Five Big-Time Influential Albums
In the interest of generating some content - and so that you don’t think I’m just resting on my laurels over here (I’m not, I’ve been recording and stockpiling sick tunes and trying to figure out what to do with them) - I’m going to talk about some albums that were instrumental in shaping me into the strapping young songwriter I’ve become. These albums are all from the high school days, which I’m told is a time where your true music tastes are imprinted and then basically calcify, and they’re not necessarily “cool.” But I’m not here to pretend I only listened to Radiohead or The Smiths or whatever. Because...I didn’t listen to them at all. I didn’t like Radiohead then and don’t now. To add a visual element, this list of influential albums will get a helpful assist from my giant binder of CDs that I recently unearthed at my parents’ house. That discovery might also be the reason I’ve been riding around listening to the 1997 Grammy Nominees in my car lately, but who can really say how the universe works?
I might do an “influential albums from the college years” list later, because I’m realizing as I compile this that there were some big ones during that era too, and I don’t want this to be twenty pages long.
Matchbox 20 - Yourself or Someone Like You
This (along with the next entry) might be the album that most fully embodies pop music in the 90s, and it’s so good from front to back that it almost makes me angry. “Push”, just like it was in ‘97, remains my fucking jam, and I have a very distinct memory of listening to “Long Day” on repeat during a beach vacation with a friend (“No, I don’t want to go for a bike ride on the beach, I just want to listen to “Long Day”). Even though some of these songs have been worn out by endless radio play (“3 AM”, “Real World”), I still listen to this album pretty regularly and have kept up with Matchbox 20 for way longer than maybe I should have.
Weezer - The Blue Album
I think this album might be the one that marks my transition from whatever genre I was listening to beforehand onward into alternative rock. And I think the genre I was listening to before it was...country. Whoops. But man, those opening bars of “My Name is Jonas”, with their misleading acoustic picking followed by just HUMONGOUS power chords, are still so very delightful to me in 2018. Really, the first five songs on this album are back-to-back monsters, and it’s easy to see why Weezer was such a big deal and continues to get at least cursory attention with each album release, even though they’ve basically, well, sucked since The Green Album in 2001 (fight me if you disagree). I used to headbang/air-guitar to this whole album in my bedroom.
Guster - Lost & Gone Forever
Friends in high school tended to weirdly associate me with Guster. It was never totally clear to me why - did I really talk about them that much? To be fair, I did have a band that, over the course of two annual talent shows, covered “Medicine” from an earlier album and “Barrel of a Gun” from this one, but guys, it wasn’t an obsession or anything. Or maybe it was actually, because even more so than the Matchbox 20 and Weezer albums above, I love EVERY SINGLE SONG on this album. Since 2003, I’ve probably listened to this album the whole way through more times than any other I’ve owned. This is the album that got me into Guster, and Guster is the band that got me into vocal harmonies, and vocal harmonies are why I joined an a cappella group in college, and that’s how I got better at singing, etc. Also, the structure of Guster’s songwriting, at least on this album, has informed the way I write a lot of my songs - Guster loves a good build, and that’s never been more true or effective as it is on songs like “Two Points for Honesty,” “Either Way,” and “I Spy.” All of those songs open relatively quietly and then, over the course of the song, subtly layer in additional vocals, percussion, instruments, etc., until, typically during the last verse/chorus/stanza/whatever, everything is bananas and I’m all sweaty. Also, even though their albums have been hit-or-miss for me since Lost & Gone Forever, I saw them live last summer and they were superb. And hilarious.
Ben Folds Five - Whatever & Ever, Amen
Hmm...now that I’m on the fourth album in this list, it’s becoming clear to me that I still listen to all of this stuff regularly in 2018. This list might actually just be “my favorite albums” rather than those that influenced me. That definitely applies to “Whatever & Ever, Amen” from Ben Folds Five, anyway. Unlike Guster, I can’t point directly to what in these songs shaped my own songwriting, but I listened to the hell out of them and learned a few important things: (1) the piano is cool and can be part of a rock band; (2) I’ll never be one-tenth the pianist that Ben Folds is; and (3) you can write radio-ready pop songs about really heavy topics (“Brick” → abortion) and curse as much as you want. Ben Folds is and was a formidable songwriter, and his songs are universally great examples of how storytelling and specifics make for better songs than the platitudes and generalities that comprise 95% of the garbage out there. He even wrote a song about that, somehow - “One Down” is a (beautiful) song about his contractual obligation to crank out 3.6 more lines of lyrics, which he ultimately deals with by making those lines as insipid as possible (“I love you more than any man has loved before / I love you more than all the stars up in the sky”). Dude knows what he’s doing. Oh, and the harmonies. My god, Ben Folds Five had some harmonies.
Howie Day - Australia
I have to include at least one guy-with-an-acoustic-guitar singer-songwriter album on here - it’d be dishonest of me not to. And this album got some, shall we say, significant spin time in my car from 2000-2003. More so than previous entries in this list, Howie Day is no longer a serious musical presence in 2018, having basically dropped off the map following “Collide” off of his sophomore album, some bizarre, quasi-violent public incidents, and then a series of lackluster releases, but I’ve seen him live a few times in the last couple of years, and he remains a truly dirty performer - incredible voice, nutso guitar-looping. “Australia” is awesome from start to finish and goes to show what can be accomplished with a minimal budget, low-key production, killer songwriting, and sincere, emotional performance. I mean, “Disco” - goddamn, that’s a pretty song. And now I’m listening to it.
So, that’s it! Which is good, because this is way too long. Maybe I’ll do it again down the road with some other albums - there’s still plenty to talk about.