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Sunday, November 16, 2014

My 10 most influential albums, and why

By Ted Slowik

I begin this post with the presumption that the reader has some appreciation for the album as an art form. And that an album is a collection of recorded material intended to be appreciated in its entirety.

It’s an art form that came into being in the 1960s, flourished in the 1970s and continues to this day. Though sales of albums are at historic lows, and the art form is threatened.

With that in mind here are 10 albums that are major influences in my life, and the story behind each one.

10. “Running on Empty,” by Jackson Browne (1978). This album captured my imagination unlike any other. The songs are about life as a musician on the road, and my dream as a child was to move to southern California. The melodies are immaculate, and the performances are dream-like, from the mournful fiddle of “The Road” to David Lindley’s exquisite slide on “The Load-Out/Stay,” this album stays with you the rest of your life.

9. “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” by Bruce Springsteen (1978).
At 2 a.m. on a summer Saturday in 1978 when I was 13, I woke up and went downstairs for a drink of water. My brother Mike and his friends were just leaving for Warren Dunes and let me come along. We listened to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” all the way there. We waited out a thunderstorm parked in a car wash, and later watched the sun come up. When the park opened we drove in and parked in the huge, empty lot. My brother's friends crashed on the beach. I went exploring. I wasn't tired.
8.) “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” by Elton John (1973). I mean, come on, I spent hours in front of the mirror playing air guitar to this album. Lester Bangs said great albums are judged not by the number of great songs but by the absence of not-so-great songs. There’s no weak link on this classic. From the orchestral opening "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" to the seamless tempo and rhythm changes of a song like "All the Young Girls Love Alice," this record packs a ton of variety. Of course there are classics, hits a plenty. But the lesser-known tracks like "Grey Seal" are equally good. There's not a bad song in this bunch.

7.) “The Beatles,” by The Beatles , aka “The White Album” (1968). When I was 14 I spent the summer of 1979 at my brother Stan’s in Evergreen, Colorado. I was penniless but earned a few bucks doing chores. Enough to buy one record at the end of the summer. I pored over every album in the store, narrowing my choices until finally I bought the one record I could. And so I chose this one, and never regretted it. The layers of sounds and abrupt changes in mood somehow leave you feeling like you're able to make sense out of chaos. It's a sonic smorgasbord, a feast for the ears. Listen to it through headphones, again. You'll be glad you did.

6.) “Quadrophenia,” by The Who (1973). Adolescent boys relate well to this story. It's a coming-of-age tale about social insecurity, awkwardness and substance abuse. Growing up is often a difficult, lonely experience. These songs speak to those going through that transition, especially males, and the music is this incredible infusion of power. Hopefully this masterfully recorded, brilliantly performed, impeccably written gem of a concept album continues to speak to audiences of young people finding their way for generations to come.

5.) “The Wall,” by Pink Floyd (1979). OK, so it’s the soaring culmination from possibly the most talented quartet of British rock musicians ever. This was a great band, from its humble beginnings behind Syd Barrett through its experimental era and commercial juggernauts, and this Roger Waters-conceived masterpiece is executed like none other in history. Beyond the smash hits like "Another Brick in the Wall," "Comfortably Numb," "Young Lust," "Hey You" and "Run Like Hell" there are acoustic beauties like "Mother" and "Goodbye Blue Sky." I was going through adolescence when a lot of these albums came out, and that's a critical age when your musical tastes are determined for life.

4.) “Empty Glass,” by Pete Townshend (1979). There's something about the screaming guitars of “Rough Boys” that pulls you in. Then you’re captivated by the profanity and beauty of “I Am an Animal,” and it goes on. "And I Moved" has wonderful piano, and the drumming is amazing throughout. The hit "Let My Love Open the Door" showcases the keyboards, and “Gonna Get Ya” closes this intoxicating collection with some truly great guitar and bass work. These are songs about the pain of loss, and using alcohol to dull that pain. If you've ever done it, you understand. If you haven't, you're lucky. Try not judge others too harshly.

3.) “Exile on Main Street,” by The Rolling Stones (1972). Admittedly, I didn’t fully appreciate this masterpiece until I read Keith Richards’ autobiography, “Life.” I mean, I always loved the radio hits, like “Tumblin’ Dice” and “Rocks Off.” But it’s the deeper cuts that make this one of my favorites. The slide guitar work, keyboards, Mick Jagger’s vocals and Keith’s harmonies (and leads at times) defined rock music for me. Admittedly, I'm greatly in love with the idea of this album being made in the south of France amid all the decadence of the era, and the wild parties that abounded while this great music was being made.

2.) “Plastic Ono Band,” by John Lennon (1970). It’s hard to not include George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” or some of Paul’s fine work with Wings and as a solo artist. But the power of John Lennon’s commercial solo debut is in its raw emotion, the naked vulnerability of boldly going into the unknown. Beautifully simple in its arrangements, with drums and bass backing up guitar or piano, this record is all about Lennon's voice and lyrics. The record is deeply confessional, from the quirky edge of "Well, Well, Well" to the manifesto "God," with commentary like "Working Class Hero" along the way.

1.) “Abbey Road,” by The Beatles (1969). “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” are among George Harrison’s finest work. Even the weakest song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” amused me as a child. Side two is an amazing medley of sounds and moods. The perfect harmonies of “Because.” Paul McCartney’s piano and melodies, George Martin’s production, all reaching a crescendo after the drum and guitar solos of “The End.” A perfect ending from the greatest band at making albums.

Footnote: Honorable mentions to the aforementioned "All Things Must Pass," McCartney's"Band On the Run," Lennon's "Double Fantasy," "Hot Rocks 1964-1971" and "Some Girls" by The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead's "American Beauty" and "Terrapin Station," Supertramp's "Breakfast in America," Springsteen's "The River" and "Nebraska," The Eagles' "Hotel California," Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," Nirvana's "Nevermind," Carole King's "Tapestry" and others I'll add as I think of them :) I didn't listen to many Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Beach Boys or Bob Dylan albums growing up but I've gained a deep appreciation for them since.