Monday, February 23, 2009

I'm not clever, but I own a cleaver. Does that count?

Because I'm not clever enough to come up with my own Facebook memes, but just wise enough to change them into my own lil' sub-meme. These are 16 albums that changed my life, and 9 that missed.

First - the Good 16.

16) Faithless - Outrospective. To say this is the best electronica band I've ever heard is an understatement. They make dance songs with meaning...or they make meaningful songs you can dance to. Either way.

15) XTC - Nonsuch. Not their best album, but very whimsical and surprisingly brilliant. It's amazing at how vital this album becomes with every passing year.

14) Kitchens of Distinction - "Strange Free World." You can listen to a million albums, but you will never hear a trio sound so incredibly rich. They do a Phil Spector-esque "Wall of Sound" but can do it on the quietest, loveliest songs. It took me a while to realize the lead singer/songwriter was a gay man, and suddenly all the love songs took on a different meaning. The songs were more than mere expressions of affection, but also of a man trying to come to grips with his sexuality in a world when other artists where still firmly in the closet.

13) Depeche Mode - Violator. Josh Grinnell was the biggest Depeche Mode fan I'd ever met. He was essentially an evangelist for them, as at the time, I didn't care for much of those new-fangled synthesizers. Gimme guitars or go home! I mean, I could listen to some stuff, like DM's "Music for the Masses" or Erasure, but I never had a "whoa..." moment with them. Violator was a giant "whoa..."

12) The Replacements - Tim. The Replacements are probably my favorite rock band, and I loved the way how they straddled between competence and drunken brilliance. I have never cared to listen to many of their albums, though. They always seemed to botch something. Three good songs and then something almost unlistenable. They didn't do that on "Tim."

11) Men at Work - Business as Usual. I bought this on vinyl. This was my second or third album I bought, but the oldest one that survives and is playable. I remember saving my dollar-a-week allowance for a month to buy this. The Christian bookstore by the Old Country Buffet in Annapolis used to be a record store. My mom used to take me on her shopping trips, and she wondered why I would be a monster in the toy store, yet calm in the record store. I guess I always knew. But this is the album that made me figure "Australians are pretty cool" and the fact I had more success as an actor in Australia than I ever did in the U.S. is directly attributable to Men at Work.

10) Shirley Horn - Shirley Horn, with Strings. A local DC woman who was essentially unknown outside her neighborhood, but a legend in the jazz/standards community. A former lover of Miles Davis, her songs played the role of the aging beauty still trying to hold on to strands of dignity and come to grips with her emotions.

9) The Killers - Hot Fuss. I was in Vegas a few times back in 2002. A comic friend of mine back then was getting married; I went to a big convention and expo, and I had a job interview. A friend had told me about this local band playing at some bar off the Strip. I remember thinking "these guys have a good sound, but suck live. I'll bet they're better in the studio." I was right. This album did not escape my CD player in my old Ford Focus for two months, at least.

8) The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds. If you've ever heard it, you'll know why. Amazing production values, great lyrics, incredible mood. That our generation knows them more for that tripe "Kokomo" is sad. They were this close to being better than The Beatles.

7) Prefab Sprout - Jordan, The Comeback. In 1991, I was looking for some good electronic angry music. Something industrial, like Front 242, or Skinny Puppy. I saw a postcard at Oceans II records in Annapolis for a British music dance party. On the list of bands were groups like New Order and Front 242. And Prefab Sprout. I had never heard of those guys, so I picked up "Jordan" out of the used bin. Paddy Macloon is the lead singer and creative mastermind behind Prefab Sprout. He is as industrial as I am a professional opera singer in Italy. But, you've got to have some serious talent to make a pissed off 18 year old go "damn..." with music that has nothing to do with industrial. The Sprouts have been one of my favorites since.

6) Kent - Isola. An album I bought completely based on the recommendation of the clerk at a record store in Des Moines. I was telling him that I'd heard a song on Iowa Public Radio (which, for all you who heap scorn upon my former state, was BY FAR the best alternative-indie-singer/songwriter stations I had ever heard) and tried to hum a bit of it. He goes "you're the third person to ask me that. I think it's these guys" - reaches for Isola - and hands it to me. I put it in my car...and promptly forget to listen to it for three months. When I do, I'm driving through Northern Iowa, it's 17 degrees, snowy, and kids are racing by on their snowmobiles. If there's ever been a better time to listen to a band from Sweden than during an Iowa winter...

5) Van Morrison - Moondance. One of my stepfather's only non-bluegrass recordings, but I nonetheless unfairly lumped this album into the category "If my stepdad likes it, it must suck." Thanks to Katie Craig, now Mrs. Bocock, I saw the error in my ways.

4) Barenaked Ladies - Gordon. It was refreshing to see musicians so talented, but yet so nerdy. Unlike the skinny Brits or the drunken Yanks, BNL back in 1992 were just five geeks from Canada who had like, maybe 10 fans in the states. That they were about 15 minutes away from being the one of the best-selling bands in Canada's history is important to note - they may have gotten more polished with money and fame, but they're still pretty dorky. Although they're not as vital as they used to be, they had a good 15 year run, and their newer music every once in a while hints at the madness they used to achieve regularly.

3) U2 - War. The album that made me thing that maybe politics and history do have a place in rock.

2) The Church - Seance. One of my bigger regrets in life was not being born and raised as a Maine sailor. Maine is a state best known for Stephen King and having a shit-ton of lighthouses. However, there is a ruggedness and bleakness to the terrain that is rather amazing. And, as a 16 year old vacationing with my aunt and uncle in Rockland, Maine, and bringing three tapes with me and my old Sony Walkman, there was no better soundtrack than Stephen Kilbey's voice, Marty Wilson-Piper's guitars and Richard Ploog's drums. Watching the fog roll in over a craggy landscape while "Fly" was Still gets me.

1) Trashcan Sinatras - Cake. The last album I bought in the 1980s, it came out just as the the entire political landscape was changing in Europe, and this album had exactly NOTHING to do with it. It wasn't political, it wasn't loaded with messages, it was simply perfect British pop made up by exceedingly talented Scots, perfectly produced, and blessed with some of the best wordplay ever put to tape. I've had this album for almost 20 years, and every listen gives some new little "ah-hah!" Been my favorite record since I bought it, and has yet to be dislodged.

10 that didn't...

9) Jane's Addiction - Nothing's Shocking/ Ritual de lo Habitual - The band wasn't bad at all, but I have never cared for Perry Ferrel's voice. Some of the songs are great, but, really, Perry Ferrell's screeching killed me. He was much more reserved in Porno for Pyros, and those albums, while not as urgent musically, are much less grating on my ears.

8) The Strokes - Is This It? I like this album a lot. I really do. Strange that I would say I really like an album, but still say it didn't hit. It was given so much indie hype, and was told that it would blow my mind. It didn't. It was good, no doubt, but, it unfortunately launched a spawn of horrific imitators that didn't have the talent or chops. Still, I do like The Strokes.

7) Dashboard Confessional - A Mark A Mission a Brand A Scar - Seriously? THIS is supposed to be an album? If I want to hear crying with guitars, I'll stroll into Guitar Center and show how badly a left-handed person can play a right-handed guitar.

6) Radiohead - Kid A. I can hear the "WHAT???" hipster indignity from here. I like what Radiohead was trying to do. I like the concept, and I appreciate the effort. However, OK Computer is weird, yet listenable. I didn't think it was as brilliant as some thought, but it's a fine recording. Kid A, however, is much harder to listen to, and is weird for the sake of being weird. I'd like to remind Radiohead that "The Bends" is a great album, and nothing to be ashamed of.

5) Linkin Park - pick one, any one. A friend of mine, whose taste in music is usually without reproach, fell head-over-heels for their first album. He extolled their virtues by saying "they don't cuss once!" Well, fuck it, maybe they should. Whine has no place in rock, son.

4) Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine - I get it, Zack. You're pissed off. You're not going to take it anymore. I've been there, bro. I feel for you. But you make better singles than albums. Sorry.

3) Pearl Jam - 10. I like the idea of Pearl Jam more than I like Pearl Jam. I never got into grunge rock anyway, but I liked Pearl Jam's kinda "no, really, we don't care" attitude. Vs. is a much better album than 10, but even then, I thought Eddie Vedder's singing kind of hurts my ears.

2) The Beastie Boys - License to Ill. This *should* have been perfect for me - a teenage boy looking for some rebellious outlet, and three punky Jewish kids from New York who rap about naughty things. Fantastic! didn't. It's a fine album, and I like it, but it didn't change my life like it did for others. Never quite connected like it should have.

1) Nivana - Nevermind. Sorry to all those who worship at the altar of Kurt Cobain, but this is one of the most overrated albums of all time. He was truly a talented guy - his uncredited work with Hole proves that he could make crap sound great - but this album was not life-changing. Fuzzy amplifiers, sloppy lyrics - they weren't doing anything I hadn't heard from my stepbrother's old band, and I thought they sucked too. Nirvana sounded more vital on "Bleach" and more sincere on "Unplugged." Never mind.

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