Wednesday, December 16, 2009

20 for 20: Albums That Changed My Life Over the Past Two Decades

As the end of 2009 crept upon us, every publication started dropping their “best of decade” lists. I certainly could have done that with this year’s RT 20. Yet I wanted to mark my 20th anniversary with something a bit more wide ranging. So I hatched the crazy idea to make another radio special (the CDs that came with the print version of the RT 20) to discuss albums that were life-changing for yours truly. Now these aren’t what I consider the best albums of the past 20 years (that list might feature a couple of the same albums), just the ones that had a big impact on what I listened to, what I saw, and sometimes, how I could feel on a certain day. I talk about these albums during the special, but I figured a little bit of extra explanation never hurt.

Young Fresh Fellows - Hits From the Break Up Album (ESC Brand)
Year Released: 1991 Track Featured in Special: “Two Guitars, Bass and Drums”

Nirvana - Nevermind (DCG)
Year Released: 1991 Track Featured in Special: “On a Plain”

Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians - Perspex Island (A&M)
Year Released: 1991 Tracks Featured in Special: “Oceanside,” “So You Think You’re in Love”

1991 was a pretty interesting year. I graduated from college, I had a radio job, had it revoked when I showed up for the final interview, I moved home for another radio gig, hated it, quit and then moved back to the city where I went to college—all in the space of five months. I did a whole heck’uva lot of driving those few months. The one cassette that got a lot of car play during that time was Perspex Island. John Cooper of PYX 106 (still one of the best on air talents I’ve ever heard) gave it to me during my last week at the radio station. I was a fan of Hitchcock before Perspex Island was released, but this album connected with me more than any of his other releases during my time in college. Perhaps it was because listening to it made me feel like I was still in college. Or maybe the fact that it was the slickest thing he had done to date. Producer Paul Fox had worked on XTC’s 1989 album Oranges and Lemons and he knew how to make pop songs soar. Perspex Island had a vegetable basket full of them. I dove head first into the Hitchcock catalog in the months after I got that cassette, and have remained a big fan ever since.

Young Fresh Fellows’ Hits From the Break Up Album came out in May of 1991, but I didn’t track down this very limited box set of singles until eight years later. Yet just like Perspex Island, the Break Up Album changed me from a casual fan into a hardcore one. The set is made up of five singles the Fellows released from the fall of 1990 through the winter of 1991. My college station played three of those singles, and all three of them quickly became my favorite Fellows songs. It’s not only the music of the Break Up Album that set me down the path to being a insane Fellows fan who owns almost everything they’ve done. (Which, trust me, is a lot.) The idea of a band putting together the singles in a box with special artwork, a huge poster with liner notes explaining the whole project and a random romance novel appealed to the collector in me. These guys not only how to make great music, they knew how to make a great presentation of that music. I suppose that’s why I have over 315 Fellows songs in my iTunes—and it still doesn’t seem like enough.

And what can I say about Nevermind that hasn’t already been said? The way those 42 minutes and 30 seconds of music (not counting the hidden track) changed the music industry and radio is undeniable. Alas, in hindsight, what came after the trio’s breakthrough isn’t that pretty. Massive signing bonuses for watered down bands; alternative stations in markets that probably couldn’t support the format; Gavin Rossdale. Oy. Maybe Kurt Cobain saw it coming and just couldn’t handle that responsibility. (Or Courtney Love had him killed, whatever.) I listened to Nevermind all the way through for the first time in ages while writing the above paragraphs. And I must say that, just like me, it hasn’t aged well. The Andy Wallace mix seems a bit over the top now and locks the sound completely into the late ’80s/early ’90s. I can say that the songs that haven’t been played to death on the airwaves (“Stay Away,” “On a Plain”) can still bring back some of that initial power I felt back in the fall of 1991. It was a feeling that anything can happen. Alas, real life has a way of derailing those feelings.

The Jayhawks - Hollywood Town Hall (Def American)
Year Released: 1992 Track Featured in Special: “Waiting for the Sun”

Los Lobos - Kiko (Slash/WB)
Year Released: 1992 Tracks Featured in Special: “Dream in Blue,” “Reva’s House”

I worked on air in Ithaca for the first eight months of 1992 on Q104, which was a softer mainstream rock station that dropped in a few “modern rock” bands as a nod to the huge student population in town. I remember reading about the new Los Lobos album and couldn’t wait to hear it. The PD at Q104, Mimi Griswold, gave me an extra copy of the disc she received right after it hit stores. I quickly became fixated on the sound of Kiko and listened to it almost every night (or day, once I switched to working overnights full time) before I went to bed. I wrote a piece in Go Metric #22 in 2008 that sums up my thoughts about it pretty well:

“This was a far cry from the commercial heights of La Bamba. Kiko sounded like nothing before it—and perhaps nothing since. Percussion tracks could resemble someone stumbling through a bunch of trash cans after a night of getting wrecked on Pabst. Guitar tones eerily imitated crying voices. Woodwinds were stacked upon woodwinds, creating combinations that sound neither like a sax or a flute. The lyrics didn’t always tell full stories—they hinted at what happened, letting the listener’s imagination take hold and come to their own conclusion. Kiko is the album that turned this writer from a Los Lobos fan to a fan.”

In the fall of 1992 I moved on to work at 94 K-Rock in Utica, and once again Mimi was the PD. She gave me all the “modern rock” albums that came in for the alternative show I did on Monday nights called 94 Minutes. One of those discs I received was Hollywood Town Hall. I hadn’t heard the term alt-country at the time, but I sure knew great harmonies and Neil Young-inspired lead guitar when I heard it. I didn’t know what it was an “alternative” to, but I sure knew I liked it. As you’ll see as this list moves on, I fell hard for alt-country bands. And it started all right here.

Buffalo Tom - Big Red Letter Day (Beggars Banquet/East West)
Year Released: 1993 Track Featured in Special: “Suppose”

Pearl Jam - Vs. (Epic)
Year Released: 1993 Track Featured in Special: “Dissident”

In 1993 I discovered one could wear a tape out in a car deck. That album was Big Red Letter Day. I still have that cassette for sentimental reasons (even though the oxide started peeling off). Buffalo Tom (and Bill Janovitz in particular) showed me that modern rock bands could be just as soulful as the classic rock bands I listened to in high school. And I’m pretty sure that this was the album that made me raise the bar for what I thought was worthy enough to make the RT 20 over the years.

I am still the biggest Pearl Jam far I know. I don’t know anybody who owns more than a couple of Pearl Jam official bootlegs. I have over 100. And it all started in 1993. I thought 1991’s Ten was an okay album. But I liked all the b-sides and non-album tracks that came out during Ten’s mega-commercial run more than anything on the album itself. So I guess those cuts were priming me for a more muscular and rawer sounding Pearl Jam. And oh my do they deliver on Vs. I never thought I would become a hardcore fan of such a popular group. And I never imagined I would still be one 15 years later.

Weezer - Weezer (DGC)
Year Released: 1994 Track Featured in Special: “Say It Ain’t So”

The Figgs - Low-Fi at Society High (Imago)
Year Released: 1994 Tracks Featured in Special: “Ginger,” “Shut”

Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador)
Year Released: 1994 Tracks Featured in Special: “Silence Kit,” “Gold Soundz”

1994 was a damn fine year for music. I think one of the best in my entire life, quite honestly. And out of all that quality music, these three albums had the longest lasting impact on my life. I’ve typed enough words about The Figgs as this point to probably write a book about the band. I can’t imagine my life without them. I can imagine my life now without Weezer because, my oh my, their last three albums are such pieces of crap. But The Blue Album will always hold a special place in my musical heart for introducing me to a band I couldn’t get enough of for a decade. And Pavement’s impact on my life is pretty wide ranging, as I think they were a gateway for me to a lot of what is now known as indie rock. They were weird, but just catchy enough for me to dig them. And I dig them enough to buy a ticket for one of their reunion concerts a year before it happens. Which is downright insane.

Wilco - Being There (Reprise)
Year Released: 1996 Tracks Featured in Special: “Monday,” “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”

Whiskeytown - Stranger’s Almanac (Outpost)
Year Released: 1997 Tracks Featured in Special: “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” “16 Days”

Old 97s - Fight Songs (Elektra)
Year Released: 1999 Tracks Featured in Special: “Jagged,” “Nineteen”

The Bottle Rockets - Brand New Year (Doolittle/Slipdisc/Mercury)
Year Released: 1999 Tracks Featured in Special: “Gotta Get Up,” “Love Like a Truck”

As I wrote above in The Jayhawks entry, I really got into alt-country. If Hollywood Town Hall opened the door for me into that genre of music, these four albums issued over three years blasted that door away, threw me into the house and set me up at the kitchen table so I could sink its teeth into its bones. (And yes, it is dinner time right now, how did you ever guess? And yes, Being There is truly more than alt-country.)

Just like The Figgs, I can’t imagine my life without Wilco. And the first two singles from this double disc, “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and “Monday,” never fail to make me feel better. I got to see the band for the first time a month after Being There was released, and it was such a cathartic and joyous experience that I’ve only missed five of their New York shows over the past 13 years. Wilco have made better records since, but they’ve never made an album brings me as much child-like joy as this one.

Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac might be the best depressing album since Blood on the Tracks. What I wrote five years ago (in the “15 albums I missed” list) still holds true: “The songs on this first half of this album are so depressing that listening to it when I came home unhappy made my own shortcomings seem less imposing. Pining for that girl that lives thousands of miles away? Put on the opening track, ‘Inn Town.’ Upset that your moves on a certain girl didn’t work at a party? Skip directly to track two, ‘Excuse If I Break My Own Heart Tonight.’ Can’t get a certain person to fall for you after a concert, despite the mounting evidence that the two of you would be a good couple? Try track five, ‘Everything I Do.’ I like a full-service depression effort.”

Old 97s and The Bottle Rockets also fit snugly in the world of alt-country, but come at it from different angles. Old 97’s approach it with a pop ear, as singer Rhett Miller writes gems about unrequited love and broken hearts with a perfect balance of hooks and country twang that warms the cockles of my heart. The Bottle Rockets approach it from, well, the beer side. Brand New Year is an album that rocks. And when I say rocks, I mean it’s one of those stupid, big riff-filled, pounding a six pack of beer to, ROCK in capitol letters type of albums that came out in the ’70s. It’s like a Molly Hatchet or Outlaws record, but done by people who have talent. Singer Brian Henneman spits out lyrics like someone stole the last shot of whiskey he ordered (and back then, before he quit drinking, that might have been the case). Both of these albums inspired me to seek out each of their respective catalogs, and I’ve been rewarded ever since.

The Gentlemen - Ladies and Gentlemen (Hearbox/QDivision)
Year Released: 2000 Tracks Featured in Special: “Off With Its Head,” “Through With You”

I could probably write an entire RT 20 about the various reasons I’ve needed to listen to this album over the past nine years. Except I couldn’t do that while listening to it, because I lose focus whenever I hear the opening notes to “Sour Mash.” It took me 10 minutes to write that first line because when the disc started, I just sat at my keyboard, not typing, enjoying the AC/DC-meets-Elvis Costello-crossed-with-The Faces sound of Ladies and Gentlemen. How did this album change my life? I’m not sure. But I know that my life wouldn’t be as good without it.

Bright Eyes - I’m Wide Awake Its Morning (Saddle Creek)
Year Released: 2005 Tracks Featured in Special: “First Day Of My Life,” “We Are Nowhere And It’s Now”

Josh Rouse - Nashville (Rykodisc)
Year Released: 2005 Tracks Featured in Special: “It’s the Nighttime,” “Carolina”

Spoon - Gimme Fiction (Merge)
Year Released: 2005 Tracks Featured in Special: “My Mathematical Mind,” “Sister Jack”

Nada Surf - The Weight is a Gift (Barsuk)
Year Released: 2005 Tracks Featured in Special: “Do It Again,” “Blankest Year”

2005 was one of the momentous years of my life. I discovered a new way to listen to music (the iPod), became good friends with someone whose enthusiasm about music rubbed off on me and inspired me (the concert pal, Moria Miller) and I discovered the awesomeness that is being the front guy for a band (Bunnie England and the New Originals). If I hadn’t gotten emotionally screwed over so much, it would have been the best year ever. And just like 1994, 2005 is certainly in the running for the best year of my musical life. These four albums had a huge influence on what I’ve listened to in the past four years. I ended up getting the entire catalogs of all four acts and made sure to see them at almost every performance they’ve done in the New York area. And I can honestly say that if I had to narrow these 20 years to down to just five albums (like on the RT 20 podcasts), The Weight is a Gift and Nashville would be in there. Both albums are stepped in heartbreak but find a way to turn that negative into a positive. That’s a talent I wish I could master.

Okkervil River - The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)
Year Released: 2007 Tracks Featured in Special: “Plus Ones,” “Unless It’s Kicks”
The Stage Names helped me rediscover how fulfilling a set of great lyrics can be. Exhibit a, “Plus Ones.” On the surface it seems like a typical picking apart of a failed relationship. Then one look at a lyric sheet shows just how incredible this song is:

“You would probably die before you shot up 9 miles high
Your eyes dilated as light plays upon the sight
Of TVC16 as it sings you goodnight.
Relaxed as hell and locked up in cell 45,
I hope you're feeling better.

The 51st way to leave your lover, admittedly,
doesn't seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others,
leaving its scars all in the after hours of some Greenpoint bar”

Will Sheff has a way with words as good as any songwriter of the past decade. And he might be the only songwriter that makes me feel smarter after listening to one of his albums.

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