So we went through the albums that shaped my teenage and early adulthood years — now here come the stuff that shaped me as a grown-up. Note that these span longer years than the earlier eras, because as an adult my palate has already been formed and it became harder to find things that impact me as deeply as it was when I was an open slate.
That’s not to say that I didn’t discover new music or I was less affected by those that hit me. If anything, the music that did manage to cut through just stay with me for the long haul. I’m not a teenager any more so some of the stuff that shaped me early on don’t necessarily offer something that’s relevant to me today. But these resonate with me as much or more now than when I first heard them.
King’s X Dogman
King’s X has just so much amazing music that it’s hard to say which stands out. The self-titled album was the first one I heard and its opening two songs are among best one-two punches I’ve heard in rock albums, but the rest are a bit uneven. Dogman is a much more focused affair, they just come out of the gate with the title song and absolutely crush you, and they keep on slaying with every song thereafter. The mysticism of the earlier material is gone (and is missed), but instead this album reveals the hard, raw, unadorned heaviness, both in terms of the sound and the life described in these songs.
Stone Temple Pilots Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop
This one didn’t offer quite as much emotional connection as some others on this list, but it earned its place because it opened up my mind about hard rock’s range and vocabulary. This is an album where the band really set itself apart on many levels, revealed that they had more depth than what the rest of the world assumed thus far. Scott Weiland shows a rare breadth for a rock singer by varying his voice’s timbre from song to song to serve the material, going from raspy and thin in “Pop’s Love Suicide” to plain and intimate in “Adhesive,” hardly touching the deeper baritone tone we heard in the preceding albums. Equally varied are Dean DeLeo’s guitar tones, which again eschews the hard rock crunch that came before to opt for more jangle. Their harmonic lexicon is much broader than typical rock acts, and songs like “Trippin’ on a Hole with a Paper Heart” are great showcases of that. STP got me fascinated with chords which serve as a major element in my songwriting — my songs are filled with weird chords and voicings. This album proved that STP commands an uncommon authority on songwriting, and it really pushed me in my development as a musician.
System of a Down System of a Down
When a then-bandmate turned me on to this album, I got its significance right away. This album is like an unstoppable freight train, running over everything in its way with sheer might, brutality and intensity. I just could not believe how unique they were. A lot of the credit goes to the drummer John Dolmayan, who infuses what I always thought was missing in metal — groove. The album is filled with so much propulsive momentum that I can’t listen to it sitting still. Simple and naked in understated production, this is metal without any pretense or posturing (which unfortunately creep into their material as their career progresses). Again I felt the social injustice was a worthy cause for bringing out the big guns and raging. While Rage Against the Machine is the top dog in my book for activist rock (an important act to me also), SOAD’s first album gets the nod here for planting the seed for my desire to pound and sway — that metal becomes so much more moving when it combines fist pumping with a bit of swing. Songs like “Know” and “Soil” are prime examples of this, and I am not ashamed to admit I rip them off a lot.
Jerry Cantrell Degradation Trip
This sprawling double album showed me how deeply rock and metal can reach in my darkest of times. 20s were filled with harsh struggles and this was the sound track that accompanied me while I was down there. To this day I can’t listen to “Psychotic Break” without tearing up, and “Anger Rising” reaches some place way deeper than most other supposedly angry metal songs. 24 songs with nary a hint of hope (though the album closer “31/32” offers some respite), this is one trip I don’t take lightly. But if you’re in the mood for something that unflinchingly portrays the darkest bottom of our psyche, this album offers a rewarding experience.
The Beatles Revolver
I discovered the Beatles late, way late. And I’m still discovering, but now having surveyed their catalog I can say that Revolver is my favorite album. It’s filled with one iconic song after another, from the inventive rocker “Taxman” to peerless “Eleanor Rigby” to psychedelic “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Their middle era is just something really special to me, because the songwriting is so melodic and succinct but their egos were still in check enough to keep them from engaging in more sprawling experiments (which have many amazing moments, but made their albums more uneven). Between Revolver and my next favorite Rubber Soul there are two dozen songs that take you on a such a wild trip, from the childlike “Yellow Submarine” to wistful “In My Life” to astute “Nowhere Man.”
In Flames Come Clarity
This was the first album I came across from the veteran Swedish melodic death metal band In Flames, and from the opening chords of “Take This Life” I was hooked. Here was an act that combined all the favorite elements that I have never found in a single act — the pounding intensity, catchy choruses, and introspective lyrics. Later I learned that they are revered as the pioneers of melodeath but by the time I got into them they had long evolved away from their original twin-harmonizing-guitars-with-growly-vocals formula. Long-time fans hate them for it but I adore them for who they are now, I’ve bought every album after Reroute to Remain and I like them all. But Come Clarity still holds the highest esteem in my book, because it is the most cohesive and consistent (except the awkward closer “Your Bedtime Story Is Scaring Everyone”). In Flames is not that good with variety and the handful attempts at slowing down often come out clumsy and forgettable. But the title song here is a mother of all power ballads, and the rest, they stick to what they do best — pounding and thrashing on fast and furious riffs, with hook-ridden choruses. Their style is so extreme and distinct that I can’t say my songwriting is influenced by them, but when I think of metal I don’t think of Metallica or Slayer, I think of In Flames.
These are some of my most recent (as in the last 5 years) discoveries and while they mean the world to me now, I am not quite ready to upgrade them to the “changed my life” status.
Cloud Cult Light Chasers
This concept album by the local indie heroes is so inspiring. Their orchestral sound reminded me that I have classical music in my background as well, and the story of the album is one that reaches deep inside me. This tale of a spaceship led by the enigmatic Captain goes through various stages of human life and witnesses tribulations and triumphs, only to fail to find what they were looking for at the end. But therein lies the brilliance and wisdom — life is not measured just by accomplishments, but by the journey taken. The music is filled with so much energy and spirit, I’m certain this album can stir the soul of any rock music fans.
Tool 10,000 Days
I was aware of Tool since the 90s but I never listened to them. Well, better late than never — now I am a huge believer. This is one challenging and uncompromising act, demanding patience and attention from its listeners, but the reward is huge. Even though it’s a traditional four-piece of drums, bass, guitar and voice, each layer takes up its own unique niche inside the music, always intertwining and morphing, but without being inaccessible. (The Mars Volta is similar in some ways but while they are perhaps the most stupendously virtuosic rock ensemble I’ve seen, I just found their music inaccessible) Tool and Radiohead proved to me that you can treat rock as high art and give the middle finger to conventions and still create highly revered masterpieces. But between those two I take Tool any day, because I’ve come to really crave the intensity of metal. I wish if they didn’t have so much vulgarity and sinisterness to their identity, but songs like “Jambi” still offer ample wisdom.
SHEL Just Crazy Enough
Now this man in his 40s is chasing these brilliant young women in their 20s, the way he did U2 when he was a teenager. The folk-pop-alternative band SHEL’s second album contains a jaw-droppingly rich tapestry of human emotions, from flamboyant “Rooftop” to sly “You Could Be My Baby” to defiant “Moonshine Hill.” But you don’t need to dive deep to find that they also courageously face their fragility and vulnerability. “Lost as Anyone” will stop you on your track with its intimate confession, and even peppy “Let Me Do” is really an unrequited longing for freedom. The unexpected cover of “Enter Sandman” gets down right creepy in its depiction of a dark fantasy. Above all, though, the slow-building opener “Is the Doctor in Today” just knocks me out every time I hear it, because in three and half minutes the girls encapsulate one of humanities’ deepest insecurities, our loneliness. When Eva Holbrook wistfully sings “Maybe you can hear me late at night/ I’ve been searching all my life/ Is anybody there?” my whole body quivers and I have to fight back tears.
I discovered SHEL from an article on NPR (it was about the “Enter Sandman” video) that mentioned that the members are four homeschooled sisters. My wife and I homeschool our children so that piqued my curiosity. From there on I got hooked and I’m now scouring every live footage and taped interviews I can find because I adore them as people. It’s so fun to connect to an act whose music resonates so powerfully while the musicians themselves come across as relatable. I can only dream that someday my listeners feel similarly about me.
They say we are what we eat, and I can say the same thing about what we listen. The music you listen to is a reflection of who you are. But it’s also possible that a piece of music affects you so profoundly that it actually influences and changes you. It was fun to look back at my journey, starting with 80s hard rock to religious music to death metal. As I get older my horizon broadens and I gain appreciation for music I couldn’t fathom before — I didn’t get the Beatles until my 30s, for example. The world is filled with talented musicians making amazing music and I can spend a life time uncovering gems and hidden treasures. Music has given me so much, what I give back seems so minuscule and insignificant, but without doing so my life seems less meaningful.
So there you have it. What music changed your life? What does that say about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.