ONLY NOISE: My Parents’ Tapes Taught Me How to Love ‘Uncool’ Music

Kiri Oliver dyes Easter eggs at her grandparents’ house in the Car Tapes era.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Kiri Oliver takes us on a trip with the soundtrack to her childhood – before “coolness” dictated the playlist.

Growing up, my parents rarely played albums in the house — I mostly remember hearing classical radio in the background. But they had three portable cases of cassettes that they brought on car trips, most often to my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. It was an eclectic mix of ‘80s and ‘90s albums, many of which remain among my favorites to this day.

I’ve realized over time that these albums embody a strong sense of nostalgia for me — nostalgia for a very specific set of circumstances that allowed me to listen to and absorb music without context. It was the pre-internet era, and therefore pre-everyone having takes on everything all the time. It was also before I started talking to other people about music, going to shows, being a part of scenes, and building my identity around the bands and genres I liked.

I really appreciate that I had the experience of learning what I liked musically as a kid and preteen without anyone telling me what was cool or not—messages I later had a hard time disentangling from my tastes. In some ways, I knew what I liked when I was nine and rocking out in the backseat more than I did when I was 19 and hanging out with indie rock snobs who worshiped Pere Ubu and said things like “don’t worry, your tastes will mature.”

And now, when I go back and listen to what my nine-year-old self flipped out over, I still hear what excited me so much the first time around. I also hear so many of the elements I’m still drawn to as a fan and songwriter, including theatricality, giant hooks, piano, harmonies, and vocals shot through with emotion. A few highlights from the car tapes are below, and my full playlist is here.

Enya – “Book of Days”

I don’t know why my parents were so into Enya, but we had at least four of her tapes in the car. My favorite song was “Book of Days,” a lush, rousing number with approximately 1,000 layers of vocals in Irish Gaelic that predicted my obsessive love of the Titanic soundtrack. I listened to it just now and had a minor life crisis wondering how I never noticed the chorus was in English—according to Wikipedia, the original version was replaced with a bilingual one that now appears on the album instead. Irish Gaelic 4ever.

REM – “Try Not to Breathe”

REM was another heavy hitter in the car rotation. “Try Not to Breathe” from Automatic for the People was always one of my favorites, but I honestly didn’t realize until now that it’s about death. How did I not get that before, you might ask, when it includes lyrics like “I will try not to breathe/This decision is mine/I have lived a full life/And these are the eyes that I want you to remember”? I have a different relationship to the music I loved when I was very young, which I didn’t necessarily absorb or connect with on a topical level even though I could sense the feelings being expressed. So I knew this was a sad song—just not this sad.

Phil Collins – “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven”

I still haven’t figured out whether liking Phil Collins is definitely uncool, or passably cool if it’s ironic, but I don’t care—I love Phil Collins. This song’s dramatic, horn-laden introduction sounds like the lead-up to a West Side Story-style dance fight. In 2018, the chorus lyrics “you can run and you can hide, but I’m not leaving unless you come with me” sound a bit ominous and coercive. But in the song, Phil sounds naively hopeful enough to pull it off—and the cheery horns definitely help.

Sarah McLachlan – “Vox”

Before she was known for her coffeeshop fare and Lilith Fair, Sarah McLachlan made ethereal new-age albums in the ‘80s. My evidence backing up this statement is that I listened to her album Touch a LOT and the tape said 1989 on the back cover. Anyway, “Vox” is music for frolicking fairies, full of sparkling acoustic guitar and soaring vocals (including a less-angsty version of a Tori Amos wail). It also has a bouncy synth riff thrown on top of all this, which both makes no sense and is perfect.

Live – “Pillar of Davidson”

Is it weird for a 5th grader’s favorite song to be an almost 7-minute album track that I just learned is about factory workers’ rights? Probably. Does this song still rip? Absolutely. It starts with an old western, rolling-tumbleweeds feel and escalates into one of the biggest choruses I’ve ever heard, with Ed Kowalczyk rhapsodizing about “the shepherd of my days” while the drummer goes to town on the ride cymbal. I still lose it every time I listen.

Patty Smyth and Don Henley – “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough”

This is a beautiful and melancholy duet about adult heartbreak that I couldn’t have possibly understood at the time, but it still genuinely moved me. Did I know from my ten years of life experience that “there’s a danger in loving somebody too much”? Definitely not. Did I personally relate to Patty’s lament in the bridge that “there’s no way home when it’s late at night and you’re all alone”? Nope, but I’ve apparently always been a sucker for power ballads.

Meat Loaf – “Everything Louder Than Everything Else”

My revelation from revisiting Meat Loaf’s albums is that Bat Out of Hell is the original American Idiot. Listen to this song from part II: it starts with a chant of “wasted youth,” it ambitiously crams a ton of parts into 7.5 minutes, it has a whole background choir, AND it’s about both war and chicks. Key lyric: “You gotta serve your country, gotta service your girl/You’re all enlisted in the armies of the night.” It’s insane to me that it took until 2017 for Bat Out of Hell The Musical to exist (it ran in London and Toronto, with a tour and NYC run in the works).

I think my parents still have the tapes in the back of a closet, although they’ve long since upgraded their car to one without a tape deck, and I’ve achieved the stereotype of native New Yorker who can’t drive. But I’ve been rocking out to my Car Tapes playlist for a few years now, and I’ve found that it brings me comfort, joy and a break from the endless pursuit of keeping up with new media. We spend so much time taking in new information so we can carefully curate our image and tastes for the consumption of friends, acquaintances and strangers; it feels like a radical act of self-care to detach and dance around my room to a goofy song I loved deeply and unironically when I was nine. I was so sure then of what spoke to me, without needing to explain or even understand why. All these years later, with a head full of countless other people’s musical opinions, it feels so good to tune that out and tune into a channel that feels like mine alone – a channel that happens to play a lot of Enya.

Staff Picks – Nicole Ortiz: Anniversary and Reunion Shows of 2016

This past year (for me, anyway) was full of attending various anniversary shows of bands I obsessed over in high school. It was nostalgic and exciting to see the bands I used to listen to nonstop perform my old favorites, songs I still listen to somedays when I’m riding my bike or underground on the subway. I’m a sucker for music that I have memories attached to, so it only makes sense that I sought out so many of these shows.

Here’s a look back at some of the anniversary shows that really touched my soul in the past year, as well as some 2017 shows that I’ve got on my radar.

The Spill Canvas at Webster Hall, August 2015

the spill canvas 3

Okay, I’m cheating here because this a 2015 show, but it was just so fun and full of happy good vibes. There’s a certain magic to reliving your emo days while watching one of your old favorites croon sweet, heartbreaking lyrics onstage. Also, you may notice a trend in this list involving Webster Hall and anniversary/reunion shows.

As Tall As Lions at Webster Hall, December 2015

as tall as lions 2

Easily the best show I went to in the last year. This was a reunion show as well as an anniversary show for their self-titled album. And although this show wasn’t in 2016, it practically was. Plus, it was amazing enough to resonate for years to come. I unfortunately missed out on seeing As Tall As Lions when they were still together, but this show made up for that.

The Hush Sound at Webster Hall, August 2016

the hush sound

Another show that went down in my personal history book was The Hush Sound’s Like Vines anniversary show, mostly because The Hush Sound was my favorite band in high school. I probably saw them play seven or so times, and I pretty much idolized (slash kind of still idolize) Greta Salpeter. Bob and Greta had so much fun chemistry that night, and overall, it was just a fun experience to relive that band’s live show again.

Simple Plan & Hit the Lights at Irving Plaza, October 2016

simple plan

One of my biggest show regrets in 2016 is that I missed this show. Since I wasn’t there, I can only speculate about its glory, but I imagine it was incredibly fun. Hit the Lights was another band I used to groove out to like crazy, and what’s not to love about Simple Plan’s goofy music?

Taking Back Sunday & The Starting Line at Starland Ballroom, December 2016

taking back sunday

Taking Back Sunday has been touring for their latest album Tidal Wave this year (I saw them at Irving Plaza, and it was…okay), and I also saw The Starting Line at Irving for their 10-year anniversary show of Say It Like You Mean It (which was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to). I was supposed to go to this show, and at the last minute had to cancel my plan, which is heartbreaking. This is going to be a show for many to write home about.

Jimmy Eat World at Webster Hall, December 2016

jimmy eat world

So this isn’t so much an anniversary or reunion show, since they’re touring for their latest album Integrity Blues, but I was still a bit surprised to see a show from Jimmy Eat World. I guess this sort of counts as a reunion show since they’re coming together again to make music to tour since 2013’s Damage, right?

New Found Glory at Irving Plaza, April 2017

New Found Glory

A peak of anniversary shows to come, perhaps? New Found Glory will be touring in 2017, and can’t you just perfectly envision singing “My Friends Over You” alongside their live performance in the coming year?

Dashboard Confessional at Irving Plaza, January 2017


So I have a [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][dashboard] confession: While I definitely liked DC in high school, I can’t say that I was totally the biggest fan. I was definitely an emo girl, but sometimes Chris Carrabba took it a bit too far and sad for me. So while this show is definitely one to look forward to in many ways, I’m not totally sure if I’ll be in attendance, swooning alongside others.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

LIVE REVIEW: Blue Healer at Rockwood Music Hall


Set the scene in your mind: An intimate setting at Rockwood Music Hall complete with dimmed lights, a hazy atmosphere, and a collection of swooning, folky, country-esque music courtesy of Blue Healer. Can you feel the relaxation and good vibes? Great. Then you now understand exactly what it was like seeing them perform last Wednesday.


It was a mixture of synths and keys as well as heavy basslines and distorted upright bass. At times, the music had an older glam rock feel, surreal and ethereal, reverberating throughout your mind. Then it would transform to a folk, country-esque show complete with energetic synths — pop folk, if you will. A lot of their songs called to mind tracks of Melee and The Black Keys.


The trio hailing from Austin recently released their debut self-titled album and played an array of tracks from it (and also tracks not on it). They played their popular single “30,000 Feet,” which was full of airy vocals from frontman and bassist David Beck and otherworldly synths from keyboardist Bryan Mammel. They also slowed things down when they played “Only the Rain,” with synths that perfectly emphasized its gentle nature. When they played “Empty Bottles” is when I really felt The Black Keys vibes from them (never a bad thing).

Their last song, “Bad Weather,” was an empowering, anthemic note to end on. But fortunately, it also wasn’t quite the end, as the crowd pretty much begged for an encore, and Blue Healer happily obliged. So their real last track, “Like Diamonds,” ended up being a way more fun way to go out. It was energetic and upbeat, complemented by crashing cymbals and a big finale drumline as well as contagious energy from the band who genuinely looked like they were having the time of their life.

As a show I went into hardly knowing the band, I was pleasantly surprised and had a great time. It also helps when the band is skilled at their instruments and loves what they’re doing, too.

LIVE REVIEW: Taking Back Sunday at Irving Plaza


In high school, I heard from all my friends that Taking Back Sunday was the best show they had ever seen. They raved and bragged, and yet, I never saw them live myself. It was one of my biggest regrets—until now. On September 30, I finally saw Taking Back Sunday perform at Irving Plaza.

Now, my expectations were exceedingly high, so perhaps they were destined to fall short. But as thrilled as I was to relive my emo days, the first half of the show left me a bit bored and uninterested. Once they played the songs from Tell all Your Friends and Louder Now, I got my second wind and felt revitalized by the show. However, the first half had me feeling somewhat sleepy and disconnected.


TBS released their newest album, Tidal Wave, this year. And while I didn’t completely study up and try to memorize every song, that’s mostly because I was pretty turned off by it upon first listen. To me, it sounded like a forced attempt at punk, and the tracks I heard fell flat. But I missed the screaming, and I missed the broken hearts worn on sleeves. Mostly I missed the Taking Back Sunday of the early 2000s.


When they sang their older tracks, you could hardly hear frontman Adam Lazzara sing as he was drowned out by the enthusiastic crowd. “MakeDamnSure.” “Cute Without the ‘E.'” “There’s No ‘I’ in Team.” “You’re So Last Summer.” The old classics struck as if it were 2004 and we were all brushing up on Fuse before heading to the show. And, of course, the mic swings were there.

Overall, unfortunately, it wasn’t the best show I’d ever seen in 2016, but I’m confident that if I had seen in back in their heyday, it probably would’ve gone down in my concert-going history as an all-time best.


Remind yourself of “You’re So Last Summer” below.



NENA, who you may know from her world famous single, “99 Luftballons,” has recently come out with a new video for her latest song “Genau Jetzt” (“Right Now”).

The video showcases different people, both by themselves and interacting with loved ones. With NENA’s powerful vocals over the video, you don’t need to speak German to feel impacted by this pop anthem. It’s a track where you can go from feeling empowered and inspired to dancing around the room completely lost in the music.

NENA will be embarking on her first U.S. tour starting in September where she’ll hit San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. If you’re looking to experience this German pop legend and hear “Genau Jetzt” live, then this is probably exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

LIVE REVIEW: The Hush Sound @ Webster Hall

the hush sound

There’s nothing that makes you feel old quite like seeing some of your favorite bands from high school showcase 10-year reunion shows of albums you can sing in your sleep. But then again, maybe these nostalgic re-enactments are some of the highlights of getting older.

Recently my favorite band from high school, The Hush Sound, went on tour for the ten-year anniversary of their album “Like Vines,” and I was thrilled to catch them at Webster Hall on August 4. I’ve already seen The Spill Canvas this past year and have plans to see Taking Back Sunday with Th e Starting Line in a few months, so yeah, these are undoubtedly the days of my life now. (Go ahead, envy me.)

In high school, Greta Salpeter was essentially my indie rock idol, so being able to see that she’s still as amazing and talented as ever was unsurprising and inspiring. The Hush Sound swept the stage at Webster with the same energy they held at shows 10 years ago—I’m pretty sure the floor was shaking from all the dancing and jumping going on. The chemistry between Salpeter and vocalist/guitarist Bob Morris is undeniable; they play together as if they’ve been jamming and quipping out stage banter nonstop for the past ten years. As they laughed and made us guess what wine they were drinking (obviously it was a pinot noir), they rocked our teenage fangirl/boy hearts with some of our old favorites. “We Intertwined,” “A Dark Congregation,” “Don’t Wake Me Up,” “Magnolia”—have they ever composed even a “meh” track? Maybe “Lions Roar,” but I’m sure there’s someone out there that lost their mind when they played that one last Thursday, too.

the hush sound

After playing through the entirety of Like Vines, the night obviously couldn’t simply end there. Not before they jammed out other hits, which of course included “Crawling Towards the Sun” and “The Artist.” It was one of those performances where I found myself singing along to the guitar and keys parts when there weren’t lyrics to follow.

Salpeter’s tinkling keys were ringing in my ears as I left Webster Hall that night, in a total and complete Hush Sound-induced bliss. Now, if you need me, I can be found wandering the streets of New York with my iPhone 6 playing music that predates its conception.

PLAYLIST: The Top Acts To Catch At Northside Festival


Hey Brooklyn! What are you doing next weekend? Really, the only acceptable answer is seeing at least one of these bands at Northside Festival, which runs from June 11-14 and hosts shows in venues from Acheron  to Warsaw. The schedule is packed with amazing artists, and to help you choose which shows to see, we made you a list of our favorites. You’re welcome.

1. Diet Cig  (6/11 at Alphaville)

This duo from New Paltz plays catchy, light-hearted pop that will have you copying the dancing in this video:

2. Beverly (6/11 at Alphaville)

This band comes with a warning: their lush, relaxing harmonies are addictive.

3. Luna (6/11 at McCarren Park)

Luna is the indie band formed by former Galaxie 500 member Dean Wareham, featuring guitar-centric, dreamy rock.

4. Drenge (6/12 at Knitting Factory)

Their name is a little challenging to pronounce, but these brothers from the UK have an amazing sound: heavy, grungy rock.

5. Leapling (6/12 at Palisades)

Just one in a long list of amazing local bands is Leapling, an experimental pop group responsible for gems like “Crooked.”

6. Vomitface (6/12 at Pet Rescue)

This sludge-pop band sounds way better than their name. If you’ve got some head-banging to get out of your system, go see them at Pet Rescue.

7. Frankie Cosmos (6/12 at Rough Trade)

Greta Kline formerly performed under the name Ingrid Superstar before settling on Frankie Cosmos. The daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates lists James Taylor, Hall and Oates, Liz Phair, Indigo Girls and the Moldy Peaches as early influences.

8. Mitski (6/12 at Saint Vitus)

Mitski is a stunning singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, via practically everywhere else. Go see her at Saint Vitus, where we’re hoping she’ll preview some songs from her upcoming album.

9. Von Sell (6/12 at Union Pool)

Von Sell is a relatively new electro-pop artist from Berlin who is already getting praise from indie blogs. Watch him play at Union Pool and see what all the fuss is about.

10. ONWE (6/12 at Union Pool)

ONWE’s light, catchy melodies hide something darker- just check out his song “Unpaid Internship,” his scathing opinion on “trust-fund kids.”

11. Shilpa Ray (6/14 at Rough Trade)

She plays the harmonium, and she’s one of Nick Cave’s favorite musicians: Shilpa Ray is bringing her uniquely gloomy rock ‘n’ roll to Rough Trade.

12. This entire lineup (6/13 at 50 Kent Avenue)

Celebrate the start of summer with an outdoor concert, and see four great bands in one place: Bully, Alvvays, Built to Spill and Best Coast.

LIVE REVIEW: Father John Misty @ The Greene Space


I was sitting at my computer, experiencing one of the many downsides of being underemployed. Tickets for the sold-out Father John Misty concerts were going for well over $100 on Craigslist and Stubhub, and there weren’t many left. Then I saw the event post: Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman, would be giving a short performance/interview at The Greene Space as part of the WNYC Soundcheck podcast on February 11th, for just $10.

We were somehow the first people ushered into the small studio space, and my boyfriend and I grabbed one of the few chairs in the room. My seat ended up being about five feet away from Tillman, which was amazing yet unsettling. I could hear his voice without the microphone, and see the tiny banana decal on his black velvet blazer. I was also nervous he might look directly at us, and when he walked past to step onstage, I worried I might trip him so tucked my feet under my chair.

The host John Schaefer introduced the show, and described the new Father John Misty album, I Love You, Honeybear, as a lush but subversive record with lacerating lyrics. Naturally, Tillman deadpanned “Prepare to subversively lacerated,” before playing the record’s title track.

When asked questions between songs, he wavered between hostile and conversational. He grimaced when Schaefer mentioned similarities between “I Love You, Honeybear” and Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and cut off a question related to a F. Scott Fitzgerald quote by stating he couldn’t read. But when asked about the creation of his album, Tillman explained, “I think it was difficult just given the subject matter, which was bordering dangerously close to sentimentality… I think to some extent I was doing some kind of bartering, where I was like, I’ll let you be this exposed if you let me cloak this in impenetrable layers of goo.”

Later in the set, Schaefer talked about the band’s upcoming concerts and Tillman, suddenly friendly, rested his head on the host’s shoulder. “I’m sorry for my weird answers earlier,” he apologized, gazing at him with endearing puppy-dog eyes.

They discussed psychedelics before he launched into the set’s most animated performance, “The Ideal Husband.” The heels of scuffed tan boots twisted under his lanky frame as he sashayed his hips side to side and spun. During the bridge, he stepped off the stage, knocking the mic stand to my feet, and threw himself on my boyfriend’s shoulder. “I came by at seven in the morning,” he shouted, climbing over seats to embrace others. The woman next to us widened her eyes in fear as the guitar slung across his back came dangerously close to her face. “Seven in the morning, seven in the morning…” He picked up the mic stand and dropped it back into place, the song ending with its thud onstage.

Luckily, both the audience and artist were uninjured. Tillman found an empty chair in the first row to sing the final song, “Bored In The USA.” “Can I boo myself from here?”  he wondered between lyrics. There was no recorded laugh track in this rendition of the song and he seemed to pause slightly where it should have been, then shrug when the audience didn’t provide it. The song was strange, maybe too exposed, without it. He blew out a lighter held up from the second row, and the set ended.

“Go forth and have a productive day,” Tillman told the crowd. I didn’t really have anything productive to do, but I didn’t care. Turns out the upside of being underemployed is you don’t have to make up any excuses to see Father John Misty at noon on a weekday.

If you didn’t make it to the soundcheck, the full performance is up on Livestream and YouTube. Check it out:

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