I noticed a meme over at The Song In My Head Today, that’s an interesting challenge: list the top 15 most personally significant albums.
Here’s my go at it, I’ve included one box set, and a greatest hits compilation, but the list overall is an interesting reflection of the history of my tastes and relationship to music.
15 MOST SIGNIFICANT LIFE ALBUMS:
1: Ziggy Stardust — David Bowie
This wasn’t the first album that I fell in love with, but it was the first that I became absorbed in. I think I’ve mentioned before, that I started listening to Ziggy Stardust during a period of my life, immediately post-college when I was mostly unhappy and very uncertain in my life. I ended up finding Ziggy Stardust deeply reassuring. I would sit alone at night, listening to it on headphone and, while it didn’t exactly offer reassurance, it offered the chance to enter into a different mental space — one which didn’t require me to put aside my emotions, or allow me to wallow in the, but gave me a sense of perspective on my emotions by letting them sit alongside the melodrama of Ziggy Stardust.
It’s still one of my favorite albums ever. Not only did I listen to it with great intensity, but of the music I listened to in that period it has stood up better than anything else.
2: Love, Loneliness, Laundry — Leon Rosselson
This is the only album on the list for which I don’t and never have owned a copy; I listened to my parents’ Leon Rosselson albums growing up, probably mostly when I was in the 11-15 age range.
I grew up around a lot of music, but I didn’t actively listen to a lot of music before collge. Nevertheless, Rosselson’s music stands out as significant. I’ve said that seeing Leon Rosselson in concert when I was in High School changed my life. It was the first concert that I attened that I was actively emotionally engaged the entire time. In retrospect, it’s likely that I was going to acquire a taste for music listening at some point, but in point of fact it was that Leon Rosselson concert that marked a turning point. His music served as a bridge for me going from only being able to appreciate music that first engaged me intellectually, to developing a taste for the aesthetic pleasure in music.
I selected Love, Loneliness, Laundry as a representaive album because, in addition to the formative concert, the first mixtape that I made that I was happy with was of Leon Rosselson songs. In the process of putting that together I was struck by the fact that the second side of Love, Loneliness, Laundry is almost perfect with, “he Man Who Puffs the Big Cigar,” “We Sell Everything,” “Abiezer Coppe,” “Garden of Love,” and “Stand Up For Judas.”
3: High Low and In Between — Townes Van Zandt
My first great success as a “find.” I picked it up knowing nothing about it, and subsequently turned my friends and family on to Townes Van Zandt. I still pick up albums on the basis of nothing more than a positive intuition, hoping to get that lucky again, and that is still the high water mark of success.
4,5: Driver — Ferron / Sing for Freedom — Various
In college I had a Ferron Mixtape, a copy of Driver on CD, and a cassette copy of Sing For Freedrom all of which I listened to a lot. I absorbed the music from those two albums more than anything else I listened to at the time.
I don’t listen to either as much now, partially because there was a long break between my no longer having a cassette player and acquiring the albums on CD, but both are instantly familiar if I listen to them. Given that I have more music now, to divide my attention, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have listened to those albums more times than any other.
6: Citizen Steely Dan — Steely Dan
A box set, not a single album, but it belongs on this list because, unlike any other box set, I listened through all of the disks, and played them all repeatedly.
In many ways Steely Dan embodies characteristics that I find in my own experience of listen to music. They are clearly intellectual in their approach to music, but with a sincer appreciation for pop pleasures; the references to a range of other music are obvious, but they never resemble anyone other than themselves; and they have picky, selective tastes.
Has any band of their stature released fewer bad songs? The box set contains the entirety of seven albums, and three of the disks sound like greatest hits compilations, an the final one is merely consistently strong.
I went through a Steely Dan phase shortly after going through an Elvis Costello phase but, ultimately, I admire Elvis Costello’s accomplishments, but I feel more personally enamoured of Steely Dan’s virtues.
7: Curtis/Live! — Curtis Mayfield
Another find, if you can say that about any album that AMG describes as “one of the legendary live albums of all time.” I find it one of the most emotionally moving live recordings that I’ve ever heard. Particularly if you listen to it on a system that makes it easy to hear the comments from the crown and Mayfield’s responses. It is astonishing the degree to which Curtis Mayfield sounds intensely, intensely committed to the music he’s performing and, at the same time, open, responsive, and generous to the audience.
8: Learning to Flinch — Warren Zevon
The first time I felt at all “cool” in my musical tastes was having a friend in college borrow Learning to flinch and hearing the sound of them playing it at three times the volume I would have echo down the dorm hallways. It sounded good.
It’s also the album that introduced me to Warren Zevon, who I still regard quite highly.
9: Gordon — Barenaked Ladies
This is one of the rare examples of me listening to an album at the same time as my peers. I think it holds up as a good album, but it came out when I was in High School and the combination of cleverness, humor, and slightly maudlin emotions (e.g., “The Flag”) that meant that, for a short period, I an all of my friends were listening to it.
10: Power In Numbers — Jurassic Five
For me the gold standard for hip-hop albums. It is a genre with which I am not overly familar, but Power In Numbers is both an excellet album by any standards and ultimately inspired me to explore hip hop a little farther.
11: The Hits/The B-Sides — Prince
As noted above, I almost never listen to things when the come out, and I listened to almost zero popular music prior to ’93 or so. I don’t experience this as a lack, genrally, but it colors my relationship to 80s and 80s music, since my peer group has deep seated and vaugue opinions about the music, having absorbed it growing up.
To give a sense of how out of touch I was, I first heard “Raspberry Beret” at a friends house in 1999. Hearing that made me realize that Prince was good, and that I should get some of his music. Prior to that I had a vague sense that Prince was a figure held in mild disdain — though I’m not sure why since several of my friends will agree to liking Prince now.
For whatever reason that general period in time, and Prince specifically, marks the point at which I stopped consistently looking over my shoulder towards other people’s opinions about 80s music and started trusting my own taste. At this point, Prince isn’t my favorite from that ere (that would be The Pretenders), and I find myself alternately appreciative of Prince’s strengths as a songwriter and performer and frustrated at his equally evident weaknesses as a producer and, at other times, as a songwriter.
12: Red over Red — Trenchmouth
The upcoming album recorded by friends of mine last weekend. I think it will be great, but it’s also the only album for which I have had the opportinity to be present in the studio for some of the recording.
Expect to hear more about it.
13: The Beserkley Years / Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
When I got this album, and put on “Here Come The Martian Martians” I couldn’t imagine music better targeted to my tastes. Jonathan Richman, at his best, is absurd, silly, musically creative (in a minimalist way) all with a certain emotional seriousness and intensity that suggests that the songs and, by extension, honoring one’s absurd and geeky impulses aren’t just a trifle.
14/15: Separate Ways — Teddy Thompon / Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer — Corb Lund
Two of my favorite (relatively) contemporary albums. Both recommended to me through friends of friends. Both are albums by younger singer/songwriters who will hopefully continue to produce good work for years.
I’ve already written about Corb Lund.
Separate ways made an even larger impact on me at the time. For about a year afterwords I was recommending it to everyone I could, and getting copies as gifts for all of my friends and family. The combination of the music, the emotional intensity, and shear craft with which the entire album works together utterly impresses me.
Two things strike me about this list. The first is the unfortunate lack of female musicians. Unfortunately, when exploring new musical territory or genres I generally end up listening to prominent male musicians first, just because they’re easier to find. Writing this list to emphasize developments in my personal tastes skews the gender distribution even farther male than it would be. Laurie Anderson, in particular, belongs on the list, but there is no single album of hers that has particular significance.
Secondly I notice how often I use “intensity” or “emotional intensity” as a compliment. There isn’t much to say about that except that it is one of the things I look for in great performances.