I was mindlessly swiping my way through Facebook ten days ago when I came across a post that caught my eye. I don’t remember who posted it, so I’m unable to give credit where credit is due, but here’s the text from the post:
Choose ten albums that greatly influenced your taste in music. One album for ten consecutive days. No explanation, no reviews, just album covers. Every day I will ask someone else to do the same. Today I nominate (insert name here).
Was I nominated by this person? No. Since when has that stopped me? What a fantastic topic. The albums that influenced your taste in music. This sent me down a two-hour spiral trying to come up with mine. I was reminiscing about my formative years, furiously erasing and re-adding albums. There are a few obvious records I could rattle off, but that only got me about halfway there. How many early-90s hip hop albums could possibly be on this list? How many jazz albums?
These are not necessarily my favorite albums. They’re the albums that formed my musical taste. This should be a podcast, and probably is. I haven’t looked. If not, I might have to attempt podcast hosting. What I wouldn’t give to hear people like Questlove, D’Angelo, Donald Glover, or Anderson .Paak list off the albums that influenced them. Not to say they’d talk to me about it. I’d love to just talk to any music lover about the music that influenced them. I might be on to something…
Here’s my problem with the premise: “No explanation, no reviews…” Umm…what?!? Do you know me? You expect me to just post a picture of an album with no context? The first album I posted was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper and someone gave it a laughing reaction. It wasn’t supposed to be funny. I know people think their music is wack or corny or whatever, but I wanted to ask the person, “Why are you laughing? Do you have any idea what that album meant to me in 1988?” They have no clue what was going on in my 12-year-old mind. They can’t fathom the joy Jeff Townes and Will Smith brought me during one of the darkest times in my life. Do they understand how that JJ+FP album opened a door to a genre of music that a kid from northern Wisconsin didn’t even know existed? A genre of music that immediately made me think, “THIS is what I want to be listening to. Not that other stuff I’ve been hearing my entire life.”
Music isn’t just something I passively listen to. I struggle to relate to people who don’t care about it. Music is woven into every part of my life. It’s embedded in my soul. When music isn’t playing I have a soundtrack for every moment playing in my head. I can be anywhere from a wedding to a funeral and everywhere in between and there’s a good chance I’m thinking to myself, “This would be the perfect song for this moment.” So, when you tell me to post a picture of an album and not blather on for a few hundred words about it and why I chose it, I tell you that’s just not possible for me.
That’s why I have a blog. I’m not going to force my Facebook friends to see 1,000 words about the Fresh Prince or D’Angelo on their timelines every day, but I can write about it on my own and they can choose to read it if they find me interesting enough. If you haven’t caught on by now, this is what’s about to happen: Here are the albums I’ve been posting on Facebook for the past week and the story behind how they influenced me.
A little context here. I was born in 1976. I don’t know how or why it happened, but I was listening to a lot of popular music by the time I was six years old. I recall hearing Duran Duran’s Rio around that time and loving it. My brother had a cassette of it, and Simon LeBon said the word “damn” at some point and we were certain that our dad would end both of our lives if he knew we were listening to a tape with such vulgarity. That’s what the Walkman was for. We were in our station wagon with the radio tuned to 101.1, WIXX (the local pop hits station) one time when John Cougar’s “Crumblin’ Down” started playing. The first line of the song was something like, “Some people ain’t no damn good.” When dad heard Cougar curse he flew off the handle so wildly I was sure he was going to slam the car in to something and end our young lives right there. The funny part is that he probably said something even worse like, “Since when do they play shit like this on the radio?” After that episode we sure weren’t going to let him know about the lyrical content of our Duran Duran tape. We successfully hid that from him as far as I recall.
I know this is not an original answer to start the list, but the first album to truly influence my taste in music was not Rio, but Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I still have respect for Duran Duran and own a few of their albums on vinyl (I still don’t have their self-titled debut album, and I’ve been yearning for it since I heard my brother’s copy last year because that shit was much better than I remember), but MJ showed up in 1983 and swept me off my feet. Damn near 40 years later and I can still name every track in order off the top of my head. My parents bought me the album and I took it to my 1st grade class for show-and-tell. Our teacher, Mrs. Anderson – one of the best teachers I ever had, if not the best – let us play it on the classroom turntable that day. I’m trying to picture a room of about 25 first graders vibing to the album cuts like “Baby Be Mine” or “Lady in My Life”. Michael Jackson probably was too. HEYO!!! Sorry. I teed that one up and couldn’t help myself.
One tradition we had as kids – or at least I had – in the 80s was listening to the Billboard Hot 100 singles of the year on New Year’s Eve. The boombox would be plugged in and ready at 2:00 PM when the countdown began. 10 straight hours of the 100 biggest hits of the year, in order, leading up to the glorious revelation of #1 as the clock struck midnight. The entire countdown narrated by the GOAT, Casey Kasem. This was pre-internet, and mostly pre-video games, so attention spans were different. If you think my little 7-year-old ass couldn’t sit in my bedroom in front of a radio for 10 hours and wait to see what the number one song was, you’re wrong. I waited all year for it. I sat through a lot of Joe Jackson, Quarterflash, Laura Branigan, and Men at Work that night just waiting for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to be crowned #1. It didn’t happen. Keep in mind, I didn’t realize at the time that this countdown was generated purely by data like radio airplay and record sales. I thought a panel of experts, team of music fans, or maybe just Casey Kasem himself decided that Michael Jackson wasn’t the best…and I was devastated. I took it very personally when Casey revealed that my beloved “Billie Jean” took second place to “Every Breath You Take” by the motherfucking Police. I’m not sure, but I might’ve cried myself to sleep that night. I hated that creepy stalkers’ anthem for decades out of bitterness. It wasn’t until somewhat recently that I listened to it with an unbiased ear and thought, “Shit. I’ve been wrong for, like, 30 years. This song is dope as hell.” My bad, Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, and Gordon Sumner. Respect.
Some other day I’ll tell the story of my disgust in 1985 when I listened for ten hours only to find out that “Careless Whisper” was number one. I’m still scarred.
Back to my point, Michael Jackson and Duran Duran started an obsession with music that I still have nearly 40 years later. With MJ it wasn’t just the music. It was everything. The amazing videos. The dancing. The glove. The cool clothes…especially his cool piano pajama t-shirt in the “Beat It” video. Thriller was my introduction to popular music and it influenced everything that came after, not just for me but much of my generation.
I had originally envisioned making the entire list one post, but I’m already over 1,400 words in, so this is going to be a series of posts instead. Next time I’ll get deeper in to the 80s and the album that changed music for me forever.