Earlier this year, I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. One of the novel’s recurring themes is the characters trying to list their top 5 albums — perhaps of all time, or in a particular category. I was thinking of this while driving down to Bethesda to give a speech last night. It was a 3-hour drive down and a 2.5-hour drive back. I brought a few old CDs to listen to. I was amazed by how well I remembered these CDs — not having listened to them, in some cases, for 5+ years. I was also amazed by their ability to conjure up memories of being the age I was when I discovered them. Here are 5 albums that made an impression on me at an impressionable age (in no particular order).
Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes. General teen angsty music. I discovered Tori while at my first high school in Indiana, where I had some serious angst myself about desperately wanting to get out of there. I was quite taken with how opaque some of her language was — could you be that non-obvious in rock-type music (even “alternative” music)? I aspired to that in the gobs of fiction I was writing at age 15-16 — short stories cranked out in my bedroom at night. Some of her stuff is more obvious and listening to some of it now makes me cringe at how self-esteem-y it is (“she’s been everybody else’s girl — maybe someday she’ll be her own!”) But I was also studying piano fairly seriously at the time I was listening to Tori and this album still shocks me as to what you can do with that instrument. It is marvelously creative (I also liked her next album, Under the Pink, and I learned to play parts of “Icicle” on the piano, though I didn’t get into her later albums).
Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill. Can we say 1995-1996 without talking about her? Her album took the pop world by storm by being angry yet singable. It was refreshingly different — intriguing, complex and good, but not obsessed with being pretty. While tracks like “Ironic” got more radio play, I was a lot more into ones like “You Live, You Learn.” Unfortunately, I don’t think her next album (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie) was as good. Maybe because she wasn’t as angry anymore.
Indigo Girls, 1200 Curfews (with a nod to Swamp Ophelia). This 2-CD set has some clunky and too pointed tracks. But mostly it’s live performances of greatest hits, including classically singable Indigo Girls fun like Galileo and Closer to Fine. It also has the Girls covering some amazing other stuff (like Midnight Train to Georgia and Tangled up in Blue). My brother gave me this set for my birthday when I turned 17, and when I listen to it, I am instantly 17 again. I’d transferred from my first high school to the Indiana Academy, and was liking life a lot more. It’s only missing a few great tracks from the Swamp Ophelia album (like “The Wood Song”), which I’d discovered prior to this one, and had checked out of the library like literally 10 times. Yes, that’s what you do when you’re 16. So I’d add in that to this to get 3 CDs of mostly good stuff. (As with the previous two entries in this list, I kind of lost interest in the Indigo Girls’ work after this one).
Dixie Chicks, Fly. I didn’t discover this one until my senior year of college (2000-2001) so I was a wee bit late to the Dixie Chicks party. But I love how the Dixie Chicks re-cast country music. While some of the lyrics are a bit cheesy, like they’re caricaturing country (Mary Ann and Wanda were both active in the FFA?), it takes a certain gumption to turn the sad tale of an abusive husband into a singable and upbeat revenge fantasy of murdering him and wrapping him up in a tarp and stuffing his body in your trunk (Goodbye Earl). “Cold Day in July” is just a good country break-up song. I checked this one out from the library a lot too (then bought it later).
Bach B-Minor Mass (Collegium Vocale, Philippe Herreweghe conducting). I bet you didn’t expect to see this album on my list of chick rock. My choir at Princeton performed the Bach B-Minor Mass in early 2000, but I’d already gone to Australia for a term abroad and missed performing it with them. It remains my favorite choral work of all time, and someday I will get to actually sing it. I listened to this mass again and again and again. I prefer this recording to some of the more famous ones (like the Robert Shaw Chorale). I feel it’s crisper. Or maybe I listened to this one first and am forever primed to prefer it this way. The mass itself has a lot of 5-part harmony on the choral parts, with a second soprano line. Since that’s my part, it had an extra challenge from the usual soprano line because I was not the highest voice. When something is hard, it probably burns in your brain more. The Et Resurrexit coming out of the Crucifixus is one of the most joyous moments in choral music (I will admit it is not quite as joyful as the first time the full chorus sings the Ode to Joy part of Beethoven’s Ninth, but the sudden arising out of a quiet moment is very similar). The Agnus Dei alto solo is utterly gorgeous as a low woman’s voice sings a few hauntingly higher notes than you might expect. In another life, I will have the voice to do that solo justice.
What would you put on your list of 5 influential albums?