On CNN today there's an iReport feature asking about the albums that shaped the lives of readers. I got to thinking about what my most-influential album would be... The first album purchased? The album that changed my ear for music and ruined me for Top 40 for life? The album that was playing when I lost my virginity? The album that almost drove me crackas with obsession? The soundtrack to the movie that irrevocably changed the way I saw the world? Because the truth is that this question of most-personally-influential-album-ever is retrospective - as much as I love music, and as important as it is to me, albums stopped being important a long time ago. Now I purchase favorite songs, make endless playlists, have most-listened-to or favorite songs of the week, the month, the year... But I've lost my knack for hearing an entire album as a story, for wanting to sit and just listen to one artist tell an album-length story. Which I don't really think they do any more anyway. Albums have just become buckets for singles that will be purchased piece by piece on iTunes, and most never had an intended order or unifying theme to start with. The only *recent* exceptions I can think of off the top of my head are the prog-rocking, operatic Muse (Absolution, Black Holes and Revelations) and the glam-rocking disco deities Scissor Sisters (Ta-Dah!).

Anyway: here's my own kind of Top Five landmark albums list. Feel free to repost and reply in your own journals, I'd love to read yours too.

First Purchased: Echo and the Bunnymen, Songs to Learn and Sing (1985).

I bought it because I loved Bring on the Dancing Horses, but ended up mostly listening to the other songs in the end. I loved Ian McCulloh's scratchy, yowly voice and the baroque lyrics, which seemed like they might have been ghostwritten by Edna St. Vincent Millay or Sara Teasdale, who were my absolute favorite poets when I was a freshman in high school. I ended up calligraphically painting the lyrics to Silver on one of my bedroom walls when I was 14, listened to The Killing Moon while sprawled melodramatically on my floor with a lace scarf draped over my face, and danced around energetically (and even more melodramatically) to Do It Clean with the same scarf tied into a giant bow on my head. The 80s! This was the starter album that launched me into a life of musical (and other) eccentricities - there were many more, because I bought my clothes at thrift shops and saved the rest of the money I earned at various odd jobs in high school for buying music, but this one will always have pride of place as the first.

I Don't Like Tuner Salad
Kate Bush, Hounds of Love (1985).

Even the most proggy New-Romanticky Synth-Poppy New-Wavey chylde (as we would have insisted on writing it, as the 80s for some reason required much shenaniganry with the vowels of otherwise perfectly good words and names) might still like to occasionally have a listen to Casey Kasem counting down the hits. But really, once you get into the good stuff you can never go back. It's even kind of hard to consider the stuff on the radio music. It's like comparing the relative highs acquired by Pixiestix and Nepalese opium. And I remember kind of knowing the first time that I heard Hounds of Love that things just weren't going to be the same, not ever again. Kate Bush (or K8, as the fans called her) ended up being the most important music in my life for a really, really long time. 15 years? Right about 15 years. I owned everything she'd done on tape, vinyl, and CD. First box set. Huge collection of rares, bootlegs, and B-sides. There was nobody else doing what Kate did for a really, really long time. Then there was also Happy Rhodes, and along came Tori and Sarah and a host of others, most recently Charlotte Martin - and Kate stopped putting out albums regularly, so there was that... But she was my first true love, the one that changed everything. You'd laugh to see pictures of my college dorm room: papered entirely in giant subway posters of Kate Bush album covers.

Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon: The Pink Opaque, Cocteau Twins (1985).


Cocteau Twins' Pink Opaque came out in 1985, but it became available on CD for the first time in 1991, and I couldn't get enough of it or how it made me feel. I remember sitting on my bed, which was lofted so it was on a level with the window, just enjoying the spring breeze while listening to it for the kazillionth time. I was a freshman in college, living in the dorm. His name was Jeff, but everyone called him Ffej, I don't know why. Maybe some kind of straight-edge thing, because that's what he was: a straight-edge skatepunk who was, other than his punky hair, the absolute spitting image of a very young Mel Gibson, supercrazy multihued-blue eyes and all. He loved Henry Rollins the way I loved Kate Bush. We were so unbelievably young. So really unbelievably, incredibly young and inexperienced and unsure about everything, but nearly beside ourselves with wanting to figure it out, tangled up on dorm bed mattresses that had been thrown on the floor, candlelight bouncing off the cinderblock walls and the sound of youthful hysteria reverbing in the hallway outside, cranking up Cocteau Twins so loud that it and our own breathing was all we could hear in the end, all we could hear and like a conductor that commanded our own tempo to change and flow with every song, like we were dancing. That was a very, very good year for dorm sex: it was also the year that Enigma's MCMCX A.D. came out, and everyone from sorority girls to haute goths were having horizontal slow dances to Sadeness, Part I. I mean seriously: that damn album was blasting out of every dorm window on campus and there was ALWAYS sex involved. It got to the point where my friends and I would hear it and just start cracking up, because we'd made so many jokes about it that it had just turned into one giant punchline. But for me, it was Cocteau Twins - Treasure, Pink Opaque, Victorialand - that informed and shaped my earliest experiences with consensuality. Liz Fraser taught me how to kiss.

Dream Into Action: Pablo Casals, Suites for Cello, v. 1.

One Spring I listened kind of obsessively to the Suite No. 1 for Cello in G-Major- over and over and over and over again. It actually started to scare me a little bit, to feel a little crazy, almost like a demonic possession. I decided that the only cure for the obsession was to push it further, to find the breaking point - so I decided to learn how to play it, though I'd never had a cello lesson in my entire life. I knew two cellists - a good friend named Maneesha, and a neighbor whose name I've now forgotten (though I'll never forget the time she invited me over for breakfast and served apples and hummus so garlicky that it burned my mouth), and found out the name of a cello professor at the university I attended - his name was Ed Laut, who as it turns out, was fairly well-known (he once kind of terrified me by playing something he'd done with John Cage). Being very young and earnest, I actually explained - very honestly - my reasons and objectives to Prof. Laut, and he (astonishingly) agreed to teach me via an independent study summer course. I think he was a little fascinated by the fact that I had no musical background to speak of, other than some very dimly recalled clarinet lessons from fifth grade, and viewed the entire thing as an amusing challenge. He found me a practice cello to use, and my friend Maneesha loaned me a bow. He taught me how to hold the bow. Then he taught me how to hold the cello. Then how to bow the cello. Then he went to the piano and started teaching me what various notes sounded like (fortunately for me I have perfect pitch, otherwise...), then back to the cello to make the noises come out of it, then a great deal of practice to get the right noises in the right order per Bach's composition. I spent two months doing pretty much nothing but cello practice, and playing nothing but a very small part of the first movement. Breaking it down into small technical bites, grokking it at the molecular level until my fingertips bled and then developed callus, until the bow felt like a third arm bone and my hand nothing but a second joint for it. And slowly, I got better. By the end of the summer I still loved it, but I wasn't obsessed any more. I could listen to it without feeling my heart break (and that I think had been what fascinated me - how it could break my heart over and over again, and how it never lost the power or beauty to do that). I still listen to it kind of a lot, I guess. But once a month, not once or twice or three times a day. I don't think I'll ever get it out of my system, but at least we have a healthier relationship now. 

This Is The World We Made: Original Score to Baraka, by Michael Stearns (1993)

This film was something that I saw a whole bunch of times in the theater, because I kept dragging friends and family to see it. There is no dialogue - just music and image. Astonishingly beautiful and evocative, Baraka is a love story about the complicated and bittersweet romance between humanity and Earth. If an alien anthropologist rang my doorbell and asked me to explain all of this to him, I'd start with Baraka. It's a crash course in the diversity of life on Earth - human and animal, natural and created. This film - which is to say, these images and this music - changed the way I saw the world. Gave me more perceptive eyes, and a traveler's heart. When I started doing travel photography, I felt immediately reconnected to the way of looking at the world that I first learned from Ron Fricke, the cinematographer who made this film.  Freshly restored and remastered on HD and Blue-Ray - I can't recommend highly enough that you pick this up from Amazon if you haven't seen it yet.



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