Last week I referred to Paul Simon’s Graceland as an “album of my life.” Coincidentally, this thread at Last Plane to Jakarta took a brief tangent into what constitutes a “life-changing album.” Two different concepts, and I’ve had both on my mind in the last few days. The first is a lot easier to find examples of: albums that I played intensely during some period of my life, to the point of becoming something other than good or great albums; rather, they're the soundtrack to memories. The second category, life-changing albums, is harder to figure out. Before I try to sort that one out, I want to think about the other.
Albums of my life. Going back as far as I can, my childhood was filled with Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Ry Cooder. I have strong mental associations with all those artists, and in retrospect they all must have set some kind of foundation for what I’ve come to like today.
George Michael’s Faith might have been the very first album I ever viewed as wholly mine: an cassette I kept in my own room, played on my own walkman. INXS’s Kick and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, too. In elementary school I would walk laps around the track during recess with Danny Casares as we tried to piece together the lyrics to “You Be Illin’ from memory. By sixth grade I was transfixed by Appetite for Destruction—probably the first album I’d ever associated with danger. This led to junior high and high school, where Master of Puppets, Rust in Peace, and Persistence of Time set the template for my taste in metal. By my junior or senior year I was transitioning out of metal and into something else: Rollins Band (particularly the early stuff), Tool, and a band I’d discovered through a blind purchase at Tower Records, Craw, all made music that was heavy but was more dynamic musically and more sophisticated lyrically and emotionally.
Somehow from there I stumbled into indie rock without any real guidance (which I’ve written about before). By then I’d lost interest in heaviness but was actively looking for music that shifted dynamically. Slint, Fugazi, Rodan, Codeine. I vividly recall moving to college and trying to describe the kind of music I liked to a kid I’d met in the dorms. “It can be really loud and really screamy, but it can also get really quiet, and it’s not heavy like metal.” He just looked at me and said “what, you mean emo?”
Another dormmate gave me a dubbed cassette full of songs by what I thought was some friend of hers; the recording quality was exceptionally poor and all the label said was “Elliott Smith.” I played the hell out of the tape but was embarrassed to tell the girl I dug it so much because it seemed a little weird to be really into her random friend’s music. Six months later I was in a record store and saw the album in the bin—a real record by a real guy on a real label, and best of all that was another album (Roman Candle) in the bins as well!
The rest of college was Tortoise, June of 44, Blonde Redhead, Unwound, Superchunk, the Pernice Brothers. After college, when I met my wife: My Morning Jacket’s The Tennessee Fire, Cat Power’s Moon Pix, Rufus Wainwright’s first album, Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker.
We got married in September 2001: she walked down the aisle to Sigur Ros’ “Sven-g-Englar” and we danced to Low’s “Two Step.” We moved to New York not long after. If you asked me to soundtrack the winter of 2002, when we lived in a spacious but empty loft above a functioning sweatshop in a shitty part of Williamsburg, I’d have to hand you Pete Yorn’s Music for the Morning After. When we moved to Boerum Hill it was Chutes too Narrow, Michigan, and Radio Dept.’s Lesser Matters. We bought Feist’s Let it Die in Paris in 2004. We moved to L.A. in 2005 and in the last two or three years it’s been Funeral, Antonio Carlos Jobim & Elis Regina, Midlake, and most recently Andrew Bird.
These are albums of my life. And really I’m just scratching the surface—this is what I can come up with just thinking about it in the time it takes to write these words. Were I to focus on one period of my life, other albums would come into view, sort of like staring at the night sky and seeing the stars reveal themselves the longer you look.
But not all of these albums are my all-time favorites, necessarily. Some I haven’t listened to in years, either because my tastes have changed drastically (everything pre-Spiderland), because I associate them too strongly with my memories (Moon Pix), because they’ve just not aged well (sadly, Spiderland), or because they’re frankly not that good (Music for the Morning After).
Thus we come to the difference between an album of my life and an album that changed my life. More on that later this week.