Solitary road trips have way of inspiring me to think about things in a way I don’t otherwise. Maybe it’s the monotony of them, the hypnotic hum of the wheels on the roadway or the persistent white noise of the engine. I like to think it’s the isolation of it. If you allow yourself the opportunity, traveling has the way of culling out interruptions. It provides a sort of freedom in the emptiness. Sure, there’s lots of things I can do. I can stare out the windows and watch the world slowly glide by. I can read a book. I can watch a movie. I can play a game. I can work. — And while I enjoy all of these things at various points on a road trip the thing I do most often is to put on headphones and simply listen to music. Sometimes I’ll read or work, too, but more often than not I just listen and allow myself the chance to let my mind wander where it wants.
This past weekend I took the four-hour bus ride from Chicago to visit my grandfather in Peoria. Four hours there, and four hours back. It was a good chunk of time to just be alone with myself and think about nothing in particular. But after a while that unstructured thinking began to take form. A combination of hearing a particular song connected with recalling something my friend, Smokes, had recently said propelled me to start thinking about musical influences. Why do I listen to the music I listen to? Why do I like it? But more curiously, how did I come to find it? The questions crystallized in my mind around a central theme: which albums were most influential upon me?
I always do this, I always spend too much time on the prelude. I think some lengthy explanation is necessary to lead up to a rather basic question. I should work on that. So, please pardon my rambling. I’ll get to the list. Here are the criteria I used for inclusion:
- Album as a complete work, not just a particular song
- Direct inspiration for listening to other music
- Marks a significant milestone in my life
- Released while I have been alive
- Purchased with my own money within a year of public release
- Not necessarily my favorite, the most popular or the most successful album from a particular artist
Here they are in chronological order:
In Through The Out Door, Led Zeppelin (August, 1979). By the time I discovered Led Zeppelin in the fall of 1981, John Bonham had died and the band had broken up. At the time, this was their last album. (Coda wouldn’t be released until 18 months later.) Joan turned me on to them. Early in the school year we became friends. At recess, we would walk around the soccer field and talk. Often about Zork and Led Zeppelin. She made a cassette tape of In Through The Out Door for me to listen to. It opened my eyes to what was possible with rock music– a radical departure from the Eagles and the Beatles and the Beach Boys my dad often played in the house. Later, I bought my own copy of this record because of her and over time I collected much of Zep’s published discography. That, in turn, allowed Queen, Lenny Kravitz, and the Ramones to all enter my collection.
Twelve years later, when I met Whirl for the first time, one of our first conversations was about music. Led Zeppelin was (and still is) one of her favorite bands. If I were ever to write a screenplay of that first meeting in Portland, I’d set it to “Fool In the Rain”.
Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (March, 1983). Another early record purchased while I was in middle school. While I can’t be sure, I like to think I bought it in the spring the year after the Scorpions came to Pueblo to play the Colorado State Fair. On one of our various trips to Denver, I happened upon KBCO and discovered my new favorite radio station. The first time I heard “Blister in the Sun” was on KBCO. I was hooked. A three-piece band that embodied folk and punk and bitterness and frustration. I think of this album as a rite of passage. I got into it and a whole world of music opened up. For me, it added the Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, the Psychedelic Furs, the Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven, the Velvet Underground and many many more. Bands I never heard on the local radio but are now intimately connected to growing up.
Hounds of Love, Kate Bush (September, 1985). “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” There’s something magical and intoxicating to me in Kate Bush‘s eclectic blend of styles. At this point I had some steady income from the paper route. I could afford to buy more music. I helped Kate topple Madonna‘s stranglehold at the top of the charts with my purchase of Hounds of Love. It includes classical themes, progressive measure and that startlingly beautiful voice. This album inspired me to chase down nearly every female singer I could find, the more exotic and theatrical the better. And I still do. Artists in my catalog that I directly attribute to discovering Kate Bush: Suzanne Vega, the Eurythmics, 10000 Maniacs, Stevie Nicks, the Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Liz Phair, La Roux, Adele, Paramore, Sia, Poe, and Sleigh Bells.
Louder Than Bombs, Smiths (March, 1987). “And if you have five seconds to spare // Then I’ll tell you the story of my life: // Sixteen, clumsy and shy. // That’s the story of my life.” During high school I tried on personalities with about the same frequency of trying on new shirts. It seems like every day was a new attempt to reinvent myself. To be a new person. To try and determine who I was, what I wanted. Morrissey‘s lyric and Johnny Marr‘s guitar combined on this compilation at exactly that moment in my life. And they nailed it for me. I identified with the confusion and the mundanity and the caustic sense of humor. From my interest in the Smiths— and becoming a regular customer at Wax Trax in Denver– I discovered Echo & the Bunnymen, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Church, the Sundays, the Stone Roses, The The and eventually (by way of my time working at WNDY) Elvis Costello, the BoDeans and Billy Bragg. Today it’s the Killers, Phoenix and Foster the People.
Substance 1987, New Order (August, 1987). My high school musical collection was filled with new wave artists. I attribute Substance with being the strongest single influence on that transformation. Radio was dominated by Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Robert Palmer and Madonna. I had Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Alphaville, the Pet Shop Boys and Ultravox. And the album that coalesced all of that together, that best represented that influence upon my musical taste was Substance. The echoes of this influence are still there, as I find myself listening to the Strokes, Fischerspooner, Interpol, Neon Indian and Washed Out. I also think a line can be drawn through from New Order through to electronica and house to Fatboy Slim, Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method all of which enjoy frequent rotation today.
A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Pink Floyd (September, 1987). My first Pink Floyd memory is not of this album. Bear with me; it’s a good story. Fourth grade. Shortly before Christmas Break. Music class out in a temporary classroom trailer on the playground. Teacher had asked us to bring in music for the rest of the class to experience. Someone brought in their older brother’s brand new copy of The Wall and put on “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”. It starts innocently enough with some drums and a little guitar riff. Add the a bass and some quick lyrics. And then it all goes horribly wrong, straight through a short description of dire domestic abuse into the anthem, “We don’t need no education! // We don’t need no thought control!” We never had music appreciation day again.
It would be several years before I truly fell in love with progressive rock. It happened with A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Fast forward several years from The Wall. Roger Waters has left the band. David Gilmour has taken over and produced this album. My best friend Beau and I are sitting around the kitchen room table after school arguing whether or not it was a true Floyd album without Waters’ involvement. We decide to go buy it and find out. Beau’s tastes in music were often a step ahead of mine. He owned several Floyd albums and was trying to get me interested in the band. This is the album that did it. Three tracks in, and I was hooked. I’ve been grateful ever since. I filled out my Pink Floyd collection, added Yes and Boston and Genesis. Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Bowie. Later there would be Coheed and Cambria, the Verve and XTC. Pink Floyd remains one of my favorite bands to this day.
The Lion and the Cobra, Sinéad O’Connor (November, 1987). From the moment I first watched the video for “Troy” on MTV’s 120 Minutes late at night, I knew I had to have the album. At first opportunity, I drove over to Independent Records on 4th Street and picked it up on cassette. For the next 18 months it rarely left the glove box of the car. This is one of my all-time favorite albums. I’ve seen O’Connor twice in concert, both times at Red Rocks. I’ve heard her (and everyone else) talk about this album, about O’Connor’s life– I’ve watched her blow up on television and in print. I don’t care. I love this album. It’s beautiful and fascinating and powerful. I replaced it on cassette at least twice from stretching it out, and once more when the CD became too scratched to play without skipping all the time. She’s a ghost that continues to haunt me– and I’m thankful for it. Through her I discovered Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morissette, Melissa Etheridge and the Sundays. Liz Phair and Bob Marley. She provided a radically different look at Irish music for me– ushering in album after album from the Pogues, the Cranberries, Van Morrison and the Chieftains.
Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails (October, 1989). Vern claimed that every boy goes through a metal phase. Sometimes it lasts a week, sometimes a couple years, and sometimes we never leave it. Mine came late– despite Beau’s attempts to get me to like Iron Maiden. Pretty Hate Machine is an industrial album that appealed to my appreciation of electronica. And with it I began to explore the larger world of industrial music. I’d go on to collect 12″ singles from Front-242 and attend Nitzer Ebb and Skinny Puppy concerts. Later I’d follow this thread to discover Einstürzende Neubauten and Rammstein. But its most influential effects of Pretty Hate Machine came from bonding over it with college friends who had grown up on steady diets of Anthrax, Motörhead and Metallica. It is through this album– and those subsequent conversations– that I experienced what they heard and vice versa. We are (still) the road crew.
Achtung Baby, U2 (November, 1991). U2 has been a part of my musical landscape for nearly thirty years. Sometimes subversive, sometimes bombastic, sometimes compliant. But this is the album that placed an exclamation mark on 1991 for me. From the German in the title to the Trabbi on the cover art, to the edge in the music– this is U2’s last great album and it arrived at a moment or startling transformation for me. The two moments are forever linked. While the album did little to expand my musical interests, it is a constant reminder of my experiences abroad and my own personal growth, isolation and reinvention.
Superunknown, Soundgarden (March, 1994). I grew up in Colorado, far from Seattle. I went to school in rural Indiana, even further away– geographically and culturally. When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” arrived in 1991, propelling grunge into the limelight, I was in Germany listening to weeks-long radio tributes to Freddie Mercury. The result: I missed grunge. It’s taken me years to acknowledge Nirvana as anything more than a one-hit wonder band or the darling of the latest VH1 countdown show. But I made it back. I see it. I love it. But I came at it through Soundgarden. Generation X had its brief moment on the cultural stage before being swept away. Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Singles and Reality Bites saw mainstream success. Superunknown was the closing act. I caught that and allowed it to take me back through the musical catalog: Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, the Stone Temple Pilots. And for those bands that have moved on, I’ve gleefully followed with: Foo Fighters, Audioslave, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age.
Blackout, Dropkick Murphys (June, 2003). You don’t have to go far to find the marks left by the Dropkick Murphys. Many of the earliest entries on this blog are decorated with DKM lyrics as I struggled back from brain injury. I listened to these guys a lot through that ordeal. Hell, even the album title Blackout is an appropriate description of that time in my life.
Farmboy introduced me to this band from our time working together at Midway. He’d been playing some Mighty Mighty Bosstones and this was the album that followed up. I bought it and was hooked. I love this version of “The Fields of Athenry”. Warrior’s Code followed, and the rest of their catalog. And more than a few concerts. Perhaps due to the circumstances surrounding my introduction, Blackout remains my favorite of their albums.
I see a number of my earlier musical influences coalescing in this album: the Pogues most notably, but also some Billy Bragg with anthems of social consciousness. When I went to see them at the Vic in 2005, they arrived on the stage under the cover of the Chieftains rendition of “The Foggy Dew” that featured Sinéad O’Connor on vocals. Incendiary. DKM directly added a tremendous amount of music to my catalog: from Flogging Molly, the Tossers, the Mahones, the Fratellis and Cage the Elephant to the Black Keys, Jet and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Broken Boy Soldiers, Raconteurs (May, 2006). With the notable exception of “Seven Nation Army” I never really got into the White Stripes. And I don’t remember how I first came across the Raconteurs. Jack White’s musical career was not something I was following. Then again, I don’t remember lots of things from 2005-2006. But I did hear them somewhere, found the album and listened to it start-to-finish at least three times in a row. Whirl, in her infinite patience, didn’t throw the stereo out the window. The inclusion of the Raconteurs into my library led directly to the additions of the Kings of Leon, the Black Keys, Mumford and Sons, the Cold War Kids, Wolfmother, Kasabian, and Radio Moscow. It also caused me to look back at some of the White Stripes stuff I’d collected over the years and check out Dead Weather. I’ve really grown to appreciate Jack White as a result. White’s inclusion in the two music documentaries, Scorsese’s Shine A Light and Davis Gugenheim’s It Might Get Loud made them all that much better.
Finally a few honorable mentions, albums that influenced me, but for particular reasons don’t directly meet the criteria I see out on the list.
“Symphony No. 9 in D minor”, Beethoven (May, 1824). Over the years, Whirl and others have commented on my apparent resistance to classical music. And while it’s true that it is rarely the first choice I make when choosing something to listen to, there are moments when classical is ideal. This is one of the pieces I often go to. I first paid this piece serious attention while working on a senior thesis about Theodor Adorno. Adorno has, in various works, compared the Ninth to a cathedral. That’s a comparison that has stuck with me.
The Beatles, Beatles (November, 1968). My mom and dad are big Beatles fans. Which sort of makes me a big Beatles fan, too. If you’re curious, Dad’s favorite album is Rubber Soul. But for me, it’s the eponymous white album. And while I’ve never purchased this album, it’s been in my collection for as long as I can remember having a collection. I originally taped dad’s copy and then continued to convert it as changes in music technology came about: tape to CD to MP3. This album opened my eyes to the idea of music as experimentation and exploration.
Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü (July, 1984). My belated gateway punk album. But it wasn’t until I got to college that I heard it. And by that time the band didn’t exist anymore. But the American musical landscape was forever altered by Bob Mould and Grant Hart. When I moved to Chicago I learned that WXRT, Chicago’s Finest Rock, was still in love with them. For good reason. Hüsker Dü brought me Paul Westerberg, Sugar, Sonic Youth, Green Day, the Breeders, the Lemonheads and the Replacements.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Red Hot Chili Peppers (October, 1991). Like what happened with grunge, I missed the Peppers when they first broke. We played this album often at WNDY, but it would be ten years before I would sit down and really listen to it. When I did, RHCP became a regular addition to my sound-scape. Listening to them always makes me happy, and that sort of magic can’t be underestimated. The fact that they continue to produce funky albums is gravy.