A few days ago, a member of my CirdecSongs Facebook group asked me to list my favorite albums of all time. I quickly declined, primarily because 1) There are far too many records to mention; 2) I was bound to forget anywhere between one and 10 of them, depending on what day it was; and 3) such a list fluctuates wildly, once again depending on what day it is. While others may find such a list interesting, I saw it as little more than an exercise in futility.
After a couple of hours, though, I came up with a slightly different approach. I like to think I have a pretty eclectic and diverse music collection, and something had to get me into that music. What was it? As David Byrne might say, “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” Any such record, to my mind, should be seen as a game-changer. Once I heard that particular record, my musical mind would be altered forever.
This kind of list got me rather excited. When I told my friend the idea, he was also over the moon. So here we are.
People like to throw around the word “transformative,” particularly after seeing one of their favorite artists in concert. And while I get what they are trying to say, I’m a little more reluctant to use that word in commonplace fashion. I mean, can an artist really cause a marked change in material you are already familiar with? I’d be quicker to use the word revolutionary instead. A transformative album truly changes the game, one way or another. I can use that word pretty consistently on this list.
A couple of caveats before I get started:
- Some artists and their albums have been eliminated automatically, based on sheer familiarity. I grew up in a house that played Motown, Stax, Philly International, and Tamala artists regularly. It’s hard to call something a game-changer if I was constantly hearing it on the radio or via my parent’s record collection. A game-changing album should first pull me out of my “comfort zone.” So while records from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Al Green, etc. hold a special place in my heart, I would hardly call them transformative.
- The albums I list may not be considered by most to be said artist or band’s “best” work. That’s not what this list is about. I’m talking about my entryway into this band. The record I list no doubt ultimately led me to the album everyone else is thinking about. There’s more than one way to get to a certain destination.
- Likewise, there may be a more popular artist or band in the genre or era I’m talking about. Again, this is beside the point. Chances are, I ultimately got where you were pointing. I just took a slightly different route to get there.
- The year I put behind a particular recording may not be the year it was released. It represents the year I heard it for the first time. So please skip the comments of correction. I already know when my years are off.
Now that we’ve established the parameters, let’s dig into the list. I’m attempting to go sequentially, but there’s a chance I’ll miss the mark once or twice. Fifty years is a LONG time to be a music nut.
DAVID BOWIE, “Space Oddity” (1972). As I cover in my book, I had a small stack of 45s in my room when I was six years old. They were pretty much all from the “regular” artists I mentioned before. But somehow (and I believe it was my mother’s doing), a copy of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” wound up in that stack of records. From the first time I played it, I knew music was going to be different for me from that moment forward. This song was a LONG way from Motown, and it absolutely captivated me! As an added bonus, “The Man Who Sold the World” was the b-side of this particular single. I’ve been a Bowie fan ever since. This record also opened the door to what was then considered AOR (Album-Oriented Rock), which has since become known as Classic Rock.
WALTER (now Wendy) CARLOS, Switched-On Bach (c. 1976). Again, this was my mother’s doing, as she was a huge fan of classical music. But this record was different. There was no orchestra or string quartet. Instead, Carlos saw fit to execute these classical compositions on a Moog synthesizer. Apparently it caused quite the stir in the music community. I was unaware of the upheaval. All I knew was that I was hearing music in a way I had never heard it before, and I loved it! Over time, I would smile to myself when a piece of classical music was being played the traditional way, and my friends wouldn’t know who it was. I would grin and say, “It’s Bach” without hesitation. This is the record that opened my mind to classical music, which opened me to movie soundtracks and musical scores.
STYX, Pieces of Eight (1978) . No doubt some people will find this selection rather surprising. But Styx started my album collection! I had been listening to AOR for a few years, but Styx’s Pieces of Eight was the first time I can recall consciously wanting to have a copy of an album. I can still see the TV commercial in my mind, with songs like “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man,” and “Sing for the Day” ringing throughout that 30-second spot. And so, allowance in hand, I plopped down the $6.98 (plus tax) making that record mine. This, no doubt, is where I developed the habit of wanting to hear two or three songs from an album before I decided to buy it. Except for Styx. Those records I bought on blind faith.
RETURN TO FOREVER, Romantic Warrior and JEAN-LUC PONTY, Cosmic Messenger (1978). I list both of these albums because I heard them within a week of each other, courtesy of my jazz-loving father. His Sunday morning ritual was to play jazz records in the family room until he was ready to get on with his day. My sister and I had no choice but to hear them. Like any child, I did my best to ignore what was being played as I walked through the family room. But these records had a distinct rock edge (which I would later learn was called “fusion”), and they held my attention. My dad, knowing he had a captive audience, proceeded to tell me all about what I was hearing. He has passed both Jazz Sunday and talking about records habits on to me, and I have no regrets. And while none of my friends understood it, I became a lifelong devotee of heavy fusion and instrumental rock courtesy of this moment.
GENESIS, Seconds Out (1981). This quickly became and remains my favorite live album of all time. I’ve purchased numerous copies (including most recently a half-speed master on vinyl I positively ADORE), but I got this one out of the dollar bin at my favorite record store. It was four years old and plenty scratchy. But I played it again and again and again, to the point where I could still hear the pops and scratches in my mind when I bought my first CD copy! Not long before buying this record, I had bought a copy of Abacab. It was rather stunning to hear this (mostly) same band playing these incredible tunes. This is where I fell in love with my favorite progressive rock song of all, “Supper’s Ready,” and cemented my appreciation for progressive rock, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time.
TALKING HEADS, Stop Making Sense (1984). The new wave (which was still growing on me) and funk (which was already well established) collided in the most amazing way on this record. My very NON-funk appreciating friends finally began to hear what it was I had been telling them about for God-knows how long. And while this record opened my mind to both new wave and college rock, that door wouldn’t be kicked off its hinges until a year later.
PETER GABRIEL, Security (c. 1986). For a brief one, I worked at a record store. What a glorious time that was. One day, I went with the manager to a warehouse to pick up product. On the way, I was asked if I liked Peter Gabriel. I said I was familiar with a couple of hits, and “Shock the Monkey” was playing on college radio now and then. Warren smiled and handed me a cassette copy of Security, which has “Shock the Monkey” on it. That song opens side two. Warren told me to play side one. That’s when I heard “The Rhythm of the Heat,” and learned the importance of putting world music and exotic rhythms on rock-driven tracks. It was quite the revelation.
That’s all for this list. We’ll pick it up from here next time.
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