List: The 15 Most Influential Albums of My Life

This is a meme making the rounds at Facebook (I guess now that everyone is done writing 25 random things about themselves, they need something else to write about). The idea behind it is thus:
“Think of 15 albums, CDs, LPs that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life, dug into your soul. Music that brought you to life when you heard it. Royally affected you, kicked you in the wazzoo, literally socked you in the gut, is what I mean.”

Okay, first off: IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR AN ALBUM TO LITERALLY SOCK YOU IN THE GUT!!! Contrary to popular opinion, the term LITERALLY does not mean “a term used to express exaggeration”, it actually means the exact opposite, in that it is to be used to distinguish reality from exaggeration (or figurative speech). But, getting back on topic, this is a topic I’ve thought about in the past to use as a blog post, as I’ve seen interviews in some music magazine (maybe Spin?) where they interview musicians asking what albums changed their lives.

Of course, those interviews are generally more interesting because: A) famous people are more interesting than random bloggers (at least that’s what US Weekly tells me), and B) as musicians, they’re probably talking about albums that convinced them to become musicians and influenced their style of music. Whereas for the rest of us, we’re talking about albums that maybe helped you through a break-up/taught you about the mysteries of love/first got you laid. In my case, these 15 albums helped shape my life as a fan of music, making me the audiophile I am today. Allow me to tell you why…

1. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet
This list is organized autobiographically, starting with the earliest albums to influence my life to the most recent. Since this is the first big album of my life, this write-up will be the longest. Before this album, music wasn’t a particularly important aspect of my life. As a kid, I listened to whatever was popular, recording songs off the radio and listening to whatever my older sister was in to. As an adolescent, I listened to the hair metal bands that were popular at the time, the Poisons, the Def Leppards, the Guns N Roses, and whatnots. But then I saw the video for Aerosmith’s remake of their own hit “Walk this Way” with Run DMC, and a new interest was born. To my 10-year-old self (or possibly older, I’m not exactly sure that I caught it right away), guys in fedoras and shoelace-less Adidas were just about the coolest. My interest in hip-hop developed slowly, through kid-friendly party acts like Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, Young MC, and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Then, in 1990, I picked up this cassette and it changed my life.

I’d listen to it constantly, folding out the microscopic lyrics sheet to read along with Chuck D’s incendiary rhymes and Flavor Flav’s comic stylings. When I didn’t know what they were rapping about (which was frequently), I’d dig into encyclopedias and dictionaries to figure it out (for all you kids out there: encyclopedias are collections of paper called “books” that people used before Wikipedia). Through the power of music, a thirteen-year-old white kid in Canada started to learn and care about topics like Huey P. Newton, police brutality, and the indifference of first responders. Music was now something I genuinely cared about, rather than something I just passively experienced. It also was where most of my allowance would go from now on.
Sample Track: “Fight the Power”

2. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
Having fully immersed myself in hip-hop culture following Fear of a Black Planet, my junior high years were spent watching Rap City on MuchMusic to keep abreast on what was going on (as any hip-hop worth listening to at this point would not be played on the radio), then hoping one of the music stores in my area would carry the CD (not a certainty as a lot of it was underground/not produced in Canada). Of all the bands I would get into throughout junior high (that’s middle school for you Americans), from Digital Underground to Del tha Funkee Homosapien to Leaders of the New School, none of them made as big impression as A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore effort. The biggest appeal came from the album’s jazzy production, helping form a nascent appreciation of the art form that never really grew past Tribe and Gangstarr samples and the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. That, and all the sports apparel that Phife Dawg wore in their videos that influenced my wardrobe for years (interestingly, if you watch those videos you’ll notice that their clothes all fit, which isn’t a trend that would continue in hip-hop, but a trend I generally maintained, eschewing the ultra-baggy look. I mean, sure, my clothes were still somewhat baggy, but that’s more because I was skinny and short).
Sample Track: “Jazz (We’ve Got)”

3. 2Pac – Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z…
Given the title, I guess I wasn’t supposed to even listen to this album, much less be influenced by it. Maybe that’s why I don’t have any songs from it on my hard drive to share with you all. I remember when I first heard a track off this album: I was on vacation with my father in Seattle, and the lead off single “I Get Around” came on the urban radio station I was listening to while my dad was out of the car (an urban radio station was quite the novelty for me, as we didn’t have anything like it in Calgary). I was enjoying it quite a bit until my dad got back into the car and changed the station. I probably listened to his album more than any other during high school, not only because it was a great mix of young anger and smooth playa music for my id, and one conscious song to appeal to my super-ego, but also because I had it on cassette (I explain why this is significant in this post). 2Pac’s unmistakable charisma made him my favourite rapper, which led to my unfortunate completist need to get the CD of anything Shakur appeared in, be it forgettable soundtracks or guest verses on other CDs. And since the guy was the most prolific artist of all-time, that ended up costing me a pretty penny. Luckily, it’s a habit I gave up rather quickly after he died, or I’d still be forking out money for his songs, even though he’s been dead for over a dozen years (or “dead” depending on what conspiracy theories you believe).

4. Jodeci – Diary of a Mad Band
No sample song here either, as I’m not sure if I’ve listened to this album in well over a decade. But in high school? This was the jam. They were doing auto-tune before anyone had even heard of T-Pain. You see, I wasn’t just into rap as a teenager, I also listened to R&B (which is kinda like saying that you listen to both Country AND Western as a way to show off your musical diversity). In the intro you may have skipped, I wrote about “albums that maybe helped you through a break-up/taught you about the mysteries of love/first got you laid”, well for me, this met the first two standards, but since this was high school… notsomuch for number three. But I’m sure I dusted it off a few years later.

5. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
My favourite album from high school, Enter the Wu-Tang was a seismic shift in the world of hip-hop, just as my young loyalties looked to be going to the Westside in the all important East vs West debate. It was heady times back then. Much like with 2Pac earlier, I’m not sure whether or not this album did me more harm than good, as would spend the next several years buying all Wu-Tang related projects: some of them were great, others… not so much.

Sample Track: “Bring Da Ruckus”

6. Common – One Day It’ll All Make Sense
It’s now 1997 and I’m out of high school. I’m having fun with all the Death Row or Bad Boy releases that are getting most of the attention in the hip-hop world, but am also longing for some albums that appeal to my mind, like the ones earlier on this list used to. Which gives me something in common with, um, Common, who three years earlier decried the state of hip-hop with “I Used to Love H.E.R.“, and then did something about it with the release of One Day It’ll All Make Sense. It’s a soul-infused record that finds Common at a crossroads in life, reflecting on entering the phase of parenthood, without completely abandoning the sense of play that was a key to his earlier efforts. “Retrospect for Life”, a letter to his aborted child, was the most compelling track on the album, reminding me of how much I enjoyed music that had something thoughtful to say (even if it isn’t exactly subject matter that you can bop your head to). There were certainly other good albums to come after this one (including Common’s 2000 follow-up Like Water for Chocolate), but this is the last hip-hop album that stands out as having truly affected me.

Sample Track: “Retrospect for Life” (featuring Lauryn Hill)

7. Brand New – Deja Entendu
The list jumps from 1997 to 2003, and perhaps even more startling, jumps from the streetwise world of hip-hop to the navel-gazing world of emo. Just what the hell happened to me in those 6-7 years? And no, emo doesn’t suggest a terrible breakup (oh, there was a terrible breakup, but I was completely over it before I ever heard this album or changed my listening habits). As I got older and hip-hop got more popular, I gradually lost interest in it. There wasn’t one thing that did it, nor am I necessarily criticizing the music that was out (I don’t want to be the guy who thinks everything was better back in the old days), but as time progressed, I found myself spending less money on hip-hop albums, and then eventually only following hip-hop singles via Napster/Audiogalaxy downloads (oh, those heady days when I downloaded songs one by one). I started getting into rock music not because I especially liked it, but rather because my friends and I started going to karaoke. I enjoyed it quite a bit, in large part because it finally gave me something to do when my friends wanted to go out for a drink (when you don’t drink, as I don’t, bars can be incredibly boring places). The problem was that I needed something to sing. Unless you’re doing some gimmick song like “Baby Got Back” (and playing up the comedy aspect of it), I think rapping at karaoke is stupid. You’re basically just proving your ability to read out loud.

Sure, I also listened to R&B, but after one attempt at an Usher song, I decided that I didn’t have the pipes for that genre (plus, it felt awkward singing it in the dive bar we were frequenting). So I needed to find some songs suitable for my white boy vocal styings, and thus started to listen to the MOR hits on the radio of classic beige-rock bands like 3 Doors Down and Matchbox Twenty (or matchbox twenty, I suppose it is… they of the no capitals). Hey, I’m not proud of it, but at least they served as a gateway to better things. As time wore on, I moved on to more interesting bands like The Strokes and The Hives, but still wasn’t completely into rock music (it was tough to admit that I was no longer the hip-hop guy that I defined myself as for over a decade). Eventually, I got a job at a music store, and some of that old passion for music was reignited, just a different kind of music this time (in part because I couldn’t listen to hip-hop at work, since anything worth listening to is unsuitable for play at a chain music store). One of the albums I was listening to at work was Deja Entendu (bet you thought I forgot about what I was supposed to writing about when I started this long diatribe). I was digging it when we played it in the store (on a near daily basis), but it never completely connected until I finally bought it (one of the first albums I had bought in awhile) and listened to it at home. An album that I had heard dozens of time as the background noise of my day suddenly revealed itself to me. Suddenly, I was replaying it, pouring over the lyrics book, and thinking about it all in a way that I hadn’t thought about an album in years. In some ways, it was a callback to the very first album to influence me. You know, the one I wrote about all the way back at number one (you may have started to reading it yesterday).

Sample Track: “Guernica”

8. Tegan and Sara – If It Was You
So now I had a new type of music to be passionate about (as emo gave way to indie rock). But it probably wouldn’t have amounted to much unless I could get Kim (my then-current girlfriend and now-current wife) on board as well. She basically listened to whatever mix CD I had in the car, with me trying to tailor some of them to her tastes. But it got easier with this album, the first album I can remember her really getting into during our relationship. She fell in love with the song “Living Room” first, then the album, and finally Tegan and Sara themselves. With her new found enthusiasm, we started going to concerts, I kept buying CDs, and eventually, she bought me a record player. Thanks Tegan and Sara! You’ll always be my fave.

Sample Track: “Living Room”

9. Kathleen Edwards – Failer
Sample Track: “National Steel”

10. The Cardigans – Long Gone Before Daylight
I decided to conflate the next two albums on the list, as their influence is about the same. Both are albums that I discovered when working at Music World, coming from unexpected sources, and thus expanding my horizons. They’re also both emotionally devastating albums that Kim was able to get into alongside me. When I first heard Failer, it was near the end of the work day on a Sunday, and it was playing while I was sweeping up. Normally, I’d only be half-listening to whatever was playing at this point, but by the time it was about five songs in, I was buying a copy for myself. When I first listened to Long Gone Before Daylight, I was expecting to have a good laugh. At that point, all I knew about The Cardigans was their ear worm hit from 1997 “Lovefool” (made popular by William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). Imagine my surprise when I heard the mature, heartbreaking sound that the band had been cultivating when I wasn’t paying attention. I might’ve played that album every day for months after that.

Sample Track: “Communication”

11. The Decemberists – Picaresque
By this point, I’ve mostly defined and refined my taste in music, putting me solidly in the indie rock camp. Interestingly, I was able to expand my listening habits and enjoy music more after leaving my job at a music store. You’d think having a job where I listen to music everyday would make a music fan happy, but I was working at a chain music store, meaning that I had to play stuff that would appeal to the masses (at least some of the time), and stuff that we wanted to sell in quantities. That meant listening to a LOT of crap. When I quit to move on to bigger and better things (that ended up being an extended period of unemployment), I spent a lot of my time downloading full albums thanks to the wonderful new(ish) world of torrents. I was acquiring music faster than I could listen to it, which meant that albums that were more difficult to absorb, like this one, took awhile to reach me. Then one day, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” came up on a shuffle, I finally recognized its pure awesomeness. Which in turn led me to recognize the pure awesomeness that was Picaresque, the hyper-literate third album by The Decemberists that provided many layers for my obsessive music geek heart to peel. I’d end up having long IM discussions, breaking down the thematic meaning behind songs about sports, spies, and sea shanties.

Sample Track: “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”

12. The National – Alligator
This album is a perfect example of the double-edged sword that comes with increased access to music. On the positive side, listening to a lot of different music with ease is how I can discover an unassuming, but undeniably brilliant band like The National. On the less positive side, having a lot of different music at my fingertips makes it easier to overlook an unassuming band like The National. It’s a little like the problem I just described with The Decemberists. The difference is that it didn’t take me all that long to fall in love with Picaresque, which I listed as my favourite album of 2005, while I somehow didn’t find room for Alligator in the whole top 20 list I made that year. It is now one of my all-time favourite albums, serving as the ultimate reminder that sometimes the best things in life don’t reveal themselves right away.

Sample Track: “Secret Meeting”

13. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
While torrents have been useful in helping me keep up with new music, I’ve found it even more valuable for discovering older music. Growing up, I mostly focused on staying current, as hip-hop was very much focused on the here and now, creating and following trends while using lyrics with topical subject matter that didn’t exactly age well. But as I got more into rock music, I also got more into the classics that informed the bands I was into. Of those older albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico was the one that really knocked me flat. It sounded both classic and contemporary at the same time, and was probably the album that convinced me that my time was better spent trying to discover the greatness of the past 50 years than trying to keep up with the mediocrity of the current year.

Sample Track: “Femme Fatale”

14. Radiohead – OK Computer
The journey into music past didn’t necessarily stop with the music that my parents ignored when they were young, it also included the music I ignored while I was young. While much of my generation was discovering this album, I was busy mourning Biggie and 2Pac. When I finally came around to it, I found that it was as much of a revelation now as it must’ve been then. It shows how strong OK Computer is that an album that was very much a document of its time is as relevant ten years later, and I suspect will remain vital for decades to come.

Sample Track: “Paranoid Android”

15. Joy Division – Closer
Closer‘s influence on my life as a music fan is basically a summary of all the ways previous albums influenced me: it took me awhile to appreciate it as it’s an album with many dense layers that aren’t immediately appealing, were it not for download access I never would have discovered it, Ian Curtis’ complicated lyrics required careful listening, and when I finally “got it” — it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Sample Track: “Atrocity Exhibition”

Album Review Index
List: My Favourite Album for Every Year I’ve Been Alive
Playlist: Best Hip-Hop Songs of the 90s

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3 thoughts on “List: The 15 Most Influential Albums of My Life

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