15 albums that shaped me

Dave and his psychedelic record boxRemember about three years ago, facebook was all abuzz with people sending long lists of personal information to each other, with instructions to tag all their friends, feeding the targeted-ad machine? Some of those lists, when they weren’t about whether you preferred Mountain Dew or Sprite, were actually kind of interesting.

One of my favorites asked you to list the 15 most influential albums in your life. Not the best albums, not even your personal favorites, but those albums that made the biggest impact. It was an exercise in nostalgia and ruthlessly winnowing down to the essential: my kind of fun!

Not only did I come up with a list pretty easily — I think I’d been kicking the idea around in my brain for a while already — but I was also able to recall the list almost in its entirety three years later…which just goes to show. (I couldn’t find the original list when I decided to do a blog post about it, so reconstructed it from memory; I later found the original, and it matched almost exactly.)

Here they are, in the order they came into my life:

Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream & Other Delights

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream and Other Delights (1965)

My dad had all of Herb Alpert’s albums, the cover was provocative (even to a queer kid like me), and the music was just the coolest. As followers of my blog know well, I had a big crush on Herb Alpert and took up the trumpet because of it.

Best song: A Taste of Honey

Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)

My older sister was allowed to have this album even though it caused a tempest among Catholics, who dominated where I grew up. Before long they were playing guitars in church. I’ve also talked about this album before. When we’d act it out, we’d fight over who got to play Judas. He had all the sexy parts.

Best song: Heaven on Their Minds

Elton John: Honky Chateau

Elton John: Honky Chateau (1972)

This was my first real album (as I’ve also mentioned here. Jeez, I repeat a lot). I got this album for my 13th birthday, and there was no stopping me as a record collector after that. I was quite the Elton John nut back then, for a few years anyhow. Who knew he’d grow into such a grumpy old queen 40 years later?

Best song: Salvation

Stevie Wonder: Innervisions

Stevie Wonder: Innervisions (1973)

It was around this time I discovered music by black people. The radio stations where I grew up wouldn’t play most of it, if you can believe that (and this was New England!), but I got to hear songs by the likes of Stevie, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and the Staple Singers Sunday mornings on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.

Best song: Living for the City

Queen: Sheer Heart Attack

Queen: Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

I got on the Queen bandwagon early, having liked “Keep Yourself Alive” and having traded my friend Ricky a Cat Stevens record for the Queen II album he had won from WSAR; but it really came together for me with Sheer Heart Attack. It’s the album that turned me into a huge Queen fan. Brilliant, to this day. And so queer!

Best song: She Makes Me

Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti

Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti (1975)

Likewise, this was not my first Zeppelin album, but it’s the first I got on the day it came out. I had my dad pick it up for me at a record store in Providence, where he worked at the time. Played it incessantly, despite “it’s nothing but noise” complaints from the parents.

Patti Smith: HorsesBest song: Custard Pie

Patti Smith: Horses (1975)

Oh my god, what can I say about this one? My first really transgressive album, I think, I got it on 8-track for my 16th birthday. This was punk before we knew what punk was. This was the album that started some of my friends thinking I was a little, shall we say, different…and I started thinking it myself.

Best song: Gloria

Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and FoodTalking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

I discovered Talking Heads on this, their second album. I was in college now — art school, no less — and I naturally gravitated to new wave. I loved the music, I loved the album cover, I loved the artiness, I loved everything about it.

Best song: Thank You for Sending Me an Angel

Clash: London CallingThe Clash: London Calling (1979)

Okay, here’s an album that probably appears on a lot of people’s lists. But that doesn’t diminish its importance to me. What can I say that hasn’t been said before? It’s the perfect album to have bought at Record Ron’s on a day trip to New York when we were supposed to be touring art museums instead of shopping.

Best song: Hateful

X: Wild GiftX: Wild Gift (1981)

I seem to have this pattern of discovering great bands on their second album. I wonder what that says about me. Punk and new wave were being mainstreamed by the 80s. X was something new: they’re funny and loud and wild and smart. X marked the beginning of my post-college life and my fascination with the letter X.

Best song: The Once Over Twice

Prince: 1999Prince: 1999 (1982)

This was Prince’s first really popular album, and it also marked when I started paying attention to him in a big way. What’s not to love about Prince? He’s dirty, he’s fun, he’s a lover and a tease, just the kind of guy I’d like to invite to a party. This album was all over the radio at the time I moved to San Francisco.

Best song: 1999

The Smiths: The SmithsThe Smiths: The Smiths (1984)

Sure, we’d had sexually ambiguous music before, lots of it, but The Smiths was something new: It was gay. Not kind of gay. Gay. And good! A lot of gay music is really not very good. Can I just say that? And this album came out when I was coming out. I like to think there’s a connection. There is.

Best song: What Difference Does It Make?

Beck: OdelayBeck: Odelay (1996)

Wow, that time gap would seem to imply that my life (or music) didn’t change much in a dozen years, but that’s far from true. But, Odelay does stand out as the first album I’d gotten really excited about in a long time. I had sort of dropped out of following new music, and this pulled me back in. Lots of fun, quirky and weird.

Best song: Devil’s Haircut

Moby: PlayMoby: Play (1999)

This album crept slowly into my consciousness as it gained popularity. I think I bought the CD a year after it came out. And I loved it. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, but it sounded unlike anything I knew. It also formed kind of a soundtrack to a relationship I started at that time, so there is a bit of sentimental value attached to this one.

Best song: Porcelain

Rufus Wainwright: Release the StarsRufus Wainwright: Release the Stars (2007)

Rufus is a pretty brilliant songwriter, and, though I like all of his work, this is the album that proves it. He sings of the vicissitudes of love, but is still a romantic at heart. Like me. I sang along to this album at full volume while doing housework in the year following my divorce.

Best song: Slide Show

My list is heavily weighted to the teen years and early adulthood, which I guess makes sense, since that is such an intense time of self-discovery. I thought about changing this to “the dozen albums that shaped me” since the last three came out when I was pretty much a grownup. I also thought about doing a dozen albums from each half of my life so far, but then I’d have to come up with that second list, and that would take a long time…so I’m just leaving it as is.

Certainly I’m still changing, though I think music has less of an influence on that. I have a hard time imagining an album, however great, having such a big impact on my life nowadays, just because I think I’ve pretty much figured out the things that music helps you figure out through your early life. I could be wrong.


5 thoughts on “15 albums that shaped me

  1. Pingback: 8-track | I can't believe Dave X Robb doesn't have a blog

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