The Most Important Albums at Different Stages of My Life
Collecting and listening to albums have always been a significant part of my life. Nowadays, physical copies of albums are rare, with the exception being people who collect vinyl. Growing up though, it was an event to buy an album with the few dollars you had, and then spent the rest of the day/week/month listening to it on loop while reading the liner notes. I remember waking up on Saturday mornings with a dollar and a dream (or more like 15 dollars and the intention of buying shitty music) and hopping in the ol’ minivan with friends and family and heading to CD World on Route 22 (after Coconuts went out of business). I spent countless hours there buying CDs that I would regret buying within a week and it in general taught me to be a bit more personally responsible with my money.
Once digital media became more prevalent, my efforts switched to developing a large iTunes library, with more than 12,000 songs at its peak in college. Now that Spotify and other streaming sites no longer make it crucial to build a catalog, those collections have largely become obsolete (along with my now-incompatible external hard drive). However, listening to albums have continued to be a large part of my life. With that said, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go through different phases of my life and talk about the 1–2 most important albums to me during those times (emphasis is on “during those times”, as you’ll find out soon enough that many of these albums I don’t consider to be all that important anymore). Some honorable mentions have been thrown in there as well since I had a hard time choosing just 2 for some of these periods of time.
Early Childhood/Elementary School
Hanson — Middle of Nowhere // John Cougar Mellencamp — The Best That I Could Do 1978–1988
These were the first two albums I bought, which tells you quite a bit about my frame of mind when I was seven. While I don’t think either of these albums are important to me right now, they were at the time, and that’s the point of this post I suppose. I’m not sure which one I bought first, but I can certainly tell you which one disappointed my father more. For most of my childhood, he pushed classic rock onto me by showing me Led Zeppelin concert footage and This is Spinal Tap at a very young age and then all of a sudden I tell my parents I want to buy the most insufferable shitty pop music imaginable. I only knew of one Hanson song and I still only know of one Hanson song but this was at a pre-Napster time when if you wanted to listen to a song you had to buy the album.
The JCM album must have been another confusing choice for my parents, but it makes sense in retrospect since it’s kind of a compromise between pop music and classic rock. As a seven year old my interests were still very much influenced by my parents, and I must have heard “Jack and Diane” or “Pink Houses” a few too many times on the radio and thought “I MUST know every great song this dude has done between 1978 and 1988. Also, is his middle name Cougar?” Also unrelated but funny is that one time around this age I was obsessed with the 1979 Joe Jackson song “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” after hearing it at a hockey game (this is a weird sentence so far, I know), but since it was pre-YouTube and I didn’t know who the singer was, I only heard it when it was on the radio, which was maybe once a year. But when it was on, oh boy was I psyched!
Reel Big Fish — Turn the Radio Off // Creed — Human Clay
I had a ska phase circa 5th/6th grade, and simultaneously had a HUGE Christian rock phase sometime around then as well. The ska was driven from listening to the albums my brother listened to at the time, which was Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake, among others. It was catchy, fun, and in my opinion at the time very cool, since checkered fedoras are generally very cool to 10 year olds (and maybe only 10 year olds). My Christian rock phase started as a result of me getting really into VH1 Top 20 Countdown on Saturday mornings, and at the time Creed was taking over the rock scene (them and Vertical Horizon, apparently). After getting Human Clay, I also bought My Own Prison, and was really getting into Creed until my brother made fun of me for listening to lame Christian rock so I immediately stopped listening to all of it. But if anyone wants to go to a Creed concert this summer, hit me up.
These were also the first two albums that I would listen to straight through without skipping songs. It’s safe to say that I didn’t listen to any other song on the Hanson album besides “Mmmbop”. These were the first instances where I discovered that for quality albums, the singles might not even be the songs I liked the most, so I should really give the whole album a chance. For example, “Sell Out” was the lead single on Turn the Radio Off, but I much preferred the song “Beer” (the song, not the drink, since at the time beer tasted like disgusting garbage water to me).
In addition to all this, at the same time that I was getting into ska-type music my BFF Brian was also getting into it, buying the Reel Big Fish album around the same time I inherited the album from my brother (burning CDs wouldn’t become available for another couple years). I discovered that it was fun to discuss music and share recommendations with like minded individuals, and soon learning about the music I was listening to became a true interest of mine.
Early High School
Kanye West — The College Dropout
I had written in a previous post about buying Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which was the first hip hop album I purchased and could have easily been a part of the middle school list, but The College Dropout is what turned my interest of hip hop into somewhat of an obsession. Say what you will about Kanye West in 2016, and there is an endless amount to say, but in 2004 he was a mostly likable dude talking about being self-conscious and vulnerable but also aspiring for greatness (and really aren’t we all?). It was the first album where I actively listened to the beats and tracked down the samples and was amazed at how well his sped up soul sound worked. It is still to this day my all time favorite hip hop album, which now is partly nostalgia but also because it’s just a really fucking solid album.
[Honorable Mention: The White Stripes — Elephant]
Late High School
Radiohead — OK Computer // Casiotone for the Painfully Alone — Etiquette
My life up until my mid-twenties could be defined as “Before Pick Up Truck” and “After Pick Up Truck”. It was a 1996 Ford Ranger which was passed down from my dad to my brother to me in 2006, and it was in pretty crappy shape when I got it. I only drove it for a year since it had a bunch of problems, but it was a glorious year. The best part of the truck was that there was space behind the front seats for folding seats that faced each other in the back, which was fun in an attempt to cram as many people into the truck as possible but also quite dangerous.
Within the confines of that truck, there was probably a full month or two during senior year of high school when all I listened to on repeat was OK Computer. It’s still a great album that holds up even though I don’t listen to Radiohead all that much anymore (since a lot of their stuff is pretentious garbage). This is a solid rock album though that just felt important, and I can’t tell you how many times I listened to “Let Down” on the way to school. Take that as you will.
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s Etiquette is an interesting choice since it was one of the only albums my brother left in the car when he handed it over to me, and I was curious by the band name alone, and thought “yeah this will probably be super depressing music”, and it kinda was. I listened to it over and over again and even though I hadn’t had any serious heartbreak or loss up until that point, the music didn’t speak to me on that level (that wouldn’t come until later, during which I listened to The Good Life’s Album of the Year on loop), but the minimalist drum-machine and monotone sing-talk voice really contrasted with everything I had listened to up until that point.
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde // Girl Talk — Feed the Animals
Early college was an interesting time, since I was both trying to find my own identity in life but also just trying really hard to fit in (cue the birkenstocks). So I kinda did both, where I wore birkenstocks but also had a huge afro that made me really easy to spot out in parties (mostly by people inquiring about purchasing marijuana). At the time I also prominently wore a t-shirt that said “Listen to Bob Dylan” and that confused a lot of people when I told them that “I’m sorry, I don’t know where the weed at.” Anyway, I did as my shirt said and I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, most particularly Blonde on Blonde, and even though I still have no fucking clue what Bobby D is talking about on “Desolation Row”, it opened my eyes to the kinds of analysis and interpretation given to classic albums such as that one.
Mostly due to my college roommate, I got really into mash-ups around this time, with Girl Talk being the most prominent out of all of them. Although that kind of splicing of samples had been done before (notably by DJ Shadow or The Avalanches), the first time I listened to it my mind was sufficiently blown. That started probably a two year period where I only listened to mash-ups and that definitely contributed to my greatly reduced attention span these days. I listened to so many mash-ups that I forgot how the real songs went and it took me a while to disassociate John Denver with Redman rapping about how one of his balls is the size of the Epcot Center.
[Honorable Mention: Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — I was going to include this but I didn’t have much to say about it except that it’s a brilliant album that I also listened to in college so there I said it, on to the next one!]
Kanye West & Jay-Z — Watch the Throne // Kendrick Lamar — good kid, m.A.A.d city
Life immediately after college was a fun and generally reckless time. Everyone I knew including myself was either unemployed or underemployed, so there was a lot of going out even during the week until 2 or 3am. So with that said, waking up at 6am to go to my internship had the line “Sunglasses and advil/last night was mad real” in my head throughout late summer/early fall. When I first listened to Watch the Throne I thought it was a fun album but didn’t have much substance besides ‘Ye and Jay just bragging about how rich they are and whether or not a girl they bring to Paris orders fish filet. I didn’t feel like I got much else out of it. But then after a few listens it dawned on me that that was exactly the kind of music I needed for a time in my life that was fun and without much responsibility, and who needs socially conscious music at a time like that?
Once everyone had settled in and stopped going out as much during the week was when I started listening to Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. It’s a concept album about a kid growing up in Compton and trying to avoid the gang lifestyle. It’s a really, really good album that works on multiple levels. My favorite song is probably one called “Backseat Freestyle”, which is a song that has kind of goofy lyrics about Kendrick wanting a dick the size of the Eiffel Tower. But it works in the scope of the album, in which a kid trying to distract himself from the streets is trying out freestyling with his friends. It’s silly and immature in the same way that a 17 year old would be. The whole album is as great as that, and the album opened my eyes to how perfect a very well made concept album can be. Then last year Kendrick Lamar came out with To Pimp a Butterfly which was infinitely more ambitious but ultimately fell a little flat to me because of how much it was attempting to accomplish all at once.
So from Hanson to Kendrick Lamar, my musical tastes over the years have spanned many genres and have all influenced me in some way. Some I have not listened to in many, many years, and some are still very much in the rotation.
If you’ve gotten this far in the post, I’d love to hear what you guys think are important albums at different stages of your lives. Feel free to reach out to start the conversation!