Monday, March 2, 2009

The 25 Most Important Albums (To Me) Of All Time

Amidst the countless posts of Random Things and Stuff About My Peeps and all the other mindless, anonymity-destroying notes that people post on a daily basis, a friend of mine posted this on Facebbok. Except this one actually piqued my interest (BTW, people, please learn how to spell “piqued”...).

“Think of 25 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 25 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill. Get the idea?”
Well, this is an appropriate one for me. If someone had asked me to pick my SINGLE favorite album of all time, I'd be in trouble. But there are many albums (younger people, ask someone older than you what an "album" is) that have always been a source of inspiration or profound meaning for me. Here they are, the 25 most important records I ever bought, in no particular order.

1. STEVE TAYLOR – I PREDICT 1990, 1987
Taylor’s magnum opus may sound a little musically dated, but this was my first major introduction to high standards in a sea of mediocrity. Challenging and controversial, this Christian artist confused the masses with storied song titles such as "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" and "Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better." But it seemed the Christian world was the only world too uptight for it at the time, as the self-directed video for “Jim Morrison’s Grave” was featured more than once on MTV’s “120 Minutes”. This wasn’t my first introduction to the concept of satire, but it was the one that made the most impression on me, and ultimately spurred me to begin my journey as a songwriter.
Best songs: Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better, Jim Morrison’s Grave, A Principled Man

2. ARCADE FIRE – NEON BIBLE, 2004
It’s not in my player very often, but the songs on here remind me of playing music in high school and college with my friends. I miss that time in my life, and this album effectively captures that youthful energy and passion that most bands today don’t even come close to matching.
Best songs: Keep the Car Running, Intervention, (Antichrist Television Blues)



3. JACOB’S TROUBLE – JACOB’S TROUBLE, 1992
I wouldn’t recommend this one to many people now, because it’s a Christian album by a Christian band that was aimed primarily at Christians about Christianity. But when I was 16, many of the songs on this album spoke to me in a way I really needed at the time. I found a reason to hope in this music where before, I couldn’t understand why I should. U2 comparisons abound, especially since Achtung Baby had taken over the world by the time this album released, but these guys were a force in and of themselves. It’s a shame this was their last record.
Best songs: Way of the Cross, Let Me Love On You, Better Days, Lovin’ Kindness

4. MICHAEL W. SMITH – THE BIG PICTURE, 1986
I know, I know, I know. I’ve always been a sucker for a good pop song, and this was before Smith’s ubiquitous nasal approach to singing, which arrived somewhere around 1990 and sadly, hasn’t gone away. And although the themes in this album are directed at teenagers trying to find their place in this world (not this album), musically, it was ahead of its time. When all the pop sensations of the mid-‘80s were using overdriven synth and harsh Fairlight programming, Smith’s choice of sonic landscapes here showed forward thinking and restraint at the same time. Couple that with some of the tastiest melodic hooks and chord progressions the pop world had seen up until that point, you’ve got pop meets arena rock meets remnants of future techno/house. No, I’m serious. From this album, I experienced how a finely tuned melody can pull you in and hold you there.
Best songs: Wired for Sound, Voices, You’re Alright

5. WHITEHEART – FREEDOM, 1989
Armed with a different producer and a solidified lineup that had only been in place for one album previous to this one, this is a powerhouse record (no pun intended) that can still stand up to any other recording by any band, anywhere, at any time. WhiteHeart unleashed an energy and fury they’d only hinted of in previous recordings. With a rhythm section consisting of Mark Gersmehl, Billy Smiley, and Gordon Kennedy (who went on to pen the Clapton award winner “Change the World” and most of the Garth Brooks side project Chris Grimes), as well as bassist Tommy Sims (who later left the band to tour with Bruce Springsteen and eventually become a producer in his own right), and session drummer Chris McHugh, Ric Florian had more than enough musical muscle behind him to let his voice soar into the stratosphere and penetrate even the most stoic rock fans. To me, this was rock with a vision, a purpose, and a score to settle with the rest of the world.
Best songs: Invitation, Power Tools, Sing Your Freedom, Let the Kingdom Come

6. BLINK-182 – ENEMA OF THE STATE, 1999
At the end of the 20th century, I was becoming more and more troubled that bands weren’t going back to the core of great music, which is writing a damn good song with a damn good hook. Blink-182 took the energy and immaturity of teenage douchebaggery and focused it by crafting an album of slick, polished, overly loud pop music with magnificent harmonies and an anthemic tilt that rivaled U2’s place at the top of the rock mountain. And while most of their lyrics spoke of childish things, there were hints of adult seriousness and real growth between the lines, something which the band cultivated for the next two albums.
Best songs: Aliens Exist, Adam’s Song, Anthem

7. MORTAL – FATHOM, 1993
While they weren’t the first industrial band in Christian music, Mortal’s “Lusis” album put industrial music into the Christian vernacular, then turned the concept on its ear with this release. Far beyond merely crunchy guitars and distorted vocals, Jyro and Jerome (now of Switchfoot) crafted a group of songs on this record that wouldn’t normally seem like they would fit together. Yet, because of lyrics requiring a very thick dictionary and an ability to suspend disbelief without the listener being aware, Mortal was able to transcend all labels to become a true meaning of “alternative”. If you like metal, pop, dance, gang shouts, and intellectualism in your music, you’ll find it all here.
Best songs: Bright Wings, Jil Sent Me, Rift, Electrify

8. THE CHOIR – CIRCLE SLIDE, 1990
I missed the first time around with The Choir, not really hearing about them until I picked up a copy of CCM Magazine in early 1990. Though they had been recording since the mid-‘80s, the Christian radio station in St. Louis didn’t play alternative music, much less pretend to know what it was. So this was my first exposure to guitar-based alternative sounds, and I’m glad it was this one, which was subsequently listed as one of the 100 most influential albums in Christian music history by the same magazine. And oh, what a trip it is. Pair one of the smoothest male voices with beautiful image-laden lyrics, and punch a unique rhythm section through to connect with layers of melodic and distorted guitar, and you’ve got a masterpiece in the making. Throw in a talented band member who excels on saxophone and lyricon . . . well, then, you’re just showing off.
Best songs: Circle Slide, Restore My Soul, A Sentimental Song

9. FIVE IRON FRENZY – FIVE IRON FRENZY 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, 2001
The Denver octet chose a tighter, more cohesive set of songs for their assault on the world after the break of the 21st century, and frankly, they’ve never sounded better. Almost completely eschewing ska rhythms for a straight ahead rock-horn-hardcore-rock sandwich, they were able to maintain their sense of humor while simultaneously driving a nail into mediocre rock. Charging anthems full of heartfelt urgency don’t give the listener much time to breathe, but this isn’t a bad thing. They even took the time to send a message to hardcore music fans with “Blue Mix”, in which they denounce musicians who make a habit of fleecing their fans by charging highly marked up prices for merchandise; the song also provides an exhortation for said fans to be wise about what they spend their money on, and calls on them to keep their own band accountable, something you’ll never see most bands do, ever. FIF proved here that while you can grow older and tackle more serious topics, you can still have a buttload of fun.
Best songs: Farsighted, Pre-Ex-Girlfriend, The Day They Killed, You Can’t Handle This

10. THE PRAYER CHAIN – MERCURY, 1995
I don’t care that they were a Christian band on a Christian label (only one of the songs even alludes to Jesus), and if you pick this up and take the time to soak this in, neither will you. The Prayer Chain was the first alternative band in Christian music to really tour extensively and make it big, paving the way for myriads of bands that have come after them, and this record proves why. Casting off all remnants of what would appeal to the masses, the songs on this recording defy obvious leanings to produce a meaty, sweaty bulldozer of an album that sneaks up on you and takes some time to warm up to. The best alternative record, ever.
Best songs: Grylliade, Sky High, Mercury

11. SAVIOUR MACHINE – LEGEND PART II, 1998
I always believed, despite what most of the alternative bands of the early ‘90s would cling to, that a band needs to have some kind of theatrics in their stage presentation. There’s nothing too exciting about guys standing on stage in torn jeans and flannel shirts, playing music specifically designed to sound bad on radio. But set aside Saviour Machine’s theatrics, face makeup, and stage designs and just listen, and you’ll find a completely different world. This record, the second part of “ the unofficial soundtrack for the end of the world”, takes the concept where Part I left off and kicks you right in the teeth, building layer upon layer upon layer of swirling guitars, orchestral samples, live and programmed drums, spoken word passages, and finally, the core of the band’s sound. Dark, brooding, wholly gothic, this section of the Legend trilogy follows events prophesied in the book of Revelation, including the covenant the Antichrist will strike with Israel, the foundation of one world nation, the instigation of the mark of the beast, the martyrdom of the saints, and the rapture of the faithful. We hear the darkness and chaos descending upon the earth, then the glory of the salvation of the followers of Jesus and their deliverance from the coming plagues, but the album closes in again with the announcement of the Antichrist’s fury about to be unleashed on the earth, which eventually picks back up in Legend Part III. Clocking in at 79:29, this album is about as perfect as you can get, and because of the trilogy format, still be incomplete.
Best songs: The Whore of Babylon, Antichrist II – The Balance of Power, Behold a Pale Horse, The Promise

12. GREEN DAY – AMERICAN IDIOT, 2004
I always liked Green Day. They had an attitude you wouldn’t see in most music, and they had a knack for writing great hooks, even if the lyrics didn’t fit so easily into the melody lines. And then they turned out this piece of bombast that shook the whole world. While I didn’t agree with the underlying politics that fueled the album, I couldn’t help but be swept up in the enthusiasm of the topics covered. While this wasn’t by any means a groundbreaking album – several rock operas have surfaced well before this one – it was a welcome breath of fresh air to an otherwise stale industry, and Green Day proved it when they performed the title track at the Grammy Awards in 2005, boldly showing everyone in attendance exactly how done is done.
Best songs: Jesus of Suburbia, Are We the Waiting/St. Jimmy, American Idiot

13. HOLY SOLDIER – HOLY SOLDIER, 1990
One of the first metal bands to be signed to Myrrh Records, the same label home of Amy Grant for over a decade, this Christian act took cues from Stryper and performed in elaborate stage costumes. But what held my attention wasn’t just the pounding, aggressive metal rhythms. It was the soaring melodies of frontman Steven Patrick, whose voice climbed higher with a pouting, bluesy swagger and powerful range at the same time. While their sound may have been derivative of other metal acts at the time, I didn’t really listen to much metal up until this point, and these guys were able to pull of the Christian perspective without sounding as cheesy as Stryper sometimes did (which didn’t really excuse the band’s name). I understood from this album how full and sweeping metal could be, and this album brought me closer into the realm of great metal without feeling like I would have to sacrifice great songwriting just to hear something heavy. If my parents asked me to turn it off, trust me, it was heavy enough.
Best songs: See No Evil, Lies, Eyes of Innocence

14. JESUS JONES – PERVERSE, 1993
I didn’t become familiar with this ambitious album until 2 years after its release. While having conquered the world with the 1991 single “Right Here, Right Now”, Jesus Jones took a different tack and, with this album, became the first band to ever cut a record through computer. And the result is obviously a product of such – great loops and synth fills, programmed percussion, bold lyrics and a sense of self-awareness that do nothing to detract from the draw of this electronic rock/dance record. I found this sonic landscape enthralling and eviscerating, and the CD never left my player for weeks.
Best songs: Don’t Believe It, Idiot Stare, Your Crusade, From Love to War

15. THE VIOLET BURNING – DROP-DEAD, 2006
It’s nice to know that not ALL of the albums that have inspired me so much came from my high school/young adult years. I became familiar with the Violets in 2001, when I purchased their worship project “Faith and Devotions of a Satellite Heart”. They’d been around since 1989, but I’d never taken the time to get to know them, and when they came through the tiny town of Roxana, Illinois for a show that was attended by less than 100 people, I went, expecting to be blown away. I was. Michael Pritzl’s stage presence alone could have carried the show, even without the rest of the band, but what waited for me after the show was the new release, “Drop-Dead”, that we bought and listened to on the way home. I couldn’t remember the last time a great alternative rock record boosted my adrenaline and filled me with a sense of awe and romance all at the same time. This record showed why The Violet Burning has been one of the best kept secrets in alternative rock. They’ve been called too mainstream for Christian radio, and too Christian for mainstream radio, yet their music has been licensed by a premium cable channel’s development department, which has allowed them to continue touring full time and making music more often than some of the younger, most energetic bands out there. But I can’t help but wonder what those bands might learn by throwing this CD into the player now and then to find out what makes the rest of the world tick.
Best songs: Do You Love Me?, One Thousand Years, Eleanor, All I Want

16. VIGILANTES OF LOVE – VOL, 1996
I was never a big proponent of folk music, but I understood its place in the world. But when I picked up the self-titled discography by Vigilantes of Love about 4 years after it was released, I wondered what I had been waiting for. Bill Mallonee’s textures of Americana resonated with me more than I thought possible. When some of the songs grated my ears, I would listen to it at a later time and hear something different than before, and the simple, bare-bones arrangements of traditional instruments kept the meat of the songs from being lost. One of my first discoveries of the singer-songwriter genre, and one that will always stay close to my heart.
Best songs: When I’m Broken (See What Happens), Real Down Town, River of Love, Earth Has No Sorrow Heaven Can’t Heal

17. MARK HEARD – SATELLITE SKY, 1992
A major influence of the Vigilantes’ Bill Mallonee, the late Mark Heard was probably on par to put out more thought-provoking, imagery-laden music in his career than most musicians were used to hearing in a lifetime. This, his final album before dying of a heart attack the same year, remains some of his strongest work, and it opened my eyes to a new palate of aggressive songwriting. Heard didn’t sing so much as his emotions exploded out of his mouth. What happened to take shape painted pictures of man in despair, lost in imagination, realizing his potential yet lamenting at the garbage and shallowness of life that we allow ourselves to be dragged through. Hope always remains, though, as the haunting final track “Treasure of the Broken Land” would stick in the hearts and minds of every fan who learned of his passing. Interestingly enough, Heard’s fatal heart attack was his second; his first took place while he was performing at the 1992 Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois, and he didn’t say anything to anyone until after his performance. Perhaps the music consumed him so much that he couldn’t stop playing, even when he knew it might cost him his life.
Best songs: Another Day in Limbo, Satellite Sky, Freight Train to Nowhere, Long Way Down, We Know Too Much

18. OINGO BOINGO – FAREWELL, 1996
I was already a fan of Oingo Boingo, having borrowed “Dead Man’s Party” from a friend when I was in high school and becoming hooked on the hyperkinetic fun, scattershot horn arrangements, and Danny Elfman’s singular voice. But I hadn’t really looked too far into the band’s history until I finally broke down and bought this, their only live album, and the double album that capped off the end of a long career for the band. Recorded during their last Halloween show at the Hollywood Amphitheater, this record included all the of the biggest songs that made Oingo Boingo the quirky, insane, loveable band that they were, and the live versions of many of these songs blow the studio versions away. This is like listening to a history lesson, and if you watch the video (now on DVD), the result is even more satisfying.
Best songs: Water, I Am the Walrus, Can’t See (Useless), Who Do You Want to Be, On the Outside, No Spill Blood

19. AMY GRANT – LEAD ME ON, 1988
Watching a fish out of water is a fascinating exercise. I wasn’t a huge Amy Grant fan, and I’m still not. But it stands to reason that my favorite album of hers is also her hardest rocking album, and the stretch showed me a new side of the singer I hadn’t seen before. Sure, some of her previous albums featured guitar, but Grant was a pop artist, and always has been. So when I first heard this record, I realized that a corner was turning, and the woman was about to do something big (her breakthrough, “Heart In Motion”, was her next offering). I found myself truly excited to hear the local rock station playing the title track, the DJ’s voice building the tension over the boiling instrumental lead in, then hearing the song tear through the airwaves with no apologies sent chills down my spine. The experience was fully rounded with the more intimate moments on the record – not the slow, softer numbers, but the ones where Grant’s personality and inner thoughts were finally out in the open for the public to witness and relate to. This personal touch is what drew me in to this record more than anything, but the rock didn’t hurt.
Best songs: Lead Me On, Shadows, Wait For the Healing, Faithless Heart

20. REZ – CIVIL RITES, 1991
Blues metal isn’t a style that many bands can pull off well, but look at ZZ Top. Then take a good, long, hard look at Rez, formerly the Resurrection Band. Starting off in the late ‘70s, these musicians decided to roll our what they knew (hard rock and blues) and put it in the same package, then put inject Jesus’ message of grace and mercy into the landscape and watch what happened. On “Civil Rites”, the band doesn’t rely on overt Christian imagery as much as they could, but instead weave stories out of each song, showcasing the strength of husband and wife vocal team Glenn and Wendy Kaiser where their efforts work best, occasionally joining together to beef up the raw energy. I came to love the blues as a viable art form while in high school, and halfway through my sophomore year, I latched onto this album. I heard stories of tragedy, inner city poverty, social injustice, cult hypnosis, and simple teenage loneliness cut through the sparse pretense of the music and hit me in my bones. I didn’t relate first hand to every story represented, but when stories are told this well, you don’t have to be there in person.
Best songs: Players, Lincoln’s Train, In My Room, Pauper’s Grave

21. CHARLIE PEACOCK – LOVE LIFE, 1992
This one was probably some of the most fun I’ve had being inspired, although not every track is buoyant and quick-tempoed as the next. Peacock is a musical genius, I discovered, having given the world a near perfect pop album in 1990 with “The Secret of Time” and infusing it with hints of jazz, R&B (REAL rhythm and & blues, that is), and experimental pop. But this album, a much more personal document, spoke of forgiveness, regret, joy, and longing, all of which centered around the central theme – love. Peacock is probably the only Christian artist to have ever written a song about foreplay, a song that takes shots at Top 40 pop radio while extolling the virtues of sexual love in its proper setting. Giving me a brief lesson in music styles, but more so giving me a musical blueprint of many of love’s faces, this album remains in my playlist and makes me smile every time I hear one of its tracks.
Best songs: In the Light (before dcTalk ruined it), Another Woman in Tears, Kiss Me Like a Woman, Forgiveness

22. U2 – ACHTUNG BABY, 1991
Europe was opened wide in more ways than one on this, one of U2’s strongest albums. Forget “All You Can’t Leave Behind”, forget “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”, forget “The Joshua Tree”. U2 began flexing their middle fingers with this album, and it made the world sit up and take notice. Nothing they had played before or would ever play again would sound quite like the miracle nightmarism of “Achtung Baby”, and thank God for that. Definitely not the peak of the band’s popularity, it was the time when they realized that to achieve a slice of Heaven, you’ve got to go through some kind of Hell in the process. You can’t help but understand the sense of alienation written all over this album, the textures so sparse and spaced-out that everything sounds like it’s a world away. This, in my opinion, is the first space rock album that actually makes you sit up and demands your achtung.
Best song: The Fly, Even Better Than the Real Thing, Until the End of the World, Ultra Violet (Light My Way)

23. SENSE FIELD – TONIGHT AND FOREVER, 2001
HIDE NOTHING – FURTHER SEEMS FOREVER, 2004

I don’t consider these two albums a tie, but rather consider them on par with each other, and both equally influential. Singer Jon Bunch fronted the band Sense Field until they called it quits, then took over for Jason Gleason as the lead singer for Further Seems Forever, a band that Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba had formed and then later left. So while the albums could sound the same, they don’t. They’re both emo, and they both feature the same vocalist, and the themes can work on a spiritual level both within and outside of Christianity, but the two are different in texture, approach, and overall sound. And yet, both have tended to have an equally drawing effect on me. Bunch is a versatile and effortless-sounding vocalist. His performance on these two recordings I hold as a benchmark of what a great vocalist should sound like, regardless of the genre, and his strength as a lyricist shines on both of these albums. Overall, this is absolutely something I try to aspire to.
Best songs, Tonight and Forever: No Longer Now, What Never Dies, Fun Never Ends, Save Yourself
Best songs, Hide Nothing: Hide Nothing, Light Up Ahead, Already Gone, Make it a Part/All Rise

24. GHOTI HOOK – TWO YEARS TO NEVER, 2000
Having already been a fan of Ghoti Hook’s playful attitude and fun approach to punk-pop music, I also knew the band had a serious side that they weren’t very well known for, although hinted at on their first two albums. Eschewing the obnoxiousness of their previous efforts, their classic punk roots shone through, and pure muscle punched through every track. While I haven’t listened to this album in a long time, it remained in my player for many weeks after first purchasing it. Unlike most bands who claim to have matured on subsequent albums, Ghoti Hook actually did on this one, still pouring on the fun but taking the serious side of their music more seriously. It was like watching a great friend that you only knew electively finally sitting down with you and opening his heart about all the crap that he’d dealt with in his life. I began to appreciate classic punk a lot more through this record and I found that everyone has that moment where they say, “Do I continue the way I have been, or do I begin to take greater responsibility?” I get lost in this album every time I hear it now.
Best songs: Two Years to Never, Lullaby, Mach 3, Means to an End

25. THE HIVES – THE BLACK AND WHITE ALBUM, 2007
Seriously? With all the great music out there, I couldn’t find another album before 2007 that had a profound impact on me? Honestly, no, I couldn’t. I had read great reviews of the most recent Hives record, and when I saw them perform the explosive “Tick Tick Boom” on The Tonight Show, I knew I had to check this band out. Everything that’s great about this album is a very swift kick right in the ass. In fact, you could remove every gimmick and misstep from this album – the matching suits, the electronic experiments, the Pharrell Williams-produced numbers, and you still have 10 great tracks that hold their own whether separately or together as a whole. I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, but this is definitely an album that made me sit up, take notice, and get excited about the state of modern music again. This album was also another reminder that you don’t to have the perfect voice, or even sing perfectly, in order for the energy and passion to grab someone’s attention. Why can’t American bands make music this infectious anymore?
Best songs: Tick Tick Boom, Try It Again, Return the Favour, Square One Here I Come

There Is No Box.
Zach

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