Influential Albums – 4) Born in the U.S.A.

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

brucebornintheusaEvery Every song tells a story. All the stories collectively add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Look.  This is a “how to” study in how to sequence an album.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Steve Earle.  Really, the question of “best sequenced single album” comes down to this one and Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (assuming you agree the Beatles’ records are brilliant but all have clunker tracks). I listen to the Dylan album more, but it didn’t come out when I was approaching middle school and buying tapes. This one did, and it pretty much defined my musical understanding.

Were it not for a little too much 80s synthesizer and compression, this would be a perfect album. Like its contemporaries, Thriller and Purple Rain, every song could’ve been a hit single and more of them were than not. I’ve tried to collect all the 45s for my jukebox.

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Springsteen recorded a lot more good songs than he needed for an album, which means even the B-sides of his singles for this record are excellent. I loved singing “Johnny Bye Bye” (the B-side of the “I’m on Fire” single) when I was still in a band.

Also, Springsteen and the E Street Band iconography—New Jersey, tough-guy camaraderie, weird nicknames—pervaded my middle-school years, particularly the great 80s film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

 

 

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Influential Albums – 5) Still Life

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

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It’s not even close to the best Stones album (that’d be Exile on Main Street, with Let It Bleed and Some Girls behind). It’s not even the best Stones live album (which is probably Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out), but it’s the album that introduced me to the Rolling Stones beyond what I’d heard on oldies AM radio stations (“Get Off of My Cloud,” “The Last Time,” “Satisfaction” and a few others).

Still Life is a snapshot of early Ron Wood-era Rolling Stones. He and Keith Richards seem to be having fun bailing each other out on leads, and the 80s tracks like “Shattered” and the underrated “Let Me Go” are great. Wyman and Watts are my probably favorite rhythm section, and they make this record.

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More importantly—check out the cover songs they played. They cover Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Goin’ to a Go-Go,” Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty-Flight Rock,” the Temptations “Just My Imagination,” and their old single, Norman Meade’s “Time is on My Side.” Rockabilly, Motown, R&B—all beloved and one and the same to the Rolling Stones. They come onstage to Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and exit to Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” (this album was my first encounter with the latter).

For me, the Rolling Stones have always been about their variety and their sense of humor. This album has both.

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Influential Albums – 6) Alien Lanes

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

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7) Alien Lanes, Guided by Voices

I saw Guided by Voices perform live at Grinnell College when they toured behind this record. Elliott Smith opened. I was front row. GBV rocked harder and looked like they had more fun than any band I’d seen at that point.

Alien Lanes is abstract expressionist music, where enjoying the residual evidence of the artists’ working process is essential to the whole experience. GBV had psychedelic-ish lyrics, British Invasion melodies/harmonies, and “college radio” band ambitions that valued art over commercialism. They recorded the material on Alien Lanes on a 4-track, using the cheap technology to create very real, choppy, handcrafted music.

Like GBV-megafan Albert Hammond, Jr., I forget the names of songs on this record—at least partly because it’s such a perfect single-sitting listening album.

Understand, it doesn’t have traditional “flow” where tacks don’t blend seamlessly into one another, or tell some kind of developed coherent story. No, Alien Lanes is a perfect CD-era album where the “throwaway” tracks work as lead-ins to the amazing songs. Somehow, this calls attention to both the weird beauty of the tracks that seem like noise and to the intentionally half-assed soundscapes in the more polished songs.

The band understood this completely, which is I suspect why they made their first “big” video doing two short songs with a sudden transition: “Auditorium/Motor Away.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite from their three-album run of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. This one gets the nod mostly because of that live show in Iowa.

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Influential Albums – 7) This Year’s Model

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

7) This Year’s Model, Elvis Costello and the Attractions

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This was the first cassette I ever bought “blind,” having never heard the artist before, just based on A) a story about him in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and B) he looked like Buddy Holly, and, C) He’d worked with Nick Lowe whose Rose of England was on repeat in my tape deck.

So I had no preparation for what came blaring out of my boombox. It was the spooky organ of 60s garage bands I loved, but twice as fast. The rhythm section crammed so many notes into it–bassist Bruce Thomas floored the high-school jazz band bass player in me.

Look, if you’re talking “New Wave” —a fraught term which in the American Midwest basically meant punk with less atonality and more keyboards—there’s this record and then there’s everything else. (I’m sure someone has made the argument that it’s the first record of the ‘80s, even though it came out in 1978.) Costello knows how to write a tune, and how to balance vitriol and melody.

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Influential Albums – 8) The Blues, Vol. 1

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

8 – The Blues, Vol. 1 (Chess Records, Various Artists)

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I won’t go on about the legacy of Chess Records and how their 50s output basically gave us Rock and Roll’s Walt Whitman–Mr. Chuck Berry–and inspired the British Invasion.

When I was a little kid, the local classic rock station used to play a “Motown 5 at 5” during their evening commute segment.  This was before radio was completely segmented down to the tune, when “classic rock” and “oldies” were fairly interchangeable, and you could reasonably expect to hear Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Herman’s Hermits, Bob Dylan, and the Four Tops on the same station.

Anyway, the fifth song on the “5 at 5” was always a blues song.  It was a nice idea, but the station must’ve only had three blues albums: one was The Blues Brothers soundtrack and the other was Muddy Waters’ Hard Again (an amazing record).  The third one was this one.  So growing up, I’d hear all these classic tracks on the radio with some regularity.  “Smokestack Lightning” and “Juke”–damn. This is one of those compilations that came out after a bunch of punk bands had drawn from blues so, for example, “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” was as famous as New York Dolls cover to a lot of folks as the original was. Check out the amazing contents:

1. Don’t Start Me To Talkin’ – Sonny Boy Williamson
2. First Time I Met The Blues – Buddy Guy
3. Worried Life Blues – Chuck Berry
4. My Babe – Little Walter
5. Walkin’ The Boogie – John Lee Hooker
6. Hoochie Coochie Man – Muddy Waters
7. Reconsider Baby – Lowell Fulson
8. Smokestack Lighting – Howlin’ Wolf
9. Juke – Little Walter
10. When The Lights Go Out – Jimmy Wither
11. Just Make Love To Me – Muddy Waters
12. Spoonful – Howlin’ Wolf

This collection (along with the Robert Johnson recordings and the American Graffiti soundtrack) did the most to persuade me that the best and most interesting music had been made a few decades before I existed. My tastes were altered, preferences set. I probably never got deeply into hair metal or most “grunge” because of these early influences. And I still really love Little Walter and Chunk Berry, which I can’t say about a lot of things I liked as an early teen.

I owned this one on cassette tape, then CD, and should probably hunt down an album copy just to complete the trifecta.

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Influential Albums – 9) Still Feel Gone

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

9 – Still Feel Gone, Uncle Tupelo

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The first time I heard “Gun,” the opening track of Still Feel Gone, I was playing it on the air of a college radio station. It got to the chorus—“My heart, it was a gun. It’s unloaded now…”—and I just quit. At that point, I knew I had to stop everything I was doing (queuing up commercials, selecting the next track) and just sit there and listen to this song.

My inaction would result, of course, in the dreaded “dead air”—utter silence after the song ended. Deejays have nightmares about it. I still do. At that moment, I didn’t care. The song had spoken to me. It jumped out of the speakers and took over my life for three minutes.

I didn’t know then that this was the beginning of my lifelong love for the songwriting of Jeff Tweedy, an endlessly rewarding relationship that resulted in great concerts, great common threads for many friendships, great creative inspiration. I had no idea Wilco was ahead, or that they’d still be a major force over two decades later. Watching Tweedy and John Stirratt go from Anodyne to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is as satisfying an experience as any music fan can hope for. The Jay Farrar tracks are dynamite too, obviously. It’s a knockout.

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Influential Albums – 10) Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

10 – Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry, Spike Jonesspikejones

There’s a moment in everyone’s life where you realize you just ain’t like the other kids.  This record was mine. For my 3rd grade class “Bring a Record” day, other kids brought Village People, Tommy Tutone, and the soundtrack to Grease. I brought this. They looked at me like I was from fucking Mars.

I got this album from my aunt and uncle. My grandfather, a barbershop quartet tenor, may have been the original owner. Listening to it was the musical equivalent of growing up obsessed with Little Rascals shorts and Bob Clampett and Tex Avery cartoons (which I also did). Our local TV station would use “Cocktails for Two” as background music for their “We’ll Be Right Back” breaks during Bowery Boys movies on Sunday afternoons.

This was, in hindsight, my gateway drug into the world of novelty records, making space for Dr. Demento a few years later, and Weird Al, but also Roger Miller, They Might Be Giants, Robbie Fulks, really anyone who recognizes the artistry behind “novelty” songwriting, “answer songs,” or other tongue-in-cheek musical madness. (Sidenote: Elvis Costello named his 1989 Warner Records debut “Spike” in honor of Mr. Jones.)

The linear notes on back cover are also hilarious (and befuddled 9-year-old me).

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