10 Influential Albums

A couple of weeks ago, I responded to a Facebook challenge to post the covers of 10 albums that had influenced “my musical tastes and upbringing.” I posted my responses in chronological order, starting with ‚ĶMoving, by Peter, Paul & Mary.

Not all of these albums would rank among my favorites. But, for one reason or another, they changed the course of what I was listening to at the time, and in some ways helped shape my own style of musical composition. Explanations are below.

Shot Through the Heart – Jennifer Warnes

This Jennifer Warnes album influenced me in two ways.

First, her song “I Know a Heartache When I See One” was my gateway to country music in the early 1980s.

Around 1980, I grew bored with what I was hearing on mainstream rock stations. “Heartache,” which crossed the two genres, got me listening to country stations, and I continued to do so for the next several years.

Country music had long appealed to me. I recall songs from my childhood such as Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On” and “He’ll Have to Go” by Jim Reeves. And after I discovered Top 40 radio, I had enjoyed crossover hits such as Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” and Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.”

My 1980s foray into popular country music greatly expanded my knowledge of the genre. Then, around 1986, I found programs on Los Angeles-area radio stations KPFK and KCRW that took me in several different directions, including contemporary acoustic music, old-time country, bluegrass, “world music,” Celtic and what is now known as Americana.

With the inclusion of her gorgeous, a cappella rendition of “Hard Times Come Again No More” on the album, Warnes also rekindled my appreciation of the music of Stephen Foster. It motivated me to find a book of Foster’s songs, which in turn provided a wellspring of inspiration for my own music.

Favorite tracks: I Know a Heartache When I See One, Hard Times Come Again No More, You Remember Me, Frankie in the Rain

Good Old Boys – Randy Newman

10 albums that shaped my musical tastes and styles

The first Randy Newman song I ever heard was “Louisiana 1927,” the last song on Good Old Boys. He had me with the four-bar orchestral intro.

Newman has put out many first-rate albums and movie scores, but Good Old Boys and “Louisiana 1927” are still my favorites. More than any of his other albums, I believe, Good Old Boys springs from his formative years in New Orleans and reveals his seriously mixed feelings about the American South.

Many of his songs are acerbic and reflect a cynical view of humanity, and nobody I know of (with the possible exception of Warren Zevon) employs the unreliable narrator so effectively. Among the best examples are “Political Science” from Sail Away, and “My Life is Good” from Trouble in Paradise.

Some of his songs are incredibly dark, notably “In Germany Before the War” from Little Criminals. Yet he is also capable of creating songs as vulnerable, tender and life-affirming as “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and — one of my favorite love songs — “Feels Like Home.”

I find inspiration from his use of the piano to accompany his singing, his bluesy chords, and the lush orchestrations of his albums and movie scores. Lyrics aside, his music sounds as big as America.

Sometimes, when I sit at the piano, grasping for inspiration, I tell myself, “Think Stephen Foster. Think Randy Newman.”

Favorite tracks: Louisiana 1927, Guilty, Rollin’, Birmingham, Marie, Wedding in Cherokee County

Streets – Ralph McTell

10 albums that shaped my musical tastes and styles

The summer of 1975 was a good one, as far as my musical influences go. Not only did I discover Tom Waits, but I was introduced to the music of Ralph McTell when I heard “Streets of London” on the radio.

His records were to hard to find then, but I did manage to get my hands on this album and, eventually, several others. I had been to Europe that summer, and this collection of songs, with references to Amsterdam, Yugoslavia, Paris and London, struck a chord.

Although more than 200 artists have covered “Streets of London,” I discovered that Ralph McTell is much better known in Europe and around the world than in the U.S. That’s our loss, because his songs are gems, bursting with empathy and understanding.

He has a particular gift for telling the stories of ordinary people living quiet lives — the factory girl, the kind father figure in the flat upstairs, the young couple in love, the older couple who stayed together and the friend who has weathered life’s storms.

In a remarkable body of work spanning more than 50 years, his gentle kindness constantly shines through.

Favorite tracks: Streets of London, Seeds of Heaven, Heron Song, Lunar Lullaby, Grande Affaire, Pity the Boy, Interest on the Loan

Tom Waits – Closing Time & The Heart of Saturday Night

10 albums that shaped my musical tastes and styles

If I were asked what one album most influenced my musical tastes, as well as the style of my own music, I would have to pick…these two, and call it a tie. I simply can’t separate the two.

I first heard Tom Waits on the radio in the summer of 1975, probably on WBBM-FM in Chicago, when I heard “San Diego Serenade” and immediately fell in love with his music. The next day, I hurried to a record store, and began leafing through one of those big yellow catalogues, trying to find out more about this “Tom Lakes.”

Despite having misheard his name, I managed to find his first two albums, Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night, which instantly became — and still remain — two of my very favorite albums.

I love the shadowy, melancholy atmosphere of his songs, the gorgeous melodies, the insight and pathos of his lyrics, and the jazzy, trumpet-infused arrangements that were unlike anything else I was hearing at the time.

As a pianist and aspiring songwriter myself, I’ve been inspired by his mastery of the instrument and his use of chord progressions I had never imagined. And I’ve followed his evolution as a songwriter and performer who has maintained and occasionally surpassed that level of excellence over a span of almost five decades.

I’ve borrowed a lot from him in my songwriting, sometimes without intending to. When my son, who makes his living as a musician and songwriter, heard me play some of my recent compositions on the piano, he said they reminded him of Tom Waits. I took this as a great compliment. I’m not anywhere close to playing in that league, of course, but “when you are dreaming, you see for miles and miles…”*

*Tom Waits, “Midnight Lullaby”

Favorite tracks:

Closing Time – Midnight Lullaby, Martha, Rosie, Grapefruit Moon, I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You, Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards), Little Trip to Heaven (on the Wings of Your Love)

The Heart of Saturday Night – Please Call Me Baby, San Diego Serenade, Shiver Me Timbers, Fumblin’ with the Blues, New Coat of Paint

Below the Salt – Steeleye Span

10 albums that shaped my musical tastes and styles

I discovered Steeleye Span in college, when I heard one of the band’s songs on an FM radio station in Champaign, Ill. Their brand of folk-rock was unlike anything I had heard before, and I liked it immediately. I went out and bought this album of along with their two subsequent albums, Parcel of Rogues and Now We Are Six.

I particularly like the lead vocals of Maddy Prior, the band’s gorgeous vocal harmonies, the musicianship of violinist Peter Knight and other band members, and their electrified, rock-style interpretation of British folk songs, some of which are centuries old.

I’ve long had an interest in folk tales and folk songs, and took some folklore classes in college. This music was right up my alley.

A few years later, shortly after I met my wife, we discovered that one of the things we had in common was that we were fans of Steeleye Span. When our first daughter was born, we named her Maddy.

Favorite tracks: King Henry, Gaudete, Rosebud in June, Spotted Cow, John Barleycorn

John Prine (self-titled album)

10 albums that shaped my musical tastes and styles

In 1971, I was watching the Roy Leonard Show, a local Chicago talk show on WGN-TV, on which Kris Kristofferson was the musical guest. He had brought with him an unknown, 24-year-old singer-songwriter he said he had just discovered, whom he described as “a cross between Bob Dylan and Don Ho.”

This was my introduction to John Prine, who sang a song or two, one of which was most likely “Paradise.” I knew I was hearing something great and unique — country-flavored folk music with killer lyrics, at a time when country was anything but cool. Around that time, Prine’s self-titled debut album was released.

It’s hard to imagine a debut album better than that of John Prine, who died yesterday. At least 10 of the songs on the album are absolutely outstanding, superb blendings of melody and lyrics. They are alternately political (“Your Flag Decal…”), autobiographical (“Paradise”), humorous (“Illegal Smile”), bitter (“Sam Stone”) and poignant (“Hello in There”).

I’m proud of the fact that Prine was from Maywood, a working class town west of Chicago, just a few stops up the C & NW line from my hometown, and that he composed some of his great, early songs while working nearby, delivering the mail.

It’s a measure of how highly I regard this album that songs such as “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There” — which are among the best songs written by Prine or any other American songwriter — don’t even rank among my “top 5” personal favorites from this album.

I’m drawn to the twangy sounds of the devil-may-care “Spanish Pipedream” and the sweetly sad “Far from Me,” which Prine considered the best song he ever wrote. I don’t disagree. And “Paradise,” no longer waiting, is simply a perfect song.

Favorite tracks: Far from Me, Spanish Pipedream, Paradise, Illegal Smile, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore, Angel from Montgomery

Sit Down Young Stranger – Gordon Lightfoot

10 albums that shaped my musical tastes and styles

The singer-songwriter movement blossomed in 1970 with the release of three of my all-time favorite albums: Sweet Baby James by James Taylor, Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens, and Sit Down Young Stranger (aka If You Could Read My Mind) by Gordon Lightfoot.

Of the three, Lightfoot’s album is probably the one that influenced my own musical taste and songwriting style the most. Looking back on my own comparatively feeble attempts at writing music in the 1970s and early 1980s, I can see his influence in my melodies and song structure. And his song “Your Love’s Return” is subtitled “Song for Stephen Foster,” a salute to one of my greatest musical heroes.

Lightfoot’s songs simply sound good to me. Bob Dylan, also a fan of his music, was once quoted as saying that when he heard a Lightfoot song he “wished it would last forever.”

Favorite tracks: The Pony Man, Minstrel of the Dawn, Sit Down Young Stranger, Your Love’s Return, If You Could Read My Mind

Days of Future Passed – The Moody Blues

10 albums that shaped my musical tastes and styles

I remember the first time I heard “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues on AM radio, and wondering about the strange-sounding instrument that helped give the song its dreamy, hypnotic quality.

Later, a classmate informed me that the Moody Blues were a rock band that had joined with a symphony orchestra to produce the album Days of Future Passed. My background was in classical music, so this piqued my interest. I bought the single version of “Tuesday Afternoon,” and eventually purchased the full album after hearing the extended version of the song on FM radio.

The album did not disappoint. It turned out that the strange sound I couldn’t identify came from a mellotron, a keyboard that had been created before the advent of the synthesizer to mimic the sound of a symphony orchestra.

One of the intents behind this concept album — a day in the life of everyman — was to seamlessly weave symphonic interludes between the rock songs and ballads, with the mellotron producing the symphonic sound during the songs themselves. It wasn’t exactly seamless, but it made for an interesting album.

The Moody Blues went on to create a string of six additional classic albums (without the orchestra) between 1968 and 1972, in which the band members wrote all the songs and played all the instruments themselves. I recall a quote from one of them that they were trying to create music for the head and the heart, and their ambitious albums certainly resonated with me.

Days of Future Passed is nowhere near my favorite Moody Blues album — that would be Every Good Boy Deserves Favour — but it opened the door to the band that was, and still is, my favorite rock group from that era.

Favorite tracks: Forever Afternoon (Tuesday), Nights in White Satin

Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel

10 albums that shaped my musical tastes and styles

This album was my gateway to pop music. I had been raised with classical music — piano lessons, band and orchestra — and didn’t listen to Top 40 radio until the summer after 8th grade. (I did like the Beatles, however, and my favorite group was Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.)

I had a Tijuana Brass album on my birthday list, and my older sister gave me one, along with this unasked-for album by Simon & Garfunkel. But the latter album was so interesting, unusual and different from anything I had heard before, that it became the one I listened to more.

“Mrs. Robinson,” with its strange lyrics and instrumentation, hit the charts that summer. I started listening to Chicago’s WLS radio, and discovered that a.m. DJ Clark Weber played “Mrs. Robinson” at the same time every morning, a few minutes after my alarm went off. This drew me in, and I started listening to WLS and WCFL in just about every spare moment.

I loved the intelligent lyrics and sweet harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel’s songs, and still do. Most of my favorite songs of theirs are on other albums: “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am a Rock,” “For Emily, Wherever I may Find Her,” “Homeward Bound,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Song for the Asking,” etc. But the bittersweet song “America” from Bookends may be my favorite of all.

Favorite tracks: America, Fakin’ It, Old Friends