Sunday, January 6, 2019

My Favorite Albums

These are my top ten favorite albums that I have fallen in love with and never tire of listening. They are listed in no particular order because I could not rate one better than the other.

First, a little about my background and how it relates to music. I was raised in a household that always had music playing on the stereo. In my house we listened to records or the radio more than we ever watched television. Music is important to me and much of my life is remembered in association to certain songs or albums.

My musical influences at home were rather varied. I heard lotss of Elvis and even though I was young when he died I remember my mother going through an extended period of grief by playing all of her Elvis albums for weeks afterwards. My mother was more into rock listening to Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and anything with a guitar and a good beat that she could snap her fingers to and tap her foot. My father was more of a listener of smooth rock and soul groups like Earth Wind And Fire, Steely Dan, Kenny Rogers, Chicago, Christopher Cross, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. My brother who is five years older than I am was into Def Leppard, Loverboy, Boston, Twisted Sister, Kiss and AC/DC.

As a kid in the 1970s and 1980s I never heard much country music other than Hank Williams Jr. or Alabama and I never found it interesting on my own despite living in a rural area in the American South. My family was not country music fans and I was into whatever was on MTV and the Atlanta radio stations of Z-93, Power 99 and 94Q. By the time I started to form my own musical tastes in the 1980s I was into WHAM! then George Michael, Culture Club, INXS, Bon Jovi, Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston.

The first record I ever bought was a 45 single of Bill Squire's The Stroke followed by Paul McCartney's Take It Away and Rod Stewart's Infatuation. As teenager I went to a random assortment of concerts from Duran Duran, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart to Joe Cocker.

During the 1990s I was all about alternative rock and female singer/songwriters.

By 2000 I was heavily into triphop which morphed into a love for jazz.





Radiohead - Amnesiac (2001)

I had been a fan of Radiohead going back to the Pablo Honey album from 1993. By the time 2001 had come and Amnesiac was released the band and I had both changed and grown. Radiohead had morphed into an experimental rock band and gone was the straight ahead rock band they were when Creep brought them onto my radar all those years before. Radiohead changed their sound with Kid A which was recorded at the same time as Amnesiac but released first into this musical abstract painting of electronica and noise. The songwriting was still there and still meaningful, but the layers of production often obscured them. Amnesiac was the better of the two albums and is my favorite from the band. Like all great albums this one takes the listener on a journey. Amnesiac is like drifting down a river on a small raft into deeper and deeper water, hitting rapids, sometimes going under the cold water and then resurfacing soaking wet. Knives Out for all the violence in the lyrics is the most smooth and peaceful song to listen to on the album. Thom Yorke's phrasing strings the words together in his vocals into one long blur over a languid guitar that lulls you into false sense of safety. Pyramid Song, another favorite of mine on this album, is like floating through space as someone pecks away on a piano. Amnesiac is one helluva journey.


Sarah Mclachlan - Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)

I was at the house I grew up in the country sitting out on one of the outdoor decks soaking up the sunshine of summer 1994 at the age of twenty-one listening to the legendary Atlanta alternative radio station 99X. The late great DJ Sean Demery was on the air and he played the song Good Enough from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. It was one of those unforgettable moments. I had up until that point never heard of Sarah Mclachlan and I was so taken by the song. Quickly thereafter I went to the nearest Turtles Record Store and bought Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I loved that album from song one Possession to the bonus track piano version of Possession hidden at the end. The album features sharp songwriting, slick production and exudes an atmosphere of hidden doors in dark corners of the human mind. It can be melancholy at times, but the songs are grounded in raw emotional writing that keeps the album from sinking into a depressing miasma. Give one listen to the bonus track of the piano version of Possession and tell me this isn't great music.


R.E.M. - Murmur (1983)

My first introduction to R.E.M. came in 1988 in high school with the release of their album Green. I bought Green on cassette at the recommendation of a friend and ever since 1988 R.E.M. has and forever will be my favorite band. Little did I know at the time that Green was their sixth studio album. I had plenty of music to go back and personally discover like hidden treasure now that I had been handed the map of R.E.M. Murmur released in 1983 on the I.R.S. Records label features a couple of the band's more well known songs - Talk About The Passion and Radio Free Europe. Yet, most of the songs on this album are not generally known to people other than R.E.M. fans and would not be considered hit songs. Murmur is a fun upbeat collection of songs that gallop along to the early sounds of the band that is often described as jangle pop. There are a couple of slower songs such as Laughing and the brilliant Perfect Circle (my favorite R.E.M. song). Being a band from Athens, Georgia they are in my mind the sound of the 1980s in rural Georgia largely disconnected from the world, covered in kudzu, falling down barns and junked out cars in the backyard surrounded by privet. That is the sound that early R.E.M. evokes for me because I grew up in that landscape and Murmur is the best example of that sound.  Some might think that country music best fits the rural countryside of the American South or maybe the blues, but not for me because when I look at the pine trees, the pastures and rotting farm houses I hear R.E.M. This album is an invitation to mischief that is out there lurking somewhere down the country road and I suggest you follow it.


Natalie Merchant - Tigerlily (1995)

I was a fan of the band 10,000 Maniacs and their jangly pop/folk infused music so when Natalie Merchant left the group and went solo I did not know what to expect. Then she released her first solo album and killed it from the first note of San Andreas Fault. It was as if she had all these great songs bottled up, stored away and ready to unleash onto the world. Natalie is a wonderful storyteller and the unique texture of her voice, that is full and strong has an uncommon beauty, is ideal for tugging at your heart. Tigerlily is an album that will make your soul richer for having listened to it. There is not a bad song on this album. The song Beloved Wife is one of the sweetest songs I have ever heard and Natalie's voice commands you to listen and then...then her voice breaks ever so slightly on the chorus and your heart tears into pieces. By the time the album closes with the song Seven Years it is the end of a journey, a cathartic exorcism of emotional demons. This album is one heavy listen. Tigerlily for me is the overwhelming smell of incense and the moments of sitting and staring out the wall of old factory windows from my loft overlooking the gray winter landscape of Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta because that was my life in 1995. This album is like time traveling for me, but even in 2019 as I write this I can listen to this album and find it still as good as it was then.


Nick Drake - Bryter Layter (1971)

This first time I heard Bryter Layter I was so confused by it, thinking what in the hell have they done to Nick Drake. This initial impression was based on years of only listening to Drake's Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon albums and before I had read the various books about his short life. Once I knew more about Nick the person and what was going on at his record label when this album was recorded I came to better understand it. Bryter Layter was such a departure from his other albums that my impression of him came to change. It took repeated listens, but then I saw the magic in this album and it never left me, becoming my favorite album of his. This album to me is Nick Drake leaves university, goes to the big city (London), gains sophistication and finds himself a more polished musical identity. If you know the story of Nick Drake then you know what unfortunately happens next. Nick's voice is as smooth as some 70's crushed velvet, his guitar playing is bang on and tight as always and the session musicians perform the lush piano, horn and string arrangements beautifully. John Cale was hanging out in the studio with Nick for the recording of this album and he plays celeste, piano and organ on the song Northern Sky. Nick Drake's voice once it gets into your head will haunt you especially on the song One Of These Things First. Overall, his lyrics matured from his earlier album (Five Leaves Left) and what I think is his best song, At The Chime Of A City Clock, is found here on Bryter Layter.


Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)

There is no album that changed the music industry or influenced a generation in my lifetime more than Nevermind. This was a singular cultural earthquake that will forever define Generation X, my generation. Hair bands like Warrant, Poison, Motley Crue and their ilk were wiped off the face of the planet, MTV and the radio when Kurt Cobain screamed, "here we are now, entertain us." I remember the fall of 1991 when this album came out and seeing the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit on MTV every hour. Nirvana put me into a trance. There was Kurt in his brown and green striped shirt and those anarchy wearing cheerleaders and those kids slamming into each other and I was forever mesmerized at age eighteen. Nevermind was this fuzzy wall of sound that came to be known as grunge and suddenly I had a new band to obsess over. Come As You Are was then and is still my favorite song on the album. This is still true even though the guitar part is probably lifted from the Killing Joke's Eighties (seriously see how obvious it is) who probably lifted it from The Damned's Life Goes On (I mean is there any doubt). Lithium, Something In The Way and On A Plain are also favorites of mine from the album. Nirvana gave us this very special album and I wish there had been more after In Utero besides the Unplugged album and all the old material that has been released posthumously. That's the thing about Nevermind to me, I don't listen to it or love it for nostalgic reasons, but to listen to the best alternative rock album ever recorded that won't be eclipsed in my lifetime.


Portishead - Roseland NYC Live (1998)

In July 1997 the trip hop band Portishead recorded this live album in the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Typically I am not a fan of live albums, but this one is the rare exception. In the late 1990s as alternative rock music lost its way I was introduced to trip hop by an industrial designer I was dating and he set me off on a path of musical discovery that would forever change me. I went deep down the rabbit hole of trip hop which would eventually lead me to electronica and onward to jazz. During my trip down the trip hop rabbit hole Portishead became my favorite band in the genre. Beth Gibbons on vocals and the rest of Portishead performing live with an orchestra backing them sets a mood, a vibe that is ecstasy for the ears. It is dark and dramatically lit with the lights dimmed, you have your feet up, smoke is wafting by and this chanteuse named Beth pleading with you as she grabs you by the collar. "Just listen," she says. Roads is my favorite song on the album and of all-time by the band. Just listen to the crowd's reaction when they realize the band is about to perform Roads and you'll get the idea. As Beth sings "storm in the morning light and I feel no more," you shake your head in acknowledgement that yes, I totally get that.


Goldfrapp - Felt Mountain (2000)

Felt Mountain is a trip to the fun house at the carnival or maybe being locked inside an insane asylum. Goldfrapp have never been a band that takes themselves too seriously and they have taken more strange musical turns than any band I can think of in my memory. The whistling to open the album on Lovely Head tells you to understand that this is no ordinary album. This album is cohesive in its strangeness, its "otherness" from beginning to end; listening to it, it never fails to capture your attention. At times it borders on being avant-garde with the heavily filtered vocals of Alison Goldfrapp on Deer Stop. She has an ethereal voice singing a lullaby in Oompa Radar to only be overtaken by the carnival tubas while your mind is turned wrong side up in a house of mirrors. Horse Tears, my favorite song on Felt Mountain, has the lyrics, "night has fallen mute and cold, my horse is crying," and I chuckle at it every time. Listening to it I feel like I am sitting in front of a fireplace on an icy night in a big old empty country house. Felt Mountain is music for those with an adventurous mind and I dare you to take it.


Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008)

If ever there was album that makes the perfect soundtrack for one of my other favorite hobbies, hiking in nature, it would have to be Fleet Floxes self-titled debut full album in 2008. Robert Pecknold's voice is like a tall old evergreen tree standing on the side of a mountain and at the same time a cold spring fed stream cascading over boulders. Put that voice on an album full of dense and beautifully constructed lyrics and backed by sublime harmonies and you have Fleet Foxes. The acoustic guitars at the beginning of Tiger Mountain Peasant Song (my favorite song on the album) sound just as I imagine the sunlight shining through the branches of a tree high above in the forest canopy would sound like. Meadowlarks with its slow strumming makes me want to go sit by a stream, close my eyes and drift away into the atmosphere. White Winter Hymnal will always reminded me of hiking down the Dockery Lake Trail in the North Georgia Mountains in the late summer heat on the way to camp. This song has a bouncy beat that is ideal to keep humping it down the trail for miles even though you are already beat. This album has its dreamy moments, tender moments and a strong sense for longing for place to call home whether in a physical space or in the heart of someone else. Fleet Foxes came at a time when listeners were in desperate need of authentic singers and musicians. The band found an overwhelming audience, but unfortunately what should have been a clarion call to the music industry to find genuine artists that weren't auto tuned robots wasn't heeded. Popular music instead would headlong into hell.


Mono - Formica Blues (1997)

Mono is another trip hop band, but they did not have the career longevity as Portishead or Massive Attack, as a matter of fact they only released one album called Formica Blues. They did manage to have one hit song off of their album called Life In Mono that was featured in the film Great Expectations starring Ethan Hawke. The band consisted of vocalist Siobhan de Mare and keyboardist Martin Virgo. Despite their one hit song most people are not going to be familiar with Mono and their album Formica Blues is rather obscure. While unknown to most, this album resides deep in my heart like a long ago lover that you cannot forget and you can still smell their scent. I listen to Formica Blues late at night with the headphones on and often with my eyes closed. This is not music for the daylight as sunshine renders it impotent. I compare this album to walking through an underground labyrinth with water dripping from the ceiling and lights glimmering in this distance. This could be music for a slow burning spy film during the Cold War. The album borrows from jazz influences and people such as Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector. My favorite song on the album is The Outsider. It has fat beats and a hypnotic rhythm with seductive vocals panning from left to right and back again. The songs The Blind Man and Penguin Freud are in the same vein as this too. Penguin Freud with the lyric, "beautifully stupid," is a close runner up to my favorite song on the album. Hello Cleveland is like a smooth drink after the longest of days.