This is a part of a series on music that has influenced contributors to Music is Good.
I truly believe that music discovery is a life long process and one that should cross all genre barriers. It is absolutely dumbfounding to me whenever I hear someone claim that “there isn’t any good music these days” or that a particular genre (usually hip hop or country) “is all crap”. I certainly realize, mostly because my wife loves to remind me, I’m not a ‘normal’ person when it comes to music, but it seems elementary to me that if anyone explores a genre a bit they will find something that speaks to them. Below are the 10 albums (in my personal chronological order) that have had the biggest impact on my life, and led me down my musical paths.
When I was six I came down with the chicken pox. Up until then I was pretty indifferent to music. I enjoyed the radio of course, but nothing had ever stuck with me. As usually happens during illnesses, however, the chicken pox meant I got to experience new areas of television, and during one such show (the particular show is long lost to my memory) I watched DeBarge perform “Rhythm of the Night”, and was smitten. Soon this cassette tape was purchased for me and I listened to it constantly. While I no longer own the album, I still credit it as introducing me to music as a pastime, and I still love the rare occasions I hear “Rhythm of the Night”.
The next cassette tape I owned was Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and 2. As a kid my parents took us on many vacations and these trips were always via car. Due to this being the era before mobile DVD players and other such time wasters, we entertained ourselves by listening to music and singing along at the top of our lungs. Billy Joel became a favorite and this album was the best of the bunch. To this day I’ll put this album on when I’m feeling nostalgic and sing along to “Piano Man”, “My Life”, “Pressure” and the rest.
Flash forward a few years to the ‘90s. I was a freshman in high school sitting in the school auditorium waiting for an assembly to commence. This particular assembly was a performance by a local acting troupe made up of high school students and the preshow entertainment was provided by a sound system. One of the songs played on the system was Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”. Today I can’t recall if I’d ever heard reggae before that moment, but it made quite an impression (So much so, in fact, that it was a large factor in my auditioning for and joining the acting troupe that was about to perform), and as soon as I was able to identify the album as Marley’s Legend, I added the CD to my growing collection. As with so many people, Legend proceeded to introduce me to other roots reggae like Burning Spear, but it also put me on the path to ska and rocksteady, and prepared me for other ‘World’ music acts, most notably Fela Kuti.
I was a year or two too young to fully understand the revolution rung in by Nirvana, but was old enough to want the revolution just the same. This desire led me to purchase, sound unheard, Siamese Dream in late 1993. I vividly remember putting the CD on, hearing the opening drum lines to “Cherub Rock”, and feeling my world shift. It feels utterly ridiculous and cliché to say it, but the album really did change my life. The combination of the powerful guitars and Billy Corgan’s angst burned itself inside of me and introduced me to the music of the ‘90s. My music. Possibly more importantly, it created a love for musical experimentation that continues to drive me to try new things as I try and recreate the feeling of that first trip through Siamese Dream. I doubt I’ll ever be in a position that allows me to fully feel that way again, but I sure do love trying.
The first album that came close to recreating the feeling of that initial listen to Siamese Dream was Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom. The Twin Cities were lucky in the mid-90s to have the radio station REV 105, a station that broadcast on three small local signals and actively pushed both local and obscure artists. One of the obscure artists it more or less adopted was Soul Coughing (in fact, Soul Coughing later thanked REV 105 in the liner notes to their Irresistible Bliss release). After hearing REV play “Sugar Free Jazz” in 1994, I made a beeline to the store to grab the album. Soul Coughing combined the almost beat poetry of the then M. Doughty, samples, and upright bass to create “Deep Slacker Jazz”, and greatly expanded my genre horizon to the more experimental/avant garde
Towards the end of my high school years I started to investigate some classic artists and was most drawn to Frank Sinatra’s Sinatra at the Sands. The Rat Pack felt like the epitome of cool and the standards are standards for a reason. Plus, I’d spent a couple years playing trumpet in the school jazz band, so the fantastic arrangements of Count Basie added another level of enjoyment to this particular album. The album opened me up to both classic vocalists and big band jazz from Glenn Miller, et al. Turns out, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect as neo swing was set to explode in the next couple years.
Despite my enjoyment of big band jazz I was still resistant to later jazz developments, basically from bebop on. As a trumpet player, though, I felt it was my duty to listen to the greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and as a member (or more correctly an abuser) of the BMG music club I had cheap access to some of their works. Accordingly, I ordered up Miles’ Birth of the Cool, and spent some time with it. Quite a bit of time, in fact, because while I enjoyed Miles’ trumpet playing on the album, I really felt like I should love it. Then a funny thing happened. Whether the repeated listenings caused the album to grow on me, or I just convinced myself it did, I actually did start to love it, and it opened jazz up to me. I still don’t listen to a ton of jazz, but every so often I’ll go through a stretch where Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, Bird, and most of all Miles are just what the doctor ordered.
There have been some great bands from the Twin Cities, but perhaps none have had the influence of The Replacements. For much of my life, however, I convinced myself that there wasn’t any good music released in the ‘80s, so I avoided the Mats as much as I could. Then one day just a few years ago a friend loaned me their first album, Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash, and I realized just how stupid I had been. The Replacements quickly rocketed up my list of favorite bands and I was introduced to all the amazing music created in the ‘80s that had been birthed by punk including The Replacements local foil, Hüsker Dü. Today I count post punk as among my favorites.
As I noted at the top, I don’t understand folks who claim to dislike entire genres, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t once one of those folks. For me the genre was country. To me country music was all twang and no substance. Then I heard the Johnny Cash boxed set The Legend (Yes, I realize a 4 CD box set is kind of cheating here, but I’ll break the rules if I want to. So there.), and found where the substance was hiding. While I still need to be pretty selective in what country music I listen to, Cash taught me that genius can exist in that genre just like any other
If you’ve read what I’ve written for Music is Good thus far, you’ll notice a glaring genre omission from this list: hip hop. My musical coming of age in the ‘90s coincided with the release of many of the great hip hop albums. Everyone from Public Enemy to N.W.A. to Tupac, and Biggie were at their peak during that time period, but somehow I managed to miss it. I’d certainly heard my share of hip hop and even enjoyed it, but as a Midwestern suburban white boy I either didn’t get it or didn’t care to. That changed, however, when I picked up Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. I’m not sure whether it was the un hip hop like instrumentation of the album (flutes?!?) or I was just finally ready to broaden my horizons, but listening to When Life Gives You Lemons… gave me as close to the feeling I got with Siamese Dream as I’ve found, and has opened up a whole new world of music to me. I’ve spent much of the last few years absorbing both new and old hip hop and have loved every minute of it.
An author and editor at MiG, Craig lives in Minnesota with his wife and son and is an attorney in his real life. Once upon a time Craig played the trumpet and spent four years in the Hawkeye Marching Band and pep band. These days Craig finds himself most often listening to experimental rock, hip hop, and post punk, but you can see everything he's listening to at: www.last.fm/user/cafreema Craig is not ashamed to admit the first concert he ever attended was New Kids on the Block.
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