I had originally envisioned this column as an answer to some Facebook friends who were listing albums that were significant to them. Then, like most of my ideas, the project took on a life of it’s own.
Music has always been a vital part of my life, and the chance to really write about this topic-albums that mattered and/or made for some change in my life was a fun challenge. I hope you enjoy it. These are not in any substantive order. They are in order as I thought to write about them and are not meant to be in any sort of rank. I simply numbered them for ease. There are ten listed and a few honorable mention. Truthfully, there are probably another 30 albums I could do this with, but it is late and I can’t guarantee the kids will stay asleep, so, here we go…
Below are albums that changed the way that I think about music, life, myself, and everything else. I hope you enjoy it and as always welcome your comments both on the page and to me via the magic of email.
1) Marvin Gaye: What’s Going on?
This is among the greatest albums ever made. I’d listened to him sing for years-I loved his Motown stuff solo and with Tammy Tyrelle. I still remember laying on my bed on a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1984, listening to WPST 97.5 FM, out of Princeton, NJ, and hearing the news of his death. He had been making a comeback, and as I had grown to love his earlier work, and was very into his return. I was very saddened by his death. Although, at that point, being not yet 11...I hadn’t really embraced his genius. That came later, and the album did, and continues to, shred me every time I hear it. It is a musical open door into what Marvin wished the listener to see which was a world filled with both challenges and hope. It is among the most pure and unadulterated musical statements I’ve ever been subject to. The way one song flows into another and the layering of sounds that is commonplace today was far more complicated and deliberate with the technology Marvin had on hand during production. It is pure and inspired genius.
I spent a ton of money buying a vintage vinyl copy of this a few years back that was sealed and had never been played. Despite the protestations of the seller, and other vinyl collectors…The moment I had it in my hands, I ripped that sucker open and played it.
It has been said that Marvin felt that God was speaking through him as he worked on this album. I for one, choose not to argue with Marvin. Or God for that matter. If you’ve not heard it, write me. I’ll fix that. It’s that great.
2) Nirvana: Nevermind
It was the Fall of 1991, and I was on a van on the way from Wooster to the Cleveland Airport for break. They had the Cleveland Rock station on the radio, which I believe was 97.5 “The Hawk” or something of that nature. No one was really listening to the radio much, but Guns ’N Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” was just ending. I heard the station bumper, and then that guitar lick at the start of “Smells like Teen Spirit” kicked in and the van got quiet. Everyone stopped talking to listen to this song, as it was unlike anything we had heard before. When it ended, someone asked, “What was that?” Someone responded, “what that GNR?” “It couldn’t have been-they were the song right before…”
Popular music at that point was a lot of hair bands, C and C Music Factory, and Janet Jackson, you might recall. So the sound of “Here we are now…entertain us!” and the energy that whole album generated was a game changer. They burned fast and hot. By the time we all got back from break, we all knew who Nirvana was. And that album changed everything. It went from Poison and Paula Abdul on the radio, to Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam, and later on STP. It was awesome to witness such a dramatic shift.
Nirvana’s Unplugged album was excellent too. I would be sad we never got to see what that band could have gone on to do, had I expected them to last. I didn’t, and they didn’t. But that moment was one that reinforced in me the power of what one genuine artistic moment can make happen not only to music, but to a culture in general. Pretty sure I never wore my “Z Cavaricci” pants again…
3) Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
Grouping together Miles Davis with Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley would have likely generated a great group of recordings anyway. What Davis did on this album is again, another game changer. He gave his group a broad idea what he was looking for, and then just played. The album stands up, and should be listened to on vinyl, and with very little light, at night, with a fine beverage in hand, preferably with a companion.
I was always into Jazz growing up-my parents littered out musical library with a large Big Band collection, and some really nice vintage Ellington’s and Basie’s, but also some real nice Dave Brubeck. I came to Davis and the “Cool” era of Jazz a little later, as part of a Jazz course I took in college. And once I heard it, I listened to it again. It got to the point that I would listen to it regularly, and try to follow a different player each time. One time, I’d follow Miles, another Cannonball. Then I’d follow Coltrane.
This was another one that I bought on Vinyl, and paid a lot, and have never regretted it. It just sounds better in that medium. It was simply unlike anything before or since and redefined what an album could be.
4) Paul Simon: Graceland
I listened to this constantly in 1986. I had listened to Simon and Garfunkel constantly growing up, and remember being so blown away by the rich texture of sounds and ideas that seemed packed into each song. I remember sitting in my room listening to that one over and over, and only getting up to flip the cassette. It was simply a great album that introduced me not only to “Ladysmith Black Mambazo” but also “Los Lobos” which was a nice bonus.
Honestly, the world just felt like a much smaller place to me after diving into this album. Perhaps that’s just idealistic teenage attitude coming back to me on echo through the years, but that’s what I remember thinking.
5) Kool & The Gang: Spin Their Top Hits
I was in sixth grade and totally into Kool and The Gang. They were form Jersey, which was always a bonus for me. I played their “In the Heart” album, and “Emergency” to destruction in those years, and each time they had a big hit, like “Fresh,” “Cherish,” and “Misled,” I felt like it was vindication of my fandom. Everyone else was grooving on what I already knew was cool.
I was in the old Jamesway on Route 130 wasting time on a Saturday, having already dumped my quarters into the “Donkey Kong” machine they had there, and I was looking at cassettes in the discount bin. A lot of junk, but then, I saw this album. As I looked at the cover, I saw that it had a photo of a huge brass section, a gigantic percussion array, and what looked like a choir, all on stage, under funky lights and fog effects. It was surreal, but I made plans to come back the next Saturday, after I’d made a few bucks mowing lawns that week, and buy it. To make sure no one got it first, I hid it in the classical section, turned around, so I’d know where to find it. Which, thankfully I did, the next Saturday. It hadn’t moved, and with great excitement, I rode my bike home, through the trailer park, cutting across that guys yard and into the woods that no longer exist, and right into the back corner of the Manor. I plopped it into my dual cassette deck…way cool I know…it even had high speed dubbing….and as I did so, the opening track, “Open Sesame” started with a weird and freaky sound that I’d never really heard before. I was being encouraged to “Get down with the Genie” who repeatedly shouted “Shazam!” over seriously righteous horns.
There was no James “JT” Taylor croons: This was not The Kool & The Gang I was used to, and at first, I was very upset by it, and reached for the stop button. As my finger poised above the button, I heard the leader cry out, “Abracadabra…get on your camel and ride” and the brass section answered him with a hammering response. Even listening to it now, I can feel my eyebrow raises with memory of the sheer audacity. I gently backed away from the stop button, and instead hit the volume, falling onto my bed and choosing to take the ride. The album includes famous tunes like “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” which were hits, and would later gain even more notice in movies and as samples for other hip hop artists. The album showed me that it was always worthwhile to explore an artists' full catalog-a practice I still continue. In the end, I still feel like Kool & The Gang are kind of a personal preference, and when they come on, I feel like I’m in on something that no one else is. But truth be told, The album, and most of what they did in the '70's, still rocks. I’m not sure that “In the Heart” does…but it changed my thinking about looking at a group or a performer and allowing them room to grow and adapt, a lesson that would serve me well when Album #7 on this list came out.
6) RUN DMC: Raising Hell
I was a huge fan of rap in the 80’s. I remember as a kid in the Manor, we used to congregate up at the side street near Roscoe’s house, and we would spread out the cardboard and breakdance to the music that Roscoe was into that week. I remember Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, early LL Cool J, UTFO, and even some Afrika Bambaata.
But in the end, it was RUN DMC that the guys and I rapped word for word on the way to SPS. I know that our bus driver at the time raised an eyebrow or two when we reached the album’s last track, “Proud to be Black.” That notwithstanding, “Peter Piper” is pure and simple awesomeness that has been copied way more than anyone could possibly count. The guitars show up on “It’s Tricky” and by the time you get to “You Be ‘Illin” you are deep into a whole new type of album-there is rap, of course, but there is serious callbacks to ‘70’s funk and rock, and the whole conglomeration was just unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I think I was one of the first kids in my class to bring their “King of Rock” tape to parties, but the “Raising Hell” album changed everything, making Rap mainstream, and revitalizing Aerosmith’s career. Everyone had it and everyone listened to it.
Run-DMC created a whole new genre with this album. And yes, I asked for a pair of Adidas. I didn’t get them. Alas. But I did get a pair of Fat shoelaces. Once my parents saw how Foley strung them for me, with the shoes wide open and laces fluffed up, they were immediately confiscated and never seen again. So it went.
7) U2: Achtung Baby
OK, I was into U2 pretty much from the moment that I heard the guitar opening of “I Will Follow” from a tape Reid brought on the bus one day in middle school. I liked “War” and of course, there is no Junior High memory that does not in some way feel like “The Joshua Tree” was playing in the background. I liked them. The first Compact Discs I ever bought after getting my CD player (Complete with dual cassette deck as well…) for making honor roll all year in ninth grade was “Rattle and Hum,” and I played the daylights out of that thing. That was 1988. I played it a lot over the coming years, but truth be told, I was tiring of it by the time I left for college in the Fall of 1991. As I discussed earlier, there were other bands doing some new and interesting things-Nirvana, G’NR, Pearl Jam, and other bands were making noise that year, and driving the radio in a harder direction, which, despite my affection for Bobby Brown, (“Don’t Be Cruel” might have made this list were it much longer…) was a change that I welcomed.
And, then, the Winter of ‘91 came around, and U2’s “Achtung Baby” was released, and I was nervous the first time I had the chance to hear it. A girl on the swim team gave me one of her headphones and we listened to it together on a bus trip to somewhere. I was afraid I wouldn’t like it-I’d heard it was different, and weird and any number of other things. But, to me, The Edge’s first guitar lick on the opening song, “Zoo Station” was like call back to the way that he opened “I Will Follow” and I sat there feeling like I was in for a treat-and I was. There are some songs on the album that I’m not crazy about, but what the album showed me once again was that a band of genuine musicianship can grow and adapt and change and be relevant as long as they want to. Plus, it rocks. With “Achtung Baby” U2 became one of those bands that I will get every new record they put out. And that list, especially in this economy, is growing smaller.
8) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live 1975-85
“Screen door slams…Mary’s dress sways…” I first heard this line at a party during eight grade, probably someone’s birthday or something in early December. All I know is that I had to have it for Christmas that year, which was 1986. Fortunately, I got it, and I spent almost all of the Winter Break from SPS listening to it and reading the huge book that came with it. Reading the lyrics as he sang them was a pretty cool thing, as even back then, I had aspirations of writing. Although I am retired from the singer/songwriter thing now, I know that hearing lines like, “Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” and “You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain/Make crosses for your lovers, throw roses in the rain/Waste your summer praying in vain for a saviour to rise from these streets,” were powerful motivators for me then as well as now. I always found it interesting that he spelled "Saviour" in that manner.
The five and a half minute story that he tells about him and his father before a gut-busting version of “The River” still tenses me up, waiting for that harmonica wail. Gets me every time. By the time I arrived at the end of the marathon recording (Five LP's. Only 3 Casettes) with his trademark version of “Jersey Girl,” which for some reason, Tom Waits actually wrote, I felt like anything was possible. Not just artistically, but in general.
It’s still heady stuff, and when I thought about how young he was when he was writing this stuff, it gave me the sense that maybe something I had to say, either through music or other writing, was worth saying.
The second half of my eighth grade year was much better than the first half. I won’t go so far as to say the album is responsible, but Bruce is from Jersey…so one never knows. We do look out for our own...
9) Def Leppard: Pyromania
It was 1983. The closest thing to Heavy Metal in my home growing up would have been “The Canadian Brass Orchestra’s Holiday Album” that someone got from an old Getty station for filling up a certain number of times.
The guys down the street listened to Ozzy, and Judas Priest, and AC/DC, all of whom I would fall in love with later, but they had long hair and got detentions at school. So, at that time, that "type of music" was verboten in our house.
We had a family beach trip that Summer, to Island Beach State Park. My sister had a cute friend who joined us that day, and she brought a few tapes along for her walkman and being genuinely nice, she let her friend’s little brother listen to them.
I don’t remember what else she brought, but I know she brought “Pyromania,” as it simply blew my 9 year old little mind away. The sheer power of the guitars, led of course by the late Steve “Steamin’” Clark and Phil Collen were unlike pretty much anything I had heard before. By the time I reached “Too Late for Love,” I knew that this album was something special-I mean, it’s a ballad, and the lead singer is screaming over blazing guitars. How was this possible? Joe Elliot’s effortless high notes were both polished and gritty. I knew that I had to listen to whatever he had to say, but it was really the overall force of the band as a whole that had me back at Jamesway the next weekend buying this one on vinyl. I listened to it constantly and exclusively when my parents were not home.
Not only did it open a whole new world of music to me, it gave me something to talk about with her friend, who as I said was cute, and always really nice to me. I was still nine, and absolutely and in no way any cooler than I was before I owned a copy of the coolest album of 1983...but I felt cooler. That, and I realized that there was more stuff out there that I had never heard before…
10) The Smiths: Louder than Bombs
I came to The Smiths late in high school when Jason and Brian and Mike made me listen to them, and I liked them. I went to Princeton Record Exchange around 89-90 and bought this one on vinyl, as it was a double album, so I figured I could catch up fast. I brought it home and listened to it on my parents stereo before they got home, sitting in the big orange chair that we used to have in the living room. I was blown away by the musicianship. The songs were tight and Johnny Marr was such a powerful force he didn’t have to play loud. Morrissey was Morrissey.
The next day I went back to the Exchange and bought “Rank” “Meat is Murder” and pretty much every other one I could find. The Smiths were one of those bands that I missed at first, but was glad to have someone smarten me up. Morrissey’s writing had a genuine impact on the writing that I did at the time, and I am still glad for it.
---Violent Femmes: Add it Up
We used to sing every single song on this album during shows at HHS. Every word. Every line. It sounded like nothing that I had ever heard before. Still does. The music that these guys played was like an accidental finger-full of lemon juice on a paper cut. And it rocked.
Fun aside. I wrote and performed the music at a friends wedding a while back. It was all planned out by the note. Over a year of composition. And the day of the wedding, the minister asks if I can play something for the candle ceremony. Having mere seconds to come up with something, I move into a very “arpeggio-laden” version of “Good Feeling” from this album. I hoped it would come off as pretty, and I recall later that the bride’s mother commented on how ‘pretty that was” and the bride herself commented, smilingly, as I recall: “Did you just play Violent Femmes at my wedding?” It was a good, good day, as I recall.
--The Hooters: Nervous Night
This was junior high in South Jersey. This was the album that you had to have if you were having a party at your house. If you were lucky, that girl you liked might dance with you when “Where do the Children go?” slipped in on side two. I have some particularly fond memories of this album from the summer after grade 8, but that is another story entirely. In the end, they were a really good Philly band that not only made good, they opened Live Aid in 1985. I can’t hear “And We Danced” today without remembering all the times I did just that to that song both in the SPS basement and a variety of junior high parties. It was just such good standard fare for living in Jersey in the mid 1980’s.
Albums I might write about if I do a part two to this series include:
--Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours.
--Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport
--Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young: Déjà vu
--Suddenly Tammy!: We Get There When We Do
--Muddy Waters: Folk Singer
This column kind of got away from me. Sorry about that, but music does that to me I suppose.
I am currently working on two more columns. The first is tentatively titled: “The Secret and Magical Life of Toys.” The second is my now annual look at why I won’t be purchasing Wrestlemania this year. Thank you as always for your support…Aloha!