Music has always been in my ear, my mind, my soul. ever since I can remember, I have known music – the songs of my mother and father, the 78s, 45s, and 33 and 1/3s that defined my childhood, the cassettes and CDs that shaped my teenage and college years, and now digital music. I studied it in college, and believe me, knowing how it is constructed and what makes it work opens up whole new avenues of listening and appreciating. What follows are the ten albums that have had the greatest effect on me as a musician, and as a human being.
10. John Williams – Jaws (Soundtrack)
Some may think his best work was “Star Wars”, but this soundtrack really pulled me into the world of classical music. Yes, we all know the theme, but what really makes this work for me is Williams’ ability to evoke atmosphere. I think it’s stronger here than in any other soundtrack. How can you not get the creeps when listening to “Night Search”? Or hear echoes of Vivaldi and Handel in “Promenade (Tourists on the Menu)”? My favorite has always been “One Barrel Chase”. And it’s important to note that I listened to the album hundreds of times before I ever saw the movie. So, to me, this is truly a suite rather than a soundtrack.
9. Arvo Part – Te Deum
There are few things that sound as haunting as the human voice. What Part does so brilliantly is apply his tintinnabuli style to create a beauty that to me sounds like lace. “Magnificat” is the height of this style, to me. Gorgeous in its simplicity and meditative style. It also has the ability to be powerful, as in his “Berliner Messe”. His “Gloria” redefines what majesty can sound like. His use of minor seconds to create tension has had an effect on my own composing. Really words fail me when trying to describe both how his music sounds and why I enjoy it so.
8. The Smithereens – Especially For You
By going back to the basics and finding plenty of inspiration in early rock and roll, The Smithereens took what they knew and made something new and timeless of their own. This album is fantastic from beginning to end. Full of longing and melancholy and love sickness, it is the soundtrack of every young man. There are gems aplenty, but the standout tracks for me are “Cigarette” with its simple rumination on a break-up, “Behind the Wall of Sleep” in which Pat DiNizio pines for a girl who has hair like Jeanie Shrimpton and stands just like Bill Wyman when she plays bass, “In a Lonely Place” where you hear Suzanne Vega add her beautiful harmony to Pat’s melancholy vocal, and “Blood and Roses” which opens with one of the great riffs in rock. Excellent stuff that makes the ups and especially downs of young love sound better than it should.
7. Marty Robbins – Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
The pink album cover with Marty Robbins dressed as a gunfighter. Yes, that was cool to me. Yes, I was seven, but so what? I still hear a bunch of cool on this album. This was a major part of the soundtrack of my childhood, because he was my mom’s favorite singer. She had a number of albums by Marty Robbins, including his Hawaiian love songs, which Mom really liked. But this one was the one I always enjoyed. Why? Because no one, and I mean NO ONE, can match Marty Robbins’ voice. It cuts right through you, whether it’s the sad strains of “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” or the soaring neo-mariachi wail on “El Paso”. Then there’s “The Strawberry Roan” and the best version of “Cool Water” ever put to record. “Keep a movin’ Dan, don’t you listen to him Dan, he’s a devil not a man, and he fills the burnin’ sand with water. Cool. Clear. Water.” I get chills just thinking about it. And I cannot tell you how jazzed I was the first time I played “Fallout 3: New Vegas” and heard “Big Iron” on the soundtrack. Bliss!
6. Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out
I adore Miles Davis and I think “Kind of Blue” should be one of the first jazz albums any neophyte should hear. But, this is the album that gave me a real appreciation of jazz. Maybe its the way Dave Brubeck echoes classical music in his improv, or maybe its the unmatchable sound Paul Desmond gets out of his alto sax. Whatever it is, it absolutely mesmerized me. “Take Five” grabbed me immediately, because, well… how could it not? The best opening of any song ever. And then Paul Desmond comes in so smooth, almost whispering through his sax. The ultimate cool. “Blue Rondo a la Turk” still makes me groove every time I hear it. The brilliance of contrasting the rhythmic A section with the smooth and cool B section was pure genius. And “Kathy’s Waltz” with it’s angular melody was an obvious influence on Vince Guaraldi’s music for the Charlie Brown TV specials. I need to go listen to this right now!
5. Neil Young – Freedom
Some say “After the Gold Rush” or “Harvest” are Neil Young’s best albums, but this is the album that introduced me to Neil. And it blew my socks off. It was Beautiful Dee who introduced me to this album when I was a freshman in college. Obviously, “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” became an anthem, especially after the performance with Pearl Jam at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards (cementing his reputation as the Godfather of Grunge), but the second track, “Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part I)” is the epic and haunting musical statement at which Neil is the true master. He follows that with the minimalist “Don’t Cry” and the beautifully sad “Hangin’ on a Limb” with Linda Ronstadt adding gorgeous harmony. They pair up again for “They Ways of Love”. Neil turns “On Broadway” on its head to great effect, and follows it with the plaintive “Wrecking Ball”. There is so much of what makes Neil “Neil” on this album that I think it is the best introduction to his music that there is. All you need to know is here.
4. Carl Orff – Carmina Burana
A collection of poems written during the middle ages by young men who were about to enter the priesthood and clergy members who satirized the church. They are full of wine, gambling and sex. What is there not to like? Now imagine these text being set to some of the most awesome music ever composed. Heck, yeah!!! Gimme some of that! I first heard “O Fortuna”, the opening section, when I watched “Excalibur” (I was really into Arthurian legends when I was a teen – GEEK!). Since then, I have been fortunate enough to perform this piece no less than five times, and I love it more every time. Bawdy, melodic, primal dance music. Drink wine, lose your clothes to the Abbot in a game of chance at the tavern, and frolic in the springtime with beautiful women. Ah, debauchery never sounded so amazing!
3. Husker Du – Zen Arcade
My love of Husker Du began with Warehouse: Songs and Stories, but this is the album that blew it wide open for me. Conceived as a concept album about a boy who runs away from a home full of abuse and discovers the world is even worse – only to wake up and realize it was all a dream and the real world is still out there facing him, it is packed with powerful music. You can’t help but feel the anger in “I Will Never Forget You”, or the rising frustration throughout my favorite track, “Whatever”. Over time, I have come to adore “Somewhere” and its cynically hopeful message, and my listening life changed when I first heard “Turn on the News” on the local college radio station. Not only did this album bridge the transition between early speed punk Husker Du and the more melodic wall of fuzz sound of later albums, it showcases both Bob Mould and Grant Hart at the height of their songwriting prowess, in my opinion. Blistering and even psychedelic guitar work (Dreams Reoccurring/Reoccurring Dreams) gives way to calm piano driven interludes (Monday Will Never Be the Same), and straight up rock (Chartered Trips) gives way to experimental aural weirdness (Hare Krshna, The Tooth Fairy and the Princess). It is simply, one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
2. The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs
Everything I enjoy is here. The depression. The cynicism. The sarcasm. And it’s all wrapped in a glorious musical coating. Morrissey knew how to write poetry like the great, cursed English Romantics, and Johnny Marr’s intricate and brilliant guitar work was the perfect counter-point. At one time, I knew all the words to every song (a real feat for someone who is drawn to melody over lyrics) and sang along loudly, especially when in the car. “Panic”, with it’s sing-along chorus “Hang the DJ!” is an anthem for anyone sick and tired of the bilge they hear played ad nauseam on the radio. And it’s not a Smith album without some self-pity (“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”) and some wit (“Shoplifters of the World”). The songs that really sear themselves into my brain are haunting (“This Night Has Opened My Eyes”) and whimsical (“Oscillate Wildly”). But the two tracks that I have to call my favorite play into my sense of melancholy (“Back to the Old House” and “Asleep”). It’s a gorgeous compilation album that continues to draw me to listen to it today.
1. Simon and Garfunkel – Greatest Hits
This is it, the album that had more influence on me than any other. (Is it odd that my top two albums are compilations?) I grew up with this album and still love to sing along. And the memories… watching my mom dance-stomp to “Cecilia” always made me laugh. Finding out that a good friend/HS crush was named after “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” was one of those cool ‘real-life’ connections (not to mention that the lyrics are pure poetry). Who could resist tapping their foot to “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”? “The Sound of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” are two of the most darkly beautiful songs I have ever heard. “Homeward Bound” and “America” are two sides of the same coin. But my two favorite tracks are short and sweet. “I Am a Rock” is my unofficial theme song. Far all the longing and desire I craved in my life, I liked to fashion myself a loner, locked away behind walls of books and my music. But then, I was always too passionate to really be a hermit. “Bookends” is such a short, fleeting song, but it seems to capture sentimental reminiscing better than anything ever has. Brilliant voices, brilliant music, perfect songs.