Weeks and weeks ago, I was tagged in one of those “name 10 albums that have stuck with you” Facebook posts. You aren’t supposed to think too much about the records you name, but what fun is a list without thousands of words of text?
Billy Joel, The Stranger
As I discussed at length in the Popdose Podcast episode dedicated to The Stranger‘s producer, Phil Ramone, this album pretty much defined the way I thought about records as a young listener, establishing my personal musical parameters for what’s real and honest in ways that continue to linger with me today.
Like a lot of rock albums from the era, The Stranger is a clean record, but it isn’t arid; you can tell the sound’s been artfully arranged, but Ramone didn’t suffocate it. This sounds like the work of a band, and I always loved that you could see them in that black-and-white shot on the back cover. They seem like a bunch of regular guys, out for a couple of beers after a day in the studio, and that image really romanticized record-making for me — I think it’s really still my default mental image for what a band is supposed to look, act, and sound like. Real drums, analog keys, plenty of melody…
In fact, I’m pretty sure this might have been my first favorite album. Billy Joel was basically my pop gateway, and between, say, 1983-87, I’m sure I listened to his records more than any other artist’s, so it’s hard to look back and untangle where that obsession started. This seems like a pretty safe bet.
Brian Wilson, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
The recurring theme for this post is going to be “gateways,” and I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times was an album that opened up a lot of things for me. It taught me to love Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, first and foremost — and after years of seeing them as blow-dried, tacky-shirted dorks, that was no small feat; this was, I remind you, the era defined by “Kokomo,” a painful couple of decades in which the group’s best single was the rather uninspired “Getcha Back” and their most recent album of new material was the dreadful, Wilson-free Summer in Paradise.
I fell in love with Times in the fall of 1995, during the months after having my heart broken by the Morgan Neville-directed documentary of the same name, a wonderful film that takes a frank look back at the life and times of the fractured genius alongside new, stripped-down recordings of newer cuts and old chestnuts. Freed from the plastic production of their original versions, the songs plucked from Wilson’s 1988 solo debut in particular are a revelation, and the way the various talking heads interviewed for the picture (including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore) break down the theory behind the songs is fascinating. I was hooked.
This was a great time to be a newly worshiping convert at the Wilson altar — the lack of new material, and Wilson’s absence from the touring circuit, made it easy to idealize his gifts. Between the insanely in-depth Pet Sounds Sessions box released the following year and the loads of bootlegs (Adult Child, Sweet Insanity, etc.) waiting to be purchased, I can’t even count the hundreds of dollars I spent on Wilsonalia over the next few years, including a fresh wave of Beach Boys reissues from Capitol — and then, oh God, Wilson hit the concert trail in 1999, and after my first show, my face hurt from smiling.
Forests have been felled attempting to explain Brian Wilson’s genius. I have nothing important to add, except: I love this album, and it revealed a world to me.
David Sanborn, Another Hand
My formative years were not particularly good ones for jazz in general. I was born in May of 1974, just a few months after Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters made fusion cool — and just a few years before a slew of less adventurous players would turn the subgenre into glorified Muzak. Fusion’s cold digital paw touched almost everything jazz-related in the ’80s, and David Sanborn jumped right into the fray, making a name for himself with a stack of same-sounding records with titles like Voyeur, Backstreet, and Close-Up. If an Izod shirt and Members Only jacket started a band, it’d sound like this stuff.
That all changed with Another Hand, which saw Sanborn departing longtime label Warner Bros. for the less historically jazz-friendly confines of Elektra, and wiping his musical slate clean in the process. That trademark Sanborn tone is still here, but everything else has changed; where previous efforts had fallen into slick, rigid formula, Hand is restless and eclectic, finding Sanborn fronting an acoustic-driven combo through a varied set of covers and originals that includes the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus” and NRBQ’s “Hobbies” (my first time hearing either, by the way).
And then there’s the wonderful band, which boasts some wild guest appearances as well as a core of killer players — perhaps none more audible than guitarist Bill Frisell, whose distinctive tone would go on to haunt my ears for decades to come. I’m not sure how many hardcore aficionados consider it a classic, but Another Hand upended the way I thought about jazz, and opened a path toward more albums than I can count.
The Rails, Wonderfull
You’ve never heard of the Rails, because they never amounted to much commercially (something that was, in the end, partly my fault), but I’ve loved their music from the first time I heard it, way back in November of 1992, when Wonderfull arrived (on cassette!) with a brief note politely asking for a review. I was at a particularly jaded point in my writing career, and wasn’t expecting Wonderfull to do much besides suck, but from the time the first song started until the closing notes of the final track, I didn’t leave my chair. I loved the album so much that I eventually ended up signing the Rails — a duo made up of singer/songwriter Fred Wilhelm and guitarist Richard “Swinging Dick” Pearce — to a record deal, and released their second album, Happy Summer, in 1994. Of course, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and Fred and Swing were living in separate states, so they couldn’t tour, and to say Happy Summer tanked would be overly kind. Still, Fred trusted me enough to sign him to a solo deal four years later, and although it didn’t sell tens of thousands of copies, his 2000 solo release, amidlife, is one of the things I’m proudest of helping to create.
So unlike every other album on this list, Wonderfull wasn’t necessarily a musical gateway, although it did expose me to the talents of the guy who’s gone on to become one of my all-time favorite songwriters. Instead, it was a personal gateway into one of the most important friendships I’ve ever been blessed with.
Bruce Willis, If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger
If all you know of Bruce Willis’ singing career is 1987’s The Return of Bruno and his Top 10, Pointer Sisters-assisted cover of “Respect Yourself,” then you might scoff at the idea that anything he ever recorded belongs on any kind of best-of list. In strictly musical terms, I can’t really disagree, but I’d still be lying if I left If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger out of this post. As a singer, Willis has never been any great shakes, and as a songwriter, he’s…a better singer, but he’s got great taste in music, and in 1989, he had enough of Motown’s money to hire an outstanding backing band (including guitarist Robben Ford) and lure a list of tremendous guests (including Johnny Winter and Merry Clayton) in for cameo appearances.
All of which is to say that this album is, first of all, a damn sight better than Bruno, both in terms of production as well as performance, and also that Willis’ judiciously chosen covers helped this suburban white teen get acquainted with Ford, Winter, Clayton, Louis Jordan…you get the idea. It started a love affair with the blues, man, albeit one that started slowly and clumsily — first I bought Ford’s Talk to Your Daughter, which introduced me to Ike Turner, J.B. Lenoir, B.B. King, et cetera, and then I slowly started seeking out the artists fêted on these records, and it all just snowballed from there.
I don’t know how Willis or Ford would feel about being anyone’s first exposure to this music, but it isn’t that far removed from the kind of thing the Stones and Zeppelin did for artists they loved, prompting musical archaeology through leading by example. Back in those days, you had to do your digging judiciously, as your budget allowed; these days, as Bill Frisell pointed out in our 2013 interview, it’s as simple as typing a few keywords and gorging on the stream. I can’t deny the allure, but the slow model has its benefits too.
Aretha Franklin, Live at Fillmore West
Look, I’m not saying that “Freeway of Love” or “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” or “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” are bad songs — I’m just saying they can’t really stand shoulder to padded shoulder with Aretha’s greatest recordings, which is something I really couldn’t have been expected to know growing up in the ’80s (I’m pretty sure this version of “Respect” was the first one I heard). For a long time, Aretha Franklin was just another singer to me, and kind of an annoying one at that.
What I’m saying is that I needed an Aretha gateway, and it opened in the form of Live at Fillmore West. Like most of the other records on this list, it led to a path that branched off in all sorts of wonderful directions: King Curtis, Dan Penn, and Spooner Oldham, just to name a few — not to mention the glory of Aretha’s classic back catalog. Hell, these days I even own a copy of Who’s Zoomin’ Who.
Harry Nilsson, Personal Best
It might be cheating to include a best-of compilation on a list like this, but I’m just being honest here. And anyway, when I picked up the double-disc Personal Best in 1995, Harry Nilsson was only just beginning to get the sort of CD reissue love he deserved here in the U.S., as RCA had finally gotten around to remastering a selection of his better sellers for the label (including classics like Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson Sings Newman, Pussy Cats, and Knnillssonn). I eventually bought them all, but my Nilsson journey started with Personal Best.
Even buying that album was kind of a fluke, too — I came by Harry’s music through a little-heard tribute compilation, Everybody Loves Harry, which I happened to check out because it included tracks from Marc Cohn, Randy Newman, Peter Wolf, and Brian Wilson. Thus hipped to the man’s brilliant songwriting, I was sufficiently moved to experience the originals, and I’ve never looked back (as you know if you’ve been reading for awhile).
This isn’t quite the deluxe overview Nilsson wanted when he approached RCA about a compilation, and I hate thinking that toward the end of his life, he had to deal with the disappointment of being nickel-and-dimed out of a comprehensive box. But even if it didn’t jibe with what he originally had in mind, it’s still a damn fine gateway to a tremendous career, offering the expected hits (“Without You,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” etc.) in addition to smartly chosen deeper cuts. These days, Harry is hip, with a documentary, a biography, and a round of beautiful new reissues all springing up over the last few years, and I’ve loved witnessing that little revival. At the time, though, listening to Nilsson felt a little like stumbling onto a secret shared by a privileged few — one that could make you laugh, make you want to sing, and offer comfort in times of deep sorrow.
Georgia Satellites, Georgia Satellites
I’m not necessarily arguing that Georgia Satellites is a classic album or a perfect debut, although I do think it’s a lot of fun and boasts a solid quotient of terrific rock ‘n’ roll. For me, it makes this list because it restored looseness and humor to mainstream rock at a time when both of those things were in awfully short supply. Of course, many rock stars seemed like they were having fun in those strobe-lit, fog-drenched, acid-washed videos of theirs, but the songs themselves tended to be fairly serious; even odes to good times had enough grunting and hollering to keep the listener from forgetting that the dudes had chest hair and the ladies wore leather.
The Satellites, though, were an unlikely new branch from the Faces/NRBQ line, a genealogy I knew nothing about in ’86 and might have been unfortunate enough to miss if not for the hiccuping, yodeling glory of “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” A novelty song? Okay. But one that rocks, and serves as a proud banner to fly over the sort of ragged, cheerfully inebriated stuff that Rod Stewart and the Stones seemed to have forgotten at the time, and to which bands like Night Ranger and Bon Jovi seemed to stand in direct opposition.
It isn’t my favorite Satellites record — that honor goes to their 1989 swan song, In the Land of Salvation and Sin — but this is where I really gained an appreciation for killer attitude over strict proficiency, chutzpah over a flawlessly carried tune. Everything from the Faces to John Hiatt followed from here, so while “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” may have been a goof for pretty much all concerned, it proved an awfully important few minutes for me.
Various Artists, Largo
I say “Various-artists compilation featuring Joan Osborne and members of the Hooters performing a song cycle inspired by Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony,'” and you might say “Uh, no thanks.” But that would be a mistake, because this little-heard 1998 release — which also features Garth Hudson, the Chieftains, Cyndi Lauper, Levon Helm, and Taj Mahal — has some downright magical moments.
For starters, there’s the opening vocal track, “Freedom Ride,” which finds Taj fronting the Hooters and singer/songwriter David Forman (more on him later) into an ebullient musical embrace of the American dream. That might make it sound like a flag-waving anthem, there’s nothing jingoistic about “Freedom Ride” or anything else on Largo. It’s an optimistic song, and an optimistic record, but not one that ignores the sadness and loss in our shared history. Like the album, it’s an honest journey.
Co-founding Hooter and the band’s former producer, Rick Chertoff, collaborated on the sessions, juggling an incredible number of ingredients with impressive aplomb. It’s obviously helpful if you know a little about Dvorak’s history going in, but it isn’t essential; regardless of whether you have any familiarity with the record’s classical roots, its themes resonate. In fact, if you were me in the spring of 1998, they’d resonate so strongly that they’d send you off in several directions — seeking out Dvorak, diving into the Band’s discography, and experiencing the glory of Taj Mahal for the first time.
And then there’s Forman, a fascinating guy whose incredible story (he was one of the people who helped Philippe Petit pull off the wirewalking stunt that made him famous) is as unjustly undiscovered as his musical output, which includes his highly collectible debut as well as his more recent recordings as Little Isidore. His lead vocal on the haunting “Largo’s Dream” has been talked up in these parts already, but if you haven’t listened yet, do it now…and then go get yourself a copy of Largo.
Paul Simon, Graceland
I’d like to think I’ve listed a few left-of-center choices here, but this is one that — for folks in my generation — is almost automatic. I’ll spare you yet another story about how the ‘You Can Call Me Al‘ video tickled a 12-year-old’s funny bone, or how one more set of suburban white ears were entranced by the sound of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I’ll just say this: I love most of Paul Simon’s records and I love South African music, and it’s at least somewhat doubtful that I would have been bitten by either of those bugs if not for Graceland.
Jellyfish, Spilt Milk
These days, anyone with a decent Pro Tools rig and a strong grasp of songcraft can make a multi-track masterpiece that sounds like a million bucks, but back in the old days, you still had to cut records like Spilt Milk the hard way — and that’s exactly what Jellyfish did, bleeding their creative lifeblood out over a dozen songs and roughly eleventy million overdubs. Sounding like the union of Queen and the Beach Boys you never knew you needed to hear — and boasting the songs to back up those comparisons — Spilt Milk was an early ’90s Velvet Underground & Nico for the power pop set, an album that lit up the headphones of a small cadre of gomper-jawed fans while the rest of the world yawned in indifference. Though the band imploded the following year, this album is still discussed in reverent tones by the faithful few who’ll never give up hope of a reunion. It’s hard to pick just one key track; it can’t hurt to start with the leadoff single, “The Ghost at Number One,” but you should probably just take a deep breath, turn the volume up, and let the whole record run from start to finish. For me, this was the start of an intense half-decade of power pop love — an ardor that’s since subsided a bit, but led me down some lovely sonic pathways (hooks, thy name are Marshall Crenshaw).
Chris Whitley, Living with the Law
Here’s something my kids will never experience, which makes me sad: Driving to a two-story Tower Records, picking up the new issue of Billboard, and buying a new record on a whim after seeing an ad for it on the front cover. That’s how I lucked into my gateway to the wonderful world of the National guitar: Chris Whitley’s Living with the Law.
This album made me a dogged lifelong fan of Whitley’s, but as a statement of purpose for the balance of his career, it’s more than a bit misleading; this marks the spot where he launched off into an array of different directions, all of them darker and less immediately gratifying than what you hear here. The Whitley you hear here is a little more tentative and constrained than the artist he’d eventually become — a guy who scraped and howled with abandon and utter evident disregard for who might hear it. I guess I doubt many hardcore fans would point to Law as his best album, and I can’t really argue the point, but this is the one I’ve always gone back to more than any other.
There’s no small amount of craft here, and the level of studio polish applied by producer Malcolm Burn does add the tiniest timestamp to the music, but I still say it’s a malevolent, yellow-eyed beast of an acoustic blues album, and in the summer of 1991, it hit my ears as something like a revelation — at the time, “unplugged” meant Richie Sambora and Nuno Bettencourt, not songs with the sort of sepia-toned squall that Whitley unleashes on “Big Sky Country,” “Kick the Stones,” and the title track.
Bottom line: before Living with the Law, I still had a very stereotypical (and almost embryonic) understanding of the blues. This record is where all that started to change, and I’m sorry I was never able to thank Chris Whitley in person.