So there was this meme going around Facebook for a while this summer where you were supposed to pick 15 albums that were important to you in some way. Maybe it was 15 albums that would stick with you, or that would define you, or something… it mutated a bit while it was out there. The rules were that you were supposed to pick the albums quickly and not think too much about it and just post the albums quickly. But I missed that part of the note and wrote this really long explanation and then forgot to post it. So I dust is off here tonight for your reading (or ignoring) pleasure. For you people on Facebook, if you tagged me on this meme back in August, you got tagged here. So there.
1. Billy Joel, 52nd Street. For any of you that thought I was aspiring to hipster-geezer status, this should pretty much put that to rest. This is the first album I bought with my own money. I thought it fairly sophisticated musical listening for an elementary school student. At least it wasn’t Raffi.
2. Depeche Mode, Black Celebration. In 1983, my favorite album was “Sports” by Huey Lewis and the News. Then my older sister went to Germany and came back with a 12 inch single by Depeche Mode. While the band had already gotten big in the west, they were pretty much unheard of in upstate New York. But I liked it and wondered why I had never heard any of it on the radio. Days later, I did something daring and turned the dial past “Q-92” and discovered college radio. All of the sudden, the world of music was a whole lot bigger. Nothing would be the same. In 1986, Black Celebration came out and I saw my first concert when Depeche Mode played a nearly-empty Finger Lakes Performing Arts center. Blew my mind. Black Celebration is still one of my favorite albums from that decade.
3. Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet. I’m driving home from college from Utah to New York, taking a serious detour through Arizona, Tennessee, Kentucky and Michigan. My friend Sam and I are pulled over in Oklahoma under suspicious circumstances, given a warning for basically doing nothing wrong, then let go. Feeling a little paranoid, we set the cruise control exactly at the speed limit and hope that will be enough to keep us out of trouble. But right at the Arkansas state line, the police are waiting for us. They pull us over, make us stand in the rain, and search our car for drugs. Eventually, they call for a drug-sniffing dog, who tracks mud all over our car. After about 90 minutes we are allowed to continue, but we’re left with a lingering paranoia. Sam reaches into his bag, and pulls out “Fear of a Black Planet” and pops it into the cassette deck. It was the perfect soundtrack for the rest of the trip (and the THIRD time we got pulled over for doing NOTHING).
4. Radiohead, OK Computer. I was late to the party on this one, but I finally discovered the album in 1998s. For reasons too complex to explain here, I ended up with 5th row seats to Radiohead’s show at the Universal Ampatheater and decided to attend. The show featured Thom Yorke having a nervous breakdown on stage, an ex-girlfriend dealing with extremely difficult personal problems, and a shattering moment of clarity when I realized that I was miserable in every aspect of my life. But the music… the music was amazing. The next day, I bought OK Computer. Twelve years later, it’s still in heavy rotation.
5. Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill. While it’s not the Beastie Boy’s best album (that honor goes to either “Paul’s Boutique” or “Hello Nasty”), “Licensed to Ill” will always hold a special place in my heart. Timing is everything, and this album came out when I was 16… the perfect age for the expression of snotty teenage rebellion. And the humor was on my level. MCA howled, “every day I take a wee and I don’t go to work,” and I understood just where he was coming from. To this day one of my fondest teenage memories (perhaps my only fond teenage memory) is sitting in a car with my friend Scott screaming “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves” at the top of our lungs while “Rhyming and Stealing” played.
6. Deee Lite, World Clique. It’s 1990 and I’m at college after being a Mormon missionary for two years. Being a Mormon missionary is something like being a monk in that (beyond a handshake) you have no physical contact with members of the opposite sex and access to the news from the outside world is limited. But now I’m home and the world seems completely different than when I left two years earlier. After all, the Berlin Wall has fallen and Communism is collapsing throughout Europe. There’s also a wave of optimism right now. For the first time in a while, people are feeling positive. I’m feeling positive, but for other reasons. I’m sitting on a couch with a girl named Nancy. I’m pretty sure we’re going to make out later tonight. She turns on MTV and on comes this colorful and exuberant video for “Groove is in the Heart.” People are wearing crazy clothes and dancing in front of psychedelic backgrounds. Two funky looking guys are standing behind turntables while a woman in an argyle bodysuit sings… and Bootsy Collins plays bass. It looks like a pretty good time, and at that moment, it seemed to represent all the fun and possibilities of this new stage of my life. A good time, indeed. (Iraq invaded Kuwait around this time, too, so it wasn’t all roses.)
7. Portishead, Dummy. Hard to imagine just how different this sounded when “Sour Times” started playing on alternative radio stations choking underneath a pile of flannel grunge. A few years after this album came out, I saw Portishead perform live in Santa Monica. An amazing show.
8. Dizzy Gillespie, Con Alma. This is just a low cost sampler of some of Dizzy’s Afro-Cuban era music, but it’s the first jazz album I ever owned. I arrived via the ska door. I had been to a Toasters show, and they did a cover of “Tunisia” that gave me chills. I bought their album and resolved to find a recording of the original tune as well. As it turns out, I didn’t like the version of “Tunisia” on this album, but the rest of the album blew me away. I’ve added somewhat to my jazz collection since then, but this $5.99 CD with no liner notes is still my favorite.
9. Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters. My cabinet groans under the weight of all the Elvis Costello albums I own, so why did this one make the list instead of all the others? The Juliet letters has been written off as Costello’s dalliance with chamber music, nothing to be taken seriously, and certainly nothing that should be compared to, say, “This Year’s Model.” I disagree. I don’t know if it’s the format or just the time in his life, but Costello’s songwriting shows as much or more depth of emotion here as anywhere I’ve seen. And some of the themes, such as disillusion with adulthood, hit me right where I lived in 1993. I was poor when this album came out, but the owner of a record store let me take it without paying because I came in every day to listen to it. I bought the double-disk reissue years later, to Elvis got his money eventually.
10. Girl Talk. Feed the Animals. I’ve often compared music to drugs, and this album is basically a speedball. It’s everything that’s awesome about music cut into pieces, pureed in a blender, distilled, and then injected directly into an artery. “Feed the Animals” really should be a novelty album, what with its parings of Nirvana with Salt N’ Peppa and the like. But damn, it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in my life. Two years later, this “novelty” hasn’t worn out its welcome. And unlike a speedball, it’s unlikely to leave you dead in some skanky Hollywood motel.
11. Z-Trip, Uneasy Listening. I was at the “Brain Freeze” show being put on by Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow at the El Rey in Los Angeles when this unknown guy from Phoenix takes the stage and starts doing some crazy stuff on (I think) a total of six turntables. It was equal parts hilarious and genius. Here was a guy who could rock a room with obscure cuts, but never take himself too seriously. A year or two later, this mix came out that sums up where he was in his career circa 2000. Just like the live show, it’s a stunning listen. Still can’t get enough of it all these years later.
12. Ben Folds Five. This is another example of music that hit me where I lived at a specific time in my life. I was 25 when Ben Folds Five released their self-titled debut album. One song begins, “I was never cool in school, I’m sure you don’t remember me. And now it’s been ten years, I’m still wondering who to be.” That pretty well summed it up. I listened to this album constantly as I drove to and from my job working as a liftie in Park City. The kind of job that delivers just enough money mixed with a sufficient amount of fun that you can delay making any life choices for a couple of years. Of course, now it would be just as accurate to sing, “Now it’s been 20 years, I’m still wondering who to be…”
13. Gorillaz, Plastic Beach/Demon Days. I can’t make up my mind on this one. “Demon Days” came earlier and (in what’s becoming a theme on this list) perfectly summed up the uneasy feeling of living during the War on Terror ™. It’s easily one of my favorite albums of all time. But now there’s “Plastic Beach.” I think it’s even better. It’s only been out for 7 months, so it may be early to know if it will have the staying power of its predecessor. But I’ll make the call anyway: it has the staying power of its predecessor.
14.Madness, One Step Beyond. What can I say about this album? It was my introduction to ska. It had a credit for a band member who contributed “various shouts.” They cover “Swan Lake.” It ends with a military march dedicated to chipmunks. It is a giddy, exciting, exuberant, dizzying, thrilling, masterpiece. I don’t even feel old when I’m listening to it.
15. Various Artists, Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack. I at least have to give a shout-out to the first album I ever owned (as opposed to the first album I ever purchased with my own money). This album was a gift for my 8th birthday and I treasured it. I listened to it until I literally wore down the grooves. I was much too young to see the movie when I owned the album, and I was certainly too young to go to discos. That always kind of bummed me out. When I was 22, I finally saw the movie. Turns out, Saturday Night Fever is a really bad movie. I was much better off with just the album.