Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Top 10 Albums

A friend of mine on Facebook is going through a process; one of those modern day modern technology versions of the chain letter, I suppose, where he's talking about the top ten albums that impacted him in his life.  I thought this would be a fun thing to do too (although I don't know that any albums impacted my life so much as I just like them a lot), but rather than doing a facebook post once a day for ten days, I'd just do them all as a single blog post.

Starting with music that reeks of my childhood, moving through the music that defined my tastes as they emerged as a teenager, and into some modern favorites that I still listen to considerably more than anything else, this will be all over the map.

And honestly, aren't we kind of migrating into the post-album world with regards to music anyway?  Without further ado:

10. Roger Williams "Christmas Time"

To me, this is the defining Christmas album.  I know, I know; it's piano instrumentals, but this is still, to me, what Christmas songs are supposed to sound like.

This is, of course, like all of the early stuff, one of my dad's records from his big old vinyl collection that he had when I was young.  He didn't actually add a lot to it while I was a kid, both because my parents went through a prolonged poor period while he was going through grad school to get his Ph. D., and because I doubt he really liked much of the music of the late 70s and the 80s anyway (a notable exception or two being Dire Straits and Huey Lewis and the News, which he picked up on cassette tape later in the 80s.  He's since converted all of his vinyl to digital formats.

In fact, it's probably fair to say that much of my love of music is attributable to my dad in the first place, who 1) insisted that learn to play an instrument as a kid (the piano, and later the trombone), 2) insisted that I learn to sing once I could read music from taking piano, and 3) played music all the time when he was sitting around at home.

So, we listened to a lot of stuff.  Much of it, I came to dislike (stuff like Joe & Eddy, the Christie Minstrels, Creedence Clearwater Revival, BTO, etc.—a lot of 70s era rock n roll that was kind of anti-edgy, I suppose).  But some of it stayed with me.

9. The Steve Miller Band "Greatest Hits 1974-1978"

I guess there has to be an exception to the non-edgy 70s rock.  And to be fair, there's more than one that could probably qualify (maybe some older Fleetwood Mac, or Chicago IX or something should get a nod here too.)  Not that I love this music or these songs, or even have copies of any of the songs on my phone or in my CD collection, or elsewhere.  But because they were songs that made up the soundtrack of my childhood, which I don't hate (Creedence and 3 Dog Night, on the other hand, I grew to intensely dislike.  Heard a lot of them too.)  The strange sounds of some of these songs probably prefigured what I was going to end up doing, which is moving into electronic music in a big way.  Not that the Steve Miller Band is in any form or fashion and electronic music band, but that rocking synth bridge in "Swingtown" and the "laser sounds" that start off "Jungle Love" came into my life at about the same time as the original Battlestar Galactica TV show, and I always thought it sounded like cylons shooting their lasers.

A lot of my dad's music I dislike, and a lot of it I'm indifferent to, but this is one that I remember quite fondly.  I even thought that the van art record cover was kind of cool back when I was a kid.

8. The Beach Boys Greatest Hits
Sadly, I don't have a discogs link or image file for this one; I'm not sure which version my dad had.  I perused the list of likely candidates on discogs, but I can't remember which one we had.  I know it was at least a 4-sided (i.e. two vinyl discs) collection; it might have even been more.  Every one I look at on discogs is either too short, or it's a foreign release that I'm pretty sure my dad didn't buy (he did have some Argentine-released records from the late 60s when he lived there for a little while, but he didn't have any Beach Boys greatest hits from the Netherlands, for instance.)

My dad had some Beatles stuff too; I know for sure that he had Help and Rubber Soul, for instance, and some of the other, earlier ones (I know for sure that he didn't have Sergeant Pepper's or The White Album, though.  I think he lost interest in them when they became more overtly hippyish.  Or maybe that just coincided with him being in college, getting married, having kids, and not having money, etc., so he just never bought them.)  That said, I always preferred the Beach Boys.  They were more American (obviously) which meant, among other things, that I could relate to what they were singing about even more than I could to the Beatles.  I could relate to their relaxed teenager California vibe, from a California that doesn't exist anymore thanks to invasion and corruption.  In fact, in some ways, I think of the Beach Boys as the anthems of the America that's been stolen from us; the America that should be our birthright.

Of course, the Beach Boys themselves were complicit in that, in spite of their music.  They weren't nice guys, they had all kinds of issues.

7. Duran Duran "Rio"

The very first music that I ever bought myself with my own money was a 45 speed single for "Hungry Like the Wolf."  I think I was in 5th grade or so.  I really loved Duran Duran all through middle school, and I still think that the Rio album is one of the best albums ever released.  Sadly, for many years it was hard to get a hold of "properly."  The US release that was actually successful was on cassette (and vinyl, I'm sure, but I had the cassette version) and it had the "night" versions from Carnival replacing the regular versions on the whole first side.  Of course, I didn't know this for many years, so when I finally went to upgrade my old cassette to CD, I couldn't find the versions that weren't a little lamer anywhere.  It took until the 2009 re-release and remaster before I actually got what I wanted (and more!) in digital format.  And it was worth getting; it's still an absolutely great album, when using the "correct" versions of the songs, by which I mean third American version (it was actually released twice in America and, believe it or not, failed to achieve anything.  It was the third release with the remixed versions on side 1 that is the one everyone knows.)

Another side effect of this album's impact on my tastes is how much it influenced me towards New Wave and away from pop, country, and even—to a great degree—rock and roll.

6. a-ha "Hunting High and Low"

Speaking of which, sometimes of course, I'd buy a pop album—or so I thought—only to discover that while the song I knew best was certainly a pop classic, the rest of the album might turn out to be somewhat moody synthpop new wave.  Such is the case with Huhnting High and Low.  Not that I'm completely surprised; I actually remember when both "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." and the eponymous "Hunting High and Low" singles were (briefly) on the radio.  Both are, needless to say, much more moody and melancholy than "Take On Me" or its cheesy, bouncy b-side, "Love Is Reason."

Of course, their second album, Scoundrel Days is even moodier and more melancholy, and even more overtly New Wave rather than pop.  In spite of that, it is highly recommended, at least by me, although if you're only going to get one a-ha, you've got to get this one first.

Honestly, you could probably only get those two and be fine.  I also have Stay On These Roads which I got partly just for "The Living Daylights" track, but I kind of dropped them after that.  And in this day of Amazon or iTunes ordering of a single song, just get these two albums and then the tracks "Stay On These Roads" and "The Living Daylights."  Nothing else after Scoundrel Days is a must-have.

5. Def Leppard "Hysteria"

Although I did move from pop and rock into New Wave as my teenager tastes developed, especially the last year or two of high school (which would have been fairly late in the 80s—but that's cool, because it meant that I got chase down several years worth of back catalogs, which was exciting in a way) I've got to put two actual 80s hair band rock and roll anthems on before I completely move into that territory for good.  Hysteria is literally the first full album I ever bought—on cassette tape, naturally—and I listened the crap out of it, just as I did with all of my other early cassettes (including the two mentioned previously.)  I liked almost everything on it, although now many years in retrospect, I think only half of the tracks deserve to be considered memorable (and most of them were on the first side of the tape; now that I've upgraded to CD that's a moot point, of course.)

One could argue that this isn't entirely fair to write them off as just an 80s hair band; Def Leppard were musically very gifted and innovative, and to at least some degree, the 80s hair band craze was made up of people imitating Def Leppard; down even to imitating the Hysteria cover art, at least in the case of Winger.  And if some of the hair band craze artists ended up being one-hit wonders, or more forgettable in general, the same can not be said for Def Leppard, particularly for this album (and the one that preceded it too.)

4. The Cult "Electric"

If it's not fair for Def Leppard, it's even less true for The Cult, who had an edgy New Wave and punk-like approach to their hard rock.  While probably 1985's Love is more "classic" (or at least more indie) than 1987's Electric, the latter had much more of an impact on me personally, and it's one that I listened to all the time.  It was kind of the ultimate party album for me and a few of my friends.  For at least a little while, this prevented me from seeing the depth of the music, I admit.  I often skipped to "Born to Be Wild" because I knew it best, and stuck there for some time.  After a while, I came to appreciate it much more, of course.  I'd say my favorite track now is actually "Wildflower"—and by a long shot—while the fact that they decided to remake "Born to Be Wild" is kind of cheesy (not that it's not a great cover version—just that I almost wish it had been stuck on the b-side of something, in retrospect.)

One guy described The Cult (and specifically this album) as The Doors and AC/DC having a baby.  I dunno about that, but for 80s British heavy rockers, they were certainly edgier than Def Leppard ever were.  Of course, edgier is sometimes weird; their fascination with injun imagery prefigured the rise of loads of cultural Marxism crap.  But once upon a time, even cultural Marxists were able to produce good art, as this album shows.

3. Depeche Mode "Music For the Masses"

The first Depeche Mode album I got, probably in early 1988 when it was still relatively new (but after "Strangelove" had been out as a single for a little while, and I think also "Never Let Me Down Again."  Not that I ever heard the latter on the radio...) and the completion of my journey from pop to New Wave.  Much of the New Wave that I had earlier listened to was New Wave that had a lot of pop appeal; that wasn't really true for Depeche Mode during this era (at least in the US); they were dark enough to be scary to people who weren't into that kind of thing; depressing, solo music, not party music; the soundtrack of the Walkman generation.  Not only that, they dressed in motorcycle leathers, but had weird nearly skinhead-like haircuts, they never smiled in pictures, and they were notoriously private about their actual lives.  In an era in which most people thought of electronic music as bubbly, bubble-gum pop music, Depeche Mode defied those trends, and almost single-handedly created the dark electronic music as it was known after their imprint, from scratch (not that dark electronic music didn't exist, of course, but it didn't have the almost mainstream appeal of Depeche Mode; it was all novelty or fad stuff before them.)  In fact, someone once flippantly (although not untruthfully) told me that the reason that there are relatively few female synthpop vocalists is because girls don't sound enough like Dave Gahan.

From an artistic standpoint, this probably is just past their peak; this represents just the beginning of the "selling out" maybe of their sound; or maybe it's better seen as a kind of victory lap celebrating it after they had just finished perfecting it the year before.   And then, after this, they took a break and came out with Violator, which was certainly even more commercially successful, but which also represented the completion of their selling out and big steps in their journey to not even being an electronic music band at all anymore.  For sheer artistic brilliance, I recommend Black Celebration over this one—by a slim margin—but this is the one that made me a fan.

2. Erasure "The Innocents"

Of course, it can't all dark, and the other half (in my mind at least) of the top of the heap of New Wave music was Erasure (which ironically was driven by original Depeche Mode founder Vince Clark).  It's probably way too simplistic to suggest that there were two big pillars of New Wave; the darker pillar and the lighter pillar, and at the top of each respectively was Depeche Mode and Erasure, but that's how I saw it at least during the 80s.  The two of them were certainly more prominent than other examples of each, and both seemed to have developed their sound kind of independently of what was going on at the time.  Erasure's sound is very much the Vince Clark sound (not unlike what he did with Yaz, or The Assembly or even the freshman Depeche Mode album Speak and Spell.)

This is, again, the first one of Erasure that I stumbled across, since "Chains of Love" and "A Little Respect" got a fair bit of radio play in '88.  But I had Wonderland, The Circus and the compilation Two Ring Circus to get in short order, and then not that long later, Wild! came out (which was, up to that point, the gayest album I owned.)  But in 1988, those weren't yet very old anyway.

During the 80s and early 90s, I used to say that Erasure was an every other album kind of band.  Wonderland was great, Circus had some great songs but was overall kind of weird.  The Innocents was brilliant; Wild! again had a fair number of misses (although the Crackers International EP that came out before that helped bridge the gap a little better.)  Chorus again was great, and I Say I Say I Say was kind of boring most of the time... and then they broke the pattern after that.  In fact, I've long ago lost the plot with both Erasure and Depeche Mode both, but even moreso with Erasure than with Depeche Mode.  That's kind of curious, as Erasure still does stuff that's more like what I used to like than Depeche Mode does; but at the same time, I just can't be bothered because I got so bored after I Say I Say I Say and Erasure that I never even listened to Cowboy or Loveboat.  I should probably check them out on YouTube or Spotify just to see if I've been missing anything that I'd actually miss or not.

1. Depeche Mode "Black Celebration"

Well, this shouldn't be a surprise.  I kind of telegraphed this result, didn't I?  Black Celebration, released in 1986 (and bought by me in late 1988 or early 1989) didn't have any "hits" in the US; I had never, in fact, heard a single song from it prior to buying it on cassette tape (and later on CD) and probably got very little radio play except on the most dedicated of "alternative" stations.  In spite of that, Depeche Mode had been quietly building up their fan base in America following the sleeper hit "People Are People" a few years earlier, and when they did their masses tour, it was a huge event; but even the band themselves were surprised by the reception that they got.  Depeche Mode were themselves sleeper hits, after a fashion.

If anything, this was even darker than Music For the Masses, and it was certainly more "artsy" and less accessible; songs like "World Full of Nothing" or "It Doesn't Matter Two" for instance are both strange and yet lovely.  ("Sometimes" and "Dressed In Black" don't count; there's always an awkward Martin Gore ballad) and even "hits" like "Stripped" and "Question of Lust" were considerably less accessible than stuff that came before.  (On the other hand, "Question of Time" is a pretty classic dark Depeche Mode dance track.)

One of my favorite tracks was the ender; "But Not Tonight" and I was surprised to find out years later that it was never meant to be part of the album at all.  The British version didn't include it, and the band was a little miffed that the American record company stuck it on; apparently, they never liked the song and considered it kind of pop trash or something.  That's a shame; I always loved it, and thought that the change in tone made for a kind of nice epilogue to the album overall that enhanced the experience of listening to it all the way through.  Apparently the band have finally come around to accepting it, after a fashion, and even play it on occasion in their shows now.  Probably as a concession to the fact that it's fairly popular and has been covered a number of times.

But the lack of accessibility was in part due to the experimentation, the artistic touches, and other elements that make this considerably more than just a pop album.  Maybe it's just me being somewhat pretentious, but I've always considered some of the best of Depeche Mode's albums as nearly artistic equivalent to modern symphonies, although using the modern pop song as the vehicle to deliver them.

Anyway, this album was the last of a three album partnership with producer Gareth Jones, and between Jones and Alan Wilder, the musical talent and innovation was clearly apparent to all.  Without them, who knows if we'd have sampling in mainstream music at all, for instance?  Depeche Mode were still quite credible under different producers; David Bascombe and Flood, respectively, but they especially suffered when Wilder split with the band.  Wilder's solo career didn't do anything all that interesting either; Wilder needed Gore's song-writing talent, and Gore (and Co.) needed Wilder's musical and production talent.

Depeche Mode did a lot of good work.  I even like their early stuff like A Broken Frame quite well, but the three "dark electronic" albums: Some Great Reward, Black Celebration and Music For the Masses are clearly their best material.  Earlier Construction Time Again was just starting to get dark and "serious" and by Violator they were well on their way towards become a "formerly" electronic band—although I certainly have to give them credit for putting "Enjoy the Silence" on that one, which has got to be their most iconic song of all time.

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