Ten Days, Ten Albums, Some Explanation

Over on Facebook, a bunch of my friends have been doing this thing where they post a series of albums that influenced them significantly. Over the course of ten days, you post ten album covers, but offer no explanation as to how or why you chose the albums you did. I just finished doing it myself, but I enjoy explaining things and going into detail about why I’ve made the choices I made. So, for your reading enjoyment, I present my ten days, ten albums, with some explanation.

1. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes!Damn The Torpedoes

The first Tom Petty album I owned, and the one that I go back to time and time again. The damn thing plays like a greatest hits collection, and there’s not a bad song on there. I still think it’s the most essential Tom Petty album there is, even moreso than Full Moon Fever or Wildflowers (and I’ve already gone on at length about my love for Wildflowers).

2018-04-25 14.22.05.jpg2. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

This album was my introduction to the Flaming Lips (I mean, aside from “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which everyone had heard on 90210). The first song, “Fight Test,” just floored me. The mixture of weird electronic squiggles and beeps with the acoustic guitar and Wayne Coyne’s strained, heartfelt vocals . . . I was hooked.

3. The Beatles, Rubber Soul2009-04-28 15.03.36.jpg

If you didn’t think I was going to include a Beatles album on a list like this, you haven’t been paying attention. The Beatles are the alpha and the omega, the source of everything I love about music, and Rubber Soul is their best album, if you ask me. It’s the perfect balance between their earlier, more raucous work and their later, more deliberate and formalist efforts. They made more interesting and experimental albums after this one, but they never made another album as cohesive and awesome as it.

2018-04-25 14.23.114. Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind

And here’s the requisite Dylan album. Time Out of Mind might seem like an odd choice–there are definitely better Dylan albums to choose from–but it’s the one that had the greatest impact on me. Discovering that he could still produce music that was this visceral and heartfelt, even as his voice broke completely and he seemed well-past his prime . . . it was inspiring. And the songs are pretty damn good, too.

5. Queen, A Night at the Opera2018-04-29 12.37.57

Queen blew my tiny little middle school mind like nothing else. The obvious epic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is there, but so is the biblical apocalyptica of “The Prophet’s Song” and the nasty character assassination of “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…).” The sheer stylistic range on display is incredible, with heavy rockers, music hall goofs, and folky acoustic numbers with soaring harmonies. God, the layered harmonies. And don’t forget Brian May’s guitar work. The album kicks ass from start to finish.

2018-04-27 12.45.596. Pink Floyd, Meddle

This little-known Floyd album is one of my all-time favorites. The pulsing bass of opener “One of These Days,” the dreamy quality of “Fearless,” and the laid-back fun of “San Tropez” and “Seamus” make for a varied, entertaining album that doesn’t get weighed down in the concept album pretensions that most Floyd albums have to deal with. And the closer, the epic “Echoes,” with the sonar ping and murky, underwater feel…classic.

7. Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat2018-04-27 12.46.24

I had the privilege of seeing this album performed live in its entirety last year, and it was one of the best concert experiences of my life. The harmonies are the obvious highlight, but Jenny Lewis’s lyrics and songwriting are just as sharp and incisive as they were almost 15 years ago when this album came out.

2018-04-27 12.46.488. The National, Boxer

My introduction to the National was through a bootlegged live show right after this album came out. The show was made up almost entirely of songs from the new album, and I was intrigued so I sought Boxer out. Now, they’re one of my favorite bands, and this record is the reason why. Personal favorites include “Slow Show” and closer “Gospel,” though there’s really not a bad song on the album.

9. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska2018-04-27 12.47.09

Until the release of the likes of Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils + Dust, Nebraska was a weird outlier for the Boss. Solo acoustic, just his voice and guitar and a harmonica with a four-track recorder: that’s pretty much all there is to Nebraska. But it’s haunting, and glorious, and full of fire and brimstone and the sort of carefully-sketched character studies that Springsteen is known for. It’s the polar opposite of what Springsteen was known for: stripped down instead of piled high with overdubs, loose and slightly sloppy instead of precision-perfect.

2018-04-27 12.47.30

10. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

My introduction to Wilco came when I was listening to a Glen Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame) bootleg solo acoustic show. Folks in the audience were calling out what they wanted to hear next, and some dude kept asking him to play a Wilco song. And then he threw in a reference to them in one of his own songs, and I decided to check them out. YHF blew my mind, with its mix of acoustic instrumentation, weird blips and beeps and effects, and phenomenal songwriting. The fact that this album led me to so many other amazing bands–The Minus 5 and Uncle Tupelo being the two most prominent–and also led to me finding out about the Mermaid Avenue collections (Billy Bragg and Wilco play around with old Woody Guthrie lyrics? Hell yes!) is just gravy.

“Even the Losers”

Since Tom Petty’s untimely death a few months back, I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of his stuff. All of it, really. It takes a while to digest that many songs, but I started to notice patterns and tropes and themes. He’s always enjoyed telling stories in his songs, and he populates the lyrics with characters who are flawed and funny and all-too-human. Let’s take a quick spin through some of it, shall we?

First and foremost, Tom Petty characters are very flawed. Narrators are open about their foibles — the guy in “The Waiting” openly admits, “Yeah, I might’a chased a couple women around/All it ever got me was down,” while the narrator of “Don’t Do Me Like That” receives a warning from his friend: “Then he said, ‘You better watch your step/Or you’re gonna get hurt yourself/Someone’s gonna tell you a lie/Cut you down to size,” clearly implying the narrator thinks far too much of himself and his abilities with the ladies, but even he won’t be immune when a woman far more clever and uncaring than he rolls around.

We can especially see the flaws when Petty tells a story. In “Something Big,” the main character — known as Speedball — checks into a hotel while he works on…well, something big, just like the title says. There’s no indication of what that something is — it’s implied to be less-than-completely-legal and probably along the lines of a get rich quick scheme — or what, exactly, Speedball is doing to hit that something big, but he’s definitely working on it…until he simply disappears. As the maids clean his room, one of them wonders who he was and what he was doing. Her coworker dismisses Speedball as just another guy “workin’ on something big,” and leaves it at that.

There’s a world-weariness to a lot of Petty’s characters. Even the ones who start out optimistic and full of hope — Eddie in “Into the Great Wide Open,” for instance — end up getting chewed up by the machinery of life and left cynical and apathetic. We see it clearly with Eddie: the youthful optimism as he moves out to Hollywood, gets a tattoo, and learns to play the guitar from his girlfriend, which all gives way to increasing disconnect from his roots as he becomes a big deal and gets a “leather jacket” with “chains that would jingle,” while his A&R representative starts to chide him for not creating a radio single. Eddie, like so many other Petty characters, has the optimism and naivete worn out of him. His wide-eyed enthusiasm for being a big star is ground down to a weary apathy by the end of the song.

Petty himself was no stranger to the corporate cogs that ground down the likes of Eddie or the nameless rocker from “Money Becomes King” (who might well have been Eddie himself). His famous fight with his record company over album pricing, his resistance to the corporatization of rock and roll and radio, his insistence on retreating from the big shiny pop of Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open by following it up with the stripped-down Wildflowers…Tom Petty always did things the way he wanted to do them, the torpedoes be damned.

And despite it all — despite the cynicism and world-weariness in his characters, despite the victory of corporations over people so many times, despite the dehumanizing effect of so much of modern society — Petty always seemed kind of hopeful. He was a guy who truly believed in the power of music, especially rock and roll. While The Last DJ is by no means a good album (despite what my brother keeps insisting), the title track does send a thrill down the spine and remind you of the redemptive, almost religious power of music. Find the right song, sing the right words, and you can free the mind, body, and spirit. “Even the losers get lucky sometime,” he sang. “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell but I’ll/Stand my ground/And I won’t back down.” He may have sung songs about the downtrodden and the weary, about folks down on their luck and out on their asses, but he did it with a wry grin and the belief that you could recover from failure. It’s explicit in songs like “Climb That Hill,” with its admonition to “Get up/Climb that hill again.”

Back when Wildflowers came out, I listened to the album obsessively. It came out in 1994, when I was fourteen and the perfect age to obsessively listen to something. At the time, my least-favorite song on the album was the closer, “Wake Up Time.” It was slow, meditative, and not what a 14-year-old who wasn’t quite convinced of his own mortality yet really wanted to listen to. The album was, if I’m honest, too mature for me. I wasn’t ready for it. But that just means I’ve gone from giggling about the line about rolling a joint in “You Don’t Know How it Feels” to really, truly appreciating how heartbreakingly beautiful some of these songs truly are. I’ve been given a blessing, in a way: the opportunity to grow up with this amazing piece of music, to gain new insight and understanding into its songs as I’ve grown older and (hopefully) wiser. And now, I’m better able to appreciate “Wake Up Time.” The first half of the last verse goes like so:

Well, if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl
To help him to shoulder the pain in this world
And if you follow your feelings
And you follow your dreams
You might find the forest there in the trees

Wildflowers is a sad album, a lot of the time. It’s one of those divorce records that so many artists have made over the years (Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Beck’s Sea Change, & etc.). But, like so much else that he did, Petty couldn’t help but slip a bit of hope in there. Things are falling apart, yes, but there’s a chance you can put yourself back together afterwards. Not all is lost. And, ultimately, I think that’s the legacy of Petty’s songwriting: he was a guy who told stories that gave us hope. What better legacy could there be?

She’s So Unusual

I’ve come to appreciate the songwriting of Cyndi Lauper over time. While the arrangements for her songs are often very much of their time, the bones of the songs are really solid.

Case in point: apparently, Cyndi Lauper plays the Appalachian dulcimer, and is widely considered one of the most accomplished performers on that instrument. And she’s used this skill to rework some of her songs in very different arrangements that completely transform them.

All of which is a long way of saying: check out this video of Cyndia Lauper performing “Time After Time” on the Appalachian dulcimer. It’s amazing.

Trouble No More

I’ve been listening to the latest entry in Bob Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series, Trouble No More, which catalogs his “born again” years, 1979-1981.  It’s mostly just live versions and alternate takes of the songs from his three born again albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. It’s a pretty limited time frame, not presenting one of Dylan’s most prolific periods (compared to, say, the equally-narrow Basement Tapes era or the early-career Witmark Demos from ’62-’64), and tends to present the same six or seven songs over and over again. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting, worthwhile listen for the Dylan fan.

On the whole, it’s more than a little fascinating listening to these songs. Where the studio versions always seemed a little flat and passionless (ironic, given the subject matter), these live versions come…well, alive. There’s an energy and passion that were definitely absent in the studio versions. Songs like “Precious Angel” and “Solid Rock” sound vital and interesting in a live setting, while songs that were already pretty good — “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Dead Man, Dead Man,” or “Slow Train Comin'” — sound amazing. The band is pretty solid, the backing vocalists are fabulous, and Dylan sounds like a man with conviction, something he was sorely lacking in the studio versions. And this is Dylan, so even though you hear the same song six times in some cases (“Slow Train Comin'” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” both pop up at least six times over the course of the 102 tracks), they often sound drastically different from version to version. This is still Bob Dylan, after all, and he’s always tweaking things and changing it up. The studio version of a Dylan song has always ever been a foundation to build on, not a blueprint that has to be slavishly followed. He changes up time signatures, rhythms, vocal delivery, instrumentation, all in the name of finding the heart of the song. It makes for some fascinating listening.

It’s particularly interesting hearing the few songs from that era that didn’t end up on an album, such as the breezy “Caribbean Wind,” the reggae-tinged “Cover Down, Pray Through,” or the bluesy, chugging “Yonder Comes Sin.” One wonders why these songs were left off the albums in favor of other (in many cases, weaker) songs.

I will admit, 102 tracks is a bit of a slog. I have to listen in smaller chunks (and not just because I really only listen to music on my way to and from work), mostly so I don’t hear two versions of “Slow Train Comin'” on the same drive. Trouble No More does, at least, reframe this part of Dylan’s career, presenting these songs as vital and energetic instead of flat and lifeless. It’s a nice look at such a divisive period.