11. John Barry – The Living Daylights
I discovered James Bond by watching Roger Moore on TV. The Living Daylights was my first theatrical 007 experience. It just so happens, it was also the first of the Bond film scores I acquired. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the last one John Barry would do. About the same time I got this album, I was still in my early years of playing clarinet, and I had received my first Casio keyboard as a Christmas present. Playing by ear is what I do. That little keyboard answered a lot of prayers for me.
What I didn’t realize was just how intricate and impossible it was to try to keep up with all the key changes that a maestro like John Barry could produce. I studied this album like you wouldn’t believe and found it to be quite the challenge. To this day I still suck at trying to pick out anything beyond A-Ha’s opening track. Then again, I never learned to formally play piano, so I can’t really beat myself up about that. The odd arrangement of “The James Bond Theme” (herein featured as part of the track “Ice Chase”) led me to seek out what I knew was the far superior original on the Dr. No soundtrack. Over the years, I eventually acquired all of the Bond scores in turn. And I owe Dr. No for introducing me to the island sounds of Jamaica. Wouldn’t have found that quite so rapidly without the odd orchestrations of the Bond theme. This is how rabbit holes happen, people.
12. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman – Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid
Being out of the closet now allows me to properly discuss this soundtrack. The Little Mermaid represents a personal journey for me that remains one of the most powerful musical experiences in my life.
I’d been wrestling with the reality of being a girl since I was about 5 with zero understanding beyond it being something I needed to hide. When I was 10, the movie Splash stirred some things into place that scared the bejeezus out of me. The concept of transformation fixated me. I was obsessed with mermaids. A part of me still is. When I was 15, this animated feature kickstarted what would become the Disney Renaissance, began a belated marketing campaign centering around the concept of the Disney Princess (a formula they figured out for Beauty and the Beast), and hit me hard in parts of my soul that I had tried so hard to bury and ignore. As much of a Disney fan as I was, and as much as I gravitated to nearly everything this movie offered, I wasn’t going to see it. It was one more thing to be buried.
The following spring, I was 16 and near the end of my freshman year. Our band director passed out sheet music, a medley of the popular tracks from this film. Damn it. By this point, I already knew the songs, having heard them indirectly all around me from those girls unafraid to belt them out in the halls between classes. Combine that with the ad campaign for the movie, first as a theatrical release and then on home video… it was quite literally the siren call that could have undone me. And it almost did.
The music pried something open that refused to close, and as I worked at a toy store at that time, I had easy access to both the soundtrack and to the dolls, with the added bonus of employee discount. Telling coworkers who asked that these were birthday presents for a cousin, I smuggled in Ariel and her music via my backpack. It was the night the concept of being transgender hit home in a way that I could no longer fight. It was the long, dark night of the soul where I finally accepted it. It still scared the hell out of me, and I tried even more to hide it, but I owned up to it. To this day, I still consider Ariel to be my “totem princess.” As I would discover a lot of years later, mermaids are something of a symbol that many in the transgender community (if you can call it a community) claims as their own. One more confirmation I’m not alone.
Thanks to being in the school band, I learned this soundtrack backwards and forwards. By this point, I had moved to bass clarinet, so I was relegated to the background parts in class. But at home, I learned the rest of it on the keyboard and clarinet. The more I played it, the more it opened me up. I sometimes describe the experience as a spiritual vivisection. But more than the music, it was the vocals. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve belted out “Part of Your World” in duet with Ariel in the long country commutes between home and work. I owe Jodi Benson a debt of gratitude I’ll never be able to express for helping me through a lot of rough times.
If you look in the corners of my *ahem* collection (“look at this stuff, isn’t it neat?”), you’ll still find that original Ariel doll, along with a few “friends” she acquired some years later. I’m out of the closet, and she’s out of the box. She got there long before I did.
Like a great deal of who I am, she’s hidden right out in plain sight. Sometimes simply being “a Disney fan” and a student of animation can cover up a lot of things that lead to questions… and shame… and guilt. We’ve traveled a long path, but always there was the music. We bonded in song, Ariel and I, through the desire to want something more than what life dealt us. The Legacy Collection soundtrack had to happen when it was finally released… for reasons. I’m sure you understand.
13. Andrew Lloyd Webber – The Phantom of the Opera
I’ve made no secret on my blog that I grew up as a monster kid. Once more, blame Star Wars. That was my in-road to strange aliens and monsters of all types. The creepier, the better. I couldn’t get enough of this sort of thing growing up. The Universal Monsters made a particular impact on me. It’s how I discovered the greats — Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi… Lon Chaney, Sr. The Phantom of the Opera remains my favorite of the monsters. I learned to appreciate silent movies because of that performance. Combine that with an ever-growing appreciation for Opera and the hidden truth I considered myself to be something of a monster, I more than identified with the Phantom on levels that were unhealthy in the extreme.
Shortly after I accepted the “horrific” truth of being transgender, I discovered the novel that would elevate the Phantom in my estimation above Dracula or Frankenstein, Susan Kay’s Phantom. And I picked up the original cast recording to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s now-popular musical without knowing anything about it. Complete impulse buys, both the book and the album.
I never really fell in love with Broadway musicals. I appreciate many of the older ones as being the core of the so-called Great American Songbook, and I most definitely appreciated what the structure of the musical brought to the table, and how Disney revitalized the idea for both stage and screen during their mermaid-sparked Renaissance. But this musical had something special for me, even above and beyond the subject matter. It had a secret weapon.
Her name is Sarah Brightman. If Freddie Mercury set an impossible standard for me with his vocal prowess, Sarah Brightman shattered all expectations with her three-plus octave range. I fell in love with her voice the moment I heard it (which only helped me to better identify with the Phantom on some level). The day I discovered she had a genre-bending solo career that created a category specifically for her (classical crossover) that she still defied is the day I discovered entirely new levels of music. About two weeks later, she released her album Harem. That tour was the first of three concerts of hers I’d attend. By this point in her career, she was blending Broadway and pop with Opera, singing in multiple languages. I watched her perform Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” a feat that required her to somehow blow up to twice her natural size so as unleash that aria’s grand finale. That was the night I dedicated myself to learning about Opera. They say once the Opera bug bites you, it infects you in ways that no other kind of music can. I’ve not looked back since.
14. Giacomo Puccini – Turandot
If Sarah Brightman could deliver “Nessun Dorma” to me in a way that pounded my heart through the back of my ribs, what would happen when delivered by an Operatic professional… say, someone like the indomitable Luciano Pavarotti? The result was about what you’d expect. I was duly captivated, and it took me some years to sift through and discover the various arias and their Operas that would incite within me the same power and beauty I had come to know from Sarah Brightman. There’s so much talent in the Opera world that it’s just stupid to be trite about it. Around every corner, you’ll find a pool of talent from composers to musicians to singers and beyond that’ll just capture the imagination. No wonder Opera is considered to be the highest culmination of all the arts. And with my journey down this rabbit hole, I was better able to appreciate the Wagner Ring Cycle I’d previously discovered in my earlier years, this time on its own terms. But before I could listen to all of that, I had to learn how to listen to an entire Opera. It’s easier than you think, and every bit as difficult at the same time. Puccini’s Turandot is the first one I ever learned in this capacity.
And that’s the thing: I keep coming back to Puccini. Apparently this is laughable in the world of Opera. It seems that if you bring up his name in Operatic circles, it generates the same disrespect as if you’d proclaimed the praises of… Kenny G. I can’t make that up. Say what you will, Kenny’s clearly got his fans and is rolling in cash, and Puccini embraced me into the world of Opera once Sarah Brightman opened that door for me. Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me, but his work speaks to me on nearly every level I know. I can count on one hand the number of other composers who have done that to me: Peter Tchaikovsky, John Williams, and Ludwig Van Beethoven. I’d say Giacomo Puccini’s in good company.
15. Loreena McKennitt – The Book of Secrets / The Mask and Mirror
Yup, it’s another cheat. I have to put both of these albums on here in the same spot because I discovered them at the same time and treated them pretty much as complimentary bookends. How it happened, my kid sister discovered a TV series called Due South, a buddy drama about a Canadian Mountie and a Chicago police detective. Fun little show, though admittedly I barely watched it. I did, however, pay attention to the music. The series released a couple of soundtracks, incomplete though they were, and offered up a complete list of the songs and artists featured. It’s one of the few times I can claim that’s ever really worked for me. It was through this series that I discovered two voices who would capture my imagination for all time: Sarah McLachlan and Loreena McKennitt. Both of them got me through a lot of hard times, and I’m sad to say that McLachlan just barely didn’t make the cut on this meme. I did get a hug backstage from her some years later and properly thank her for the music, though, so at least that’s something.
Loreena McKennitt is, to me, the epitome of genre-defying music that is both of this world and of the Otherworld beyond the veil. There’s no other way I can describe it. If you don’t believe in such things, her voice might make you question those beliefs. She’s that good. If Sarah Brightman is the Angel of Music, McKennitt is the faerie queen and all that implies. Back that with her songwriting prowess and her ability to effortlessly dominate the piano and the harp… she’s a force to be reckoned with. Having seen her in concert twice, I can tell you beyond all doubt that to hear her in recording is to have missed the full effect. This woman’s voice will collide heaven and earth in your soul. To witness her in a performance is to experience the definition of wonder.
What I truly admire most about her is how incredibly down-to-earth she is in her approach to music. I don’t know of many who’d go to the lengths she does to achieve mastery. For example, for one of her albums, she and her band traveled with nomads for months along the ancient Silk Road through Asia and Europe, soaking up the musical flavors and legacies. The result is pure magic. Every single album in her catalog feels as timeless as the next, and just as impossibly beautiful. Ever want to hear an electric guitar go counterpoint with an electric violin? She’ll make that happen for you. Want to learn to appreciate classical poetry? She makes it easy. History? Mythology? A connection to the spirit world or to the earth itself? Check, check, check, and check. That list of truly great composers I listed off? She’s the fifth on that list, in no particular order. ‘Nuff said.
Three down, one part remaining. I hope you’re enjoying this as much as I am. Back soon…