Thursday, November 13, 2008

Music Goes Into Your Ears

Remember the word "album"? In today's age of downloadable music, the album as an entity unto itself has become somewhat under-appreciated. I feel that while a single song by itself may be a smash hit, its lasting effect is often less than that of a great album. A certain Chicago radio station uses the following phrase as their slogan, "the soundtrack of our lives". My own soundtrack is not measured so much in individual great songs, but more in terrific albums.

First and foremost is Achtung Baby by U2. I remember sitting in the open side door of the family van in the late spring of 1993, my hands clutching a boom box and my ears riveted to the amazing intro of the album's first song, "Zoo Station". The Edge was eliciting sounds from his guitar that I never imagined. When Bono's electronically distorted voice followed with the beginning of the first verse "I'm ready, ready for laughing gas / I'm ready, I'm ready for what's next", I embarked on a journey of exploration that has landed Achtung Baby at the center of my musical universe today. From the grinding buzz saw chords that shimmer from the Edge's guitar in "the Fly" to the melodious yet melancholy tones of "One", this album is a poster child for contrast, a microcosm of everyday life. It is full of hurt, discovery, betrayal, and hope, among other themes.

Another good friend of mine is Led Zeppelin's "IV (Zoso)" This album was a constant companion during the endless summer hours spent mowing grass and other maintenance tasks at the 55-acre camp I worked at during the turn of the 21st century. From the deliberate ferocity of "Black Dog", during which the weed trimmer I'd be holding became my air guitar, to ending many of my days at that camp sitting alone on the Pennsylvania mountainside as the velvety acoustic strummings of "Going to California" faded into the sunset, this record spoke to me. "When the Levee Breaks" sparked my fascination for the blues and Chicago itself, foreshadowing my later move to the Windy City area.

The third album I'll mention as having an impact on my life is indeed a blues album: The Big Come Up by the Black Keys, though they are not from Chicago but from Akron, Ohio. I purchased this album late last spring and experienced the heady combination of the thrill of discovering a new great-sounding band with the satisfaction of money well-spent. The songs on this album bring to mind a lollipop dropped in gravel: earthy guitars accompanied by gritty vocals. Despite this, however, or possibly because of this, the album is beautiful in its simplicity and honesty. Whenever I listen to this album, I think of my vacation to Key West that I undertook soon after I bought this CD, and that, my friends, is a good thing. Passionate, heartfelt blues and palm tree memories are a terrific combination, especially during a Chicagoland winter. Unfortunately, our library does not have this specific album yet, but check our catalog soon, it's on order! In the meantime, you can check on the Black Keys' latest record: Attack and Release.

So, you've learned a few of the albums that have helped write my story. Dear readers, which albums have been part of your life's soundtrack?


Roberta said...

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, all four sides. Repeatedly. It came out in 1974, but I didn't start listening to it obsessively until 1979, when I saw Genesis for the first time, and Peter Gabriel solo shortly thereafter. I used to lie down on my bed with big squishy headphones and listen to all of it with great satisfaction. Probably when I should have been doing homework.

Karen said...

You don't have enough space for me to answer this question! I'm totally with you about Achtung Baby, in my opinion, one of the best complete albums of all time, mesmerizing from start to finish. Steely Dan's Aja is just perfect - there's not a note on it that needs to be altered, and the lyrics and musicianship are stellar. I loved it the first time I heard it and I have never grown tired of it. A few more albums that I think are timeless and don't have a dud on them: "Phoenix" by Dan Fogelberg, "Hotel California" by The Eagles (even though it's been overplayed by radio), "What Is Love For," by singer-songwriter Justin Currie, "East Side Story" by Squeeze, "Blue" and "Court and Spark" by Joni Mitchell and "The Soul Cages" by Sting. I have to stop now or this will go on for days. Great post, Joel!

Jo B. said...

Don't get me started! There's not enough comment space to mention music BUT may I strongly recommend Your Brain on Music: the science of a human obsession by Daniel J. Levitin. It's a fascinating book about how our brains process music and why music seems so powerful to us.

And, of course, Revolver was the best album ever in the whole universe, not Sgt. Pepper's. Beatles 4-ever!!!

Anonymous said...

Albums I listened to over and over again. It's so hard to choose, but here we go in no particular order. James Taylor, Sweet Baby James and Mud Slide Slim. Paul McCartney, McCartney and Band on the Run. Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Any Led Zepplin.

Laura A. said...

I bought Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run in May of 1981 (Yes, I remember the month and year! You don't forget your first Bruce experience!) and my life hasn't been the same since. I believe the library currently owns all of his CDs, including his latest, Magic. If you're only familiar with the hits, check out Tracks for gems like Iceman, The Promise, and Wages of Sin.

Linda K. said...

Okay, now I really feel old. Or maybe I slept thru the 80's. Growing up in the 50's and 60's means Elvis, the Supremes, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and of course, Herman's Hermits. I later moved on to Elton John and of course, Neil Diamond, and in between there was, and still is, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Paul and Mary, and Pete Seeger. Ah, the 60's folk rebellion. And... wait for it... ABBA, "Thank you for the music, the song we're singing, thanks for all the joy they're bringin' who could live without it I ask in all honesty, what would life be, without a song or a dance what are we. So I say thank you for the music, for giving it to me."

Cathy F. said...

In the short story collection, Thank You for the Music by Jane McCafferty, the narrator muses about the importance of songs as a collection. The story takes place before Ipods and downloadable music, and it addresses a homemade compilation rather than a single artist’s album but it captures some of the feelings that you, Joel, and others have noted. On page 202 “…I of all people understand the difficulties of making a cassette tape. The intricate decision making that happens when considering segues. The knowledge that every segue is an aesthetic confession. What song should follow another--the decision reveals the emotional logic of the moment, but doesn’t it seem at the time that the moment is everything.”

Bob said...

Submitted for your approval ... Led Zeppelin's mid-career triumvirate (Houses of the Holy, Presence and Physical Graffiti) is a library of "riffs everybody knows"; Lynyrd Skynyrd's Pronounced Len-nerd Skin-nerd is a great primer of Southern Rock; 2112 by Rush is more than just its great, eponymous first side; Fleetwood Mac's Rumours proves that broken relationships can make for great songs; likewise, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon makes great music out of depression; and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Damn the Torpedoes is just a great effort.

Karen McBride said...

ooh, i have to second Bob's vote for "Rumours," how could I have forgotten that one???

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