The Soundtrack to My Movie
10 Records That Changed My Life

I love lists.

I love making lists. I love reading lists. There’s something about the ranking of these things over these things, of discovering someone else’s subjective ordering of the universe – or imposing one’s own. When I was a teenage metalhead, my friends and I would sit around and rank Megadeth albums, or guitar players, or caterwauling vocalists. We’d then compare lists, and we’d nearly come to blows over them.

“Dude, there is NO WAY that Lars Ulrich is a better drummer than John Bonham. No WAY!”

“Say that again, man. I’ll beat your skinny ass.”

“Dude, Lars Ulrich is a pussy. Dave Lombardo’s the best drummer who ever lived.”

And on like that. Many times, these lists were composed while driving around town, doing what we called the Franklin 500 – from Stop & Shop up to the Ben Franklin bank in the center of town and then back down, over and over until we ran out of gas. Which, incidentally, only cost about 80 cents a gallon back then…

Anyway, the love of list-making has never left me, and often I’m challenged by other music fanatics to rank and order preferences – best Beatles album, or best Terry Taylor song, or something like that. I ordinarily jump at the chance to participate, although I have to say that I take these lists insanely seriously. I will pore over my choices for days (or in the case of my annual top 10 list, months), making sure that each seemingly insignificant ranking is exactly where I, in my heart of hearts, believe it should be.

I know. Obsessive.

So when Dr. Tony Shore posted on his blog his list of the top 50 albums of all time, and then issued the same challenge to me, I was taken aback. When I was younger, this is the type of thing I would have jumped right into, full bore. (And Megadeth’s Rust in Peace would have been in the top five, too…) But now, I’m more wary of lists like this, and the permanence of the Internet. I make fun of magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone when they do their Best of ALL TIME lists, so how can I do one?

The answer, of course, is that I can’t, even under Tony Shore’s rules. His list is proudly subjective, full of little pop gems that few have heard – Toy Matinee, for example, is a wonderful album that came and went with practically no fanfare, and Daniel Amos’ Doppelganger is also several shades of amazing. He tops it off with 90125, Yes’ gleaming pop sellout record, and though he’s been saying the same to me for years, I think it takes guts to go ahead and publicly call that his favorite record of all time. Kudos, you crazy, crazy bastard.

So Shore’s list is quite plainly his favorites, not any stab at an objective best (as if that were possible), and even so, I can’t bring myself to do it. So I decided to go another way.

Below you’ll find 10 records that changed my life. They’re not in any real order, except I’ve tried to keep them in the sequence I first heard them. I’m doing it this way partially because ranking these 10 (and 40 more, to meet Shore’s challenge) would take me the better part of a month, and it would still be wrong. But I’m also going about it like this because of a few conversations I’ve had recently, with people who don’t feel the way I do about music, and don’t understand the impact albums like the 10 below have had on me. This is a painfully flawed and ultimately futile attempt to explain.

And there are many, many more records that have rewritten parts of me, some that should probably be here instead, but these are the first 10 I thought of, which I considered the most honest way to do this. It’s not Andre Salles’ 10 Favorite Albums OF ALL TIME, but it is, hopefully, a little glimpse at what music means to me, and what it does to me.

Anyway, here goes. 10 records that changed my life.

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1. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There were others before this one, certainly. My parents had a vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin IV that I would play over and over again as a small child, and even then I knew that “When the Levee Breaks” was an amazing song. We had Eat a Peach by the Allman Brothers Band, and I loved that as well. I started buying tapes pretty early on, and nearly wore out my Pet Shop Boys and Huey Lewis albums.

I loved music before I heard Sgt. Pepper. I just didn’t really know what it could be.

I was 15. I’d heard about this record from my older friends, many of whom were much more literate than I was. I had read the album’s title, written in reverence, in many reviews. I had heard the Beatles, too, but nothing prepared me for listening to Sgt. Pepper front to back that first time. Here was something grand and melodic and important, but also silly and hummable. It was fun music that took itself seriously – or the other way around, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I couldn’t get “Fixing a Hole” out of my head, and I was mesmerized by “A Day in the Life,” an epic unlike anything I had heard before.

Sgt. Pepper still does it for me. It’s pretty much flawless, I think, a perfect record from start to finish. And the Beatles never made another one like it. Everything from A Hard Day’s Night on was buildup to Sgt. Pepper, and everything after it was a comedown. It is the benchmark by which I judge pretty much all pop music, and in a lot of ways, my constant search for great new stuff is just an endless attempt to replicate the giddy joy of that first time through this album, when I was 15.

2. Metallica, Master of Puppets.

But of course, at the time, I was a teenage metalhead. And this album is one of the main reasons why.

As a good Christian boy, I was scared of Metallica. Their record covers just looked evil, like the sort of thing my pastor would tell me to stay away from. So my immersion in the world of Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton and Hammett was tentative, but once I dove in, I was hooked.

Master of Puppets is still one of the best metal albums I have ever heard. The metal years, for me, were a passing phase, but while bands like Overkill have gone by the wayside in my collection, the good stuff – early Megadeth, Sepultura, Anthrax – still gets me. And the three records Metallica made with Cliff Burton still rank as the best of the best. As a young kid, I was struck by the extraordinary power of Puppets, from the opening barrage of “Battery” to the furious finale of “Damage Inc.,” and also by the relevance, the importance, of the lyrics. The album attacked unjust wars, drug addiction, mental illness and shady evangelism with blunt force. When I was 15, these words Meant Something, and demanded attention.

Nowadays, I am still impressed with the progressive nature of this album, and always struck anew with just how melodic it is. “Orion” is even kind of beautiful. Every once in a while, I will pull this out, and remember what my long-haired teenage self heard in it. The band has gone steadily downhill since, like almost all of their ‘80s metal brethren, and Master of Puppets represents this odd little golden age of my youth, and a doorway to the more complex stuff (Dream Theater, for example) I have grown to love since.

3. The Cure, Disintegration.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this – Disintegration saved my life.

Without this album’s glorious sadness to fall back into, I don’t know that I would have made it through high school alive. I spent a lot of time as a kid brooding, exploring my own melancholy, and hanging on to my depression. And Disintegration was the soundtrack for a lot of that. Never before had I heard an album that depicted my own loneliness the way I heard it in my head. I identified with Disintegration, but more than that, I was able to lose myself in it, and come away strangely hopeful.

Even now, it is one of the richest albums I own, especially the extended soundscapes on the second half. I don’t listen to it very often, because the shimmering depression of “The Same Deep Water as You,” for example, brings me right back to my worst days as a teen. It is a testament to the record, however, that none of its dark poetry seems silly to me now. It still strikes me as honest, powerful, and enveloping, both in Robert Smith’s words and in the band’s sheer sound, massive and fragile at once. But then, it’s hard for me to objectively judge an album like this, one that had such an impact on the way I saw the world for a while.

4. Queen, A Night at the Opera.

While the Cure was capturing my own sense of isolation in song, Queen broadened my musical horizons like almost no other band. Freddie Mercury could play and sing anything, and he often did within the space of 40 minutes. I had never heard another band with quite the amazing range Queen effortlessly displayed.

This album, despite how cliched it would quickly become thanks to Wayne’s World, was my favorite. What other band would open with a kiss-off like “Death on Two Legs” and then segue into Mercury’s old ragtime piece “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”? The second half knocked me out, jumping from the sludgy “Prophet’s Song” to the sweet “Love of My Life” to Brian May’s jug band wonderama “Good Company,” and then to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” What a range.

And as a young kid still trying to work out the ins and outs of audio production, A Night at the Opera offered exploding vistas of sound, from the astonishing opera smack in the middle of “Rhapsody” to the guitars-as-brass-band of “Company.” Sure, it’s over the top, but the musicianship and the sheer amount of work and time put into the production is still impressive to me now. Queen also managed to be diverse while still making coherent album statements, something that few bands can manage even now. They were silly and campy, but man, they were good.

And Mercury’s death from AIDS in 1991 offered me my first experience with loss, in an artistic sense. Here was a guy still making great music – Innuendo is an underrated album – and in a heartbeat, he was gone, and the band was over. I didn’t know him, I’d never met him, but his music meant something to me, and his death truly affected me. Not to get melodramatic about it, but in a way, Mercury’s passing prepared me for every time it’s happened since, from Elliott Smith to Johnny Cash.

5. The Choir, Circle Slide.

What can I say about Circle Slide that I haven’t said before?

I heard it in high school, just as I was in the midst of rejecting religion and its pat ideas about life. The Choir is the band that convinced me not to reject the spiritual altogether. Here was deep belief tempered with deep doubt, all wrapped up in an unbelievably beautiful sound. Here, in short, was art about God, and it came along at a time in my life when I was drawing an inviolable line between the two.

In the intervening years, Circle Slide has gained more and more significance to me. I hear something new in it every time, and familiar lines strike me in newly resonant ways. An example – just last week, I spun the album again, and a line in “About Love” jumped out at me: “You threaten my dreams.” What a thing to say to someone, but yet, what an honest assessment of a relationship. Love, when it’s real, redraws your plans and reimagines your dreams, threatening the old ones, no matter how long you’ve held them.

Circle Slide remains one of the most important albums, personally speaking, that I own. I have been listening to it regularly for 16 years, and I’ve never grown tired of it. And it opened the door to an entire corner of the music world I might never have explored – without Circle Slide, I may never have heard Daniel Amos, Adam Again, the 77s, the Prayer Chain, Starflyer 59, or numerous other amazing bands that are unjustly ignored because of their spiritual content.

For these and a hundred other reasons, I will be eternally grateful that I took a chance on that artsy-looking cassette with the tire swing on the cover back in 1990. It’s an album I believe I will still be listening to in 30 years.

6. Human Radio.

This record was the first forgotten masterpiece I ever discovered, and I remember feeling indignant, angry even, that it wasn’t more popular. Human Radio is the only officially released album by this group, led by a great songwriter named Ross Rice, and its 10 songs are all little wonders, melodic and witty and brilliant. It contains a couple of songs (“Hole in My Head,” “Another Planet,” “I Don’t Wanna Know”) that rank among my very favorites – when I try to write songs, these are the kinds of songs I try to write.

Human Radio was recommended to me by a record store clerk, the same one who had once applauded my purchase of Queen’s Innuendo, so I knew he and I had similar tastes. This clerk called Human Radio’s lack of universal popularity “one of the greatest crimes of the 20th Century,” and while I would never go that far, I admit that I do secretly consider it criminal that this band, and this album, didn’t set the world on fire. This is not inaccessible stuff. This is a great pop album that slipped through the cracks, when it should have launched four hit singles and several careers.

As I said, it was my first brush with that feeling, and it hasn’t gotten any easier as time has gone by. Instead of being heralded as one of the best songwriters we have, Ross Rice has gone on to make only a handful of subsequent records, and to live the life of an unknown working musician. It’s an old song, and I hear it all the time – my CD collection is now full of bands and artists that deserve better than they got. Every serious music collector has that one album that introduced him or her to the concept of unjust obscurity. This was mine.

7. Jane’s Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual.

Speaking of injustice, this album was my first brush with censorship and the very real threat it poses to artistic expression. The front cover of Ritual was meant to be a photo of a sculpture, one that depicted three people in a naked embrace. But Warner Bros. wasn’t having it, and forced Perry Farrell to change it. Instead, he replaced the original cover with a black-on-white reprinting of the First Amendment, and in the process, became my hero.

As a young boy, I was stunned and dismayed to learn that often, artists are not allowed to make the art they want to make, and that companies and governments would stifle people who said things they didn’t agree with. But I was also heartened to learn that in this country, we have a law that, at its best, prevents such stifling. I’ve since dedicated much of my life to exercising the right that law guarantees, and supporting artists and politicians that work to defend it.

But beyond all that noise, Ritual de lo Habitual is just a really great record. Take a California funk-metal band, and give them a huge dose of ambition, and what you get is a 10-minute epic about sex, a wild violin-fueled waltz about slapping your own face, some great Zeppelin-esque mini-suites, and, in “Been Caught Stealing,” one of the most jubilant songs of the ‘90s. It was, in my teenage estimation, art worth standing up for, and even now, when standards have relaxed to the point that the widely available original cover art seems tame, the story behind it makes me smile.

8. Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes.

It’s hard for me to measure the impact that Little Earthquakes had on my life. For a while, it was all I wanted music to be. I was searching for honest, searing beauty, music that would make my heart stop and my soul melt, music that would force me to sit down and take it in, and leave me a different person when it was over. Tori Amos’ first album was all that and more.

Little Earthquakes grabbed hold of me from its first line – “Every finger in the room is pointing at me” – and wouldn’t let go. Here was an artist of amazing talent, gifted with a voice that could part the seas and a piano style that was both technically complex and emotionally rich, and rather than just rely on that, she bared herself completely on this record, daring you to look and making you feel her pain. One moment she’s filling you with fury (“Precious Things”) and the next she’s nudging open your heart (“Winter”). And near the end, on “Me and a Gun,” she chills you to the bone, almost literally.

I’m using this phrase a lot here, but in 1991, I’d never heard anything like this. This album made me feel like few before or since, and even now, moments of it (the chorus of “China,” the bit in “Winter” when all time everywhere stops as Amos breathes in) move me like almost nothing else. Amos has gone downhill considerably since her first three records, but it’s the extraordinary power of Little Earthquakes that keeps me coming back, hoping she’ll deliver something as naked, intense and graceful as this again.

9. Jellyfish, Spilt Milk.

When people ask me for my favorite concert experience, I still say it was seeing Jellyfish with Chris L’Etoile at Club Babyhead in Providence, Rhode Island in 1993. It was the first show I’d been to where I knew all the words to all the songs, and watching this group of guys recreate two of my then-favorite albums was an incredible experience.

Jellyfish was one of the first new bands I fell in love with. I saw the video for “That Is Why” on MTV – and as a slight aside for the kids in the audience, there was once a time, lost in the mists of history, when MTV actually played music videos, like, 24 hours a day – and immediately had to have the album. The harmonies, the melody, the everything, it was just awesome. The record was called Bellybutton, and it was delightfully silly and surprisingly dark and every bit the work of genius I was hoping. I quickly became a Jellyfish evangelist, and I pretty much wore out my cassette of that first record.

Spilt Milk, the band’s fantastic follow-up and swan song, marked the first time I bounced a check to buy a piece of music. I knew I didn’t have the money for it, but I had to hear it. Spilt Milk and Tori Amos’ Under the Pink the following year were the first two albums I can remember being almost insanely excited for before they were released, a pattern that has continued at least once a year since. And Spilt Milk lived up to my wildest hopes for it – it was bigger, more intricate, and somehow better than Bellybutton. It was a perfect pop record, the kind they just don’t make anymore.

Spilt Milk has ruined me for most modern pop. I honestly thought that I would never hear a pop album like this one outside of the Beatles collection, but Jellyfish showed me that it can be done. You can do something new and astonishing within these parameters. It’s just that nearly everyone else simply doesn’t.

10. Brian Wilson, SMiLE.

Simultaneously the oldest and most recent piece of music here, SMiLE arrived when I needed it most. It came out two years ago, when I was at my lowest point. My life had fallen apart, and I was feeling hopeless, directionless and lost. And then this gorgeous thing arrived, this perfect album with its attendant tale of redemption and joy, and I suddenly found it impossible to spend my days moping.

The story is common knowledge by now – Wilson intended SMiLE as the follow-up to the Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds, but allowed himself to be convinced that it was as bad as his bandmates told him it was. Nearly 40 years and one nervous breakdown later, Wilson went back and finished the piece, then recorded it with his new crack band at the age of 62. The final SMiLE is unequivocal proof that the other Beach Boys were dead wrong – this album is pure joy captured on disc, and one of the best things I have ever heard.

And it just seems to be the way of things with me and music. The right records come along just when I need them. In September of 2004, I desperately needed SMiLE, and thank God it was there for me. Its very essence surges with hope and love, two things I can never have enough of, and just as Disintegration’s grand sadness got me through a rough time 16 years ago, so did SMiLE’s boundless, childlike bliss enable me to move on from the worst two years of my life. I’m doing pretty well these days, and I can’t help but think this album’s timely arrival helped me get where I am now. SMiLE is still one of the best albums I own, and I remain grateful that I lived to hear it, and that I heard it when I did.

* * * * *

As I said, there are many, many more, and this barely scratches the surface of what music has meant to me, but it’ll have to do for now. Special thanks to Dr. Tony Shore – go and read ObviousPop. It’s good stuff.

Before I go, I need to mention this, because I haven’t yet made a big deal of it, and I should. On August 29, Brian Transeau (better known as BT) will release a project called This Binary Universe that looks like it’s going to be amazing. Longtime readers will remember that BT’s last album, Emotional Technology, made my top 10 list in 2003 for its dynamic synthesis of pop melody and intricate electronic textures, and since then, he delivered a terrific score for the Charlize Theron movie Monster that I should have reviewed.

But this looks like Transeau’s most impressive project yet – it’s a 74-minute album, but it’s also a film. Transeau asked animators from all over the globe to create short movies for the album’s seven tracks, and the CD comes with a DVD of the film, mixed in surround sound. Essentially, he’s created his own Fantasia here, and the snippets I have seen and heard are fantastic. Here, check it out for yourself.

It arrives on the 29th along with new ones from Ty Tabor, Bob Dylan and Dream Theater, as well as a 2-CD set of lost Black Crowes tracks. Good week, man. Good week.

Next week, Eric Matthews, I hope.

See you in line Tuesday morning.