Monday, May 11, 2009

"Ira's Hot 100, part four" or "The end of the tour"

Well, it's been a delightful four days, but all mildly distracting things must come to an end. Here, then, are the 25 most important albums of this aging hipster's lifetime. You may be a bit surprised by what occupies the number one slot. Once I realized it, I rather was.

I'd also like to give a shout-out to my dad, Mr. David Lee Brooker, who made a conscious effort to introduce me to some of the music that most impacted him in his youth. He led me down a number of musical alleys that I might never have stumbled upon without his guidance. As far as I'm concerned, that's one of the finer things a father can do for a child.

25. Bob Dylan – Bringing it All Back Home

This was neither the first nor the best Dylan album I ever heard, but it’s the one that really did it for me. Somewhere between the bleak “darkness at the break of noon” of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and the surrealist bowling ball attacks of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” lies everything I like best about Bobby D.

24. Lou Reed – Street Hassle

My family moved into town for six months during my junior year of high school while our house in the country was being renovated. Street Hassle was the theme music to my chilly, unfamiliar room on the top floor, a gritty, sleazy album that blusters and curses and brings Bruce Springsteen in for a little cameo. Lou Reed has recorded three solo albums I’d call masterpieces. This isn’t the best of the three, but it’s definitely the baddest.

23. Patti Smith – Horses

Gloria” is amazing, “Birdland” is impossibly great, and then we get to that crazy stream-of-sex-and-violence-and-semi-consciousness that is “Land,” blazing off of the turntable like some kind of coked-up Faulkner. “He got PEN knives and JACK knives and SWITCHblades preferred!” “And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud.” “I put my hand inside his cranium / and we had such braniac-amour / but no more.” I’ve got CD and digital copies of this album readily available, but given my druthers, I’ll always go back to my vinyl edition. It’s just that kind of album.

22. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

The more I listen to Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece, the more I’m convinced it’s the greatest album ever recorded. Listening to Aeroplane is like re-reading a great book that reveals more about itself with every visit. I was hosting a college radio show when it first came out, and I remember being kind of nonplused when it first shuffled its way into my playlist. That’s probably because these songs are just not meant to be split up. This album is one organic whole, a seething, heartbreaking portrait of madness, atrocity and despair that’s somehow one of the most uplifting musical experiences imaginable.

21. Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume One

My dad gave me this cassette for my 15th or 16th birthday. In terms of long-lasting, life-shaping impact, that may have been the best birthday present I’ve ever received.

20. Lemonheads – It’s a Shame About Ray

Why Evan Dando? I don’t know, but something about this album made me feel the way other people seemed to feel about Nirvana’s Nevermind. Maybe I appreciated Evan’s good, honest songwriting in the face of the era’s pervasive tortured angst. My mom liked him because he smiled while he sang on David Letterman’s show. Maybe that had something to do with it too.

19. Prince – Purple Rain

C’mon. What do I have to say here? This is a perfect album. There’s not one thing about Purple Rain that doesn’t work. In the face of Prince, the rest of the 1980s didn’t stand a chance.

18. Sly & the Family Stone – Anthology

Possibly the last album I ever bought at a Sam Goody, this was an awakening. There was a vitality to Sly’s stuff that just couldn’t be classified. It wasn’t quite rock, wasn’t quite R&B – it was just damn good music, as pure as it could be. This was my go-to album when I got my first Walkman in the early ‘90s.

17. Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030

I’d been a fan of Del tha Funkee Homosapien ever since I first heard his I Wish My Brother George Was Here back in the early ‘90s. That still didn’t prepare me for the insane majesty of Deltron 3030. From the first spin, it was clear that this was a different kind of hip-hop disc, a post-apocalyptic concept album incorporating elements from all across the musical spectrum. If you saw me roaming the University of Minnesota campus in spring 2001, there’s a good chance this is what was pumping through my big old earmuff headphones.

16. Professor Longhair – ‘Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology

My dad brought this home one day when I was in ninth grade and told me I had to hear it. I could tell instantly that there was something different about ‘Fess. He sounded a little like some of the other old-time rock and blues players I’d heard, but with an off-kilter rhythm and bizarre delivery that knocked me clean out. When I moved to New Orleans, Professor Longhair was one of the few familiar elements I could find in my deeply foreign surroundings. The bust of ‘Fess in the entryway of Tipitina’s was like unto a religious icon for me.

15. The Dead Kennedys – Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

For a while there in my late high school/early college days, I considered myself quite the punk. In hindsight, I was little more than a dilettante on that scene, but while it lasted, this was my punk rock bible. Jello Biafra’s wit, profanity and political savvy got me amped up like nobody else in the genre. “Pull My Strings” became the undisputed anthem for my senior year of high school.

13. Johnny Cash – American Recordings

Along with Boogie Down Productions’ Ghetto Music, the first CD I ever bought, at a seedy pawn shop in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin. So dark and moody, and a bit rougher than Johnny’s other “American” albums. I consider this the pinnacle of one of the most amazing careers in music history.

14. Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes

“Take one, one, one ‘cause you left me and two, two, two for my family…” Another key piece of my emergence as a music fan, again with an assist from my pal Nathan. Not only do the Violent Femmes bring all their equipment on the bus, they were probably the first band I got into whose name drew only befuddled looks from my peers at school. And I love drawing befuddled looks.

12. The Beatles – The Beatles

I pay no heed to the endless debate about which Beatles album is the greatest. It’s “The White Album,” no question about it. The darkest, strangest conglomeration of sounds and ideas the group ever came up with, this album is great because of, not in spite of, its lack of cohesion. When I first read Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever in 6th grade, it seemed ridiculous that Charles Manson could have thought The Beatles wanted him to kill. When I finally heard The Beatles about a year later, I still knew he was nuts, but I could see where he was coming from. And I dug it.

11. They Might Be Giants – Flood

I was a nerdy, bookish kid in my early teens. They were They Might Be friggin’ Giants. What else needs to be said?

10. Warren Zevon – Mr. Bad Example

Late night TV introduced me to a lot of great music in the ‘90s. I videotaped Warren playing the title track from this album on “Late Night with David Letterman” and re-watched it until I knew every word. I bought the cassette from my ever-reliable Best Buy cut-out bin a few weeks later and thus launched my ongoing relationship with my favorite songwriter of all time. Warren’s passing shook me more than any untimely celebrity death since Phil Hartman.

9. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the 36 Chambers

I liked hip-hop before Wu-Tang, but I’m not sure I really understood it until I heard my first RZA production. The intricacy of the Wu-Tang sound, the attention to detail and the striking interplay of personalities made me see for the first time that at its best, hip-hop is one of the most complex art forms in the world of music. This is the rare album that still sounds as fresh and weird today as it did in 1993.

8. David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Possibly my favorite album of all time (it jockeys with Diamond Dogs depending on my mood), this is David Bowie at the peak of his ‘70s perfection. Every word, every note, every inflection is classic. “It’s a god-awful small affair / to the girl with the mousy hair” ranks alongside “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” in my pantheon of literature’s greatest opening lines. Also, the cover art graces one of my favorite t-shirts in my considerable collection.

7. The Dead Milkmen – Beelzebubba

I owe more to The Dead Milkmen than I probably even realize. My pal Nathan picked up this album some time during our freshman year of high school, and there was no turning back. Here was snide, snotty, soft-core punk rock with no higher aim than to be entertaining and generate a few laughs. It was pretty much everything I’d ever wanted out of an album without realizing it. A massive influence on every ridiculous, pop culture-infused song I ever wrote.

6. KRS-ONE – Return of the Boom Bap

And here’s where my love of hip-hop really begins. As usual, it started in my pal Nathan’s basement, where I was blown away by the literate rhymes and raw beats of KRS-ONE’s first solo release. I’d dabbled in the works of Ice-T and Christian rappers like Michael Peace, but nothing had connected for me quite like this. This album is about as hardcore as KRS ever got, and it sounds just as good today as it did booming out of my parents' minivan in 1995.

5. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico

If you heard this album in your formative years and were neither amazed nor repelled, I don’t think I want to know you. For me, it was the former. Sitting in the back of a rented van, heading to the wilds of southern Illinois to attend a Christian rock festival, my pal Nathan and I huddled around a battery-powered boom box and reveled in the scary decadence of “Venus in Furs,” “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and, of course, “Heroin,” the song that became my pump-up anthem before high school sporting events. Never had it, never will, but there’s something universal about Lou Reed’s paean to his chosen source of ecstasy.

4. Pavement – Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

Something broke wide open when my pal Nathan dubbed Crooked Rain Crooked Rain onto an old Amway tape for me. What this band was doing didn’t even resemble the music I was accustomed to. It was raw and new and so, so exciting. When I took my first solo drive in my parents’ minivan, this was the album cranking from the tape deck.

3. Lou Reed – New York

My pal Nathan and I huddled around a boom box at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park, listening to the Lou Reed cassette I’d just dubbed from my friend Paul. When “Last Great American Whale” came on, we froze and listened in silence to an epic about a marine mammal fighting crime and racism on the Carolina coast. This was something we had not heard before, and I knew it was something I wanted to hear much, much more of. This wasn’t the first Lou Reed album I owned, but it was the one that launched an obsession that continues only slightly abated to this day.

2. The Beatles - Rock & Roll Music

Originally a lazy compilation slapped together in the mid-‘70s to try and milk a few more bucks out of the long-defunct Beatles, this homely little hodgepodge became the cornerstone of my musical education when I sifted it out of the discount bin at my local Pamida. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the thought process that led someone to wedge “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Revolution” into the same album, but I’m glad someone did. That mishmash of older and newer hits and misses provided a perfect primer for a small town Wisconsin kid looking to learn about The Beatles. And once that gate was opened, all manner of stuff came a-flooding in.

1. Paul Simon – Graceland

This is pretty much where I became a music fan. When I was nine or so, a friend of my dad’s brought this cassette over to listen to as they remodeled our living room. At the time, Amy Grant’s El Shaddai was about as cutting edge as the music got in our household, so Paul Simon’s cacophony of guitars and drums and African harmonies blew me out of the water. From here on out, music wasn’t just something to sing along with or play in the background. It was something to absorb, to dissect, to experience. If this was a list of my 100 favorite albums, Graceland wouldn’t make the cut (although it’s a damn fine record). When it comes to importance, though, there’s not much that comes close.

This concludes our broadcast day. Thanks for reading.

-Ira Brooker


  1. I'm utterly & completely there with you on "Hunky Dory" and "Street Hassle". Those two albums just tum up both artist for me.

  2. First of all, you are insane for taking on such a task as this. Commendably devoted, but also insane.

    Second of all, Graceland is a fine pick indeed for the top spot on any such endeavor. The last time I tried making the 100 Best Albums on Planet Reilly list (2001 or so), I believe Graceland came in at number six.