I don’t know about you, but certain music has always been the soundtrack to my life. From gospel at an early age, to contemporary Christian artists, to rock and popular music, the tapestry of my life has been painted with various paintbrushes wielded by lyricists and musicians who will probably never know the influence they have had and continue to have on me.
Yes, I went through my phases with two-step, and dancehall, and even ska, depending on my relationships at the time, but one thing has remained steadfast for me: a great album is a great album regardless of when it’s played. The primary characteristic of a great album (and not just a collection of songs) in my mind is that there’s a resonance from start to finish, that it flows together seamlessly like a well-tailored garment where I don’t know where it began and where it ended.
Some of my favorite albums have snuck up on me like thieves in the night. It’s funny how that happens sometimes. I stumbled upon them and they have had a monumental impact on my life. Here are 7 such albums, in no particular order…
Yes, the “Walking in Memphis” guy, but he’s so much more than that. In fact, by the time I discovered him the year was already 1995 and I had never heard the iconic song. In fact, my favorite music right then was Alanis Morissette, the kind of angst that made me put on the huge headphones and scream at the top of my lungs. So the idea that some “old-school” singer-songwriter who relied on a piano more than a synthesizer or an electric guitar was somewhat ludicrous to my teenage self. But there he was anyway, when I stumbled upon a CD that shouldn’t have even been available to the public. It was a collection of songs that were being marketed to radio stations, and it should have been at a radio station, but instead someone had sold it to this hole in the wall used CD shop (probably for a pittance). I recognized a few artists on it, so I bought it for a buck. Best buck I ever spent.
Somewhere in the middle of that CD’s tracklist, which was broken down into genres, was a song they weren’t able to separate into a genre. The song was called “Ghost Train” and it was so hauntingly beautiful that I couldn’t move past it once I stopped on it. Indeed, it was several months before I even heard the whole back half of that sampler CD. I was hooked on his voice, on his melody, on his piano playing, and on his lyrics. I had to own the album the song really came from, so I searched the world around (okay, the greater Philadelphia area) until I located a used copy of The Rainy Season, Marc’s second CD and bought it for a dollar. Second best buck I ever spent. From start to finish the album was as perfect as “Ghost Train” had hinted at. I’ve since recommended it, and Marc Cohn, to anyone with a pulse.
As usual, I was late to the party on this one. For some reason back in the ’90s it wasn’t really about immediate music (unless it was gangster rap), but about finding things after the fact, and usually at used CD shops in and around South Street. In fact, sometimes it was through my arty friends that I found out the best music, like Rage Against the Machine, Portishead, and Garbage, music that I never would have stumbled upon myself. It was at one of those gatherings when we were writing and sharing poetry, while we were getting drunk and playing music from random CDs we put in the boombox that’s when I first heard “Personal Jesus.”
That song hit me over the head with its straightforward lyrics and pounding repetitions, but what really stood out to me was the painful, gut-wrenching performance by the lead singer (who I found out later didn’t even write the lyrics — astonishing), so understated and yet still so powerful, that stirred something in my soul. But it would be three years later before I finally saw one of their albums in a used CD store, and its cover stood out to me before I even realized it was the same group that sang “Personal Jesus.” That album was Songs of Faith and Devotion, and it had a hole cut out of its barcode, but that didn’t bother me. I bought it without listening to even one song, took it home and listened to it start to finish. Before I even finished the first song I knew I had heard that voice before, and it brought back all of those memories. It still does. Continue reading “7 Albums That Have Shaped My Life”