The World’s Fair has a post up asking the ScienceBloggers the following question:
If you make a music mix that is a reflection of your informative years, what would those dozen or so songs be, and maybe more interesting, why? You don’t have to be proud of the song choices – they’re not necessarily a reflection of taste, more about your history.
Being a music fanatic myself, I’ll gladly take up this challenge. I do wonder, though, what the parameters are of our “formative years” are. But rather than answer that question, I’m just going to assume the broadest possible answer and write of my favorite music of all time, some of which I became aware of at different times. And I’m probably going to make it broader than just particular singles, as they did, and name albums or even the bands themselves.
This is similar in some ways to the “if you could take only 10 albums with you to a deserted island” question, but there may be a few of them that I’ll mention that I was really into at a certain point in my life, or that are on the list primarily because they form the soundtrack of a given period even though I wouldn’t put them in my deserted island collection today. And it’s going to be quite a diverse list, but I’ll put some notes next to each one to explain why they’re on the list. And I’ll put them in roughly chronological order.
I was fortunate to have a lot of older brothers and sisters, so as a young child I was exposed to a lot of diverse types of music that they were all into. My brother Jack was really into the art rock bands, especially Kansas. Jill was into Hendrix and Joplin. Mike and Kevin were into classic 70s rock (Nugent, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, Nazareth, etc). But there are three albums that really stick out from that era for me, when I was about 9 or 10 and really just getting into music. Oddly, they’re all live albums. They are:
Bob Seger – Live Bullet
REO Speedwagon – You Get What You Play For
George Benson – Weekend in LA
After my parents divorced and my brother Kevin and I went to live with my dad in Stevensville, those 3 albums were on the record player (yes, a real record player; go to a museum, you can see one) almost constantly. This was, of course, when REO Speedswagon was one of the great rock and roll bands on the planet, about 5 years before they would descend into a vat of musical cotton candy and decide to become the band whose songs are played at the end of a junior high school dance. I still hate them for transforming from one of the seminal bands of my childhood into one of the truly unlistenable bands of my adolescence. Curse you, Kevin Cronin. Hell is made for people like you, where they’ll make you listen to “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” for all eternity.
Bob Seger would also make a transition from one of the great rockers of the 70s to an easy listening staple of the 80s, but at least his music was aimed at adults and not 13 year olds. And he never became painful to listen to the way REO did. But he never again came close to Live Bullet. That Cobo Hall concert was the absolute peak of his career and it still stands as one of the greatest performances of the rock era. From the classic Tina Turner song Nutbush City Limits to Let It Rock, this album is gold from start to finish.
The George Benson album doesn’t fit with the other two so much, but it’s the perfect album for certain moods still to this day. A smooth jazz classic.
The next album that really left a mark for me was Van Halen 1, their debut album. I remember my brother, who was 16 at the time, putting it on and saying, “just listen to this guitar”. Even at only 11 years old, I remember listening to it and thinking, “This changes everything.” It was like lightning bolt striking in the middle of our musical expectations. From the very first song, Running With The Devil, it was obvious that this was something completely fresh and that it would be hugely influential.
In the late 70s, we moved from Stevensville to Portage. One of the first friends I made there got me into Rush and that became THE band for me for a long time. I had started playing drums early in junior high, though I didn’t pursue it in high school because of debate, and for a young drummer, Neil Peart was the undisputed god of rock drumming. I was in the 7th grade when Permanent Waves came out and in the 8th grade when Moving Pictures was released, and I was absolutely hooked. Also around the same time, I got into Triumph, the other Canadian power trio band, sort of a poor man’s Rush. Triumph was actually the first concert I ever went to, probably in 1982 or so. I still remember that Foghat was the opening band. And around the same time, I finally got to see Rush live, the first of 3 or 4 times.
In high school (1981-1985) there were many huge albums that formed the soundtrack of my adolescence. Some of the obvious ones: Prince’s Purple Rain, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Def Leppard’s Pyromania and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. But one album sticks out to me more than any other – Yes’s 90125. My junior and senior year of high school, this was absolutely the album for me and my circle of friends. Rick, Brian, Susan, Christina and I were inseparable and wherever we went, that album was playing. When I hear it today, it instantly takes me back to all our trips to the beach and that tape always being in Rick’s jambox.
I also have to mention that in the 10th grade, I became a jazz fan, almost by accident. I had to do a biography paper for an English class and I figured everyone was gonna do people like Lincoln and Washington. So I went to the biography section of the public library and just kind of ran my hand along the stacks until I saw a title that caught my eye, and the first one to do so was called Yardbird. It was, of course, a biography of Charlie Parker. I skimmed through it and the story was very interesting, so I decided to do the paper on him. I checked out some of his old albums as well and listened to them, and I loved what I heard.
Later, Rick (who is still my best friend to this day) would really get into jazz and would get me back into it as well. He and I have had the pleasure of seeing Wynton Marsalis, both with his own bands and with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, half a dozen times or so, as well as Branford Marsalis (it was at that show that his then-newlywed wife, who is not a jazz fan, leaned over and whispered in his ear a line that we still laugh about today – “It just sounds to me like they’re always practicing”) and many others.
Two others really need to be mentioned at this time. The first is Sting, both with the Police and solo. Synchronicity was one of the giant albums of my high school years and I liked it a lot. But I absolutely loved Sting’s solo stuff, starting with Dream of the Blue Turtles in 1985. This was a period of transition for me, as I started to push out the limits of my muslcal tastes, and the jazz-influenced pop that he put together was irresistable to me. The video of the recording of that album and the band’s first concert, Bring on the Night, really drew me in. I remain a big fan of Sting to this day, and consider him one of the finest songwriters of the last 30 years.
The other band that was really big for me during this time was the Christian rock band, Petra. I was a Christian for much of this period and this was a band I saw live several times. And honestly, I think their music from that time frame still holds up well today and I still listen to it. What they had going for them was simply one of the best male voices I’ve ever heard, Greg Volz. He had about a 4 octave range in full voice and he could absolutely soar. But they were a huge part of those years for me.
After high school it was off to college and from 86-90 I was part college student and part debate coach. Musically, this was my blues and blues-influenced rock period. My roommates and I at the time were really into blues rock, so we listened to that a lot and went to a lot of shows. The summer of 1990 was the best concert period of my life. In the course of 3 months I saw Koko Taylor, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Cocker, Ray Charles and Robert Cray. A great summer, after which I hit the road and began doing comedy seriously.
During the comedy years, I listened to a lot of hard rock. I call this my angry young man phase. Before I went on stage every night, I listened to Guns and Roses’ Mr. Brownstone. For some reason, it was the perfect song to get me fired up and ready to go on stage. It was also in this period that I first became acquainted with Vinx, a story I’ve told before, so that kind of bucks the hard rock trend. This was also around the time when grunge began. I particularly liked Pearl Jam’s first album, and was a big Blind Melon fan as well.
1992 is also when the first Rage Against the Machine album came out and that was a big album for me. I loved the raw outrage (as I said, this was my angry young man phase) of it, and I still like it today when the mood is right. This was really an ass kicking band. Incidentally, I just found out that Rage guitarist Tom Morello was the guitarist in a band called Lock Up. I saw that band perform on, of all places, the short lived Rick Dees TV show in the late 80s and loved the sound so much that I went and bought the CD. I still have it, and I must be one of about 8 people who actually own Something Bitchin This Way Comes. The guitar work on the album is amazing and I had no idea it was Morello (it’s totally different from the style he developed with Rage, but incredibly smooth) until I saw it on Wikipedia.
After I stopped doing comedy in about 1994, I left my angry young man phase and entered the adult world of a regular job, a relationship and a house payment. And only about 25 years after he hit the music scene, I started getting into James Taylor, whose concerts I’ve now seen more times than I can count (yes, I’m a Jameshead). I know most people think of him as an early 70s artist, back in the Fire and Rain and Sweet Baby James days of his youth, but JT put out some of his best work in the late 80s and 90s. He had three great CDs with Never Die Young, New Moon Shine and Hourglass, and in 1993 he put out an amazing live double CD. As with so much of this music, a lot of it is tied up with my best friend Rick. Together, we’ve seen James Taylor many, many times over the years.
Sometime in the mid 90s, I also got in to a set of local bands from West Michigan, beginning with The Verve Pipe. They were absolutely huge locally, where one song called Freshmen took the area by storm. They were later signed and that song became a major hit for them. But they faded pretty quickly on the national scene after that first album. They’re still around though, and still put on a good show. The other three local bands I loved and still enjoy are Domestic Problems, Knee Deep Shag and Troll for Trout.
I first saw Domestic Problems when they opened for Vinx at Club Soda in Kalamazoo. Their live show was just infectious. You could not help but get swept up in the positive energy that they radiated, and you had to laugh at lead singer Andy Holtgreive’s twisted but endearing sense of humor (one of the highlights of their early shows was a song called Ernie’s Tragic Love Triangle, about a war breaking out between the characters on Sesame Street that ends when Captain Kangaroo shows up to broker a peace agreement). They had this goofy two man horn line made up of one tall redneck-looking white trumpet player with a hat pulled down over his eyes and one short, laidback asian sax and flute player, and the two of them had these odd little dance steps that they’d do during the songs; it was like the Earth, Wind and Fire horns on acid.
One of the other big highlights of Domestic Problems shows was the song they always did as an encore, El Matador. This was a very strange Mexican-themed song about a bullfighter who falls in love with the bull he’s supposed to be fighting. But in the middle of the song, at three different places, the band would suddenly break into a single verse and chorus from a cover tune. And half the fun was that you never knew what songs they would do, and the range was enormous. The first one might be Centerfold by the J. Geils Band, then maybe Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It and finally Coming to America by Neil Diamond, but you never really knew. I probably saw them break into a couple dozen different songs in the middle of that one, then blend seemlessly back into El Matador. They’re just a great live band with a whimsical sense of musical mischief. They’re the American version of Barenaked Ladies. You can listen to a lot of their msuic for free at Fresh Tracks Music.
Another great local band that I first saw opening for Domestic Problems was Knee Deep Shag. This was a tight little funk- and soul-inspired rock band that also put on a great live show. They were led by a diminutive lead singer, a little white guy who went about 130 pounds soaking wet. But when he opened his mouth, Luther Vandross came out. I remember seeing them the first time and staring at him, wondering where the hell that voice came from. He was a great performer, graced with graceful and effortless movement, charisma and a voice that absolutely wailed.
The other local band was Troll for Trout, which I came to later than the first two. This is an immensely talented group led by Michael Crittenden. As you can tell from the title, he loves fishing and the outdoors and that ties into a lot of their music. This is a band that still does shows around here, but I haven’t seen them in a while. They put on a tremendous live show and their music was the soundtrack for a lot of good times for me a few years ago.
Backtracking just a bit, the mid 90s was also the time I really started getting into some of the newer jam bands. I saw the Horde tour that featured the Dave Matthews Band, just before their big breakout success, and other great groups like the Freddy Jones Band, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and of course Blues Traveler. Though I never really got into Phish, I got into most of the others, including all the above and Widespread Panic, among others. I like the focus on great musicianship and I’ve seen some great shows among that group.
Among the other bands I really got into over the last few years: Keb Mo, a great country blues singer; King Konga, a now-defunct Mississippi band that I still love; Alana Davis, a unique singer/songwriter with a great voice; Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, one of the world’s great bar bands (and one of the best live shows you could ever see, trust me); Maroon 5, a band I really hope doesn’t fade away after their amazing first hit album; and Los Lonely Boys, who sound like what would happen if Stevie Ray Vaughan and Carlos Santana had a love child.
So there you have it, my musical journey from the early years to my, hopefully, still formative present. I’m sure there are some I’m forgetfully leaving out, but at my rapidly advancing age, that’s the best I could do.