Music is – or at least used to be – at once a very shared and a very personal thing. And truth be told the only thing I’ve spent more time doing in my life than listening to music is sleeping. Music has informed my life since I was a kid and continues to do so, although to a lesser degree now that I’m a family man. So it’s time for me to give credit where credit is due, and list the 20 albums that had a bigger impact on me than any others.
Some of these records opened my eyes to a new style of music. Some of them resonated on a deep, emotional level. Some were just too good to be ignored. Some are wrapped in nostalgia now and nothing more. But they are all critical to my development as a music lover in one way or another.
Memory is a tricky thing, especially when you try to recall stuff from early childhood. But I swear I remember lugging a tape player to nursery school and listening to this album nonstop. It’s a good thing I got into them when I did too, as in a few short years Queen became painfully uncool in the States (thanks a lot, Hot Space) until their post-Wayne’s World resurgence. But dammit, I was already a fan!
And what’s not to love about The Game? It marks the first use of synthesizers on a Queen record, and they’re used to great effect on the opening title track. It’s also the last Queen album with no real weak points (“Don’t Try Suicide” comes close, though). Freddie Mercury’s cigarettes hadn’t caught up with him yet and he’s still in fine voice, and the rest of the band is also at the top of their, um, game. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” introduced a whole new generation to rockabilly, but for my money the best songs (other than the title one) are the funky “Dragon Attack” and the excellent Brian May ballad “Sail Away Sweet Sister”.
#19 – Seals & Crofts, Summer Breeze
That’s right my friends, I wasn’t afraid to explore my mellow side even as a kid. This was part of my family’s record collection, and I fell in love with it instantly. Most people are familiar with the title song, but there is a lot else to love about this collection. The songwriting and playing is top notch, and the arrangements are deceptively complex. But what really sells this is the powerful vocal harmonizing of Jim Seals and Dash Crofts. You needn’t go any further than the first song, “Hummingbird”, for proof of all of this.
Incidentally, it wasn’t until some time in the ’90s that this classic record finally made it to CD. Let’s just say I was pretty jazzed when I stumbled across it. You know, back when I still bothered with CDs.
#18 – Kiss, Creatures of the Night
One fine day in 1982 (maybe 1983), my late grandfather favored me with a trip to the local record store. He told me to pick out whatever album I wanted, and he’d buy it. As I didn’t have a roster of favorites to choose from I kept looking until something caught my eye. Before long I happened upon a cassette with four painted, darkly lit faces staring back at me. I picked it up, and an obsession was born.
I was fortunately oblivious to the fact that Kiss was in the midst of a commercial dead period, and that many of their longtime fans had deserted them. I didn’t know about all the albums that came before, and I knew nothing of the Kiss mystique. I also had no way of knowing that many Kiss fans, as well as the group itself, was ready to move on from the makeup that attracted me in the first place. All I knew was that an album with a cover that cool had to contain something worthwhile.
Without writing an in-depth review, let’s just say that this album kicked my ass. And it continues to do so, almost 30 years later.
#17 – Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast
Speaking of musical obsessions…
My Iron Maiden phase began thanks to my older brother, who introduced me to them right around the same time I was getting into Kiss. While I would grow to love other Maiden albums more (the first one and Somewhere in Time to name a few), this megaton metal masterpiece was the true beginning of my headbanging phase; a phase which lasted well into high school, incidentally.
In a way this album spoiled me for a lot of heavy metal, because it forever impressed upon me the need for good melody and strong vocals in addition to killer riffs. That means a lot of modern metal, while musically strong, loses me with those damn Cookie Monster vocals.
Anyway, by late 1983 I had the first two slots in my holy trinity of music filled – Kiss and Iron Maiden. And albums #18 and #17 are huge reasons why.
#16 – Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell
Is it even possible to overstate the importance of Run-D.M.C. in rap/hip-hop? Not even a headbanging preteen from suburban New Jersey was immune from the greatness of this album, and it was the only rap album in my collection for years to come. Hell, this album even helped make Aerosmith cool again (whether that was a good thing is up for debate).
While this album couldn’t make me stray from my chosen metal path, for one moment it broadened my horizons considerably. And even if the lyrics seem rather quaint by today’s standards (not many hip hip acts would dare record an homage to their sneakers), back in the day I almost believed it when D.M.C. yelled “I’m the kiiiiing of rock!” And it would be over a decade before another hip hop act (The Roots) captured my imagination like Run-D.M.C. did on Raising Hell.
#15 – Kiss, Alive!
If Creatures of the Night made me a Kiss fan, then the group’s seminal 1975 double live album made me a Kiss Army recruit. A decade or so after it made stars of Kiss, I played the cassette in a seemingly endless loop on my Walkman. The energy, the crowd noise, the crunch of the guitars, even Paul Stanley’s well-rehearsed and corny stage raps all captivated me but the pinnacle of the Alive! experience for me was and always will be the extended version of “100,000 Years”, featuring a Peter Criss drum solo that I’m sure thousands of Kiss fans have memorized to this day.
Even finding out years later that Alive! wasn’t the untouched, complete concert experience I thought it was hasn’t diminished my love of this album. It’s still the standard by which I judge all live rock records.
#14 – Rush, A Farewell to Kings
I tried, I really did. I tried to not like Rush and for a long time I succeeded. That dude’s screeching voice, those weird lyrics, the decidedly un-catchy songs. Who would bother with such garbage?
But I was a fair man in junior high, if nothing else, and so I kept on listening in the hopes that I would find some evidence to support my older brother’s love of Rush. One evening I put on a cassette of A Farewell to Kings – recorded from the vinyl no less – and it happened. I had decided that I very much liked this band by the end of the opening song (the title track), and by about halfway through the second (“Xanadu”) I had a new love.
Before long the Canadian power trio had earned their loftiest achievement – a place in my personal pantheon of Bestest Bands Ever – right next to Kiss and Iron Maiden. The trinity was complete, and I was on my way. But more importantly Rush marked the beginning of a new phase in my musical life, my introduction to progressive rock.
#13 – Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Yeah, I know, what a bold choice. The thing is, this album really did help to shape my view of jazz more than almost any other. It was not just a bunch of notes in search of a melody, it could actually be just as evocative, structured, and emotional as pop/rock. Who knew?! Rarely does an album heaped with such praise earn every bit of it, but Kind of Blue does. This is the ultimate late night jazz record, and it actually spoiled me for other jazz albums for quite a long time. I searched high and low for another recording that could match the mood, effortless grace, and overall sound of this one and failed.
This was another gateway album for me, as it introduced me to piano legend Bill Evans. If you listen to no other jazz tune this year, check out his work on “Blue in Green”. It is the sound of a heart breaking, and it needs to be heard.
#12 – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pictures At An Exhibition
This is an important album for me for two reasons. One, it got me hooked on ELP and two, it served as my gateway into classical music. Oddly enough, when I purchased this album it was really a mistake. I was looking for another ELP song altogether but I didn’t know the name (this was pre-internet, mind you). So I picked this up and my initial reaction was, “crap, a lousy live album.” When I had finished listening to their interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece my reaction was, “holy crap, I need to listen to this again.”
In many ways this suite was the perfect choice for ELP, as it allowed the group to showcase some of their best traits – it’s bombastic and loud in parts, intricate and subtle in others. Greg Lake even upped the ante by adding a wholly new piece to the suite, a beautiful acoustic piece called “The Sage”.
If you’re convinced you don’t like classical music, listen to the “Pictures” suite or ELP’s adaptation and you may think differently.
#11 – various artists, Jazz Master Files
Score one for budget compilations. Back in the dark ages before the internet became a ready reference tool for music, I needed a quick and cost-effective way to explore as much jazz as possible. So when I stumbled across this three-disc set for 10 bucks I snatched it up. And while many budget compilations contain crap, this was a goldmine of vintage jazz that I used as the foundation for further exploration.
Although this set focuses more heavily on pre-War material, it’s still chock full of tunes that no jazz fan should be without. There’s a particularly hot version of “St. Louis Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and a rendition of “Love for Sale” by Stan Kenton’s orchestra that boils over with excitement. But there is some great bop stuff too, like “Charity Rag” from the oft-overlooked Bud Shank and a great version of the Charlie Parker classic “Bird Feathers” (also known as “Crazeology”).
While the sound quality on these songs isn’t uniformly great, many of the performances are and this album was invaluable to me as a jazz touchstone for a few years.