I’ve dreamt of writing this article for 15 years.
I've wanted to be a musician my whole life and since I wasn't a part of a community of musicians growing up, I learned about music from lists just like this one. My parents weren’t very into records and I didn't have a group of friends that wanted to discuss music, so my musical education was dedicated to reading lists and reviews of albums on allmusic.com and rocklist.uk.
Just like how everyone has a secret acceptance speech in case they win an Academy Award, I spent many hours contemplating what I would say when I was asked to weigh in from my lofty perch of experience.
I imagined this would be a life affirming experience that would give a sense of importance and legitimacy to my life's work.
Unfortunately, as I write this, I realize that this won't really be the case for a couple of reasons:
1. No one really cares.
When I was reading the Rolling Stone list of top 500 albums and carefully studying every review, I was completely engrossed in the education I was receiving. Unconsciously, when I was imagining myself putting together a list like this, I was imagining a hoard of adoring fans that would be lapping up my opinions just like I did from my heroes.
Unfortunately, on the internet, opinions are more common than people wanting to hear them. Anyone can read thousands of lists like this one from people famous or obscure. Because of this, few people read these lists, while many are creating them.
I barely read my friend Chris Bollweg's list and we've been friends for 8 years and bandmates for just as long. My chances of anyone caring about these words are pretty slim.
2. I feel like a magician revealing his tricks.
Trent Reznor, Ludwig Beethoven, and Robert Johnson taught me about the importance of mystery in music. Everyone loves music that seems like it came direct from the ether. Just like a magician's audience, they love talking about how the trick is done, but they're even more pleased when they discover they can’t.
No one wants to feel like they could have written their favorite song. They want to feel like it was supernatural intervention that created a work of perfect art.
I think everyone who is into music has experienced being a fan of a band or a song until they discover how derivative the music is. For example, if I was 10 years old and wasn't familiar with the history of popular music, I would be astounded by the quality of the One Direction song "You Don't Know You're Beautiful." It's got a great guitar riff, great idea for a song, great production, etc. If they were the first group to come up with all those elements they would be a band as great as The Beatles.
However, the song is so obviously derivative, it causes anyone with even a passing knowledge of popular music to roll their eyes when they hear it.
I remember the first time I heard “YDKYB”, I stopped in my tracks and said to the person next to me, "...they're not really going to just rip off the 'Louie Louie' riff like that are they?"
I mean seriously:
What makes this exercise really scary is when it tarnishes your favorite songs:
It’s a common experience for 16-year boys across America to realize that Led Zeppelin stole a lot of their lyrics from old blues songs. Contempt soon follows.
I have a degree in music from one of the best music schools in the world (USC) and have devoted my life to studying great musicians and I can tell you: there are no real magicians in music.
Everyone from Mozart to Jimi Hendrix has a formula. I could take any musician in history and play you four songs that influenced them and you would say, "Oh. That's how they came up with that."
Fortunately for Jimi and Wolfgang, the influences they were drawing from are obscure enough that people don't know them. But One Direction isn’t so lucky.
”Amateur poets borrow; mature poets steal” -T. S. Elliot
My point is, if I give the public the naked elements of my influences, I'm hurting my chances of astounding people.
I've been advised by many famous musicians (David Foster et al) and my teachers to not even admit that magic doesn't take place. It hurts the cause of all artists and hurts the public.
However, I have an answer to each problem:
1. I know at least Ivan (and my fantastic A+ brother, Mark) will read this so it gives me some gratification to know my choices are appreciated by at least two people.
2. Since very few will read this I don't think there's much danger in revealing my secrets. There are thousands of books explaining how magic tricks work, but most people don't go to the effort to find the answers even when they're curious, so I think I’ll be ok.
So I shall continue.
Here's my list:
1. Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile
My concept of perfect music. I cried the hardest I have ever cried in my life the first time I heard this album. For 6 years I would only listen to this album once every three months because it was so precious to me. It felt like going into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and I didn’t want to abuse the privilege.
It's all in there. Perfect songwriting, perfect production, perfect vocals, perfect overall concept of the album.
2. Jon Foreman - Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
When I first heard this I cried for a different reason: Someone had done what I had been dreaming for years of doing before me. Similar to above. Absolute perfection.
3. Nickel Creek - Why Should the Fire Die?
This could have, and should have been the biggest album in the world. This album should have impacted the culture as much as Adele's 21.
Unfortunately, they had already been labeled as a "bluegrass" band by their label, the public, and the music industry so this album never reached the audience it deserved. As a bluegrass album it disappoints as much as fans of Inglourious Basterds would be disappointed by Shindler's List.
If I had any power I would re-release this album today and watch it conquer the world.
4. Drive by Truckers - Decoration Day
(Standing in for Daniel's preferred choice, Deeper In)
An astounding collection of songs perfectly performed. I have yet to play a song from this album to someone and not have their jaw hit the floor. Just one song from this album would be worth spending your whole life creating.
5. Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
It's Pet Sounds. Come on. Everyone knows it’s the best.
The production alone, or the songwriting alone would deserve a place on this list. The combination of the two is amazing.
6. Big L - Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous
This is the best rap album you haven't heard.
7. Clara Ward - Meetin' Tonight
I wish I could make people go bananas like she could. Perfect gospel singing.
8. George Strait - Complete Discography
My all time favorite musician. I put this on here without a specific album because they're all excellent. I can put all 32 albums on shuffle and not skip a song until the playlist runs out. I think this is the highest aspiration for a musician.
He’s the person I'd most like to talk to from history. I’d rather have 15 minutes with him than any person living or dead.
9. Rage Against the Machine - First three albums (Favorite Track: Know your enemy)
The same as George Strait: one long barrage of awesome.
Among the most amazing things for me about Rage, is that no one really followed them stylistically. They were extremely popular and "rap rock" became a major style in music, but no band that I’m aware of sounds anything close to them, even today. Very rare for such a popular band.
10. Taylor Swift - Fearless
If you don't like this record it's probably because you think of it as a country record or as a bubblegum record. Don't do that.
11. The Wonder Years - The Upsides (Favorite Track: All my Friends are in Bar Bands)
My current all time favorite band. If I had a wish today, it would be to open up for them on tour this fall. (Soupy, if you're reading this: call me.)
12. Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream
(Bizarrely, this song does not appear to be available in an album version in Youtube. So here it is live.)
A magical experience. The best loud record ever recorded.
13. Ry Cooder - Into the Purple Valley
Ry Cooder is an astounding musician. I think he has the best ears in music. We should be best friends.
14. Minor Threat - Minor Threat
This is on here not so much for the actual record (which is fantastic) but for all that it represents. Nothing is quite like being 14 and feeling like you're part of something bigger than yourself. Minor threat gave me that.
15. Great Big Sea - Turn
The first band that was ever my favorite band. I still listen to these songs and wonder why I've ever tried to learn about any other kind of music. I should have just tried to make music exactly like this.
As I get to the end of this, I'm realizing how many important albums I'm leaving out (The Franco Corelli recording of Gounod's Faust, anything by Charlie Parker, Jorge Ben's Afrobrazil) but I think this list mostly represents who I really am, which for me was the goal of this exercise.
Thank you for reading this. I hope it has been enjoyable, and I hope that someday an album by Daniel Newheiser will make your list and mine.
Dig on Daniel's own "All I'm Missing is You" and see you soon for more of whatever it is you people read this stuff for.