Here are the rules:
Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 15 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill. Get the idea now? Good. Tag, you’re it!
I am a rules guy. There is nothing so horrible to me as a game that has no rules. I take that back, a game with vague rules is worse. And as such, warts and all, here are the albums that changed my life. For better or worse. I’d love to be able to show the classics with Blood On The Tracks heading it up in an “Almost Famous” moment, but – alas – I cannot. As others have noted – these aren’t all what I would say are my FAVORITE albums of all time, though some in fact are. But these are albums that when I play them or think about them – I can smell her hair, or the night, or the danger or the contraband.
Keep in mind that both my Father and his best friend were radio DJ’s when I was a kid growing up. We had LOTS of records in the house before I was able to buy my own. This may explain some things. I am trying to put these in chronological order if that’s even possible.
1. Various Artists: “Sunday Morning With the Comics” – This was an LP from the 60’s that featured cover versions of Super Hero and Comic Strip character theme songs along with some old serial and TV themes from the 50’s; The Green Hornet, Superman, Batman, The Lone Ranger, Our FBI in Peace and War etc. I begged my Dad to play this whenever I could. This was exciting stuff. I inherited this album and it sits not 12 feet from where I work everyday. In a related comment – my wife and son gave me a USB turntable for Christmas. Standout Track – “Batman Theme”
2. Various Artists – “Walt Disney’s Merriest Songs” – This is not to be confused with “Walt Disney’s HAPPIEST Songs” They were both compilation albums put out as premiums by Gulf Gas back in the late 60’s that featured the big numbers from the various Disney movies of the past 15 years. The gems for me of course were the 2 Jungle Book songs and the album that had Louis Prima’s and Phil Harris’ scat war from Jungle Book (I Wanna be Like You) was my favorite. I still own both of these as well, but they need replacing.
3. The Beatles – “Abbey Road” – This one hardly warrants commentary by me. I’m sure we’ve all had a similar experience. Many Beatles albums shaped my musical life. One of the problems we had growing up was that my Dad was an early adopter of cassette tapes. We had them (literally) in 1969. And he would often create tapes of albums we gave him. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we had since given the album back to whomever we begged it from so months later were wondering what the hell this song about coming in through the bathroom window was called. Another side effect was that he would fill the tape up with songs from another album once the first album was finished. As such, I went for a long while thinking “Get Back” and “I Dig A Pony” were from Abbey Road. Standout Track – All of them.
4. Elton John – “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – This was the first ‘real’ rock album that I remember being mesmerized by the sleeve art and the inclusion of lyrics as much as by the music. The double album was such a decadent luxury of the 70’s that has gone the way of the Chevy Van – bastardized beyond all recognition and coolness. It takes me maybe 12 more minutes to illegally download 50 Neko Case songs as it takes to download 11. I don’t think I’d recognize the covers for 85% of the albums I’ve acquired in the last 5 years because I’ve never seen them. Every song on this album is amazing. The sounds and production on this album are amazing. Trite as it may seem today (not to me) – “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” is still an epic masterpiece.
5. David Bowie – “Ziggy Stardust” I came to this era of Bowie a bit late, but it introduced me to one of the best bands, best guitar players and set of songs in the world for me. I remember hearing Ziggy for the first time and just being awestruck. Mick Ronson’s guitar was more transforming for me as a musician than almost anyone’s. I remember very few of my friends at the time liking this album so it was a lonely pleasure. Like Cocoa Pebbles.
6. The Who – “Tommy” – When the movie came out, the existence of this original version album, and the knowledge that my older cousins owned it – forced me to beg them to borrow it so my Dad could tape it for me. I was disappointed by the lack of Elton’s Pinball Wizard (sorry, it’s vastly superior to the original in every conceivable way) but thrilled because the original versions of “I’m Free” and every other track far outshined the movie soundtrack versions.
7. Queen – “News of the World” – This album ushered me into manhood, rock music-wise. the first time I heard the opening of “We Will Rock You” at Tom Burke’s house was like God had spoken to me and only me. It may be a trifle ironic or at least interesting to note that in my personal rock history, if not the world’s, the penultimate moments in macho rock Godhood have most often been reached and delivered by gay men. (Or at least, always by Brits which some may say is a horse apiece). Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Morrissey. This triumvirate of rock stars in my catalog have achieved the flamboyant uber-arena royalty drama that other rock stars and their music hint at but are often left scratching their heads in the wings. Standout song – “Fight From The Inside”
8. Original London Cast – “Jesus Christ Superstar” (the f’ing Brown album) I’ve written and spoken about this one before (on the radioscooter.com blog, natch) so I won’t re- spend the time here. This album has better guitar work and better production, emotion and everything than just about any album of its day. Ignore the Broadway and movie versions. Standout Track “Overture/Heaven On their Minds”
9. KISS – “Destroyer” – What can I say? The pomp and majesty of rock and roll made visually real and married to comic books, sci-fi and superheros? Where the hell do I sign up? Standout track for me – “God Of Thunder”
10. Pink Floyd – “Dark Side Of The Moon” – Now we will visit a different meaning of “life changing” Ah yes, we are getting into prog rock which will lead in turn to new wave and punk. But for now, let’s just see what we can melt. My first love and I used to listen to it quite a lot when we hung out. In fact, one night coming home alone from her dorm room in Oakland at about 2am in the morning after moving her stuff in, driving her Grandfather’s HUGE American boat of a car (LTD?) I had this album playing super loud on the car stereo and was driving down Grant Street in town when I noticed a bus bearing down on me from a side street on the left. I quickly accelerated but another car was passing the bus on the left of it and we collided. Pretty badly. And we took out a phone booth as well. It was as traumatic as it gets for a 17 year old. It was determined to be their fault and I was completely substance free at the time. But the car was absolutely totaled and I did not drive for a while. I remember sitting shivering in shock on the side of the road with the paramedics asking me questions and shining a flashlight in my pupils and “Run Rabbit Run” was still blaring from the car. They hadn’t been able to get past the twisted dash and wheel to shut it off yet.
11. Genesis – “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” Yup. For as much grief as I continually give musicals and Broadway, there was some sort of a moment when it all changed for me. Because before that I loved the whole medium, was in choirs and many shows and loved the whole experience. Something snapped one year and it turned completely around for me very suddenly. Luckily it was replaced by the almost equally extravagant Prog Rock. And seriously, this is the best of that genre. It’s peter Gabriel at his most potent, albeit oddest and the best prog drummer in the world at the time battling to salvage an album while a band is on the verge of breaking up. The narrative is goofy but the songs are transcendent. Standout Track “Back In N.Y.C.”
12. The Smiths – “The Queen Is Dead” This is possibly my favorite album of all time. So naturally it goes on the list. I remember in 1984 hating the Smiths like many people that hated the Smiths did at the time. From afar they are ephemeral and morose and without merit. One excruciatingly thin onion layer later and they became the only band that mattered for me since the Beatles. Right about the 2nd album I became a convert and by TQID – they had become absolutely without peer for me. It’s a rare joy to be in the throws of liking a band and familiar with their work when they issue their opus. I was too young to be aware of Sgt. Pepper’s. But at just the right time and place for this one. I can list valid, objective, rock critic reasons why this album should be in the top 5 most important rock albums of all time. But you wouldn’t listen to me. Or else you would and you already know it to be true. Standout Track – “Bigmouth Strikes Again”
(Here’s where it gets hard not to complete the list with Smiths albums for me.)
13. Kate Bush – “Hounds Of Love” – This was a breakthrough album that got played from start to finish, rinse, repeat for weeks on end when I lived in Massachusetts. Gads the crap we used to do. I briefly shared a flat over a bar with a guy named Danny and two girls from Syracuse. One night the girls were tripping their asses off and just played this album literally all night long. You’d think it was over and then those strings would slowly fade in from “Running Up That Hill” again as the whole thing started up again. Again, the rest of the story will have to wait for a spot in the sun someday.
14. Laurie Anderson “Strange Angels” – An odd album from an odd performer. This was her finding out she could write songs under 12 minutes and catchy. It seemed to annoy her. And yet there are moments on this album that bring tears to my eyes to this day. There are not many songs more beautiful or poignant than “Hiawatha” Do yourself a favor. If you think you dislike Laurie Anderson – go download “Hiawatha” and see if it’s what you’d expect. It’s not even the best song on this album. Anyway – I saw this show at the lamentably now defunct Syria Mosque and she transformed this album into one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen.
15. Morrissey – “Your Arsenal” – This is the man at his peak. Though the new album is giving it a run for the money. But here’s a great example of sticking to the rules. So much was going on around this album in my life that it almost couldn’t help be on this list, even if it weren’t his best album or one of the best albums of the 90’s. This is also the swansong album for producer Mick Ronson, one of my top 3 favorite guitarists of all time. Who died of cancer in the months following the release of this album. In this album, I challenge you even if you hate Morrissey, to not hear his respect, love and abject mastery of the power-pop-rock song format. Drenched with T-Rex guitars and walls of solid 4/4 drumming – this is as good as any of it ever gets. This is the album that true critics should start having trouble remembering the names of his former band mates after hearing.
ADDENDUM: Obviously there are many albums that could have or maybe should have made this cut. Some I’ve probably just forgotten about. One that I’ll give honorable mention to here is The Carpenters: “Singles” album. I wasn’t a Carpenters fan. I mean – I like the songwriting and the fact that she was a drummer was cool – but those are both things that probably mean more to me NOW than as a 14 year old boy. But this album was my sister’s “Destroyer” at the time. Meaning she played it. A. Lot. She would put it on the old stereo we used to have in our dining room on Potomac ave. and not unlike some form of waterboarding, would play it over. And over. And over… And because it wasn’t “rock music” it was apparently all okay with my parents. The odd thing is – I didn’t really mind it as such. It was funny is all. And I remember one thing funny about it.
The year she got the album – the song “Top Of The World” was a hit on the radio. Now, my father was even less of a music aficionado than he was a stickler for punctuality. He heard music in the world like I notice danger in food choices. That is to say – extremely peripherally. Couple this with the fact that in the mid 70’s he was tagged as a replacement host on the radio for lots of other talk show jocks who were on vacation or in rehab at the time. So this week he would be sitting in for Jack Bogut, next week Art Palent, etc. And they all had different flavors of their shows. Not when my Dad was subbing. I’m sure they expect a sub Jock on a call-in talk show to exercise his own free will, but holy crap, Bill. Anyway, that entire year, different show after different show, day after day, week after week, I remember him not only opening but closing each and every show with The Carpenters “Top Of The World” I would not be surprised if the actual numbers for that song were inexplicably MUCH higher in the Metro Pgh. region that year. I never knew if my sister had subliminally been influenced by this, or what is much more likely, subliminally achieved this – but to this day, when I hear those poppy pedal steel slide strains in the beginning of that song – I cannot help but think of my Dad and my sister, locked in some Top-Of The-Pops Pavlovian battle of wills…