Sunday, September 09, 2018

Albums That Made an Impact.

As I've said once or twice on this thing, one of the sad side effects of social media is that it has seriously maimed blogging as an expressive outlet. Rather than take the time to craft an extended piece about any given topic, most people (myself included) are far more likely to just dash off a quick rant on Twitter or their Facebook page, have it be seen by whomever happens to have them in their algorithm for a day or so, and then move on with their life. As with everything else in this digital age, even the most passionate post becomes merely ephemeral, disappearing until perhaps the person re-posts it when it pops up in their Facebook Memories. 

And while those who do still take the time to write full pieces—whether for their own blog or some other outlet—will of course promote them on social media, it's rare the the opposite occurs; Why not cut and paste a good Facebook post into a blog so it doesn't quickly disappear? GOOD IDEA, ME!

While I normally take a hard pass on social media hot potatoes ("List every single place you've ever been and tag seventy people in it!"), I recently relented and took up the "Albums That Made an Impact" challenge. I found the particular criteria (literally impactful, rather than simply favorite) to be an interesting exercise. Some of the records that made it only my list are ones that I don't particularly love (either anymore or ever!), but they are all touchstones to one extent or another. And since I am an old, wordy, and opinionated bastard, I went well beyond the traditional ten, first by adding runners-up for each record, and then by adding a couple extra after I thought I was done.

AND SO, for the benefit of perhaps nobody other than myself so I can recall spending all the time doing this little bit of musical onanism... My Most Impactful Albums (in mostly chronological order)....

I'm starting with one of the first LPs I ever owned, a not-original-cast recording of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, released by Pickwick Records. I listened to this thing so much that I still know it by heart, and so to me, THIS is the original recording, not the actual MGM Records soundtrack... And yes, I still have it, the original scratchy, beloved vinyl.

RUNNER UP: This album may surprise those to whom I've voiced my extreme loathing for the Walt Disney Reich, but Walt Disney's Happiest Songs was another of my first records, and thus has a strong nostalgic pull for me.

2 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: KISS, The Originals. Technically, the band's first three albums packaged together with a plethora of bonus goodies, this set represents the first band I truly loved. Oh, I'd listened to glorious '70s FM radio, and owned a few pop albums and 45s prior to this (see first comment below), but heading into junior high, I was behind the curve when it came to rock and roll (I partly blame being the youngest kid in my class as well as a lack of elder mentoring). But due largely to the comic book aspect of the Metal-Lite quartet from Noo Yawk, KISS became my first favorite band, even though it would only be a few years until I discovered the music that would TRULY change my life, and I'd hand over all my KISS records to my kid brother...

RUNNER-UP: I was originally planning on posting the first "rock" LP I ever owned, but The Originals set was actually far more impactful than... ahem.... Captain and Tennille's Song of Joy, which prompted my grandfather to disgustedly comment, "Ugh, don't tell me you're listening to ROCK AND ROLL," to which I replied, "Hey, at least it's not PUNK ROCK!"

3 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Steve Martin, Let's Get Small. I was not the only smartass in school who was able to recite this album beginning to end, but it taught me so much about the power of language and timing and how you could be smart and absurd at the same time. I still love it (and his next two records) to death. 

RUNNER-UP for #3 isn't a comedy album, but it's the soundtrack that I've now repurchased five times in different formats and reissue versions, and that I ABSOLUTELY know by heart to the point where I can tell you where each second of music fits into the film. It's (duh) John Williams' soundtrack to Superman.

4 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact, and while I'm doing these (mostly) chronologically, this was the biggest wallop: The Clash's self-titled debut (US version). I was a freshman in high school, and one morning on the bus, I happened to mention to my pal Kevin Fleck that I was really starting to like some of this new wave stuff I was hearing. Kevin insisted I come over after school so he could play a couple of records for me. He put this on, skipping straight to "Career Opportunities," and said, "Listen to how ANGRY he sounds!" ...And as Joe Strummer snarled, "Do ya wanna make tea at the BBC, do ya wanna be, do ya really wanna be a CAAAAAAHP?!" my eyes widened, my brain exploded, and my life changed in an instant. Kevin loaned me The Clash and one other record (see honorable mention, below), which I spent the entire weekend listening to repeatedly. For the first time in my life, music truly spoke to me, connected with me on such a primal, personal level that I finally felt like I belonged somewhere (besides the Comic Store, I mean). The Clash went on to become my all-time favorite band, and while London Calling may be my favorite album of theirs (and, in fact, my favorite rock album of all time), this is the one that altered my reality. Thanks again, Kevin.

RUNNER-UP: The other album that Kevin loaned me: The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks. As brilliant and incendiary and exciting today as the day it was released.

5 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Blondie, Parallel Lines. The Clash and the Pistols may have sounded the clarion that awakened me, but being a not-quite downtrodden middle class white kid in suburban Pennsylvania, I never felt comfortable being identified as a "punk" (or, as the normies called my friends and me, a "fucking punker"). I may have loved punk, but I was more of a new wave kid. And this record, one of the first "cool" albums I bought on my own, turned Blondie into my next favorite band.
Postscript: Decades later, drummer Clem Burke was performing at Maxwell's, and when he came to the bar, I said, "I gotta tell ya, Parallel Lines changed my life," to which he replied, "Hey, mine too!"

RUNNER-UP: The B-52's self-titled debut, purchased the Monday after their mind-blowing appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1980. Talk about polarizing, that morning in school, my punk / new wave friends and I were all gushing about how amazing they were while the jocks and the preps were talking about how much this weird band sucked. Their derision and rejection (which wouldn't last through my senior year) was a badge of honor.

6 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: This is a weird one because it's an album that I no longer own, and never really liked all that much: The various artists original soundtrack to Pretty in Pink. This rather tepid collection of mostly danceable new wave included a completely ill-advised up-tempo re-recording of the title track by the Psychedelic Furs and represents everything I hate about John Hughes films.

So why is it on this list? Because it was the very first promo (meaning free record) I received. I was working at Sam Goody in the Park City Mall in Lancaster, PA, and an A&M rep brought in a box of freebies (something we usually didn't get at the chain store) because she had a crush on our singles buyer, Dann DeWitt (poor girl didn't know she didn't have a chance with Dann, being a female and all). Dann was kind enough to share the goodness with the staff and I chose this. I couldn't believe my luck. A FREE RECORD! What I didn't know at the time was that this would be only the first in a mountain of literally thousands and thousands of free records, CDs, tapes, videos, and more swag that would flow my way in the next two decades in the music biz.

But you never forget your first.

RUNNER-UP: Honorable Mention goes to a far better album that came out a few years earlier that got squeezed out of the list by the epochal nature of the above promo: The Replacements, Let it Be.

7 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: R.E.M., Green. I had just taken over as manager of BBC Records in Lancaster as Warner Bros. was gearing up to release R.E.M.'s major label debut, and I was receiving tons of promos (including a clear orange vinyl 12" of "Orange Crush," a "meadow in a can," a hardcover digipack CD, and more) from Julie Panebianco, my WB Altmktg rep (a job I would later inherit from Mary Marcus when I moved to Hoboken in '96).

The album's promotion was tied into the 1988 Presidential Election, and when George Bush handily beat Michael Dukakis, I drunkenly made my way the five blocks from my apartment to the record store I now ran, unlocked the door, threw Green on the stereo, cranked it up, and passed out on the floor. This record is cemented in my mind as an icon of the beginning of the best job I ever had, the start of my relationship with the record label at which I would eventually work, and catharsis in a political defeat that wasn't the first, and wouldn't be the last.

RUNNER-UP: Throwing Muses, self-titled 4AD debut. This was the first expensive import CD I bought (at BBC Records while I was still working at Sam Goody), and I was openly mocked by Paul Pendyck for purchasing it, giving me my first taste of the High Fidelity brand of music retailing (a tack I would perfect myself).

8 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Frank Sinatra, The Capitol Years. I've written about this epiphany numerous times, but here 'tis again. In the late '80s, while I had begun to listen to vintage big band and pop vocal sides, I was still inexplicably averse to (or at least ambivalent about) Frank Sinatra. But when Capitol released this three disc set in late 1990, my BBC cohort, Rex Litwin ordered one and I asked if I could borrow it. I took it home, along with a 100-minute blank cassette on which I would record the songs I liked, thinking that would be sufficient. But sitting on the floor in front of the stereo, by the time I got to "I've Got You Under My Skin," I was enraptured, feeling the kind of musical connection I hadn't felt since Kev' played "Career Opportunities" for me in 1979. True, this music was not of my time, but that didn't matter. Then again, that's one of the things I quickly came to realize about Sinatra... he's timeless. I now own almost everything the man ever recorded, and probably a day doesn't go by where I don't listen to at least a few songs by who I consider the greatest singer of the 20th Century.

RUNNER-UP: The record that got me into this kinda stuff in the first place: The soundtrack to Woody Allen's 1987 nostalgia-fest, Radio Days.

9 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. It was a short step from listening to Frank, Ella, and Billie to digging on jazz, and this utterly perfect 1959 album (with perhaps the most killer lineup ever) was the gateway. My interest in jazz exploded to the extent that Steve Murray graciously allowed me to expand BBC Records' specialty from just alternative to alt and JAZZ (never a big seller at music retail, but we made it work).

RUNNER-UP: The Yin to Kind of Blue's Yang: The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out. It wasn't uncommon for some of our rock customers at the store to decide to dip a toe into jazz (usually because of instore play), and we would always recommend one of these two records as the perfect starting point.

10 of 10 (or so) Albums That Made an Impact: Built to Spill, Perfect from Now on. There was a bit of culture shock going from running a tiny indie record store to working at one of the biggest labels on the planet, but I was never an anti-major label elitist. After all, most of my favorite albums were released by the majors. So when Joe McEwen handed me an advance cassette of the label debut by Idaho's Built to Spill, I excitedly took it to my office and cranked it up. And holy shit. Of all the records I worked in my brief time at Warner Bros. Records, this one was perhaps the greatest evidence that my corporate labors had some merit. Of course, I was there as Warner's legendary reputation of being artist-friendly and taking time to let careers develop was ebbing away, but in the moment, there were some true musical highlights, none brighter than this...

SUPER CLOSE RUNNER-UP: Wilco, Being There. Their best record, if ya ask me, and I have an incredibly deep emotional attachment to memories of working this one. To say the least.

Oh, Yeah, Here's Another Album That Made an Impact, Day 11: Various Artists, A Very Merry Christmas volume 1. No single record in my collection is more iconic to me than this department store compilation produced by Columbia Special Products in 1967. This is the record I remember Alice Heitmueller (I call her "Mom") spinning on the old giant Magnavox stereo more than any other, This is the record that I begged her to replay (Jimmy Dean's version of "Jingle Bells," precisely), This is the record that served as my first (of MANY) soundtrack to Christmas. 50 years later, I acknowledge that some of the songs herein are ripe cheese (that I will always love and devour), but some of it still rings in my ears as being among the most beautiful music ever recorded.

12 of Fine, I Need More Than 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Armed Forces. Snarky, smart, sardonic, hooky, perfect. And it came with a bonus live 7" single, to boot! I got this for Christmas 1979 (along with The Cars' Candy-O, which I was accused of wanting only for the cover). Two utterly perfect records that still have an impact to this day.
13 of Just a Few More of These, I Promise: X, Under the Big Black Sun. It was the summer of 1982 and some friends and I were record shopping in Philly when I spotted this striking cover (encased in a loose shrink wrap, which stuck with me) on a new release rack. While the band's first two albums had somehow slipped through the cracks with me, I bought this record and their utterly unique sound (a melding of punk, country, roots, and a touch of '60s psych) combined with some of the most beautifully distinctive imagery in the history of rock soon made X one of my all-time favorite bands (to this day).

I Swear, Last Day of Albums That Made an Impact: Matt Pond PA, Emblems. While music never ceased to be important to me, by the time I was slinging the drinks at Maxwell's, I'd lost the kind of passion for finding new bands that defined my younger days. And then one evening, as I was setting up the back bar, this band I hadn't heard of was sound checking and I had to stop working and just go stand on the floor and watch them. Through that, and their subsequent set, I was mesmerized. I bought their new record, and for months, it was practically all I could listen to. Matt Pond PA became probably the last "new favorite band" that I'd ever have.

Then again.... "Tell me there's going to be time left /
Tell me I'm stupid and I don't have to worry"

One last runner-up: Screaming Females, Castle Talk. The other time when I was just completely knocked out by a band. Marissa Paternoster is as big a rock star as anyone who's ever picked up a guitar.