, “Holy crap, that has to be in there.” If Derek and the Dominoes is great because it has two of the best, how about a group with five? This album is so good, and it gave me cover to avoid tabbing Full Moon Fever as my Albome de 1989. Because Full Moon Fever, while technically a Tom Petty solo project, had a number of the Wilburys playing on it. It is, effectively, Volume 2, which helps answer the question of why they skipped from Volume 1 to Volume 3. Also because they were having fun. They picked different pseudonyms and everything on Volume 3.

Volume 3’s a solid effort, but it’s just not the same without Roy Orbison. His voice added a magic that, say, Bob Dylan’s voice doesn’t. And hey, who would’ve guessed that we’re one Jeff Lynne mishap from Dylan being the last surviving member of the Traveling Wilburys? Good thing I didn’t make that bet back in 1988.

10. Armed Forces. This was a last minute addition. Similar to Traveling Wilburys, when I was listing the albums in the running for 1989, I realized that Elvis Costello was completely missing from my list. And really, I could probably pick up to five of his albums that deserve mention. If the all acoustic “Rush” soundtrack sounds up your alley, try Elvis Costello singing in front of a string quartet in The Juliet Letters. Of course, I’m partial to his back-to-back collaboration-with-McCartney albums, Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, because they both came out when I was in high school. 

But I admit that true Elvis Costello should be earlier in his career, when he was in full “& the Attractions” mode. Blood and Chocolate might be one of the coolest-named albums of all time, and it’s solid, to boot. King of America is a good entry, as well. But in the end, an album that starts with the lyric, “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin” sums up what an album is supposed to be as wonderfully as the Abbey Road medley.

Honorable Mentions:

Americana Deluxe. If I wanted to go with the late-1990s swing blip instead of the late-1990s ska blip, in lieu of Bosstones, I could’ve gone with this Big Bad Voodoo Daddy album, which I always assumed was named “Big Bad Voodoo Daddy” until I just googled it. Maybe that’s a good reason to not include in my list. Plus, while Voodoo Daddy burned brighter, but the Bosstones stuck around for longer.

Tower of Power. This was album number ten until the Case of the Missing Elvis began to haunt my dreams. And yeah, I just checked that the album has the same name as the band. Now I’m gun shy. 

Father of the Bride. This Vampire Weekend album came out in 2019. It’s a strong late entry. Except I don’t own the album. I only listen to it on YouTube or else I tell Alexa to play Vampire Weekend and I get a smattering of all four of their albums. That’s what music is in the twenty-first century. Everything’s a greatest hit album.

Black Parade. Ditto this My Chemical Romance album. It’s great. Title track might be one of the best songs ever written. But I’ve only listened to it on YouTube. If I don’t own an album, can it be one of my definitive albums?

Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years. No greatest hits, but if I were allow myself a greatest hits, there isn’t a better one than Frank Sinatra. And really, I think Sinatra pre-dates albums, so it could be fair game. This album isn’t really a greatest hits, it’s just a sampling of a few years he was at Reprise Records instead of Capitol. What’s the difference between a Sinatra album and a greatest hits, anyway?

So there you have it. Maybe I’ll return next week with my favorite uses of mayonnaise. Not counting that one scene in Jurassic Park.

Best Decades of the Decade

Everyone seems to be coming out with “Best of the Decade” lists recently. Best books, best movies, best songs, best political scandals, best masturbatory practice. Turns out it’s masturbation. For the millionth decade running.

The decade isn’t over for another year, but whatever. I thought we had finally figured this shit out in 2000. I know we like the big round numbers in our base-ten system. But last time I checked, it’s base-ten because we count from one to nine.

The 2010s are coming to an end this week, not the decade. So all of these numbnuts should be making their “Bet Food Recipe of the Teens” instead of “of the Decade.” But then we wouldn’t click on it because we’d assume it’s a list of recipes the writer liked when they were a teen. And if they’re a Baby Boomer, we already know that the first two ingredients will be bacon fat and cocaine.

But I don’t have a “Best of the Decade” or a “Best of the Teens” list, primarily because my short-term memory is a sieve. Crap, I can’t even remember what my last post was about. When I was wrapping Christmas presents, I found a birthday present I was supposed to give Wife back in July. I thought about wrapping it for Christmas, but it really is more of a summer gift. Anyone want to take wagers on me finding it again next December?

So if I were to create a list of items from the past ten years, it would be a nightmare. Who the hell remembers what TV shows they watched nine years ago? Do they jot things down as they go? This blog technically could serve as notes on what I was interested in at any given moment, but it’s not like I’m going to go read all my old shit just to curate my decade. Heck, I keep threatening to put some of my best blog posts together to self-publish, but I can’t get my head around looking through my old posts for the sake of cutting-and-pasting, much less gleaning what year they canceled “Selfie.”

(My blog post about them canceling “Selfie,” btw, is one of my most viewed posts. I doubt it has anything to do with the tv show. Just that when you google “Wombat selfie,” there aren’t a lot of options.)

I’ve actually perused some of those lists, because dammit, they’re called click-bait for a reason. But every time I do, I see things to which I react, “That was 2011? I could’ve sworn that came out in 1985.” It’s one of the problems of growing older. When I wrote about “All I Want for Christmas is You” last week, I didn’t have to look up what year it came out, because I was in college. I can remember who my roommates were, which told me it came out my junior year, and I backfilled from there. But if a song came out in 2004 or 2014, it’s all the same to me now. Imagine my shock when my students had no idea who the Black Eyed Peas were. What do you mean, “Let’s Get it Started” didn’t come out two years ago?

So, let me see… Best TV Show of the 2010s: Quantum Leap. Best Song: Yesterday. Best Movie: Casablanca. Best blog post? Certainly not one of mine.

But hey, I’m an amateur historian and my long-term memory’s doing perfectly fine. So maybe I should use the last days of this decade (the Teens, dammit!) to list off the best decades.

2010s. Ha ha, just kidding. This decade has more or less sucked. Not necessarily from a stuff happening standpoint, but from a historical perspective, this decade will pale in comparison to its predecessor. The 2Ks had 9/11 and a “Great Recession” and the first black president. This one had Marvel movies. We might have topped off the decade with a newsworthy impeachment, but it’s the second one in the past twenty years. And the Republicans might be right when they say this will become the norm going forward. Thirty years from now, when we’re following the seventh impeachment in the past fifty years, we’ll probably trace it back to a blow job in the 1990s, not a snow job in the 2010s.

So yeah this decade might not be as shitty as, say the 1930s or the 1970s, but it ain’t gonna make any “Best of…” lists. Even if I do love me some Mumford and Sons.

Wait, Sigh No More came out in 2009? Wow, this decade really can’t get a fucking break.

3rd Place (Tie). 1980s/1950s.

These two decades are more or less interchangeable. Each started a half-decade after the end of a war that most of the population was trying to forget about. In the fifties, it was the World War II vets looking to hide their own experiences in a world of conformity. In the eighties, it was the draft-dodgers and other hippies realizing that peace, love, and understadning are great, but they pale in comparison to junk bonds. Each decade was marked by an alleged conservatism championed by a doddering old president parlaying his pre-politics career. And when we’re busy sweeping turmoil under the rug, the society really gets to thrive! Optimistic music, advancements in television (color in the 1950s, cable in the 1980s). And can you really rank leather jackets and day-glo sweatshirts against each other? If one of those is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Each decade has one huge year from a historical perspective.  In 1957, you had Sputnik and the Little Rock Nine and the Dodgers and Giants moving west. In 1989, you’ve got the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I’d probably take 1989 in that toss-up, but the rest of the decades were no slouch, either. Hungarian uprising, Suez crisis, and Kitchen debate in the 1950s, Challenger, Iran-Contra, and MTV in the 1980s. At least the signature moments of the 1980s weren’t fraught with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Unless you count a “WarGames” scenario. We’d traded “Duck and Cover” for “99 Luftballons.”

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire.

And both decades helped in the whole freedom,  standard-of-living thing. The Civil Rights movement and the aforementioned fall of communism. Not that things were wonderful for African Americans in 1960 or Eastern Europeans by 1990, but I’d rather be in either of those situations than a decade before.

Beyond that, we’re splitting hairs. I’ll take “I Love Lucy” over “Family Ties,” but I’d listen to Billy Joel in a heartbeat over Elvis.

And if I had to choose between Marilyn Monroe and Christie Brinkley, could i just have both?

2nd place. 1920s

This seemed to be a pretty kick-ass decade. No war, and at least from an American perspective, the last war was relatively easy to get over. The flu was substantially worse, but if your best friend died of the flu, you’re probably not walking around with the 1,000-yard stare for the next ten years.

So when you’re not whining about the war and you have no clue that the worst economic calamity of modern times is knocking on your doorstep, what are you going to do with yourself? Well, there’s a whole bevy of things to choose from.

Everything was new and exciting and approachable by an emerging middle class. You could go watch Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play some baseball in the Bronx. Sports not your thing? How about checking out this emerging movie industry? Over the course of the Jazz Age, movies became longer and more intricate, with fully formed plots and rising stars., like Rudy Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. By 1927, you’ve even got talkies. It can’t get any better than that! Seriously, I show silent movies in my US History class, and you’d be surprised at how often they keep modern teenagers’ interests. The comedies are legitimately funny and the horrors – I mean, holy crap, have you seen Nosferatu? Off the screen, Hollywood also had its fair share of unsolved murders and scandalous producer/engenue affairs that would make Harvey Weinstein blush. Seriously, Mary Miles Mintner was like 16 when she started banging William Desmond Taylor, and she was all of 19 when she might or might not have murdered him. And I’ll let you Google the Fatty Arbuckle Trial.

What else was there to do? Well, I called it the Jazz Age, so you know, there’s jazz! The most genuinely American music might have existed before 1920, but this was the decade  it hit the masses. Under the guidance of Duke and Satchmo and Jelly Roll, it transitioned from quaint Dixieland to fully-orchestrated swing. Whatever music you listen to today, from rock to hip-hop to country, owes its lineage to 1920s jazz.

And you could listen to it on the radio, a technology that hit its saturation point in the 1920s. Same with electricity and telephones and refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. It’s not quite TV On Demand or the Internet, but I imagine it would’ve been a fun decade to live through.

Of course one glaring problem prevents this decade from reaching number one: Prohibition. The fact that, out of any decade in history, this is the only one you couldn’t get a goddamn drink when you wanted one is a definite black eye. It’s like picking the one George Lazenby movie as the best James Bond flick. Or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens as the best Super Bowl champion. Seriously, how can you be the best football team if you didn’t even have a starting quarterback?

Although, to be honest, even the worst part of the decade is one of it’s cooler aspects, right? After all, none of us would be able to single out the 2000 Baltimore Ravens if it weren’t for Trent Dilfer.

Speakeasies and bootleggers and Al Capone. And bathtub gin! Who’s with me on the alcohol-induced blindness!

The magic and the mysticism of the Roaring Twenties all stemmed from the lengths people would go to get illegal booze. It’s like a decade-long high school party. As long as you live in a big city. For everyone else, you were shit out of luck. Have some bathtub gin and a smile and shut the fuck up.

And for that reason, on general principal, the 1920s cannot be the best decade.

First place. 1890s

Ah, you didn’t see me going here, did you? Thought I’d stick with the 20th century? Maybe pick some random obscure debate like the 1650s? Great time to be a Puritan. Not so much if you enjoyed sinful things like Christmas or theater.  Or if you were a witch.

But a turn of the century that didn’t include a Y2K scare that turned us all into hoarders who felt very foolish the next day? That totally sucked. It’s bad enough when you wake up next to someone whose name you don’t remember on New Year’s Day. It’s so much worse when you wake up in a sea of Vienna sausage tins.

The 1890s were generally an optimistic time. The gilded age, le belle epoque, the fin de siecle. How the hell were they supposed to know they were less than twenty years from the self-imposed hellscape of trench warfare?

The Nifty Nineties were the birth of the modern age. I often start my Industrial Revolution unit by asking students the most important invention in their lives. Most of them say their phone (invented in 1876). A few try to go highbrow by picking electricity (light bulb invented in 1879). Then I ask them how their day-to-day live might be different without, say, a toilet. Thomas Crapper perfected the S-bend and the ballcock by 1880. And sure, the toilet might not be as useful if I couldn’t play Bubble Witch on my phone while sitting there, but if I had to take one…

You’ll note that none of these inventions actually came about in the 1890s, but the saturation point of inventions used to take much longer. The key is that most cities underwent redesigns in the 1880s to make use of things like telephones and electricity and sewage. Street cars and subways could get you where you needed to be. The Eiffel Tower popped up in 1889, and the Ferris Wheel came a few years later. Parks and spectator sports and newspapers. And think about the impact of the bicycle, invented in 1885. All of a sudden you didn’t need to buy a horse in order to get somewhere faster than a run.

And keeping with the themes of cable tv and jazz radios, impressionist art really started the whole “indivualism in art” thing. It might be fun to catch an art show or artist’s party. Just go easy on the absinthe and leave as soon as Van Gogh gets there. Dude was whack-a-doodle.

Oh wait, he died in 1890. So much the better.

Whenever my students ask me the “if you had a time machine” question, I always set the clock at 1890. Not that I would necessarily go back to that precise point, but I wouldn’t go any earlier. I think, with a little bit of practice and concentration, one coming from the 21st century could fudge their way though the 1890s. There would still be a number of differences, but we’d at least be able to recognize certain things. It might be tough not being able to google everything, but again… flush toilets!

Most of these descriptions could fit the 1900s as well. Plus the first decade of the twentieth century sprinkled in a first flight and the best president in our history for good measure. And if I could cheat as much as those saying the decade ends this week, then sure, I guess I could just bullshit 1890-1910 as a decade. Or really, 1896-1908. But if I have to split hairs, I’m taking the first half of that era.

After all, there was just a tad bit more historical going on in the 1890s. It had one of the worst economic depressions up to that time, and maybe second only to the 1930s. Not saying depressions are fun or anything, but it was the first depression with skyscrapers that businessmen could throw themselves out of. Nothing like a thoroughly modern suicide.

And if you go to the end of the decade you have that “splendid little war” between the United States and Spain. Sure, there was a war in the 1900s, too, but it featured Japan and a Bloody Sunday. Plus I’m American, so huzzah! Oh, and Teddy Roosevelt, the one main draw of the next decade, got his rise to fame in that war. Heck, he had a much more dynamic nineties than aughts. Civil Service Commission to police chief to San Juan Hill to Governor. And if you extend the decade to 1900, as you should, all the way to Vice President-elect.

Oh, and Wizard of Oz wouldn’t exist without the election of 1896.

Pretty impressive for a decade to have both a depression and a war, but still be seen as an optimistic time. The Nifty Nineties, the first decade to earn a nickname. The first decade that was, well, a decade, at least as we think of them today. When the approach of a year with a magical zero at the end makes us all try to define the previous ten-year span and make stupid predictions for the next one.

Except I have one prediction that I know will come true, at least for me. Expect the next 24 hours, 365 days, and possibly even more, to listen to a hell of a lot of Barbara Walters impressions.

Tonight! On Twenty-Twenty!