Everyone has moments in their life that are defined by music. Whether it’s a song that introduced you to a genre of music that changed your tastes and style, or a lyric that made you think about the world in a different way. Songs can represent relationships. Songs can trigger memories. These are all crucial tracks.

This weekly newsletter will dig into those tracks through interviews with people of all walks of life – artists, authors, musicians, teachers, and more. Learn about the songs that made them who they are today and then listen along to playlists published on Spotify and Apple Music.

My name is Jason Dettbarn — one half of the crew behind Crucial Tracks. Since I’m kicking off the first issue of Crucial Tracks, I figured it’s probably a good idea to include a little background on myself, as if I’m one of the awesome people we have queued up.

I live in Buffalo, NY and work in web development for a company out of the Philadelphia area. I’ve got a wife, three kids, two dogs, a cat, and a variety of other animals.

Some of the fun projects I’ve done over the years:

  • I’ve taken pictures and videos of bands for the last 30 years,
  • I have a personal blog that I don’t update as much as I’d like. I like to write about music and the impact of music on your life
  • During the early pandemic I wrote a series I called One Last Wish, where I wrote about an impactful album from every year of my life from elementary school through high school. It was fun to take a deep dive into a specific album and what it meant to me.
  • I’ve published a song-a-day playlist on Apple Music the last two years (2022 and 2023) — it acts as an amazing musical diary, you should try it!
  • I do annual round ups of my favorite albums (2021, 2022, 2023)

The more I talked about my One Last Wish project with friends, the more I thought it would be awesome to get a little glimpse into the songs that influenced the people I admire. So, this Substack was born!

I also have the perfect partner in crime (and friend for almost 40 years) — Chris Fritton, aka The Itinerant Printer — who thinks about this stuff as much, if not more than I do. Between the two of us, we came up with a pretty amazing list of people to approach for the first year of this project. I really hope you subscribe and stick around to read them all!

Each issue will feature 10 to 20 songs, along with running commentary from our guests. With this being the inaugural issue, I debated on format and the best way to present my selections. I considered chronological (both release date and life experience date), but I went with organizing my selections by genre and then building out my playlist as a mixtape. I know everyone is different, so it will be interesting to see how each issue and playlist are presented by our roster of immensely talented people.

Anyway, the stage has been set — the newsletter and first contributor introduced — so I think it’s time for the show. Enjoy!

Hip-Hop (or the power of MTV)

Hip-hop wasn’t the first music I fell in love with (that would be “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins), but it was definitely the first genre that really drew me in as a kid. Let’s dig in to some of the tracks that got me to where I am today.

“It’s Tricky” by Run-DMC — off Raising Hell (1986)

It was the spring of fourth grade. I got Raising Hell and King of Rock on cassette, both purchased at Ames department store with birthday money I received from my relatives. The first albums I ever bought with my own money. I played the shit out of those tapes — so much so, Raising Hell broke and I had to get a new copy.

Of course this was just the start: my friends and I soon put together our own rap group. Each day after school we rapped along with every track. (I still know all of the words.) Our rap group culminated in a hallway performance (of an original song) for the 5th grade student teacher we were enamored with — it couldn’t have been any more cringe, but she was kind enough not to laugh.

Also see: my 1986 issue of One Last Wish on Raising Hell.

“Can I Kick It” by A Tribe Called Quest — off People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

“Pacifics” by Digable Planets — off Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (1993)

Hip Hop evolved very fast, from the simplistic beats and samples of the early and mid 80s to much more complex structures and lyrics. The most appealing to me were the jazz-influenced groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Digable Planets.

My introduction to this sub-genre of hip hop was Tribe’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” video on MTV. This got me hooked, with People’s Instinctive Travels… and The Low End Theory (1991) becoming my most played albums of early high school. Digable Planets’ Reachin’… was the soundtrack of my senior year. Listening to that shit on my cheap Walkman knock-off just made me feel cool.

My favorite part of this genre are the lyrics — pure poetry and they told stories. Important stories in many cases. Rap and hip hop were no longer just about bragging, rhyming words, and rhythmic beats. To me, this was the first time I saw music as art.

Also see: my 1991 issue of One Last Wish on The Low End Theory.

“Deep Space 9mm” by El-P — off Fantastic Damage (2002)

Fast forward about 10 years and thanks to the Internet and specifically eMusic, I got into underground and alternative hip hop through labels like Definitive Jux. The label was run by Jaime Meline, better known as El-P. I routinely spent my monthly download credits on albums by him, Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, Murs, The Perceptionists, MF DOOM, and others.

Underground hip hop was the perfect combination of two things I loved: rap music and punk. Not punk in the sense of the music style, but the attitude and message. El-P was that to a T. Just listen to the song below. Not only is he one of the most underrated lyricists in hip hop, but his production is just so unique, raw, and creative. You know an El-P beat when you hear it. Thankfully, he’s still putting out music with Killer Mike through Run the Jewels.

Rock Music (or Jason discovers guitars and that his parents weren’t wrong about Led Zeppelin)

“Cult of Personality” by Living Colour — off Vivid (1988)

Living Colour’s Vivid was my first rock album. Released in May 1988, I was just about to turn 12 years old and was finishing my 6th grade year. I started skateboarding that year, reading Thrasher magazine, and generally expanding my horizon through many new experiences.

One of my biggest memories from the 6th grade year was skating with Chris in the church parking lot near my house, boom box on the curb, and blasting Vivid and Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction as we learned how to skate.

Looking back, Living Colour was the gateway that eventually got me interested in punk and hardcore music. In fact, I’ve come to realize it’s the keystone of my interests — hip-hop, punk, hardcore, pop music, and progressive politics.

You gave me fortune, you gave me fame
You gave me power in your god’s name
I’m every person you need to be
Oh, I’m the cult of personality

Those lyrics couldn’t be any more relevant 35 years later.

For more, see: my 1988 issue of One Last Wish on Vivid.

“Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin — off Physical Graffiti (1975)

This story is as old as time: parents try to show their kids “good” music, kids roll their eyes and proceed to put their headphones back on / tune out / leave the room. Whatever that generation’s go-to “blow your parents off” move is… I did the same to my parents and my kids have done the same to me.

That all changed when my friend Brian continually talked about how good Led Zeppelin was and I did my best to pretend I knew exactly what he meant. Of course I knew the name Led Zeppelin. In fact, I heard them many times over the years, but I didn’t actually listen.

Luckily, my parents had a few records and tapes I could listen to when they weren’t home or paying attention. I got hooked. (I also listened to their Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Black Sabbath, and Heart records while I was at it…)

My favorite Zeppelin album has to be their sixth, Physical Graffiti, the double album released in 1975. It’s a long listen, but I also think it’s the band at their creative peak — exploring and combining many of their styles and influences like Middle Eastern music, funk, metal, jazz, pop, country, folk, blues, and prog rock. It’s quite the musical journey.

For more, see: my 1990 issue of One Last Wish on Physical Graffiti.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit“ by Nirvana — off Nevermind (1991)

In 1991, I received the cassette version of Nevermind for Christmas. It turns out, I wasn’t alone:

Nevermind had its best sales period during Christmas week of 1991, when it sold a spectacular 374,000 copies in a mere seven-day frame

Like most of us at the time, I was sucked in by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the short ride. Overall, I think Nirvana epitomized the Gen X experience: noisy, angsty sly sarcasm, and enough hooks to get you through it all. As a teenager, you couldn’t ask for anything more.

Beyond music, Nirvana obviously wasn’t the reason we moved to Seattle in 1999, but the introduction to the Seattle music scene was a huge selling point. We lived in Seattle for five years and enjoyed many bands during that time at some of the classic Seattle venues: The Crocodile, Showbox, Paramount, Rock Candy, Neumos, El Corazon/Graceland/many other names, Cha Cha Lounge, The Comet, Paradox, and many more. The 1999 to 2004 period was amazing for us in terms of shows – I can’t imagine experiencing all of the scene history that pre-dated that time.

Also see: my 1991 issue of One Last Wish on Nevermind.

“Break My Body” by Pixies — off Surfer Rosa (1988)

The Pixies are such a crucial band for any fan of alternative music. Surfer Rosa was my introduction to the group and the album I played (guitar) along to in my bedroom. I’ve never been a good guitar player, but this is the band that got me interested in playing music and thinking that maybe I could do it too.

“Suitland High School Theme Song” by The Most Secret Method — off Get Lovely (1998)

The Most Secret Method was one of the first shows my buddy Mark and I put on in college. The band came back to Buffalo (and Mark’s basement) a few times and we all actually became friends, even driving to see them a few times in various other places like central NY and DC.

Putting on this first show led me to do shows (mostly in basements) for bigger bands like DRI, TSOL, The Dismemberment Plan, Juno, and others. I absolutely loved the DIY aspect of helping out bands and sharing the music I love with others in the community. If no one is bringing the bands you like to your town, what better way than doing it yourself?

“In All Respects” by Garden Variety — off Knocking the Skill Level (1995)

Besides being one of the more underrated bands of the 90s, Garden Variety was a heavy influence on the main band I was in during college. We didn’t last long, but we did record a few songs and play two shows — one opening for Candy Machine (a band that was on Dischord Records) and Catapult (a super good indie band from Albany)…

Playing live music was one of the key experiences in my life that helped with self-confidence and overcome being a super shy kid.

“Truckers Atlas” by Modest Mouse — off The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)

Modest Mouse is the band that makes me think of my time in Seattle. After college my (future) wife and I moved to Seattle with a few friends. Our cross country trip took us on many adventures (the Circus Museum, the Corn Palace, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, and many more places) as we took the I-90 from Buffalo all the way to downtown Seattle. The soundtrack for our trip was mainly Modest Mouse and Heart. And “Truckers Atlas” is the road trip song.

I’m going up, going over to Montana
You got yourself a trucker’s atlas
You knew you were all hot
Well, maybe you’ll go and blow a gasket
You start at the northwest corner
Go down through California
Beeline, you might drive three days
Three nights to the tip of Florida

Our first night in Seattle we stayed at a friend of a friend’s house and went to see Modest Mouse in a University of Washington cafeteria. It was a surreal and memorable experience — taking in everything we saw, knowing it was going to be our new city… as well as seeing one of our favorite bands in a small venue.

“Heads Roll Off” by Frightened Rabbit — off Midnight Organ Fight (2008)

“Heads Roll Off” was the song that got me on to Frightened Rabbit and Midnight Organ Fight. Frightened Rabbit quickly became a favorite band. I saw them three times during their Pedestrian Verse and Painting of a Panic Attack tours and watched virtually every video/interview/concert/acoustic set that was posted on YouTube between 2008 and 2018.

Anyone who came of age in the 90s remembers when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. It was a defining moment of that time. It was and still is sad, though for me I don’t think I quite grasped the reality of it at the time, beyond the sadness. Mental health was not the topic that it is today.

I’m really glad that more people take mental health seriously now and use therapy (and other resources) to help deal with these issues. I know as I grew older (compared to my teens and 20s) I made my mental health more of a focus, including therapy. Growing older also means having loved ones struggle with depression and/or thoughts of suicide… or sadly, even worse. My family has definitely seen these struggles first hand.

And for that reason, I think Scott Hutchison’s suicide in 2018 hit me much harder. Scott was very open with his depression and struggles with suicide ideation in interview and song. Death and suicide were common topics. One song even referenced the area where he was later found.

I followed Scott, his brother Grant, and the band on Twitter in 2018. The news of Scott’s disappearance spread fast and I checked in every hour hoping for Scott to be found safe and sound. Unfortunately that didn’t come to pass, as Scott was found dead the next day, which just happened to be my birthday.

I couldn’t bring myself to listen to Frightened Rabbit for a couple years. Tears flowed with every listen. I’ve only recently started listening to them again. Scott’s music, his honesty, his perspective are missed.

When it’s all gone, something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when nature’s had enough of you
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth

Hardcore (or Jason learns about politics)

Hardcore music was definitely the entry point into me even remotely caring about politics. Beyond liking the aggressive music, the lyrics from bands like Chokehold, Endpoint, Outspoken, Fugazi, and Earth Crisis had serious, engaging political messages (with varying degrees of heavy handedness.)

I took it all in and learned as much as I could (still to this day!) This led me down the path to books by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and others. And with that, my ideology was forever changed. Having grown up in a union household, I was already pre-disposed to left leaning politics, but hardcore music and Noam Chomsky locked it in.

Also see: An Ode to Hardcore on my blog.

“Omission” by Quicksand — off Slip (1993)

Quicksand is a top 10 favorite band of all time. The band’s music (and their debut LP Slip) was the gateway that led me to discover many of the other bands I mention below. Well written heavy songs, that probably fit more into the post-hardcore genre, with introspective lyrics. The connections you could discover from this band (as an introductory starting point) will lead you into many different directions: Gorilla Biscuits, Youth of Today, Bold, Burn, Revelation Records, NY Hardcore, and much more. A whole world of music for me to discover.

I, said
Why do I always have to spell it out for you?
Our story is always changing
We change it to hide the pain
And when the truth rears
Its ugly head, it’s all too late
Too late for the omission
That you kept inside and wished it wasn’t you

Also see: the 1993 issue of my One Last Wish newsletter on Quicksand.

“Caste” by Endpoint — off Catharsis (1992)
“Innocent” by Outspoken — off The Current (1993)

One of the first really big hardcore shows I went to was headlined by Endpoint and Outspoken at The Icon in Buffalo, NY. Seeing them play live 100% sold me on the genre. They quickly became my two favorite hardcore bands. Not only did they have a unique sound compared to most of what I had heard to that point (and really since), but the lyrics were just so good. Here are a couple of sample songs:

“Caste” lyrics by Endpoint

“Move,” says the rich man to his right hand. You sell your life away. “When?” says the poor man. He’ll never understand. It will always be that way. Hope is the savior, it will be the cure. It fuels them on. Dreams are the only escape from the rich man’s rape. So they still hold on. Equality: lies. Freedom: lies. But their spirit still shines. Justice: lies. Independence: lies. You cannot take their minds. All men are created equal? We’re not even born equal. One nation under God? God doesn’t have enough money.

“Welfare,” says Uncle Sam. Yeah, it will be the plan to look out for our own. Silence is the real plan to hush the poor man. Keep him out of the rich man’s home. The poor see the segregation of this social nation. The fire burns inside. Hate, it will be the fate of this nation great and the government that lied.

I’m feeling pushed. I’m feeling down. How can I be proud of this great nation when our streets are filled with pain and starvation? I love my home, but won’t close my eyes. When will the politicians stop all the lies? All men are brothers, why can’t we sympathize? Empty promises won’t wipe the hate from their eyes.

“Innocent” lyrics by Outspoken

Alone. He doesn’t want to face the prejudice. Afraid. While the fear lies in the ignorant. All love is legitimate. It is hatred that is the enemy. An innocent man portrayed as being guilty. What crime is love between two people. The crime is hatred caused by ignorance of difference. Have to open my eyes to see a wider range. Have to open my mind. I’m the one that need to change. Difference. Have to open my eyes to see a wider range. I’m the one that need to change. Change is unavoidable. Understanding. Have to open my eyes to see a wider range. Have to open my mind. I’m the one that need to change. Change is unavoidable. Understanding. Difference. Have to open my eyes to see a wider range. Have to open my mind. I’m the one that need to change. Change is unavoidable. Ignorance breeds intolerance. Love is all powerful. Hatred is a weakness. No limits on love. Have to open my eyes to see a wider range. Have to open my mind. I’m the one that need to change

“Waiting Room” by Fugazi — off 13 Songs (1989)

Fugazi is by far my all-time favorite band. The perfect combination of punk, hardcore, reggae/dub influences, DIY, creative musicianship, and intelligent lyrics. The perfect band.

“Waiting Room” is basically my anthem. I’ve always been a fairly patient person, so a song about a person working (maybe quietly) toward something bigger really speaks to a shy teenager who is starting to discover themself.

But I don’t sit idly by (ahh)
I’m planning a big surprise
I’m gonna fight for what I wanna be
And I won’t make the same mistakes (Because I know)
Because I know how much time that wastes
(And function), function is the key
To the waiting room

“Worlds” by Farside — off Rochambeau (1992)

“Worlds” was pretty much my break up song from senior year of high school. Beyond that, Farside showed me that there is much more to hardcore and punk music than fast drums and heavy guitars. Farside knew how to write songs and still had much of the same message and approach to go along with the rest of the hardcore scene. My favorite thing about hardcore music is how diverse it was in terms of styles and sub-genres, yet still accepted by the scene (for the most part.)

The Moon won’t shine for me
The way it used to
There is something missing, but
Your hand is not there to hold
You let the left side
Of your brain take over
Your heart is inactive now

Don’t run away from
What is inside of you
Don’t run away from
What you’re feeling
Well, I can’t believe
You took back so much
Of the things you said to me

“D4” by Unbroken — off Live. Love. Regret. (1994)

Unbroken was another of my favorite hardcore bands, combining absolutely brutal heavy music with emotional, introspective (and relatable) lyrics. Their album Life.Love.Regret. was another cassette I almost wore out freshman year of college.

Pour myself into a mold of you
Grasped too fast. lost my reflection
Why must I contest myself
Always against myself
Imitation gets so far. but it kills from within
I’m sorry if I can’t feel. I’m sorry I’m not real
Every time I think I’m right. I come out wrong
Every time I think to myself. I’m against my self

“Turncoat” by Despair — off One Thousand Cries (1995)

I was fortunate enough to be long time friends with a couple of the members of Despair, which allowed me to travel as a roadie, run a merch table on tour, and get to see other hardcore scenes first hand. There aren’t many times in your life you get to travel around the Northeast, meet a ton of new people and bands, then on the last day of tour drive overnight through Pennsylvania to be dropped off at work, early in the AM. Oh to be in your 20s again!

My viewpoint in the video above. (photo)

“Rodeo Clown” by Lifetime — off Hello Bastards (1995)

I don’t think there is a single person that grew up listening to hardcore music in the 90s that wouldn’t listen Lifetime as a crucial band. Absolutely one of the most beloved bands of the decade, combining the speed and ferocity of hardcore punk with the lyrics that any emo band of the time would have loved to write. Catchy, fast songs with lyrics you can’t help but sing along to…

The last time I saw you
I tried to move right through the crowd
And I was calling your name
But the band played too loud
The last time I saw you
I tried to move right through the crowd
Was calling your name
But the band played loud

Listen to Crucial Tracks

Find this issue’s playlist on Apple Music and Spotify.

Thanks for Reading

That’s it for issue #1. If you aren’t subscribed, what are you waiting for?

And, please, tell your friends!

Thanks for reading.
– Jason and Chris

Record giveaway to newsletter subscribers this February

I am a patient boy.

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