Friday, February 27, 2009

Ten record albums that changed my life

I know, "changed my life" is pretty strong language. But music has been such a big part of my life that I thought it would be fun to try to identify ten record albums that have most impacted me and that I still relish.

This is hard to do, because I could probably pick fifty such records. But I've chosen ten, and limited myself to only one record per artist or band. Here they are, in no particular order:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles (1967)

It's impossible to pick just one Beatles record that means the most to me. But if I had to choose only one, this would be it. I remember buying Sgt. Pepper in the music store on Main Street in my hometown soon after its release on June 2, 1967. I brought it home, listened to it, and didn't know what to think. It defied all categories. Still to this day it evokes memories both strange and delightful. It's arguably the most creative record album of my generation. Favorite song: "A Day in the Life"

The Master and the Musician - Phil Keaggy (1978)

I'd never heard of this greatest-of-all-guitarists until a seminary friend lent me a homemade copy of this record on a cassette tape. It's a collection of instrumental music ranging from meditative to rock. After several listens, I was addicted to Phil Keaggy, bought just about every one of his records thereafter, and saw him in person 3 or 4 times. Favorite song: the opening track, "Pilgrim's Flight"

Court and Spark - Joni Mitchell (1974)

During my college years I kept hearing these amazing songs by this female singer from Canada who could hit the highest notes possible, as well as play guitar, piano, and dulcimer. Her lyrics captured my imagination like no one before and maybe even since. I love all her music from the early years (1968-'74). Court and Spark combines the best of her early ballad style with the jazz style that characterized her later work. After this, she went in more of an experimental direction that didn't appeal to me. I saw her in person in 1974 and had a crush on her. Favorite song on this record: "Help Me"

Tapestry - Carole King (1971)

My kids make fun of me all the time for liking so many female singer-songwriters. I guess it all began with this record by Carole King. She wrote a lot of songs that other people made famous (examples: James Taylor and "You've Got a Friend," Aretha Franklin and "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman," both on this album). Tapestry won all sorts of Grammys and stayed on the charts for years. One reason it's impressed upon my brain is that when it came out, I was on a camping trip out west with a bunch of other teenagers. I think radio stations played "It's Too Late" every 10 minutes. My girlfriend at the time and I played this album over and over and sang every word. Favorite song: "So Far Away"

Sweet Baby James - James Taylor (1970)

James Taylor is arguably one of the most enduring singer-songwriter-musicians of our time. I own all his records, and have seen him in person 4 times. Next time he shows up around my area, I'm there. Being a guitarist myself, I admire his unique style and have tried to emulate him as much as possible. This particular record was one of several James Taylor records that my girlfriend-now-wife Suzy and I bonded over. I must admit, though, if I hear "Fire and Rain" one more time I'll go crazy. Favorite song on this album: the title track, "Sweet Baby James"

Blood, Sweat and Tears - Blood, Sweat and Tears (1969)

When I'm in a certain nostalgic mood, I still love to turn on this CD! This album was monumental in many ways. For one thing, it's the first album I know of that opened and closed with the same song ("Variations on a Theme By Erik Satie"). I thought the footsteps and door closing recorded at the end of the album was also pretty clever. Several songs on the record brought BS&T a lot of fame, including "Spinning Wheel" and "You've Made Me So Very Happy." But what I found most engaging was the fact that the album contained longer versions of these and other songs, including jazz segments not heard on the radio versions. At the time, I considered this album the "thinking man's record." It was sophisticated, innovative, and combined rock, jazz, classical, and blues styles. Favorite song: "God Bless the Child"

Led Zeppelin II - Led Zeppelin (1969)

Perhaps more than any other record, Led Zeppelin II tapped into something deep within me that likes to throw things, yell and scream, and play electric guitar as loudly as possible! This was one of those records I didn't play in the living room for fear of my mother grabbing it and breaking it. But truthfully, this is one of the all-time great rock albums, right? Every song is fantastic. I'd never heard drums and guitar sound like those of John Bonham and Jimmy Page. Not to mention the voice of Robert Plant (every mother's worst nightmare). Critics call this record a blueprint for 1970s hard rock. Favorite song: "Heartbreaker"

Crosby, Stills & Nash - Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

Are you beginning to see a pattern, with all this music from the late '60s and early '70s? It was a highly creative (unfortunately, drug-fueled) time period for rock music, with all kinds of new styles emerging. Crosby, Stills and Nash was one of my favorite bands of the day. Unlike James Taylor, their songs were more laced with electric guitars and angry vocals. But unlike Led Zeppelin, CS&N wrote ballads and played softer, acoustic music too. Each of the 3 principal band members was a solo artist in his own right. Their harmonies struck gold. They were also one of the first commercially successful bands of that era to put a lot of social-political commentary into their music. They strike me as three angry guys who gladly profited off of the capitalist system they so roundly criticized. Nevertheless, their music affected me deeply and gave me a love for country-rock music that endures to this day. Favorite song: "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"

Nickel Creek - Nickel Creek (2000)

We jump forward to (almost) the present day. Nickel Creek is my favorite bluegrass-slash-acoustic band of all time. When I first listened to this, their self-titled album (produced by Alison Krauss), I felt like the perfect blend of great voices, lyrics, and musicianship had arrived. Sadly, the group broke up (for now) in 2007. I've seen Nickel Creek in person three times. Their shows are amazing. Chris Thile is unbelievable on the mandolin. I've always loved bluegrass music, but the difference with Nickel Creek is that it's got a postmodern twist. There's a melancholic side to many of the songs, making me wonder what it is that makes these three people so sad. Favorite song: probably "Ode to a Butterfly"

Fragile - Yes (1972)

Last but not least is this, the 4th album by the British progressive-rock band Yes. I am a big fan of Yes's early years (at least through Relayer in 1974). Fragile's best-known song, "Roundabout," is still often played on classic rock radio stations. I first became a fan of Yes when, in college, I somehow came across The Yes Album (1971). The way Yes wove heavy bass guitar, drums, piano, synthesizer, and lead guitar together was highly innovative. The lyrics of nearly every one of their songs make absolutely no sense, and Jon Anderson's high voice is often very annoying. But every time I listen to Yes music I seem to hear something I've never heard before. I love listening to Yes in my car, when I can turn the volume way up and catch every nuance, every unexpected twist and turn in the songs. Favorite song on this album: "Heart of the Sunrise"

Well there you have it, my all-time Top Ten Most Personally Influential Record Albums. Keep in mind that I'm only choosing one album per artist or group. If I could list some "honorable mentions," they would include:
  • Good Advice - James Ward (1986)
  • New York Tendaberry - Laura Nyro (1969)
  • Bookends - Simon & Garfunkel (1968)
  • Spirit Trail - Bruce Hornsby (1998)
  • Unguarded - Amy Grant (1985)


kristinwithani said...

We share a great many favorite albums but I do think my all time fave is Carole King Tapestry. "I feel the earth move..."

Mike said...

Are you kidding me Kristin?! You're too young to even KNOW about those albums much less like them! But I'm glad. Shows you have great taste in music!

Tim said...

Hey Mike, check out Fiction Family if you haven't heard of them already. It's composed of Sean Watkins and Jon Foreman from Switchfoot. Jenn and I have the CD and like it a lot.

Mike said...

Thanks, I'll do it.