April 21, 2018

My 10 Most Influential Albums

Citysqwirl in 1988
Me in 1988, when I was listening to most of this list.
So I did that 10-day "post covers of your most influential albums" challenge on Facebook, and as I rather like how it came out, I thought I'd share it here, too, all collected together.

It was fascinating to trace back to the roots of my musical interests, and piece together which begat what. Much of my taste was influenced by the Second British Invasion of the 1980s, especially post-Punk New Wave technopop and Gothic or Shoegaze dreampop. I was never a Goth myself -- I was styled as inconspicuously casual as I am now -- but I certainly hung around the Goth and Punk kids, because they were interesting, accepting, artistic, and they smoked.

The main subject of my life is the English language, so these genres further fed my Anglophilia. Which may be genetic, as I just found out from a DNA test this Christmas that I'm 40% British, and which also may explain why I looked like Harry Potter most of my life, round glasses and all. I spent 1989, my junior year abroad, in Lancaster, UK, which certainly didn't lessen my interest in their culture or music. Anyway, fully half the records on this list are albums by British musicians.

My heart aches for those I left out, like Michael Jackson, The Cars, Sinead O'Connor, The Cure, Violent Femmes, the Human League, and Madonna, but 10 is 10 and life is full of tough choices, innit?

#1: The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths (1986)

Because, yeah.

The Smiths The Queen Is Dead
I received two copies of this vinyl LP from separate friends for my 16th birthday in 1986. It took some determination back then to gain entry into the music, as I didn't really understand the subtleties of guitar. I'd only really listened to harder guitar music like Van Halen and AC/DC, and while they're virtuosic, they ain't subtle. Something about The Queen Is Dead seemed so old-fashioned at first, with big band, Beatles,  doo-wop, girl-group, and folk influences that all felt like a throwback to when Rock could be a thing on its own. I didn't know the Velvet Underground or the New York Dolls yet, so I didn't recognize their influences.

My persistence in slowly learning this album came with a lifetime of rewards once I began to decipher the lyrics, and the hooks dug into my soul. Holy shit, I thought, here's someone who not only understands, but is perhaps worse off that I am! And he's honest and funny and miserable about it, and isn't afraid to be poetic and romantic and angry and tormented if that's what he's feeling. Could he also be . . . gay? Is this camp? Is this what I've been waiting for forever?

That's when I joined the Cult of Morrissey, admiring his voice and attitude and heart and hair from afar, although there have been plenty of times in the past decade when I wish he would shut up.

The more I listened to the music, analyzing its composition, the more I was surprised by the shades of meaning and tonality, the intelligent, creative improvisational musical commentary on the lyrics, that Johnny Marr managed to write on this record. It's gorgeous in spots, and unspeakably sad, and jiggy and funky and soft and delicate and swooping and head-banging and shimmying. It's Rock. It rocks.

So The Queen Is Dead taught me to love guitar music, to be brave enough to express myself in poetry, and to delight in the fine lines between misery and hilarity, love and violence, sensitivity and aggression, and subterfuge and coming out. Many lyricists have tried, but nobody has come close, especially matched with the melodic genius of this music, although I've never stopped looking and I suppose I never will.

#2: Technique, New Order (1989)

Unlike almost every other record that I played to death in my youth, this album still sounds good to me, and it's so layered that I still find new things in it, almost 30 years later.

New Order Technique album coverIt's not my first New Wave technopop or Britpop album, or my even my first New Order album (that was Low-Life), but Technique is my favorite.

There's a rhetorical simplicity in the lyrics, a distillation of complex subjects into basic, direct language, that I greatly admire as a children's writer, with meanings that arise stealthily over the years in delayed and indelible hooks.

Lovely Bernard's voice is not exactly powerful, but it's got heart and attitude and I'm able to sing along. The music builds great glass cathedrals in my mind, drenched in Ibiza sunshine, while moving my feet and body to the acid house rhythms, especially that iconic bass. The beat sounds like my own personal internal syncopation, and the twinkling, intricate sounds of the guitar and synth harmonize with the electrical sharpness of my own thoughts.

To me, it is the most immersive music in the world, the soundtrack to my life, and the music I'm most likely to synchronize with as I walk around the world, so often reaching an ecstatic state in which the movement of everything around syncs up, too, in a communal dance of connection, and I become one with it all. It's the music of my spheres.

So, yeah, Technique.

#3: The Wall, Pink Floyd (1979)

I was in 3rd Grade when this came out, and I remember going over the lyric sheets with friends in the cafeteria, explaining the words to them, particularly what "dark sarcasm" meant. Because we all had "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" stuck in our heads.

Pink Floyd The Wall
It wasn't until high school that I really sat down and listened to the whole album through, and then over and over again with chunky headphones on, poring over the lyric sheets, flipping the LPs, memorizing the gorgeous poetry, getting lost in the imagery, tripping in the music, putting together the whole story.

More like reading a novel than any other album I've ever heard, The Wall is one of the most complete experiences in any media, with musical genres ranging from marches to gorgeously melodic laments to funky sex binges to dreamy odes to psychological self-laceration to horror ballads to furious hell-raising rock rip-'em-ups.

I never understood why it was considered a stoner album, really. It's not mellow in any way. It's one of the angriest and most existentially disconnected cycles of songs ever written, about the intrinsic conflict between people on micro and macro levels, relationships and war, about external and internal fascism, about the pain of creative endeavor, and how our unresolved histories can undermine our moments of triumph, and ultimately about how earnest expression and revelation may be the only thing that can save us.

It's influential in that I'm always seeking something to compare it to in scope and darkness, but nothing ever comes close.

#4: Living My Life, Grace Jones (1982)

I first heard Grace Jones's Living My Life in the early '80s at my Aunt Pat's apartment on 9th and Broadway. She had the LP, and I copied it on cassette, and have listened to it continuously since. (Obviously not on cassette anymore.)

Grace Jones Living My Life
There's not a bad song on this album, but the one that first got me was "The Apple Stretching," a song about early morning NYC that I deeply recognized. (It was written by Melvin Van Peebles for his 1982 play Waltz of the Stork!) At the time, I related to the song from going to school in the morning, but I also knew that it was about a blissful walk of no shame coming home at dawn from a club, which was extremely aspirational to me, and which I've now experienced and loved countless times. There's something about NYC when you've been up all night and the city kicks into gear around you that is always inspiring.

I can't go through every song, because this would be a major essay, but this album has some of the funkiest, raunchiest, coolest tracks ever produced. It's post-Punk, post-Rock, post-Disco, Warholian club music, harder than New Wave, and thrillingly dangerous. Grace's attitude initiates so much of the best of current American culture, from the gender-bending to women's empowerment to global consciousness. Her own influences range from The Velvet Underground to Donna Summer to Edith Piaf to the New York Dolls, connecting it all with her own ferocious fierceness that places her as a precursor to nearly every dance goddess since.

This album both shakes and kicks ass.

#5: Really Rosie, Carol King and Maurice Sendak (1975)

It was between this and Free to Be You and Me, but I went with this one because I still listen to it. Frequently. Like, I have "Alligators All Around" on my phone now. Sometimes I sing it in my head when I can't fall asleep.

Really Rosie Maurice Sendak Carole King Album Cover
This is like my personal supergroup. Like Roxette! Except, you know, awesome. Yeah, Tapestry is a better album, and Where the Wild Things Are is a better book, but this is kind of the Ur-album for a children's book writer. It also led me into folk music, '50s and '60s girl-group pop, and Broadway showtunes.

Plus it has this stanza, from the title track:

I can sing, "Tea for two and two for tea."
I can act, "To be or not to be."
I can tap across the Tappan Zee.
Hey can't you see . . .
I'm terrific at everything.
No star shines so bright as me.
Believe me!

Although that last line has some Trumpian connotations nowadays, this song is like the ode to creative confidence, and really, confidence is the key to everything.

Also, Pierre says, "I don't care," which is also sometimes the key to everything.

#6: Some Great Reward, Depeche Mode (1984)

I rarely listen to Depeche Mode's Some Great Reward anymore (the songs from Violator seem to have aged better), but I'd be lying if I didn't mention this album as a major influence. It was really the first New Wave technopop album that I went out and bought, and it kicked off a lifetime of melodic electronica.

Depeche Mode Some Great RewardIt sounds adolescent to me now, but I'm not sure if that's because I listened to it endlessly during my adolescence, because I memorized every note and syllable and leached them of surprise, or because its twinkly, proto-Industrial, Goth-lite earnestness didn't stand the test of time.

Whichever -- this was my teen sulking headphone music, my dance when nobody's watching album, the record of my hopeful, pining gay gloom, and it set an initial blueprint for my musical tastes that would be ridiculous to deny.

#7: On the Radio Greatest Hits, Donna Summer (1979)

I can't really remember a time before Donna Summer. I mean, "Love to Love You Baby" came out when I was 6. My younger aunts and uncles danced to her in my grandmother's house, and she was making everyone move on TV. I loved Disco. I loved Giorgio Moroder, who I realize now was the link from early harsher, minimalist electronica like Kraftwork, making it irresistible for dancing, building the foundation, after Punk, for what would become New Wave. Donna's Disco sounded space-age, and fast, and dirty, and sometimes even ethereal. If there's one culprit for my abiding love of New Wave electronica trance, dance, and pop, it's this album. (Although there are a couple other major influences for that coming up.)

Donna Summer On the Radio Greatest Hits
Then there was Donna's voice. She was sultry and sleazy and sure and strong, but also sometimes sweet and sad. I didn't realize how amazing she was until decades later, when I realized how unparalleled her power and range and rhythm were, how insistently she sang. She overpowered Barbra Streisand, even, singing with such smooth groove in their duet that she made Babs sound like she had a stick up her butt.

This album, the greatest hits 2-record collection On the Radio, we had both on vinyl and 8-track. (Some of the songs I still remember with a loud KA-THUNK noise in the middle when the 8-track abruptly changed tracks mid-song.) My brother and I would spin around the living room to it like whirling dervishes. It's a terrific album, with "On the Radio," "Love to Love You Baby," "Heaven Knows," "Last Dance," "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls," "Dim All the Lights," and "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)." But most importantly, it has "I Feel Love," which is a strong contender for my favorite song of all time.

I still listen to the songs on this Donna Summer album regularly, although now most of them are from the greatest hits collection Endless Summer, which includes the later '80s hits.

I miss her.

#8: The Best of Blondie, Blondie (1981) 

This was the first Blondie album I bought, but that wasn't until college, on cassette. They had just been in the air before that, unavoidably, always on the radio, at parties, on MTV, in stores, everywhere. Like for Whitney Houston, there was no need to buy an album, because all you had to do was sit up and listen and there they were.

Best of Blondie album cover
As a kid, I loved "Call Me," which made me think of a mixture of naked Richard Gere and Debbie Harry's awesome guest spot on The Muppet Show. Of course, it's Giorgio Moroder producing again, who really is the progenitor of my most frequent music.

Then, "The Tide Is High" was at all my 6th Grade graduation parties, and was one of the earliest songs I couldn't stop singing to myself, my first adult earworm.

"One Way or Another" doesn't even sound like it was written by anyone, like it's some anonymous rock tune from the classic American songbook. It's perfect and eternal and scary.

"Heart of Glass" is one of my favorite songs ever, a moment when Disco melds into ethereal druggy trance.

And "Rapture." This was really the one I always stopped to listen to, on MTV, and on the radio in my room, around the same time I started to leave the radio on all night while I slept so I could hear and absorb the music in my dreams.

Chris Stein and Debbie are a major nexus for so much of what followed, jumping genres from Disco to Rock to girl-group to Reggae to Funk to Punk to Hip-Hop to New Wave, bringing it all to the mainstream. "Rapture" was the first number one song in America to feature rap vocals. How insanely influential is that?

Plus Debbie's gorgeous and instantly recognizable voice growls low and soars high. She's the quintessence of cool.

A good case could be made for Blondie being the most influential group in modern American popular music.

#9: Behavior, Pet Shop Boys (1990)

I had liked, even loved, the Pet Shop Boys from their first song, "West End Girls," and through the first three albums from 1986-1988. I'd always deeply dug their poppy New Wave dance melodies and rhythms, the catchy, clever lyrics, the Disco and Jazz influences, Neil Tennant's rebellious, sometimes disaffected choirboy voice, and the barely-hidden gay subtext. They wouldn't come out officially until 1994, but before that, in 1990, Behavior came out, and I'll forever compare every other album afterward to it.

Pet Shop Boys Behavior album cover
I can't tell you how many times I've listened to this album, but it regularly ranks at #1 in my most played at Last.fm, only beaten by Donna Summer on occasion. (And Sufjan Stevens, but he doesn't count as an influence: he is the influenced.)

Produced by Harold Faltermeyer, Behavior takes PSB's dancey technopop and softens and deepens it, adds vulnerability and heartache and a kind of earnest cynicism which informs the sensibility of my entire life. It also adds pop guitar, performed by The Smiths' Johnny Marr, as well as a historical lyricism along with the interpersonal introspection, all of which they fight against as much as embrace.

I love the music that Chris Lowe makes, which seems to stream out of him in concert like he's at the center of a vibrant kaleidoscope, but that in combination with Neil's intelligence and plaintive voice became inimitable on this album, unmatched until perhaps Radiohead and Sufjan came along.

This album is a primer for my whole worldview, and my entire matrix of behavior.

#10: Saturday Night Fever, soundtrack (Bee Gees, etc.) (1977)

Here it is, the major root of the tree of my musical tastes, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It's the bestselling soundtrack of all time, and the 7th bestselling album overall, with about 45 million units sold. I have it memorized, inside and out, and if you put a gun to my head and demanded to know my favorite song, I might name "How Deep Is Your Love?," which is also my favorite slow dance song.

Saturday Night Fever soundtrack
I like a lot of the other songs on it, like "A Fifth of Beethoven," and "Boogie Shoes," but it's the Bee Gees tunes that get me. Sure, they're a little ridiculous, and so very '70s discotheque. But it's their folk rock foundation and harmonies tied to the electric guitar and early synth, funk bass, and newly-invented drum loops of dance music that make this the most influential album of my life. It shimmers and scintillates and demands dance.

Plus the singing. Something about that upper-upper register resonates with me across all my musical tastes, and Barry Gibb may have the best falsetto of all time, with an odd masculine and feminine power to it. It can sound otherworldly, alien, but also emotional and heartfelt, while his brothers give him a solid base of harmonies so it can soar while they keep him grounded.

I wouldn't say the Brothers Gibb are underrated as songwriters, because they are responsible for some of the biggest hits in music history and have been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but it's worth mentioning how well constructed the songs are. Their list of hits for other singers is mind-blowing, from Al Green's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," to Dolly and Kenny's "Islands in the Stream," to Frankie Valli's "Grease," to "Emotion" by Samantha Sang (and Destiny's Child), to Barbra Streisand's "Woman in Love," to Diane Warwick's "Heartbreaker," to Yvonne Elliman's "If I Can't Have You," etc. But I love the Bee Gees versions even better, because of their strange and eerie voices.

Then there's John Travolta's stank all over this thing. He was like a cartoon of Italian/Irish male sexuality, and man, could he dance. Barry Gibb was ridiculous looking himself, and so cheesy in retrospect, but in 1977 my little mind was blown by how hot he was, to the point where I was afraid and embarrassed to look at him.

Y'all know how influential this album is to all dance and electronica music and MOR Top 40 that came after. Really, it's the other limb on the pop tree alongside rock-and-roll.

In their biggest hit, I'm reminded of a section from William Carlos Williams's long poem, "Spring and All":

     What the hell do you know about it?


     Don't get killed.

     Careful Crossing Campaign
     Cross Crossings Cautiously

Yeah, perhaps the greatest priority in life is to keep staying alive.

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