There was something trying to go viral on Facebook of naming 10 albums that are important to you (and then asking 10 others to do the same). I started thinking in terms of singles rather than albums in the 90's, so the albums that stick in my mind are all quite old. Looking at the 10 I listen to most often, it's easy to see how they describe me; perhaps you are what you listen to.
In chronological order:
Paradise and Lunch by Ry Cooder (1974)
Guitar virtuoso Cooder can play anything and that's been his major fault - he'll throw in a song on Hawaiian slack-string guitar, just because he can. This is an album where the sudden changes from song to song aren't jarring and the mix of pop, rock, country, blues and gospel seem to go together. The subjects range from a medley about smoking to infidelity. The last song is the classic "Across the Borderline," featuring some vocals in Spanish by the actor Harry Dean Stanton; the song is about how immigrants from Mexico look at the border as the line between between them and their dreams and, when they cross, they're still just across a border.
The Modern Lovers by The Modern Lovers (1976)
This was a fluke masterpiece. Non-singer Jonathon Richman was backed by future members of The Talking Heads and the Cars in songs about young love, driving fast (with the radio ON), and trying to find one's place among the new and the old. The themes of the songs penetrate each other and form a cohesive whole. The last song, "Government Center," is about how, having quit their jobs to form a band, they figure they should show the people signing their unemployment checks where the money's going by throwing them a concert! It's brilliant, in it's way.
Armed Forces by Elvis Costello (1978)
Costello's first two albums were filled with punk-pop hits. This third album has a lusher texture, supplied by producer Nick Lowe, which might turn down the urgency, but makes the songs more seductive. You might not notice at first that these songs aren't exactly "nice," though titles like "Goon Squad" and "Two Little Hitlers" show you that these are not simple love songs. Added to the CD version was a cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding?" which is the only song on which I have ever played air-drums.
London Calling by The Clash (1979)
The Clash's first album was straight-up punk. Five years later, in "Sandinista," they had become overblown and scatter-shot. "London Calling" is the bright spot between the two, with a tremendous variety of tempos and topics and not a single wasted track. It was a watershed album of the time.
Shoot Out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson (1982)
Richard and Linda decided to get divorced and then perform together on a collection of songs about their getting divorced. Wow - what a crazy idea. It takes some getting used to their voices, but the lyrics are exquisite and the performances amazing. The title song reaches nightmarish intensity at points; when asked about it, Richard admitted to not remembering the recording, as he hadn't slept and was wasted. He's performed the song in concert, but the "impossible" bits that make the recording so magical he's never succeeded in repeating.
Rain Dogs by Tom Waits (1985)
A perfect album. On earlier albums, Waits was more of a lounge lizard troubadour; on later ones, his voice ruined by whiskey, cigarettes and screaming his songs, he sounds like the Cookie Monster playing circus barker. Rain Dogs has everything: beautiful ballads that will make you cry, songs that make you get up and move, weird songs that show beauty in darkness and even an ode to the store that sold pornography at "9th and Hennepin" in Minneapolis.
London 0, Hull 4 by The Housemartins (1986)
The title alludes to a futbol score (more likely now than then) and to the idea that the four musicians were from Hull (only one was, and he's debatable). The songs are bright, peppy pop songs about social injustice. I laugh when I meet people who tell me they love this music, but don't see the bitter irony of the lyrics. "Don't shoot someone tomorrow that you can shoot today," exclaims one song! The songs are about the injustice of the monarchy, of disillusionment, of rising up against oppressors: "It's sheep we're up against!" Beautiful music, though.
New York by Lou Reed (1989)
I never expected Lou Reed to create a cogent album. Most of his recordings are: we're weird, but we're in this together and aren't we amusing? "New York," however, has him raging about how those same outcasts have fared and raging about how no one seems to care. Kids have "given up dreaming about being a doctor or lawyer or anything; they dream about dealing out on the Dirty Boulevard." The song is a time capsule; many of the topical names are barely footnotes today and today's listener would not understand why the Reverend Jesse Jackson gets compared to Austrian leader Kurt Waldheim - nor care. The passion, though, is there. Reed cares, and he wants you to care. This is his testament.
The Dancing Years by Shriekback (1990)
A best-of compilation by a little-known band and with everything remixed to better fit a dance club is a terrible idea. A terrible idea that completely works! It's the lyrics, again, that get me, particularly in "White Out," "Fish Beneath the Ice" and "Nemesis." The image of "40000 bodyguards" catches you, and then it's rhymed with "Kalashnikov." Weird, sick, twisted and cerebral: "Priests and cannibals, prehistoric animals, no one move a muscle as the dead come home. Big black nemesis, parthenogenesis, everybody happy as the dead come home." They just assume that you know that parthenogenesis is the process by which an unfertilized egg divides to become a clone. They don't dumb down their music (and good for them) and it's music to which I will dance.
Automatic for the People by R.E.M. (1992)
After the early albums "Murmur" and "Document," the band R.E.M. became increasingly popular, but also less interesting. By "Green," they seemed complete sell-outs. Then this album came to the rescue. All the things that made their early albums interesting are still here, but with added dimensions. "Night Swimming" may be their best song, about "the recklessness of water," among a dozen other ideas. I know for a fact that the song "Everybody Hurts" has saved a life - how many songs can claim that?
So there you have it. Songs from my teenage years through my 20's. Songs that have become a part of me.
Going up the country
4 days ago