(I wrote this as a Facebook note after being tagged by a friend who had done the same thing. I don’t usually go for these, but this one seemed like fun. And it took so damn long to do, I figured I might just as well post it here, too. Discuss.)
First, the rules of this little exercise.
The rules: Don’t take too long to think about it! Choose 15 albums you’ve heard that will always stick with you. List the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what albums my friends choose. To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, make your fifteen picks, and tag those friends you want to hear back from.
Though it wasn’t spelled out in the instructions, I took it that compilations and greatest hits records were implicitly excluded. That seems like cheating to me. So here, grouped together by artist but otherwise in no particular order, are the first fifteen albums I could think of that have been important to me:
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison, At San Quentin, American Recordings
As a child I hated country music, mostly because my dad always had the local country station on the radio in his truck whenever we went anywhere. But even then, I could tell there was something different about Johnny Cash. Receiving this album for Christmas when I was a teenager was one of the things that pushed me to go looking for more country music that was worth hearing, the really good stuff that, for some reason, they hardly ever seemed to play on the radio.
“Folsom Prison Blues”
“A Boy Named Sue” was probably the first Johnny Cash song I ever heard, even before “Folsom Prison Blues.” As one of the first country songs I really loved, naturally I wanted to have a copy once I grew up and became a lover of that kind of music. Finding a version that doesn’t bleep Cash when he sings “I’m the son of a bitch that named you Sue!” proved more difficult than I thought it would be. I finally found an unedited copy of Cash’s brilliant follow-up to At Folsom Prison in, of all places, Wal-Mart.
“A Boy Named Sue”
Due to the somewhat belated nature of my Cash fandom, I came to his American Recordings series in reverse. When his cover of “Hurt” became a surprise hit off of American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002, I bought that album and, working my way backwards, the previous three. It worked out well that way, actually. As good as the entire American Recordings series is (there have been two more since American IV), the first album is the best. It might also be the best album Johnny Cash ever made. And that, goddammit, is saying something.
“Let the Train Blow the Whistle”
Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska
This was Springsteen’s fourth album, the first after his breakthrough with Born to Run, and the first where he really seemed to settle on who and what he wanted his music to be about. It’s the most focused, both thematically and musically, of his early stuff, and I think it’s still the best album he’s ever made. There are songs here like “Badlands,” an up-tempo rocker, and “Racing in the Street,” a song whose title doesn’t prepare you for how tender and sad it is. When I heard this one, I knew I was hooked.
“Racing in the Street”
“Darkness on the Edge of Town”
The E Street Band is one of the best bands in the history of rock and roll, but some of my favorites from Springsteen come from times when he left Clarence, Little Stevie, Nils and the boys at home and went solo. Between his double album The River and his smash bestseller Born in the U.S.A., Bruce released Nebraska, a low-tech album of what were originally intended as demos, recorded by Bruce at home on a 4-track tape recorder. The album contains some of Springsteen’s best lyrics, especially on “Atlantic City.” The lines “Well I got a job and tried to put my money away / But I’ve got debts that no honest man can pay” have always stayed with me.
Cephas and Wiggins, Cool Down
Attending my first Western Maryland Blues Fest five years ago was one of my most recent formative experiences. The best act playing that day (and the only acoustic one) was the duo of John Cephas (singing, and on guitar) and Phil Wiggins (on the harmonica). They played Piedmont blues, a style that saw its popularity peak prior to World War II and then fall off dramatically as the Chicago and St. Louis styles ascended. Sitting there with Ashley and listening to the expert picking and rich, mournful voice of John Cephas on “Going to the River” made me a fan of Cephas and Wiggins for life.
“Going to the River”
Eric Clapton, Unplugged
Everyone knows the versions of “Tears and Heaven” and “Layla” from this album, but they aren’t even the best tracks on Unplugged. Not only did this album resurrect the career of Clapton, it encouraged him to concentrate more on the blues music for which he’d always had a passion. Unplugged is essentially a blues album, and a great primer for a young person with a shitload yet to learn about music, as I was when it came out in 1992. One of my favorite records in its own right, it also led me to look up the original artists of various songs Clapton covered. It was through Unplugged that I first came to Robert Cray (“Old Love”), Jesse Fuller (“San Francisco Bay Blues”), and Big Bill Broonzy (“Hey Hey”).
“Running on Faith”
John Lee Hooker, Real Folk Blues, More Real Folk Blues
Hooker was another legend I came to relatively late, and again as a result of the Blues Fest. After that first Blues Fest, Ashley and I both devoured as much blues music as we could find, not just acts we’d seen at the show — Cephas and Wiggins, Otis Taylor, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, to name a few — but legends like Robert Johnson, Skip James, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. I fell in love with Real Folk Blues, which Hooker recorded for Chess Records in 1966, particularly with its heartfelt, meandering remake of Hooker’s own “I Cover the Waterfront.”
“One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”
In the wake of Hooker’s 1989 hit album The Healer, MCA released another collection from Hooker’s 1966 Chess recording session. It might have seemed like an opportunistic cash-in at the time, but it boasts some of Hooker’s best work. My favorite is the opening track, “This Land is Nobody’s Land,” a downbeat inversion of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” that reminds us how silly it is to fight over land in which we will all eventually be buried. There’s a strong closer here too, with another of the seemingly endless versions of Hooker’s “House Rent Blues.”
“This Land is Nobody’s Land”
“House Rent Blues”
Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs
Ben Folds Five was one of my favorite bands in the years immediately following high school. I dug their ability to be rowdy, funny, and heartbreaking with equal skill, sometimes all in the same song. But as great as they were (and they were great), Ben managed to surpass his old band with his first solo album, which dropped on, of all dates, September 11, 2001. Choosing two tracks from this one as samples was a bitch, because the only weak track is the title song, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” and even that is worth a chuckle now and then. Besides the two songs I link to below, this album has “Annie Waits,” “Zak and Sara,” “Fred Jones Part 2,” and “Fired,” which ends with an exultant cry of “MOTH-ER-FUCK-ERRRRRRRRR!” Doesn’t get much better.
“Still Fighting It”
“Not the Same”
The Verve Pipe, The Verve Pipe
Fuck being “one of” my favorite bands — The Verve Pipe was my favorite band in high school. I bought Villains on a whim because I’d heard “The Freshmen” on the radio, and purchased their previous two albums very soon after. By the time their fourth album, The Verve Pipe, dropped in 1999, pretty much everybody had stopped paying attention to the band. But I couldn’t wait to hear it. I wasn’t disappointed. I dig Brian Vander Ark’s voice and songwriting, and A.J. Dunning’s work on the guitar. Drummer Donny Brown pitches in with a few songs here, too, including the best track on the album, “La La.”
Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel
This is Gram Parson’s second solo album, released several months after his death. It’s Gram’s album, but an honorable mention ought to go to Emmylou Harris, who sings with Gram on most of the songs and really makes the album something special. Gram and Emmylou’s duet on “Love Hurts” will tear your heart out. If you’ve only ever heard the overwrought Nazareth version, you haven’t heard anything. There’s also “$1000 Wedding,” “In My Hour of Darkness,” “Brass Buttons” — there’s not a bad song on the thing.
“Ooh Las Vegas”
Aimee Mann, Whatever
Along with directing brilliant films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia that fired my love of the movies in the late 1990s, I owe Paul Thomas Anderson for introducing me to the music of Aimee Mann. The soundtrack to Magnolia is almost a Mann album, with a few tracks and alternate takes from her album Bachelor No. 2, and her Oscar nominated (fuck Phil Collins!) original song, “Save Me.” As with most of the other artists on this list, I took Magnolia as a starting point and worked my way back, picking up earlier Aimee Mann albums as I was able to. I found no better than Whatever, her first solo album, which features some of her best and most popular work, including “Stupid Thing,” “Say Anything,” “Should Have Known,” and the two songs I link to below.
“Jacob Marley’s Chain”
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps
Neil Young is a genius, but a frustrating one. He’s written some of the best music I’ve ever heard, but his lyrics can be hit-and-miss. That makes it even more exhilerating when he fires on all cylinders, as he does on Rust Never Sleeps. Some fans think the lyrics on “Powderfinger” are a little silly in their depiction of a reclusive family of woods-dwelling drunks, but not me. I think it’s one of Neil’s best songs, along with “Thrasher,” “Pocahontas,” “Sail Away,” and, of course, the twin acoustic/electric versions of “My My, Hey Hey” and “Hey Hey, My My” that open and close the album.
“My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)”
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Here’s why Neko Case is better than pretty much any other contemporary female singer you’ve ever heard of: she not only has an awesome voice, she uses that voice to sing about interesting things. A Neko Case song will go places no other song would even think to go. She writes and sings songs that only she could, which separates her from most of the music you hear on the radio, which is so generic that two random artists could swap material the day before recording and it wouldn’t make any difference. Neko is unique, and independent, and that, along with her voice and her knack for music and lyrics, is what makes her so great.
“Hold On, Hold On”
As Ashley has pointed out to me already, this list is far from comprehensive. It’s amazing how restrictive a number 15 is when you really get into something like this. I left off, for instance, two of my very favorite bands, Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, as well as a ton of other artists whose music has meant a great deal to me throughout my life — Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Eminem, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Elliot Smith, Liz Phair, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Levon Helm, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Ma Rainey, Norah Jones, R.E.M., Wilco, and way more that I know I’m forgetting. If I made this list over again tomorrow, it might look very, very different. In fact, I’d be surprised if it didn’t.