Friday, August 19, 2011

10 Albums that Changed My Life

Thanks, Stryder, for the idea for this one.  These are in no particular order.

Nevermind - Nirvana.

This album, probably more than any other, completely changed my view of music.  Music for me has always been an escape, a way to forget about my problems, tune out the world and go inside myself.  It's a catharsis and a coping mechanism during the stressful times in my life as much as it is a soundtrack of celebration for the good times.  Every album on this list is there because it came along at a point in my life where I was hungry for direction and new perspectives and they opened my eyes to a world of artistry and expression that I had never imagined before.  "Nevermind" is certainly one of the strongest forces of that new perspective and expression that I ever discovered.

I first heard of Nirvana when I was 15 years old, through a music magazine, before "Nevermind" had been released.  It was just a blurb in the "buzz bands" section, basically saying that this was a new band that was generating industry buzz and people should keep their eye on them to do big things.  Later that year, in October, 1991, a month after "Nevermind" was released, my friend Tracie gave me a copy of the album on a blank tape, about a week before Halloween.  That Halloween, I was cruising around town with my friends and playing this album over and over on constant loop the entire night.  It completely changed my musical direction.  Before the grunge movement invaded rock radio I was like most guys my age, a big fan of "hair metal".  Bands like Motley Crue, Skid Row and Dokken.  When grunge came along, I discovered a world of rock music that was heavier, more emotional, more raw and infinitely "cooler" for "uncool" kids to be into.  It was music that spoke to the outcasts of Generation X, and Nirvana was the torch-bearer leading the way.

Every song on this album is amazing, every single one.  Of course, I personally think that every song Nirvana has ever written is fantastic, I like everything I've ever heard them do, but "Nevermind" was a culmination.  It was the point where Nirvana's creativity and hungry energy merged perfectly with a generation of young adults who were starving for exactly this record and didn't even know it.  "Nevermind" is a snapshot of the angst of youth at the end of Reagan/Bush Sr.-era America, during Desert Storm, when a generation was looking for a voice that expressed their apathetic frustration and longing for representation.  It came like a revolution, and grunge changed the country.  It's a rare and powerful thing when a particular genre of music completely changes the entire musical landscape.  The effects of grunge on modern music are still felt.  It spawned a host of styles influenced by the punky energy, the metallic heaviness, the post-mod emotion and the radio-friendly sensibility of classic pop rock that defined grunge.  Nirvana was all of those things, and 20 years worth of "alt-rock" and "emo" bands owe their sound and their popularity to them for opening the eyes and ears of the world to one of the most original and powerful styles of music since punk rock.

Master of Puppets - Metallica

Before Nirvana came along and exposed me to grunge music, heavy metal was the first style of music to begin steering me away from the radio-friendly hair metal that I had become a fan of in elementary school.  I remember when I bought my first Metallica album, it was "...And Justice for All" and I bought it, along with the new Ratt album, from a record store in the mall.  When I got home and listened to them both, I put my Ratt tape in my case and practically never listened to it again.  Instead, I wore that Metallica tape out, listening to it over and over.  The heaviness, speed and aggression were so far beyond anything I had ever heard before.  I was 13 years old and Metallica's thrash metal was almost scary to me, it was so dark and brooding and angry.  It was exhilarating too, like riding my bike down a steep hill towards a home-made ramp.  The second Metallica album I bought was "Master of Puppets" and that's when I realized there was a whole world of music that I needed to get to know better, because this was what I wanted to hear.

"Master of Puppets" is another album that I can listen to from beginning to end without skipping a single song.  It's consistently at the top of most critics "Best Metal Albums of All Time" lists, and for good reason.  This was Metallica at the peak of their early career.  They still had Cliff Burton on the bass and they had finally had enough underground success to really craft a well-written and finely-honed album.  It bore the trademark elements of every great Metallica album: an epic title track, a blistering speed test song, a melodic instrumental and a dark ballad, along with a handful of solid songs that treaded between chugging heaviness and thrashing speed.  To me, "Master of Puppets" is the pinnacle of Metallica's musical legacy.  Not taking anything away from "...And Justice...", "Ride the Lightning" or the ground-breaking "Kill 'em All".  Most "old school" Metallica fans view every album that was made after "...And Justice..." to be essentially an entirely different Metallica than the one that recorded all the previous records and I personally tend to agree with that sentiment as well.  For "classic Metallica" though, "Master of Puppets" was their watershed album.

Nevermind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols - The Sex Pistols

After Metallica began to woo me away from the radio-friendly "pop metal" that I had become a fan of in my "tween" years, I started looking for other kinds of wild, controversial music (i.e. stuff that would "piss off mom and dad").  This was when I discovered punk rock.  The very first punk album I ever heard was "Nevermind the Bollocks..." and it's still one of the best punk albums of all time, in my opinion.

The music was so raw and unpolished, nothing like what I was used to hearing.  It sounded like a band rehearsing before they went in the studio to make their album, not like a finished product.  However, the rawness, the pure rebellious energy and palpable anger in Johnny Rotten's voice resonated in me.  I was almost 14 when I heard this album and it was the soundtrack to my growing "teen angst" and frustration.  It was the album I would come home and play whenever I had a rough day at school, got picked on by some asshole bully or had a big fight with my parents that ended with a "Because I said so!" or similar answer for which there is never an adequate rebuttal from the child that won't ultimately result in a belt across the backside or being grounded for no less than 7 days.  Oh, and when I did get sent to my room, "Anarchy in the UK" would be blasting as loud as I could turn it up without incurring further repercussions.  Another album that's great from start to finish, too.  I can still remember playing my first copy of it, on tape, on my Sony boom box, listening to "Bodies", "Anarchy in the UK", "Liar", etc. and wishing that I could be in a band so I could play those songs.  A year later, I was in a band and, at the school talent show my sophomore year, we played "Anarchy in the UK" and won that bastard.

Reign in Blood - Slayer

After Metallica acclimated me to the world of thrash metal, I began to wonder how much harder and faster music could get.  I had discovered punk rock by now, and realized that punk and metal were forever going to be the styles of music that defined my young adulthood.  However, I wanted to explore the extremes now.  I wanted to see what was out there that made Metallica look slow, that made punk rock look downright cheerful.  This was about the same time that our local radio gained a new station - the nationally syndicated Z-Rock network.  Z-Rock basically broadcast to affiliate stations and was nothing but hard rock and heavy metal 24/7.  For 2 hours, from 10pm to midnight, was Crazy Mike Pain and the Headbanger's Heaven.  Thanks to this show, I discovered two monumental things.  The first was Slayer and the second was "death metal".

Before I heard Slayer, I knew about them mainly as the band that all the scariest stoner dudes in high school had patches of on their jackets and whose T-shirts they wore.  Their imagery was like a horror movie - demons and devils, war and torture, iron crosses and satanism... just looking at a Slayer album made you afraid to listen to it.  However, for me, that just gave me more reason to want to hear them!  The first Slayer song I ever heard was "South of Heaven" on the Headbanger's Heaven show and I knew right then and there that this was a band I needed to get into.  After buying up every Slayer album, it quickly became apparent that "Reign in Blood" was a triumph among a catalog of amazing music.  As you may know if you follow my blog, I did a full post about Slayer a little while back where I espoused the glory of all of their early albums and spotlighted my favorite songs from those records.  Not surprisingly, my top pick is from this album.  "Reign in Blood" defined metal for me, it was a tremendous influence on my drumming and approach to musical arrangement back when I was in Sunday Silence, the greatest death metal band you never heard of.  Like all the albums on my list, every track on "Reign in Blood" is amazing.  It's an album that is almost 30 years old and still holds up against the hardest music that's coming out in the metal scene today.  It's a record that has influenced almost as many metal bands as The Beatles have influenced pop and rock musicians.  Slayer is metal, and "Reign in Blood" is Slayer.

Straight Outta Compton - N.W.A.

In my quest to find controversial music, I discovered not only punk rock, but also hardcore rap.  Before N.W.A., rap music, to me, was Run DMC, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys.  Hearing N.W.A. for the first time was like the first time I listened to a Richard Pryor album, only with a beat.  It was so shocking and outrageous, but at the same time very well-crafted and focused in it's delivery.  The production was amazing, I traded a friend to get a pair of bigger speakers for my stereo so I could hear the bass kick better on "Dope Man".  The songs were so controversial - talking about everything from selling crack to "Fuck tha Police" to fucking bitches and gang violence.  It was an autobiography of inner-city strife that the rest of the country who didn't live there never got to hear about and were mostly previously unaware of.

The explosion of hardcore and "gangsta" rap shined a spotlight on the ghettos and inner cities of America that the media was forced to address in a way that had never really been done before.  Instead of giving lip service to the problem of rampant poverty, crime and violence in the minority communities that had exploded in the 80's with the introduction of crack cocaine, the news media was now doing profiles of artists like N.W.A. and the message in their music.  Now, suburban America was being forced to address the controversial lyrics in these albums and the messages behind them as hardcore rap found increasing popularity among white teenagers.  When you look past all of the superficial outrage over the inflammatory lyrics of N.W.A.'s music, the deeper message that they were trying to get out was real and rang true in inner city communities across the country.  As much as white boys like me found N.W.A. to be a soundtrack for our rebelliousness and aggression and an attempt to understand a culture that had it so much rougher than we did that even our worst day wasn't shit to them - the young black community viewed N.W.A. as a wake-up call to white America.  A commercially successful expression of a voice for an all-too-often overlooked group of people.  The songs on this album are powerful, not just in terms of the slamming beats and rapid-fire lyrical delivery, but in the message and the real anger and frustration that influenced it.  "Straight Outta Compton" was like a flare being sent up from a sinking ship, an SOS message from a community being torn apart by drugs, crime and violence and a real warning that, if the rest of the country didn't start taking the problems in their inner cities seriously, it wasn't going to stay confined simply to the inner cities.  All of this building tension culminated in some pretty significant events in the early 90's, mainly the L.A. riots after the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality trial and the spread of inner city street gangs - influenced primarily by the Bloods and Crips in L.A. - across the ghettos of America.  America was finally forced to deal, in a real way, with the effects of largely unchecked crime, violence and drug proliferation in the ghetto, although a real solution has yet to be provided.  However, were it not for artists like N.W.A., these problems might have gone far more overlooked for much longer and the eventually boiling point might have been far more severe.  Regardless, this album marked a definite turning point in my life, both ideologically and in terms of my musical growth and development.

Stress Related - Righteous Pigs

Like with Slayer, I did a tribute to Righteous Pigs as one of my very first blog posts.  After I had already started playing in Sunday Silence, my fellow band mates and I were constantly searching for harder, faster and heavier music, so we could try and top it ourselves.  When I finally head Righteous Pigs, the band was already no more.  They had been broken up for at least a couple years and former guitarist Mitch Harris had already joined Napalm Death.  However, their music was unlike anything I had ever heard.  It was punk and metal and grindcore combined into a raw, aggressive and ridiculously catchy ball of mosh-pit inducing rage.

"Stress Related" is Righteous Pigs' second, and last album.  On the CD version, it's combined with their first album, "Live and Learn", so fans can have every studio recording the band ever produced on one disc.  The songs are everything that good punk and grindcore is - short, aggressive and catchy.  They hit you, stir your guts up into a frenzy and then stop just as you're getting ready to smash your head into something really really hard.  Fortunately, the next song comes right along and convinces  you to go ahead and do it, much to your painful chagrin afterwards.  Righteous Pigs seamlessly combines all of the best elements of their primary style influences - the chugging heaviness of metal, the raw vocals and production style of punk and the frenetic blast beats and chaos of grindcore.  This was the album that made me realize, as good as I thought I was, that some band had already come along, made two albums and broken up, that kicked my ass all over the Las Vegas desert where they came from and back.

Disintegration - The Cure

Somewhere between my discovery of metal and my journey into angry, angst-filled rebellion in my teenage years, I first heard The Cure.  Like "Nevermind", I owe my first listen to The Cure to my friend Tracie.  This was the first album by The Cure that I ever heard, and in my opinion it's not only their best album, but one of the best albums ever written.  Musically, it's the anti-Slayer - it's soft, slow, melodic, sonically layered and complex, brooding and melancholy.  Lyrically, it's romantic, despondent, sometimes dreary and bleak and sometimes upbeat in spite of itself.  On the surface, there couldn't be more difference between a band like The Cure and a thrash metal demon frenzy like Slayer or punk rebellion call to arms like The Sex Pistols.  Emotionally, however, there is a darkness, a hopelessness and despair and a feeling of emptiness and loss that hits just as hard as the heaviest metal opus or the angriest punk diatribe.

"Disintegration" is a beautiful album.  The songs are sonic journeys, complex and textured and so well written and produced.  Lyrically, the album plays like a Shakespearean novel.  There's love, loss, betrayal, depression, hopelessness and a faintly nagging optimism in spite of all that, almost struggling beneath the weight of all the heavy and dark emotion piled on top of it.  This album is every breakup you ever went through as a teenager.  It's every girl who ever rejected you, every ex who you caught kissing someone else, every love letter you wrote but never sent to the one who got away, every decision you regretted and all the tears you've ever cried because your heart was breaking open and spilling cold, black blood on the ground.  It's so fucking down that it's up, if that makes any sense at all.  This album makes you feel so dark and cold when you're in that dark cold place that it doesn't even bother you anymore.  It's like a dose of the disease to make you immune.  So many times I found myself heartbroken and depressed, laying on my bed with this album playing and by the time it was done, I felt like I had just exercised my own demons of depression, like Robert Smith had come out of my radio and said "It's ok, I'll take all that sadness from you, I could use it on my next album."

The Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd

After I graduated from high school, early in my relationship with my wife, I went through a phase where I "discovered" classic rock albums that I had always heard songs from peripherally on classic rock stations growing up, but never really paid attention to.  Pink Floyd was one of those artists that I was familiar with, I had heard songs like "Another Brick in the Wall" and "Money" and whatnot plenty of times during my childhood, but I never really sat down and listened to an entire album.  My dad wasn't a big Pink Floyd fan, so I didn't have any of their records to listen to growing up (for those of you who did, I bet $100 there were little kibbles of pot in the crease of the album).  For me growing up, I listened to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, CCR, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Fleetwood Mac and The Doors.  I didn't truly discover Pink Floyd until late into high school, and I didn't fully appreciate them until I was 19-20.

Once I realized how amazing Pink Floyd was, they were literally one of the only bands I listened to for at least a full year.  I remember my wife was in school at UC Santa Cruz at the time and I was still living at home in the central valley.  I would drive the 2 1/2 hours each way to see her every weekend, and I would have Pink Floyd blasting on my stereo the whole way.  All of their albums are great, in my opinion, but "The Dark Side of the Moon" is just so good and such a teasingly short album at right about 30 minutes long that it's like a concentrated dose of everything that makes Pink Floyd awesome.  It's got the really deep tracks that you never hear on the radio, like "The Great Gig in the Sky" and "Any Colour You Like".  It's got the long-play epics like "Us and Them" and "Breathe" and it's got the radio-friendly, commercial songs like "Money".  It encompasses everything that Pink Floyd was, post-Syd Barrett.  Not to mention, I have done the thing where you start playing "The Wizard of Oz" right as the album kicks in and it is pretty trippy how they sync up.

The White Album - The Beatles 

As I got older, I began to appreciate more and more the great classic rock albums I had grown up hearing as a kid.  I had always liked The Beatles, like most people I suppose.  Pretty much everyone has at least one song by The Beatles that they like.  For me, however, no album had as many of the great songs that I associate with why I like The Beatles like "The White Album" does.

"Helter Skelter", "Revolution 9", "Dear Prudence", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Happiness is a Warm Gun"...  There are so many amazing songs on this album that really defined why it was that I liked The Beatles and established their influence on me in terms of how I approached songwriting.  By this time in my life, I was no longer playing death metal with Sunday Silence and was now beginning a new project called Los Cochinos, which was a radical departure, musically, from my previous band.  Los Cochinos was influenced by the alternative rock of the 90's that bands like Nirvana pioneered, as well as classic rock like The Beatles and even ska and reggae groups like Sublime and Bob Marley.  My attitude was greatly mellowed from my angst-filled youth.  I wasn't mad at the world anymore, I just wanted to play rock and roll and be a star.  The Beatles were a huge influence during that period in my life.  I changed my whole approach to writing and it made the collaborations between myself and Stryder, when we would work on writing songs together, feel almost like a tribute to Lennon and McCartney.  I wanted to write songs like this, I wanted to be in a band like this.  Hell, I still do.

Legend - Bob Marley

I almost copped out and went with a greatest hits pick for The Beatles, too, but I decided that "The White Album" represented enough of The Beatles sound that influenced me that I didn't need to worry about including little nuggets like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" or "Strawberry Fields Forever".  With Bob Marley, however, I had to pick "Legend" as my album because this was the album that I owned that caused me to become the fan of his work that I am.

Bob Marley wrote so many amazing songs over so many different albums that it wouldn't really do justice for me to only pick one of those albums as being "life changing" for me.  It was the collection of his greatest songs that influenced me.  It was this album that I used to play loudly in my car as I drove back and forth to work every day when I first moved out on my own.  This album changed my life because this album was the soundtrack to a series of major changes in my life.  I was living on my own for the first time, albeit with roommates.  I was working and paying my bills (or trying to, at least) and getting my first real taste of adult responsibility.  Bob Marley was as much a voice for my growing maturity as he was the soundtrack to my changing ideology.  I was growing out of my "everything is black and white" sort of matter-of-fact view of the world that was the product of living a rather sheltered life at home.  As I spent more time with Shannon at her school in Santa Cruz, I met a variety of people with diverse backgrounds, opinions, beliefs and lifestyles.  I was becoming more aware of the fact that things weren't so black and white and that everyone had a story and a struggle and I wanted to understand them all.  Bob Marley, to me, was the voice of that struggle.  His songs were the songs of everyone who was trying to find love and compassion in a world full of anger, prejudice and injustice.  He was optimistic in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition to that optimism.  He was truly a poet and a prophet and his music was the catalyst to me growing from a bright but naive young man into an open-minded and empathetic adult.

There they are.  The 10 albums that probably changed my life more than any others.  They molded my development, influenced my creativity and expression, defined my emotions and gave me comfort and catharsis during some milestone moments in my life.  You can learn a lot about the person I am today by looking at these albums that had such a profound influence on me as I grew up to became that person.  I love music, I truly, truly love it.  It's the greatest form of artistic expression that mankind has ever discovered.  Music is my life, always has been and always will be.  Have a great weekend guys, I'll see you back here sometime on Monday.

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