Arts DEVO has been tempted. The “10 albums that impacted my life” or “10 albums that influenced my taste in music” challenges making the rounds on social media are just the sort of navel-gazing escapism I’d gladly piss away half a day for. Hell, I’ve probably already spent that much time just thinking about it. (“Which Velvet Underground record did I get first?” “Did I ever own a copy of the Breakin’ soundtrack?”)
The main sticking point for me has been the “no explanations, no reviews, just album covers” requirement. That would just never happen. During the best of times, I’d be hard pressed to have that kind of discipline, but left alone during corona lockdown with my keyboard and my lifetime of musical obsession, any possibility of self-editing would fly out the window.
Plus, the 10-album parameter doesn’t work, either. It’s not as much about discipline as it is the way I’ve navigated my musical journey. I’m not a collector. I don’t own a copy of many of the important records in my life. I’ve always been a mixtape/playlist guy, and I enjoy searching my hard drive overstuffed with compressed files as much as flipping through my vinyl or CDs. So, if I’m going to go autobiographical, I need a different top-10, something that registers the points of impact from a variety of sources, allowing for a moment, a time period, or a guiding influence to be the signpost.
With all that said, the list that follows is the Ten Eras that have influenced my musical life—with the seminal albums (not necessarily my favorites, but the ones that set me off) that contributed to each.
Because, that sounds … comforting.
(I also put together a YouTube playlist with one song from each album if you want to follow along.)
My first memory of choosing a record to put on the turntable—flipping through my parents’ stash and selecting what I wanted to listen to—was when I was 8, lying on the carpet in the family room of our tiny Redding apartment and letting myself get lost inside the puffy headphones. Thankfully, my folks came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, so my rock ’n’ roll introduction was provided by the likes of the Beatles – Meet the Beatles!; the Rolling Stones – Aftermath; Creedence Clearwater Revival –Creedence Gold, and a bunch of early Beach Boys albums with surfboards, sailboats and cars on the covers.
Almost immediately, I had the itch to rebel against the parental influence, and given the choice to make one selection in the Columbia House record club order, I sold my 3rd-grade soul to the Knights in Satan’s Service and would be forever a slave to stadium-sized rock anthems: KISS – Alive II.
In the time of my idol
I owe my musical life to my Uncle Craig. He was the ultimate cool uncle, with long hair, cut-off shorts, no shirt, plus a drum set and an amazing record collection. He always made time for me, and when he was really excited about something, he’d start his sentences, “Ah man,” and then proceed to blow my impressionable preteen mind as he handed me the keys to the kingdom: Led Zeppelin – IV; Queen – A Night at the Opera; Elvis Costello – My Aim is True; The Cars – The Cars.
I did everything MTV told me to. In the early days, that proved a wise and fruitful decision as my unformed hick brain was introduced to women who rocked and people of color who made the best music in the world: Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’n’ Roll; The GoGo’s – Beauty and the Beat; Prince – 1999; Michael Jackson – Thriller.
Days of confusion
For the first two years of high school, I tried on every trend MTV piped into Redding. In succession, I was a watered-down version of: a breakdancer (Beat Street – Volume 1; Run-D.M.C. – Run-D.M.C.; Newcleus -– “Jam On It” 12-inch); a metal kid (Van Halen – 1984; Quiet Riot – Metal Health; Def Leppard – Pyromania) and a wedge head (named for the angular haircuts inspired by New Wave bands like Kajagoogoo, though my jams were Billy Idol – Rebel Yell; Wham! – Make it Big; Madonna – Madonna). There was also a brief flirtation with punk (though I was never brave enough to give the fashion a try) thanks to the only real punker I knew making me dubbed copy of The Faction – Dark Room, a thrilling introduction to a fast-and-loud musical wellspring I’d revisit years later.
Conrad Epoch, pt. 1: Ye Olden Era
At the end of my junior year of high school, I met Conrad Nystrom, and nothing has been the same since. Not only did we become friends and frequent (and current) bandmates, but most of the musical adventures I’d take can trace their roots to a mixtape he gave me upon seeing me wearing an INXS t-shirt at pool party. The term was “college rock” back then—most of it would be split between indie, punk and rock today—but whatever the name, it was different and filled with a wide range of sounds that opened me up to a life of seeking new experiences: R.E.M. – Life’s Rich Pageant; The Smiths – The Queen is Dead; Pixies – Surfer Rosa; 28th Day – 28th Day; Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes; Camper Van Beethoven – Telephone Free Landslide Victory; The Replacements – Tim.
Once on my own, I did what a responsible young adult should and spent my school loans at record stores, where my roommates and I would spend most of our time hunting down classics, oddities and anything new and exciting: The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Undergound; Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – Jonathan Sings!; The Flaming Lips – Hear It Is; The Clash – London Calling; The Cramps – Bad Music for Bad People; N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton; Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet.
Conrad Epoch, pt. 2: Rumblings of Noise
Just before I moved to Chico, Conrad introduced me to The Downsiders, a hometown crew that made tuneful guitar-driven songs with explosive dynamics that were epic. Conrad met my enthusiasm with a recommendation that I seek out a source influence. And, in Sonic Youth, I found my punk rock—a thrilling aesthetic of noisy drama that lined up with my natural vibrations and sent me to de-tuning my guitars and writing my own distorted jams. The Downsiders – All My Friends are Fish; Sonic Youth – Sister.
Conrad Epoch, pt. 3: The Indie Days and Nights
After moving to Chico for college, I found my musical comfort zone in indie rock (and had a passionate tour guide in Conrad). It included poppy stuff, noisy stuff and sad-bastard singer/songwriter stuff and—at the time, at least—it existed within a close-knit DIY community that even welcomed in this Redding hick! Pavement – Slanted & Enchanted; Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle; Sebadoh – Bakesale; Smog – Julius Caesar; Deathstar – Strikes the Earth; Track Star – Communication Breaks; Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West; Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out; Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
The neverending pilgrimage
The rest is history … and future. The best lesson that my circuitous musical education has taught is that there is always more great music to be had, and in this century, the Internet has been a great asset to that end. I’ve traveled backwards down trails not previously taken, and I’ve tried to keep my ears open to new sounds. I’m here, after all. It’d be a crime to not continue exploring: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – The Best of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds; Leonard Cohen – The Best of Leonard Cohen; Anthology of American Folk Music; John Prine – John Prine; Andrew W.K. – I Get Wet; Arcade Fire – Funeral; Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend; Titus Andronicus – The Airing of Grievances; Die Antwoord – $O$/Ten$ion.