The music that we listen to is a reflection of our life experiences and how we view ourselves in the big picture. The culture that we were born into and the people who were part of it, helped point us in multiple directions when it comes to music, film, food, and art. Some of it is personal discovery, but much of it can be attributed to environment and history.
I was a cinephile and audiophile before I was old enough to drive a car but it was the music and movies that shaped me; high-end audio/video equipment was always just a means to an end. A deeper emotional connection to the images and music was the only goal that really matters.
Which albums shaped you? These are our stories.
Leonard Bernstein: Gershwin : Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris…
As a child, my mother would play this record almost weekly on their Thorens table and I would sit on the piano bench in the opposite corner and pretend to be Bernstein conducting. “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story became etched in my brain and some 45 years later I still find myself conducting along with Bernstein when I listen in the car. Majestic symphonic works for the children of immigrants that are iconic pieces of American history and unrivaled in their beauty. Buy at Amazon.
Various Artists: Saturday Night Fever (The Original Movie Soundtrack)
In 1980, my father struggled through the front door carrying our very first VCR. A JVC HR-6700OU that became my favorite object in the world. I was already obsessed with movies but the concept of home theater didn’t exist yet (unless you were obscenely rich and could afford a projector/screen system for your home) in my world. Early JVC VHS Players/Recorders were built like tanks and I sat shiva over it when it passed almost 9 years later. After connecting it to our 28″ Zenith, he opened his satchel and removed 3 films that started my lifelong obsession with home video; Superman, Every Which Way But Loose, and Saturday Night Fever.
The soundtrack became an international sensation selling more than 40 million copies and catapulted the Bee Gees (who were not involved with the film until it was already in post-production) to the top of the charts. The soundtrack was number one for 24 weeks and won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Disco lessons became a thing; I have burned all of the photos from the period that prove I had a Han Solo haircut and wore bell-bottomed jeans. The music of Saturday Night Fever included contributions from the Bee Gees, David Shire, KC And The Sunshine Band, Kool & The Gang, and Trammps; “Disco Inferno” and “How Deep is Your Love” became the music we danced to as a family after dinner. Life never felt so simple. Buy at Amazon.
Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch! (Blue Note Records)
Eric Dolphy was a brilliant composer; perhaps one of the most unique of his generation. Had I not tuned my Sansui FM Tuner to Bob Parlocha’s program as a teenager, I never would have fallen in love with jazz music. Parlocha turned me on to a lot of jazz musicians, but Dolphy and Stanley Turrentine became the two that I loved almost immediately. Dolphy’s bass clarinet had such a unique sound and it’s one of those albums where you can get distracted rather easily by Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone or Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet — but you always know when Dolphy was the focus. It’s somewhat chaotic but you know something unique and groundbreaking is happening and it steered me to so many other jazz musicians that I don’t think I would appreciate jazz in the same way without it. Buy at Amazon.
Robert Cray: Strong Persuader (Mercury Records)
My childhood friends like to joke that I cheated on Rush with Robert Cray and there’s some merit to that accusation. Having failed my first driving test in the fall of 1986, I was forced to do the walk of shame and use my two feet to get to Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. It had been the plan to purchase a replacement copy of Rush’s Power Windows, but Robert Cray was having none of that. Blues music was already becoming a big part of my music collection, but I had never heard of him and I loved the album cover and his Fender Stratocaster loomed large in his hands.
35 years and numerous Robert Cray shows later, he remains one of my favorite blues guitarists of all-time; on a short list with B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Strong Persuader became a pop/rock hit which probably wasn’t the original intent but it’s a blues classic that sent me even further down the rabbit hole. Buy at Amazon.
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Cosmo’s Factory (Fantasy Records)
Selecting a single Creedence album is a bit of a struggle because 3 influenced me to a great extent but Cosmo’s Factory is Fogerty firing on all cylinders and the band delivering one hit after another. Fogerty steered me to Bob Seger, The Band, Bad Company, and the Allman Brothers; ending my obsession with the British bands that had been more commonplace in my home growing up. Any road trip playlist needs to include multiple tracks from Creedence or don’t bother getting into the car. Buy at Amazon.
Sir John Williams: The Empire Strikes Back (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
The experience of watching Star Wars in 1977 completely changed my life (600 pieces of memorabilia later…sorry kids), but the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back struck a serious note with me. “Han Solo and the Princess,” and “The Imperial March” belong on any serious Star Wars playlist and very few people would argue with a Wookiee (unless they want their arms torn out of their sockets) about the superiority of Episode V. Sir John Williams created a generation of film score addicts and I wear that badge with pride. Buy at Amazon.
Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues
Because you should be ashamed if you don’t own Remain in Light which changed everything. Their transformative release that blended synth-pop, African music, funk, rock, and anything else producer Brian Eno could toss into the mix.
Fast forward a few years (1983) and David Byrne and his bandmates released this less revolutionary mix of synth-pop, dance music, and rock that found its way onto the charts, and into Tom Cruise’s Risky Business – the band can be heard during the infamous party featuring rich white kids from the Chicago suburbs, Lana’s prostitute friends, a Princeton interview, and Guido the Killer Pimp.
“Burning Down the House” would emerge as the hit single but “This Must Be the Place: (Naïve Melody)” became an anthem for those of us who never got invited to all of the cool parties and had to crash and pretend to fit in when we clearly didn’t.
Speaking in Tongues was the first record that I ever purchased at the age of 13 and it remains as relevant to me now at 51 as it ever did back in 1983. Buy at Amazon.
Rush: Grace Under Pressure (Anthem Records)
I could have selected 5 or 6 Rush albums because no other band has taken more of my money or forced me to stay awake until 3 a.m. practicing the bass — but Grace Under Pressure came along at the right time for me. Rush was in its synth-pop stage when the album was released in 1984 and some fans objected to Alex Lifeson’s guitar taking a backseat to Geddy Lee’s synthesizer on most of the album; a deeper listen proves that to be false.
Grace Under Pressure has more of a political slant; “Distant Early Warning” focuses on the perils of nuclear war and “Red Sector A” is a tribute to Mary Weinrib (the late-mother of Geddy Lee) who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. That particular track is where Rush stopped just being a hometown band that appealed to the introvert nerd (that would be me) and one that intersected with my own family history. Discovering that my own Bubie and Mary Weinrib survived both camps together and came over to Canada on the boat was a lot to digest. Buy at Amazon.
Shostakovich : Symphony No.13, Op.113 “Babi Yar” (Live)
There were far too many Nazi atrocities from World War II for me to revisit as a child with my grandparents who were survivors of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, but the slaughter of 34,000 Ukrainian Jews outside of Kiev in the Babi Yar Ravine was one of the worst. This was one of the largest mass killings at an individual location during World War II. It was surpassed only by the massacre of 50,000 Jews at Odessa by German and Romanian units in October 1941.
The sorrow of this recording should bring one to tears; it’s hard for me to listen without thinking about the 100+ members of my own family who were murdered by the German Army in Poland, France, and Russia during the Holocaust. Music has power and this live performance of Shostakovich’s recording hits like a tank running through your living room. Buy at Amazon.
Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express (1977)
Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk were my first forays into electronic music; one made me want to ride the ‘L’ with Leia (Lana was already taken) and the other took me on a journey across the pond with some of the most brilliant synth-pop ever created. If you don’t own at least one Kraftwerk album but lose your mind over Ariana Grande — I’m slightly sad for you.
Kraftwerk’s appeal to Generation X makes more sense because we were the first to grow up with home computers and the ability to connect digital instruments with MIDI. Home recording and experimentation with electronic music was something that we actually did in the 1980s when we were not playing Infocom’s “Zork” and “Planetfall.” A transformative album that drove mom and dad crazy. Buy at Amazon.
Connie Francis: Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites
So what’s a nice Italian girl from Newark doing singing some of the most popular Jewish songs of the 20th Century? Connie Francis grew up in a Jewish part of the city and knew more Yiddish than 90% of the American Jewish community when she recorded this album in 1960. Having grown up in a Yiddish-speaking home, I was surprised to learn she wasn’t Jewish when I received this record as a Bar Mitzvah gift in 1983. 38 years later, I still pull this record and play it for my children when I find myself missing my Bubie and ZsaZsa. It’s a fantastic recording and not something that the current generation of pop singers could pull off. Buy at Amazon.
The Who: Who’s Next (Geffen, 1971)
I was an awkward looking teenager and the first time I grew out my hair and pulled my arms through a jean jacket with The Who’s logo on the back, I finally felt cool. For all of five minutes. The Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead were the truly popular bands in my high school filled with stoners and social deadheads but I was forever the audiophile nerd in a 6’3″ frame at age fifteen who absolutely worshipped Pete, Roger, John, and Keith.
I picked up the bass at seventeen and when I finally gave up trying to be Geddy Lee, I pretended that I was John Entwistle hanging out in the background keeping everything in check while Keith kicked over his drum set, Roger twirled his microphone, and Pete went full windmill.
Who’s Next was loud, complex, and far more complete than any other Who album. Secondary tracks like “Bargain,” “Love Ain’t for Keeping,” and “Behind Blue Eyes” were not just filler stuck in-between two monumental rock anthems that have been overused in far too many television theme songs and commercials.
You can’t listen to this album at low levels and truly appreciate the power behind it and the layers of sound that Townshend orchestrated behind Daltrey’s powerful vocals. Unlike the Beatles that felt too milk toast, The Who were unrestrained teenage angst and frustration that I could relate to and I know I frustrated my family playing this almost everywhere. It was genuine teenage rebellion for those of us with a darker side and really awkward looking mutton chops. Buy at Amazon.