Tuesday, March 03, 2009

25 Albums That Changed My Life

I already put this up on Facebook but figured I'd include it here too. I've chosen to make this roughly chronological.

Run DMC - Raising Hell
I asked for and received the tape for my birthday. Suddenly I was popular among my classmates who really just wanted to borrow it. One of my first thoughtful music choices and I'd be prouder if I hadn't also asked for and received the "Rock Me Amadeus" Falco tape for the same birthday. I spent equal time learning the lyrics to Raising Hell as I did learning (phonetically and wrongly) the mostly German lyrics to Falco.

Devo - Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
With this album I began to understand that bookish spazzes could rock out. Songs like "Uncontrollable Urge" were a little scary with the obvious sexual frustration with which I identified, but they were undeniably catchy. Still am a devoted Devo fan and am psyched that I'll be seeing them in a few weeks.

REM - Life's Rich Pageant
I first heard of REM by paying attention to my sisters' taste in music and they went big for "The One I Love". At a garage sale in my neighborhood I paid fifty cents for LRP, a tape without a case, and proceeded to wear it out. "These Days", "I Believe", and especially "Fall On Me" still hit me with a passion and energy undiluted by time.

The Cure - Disintegration
This album was quite popular at my high school because the singles (and even non-singles) from it were in regular rotation on KDGE, a radio station that introduced me to a lot of great music. In college this album became one of my go-to albums when I was feeling depressed, allowing me to really wallow in it. To this day, I have to be careful when I listen to it or risk falling into a dark place.

The B-52's - Wild Planet
In my mind the B-52's and Devo were linked as proud weirdos. Where Devo was worried about the future, the B-52's were dancing to the beat of a past rife with tension. Dance party numbers like Private Idaho frosted with paranoia? Yes please! When I introduced to the idea of camp years later I thought, "Oh, like the B-52's (specifically Quiche Lorraine)."

They Might Be Giants - Flood
Ah, more music for the nerdhouse in my soul. How nerdy? This was the soundtrack for my summer debate camp crew. I trekked to Bill's in Dallas paying outrageous prices to secure their first two albums and haunted the Prodigy boards in my gigantic fandom. I lost interest in their new music around the time I graduated from college (the first time) but still pull out Flood for road trips.

The Pixies - Doolittle
Noisy, odd, captivating. I saw the appeal of dissonance, and that yelp! Paved the way for the next album. Thanks to Kevin who patiently explained why they were great and pointed out that there was a monkey with a busted halo on the cover.

Nirvana - Nevermind
Well really, why wouldn't it be on the list? This really channeled my adolescent, male, dawning-realization-of-being-gay angst.

Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark - Best Of
Permanently borrowed this tape from my sister and listened to it often while riding my bike around the neighborhood. I liked OMD's electro-pop better than Depeche Mode's. It was weirder, but also more lush and romantic. The life-changing thing happened when I inadvertently chose it as a soundtrack to outrage. When I sat down to write a government paper about the Reagan administration's response to the AIDS crisis, I popped in OMD's Best Of as background music. My Dad's tape player had auto-reverse and I was so into the writing that I just couldn't change the music. As my arguments came together, I grew more sad and furious while songs of love, technology, and destruction played in the background.

Talking Heads - Remain in Light
I had always liked this band, known mostly through their singles and the Stop Making Sense live album (one of my first five CDs from BMG Music Club). Here though, was the most cohesive, flawless album I'd ever heard, both musically and thematically. Seriously y'all, it's really really good. Thanks to Talking Heads, Devo, and The B-52's I hold a fervent believe that I should have been a 21 year-old New Yorker in 1979. I also realized because of these three bands that I looooove gorgeous, tense, paranoia-tinged music. Set me up to like Tricky, Portishead, Braniac, Shudder to Think, and on and on.

The Ramones - Mania
Yeah, yeah another Best Of, but I couldn't afford to buy the first four albums, more bang for the buck eh? Back in my more judgmental days, I was initially wary of my friend Matt because he had a popular, athletic vibe, liked Soundgarden, and wanted nothing to do with the Pixies. But he loved the Ramones and had seen them live. So yes, this is a fellow I could get to like. Thanks for having good taste Matt (and he did finally come around on The Pixies).

Faith No More - Angel Dust
The only metal-ish record I own. Still a thundering achievement. Just the other day I was reading an article about how Faith No More made it big with The Real Thing and then derailed their career with this bombastic, excoriating album. I loved it from day one along with my friend Matt from the above Ramones entry. We drove to Dallas to see them on this tour and rode a wave of euphoria for days afterwards. I would kill to have Mike Patton's vocal range and power.

Huun Huur Tu - 60 Horses in My Herd
My initiation into college radio was through a fellow named Andrew with a reputation for delivering opinionated, sneer-y diatribes against things he disliked, and he disliked a lot of things. The reputation was mostly deserved, and yet Andrew also deeply loved what he loved. Thanks to his sometimes gentle, often rough tutelage, I opened my ears to music of all kinds and discovered lots of stuff I wouldn't have without the KVRX library and Andrew's prodding.

Huun Huur Tu's album was in the new bin at KVRX when I picked it out randomly to play. The sound and story of Tuvan throat singing (two or more tones produced simultaneously, just watch Genghis Blues for a primer) captivated me. Just ask my friends about those days, I was all about the Tuvan throat-singing. I still want to go there and take lessons from Kongar-ool Ondar.

Bill Hicks - Relentless
When I started college my taste for stand-up comedy ran heavy to the apocryphal story-telling of Bill Cosby and the lunacy of Jonathan Winters, the stuff my Dad liked. Unfamiliar with works of Lenny Bruce or George Carlin at the time, I was scandalized/delighted to hear the profanity-laden, politically and socially astute observations of Bill Hicks as a freshman. Bill made me realize that comedy can be a form of social discourse, a way to discuss the issues of the day and advocate for your beliefs while making people laugh. Many thanks to my friend Eric who also introduced me to the comedic joys of Firesign Theatre and Rick Reynolds.

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2
This opened my eyes to a new kind of music where percussion and melody were extraneous. Sure I vaguely knew Eno's stuff, but this felt more like mine and less like the 70s. Another Eric recommendation.

Soul Coughing - Ruby Vroom
The first band I ever interviewed, they were very kind to a nervous kid with weird questions. Thanks to them I found out how great Shudder To Think and Cibo Matto (1st album and EP only) were. They inspired me to go on road trips with my friends to see them and spend long hours on message boards with friends I never met in person. Also, the music was really good.

Low - Long Division
Sparse songs played very slowly. Sounds gimmicky, but oh the sound and the spaces between! Another band that uses beauty and tension incredibly well. Low remains tied for my favorite band today (see the next album for the other band) because they continue to put out great albums and tour regularly. Even after years of being so, I'm still rather awestruck that we've become friends.

The 6ths - Wasps' Nests
Over a span of just a few days, multiple people at KRVX radio where we worked told me they just knew I'd love this record. And they were right. Thanks guys! You started me on the Stephin Merritt-Magnetic Fields-Future Bible Heroes obsession that continues to this day. I'll never get them all, but for years I stalked performers in an attempt to collect the autographs of every singer on this album.

Spoon - Telephono
I went to college with Britt and Jim. I went to the house parties where they started out, and then the club shows. I knew these songs backwards and forwards. Then they got signed to Matador, the home of Pavement and Yo La Tengo and Guided By Voices. Holy shit, they did it! Finally, a band I knew and loved from my town was being heard all over the place. Now they're a big deal, but don't play any of these songs anymore.

Emmylou Harris - Wrecking Ball
Soundtrack to snowmelts and the road passing under your wheels. Thanks for coaxing me into loving it Jeffrey.

Julia Sweeney - God Said Ha
It's frustrating to me that most people only know Julia Sweeney, if they know her at all, as the androgynous character Pat from Saturday Night Live. I know her as a incredibly gifted storyteller who created the best spoken word album I know of. Go Said Ha is the hilarious and tragic story of Sweeney's post-SNL life in LA where her plans are disrupted by her brother's cancer diagnosis and all the trouble that comes with it. Every time I listen to it (got to be 50 times by now) I laugh out loud at the funny bits and cry through the sad ones. Tremendous.

Neutral Milk Hotel - Over the Aeroplane
Thanks to Merge and KVRX, I randomly plucked Neutral Milk Hotel's first album, On Avery Island, out of the To Be Reviewed pile and promptly fell in love, especially with "Song Against Sex". My ecstatic recommendation of that track convinced a guy named Jay to play it on his radio show and also fall in love. Jay later became my friend, roommate, and the newspaper editor who fired me in a misguided attempt to make me a better writer. That's a lot of words not about the record I should be talking about, but hear me out. Knowing On Avery Island prepared me to anticipate, but still be completely floored by Over the Aeroplane. Tremulous singing, funereal horns, sex and Anne Frank. I don't know how to even say how great it is, and yet how off-putting it can be. When I think of the best albums of all time, this one leaps to mind right off. Sooooo glad I went to that show at the Electric Lounge. Standing in front of Jeff Mangum as he belted out "Two-headed Boy" is one of the best musical moments of my life.

Sigur Rós - Ágætis Byrjun
Who put me onto this? I can't remember and that's too bad cause I like to give credit where credit is due. Just fucking gorgeous. I played it for friends in the car and they burst out laughing at first calling it whale music, and then grew to appreciate it. On their first tour through Texas, I saw them play an astounding show. During the final song, I lost track of myself for a few minutes and came back to consciousness with tears on my face. Music can get down to places that no other art can touch and Sigur Rós are masters at it.

Arcade Fire - Funeral
I'd heard the growing praise for Arcade Fire through the Fall after Funeral came out and when I heard it was impressed with how put-together and fully-realized they sounded on their first record. When they came on tour in January I went to see them with Dan and Jennifer figuring it would be a good show. The three of us are big music fans and each of us has seen at least a thousand bands. We're jaded when it comes to music. About three songs in I turned to them and said, "This will be the best show we see all year." And then it kept getting better. The energy passing between the stage and the audience was incredible. They played their hearts out and we loved them for it. When they encored with a Magnetic Fields cover and a Talking Heads cover, I was head over heels. It *was* the best show I saw all year (Dan thinks so too) and this album forever convinced me that I must keep my ears open for the next bit of art that will change my life.

In lieu of a 25th album, I'll just mention a few songs that changed my life though the albums they came from didn't:

New Order - "Blue Monday"
When, as an awkward teenager, I first abandoned myself to the joy of dancing in the unselfconscious manner of kids.

The Buzzcocks - "Ever Fallen in Love?" and The Smiths - "There Is a Light and It
Never Goes Out"
Impossible love and the ache of being young and gay. Broke my heart and helped me put myself back together.

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