Five Albums That Blew My Mind
Why five? Because ten is too many.
Music has been an integral part of my life. If I were to believe my mother, I wouldn’t sleep as an infant unless the radio was playing. This practice of falling to sleep with music would remain in place well into my 20s.
I recently listened to The Riff’s first podcast, hosted by Noah Levy and Rob Janicke. Something Rob said resonated with me:
“Music from where you’re from is your foundation.”
And for music fans of a certain age, this is true. I guess that this is less true today. With access to the internet, if you want to hear Norwegian Black Nu-Metal (I really hope that isn’t a genre), you can find it.
Music fans now have access to any genre from any area of the world.
Rob discusses growing up in the musical bouillabaisse of New York City in the 80s. I grew up in the suburban Midwest, which has the diversity of an IBM sales conference.
As a six-year-old child, I fell in love with the song “Billie Don’t Be A Hero” by Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods. Now I had no idea what the song meant. I knew enough to know it was war-related. And sad.
My affinity for a song about war, and death, even as a six-year-old, is on-brand.
Another song I remember as a child was The Ohio Players “Love Rollercoaster.” The urban legend is that there is a scream on the track. And the scream is someone being murdered.
It’s not someone being murdered.
But my six-year-old self didn’t understand the concept of an Urban Legend, so imagine me as a child laying in bed, listening to the radio, trying to go to sleep, and “Love Rollercoaster” comes on.
Suffice it to say, more than once, that song sent me flying out of my bed and down the stairs screaming.
But not everything I heard had some “dark” element to it. I dug Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” a lot. In my head, I would merge the protagonist of “Billie Don’t Be A Hero” with the one from “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” as if they were star-crossed lovers.
And then I began to hear Elton John, and things changed.
As I got older, my musical tastes were shamefully banal, with REO Speedwagon and Kansas leading the charge. Eventually, my mind, as well as my music, expanded.
FIVE ALBUMS THAT BLEW MY MIND IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:
(and subject to change at any given moment)
Elton John — Greatest Hits Volume 1 (1974)
Usually, I wouldn’t include a Greatest Hits album on any list like this, but this album is different. At least for me anyway.
As you can see from that cover, my seven-year-old graffiti indicates how I felt about Elton.
I have a vague recollection of this being the first album I ever purchased, and that’s why it makes it on the list. I love all the tunes on this album, except “Rocket Man” — that space hokey pokey shit of the late 60s/early 70s never spoke to me, and yes, that includes David Bowie.
But “Honkey Cat” and “Crocodile Rock” were two of my favorite songs — for a good reason, they’re great songs. But then I heard “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” I was already a hyper kid; that song just amped me up even more.
My parents were saints for putting up with me darting around the house singing this song. To be fair, it probably had less to do with sainthood and more to do with the quantity of vodka they drank.
Elton John Greatest Hits Vol. 1 only covers four years of John’s career, 1970–1974, and only ten songs. If you know anything about Elton John during this period, this is only a sample of his hits.
What makes this album critical to me is that not only was it the first album I purchased on my own, but I was also beginning to have my own thoughts. In no small part, Elton John and Bernie Taupin helped shape my worldview.
The Replacements — Let it Be (1984)
A friend from Ohio came to visit me when I was living in Chappaqua, New York.
As I was driving her to the airport for her flight back home, she put The Replacements Pleased To Meet Me in the car tape deck. She said: “I think you’ll like it. It has horns on it.”
I’m not sure why she thought horns would be the selling point, but she wasn’t entirely wrong.
But it was the lyrics, as it always is with The Replacements, that grabbed me. When I heard the lyric “Jesus rides beside me, he never buys any smokes” from “Can’t Hardly Wait,” I was hooked. One, because it’s a great lyric, and two, it seemed like bumming smokes would be on-brand for Jesus.
A couple of days later, I went into the local record store, and all they had was Let it Be, so I bought it. A few minutes later, it was in my CD player, and Let It Be was unlike anything I had ever heard.
It was an amalgam of post-punk music with coming-of-age themes that happened to grabbed me by the shirt collar slap me across the face. And among all of that was a degree of sensitivity and honesty that I had not often heard in music.
But the diversity, oh, the diversity.
Even today, this album still sounds like nothing else. It sounds neither dated nor futuristic.
Let It Be is of its time, and its time is always when you’re playing it.
The Tragically Hip — Up to Here (1989)
During my first year of art school in NYC, my dorm neighbor and I were chatting about music on the first or second day.
We bonded over The Replacements and began indoctrinating each other into our likes.
He’s Canadian, so his tastes were more diverse than mine (because Canada supports the arts, but that’s a different discussion). And he talked about two bands, in particular. One was The Corndogs, and the other was The Tragically Hip.
Besides having a ridiculous name, The Corndogs went nowhere with me. In all fairness, it honestly could’ve been the name.
But, The Tragically Hip didn’t have just a great name. They had made a great record on their full-length debut, Up To Here.
Before that, my knowledge of Canadian music went as deep as Loverboy and Red Rider, of “Lunatic Fringe” fame (remember that one). Tom Cochrane of Red Rider would score an insufferable hit later with “Life is a Highway” — I apologize; that song is probably in your head right about …now.
Anyway, Up To Here is a simple roots-based rock in the same vein as John Mellencamp. The Tragically Hip were to the prairies of Canada what John Mellencamp was to the American midwest.
So, if you like that sort of thing, you will really like Up To Here.
[Fun Fact: The Tragically Hip was one of the opening bands on the Van Halen 2007–2008 tour.]
Guns-n-Roses — Appetite for Destruction (1987)
By the time Appetite for Destruction came out, rock and roll — such as it was — had been usurped by poofy hair wannabes. They were the blight on the musical canvas that was much of the LA metal scene.
Hell, even the bigger, legacy acts like Ozzy Osbourne were purchasing Aqua Net by the truckload.
And then these five degenerates drop this atomic bomb on American culture.
Appetite for Destruction shook 80s music. Guns-n-Roses were the CTRL-ALT-DEL of the poofy hair wannabes. Part punk, part metal, part pop, Appetite for Destruction was the best of each. And it came with smart rock lyrics. It wasn’t heady stuff, just lyrics that served the song.
Nothing about the music, the lyrics, the songs, or the album was contrived. Appetite for Destruction was, and remains, not one of the most original debut albums in history but remains one of the best-selling albums in history.
So naturally, when it was released, the record was mostly ignored. But the boys in Guns-n-Roses worked it regardless and then, with the help of MTV “Sweet Child o’ Mine” hit. And boy, howdy did it pack a punch.
Every few years or so, a band comes along and hits CTRL-ALT-DEL and shakes the hell out of both the industry and fans.
Guns-n-Roses did it in 1987.
As if on cue, the next band did it in 1992.
Sam Kinison — Louder Than Hell (1986)
If you know Sam Kinison at all, you know him as “that comedian who screamed.”
Imagine all the manic energy of Robin Williams …now turn it into anger. That’s a simple but not inaccurate analogy.
The title of Louder Than Hell serves a dual purpose. One, Sam Kinison yelled, loudly and two, Sam was a former Pentecostal preacher.
His breakthrough came on Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special on HBO. This was the youtube for stand-up comedy nerds like myself back then. It was how young comedians got discovered and how we discovered them.
Sure there was The Tonight Show with Jonny Carson (the crown jewel of stand-up appearances then) and Late Night with David Letterman, but getting on those shows was a statistical uncertainty.
And by the mid-80s, stand-up was beginning to reach critical mass. No matter the city, you could throw a rock and break the window of a comedy club. While every city had a scene, the three comedic epicenters remained New York, Los Angeles, and Boston.
Houston, Texas, wasn’t really on anyone’s map, which allowed the “Texas Outlaw Comics” like Same Kinison, Bill Hicks, and Ron Shock to break barriers and new ground. In short, to get away with more. After Sam Kinson made his electric appearance on Dangerfield's show in 1984, the cat was out of the bag.
This may sound hyperbolic, especially today, but comedy was never the same again after Sam Kinison's appearance. Kinison had dropped any pretense, proclaimed nothing was off-limits, and went straight for the comedic jugular. Using the proper parlance, he killed.
Arguably, Sam Kinison almost single-handedly opened the floodgates and allowed the future “alternative comics” to thrive.
Louder Than Hell is the full set of that Rodney Dangerfield appearance. It’s incredible, even today. Provided you are not easily offended; you’ll laugh.
Love him or hate him, Sam Kinison matters, and Louder Than Hell proves it.
NOTE: If you are easily offended, don’t watch the clip below. I’m not saying that ironically or in the hope that you’ll watch it. Seriously, it’s brilliant and hysterical, but it is offensive.