Here are 21 albums that shaped me as a music enthusiast and musician. It’s listed more or less in the chronological order of my discovering them. It’s fun to trace my journey and see my tastes evolved with time.
Bon Jovi New Jersey
Europe’s Final Countdown was perhaps the very first English-language album I got into, but this one was the one that knocked me out with the grandeur of rock n roll. The intro to “Lay Your Hands on Me” is so majestic that it still pumps up the teenager heart inside this middle-aged man’s body. Slippery When Wet had bigger hits but New Jersey seemed much more consistent and cohesive as an album.
Pet Shop Boys Actually
I had no idea what “It’s a Sin” was about, having just started listening to English-language music, but I was really mesmerized by how the somber mood coexisted with fast and propulsive tempo. From start to finish this album presented me with a journey that offered a great variety but also a cohesive thread. I know Behaviour commands higher esteem in the PSB fandom, but in my mind that album is too subtle while this one offers pop hooks galore. PSB ends up being the longest act that keep connecting to me — the last couple of albums didn’t do it on an album level but there are still songs in there that I enjoy.
The Joshua Tree had better songs but this album had more urgency that kept me coming back. It also had a sense of mystery that intrigued me, though I didn’t understand at the time that this was their most overtly religious album. I know U2 has long stopped relating to this material (with the exception of elegiac “October”) as the forced and rushed production necessitated the bare and natural sound. But that made it age better than the preceding Boy or the next War, albums that are revisited more often than this one.
Joe Hisaishi Symphony: Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind
The only instrumental album to have the impact that rival all the rest, this one meant so much to me that it would become one of those albums I would reserve for special listening occasions, when I can sit and listen and really emote with music. The movie is amazing and the comic book series even more so, but this orchestral arrangement of the film music (not the actual music that accompanied the film — that’s a different album) blew me away by how intensely it made me feel emotions. All the pieces evoke such pure, clear and strong feelings, from hair-raising monstrosity to pastoral serenity to nightmarish dread to deep longing.
Skid Row Skid Row
Up to this point the hard rock I listened to had pretty boys and party vibe, then Skid Raw came and pushed me in a different directions. These guys felt dangerous, like they were real punks (I was not exposed to real punk rock at this point). There was rawness and aggression to their music that resonated with me and all the sudden all other so-called “rock” bands felt tame. Looking back now actually their debut still contained much of the 80s hair metal vibe, which they shed in their follow up Slave to the Grind, so it feels like a transition album, of hard rock moving out of that glam-y atmosphere of that decade. I did notice the difference at least, and it was enough to set me on a different path.
Michael W. Smith i 2 EYE
By far the darkest album in MWS’ long career, i 2 Eye has one of his signature tunes, “Secret Ambition” which (to my knowledge) is the only song where he directly tells the Jesus story. But to me the Jesus part isn’t its main point; rather, it’s a tragic story of a man with a terrible secret and mission that nobody understood. The song doesn’t say he was lonely, but that’s the emotion that comes up to me. And that extends to the rest of the album, which is filled with vulnerability, longing, lament and even rebuke. “All You’re Missing Is a Heartache” is a stinging, sobering reality check, “On the Other Side” “I Miss the Way” tell tales of mourning, and the understated and utterly unique (in MWS canon) opener “Hand of Providence” bares open how lost and insecure we are. This is the least slick and hyped MWS album, perhaps owing to the Wayne Kirkpatrick production (the only album he produces, despite co-writing most of MWS material for a couple of decades), and because of that, it has aged gracefully well, still sounding fresh 30 years later.
Petra Beyond Belief
This album was the anthem of my late-teen religious fervor era, and among the first of “Christian rock” albums I was exposed to. And it’s a good one, from the rousing opener “Armed and Dangerous” to raucous “Seen and Not Heard” to slow-builder “Love.” I remember playing it to my mother and saw how she got excited that this was church music with a ton of up-beat energy. Sadly, the dated production didn’t age well and the rhetoric that sounded fresh then are now trite and overused — if I heard this today I’d cringe. But because I was exposed to it back then, it’s still meaningful to me, for it showed me that you can be a church-goer and still rock your socks off.
Michael W. Smith The Big Picture
Go West Young Man and Change Your World were also knock-out albums but this is the album that affected me the most. Its theme deals with various issues common to teenagers, where MWS offers empathy, guidance and emotional support. He felt like MWS wrote these songs for me! It did help that MWS rocks the hardest he’s ever done before or since. I listened and listened and devoured the devotional book he wrote to accompany it. This album was the turning point that made me want to write songs and to do what these songs did to me.
Billy Crockett, The Basic Stuff
Capping out my evangelical era is this tiny album, containing a dozen songs thrown together over the course of only a handful of days. Billy Crockett was much in demand then as an acoustic guitar virtuoso, but here his singing and songwriter takes the center stage. This was before the praise & worship became all the rage in contemporary Christian music, but I dare any of them to match the charm, wit and honesty of this collection. Unassumingly down-to-earth, unhyped in its delivery,
That covers my teenage years. As you can see I was of my time but fairly varied — I thought I was listening mostly to hard rock/hair metal but ones that truly affected me were not necessarily so.
The other thing is most of these albums I can still listen to and feel more than nostalgia. Most of them aged really well and feel relevant to me today. It seems like I had a good instinct already and I certainly approve of choices that my teenager self made.
To be continued to my 20s.