When Death looks me in the eye, I think about… music
Music has had a significant impact on my life. It has helped me through difficult times. It has helped me realize things about the world and myself that I didn’t know. And, in many ways, it has kept me alive. So today’s post is all about some of the most significant albums I’ve ever listened to.
How did this start?
Some of my friends scattered across the country and I do a Zoom call every couple of weeks — which has also helped keep me alive during a pandemic and open heart surgery. Occasionally, we have a predetermined topic of discussion. A few weeks ago, someone raised the question, “What ten albums influenced you the most in your life?”
For someone like me, answering this question was very difficult. I like music… like… a lot. I’m no musician. I can strum a guitar with little to no skill. I can blow a tune out on a harmonica with significantly less ability than John Popper. The only one who thinks I have a nice voice is my grandma…. Do with that what you will.
But my lack of skill has only created a greater appreciation for the craft. So the act of narrowing influential albums down to a mere ten… oh man… that was difficult.
But I did it. After sharing the list with my friends, I thought I’d also share it with you, Dear Reader.
First, one stipulation. I removed from the list any albums my parents introduced into my life. Things like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, U2’s Joshua Tree, and anything by Fleetwood Mac, Hall & Oates, or Michael Jackson and many other late 70s/early 80s works. This does not discount how their music shaped me, but I wanted my list to be made up of music that I found without my parents’ help. So, in something akin to chronological order, I give you the top ten albums that shaped who I am today.
- Guns -N- Roses: Appetite for Destruction 1987 — One of the first tapes (that’s right, ‘tapes’ as in cassette) I bought on my own, with no influence from my parents. I remember when I was ten years old watching the music video for “Welcome to the Jungle” for the first time while the rest of my family waited for me to come to the dinner table. After my name had been called a number of times, I finally headed into the kitchen, convinced I would purchase that GNR madness. My fondness of that album shaped my musical taste for years to come. I unapologetically listened to everything from Poison to AC/DC to Twisted Sister and many, many others. At one point I even fought with one of my sisters because I thought she was stealing my tastes. In middle school a kid literally bullied me because I preferred GNR over Warrant. Seriously.
- Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine 1989 — This album opened up a whole new world for me. Techno? Industrial? Alternative Rock? It is all present here. Thanks to this album, my tastes grew, my understanding of music grew, and, in many ways, I grew. Nine Inch Nails makes rock and roll music, but it’s also cerebral. Reznor is a rocker, but he’s also a thinker. He’s a pop musician, but he’s also a composer. There is evidence of all of this in Pretty Hate Machine.
- Dr. Dre: The Chronic 1992 — Dr. Dre, more than any other rapper in the early 90s, helped me realize the power of rap. At that point in my life, as a midwestern teenage white boy, I was convinced rap was all about having a good time (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Dr. Dre opened up my eyes and ears to everything else it is about. It sent me back to the early 80s and helped me re-listen to rappers like Grand Master Flash, KRS-One, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, and many others and realize that this music isn’t just about a good time. This music is about dealing with racism, the power struggle, and ultimately, the problems within a system I hadn’t even taken the time to understand.
- Nirvana: Unplugged in New York 1994 — I have far too many memories attached to this album to share just one. I will say this though, as a weird teenager suffering from undiagnosed depression and a smattering of ADD who was floating along in a world that didn’t feel like it had any place for him, it helped keep me going. To be fair, every Nirvana album did that, but Unplugged in New York had something more. Is it because it was released after Kurt Cobain’s death? Maybe. After all, my high school senior paper was on teen suicide…. Anyway, I know it might seem odd, since there is basically a cloud of sadness hanging over all of Cobain’s lyrics, but having him there, even after he was gone, was really, really good for me.
- Marilyn Manson: Portrait of an American Family 1994 — You want crazy, angry music for the disenfranchised? Look no further than Marilyn Manson’s first studio album. When I was seventeen and drifting, I didn’t. I know Manson himself is problematic, what with everything about his abusive behavior toward women coming out. And I am in no way defending him. But in 1994 I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that this band, with influences from Gene Wilder to Trent Reznor, helped me deal with my anger the way Unplugged in New York helped me deal with my depression.
- Various Artists: O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack 2000 — First, the film from the Cohen Brothers is a masterpiece. But more importantly, the soundtrack reminds me of my grandpa. It reminds me of riding in his semi truck while he played old bluegrass, old outlaw country, and old gospel tapes (and maybe even eight tracks when I was very young). It reminds me that music doesn’t always have to be filled with heavy guitar riffs or outrageous rhyme schemes in order to be profound. In 2000, it brought me back to country and I’ve been thankful for that ever since.
- Van Morrison: Moondance 1970 —Here is another man who is far more problematic than I would have thought possible. In the early aughts as my wife, my friends, and I hung out on my porch late into the evening, listening to this album, grilling, drinking, and generally being young and happy to be alive, none of that mattered. And, if I’m being 100% with you all, knowing what I know about Van Morrison now puts a stain on this memory for me. Listening to this album will always remind me of one of the best times of my life. But it’s even more significant than that for my wife and me because “Crazy Love” is, naturally, our song. Why does Morrison have to go and be an angry anti-masker?
- Childish Gambino: Culdesac 2010 — Is Donald Glover the most skilled entertainer in Hollywood? The world? I don’t know. Maybe. But I can tell you this album shows me he is one of the most skilled musicians out there today. For me, Culdesac is on repeat all the time. How does that influence me? I don’t know. All I know for sure is that I really, really enjoy it.
- Tribe One: anamanaGANGSTA // Devil Rhymeosaur 2012 — Nerdcore is a unique brand of rap that is much maligned by many. And I’ll be the first to admit, it is… a required taste. However, Tribe One, with his insane rhyming skill, his speedy flow, his 8-bit beats, and his clever lyrics, rises above the rest. I can listen to most of his music on repeat. His parody of Blackalicious’ Alphabet Rap (“Marvel A-Z”) is a glorious send up of Marvel Comics, old school rap, and Blackalicious himself. Though it’s not on this album, I highly recommend you check that out too.
- A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service 2016 — You want proof that dudes who’ve been doing it for longer than you’ve been alive still got it? Look no further than A Tribe Called Quest’s latest album. In 2016 I was staring down the barrel of 40, so We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service helped me deal with that. What more do you need?
So there you go. It is a strange and interesting collection that, I like to think, makes for a strange and interesting man… who will hopefully experience and be influenced by many, many more albums before his time on this plain of existence ends.