Things I Love: 10 Albums That Influenced My Life

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Happy Forced Romance, Candy and Flowers Day (brought to you by Hallmark!)! It’s the day when we all want to punch a tiny fat angel in the face, but in a totally loving way.

In honor of this most stupid of holidays, I present to you what I hope will be a weekly series of posts on the Things I Love. Someone told me recently I should do more regular things on my blog. After I told them that I would honor their request by telling them to SUCK IT every Monday, I realized that wasn’t such a bad idea. So, I start with the 10 Albums That Influenced My Life.

This list is different from the 10 Albums That Influenced My Drinking or the 10 Albums That Punched Me in the Nads. Those will be upcoming. This list is about the ten records that most effected who I am as a person, musician and music fan. I got the idea for this list from venerable music aficionado and local dj David Sadoff who tagged me in a Facebook meme about the same subject.

Feel free to post your own.

10. KISS – Alive II

KISS Alive III can still remember the way this album smells. I had the poster version of the inside of this album on my wall along with Ace Frehley and his flaming guitar. In third or fourth grade, KISS was virtually all I could think about.

Until this, I was influenced heavily by what my mom listened to in the car on the way to school. Fortunately, that was mostly oldies, light rock and R&B stations, so I was a kid of the 70’s hearing The Beatles, The Zombies, The Hollies, Marvin Gaye, Elvis, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, James Taylor, The Little River Band and other great music that wasn’t disco.

But, KISS was it for me. I had their trading cards and was a member of the KISS Army. I dressed up as Gene Simmons one Halloween when I was about 10. I used to draw their logo in class when I was bored and talk about the rumors of them being devil worshipers at recess – clearly appropriate talk at a parochial school.

I can’t say I listen to this album or KISS in general that much anymore, but it was the first record I had my parents didn’t understand and the first record I had that you could play really loud and it made sense. That had a huge impact on me.

9. Mark Whitfield – The Marksman

Mark Whitfield - The MarksmanNoting this album is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that this list does not necessarily list my FAVORITE albums of all time, but rather the one’s that had the biggest influence on me. Second, it is important because this was the first traditional jazz music I had ever heard.

I was 19 or 20 and working in a music instrument store. Someone at some music distributor screwed up and thought we were a record store and sent us promo after promo of new records. This was the beginning of grunge, so I remember distinctly getting Pearl Jam’s Ten and everyone in the store sitting around and saying, “Who’s this 70’s band that made a record?”

Whitfield’s disc was the only jazz CD we received, but we all liked listening to it even though we were all pretty much hard rock and metal guys. It was relaxing when you had been dealing with kids sitting in the back room and trying to play “Sweet Child of Mine” all day. It also helped me to realize that jazz music wasn’t just instrumental rock or thereabouts.

This album lead me to explore the world of jazz. Before long, I was listening to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Milt Hopkins, Joe Henderson, Winton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk. A lot of that was also due to my ex-wife, Rebecca, but it was Whitfield that started me down that path and, for that, I’m eternally grateful.

8. Al Di Meola – Elegant Gypsy

Al Di Meola - Elegant GypsyAt a time when I thought the only fast guitar players in the history of music had names like Yngwie and Vai, Di Meola was a revelation to me. I got a copy of Elegat Gypsy on cassette as a whim and was absolutely blown away. Being a teenager, I had limited depth of musical knowledge and this stuff was pretty heady to me.

Maybe just as importantly, it was my introduction into the world of Latin music. The first Latin rhythms I remember hearing were on this record. That ultimately lead to Salsa and Afro-Cuban music along with bossa nova and others. It was what gave me the foundation to know how to play a basic samba when I started playing in a Latin rock band.

It didn’t hurt that the musicianship on this record was off the charts, but the influence to me was more about feel and style than skill. It gave me the perspective that maybe 15-year-olds don’t actually know everything. Shocking, I know.

7. George Winston – December

George Winston - DecemberI was about 17 or 18 and I was looking for an album that had “Carol of the Bells” on it. For some reason, I really liked that Christmas song and I had even tried to crudely replicate all the parts on bass using just two tape decks in my bedroom.

I went over to Sound Warehouse near my house and dug through the bin of Christmas music as it was nearing the holidays. Most of the versions I found were vocal and I wanted an instrumental version. I found December and took it home not having any idea just what a phenomenal album I found next to The Chipmunks Christmas Album.

On first listen, I was immediately relaxed. To this day, it is the most relaxing thing I can listen to that isn’t a sound made by nature. The piano is so spare and so beautiful and it just sounds like winter.

Winston’s work has since been remastered and featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things, but it was that holiday in the mid-80’s when I first found what would ultimately rank as not just one the most influential albums of my life, but also one of my favorites.

6. Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin - Houses of the HolyI had never heard “Stairway to Heaven.” Impossible as it may seem given my love of Led Zeppelin, when I was a kid, I never listened to them. Even throughout my teenage years when I finally heard Stairway and a few of the other album hits, I was not moved to go out an buy any Zeppelin.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I bought Houses of the Holy completely randomly off of one of those “10 Albums for a Penny” lists. I think I got it mixed in with Tom Petty, the Cult and Rod Stewart (the old stuff, not that “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” shit). It was the CD version – one of the first discs I ever owned in fact. I dropped it in the player and was absolutely floored.

How had I never listened to them before? To this day, “Song Remains the Same” is one of my favorite songs by the band, but all the amazing stuff on this record blows me away. As a bassist, I learned it backward and forward. John Paul Jones quickly rose to the top of my list of favorite bass players where he still sits today.

Later, I got II, ZoSo, Physical Grafitti and others, but Houses of the Holy remains my favorite Zeppelin album and one of the most important albums of my life.

5. Rush – Exit…Stage Left

Rush - Exit Stage LeftWhen you are a young rock bass player and living in the 1980’s, there are a few guys you are probably going to worship. Geddy Lee tops that list.

What is interesting about Rush, and often overlooked, is that they were a really fantastic ROCK band. Sure, they were progressive and they wrote really long songs, but they were as balls out rockin’ as pretty much anyone. This live record (one of three live records on my list, ironically) demonstrated that fact.

To this day, Rush still sells out arenas and stadiums around the world. The fact that they aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is worth its own blog post. But, for my purposes here, this record changed how I viewed rock music and Lee certainly changed my bass playing. It made me realize that rock music – remember I was a metal head in the 80’s – didn’t have to be rhythmically boring and it didn’t have to follow the construct of pop music.

Exit…Stage Left changed my attitude about rock music and that, in and of itself, is more than enough to get it on this list, but the influence of Lee’s playing pushes it into the top 5.

4. Atlantic Rhythm & Blues – 1947-1974

Atlantic Rhythm & Blues - 1947-1974As I mentioned above, my mom listened to oldies in the car fairly often. Artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket and others were all in the rotation and all of them were on Atlantic Records.

I bought this boxed set in the early 90’s at a time when my musical influences were changing dramatically. Much like hearing the blue and red Beatles greatest hits albums and trying to figure out how I knew the words to all the songs, hearing the songs in this boxed set was like listening to the voices of old friends from my childhood.

Disc 7 (1967-69) was, by far, the one that resonated with me the most. “Respect,” “Soul Finger,” “Skinny Legs and All,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of the Bay,” “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Think”…were all songs I loved and remembered.

As a musician, it influenced how I played and the grooves I liked. As a person, it deepened my ongoing love affair with R&B and soul music, something a white kid from the suburbs didn’t normally hear.

It became such a point of reference for me in music too. I could immediately spot music in films I had never even thought about before. The Blues Brothers suddenly made sense as more than just a funny movie. It also helped me to realize, when doing further study, just how important the music of that era was for America and how it viewed black people.

Needless to say, it is right at home on this list.

3. Van Halen I

Van Halen IWhen I was in middle school and high school, I used to HATE having to cut the grass. To this day, I absolutely abhor doing yard work. I’m sure it didn’t help that my parents had a fence overgrown with honeysuckle and the bees loved it. I got stung at least once every summer from the age of around 10 to about 17.

For at least a couple of summers, the thing that got me through it was listening to Van Halen I on my little Walkman. In fact, I listened to it so much, I vividly remember being out in the yard cutting the grass and hearing this high pitched squeal. It was the tape disintegrating.

Few albums have ever been equal parts fun and serious music as Van Halen’s debut record. The musicianship was off the charts. The songs were memorable. And the fun-loving goofiness of frontman David Lee Roth pulled it together and kept it from becoming too serious.

This is still one of my all-time favorite records, but it’s influence on me was so significant because it was the first record I ever loved from beginning to end. There were no songs to be skipped. I loved them all. To this day, that is a rarity for me. I can probably count on less than both hands the number of albums I like from beginning to end.

It was also important to me because the whole thing felt like controlled chaos and that was really attractive. Sure, it was loud and crazy, but there was a measure of control exerted over the music that made it almost adult music for kids. It was serious in its execution, but fun as hell. And it SOUNDED AMAZING.

The combination of the great songs, the sonic quality, the ridiculous musicianship and the unbridled joy of this record left an indelible mark on me and it is probably the primary reason for my love of loud rock music – the kind that is only half as good when it isn’t cranked on your stereo.

2. The Beatles – Revolver

The Beatles - RevolverThe first Beatles albums I ever heard were the blue and red greatest hits compilations. I vividly remember driving to Austin on my way to my first year of college at University of Texas and my roommate put in a cassette he made with cuts from the two records. I couldn’t understand how I knew every song I heard.

Fact is, the Beatles are like that. Even if you don’t know them, you KNOW them. They are a part of pop music consciousness. When I was a kid, there was a station in Houston that played ALL Beatles music – KBTL. There always seem to be shows like “Breakfast with the Beatles” on radio and they are a never ending source of influence for musicians around the world.

After hearing that, I bought the White Album, knowing the name and thinking I should buy it. I loved it. But, it wasn’t until I bought Revolver that I discovered the band that would be my favorite of all time.

I purchased the vinyl version from some used record shop. It was ratty around the edges, but the vinyl was pristine. I didn’t really know the songs on it except “Elanor Rigby” (the reason I bought it) and “Yellow Submarine” (I probably heard it on Sesame Street). I vaguely knew “Good Day Sunshine” and had heard “Taxman.” I thought “Got To Get You Into My Life” was an Earth Wind and Fire song, since they had covered it in the 70’s.

But, it was the deeper cuts on the album that blew me away. “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “She Said She Said,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” these were all amazing songs that I listened to over and over and over.

When I got to the final song on side two the first time, I almost turned off the stereo before it came on. Then, I heard that sitar and “Tomorrow Never Knows” came blaring out of the stereo. I turned it up louder and was mesmerized. The thick layers of sound, the backward guitar, the frenetic horns, the deep foundation groove and Lennon’s pinched and squeezed vocals were transcendent to me, and I wasn’t even stoned!

The Beatles were such innovators in so many ways and I figured that out firsthand with this album. “Tomorrow Never Knows” may be the first recorded example of what we think of today as “loops” since the bass and drums never change throughout the entire song.

This album completely opened my mind to the possibilities of pop music. It fundamentally altered my perception of pop music and turned me from a guy who liked the Beatles into a full-fledged fan. It was from this point forward that I listened endlessly to Beatles records and dissected them musically to figure out how they did it. Revolver was a sea change for my life as a person and a musician.

1. Sting – Bring On the Night

Sting - Bring On the NightIt may seem strange to have this at number one. It’s not a terribly well known record and it’s not really like anything else on the list. Let me explain.

In the summer of 1987, I was hanging out with my friend at his house and he mentioned he had this documentary about the guy from the Police. We sat down to watch it and I was completely floored.

As a teenager who brushed off virtually anything that wasn’t hard rock, heavy metal or some musical masterpiece with underlying heaviness, seeing guys this good play music that grooved this hard without a loud or even distorted guitar shook my world.

In every sense of the word, this ROCKED! It was intense. It was driving. More than that, it was funky as HELL. This band made up of incredible young jazz musicians just blew like crazy and it really freaked me out. I immediately bought Dream of the Blue Turtles and the live CD listed here.

It forced me to re-think everything I had thought about music in the past and re-define what rock music was to me. It began one of the most important periods of musical discovery in my life and lead me to some of the most influential records including several on this list.

I won’t say that without it I never would have discovered jazz or The Beatles. But, I definitely think it would have slowed that process dramatically.

When things influence us, they open us up to new possibilities and give us ideas we never would’ve had before. Bring On the Night absolutely did that for me and it remains a seminal musical moment in my life.

Your turn. Comment and add some of your own. Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day.

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