You could call these albums that “changed” me, but that would be a comforting lie. You could call them “meaningful,” but that sounds awfully precious. You couldn’t call them “perfect.” You couldn’t call them all “classics” either. Whatever they are to me doesn’t need scare-quotes and changes every minute. So here’s a snapshot of seven, meaningless, flawed, non-affecting memories, in no particular order.
Linkin Park — Meteora
This is the first CD I ever bought, played extensively on a new, blue Sony CD Walkman and identified with in ways I can’t remember. A friend in sixth grade tipped me to Reanimation and I’d heard “Crawling,” feeling aimless and angry at nothing. Rapping and safely headbanging Park became my band. I once played it for my mom and sister on the way to church and they weren’t annoyed or angered, just bored. The very first time I clacked it and put on my headphones, my Uncle Rich was in the car and he rattled, “Oh you’ve got your own little music player there?” I mumbled yes, sat glass-eyed to “Don’t Stay” and realized three minutes later that he was still talking to me. I wish I had listened to him.
Various Artists — MTV2 Headbangers Ball Vol. 2
At some point in seventh grade I decided I was “lonely,” maybe even “edgy,” and the hard-rocking bits of Linkin Park were important. Without any research or recommendation, I somehow decided that the logical next step for me was MTV2’s Headbanger’s Ball Vol. 2. I dropped 12 dollars at F.Y.E. (a pretty cool place, I thought) and realized everything that I was not. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the whole set except for my response to it, which was shame, regret and selling it to a kid who liked Cradle of Filth a lot. I’m still nursing my “metal” wounds with Sabbath and Sleep.
Aretha Franklin — Young, Gifted and Black
Aretha is one of a stable of established artists in American pop whose reputation has been reduced to vague canonization. Ask any 20-something why Aretha’s great and you’re not getting much of an answer. Young, Gifted and Black is one of many reasons. Coasting away from her early smashes with Atlantic, the ’60s crumbled and 1972’s Black flirts with opulence, funking harder than Motown ever could. It features Aretha doing what she does best, which on this album, is just about every damn thing. Wailing, piano-playing, song-writing … if you’re making a case for emotion as authenticity, then give this or Amazing Grace — an album so converted it will make the secular believe — 10 spins. These albums make me vulnerable to things.
William Basinski — The Disintegration Loops I-IV (but mostly I)
When ambient’s too busy and found-sound’s too dull, The Disintegration Loops are my bedtime records of choice. The backstory on these is irresistible. Basinski transferred some old seconds-long tape loops to digital, realizing that as they spun, the magnetic strip that kept them alive fell off. As recorded, the loops begin and fade into ether, some over the course of 10 minutes, others over an hour. After finishing the project, Basinski claims he just happened to listen to it with his friends on his Brooklyn roof on a certain second Tuesday in September of 2001. Even if that story isn’t true, these loops have a hell of a lot more to say than ferrite falling off a plastic tape.
Various Artists — A Tom Moulton Mix Vol. 1 and 2
This is the beginning of a never-end for me. The document that taught me the joys of the extended cut and the power of a producer who can make a great song transcendent by understanding everything that ever made it good. Disco at the hands of Tom Moulton is like day-old chili made with hundred-year old wine — the longer it sits the better, and it ages beautifully. The man turns Eddie Kendricks’s “Keep On Truckin’” into a reflection of life and death, B.T. Express’s “Peace Pipe” from a bumper-sticker peace slogan into hippie fury and Grace Jones’s “La Vie En Rose” coldness to bleeding-heart freezer-burn. And hey, you can dance to it all.
Prince — Sign ‘o the Times
My ex used to tell me that my singing in the car was endearing. Sign ‘O the Times is the album that would strip that lie. Seeing Purple Rain in high school converted me to his monarchy and Sign is the moment he entered my bloodstream. I have it on cassette, vinyl and CD. I need it wherever I go. It is a drug that I will never quit, even if my family and friends don’t understand. I need it to live.
Harry Nilsson — Nilsson Schmilsson
I asked my father if he was a Nilsson fan and the night ended with me realizing he knew Nilsson Schmilsson, back-to-front, better than I did. Thirty-five minutes and 17 seconds in heaven, that night, this album.