At long last, I present the conclusion of my list of 20 albums that have had the most impact on me and my love of music. For a brief refresher, you can check the back half of the top 20 here. But for your convenience, here’s the list:
#20 — Queen, The Game
#19 — Seals & Crofts, Summer Breeze
#18 — Kiss, Creatures of the Night
#17 — Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast
#16 — Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell
#15 — Kiss, Alive!
#14 — Rush, A Farewell to Kings
#13 — Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
#12 — Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pictures at an Exhibition
#11 — various artists, Jazz Master Files
OK, now that we’re all caught up, let’s finish this thing already. As a reminder, this is no particular order but I know people love countdowns so there you go.
#10 — Genesis, Duke
If Rush was my gateway drug into progressive rock, then Genesis was my first major score (damn, I suck at drug references). Anyway, while Nursery Cryme opened me up to new possibilities in musical composition, it was the more straightforward and pop-leaning Duke that became part of the soundtrack of my life. Although it signaled a further break from the group’s progressive past, the dynamic performances and raw, emotional lyrics hit me like a bag of bricks.
I got into Duke during my freshman year of college, an emotionally turbulent time for me to say the least. While I loved the music on this record, the themes of troubled relationships and emotional loss really left a mark on me. Part of the album was informed by Phil Collins’ crumbling marriage, which was brilliantly reflected in “Misunderstanding” and Please Don’t Ask.” But the songs that will stick with me forever are Tony Banks’ dreamy and slightly morose “Heathaze” and the dense, dramatic “Cul-de-Sac.”
#9 — The Beach Boys, Endless Summer
This album is proof positive that compilation albums aren’t always a cheap record company money grab. I knew and dug a handful of Beach Boys songs when I nabbed this collection many years ago, but by the time I made my way through all of its 21 songs I was totally converted. This is no ordinary greatest hits package, rather it’s a document of much of the best pop music American had to offer in the 1960s (which is funny when you consider that I bought this in Canada).
I quickly moved to snap up as many classic Beach Boys albums as I could after hearing this, and I’ve never looked back.
#8 — Mr. Bungle, California
Some time around 1999—2000 I was in a huge rut with my music. I felt like I had explored as much as I could with pop, rock, and metal, and there was nothing left to discover. So I went to one of the few places on the internet you could go back then to research music — the All Music Guide. I started plugging in my favorite bands to see what it recommended, and it was likely my love of Faith No More that brought me to Mr. Bungle, Mike Patton’s “other” band. I read about their most recent album, California, and decided to give it a shot.
Good call on my part. I got no further than the second song, “None of Them Knew They Were Robots,” when I felt my passion for music rekindle. I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of a strange, exotic land where I didn’t know the language but I understood what everyone was saying. Bungle’s brand of schizo music jumps from gentle pop crooning to techno to surf music to death metal, usually in the course of a single song. California excited me like no album had in a long time, and led to my second Great Musical Awakening.
#7 — Waylon Jennings, The Ramblin’ Man
I had made some tentative forays into the world of country music before hearing this record, mostly classic Johnny Cash and some of Dolly Parton’s newer bluegrass releases (all excellent, by the way). Still I thought of country as a world that would only ever hold limited appeal for me. And then I read a great writeup on the AV Club about Waylon Jennings’ 1974 classic The Ramblin’ Man and was introduced to something called Outlaw Country. After listening to The Ramblin’ Man I understood that country music could not only have balls, but soul.
Jennings was a classic rock star in country clothing, and I can only imagine what an incredible breath of fresh air his great ’70s work must have sounded like against the popular country landscape of stilted, stuffy music played by men and women in giant hats and jewel-encrusted suits. Listen to the Jennings’ vocals — not to mention Ralph Mooney’s excellent steel guitar — on “Rainy Day Woman.” That is the sound of a weary man who’s lived enough for three lifetimes, and this is how country music should be. But let’s also not forget the ass-kicking “I’m a Rambling Man” or the haunting, lovelorn “Memories of You and I.”
There is nothing phony or put-on about The Ramblin’ Man and it led me to other great Jennings albums from that era, as well as releases from the other titan of Outlaw — Willie Nelson.
#6 — Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
Sure, The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall get all the love and critical coverage, but Wish You Were Here is the Floyd record that truly speaks to my soul. More than any other album in my collection, this was the one to teach me the virtue of just letting go and allowing myself to get washed away in music. It both demands my attention and forces me to let go at the same time.
There’s not much else I can say about this album, or the epic “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” in particular, that hasn’t been said a thousand times already. All I know is that when I absolutely have to plug in and escape the world for a little while, Wish You Were Here is my go-to album almost every time. It’s 44 minutes of bliss.
#5 — Koop, Waltz for Koop
In my exploration of all jazz had to offer, it was only a matter of time before I stumbled upon the so-called “nu jazz” sub-genre. It’s basically a melding of jazz with newer forms of electronica (yes, that is a very crudely simplified take), and there is a lot of it out there. Koop was one of the first groups I heard operating in this mode, and to me they’re one of the best. This album represents nu jazz at its best — ridiculously catchy, seductive, modern, and swingin’.
Although Koop makes copious use of samples, theirs is not the easy way out. Waltz for Koop was painstakingly constructed from hundreds or even thousands of other song clips, but supplemented by fresh vocals and even original instrumentation by the duo of Magnus Zingmark and Oscar Simonsson. Witness the smoky, sexy lounge feel of “Waltz for Koop” or the vibrant, life-affirming “Summer Sun.” Can there be any doubt why this music opened up yet another new world for me?
#4 — The Roots, Game Theory
I can’t say that Game Theory led me to an awakening about hip hop in general, as I still listen to it only rarely, but I’m hard pressed to think of another record from the last five years that has left its mark on me the way this has. I’m certainly not ignorant of all the hip hop songs and artists tackling social issues, but the Roots did so in a way that was especially vivid and powerful. This is the record against which I measure all other hip hop.
#3 — Robert Plant, The Principle of Moments
I was a Robert Plant solo fan before I was a Led Zeppelin fan. I have vivid memories of watching the video for “Big Log” and falling in love with Plant’s voice and the song’s dark, sparse arrangement. Top it off with Robbie Blunt’s languid, Western-style guitar part and I was entranced.
But the rest of the album is just as captivating for me. Who doesn’t love the dreamy “In the Mood,” the forceful pop of “Other Arms,” or the dense, experimental “Stranger Here… Than Over There”? The Principle of Moments is Exhibit A for my case of Plant’s solo career being one of the greatest by any artist who was formerly part of a huge band. It sounds totally of its time and yet not dated in the least.
#2 — Stevie Wonder, Talking Book
I think I have an idea of what it must have felt like for a prospector in the late 19th century to stumble upon gold, because that’s what I found when I listened to Talking Book. While I probably prefer Innervisions more, this is the one that got me started on my love for Stevie Wonder. It’s an incredible artistic statement, and I get something new from it every time I listen. Wonder’s run of classic albums in the 1970s is nothing less than a musical expression of pure joy, just as Louis Armstrong’s music was decades earlier.
I never realized just how incredibly talented Wonder was until I heard this record. He plays most of the instruments on most of the songs, and does so with panache. When he does employ other musicians it’s done to great effect, such as the excellent Jeff Beck solo on “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love.” I dare you to listen to Talking Book and not smile throughout. It’s a testament to music’s ability to make a real connection with the soul.
#1 — Mastodon, Leviathan
My first love was heavy metal. I cut my teeth on Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Megadeth, and bands of the like. But as metal started to become less melodic and more intense, I refused to follow. I never got into Pantera or any of the newer, hyper-aggressive acts (especially the ones employing the so-called Cookie Monster vocals). This was fine for many years, as old school metal fans had a lot of new music to enjoy. But as the older bands broke up or became watered down, I was left behind.
In 2005 I decided it was time to put away my prejudices and give the new breed of metal a shot. One name that was constantly thrown around as a recommendation was Mastodon, so I bought a copy of Leviathan and hoped for the best. And man was I ever rewarded.
Turns out the recipe for getting over the abrasive singing is to find an album full of well-written, flawlessly executed songs. Leviathan may have been released in 2004 and it may bear some of the characteristic traits of new metal, but underneath beats an old school heart. The whole disc is an orgy of killer riffs and ridiculous drumming, but there are actual songs being played here, and I can’t argue with that. This is what Iron Maiden would sound like if they were just getting started. I had to check out my ears in the mirror after listening to songs like “Blood and Thunder” and “Iron Tusk” to make sure I didn’t see scorch marks.
Because I picked this particularly awesome album as my entry into modern metal, I’ve been able to embrace even more awesome music by bands like Opeth. Let the head banging resume!
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