Here is the remainder of my list of musical game-changers, the records and artists who changed my musical outlook from the moment I heard them. For the sake of continuity and to understand why these records are what they are, I strongly recommend you go back and read part one.
Without further ado, here we go.
KING CRIMSON, Discipline (1985). This is it. This is the foundation. Bedrock. Ground Zero. The answer to the question, “What got you into such strange music,” begins and ends right here. From the very instant I heard the 80’s version of this legendary band, nothing was ever the same. The first song I actually heard was “Three of a Perfect Pair,” but it was part of a mixtape. When I bought all this band’s albums (and I was crushed that there were only three), I played them in sequence. Thus, Discipline gets credit for being the game-changer. I’m not exaggerating when I say this album caused me to go home and toss out two-thirds of my record collection (including Styx and other classic rock staples) because I no longer had any use for them. This was where I wanted to be, and I never planned on leaving. The King Crimson family tree is massive, and it’s possible to build an entire record collection around Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Tony Levin, and Bill Burford, and that’s pretty much what I did. This album also got me into college radio, because they were the only once playing music from this band and these artists. They were also playing the likes of U2, R.E.M., 10.000 Maniacs, The Smithereens, and other acts slowly coming above ground and making themselves known in the mainstream. To be certain, a musical door had been kicked off its hinges. King Crimson became the first pillar of my Musical Holy Trinity. The other two artists weren’t far behind.
MILES DAVIS, Kind of Blue (1985). This was not the first Miles Davis album I ever heard. That honor goes to Tutu, which I got as part of a Columbia House buy-in back in ’85. What I heard was intriguing, but not exactly game-changing. Still, I was curious to hear more. That led me to buying The Columbia Years, a box set representing 30 years of Miles’s work with that label, starting in 1955. It was there I heard “So What” for the first time. (I say this knowing full and well that my dad probably played this in the living room during the 70’s. But I was ignoring it.) I was captivated, and immediately bought a copy of Kind of Blue, where “So What” came from. The floodgates opened, and I was obsessed. It didn’t matter what record store I went to, the first place I went was the jazz section to see what Miles records they had. What an adventure that became! Jazz — real traditional jazz — had become a major part of my vocabulary, and the second pillar of my Holy Trinity was in place.
FRANK ZAPPA, Shut Up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar (1986). I owe this one to a college friend who played guitar and often invited me to his house to listen to records. Having dug just about everything he played for me (more on that in a second), he decided I was ready for Frank Zappa. This record was a collection of guitar solos from the late 70’s and 80’s. My mind was completely blown! Still, Zappa didn’t cement himself in my mind in transformative fashion until a year or two after, when I heard Roxy and Elsewhere the first time. Instead of just waiting around for the next guitar solo, I actually began to hear the compositions, which were some of the most amazing music I had ever heard. I was hooked, and another lifelong obsession was born. Not only did this open my mind up to otherworldly possibilities in rock, but it introduced me to a bevvy of musicians who cut their teeth with Zappa before going on to launch incredible solo careers. And the third pillar was now in place.
STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN, Soul to Soul (1986). That same college friend also introduced me to Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom he simply could not stop raving about. Either accidentally or on purpose, he started with Side Two of this album and a song called “Change It.” I can still feel my short Afro flying backward at warp speed as the music came flying out of the speakers. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Before long, I did know that the blues were for me, and I suddenly completely understood the likes of B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” bland, whom my parents loved. That blues obsession doesn’t reveal itself frequently these days, but when it does, WATCH OUT! It’s gonna get LOUD!
WYNTON MARSALIS, Marsalis Standard Time (1987). I loved Miles Davis, but I began to wonder if there were any good jazz musicians closer to my age. It didn’t take long for me to find the Marsalis brothers, starting with trumpeter Wynton. His tone was positively amazing, and there was no questioning his technical proficiency (which has become derided in some circles in recent years). He played with a fire, passion, and fury that Miles seemed to lack at times, particularly late in his career. I had officially become a devotee of the “Young Lions” movement in jazz. This opened up more doors than I could possibly count.
XTC, Skylarking (1989). I had all but given up on pop music. It did nothing for me. I don’t dance and I don’t like sappy love songs, so what was the point? That all changed when I was stationed in South Carolina and a fellow airman (who knew of my love for music) showed up at my door with a copy of Skylarking. He was raving about a song I positively HAD to hear, which turned out to be “Dear God.” When I recovered from the shock, I asked to explore the rest of the record, which was equally stunning. Thus began my appreciation of “Intelli-pop,” which XTC taught me was possible. College radio had been all over this band for years, but this was the first time I truly heard it. I haven’t stopped hearing it since.
THE CURE, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1989). It could be argued that this album constitutes part of the “college rock” movement I already mentioned. And while I won’t argue with that, I will say that this was something different. This is the album that pushed me toward the darker side of college radio, which I came to identify as “Mope Rock.” I suppose it’s part of the Goth scene these days. One had to be careful going down this rabbit hole, lest you find yourself in a near suicidal state of mind. (Okay, that was a little glib.) Still, I got into bands like Depeche Mode, Cowboy Junkies, and The Sundays thanks to The Cure. It’s a great musical place to visit. Just don’t try to live there.
SOUNDGARDEN, Superunknown (c. 1996). The Grunge movement had been around for half a decade or so, and there was plenty of it I liked. But nothing landed like Soundgarden and Superunknown. That record is PERFECT. There isn’t a bad note to be found, which seems impossible over the course of 15 songs. But there it is in all it’s glory. “Black Hole Sun” has to be one of my favorite musical moments from the 90’s, and to this day I have to stop whatever I’m doing whenever that song comes on. And few things in rock make me smile like Matt Chamberlin’s brutal 6/4 drum break in “Spoonman.” This was a rock band living up to its potential while showing me just what was possible in Grunge, spurring me to explore even deeper.
JOHNNY CASH, Love, God, Murder (c. 2002). I’m not a fan of Country music, but I love Johnny Cash. His songs transcended the genre, which is probably why I enjoyed them so much. This isn’t a proper album, but a three disc compilation with each CD representing one aspect of the title. It’s the “Murder” disc I dig the most, with songs like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Delia’s Gone,” and “Cocaine Blues.” Quentin Tarantino called Cash “the original gangsta rapper,” and I agree with him. Crime isn’t about race, after all. It’s about economics. Cash’s tunes spoke directly to that. And while I haven’t taken a much deeper dive into Country (outside of Cash’s albums with Rick Rubin), I’m aware of the possibilities. That’s more than I could say before I heard this collection.
TORTOISE, Tortoise (2000). My first steps into post-rock. This Chicago-based band took me into sonic atmospheres I didn’t know were possible. Their grooves were remarkable whether they chose to play an overt melody or not. The key for this band was to leave space for something — or nothing — to happen. This self-titled album also caught my attention because of what wasn’t there. Namely, guitars. As a guitar player myself, you’d think I would be upset at such a thing. And I was for about five minutes. But soon I realized a guitar part wasn’t really necessary for these tunes. And while Jeff Parker found a home within the band as its guitarist shortly after, this music was still quite the revelation. Tortoise helped me down the path of other post-rockers, giving my collection some much appreciated depth and scope.
PORCUPINE TREE, Deadwing (2006). Turns out progressive rock wasn’t dead, after all! There IS life after King Crimson! Who knew? Clearly, this band did. Admittedly, it was a Crimson connection that led me to this album. Adrian Belew had a couple of cameo parts, playing guitar solos. I bought the record for him. But it didn’t take long for me to realize how great this band was, with or without a Belew guitar solo! I was definitely late to this particular party, but I knew almost immediately that Steven Wilson and company had a monster on their hands! The riffs were heavy beyond words. 12-minute songs passed by in a flash! There was ALWAYS something new and interesting to pick up on. And just like that, I could add progressive metal (already present in my collection via TOOL) to the top shelf of my latest musical obsessions.
STEVEN WILSON, The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (2013). Without question, one of my two favorite albums of the last ten years. Like many other Porcupine Tree fans, I had no major issues with Wilson churning out a solo album. We just assumed he’d get back to PT before too long. Slowly but surely, it became evident that this album helped Wilson turn a stylistic musical corner. Sure, it had all the trappings of his progressive rock work. But the arrangements were just a little different now, and they were heading away from the more “familiar” territory. Wilson soon had fans wailing and gnashing their teeth when they realized that 1) Steven Wilson’s sound was not only going away from the traditional prog, but it was headed rapidly into more pop-driven territory; and 2) Porcupine Tree was essentially done. Raven didn’t represent a complete sea change. The follow-up, Hand.Cannot.Erase, started to drive that point home. I guess I’m one of the few people (it seems, based on internet chatter) willing to let Wilson go wherever his Muse takes him. Maybe I’ll dig what he does. Maybe I won’t. Either way, I give him all the credit in the world for having the courage to take the leap. That can be quite the game-changer, too!
WE LOST THE SEA, Departure Songs (2017). It was the perfect combination: I was deep into the Bandcamp app, and they were deep into post-rock bands. While doing some writing one day, I decided it was a good time to learn about someone new in the post-rock genre. My search brought me to an Australian band called We Lost the Sea and an album called Departure Songs. Why not take a flyer on this, and see where it led, I figured? What followed was one of the most stunning revelations of my musical life. This was post-METAL, beautifully constructed, wonderfully played, emotional as all hell. The second song on the album, “Bogatyri,” literally reduced me to tears. I was full-on addicted to this band. And as many people can attest, I have NEVER stopped talking about them. This band also led me down the path to groups like Russian Circles, Arcade Messiah, and April Rain. Who knew you could wring so much emotion out of distorted guitars? Never underestimate the possibilities in music.
So there you have it. Twenty game-changers. I can only imagine the next one or two is waiting for me somewhere around the corner. I’m off to find it.
You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell
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