There’s a Facebook challenge going around where people post photos of their ten favorite albums “without explanation.” No one challenged me to do this, which is just as well because I definitely need to explain. Because instead of selecting “favorite” albums, I’m more interested in the most meaningful — the ones that remind me of who I was. These all create aural Proustian moments — except that it’s not the taste of a madeleine that sends me back in time, it’s a song.
Considering how rare it’s been to buy a CD, never mind an LP, for the last 15 year, it’s not surprising that these albums are front-loaded toward decades past. But if truth be told, the real reason this music is weighted toward the old days is that music is more important and meaningful to you when you’re younger. With that as an apologia, here are the ten albums that I just can’t forget.
I was about five years old when our family moved into our little ranch house in Brockton, Mass. My parents were young and didn’t have a lot of money but they did buy a hi-fi and a handful of albums — almost all Broadway musicals or movie soundtracks. I still love all those old albums (in fact my wife thinks I have an unnatural interest in show tunes) but the one that really brings me back is the first one they bought — Oklahoma.
Even now I know the lyrics to most of the songs — but now I actually understand them (I’m thinking of you, “I Cain’t Say No”). But the most evocative song for me remains “People Will Say We’re In Love,” which is the best flirting song ever written.
2. Please Please Me
Other generations must get tired of hearing Boomers talk about the Beatles, but they loomed so large for so long that we just can’t get over it. The Beatles burst upon the scene when I was ten years old and my mother took me down to the old Coats Field department store in Brockton to buy what would become my first record album.
The Capitol Records version of this is officially titled The Early Beatles, but the version I have was released by JayVee Records (multiple companies had rights to these songs because no major American label wanted to sign them and they originally ended up signing with the fly-by-night JayVee. For more detail on the tangled history of this album click here.)
This is my battered LP, VeeJay version
This is hardly the best best Beatles album. There’s even a cover of a song from the Broadway musical “The Music Man” (“Til There Was You”). Most of the original Beatles songs aren’t really top notch either, but “I Saw Her Standing There,” “There’s a Place,” and especially, “Please Please Me” still exemplify the energy and fun of being a young Beatles fan.
3. Jesus Christ Superstar
When I was in the 11th grade, Jesus Christ Superstar hit our school like a bomb. Tommy might have been the first “rock opera,” but this was the second and no one had ever heard anything like it. What I never expected then was that Andrew Lloyd Weber would abandon rock and go on to transform musical theater, but for at this moment he seemed like a very cutting edge composer.
Some kids in my English class wrote a short play based on the album called “J.C.” (the 20-minute performance involved us acting out some scenes with the music playing in the background). Throughout the day, over multiple periods, we performed this little one-act to packed crowds in our “Little Theater.” And then later that summer, a dozen of us drove into Boston to see a concert version of album performed in Boston Garden (yes, those were the days when parents would let six 17-year-olds cram into the family car and drive on the Southeast Expressway without seat belts.) King Herod’s song brought down the house as it always does.
I’d like to think I imbued some religious feeling from the album but I can see now that very little Christianity is expressed in the album. And when it was turned into a movie a couple of years later, it all seemed vaguely ridiculous. That movie actually turned me against the album. A couple of years ago I played the LP for the first time in decades and actively disliked it. The songs themselves are fine but the way they’re performed, with screeching strings, vibrated differently with me as an adult than as a teen. Worse, several of the songs became ear worms and I couldn’t get them out of my head for weeks, so not only did I not like them, but I couldn’t forget them. I didn’t even watch the John Legend version when it was on TV last Easter. Sigh — it’s tough to get old.
One song I still do like, though, is “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
4. All Things Must Pass
In contrast with “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I love George Harrison’s first solo album even more now than I did when it came out. I received it as a gift from my high school girlfriend on Christmas 1970 and whenever I play it, I can smell her patchouli oil perfume, taste the food in our high school cafeteria, and remember what it was like to drive around in that old junker of mine.
More important, the songs are still fantastic. What I can’t understand is how George wrote such deeply spiritual music at age 27 — the age my son is now! I not only still have my original boxed set LP but also the CD, and whenever I drive by myself on a long trip, this is always in the mix of CDs I play.
5. No Secrets
To the extent I have a guilty pleasure it’s Carly Simon. I know the music is not top quality, with simplistic lyrics and pretty cliched tunes, and yet I bought her first ten albums and still love them all. No Secrets is the album that came out the year I was a freshman in college. “You’re so Vain” was the biggest hit but the title song is the one that most recaptures the feeling of being away at school, even though I had barely any secrets to keep.
6. Court and Spark
My college-era girlfriend had been a serious Joni Mitchell fan and I thought she was as pretentious as they came (Joni, not the girlfriend). My friend Jim was also a Joni fan, which I scoffed at, until he brought me into his dorm room and made me listen to her newest album Court and Spark, which was more musically accessible than the earlier work. I still remember sitting there hearing “People’s Parties” and changing my mind on the spot. But my favorite song from the album is “Help Me,” a plea from a woman who is sinking into love and can’t escape. Man I still love that song.
This album turned me into a huge Joni Mitchell devotee. I even went back and reconsidered her earlier albums, all of which I now love. But Court and Spark was the turning point.
7. Stop Making Sense
I saw the Jonathan Demme movie “Stop Making Sense” before I even heard the album and couldn’t figure out what exactly was going on, with The Talking Heads’ David Byrne singing a series of increasingly frantic and despairing songs as his suit got bigger and bigger. Eventually I bought the album and learned to love the existential dread of “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down the House” and, especially, “Once in a Lifetime.” What did I have to despair about? I was 30, living an exciting life in Washington DC, and reasonably happy. It wasn’t exactly in despair I felt but the question at the core of the album did resonate: “And you may ask yourself/well, how did I get here?” That’s a question that never goes away. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have put this album on the list but it’s been haunting me to long enough to warrant being rated one of albums I can’t forget.
8. Born in the USA
When I was working on Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, there was a guy in the research department who was a Bruce Springsteen fanatic. Born in the USA had just come out and he was such a proselytizer that he recorded it for me on a cassette tape. I never actually listened to that tape but eventually bought my own LP — my real introduction to Springsteen. And of course the song “Born in the USA” eventually became the unofficial anthem of the Reagan/Bush 84 campaign until Springsteen himself told us to stop playing it at rallies.
This album is a good example of how an artist can lose control of the narrative for his own art. Most of the songs are supposed to be about the dissolution of the American dream, what with working class guys losing their jobs etc., and yet the album largely comes off as a celebration of America. The song “Dancing in the Dark” has bleak, lonely, depressing lyrics but the tune is so upbeat that the effect is actually positive. And the title tune, which is supposed to be a devastating indictment of American society ended up sounded patriotic because of that strong, repetitive chorus. “Born in the USA, I was Born in the USA.”
Aside from being a great album with innovative music, Graceland is on this list for two reasons: 1) Soon after my wife and I were married and living in a thin-walled New York apartment, the tenant next door to us broke up with his boyfriend and played it until about 2:00 a.m. one night. Consequently this album always reminds me of those early days in NYC when we were trying to figure out married life.
2) About four years later, when my son was a year and a half old, we moved to Connecticut. Until we filled the living and dining rooms with furniture, I used to pick him up and dance with him from one end of the house to another to the tune of “You Can Call Me Al.”
And of course the music was unlike anything I’d ever heard before — all those South African musicians being introduced to American audiences.
10. Running With Scissors
My wife and I always agreed that humor provides you with emotional resilience, exercises your brain and helps you make sense of an increasingly absurd world. To that end we exposed our son to a variety of comedians and comedy shows, including “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld” “The Office”, “Letterman,” etc. Eventually he started to introduce us to comedians he’d found on his own, including Weird Al Yankovic. Soon the house was full of Weird Al CDs, the best of which, by far, was “Running With Scissors.” In addition to the the usual parodies of hit songs, this album has two masterpieces.
The first is “The Saga Begins,” a spoof of the second round of Star Wars movies to the tune of “Bye Bye Miss American Pie.” The lyrics summarize the intricate and, frankly, ridiculous plot of “A Phantom Menace.” Sample: “We took a bongo from the scene/ And we went to Theed to see the Queen/ We all wound up on Tatooine/ That’s where we found this boy…” The juxtaposition of the nerdy “Star Wars” detail with the great “American Pie” tune is what makes this song achieve greatness.
The second masterpiece on this album is “Albuquerque.” Unlike most other Weird Al songs, this is not a song parody but a absurdist story about a guy whose wildest dream is to visit the city of Albuquerque. This is a long meandering story — what is know in literature as a picaresque, in the manner of “Candide” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s just one damn thing after another for the narrator.
In any event, my wife, son and I all found the song both hilarious and a bonding experience. I tried to share it with some people outside the family and they just didn’t get it. Didn’t think it was funny and gave me a strange look after I played it. Well, at least there’s three of us who appreciate it.
Special bonus song
I’ve leave you with one more meaningful song, as long as we’re discussing the idiosyncrasies of humor. This one isn’t even on an album. When my son was on the college tour, one place we looked was Middlebury, my own alma mater. We learned that some students had just produced a music video parodying the students body. The video spoofs the various “Midd Kidds” at the college: the Library Queen, the Lax Bro, the Quidditch nerds, the flannel-shirted granola guy. The video is full of inside jokes, but even an outsider can enjoy the humor because the college stereotypes are universal.
The video itself is hardly an advertisement for Middlebury or any liberal arts college, but it actually achieves a level of art as it illustrates how college is about taking on new identities, posing with them for a while, and then trying on something else. Colleges would have you think that the education revolves around the classroom but in reality, college is about figuring out who you are — even if that takes means appropriating some obnoxious personalities for a while.
My son ended up going to Middlebury but avoiding all the stereotypes in the video (thank God). Still, of all the songs that came out when he was in college, this is the one that most reminds me of those four very emotional transitional years.