Thursday, March 06, 2014

My 12 albums

There’s been a thing going around Facebook where people pick their 12 favourite/most important to them records. And rather than just listing them and that being that, I figured I’d offer up a few thoughts. Oh, and this at this moment. Ask me again in a year’s time, it may be different.
I have nearly 11,000 songs on my iPod, which probably means close to 1,000 records. These are the 12 that stick with me.
In no particular order:
1.       Bruce Springsteen (Live 1975-85) - I listened to Springsteen before this record, or course. You couldn’t grow up in the 80s and escape Born in the USA anymore than you could escape Thriller or Synchronicity. But this is the record that made me a fan. A lot of Springsteen’s music pre-Born in the USA was more “my parents” music. Born to Run came out when I was five. But listening to this, the raw energy of the live performances, the storytelling, it’s what made me a fan. ‘Promised Land’ may be one of the greatest live songs I’ve ever heard.

2.       Bruce Springsteen (Tunnel of Love) - No critic would argue this is his best album, but it’s my favourite. The sheer balls of following up Born in the USA with this is amazing. I remember a lot of people being disappointed and put-off by it. But there’s so much emotion, honesty and beauty in this record in which he struggles with the idea of love and marriage. I liked it when I was a kid, but I think I’ve only grown to appreciate it more as I became an adult and got married.

3.       Tori Amos (Little Earthquakes)-  I used to be entertainment editor of the muse and everyWednesday I had to beg people to take tapes and review them. It was free music, so you wouldn’t figure it would be hard, but the labels bombed us with crap. My friend JaapTuinman took a flyer on this tape, figuring it wouldn’t amount to much.

The next day he came back, grabbed me, dragged me into one of the offices and wouldn’t let me leave until I listened to it. Mind-blowing. Amos has been hit and miss with me ever since. There are times I’m convinced she’s trying to sabotage her career by putting out deliberately weird/bad stuff. But this…man. I’d never heard anything like ‘Me and a Gun.’ And lest you think this is an Important Album it also has the quiet, heartbreaking beauty of ‘China’, the kinky fun of ‘Leather’ and the propulsive ‘Precious Things’. For all the “I put my man in his place” pop divas of today, nothing you can sing will top Amos’s searing “Just because you can make me cum doesn’t make you Jesus.”

4.       Liz Phair (Exile in Guyville) - Another record I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it; at a house party at 3 am with Chris Myrick and Lisa Pretty. Chris whipped the CD out of his bag (he was wont to do that) and insisted on listening to it. Again, wow. I’d never heard anything quite so raw. ‘Fuck and Run’ sounds like it should be shocking, but it’s just quietly sad and still catchy.

Phair has taken crap over the years for going commercial and never trying to follow-up on the potential of this record. Fuck ‘em. She managed to create one of the best records of the 90s. And if her follow-ups were only pretty cool (Whitechocolatespaceegg is actually pretty damn good) instead of awesome, well, that’s not a bad legacy.

5.       Ani DiFranco (Living in Clip) - Pretty sure my friend Mireille Sampson is responsible for this one. She’d been raving over DiFranco for ages and I saw this at a CHMR sale and snapped it up. It’s funny, but her regular albums leave me cold. But this double live set is just so much fun, with tons of energy and bounce. She’s an engaging stage presence and it comes out clearly in the record. I mean, the story about Anne Frank, of all things, still cracks me up 20 years later. 'Gravel' and '32 Flavors' are standouts.

6.       Wonderful Grand Band (Living in a Fog) -  I heard this once, and I’ve never been able to verify it, that the year this record came out, there was only one other record in Atlantic Canada that sold more copies – Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Look, it’s not a great classic of music, but the band and the TV show was beloved by Newfoundlanders. It gave us comedians Tommy Sexton and Greg Malone. It gave us Ron Hynes. And while some of the music is standard 80s rock music, ‘Babylon Mall’ is still a funny historical artifact, as is ‘U.I.C’. The title track is just as funny and weird as it ever was . It also gave us “Sonny’s Dream’ and any list of greatest Newfoundland songs that doesn’t have that in the Top 5 is pretty much invalid.

7.       Figgy Duff (Weather Out The Storm) - The record that got me hooked on celtic music. The title track was virtually impossible to miss in Newfoundland simply because there was a music video! And NTV played that sucker to death. It doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a spectacular song. It also helps that Pamela Morgan has one of the finest voices in Newfoundland music.  But the album also has the dramatic ‘Henry Martin’, the fun ‘Yankee Skipper’ and other great tracks. Surely on the short list of greatest Newfoundland records.

8.       The Chieftains (An Irish Evening: Live at the Grand Opera House, Belfast)) - The Chieftain got huge for awhile there in the 90s during the celtic music boom. I remember picking up The Long Black Veil with all the guest musicians, and quite liking it. When at a CD sale at Dalhousie I picked up this live album for $5. I promptly fell so deeply in love with it I bought nearly their entire catalogue, including their really obscure imports that I paid a ridiculous amount of money for on a poor student budget.

Listening to the Chieftains is like listening to a celtic symphony. There are times when I can’t believe what I’m hearing. The interplay and dance with the instruments is mind-blowing. Then to duplicate all of that live, with joy and energy and dragging in guest musicians…it’s an astonishing trick to pull off, and they do it with style. Oh, and they completely steal ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ from The Who on this record.

9.       Spirit of the West (Save This House) - Ah, the sound of the early 90s and being in love. This is that record for me. I mean, Labour Day is close, simply for ‘Political’, but this is the one. I’d actually lost it for years on an iPod crash and downloaded it again recently and it was like being hit by a tidal wave of memories. I mean, I know ‘Home for a Rest’ is almost a cliché at this point, but damn it, it really is a fun song.

10.   The Pursuit of Happiness (Love Junk) -  Ah, the sound of the early 90s and being bitter, depressed and single. It’s the soundtrack of male despair, angst and self-loathing, but done in a phenomenally catchy way. The single ‘I’m an Adult Now’ obviously gets all the attention, which it should. It’s a cult classic. But the rest of the album is great. And it holds up pretty well, even if I thankfully can’t relate to the songs quite as well as I used to.

11.   Neko Case (Furnace Room Lullaby) - The first time I heard Neko Case was on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera. I liked the song, and back then I was basically impulsive enough that if I heard something I liked, I bought the album (no iTunes to sample back then, kids). The used CDs stores in town did a good business off of me.

When I listened to all of Blacklisted, I thought I made one of my habitual impulsive music mistakes. It was way more twang that I’d expected and I didn’t care for country music. But there was something about it. I kept listening and it finally dawned on me…Case has the best voice in music. The twang has decreased over the years, but the power and elemental beauty of that voice has lost none of its pop. She might have done better since, but this one is still a gem.

12.   Tom Waits (Closing Time) - Tom Waits feels like a grown up moment in your musical development. You’ve been listening to all these musicians and thinking they’re great. Then someone sits you down and goes, “Yes, that’s good and all, but now you’re finally ready for this.” And they put on a Tom Waits record. Maybe it’s Swordfishtrombone, or Heart of a Saturday Night or Nighthawks at the Diner or something else. For me, it was Closing Time. It’s a classic, through and through. My wife hates his voice. To me, the voice has as much character as the people he sings about. That voice has been through the stories he sings about.

In its own way, Waits voice is as beautiful as Case’s for registering emotion (I would kill for a duet between the two). He’s also at the very top of the finest songwriters in music. I think it was Peter Galgay who sat me down and said, “you’re ready for Tom now”. I’ve always owed him one for that.

Honourable Mention
The Pogues (If I Should Fall From Grace with God) – ‘Fairytale of New York’ is still the greatest Christmas song ever.
U2 (Achtung Baby) – The record that made me realize that U2 is actually a good band and not a bunch of pretentious  wankers. Some of you will find that sentence ridiculously funny.
Sean Panting (Lotus Land) – Honestly, my favourite Newfoundland musician. Cathy says I have a man crush on Sean. Probably.
Ryan Adams (Gold) – ‘New York, New York’ got a ton of attention because of 9/11. The rest of the album is better than that song.
Robbie Robertson (Storyville) – Pure storytelling and atmosphere.
Matthew Good Band (Beautiful Midnight) – I played ‘Hello Time Bomb’ to death. It’s the record that got me hooked on his music.
Josh Ritter (Hello Starling) – I saw him open for Kathleen Edwards in St. John’s. The first time I saw a musician outright steal a show from the headline act.
Joel Plaskett Emergency (Truthfully Truthfully) – To this day, I do not understand how that album did not explode everywhere and that Plaskett isn’t a household name across North America. His showcase performance in St. John’s for the ECMAs in 2003(?) is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Garbage (Version 2.0) - Come for ‘Push it’, stay for ‘You Look so Fine.’ Fall in love with the idea of Shirley Manson singing it to you.
The Gaslight Anthem (Great Expectations) – The best variation, but not slavish imitation, of Bruce Springsteen out there right now.
Colleen Power (Face and Eyes) – Great lady, fun music. And ‘Newfoundland Weather’ is clever as fuck.
Blue Rodeo (Five Days in July) – The album that made me realize that Blue Rodeo is one of Canada’s greatest bands. I didn’t like them before this record. Clearly I was mad.
The Black Keys (Brothers) – I literally smacked my head, hearing this record for the first time almost a year after it came out and went “how the hell have I not listened to this already?”
Neil Diamond (12 Songs) – Diamond is a cheesy, karokee joke, right? That’s what I thought until I heard this. The fact he didn’t spend his whole career recording more music like this is a tragedy.
The New Pornographers (Mass Romantic) – It’s like a wall of beauty slamming into you with the force of a tidal wave. Some of the greatest pop music Canada has ever produced, neatly condensed into one record.