This list was started a year ago when folks were listing their “15 most influential albums” on Facebook. John and Nicole had both listed theirs and I always want to play along, but as always had to obsess over it first. Just making a list without any explanation wasn’t working; more than explaining to anyone else, I found I had to pick through my list and work out for myself why each album should be included. The original list was much, much longer; but despite the fact that some people (cough, John)decided to ignore the 15 album limit, I decided to play by the rules. I’ve come back to this list on occasion adding or removing something as the mood hit me over the last year and finally think I’ve got something I can settle on. This was originally a Facebook trend, but having spent so much time on it I think it deserves a more permanent home, so here it is.
In working on it, I was amazed to realize how much I do process through music and how much I really think the way I think and how I approach the world has been shaped by the music I cling to. It could be argued that maybe I’m just picking my soundtrack according to how I feel and matching the music to myself, but I think that there definitely has been significant shaping done by what I’ve listened to as well. Apart from the first album, these are in no particular order. Some of them have names or places associated with them, but not all of them. These were just quick association notes to myself, but I'm not deleting them, mostly because I'm lazy.
Without further ado, here is the list it only took me a year to complete:
1) Swamp Ophelia - Indigo Girls.
In high school, when I got to ASMS, my roommate Traber had a cd collection heavily influenced by his lesbian older sister. So searching through his music, I stumbled upon Swamp Ophelia. When I graduated, Jay gave me a copy of the album, which Mason later bore the brunt of. After playing that one to death, I think I've bought the cd at least twice and once on iTunes and I still listen to it as much as almost anything else. This album totally taught me how to love people, self included. Think I’m crazy if you will, but that last sentence is closer to understatement than it is to hyperbole.
2) The Red Headed Stranger- Willie Nelson mason
Stardust - Willie Nelson dean
(I know this is two albums, but I'm counting them as one because they are both Willie Nelson and both came to me at the same time and their effect is combined.)
I already liked Willie Nelson. I've always liked Willie Nelson; my first clear memory of a song is of him singing "The City of New Orleans", which still might be my favorite song of all time. But these albums began my appreciation of him as a special, unique talent beyond this image of him: pony-tail, beard, bandana, and New Balances. Dean gave me Stardust and Mason introduced me to The Red Headed Stranger and both blew my mind. After ingesting these two albums, I can pick out not just his voice, but his guitar playing anywhere. These two do really showcase his special way of singing though. Also, both are perfect albums. Not just a collection of good songs, but the whole albums have coherent feels, listening to them in their entirety takes you somewhere. Stardust remains one of my favorite albums to listen to going to sleep.
Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen fits in here somewhere, even though it isn’t a Willie Nelson album and I’m not going to give it its own number. Mason introduced me to it around the same time and I always think of it in conjunction with The Red Headed Stranger because it is also a perfect album. You have to listen to the whole thing and it takes you somewhere.
3) Wrecking Ball - Emmylou Harris mason
Mason brought this cd to the apartment after having visited his parents. Both he and his sister or mother had bought it to give his dad for his birthday so he kept the extra copy for himself (us). We were already fans of Emmylou, but this was a whole other ballgame. On this album, she really catapulted from warbling songbird into this ethereal angel, but not a gentle angel hovering over a baby's crib but one singing out of a twilight thunderstorm. I think also the accidental over buying of this cd happened more than a few times, with two people simultaneously buying it and then gifting it to others. That or us losing it, then rebuying it, then finding the lost copy, then giving one away, then really losing it and rebuying. Actually, I think maybe Mason accidentally brought back his dad's copy at some point, who then went and bought a new one, so we kept the extra, but this album kept on reproducing somehow (this was before burning cd's). We had the same strange occurrence with a Bob Dylan cd, going to put it back in the cd binder only to discover that there was already another copy there; giving one away, then having it happen all over again. This was when we lived on Short Street, with all our insane neighbors and when Brock and I became each other's sidekick and Dean and I started dating. I always listened to music when I slept, and he stayed at my house quite a bit because he had just moved back to the city and was living with his parents at the time. The music was sometimes not to his taste, though he didn't much complain, but when I put this in, he immediately asked what it was and if memory serves me correct went out and bought it (or took one of the reproducing copies from us). When he didn't like what I had selected, he would ask if we could listen to Wrecking Ball or Stardust as a sort of diplomatic way of vetoing my selection.
4) Everything But the Girl, Acoustic - Everything But the Girl rusty, john
My freshman year, while still very much in the closet, I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman named Rusty. His casual matter-of-factness and easy intimacy did an enormous amount to help me begin to feel comfortable in my own skin, particularly with regards to my sexuality. He introduced me to the acoustic album by Everything But the Girl, though I think I had also already listened to it at the listening station at Millennium Music on King Street and in John's collection of cd's. The songs on this album are so beautiful and heart wrenching, but also soothing and comfortable at the same time. I would listen to it on repeat, grabbing certain songs and just diving into them and drown myself in the feeling of the music. Their version of "Alison" was also my first introduction to Elvis Costello. Several of the songs on this album are about touring for them I suppose, but also about being away from home and the sacrifices made to live a traveling life as well as the joy of it. Already then I was pulled by the wanderlust that has marked my life, but now really forced to travel and ripped away from home by my job, I feel like listening to this album was early conditioning for this life, like having the feelings from these songs stored and digested inside me has made this life easier. Perhaps that sounds silly, but I mean it.
5) Rabbit Songs - Hem florida
Most other albums on here came to me through someone else, or at least are strongly associated with someone else from the beginning. This is all me. When I was in Pensacola, going out of my mind and worked to death and emotionally parasitized by my job at the camp, I would go to the Barnes and Noble and stay for hours on my day off. Reading, but also sitting at the music listening station. I saw they had a Patty Griffin cd and I sat to listen to it, but they had the stations mislabeled and instead I heard Rabbit Songs. I think I listened to almost the entire album before buying it. At night, after the kids finally went to sleep, I would lay on my cot and put my head phones in and listen to this album over and over and over again. Every night. It was just so beautiful and peaceful. And when I finally escaped Florida and was starting over in New York, they came with me, providing the quieter part of the soundtrack for this new adventure. Even though their other albums are brilliant, this is still the one.
6) Exile in Guyville - Liz Phair - ASMS mix tape
I think we were on some kind of class trip at ASMS (special projects rock climbing trip maybe?), and someone was playing a mix tape which had "Divorce Song" on it. I got so sucked into the song, asked who it was and what album it was on. That song is kind of the saddest song in the world, but also in a weird way hopeful. But it wasn't just the song. The whole album, wow. I've gone through several stages of listening to it on repeat in different times in my life and obsessed with different songs each time. Having just said that each of the songs has taken on a larger than life meaning at one time or another, it should be said that “Fuck and Run” holds a special place, hitting some feeling that I didn’t know anyone could say out loud and feeling like it was written just for me.
7) Little Earthquake - Tori Amos
Like so many other things, I was introduced to Tori Amos at ASMS, and at first I found her kind of annoying. I never really put on her cd's, but so many other people did, particularly this one, and suddenly one day I realize that I know all the songs and it is the soundtrack to so much and so many intense adolescent moments. After graduation, I went to one of her concerts at the Alabama Theater in Birmingham with Robert, Liz, and Jay. One of the best concerts I've ever seen and perhaps the most intensely awkward situations I've lived through (I smile as I write this). Years later, I steal Mason's copy of this cd and start listening to it on repeat. He has always had it, but never listens to it, because "Winter" (easily her best song) breaks his heart right down the middle and puts him in a blue funk like you've never seen (not kidding). I love "Winter" and usually stole it to specifically listen to that (not out of spite, I just like the song) but this time I kept listening to the whole album. "China" is drastically underrated, but at this time, Ben was actually in China, so suddenly this album did to me what it does to Mason. Of course, unlike Mason, I purposely listen to and like singing all the saddest songs in the world. And listening to her sing “China” made me feel like someone knew what I felt like having my love all that distance away. China, all the way to New York. Again, this song was written just for me.
7) Mermaid Avenue - Billy Bragg and Wilco
I can't imagine why John left this off his album list. It was a mistake. We listened to this so much in college it is ridiculous. And for years after college. I'll occasionally hear one of the songs from it and remember it and then I've got to hunt it down and listen to it on repeat. I inexplicably don’t have a single song from it on my computer right now. This combined effort is easily better than anything else either Billy Bragg or Wilco has done separately.
8) Ecce Homo - The Hidden Cameras
Bought off the merch table at what I think was their first show in NY. They were the first of five acts that night at the Mercury Lounge and blew my mind. This was the band I had waited for. Joel Gibb was working the table after the performance and was self-conscious about this album because he didn't think the recording was of good quality and tried to convince me to buy their EP instead (this is before they had done a full length studio album), but this had the songs I wanted to hear. As one of the other members of the band flirted with my then boyfriend Nate, both Gentleman Reg and Owen Pallett flirted with me. Everyone was in a good mood and flirty that night. I was waiting for Joel to emerge from behind the table, which he finally did and we started chatting... and I came down with a horrible fever. No other symptoms. Just an insane fever. So instead of forging a friendship with the members of my new favorite band ever or staying to see Adam Green of the Moldy Peaches sing, Nate bundled me into a cab and I spent the night praying that I wouldn't suffer brain damage from the worst fever I've ever had in my life. I was fine the next morning. And I had made the right choice. Despite the warnings about the quality, Ecce Homo was amazing. Many of the songs have made it onto subsequent albums, but I still haven't found another source for "High on the Church Grounds".
9) 69 Love Songs - The Magnetic Fields brock
When I met Brock, it was kind of like falling in love, except that wasn't what happened, though for years afterwards, depending on whether they felt threatened by me or confused by him (or conversely, threatened by him or confused by me), his girlfriends (and my boyfriends) periodically suggested that either one or both of us were in love with the other. And perhaps they were right, it just was never romantic. He had just moved back to the city, and our awkwardness and confidences complemented one another and we fast became partners in crime. If he was one thing, it was the king of indie rock. His bedroom in his apartment (later our apartment) was so stuffed with cd's that you had to walk over them. Piles of them everywhere, a foot deep. I'm reminded of walking over them, trying to tread lightly and distribute my weight so they wouldn't crack when I walk on the crabs in the live-hold on the boat. He had always heard of every band before you and knew all the obscure releases. And listened to a whole lot of crap. But occasionally he did really knock it out of the park with discovering new things before anyone else. He saw Belle & Sebastian coming way before anyone else. Even when he found great things, I feel like I was a hard sell and other people might play me songs by them and I would pass on it, then he would sit me down and pick out just the right song to stop me in my tracks and make me reevaluate their music. For Belle & Sebastian it was "I Don't Love Anyone"; he was not the last person to tell me that they thought it was my theme song. I suppose I'm just that kind of grump. I always took it as a compliment. (In fact, I love everyone.)
He played me a few Magnetic Fields songs before "Papa Was a Rodeo", but it was the one he sat me down and told me I had to listen to, again my theme song. And he was right. Holy shit if this didn't catch all of my world weary skepticism and still sort of hopefulness about romance. And it was by a gay band, written by a gay song writer who didn't hide this orientation in the music. And it wasn't just a gimic, Stephin Merritt is one of the best song writers there is. These days, I can find quite a few gay artists who are actually good, but at the time, this was a first for me. Erasure and the Pet Shop boys might have been plenty gay, but they never said "grand pianos crash together when my boy walks down the street." I didn't know you were allowed to sing that! Listening to these songs helped me more than I'd like to admit in becoming comfortable being gay and helping make that identity a casual side note to who I am rather than this overwhelming burden.
After graduating I took a job in Pensacola working as a counselor at a wilderness camp for trouble youth. We were understaffed and underfunded and were taking kids for whom the program wasn't ideal and rushing them to complete the program at too fast a pace. This was largely because of jeb bush and his cronies in the legislature working to destroy the programs that had made Florida's juvenile rehabilitation system a model for other states. They worked to turn it from a service to help people come out better on the other side into a putative system, which is all so much politics except that I was there on the ground, there to help and finding myself drowning in the mess they made. In the little time I had off, I found Pensacola to be an amazing town, with a surprisingly alive alternative scene. A bunch of fun little bars and cool people and one great little record shop. They didn't have 69 Love Songs in stock, but they ordered it for me, and I purchased it and Tiger's Milk. Angry at the end of the day, worn out and emotionally exhausted, I would listen to "I Don't Love Anyone". It was exactly how I felt, really, at that moment. Not even Christmas.
After finally being completely out and non-secretive in Charleston and even having come out to my family, I was back in a situation where I had to be neuter. I had to be this unflappable superhuman thing, whose personal life stayed outside of work and that kind of thing really grinds at your mind. I'd listen to 69 Love Songs as a sort of therapy, rebuilding the broken down parts at night laying in my tent. I don't know that I've ever heard anyone else call it beach music, but at some point that is what it became for me. On time off, I always headed to the beach and would blast it as I rode along the water. "I'm Sorry I Love You" became my ultimate beach jam. As soon as I got past the hotels and crap, and was riding with only dunes on either side, I would play it, singing at the top of my lungs.
10) Tiger Milk - Belle & Sebastian brock
11) O.C.M.S - Old Crow Medicine Show Ben
I had read about Old Crow Medicine Show in an issue of No Depression and immediately knew I wanted to hear them. This was before this album had come out and I couldn’t find any of their earlier stuff. (It is worth noting that this same issue of said magazine was also what convinced me to buy Patty Loveless’s Mountain Soul and to find and listen to the Be Good Tanyas.) Anyway, this album came out and I wanted it but hadn’t managed to find it yet, so Ben got it for me on iTunes and burned in on a cd and made a cover for it that he put stickers on (I cannot remember if this was a gift for an occasion –Valentine’s Day or birthday or whatever- or just because I wanted it). I still have it somewhere. The album was everything I had hoped for. Here are these hillbilly fuckers with crazy harmonies and sick instrumentation singing about everything and something else. Are you allowed to sing old-timey country about cocaine? Apparently you are. But more than then just doing something new by doing something old, their songs hit a just-right cord with me. Mason had moved up to and we revived our tradition of singing together and “Wagon Wheel” quickly became our favorite hootenanny anthem. It still is.
12) The Essential Leonard Cohen - Leonard Cohen
When Mason and I first became roommates, he introduced me to Leonard Cohen via “Famous Blue Raincoat”. I knew “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” but this made me sit down and listen to it all again. The emotions in “Raincoat” are so complicated and intense; I would dive into it over and over again soaking up the intensity but also practicing that feeling of release and acceptance that the singer in this song is forcing himself to have. At this time I felt so twisted and turned and yanked around by circumstance and other people that it was a relief to hear someone sing about a situation so complicated and heartrending from somewhere approaching the other side of it. I also always felt like this was somehow the sort of situation that my brother Charlie and I would have eventually ended up in if I were straight and the potential had existed for us to fall for the same woman. Who would have been the singer and who the sung to?
But this wasn’t the only song on the album to strike a chord. “So Long, Marianne” and “Lady Midnight” and “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and… basically the whole album is brilliant, but perhaps “Chelsea Hotel #2” was the one that really got me. Partly of course there is the shock factor: I didn’t know that you could sing, “giving me head on the unmade bed”, but the shock never lasts as long as you hope. It was the sentiment in the chorus that left its lasting mark, “I never once heard you say, ‘I need you…I don’t need you…I need you… I don’t need you’ and all of that jiving around.” I pulled it out of context, but somehow the idea of never jerking a lover around with games of I-need/don’t-need-you planted a seed in my young mind as important. Partly it might have warped into an aversion to the idea of allowing need to tangle with romance, but mostly I took from it a desire to be a person who does not yank people around.
“Hallelujah” wasn’t on this album, but Mason at some point brought it to my attention (through Jeff Buckley’s version), saying that the line “All I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who out drew you,” encapsulated my experience with love (which makes more sense if you know the stories I was sharing with him of the twists and turns and backstabs that marked my early romantic life). I took this as a high compliment, but also perhaps as a warning. Being told that you knew how to outshoot someone better than you might be flattering, but it reminded me that I’d rather avoid gun fights or at least that I never want to be in them with anyone I love.
13) Prime Prine – John Prine
As an adolescent, my relationship with my father was sometimes strained. We are both stubborn and I was pretty miserable and ready to lash out at the least provocation and nurse any wounds for as long as possible. Thankfully, such bitterness can’t last too long, and I have a hard time remembering a single fight we had. What I can remember is one night him inviting me out to the car to listen to a tape he had gotten. It was John Prine. I was uptight and slightly scandalized by “Illegal Smile”, but listening to a song about pot with your dad sort of marks a crossing point where your parents start to act like real people and stop playing the character of ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’. And the music was a little silly, but really great. “Dear Abby” was the song in particular that Dad had brought me out to share. He liked the succinct advice in the chorus, and I suppose so do I. Feeling sorry for yourself has never gotten anyone very far in my family, and I hear that chorus in my head when I find myself starting to drift into self-pity. Which makes me smile and laugh at myself.
Of course, John Prine isn’t just silly songs. He’s got a special way of hitting the mark. This early introduction grew into seeking out more of his music and gave me some common ground later when I met Mason and we started talking music and singing together. It is also through Mr. Prine that I found Iris Dement; I will forever be thankful to him for that. "In Spite of Ourselves" might be the anthem of my relationship with Ben.
14) I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got – Sinead O’Connor
This album hits like a brick slamming into the side of your head. It is so beautiful and painful and other-worldly. If Sinead O’Connor only had that voice, she’d still be devastating; but the lyrics she writes… damn. She really killed us all with “Nothing Compares 2 U”, the one cover on the album, but for me it is “Black Boys on Mopeds” that puts this on my list.
For some reason, the Tiananmen Square Massacre stands out as one of the most impactful memories of my childhood. Not so much the details, but the lesson that people would kill other people who weren’t a physical threat. People kept saying everything changed after 9/11, that innocence was lost, that we now knew what horrible things people were capable of, but the whole time I kept thinking it was insane that anyone whose eyes had been open at all would not already be aware of this in spades. But I suppose that everyone needs something to strike that match of realization and for me it had been Tiananmen as a child. So when Ms. O’Connor sings, “Margaret Thatcher on tv, shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing. It seems strange that she should be offended; the same orders are given by her,” I’m already punched in the gut right from the first line. This song to me was a devastating protest song, not so much because of a call to action, but as such an unblinking witness. The blunt refusal to believe that the bad things in the world happen somewhere else or are done by a distant Other perhaps affected my political attitudes more than I know. If nothing else, it certainly resonates with me.
It is more than just that song though. The whole attitude of the album. Even just the title, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” does deserve its own mention. I would listen to it on repeat, over and over again. It starts so quietly and you can hear the hurt, but it is defiant and grows in strength and volume until it is this rattling war cry. But early on, there is a line, “You used to hold my hand when the plane took off.” As a past tense statement, it encapsulates all the hurt and makes her case for the breakup, but it is effective also because listening to it as something she had lost, it made me want someone to hold my hand when the plane takes off. This gesture became for me the ultimate romantic gesture.
15) Give Up – Postal Service
This album was hitting right as I arrived in New York. I landed in the city with barely any money, but my brother and friends from college were there and we were all clinging together and helping each other stick it out. This album (along with Le Tigre) is the soundtrack for my memories of my over-crowded dingy Greenpoint apartment. We would buy a bag of potatoes, a bag of onions, and a couple dozen eggs and this music would play while someone cooked our meager ingredients and we drank Balentine tall-boys or fourties. Something about the music was perfect. The sound was just right, the lyrics and the voices caught the tenor of our excitement and our desperation and resonated with us. I’ve never been able to fully get into either Deathcab for Cutie or Dntel, but this synthesis does it for me. It also contains both the best break-up song and best love song ever. “Nothing Better” was originally my favorite from the album, so brilliant in the counterpoint of desperate and over-it duet, but before too long, I fell hard for a certain beautiful boy and “Such Great Heights” would play over and over again in my headphones. It still does.