Friday, May 8, 2009

"Ira's Hot 100, part one" or "Thanks for the meme-ories"

If you spend any time on Facebook, you’ve surely seen the “Five Albums that Changed my Life” meme. I’ll admit to having a soft spot for meaningless musical lists, but five is an awfully limiting number for a guy with 11,000 (and counting) songs on his iPod. And so I embarked on the following exercise in narcissism: listing the 100 most important albums of my life to date. Note that these are not necessarily my favorite albums, just the ones that had the biggest impact on my musical tastes and life in general. I’ve broken it up into four 25-album installments, for the sake of everybody’s sanity.

Before I start, I’m going to throw a special shout-out to my pal Nathan, who, I realized while compiling this list, figured prominently in introducing me to an awful lot of great music. And away we go…

A fine album, and probably my favorite of the Death Cab canon, but it makes this list for one reason only – it was the first album I ever reviewed professionally, in a rambling piece for Where Y’at magazine that betrayed my youthful ignorance of indie rock many times over. I hope I’ve made up for it since.

I usually hate when singers harp on the hardships of being famous. Leave it to Ray Davies to craft a concept album that mostly forgoes the whining and humanizes the experience of being a jet-setting rock star.

An immaculately produced, critically acclaimed, eminently listenable album by an artist who just happens to be a dear friend of mine, this one serves as a constant reminder that my own artistic dreams may not be as futile as they sometimes seem.

I believe I paid five bucks at Best Buy for this revelatory three-disc collection of early blues recordings. Even if the set had done nothing more than introduce me to the woodwind-laced troubadoring of Henry Thomas, it would have been well worth the money. Throw in the raunchy swagger of Lucille Bogan, the weirdness of the Memphis Jug Band and old favorites like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt, and you’ve got one of the finer musical educations a college boy could ask for.

A staple of my working-from-home, freelance writing days. Not much sounds better on a sweaty Chicago afternoon than Side B of this record. “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” “Clara Clairvoyant” and “Poke at the Pope” add up to an atypically aggressive album for Donovan, and it rather rocks.

Bam-b-bam-bam-bam-bam! Bap-biddidy-bap-biddidy-bap! Boom-bam-be-boom-boom-boom!

I was deep into my wussy indie rock period when Elephant dropped. No knock against wussy indie rock, but a full-on rock & roll record was exactly what I needed right then to snap me back to my senses. Jack White blusters and storms better than anyone in his generation.

Living in New Orleans during a time of political turmoil, I can’t express how comforting it felt to hear Mason Jennings sharing my mourning for Paul Wellstone and “trying to make some sense of this / 2000 miles from my family in Minneapolis.”

The soundtrack to so many caffeine-addled mornings spent slinging lattes to the tennis moms and real estate brokers of New Orleans. It’s fitting that I established a number of lasting friendships while listening to this album, as Bill Withers comes off as the friendliest man who ever set voice to wax.

This blows my mind as consistently as any album I own. It’s jazz, it’s funk, it’s rock, it’s unclassifiable. In my estimation, Fela at his best embodies everything good about the very idea of music.

The soundtrack to much of my freshman year of college. Upbeat, soulful music that could have been designed for driving the bluff roads of Southern Minnesota in late spring. I celebrate David’s entire catalog, but I don’t think he’s ever topped this EP.

Who wasn’t rocking this album in the mid ‘90s? I love that Quentin Tarantino made Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” a standard 30 years after the fact, and that he worked Maria McKee, Ricky Nelson and Kool and the Gang onto the same million-selling album.

No disrespect to Dre and Eazy, but Cube is the NWA alum who really got through to me, and The Predator is the peak of his solo career. The more controversial sentiments of his earlier albums are toned down (though not entirely absent), the West Coast beats are exemplary and Cube is even relatively upbeat. Who could resist “It Was a Good Day”?

It’s full of dread and beauty and pain and celebration, and it’s not like much else I’ve heard before or since. Low connects with me on a deeply Minnesotan level.

Purchased on a whim out of the Best Buy cut-out bin back in my high school days, this one knocked me out with some of the most literate lyrics ever set to a power-pop backdrop. For quite a while, I held “I’m afraid of people who like ‘Catcher in the Rye’ / Yeah, I like it too, but someone tell me why / People he’d despise say, ‘I feel like that guy’” as my favorite lyric ever.

My wife Myra used to play this album constantly when we were first dating. I hated it at first, but eventually she wore me down. I think I realized I loved The Normal Years right around the same time I realized I loved her. Built To Spill went on to become one of my favorite bands, and Myra became one of my favorite people.

The best, most thorough deflation of the Love Generation myth ever set to vinyl. Take that, hippies!

Back in its day, this probably served as a bridge to Christian rock for a lot of secular Dylan fans. I crossed that bridge going in the opposite direction, starting out on the contemporary Christian side streets and following Dylan backwards into his older stuff. You better believe that opened some doors.

It’s like a collection of sad little short stories set to music, one of the more evocative albums I own. I can’t listen to “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” without getting chills, or to “Casimir Pulaski Day” without feeling heartsick.

I was raised on “contemporary Christian” music, a genre that’s generally just as bland as it sounds. When my pal Nathan found this album in a cassette bin at a music festival, it was a revelation – a Christian recording that dared to be weird, playful and even a little irreverent. The product of a couple of born-again new wavers from New Zealand, it filled the space between Michael W. Smith and They Might Be Giants. (Note: this album is now impossible to track down. The link above is the only trace of its existence I've ever found on the internet. Anyone with any info on Burnt Oak or “Religious Nuts,” please drop me a line!)

It’s not one of the most universally beloved Tom Waits albums, but the sleazy strut of this dirty little record caught my teenage fancy more than any of his other ‘70s output. I love how easily Tom moves from pretty to grimy.

On a sweltering summer night, how could you not give in to the seduction of Ike’s voice and massive orchestrations? Bought it at Rolling Stones Records in Chicago, in a super-cheap import version that contains weird auditory pops and clicks, as if it was transferred directly from a turntable. I think that only improves the experience.

How could I not love hearing Lyle Lovett slagging on fat babies, dying grandmothers and guys with skinny legs? Probably the oddest album he’s ever released, and certainly my favorite.

My introduction to the Dirty South, courtesy of a free “Soul Food” cassingle I picked up at Ragstock in Dinkytown. I still regard it as one of the coolest hip-hop albums of all time. Plus, it introduced the world to the inimitable Cee-Lo Green!

I adore Victoria Williams, and this album makes it evident that Mark Olson did too. It may be the purest musical encapsulation of a loving marriage I’ve ever heard. It still makes me sad that Mark and Victoria split up a few years ago.

In the fall of ‘98, I was convinced that this album was pretty close to what John Lennon would have been producing if he’d lived. It makes me think of cloudy afternoons lying in Myra’s twin bed in a cruddy college house in Winona, Minnesota.

Stay tuned! More to come!

- Ira Brooker

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