16 Albums That Changed My Life

The musician Alan Morse Davies (at at-sea.com) forwarded a query via Facebook, in which he asked 16 individuals, me among ’em, to name 16 albums that had changed our lives. While a life-changing event is a more significant subject than a mere “favorite” album, by benefit of that significance it’s also a lot easier to determine. Since I don’t really use Facebook much, I’m replying here in the form of this entry, having broken the 16 albums into four periods. The albums aren’t listed chronologically by release, but by when they had their impact on me. I could easily bury the list with a list of counterpoints, all the music not present here, and how my choices will change in a day or a week anyhow, but at this juncture, this is my list:

First Phase: High School (1981 – 1984)

1: The BeatlesRevolver: The band was pretty much my focal point through the first year or two of college. Eventually it led me to Fluxus, via Yoko Ono, whose tracks on Double Fantasy got more play on my turntable than just about anything else the year of that album’s release. The Beatles overall remain a kind of ur-text to me, because so much of what I enjoy today — from avant-garde classical, to studio manipulation, to field recordings — I can trace back to them. And also because so many of my friends who don’t “get” what I listen to hear everything that they love in the Beatles, too.

2: King Crimson‘s Discipline: All my fascination with progressive rock (Yes, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel) came to its peak with Discipline, which stripped away the floridness, and focused on rhythm, groove, ensemble. It was through King Crimson that I eventually made my way to Robert Fripp’s solo work, and his Brian Eno collaborations, and so on. When I see Russell Mills’s art on Nine Inch Nails’s records, which have occasionally featured Discipline co-guitarist Adrian Belew, I know I’m not the only one who followed this aesthetic trajectory.

Second Phase: College (1984 – 1988)

While in college, I majored in English, having initially double-majored in English and computer science, but back in those days computers weren’t cheap, at least not the networked kind employed in college science departments. (I’d had a TRS-80 since 1979, and upgraded to the original Mac my first year at college.) So whereas English and history, for example, could just add extra class sessions depending on student interest, space in comp-sci was expressly limited, and I was never going to make that intellectual cut. I was fascinated by regressive loops, but couldn’t program my way out of them. Freed of computer assignments, I ended up focusing more and more on music, in part through education (classes in “Physics of Sound,” “Narrative in Music,” music theory, history of jazz, etc.), but more through just listening:

3: Brian Eno‘s Thursday Afternoon: One of the first CDs I ever purchased. I’ve said in the past it was the first, but I’ve subsequently recalled the first three were Talking Heads’s Remain in Light, Violent Femmes’s Violent Femmes, and Thursday Afernoon. I’d already owned the first two of those on vinyl, and I bought the CDs knowing that digital playback would render crystalline so much of what I’d always loved about them. Thursday Afternoon, which was only available on CD, was a revelation. At the time, I heard it as an elegy, a kind of “last ambient album,” as “college rock” (later “indie”) and what became “grunge” were coming into being. I had no idea that quite the opposite would prove to be the case, that Thursday Afternoon wasn’t a reflection on what Eno had accomplished in the mid-1970s, but the cornerstone of the incredible expansion of ambient music that is so much a part of our musical vocabulary today.

4: John Zorn‘s The Big Gundown: The great saxophonist’s (and composer, and entrepreneur and …) tribute to the great composer of movie scores, Ennio Morricone. At a party during college, a friend of a friend laughed at our fascination with Robert Fripp, and told us the next major musical figure (whom she neglected to name) was “this guy in downtown Manhattan who plays duck calls.” She, I later realized, was correct. By The Big Gundown, Zorn had established his conceptual chops, and I can’t overstate the way this album set in motion for me so much about multiple subjects, not just the “downtown” (Manhattan, that is) scene’s sense of cultural history, but the importance of film scores as a subject of inquiry, and the radical reworking of existing material as a creative pursuit.

5: Ray Anderson‘s It Just So Happens: I had three radio shows at various times in college, one of contemporary classical, one of jazz, and one broadly defined as rock, though the standard playlist would move from Fripp and Eno’s Evening Star through King Sunny Ade to Talking Heads to … Ray Anderson’s It Just So Happens. I often think of this album by trombonist Anderson as one of the ones he recorded with the trio BassDrumBone, because the collective performance is so democratic, but that’s just a testament to his generosity as a leader. There are numerous jazz (and jazz-related) albums that I could point to in college that ignited what had been simmering since I stole my dad’s several Charles Mingus and one Ornette Coleman (Body Meta!) albums, but by virtue of how often I played it, and the varied circumstances in which it proved playable, this is the one.

6: Metallica‘s …And Justice for All: I’d loved all their records up to this point, even if I had a lingering sense that the best Metallica song was the first song on their first album, and that it had essentially all been downhill since then. But …And Justice for All stoked my interest in metal just as it was threatening to wane, keeping it going (Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium helped, too) long enough to be ready when Godflesh, all that Earache (and related, and subsequent) activity, came into being.

Third Phase: 1989 – 1996

From 1989 through 1996 I was employed full time as an editor at Pulse!, the music magazine of the now defunct Tower Records. It was an amazing experience, to be that drenched in music on a daily basis. I wanted to work at Pulse! when I got out of college because it was the one magazine I knew of that took all music as its subject. These records, though, aren’t the reason I stayed at Pulse!; they’re the reason I eventually felt I was able to leave. I realized that for all my interest in a broad range of music — in a given year, I could interview Anthony Braxton and Billy Childish, Glenn Danzig and Depeche Mode, Aphex Twin and Rob Zombie — the following music made me wake up to the knowledge that electronically mediated (and, in a more fundamental way, meditative) music was where my head was at:

7: John Fahey‘s The Essential John Fahey: I only spoke with Fahey a couple of times. He called me up out of the blue, and just rambled on about so much that I didn’t understand, even sent me half a ream of writing that at the time I couldn’t decipher. I loved his guitar playing, and would see him whenever he came through town, but it was this album specifically that introduced me to the depth of his thinking, in particular how the field recordings of “Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee” made such perfect sense alongside the bittersweet fingerpicking of “Commemorative Transfiguration.”

8: Deep Listening Band‘s Deep Listening: If Pauline Oliveros (accordionist and legendary figure in American electronic music) had only put into words where my head was heading, it would have been enough, but her Deep Listening work with Stuart Dempster and others put it into sound, as well. This album was all about resonance, as it was recorded in a cavern blessed by a natural 45-second delay, and it continues to resonate with me.

9: Oval‘s 94 Diskont: Of all the records listed here, this is probably the one most consumed by what succeeded it, the one that will hold up least — not because it was less great, but because its breakthroughs (the glitch, the desiccated quietude, the sense of process-as-content) have been so thoroughly absorbed, quantified, and codified, in the same way that the once radical lessons of the Velvet Underground, and Thelonious Monk, and Igor Stravinsky, just to name a few, have been normalized over time. Still, after hearing it, I never looked at my CD player the same way again.

10: DJ Krush‘s Strictly Turntablized: It was an intern who introduced me to this, and several other albums at the time, music that had absolutely nothing to do with the vast amount of music that was regularly arriving at our desks via the usual record-label channels. This was right around the time that some executives from a major label visited the office, and one of them, in the course of conversation, asked — in hushed tones (as if speaking of samizdat political texts) — what “zines” (which the individual pronounced as if it rhymed with the name of the ketchup manufacturer) we read. Along with Wagon Christ’s Throbbing Pouch, this record is probably the reason I felt comfortable walking away from being a music editor full time — because I realized that no matter how much was delivered to our desks, there was a wide world beyond it.

11: Gavin Bryars‘s The Sinking of the Titanic: I got to interview Bryars (who is perhaps best known for Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet) when his Vita Nova was came out (see “Super Nova,” originally published in Pulse!), but it was this album, released long ago on Brian Eno’s record label, that settled into my brain, where it has resided ever since — all the nostalgia, the studio manipulation, the emotion, the compositional ingenuity, the free-form improvisation …

12: Cliff Martinez‘s score to sex, lies, and videotape: While “underscoring” is the norm these days, back in 1989 it was highly unusual to hear music like this in a multiplex, music that was almost indistinguishable from the “natural” sound of the film. I’ve followed Martinez closely ever since, and the work of his peers, like Clint Mansell, Lisa Gerrard, and so on, as well as those film directors (such as Michael Mann, Danny Boyle, and sex, lies‘s own Steven Soderbergh) who favor this compositional mode.

Fourth Phase: Since 1996

The year 1996 served as a turning point for me, for it was my last year as a full-time music editor at a print magazine, and it was also the year I launched Disquiet.com, even if much of what first became Disquiet.com had existed for a few years previous, under no name in particular, on various Internet hosting services.

13: Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth‘s The Main Ingredient (Instrumentals): Technically it was a 12″ of Destiny’s Child songs that woke me to the studio ingenuity and genius beatsmanship inherent in contemporary R&B and hip-hop. That 12″ included, as 12″s usually do, the “instrumental” version of the songs (as well as the radio and “a cappella” versions, and a remix), and I’ve been buying 12″s for that reason ever since. But to be true to this list, I’m emphasizing one of the first, if not the first, full-length, dubbed, white-label hip-hop instrumental albums I ever located and purchased. It was this music that made me buy a pair of turntables, not to beat-match so much as to pair recordings, often two copies of the same thing, and hear them bead off each other. I’d long loved Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, among others, in part because of the non-vocal material, but finally getting to hear the backing tracks in the foreground is what hooked me for life. These are the main ingredients.

14: Raymond Scott‘s Soothing Sounds for Baby, Vol. 1: For a fan of electronic music, hearing this material by innovator Raymond Scott is akin to a comics fan discovering Winsor Mccay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland or Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix for the first time. The lesson is simple: Don’t overvalue the present. Often the innovations of the past are simply overlooked and under-acknowledged.

15: Boxhead Ensemble‘s Quartets: Like Fahey, this small group understands that electronica and Americana aren’t just in opposition, but in fact feed off each other. Like Fahey’s fascination with trains, Boxhead’s atmospheric improvisations are deep expressions of time, feeling, and place. I don’t think I have a favorite album by musicians about whom I know less than I do about this group. (Somewhat ironically, a sometime member of Boxhead, Scott Tuma, was in one of the first bands I ever interviewed professionally, Souled American, back before I ever joined Pulse! magazine after college.)

16: Raemus‘s Nine Days: It was while compiling a list of my favorite albums of 2005 that for the first time I chose to also list my favorite “online” music, so if the year 2005 is the year I first felt comfortable doing so, then it stands to reason that 2003 or 2004 must have been when I really wanted to, and just didn’t act on it. Assuming that’s the case, then Raemus’s Nine Days, from 2003, was the album — the album, that is, of freely available music (along with no doubt, much of what was happening at the Stasisfield netlabel at the time) — that made me realize that free music would soon compete for, and eventually threaten to eclipse, my attention to (so-called) commercial releases.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *