Under The Influence
I couldn’t sleep at all last night. In lieu of counting sheep, then, I spent a few hours considering my Top Ten Albums of All Time.
I’m not talking about my Desert Island Discs. These aren’t necessarily the ten albums I’d take with me into eternal solitude (assuming I had electricity in eternal solitude). In fact, some of these albums — key word, “albums” — are kinda’ tough listens (I’m talkin’ to you, Black Francis).
Instead, these are the albums that made me who I am, and made my music what it is. So here’s which ones, and how.
REM “Reckoning” – This album (ok, it was a CD) changed my world irrevocably when my brother brought this one home from his freshman year at college. Here was a set of songs that borrowed from the hook-oriented foundation of Top Forty (see Peter Buck’s intro to “So. Central Rain”) but with real urgency and rough edges, all while tossing a non-linear, non-sensical lyrical grenade (see every word Michael Stipe so eloquently and melodically mumbles) into the mix. I’d still like to cover “Time After Time (Annelise),” if not “So. Central Rain.” “Reckoning” (and everything else the band has done) illustrated to me the potential to catchy and compelling while remaining nebulous and non-specific (though I’m not sure how well I’ve applied these learnings).
U2 “The Joshua Tree” – I missed U2’s earlier, punkier, more angular work (“Boy,” “War,” “October”). So the angelic, asperational “Joshua Tree” was a revelation. It is patient, and eloquent, and remains one of my most listened to albums. There’s no way you’ll ever hear the band’s work in mine; they’re too good musically, philosophically, and lyrically. But they’ve moved me to my core over and over and over.
Counting Crows “August & Everything After” – Listen to this one, then listen to “Bloom” (especially “Snapshot Summertime”). I recorded “Bloom” in the winter after “August & Everything After.” I was aspiring to it. Counting Crow’s debut was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who’s crazy awesome (see also Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss, The Wallflowers). It’s sparse, full of empty space, and room to breath. The sounds are clean, and distinct. It’s patient, and expansive. And it’s sonically cohesive. The songs belong with one another in every way. It’s nearly perfect. (If only Adam Duritz weren’t so cloying.)
Matthew Sweet “Girlfriend” – What a killer album. The guitars are dense, but poppy. Likewise the vocals. Moreover, it’s like a two-for-one. It feels like a full serving by the seventh track (“Day For Night”), but when the minor-chord pop of “Thought I knew You” kicks in, you’re only half-way home. I tried to rip him off on a bunch of bar chord rockers (“Lottery,” “You Decide,” “The Last Big Thing”) sometime between “Out Of Your Head” and “Crash Site.” Fortunately, none of ’em made the light of day.
Phil Collins “No Jacket Required” – I was fourteen-years-old when this came out. So I’m not gonna’ lie: “Susudio” and “Don’t Lose My Number” seemed pretty rockin’ at the time. But for a junior high school student still stunned by his parent’s divorce and cross country move, “Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore” and “Take Me Home” (which I covered on “The Summer’s Gone EP” were far more meaningful.
Aimee Mann “I’m With Stupid” – This record remains the blueprint for what I still aspire to do on every one of my records. It’s an acoustic record that rocks. It’s a pop record with substantive, intelligent, literate lyrics. The record begins with “You fucked it up,” and ends with “”God knows it’s not safe with anybody else.” Special guests Michael Penn, Juliana Hatfield, Jon Brion, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook push this one into the thinking man’s pop stratosphere. If only.
Oasis “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” – One word: “Wonderewall.” I distinctly recall telling Eric Gilman (who was co-producing “Out Of Your Head” at the time), “I want it to sound like this.”
The Pixies “Come On Pilgrim” – I probably could have listed any of their albums (most of which I discovered in college), but this one’s the penultimate. The Pixies invented the whisper/scream dynamic. Partnered with minor-to-major bar chords and you have “Crash Site” in a nutshell. It’s been a while, but I used to cover “Caribou” (before James Blount went and butchered it).
The Replacements “Let It Be” – I don’t know how many times I stood in front of the band at the end of a heartfelt-but-sloppy rehearsal and said, “Worked for The Replacements!”
David Gray “Babylon” – This record still haunts me. I tried so hard to merge blips and beeps with acoustic guitars, but never really made it happen. Either way, this record knocked my socks off, and still does.
Now, there’s a huge collection of singles that would make the list: Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” John Denver’s “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane,” The Nadas “Home,” The Envy Corps “Rhinemaidens,” Michael Penn’s “Long Way Down,” Rufus Wainrights “Go Or Go Ahead,” and on and on and on.
But great albums are something different, something possibly lost to the ADD-driven MP3 universe. A great album is a collection of songs that hang together. An great album defines a time, not a moment. And a great album lasts forever.