Part II of IV: The College Years
This list differs considerably from a list of most listened-to albums of the same time period, the latter of which would find Ben Folds, Sarah Harmer, and The Weakerthans at the top. While these artist were setting high standards for pop/folk/rock music, Rockin' the Suburbs, You Were Here, and Left and Leaving didn't serve to broaden my horizons in any obvious way. A few things did.
Constantines – Shine a Light
Oh lordy, I love the Constantines. I've discussed this band on the blog before, praising their live show, and it was indeed their Shine a Light show (which I believe I managed to see twice) that made a fan of me. From the humming guitar of “Nightime/Anytime (it's alright)” to the drunken bass in “Insectivora” to the dramatic choreographed breakdown in the title track, these guys were (and are) dynamite. Shine a Light slips a little when Bry Webb leaves the mic, but I still insist this is their best album (and if you don't want to take my word for it, take this). Creative rhythms, powerful lyrics (the equivocal line “we may never be angels, oh we're lousy with the spirit” has been stuck in my head for years), and sheer energy keep these guys at the top and raise the bar for straight-up rock. (Sorry. I found no good live footage of the band. Poor sound quality all around.)
Cat Power – You Are Free
Unlike the Constantines, Chan Marshall has not remained a favourite, but this album opened a world of melancholy lo-fi-ish indie offerings, which is a broad enough designation to cover most of what my friends listened to in college (Low, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Royal City, Pedro the Lion), and opened the door for chick music that was cooler than Ani DiFranco, like Julie Doiron and Sleater-Kinney (okay, that's a bit of a stretch - my Sleater-Kinney love has little to do with Chan Marshall). Also, You Are Free is just plain great. Simple, haunting.
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Classic albums are classic for a reason. Blue is Joni's masterpiece, making obvious her songwriting skill and stunning voice, both exemplified on “A Case of You” (one of the best songs of all time?). I sang along, I played “River” on the piano, and I learned to appreciate the brilliance of songwriters before my time. Within the next year or two I'd picked up Carole King's Tapestry, Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and Billy Joel's The Stranger. Sheesh. Those are fantastic albums.
Stereolab – Sound-Dust
A friend of mine went off to Iowa to study jazz after high school and the two roadtrips we took to visit him were filled with great music. They mark my introduction to Sigur Ros (first impression: whiny crap... don't worry, I mostly changed my mind) and to Stereolab. I can't figure out why my 18-year-old self loved Sound-Dust as much as I did, but I purchased the album soon after and wholly committed to it. Simultaneously electronic and orchestral, lyrics (when there were any) in another language, songs changing dramatically mid-way – safe to say I'd never listened to anything like it before. Although the album does not seem to have immediately revolutionized my music collection (except that I might credit it with re-orienting me to Bjork), it did teach me that I can love very different sorts of melodies and arrangements.
The Velvet Underground – The Best of the Velvet Underground
A compilation should probably not be included in this list, but I picked up The Best of the Velvet Underground for $7 at a Future Shop off the Trans-Canada highway while on a road-trip with the family when I was 19, circumstances more dissonant than the tracks on the album and definitely worthy of mention. Despite never before having listened to music like this on my own initiative, I quickly loved “Sweet Jane” for its steady guitar and Reed's remarkable vocal delivery, and grew to adore the satisfying build of “Heroine” (still the best track). Nico's thick voice was already familiar from her songs on The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack, and so “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow's Parties” immediately enchanted. This collection is one dynamite track after another, and I still occasionally choose it over the full albums. The band that spawned a thousand bands introduced me to the droning and the disarray I would come to love in a thousand bands.