10 Records That Shape and Shift

This is a list of ten records that shaped how I listen to music and what I enjoy listening to. Not all of these records are records that I still like - I probably own less than half of them. Neither are these records that I would have ever put at the top of a "Top Ten" list. These, rather, are the albums that, for lack of a better word, revolutionized how I listen to music. If my "musical life journey" could be expressed as a painting (I guess making it a "musical life painting" (-_-) ), then each of these albums would be a new color added to the palatte. My headphones are the brush. So these are the colors that have tainted my brush, for better or for worse, over the past 12 years.

TLC - Fanmail

This is probably the most embarrassing album on this list, but whatever. I owned it in seventh grade. Up until Fanmail I had only listened to CCM artists (dc Talk, Newsboys, M.W. Smith, etc), and where Fanmail differed the most from those discs was the issues that it addressed. The Newsboys sang about how to stand up for your faith; TLC sang about how to deal with a society who didn't like you. I went to a Christian school and didn’t have to worry about defending my faith, but as tween I did have to worry about fitting in. I liked how relatable secular music was. I couldn’t get enough, and all the CDs I bought after Fanmail (which was a gift from a girl in my class, by the way. I didn’t buy it.) were secular. This disc laid the foundation for the type of music that I wanted to listen to.

Stand-out Tracks: “No Scrubs,” “Unpretty,” “Dear Lie”
Subsequent Artists: Green Day, Offspring, Eminem, Smash Mouth

Creed - Human Clay

While Fanmail may have laid the foundation, this is record that shaped the direction of my musical taste. Growling vocals, guitar solos, aggression, the works. Because it was Creed none of it was any good, but that doesn’t matter when you’re 13 or 14.  My appreciation for music has hopefully developed way beyond its humble beginnings, but I still think that my gut reaction to music will be driven by how similar it is to Creed. Human Clay received such heavy rotation (Weathered and My Own Prison less so) that the disc no longer plays. The song “Higher,” in particular, set the standard for what I thought was good music. Crunching riffs, clear vocals, tension-building bridge leading into ripping guitar solo - it was all there. (True to the charges leveled against Creed for being formulaic, “Stand Here With Me” off of Weathered did all of this in the exact same way, but better). Bands that I listen to now can be traced back to Creed in one way or another. Take Devin Townsend for example. I just bought his latest record, Epicloud. I can trace him back to Steve Vai, who I can trace to David Lee Roth, back to Van Halen, to Guns n’ Roses, to Jet, to Alien Ant Farm, to Seether, to Lifehouse, to Creed. I can do analysis like that for most of my current record collection.

Stand-out Tracks: “What If,” “Beautiful,” “Higher,” “With Arms Wide Open”
Subsequent Artists: Nickelback, 12 Stones, Evanescence, 3 Doors Down, Fuel, Default, Seether, Finger Eleven, P.O.D., Chevelle

Linkin Park - Hybrid Theory

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this album: I was on a shinkansen (a bullet train) on the way to Tokyo from Kyoto, listening to a friend’s MD player. This was the spring of my eighth grade year, when MDs were still useful. Linkin Park literally blew me away; it was nothing like anything I had heard before. It was fast, aggressive, and energizing. It was rap. It was rock. And you could sing along to it. All the bands I was listening to at the time- Creed, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, P.O.D., U2 - didn’t even come close to capturing the excitement that Hybrid Theory brought to my middle school life. I could yell, spit rhymes, headbang, air guitar, DJ scratch, all at the same time! The amazing thing is that I never owned this album, even to this day, yet I can still sing along word-for-word with the whole thing.

Stand-out Tracks: “Papercut,” “With You,” “Crawling,” “In The End”
Subsequent Artists: Puddle of Mudd, Trapt, Drowning Pool, Alien Ant Farm, Incubus, Deftones, Breaking Benjamin

Weezer - The Green Album

I liked this album because a popular girl liked it. There, I said it. She was fun and sporty and two years older than me and liked Weezer. So, as a high school freshman, I decided to like Weezer. And I still like Weezer. Weezer pulled out a relaxed and fun side of me that Linkin Park suppressed. They wanted to spend all day at the beach and surf and complain that relationships with popular girls never worked out. (OMG, that was so true!) The difference with Weezer was that listening to them actually made you want to care about the issues that Rivers was dealing with. I was sad with him, anxious with him, joyous with him, and tortured with him. Life was tough when you listened to Weezer, but if things ever got too tough, you could always put on your Weezer t-shirt that read “If it’s too loud, turn it down,” and get on with your day. I listened to this album pretty regularly in my early high school years, except for that one time I stopped because I was dating a girl. All Weezer ever sang about was breaking up, and I didn’t need all that negative noise. But then she dumped me over the phone, and I went back to blasting “Island in the Sun.”

Stand-out Tracks: “Photograph,” “Smile,” “Island in the Sun” (“Hashpipe” sucks, yo.)
Subsequent Artists: White Stripes, Modest Mouse, Jimmy Eat World, Good Charlotte, Cake, Goo Goo Dolls

Rage Against the Machine - Battle of Los Angeles

This CD defined my existence for two years, and now I can barely stand it. The angst and rage present in Hybrid Theory was here, not only tenfold, but also in a way that made me want to care about what Zack & Co. were angry about. Linkin Park were mad, sure, but I didn’t really know why. Rage talked about politics, economics, poverty, and other important stuff that high school sophomores with a lot of emotion and energy want to want to care about. While others in school were still caring about being popular, as I had in my TLC phase, I had “graduated” into caring about “real” issues. I can only imagine how my supercilious attitude must have come off. “Oh, you didn’t get elected to that student council position? Well, the EZLN rebels fighting for their freedom in Mexico are dying as America doesn’t care, so I’m gonna go put up their poster in my locker. Later.” I was a real prick. BUT ANYWAY, for the better part of two years Rage was the primary band that I listened to. Part of the appeal was Morello’s guitar work. I was a fan of good guitar playing (well, good in the “loud and fast” sense) ever since listening to Mark Tremonti from Creed solo away on “Higher,” but Morello was more interesting. He took what the guitar was capable of into left field and stayed there. Add that Tim the bassist was crazy and Zack “spit non-fiction” about real issues, and I was hooked. I want to say that I eventually matured out of this record, but I didn’t. I became a Christian - that’s really what pulled me out of it. I was talking to a youth pastor named Dave and he told me something about anger that I’ll never forget. “Dann,” he said, “you need to watch out to avoid anger. A lot of Christian parents warn against AC/DC or Judas Priest or whatever, but those guys don’t bother me because I don’t think they’re very serious. But Rage, man, they are actually angry. And if you feed on that, it will destroy you.” So for a while I worked hard to be more careful. And then a Christian thing called “sanctification” happened, and my entertainment tastes changed because God was at work within me. Now anytime a Rage song comes on, it’s hard for me to listen to it because I’m not that person who used to enjoy it anymore. I’m different.

Stand-out Tracks: “Guerilla Radio,” “Calm Like a Bomb,” “Sleep Now In the Fire,” “War Within a Breath”
Subsequent Artists: Porno for Pyros, Soundgarden, Living Color, Sevendust, Jane’s Addiction

Guns N’ Roses - Greatest Hits

Throughout most of high school my goal was to be kind of a rebel. That didn’t work too well, because it turned out that I was too introverted to be rebellious. Being a rebel was also a full-time job, but I didn’t have enough to be angry about to make it a lifestyle, and I didn’t have the energy to keep up a front 24/7. Guns N’ Roses changed all that, because Axl taught me that you don’t need to be rebellious all the time if you can manage to be stupidly irreverent some of the time. I started listening to classic rock my junior year of high school, and the summer between junior and senior year I borrowed this CD from a guy named Jay. And that was my summer. “Patience” followed by “Paradise City,” “Civil War,” and “You Could Be Mine.” Rock out and repeat. Summer ended and I was still rocking. For the next four months, I wanted to be Axl Rose. I wanted to tour the world, wear ridiculous clothes, and trash talk rock critics. I wanted to gyrate around micstands, call Cobain a loser, and date crazy women named Michelle. Looking back on it now makes it seem all very funny and childish, but I was serious. When I was 17, I wanted to be Axl. Their Greatest Hits should have been a double disc. 

Stand-out Tracks: “Patience,” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child Of Mine”
Subsequent Artists: AC/DC, Van Halen, KISS, Led Zeppelin, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Hanoi Rocks, Poison, Scorpions, Velvet Revolver

G3 Live - Rockin’ in the Free World

I bought this CD on a trip to Thailand in the spring of 2005, as part of the logical progression of my exploration of the “influencers” of modern rock bands. Up until this time it had been mostly alternative rock with a smattering of classic rock, but late in 2004 I started on the “influencer” kick. I felt I knew what bands I liked, and respected the musicians who were part of them. I also knew that those musicians were influenced by bands before them, and that musicians I looked up to had musicians they looked up to. And so I traced modern bands back to classic bands, and classic bands back to Hendrix. But I soon found out that I didn’t like Hendrix. So I traced Hendrix forward, and got to virtuoso guitar players - particularly Steve Vai. Vai had all the talent you could want combined with the panache of Axl Rose. What could be better?, I said, and so I bought this album. The three guitarists on this record took me by storm. Malmsteen’s “Trilogy Suite Op.5” was the greatest piece of music I had ever heard. My hierarchy of guitarists was quickly rearranged to put him at the top, followed by Vai, Van Halen, Slash, Page, Morello, Angus Young, Kim Thayil, Satriani, and so on and so forth. I had always liked guitar work, but this album turned the key into a whole new world of guitar work. I had a lot of disposable income in the months following this purchase, and a lot of it was spent on instrumental guitar albums. That has stayed reasonably constant over the last seven years, to the point where a whole shelf of my CD rack is dedicated to such records.

Stand-out Tracks: “Crystal Planet,” “Whispering a Prayer,” “Trilogy Suite Op. 5”
Subsequent Artists: Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Eric Johnson, Buckethead

Yngwie Malmsteen - Concerto for the Electric Guitar

My list includes this record not because of anything innovative it did, but rather because it showed how poorly integrated classical and rock music does no one any favors. My parents are classical music buffs and I was exposed to a lot of it growing up, but I never liked it. It was always “Mommy and Daddy’s boring music” and ipso facto inferior to anything else that I was listening to. This was never more true than in high school when I was immersed in rock music; the only classical instruments I wanted to hear were strings on an Evanescence record or an organ in a Doors’ track (barely a classical instrument, I know). But as I said above, alternative rock led to to classic rock, which led me to Hendrix, which led me to virtuoso guitarists. Just like, I think, most people freshly exposed to virtuoso guitar, I took an immediate liking to Malmsteen. His speed and technical ability were incredible, and when one has yet to learn about things like harmony, phrasing, tone, fuzz, and other fun stuff like that, technical prowess is all that matters. After I had chewed through a few of his solo albums that he released in the '80s, I had to get this album, because it combined blistering fast guitar with all the “epicness” of playing with an orchestra. I was 19 at the time and very into “epicness.” Rather than epicness, however, I found disappointment lurking in every track. My childhood exposure to classical music had taken its toll, and I found that I was used to much more lush, complex, and interesting orchestral arrangements then what Yngwie offered. Just watch this and tell me that it’s not absolutely terrible. It makes both the electric guitar and the orchestra look bad. The guitar part looks childishly simple, and the orchestra looks bored. Neither instrument is playing to its strength. And so, with that, this record cemented in my mind a clear separation between rock and classical orchestral music. By seeing orchestras used poorly, I gained an appreciation for the good classical music that I had grown up with, and so went out and bought a lot of classical CDs. By seeing Yngwie perform without bass support, I realized that bass support is really crucial to making a good rock band, and I gained an appreciation for good bass work on rock records (none of which shows up in any of Yngwie’s catalog). Rock stayed rock, and classical stayed classical.

Stand-out Tracks: All are equally bland
Subsequent Artists: Paganini in particular, and an increased appreciation for classical music in general.

Klaus Schulze - En=Trance

See that picture? The one of the guy opening the door to the electromagnetic spectrum? That got me to buy this album. I knew nothing of Klaus Schulze, nothing of kraut-rock, nothing of sequencers, mindscapes, patches, or textures. But I liked that picture and was attracted to an album composed of four tracks of 17-minutes each, so I bought it off eBay and waited for it to arrive. It showed up postmarked from Russia, the product of an illegal pirating operation. Oops. I have never listened to a legitimate copy, so I don’t know if the quality is equal to the original, but it did its job before the poorly-pressed disc disintegrated. I honestly didn’t know what to think as I listened to it the first time. I had never heard synthesizer music, but knew that it was "different" and that I liked it. As I grew to like it more and more, I noticed that my appreciation for cohesive album experiences grew. Up until this time I had listened to rock singles and "greatest hit" and such, but it was rare for me to listen to albums start to finish without skipping a track I didn’t like. En=Trance didn’t have any tracks I didn’t like. A side effect of this was the change from music being background noise to music as an active experience. I began to sit down for an hour and concentrate on just listening to music. This album was rich enough and interesting enough to make me do that. Another change I noticed was that I liked classical music more as a result of hearing Klaus Schulze. Both are what music critics call “long-form” music - music that takes a while to develop an idea and makes you stick with it through boring moments and exciting moments because it wants to actually take you somewhere. It presents a journey for you to take rather than a chorus to headbang to. A common complaint leveraged against classical is that it it boring, and therefore not worth listening to. This, I think, has less to do with the merits of classical music (though some is quite tedious, cc: Mahler), and more to do with a misunderstanding of short form vs long form music. They aim to accomplish different things. Klaus and his synthesizers accomplished wonderful things.

Stand-out Tracks: The whole album, all four tracks.
Subsequent Artists: Jean-Michel Jarre, Peter Namlook, Adam Freeland, Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Aphex Twin
Fun Activity: Say "in-depth synthesizer" ten times fast.

Devin Townsend - Infinity

I bought this record because I liked Devin’s vocals on Steve Vai’s Sex and Religion record, but nothing could have prepared me for the sonic assault that “Infinity” threw at me. It was like Hybrid Theory, but it was also like Metallica, but it was also sensitive, and above all, it was spine-crushingly insane. I sat there with my headphones on, mouth agape, thinking “what on earth is entering my brain??” Sex and Religion was overall pretty terrible; this was brilliant and terrifying, engaging and overwhelming, precise yet chaotic. To this day nothing has matched it. By the end of the first four tracks, which comprise a seamless start to the album, my heart rate had risen by at least 15 beats/min. I needed to press “pause” and take a few deep breaths! Townsend uses a “wall of sound” technique in which layer after layer of instrumentation is woven together, on top of which the melody is laid. Most rock music is made with just your normal instruments: vocals, guitar, bass, maybe some synth, and drums. The backdrop to all of this is silence. On Infinity, the backdrop is more noise. Ancient people had this idea of the “music of the spheres,” the idea that there is cosmic music always playing that we are unaware of, and if it ever stopped, time and space would unravel and humans would be thrown off balance, terrified. Infinity touches on that. When the album reaches a point where noise actually stops, you can’t breathe. At first the noise seems raucous, but then it becomes natural, and then you realize that you feel lost without it. It’s hard to explain. Just listen to it. This album, in a way, even influenced my education. It was recorded just after Devin was diagnosed as bi-polar, and so represents him, literally, at the height of his insanity. Listening to it made me want to understand how his mind works - how any “different” mind works. And so I started studying psychology in college, watching psy/thriller films, and reading books about LSD and near-death experiences. All that to say that I still haven’t figured out what is going on in the album, and it takes me for a trip with every listen.

Stand-out Tracks: “Christeen”, “Bad Devil,” “Colonial Boy,” “Dynamics”
Subsequent Artists: None, because Devin stands on his own. I now have four more of Devin’s records. Go listen to Epicloud.

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Coats in Summer and Proper Use

“Attention Goodwill shoppers,” flowed the voice over the loudspeaker, “today is dollar-forty-nine day. All items with a green tag are just $1.49. That’s right, all items with a green tag are just $1.49. Thank you for shopping at Goodwill, where we’re more than just a store - we equip people to work.”

My fingers flitted through the rack of coats, my eyes scanning labels as I walked down the coat rack. Beige. Beige. Too small. Women’s. Too small. Too cheaply made. Ugh, red. Ooh, leather - too small though. This looks nice! I lighted on a huge woolen overcoat with “London Fog” on the label. I pulled it off the rack and tried it on. Too big. The arms were the right length, but you could have fit another of my torso inside. What rotten luck it was sometimes to be tall and skinny. I replaced it among the other coats and continued making my way towards the end of the aisle. I passed a couple more. Here’s another wool coat - a possibility! The tag read “Stafford.” I think I have a sportcoat made by them - it was nice. Let’s see how this one fits. I pulled it around myself, looking a tad ridiculous as I stood there in the middle of store in July, trying on woolen coats. The sleeves fit, the length of the coat looked right, and there was just enough space for my torso to be comfortable covered. I looked at the tag. Green! Looks like I found the deal of the day. 

“You find anything?” asked a voice to my left. I turned to see an middle-aged man, maybe early fifties, staring at me through a pair of glasses mounted low on his nose. He was wearing a green polo shirt and khaki shorts, and the scruffy beard on his face complimented by his socks-and-sandals clad feet reminded me a bit of my father. “Yeah, this right here,” I said, holding my arms out to better show him the coat that I was still hidden in. “One-hundred percent wool, and just a dollar-forty-nine!” 

“Can’t beat that!” he said, and I nodded in agreement. “This is the best time to buy coats, because no one else is looking.”

“That’s right!” he agreed.

“How ‘bout you? Find anything?”

He shrugged and held up a long beige coat. “Got this here, but there’s no label on it so it’s useless to me. It’s nice, though. 100% wool.”

“Really?” I asked as I stepped towards him. He handed me the coat to look at. Sure enough, it was wool. Really well-made, too. Heavy. But without a label, any potential customer would be skeptical that it really was a nice coat, or that it wasn’t stolen. Such skepticism is problematic for flippers.

You see the flippers from time to time at the Goodwill or other thrift stores. Guys browsing the electronics or the golf clubs, looking for a name-brand stereo or putter to buy and flip. Women looking at the men’s dress clothes or the household knick-knacks on the off chance that they might find a shirt of a good cut or maybe some genuine silver utensils. Buy and sell, a little bit of money here, a bit there. There’s always something to be learned from these people.

“You can have first dibs on it if you want,“ said the Flipper, gesturing at the coat still in my hand. I took off my new-found pile of warmth and tried his coat on. Too short in the sleeves. Again. Besides, it was beige. Beige coats are a sign of the wealthy, of the richer upper class who either don’t have a lifestyle that puts them in positions where an overcoat can get dirty, or who have enough money that they don’t have to worry about replacing a coat even if it does. This violates what I call the “proper use” of an item. God made fabrics and materials, and humans figured out that if those materials were combined and stitched a certain way, they would keep one warm. The primary purpose of a coat then is to keep one warm and dry and clean. Wool does all of those things (which is why I seek it out), and wearing a darker color allows the coat to fulfill its function longer, because the dirt doesn’t show. Using an item until it is finally worn out is a wise financial decision; here proper use and financial prudence dovetail nicely together. The only reasons a coat need be beige is because of style, which is ephemeral, or to broadcast one’s actual wealth, or to make oneself appear to be wealthy and in possession of “good taste.” Since I care little for style and am not wealthy, nor do I want to pretend to be, I have no interest in beige coats. “It doesn’t work for me, thanks though.” I handed the coat back.

I continued my search down the coat rack, nearing the end. Ah! Another well-made coat - one he could flip, perhaps. “Here’s a nice one,” I said, holding up a darker woolen Hugo Boss. Surely the German name would impress him. Instead I was met with a “What’s that? Is that a good one?” So this man isn’t just a flipper - he’s an ill-educated flipper.

Brands are a funny thing. They signify quality, but only to a certain extent. There is a very fine line between when a brand means “well made” and when it only means “trendy, so we can charge more.” Browsing Goodwill over the years has taught me a lot about quality - about things that are waterproof, windproof, warm, airy, breathable or not. NorthFace, for example, is one of those brands that is an automatic buy for me. It doesn’t matter if the item fits me or not, because it is guaranteed well-made. A well-made item is useful for somebody, and even if I can’t use it I can at least have the satisfaction of giving a high-quaity item away to someone else. NorthFace is (normally) expensive, and rightly so - it delivers on what it claims. Making extreme cold-weather gear or a windbreaker that is waterproof/breathable is hard, and to do it well justifies the cost. This is part of proper use. Things that accomplish their goals well should be honored and used. And, for Christians, Jesus commands us to be generous with our belongings. To both invest in proper use and to pass it on, I feel, honors Jesus. Because of this I have tried to make a habit out of anticipating being generous. If I find nice things at good prices, I buy them in the hopes that they will be useful to someone somewhere down the line. But as I stood there in front of the coats, it seemed that Flipper was unaware of proper use.

This brought all sorts of existential questions crashing down on me, one after another like a rack of coats breaking free of their hangers and burying me under a pile on the floor. What did this guy do? Was he successful? Where had he been in his life that brought him, here and now, to the middle of a Goodwill in Minnesota, staring at a rack of coats trying to figure out which ones he could buy and make a profit on. Did he like wool? Leather? Polyester? Now the guy was talking something about cashmere. “Here, you feel that? That’s cashmere. That’s gotta be. That’s the stuff you really want. That’s the good stuff.” Did he know what he was talking about? Did a mid-life crisis push him into a place where his way out was to work to be an expert on fabrics? Was this just a fun hobby? Either way, it didn’t look like he wanted the Hugo Boss, and it was too big in the torso for me to consider. I looked at my $1.49 success story of the day as he wandered off through the jeans aisle. 

“Attention Good will shoppers. There is a car parked out front that needs to be moved. If you drive a blue Honda with license plate xxx-xxxx, please go move your car. Thank you.”
It wasn’t my car, but I figured it was time for me to go anyway.

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