I just turned 35. But in lieu of receiving 30-plus birthday punches, I thought I’d pummel you all with love letters to nearly three dozen pop-culture artifacts−TV series, music albums, books, games, iconic real-world moments et al−that I’d rather not live without at this stage of my life and critical career. The only guiding tenet for these qualifying moments, sounds and images is that they’ve been recorded, captured and/or documented for posterity, provide entertainment or inspiration and, if possible, ring familiar to more than just a few (or, in the case of one entry, a modest handful).
This isn’t a desert-island piece (I’d take food, not albums, if cast away), nor is it about acknowledging ephemeral machinery like iPhones and smart cars. And it certainly isn’t to suggest any audio file or printed memoir is more significant than flesh and blood, family and friends. My only objective, however subjective my own results, is to ask: Of all the content we consume in our lives, what’s the most essential right now, whether as entertainment or inspiration? So be they from the past or present, here’s the 35 things pop culture hath wrought that I can’t fathom not being in my future.
1. Seinfeld: The Complete Series
There will never be another sitcom like Seinfeld, which negotiated the limitations of 1990s broadcast television and produced an impossibly funny, incisive several seasons (we’ll give those last two a pass). It’s hard to imagine any series that previously had, or will again, compete with its good-natured mean-spiritedness. It is my caffeine and my comedown.
2. Sigur Rós, Complete Discography
Perhaps not singling out one LP, EP, live compilation or experimental soundtrack in particular is a copout. But Icelandic soundscapists Sigur Rós merit comprehensive immersion. Soothing, sinister, maximal, minimal−all those adjectives apply to their seven studio LPs (and counting) and assorted tangential material, and I’ve barely gotten through a bumpy plane ride, harrowing 36 hours of prenatal labor (more harrowing for my wife, of course) or even good night sleep over the past 15 years without them. They are my greatest band of the past 20 years.
3. Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction
I find both Use Your Illusion LPs fascinating, in part because they boast fully realized versions of songs G N’ R had been demoing since the mid-1980s. But Appetite has it all, beginning with feeding this list’s inescapable need for indulgent generational nostalgia. More than that, and beyond the backstory, there’s the simple science of neophyte drummer Steven Adler’s swing, bassist Duff McKagan’s Pacific Northwestern slack rhythm, guitarist Izzy Stradlin’s steadying presence (see: “Night Train”), lead six-stringer Slash’s sloppy brilliance and frontman Axl Rose’s singular charisma. I find something new in every listen of Appetite, and it’s the only album I can call close to perfect.
4. New York Times Sunday Crossword Omnibus
I know−nerd alert. But crossword puzzles have made my trips to the bathroom much more sophisticated, made me smarter and kept me from relying on Wi-Fi for entertainment on mass transit. And there really is no substitute for Will Shortz’s Times compendiums, which have a formula and language all their own. And once you cross the threshold of being even semi-decent at Sunday’s gauntlet, there’s no turning back. If, like most other anachronistic holdovers from the 20th century, NYT Crossword omnibuses go belly-up, I can at least keep tinkering with the last published volume during countless road trips and gastro emergencies.
5. The Internet
Regardless of my outpouring about crossword puzzles later on, don’t be mistaken: I need me some Internet. Granted, the only thing more embarrassing than my sub-intellectual DVR selections are the websites I visit daily (mostly pro-wrestling forums and Twitter), but like all of us, there is some information I simply must obtain right fucking now. Because who wants to feel left behind when word leaks that your favorite B-list actor has died or WWE superstar Daniel Bryan may appear in an episode of USA’s Psych?
When without Web access (i.e. the sporadic family retreat to a remote area) and forced out of isolation (i.e. not in the bathroom with crosswords), Uno is my pastime of choice. Unlike typical board games, there’s no way to construe the rules subjectively, and as opposed to actual decks of cards, the competition doesn’t have real stakes or require any cunning. Plus, with my son in the mix, I can enhance his Spanish vocabulary beyond “agua.”
7. The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection
A la Guns N’ Roses and a couple other instances in this roundup, my relationship to The Twilight Zone is partly sentimental. Growing up, the annual New Year’s Eve/Day 24-hour Twilight marathon on my local channel 11 (still proudly continued on cable’s SyFy) provided a respite from school-year turmoil and holiday-time ado that, fittingly, seemed to blur time and space. Decades later, an episode or two is still my ideal Sunday morning comfort, but I’ve also grown ever more captured by its eerie tone and sobering themes. Plus, as a proud Jewish man, I’m not ashamed to say that creator/writer/host Rod Serling is one badass member of the tribe.
At least I didn’t say The Godfather, right? Although what Francis Ford Coppola’s mob epic shares with Martin Scorsese’s crime story is that elusive, “If it’s on cable while I’m flipping channels, I absolutely must stop and watch its duration” mystique. There’s no one scene (though its lauded single shot, uncomfortably exhilarating pistol whipping and feverish final minutes come to mind) you’re waiting for. Goodfellas, as with Scorsese’s best, is completely immersive and powerful all at once, constantly challenging your assumptions bout violence and greed. And in the grand tradition of great American cinema, it’s some real R-rated fun.
9. Mr. Show: The Complete Collection
If not other reason than Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ often-ingenious HBO sketch show circa 1996 is difficult to locate on cable and streaming services, even post-Amazon Prime and Home Box Office’s love affair. And even if, largely for that reason, I don’t revisit classic episodes from its four-season run often as I may have in the days when I videotaped it week to week. But, primarily, because Mr. Show is the closest an American offering has come to besting Flying Circus, and has aged better than the past 30 years of SNL. Plus, no one’s profanities have more flourish than Odenkirk’s.
10. Slayer, South of Heaven
All due respect to Iron Maiden and so many other metallic heroes (not least of which includes Metallica), but Slayer is and shall always be my ultimate rage-outlet of choice. Bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, drummer Dave Lombardo, guitarist Kerry King and late guitarist Jeff Hanneman were so ahead of their time that a certain amount of awe−alongside the immediacy of their vital trash−is invariably part of experiencing vintage LPs like South of Heaven. Imaging the rest of my days without them is pure hell.
11. 1986 World Series, Boston Red Sox vs. New York Mets, Game 6
As a New York sports fan of a certain age, I’ve witnessed my share of thrilling moments that have transcended athletics: Scott Norwood’s “wide right,” the end of “1940” chants, David Tyree’s miracle catch, etc. But I thank the MLB gods daily that I was alive, residing not far from Shea Stadium and aware of the stakes when my Mets demonstrated the electrifying result of an improbable comeback and its contagious effect on an entire city. Thankfully (and especially with the orange-and-blue in such dire straits the past eight years), that signature Bill Buckner flub and Ray Knight’s subsequent winning run have been saved for posterity on DVD, YouTube and a myriad ESPN/MLB Network clip shows, because fandom aside, it’s a cinematically stirring baseball moment.
12. The Lower End of the FM Dial
I’ve given up on fumbling with my iPod while driving or swapping CDs out mid-trip. Not to mention, the former’s sound in my car stereo is almost always inferior to terrestrial radio reception. And yes, I may eventually succumb and get satellite. Who wouldn’t, now that most commercial FM stations have been arbitrarily auto-programmed into oblivion? That is, if I didn’t still have the network of ad-free options below the 92 meridian line on my dial. Granted, I’m fortunate to live in the New York area and can tune in to community-supported indie, punk, metal, hip-hop, jazz and folk stations curated by local college students and non-profit lifers. But the underlying appeal is ceding control while I’m navigating the roads (or just trying to prep breakfast and start my day), discovering something new, swooning over the frequent sentimental favorite and sidestepping shock jocks and the digital-playlist shuffle.
I’ve always wondered if devoutly practicing religious types (I am, despite what testimony elsewhere in this piece would have you believe, not among them) care much for horror movies without overtly spiritual themes, or whether Biblical tales spook them fine. Whatever nags your nightmares, all of us need a good scare. For sure, Nightmare on Elm Street traumatized me and anyone else born in the late 1970s. And the remarkable Evil Dead 2 introduced to meta-genre mischief. But for my moolah, Clive Barker’s theatrical adaptation of his own Hellbound Heart novella−retitled Hellraiser for moviegoers−is the most visually stunning, atmospherically sound and thematically affecting picture in its class. Yes, it spawned Pinhead, who became a silly lunchbox novelty. And indeed, the straight-to-video sequels churn on. But I always come back to Barker’s original, gothic exploring of humankind’s insufferable dualities, one striking enough that−to paraphrase poor Frank/Larry at film’s end−it may in fact have made Jesus weep.
14. Amityville Horror 2: The Possession
Now that Troll 2’s been dragged from obscurity into the cult spotlight, and with Evil Dead a known commodity since director Sam Raimi got bit by the Spider-Man bug, only one would-be horror gem stands tall as my de facto, “Wait, you ever seen this shit?” pick of choice. Amityville 2 is epic nonsense, blindly cross-breeding a bit of the original’s haunted-house legend with some Exorcist voodoo, tossing in Rocky’s Burt Young as a manically abusive dad and throwing in a bit of sibling incest that makes Flowers in the Attic seem chaste. The real glue? Truly outstanding, A-plus monster makeup from Oscar winner John Caglione Jr., who went on to disguise Heath Ledger as the Joker 28 years later. But Amityville 2 still reigns in its ugly hilarity.
15. Twin Peaks, The First Season
Every doomy, gloomy, odd little cable series that’s cropped in recent times (The Killing, Fargo et. al.) gets compared to Twin Peaks, and with good reason. That first season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s short-lived CBS drama/noir/thriller/black comedy is still the gold standard for TV without boundaries, despite restrictions against nudity, profanity and excessive violence. Criticisms of the show’s back third are equally valid, but holy crap, are those first dozen-plus installments one inspired nightmare, and a perfectly perverse comedown from Hellraiser.
Let’s forgive David Zucker for eventually careening into neo-conservative witlessness and instead agree on something of a lifetime pass for co-directing Airplane! (not to mention helming The Naked Gun). There’d be no Anchorman without this disaster-movie spoof, no Wet Hot American Summer. There might even be a complete absence of laughter. If I had to define my ideal humor, or at least comedy that isn’t necessarily trenchant or too heady, it’s right there in all glorious 87 minutes of this 1980 classic’s nonsense.
17. The Clash, Sandinista!
It’s important to hold dear both a film and album whose titles conclude in exclamatory fashion. And Sandinista! certainly warrants the added emphasis. Joe Strummer and co.’s punkiest gesture was putting out this three album tour-de-rhythmic exploration on the heels of their breakthrough, London Calling. There’s plenty across its nearly 40 tracks that didn’t necessarily stick to the wall, but a shocking percentage of Sandinista!’s trials in dub, pub rock and outright anthems comes together. The sum total makes for a righteous listen, as well as fascinating time capsule of a band at the peak of its commercial potential and creative hubris.
18. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
Pretentious snob alert: Hardcore 20th-century French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s tome on contemporary radicalism is dense, incomprehensible at times and as oddly structured as its thought patterns. And it’s not as if I whip it out for Sunday reading much. But it was also the only assigned college text I willingly consumed cover to cover, and its central concepts like rhizomes and nomadology gave shape to my hazy ideas about culture and institutions, and remain constant motivational references for my life and work. Not dissimilar to someone else’s bible, A Thousand Plateaus is simply a text I like to know is nearby in a drawer somewhere. Although quite opposite of either holy Testament, it’s lofty ideas are actually rooted in reality.
19. Wax Poetics, Issue 41
We all hold onto mementos of our accomplishments. For certain folks, it’s trophies. Others might stuff and mount an innocent animal they slaughtered in the woods. My vanity piece would be the 41st issue of cult mag Wax Poetics, which was kind enough to shoehorn in a piece I did on the 1980s Latin Freestyle explosion among its robust hip-hop features. The entire publication is packed with meaty prose, reflections and Q&As covering legends such as Ice Cube and KRS-One. My story was a comparative post-script, but one I was pretty damn pleased with and occasionally glance at to remind myself my job isn’t always terrible.
20. Nissin Top Ramen
Food isn’t part of pop culture, you say? May I introduce you to my friend the George Foreman Grill, or perhaps a bag of Pop Rocks (assuming that fits anyone’s definition of food)? Now that I’m 35 and prone to myriad heart diseases, I try to avoid consuming packets of flavored sodium stirred into cardboard noodles, but I also cannot recall the last time my cupboards went without a couple crinkly packages of Top Ramen soup. It was all my dad knew how to cook, the only thing I could conjure on a hot plate throughout college, got me through many a broke Brooklyn night in my 20s and will no doubt be passed onto my son once I feel more comfortable feeding him edibles warmer than cold fish. None of this makes me unique, because Ramen is, if nothing else, a conversation piece. It’s my generation’s apple pie. Hell, parent Nissin Foods is even based in suburban California.
21. The Hudson Independent
A la user-supported radio, I’m a fierce advocate for local journalism. Wherever you are, you need to know what’s going on, and in my neck of Westchester County, no one delivers it better (and with relatively fewer typos) than The Hudson Independent. I wait for this by the mailbox each month like it was a gold-plated Playboy, and while the Internet’s great for connecting me with the universe, Hudson Independent’s (and for you, whatever your equivalent) the only way I know what the hell is happening right outside.
I know what you’re thinking: What, Shoah wouldn’t suffice? Or: Well, duh, who wouldn’t squirrel away their DVD of an unsettling and deeply sad Holocaust postmortem that documents the present-day meeting of Nazi sicko Amon Goeth’s daughter and one of his former enslaved Jews at the concentration camp where he wrought torture? We all confront our heritage at some point, and most of us have related reference works to turn to. Inheritance, which PBS selected for its POV series in 2008, articulates something about the past century’s Jewish experience that resonated with me profoundly. I showed it to my wife (who sort of hated/appreciated me after the fact), will probably show it to my children and need a film like it within reach just to keep me grateful and going.
23. My Bar Mitzvah Video
On the other end of Jewish expression−and fulfilling the prophecy of a very marginally qualified inclusion in this gallery−is a seemingly endless recording of the day I became a man. It’s now been transferred to DVD and, as a therapeutic gesture, may get uploaded for the world one day with my blessing. But prior to such convenient pass-around technology, the events of June 13, 1992 at Woodbury, New York’s Fox Hollow Inn amassed an impressive legend between the boundaries of my native Long Island and further upstate, where I went to college. It was a turning point for me, the first time I could observe myself like an alien species, vow to make some changes but also own my awkwardness rather than lease it out to bullies for their antagonism. There’s evidence of our most raw, formative times out there somewhere, and nine times out of 10, it’s in our possession, serving as entertainment and providing perspective. Mine’s just beneath the TV, ready to humble and delight myself, and a willing audience (just not this one, and not right now). when necessary.
24.New York magazine’s “Approval Matrix”
It’s a degree less obnoxious than being dependent on New Yorker cartoons, but equally irresistible in its own society-pages kind of way. New York has, sadly, cut its print schedule in half, and about half of its surviving regular features still lean heavily on high-end lifestyle. But the “Approval Matrix,” an infographic assessing each biweekly period’s cultural highs and lows, is for tabloid fiends, the middlebrow and elites alike, and can be pored over in exactly the amount of time you’ll sit in a doctor’s waiting room. I also secretly wish I authored it, or at least the lower-left quarter.
25. WWE Network
Not to be a mark, as they say in the “sports-entertainment” biz, for Vince McMahon’s fledgling new multimedia enterprise, but I need access to current and archived pro-wrestling content at all times. WWE, and scripted grappling in general, is my not-so-secret guilty pleasure. It occupies half of my DVR, consumes my time scrolling through Roku channels and occupies entirely too much of my social conversation. Culturally, I figure it falls somewhere between confessed soap operas and Internet porn on the shame spectrum, which I’ll happily accept as a summary of my taste.
Piggybacking off WWE Network, kudos to peer streaming service Netflix, who’ve reinvented themselves as a clearinghouse for instant viewing and source of original content. And, in the process, ensured I am desperate in its absence, hence the numerous Roku remotes I’ve purchased after misplacing their predecessors. This, even though its “New Releases” category refreshes less often than my bathroom’s rusting can of Air Wick. Amazon Prime did well to get themselves in the hunt by getting in bed with HBO, but something about that Netflix design and those scroll functions has me at, “Visually Striking Movies Starring Female Leads From The 1980s, Non-Union Edition.”
27. Beavis and Butt-Head Music Videos
There’s been some licensing snags, but you can still own a good chunk of the music clips Mike Judge, via Beavis and Butt-Head, sent up and sentimentalized on the show’s box sets and, of course, YouTube. Whenever I lose my radar for what’s funny, 90 seconds of these two animated idiots good-naturedly skewering Phil Anselmo from Pantera brings me right back home. Or, as Beavis once queried during Sagat’s “Funk Dat” while channeling Andy Rooney, “How come they call it taking a dump and not leaving a dump? After all, you’re not really taking it anywhere.”
28. Nina Simone, To Be Free
My acknowledgments to Roberta Flack, perhaps my favorite pure female vocalist (and ditto the vast legacy of divas from Ella to Adele), but no one interpretive songstress or songwriter stirs me quite like Nina Simone. Self-conscious and self-possessed, soulful and swinging, she was one of the few truly second to none.
29. Sesame Street, Classics
My kid’s into Elmo, but thank god he digs the retro stuff too. And so do I. Going back into Sesame Street’s annuls was, initially, a compromise between keeping him occupied while I ate breakfast and not succumbing to some cynical, merchandise-driven cartoon franchise. But as it turns out, I’ve been hooked anew on its dated charm and timeless wit and age-defying educators’ intellect. Since discovering streaming media, this has been our household’s most binged-on material.
30. The Little Gorilla
Indulge and excuse my new dadness. And at least be glad I’m not another “edgy” parent gushing over Go the Fuck to Sleep. In fact, when my son was born, I avowed that reading the same sing-songy passages 10 times over while he squirmed in my lap would be the sole jurisdiction of my wife. But Little Gorilla, the simply, cleanly illustrated parable about an adored jungle primate whose insecurities about getting older are eased when he realizes all the other critters still love him, broke me down. It’s the only 21st-century kids book I can see myself paying forward to other families. And I’ll probably still keep a copy at home too, even after my youngest is grown.
31. Marüshka Prints
Of all the things I know nothing about, art would come in ranked fairly high, somewhere between earth science and Thai food. But I know how to look at something and say, “Me think pretty and warm but not too polarizing or insistent on making statement.” Thanks to my friend Dan, who plastered his living room with these retro (but not too retro) 1970s silkscreens (produced by a Michigan-based company over a couple-decade span), and my wife’s ensuing scavenger hunt, we have more Marüshkas lining our walls than you can shake a beautifully canvassed wintry design at. These are the only interior touches in my home I truly appreciate and remark on constantly, and I will shed many salty tears when there are no more Marüshka resellers storming the eBay auction blocks.
32. News Footage of 9/11
Macabre, I know. But I’m a New Yorker, and I genuinely don’t ever want to forget. And more than ceremonies, odes, United 93 or even newly erected skyscrapers, the real-time footage I watched that day from a Dunkin’ Donuts near my office 20 miles from downtown Manhattan (where my father was at the time, just blocks from where the towers fell) is the only that that truly keeps me from letting that day feel merely like history.
33. High On Fire Hot Sauce
I love hot sauce. And I like the band High On Fire OK. But boy, do I love their hot sauce, which they had concocted and bottled by Texas-based entrepreneurs Big Daddys. Yes, it’s novel and kitschy to have HOF’s label alongside Frank’s and Tabasco, but the sauce’s recipe−which gets its tangy kick from fresh habaneros, beer and brown sugar−is tops. So much so that my wife and commissioned them to bottle it up in spades as our wedding favor (re-labeled to reflect the day of course), meaning I will stow degrading boxes of it in an attic for decades to come. But hey, it’s cooler, and more useful, than this Katy Perry bracelet.
34. Spin magazine, Sept. 1999 Issue
I’d only determined to pursue journalism in my sophomore year of college, dating back to 1998. A year later, Spin published its subjective roundup of that decade’s finest contribution to the musical arts. I don’t know if I agreed with their choices and placement then, or whether I would now, but in a time before ubiquitous online listicles, their “90 Greatest Albums of the ’90s” etched an impression in me about smart, considered music writing. I still keep the issue boxed away. If I were a professor, I’d probably share it with my students, just to give some insight into what lit my fire 15 years ago. I’ve written for Spin since, but am always kind of wishing I’d had my two cents at that time, and still hope to curate a similar work some day, especially as resistance to the digital age. At minimum, it’s a testament to some of the greatest sounds I grew up around, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a typo.
35. Hip-Hop T-Shirts
I’m neither a clotheshorse nor trend-forward. I was never an Air Jordans devotee and have yet to own any celebrity-“designed” fashion. But I do love me some T-shirts. Those unassuming cotton weaves bring me comfort, yes, but they also say to the world, “These are the films I watch and music I listen to, and you can probably infer a lot about my personality from them.” They can be wonderfully alienating, or on rare occasions, an emblem of solidarity. And as a man soon to be pushing 40, it’s only natural that I’ve purchased, and often don, a wardrobe within a wardrobe of tees paying homage to Black Sheep, Black Star, Notorious B.IG., Tribe Called Quest and any other artist that clearly codifies me as a former suburban ’90s teen. I’m awesome.