Sunday, February 22, 2009

15 Albums That Changed My Life

One of the current memes making the rounds on Facebook is the 15 Songs/Albums/Records meme. Here's how it goes:

Think of 15 songs, CDs, or LPs that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life, dug into your soul; Music that brought you to life when you heard it. Royally affected you, kicked you in the whatchamacallit, socked you in the gut, is what I mean. Then 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!

Well, given my love and knowledge of music, I was tagged quite often on this one, and it took awhile to put together my response. Today I did, so I thought I might share it here, as well as add some video for each entry:

This was a surprisingly difficult assignment for me, mainly because it was so very, very tough to pare down the list just 15. So, with the caveat that there are indeed many other records that could justifiably be placed right alongside these, and with the knowledge that the particular list of 15 might be very different if you asked me in a month, in a week, or even tomorrow, here's a pretty solid list of 15 records that changed my world (in no particular order):

1. Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes (1982)
This is the album that anyone who knows me must expect to be here. The album is nearly perfect: ten songs without a clinker in the bunch; a sparse acoustic minimalistic sound that manages also to be darkly claustrophobic and sinister; Gordon Gano's Jonathan-Richman-trying-to-be-Lou-Reed vocals; and lyrics that are at once anguished and hysterical (culminating in the plaintive cry of "Why can't I get just one fuck?" in Add It Up). Brilliant.

2. Sparks - A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing (1972)
Never has any band ever had such a spot-on inherent sense of how a pop song should sound and yet so firmly refuse to write pop songs. Straddling the ground between 60s psychedelia and 70s prog rock (but in truth belonging to neither genre), Woofer was sprung upon an unsuspecting and criminally apathetic public almost 4 decades ago, and the rest of the music world has yet to catch up. Musically, the album dabbles in bubblegum, acid rock, chamber music, and pseudo-opera, often combining styles within the same song; lyrically the album covers subject matter no one else writes songs about, often being wickedly funny in the process: Girl from Germany discusses the concerns of Jewish parents about their son's new love; Here Comes Bob describes a young Lothario who meets women via automobile accidents he causes; Moon Over Kentucky is more unsettlingly beautiful than any song you will ever hear. Perhaps the most creative and unusual album I have ever heard, and I love it!

3. Lloyd Cole & the Commotions - Rattlesnakes (1984)
Nothing beats great lyrics. Even the most mundane melody can be made listenable with lyrics that pull you in and paint pictures that you see with your soul. Of course the line between great lyrics and pretentious twaddle is razor-thin, and most go steamrolling right over it. On this record, Lloyd walked right up to that line on every song, but never crossed: "When she smiles my way/my eyes go out in vain/she's got perfect skin" - hell, who hasn't been there? "She took her keys and left me out in the cold/wearing a plastic coat and the pressures of life/through lack of patience" - has a breakup ever been captured as well?

4. Flying Lizards - Fourth Wall (1981)
The Lizard's hard-to-find second album is treasure to be snapped up if you ever see it. This is not the album with Money on it, nor is it the album with their novelty covers of Sex Machine and Dizzy Miss Lizzie; in fact, it sound nothing like those. It is a gorgeous amalgam of melodies, electronics, audio verite and studio noodling. New York scenestress Patti Palladin took lead vocal chores for this record, King Crimson's Robert Fripp is wandering around the grooves here, and lead Lizard David Cunnigham steers the listener through the aural equivalent of a funhouse hall of mirrors.

5. Bow Wow Wow - See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah! City All Over Go Ape Crazy! (1981)
The second-longest album title in my 3000+-title collection (Fiona Apple's When the Pawn... takes the prize - look up the full title for yourself), this was one of the earliest "new wave" records I owned. Tribal chanting, Burundi drums, spaghetti-western guitars, Malcolm McLaren's PR manipulations and the stunningly beautiful Annabella out in front, Bow Wow Wow remains my favorite band of all time - actually got to see them live in NYC in2004 and meet them after the show, and what a show they put on! This, their debut vinyl (the cassette-only Your Cassette Pet was their first release), is my favorite of their three albums.

6. The MC5 - Kick Out the Jams (1969)
This is what a live album should sound like, period. Nothing but energy, noise, jubilation, and unsafely loud muthafukkin rock-n-roll. This is the album to have blaring while you're thrashing about your living room in an immature air-guitaring frenzy; this is the album to have blaring when you and your friends have a full car with the top down speeding down the highway in the summer; this is the album to have blaring when you're grilling burgers and dogs and downing the suds in the backyard. Do we want a revolution? Sure, but more than that, we wanna rawk!

7. The Jim Carroll Band - Catholic Boy (1980)
Go read the book "The Basketball Diaries" (no, just seeing the movie doesn't count - read the damn book!) Then go find a copy of Catholic Boy and play it start-to-finish. If you aren't affected by it, you have no soul. From Wicked Gravity to Nothing is True to People Who Died, this is a soul lain bare. It's at once a cry for help and a fuck you for trying. And it is awesome.

8. Dead Kennedys - Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982)

This statement may cause arguments, but I am going to make it anyway and I will stand by it: Plastic Surgery Disasters is the most perfect punk rock record ever made. Jello Biafra is at his sarcastic best skewering everyone and everything from preppies to doctors to California phonies, the band is far tighter here than on the admittedly classic Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the music is hyper speed but not at the cost of melody. Winnebago Warrior, Buzzbomb, Moon Over Marin, I Am the Owl - all classics. They would later become message-heavy before collapsing altogether, but this album captured the band and the sound at the perfect moment.

9. The Fleshtones - Hexbreaker! (1983)

No better party album exists than this'n. The Fleshtones have always been about fun. They are a band that you really have to see live to fully "get", but Hexbreaker! comes damn close to capturing that excitement on vinyl. Every song is an upbeat hook that will wriggle into your brain and force you to sing or hum along by the second or third listen!

[note - the video title is misspelled - should be "Right Side of a Good Thing"]

10. Ramones - Ramones (1976)
The Ramones have to be here, but deciding which record to include was tough. I'm going with the debut, not only because it blew me away the first time I heard it, but because of its well-documented effect on the music world. The number of bands who started up because of this album is staggering - do some Googling and be amazed. How much different would music be today without this album?

11. The Saints - (I'm) Stranded (1977)
12. Iggy & the Stooges - Raw Power (1973)

I put these two records together because they are both here for essentially the same reason - they freakin' rock from start to finish. A friend I used to work with once said, "you know, I can be having the worst day, everything going wrong, and I put on Raw Power, and everything is cool again..." Yep, and the same can be said of (I'm) Stranded

13. Syd Barrett - The Madcap Laughs (1970)
A stunning document of one man's descent into acid-drenched insanity. Barrett's first record since leaving Pink Floyd is difficult to listen to at first due to its very spur-of-the-moment nature and Syd's tendency to add or omit beats, or bars, or occasionally choruses. The record sounds incomplete, at times being more reminiscent of a tape recorder candidly catching a child entertaining himself by singing off-key and off-kilter than of a major-label album recorded by a major artist. It's worth the effort to get to know this record, though - there is much joy and beauty to be found in the warped innocence and naiveté of songs like Love You, Octopus and Terrapin.

14. The Residents - The Residents Present the Third Reich 'n' Roll (1976)

This was one of those records that opened me up to the idea that music doesn't have to sound like what the radio tells us music should sound like. Two side-long suites that rip apart the songs that everyone used to hear coming out of tinny AM transistor radios, pulse the pieces through a meat grinder, drag the result through the mud and slap it all back together with spit and spackle, making it at once horrifically alien and oddly familiar. Up through the blurry mush bubble things like the hook from Yummy Yummy Yummy, a strained chorus from The Letter, an angry spitting of Hanky Panky, but these are only fleeting moments of safety before your head is pushed below the surface of the muck again until the nightmare culminates in a bizarre blending of Sunshine of Your Love, Hey Jude and Sympathy for the Devil. It's the only record that I have ever played for people who have asked me to turn it off. How could I not love it?

15. The Suicide Commandos - The Suicide Commandos Make a Record (1978)
One of the most criminally forgotten artifacts of early American DIY punk rock. This isn't punk in the British mohawk sense, the LA hardcore sense, or even the New York art school sense. This is a wholly mid-America product; three guys writing great songs with killer hooks. Hindsight allows a line to be drawn from the Commandos that converges with the line drawn from the Raspberries and Big Star to create early80 s power pop, but this record isn't quite that sound yet (proto-power-pop maybe?) Every song here is a winner, but the star of the show is Match/Mismatch, the story of a dinner date gone horribly wrong (complete with our hero shouting "Waiter! My check!")

So, how telling is it that the most recent record on this list is 25 years old?

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