At the risk of alienating my loyal Nietzsche-lovin' readers, it's time I wrote about music once again. I've been making this list for over a year (some ideas just don't go away) and have decided to present it in four installments.
Part I of IV: Coming of Age
My adolescence was dominated by MuchMusic and CMT, by singles and spectacle and not albums. My dad listened to CCR; a friend's older brother listened to Beck's Odelay, Green Day's Dookie, and Collective Soul's first album; bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Soul Asylum were in my imagination with videos like “1979” and “Misery”; I noticed Madonna's sexpot days and loved her softer dark-haired days; Amy Grant's Heart in Motion was one of the first tapes I purchased; Bush was the first major concert I attended. All this is to say that my formative music-listening years contained a wide range of influences but few obviously dominant ones. In 27 years of life, a single album stands heads above the rest.
Paul Simon – Graceland
I was eight years old. My dad was studying in Rothenburg ob der Tauber for the summer and we joined him for a few weeks. The winding roads and rolling hills of the Frankische countryside were bathed in sunshine and Graceland played on the cassette deck. I remember it as the constant soundtrack to childhood car trips, to poolside summers at camp, to studying for university exams. A lifelong favourite album, I guess, and many of my generation can relate. We were raised on this phenomenal song cycle, which mixes the dominant African sounds with a smattering of zydeco and heavy 80s production. Paul Simon is responsible for my early melodic sensibilities, my love of good bass parts and for vocals that do something other than sound pretty. (An aside: a few years ago I got into a heated debate on whether Simon or Garfunkel was the better singer. It seems to me that if Garfunkel is your answer, you have missed out on what singing can actually be about. No one beats Simon's lyrical delivery.) The duet with Linda Ronstadt taught me to harmonize, “You Can Call Me Al” taught me dance, and the images of the band playing to large crowds in Africa had a hand in the development of my global consciousness. Nowadays I eat up everything released by Soundway or Strut Records, and several favourite current bands feature African guitar sounds prominently (think Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, The Dirty Projectors). I could go on, but someone else says it better.
Sloan – One Chord to Another
This album taught me that Canadian rock music is about having a good time, about not taking yourself too seriously, about horn sections. I remember the release of “Coax Me” off of Twice Removed, but One Chord to Another was the first complete Sloan album I heard and it stuck far more than did any of the Silverchair/Bush/Our Lady Peace/Moist mess that was Jr. High. Unlike Daniel Johns/Gavin Rossdale/Raine Maida/David Usher, I actually wanted to hang out with Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson. Carrie Brownstein once wrote a post for her NPR blog on the theme of “favourite band whose prominent influence on one's music listening is too often overlooked”. Hers was The Ramones (because she is obviously cooler than I). Mine would have to be Sloan. I own all their albums and know all but the most recent two backwards and forwards, and yet would rarely think to list them as a favourite. So here it is: I have loved Sloan since age 14. Their influence has been huge.
Sheryl Crow – The Globe Sessions
I listened to a lot of mediocre pop music in high school: S Club 7, Amanda Marshall, Nelly Furtado's first album, The Corrs, The Spice Girls, The Backstreet Boys (though I'm convinced these last two groups transcended their mediocrity through sheer charisma and force of will). Sheryl Crow's bluesy third album was a far cry from all of this, and I cherished it. I can still call to mind the smell of the liner notes (rather like radishes, for some reason); I recall thinking deliberately and carefully about song structure and guitar sounds; I remember falling in love with the surprising rhythmic shift in the first chorus of “Maybe That's Something” and the unison voice and guitar in “Riverwide.” Her recording of Bob Dylan's “Mississippi” is superb, and is likely my first conscientious appreciation of his songwriting. Given that I listened to little folky, bluesy, singer-songwritery music up to this point, this album seems to have been some kind of watershed.
Greg Macpherson – Balanced on a Pin
It should already be abundantly clear that I was no musical savant in my youth. I only listened to Radiohead by proxy, I mostly forgot about Bjork after her videos stopped being played on MuchMusic, and the big American “indie” rockers (Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse) were nowhere near my radar. What was on my radar, however, were the bands playing in my hometown. Our little community of 3500 had a thriving music scene. First my older sister's friends and then my friends played in surprisingly popular local bands, and several guys worked hard to book touring groups to play upstairs at the local curling rink. I saw Moneen play in that rink more than once! Of course, Winnipeg artists like B'ehl and The Bonaduces came around occasionally, but they were both playing less by the end of the 90s. I first heard of Greg Macpherson on a five hour car trip to the 1999 student council conference in Russell, Manitoba. My good friend (who remains a good friend to this day) had a live recording of “Invisible”. I thought G-Mac sounded like crap but was totally intrigued. Once I heard him play “Slowstroke” (back when it was called “Carol Channing”) and “Company Store” live, his raw energy and arms (see photo) had convinced me. This album was one of my first introductions to low-budget recordings, to albums belonging to a particular place, to artists you could reach out and touch (metaphorically speaking, unfortunately). When he sang about the “yellow-green tile floor” of the Canadian prairies he was singing about my world.