Continuing my goal of achieving convergence between this blog and Facebook, here is my response to the Facebook “meme” on the fifteen (give or take) albums which have been important to my life…
The only albums I can really remember from childhood (ours was not a musical house) are Johnny Horton, “Greatest Hits,” and Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler,” which I played on our giant old record player/stereo. “The Gambler” speaks for itself as a peak of 20th century cultural production, but Horton’s “Sink the Bismarck” is probably the main reason that I was ever interested in history. You can draw a straight line from that song’s opening drumbeats to my dissertation on World War II shipbuilding. I’m not even kidding.
In junior high and high school, I slowly discovered, thanks to WIMI radio in Ironwood, Michigan, and then the Musicland in the Copper Country Mall, Houghton, that many people listened to a lot of music, much of which was pretty damn interesting. In high school, I basically burned out my tapes of R.E.M.’s “Document” and “Green” (only later working backwards to the earlier, better albums) and two rap albums: Public Enemy, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton.” The former album opened me up to all kinds of politics, and put me on to reading everything from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to histories of Marcus Garvey and slave rebellions. The latter album, I played incessantly while driving around and around and around downtown Houghton.
I brought those albums with me to Macalester in 1991, but literally from the first day on campus I started listening to stuff that they didn’t even carry at that Musicland, much less play on the radio in the U.P. The tattooed guy next door lent me his copies of Nirvana’s “Bleach” and “Nevermind,” both of which I immediately bought at Applause in St. Paul – a store that dwarfed Musicland in every important way. From various friends, I discovered, among other music, the Pixies, “Trompe le Monde,” the Smiths, “Louder Than Bombs,” Jack Logan, “Bulk,” and especially the holy quartet of Uncle Tupelo albums: “Still Feel Gone,” “No Depression,” “March 16-20, 1992,” and “Anodyne.” The first two UT albums were the first pieces of music that really spoke to my experience growing up in a depressed, alcoholic Midwestern town that seemed fit only for escaping – and they fucking rocked, too. “March 16,” on the other hand, sent me backwards to classic American music: the Smithsonian folk music collections, Leadbelly (whom, I was happy to discover, was also a favorite of Nirvana), the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, and especially Hank Williams. I never acquired much Hank, but a cheap copy of his “40 Greatest Hits” has been a constant companion ever since.
Moving to Chicago immediately after college, I tried and mostly failed to keep up with the music scene. Coincidentally, the UT successor band Wilco located itself in Chicago around then, as well, which made it easy to follow their development. Just as UT had sent me to the historical record of American music, “Being There,” “Summer Teeth,” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” sent me out to weirder contemporary stuff, including especially Radiohead. I had no idea what to make of “OK Computer” when I bought it on the spur of the moment at (oddly) a Musicland store, but my god it was fun to contemplate as an underemployed 20-something and then as an impoverished grad student. I loved (love) all of Radiohead’s later albums (“Kid A,” “Amnesiac,” “Hail to the Thief”) too, but “OKC” was and still is it: “For a minute there, I lost myself.”
Around that same time, I started to discover jazz, thanks to a confluence of forces that included some worldly grad school classmates and friends, a great jazz scene in Chicago, and a deeper appreciation of the heritage on which Wilco and Radiohead were building. A grad school prof suggested that I try Charles Mingus, “Mingus Ah Um” first, owing to its deep connections to the history of 1950s and 1960s, and I was hooked. It was easy to slide over to other great jazz, like Bill Evans, “Portrait in Jazz,” and of course Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue,” and to pick up newer stuff like the Brad Mehldau Trio, “Places,” or the Bad Plus, “There Are the Vistas” and “Give” – all of which are notable not only for being excellent jazz but for covering tunes by the Pixies, Nirvana, and Radiohead. When the Bad Plus cover Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska,” I know my musical history will have come full circle.