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Archive for December 27, 2013

The 40 Most Important Albums In My Life

As the year draws to a close, it’s time to get all nostalgic and sentimental. I was reflecting on the music that I’ve listened to over the years, so what better way to wrap up my blog for 2013 than listing, in Casey Kasem style, the most important 40 albums of my life.

I was very careful to say “most important” and not “best” or “favorite.” Each of the albums on this list is important because it changed the way I think about music.  In some way, subtle or obvious, my music was never the same again after hearing it. My list of “favorite” albums would be different.  For one thing, it would have a lot more recent albums, but I was reluctant to call recent albums “important,” because, honestly, I don’t know yet whether they are.  Maybe 20 years from now I’ll make this list again, and some of the albums I’m listening to right now will be on it.  It just takes time to judge the importance of music.

That is not to say that I didn’t suspect that many of these albums were important the first time I heard them. For example, I remember the first time I heard Emmylou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball.”  I was driving at the time, and I literally had to pull the car off to the side of the road, because I was so overwhelmed.

There are perhaps some surprising omissions.  For example, you won’t see “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Tubular Bells” on my list.  That’s not to say that I don’t think they’re important albums, or that I don’t like them; it’s just that, for whatever reason, they didn’t have a you-will-never-be-the-same-again effect on me.

Lastly, I should mention that I decided not to include any classical music, movie soundtracks, or musical theater.  For me, these are a different kind of musical experience. I find that a live concert is by far the preferred way to experience classical music.  A recording of classical music strives to replicate that experience as faithfully as possible.  There are of course many exquisite recordings; in fact, it’s almost not fair to put pop music records up against the best classical records.  My list is a list of important “albums,” not important “music.”  Classical albums are all about the music.  Yes, that music is extremely important to me, but the following albums are works of audio art unto themselves, and in many cases musicians strive to reproduce live the experience of listening to the album, not the other way around.  Similarly, for me a movie soundtrack is meant to be heard while watching a movie, and stage musical songs are meant to be heard while watching a live stage show.  Movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Amadeus” did truly change my life.  Likewise with musicals like “The Sound of Music” and “Les Miserables.”  However, I wouldn’t say that those albums changed me.

OK, so I’ve explained the rules.  Now, for the results.  Keep in mind that these are in no particular order.  (Well, actually they’re alphabetized by artist.)  There’s just no way I could rank them.  Each of them changed me in a different way, and I can’t measure how much each of them changed me.

Tori Amos “Little Earthquakes”
The Beatles It’s hard to pick just one album, but I’m going to have to go with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  I first heard this when I was just a little kid, but even then I would listen to each of the songs over and over again, trying to figure out how they were making these sounds.
Kate Bush probably any of her early albums, so I’ll just go with her greatest hits, “The Whole Story”
Cocteau Twins “Blue Bell Knoll”.  (“Heaven or Las Vegas” is almost as important.)
Shawn Colvin “A Few Small Repairs”
Kemper Crabb “The Vigil”.  This one is pretty obscure, but definitely worth checking out if you can find it.
Thomas Dolby “The Golden Age of Wireless”
Emerson, Lake & Palmer Really all their albums, but if I had to pick one to be stranded on a desert island with, assuming that that island had electricity, a CD player, and headphones:  “Brain Salad Surgery”
Brian Eno “Ambient 1 (Music for Airports)”
Peter Gabriel “Security”
Genesis Any of their albums with Peter Gabriel, but I’ll pick “Foxtrot” simply because it includes “Watcher of the Skies” and “Supper’s Ready”
Peter Hammill “A Black Box”
Emmylou Harris “Wrecking  Ball”
Icehouse “Icehouse”  This kicked off the 80s for me.  For the next 10 years, my life was sucked into a vortex of synthesizers and drum machines.
Jethro Tull “Songs from the Wood”
Jon & Vangelis “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”
Kansas “Leftoverture”  I should explain here that I’m from Pittsburgh, a city where Kansas is still so popular that they actually have Kansas tribute bands.  Also, when I was in high school, I could pretty much play every keyboard part from every Kansas album note-for-note perfectly.  Yeah, I know; I didn’t have a life.
King Crimson “Discipline”
King Crimson “In the Court of the Crimson King”
Mazzy Star “She Hangs Brightly”
Loreena McKennitt “The Visit”
Sarah McLachlan “Surfacing”
Pink Floyd “The Wall”
Jean-Luc Ponty “Civilized Evil”
Queen “A Night At The Opera”
Renaissance “Sheherazade and other Stories”
Kate Rusby “Sleepless”
Rush I can’t pick just one album.  Really it’s a series of 4 albums, starting with A Farewell to Kings.
Shriekback “Oil and Gold”
Softcell “Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret”  (I’m so embarrassed to have to include this, but it is a seriously important album.)
Spock’s Beard “The Kindness of Strangers”, “Day for Night”, or “Beware of Darkness”.  Yes, I know that’s three, but I listened to all three of these as though they were one triple album.  This opened the door to the whole neo-progressive movement for me.
Tangerine Dream “Stratosfear”  Honestly, I never cared for this album that much, but it definitely changed me.
U2 Sorry, I can’t pick just one.  OK, maybe “War.”  No, make that “The Unforgettable Fire.”  No, “Joshua Tree.”  No, …
UK “UK”
Van Der Graaf Generator “Pawn Hearts”
Värtinnä “Kokko”  (Bet you didn’t see that one coming!)
Rick Wakeman “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”
Rick Wakeman “Journey to the Center of the Earth”
Yes “Close to the Edge”
Yes “Relayer”