25 lifechanging/shaping albums

By djproject djproject
updated about 1 year ago

Think of 25 albums that had such a profound effect on you--they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 25 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill. Get the idea now? Good.


Everything above the line should be kept. I’ve decided to add my own explanations and commentary on each releases. This list is in rough autobiographical order (though you will not catch me reorganizing my collection in autobiographical order a la Rob in High Fidelity).

  1. Ludwig van Beethoven - Herbert von Karajan, Berliner Philharmoniker - 9 Symphonien

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    As you will probably notice that I took some slight liberties as far as “defining an album.” This one is perfectly justifiable since it’s hard for me of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan performing all of Beethoven’s symphonies not as a boxset. (Plus it’s extremely cheap to get it on CD). This was the release that my father played every now and then when I was a baby. He noted that my hands waved and moved in response to the music. Thus he knew that music would be a natural part of my life and hopefully a way to live a life.

  2. U2 - The Unforgettable Fire

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    I watched MTV a lot as a toddler and that was my main exposure to what was considered mainstream music. But when I heard this album (parents bought it for themselves but I was always within earshot), I instinctively knew there was something different and special about it. It was not a typical commercial release and I somewhat knew it without really knowing it until much later in life. I loved it then as I do today of how impressionistic and atmospheric it all was. I also think this was the album that planted the seeds for getting to know Brian Eno (and all appropriate associates) as well as exploring ambient music, both in terms of listening and composing.

  3. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side Of The Moon

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    For someone who was young and easily drawn to objects with a visually striking image, it would make sense that I would come across something like The Dark Side of the Moon just based on the cover. But it’s not what’s outside, it’s what’s inside that counts. (Of course I know that the two doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive and in fact the great works have a complementary outside look and inside content). The music was just as stimulating and imaginative as the cover. It was interesting because on the one hand it was familiar: “Time”, “Money” and “Us and Them” being staple radio hits. But it also had an experimental air with voice-overs and sound effects. It was more than just a normal album with pop tunes. It was an album that could take you places and could say things about the world. This is what I still remember about it and still keep with me through all these years.

  4. Vangelis - Mask

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    While it is generally an unspoken custom to have an artist represented once on these lists, I think this is worthy exception since Vangelis has been an ongoing source of inspiration throughout my life. Vangelis in general confirmed once and for all that music can be a transport to other universes. Furthermore, the way to go to those different worlds was through the synthesizer. Thus I knew that the synthesizer was going to be important to me in the future when I do my own composing. While it was hard picking one Vangelis album to represent my childhood, I chose this album because not only because of its atmospherics but also its symphonic quality. It showed that you could bring back the powerful operatics of Romantic style Western art music into a modern scene (complete with synthesizers).

    There were other crucial Vangelis albums that played a role in my life: Invisible Connections and Beaubourg for developing my sense of the avant-garde, See You Later for my sardonic humour, The City as it was the first CD I listened to after I got a CD player of my own, Φόρος Τιμής Στον Γκρέκο [A Tribute to El Greco] was got into the art of El Greco and then to Byzantine iconography, Fais que ton rêve soit plus lang que la nuit [May your dreams last longer than the night] for the idea of a “poeme symphonique” and finally Ραψωδίες [Rapsodies], his collaboration with Irene Papas of Byzantine hymns that pushed me toward the Orthodox Church.

  5. Tomita - The Planets

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    I remember disliking this the first time I heard it. This was in large part due to a familiarity with The Planets Suite very well in its original orchestral form. Thus I was very sensitive to anything that “deviated from the norm”. I think what threw me off was the start of the piece where you had various other parts - the Jupiter movement done as a musical box, imaginary radio chatter indicating a launch, etc. - that didn’t lead right away to “Mars: The Bringer of War.” It took a while but when I got a VHS tape of “The Planets” where the Tomita rendition was used to accompany a picture/fact slideshow of sorts about the solar system, I warmed to it. It was funny that I had this animosity toward it in the beginning even though I already had a love of electronic music, including the inaccessible Vangelis albums Beaubourg and Invisible Connections. But I guess it demonstrated that even if you are naturally adventurous musically-speaking, there’s always some barrier that comes your way. And either you can tear it down and use it to explore other realms or you can leave it be and know that that is your boundary.

  6. Boston Camerata, The* - A Medieval Christmas

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    I know what you may be thinking: why a Christmas album? Well, it was a very unusual one. Most Christmas albums are purely disposable … the musical equivalent of the Christmas tree: buy it once and then toss it. But this one was very special because it introduced me to the world of medieval Europe. For the musician in me, it was going back to the one of earliest written music in Western history. For the Christian in me, it was a portal to Roman Catholic theology that I would explore (with some reservations … Eastern Orthodoxy was a completely different matter). For the music appreciator, it gave me an instant opinion about Christmas albums in general: the album should broaden your sense of how to celebrate the feast and the album should focus on the feast as much as possible (i.e. since when is “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bells” considered Christmas music?).

  7. Eurythmics - 1984 (For The Love Of Big Brother)

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    I knew of this album through my father since he had a tape of it. But it was when I was nearing my teenage years when I really became interested in it. This was in large part due to reading George Orwell’s novel, which I can confidently that that book made a tremendous impact on my life as well as my political thinking. This album was what Eurythmics made as an intended soundtrack to the 1984 theatrical adaptation directed by Michael Radford. But Radford didn’t want it for the film (the Eurythmics idea was made by his financer, Sir Richard Branson through Virgin Films) and when it was released on laserdisc and DVD, his director’s cut dropped anything Eurythmics altogether. As much as I respect director’s wishes for a film, this is a case where I felt he was wrong in dismissing Eurythmics since they made a really good musical equivalent of that world. Also it demonstrated that both Annie Lennox and David A. Stewart were not just pop artists and that they were always interested in flexing creative muscles and sometimes it’s the obscure album that’s the most interesting in one’s discography.

  8. Tom Lehrer - An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer

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    This live performance album of some of his various songs, including the (in)famous “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and “The Elements” (I’m sure every high school chemistry teacher played it in class … I know mine did), introduced me to dark, sardonic and snarky humour. I sometimes jokingly attribute Tom Lehrer as the reason why I fit so well in Boston when I finally moved up there (he was a long-time student at Harvard … and not in that creepy professional student way). But in a more important way, Tom Lehrer (along with a few other comedians and just comedy in general), help me get through the turbulence of adolescence. It helped me to laugh at the world when the world treats you like shit.

  9. Various - Tibetan Freedom Concert

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    This album did two things. The first one was it represented one of my favourite political issues as a teenager: the status of Tibet. (For the record, I was and still am an advocate of full independence and I don’t care how idealistic or naïve it makes me sound. Thus, this rules out any chance for me performing in China in the future.). The second one was it helped me to put my foot in the door of the 1990s music scene. Prior to that, I was aware in only the most general and vague way of what was going on. But from this release, I was able to know about various key artists, even if I never developed it further from that album. This included Radiohead, Blur and Sonic Youth.

  10. Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile

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    It would end up being the last time I got into a group via MTV. (As a wee one, along with MTV, this was how I was aware of the current mainstream of music). It was through the video for “We’re In This Together” and something about the production that grabbed me immediately. I vaguely knew about Nine Inch Nails through “Closer”. (And interestingly enough, through the TV series Millennium where in the pilot episode, “Piggy” is used in a crucial scene). But “We’re In This Together” sparked my interest and thus I kept the release date of The Fragile in mind. And so late September 1999, I bought The Fragile and listened to it that day. It was a fascinating sonic and emotional adventure, a revisit to the music I’ve liked prior to this and an affirmation that you can do something with density and heart. It’s still my favourite NIN release and the basis of judgement for all other NIN releases.

  11. Radiohead - Kid A

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    Around August 2000, I had bought OK Computer and I believe it was around that time when it was announced that Radiohead would be releasing a new album before the end of the year. And thus, October 2000, I bought Kid A … the day it came out and it was during a fifteen-minute break whilst working as a library page no less. When I got home from work, I listened to it that night. While there were people who were trying to get their heads around the sound, I took to it immediately. For me, it was exciting that who was considered a mainstream act was making this kind of music where it was about impressions and textures as oppose to hooks and catchy clichés. I also felt that I was a part of something exciting as well: I would talk about this album the same way my parents’ generation would talk about David Bowie’s Low or The Velvet Underground’s eponymous (somewhat) debut. This album would set me on the course to develop further my interest in electronic music of the 1990s and 2000s, especially Warp Records (since it was cited as a major influence on Thom Yorke). And in a strange way, I do see it now as a precursor of things to come in terms of the decade’s mood.

  12. Various - Routine

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    Thanks in large part to Kid A, I was getting interested in the Sheffield-founded, London-based electronic music label Warp Records. [Now they’ve embraced nearly all facets of independent music and have become a much broader label … perhaps what Factory could have been if they didn’t have their heads up their arses in certain respects]. There were certainly plenty of albums I could have chosen (and there are a few distinguished ones on this list), this album is the great sum-up of what I would explore further starting from my last year in high school and onto college. The compilation itself was made in celebration of the opening of their North American office (thus no more paying import prices on Warp releases).

  13. Spiritualized®* - Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space

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    I’m not entirely confident precisely when I heard of this album and in what context. I remember buying it very randomly it seemed although there might have been something at work on the subconscious level. But no matter when and how it came about, this was an album that secured my interest in independent music and particularly music from the United Kingdom. This album also best expresses my romantic malaise and it would serve well as an accompanying soundtrack to all the various downturns in my romantic life (including as I’m finalizing this list). In fact, I’m sure this album has greatly influenced The Romantic Dysthymia.

  14. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works Volume II

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    I acquired this album whilst spending my spring break (2001) in Los Angeles with my grandmother. I would listen to this while I was reading Günter Grass’ Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum … in English of course]. I was really happy that I was able to get the UK CD edition, which has 24 tracks (the US CD edition for some reason has 23). I was fully aware of ambient music. I even had a sense of ambient music that had a very dark tinge (the aforementioned Vangelis album Invisible Connections is an example of this). But this is where the overall mood is very intense but still grounded in something like dance music. This hypothesis cannot be fully confirmed but it is hinted in the “original mix” of #2 or CD1,TRK2 or [radiator]. In other words, you can make something with artistic density but using some conventional forms (in this case, rhythmic looping). This was also a release that didn’t have conventional track names but used a combination of pie symbols and photographs to designate each track.

  15. Autechre - Tri Repetae

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    When I saw that Radiohead was inspired by Warp Records and that Trent Reznor through his now-defunct personal label Nothing Records would distribute Warp releases to the US, I began to pay attention more to the label itself. Autechre caught my eye as an electronic music project that had some dance qualities but that aspect was secondary to their creative drive and push. On a whim, I acquired the US release of Tri Repetae, which had a second disc containing two 1995 EPs Anvil Vapre and Garbage. Since listening to it that first time, I’ve described this as the “rave party for my head.” While I’ve never been a frequent to the nightclubs, this album made it completely unnecessary to attend one since it was everything I could have wanted in “a night out.” I would explore Autechre further and deeper and they would be the most prominent artist in my listening during my days at the College of William and Mary.

  16. Godspeed You Black Emperor! - Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven

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    I forget exactly how I came across Godspeed You Black Emperor. It was probably one of those recommendations courtesy of Amazon or perhaps it was a word-of-mouth affair. But GYBE was my first entry into post-rock and to the Montreal-based Constellation Records. In some ways, hearing this group is what kept a part of me in tune with guitar-based music as I was exploring the electronic realm. In other ways, GYBE and this album in particular showed that you can reach for great heights but not give off an air of pretension. After all, this is a double vinyl and succeeds as a musical work and an expressive work than the other double vinyl consisting of four side-long tracks … Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans. The interesting thing was that I actually saw them perform live (their last tour before their indefinite hiatus) ... and I can safely say that I was the only one who voted for Bush, highly disagreed with Noam Chomsky (they were selling his books in a stand out in the back) and yet enjoyed the concert.

  17. Coil - Musick To Play In The Dark

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    Coil was on my radar of music to pursue due to the strong connection with Nine Inch Nails from 1992 to 1996. But this album brought me into the world of Coil and the greater world of experimental industrial. Coil had this tendency to create very strange worlds and their music was very reflective of their own pagan beliefs. While I personally have strong theological disagreements with it, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying it as music in its own right. It was definitely some of the darkest music I was into whilst at William and Mary and there were times when it served me well as the best way to express various downturns I had at that time.

  18. Coil - Musick To Play In The Dark²

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    Coil was on my radar of music to pursue due to the strong connection with Nine Inch Nails from 1992 to 1996. But this album brought me into the world of Coil and the greater world of experimental industrial. Coil had this tendency to create very strange worlds and their music was very reflective of their own pagan beliefs. While I personally have strong theological disagreements with it, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying it as music in its own right. It was definitely some of the darkest music I was into whilst at William and Mary and there were times when it served me well as the best way to express various downturns I had at that time.

  19. Joy Division - Closer

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    I first listened to Joy Division while in college but it will be well after college before I got the vinyl and later Heart and Soul [a fairly complete collection of JD], the 2007 Grant Gee directed documentary Joy Division and the 2007 Anton Corbijn-directed biopic of Ian Curtis Control. While it was during this later revisit when I felt its intensity, I noticed right off the bat it’s cold, distant and alienating nature. I had listened to Unknown Pleasures as well but the atmosphere comes through with greater intensity in Closer. Of course it’s hard to hear this album and not think of Ian Curtis’ suicide shortly before their American tour. But putting that aside, it’s a continuation of the Romantic aspiration of expressing great intensity. Furthermore this album is Gothic without trying at all to be Gothic (even with the photograph of a tomb on the front). But having said that, I can see how this album played a big role in future albums of the style.

  20. Igor Wakhévitch - Donc...

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    This is a great liberty I’m taking as far as the definition of an album. This is actually a box set containing all the solo albums made by French avant-garde composer Igor Wakhévitch in the 1970s. But currently, this is the only way to obtain anything close a complete body of work. I came across the name through a feature article from Pitchfork entitled “It Was the Strangest Record I Have Ever Heard” and this immediately perked my interest. I was fortunate to read about it at that time and to acquire a copy of it (it’s now unfortunately out of print). It was the summer of 2002 and while I was working the evening shift doing data entry, I was listening to the entire thing once a night. Once again, those six albums helped to confirm the imaginative possibilities of music where you are not limited by style, genre, execution or even sensibility. After all, this was once a piano pupil of Oliver Messiaen but who would also end up working with Terry Riley, Pierre Schaffer and Robert Wyatt. Thus music is limited only by your imagination and your capabilities. The six albums are, in chronological order with year included: Logos (rituel sonore) (1970), Docteur Faust (1971), Hathor (1973), Les fous d’or (1975), Nagual (1977) and Let’s Start (1979).

  21. Arvo Pärt - Kanon Pokajanen

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    I was fully aware of the music of Arvo Pärt. In fact, on 11 September 2001 [coincidentally Pärt’s 66th birthday], I played in my room “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten” (long before Michael Moore decided to use it rudely and sacrilegiously). But it was the summer of 2003 when I had an idea for a film like Koyaanisqatsi but the themes will be about sin and repentance. I was browsing around for music and sure enough I came across Kanon Pokajanen. So I bought it and listened to it that night. It was absolutely perfect for the project I had in mind. After listening to it for some time and being aware that I had a final project to do in “partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Bachelor of Arts in Music degree.” Thus I decided to do a formal analysis of the piece and linking the setting with the theme of repentance. I wrote an initial paper for a research seminar class and used that as the basis for the thesis. On 2 May 2005 (Bright Monday), I defended my thesis and received “High Honors” because of it. But apart from the creative idea and serving as a key personal academic milestone, it confirmed (as did other music I heard before and since) that the best music evokes a spiritual nature.

  22. The Cure - Pornography

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    William and Mary primed me for The Cure and anticipating a reissue/remaster campaign, I held off on getting the albums. (Right now I’m still waiting for Disintegration even though I know it fairly well). It was 2005 or so when the first four albums were reissued and this included Pornography, considered the creative apex of The Cure in their early days. This album in terms of its music and expressive power was nothing entirely new. But this album best represented what I was going through emotionally and psychologically post-graduation. It represented a period where I was disillusioned, upset and angry at all the various romantic aspirations. There were certain lyric lines that I identified with at the time including from “Siamese Twins”: “Leave me to die, you won’t remember my voice.” (For the record, I was never suicidal during this time. But I was very depressed … hence making The Romantic Dysthymia).

    [Note: As of June 2010, I finally have the remastered edition of Disintegration]

  23. Cocteau Twins - Lullabies To Violaine: Singles And Extended Plays 1982-1996

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    I had heard Cocteau Twins while I was at William and Mary (Treasure was the first album) but it never really grabbed me until years later when again there was a reissue/remaster campaign. What caught my eye was the limited edition of Lullabies to Violaine, a four-disc set that collects all of their singles and EPs. After seeing it and reading a well-written review from Pitchfork, I decided to get it post-haste. It was an interesting crash course into the history of Cocteau Twins from their Siouxsie-like Lullabies through their creative highpoints of Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay to their weaker yet still potent denouement of Tishbite and Violaine. Furthermore, this was the album that helped crystallize a lot of different musical ideas I had at the time and thus launched the musical project, The Spangle Maker.

  24. The Appleseed Cast - Low Level Owl: Volumes I + II

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    It was a friend through a forum site I visited frequently who introduced me to The Appleseed Cast. After reading some reviews, I was definitely attracted to its post-rock quality. But after hearing it, I consider them art-emo and the only “emo” group I care to listen on any level, including regularly. (I suppose I could listen to Sunny Day Real Estate, the father of it all but The Appleseed Cast has the added bonus of emulating them a lot in their early days and then springboard from there to go into other realms). It’s Low Level Owl that really made me respect them as a group in their own right. Once again, it was taking post-rock tendencies of expressive instrumentals but giving it the right amount of commercial sensibility to keep it from being too esoteric. But in spite of the honing, it doesn’t dilute it into something bland and uninteresting. These pair of albums would also become great road trip music, whether it was Falls Church to Williamsburg or even Boston to Cape Cod.

  25. Steve Roach - Dreamtime Return

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    During my childhood – thanks to what I was interested in at the time and what my father was interested in – I was very aware of new age music. Admittedly, there was some new age music that I liked. Then came Pure Moods and thus I was into Enigma. But I never developed it and mostly because I didn’t trust most of the artists to make something creatively interesting. The best jab I’ve seen toward the commercial new age music scene can be found in Mystery Science Theater 3000. During the episode showing Pod People, Joel teaches Crow how to make new age music: put your finger on one note, put another finger on another note, hold it down for an hour or until you get a contract from Windham Hill. Now we are at 2008 or so and I discover Steve Roach. This is courtesy to an ongoing on/off fascination with Projekt and key releases of his were being released/re-released through them. Dreamtime Return was one of them. This is hailed as the point when Steve Roach became an artist in his own right, moving from the Tangerine Dream/Vangelis influence, embracing various ethnic musics (in this case, aboriginal Australian) and incorporating them to make his own sound. This is also hailed as the album that saved “new age music” from being a complete parody of itself. For me, it showed you can make something like Bach’s Mass in B minor in the present age, not just in terms of its sheer scale but more for its spiritual depth.