This all starts with a meme on Facebook… and I’m not even on Facebook. My buddy AlexSilverthorn told me about this meme he’d been tagged on. The way this is supposed to work is that that you’re to post the top ten music albums that impacted you the most, one per day, with no explanation. I don’t know about you, but that seems a bit meaningless. He agreed. And then he threw the gauntlet at my feet and suggested I blog up my usual bluestreak about the albums that impacted me the most. He knew when he did it that it’s a loaded idea, considering the sheer amount of music I’ve digested in my lifetime so far. But as I’ve not posted much about music in a while and rather enjoy doing so, I thought it’d be a good challenge to see if I could narrow it down to 10 albums.
I couldn’t do it. Failed spectacularly, in fact. There’s just too much music, and too many personal stories behind the albums that ultimately got picked. But my loss is potentially your gain if you enjoy reading this sort of blog because I’ve begrudgingly narrowed it down to 20… ish. There are a couple of cheats, which I’ll explain when I come to them. Obviously, this is a lot of for one post, so I’ve decided to break it across 4 posts, 5 albums each.
The albums I’ve picked are mostly in chronological order, not by release, but by time of impact on my life. Mostly. You know how it goes, when nostalgia gets in the way. So without further adieu…
1. John Williams – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Blame this one on Star Wars. It always begins there. I discovered film scores were available to buy because our music teacher in elementary school encouraged us to bring music from home to share with the class on Fridays. One of my classmates brought the original Star Wars soundtrack. It completely reshaped my world on the spot to know this sort of thing was out there. But it wasn’t until Raiders of the Lost Ark that I got my very first film score album. Back in the day when home video was in its infancy and in the hands of the filthy rich, if a film wasn’t in the theaters, you relived the magic through the music. It was quite possibly the greatest education of my musical existence to simply read the blurb on the back from director Steven Spielberg where he states that Indiana Jones…
“…would surely have perished in a forbidding temple in South America or in the oppressive silence of the great Sahara desert. Nevertheless, Jones did not perish but listened carefully to the RAIDERS score. Its sharp rhythms told him when to run. Its slicing strings told him when to duck. Its several integrated themes told adventurer Indiana Jones when to kiss the heroine or smash the enemy.”
People, you can hear this stuff in the music without even trying. The danger, the romance, the mystery, the otherworldly… it’s all right there. For seven-year-old me, this revelation was as brilliant as opening the Ark itself… with less face-melting. With this score, John Williams forged my passion for instrumental and classical music and turned me into a lifelong fan.
2. Diana Ross and The Supremes – Anthology
Mom’s record collection was rather large, focusing primarily on the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Rock, pop, country, soul, folk… odds are good she had a quality sampling on hand of nearly anything you could ask about. And she had a HiFi stereo system that could compete with nearly anything on the market today. It even had an 8-track player, but we won’t discuss that here. Some fossils deserve to stay buried.
This album is one I almost overlooked for this post, but in deep diving through memory lane, I realized just how impactful it truly was to me on different levels. The first is that I learned how personal music could be. Most of the songs in The Supremes’ catalog are autobiographical. I learned a great deal about the joys and injustices of the world listening to Diana Ross’ lyrics. Growing up trans and closeted, it didn’t take much for me to connect the dots between her struggles and mine. I didn’t understand things like racial inequality or gender inequality, but I knew something wasn’t fair, and many of her songs spoke directly to my heart. It was a hop, skip, and jump from The Supremes to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. If you ever meet anyone who is unmoved by Billie Holiday, you’ve met someone with no soul. Hang some garlic and grab your holy amulet of choice. Thanks to a couple of collaborative efforts found on this anthology set, I sidestepped from The Supremes to discover my absolute favorite group from the Motown label: The Temptations. They, of course, opened the floodgates for me to discover the likes of The Platters, The Four Tops, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles, among so many others. Ray tapped other veins that I’ll get into later. And most amazing of all, at least to my young ears…
The song “Reflections” opens with a weird UFO kind of sound that travels between the speakers. If you’re lucky enough to hear this in surround sound, it travels the entire room. This is where I discovered sound separation. It changed my life. I’d play around with the settings so as to hear only one speaker at a time, studying what I was hearing from each channel across a variety of albums. It allowed me to better identify and appreciate different instruments, arrangements, and background vocal harmonies.
3. Eagles – Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 / Greatest Hits Volume 2
This is one of those cheats I mentioned. When I first discovered The Eagles, it was through back-to-back plays of these two greatest hits albums. For the longest time, it was the only access I had to their music, but I couldn’t get enough. Fast forward to today, I’m the proud owner of their entire catalog, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see them in concert three times before the loss of lead singer Glenn Frey, as well as seeing Don Henley and Joe Walsh in solo and collaborative performances. From The Eagles, I learned to appreciate the crossover sounds of rock, pop, folk, and country. There was a time when I didn’t even distinguish. I knew what I liked. Mom gravitated towards Elvis Presley. My kid sister became a Beatles maniac. This was my first band… the first of many. The influence of Joe Walsh would lead me to discover the guitar gods: Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Richie Sambora, Les Paul, George Harrison, Nancy Wilson, Carlos Santana, Neal Schon, Brian May… you get the idea.
4. Billy Joel – An Innocent Man
While I was learning the catalog of music that Mom’s collection provided, she started branching ever so slowly into the 80s. That began with this album. Billy Joel had recreated a sound that didn’t belong to the 80s. It felt more like a cross between the 50s, 60s, and something intangibly timeless, yet somehow also of its time. That’s how it sounded to me, anyway. Today, this album is so quintessentially 80s it hurts, yet with that throwback sound that still captures a grin from me every time. Joel’s work led me through the decade to discover Huey Lewis and the News, The Police, and so on, but it was discovering his back catalog from the 70s that really hit me. Some of his songs were every bit as autobiographical as those from Diana Ross. It’s hard not to take notice of these things, when music becomes as powerful as any great novel. It also turned out this album would carry a surprise later on when I discovered Beethoven. Check out his track “This Night” and see if you don’t hear it too.
Billy Joel is another of those that I’ve been fortunate enough to see in concert twice, the first time with Elton John. Say what you will, Joel is a consummate performer.
5. Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra – Walt Disney’s Fantasia
When I was a kid, my full-fledged introduction to classical music was through old Looney Tunes cartoons, though I had no idea at the time. When we got to see a presentation of Walt Disney’s Fantasia at school, it blew my mind. This was a couple of years before MTV would light up the world with music videos, and I was seeing animation that would inspire me the rest of my life. The music captured me just as much, and it was the first bootleg recording I ever made. With the school’s reel to reel cassette recorder, I created a substandard, scratchy copy of the film’s score that I’d carry with me until the 1990 remastered release. That old cassette got some serious love and abuse from me, and when that remastered release came out, I was able to compare the scratchy Kostal recording on my cassette (which was new at the time and sounded far better on the original laserdisc) to the newly restored and remastered Stokowski performance. Nothing against Kostal — it’s a fantastic recording, especially if you hear it as originally presented — but to my ears the Stokowski performance is superior in nearly every way. This is where I discovered just what different conductors and orchestras could bring to music. I’ve since acquired the 4-disc Legacy Collection soundtrack that includes both recordings and a couple of rare little surprises. Easily one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.
I’ve blogged about the film for my Mouse Magic project, wherein I describe everything in detail. The biggest takeaway, of course, is that this is where I truly discovered Beethoven. The 6th symphony remains my favorite to this day. Leopold Stokowski objected to its inclusion and treatment in the film because the music contained no allusions to mythology. No one messes with Beethoven, right? Walt Disney noted the objection and retorted that his movie would “make Beethoven” for that modern generation and for generations to come. In my case, that certainly turned out to be true. Thanks, Walt.
Part 2 of this mini-series coming soon.