Which Albums Have Shaped You?

A recent post over at Good Readings (the new blog of Ryan Williams, a Grinnellian once removed) mentions the 15th anniversary of Liz Phair’s album “Exile in Guyville” — an album containing such classics as “Divorce Song” and “Fuck and Run.” Ryan links to an article by former Sleater-Kinney rocker Carrie Brownstein describing the album’s influence on her when she first heard it in 1993. He then goes on to describe his own relationship to the same album, one whose adult themes were enjoyed clandestinely “alone in my bedroom with my headphones on, listening with a uniquely teenage intensity of focus and emotional engagement.”

Is there anyone among us who cannot sympathize with that statement? Each of us could identify a few sentinel albums in our lives: those calling out to us clearly with their music, vocals or lyrics and which, despite the onward march of time, soldier on inside our heads and hearts and on our playlists.

So fellow geeks, which albums have shaped you (your world view, your understanding of music) significantly? Please also share which song you believe to be the most underrated on the album — never a hit, rather the kind of gem you discover only by purchasing the whole disc and (perhaps warm up to) listening to it incessantly.

-posted by poetloverrebelspy


10 Responses to Which Albums Have Shaped You?

  1. jessimonster says:

    Melancholie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins, definitely. Then maybe Recovering the Sattelites by the Counting Crows, Abby Road by the Beatles, Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, Fevers and Mirrors by Bright Eyes, and From a Basement on a Hill by Elliot Smith literally got me through my deployment. Sufjan Stevens got me through my pregnancy last year. Wow, its weird to think back on my life in terms of what I was listening to when.

  2. Mike says:

    Paul Simon, Graceland: My pretentious high-school favorite was “All Around the World” (the “myth of fingerprints” one), but now it’s “Crazy Love, Vol. II.”

    David Bowie, Hunky Dory: Then as now, “Queen Bitch.” If she says she can do it, she can do it; she don’t make false claims.

    But in terms of shaping me — changing my life — nobody compares to ol’ Phil Ochs, who I mind-melded with in the summer of 2000 over There But for Fortune, which was (embarrassing!) a compilation. Sentimental favorite: “One More Parade.”

  3. Kevin says:

    Middle school: Weezer’s self-titled blue album. The album hit it big, but my favorite song on it, “Only in Dreams,” was too long (8 minutes) to make it big. Which is too bad, because it captured perfectly how I felt about my social life then. I always felt like finding a girl, being popular, being a grown-up, all of it was within my grasp only as a fantasy.

    High school, especially the part after I moved to Illinois: Metallica’s …And Justice For All. That was Metallica’s breakthrough hit in 1988 that I only really got to know well 9 years later, after The Black Album took over the world and Load had introduced me to the band. Two key deep cuts: “To Live is To Die,” a 10-minute long instrumental that I play every time I have a major life transition; 2/3 of the way through they speak a poem that their former bassist, who had died two years previous, had written, so it was a song of both mourning the loss of their friend and trying to be strong for the future. It is the last song I hear before making a big life transition (like moving) and the first song I play after completing the transition, which, incidentally, is how I met my good friends Mark and Matt (though I would obviously have met them anyway). Also, during the latter half of high school, when I was playing football and loathing every minute of living in Southern IL, I got pumped up with “Dyers Eve,” a song all about hating one’s parents. It’s pretty intense.

    The four-year interlude between colleges: Metallica’s St. Anger. I was frustrated with my life, because I wasn’t living up to my own expectations for myself, marriage was harder than I thought, and I was mired in a world of being the smartest person at my various places of employment and yet being a temp worker who was treated like garbage. “All Within My Hands” was a favorite deep cut because it was an aggressive treatise on love and power, things I was constantly concerned about, and the very tail end of the song consisted of screaming “kill kill kill kill kill” five times each around five times, but was extremely cathartic when angry.

    Wash U: It’s hard to pick one thing, because more than any other time of my life, I’ve been expanding my musical horizons and trying to listen to new things. For the last 6 months, though, the one album I’ve listened to more than any other is Avenged Sevenfold’s eponymous release from last year, which I’ve written about elsewhere. I’ll let that post speak for itself, except to say that right now, this very minute, the deep cut that best speaks for where I am right now as a person is “Gunslinger,” a song about a soldier far from home and missing his loved ones; the central lyric to the song, the latter half of which is repeated in the chorus, is “You’ve been alone/I’ve been gone for far too long/But with all that we’ve been through/After all this time I’m coming home to you.” You don’t really know me, Hilary, but that is my life right now: busting my ass to finish up undergrad, being away from my wife nearly-constantly, and now I’m graduating, and I finally get to come home to her every night and see her. And not only that, but it’s also a good metaphor for where I’ve been; I fell off the path I had expected to be on, and it took me 8 years to finally complete my journey, but now I’m home; that is, I’m back on track. I finally did it.

    So those are the albums that have shaped me, by which I mean, those that have gotten me through the roughest patches, that have kept me out of despair or brought me into happiness. And I think that’s the longest Geek Buffet comment in history.

  4. Emily Kane says:

    My favorite topic (next to clarinet ligatures and alternate/trill bassoon fingerings…on second thought, the subject life-changing albums most definitely takes the cake at this time).

    I did this for a survey not long ago. I don’t know if I would write down all the same ones now as I did then, but eh. Pretty close.

    This would also be an e-mail that constitutes “must be read at a time when you have time to read it”.

    1) Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)

    Being the baby that I am, when I was 13 and first got my ears on some of the radio singles from this album, I subsequently freaked out. This was in the days where music was harder to come by – especially for a middle schooler. I grew up in a small town and I had a hard-pressed opposition to buying music at Wal-Mart (even at that age) and allowance was hard to come by, so by the time I bought the album, all five singles had been released, and I adored every last one of them. I took this thing home, read the lyric booklet, treasuring every word, on the way home from the far-off Best Buy, and put it on when I got home. My life was never the same. I consumed this album so wholly, became so obsessed with every last nuance, memorizing how many times certain strums were repeated, and still learned more and more from it as I listened to it in further years. I defined myself as a teenager with this album, and I considered it music that I had finally heard that I’d been waiting for my entire life. There is so much richness to it, and so much emotion, just completely spilling over to an extreme level, in a very Tchaikovsky sort of way, and it makes such a beautiful story arc, I am still in love with it to this day. I don’t know that I could name a favorite track. Every single one of them is a gem in their own rights, and I’ve gotten tired of most of them throughout the years (especially since the “reunited” Pumpkins were one of the biggest disappointments of my young life), but “Stumbeline” has always stayed with me. I remember singing it in my head over and over again as I road a train down to South Florida (living north of Orlando at the time) for my grandfather’s funeral.

    2) Smashing Pumpkins – Adore (1998)

    Two albums by the same artist? That’s how obsessed I was. Miles away from the unabashed joy and romanticism of Mellon Collie (the group’s prior major release), this album is dark, sparse, Billy Corgan described it as “arcane night music”, and it is. I was 15 when I first brought it home, and had been expecting to hear songs like “Muzzle”, “Porcelina”, and “Tonight, Tonight” which had lifted me up so. No such thing on Adore. Meditations on death, why we’re alive, what would we do if the world ended tomorrow, how to lose the people you love most in your life, etc. I got it home, listened to the first few tracks before falling asleep, and then finished it in the morning. I was upset all day. I HATED it and I complained to my mother about it. She told me she had gone through a similar thing with Joni Mitchell when her musical style evolved. I hated Adore so much, and then, a week later, news of the Pumpkins coming to South Florida later that summer (near where my grandparents lived). I had to see them. I HAD TO SEE THEM! And I had to get used to the new album, learn to love it. Things with my father and his health and mental capacity were touch and go at that time, and as I pushed through the album, it helped me through. I had left these songs alone for a week, after hearing them once, and somehow, they crept back into my subconsciousness.

    I spent all of the summer of 1998 with Adore. Central Florida started to go up in wildfires all summer, I stayed at home and baby-sat my newly prescribed asthmatic brother, I stayed up all night and read and folded origami, and I processed Adore. By the end of the summer, I was obsessed. Four years later when my father died, the track “For Martha” was the first thing I listened to, as I sat in a fit of tears on my dorm-room floor, roommates giving me tissues and water to drink. I have grown with this album so much that I consider it to be my all-time favorite.

    3) Tori Amos – Boys for Pele (1996)

    I didn’t come all the way around to Tori until I hit college. Typical, I know. I looooooooooooved from the choirgirl hotel when I was a teenager, but little did I know what her back catalog had to offer. Holy shit. Little Earthquakes made a huge difference in my life, but when I finally, a year or so later (I was not a big music downloader, and like some people we know, I have a hard time pirating something I love and I like having physical copies of things, too) had bought Pele (after seeing her in concert, omg!), I was once again floored. More music I’d been seemingly waiting my whole life to hear. At the time, I was lonely, felt somewhat sold out by the men in my life, and it helped me through a relationship in which I was essentially being used and I’d been left. It’s a popular choice, but you can’t deny “Hey, Jupiter” for it’s sparseness and lyrical punch (a soft punch, but a direct emotional hit, no less): “no one’s picking up the phone, guess it’s me, and me, and this little masochist…” Again, in this album, we have a full tale, macabre and morbid, running through the full range of emotions of a very sad time in a life. And we complete by “Putting the Damage On”, and leaving, with such a healing, such an uplifting spirit in the string arrangement. Even “Twinkle”, which my bff Nicole is not fond of (Boys for Pele is one of her top three albums, and Tori to her is like the Pumpkins to me), sends a message to shine in the face of sadness. Whoa.

    4) Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)

    When I listed this one in my top five that changed my life at the time, my ex was floored. I don’t know why. He wasn’t really around that summer, the summer I spent entirely on and around campus and not at my mom’s, the summer that I drove to Philadelphia with my friends to see Billy Corgan, the summer that I quit my horrible overnight job (again), the summer that I started to hang out with Catherine a lot, my friend Katie the math major drove me around everywhere and she practically lived at my place, I partied with my roommates, Ryan moved back to Florida and we became best of friends, the summer that my friend Andrea’s father died. The Philly trip plays in here because it was the first time I’d heard Arcade Fire, driving back from the weekend (yes, Orlando to Philly in a weekend, and yes, we are insane) and I heard the song “Neighborhood no.1” on a sampler CD. In all of my height of hipsterdom at the time, I hadn’t yet heard Arcade Fire, and that was lame. But I heard this song at about 4am in the backseat of a rented Neon, and I knew, I KNEW I had to heard it again. Katie played the sampler for me again, and I went out to the extended branch of the local record store they had on campus and bought Funeral. I delighted in every song, every turn that every song took, and it changed my thinking. It was music I had to hear, all the time.

    Also on the Philadelphia trip, I got very angry and had it up to here with my friend Andrea. We were very close, but travel times had just strained things so badly. She and I had travelled to Boston together with her dad the summer before, but I just had enough with so much in our friendship. I came back, and she and I barely talked after hanging out at least every few days. That was until she called me one morning when I was at my scanning/archiving job, to tell me that her father had died in his sleep the night before. My heart nearly stopped. He was the kindest man that I had ever met and the father I’d wished I’d had. It was incredibly hard for her, and I went down for the funeral, letting others know about it, and standing in the back of the enormously crowded funeral hall (the man knew and touched everyone) as Andrea gave her eulogy for a man who spent his summer on a road trip up and down the East Coast with two 21 year old girls. I pointed up and smiled in recognition.

    At the time, in my bed in Orlando, I would listen to Funeral almost every night, and think of my own life and my own loss of a father. Or that I never had. “In the Backseat” especially moved, seeing that I too, had been learning to drive my whole life and had to be carted around by others at the time. I remember laying in my bed, face down, dealing with emotions I had stored up for years and had not dealt with for so long. This album helped me with those a great deal.

    5) Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)

    This came into my life in a completely different way. I became interested in Sonic Youth from an academic perspective, believe it or not. I was working on an idea for my undergrad thesis that drew comparisons between the “underground” music scenes in the United States in the 1980s and France in the 1880s. Which eventually became a thesis about comparing the scenes in New York (East Village) to Paris (Montmartre), which eventually whittled down to the most well-known and notable artists of those areas/times, Erik Satie and Sonic Youth. SY were always a band I should have been into, and I had liked what I’d known of them, but when I first listened to Daydream Nation on a Saturday afternoon in my old apartment bedroom, I was captivated. Completely. I’ve heard criticism of Sonic Youth that they’re a pretty “straightforward alternative rock band”, but I would argue back that it’s okay. They invented the alternative rock sound as we know it, and on Daydream Nation, as Robert Christgau might even argue (the jerk that he is), it was an album on which the band’s cacophonus experimentation merged seamlessly with expertly crafted song structure, surprisingly punk-inspired yet not blues based riffs, and soaring melodies. An homage to urban decay, like most music that’s supposed to be really depressing, it uplifts me like crazy, especially the cheerful, frenetic energy of “Total Trash”. I’ve memorized Kim Gordon’s rant from the start of “The Sprawl” and I might just ramble it off if I’m in the mood. If I hear any part of the album played out in public anywhere, I start bouncing up and down uncontrollably. If nothing else, my thesis project gave me a new favorite band.

    Honorable Mentions:
    The Cure – Wish
    Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
    The Decemberists – Picaresque
    The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema
    Valentine’s Mix Tape from the Ex, February 2004

    Sorry. That was excessive, but I certainly had something to say. Besides, it’s a good distraction from the longness of days teaching middle school band, particularly at the end of the year.

    – Em

  5. Feh. I’ve never been able to argue that a whole album bears significance and speaks to my life as much as single tracks on an album do. This is not to say that I am against the album structure, or that I argue that the album as an artwork are dead – quite the contrary. Albums exist as an artist’s, or a group of artists’, expression, a seamless form that should envelop critical singles as part of a greater auditory whole. I tend to think of them as chapters in an auditory story.

    These expressions are more valid and more obvious in terms of the modern “rock opera”, but I think they hold true for all albums, and most particularly in terms of the modern playlist, or its spiritual ancestor, the mix-tape. Others before me as diverse as Nick Hornby and Robert Lopez/Jeff Marx have certainly commented upon the validity of the mix-tape as an independent art form, and its ability to express the individual through the artistic endeavors of others.

    I can see that I am not alone even on this board – while many cite particular albums as inspirational, they also cite particular tracks from that album or movements from a concert as particularly influential – if not more important than the whole album. Even Apple’s iTunes software acknowledges this dichotomy, allowing you to rate an album differently than a single track on that album (although the suggested rating for the album is a mean of rated tracks on that album).

    Besides: my affinity for any particular track and its ability to resonate with my person are entirely dependent upon my mood of the moment. Some songs speak more to me upon success (“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony), somber introspection (the Counting Crow’s “Rain King”), the hunt (R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies”), love (the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does”), politics (R.E.M.’s “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Bad Day”), or even presidential elections (Greenday’s “minority” and the They Might be Giants “James K. Polk” ) than they do at any other time.

    So: I borrow the words of others, and compose my own albums. Little histories and chronologies that describe the events of my life, be it a musical tribute to ex-girlfriends past and future, insomnia and all-nighters, politics, or the annual rite acknowledging and compressing the passage of a year. In conclusion, no single album has shaped or defined my life, but in a way, my life has shaped and defined some very personal albums.

  6. interstuff says:

    I am going for a huge selling, but sorely underated album here. ‘Somewhere In Time’ by Iron Maiden. Yeah yeah, im sure people will laugh or assume i’m being all post modern here, but i’m not. there’s something about the bass chord that introduces the album that just makes you want to stand up and salute! It might be the crazy synths, it might be the cool little counter-melodys that you only pick up on headphones (Remember those big fluffy walkman ones you got back then?), or it might be that if you are a bored teenager (usually about 13/14, without a girlfriend yet) then you can spend hours poring over the tiny little artwork details, spotting all your favourite references, and wishing that more albums had a PAINTING OF THE BAND ON THE COVER!! Utterly ludicrous, knows it, and revels in it every step of the way. oh-and there’s actually some enormously accomplished metal songwriting and musicianship going on too-still sounds good!

  7. kidsilkhaze says:

    I’m not sure I can pinpoint *why* these are so influential for me, but Bjork’s debut and Ani Difranco’s self-titled one. Oh, and King by Belly.

  8. mellow says:

    Exile in guyville, definitely.
    The process how this album revealed itself to me is slightly different. I kept downloading tracks from it one by one and found appreciation for each one. Each song was powerful. rare is an album that can just make you feel. This album made me feel 18 times in a row. The sad, druggy ballads made me cry. The forlorn ones kind of allowed me to just be scared. The angry songs made me want to be a feminist though I’m a guy. My mind held onto the lyrics far longer than expected. I think it’s the only album I’ve memorized, every phrase, every guitar turn, every intro, every outro, every vocal lilt, everything. It’s mesmeizing, as Liz puts it. OH GOD, I must play the song now… hah. EIG has shaped me and although I still haven’t put what I’ve learned from the album to use in my real life (yeah, no relationships yet), I know that the little things she sings about will come into play sooner or later. I want to have my own Fuck and Run experience!!! haha. Or maybe my own Strange Loop.

    By the way, I think the best track in EIG is Stratford-On-Guy which is arguably one of the best indie rock tracks ever made. It’s a masterpiece of mood, evocative lyricism and fatalistic voice. It’s not one of the most noted tracks in the album. People always remember the tracks with the profanities and the ones tied to sex. This song is about a flight to Chicago which becomes otherworldly and beautiful. The poetry in this song makes me scratch my head sometimes. It’s perfect.

    Liz, I don’t care if you can match this album ever again. Actually, I know you never could, ever should, explain it to me… haha… That’s a line from one of her songs too. ha. I’m a freak.

  9. psychicchatonline…

  10. guyintheblackhat says:

    (I find the response to this post intimately linked with a larger argument that our generation may not be able to pinpoint themselves in terms of their philosophical, religious or political leanings, but can ALWAYS eloquently distinguish themselves with great as music consumers.)

    The most clearly influential album on me as a person and as a musician is Orbital’s Middle of Nowhere (1999). From the blissful beginning of “Way Out” to the quirky pitch oscillations of “Spare Parts Express,” from the introspective “Otoño” to the mastery of breakbeat exhibited in “Nothing Left 1 + 2,” Paul and Phil Hartnoll created an album nearly a decade ago that was all at once orchestral, cool and sophisticated, and yet thoroughly hard-edged techno. I remember listening to it on the Iowa City college radio station KRUI, for which I later worked and played this album. Heck; on my KDIC show at Grinnell, I’d put on “Way Out” and “Spare Parts Express” as a two-part orchestral series (a whopping 18 minutes of music) and just turn down the lights in the studio. My work on Whispers from the Mob with Ari Hart and Wes Beary (still free to download at http://whispers.geemus.com) bears many marks of the spare beauty of this album: tasteful female vocals, sonorous high-register synth melodies, and understated breakbeats.

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