Albums That Changed My Life

At Pencil Storm they have a recurring series of posts about albums that "changed your life." I decided to tackle this in my own way.

My first question was - how did it change my life? In what way? For the better or the worse? I’ve listened to albums that were so lyrically and thematically dark, I spent days in a depressed fog afterward. I’m still haunted by them, and revisit when I want to wallow, but they are certainly not my favorite in any sense, nor did they make my life better. Maybe they acted as a temporary salve on wound - hey bud, you suffering? Here’s some minor chords to commiserate and some dissonance to drown your sorrows.

To actually change my life, something good had to come out of it. A better path had to be opened and explored. That’s the directive I’m following with this. Here goes.

Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti (1975)

I didn’t know this album until my senior year of high school (1991/92), when classmate Joel Fay played “Bron-Yr-Aur” at our Chagrin Falls High School talent show “The Orange And Black Revue.” At that point I was only listening to pop radio and watching daytime MTV, a steady diet of Def Leppard, Young MC and such. I hardly owned any music. I had a few Billy Joel tapes, inherited from my parents, the David Lee Roth seven inch single for “Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” and some Weird Al Yankovic cassettes.

I was in awe of what Joel had done on that stage. That song seemed magical, channeled from another dimension. In our next class together, I asked if he wrote it, and he told me about this album. There was a small record shop in Chagrin Falls, so I drove there after school and bought the album on cassette. When I started college at Bowling Green State University in the fall of ‘92, Physical Graffiti became my go-to listen. The distance between Chagrin and BGSU was almost the exact length of time of the double album. It became my first “driving” album - those records your associate with extended road trips.

It was also the first time I wanted to explore a catalog. The rest of the albums would follow, and I’d be off on a lifelong journey of collecting, analyzing and obsessing over music.

Public Enemy - Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)

Along with Joel, another classmate made a big impact during my final year of high school on my musical trajectory. His name was Jason Smith, and in the winter of 1991/92 when Nirvana and Guns ‘n Roses were the two biggest and most important rock bands in the world, dominating the senior lounge cassette deck by the ping pong table, he was the kid listening to rap music.

As mentioned, my exposure at this point was limited to what was mostly safe and radio/MTV friendly - the Beastie Boys singles from Licensed To Ill, Wild Thing by Tone Lōc, Mama Said Knock You Out, The Humpty Dance, etc. Jason and I had newspaper class together (yes, that was a class, not an extracurricular at Chagrin), and we would talk about music from time to time. I mentioned a video I had just watched on MTV for a song called “Bring Tha Noize,” featuring bands called Anthrax and Public Enemy. I didn’t know what it was, it was jarring seeing hip-hop and heavy metal (I had no concept of Anthrax being “thrash,” or that there were sub genres) mixed together. He told me about Public Enemy, about the album, and their previous albums, about “Fight The Power” and more.

The local Chagrin Falls record store didn’t carry this album, so I ended up having to go to a nearby mall to find a larger record chain that carried it. That cassette stayed in my Walkman for a long time through the end of high school and into college. I was the stereotypical sheltered suburban middle to upper middle class kid, and pouring over the lyrics to songs like “By The Time I Get to Arizona” and “Shut “Em Down” made fundamental changes to my worldview. It didn’t hurt that I loved the music - Chuck D was commanding and brutal as a vocalist, backed by an insane assemblage of sounds. I went backwards and discovered their earlier, more celebrated albums, but this remains my favorite of the theirs to this day.

Wilco - A.M. (1995)

This is where my beloved “alt country” started for me, and in many ways, this is where getting the notion I could sit down with a four-track and write songs started. Others may have heard a lo-fi Guided By Voices record and be inspired, but it would be years before I would stumble upon the prolific Robert Pollard. This record coincided with several factors in my life.

In the fall of my junior year of college at BGSU, I moved in with my fifth new roommate. Four semesters, four roommates. Finally, in junior year, I actually formed a genuine friendship with my new roommate, who was a freshman named Charlie. Charlie was into rock of all sorts - alternative (he was the only person I knew who had Soul Asylum albums that were from before “Grave Dancers Union”), classic rock (he had all the various post-Zeppelin solo records from Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, none of which I had hear of) and some modern metal like Metallica and Pantera.

In addition to the new roommate in the fall of 1994, I also joined the campus AM radio station at BGSU, WFAL 680 - Falcon Radio as a DJ and member of the music review staff. I had actually gone to the orientation meeting my freshman year, but felt intimidated and decided not to join at that time. At some point in the early winter of ‘95, WFAL received the first single for A.M., “Box Full of Letters.” I don’t know why, but this song just clicked with me. It sounded new but familiar, like a Tom Petty track written by a midwestern kid. We got an advance of the album, and I immediately snuck it back to my dorm, made a cassette copy, and returned it without detection. I didn’t know who Jeff Tweedy was, the legacy of Uncle Tupelo, the falling out with Jay Farrar, or the upcoming Son Volt record.

Because I was young, and arrogant, and open to trying things, I asked Charlie, who knew a few chords and had an acoustic guitar, to show me those few chords. Turns out knowing G, D, C were a good start for learning Wilco songs. Once I figured out a few songs, I got the gumption to write my own. Charlie and I formed a dorm room band that never played a gig, and I was off. In a few years, I get up the nerve to play some songs at an open mic night, then join a band, then make a record, etc. etc.

The Tragically Hip - Day For Night (1994)

“If there's a glory in miracles
It's that they're reversible”

The late Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip wrote that lyric for the song “Titanic Terrarium” off the band’s fourth album.

I was washing and driving cars for the Budget rental car company near the Buffalo airport in the summer of 1994. The Hip (as they are known) played stadiums in Canada, but outside a few select cities like Detroit and my hometown of Buffalo, they never managed to get past thousand seaters like the Newport Music Hall. Buffalo and nearby Ontario radio played The Hip regularly, and with a new album out that September, more like hourly. I dug the single “So Hard Done By,” and after my return for fall semester at BGSU, picked up the CD at Finder’s Records (still kicking, btw).

Downie is a lyricist unlike anything I had ever heard. Poetic yet grounded, with touches of humor and heartache. He told wild, twisted stories (re: Nautical Disaster) and peppered his tales with uniquely Canadian references, oddball characters, dictionary words and grace, too.

I didn’t become a writer because of Gord Downie, I had gravitated toward creative writing way back in elementary school, but I was often bored with lyrics. Yes, girls and boys, love and pain. I get it. If Chuck D and Public Enemy made me think, Gord Downie made me unthink. It wasn’t cut ‘n paste randomness, it was more beautiful and frustrating and disturbing, because it actually made sense to me, even if it shouldn’t have.

That’s why that line in “Titanic Terrarium” dug so deep into my brain. Who in their right mind would want to reverse a miracle? What is this song about? Or this album? I wanted to know, even if it was fundamentally unknowable.

Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible (1994)

Wilco’s A.M. is one of the few instances where I was onboard with a band from jump. Usually I’m behind, like with Zeppelin, The Hip and this band, the Manic Street Preachers. To be fair, 99.9% of folks in the United States are behind on this band, and that’s okay, as they are certainly an acquired taste. I didn’t come to them on my own, this was thanks to my former bandmate and longtime friend Jason Dziak, who was an early adopter of Napster, on the lookout for new bands to sample and go find their CDs around town. One of those was the Manics, who in 1998 had a new album out “This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours” which was not available in the US yet. They got on Jason’s radar, he got the previous album “Everything Must Go” and shared it with me.

I was hooked - anthemic guitars, mainstream rock structures with a unique edge, and heady lyrics. I dove into their hard-to-find catalog, and thanks to the Virgin Megastore (R.I.P.) at Easton, via the import section I was able to grab their three earlier records. The one that grabbed me was third release “The Holy Bible.” Nothing I had heard (or since, really) sounded like it, like Helmet covering Joy Division. Dark, melodic, abrasive, loud and lyrically dense. The other albums had some complex subject matter, but this was on another level. Prostitution, consumerism, imperialism, the Holocaust, serial killers, fascism, suicide. It Dante wrote a musical to The Inferno, “The Holy Bible” might be the soundtrack thanks to song titles like “Archives Of Pain” and “The Intense Humming Of Evil.”

This album shook me, the perfect meld of music and lyric. I forgot to mention, this was essentially a pop band in the UK. They played Top Of The Pops in balaclavas and military uniforms and sang a song that opened with a quote from George Orwell’s book “1984” and ends with the repeated line “man kills everything.” So when it came to scratching my anti-pop, anti-conformity, anti-establishment itch, we had a bingo.