I was going to start this off by saying that I never do those Facebook chain-posts, like the one where someone lists ten albums that have had an impact on them and then tags a bunch of people to do the same. I was going to say that I’ve resisted and resisted until, finally worn down by all of the insistent tagging, I’ve decided to give it a go.
That would be an absolute lie, though. It’s true that I’ve never participated in one of those chains, but it’s mostly because I haven’t been asked to, and I don’t like to look too eager. My carefully cultivated air of disdain makes it hard to jump on an enjoyable bandwagon, even if that wagon is rolling very, very slowly by. So, having finally been very lightly prodded into doing it, I’ve decided to list ten albums that have done a lot for me, in one way or other. So settle in and prepare to judge me and the awkward, incomplete evolution of my taste.
Tom Waits: The Black Rider
My sister, six years older and marginally cooler than me, left this tape in our living-room entertainment center. I found it in junior high and played the hell out of it, even though I had no idea what was going on. Honestly, I still don’t, though I know it has something to do with a cautionary German folk tale and a lot of oddly tuned brass instruments. It’s the soundtrack to a Robert Wilson play, so there are grotesque story songs, palpitating instrumentals, and a surprising number of sweetly drunken ballads. It sits squarely in the middle of Waits’s career, but it was an amazing and irresistible introduction for me. It was the first album I ever obsessed over, and I still croon some of the songs in the shower.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show Soundtrack
I didn’t have much to rebel against in my early teens—I had a pretty nice thing going, and I knew it. But that didn’t stop me from reveling in the trappings of rebellion. I died my hair several unfortunate shades, wore unflattering thrift-store suits with Easter-colored tuxedo shirts, and spent a lot of time watching Rocky Horror Picture Show. It wasn’t just the euphoria of gender-bending and open sexuality, or even the cachet of enjoying something clearly and gleefully counter-culture. It actually made me feel all sorts of earnest feelings. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t really understand camp and how it turns pathos into bathos. At the time, the ludicrously melodramatic final songs of the musical could actually make me pretty misty-eyed. It was like Tim Curry really understood my soul. MY SOUL.
PJ Harvey: Rid of Me
Every teenager makes a conscious decision about who his or her favorite musician will be. I’m so glad I chose PJ Harvey over Bush. There was a brief, terrible moment when it could have gone either way.
PJ Harvey was my icon throughout high school, for no particular aesthetic or intellectual reason. I just really liked the force of her songs. They seemed, well, forceful. Perhaps that’s why I’m the only person in the world who prefers her early albums to her later stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed everything of hers, but it’s the raw drive of Rid of Me that I still go back to. It makes me feel a pleasant bit of panic, just like it did when I collected her B-sides and demos and Japanese imports. When I listen to Bush now, I just feel kind of awkward. Like a teenager.
David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Bowie’s records were oddly common in the Salvation Army stores of central Michigan. Once I started looking, it didn’t take very long before I had all of the early albums. I adored each them. It’s a total small-town-gay cliché, but they held out the promise that a person could be more than the single, small self. With force of will and a bit of craftiness, you could be anyone and anywhere.
The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs
Despite my carefully cultivated artistic pretension, I only took one art-studio course in college. It was a conceptual-sculpture class (obviously), taught by a hip, adorable young grad student. She could immediately tell that I was and would always remain an untalented dilettante, but she did her best to make sure I would get something out of the class. That something was an introduction to the Magnetic Fields.
69 Love Songs is a masterpiece. Yeah, most of the songs are jokes, but is there anything harder than humor? And tucked between the tongue-in-cheek punk tunes and punned-up ballads are more than a few stunningly earnest love songs, wise and witty, sweeping in their range and undeniably pleasurable.
Kate Bush: The Whole Story
When I was in college, I’d bring a boy back to my place and set the mood by putting Kate Bush’s greatest-hits album on the record player.
And that’s why I spent four years single and celibate.
The Hidden Cameras: The Smell of Our Own
The conceit is a simple one: write some very graphic songs about fetishy gay sex and then perform them with string sections and church choirs. The ambitious arrangements are balanced with lo-fi production; the lyrics are unabashedly raunchy at times, but the result is disarmingly heartfelt, even blissful. The opening track is probably the only song about urine that you could play for your mother.
I found this album at an odd and important time in my life. I had just moved to a new city; I was lonely but lightheaded with possibility. I wanted to believe that anything could happen, and could happen beautifully. The Smell of Our Own was weird and more than a little kinky, but absolutely full of joy.
Xiu Xiu: Fabulous Muscles
An aggressive, abrasive album, Fabulous Muscles does a lot of things that are hard to describe. It’s got a lot of beats, so is it dance music? It’s got a lot of feedback and muffling, so is it a noise album? It’s got some confession and abstraction and overly emotional vocals and more than a little pretense, so is it even good? Half of the songs are uncomfortably catchy, and the other half are just uncomfortable. All the same, I haven’t taken the album off my iPod since it came out ten years ago.
The Organ: Grab That Gun
You like The Smiths, right? Well, imagine if The Smiths were all Canadian ladies and one of them played a rock organ. And then imagine the lady-version of Morrissey decided to quit the band so she could become a model in Europe. And that, more or less, would be The Organ.
Grab That Gun, their only full-length album, is annoyingly short: a half hour of muscular and miscellaneous indie rock. All of the songs are good, and some of them are great. “Stephen Smith” and “Brother” are full-throated and uncompromising, and it’s impossible to listen to them without wondering what would have come from a second album.
Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
I once browbeat a music-critic friend into using part of his brief interview with Neko Case to present her with a copy of my first book. How the Losers Love What’s Lost would have been a very different collection if I had never heard Fox Confessor. The songs are lush and grim and gorgeous. Case is not afraid to use the full power of her voice, and she throws it into strange lyrics that, without ever being entirely clear, create rolling narratives of desire and danger. “This is nothing new, no television crew. They don’t even put on the siren,” she sings in “Star Witness,” a song like a punch to the gut. Now that she has my book, I hope Neko notices her influence on my work and is so flattered that she’ll call me up and ask me to be her new best friend. Maybe we can hang out and watch Court TV. Maybe adopt a rooster together. You know, normal buddy stuff.