In my final semester at Marquette, I have to take an elective or I’ll be two credits short for graduation. I pick a class on the history of jazz taught by Dr. John A. Grams, a broadcast journalist professor. Fittingly, he structures the course like a live radio show, lecturing to backing tapes that bring us up to speed on everything from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra.

I’d already been listening to some jazz at that point--mostly better-known artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald. Because of his music for the Peanuts specials, I’d also heard a fair amount of Vince Guaraldi. Naturally, the class encourages me to give people like Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, and especially Stan Getz a second listen. I never become much of a jazz aficionado; it’s a genre I simply admire, a pond I’ll dip my little toe into now and then. Still, one rainy, warm summer night, having moved back home for the summer, I listen to Coltrane’s epic rendition of “My Favorite Things” in my candlelit bedroom, and everything sounds perfect and impossible to recapture--the angular piano riffs, the endless variations of the song’s original melody, the gentle raindrops like sympathetic daggers against my windows.

This year, the music press takes a disparate circle of artists (most notably The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy), groups them under a new genre, “Electronica”, and proclaims it as the next big thing. It doesn’t blow up like rap, alt-rock or grunge, but MTV begins airing a late night program called Amp that consists mostly of videos by these acts, and I latch onto it--not entirely for the music (although I’m putting more effort to look beyond the mainstream than I ever had before); I’m more interested in the videos themselves.

A few film classes will make you look at everything differently, and I’m excited by a lot of the stuff Amp shows. I admire Spike Jonze’s clip for Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”, which features a guy walking New York streets, blaring the song out of a boombox, dressed in dog costume, with everyone else absolutely unfazed by that last component. I also like Michel Gondry’s clip for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water”, a poetic, perplexing exercise in split-screen symmetry. Seeing such inventive, crafty music videos is almost vindication for all the times people have told me my tastes were weird. See, there’s great, exciting art out there, and I’ve found it!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to take credit for discovering band or video X; nor do I want to entirely turn my back to the mainstream. But at this age, for the first time I’m discerning and questioning what makes something cool. I’m also figuring out that I need friends who are open to seeking out music and movies beyond what everyone else is listening to or watching.

Before I leave Milwaukee in late August, I spend the summer working in retail again. You’d think the most hellish parts of it would be the miniscule pay, awful hours, and so much time wasted trying to look busy. You’d be correct, but having to listen to top 40 radio eight hours at a time was nearly as vile. To this day, I can’t stand to hear “One Headlight”, “You Were Meant For Me”, “I Believe I Can Fly” (which I already loathed) or “How Bizarre” because WTKI incessantly drilled them into my consciousness that summer; “MmmBop” squeaks by now because I haven’t heard it in years.

I see Blur and, oddly enough, Ringo Starr (and His All-Starr Band, of course) at the same venue within the space of a month. I also end up driving out to Alpine Valley two Saturdays in a row to see Phish (see 1996 for my brief obsession with this band) and the H.O.R.D.E. (whatever the hell that stood for) music festival, which mercifully did NOT include Blues Traveler on its roster that year. Instead, Neil Young headlined, with sets by Beck, Ben Folds Five (responsible for my favorite album of that year, Whatever and Ever Amen) and Morphine, a bass-sax-drums trio I’d heard of before but instantly loved live, and no wonder: they were based in Boston.

I move out East with a handful of cassette dubs (many of them featuring homemade loose-leaf paper sleeves) to tide me over until the rest of my belongings arrive three weeks later. Even though new Steve Wynn and Pizzicato Five albums are released around the same time, I wait very patiently to purchase them until I have something to play CDs on. Meanwhile, the cassettes tide me over. To escape my tiny, box-like apartment, I often walk all over this strange new city, and end up listening to two particular cassettes a lot: Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and Ani DiFranco’s Dilate (where I’d even neglected to write down song titles on the sleeve!). I still think of this frightening, exhilarating time whenever I hear these two albums.

Finally, on the day before Thanksgiving, I pick up a cut-out bin cassette of Saint Etienne’s So Tough at a resale shop blocks away from the Fleet Center. I listen to the ecstatic, swirling uplift of “Mario’s Café” and “Avenue” as I stroll through the North End, holiday garlands lining the streets and intersecting the autumnal, late afternoon sun, and everything seems brighter, shinier and a little more sublime.