The Soundtrack of My Life: An Ongoing SeriesPosted: February 18, 2013
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been surrounded by music. Not in the “I hear things” sense (usually), but rather in the more traditional – and socially acceptable – sense. My family was big on listening to the radio or stereo, particularly while driving or doing chores, and singing along was a given. This could be a pleasure (my sister has a great voice) or a torment (why no Mom, I’m not looking at you, why do you ask?) depending on who was singing.
This instilled in me a love of music, not as a music critic, but as someone who enjoys music from a wide range of genres and eras. As I have been talking with friends and coworkers of late, I have noticed that some of my brilliant references to these great albums of the past seem to be falling on deaf ears (sorry, couldn’t resist), and I realized that aside from a handful of universally known albums most of the music I grew up with or have known over the years is fading into obscurity, which is a shame, because I for one believe folks can still find great enjoyment in being exposed to these classic albums.
Since there are no longer crates of records to flip through in musty basements or Tower Records stores (for those of you too young to understand what that means ask someone over thirty), I decided to compile a list of my favorite albums that aren’t as well known as they should be. You won’t find Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller, or Nevermind on this list, because these are the kind of albums that everyone still knows (and if you don’t know them, please, educate yourself). I also won’t be picking out individual songs or even albums that I “like” or flip past a couple songs to “get to the good stuff”; these are the albums that I listen to all the way through, over and over again, either because they’re just that good or for more sentimental reasons. Either way these are the albums that have defined me, shaped me, helped to make me the man I am today. This is the soundtrack of my life.
To start with, I figured I should begin with a trio of albums that either shaped my early musical tastes or, more importantly, remind me very strongly of the man who was most influential in making me who I am: my dad. In so many ways, who I am and what I do comes back to him, and every time I sit down to listen to music, I can’t help remembering him sitting in the living room, a drink in one hand, listening to the stereo. For me, each of these albums has a piece of him, and more importantly each one has something very much in common with him. Dad was a storyteller; it wasn’t his vocation, but it was his avocation. One word wouldn’t do when he could use five, and each one was rich with texture and flavor. He was a merry spellbinder whenever he chose, keeping you captive even when describing something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store. Likewise, each of these albums has a spellbinding, storyteller-like quality to them, a befitting reminder of a wonderful man.
Billy Joel – Glass Houses: I’ve been a lifelong Billy Joel fan, and this album is where is started. When I was a kid, just starting to listen to “real” music, I basically had access to nothing but what my parents were listening to (I hadn’t really discovered the radio yet), and my sister played this tape for me. It shocked me from the very beginning, with the sound of shattering glasses and electric guitars. It sounded like rebellion. (I was a little kid, it was the early 80s, work with me here.) More than anything, I just loved the sound of it. I didn’t understand it, but I loved it. As I grew older and started to wrestle with life, love, relationships, pain, and all the rest of it, I kept coming back to this album. I’m not going to pretend that Billy Joel has the answers to the universe, but in many ways he is a street philosopher, particularly with his early work. “You May Be Right” alone has some wisdom to offer: “You may be right/I may be crazy/but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” Dysfunctional relationship or acknowledgment that nobody’s perfect? Either way, it’s great stuff. Plus there’s the added bonus of the cultural artifact “Sleeping With the Television On”, a song that most people born after 1985 will have to ask someone to explain to them (“why is it playing the national anthem?”).
Chuck Mangione – Feels So Good: Unless you’re a fan of jazz or King of the Hill, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of Chuck Mangione, but there’s a chance you’ve heard this album, or at least some of it. For a while there the title track was popular as elevator music, which I’m fairly convinced is what they do to musicians as punishment for minor offenses instead of sending them to jail (although that might be repeat appearances on King of the Hill). It’s a damn shame, because while I’m no fan of jazz, I love this album. Mangione manages to make an entire album of instrumental work feel more engaging and real than most artists can with all the lyrics at their disposal. He deftly maneuvers through several emotional states, from a bouncy (dare I say jazzy?) beginning, through an emotionally ambivalent and tumultuous middle, to finish strong and triumphant. This is the kind of album you want to own a nice stereo for; pour yourself a nice glass of scotch, turn down the lights, sit back and just enjoy. It’s an investment, but the pay-off is worth it.
Neil Diamond – Taproot Manuscript: Neil Diamond was one of my dad’s favorite artists, and for a very long time I had no idea why. I saw him as clown shoes, the perfect culmination of lounge music taken too far and way too damn seriously. Sure, I loved “America” in the same way everyone does; you can’t be American and not like that song in a cheesy sort of way, but other than that? Then one day I’m going out somewhere with dad, and he’s got this playing in his car CD player. I started to roll my eyes, and he says something like “humor me”. Well, I’d been even more of a pain in the ass than usual at that point, so I decided to go with it. Once I opened myself up to it, I realized there’s a lot here. If there was such a thing as “emo jazz”, that might be the best way to describe Neil Diamond. He’s not rock and roll, and he’s not always over the top, but he leaves it all on the table. He invests himself fully in every song, and every song has a story to tell. What’s even more amazing is how broad and varied those stories can be, ranging over more territory in one album than many actors will get to explore in their entire careers. And if you let yourself go, he’ll gladly take you along. He’s not overdoing it in a lounge singer way (unless that’s the character he’s invested in that song); rather, he’s just putting all of himself into that one song. Each and every one of them.