We all have them, those albums that came along at perfect points in our lives. Albums that changed the way we thought about music, and shaped the way we looked at the world. For me, these albums came in all shapes, sizes, and genres. Their recording spanned decades, but all of them found me at the perfect time, just when I needed them. These are their stories, and why they matter so much to me.
Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall
I was 16 when this album was released. It was recorded, however, almost 40 years prior. My parents had given it to me as a birthday gift while we were down in Port Aransas, celebrating with my family that lived there at the time. We listened to it the entire time we were there, and the entire trip back. I drove along Highway 37 with the sky tinted black from the storms pushing inward from the gulf, while Neil Young serenaded me up on stage all by himself.
I was familiar with Neil Young then, but I wasn’t a huge fan. This album changed that. The intimacy of it, the loneliness…it’s heartbreaking. It’s such an emotional album. You can feel him on stage, alone, crying out, not caring if anyone listens. The only things up there with him are his guitar, a Martin D-28, his harmonicas, and an old piano. His hands gingerly prance from key to key, while his voice shivers in opposite directions.
It’s classic Neil Young, and possibly the greatest album from his discography. It came to me at a time when I was unsure about what I wanted to do with my life musically. But Neil Young assured me that a guy can get up on stage with just his voice, a guitar, and a harmonica, and can kick the shit out of an audience.
Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
If you’re looking for an album that’s almost a polar opposite from Neil Young, this (and the Metallica album featured below) is it. Heavy, fast, percussive, and angry, Whatever People Say I Am was my high school anthem. I was driving along to my grandparents’ house one day and NPR had a segment on this ‘hot new band’ from Sheffield, England. They played clips from a few of the songs, and I was immediately smitten. Something about Alex Turner’s drawl with Matt Helders’ quick 1/16th drumming enchanted me.
Much to my surprise, there was already tons of stuff available from them for free online.
See, kids, we used to have this thing called Limewire where you could go and illegally download copyright-protected music. People just allowed others unbridled access to files on their computer and shared them with others. Ah the good ol’ days…
But when I began to look into it, I found that they actually wanted people to have their music for free. They wanted us to know about them and their music. I grabbed their demo tape (titled Beneath the Boardwalk, named after the location that the guy who copied it received it) and all the live takes I could, and much to my surprise, SWAT teams didn’t burst in and arrest me for copyright infringement.
I’ve followed the Arctic Monkeys throughout their career. I’ve grown up with them. From rag-tag druggies saying ‘fuck the world’ to a suit-and-tie-wearing group of sci-fi James Bond’s on a jazz-hotel-moon-base, this album started it all. It’s probably the most influential on this list.
Pink Floyd – Animals
There are plenty of Pink Floyd albums that could’ve made it to this list. Dark Side of the Moon was the soundtrack to my 7th grade. Wish You Were Here played an even more important role in my early years of high school than the Arctic Monkeys did later on. But there’s one Pink Floyd album that makes my jaw drop every time I listen to it, and that’s Animals.
I get exhausted just thinking about the effort and musical prowess that had to go into making this album. Every second of it, every noise and beat had to be so meticulously planned that I can’t even fathom how they did it. It’s beautiful, a musical masterpiece. I can’t tell you the first time I listened to it. I was probably three years old and my dad put it on while he was home for a summer. But most albums lose their mystique after a while. When you listen to most albums more than 20 times, they lose their oomph. Not Animals. Animals punches me in the gut every time the needle hits the wax. It forces me to listen to it. It entrances me. And that’s why it’s here. Because I can listen to it every day for the rest of my life and still be just as amazed as I was the first time I heard it.
The guitar alone is enough to bring someone to their knees. David Gilmour makes his guitar weep, scream, even bark at times. I remember sitting in my room with my tiny little guitar amp, messing around with any mundane objects I could just to try to get a weird sound out of my guitar just like him. I got pretty good. I could to a monkey by scraping a paperclip across the strings. I could do a bird by turning up the reverb to 11 and pecking in between two srtings right above my pickup with a pick.
Metallica – Kill ‘Em All
There was a dark period in my life. Not dark as in depressing. Dark as in dark clothes, long hair, and lots and lots of metal music. I grew up in Metal City USA. What do you expect? My guitar teacher got me into Metallica. I’d never really listened to them at first, but as time went on, I really began to appreciate metal for its subtle intricacies and the skill it takes to make a really great metal album. First, I listened to Black. I know, I know. It’s not a ‘real’ Metallica album. And I totally agree. But that opened the gates for everything to follow. Once I discovered Kill ‘Em All, it was over. Done. I was a metal-head now.
I still credit my early, short-lived metal phase with my willingness to keep playing guitar. I don’t think I would’ve kept up if it wasn’t for Metallica and my guitar teacher (whose band happens to be pretty big now, which is pretty badass). Every song on Kill ‘Em All is thrash to its core. No ballads. No ’80s hair metal bullshit. This is thrash metal, man. Speed, rhythm, screaming…Did I mention speed? It could be argued that Metallica went down hill after Kill ‘Em All, especially if you’re a thrash fan. They had little nods to thrash here and there on later albums, but nothing meets the unadulterated heavy metal of Kill ‘Em All.
Led Zeppelin – Early Days / Later Days
This isn’t an album, I know. This is a compilation. A ‘greatest hits,’ if you will. But this made me love rock and roll.
Popping that first disk into my Sony Diskman, hearing those two perfect, echoing power chords followed by John Bonham’s ever-so-subtle high hat tapping…it blew me away. If you could wear out a CD by listening to one spot over and over again like you could a record, the first ten seconds of that album would’ve been burned into oblivion by that laser.
Every song was perfect. Every note was perfect. As I walked through this compilation of Zeppelin’s hits, I traveled through the 1970s with a guitar, bass, and drums, led by Mr. Robert Plant himself. He showed me through the good times and the bad times, through communication breakdowns. Those first ten seconds of “Since I’ve Been Lovin’ You” had the same effect as the beginning of the album. Five notes. Five simple, squealing notes followed by Bonham’s squeaking bass drum pedal…it’s enough to bring a man to tears.
Even today, I find subtle intricacies that I never noticed before. Each listen is a new experience, and I’ll never listen to another band the way I do Led Zeppelin. I’ll never forget the way that those first few notes rang out in my ears and brought me (metaphorically) to my knees. I’ll never forget the day I learned to love rock and roll.