Every year my music collection grows by leaps and bounds. When I was a kid I had to save up my money and make careful decisions as to which albums I’d buy with my hard-earned dough.
Unless I could score one of those Columbia House “10 CDs for a penny!” deals. Then you could load up on whatever they’d let you have for free real quick.
These days I’ve got Google Play and Spotify accounts. And my library has, as of today, 26,587 songs in it. I LOVE finding cool new stuff to listen to and engaging my completist tendencies to round out my collections of favorite artists. Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist is one of my favorite things in the world.
But yesterday I started thinking about which albums really changed my life. Which ones were not just enjoyable to but also came into my life at just the right moment to really change the course of things?
Three albums came to mind. And the interesting thing is that only one of them will really stand the test of time as a great album. The other two just happened to be the right music at the right time to tweak my brain into a new life direction.
And they’re old albums of course. After listening to and playing so much music in my life I doubt there’s anything out there that would cause me to alter my life in any drastic way now. But I’m certainly always looking for it. 🙂
Let’s get on with it.
Hooked On Classics II (1982)
This album by Louis Clark conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with the Royal Choral Society is an abomination of classical music. Each track crams a ton of famous themes into 3-5 minutes and lays a rudimentary kick/snare from a drum machine underneath the whole thing.
Make no mistake… This is a terrible album. The orchestral performances are fine. But the arrangements with the stupid beats layered beneath them will make you think you’re watching an ill conceived Disney parade.
But this album changed my life. It was one of the first albums I ever owned and an early exposure to orchestral music.
My brother and I used to create an orchestra full of toy instruments mostly out of Tinker Toys. We’d lay them out by section on the floor of our playroom and put this record on. Then we would run around like crazed wild dogs attempting to “play” every instrument as it came up in the music.
“Trumpet part! Run! I’ll get the violin section over here!”
It was ridiculous and we were sweaty messes by the end of the album. (Which is probably why, to this day, I judge the quality of my own shows by how drenched I am by the end…) But for both of us it was a first experience with critical listening to music. Not just letting it waft over me, but engaging with the music actively and trying to pick out each of the parts and how they worked together.
Girls Girls Girls by Motley Crue (1987)
When you saw that title you thought one of two things. “Oh my god, cheesy hair metal.” Or “That album? Dr Feelgood or Too Fast For Love are way better albums!”
Granted. Right on all accounts. Dr Feelgood is a better album and bigger hit. Too Fast For Love was way more raw and edgy. And all of it is super cheesy hair metal.
And this wasn’t even my first foray into the musical world of spandex and Aqua Net. That happened the year before when I heard a new band mixed among the Foghats and Foreigners that were the mainstay of my local rock station. And when I heard “Talk Dirty To Me” by Poison I went out to buy that album.
“Are they women?” my dad asked upon seeing the cover. But Poison was only one step removed from the Journey and AC/DC being repeated ad infinitum on the radio. It was still fun party music. Just with longer receipts from the cosmetics store.
Girls Girls Girls was my second purchase on that road and it was different. Darker, dangerouser. (I know that’s not a word, but I like it.) Leather and motorcycles and what all.
There were better role models I could have picked up for such things. Motorhead, say. But that’s not what the universe presented to me that day. All I knew was the girl who had a mohawk and lived up the street from me had a Motley Crue patch on her denim vest. So they must be worth a listen.
Right from the first song, this album taught me that music could be uncomfortable, scary, challenging. It literally raised my heart rate. Not out of excitement. Out of fear. Out of the idea that maybe I shouldn’t be listening to this.
Of course, I eventually got accustomed to it and went further afield. Metallica, Slayer, Carcass… Always looking for that new hit of “this might be too much.”
And I’d argue that the same spirit of challenging the listener to experience something unexpected filters right into the comedy music I write now. When people laugh uncomfortably at a joke and consider their own beliefs on a subject it makes their heart pound a little too.
Sign O’ The Times (1987)
’87 was a big year. I was 14, so it’s to be expected. I had gotten away from the pop music of my youth. Shout out to KWSS. Mr Mister, Madonna, Cutting Crew, Billy Joel, Culture Club, A-Ha… All that stuff. I’d even got away from the rap mixtapes my friends traded. And I hated Prince.
(Oof… I hated typing that sentence just now…)
I’d heard the hits from Purple Rain and totally didn’t get it. My brother and I ACTIVELY didn’t like his music. We made jokes about it.
For some reason I was given Sign O’The Times for Christmas that year. I don’t remember asking for it. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand it on the first couple listens either. The production was weird. So dry. And so much going on.
But I was getting accustomed to seeing that an album had something important to give even if I wasn’t ready to get it yet. And I saw that with this album. So I kept listening until I got it. And it blew my mind.
Pop music didn’t have to be just the shiny produced stuff on the radio. It also didn’t have to sound the same all the time. It could mix all these different styles… rock, funk, blues, folk.. the sacred and the profane.
And from the time I started writing songs I never wanted to be stuck writing in one style. You can still hear that in my work. I’ll use whatever sound suits the story.
This isn’t even my favorite Prince album. For those I gravitate toward Around The World In A Day or The Symbol Album. But Sign O’The Times came at just the right time to click my understanding of music into another gear and the effects have guided my musical career since then.
Sure there are other landmark albums in my life… Earth vs. The Wildhearts, Master of Puppets, Butch Walker and the Let’s Go Out Tonites, Appetite For Destruction, Music In Our Mess Age, Real People…. But the reasons I find them valuable stem from those three old records that were in the right place at the right time.
The great thing about music is that nobody else has the same experience with those albums as I do. Nobody else would even utter them in the same breath, let alone have the same reasons to cite them. Everyone has their own life-changing albums for different reasons.
So, what are your life changing albums?